Last night, a man was biting my shoulders. At first his lips traced across my back and tickled the nape of my neck, then he began to bite. This was all in a dream. Ever since I moved the bed into a different corner of my room, I have had strange dreams. Men biting my shoulders. Eggs broken. Babies.
The strangest dream I’ve ever had recurs once every few years. It is nighttime and I am in the passenger’s seat of a car. A man I don’t know is driving us down the highway. I look down, and on my lap is a baby, its head near my knees and its feet pressing into my stomach, toes flexing like a cat’s claws. The baby’s eyes are dark but they shine in the orange glow of the freeway lights, disappearing into the shadows and reappearing again. Though no one has told me this in the dream, I somehow know that this baby is my own. I can feel myself loving it and I can feel it loving me. We do nothing but look at one another. The car keeps driving down the highway—I don’t know where to, because we never arrive anywhere.
Then I wake up, and the waves of loss come. It feels a little foolish to be crying, because after all, once I’m awake I know it was just a dream. But I let the tears fall anyway, putting the dream out of my mind until it comes back a few years later, or until I need a story to tell.
“Oh, wow,” Gwen says when I tell her about the baby dream, her eyebrows raised as if this is the most amazing thing she’s ever heard. It just might be the most amazing thing; Gwen hasn’t seen much of the world. “You have really cool dreams.”
“You have no idea,” I murmur. We come to this café once a week to talk about life and art. Gwen is an art student at the Chicago School of Art and Design and I’m her mentor, which means that as a professional artist, I am supposed to lend her my guidance. On a whim last year I signed up to do this, thinking it would make me feel better about myself and give me something to do, because I’d just gotten out of a rather emotional relationship. I’ve been called a woman of cravings, and at the time, I craved distraction.
But—Gwen is a disappointment. She’s scrawny and looks like an outsider without trying to, which is the worst kind of thing. All of the other art students are trying so hard to be purposefully disheveled with their nose rings and purple hair and expressions of ennui, carefully arranged on their faces like the purposeful tears in their jeans. Gwen looks like a misplaced farm girl in the city. She wears white Keds and sweatshirts with bunnies on them. It doesn’t come as any great shock to meet her and discover that she wants to illustrate children’s storybooks.
“So. What are you working on this week?” I ask, sipping my latte. I’m supposed to ask her these kinds of questions, and give her advice on her work. Or tell her something inspiring when she is feeling uninspired. But the truth is, lately I’ve been feeling rather uninspired myself. Mostly, I sit in on classes at the School and sketch nude models—the soft contours of Triceps, the Tibialis anterior, and the Plantaris. I love the names of bones and muscles, and the way they sound as they roll off my tongue. I’m really a painter, not a sketch artist, but I haven’t actually painted anything in months. I’m having dreams about men who bite my shoulders. This cannot be good.
Gwen rambles on about the wire-and-plaster shapes she’s making in her Life Forms class. “The wire is hard to form,” she says. “You know?”
I nod as if I do. Truth? I don’t know anything about this stuff, because I never went to art school. Art school has always struck me as far too much commitment.
While she chatters, my mind wanders—to my dream with the eggs. Earlier this week I dreamed this: That my friend Alexa called me, crying, because someone at a grocery store had been throwing eggs at her. It had happened right in the middle of the dairy aisle. Then when I go to the grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk, the egg-thrower somehow tracks me down, and pelts me with eggs. When I told Alexa about the dream, she told me that the significance of eggs and milk was positively embryonic—I must be having some kind of pre-menopausal anxiety due to lack of children. Half the fun of these dreams, I’ve learned, lies in soliciting my friends for their interpretations.
“Annie...?” Gwen is fidgeting.
“Hmmm,” I say, wishing she would just quit squirming and speak up. Alexa is wrong—I would be no good with children.
Gwen leans in towards the table and whispers something I don’t catch.
“What?” I ask, leaning closer.
Her voice is a breathy whisper that leaves the tip of my ear warm when she speaks. “That guy, over there...he keeps looking at us—don’t look over yet!—he reads his book, and then he looks at us.”
I casually look out the window of the coffee shop, take another sip of my drink, and then I glance over. He is sitting there, and he is looking at me. Spanish? No, French, maybe, with darker features and a chiseled jaw line and thick eyebrows. Lips that curve at the edges; a personal invitation to a smile. Eyes that are blue and grey, framed by thick black lashes that could make you get down on your knees and do things you promised your mother you’d never do--
Suddenly, he is standing next to us.
“Diego,” he says, holding out his right hand. In his left hand, he awkwardly holds his coffee and book against his chest. I try to see what the title is.
“Annie,” I say, putting my hand into his. His palms are warm without being sweaty, and as we release each other’s hands, our fingers linger for just a moment longer, and I feel calluses on the tips. I want to paint this man.
“I saw you sitting here; you talk about art. It is a beautiful thing the way you talk about art,” he says, and as he speaks I feel like an awkward schoolgirl, about as sophisticated as Gwen, who has started twirling one of her plaited braids and ducking her head. “I’m Gwen!” she says, darting out her hand without actually looking at either of us.
