I went to Peter's after class. It wasn't pre-meditated. In fact, going to Peter's was the opposite of what I'd planned. I wanted to forget Peter entirely. I wanted to write him off as a learning experience and move on. But class hadn't gone particularly well. When I asked the first question on my lesson plan, all fifteen heads turned away.
"Wow," I said. "I wish you could've seen what I just saw."
I asked them to be honest. Who did the reading? Tanveer and Melanie raised their hands.
"Okay." I looked down at my desk. "I guess… you can go."
I waved at the door.
"Unless you want to watch me talk to Tanveer and Melanie for ninety minutes?" I held up my notes. "No, you can go. Use the time to do the reading you should've done for today. And the reading for next class, too. Tanveer, Melanie—sorry about this. Can everyone apologize to Tanveer and Melanie?"
Murmurs of apology filled the room. Tanveer grinned at his friends and pretended to be disappointed in them, too. Melanie shrank back and did her best to disappear, but not before shooting me a look of betrayal. I knew what she was thinking: How could I have already forgotten what it was like to be nineteen? I was thirty-five but looked younger. With the wrong haircut I might have been Melanie's older sister. If any of her professors were going to understand, it was me.
Everyone left in silence. I sat at my desk until they were gone. I was angry at them for not doing the work, then at myself for responding as I did, then at them again for putting me in the position to begin with. Running beneath that, though, was the adrenaline, my body electrified from the shock of my own actions. I'd never done anything like that before. There had never been any need. In my nine years at the university, the students always had the decency to lie. It wasn't until I was on the subway and considering whether I should email an apology to Melanie—the shock gone, a more familiar guilt in its place—that I recognized the window of time I now had.
Peter was, if nothing else, a series of routines clustered in the shape of a man. What appeared unstructured and free was in fact a reliable pattern of park strolls, short stops in his favorite cafes where he would linger, nibble and chat, and evening drinks at one of three bars. For a man who'd proudly never held a steady job he was remarkably easy to find. On Thursdays, he was in therapy from three to three-fifty, after which he'd buy a slice of babka from Moishe's and walk back through Tompkins Square Park, where he'd watch the dogs while the spirits he'd stirred up in therapy slowly settled back down. He returned home around four-thirty. That gave me an hour to myself.
We'd met the previous May, just under a year ago, at a gallery a few blocks from my apartment. I'd lived in New York for seventeen years and the East Village for six, but only technically. Between my teaching schedule and general personality, I didn't spend much time getting to know the neighborhood. What I did know, what I'd absorbed on my walks to and from the subway, was that everyone was having more fun than me and with much less effort. I wasn't sure I wanted their fun but I wanted more than what I had, so one night I did my own version of something radical and went for a late-night stroll on a Wednesday. The streets were full as always and there was plenty of pleasure being had, but nothing I saw was of any interest and that only depressed me further.
As I made my way back, I saw a gallery I hadn't noticed before. Probably it wasn't a gallery, just a space being used as one, and there was the chance that after tonight it would never be a gallery again. Through the large window, a small crowd chatted in groups of twos and threes. When I was a teenager in Maryland this was exactly how I imagined New York. Smart, attractive people talking about art and drinking wine on a school night. I pulled my jacket tighter around me and stepped inside. It was an older crowd, dressed well. I was both the younger sister and uncool mother and I realized how long it'd been since I stood in a room of adults.
I made a slow lap. Framed black and white photographs hung evenly around the room and I tried to look at them instead of fret over how I looked looking at them. I could teach fifteen unwilling teenagers how to write a villanelle but under the gaze of other adults I lost all confidence.
It was Peter's art, though at that point his name meant nothing to me. Half the photos were of quiet moments inside his apartment. It was, as I learned from his artist statement, a two-bedroom only a few blocks away, an old building where he'd been born and raised and continued to live. The other half was a series taken from his bedroom window over the previous thirty years, starting in 1988. A laundromat became a bookshop, which in turn became a pharmacy. A bar became a bar became a bar. Outfits changed and graffiti accumulated. All of it was framed by the narrow sill of his second-floor window. I got the gist: the march of time, inside and out. It was his apartment that caught my attention. An orange peel curled like a nest in the sink. His mother asleep in an armchair, her head in the cup of her hand. There was a living room lined with bookcases and then the same room from a different angle with tall boxes and large plastic bags. His photos from the window knew what they were; his photos around the house had no idea. On their own they were simple, even boring. Seen together they were a record of someone's life disappearing without their knowing, while they were still standing inside of it.
