I dried my hands on my pants.
Once a pair of overalls, now pants with the bib cut off, they are crusted with a year’s worth of paint. I wipe my hands and my brushes on them when I’m working. I figure it saves on rags and paper towels. After all, they’re always within reach.
The end result is almost modern art in its own right – a thousand colors meld into a mosaic across the tops of my thighs. A dealer offered to buy them from me once. I laughed it off because I thought she was kidding, but I’m still not certain she was.
I ran my mostly dry hands over my short, salt and pepper hair, then slipped out of my painting pants into a pair of jeans. I pulled on my boots and an old leather jacket with paint on the cuffs and headed out of the building and around the corner to grab some take-out coffee.
The iron gate on the building’s front door slammed behind me with a resonant clang. Even at two in the afternoon, the air outside was brisk. I blew clouds of steam as I headed up to the local politically correct bean roasters, my habitual hangout. A pang of hunger hit me and impulsively, I crossed the street and turned right at the corner. I don’t usually go this way, but last week, on an errand, I passed an old-fashioned diner about two blocks up. Just a hole in the wall, really. There was a sign outside that said “Really Good Pie”.
I headed off to find out just how good.
A bell on the door jangled as I went in. I found myself in a long, narrow little restaurant. Five red leatherette booths and a lunch counter ran parallel down the room. There was a tiny counter and cash register right inside the door. A little woman sat on a stool there, thumbing through Redbook. Lit cases clung to the wall behind the lunch counter. The shelves of the cases were filled with pies – chocolate pies, fruit pies, meringue pies, picture perfect Wayne Thiebaud pies. My eyes ran down the length of the case.
“Have you been helped?”
The waitress looked at me earnestly.
“Um. I’d like some pie. Some pie and a coffee, to go.”
“Do you know what kind of pie?”
“No.” I shook my head.
She pointed to a chalkboard at the end of the room, where all the day’s pies were listed.
“Strawberry-rhubarb,” I decided.
“Nice,” she said approvingly, drawing the word out.
For the first time I looked at her.
She looked like she just got off the bus from Kansas – as fresh and clear as a prairie morning. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and further restrained by a stretchy black hair band. She was in one of those funky white waitress dresses – the kind that looks like it was built to resist any stain. Her face, dominated by big green eyes, was as wholesome as the piece of apple pie she was holding. Her small waist and wide hips weren’t wasted on me either, as I watched her walk away to fill my order.
Not that she was my type. I prefer my women bigger and butcher, a little rougher around the edges. Besides, she didn’t look a day over 18.
“Ok. Here you go. That’ll be $3.50. Madge will take your money at the register. Thanks for coming in.”
I reached for the bag.
“Oh,” she said. “You’ve got paint on your hands.”
I looked down at my stained hands and my short, grubby nails.
“Yeah, I do.”
Something in the way she looked at me made me feel sheepish, and I curled my fingers towards my palms, hiding my nails.
“Are you a painter?” she asked.
“I am.” I nodded, again reaching for the bag, but she didn’t hand it over, just set it on the counter. She put her hand on her cocked hip and looked me over, appraisingly.
“What do you paint?”
Oh, God. I hate this question. It always leads to some stupid remark that leaves me angry at the world. Last week in a bar a girl told me that she thought the best painter of the modern age was Thomas Kincaide. “I mean look at the windows,” she said breathlessly. “It looks like actual lights are on in there. His paintings are so romantic…blah, blah, blah…”
“Abstracts, mostly,” I answered.
She nodded, still looking at me, biting the inside of her lower lip.
“Mostly big,” I said. “Sometimes small.”
“Huh,” she said, contemplatively.
“Impressionism? Expressive…?” Her gesture emphasized the question.
Okay. Now she had taken me by surprise.
“Mostly expressive,” I said. “Some are drawn from impressions.”
“I see.” She nodded again.
“Big like Rothko?”
I looked at her and she returned my gaze directly.
