Role/Model

By Gayle Brandeis

Essay

young compositeMichael and I had lunch at The Castle today, a new Middle Eastern restaurant in Riverside. The lentil soup was fantastic, spiked with lemon. The Lebanese salad was tart and fresh, a dice of cucumber and tomato and mint. The place is new, but not really. I can’t remember if you and I ever went there together back when it was still Pitruzello’s, back when you were still alive–I don’t think so, even though I can picture you in one of the booths, your pale skin glowing against the black vinyl; I can picture you there the way you looked before I was born, when people mistook you for Audrey Hepburn, your hair in a short beehive, a cigarette between your fingers. I can’t remember if I ever told you I answered the restaurant’s call for lunchtime tearoom models in 1987, when I was nineteen. Probably not. As much as you wanted your girls to be open with you, more often than not, your measuring gaze made us pause .

Even now, at 46, I’m not sure what compelled me to respond to the ad they placed in the San Bernardino Sun. I hated modeling as a kid–I was too shy, too self-conscious in front of the camera. I cried at almost every audition, every photo shoot. At nineteen, I didn’t see myself as the modeling type, either. I was a hippie chick with hairy armpits and legs, a sophomore at the University of Redlands. I had gained the freshman fifteen and then some eating three cafeteria meals a day, the only vegetarian options being cheesy, starchy casseroles like lasagna and enchiladas. My belly stuck out nearly as far as my small breasts; my face was almost as round as it had been when I was on long term steroids a few years before. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was awkwardness. Flaws.

But I answered the ad, and it was probably because you had been a tearoom model yourself as a young woman, wearing structured dresses with cinched belts that accentuated the 23 inch waist you had been so proud of when you were a model, your “little pinched-in waist,” as you liked to call it. You walked around a special parlor at Blums Vogue, displaying couture for women who could afford the personal shopping service; you used the posture you had learned at the Patricia Stevens Finishing School in downtown Chicago, where you strode across rooms with books stacked on your head, where you learned to fence. I’m not sure how fencing is supposed to “finish” a girl, but I loved seeing the silver foil you kept in the coat closet, its slender blade speaking of your youth, its jab of promise.

You never let go of that desire to be seen, admired, exalted for your bearing and beauty. After you died, I found a letter you had written to Ronald Lauder, chairman of Clinique Labs, suggesting he use you in an advertising campaign:

Dear Mr. Lauder,

I’d like to approach you with the idea of being your Clinique “dramatically different moisturizing lotion” spokesperson.

I have used that product somewhere between 32 and 35 years. I’m not sure when it first came on the market, but I’ve been using it always since its availability.

An ad campaign “65 and Glowing” for print and commercials would be wonderful, using me, of course.

People always comment on my beautiful skin, my best feature. I credit genetics and your product.

I’ve included my model photographs, which have darkened some in the printing process. My true skin tones are lighter and milkier.

I hope you’ll consider this suggestion.

Sincerely,

Arlene Baylen-Brandeis

The photographs you had prepared that year to go after senior modeling and Central Casting extra jobs show you in various outfits, in various stilted poses. In your head shot on the front of the composite, you appear to be smirking; in one of three pictures on the back, you wear a red short sleeved turtleneck–the same one the coroner’s office gave to us in a brown paper sack, the one you had hanged yourself in–and are laughing uncomfortably; in another, you stand at an angle to the camera, a black scarf knotted around your neck, a loop of pearls arcing between it and your asymmetrical black blouse. You seem to be touching your bottom with your right hand, an unconscious movement you often performed as you walked, as if checking your panty line.

young composite backYou somehow look most comfortable in the picture in the center, where you’re dressed as the lady in waiting to the Spanish Queen in the San Diego Opera production of Don Carlo, looking very regal yourself in a severe black gown with a black mantilla and a giant white ruffled collar that resembles a car’s air filter. It’s the only photo where your bearing doesn’t look forced and stiff. You were a supernumerary in the opera, but in your mind, you were always the star. You insisted your daughters were stars, too, although I think you saw us more as moons, objects that orbited around you, reflecting shards of your brilliance.

In your composite from your youthful modeling days, you seemed much more at home in front of the camera; one of the pictures on the back shows you in a frothy negligee, the hem floating upward as if you had just spun around, your mouth a surprised O, like a blow up doll’s. You were dating your sister’s psychiatrist at the time, the married man you fell in love with when you were 16. Did you think of him when you were twirling for the photographer, the chiffon lifting from your thighs?

