“Wow. I mean, that’s–. Well. That’s interesting,” his best friend Ronnie said.
His mother – who, of course, knew what she was talking about – said, “conventional.”
Paul himself said nothing. He knew, of course, that the fact that he had a life-size marble statue, looking almost like an ancient Greek sculpture, lying on the floor of his workspace in decorative fashion was bound to upset people. It was also obvious, however, that it was difficult for people to take their eyes off of the figure. He had had a group of friends over one night – well, acquaintances, really – and the situation had been almost surreal. Everyone’s eyes kept wandering back to the composition of exquisitely feminine limbs, almost girly but not quite, while they did their best to keep talking about André’s exhibition, which they had all been to see before, and which they now referred to as “unusually non-hedonistic” for contemporary work, “maybe postmodernism is really coming to an end, after all.”
The marble was a warm and creamy alabaster white, soft at the edges. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine a network of veins branching under the surface. It was hard, though, to say why precisely Paul had gone to such lengths to make it in the first place. It was entirely different from the sophistication his other works aimed for, and the process had been torturous, too: for weeks, the place had been filled with a fine dust that gave him a nasty, throaty cough and lent all the rooms a solemn air, as if he were a tombstone maker. The raw material had been far too expensive and the logistics a nightmare.
He had also been occupied with this work to such a degree that he had barely gotten around to taking any shifts for the telesales company, a job which helped him pay the rent for his drafty workroom and living space. The whole thing was a former car repair shop made halfway inhabitable with the help of plasterboard walls and improvised electrical installation. The owner was a smelly and unfriendly painter who had sniffed in disdain when Paul told him he himself was mostly a sculptor, but had been willing enough to let him rent the place for, Paul suspected, more than it was worth, given that it was in a disreputable part of town and hot water couldn’t always be relied upon. He had started occasionally subletting the large workspace to other artists – kids, really, with high hopes, recent degrees from private art schools, and mostly their parents’ money in their pockets. The telesales job he kept carefully secret from everyone but his dog Potter. Whenever people asked him about his financial situation, he told them, “oh, you know, it wasn’t easy in the beginning, of course, but now that I do sell a piece every now and then, I’m getting along just fine. I mean I don’t need much.” Technically speaking, after all, none of that was a lie – it all depended on what you were willing to let count as ‘every now and then.’ The kids had started staring at the statue, too. Paul could see them thinking about what their professors would have said. “Vulgar.” “Cheap.” “Now if there was any irony to it, but this?”
He could think of one or two people who could probably guess the awful truth behind his day-to-day existence, but only Potter knew for sure. Potter was a Labrador, as friendly and peaceful and of mediocre intelligence as they get. “I know, Pot,” Paul told him sometimes, with a sigh, “it’s not fitting that I spend my days on the phone selling cheap jewellery to old ladies but, as you will learn when you’re older, it’s a cruel world, in which we all need to learn to get by as best we can.” He often used convoluted syntax with the dog; maybe as a passively aggressive way of getting back at the poor beast for not being a cat, and accordingly clever.
A couple of days ago, he had bought a large mirror to lean against the wall across from where the statue lay, so that there were now two marble bodies in his workspace, both of heartbreaking, immobile beauty, with slender arms and bellies rounding ever so softly, facial features painfully symmetrical. Since so much perfection was probably unbearable for human beings in general, Paul had decided to mess up the feet, making one dainty and slender, and the other a veritable clubfoot. Walking wouldn’t have been easy, running away impossible.
Tanya, who it didn’t seem quite right to call his ‘girlfriend,’ had come over and shrieked when she entered the workroom. “It’s like I can feel her looking at herself in the mirror,” she had said. Paul had put a hand over her eyes and kissed her, and they had gone into the bedroom, but anyone would have known, from the sounds alone that they were making, that it was the lonely kind of sex they were having, where you knew the other person was there only for the moment and could vanish into thin air any second, and so you didn’t bother too much to give them, or yourself, a good time.
