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Fiction: The Artist
Words by Diana Radovan
Image by Claudio Parentela
I am about to enter his studio. I want to leave my heart at the door.
-Come in, he says.
I cannot trace emotion in his voice, as if we were strangers. But ten years ago, before the accident, we were not. I modeled for him back then. With this dress on, and then without. So I don’t need to feel this space with my hands and legs. He has always liked mapping it by his paintings' sizes and shapes, I can trust that I’ll find my way. His studio, his kingdom.
The smell in here has changed though. He must be using acrylic instead of oil paint. His own smell has changed, too. I guess he must have finally stopped smoking. It was in the newspapers, his lung cancer, my friends say. He too is getting older.
The reason why I am here today is irrelevant. But there is a part of me that cannot help thinking that he is running out of ideas if we have come to this.
- Let’s start the experiment, he says. I’ll turn on the camera, OK?
Before I get to reply, I hear a click. He’s making a movie. I am his subject no. 1 today. I happen to know that the dress I’m wearing is not too long and not too short, that when I bend down, it shows my hammer curls, but not more. I know that it invites the eye to go a little further but doesn’t directly ask for it. If only our eyes could meet!
Men often only remember the skin underneath. But his need for shape, for flesh-fullness, has always been more sight than touch. Back then, we made love on the wooden floor. The wood quickened under our intertwined bodies. Here’s what I remember: the sound of his brush moving on my breasts, before his hands and lips took its place; his half-grown beard, marking my every pore, claiming each one as its own; the sound of his flesh bumping against my inner walls; his eyes fading into mine, just before we came; his growl, like that of a beast trapped between my legs; his eyes looking somewhere beyond me, in the stillness of that unavoidable moment after the noise of the flesh has faded away.
He called his painting of me The Eyes of the Muse. It hung in the center of an art gallery, full human body size, for six months. I did not get to see it there. He repeatedly refused to sell it, I have been told. Maybe it is still around here somewhere, hiding from daylight.
He measures the floor with a wooden stick. I give in and measure it with my hands and feet. It’s what is expected from someone in my position. As always, I aim to please.
He is married and has children now. This is what my friends tell me the newspapers say. Apparently, the newspapers are also full of rumors of an upcoming divorce.
My husband left me after the accident. I suppose I deserved all of it.
It was me, driving the car. It was raining. Inside and outside, it was dark. It was my husband who used the word “slut”. When we hit the wall, the rain stopped. When the police came, it was still dark. I could smell my own blood. The smell reminded me of the terpinol in this studio. They said that part of the blood was mine, but most of it was the baby I had lost.
- Let’s start with your self-portrait, he says.
In The Eyes of the Muse, which my husband called obscene, I am naked, sitting on a wooden chair, with its back between my legs. My hair is falling in dark red waves, covering one shoulder, my breasts, and my waist. My eyes are large and purple, my pupils dilated with desire and something more. I remember the great artist telling me not to look at him looking at me. It took hours to get the painting done but I sat still for him, looking somewhere behind him, beyond the two of us, beyond the scene.
- I’d like to do a full-body painting instead, I say.
- OK, he says. Your call.
I’ll need a lot of black for this. And pink. He squeezes out the paint from the tubes for me. He lines them up on a painting board for children, in the order I ask for. That should do.
- You don’t need to use a brush, he says.
I try to smile but not too much. I can tell that there are wrinkles growing around the corners of my mouth. I feel them carving their way into my flesh, digging deeper each day, when I stand in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning.
Spread on his studio’s floor, legs apart, my back against the bed sheet he has provided as canvas, I paint myself with my entire body, human body on top of painted body. My body parts push themselves into the canvas in ways I cannot predict. I do not mind feeling wet.
- Don’t hold yourself back, he says, do whatever you want.
I stand up and listen to the sound his boots make on the floor. He comes towards me from behind and puts the paint directly into my hand. His breath is sliding down my back, while the paint flows into my open hands. This used to make me fly. I pull away.
Back on the floor, I draw a big circle, for my face. Two small ones, instead of eyes. I leave them hollow. How imperfect they are I cannot tell. With my arms I draw black wings. When I get to my legs, I know that they are becoming too big, too quickly, but I may need them to run away. The space between my legs is pink. There is no need for breasts today.
I once again feel his breath against one side of my neck. Is he lying down next to me? I did not hear the floor squeak. Was this then, or is this now? No. There is no pleasure, only pain. It’s all a memory, and it’s all mine. He doesn’t remember. I must not forget this.
I stand up.
- Are you done?
- Beyond done, I say.
I hear him walk away from me. He must be hanging my painting of me on the opposite wall, so that it can dry, before he decides what to do with it.
- Come on, let’s get you cleaned up, he says.
- Not yet, I say and pull away. No, I’m not yet done. I would like to go on.
- OK. This time, paint something else. Whatever you want.
- I’ll do a landscape, I say.
I can still see it all, inside my head. The last picnic with light, at the riverside. An ordinary scene perhaps, but it was my last one of the kind. I will need more color for this. Red tends to stick to my hands more than green does, like he once said it would. I also use yellow, brown, violet, and blue. I use my hands and I use my feet.
- What do we have here? he says.
- Everything, I say. Trees, clouds, people watching the sunset, and the river that can never stop flowing, even as the sun sets.
- Is there anything missing? ...What should we call your paintings?
- Solitude I and II. I would like to wash my hands now, and my hair, OK?
- Here? he says.
- At home, I say. It’s not that far away.
- And then?
- Nothing, I say. Then we are truly done.
I hear him stroke his beard, his finger brushing against the half-grown hair on his chin.
- Thank you for coming today, he says. I am sorry. For everything, he says.
- Don’t mention it, I say. It’s been great fun.
I hear him swallow his saliva. I hear the air enter and exit his chest. Is it paint or pain that I smell? I let the words take shape on the tip of my tongue and release them all in one breath:
- Something is missing: Love.
I feel the tips of his fingers claiming the hair dangling on the left side of my face, pushing it behind my ear. After the accident, my hair grew long and apparently turned gray in my hospital bed, invaded the hallways, then died an unnatural death, waiting for his call. My best friend started dying it black afterwards, in largely unsuccessful attempts to cover the gray.
- There’s pink in your hair, Love, he says. Your hair is so short now.
I allow a tear to escape my left eye. It slides into my mouth, and another one follows. I turn my back to him and wipe my tears away. I grab my bag while he grabs my shoulders. I cannot tell who decides which way I choose. I turn around and stand there, facing him facing me. My heart is about to leave my cage-shaped chest, and I know that my feet won’t make it to the other side of the door, while my shoulders are drowning in kisses and light.
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