"She long'd her hidden passion to reveal,
And tell her pains, but had not words to tell:
She can't begin, but waits for the rebound,
To catch his voice, and to return the sound..."
("Narcissus and Echo" Book III of Metamorphoses)
“Lie down, on your side,” she said. “Spread your legs apart… yes, that’s right.”
Erica adjusted the lighting in her studio, dipped her paintbrush into some raw umber mixed with turpentine, and began to sketch her model on the huge canvas. Nate was her favorite model, the most beautiful man she had ever painted. The shadow shapes on his body emphasized his muscular torso, as exquisite as a statue from Ancient Greece. Nate was a famous underwear model; his perfect ass, barely concealed on billboards around the city, helped to sell millions of pairs of underwear. Recently, Nate and Erica had become a “thing.”
Nate reclined on the dais, holding very still, and sweating under the hot studio lights. He knew that sweat only enhanced his physical appeal, and he smiled inwardly, enjoying Erica’s attentions. He was used to being adored, of course, but it was something else entirely to have a woman paint him, especially a woman as famous and talented as Erica. The only person he had ever really loved was himself, but he had to admit, dating the artist who was painting him was almost as good as dating himself.
Erica knew she didn’t really love him. He had an underwhelming personality and the spiritual depth of a paperclip. But she did love his body. And he loved his body, too. So, at least they had that in common…
Erica had a weakness for beautiful men. She especially liked men who were almost too beautiful, with high cheekbones and sensual lips, and long, lean, muscular bodies. Erica herself was not beautiful. Occasionally, when she was looking in the mirror, and if she tilted her head at a certain angle, she thought maybe she could be considered to have a certain kind of beauty, something understated and not easily discerned. But more often, she observed her face and body with ruthless judgement, seeing plain, bony, even masculine features, drooping breasts, and cellulite. She shrugged; it didn’t matter what she looked like. She rarely even thought about herself.
Only her work was important.
Years ago, Erica had endured a brief and miserable marriage, which resulted in a son named Cutie. After the divorce, she put Cutie into daycare and threw herself into her work, painting gorgeous nude men with a ferocious intensity, as if her very existence depended on it. She burned with an incredible passion which manifested itself on her canvases, and her career soared. Her paintings, sought after internationally, sold for tens of thousands of dollars. She was easily able to support both herself and Cutie, who was now three years old. And she also financially supported Nate, who had moved in after a few months, making himself comfortable in her spacious Brooklyn apartment.
The first time Nate dumped Erica, it was at the Family Diner.
“Do you believe in fate?” Nate asked, taking a large bite out of his rare hamburger. A dribble of greasy blood ran out of the corner of his mouth.
“…believe in fate?” Erica mused.
She sipped her diet Coke. She wasn’t sure if she believed in fate. That would imply a certain amount of meaning in the universe. Or a terrifying lack of personal control…
“You should. I do, I totally do,” Nate rattled on. He finished the hamburger off in a few bites, and then continued, his mouth still full of meat. “It’s fate. I can’t choose who I love, and I’m in love with someone else.”
Erica gazed up at the ceiling of the diner. The ceiling was actually a large, grimy mirror, and it made her a little dizzy to watch herself having this conversation, as if from a perch high above the table, remote and unaffected.
“Someone else?” she sighed. She wasn’t surprised; she always knew it would happen. In a way, it was a relief. She was aware that her paintings were beginning to get stale, ever since she and Nate had gotten together.
Beauty wasn’t enough.
But Nate couldn’t bear to be separated from Erica for long. He needed her to paint him, he craved her particular artistic devotion, and so he persuaded her to take him back. But, as time went on, Nate would habitually dump Erica for other lovers, both men and women. Then, like an addict, he would crawl back to her, winning forgiveness with his godlike physique.
“Paint me,” he would say, arranging himself dramatically on her doorstep.
Erica could hardly resist, after all, Nate was her Muse. The instability and drama became a huge distraction from what was really important to her, namely, her work as an artist. The quality of her paintings continued to decline, although they still fetched the same high prices. It was as though she no longer had anything to say, no opinions or ideas of her own. All she had was the ability to reproduce masculine beauty with technical, yet lifeless, virtuosity.
She tried to end the relationship. As a last-ditch effort, Nate proposed a camping trip. They would rent a car, drive into the mountains, and roast marshmallows. Cutie would come too, of course.
