William Butler Yeats:
“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy,
which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
Here I was with my first naked woman ever, not a stitch on her, she kept squirming closer, and I kept jabbing paint into her eyes.
“Or maybe, ‘Crippled Innocence?’ ” she suggested, “Maybe you could call my portrait something like that?”
“Uhhh, Yeahhh …” My lips and jaw worked around for a while, but only that one word edged out. Trying to think of something charming or eloquent to say is like digging around through cooling street tar with a straw wrapper. In a borrowed white tux. I’m guaranteed to make a mess of things.
Well, at least I’d managed more than a grunt this time; I’d dredged up one whole word. Though maybe I should have said Yes, Ma’am, rather than Yeah.
No; that’s too formal. Yes, that is a patently good idea, Ma’am, although I generally don’t assign titles to my various artistic renderings.
She flipped her hair away from the front of her shoulders. Freckles surfed the soft white swells of her shimmying breasts.
Stop! Don’t look down there! I jerked my eyes back up.
Say something, moron, maybe she didn’t notice.
Dang it; open your mouth. Say something. Anything. You know a ton of words; pick out any three. Everybody else can talk.
By the time I can think of anything to say, I’ve been rummaging around for days, and the other guy’s gone home.
“Hello; are you in there?” she asked. “You don’t talk much, do ya?”
I started crushing more paint into the canvas, shooting a quick sideways look at her nose. Then back at the portrait. I studied her neck. As I braked against letting my gaze drift any lower, my breath bottled up in my ears. I felt even more exposed than she was. Fully clothed, I felt like I was the one who was naked. That she could see I had nothing on under my armor.
And yet, there she was, standing right beside me; not a hairpin, not a Band-Aid; bubbling over with laughter she wasn’t even trying to hold in. And an occasional snort when she tried. I could have looked anywhere, everywhere, studied every one of her curves, folds, and follicles.
She watched the internal civil war I was waging on her behalf and found it hilarious.
I was naked; she was nude. They’d taught us the difference in Art History. If someone looks exposed, awkward, struggling to keep his guard up, he’s naked. He looks tight and unnatural, and we feel bad looking at him. He didn’t want to be caught there that way.
A nude feels cozy and free. She has no guard to drop. A nude has no inhibitions. If you let her, she just might melt yours. If some repressed artist paints a wind-tossed cloth across her privates, it looks unnatural and you just know she’d rather tear it away and feel the breeze between her thighs. She’s like sunshine and doesn’t deal well with clouds.
“Knock, knock, are you in there?” She’d caught me again.
Irish folks can’t hide our embarrassment. It blossoms like red wine through white linen all over our faces, our ears, our necks. She saw that, too. She tried not to laugh at me, but a little snort erupted. Then she dabbed at my shoulder with apologies. The touch of her bare hand sent quivers through parts of me I hadn’t noticed before.
She paused; her hand nestled softly against my chest. She looked directly into my eyes with feeling, like she wanted to say, “Oh, you poor, dear, baby.”
“You’re sweet,” she told me.
I kept slapping my brush against the palette until I’d heaped up a big blob of greenish – brown - purple. I searched the whole canvas for some obscure corner I could blend that ugly mess into, but had to give up and wipe the brush off on a rag.
She was quiet for a while, and I snuck another peek up at her. She was studying me with the strangest, most curious, the sweetest smile I could have imagined.
If I’d ever dared let myself imagine a pretty girl smiling at me.
“You’re kinda …” She paused, and it was as though she was attempting to palpate a cobweb. “You're kind of shy, aren’t you?”
I kept focusing in on her eyes, only the eyes. It took every bit of concentration I had.
“I think I like shy.” She contemplated the concept; her eyes, soft and unfocussed, seemed to ride distant waves. But then they drew down into hardness. “Guys I know are so fulla themselves,” she said. “Treat you like they own you. You’re their damned property. Like all you are is your tits.”
My eyes dived for an instant, as though her breasts had whistled for me. I sucked in a lungful and dragged them back up. Cripe, I wished she’d stop saying things like that.
I started slathering paint onto the canvas so feverishly her eyes must’ve stood out by a full quarter inch. Green Irish eyes with golden flecks; huge pupils that kept growing bigger.
The first few days of class, she had wandered the circle of freshman art students, gazing at each of our life studies quietly, but then she’d started settling in by mine. She had been moving about, studying our paintings, wearing nothing but a ratty, home-friendly robe I had desperately, achingly, wanted her to pull closed. Then this time, she hadn’t brought the robe.
