Authors: Tish Cohen
Tags: #Fiction, #General
The smell of asphalt and dandelions and the last days of school made the air tingle with summer promise: fireflies in applesauce jars, bare toes in the sand at Kew Beach, and leisurely decisions at the icecream truck about whether or not to chocolate dip. The afternoon heat had stilled the city. Other than the sprinkler clucking and whirring from across the road and the
Young and the Restless
theme song wafting from the window next door, the entire neighborhood of Cabbagetown had fallen silent.
She was meant to wait inside. But when the sun finally burst through the salt-stained curtain of winter, you took notice. Even at eight years old, you knew to plunk yourself in its lap, wrap its edges around your waist like a favorite sweatshirt you left on the streetcar and thought you might never see again.
Sitting on the driveway with dirty-blond hair covering her face, Delilah Blue Lovett played a game with herself—held a shard of broken glass over her thighs until she couldn’t stand the pain, then checked to see if she’d blistered.
Ian grunted a warning from the front porch. “No more yelping. That neighbor lady of yours will start up again.”
They both watched as Mrs. Del Vecchio’s plaid curtains snapped shut.
“When’s my dad coming?”
Ian appeared to be wearing the same ripped T-shirt and expensive-looking black jeans he arrived in the day before, when her mother introduced her new friend as a “mixedmedia artist with talent that is, honestly, nothing short of genius.” Delilah didn’t care what sort of skill the man had. He’d spent so much time in the Victorian house’s only bathroom that morning—shaving his already bald head to perfection—that she’d had to sneak out back in her nightgown and pee behind the cedars. He pried the cap off a bottle of beer. “Not until five.”
“Can we call him to come get me now?”
“No way. Your mother said you’re hers until five.”
“But she’s not here.”
“Hey, it’s no picnic for me either. You don’t see me whining.”
She climbed up off the pavement, tossed her glass shard into the bushes, and wandered to the road’s edge. “I wish I could see his house from here. I wish I could fly.”
He sucked from the bottle and swallowed. “Don’t waste your time wishing, kid. You’ll never have the goddamn wings.”
It irked her.
Delilah raced up and onto the porch, through the smell of beer, and up to her room. When she came back down she was wearing, over her T-shirt, the sparkly wire wings from an old fairy costume.
She rummaged through the crawlspace beneath the back porch and emerged with an armload of broken bricks, which she toppled onto the driveway before piling them up into a messy wall two bricks deep. Satisfied with her base, she found a long plank of wood and propped it against the buttress like a ramp, all the while conscious of the weightlessness and movement of the wings on her back.
After hopping on her squeaky red bike, Delilah coasted out onto the driveway and wound a slow circle around the makeshift ramp. The wings were fluttering now; she could feel them.
Ian laughed. “It’ll never work.”
Delilah gripped her handlebars, stood up, and pumped her pedals as hard as she could. Her circle widened as she raced around and around the driveway, picking up speed, wings flapping behind her in the hot breeze, bike rocking from side to side from her effort. The back tire skidded out on a few of her turns. Once the sun got in her eyes and she nearly lost control of the bike.
“Be careful,” said Ian.
She whizzed past. At the end of the driveway, she turned sharp and raced back toward the bottom of the ramp. The board buckled and thumped under the weight of her tires.
Then nothing but silence as the bike sailed into the air. As if all of the city had stopped, held its breath. No roaring bus engines, no keening cicadas, no honking cabbies. Even
Delilah herself seemed to be frozen in time, standing up on her pedals, whitened fists gripping the handlebars, her face euphoric. Proud.
“Look!” shouted Delilah as Ian started off the porch toward her. “I’m flying!”
