The choker alone betrayed her identity. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have recognized her. Many years earlier, she had worn nothing else.
Without a pendant or piece of frill, the collar was stark. Like an armband, it might have memorialized a death. The mouth above it, however, was wildly working as if unaware of the grim accessory below.
Her lips were moving urgently because of the cellphone beside her face. It transmitted what she read from the laptop computer on the table. We sat a few seats away from each other along a sidewalk outside of a lightly populated coffee shop. Whereas I enjoyed people-watching whenever I returned to the little town where I had gone to college, her screen occupied her. She spoke commands. Her comments sounded (to an eavesdropper anyway) real estate related. While I hid how much I admired her, the strip of fabric around her throat transported me into the past.
A similar strap had adorned her neck a literal lifetime earlier (since our ages had doubled since then). The nineteen-nineties were underway. They had delivered a new kind of music, a different dress code and a Democratic administration for a change. A season of rejuvenation had taken hold everywhere. The weather itself had even improved. Spring quarter classes had gotten started with yet another foray for me into figure painting.
The professor (Joe, as he announced with a note of humility) called attendance. Almost every student answered, “Here!” One replied, however, by clarifying, “I don’t go by William anymore.”
The guy supplied a name. Joe responded, “Okay … Bo,” while he wrote on the roster. The younger man added, “How the French spell it.” He wore faded overalls with oil paint smeared across the bib. The denim must have functioned as somewhere to wipe his brushes. It also advertised how supposedly serious of an artist he was. A nest of dreadlocks secured with a ratty bandana (how did a white kid have that type of hair … and why … hadn’t we appropriated enough from other cultures already?) reinforced his image. Joe relented, “Beau it is, e-a-u, although said the same,” as he made another note (I imagined “douche bag”) on the paper.
Next to Beau, there sat a beauty. Joe got to the name, “Angelica.” She said, “Yes.” A girlfriend to Beau, the two (along with their stool legs) were pressed together to make it obvious. Her Sinead O’ Connor haircut had a European aura (the practically bald singer was Irish, after all). Her baggy flannel (a Grunge era fashion necessity), however, was American. It draped her, like a dress would, to her thighs. Underneath the shirt and above her ankle-high boots, her intervening inches were blackened with the tights of a similar shade to the choker at her throat. Although no taller than a finger-width or so, the small embellishment had a bigger impact. The onyx ribbon was attached to her almost ivory surface like a seam in a column of alabaster. They contrasted harshly. As a way to separate her incongruous styles, it divided her body from her head where they were joined together.
Beau spoke on her behalf, “Fanny, that’s what everybody calls her.”
Joe lamented, “Angelica, though, is so elegant.”
“Wait ‘til you watch her walk away,” Beau elaborated, “You’ll understand.”
With the shape below her neck only earning her apathy, Fanny shrugged as if it weren’t even hers.
I (as a guy in his early twenties and a student of figurative art) took what I heard to heart and watched her. That day, Fanny wore loose apparel. It didn’t offer the view that her companion had recommended to the class. Rather, she revealed herself for us slowly. The weeks wore on. Her clothing obscured her less. Although her leggings, along with the choker, remained where they were, the rest of her wardrobe became increasingly short. Eventually, the bottom edge of a tattered tee-shirt rose high enough for the slight emergence of a curvier part of her. Clad in ebony fabric, alluringly round and emphasizing why Fanny was her name, it tantalized us whenever she bent to pick anything up. As it turned out, we only had to wait to see the feature fully a few more days. A pullover hugged her snugly around her waist and exposed her lower half (or its silhouette, anyway) entirely. Soon, her tops were cropped and, after that, disappeared altogether. She had transformed her black undergarment into the singular item enwrapping her plainly seductive physique. A catsuit, as I later learned while looking at internet imagery, the straps across her shoulders were repeated around her feet to stretch a continuous skin over every contour in between them.
Models employed to satisfy my scrutiny elsewhere didn’t. Despite how they were nude during every session, none ever compared to Fanny. They felt too academic. Capturing anything real was elusive. Instead, I stayed alert to the noteworthy couple.
Her pictures were honest to the point of Fanny undressing her deeper self. For Beau, the exercises were a show of his allegedly daring (albeit typical) license with a brush. She proved to be the better artist. Her talent explained, I now believe, why he betrayed her.
Becca, that day’s specimen of flawless anatomy, hadn’t arrived. With her twenty minutes overdue, Joe appealed to us. He tried to recruit a replacement. When nobody volunteered, he assured whoever would help of how they could do it with their clothes on.
Nevertheless, a better possibility had arisen. Without having worn a bra, Fanny had already bared herself from her chest to the bulge of her belly. Joe said, “Well … Angelica … thank you.” She took it to mean not to stop. A shift of her snugly fitted hips and a shimmy stripped her further down where no panties were present. Her shoes (a pair of ballerina flats) were set aside to free her feet. After kicking her catsuit away, she yet again relied on her footwear to carry her onto the platform where she posed.
During her display, Fanny folded her arms. Along with the choker, they framed her flesh. I lovingly depicted what I saw. With a sole exception, all of our eyes were on her. Beau, the lone holdout, was uncharacteristically quiet (which only occurred to me later).
Becca broke our silence, startled everybody by declaring, “I’m here! I’m here!” and hurried into the studio. The sight of Fanny doing her job prompted her snide remark, “Amateur hour is over.”
Beau, after an odd delay, echoed her opinion, “Knock it off, Fanny! Becca’s right. You’re done now!”
Fanny refused to budge while asking her boyfriend, “What’s your problem? I wear that ridiculous outfit to keep you happy. Naked isn’t a whole lot worse.”
“Your tights are better for hiding your chub,” Beau told her.
Becca maneuvered to check on her body. The backside of Fanny appalled her. She cried, “Oh my God, honey, look at your cheese!”
Cellulite dimpled a lower region. While eager to verify where, the subject twisted her torso, leaned over and realigned her vision with everyone else’s. “If I’m ugly there,” Fanny referred to the area angled to Beau, “then how come you’re always so hot to get your hands on it?”
His reply, “Never with the lights on,” wounded her. Fanny couldn’t even utter another word. Instead, her gaze sought a kinder critic among us. When nobody judged her any better (at least aloud), we all let her feel like a fool.
Why had I failed to say that I found her beautiful? The question had haunted me early on. Back then, I had called it cowardice. The answer may be more complex. Until openly dared to do so, hadn’t I been desperate to share my opinion? Why had I been afraid to such an odd degree? Beau was hardly a frightening opponent. Furthermore, the flaw that he and Becca had derided was almost imperceptible. What other reason would I have had to not declare Fanny gorgeous? I later formed a theory: the once unique conditions in a college classroom were to blame. Any compliment to a woman regarding how she looks, in a politically correct atmosphere, may be seen as sexual harassment. Hadn’t our training taught us to never acknowledge how attractive anybody was? An overly tense sensitivity, it has spread to the rest of society since.
Sometimes, however, a person needs a healthy dose of flattery.
The pain of our poor appraisal was sufficient to make her flee the room. How she would have escaped to somewhere safe for a girl without anything on remained a mystery. After class, her final layer still laid in a heap by her empty stool. Once alone with the pile, I folded her property up, placed it in obvious reach and walked away to accommodate her private return.
Nothing ever happened to the catsuit. Anyway, the term (my last to go before graduation) had almost ended. I never saw Fanny again … or hadn’t when, after many years, I encountered her, the coffee shop being where she and I were reunited.
Our seats were close enough for me to overhear the conclusion of her call. I stood up and approached her. My “Hello there” made a smile widen across her face. Had I been equally recognizable? Her reply, “Can I help with your realty needs?” said otherwise. Her tone of voice had a hint of her hope of a big commission. Her wardrobe bespoke a professional life from her slacks and her blazer to the pin affixed to her lapel. With it tightly pressed to her head, her helmet of a hairdo was smoothed to the back and rigid. I was stricken with the truth that I was simply a future client.
Had I misidentified her? The strip of fabric around her throat told a singular story. My imagination had always strayed to how Fanny had dealt with her last departure from our class. I would disregard, whenever I pictured this scenario, the many smocks and aprons hung up on hooks in the washroom adjacent to the studio area itself. Instead, we (her dumbfounded audience) had driven a delicate, open-hearted, watery-eyed (where the tears were perpetually just about to fall) and doe-like creature into the world without a solitary way to conceal herself. From my experience with her, she wouldn’t have fought to find relief. Fanny sharing her shape while asking, “Am I ugly there?” seemed to be more plausible. Her personality was sweet enough for it to manifest in her actions, on her face and all around her. That type of radiance would have rendered her need to cover anything obsolete. To me, she lived her life from that day forward exactly as I remembered her naked disappearance (at home, I still had an incomplete drawing of how she had looked).
In reality, her newer version wasn’t even remotely the same. Instead of foregoing any, her clothes were a suit of armor. They clad her as severely as her continuous stream of words sounded. While I had romantically reminisced about her, Fanny had issued a market analysis.
I doubted who she was until I was handed a card with the name Angelica spelled across it. I questioned her, “Didn’t you go by Fanny before?” She grabbed what I had received a second earlier, focused on her work and declined to add anything else. Still, I strove for something apologetic when I said, “You were so pretty that day that you modeled.” Her response involved raising a finger (not to be vulgar but to show me the diamond ring around it) while locking her eyes on a listing on her computer screen.
It was over. She ignored me. I harbored a sorrow that wasn’t worth her sympathetic ear. The message (I’ve written it here to make amends) would only have reached her (I saw while leaving) had a remnant remained of her younger self as suggested (although incorrectly) by the choker alone.