The rest of the class had gone to lunch, but she’d slid in beside me and I’d kept painting, hoping she couldn’t see everything churning and broiling, and slamming shut inside me. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to show her disrespect by looking at parts a woman would normally keep hidden; I was terrified. No one had ever tried to be my friend before.
“Crippled Innocence,” she said again now, studying the painting, “Something like that. Maybe you could call it something like that.” I had noticed she walked with a bit of a twist, raising one foot like a limp fish.
“Uhhh, yeah…. Maybe,” I said, but then our eyes snagged for a moment.
“Mmmm,” she said, holding my gaze. It was like she was snuggling into the sound; an intonation, a melody that just eased out, halfway between a murmur and a purr. Like a woman half stirring from a sweet, delicious dream; burrowing more deeply into her fresh cool pillow, but not quite waking up.
One of her legs slipped behind mine. She leaned in, passing her arm slowly around me, her hand stroking empty air above the painting. She spoke softly into my ear. I couldn’t clutch myself together enough to catch actual words. I knew she couldn’t be thinking romantically, so maybe she was just being cruel, like girls had in junior high. She had to be just teasing.
The warmth of her breast drew close to my arm. Something akin to a purr or a grumble rolled through my own heart and lower belly. If I had tried to speak in that moment, it would have come out as a squeak.
Then we touched, and I was in no particular hurry to pull out of it, though I worked hard at acting like I didn’t notice. The hairs on the back of my arm brushed her nipple with each breath. I’ve probably never been so aware of my breathing.
She whispered, “Can I ask you something?”
“Anything,” I managed to squeeze out of the top of my skull.
“Why do they call you Gooseboy?” She brushed me again. Much more firmly this time. She lingered there. Held herself against me.
“Unhh owahh mmm?” was the best I could come up with.
My head swam as I tried again, but the “Unhh” only came out in a higher pitch.
She laughed; her breast swayed, bounced, floated along my triceps. I fought to pull myself together. My quavering voice did manage to force a few words out, splayed by pauses. “Mmm - childhood. Ugly - duckling - thing. Never grew into a swan.”
“Swans are nasty,” she whispered, her lips so close to my ear she could’ve bitten it. “I’m sick of swans. Get hung up on their looks, you’re gonna pay for being so damned stupid. Embarrass me in front of my friends. Like it’s me never says anything worth listening to. Yeah, right. So damned full of themselves. Damn … swans.” She stepped out from behind me, caught my eyes drifting down over her delicately hued nipples. The gentle white curves of her belly. Her shadowed slit of navel. “I like the little ducks in the back. The ones who don’t quite fit in. I just wanna pick ’em up, and cuddle them, and hold their little heads close to my ...” We tried to unravel ourselves from that imagery. “They’re the ones I want to feed.”
I drew in a breath and held it until it dawned on me I couldn’t form words without letting some of it back out. “Well … thanks … but I’ve got some stale bed …” I wanted to point back at my supplies with my thumb, but all my parts had frozen into position. “In my brackpack. – I mean, stale bed. Bread. In my – backpack. If I get hungry.” She laughed as I kept chattering. “I’ll just stand out by the fountain and toss it at myself,” I told her. “Maybe I’ll even fight over it.”
Her nipples started to draw in, tighter and darker. They rose out. Like lips wanting a kiss.
Guessing she was cold, I offered her the jacket from my chair.
She started prodding me with devilish grins, asking what made her look cold. She wouldn’t let me off the hook.
After a few minutes of teasing, she sighed and turned her head away. The muscles of her long, slender neck carried my gaze down to the notch of her clavicle. I studied her freckles, but didn’t try to paint them. I followed them lower, to where her skin was its absolute whitest. Her puff of reddish blonde hair looked so soft, and fluffy. I wondered if she brushed, or shampooed it. Her long, slender legs spread wider as she relaxed her left knee. I studied her sweet nubs of toes. The graceful arches of her feet. Feet had never struck me as sexy before.
But she had apparently turned away just so she could flip back and catch me savoring her, because when I looked back up, she was studying me.
I tried to force a casual smile, but it twisted out of my face like a grimace. I didn’t let her into my thoughts; didn’t let myself into my feelings. I wrenched for words. “I – I like that - color. Of your nail polish. It’s – it’s so - bright! Red. Bet you don’t have any trouble finding your feet in the dark!”
She broke loose laughing like she’d been saving it up in a sealed can for years. A free-spirited nude, like any true artist, seems always in a moment of birth.
I don’t have that painting anymore. I was told it was one of my best. That people saw strange things inside it. Almost mystical layerings of pain, and purity. And longing.
