Tom was sliding the big pad of newsprint back into his file drawer when he heard the door, out of sight on the far side of the classroom, click open and close.
He paused to see if whoever it was would say something. Nope.
"Hello? Anybody?" he called out. "We're closed, and I'm getting ready to leave."
There was no response. Must've been a secretary looking for Briggs or checking why the lights were still on. He stuck his box with its little rectangles of charcoal in beside the pad and slid the wide horizontal drawer shut.
The clock above the big window said 7:30. Time for dinner.
He looked around the dimmed studio to see if anything was out of place. The stage and its props, in the center of the room, seemed fine. The DO NOT TOUCH sign was in plain sight, so they could take up the same pose on Monday. Really not looking forward to that, he thought.
There was one last spotlight shining down on the couch. He hit the switch and killed it.
Tom walked the circle of tall easels around the stage. No one had left any supplies or cups out. The boom box with its classical music tape was quiet. The coffee maker was off. Satisfied, he turned and left the dark half of the studio for the part still brightly lit.
He passed the partition between, stapled with flyers and postcards for upcoming campus shows and concerts. On its opposite side was the area where advanced-level students had their own spaces, then the informal open gallery where everyone put up works in progress for public critique. There was a man standing there, his back to the room.
"God!" he said, and felt his heart trip over itself. The guy, apparently also startled, spun and put his hand out to the gallery wall, almost touching one of the drawings hanging there.
Both of them smiled as they realized they'd only frightened each other.
"You scared the crap outta-" The student took a breath. "I didn't know you were in here. Watch your, uh..." Tom gestured at the guy's hand.
He pulled it away. "Sorry, sorry. I know how sensitive you all are about these things."
"No problem. Whoo. Can I help you?"
The guy shrugged. "I asked out front about getting my check for the week, and she said I should ask Mr. Briggs, she didn't have it. You seen him?"
"Oh, jeez, no, he's left for the day. I'm just cleaning up. You need a check for...?"
"I'm a model." At Tom's blank look he added "Honest. I uh, sat for you all today. I remember y-"
Tom slapped his forehead like in a cartoon. "Right, stupid! I mean, I'm stupid. I didn't-" he laughed. What a pickup line. "I didn't recognize you with your clothes on."
The model laughed politely. He'd heard it before. "I get that. So, you know where-"
"Briggs doesn't let students handle school money. But if he didn't trust the new girl with it either, maybe it's in his office. Come in here." Off the gallery was a short hall leading to the professor's tiny office. Tom flipped the overhead fluorescents on.
He scooted behind the desk and started leafing through piles of paper. "What's the name?"
"Greg. Gregory Wallace."
"Bond, James Bond," Tom said in a deep British voice, then thought how that must've sounded. He put his hand out. "Heh, I'm Tommy." They shook.
The piles on Briggs' desk were nothing but bluebooks and class schedules. "He gives me a little responsibility sometimes, but today I'm just the janitor. I don't see any checks, sorry."
Greg shook his head. "Not your fault. I could just use it today instead of Monday."
"Was it a lot?"
"A hundred or so."
Tom stood and switched the lights off. The model moved aside, to let him brush past out the door. "I'm in the wrong business. I'd love an extra hundred a week. 'Course, I'd have to drop all my classes to make time for it."
"Yeah, it's not really brain-surgeon type income. That's for four times a week in the middle of the day, for three hours at a time. But sitting on your ass all afternoon is still easier than the closing shift at Le Corbeau, and no one here is gonna pour boiling goose fat down your leg."
Once in the gallery again, Tom headed for the front door but Greg wandered back to the picture he'd been standing at when they got their scare.
"I feel bad Briggs left you in the lurch." Tom pulled his wallet out and peeked inside.
"This one is really good," Greg said, looking at a drawing of himself. "I mean I know it's not the subject matter or anything, so it must be the artist, right?"
Tom glanced up. "Do you want-" He was amazed at which one the model was pointing out. "That's mine. I did that one today."
Greg snickered. "Nuh-uh! I like it, and I have to tell you I hate looking at myself. You should sign it." For the first time he noticed Tom holding his wallet out. "What's, uh, did you say something?"
"Oh. Just that I did get paid today, and I thought you could use like a twenty." He shrugged. "A twenty's all I can spare, but-"
The model waved him off. "I don't want you doing that, man, you don't even know me and I don't know you, and Briggs'll pay me next week."
