It was not the first time he looked at his hands and fidgeted nervously with the tips of his fingers, rubbing them against each other, burying them in the smooth skin of his palms. Sometimes he rubbed in a deliberate cleansing motion, then pocketed closed fists inside his jacket to resist the urge to look again.
Today, the old man was keenly aware of his hands. He thought the clerk behind the counter at the newspaper office noticed, so he rubbed his fingertips. Years ago, his wife certainly noticed. His ex-wife now. She mentioned it often. His hands were soft, pale, and showed no lines, not unlike his cheeks that appeared as if they were in constant state of blushing. Today, the weather outside made everything worse, the cold air calling to the surface splotches of red, like rose petals crushed into his skin.
He had delicate hands, as his wife put it tactfully, but he knew what she meant.
"Is this it, sir?" The clerk had to ask twice; the old man was lost in his thoughts.
"Yes. That's all. How much to run it for one week?" He fumbled with his checkbook, knowing he'd have to place the paper and pen, and therefore his hands upon the counter.
He'd often avoided bringing attention to his hands when he was around his wife. It had been easier that way. He could sense how she held back and relented with indifference when he tried to hold her. And when she left him finally, he wondered if it was more than his inability to give her a child, to make her happy. He resented that she'd moved on as easily as changing into a new outfit, and that he'd become bitter, ashamed of himself.
As he left the newspaper office he turned the wording of the advertisement over in his mind. "Female nude model wanted. Generous compensation. No questions please. Call..."
Why had the woman asked, "Is this it, sir?" Should he have written more? And what else could he write, after all? It was what he needed now that he finally had the time, but most of all the courage and the strength to get back to his work. After his wife left him he'd simply stopped. But as much as he wanted so earnestly to be caught up in his painting, he was despairingly unproductive. He sat for hours and hours in his garret on the second floor of his turn-of-the century brownhouse. He watched students walk back and forth on the sidewalk underneath his window. He watched shoppers with their fat bags, the cars in traffic inching to the light, then lurching forward once again. He watched nothing. This is why he'd decided on the ad, something he'd never done, not even when his work was sought after and he needn't have paid if he'd merely made his intentions known. Women wanted to be painted by him.
His wife had been one of his first models, and his early shows were as much about him as they were about her. She was beautiful, and the paintings were large, life-size reproductions of the old man's then ideal vision. In his eyes she was perfect, and he worked hard to capture her every detail until the woman on the canvas looked at any moment as if she would breathe. But that was a long time ago, and his work now looks nothing like it used to. It has gotten smaller, more abstract.
Besides, it had been more than ten years since his last solo exhibit was remanded to the back room of the gallery for permanent storage. The only other places where he imagined one could find his work were stuffy attics or damp basements where the moisture slowly bit into the canvas, followed shortly by decay. Who would come to him if he didn't place the ad? He'd grown so isolated in the wake of his divorce that his name was a faint memory even among his colleagues. He'd become a stranger, alone, and only now, maybe now could he permit himself to think that it was time.
The old man let his thoughts become muddled as he pushed his aging frame against the January wind, making his way between the drab facades of recently erected towers, bright awnings and twisted window mannequins that stared out onto the street with eerie human likeness. He headed to his apartment that was located not quite on the edge of town, but far enough so that it was at least a twenty-minute walk to the university quarter, the same neighborhood he'd lived in since retiring from his teaching post. And although he'd been down many of these same streets before, he saw them now painted in a new light, with the vigor of a man roused from a stupor, a prolonged lazy sleep. He saw their cracks and crevices, their random drunken sidewalk patterns that marred the regular arrangement of the concrete slabs, the sudden and relieving break from the monotony of expectations.
When he reached the landing of his apartment he unlocked the front door and pushed the measure of his weight against the solid slab of wood that sometimes expanded and stuck on humid days. A pall had settled on the city for a couple of weeks, and only recently had the wind begun to drive away the clouds, making room for the scent of pure, cold air.
Inside the front door, the brownstone was clean, almost clinical. On the first floor was an apartment whose residents were often students in transition to more respectable housing. He seldom shared more than a nod with the occupants below him in the rare instances they met on the stairs or inside the common hallway, before he climbed to the second floor.
As he walked up the stairs he realized he was happy to get back to his rooms today. He was aware of a mild excitement that set in as he left the newspaper office.
It wasn't long until he received a call.
"Hello? Hi. I'm calling about the ad in the paper?" The voice on the other end sounded breezy, but practiced. He couldn't determine an age that fit the tone. The woman sounded interested, but distant.
"The compensation is $100 an hour. I only ask that there be no questions."
"Sure, sure. I understand. You don't have to worry. I've done this before, and..."
He barely heard the end of her sentence. Something in the woman's voice made him nervous and agitated. His chest felt warm. Was she implying…? She was the first to call, and he was eager to start. "Is Saturday at six O.K.?"
"That's fine. That works just great for me."
"The address: 32 Hyacinth Lane."
Something bothered him. The way the woman on the line had said goodbye, no warmth, but formal and business-like. He waited for Saturday to come. In the meantime he made the necessary preparations and got all of his supplies ready.
At exactly six o'clock he heard the doorbell ring with a short burst. He pressed the buzzer. A curt knock followed shortly after and he opened the door to a woman with a confident smile who presented herself using a first and middle name that he imagined to be hyphenated. She offered her hand by way of introduction. He glanced down and then away, leaving the woman's hand to wilt. He clasped his own hands behind his back and stepped aside to allow her in, then closed the door and moved about the apartment. The hands remained hidden behind his back.
The old man thought that something about her was attractive, but she wasn't necessarily beautiful. At least not in the conventional sense of the word. Her face, neck and upper shoulders were mottled with freckles that looked like they were applied carelessly, like drops of caramel on a vanilla cone. Her nose was interrupted by a rude bump right below eye level and her hair had broad, sweeping curls. They were more like thin strips of yellow- and gold-wrinkled ribbon tied back behind her head. A few loose strands fondled her neck as she moved.
"There is an envelope with the money on the side table by the door."
He was aware of the awful tone of his voice, the way he measured every word. But he had no choice. He wanted to sound professional, dignified. He didn't want to give off the wrong impression.
"Can I use your bathroom to change?" asked the woman, who'd been waiting in the same spot just inside the door.
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry. It's just around that corner, on the left. Don't mind the... I didn't think you'd need to..." He didn't finish the sentence. Behind his back he rubbed his fingertips.
The woman walked into the bathroom, leaving the old man to fidget in his place, trying to convince himself there was no need to be embarrassed. Maybe she wouldn't notice the mirror above the sink, the drops of soap that made his reflection quiver under the bare bulb that was missing it's original glass enclosure. And maybe, he hoped, she wouldn't see the reddish stubble in the sink, the remnants of a patchy beard that grew on his round, boyish face. The face, along with his hands, had led his wife remark more than once that he hardly looked touched. It was not meant as a compliment. She wanted something firm, calloused and rough, proof of work with visible results. A man's hands.
When the woman came out of the bathroom she had removed her clothes and was carrying them in her arms. The old man had placed a chair in the middle of the living room and invited her to sit, gesturing with his head toward the couch to deposit her clothes. Across from the chair, within a few feet, he'd set up his station. It consisted of an upholstered, gently slope-backed chair and a four-panel wooden screen. When he sat down, only his shoulders and head were visible from the other side.
There he sat behind his parapet, asked the woman to make herself comfortable, and told her that she didn't need to worry about keeping perfectly still. From the position she'd taken, slightly turned but still partially facing her employer, she could tell by the movement of the old man's shoulders and the frequent glance in her direction, that his hands were furiously working away at something. After several minutes he leaned forward out of his chair and stood up, coming from behind the screen. He fastened his hands behind his back and approached her where she sat. He circled her, scrutinizing his subject as one would a prized artifact on the auction block.
Completing his circuit once around the chair, he noticed a brown blemish just below her collarbone, a raised birthmark most likely, that disturbed the otherwise smooth skin. His lips curved with satisfaction as his eyes found on her upper arm a small but violent scar. He thought it looked like a childhood vaccine that had spilled outside of its proportions and in the center drew dark skin into itself like two puckered lips. He smiled and walked back to his chair where he bent back upon his work.