In the last few years I'd felt my own life eroding beneath me—I didn't have many friends and I wasn't writing; all I did was teach. The shape of each semester only confirmed my feelings. Just as I gained a sense of the students and the rhythms of how to teach them, they left, and a new group appeared. I had no past to build on and no control of the future, just the ground appearing as it needed to, again and again.
A woman said his name and I turned as if it were mine. He was in his late forties, clean-shaven and with a bit of gray above the ears. One of those men who aged well without effort. He wasn't classically good-looking, but I was drawn to how well he sat at the center of things, everyone here to see him and celebrate his success. Decades of photographs and all that had been lost or taken and he had found this solid ground. I had to know how. I stood with my back to his and contrived a moment where our elbows bumped, and when he turned he put a hand on my shoulder as if to steady us both. I congratulated him and left.
The following weeks I saw him everywhere. It was as if I'd conjured him. Just when I began to wonder where he'd pop up next, there he was, camera in hand, its thin leather strap wrapped up his forearm like tefillin. He was like a bird the way he moved outside the bounds of normal street traffic, changing directions without warning. He had an attentiveness that approached distraction because of all the things he was attending to. I never said anything, but I knew what he was looking for. I was looking for the same thing.
Then, in July, I was in the park, waiting for a breeze in the heat of the afternoon. I watched the dogs lunging at each other in the thin sand as the sun dropped between the trees. I heard a click and turned to find a lens a few feet from my face. I was ready to tsk the man and shame him for not asking when he lowered the camera and I saw it was him.
"Could you look back that way?" He pointed to the sun. A flush rose to my throat. Had he remembered? No, he was simply this way. I turned to the sun and imagined myself through his lens. The shutter clicked again and again.
"Can I see?" I asked when he was done.
"It's film," he said, showing me the back of the camera.
"Oh, right. Of course."
"I can show you once they're developed, if you'd like."
Then he was gone, my number in his pocket. I couldn't believe it. I was inside his camera. Inside his pocket. Even if he never called, I'd be there.
I got off the subway and went straight to his apartment. I buzzed his upstairs neighbor, a new tenant who didn't know any better, and told her I'd locked myself out. Then I found his spare in the spider plant on the landing. I started in the living room, surprised by how little I felt. I took the few slim books of poetry I'd lent him months ago. Then, in the kitchen, two Tupperware—nice ones with the snap-on lids. A squeeze bottle of moisturizer from the bathroom. I put it all in my bag.
I don't remember what he said when he first called or what we talked about when we met in the park. What's clearer in my memory is after the park, arriving at his apartment, and the casual way he led me to his bedroom. I was startled by the boldness of it, and startled further by how I responded, mirroring his nonchalance with my own until I was completely ready and that much more confused when he opened the door to reveal a series of curtains, behind which was his darkroom. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a contact sheet drying in the rack. He had already circled two of the images.
"Which one do you like?" he asked.
I almost didn't recognize myself. A woman stood in the park turning between the light and the lens. She looked capable, determined. The glint in her eyes gave her a confidence I never saw in the mirror. Maybe she and I had the same questions, but she was closer to the answers, or working harder to find them. I wanted to know what she knew.
I pointed to one he hadn't circled.
"That one," I said.
I watched as he enlarged my image. He pushed the paper into the tray and the fog around me thinned until my edges were clear and firm. I looked down at the woman. Then I kissed him. The photo lay in the tray and continued to develop and by the time we were done it was black.
This wasn't like me. I didn't date. I didn't like what I had to say and if my date did, I disliked them for it. Peter was different. He didn't ask if I was writing or what I had written. He talked to me as if we were the same, as if I too had dedicated my life to the making of things, and the more we talked the more the parts of myself I'd been missing rose to the surface.
I liked his camera, too. I liked the way it concentrated his focus and blocked out everything not-me. My skin prickled and warmed as he focused the lens.
"Have you ever sat for anyone before?" he asked.
"Sat for anyone?"
"For another photographer.
"Oh, no," I said. "You're the first."