“Not that big.”
I pushed my glasses up my nose, a habit when I’m feeling self-conscious.
“I mean, because the big Rothkos are big,” she continued. “Overwhelmingly big. You feel like you could walk right into them. Other painters paint big – like Diebenkorn and his amazing “Ocean Park” series, and Motherwell and Pollock… But the Rothkos are bottomless, they’re like portals, like huge clouds of color, they’re, they’re…” she was on a roll now.
“Big?” I asked.
“Absolutely unbelievable,” she said, sighing.
“I wasn’t prepared at all. A few years back there was a Rothko retrospective at the National Galley. I went there to see it.”
“You went to D.C. to see a Rothko show?” I asked.
“Yeah. I drove,” she said. “And swung through Texas on the way, so I could visit the Rothko Chapel.
“Yeah. I mean it was a road trip, right? The chapel was so beautiful I just sat there and cried and cried until one of the security guys brought me some Kleenex. I think it was my first existential crisis…”
She smiled and held out my bag.
As I turned to go, she said: “Can I ask you something?”
“I’ve always wanted to… you know… be painted,” she said. “I mean pose – pose nude for an artist. Are you ever looking for models?”
She raised her eyebrows slightly.
My stomach flipped.
“Wh… why” I stammered. “ I’m an abstractionist. I don’t really paint nudes.”
“But you could paint about nudes?” She emphasized “about,” her question teasing now.
“I suppose I could.”
She smiled the sweetest smile.
“Well, If you ever decide to switch sides, you know where to find me.”
I kept thinking about painting her.
Because of this, I had a hard time staying focused.
Normally, I’m a person who paints in straight lines and hard edges. But I would let my mind wander and find my brush sweeping a curve down the canvas — a curve like the inside of a waist, or the outside of a thigh.
I spent some time drawing and fiddling around with paint on paper. I was actually toying with the problem of how to abstract a woman’s body on canvas. I visited the bookstore, looking for historical inspiration – some sort of reference point. I found parts of bodies and reductionist portraits, but I didn’t find any abstracts that recalled an impression of a body.
“Well, there’s Georgia O’Keefe,” I said to myself.
Finally, unable to live with my obsession one minute longer, I threw on my jacket and headed to the diner.
I looked around and didn’t see her.
The same older woman sat near the cash register, thumbing through the same time-worn copy of Redbook. Her nametag read “Madge”.
“Madge, is the other waitress here? The young one with the ponytail?”
Madge shook her head.
“May I leave her my card?”
Silently, Madge took the card from me and placed in on the register, right above the cash drawer.
“Thanks,” I said.
Back at my studio, I turned on the electric teakettle. The room was warm, despite the wood floor and brick walls. A small wood-burning stove keeps the place cozy. Since I live here, I try to keep it burning most of the time.
A folded cotton futon in the corner is one of the only clues this is my home. I keep my food and clothes stashed in metal cabinets, and there’s a tiny cube refrigerator under one of the tables. I’m a secret resident — one of two or three in the building. We create what the city calls “a non-conforming, illegal use”. Since a disgruntled tenant wrote a letter of complaint to the building department a year ago, we’ve been subject to periodic inspections. This is why I can’t let the place slide to homey. It needs to look like my workspace, nothing more.
This building was once a cannery and it shows the scars of heavy industrial use. Giant beams span the ceiling and metal supports cross the walls. The hallways are wide with uneven cement floors. Grooves in the cement show the path of apple carts that rolled through the building. The hallways are always cold, even in the hottest months of the summer. In the winter, they’re frigid.
The warmth and light is what makes coming into my studio such a nice surprise, despite the lack of decor.
A large window looks down on the street and several skylights splash light across the floor. I’ve added some halogen work lights in the corners, and some photographer’s lights with full spectrum bulbs are clamped to the beams, throwing the equivalent of daylight down on my work area during the dark months of winter.
