Jeff Phillips: Reference Peach


peach sketched

If it’s an old building, people stop paying attention to sounds. Someone can be shifting their weight from one foot to the other in one corner of the building on the 3rd floor, and you can hear the creaks in the opposite corner in the basement. It’s all connected like the compressed bones of a man about to go see his chiropractor. A couple of neck adjustments somehow makes even his big toe feel better. The radiators start their hissing and pounding, the joists settle, the building murmurs, and my presence is washed out.

I died in the bathroom while on a 10 minute break during Intermediate Drawing Basics, where I was hired as a nude model for a few weeks of lessons. No one noticed my death for two days because I used a bathroom down in the basement as it was a little more private. My expiration occurred on my fourth day of employment. A janitor found me, my body was curled up on the floor, only a yellow bathrobe covered me. I was quite young, but no one is immune to a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm when they chug a 16 ounce can of an energy drink called “Howling Monkey.” Then swallowing a double dose of Extra Strength Tylenol with a mug not properly rinsed of turpentine and filled up with water from a sink that spewed what can be considered greater than trace amounts of lead. I was drinking too much vodka as it was, and I’d come into the studios hungover, sip from mug after mug of the bad water, trying to re-hydrate. My system just wasn’t strong enough to assimilate such choices, and the snuffing of it all took me by surprise. I didn’t understand what had happened at first. I wandered back to the classroom, not feeling like myself, and it didn’t dawn on me until the instructor started cussing me out for holding up the class. He sent the tall guy with the gray ponytail to check on me in the bathroom, but he didn’t check the right one. I shouted out “no, I’m here! We can begin!” I was on my rightful place on the stool. But no one noticed me. They grew impatient. And the instructor, pacing around the room with a sort of bow legged hustle, yanking on his salt and pepper mutton chops, said “well the whole thing is fucked now cause of this flake, but let’s carry on anyway.”

He asked for volunteers to strip down and take my place. At first there were no takers, but it became a joke and few guys raised their hand. “Well it can’t be anyone too skinny,” the instructor said, and this was when the insults started. The new nude model, that was finally selected among the chuckling men taking mock initiative, was this guy Matt, who had a beer belly that the instructor said was close enough, but if he had a double chin, he’d be “a much better pinch hitter.” Matt went into the closet to change out of his clothes and when he came back out, taking his seat on the stool, one girl yelled out “it’s bigger! Should I just erase the genitalia and start again?”

“Yeah, yeah, start again,” the instructor replied. “Anyone that wants to, just erase the junk and start again. You have, how should I say it…a little more substance to work with now.” The response to this was uproarious laughter.

As the class continued with their sketch, and as I walked around, confused, I could see classic compositions devolve into caricature. People couldn’t stop giggling as they worked, the new nude model’s face spread with a smirk that wasn’t quick to leave.

It was as though my ghost was the smoke of a drug whose effect was euphoria, hilarity, and – possibly – distortion of time, because when the class ran over by 15 minutes no one seemed at all bothered like they had when my return from the bathroom wasn’t on point.

It was as though having a body must have been some kind of a cushion, or shield. Being disembodied, my feelings were hurt far worse than they had ever been before. It stung much worse than the slander dished by my grade school bully, juvenile libel that would result in tears and running away to find a teacher. What I heard during the remainder of that drawing class was like weight being added to that part of your throat that throbs when you’re about to cry, or that part of your gut when worry emerges. And it must have been added mass to my soul, making me extra vulnerable to the gravity of the place, because I couldn’t leave, as much I just wanted to get out of there.

What made it worse was seeing how Sally Benia reacted. She was a red-headed girl I was friendly with in my neighborhood bar. She was the one who told me the art studios, where she took drawing classes, were looking for nude models. She had told me this while we talked at the local bar, our legs sometimes touching, and I had taken this as flirtation. She had these big blue eyes that looked into mine while I did my best not to stare at her perky breasts beneath her tight blue T-shirt, just a shade darker than those blinking discs that seemed to absorb the image of me, my messy mop of dirty blond hair – she seemed to be charmed by disheveled appearance, a rugged sort of handsome – as I chatted her up in the dim tavern light. I wasn’t able to take her home that night because her friend got sick, and I could tell Sally was bummed and wanted to pick back up sometime. So I thought I’d surprise her by following through on signing up to pose nude for her class. I was hoping to see her in the first class I dropped trousers for, but her session wasn’t until the day of my sudden aneurysm. She smiled at me when I walked in, a smile that widened when I dropped the robe to the floor and took a seat. It was a look of delight, relief that an opportunity wasn’t missed after all. I noticed the sparkle in her eye as she looked up to take me in, to take that image back to the page. I could see her pupils a touch larger than the one’s I looked into at the dimly lit bar, as though the image of my body was agreeable, and the only appropriate physiological response was to let more of the image in. I could see her blush, dimples suppressed. And a long suppressed urge of my own to create, wanted to reach out, grab a canvas and some water colors and preserve the image of her. A shy girl flushed with desire, and perhaps jealousy, that other girls got to see me too.

But the memory of the butterflies and the hope I felt as we exchanged looks dissolved when she laughed the hardest at the size of my genitalia joke. At the shaking of her head when the instructor called me a flake. What I thought were reactions of attraction may have just been signs of embarrassment and repulsion. The creep from the bar showed up my art class. Ew. I was only talking to him because I felt sorry for him. No way in hell was inviting HIM to pose nude for me, I was just talking about my day. Ew. The suppressed dimples were not from smiles of enjoyment but from a need to laugh in my face.

When my body was found, the rumor was that I had overdosed. Which seemed to me a moronic conclusion, as I was heavier than the typical junky, though the bags under my eyes have always prompted suspicions from family of whether I was making health choices or not.

Sally didn’t come to my funeral. I could hear her thoughts. She thought she dodged a bullet with me.

She started dating the instructor and I could hear them make fun of me when she stayed after class. “The junky,” he’d say. “Man, I wish I could bring him back to life and make him go stock us up with some new paper and new pencils for making us waste supplies on his ugly body.” And she’d giggle. She’d say “that’s so mean,” but I could also see that she thought it was so funny, and so true.

The more they made fun of me, the more vivid was the sensation of having my feelings hurt, until the weight seemed to rip a hole in my spirit, and the edges were raw. The cold air breezing through the wound made me stiff and my spirit lost mobility. I could no longer wander the building. I was stuck inside the classroom. And it wasn’t just the room that enacted gravity upon me, but I couldn’t help but enact gravity on the images of her malicious laughter, the auditory representations of her thoughts played out, encircling me like a moon. Almost took that creepy junky home. Almost took that creepy junky home. Almost took that creepy junky home. Her mental echo caused a ringing in my phantom ears.

It sunk in how much I had misread people in life. Pity I mistook for sweetness. Ridicule I mistook for teasing. It was as if my heavy breath could press its way beneath one’s skin and bring a temper to a slow, sleepy boil. My presence could easily provoke such discomfort, I was proof that charisma could have a negative value. Serious girlfriends and sincere friendships eluded me. And it seemed my body had been a faulty antennae, unable to pick up on cantankerous clues. Outside my body, the reception was much clearer, however without my body, I was unable to tune in on just one channel. Every insult dished on me in my lifetime came hurtling down on me in death, released from a cage of delay.

Sally and the instructor would kiss after everyone left the classroom and I walked around them screaming, I’M STILL HERE! BE KIND! I’d jump as much as I could to make a bang on the floor in front of them. But they didn’t notice. Any light tap I may have made was probably just chalked up to it being an old shitty building, the windy weather outside shaking the frame.

But I’ve found a way to get under the skin of the people who need to notice.

When the instructor started having her pose nude for him, he had her sit on a table with a bowl of fruit. The rosy complexion of her skin, an indicator of a healthy blood flow, stirred pangs of a desire I’d never be able to fulfill. Shoulders, hips, ample breasts, lips, a flat stomach that was almost concave, all had a sheen that mesmerized me. Her perfect curves showed off that she had so much life left inside of her, she had a healthy body that would keep her ticking on the other side of me for a long, damn time. Arousal, no longer confined by the limited workings of a reproductive organ, felt akin to an itch buried beneath the material of a cast. Pleasure permutated into a pain that reminded me of rug burns and nausea.

I got up on the table too, and perched on the other side of the bowl. I tried to fling the bowl up and at her. But I didn’t have the energy to make it move. I tried to slide the bowl at her, but again, it didn’t move. The attempt was draining. I slumped over the bowl. I may have caused a shadow because the instructor got up to turn on another set of overhead lights.

There was a peach that rested as the topmost piece of fruit in the bowl. It drew my attention. The yellow-orange blurred and became the target of my trance. The agony of derision seemed to ease up and what accumulated in its place was rage. And the rage was energizing. And the yellow-orange blur seemed to expand until that was all I could see. I reached out to it. I reached into it. And I squeezed. I squeezed hard and the rage that was swelling found an outlet, a focal point where it could be directed.

All I could see was the yellow-orange color darken. I was thinking it was shadow.

What the instructor saw, and what Sally saw when she looked over, was the peach begin to bruise. As they watched it bruise, it was suddenly crushed. The fuzzy flesh popped open, a juicy pulp oozed.

Sally stood up and walked backward from the table. She shivered and felt unwelcome. Whereas I had been feeling like the subject of a joke in a student’s notebook, she felt like an animal inches from a trap. The instructor looked from the pressed remains of the fruit to the round, plump peach rendered in graphite, perfectly centered on his sheet of paper, pinned up on his easel, and he felt bothered that this work would forever be unfinished.



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