Her husband Gwil was the one to suggest a painting but it was Nadine’s idea first. It wasn’t so surprising that after sleeping next to her for nearly fifty years he could read her mind. There was, after all, that blank wall in their new master. They slept with the French doors open to hear the sea. Nadine woke with the sun, so if the nude was on the opposite wall, she could watch the woman emerge between 5:48 and 6:40 a.m. There was no rush to get out of bed. This still surprised her, not needing to rush. It felt like a new demand on her time.
The days were always the same. Because Gwil headed off to bed so early now, he was up hours before she awoke. Lying alone in bed she would realize she didn’t know the date, her brain punching out the boxes of a calendar. Was it the 11th or was that yesterday? The days, however, were always firmly in hand: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were her six-milers, the same course south through their gated community to get to beach path number three, and then back home again, retracing her steps. Tuesdays and Thursdays were hill repeats, the same hill north of their home, three times, the third time the fastest or she’d punish herself by doing it a fourth time. One neighbor, a loud fellow, who still didn’t know her name, never failed to assault her at the cul-de-sac, “Hey, speed-walker lady! You’re making the rest of us old farts look bad!”
On Saturdays, if they weren’t visiting the grandkids, she and Gwil rode their bikes to the clubhouse to swim. Sunday mornings were free to read the entire the Wall Street Journal Weekend and then play eighteen, but only if Gwil insisted.
She liked to hear Gwil say it: not a pinch of fat on her at seventy-four. She’d always had a boyish figure. Spry, he said, which made her think of a bird of prey. She’d never had hips or anything like an hourglass figure. But her legs weren’t bad, and she didn’t mind showing them off on occasion.
For some time she’d kept her hair short in a chestnut color akin to her natural color as she remembered it. It had been stressful finding a new hairdresser when they moved, one who’d know how to do the exact same thing as her old one. On a younger woman Nadine’s tidy hair cut might be chic, even sassy, but on her it seemed sensible, and so she really didn’t mind so very much when she came home from the salon and Gwil just nodded at her before turning back to his crossword. “All spiffed up to see the surgeon, eh?” It irked her that he said surgeon when she didn’t know yet if she needed surgery. As if Gwil wanted to rush her headlong into an operating room. And what would he do while she was laid up for months? What then?
The orthopedic doctor had been friendly enough. He was a youngish fellow, late thirties maybe—she wasn’t a good judge of youth anymore. He seemed to be moving at a different speed and she was embarrassed by Gwil’s lazy gait as he accompanied her back to the exam room. The doctor stepped out while his assistant made her change into long, jersey shorts. “Aren’t you a tiny thing?” she said. “You’ll swim in the extra-small.”
There was no mirror in the examination room but Nadine knew she looked ridiculous. She rolled down the waist band of the shorts once, two times, so the hem rose to her knees. She was glad she had remembered to shave her legs that morning. She folded her pants and stacked them on top of her sandals, next to her purse on the floor. She expected they cleaned the floors regularly according to hospital code.
Gwil winked at her over his crossword. “Betcha the surgeon doesn’t get many old broads as fit as you.”
She climbed up, spry, onto the exam table and checked her calves for new varicosities.
The doctor conducted his exam with minimal embarrassment to her and then opened the door and shouted.
“Is Earl back? I need some plain films on Mrs. Williams.”
Nadine looked down at her lap. The word plain settled with a thud. There had been fat, old couples in the waiting room. Old men with bellies who breathed loudly, their wives busting at the seams in fat person jeans. Nadine noticed these people in every waiting room, at the dermatologist’s and the clinic where she went to get routine blood work. Old people living out their retirements in waiting rooms reading copies of People with photos of celebrities Nadine didn’t recognize.
A different woman led her past other exam rooms to the X-ray. Nadine thought about going back for her shoes and then realized how ridiculous the shorts would look with her sandals, so she walked barefoot down the hall. As she lay on the cold metal table, she realized the ugly, grey shorts looked like men’s underwear, like an element of her son John’s football uniform back in high school, one of the pieces she’d laundered and folded into a compartment in that massive duffle with his name and number on the side.
