by Gail Siegel
Posing nude isn't anything like an Anais Nin story, with artists and models haunting the back streets of Paris, living scandalous, sex-frenzied lives. There is nothing titillating about the task.
In this makeshift studio, oversized can lights threaten to blind me if I forget to blink. Accumulated sketchbooks and charcoal pencils clutter the mantlepiece. My cousin Zoe, the artist, spends 45 minutes fiddling with the white-hot fixtures, repositioning my chair and snapping black and white pictures to capture the angle of my limbs.
We are speculating about our mothers, whether or not they are dyslexic. Could that account for my aunt's chronic forgetfulness? My mother's inept housekeeping? She can't enter a kitchen without breaking a glass. Locked away in a cabinet, the china gets nervous at the sound of her footsteps.
Zoe's mother is also an artist, and I am arranged like dozens of her models, stretching back decades into my childhood. Back then, each visit to their house was a provocative delight. In addition to fish tanks bobbing with sea horses and wicker cages stuffed with finches, every room warehoused my aunt's nudes. There were oil nudes, sketched nudes, sculpted nudes, pastel nudes, abstract nudes, miniature nudes, literal lifelike life-sized nudes. Naked happy people lay everywhere, serene in repose.
Each artwork was an extraordinary anatomy lesson. I memorized how her men were constructed. I studied the way a woman's breast fell under its own soft weight as she reclined.
Today, my own breasts are let loose from the confines of stiff undergarments and a summer shirt. They are cold. They swell beneath my raised arms, where Zoe has tucked a thick clutch of silk peonies. My nipples peek out between the splayed stems.
I struggle to improve my posture and watch her work, checking my image, scrutinizing the easel. She tilts her head almost imperceptibly, as if she were questioning, not compensating for one dead eye. A half-blind artist, she is still brilliant, a Beethoven of the brush.
This is Wednesday. Other models have their own slots. Monday is a chubby girl, an exhibitionist, only comfortable when she sheds her clothes. Tuesday is an apologetic young man with huge, random erections. Zoe destroys his photographs; her husband wouldn't approve. Friday is the homeless fruit vendor who works a corner near the underground garage off Michigan Avenue.
She pays the others. I pose for free and for the chance to visit Zoe. We dissect our mysterious sisters, mourn our estranged brothers. We are discussing menopause when we take a break. Zoe shows me her progress on the charcoal portrait. I look voluptuous, youthful, somebody's idea of erotic; not a woman who's been talking hot flashes, migraines and pre-period bloat. Under her magic hands, my regular features become lush.
I worry over which men might ultimately see this naked me: my father, my uncle, their neighbors? My husband will unlikely see it, nor will any other object of my desire. What would a man suppose? That someone with such ripe breasts, those slightly parted lips, would have moist, pulsating thoughts?
They're thoughts that I'm not thinking.
I imagine Gauguin's models, dark and sensual. I see past their tropical calm to their boredom in the terrific heat, their legs grown numb, their impatience to resume their island chores. I hear them gossiping about their Tahitian sisters without bothering to wait for Paul to turn away.
Zoe hands me three pale, speckled pears. "I'd like to work them into a picture," she says. "Any ideas?"
I play with the props. I cradle them against my bosom like a litter of pups. I place them between my thighs like an ode to disembodied testicles. I run them along my cheek. She snaps photos between our bursts of laughter.
My prints will be ready in less than an hour, as we are polishing off a bowl of black licorice in her ramshackle kitchen. We will puzzle over the romantic, serious shots of my profile, framed by a cascade of dark curls. We will gasp at this seductress caressing fertility symbols, panting in vivid anticipation of a virile male's touch.
Who is that cryptic woman? I will search her face and wonder, fruitlessly, what she could be thinking.
Gail Siegel lives outside of Chicago where she writes for a public interest group and commutes to Vermont to study for her MFA at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared online in FictionFix and The Salt River Review. She is the January 2001 winner of Max Steele's Mini-Max Award for short short fiction.