What am I doing?
She laughed out loud to no one, just to shake herself up. Tiny, white clouds puffed out of her mouth like smoke, tattling on the extreme coldness of the temperature. You may not turn around. She was alone with only the swishing of her own bustle, the wind that rattled a distant trashcan, and the rogue shadows sprinting away from the occasional passing car. The young woman forced her steps forward to be slower and longer, easing her shoulders out of their huddle and into a soft slink; she tried to exude a persona worthy of the sharp clicking of her heels pecking the cobblestone street. Be cool.
But that quick, hard laughter had frozen in the air the very moment it burst out of her, shattering the dark silence and forcing thousands of tiny echoes to go scampering across the tall brick buildings that ran along both sides of the street. The laughter scuttled like thousands of tiny sound spiders along the gloom, invisibly eating the quiet tucked in odd corners of the night…
Good, she thought. She had barked part of the madness out.
Nightfall was pouring ice into her every inhale, and yet each one of her exhales shot out a hot steam of boiling nerves— the only evidence of the fevered excitement cooking on her insides. The newly adopted stride of confidence was her only armor against Whatever Would Happen in the Next 15 Minutes.
It was slightly sprinkling. She wanted more bravery, and in a fit of boldness and desperation, swept a silly amount of swagger into her steps, exaggerating her sway and oozing an absurd, faux cockiness all over the wet sidewalk. Her thoughts rocked between Be Beyonce, This is nothing, and This is absolutely hilarious.
But as she saw the glowing address light approaching, perched on the wall beneath the museum’s flying banner up ahead, all the absurd channeling of diva-power dwindled into dust, settling on the stone truth of reality:
She’d arrived at her destination.
Like all men and women who’ve fought against an Impending Doom, the cold girl’s face-off with her Fate colored the moment with a slight shade of surprise. It was a special surprise, dressed like wisdom but feeling, at her core, more like a fool than anything, for trying to play a game bigger than she was.
She mused that Death must feel exactly like that for some people.
The girl, keen to how stupidly she had been walking, laughed out loud again, this time at herself. Calm yourself, P-Diddy, she thought, and pulled her coat tighter around her neck. She checked her watch: 5:50.
It began at 6. You couldn’t turn around if you tried. It’s too late. You’re here.
She’d reached the front door, and took one last sip of the cold night before entering. The bright cave of the entrance was filled with noises of familiar people doing familiar things in a place they were all too familiar with. She was suddenly conscious of her role as a stranger, in a strange place, about to do a strange things in a strange building of a strange country.
Is this what Death felt like?
This quick, charmingly vulnerable thought reminded her to ask herself the question she always did before a Jump. But will this kill you? And with her answer tucked under her tongue, she stepped into the museum to do what she promised herself (and the art institution) she would do.
No, she wouldn’t die.
Worst case scenario, she just failed, miserably.
Worst case scenario, she had a story.
She nodded to herself, and stepped through the archway.
She hardly remembered being led into the back room. She couldn’t tell you about the small talk she made with the museum curator who toured her through the two rooms she was going to perform in. She only recalls white, lots of white…..
Naked in public, I laughed. Just like the title of my first blog, from a lifetime ago. Jesus, how perfect. How did you not think of this before?
“Don’t look at any of the artists’ faces.” These were the bold words in the online article I’d inhaled for advice that morning (forever the procrastinator) and these were the words emblazoned across my brain right then as I emerged from the elevator in my ridiculous pink robe. It felt like carpet on my skin.
I commanded my brain to insulate itself, to create a blockade from the sea of visages attacking my own. I focused on the platform. I kept my chin up, my shoulders relaxed, and my eyes alive, unscattered.
This is nothing.
This is absolutely hilarious.
Moving along the edge of the giant white hall, I was careful to avoid hitting the hanging paintings with my left shoulder while trying to maintain a safe distance from the easels on my right. I floated with what I intended to be a steady, simple lope… but I’m all too certain it came out as a scurry. The white walls burnt my eyes. We might as well have been on the sun.
In slow-motion, then, I repeated in sequence all the things I had learned online: Don’t get too complicated, start simple. The more twisting, the better. Keep your face relaxed.
You will not die.
Shift your weight in small places when it hurts. Pick a point, stay there. No matter what pose you pick, it will burn. Don’t waste energy trying to like it, learn to displace it. Under no circumstances can you move.
Also you will not die.
I enacted the smallest smile to nest under the right side of mouth, to bemuse the blurry faces that turned to watch the model’s procession to the stage. You can do this with smiles, you know I told to No One. Tuck them in different places for different people, I mean.
Except, as my lips slid to perform so, something about my usual mechanics misfired; I was too deeply rattled to function properly. Even my body was aware that I had never before been among people whose job was to look for my tucked smiles, my open and secret curves alike. As I walked my smile jumped to somewhere it shouldn’t, and my heart sped as panic poisoned my carefully constructed calm. What was it doing on my upper lip? I wanted it lower, I wanted it closer to a smirk. Here I was, approaching professionals and nonprofessionals alike, and I couldn’t control my easiest, favorite muscle.
What have I done?
On the very first step onto the stage I managed to kick over the timer.
Like, all the way off. It toppled down all the steps like a bouncy ball in a cartoon, and the room was dead silent. I stood there with no clothes on staring at the fallen clock with at least fifty Finnish strangers.
Who are the new screenwriters for my life? Give them a raise.
I didn’t move to go get it, I just shrugged. The director of Croquis Nights had written in the email that their life models normally use their own phones to time each pose anyway, so I fell into a crouch and fixed mine to lay where the timer had been. The email had said:
“There is no teacher present; the model and the artists work independently. The model takes poses according to this schedule:
1 x 15 mins,
3 x 10 min,
and after the break (the break is from 7:00 to 7:10 p.m.) 10 poses, 5 minutes each.”
So this first pose would be the hardest. I remember Annika laughing when I read the email aloud over the phone to her a couple weeks ago. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She’d laughed. “Why?” I explained how easy it sounded, how poetic it seemed, and how brilliant the pay was. “Okay, fair. But Katrina, when was the last time you were still for even 3 minutes? Like, really, perfectly still.”
The answer was never. Maybe I’d been briefly motionless, but never endured absolute stillness. I’d never weathered Time in that matter in my entire life…
Which was, at the root of it, sorta why I was going there.
I wanted to know if I could.
I went into my phone, hit Stopwatch, and saw the time begin running up. Still crouched I looked over the edge of the stage at the mini sea of faces, trying not to see them while looking at them. I couldn’t speak so I just nodded stupidly, hoping the gesture conveyed my message that “I’m gonna start this thing now.”
And without knowing what the hell I was doing, I stood up and angled myself into a sturdy stance with one foot ahead of the other in direction of the back corner. I raised my chin and picked the first thing that caught my eye—a wound in the giant white wall, the only dent it seemed—and I latched onto it immediately, desperately, lovingly.
I slowly coaxed my arms up, over my head, crossed my wrists, and lowered them deliberately behind the crown of my head. I leaned back slightly, as if onto a pillow, thinking I should—
Then the noise began.
The entire room roared with scratches. The sound reminded me of elementary days, when teachers passed out tests face down, said ‘Begin!’ and every student flipped over their paper as fast as possible, attacking the page fast, as if their life depended on it.
But the clinking of pencils sounded like knives, the swishing of paper sliced the air like arrows. It all offended me, all attacked the lone girl standing above them, defenseless and bare. I was overwhelmed and I felt, for .999 seconds, the urge to cry. To surrender.
But the emotion passed as soon as it had begun. Had I been ready? No, I hadn’t been. The moment I had stopped moving, it triggered action; I was snared into their artwork. I was stuck, frozen against my will. I could not move, else I would ruin their sketches. I already felt my outline ghosting across their canvases. What a strange feeling.
And, imprisoned by my own free-will, I stared at the dent in the wall. The sun spot, my life-line. The one thing I was allowed to know for the next 15 minutes.
My heart exploded.
Even if I messed up, no one could take this away from me.
The moment the scratches started up, I won.
I did it. I’d been brave.
The girl found being that being naked was the easiest part, though easily the center-piece for controversy when relaying the story to others later. It was hard for her to explain that it had less to do with confidence and more to do with the atmosphere.
These were not the offensive eyes, the hungry eyes that used to make her want to vomit while she smiled back. These were art eyes, calculating eyes. Eyes that did not try to touch her lines, but remake them. Eyes that were not so much soft as they were careful.
These eyes did not care about Katrina at all.