After the X-ray she was walked back to an office cubby next to the exam room where Gwil waited. When the doctor pulled up the X-ray of her pelvis on a giant computer screen, it took her a second to realize what she was seeing below the white crests of her hip bones. Gwil had snuck up behind her to hear the doctor. “Wait for me in the room!” she whispered loudly, shoving him out of the way.
“This is your good hip,” the doctor said. “Nice and spherical, plenty of joint space. Just what we like to see. But over here…” the doctor was saying, tapping the screen with the pink rubber tip of a pencil. “this is your bad hip…”
“Go get my stuff!” she said to Gwil.
A woman in a white lab coat brushed by, jostling Nadine into the cubby. The doctor went right on pretending to ignore that right there on the X-ray, Nadine’s genitals were drooping the full length of the pencil eraser he kept tapping at her parts. Like chicken’s wattles, she thought, horrified.
“Yes, yes, alright,” she said. But the doctor wouldn’t shut up. Gwil was behind her juggling her clothes and purse, dangling her sandals by the thin leather straps. He was staring at the screen, at her grotesque parts.
Later, when they were finally home, Nadine busied herself with making dinner. She couldn’t find the garlic press in the new kitchen. She’d organized everything wrong. The silverware should be below the rack displaying her china. She couldn’t switch things around now. It was already habit opening this drawer instead of that one.
“Nadine, sweetie,” Gwil said. “What are you banging about for? I thought it was good news from the doctor. It’s not like you have get a hip replacement right away.”
He gazed up at the high ceiling. Faux beams, expensive plaster treatment. This is what they’d paid for, she thought: the Spanish Colonial Revival style. All those white walls.
“I mean…” he was saying. She willed him to just shut up. “You might get away without ever needing a new hip.”
“Because I’ll be dead before then.”
“No, the bottom line is if I’m still alive in another five years, and still mobile—that was his word—I’ll need surgery.”
“Sweetheart, this is good news.”
“Yes. Just dandy.”
Wattles down there, she thought. Fine news indeed.
The next morning, Gwil had an early tee time with his new buddies at the club, so Nadine was left to enjoy her morning coffee alone. When she gathered up the local paper, she saw the magazine on the counter. Vanity Fair was not something they ordinarily purchased, but she vaguely remembered Gwil telling her about an interview with a kid now running the tech company that was the rival of the one Gwil sold more than a decade ago. On the magazine cover was a photo of the young millionaire in a black sweatshirt sitting cross-legged inside an egg-shaped chair, which hung from the ceiling. Nadine shook her head. He probably encouraged his employees to ride skateboards down the hall while they texted.
Nadine had little interest in his story, but she took the magazine with the newspaper out to the kitchen patio along with her coffee. She dragged the chaise into full sun. At some point—she didn’t remember when—she had stopped worrying so much about skin damage. Shadowed slats of portico striped the patio. Her body was hushed by the crashing of waves far below. She flipped through the magazine, opening the flaps to sniff the perfume samples, wondering whether any might be suitable for John’s wife Eve. But perfume was far too personal a gift, and she didn’t know her daughter-in-law that well. She wasn’t sure there’d be occasion to now that Eve was busy with the new baby. Nadine’s mind was sliding off to her mental calendar, and when she could go visit baby Janie without becoming the pesky mother-in-law. She turned the page and gasped.
The words of the title were done like the gaudy Mylar balloons that loomed over the checkout line in the grocery store.
Her elbow jostled her mug and coffee spilled onto the side table. She thought about hurrying inside, dropping the magazine in the recycling bin or mashing it down into the garbage, down into the coffee grinds and Gwil’s two egg shells.
The bodies were not those of real women, but mannequins. Their skin was salmon-colored, their nipples a shade pinker. She read the caption under the photo of the two mannequins whose legs were spread wide. The caption explained that each doll was customized based on the client’s preferences. Some dolls had a small triangle of hair down there while others were smooth like a little girl. Genitals was not the word the magazine used. Nadine had taught her children to call their organs by their real names. These words, these photos, made her ashamed. And something else. Deep in her groin a feeling she’d nearly forgotten. She listened to be sure Gwil was not coming homing early. She angled her chair to face the French doors.
