Begin anywhere, Danzig says. The shoulder, the rib cage, the thigh, the ankle. It won’t be an accident, even if it feels that way right now.
He stands in his classroom at the Art Institute, the students arranged on chairs and stools in a rough circle with their sketchpads and charcoal, all sixteen of them waiting for the model to take the first pose on her platform.
Find a place where your line wants to take a journey, he says. Some curve in any direction, a place where skin meets light, meets shadow. Let your hand tell you. Begin there.
It’s almost the last class of the semester, and he is deliberately talking about beginnings, not endings. He keeps promising himself he is never coming back, but he keeps coming back. For the third year in a row, he has made a vow not to return in the fall, but he’s finding it hard to take his own word seriously. Even when he is shouting at his students, feverish to convince them to care more, he feels his own intensity in doubt, wonders how much he still cares himself. He used to relish the moments when they jumped at the sound of his voice, but now he is no longer sure that anyone even flinches. Their anonymous, hopeful faces may not be enough to save him.
On the worst days, he feels that he must be getting old and used up. The youngest students who pass him in the hallways barely seem to acknowledge he is alive. To them he might as well have one foot in the grave.
But wait. At fifty-eight he can still attract plenty of attention when he wants to. It’s just a few of the women, girls really, who infuriate him with their disinterest.
He stands beside his faithful skeleton, the one that dangles like a marionette on its wooden stand, its bleached bones as familiar to him as an old friend. This is the invaluable prop he calls Doctor Memento, for memento mori, though Danzig is sure most of the students imagine he must be referring only to his own death and not theirs; they’re so young they are still convinced of their immortality.
He is not allowed to touch the models; that’s one of the rules of the Models Guild. And so instead Danzig will rest a hand on Doctor Memento’s shoulder blade, tap a fingertip on his collarbone. Today, he casually holds the good Doctor’s left hand as a form of mild entertainment or even consolation. Later, he will gesticulate with its digits for emphasis, always reminding the students to keep track of the bones.
Look closely, he tells the students. Deeper. This is the predictable architecture of the body. This is how you pay attention to the truth.
Twenty fresh faces arrive in his class each semester, young men and women with barely tolerable moods and attitudes, startling shades of dyed hair and ubiquitous piercings. Fifteen weeks ago there were twenty of them, and now there are sixteen. Though he used to be able to predict with surprising accuracy which of them would leave, this semester there are more stubborn ones than he had counted on, furiously scratching at their sketchpads.
It takes a few weeks or sometimes just a few hours before he knows whether or not anyone in the room has talent. In the first few meetings they are blurry and indistinguishable to him. Now, he sees that several are frowning or grimacing, already prepared to be dissatisfied with the first gestures on the page, already wanting to tear sheets away and throw them aside.
He admits with a private sigh that there is not a single student who engages him right now. For a long time, the opposite happened, and a student would get under his skin by being infuriatingly incompetent. There was one girl last year whose drawings were always filled with oversized, unmatched hands, lopsided mouths, heads shaped like eggs or apples, eyes too high or too low.
You’re just not looking, he had growled at her. Do you mean to tell me these hands belong to the same person? You’re not even trying.
He knew she probably hated him, his icicle heart, his mouth twisting and cruel. She thought he was a mean bastard, and she was right. He was. She left the class and never came back.
They seem younger than ever, these students, almost another species. He swears to himself he was never that young, never that naively arrogant. On certain days there might be one or two who remind him of those first Americans he met, all those years ago. The Occupiers, his father had called them. Soldiers. But he has mostly forgotten.
Begin again, he says.
Some young woman with peroxide hair about an inch long and a silver stud through her tongue (she is yawning, even now) seems to be glaring at him. More likely she is angry at the world, but Danzig takes it personally, so he is angry at her too. In the past he would have managed to seduce her after the first or second week of the semester, just to wipe the glare off her face. But this is what outrages him as much as anything: she doesn’t seem to register him in any way as a sexual being. She turns her back almost every time he passes near her.
He might have reassured himself with the certainty that she doesn’t like men at all, but in fact he’s seen her more than once with her pierced tongue in the mouth of a leather- encased, acne-scarred boyfriend, who drops her off and picks her up on his motorcycle.
So it’s just Danzig who doesn’t appeal to her. All that sexual heat and none of it for him.