At seven o'clock, the end of the hour, he announced that the session was over. After the model got dressed he asked with a little trepidation, would she come back at the same time next week? She agreed, and he was relieved when she took the envelope and walked out the door and down the stairs without prolonging the awkward moment.
He watched her make her way between several muffled bodies along the sidewalk toward the school. She disappeared around the corner and he was once again left at his garret to observe the slow unraveling of spring. In the coming week he resigned himself to put the finishing touches on what he'd already begun before jumping into something new the following Saturday.
And then the day came, unfolding with minute variations of the previous encounter. The woman wore roughly the same outfit, the envelope waited on the side table next to the door, and the middle of the room was arranged with the same chair and screen. What had changed was his bathroom, which he'd taken the trouble to clean before her arrival. He'd done it for her.
As soon as they had taken their respective places and the woman consciously assumed a different pose than previously, she noticed that he did not dip his head as often and the fire that accompanied his earlier movements barely flickered. Something in his eyes, she thought, showed he was not content. She began to think that it was her, and though she'd done this many times before, she began to be uncomfortably aware of his eyes upon her. She drew her arms that much tighter in a self embrace.
The old man stood from his chair as he'd done before and walked in meditation in his circle. When he came to the spot where his face lit up the last time, he simply stood, impassive. After what seemed like an eternity he gathered up the courage to say what he wanted to say.
"Could you please sit as you did last Saturday?"
And because she remembered his request to have no questions asked, the woman shifted in her chair, relieved that with a mere turn the old man looked happy again. He'd seen that mark, the birthmark just below her collarbone, and with a pivot went to work behind his screen.
The woman returned for a few more sessions, and at the end of several months he found that he'd searched and squinted as hard as he could, but could find nothing more. He'd exhausted his subject. When he didn't ask her to return again, he couldn't tell whether she looked upset or relieved. If she was happy to go he didn't blame her. He knew that he could never stand as she did to feel someone else's eyes peel her open, make her painfully conscious of her own body.
When the woman left for the last time he did not follow her down the sidewalk. He went instead into the bathroom, splashed some water on his face and felt the softness of his cheeks that never betrayed what was missing inside. That's why his ex-wife had left. She'd wanted children. She wanted his children, the one thing he could never give her, so she made him feel like less than a man. The old man stood in front of the mirror, gripped the sides of the sink with his wet hands and looked up into the white bulb above.
"This is not my fault. You can't blame me for this."
And he knew as soon as he'd uttered those words that he'd go back to the newspaper office the following Monday morning and ask the woman behind the counter to run the ad one more time. He would walk down the same streets looking up into windows that stared back and seemed to judge him with their meticulous arrangement of limbs and clothes, no wind to disturb them, no wrinkles in the straight, unruffled lines. Nothing on the surface of those China doll white bodies. How he hated their blank eyes, the way they seemed to know while smugly saying nothing, betraying nothing of their thoughts. He'd bend his head toward the sidewalk and the beaten, bruised cement would comfort him.
He placed for one more week. He waited. He was used to that, to the long years when he anticipated that something, anything would light the spark that disappeared when his wife grabbed her things and went out the door insisting, "Really, it's not you. You're a wonderful man. It's just...," and with that she was gone. What followed were months that blended into seasons, and in his mind the words played over again, "It's just…" "It's just..." Until he'd finally looked long enough at the pictures stacked together in boxes, the ones taken by the Jersey shore in the fifties when he still had a full head of brown, wavy hair, and she still wore her bathing suit, the one as tight and intimate as a glove. Everything looked perfect, perfectly still, and from those pictures you could tell nothing more than that. It was then the reason became clear, how deceiving all of it was. It stared out at him, from some place sealed shut with forgetting and forgiveness, a monstrous, unspeakable thing, and now he saw it everywhere he turned, in everything that breathed and in all that didn't.
The phone rang mid-week. He wasn't surprised. When he'd neglected to answer their calls, his friends had long given up on trying to coax him to come out. No one called these days unless it was necessary to do so. The woman sounded younger than the first, and her voice less confident than he'd expected. They came to an arrangement as to the date and time, and when she hung up the old man sensed her words had a pleading tone, a need for reassurance that was hardly satisfied by goodbye.