"Yeah, but if you can use it now- Wait, what do you mean you don't know me? Like I'm gonna give you a counterfeit bill or something."
The guy laughed. "No offense, I'm just making up excuses for not taking charity." Before Tom could say anything else he added "Right, it's not charity. Put it this way - I don't like being in people's debt."
"Okay, whatever. I still feel bad." He returned the wallet to his pocket. "Do you really like that one? I wasn't totally happy with it, and nobody else was either."
Greg seemed to study it a second. "Well, I do kind of, but it's very dark, isn't it? You can't really see much."
Tom looked closer. "Yeah. It's hard getting much detail with charcoal, it's like drawing with a powderpuff sometimes. And the parts that aren't in the spotlights get dark. Plus your face is at a bad angle. You look pissed off."
The guy was right, honestly. It was a mess.
In the picture the model was lying on the worn-out studio couch, one leg against the back of it and one arm over his head, the other arm and leg hanging over the edge of the cushions in front. His eyes were closed and his head was at an odd angle, half away from the viewer. The details, as they'd agreed, were lost. His fingers and toes were nothing but black smudges, and his facial features and the triangle of his privates weren't much clearer.
"I wish Briggs would let us set up the poses ourselves. Or at least that I was faster getting good spots to work in. Don did this exact same pose today and his was great. I need to change my area of concentration to painting or something."
Greg elbowed him. "Don't be so hard on yourself. Can I, uh..."
"Can I see some other stuff you've done?" Tom frowned, and for a moment he'd've sworn Greg was blushing.
"You mean, of you?"
The guy squinted and laughed. "No! I mean yes, if you have some, but not necessarily me."
Tom laughed. "Sure, you can see anything you want." He walked over to the horizontal files and pulled his drawer open. He took the newsprint pad and passed it to Greg. There were a few others on better paper underneath and he lifted them out too.
"Hey, these aren't bad." The model was sitting cross-legged on the floor, flipping through the drawings in the pad one by one. "I like this- Whoa, I really like this one." Tom moved to stand over his shoulder.
It was a forced perspective from between his knees, which were huge, back to his middle body, normal size, all the way to his shoulders and head, smaller in the background. It was charcoal, of course, the only thing soft enough not to tear the cheap paper, and somewhat dark but just enough. He'd gotten a good spot that day at least.
"Man, my tool is like enormous!"
Tom rolled his eyes. "I bet Picasso used to hear that all the time. Les demoiselles would come up and say, 'Mon hooters, zey are fantastique! Could you put zem both on ze same side now, s'il vous plait?'"
They laughed at that. Greg said "Come on, you know what I mean. That's not the most important thing, but get real. You know that's why people like looking at nudes."
"A lot of the time. Why else have them be naked? There are folks in clothes all over the place. Nude pictures're... As rare as nude people. I dunno. You get right up to them, and you..."
Tom guessed "Want to touch them? Like that drawing is really you right there, especially when everything is so big and in your face? I'll give you that one. Nude can be good."
Greg turned to the next, a close up of his torso with his face in profile and silhouette. "See, this one isn't the same. It's still good, right, but I don't want to lean in and do something dirty to myself like the other one. It's all above the waist, no johnson."
"Who calls it that? And anyway I disagree." Tom squatted beside Greg and put the tip of his finger on the center of the nipple in the drawing. He had left it a little rougher than he'd liked. "Here's the focus of the whole thing, since unfortunately there's no beaver."
"Wrong body part."
"I took Anatomy, I know what I'm talking about." He gently brushed the oval of black powder smoother, giving it depth and shadow, but leaving half of it untouched and highlighted. He swiped back and forth around the outside of that, shading the muscle the nipple sat on. Now the whole chest was more rounded and three-dimensional.
Then he took the black ash that had stuck to him and smeared a fingerprint-wide line straight down the figure's stomach. "See?" he said. "You don't always have to show everything. The line leads your eye where it wants to go - your eye anyway - and the rest is up to your imagination."
Greg turned his head to look back at him. "You messed up your picture."
"You were right, I wanted to touch it. And obviously it wasn't finished yet." He closed the pad but spread a couple of the better loose ones out on its cover. "There's plenty more. Seen enough?"
Greg got up on one knee. "Sure." He pointed across the room. "If you hate that new one so much, how would you change it?"
Tom gathered his drawings from the floor and stood. He shuffled them all into his drawer while he thought about an answer. "Hate is a strong word. I'd erase a bunch of it, for starters, so it was clearer." He picked up his chunk of kneaded eraser and walked over to the wall.