 ***

The day I last saw you alive brought home how much care you usually devoted to your appearance. You were still wearing the same purple turtleneck and black pants you had on the day before; you looked sweaty and disheveled, your face bare, and you smelled bad–not a trace of Joy, your signature fragrance, on your skin. That was deeply disconcerting to me, almost as disconcerting as the paranoia that gripped you. It was clear that this psychotic episode was different from all the others–before, even when you were delusional, you looked good, put together in your artsy-middle-aged-woman Chico’s clothes. No one other than your family would know by looking at you that something was wrong. Now anyone could glance at your eyes, your general deshabille, and tell you were disturbed.

I, on the other hand, look rumpled most of the time. You always wanted to brush my hair, to buy me more “professional” clothes. The samples of Clinique makeup you always brought me piled, unused, in my bathroom drawer. You would make references to “when you start wearing makeup” as if it was inevitable, as if one day, I would embrace the womanly arts. It frustrated you that I considered beauty regimens a foreign language. And while you were never overtly critical about my appearance, you would get your passive aggressive digs in. Whenever you saw your daughters after a long stretch, you would ask me if I had gained weight, and Elizabeth if she had lost weight. It was a well-established beauty hierarchy in our family, at least from my perspective. Elizabeth has been taller than me since she was twelve and I was sixteen; she is stylish and confident, a head-turner. I was stunned when I first met her husband and overheard him whisper “I don’t think she’s prettier than you” into her ear. I had considered it a priori that she was the more beautiful sister, had never imagined she could have any doubts about this.

Elizabeth was much more successful during our short stint as child models; she was younger and cuter and didn’t cry during auditions. She got amazing gigs: the Star Wars Play-Doh set box; the 1977 cover of Volume Feeding Institutions Magazine where she’s a pint size turtle-necked women’s libber, holding a sign that says “WOMAN’S WORK IS NEVER DONE.”

My big break came, of course, when the Spiegel people called. Spiegel catalogs were my pornography—I drooled over the glossy pages of the thick book, stoking fevered fantasies of fiber optic lamps and dolls that could eat and pee. My first published work—a letter to Santa in the local paper—was essentially a hand written, slightly embellished, Spiegel catalog shopping list. You drove me to the photo shoot; you drove our whole foray into modeling. You wanted the world to see your girls. My yellow t-shirt and lime green gauchos felt a bit scratchy; the silky faux-Hermes scarf you had knotted around my neck made me swallow funny. You had a thing about scarves even then, although you didn’t wear them religiously the way you did to hide your neck when you got older.

The Spiegel people had asked me to dress in yellow and green to match the Crayola logo, since I’d be demonstrating the company’s “Home Art Studio.” I felt good about that. Art was something I understood. I liked art. I might not even have to cry.

spiegel catalogThe first thing the photographers did, much to your disappointment, was remove the scarf.  “Too mature,” they said. They tied bows of thick green yarn around my pony tail holders. They led me and another girl to the set, a faux family room, complete with pale wood paneling and brown shag carpet. An easel was set up there. The one side facing the camera already had a painting pinned to it, obviously done by an adult who was trying to paint like a kid—a yellow house, a yellow sun, a few washes of blue for the sky, a tree. The grass was only partially painted in. “Linda” was written at the bottom, in large, studiously childish letters.

They handed me a paintbrush. “Pretend to paint the grass,” they said. I started to sweep the brush across the paper like I was in the midst of a creative frenzy.

“No!” they yelled. “Just hold it against the painting.”

I held the paintbrush there for what felt like ages. My arm got more and more tired, and I got more and more pissed off. I was not Linda. This was not my painting. When we were done, the girl on the other side of the easel, the one who really got to use the chalkboard since it wasn’t on camera, trotted up to the photographer and, coached by her mom, chirped “When are you going to use me again?” You encouraged me to say something similar, but I couldn’t even look at the photographer as we left the studio.

 ***

The lady on the phone told me to come to Pitruzello’s with my face “done” and to bring two pairs of pumps, one white, one black; she also instructed me to wear “flesh-colored” pantyhose. I bought drugstore makeup, cheap vinyl Payless shoes; the only thing I didn’t have to buy was the pantyhose. I rarely wore hose, but I had lots of it, in every color–from red fishnet to sparkly sheer black–thanks to Pairtree, the briefly-lived mail order subscription pantyhose company you and Dad had started.