I shoot her a look of annoyance, but Diego only glances at Gwen. She is a kid; I can tell he is merely amused. He sets down his coffee and book. I no longer care about the title.
He takes my left hand and brings it towards his chest, near his breastplate—the Sternum—near his heart, and turns my hand over, palm facing up. My limp fingers curl slightly inward. He takes his index finger and lightly traces it across my hand, starting at my wrist. My pulse leaps but he doesn’t react, just continues the contour of his invisible line, down to the tip of my ring finger. I should feel awkward about the sudden presence of this man, but in the same way that dreams skip forward and backward in time, we seem to have skipped over the part where there is a wall between us. I don’t mind. I am tired of time, tired of walls, just relieved that someone is touching me again.
“They say,” he says softly, watching his hand move over mine, “They say that this finger is the ring finger because it was once thought that it directly connected to the heart. There are arteries that flow between here” –now he makes a small circle on my ring finger—“and here.” He reaches forward with his free hand and places a palm lightly above my chest, not actually touching me but close enough that his hand radiates a warmth I can feel through my sweater.
My heart beats slower, down to calm. It is like the sluggish lull of the body, minutes before a deep slumber. In my head, I list all of the arteries I can remember, leading from hand to heart: Digital, Radial, Interosseus, Ulnar, Brachial, Axillary, Subclavian, Pulmonary.
“Let me paint you,” I say, and I can already smell the plastic smell of the acrylics and feel the weight of the brush in my hand.
When I paint Diego, this is how it is: I pepper him with questions, and then I tell him to shut up and stop talking. I have to work fast. His look changes quickly and the slightest shift in his brow will make a new persona come over his face. But I want to hear his voice, too, and as he feeds me each detail—his French mother and Spanish father meeting on a street corner in Greece; his summers spent in Taos, New Mexico, where he takes photographs—his voice carries me, and when he stops the room feels too empty.
We drink a good Shiraz by candlelight after I do each succession of paintings, and when we make love he whispers Annie, Annie, in my ear; a soft echo. He rocks my hips gently over the bare floors, and I move my right hand down to his hip bone and curve my fingers around it. He supports himself above me on his forearms, cupping his hands underneath my neck, and I keep my left hand looped around one arm, his Tricep muscle, the Humerus bone. When I tilt my lips upwards, he bows his head down so that I can kiss his eyebrows—first the left, then the right—and then we gently touch our noses together. He litters my face with kisses that are so soft they tickle and then itch, but I don’t reach up to scratch because this would mean letting go of him, and in those moments I cannot let go.
My paintings of Diego are surreal and strange. They are intricately detailed in some places with a brush thinner than a pencil; other places have bold strokes that I slash up and down the canvas with a wide house-painter’s brush, trying to get the angle of his thigh, the shade of his underarm hair, the curve of his big toe on the floor—just right. I talk to him about the structure of the body, especially the names: Plantaris, Vastus lateralis.
I make him repeat the names after me. “Semimembranosus,” I call out, as I whip two colors together, like mixing cake frosting. “Biceps femoris.”
“Why do you like the names?” he wants to know.
“Because when you name something it becomes real,” I tell him. I don’t tell him that I name other inanimate objects—my car, my computer, my refrigerator, bruises that appear on my arms, new moles or freckles. I call lemonade “legonade”, and sandwiches are “sanditches,” even when the cashier at the deli or my friends look at me strangely. “Paintings are that way,” I continue. “I hate it when an artist says ‘Untitled’ over and over. The paintings need names, in order to become something real.”
“None of this is real,” he says, and he looks so sad that I want to reach over and comfort him, hum against his temple so that he feels the vibration course through his jawbone. Instead, I reach for the paintbrush, to make a record of his face.
We keep the shades in my apartment down so that the light is always dim and sultry, and in this way it becomes difficult to tell when night has passed into day or when dreaming should have bled into waking. Diego stays with me, and I don’t ask about girlfriends or wives. I don’t want to believe that the concept of other women exists for him; I have always been this way with men, growing jealous to even hear of women they might have inhabited. I want to believe that the palm of my hand was molded purely to curve around his hip bone, and gently guide his body inside and outside of mine.
“Hip bone,” I say to him, repeating it over and over because I like the sound; the way the bluntness of ‘b’ follows so closely behind the pop of the ‘p’. Diego asks me what the name is for the hipbone. I think for several moments, trying to remember.
“ ‘Hip bone’ will do,” he says, and I duck my head, pressing it into the curve of his shoulder.
The canvasses begin to line the walls of my small apartment, standing in front of bookshelves and pictures of people I can vaguely remember knowing. Painting him, I learn his body piece by piece. His patience while I paint him is endless. He only moves from his pose when I tell him it’s okay, and working in this way, I get a lot done.
When I have completed thirty canvasses, I get an unexpected phone call from a small downtown gallery where I managed to show a few pieces of my work last year. A perky manager tells me that they recently remodeled. “We’re looking for new talent to be part of our grand re-opening showcase!” she tells me, and something about her breathy voice makes me think of trans-sexuals; the softness seems forced. “I have a friend at Photo Today,” she continues. “They’re going to do a spread on our gallery! We’d love it, Annie, if you could be a part of all this.”
