by AMY SAVAGE
When I went in for my hysterectomy, I flirted with the nurses. Though I appreciate the female form, I was not aroused by their competence and clogs. They were required to serve me and I was required to accept their service.
Flirting with women was not new to me. At the time, I was living with my boyfriend Art who, coincidentally, was an artist. We had this game we’d play where we’d go out to a dive bar where we didn’t expect to be recognized. I would make eyes at a woman and then inevitably suggest that she might like to meet my friend Art. He would be at the bar drinking whiskey, with his gardener’s tan, ropy arms, and long blond hair. He looked like some pleasantly casual deadbeat. I’d introduce them. Most of the girls thought it was a little fishy, but we managed to take a few home.
I was the lure but it wasn’t a trap. It wasn’t even a threesome. It was a false premise: Art needed models. I remember the first one. She had fine auburn hairs on her upper lip and unadulterated earlobes. I asked her to undress. She still thought I wanted her until Art came out, dressed like Klimt in one of those insane-asylum painter’s robes, holding his palette knife, stroking it back and forth on the dry board as if sharpening a blade. He was feeling bold, amazed that our plan had worked. “I am Art with a capital A,” he said.
I watched the woman’s eyes click about, searching for an exit. She looked afraid, like she had been taken by a cult. She was well-muscled, like a sprinter, and surely could have escaped us. When she realized she could leave if she pleased, she reluctantly stayed. The confident disdain in her eyes said she despised Art’s pretention but was flattered to be chosen as a model. She had a piercing in her navel and another one, down there, I don’t know what you call it. There must be something wrong with her to spoil a great natural form. Why would she deface her womanhood and the scar that links us all to our mothers? Still I wondered, why not the nipples, too? Perhaps she kept them ready for feeding what could grow in her. I imagined a baby inside a woman pierced that way.
Art drew several quick sketches of the model, dismembering and re-membering her. It was his Picasso phase. I stood there, watching him work and feeling strange. I couldn’t stare without a brush in hand. I also knew it was off limits to challenge Art with my own version. My task to obtain a girl was complete and so I went out into the garden to let them work. The plants were black and fragrant in the night. The raspberry bushes were a dark mass of canes holding unripe fruits. Fireflies blinked among the leaves in twinkling fellowship, attracting mates and prey.
Art went fully cubist and bought some strappy leather sandals. He also came across Picasso’s Dos figuras y un gato and decided we should have a cat. In the painting, a reclining woman receives cunnilingus from a figure with its back turned and its legs tangled. The bed’s headboard is adorned with multiple phalluses and a few pudendal shells. The woman could be in ecstasy, but somehow also looks ill. A cat watches them.
“We’re getting a cat,” Art said.
I thought he was joking. “Picasso also had a goat,” I suggested.
“We can’t afford a goat,” Art said.
The cat would not be allowed to hunt because songbirds were threatened in our region. She would be spayed so that tomcats wouldn’t come around yowling and spraying their foul scent. The cat could not be wild—Art needed her to be available for his work.
Though she crouched, tense, in the windows, she was more interested in hunting than voyeurism. When Art and I made love, she sat in the window, her mouth open and twitching as if charged with electricity. She wasn’t interested in us—her chatter was for the birds in the gutters. She was an imitator, like Art, hopeful to seize something of her own. Though nothing could come of it, she continued practicing. I envied the cat for her clear instincts.
Art’s mind was elsewhere, too, absent, as if sex were another sketch, each time not quite to his liking. They were just rehearsals for some dreamed-up future masterpiece. Once, still lying in bed, he had asked for raspberries. I went out to the canes to harvest what I could find. When I brought in a carton, he broke several berries apart. They cleaved into beads like plump roe. Each bead contained a seed. He painted them and ate them. The damaged fruits lived on, broken, in his painting. I wished sometimes that I were a plant: vibrant, useful, fruitful, without the heartache. When rehearsing for a piece, you can look at a model many ways. A profile sketch in three-quarters view. Looking up at the neck and jaw from below. You can sketch a person fresh each time, if you are willing to begin again with a blank page. But with a lover you can never start anew.
When my stomach started to grow, Art was thrilled. Not only had he planted a seed, but he had a real swollen-bellied Girl Before a Mirror to satisfy his imitative urges. I had convinced myself at first that all the normal symptoms would mean it was normal. I even imagined our love child: it would be a girl. She would have my stocky build and Art’s thin blond hair. When she was born, my middle would sag like the cat’s. A woman always knew about these things. Truthfully, though, I sensed something was amiss.
