Author's Note: She was a much pierced, mildly tattooed, free spirited white chick. He was Egyptian, with a body the golden brown of a glazed donut. She was intrigued. He was besotted. Well, you know how these things turn out.
"Anees," he mumbled, his eyes downcast. He was fidgeting, his fingers roaming restlessly over the satchel slung from his shoulder and across his body like a shield.
He seemed painfully shy. His long silken hair, black as night, fell forward as he stood there with his head bowed. When he lifted his chin slightly to steal a glance at me from under his long lashes, it shifted softly like a lace curtain. He had the liquid brown eyes of a puppy. They were strangely compelling. There was in them a hint of some inexplicable loss, some unspoken desolation that made me want to mother him. But I didn't let that show.
"So, Anees ... give me one good reason to take you on."
He had come to me with a request that he be permitted to audit my course in drawing at the University in New York where I'm an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts. He was majoring in history and couldn't take my course for credits. But, he wondered, could he sit in? He would be grateful, he had added haltingly, if I let him. I was hesitant.
I love teaching. That's the only reason I do it. After two solo shows in prominent galleries in New York in two years, I'm comfortable enough financially not to need the job. I teach because I discovered early on that as much as I love the solitary act of creation, I also thrive on the more communal act of awakening passion ... in and for art. And since I care immensely, I expect my students to bring to learning the same commitment I bring to the act of teaching. I wondered whether this young man, who would be pulling a full course load in an unrelated discipline, would be able to muster that passion and commitment. He was hesitating, perhaps trying to choose his words carefully.
So I asked him again, "Anees, why should I take you on?"
He exhaled softly and looked at me with eyes that now held only a glimmer of hope, itself rapidly diminishing. He appeared to have quietly reconciled himself to my no for an answer.
"Because I love to draw ..." he whispered, "I have never had a chance to learn ... properly."
For me, that would always have been reason enough. I could understand that hunger ... the hunger to learn, the hunger to create, a hunger which would not be denied. I too had been hungry. I still am. I had realized my dream to be an artist against odds that seemed well nigh insuperable. It had taken a minor miracle, including a Kimberly scholarship, for me to train at the Royal college of Art in London. Only two years had passed since my return to New York after graduation and I was certainly young enough, and close enough to my own struggles, to understand wanting something so badly that it borders on physical pain. And as hard as Anees was trying not to let it show, his voice betrayed that pain I knew so well.
I looked at him quietly for a few moments and then said, "I'm going to give you a chance, Anees. Don't let me down."
His eyes were disbelieving as though he wasn't sure that he had heard right. When he recovered, he moved to open his satchel.
"I brought some of my art material," he said and then looked at me enquiringly, "but I'm not sure what I need to bring."
"You don't need to bring anything. You'll find all that you need in my class."
He looked at me then and smiled broadly, finally allowing himself to accept that he was in. That smile was dazzling ... a mixture of innocence and shyness and boyish charm. I found myself smiling back. I suddenly felt deeply, unaccountably happy.
As he was leaving, he turned around and said quietly, "Thank you, Ms. Ortelli."
When people thank you, they very rarely sound like they mean it. There was no doubt that he did.
"You are welcome, Anees," I replied, "And I prefer Andrea."
I watched them as they filed in and took their places behind the easels. For a few quiet moments, we sized each other up like boxers about to clash in the ring. In the beginning, they are always a little skeptical. It's not merely that I'm young. I'm also a bit of a wild child and look it. Nobody I have ever known expected me to become an "adjunct professor." It just wasn't ... me.
I speak my mind with a rashness that make people cringe. I wear clothes that are defiantly unconventional, which look like they didn't start as something meant to be worn at all. I have intriguing tattoos in intriguing places. And they aren't even my only body art.
I used to set off metal detectors in airports and after 9/11, I often ended up revealing unspeakable parts of my anatomy to eager security guards who then proceeded to examine me a little more closely than they needed to. They enjoyed pretending that they had to be thorough and that they were making absolutely certain that I wasn't going to blow up some suitably impressive target. I finally got tired of relieving the tedium of those grinning gargoyles. When I shifted to platinum and got rid of the heavier gauge jewelry and those lengths of chain that I was actually rather fond of, I finally stopped going off at airports. Now, I can fly.
