|by Ming Holden, '06|
I am accustomed, now, to being in a room with seven men who are drawing my pubic hair. I have been on the other side of the drawing board, and I know that bodies are reduced to shape, distance, and shadow: hold up the pencil. This is how far the nipple is from the armpit. Squint. It is not even a nipple anymore, not to them, though my nipple has not changed any since I took off my clothing.
The first time I posed naked in the basement of the man whose ad I answered there were only two artists. The host would grimace and then relax his face in quick succession like a broken smile doll while he sketched. The other rubbed my shoulders over the thick blue robe during a break. The music was incredible: blues, and old music from 1940's Japan. Bad luck for the band, my host comments, because then Hiroshima happened. I found something to focus on so my body would hold still and steady. One time it was a finished drawing. Something about the light on the woman's breast made it look like the shape bread dough takes before rising.
When I arrived I asked for the bathroom. Perhaps because I come from a place where basements and attics are rare I love them, and his basement smelled pleasant and damp, pastel and cardboard everywhere, with a cat who wound round the artist's legs. But the kitchen and bathroom betrayed the smell of the five cats who live there total. I have five cats also, but they spend their time outside accruing foxtails. The wife had headphones on and didn't look at me as she hurried into the car he had taken to pick me up from campus. He spoke to her as if he didn't know she had tuned him out. I stood bare under the hot lamp unsure of whether I was welcome, holding onto the curtain so my arm would catch the light, staring into the face of the clock until it became an object representative of nothing important, bread, an elbow, skin, scattered records. I do not know why there are no women in this group. I wonder sometimes if I would feel differently about shedding my clothing for a woman. I do not think I would; though I am using my naked body in a way a man dictates, I have sanctioned this and am making forty dollars in three hours. I also love the bluegrass, I love lying down during breaks and reading essays and books for my courses, I love the corner with all of the records and pastels strewn like pick-up sticks.
They are drawing my person but it is not personal. If it were not my body, but another's, they would still be gaging, squinting, marking. The only time the fact of their masculinity becomes acute to me is when it occurs to me that I know as little of their minds as they know of mine, that any or all could have committed a rape twenty years back, or two days back. I do not fear for my safety. I only would rather they not see me when I slide the robe off and hang it over the chair: that is the one moment that feels intimate.
How are you? one of the irregular comers asks the man who leads and hosts the drawing group. I'm okay, he says, in the kind of way that suggests both men know he has recently not been so okay. This man, who teaches at a nearby art school and whose figure drawings sell, tells me which way to roll my hips and whether to expose my ear, but I have no right to ask about these other things, just as I have no right to sneak a dried apricot or two or a vanilla cookie from his kitchen when I take my bathroom break, though I do just that.
I do not know where the wife goes. She does not always leave the house. I think she stays upstairs. There is sometimes a cat on the stairs, a calico one. There is almost always a homemade baked good on the counter. I never touch that, the pie or cobbler, though I wonder whether it is he or she who bakes them. Lately their daughter, who is a year younger than I, has been stashing her boxes in the living room while she moves from her apartment to an art collective. I have never met the daughter; I have only heard about her artwork and music projects from her father, who is very proud. I like to ask him about his only child and prompt him to say something politically leftist. This is how to get him going. The only two ways I know and can use, and want to use, to get him going.
At the end of the evening sessions there has started to be that clarity of star winking above the deck, a bite to the air, to the shadow of roof: autumn. At the end of an afternoon session I straighten my jacket on the deck, scoop-shaped yellow leaves heaping all over the deck and deck chair, and turn to smile at the men filing out, saddled with art supplies. Take care, they tell me.
The first broken heart I ever had I woke up feeling like ropes were tying me to the bed, crisscrossing plushly but firmly, and I could not move my body under their weight, and my mind did not want my body to move under their weight. That was also the way it felt when I woke up after election day. Certain thoughts I have make me a political leftist. The thoughts have a lot to do with my body, actually, and its landscape of hip and skin being one over which I, my thoughts, preside. I read the results of the election and I floated on my bed, floated and was also tied there: I could not nudge my thoughts or my body and so they could not nudge each other, either. And when I talked the next day to a dear friend who devoted her vacation time to liberal activism, she had a hollowness to her voice, and described it like this: it feels like I have had a break up, it feels like someone has died. Neither of us could move either our thoughts or our bodies in ourselves or in each other, but it was a lucky feeling to not nudge together, to not be able to nudge together.