I sat down on a wooden stool with my cup of lapsang souchong in my hands, the smoky scent filling the room. I looked around. Fresh canvases were piled against one wall. My paints were laid out on a long wooden table. Another table held jars of brushes. I cover these tables with white paper and change it frequently. I like the crisp, clean look and it makes it easy to find what I’m looking for. A painter’s drop cloth protected the brick wall where my easel stood, waiting.
So why was I feeling so blocked?
Thinking perhaps some music would help my mood, I grabbed Kate Wolf’s “Back Roads” cd. Music from my childhood, this is where I go for musical comfort.
Then I sat down at my work table and opened my journal.
On the first page I had written a quote from an article Stephen Batchelor had written for Tricycle, the Buddhist Review;
“The artist’s dilemma and the meditator’s are, in a deep sense,
equivalent. Both are repeatedly willing to confront an unknown and
to risk a response that they cannot predict or control.”
I turned to a clean page, dated the top of it, and began to write this story about how I had met a waitress in a coffee shop and painted her. “I dried my hands on my pants,” I began, choosing a familiar gesture. The afternoon stretched out in front of me and the window began to darken as I drank another cup of tea and continued writing.
Finally, I stood up stiffly, and began to add some wood to the stove. I was crouched down there, poking a log into place, when there was a knock at the door.
The knock startled me and I turned suddenly, banging my knee into the edge of the wood-burning stove.
I curled over my knee for a moment before limping off to answer the door.
It was my landlord.
“Official notice, Cas. There will be a building inspection Thursday afternoon. You know you can’t be living here.” He looked at me meaningfully and winked dramatically.
“It’s okay, Roger. I’ve kept the place clean. Look.” I threw open the door.
He glanced around and nodded, satisfied.
“It looks really good.”
“Hey, I like it here,” I said.
“I know, but can you take your toothbrush and stuff out of the bathroom?”
Roger turned and started up the hall, on to the next door.
As I was closing my door, the phone rang. I still use one of those old black plastic phones with a rotary dial — the kind that rings like a demon. And, I don’t have an answering machine. If someone wants me, they’ll have to find me.
There was a momentary silence on the line and I almost hung up, thinking it must be a telemarketer.
Then, a soft voice said, “This is Iris.”
“Iris?” I asked.
“Mac’s?” I asked.
“The diner with the pie.”
“Oh,” I said. Then again, higher pitched, when I made the connection. “Oh.”
“I was wondering if I could come by tomorrow afternoon, after my lunch shift, around three?”
“Sure. That would be great.”
I stopped, at a loss for words.
“I’ll see you then,” she said, and hung up.
I stood there for a while, rubbing my knee.
The next morning, I was in a flurry of activity.
I was up before sunrise, startled awake by my inner clock. I folded up my futon and unrolled my yoga mat after stirring the fire.
“Backbends,” I thought, after taking myself through a series of standing poses. But I kept losing my focus, unable to breathe deeply and relax into the poses the way I needed. I felt like I’d had two cups of coffee. In camel pose, I thought my heart would blast out of my chest. Finally I rolled down into savasana and tried to relax my body and mind. After a very brief nothingness, I was on my feet again. I threw on some sweats and headed out the door.
I shower at the YMCA on the corner. Sometimes I buy a membership, but after I get to know any new desk clerks, they’ll usually let me come in for free. After all, I’m only there for a few minutes.
After my shower, I stopped at the coffeehouse and sat down with the paper and a big chai latte. I was hungry and I had a sudden craving for pie. I settled for an apple-bran muffin and headed back to the studio, carrying it in a bag.
As I bit into the muffin, I began to read the story I had started the night before – the story about the waitress in the diner, and how she came to my studio to be painted.
“This isn’t bad,” I thought. “And, it’s kind of fun.”