The only thing that stood between Lila’s naked body and twenty-seven art students was a stiff brown robe that reeked of every petrified model that had come before her. The freshman boys were the worst, she’d been warned, particularly during the first term. They slumped behind easels and art boards, eyelids drooping with the malaise of seasoned artistes, but the moment you dropped the robe, they were horny little ten-year-olds, hunkered down behind the sofa ogling a tattered copy of
Until this morning, it had seemed the perfect plan: earn a fine arts degree—an utter waste of paper as far as her father was concerned, and an even greater waste of money—through osmosis by memorizing every word that falls off the professor’s tongue while a roomful of students at L.A. Arts scrutinizes and interprets her every inflamed hair follicle,
every peeling fingernail, every pore, every scab; then hurry off to reenact the entire lecture in the dirt-floored cellar back home. The paychecks would be paltry, but it wasn’t as if she had mouths to feed or rent to pay. She needed enough to keep her in oil paint and canvas, maybe even a pair of boots that weren’t covered in childish doodles.
Lila had not, she now realized, in a dizzying show of poor timing, given enough thought to the absoluteness of her scheme. She’d prepared herself for the exposure of body parts customarily kept under wraps, but hadn’t delegated a moment’s consideration to her feet. Now, standing on the dirty floor, without the weight of her boots to tether her delicate frame to the ground, she felt so feathery light it was terrifying. As if her bones were made of balsa wood. As if, were the entire class to blow hard enough, she might be swept up and out the window.
A student with razored bangs and a thrift-store blazer shot Lila a predatory grin. She pulled the robe tighter, horrified to find his eyes fixed on her chest. She gave him the finger but not before her heart came loose and snapped against her ribs like a wet towel, taking with it any bit of resolve she’d mustered.
It was a terrible plan.
What had she been thinking? No dream was worth this. There were people perfectly happy working at In-N-Out and babyGap and Rodney’s Liquor. She could be a barista. Anything. Normal people did not show their tits to achieve their career goals. Lila glanced at the studio door. The professor hadn’t arrived yet; she could go home and rethink things. Come up with a better strategy—one that shrouded her in opaque layers from ankle to chin.
“You must be the new model.” A tall male, an older student, stood in front of her, arborescent and congested in his plaid shirt and low-slung jeans, with messy brown hair quivering under the overhead vent. Rectangular black glasses slipped low on his nose and he nudged them up with a pinkie finger. He wasn’t appealing at first glance. But his mouth saved him, wide and uptilted at the edges as it was. It gave him a certain look. Knowing and careful. Jaded. Amused.
“I’m Adam Harding.” He sniffed with great importance, then undid his authority by wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “The TA here. So if you have any questions or whatever.”
The model’s area was hard to miss, raised as it was on a wobbly plywood platform. The wall directly behind the dais was gussied up with ornate millwork and crown molding. It was fixed with a towel bar, two rusty pulleys, and a long rope, obviously acrobatic paraphernalia for models to use in striking atypical poses. There was a Louis XIV chair done up in faded velvet, a circular platform that could spin the model like a lazy Susan, and a red plastic milk crate stocked with different-colored linens, fake flowers, an antique bowling pin, and a few pieces of plastic fruit dented from years of use. Lila tucked long, coppery hair behind her ears and shrugged. “I guess this is the place.”
“It’s where the magic happens.” His eyes sparkled with something resembling innuendo. Her disgust must have been obvious because he attached himself to her elbow. “God, did that sound dirty?”
She pulled away. “It did, kind of.”
“I meant art-wise. You know, where creation begins and
all that. Have you done this before? You look on the young side.”
She stared down at her feet, which had taken on a sickly blue pallor in the frigid airconditioning. Fiona, the gray-haired, kimono-wearing model who had tried to befriend her in the office a few days prior, had asked Lila to go for coffee so she could fill her in about the job. Uneasy about having a tête-à-tête with someone she barely knew, Lila claimed to have another commitment. Fiona had left her with a warning: You’re never modeling for the first time. Not even the first time.
To Adam, Lila said, “I’m twenty and yes. I’ve modeled tons. Down in Laguna. And the greater Laguna area.”
He nodded his approval, then pulled a bottle of NyQuil from his pocket, uncapped it, and sucked it back. After inhaling what must have been half the bottle, he burped softly into his hand. “In case you’re worried, no one audits classes here. No spectators.”