I remember to think sometimes, in the middle of the twenty minutes between breaks, the muscles in my calf or neck or arm starting to ache, the tiny muscles I did not know were there and certainly have never used for this long continuously, that these men have traveled, been married, probably been divorced, probably been discovered masturbating by their mothers, perhaps discovered their own sons masturbating, perhaps raise their voices when they are angry, like cream in their coffee, do not like cream in their coffee, prefer Toyotas to Acuras and rain to sun, hate their job, love their job, remember that year they spent hating their first out-of-college job in Phoenix, regret smoking so much weed or starting to smoke cigarettes, miss their grandmother Doris who smelled like rice pilaf. One thing I realize now that I have not done is use my brain time while I hold my body still to invent histories for them--for instance, the man with the Cape Cod shirt might be a lawyer with two kids and a secret love for reality television. The man with the sexy eyes whose eyes make me uncomfortable because I think they are sexy has traveled in South America. I do not do that. Rather, I daydream about writing and sleeping with my new Boy, I remember other Boys, I try not to cry when the Patti Griffin song about rain comes on, I worry about what I will do with my self to earn money over the summer. I forget the men are there.
It does occur to me that it is the right of any person to say I do not want to be naked anymore in front of you and step down from under the bright lights, and that were I to do that nothing more than losing this job would come of it whereas over history this may not have always been the case. I have never needed to do things with my naked body that I did not want to do, as is my right, and for which I also feel guilty since most women I know have had that right taken away from them at one or many points.
Slavery, also, has been described as not owning one's life; in other words, not owning one's body. Since we can think whatever we like and not say it, for one's life to be controlled is then the control of the body, which is trackable and seeable in ways our thoughts are not. We can even use our bodies to say exactly different things from what our minds are thinking, like I hate you when we are thinking I love you, or the other way around. I cannot tell if one of these happens more than the other. They both seem to happen a lot. Sometimes my fingers fall asleep from holding onto the blanket hung from the ceiling, but the artists need the arm upraised so I keep the fingers there and rub them when the clock's wide face looks roundly up at me with the right whiskers and then I move.
There is a red rose on my desk that has been opening since Friday. It is Sunday. On Friday my new Boy's only very recent ex-girlfriend came into town for a tournament between universities. I have not met her. At 3am Friday morning my new Boy bought me the rose in a Providence Seven Eleven. My new Boy is not actually mine; I do not own him. The rose is in the only thing that I could find to serve as a vase at 4am on a Friday morning in a dirty apartment shared with three guys: a washed-out forty-ounce beer bottle. The rose has done quite well, blooming an aching red on my white desk next to my printer (though the desk is not mine either, it belongs to the university) and I have somehow attached my hope that the Boy will still want to hold my body and call it his--in the nice way that we can lay claim to one another's bodies sometimes--to the rose and how well it has done over the weekend we agreed he would be sorting things out with the ex. Now on Sunday evening one petal, full and triangular and on the lower left end of the blossom from where I am sitting, looks like it might drop from the flower soon. There is only a faint smell, but even during more difficult moments this weekend when I have thought in my mind of imputing things to say to the Boy if things do not go as I would like I have touched my nose to this, this cracking-open red star, and pushed my face into a smile to get my mind to follow. There is a thought in me that would like to hold the ex's hand and explain that I did not expect this, and there is a thought in me that suspects she will not be the ex after all and I will be the one to be sad. The verdict has not happened yet to nudge my body into reflecting one or the other of these thoughts, or even a third or fourth or fifth thought that is different from the first two. I have never met someone who had to change something with someone else to make room for me, and I am not used to being the Woman in Red.
