Listen to Valentine au Naturel read by the author
Or read it yourself below! (either way – scroll to the bottom to see Silvère’s cartoon in full.)
My French husband of 35 years is not a romantic, at least not in any stereotypical Pepe Le Pew kind of way. He rebels against the expected, holiday, lemming-like behavior, refusing to bend to the corporate will of…Big Hallmark. This tends to make Valentine’s Day predictably fraught, with his last minute, sad bouquet from the local, downscale supermarket placed right next to my pillowy, red satin, heart-shaped box of boutique chocolates, containing, I admit, my favorites (salted caramels and almond toffee). Fortunately, we both bring a nice red wine to the table – the great leveler.
But on this February 14th, this enshrined celebration of coupledom, I want to honor the forgotten single, by remembering the times in my life when I was alone and Valentine-less. In this particular scenario, an actor friend had convinced me to come to Portland, Maine for a few weeks in February. I could occupy a recently vacated alcove in her “raw space” and try to further my mime career. Yes, that’s right – you heard me – my mime career. What can I say – it was the 70s.
Sadly, I had not been educated in the importance of money and practicality. Though I had heartily embraced feminism, I somehow missed the part where true independence means you need a good job with benefits and a 401K plan (whatever that is), and where a woman buying the candy and roses on Valentine’s Day is considered evolved. I instead latched on to the part where I am able to remain my outrageous self, not shaving my legs or wearing a bra, while my future imaginary husband does most of the housework and cooking, and supports my refusal to change my name because I am no man’s property!! And women do too have a sense of humor, you death loving tool of the patriarchy…oh, not you, darling…lalala.
Anyway, back to Portland – as it turned out, jobs for mimes were not exactly thick on the ground . But because the snow was (thick on the ground, that is), busking was definitely out. Unless I was willing to stand on a 10-foot pile of plowed snow on the side of an empty street in an oversized puffer coat and mukluks doing the walk against the wind, I had to find an alternative income, preferably indoors. My friend said that occasionally she got work doing nude modeling for a life drawing class. I thought – great! I can do that…my body being my instrument and all. So, I offered my services at $10 an hour which back then was good money. The sessions lasted two and a half hours, but I would be given a short break at 20-minute intervals.
The first time I went I was very nervous, as I am for the first time of anything, unless alcohol is involved, which in this case it was not, as my body is also my temple. (Although the occasional violation of said temple, is inevitable when you are in your 20s in the dead of winter, in a hard drinking, New England coastal town.)
The class ran from 7:30 to 10pm in an art studio in the basement of an elementary school. The room was well lit and calm, with easels and stools set up at several drawing stations. Facing these, under a couple of spotlights, was a platform on which were placed a rectangular block, a folding chair, and a space heater (“Nude Descending Platform with Space Heater”, I imagined someone’s smartass title). And so, I took my position, posing as I was directed, hand on hip, foot on block, head cocked looking off into the distance. When you are required to stand naked and inert for 20 minutes, time slows down to an excruciating pace, every sound is magnified, grating and startling; the busy scratch of pencils and charcoal on paper, throat clearing, sighing, a muffled belch. The back and forth of the normally silent eraser is broadcast across the room, along with squeaks of frustration, as if an exasperated mouse were seated on one of the stools…in a beret.
As I struggle for statue-like stillness, trying to be Zen, I notice a string of perky, hot pink paper valentines hung up as though pegged to a clothesline in the back of the room. A large glass jar of red and silver foiled Hershey kisses sits below on what must be the teacher’s desk. I then remember today is February 13th. In a few hours it will be Valentine’s day and here I am, alone with no clothes on, spot lit in front of strangers like the cliché of a bad dream. Somehow the valentine atmosphere lends an air of even more perversion to the situation and I begin to sweat. After what seems an eternity of clammy minutes, the instructor steps in and discretely turns off the space heater with raised eyebrows to my imperceptible nod and thank god, it’s time for a break. The spell is broken and everyone relaxes, either hulking over the too short water fountain or waiting for someone to wander by and comment on their efforts.
Trying not to bend over too much, I unfold the chair, and sit down. Then it dawns on me…Shit! I don’t have anything to cover myself with! Why the hell did no one tell me to bring a robe or at least an old sheet? My stiff neck turns to stare longingly at my clothes, hanging lifeless on a peg in the tiny changing room which now seems miles across a vast linoleum tundra. It would be ridiculous to saunter over, nonchalantly naked, close the door then get dressed really fast like a not so quick, quick-change artist, elbows banging into the walls, my hands all thumbs as I grapple with the buttons and zippers, and hooks and eyes, only to have to turn around and take it all off again, drawing even more attention to myself. Nor could I just go and hide for 10 minutes in this so-called changing room – not a room really – more of a tall skinny free-standing cabinet – like an upended coffin, a mummy’s tomb in a horror film. No, best to just remain seated, blasé on the platform – like I sit around naked in public all the time. I imagine taking out a cigarette (I don’t smoke) and asking for a light, then exhaling in sophisticated satisfaction as I cross my legs demurely. But instead, under the harsh, fluorescent light of reality, people are starting to approach me…(why?), wanting to make conversation – (oh god!).
“Where are you from?” “How do you like Portland?” “Do you model frequently?” It was like being hit on at a bar by polite night school students, undaunted by the emperor’s new clothes. A large bead of sweat starts to travel down what would have been my cleavage if the Mark Eden Bust Developer I had sent away for when I was 14 had been effective, but instead has a direct shot down my chest, unimpeded, plopping into my belly button like a golf putt. “Your body is a real pleasure to draw, you know?” a man’s voice says and my creepy stalker radar kicks in. But when I glance up at him, he just looks sincere and harmless, which of course makes me think “serial killer”, but then I start wondering what he meant by the comment. What makes an interesting subject to an art student – Deformity? Lack of symmetry? I was teetering on Sideshow Freak when the instructor announced the end of the break.
What a relief it was to return to sanctioned nudity! As I posed, now coddled in the space heatered comfort of occupational health and safety, I felt free to let my mind wander, picturing the Goodwill store near the center of town, lit up and beckoning, a mecca of endless hangers draped with protective clothing, that I will visit tomorrow. Striding purposefully down the aisles, I will find the “Loungewear” section, and after sifting through the gamut of frumpy to hideous, my eyes will at long last, land on the classic Maine, red plaid flannel bathrobe which, after getting a thorough washing, will become the perfect Valentine’s gift to myself.