a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
I still think about Louise from time to time.
Indeed, at dinner tables I do talk about my three years at art school in a reminiscing tone. How it paved my art dealing career, how I met Lisa Lee, how I was best friends with Justin L. Kohler, or how I was invited to Sophia Monroe’s party. But to be honest, I was a terrible student who learned nothing there but how untalented he was. My creative pieces were at best tedious, if not pathetic, and my attendance record sad to read. I never regretted going there, though. I did have fun, my instructor’s fame did facilitate my career, and I did meet Louise. I wouldn’t say she was pivotal to my life or something like that, but I do think about her from time to time.
She should be a woman of fifty years now, provided she’s still alive somewhere, with all due respect. When I first saw her naked she was in her forties. At least seventeen people had seen the way that body stripped away from her faded blue jacket, her black turtleneck, and her blue underwear. At least seventeen people had also witnessed the treacherous tricks childbearing had done to her: the marks engraved on her body.
She was the first nude model I had ever met, and I believe that applied to everybody in Mr. Anderson's studio art II in the fall of 1997. Mr. Anderson walked her in on one rainy day. Our tiny classroom, as always, was crowded with bodies, canvas stands and varicolored buckets on the creaky floor. Leaving his unintroduced guest aside, Mr. Anderson went straight to lecturing about charcoal and Käthe Kollwitz. So for twenty curious minutes, the tall woman was just standing next to a 6-foot wooden figure model made by Lisa Lee, a legendary 11th grader and a region-famous wood sculptor. Louise’s lovely stillness to Mr. Anderson’s stirred speech; her slim arm against its somewhat-disproportionate arm; her alluring face next to its wooden, flat countenance. Until eventually Mr. Anderson turned around and, as if he had noticed her presence for the first time, clicked his tongue loudly, and dragged her to the center of the classroom, a small circle outlined by canvas stands and quiet seventeen-year-olds: a family friend of his, and a professional nude model, blablabla, she’d join us once a month, Ms. M. None of us ended up remembering her last name because she interrupted right there:
“Please,” she laughed. “Just call me Louise.”
That was how I met Louise. I still remember the way she stripped. A few students would have tried to chat off the tense air, but their attempts had always died off quickly. In silence we would have all stared at Louise as she stripped herself down. She always started from her silver belt. She’d untie the buckle gently with her ringed middle finger. And before you noticed, her pants had already dropped down to her ankle. Then she’d shake her blue jacket off, undo her bra before throwing her turtleneck off over her head. She had a necklace of some kind of flower on, which she’d take off the last. Her unringed ring finger and her long thumb worked together to untangle the metal clip. I’m not sure if she had calluses on the side of her ring finger because I used to sit in the outer circle. In all of the portraits I have of her, her ring fingers are all strangely shaped. But finally there she was, fully naked. Her wrinkled stomach skin unfolded around her innie belly button, like one of Van Gogh’s stars. Below her belly button was a long, horizontal scar, unarmed to light and shadow.
At ease, she’d stretch and cross her legs, re-tie her hair into a messy bun, and turn around at Mr. Anderson, as if expecting feedback for the performance she just put on for us. Even the smallest action she did would’ve caused her stomach to ripple.
This entire time I knew Hoya was looking at me, so I looked at her. She smiled.
Stunned? She asked.
I nodded my head, thought for a while, then shook my head.
Well, you should be. She said. That's a woman’s body.
Both Hoya and I agreed that Louise and her damaged body were a hindrance to art-making. During one of our Wednesday night conversations, I brought up my encounter with Louise that afternoon to Hoya. Hoya was lying on a yellow armchair, squinting while reading Jane Eyre.
So? Did she recognize you?
I shook my head.
“She seemed to be in a rush. I said to her, ‘here you go, Louise’ and she didn’t say anything. I even called her Louise. But she just nodded and walked away.” I heard dad calling me from downstairs, so I jumped out of my bed and started scavenging for a pair of pants. “Man, she didn’t even look at me.”
That’s brutal. Hoya said. She probably doesn’t even remember you. Next time, you tell her you are from Mr. Anderson’s class.
“I don’t know. I don’t know her shift.” I opened the bedroom door. “I can’t go to the museum every day and talk to her. That’d seem creepy.”
At the dining table Dad and I ate without words. Dad only ate a little. While cleaning the dishes I saw him putting his trench coat on.
“Ya.” He looked at himself in those dress shoes in the mirror.
“Oh okay,” I said, pumping another handful of dish soap.“Miss Chu?” He looked at me, nodded fast and closed the door behind him. I put my hand under the faucet. The soap foamed on my hand. I heard Hoya sigh. You are going to the museum tomorrow, aren’t you?
Dehumanization is a necessary step in art-making, in the recreation of bodies down on canvas.
Sketching is a brutal art, far more brutal than a bad drama, or guillotine, or “so long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” because it degenerates changing bodies into momentary images. Every time the charcoal glides across the canvas, a part of someone from that split second is frozen there. When from time to time I bump into my own painting in the garage, I would still be terrified by how blatant my prejudices are down on the canvas. It would be so easy to tell how I felt for someone. I’ve seen all sorts of feelings in paintings. Sometimes anger, jealousy, other times amour and admiration, indifference most frequently, lust the least. There was seldomly anything sexual, not even in nude sketching, for me or others. As far as I can remember we were a bunch of ruthless ascetics when it comes to sketching. Bodies were just a combination of countless curves, lights and shadows.
Louise wasn’t the only model Mr. Anderson brought. Every other Wednesday a nude model would come to us. We had Mark the architect with his bladder problems, Erika who ended up dating the guy sitting next to me in art history class (“right on that lecture stand brother”), and countless nameless others. We loved Erika the punk girl’s body, for example, not only because she was youthful and physically very attractive, but also because she was easier to draw than Mark with all his chest hair. Louise was the special one, not because she was the first one, or the hardest to draw. Indeed, Louise was every unambitious artist’s nightmare. Her curvy folded skins pile up around the midriff to form an impossible landscape. But there was something else, we all knew what it was: she held the marks of our mothers’. There was nothing sexual about the way she stood there. While we were sketching her, she had no choice but to stand there as we looked at her and saw our mothers in her; there she was Leda and we were all swans.
Right after Thanksgiving, I saw Louise in Carole Park.
It was a Tuesday. She was walking an old Bernese; her dangly hair covered most of her face. I noticed Louise from a long distance away but didn’t go near until I was 100% sure. I followed her around the park. It was not long before the Bernese decided to lie down on its side. Louise kneeled to check up on him. She put her hand on its chest, frowned compassionately, and compromised to rest on one of the nearby steel chairs. Holding the leash between her knees, she re-tied her hair into a messy bun. That was when I was convinced it was Louise. I called her name and walked up to her.
The tongue of her dog dangled wearily at one side of its mouth. Despite my pounding heart, I knew exactly what to say.
“My name is Henry. I met you the other day in Mr. Anderson’s art class.” Louise looked surprised. She looked down at her dog, then quickly looked back up and gave me a little nod.
“Ya.” I nodded too, trying my best to sound confident and sophisticated. “ Cute dog.”
The dog held itself up to sniff my shoe. Its tongue wetted on my shoe so I took a step back. I wondered how many different things it licked along their walk. The old intruder’s owner pulled the leash and apologized on its behalf quickly.
“Sorry.” She frowned. I shrugged, forcing myself to look her in the eyes. Her brown eyes sheened a tint of green under the sunlight. I took another step back; My hands reached for my pockets for refuge. We were merely one dog’s length away from each other, I could see the rise and fall of her fine lines.
“No worries. Anyways, mind if I sit down?”
She looked around her, and scooted left a bit; There was plenty of space on the chair, so she scooted right back.
“Do you come here very often to walk your dog?”
“So you live nearby?”
Then, out of nowhere, I heard myself saying.
“With your husband?”
There was no way out of it. No matter how much I regretted bringing up this subject, I had no choice but to keep asking.
“Do you live here with your husband?”
“No, just me and Chance.” She stared me straight in the eyes.
“Oh, sorry. I thought-”
“Sorry.” I took a deep breath. “You work anywhere aside from, you know, modeling?”
“Oh yes. Ya, at the museum.”
“The art museum down Church St?”
“The exact one.”
“I mean,” I was saying things on the top of my head. “Since you live alone. I mean…if you want anyone to talk about anything, you can come find me. You know, I’d be happy to have conversations like this.”
I leaned forward to look at her. She was looking at me, too, startled. We stared in silence for a while until she suddenly rose.
“I gotta go.”
“Sorry, Henry, I really need to go.”
I don’t know how to describe how frustrated I was with her arbitrariness. I panted heavily as she picked up her leash and petted the dog hurriedly, trying to calm myself down. Frustration accumulated nonetheless. I wanted to sprint but my knees felt weak. The next thing I knew, I fell flat on the ground. A layer of my skin curved into a flimsy scroll. The pain was insignificant compared to the dread flushing through me that split second. I didn’t know if Louise had already turned around, with the leash in her bony hand, headed away and completely missed the mini tragedy that just transpired. The thought of receiving any reaction from Louise filled my limbs with fear. Without looking back, I got up as fast as I could and staggered away.
The entire Wednesday morning I was restless thinking about her. What if she decides to talk to me right when she enters the classroom? “Hi Henry,” she would say, “How are you? I saw you fall yesterday. It seemed really bad.” However I respond, she’d frown compassionately at me. Or should I drag my pace and be late to the class, when Mr. Anderson’s lecture has begun to avoid any conversation? But what if she decides to talk to me during workshop time when the room is quiet? “Hi Henry,” what if she asks, frowning already, her stretch mark frowning too. “I didn’t get to check up on you earlier. Are you okay?” Or worse. What if I did say something wrong that day and she doesn’t want to talk to me ever again? By the time the bell rang and Mr. Anderson walked into the classroom with his guest following like a dog on a leash, I had refilled my water bottle three times already. When she entered the door, she was looking at me. During workshop time, she tilted a bit to face straight toward my direction. One can only imagine how occupied my mind was just trying to hide behind the canvas, and I’m pretty sure Mr. Anderson had already called my name at least twice before I noticed that he was standing right in front of me. I looked down on my canvas, which, aside from some smear and confused lines of charcoal, was completely blank. Now the whole class was looking at me. Louise’s presence at the corner of my eyes was so apparent that it tingled. I got up. I could feel Louise’s shaky eyes on me. She must’ve remembered me after the park. I tried to mumble something out but I failed over and over again. I don’t know how long I stood there, idle as the charcoal between my fingers, until my inability to make a noise fomented a wave of anger again that hit my head hard. Infuriated, I practically threw the charcoal away. It broke in half against the back of my chair, but I couldn’t care less. I pushed my way out of the classroom, didn’t look at Louise nor the wooden figure at the entrance. To my delight, the corridor was empty. But then Louise chased out. She did have her faded jacket on, panting as she approached me. “Are you ok?”
I didn’t know what to say,
“Look,” She took another step toward me. “About yesterday.”
She put her right hand on my shoulder.
“You said you’d be there for me. I didn’t know how to respond. I recognized you at the museum. I mean, you are so young…handsome, talented too, I bet. You are too much for me…” With her pale lips trembling, she petted me on the shoulder and took another step forward. I stood in inaction, bewildered. “Who am I? I’m a divorcée in her forties… I was terrified. I’m sorry that I ran away.” “Ms. M..” I finally succeeded in mumbling something out.
She immediately stopped.
“I think you misunderstood.” I took a look at her hand on my shoulder. “I never…”
Louise took a step back and covered her mouth with both hands. We were both shaking.
“It’s not like that.”
“Oh!” She exclaimed, breathing heavily. “Oh, sorry. I thought you-” “No.” I shook my head. Now she looked absolutely embarrassed, blushing visibly.
“Don’t bother, Henry, just…” Her finger waved headlessly in the air. “It’s alright.”
Unable to finish whatever she had to say, Louise turned around and walked back into the classroom. I heard Mr. Anderson mutter something, which clearly didn’t convince Louise to stay any longer, who was fully dressed by the time she came out again. I might have called her name, but she didn’t stop, nor did she turn around to look at me.
That night after I talked to Louise at the park, Hoya visited me.
“I don’t want to go to class tomorrow.”
Hoya’s entire lower body was wrapped in the blanket. Her upper body, on the contrary, is entirely exposed in the air. She took a long, contemplative look at me before holding herself up. The silver narcissus pendant that was restful on her collarbone dropped out into the wrinkled sheet.
Why? She asked.
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I just don’t feel like going.”
Hoya took another long look at me. You are scared to see Louise. She concluded.
“I guess I am.”
And why is that?
“I don’t know.”
I reached for the blanket but Hoya rolled away. Now that she was way more covered than me she was fearless. I reached out again, this time with both hands. Hoya took hold of my hands and, agilely, pressed my right arm down with her knee and held my left arm up with both hands. Louise’s belly suddenly appeared floating in the air in front of me.
“I was a huge baby.”
You were. Hoya’s untouched belly next to Louise’s.
“I think dad lied,” I said. “Why’d any mom want a huge baby?” Hoya investigated my palm attentively for a while, and bit my hand.
Stigmata. She giggled.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.