As soon as I walked into the restaurant in my Indian-print sundress and Birkenstocks, my pumps in a plastic bag, I felt flimsy and unprepared. It was a sprawling Italian place, very old school, with those dark shiny booths and little areas that looked like grottos, fake grapes and Chianti bottles dripping everywhere. Supposedly the Rat Pack and JFK dined there in its heyday. My face itched from the makeup. Bits of hair stuck through the legs of my hose, and the dim lights brought out the other hair flattened underneath the nylon.

I was directed to a room off to the side of the restaurant, a room normally used for private banquets. The blonde, tired-eyed woman in charge looked me up and down with a cool, appraising eye.

“Try this on,” she said, holding out a little pastel blue sailor suit, like something a tap dancer or a toddler would wear. The top had a typical nautical bib; the bottom had flared short shorts. I would never wear such a thing. I took the hanger from her hand.

“Where do I change?” I asked her.

“Right here,” she said, and I could feel my cheeks grow hot. I didn’t like undressing in front of strangers. I didn’t think to wear a bra. Actually, I didn’t own a bra. I should have had the foresight to pick one up when I bought the other girlie accouterments.

I turned my back to her as I tried on the outfit. It left a swath of my belly bare, which I hadn’t anticipated, but otherwise fit perfectly.

The woman seemed to approve. “So tell me about yourself,” she said.

“I’m going to the University of Redlands,” I told her, “studying poetry and dance.”

“Dance,” she said, tapping her lip. “Maybe I could use you in one of my fashion shows.”

I felt flattered that she thought I was fashion show material.

“What kind of dancing do you do?” she asked.

“Modern,” I told her. “Mostly improvisational.”

“Show me,” she said.

And so I busted out some interpretative dance moves there in the back room of Pitruzello’s, swooping around like Isadora Duncan in my white pleather pumps and little sailor suit. The woman flinched and shook her head.

“That’s not going to work,” she said, and I felt immediately embarrassed, wobbly in my unfamiliar heels.

The woman instructed me about my duties: I was to go from table to table and tell people about the outfit, especially how much it cost. Panic stabbed my gut. I had pictured walking around the room silently as I modeled the clothes. A synonym for model is “dummy” and I had counted upon this, had counted upon being mute, dumb, just a body moving through space.  I was deeply shy; it didn’t help that I was also self-conscious about my mouth. This was pre-orthodontia, so I still had protruding eyeteeth and always smiled with my mouth closed. I didn’t want to have to talk to anyone.

Thankfully it was early–the restaurant had just opened for lunch and only two tables were filled in the cavernous place. This was the training hour–the established models would arrive for the lunch rush. The woman led me to the first table where a business man and woman sat waiting for their meal. I stood in front of them, unsure what to say. The blonde woman gave me a little nudge.

“Hi,” I said, as brightly as I could. My voice didn’t sound like itself. “I’d like to show you this adorable sailor suit, if you don’t mind.”

“Go right on ahead, darling,” the man said, looking amused. He was probably in his 40s, wearing a suit.

I babbled something about the clothes being machine washable and great for a day at the beach and only $29.99! I felt like I was going to throw up.

“Can you spin around?” the man asked. I glanced at his lunch companion–was she his co-worker? Girlfriend? Wife? She looked down at the empty plate before her.

I turned haltingly, feeling his eyes travel over my body. I felt uncomfortable, but also flattered. I looked young for my age and wasn’t used to that kind of male attention, other than from my boyfriend. A couple of poet boys had crushes on me, but they gazed at me like I was a fairy princess, not like they wanted to rip my clothes off.

“Very nice,” he said. “Turn around again, slower this time.” I glanced over at my supervisor; she gave a subtle nod, so I did another twirl, taking even more time, like a music box dancer winding down.

When I thanked the man, he winked at me and said “No, thank you” in the most lascivious way; his lunch companion glanced at me and briefly smiled, perhaps in pity, before her eyes flicked away again.

My supervisor led me to the other table. I was relieved when the two women in the booth said “No thank you” and turned to their menus as soon as I started my pitch.

“Not bad for your first time,” the woman said as we walked back to the banquet room. This time, she gave me my pick of outfits. I can’t say why I went for the sheer black negligee. I had never worn lingerie before. There were other outfits laid out on the long banquet table–halter top dresses, A-line skirts–but for some reason, I chose the teddy. Was it for the man who had asked me to spin around? Was it to satisfy my own curiosity? Was I thinking about the lingerie shot on your composite, Mom? I honestly have no clue–I didn’t then, either. I just plucked it from the table, and the woman said “You’re really going for it, aren’t you?”