The best roses I have seen and smelled are the ones coaxed out by my mother at our ranch in California, though the ranch is not actually ours, we just live on it, and my father, her husband, has a piece of paper that says we get to live on it, that even says he owns it when really no one can. My mother likes to say come look at the roses. Come smell. And I like to smell and rub her back when she shows me the roses. Often the things my mother does with her body match very well what she does with her mind: she likes little growing things and so grows many vegetables and roses and teaches little children about numbers and letters and sharing; she likes peace and equality and so writes letters to the editor and marches for an end to the war; she likes to forget about family things she does not want to deal with and so does not open her mouth about them and is liable to put in a drawer a letter from a child that might not be pleasant instead of reading it; she likes to have children and so her body has grown three of them; she likes music and so opens her mouth and sings.
Sometimes, on break, I hold my breath through the kitchen that smells like cat pee to the bathroom and take off the robe and look. I take off the robe and look at what they have been drawing; it is strange that they know better the shapes of my shoulders than I do, strange that I forgot about the tattoo on the back they have been drawing and on which they must have seen the tattoo. There is a New Yorker Cartoon on the wall: "I'd invite you in, but my life is a mess." The first time someone broke my heart I wrote that the act of love is also one of impaling. A lost event. A poltergeist. I cannot clean places I cannot reach, I wrote. Up in front of all of those grown men, on display, I do not feel vulnerable.
Back two weeks from a solo trip to Siberia, I ate psychedelic mushrooms with an ex-boyfriend. The grass was dry and sounded like castanets. Things were looking metaphysically and unilaterally down. The cosmos yawned open in rock and burgundy. I was being swallowed. "What are you so afraid of?" asked the ex-boyfriend. I had no answer. Death? No, in this state is was obvious that the only way I could play with drugs and a boy in the mountains of Santa Barbara in the same month I had trudged down icy streets with a bunch of stern-faced people in box-shaped fur hats was that we are here to see what things are like in bodies, in this dimension, on this time scale. It seemed to me as I kissed the ex-boyfriend for old time's sake that we were borrowing atoms to this end, borrowing atoms to make bodies with and then, like preschool children with putty, make lives with them. Make lives with the bodies we have made with the atoms we have borrowed.
My brother Marc left recently, for Cincinatti. He used to live a train ride away. If I had a bad week I would call him. He would be making bisque when I called and it would be ready by the time I got there. He told me once when we stood on the roof of his college dorm that we would have to part one day, and that he simply could not stand by that. Both of us would stop using our bodies--whether a part of us would leave the body and keep going, neither of us could say for sure (though I use my thoughts to say that a part of us does)--but chances are, one of us was going to stop using his or her body before the other. That day on the roof I wore my cranberry coat. The buildings were muted and the sky was gray. I think I cannot stand to part with you even now, Marc. Come back.
When my friend Alex visits we pop in the movie "Donnie Darko," which is about, among other things, time travel, and how you need a portal and a vessel to do it. The portal is the sky opening. Alex, a Chaucer-loving, bespectacled friend with a platinum ponytail who has spent time in a hospital for anorexia, could do with a bit more body than she has. Alex's mind and body do not work together a lot of the time, which is why her mind will see her body as something very big when the body remains and only ever has been very small. I realize halfway into the movie that Alex has been beside me on the bed and we are not talking to one another, that I have forgotten she is there because we are thinking about and watching the movie with our minds so completely. The movie is haunting and fascinating and hard to understand, and there is schizophrenia in it, and the hallucination is a rabbit who is really a guy with his eye shot out, and anyway, the sky opens.
After the movie I walk into the kitchen where there is a poster of Andy Warhol. The one with two of the same picture, two of his faces ringed by a tambourine. Paul's pressed leaves are on the hall wall. The floor is littered with trash. Take care, meaning, take care of yourself. And the self that takes care of me, the me that is different from the self that does the caring for, are these two different parts of me, even, from the me that does the thinking and the me whose shapes and breasts and thighs seven men just spent hours drawing? Even to owe something to oneself is a schizophrenic term, someone told me once. To do anything to oneself. There is I, there is I doing something to myself, to my self. I think now that our language just does not know what to do with this: if someone cuts their own wrist, then the giver and receiver of the action are the same. Why isn't it my self is doing this to my self? I am doing it to me? But no, the correct way to say it is that I am doing something to my self, and so I am a different entity from my self.
