Before We Moved To Glen Rock
Copyright held by author/2019
Opening the Ridgewood Yoga & Fitness Center meant waking by three thirty to be there by four forty five so she could turn the lights on and have the doors unlocked by five. It was supposed to be temporary, but after having to replace the third employee in two months, Nora had been filling in so often she stopped actively seeking someone for the weekday morning shift. Was their lack of fortitude a generational thing or did growing up in the suburbs diminish their work ethic?
Other Bergen County gyms opened at six. The extra hour in the morning attracted a small but loyal niche. The pre-six crowd may be fewer, but they were dependable membership renewals and unsurprisingly, the most vocal on Facebook and Yelp. Their fury and outrage over disrupting their routine and delaying, abbreviating or cancelling even just one workout was instantaneous and relentless. They emailed her and cc’d the owners. As the new general manager, it was her responsibility and simply taking over the shift herself proved to be the most effective solution to quelling any negative buzz.
She worried about telling Justin she had to take the early shift on a permanent basis, thus getting Zach off to school would be his responsibility for the foreseeable future. She made pork chops that dinner. She insisted on healthy eating, had even earned a nutritionist certificate from a weekend course at Bergen Community College. They went vegan three nights a week, chicken, turkey or fish were the meat nights, rarely beef and pork was nearly an unheard of treat, usually bacon or sausage for holiday breakfasts. Grandma’s pork chops as they were known because they were the same ones his grandmother made his mother and his mother made for him and had cooked the first time Justin brought Nora to his childhood home for dinner, she usually prepared for special occasions.
Grandma’s pork chops on a week night are always a sign something’s going on, he replied when Nora said they had something to discuss. Then she broke the news about the reality of the situation at work and he surprised her with a passionate kiss. I was dreading you going back to the old shift. Not only did he not mind making sure their son was fed, cleaned, dressed and driven to Ackerman Elementary School on time, he had fallen in love with the responsibility. He’s becoming you know… an interesting person, a good guy and talking to him in the morning you can see him growing into someone to be proud of… I love watching that happen.
That’s been the story of her life with Justin, her anxiety building upon its self until the fear was constant. Either she’d implode from the negative energy or she’d be crushed by the worst possible outcome she’d imagine becoming true. Her only choice seemed to be struggle forward, stifle worry, stay focused on – and work as hard as she could at – whatever immediate task needed completion. Seemed every time – no matter how intense the fear or inevitable the catastrophe – the disaster she anticipated never manifested. Instead the opposite occurred, everything turned out fine. Better than fine in most cases. She hated clichés because they seemed to deny truth, but maybe they’ve become clichés because what was being said was too true to deny. Whatever. If life had to conform to cliché, things turning out for the best would be one of the most preferable.
Their relationship started casual, her pregnancy unexpected. This pregnancy was different than one she ended with the abortion her college boyfriend pressured her to get; he transferred out-of-state and her financial aid was a victim of funding cutbacks. Her future was not as undefined when she reluctantly bought her second home test kit. Any and all feasible outcomes possessed clear, irrevocable limits.
The idea of giving birth thrilled her. Being healthy and fit through yoga and diet made her more aware of the power of her body. This chance may not come again and if it does her body may not be as healthy as it was right now. But she had no health insurance, no real savings, barely any career. The anxiety caused by the necessity of making this decision nearly overwhelmed her. She was still considering termination as an option when she finally told him…I don’t know what I am going to do and I expect nothing from you.
Justin had this laugh, originating as a soft chortle expressed only by puffs of air through his nose that evolved into an extended squeal. His pause at first lasted several sighs, drawn out exhales; her news took a while to process. Then his face beamed, his nostrils quivered with unadulterated happiness and the short snorts blossomed into high pitched peals. His voice was a heavy baritone, but his laugh seemed emitted from the slender throat of an adolescent girl.
I always wanted to be a father. Whatever you want to do, it’s up to you. I respect you and I respect any decision you make. But if you want to have this child, I will fully accept responsibility financially, emotionally, whatever is needed. I’ll be in it for the long haul and I’ll be there for this kid as well as for you.
She hugged him as tight as she could, her tears dripping on his face and neck. The laugh that today she could not imagine living without filled her ears.