But the skepticism that my appearance inspires doesn't usually last very long. I might look like a flower child. But I can draw ... and I can teach.
I cast a curious eye over the sea of female faces, the monotony broken only by Anees who had sidled behind an easel in a corner right at the back of the class. The fact that he was the only male student in the course had already attracted the proper amount of attention and the little hyenas were whispering together and gesturing and making eyes at him. They were already circling. Anees was going to have his hands full this term. As if, I thought ruefully, it wasn't going to be difficult enough for him to pull his load without the distraction of all those bunnies in heat.
Before I begin any serious teaching, I like to take the measure of a new batch of students, get a feel for their gifts. I like to set them some task, which would test their hands and their eyes and more importantly, their minds. I placed a vase on the table - of blue porcelain, its surface fractured by a web of tiny delicate lines. Over the vase, I cast a length of fabric, thin as gossamer, and asked the class to translate the whole ensemble in charcoal. I stayed put in my chair, quietly surveying the scene before me. Today I did not plan to walk among them, to correct an errant line or educate a careless eye. They were on their own ... free ... to interpret in whatever manner they saw fit that little tableau.
The girls were busy at work, pink tongues sticking out from between scarlet lips, their eyes furrowed in concentration. He was merely sitting at his easel, gazing intently at that still life. For almost an hour, he made no attempt to place charcoal stick to paper. When I began to despair of his even attempting the task I had set him, he suddenly raised his hand and whipped it across the sheet in a movement that was so fluid that he barely seemed to lift the stick from the surface. I was intrigued, but stopped myself from rising to my feet and walking over to see what he had conjured.
They filed past me handing in their sheets. The quality of the work was not uniform, but a handful of the class seemed to have real talent. As was to be expected from a class of beginners, their work was labored, an act of careful effort rather than easy inspiration. Well, all save for the one.
He was the last one to hand in his sheet and I looked at it with complete and barely concealed surprise. His work had rough edges, but it also had a self assurance that was so uncanny that, if I had not known otherwise, I would have assumed that he had had formal training. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the utter freshness of his work was a function of his inexperience ... the absence of baggage, the freedom from history and method, the compulsion to see the world in its freshness and to capture it in a few exuberant strokes of his charcoal stick.
His style was spare, the sheet stained by just a few lines of inky black; but he had succeeded in capturing the solidity ... at once dense and utterly fragile ... of the ancient piece of ceramic and the evanescence of the veil that hung over it. He was scanning my face anxiously for a reaction. When I smiled broadly and nodded, he let out a huge sigh of relief. The boy hadn't the faintest idea how good he was; or that, given some luck and some application, he had the potential for greatness.
I have wandered awe struck through the greatest museums in the world -- the Victoria & Albert, the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage ..., but none of them hold for me the charm of the Met. The Met and I share an unspoken intimacy that comes from long familiarity. At an age when I wished desperately to draw, but did not dare to harbor ambitions to be an artist, I had spend weekends drinking in with unutterable longing the emblems of human nobility that line its walls -- panels from Persepolis, Italian marble statuary that seemed to breathe, the flowering of the renaissance ... the peerless works of the European greats - Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Da Vinci .... In those corridors, in the face of the ineffable beauty that man was capable of, the meanness of the New York street faded and life was no longer drab and dreary. In the Met, I lived life in glorious Technicolor.
So many years later, when I do not merely dream of becoming an artist, but feel a sense of kinship with the old masters -- the kinship of sharing in however humble a way their craft, I still return to the Met again and again to recover that sense of wonder, to relive the magic of witnessing beauty. The Sunday following the beginning of Term was one of those days. As I ambled slowly through the section on 19th Century Art, my eyes lighted upon a figure who looked vaguely familiar. As I examined him more closely, I realized that it was Anees. He was sitting on a wooden bench lost in contemplation of the canvas on the wall opposite him.
