I have maintained that I do not dress up-no, strike that. I do dress up-skirt up above my knee, heels up three inches from the floor, bra cinched up to give me a decent lift. I learned right away that if you want to stand out, you've first got to stand up, and I have managed to make the most of my "natural" good looks. Needless to say, I've gilded my lilies on occasion-worn enough make-up to pass as a more "mature" woman for the sake of not being picked off as a little girl alone in the world. And to get into bars underage.
I didn't go to bars to drink, mind you-but to socialize with other lonesome people. Leaving home was maybe one of the hardest things I've ever done, coming from a big family and all, and usually having been surrounded by other people. It was enough for me to sit there chit-chatting with the bartender most nights, nursing a scotch and soda or what-have-you and wondering when I'd figure out just what it was I was supposed to do with my life. It was on one of those "lonesome" nights out that I heard the most ear-tickling sound I may have ever heard.
"Huh-ahhh-uhhh-aaahccchhhhhoooo-huhhhhh," just almost comes close to a phonetic rendering of the sound. It was the most perfect sneeze I'd ever heard-a drawn-out, built-up, progressive, lilting, even musical affair. It made me snap my head around in its direction, hoping to catch a glimpse of what and who made that delightful sternutation. I quickly spotted him by virtue of his not being done. His eyes were closed in expectation, and I witnessed an almost prayerful intake of breath, "Huh," and then the tease-"ahhh", the next syllable a wavering "uhhhh," as if he were groaning from the sheer nasal torment, and then the release, "aaahccchhhhhoooo", a steady, long note with excellent hang-time, and last but not least, a sigh-"ahhhh." A good finish. It was Bird's jazz, or Pavarotti's Pagliacci and I had to stand, drink in my hand, and outright stare in fascination. As I suspected, the face post-sneeze was ruggedly handsome, sensitive but utterly masculine, as attractive as the sneeze itself.
Other sneezes of course, have struck me as a kind of personal expression, revealing a secret language about nose structure, breathing patterns, allergen-sensitivity, congestion, a wealth of tiny clues and nuances about an individual, but in this instance, I was hearing and viewing the sneeze as art form.
Of course, Momma did once try to show me some manners in reference to gawking at people, so I sat my little self back down and ordered something stronger to relax my nerves, as that soulful long sneeze had worked some kind of magic on my nerves. My ears tingled, though, the fine muscles twisting hopefully in expectation that he might do it again. If it were possible to do it again. I had heard two completely beautiful sneezes-could I hope for three? I stirred my gin and tonic wistfully. A gentleman's nose is certainly not a jukebox, and one can't make requests. All one can hope for is a kind fate that sends soft breezes and fortuitous tickles. My eyes darted in his direction, heart stirring each time his hand reached to rub at his nose, wondering, "Would he?"
Then, I heard it. The intake of breath again making every sound fade into the background. "Huh-ahhh-uhhh-aaaahccchhhhhoooo-ahhh!" and I turned to look. He sniffed a few times, and began again, and then stopped himself with a finger under his nose, breathing in and out, and looking at me!
I felt a moment's apprehension. Oh no, I thought, he's caught me staring and thinks I'm the most seriously rude person in existence. But eye contact was made, and I couldn't pretend otherwise. He began to approach me, and I took a better look at the sneezing artist. He was older than I was; in his late twenties, I figured. His hair was long-and not in a mullet, but an all-over kind of long, pulled back into a ponytail, and it was a warm brown color, as were his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was mellow and deep.
"I don't know if you've ever heard this before, but do you model?"
The spell was more or less broken. It sounded like one of the cheapest bar pick-ups in the known world. I tried to hide my disappointment by responding glibly.
"Sure I model. Model cars. Model clay...oh, you meant like, pose."
"No," he responded, his eyes penetrating as he reached out and touched my face. He gently gripped my chin in one hand, tilting it up as if reading something into my features. "I'm serious. You have a certain look. I wondered if you would be willing to pose for me?"
He left it as a question. I hesitated to pick it up. Pose for him? On what bed, on what drugs, with what other girl or girls, for what magazine, I asked myself.