The largest photo took up half the page. It showed two of these dolls; they were blonde and nearly identical. Both had extremely large bosoms. She glanced at the French doors and then held the magazine closer to her face. She thought of the play dough her grandson Tucker left out on the kitchen counter. When her children were little, she made her own play dough, but Eve was too busy with the new baby and Nadine couldn’t fault her for buying it. Nadine remembered the oily, squeaky feel of the store play dough. She wasn’t surprised when Tucker was tempted to put it in his mouth. Now, she studied the dolls. Everything about the pink women looked like plasticine. Or some sort of bouncy rubber. Were they? Made of rubber? Is that what men wanted to feel against their skin? To put their mouths on?
A dark-eyed junco landed at the birdfeeder, startling her, and she slammed the magazine shut. But she could still picture the girls. The plastic folds, the neat slits down there. Smooth and perfect. Were the dolls given a smell? She peeked again. The pink of the woman’s nipples galled her. Like the pink inside a mouth. She thought of the word. A word she’d never uttered in her life. A word Gwil had never uttered, but maybe he thought it. Maybe back when they were young and locked up in his college dorm for hours, maybe he did but never said.
She looked at the dolls’ breasts until the junco twittered the naughty word over and over. She went inside and slammed the French doors behind her. She took the magazine into the guest bathroom and slipped it between the National Audubon book and Birds of the Southeast on top of the toilet. She turned the Vanity Fair binding toward the wall so she might forget it was there. But on her walk, she couldn’t stop thinking of the dolls and the ache in her groin felt like a spent muscle.
She had showered and was composing a grocery list when Gwil proposed that they visit the galleries downtown.
“Maybe grab a bite and not bother with fixing dinner?” he said casually.
“What did you have in mind?” she asked. She noticed his Adam’s apple bobbed when he swallowed.
“For a restaurant?”
“No, for the bedroom wall.”
His eyes softened and he got that faraway look which was becoming more common. “Sometimes I look at that big wall and…” he sighed. “Heck, I don’t know. Maybe we should have put the bed against the wall. Not have to look at it.”
“But a painting for the space?”
“I suppose, yes.”
“Not a landscape.”
“No, not a landscape. The house asks for something different.”
And now he looked at her quickly, his eyes worried. The thin plastic wire of the hearing aid coiling into his ear slight as his fine grey hairs.
“Modern,” she said.
“I think so, yes.”
“Perhaps a nude.”
He shrugged. It was an empty gesture. She knew him too well.
And now he met her eyes because he knew she was pretending too. “It’ll be a fun search.”
“Yes,” she said. “I think it will.”
In the car he seemed to sit taller.
“How big were you thinking?” he asked.
She looked out the window when she felt the flush creeping up her neck. She was thinking of the dolls’ breasts.
“It’s a big wall,” she said.
“Should we have taken a picture to show the gallery person?”
“We can eyeball it.”
“Likely we’ll buy it already framed, wouldn’t you think?”
It wasn’t like him to act dumb. She knew he’d seen the pictures. Which doll was he picturing? The hair or no-hair one? The one with nipples swooping out to each side like she was built for not just one man but two, one on either side, a nipple for each mouth.
Nadine crossed her legs and squeezed tight.
“We’ll just have to see,” she said finally.
She felt his hand on her arm and then he reached for her hand and clasped it. He squeezed three times, their code for I LOVE YOU. She squeezed back four times, I LOVE YOU MORE, and their hands rested on the cool leather console until they reached downtown when Gwil had to put both hands on the wheel to negotiate a parking spot.
He walked ahead of her. He had gotten thinner and a little stooped. She tried to see him with a stranger’s eyes. Old. He looked old. She’d tried Buddhism, but there was no comfort in reading that everyone got old and then died. She could double her daily mileage, go faster, but she could not skip out of the sentence. It was just a matter of time. Maybe her body was already diseased and she just didn’t know it yet. Sometimes she woke up in the morning with the sun on that white wall and her brain was tired from doing arithmetic: in ten years, she’d be eighty-four. Twelve years, she’d be eighty-six. Eighteen years… well, that wasn’t very likely. Her own mother was seventy-eight when she died from a stroke. Just four years from now.
