Monday, February 28, 2011

"nude #3" a short story by brian haney

"ophelia" acrylic on canvas by robert christopher

 "nude #3"
by brian haney

What he sees in me, so I become.  I am his canvas that gives when he touches, is stretched and bent as he pulls.  As he visions, so I open.  I am his flower.  I am his flower and he is my stem holding me up to all the world.
            He pokes with the brush.  He jabs with the brush.  The brush is in his hand and he holds it like a cleaver.  He slashes and swipes and I am sure that I am brutal, so I ask him, “Is it any good?”
            He looks up, a streak of crimson on his nose.  His face is pained.  He does a poor imitation of a smile.  “Just don’t move,” he says.
            If he could, he would take pins to me and splay me out in a beautiful arc – a sweeping bird wing, the full white cup of a ship asail.  In his mind, he would pin me out and there would be no blood.  I know he would have no blood.  We are both of us selfish that way.
            I am corseted in costume drama finery, a whorish child descended steeply from Queen Victoria and Scarlet O’Hara.  I am genteel and unapproachable, yet in the end I’ll give it up and pant like an eager dog for more.  Today I say nothing, only eye him and dream of him – dream of him over me and under me and around me and inside me.  But I say nothing.  I am silent in my choker.  He drops the brush and it clatters to the floor.  He comes to me and pushes me deep into the couch.  The whole time I say nothing.  I know he dreams of it this way.

In the morning, it’s already stuffy and hot.  The afternoon will be hell itself.  Get up before him and make coffee, very strong coffee – I can’t stomach the stuff myself.  Clear the table of the books and sketches, the bottles and the buttons, the jars of water with their floating cigarette butts and lay out a place for breakfast.  He wakes up sandy and scratching and sits at the table for a long time saying nothing, only sitting and thoughtless.  Eventually he gathers enough consciousness to mutter a feeble apology for something – which I accept.  The mornings, though, are the best part for he is growing with inspiration and I only want to be near a fire that burns so brightly.  I do it all just for the mornings.  He talks to me and it’s strange and impossible talk, but it’s also beautiful and deep and it’s so deep that I wish only to live there, to gaze into that deepness and listen for the bottom.  He tells me that he serves only Beauty – and so he does – but I serve Beauty by serving him breakfast.
We start painting by 10 or 11 and I try to take the place he gives to me and discover who I am to be today.  “The left arm.  It was higher yesterday.  Can you hold it higher?”
            I tell him I’ll try and he paces with a cigarette clenched between his fingers like a specimen.  A tickle of sweat runs along the crook behind my ear.  He is watching me and pacing like a cat, watching and waiting.  “A little higher,” he says, “You are…you are a fountain of water.  Yes.  You are flowing from the earth all light and liquid.  You are the leap of water up before it splashes back,” and my body is becoming liquid, melting under his tongue.  “My spring, my eternal source.  I come to you and you wash me.  Your very finger swipes away the filth and stink of this world.”  His eyes are shining now, bluer than the sea is blue, sparkling like the freshest pearl, and he takes up the brush and begins to work, dabbing with strokes deft and fleet as bird tracks.  He does not even look at me; it is all coming from him now and he is furiously painting.  Finally, I leave and close the door to the soft scrape of brush on canvas.