"You're good at it. Most people think they have to do something—you know, pose or make a face. But I want you how you are. Like how you're looking at me now. If I want to take your picture, it's because I like you how you are."
He lifted his camera. I wanted to be good and I was glad that I was. Nothing I'm interested in is effortless—not teaching or writing, not even being with other people—and I'd convinced myself that effort and value were the same. To naturally be what Peter wanted was like unclenching my jaw for the first time in years.
In his photos I found myself at new angles. From behind with my hand massaging my neck, my ear like a shell in the dark net of my hair. Or on his front steps, knees high, my legs beautiful in the light. It'd been a long time since anyone had seen me as something other than a teacher or friend.
"I don't trust it," Allison said. We were out for drinks at the one worthwhile bar near school, a week after I'd started sleeping with Peter.
"You know…" She wagged a hand at the space between us.
"Yeah, but you don't trust anything."
"Show me something worth trusting," she said. "And I'll show you… I don't know, you get it." She finished her gin and tonic and ordered another.
Allison was the only colleague I'd carried outside the building. She'd been at the university ten years longer than me and was still only guaranteed two classes a semester. I had a similar contract. On my lowest days I imagined us re-enacting Grey Gardens in the windowless office we shared with an ever-changing rotation of three others, both of us warning signs for the young adjuncts passing through. But while I used my time fretting over how to better my lot in life, Allison had accepted her station and spent her days exploiting the absence of any competent oversight. When, during my first semester, I told her I was being observed, she told me to tell the students to raise their hands for every question I asked so it looked like I had one-hundred-percent participation: right hand when they knew the answer, left hand when they didn't.
"What if no one knows the answer?" I asked.
"Please, it's creative writing," she said. "There is no answer. Gotta get those hands up, though."
Despite her claim, I'd seen her more than once bent over a mess of double-spaced pages, scrawling CUT! or WHY? with a sharpie.
"I'm glad you're happy, of course," she said, fishing the lime from her drink. "Don't let me ruin that."
"All I'm saying is be careful. There's only one numero uno. And numero uno is the only uno you can count on."
As the weeks passed, I spent more time at Peter's. Between my teaching schedule and his lack of one it was easy to arrive Thursday night and not leave until mid-day Sunday. In the morning he left early with his camera and a little messenger bag, and didn't return until after noon. I would grade papers or read. I even started doing a little writing of my own.
It was inspiring to be in his space and around someone who worked as much as he did. I envied the conveniences of photography and that it required spending the day walking and looking around. To get any writing done I had to shut myself inside and shun all others. Even an open window was too much distraction because it made me want to go out.
Once, on the bus, I opened my notebook to write a few lines about a mother and child across from me and I realized my notebook functioned the same as his camera: I was capturing whatever interested me, then carrying it home to develop it in the dark. The difference was my subjects didn't know. I was too much a coward for that. It was one thing to write about someone—a stranger, a loved one—and fear they'd recognized their portrait in the distant, imagined future where the story was published. It was another thing to make them sit for that portrait. I wondered if Peter worried about permission, or how it would feel for any of his subjects to one day discover themselves on a gallery wall. Despite my envy I knew that if, in order to write, I had to inform whoever served as inspiration, I'd never write another word.
When he was finished, he'd pick me up for lunch and then we'd sit in the park or get a drink. Sometimes we saw a movie. I enjoyed falling into his routine. I especially liked walking around the Village together; it felt like dating the mayor. Everyone knew him, if not his name then his camera, and wherever we went we were met with a circle of small talk, everyone nameless but familiar, every face or set of hands emerging just long enough to exchange pleasantries before receding.
One evening we were drinking wine at a small table outside a bar near his apartment. It was October, I remember, because it had only recently become too cold to drink outside, and the neighborhood was still in denial and unwilling to concede. We knew once we went in we'd have to stay there all winter, so we turned up our collars and pretended it was June.
Peter's camera was in his lap, like always. When the light changed or a cloud drifted over the sun, he adjusted the settings. He did this without looking, not to show off but to be courteous and remain part of the conversation, though I always knew what was going on under the table. Teaching had made me an expert in identifying who was paying attention and who was only pretending. His courtesy had limits, of course, and he occasionally interrupted me or himself by raising the camera and snapping a photo of some passerby, who because of how we were sitting I only ever caught the back half of. I was always impressed no one snapped back or chastised him for the intrusion. He told me he'd developed a good sense of who he could take a photo of and who he couldn't. My theory was he had a nice smile.