His union health insurance determined no other choice but marriage, a ceremony at city hall with family and friends. Her stepfather paid for an Atlantic City weekend honeymoon. Getting to know each other living in their first apartment – a two room cramped space in a wood-frame building constructed just after World War II – was a happy if stressful time in both their lives. She had moved from Brooklyn to Jersey City for the cheap rents… but cheap went to just affordable, then bypassed reasonable as gentrification spread… the legally allowable rent increases were based on market forces and if the demand kept outracing supply, they kept propelling those forces in the landlord’s favor.
Justin’s mother had retired from teaching high school and wanted to move to Florida, that’s what she said at least. The Glen Rock house she got in the divorce, which had weather-beaten aluminum siding and was only a single story, unlike the mc-mansions that transformed many of the other houses on the cul-de-sac into gaudy boxes too large for the lawns. The mc-mansion trend had long died out; For Sale signs stayed up for months. Some houses stayed dark at night, perpetually vacant. People weren’t moving to the New Jersey suburbs anymore – they were either leaving for other states or moving to one of the new condo complexes in Jersey City or Newark, now even Paterson where Justin was a site manager for a national construction firm.
I’m sick of New Jersey, plus you’re doing me a favor. I could never get what this house is really worth with the suburban housing market still in the tank… and I’ll have a place to stay when I visit my… two boys.
Out of all the guys she dated, slept with and/or sustained some sort of relationship, Justin would not have been her first choice to be the father of her child. He was a handsome man, almost as good looking as most of them, an attentive lover. Financially he was stable, especially compared to the artists and musicians she often dated. He just wasn’t very interesting, he lacked a passion about what he was doing… she found passion attractive… most guys she dated had an intensity about their careers… the filmmaker, the lawyer, even the stock broker… the artists and musicians had an intensity about what they called their work even though their paying jobs were as bartenders and waiters… Justin’s default setting was mellow.
I don’t miss the suburbs, but I don’t love Jersey City either. Getting rid of that humongous rent bill will be an astronomical help.
Nora didn’t know him very well when she got pregnant and knew if she hadn’t gotten pregnant she would have broken up with him. She couldn’t have asked for a better father to her child and had come to love their life in Glen Rock and since he alone had made that possible, she loved Justin, but it was a love that wasn’t there until after they were parents.
At first, Nora wanted to resent him. She grew up in Bayonne, never dreamt of living any place other than Jersey City. Actually, the dream was downtown Manhattan, then it was Williamsburg when hyper-gentrification made the island capital of the world affordable only for the one percent. Jersey City was the dream after gentrification infested more and more of Brooklyn. Living in the suburbs was something she never imagined until Justin’s mother offered them the house. Nora had cousins in Paramus and never liked visiting them or meeting their friends. The suburbs were isolated, even the commuter train station was a mile from the house. She would have to learn how drive. All her friends lived in Brooklyn or Jersey City.
But motherhood made her discover an innate aptitude for responsibility. The more she had to do, the more she could do. Even the increased stress from more responsibility felt empowering. Driving lessons turned out to be enjoyably engaging. She was a good driver, a natural. Acquiring new skills, that’s what surprised her, not that she might not be able to learn. She was confident that she was consistently capable. No, what surprised her was the small, visceral dose of joy she felt by becoming better, by being able to do more than she could before.
The life in Jersey City she thought she was going to miss was now both a distant memory and almost entirely devoid of nostalgia. The parties, the art openings, performance art shows, plays and concerts – the awesomeness of the community everyone kept insisting on – held no lasting enticement – just another phase in her pre-motherhood life. Working in the backyard garden soothed her, talking with other mothers about their children was more fulfilling than conservations she remembered having in Jersey City, even most of the soul-to-soul , heart-to-hearts with Zoe.
They still kept in contact on Facebook and the occasional phone call. What… two, three… nearly four years maybe since she attended one of Zoe’s art openings…even then many of the friends she remembered had moved away and the new people she met were noticeably younger. The fact she didn’t know the artists and galleries they gossiped about annoyed her. What lingered the most – the first thing she told Justin as well as her work friends who knew she was going back to Jersey City – was what seemed like hours spent finding a parking space.
Dread could be a constant, the worst case scenario around the corner. But only at first… I love and am loved… Nora’s life had a way of turning out to be the best case scenario in spite of her expectations.