I remember someone handing me a drink.  Her fingers were as heavy with baubles as the boughs of a Christmas tree.  Around me, the white noise of escalating voices and clicking heels on the wood floor was peppered with laughter.  I wasn’t really sure who the place belonged to. This is the party where we met: all the hands were working overtime.  Hands turned up in mock helplessness, some pinched lightly, some tickled, playful but irritating.  Other hands, too.  Hands that menaced sloppily with their drinks and those that smoothed shirts, nervous.  “Never tell the left hand what the right hand is doing,” and the hands lifted and clapped in feigned amusement.  Every hand pointing, pointing this way and that, that way and this, but never missing their mark.  Each unerringly found the most famous in the room.  The one whose shoes gleamed from the spitshine.  These special few were the lights around which all the hands fluttered. It was a pathetic kind of fame, though.  A fame that existed only in that particular group.  Step outside the group and it disappeared down the vanishing point.  I had had about all that I could take of it and found a corner to hide in. 
     That’s when I noticed him.  From his corner, his eyes cut through their bullshit and he said nothing.  I stared him straight in the eye but he went right on looking.  Finally I crossed the room to…I don’t know what.  Throw my drink in his face?  Slap him?  Confront him, anyway.  But he beat me to the punch.
            “Has anyone ever painted you?”
            “Painted you.  You’re so…I mean, you move like a…a…I don’t know.  You look like…it’s…there’s something there, I just don’t know what.”
            It sounded like a load of shit to me, too, but he was persistent and…something else.  It was the way he talked, I think.
“No really, I was watching you.  You move like a…well, in a rhythm these frauds could never understand.  Now you’ve got grace and flow.  All that these people have is venom in their hearts.  They move like somebody opened their lids and crammed them full of fucking machinery.  A couple more hours in the sauce and these drunken phonies’ll be vomiting gears and motor oil.”
I laughed and told him, “They think the world needs them or something.  Fact is no one even gives a damn.”
“We’d be doing the world a favor just to machinegun the lot of them.  All of them talking about ‘art.’  They’re too crass and stupid to know anything about art, but I can tell right away that you…that you know about Beauty.  And your eyes – my God.”
A sudden laugh erupted across the room and the applauding hands broke like waves in its wake.
            In the end, I agreed to model with him and, of course, one thing led to another.

            Afternoons are the worst.  The window’s stuck open, so the room is getting cold.  His surge now ended, he begins his fall into despair.  Now my roles are either the comforter or the enemy, the source of his talent’s loss.  “You’re killing me,” he tells me, “I can feel you sucking at me.  I have my work and what do you have?  What?  Only to live off my work, that’s what.  Just go.  Leave.”  I try not to take it personally.  He says these things as a reflex.  As inspiration leaves him, he swings desperately.  It makes me feel horrible, but I know the shipwreck that causes him to say these things and I try to imagine how it would feel to watch Beauty leave me stranded and alone and forgotten; to see the back turn and the beloved walk away in perfect composure.  That is why I tell myself not to take it seriously.  If he wanted me to leave, if he wanted me to go, he would speak in quiet, in unhurried calm.  And in the evening we’ll drink – things will be better then.

            Today he waits a long time to tell me who I am.  He is pacing, the cigarette is at his fingers now and he drops it.  “Who do you think you are?” he asks me.
Who am I?  I am the beauty doll made anything with a wardrobe.  I am a mirror.  I am a fine marble block with one flaw.  I am an imperfect red, a gory smear in its center.  I am all smoke and coughing.  I am a strong cup of weakness.  I am a pain form whose divisions have not been measured.  I am pussy up to my eyeballs.  I am a torn coat of many colors, a button missing.  I am a lost button.  I am the button that fastens you to breakfast.  I am your tail and you are eating me whole.  I am the artist making a self-portrait through you.  Who am I but what you see?
And you.  Who are you?  Who are you but an eyeball?  You are all eyeball and the world is your seeing spot; the universe is only as large as your line of sight.  Who are you but what you see?  We are the same, you and I.
            “I don’t know,” I tell him.
            “Well, come on.  Think.”

There are places in Mexico where the Indians will demand money if you take their picture.  Some people used believe that cameras take the soul along with the image; that what we think of as two are equal and inseparable.
 “I just want to know.”
“Who does this work belong to?  Just so we’re clear.”
He gets defensive.  “Well, it’s mine, naturally.  I do the painting.  I bought the canvas and the paints.”
“But it’s my body.”
“Well, it looks like you, maybe, but it’s not your body.  It’s my way of seeing your body.”
“No, but what my body looks like; that belongs to me.”
“I don’t see why.  I –”
“Because something in this is mine.  Because I’m a human being, not a picture, and I deserve something.  The world doesn’t exist so you can see it.  It’s whole and outside you and you just can’t look at it and say it’s yours.”
“Well, fine, it’s ours then.  What difference does it make?” he laughs, “Look, we’ve got too much work to do.  Can you stand a little straighter?  You moved just…there.  Yes.  That’s right where I want you.”
            On the first day we moved into the apartment, the walls were a different color.  You would have hardly recognized it.  They were orange, a color he said was “the sickest color in the spectrum.  It’s like a call to violence.  Name me one masterpiece where orange is not the color of agony.”  It certainly was an awful color for a wall, but I tell him that surely there must be some master sunset somewhere that uses orange and he laughs, “Landscape?  Landscape is for girls and faggots.  Listen: if you paint landscape, you’re afraid of the human body; and if you’re afraid of the human body it must be because you’re twisted from a lifetime of degradation.”
“Well, what about Cézanne?” I told him, “All those Mont Ste. Victoire paintings?”
He looks me in the eye.  “Cézanne took that mountain and he made it a human body.  That’s how great Cézanne was.  Don’t forget that.”
The walls were painted white in a day.

