The Muse

The Muse by Clarke ClaytonI had just flubbed an audition for a deodorant commercial when he materialized on the sidewalk in Chelsea, wielding an enormous camera and indiscreetly scoping out each girl that sauntered by.

Even then, it occurred to me that he was probably a pervert, but I brushed away that thought easily.  He’s famous, I was excitedly telling myself. Even as a bearer of only the most rudimentary knowledge of the fashion world, I knew exactly who the man with the camera was: Nicholas Foot, famous street-fashion photographer. His photos were everywhere, images of nattily dressed young women against the backdrop of Paris or London or Milan, and often New York. I found most of his photos purely pleasurable to look at, but the ones of New York haunted me because they represented an echelon of the city that seemed frustratingly, perpetually inaccessible: that remote oligarchy of the beautiful people. For that, I could only look at them wistfully.

But, now, suddenly Nicholas Foot and I were sharing the same sidewalk, and so naturally I tried to get his attention. But I didn’t want him to know I was trying; so I marched past him frowning, trying to create an aura of being busy and in-demand. It worked.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you want to have your picture taken? It’s for a popular fashion blog.”

I paused in my tracks, pretending to contemplate the offer and turned to face him, skeptical but amused. “Oh? And who are you?”

“My name is Nicholas. I’m a street fashion photographer. Here’s my card.”

I studied it, and then looked at him. He was a disappointment, physically. His face had pleasant features but there was something colorless and slightly reptilian about his complexion. Still, it was easier than it ought to have been to flirt with him.

“Well,” I told him, warming up while still trying to seem casual. “I’m flattered. I thought I looked like crap today.”

He snapped my photograph a few times right there on the corner, but he didn’t like the light. He fussed with my dress and clicked his teeth.

“You look washed out,” he said. “Let’s cross the street where the light’s better.” I fared no better on the other side of the street. The light was still all wrong. But he kept taking pictures, and I kept laughing at everything he said, for the simple reason that I had already decided I was going to become his muse and accompany him to international fashion events.

“I love your camera,” I told him. “You looked like Cartier-Bresson, prowling around with that camera on your hip.”

That put him in a good mood. He grew chatty, wanted to learn about me.

“You’re an actress? That’s terrific,” he said and shook his head, impressed, as though it were a feat worthy of admiration. “You live in Brooklyn? Wow. I’ve never even been to Brooklyn.”

On a whim I said I would show him around. We agreed to have lunch the next week, and he air-kissed me goodbye.

“Don’t wear yellow next time,” he said as I walked away. “Yellow doesn’t do you justice.”

I was content as I watched him climb into a cab. For once, the city felt as it ought to: a place of possibility, a place where being young and short-skirted ought to entitle you to a mountain of privileges. On the subway ride home, I daydreamed about dresses.

The next week we had lunch in Williamsburg. We were both ten minutes late. I felt confident about the timing. It was important that he still thought of me as enormously busy.

Before lunch, we wandered around for a few minutes scouting people to photograph for his blog. He took a picture of a hipster girl about to go into work at a thrift store. She looked exactly like all the other girls in Williamsburg, but because he’d never been there before, he thought she was a visionary.

“I love your look,” he kept telling her. “Where did you get those leggings?”

She was very photogenic. I looked over his shoulder as he clicked through the series he took of her. The pictures looked great.

“You know what?” he told her. “You’re a natural model. I’m going to use you again to model for me, okay?”

She shrugged. “Okay,” she said, completely disaffected. She must have only been eighteen, nineteen years old.

That was when the first needle of doubt winnowed its way into my veins. It had been so easy to be confident around him at first, such a lark. But who was I compared to this teenager in leggings, this natural model? This vixen who did not even have to attempt being fake-casual, she was so utterly disinterested in the world around her.

They exchanged numbers and she jogged off to her shift at the thrift store.

“I love Brooklyn,” he told me over lunch. “The people here look so unique. They’re so individual.” I feigned agreement.

