By Melissa Wiley
Bread rises—bread grows—indifferent to its appearance. The same seems to be true of a naked woman surrounded by those sketching her skin’s warm folds and cooler expanses. The same seems to be true but isn’t. A tattoo of two eels anneals across her abdomen. The eels gnash teeth like swords they’re attempting to sharpen, though I don’t bother drawing what the model herself seems to have forgotten.
I come here once or twice a month to study a body looking little different from my own except mine has no fish fighting on its stomach. I come partly for the company as I sit among strangers sketching in silence. In my notebook, the woman remains faceless. No more than a neck extends from a collarbone whose shadows I overly darken. With my hand blocking the blue nipples hanging below it, her throat’s hollow resembles a uterus whose fallopian tubes have fallen limp from her shoulder sockets.
The model who comes most often practices kung fu, wins world competitions. Yet lean as she is, still she has been kneaded. Without being able to capture her legs’ foreshortening once she folds them, this is evident to me. Time and again, someone has pressed his fingers inside her fibers, has taken time to make her lighter. Smooth as her skin is, young as she still is of a woman, she sits naked and sullen while some easy joy makes her seem familiar.
However skilled you may be as an artist, breathing remains impossible to render. No one can convey the rhythm of inhalations and their opposite on paper, myself included. In all my drawings, I’ve taken a living woman and denied her respiration. I’ve flattened her ribcage into a fence glued with skin when I sit entranced by the flutter of its stiff accordion, staring at her bones’ expansion and contraction as if some god inhabited them. In the end, I’ve done nothing but depict bread baking, bread that will never be finished, tasted. I’ve done this knowing that for as long as a woman lives, yeast converts her sugars into something more solid.
The first time I came to a figure-drawing session, I sat beside a man I tried not to notice was handsome. During the break given to the model between her longest poses, he spoke with the woman behind him. She mentioned she’d recently returned from teaching in South Korea. I heard no more of their conversation, because the model, wrapped now in a kimono, asked to see my sketches. Trying to distract her from the fact I’d drawn her dead from suffocation, I noticed her accent and asked where she lived before this. Chile, she said, when I asked why she moved to Chicago, here of all places. For a man she loved but since had left her, she responded. For a man she had a son with who turned five last August.
Love and its withdrawal—its recession—is as natural as breathing, sometimes synchronous, I wanted to tell her but didn’t. I wanted to share with her my only wisdom, garnered from a lifetime of longing with no real object. There must be an end to fermentation, however pleasant. A woman has to be kept a certain size to rise from her oven. As it was, I only listened.
Minutes later, she draped her kimono on a chair then emerged in her skin again. Louis Armstrong sang “La Vie En Rose” as the man beside me put earphones in and tapped his foot to another rhythm. I stopped looking at the model as closely as I had been and drew instead what Louis serenaded, the pain of too much loving, too much for one person. Her body’s straighter edges then grew zaftig so she looked less a martial artist, and I smiled at the man beside me as I left. His eyes lit up in a promise as the woman behind him ran her own across my dress. She narrowed her pupils at my chest’s rise and falling, its free conversion of sugar into alcohol, a process lending bread its flavor without inducing intoxication.
I spent New Year’s Eve with the woman who hosts the figure-drawing sessions, herself a professional artist, along with my husband. While listening to local blues musicians, she told me that when she was younger and growing up in London her boyfriend died in a car accident. She was walking through Piccadilly Circus with friends when she found herself walking in the direction of an ambulance. Two cars collided. As she moved closer toward them both, her arms were outstretched while she crisscrossed traffic, her friends noticed but she didn’t. She seemed yet wasn’t somnambulant.
A couple hours after this, she received a call from her boyfriend’s parents confirming what her body had known but her mind hadn’t. One of those cars crushed into an accordion had belonged to her boyfriend’s cousin. In his last conscious moments, she’d walked toward him lying in the ambulance with her arms extended. She briefly turned back toward her friends and laughed at her own impulse. At the time, she had no explanation.
The band’s singer stopped singing and started speaking parlando about cunnilingus. As the saxophonist played softly behind him, he issued strict instruction to the men in the audience. Lick, lick, lick the women. Lick those sweet folds with hair on them, he enjoined with a televangelist’s passion. Up to this point, the song had been one of longing for a woman living somewhere in Virginia, the state for lovers and where I’ve yet to visit. Originally, there were only the silhouettes of mountains looming larger with the singer’s hunger for a love long lost to him. Then the singer took matters in a different direction.
My friend and I were dancing ourselves into a cleansing sweat as my husband guarded our purses. When the lonely drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains turned explicit, we slowed the movement of our hips. All this talk of pleasure we weren’t having at the moment. All this invocation of oral stimulation from a singer staring down the dresses of the women beneath him. I looked around for who may have inspired him to change the lyrics. Whoever she may have been, his desideratum didn’t seem to notice.