"I think it's too dark for that, though." He tentatively poked the eraser over the powder and only smeared it more. "Ugh. Okay, then I guess I'd try white ContÃ© crayon-" He caught himself. He hated shop talk.
The model was poking at the supplies in his open drawer. Tom said "Why do you ask? I mean, it's not like you have an investment in these or anything."
Greg shrugged. "What if I did? What if I told you I wanted to buy one?"
"I'd say you've been sniffing the spray fixative. One of the other students', yeah. Not mine, they all suck."
"No they don't. You're too hard on yourself." Greg scratched his nose, leaving a black smudge under it, and Tom snorted. Maybe thinking he was being laughed at, the model shook his head. "You're also too easy."
Tom took a rag off one of the advanced easels and tried to wipe at the smudge. Greg backed away. "Stay still. What does that mean, too easy?"
Greg let him rub the charcoal off. In a country accent he said "I ain't one'a them grad-you-ate students, or nothin'-"
"Shut up, have I acted like that with you?"
"Not really, except for 'demoiselles.' But don't get mad." He nodded toward the dark half of the room. "I see a lot more than people think I see from up there. I can tell the difference between the students who get into what they're doing and love it, and the ones who're killing time until they get their BAs and can start spending Mommy and Daddy's retirement money on graduate degrees. Usually in totally different departments like Business or Science."
Tom was quiet a moment. "And?"
Greg went on with less certainty. "Again, don't kill the messenger, but looking at your stuff it seems like you're not really... connected to what you're doing. That one of me on the wall, it's all about the black background and not the body. Like I said, you want some body in there, even if there is no beaver." He smiled a little.
Tom turned and slid his drawer closed slowly. "What if the negative space was what I wanted to stress?"
"You could draw some pillows with a black background. Why have a model at all?"
"That's a very good question."
He paused and tried to remember his reply that afternoon when Don had said pretty much the same thing. Later Briggs had agreed. "I'm not getting a BA. I'm on the BFA track."
"Oh, okay. So?"
"So, that means I'll be taking four more classes than I have to, five-hundred-levels, all in my area of concentration. That's another whole year extra, and not in Business. I'm taking my time, which is something I do when I work. I put more effort into things than some people do, so my stuff tends to be a little, uh, I don't know..."
Tom held on to the handles on his drawer. "Yeah, fine. Technical. Distant. You know, it's late. Is there- I mean, I don't want to keep you from whatever you've got going on tonight. If you want to, Graphic Design meets downstairs from six 'til nine, you could tell them their colors are muddy or something."
Greg scowled and threw up his hands. "I told you, don't get mad. I'm sorry but I listen to you students rip each other new assholes every week, over things like being deridiv-, rediv-" He started toward the classroom door.
He stopped. "Yeah. Or unobservant, or just plain bad. I didn't mean you were one of those BA people, only that there's degrees of-"
"Commitment?" Briggs' word.
"Yeah. I thought I was being constructive. Sorry I offended you." He pushed the door open. "Could you tell Mr. Briggs I was here?"
Tom unbent and said. "Hey."
The artist looked around the corner of the tall file cabinet, at Greg half out the door and into the hallway. "Don't go. This is the best conversation I've had all day. I asked what you're doing. Tonight."
"Nothing, I couldn't afford it." The model frowned. "What's it to you?"
Tom sighed. "I wasn't offended. That was something I've heard before, so I didn't like hearing it again. I'm trying to fix it and not having any luck. If you're not doing anything, and since you're just so full of helpful suggestions... The building is open until nine. Would you sit for me?"
Greg smirked. "Are you for real?"
"Yes. Why not? I could work at my own pace, pick my own spot and not worry about the usual shit that screws me up. For an hour or so? Would you do it for twenty dollars, and a uh, bad drawing of you, if that sweetened the pot?"
"I thought they weren't for sale."
"Not a sale, a gift. For your help."
Greg leaned back into the room, almost closing the door. "Be hard to say no to a twenty with nothing else coming until Monday. Nobody would mind?"
"The grads use this space all the time, long as there's no class. If I can do one good drawing and break through this, my work will get better and Briggs may cut me some slack at midterms. C'mon."
The model smiled, crookedly, and let the door click shut. "I guess. I wouldn't for just anybody, you know." Tom breathed out and returned the smile.
