NEGATIVE SPACE • by Howard Cincotta

Cold light slants through the clerestory windows of the studio, accompanied by a burst of English madrigal music from the iPod player hidden in the corner.

With such a musical introduction, Deirdre expects angels to appear — but it is only the model, Clayton, naked and goose-bumped, stepping up to the podium.

He stretches and flexes alternate muscle groups — deltoid and trapeziums, femur and pectorals — snapping on an automatic thousand-yard stare, his buffed, dismissive pose a silent rebuke to the class for their ineffectual struggles with step aerobics and Pilates.

She hears whispering, followed by a giggle from Angela:  dark hair, nose ring, big-deal reputation from Parsons. His new favorite.

Deirdre slurps coffee as the class scrapes its easels into a semicircle. Clayton assumes a three-quarter stance, torso twisted. Then he shifts just enough that a thin shadow blots an eye, slashes his mouth, impales a shoulder. His initial perfunctory stance is now angular, almost menacing.

Deirdre has seen Clayton execute this subtle but dramatic transformation dozens of times, and she still can’t grasp the trick of it, the instinctual adjustment he makes to transform a conventional pose into a challenge, into theater.

“You look puffy,” she lies. “Another late night?”

“Opening night at The Loft. Come by. I could introduce you to some interesting men.”

“I’m overdrawn on men right now. Stay still.”

“For you, my sweet, as long as you want.”

“Needs and wants,” Deirdre mutters. The contrapuntal music of Thomas Tallis fills the room. For a moment she wonders if the music’s subliminal message is to depict Clayton as a minor deity momentarily descended as mortal. He would like that approach.

Deirdre’s charcoal sketch looks more like an evisceration than a life study — more scrawls of anger than a defined figure in space. A self portrait.

Don’t look at him directly, she decides. Look at the space around him instead. Define him by absence. After all, the disconnect, the remoteness have always been the heart of Clayton’s attraction to both lovers and artists.

When she looks up again, she sees that the sun has shifted enough that a nimbus of light gives him the expression of a dissolute angel who has relinquished salvation for a shorter but sweeter life of the flesh.

Deirdre used to comfort herself with the thought that one day he would grow as old and paunchy as a late-summer zucchini; now she understands that six-pack abs and exquisitely cut biceps and quads aren’t the point. When Clayton strips and strikes a platform pose, he seems to elevate and depart his body as if it were a insect carapace — and he is hovering just above himself, a disinterested spirit amused at the fierce struggle of these crouching artists to capture an essence that has already departed.

With age and fat, papery skin and softening muscles, Clayton will become an even more compelling subject, she now suspects — and continue to attract a procession of acolytes and artists to his life classes, his parties, his bed.

“Come by on Saturday,” Clayton says.

“Will Sonia be there? The Ukrainian. Blue hair. Red sneakers. Multiple piercings.”

“That’s Sophia. Sonia is the older one. Romanian. Ceramic jewelry. Earth tones. Runner.”

“I have to wash my hair.”

“Bring your greasy hair. I’ll introduce you as the artist who did the watercolor in the hall.”

“I don’t know which one you mean.”

She has lied again. Of course she knows the painting. Perhaps her best watercolor portrait ever: Clayton stands in the left half of the frame, nude of course, back to the viewer, looking as though he has just heard you calling his name, caught in a prism of light before turning and leaving.

Angela has pushed her easel forward, close enough that she could grab Clayton’s dick and give it a friendly hello. “I had a wonderful time last night,” she says. The red charcoal dust from her paper smokes the air.

Deirdre considers the angle of light falling on Clayton’s neck.

Skin and sighs are no longer enough. She needs to flay him, expose tendon and muscle and viscera. Let the blood flow and stain the floor as she draws the knotted fist of his beating heart.

Howard Cincotta is an editor with the Department of State where he writes short features for overseas audiences, largely in the Middle East and South Asia. His story, “Memories of Tuna Fish,” recently appeared in the Tampa Review, and he has two novels making the publishing rounds. His new novel, Circumnavigation of the Beltway, concerns a man who drives at night, talking to the ghost of his dead spouse. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

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