Tanya, predictably, didn’t stay the night; and Paul had gone back to his workspace, taken up his chisel, and added some finishing touches to the right ribcage. His movements had been a little angrier than usual, and he had stopped himself just in time before getting any serious chinks into the stone. Now he pulled up an old stool, sat down and, as if to apologise, ran his hand slowly down the marble waistline. Potter tapped into the room. Paul turned, and told him: “The central issue is, I suppose, that I don’t know anymore what people want from their relationships. They want to be with somebody but they really want to stay out of the heads of the people they’re with, and they certainly don’t want anybody to get into theirs.” Potter – apparently baffled, but nonetheless sympathetic – put his head on Paul’s knee and together they looked, pensively, at the small breasts in front of them. He didn’t want this to be finished, Paul realised. Not quite. On impulse, he put a blanket over the smooth limbs, covering everything but the vaguely sad face.
Almost overnight, it all fell into place for me, where I was, who (what?) I was, and that a young – well, youngish – man with an angry and tired and arrogant and sad face was putting me through torture, for no other reason, it seemed, than that he desperately wanted me to exist.
I wouldn’t know how to describe what I felt before that moment. It doesn’t translate into language easily. The blows from the chisel rattled through my skull and torso but weren’t painful yet. Pain came only after I understood – when I was almost done. Before, I was nothing but what was happening to me. After, I could tell the difference. It was a bit like having been in a fierce thunderstorm that was fading from memory as I found myself somewhere inside, dripping wet but somewhat sheltered.
I’m sure many would expect more outrage from someone in my position. And yet, this was what I knew – long stretches of time in which I lost myself in my own silent existence, interspersed with moments of brief but intense pain when the sad and angry young man took up his tools, chipping off bits and pieces here and there. I had no opportunity for comparison but it did feel like a lot of final touches on something already as completed as I was. Looking back, I think I was even quite satisfied with myself. I knew I looked good, stretched out on the rough stone floor as if I had lain down there myself, taking a pensive rest from the absurdities of the world, quite like a girl who liked herself enough to forget herself for a moment.
He was at this weird point in life, Paul guessed, where in principle, nothing kept things from going on forever the way they did now. He got up, he walked the dog. He sat down for coffee at the huge table of massive, polished wood in his living space that he had spent a fortune on – according to his standards, anyway – because it seemed like the one thing a guy like him should have, half artist half impostor that he was: a huge table on which to spill drinks, make sketches, smear pigments. (Somehow, he hadn’t gotten very far with his project of fucking lots of pretty girls on it.) Some days, he got his computer and his headset and a second cup of coffee and got to work for the telesales company. Those days were disheartening but somehow reassuring, keeping him tethered to the normal. Other days, he got a second cup of coffee and just stayed where he was, tracing the lines and knots in the wood, until he had to walk the dog again. Those days were the worst. And some days, he got up and forgot coffee and the dog and started working madly until Potter peed in a corner. Those days were the best. And the hell of it all was, there was no reason why things shouldn’t stay this way forever until he dropped dead. Not even the reason that anything about it was unbearable.
His latest work, the marble girl, seemed to promise some kind of change. She just seemed endowed with so much more vitality than his other stuff. For Paul, there was a hesitant and vague hope attached to her that he hardly dared let in, even while he couldn’t quite fight off the feeling, either. The point was not – or, well, not only – that she was beautiful. There was a quality of the desirable in her that surpassed the question of beauty. Looking at her had a way of softening you up in places you didn’t even know could go soft.
Somewhere along, looking at the marble girl had become a naughty thing to do, he realised at some point, not a natural part of making art (whatever that meant), but something that came close to debasing the work. Looking at her had turned into a guilty pleasure that he sometimes allowed himself, feeling a tad awkward and ashamed while doing it – just a tad, though. He loved her waistline, how it sloped downward and upward, and he was rather proud of how he had managed to make the bones of her ribcage and hips just the tiniest bit sharper than you would expect from this kind of sculpture – just the tiniest bit, which gave a hint of sharpness, vulnerability and adult femininity to her girlish appearance.