Later I cleaned the studio, replacing the white paper that covers the worktables, and sweeping all the corners of the room. I pulled my only upholstered chair over near my easel. I call it my “ancestor” chair. It’s been in the family for years and I’ve hauled it everywhere I’ve been, even my dorm room in college. It has a carved wooden frame and rolled arms. The fabric that covers it is a dusty, greying shade of mustard. I think the fabric is called damask, but I’m not sure. It has a design woven into it, but in the same color. It’s silky and worn soft with age. I like to read in this chair.
Finally, at two o’clock, I ran out the door. I felt like I should offer something to be hospitable, but what? I cruised the local market and finally settled on some cheese and crackers and a bottle of white wine. I also bought a bottle of apple juice. I mean, she just looked so wholesome… On the way out, I grabbed a bunch of flowers.
“Sheesh,” I thought to myself ten minutes later, on the way home. “This isn’t a date, it’s a modeling session.” Still, I hoped the flowers would dress the place up a little.
I stuck the flowers in a milk bottle. I love the organic milk that comes in glass bottles, and I always manage to keep an empty bottle around, without returning it. I changed into my painting clothes and stoked up the fire so the room would be warm. There I was at the woodstove, when I heard a knock. I moved back carefully, as not to bump my knee, then stood and answered the door.
“Hey,” I said. “There you are.”
“Look at you,” she said admiringly, taking in the baggy, paint-smeared pants that clung to my hips, the smudged white t-shirt, and my bare feet.
I pushed up my glasses at the bridge and ran my hand back over my hair.
“And look at that pedicure,” she said.
I looked down at my feet. Shit. I had forgotten to take off the dramatic dark brown polish that remained from a date I’d had the previous week… then again, maybe “encounter” would be a better description. I mean, I’m not exactly the type to wear polish on my toes…
“It’s cute,” she said.
I shrugged and stood back to let her in.
“Wow. It’s warm in here. That’s nice.” She looked around the room.
“May I take your coat?” I asked.
Like Audrey Hepburn, she turned, looking back at me coyly, so I could slip the coat off her shoulders. I carefully hung it on a hook by the door.
Underneath she was wearing her white nylon waitressing uniform.
“Would you like anything before we get started?” I asked, “I have wine, juice, tea…”
“Do you live here?” she asked.
“I think I’d like a glass of wine,” she said. “Is it white?”
I went to my little refrigerator and pulled out the bottle.
“Is this where I change?” she asked.
I saw she was standing near a small screen I had placed at one side of the room.
“It is,” I said, and felt my mouth get dry.
“I hung a robe in there you can use.”
I pulled the cork and poured two glasses of wine.
“I’m not really the robe type.” I heard her voice right behind me.
I turned with the glasses in my hand to face her, standing entirely nude, not two feet away from me. She had taken down her ponytail, and her hair tumbled down over her shoulders. I fought to keep eye contact.
My knees trembled as I reached out to hand her the wine, and I splashed some on her foot.
“Sorry,” I said, feeling the heat rise in my face. “Shall we get started?”
“Where do you want me?” she asked.
Part IV – Flesh Tones
Iris took me by surprise when she padded up behind me entirely nude. She stood so close I could have reached out to touch her, and I did, in fact, spill wine on her in my discomfiture.
It had been years since I had worked with a model and I was expecting some modesty. I expected her to come out from behind the screen wrapped tightly in the kimono I had provided. I had pictured her sitting for me wrapped in the robe, gradually letting it slide from her shoulders as my professionalism and the wine made her more comfortable.
I had anticipated that gradual unveiling — the transition from shy girl to wanton woman that I hoped would take place in front of my easel. I was well aware she was young, but I planned to look and not touch.
After all, she had the sweet, milk-fed look of a high school cheerleader. The kind of looks that are polished with Breck shampoo and Dove soap.
So the thing that had surprised me the most was the contrast between her open, scrubbed face and the steel rings in her nipples.
I had to peel my eyes away as I handed her the wine.
I paused and asked “You are old enough to drink, aren’t you?”
She smiled that small-town grin and nodded.
“Where would you like me?” she asked, fingering the bunch of irises on the table.
