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Catching Light

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George’s hands were always dry. It was all the paint, she imagined, and though she did not know what was in it, she knew that it made his hands smell like salt and clay. It was a clean smell, and she did not mind it.

Which was lucky, as in the studio everything often smelled of it. She would bring clothes there – dresses and petticoats and chemises, and the next time she wore them outside, she would notice that they too had absorbed the smell in their folds of cloth, till she could go nowhere without the smell hovering in the air about her, marking her as the painter’s model, the painter’s mistress.

His wife never had the smell about her, Dot imagined. She never came to the studio, staying forever in George’s respectable townhouse in one of the more fashionable districts of Paris. The one he had not spent a night in for years. In her own head, Dot imagined that she had some other sort of perfume, this woman, like roses or lavender, and everything in the house smelled of that, and not of George at all. The thought comforted her, in a mean, petty way of which she was ashamed. George’s home was in the studio, with its small, windowless bedroom, and large main room, wide windows letting in bright, white light. The studio, with no parlor or kitchen – no parlor so that George never had to have visitors, no kitchen so that Dot did not have to even try to cook. The studio, which seemed almost like the full extent of the world, a world created entirely of George’s imagination.

She had loved the studio when George asked her to come there. Canvases everywhere, leaning against the walls, piles and piles of drawings in smudged charcoal. In that first giddy exaltation of love she had wanted to pick up every single one and examine it, knowing that, in them, she would see nothing but George. The place had made her want to dance, as George opened the window and the smooth yellow wood of the floor was streaked with the brightness of afternoon sunlight. She almost did, but she did not know how George would react, whether such frivolity would make him furrow his brow with impatience, particularly when she had come there to model.

He had asked her whether she would model nude for him with the sort of unblushing frankness that made it difficult to refuse. Before, he had only briefly sketched her; sitting on a bench with her parasol, or her head bent over a book she could not read. He never showed her the sketches. She had to look at his sketchbook furtively, when he had left briefly, to buy them something to eat or talk to another artist. It was only then that she saw how lovingly he would focus on little details of her features, outlining a single curl of her hair over and over, quite as though he did not want to move on from it.

He had never said that he loved her – never would, in fact. But after that, she did not need him to.

From another man, then, she might have assumed his inquiry to be some sort of proposition. But not from George though, from him, she might have wanted it to be. But not from George, who, she was certain, would have honestly offered if he had wanted something of that sort, probably in the same tone of voice he used to ask her to model nude.

He was creating a painting of the same model three times, he told her. It would be about the practice of modeling itself, with one of the figures undressing, the next posing, and the final one again redressing. Dot tried to picture it in her mind, but could not quite manage it. It did not matter. George was good – really, he was. She would not have let him sketch her at all if she had thought that he was not. The painting would be fine, even if painting the same person three times in one picture did not make all that much sense to her.

And so she arrived at his studio at the appointed time, looking incredulously at the building, which was not prepossessing in the least. But she overcame her trepidation and stepped inside, gathering her heavy skirts in her hands in preparation for the several flights of stairs, which would most likely leave her quite winded, particularly with the tight lacing of her corset.

But then the studio was so beautiful, and George was there, his dark eyes so reassuring, and the giddiness of the whole vague romance overcame her again. No one else had inspired quite that feeling in her, not the other men she had conducted such liaisons with, not the other artists she had modeled for, not even the men who had fit both of those categories.

George spread out a white cloth on the floor, presumably where he intended for her to stand, and said, “I would like to begin by sketching the middle figure. From there, it will be easier to approximate the composition of the rest of the painting.”

Dot nodded. She was used to modeling for artists, though this was only perhaps the third time she had done so nude. Briskly, she began putting aside her outer garments – hat, coat, shoes, parasol – leaving them in a rather untidy heap in the side of the room. When she began to take off her stockings, though, she sat down and took them off leisurely, extending her leg and pointing her toe as she did so. She glanced up to see if George was watching.

He was not. He was taking out his sketchpad and easel, seemingly utterly focused on the simple task.

Resisting the urge to grumble, Dot continued undressing – bodice, skirt, bustle, petticoats, corset, combination, everything, until finally all the horrid layers were gone and she breathed a sigh of relief, tempered with a shiver at the unexpected chill of the room. What seemed verging on oppressively warm with all her fashionable clothing was nearly cold without it. Self consciously, she touched her hair. She had pinned it up carefully, but already some of the ringlets were coming undone, as was their wont. She hoped that George would not mind.

It was clear that he did not, though, from the fact that he still was not looking at her. He was looking at something other than the angle of his easel, though – his gaze seemed inexplicably fixed on the pile made by her hat and parasol atop her coat. In fact, it seemed that he was furiously sketching them, as he murmured a few words that she had to listen hard to decipher: “Design, composition, symmetry, balance.”

“George?” she called to him, forcing her voice to make the word a question rather than a whine or reprimand. She would have liked it to be both, but it would be pointless of her. Those were artists for you, after all. Bizarre. And fixed, too, upon these little, random things. She had noticed that about George before – the way, during their walks together, he would suddenly stop and spend a quite lengthy amount of time examining the angle of two blades of grass or some little thing in the path. Sometimes it was charming, but other times it was merely irritating. She would have to become accustomed to it, she supposed.

But he did look up, in any case. Even if it was only to say, “Stand there, please,” while indicating the white cloth he had laid out. She did so, wanting to say something to make him laugh but not sure how to go about it when he was so fixed upon the task at hand.

“Hands folded, please,” was the next instruction, and, after that, “chin in a little, please,” and then, “place your weight upon your left leg, please.” And it was only when she was standing as perfectly still as she could manage in a way obeying all his instructions that he really, truly looked at her.

It was as though he was looking at her from across a long distance, but it did not matter, because he could see her, in a way she did not know that she had ever actually been seen. He was looking so intently, his eyes dark and shiny, his hands making sweeping lines upon his paper, and then suddenly he threw aside the charcoal he was using to sketch, muttering audibly, “Too many colors.”

He turned to a new page in the sketchbook then, looking about for his palette, brushes, and paints. He found them all quickly, and began to paint, even more frantically than he had sketched, in sharp movements, not sweeping strokes. “Red,” she heard him murmur, “yellow, green, blue, red, violet, red, red, violet.”

Truly, Dot, had no idea that her skin held all those colors, even to an artist’s eyes, but, for the first time, she had no trouble staying still, even as her leg began to cramp. She watched him as closely as he watched her, hardly breathing, seeing her own reflection in the brightness of his eyes.

He stood, his hands dotted with still-wet paint. He placed them on her shoulders, dry beneath the paint, and she kissed him as he whispered and endless list of colors that he could see in her face, her hair, her eyes. The paint got all over her, rendering her, to her own eyes, all the colors that he had seen.

The next morning was the first time she woke smelling of paint.