“I guess so,” I said.

“You’re going to have to shave your pits next time,” she told me and handed me two round Band-aids to cover my nipples.

I walked straight over to the table with the man and the woman in my little nightie and my black pumps. The Band-aids were clear as day through the barely there fabric. The v of the neckline plunged below my breastbone. I held my upper arms close to the side of my body so my armpit hair wouldn’t show.

Before I could say anything about the outfit, the man reached out and touched my hip, where the little skirt flared.

“You look good,” he said. “You look really good.” He didn’t move his hand, let it settle more firmly. I could feel the heat of it travel through my hose, his thick fingertips pressing deep.

His lunch had arrived. Shrimp scampi. The tangle of shrimp, glistening with butter, looked obscene, like an orgy in the shallow bowl. I started to feel dizzy. When I looked away, I noticed all the statues of naked men that ringed the courtyard just outside the dining room, dozens of Davids in concrete, dozens of penises crowding me in. The man’s hand curved around to cup my ass. I looked to my supervisor, but she didn’t breathe a word. She just looked at me as if to say “Say something”–something about the outfit, not something about this strange man with his hand on my body. My voice stuck in my throat.

“It’s only $19.99,” I managed to stammer before I walked back to the banquet room and changed into my own clothes.

“I don’t think this is for me,” I told the woman, my whole body trembling.

“Call me if you change your mind,” she said. The other models were starting to arrive. They seemed friendly enough. Much taller and thinner and more polished than me, more like the models you would see in catalogs. I felt like a potato next to them, short and shapeless. I left so quickly, I forgot to grab my new pairs of pumps.

Many years later, I learned that one of my best friends had been a tearoom model, herself, in the 1960s. One day, while she was modeling a little tennis outfit, a man grabbed her ass and she swatted him with her tennis racquet. I wish I had been able to have strike back in such a firm, clear way, myself, but I didn’t have it in me. Another definition of “model” is “a figure or object made in clay or wax, to be reproduced in another more durable material.” I was still made of clay, of wax, malleable stuff. I was just learning how to use my body, and outside of poetry, I had no idea how to use my voice. There was so much I had to learn, so much I didn’t know. And who am I kidding? There’s still so much I have to learn, so very much I still don’t know.

 ***

I don’t know how you knew how to hang yourself, Mom, how to wrap that random electrical cord around your neck in a way that would work. You didn’t learn it in finishing school; they didn’t teach girls how to finish themselves in that way. But the surveillance camera showed you walking upright, regal, into the small room in the parking garage where you ended your life, walking as if you had a stack of books on your head.

Your death fucked me up. More than I let myself realize at the time. When you died, I was one week-postpartum, still bleeding from the birth. I tried to put all my focus on the baby, on the joy he brought, but your death lived inside me, a constant companion I tried to ignore. Then Michael’s mom died from a sudden heart attack less than four months later and that fucked us both up, individually and as a couple. We didn’t realize how much it had fucked us up because we each kept it to ourselves, kept it hidden from ourselves. It got to the point where we could barely look at each other, we were both seething with so much unspoken, unacknowledged resentment. All we could see was our own bitterness projected onto one another’s face.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I eventually fell in love with another man, a man who called me beautiful, a man who seemed to fully see and appreciate me as both a woman and writer. He was the kind of man you had envisioned for me, Mom–worldly, talented, a best-selling author; he was closer to your age than mine, and I know you would have found him as charming as I did; you would have flirted outrageously with him; you would have put yourself, as you often did, in competition with your daughter. He lived on the other side of the country, so we communicated by email, and eventually, thrillingly, by Skype. He joked that he wanted to see me in a wet t-shirt, so one day when Asher was in preschool, I wore a t-shirt into the shower. I felt sexy there, the hot water plastering the cotton to my skin. I felt sexy as I took a picture of myself, drenched and full of longing. It was the first modeling assignment I had ever enjoyed, the first time I could remember feeling completely comfortable in front of a camera. I sent it to him with the subject line “Ask and ye shall receive.”