Was he kidding? It was the first thing she’d researched—whether she could sit in on classes as an observer. Had the answer been different, she’d be fully clothed right now. “Good.”
“I’m moving to New York as soon as I graduate next spring. Much better place to make it as an artist.”
He was interfering with her exit plans. If this went on much longer the professor might arrive and blow her chance. “Cool.”
Adam began to tug on the ropes and pick up the props one by one, tossing each in the air and returning it to its rightful bin as he explained that she should make use of the trappings as she saw fit. As if to reinforce the sturdiness of
his setup, he leaned down on the chair’s seat and gave it a good shake before plopping down on it. She didn’t like the feel of his eyes searching her narrow chin, her cheeks, her brow. “What?”
He stared a bit longer, taking in her thin skin maybe, the circles beneath her eyes, or the reddish dye in her messy layers, before looking away. “Nothing.”
Liar. Something about her had struck him, she could tell. It made her hate him. It made her want to run. She moved toward her backpack.
A sharp voice called out, “Welcome to Life Drawing 101, people.”
The professor breezed in with an armful of books and paintbrushes. He dropped the load onto his desk and turned to face the class. He was more mosquito than man, with jutted elbows and hunched shoulders that careened toward his lowered head in such a menacing slope his nose could end only in a stinger. “My name is Julian Lichtenstein. Yes,
Lichtenstein. Roy was my second cousin.” Displeased by the excited whispers that spread across the class, he barked, “My celebrated cousin may have found star status with cartoonish spoofs that might better have graced the walls of a child’s clubhouse than the Museum of Modern Art, but you’ll find I do not subscribe to his style. Fame, in my opinion, is a sorry rascal, a fraudulent measure of an artist’s place in the world.”
Lila stood up taller. Fame was something she craved more than life itself. Desire bubbled up her esophagus and burned the back of her throat. To have her work dissected by critics, bringing rise to comments like “stealthy,” “astringent,”
and “absolute.” Not because she deserved it. Not because she needed the flashing cameras of the paparazzi. Not because restaurant owners might lead her to a special table near the back where an appropriate hush would fall over the other diners as they realized whom they had as a neighbor. No. While these things had their appeal, what Lila really wanted was for Elisabeth to see her daughter’s face in
magazine one day and say to herself, “My God. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
“Mister Lichtenstein is something of a tongue-cramper,” the professor continued. “Feel free to call me Lichty.”
Lila didn’t have time for nicknames. The man was blocking her path to the door.
Her father had made his tuition-paying stance perfectly clear years ago. A business degree was a worthy pursuit Victor Mack was willing to fund. After all, if she worked hard,
hard, she too might—if she got lucky—grow up to sell articulated human skeletons, paper gowns with plastic belts that fell off, and gynecological stirrups that didn’t need to be cloaked in oven mitts to hospitals and medical schools as he did. An art degree, on the other hand, was designation without a purpose; the supernumerary nipple of post–secondary education.
So far, hers had been a profitless pursuit. Not only did drawing and painting leave her with little time for such homely activities as part-time jobs to accumulate college funds, but her severe self-censure meant that most of her creations did not survive the emotional crash that came once the trance of artistry faded, when the dirt beneath her feet grew damp and cold, and the bulb strung from the rafters revealed fatal errors in her work.
Her pieces were never as good as she imagined them, never lived up to her intentions. The moment she stooped to retrieve a dropped pencil, her subjects’ eyebrows, noses, and ears scuttled about and realigned themselves. When she paused to sneeze, elbows crooked at peculiar angles. In a blink of an eye, perfectly rendered hands wizened and curled into spiky appendages that could only resemble hoof picks.
As such, most of her works were issued the ultimate punishment. Graphite on paper received death by ferocious crumpling. Acrylic on foil was finger-clawed beyond recognition. Nasty ends, both. But it was oil on canvas that faced the most savage decree by far: death by Swiss Army knife.