She hurried to keep up with Gwil’s long strides. He reached for her hand and grasped it. She was aware of that thing his fingers did when he was restless, twitching like he was antsy to let go and hurry on ahead. He looked around quickly, his eyes a little unfocused, and she worried people might think he was going blind or something worse.
They stopped in at the gallery on the corner, one they’d peeked into a handful of times over the years. An employee greeted them, young and petite. She wore a white blouse with Elizabethan frills, a tight black skirt and heels that were far too high. Nadine noticed the woman’s bare knees, the hard ovals of bone. Young women took their knees for granted. Nadine sighed. Young women took so much for granted.
The woman was trailing Gwil around the gallery, her hands tucked behind her in a phony way.
“That’s one of our most popular artists,” she said when Gwil stopped in front of three paintings.
“Local?” Gwil said not bothering to turn around.
“No, she’s actually from New Mexico.”
“Mmmm,” Gwil said. Nadine could hear the edge of disapproval. Gwil had bought into the whole ‘buy local’ propaganda.
Nadine wasn’t sure whether the three pieces could be called paintings when they were obviously in charcoal, but she wasn’t about to ask. The charcoals seemed to be of the same woman. Shadowed dimples above her derrière. If Nadine squinted, the long, thick strokes of charcoal evoked movement as if the woman was twisting away to hide herself. In only one of the pieces was the woman’s pubic hair visible. They were not beautiful pictures or rather the subject was not beautiful. Gwil moved on.
“Were you looking for something in particular?” the saleswoman asked.
Gwil cleared his throat.
“A nude,” Nadine said.
The woman turned to face her. “In what style?”
“We haven’t decided,” Nadine said.
“What style is your home?”
My home? Nadine thought. Her home was traditional colonial. The children’s closets packed with graduation gowns, outgrown team sweatshirts, plastic bins of trophies and medals from track and gymnastics meets. So many awards.
“The house is Spanish mission,” she heard Gwil say as if he was an expert on architectural styles. She stopped herself from correcting him.
“And is this a new home?” The woman’s eyes lit up like this was the best news she’d had all day.
“Yes,” Nadine said at the same time that Gwil said, “No.”
He was smiling, ready to laugh at her. “Honey, it’s been nearly five years. It’s hardly new.”
John and Jillian had gone overboard thanking them for downsizing, for moving to a smaller home on one level, for planning ahead and not waiting for something catastrophic to happen.
“But it still feels new to you.” The woman winked at Nadine. “That’s lovely.” She tossed her hair like she was feeling a sudden breeze.
“Because it is new,” Nadine said. It would never be home, and if something happened to Gwil, she’d sell it the next day. She looked over at her husband who was slumping. “What?”
He blinked his eyes slowly. “Nothing.”
“You chose the house.”
“I’ll leave you two to look around a little,” the woman said.
“No,” Nadine said. “What else do you have?” For his house, she almost added.
“For a contemporary home?” The woman was ignoring Gwil, which was fitting given that Nadine made all the silly, little decisions and a painting was just another silly decision. “I don’t know how you feel about pop art, but some fun, graphic pieces can be very dramatic in a modern home. You know, introduce a playful dash of color.”
Nadine had a sudden image of pouty, red lacquered lips. Bubble gum-colored nipples.
“I’m not so keen on pop art,” Gwil said slowly, so Nadine could tell he wasn’t sure he was picturing the right stuff.
“Pop art might be just the thing,” Nadine said.
“Certainly.” The woman bowed her head a little. “And I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Lidia. May I offer you a cappuccino or perhaps a glass of Cava?”
Gwil made a noise that sounded like purring. A sound a dementia patient would make. Just yesterday, Nadine had to rub in his sunscreen where he’d left huge white swaths on his cheek like war paint. He was getting careless.
“Nothing for me,” he said.
“I’ll have a glass of Cava,” Nadine said.