"Thanks! You're doing me a big favor. I'll put the sign out and set everything up. I think the robe's on the hanger by his office. You can go in there."
"What, to undress? Nah. Not with just one of you. I'm not that shy." He strolled past toward the darkened studio.
Tom stuck the CLASS IN SESSION / DO NOT DISTURB sign outside and set the lock on the door for good measure. He paused, his mind running in two directions.
One. He had enough good paper, and even if not he could steal a sheet from Jennifer. Plenty of charcoal, a couple of wax pencils, some ContÃ© crayons, his lucky lump of kneaded eraser-
Two. He couldn't even think about how nervous it made him, to do this, and all alone. It felt so grown-up and responsible. He made himself concentrate on how it was going to help him out of his slump, not how well he and the model seemed to be getting along or how one of them was about to get naked-
He opened his drawer once more and grabbed as many of his supplies and as much paper as he could. With everything under his arm he went through the partition. In the dark half of the room he laid his things up against one of the easels and stretched for the light switches on the wall.
All four spotlights came on at once and showed him Greg, already up on the platform and kicking his tennis shoes off onto the studio floor. "You want me in the same pose?"
Tom looked away, to the couch, and thought how he'd improve Briggs' setup. "No, not really," he replied. "Give me a second."
"It's your dime," he heard muffled from inside the model's t-shirt. It hit the floor, and then he heard a fly unzip and something else land too. Oh boy. He turned to face Greg, two feet above him and naked, his fists on his hips. He was tan everywhere but around his waist.
"This is what I want," Tom began. Ha ha.
He took a breath. "Would you... Sit down, first." The guy eased onto the couch. "Can you put one foot up on the cushion, so your knee's like under your chin, then rest your arm on your knee, and your chin on top of that." Greg hesitated. "Too complicated?"
The model stood. "Show me." Tom sat and assumed the pose, discovering the whole thing only worked if he supported himself with his other arm at the same time. Then he didn't feel like he was about to tip over. Other than that, it was pretty comfortable. Surely for an hour.
"Is this stupid?"
The guy shrugged. "No, it's like... thoughtful? Like you're looking out to sea or something."
"Good enough. Can you do it?" He got off the stage.
"Sure." He watched Greg comply with his instructions, and backed away to see how it played from his easel. It wasn't bad, truly, but needed a couple of small changes.
"Before you get too settled," Tom said, "I need to move things a bit."
He stepped to the edge of the platform and put his hand out. "I, uh, tell me if this bothers you. I've never fooled with the model like this." He reached out and feathered the hair back from Greg's forehead, out of his face. "Shadow." Then he used both hands to twist the model's shoulders toward where he would be while he was drawing. Where Tom's fingers touched his skin it was almost hot under the lights.
Their eyes met. "Thanks. You're very pose-able. Better than a Ken doll."
"You're better at showing me where I need to be than Briggs is, man."
He walked to the easel again. Something was still wrong. Greg asked "What's up? You look like you're doing Pi in your head."
He smiled. "Can you look down from there and see why there's no light on your calf? I want to show where the muscles bulge out when it's all squashed together against your leg, but..."
Greg lowered his eyes without moving his head. "Right, my foot's the wrong angle. You need to move it."
Tom came up one more time. He'd put his hand out before he realized he would be practically right up against Greg's balls, down by his ankle, if he really wanted to try that. Too late now, he thought. Be an adult.
His fingers took hold of the model's foot. "Don't let me tickle you."
"You'll be the first to know. And suffer. I kick."
Tom gently pressed the toes to one side, while pulling the ankle toward him out into the light. He felt Greg's short hairs brush the fingernails on his right hand and did his best to ignore the sensation. Another half inch and who knew-
He glanced up and their eyes met again. Greg grinned, and so did Tom after a heartbeat. "Last man who touched my balls had to buy me dinner and a movie first."
They laughed together and Tom stepped back one last time. "Was that Briggs?"
"Did I say it wasn't?"
"Gross." Tom picked up the box of charcoal bits and readied himself. "Dinner, a movie and a fat check too. There's a name for that."
"Yeah, I know. Grandma warned me. Hey, uh, Tommy-"
He stopped. Greg asked "If I make a suggestion, and you like it, would you do me a favor? You said this was a big deal, so you could get me something out of it too, if you wanted."
"I guess. Is the favor calling my work cold? 'Cause I want to keep that to once a day if I get a choice."