He tells himself he doesn’t mind, not about her or about any of the rest of them. He has made no promises and told no lies. And he is about to forget each one of their names.
Today’s model is getting undressed behind a folding screen. So far he can only see the back of her head, noting very dark brown hair, cut in a kind of thick bob above her jawline, windblown and messy. There have been so many models—easily hundreds over the years, possibly as many as a thousand—so many whose names he cannot remember and probably never knew.
Just last week his model hadn’t shown up at all, and Danzig had posed for the class himself, stripped down to his jeans and bare feet, determined not to squander anyone’s time including his own. He is still vain enough to know that his muscle tone is reasonable, his back and shoulders powerful enough to be compelling anatomically.
The students could work with a piece of clothing for once; it wouldn’t kill them, he said. And here was a chance to practice contours half hidden under fabric, folds and creases and what they used to call drapery in the days when nude models were rare and for men only.
He used a long stick kept on hand for prying open and closing the high casement windows of the room. He held it like a staff of Moses, aimed it like a javelin, used it to prop his arms like a weary shepherd. He imagined himself through their eyes: his blond hair going gray at the temples and on his exposed chest, his charcoal-stained fingers. Rocking almost imperceptibly on the balls of his feet, he reminded himself to bend his knees, all of this giving him a renewed appreciation for the balanced stillness of his models.
All of the students seemed to work especially seriously that day, a little shy of him at first and then with increasing eagerness, obviously hopeful in the face of his silence that this might be a once-only chance to work without his correcting hand hovering nearby. For now Danzig’s hands were elsewhere, held in a foreign gesture that had nothing to do with their own hands, except that it had everything to do with getting his hands to look as real and as still as the ones they saw when they looked up from their easels.
He was there for them to study all they wanted, a body twice their age at least, maybe three times, and suddenly a figure in space with a look that might have surprised them had any of them been curious enough to decipher it carefully. He felt vulnerable, subject to a persistent gaze that made him worry about what they thought of him, whether the young women saw him as old and unattractive, past his prime; whether the young men saw him as weaker than they’d ever allow themselves to be, a man without much of a future, a father figure who needed, basically, to step aside so that the youth and promise they held could stride ahead and take over the world.
Begin again, he says today, even before the model has stepped onto the platform.
It’s not just a beginning every time you see a new model, he continues, but every time you face a fresh page. It’s that necessary leap into the unknown. And even though you know you’re compressing the infinite possibilities that exist just before the first line is made, you still have to make a commitment. It’s a direction that can be changed even when it declares itself to be irrevocable.
They look at him, at least a handful of them still willing to hang on his every word. There are several, he knows, who stopped listening weeks ago. They draw and fail and draw the same thing all over again. They’re like dogs with bones, stubborn and single-minded.
It’s their loss, he thinks, but never mind. They’ll end up where they started, with or without me. If I’d really wanted to be one of those eternally patient fathers I would have stayed with Andrea and raised the child where I could have some say. Never mind.
Still holding up Doctor Memento’s left hand to point it at them, he looks at nothing for a few silent moments, feeling a low hum of expectation and anxiety in the air. Maybe a few of them really are afraid of him, as if he is the enemy, not the work itself.
The day he modeled for the class, he thought he overheard someone refer to him as The Kaiser. The comment was low and muttered somewhere behind his back. He was caught so completely off guard that he barely admitted his own shock; it was too absurd. He would have expected worse, in fact, but they didn’t know anything about their own country, much less about the rest of the world. All they recognized was his blond hair and blue eyes, his imagined lineage on display. But he brushed it off.
What did they know? he asked himself. What could they possibly know?
You can never hope to be able to finish a painting unless you truly know how to start, he says. Unless you’re willing to practice that first movement over and over. To turn seeing into a stroke.
He gestures with his arm, moving it like a swimmer, and the arm of Doctor Memento moves too.
Stroke, he says. Learn how to pull yourself through the water. Feel the pure balance between tension and release, the arm loose and strong at the same time, finding exactly where the angle works best. Part the water as if you could divide it into Before and After.
The model steps out from behind the screen and looks at him neutrally, with apparent calm, though her gaze is aimed just past him, over his shoulder.
She is lovely, he thinks, not beautiful in the usual boring ways. There is something else.
