I’m inking up a fish, concentrating on each scale. A faint breeze tickles the back of my neck.
“Stop sneaking up on me, Emilio,” I say, not losing focus on the fish. A koi with tail gracefully twisted to the left and feathery fins.
“Sorry Monique.” I hear his steps as he backs away.
Now I need to press the rice paper onto the fish and mush it with my fingers to get an accurate impression. When the black ink dries, I will wash over it with pale orange watercolor.
Lately I’ve been drawn to Gyotaku, the Japanese art of fish painting. I have to confess that I’m disgusted by dead fish, so I use plastic models. A real artist would probably use real fish. I carefully peel the paper off the fish. The head’s not bad, but the tail doesn’t look right.
Giving up for now, I enter my living room, expecting to see Emilio sitting on my sofa, right ankle resting on his left knee, so his legs make a square shape. I sketched him like that a few days ago. He’s not there, however. Probably I should have at least turned around before, to say hello. It’s not like my fish couldn’t have waited. I splash water on my face, grab my keys and head out to find him. I have a few hours before the dinner shift at Fandango’s. Waitressing’s a drag, but the tips are good.
When I arrive at Emilio’s building, he and Big Red are coming out the door. They have the little guy, Alonze, with them as well. Alonze is not a kid, he’s just really small for a guy–5 feet–a bit shorter than me. Big Red? He looks like a Viking. I don’t know what it is with these guys, they like to travel as a pack.
“Hey. Going to Bread’s. Want to come?” Emilio tosses the invitation casually, as if he doesn’t care if I come along.
He doesn’t stop, kiss me, or even touch my arm. That’s okay. I know it’s because I didn’t have time for him earlier, and he doesn’t want to seem too needy. Emilio and his compadres are now elbow-to-elbow on the sidewalk, hustling along, tallest to shortest, Emilio in the middle.
“Sure,” I say, and trail along behind them.
Bread’s apartment is majorly cool. It’s the whole top floor of an old factory–a one room loft. One wall is made of old plaster in various stages of paint and decay; it looks like a beautiful textured painting. My fish prints might look awesome on that wall, more life-like. I’ve been floundering around, flounder ha ha, trying to come up with a final project for my printmaking class.
I wonder if I could mention something to Bread about my work and his wall. But he speaks mostly in grunts and doesn’t make eye contact with me, although it’s hard to tell about the eye contact because his long blond bangs sweep down to his nose.
Emilio backpedals and swings an arm around my shoulders. He’s made his point; now we’re good. Emilio is easy to figure out, and that’s fine with me.
“We’re ordering Chinese,” he says.
Well, that‘s good. Eating with chopsticks will give me something to do while they’re plugged in. Usually, I entertain myself by sketching them, but I don’t have my drawing book with me. Maybe Bread will have something like paper, although his place is strewn with wires, monitors, laptops and, strangely, little cans of Play-Doh.
“Monique, can you get the door? We’re on the verge,” yells Big Red.
They’re always in the middle of something “crucial”. I’m worried they expect me to pay for the Chinese, but head towards the door. Bread swooshes past, fortunately, and takes care of the delivery. I catch a glimpse of blue eye and flash of smile coming my way.
Done with my moon-flower fried rice, which I ordered because of the name, I offer the last bits to Emilio. But no, he stays glued to his laptop, noodles dangling from his mouth. Big Red and Alonze have scarfed down their food and seem entranced by a desktop in the corner.
I stare at that plaster wall. It’s like peering into the depths of an ocean; the gritty sandy bottom, the stark cold middle, the warmer area on top, the froth on the waves. I chance talking to Bread. He’s still in the kitchen, trying to pluck the last grains of his rice with chopsticks.
“Bread?” I begin, dipping my head to peer beneath his hair.
He blinks his eyes a few times in response. I think.
“Hey, that plaster wall has amazing textures. I love it!”
Bread moves his head slightly. It could be an acknowledgement or even an agreement.
“Um. You know, I’ve been working on these Japanese fish prints called Gyotaku, and I have this weird idea that my fish might look pretty cool on your plaster wall.” Bread and I have never had a conversation before. I’m not sure we’re having one now.
Bread raises his head, blue eyes almost visible behind his bangs. He grunts. I have no idea what that means. Before I can figure out what to say next, Emilio calls Bread over to his laptop. Bread springs up, but I think he gives me a nod as he leaves his chair. I smile at him and decide to ask Emilio for an interpretation later.