We talked, and I tried to regain my footing as his potential muse. Sure, maybe I looked washed-out in photos. I wasn’t a natural model! But I had to be better company than leggings girl. I could talk agreeably about any number of subjects; I was an excellent listener.

He told me about his childhood, and how hard his life was. “It’s so difficult being from the South, and having a vision,” he said. “Just about everyone thought I was gay. When I’m clearly not gay, you know?”

I nodded.

“I mean, I’m married,” he was saying. “I have a kid. Gay men don’t marry women and have kids. I’m not gay.”

He was drinking white wine, and lots of it. He’d ordered a bottle at the start of the meal, a festive touch, I thought initially; but he proceeded to down glass after glass of it without offering me any. With each glass, his monologues grew more reflective and vaguely offensive. An hour passed, then another. I should have left, but I felt paralyzed. I could do nothing but nod my way through everything he said.

“It’s just so hard with the work I do,” he told me, staring at the empty bottle. “You just can’t keep everyone happy. I take pictures of beautiful people on the streets wearing beautiful clothes. What’s wrong with that? It’s so simple to me! It’s not complicated in the slightest.

“But people are so demanding. First they wanted pictures of black girls,” he told me confidentially. “Fine. I found some African-American girls to photograph. You know, some of them have great style and amazing bodies—that’s perfect for my blog. I love great bodies.”

I nodded warily.

“ But then, my critics, they ask why I don’t take any pictures of fat people! Old people! ‘Why don’t you ever take pictures of fat girls?’” he mimicked in a high pitched voice. “‘Why don’t you take pictures of poor people wearing regular clothes?’ ”

He rolled his eyes. “Don’t they see that the whole world is filled up with fat, poor people wearing regular clothes? If you want to see them, look around you. Jesus. Can’t there just be one place, one tiny little place, for all the thin and good-looking people?”

I nodded sympathetically.

After lunch he said he had an appointment back in Manhattan and that he had to go. He apologized for not snapping more pictures of me, as he’d promised when we’d last parted.

“I don’t really like your outfit, honestly,” he said. “You’re almost there, but something just feels off. Maybe next time?”

I was rattled, but I tried not to let it show. This wasn’t how today was supposed to go. I had dressed nicely. I had listened to him talk for three hours and watched him drink a bottle of white wine alone. I could recite his family genealogy; recount numerous slights of his career. I was becoming his confidant, something of a therapist. The least he could do was admire my dress, take a few stupid pictures of me.

Patience, I told myself. Instead of going to a cafe to prepare before my next audition, I went shopping.

Then it happened. A few weeks later he left me a voicemail inviting me to participate in a photo-shoot for a popular women’s magazine. “It’s going to be a girls-off-the-street thing. I’ve got really beautiful clothes to wear. I’d love for you to participate. Oh, and what size dress are you?  Do you fit into sample sizes? Call me.”

I called him back and told him that I’d love to participate. He described a casual photo-shoot the next Friday evening, just me and a few other of his female friends playing dress-up. We were going to meet at a studio in midtown and drink wine and take some pictures. I hung up and smiled to myself. I was already anticipating the evening warmly, already picturing my new friends and I posing together, slipping into sample sizes with ease.

The evening came and I arrived at the address, buzzed the apartment. Nobody answered. I waited five minutes, buzzed again. Was I early? That was the cardinal sin, running early. That was what losers did. I walked around the block a few times before buzzing again. No answer. I wandered to a bodega and bought candy to soothe myself. Twenty minutes later, I buzzed again. This time he answered, in a gruff voice, and rang me in.

The last half-hour had rattled my nerves to such a degree that I was exhausted. Playing the game of trying to keep Nicholas enchanted with me seemed, for the first time, to be the absolute last thing I wanted to spend my evening doing.

But it was too late to back down, and so I gamely knocked on the studio door. He creaked open the door, bleary-eyed, his shirt open. “You woke me up from one hell of a nap, kid. What a day. My wife just asked for a divorce yesterday so I’m sleeping here now,” he said and yawned. “Do you mind if I have a beer?”

