Berfrois

The Young Woman Sleeps While the Artist Paints Her

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by Linda Mannheim

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

She was up late, fighting with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend told her she was selfish, wasn’t looking after his needs. He wanted to sleep with other women. He wanted her to be open, generous.

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

The artist is one of the instructors at the college, and the artist asked the young woman if she would sit for a portrait. The artist has short blonde hair, a snub nose, a hushed voice. Many of the students complain about the artist. She doesn’t tell them what they should do to make their work better. She doesn’t talk to them enough at all. The college is a private one, and the other students complain a lot. But the young woman likes the artist. When she and the artist are alone, the artist says a lot. She tells the young woman about going to Europe for the first time. She tells her about seeing all the paintings that she has only seen reproductions of before. She tells her how disappointing it was to see some of the originals; the slides she had seen of those paintings in art history class seemed more vivid than the paintings themselves. The colors were more intense when images of the paintings were projected onto a screen; the masterpieces seemed to glow and were imbued with light. The real paintings were smaller, more subdued, and you had to dodge around the other visitors to even glimpse them.

The young woman has three jobs this semester: she works in the college bookstore, and she poses nude for life drawing classes, and now she is modelling for the artist.

The young woman is not naked in the painting that the artist paints. Her shoulders are bare, but she is covered a sheet. She lies on a cot with a small pillow under her head. All the linen matches. It is white cotton with a blue check. The young woman is pleased that, in the portrait, she is depicted sleeping. She closes her eyes whiles she and the artist speak to one another. Sometimes the artist focuses only on painting and does not speak. Sometimes the young woman really does fall asleep.

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

When she models for life drawing classes, she has to sit naked on a platform in a big room. The art classes are held in a converted barn, where it’s always cold A space heater is nearby to keep her warm.. By the time the class is underway during the winter months, it is already dark outside. Sometimes she watches snow fall on the small town streets while she poses. There are twenty people in the class, all her age, all drawing her. She holds still. She hates to hold still. But sitting there, naked, pays twice as much as the other student jobs, and she needs time to study.

Every now and then, something will happen that makes the young woman realise she cannot leave the life drawing class alone. She’ll put on her bathrobe and rush to a male friend in the class and ask him, will you walk me home? And, after a while, he will simply offer. He will wait while she dresses. Sometimes he and a female friend will wait too, and they will all walk back to her house together. Years later, she will not be able to tell you what triggered the fear. But she knows the other life drawing models – who are all young women – also ask male friends in the class to accompany them during the walk home. None of the male friends have any trouble understanding the purpose of their company following a drawing session.

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

At the start of every semester, the college’s business manager approaches the young woman, and she tells the young woman she has added up the grants, and work study funds, and low interest student loans available to the young woman. And she tells the young woman: I don’t think you can afford to study here. And the young woman takes the papers from the business manager, and she tells her, I’ll get another job.

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

The young woman has also been to Europe; she went there because she won something called the Exceptional Overseas Scholarship. She had not seen any slides of masterpieces before she went, but the Mona Lisa did seem small to her and she wished it had not been behind bullet proof glass. She sat in cafes drinking white wine after class, and she ate sandwiches made out of stuffed grape leaves and baguettes, and she sat in front of the Centre Pompidou watching the skateboarders and talking to her friends.

The young woman discloses that she hates this place, wants to leave, is only here because she is so close to finishing that it doesn’t make sense to leave now. The artist agrees that it is hard to go back to a place when you’ve been somewhere else that you love. The artist says, being in a new place changes you and you’re never the same person again. The artist tells the young woman about a movie that’s just come out: it’s about an Australian reporter in Indonesia. And this movie, the artist says, shows how the reporter changes when he is in Indonesia. She thinks the young woman would enjoy seeing this movie.

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

When the artist first asked her to sit, she thought good, because artist was a woman, and there would be no risk, no subtext, no misunderstanding. The young woman saw other paintings in the studio, and she realised some were of the artist’s husband. I like faces like this, the artist said. And when the young woman saw the husband’s nose, and the contours of his face, she thought, the artist likes Jewish faces; she wants to paint me because I am Jewish. She wondered what she would look like in the painting. Would she look the way she imagined she looked? Would her nose look longer?

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

The artists stops speaking, and the young woman almost drifts off, and while she does, she remembers being introduced to the very famous poet. The young woman arrived for the very famous poet’s reading early. No one but her writing instructor and the very famous poet were there. This is the young woman I was telling you about, the writing instructor said to the very famous poet. The very famous poet smiled at her. And this, the writing instructor said to her, is the very famous poet. He had long hair, and a beard, and was short and elfin. He looked just like all the pictures she’d seen of him.

Hello, she said.

I’m glad to meet you, the very famous poet said back.

Will you get us some coffee? The writing instructor asked.

The young woman took their coffee orders and went to the snack bar to get their coffee. She brought it back. This young woman is one of the best students I’ve ever had, the writing instructor said. And he shifted his chair, ready to include her in conversation with the very famous poet. But the young woman was tired. She’d had another fight with her boyfriend the night before. She left the poets and returned to her seat in the audience.

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

As she drifts off, she wallows in regret. She loved the very famous poet’s work. In fact, his poems were the first ones she’d committed to memory. She felt as if he was writing about a world she knew. He and the writing instructor were young poets together. They’d lived in New York then, loved its unpredictability dropped acid and drank until the writing instructor couldn’t drink anymore and had to go dry before he moved to New England. She was also from New York, and while she couldn’t remember the version of city the very famous poet and the writing instructor wrote about, she understood their celebration of its chaotic streets. Those were streets she knew. And she thinks that she does not belong here, in rural New England. She is bothered by the silence of the streets, the snow blanketing the hills, the smoke curlicuing up from the chimneys on the houses. It is all very eerie to her. She hates the bitter winter wind, the banks of snow that block driveways and paths, and the opaque plastic taped over the windows to shut out the drafts.

The young woman sleeps while the artist paints her.

At the end of the session that day, the artist tells the young woman she is done. The artist says she will continue to work on the painting, but she does not need a model anymore. The artist takes out a roll of bills and gives the young woman an extra fifty. She tells the young woman to stop by later in the year. She says the painting will be ready to show then.

*

The young woman is standing on a subway train years later, holding onto a pole because there aren’t any seats. The train is roaring and, in the dark tunnel, the windows of the train will become reflective, and she’ll see a faint image of herself looking back at her. It will almost look as if it was painted and then, the memory will return to her – of posing for the painting that the artist did.

The young woman appreciates the anonymity of the city every day, happily watches people on the streets she doesn’t know. And, more importantly, is pleased that they do not know her.

The young woman never returned to the small town again, with one exception — she went back for the writing instructor’s memorial service after he died of lung cancer.

The boyfriend had to be broken up with again and again. Every time they ended it, he reappeared, begging for her forgiveness.

When she remembers her years in the small town, she remembers exhaustion, never being able to fully focus on work, never being able to fully focus on studies. She remembers the cough she couldn’t shake.

And she remembers the painting. She remembers going back to the artist’s house, and trying to be patient when the artist made her a cup of herb tea. She should not rush to see the painting, she realised. After all, many people did not like portraits of themselves. They did not think that the portraits looked like them. She and the artist had discussed this. Many people found paintings of themselves unflattering.

Remember, the artist said, this is just an image of what I saw.

They picked up their cups of tea. They walked from the kitchen into the studio.

The young woman looked up, and she saw the painting, and she gasped at the sight of it.

The artist smiled at this.

The young woman in the painting was asleep, resting her head on the blue checked white linen. Her wavy blond hair was swept back. Light burnished her brow and cheeks. Her mouth was slightly open, and her nose was prominent.

It was the oddest thing, to be outside of herself like this, the young woman thought, completely different than a photo, seeing yourself as someone else’s construction.

It was her. It was not her.

Story first published in This Way to Departures, by Linda Mannheim, 2019. Republished courtesy of the author. Image section of Woman Sleeping, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1896


About the Author:

Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction, most recently This Way to Departures, a collection of stories about people who have left the places they consider home. Her work has appeared in Granta, Catapult Story, Ambit and other magazines. Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin. Find her on Twitter @lindamannheim.