I was jealous of Art at first, knowing that he devoted the attention of his eyes and hands to the form of the models’ bodies. There must have been a great pleasure in finding their textures and weight in the paint. But I sensed he did not enjoy their silky surfaces and warm hair in life as he did in his oils. He was loyal physically. He likely fantasized about some of them, less faithful in his head, unless you count his eyes, which examined and soaked in their bodies. Everyone is entitled to their mind’s workings, if they don’t act on them. Still, I was jealous, but I maintained an illusion of control as long as I was the broker.
Art never actually thought to paint a woman, that is, to dip his brush in viscous fuchsia and run stiff bristles over the crease of her armpit. Or drag a stripe of lime green down the back of her knee to watch her shiver. His paintings, more than women, were the object of his desire. He studied the models’ forms and relished the details, not of their beauty, but of his alterations. He rendered their breasts fuller, he smoothed their dimples. He satisfied himself with his own creation of them, and the models were satiated with the thrill of being focused on, rebuilt, immortalized.
One of the models was pear-shaped with thin arms and small, turned-up breasts. Her buttocks and thighs were heavy and her calves and ankles slender. She was self-assured and had a smile that showed all her teeth. If Art had understood anything, he would have kept her on and become the next Titian. I told him that he was skimping and needed to add more weight to her hips and ass, but Art could not acknowledge the woman as she was before him. It isn’t the 16th century anymore, and the seasons of style for the female form are ephemeral. Art could not transcend time. I understood then that I had a better eye, and that women should paint women. If Art had taken his paint to her skin, he might have learned something.
I was Art’s supplier in a second way. He was blind in one eye and had no depth perception—this may have helped him in the studio, his mind never confused by three dimensions. But he couldn’t drive, so I had a certain hold on him. I would take his list to the one good art supply store in town. Paints and thinners, mineral spirits and turpentine, paper and hog bristle brushes.
The clerk at the supply store would look me in the eye and pause too long between sentences. I watched his hands and arms as he filled the order. He had dark hair on his knuckles and strong forearms. His fingernails were dirty, which I hoped meant he was also an artist. Sometimes he made errors, replacing vermillion with viridian. I didn’t always correct him. I could tell there was some attraction there, but I dismissed it. I wouldn’t flaunt my good looks because, frankly, they’re not so good. I have a peasant’s build with thick calves and a thicker waist. I am made for wearing a yoke. Maybe he appreciated me the way a son appreciates his mother.
“You’re very beautiful,” he said once.
“Thank you?” I said. Compelled to return the compliment, like women admiring each other’s shoes, I said, “So are you!” If only I were elderly, this would have been simpler. Correcting, I said, “Everyone’s beautiful!” Art had taught me that.
Another time, I asked the clerk for some heavy rag paper. He opened the wide shallow drawer, and carefully pulled out a pristine sheet. “You have beautiful eyes,” he told me. I had heard this before. Art had explained that the irises were light cyan.
“Thanks,” I said. I thought better than to return the compliment this time. “It’s funny actually,” I said, “because I don’t see them. They’re just in my head.”
“What about when you look in the mirror?” he said. Girl Before a Mirror, I thought. I rubbed my growing belly.
“I don’t gaze into my own eyes,” I said and laughed. I was flirting now, but this was not the same game that I played with the models. I had gone beyond the safety zone of false pretense. There was no way out until he finished my order, and so I stood there, feeling obligated to smile and accept his attention. He laughed and rolled up the sheet in brown paper and taped the tube shut.
Later, I felt guilty. Had I been unfaithful, betrayed by instinct or circumstance? Charming a woman into modeling was different—there was the expectation on my end of stopping anything physical in its tracks. This had been different. I had not initiated it, and had been obligated to play along as long as it took for him to wrap the supplies. I felt less guilty then. I decided to tell Art. How much did he care who I flirted with or who flirted with me? I needed to know.
I told Art about the conversation as he looked through the supplies.
“Looks like he was so busy gazing into your eyes, he screwed up the order,” Art said, frustrated. “The weight of the paper is wrong.” Then he sounded strangely understanding, fingering his brushes. “But I might have done the same.”
I was disappointed. Did Art’s lack of jealousy stem from my bulging middle? Was I considered safe because my womb was already occupied? I could have just been Art’s business partner, but there was something that attracted him to me. Perhaps it was the eyes. My eyes. I have always had better eyes than Art.
When the landlord hired a crew to paint our place, the workers left a window open and the cat escaped. Art panicked. I went outside to the garden with its velvet blooms and mess of green. Looking for the cat, I found her smudged paw prints on the flagstones, tracking yellow paint into blurred rosettes. The scent of sweet grass and water hung in the air. Dark clouds threatened to wash out her tracks. I followed the cat’s marks around the house. A few printed tridents appeared in the same yellow where a bird had stamped its prints.
