She charged two hundred dollars per commission. Most were easy, photographs of children inside a mound of orange leaves, or a young bride in a billowing wedding gown, the giant sleeves now desperately out of style. A photograph was easy to turn into a portrait. It stayed still as Laura worked, tranquility flooding her like a warm cup of tea. She sank into their moments; flashes of existence aching to be seized, fossilized by the flicks of her wrist, the fantastical play between her mind and body.
Laura preferred photographs to live models now, since the baby was born. Few people wanted to sit for a pose anyway, what with digital transfers so fast and convenient. But she hadn’t removed the option from her website, so the man called to arrange a sitting. It’ll be of my wife, he explained. Curtis would have to be home, for the baby. She suggested Saturday, in the afternoon. The baby had woken and Laura’s t-shirt was getting wet as she waited, impatiently, for his answer. Saturday, he said slowly, and she hung up, wondering why she’d agreed so easily.
Her studio was adjacent to a large, gabled window. Laura hadn’t done a live portrait for over two years, so she kept the playpen there now. There was a short time when she was locally famous for her work, a tsunami of bookings filling her calendar for months – until it wasn’t as interesting anymore. But still, enough people continued to come, filling the years of infertility, her quiet wishing sunk into canvas after canvas of other people’s bodies.
The couple was older than Laura expected and she stared at them, briefly, wondering if the earth might open up to swallow them into non-existence. They stood before her; two tiny, caving-in bodies that seemed almost invisible, almost weightless. Laura offered them glasses of water, her voice loud and brash in her ears. But the man was already standing across from her easel, unbuttoning his wife’s blouse and slipping it down her wrinkled arms.
Oh. I didn’t know, Laura stammered. The man just nodded his head, slowly, with an intention that had no room for conversation. He removed the clothing with tenderness, a meticulous certainty that made Laura shiver. The woman did not speak and Laura wondered if she understood what was happening. But she held this man’s watery eyes in her own and nodded agreement as he slipped off her shirt and then her skirt, her slip and her underwear.
That’s when Laura’s fingers began to move, almost without permission or knowledge; each stroke navigating an uncharted flight across the canvas, through a labyrinth of moments, seasons of a life flipping forward. There were wrinkles, of course, deep crevices of lost elasticity, invaluable pockets to safeguard their memories. There were scars too, real ones on her breastbone and her abdomen; and the ones that Laura felt through the weight of her brush, so she pushed them into place on the canvas, announcing their dignity. The man watched as Laura worked – not at the easel or the painter, but at the muse, at perfection.
Laura stood in front of the gabled window after they left, her own clothes a pile at her feet, suddenly not caring if she could be seen. She traced her fingers along stretch marks and lifted her heavy breasts, milk leaking from her nipples. She cupped her abdomen, her womb, remembering its betrayal and then its acquiescence. She regarded the extra weight and the stubble in her armpits and the indentations of her fatigue.
And she was beholden.