I have always been fat. It's taken years of therapy to even say the word. I don't know how two totally opposite emotions--vanity and shame--can live under the same roof, but they do. I know I'm pretty; my friends tell me that I remind them of the Renault painting Salome. She holds a saber in her lap because she may decide to stab the softest part of you, then excite you with her tongue and she licks the blood from your skin. Her lips are turned up in an almost imperceptible smile. You amuse her, because, after all, she knows you better than you know yourself. She does not care for concepts like good and evil, vanity and shame, light and dark; her only concern is whether or not I am true to her.
Salome, capricious gypsy, often abandons me before I even realize she’s gone. She sneaks out the door when I open it to the pizza deliveryman, being extra friendly so he doesn’t have time suspect I am going to eat the whole thing myself. She is cruelly silent when I eat three pounds of bittersweet chocolate-dipped fruit in an orgiastic frenzy of self contempt when the man I love rejects me, the only way I’ve ever known to get sweetness.
I feel both her absence and my own; lately I lumber through identical gray days. I realize a peach-colored balloon floating in the street is only a glimpse of my face in a store window; I cut myself, and it seems as if I bleed only when I realize it is what I am supposed to do.
By the time I meet Francois, a freelance photographer who works for my boss, I have only a vague memory of Salome. She is too painful to think about. Sometimes I am afraid to close my eyes because her knowing, smirking face floats in front of me, daring me to remember what my life was like when she was in it.
Francois’ smell is the most vivid part of him. It is musky, damp and a tiny bit sour. He smells European. We are introduced. I look at him quickly and offer a smile as fast as a blink. He smiles back. His smile is so huge and fierce, it considerably softens his worse feature: a bulbous nose. It is ugly, dwarfing his face and sucking up the whole room. I concentrate instead on his body, his beautiful body, God’s consolation prize, a flawless DaVinci sketch that could make a woman want to throw herself at his feet. He smiles so utterly without malice that I decide to brave a direct stare, instead of keeping my eyes down like I usually do, staring at my shoes as if they were the most fascinating things in the world.
One day Francois tells me he likes my body; he thinks I am beautiful. I would have preferred he slap me. I fold and unfold my fingers, saying nothing. I want to take pictures of you, he says. I want you to be nude. He does not notice that I am shaking.
Let me do it, he says. Nude. You need to be nude.
‘You need to be nude’ gives me a jolt. It is such a frightening, wonderful phrase. What exactly does he mean?
I play with it for a few days, like it’s a new toy. You need to be nude. You need to be nude. The words move around in my head until they lose their meaning. These words are giving me a strange, new energy. When I have used them up, I need more words for renewed pleasure. So I tell him yes.
In his studio, I wait for him to tell me what to do. I have my winter coat on, a shapeless woolen poncho that blankets me from unfriendly eyes. I sit awkwardly, under the hot lights, watching him set up. I start to perspire heavily. My knees lock together, and I feel sweat trickle between my thighs, dripping on the chair. I am leaving wet trails, I think, like a slug. How could I have imagined I would ever do this?
Francois doesn’t notice. He is twisting and turning some important-looking dials. He moves the hot lights around, making eerie shadows. He does something mysterious holding a black box in his hand, aiming it at a big white screen placed behind a couch---the one, I supposed, on which I am supposed to lie. This thought makes me twitch--all of my pink folds being raped by that light. And with him to see. Up close.
This repulses and thrills me.
He sends me to undress behind a tattered old Chinese screen. I do not do this right away; instead, I listen to myself breathe and feel the stickiness between my thighs, under my arms, on my forehead. I wipe it off, but it stubbornly returns, and I think: why shouldn’t this body betray me? It’s only fair.
I undress. I pray he won’t come behind the screen. He doesn’t. I am devastated.
His face is impassive as I lift my bulk gracelessly onto the couch. He fusses with the lighting, his perfect body making mine want to beg for forgiveness. I lie naked under the light. There is nothing to cover myself with, so I use my hands, woefully inadequate against the miles of pink imperfection. I do not know what he sees when he looks through the lens. I cannot bear to see his face, the slightest grimace will send me reeling, screaming into the street, to go home and curl up into nothing at all. More sweat trickles into the folds of my flesh. I stop fighting it, tired.
Suddenly he scowls at me. In a thick accent, he informs me that he dislikes my expression. Relax. Relax. Try to relax. Some wine maybe. You’re too tight. No good.
He hands me a glass of wine. I obediently sip, miss my mouth, feel it dribble down my chin and under my breasts. I look down to see little crimson tears escaping from under my nipples. I am too embarrassed to wipe them off. He is shooting now, in rapid succession, talking in French. He sounds annoyed. The lights flash again and again and I am grateful I cannot see anything.
No good. No good. No! You are beautiful, a big fat temptress, please try to relax---you will ruin everything. Drink the wine. Think of something wonderful.
Big fat temptress. Did he really say that, or is it something else entirely that I misunderstand because of his accent? I need to throw up. It is suddenly clear: my boss knows about this, and these photographs will be passed around like a used whore, to be laughed at, pitied…. I grab the bottle of wine. To hell with it. To hell with all of it. My life is over, I am a dead woman, so I will get drunk and not care. I drink in big gulps, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, like a man. I feel the tightness leave me, my breath become more fluid. Everything gets easier when you stop caring. Soon, I start to move my body around with careless languor. I do things in front of Francois that I only do when I am alone.
Yes! Yes! There is excitement in his voice, and it makes my body rise and answer. I primp, preen, pout…I can do this now, for he is only a mirror.
Yes! Yes! More! Continue on! He is yelling, and I can see nothing---there is no pause between the shrieks of light. I show him everything, even the parts of me I’d never seen myself. If I am to die, I think, let it be a brave death; a death that Salome would envy.
My nipples harden into little pink buds. I feel desire touch the inside of my thighs, like the kiss of a tiny brush. Love me, love me, make love to me. Though he is across the room, hidden behind a big black machine, I can feel his hands on me.
Francois talks on the phone as I dress. His thick accent booms across the walls, chilling me. I take a long time; I am waiting for him to get off the phone, as I need his full attention when I come out. When I am dressed, he is still on the phone. I stand in front of him with my coat on, squirming, waiting for him to notice me. He must notice me, my life depends on it. He finally cups the mouthpiece of the phone, a gesture I find quite sensual: now I know how he would cup a woman’s breast.
You finally gave me when I wanted, he says in a low voice. Thank you. He smiles at me sweetly, and I wonder if I should kiss him.
I leave. When he waves goodbye, I do not know how I feel.
Soon afterward, we sit in his darkroom and wait for the images to appear on the contact sheet. As it is a small room, we sit too close together, and I enjoy the scent of him, sniffing at him without letting him see. I decide to refrain from washing my clothes so I can bury my face in his smell when I am alone.
When the swirls of black and white and gray begin to take form, I hold my breath, wait for the horror of my nakedness to take shape, to awaken from the dream with a cruel blow to the stomach. How dare I desire him? I close my eyes.
He sighs. Beautiful, I hear him say, just beautiful. Don’t be such a silly girl, look at yourself.
I look. I blink against tears.
He hugs me, delighted with me, with himself, with the world. Yes. You are beautiful. Look how beautiful.
Oh, I am. Oh God, I am. What a lovely woman, I think. There she is, full of life and sex and love.
See this one, he says, pointing to a portrait. Her lips are turned up in an almost imperceptible smile. She does not care for concepts like good and evil, vanity and shame, light and dark; her only concern is whether or not I am true to her.
She is amused. After all, she knows me better than I know myself.