The afternoon sunlight glistened through Zach’s bushy blonde hair. The boys and girls, multicolored daypacks on their backs, huddled in clusters on the sidewalk in front of the school. Nora talked with the other mothers there to fetch offspring. The affable, adamantly upbeat twentysomething coach exclaimed encouraging words about her son’s discipline as a player. As she drove from the parking lot, she asked, “How was soccer practice.”
“Just fine, huh. How come the coach said you were more disciplined?”
“He told me my kicking improved. I scored three goals in practice.”
“That’s great, honey.”
“It was just practice, mom.” What seemed new only a few months ago – his tendency to slip into non-talkativeness –now occurred more frequently. Incremental sullenness, was that a harbinger of the terrible teen years looming on the horizon? He was already on his tablet, tapping the screen, engrossed in the video game, basically oblivious to her presence.
“Do you feel like you’re getting better.”
“Yes, mom.” That long, extended syllable again, implying a frustration with adults in general and his mother in particular.
“You can play computer games when you get home, put away that thing and talk to me. I want to hear how your day went.”
“How was school Steve Jobs?”
“He invented the IPhone and was the king of all multitasking. What did you learn today?”
“More fractions. I have to write an essay on you for composition class.”
“The assignment is to write about our mothers before they became mothers. You’re supposed to tell us what you did before you had me and I have to write a composition, no less than 200 words.”
“That’s the assignment?”
“Yes, mom… 200 words.”
“I manage a gym and teach yoga, Pilates, aerobics and personally train a few clients.”
“That’s what you do now, what did you before now.”
“I studied business at Hunter College and yoga at the American Academy of Yoga in New York. I was young and not as smart as I should be because you’re never smart as you should be when you’re that age. End of story.”
“Am I as smart as I should be?”
“Way smarter. I had a lot of fun times that I am sure your teacher does not want to hear about nor do I want to tell you about.”
“I don’t want to write about you managing gyms, it’s boring”
“I always thought being a responsible parent would be more glamorous too, go figure.”
“What did you do before you were a gym manager.”
“Before we moved to Glen Rock? I lived in Jersey City, that’s where your father and I met.”
“14 C! You point out that sign on the turnpike every time we drive down the shore or that time on the bus when you co-chaperoned the field trip to Trenton.”
“I not only bore you but I also embarrass you. Damn your luck to be born to such a horrible mother.”
“Be serious mom. You’re not horrible, okay. What made you want to manage a gym.”
“Life. I needed a good job. Being healthy, eating right, staying fit, those things were always important to me. In Jersey City, I was teaching yoga and managing a coffee shop.”
“You don’t really see too many places like Woven these days, that was the name of the café. Back then, a Starbucks opened and then all these places that sold fancy coffee but were small businesses, not corporate like Starbucks, opened too. People love expensive coffee drinks. You had to do everything, manage the staff, serve customers, reorder supplies, be a barista, make all the different coffee drinks. I don’t think those fancy coffee places like Woven are as popular anymore now that you can get flavored lattes, organic muffins and vegan sandwiches everywhere. Back then, they were really, really popular. Everybody you knew hung out in them.”
“Did you like it?”
“I had fun but fun doesn’t pay the bills. I liked teaching yoga better than working at Woven. I guess that’s your essay, my mother was as boring then as she is now except now she found a way to make boring pay more.”
He shook his head, his attention back on the screen. She said, “I’m sorry honey, what do you think your teacher wants you to write?”
“Something about your mother’s life before she became your mother. Something about what life was like back in the olden days.”
“We flew pterodactyls to the supermarket and velociraptors mowed our lawns.”
“Back then, things were tougher. You needed more than one job to make ends meet. You won’t believe the losers I dated before I met your father. Your Aunt Zoe was my roommate.”
“She’s not my real aunt.”
“I know she’s strange sweetie, but we love her. She had an art studio in Jersey City way before I moved there. She has some Jersey City stories about me, but you are way too young to hear those.”
“I don’t want Jersey City stories, it’s for school.”
“You want a success story, write about me running the gym.”
“What you did before you became such a success?”