I gave it to the model. I don’t remember her name. I never saw her outside that circle of easels, and trunks filled with props. She’d bring sandwiches, and we’d sit through our breaks, but I never had much to say; I was terrified. Big bold lives and beautiful friends; beautiful women; were meant for other people. Adventurous people. Deserving people.
How could I have guessed back then that I’d one day be hanging out with naked presidents, notorious lawyers, and women so sexy men would lust for them in every language on the planet? I’d shove my way through a future where the bizarre and the miraculous became so normal I’d miss them when things ran too smoothly. I’d be attacked by ghosts, torn open by a hurricane, and come close to dying deep in a Mexican desert, all because I needed to meet God face-to-face if it killed me. If there even was one. I needed some answers.
That first model stayed warm and open for a few weeks or months, but slowly she grew a little sad. I was really, really good at closing people out. Which always left me horribly alone.
Our family didn’t talk about our passions or terrors, though, about what churned and ate away at us from inside. Dad said all we needed to know was in our little catechisms, or brightly colored Bible tales, but anything deep and hurtful; anything that didn’t make any sense, just wasn’t fair, and we really, really needed to come to grips with? Well, that was “Just one of God’s glorious mysteries,” he always told us, end of story.
Not for me, it wasn’t.
I waited for him a long time in the parking lot after class that Day of the Breast, hoping he’d remember to pick me up. He tended to lose track of time sitting in some bar, car dealership, or small business, waiting for owners who rarely showed. He kept trying to sell them pencils and rulers imprinted with their ads that they could then donate to area schools. Must’ve been awfully tough talking a funeral director into advertising his mortuary on book covers for the junior high, but Dad made a sale now and then. He never touched the dullest edge of success. He was on his third mortgage. Our used car was almost ours, and had been for a long, long time; since the previous one had broken down when it had still only been almost ours. Now his big purple chariot hung suspended with the rest of us in that dank gray limbo of almost.
I hated the way Dad’s face slammed white when bill collectors came to our door. He tried to hide it, but I was vulnerable to other people’s emotions and felt the stress going for his heart.
That day, after I’d discovered how a breast felt against my arm, I fumed for almost two hours standing there, waiting, but never called home to check. Who was I to think I counted? How many times in my childhood had he left me in the car with no books or toys as he’d seen clients in their homes? He’d just take the keys and tell me to stay put. I’d watch kids with puppies run by; bunnies, birds, and squirrels hop about in yards; but I hadn’t even rolled down a window. With nothing to play with but buttons on the dash, I’d push the cigarette lighter in and out. A couple of times I’d burnt my finger pressing its tip against the glowing coil. At least that had offered some distraction. So I’d been tempted to do it again.
I never complained, figuring that was my proper place in the universe; a hard wooden stool in an unlighted basement while everyone else ate ice cream in the park.
There had been times, though, when I’d almost felt like somebody’s son. Sitting side-by-side on barstools as he’d waited for small business owners. That fresh furniture polish and alcohol smell in the mid-afternoon, my little boy hands around a cold, sweating beer mug of root beer. Sharing that treasured dim light and quiet with my dad. The soft swoosh of the Ski ball disc along shining powdered wood; the spirited ‘Bing!’ as it bounced off the backboard. That disc, shiny silver metal with black rubber edges, had looked so inconsequential in his beefy hand; felt so sturdy and manly in mine.
Dad did show up at college that day. He hadn’t forgotten me after all. I was overjoyed, but held it in, shoving my relief back inside and clamping it down. I climbed in with controlled, respectful decorum. Passion wasn’t welcomed in my family. As always, he asked how my day went without turning to actually look at me. As always, I said, “Fine, Sir,” facing forward, my hands kneading sketchbooks.
Anyway, what could I say? A beautiful naked woman rubbed her breast on my bare skin, Dad! We were all alone and she slipped her leg around me. She had freckles around her nipples! Her woman’s hair looked so soft! Do you think they brush that hair down there, Dad?
Now where would that fit in among his Bible stories?
I was quiet for the rest of the ride as my father kept sneaking concerned glances. I searched for things to say, but nothing broke free. My eyes pressed rigidly forward. All those accumulated years and layers of feelings he couldn’t share, of words I couldn’t speak, all those ponderous slabs of angst, were like concrete hardening as it’s poured.
I suspect he knew he might be dying. He was in great pain, but never told us. Now I hate myself for closing off when he was trying to show he cared in the only way he could. He was just trying to get a few final words out of his son as I failed him again, as I hurt him even worse.