I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
This First Proof contains the an excerpt from the novel The Life Room.
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The stipend from the university wasn’t enough to pay rent in New York City. She didn’t have enough money to buy herself a new pair of boots if she wanted to eat. Couldn’t they just sell her one boot, and the next month she could buy the other? She saw an ad in the Village Voicefor figure models, and the idea intrigued her.
She thought sitting for an artist might be a way to learn how to quiet her emotions and become attuned to her inner world. She called for an interview. She discovered, once she called, that the artist was Adam Weiss, a painter she had heard about. He was considered the bad boy of the art world. He said, “I’m looking for someone serious. It’s not just about the body. Modeling takes concentration. It’s about getting in touch with the artist.” Oh, Eleanor thought. Well, why not.
On her way to meet him she stopped to look at herself in the reflection of a shop window. She wore a black beret and a camel hair coat she had picked up at a thrift shop, and had applied two quick lines of burgundy lipstick. Her blue eye looked muted. Her green eye was luminescent. She worried that her face showed signs of her loneliness. How did others see her? In New York she had a handful of friends she went to films or parties with. Sometimes they met for cheap dinners at the diner on her street and drank cup after cup of coffee; she went home buzzing with caffeine. But she was a private person who kept her thoughts mostly to herself. When she looked at her reflection, she was relieved to see that aside from her eyes and her brilliant red hair spilling out from her hair band, she looked fairly normal. She thought of those days and nights she sat in the easy chair in the sixth floor of the library by the window, watching the other students her age, trying to understand who she was in comparison to them, and wondering if looking too closely caused damage.
One striking couple she used to watch became the archetype. They came to the library almost every evening and sat at the same table. They looked almost like twins, both with dark hair and small features and dimples in their cheeks, with pre-med textbooks spread out on the library’s long shellacked tables. Inadvertently, one distracted the other and then, feeling the heat and liquid rush, the beautiful girl rose from her chair and put herself in her boyfriend’s lap and they kissed unself-consciously, finding, it seemed, ways of touching they hadn’t uncovered before, until one pulled away from the other, reluctantly at first, and then with more determination, and they turned back to their books, occasionally glancing up at each other and smiling.
She began to see the couple everywhere, kissing in the corridors of buildings, underneath trees on the college lawn, in the Thalia Theatre where she went to see old foreign films. It was as if they were there for only one purpose, to show her what her life was lacking. Even when she was with William, she had always felt a distance, as if there were a hidden shadow dividing the two of them. She loved him but she realized he was not of this world.
* * *
Eleanor apologized for being late. She took a seat across from Adam Weiss at a little table in Café Dante. She noticed him carefully observing the contours and angles of her face. He looked too long at her earrings, a pair of pearl posts. She touched one and twisted it with her fingers.
“They’re crooked. One earring is higher than the other.”
She’d had her ears pierced with a pinch gun in a shopping mall when she was 16. This was the first time anyone had called her on the imperfection that had always troubled her. It was unnerving. He continued to observe her. An empty espresso cup was pushed to the side of the table.
“I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“I’m not uncomfortable.” She was sweating.
“You mentioned on the phone you were a grad student?”
She explained she was in her first semester, getting her doctorate in literature. She had her paperback copy of Anna Karenina she brought to read on the train still in her hand.
“My father was a literature professor before the war. When I was a child, he read that novel to me in front of the fireplace.” He took the book from her and opened it. “‘All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’” He looked at her without breaking a smile. “What’s unique about your family’s unhappiness?”
“I didn’t say my family is unhappy.”
He slowly stirred his espresso.
“And your family?”
“I paint to forget about my family. But they turn up, anyway.” Adam brought the cup to his lips. “So you’re reading Tolstoy? Are you as passionate as Anna?” He smiled slyly. “I like passionate women.”
His body was too big for the small café table and he looked uncomfortable as he crossed his legs. He wore black work boots with paint splattered on them. She thought he was arrogant. And you? She wanted to ask. Are you as reckless with women as Vronsky? But she restrained herself and said, “Anna was seduced. It was Vronsky who was reckless with his passion.”
The waiter stood over their table. “What are you going to have?”
“Mint tea in an Italian café? That must mean you haven’t been to Italy.” He stopped. “I’m sorry. A scholar of literature should go to Italy,” he said, more gently.
His hair was thick and combed back behind his ears. His sideburns were slightly gray. His prominent nose was strong and noble looking. He sat with his legs crossed. His eyes gave no indication of his thoughts or emotions. He wasn’t compelled to fill the quiet pauses in conversation. She couldn’t tell whether she thought he was attractive or not.
“You’re young,” he said, breaking the quiet. “When you’re my age you’ll understand what kind of character Tolstoy had in mind for Vronsky. He’s driven by his passions. He can’t see clearly.”
“And what about Anna? Should all women have to suffer because men can’t see clearly?” Eleanor looked at the pastries in the glass cabinet, the cakes and Italian cookies, tiramisu, and Italian cheesecake, rows upon rows of sweet luxuries.
“We all have to suffer.”
“But a person can decide when and how to act.”
“This holds for Anna also. You can’t blame only the seducer. Would you like a dessert?”
“No.” She wanted nothing. She looked back at him.
“Do you really think we can control our passions?” he said, more gently. “Isn’t that rather rigid?”
She looked at his hands. They were freckled with paint. At another table, a woman read by herself and sipped her cappuccino. By the window, a trio of young women were engaged in conversation. A man was writing in a notebook. The walls of the café, papered with panoramic photographs of Florence, had absorbed endless hours of conversation, of smells, of young women and men who had come to the café with heavy hearts and had left buoyed by the feeling of companionship and life the cafe’s very walls inspired.
“I’m not rigid.” Is that why her body was always clenched? Why her shoulders and neck ached? She had thought it was from studying in uncomfortable chairs.
“You call it rigidity, but isn’t it a question of morality?”
“This dynamic is good for my work.” He put down his cup. “The role of the artist’s model is to be a conduit to allow the artist to draw from her. To connect her energy to the canvas. It’s a shared bond of energy.” He leaned over the table and looked at her closely.
She looked back unflinchingly.
“Will you be at ease being naked in front of groups of people? Art students who sometimes come into the studio to watch?”
“I’ll be fine.” Her hand was unsteady as she raised her cup.
“I once had a model who thought it would be no problem, but once she was in my studio and saw me gazing at her naked body, she ran out shaking and crying. Will you be able to take it?”
She nodded, barely able to swallow.
“I will know why you wrinkle your brow. The lines in your neck. The shape of your breasts. Does that disturb you?”
Her hands were in tight fists on top of her thighs. She felt slippery inside. “Are you asking me if I think I’m qualified for the job?”
“Even experienced models sometimes talk of a personality change once their clothes are off. I’ve seen even the brightest become edgy and anxious. I’ve seen a model come in my studio thinking one thing about herself and finding out something else.”
She struggled not to betray any emotion.
“You have the most enchanting eyes. The blue one looks joyful. The other aches. What did you say your name was again? Eleanor Cahn?”
She nodded, feeling a slight weakness inside.
“An artist’s model has to work by the artist’s schedule. She has to give in to the artist’s whims. She has to allow herself to be subjected to the artist’s process. Does that scare you?”
“Only if I don’t like your work,” she said, surprised at her own boldness.
* * *
After Eleanor accepted the job (she was intrigued by his arrogance), she went to the library and read some of the reviews of his work on microfiche. She discovered that he was 38. And that he was married. She noted that he had not mentioned his wife, nor had he worn a wedding band. His work was controversial. He had made paintings that were sensational, that, as he described in one interview in Bomb, were borne out of intense anger. In one called Provocateur, a young boy stared unflinchingly at a naked woman old enough to be his mother. In another, a middle-aged man leered at a topless young girl combing her hair at the sink. In Bearing the Weight of History, a naked boy hid behind a Greek statue on the lawn of a manicured suburban estate.
Adam’s studio was in Tribeca, in an old warehouse. The studio was drafty. Two long windows blocked with dark blue velvet drapes were on each side of the room. The concrete floor was splattered with dried paint. Stretched canvases were stacked against two walls. In the center of the room stood a long table made of a piece of antique pine. On the table sat jars of brushes and paint. It was private and intimate like a bedroom, except for balled-up oily rags on the floor. Next to the sink was a hot plate. Overalls hung on hooks by the door. A dirty pair of gym socks were bunched in the corner.
In spite of how frightened she was that she’d have to take her clothes off, Eleanor was mesmerized by the different colors of paint smeared on Adam’s palate (how many colors of paint it was possible to create), by the way he arranged his colors from the tubes in the same rainbow every time he set up his palette, by the dexterity with which he applied a color to produce a specific emotion on a canvas. At one end of the room was a daybed with a bolster that formed a backrest against the wall, and across from it stood a cranberry velvet chair, with matching ottoman, that was worn at the seat and looked like it belonged once in an old Tudor mansion. And in one window was a beautiful stained glass, making the room churchlike and holy.
“Let me tell you about a life room. It’s the room in a university where models sit for students. The rooms vary from having an array of props to having none. Ideally a life room should have different boxes and pedestals, ropes and poles the model uses to extend her poses. Would you consider posing with a rope, Eleanor? Would you do that for me?”
“If that’s what’s required.” She felt queasy.
“When I work with a live model in the studio we create our own intimate world of fantasy and imagination. Our own life room.”
Adam dressed in white painter’s pants and a white T- shirt. In the studio he looked bigger than he had looked in the café, broader, brutal looking. But his eyes were tender, slightly hooded. “I paint because the world is ugly. Your job is to make it beautiful.”
He asked her to sit on the daybed. Her heart was beating rapidly. Could he hear it? Was he going to ask her to take off her sweater? He didn’t say anything for a half an hour. How would she endure the silences? How could she be so still with another person in the room? She nervously brought the pearls she wore to her lip, rolled the strand around her neck.
Adam reached out and pushed her hand down gently. He made tea and offered Eleanor some dry biscuits from a box. “I want to look at your face. To see where it will take me. If you’re frightened I won’t be able to see clearly.” How much is there to see, she wondered, but she kept quiet. “Painting is about isolating the moment, reflecting the world back to us. I have to find the right moment.”
Another few minutes passed in silence.
“I’m interested in the relationship between men and women in my painting. I paint the middle class because they try so hard to hold the culture together. Because they’re so mystifying and compelling.” He spoke as if engaged in a long private conversation with himself.
“But aren’t you middle class? I mean your parents?”
“That’s not the point, Eleanor.”
She sat on the daybed, playing with the string of pearls. Remembering the work she had read about on microfiche at the library, it seemed to her he was interested in young girls and boys, but she wasn’t going to say anything. “I’m interested in exploring the hidden places, the secret of what draws men and women together, what repels us about each other.”
She moved her body, trying to get comfortable. She couldn’t find a position that let her relax. She discovered she was self-conscious watching another person staring at her. She was relieved he hadn’t asked her to undress.
He peered at her from behind his canvas. “As a painter I see with my eyes first. When I begin a study, the model possesses my childhood, my struggles. My obsessions. The person you see on the canvas isn’t the original subject anymore. She becomes my métier, my compass. She guides me. Slowly I allow myself to get closer, to close the distance.”
A wave of anxiety washed over her.
“You’ve been hurt,” he said. “I can see it in you.”
She took a lock of hair in her hand and twisted it. His ability to scrutinize her made her uncomfortable. And yet she didn’t not want to be in the studio with him. How did he know she’d been hurt? Was it etched across her face? Or was he being patronizing?
When she left his studio she was inspired and energized, filled with desire to create. She went back to her apartment and began to work on the essay she was writing, suddenly making connections in her head she had not dared before.
* * *
She went to Adam’s studio early in the morning, and sat quietly on his daybed each day for a week before he started the first painting. He paced the room, adjusted the collar of her shirt. He scrutinized every angle of her face and body. She felt his eyes on her ankle, on the little stretch of skin that showed above her calf. He asked if she would take off her stockings and shoes. He looked at her behind his easel without drawing his brush. “You have the most amazing bones in your feet,” he said. “I need to feel them in my hands so I know how to paint them.”
When he was quiet, his eyes looked only half opened. Underneath were dark circles. On days when he looked particularly tired, it might take an hour or two before his eyes would begin to grow wide and searching. She had studied him for a week, while he was studying her, alone in the quiet of the studio. Other days he looked angry, or preoccupied, as if he had traveled far away in his memory. She learned how to gauge his moods, how not to take his moodiness personally.
Eleanor wore a navy blue skirt and a white blouse. Her pearls were tucked underneath her collar. Adam lifted her chin, just slightly, and then unbuttoned the first two buttons of her blouse so that the pearls were unleashed against her skin. She felt as if he’d taken off all her clothes.
Other days, as she sat on the daybed in Adam’s studio, she felt pulled into the trance he got into when he worked, losing her own luster in the process. And she thought, Do I have this in me? One day will it be possible for me to achieve in my own work what Adam is achieving in his—that perfect synthesis of who one is and what one sees? She sat on the daybed with the sunlight slowly diminishing, feeling him study her until her mind grew so blank she nearly forgot who she was, and she felt a little sick inside. The alarm clock on his shelf went off. Adam painted by it. He said as long as he gave himself three full hours, he knew he’d gotten what he could out of that day. Later in the afternoon, he returned to the studio and looked at what he had accomplished. Sometimes he adjusted certain details. Other times he stared at the work, as if he were waiting for it to tell him what to do the next time he took up his brush. “The trick is not to take yourself too seriously, and to take yourself very seriously, both at the same time. If you don’t think you can be as good as Rembrandt, why do it? Why even try? No one can be as good as Rembrandt. The whole point in creating art is to find what you have to offer, what’s special in your own soul.”
She took in the whole of his body. The gray strands of hair that sprung out from his thick, black locks—she imagined he had had even thicker hair when he was younger—the way the hairs on his thick eyebrows grew in different directions, his slightly discolored tooth that was chipped at one corner, the muscles that formed in his arms when he moved his brush. He was beautiful when he painted. Some mornings he poured scotch into his tea or coffee and she smelled the liquor on his breath when he leaned over. She told herself he was a cliché: the drunken painter who puffed himself up. And yet, she admired that he showed up every day, striving for greatness.
She thought of him when she was alone in her apartment. What was his life like outside his studio? He was so different from William. She fantasized about his wife, about the parties she imagined they attended together, the gallery openings they frequented. She imagined them walking hand in hand throughout museums and galleries in Paris and other European cities.
Initially she was enthralled by the way he talked about painting. She had never been around a real artist. “What are you looking for when you look at me so intensely?”
“I like to capture figures that have the look of spontaneity, almost as if they’re being illuminated in the middle of a conversation or after something devastating has happened, filled with the emotion of the moment. If you look closely at my work, study my paintings, inside them you’ll find all you ever need to know about me. Each figure, each representation grows out of the former.”
* * *
But he talked too much. He liked to give lectures on the films he saw, the artists he admired, what he considered sentimental or overexposed. He was judgmental, inflexible. When she grew bored with his monologues, he’d do something childlike and spontaneous. He asked her to take the subway uptown with him. It was a beautiful fall afternoon and he wanted to take a walk in Central Park. He wanted to see the color of the leaves. He had to see them, not to imagine them. He had to study the pigments, the fragmentation of color, the sky.
Once they were uptown he took her by the hand, sat her down on one of the benches. “Eleanor, I have a confession to make.” She had been modeling for him for a month by then. “I’m attracted to you.”
There was nothing she had revealed about herself that would draw his attention. It was the mystery in her that drew him. She did not trust him. “No, you’re not,” she said.
“I think about you all the time. You’re behind every thought, every gesture. When I see a painting, I think of you. When I watch a movie, I imagine you in every scene. My world is clouded by you. You’ve blinded me. I’m Orpheus. I can’t see if you’re not in the room with me.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“No, Eleanor. This is serious.”
Back in his studio he instructed her to recline on the daybed, curved on her side. He wanted her to be staring directly at him for this particular pose. Because it was so unnerving, she distanced herself by thinking of the shape of William’s body. She watched Adam work, but she thought of William. All those days she sat in his studio quietly thinking of another boy, she somehow must have willed Adam’s interest upon her. Had she wanted him to be interested in her to see what it would be like to be free of William? She had sensed an attraction, had watched it unfold almost from the first day, but she had categorized it as a painter enthralled with his subject. She preferred it in that category, where it would not create any disturbances.
“I love your shoes,” he said. They were an old pair of red Pappagallos. She thought, He isn’t attracted to me, he’s attracted to who he thinks I am, for who he wants me to be, for the role I am serving in his studio, in his art. He’s attracted to my shoes.
“I’d be all over you if you wanted me to,” he persisted.
“What does my marriage have to do with how I feel about you? Don’t be naive, Eleanor. Marriage is not ownership.”
“You can’t say you’re attracted to me and tell me that I’m naive.” She had many rules. “You never ask me what I want or think.”
“All behavior is dressing. I sit in the studio and I peel it away. Everyone is transparent. I see you,” he took her hands and grasped them in his. “You alone are real to me. All this learned behavior. All the ways we are taught to think and feel, the boundaries we construct for ourselves. I want to be free of them.” He twisted the cap off of a tube of paint. “It’s all learned, how we are supposed to be, but it has no authenticity.”
“But you don’t know me.”
“I know you.”
“And the fact that you’re married?”
“I didn’t say it didn’t matter. I said it has nothing to do with how I feel about you. Did you know you have these amazing yellow speckles in your eyes? Imagine the challenge it is to paint you.”
She did like the way he looked at her, how he examined her with fixed attention. She saw that she could do anything she wanted and he would still want her. It was powerful knowing how deeply he wanted her, especially since she was in love with someone else. It made her imagine she was free of being hurt by him. His curious logic appealed to her. She wondered whether she could ever again live without the intense way that he looked at her.
He invited her to go to the opening of his show. She was nervous about meeting his wife, but when Adam introduced them, Mariana only nodded, as if she were bored with Adam’s models, and walked away to talk with two other painters. She was an art historian from Romania teaching at Yale. Adam had given up his academic position once his paintings began to sell, though he still occasionally lectured. Mariana was the more practical-minded of the two. She was petite and beautiful, with a cool air about her. She wore her short hair cropped around her heart-shaped face, and dressed that night in a short skirt with black tights and high heels and a Victorian high-collared lace shirt under a velvet blazer. She sipped a glass of wine, at ease with the other guests in the gallery. Eleanor watched as Mariana found Adam in the crowd and slipped her arm into the crux of his, wondering what it would be like to wake every morning next to him, to cook his meals, to wash his clothes.
* * *
The white walls of the gallery brought out the colors in Adam’s paintings. They were paintings he had completed before she began to sit for him. She studied the work, located the narrative energy from one painting to the next. His colors—shades of blue, gold, and crimson—compelled her. She wanted to look at them endlessly, the way one looked at a person with whom one was in love. They showed provocative subject matter, at once painterly and accessible.
In one, a boy was in his bedroom asleep, his mother sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking, in a cocktail dress and with thick nylon stockings. The painting conjured a memory of her own parents coming home from a cocktail party. She must have been the same age as the little boy. She looked more closely into the painting, and it was as if she stepped through a window and entered the canvas. Her own mother and father were fighting.
“Why aren’t we enough for you?” her mother said. Or had she imagined it?
“I need to keep the people who are dearest away from me,” her father replied. Eleanor pictured him wiping his brow with his hankie.
“And that Sheila Feinstein, what about her? You can’t keep her away?”
Eleanor looked at the painting again. She smelled the dark odor of liquor on her father’s breath when he came in to tuck her into bed. She had pretended she was sleeping. “What to do with this gift God gave me,” he whispered. As a child she had failed to understand or connect the smell of the liquor on her father’s breath with the behavior it provoked in her parents, but as she stared at the painting, she was back in her bedroom (the bed like the bed in the painting) wishing her parents would stop fighting. The next painting was a triptych. In one frame was an image of a woman, dressed as Eleanor’s mother might have been years ago, in a tweed suit with a string of pearls around her neck. In the next frame a young girl sat in her bedroom reading. The painted eyes on the woman and the eyes of the child had the same shape and contour and the hollowed-out look of the eyes in a Modigliani painting. It was called Twins. Inscribed on the wrist of the mother in the painting was a serial number. In the last panel was the image of a tree with a car wrapped around its trunk. Another painting depicted a tranquil swimming pool where a boy floated in the pool on his stomach with his face in the water, leaving the viewer uncertain if he was alive or dead. The painting was called Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy.
She smelled the pungent scent that overwhelmed Adam’s studio for the three hours she sat for him each day, a scent deep and muscular.
When she turned to acknowledge Adam, the heat and sweat of his body breathed on her skin. His smile illuminated his dark green eyes and his discolored front tooth, snug against the other whiter tooth. He was sunnier once he was out of his studio. Instead of baggy painter’s pants and an oversized T-shirt, he was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and black jeans. Eleanor experienced that strange disconnect of seeing a person in a setting different than usual. As she looked at him in a new way, no longer simply defined by her relationship to him as his study, she was overcome with admiration and another darker, more unpleasant and powerful feeling: that she wanted him. She quickly tried to bury the sensation.
“Relax,” he said. “You’re so tense.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and massaged them. “I’m glad you’re here.”
She continued to study the paintings, particularly the haunting image of the young boy lying with his face half submerged in water.
“What do you think? Does he compel you?”
He moved closer, so that they were touching, nearly pushing her forward with the breadth of his body, and inhaled her perfume. She felt the tickle of his breath on the back of her neck. She thought she should not let her feet move from the wooden floor of the gallery or else she would fly forward into the painting. Adam lifted the hair from her neck and piled it into his hand, as if he were drawing it into a ponytail, and then he let it go. A chill ran down her back before he disappeared into the crowd.
* * *
At home in her studio apartment, she wondered whether she had felt Adam’s groin push against her or whether she had imagined it. She flushed. She saw his paintings in her mind, that naked little boy alone in the tub. She ached with desire.
The next day in his studio she let him unbutton her blouse, and he painted her showing just the hint of her bra. She wore a kilted navy blue skirt and stockings. At the end of three hours, after the alarm went off, she dressed, put on her coat, and said goodbye. When she arrived home she felt she could still smell the fumes on her clothes from the buckets of oils in his studio. She thought of the canvases against his walls in various stages of completion. She undressed, sat on her bed in a tank top and underpants, and held the blouse she had worn in his studio to her face. She was supposed to finish a paper that was due that week, but she couldn’t bring herself to work. She thought about Adam undressing her in his studio. The smell of paint intoxicated her. She remembered his words. “It’s this strange twilight zone between rationality and unreason where the artist hunts,” he had said, looking at her ravenously. His hands were rough and chapped from the strong soap he scrubbed with after he finished painting for the day, and they had been cold against her skin, sending a charge through her body. She held the longing inside her until it had reached its finest luster. In bed she thought about him a long time before she fell asleep. She felt a pain in her chest, as if it had cracked open just slightly, and her eyes filled with unexpected tears. She did not once think of William.
But William was in her dream, and in her dream she loved him the way she loved herself, so when he was gone she was missing. In the dream she felt vacant to herself, a stranger, and the long great tide of missing him formed a central artery inside her.
They were skating round and round in a large circle, feeling the wind tear at their faces, it was outdoors, and they circled the rink at least a hundred times—she had that many circles inside her with the boy that many hours of being next to him, absorbed in the circles they made together, the thrust, thrust, thrust, glide, glide, glide of their skates on the ice. They were holding hands and then William pulled away from her and she felt confused, as if all the years of their being together laying side by side in the dark like two commas were over and she felt shame.
When she awoke from the dream, she looked in the mirror and everything was different. She told herself she couldn’t work for Adam anymore. Her heart was committed to someone else. She was going home for Christmas, and she convinced herself that once William saw her again, they’d be back together. She took the subway downtown. She got off at the Spring Street station and walked briskly to Adam’s building. She planned what she would say, keeping it short and simple. She didn’t want to break up a marriage. She was going through something of her own. She was vulnerable. She had a life, and though it was mostly in her head, still it was her life. She didn’t want to get involved with anyone. She didn’t think it would be possible for her to continue working for him under the present conditions.
He buzzed her into the studio. He was still wearing the same clothes he had worn the day before, jeans and a torn white T-shirt. He was unshaven. He had slept in the studio that night. The smell of paint was inside and outside his body, mixed with his pungent scent—she didn’t know how to describe it, like wet leaves?
“You didn’t go home last night?” she asked.
“I camped out here. I wanted to be close to my work. I was looking at you all night, Eleanor.” He pointed to the canvas. “And you? Did you sleep well?”
She propped herself up on the daybed and her mind went blank. She realized it took more energy to resist a person than it did to give in. She was leaving the next morning to spend Christmas break with her mother. She told herself that she would continue to sit for Adam until he finished the series of paintings she had committed to, and then he’d have to find a new model. But she liked the way he looked when he had just woken up, his hair matted in the back, his sleepy eyes. Looking at him made her not want to go home anymore. She wanted to stay with him and not think about what faced her back in Chicago.
Even though she had refused to marry William, she thought he knew she was already married to him. It made her furious that he could not see what he needed to do and that she could not change him. She didn’t want to think about him or her mother and her migraines. She didn’t want to think about the piano that was no longer played.
“It’s the artist’s lot,” Adam remarked.
She looked up at him, her face in a question.
“Empathy from a distance.” He was cleaning some brushes in the sink. “To obsess on what you cannot have.”
Eleanor reached for her coat.
“Have a good Christmas.”
She reached to unlock the bolt on his door. He stopped, turned off the faucet, dried his hands on his pants, and handed her a present, a small box bound with a red velvet ribbon.
Her checks grew hot. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Take it with you,” he said. “Put it underneath your tree.”
“But I’m Jewish,” she said.
* * *
She called William once she was back in her own apartment to tell him she was coming home, sure that he would end his foolishness.
“We can’t see each other, Eleanor. I have to do this. I have to prove it to myself.”
“That I can live without you. Only then will it be possible for us to be together. Don’t come home.”
“I don’t want to ever see you again,” she said, trembling.
Jill Bialosky is the author of House Under Snow and two collections of poetry, The End of Desire and Subterranean. She is an editor at W. W. Norton & Company and lives in New York City. The Life Room was published by Harcourt in August of 2007.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.