This story was originally published in Xavier Review, Volume 24 (2), Fall 2004, 50-51.
My name used to be Shirley-back in the early ’60s, before I became the Great American Nude #35. Tom would say, “You’re going to be great. Yes, surely, you are going to be great!” Then he’d add a little more brown to my tan or arrange a plate of peaches on the table. I didn’t really mind that my space looked like a college dorm, complete with bottled drinks on the window ledge and a Mona Lisa poster on the wall. Not exactly my taste, even then, but the setting said something about the times. After all, one couldn’t hear Simon and Garfunkel in the background or see my yellow polka-dot bikini. The setting had to say it all.
When he decided to take away my eyes and nose, he said, “You’re no ordinary, classical nude, gazing fondly at some man, at the people passing by. Your mouth alone-now that says something.” I was upset anyway, anxious about how I would look. Tom was right, though: people think having only a mouth is distinctive, one of my most memorable features. I’ve heard it a thousand times.
But what really bent my mind was when he introduced me to the world and I was no longer Shirley. Women have lived with this schizophrenia for centuries. You go along being Sarah Smith all your life and then you get married and, BAM, you’re Sarah Jones. A big chunk of who you’ve always been is lopped off, and a foreign mass is pasted on. Your identity takes a major hit-for better or for worse. In my case, it was ten times the whammy: I no longer had a name at all. But forty years is a long time. Now, Great American Nude #35 is who I am.
Nudity was rare back then, so being a nude-even #35-was pretty special. Now, it’s everywhere, and like anything else that goes into mass production, the average quality is lower. These days, most young women are neither fit nor firm. And women my age are worse. But that doesn’t keep them from showing more midriff, cleavage, and crotch than anyone really cares to see.
One of the best things about being me is that I’ve never given a thought to exercise, diet, aging-never had to worry about dressing well when I no longer undressed well-never had to decide whether to get an organ donor notation on my driver’s license. The flames of cremation, the indignities of embalming, and the disgust of bodily decomposition are equally irrelevant. Here in the gallery, security is so tight, even vandalism is not a concern. Which is not to say there haven’t been tradeoffs. Being loved by many means no one special in my life. No stretch marks means no family, either-unless you count the thirty-four sisters I’ve never seen. I don’t even know whether they’re still out there. A woman alone, I’m all that I have. But for the last decade or so, I felt pretty self-satisfied
Then last week the curator of the contemporary art collection and the museum director came by. The curator looked at me for a long time, his eyes squinched halfway shut. “Do you think she’s lost her edge?”
The director shrugged. “Maybe.” He looked me over one more time. “Maybe she is becoming .. passe.”
“Do you want to send her for auction?”
“No-o-o-o. Not yet. But let’s think about storage.”
Later that afternoon, a couple of college students stopped. One looked me up and down and said, “Yo, dude. She is phat!”
I haven’t gained an ounce, of course. How could I? But all that night I worried. When did I get fat? How could they think I’m fat?
Since then, I’ve noticed how few people visit me these days. And I seldom hear patrons’ comments. Their words are drowned out by that other, remembered exchange. What will become of me if I’m no longer Shirley and no longer great?