            I am cold and naked now.  A light is on me and he is gone behind its glare.  It is only his voice and my body holding hands in a universe of light.  We are thinking the same thing.
            “Am I beautiful?”  Though he’s the one to say it.
            “Yes, of course.  Everyone is beautiful.”
            “No, but me…outside of everyone else.  Do I…am I –”
            “How can you doubt it?  How could you paint me like you do without being beautiful yourself?”
            We are quiet.  The light buzzes.
            He says, “I just need to hear –”
            “I know.  I need it too sometimes.”
            “I just –”
            “I know.”
            His voice is filled with doubt – it must not be going well.  His breathing stutters like he’s crying.  I hear the click of the brush being put down.  We’re only talking now.  I would move to him, but I know he needs me under the spotlight so that he can feel like no one is watching.  I tell him, “Don’t,” and he interrupts.
            “I just feel so far away sometimes.  So far away.  Without my work I’d…but it also takes me away, you know?  There’s a whole world out there and none of it could give a shit about what I…about what we….  But I love that our world is so small, though.  That I can see all of it and none of it is poisoned or choked.”
            “So do I.”
            “But don’t you need…?  I mean, what do you get in this?  I’m barely able to say what I get.”
            “I get things.  I do.”  I’ve begun to shiver with the cold.

You see, this is our work.  I am his subject; he is mine – which means we’re both objects, too.  Useful in our way.
His shirts, blackening at the collars, buttons missing; I’ll take those.  The soft paintbrush tap when he finishes for the day; that, too, is mine.  His blue eyes moving left to right, almost reading, as his brain searches for another fragile image of me is something more vivid than what he paints and it is mine.  “It’s all just one line,” he told me once about faces and it is, one line from the weak tea light of morning to our muffled sighs under the cover of darkness.  One long line of meals and arguments.  One line that runs from blue to red and back again.  A line that pierces our work, holds it in place.
I’ve learned so many things – maybe more than he has – and one day I’ll leave.  One day I’ll have taken what I can from this and I’ll see it all clearly and stand up and leave.  He’ll say, “Tilt your head to the right,” and I’ll say, “Go fuck yourself.”  It’s only a matter of time.  One painting will lead to another and finally he’ll capture me: mind, body and soul.  And I’ll be there forever.  I’ll be protected and saved.  I’ll be sealed in the canvas and time and death and failure will melt like snowfall.  Then sometime after that, we’ll just crack apart – he’ll need a new subject, another subject will need him – and I’ll leave like that, like someone quits playing tennis one day because she’s sick of it.  Like that, and I’m done.

            He tells me that he’s through with it: no more making love.  He knows that it only saps his energies and leaves his work less potent.  “I’ll save myself for the paints,” he says.  And the drinking is over, too, he tells me.  “I need to see clearly,” he says tapping his forehead, “I need clarity.”  We paint all morning and I can feel that it’s going well, he’s moving without stop – a good sign – and as he paints, he talks: “My moon flower, my sugar love, my sweet and sweetest angel.  I can see you down to the root.  I see the finest hairs of your body and they are radiant and new.  My only love, my true and truest bedmate, my secret smelling flower, my cup of new, my Christ on earth,” and on and on and the words surge under my breast, a lift like tides that draw me out into deeper water where I am swimming, swimming, the dolphin maid that calls to sailors with a voice that shatters their hearts in an instant.
            “I have never been better,” he says later, “You have never been more.”  That night we drink long and make love twice.

