by Kate Todd
They stand opposite each other in the courtyard, alone in the middle of the crowd gathered under the fairy lights.
Green eyes flecked with gold flit over the familiar face whose unblinking stare yields nothing. Jenn studies the familiar face. It’s been transformed in a way that sends a fist directly to her stomach. She notes the uneven skin tone, pinched eyebrows and slight downturn of the lips, ignoring the smooth contours of the hips, the power of the large leg muscles, and the deep wells above the clavicle. She leans forward to read the tag next to the canvas. Ambition.
The opening is being held outdoors. Something about “breaking free of the white cube”, Aline said just yesterday as they sat on the fire escape at her studio, drinking tins of cider and sharing a vape. She’s talked so much about the exhibition lately that Jenn has tuned out everything but when and where she needs to show up once she escapes the office.
Now that she’s here, she’s grateful for the courtyard setting. She can stand in the centre of the space, observing the exhibition still shielded by her mirrored sunglasses. Most of the canvases are familiar from being an observer to Aline’s recent cycles of euphoria and recrimination, all part of the territory of being the partner of an artist having their first solo show. Until now, Jenn hasn’t seen the titular piece.
How could Aline do this to her?
She knows the photograph Aline worked from. That in itself is unusual. Aline always works from a live model – Jenn, a friend, a commissioned subject, sometimes a paid model but only if there’s a client footing the bill.
Jenn remembers Aline reaching for her camera in the buttery morning light after a long, hot summer night. They couldn’t sleep for the heat, so they spent the night making love and talking into the early hours, sprawled across the twisted, damp sheets of Aline’s bed. Jenn let Aline fan her dark curls out behind her as she expounded on the current drama at her office. The cut-throat colleague, a juicy client up for grabs, the make-or-break nature of the contract, the shiny glass tower that contained it, all of it seemed miles away when she and Aline were together. Aline let her talk it all out, providing her with appropriate noises of agreement as she looked through her viewfinder and captured the shot. When she put the camera down, Jenn saw the hunger in her eyes and the picture was forgotten.
The painting is bloody good. Jenn’s the first to admit that. There’s a depth to her form that the photograph doesn’t have. The realism of the gaze is unnerving.
You must enjoy being the artist’s muse, people say. Muse? She always replies. I don’t know about that but I am convenient.
People assume that modelling for your artist girlfriend is a glamorous task. They couldn’t be more wrong. The fluorescent lights in the studio are harsh. The space is cold in the winter despite the short bursts from the space heater that Aline grudgingly puts on, grumbling about the extra electricity it uses. It’s not the way most people would choose to spend hours of their free time.
So why does she keep doing it? It’s a question she asks herself regularly, usually when she’s holding a contortionist’s position. But just when she’s sworn she won’t do it again, she sits for something new and Aline’s gaze lands on her. It’s not the look she gets when Aline is flicking between her and the canvas, but that first session where she’s really looking, pulling apart Jenn’s ribs, splitting her skull until she sees beyond the visceral mess and finds a truth. Jenn believes this is the greatest intimacy she’ll ever know.
Hire a professional model, she grumbles to Aline when she gets a strip torn off her for moving an inch and changing the light. Aline reminds her that models cost money that she won’t make until the gallery show is taken down and pieces are shipped. So I’m the cheap option, Jenn teases her girlfriend, but Aline has never made her feel this way. Not until tonight.
They have an agreement. Jenn called it a contract but Aline just laughed and asked if they were business partners or lovers. The question made Jenn blush in a way that standing in front of a boardroom with a bunch of suits who chronically underestimated her never did. The agreement is that Aline is welcome to her body, but Jenn doesn’t want her full face featured. Can you imagine, she said, if you make it big and one of the partners at the firm comes to see your show and recognises me there with all of my bits hanging out? Aline latched on to Jenn’s ‘if’ not ‘when’ and that was the end of the conversation.
But there has never been a portrait before, lulling Jenn into a false sense of safety.
A couple walk by on their way to the food truck parked at the opposite end of the courtyard. They stop. The woman places her hand on her partner’s arm. “Look at this one,” she says. “I like her. She looks strong.” Her partner grunts, his eyes fixed on their destination.
Next to come by is a group of friends. They stand around, tittering and dangling their rented flutes like wind chimes from their fingers. Jenn studies their artfully casual clothes – branded joggers matched with layered jewellery, vintage jackets, spotless trainers that could have been canvases themselves.
“Wonder who she is,” says one, looking to the label for a clue. “Ambition. Feels like she’s going to have a go at me.”
“Must be an ex,” replies another. “Looks a right bitch.”
They move on, leaving Jenn fuming in their wake. Arrogant assholes, she rages. Wandering around like they know what they’re talking about. As though they know me, or how hard I need to be to get out of bed every morning, ready to run headfirst into the wind, knowing that I am dispensable to so many. None of these people realises the sculptor she needs to be to craft a mask for her vulnerabilities. A mask Aline has ripped off for all to see underneath.
Jenn forces herself to take a shuddering breath. Her freshly done nails are wrapped so tightly around her wine glass she is imprinting on her palms.
Aline approaches, her arms wide. “Hello lover, you made it.”
Jenn manages to croak, “How could you?” before she flings the contents of her wine glass against the portrait and storms out through a sea of shocked expressions, not least Aline’s.
She finds out later that the gallery owner doubled the painting’s price before the cheap sauv blanc was blotted off the canvas.