My new friend sent me an email later that week asking if I’d model for the next session. I considered it then thought of the handsome man drawing my stomach’s fat deposits with no eels to sharpen their teeth against each other by way of distraction. I’d looked sidelong at his drawings while the woman who returned from South Korea was speaking to him. Compared to mine, his were the model’s mirror-image, perhaps because he never heard Louis Armstrong sing while he was working, perhaps because he was also more skilled of an artist. He’d drawn the eels locked in combat when I hadn’t. His arms were bronzed and sculpted.
For years, I’ve had the same picture of Paul Gaugin taped to my fridge. He sits at a harmonium wearing a tweed jacket with no trousers beneath it inside Alphonse Mucha’s studio in Paris. Gaugin left the city for French Polynesia not long after the photo was taken, abandoning his Danish wife, five children, and job selling tarpaulins. Alone and penniless in the islands, he painted shoeless as well as pantless. His toenails splintered from over-length as he made love among the palm fronds to perennially topless women. He contracted syphilis before dying prematurely, his work dismissed by the wider world during his largely profligate existence. He died penurious in every sense except the touch of other humans.
Hands were waving as I walked again toward the studio’s entrance. They were hands severed from their bodies. Single gloves topped fence posts at random, lost from their partners. The gloves were filled with metal rather than warmer hands still cool enough to want to wear them. No one had yet come and claimed them.
Radiators hissed and soothed my muscles, hardened from January’s breath, into a sudden softness. I scanned the room and saw no handsome man to sit beside and not speak with. A few minutes later, however, he sat down beside me again after a new model undressed. Her pubis was shaven except for a small tuft of hair she’d missed. Some small love swam between us as I had and had not expected.
After he asked my name and I told him, I said I hated my drawings, the stiffness of the one body I drew headless over and over again. I said I supposed I felt the same about Gaugin’s Tahitian women when I first saw them. He said my latest drawing recalled one of Gaugin’s paintings then named the one he meant. I didn’t know any of his paintings’ names, only that his subjects’ limbs often look unnaturally deprived of movement. Gaugin contracted syphilis from one of these women whose ribcages he flattened into fences.
The model resumed posing as I sat up straighter and he cleared his throat for several seconds. I colored the tuft of pubic hair red as a flame fluttering from the model’s clitoris then darkened it to scarlet. At break, the woman who had returned from South Korea again claimed the handsome man’s attention. His throat clearing subsided.
I left to walk the hallway and admire the work of other artists. When I came back, he was discussing cabinets as well as room for chickens and horses. He was building a home in North Carolina, he was telling the woman, explaining he’d have more space there than he’d ever imagined. He didn’t say who would occupy it with him. Of course, there’d be other women. Of course, there would be dozens, what might well be code for chickens.
A house, I said to myself as if intoning a chanson, preferring French lyrics to English if only because I cannot understand them. A house, I murmured when taking the bus back to my apartment. To pour foundation onto land, to create something so solid trees were slain to forge its skeleton. Yet in the midst of this, stillness. A home surrounded by land blanketed in forests, an oven to rise and fall in, a place more rustic with less traffic.
I’ve decided to go to Prague, I’ve told no one, not even my husband. I’ve chosen Prague for no reason other than I’ve seen pictures of its steeples and want to reach my arms high up toward while never touching one. I’ve bought new shoes for the trip, money my husband says I’ve wasted because he doesn’t know I’ll soon walk across Prague’s bridges inside them. I bought them because the man selling them slid a cool shoehorn against my skin, because he laced and unlaced them. Because however much the shoes cost, his touch came gratis.
However stiff his women’s limbs, Gaugin remains one of my favorite artists, the more so for knowing he abandoned his tarpaulin business. I still can tell you the names of nothing he painted.
Prague has become a necessary trip, the more I’ve thought of it, if only because I have such a small apartment, if only because this going somewhere only to leave it mirrors expansion and contraction, the body’s ineluctable rhythm. Because spires crown all those steeples, which thin into needles. Because structures this priapic serve no architectural function. They are no more than vain and phallic attempts to breach the heavens, to see if their clouds spring back, resilient.
Prague makes as much, maybe more sense, as North Carolina, even if I’ll never move there on a permanent basis. I’ll wear the new shoes I’ve bought solely for this purpose and pack a small piece of luggage. I’ll live with less for a couple of weeks, pretending I’ve been abandoned, pretending I too have been kneaded when I haven’t, capable of rising without collapsing in my oven. I’ll suffer less there from the fact most of the bread I use to make sandwiches is tasteless.
Aside from being rushed through fermentation, aside from being kneaded by machines rather than human hands, the bread I buy at the market I also refrigerate far too often. I do this to keep mold from metastasizing across it. Through my refrigerator’s coldness, I prevent another type of fungus from devouring what fungus made to begin with. Life consists of more than feasting, I try to remind it, but yeast never listens.
The handsome man hasn’t returned to another drawing session. Perhaps he has left Chicago for North Carolina altogether, for somewhere warmer with more space to breathe in, with room for horses and chickens. The model from Chile has stayed with her son where the air is cooler, however. After last week’s session, I finally asked her about the eels, about why she chose them.