There’s a piece of paper lying around, so I do a pencil sketch of Bread and Emilio focused on the laptop like two children peering through a magic window. Henry, Bread’s orange tabby cat, stares at the guys from a nearby stool. I draw Henry too. I think the sketch has possibilities, but I imagine the dismissive glance I would get from Anton, the “renowned” teacher at my art school. He usually walks past my easel, sniffs, and then settles in to peruse the work of his pet students, Mark and Jason. Fist under his chin, head jutting out, he examines their work with glowing eyes.
Later, Bread passes by on the way to the kitchen sink, stops, and spends a few moments staring at my sketch. He taps it twice hard with his fingers.
When I’m done with Fandango’s, I go over to Emilio’s and find him halfway through the front door. “Got to feed Bread’s cat, left you a note,” he says.
“Where’s Bread?” I ask.
“Had to do some emergency IT stuff at work. Come with me?”
“Sure.” Grabbing Emilio’s arm, I’m thinking I can take another good look at that wall.
When we arrive at Bread’s, Henry sidles up and rubs along Emilio’s leg.
“Hey Henry,” I say.
I walk over to the wall and draw my finger along the overlapping layers; wavy, smooth ridges in shades of pale maroon, rusty blue, and cream. The wall takes up one whole side of the loft. I love that no one has fixed it up into a normal boring wall.
I check out Emilio feeding Henry, and that’s when I notice the Play-Doh sculptures on the kitchen table. Five of them. In mottled white, pink and green, the sculptures look a bit like marble. I’m so surprised that I literally stop breathing, but when I start again, I tiptoe around and study each one. They are skillfully done and beautiful. They’re all figures of people, some entwined, some alone. I am amazed. My charcoals of nudes, my fish prints, the sketches in my journals all seem more than lame in comparison.
I have a feeling I may be witness to some kind of wonderful, weird, Bread secret. I stick out a finger and gingerly touch a sculpture; a girl, seated, rapturously blowing on a trumpet-like flute, face to the heavens.
“Kay. Done. Let’s vamoose,” Emilio calls, and I remember I’m not alone here.
“Emilio,” I say. “What th-? I mean, Bread?”
“Huh? Oh those, yeah. He’s always fooled around with dough. Pretty good, huh?”
“Pretty good? These are fantastic! They remind me of something but I’m not sure what.”
Emilio stands next to me and seems to be looking at the sculptures for a few moments, then says, “Yeah well, okay, let’s go.”
I want to talk more about the sculptures, the wall, my prints, but I’m tired and there doesn’t seem a way, so I don’t.
We go back to Emilio’s, fall into bed, cuddle a little, and drift into sleep. I dream of waves tipped with red, purple and all the colors of the world. I’m riding underwater on a huge grotesque fish. As it swims to the surface, I wonder if I’ve taken on the colors of the waves, but I wake up and never find out.
In the morning, I examine the sketch of Emilio and Bread and Henry the cat. It sucks. It’s so not life-like, so non-dimensional. I rip it up and drop the pieces in Emilio’s trash can.
On the way to class, I entertain myself with a daydream. I pile my sketchbooks on top of Anton’s desk, and while he watches in horror, I set fire to them.
“No, you can’t destroy your beautiful work,” he says, while he tries to put out the fire with his hands. A ridiculous fantasy but strangely satisfying.
It’s been a few days, and I’m becoming obsessed, not so much with the wall, but with the whole Play-Doh thing. The girl with the flute sticks in my mind as if I’ve seen her somewhere before.
The next chance I get, I finagle a way to hang out with the guys at Bread’s. The Play-Doh is in cans as usual. For some reason, I don’t want to mention the sculptures. It might be invading something. But still.
“Hey, Bread,” I say. “Mind if I fool around with your Play-Doh?”
His hair shakes slightly and a faint noise emanates from him, so I open a can. It’s the original child’s Play-Doh, pink, with the unmistakable cherry almond smell. I shape a little fish and attach small blobs for scales, and an eye. I think a kindergartener could do better.
Bread meanders over–to see what I’m doing, I guess. I hold out the fish on the flat palm of one hand and give a thumbs down with the other, then smush it. Bread’s mouth compresses into a line. He takes the dough and swiftly fashions it into the delicate likeness of a unicorn. Then, with an undeniable wink, he closes his fingers around the unicorn, pushes the Play-Doh back into the can, and returns to computer-land.
I plop back into a chair by my sketch book and find myself staring at Bread, looking for some non-computer give-away in his persona.
Emilio and I walk back to his place, his arm around my shoulders as I slump against him.
He stops, turns me toward him and jangles my trapezoid earrings with his index finger. “Monique?”
