Clarice takes off her clothes in front of strangers. She enjoys, or has historically enjoyed, being a nude model for community art classes. But tonight, as she holds her abdomen taut and reaches out in a gesture that is at once religious and self-righteous, she considers the long list of people she doesn’t want to show her body to. Clarice has driven to the studio after an infinite day at her infinitely grey job and is plagued with images of her manicured, middle-aged boss as she coaches herself not to clench her jaw.
When her boss popped unsummoned into her cubicle, Clarice had been thinking about the room full of people she would undress for that evening, and of the gradually diminishing excitement it gave her, and of the gradually diminishing sharpness of her body as it aged on a pedestal and was copied and copied again with the increasing lack of clarity of a spreadsheet Xeroxed too many times.
Clarice’s boss looked down at the hem of her skirt where it crossed her bare knees, then away, and asked with too much enthusiasm, “Coming to the happy hour tonight? First round’s on me!”
Clarice has to stop herself from contracting into a full-body fist in front of the students as she feels the memory of her thigh skin sticking together under her skirt as she crossed her legs away from him. She had begun to sweat but her expression was fixed professionally still as she lied blandly to the chemical peaks of his hair, “No . . . I have a dinner thing with friends.” She had not worn underwear or a bra to work to avoid the red lines the elastic would leave on her skin, and she resented the vulnerability she felt as he stood carelessly over her.
“You must have a lot of friends,” he said as if it were a joke, a cocaine smile glued in place. “You say that every week. Just come for one drink then go to dinner.” He shadow-boxed at her arm and she shifted slightly away.
She considered, first while resizing the word “fuck” in a word processor for eight hours, and now as she feels a pinch where she has pulled her shoulder blades flat against her back to straighten her shoulders, that this could have been the day she didn’t do exactly what she expected herself to. That she could have gone for one drink, then had one more, and so on, until she spilled the secret of her nude modeling like an invitation to see her strip. But that’s not how ruts work. No one else thought she’d go and it was only this lack of belief that she would or maybe could go and have a good time that had made her consider it at all. She is aware that her coworkers will add this brick to the wall of things that separate her from them, but these are the very bricks that Clarice has used to build herself, and she reenforces them as she always has, even in the face of no better options.
In the end, she reasoned she had to be naked for amateur artists just one hour after she left the yellow fluorescence of the office, and proving something she couldn’t identify to people she didn’t like very much was not worth being late for something she was only beginning to lose interest in.
“Sorry,” she said, “can’t make it. But I’ll try next time.”
“You always say that!” Her boss laughed, as he turned out of her cubicle and down the hall.
The instructor calls time and Clarice shakes out her muscles as she covers herself with a bathrobe. This display of modesty used to confuse her; after all, everyone had just been staring at her nude body, but the robe had become a means to shut out the circle of eyes that consumed her in pieces and regurgitated her likeness onto their canvases. Their eager eyes had flattered her at first, but the waning enthusiasm she felt for herself was blurring into an unwillingness to give any more than practically necessary. During the break the class moves listlessly, making stabs at their work—at her—to correct or enhance.
Clarice unscrews the lid to a water bottle and wonders what she’ll make for dinner, alone in her poorly lit kitchen, then distracts herself with thoughts of the impending 2020s. Will she still work at the same job she’s promised herself to quit for a year? Will the 2020s, too, be called The ’20s? As she takes a long drink, she feels suddenly divided between the person she’s known herself to be and the person she’s wary of becoming. She feels herself growing opposing poles that separate the part of her that is made up of her own ideas about that decade and the roar of it—that is, her own imagined history of anything—and the vacant, waiting future. Which, it has begun to seem, is not waiting at all but barreling down Like a train, or whatever, she thinks. But as the instructor claps to get everyone’s attention, to say it’s time for her to remove the robe, to step out into the open, she hopes whatever time is called as she passes through it is just a phase. As if chronology is just something rough she’s going through right now, like puberty, and any morning she might wake up to find it fixed.
Arranging the robe on the floor, Clarice lowers herself onto its folds in a seated position that feels ugly and angular. She envisions what it looks like to others: knees splayed, wrists bent at hard angles behind her, supporting the weight of her upper body. She crosses her right arm in front of her torso so she is twisted into two postures, her face and arms toward the light filtering through translucent blinds at the back of the room, and her spread legs and back facing the door. She thinks her muscles are swelling in her skin, as if she is becoming stronger, larger. She thinks this must be what it’s like to be a man, the solid fearless wearing of one’s own skin, and she grows into the feeling. Expands into it like a water balloon. She imagines walking to her car at night with confidence, yelling from the open window at men on their way to the grocery store, the freedom of unquestioned safety.
Her face, emotionless and hard, is downcast. She is suddenly ill with hunger and chews mindlessly at the skin inside her cheek. Breathing long, controlled breaths through her nose, she pictures faded family photographs from her grandparents’ youth and feels her body muscling its way toward thirty like a finish line. This is not the time, she tells it, but in that moment all she can see in her mind are images of Depression-era children smeared with coal. Clarice’s eyes plead with a spot on the floor a few feet away and fight a tear balancing on an eyelash like a tightrope walker. She is filled with an impotent anger that surprises even her.
The instructor announces the time and the class is over. Clarice relaxes as she turns out of the pose. She stands but stops herself from stretching, instead crouching to pick up her robe. She is exhausted from posing and glad no one tries to talk to her, that no one knows how to approach someone naked.
As she pulls her bag up to her shoulder, Clarice’s singular focus is not on her job or dinner or the ditch she’s considering throwing herself into, but on the total lack of everything as she passes from one room or moment or year to the next without perceiving that anything will ever change. She simultaneously wants to believe she will never come back to this room, and that she will come back next week a better version of herself, a more complete person whose confidence is not a thing to wear but a thing to be.
A thick veil of black bangs swings in front of a teenage girl’s face as she turns away when Clarice moves toward the door beside her canvas. With a hand already on the doorknob, Clarice glances at the girl’s drawing but it isn’t until the door has closed behind her that the image is clear in her mind. Her lips move involuntarily into a smile for the first time in what feels like her entire life and she automatically covers them with her hand, as if embarrassed to have exposed an emotion.
The picture is a jumble of lines without detail, but there is no mistaking Clarice’s angular pose, her knees falling away from each other, and glossy anime eyes staring out vacantly. Drooping between her lips is a crumpled cigarette, and slumped against her thigh is the weight of her own massive cock. A dick nearly as big as her spindly torso.
Walking down the hall Clarice laughs out loud, never having felt so seen—never having been so totally naked to herself.
Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of two prose chapbooks, Twenty-Something, and VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live, and is Assistant Editor at sunnyoutside press. More at Tatianaryckman.com.
Beth Couture currently serves as both a Board Member and an Assistant Editor at Sundress Publications. Her work can be found in a number of journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, Ragazine, and Thirty Under Thirty from Starcherone Books. Her novella, Women Born with Fur, was published by Jaded Ibis Press in 2014 as part of its Blue Bustard Novellas series. She is currently working on her Master’s in Social Work at Bryn Mawr College, and she lives in West Philly with her husband and five cats.