Today every stranger looks like someone I used to know. The bank teller looks like my second grade teacher, Mrs. Canales, the barrista at Peet’s looks like my ex-husband did back in the day, the lady in the park across the street looks like Eleanor. My god.
Eleanor? I haven’t thought of her in a long time.
See, I knew Eleanor through work. An older middle-aged woman, hefty, droll, reserved, maybe even a little shy—she kept to herself. I heard she was a widow, but she never talked about that, so I wasn’t sure if it was recent or even true.
Most of the people in our office worked as temps, me included, but Eleanor was a permanent hire—had been there for quite some time, too. She knew the ropes but she didn’t make anybody feel stupid for not knowing them. In fact, she might have been perceived as kindly if only she’d been a little warmer to the rest of us. But we didn’t mix with her much, treated her a little like a reference book, taking her down from the shelf when we needed her, leaving her up there unless there was a problem.
So it was weird when she asked me if I’d like to go out with her for a drink after work. I agreed only because I couldn’t think of a single excuse to get out of it.
“Um, where? Have you got a favorite spot?” I asked.
“No. I was hoping you knew of a place. I don’t get out much, but there is something I’d like to ask your advice about.”
“Cool. So, if we want some privacy, I think we should avoid Sal’s.” Only a block and a half from the office, Sal’s was jammed with coworkers at 5:02 every weeknight, becoming louder than a room full of five year olds on a sugar rush. “I’ll meet you at the Ripe Tomato instead.”
Brushing past the ferns, adjusting my eyes to the darkened room, I spotted Eleanor sitting on a barstool at a table built for two. I stopped by the bar to place an order for a white wine spritzer, and took my perch beside her. The barstool seat was so small that I wondered how much of Eleanor’s bottom hung over the sides. She definitely needed a wider saddle than most.
“Well, this is nice—” I started to say.
“—I had to ask someone,” she blurted, “and I thought you were probably the most experienced out of all you kids at work.
“Thanks, I think,” I stammered, “What do you mean?”
“Worldly, you know, not easily shocked. Hip.”
“Now you have my attention,” I said.
Oh, Christ, what the hell? I thought.
“Do you think I should…? ” then paused. “Can I get myself one more of these brown drinks before I tell you about it?”
As I waited for her to return from the bar, I thought about how glad I was to not be her. Middle-aged, tied to a crappy job, titillated by god knows what and asking advice from someone like me. Spare me, I thought.
She waddled back to the table with a plate full of happy hour pupus and gulped half her drink, then turned back to me licking the hot- wing sauce off one thumb. She began, “There was this ad in the paper. I skimmed over it, but then, when I was tossing the paper, it popped out at me again. It looked like an important somebody’s obituary. So I read it. Anyway, it was a job opportunity to model for a life-drawing class. The ad specified someone older, someone who could sit still for long periods of time, someone ‘Rubenesque.’ I thought, Jesus, that describes me perfectly.”
This monologue was the longest string of words I had ever heard Eleanor put together. When she stopped for air, I nodded encouragement.
“It had an address downtown, a loft really close to work, so I got my nail scissors and cut it out. I put it on the corner of the mirror in my bathroom and looked at it for days.”
“Did you call?” By then I’d finished with my first drink.
“No. I went there instead. The ad gave the time the model would need to be available so I just showed up. Do you want another drink?”
“Please. Let me get this round.” “Manhattan, right?” I hurried over so she didn’t have time to clam up.
As I clunked the drinks onto the tiny table, she grabbed her fast with a quick salute, “Cheers,” She sipped and plunged on, “So, I show up and there were about fifteen people, men and women, old and young, sitting down at easels around a platform. On the platform, there was a table with an unfinished sculpture of a woman’s torso, almost life size, but lumpy and rough. All fifteen hands stopped and thirty eyes looked at me as I walked in. No one said a word, but a youngish woman got up, handed me a bath towel, gestured to a sheet hanging by clothespins in the corner of the room. Another guy got up, moved the sculpture, and brought up a folding chair onto the platform. Everybody just looked at me expectantly and held onto their sticks of charcoal and grease pens.”
“What did you do?” I was beyond polite inquiry. My inner voyeur took over. Eleanor? Who would have thunk it?
“So here is the crazy part. I went behind the sheet, took off my clothes, wrapped the bath towel around me, walked out and took the seat on the platform. The young woman who had given me the towel came up, pulled off the towel, arranged my arms and legs, tilted my chin down, asked me to lift my right breast up a bit, rearranged my arm again and then took her seat. I heard drawing paper being lifted and replaced, then smelled grease and charcoal as they all starting stroking and rubbing.”
“Wow, Eleanor. So, you just got naked and posed. I am impressed.”
“Do you think I am nuts for doing this? I mean, I don’t have anyone else to ask. I don’t even really know why I’m asking you. But I need to get some kind of reality check on this. Is this crazy?”
Yup. I thought
What I said was, “How did you leave it? I mean, how long did you sit there? What did they say? Did they pay you? Did you look at the stuff they were drawing? “
“I sat still for about half-an-hour. Then they took a break and I put the towel back around me and went behind the sheet for a couple of minutes. Fifteen minutes later we did the whole thing over again for another hour or so. At the end, the young woman went around, held out a black fedora, upside down and people dropped bills into it. She handed the hat to me. I gathered up the bills and put them in my pocketbook. Later, I counted them sitting on my bed at home. There was $53. And a lottery ticket, a scratch off, already scratched and worth $2. I still haven’t cashed that in.”
“Did they say anything about coming back?”
“No. But somehow, I just know I am supposed to. Maybe because the little I did see of the drawings, they didn’t really look complete. So, I guess I just want you to tell me that it is okay to go back.”
“When do you go?
“Tonight. At seven. Just down the street.”
“Do you want to go?”
“More than anything I’ve wanted to do for as long ago as I remember.”
“Sounds trippy. Do it.”
“Why do they want a fat old woman like me? That’s what I can’t figure out.”
“You have a beautiful face, Eleanor, and maybe I haven’t seen it, but I bet you have an interesting body to draw.”
“Well, isn’t that what they say about all fat people, that they have beautiful faces? As to my body, I can’t even look at myself in a full length mirror with my clothes on, let alone off.”
Please, don’t make me visualize it.
“Sorry. True, though.”
“Go and be drawn. Go and be appreciated. Go.”
“I am. Three drinks and I’m ready.”
“Can I hear how it went?”
“Not at the office. Please not a word about this to anyone. God. Promise me. I would die if anyone knew about this.”
“Oh, of course. But I need to hear more about this.”
This is going to be tough to keep quiet about.
“Deal.” Eleanor weaved a little as we left the bar but seemed more alive than I’d ever seen her.
That’s how our weekly connection began. During the rest of the week, Eleanor faded back into her ghostly self at work. Wednesday nights, we would sneak off together right after work like secret lovers, back to “our bar” where Eleanor brought me up-to-date about her life as a nude model.
About a month into this escapade, Eleanor shared, “I saw a drawing last week that made me think. This young man, maybe 30, 35-ish, he put the model, me, that is, into an hourglass that was tilted about 45 degrees off the table. I looked like I was going to be poured out of the container. But the weird thing was, the hourglass shaped my body, made me see that I had defined curves, shoulders and breasts in the top half, a waist in the middle, my butt and thighs on the bottom. I liked my body there. Especially my boobs.” She smiled sheepishly at this last remark.
Soon after, maybe two weeks later, she said, “The best drawing today was me on a crucifix. Really. This artist, a woman who dresses like a parochial school teacher, real conservative, buttoned down, she puts me up on a cross. I was dressed in a shroud, my bath sheet, I guess. But the good part was my face. She made my face a study in anguish. I wanted to cry, seeing myself that way. I wanted to reach out and comfort me. I wanted to kiss my face.”
Our friendship deepened over the next while, in the bar only, never at work. We often traded embarrassing stories and confidences, like seat mates on a long Greyhound ride, certain that none of our conversation would ever reach the ears of anyone who mattered or would judge. I stopped having two different conversations with her, one out loud and the other in my head.
“There was this time,” she told me one night, “this time that a doctor told me I had beautiful breasts. He had me stand in front of him, bare from the waist up, with my hands on my hips, while he looked for any odd dimples or bumps, I guess. While I stood there, he said that I had beautiful breasts. I was shocked, but kind of proud. I never went back to him.”
“I think I would have. Just for the attention. ” I responded.
“Some people like their noses. Some their legs. Me, my boobs are my only claim to fame.” Eleanor spoke these words the three-drink-loudly kind of speaking, then sashayed out the door.
Many weeks later, she greeted me at the bar with a smile. I had never really seen Eleanor grin. It transformed her face. She became champagne, fermenting in a bottle on a rack in a cool, dark closet, then popping open and flowing sweet and bubbly. She was happiness in a glass.
“I have a date. I can’t tell you the last time I had a date. The hat girl, you know the one who passes the fedora around to collect my model fees, she put in a phone number on a paper with a little note for me to call. When I dialed the number, a very nice man answered and said he was the hat girl’s daddy. He asked me to meet him after class tonight, and go with him and his daughter to have an ice cream. We talked for a long time and he sounds really nice.”
Oh, brother. My head started talking to me again. My shit detector was flapping.
The next week, her report glowed. He was terrific, a widower, handsome, charming. She planned to see him again. Going Dutch for dinner. But mostly, she really liked his conversation.
“I don’t want romance but it is nice to have company. First you. Now him. And the drawings are incredible. I find myself in positions I could never picture myself. Yesterday my body, naked, lounged on a beautiful beach while I watched the sun set and sipped an umbrella drink.”
That is when I began to see Eleanor’s subtle changes at work. A smaller dress size, a new scarf, brighter lipstick, each made Eleanor more alive. At first, I was the only one who noticed, but others started commenting soon enough. The lunchroom buzz now included Eleanor, both in person and by reputation. It’s like someone took a marker and started outlining her voice and personality more boldly.
“What do you think about during all those hours you sit?” I asked one evening while we sipped on our second drinks.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I try to clear my mind so that the painters can impose whatever mood or context they want. I am only a vessel for their creativity.”
I burst out laughing. “You don’t have any fantasies?” I giggled.
“The fantasies come to me when I see their drawings. They put me into places I have never seen, but then I recognize myself there. Does that make sense?”
I didn’t respond to her question. I wanted to think about this. “Want another one?”
“Not tonight.” Eleanor waved me goodbye with a “Queen Mother” flutter.
As her unofficial agent, I became more and more involved in Eleanor’s transfiguration. Weekly reports of poses and drawings melted into months: six, nine, a dozen. At work, I was now a permanent employee, watching the temps come and go. A corporate soldier, a Non-Commissioned Officer instead of a Private. Eleanor, in her newfound confidence had become the Major-General. There were very few of us left there who remembered the old Eleanor.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“I have to eat more,” she told me one day. The group wants a round woman, not a stick. Pass me those peanuts.”
“Tough job, but someone has to do it.” I grabbed a handful myself.
“Do you think you will ever give this up and try something else for fun?” I spoke with my mouth full.
“Not a chance. This is as most life I ever hoped for. I would do anything to keep this going. Give my right arm? No, not that. I need both arms intact.” She was more than half-serious.
The drawings continued to give Eleanor an alternative universe, one in which she lived as a dashing princess in a tower or a four eyed Picasso bullfighter one week, then a naked horse rider the next. She traveled the world, incognito, her breasts, belly, thighs and butt placed on and in scenes, recognizable or not. I always left our bar sessions with the same feeling as I had when leaving a matinee, dazed and amazed that it was still light outside.
Listening to Eleanor’s faux life made me think about mine. It had been a long time since I had had a date. Fewer coworkers asked me along for after-work fun since my promotion to middle-management. I had climbed a couple of dress sizes and the bar stools no longer held my full load without some spillage. I’d better be careful or I’d be applying for a modeling job, not as a life-drawing subject but as an entire landscape.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
The night Eleanor fired me came as a complete surprise. She got to the bar before me, and greeted me with a wine spritzer for me and her usual brown drink in her other hand.
“I can’t stay long. Sit. Sit. ”
I straddle the bar seat, trying to get my girth situated properly. “Eleanor? What?”
“It started with a drawing, of course.”
“Of course. Good? Bad?”
“Good. Very, very good. The Fedora Girl, Jennifer, she drew a picture. It was my hand. Just my left wrist and hand. On the ring finger, there was a gold band. A black and white drawing with a gold band. The gold shined in the middle of the picture.”
“And how did…?”
“Don’t you see? It means her father, his name is George, it means he wants to marry me.”
“What? Wait. Did he say so?”
“Well, not yet, but he will.”
“This is kind of sudden. I thought you two were like occasional friends, not lovers. Have you been holding back on me?”
“No, no, but I’m certain this is the meaning.”
“Oh, Eleanor, I don’t know about that. It could be nothing. These drawings are just in the mind of the painter, don’t you think? This could be a stretch, interpreting the picture as a proposal from a man you barely know.”
“I’m sure of it.” Eleanor glared at me. “You don’t know how it is there. How could you? I am like a goddess to them. I am the center of their universe, those painters. I am, what is the word, indispensable.” And she believed it. Completely.
“Whoa. Wait. I’m not saying anything about that. Just that, well, Eleanor, that class is not real life, you know?”
“It is real to me. It is my real life. I’m not talking to you anymore about all this. Consider this good-bye.”
I felt punched in the gut.
Now what will I do for fun?
. . . . . . . . . . . .
But my termination didn’t last long. Two weeks had passed when she called me into her office.
“He hasn’t called.” She didn’t need to tell me who.
No sense holding back now.
“But why did Jennifer draw that?”
“Who knows? Did you ask her?”
“Of course not. We never talk.”
“Well, what do you want me to say?”
“Nothing. Just listen. For a change.”
“Not fair,” I yelped. “I always listen. I enjoy listening. Your life is fascinating.”
“My life is crap. Crap on top of crap. It’s worse than crap. It is pretend crap. But I’m about to change all that.”
“What? Tell me.”
“I don’t want to talk about it here.”
“So Ripe Tomato? Wednesday?”
“Sure.” But Eleanor did not sound sure at all.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
She wasn’t there when I got there. Two drinks later, at the time she usually left to go model, I walked out of the Ripe Tomato and have never been back.
She never came back to work either. The powers-that-be moved me into her office, gave me her assignments, and left me to carry on.
I had to clean out her desk, box things up, go through her files, and figure out where things were. That is when I found the first clue. It was crumpled into a tight ball and hiding in the dark under the desk, a lined yellow legal size paper. I smoothed the paper out and read,
Although we have had some fun, I think it is time to call it quits. Your phone call scared me. Don’t know how you could have thought that. I don’t work that way. Best to you, but don’t call again.
She had left some other personal items scattered around. There was the lottery ticket, the scratch-off from her first session. Still not cashed in. A few drawings, rejects most likely, some were recognizable, some had spare body parts: a breast, a foot, a ringless hand. One was a wrinkled eye in a fishbowl of all things.
God. Spare me.
Under the desk blotter, I found a receipt for an open plane ticket to Venezuela. Probably bought with her model fees. A lot of dough. But that much?
It still didn’t make sense. Did she leave because of her embarrassment at being rejected by Fedora’s daddy? That could not be the only reason. She still had the class, didn’t she? She was still round and full and desirable as a life model? Did she finally decide to get a real life?
I opened a drawer and found a second clue. It was dated the day before we were to meet at the Ripe Tomato.
Dear Ms. Rankin;
This is our fourth attempt to reach you. It is imperative that you contact our office regarding your breast biopsy. We will discuss the alternative treatments with you in person. Please call.
Dr. Michael Armstrong, M.D., FACP
. . . . . . . . . .
The last clue didn’t take long to surface. Her postcard got me thinking. A funny one addressed to everyone, a picture of a bunch of old ladies wearing coconut bras, sipping umbrella cocktails. The postmark was smeared and the signature unclear, but I knew it was from Eleanor. On the back was written. “Drinks on you. Literally.”
I called the bosses and they sent in the accounting bloodhounds. You can guess the rest.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The whole story took another odd twist about a month after we figured out that Eleanor had absconded with the money. A fine artist had a show; all of the pictures were of Eleanor. An art director for a famous advertising agency used these pictures in a campaign for an energy drink for postmenopausal women. It was the first of its kind, the drink itself, and the first time using a real person-shaped model. Eleanor’s face and body, discretely swathed, showed up everywhere for a while, on bus placards, on billboards, in magazine spreads. An article in the New Yorker called the campaign a seminal moment in our cultural history, making a middle-aged woman’s body a symbol of desirability. Lots of commercial campaigns followed suit, with Eleanor-like models. But that passed quickly and anorexic girls took center stage again.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I have settled into Eleanor’s office. I keep trying to train the temps, but I know they are finding me less and less relevant. Think they can look it up on Google instead of asking me. I’ve taken to shutting the door to my office after I come back from lunch. I use that quiet time to review the accounting system, telling myself I am just looking for the loopholes so no one else can take advantage of the company. Preventive maintenance, I guess you could call it. Not that the company has ever done anything for me.
Then I surf the vacation sites, just dreaming.
I can hear them out there now, those temps, hushing each other when they get close to my door. Afraid I might hear what they are planning for after work. Afraid I might come out and make them work. Or worse yet, ask them if I can tag along.
Oh, please. Spare me.