The Michelangelo Effect
“… only the hand which obeys the intelligence can accomplish… bringing out a living figure in alpine and hard stone, which… grows the more as the stone is chipped away…”
— Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
I’d never had an orgasm when I arrived in Florence, Italy, in an air-conditioned bus full of junior-year-abroad students. My boyfriend, Thatcher, a varsity swimmer from Harvard, had broken up with me five months before with no real explanation, which left me sad and confused. He’d immediately begun dating a Kappa from Duke, “Who looks like a turtle,” said another Kappa I met on the bus.
To prepare for Italy and try to forget Thatcher, I saw the movie Room With A View. The pretty, English girl, in petticoats, loses her Baedeker, and is passionately kissed by a romantic Brit who shouts, “JOY! BEAUTY!” from the top of Tuscan olive trees. I wanted that love and passion and was encouraged by stories of Italian men who stopped women on the street to say, “Ciao Bella! Andiammo al cafe?” But I was also nervous about such invitations. The only Italian I knew was: ciao, spaghetti, and buon giorno.
Scenes from Room With A View flashed through my mind as I stepped off the bus in my finest Laura Ashley sundress, a pink rose floral with a scalloped collar. Laura Ashley was “in” in Chestnut Hill where I lived. But in Florence, young women with glossy lips drove Vespas in mod mirror sunglasses and mini skirts. I suddenly felt swollen and big. The sexiest thing I owned was a blue bikini.
We spent the first few nights in a pensione. My assigned roommate, Mandy, a model from upstate New York, immediately stripped naked, exposing the first thong underwear I’d ever seen. Hers was a white triangular lacey thing. She rubbed her long, thin thighs with lotion, swigged Pellegrino, said she missed her boyfriend, and how they regularly popped ginseng, “…it keeps me wet and my boyfriend hard. We love it. ”
I lay on the bed opposite her feeling like a preppy frump, pretending to read the guidebook and wishing I had her plump, perky breasts, perfect butt, and thighs. She even shaved her pubic hair in a thin strip like a Playboy model.
“We go at it for hours on the old mattress in the shed,” she continued, “He likes it on the hood of the car and I love it on the kitchen table.” She hugged her pillow. “ God, I miss him.”
“Yeah, I know the feeling,” I lied.
My sister Kristin and I were in high school, watching cable TV in a hotel room in New York City, when we found a porn channel. A sweaty Burt Reynolds type with sideburns was on a pool table humping a woman with huge breasts and they were moaning, “uh-uh-uh, yes…” (in a way I’d never heard “uh” or “yes” said before). We were both silent and then screamed “Gross!”
Mandy went out for a smoke and I contemplated popping a few of her ginseng. Would it make me crawl around the room like a cat in heat? Meow. Would I start smoking and “go at it for hours”? I decided to go get a gelato.
School began at 9 a.m. and mornings were full of church bells ringing, steamers foaming milk for cappuccino and fresh fig jam on toast. The lavender and apricot light poured down the Arno valley, blazing the river gold. Under the sun, Florence had its own palette, a fabulous hue of salmon, terracotta, mustard, green, grey-blue, dark gray stone, and ancient marble.
I lived in a small apartment on Viale Alierdi and rode a yellow bike I bought used at the market through diesel fumes over the Ponte Trinita, admiring the view of the Ponte Vecchia; and then down a narrow shaded cobblestone street of fruit stands and shopkeepers opening doors, and into Piazza Signoria to the copy of David and the mythic statues of Gods and Goddess under the Loggia dei Lanzi. I peddled by pigeons, horse and buggies, and cafes filled with fashionable people reading newspapers, drinking espresso; and weaved onward to the Duomo, Piazza della Santissima Annuziata, and Piazza Savonarola.
My favorite class was Michelangelo with Professor Hatfield, whose hair grew flat like a baobab tree over his thick Clark Kent glasses. He was in the middle of a slide lecture on the Sistine ceiling, when I noticed how sexy Michelangelo’s painting of Adam was. Adam was far from the Middle Ages, anorexic rock singer look I’d seen in other frescos. He had a majestic chest, soft, intelligent face, long arms, athletic legs and an unthreatening penis, and made me think of Thatcher. Michelangelo would have painted Thatcher.
Why had Thatcher broken up with me?
“I need space,” he said. “I’m a Junior now,” in a tone that sounded like, “Stop asking. I don’t know why. I just need out.”
Commenting like Howard Cosell, Hatfield showed slides of prophets, sibyls, saints, sinners, “Mi-chel-an-ge-lo was in love with M-an as the I-d-eal form of Beau-ty. Notice his love of contraposto–feet and hips one direction, shoulders and chest the other, which produces the most dynamic tension through the central axis of the body. And his use of Chia-ro- scu- ro, gradations of light and dark that create the effect of sculpting. He pain-ted his figures in re-lief. They move off the wall as if to par-ticipate be-yond their me-di-um, a-live to the e-ntire pro-cess of cre-a-tion.”
I’d never seen an artist with such aesthetic, bold sensuality. It was light years from a drawing class at Philadelphia College of Art, where our female model with bushy arm pits and mounds of cellulite lay on velvet while the teacher scuffed around in Birkenstocks saying, “People, it’s about organic line quality. See the beauty, people…”
Life and art were entirely separate realms that seemed destined to stay that way.
Hatfield continued, “Michelangelo’s genius was his talent for rare e-quilibrium be-tween re-ality and im-aginative trans-figuration. He cre-ate-d his figures to breath.”
Hatfield explained that the Pope was powerless to stop Michelangelo from redefining Christ in the Last Judgment as a sexy Greek God with an incredible, lusty body. This was radical. The men and women on the ceiling, twisted, flexed, blew horns, held books, flew and thrust in bliss or agony.
Hatfield never mentioned Michelangelo’s sexuality but it was clear from Michelangelo’s poetry that he was gay. I imagined Michelangelo, naked as he drew, instructing his models to sit, stand, lunge, calling out, “Contraposto! Show me your muscles. Move your hips. Bravo ragazzi!”
What I admired most was his freedom to express what he loved. How fabulous to be Adam, naked in front of the world without shame or guilt. What gave Michelangelo the ability to see these forms and release them? I decided if I could meet anyone in history it would be Michelangelo.
I‘d ask, “Do you really think God is a man with a white beard and sexy butt? Can you repaint Eve? She needs a makeover. What created your faith?”
After the lecture I peddled to the open market at Piazza San Lorenzo, thinking, “I’ve got to get sexier.” I found a black stretch mini skirt. Put it on.
“Bella!” said the man with a huge smile, flexing his eyebrows.
I paid him, stuffed my green army shorts in the backpack and peddled tingling over the cobblestones all the way to painting class.
We were assigned a self-portrait and encouraged to work from a photograph. I chose one taken the summer before at a lobster bake in Maine. Thatcher and I were leaning our heads into one another. It was hard, but I tore him out. This left me in my favorite peach flannel shirt, leaning into the white rip.
A postcard arrived.
“…Not much happening in Boston…By the way, don’t miss the Savoy Hotel in Piazza della Republica on a cold afternoon. They play Cole Porter and serve a warming cup of soup…Love, Thatcher”
I read it to Mandy who laughed and said, “…warming cup of soup? Who the fuck does he think he is? A Ralph Lauren model? How pretentious can you be?”
What did he mean by “love?” I still missed him.
We met at a party in Blue Hill, Maine. He was incredibly tanned, had glossy black hair, drunk-brown eyes, and was chewing the edge of a plastic six-pack ring. People around him were laughing and jockeying for his attention. He told me he was from Chicago, a sophomore at Harvard and had a lifeguard job that summer at the Seal Harbor Club.
I told him I was babysitting for a little boy for two weeks.
He said, “I hope to see you again. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Three days later there was a dance at the North East Harbor Golf Club and I hoped he’d show. The windows and doors were all open, and Lionel Richie’s, “Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady…” was playing when he walked in.
He wore jeans, a white button down shirt and reminded me of Richard Gere in An Officer and A Gentleman. I wore my favorite Liz Claiborne gray linen scarf, a gift from my mother’s friend for graduation, a pink T-shirt, and white Esprit skirt. He said hi to a few people and came over.
“What a pleasure to see you again,” he said. “May I have this dance?”
He was formal, which was different and nice, and I laughed, “Yeah, sure.”
His body instantly felt good against mine. We swayed side to side. I was so excited that he was slightly taller than me. This was amazing because I was almost 5’11”and usually felt like I’d crush the guy. He breathed against my neck and said, “Nice song, huh?”
I couldn’t tell if he was joking. It was one of my favorite cheesy soft rock songs–the type that made me daydream about exactly what we were doing. I said, “Yeah,” and then we kissed. Not too hard or soft. Just right.
He pulled away and held my hand, saying, “Come here.” He led me across the dance floor and through a swinging door into the badly lit kitchen that smelled of onions and grease.
“I didn’t want to make a scene,“ he explained.
We kissed again.
“Rock The Casbah” was now playing and a guy stuck his head in and asked, “Yo man, you gotta a match?”
“Nope,” said Thatcher. “This is lame. Let’s get out of here.”
Under a full moon, the top down on his Jeep, we drove through fog beneath pine branches, and as he downshifted round a bend, I noticed his gold crest ring. He turned the engine off at Seal Harbor Club parking lot. We sat in the moonlight listening to crickets. He took a blanket from the back seat, and said, “Follow me. Watch your step. It’s slippery. There’s a lot of dew.”
“Okay,” I said, wanting to hold his hand but not wanting to seem like I needed his help. I followed him through the bushes and down the path.
“This way,” he said. “Not much further.”
I liked the way he had a blanket and knew where he wanted to go. I figured we’d sit and talk. Hopefully kiss. Whatever happened, I was glad to be with him. We came out to a dock. No wind, the tide gurgled. He spread out the blanket, and said, “I think the tide’s coming in.”
He sat down. I sat next to him. We listened to the water. Looked up at the stars and moon.
“I love Maine,” he said.
He leaned over and kissed me. He took off his shirt and helped me take off mine. He had the most gorgeous chest I‘d ever seen and he smelled like a baby’s head only sexier.
I said, “What’s that smell?”
“Yeah, you smell good.”
“Oh, soap, I guess.”
“What kind of soap?
“Just soap. Kiss me.”
I wanted to kiss him all night long and smell that smell forever.
That fall in Thatcher’s dorm room, I discovered the smell in a bottle of Gray Flannel on his bureau next to a tube of Clinique Instant Tanner.
“The guys on the team put that tanning stuff in my locker as a joke,” he said.
I wondered why he wouldn’t just admit where his sexy smell came from, and if he was telling me the truth about the tanning lotion or did he buy it himself?
From his dorm window I could see the rusty Claus Oldenburg sculpture of a lipstick/bulldozer in the courtyard below. Thatcher’s roommate was out partying and we were making out on the bed, listening to English Beat, “Sooner or later your legs give way you hit the ground…” when his hand slid into my underwear. It was my best pair. White bikini, Calvin Klein. I made sure I wore only the best when I visited. So when I felt his hand go down, I sucked in my stomach. Not to be thin; it was a reaction to my mental game of “Should I or shouldn’t I have sex?”
I’d said, “No, I don’t think so…” so many times I was embarrassed. I was sick of being afraid of a penis in my vagina. I didn’t want to be on the train headed back to Philadelphia, staring out, traveling with my reflection through backyards and lots, contemplating what sex was like. I’d exhausted every friend who had, and their descriptions never helped.
His fingers walked inside me as if looking for the right recipe in a cookbook. I adjusted, stretching as far away from his hand as possible. As if that would stall or keep him just far enough away that he’d maybe forget to want to have sex. His fingers became warm inside me. His underwear went down in the flannel sheets and so did mine. His penis felt like a third person in the bed. The outsider. I wondered, did I push or pull it? What the hell was I doing? Forget ballet lessons, how about penis lessons? If I held it too tight would I hurt it? Break it?
I kept kissing to cover up for the fact that I knew nothing about what I was pretending to know something about. I stayed calm, and told myself everything would be okay. This worked until he got on top of me between my thighs like a bobsledder, rocking back and forth. Oh, no, now I was in for it. Maybe I should say, “No,” again. Maybe it’s not the “right time.” But when was the “right time?” People told me “You’ll know.” But what did “I know” feel like? How would I know? Maybe it was the “right time.” Maybe that was it. Maybe my “right time” was now. Yes. Okay this was it. No. No. No. Definitely not now. His penis was prodding, poking. I thought, yes. No. Yes. No. Out. In. Whose serve? Deuce. Would I get pregnant? He is not allowed in. His penis prodded. Poked. Out. No. Ouch. It was going in, poking…in a little. There is no way in hell that thing would fit. It poked, poked, poked. Ouch. It hurt. Poked. O-ooo-uch. God, it was in! So painful. I thought, Lauren Goldberg, you slut, you said it wouldn’t hurt.
He pulled out and came.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
We kissed and I rolled away to wipe a tear. The best part was patting his eyebrows with the tip of my nose, spooning and falling asleep in his arms.
The following morning he got up early for a swim meet. When I arrived at the pool he climbed up into the stands. I felt drunk from the chlorine humidity and being closer to him than anyone I had ever met.
“I missed you,” he said, kissing me.
Then he went back down to the edge of the pool with his backslapping teammates to swim the butterfly.
I was two weeks into my self-portrait, a bunch of pink and purple brush strokes that looked nothing like me. My inspiration was Matisse’s portrait of Madame Matisse, better know as The Green Line. Matisse painted her portrait in pinks and shades of orange with a dark green snail trail down the middle of her forehead, nose and lips. Mixing flesh tones and going for realism didn’t interest me. I wanted to be like Matisse, express my inner self with color. However, the more I painted, the more I wondered what was up with my inner self? On canvas it looked disjointed, almost violent, streaky, and undefined. Matisse made it look easy. One green brush stroke looked like a nose. That could take years. The more I studied my chin, the more I felt I was laying upside down, my head hanging off the side of the bed with a cloth over the top half of my face with sunglasses on my chin making it look like a fat nose. Then my nose began to look like the nose of an Amazonian monkey. Then I forgot how to spell “nose” and asked the guy next to me, who looked at me like I’d asked to borrow a couple hundred bucks. I thought if I could get the lips right,” the chin right, it would be a “good self-portrait” as opposed to a “crappy self-portrait.”
My smile looked like the sound “e” as in “help”.
The teacher, a thin, British ex-pat, came round with his white/pee-stained terrier at his feet and said, “What a fabulous smile. Go with the eyes.”
How do you make eyes look alive? My portrait was an ugly bunch of brushstrokes that made me want to quit. The soft tinkering of brushes against glass jars, spider plants spawning new growth beneath the skylight, and students struggling with similar frustrations, kept me going.
I wondered what Michelangelo would do if he were me.
The next day the Michelangelo class went to visit the statue of David in the Uffizi Gallery. We walked down the long hall lined with Michelangelo’s Slaves, who contorted and twisted in the marble that encased them.
At the feet of David, Professor Hatfield explained, “Mi-chel-an-gel-o free-d the form from the mar-ble. It took three years to com-plete this work.”
I kept saying to myself, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”
I had never seen anything so physically majestic, full of passionate focus and life force like a coiled snake about to strike. David was in a league of his own and had an amazing ass! How long would it take me to complete my stupid self-portrait? And why was I comparing myself to Michelangelo?
Professor Hatfield talked about David’s mythic symbolism, the civic purpose and pride of the Florentine people. I wanted to marry a man who looked like that and be friends with Michelangelo.
I’d say, “Michelangelo, we’re doing self portraits in painting class and mine is terrible.”
“Keep painting and don’t question what you are doing,” he’d say. “You’re an artist. Follow the hand of God.”
“What’s the hand of God?”
“Seeing the form and releasing it.”
I learned that when painting lips, the bottom lip is darker than the top. The self-portrait got better.
Hatfield led us to the famous Carrara marble mines where Michelangelo got his stone. There was a sculpture school with the usual classical works and under a plastic blue tarp, a VW bug being carved out of white marble. I wondered if I was stepping exactly where Michelangelo stepped.
Mandy went to Milan to model for La Donna, an Italian fashion magazine, and a bunch of Duke girls went to Morocco for the weekend. I didn’t have the money to travel every weekend so I walked to the Art Bar to meet up with my friend Laura who was cooler than me, fancied herself a writer, and liked to drink a lot of red wine. I ordered a glass too and met a blonde Italian guy, a veterinarian. He talked about his pet Tucan and showed me his Ducati. My Italian was getting better the more I drank. And the more I drank the less I wanted to talk to the vet and the more I imagined walking the streets with Michelangelo.
“How is your self-portrait coming along?’ he would ask.
“It still sucks,” I’d say. “I’m trying to be a Fauvist.”
“Fuave is French for ‘wild thing.’ It’s an expressionistic style.”
At dusk we’d stroll to the Academia, walk through the walls, into the great hall of marble-fettered slaves and the magnificent David lit at the end in the rotunda.
“Bellisimo! Cut away the excess,” Michelangelo would say. ”Fall in love. Let’s go to Rome. I’ll show you.”
We’d take the train. I can’t sit backwards. He wouldn’t mind.
It’s a hot autumn day in Rome and Michelangelo and I hike to the Vatican. He’s in a musty maroon Renaissance cloak, smiling and invisible to everyone except me.
“I hate being invisible,” he says. “Plato is wrong. Beauty is not eternal. My body disappeared. It’s frustrating. I was just beginning. I had so much more to do. There’s no time. Love seizes me and beauty keeps me bound. I was just getting started!”
It’s fun having a friend like Michelangelo; full of energy and fire, angst, and passion, who never took the SAT’s or went to college and still turned out to be brilliant.
“I haven’t slept,” he says. “I’m working on another Pieta. I want to get it right.”
“Was your mom like Mary?” I ask.
“I really didn’t know my mother. She died when I was six. I was raised by a wet nurse whose husband was a stonecutter. My father didn’t do much. Drank.”
Inside the Vatican we stand in front of the Pieta.
Michelangelo says, “I finished this in 1499 when I was 24. One afternoon, in 1972, a Hungarian geologist hit her 15 times with a sledgehammer, shouting, “I am Jesus Christ.” No one had ever conceived of an attack on my Pieta. The attacker removed the Virgin’s arm at her elbow and knocked off half of her nose and eyelids. Man needs to excavate his own soul otherwise he does a lot of damage. Maybe the Hungarian missed his mother.”
When all the tourists are gone and the Vatican is closed for the night, Michelangelo floats up through the glass and polishes Mary’s face.
I start to feel spooked. Michelangelo is everywhere I look, in architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, in how I feel, walk, see, and think.
At the Sistine Chapel, he says, “I did this at 33.”
“I’m 18,” I say.
There’s no air conditioning and the humid halls are packed with hundreds of sweaty tourists chewing gum, snapping pictures. How can the frescos last? He takes my hand and we float past the tourists. We fly up to God and Adam and I’m scared I’ll fall.
“You see,” he says, “I was on my back for four years on rickety scaffolding. It fell down. Almost killed me. What would you do with a 5, 800 square foot canvas and four years?” he asks. “Hold this brush and paint the rib cage of Adam.”
“You already did.”
“It’s gone. We need to do it again and again.”
He’s right. The ceiling is a wide-open canvas.
“Get to work,” he demands, handing me a brush, “Create. Bold. Forza!”
I take the brush and paint a long arm and hand.
“Yes!” says Michelangelo. “Excellent. Good. Let me take over.”
“No,” I say, to my surprise. “Let’s reinvent it. Put Eve up here. Give her a chance to be naked and beautiful. You said it was a blank canvas.”
“You make me nervous,” he said. “I’m afraid of God, of going to Hell. That’s why my self-portrait is in the Last Judgment. Where are you from?”
He inches aside.
I fill the brush and stroke feet, long legs, thighs, hips, stomach, navel, a wide chest, breasts, shoulders, arms, a long neck, a confident face, and fingers that open as if to touch.
“Where’s God?” he asks.
“Her choice,” I say.
“Okay, fine. You finish it. I’m a failure. If you knew how much I worked at this you wouldn’t think I was a master. You’d think I was a lunatic.”
“You’re my favorite artist.”
“I’m not flattered. Be your own best artist. I’m going back over to the Pieta to make sure Mary’s nose is properly fixed.”
At dusk I arrive on Capitoline Hill to meet up with the Michelangelo class to finish my class assignment, a lecture on the importance of the Piazza Campidolgio. The sky is smog-pink and the breeze plays with the hair of fifteen students. I feel a stinging acidic nervous feeling as I begin my lecture and I’m sure I see Hatfield cringe when I say the word Etruscan. I haven’t slept well for a few days, worried about the presentation, 90% of the grade. I want an A, proof that I love the subject, and cling to my notes and regurgitated textbook facts, dry-mouthed and short of breath, When I look up, I realize the class is actually listening, the sky has turned deep azure blue, and the moon is rising.
“Michelangelo created from the center out,” I say. “The starburst pattern at the center of the piazza is like the navel center, the gravitational center of balance. Notice that the space embraces and elevates you as an architectural platform for the politics of Rome. As Michelangelo said, “…an architectural structure follows the laws exemplified in the human body. He who…is not a good master of the nude…cannot understand the principles of architecture. The human body is visible manifestation of the human divine soul. ”
I think I see Michelangelo standing behind a column giving me the thumbs up.
I receive an A for content and a B plus for research and details, but I notice that what I studied and learned from academics and books is not it. I’m beginning to understand why Italians are constantly saying “Bellissimo!” Beauty is communion. A way to know and feel.
In February Laura and I take the train to Venice for Carnivale. We walk through the station doors, down the steps and the water is everywhere. I feel like I’m five years old on the first day of spring, running downhill at Valley Forge in a dress that shows my underwear, holding a bouquet of dandelions.
We stay in her mother’s friend’s apartment in Giudecca across the canal from San Marco. The apartment has marble floors and modern furniture. Laura makes homemade pesto. I open a bottle of Chianti and we dine sitting cross-legged on pillows at the living room table. Pesto is my new favorite flavor, vibrant, garlicky, minty, pungent and bright emerald green. I could eat it every night. What was Michelangelo’s favorite meal, I wonder.
Laura smells of Opium perfume, an exotic fragrance that emanates from her long brown hair and burgundy scarf. She looks prepared for a safari at all times and smokes Dunhills. Although she complains of being geeky and pigeon-toed, I know she knows she’s seductive and very striking. With a strong jaw and Audrey Hepburn smile she has a confident sex appeal that leaves me wondering how she does it. I wonder what she sees in me, but am afraid to ask.
The next morning as the sun rises through the Adriatic fog, we take the vaporetto to Piazza San Marco. Palazzos line the Grand Canal with ornate and voluptuous Baroque and Byzantine arches, floral, twisted columns, and candy cane striped poles. Water complements hard stone, reflecting luminous terracotta walls, marble statues, gold domes and windows lined with pink geraniums. Where one solid material object stands, there wiggles its opposite in the water. Down narrower canals, Prussian blue water paths web into silent parts of the city or clog with scuzzi motorboats honking at gondoliers.
We step off the boat into Piazza San Marco. The moored gondolas slap and pat the water and wind and pigeons flew. Only the buildings stand still, everything else moves in a non linear, oceanic tug and spiral. I feel unsettled, tipsy as if we are standing on a drifting island. Laura, armed with her mother’s “You have got to see this” list, leads the way to the gold-winged Lion of Venice, stores, churches, the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto Bridge, Burano, the Island of multi-colored houses, which help fisherman to find their way home; and Murano where glass is made. There are no signs of Michelangelo; had he enjoyed Venice?
At lunch we stop for gelato and sit in the sun on a large wooden float. Laura loves chocolate and says, “Ever noticed how a little bit of something irresistible is better than a lot of something pretty good?”
I love nocciola, a cross between hazelnuts, almonds, coffee and whipped cream. We eat, rolling our eyes and shaking our heads as if this is the way to fully taste and savor each bite.
People dressed in traditional Carnivale costumes begin strolling the streets, wearing sweeping capes, and morphic masks. They move like seducers, thieves, dancers, storks and snakes and make me think of Dali, the Surrealist painter who explored and exposed his fears and desires in bold, meticulous inner landscapes of contorted nudes, dripping clocks, and animals. I admire this phantom beauty but it scares me. Michelangelo must have been afraid to expose his inner landscape too. Instead he focused on the Ideal. His only self-portrait was said to be his skin, a death mask in the Last Judgment.
“I was brutto! Ugly! Nobody needed that face,” he says, appearing next to us eating his gelato on the steps. “I never felt comfortable in my skin. Nothing could save me. Not even carving stone in the end. I could never make anything beautiful enough for God.”
“But you are a Master, world famous. Still that didn’t make you relax and be ok with your self? Didn’t you ever just sit back and take a deep breath and say, yup, I am Michelangelo.”
“No, never. There was always something better to do. Like right now.”
And he disappears.
He’s no help and I wish he had carved a female nude like the David. Maybe then I could look at it and, through osmosis, access my own inner strength, and feel comfortable and proud of being in my own skin. I long for a feminine role model of calm, sensual confidence. My green corduroys, turquoise cable-knit sweater, and blue down parka are a costume from a worn out-high school character I no longer fit. Yet I don’t feel safe enough to transform and play and make friends with these skulking spirits. Am I wrong to be attracted to what I can’t be?
A man with a black full-face mask poses in the arcade across from us. Frozen, he stares straight at me. Is it Michelangelo playing a trick? I pretend not to notice him and scrape the bottom of the dish with the tiny spoon. I didn’t want to be looked at, don’t want to be found out. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m terrified of messing it up or not being good enough. Part of me wants to dress up in a formal ball gown, wear long black gloves, stiletto heels, a ringlet wig, paste a diamond mole to my cheek, and hold a thin mask with flowing ribbons to my face.
I’ve learned that being Woman in Italy, means being elevated and celebrated, something I’ve never seen at home. Italian policemen are known to watch and whistle at women while saving a guy from a car wreck.
“Let’s get masks,” I say.
“Cool,” agrees Laura.
We stop in a shop where the owner has foggy eyes and a flat nose full of black heads. When he puts on a white bird mask he looks unrecognizable, seamlessly spooky.
“Charming, eh? A mask is-a new person.” He takes off the mask and there he stands.
Laura chooses a traditional beaked doctore mask used during the plague.
“I can drink wine easily underneath it if I ever go to one of those fabulous Venetian Balls,” she says. “Then again I am perfectly happy to sit on the steps of a church drinking cappuccino rather than deal with the politics of my mother and another ball.”
I find a cat mask and in the mirror on the wall I am cat woman, gold, sleek and sexy.
“D’at one is-a perfect for you. Bella,” said the man.
We pay and leave with our masks on. I am transformed, invincible, on the prowl, and protected like I’ve joined a gang. I can look into store windows and nobody will know I want lacy underwear, plush woven rugs, and spiraling silk drop lamps. I walk with a wider swing in my hips.
“Let’s go get a beer at Harry’s Bar,” I suggest.
Laura’s long beak nods, “Great. I’ve always wanted to go there.”
Laura is brave and constantly curious and says, “Have you ever noticed…?” about thirty times a day as if she wanted to uncover every truth the universe has to offer.
At Harry’s Bar, the cat and the doctore order beers. The bar flickers with votive candles, men and women who drink, tell stories, touch, kiss, laugh in a sensual way that reminds me of Sophia Loren and the figures on the Sistine Ceiling.
After two beers we catch the vaporetto back to Giudecca.