It quickly became a compulsion, taking and sending photos of myself to this man, and eventually, he asked me to stop. “This isn’t helping either one of us,” he wrote, but that wasn’t true. Yes, it was frustrating that we were thousands of miles away from each other, that I was married, that we couldn’t do anything about our attraction; yes, it was stressful to vigilantly erase all the photos and messages from my phone; yes, I felt guilty, but it was helping me, immeasurably. At 45, it was helping me see myself as beautiful, unabashedly beautiful, for maybe the first time in my life. It was helping me see myself as someone worthy of desire, someone worthy of the lens. Something I hadn’t even known I had wanted.

Michael and I separated, and I finally rendezvoused with the man I had fallen for. I let my expectations billow, let my heart get soundly broken. Michael and I reconciled a few months later. The separation ultimately proved to be good and eye-opening for our marriage; Michael and I each grew stronger as individuals during our time apart, and are stronger and more appreciative of each other now as a couple. I’m grateful he’s been so patient and forgiving, although my lapse continues to haunt us both.

Michael often tells me how beautiful he finds me now, how much he desires me, and while I love to hear this and know his words are sincere, I don’t feel beautiful the way I did for a stretch of time last year; I no longer see myself through that same incandescent lens. Now if I take pictures of myself, the thing I see most often is you, Mom. That self-conscious, hopeful look you would get when you had your picture taken. Your hope that the camera would capture the woman you wanted to be; your hope that your best, most glorious self would shine through, that the perfect paragon (another synonym for “model”) of Arlene June Baylen Brandeis would finally show herself; your self-consciousness making it impossible for the ideal you to fully come to the surface. It makes me sad that I can see this in my own face now.

***

The owners of The Castle have kept most of Pitruzello’s decor–all the great old shiny booths are still there–but they’ve neutered the David statues, lopped their penises right off, leaving crumbling swaths of concrete between their legs. As uncomfortable as those penises once made me, seeing them destroyed disturbed me even more. Desire is dangerous–I get that now, I get that fully–but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. We have to learn how to live with these messy, pining bodies of ours. I thought maybe the new owners were religious, averse to overt displays of flesh, but they seem to have no problem with the female body; the restaurant features belly dancers a few nights a week. I may in fact become one of those dancers–my friend who invited me to be part of her troupe has approached the owners about performing there. Wouldn’t that be wild if I were to dance in that space, belly bare again decades after I donned that little sailor suit? I would be much more comfortable moving between the tables now; I’m never more at home in my skin than when I dance.

Still, I can’t stop seeing the ghost of my younger self walking around the restaurant in that black nightie and cheap pumps, Band-aids on her nipples, head jutting forward, uncertain about every step. So much of that girl is still in me. That girl is trying to be you and trying not to be you in equal measure. That girl never went to finishing school. That girl will never be finished. That girl still feels awkward much of the time, is still unsure how to be a woman in the world. That girl doesn’t know how to be your daughter, especially now that you’re gone. She can’t save you anymore; she knows now she never could. All she can do is unwrap the scarf from her own throat. The scarf you had knotted there so she could become Linda for the Spiegel catalog people, a name she later learned means “beautiful”. Linda has had more of a hold on the girl than she had realized.

The girl looks in the mirror at her bare neck. It is not a girl’s neck anymore; it is a middle aged woman’s neck now, starting to crepe and droop–it is the part of her body that shows her age the most; that and her hands, which now look like yours, topped with ropy blue veins.  The girl tries not to cringe; she forces herself to look past the loose skin and see the pulse, the lifeblood ticking there.  The pulse you wrenched silent in your own neck, your neck whose looseness caused you so much angst. The girl doesn’t want to inherit your angst. She doesn’t want to care whether other people find her beautiful. She takes a deep breath, feels the air whoosh into her body. She wants to keep her throat wide open; she wants to use her throat to live.

GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt). She served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014 and currently teaches in the low residency program at Antioch, and is serving as Distinguished Visiting Professor and Writer in Residence at Sierra Nevada College.

6 responses to “Role/Model”

  1. Goldberyy Long says:

    Gorgeous! Complex, moving, and riveting.

  2. Gayle!! Just wow. You are a gift.

  3. Maggie May says:

    This was a heart wrenching, boldly honest read. Wonderful work.

  4. Shelley says:

    I never see a child in an ad without thinking, what a sad beginning for a life. And what parents.

  5. Suzy Vitello says:

    Wonderful essay. Heartbreaking. Real.

  6. Wow. So beautifully written and honestly spoken.

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