A writer searches remote landscapes for what brings her alive, only to find it in her own body.
by Jenny O’Connell
The first day, I wear my hair down so it might cover more. The professor gives me a pillow and politely asks if I would twist my body here, lean back into the light, bend slightly at the knee. Hold it.
The light undresses me.
“Don’t be afraid to get messy,” he tells the class.
No, I think, posturing my body, which I woke up an hour early this morning to shave and pluck and paint.
“Let her take up the whole page,” the professor tells the class.
No, NO, I think, sucking in my stomach. I try to be thinner.
The students in their skinny jeans ripped intentionally at the knees, the students wearing mismatched socks, the students swimming in their hooded sweatshirts, they regard me. Hunched over their easels, they fill the room with scraping charcoal and the sound of paper. I watch their eyebrows, furrowed with concentration, as I pass through the meat grinders of their imaginations and out onto canvas.
This one makes my jawline look very flattering. That one gives me a potbelly. Another one paints me blue. Sorry, they say when they see me looking; true artists, always the first to forsake their work. I pretend it’s all just a bad yoga class. I hold the poses for so long I forget to suck in.
I am a University Art Model. It’s a part-time job I picked up for $15 an hour. I always add the “University” bit because it makes the idea of taking my clothes off in front of a roomful of strangers and letting them draw me sound more legitimate. Right now, I’m wondering if this is worth the $45 I’ll earn today. Seventeen minutes go by. I’ve never been so aware of the clock. Someone sneezes. “Bless you,” I say, becoming human again.
The professor guides me into a different pose. Sit up, back straight, left leg folded over right, spine twisting toward the left. I’m not sure I like his voice, gentle but distinctively male, telling my body what to do. I definitely don’t like my body following directions without question. My left foot falls asleep.
“Pretend she’s a landscape,” the professor says. “Bodies are intimidating. Landscapes are not.”
I want to tell him about the most intimidating landscapes I know. The Alaskan backcountry in grizzly season, maybe, or the bulls at 17,000 feet who threatened me all the way down the jagged Cordillera Blanca. The way a -14 day creeps into one’s bones on the Maine coast, or what it’s like to sleep outside on an Adirondack night in the dead of winter. In the landscapes I travel, bodies are the least intimidating thing. But to say this would betray my purpose. I have come here to sit still. I have come here to learn how to stay.
What sets a life in motion?
For me it was the sound of tires hitting black ice. More like the absence of sound, really. When tires hit black ice you expect to hear screeching, but you hear nothing. In the absence of sound there was only my white Toyota flipping over the guardrail and rolling three times.
When the car stopped I sat very still, suspended at an odd angle by my seatbelt. Outside, the world was white-glazed grass. Freezing rain fell like ticker tape on the passenger door window, now strangely above my head.
A rush of cold air. Three wet faces, spotty in the dark, appeared above me. I stared blankly up at them and waited for someone to tell me what to do.
“C’mon,” said a man’s voice. I unbuckled my seatbelt and slumped onto the driver’s side window. Found my feet and stood. The sound of my boots on the plate glass confused me. “Missed the river by this much,” someone whispered, as hands hoisted me out into the ice-crusted night. “Jesus.” One hundred yards up the road, a river bent through a yawning ravine.
Years later, what I remember most is the slow motion. Right side up, upside down, I floated. The nickels and pennies in my cupholder hung in midair as if someone was about to catch them on the back of their palm, heads or tails. Right side up, upside down. I didn’t have time to think, didn’t wonder if I would die. I just felt my life inside me, a shimmering string that stretched through my center, and knew that I wanted it.
The second time I model at the University, I haven’t showered in two days. I haven’t shaved in a week. I wear my hair up. The professor is a soft-spoken woman who gives very light direction. I get to choose my poses. The students are freshmen and sophomores, and they are shy. Their eyes dart at me and then quickly away, as if they are trying to draw my body from memory.
“Use your imagination where the drawing stops. Draw what you can’t see,” says the professor. One of the students is playing music on his phone, a movie score battle soundtrack. Another student is sketching with a pencil on a paper plate. The room is cold. My stomach growls loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Tuck right arm beneath neck, bend left leg, head turned to the side. On the glass studio skylight, freezing rain is beginning to fall. I hold the pose for longer than I think reasonable. I hold the pose for longer than I think possible. My right arm falls asleep. The professor asks for 10 short poses, 30 seconds each, and then I lie still and listen to the clock.
When you remember you’re going to die someday, the voice inside you becomes harder to ignore. You know the one I’m talking about. The stray whisper. The knot in your stomach that you can’t quite untangle. There is a secret in your body that your mind does not want to hear. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t make money, and it’s a little bit selfish, and anyway it would be a terrible risk. Everything would change if you heard it, and someone might get hurt, and you’re comfortable in the container you’ve fashioned out of other people’s expectations so you have a glass of wine with dinner, which dulls the ache for now, and then you switch on the TV and get lost in someone else’s problems for a while. Life is fine—you’re doing just fine!—and you have nothing big to complain about.
For a while, this is you. It’s a smaller, contorted you, but still. You fill up your calendar to quiet the voice. Work harder, get a promotion. Plan trips that take you outside, that take you elsewhere. You brush up against wildness and return home full, but it doesn’t last. The tired eyes in the mirror are still yours.
And then one day you get caught in the rain. You notice a sugar maple sliding into crimson outside your office window, smell its sweet decay as you walk by. You pocket your phone for long enough to catch a kind word between two strangers. The first planet twinkles through electric blue dusk, alone on the horizon. And suddenly, you can’t move. The knowing is blooming inside you and there is nothing you can do to stop it.
The only thing left to do is follow.
At first it was just small decisions I made differently. Climb the tree on the side of the road to look at the sky, eat a second helping of cake, jump in the ocean with all my clothes on, get up early to watch the sun break over the pines. I lived fast, and then faster. I left a stable career and a steady paycheck to become an outdoor guide, and then a writer. I’d hold my lover’s body against mine, my mouth pressing into their shoulder, hungry for love. I’d trace my parents’ faces with my eyes, trying to memorize them. Cut my hair, change my home. Buy a plane ticket and leave urgent notes for strangers in the airplane bathroom ashtrays. Every year on my birthday, I’d fill pages with dreams and desires and reminders of who I wanted to be, seal them in an envelope addressed to myself.
I called myself “searching.” I called myself “alive.”
Cups are being washed, brushes rinsed. The students are finished. I wrap myself in flannel and walk around to each of their paintings. One woman is still working. With blackened hands she moves her charcoal across the paper, drawing where the drawing stops. “Sorry,” she says. I smile at her and watch her lines, the way they join, the smudge and texture.
I have become someone who holds herself when she is in pain, who sleeps with one hand over her heart and one on her belly. I am strong enough to fall back on, big enough to hold every emotion. Always, now, I can hear myself. More often than not I choose to listen. I have become someone who would trade “alive” for “awake.”
Maybe this is what staying is: the body. Breath, rising in my chest. This precise cold. The presence to notice, to know this will not be forever.
I dress in the next room, grateful for my hunger and the ache in my feet. In the studio, the students are discussing their art. As I pull on my coat I write a letter in my head, address it to my future lovers, to my insecurities, to the parts of me that are still searching. Missed the river by this much, it begins.
I open the door, and walk out into the rain.