Her body wobbles next to mine as I lie, awake in the dark, pondering the miracle of my being here with her. Her thunderous breathing regulates my thoughts, the heavy intake and expiration of breath like a train crashing through the night. Her side of the bed leans dangerously close to the floor, while I lie light as a feather on mine, trying a funambulist’s act not to roll down against her. I think irrelevantly of Power Plates, the micro-muscular structure solicited as people balance precariously on the machine, pretending to be astronauts. I am like them, but my balance is fragile and my body is now weary. It is the winter of my life and she lies beside me, the most unlikely mound of flesh I have ever considered and the one I love most.
She is like a mynah, an exotic bird which, once asleep, lets her caged spirit fly. Like the bird, she whistles and calls in different tones. Now her voice is a child’s, then it is her own, then again some other’s, in all the scales of sound that her vocal chords can produce. In sleep, she may play a cast of characters from youthful to aged, and yet wake again fully rested. I hope I shall pass before she will; I could not bear to have still nights without movement any longer.
I think back, in the bleak cold hours just before sunrise, to my life, to my previous life. This is the most fulfilling chapter of all, and it surprises me, almost painfully. I had been past the zenith of my career, reaching that stage when suddenly the exhibitions become retrospectives, a sweeping homage to work that once had been. Solemn cocktails with tributes to my contribution to art, the influence I wielded or the novelty I brought to the field. A looking over my shoulder at the traces I had left.
I had hobnobbed with the literati, the glitterati and the flitterati, those fickle socialites who know you when you are useful to them and who shun you when you can no longer deliver to their self-serving interests. I had travelled the world, worked with the wealthiest, the most beautiful, the sexiest — that small percentile of the population that the world envies, adores and loves to despise. I had spent holidays on 90 foot yachts and been served hand and foot. Five star hotel concierges were on first name terms with me and kept me my room so when I was in town I had a home from home.
I had assistants that I helped on the road to fame and those with whom I slept then discarded easily. I had press attachés whom I swore at and those whom I blessed for knowing how to keep some of those media hounds at bay when I most needed it. I photographed sensually pouting mouths and pert breasts, tight bums and muscular, smooth torsos. The dip of the back and the bunching of muscles. I photographed the young hopefuls climbing up the ladder of fame and those sliding gracelessly down the other side. Black and white, colour, I was equally masterful in both and knew how to frame the subject in a light that no one else could see. Neither the sterile posed portraits of Harcourt nor the stark brashness of Newton. My own style. A balance of light and time. A twentieth century chiaroscuro expert, but instead of paints and candles my tools were lenses and illumination.
My work had reached a standstill; I could no longer hide from myself behind my lamps and filters. I felt empty, purposeless. I went to the cocktails because I had to, because my fierce pride would not let people whisper behind my back that I had once been great and was no longer. My eyes were still fierce behind my bushy eyebrows, and my body was tall, straight and trim. But it was tired. I could not find the next source of inspiration. The photos I sold were still fetching high prices and the fashion shots were still aesthetic. I had realised they were empty, like my life.
It was then that I received a letter, elegantly written on grainy handmade paper. The writing was slanted and firm, full of straight verticals, written in purple ink. The author commented that purple ink was the bane of novelists but that it was the only ink left in the house. My unknown correspondent explained briefly that she had suffered from being severely overweight all her life, and now at the age of 40 she wanted to ask an artistic photographer to identify the beauty in her. It was neither grovelling nor flattering. She wrote to me as an equal, even though I was undoubtedly one of the most acclaimed photographers in the world. My secretary had attached a note asking me “Standard answer?” which would be a politely phrased letter about too many commitments and a heavy travel schedule but sincere thanks for the offer. Most of these requests my secretary did not even pass on. This one she had; I was surprised. I set it aside. It lay there, on my desk, slowly accumulating more layers of dust as I ran once again from country to country, trying to fill my emptiness.
Where had my life fled? Where had my values been buried?
I had forgotten all about it when a second letter turned up. This time the ink was turquoise. She asked me why I didn’t even have the common courtesy to respond. She wrote that she had been expecting a standard response and even that had not come. At first she had thought it was the mail, then as time stretched out she had realised that I just wasn’t going to answer. It wasn’t a lecture. It wasn’t a complaint. It was a simple statement of who I appeared to be, and clearly she was not impressed. She did not reiterate her request.