He does his quick, expert appraisal. Dimensions, he thinks; that’s what she has. Space between her features, her breasts, long arms and legs and torso. Smooth unblemished skin, those very dark eyes, a full mouth, even without a smile. Her fingers are long and tapered, and she is completely unadorned. No makeup or jewelry or tattoos. Just a pure unveiled being.
He says what he always tells the models: that he wants her to start the session with twenty one-minute poses, and up she steps onto the platform.
What he will remember later is that Billie Holiday was playing, that the light pouring through the high windows was diffuse and fog-colored, that as far as he could tell none of the students truly realized just how good she was, from the moment of her first pose until the unraveling of the last one.
He will remember pacing back and forth between the platform and his skeleton, taking its hand and dropping it, taking it back again. For the first time in all his years of teaching he barely notices himself talking about bones, about the need to remind them what the body is made of, the mathematics of anatomy, the beauty underneath beauty.
He can only see her.
Before taking her first pose, before stepping into her stillness, Merav is struck by the image of a man holding hands with a skeleton. It’s a startling first impression, captured only in her peripheral vision, yet one she will not forget.
But of course this is a life drawing class. He is teaching the lessons she has heard so many times before, not only during modeling sessions but in classes when she was a student herself: the proportional rules for hands and feet, the number of points where bones are visible under the skin, the practice of seeing the gestural line at the center of a pose.
Now the instructor has dropped the skeleton’s hand and left it swinging slightly. Walking toward the platform, he announces her first series of poses, and Merav feels sixteen pairs of eyes following the map he traces, searching her body for corresponding clues. The students measure her, counting distances. They hold up their twigs of charcoal the way he has undoubtedly shown them, marking their way down the length and breadth of her body. At his cue, she turns like a dancer on a music box. She takes steps in slow motion, as if underwater.
Walking is controlled falling, he says. The center of grav- ity is shifted ahead of the base of support in the direction the body is moving. Look.
One of the instructor’s hands is reaching toward her back but doesn’t touch it. She imagines she can feel the tense muscles of the students as they watch, their eagerness to do everything he says.
Find reference points, he tells them. And use them. The head is a reference for the shoulders, the breasts. They become reference points for hips, thighs.
He aims the tip of a pencil at her, gestures back at the skeleton.
Everything is connected. You draw the head and forget it! You draw the arms and forget them! No. You’re drawing a whole figure, something unified. If you want to draw a monster, fine; draw a monster. But if you want to draw a body, draw it whole.
Fleetingly, almost as though she has been touched by a ghost, Merav sees an image of herself in a black-and-white photo, one taken by her ex-husband. It is a portrait of her legs, from hip to heel, illuminated by natural light and free of context, disembodied and afloat in space. She had arched her back and leaned out of the frame; her arms were over her head holding on to a bar attached to a wall in Gabe’s studio.
Mostly, he didn’t title his photographs. But that one he did, naming it after one of Paul Klee’s drawings: Angel Brings the Desired.
The teacher’s voice brings her back again to the present. Merav’s friend Lucy, the one who got her this job, told her she thought his name was Danzig. Lucy pronounced it as if she didn’t know it was the old name of a now-Polish city, and Merav didn’t correct her.
He came here from Austria, Lucy added. That’s what everyone says.
What else do you know about him? Merav asked.
Well, he’s famous from way back for some big gloomy paintings, Lucy told her. And he’s pretty abrasive. Most people actually consider him a son of a bitch, she said, laughing. I guess the best you can say is that he can be a little hard to take sometimes.
Now that Merav is here in the room with him, she knows he’s not Austrian but German. It is unmistakable, that accent. She has no doubt. Having listened to accents all her life, and known how to recognize the tongues of so many places, she trusts her ear.
For those first several moments, she isn’t sure she can manage to stay in the room. She’s stunned by this almost primal response, her coiled readiness for flight. But of course she stays. She steadies her heartbeat, calms herself down. She is experienced, a professional. She will do her work, and he will never know how the sound of his voice threatens to expose her far more deeply than she feels now in her nakedness.
Still, her body finds its own way to speak.
Between poses she breathes deeply to let the music fill her with a kind of liquid peace. Billie Holiday. A pure melodic line pours through her bones, allowing her own lines to find their song. Merav composes herself in the air the way she imagines a composer makes music, the way poets build stanzas.