In the months when I wasn’t painting, I would have paced my apartment for hours, wishing for the right kind of inspiration so that I could put together some kind of show. But now—this—
“This opportunity is a dream,” she says.
I am frozen as I feel Diego’s hands at my back. His kisses trail from my right shoulder to my left, then they slowly move down my spine. My thoughts leave the gallery manager and trail off with him as he moves down the Longissimus thoracis.
“I’ll have to call you back,” I say, and when I turn to face Diego, his head is bowed near my knees, cupping my kneecaps and kissing just above them.
“No one has ever kissed my knees before,” I tell Diego.
He bends down further to kiss my calf, then moves to the area over the Tibialis posterior. Reaching down, I tilt his chin up. His eyes make me sink down beside him and curl up on the floor, his body behind mine. He puts one arm around me, and pushes his palm flat against my ribs, over my heart. For a moment the ache there is so strong, it feels as though he has reached his entire hand inside.
When I wake up, the floor is cold and my temple throbs where my head was pressed against bare wood. I sit up, hugging my knobby knees against my breasts, my eyes adjusting to the dim light in my apartment. Vaguely, I recognize the plaid print of my couch, and I search for the lumpy form of a human body. Nothing. I stand up. On the coffee table there are two wine glasses and an empty bottle. I turn over each glass and watch the last remaining bits of beet-colored wine drop out and splash onto the tabletop. I touch the wine with my fingertips, and it is lukewarm. He is gone. I can feel his absence as heavily as I felt his presence.
The ache beats quietly behind my ribs as I look from one painting to the next, my eyes lingering over each curve: Diego on the couch; Diego standing; Diego with his head in his hands; Diego crouching naked on the floor. I run my fingertips over the rough clumps of dried paint. The absence of electricity is what finally pushes the grief through to the other side. I lean into one of the canvasses as I cry, risking that my weight could rip right through. He was mine, he belonged to me, he owned me, he was mine, all of him, that hip bone...
Shaking my head, I walk to the couch and wipe my eyes dry on the slipcover, blowing my nose on it as well. Going over to the window, I draw the blinds up.
The light pours in.
A few months later, I’m walking down Grant when I see Gwen walking towards me with books overflowing in her arms. I haven’t seen her in months. When I didn’t get back to her for awhile, she requested another mentor. This was no great loss for either of us, I suspect, because we both know I wasn’t much for such a mothering type of role. Besides, I’ve gone ahead and set up the gallery show and I’ve been busy dealing with that. There are things to hang and paintings to cart back and forth between my apartment; a few random interviews for the magazine. Suddenly, I’m eating more than Malt-o-Meal for dinner. Suddenly, there are so many people around me that I have begun to crave loneliness in the same way that I once craved distraction.
Gwen sees me before I can move away, and I am surprised when a huge smile spreads over her face. I guess I expected some kind of sulky petulance for the lack of returned phone calls. But no, she runs up to me—all bright eyes, big city—nearly dropping some of her books.
“Hey!” she says, “I saw your show!”
“Hmmm,” I say, wondering if she could have lost some of that awkward nervousness by now. I stand there and wait for her to say something else, so that I can leave.
“Your use of color was really great, and I couldn’t believe how you mixed the detail with such a basic line,” Gwen says. I nod politely and to myself I concede that her vocabulary for discussing art seems to have gained some depth. Maybe art school is good for her, after all. She pauses, then continues. “The paintings...they were so life-like, and yet...so surreal. Kind of like a dream, you know?”
When she says this, I have to work to keep my face still. I wonder if she is remembering our last mentor meeting so long ago at the café. With him.
“You know,” she says, leaning in close enough for me to smell her, “I’ve told a few friends of mine that you used to be my mentor. And the thing is, we all wonder—you know, since the exhibit came out—who was your model?”
The director of the gallery had asked me the same thing when she came over a few weeks before to view my work for the show. I had spread the paintings out all around my living room—thirty canvasses, in a line, all of Diego. “Well,” the director had said with a teasing smile, “He’s exquisite! My, Annie, you truly do know art when you see it! Who is he?” Everyone wanted to know, and I had yet to come up with a coy enough response.
I look at Gwen for a moment, trying to see if she is joking. In a flash I can feel Diego’s finger tracing the lines of my hand in the café, the weight of him above me, and my palm curved around his hipbone. I feel it all so clearly. Standing there in the shade of the tall buildings, I shiver with a bit of cold, trying to decide what to say.
“I don’t know who he is,” I say finally. “I don’t know what he was.”
Gwen opens her mouth to ask me another breathy question, but I stop her with a quick squeeze on her arm.
“I have to go now,” I say, and I step around her, heading across the street before the traffic light changes. When I’ve crossed I turn around, but a blur of cars passes in front of me, and then she, too, is gone.
Kate Swoboda is a Life Coach and writer living in the Bay Area. Her first novel, Leaving Normal, recently won an Honorable Mention nod from the Maurice Prize in Fiction. Her short fiction and essays have also appeared in Tusitala, Collage, Pencilbox, and Be Real Magazine. She iscurrently at work on her second novel.