Spring 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 2 FictionApril 7, 2023 |

Pareidolia

2022 Short Fiction Contest Runner-up

The sky is injured, sliced with red. The power lines whisper rain. Evening clouds form wispy m’s overhead, like a child’s drawing of birds. There is wind too. All of this, behind the window. Behind the window and not inside.

Inside, Ash sits naked on a blanketed apple crate, still as taxidermy and staring at the window with the concentration of an owl. She keeps her cheek pressed against her right knee, cradling her foot in her hands. Her other leg splays out uncomfortably on the floor. She is allowed to blink and indulges in doing so. 

It’s her third time modeling for the school. Her third time taking the subway to the Old City studio, climbing the stairs to the dressing room, and slipping into the silky pink robe with its distinctly human odor. She suspects—knows—that no one washes it, but she doesn’t mind. This class is small. Some of the students appear to be college aged, others retired. There is an equal number of men and women, and for this, Ash is thankful. She did an all-male class last week, and that was different. The eyes in that room felt heavy and wet. 

A loose strand from her bangs falls over her left eye. She resists the urge to flick it behind her ear. Ash stares at the trees outside the window, finding faces in the shifting lines of the branches. She remembers her own face, wonders how the artists have rendered it. She presses her tongue to the roof of her mouth, a technique that a model on Instagram claimed helps to accentuate the natural contours of the face. 

Ash has discovered that making lists helps with the discomfort. So far she’s listed names of trees, ’50s Hollywood stars, and brands of bottled water: Aquafina, Dasani, Evian, Fiji, Mountain Valley, VOSS. It helps distract her from the unavoidable itches that accompany the infernal stillness and stops her from thinking too much. Her eyes crawl to the clock. Two more minutes. The class moves quickly, in three twenty-minute sessions, though each pose feels like a small eternity. She is allowed a five-minute break between the poses, during which time she wraps herself in the pink silk robe and walks the length of the studio, trying to casually steal glimpses of the students’ sketches. This is the reason she started modeling: to learn her own appearance, which has become foreign to her over the years. Every portrait teaches her something new. In this way, she is a student too. 

The instructor calls time, and the students drop their pencils. They avert their eyes respectfully as Ash stands and collects the robe from the piano bench, where she left it. She lets the cloth hang loose around her body instead of pulling it tight. One of the students leaves to fill his water bottle, and she takes the opportunity to approach his easel, dubiously eyeing her charcoal likeness. The student has exaggerated the features she likes least, the ones she tries to soften and obscure in photographs of herself. The space between her top lip and her nose is even smaller than in reality, and her jawline is stern and jutting. Her breasts appear to have grown a full cup size and have received meticulous shading.

Ash walks over to the corner of the studio, where a few of the younger women are still making adjustments to their sketches. She likes their work better. They’ve spent time on other details, like the two freckles above her lips and the skeleton key around her neck. 

“That’s really good,” she says to no one in particular.

“Thank you!” two of the students chirp back.

“Thank you,” she echoes. 

An alarm signals the end of Ash’s break. She takes a last-minute stretch as she sheds the robe and climbs back atop the apple crate. The soles of her feet are black from the studio floor. The instructor asks the class if there are any specific poses they’d like to practice drawing. No one speaks up, so the instructor asks her to come up with another pose. She relaxes her right arm across her lap, covering her crotch, then leans back on her left arm. She instantly regrets her choice, as her elbows are mildly hyperextended, but the instructor starts the timer before she has a chance to readjust. Ash wants to be professional, though the absurdity of worrying about professionalism while sitting stark naked in a room full of strangers is not lost on her. She wants to be a good model so they will call her in for future classes. She wants to be perfectly pliant.

Outside, the sun has set, turning the trees into silhouettes. No more clouds. Ash tries but cannot find any more meaningful shapes through the window. She focuses instead on the faces of the students, watching them watching her. Each time their eyes meet, she looks away, wary of corrupting their roles. Still, it seems only fair that she should get to watch them. There’s so little else to do.

It feels good to tell people about modeling for the art classes. They say things like “No way” and “I could never do that,” and it makes her feel brave. She tells them the only difficult part is not moving, that you’re never more aware of your body’s latent aches and itches than when you’re statue still, fixed under the heat of observation. She tells them the nudity is an afterthought, though of course it is not. The nakedness, the being looked at, is an entryway—or an exit. A barbed slice of light. If she can learn to be indifferent to this kind of vulnerability, she can be indifferent to other kinds too. 

……

A week ago, after she had posed for another class, one of the students waited for her to finish changing, then followed her out of the building and down the street. He was meaty and middle aged, with a thinning patch of colorless hair. She tried to remember how he’d drawn her. 

“You did a good job.” He stared at her neck. “I got some great sketches.”

“Oh.” Ash looked up from her phone. “Glad to hear it.”

“I’ll keep working on them,” he said. “Maybe I can use them.”

“Use them?”

“You looked nice. Usually, we get older people posing. Not as fun to draw. Will you be back next week?” 

The instructor had warned her that students were not allowed to engage with the models, that she should avoid interactions after class. “We’ve had a few creeps,” he said. “We do our best to keep things professional, but it comes with the territory. They’re harmless. Mostly it’s just they haven’t seen a pretty woman in a while.” Ash nodded and said she understood. 

The man cleared his throat, waiting for her response. She knew she should be afraid, or at least bothered by his intrusiveness, but instead felt excited. She tried to imagine how he might look under his gray, ratty peacoat. She pictured his chest, doughy and hirsute, with pale nipples peeking out. A sad, stringy penis, languishing between his thighs like an underfed gerbil. She felt a surge of disgust, which softened into pity, then fondness. Here was a man who could do nothing to harm her. 

“Can I see your sketches?” She nodded at the student’s backpack. He reddened and shifted the bag to his front to unzip it. 

He held the sketchbook at a sharp angle, covering most of the page with his wide, veiny hands. Ash could make out only a small portion of the drawing, but what she saw made her breath catch in her throat. Nothing resembled her in the slightest; chalky black lines slashed across the page, forming disfigured half shapes, which seemed to ripple and churn beneath the man’s white fingertips. 

“I see,” she said. “Do you want to draw me again?”

“I—what?” The student flinched. For a moment, his face blazed with something like anger. 

“You heard me. This is perfect. Let me see your phone.”

She sent herself a text from the student’s phone, then handed it back to him and beamed. She left him there, fixed in place, and bolted down the street to catch her train. The cracks in the sidewalk looked like giant plus signs, blurring beneath her feet. 

No one would do this, she thought, her mind an electrical current. I wouldn’t do this. 

……

The students have begun to put the finishing touches on their sketches, heads nodding up and down between Ash and their canvases, noting small last-minute details. Ash’s left wrist is fully numb now, and her lower back is begging for a crack. She’s run out of things to list, and she needs to check her phone. She needs to know if he’s still coming. 

Just as she is about to give in to her body’s complaints, the timer sounds the end of the pose. The students pack up their materials, and Ash strides barefoot to the dressing room without even trying to peek at any of the drawings. She hangs the pink robe on a hook next to a little sign that reads Thank you for modeling with us! in red Sharpie, then pulls her black sweater over her head. She digs around in her coat pocket for her lipstick and applies it to the center of her lips, pressing them together to distribute the color. She doesn’t bother to button her pants. 

When she returns, the studio is empty save for the instructor, stacking apple crates in the storage closet. He strides across the room and presses seven ten-dollar bills into her palm.

“Good job today. I’ll be in contact about future openings. Maybe we can try some standing poses next time.”

She thanks him. Together, they exit and head for the stairs. The instructor holds the door to the building open, gesturing for her to go first.

“Actually,” she says, “I need the restroom. I don’t want to make you wait . . . I could lock up for you?”

“No need.” He smiles. “The door locks automatically. Just make sure to turn off the light in the hall.” 

“OK, I will. Thank you.”

Ash heads in the direction of the bathroom, waiting for the click of the door behind her. She pulls out her phone, types, five minutes. i’ll let you in, and hits Send. She turns around, skips back up the stairs and through the dressing room door, and throws her clothes in an unceremonious pile on the floor. The pink robe is still warm when she slips her arms through the sleeves. The studio is dark and ringing with emptiness. 

The storage closet is locked, so Ash drags the piano bench to the center of the studio in place of the apple crates. She unfolds an easel and positions it in front of a lone metal folding chair. She pictures the man sitting there, conjuring her image from lines and patterns. Her phone buzzes: here

……

 “I’m going to record you,” Ash says. “While you work. OK?”

 The man frowns. “What do you mean?”

 Ash props her phone up against the easel, angling the back camera toward him. She observes his reflection on the screen: a confused red face blinking back at her. 

“I’ll leave my phone here and record your face while you draw me.”

He edges away from the camera. “No. Be reasonable.” 

“I’m sorry,” Ash says. “But it’s my only condition. If I can’t record you, you can’t draw me.”

 “What will you do with it?” 

She pauses a moment to consider. She has not thought this far ahead. The idea occurred to her only earlier that evening when she was observing the students as they worked on their sketches. She feels she has been missing something important, something worth documenting, and this man is her chance to figure out what it is. 

“I’m going to watch it. Then watch it again.” Ash taps the red button with her index finger. The seconds begin to roll at the top of the screen. “Don’t stop the recording. I’ll know if you do.” 

She lets the man prepare his materials, situating herself in the center of the studio. The robe drops to her elbows, and she drapes the cloth over the piano bench. He looks up to watch her body reveal itself, then breaks into a relieved smile. 

“I was worried for a minute there,” he says. “Thought you might do something unexpected.” 

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, something for the camera. Are you posting this somewhere, by the way? You can’t do that without my consent, you know.” 

“No.” Ash straightens her shoulders. “I wasn’t planning on it. How do you want me, anyway?”

The man aligns his charcoals in the crook of the easel. He casts a sheepish glance at the camera, then rises from his seat and approaches her. 

“Is it OK . . . ?”

For a moment, she thinks about striking him across the face, but then she nods, allowing him to rearrange her body with grasping, greedy precision. She feels herself go numb. Only when he shuffles back to his seat does the sensation return to her limbs. The pose is impossible, a crooked variation on the fifth position. Her legs bend into a crude plié, toes to heels, and her arms form a gnarled circle over her head. Ash imagines it’s a small form of revenge for her insistence on recording him, but she doesn’t mind; it will only make the results more interesting. The pure, total discomfort is somehow easier to withstand than the mild itches and aches that accompany the typical poses. 

“Twenty minutes,” she says. “As usual.”

He picks up his pencil, and Ash disappears inside herself, leaving the careful watching to the camera. The room begins to lose its logic. The easel becomes an arrow, pointed upward; the man behind it grows as indistinct as an old sofa. The window is nothing but a black square; the clock, a featureless silence. She closes her eyes, trying to better inhabit her body, and finds herself locked out. The skin on her face feels heavy and wooden, unwilling to resemble her. Her mouth refuses to soften. Gargoyle, she thinks. She tries not to think. If she thinks too much, it will show on her face, and she will not shine. She imagines the creature flowering beneath the student’s pencil, a series of smudges and lines that have nothing to do with her. 

She cannot ignore the brutality of the pose any longer. The fire in her limbs is interesting and agonizing. Lists, she remembers, and begins to run through the saints. Giles, patron saint of those afraid of the dark. Joseph of Cupertino, patron saint of astronauts and the mentally handicapped. Hubert, patron saint of hunters and the rabid. Adjuter, patron saint of swimmers. Jude, patron saint of lost causes . . .

“I’m finished,” the man says, stepping out of the camera’s view.

Ash lets herself collapse inward, slowly gathering the robe around her shaking body. Her muscles sing. 

“Well? Do you want to see it?”

“No,” she says, surprising herself with the immediacy of her response. “I don’t need to see it. That’s for you. The video is for me.”

The student doesn’t move. 

“You can pack up.” 

She waits until he has closed his sketchbook to check on the recording. The seconds at the top of the screen show that more than twenty-five minutes have passed. She hits Stop, then skips through the video to make sure he did not move or block the camera at any point during the pose. His face flickers on the screen, stuttering through concentrated expressions as she drags her thumb along the time line. 

“Thanks,” Ash says, a new warmth in her voice. “This is exactly what I needed.” 

“Yeah.” he exhales. “OK, then.”

Together, they descend the stairs and exit the studio. Halfway home, it occurs to Ash that she forgot to turn off the hallway light on her way out.

…… 

The night sky is pure dark. The man’s pixelated face is the only light in Ash’s tiny bedroom. She nestles under the covers like a child, holding the phone inches from her face. She has watched the video so many times now that the man’s face no longer looks like a face so much as a vast, ruthless terrain. The nose is a solitary mountain; the mouth, a dried-up river. The cheeks are turtles without shells, sun spoiled. The eyes come and go like displaced animals, wandering aimlessly in search of water or shelter. 

The abstractions withdraw when the man leans forward to fill in certain details, and the camera shows only the outline of his large, undefined shoulder. He tilts back and regains his form. When he stops to appraise his work, Ash tries to guess what part of her body he is drawing. The arch of a foot. The hollow of the stomach. Hair lifted to reveal the back of the neck. 

Twice, he looks directly into the camera. The first time seems almost accidental, and he quickly snaps back to face Ash, posing off-screen. The second time is intentional; she can tell by the shift in his eyes. He stares right through the screen, smiling strangely, as if to say I can still see you. I never stopped looking

Ash holds the buttons on both sides of the phone to take a screenshot, then tucks the phone under her pillow, satisfied with the portrait she has captured. The sky lightens to a pale gray, streaked with an adolescent blush. She traces a long white line from her window to the distant rooftops, trying to recognize the subtle difference between inside and out, a distinction that has always eluded her. The line hovers for a moment, then falls, carving the bed in two. Ash digs her heels into the edges of the mattress, touching the place where she herself is split in two, thinking dimly of breakfast. 

Photo of Kira Homsher
Kira K. Homsher is a writer from Philadelphia, currently living in Los Angeles. She is the winner of phoebe’s 2020 nonfiction contest and is a Pushcart nominee. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Passages North, Longreads, The Offing, and others. Find her at kirahomsher.com.

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