"Naw, that wasn't as much fun as I thought it'd be. Right, uhm, would you consider doing it in charcoal pencil instead of those little chunks? The only reason I ask is that I heard someone say the other day it gave them more control. I thought, if you're not crazy about drawing like with a powderpuff, maybe something with a point would be better." He rested his chin on his wrist.
Tom gave it a moment's thought and admitted the model might have something. He didn't have any pencils of his own, but Jennifer told him often enough he could borrow anything he wanted. He stalked over to the other side of the room.
"Did I open my big mouth again? I'm sorry, man! I'll shut up from here on."
Tom returned with a bundle of charcoal pencils rubber-banded together and sat them in the easel's trough. "No, that was actually good. I'm in a rut, so... I'll try a different medium."
"Really. What's the favor you wanted?" Tom popped one pencil loose and started lining up the image onto the paper in his mind.
"You'll throw all those at me."
"Hah. No I won't. They're not mine to throw. Other than money you can have it, whatever it is."
"Okay. Will you take your shirt off?"
Tom froze, the tip of the pencil almost touching the textured surface of the top sheet of paper. He was hallucinating. "What?"
Greg looked down at him. "I bet you heard me. You're the one running around and doing all this work, and I'm sitting up here bored with nothing to do. You get to see me totally naked-"
"As artists tend to do."
"Sure, but. I'm bored. You aren't. My mind wanders when I do this."
"You wanna listen to Vivaldi on the boom box? I think it's 'The Four Seasons.'"
"Yawn. Please? You said I did you one." Tom's heart had sped at Greg's first words and not let up yet. Is he serious? Who the hell wants to see me like that?
On the other hand... What could it hurt? If I'm going to do this a different way, let's shoot the damn moon.
"Looking at my tits will keep you occupied?" Greg nodded.
Tom put the pencil down and pulled his shirttails out of his pants. In a second he'd unbuttoned the Oxford shirt and taken it off. He bundled it up and had a sudden inspiration.
"It's not as cold as I thought it would be in here," he said, and knelt down where Greg had dropped his things.
"Under all these lights it's like a tanning booth. What're you doing?"
Tom straightened up with both his and Greg's shirts in his hand. He tossed them both across the back of the couch, behind the model. "There'll be two men's shirts, which should get the viewer asking questions. Whose shirts are they, is there a second guy getting dressed while you sit there. Or undressed. Whatever."
"I get it."
"Good." He ducked around the easel and grabbed the pencil. "Any more suggestions? I'm only wearing so many items today."
Greg settled into the pose, cracking his neck and bouncing his butt on the springs in the old couch. "Nope."
"Nice chest, by the way. And thin. You should wear-"
Tom felt his face turn red. Shit. "Uh-huh. I can turn the Vivaldi on, if it's too quiet in here for you."
For the next twenty minutes he worked in silence, blocking out areas of light and dark on the page and working out all the angles of Greg's body where the different parts of it and the cushions met. He tried his best to get the point of the guy's chin against his wrist, the flat of his arm over the knob of his knee, and the complicated bones of his foot perched on the edge of the couch's frame. Once he had all that down Tom sketched in a few more details - his knotted eyebrows, one nipple, the curves of his ribs, the corner of his hipbone, simple outlines of his cock and balls.
He thought he'd made a great start.
Shit. Was he overcalculating it already? He turned and walked a couple of paces, then spun around and tried to look at the drawing objectively. The shapes were all in proportion. When he added more shades of black and grey to the white it would be all be balanced. It was good enough, as good as anything he'd ever done in class.
Which was exactly the point. He wanted to do better.
Greg lifted his head an inch and said "You have that look again. Like my dog when he got a toy too big to bite into."
"Next pose I'm gonna blindfold you. Are you ready for a short break?"
"Sure." The model stood, threw his arms out, and jumped off the platform with a thud.
Tom gave him some room by the easel. "The, uh, robe is in Briggs' office, if you want."
Greg smirked. "Do I look embarrassed? Thanks."
"Okay. Then if you don't mind..." He gestured at the paper. "Something's wrong. I'm doing it again, I know I am. God what a waste. I have to come in Monday and tell him I did this, and turn in another piece of-"
"Shh." Greg waved him down. "Take a pill. You've got to relax, man, it's art, not rocket science. Supposed to be fun. That said-" He faced the drawing of himself. "You're doing it again."
