The light spreads its warmth across my neck, presses gentle fingers into my nape. I look up, at the water stain on the white paper taped to the ceiling, then down to my red-painted toenails, the paint chipped, a legacy from an evening in the Azores when Zeke and I ate alone together in our hotel room and she painted my nails to comfort me.
“Turn to the left a little,” R.C. says. “That’s right. Beautiful.” The flash snaps, shadows scramble into different corners for a moment, then settle back into their quiet place. “Good,” R.C. mutters, playing with the light settings on his camera. “You’re beautiful.”
I don’t feel beautiful. I feel fat and ugly. I feel lumpy and riven. Gravity pulls down on the fat I gained on those antidepressants three years ago, weight which I just can’t seem to lose. My skin dries, grows flaky and inelastic. When I squat, it bunches behind my knees. “Stretch out that leg,” R.C. says. I stretch it, and the stretching pulls my skin taut. Perhaps this photo will be beautiful.
I first became his model in 1999, eight years ago. A couple of black-and-white prints of me hang on the wall in his studio. One is a full body shot of me with one breast, taken three days before my second mastectomy. The shadows obscure the spot of my mastectomy scar. My right breast stands up pert and tight, hard nippled. The other is a shot of me on my back, no head, no lower legs, just the “landscape” of my body, the swell and dip of my belly, and the straight clear lines of my mastectomy scars.
R.C. is a professional photographer. For years he took pictures of weddings and cute little girls and horses and dog shows. Now he teaches photography at a local college and sells the occasional photograph from the occasional showing he does in various local galleries. He’s sold a few pictures of me, I know, hopefully to homes that will appreciate that a mastectomy doesn’t mean destruction of beauty or loss of femininity. My feminist colleagues mutter words like “cutting off the head objectifies the model,” but for me having the photos taken was a healing act, one in which I recognized that I could still be attractive even after an operation that too often was labeled as “maiming.”
R.C. has been at me to model for him again recently. It’s been a couple of years. The last set of pictures were fine, but I can’t shake the image of myself as fat and covered in lumps in the wrong places. “You’re beautiful,” R.C. says. “Let me show you what I have in mind.” He’s downloaded some images from the internet, abstract pieces that are pure light and shadow, where images of human bodies are mere suggestion, often genderlesss. In others the human body becomes a backdrop for patterns of light and dark. I think of the landscape pictures he takes: sweeping, swirling lines of wheat fields, some places fallow, some stubble, some ploughed, some still alive with heavy-nodding wheat heads bending before wind. They are the land as art, as a place for light to pool and in which shadows linger. His abstract nudes are similar.
“I want real women,” he said when I first arrived this morning. “Not Playboy models.”
I shook my head. “I can’t do it,” I said. We started talking. He’s a friend too, someone who’s known me for nigh on 20 years.
“What happened to you?” he asked. “I’ve been trying to figure it out. You used to have so much confidence. Even after losing your breasts you had confidence. And now….”
And it’s true. The divorce, my painful, difficult relationship with Nada, the destruction in my family as my mother was dying, all of these have shredded me. Every day is a fight to lift my head and feel that I have the right to be alive and to live with joy. And Nada, Nada of my heart and of the night, is at the center.
Yesterday I broke it off with him. I want more than friendship with benefits (on his terms), which is all he is willing to promise. I want love. I want a future. So I called it quits. Now I need to focus on loving Zeke and repairing the damage I’ve done in letting Nada hurt her (there’s a story there, an argument, a pitting of daughter against daughter, that maybe I’ll tell one day, maybe not. But it was enough, along with the ambivalence of his love, for me to see the way clear to walking away). Now I need to find my way back to the peace I know hovers before me. Maybe R.C.’s black-and-white pictures will help, the sweeping light caressing curves that are little more than suggestions, capturing the stillness of shadow, the quiet of waiting.