When Echo’s father gets swept away by a freak current off the Los Angeles coast, she enters a state of paralysis. Drawn to "the idea of a job where she didn't have to say a word," the failed young actress takes a job as a model at an art center, where she unexpectedly confronts a part of her past.
The model for the sculpting workshop had canceled her bookings last minute, so I had a gig for the next month if I wanted one, Fumiko, the instructor, told me on the phone. The students had already built their armatures and needed a female figure to work from. All I had to do was show up five minutes before class and bring a robe. On Wednesday evening, I drove to the top of the peninsula. I took my place on the model stand, took Fumiko’s instruction, and dropped my robe when she said it was time.
I didn’t notice him right away. He was outside my field of vision and I was busy practicing a technique I’d learned in an acting class, relaxing my body so that it was working with gravity instead of against it. But with acting, you were in motion. A few minutes in, I could already feel the strain in my hip where I was putting most of my weight. I was trying to keep my arches high and not sink into my heels, to make sure my ankles were balanced and toes relaxed. My raised arms were tingling. The coastal breeze had chased the heat off for the night and a low fog rested on the hills. A fan heater ticked to and fro, burning my calves when it swung my way. I counted the seconds until its return, because burning was better than the dim chill of the studio. I tried not to think of the tingling, ache, and cold as I monitored the timer’s slow march from twenty to zero, but as my body began to sink, my position shifted enough to see who it was. His face was thinner than I remembered, but it was him. Ana’s father, slicing through his block of clay with wire string, thick lumps dropping to the linoleum floor. I had to force myself to stay put. I had never wanted to see him again. And now here I was, legs on fire, nipples puckering, drafts catching in my pubic hair. Too aware of my skin, my blood. My body’s refusal to be still—especially in front of him—seemed obscene. I focused on Fumiko. It was all I could do. I hoped no one could see how my body had begun to pound.
Fumiko was padding around the room, nodding at some, grunting commands at others and taking their hands in hers to correctly fit them around their tools, slicing at the edges, jamming her fingers into the clay to show what it means to make the hollow of an eye. At Ana’s father’s piece, Fumiko shook with what sounded like a dry cough. I kept my arms up and folded, but turned my head enough so I could see her. She was chuckling sweetly, as though she’d bumped into an old friend. She gave the flanks of his sculpture a hearty slap. She ran her hands over the mounds of clay that made up the breasts, then pinched off a protrusion that seemed to be a nipple and stuck it to his pedestal. The narrow waist was a bridge losing its fight to keep the mighty bosoms connected to the boulders of her ass. Of course his sculpture was confused. He didn’t know how to see me.
Ana’s father avoided looking at Fumiko until she gripped his wrist, and he made a nervous sound. “We accentuate the things we find pleasing, but you have to give it a logical architecture. Look at her. Really look at her. It’s why she’s here.” To me, she said, “Stand straight.” Then, “Class,” she clapped her hands; her fingers left stains on his skin.
Fumiko demonstrated how to use your hand as a measuring tool. The men and women around me each raised an arm and held out their fists, some with their thumbs up, some to the side, others resting their thumbs against hard tools. Dr. Moradi and I locked eyes. I’d tried to hush the memory, but it would not be stilled.
Ana and me. The two of us, the summer before senior year. Afternoon sun in her curtains, hurried hands, too impatient to get undressed. At first the creak and rustle of the bed was everything, then it was hands and skin, the act of kissing, but also the sound, her hands in my hair and mine inside her. We didn’t notice her door had been left ajar until it shut. She thought it was the wind. Then, we heard the rolling click of the lock. Ana froze. I said we should go out the window. When she didn’t follow, when I heard her pleading with him, I started running. I shouldn’t have run away without her, but I ran those few miles home.
Without looking up from the bills she was paying, my mother asked why I didn’t call her if I wanted to leave early and wouldn’t that be the day when I finally got my driver’s license. But then she must have heard it in my breath, maybe she could smell it on me. My T-shirt was dark with sweat and I had a blister on my foot. Go take a bath, she said. While I was in the tub, Moradi called. My mother came in without knocking, sat, and slid her hand through the bubbles. She looked spent and tender. You’ll take a break from each other over the summer, and I’m sure it will be back to normal by the time school starts, she said and waited for a reply that didn’t come. I was trying not to drown. The tap gurgled and water splashed into the bath. We don’t have to tell your father. If you don’t want to.
I didn’t want to. There was nothing to say. We hadn’t done anything we had been told not to do; I wasn’t a boy. We were exploring, like what we had done when we were younger, practicing kissing on our pillows and hands. We didn’t talk about what it meant. It was something we had always done, and we never stopped to question whether or not what we were doing was in anticipation of a man. I think a lot about what my mother said next. She may not have meant it the way I heard it, but it was in the ether. A stitch of judgment, a tic of abnormality, the threat of the Other to an ordered life.
You’ve never been one for the easy road, she said.
My mother thought she was lightening the mood, but instead I heard a suggestion about who I was, that what I wanted from Ana was not friendship, but love. And in my mother’s face, her mildness, I understood the trouble desire could cause.
You can talk to me, my mother said, but though I believed her, it would be better for Ana if we all pretended this had never happened. My mother blew the bubbles off her fingers. They sailed between us like dandelion spores and sizzled when they landed on the foam.
Ana’s parents had come to Los Angeles on vacation in the eighties, and it would be years until I understood what it actually meant for them to have decided right then never to go back to Iran. The Moradis had family up in Beverly Hills, but they didn’t see each other often, and Ana had always said that her parents liked it that way, but something changed when the Beverly Hills uncle got ill. Suddenly, they were up there all the time at family gatherings, temple, and, of course, the hospital. Ana had never talked about her bat mitzvah as anything other than a big birthday party and a chance to slow dance with Ryan Kim. We were still fondling our pillows then. But she’d started studying harder. I asked her about the effort she was putting into something neither she nor her parents believed in that much, and Ana replied, “It’s for my family,” and I knew she didn’t mean just her parents. Instead of a birthday party, she started talking about becoming a woman, which to me seemed too distant to merit any serious thought. I didn’t understand what had changed.
My parents didn’t think about family like this. My dad said he was tired of being the one to always be going back home to Ohio, his siblings could come out here for a change, so we only saw them if there was a wedding or a funeral. My mother’s parents were already gone, and she had no siblings. I admired Ana’s reverence for something greater than herself. It made her seem protected, as though she could never come to harm because she had a world of people around her who cared. A bat mitzvah seemed like a small price to pay for that. What would it feel like to belong to something so self-evident, something you didn’t give up on just because you didn’t feel like getting on a plane?
The summer break didn’t have the palliative effect my mother had promised. But I gave her no reason to believe that time had not solved the problem, and she no longer asked me how I was or what I needed. I appreciated the privacy. “I haven’t seen Ana in a while,” my dad said one day. I pretended like I hadn’t noticed, but he could tell there was more to it. He told me not to worry: people grow apart. I found myself thinking about her at night, her skin. I pushed those thoughts away, and when I masturbated, I pictured her with men. In my fantasies, I inhabited both bodies. I came, thinking about being filled.
That summer went by in a blur of hours. After the drama program ended, my mother made sure I “kept busy” with “activities.” These were words she associated with good kids and used with a gusto reserved for people who feel ill at ease with language, but that was one thing I couldn’t fault her for: English wasn’t her mother tongue. Keeping busy meant that I spent any free day I had helping one of her friends who was renovating her stables. I couldn’t stand the idea of our charity work for the mother-daughter assistance league; the risk of running into kids from my school, maybe Ana, was too high. So I brushed away the stable’s cobwebs thick with yellow dust. I mucked the stalls. At the end of each day my skin was rubbery to the touch. No matter how I scrubbed I could still smell the sebum, manure, and wet hay.
My dad decided we should all drive down to Valle de Guadalupe for a week. It was the first vacation I could remember that wasn’t also a business trip. He said he could tell we all needed a break. He taught me how to drink wine even though I was underage, and together we watched the sun gild the vineyards from the pool. It was nice. After dinner, I’d disappear to my room to read, falling asleep with my light still on, listening to them shush each other when they couldn’t stop laughing. One day I didn’t see them until dinner.
And then the school year started. I could tell my mother was relieved. She was tired of watching me “mope around,” which seemed like a double standard. At least I looked like I was keeping busy with activities that resembled actual work.
But like the fortune teller said, I was no good at putting myself back together. Ana made other friends over the summer, kids whose parents were also from Iran and who went to the same synagogue. There was no room for me anymore, and because I still valued our friendship, I did what I thought she wanted me to do. I stayed away from her, but I didn’t know where to go. Because we never finished what we started, because it never was allowed to reach a natural close, our ending felt unwritten. I imagined other endings and how they would have defined me, and because I couldn’t explore such endings with her, my desire ran loose where it could. I responded to the desire of others, and I fell easily for those who responded to the desire in me. At times I felt worn thin, but it was exciting, and as I found out, rare to be a person who enjoyed both giving and receiving pleasure, who was interested in the erotic as an exchange. Some people couldn’t see past the sex, some people fell fast and hard, and though I was generous with my body, I was careful and particular about whom I shared my heart with, and that left me lonely. People didn’t think I was into relationships, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even so, the ability to participate in pleasure seemed to me to be the greatest good. In pleasure, differences fell away and made space for an ecstatic encounter during which the boundaries between us dissolved and we were free.
In their eyes, I was mostly a girl other girls could grind with, lips they could kiss, hair they could twist. This girl or that girl and whichever guys they were working their way through, guys who liked to think their dicks were magic or who approached me sweetly to find out if what they were doing was right. Right or wrong, I didn’t know. In pleasure we were only bodies, and the body is all we have: this perspective wasn’t without conflict. A woman I dated after I moved into my apartment had called me a pornographer because of it. She wanted emotional intimacy before we made love, and I told her I wanted to know what our bodies would be like together before I felt comfortable opening up. It was about trust and communication, I said, but she seemed insulted. I thought about the word pornographer. It suited me, in a way, but only because I knew of no better word for me yet. Sex was sacred to me. I knew it had the power to transform. In my arms, my lovers’ eyes would roll back. Mouths opening, they’d offer me their tongues, their dreams and confessions. They came to me for comfort, they came for me, and each act was a conjuring spell. Just one more kiss, one more caress, I wished, and this body would be revealed to be hers. Why couldn’t Dr. Moradi have let us be?
On the model stand, I fought back tears. All eyes were on me. They could see each quake. There was no place to hide. Fumiko spoke slowly, guiding them through how to break me down. She spread the jaws of the calipers and fitted them around my head. The metal tip on my skin, the unexpected touch, became a point of focus. I allowed it to become all that there was. One end pressed against the soft flesh covering the hollow of my jaw, the other at the crown of my head. The strange comfort of a touch that asked nothing of me. Fumiko had my full attention. There was no space for tears. She walked the apparatus up and down my body. Seven and a half heads high, three heads wide at the shoulders, and on and on, until she reached my feet.
“Good, good. Lucky class. She is classically proportioned,” Fumiko said when she was done. Standing among the students again, she said, “Resume the pose.”
The artists tried to find me in their wet clay. I returned to my stillness, to my breath. Under Fumiko’s watchful eye, the students scraped and pressed and shaped and cut in tune. I emerged, radiant in the logic of their architecture.
But no matter how hard Dr. Moradi tried, his sculpture stooped, lifeless, a sad tumble of clay. He was deaf to me.
After class, I saw him crying in the parking lot. Squatting against the stone wall of the room that housed the kiln. I pretended not to notice as I walked past.
“You fucked her up,” he said. And I froze.
The man was rumpled, seething. He stood, walked toward me. Stopped when he was already too near, poking my chest with his finger. I backed into a parked car. Red. Sporty. Familiar.
“I always knew you were trouble, but when I saw you, you two. I mean, look at you, look at what’s become of you.”
But you’re here, too, I wanted to say, but there was no time. I tried to lunge away from the car, expecting him to move, but he stood his ground and pinned me to the driver-side door. I couldn’t reach my car keys, what I’d always thought of as a weapon to hand, my arms flailing around his body, the long seconds, go limp, go limp, go limp, I told myself, but his body was holding me in place, and I let myself hang under his weight, his arm at my throat, and went a different kind of limp, the praying kind. I shut my eyes.
I thought he was going to hit me, but instead he grabbed me and slammed me against the car, winding me; my eyes opened in shock to see him red and wet, lips slick and trembling, his skin’s oily sheen. Even his hairline seemed agitated. Tears mixed with his sweat. He hiccupped.
“She won’t talk to me because of th-this,” he whispered, his free hand fumbling, groping, his sour breath on my cheek. I watched his face change, his short eyelashes stuck together, the deep frown lines. His pain. He had suffered her loss, too.
He looked at me with disgust. And then seemed to become aware of how our bodies were pressed together, a flicker of distress, what he might do next.
“You’re a disease,” he said, and let me drop to the ground, pushing me out of the way with his foot. Maybe he could feel me wanting. Maybe this is what I get. The thoughts came unbidden. I didn’t want them to belong to me.
He took the driveway too fast and at the wrong angle, first banging, then scraping the chassis. And drove off. Back to that house, I guess. A father who was not mine was driving home.
The parking lot was empty but for my car, and the sky was filled with stars. The breeze that rolled over those hills rolled on. The night was dark, and everything seemed as it should be, this pretty place with the salted air as it always was, no matter what happens between two people. I picked myself up off the asphalt, rubbed bits of gravel off the back of my thighs, in a parking lot in the part of town where once I had felt at home. The emptiness was large, the darkness a threat, yet the stars barely flickered. Burn brighter, stars! Rain fire, stars! Shaking. My keys. The door. The sound of the lock brought comfort. Curled up in the front seat. Trying to breathe. It was just me.
But then a door opened, light spilled out. I peered through my window, trying to keep out of sight. Fumiko was locking up the studio. It never occurred to me that she might take the bus. Or someone might be coming for her. Someone kind. Slender, slight Fumiko, who had not been slammed against a hard surface that night, who was not trying to remember how to breathe, stop shaking, Fumiko who might hold me, might tell me it will be okay, her clay-caked hands. If she discovered me, still here, stained, and asked if everything was okay, what would I say? What would she say when she saw me? I wanted to go back to where I belonged, to my own apartment, far away from here.
I turned the key, the machine smooth, efficient, fast. Sweet machine, dear machine. In the rear-view mirror, I saw her watching me go. She lifted a hand as if to wave, I raised mine as though everything were normal. I turned onto a residential street to avoid the red light.
The radio was playing an old but familiar song.
From Permission, forthcoming on March 7, 2019 from Dialogue Books/Little, Brown and May 29, 2019 Coach House Books. © 2019 by Saskia Vogel. By arrangement with the publishers. All rights reserved.