by Marielle Mondon
At Georgetown University, a music student and part-time nude life model becomes involved with the first true passion of her life, a man who awakens her to the weight of experience she already possesses - as well as the ups and downs yet to come.
RICO CUT HIS HAIR last September and I can’t bring myself to make a new portrait of him. He stands in front of me, elevated, changed, shifting no weight. It is near winter now, but I’m certain his eyes are the same as they were last spring when I met him, still blue like dirty ocean with young lines around them when a smile comes. He wears his long gold necklace with the cross and the dove on it, the one that once lived on my desk for three weeks. Save for this necklace, he is naked—always, always, always naked, as that is the rule—and posing with his hand in the back pocket of a girl who has no name.
The room where I draw him is white and has the false calmness of central air, has an almost marble coolness like the benches around the Washington Monument. I can see its pointed top, distant, outside this window on the sixth floor. Naked is the rule in stencil drawing, and I have started with stencil because that is, I have been told, the framework for all painters. But I’m already cheating because I’m a painter all the time. Even now, I’m cheating, standing up here so the art students can copy my body down on their big beige papers, and all the while I get to look ahead to the Washington Monument and start painting without them.
I have skipped many phases in making art. Rico’s portrait, his very first, struck me with a tangle of loose tweed for his hair, his wild curly hair, struck me so hard I didn’t even realize he was the image attached to the tweed and—fuck.
Already I can tell this one is no good. Let me start over.
Rico cut his hair last September and I can’t bring myself to make a new portrait of him. That part, I know, is pretty certain.
Rico cut his hair off the day after we slept together. When we first met, it had reached his shoulders and always got caught in the coarseness of his black beard. We met back when he used to sell his extra tablets of Adderall during exam season and balanced out his studies with pills and weed. There was one night when we had both finished our final tests of the year and, careful not to touch each other, I coughed over his bong, and I saw him do it—he was selling tablets to some kid who looked like a freshman but in fact was a junior, so clean, so red-eyed and tired, who exchanged them for a handle of whiskey and then went on his way. Rico said, Next year we’ll go to bars. I’ll be back and we’ll go to bars.
He told me it was for job interviews, the haircut; he told me it was for appointments in big offices full of tiny desks where he would complete sentences with other men. I told him I needed my hair for my interviews, told him how it keeps me covered, but what I meant to say was that I needed his hair too, because, you see, the picture I made of Rico is one I created with my eyes closed and my hands clasped in prayer.
His portrait sits on me like I’m a closed baby grand, the image glossy behind its thin gilt frame, dusted from time to time when too much gray has fogged his face. It sits on me like a water stain to the finished oak. It’s framed like the way my friend Rosemary—framed like the way Rosemary and her family frame pictures above their big, three-piece sofa in their family room. Their sofa is gray and plush, softer than most things I have ever sat on, and I love the way they have a room in their house that they can call a family room; I love the awards they have outlining the walls. Music awards (Rosemary, the middle child, and the most beautiful), math awards (Jacob, the eldest brother), and tennis (John Paul, the youngest brother, of course).
John Paul had drawn a picture of Mommy, Daddy, Jacob, Rosemary, and himself, holding Rosemary’s hand. Their limbs are thin pencil threads. He had glued their faces on with pennies. Everyone is Abraham. This portrait, too, it outlines the walls.
It takes me about twenty minutes after my robe is removed to no longer feel naked. Twenty minutes. I don’t tell many people about this job. Today when I pose I stand with my legs close together, like something could jump out at me at any moment. The hard, round calluses of my big toes are touching, slowly shifting up and down against one another. I would like to get my calluses softened and my toenails painted very soon. My roommate has recently declared it is Good for the Soul.
This drawing class started around four o’clock, but now that November is upon us, I can already see my reflection in the top-floor windows. At once I see the Washington Monument and my own small body, one image on top of the other.
I draw pictures too, just like John Paul’s and just like these students’, in sketchbooks I’ve had four, five years. Always the multitasker, I draw them mostly in my eyelids now because it’s easier and faster, only sometimes it starts raining from the inside of my portraits and landscapes and down my face.
On Sundays I sing at the Presbyterian church down the street from the studio apartment I share on campus with another girl and, most nights, her boyfriend. She is from New York, New York, and her only form of ID is a passport used for occasional family trips to Sweden. She is little like a pepper and as blonde as the sun, and her boyfriend towers over her with a shrilly voice and acne. Everyone who meets them asks me the same questions because a) she’s barely five feet tall and he’s six foot three, and nobody knows how that’s been working, and b) she’s so pretty and yet he truly resembles some kind of cartoonish monster who gets pastier when drunk, like the night he vomited in our bathroom. White fish and white Russians. She knows that he knows he is lucky to have her so she says to him whatever she pleases. Calls him moron, asshole, fag. The sofa has become their private island: a bedroom, office, and kitchen all at once. They watch television and floss their teeth. They grocery shop on Sunday evenings for the entire week and cook pungent meals, fish tacos and bowls of chili, and on nights when the air conditioning is broken, it’s hard to fall asleep.
Nonetheless, I sing down the street from the studio, and every time I go into that church I’m afraid they’re going to find out I’m a phony, that I was baptized a Catholic twenty-one years ago, that I’m in it for the cash. I am in many things for the cash. I sing down the street after a lifetime of Catholic school and the Eucharist and the head nun, Sister Matthew. How can she be a Sister and yet also a Matthew? Why didn’t anyone ever ask about that before? I sing down the street after eight years of recycling our different uniforms—light seersucker September to November, then thick wool plaid for the winter, then a return to the seersucker in the last months of school that followed Easter. We enjoyed the plaid because it hid the dirt after we rolled down the hill that our private school sat so high and privileged upon. We literally rolled down, bodies horizontal, the hill tall, sloping, flashing past us in patches of green, brown, and a blue sky.
I wake up hungover Sunday mornings and sing to make forty dollars a service. The women in choir ask me how I learned to sing. I don’t tell them about the nuns. Instead I just say it’s been there since kindergarten and it hasn’t left yet. Last summer at home with my mother for the first time in months, she said, So I guess I should have paid you to go to church. I get it now.
One Sunday last April I closed my eyes during silent prayer and I really did pray, and that was when I drew my first portrait of Rico. I made his jaw using tan toothpicks that formed a fine rectangle; I made his hair thick like tweed and colored it in with the light brown shavings of chocolate in curly loops that exploded off the paper. The tears were sitting in my eyelashes then, hanging on in tiny rings, and I let them drop so I could wipe them away before the rest of the congregation—do they call it a congregation?—could open their eyes.
After the service the thin post-graduate who sits next to me on the soprano side asked if I was going to brunch with the group. The Brunch Bunch, they called it. The speaker that day had said, To all you students who want to join us for brunch, just so you know, I’ve got the church credit card. I told her no, Sorry, too much to do, term papers and the like, and as I walked the block and a half home I called my mother.
I sat in the apartment lobby telling my mother hints about the falling out with Rico.
She told me how on the zodiac I am the crab. That I stay in my home as I look for another. And you eat everything you can reach, she said. That’s why you’re so delicious!
When I tell her about my singing for forty dollars a week I don’t tell her about the times art students look at my body and try to copy it for several hours. I don’t tell her how the summer before junior year a man on the street, just a block or two from my apartment, had said, You have a very nice figure, young lady. Why are you laughing? I’m serious. You could make a lot of money.
I smiled, polite, and continued to walk, but he gave me his card. An actual card for the fine arts department of the school up the hill, and eventually I went, and eventually I disrobed.
I didn’t tell my mother that Rico is also the crab and that when I met him I thought, Thank God. Thank God Rico never took one of those classes, never studied how to make art, just studied maybe how to notice it, how to talk about it. Me, I study music, but Rico, he holds briefcases that look like a father’s. He wears shoes that, when I see them on his feet, it’s like me dancing in my mother’s heels.
I have seen Rico’s feet, bare and olive with some dark hairs on the big toes, curling like the rest of his hair.
When I hung up the phone with my mother on that Sunday last April, I stayed in the lobby for a small time, wary of the slumber and nakedness I would walk in on between my roommate and the other. I sat there wishing for something deep and cool to dive into, and when summer came and I went home to Saratoga, Rosemary led me from her plush gray sofa to her backyard pool so I could dive.
I am still; I am still gazing at the pointed tip of the Washington Monument outside the art room. The air is cool and coming in large, clean gusts, but the hair that reaches to the small of my back is starting to stick. I am still and damp with sweat, waiting again for something deep and cool to dive into.
about the author
MARIELLE MONDON is a writer living in New York. Born from two French immigrants, she grew up outside Philadelphia and studied English at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She is currently enrolled at the Columbia University School of Journalism, where she creates multimedia stories about neighborhoods in Harlem and Washington Heights for TheUptowner.org. She also spends time running, taking photographs, and writing music.
from the library
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