I knew that I looked beautiful the way I lay there not only from the mirror image that I studied so carefully, day after day. The mirror image didn’t look back at me the way other people did, once they discovered me in the man’s – in Paul’s, as I came to understand – workroom. I had already noticed how, after a while, something had started to creep into Paul’s face while he was working on me, as if his features warmed and softened from inside and made his face open up before me. It became more common for him to just look at me, the tools in his hands forgotten. He didn’t know yet – and something about that fact was delicious to me – that I was there. And neither did the other people, of which a few started looking at me in quite the same way that Paul did, with looks that I could not only see, but also feel. I felt them in sensitive places, over my ribcage, along my waistline, on the tips of my breasts, over which these looks often rushed to linger elsewhere, leaving a tugging sensation behind.
But I was taken aback, to be honest, when the man, Paul, touched himself in front of me for the first time. For one because it wasn’t strictly speaking a pretty sight. He was in a pyjama that I would have guessed had seen better days, sitting across from me on a low stool, staring at me intently, breathing hard while his hand moved up and down quite frantically. For another, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see what I was seeing, and, being in the position I was in, I had no chance to decide. And yet, there was this moment when the man’s laboured breathing turned into a beautiful sigh and his head fell back to expose his throat, glistening slightly with a sweat that the temperature of the room didn’t justify. He was lost to the world for a moment, with only me being able to see him. When I thought about it afterwards, after Paul had gone to bed, I suddenly didn’t mind the experience so badly.
He couldn’t decide whether the experience was glorious or pathetic. Whether it was a sign of his undiminished capacity to imagine wildly and illicitly, or rather an indicator of his growing weirdness and the urgency with which he needed to get out of the life he was stuck in. Either way he knew, after doing it for the first time, that he would do it again: touch the marble girl like she was his lover, and touch her with more alertness than he had ever touched Tanya, or any other woman in a very long time.
It was just that it was so very easy to imagine her as vital and responsive, even though she was so very still. In his mind, Paul nursed and rehearsed the idea that all her reaction went inward, that she was a living person with a spell on her that forbade her to show any outward motion, so that all stirrings were directed towards her insides, where they fed into a steady burn. There was something both romantic and perverse about the idea of her wanting-but-forbidden-to that was unexpectedly exciting to him, and so he touched her marble flesh quite deliberately, thinking how he was intensifying her inner struggle, and her unable to move or make a sound, until he couldn’t bear the inner turmoil himself and had to turn it outwards.
After that first incident, there came a time when all was a sweet, disturbing, dreadful mess. Paul came to me at night more often, his face undisguised because he didn’t know – or rather, believed that he was only fooling himself into thinking – that I was well aware of all that happened. He came to me at night and ran the tips of his fingers ever so lightly along the contours he himself had determined and oh my, did I want to tell him to linger, to touch more fully, to grip more tightly. Did I want to squirm my breast into his palm but I couldn’t. He came to me at night and touched himself and oh my, did I want to be able to spread my legs but I couldn’t. He got up in the morning and decided he had to make my left knee more defined, or my right collarbone, and oh my, did I want to scream out in pain but I couldn’t. Other people came and they looked me up and down, up and down, hiding neither curiosity nor eagerness or disgust because they felt no obligation towards me. Was I enjoying myself, or did I feel uncomfortable? I couldn’t say. I felt exposed and excited as much as ashamed.
Because not all looks that I got were good looks; and not all looks that I got stayed good looks. In fact, many of them turned into irritated looks or even disgusted looks at some point. It took me a while to understand that it was my feet, or rather my one foot, that was the cause of this rejection. Some looked only at my foot, but some also looked at my foot and then looked at Paul, and the disgust on their faces intensified with that second look so that I understood that many judged Paul quite harshly for this deliberate cruelty.