I found the cat with feathers stuck to her painted paws. She had her plans and pursued them.
When it came time for me to pose for Art’s imitation of Girl Before a Mirror, I knew there was no baby inside me. What I had sensed and ignored about my body was true—no other life existed in me besides my own corrupted cells. Incidentally, the bulge made me more attractive to women. Also to men, but they didn’t feel as free to reach out and touch it. I laugh to think how appalled those strangers would be to find they had caressed a tumor, praising me for my radiance and asking when was it due.
In the studio, I stood in front of the mirror, feeling purplish and bloated under the lights. I made the face that Girl makes, calm but despondent. I put my hands up to hold the mirror, as she does, as if controlling the object could control the image. I saw a changed woman, as she does. But when Art showed me his canvas, I did not see myself in it. I saw only a study of the original.
Art was proud of his work, yet did not sign it. I asked him why and he said no reason. A finished work is a dead work, Picasso once said. Maybe that’s why Art did not sign his Girl. He was not ready to wield the axe.
“I could paint you,” I said to one of the nurses. Despite the baggy scrubs, her toned arms and erect posture showed a woman who fought against her own body’s decline. She wrapped a plastic ID band around my wrist. Some part of this could be like the game I had played with Art. In some part of this I could charm and maintain control.
“What is your name and date of birth?” she asked.
I flashed a smile and said, “You know that already.”
The nurse asked me again to confirm my name and birthdate. She was not buying into my game. She was following protocol. She swabbed my belly with antiseptic towelettes and drew a few black X’s with marker on my stretched skin.
Art told me once that he didn’t like girls with tattoos. He didn’t say why. At first, I thought it was something about the purity of the natural form, but then I understood he thought they distracted from his rendering, his canvas. Maybe he was bothered that a woman could claim an identity before meeting him. Bodies were like real estate to him—he didn’t want to be shown a home with someone else’s marks on it. I wondered about the first model with bits of metal running through her. There were many things that I thought Art had thought. Regardless, my body had marked itself from within. It had become inhospitable.
Once my womb was removed, they told me, I would be in a great deal of pain. It would be difficult to walk. No sex or heavy lifting. That would be simple. I might enter premature changes, and require hormones to replace what’s missing. There are many things you can do these days to fill what’s gone from you.
Damaged goods, I thought, that’s what I’ll be. Who knew if without my belly people would still want to touch me. I bargained with my body. I considered the difference it would make if I were having something else removed. Take something else, anything, I thought. Something visibly female that the world could notice. Let it be obvious that I am not whole and spare me the secret. But people would try to help, ready to fix the flaws they saw. They would suggest that breasts can be reconstructed. Maybe I could take pride in a hidden flaw under a sturdy façade. I bargained with the possibilities.
The nurse held my wrist, slipped the IV into the back of my hand, and taped it down. She screwed a tube into the needle’s rear and explained it was for my saline and anesthesia. I would drink it through my hand. That pristine bag of pure fluid hung behind my head, dripping slowly like a draught from the fountain of youth.
Art couldn’t accept the loss of his never-was baby. He couldn’t handle the seriousness of a body, alive and ill and uncontrollable. I would have to find a quiet place to recover away from him. What I would need was a shrine, a reflecting pool. A silent hole or cavity, a cave after my own was excavated.
Perhaps I am like Art. I created what I believed were his thoughts, while he interpreted women into liquid and reformed them. Art used me, and I let myself be used, thinking I was useful. Perhaps I was envious. Art had his paint. The cat had been tamed, but in her heart she was always hunting. I had things happen to me.
My only chance at true immortality, the continuing of my blood into the future, would be excised. Everyone else, it seemed, was leaving their mark. I would be a wombless creature, with eggs and tubes dangling in the fluid of my abdomen, unattached to the absent core. How do you take back your future after it has been butchered? What do you call the blank space where your future has been erased?
Someone could preserve me in paint. Coat my scarred belly, drag the pigment down my limbs and over my lips with soft sable brushes. At first it would feel smooth and cool as a salve, but it would soon dry, shrinking and pulling at the live body beneath. On canvas, mistakes dry. But the body urges on, refusing perfection. The skin would itch and beg to be bent. I could even do it myself, a self-portrait in skin, cracking open from within. Fresh layers could be slathered over errors. Correct too soon and the colors muddle. Give the flaws time. Then brush the gold over the gray.
Amy Savage is a Medical Spanish professor, writer, translator, and communication coach. Her fiction has appeared in the Euphony Journal and BlazeVOX, her nonfiction as a guest on the Discover blog Inkfish, and her translations in phati’tude and the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography (Oxford University Press). She is working on a collection of short stories.