Gwil glanced at his watch and then up at her, his mouth pursed.
“What? It’s cocktail hour. Or very nearly.”
The woman—Lena, did she say? —looked back at Gwil. “None for you, sir?”
“No. Thank you.”
“Be right back then,” she said spinning on her dangerous heels.
Nadine didn’t recall eating lunch. She would not only be tipsy after one glass, the bubbly would likely make her nauseated. She thought about calling the woman back, saying she’d changed her mind and would have a decaf, but something stopped her. What did it matter if she got tipsy or felt a wee crummy? She wasn’t driving. She had nowhere to be. Who cares? she thought, and she actually shimmied her shoulders.
“I’m going to walk around,” she said to Gwil, setting off into the far corner.
The oil and pastel landscapes of cliffs and beaches were nice enough but they all seemed so familiar; she’d seen versions of them over the years in hotel lobbies and home decorating magazines. She felt Gwil behind her, his eyes on her instead of the paintings.
There were abstracts in clumpy strokes, the oil paint so thick so she wanted to flick off a glob with her fingernail. She giggled at the thought of vandalizing something ugly. She noted the price for the bigger ugly thing was $10,000.
“Isn’t his work intense?” The woman had crept up behind her.
“Oh,” Nadine said.
“I know, right? He’s a Czech artist who lives in Berlin now. He has shows coming up in Charleston and Savannah. Honestly, we could probably price this much higher. How do you feel about the colors?”
“Not a fan.” Nadine reached for the wine glass. She could smell the Cava’s fruitiness and while the color was a bit too yellow (probably a cheap grocery store brand) she was eager to feel the frisson of bubbles.
“Cheers,” the woman said, handing her the glass. Nadine noticed she had a black binder tucked under her arm.
“Were you going to bring up some pop art?” Nadine asked. She took a big gulp of the Cava. Her stomach sizzled.
“Let’s sit down, and I’ll show you a few pieces we have in storage. I also have examples of artists whose work you could commission.”
“Commission?” Nadine burped and quickly covered her mouth.
“You wouldn’t have to pay if you didn’t like the final product.”
“But a commission… isn’t that… doesn’t that take a long time?” Nadine thought of the angle of the sun in their bedroom. In a few weeks, she would need more than a cardigan to sit outside. Soon it would be another season altogether. She took another big sip.
“Depending on the artist’s schedule anywhere from a few months to half a year. Possibly longer.”
“Half a year!” Nadine almost spit the mouthful of Cava on the woman’s absurd ruffles.
The woman frowned. “Is time an issue for you?” She looked at Gwil as if he had a better handle on their calendar. “Do you have an event coming up?”
“An event?” Nadine said. She liked the way the bubbles swirled in her belly, but she had to keep swallowing down the same burp.
“Are you hosting a party?”
The woman looked sheepishly at Gwil, but hell if he was going to help. Nadine was the one who did all the planning. She was the one who packed up everything in their home, donated half to the local women’s shelter. Everything else ended up at the dump.
“No.” Nadine looked down at the woman’s knees. “No party.”
“Okay,” the woman said slowly. “But you’d still prefer paintings we can bring into the gallery in a timely manner?”
“Gwil?” Nadine turned to him not because she cared what he thought but because she was annoyed that she was having to do all the explaining when she just wanted to enjoy her damn Cava.
He shrugged. “Wall’s been empty for five years. No real hurry now.”
Nadine sighed loudly. Perhaps a touch louder than she would have liked.
“Let’s have a look,” Nadine said, nodding at the unpromising-looking binder under the woman’s arm. Nadine found it helpful when employees wore name tags. Name tags could be tasteful even in a classy gallery, which this wasn’t. Nadine took another sip of Cava and felt the nice rush to her head, warm and buzzy. She might actually enjoy looking through this woman’s book of kitschy art.
The woman teetered away on her dangerous heels to a nook across the gallery where there was a couch and some overstuffed armchairs.
“You okay?” Gwil asked sotto voce.
He frowned at her glass.
“Oh, please. I’ve had two sips.”