"Okay, get a grip. There's hardly anything there yet. And anyway I already know what you should do. I have another suggestion."
"Yup. Just a sec." The model moved to the middle of the room and began in stretch in earnest, doing a couple of jumping jacks, then running in place, finally bending over at the waist to touch his toes. As he had such a perfect view of this, Tom was torn between wanting to drink all that in and demanding to know what the hell he needed to do.
But watching the bare tan skin and smooth muscles move, back and forth, helped take the artist's mind off doing any demanding.
Breathing a little harder, Greg hopped back onto the stage and sat on the couch. He resumed his position and looked to Tom for help. "Everything in place?"
"I think so." Tom reached out to brush his hair out of the way again and crooked the fingers of the hand underneath his chin. "Your foot's wrong again. Are you doing that on purpose?"
"You have the tiniest nipples."
"Shut up." With more confidence this time, Tom slid his hand in between Greg's ankle and his balls and put his foot where it belonged. He hardly noticed the curly hairs on his fingers that time.
Or the earthy smell coming off Greg's bare skin. "You're sweating," he stated.
Greg smiled. "You should use it. I think sweat in a picture, like when it's wet and shiny, that's pretty sexy. Don't you?"
"Why not." He was as close as they would get. Tom hid behind the easel and picked up the pencil and his eraser.
"Before you start, my suggestion."
"Oh, yes. Great. Please tell me. Now." Forgetting it was Jennifer's, he put the pencil in his mouth and started chewing its end, an old bad habit.
"Same deal as before, right? You like what I say, I get a favor."
What can he ask for now? he thought. "Yeah, of course."
"You're doing two things. I mean it's not my place to say they're wrong, but it's definitely affecting your picture. Number one is, you need to get closer to me. Your easel is too far back."
Tom shook his head. "I don't know about that. If I'm too close then I lose perspective-"
Greg cut in. "Exactly! All those pictures you showed me were from the same distance. You sit in the same spots every time. You want a rut, there you go." Tom continued frowning.
"You asked me for advice, right?"
Tom shrugged. "Yes."
"Then listen to me, man. I'm trying to help." The model lowered his knee and sat back on the couch, crossing his legs. "The ones in here who get good reviews are the ones who move around a lot. I never know where that tall guy-"
"I don't know where he'll be. Or the older chick who comes in with the curlers in her hair. But you," he pointed to Tom. "You're always ten feet away and on that side of the room." He leaned forward and spread his hands. "Rut."
Tom took a long moment to consider everything Greg had said. He had to say....
"Okay, you've kind of got a point. I like this side of the room - today - because the pose just looks good from over here. But I'll scoot this thing up and see what happens." He kicked against the bottom of the easel's frame to move it five feet, almost into the edge of the platform. Now they were no more than a yard apart. "Changes the perspective-" he muttered.
"God, go with it."
"All right. Step one. What's number two?
Greg gave him a wide grin. Crap. "You need to loosen up."
Tom played with the pencil and eraser. "And?"
"And nothing. You just do. Anybody can see that. You stare holes in the paper and you're like this the whole time you're working." He made a constipated face.
Tom started to protest, so he added "Now, I assume you liked my first suggestion, since you did it, right? Gimme my favor and we'll get you to step two. You can tell Don to kiss your ass Monday morning."
"Yeah. Don's getting his Master's. He'll be teaching this class in three years."
"But he doesn't have a private tutor with all the inside scoop, though, does he? You wanna show everybody in here what you can do?"
Tom sighed. That would be nice, truthfully. He got tired of feeling like low man on the totem pole sometimes. "Fine. Name your price."
"You asked. Take off your pants."
He couldn't even form a thought to deal with that. "What?"
If possible the model's grin got bigger. "What? I knew you wouldn't like that one. Just down to your underwear? I bet you wear white briefs."
"Briggs and I were shooting the shit about this one day, and he agreed with me, but obviously nobody'd ever do it, so it was just talk." Greg laid back against one arm of the couch and put both feet up on the opposite side.
"My theory is, try being naked - just for five minutes - in front of a room full of strangers, then tell me what that's like. Not a lot of people can do what I do, but then to be fair I can't draw like you.
"Point being, if you could feel what I do, I bet you could draw me better. Get it?"
Tom crossed his arms. "No."
Greg rolled his eyes. "Now you look like my dog when we smacked him for chewing the rug. You need to get closer to your subject. Your subject is nude. How can I explain...? Could you get totally undressed in a room full of people wearing clothes?"