She came a bit early the day of the session, dressed in a light camisole—it had gotten warmer outside—and a pair of jeans with a cut and flare revealing her young age. She brought with her the sweet scent of lilacs in bloom, still clinging to her skin and the folds of her clothes. He could have seen her in the past walking back and forth along the sidewalk. She was as identically, as predictably plain as any of the beautiful young girls he'd taught those many years before.
"The bathroom is around the corner if you need to..."
She followed his instructions, bringing with her a bag that had been resting on her shoulder since she'd come in the door. She came out shortly after with a green towel wrapped about her body, leaving bare only legs and shoulders.
"I've sat for an art class once at the university," she offered. "They only pay twenty dollars, so when I read your ad I was hoping no one else had called."
"No one else has called," the old man replied.
"Oh. Well, good for me then." She smiled.
"Make yourself comfortable." He gestured to the chair in the middle of the room and turned to take his own spot behind the screen.
She removed her towel, folded it next to the chair and sat down with legs crossed and one arm craned behind her back. He knew she was doing it because she thought he'd appreciate the artsy pose, just as he knew from the squint of her eyes that she believed he was an odd, eccentric, maybe perverted old man.
From his enclosure he stared intensely, his eyes flicking across her body in a desperate search. Minutes went by. Ten. Maybe twenty. He didn't move an inch. He could tell the girl was getting nervous because he cheeks became flushed. It wasn't the lack of clothes, not that. He knew it was his eyes that were making her feel inadequate.
Finally the old man stood and tried to find an answer in his routine, rounding the chair in contemplation. He went around once, twice, then back toward the screen, stopping short of the other side. He turned to the girl and said, "I'm sorry. This simply isn't working. You can still have the full amount."
The girl sat there and stared at the old man, still in the same twisted position she'd assumed at the start of the session. It had been less than half an hour. I know you don't understand, the old man wanted to say, but this won't do at all.
"I'm sorry. Did I do something wrong? If you need me to move I can. I mean, I've done this only once before and they didn't ask, but..." The old man cut her off, trying hard to check his annoyance.
"No. Nothing is wrong. It's not you, it's just... Look, please. The money is there."
The girl took up her towel and walked into the bathroom. She came out in her fitted top and jeans with bag across one shoulder and picked up the envelope by the door. For a moment the old man was back on the Jersey shore, sand under his feet, arm around a firm, smooth waist. She reminded him so much of his ex-wife, the wonderful stillness preserved in those photographs that looked as if nothing could ever go wrong.
"Thank you for coming," said the old man halfheartedly. He was disappointed and impatient for her to leave. When she was gone he watched her move down the sidewalk, and from the distance she looked no different than the dozens of other girls cluttering the arrival of dusk. But he knew differently.
Later that night in front of his mirror the old man looked again at his clear reflection, then up through the imaginary, endless extension of the ceiling. He sighed a deep, heavy sigh and murmured, "You can't blame me for this. You left me with no choice. You left me with nothing." Then sunk his head into his chest and turned away from the glass.
That evening he decided to cancel the ad. The following morning he walked to the newspaper office and saw that the weather brought many more people out that usual. The old man never changed his route, so once again as he approached the university walls he came across the Chinese man who stood outside and played his two-string every spring and summer. He sounded terrible, and the old man thought that the so-called musician knew he sounded terrible. But that didn't stop him. Every day, weather permitting, the man opened his black case with a few wrinkled bills and some hard tossed coins to fool passersby into generous pity. The old man didn't know what tempted him to reach into his pocket—the awful music or his awareness that when the man's blunt, knobbed hands drew the bow, he was reminded of his own inadequacy. The Chinese man didn't hide his lack of talent, the fact that he produced abusive sounds. Did he want people to feel for his imperfection, feel bad that he pretended he was good? What made him, the old man thought, work so hard at mediocrity? Who would pity him? Who would pity me?
Those thoughts passed in and through his mind and drifted away when the music faded in the distance. Back in the apartment, the days resumed a monotonous hum until one day the shrill sound of the phone interrupted the silence that had settled like a blanket through the rooms. He recognized the voice. It was the girl whose sitting he had terminated abruptly.