It was because of all the intermittent camera lifting that I didn't notice he was only pretending to take a photo until I heard the voice behind me.
"No pictures! Please! I'm hideous!"
I turned and saw a woman striking dramatic poses while she giggled her mock-protest. She looked about my age and had a brown bob and a long periwinkle coat. There was something familiar about her but I wasn't sure if it was because I'd seen her around the neighborhood or if she was simply beautiful in that specific way so many women in the Village were. Before I could decide, she pulled up a chair.
It was quickly clear she and Peter had known each other a while. They fell into an easy rapport of overlapping chat, as if she had just returned from the bathroom and picked up where they left off. When I asked how they knew each other they traded glances and laughed. Peter explained they'd been regulars at all the same places for years.
"Now that I think about it, I don't remember meeting you," she said. "You were always just there."
"I don't think I even have your number," Peter said.
"Why would you? You know where to find me."
"Ten years ago, sure. But now? I'd have to wait for Ellen to have a show."
They looked good together. When I imagined our table through the eyes of a passerby, I was the one who didn't belong. A part of me thought he'd been less distracted by his camera since she arrived but I knew that wasn't true. When he cut her off to take a photo, she turned to me in solidarity.
"Isn't it exhausting? Always this thing in his hand, like a second cock. I used to think it was only photographers, but it's all of them. I was seeing this sculptor—"
"Who?" Peter asked, lowering his camera.
"Mischa's a sculptor?"
"Mixed media, whatever. Did I tell you this story?"
"I don't know. Tell it again. Tell her."
"I'd been seeing this guy a little while, and one morning he says he wants to make me breakfast in bed. He thinks it's American, breakfast in bed—"
"They don't have breakfast in bed in Ukraine?" Peter asked, lowering his camera again.
"I don't know, shut up. Anyway, I'm lying there and I'm getting hungry, so I go to the kitchen and there's all my jars—I have everything in jars, my beans and grains and cereal—you only have to find nibble marks in the plastic one time—and anyway, I come in and see all my jars on the counter stacked in this big pyramid, and Mischa's not even cooking, he's just moving the jars.
"Oh, right," Peter said, remembering. "Keep going."
"So I ask him what he's doing and he says he emptied the cabinet to get the pancake mix in the back, and when he looked down he saw all the jars and the colors of the foods, and apparently the sun was hitting them in this certain way, so he just kept going."
"Going?" I asked.
"Building," she said. She held out her hands to show me how big. "The worst part is he wouldn't even let me cook. We ordered in. He wanted to finish it, and then he had to go home and get his camera so he could document it."
"The point is," she went on, "you'd think it's just photographers. Maybe writers, all their little notes. Claire's like that. Have you met Claire? You have to introduce her to Claire. But really it's all of them. I mean a sculptor, come on."
"Mixed media," Peter said.
"You have to be careful," she told me. "They're all the same."
That was when I remembered her. I'd woken up at Peter's in the middle of the night and made myself a snack. I walked aimlessly as I ate, until I found myself lifting the lid off an old box of photos. She was topless against a bare backdrop and the light fell in stripes across her breasts, as if through a slatted blind. I remember being struck by how casual the image felt in contrast to the obvious construct of the set. There was nothing erotic or self-conscious about it. She looked as natural as she did now, sitting across from me in her periwinkle coat. Peter had captured something, clearly, for me to recall it from a five-by-nine print I'd seen briefly in the middle of the night. Instead of undermining the explanation of their relationship, making this connection only reinforced it. It was suddenly obvious that taking someone's photograph, naked or not, was not a big deal to Peter. It was what he did.
They were joking about another regular from the circles they traveled in when I heard a scraping halt on the sidewalk and a boy's voice said, "Professor Beale?"
Everyone on the street joined me in turning to see the boy pop his skateboard into his hand. I had taught him a few years earlier; I remembered his face but not his name. As he walked over, I scrambled to bring Professor Beale to the surface.
"Professor Beale! You remember me? Kevin." He pointed to himself.
"Kevin, of course. How are you?"
I was now glad Peter's friend had stayed. It gave Peter something to do. I didn't want to introduce him to Kevin and have this old part of my life engulf the new one just as it was beginning to blossom.