"Could you do it in a room with just one other person, who's naked too?" Tom hesitated. "Pretend we're on our third date and dinner was really good."
"That's totally different. But sure, maybe," he admitted.
"Hah." Greg started to say something more and paused. "Can I ask, do you like seeing me with no clothes? Just uh, ack-, ada-"
"Yeah. Or less wholesomely, even, that's not so terrible. Do you?" Tom let a long second go by before he answered. He was never comfortable talking about certain subjects, even with friends. Probably why it came out so easily talking to a stranger.
"Yeah, I do."
The model smiled. "Thanks. I don't like assuming. In that case, I wanna see you that way too."
Wow. Tom laid the eraser and pencil on the easel. "Put it down to me being bored still. It'll give my mind something to do. Come on, you'll see. You will loosen up like never before. Trust me, it'll work."
Shitshitshitshit. But he'd been right the first time. Kiss my ass, Don.
Tom bent over to untie his shoes, eyes on Greg the entire time. He slipped his socks off and stuffed them inside, his hands only barely trembling. Then he straightened and started unbuckling his belt. "I hope there's no goddamn fire alarm in the next half hour."
"You and me both, man. But I worry about that every week."
He unzipped and pushed his jeans down his hips. Greg hit the couch, raising a little cloud of dust. "I knew it! Briefs. Those're cute, Tommy."
In a shaky voice he said "Great. This-" He just got the pants past his ankles without having to sit on the floor like a little kid - "is as far as I go." He folded them neatly onto his shoes and socks.
"Heard that before." Greg sat upright and repositioned his body at the front of the couch.
Tom felt ridiculous, and exposed. He stood and crossed his arms over his chest again, in his underwear and nothing else, wondering what the fuck he was doing, what they were doing. He had to reach down and take the pencil back up, and the eraser, and begin once more, all within spitting distance of this guy and knowing his eyes would be on him and only him for forty more minutes. He wasn't cold, true. But being so much closer to the stage, his pale skin uncovered by the bright spotlights, wasn't much of a tradeoff.
He might as well have been naked. He felt naked.
Keeping his eyes level, he watched Greg reseat himself. The model carefully put his foot where it belonged, then his arm and chin followed. He twisted his shoulders to Tom and relaxed his ass into the couch's springs. In a moment he brushed his own hair back.
"That's perfect," Tom said. "You could have done that yourself, before."
"No comment." The artist retrieved his things from the easel and held them in from of himself like a tiny shield and spear. Greg noticed and turned his head just slightly.
He smirked. "You're uncomfortable."
Tom nodded. "Do I get a gold star?"
"No, but you get a better picture, if you can use it. Imagine how I feel with my junk and ass hanging out there for the world to see, nothing but my bad attitude to protect me from you people stealing my soul with your artwork."
"You're right, I didn't think of it that way. Mainly because that's crazy. But you may be right."
"Damn straight. Now put it on the paper."
Which he did. Greg fell silent as Tom began making bold strokes with the pencil. The bones of the model's hand and fingers, the line of his jaw, his eyes looking to the left at who knew what. His upright leg was a shaft of light, his ankle its round base, his toes under that curling over the couch cushion. Beside his foot, Tom took the effort to weight Greg's balls and the curve of his soft cock on top of them. He added public hair, Greg's outie belly button, hair under his arms, the dime-size birthmark on the inside of his thigh. With a few rubs of the eraser tracks of sweat on his chest appeared, reflecting the spotlights. The background became black to throw the whites and greys of his body's bulk into relief. Everything came out perfectly.
In the few moments he paused to think, Tom knew he'd gotten it. He had it.
He was naked (well all but), Greg sure the hell was, and the two of them working together like that had somehow transferred all that energy onto the paper. Greg's and Tom's too of course, but that was so completely the model, alone, up there on the easel.
Had he ever heard of an artist working like that? He didn't think so. Toulouse-Lautrec painted whores but he didn't turn tricks. Imagine if he had.
Tom glanced up into the model's eyes and blinked. "I didn't know I'd... Nothing. Just I guess I'm done."
He realized that his head hurt, and the fingers of his right hand were starting to cramp from gripping the pencil for so long. He'd done it. Maybe.
"Come on down. You're done too." Greg unfolded from the couch and stretched his arms above his shoulders.
"Is it good?"
Tom hesitated and shrugged. "It's better than it was going to be. I don't feel like this was a waste, anymore."