I mulled it over in my mind, reread the letter. Several times. Something in it was perfect. It was dignified, carefully worded and non-committal, while at the same time it managed to touch some recess of my mind that I did not know was there. A creeping doubt began to spread. As the weeks passed I wondered if I truly was that worthless a human being. Had I been lulled into insensitivity through overexposure to deceptive glamour and glitter? Had I truly lost the being part of me that had at the beginning of my career sat like a small devil whispering in my ear, “all that glitters is not gold”, reminding me of the worn out adage that my parents had repeated again and again, before I left them to die alone, while I was chasing fame and fortune. I thought back to their deaths. I had paid someone to take care of the burials, to say the prayers I could not and would not say, to purchase the headstones and engrave the RIP, which was all I could think of to write. Where had my life fled? Where had my values been buried?
All those smiling, vacuous models. Some more rapacious than others, some smart enough to get out of the game through marriage to a rich lecher before they got too jaded and used, or too hooked on alcohol, coke and ecstasy. The male models, self-centred Adonises admiring their own sylphlike hermaphroditic bodies, did not really touch me either. Instead, I chased the perfect frame. The perfect lighting so that skins glowed rather than absorbed light. The original contrasts. The right distance, the seductive expression, according to the creative brief which became more and more irrelevant the brighter my star shone. I could impose my style.
Months later, at a loose end, I rummaged about my desk for the first letter. Severely overweight. Find the beauty. I began to think. I had worked with beauty all my life, but I had never really thought about it seriously. It had always been a given. Evolved from the earthy Grecian balance, today’s criteria induced the same egg-timer shape that the ancients had admired, albeit a considerably thinner version. Rubens would have been frustrated at my prints. Leonardo might have admired my searching for the perfect shot. Raphael would have approved of my use of light. But all these reflections brought me no nearer to what beauty really meant. While men envied me the proximity to women that I would order to pout, to stand just so, whose hair I would adjust, whom I would push into the position I wanted for just the right look, I consumed it all without a second thought, as if it were my due. The letter bothered me. I reread it, several times. Find beauty.
Slowly I sat down, and pulled a blank sheet of paper out of my drawer. I picked up the gold Mont Blanc pen my father had written his letters with, and that I had found when rummaging for her letter. I carefully wrote one single sentence in the middle of the page. Come to meet me on October 31st. I neither signed nor gave an address. I thought that way I can always say that I wrote back, to still my conscience. It was three months away.
On the doorstep stood the fattest woman I had ever seen, or rather, looked at.
Those three months turned into a form of waiting, as if I were sitting by my own bedside and watching myself dying. Some curious immobility struck me, different to any other. My life ground to a standstill. I spent hours reviewing my life. I thought about my parents. I thought how disappointed they must have been — their only son not even making time to see them. I grieved, too late, over missed opportunities. I wondered about my friends, and whether I had anyone left who I could reasonably call that. It was, I realised long after, the closing of my old life and the opening of a new one, a period of mourning without there being any corpse to keen over.
The last day of October that year was a clear sunny day. It had been a late summer and the leaves were coloured in deep auburns, sharp yellows, mixed reds, waving gently in the wind. The sky was blue, that in-between blue that is neither the deep azure of mountainous skies in midwinter nor the high blue of lazy summer days. I woke up as if from a long sleep and wondered what would happen next. The clocks had changed and I had a luxurious, long lie-in, reading the newspaper comfortably ensconced with breakfast in bed. I had just reached the cultural section when the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone and didn’t feel like opening it. After a brief debate with myself, I wrapped my bathrobe around me and went to the door, opening it wide to see who was there.
On the doorstep stood the fattest woman I had ever seen, or rather, looked at.
She had jet black short curly hair, white skin, and was wearing a tent-like dress that fell down to her splayed out feet, jammed into some Dr Scholl’s sandals. Beads of sweat stood out on her forehead. That was all I could take in at first. There was so much of her. She was consummately present.
“Hello. It is today isn’t it?” she asked. She smiled broadly, her eyes dancing.
“What is?” I asked, taken aback. I thought abstractedly that she had the most perfectly aligned white teeth I had ever seen.
“Didn’t you tell me to come and meet you today?”
“Meet me? Today?” I repeated stupidly, taken aback by this enormity on my doorstep.
“Well Hallowe’en. Aka All Hallows Eve. Samuin. October 31st. Trick or treat?” Clearly she was amused at my cluelessness. “Ghosts and ghouls. But you’re lucky – today you have a real live body on your doorstep!”
I remembered. I had sent her a note. And she had found her way here, without a signature, without direction, to my doorstep. She watched as the realisation dawned on me. She did not react, did not push, did not insist, did not talk needlessly. She just waited, watching. Was she judging me? Was she indifferent? I could not tell. I needed time to take in the sheer presence of her. She was huge. She blocked the light in the doorway. Her watch sat tightly round her wrist, and I noticed that the strap was at the last hole, flesh overlapping onto the hot pink leather. Her toenails were manicured and also painted hot pink. I could only take in details, not the whole. There was a long silence. She waited, sweating gently.
“You’d better come in then,” I eventually said.
“I want you to take artistic shots of me.” That was her request once we were comfortably seated in my living room. I had thought of taking her directly to my studio, at the back of the house. Then I thought of all the beautiful people who had been there and could not bring myself to take her in. So we were sitting face to face, each in an arm chair. I sat upright and stiff, she sat with her ample buttocks wedged tightly against the back of the chair, her legs apart in a most ungainly position, forced open by the fat.
“What do you mean, ‘artistic shots’?” My question was almost rude but I could not fathom what could be artistic about shooting her. “Like for magazines? That won’t work.”
“No. I had something different in mind. You have a style, a signature that is recognisable. You have worked with all the rich and famous, the cognoscenti, the wannabes. I am none of those. I am someone special. I want you to show that.”
“To whom do you want to show it? And just how are you special?” thinking to myself, apart from your incredible size?
“Well, my incredible size for one… And I would like to show it to myself.” That surprised me. She had read my thoughts word for word.
“My toes and my teeth.” She pulled her feet out of her sandals and showed me her toes. Indeed, they were faultless. Small, chubby, in perfect alignment and proportionately classical. Surprisingly babyish. The skin was clear and the bright polish brought out the whiteness. She was quiet for a while, watching me, assessing me. I looked back up to her face. She smiled, revealing once again a perfect row of teeth. None of the models I had ever shot had had such a pearly white, even row. Her gums were pink and healthy. I realised that her lips were sensual and expressive.
“I am sure you can find other things too. With your talent…” She was watching me, gauging my slightest reactions. I tried not to show anything. Inside myself I was at once amused, hostile, furious at her presumption and mystified by her gumption. I did not want her to see the disdain I felt, struggling with mixed amusement and outrage. She had touched my vanity and knew it. She was not attractive in any traditional sense of the word. By modern standards, she could have been termed obese, grossly fat, obscenely fleshy, a butterball. Why she had ended up selecting my artwork to beautify her was beyond my understanding. I couldn’t decide if it was offensive to my art or simply bizarre. Moreover, she had easily identified my pride and used it to her advantage.
“I have never worked for an individual before,” I hedged. “And never on something that will necessarily be this detailed.”
“When Apollodorus first explored light in his art he had never done it before. Caravaggio turned it into a whole new art form. Photography works with exactly those principles: dark and light.”
“And what exactly would you expect?” I retorted.
“I would expect to have a portfolio of my finest features. You can choose whether colour or black and white. Your work has always bragged about beauty. Show me you can do it.”
It was an open challenge.
“I will pay you per hour of photography. I will expect a full book of shots at the end of it. I will come and sit for you either evenings or weekends.” Her tone was neutral but her words implied take it or leave it. She seemed determined and indifferent, both at once. I looked more closely. A smile hovered at the edge of her lips and her eyes were full of mischief. She was challenging me. She had read me the second I opened the door and had snared me as easily as a mouse in a mousetrap.
“My price is quite high,” I replied inanely. It was neither acceptance nor refusal. It was a feint and she recognised it instantly.
“Yes, and I am prepared to pay.”
“How many hours would you like to book?”
“How many do you think you will need?”
“Stand up please.”
She stood up. I pulled the chair from behind her to create some space. I circled her. She simply stood.
“Take off your sandals please. And stand straight.”
The light was bright, filtered by the clean windows. She stood unabashed, under my scrutiny. Her shadow lay across the floor like a misshapen whale. I had always thought that obese people smelled, because of their constant sweating; soap and perfume wafted from her. I looked at her. Her curly hair was a luminous, shimmering black. It was thick and unruly. Her face was round and topped a double chin and a fleshy neck. Her nose was small and her lips were full. I stepped closer. Her eyes were violet, an unexpected deep shade that shone unwaveringly. She was sweating again. The fine film covered her cheeks. I stepped back. Her body was hidden under her dress, but her stomach protruded through the fabric, which reached just below the knees. Her calves shaped a graceful though plump V down to her feet, where her tiny perfect toes held her in a delicate balance that defied gravity. Her arms rested lightly against the sides of her body.
“Take your watch off please.”
She obeyed demurely. The arms were podgy and her hands, like her feet, were small. Where her feet had a child’s grace, her hands were merely stubby. She had not painted her finger nails. I circled her again. Her skin was smooth and fair. There might be beauty in her joints, in the rise and fall of a hip, or the intimacy of her private folds. The inventory was not promising: hair, feet, teeth and eyes.
I sighed. “Ok, thanks. You can sit down again.” I wondered why I was wasting my time. So I made a bid for more. “Can you give me time to think about it?”
“Yes, by all means. Since you gave me three months to come here, I’ll give you three months to think about it. Here’s my phone number.” She gathered up her belongings, thanked me politely and stepped towards the door. Turning, she added, “And if you do decide to proceed, send me a cost estimate will you?” And then she was gone.
I leaned against the closed door trying to gather my wits about me. I realised that I had received her in my dressing gown. What had just happened was the equivalent of a glove being slapped across my face. I had no witnesses and would not be called to justice if I refused the challenge. One single person in the world would know I had been too cowardly.
My initial list was hair, feet, teeth, eyes. I had not yet asked her to undress.
So it was that several months later she turned up on my doorstep again, smelling of freshly washed laundry. I had agreed to take on her challenge, and had laid down my conditions clearly. We would work in ten sessions. I would decide which shots I would take. Whatever I asked for she must comply with. She would stay the time I required for the shot but I would only charge her for two hours maximum each time. I thought that was fair and so, apparently, did she. She accepted. My initial list was hair, feet, teeth, eyes. I had not yet asked her to undress.
We began with her hair. I decided to use a long exposure and a single light source. It required her to sit absolutely still for quite some time. I would not even let her talk. I required her to lie on a couch and to lean her head back, over the armrest. She remained immobile, an oversized dressed Maja. She impressed me with her stillness; no professional model had held a pose that uncomplainingly and with such immobility. The light played gently with her curls and the effect I was seeking was like icescapes, a contrast between white and black, a suggestiveness that bordered on awkward.
I moved to her feet. The question was should I angle the camera from above, from the side or head on. I wanted to capture the whiteness of her skin and the perfection of the proportions. Once she discarded her shoes and had remained barefoot for a while, her skin became soft and plump. She pampered her feet, well aware that the poor things would carry her immense weight for all her life. She told me she massaged them with oil every night, spending more time on the heel than the toes. Each toe was a miracle of creation, distal, middle and proximal phalanges proportionately arranged inside silky skin, perfect oval nails at the end of each, polished and buffed. I chose indirect light, remaining in the high textural zones. Where I wanted her hair to reflect and catch the light and dark, I sought to make her toes as light as possible, softening contours and suggesting lines.
The eyes and the teeth were easy and completed in one sitting. I captured the wonderful contrast between her gums and her teeth. It was appealingly sensuous. I had done many such shots before. She knew how to make herself up well. While I worked, we would talk. I broached the subject of undressing.
“When I have done your teeth and eyes, I would like to see if there are any other parts of interest.”
“You mean undress, right?”
“Yes. A critical look at all your body parts. That’s what you wanted…”
There was a long silence. She had expressly requested me to reconcile herself with her body but seemed not to have considered that it might involve nudity. That surprised me, as she had revealed herself to be astute, funny, charming and quick off the mark. I wondered what the hesitation was.
“What bothers you? That was part of our deal.”
“I…I thought that the parts you chose were enough.”
“They are external parts. I want to see the hidden parts, the folds and crevasses, the hills and valleys of what is not shown to the outside world.” I tried to be lyrical in my descriptions, although I was not sure whether I would really find something of worth in her monstrous flesh. I had learnt that underneath it all there was a scintillating personality, but could not imagine any physical beauty. She knew me well enough by then to read between the lines. I could see her struggling with herself. On the one hand she knew that indeed it was what she had asked me to do. On the other, she had built her territory into an impenetrable fortress that she wanted no one to breach. She was in a quandary. It was my turn to flick the glove across her face.
“Next time,” she finally conceded. I noticed there were tears in her eyes.
And so, next time she did. She began to unzip her tent and within seconds she was in her underwear. She stood in the middle of my studio and held her breath. Watching me carefully for my reaction, as she saw my eyes widen to take in her size. Her breasts were enormous, her girth continental and her rump beyond imagination. I could have fit four of me into her knickers. I cleared my throat. “Can you take everything off please and lie down?”.
I glanced away as she undressed, suddenly shy. At once embarrassed and curious. I thought back to the perfect bodies I used to photograph and then realised with surprise that this was much more interesting. I really had to observe her. I had to be critical and understanding, empathetic and subjective. I needed to draw out the intrinsic qualities of who she was. I needed to understand what her strengths and weaknesses were, to emphasise those traits particular to her. It was not just a technical feat, it was an intensely human task. She was in fact asking me to see her truly.
I turned back to her prone figure. She gazed at me, daring me to say something. I said nothing. I stood a little away from her and looked. The flesh slid all over the place. What she managed to hide with her tent dresses was shown up in all its consistency. Her breasts seeped over her stomach which seeped over her private parts which hid between her thick thighs. My stomach lurched. This was surely the ugliest body I had ever come across. I forced myself to go on looking, seeking parts and forgetting the whole.
Focusing on her hips, I realised that the huge folds of fat and the stiff inclines of her leg were a perfect landscape. If I dulled the skin and worked in the lower zones of light, I could perhaps come up with some attractive bodyscapes. I asked her to turn fully onto her side. The flesh draped over the edge of the sofa. I asked her to bend her legs into a 45 degree angle. It was grotesque and wonderful. Strangely beautiful. I told her to hold the pose. I hesitated over camera, film, lens and lighting. A wide angle lens might lend an effect that was unexpected. At the same time, I wanted to focus in on only one place. It was technically much more difficult than I had anticipated. I sought just the right patina, the exact contrasts, the balance of volumes. That particular series took a few sessions. Suddenly we were running out of time.
“I’d like to try a few more body areas. I suggest you give me a few more sessions,” I commented at the end of three particularly testing sittings. “And I will offer them to you as a present.” I surprised myself. I had never done anything for free. I wanted to do her buttocks as a Martian wasteland, using the pockmarks of cellulite to symbolise the devastation of what other people may see. What I could not admit to myself yet was that I wanted to spend more time with her. Her presence was soothing and challenging, quiet and cheerful. I had never felt so at ease and so intimate with anyone. Her body was just an excuse. The realisation pulled me up short. I searched frantically in my mind for justifications. It was just a difficult project. She had given me a goal. I had just been experimenting. But whichever way I turned it over in my mind, it always came back to the one fact: it was no longer the project, it was her.
She gave me the extra sessions. I photographed more of her. And finally we reached the end of the project. The portfolio was completed. It was the greatest work of art I had ever done. Each shot was flawless. I had captured every aspect of what I had come to recognise as her unique beauty. I handed it to her and waited for her verdict.
She turned the pages. Her expression was unreadable. “Are you going to exhibit this?”
“I was considering it…”
“It is the best work you have ever done. It is stunning, Objectively. I know it’s me, but you have really done some outstanding work. Thank you.”
Once again, she had read my mind. She knew I needed her permission to exhibit. I struggled. If I put this on show my fame would exceed that of all my expectations. I would get more commissions, more honours, more money. It was the thank you that did it. I realised then that I could not share this intimacy with the world. My best work would have to stay hidden. Only she and I would know what I was capable of. It was my tribute to her. From the dark I had reached the light. I had understood what beauty was.
And so I lie today, content with my mortality, and I smile once again at how this woman has turned my life from a flat, empty plain to a three-dimensional reality with darkness, and shade, where she is, without a doubt, the source of light.