I've taken over one huge work table in the corner by windows closed against the mosquitoes which swarm in the late Florence summer. I am prepared to work all night if necessary to finish a project which just does not capture my imagination. By tomorrow morning, I need to have completely inked over 100 illustrations for original fashion designs. Children's clothing. Children's clothing made out of micro-fleece, to be exact. (Micro-fleece does capture my imagination, but not for children's clothes. I want to play with it. Inappropriately. You know- turn it into evening gowns suitable for Grace Jones in Paris. Ugly. And bravely, angrily out of style. Right now. Just because I feel like it.)
Instead, I pick up another Letraset Pantone Tria marker. Ripping off the cap covering the medium tip, I start filling in yet another huge button, on yet another goofy kid's outfit. I'm frustrated. And bored. And this is a very real kind of fashion design moment, to tell you the truth. The kind of moment, where every dumb idea I've ever cherished about being the next crazy couturier to blow away every other, long established house in the Chambre Syndicale De La Couture, is ground into a fine powder. A fine powder suitable for snorting (at) late at night when I realize that this entire industry is just a bunch of silly salmon swimming upstream to die. To die or to design Fruit of the Loom Underwear while living in a rat infested hole, excuse me, apartment, in the city that never sleeps. And yeah, I can do that and every time my soul weeps over how my mighty soufflé of a dream has fallen because the oven was too hot or some fool opened the door too soon or what have you, I can sternly remind myself that I wanted this. I wanted to take this chance.
Me and every other fool who spent too many giddy hours flipping through fashion magazines, acclimating our eyes to the outright ugliness of high fashion- the high concept art of artifice- which has never met a boundary it wouldn't cross. Our pupils dilating to see in the dark. The dark of editorial pictorials using elements of every single kind of violence, sickness and sexual deviance known to mankind. Just to shock. Just to sell.
Kicks just keep getting harder to find, I tell you. After years and years of wading through an art form which advances, lock stepped, in time with every cutting edge thing happening in music, writing, visual arts, science, culture and politics, I am quite comfortably numb. In fact, this is an art form which often anticipates and even forces changes in those other areas. I know, for instance, literally years before mainstream pornography consumers do, which kind of body they will be instructed to desire next. My chosen industry is bored, vacuous, sick, filled with longing, anger, sadness, jealousy, and fear. And then a Donna Karan comes along and does things with a great measure of sanity and joy, for woman's sake, and stranded fashion consumers feel hopeful and lovely and grounded. And they catapult her into monstrous commercial success. Still, my industry is stupid. So they don't duplicate her triumph. They continue to trade on women's weakest and worst selves.
And this is what they appeal to in fashion magazines. Most of the time. I am used to this. So used to it, in fact that I forget it's even there. Whenever I have set my magazines down on the couch at my sister's house, she rushes in to find me in the next room. She pushes Nylon, Elle and Surface into my hands and says, "I just don't want the boys to flip through them. I don't know how I'm going to explain these kinds of pictures to them when they ask about them." I feel simultaneously, that surely, this is an overreaction, and also, oh, she's right. These contain some complicated, rather adult stuff. And not happy adult stuff, either. Her boys are young- very young- and she is trying to let them take on the entire, complex matter of learning this world in a way, and in an order which, hopefully, they can handle well. They'll get to everything. Eventually. She is a good mom and she preserves childhood for her children. For the time that they need it.
But I am a grownup. And I am working on a dream which is, by now, 16 years old. To become- to learn to be- a fashion designer. Which means, that as I lay color down- blending in this (by now) second nature way, with no apparent overlaps in application, building volume and shadow and texture into this 2-D form- I push all other considerations aside. Push away my deepest longings for beauty and sensual enjoyment. What my mind may create. What my hands may touch. What my eyes may see.
I push away every desire for creative community. For approbation and understanding. For pride in the pleasure of my peers. For belonging with others who eat, sleep and breathe these problems of which fabric and how to cut it. These problems of bodies and how they're made and how they turn. The knee bone connected to the thigh bone. She moved in circles and those circles moved.
I push off every part of my own woman's heart which understands why these things must exist- why it is necessary to become fluent in the language that fabrics possess. Why we may rail against the way things are between men and women, but must never be foolish enough to ignore the way things are. Between men and women.
I refer to the reality that women are- at least in part- made for eyes. We did not make ourselves, of course, and this is something that men are often confused about. They feel fear and desire about what they see and often attribute the power of their responses to women themselves. They believe that women are consciously and capably making them fear and desire and in response to this belief and these feelings, men often pile on even more fear and desire, often with a good measure of shame and anger to boot.
All of this power, of course, attributed to women who are usually running around without even 1/5 of an appropriate understanding of the impact the "made for eyes" aspect of them will have. Has had. Does have. Even the women who make a living off of a rather cynical understanding of the "made for eyes" aspect of their existence, just don't get it. (Baby, will you eat that there snack cracker? In your special outfit? For me? Please?)
I'm not sure why it's this way, but I know that it just is. On this point, I am an old French woman shrugging her shoulders. She's seen it all and is no longer surprised. It was ever thus. Still... romance stalks around every corner. Every dream, every longing was made to be answered. Put on that dress.... and make a wish.
And I push away every fear I have. Fears of insignificance and wasted time. Of not being good enough. Of never reaching what I dream of having. What I dream of being. And I drift into this Zen state of work. For work's sake. This is enough. There is nothing more. No more fear. No more desire. Just color laid down. On the correct side of marker paper.
And music is in my ears the whole time. So, I sing. Lost in this color. Lost in this sound. Lost in this old, old room in Italy. Bebel Gilberto leads and I follow behind her, for her pretty sake, through this disc of Brazilian music. Pantone ink soaks and bleeds through my paper as I push color all the way up to the black inked edges of each shape. And easy, sinuous music rises in this small room. I push sound effortlessly off these stone walls. And they curve it back to me. We are all- paper, pen, voice, walls- very pleased. And we are lost in here. Time has run away. And left us to our own devices.
Someone is at my left shoulder and I speak- too loudly, I'm sure, because the music is still pouring into my ears- "You're back already! Did you eat?" I turn to see the smart, irritating, funny and courageous girl who was working in the same room earlier this evening. And stare in shock at someone who is very definitely not her. One of the graduate architect students from downstairs is standing beside me- too close. I flip one of the earphones aside and raise my eyebrows questioningly. He smiles and says, "We thought you guys were up here having a party and didn't invite us." I say, "Oh!" (I can't think of anything else. I am, you will remember, rising up from my drugged state of peaceful color and easy sound.) He just stands and smiles at me. Evidently, it is still my turn to speak. So I try again. "I'm sorry, I'm kind of right brained right now- the drawing, the singing." I wave distractedly at the pile of supplies on the table to my right.
Logical, conversational words are the most difficult thing to form at this moment. They are utterly beside the point where I have just been. But he wants to speak with me, so I try. "I'm sorry if I was bothering you all downstairs. Was I being too loud?" He smiles even wider, and says, "No, you sound beautiful. I can't believe you were actually singing. We all thought somebody was playing music up here." "You sure? 'Cuz if I'm bothering anybody, just tell me and I'll be quiet", I insist earnestly. He tilts his head, considering me and says, "You're not bothering anybody. Keep singing." And then he walks out the door. I yell, "Just let me know, though, if I bug you guys." I shrug and go back to work. And I go back to my singing. Because it's fun. Because it feels good. Because I'm not hurting anybody.
My friend arrives a few minutes later, having been stopped downstairs by more of these architect types who want information about the singer upstairs. We shake our heads. There is no time for this kind of foolishness. There is too much work to finish. We turn away from each other and burrow back into our own toil.
Later on, I am most of the way through my 100 illustrations. And I am most of the way through a shuffled Sarah McLachlin disc (and damn that's heavy stuff. What's sadder than sad?) I have finished
oh, but every time I'm close to you
there's too much I can't say
and you just walk away
and I forgot
to tell you
I love you
and the night's
and cold here
I grieve in my condition
for I cannot find the words to say I need you so.
And while the feeling of that still eddies around me, I slide into
it doesn't mean much
it doesn't mean anything at all
the life I've left behind me
is a cold room
I've crossed the last line
from where I can't return
where every step I took in faith
and led me from my home.
This is all touching on painful stuff- religion and deception, love and death- a grief that just won't end. But I am nearly done with my work and I can afford to send my heart up in flames before I walk home, foolish in the dark.
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and still singing-
right before our eyes
will mercy be revealed
or blind us where we stand
will we burn in heaven
like we do down here
- I look toward the doorway. He is back and he's brought two friends. He points at me and I hear him say, "She's the one that sings." Another answers, "Man, I thought you were lying about her!" They watch me in my corner by the windows as if I were an exotic animal. Trapped in this little design school zoo.
And truly they are adorable boys. All looking at me. Drifting into what my voice has done to them. Eyes softening. Bodies tensing. Ready to compete with each other. Over me.
I shake my head and turn my eyes back to my page. I am older than they could ever imagine. And I have work to do.