She's My Dorian Gray
One way you realize you're becoming a Woman of a Certain Age is when you notice that your body doesn't hold the power and fascination over the world it once did. It no longer feels important to drape your body in different clothes, adorn it, show it, hide it. You can't remember the last time you spent an hour in front of the mirror, slipping out of this and into that just for the joy of watching.
Fortunately, this body change may happen around the same time that you're coming into possession of something else—a house! One day you wake up and realize a displacement has occurred: My body isn't my signature possession anymore, it isn't where I place my urges to create and manifest beauty. Instead all I'm interested in is making my living space beautiful, cozy, stylish.
Three years ago, before I got pregnant, when I was still riding my bike outrageous distances and feeling very fit, I decided to buy some paintings from my cousin, who was just on the cusp of becoming a professional artist. I bought them after looking at images on her website. Two of them, she mailed to me, and the third was much too big to send. It was a 6-foot by 4-foot nude, specifically a painting of a peaceful looking, extremely pregnant woman reclining on a couch with a pair of glasses and a book. The title is Mother and Child Reading. I fell in love with it.
I always thought I’d eventually drive to the town in New York where my cousin lives, with a truck or something, and bring the painting back, but it never happened. A few weeks ago she removed the canvas from its stretchers, rolled it up, and mailed it to me. I hired a guy to build new stretchers and a simple frame, and on Saturday, he delivered the complete, stretched painting. Of course I knew how large the painting was, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing it in real life. It is beautiful, but it is also so big, so stark, and so much what it is: a life-sized picture of a naked woman.
When I bought the painting, I imagined she'd go on some future living room wall, and that it would be awesome. Since then, I have in fact come into the possession of a house with a large living room wall, as well as a living child of my own, a painful story about a pregnancy that didn't end as planned, and a body that isn't what it used to be. It makes me feel naïve to admit it, but back when I bought the painting, I thought it was beautiful, but I didn't think it had anything to do with me. Or anyone else, for that matter. These days I understand what might be fraught about making a colossal fertility fetish the first thing every guest will see.
This weekend my old friend Meg was visiting with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. After the kids went to bed, we unveiled the painting and carried it around the house, looking at it on different walls. It could go in the family room. It could go behind the bed. It could go in the living room or, if we really wanted to hide it, in the study. The model in the painting has long hair. She’s white, small-to-medium breasted, and lying on a couch that looks like our couch. Meg pointed out that some people will assume it’s a portrait of me, an obvious leap that I swear didn't cross my mind for even a second three years ago.
On Saturday night, we left the painting on the floor and, after dinner, I took Meg to Ottobar. A DJ was playing the songs of women pop artists through the ages. The bar was full of people of all shapes, colors, and sizes. The gestalt was triumphant. Everybody was happy, nobody was on their phone. A middle-aged man Chinese man dressed like a sexy gangster played pool with a bemuscled African American guy, while an out-of-shape white dude grooved to Madonna in his bar stool. We drank Jameson on ice and blinked like rubes mesmerized by bright city lights, which as moms who are home most nights while little kids sleep, we basically are. "It was nice of you to arrange for all of the world's people to be here," she said.
Toward eleven, the crowd began to skew more and more heavily female. A young woman approached with her friends and asked Meg they could put their coats on the empty chair beside her. Meg said sure, and the young woman thanked her profusely, even giving her a hug ("Bring it in," she said). She had long black hair and hips like a priceless stringed instrument. All around us women were dancing, laughing, meeting each other. I thought again about how wasteful it is that young women spend so much time comparing their looks to those of other young women, when what they should really be doing is comparing themselves to what they'll be in ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years. On your worst day at 25 you have something you'll someday never have again.
Meg and I felt happy, then sad. We felt joyful, then old. We ordered a round of beers, then decided to share one more, but the bartender misunderstood Meg's order so we had another full round. The DJ played “Call Your Girlfriend,” and “Like a Virgin,” and “Lovefool” by the Cardigans. We finished our drinks, and walked back through the cold to my incipiently beautiful house, which is a shambles at the moment as we change some things around. (Turn to the right . . . turn to the left . . . )
On Monday, we hung the painting on the living room wall. I can't say yet if it's awesome, but I'm certain it's bold.