My first time posing nude is the figure modeling equivalent of jumping into an icy lake rather than wading inch by inch; I walk into a city college thinking, these are exactly the sort of people my grandmother told me to cross the street to avoid. Minutes later I’m naked, arms extended over my head.
Initially I hate it, the long silent stretches of chilly stillness, like freezing to death in a snowy wood on the road less traveled, but without the lovely warmth of hypothermia to distract. The disassociation required to stand nude in public comes easily; I exist in my head and outside of my body, I’ve never been certain I’m real. What I cannot abide are the relentless march of words that skid and stumble across my brain. Without pen and paper or cell phone, tension gathers inside me, there’s no hope of release. I’m forced to focus on the various tickles and itches that flicker through my body, the random limbs that fall asleep.
Typically classes, sculpture, drawing or painting, begin with a series of gesture drawings, the model changing position frequently, the artists laying down a quick, stark form. The gesture drawings, thirty seconds to three minutes in length, are a chance to flaunt extreme moves, to fling my arms in the air or pretzel my body, positions I cannot maintain for long. Nothing too drastic though, certainly nothing yogic; most yoga poses reveal one’s asshole. I learn that the hard way.
After the short poses come the long ones, generally twenty to forty minutes without a break. Initially each moment scores my skin, days ticked off on a prison wall, but over time I adjust, make reluctant peace with the moments as they ponderously unfurl. The knowledge that figure modeling, I make in three hours what I do as a barista in six, also helps. Lately time even seems to accelerate; delivering me fifty minutes into the future when only ten should logically have passed.
At the city college drawing class, the teacher is strict with his students, diffident and respectful toward me. Cell phones are banned, the door is locked and breaks and quiet are rigorously enforced. Once someone forgets to shut the door and a lost student bursts in.
“Damn.” He raises his arm, shielding his face as if from fire. “My bad. My bad!”
The teacher apologizes to me, lectures the students about respect.
I figure my ass is bare no matter who sees it. So what if the student isn’t enrolled in this particular class?
I’ve been naked with one teacher, a short denim shirt and Dockers type with a thick Chinese accent, for a total of seven hours this week. There should be a name for this extended yet impersonal intimacy. I’m in a reclining pose, easy to sustain if I hadn’t made the amateur’s mistake of folding one arm beneath my head.
“Guess which animal born with horn.” The teacher commands the class.
“Goat?” someone guesses.
“Wrong.” The teacher grins, bounces on his heels.
“Is giraffe,” the teacher says, spinning my platform so each student gets a clear view.
Over e-mail an art teacher at a private studio asks for a photo.
“You’re pretty,” he writes in response.
Later that day I take a call from another teacher.
“I’m hard-of hearing,” he says, “You’ll have to speak up.”
“I said, I’m not sure how to describe my face. Full lips and pale skin, I guess. Long dark hair.”
“Will your musculature be obscured?”
“Pardon?” I picture myself hiding behind a bush.
“Are you fit?”
“And your weight?”
Shouting my answers, I feel like something up for auction, which is fine. This is business. It’s the teacher who said I was pretty that crossed a line.
I’ve never thought myself invincible. But back when I modeled for art photographers, I did a stupid thing. I’d only sat for a couple of amateurs (nothing pornographic but always nude), before my girlfriend forbade it. I was grateful for her boundaries. Mine weren’t so reliable. They’d landed me once in a chubby bearded man’s isolated house. He claimed his mother was asleep down the hall. On my way to the bathroom I peaked through the door he’d indicated, saw wall-to-wall boxes, a bird in a covered cage the only living thing.
Another time I found myself in a lonesome warehouse district, absurdly focused only on the security of my girlfriend’s car. As the photographer, a man I’d never seen before that evening, led me down stairs and around corners, I noted hazily that without his help I’d never find my way out. His studio, lit with Christmas lights, boasted a huge black leather couch and several headless mannequins. Again, my thoughts arrived in sleepy gusts: this is just how a serial killer’s home would look.
The photographer reeked of alcohol. When we’d finished he paid me in traveler’s checks, shorting me twenty dollars.
I unlocked the club from my steering wheel, remembered how he’d uploaded his photos and showed them to me; angrily pointing out my inner labia in one shot.
“It ruins the geometry,” he said.
I was relieved not to be sexualized; I thought it made me safe.
My sixth grade social studies teacher told us if anyone asked who we were voting for we didn’t have to tell. She said in America we have a right to privacy. I remember this when, in a sculpture class on the North side, a girl asks me what I think of Walker’s union busting. I shrug, feeling naked-er than naked, totally exposed.
In Evanston, a woman with a long braid and close-set eyes compliments my poses, “You’re straight out of the Renaissance,” she stage whispers as I lie on my stomach, chin resting in my hands.
A man asks to take a picture of my face straight on and in profile so he can work after I leave. He holds his cell phone close to my face and I flinch at the sound his phone makes, a digital-age impersonation of a snapshot’s crisp pop.
At the city college, no one talks to me. In the elevator after class, they leave me a wide horseshoe of space.
At one gig I forget my robe and have to slide back into my cords and t-shirt whenever I need to pee. I use a small closet as a changing room, and the day I overlook my robe I’ve run from an afternoon sitting to this one and I haven’t had time to eat. If someone had taken my mother aside when I was three and told her I would grow up to stand naked in a cupboard gnawing a chicken leg, I don’t think she would have been surprised.
Today Jenna calls. She coordinates figure models for a college in Hyde Park.
“The instructor wants you in spandex shorts,” she says. “Also a hoodie and something with stripes.”
I should feel grateful. I’ll get paid and keep my clothes on. But I complain to friends that I’d rather be naked than wear spandex and stripes, I’ll look like a bicycling mime, I tell them. Naked skin keeps the eye moving. Spandex affords too many starts and stops.
I’m lying. I’m not worried about looking fat or foolish. I’m scared of what the students will think. If I show up naked I’m an art model, something anyone can be. Clothed modeling implies a certain crystalline beauty. I’m no Heidi or Giselle. I don’t want the students to assume I perceive myself that way.
Lately, walking through ragged piles of leaves, past bent-over women pushing strollers and self-assured business men whose heels smack the pavement with each step, I feel precarious and lucky. All of my jeans are thin as butterfly wings, either that or hopelessly out of style. I’m so far from making ends meet; my arms are stretched wide apart. Still, traversing garbage-cluttered curbs, walking slippery El steps, gliding through shiny revolving doors, I have no responsibilities. When I get where I’m going, all I have to do is strip and think.