His heart raced as he stepped into the room. It was tucked away at the far end of campus, and since it was the winter, the sun had already set, leaving him to make the entire trek in the dark. The building may have been welcoming in the daytime, but now it was foreboding. Only a few students trickled in before him, and though he wasn’t outside for long, it didn’t provide any comfort that he saw none return.
Inside, the hallway was long and connected two large classrooms with open doors at either end. He pulled out his phone and double-checked his email. This was the place, but he still needed to locate the correct room with only a few minutes left on the clock. Some of the doors in front of him were numbered, but not all of them were. They were spread out across the length of the hallway.
He picked a direction and walked at a varied pace that revealed both his fear of being late and fear of arriving. He made it all the way to the end of the hall without seeing the room number he was looking for and peaked his head inside the classroom to take a look. It was empty and dark, which suggested that it was not the right place. He looked around for a room number to confirm, but when he pulled out his phone again, he saw that he was even shorter on time and rushed to the other end of the hall.
There, inside the replicated room at the opposite end, he saw signs of life. Students were setting up their easels, gathering their brushes, and washing their hands. He didn’t see a teacher, but given the reason for his arrival, he was especially nervous to stick his head in and ask: Hey, is this Life Drawing I?
The words didn’t get to leave his mouth, for he heard footsteps approaching him from behind, and when he turned around, the woman he saw was looking him straight in the eyes. She asked his name, introduced herself as the professor, and guided him inside.
Now he sits on a chair situated on-stage at the front of the classroom. He has one hand on his knee and the other draped ever so slightly inward on his thigh, his legs spread apart naturally. Thankfully, there is a white cloth between him and the chair, for he can imagine the discomfort that would come from sitting directly on the cold wood for even a few moments, let alone a few hours.
Three. That’s how many hours he’s supposed to remain motionless. Already he feels as though a silent eternity has passed, but the clock on the wall shows that it’s only 7:06, essentially as far away from 10:00 as when he started. At first he was grateful to have the time within such easy view, but he’s already thinking otherwise. This is going to be a long session.
His clothes sit in the corner of the room. Before today, he imagined that he would have been required to change in a separate place down the hall, or in a closet, or someplace remotely private, and then enter in with a white robe, which he would unstrap and drop in front of a room filled with strangers. This was the way he had seen it done on TV whenever a sitcom decided to crack a joke, but reality turned out to be strikingly different. He had taken off his clothes in plain sight at the side of the room, the same way he had done in private and semi-private many times before. When he looked up after pulling the last piece down and around his ankles, he saw that no eyes were aimed in his direction. He had undressed in private even now.
In a way, he ceased to be human the second he stepped out of his clothes. The teacher spoke only enough to instruct him where to sit and remind him that he could take a break at any time. He was free to set his own pose, and she only chimed in with concern over which positions would be difficult to hold after only a few moments. Apparently, even in a chair, there were many ways for parts of the body to fall asleep if it wasn’t moving. So he decided to avoid the armrests entirely.
Since then, no one has spoken a word. Eyes dot back and forth from canvases to his body and back again. The teacher walks around the room, watching as the students get started. The model sits alone at the front of the room, left to his thoughts. He’s wondering about how he got here, having grown up too shy to show his body to anyone, having worn T-shirts to the pool and changed as quickly as possible in gym class. Now he’s doing precisely the opposite, allowing a room of strangers to study and capture every detail.
He contemplates how many students have done this before him and how many times this class has met at the far corner of campus, completely off his radar for two years now as he passed through as a freshman and a sophomore in old brick buildings that, in the grand scheme of things, stood right next door. He’s torn with thoughts of how simultaneously weird and normal it is to be here, at this moment, helping these students to learn.
The teacher interrupts his thoughts with a question about the heat. It’s fine just as it is, he says, but she wants him to know that they can adjust it at any time. Then she goes back to monitoring the students. Now she’s speaking to them individually, pointing out ways they can improve their technique.
The students are predominantly girls, and they’re young, fit, and attractive in the disproportionate way that college girls are. Now’s not the time, he decides, to let his eyes wander. Instead he looks up at the clock again. It’s 7:15.
He’s getting paid nearly twice minimum wage to be here, and now he’s starting to understand why. Ironically, doing absolutely nothing for an hour is more challenging than it seems. Three hours would go by much faster working on a paper, standing at a cash register, or, he imagines, doing construction work than it does sitting motionless in an old wooden chair. He doesn’t even want to think how long a full eight-hour workday would take.
But eventually, as he looks up at the clock, its numbers start to pass more quickly. It’s 8:03 now, and somewhere along the way, he’s begun to feel comfortable. With nothing else to do, he starts to ponder why and how. He’s not physically comfortable, for even with a cloth, the hard chair he’s sitting in is still pretty unforgiving. He finds himself subtly shifting his fingers, toes, and limbs just to get the blood flowing. If he’s moved enough to change his position, no one’s said anything.
The comfort, he determines, is something more. To be so exposed, so vulnerable, in front of so many people without feeling, well, vulnerable, speaks directly to his psyche. What other fears has he nurtured that, if tackled head on, would also feel overblown? After all, he had been raised in a world that was shocked by nudity only to find that, in all of the instances in his life where he’s taken off his clothes, no one’s seemed to care. We all have bodies, and somehow they manage to be infinitely different and yet remarkably similar all at once. The students that stand before him now are no more shocked or surprised by the sight of his body than a bowl of fruit.
When the clock finally reaches 10:00 and the class comes to a close, he stands up for the first time in three hours. He hadn’t taken a break, despite having the option. This had slipped his mind, but it hadn’t passed the students unnoticed. A few compliment him. To remain still for so long was uncommon, but it made things great for them.
He slips on his clothes and checks out a few paintings. He can see himself in all of them, though admittedly more in some than others. Standing up now, his body again covered as it normally was, he didn’t feel all that different from the guy staring back at him in the canvas.
Only relatively few people ever put themselves up on display in such a way that forces them to acknowledge and confront the defensive wall that inhabits the fibers of their clothes. In these three hours, his had fallen entirely. He stepped out of the art building and into the cold night feeling freer than he ever had before.
“Nude” by Bertel King, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.