“We need to get out of the city,” Nate said. “Out into nature. You’re an artist, so, don’t you love nature?”
“Nature?“ Erica scowled, unconvinced.
“You’ll love it,” Nate said with a smile. It was an irresistible smile, and he knew it.
When they finally arrived at the campground, it was completely deserted. The clean, quiet smell of trees and mountain air was new to Erica, and refreshing. She thought, maybe Nate was right, this was just what they all needed. Cutie, of course, was overjoyed. He took off his clothes and went romping naked among the trees, picking up sticks and shouting happily. Nate and Erica spent a long time trying to set up the tent. When they succeeded, the sun was low in the sky, and the slanting angle of the sunlight caught the leaves of the beech trees, making them shine like gold.
“I want to make a campfire,” said Nate. “Let’s go look for some firewood.”
Erica followed Nate into the forest. She could hear Cutie shouting happily and playing, just out of sight. She walked slowly, perceiving her surroundings with an artist’s eye. She admired the graceful forms of the trees, as they curved upwards into the blue sky, and the forest floor which was patterned with deep shadows and spots of light. Each individual leaf was a universe of beauty, of light and shadow, calling to her to get out her paints. Could this be the new inspiration that she needed?
When she looked up, she couldn’t see Nate or Cutie. It was strangely quiet. Even her own footsteps were muffled on the soft moss and pine needles. The sun was still setting, in fact, it seemed as if it hadn’t moved for hours. Time had utterly stopped, but she wasn’t afraid. She found herself in a quiet glade, beneath a large beech tree, not far from a small, slow-moving stream. The sky was still blue, but there were dark storm clouds gathering towards the horizon. She was tired, and unsure of the direction of the campsite. At last, she found a large rock formation with a comfortable looking ledge, and she sat down on it, waiting. She had a strong sense that she was forgetting something important.
Another figure came into the glade; a child, yet not a child, bearing a flaming torch. At first she thought it was Cutie, but she knew it couldn’t be. Or, maybe… The small child smiled, and looked at her with wise, ancient, cruel eyes.
“Now do you believe in fate?” He laughed, wickedly, and flew away on tiny wings.
“Fate?” she asked, weakly, watching him ascend into the blue sky. But she couldn’t move, nor did she desire to. She merely waited, curious. She wondered why she wasn’t disturbed or shocked. It all felt so real, like she had always been here, or perhaps this experience had always been here, waiting for her.
After a while, a handsome man came wandering into the glade. He was completely naked, except for some cloths draped tastefully over his private parts.
“Hello,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Name?” she asked. She wasn’t sure. What was her name?
“I’m lost,” the man said. “Do you know the way out of the woods?
“Out of the woods?” she was confused. Why would anyone want to leave this golden glade? It was part of her, and she was part of it. She knew she could never leave it. She looked down at her hands and she could see the rock formation right through her skin, the bits of moss, and a tiny snail crawling slowly.
“Yes,” the man stomped his foot impatiently. It was a beautiful foot, and a beautiful leg. In fact, his whole body was just so beautiful. She gazed at him as if in a trance.
“Don’t you ever say anything helpful?” the man demanded. “You’re just repeating me! Are you lost in the woods?”
“Lost in the woods?” was all she could say. She knew she should say something else, anything, but she couldn't. She just got more and more invisible, fading into the rock formation.
“I’m so beautiful,” the man said to himself. He was looking at his reflection in the stream, with reverence, as if seeing it for the first time.
“…so beautiful,” she sighed, full of longing.
The man lay down on the forest floor, stretching his body artfully on the soft moss. The broad shoulders, the strong thigh muscles, the fullness of his lips…. She could remember, barely, that all this had once been important to her. As she stared at him, he began to fade into the ground. His muscles hardened into rocks, his long legs into tree roots, spreading out towards the flowing stream. The form of him faded, the beauty that she had long worshiped, slowly disappearing into the greater beauty of Nature itself.
At last, all that remained was a long, erect green stem, growing there between the rocks, quivering in the slight breeze, its fragile blossom bobbing up and down:
It wasn’t a waste.
He made a better flower than a lover, anyway.
And as for herself… she had always been an echo.
Thanks for reading my short story! If you have enjoyed it, you might want to read some of my other stories.
They are all art-inspired:
- Boticelli's Weird Party
- Breaking Up With Chagall
- The Conversation (based on the Matisse painting by that name)
And if the idea of objectifying male bodies offends or delights you, here's another blog post: