When I was twenty-five my friend Ben called and asked me to pose nude for his show at a prominent gallery in Philadelphia. Ben lived in an abandoned upstairs apartment that smelled of stale cigarettes, whiskey, and oil paint – a barely inhabitable walk up on thirteenth street with a toilet that had almost separated from the wall.
We had been lovers – briefly. I was fucking my way through grief and he was a lover turned into a friend. His sheets had a coating of city dust on them and he always looked at me with sad eyes, which I realize now was probably love and concern for both our hearts, but I couldn’t return romantic love then.
I had breasts like headlights and nipples like flowers and thighs like a parenthesis and of course I said yes I would pose, yes I would fill up his oversized canvas with skin and hair and mouth, yes I would be vulnerable in the early morning light.
I also had a fairly exciting and well-paying job in publishing, and one day I walked by the gallery where his show would be – just four blocks from my office and saw the large window where the painting would hang.
I had seen the giant, white Canvas that was going to fill up with belly and hands and mons and mouth and sorrow. I knew the canvas was larger than my body.
That’s when it hit me.
My nude self was going hang in a window three blocks from where I worked.
I was the young woman grieving through her sexuality and also the publishing executive, and I kept these worlds as separate as my business spreadsheets and my poetry collection.
The day before I was posing, I called Ben and said I just couldn’t do it. I knew my manager and coworkers would walk by All of Me on their way to lunch and my worlds would collide.
Ben was so angry.
Before he hung up, we said things to each other neither of us should have said. The next day, he called and told me to come over and wear anything I wanted, he would paint me with clothes on.
I put on a pair of khaki pants that had been laying on my bedroom floor for five days, wrinkled, and a green t-shirt with armpit stains. I looked in the mirror at my just fucked hair, my puffy, hung over skin.
Lit a cigarette and walked up the concrete stairs to Ben.
I sat in the wooden chair to pose – scowling at him. And he painted and photographed and painted, large sweeping brush strokes and said for fuck sake, Laura – the least you can do for me is not move, and then it all caught up with me. In that wooden chair in front of the large window in the late morning light of bagels and coffee and hangovers and heartbreak – my whole life caught up with me.
The painting turned out brilliant.
It captured my rumpled anger, my fear, my grief for my dead boyfriend, my blame and my victim. Some of Ben was reflected in my eyes.
And today, Ben showed up in my car. I knew he had died, about ten years ago, and we hadn’t spoken for years before that.
Halfway to get my new phone before the store closed, I heard that familiar giggle from the passenger seat. I smelled whiskey and oil paint, and I turned to him, and he said, there is something I need you to do for me.
Jesus, I said, my phone is dead, I hope it doesn’t involve a phone call. Then that familiar, high pitched laugh of his again – his thin hands in the air, like no time had passed. The moment was like an old friend who calls in the middle of the night and you pick up where you left off, when your kids were both still toddlers, and now THEY have toddlers.
Ben said – you would never have heard me if I hadn’t broken your phone.
And I am writing this unfinished story to remind you how much we are all missing. To be clear, this is only the third time in my life a dead person showed up in my passenger seat with a request and the first time a dead person stopped my phone from working so I could hear.
You’ve all heard the saying – the veils are thin, now – a spiritual saying that annoys me – but a question lingers: how can we hear or see anything in the middle of the technology noise? The phones, the texts, the emails. The constant communication with the living makes no room for the mysteries that surround us.
Today I was reminded the dead might have something important to tell us, something that may have taken them thirty years to say, but so worth pressing our ear against the old wounds. Not to reopen them – but to look at them as a reminder that more healing can come at any time, especially when we least expect it.
On the drive home, my new phone working, the waning but still orange ball of a moon rose over Kealia, reminding me tomorrow I have a few phone calls to make on behalf of an old friend.
The phone calls may be awkward, but Ben will be my guide, provided I keep pressing my ear to the mystery, and with a little silencing of the noise of the world, that mystery might open its kimono to me – showing a little bit of skin and magic at a time.