They’re not eels but serpents, she gently corrected. The tattoo is a smaller representation of what in life looks much larger. Snakes, not fish, she repeated. Funny I hadn’t noticed the difference. She said the tattoo represents kundalini energy in yogic philosophy, energy that is normally curled in the shape of a sleeping serpent at the base of the spinal column. In her case, though, the serpents are unfurling. They are straightening themselves into steeples. They yawn and stretch, awakened.
Emerging from its dormancy, kundalini energy circulates throughout the nervous system to the higher chakras. The serpents’ ascension leads to awakening, making the body lose its density, fill with spirit. Normally serpent energy begins stirring only through an intensive yoga practice. But a traumatic life event—a near-death experience—she said can also do it. Her son’s father leaving was sufficient.
Yet as these serpents ascend the spine, they are also feeding. The model didn’t tell me this, but I deduced it nonetheless. Ravenous, they consume the body’s denser organs and release carbon dioxide in the process. These serpents are yeasting, attaching themselves to their host through a series of filaments.
I say this because my kundalini energy still lies coiled inside my pelvis. Instead of trying to awaken these serpents through holding of yoga positions, I think of Prague and its spires I will never reach however far I stretch my arms up toward them. I think of this as if a visit there were any less common than a daily yoga practice. For the moment, though, Prague distracts me from the fact I’m as hungry as yeast growing inside a serpent. I have new shoes as well as the appetite of a fungus for more love than I’ve been given. That I have eyes to see it is the difference.
If humans devour bread out of hunger, they remain dependent on yeast’s larger appetite to make it. There is another hunger, however, that persists even after a banquet is finished. It is why the serpents on the model’s stomach keep their mouths open.
The last time I went to the studio for a drawing session, the last time I plan to go for a while to come, I attended a magic show afterward with a friend. In a small cabaret theater better known for its burlesque, we sat three rows back on the fringe of the audience.
The first man on stage was not a magician but a mentalist. He read people’s thoughts, often through their body’s movements. The body cannot lie, he reminded the audience while casting his gaze across the seats. I crossed my legs and tried looking past him toward the velvet curtains. Glancing my direction, he shifted his eyes again and chose another woman, asking her to think without saying the name of her first boyfriend. He guessed the name as well as a sobriquet she’d given him decades before this. He said her passion for him all these years later generated warmth still ascending her spinal column.
After choosing different members of the audience and demonstrating his mind-reading prowess, he held up a long fluorescent light bulb. He cleared his throat and walked toward me, asking me to hold it. He said I only needed to confirm there was nothing out of the ordinary. I laughed in relief when I discovered he wasn’t going to read my thoughts of Prague and its steeples, of the shoes I’d bought for nothing more than a promise.
After the mentalist divined yet more personal information from more of the audience, he asked me to come on stage with the light bulb still in hand. At first, I looked out at the audience rather than directly at him. He told me, though, I had to stare into his pupils, their darkness, then down at the watch on his wrist. He told me to imagine a beam of light shooting from its face into the hand I held the light bulb with. He counted down from five, and the bulb grew warm in my palm then brightened. As the audience gasped, I felt a power surge through my spinal column. The serpents were rising, or at least they were in that moment. Since then, they’ve fallen back asleep with all the yeast still yet to begin making bread, to feed their hunger and us with it.
Coming home after the magic show ended, I met our building’s handyman in our doorway. He was holding thirty or more record albums. His wife was rooting for more in their car parked across the street, and I ran to help her carry what looked like hundreds of lifetimes of music. She was moving back in after a trial separation, and I felt warmed from seeing their faces, their mutual glow of expansion.
Unlocking my apartment, I hugged and kissed my husband, who had turned the heat up warmer than I like it. Our apartment always feels warmer in winter than summer because he cannot tolerate the coldness, for proof of which he points to the differences in our bodies. He pinches my extra layer of insulation.
He asked me about the magic, and I said I’d been chosen for the main trick, if that’s what you could call it. After I told him about the light bulb and mimicked the crowd’s reaction, he asked me how I thought he did it. I explained he was a mentalist, not a magician. He had only tapped into a power lying dormant. The mentalist had only awakened sleeping serpents, not drawn them on my abdomen like a tattoo artist. I had been suckered, he concluded. I had done what he’d wanted.
Perhaps I had, I responded. Unable to argue with what he assumed was illusion, I curled onto our couch in silence. I fell asleep there contracted into a coiled serpent. When I woke hours later and crawled in bed with my husband, my muscles were stiffened.
After I woke next morning, I wrapped my fingers around the light bulb the mentalist had told me to keep. I regarded its corkscrew filament through glass grown nearly transparent and stared into my colorless reflection. I examined the dark teardrops for nostrils, the crevice between the upper and lower lip. I opened a window in the kitchen and filled my lungs with wind.
Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in places like DIAGRAM, The Offing, Juked, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob's Tea House. She also serves as assistant editor of Sundog Lit.