The most beautiful woman in the world is lying naked before you, waiting for you to paint her.
She looks at you, strong eyebrows arching, mild curiosity in her gorgeous eyes. Her lashes are so full and dark they make you want to cry, or maybe to pray for mercy. They look unbearably soft. Your stomach is twisting itself into an embarrassing, qualmish mess. “Everything all right?”
She’s a series of sweet curves, lying in a lush puddle of white faux fur with her chin propped on the heel of one palm. Her feet kick up behind her, slowly crossing and uncrossing. A muscle flexes along her soft thigh and you suddenly understand how Menelaus could launch a thousand ships and raze a city to the ground. “Everything’s perfect.”
You’re taking out your pencils and paints, feigning airy competence and failing badly. You hope she can’t see how your hands shake as you deposit your pigments on a small table near your easel. “I’m just about ready to begin. Are you comfortable? Can I get you anything before we get started?”
“Yes,” she smiles, “and no. I’m ready when you are.”
“Okay,” you say. You pick up your pencil and stare for a moment at the blank sheet of paper in front of you. It’s easier, safer, than looking at her, the same way it’s easier, safer, to stare at an unlit lamp than at an eclipse. You chance a glance up. She meets your uncertain gaze and her smile broadens. There’s a sparkle in her eyes that makes you think your attempt at cool professionalism is as naked as her perfect, pert, backside.
“How do you want me?” she asks, and you almost swallow your tongue. She grins dimples into her cheeks, and you know she did it on purpose.
“Just like that is fine,” you say, a little tartly, and she nods, settles into her pose while you finally touch pencil to paper and begin to sketch.
The room seems to be contracting. You curse the silence, your school, your teacher, and yourself most of all for dreaming up this whole damn project. Pin-Up: Finding Intimacy in Mass-Marketed Erotica. A fine idea. Finding a pin-up model to work with, even better. Working with her? A dream come true. Everyone knows her red lips and saucy wink. Her career depends on her being carefully primped, powdered, and designed, perfect mass sex appeal right down to the beauty mark she draws on. A career where no one ever sees her bare face.
So you asked to paint her. And here you are.
What made you think you were good enough to even try?
“You know, Elinor,” she says, delicately pretending not to notice how your fingers twitch when she says your name, “I’m really happy you got in touch.”
She’s kind. That makes it so much worse. “Thank you,” you manage, after a moment. “I know you’re busy. It was—it is—I appreciate you making time for me.”
She sucks at her teeth and considers you. The cloud of lines on your paper looks nothing like her, and only barely something like human. You make a mental note to schedule the weekend off so you’ll have enough time to really wallow in your failure. “I wanted to help,” she says. You can believe that. Because she’s kind.
You fell into your own trap, didn’t you? You weren’t prepared for kindness. You weren’t prepared for her to be warm and funny. You pretentious, navel-gazing twerp, your whole thesis is flawed. You never really considered the possibility of the person behind the pictures. “Especially after seeing your sketches,” she adds, and you blink back into attention, watching her warily, looking for the lie.
“I’m glad you liked my portfolio—” you begin, but she shakes her head.
“Not those. Your website—from a few years ago.”
“I didn’t think anyone saw those,” you say, slow.
“Well, I did,” she says, and resettles her chin on her hand. “I thought they were wonderful. You have a beautiful way of seeing the world. And I thought: I want to be seen that way.” She levels you with a look, and you’re surprised to see your own uncertainty reflected back in her face. She says, soft, as if confessing something embarrassing, as if you—
No. Me. As if I were only inches away—
“I want you to see me.”
I breathe deep once, and once more. I think about those sketches. Early, raw, a little rough, almost thoughtless. More dream than drawing.
And how I had never once thought I couldn’t do them.
When I smile she smiles back, and she looks a little relieved. “Thank you,” I say again, and this time I mean it.
I sketch her shoulders, her mass of curling hair. Her gently curving legs. The angle of her chin, the delicate arch of her eyebrows. I sketch her smiling, with the lightest of strokes. And when the tip of my brush touches the paper, each line blurs under a flood of watercolor.
Wrapped in a robe, she stands behind me, and laughs when I jump at the weight of her chin on my shoulder as she looks down at herself. The girl in this painting could be almost anyone. She’s all sweet curves, kind face, and transparent, blooming color. There’s not a clean line or distinguishing detail to be found.
But it’s her. She’s luminous. And when she hums and pinches your sides in teasing approval, you know she’s seen it, too.
—One of two semi-finalists in the MacQ
RESQ (aka “Qualmish”) Writing Challenge
is a writer, editor, and marketer from the gentle hills of Western Massachusetts. She regularly plays the dangerous game of being a woman on the Internet with an opinion about comics, and can most usually be found reading, drinking tea, trapped beneath a cat, or some combination of the three.