"Outstanding." Greg wiggled his eyebrows. "Can I see?"
"Sure." Tom moved to the right and Greg landed beside him. The model cupped his hands around his balls, seemingly self-conscious for the first time. He was silent for a while. Tom couldn't wait. "You're killing me, man! After all that?"
Greg looked at him. "It's-" He nodded and smiled. "It's great!"
Tom laughed in a rush of air. "Really?"
"Yeah, really. Only thing you needed to do was let it all hang out-" Without moving his hands much he tickled the pouch of Tom's underwear, making him jump. "Which you did. So in two days you can come back in and say...?"
"Don, kiss my ass."
"Correct. Mission accomplished." Greg turned and knelt onto the platform to retrieve his t-shirt from the back of the couch. He wrapped himself in it and sat down. Tom watched him pull his jeans on, socks and shoes too.
The evening was over. Oh.
"This was so great, Greg," he gushed. "Thanks so much for helping me." With nothing to really do except stand there and say that, Tom unfolded his pants and stepped into them.
"No trouble, man. It was a pleasure." Greg squinted up from lacing his tennis shoe. "I'll see you Monday morning, right?"
"Yeah, I'll be here. I'm dying to know what Briggs says when he sees this." He truly was. But.
Tom crouched onto the stage and pulled his shirt off the couch. It felt warm, like it'd been baking under the lights. He slowly put it on.
Greg was finished dressing. "Okay then. I'm ready to take off. Only thing I need is..."
Without thinking Tom said "What?" before it occurred to him he'd offered to pay for the guy's time. "Doy, where's my brain." He took his wallet out and hooked one of the twenties from it. Greg took the bill and stuck in his pocket.
"Well... Thanks again. I don't want to keep you." Tom started to gather his papers down from the easel.
"Is Graphic Design still downstairs? I'm beginning to think insulting the artists around here isn't a bad way to get your jollies."
"I don't know. I hear the teacher's a prick, so probably all night, yeah." He quickly doused the lights and picked up the armful of supplies to return them to his drawer. Greg followed.
"Oh hey," Tom remembered. "I owe you a picture, too."
"A bad one," the model said. "Uhm, would you be offended if I didn't want it any more?"
Tom tried not to let whatever that made him feel show, as he shook his head. "Huh uh."
"I swear I have a good reason. I'll tell you Monday."
"'S okay. I'll sell it on a streetcorner or something." He gingerly lifted the top sheet of paper, the perfect drawing he'd just completed, off the pile and carried it to the wall. With a spare pushpin he attached it over the top of that morning's failure.
He looked around and saw an unclaimed can of spray fix on the windowsill. He shook the can and misted the charcoal with it. Now it wasn't going anywhere.
They stood together and looked at the result. Greg said "If that doesn't get you a better grade at midterms, you can... have your money back. That is one awesome piece of art, man."
"I'll be sure to give credit where it's due next week in class. Maybe you can snag some more students who need a tutor." The model moved away from Tom's side, headed for the classroom door.
"Get a Graphic Design student you haven't insulted to print you business cards and hand them out-"
Greg grabbed his shoulders from behind, making him stiffen. What the hell?
"I can't! I can't wait until Monday, Tommy. I'm not an asshole. I don't want your picture any more, because..." He trailed off. Who wasn't shy?
"Right. I asked in the first place to buy it for this guy who dumped me a couple nights ago. You thought I looked pissed off today? I was. He called this morning and told me he wanted me back. I thought I did, but now I don't want him back. I want to see you. Like now. Like tonight."
Tom did his best to unravel those words over the sound of his heart beating in his ears. All he could do, in Greg's grip, was look straight ahead at the beautiful thing they'd created together.
The artist shut his eyes. "You'll just call me cold and technical if I say no?"
"And if I say yes?"
"I'll tell everyone in class Monday how great you look naked. Credit where due."
"You haven't even seen me naked. That sounds like you have another suggestion and favor to ask."
"I do, actually. It may be nuts, totally out of left field, but if I tell you and you do it, I get to see you without the underwear this time?"
"You will be too?"
"And we're still playing? I can put you in any position I want?"
The model paused. "Well that sounds kind of dirty, but within limits yes."
Tom sighed. How close did I come to missing this? "Yeah, I suppose. No underwear. Hit me."
Greg said "Okay. You promised, in front of God and everybody, so now you have to. Here's what you should do..."
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead