She knew it was early for him to be there, but she looked for him anyway. It was quiet and the morning light gave the storage room a blue green glow. She ran her fingers through her tangled hair and knotted it into a braid as she peeked around the corner. The studio doorway was dark and inside it was darker. The platform in the middle of the room, where the model always sat or stood or lay, was hardly visible. She flicked the switch on the storage room wall, and shapes popped out of the darkness. A white sheet was heaped indecently next to the platform. The easels were stacked hastily in the corner, their uniformed wooden legs sticking out at odd angles. A metal chair sat neglected in a far corner.
Turning from the doorway, she walked past the large worktable to the lockers on the far wall. She rested her forehead against the cold blue metal. “What am I doing?” she said out loud. Finding her key in the pocket of her cutoffs, she opened the door. The upper shelf was a mess of paints, brushes, charcoal, used paper towels, and chamois, all entwined. On the bottom, a mirror covered in bright, firm globs of paint leaned against the metal wall of the locker. Paint could preserve itself for weeks. The outer layer hardened like a cocoon but could be peeled back to reveal the soft substance underneath. She dug her nail into a small lump of yellow. It was rubbery, solid all the way through.
The large denim shirt was crumpled at the bottom of the locker next to the mirror where she had tossed it. It was wrinkled and stiff with paint. When she shook it in the air, it made a hard slapping noise that echoed faintly. A streak of oily red paint came off on her hand. It was cold and for a second she thought it tingled. She flexed her hand and decided it was just wet. She pulled on the denim shirt carefully buttoning it and rolling the sleeves to her elbows. The heavy scent of sweat and turpentine surrounded her.
The worktable was covered in sawdust and chalky streaks of gesso. The faint chemical smell of the wood chips was crisp and earthy. It was fresh. On the corner of the table sat a paper coffee cup with dark liquid still in the bottom. It was unlike him to be sloppy. She brushed off the dust and pulled four pre-cut pieces of wood out of the pile, arranging them in a rectangle on the table. He must have just cut these for his new students. He once said that a saw in the hands of a student was a liability. They could destroy things including themselves, but he had let her use it.
Wedging the pieces of wood together she made the beginnings of the frame. She laid the first of the thin triangular pieces over one corner for reinforcement and nailed it in. The sound vibrated against the concrete floor and walls. Use five nails for each corner, he had said. Once, she had caught him using three. It was an odd betrayal. The skin around his dark eyes had creased in a smile. He had said artists must know the rules before they break them.
She tugged at the massive roll of canvas and it gave a metallic shriek. Instinctively, she looked around, but still no one was there. She measured a length of material over the wood frame. Satisfied, she snipped the canvas with a pair of scissors and began to rip. The sound of tearing fabric caused the familiar mixture of anxiety and satisfaction. He had seen the tension in her shoulders the first time she did it, and he told her to relax. The ripping sound would someday be pleasurable and eventually unnoticeable. She didn’t think it would ever be unnoticeable.
Strings of material hung in long drooping ropes from where it was ripped. There were red marks where she had gripped the canvas. Looking at her hand she saw that the red smear still ran diagonally across her palm. It looked bigger than before. She closed her hand into a fist, suddenly afraid that someone would see it.
She folded one corner of the canvas neatly onto the flat triangle on the back and stapled it. The industrial size staple gun kicked back and her arm jerked. She doubted she would ever get used to its resistance. When he had held her hand on the gun, she felt the kick back but he held it steady. The smell of his sweat mixed with the harsh chemical scent of turpentine had made her feel lightheaded. He said artists were strong. He had placed a hand on her arm and said that she would need to be stronger.
She stretched the canvas diagonally on the frame and stapled the corner down. The material rippled outward from the taut line. Using a metal clamp she pulled until she heard the canvas creak under the strain and stapled it in place, grunting with the effort. She could feel the sting of blisters forming at the base of her fingers and wondered if someday the soft pads of her palms would harden like his. His calloused hands were like leather that had been worn for years and never oiled. They were cracked at the creases, but the tops of them were softer with wiry hairs that blended into his thick arms.
The excess material on the back of the frame stood out in all directions. She grabbed a pair of scissors from the worktable and began trimming it. Ripping it off could ruin the canvas. Take your time, he had said, no need to rush. She had run her hands up his forearms and felt the hair between her fingers. He had gripped the back of her neck possessively. The cold ring on his finger had pressed against her skin like a warning. But he was frightening and beautiful, and at the feel of his rough palm on her neck, her pores had opened with tiny bursts. She didn’t want to stop him, so she had grasped at his denim shirt. Her face felt suddenly hot. The skin on her scalp prickled, and she took the frayed lip of the material and ripped.
When it was done, she leaned the canvas against the worktable and sat in front of it on the concrete floor. The denim shirt ballooned stiffly around her. The concrete was cool against her bare legs. After it happened, he had run his hands through his hair but said nothing. Sometimes there is nothing to say, but other times there is no way to say it. When she got home that night, she found paint on her breasts and thighs in multi colored streaks. She scrubbed them until her skin was an angry red, but the paint had stayed the water beading on its oily surface.
The storage room door opened, and heavy footsteps echoed against the hard surfaces. They hesitated. The door closed with a groan. She could hear her blood pulsing in her ears. The room was expanding like someone was pumping air inside and with enough pressure it might burst.
The footsteps advanced, and he was beside her. The scent of aftershave and turpentine seemed to radiate from him. She could see his brown work boots out of the corner of her eye.
“Nice job, but looks like you’ve gotten paint on the sides.”
The mark on her hand had faded, but there were garish red smudges on the sides of the canvas creeping onto the creamy front. A blank canvas holds so much promise. But this one held something else.
“You can cover it up though. It won’t matter much,” he said.
She could paint over the marks with thick strokes of gesso and no one would be able to tell. She felt suddenly self-conscious in the denim shirt. She unbuttoned it and crumpled it in her fist. He expected a clean canvas. If she painted it, only she would know that the red marks were there underneath.
“I made it for you,” she got up and pushed the denim shirt toward him. He took it without looking at her. “You cover it up,” she said.
His brows pinched together above the hard slope of his nose as he gazed at the canvas. She turned from him, and made no effort to soften the sound of her footsteps as she left the room.