I myself didn’t know what to think. It was hard to hate Paul for anything. Everything about him came down to a quintessential vulnerability, even his inability to believe anything but that I was entirely his creature. And yet, the foot was the one mark that he left on me that betrayed a certain pettiness: a need to assert superiority that was very different from the other ways in which he used me, which were somehow purer. Those left me disturbed, but also quite soft, thoughtlessly floating; and sometimes, they shook me so that I thought I must surely now break the confines of my beauty. The foot, though, was a meanness. Where I sometimes found myself secretly wishing that I could expose myself more to not only Paul’s, but also other people’s gazes, people looking at my foot made me want to cover it.
People got used to the marble girl after a while. They started to look at her more directly, and Paul could read appreciation in some of their faces, even though many had started to openly express doubts about the artistic quality of this latest addition to his portfolio. And then one morning, he had gotten up quite late after he and Ronnie and the hopeful kid currently sharing the workspace had had an awful lot of beers. Instagram featured a picture of him, Potter, and the marble girl. The picture had been taken and posted by Ronnie, who had called it “Potter and his girls.” Paul was surprised to find himself first frozen and then livid with rage. Ronnie had no right. She was his girl…work, he corrected himself. Whatever she was, she was his, or if she wasn’t his, she was certainly not Ronnie’s, not to show her around in such a cheap, casual way, anyway.
He texted Ronnie about it – “Wtf?!” – and Ronnie texted back – “Wtf yourself?” – this was obviously going nowhere. He couldn’t figure out his own reaction. At which point had he developed the urge to control who got to look at her, the urge to deny and grant access as he wished, and not as coincidence made it happen? What sense did it make for a struggling artist to feel resentment towards admirers of his work? Sure, he had imagined a living intimacy between him and the marble statue, but that had been all in his head, and he had known, the whole time, that it was only in his head. Or had he?
He went to look at the arrangement in his workroom, the marble girl and the mirror. He stood between the real and the mirrored figure, watching himself interfere in the scenario of marble perfection. A tired thirty-something with a greying beard, tattered house shoes, and a pretentious lifestyle. He knew, had known for a long time, about the inevitability of his own ridiculousness. “Potter,” he said aloud into the still air. Potter, unhurriedly, padded over from wherever he had busied himself, and sat next to him. “Potter, I’ve been an idiot. We need to get rid of this atrocity of a foot.” And he knelt to work the foot that he had messed with into the equal of its beautiful counterpart.
All the foot had ever been, after all, had been his feeble attempt to be the master of at least one tiny life.
That night, sleeping felt like being deep underwater, dreams rising to the surface but then bursting like bubbles. Inside them was only air. At one point he thought he heard a rumbling from somewhere, but all sounds were muted and vague. When he woke, impossibly, with the sun, he lay with his eyes closed for a while, imagining the marble girl’s hair as seaweed, her limbs covered with scales of so deep a green he couldn’t tell whether it wasn’t actually blue. The thought made him smile for no reason that he could identify.
When Paul did get up after all, the space around him felt even airier than usual, as if he had forgotten to close a window somewhere. He shrugged into a bathrobe and had a look around, but there was only Potter, eager, in his moderate way, to get out. “Yeah, me first, Pot,” he told the dog in a croaky morning voice. It was urgent, apparently, because the dog actually followed him into the bathroom and watched him pee. The bathroom window was closed, but the space kept feeling even draftier than usual. He stepped into a pair of jeans and grabbed Potter’s leash and his keys. Poor Potter gave an excited, strangled yelp as Paul opened the door into the workroom. In a blink, the dog was at the overhead doors leading outside and stood there panting, looking back as Paul hesitated. He could almost hear Potter speak to him – in Ronnie’s voice, exasperated: “What the fuck, man?!” – and yet he needed a moment to understand that, in the brilliant early morning sun that fell through the skylights, the floor in front of him was empty and the statue was gone.
The pain was sharp and went deep but it didn’t surprise him half as much as he would have expected. Because of course, people are hypocrites when they say that you need to let go of what you love so that it can come back to you. People let go of things all the time, and only rarely do they do it for love.