“Go ahead,” I told him. I felt bashful and didn’t remove my jacket. I eyed the room: it was entirely devoid of furniture or décor, but there was an air mattress in one corner. The walls were lined with racks of clothing and there were a few duffel bags stuffed with pairs of fancy heels.

“You can go ahead and look at the clothes,” he said. “Go ahead and start trying things on if you want. I’m going to jump in the shower to wake myself up, okay?”

Curiously, there was nowhere to change. And he hadn’t shut the bathroom door all the way when he stepped into the shower; despite my best efforts not to, I had caught glimpses of his flesh behind the shower curtain.

I set my jaw and pulled a tight dress over my head and reminded myself that I was on my way to being the muse of an important fashion luminary.

I was tugging the zipper up the dress as he emerged from the shower wearing a crisp pair of pants and a towel draped over his shoulder, finishing off the beer. I stood before him, trying to remember how bored the Williamsburg hipster girl had looked when she posed.

He ignored me and went to the fridge, where he retrieved another beer.

“Um, Nicholas, where are the other girls?” I asked him, in a voice that I hoped did not belie my increasing discomfort but rather my longing to have a good time. “Aren’t there other girls coming?”

“Oh,” he said over his shoulder. He was leaned over his desk checking his email. “Nobody else is coming. It’s just you and me.” He pulled out the desk chair and, sitting down, began responding to correspondence. He appeared completely at ease, as though he were alone in the room, as though I, in my sequined dress and furrowed brow, were invisible.

A part of me was frightened to learn that nobody else was coming, but I was also intrigued. I decided that this situation must be some elaborate battle of wits, and I would be a fool for giving up now. I stood still for a few moments, waiting for him to finish up at his desk, when I gradually realized he had no intention of brevity.  I squinted at his computer screen, trying to figure out what crucial task he was accomplishing. Was it possible he had just…Googled himself?

I ought to have been terrified of him by this point: there I was alone in a strange apartment with a strange man who’d lured me with the promise of fashion shoots and magazine features and other people around, all of which were seeming more and more like contrivances. Did he even have his camera with him? I looked around the apartment desperately. I saw no cameras.

He was hunched over his desk squinting at the screen and muttering to himself.  I glanced towards the dead-bolted door. There was still something sinister in the way he was paying no attention to me. He was like a serial killer who specialized in ignoring his victims.

Finally, tired of standing in silence, I changed back into my own clothing and hung the dress back on the rack. Even when I was stripped to underwear, he did not turn around from his computer.

I gathered my coat and purse. “Uh, Nicholas,” I finally said, backing towards the door. “I’m actually going to leave now. I’ve got to go. Maybe we can do this again some other time?”

Finally he looked up. “Oh, you’re still here?” he said. “You were being so quiet that I didn’t even know if you were still in the room.”

I said lightly, “Well, you seemed kind of busy. I feel like I’m interrupting you.”

Something about that he didn’t like. He wrinkled his nose like the remark stank. “Yeah, I think you’re right. You should get going.” He rose to escort me to the door.

“You know,” he said, advancing towards me. “The first time I met you, you really seemed special. You just wanted to have fun. But, I have to say, that tonight….well, I just can read your vibes. And I can just tell you don’t want to have a good time. And when someone doesn’t want to have a good time, I can’t do anything about that. You know? Like, I don’t have the energy to change your mind. That’s not my job. My job is to take photographs.  I just wish…I just wish you weren’t acting like this, because it’s so pitiful.”

He shook his head sympathetically at me for a moment and then slammed the door. I walked out of the apartment and headed downtown. I walked out of midtown, down through Chelsea, through the West Village, finally losing my way among the tangled streets. I thought about how there are some nights in New York when the city is a wonderfully buoyant place that almost quivers with possibility. Sometimes, nothing exciting or interesting even has to happen; the promise alone can fill you up.

It had not been one of those nights.

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Clarke Clayton studied writing at Barnard College, where she was the recipient of the Peter S. Prescott Prize for Prose Writing. Her fiction has appeared in Knee-Jerk Magazine, and she was recently named a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest.