The nakedness wasn’t what kept Daniel riveted behind the clear glass beads hanging in the archway to Martha’s studio. Nudity was a constant in his life. Neither Henry nor Martha hid their bodies from their son like his friends’ parents did. That’s why his friends liked to hangout with Daniel. His house provided plenty of chances to see tits and ass because there were no interior doors; even the bathroom was an open space.
“Every area of an artist’s life needs to flow,” said Martha. She painted nudes; her signature medium was a blend of watercolor and charcoal.
Daniel grew up playing at the feet of nude models, so the naked man in Martha’s studio was no big deal. What arrested Daniel’s fifteen-year-old self was Martha. She was mounted on top of her model, Chris, who was on his back on a haphazard pile of comforters. Her skin was flushed and luminous under the strategically placed lighting instruments, where Chris moaned and Martha massaged her breasts and pinched her nipples.
A rush of heat overtook Daniel; he was about to retreat when Martha’s gaze shifted to him. Her intensity made him flinch. She smiled. Not like she would for a selfie or holiday greeting card. The corners of her mouth rose in a whisper of welcome, and her eyes beckoned— like some goddamn Victoria Secret model— then she refocused on Chris.
Martha channeled her energy towards Chris not because she was in the midst of a torrid affair. Martha didn’t have affairs or get bound up in love. Martha engaged in sex because orgasms were damn satisfying, and sometimes it was the only way to extract the emotion she desired from her models, male or female.
Chris grabbed Martha’s ass and raised his torso to suck her tits. She encouraged him to bite harder, but what excited her more was Daniel’s presence. She never imagined a witness could be so stimulating.
“Yes,” said Martha. Her palms clamped onto Chris’s shoulders, and the two of them pitched back into the comforters. “That’s it.” She grabbed Chris’s wrists, pressed them over his head and dismounted.
“What the—” said Chris.
“Don’t talk, don’t move.” Martha picked up a charcoal drawing stick and attacked the canvas.
Chris’s face exploded with emotional shifts.
Daniel’s own emotions were an indecipherable storm. He hoped once Chris calmed down, he would too. Daniel was getting hard.
Chris bolted to his feet, muscles taught, penis eager to finish.
Martha laughed. “Come in, Daniel. Chris is leaving.”
The model looked at Daniel then finished dressing. “Did you ever have scruples, Martha? Ever?”
“Probably not,” she said.
Chris exited through the beads without looking back.
Martha called after him. “You were great. Tomorrow then?”
After a substantial pause, Chris answered from the hall. “Text me.”
Martha glanced at Daniel. He was using a script to cover the front of his jeans. If he wanted to succeed as an actor the way she succeeded as an artist, she needed to break him of embarrassment— another time. “Do me a favor? Toss me my sweater.”
His mother’s sweater was a long, nubby, grey buttonless cardigan. She wore it as a coat, a robe and whenever she wanted to feel cozy, often choosing it over a blanket when she slept. Daniel supposed she washed it, but it always smelled like Martha. He inhaled deeply before handing it to her.
“Thanks.” She smiled her mother smile. “Be a dear and take Chris’s place.”
Daniel often stood in for models. He did so fully clothed. Martha never asked him to pose naked, but today he wasn’t sure.
“I’m asking today, not tomorrow,” she said.
He dropped the script, assumed Chris’s last position on the comforters and replaced the model’s anger with lust and fear. Daniel was afraid, not of Martha, but that Henry might be right
Henry usually swung between awe-inspired and indifferent when interacting with or discussing Martha, but over dinner tonight he sounded angry, just like Chris.
“You’ll never meet a more passionate or talented woman than your mother,” said Henry. “But the only person she cares about is Martha.”
That’s why Daniel came to the studio; he needed to prove Henry was wrong. And he’d succeed because Martha liked hanging out with him. She never told him to “go away” when she was working. They were an artistic duo: Martha painted while Daniel rehearsed. Sometimes she would improv difficult scenes with him or help him run lines. Martha’s world wasn’t all about her; she loved Daniel too.
“You look worried,” said Martha. “What’s up?”
Daniel exhaled and smiled. See, Henry was wrong. His mother always made time for him. Henry was just jealous Martha didn’t spend as much time with him.
“Saturday is my audition,” said Daniel.
“Need a monologue coach?”
“Okay, this is the moment—”
“No.” Martha came out from behind the canvas. The sexual overtones were gone, but her intensity remained. This was the mother Daniel was sure of.
“If you need to explain you’ve already lost the audience,” she said. “Grab on to the turmoil of the moment and go.” She returned to the canvas and the charcoal strokes resumed.
Without moving, Daniel spied the Blood Wedding script on the floor. The monologue he was using from the script was memorized, so he didn’t need to look at it. But his habit was to open the script to the scene he was entering as a precaution or superstition, depending on how the performance was going, or how high the stakes were for an audition. Saturday’s audition was huge. The head of drama at Julliard was directing the Lorca play. At fifteen, Daniel was too young to apply for Julliard and most likely for the role, but impressions lasted.
The charcoal strokes stopped. Martha was waiting, and Daniel knew waiting was not her forte. He closed his eyes, thought of his character’s love for the girl he runs away with and launched into the monologue.
“What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue. Because I tried to forget you and—”
Something shoved his left hip. He opened his eyes. Martha’s foot was plastered there. She never stopped him this soon. She would say nothing until he looked at her, but he didn’t want to see her disappointment. And after what he’d experienced earlier, he was afraid his gaze would linger over her body that wasn’t covered by the sweater. Martha shoved again. His eyes met hers.
“What was that?” she said. “I couldn’t stand to listen because you weren’t listening. You passed that milestone in acting ages ago.” She withdrew her foot.
Daniel scanned the exposed line of her body from the sweater’s neckline to its hem about six inches down her thigh. He should’ve never lain down, never watched, never tried to prove Henry wrong. He sat up to crawl out of the comforters. Martha’s hand met his right shoulder. His gut told him to brush it off and run, but the warmth of her hand made him sit down. She joined him.
“You’re acting like you don’t give a shit.” she said.
“Do you?” He bit the inside of his cheeks to squelch angry tears.
Martha’s face went as grey as her sweater. Her eyes searched his face like she didn’t know him. He thought she might go back to the canvas, then the softening came. It was instantaneous, but for Daniel those seconds— that shifted his mother’s energy and made her appear younger and more beautiful than ever— seemed to stretch beyond time. This is how Daniel would remember it, because the softening amped his awareness and erased his fears. This moment was about to change his life. How wasn’t important. All that mattered was the unqualified warmth emanating from his mother that proved how much she cared and believed in him.
“I’m not the kind of woman who plans for children,” said Martha. “They’re such an inconvenience. And as you know, I’ve changed nothing about my life to accommodate you.” She repositioned herself.
She was closer now. Her legs splayed out around him, exposing more of her body; this, he didn’t mind; it felt familiar. Her hands cradled his face.
“You’re precious to me,” she said. “The first time you moved inside me was the day I finished my original charcoal watercolor. Your life force was the blessing I needed to trust myself as an artist.”
Her hands moved down his body, exploring the shape of him with a gentle, confidence that aroused. It was wrong, this feeling, but he didn’t want to offend, or lose her like Henry had.
Martha saw the absence of fear in Daniel’s eyes and recognized no moment was better suited for the transformation they both desperately needed. “You made me listen. You were an actor even then. And I knew the best thing I could do was teach you how to be fearless.” She rubbed his thighs; kissed his cheeks.
Consumed by another wave of heat, Daniel removed his shirt. Martha placed a hand on his chest. He lay back and reclaimed Chris’s position. Approval flooded her face and proved to Daniel that Henry was not only wrong, but he didn’t know Martha at all. She wasn’t selfish. Everything Martha asked of Daniel was for his benefit, so he would grow into an artist worthy of recognition, just like her.
She removed his pants and laid them in a quiet crumple on the floor. With only a few strokes of her hand, he attained Chris’s eagerness. He wanted to hide and hold her as close as possible. When she straddled him he closed his eyes.
“No,” she said. “You must stay with me.”
Tears washed his face. His breathing changed. His body moved with and without his consent.“Now, begin,” she said. “The Lorca piece.”
* * *
When Daniel woke the lights were off, and the pink wash of dawn shone through the skylight above his head. But where was Martha? He put on his pants and padded through the house. He found no sign of her, not even in Henry’s room— for that— Daniel was grateful.
Henry snorted between snores then rolled from his back to his stomach.
“Your father has talent, desire and no balls. That’s why he lost his job as a radio host and works as a handy man.”
Daniel usually ignored Martha’s throwaways about Henry because he wasn’t sure Henry was his real dad. Martha was a lot of things, but June Cleaver she was not. His stomach convulsed; he bolted for the toilet and upchucked the previous night’s dinner. After gargling and a thorough brushing, he returned to the studio and stood in the spot where his world unspooled.
The monologue welled up inside him. Daniel stepped through the beads like he was walking on stage. The monologue poured out, this time without tears. Once the fire of the words subsided, he crossed to the covered canvas, removed the post-it Martha had placed on the cloth before she left— she was gone, of this he was certain— and unveiled the painting.
The intimate beauty of his likeness slapped Daniel’s heart. His vulnerability pulsed on the canvas and stirred within him a depth of emotion he didn’t know was possible until last night. Last night with Martha— when she made good on her promise to teach him the meaning of fearlessness— was also a thank you for the years of inspiration he had given her.
Daniel read the scrawl on the post-it; the last three words Martha would ever offer him.
Now we’re even.