We are publishing “Bare” by Mai Nguyen, the second-prize winner in the fiction category of the annual Filitsa Sofianou-Mullen Creative Writing Competition.
Margrette can’t remember if she has shaved down there.
She’s been too busy for that. She slept five hours a day, and spent the rest completing her fashion portfolio, in preparation for a two-hour interview last weekend. It did pay off, though. She got an offer on Monday, for the position of an assistant costume designer at the Looking Glass Theatre Company.
Now she’s on her way to Sharon’s studio. She thinks about how sad Sharon was when she found out Margrette would stop modelling soon. But Margrette tries to talk herself out of overthinking. It’s just a part-time job. It’s just something she does for fun. Something temporary to pay the bills after quitting that office job and before moving on to something else. And now that she’s actually moving on to be an assistant costume designer, she should be happy to let it go.
But the more she tries, the more she knows it has always been something more. She doesn’t remember since when the studio had grown to be one of her safest places. She does recall, though, that her first time was tough. She was freaking out while making sure the tiniest body hair was removed. Then came body lotion, moisturizer, sunscreen, and so on – everything for a fair, smooth, youthful-looking skin. She spent two hours trying to come up with all the poses that might make her look skinnier, before noticing that her legs were trembling, with goosebumps running down along her arms. She was struggling.
“Hey Margrette, last day, huh?”
Sharon’s skirt-suit is covered by a color-splashed apron. She has her hair tied up in a messy bun. Her high heels had been thrown to the corner of the room, and her sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Her eyes are glued to the new sets of paint brushes, which leaves Margrette wondering how Sharon knows it’s her who has just walked in. Sharon always does that. On Margrette’s fourth or fifth day, Sharon already knew what her boots sounded like when they hit the creaky wooden floor in the hallway, and would shout: “Margrette!’ even before she entered the room.
“Yep, last day. You’re looking great, by the way.”
“Thank you, sweetie pie.” Sharon giggles, but keeps her eyes on the brushes.
Margrette has always liked Sharon’s style. Not how she dressed, but how she looked in her clothes. She would rest one hand in her pocket, and let the other play with her earrings every time she contemplates a painting. When she’s upset, Sharon would readjust her waistband, while her fingers fidget along the belt until she’s cooled down. At other times, when she feels like laying off, she would unbutton her shirt, and let visible a tiny branch of fern tattooed right under her left collarbone. Sharon’s almost always with bare feet, though. As Margrette kneels down to untie her bootlaces, she sees Sharon’s tense and pale toes, probably because they have been squeezed into her office heels for too long. Thinking she likes Sharon more with bare feet, Margrette takes off her socks, then jacket, then t-shirt, then pants.
Sharon looks up. Right hand in her pocket, left hand on her earlobe. Her eyes sparkle as the cherry lipstick highlights that mischievous corner of her mouth.
“You know what, sweetie pie. I’ve got a brilliant idea for your special last day.”
“Oh please, Sharon.” Margrette rolls her eyes, while taking off her underwear. “I’m not doing costumes. Get yourself a fucking porn star if you want it so bad.”
Sharon cracks a laugh, the paintbrush almost slips off her hand. The limpid sound of her voice reminds Margrette of the time Sharon asked her to wear a witch hat for a class on Halloween, and Margrette went as far as sandwiching a broomstick between her legs to further demonstrate the idea. Sharon wanted a wicked-witch theme for the holiday, but she surely did not expect Margrette to look just like those dress-up models on naked calendar cards. She said she never laughed that hard in her life, but admitted that some of her ideas should only remain ideas.
“You’ve got to stop making fun of me, sweetie. But seriously, hear me out. This could be great.” She unties the messy bun and makes it into a neat ponytail. That means she’s about to get to work.
Margrette puts on a bathing towel, and rushes to where Sharon’s struggling to move a table. She notices how Sharon’s forehead is already covered with sweat, before looking around to find out all easels have already been arranged in a perfect circle. But this is as expected. Sharon is always an hour early to put all drawing tools in order. And Margrette likes being a bit early too, although she can’t remember when she started doing that. It feels like a routine now – she would finish up at 5 in the office to arrive 15 minutes before the painting students do. She wonders if Sharon would paint her with them today, just because she does that sometimes, and it’s Margrette’s last day working at the studio. Margrette’s quite excited.
Today Sharon wants to play with the light. She has removed all curtains and placed the table where rays of sunshine flow in for an hour right before sunset. Then she gives Margrette a pretty fern bouquet to put on her waist, asks her to lie on the right side, and have her head rested on her hands.
“I thought you had dark chocolate eyes, Margrette.” Sharon giggles, while playing with the tiny pearl hanging on her earlobe. “But in the sunlight, they’re honey hazel. I want to paint them.”
Margrette is suddenly unsettled. She can’t help but glance at her unshaved lady parts, and looking up to see a dozen of young faces, with knit eyebrows and tensed lips. One of the students raises his hand to ask Sharon a question, and Margrette tries to hear him. But she feels like she can only hear the rumbling in her stomach instead. She wonders if he was talking about her. He could have said something like: “Why doesn’t she shave?” and perhaps the other guys in the room think the same way, too.
Margrette feels like she should have shaved. And she thinks about Matt, and how funny it is for her to suddenly think about him now. But he never liked her with hair. She remembers taking her clothes off in front of him for the first time, and watching as his eyes stopped gleaming when they glanced downward. Margrette started shaving since then. She would forget to do that once in a while, and felt how differently Matt touched her. She could never explain what the difference was, though. He always did everything she asked him to: kissing her thighs, squeezing her forearms, and rubbing his head on her tummy. Things that sounded nice but to her confusion, did not feel nice.
She used to wish that Matt would just say something, anything. “I like you better when you shave,” “I don’t want to do it today,” or “I slept with someone from my office.” But Matt never said anything. He’s been a quiet guy from day one – so quiet, Margrette wanted to talk to him. She saw him sitting alone at the corner of the canteen before putting her food tray down on his table, and sparking a conversation on how those kitchen ladies should have fried better eggs. He did not reply much, but he laughed along. Margrette remembered how Matt’s lips always pursed a bit right before he laughed out loud at every one of her stupid jokes. That was in college: Margrette’s first year, Matt’s last. A few weeks later, those pursed lips kissed Margrette on her cheeks, on the balcony of her favorite pub, after a few shots of his favorite drink, when she asked him whether or not he liked her. Matt never answered, but it felt like a ‘yes.’ But Margrette never got asked in return, and so she spent the rest of her relationship wondering if it still felt like a ‘yes’ to her. Or had it ever felt like a ‘yes’?
Matt was quiet when she walked out on him for the first time. That was when he wanted her to get an office job, though she wanted to pursue fashion. In response to that, Matt said her degree was in Communications, and she never managed to put on the appropriate clothes when they had guests anyways. He hadn’t finished when Margrette shut the door behind her back and fled to the streets at 3 AM. She was trembling in the cold of the night, running her way to the gas station, where Matt used to buy her packs and packs of M&Ms so she could store them in her fridge. On the other side of the road the signboard of their favorite restaurant still flickered. They had dined there on Matt’s graduation day, and had sex in the bathroom until someone knocked on the door to ask if they could make less noise. Margrette cracked a laugh when she thought about how Matt made more sounds having sex than all of his daily communications combined. But now that Margrette had chosen silence, too, there was nothing left to say. Margrette didn’t get home until it was almost dawn, and Matt was still up. He hugged her so tight, she thought maybe silence was not that bad. And then she went for that office job.
Matt was quiet when he left her, once and forever. He packed his belongings while Margrette was still hungover from a friend’s party, leaning on their fridge. When he came back from a business trip to find their house filled with undone laundry, M&Ms, and food from the previous week, Matt asked Margrette if she ever wanted to leave him. She was tearing up, and she kept quiet. But it felt like a ‘yes.’ He was in a gray business suit, and as Margrette watched him trudging towards the door, she realized he had stopped wearing the designer t-shirts she brought him a long time ago. He hugged her for the last time, and she hasn’t seen him for years.
“Are you okay, sweetie pie?”
Sharon has stopped painting, her eyes filled with worry. Margrette feels her cheeks wet.
“Yeah, my eyes just get a bit tired from the light.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie, we’re almost done.” Sharon turns to her side to make sure her students have heard that, then back to Margrette. “Plus, you’re going to love the outcome.”
Sharon turns her easel around for a short moment to give Margrette a peek. Margrette can’t see much, but she does see how the bright yellow and orange shades are mixed together beautifully in the background. She sees a feminine shape in the middle, barefaced but shameless, with all her curves, and body hair.
Margrette feels light. She watches as Sharon rubs her chin with the pencil handle, while half closing her eyes to see the painting in a new light. As she plays with her shirt buttons, and later on re-rolls her sleeves. As she fixes her color palette while tilting her head and letting the ponytail fall on her shoulder. As she looks up to see Margrette. Margrette finds herself wondering what all of these gestures mean. She wonders what the branch of fern means. She wonders if she can still come back here tomorrow, a little bit before the drawing section, just to help Sharon out. She wonders if Sharon would like to be invited to her apartment, for a beer or two, and some sweets, and some questions. She wonders what that half-smile on Sharon’s lips means. She wonders if it feels like a ‘yes’ to Sharon.
Because to her, it does.