Sometimes Danzig stands at his own easel, a piece of charcoal in his hand. He keeps his eyes on her, as if his hands need no particular attention, and he brushes his page with lines briefer than his words.
You can render completion with simple strokes, he says. You can imply everything.
Something about the way he moves his arm when he reaches for his drawings, something about the way he scrapes at the page, makes her feel like flinching. It’s internal, her response; she is sure no one can see it. But it’s almost as though he is touching her. As though he is leaving marks on her skin.
Where’s the other one? Danzig asks Merav during the first break.
She has wrapped herself in a faded red silk kimono and is resting in an old overstuffed chair, the same one every model probably wants to collapse into during breaks. But Merav keeps her back straight even when she’s sitting down. Pulling one knee to her chest, she absent-mindedly massages her calf muscles, rolling her head to loosen her neck.
You mean Lucy?
Yes, Lucy. He appears careful not to stand too close to her. She is guessing he has repeatedly been warned away by so many others. All those rules about space.
She couldn’t make it, Merav says. Told me she had a migraine headache.
Merav doesn’t want to tell him she’s not on the list, that Lucy called her instead of the Guild for a replacement. She’s been hoping he would not ask. The people in the Institute’s office don’t even know she’s here. The paycheck will go to Lucy, who will pass the money along to her.
Danzig seems to ignore the students filing out the door, already fumbling for their cigarettes. Not a single one stays behind to continue working through the break; that’s what Merav notices.
You’re very good, he says to her. His voice sounds both serious and deliberately offhand. She thinks he is watching now to see whether she’ll blush or look embarrassed, but she simply nods and lowers her gaze. She can’t help noticing the vivid light in his pale eyes, but she doesn’t look directly at him, not yet.
Thank you, she says.
In her bag there is a water bottle, a thermos of tea and an oat scone, all of which she begins to dig for. She doesn’t want to be rude, but this is her break time, a chance to sit quietly and rest everything, including her concentration. She would like to be alone in the room while they all go outside, including this German man.
The scone is in pieces, which she takes one at a time into her mouth, breathing deeply. While she poses she has to keep her breath shallow, and now it feels like bliss to be able to fill her lungs and sigh all the way to empty.
I didn’t get your name, Danzig says.
She sips her tea, says it as softly as she can without being rude, and is utterly relieved when he doesn’t ask her to re- peat it.
I’ll talk with you later, he says. All right?
Merav nods her head again. If she doesn’t say much, she thinks, maybe he won’t recognize her accent the way she has deciphered his.
Later, tonight, when she’s falling asleep and reviewing her day, she will remember the way her body reacted to his voice. The poses she took in the first session were all in the shape of fear: a woman turning away from something threatening; a body in flight; the curled-up shape of self-defense, protecting the heart, the belly. She said nothing, but her body spoke its own language.
Outside, the smoking students lower their voices when Danzig opens the door to the patio. He smoked too, for decades, along with every other artist he knew. And then, four years ago, he stopped. His doctor had threatened him with such ferocity he had actually decided to quit. Like that. Occasionally, the seductive smell of it will beckon to him, but today he’s in no mood for being tempted. At least not by his students’ cigarettes.
He’s not interested in summoning them back inside, but they seem to think that’s what he’s there for. Reluctantly, they interrupt their brief pleasure as if that is what he expects them to do. Smudged with charcoal, happily marked by their signs of willingness to get dirty for art’s sake, the students offer him wary sideways glances. Even the angry girl seems calmer now, loosened by her nicotine daydream.
Black hands, forearms, streaks on their foreheads and elbows and clothing. They have the pallor and stains of coal miners descending into the earth. Digging for vision. They are trying so hard, Danzig thinks.
And then he notices the way the sun bounces against the concrete with so much intensity. Here we go all over again, he almost says out loud. Summer is approaching and with it the chasm and the abyss, the opportunity and the terror. He has been on this threshold so many times, nearing the end of the school year.
Following the students back inside, half gazing at the back of the angry girl’s bleach-tipped head, he is struck by how slender her neck is, how it seems so insubstantial for a task as critical as holding up her skull.
Anatomy and desire, bones and terror.
Mournfully aware of how much he wants another cup of coffee, Danzig names what he holds in his gut: fierceness, pleasure, and something that he is sure is a new kind of exhaustion. If not this, he tells himself, he’d be enslaved by some gallery, painting the same paintings over and over and pretending that he wasn’t. He’d still be caught in the foolish riptide of his longing for fame, dragged under where there was no air. This is his escape, or part of it anyway.
It’s just that instead of pushing his body to the edge of collapse, painting into the late night, filling himself with fumes and wine and smearing everything in his world with splotches of oil—instead of all that, he is pouring his passions into these students, giving them whatever he can afford to give away.
It’s yet another way of leaving himself behind in the world, another way of creating. Or at least this is what he tries to believe.
A steady paycheck from the Institute means that if he doesn’t want to paint, he doesn’t have to. He has known so many painters who lost themselves in the pursuit of money, a gallery or a manager always pushing—either for more of the same, which was death, or for something they considered newer and more exciting than the last piece, which was another kind of death because it meant someone else was telling them when to change directions or where to go in search of something.
And when it came from someone else it meant the painter had to carry around some question about whether that voice could be satisfied. Danzig knows that the only voice he needs to satisfy is his own, and that is elusive enough.
The students shuffle back into their seats, some of them agreeing to change places, as if they still haven’t understood that the model is going to keep offering them new angles. Danzig stands once more at his easel, the music descending into brief silence before starting up again.
He will call her M., since that’s all he really heard of her name, and all he can remember. She is back on the platform, inside a pose.
Danzig tries to make sure he has no recollection of this model stored somewhere among the few truly memorable models he has seen over the years. There was that one with the only tattoo he ever really appreciated—an open lotus flower at the small of her back. And another one with an astonishingly pronounced rib cage—she was a dancer, and much too thin, but he was amazed at being able to see such a detailed version of those curved bones making a cage for her heart and lungs.
There have been men too, of course, athletic and well- defined or paunchy and tilting toward decrepitude, older than himself and even more of a memento mori than his skeleton. There were the lean young dancers, male versions of the ballerinas with eating disorders though perhaps not quite as slender, and with a similar freedom in their limbs as though not quite bound to the earth.
More than enough of them had what could be described as beautiful bodies, flawless even, but of the ones good enough for his students—the ones who weren’t always inspiring but at least were useful enough for anatomy practice—he was always searching for that unusual stillness, an awareness of negative space, an ability to design lines that could be treated from anywhere in the room.
A set of muscles in the back or the thighs, a particularly lovely pair of breasts or arms, a melancholy in the face. It could be anything. He always knew when he found it.
And of course there was Andrea, and there was Susan. He sometimes forgets they had once been models, since they had so fully become something else.
Look at the pull of gravity on her face, Danzig says, because he can feel that the students are expecting him once again to say something.
It’s second nature to him, this art of seeing the intimate gesture embedded in the posed body, the line that determines everything else. Can he really teach them how to find it? Especially when it vanishes so quickly. A couple of heartbeats long, a breath or two; his hand has to move with- out thought pushing it; his hand has to arc across the page before there is even time to send it. Everything else is remembering.
Study where the right elbow fades into the knee, he says.
They still don’t know. He has to help them find the single line as it constantly turns and explains the form, turns and explains, all along its journey.
Begin again, he says.
One of the students, a young woman with dark eyes and long brown hair pulled into a loose knot, reminds Merav of herself six years ago. She used to sit in the corner too, strands of escaping hair always in need of attention, her sketchpad like a shield against any distractions.
So much concentration and longing. Merav recognizes herself even in the way this girl (somehow she seems like a girl) chews at the corner of her mouth, squints at the sketches in her collection, appears completely unhappy about all of them.
Merav always thought her drawings should have been better, should have reflected more of the perfect arrangements she saw when she studied the models. Just out of the army, in art school in Tel Aviv, Merav felt caught halfway between proficiency and disaster. She couldn’t seem to find her own voice in her fingertips, couldn’t stop comparing her own work with that of the other students in the class. Everyone else seemed more talented or at least more sure of themselves, more willing to assert their lines and shadows on the page.
Then one day, everything shifted when the model failed to appear for the life drawing class. At first, of course, there was collective concern for her safety. When people missed appointments, even when they were unusually late for something casual, the unspoken fear was that something had happened, an accident or worse. This was what they lived with all the time. This was why phone calls were both terrifying and reassuring. No one knew what kind of news was on its way.