Everyone we pass–young and old–looks beautiful, tender, sensual.
Like Magritte, who painted a man painting the sky around him, I feel as if a new world has stepped into me.
I don’t see the end of the plank and trip getting off the vaporetto.
Laura removes her mask to find the house key, and laughing, says, “I’ve got sea legs.”
That night I lay on the couch and can’t sleep. The gold cat mask rests on the living room table. I think of Halloween, the way it gives girls permission to be cats, cute bunnies and guys permission to be cowboys or pirates, something equally playful and liberating. I want what the cat mask brought out in me.
I arch my back and wriggle out of my nightgown. My bare chest, hips and thighs rub up against the cool sheets. The direct contact makes me feel better and I listen to Laura breathing on the futon across the room. My body pulses and it occurs to me that my imaginary relationship with Michelangelo is better than the one I had with Thatcher. But why does my mind persist in believing that Thatcher is what I wanted?
I spread my legs and my hand knows how to do what Thatcher could never do for me. I remember making love with Thatcher in front of a mirror in a hotel and he turned my head and held it facing the mirror and said, “Do you see how beautiful you are?” and no matter how many times he said that I could not see because it felt like he was saying it about himself. And I could not believe I was anything more than his Jeep – a cool thing that made him look better and more valuable to the world. And now I needed to trust that, in fact, he was trying to teach me something, how to feel valuable to myself. How to appreciate my own reflection.
The nightgown back on, I tiptoe across the cold floor to the bathroom, passing Laura who is sound asleep. I stare at my brown eyes in the mirror and realize that it has never occurred to me to romance myself.
Although there is no lock on the door, no dimmer switch, just a harsh light over the sink, I pull my nightgown over my head and let it drop on the floor. I reposition the bath mat lengthwise in front of the door. If Laura wakes up, I’ll pretend I’m sick or have forgotten to brush my teeth. I turn the faucet to a slow trickle, lie down on the bath mat and walk my legs up the door. I feel stupid, but still I persist beyond the barrage of guilty thoughts like “You weirdo…mom can see you…you’re bad…if you touch yourself you will get a yeast infection.”
The word vagina is ugly. Luckily, my body is bolder than shame and my right hand and fingers find there way inside where it feels like kittens being born, raw, fleshy, pink, pulsing. My left hand moves over my breasts and down to my navel.
My skin is softer and more exquisite than I’ve ever noticed. My vagina looks like the inside of a conch shell, coral red, a skinned peach, layer after layer, spiraling inward. I see the small tear, where the doctor put Novocain and stitched me up after I fell off my bike when I was seven. Exploring, I touch what I have never dared enjoy. I massage what feels new and beautiful. So beautiful that it feels like birds’ wings flapping inside of me, electric in my toes and legs, which opens me up, wider all the way up the spine, whoosh, undefended like the sky, and as quickly as it comes it recedes like a wave back into the sea, leaving me to smile like a Sybil enjoying the cracks on the ceiling.
Jennifer C. Schelter is a professional yoga teacher, life coach, actress, writer, painter, photographer, and model.
She is the founder and director of Yoga Schelter studio in Philadelphia and Yoga Unites a non-profit, anti-violence Out Reach program that promotes yoga as a tool for health, partnership and transformation. She is known for leading over 500 people at the annual Yoga Unite for Living Beyond Breast Cancer on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps. She is the producer of AM Awake audio CD and a yoga DVD, The Art of Vinyasa Yoga.
As an actress she has performed in New York City Off-Broadway in her one-woman show Lingerie at Surf Reality and at the Clurman Theatre. In 1998 she founded the role of Cordelia in the World Premier of Taking Leave by Nagle Jackson at the Denver Center Theatre Company where she shared in receiving the Tony Award for best regional theatre. She has traveled to Europe, the Balkans, Asia, Southeast Asia, South America and the Caribbean photographing and painting watercolors of landscapes, architecture, animals and people. In the summer of 1997, she was selected for Art Retreat Week on the Island of Great Spruce Head, Maine, at the home of American Artist Fairfield Porter. She sells her work by word of mouth.