“Like everybody else, I was finding myself, finding my way in the world, finding out what I was good at. It was tough because the economy wasn’t creating good paying jobs. When the republicans came to power, the rich got all the money. You needed more than one career just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your head. I had other crazy jobs too, they paid shit, I mean, crap. They didn’t pay well at all. I worked these temp jobs where I had to sit at this ergonomically nightmare of a desk and answer the phone all day. Your mom is not an office worker type, not all day every day, no way.”
“And you were a stripper.”
“What? Where did you hear that? Your mother was never a stripper.”
“What about that painting at that guy’s house.”
“Joey Vega? In Ringwood?
“He was one of your Jersey City friends before he moved to the country you said. He had that picture of you naked.”
“The human body is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve seen you naked just like you’ve seen me naked. Your teacher doesn’t want a story about my body.”
“Not your body, what you did before you were my mother. Did you work at strip clubs in New York City too?
“Where did hear about strip clubs? I never worked at a strip club in my life, not in New York City, not in Jersey City, not anywhere. Zachary, your mother was never a stripper. Is that what you told your teacher?
“I just got the homework assignment today, nobody talked to the teacher yet about anything.”
“You better not be saying anything like that about your mother to anybody, ever. Do you hear me? We already get enough funny looks because your father doesn’t work on Wall Street like every other dad in Glen Rock. Your mother was never a stripper.”
“You were naked in front of your friend so he could paint a picture of you naked. That sounds no different than stripping. It’s not like I have a problem with it mom, geeze.”
“Problem? First of all, it’s not about you having a problem with something that never happened. Second of all, posing naked is not stripping. Do you understand? I was a professional life model. I got paid to be naked in front of artists. It was for the sake of art. They painted me. I wasn’t dancing naked for money, I wasn’t turning Joey on, who’s gay by the way.”
“Duh. We met his husband.”
“I never know what you are old enough to understand anymore.”
“We kids understand a lot more than you know.”
“That’s it, no more internets!” Nora giggled at the shock in her son’s face. She tugged his ear. “That’s what my daddy use to say, all the time, ‘That’s it, no more internets!’ You never knew if he was joking or not, but sometimes the only way to make sure people understand what you mean is if you’re joking when you’re not joking. We can talk about your homework assignment later. Focus on now. What do we need from Stop & Shop.”
“Oh mom, do we have to go to the store?”
“Take stripper off my mother is horrible list and add torturer. Think. Do you have cereal for tomorrow.”
“I don’t know.”
“Help your mother out, Zach, please. We have nothing for dinner. And I want to see whatever you write before you hand it in, do you hear me?”
His yes was audible but his eyes remained fixated on the rapidly flickering screen of the tablet in his hands.
No tablets, phones or laptops at the table, at least when they ate dinner. On special occasions like family movie night they would eat in the living room and watch the widescreen, but most evening meals they ate together and talked, a daily ritual they all enjoyed and would remember forever enjoying. Justin had picked up another six back of craft beer, this time pale ale from Riverside New Jersey that had a picture of a bobcat on the label. A liquor outlet store on Route 17 specialized in selling local craft beers at low prices and Justin would stop in every few days on his way home to try the latest small-batch brew. Both he and Nora would drink the beer from chilled pilsner glasses and compare it to the brand he bought the week before.
Sometimes he bought wine, other nights they drank nothing alcoholic. She usually made dinner, part of the division of parental responsibilities, plus Justin liked eating healthy and by her assuming dinner duty she could stick to her diet. Tonight she broiled turkey burgers, served without bread, roasted red potatoes, steamed asparagus and salad, of course… a meal she made at least twice a week, a go-to dinner.
The beer gave her a second wind, made Justin’s story about a tile delivery mishap – the dense service rep at the tile company refused to believe the wrong colored tile had been sent even after Justin texted him a picture of the delivered tile – sound funnier than it really was.
“Did you tell your father about your assignment for homework.”
Zach shook his head and muttered, “Not yet…”
“Well tell him… he has to write an essay about his mother before she was his mother.”
“She was a Jersey City hipster… the prettiest one too.” He leaned over and kissed her lips, both wanting to hear their son’s now familiar groan of disgust when they- showed affection. “She’s even prettier now.”
“I wasn’t a hipster, that’s just what they called young adults back then.”
“We both had the look, though. Even I grew one of them lumberjack beards.”
“It was thick and long… but I like shorn whiskers better, seeing your face is sexier.”