The woman was standing in front of the chairs, waiting for them to sit before she lowered herself into the club chair and crossed her legs in a fetching way, calves kissing.
She opened the binder. “Here are some more representational nudes. Not particularly modern, but maybe a good place to start.”
Nadine had to squeeze closer to Gwil on the couch so they could both look at the tiny pictures. She didn’t think to bring her reading glasses because she assumed they’d be looking at large naked women. Just thinking the word, large, gave her a little thrill. Again, she pictured the woman, or rather the doll, on the couch in the magazine photo. Her enormous breasts and lovely nipples, the pink hole of her belly button. What would the man who bought her home do with this hole? She felt her cheeks get warm and she took another sip of Cava.
The binder was set on the coffee table facing them, so the woman pointed at the images upside down. Gwil fished his glasses out of his sport coat pocket. He had come prepared. Nadine patted his knee and waited for him to look at her, but he did not look at her. He was looking at the naked woman under the shiny plastic. He bent his head closer.
“How big is this?” he asked. Nadine couldn’t tell if he was pointing at the subject’s wet curls or her tawny shoulder.
“Let’s see,” the woman said. And now she pulled out a pair of glasses.
“Aha!” Nadine exclaimed. The two looked at her, startled. You may be young, she thought at the woman, but you’re already going blind and not a damn thing you can do about it!
Nadine peered at the portrait of a woman on the edge of a bathtub, obviously a rip-off of some famous painting, but damned if she could remember the artist. Renoir?
“She is lovely,” the gallery woman said, looking at it upside down so Nadine knew she couldn’t possibly be a good judge.
Mary Cassatt? Is that who she was trying to remember? Nadine wondered. The painting was definitely not erotic. The subject had a roll of belly fat. Maybe this is what the gallery woman meant by realistic. Was that the word she used? And maybe that was the problem: the woman in the painting was too realistic. Not like those naughty dolls in the magazine. No one actually looked like that. No one had nipples so pink and perfect. She understood why a man would want to suck on that doll’s nipples. She shivered and Gwil put an arm around her. Could he hear her thinking the word, tits?
“Cold?” he asked, rubbing her back before turning back to the picture. “I think she’s beautiful. There’s a warmth to her, to the painting, I mean. It’s comforting.”
“Yes, soothing colors for a bedroom,” the gallery woman said. “And the dimensions, if I’m seeing clearly upside down, are thirty by fifty-five but we could inquire about commissioning a larger one if she’s too small.”
Nadine considered the naked woman. Her bottom was squished flat by the lip of the tub. There was a window above her and the sun was warm on her right shoulder and the nape of her neck where unruly hairs curled in the steam of the bath. Only her left breast was visible in profile. It was large and heavy. The body of a woman who had borne children. Nadine looked up at Gwil. Did he remember sitting up with her a lifetime ago as she failed to nurse their colicky newborn, her bathrobe loose around her belly as she moved the baby unsuccessfully from one engorged breast to the other? “It hurts,” she had told him. “Maybe my body wasn’t made for this.” He had stroked her shoulder with one hand and with the other gently cupped the head of their wailing son. She had looked down at her breasts, at the map of blue veins, the new scars of stretch marks. As if reading her mind, he said, “You’ll always be beautiful. Every part.”
How had she forgotten this moment? His words, a promise, a vow she had carelessly left behind and very nearly forgotten. Was it because she hadn’t believed him?
She leaned against Gwil. His sport coat smelled a little musty. It smelled of his side of the bed. He smelled like the old house and some part of the new one too. There was so much she would miss.
She imagined this painting on the great, white wall of their room. The sun would reach the bather from the same direction as the little window in the painting. Nadine would wake to see the woman turn on the edge of the tub, to see her swing her legs over the side and face Nadine, full breasts and scruffy pubic hair, and Nadine would imagine her walking down the hill to the ocean. Picture her shaking off the cold and charging in, past the surfers in their tight rubber skins, past the dolphins arcing effortlessly over the waves, the woman swimming so far out that Nadine could not see her anymore but knew she was approaching the horizon.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Snell. View more of his work on Flickr.