“Over in the gold chair.”
As she turned to walk away, I saw the tattoo covering her back – a huge image of Kwan Yin, riding the back of a dragon through the sea. The waves spread out across her hips.
I swallowed hard and again felt something flip, this time lower than my stomach. This girl was full of surprises.
“Is that Kwan Yin?” I asked casually.
“It is.” She sounded pleased.
“It’s a coincidence,” I said, attempting to make small talk. “I just saw an interesting poem about Kwan Yin on Craigslist.”
“Was it ‘Kwan Yin Is On My Back Again?’” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” I said, busying myself arranging art supplies and adjusting my easel.
“I wrote it,” she said, simply.
I stopped and looked at her.
Our gaze held.
She broke away first.
“How would you like me to sit?”
“Just make yourself comfortable,” I said, kneeling down to adjust the knobs on the easel.
“How much time do you have? Is it okay if I paint rather than sketch?”
“My evening’s free,” she said.
“You remember I’m an abstractionist, right?” I asked. “This won’t be a portrait.”
I saw her look around the studio at the finished and half-finished paintings on the walls and stacked up in piles.
“I’m sure whatever you come up with will be great,” she said. “I’m really in it for the experience.”
I straightened up and turned to face her.
She sat, sort of slouched into the chair, her body draped across it. One hand balanced the glass of wine on the arm of the chair; the other rested on her thigh, which was flung across the chair’s other arm, spreading her legs wide toward the easel.
“How’s this?” she asked.
“It’ll work for me, if you can hold it.”
I was determined not to let her see how rattled I felt.
“Oh, I can hold it,” she said.
I turned on the stereo, loaded with k.d. lang’s “Drag” c.d., and set about mixing paints.
“I haven’t heard this in years.” She leaned into the chair with her eyes closed, the wineglass empty in her hand.
Looking for a color that could approximate her smooth, tawny skin, I blended titanium white and bismuth yellow with ochre and a dab of cadmium red.
I turned to the easel and began to paint, brushing color into the middle and out toward the edges. The scrape of my stiff-bristled brush on the rough canvas sounded rhythmically in the room. I reached for the enameled tray that served as my palette.
Soon I was lost in the painting. The room began to darken and I adjusted the lights.
I added warm colors to the palette. I changed to a softer brush. I scratched lines into the surface with the end of my brush. I traced them with a 6B pencil and rubbed the graphite into the exposed canvas. I painted out a section and mixed colors to approximate the dusky mustard color of the chair.
Finally, I stopped, exhausted. I put my hands on my legs and bent over, stretching out my back.
The room was quiet; the music had stopped. Embarrassed, I realized she had been sitting there for hours without a break.
Yet, still she sat, watching me.
“Are you finished?” she asked softly.
The room had cooled a little with the evening. I saw goosebumps on her arms. Her nipples, held partly erect by the rings, began to harden then. She breathed in deeply and rhythmically, waiting for my answer, which didn’t come.
I stood looking at her, as though after those hours, I was seeing her for the first time. I watched her belly rise and fall with her breathing.
Still spread in the pose, her excitement was clearly visible.
Her voice was huskier then.
“May I look at the painting?”
Slowly, she began to move her arms and legs. She rubbed the stiffness out of her elbows and ran her hands down her legs. She used her hands to lift her raised thigh off the arm of the chair. Standing, she interlocked her fingers and turned her palms upward, stretching the length of her spine.
Finally, she came to stand beside me.
I could feel the warmth of her body next to me as she surveyed the canvas, which was a mass of swirling flesh tones, grounded on the mustard color of the chair. The flesh tones warmed and cooled, lightened and darkened, but across the three-foot canvas, they looked like they were lit from within. A line down the canvas may have hinted at a waist, another, the curve of a breast. Down near where the chair was represented was a gentle streak of deep, dark rose.
“I like this part best,” she said, pointing to it.
“So do I,” I said, reaching for her.