The Tree is a Body

Steadfast body. Begging. Flaking. Wishy Washy. Laundry day only when desperate. A Sunday afternoon of a body. An entire poetic tree of a body. Sapling and knotted and kissing itself with its leaves. My body asks to have its thumbs popped. Wants to lay on its stomach. My body makes its own kombucha; wakes up hours before it has to leave the house for work. My body is taking a personal day. It’s eating sweaters in the closet while mom waits for it to come out. My body thinks it’s in love but it never is, so I will never be in love again. God, my body loves to be bruised because the body is a bruised god. My body wants to look you in the eyes and then the mouth. My body asks you, can I be a tree today? Can’t I just be a tree?

In a bar, a boy I kiss calls art modeling sex work. He jokes so what you’re saying is that you’re a sex worker, chuckles to himself, and then takes another swig of beer. Somebody else later says it must be so freeing to be naked without being sexualized. Sometimes, artists will give me what they drew in class if I compliment them enough. I have a closet full of my legs, my face and my breasts. A portrait of me hangs above my toilet.

My favorites I only have as pictures of on my phone. The first was done by a student whose name I don’t remember. First, she saturated the paper in teal charcoal and then out of the ether and fog of the wash is my face, bent over. It’s the tip of my nose and my small lips. The second was done by somebody in the art group, it’s a portrait of my face and breasts but the way the light hits me it looks like how I feel when suddenly and immediately embarrassed and in love at once. How my chest lights up and heats. It’s like if I were able to look into a mirror and look down while still staring in the mirror. When I look at the length of my leg on somebody’s page and I see my leg I see the whole of it, the way it has been grabbed and held and walked and kicked and bruised by hips.

When I tell people what I do most of them say that they don’t love their body enough to do it themselves.

How does one love a body?

I used to send pictures of the drawings from class to my girlfriend and she would look at the renderings and say I recognize that ass.

I am hooking up with somebody I care about enough. The kind of person I am nervous about caring about more, because any distance crossed seem like footprints in a fresh layer of snow. I am lying on my couch and he draws his hand across my stomach and I get suddenly, fleshily, embarrassed, I say, now you are just touching my fat and he says come on, you were just talking about how you model.

Maybe I should change the question, how does one love?

 Love feels like a service, a devotional. The tattoo below my ribcage reads love in Hebrew, I joke that it is both the most and least Jewish thing I have ever done but really. It’s because once I believed that love was giving without expecting to take. I liked that word there, below my heart. I imagined somebody kissing it and knowing that it was there for them, that my body was there for them to take.

Sometimes in the group of older people I model for, somebody will pull out their phone and take a picture of me. They don’t know that what they’re doing isn’t okay, they don’t even know how to turn off the sound of the camera. One class, the man sitting to the side of my body moves around with his camera and asks me to lift my head without asking if he can take the photos. I think to myself about how this man is an established artist, has a studio and gives classes, and probably won’t share the photos. I don’t think about how he still has them, even if he isn’t sharing. Much later in the same session, another man, one who shows up to haphazardly draw a boob and chat each class asks if he can take a photo. His pen has been to the side of his chair for the last hour. No, I would prefer not I say, and settle into the standing pose raising my head so that it catches light and he cannot look me in the eye.

This summer there is a party called Summerween, which is exactly what it sounds like. I declare to my friends foolishly in the bar that I am going to be a Gustav Klimt painting, which means that I will be “The Kiss”. I buy a yellow cropped shirt for five dollars at the mall and paint it instead of grading or walking my dog. I consider all the gold jewelry I own as possible accessories. When the party comes, I take a picture in the bathroom mirror with fake flowers, blue and white, too big to really replicate the painting, pinned in my hair. One of my friends shows up without a costume, another is no-face from Spirited Away. We get drunk on beer and shitty wine and smoke cigarettes that we all bummed off each other, camel crushes and 27’s, and as the flowers fall out of my hair I place them instead in theirs. I talk to strangers about how I’d like to bike across the country. Nobody can find a bottle opener so I slam a wine bottle against a tree until the cork is forced out. Men at this party stand around and watch me throw a bottle end at a tree, they tell me I’m not doing it rough enough. I like being a strange woman with her head tilted from a painting instead of myself. I like that I’ve torn her from the man kissing her in the painting and instead she sits in the grass pressing a wet paper towel into my friend’s bleeding thumb; they cut themselves cut on their own keys. I get overwhelmed with the feeling of being “The Kiss” and I go inside. 

My first boyfriend and I would play games when we kissed, we used our lips like a game of tag. He would chase my lips on the couch or in bed and giggling I would finally give them to him.

Some art scholars think that “The Kiss” is a reference to Ovid’s story about Apollo and a nymph named Daphne. In it, Apollo insults Eros by saying that he isn’t fit to carry the weapons of a bow and arrow. Eros makes Apollos fall in love with Daphne with a golden arrow. With a lead arrow, he makes Daphne hate Apollo. Daphne vows to remain a virgin and is chased through the woods by Apollo. When he finally grabs her, she cries out in fear for somebody to save her and her father, Peneus, turns her into a laurel tree.

The key to modeling is the twisting and ignoring how your limbs give out on you. Most artists like it best to see a twist in your body, something that suggests movement.

The basic set up of a life drawing class is this: first you start with gestures. These are thirty-second to two-minute poses that can be dramatic and anything. The advice that a professor gave to me was to get weird and write a story in your head as you move across the platform. The example he gave was buying ice cream, which felt neither weird nor like a story at the time. He was an older man and demonstrated him reaching his arm out the cashier, inspecting the ice cream on the floor as it dropped and then grieving with his hand stretched to clutch his forehead. It’s hard not to daydream while working, but my gesture have always felt less narrative. Instead they felt like characters. I would hunch my back and lift my shoulder, feel hidden in the shadow of my neck. I would take a step and look over my shoulder, like I was looking back at something I never had. In smaller spaces, with the group of older artists, I feel closed and more subject to close inspection so my gestures feel tight and boring. In the classroom, I leap, I spread my legs, I do yoga and then I freeze in the pose.

In an effort to seem nonchalant and sexy I tell somebody that lights my cigarette in their mouth that I’m good at playing a role. In an effort to analyze why I’ve never been able to stay in love with anybody I tell my friend I’m good at playing a role. In an effort to get myself away from a man who is touching me at the bar I tell myself I’m good at playing a role. I scream at a girlfriend during a fight you just think I’m an idiot because I let you believe you’re smarter than me. I perfect the moan. I ask my friend to pretend to be my boyfriend in a dive bar and he rubs his hand into mine, I turn and say nevermind.

I let men come into my house and pick my glasses off the floor and chastise me for leaving glass in their path. They change my lightbulbs and scrub my tables for me.

Before I go on a date with a German man living in Ireland, I take a picture of myself in the gilded hotel mirror for my Snapchat story. I am wearing all red underwear; the bra extends down to my ribcage and makes me feel loaded like a gun. Somebody on Snapchat replies with a holy shit. I wore it a week ago, New Years with a bartender I slept with. He took it off without seeing it and I came so hard I hyperventilated. When I let the German man take me to his home he leaves the lights and the bra on and I get bored listening to him say mein gott over and over again. He has polaroid pictures of his friends back home on the walls of his sparse bedroom. He points to them and tells me their names like I’ll want to remember.  I don’t remember the color of his sheets, but his room feels empty and I feel scared when he says he will keep in touch, eagerly, and pays for my taxi ride back to my hotel. I am disappointed neither he or the bartender compliment me on the bra and after I get back I keep on checking my Snapchat to see if my ex has seen the picture, eventually he does.

I didn’t take my red bra off when I was raped either. Once, when having a panic attack in the bedroom my girlfriend at the time said you always panic when your clothes are still on and I thought I always panic when I have to take my clothes off when I don’t want to, because I was sick of her pressing into me all the time. I was sick of her looking at my body and thinking it was something she knew.

Here’s what happened, I went on a date and got my period and he had sex with my body anyways. Or no, here’s what happened. I skipped my birth control and told him we couldn’t have sex because I was bleeding. Then I was bleeding differently.

Here’s what I know, blood on underwear dries differently depending on where it’s coming from; it doesn’t spread the same way as blood from a period.

Here I am, I’m eighteen and I have invited somebody back to my apartment in Argentina and suddenly I’m so embarrassed that I smell like fear I don’t notice I can’t move and I’m frozen clenching my armpits as hard as I can to the side of my red bra.

I come back to Lubbock and have sex with my ex first boyfriend three days later and when I start bleeding on him I say here’s what happened, somebody wasn’t very nice to me and I get up and leave, after he cums.

This is what happens, I show up to an address that is sent via email. The house changes every week. I say hello and ask where to change and I go into bathrooms or spare bedrooms to take off my clothes and put on the robe. The robe is like a lie or a play. Mine is silky, and sexier than most people expect. It might be the most beautiful thing I own and it always smells like my hamper from where I fish it out. I never take the time to wash it the way it’s supposed to be washed, delicately.

Another model, who I’ve seen when I come to draw instead of model, has a long terry cloth robe. A different one just wears boxer briefs the entire time. I enter a living room or study with the robe on and then, I take it off. The first time I did this was in a university classroom and it felt like a flourish or fanfare in the play, the robe whipping its way to the floor as men backstage pull ropes to move lights up suddenly. It’s the curtains closing, it’s the end to playing pretend.

On breaks, I put the robe back on. In the classroom, that was when I would walk around to each easel and look at the way the students had drawn me. The class starts with my legs, and at that point the students don’t know whether or not to talk to me. I hop off of the platform and they scatter as I move through the classroom. Towards the end, they work on portraits and are used to my body. They let me know when I have charcoal smudges on my ass or they laugh, because it’s covered in bruises from hiking or kayaking or they ooh and ahh at how my dog has scratched a long thick mark on my thigh.

I start to think harder about the marks on my body; when I am dumped by a girlfriend, I dig my thumb into my arm over and over until it is one black bruise. I covet the scrapes I get when drunk from table corners. Once, I showed a friend one and he said I know it’s just because you were drunk but give me a name and I’ll take care of him. I tell him how stupid I think he is. I want to tell him, you wouldn’t know, I wouldn’t tell you, I would have to be in control of my own bruising. More than anything I want to say, I wouldn’t let that happen to me, but I have. Maybe this is how men turn women to trees, kindly.

One time, the professor I modeled for the most introduced me to the class by saying this is Catherine, we pulled her straight out of a Rubens painting for you all and nobody laughed but me. I think they were nervous to say it’s true, to hold the weight of my body in their mouths. I notice as we move through the semester, I start out diplomatically skinnier in the drawings. By the end of the semester, when drawing my face, they all try to make me laugh to mess up my still face, they all are looking at the corners of my lips as I try to focus on just one brick with a groove on it. They complain about my nose, which has deceptive bumps and nuances, or compliment my eyebrows, which are straight and dark.

It’s different in the group of people outside of school that I model for. I draw on the nights I don’t model for them. On breaks, we eat whatever the host lays out and make small talk. The group isn’t working through a schedule or syllabus, they draw what they like and show it to me when they want. They’re older, some of them are established artists and some of them are there for an activity during their retirement. One of my favorite houses to model in is Bri’s, she’s a painter and her walls are covered in her work. Every so often, we’ll crowd around whatever project she’s working on and she’ll give a demonstration. The last one I watched was glazing, she was painting a giant moth on a gray background and she diluted the oil paint down until it was a slick that she would rub down the wings to make them ripple. When I model in her house, we’re in the front room and I fix my eyes on a single flower and try to dissect how she got the light to look the way it does. I like to listen to the chat of the group; they remember their youth or jokes or talk about their latest home improvement project. Andrew, Bri’s husband, told this joke once: two dogs and a cat have died and are meeting Saint Peter at the gates of heaven. Saint Peter asks the first dog, why do you deserve to be here and the dog answers, because I was a hunting dog and saved my master from a stray bullet. Saint Peter lets him sit at his feet on the right side of his throne. He asks the other dog the same question and the dog replies, I was a service dog and spent my life helping others. Saint Peter lets him sit at his feet on the left side. Saint Peter turns to the cat and asks him the same question and the cat says I think you’re in my chair.

This summer I met another model before I knew he was a model. I can’t be sure how, but when he walked into the room for drawing class I thought I recognized him and felt fairly certain it was through a dating app. I didn’t know what to do and then I got annoyed that he didn’t recognize me. I wanted to reject him again. It makes me feel in control. Until I drew him, I never knew what expectations I had for other models. Maybe it’s because modeling for me is a way to give my body up, let others see and interpret it for themselves. He would get into a pose and then liken it to great art, lying outspread on the floor he would say this is just like the death of Christ. I wanted to hurl. He flirted with the older women. He would interject commentary in the chat while in a pose. And maybe what really annoyed me was that he was somebody who loved his body, that saw a god in his body. There was no nuance to the acknowledgement of the body or thought or pressure behind the act of disrobing and I was jealous of it. Once, Bri was sitting on the floor and commented bodies are like landscapes and another woman in the group said yes, and this one has a big mountain. I felt bad for laughing. I wish I had told her to stop.

An earlier time I posed for this group the host spent the time talking about how he had had sex with previous female models while I was stuck in a pose. He named them, one by one, and the other men laughed and talked about divorce. This house had the bones of animals around it, he had worked for a museum before he retired, and I stared down a piece of petrified wood while the women in the room tried to change the subject for me. After the session, the man held me back as others were leaving and asked if I would be willing to pose for his photography. I said no, left, and when I got in my car, I locked the doors.

It would be easier to write this as if I were a tree, it would be easier to model as a tree. There is no Apollo or golden arrows. Just pencil lead. It would be easier because there would be a narrative, a way to point to my body and say “love” or “hate”. There would be a single great chase and then an ending. In Ovid’s version of the myth, Daphne asks destroy my shape by which I’ve pleased too much.

The first time I ever modeled nude was when I was seventeen. My friend was seventeen too and trying to build her portfolio for art school, but in the state of Texas you have to be above eighteen to attend a nude modeling class. You can’t model until eighteen either. Instead of going home one night, I packed a  ratty blue comforter into the back of my 1991 Honda Civic hatchback and lay on the floor of her father’s study. She painted me in lilac and blues, I turned to my side and stared at the map that was tacked to the wall. Nothing has ever felt more grown up than this and being naked has never felt more childlike.

I’m so tired of this body, and the way it postures itself. I’ve been getting drunk and sleeping in my friends’ beds at the end of the night. I never know which way to lay. I wake up shivering because of their air conditioning or I push away from them because it’s so hot. I cling to them. I feel alone while they sleep. I think, I should have just gone home.

The professor for a class I don’t normally model for has set me up in a thirty-minute seated pose and left the room. By department policy, professors have to stay in the room, but many leave anyways. The girls in the class are fashion majors and for the first five minutes talk about their other classes, or bobbins. I picture threading a needle as my body settles into the pose, roll my tongue around the imaginary fiber that I’m licking to a point. The door to the classroom clangs open and a young man comes in, to the varying hellos of the girls. Another student. For the next fifteen minutes as they continue chatting he stands to the side of the room without setting up his easel or drawing pad, looking. I feel stuck, like if I move, I would break whatever spell or barrier was keeping him from touching or talking to me, even though that doesn’t make sense. The girls in the room don’t seem to notice. They like him. They giggle when they speak to him. When the professor comes back in the staring student gets to work. At break, as I move through the room looking at what they drew I’m embarrassed by his work for him. How embarrassing to believe that breasts are circles, how pathetic that I’m the one he stares at and doesn’t see.

Lately, I’ve more conscious about taking my clothes off in front of people. When I model, it’s always a separate exchange: the clothes come off away from the crowd. When I’m at the pool, I can feel my hands slip down my buttons quickly and I scurry to get into the water. At night, if I go home with somebody, I get nervous about them seeing me in my underwear. I wear shorts beneath my dresses and when they flare in the wind I panic.

What gods want is worship from a distance. I want a hand on the wall of a cave, devotion in pigment. I’d like to turn my back and twist.

The last classroom I model for gets a little too friendly. A girl in the class wants to know about my single friend who she met at a party and asks me while I’m on the platform. The TA keeps on tapping my body when gesturing towards it with a ruler. She points to my hip and rests the ruler on the bone. To position me, she grabs my wrists and leads me. One of the students recognizes me after a few weeks. One of her friends is a girl who tried to have sex with me every time she saw me, another one of her friend’s took pictures of me while I was drunk to send to her partner when looking for a third. She showed me his response and then asked if I was interested. I pretend like I liked both of her friends, I ask her to say hi to them for me. She brings them up every class.

I worry sometimes that I only love people until they want to touch me.

I try to prove myself wrong, but I can barely let a yoga instructor adjust my pose. It feels like the only time I’m touched is when I kiss somebody and I know they’ll never do it again. Because of this, I feel like my body ends friendships. Because of this, I kiss my friend goodbye after he sees me have a panic attack. He thinks it’s a thank you. Maybe it is.

On the phone with a friend I half-jokingly say I guess my vagina just ruins everything and then I don’t leave my house for three days.

I ignore my mother’s phone calls. I only send Snapchats to somebody I barely know in Colorado. When I emerge, I get pissed when a friend says she’s feeling lonely. I want to own the emotional spectrum of distance. I want my loneliness to be a solitary altar.

After Daphne is turned into a tree Apollo suddenly becomes repentant. He acts as though he wasn’t just running, as if he wasn’t telling her to stop because she was marking up her thighs with briar thorns in the chase. He says to Daphne, since you can’t be my bride at least you’ll be my laurel and her leaves quake in response. I wonder, if it is worse to be a tree because now she can be found, clipped, and grown again outside people’s kitchen windows.

Does a tree get tired? Sometimes, I just want to turn my face away. I am drunk. I will have to change soon to go to bed. I am lying upside down in my friend’s bed when suddenly I have to leave. I know I have to leave because my body is telling me to, I can feel it pinched and panicking. My body gets up, opens the door and walks. I tell my body, what you are walking past are trees. I say oak tree, pecan tree, live oak, magnolia and my body starts breathing again but badly. My body wants to breathe like a tree does, not gulping but slowly and without a mouth.

AUTHOR

Catherine Ragsdale is a poet living in Lubbock, Texas. She is currently in her second year of pursuing a Master’s in Poetry at Texas Tech University and holds a BA in Spanish and a BBA in Marketing. She is an Associate Editor at Iron Horse Literary Review and a member of 806 Collective. 

catherineragsdalepoetry.com

Twitter: @rinnieragsdale


Featured image: Virginia Frances Sterrett, “Rosalie saw before her eyes a tree of marvelous beauty,” illustration, 1920.

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