            The walls are covered with colors.  You would hardly recognize me.  Here, I am blue and haunting, ripped and jagged.  There, my eyes are large like pumpkins, orange and glowing.  He sees me now beautiful, now sad, now naked like rocks.  I am lonely as a mountain peak, high and wind swept.  I am thick as swamp water, green and oily.  I am a silver beam turned like a hand.  I am remote, something seen from a long way off.  I am smooth as thighs.  Or I am moving, rolling like a horse or with the blink quick jump jerk rhythm of a reptile.  I walk eyes steady toward the viewer, or turn away, glancing over a shoulder.  Once razor cut and exact, next scrambled like eggs.  Disassembled, rearranged, put together by a drunken shotgun.  Pressed like a flower or inflated like a tire, I am twisted and pulled into things I could never see, things it would take another’s eyes to see.  He has taken me up and put me down time and time again.  He has found all the pieces, but he still does not know their master.

            He comes back late and drunk with a little fat man.  He says that the man runs a gallery and tells me the gallery’s name as if I should recognize it.  I know what’s expected of me.  I oblige him and act impressed.  The man walks around with his hands at his chest, appraising everything – the paintings, the refrigerator, the lamps, the book shelves, the clothing tossed about – all the time muttering, “My, my, my.”  He lifts a handkerchief and drops it.  It falls perfect and ghostly to the floor.  He runs a finger along the windowsill.  His fingers almost snap as he flicks away the dust.  “My, my, my.”  We drink a round and then another.  After each drink, he exhales and says, “My.”
After my painter passes out, the man touches my shoulder.  I do not look at him, only stand and lead the way.
He agrees to show the paintings.

            I am calling from a phone booth.  I have found a dime in the change return.  Nearby, a songbird is singing dizzily, ridiculously.  He answers and I tell him, “I’m just calling to see how you are.  To get a few things.”
            “Terrible.  I burned your things.  The smell…and…you were there…and then the paintings –”
            “What about the paintings?  What did you do?”
            “No.  No, I didn’t…no, they’re gone.  The gallery.  That’s what I mean.  I even sold some.  You didn’t…I didn’t think they meant….”
            The silence drones like a light bulb.  We are both thinking about the same thing.  The bird takes up its meandering song again.
            I tell him, “It’s a nice afternoon.  Beautiful.  You should get out.”
            “It’s strange,” he says, “I tried to paint you from memory.  I just can’t seem to remember.  Just the smell.  It’s strange.”
            “Look, they mean something to me.  Yes.  Of course.  But we’ve finished our work, you said so yourself.  We couldn’t –”
            “And then your eyes.  What color are your eyes?  Just tell me so I can remember.”
            Somebody shoot that damn bird.
            “One by one I’m losing my pictures,” he says and hangs up.

I have pictures, too.  I have seized them and made them mine.  I have cooed to them lovingly and coaxed them into my hand.  I have waked to find them lying in bed with me, beer on their breath.  No matter how I’ve collected them, though, they are only pictures.  We’d all take the real thing if we could get it, but what lasts?  Things fail and rot, rust and fizzle – only their picture remains.
I’m not sure what I would have: love or a picture of love.  I mean, how do you know it’s love without a picture to compare it to?  And why put up with the suffering fights, the cruel silences, the horrible words that come with the package of love when you can have a snapshot, clean and clear and neatly framed?  As with anything, it’s only a question of whether or not you can afford the price.
In the end, though, everything is taken.  “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”  They teach that to you when you’re young, but it takes a long time to learn it.  Keeping and weeping, saving and sobbing, even if you don’t want to play, it’s the name of the game.  You choose one side only to find out that you’re on the other.  Everything we have is stolen from someone else.  It’s taken like a breath, it’s bought like a brush or it’s found like a button.

by brian haney

brian haney is a writer, actor, director, teacher and cyclist in albuquerque, nm. brian is the creative director with theatre-in-the-making, where he teaches a variety of acting and playwrighting workshops. brian's hometown is philadelphia, but he has called albuquerque home for almost 16 years.

albuquerque, nm

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