It was a new kind of freedom.
Freedom to be art.
I am art. She thought, on accident.
But it was a good accident thought, because she knew that if she repeated that over and over again for 15 minutes, she could hold still for all the Eyes.
And that’s when, about thirsty seconds into Ancient, Defiant Shepherdess Staring Off Into the Distant Hills at the End of the Summer Day Pose (which she named almost immediately, to befriend it) she realized something terrible.
Her heart sank, and shock flooded her entire body. She wanted badly to raise her eyebrows, to drop her jaw. She wanted to scream.
But she couldn’t scream. She had to stare lovingly at the corner of the room, as if nothing was wrong.
In horror, I realized I had set my phone on Stopwatch.
Meaning that time was counting up, not down.
Meaning that I — and the herd of artists literally looking to me for guidance– had no way of knowing when we hit 15 minutes.
My phone lay on the wood podium floor, just a foot behind my back ankle… but it might as well have been miles away, at home, tucked in a bag. It was as good as useless now.
It was funny, it was awful, it was happening, and I couldn’t move. I felt water springing from my armpits; I was publicly learning the most intimate beginnings of a nervous sweat. I felt a bizarre urge to snapchat, to share. This was too awful, and therefore too comedic, to bear alone.
But I had to. I was never more alone in my entire life. I couldn’t complain. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t apologize. I couldn’t fix my phone. I had to make a solution; art was depending on me… and neither my feelings nor action was the answer.
What a fucking riddle.
As fast as I realized what the solution was, I literally couldn’t waste any time celebrating or whining about it. There was no room for thought, only being.
I began counting to 60, fifteen times.
She had never learned so many things, in such quick succession, as she had in those agonizing, wild hours as a statue.
She learned that she was, indeed, going to burn everywhere, just as the article warned her she would. In places she didn’t even know could burn. Her pinky burned. Her checkbones burned. She imagined every vertebrate in her back as little workers holding tight together, with bulging eyes and red faces, exchanging looks of incredulity and determination, teaming together as if to say, ‘We must do this for Katrina! We love Katrina! Hold tight men! Five more minutes!’ She did her best to relieve them by minaturely shifting her weight to her front big toe every minute or two. It worked for a while, until her big toe finally went completely numb and she never knew if she was shifting weight onto it or not.
She learned that thinking made it worse, no matter what she thought. Even if it was “Ten minutes, can you believe it! You’re doing great!” it ruined her focus, and something would ache.
She learned that meditation existed in those pure moments of the counting, when the numbers held no meaning attached to them, and they went up indifferently. 34, 35, 36, I am art, 38, 39, 40, I am art, 42, 43.
She was essential to the room–the art would not have been possible without her, she knew this– but as the same time she didn’t matter at all.
She was functioning in the system of art. She was a wheel, that was all. A wheel in an ancient practice, where many before her had stood. She felt like a body, charged with being a body.
She didn’t feel beautiful. She felt like art.
I reached my ragged crafting of 15 minutes and didn’t know what to do next. It felt like I’d been in that position for an hour, but it could easily have been five minutes. The moment I broke my pose, the spell would be done. I would never be able to return. The art would be over.
Fuck it– if it was 7 minutes, so be it.
Like a bandaid, I ripped myself out of the pose. I felt the world sigh of relief, but there was no actual noise to indicate this.
My entire body hated me. My brain loved me. My life applauded. My childhood watched me in fear and awe. My future nodded appreciatively. My current state shrugged.
And then, when I checked my phone, Time smirked. I had held the pose for 24 minutes.
Someone give my screenwriters a raise.
An hour and half and thirteen poses later– a lifetime, a mini lifetime, I swear– the young woman was so worn by both the internal and external explorations of the day that she had no energy to give these Life Directors the standing ovation they deserved.
She merely smiled, not caring where it landed on her mouth, and shook her head as she walked along the cobblestone street back the way she came, weaving her way through the damp night along familiar streets in a strange country.
Her steps were stiff, but relieved somehow. Bold, yet more humbled than anything in their sturdiness. Though it lacked extravagance, it was if her posture hosted a very small, secret endurance, but one that only a pair of rouge artist eyes would catch.
Like that of a statue, the Eyes would say, if a statue was to take it’s thoughts for a midnight stroll after years of museum sunshine.
Image by Paul Lucido