I turned my head to see what had caught his eye and smiled. It was one of my personal favorites -- Courbet's utterly intriguing Woman with a Parrot. I'm a firm votary of passion in life and in art. I love paintings that are so achingly alive that you can smell them, taste the lips of their lovers and feel the texture of their skin. It's what I aspire to in my own work and Courbet's canvas, which held Anees in such thrall, had that in ample measure.
Courbet's woman was spread across crumpled sheets, her hair disheveled, her belly soft and so achingly vulnerable, her breasts plump and perky, her nipples distended into lush peaks, the colorful parrot poised on her fingers ... had it just landed? ... was it about to take flight? ... an intriguing counter point to her indubitable humanity. She looked so gloriously free, so deliciously wanton as if she had just been fucked and the silk sheet gathered in the junction of her thighs was soaking up the cum dripping from her slit.
I leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Beautiful, isn't she?"
He started at my voice and then broke into a broad smile.
"Andrea," I said, shaking my head in mock disgust, "and don't you dare ma'am me."
He laughed and slid over on the wooden bench to make space for me.
"I'm sorry I startled you," I said.
But my impish grin left him in no doubt that I wasn't sorry at all, that I was actually rather pleased to have made him jump. For a while, we sat in companionable silence, drinking in quietly the almost intimidating beauty of the works of art scattered around the hall. And then, in a soft voice ... barely above a whisper, he began to speak.
There is something about the presence of great art that unlocks the soul. It puts you in the mood for intimate revelation ... the giving and the receiving of it. There have been moments when I have wandered through the corridors of the Met craving an empathetic ear ... almost unable to bear not sharing with another the loveliness on the walls ... wanting to lay open my heart to someone else ... wanting to be known, to be understood, for a moment just to be acknowledged. I suspected that this was how Anees felt at that moment. I listened quietly to his whispered confidences, to the slow flowering open of his heart. I was grateful for his trust.
He told me of how his father was a first generation immigrant from Egypt and of his childhood in a conservative household which, despite its distance from the land of their origin, was a corner of New York that was, he said, Cairo.
"He pines for it," Anees said of his father, "he longs for the Cairo of his dreams -- the city of his youth. I'm not sure it exists any longer or that he would recognize the place that it has become. I suspect that in the depths of his heart, he knows that. It must be the reason he's never gone back."
"He speaks of the past endlessly -- of sitting at pavement cafes in the Khan el-Khalili sipping Turkish coffee and drawing deep lungfuls of apple flavored shisha, of watching whirling dervishes in El-Ghuriya, of kneeling in prayer afterwards beneath the magnificent dome of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, of his tiny hand lost in my grandfather's fist as he bargained for camels at the Souq al-Gamaal at Birqash. It's when the camel business began to flounder that my father had to leave Egypt and come here seeking a new life. He was just married then and he tells me that my mother was terrified by this new world that they had come to, so different from the heat and the dust and the comforting familiarity of Cairo. It was all she had ever known."
"I was born here," he said, glancing at me briefly and then looking away, "So were my brothers. I'm the youngest of four."
"You must have been spoilt," I remarked.
"My mother tried," he laughed, "But my father wouldn't let it happen. He had very firm views on how a boy should be brought up. And what a boy can do ... honorably. He thinks the arts -- music and painting and dance -- are a waste of time. Worse ... vaguely effeminate ... not something a boy should be dabbling in. My father built a business from scratch ... of importing carpets from Egypt. My eldest brother looks after the business now. My second brother is an engineer and the third has a construction business of his own. So you can imagine why he isn't very pleased with me."
He was quiet for a while, then continued in a soft voice.
"The first time he caught me crouched in a corner of my room drawing, he was horrified. He wanted me to be out with my brothers playing and not bent over a sheet of paper fooling around with a box of crayons. After that, I never let him catch me at it. I scrounged and saved to buy art material. That was difficult. We had no pocket money when we were growing up. We simply asked for what we wanted. We got it if my father approved. My mom would pitch in a little now and then, bless her soul. Since I couldn't draw at home, I would come here to the Met on weekends and wander like a ghost through its halls."
I wasn't sure what to say, so I mumbled, "I'm sorry."
"You don't have to be. Actually, it's not his fault," he said sadly, "He doesn't understand. Our world is not the same as his. He never really left Egypt."
His voice was wistful, filled with tenderness, but also with regret and a sadness that choked my heart. At that moment, I wanted to fold him into my arms and console him; to whisper small cooing noises, sweet but utterly meaningless, in his ear. The spell broke when he spoke again.
"I hope I'm not boring you with the gloomy tales of my childhood." He was smiling broadly. Pouring his heart out seemed to have done him good.
"No, not at all. Actually, I was rather relieved listening to your gloomy tales," I teased, "You were so quiet in class that I was beginning to think that you weren't planning on another word for the rest of the term."
"You might begin to regret that you got me started."
"Would you care for coffee?" he asked and then quickly added, "if that's fine with you, of course."
"I don't usually mix with my students outside class," I said solemnly, "unless of course it's a date. Is this a date, Anees?"
He blushed in his confusion. He looked positively scrumptious when he did. I made a mental note that I should get him to do it more often. I burst into laughter and he followed suit, relieved that I was messing with him and delighted at having escaped that particular minefield unscathed. Actually, I was only half fooling. There was a part of me that would have liked an answer, a part of me which also feared what the answer might be.
I glanced down at Susan's naked reclining figure on the couch. I had arranged her body carefully, her back to the class, her knees drawn up, the side of her head resting on one folded arm, the fingers of which were peeping from beneath the shimmering river of pale gold that flowed over the edge of the couch and dangled to the floor. I knew it was rather early in the semester for the study of a live nude, but I told myself that it wouldn't hurt. If I had been completely honest with myself, I would have admitted the real reason Susan was draped across that couch. I was curious to see what one particular student would make of her. No prizes for guessing who.
They all seemed to be preoccupied, bundles of nervous energy, arranging and rearranging themselves and their material. They seemed vaguely embarrassed, reluctant to look ... really look ... at the reclining nude and were struggling to postpone for as long as they could the task before them.
I glanced around the class quickly and then softly raked the fingernails of one hand along the curve of Susan's hip. She shuddered at the delicate touch. We had been lovers. She was the first model that I had painted from life on my return to New York from London. There had been an unspoken tension between us during that first sitting, both of us painfully aware of her nakedness and her beauty. We were awkward and stilted, our muscles bunched like coiled springs under our skin. During the second sitting, as I arranged her prone body, she had suddenly reached upward, placed her hand behind my head and brought my lips to hers in a soft lingering kiss. I had taken her then, on the couch, quickly, brutally, our urgency permitting no words to be exchanged between us, her beautiful body writhing in my arms.
The relationship ended not because the passion died ... the sex was always great ... but because she drained me emotionally. I guess it wasn't her fault, but she became increasingly insecure. My art made far too many demands on me to permit me the luxury of a companion whose self-esteem needed constant stroking. She couldn't understand that I had a demon inside me that drove me to paint, that there were times when I needed to as much as I needed air or water. She didn't understand that my passion for her fed my passion for painting, that her presence in my life actually drove me to the easel. She never said anything, but her face and her body were eloquent and signaled her hurt and her resentment. I had no choice. I didn't want our love to become some twisted thing that would make our hearts bleed. But during the months that we were together, my art was impassioned. The work that I produced glowed with my lust and my longing for her. They were achingly alive.
My sister, Maria, of course, insisted that there was a far more prosaic explanation for my behavior - that I simply couldn't resist my models, that I couldn't paint them unless I fucked them. And maybe she was right. You really don't know a person, do you, unless you sleep with them, until you hold them helpless and trembling in your arms, until you watch their faces twist with an ecstasy that they can scarcely bear and you have caused? As they cum, thrashing in your bed, you get to peep into their soul. And that is the true art of portraiture, isn't it, to paint that real person - the bleeding, hurting, laughing soul behind the mask? My sister was more right than she knew. It's always a good idea to fuck them and then paint them.