Are we supposed to be like the Russian dolls, smaller versions inside each one? Am I a capsule, carrying many other me's around? Because that would make me a vessel, too, capable of time travel. But I suppose we do travel through time anyhow, we are just accustomed to the rate at which we do it, and portals are normal things like doors and sunny days and rainy days and snowy days. I do know that the part of me filled and screaming with words and memory and feeling is not the part of me the men who are drawing are concerned with. I know that the same is true of some men who surrounded me on the trolley in Ecuador once and from whom I escaped: they were not concerned with ideas and memories attached to the body that they were concerned with, and I was only concerned with one of their ideas.
I know also that it is dangerous to give imperfect language too much power, because if I use differentiating words to describe me and then my self, I will look down at my own hand and it will not seem like mine, I will look down at my hand and it will not seem like mine and it will scare me. But I think also that it would be dangerous for those men on the trolley to be able to see and track and know somehow all of my thoughts and memories. My different selves or parts are why I might not have been completely broken, if they had gotten to break part of me or one of my selves.
My head, and when I say my head I mean my thoughts, and when I say my head I mean my feelings, too, my head often feels like two halves of a cantaloupe I hold, hold one in each hand, heavy and dripping. I wonder sometimes if this weight is the disconnect between the different selves and parts of us, and I say "us" because I know that I am not the only one who feels it, and when I say "I," I mean myself and my self also.
I pause while reading an essay about holocausts and crimes against humanity suffered by Jews in different countries and Japanese-Americans in this country and other groups in other countries because my roommate Chris has enlisted me to help with a very short film for his media class. I am to act. I am glad to, because I need a break from the part of myself that is trying to gather up feeling good about anything after the election and an essay that is about what this one is about. I need a break from the part of myself that looks at the rose every few minutes. I need a break from the part of myself that is imagining all of the bodies in Sudan and Rwanda and back centuries in the Ottoman Empire and back decades in Germany. I need a break from the part of myself that knows that as many memories and dreams were attached to the bodies as are attached to me, only memories and dreams are not attached anymore to those bodies and they are to mine. I need a break from the part of myself that thumps painfully whenever the part of myself that looks at the rose every few minutes looks at the rose every few minutes.
I have done theater before, and I like to assume the expression of someone else with another set of memories. What I think is interesting is how many actors say that in order to cry for a scene they think of something sad from their own lives, not of the sad thing that has happened to their character. If that is true, then people watching the film or play are something like the men who draw my naked body: they are only getting part of the whole, they are seeing the part of the actor who cries but not the part of the actor who thinks of reasons to cry.
It is my first autumn in Providence and the leaves, which are tawny and shaped like boats, and the breeze, which is warm and full-smelling, make me glad. I have a cigarette partly because my character is to smoke one and partly because I have had only four cigarettes in six months and would like another. Another thing that makes me glad is that my character does things I like to do or would like to do: walk through fall leaves, see newspapers detailing Bush's victory, set them on fire, let them burn for a moment, stamp out the flames, walk away (again through the fall leaves, which is my favorite part because I like fall leaves a lot), take out a journal, write in it furiously, look at the camera, take a drag, and smile.
It was Chris who went to New Hampshire, into the projects, on election day, and Chris who decided on Wednesday to be nicer to everyone than he had been during the preceding weeks and think of people primarily as systems of family and friends and not as participants in the body politic. My roommates and I know about and read about and talk about the body--and by the body I mean the bodies we use to get too drunk and make love and have sex (which are different things, even we know) and get our selves to classes, and by the body I also mean the big body whose disconnect I feel in this, my small body, when I cannot nudge this, my small body; I mean the big body that is the body politic.
Brendan sits on the curb in his beret and moccasins and watches, waiting to help Chris move the dolly. I crouch in the street and wait with the matchbook. I do not know what Brendan thinks. I do not know what Chris, fiddling with the big clunking camera, thinks. I do not know what the Boy, who has light green eyes, thinks. I do know that I love them all, Chris and Brendan and the Boy, as I crouch in my jacket with my hair on my face and matches in my hands. I know also that in some way I love the seven men who have drawn my pubic hair, not because they have drawn my pubic hair but because the room is quiet save for the bluegrass music playing while they draw and I stand still, and there is buzzing and whirring inside them that I cannot hear, and memories inside them that I cannot see.