"You mean for photos, right? Like, Playboy?"
He shook his head vehemently as his hand left my face. "No, no, no, nothing like that. I mean...I would like to use you." When my eyes got as big as saucers, he amended that. "As an artist's model-I paint. I want to paint-you."
I considered that. It definitely sounded less sleazy than what I had imagined, but it still had a certain unreal ring to it. As I considered, his nose made my mind up for me. He began what I think of as "sneeze-breath"-that delightful drawing in for a good-sized sneeze, which usually combines with a wrinkled nose and eyes that involuntarily half-shut. "Oh, damn..." he sighed, and then-"Huh-ahh-uhh-aaaahccchhhhooo-uhhhh...whew." It was like watching a stop-action movie of a flower blooming. He had covered his face with his hand, but I saw enough to imagine the force of it-his shoulders had even shook.
"Bless you," I managed. A mad urge overtook me, and I found myself adding, "You have quite a sneeze."
"Oh, that's nothing," he responded, with a grin that was more wince than smile. He slid a finger down the bridge of his nose, and my eyes followed, helplessly. "I got my nose broken once, and ever since, it has a mind of it's own. Cold weather, dust, anything-I sneeze a lot."
It took me a minute to think of anything to say that would have sounded unlike-"Take me now" or, "Pose for you-hell, I'll be your sex slave." What I did end up saying was, "Wow." Realizing that wasn't entirely what I ought to have said, I quickly changed the subject.
"You want to paint me-are we talking clothed, or not?"
"If you're willing, I want to do a nude."
The Semi was about to get dropped. I was gonna be an all-the-way Nekkid Opportunist. As I contemplated the possibility of standing (or even lying down) naked in front of a painter who sneezed "a lot" and quite gorgeously, I spied the return of "sneeze-breath" creeping across his expression. "Huh-ahhh-huhh..."
"Nude it is, then."
"Ahhh-choooo...whew...dusty place. You'll do it?" He held his fingers up to his nose, rubbing it, and waited as if he was certain I would change my mind.
"I...can pay you, of course."
Wait a minute. Naked, in front of a gorgeous, sneezing painter, and I get paid for it, too? Folks, the world is a beautiful place. Don't let anyone ever tell you different.
During the car ride to his "loft," he (his name was Joshua) told me about his "vision". (It was a studio apartment, but with an artist residing in it, we can afford to dignify it as a "loft". Think about it. I got nekkid in some guy's studio apartment for money, versus, I posed nude for an artist in his loft. When you go to write your memoirs, you may have to make similar choices. Want advice? Take the semantic upgrade. It also works for resumes and selling houses in crappy neighborhoods.) Basically-he did nudes and landscapes. I refrained from informing him that in the circles I traveled, that translated as, "Bang chicks and mow lawns." But anyway, he did this series of canvasses featuring naked women in natural surroundings, and "acquired" a patron who was looking for exactly his line of material-only he had a thing for deserts. The two of them termed what they were looking for as "The Desert Rose." Which, of course, cracked me up.
"That's me all right."
He gave me a dubious look, so I explained to him my unusual name and where I was from (the above story minus the football team, my short-lived receptionist career, and Grandma, which really isn't for all audiences). It made him thoughtful.
"Chantilly Rose. Peculiar."
I shrugged. I preferred to let my name speak for itself. It lends nothing to my mystique to know that the original Chantilly Rose was a horse my old man won $156 on the night I was born. I usually give out the name as "Tilly" to complete strangers. It's also a china pattern, but I suppose nobody gets all jazzed about sharing a moniker with a china pattern. I will hold this opinion until I meet somebody named "Blue Willow". Which, if you think about it, is a pretty cool name, dishes or no dishes.
"I'm one of ten. I guess they had to give us names that were easy to remember."
"There's more at home like you?"
I snorted at that. I was about to lay claim to my individuality when he began the wind-up for another of those spectacular sneezes. "Uhh..." and then he put his finger under his nose to ward it off. "Not while driving I don't," he muttered.