“You were very artsy fartsy.”
Zach giggled. “Artsy Fartsy?”
“Like your Aunt Zoe.”
“She’s not my real aunt.”
“Well, your mom knew all the artists in town and there were a lot of them, they traveled in packs. You knew one, you knew them all.”
“Zoe knew them all and she was my best friend. I knew more people back then than I do now… Jus, isn’t it weird how Jersey City was a smaller town than Glen Rock is. We hardly know anybody here. Our neighbors on either side are senior citizens. The only people in Glen Rock we know are other parents.”
“Everybody knowing your business, that bugged me. Some of those artists were okay, the few who had talent really worked at it. Even I could see what they sacrificed for the art, I respect hard work. I liked the parties. But I don’t miss the scene. All they ever talked about were themselves or their work or they talked crap about other artists behind their backs. Their pettiness could be so disgusting. The best thing about living in Jersey City was meeting you.”
“I like living here… now.” She drained the remaining beer in her glass, and he nodded when she asked him if he wanted to split another as she went into the kitchen.
“Glen Rock isn’t the same as when I was Zach’s age, don’t get me wrong, but the change was slower. Towns like Glen Rock aren’t built for constant change. Cities are. You’d get use to seeing certain buildings, then they’d get knocked down and you have to look at some vacant lot for a year or two then go another year or two as some ugly tower made of steel and glass got built.”
She poured beer into his glass, her hand lightly grazing the back of his neck. “If development wasn’t happening you wouldn’t be working.”
“I know that, but I’ll tell you what, I like leaving the construction when I come home. Back there the sites I worked at I could walk to. There was no break. I felt like I was living it twenty four seven, that got annoying. The people started getting more and more annoying too. Seemed every month, more people younger than us and less people our age, you know what I’m saying. Everyone moving in had trust funds and all the regular folks kept leaving.”
“More and more snoots, even among the artists.”
“The rents kept getting higher and the apartments smaller. It was time to move.”
“You’re not really helping with my homework,” he reminded them in a sarcastic tone of voice. “What was mom doing when you met her?”
“I told you, I taught yoga and managed Woven. What I wasn’t doing was stripping.”
Justin snorted, nostrils shivering. “Stripping?”
“He thought life modeling was stripping.”
His eyebrows arched high into his forehead and he gave an exaggerated wink, cracking up his son. “You mean, it wasn’t?”
But Justin couldn’t keep a straight face and his puffing immediately accelerated into his girlish yelps. She chuckled along, gently punching his shoulder. Justin caught his breath, pointed with his thumb and said, “Hubba hubba.”
“Come on you two, stop making fun of me. Your father never saw me life model.”
“I only saw her strip.”
She laughed along, her face turning red. She noticed her son’s laugh was identical to his father’s. “I don’t think I was modeling for art classes anymore when we started… dating.”
“That’s true. I never had to take an art class to see your mother naked.”
“Justin! Please cut it out.”
“Schools have classes. Mom, you said you were a professional life model. ”
“Students need professional models to draw. It’s not just being naked… it’s holding a position for a long periods of time. I mostly modeled for classes in Jersey City. People who were already artists took the class.”
“Why would you take a class for something if you’re already that thing,” asked Zach.
“Education lasts a lifetime. Everyday you’re a better you. When I renew my certifications in yoga instruction and nutrition, I have to take online classes as part of the recertification just keep up with best practices and the latest products. Life drawing classes are an exercise for artists.”
“Like taking a yoga class.”.
“That’s a very good analogy, son.”
“Your father’s right, you’re a very smart boy. I remember an artist telling me that drawing me was strengthening the muscle, like exercising or doing yoga to stay in shape.”
“It’s like your soccer practice, you get a skill and you keep sharpening that skill, like the blade on a knife.”
“No one is as committed to staying good and getting better at what they’re good at as artists. I still admire them for their dedication. Lazy people waste their life away and even the less talented artists weren’t lazy.”
Zach asked, “You being naked makes them better artists?”
“Artists need to see the form as they draw that form. Visual art is not only imagination. Human bodies are some of the first art, you know what cave paintings are, right? They drew bodies. Artists have always drawn bodies. Bodies are beautiful, artists want to create beauty. They make art to show the world the beauty they are seeing.”
Zach asked, “Did you like you being naked in front of strangers?”
“I didn’t feel uncomfortable, if that’s what you mean. They weren’t judging my body. I was just another form to them. It was easy work, because of my yoga training. I had to stay still for the whole class. I can hold one position for a long period of time, like stretching your leg or arm so they could see the musculature beneath the skin .” She flexed her triceps. “They needed to see physical details for their lines.”
Zach asked, “Lines?”
“Yes, that’s what they drew or painted, it depended on the artists. There was this one man… he was older than the other artists, way older. He was older than most baby boomers even. He was retired, a retired architect… Packard… I haven’t thought of Packard in years. He painted in class, like Joey, except he liked brighter colors and I think he used acrylics instead of oils.” She paused, the memory taking hold. “Painting me was his first art class in half a century, that’s what he told me.”
Zach’s chin dropped, his mouth agape. “Why did he wait so long?”
“He took art classes when he went to college but changed his major to architecture. I actually got to know him a little bit. We were friends for a while.”
“I don’t remember any old man at those gallery openings and parties named Packard.”
“You never met him… he died probably about a year before we met. I remember I hadn’t seen him around for a while, I thought he might have been sick, you know, because he was old and old people get sick. Zoe googled him and found his obituary. It was really sad, I’m sad thinking about it.”
“I’m sorry, mommy.”
“Me too, Honey.”
“He used to come into the café. That’s where we met, well, where we started talking to each other and became friendly. I still remember that, he was like the only person in Woven that day… a weekday afternoon, real dead shift. I was looking at him, he was reading a book. Only old people read books at the café, most of the customers were on their laptops or phones or yapping with each other. He looked like somebody I had seen, like around the neighborhood or some place, but I couldn’t place him. Nobody else was there. So I walked over to him. I asked, do I know you, you seem familiar and he said, I painted you last night.”
They waited for her to take a long drink of beer. “Then he told me how long it had been since he had taken an art class. He switched majors because he had met his wife and wanted to raise a family and needed a profession that paid more than being an artist. He was a widower. He wasn’t from New Jersey even. Packard was the only person over the age of forty moving to Jersey City and he was way over forty. He was from Michigan or Illinois, somewhere in the Midwest. He said he hated living in the house after his wife passed away so he moved into the condo of one of his kids who had gotten a job overseas. He saw an ad somewhere for the life drawing classes, so he bought some paint supplies on a whim and signed up for a session. I asked him what he thought and he said it was liberating.”
Justin asked, “Liberating?”
“That’s what he said. He was such a nice person. He had white hair that he hated to comb and his face had a lot of wrinkles and brown spots but I’ve never seen eyes as bright as his on someone so old. They twinkled, like a baby’s eyes. He said it was liberating because his hand was making human lines, not marks that had to be straight or slanted, curved, vertical, horizontal… that’s what I’ve spent my life drawing, he said. He thanked me for freeing his hands and eyes from a lifetime of geometry.”
“Seeing your body, painting your body, reminded him of his wife. That’s beautiful honey. You gave him back the love of his life before he died.”
“They were married more than forty years,” she said after a while. “I’m tired Justin, do you mind filling the dishwasher… the kitchen’s already clean.”
“Sure honey, you’ve had a long day, go to bed. Zach, I’ll be in an hour to check on your homework.”
She wasn’t asleep when Justin came to bed. He made love to her, then she listened to him fall asleep, his breathing and the warmth of his body softly absorbing her within their aura where she felt protected from everything but her mind and its memories and doubts. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Packard. Once they breached the wall those thoughts flowed uninterrupted. What truly happened were secrets she would keep forever in her heart.
Packard became one of her regulars at Woven, where he talked to her about art and life. She loved listening to what he had to say and to be taken seriously by someone so much older and more experienced than her.
“I love painting your body not because it’s beautiful. It is, don’t get me wrong. As they say these days, you’re hot. But you know that, don’t you.”
“Good, because you don’t need to hear empty praise from somebody old enough to be your grandfather. I love seeing your body and making it into art because your body’s beauty is an ideal. The beauty in nature – like a sunset or dawn or a child’s smile and of course, a woman’s body – those epitomes of beauty are as close as beauty can come to true beauty here on earth.”
“You think there’s a higher beauty?”
