The shirt comes off easily. As do the pants. And the socks, I guess. I just pretend I'm in a locker room, about to hit the showers at the gym. But once I get down to the briefs, there is a moment of hesitation. A fluttering of anticipation. Once those are gone, there will be nothing left to hide. That small moment when I tug at my briefs and take them off, a moment I've always associated with either total privacy or total intimacy, suddenly feels all too new.
There is a performed awkwardness to what follows. But John has done all of this before. I contacted him because I wanted to commission a piece for my boyfriend. Our three-year anniversary is coming up, and in my head a nude portrait is a playfully erotic wink of a gift. What is another bare ass, another (mostly) limp dick? His watercolor studies of well-sculpted naked men in everyday poses (lying in bed, sitting sideways, standing and staring), which I first saw online, have an alluring mix of raw sensuality and tender vulnerability. I was drawn to the pieces themselves for their own striking qualities, but was also intrigued by the scenarios they suggested, by the fabricated intimacy between a gay artist and a male model—too erotic to be utterly chaste, too demure to be outright sexual.
After working on a number of warm-up ballpoint sketches, John is now at work on one of two watercolors he will paint of me today. My arms, both of which have been behind my head for more than 20 minutes, are aching. As the sun begins to flood the space, I feel sweat slowly build up on my lower back. At least I don't have to worry about sweat stains. Since all I'm required to do is stay still, I let my wavering and wandering mind loose, trying to make sense of the odd scene I'm now a part of, standing naked in an area of town full of bustling office buildings, these wide windows to my left framing the city's skyline.
The eerie stillness makes it all seem more illicit than it should. Not illicit, I guess—titillating. As I survey the room around me and try to clear my mind, I land on a line from one of my favorite poets: "I am what people make of me—if they can and when they will." Frank O'Hara's greatest gift was the way he captured the immediacy of life. The lustful gaze that runs through his poetry all but demands you shed any shame you may have—about loving Lana Turner or wanting to fuck that cute guy you just met. His poems may seem like candid Polaroids, but come to think of it, they're closer to the swift-if-detailed watercolors John can create in 20 minutes.
In that same poem, O'Hara (who would often pose for his artist friend Larry Rivers) writes that he's so glad Larry has made a statue of him:
and now I hear that my penis is on all
the statues of all the young sculptors who've
More of us should aspire to be as gleefully vain as O'Hara is here and embrace the openness he embodied on and off the page. (Suddenly I regret not having thought to bring a pair of boots to re-create Rivers's own O'Hara Nude with Boots, a painting I realize John and I are inadvertently echoing with my current pose.)
Worried, perhaps, that I'm too caught up in my own thoughts ("You're so still," he says), John tries to put me at ease, striking up a conversation about the nature of the commission, telling me how he's painted several couples in the past to celebrate similar milestones. He knows the portrait will be a surprise and, with a wide grin, asks, "What do you think your boyfriend will think of this?"
The question catches me off guard and I struggle to answer it. "I don't know," I muster. The hesitancy comes from a place of, I must admit, shame. No, here what haunts me is shame's Spanish equivalent: pudór. It's apt not only because it's the language of my family and my homeland, but because it's one letter away from sudor (sweat). It's a visceral reaction. Something deep in me wants to tarnish what feels all too natural (au naturel, I can't help but think to myself). Of course, as a thirtysomething gay man living in a big city, the very thought of feeling shame at displaying my body so unabashedly in a decidedly private environment strikes me as timid at best and prudish at worst. Neither comforts me.
The more I think about it, the more this morning's session with John feels like a bumbling attempt at unpacking what I really wanted this gift to mean, to say, to stand for. On first look it seems rather self-serving. Narcissistic even. A carefully orchestrated scenario to indulge in what may very well be an exhibitionist streak I've long tried to repress. Yet at the same time, posing for a nude portrait necessarily requires vulnerability, giving up control. It's about letting go of your own sense of self and letting someone else reveal it for you.
John dips his brush in more water and continues his work, letting his question linger. Occasionally our eyes meet and I find myself blushing—all the more apparent and embarrassing in my current state, especially since I notice blood rushing somewhere else. Did he mean "this" as in "spending your Saturday morning naked with some 'john,'" or "this" as in "gifting him a seemingly vanity-driven nude portrait"? As I continue treating our time together as a sort of self-searching meditation session, he eventually looks up and tells me that he's finished. Outside, the sun is shining, and I am oddly melancholy about putting my clothes back on.
John shows me the final watercolor, the one I'll later frame and hang on our wall. It's odd to see oneself amid brushstrokes and lines, seeing every muscle, hair, and mole pointedly looking back at you from what was once a mere blank page. There may be no boots and no cinder block, but I do enjoy thinking of it as an echo of Rivers's 1954 portrait of his poet friend. Another O'Hara line (from a poem titled "Homosexuality," no less) flits through my head, offering itself up as a sly caption: "It's a summer day, and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world." But that's too glib. I know my boyfriend, who'll smile and blush and stare in wide-eyed wonder at the portrait when I finally give it to him, wants me. John's brushstrokes need not spell out my desire to be desired by him. No, that glint in my eye he managed to capture is also directed at myself. A reminder of a sunny Saturday morning when I tugged and dropped not just my briefs but my pudór.