"No?" I asked.
"I might not stop."
I stared out the window. Okay-a perfect sneeze in a single, even a double, can be imagined. But multiples? No. Not ones like that-not the drawn-out kind. I glanced over.
"The car, I mean-if I needed to. Or swerve, or...it's just a bad idea."
It was a response that satisfied me, although in the back of my mind, I was wondering what it might sound like-that particular sneeze, but not stopping. Of course, it would doubtless change the actual duration of each individual sneeze within the set, but to what degree would it change the aesthetics of the sneezing as a whole? Believe me, such contemplation requires its own kind of calculus. I was almost imagining a series of such sneezes (angels dancing on the head of a pin might have been an easier task, but not more rewarding) when he pulled up to his place.
"It's small, but it's mine."
I nodded. "Well, it beats my motel room."
"You're staying in a motel," he began, staring at me. And then the feared moment arrived. "Don't tell me you're a runaway-you're barely legal, aren't you?"
Okay. I did leave the ancestral abode under duress, and had hitchhiked thus far, and I was all of two months shy of my nineteenth birthday. I did not think any of that constituted "runaway" or "barely legal".
"I'm over eighteen, independent, and peripatetic," I announced, indignantly. And two days away from flat broke, I could have added, but didn't.
He sighed. "You can stay with me if you want." I took four or five seconds to make up my mind to kiss him. My shoulders were promptly, gently but firmly grabbed. He shook his head. "You can stay-on the couch." And with that, the full weight of "not his bed-tonight or in the future" settled on me. I nodded, hiding disappointment. But I stayed (like I could afford staying in the motel room.) Besides, even if your bed is a couch-you can still dream, right? We ended up talking about this and that for hours before he retired to bed, and I, damn it all, settled into the couch.
Morning came, and brought with it the chirping of birds, and...yes, that's right. He also sneezed on waking-four times, albeit separated by intervals. The suspense of waiting after the first for any more added to their charm, rather than detracted. Even through a closed bedroom door the sound had me clawing at the upholstery. While still shirtless and unshowered, he offered to drive me back to the motel to pick up anything I needed. I very nearly informed him that the sight of a man in no more than jeans first thing in the morning was all I happened to require, but determined that flirting was probably not good for any possible tension between us. Tension as in-my wanting to jump his bones and him wanting to toss me out before brush touched canvass. I simply explained that all I had was one bag to get, but I'd best get there if I didn't want to find it in the parking lot (the place was seedy, and I imagined the proprietor had the same impression-runaway, barely legal, etc. that Josh had.)
"I don't need much-in the way of clothes," I said, grinning.
He thought about that one. "I guess you don't." And with that, he pulled on a plaid flannel shirt and boots, and I followed him to the car. The night on the couch led me to the discussion of terms once we were on the road.
"Since I'm going to be posing nude for you...I was wondering something."
"Well, last night, there was something we could have done but didn't do...so I wondered-is it that I'm too young to do that thing with you, but old enough to pose? Or...I mean, just so I know."
He concentrated on driving for a bit before responding. "No. You aren't too...young, I guess, for us to do that. But...it would be weird."
"You don't screw the muse," he explained. When I had nothing to say to that, he elaborated. "I'm going to have to envision you in a slightly fantasized kind of way-if we got too familiar, it could make things difficult."
"So you're gonna look, not touch?" I asked.
"That's about the size of it."
I didn't know whether to laugh, cry or spit nails. Him not touching me meant me not touching him. Although mature for my age, that level of restraint seemed painful. I practically jumped out of the car and flew up the stairs to the room, just to figure out what utterly inappropriate things I needed to get out of my system. I got my gear together, slammed the door like I meant it, handed the key in at the front office and generally tried to fathom concepts like "unavailability" and...well, and "paying position laying down naked in front of a guy hoping he'll crack." My hope was restored by the time I got back in the car with my bag.
"Didn't take long," he commented. And sniffled. I wondered if I had missed anything interesting in the nasal department. I simply shrugged. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be," I replied. And then I caught the flicker across his face, beginning with the eyes. I braced myself.
"I'b...not...uhhh...ahhhhhccchhhhooooo, uhh, * sniiffff *" he sneezed, barely catching it in his hand. He then looked at his hand somewhat ruefully. I smiled, being prepared. I reached my hand down into my sweater and pulled a handkerchief from where I kept it in my bra. I've found that to be a useful habit-you need not ask why. He took it, but he looked a little unnerved as he wiped his hand and then blew his nose. He gave it, and me, an odd look.
"Keep it," I said. "You should have one around since you, as you put it, sneeze a lot."
"I usually have one...I'm just...very distracted, lately."
This had me smiling, wondering if I had anything to do with his recent distraction. He glanced back at my, for want of a better phrase-handkerchief-carrying space. "Do you usually have..."
"I used to be a Girl Scout," I answered. People, that was a lie. I'm simply prepared-I don't need no stinking badges. I noticed, rather happily, that he continued to dart looks back in my direction, particularly at the area that I had hoped to draw attention to. "So, I guess, when we get back, you'll want to-uh-sketch or something?" I asked. I darted my eyes in his direction, sidelong, to take note of his face. He held the handkerchief in one hand, against his nose, leaning against the side of the car, while the other hand gripped the wheel. He grunted, but not in a rude way, and blinked a few times. Recognizing I could take up my quest later, I left him to the road, his nose, and his thoughts.
I "sat" for him, clothed at first, while he tried to pick up the subtleties of my face. Or something like that. What I know about drawing I could comfortably fit in my bellybutton and still have room for a Winnebago. My few talents have lain in other directions. He touched my face though, quite a lot, while telling me about myself-which I completely didn't mind.
"I do not."
"* Sniff * Relax."
"I am relaxed..." And I wasn't, because I saw what was coming. His eyes went heavy-lidded, and his mouth opened slightly. He sniffed again, and shook his head.
"Mnnnnn, um. Your hair. Shake it out for me."
In those days, I had big hair. It was the late eighties, and I was eighteen-as far as I knew, big hair was the way to go-and mine certainly went --Arizona, folks, heat, frizz, hair spray, and more frizz-mine is of the curly, too-much red hair variety. I fluffed at it with my fingers, and then grinned up at him.
"It looks better falling over my shoulders...you know...bare shoulders..." He stood, looking at me, fingers pressed against his nose as he fended off a tickle, with a critical look.
"It would." I was watching every muscle of his face, of his body. I could see him swallowing.
I started undoing the buttons of my blouse. I peeled it off slowly, and then touched my bra, which was a front-clasp style. "Should I?" I began, but his fingers were in my hair, stroking it back from my face. He shook his head again, this time, almost distractedly.
"Like sundown over a mesa...the painted canyon...or..." His nostrils flared, slightly as another tickle seized him. I bit my lip. I could almost feel the tickle myself, just from the way his face changed. The sight of my teeth clamped down on my lip, or maybe it was my hair on my shoulders, something made him bury his face in my hair, lips touching curls, one hand to the back of my head, and him momentarily inhaling the Aquanet-laced scent. Just as suddenly as that urge had seized him, he let go of me, turned, and walked out of the living room to the bathroom, where I heard two of those gorgeous sneezes ("Ahhh--ohhh-aaahhhhcccchhhhoooo--huh, sniff, huh...ohh-ahhhhccchhhoooo!") and something, quite close to a moan. My heart pounded.
I was that close to what I wanted. That close and he didn't. That close and he wouldn't. Even when he ordered us a take-out pizza and we chatted over a few beers from his fridge, part of me felt a kind of sting. But it was determined that I might go a bit easier on the teasing and spritzing for a more "natural" effect. You know, so I would blend better into the landscape.
We never quite got the close again, not even living together, practically tripping over each other in the small apartment. Days, he actually worked at a bookstore (he got some money from his patron, but still needed to eat) and I found work as a waitress (which lasted, like, two weeks) and evenings I posed, and he painted or sketched as needed.
And so it went, until we had gotten to be quite professional with each other while I posed and he painted. Finally, we'd gotten to where he wanted to work on the tones of my flesh-it seemed he'd already been clear as to the landscape, and it was me he needed to work on and with. I've never been a shy person-truth be told, I'm quite the exhibitionist, so the thought and then the act of lying nude-even rolling nude, changing my position until I was posed just as he needed me, bothered me not in the least. But there was one thing-just a tiny detail that he noticed.
"Ahhh-huh-aaaahhhh-aaaaahhcccchoooo! Ahh...sniff, hmmmm," he began, during one of our sessions.
"You blush...I swear. You blush when I sneeze. It's almost...I'm sorry, but it's almost like...a post-coital flush. I mean...it's sexual."
"My blushing?" I asked, trying to keep an innocent tone in my voice. Dear god, I thought-he doesn't realize it is sexual-and he has the sexiest sneeze-it was all I could do to keep from flushing a deeper red.
"I mean...it looks sexual. With your face. And the...pose." He looked away, modestly, as if he hadn't been looking at every inch of my body for several weeks.
I changed my position, folding my hands and resting my chin on them. "Sexual?"
Now, it was his turn to blush. He sighed. "I think we've done all we can today. I'm going out. I'll be back." And with little further ado, he went, leaving me to dress and await his return.
I brushed my hair out while he was gone, and started making dinner-I had familiarized myself with his apartment and began doing housework and stuff to make myself useful. I stayed unclothed, because I had gotten used to it. It was kind of freeing...when I was alone. But if he'd stayed, I'd have pulled on something to wear-that was the weird thing. When I wasn't posing, I had to wear clothes, and talk like a pal-not flirting wickedly. When I was posing, I felt like myself. It was odd.
I waited. Dinner got cold. I put it away. I watched the clock. I pulled on some clothes. He came in a little after nine o'clock, not staggering drunk, but wavering. He seemed red-nosed, though, and he'd bought wine.
"Josh..." I sighed, not knowing if I disapproved, or had any place to.
"Drink with me...ahhh....huh...aaaahhhchhhoooo. Sniff. Drinking makes my nose work overtime, but I'd rather be drinking."
He touched my face as he brushed past me and went into the bathroom to blow his nose. He came back out, looking exuberant-and miserable. Of such complexities are artists capable.
"Get a glass. Two. *Sniff * Please."
"No," I said, stunned. I had never seen him that way. Never. "What is this all about? Josh?"
"You're...beautiful. If I sleep with you, it will screw up everything I've worked for. I really can't do that."
"You can't screw the muse?" I asked, softly.
"No. I just have to want to." He sniffed hard, and then shut his eyes. I led him to the couch, and made him sit down. I knew I was pushing it, but I eased myself onto his lap. He shuddered.
His long hair was in his face, and I smoothed it back. His eyes squeezed tighter still, and he breathed deeply. I pressed my lips to his cheek, fiercely, as he took another deep breath. "Huh..."
"Ahhhhccchhhhooooo-whew...huh..." And then he paused. "You're doing it again-blushing."
"Sexually..." I sighed.
"No," he said, looking at my face. "Yes," he amended. "I want to see that blush...forever. Just like that. Sexual. Sensual. I want to paint that."
"Paint the real thing, then," I said.
"Post-coital. That's-after sex-yes? That's how you want to see me." I kissed him again, this time on the mouth. He kissed back, gently, then more aggressively, broke it off quickly...breathing deeply. I wasn't breaking it off at that-I kissed him again on his lips, his mouth open, his nose touching mine, his body shaking.
"Chooo!" he sneezed, breaking the kiss. "I shouldn't drink...this sobetimes..."
"Whatever..." I said. "I don't mind."
"Sneezed in your mouth..."
"Shut up," I explained. I kissed his nose. "I do blush when you sneeze. It's adorable."
"What? Huh-ahhhh-I mean-ahhhhccchhhhooooo-sniff. Adorable?"
"Gorgeous," I answered. "It's like, art. You have a perfectly gorgeous sneeze."
"And you blush when I..."
I kissed him again. "It's sexual."
He stared at me. I began to freak out that I had said it aloud. Not everyone needs to hear about the gorgeousness of their body functions. While some people might be mildly flattered to hear they have a wonderful ringing laugh, or have a hell of an "o" face-a gorgeous sneeze-a "sexual" sneeze, is probably a bit much.
I tried to explain. "It's...round and firm and fully packed. It has...this buildup-tension, and then...the release...I can't explain what I like about it."
"You don't know what you like about it, but you know a good sneeze when you see one?" he asked, in disbelief.
I nodded. He swept me up in his arms then, and I gasped at the swiftness and was a little put off, since he had been drunk enough to be wavering before. "Sobetimes...I sdneeze durig sex," he confided. I looked into his eyes. He was sober, but sneezy. I wondered exactly what it was about drinking that would cause that response-but have since noted it on other occasions.
"I have been known to get this flush, after sex, like sundown over a mesa...very artistic," I admitted.
"Then, this is an exercise in aesthetics...more than anything else...huh...sniff..."
He held off until he'd carried me to the bed, and then dropped me gently down, sneezing. "Huh-ahhh--ohhh..." I gripped the coverlet as he let go, "CHOOOO!"
It's enough to make you really appreciate art, you know?
He made love with only slightly inebriated vigor, in that I could smell the slightly sweet-sour tang of wine on his breath and knew we wouldn't be making love unless he was a bit tipsy, but even when we were cuddling afterwards, I realized that he cared for me in some degree, because we could talk.
"So you like sneezing...that fills in the gaps of your story...receptionist in the allergist's office and all."
"You think it's funny," I accused, teasing, but tracing my finger in the dark brown curls of chest hair, which added a strongly masculine touch to a slight build.
"It's different. But viva la difference and all that. But you like my sneezes --why is that?"
I frowned. It was a question that seemed innocent of the notion of intangibles. Why, a person might well ask what the comparative merits were of the semi-hemispheric breasts of a Botticelli nude over the slightly pendulous breasts of a Modigliani-it was sheerly a question of taste. But I tried.
"Well, they're yours...and you are very cute," I began, which made his eyes roll in his head. But then I continued. "It's the way in which they seem to be a non sequitur."
"Genuinely. Detached from allergy or cold, they simply erupt from your nose kind of...for reasons of their own. You did say your nose was broke, once?"
His face grew pensive in the half-light of the dusk hours. (We'd been at it for a while, in between bits of wine sipping and chatting about the sorts of things which artists and muses occasionally do.) It was a sight that almost made me wish I could sketch, just so I could show him his own handsome, brooding depth.
"I got it broken in a bar fight."
"Damn," I answered. It was the kind of thing that impressed me deeply, as it rang of bad-assedness and artistic cool. "What was the fight for?"
"I slept with another man's girl."
"I guess I don't need to say she was a model for me...I was painting her. And I guess I did just what I'm doing now. He... took it very badly, and smashed my canvas into my face. I went to the emergency room and they reset it-but I guess..."
He looked a little unsettled by the experience, and I didn't pry any further, I simply kissed him and let him make love to me again. When sunlight hit the mattress through the open blinds, though, he squinted and sneezed, shudderingly, and I must have colored just enough, that he grabbed me by my arm and said-"There...like that..."
I went out and posed for him, as he opened the windows of the apartment and let the room suffuse with the dawn rays. At times, he'd come up and stroke me while rubbing his nose, gently threatening to sneeze-teasing me. And sometimes, he'd let it go-"Huh...ahhh...ehhhh---aaaahhhhhhhh-chhoooooooo!" Gorgeously tortured sneezes from his indiscretion-chiseled nose.
It must have had me regularly blushing, because that painting made me look pink as a newborn baby tramp. There's my artistic opinion. But he did make me look gorgeous-better than life, I think. Which is, after all, what an artist sometimes needs to do-hold the mirror up to life-and then fog it up just so.
Josh had one hell of a lot of talent.