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By Diana Smith Bolton
As the space heater thrums, Brenda shrugs off her cotton robe and drops it on the ottoman, rolling her shoulders like a pitcher and catching Gene’s eye from under the brim of his cap. Gene touches his glasses, brushes his hand through his hair, then drops his hands and eyes to his lap. In the high-ceilinged studio, Brenda shimmers purple, goose-bumped from her shoulders to her thighs. She crosses her arms and looks at Sue, the monitor.
Sue, sixtyish, has blue eyes that protrude slightly, her California cheekbones suggesting beach-bunny blonde, though her hair now gleams peroxide over gray. Sue’s face flexes in a smile, showing deep folds by her mouth, like rivers. Brenda thinks that probably her older face looks like her younger face seen through running water.
Sue claps her hands together, the thwack of her palms echoing against the studio walls. “Gestures, Brenda? Say, ten ones and a five for warm-up?”
Brenda nods. The artists, except for an overweight teenage girl and a mid-twenties metal-head, are all over forty. Brenda uncrosses her arms, heart thumping. She always worries, just before climbing onto the platform, that she has forgotten something: to remove her panties, to shave her armpits, to call her mother. She tips back on to her heels, then pivots, cracking her spine in two motions like a bear killing a salmon. She leans into the first gesture, a Prudhomme—pointed foot, contraposto torso, and the Renaissance Face. She starts to count to sixty.
The Renaissance Face is not easy. Brenda has to picture the beautiful girls from Art History, both in the paintings and the ones who chewed on their sorority pens. Brenda is not, by default, cherubic. To get the Ren Face, she looks at the track lighting, imagining an angel looking down, draped among the twenty-watt bulbs in linen banners, pushing aside a feathery cloud to see Brenda’s—no, Belloza’s—Brenda is not a Renaissance name—glowing face. Thirty seconds. Brenda pushes a bit of fear, a bit of worry, and a lot of holiness into her face. The Ren Face is not much of anything but manically peaceful. Beatific. The Ren Face goes with everything because it manages to look a little sexy, a little depressed, and a lot vulnerable. The Ren Face alone should guarantee martyrdom, if sustained for a minute. Sixty seconds.
Brenda drops into the second gesture, on her knees and morphing the Ren Face into the Les Misérables Face. It is only slightly different: more sad, less pretty. The artists will draw her breasts, anyway. Brenda closes her eyes to imagine bony children, kicked dogs, a hoarder’s pantry. A little dent appears between her eyebrows, like the angel has untwined himself from the banners to come down and thump her forehead for not being beatific enough. The platform is going to leave dents in her knees, too, but for a gesture, this one isn’t too painful. Brenda won’t waste the easy leans, sits, or stands on a warm-up gesture.
Her next pose, using the prop bamboo as a staff, pivots her toward Gene and Sue, in the corner by the emergency exit. For a one-minute, she can do a strong twist, feeling her back muscles flex and her hips loosen into the three-hour drawing session. Gene’s name is probably not really Gene. The first night that Brenda modeled for Sue’s class, he was there, dressed like a preppy dad from his baseball cap to his loafers. The cap wasn’t even a real one, no baseball team, just a fish embroidered on thin chambray. Gene tucks his T-shirts into stonewashed jeans held up by a braided leather belt. Brenda likes to make Gene blush or drop his pencil. He looks so paternal that she imagines his crotch as Ken-doll smooth, like a shadow, or the vague suggestion of masculinity, but not the real thing. He reminds her of confessing to priests as a child: Gene won’t look at her directly, his eyes reading her body as though through a mesh screen. Other artists chat her up on the break, ask if she’s found a full-time job yet. Gene just bends over his drawing, taps his foot to the new age muzak that Sue always plays, and sharpens his pencil.
But Brenda isn’t supposed to look at the artists. At figure model training—a one-hour lecture and ten minutes of practice—the models coordinator told them to find a fixed point for their eyes. “Don’t look at anything that moves. Find a spot, like a paint drip on the floor or a chip in the wall, and use that.” Once, Brenda positioned herself gracefully in front of a lean twenty-something drop-in with stubble and headphones. For a ten-minute pose, she tilted her hip, pressed a hand to her brow, and did the Maiden Face, which is like the Renaissance Face, but amped-up sexier and younger. Brenda gazed at the tip of the drop-in’s easel, feeling his eyes as he sketched the curves of her stomach and the length of her legs, and she felt herself grow warm and damp. She enjoyed his blurred face as she willed herself sexier and more maidenly, burning her eyes on the unvarnished wood. Then Sue asked him to move so that an octogenarian could get the prime real estate, due to her cataracts, and Brenda understood why the models coordinator told them not to use people or movable objects. The easel gone, Brenda stared into nothingness beside the old woman until her vision smeared. The twenty-something didn’t return to the next session.
After tonight’s warm-up poses, Brenda poses for a couple of twenties. She sits, stands, reclines, and kneels. She wears her borrowed faces. Between poses, as she stretches, Gene inches closer, until one leg of his easel nearly touches the base of the platform. When he drops his charcoal nub during a pose, he doesn’t lean forward to pick it up but starts scraping his sketch board with a rasping rhythm. Brenda doesn’t know what this is for, artistically, but he does it at the end of every pose. She knows when Gene has finished his drawing and is now just watching her, by the cadenced scrape coming from his lap.
On the platform, Brenda crouches down, lifts her arms, and slams her hands against the cold studio air, like a dancing warrior. Sue plays a lot of Enya, music that Brenda normally hates, but naked, she thrusts the bamboo prop like a spear at invisible gazelles. The music paints her face in stripes and dots, war music for the way she feels when she let herself eye-fuck the visiting drop-ins, or locks eyes with the metal-head on a break, or poses predatorily at Gene, who she knows she could terrify in bed.
There’s little point in the faces, though. Most of the drawings that Brenda sees on the easels are headless. This is a figure class, not portraiture, so there are snatches of breasts or legs or ass on all the drawing pads. Some focus on the musculature displayed in a one-minute stance, looking for tension in a thigh or sinew in a neck. Some skip the short gestures, waiting for the twenty-minute poses to study Brenda’s hands or waist-to-hip ratio, their eyes blazing against her skin. Brenda does her faces to have something to do. They’re entertainment for lack of anything else, short of counting.
After Sue’s final timer sounds, signaling the end of the session, Brenda stretches up on her toes, hands toward the lights, pawing the air like a cramped lioness. Each Tuesday night begins self-conscious and cold, yet ends warm and strong and damply aroused. Gene fumbles for his dropped charcoal, the top of his thinning hair level with Brenda’s clippered pubic hair as she stretches, cracking her back and inhaling deeply. Her jersey robe lays on the ottoman.
While Gene folds up his easel, his padfolio tumbles out of his arms, a rushing stream of paper and graphite, and as his drawings fall onto the concrete, Brenda sees her faces. There’s the Ren Face, eyes wide and mouth a narrow slit, and the Maiden, pouty and wanting, and the Les Mis, all fearful eyes and furrowed brow. But then, there’s just Brenda, no borrowed face, just her own, with a flitting frown during a cramp. Brenda marveling up at the angel in his perch. Brenda, on break, bending her head to read a text message, hint of a smile. Brenda with parted lips, no dent between her brows, and her robe draped around her shoulders, not posing at all.
From the platform, Brenda watches Gene catch at his drawings, shoving them into a rough pile so that there are odd eyes and chins and mouths sliding out of the stack, so many Brendas in mosaic, shattered into one Brenda, who is now fully formulated, and she looks at Gene, and he for once looks into her eyes, skipping over her naked body to her face.