As it stood, she had very little to show for her hours of labor. For now,
would have to wait.
Lichty’s mustache twitched as he looked over his students, ranging from a pair of sun-scarred surf types to a navy-haired girl whispering into a cell phone. If, over the summer, the man had dreamed of discovering a Rembrandt or a Gauguin in this year’s crop of freshmen, that dream had just crumbled to dust like a fallen watercolor patty. He sighed and slipped behind his desk.
Now. She could bolt. Two seconds, maybe three, and she’d be gone.
Lichty instructed the students to tape drawing paper to mason board and pull out the graphite pencil sets and pliable erasers from the recommended supplies list. Just as Lila scooped up her backpack from the floor beneath the blackboard and started around him, he asked, “Where are you going, Model?”
“I was just…”
“And why aren’t you Georgie Ketonis?”
In a different situation, she might have had a clever answer. Something like, “You’ll have to take that up with a higher source,” or “My boyfriend asks me that all the time.” Instead, she scratched her nose. “I’m Lila Mack.”
“I specifically asked for Georgie today.”
“I was just given a classroom and told to change.”
He wiped imaginary bangs off his face. “Any tattoos?”
She shook her head.
“Fashionable bikini waxes? I insist models be in their natural human state.”
This was getting far too gynecological for her taste. She muttered, “How about we do a pap smear?” It came out louder than intended, and a few nearby students giggled in shocked delight.
Lichty looked at her sharply. “What did you say, Miss Mack?”
It was far too early in her career to make enemies in high places. “Nothing. I’m in a natural state.”
He spun around. “Good. You’ll do for now. Get paper taped to boards, people. We’ll be paying particular attention to highlights today. No hard edges; you’ll see the body is made up of shadow and light, not the blackened outlines of a coloring book. I consider myself to be a classicist, a strict disciplinarian. You’ll learn to do it right before you go Warhol on me.”
Lila’s theory exactly. It wasn’t until she’d learned skeletal structure that she allowed herself to draw muscles. And it wasn’t until she understood muscles that she allowed herself to draw flesh.
She let her bag drop to the floor.
“It is in this class you will finally learn to see as adults. A child does not draw what is in front of him, but what he believes to be in front of him. His images come from memory, perceived understanding. The eye sees what the mind knows. It was in 1895 that English psychologist James Sully heard from a child, ‘First I think, then I draw my think.’” Lichty leaned across his desk. “Let me be clear on this…There will be no
in my class.”
Brilliant. Lila was no longer capable of leaving.
Some students were poised, ready with sharpened graphite pressed to paper. Others were still taping paper to mason board, or digging supplies out from backpacks or small art boxes. Lila glanced at Lichty, whose expression immediately changed. He looked back at her with something nearing a smile, lifted his brows, and cocked his head, eyes blinking shut as he did. It was the sign she’d dreaded. Time to drop the robe.
It isn’t porn.
Art modeling was a noble profession. So said Fiona the model. Gone were the days when the only females willing to shed their vestments in the name of art were prostitutes and masked Victorians. It was the twenty-first century now. Women could shed their vestments in the name of just about anything. Or nothing at all.
As long as their medical supplies salesman fathers didn’t find out.
After sucking in a deep breath, Lila unbelted, let the robe slip off her shoulders, and clamped her eyes shut. She moved into her pose.
Air rushed at her skin from every direction. So much so, she felt weightless again, hovering about a foot off the floor.
She felt her nipples harden and closed her eyes, mortified. They say being blind makes your other senses sharpen. It may have been true, but so did stripping off your clothes in front of a roomful of strangers. Lila was first hit by scents so strong she could taste them. The fresh rubber of new erasers. The bitter snap of unused graphite. The stale robe at her feet.
Every sound clawed at her eardrums with ragged nails. Excited whispers from the jock types in the far corner. The rustling of denim. From the right, a bored sigh. Closer, across from her left kneecap, a muffled cell phone.