Still, the instructor was increasingly frustrated at being stood up; the class was restless and distracted. Merav surprised herself by making her offer with almost no hesitation. Even in retrospect, she couldn’t quite name where her impulse had come from, although there were so many possibilities. Curiosity. A desire to risk losing her anonymity. Some hope that she might discover a new life inside her own skin.
Many of her classmates told her afterwards how amazed they were, how it was nothing they had considered for even a moment. Not out of modesty or embarrassment, but just because they didn’t think about it.
There were models and there were artists, they said. You were either one or the other.
When Merav offered to pose, Professor Cohen seemed caught off guard for just a moment, though clearly pleased. She was tall and black-haired and strikingly angular, a former dancer who still walked with an unmistakable ballerina turnout. Merav was fairly sure Cohen had been a model herself at some point, so maybe that was why she had been so encouraging.
It’s an excellent experience, she said to Merav. Even if it’s just for the one time. You’ll learn something about yourself, and about how the body works. Go ahead.
Merav went into the small bathroom in one corner of the classroom and removed her clothes. When she came back out and stepped onto the platform, she was nervous, her skin prickling. It wasn’t her own nakedness that seemed strange, but the fact of being the only unclothed one while everyone else stayed safely hidden.
A warm breeze touched her from an open window, and somehow that soothed her, rinsed her a little. When Professor Cohen asked her for the first pose, Merav closed her eyes for a moment, then gazed hard at the ceiling. Somehow, amazingly, her body knew what to do. By the end of the third pose she felt she was another person.
Merav is a natural, someone in the class said quietly. She couldn’t tell who it was because he was somewhere out of her range of vision and she was holding herself very still. Maybe the voice was right. Maybe this was some ability she had possessed all along and didn’t find until now.
She found places to rest her gaze: the patterns embedded in the stucco walls of the room, the shape of table legs, shadows on the ceiling. She stood and sat and reclined. She felt the seduction of sleep but resisted because she had to hold herself in place, keep her hands exactly where they were when she closed her eyes.
The fingers still. Zero at the bone.
Like the exhalation just before pulling the trigger. Now.
The same voice that said “Merav is a natural” said later, Look at that beautiful curve, the muscle along her rib cage when she twists like that. Do you see it? Just there.
He must have been pointing. Merav didn’t hear an answer to his question, but she felt a kind of peace she had never felt before, as if she were some beautiful found vessel on an archeological dig in the desert.
This is my body, she thought.
She felt like a swallow, dipping and soaring at twilight. She felt her body touched without being touched.
Merav began to model for some of the same art classes in which she had been a student the year before. The more often she worked, the more she learned how to listen to the signals of her muscles and bones. There were poses that couldn’t be held for long, others into which she could settle and rest, be a pool with no ripples, water at the bottom of a well. What was essential to her was knowing where the pose felt right.
Now, six years later, she is amazed at how much she knew immediately, intrinsically—how much this feels like another form of art. Her body as a composition and an instrument.
For the quick gestures she doesn’t even need a timer; she counts in her heart. For the long poses, she has to note the negative spaces, the areas outlined by a curving arm, a bent knee. She has to know how to find them again after a break so that the lines are uninterrupted, continuous, so that the artists can be returned to their trance.
It is a surprise, and yet it isn’t: this discovery that she can picture herself through their eyes, that she can give them whatever they need. Anatomy is more than bones and muscles. Her body is an abstraction, a narrative designing itself in the air.
Sometimes when she is posing, the teachers talk about Merav as about a collection of pieces. They say, The breasts are here, the hip bones come out like this; the arm is bending more at the elbow—and remember, it is hair, not a helmet. They say, The spine is not as straight as you’ve drawn it; the waist is fuller like this; the chin is pointing more to the side—and when are you going to start drawing hands and feet? What are you afraid of? It’s just a body. Don’t think.
Occasionally this disturbs her, the idea of being viewed so impersonally, of being so unseen even as she is gazed upon for hours. But that is the paradox. She is unveiled down to bare skin, exposed that far, but the world inside her body, the universe of dream and sensation that lives beneath her bones stays covered. All of that belongs only to her.
She has seen models take poses as if feeling their way in the dark, deciding in slow motion how far to reach a hand, where it might touch a wall or window. But her quiet certainty is her gift.