Kevin had an easy, charming way about him, and I remembered liking him as a student for the same reason. As we talked his eyes drifted to Peter and, more so, to Peter's friend. She had told me her name, I was sure of it, but it had hit me like fog through a screen door.
I asked where Kevin was heading, hoping it might remind him to continue heading there, and he told me he was going home. By now Peter had given up pretending to have his own conversation and asked Kevin where he lived.
"Tenth and B."
"A neighbor!" Peter's friend said, delighted.
As they mapped their shared geography, the little space left between them quickly shrank. They were all born and raised within an eighth of a mile of where we currently were. Kevin's parents, I realized, were likely Peter's age, maybe even people Peter knew. I saw how the two of them were at opposite ends of the same life, and despite my having already invested multiple office hours in Kevin's growth and education Peter had much more to offer. Peter's friend, meanwhile, sat happily beneath the gaze of this new young man, neither encouraging nor discouraging his stare, until she suggested Peter take his photo.
"With your board," she said. "Pose him with his board."
Peter directed Kevin into the light and she leaned across the table to me.
"What'd I say? A second cock. Camera, skateboard, it's all the same."
I was on the outside again, the least connected of the four. I couldn't offer Peter's easy cool or his friend's sexual comfort. I wasn't Kevin's teacher but I couldn't be his friend. I couldn't see him as an adult at all, which he was, but he never would be to me.
"Bye, Professor," Kevin called as he left.
"Professor," Peter's friend said, as if she'd discovered Kevin's pet name for me. "I love a title. So fun."
Peter aimed his camera at us and took the last shot on the roll. Regardless of what he'd say—his love of the darkroom, the romance of the fumes—he liked taking photos more than developing them. He had hundreds of faces and scenes still tightly wound inside their canisters, where they'd sit perhaps forever.
In the front bedroom I found my green blouse stuffed deep in a drawer. A pair of my underwear beside it. I was happy to have these things back but they were not why I had come. I continued my search, lifting objects and opening drawers and letting my fingers lead me through his home.
It started on an afternoon during winter break, which meant I didn't know what day it was and didn't care. We'd had sex and I was lying naked on top of the sheets. He left the room and I didn't hear him come back. When I lifted my head, he was sitting at the foot of the bed with a sketchpad on his thigh.
"You draw, too?" I asked.
"I used to."
"Looks like you still do."
He told me he'd been drawing since he was a child and that he'd gone to school for painting but when he discovered pastels it became a small obsession. For him the chalk caught both the look of a thing and how it felt to look at it. He began to see everything in terms of how he'd draw it, every teacup and billowing curtain, and he couldn't turn it off, the endless stream of images passing him faster than he could capture them. He started taking photos to hold it all down.
I half-listened. I watched his gaze move between me and the paper. I could feel his focus and his eyes like hands slowly traveling. It was different than a photo, more patient and gentle. He wasn't taking me; he was making me all over again.
I filled to the edge, so aware of where I stopped and started. Then I looked back and sunk into happiness and thought about nothing at all.
When he was finished, he held it up. He had picked the single least flattering view you could pick of a person, a nude from below, my body an assortment of shapes and foreshortened from the angle. He'd found the narrow slits of my nostrils and the large rocks of my knees. My breasts were flat and wide from how I lay on my back. It was a view no one was supposed to have, including myself, and he'd drawn it in vibrant, chalky colors.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"It's good," I said. "Maybe next time I can be sitting up."
"No, this is perfect."
I laughed. "This? Why this?"
"It's natural," he said. "It's how you are when no one's watching. You're the most yourself."
I looked back at what he'd drawn. This was not how I saw myself. In fact, it was the exact opposite of how I saw myself and I bristled at the idea I was at my truest when seen from the ugliest angle. I thought about the photos he'd taken of me in the park.
"So you're saying this is how it feels when you look at me?" I asked.
"No," he said. "It's how it looks when you're so comfortable you don't care."
When the spring semester started, I had to drag myself back. I was writing again—first at Peter's and then slowly at home—and it lifted a veil off the world. I didn't want to go to school. I wanted to go out. Everything was new and worth noticing and my attention was drawn in eleven directions at once. One morning I missed my stop because there was a man with an old tear in his jeans that exposed a scar on his knee, and I drifted for miles thinking about which stories people could see when they looked at me.