"Hello," she said, apologized again, and could she not come back and sit for him once more, not for the money really, you understand, although that wouldn't hurt she said, but maybe this time it would turn out better. She'd read some things on proper posture.
The old man hated that she'd contacted him again. He'd clearly stated no questions, did not like to be bothered, liked to do things on his own terms. But he was tempted to try again. It was only when he saw these women that he'd been able to resume painting. He just needed the right one.
After a pause he agreed, and the day and time were arranged. When she arrived this time the old man was eager to get to work and didn't wait for her to come out of the bathroom before taking his usual place. She found him sitting half-hidden behind the screen, gesturing for her to sit. As she'd entered the apartment nothing about her struck him as terribly new. Same standard tight blouse, same flawless skin and hair that shone a healthy russet. Not a single mole or scar or otherwise disturbance that he could find.
He made a few agitated movements with the brush, desperately trying to make something of it. He asked her to shift, please, fold and unfold her arms, sweep her hair to the side. He walked around, his steps erratic. He clenched and unclenched his hands. The girl was visibly uncomfortable, but said nothing. She was probably questioning herself, the old man thought. Wasn't she beautiful enough? Wasn't she perfect for what he needed? Why couldn't he do something, anything, with what he saw? But the girl would never ask that.
"Is something wrong?" she said instead.
"I can't do this," the old man almost whispered.
"What is it this time?" The girl's poise shook slightly.
"Nothing. There's nothing." He took a breath. "Don't you understand? There is absolutely nothing wrong. You come in here and think that just because everyone else... and you expect me to... there's not one single scar, anywhere."
The girl looked down at her lap, then up again. She sat there without a sound as the old man seemed to pour himself out to her, to accuse and ask for understanding at the same time. He turned and walked into the bathroom, ashamed at his tirade, his lack of poise, realized his hands were two fists inside his pockets. But there wasn't anything more he could do. He was tired of searching in vain for what clearly wasn't there. He hoped she'd be gone by the time he came back out.
Encouraged by his absence, the girl wrapped the towel around her body and walked over to the old man's abandoned work. There was an outline that suggested form, but nothing more. She stood there, trying to see herself in the lines, but couldn't recognize anything familiar. She moved to a stack of paintings leaning along a wall beneath the window, the same one where the old man spent his hours, watching people passing back and forth. Where he did not need to hide his fingertips that rubbed against the damp, pink creases of his palm.
When he returned, he found the girl flipping through the paintings like old records.
"What are you doing?" he snapped.
"These aren't portraits. They're not pictures of women. What are these?" the girl asked, her voice trembling with curiosity and horror.
Every canvas showed a prominent dark growth or scar, or any other kind of aberration that glared like an angry eye and took up most of painting. In the background, the women that should have belonged to those marks were mere shades and shadows.
The old man didn't have time to explain. From the look on her face, he suspected that she understood all too well. But he wasn't sure if she was angry, upset, if anything at all. The girl dressed quickly and left the envelope on the table. At the click of the lock, the old man began to put his work away, vowed to himself to never pick it up again.
Subsequently, his days were spent in a cycle typical of his old age, a morning to night routine interrupted only by necessity. He let the mirror get dirty again, its surface cloudy with soap residue. It made his face and hands a bit more bearable as he shaved.
Some days had passed and the memory of the last girl was beginning to give him peace. He couldn't pick her out from the crowd outside his windows. It shocked him then when she rang the doorbell, insisted to see him. She said he wouldn't be disappointed, and he felt compelled to let her in.
As he opened the door she stepped through the opening. He watched her put down her bag and drop the shoulders of her summer dress, letting the light material crease about her ankles. When she turned her back slightly toward him, he noticed just below the shoulder line a small red mark. It curved like a closed eyelid. It was a perfect mark that still showed where her fingernail broke through the skin and pulled back the flesh. One drop of blood had dried and crusted over in a trail down to her lower back.
The old man realized that when the girl looked over her shoulder to him, she was waiting for his approval.
"Paint me," he thought he heard her say—he couldn't be certain, but it was enough.
The old man found himself walking over to the center of the room and pulling out the usual chair. In his mind he was already dipping the brush in crimson, pushing the tip against the white canvas.
Copyright © Andrei Guruianu 2008.