I tell him it’s Anton. I tell him it’s that obnoxious customer who leaves pennies for a tip. I don’t even know.
“You don’t have to stay in art school, you know,” he says.
“Ugh. You sound like my father.” I push away his finger.
Dad was always so sympathetic it was annoying. I need a push, not an out, but I can’t explain that to Emilio, him being the kind, sympathetic, sort himself, though I do love that about him.
“Indian food?” he says. I also love that he always thinks food will fix anything. Maybe he’s right.
So we go out. The beaded curtains, Christmas tree lights in July, and warm curry smells take me out of my funk. The samosas don’t hurt either. I doodle with a red pen on my napkin. Nothing in particular. Shapes resembling pillows and lanterns.
For days I try to work on my art, but I can’t get into my fish prints. I’m irritated, because I’m thinking more about Bread’s art than my own. Why did those sculptures look so familiar?
I want to see them again. I need to see them again. One consisted of two nude figures in a sensual dance, the woman’s lower body flowing into a long mermaid-like rippled skirt. Another was a figure, imploring, arms outstretched; horribly sad, but beautiful. I walk over to Bread’s apartment. I will go crazy obsessing about those sculptures otherwise.
Bread answers the door. “Is Emilio okay?” he asks with a shake of his head.
This is about the longest sentence he’s ever said to me, and at first I’m taken aback at the question, but then realize how it must look strange, me coming there on my own. I really only know Bread through Emilio. The unspoken group rules don’t include me having my own relationship with Bread or the others. I’m just the friendly girlfriend of Emilio, who tags along sometimes and sketches them.
“Oh, no. He’s fine. Hey, I have to ask you something.”
Bread stands still, doing nothing, as if inviting me in would never occur to him, so I walk through the door.
Inside, we stand there, awkward. “Can we sit down?” I ask, and so we sit at the kitchen table.
“I’ve been thinking about your so cool wall, and…”
I start again. “Don’t know if you know, but I came here the other night with Emilio when he had to feed Henry. And, and I saw these Play-Doh things. The sculptures. The thing is…wow…I mean…wow…those things you made… They’re awesome!”
Bread’s mouth opens a little. I want to brush his bangs away so I can see his eyes.
“So what’s the story? How do you make those? You don’t crush them back in the cans do you? You have a secret studio or something?” I realize I should probably stop talking and give him a chance.
“They’re copies,” he says.
Something flicks on in my head. “Copies. Oh, they’re Rodin’s, not yours! Oh. No. I don’t mean that you couldn’t have…”
Bread goes to the kitchen area, opens a door and beckons me into a small pantry. The top three shelves are covered with Play-Doh sculptures.
“Not Rodin’s. Claudel’s.”
I stare at Bread’s eyes right through his hair. “Camille Claudel!” I shout. “How could I not have known.”
I’m flabbergasted to think Bread even knows about Claudel.
We stand in the pantry, quiet for a few moments. “Could we maybe bring one down?” I ask.
Bread gestures towards the shelves, so I carefully take the girl with the flute to the kitchen table. “I’ve seen photos of Claudel’s sculptures. They’re magnificent,” I say. “I’ve read all about her.”
Camille Claudel was Rodin’s lover. It’s the saddest story ever. She became paranoid and crazy, and when she was only forty-nine years old, her family dumped her in a mental asylum for the rest of her life. She was super talented. She could have been as famous as Rodin. As a fellow woman, I’m feeling guilty that I thought of Rodin first, and didn’t recognize her work right away.
We stand together silently. I wonder how Bread found Claudel. Bread, a man whose words seem stuck inside him, inspired by a woman born over a century ago. A woman trapped in her culture, trapped in her genius, trapped in her mind and trapped, actually, behind walls. In old photos, I’ve seen her blazing eyes. Her eyes seeing beauty, creating beauty. Bread sees what her eyes saw. That’s how he can make what he makes.
“You really are an artist, Bread. I mean, you know,” I say.
Bread swallows, his head tilts down for a moment, then back up. “You make prints?” he says.
“Well, yeah, I guess.” I start to feel like I’ve been at Bread’s too long. Someday I’ll ask to see all his work, but now it’s time to go. I’m pretty sure Bread wouldn’t mind if I put a fish print on his wall, but my fish seem pretty puny compared to his figures.
“Hey Bread, I’ve got to get going. Thanks for…” I say.
He bobs his head.
I slink home, thinking about Bread’s work. The flute player sits in my mind, every curve full of meaning. A girl in love with music all the way to the sky. How can I make my fish more dimensional, I wonder. Maybe I should get my own playdough and practice some real 3-D. Maybe I could get Bread to show me some tricks.
A hot heavy rain falls on the city streets, soaking me. Then it’s over and steam rises from the sudden sidewalk puddles. Neon reflections shimmer on the wet streets; apricot, burnt orange. Great colors for fish, actually.
It’s Saturday and neither of us have work. We’re lounging around in Emilio’s kitchen. I’m munching on caramel popcorn from a huge bag; he’s on his laptop. The popcorn is sticky so I push pieces together making a vase-like shape, trying for something, though I’m not sure what.
“Hey Emilio,” I say. “Let’s have Bread over to dinner sometime! We could come to my place even.”
“Okayyy,” Emilio closes his laptop and looks at me.
“We’re always at his place, you know. It might be nice for him to be invited somewhere else for a change.” I pull apart my creation, dropping several kernels on the floor. “Besides. I want to talk to him about art.”
“Huh? Like his sculptures?”
“Yeah. I went to see him yesterday.”
Emilio puts his laptop on the sofa and stands up. “What? Why?” His face wears a perplexed little boy look he gets sometimes. He grabs the bag of popcorn.
“Because of his sculptures.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I am telling you.” I grab the bag back from him and perch on the kitchen counter. “His sculptures are Claudel’s. He’s got them all in his pantry.”
“What?” Emilio crosses his arms in front of his chest. I throw kernels of popcorn at him, one piece at a time. They bounce off his nice solid stomach.
“Camille Claudel. She was Rodin’s mistress and student. You know Rodin, right? The Thinker? The thing is, she was a sculptor too. Like Rodin. Better even, some say.”
“Okay. You and Bread have a thing? With his Play-Doh?” Emilio’s arms are crossed even tighter.
“Me and Bread? A thing? Yeah right.” I jump down from the counter and put my hand on the x of Emilio’s crossed arms. “But I did actually have a conversation with him. Words, Emilio. He spoke some words.”
Emilio’s arms fall to his sides. He shuffles around, smooshing the dropped popcorn with his slippers and then kicks it around.
When I feel like Emilio’s about done shuffling, I say, “I sort of want to see if he’ll talk more. Maybe he will if you’re around.”
“Yeah, well. Bread’s always been something of a genius. People don’t appreciate him cause he’s so quiet.” Emilio comes closer to me.
I reach up to touch his cheek. “You mad I went to see him?”
“Yeah.” Emilio wraps his arms around me. I feel his big warm body. I know he’s not really mad. He’s such an easy going sort of guy. Never holds a grudge.
“What would we have for dinner?” he says.
So, of course we decide to have all the guys to dinner at my place, not just Bread. Which is really fine with me, anyway. Would have been a little awkward with just Emilio, Bread and me, if Bread didn’t say much. Yeah, I had wanted to “talk” with Bread about “Art”. But like many of my ideas, they don’t seem as great, once I think about them realistically.
Since I’m really not that much of a cook, Emilio’s bringing over some pizza. Before everyone comes over, I torment myself about hanging some of my prints. I sort of want Bread to see them, and I sort of don’t. I end up putting a silvery pink trout on the refrigerator so as not to make it too formal.
The guys fill the living room, where we balance pizza and salad on our laps. I’m not really interested in their conversation since it’s mostly computer talk, but I love the way Big Red stretches his oversize body on my couch while Alonze perches on the edge, nibbling his pizza like a little mouse. Emilio’s curls cover the side of his face and tremble when he takes a bite. I finger the shades in his auburn hair: wine, rust, copper, cinnamon, sienna. I imagine sketching the lines of Bread’s body as he curves over his plate, his head ducking slightly. I feel relaxed with these guys. It’s the opposite of how I feel at school.
Sometime in the evening, Bread traces his finger along my fridge trout. I take it as a small appreciation of sorts. I don’t feel the need to ask him about it. I think of the words spouted in artist’s statements. The sort we’re supposed to write in class. Jeremy Blake juxtaposes the concept of human androgyny with urban architecture using blah blah blah.
After the guys leave, I take out my sketchbook and work on an outline of Emilio. Pretty easy as he doesn’t move much once he’s hooked to his screen. His hands hover over the keyboard like intertwined fish.
Tomorrow I’ll add paint. The scales of one fish will be pink and glittery, the scales of the other– black and silver. Maybe I’ll paint my own background; a wall of silver and green waves. The struggle is to make roundness and life out of something flat. The struggle is to portray the beauty and terror of the ocean. “I love you, Emilio,” I say.