Instead of updating my syllabus I'd spent the break with Peter, and now I was stuck with a semester of lesson plans I'd already taught multiple times. It should have been good—the work done, more time for myself—but now that I had less to prepare I wasn't preparing at all and my students responded in kind.
One day I saw a student sleeping in the last row, his head tilted back but the rest of him upright and classroom-ready. I asked them all a question and while another student answered I stared at the sleeping boy, hoping he might feel me on some extra-sensory level. Then it happened. He opened his eyes and the first thing he saw was me staring back at him. We looked at each other, neither of us moving or speaking, and something about his gaze made me feel like I was the one who'd been caught. Then he closed his eyes and went back to sleep. I actually laughed out loud. I wanted to both give him an A and kick him out forever.
"What'd I say?" asked the student who'd been answering my question.
"Nothing," I said. "I'm sorry, keep going."
But I wasn't listening. I was thinking about what had happened and how I might write about it later. The sleeping boy, our locked eyes, the shifting power between us—I was already home and alone and arranging the words when the student finished her answer and I had to ask her to repeat it.
It took about a month for the apathy I felt toward teaching to turn into a light depression. I didn't know what to do. I asked Allison for advice.
"Want me to take care of it?" she asked.
I asked her what she meant.
"You know, shake ‘em up a bit. We can swap classes for the week. I can make them realize how good they have it."
"And I teach yours?"
"Why not? I'll dress like a nun, get a ruler. The whole thing."
She smacked her palm and grinned like a cartoon witch.
"Most of these kids could use a little extra law and order," she said. "I told you about the class I'm subbing? Some adjunct who's sick. She has them call her by her first name. So I introduce myself and a kid asks me my first name. Like he's entitled to it. Can you believe that? They shouldn't even need to know my last name. I'm Professor, end of intro."
"I guess it's more friendly," I said.
"We're not friends. I'm his teacher. You want to be my friend? Buy me a drink. You can't? Because you're nineteen? Then maybe we shouldn't be friends."
By now Peter was drawing me after sex nearly every time. He kept the pastels in his nightstand and once we finished he grabbed the box and his sketchbook and moved to a chair at the end of the bed. It was as if his drawing me were the final position. And instead of collapsing and letting the pleasure settle in, I found myself performing the comfort of a woman who wasn't being watched while he scribbled at my feet.
I didn't like it, but I liked the way he liked it. He was excited by the drawing. Sometimes after he finished, he'd want to go again, and I was never sure if he was turned on by his drawing, or by staring at my body, or if he wanted to have sex for the inspiration that came after. What mattered was both of us had rediscovered something we loved, and that we had been each other's way back. That's what I liked. The drawings themselves were a nightmare.
"There's a show," he said.
"What show?" I was on my back with my head on my forearm, my armpit wide beside my face. I couldn't see him but I could hear the chalk.
"A friend of mine. And Laura's actually."
"You met her at the café. It's a salon, I think. They're accepting submissions. He asked me if I had anything."
"Do you have anything?"
"I thought I'd send him these."
I sat up. "Send him what?"
"Hey, come on. This was good, lie down."
"You want to put these in a show?"
"The better ones, yeah. If he'll have them."
"You can't show these to other people. I don't even like showing you."
"You're not showing me anything, that's the whole point. It's how you are."
I started to look for my clothes.
"What's your problem?" he asked. "You didn't care about the photos."
"The photos weren't of my asshole."
He looked at his drawing.
"No one will even know it's you."
"Peter, this shouldn't need to be a conversation."
"It wasn't supposed to be."
I reached for the sketchbook. He lurched away.
"Stop it," he said. "I thought you'd be excited. These are good. I thought you liked them."
"That's me," I said. I pointed to the open page. "That's me. You can't do that."
"It's not you," he said. "It's a drawing. And I'm the one who made it. So it's mine."
The salon ran six weeks, in which time I stopped seeing Peter and did my best to avoid anywhere he might be. It didn't matter. I was exposed wherever I went. When the barista looked at me, I knew he'd seen the drawings. When I made eye contact with a woman walking her dog, I knew. Even my students had seen them. The emptiness in their eyes was only a mask for their ridicule and disgust. I wanted to disappear.
