14 Mar From ‘Scarlet Redemption’
The invite comes to my inbox. Richard Aleksei’s new show is opening in Los Angeles. I click on the attachment. It’s a flyer for the show, a black and white image of a woman. She laughs into the camera, head thrown back, arms crossed. A dusting of sand on gleaming wet skin. Bold thighs and lush curves. It’s called Joy.
She is magnificent. Unafraid. Unapologetic. She’s wholly and truly alive, and issuing you with the bold invitation to rejoice with her and in her.
She is beautiful.
She is me.
I stare at it and feel sick.
I hate Los Angeles. The airport alone is enough to have you wishing you were somewhere else. Anywhere else.
I get a cab straight to the gallery. I’m only here for the day. I don’t want to stay in this awful town for any longer than I have to. I’ve purposely chosen to come in the middle of the day because I want to slink in unnoticed, take a furtive glimpse of my picture on the wall and then get the hell outta there. After taking a photo of course. I need visual evidence that I was once a cover model.
But there’s a crowd at the doors. Not moving, just standing. “What’s going on?” I ask a random woman in the line. “Something happened to the show?”
She gives me a funny look. “This is the line. We’re waiting to go in.”
Seeing my puzzlement, she says, “Haven’t you been to an Aleksei show before?”
“No. This is my first,” I confess.
“They’re always packed out,” she explains.
“But it’s been open for a few days already.”
Disbelief with a generous serving of art snobbery. “It’s Aleksei. Every piece sold by the end of the first day.”
Oh. I don’t know whether to be hyped that someone has bought my picture – or sad because it means there’s no hope I can buy it (for a much much discounted pity price) when nobody wants it.
Finally it’s our turn to get inside the doors. Another crush and wait in the outer reception area. A group of people exit in a rush of expensive perfume. A man in a suit (really? A suit? On a day like this??) brushes past me in the crowd and mumbles an automatic apology. But then he looks at me and there’s a flash of something – recognition?
“It’s you,” he says. Surprise and something else. Something admiring. He turns to his friends. “It’s her!”
And then there’s a truly surreal moment. A flurry of exclamations, handshakes, congratulations and generous praise. ‘Beautiful…stunning…so much celebration…exquisite…perfect model…Aleksei’s truly outdone himself this time…’
And then another man who exudes a sleaze vibe nudges my arm and says, “Where’s the lucky man? I’d ask you out for a drink but he probably wouldn’t like it.”
I have no idea what they’re talking about. I’m flustered and clueless, I smile inanely, shake hands and smile some more. I’m just grateful that I wore the green wrap dress and let Nina do nice things to my hair. Otherwise nobody would be able to connect me with Richard’s picture.
“Thank you,” I say. “I’m glad you liked it.”
“I loved all of them,” sleaze-man says expansively.
All of them? What’s he talking about?
Then I step inside and I know.
On the wall across the room, are four giant canvases that take up the entire wall, floor to ceiling. Of me. Down another wall are five more. Of me. Facing a wall with five more. Of me.
On the beach. In the water. Sitting on the sand with the white lace of foam around me. Leaning against patterned lava rock and looking out to the horizon. He even captured that frenzied moment when the wave smashed into me – the exhilarated surprise on my face, my arms outreached to the sky with the deluge of water frozen all around.
It’s all there. On full display for everyone and their dog to look at.
My legs, just skimmed by the scrap of wet lavalava tied low on my hips. Kalo thighs and rugby-player calves. My breasts – covered thank goodness – but practically spilling out of the halter top. My belly, awww hell no, there it is, the generous swell and curve. No Spanx. No sucking in. No carefully angled camera shot. Just me. All of me.
I can’t breathe. I want to run and hide but I’m rooted to the spot. Panic chokes. Shame paralyzes. I want to cry. How could he do this to me? How could he put me on display like this? I want the ground to open up (really big) and swallow me.
There’s a press of people behind me so I can’t back out of there. A stand of greenery calls to me from a corner. Temporary sanctuary. I go for it, head down, and then stand there trying not to cry, trying to calm the shaking. Deep breaths.
You can do this. Don’t fall apart. In a minute and then get the hell out of here.
I start making my way back to the door, not looking up, using the paper program to shield my face. I overhear snatches of conversation on all sides. Some discussing the photography with technical words I don’t understand and others gushing about the model.
“The symmetry…the lushness…joyous…wild…free…freedom…unashamed…happy…so beautiful…natural…”
After only a few steps, the shame and panic have subsided and in their place is something else. A surprised kind of awe.
They like them. They really like the pictures.
I remember that day. Richard’s directives and reassuring words. But more than that, I remember Jackson. His smile. Coaxing a smile from me, putting me at ease, transforming that afternoon from something painful to something lighthearted and fun. Joyous.
Of course. It made perfect sense now. Joy.
I think about Jackson and I want to cry.
Then I round the corner and there he is. The broad arms, the strong sure lines of his torso, the dancing light in his eyes as he laughs down at me with his hair clinging to his forehead. I come to a standstill. All the pictures in the exhibit are of me. Except for these three. Richard has captured three perfect shots of Jackson and I. Together.
One of us from a distance, while we’re sitting in the shade of a tree. We aren’t looking at the camera, totally unaware. I must be talking because I’ve got my hands up, one of my crazy hand motions forever caught on camera while I blather on about something intense. Jackson is looking at me. Even in the removed profile, the expression on his face is unmistakable. He looks like a man entranced. By every ridiculous word coming out of my mouth. Which can’t possibly make sense.
The second print is of us in the water. He’s just pulled me up out of the churning foam and I’m a drenched mess with my shirt clinging to everything I don’t want it to. But I’m laughing. He has his arms around me and I’m leaning back against his chest – laughing. Looking straight at the camera, utterly delighted and alive. And who wouldn’t be? With all that glorious man pressed against you, I ask? We look happy. Together. We look like we belong. Together. Which makes no sense.
But it’s the third print which knocks the air out of me.
Richard must have taken it right after Jackson tripped and fell in the shallows, with me in his arms. I’m lying on the sand, with Jackson above me, sinewed arms on either side of me as he holds himself poised above me. Neither of us is smiling. Because we’re staring into each other’s eyes. Oblivious to the world around us. Because we are well and truly lost in each other, like it’s the most perfect thing in the world to be lying on itchy sand on a beach in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We look like we’re in love. Which makes no sense. At all.
In the cab, through the bleakness of LAX and all the long way home, I am quiet. Thinking of a slideshow of black and white images. Yes I’m excited to be the star of a Richard Aleksei exhibit and proud that every single photo has sold, but more than that – I’m sad. Unbearably so. Because seeing Jackson and I together in blown-up proportions has confirmed what I’ve been mulling over in the back of my mind since I left Samoa.
I was wrong. So very wrong. Everything I shouted at him that awful day, everything I told myself after he’d left – all of it was lies. All of it came from fear. Because of my own stupid stubbornness, I’d lost him. Chased him away is probably a better word for it.
And no amount of cake is ever going to bring him back.