“I believe in God, and God is an immaterial concept, something not made of matter or empirically provable. Therefore, I also believe there’s a beauty beyond our understanding of beauty.”
“So the only beauty we can know is the beauty that is here in the here and now.”
“Indeed. Seeing beauty lets us glimpse the beauty we can’t know. If beauty is an ideal created by a Supreme Being then the closest expression is His creation and the next closest is the beauty created in art. Seeing your body and making what I see into art through paint on the canvas allows me to come as close as I can come to true beauty.”
“Does someone seeing your art see true beauty too?”
“I don’t know if seeing the art is closer to beauty than creating the art, but those who see the art are closer to true beauty than if the art never existed.”
Joey Vega’s painting of her was one of the few pictures from Life Drawing students that Nora actually ever saw. Seeing their drawings, good or bad, made her uncomfortable – unlike a photograph, she couldn’t tell what was her and was the artist – so she stopped looking. Before the class dismissed, whoever was moderating would ask everyone to stop working and Nora would go into another room to dress and to avoid seeing who they thought she was, she usually waited there until all the students were gone.
Packard was different. She wanted to know what he saw and when he finally showed the work-in-progress to her, she wasn’t disappointed exactly, but after several classes it was still unfinished. She expected more than just potential from someone so wise. So she set up an arrangement with the owner of the school for private rentals where it was just her and Packard.
She was completely naked on the cushioned, raised platform. The pose he painted was her seated, one leg straight, the other bent, her neck and upper torso slightly turned, her body braced by one palm flat against the modeling stage, her other hand on her knee.
He usually did more talking then painting. “I miss my wife, we were together for a long time, but when my hand depicts you, I remember Theresa.”
“Was she an old girlfriend?”
He had this way of smiling, easily distracted. She thought at the time it might have been due to his age, an early if mild sign of dementia, but now knew that he was evasive on purpose. Not everything can be talked about directly.
“Nothing was more fulfilling than becoming a father, but I was not supposed to outlive Martha. I wasn’t supposed to be the one alone with just memories.”
Their last session together he told her about Theresa. He seemed tired but nothing unusual. She did not know it would be the last time. He never came into Woven after that session again… after weeks of unreturned phone calls and texts, Zoe went online and found out he died. Packard was gone, out of her life, disappeared… as if he never lived in Jersey City at all.
“Theresa wanted to be an actress. We met as freshmen in the Intro to Western Philosophy class. I fell in love with her. I wasn’t painting except for classes, just sketching. She lived alone in a tiny, studio apartment, and would call me late at night and say I need you to draw me, Pack. We were so young, drinking wine and talking about art and life. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. When we weren’t passionately making love, she was posing for me and I was drawing her.”
“It sounds so wonderfully romantic.”
“I was never so alert to each moment of living. I had a happy marriage, and I guess if there was a way to actually measure happiness there were probably more centimeters of joy when my children were born, but that sort of happiness is always restrained. By definition it’s diluted. Any other happiness in my life was just never as pure or as intense as my happiness with Theresa.”
“What happened to her?”
“We just lost touch. She moved away to do some summer stock, she never invited me to see her and I didn’t seek her out. Things were different back then, there wasn’t email and everybody kept changing phone numbers. I wanted to have kids and Martha was stable, beautiful… kindhearted, a good person… passionate in her own way… my parents and her parents belonged to the same country club. They met Theresa once and hated her. I did what I thought was the right thing. I’ve done the right thing my whole life.”
He put down his brush, stared at her. “When I see you, when I paint you, I’m remembering Theresa. I thought painting instead of sketching might change my thoughts, but the medium doesn’t matter. I’m making art now only because of Theresa. I’m not thinking about anything else that happened in my life before or after Theresa… and probably I’m not even thinking about her, just my love for her. I don’t have much time left to think about all my memories, but the memories I want to think about, can’t stop thinking about in fact, are not of my beloved wife or the family we raised together. My only thoughts are of the love I had for Theresa, the pleasure we had being together and the love I felt when her body inspired my art. That’s why I’m painting you… I’m an awful man.”
No… no… no… Sitting on the tall stool behind his canvas, Packard hunched his shoulders, surrendered to an honorable sorrow and softly wept. Nora slid off the platform and went over to him, cradled his head and felt his tears flow.