Then, about a month ago, I was on a long overdue grocery run when I caught a glimpse of myself in a window. Two of me on my back and one on my side. Individually they might've been abstract enough for you to not know what they were. Together they were unmistakable. The bottoms of my feet were prominent in each, as well as my knees and thighs. My hips and breasts sat in retreating layers like mountain ranges, my chin and nose in the distance. For the two on my back, my vagina was a cluttered stripe of chalk. On my side, my ass took the spotlight.
I went inside. At the far end of the gallery there were two men quietly discussing a sculpture. I worried they'd look over and recognize me as muse, but now, facing the drawings, it was clear the only way to make the connection was if you lay on the ground between my legs and checked that the nostrils matched.
A small placard below the frames announced Peter's name and the title of each piece. Untitled Portrait #1-3. He'd stripped me of everything, even language, my bodies numbered and anonymous. But they weren't portraits. They were a still life of what Peter had taken. Standing there, staring at myself, I felt complicit in my own capture. I looked around again. The men had moved on to a large watercolor of a mosque. No one was supposed to have this view of somebody's body without their permission and now Peter was forcing me to have it in public.
I continued my rotation around the gallery, waiting for the men to reach my drawings, but either they'd already seen them or they didn't care because they soon left without looking.
It was only on my way out that I noticed a small blue sticker next to certain placards. Peter hadn't simply put me on display, he'd put me up for sale. Suddenly my asshole had both artistic merit and financial value, but only for him. How much exactly were these angles of me worth? I asked the tattooed girl working the desk to fetch the guide. There were no stickers below my drawings; maybe I could buy them and be done with it. But I didn't want to give Peter the satisfaction, let alone the money. I wondered who'd picked my price. Whatever it was, however large or small a sum, I knew I'd forever see myself in relation to that number. I left before the girl returned.
As the days passed, I tried to forget Peter and the drawings. No one would recognize me, and the salon would soon be over. But I couldn't shake the blue stickers. In the gallery I made little impact; visitors looked for four seconds and carried on, if they even looked at all. In a home I became a lasting part of someone's life, an object they'd own forever. I didn't know what to do. There was nothing to do. I did my best to put it from my mind.
I continued searching his apartment until there was only one room left. I parted the curtains and felt for the switch, which had been taped over long ago. I flicked it on. Under the white light the room was sapped of any remaining intrigue. There were stacks of yellowed prints curled at the edges, film canisters crushed on the floor. The eye-opening smell of ammonia, somehow stronger in the light.
I found his sketchbook and flipped through to make sure nothing else was missing. Me on my side, me on my stomach—dozens of me in different positions, displayed as if in a butcher's front window. I had what I'd come for and was ready to leave when I saw the three frames from the gallery stacked beside a box of prints. I filled with a strange relief. No one had wanted them. Only Peter.
I laid them on a table and gave them another look. I couldn't see myself at the angle he'd drawn me, but I could feel it in pieces: the loose skin on my knees, the soft curve of my back. Alone with them, I almost liked the drawings. Then I heard his front door open and I turned off the light.
The way I see it now, back home with my notebook and the curtains drawn, is with Peter coming inside. He takes off his shoes and lies on the couch, unaware of anything amiss. He finds a pencil and draws his toes on the back of a small flyer that's fallen from a magazine. A block away Kevin swerves to avoid a motorized delivery bike and the two riders exchange curses over their shoulders. Peter's friend—nameless, topless, striped in light—tilts her head back and laughs, her mouth wide and teeth perfect, and a man buys her a beer she won't drink. Mischa repots a succulent unsuccessfully. Allison washes the dishes while arguing on speakerphone with her internet provider, telling them she'll do it herself if she has to, she'll drill a hole in the wall, she doesn't care, you think you're the only ones who know how to rig a cable? My students sleep. My students eat. My students look at their phones. Peter determines there's nothing inspiring about his toes or the lines coming out of his pencil so he puts on his socks, still warm from his walk home, and then his shoes, and then his camera, and goes back outside.
I wait in the dark. When I'm sure he's gone I turn on the lights and remove the drawings from their frames. I submerge them in his developing tray, one after another, and the loose chalk dust lifts off the page. I watch the liquid turn murky and brown. Then I search his prints until I find her, that sun-lit woman in the park, and I set her upright in a frame.
Title image "Captured" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2022.