“Solitude has soft, silky hands, but with strong fingers it grasps the heart and makes it ache with sorrow.”
― Kahlil Gibran
‘There is something about the black against ivory which is ultimately mesmerising,’ One artist or another murmured in that obscure little language of the humanities, staring intently at my face with a movement of his eyes from mine, to my cheek and back again. It was a strange kind of relay I have slowly become accustomed to.
It is a stranger reality that I cry for a living. It began when I was sat waiting in the tube station in the midst of some personal angst, the flurry of footfalls driving through my head and tripping the tears down my face. It wasn’t something I was particularly conscious of, for I was lost, and wondering if my body was really present amidst so much raw human life. I felt very empty in those days – those days I would retreat to the white walls of my flat and let the night and day blind me equally.
Yet I remember glancing up like a moth pulling thickly away from the sedation of the dark, to suddenly become ensnared, seized in the eyes of a man sat just across from me. I shuffled to stand, though I do not whether it was that movement, or the sudden slipping of the last tear from my cheek which made him cry out, almost frenzied.
Within a matter of seconds he was in front of me, a rather short yet petite man with an expanse agitated dark hair and a moustache which seemed only to highlight the precision of his mouth. Words seemed to stir from thin red lips.
“Your tears, madam, the most beautiful tears I have ever seen.” He spoke rapidly, apparently impassioned, like a collector of fine ornaments suddenly spotting a priceless specimen “That I will ever see.”
I did not know how to respond. I was aware that perhaps those who considered themselves ‘artistic types’ might take a certain pride in the purging of emotion, but I wondered why it should be mine. I could feel the exhausted skin prickle under the trail of a tearstain.
His body seemed taut with a nervous energy. He gesticulated wildly as he spoke, so that the bespoke scarf shielding his neck, swung slightly, giving the impression almost of an additional limb.
“I will ask you,” he gushed, re-iterating himself for effect “I will ask you, if you would like to model for my friends and myself.”
I was captivated by the slightly faulty formality of his tone, his strange projection of the present tense and as for the idea of ‘modelling’ –
He evidently noticed the slight surge of red in my cheeks – perhaps with a kind of distaste, as it concealed the last lingering tear against my skin.
“No, no, kind lady,” he continued, indicating my blush “Nothing indecent. What I want, what WE want, is to paint that intricacy of emotion, that fineness…”
He looked me straight in the face.
“I will pay you of course.”
Petty it may sound, for a sum of money, but that was when I began sitting.
Three mornings a week I would be picked up by a car he had ordered, threading through the steep streets like a familial beetle, and would be driven to his studio, somewhere near Shoreditch, though I was not entirely certain at first, as my thoughts felt as fine as chalk dust under the apparent captivation I provided for these young men. In the startling white of the artist’s studio, a white so pure as to wound, the tears came easily at first. They flickered like films of fear in my wide eyes as I stared at the semi-circle of young artists around me. There was one woman, and I noticed occasionally, she would cast a solitary sympathetic glance towards me as I perched on the focal bench – evidently reflecting the scene where Michael had first met me.
The male eyes were distinctively hungry, eyes which seemed to dominate their faces unabatedly reflected in my tear drops. I began to feel disgusting, feeling their faces entrapped in a spiracle of salt upon my face. It was a strange, seizing dominance – their brushes shifting and scraping upon innocent canvas.
I always wore black, as Michael told me – a dress with a cut neck which seemed to collapse into itself, giving a certain sheen to my collarbone and the top of my ribcage, as if my skin was emerged like a drowned article from an open mouth. During the breaks I would steal around the canvases, marvelling at how the paint seemed to break by body down like machinery. But it was evidently the tears that were wanted. On some paintings, the tears seemed emphasized as bold as bullet wounds fast through the skull.
It made me cry again, anyway.
Following the customary breaks, the afternoon sittings seemed to seep languorously, almost tortuously beneath my skin. My body pined for movement – and mockingly, inching down the contours of my skin, the only articles which moved were my tears. Perhaps I kept crying at this strange loss of my bodily autonomy, the want to wipe away tears and laugh nervously was becoming unbearable. I do not know.
At the end of nearly every sitting, Michael would hurry up to me with a damp hand outstretched – as if it was obligatory for me to take it in order to rise.
“Excellent!” He would gasp “Such emotion, such beauty, such –“
The only female artist would sometimes look at him strangely over her shoulder as she left. Her features seemed to flicker in a kind of disgust. Most of the time I could barely decipher what Michael was saying, his words fell flat and somehow strained, just beyond my hearing. I would feel cold money pressed in my palm and a customary pat on the shoulder, sometimes his hands slipping down to my arm.
But over time, sitting after sitting, it did become harder to cry. It was if the isolation of the world had been suddenly submerged beneath these staring eyes and a fixation for tears. I had money, I ate better than I had in years, and sometimes I thought the only subject which could cause me to shed a tear would be my empty extravagance. Of course the money was necessary; it paid the rent, allowed a fair existence.
He would pay me extra if I kept crying.
But it was one morning I crawled from the cab and up the studio steps, their merciless concrete fingers muffling my footing, in a kind of resignation, I knew I could not cry. My hands shaking, I thought perhaps if I stayed a few moments in the open air, the nimble fingers of the wind would tease a tear or two out of my eyes, as if plucking a precious jewel from the iris. I guess that was how they idolised my eyes – the artists. Michael especially , insisted on the utmost care of my eyesight – I was not to look at the sun, not even the sunset, I was scheduled a specific hours sleep, had to wear a variety of eye masks which encased me almost like an insect. He said it was in order to maintain a certain kind of ‘artistic effect’. I was not even sure about what had been maintained. My sight was submerged beneath a kind of inconsistency.
I realised this as I stood on the steps and stared into emptiness. I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“What is the matter?”
It was the female artist, I knew, for her hand seemed to have a certain kind of lightness, a variety of delicacy I had never seen in the male touch, their fingers grasped around greased brushes as if trying to emulate life in the most desperate sense.
Her mouth seemed to stumble over her words. “I’ve never seen you look so sad.”
The irony of the comment seemed to sting me – all this time I had cried in front of her and never looked so sad! I started to laugh, laughing with a horrible sick shriek which seemed to emerge from my mouth, searing like a sound I had never heard before. It was perhaps an involuntary response to laugh and laugh until the tears trickled down my cheeks. Only they did not.
“Come on inside.” She mumbled hurriedly “You’re going have to do something, aren’t you?”
My feet seemed skewed upon the floor with an awful indeterminacy as she took my arm, pulling me into the studio kitchen. The pattern of black and white tiles seemed to stare at me garishly – staring at me – the inanimate object, the empty vessel.
“You hardly know what you are facing,” The female artist muttered, whether to me or herself I was not sure, as she fumbled almost angrily with the water faucet. It spattered and slapped against the cold marble sink, sliding over the pale gloves of her hands. Strange tight white marks seemed magnified by the pressure of the liquid against her skin - Those same hands then in my face as she sluiced my eyes with water, applying wave after wave of pressure.
“it will have to do,” She whispered hurriedly “Now get out there, he’ll want you there –“
I still remember the fear flickering in her exhausted eyes sockets as she spoke as if her eyes were fat fruits long ago gouged for their stones, motioning me towards the corridor which was almost surgical in its bone-whiteness. I wondered and wondered. It was in that corridor Michael saw me.
“You’re nearly late for the sitting,” He hissed, drawing alongside me with an apparently practiced stealth, his hands plucking and twisting at his gloved fingers.
My mouth wavered unfaithfully over the words like a bitter lover. “I was just –‘’
He stared into my eyes then, long and hard, slipping forward in a kind of shock.
He knew the tears were not genuine. Perhaps he knew they could not be forever, though the apparent disgust contorting the contours of his face told otherwise. It told of shame.
‘No, No,’ He said, swiping the water from my face roughly ‘We cannot escape the pain we live for.’
I attempted to scramble roughly away from his touch and felt his fingers tighten around my upper arm, the pressure scolding my skin against his. The angular bone shone almost blade-like through his wrists.
“I pay you for tears,” He spoke in a manner of cool threat, his voice tremulous, double-edged, almost hysterical “Surely that is not too much to ask?”
And with the sibilance of the last syllable, white teeth travelling almost hungrily between red lips he shot his nails into my skin until the tears came.
It became routine from then – the ritualistic preparation of tears. I learnt to anoint my hours with a certain kind of sadness, I could never allow for contentment to be lost in order to detract from what I was told I was beautiful. I could not even smile as I sat modelling, hot under artists’ eyes thinking how ridiculous it all was!
And I learnt not to cry when my body screamed.
Like how I told the young man I was fine, when he led me back one night to my flat, slipping through the door with me and between the sheets. I let him do what he wanted, let him leave with the ash from his cigarettes still smeared into the carpet and the lease of his leering hands still hot on my brow. as I knew I could cry later.
Knowing that I could cry later became the consolation did it. I do not why I did it. A horrible kind of dependence – I do not know. Sometimes I would throw my money from bridges and into the water, feeling that it might steer tears.
Art steers tears for some.
I would burn myself with cigarettes, scraping away the emptied flesh with razors – for most of it had been emptied into their art, I could see myself ‘taking shape’ or whatever they said, whilst at the same time I collapsed. The rush of red against the white was almost as majestic – perhaps someday they will want that too, perhaps tears are just a persecutor to blood. I had my heart broken, I broke it on purpose. It was as if I had laid each organ alive and horrible in the lap of my lover and let him crack them with his certain fingers. I felt out of love, I did not eat, I wept. The money soared. It was a height gained. It is a height still gained.
Now I only wait to save for something from which I can jump.