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The mothers and Tanya decided to take a sculpture class. It was 11pm on a snowy November Thursday and they were all leaving the gastropub to head home to their children and spouses and lizards (in Tanya’s case) when they found themselves staring at a brown paper poster on the door of a cozy studio. Inside, half a dozen people were spinning pots and throwing clay, bare bulbs hanging like ideas above their unkempt heads.

Mrs. Claire Thompson had been an artist when she was younger, and still thought of herself as such. Dr. Elaine Renez had been an accomplished violinist for many years, before medical school sucked her up and left behind all other traces of the person she had been (she said, joking, rubbing at the purple beneath her eyes). Ms. Katharina Guba was not creative, but she enjoyed a good book, and relished people who could do things capably with their hands. Tanya was occasionally a poet. She taught composition classes in city parks buildings for internship credit.

“I used to pass this place on the way to daycare,” Claire said, touching the poster with nails that had just begun to chip. “I always want to take the nude figure sculpture class.”

Katharina snorted. She thought it was a joke.

“I used to make pots and things,” Claire continued, eyeing her friend. “My favorite was this giant, cathedral-like thing, very structural, with a long spout that curved into the lips of a gargoyle at the end of it–”

“Fifty dollars a class isn’t that much,” Elaine said. “And there’s children’s pinch pot sessions on weekends for thirty.”

“Does that include clay?” Katharina was not poor, by anyone’s standards, but she was the least secure of the trio of mothers. Her twin sons were beset with all sorts of minor allergies and inflammatory reactions, and one had a leg considerably shorter than the other, which required regular occupational therapy.

Elaine waved a hand at her friend’s inquiry. “If not I’m sure clay is, what, ten bucks? Twenty?”

Tanya pressed her boot into the snow and smirked. As if there difference between those two figures was nothing.

“Forget the kid’s classes, Elaine,” Claire nearly spat. She backed away from the poster and rapped on the door. “It’s all about our kids all the time! I need an expressive outlet other than Legos! Hello, is anyone in there?”

“They’re closed,” Katharina told her.

Tanya lifted her boot. The impression left in the snow was vague and faint; her boots were several years old. Some wealthy skeezeball had bought them for her at an REI in Colorado, at the halfway point driving into the mountains for a skiing trip. The man was long gone now, thankfully reconnected with his wife, and the boots had dime-thin holes appearing the soles. They took on water if Tanya stood in the slush too long.

Claire was still rapping at the door. Elaine was giggling boozily into a fist.

“Is anybody there? Hello?” Claire squinted into the glass door. “I can see a light on in the back.”

“Claire really,” Katharina sighed. “They’re gone.”

“It says they have midnight classes!” Claire pouted. “It’s the nudie ones!”

“Says they serve wine,” Elaine observed. “How are they making any money on this? What a liability! Buncha drunk old pervs throwing mud everywhere..,”

“I’ll go with you,” Tanya said quickly. All the mothers turned. “I’ll take a class. When do you want to go?”

— — –

Tanya was about Katharina’s age and not much younger than Claire, but the mothers treated her with a bewildered distance. She was working as a medical transcriptionist and studying verse in a part-time MFA downstate, and lived in a threadbare Roger’s Park studio. The mothers lived in warm, overstuffed flats and condominiums in Andersonville, and Buena Park, and the Gold Coast. They met at mostly affordable little bistros and karaoke bars on the north side, and tried to ignore the differences that cleaved them.

It was clear to everyone, of course, that Dr. Elaine had money. She’d hired Tanya as a nanny three years prior, when her youngest girl was still in diapers. The two women had steadily built a friendship out of loaned books and neighborhood complaints. When Elaine’s family left for Boston around Christmas, Tanya always watched the dog and the fish. When Elaine’s wife left to produce a film in Los Angeles, Tanya helped her finish a bottle of Merlot and slept on her couch. One morning while Tanya swept up the kitchen, Elaine let it slip that she was headed for brunch with an old acquaintance from Mommy and Me, and would Tanya like to come?

Tanya felt at ease around the other two women more quickly. Over French toast and Bloody Mary’s, Claire hired her as a babysitter (not a nanny — a distinction that felt dense with meaning). Katharina complimented Tanya’s scarf and asked where she was from, and were her parents immigrants like Katharina’s were? Did they understand or respect their daughter’s insistence on making pretty little booklets of stories instead of money?

Tanya just laughed and answered that yes, in fact her parents were immigrants (Russian and Korea respectively, thank you for asking) and no, they did not read or appreciate her poetry chapbooks, but they were glad she had a consistent job with health insurance, as a sideline. Then Elaine cut the cross-examination short and refilled everyone’s glass from a pepper-red pitcher from which a long celery stalk was protruding.

— — –

They came in covered in hats and scarves and oversized hoods, sniffling and cursing the cold. It had been a mild December, full of rain and light, but now that the year was out snow and bone-chilling gusts had begun in earnest. Both of Katharina’s kids had come down with severe colds, wet-sounding coughs rattling their small chests. Winter had come.

Tanya trailed the other three into the studio. Claire was efficient in having their names checked off a list and in selecting a row of four seats near the center of the room. She gathered coats and kicked off her boots and surmised the scene while Elaine filled plastic solo cups with wine from a box.

“These chairs are so damn tiny,” Claire said, easing her ass into the molded green plastic. “Since when have I been so…tall? So wide?”

“Since when do you call things ‘damn’ instead of ‘fucking’,” said Elaine, her cheeks already pink with alcohol.

“Since I got chewed out by Moriana’s piano teacher.”

The women cackled, Katharina making a sour face as she attempted to suck the cheapo wine down. Tanya watched as the staff cut mounds of clay from a perfectly shaped, wet rectangular mass using a length of wire with wooden handles. Each hunk was about a pound, thrown with no delicacy onto a slab and labeled with a patron’s name.

Other people came in. They were mostly middle-aged, men and women in equal proportion, most of them in wool coats with long hair allowed to naturally grey. Slowly they examined the room, claimed their wine, sat at their chosen place in the circle. A few mentioned the nude figure aspect, chuckling with the fear of being judged.

Katharina was wondering where her clay was. Without a word, Tanya blinked past her and pointed out, across the room, to where the mound was being sliced. In the center of the chairs there was a wooden block draped with a dark red cloth. This was where the model would be sitting no doubt.

Elaine was fiddling with the low stone table in front of her. “It doesn’t spin,” she complained. She looked up like a merekat scanning the horizon, in search of an assistant to come service her needs.

“For the seventeenth time, Elaine, it’s a figure class, not pottery.” Claire looked past her oldest friend, locked eyes on Tanya, and rolled her eyes. Tanya sighed back at her.

“I hope it isn’t too puerile,” Katharina said.

Claire eyed her.

“At this hour, you never know.”

Tanya went up to claim her clay. The other women tittered a bit then followed suit. As Tanya bore the bulk of the clay on the slate sheet, she felt Claire touch her on the forearm and give a light squeeze.

“I want to thank you for agreeing to do this with me,” Claire said. “I don’t think the rest of them would’ve agreed if you hadn’t been brave.”

Tanya looked back at Claire. “Brave?”

Claire shrugged. “Yeah, they’re all lame now. We all are. Not you, I guess. You still have your sidepieces and whatever–”

Tanya pursed her lips. “I shouldn’t have told you that.”

Before Tanya could pull away and make a beeline for her seat, Claire squeezed even tighter and leaned in. “No,” she said, “No, it’s so great to have you in our group. We need you to remind us what it was like to be all, uh, hanging loose. Not strapped down to a million things. Look, we wouldn’t be here otherwise!”

In the center of the room, a studio employee was clasping her hands and calling for everyone’s attention.

“Thanks,” Tanya mouthed. She turned until Claire’s hand finally broke off from her arm, and dashed over to her seat.

— — –

The instructor walked them through a few exercises in holding and manipulating the clay. Everyone sliced off small slivers and worked them in their winter-dry hands, forming balls and then long cylinders and then coiling those into small cups or heads or snakes. Assistants brought round basins of water and an array or rags and sponges, to help re-dampen the material so it could be recast in any number of shapes.

“This feels so good,” Elaine said. “So soothing.”

“Aren’t you used to touching goopy stuff?” Claire whispered. “Like organs? Bodies?”

Tanya sat up straight and looked at the instructor. She knew Elaine was a podiatrist and hadn’t handled organs or bodies at all since medical school. But then, surely Claire was aware of that. She just wanted to forget, so she could cast her oldest friend in a more thrilling role than real life really allowed. Her friend Doctor Elaine, the handler of viscera.

The instructor paced around the room, moving between chairs with a slow, watchful manner. He was in his mid-fifties, balding, soft. Not so old really, Tanya figured. She was thirty-one but all her friends were older. Elaine sported a proud crown of grey-brown roots. Katharina let burgeoning crow’s feet peek from under thin layers of liquid makeup. Among this class, the instructor seemed less like an authority and more like an aged barista, servicing them.

At last the class finished their final exercise (building a coiled pear while staring intently at a real piece of fruit perched in a young assistant’s hand). The instructor stood over Tanya, and said nothing as she bathed her pear in murky brown water and flattened it with the heel of her palm. To her right, Elaine was smirking as she carved her pear a Jack-o-Lantern face.

The instructor settled into a seat by the rear. He told them that the real creative task would begin now, and that this brand of sculpture was all about honoring nature’s curves and dimples. One of the assistants placed a glass of water with lemon on a coaster beside the wood block. Elaine swallowed wine noisily.

The instructor said he trusted everyone would be mature and civil, and would recognize that touching was verboten. He actually used that term, verboten. Claire’s eyes sparkled with mirth at Elaine and danced over to Tanya, where they hardened and rolled. In the back of the room, a fabric curtain was flung back and a petite woman with dark hair strode out in a flimsy robe.

People weren’t certain how to behave. Some of the younger men pinned their gaze to the studio’s mid-century tile. The older women stared the model clear in the face. Katharina was running her index finger along the rim of her cup glass. For what seemed like a long time, Tanya heard the model’s bare feet thwack against the cool tile (which must have been a bit wet and salty from everyone’s boots) but did not peer up to assess her. She knew the model was in place when she saw Claire reaching for her clay and curving a huge lump of it into a sphere.

“Pose one,” the instructor said, and the model arranged herself like a dryad on the side of a creek. Tanya looked up, saw the satiny robe on the ground in a heap, the glass with the ice floating in it, and the narrow face of Soyeon, her first-year roommate from a writer’s retreat outskirts of Madison.

She was long limbed but curled upon herself, stout in the face, stomach, and thighs, with long dark brown hair cascading over her shoulders and dangling to her navel. Tanya hated that she’d noticed such things, had sized them up — and hated the flash of recognition that passed over Soyeon’s whole body.

“Notice where the bulk of the body’s fat is gathered, in this position,” the instructor said, and Tanya noticed Soyeon subtly pulling her shoulders down, reducing the size of her torso. Her stomach folds deepened and narrowed with her deeper breaths.

Tanya took a wad of clay and formed a long, awkwardly bent arm out of it. She devoted entirely too much attention to the cute stubbiness of her former friend’s fingers and the exaggerated bumpiness of her wrist. When she looked up again, Soyeon’s gaze had drifted down to the leg of Elaine’s chair

Everyone worked in silence for a while, nudity having lent the event a sense of gravity and artistry Tanya thought it didn’t deserve. A man used pinching fingers to draw out Soyeon’s shoulders, then formed minute coils and laid them down as tiny clavicles. Elaine spent fifteen minutes perfecting the shape of Soyeon’s skull. When Tanya looked over at Claire’s sculpture, she saw an enormous head with detailed, pillowy lips and a sharp noise, drowning in a long plane of structured, solid hair. Across way, a young woman rolled a ball into a breast and pressed the back of it into the table, flattening it.

Soyeon had never been a good poet, in Tanya’s estimation. Her work was florid and ranting, almost rap-like but without any of the rhythm of actual rap. When Soyeon read her work, her voice was halting and fractured. She drew flowers around her poems inside a cheap Target notebook. Every morning of the retreat, she took long runs into town and rewarded herself with a chocolate milk from the gas station down the hill. It never seemed like she wanted to be there.

Tanya built two awkward, grasshopper-like legs and layered them. Tanya didn’t recall Soyeon as being interested in visual art or modelling. It couldn’t be that this sideline was lucrative.

The instructor stood and refilled his Solo cup with wine. “Pose two.”

“Wait,” Elaine said. She stared at Soyeon’s torso, scanning it from the hips to the neck, reaching absently for more clay. The instructor put his hand up for a moment so Soyeon could see. Then he nodded.

Soyeon rose to her full size, looked Tanya in the face blankly, pivoted, and stepped onto the block. There, her ass facing them, she stood with feet apart and extended her arms, elbows bent, like she was a fearsome carnivorous bird.

Tanya could have been nicer to Soyeon. All that time, they’d bunked together and Tanya had barely said a thing besides “good metaphor” or “do you know what’s for lunch?” The girl was clearly lonesome. Everybody there was. Even when Soyeon was in shorts and a t-shirt, watching YouTube in bed, Tanya had lacked the decency to saunter over and ask her what was new, what was she watching, what was up.

Claire was intent in her formation of the buttocks. Elaine’s rendition was clinically precise, despite the hiccough escaping her throat. Tanya looked back at Katharina and discovered she was forming a duck. The people on the other side of the room were doing what justice they could to Soyeon’s belly button and the wisp of her pubic hair.

“Try to simulate all the textures you see,” the instructor’s voice called. “Not all tissue on the body is soft and yielding. Nor is all of it firm and pliant. This model is a grown woman with a life’s worth of experiences. Your version of her should reflect that.”

There were a dozen tiny statues on the edge of all the tables, a dozen tiny malformed Soyeons. Tanya looked at her old roommate’s back and took stock of every minute twitch of muscle, every drop in posture. She imagined that Soyeon’s arms were in agony, frozen like that between extension and folding inward.

As the second pose was being finished by most everyone, the room took on its former jocular quality. People chatted quietly and smiled. Somebody leaned over a friend’s sculpture and then pointed up at Soyeon’s face, and said something about elegant asymmetry. Katharina had gotten up and was eating a cracker. A staff person asked her if she was alright. Elaine’s head whipped over and she began to cackle.

“Sorry,” she said. “Our friend is a German prude.”

The staff woman looked away. She was young. Cherub-like. Tanya wondered if she served as a model too, from time to time. It had to be awful, standing by your boss in khakis and a polo one day, bare as birth the next. Neither was particularly comfortable in this kind of light.

“Pose three,” said the instructor. “Model’s freestyle.”

Tanya leaned back in her seat and rolled the final third of her clay. As Soyeon bent down to claim a sip of water, Tanya briefly began to take their acquaintanceship for granted. It was nothing! It probably meant nothing at all to Soyeon. It was like when you’re eighteen and uncomfortable buying condoms or tampons at the CVS; the cashier doesn’t really care, even if he’s a young boy. He doesn’t even notice, he’s so buried in thousands of transactions spanning hours or days or years of his life. Soyeon had probably done this a dozen times before. A familiar face was probably easily forgotten.

The clay warmed in Tanya’s hands, and then it began to dry and turn doughy. Soyeon sat her water down and turned to face Tanya and all her friends. Her blank face morphed into a grimace, something garish and unrealistic like a pre-Renaissance portrait of souls swirling in hell. Her feet were planted flat on block and her arms thrust behind her. Her knees parted and her jaw hung. A few strangers laughed and got working but Tanya didn’t.

— — –

Tanya imagined following Soyeon as she disappeared behind the curtain and into the studio’s back rooms. She pictured the woman standing before a mirror combing her hair and retrieving her clothes from a little gray locker.

In her imagination, Tanya asks, “Do you remember me?”

And Soyeon says, “Sure! Tanya the Transcriptionist, how are you?”

But Tanya imagines there is bitterness in the words, so she says, “I’m sorry if that was uncomfortable for you, I didn’t know what to do.”

In her imagination Soyeon is stony. She throws the robe back and it disintegrates into little wet gribbles of tissue paper and falls to the floor. “I’m not the one who’s uncomfortable. Did I make you uncomfortable?”

“No,” Tanya apologizes. “I made myself uncomfortable. I promise, I am totally okay with all kinds of sex work and-”

At which point Soyeon steps over to her and stands so close that Tanya can smell her breath. It is not pleasant, it’s sour like bad tap water and Crystal Light.

“Was that meant to titillate? Was it pornographic? Do you know it when you see it?”

And Tanya draws back, covers her eyes. “N-no. I just meant that people probably do judge it-”

“Sex work pays more than thirty per sitting,” Soyeon says, and suddenly the money is in her hands, wet and limp and insubstantial, like wilted lettuce. “At least if it’s fair. But this isn’t that. And if I wanted to be doing that, I’d be doing it, and I probably wouldn’t have to deal with you looking so sad at me.”

Soyeon slips a bra on. It is heather gray and loose. She says nothing more and looks at the wall.

“I just wanted to apologize for my friends and for everybody that was, you know, laughing and being pervy about it,” Tanya says. “I think a lot of people do it because they want to see a girl naked but they don’t want to be associated with strip clubs. Not that that’s fair–”

“Did you get anything out of it?” Soyeon’s voice does not seem to come from her (imaginary) body; it projects from a corner and echoes around the room.

Tanya is still sitting in the studio. Her friends are cleaning up and chatting. But at the same time, she is back there, looking at the little metal locker and avoiding Soyeon’s face.

“I might have, if it wasn’t you,” she says. This answer surprises her. “I told my friend I would go, and I thought it would be kind of a little thrill for her — I mean, her life is very domestic.”

Soyeon is popping pillows of Trident White into her mouth. Her jaw tightens around the wad, makes a vein in her temple twinge. “And a thrill for you. Don’t act like you’re some prostrate sinner. Jesus. Everybody comes here for the nudity, it’s never for the art.”

Tanya is holding her wrist. Her posture is unsure, small. Soyeon is all dressed now, and flipping her hair back as she opens a Chapstick.

“So, who are your domestic friends?” Soyeon asks, and this time the words come from her lips, but her lips aren’t her own anymore, they are over-exaggerated and composed of wet brown clay, Claire’s sculpture of them in matter of fact.

“They’re not my friends,” Tanya tells her. “They’re just rich bitches I work for.”

“Don’t distance yourself from them. It’s cowardly to shit on your friends, and it’s not like it’s gonna make me like you any better.”

Would Soyeon say that? Does she even know what it is like to have friends? Does Tanya, for that matter? She pushes this thought out. The door of the studio is opening, and cool air and darkness is coming in. Tanya ignores this and places herself back in the room.

“Are you a mother like them?” Soyeon asks. Now she is all clay, sliced angles and sloppy curves that droop and drip, and cracks in the places that Tanya has neglected.

“No,” Tanya says.

“Do you want to be?”

“No,” Tanya says, and she almost says something like, “I want to give birth to good art–” but she doesn’t say that shit because it is just too melodramatic and she cannot even imagine herself taking a stand like that. Somehow, though, her former roommate can read her mind.

“I wanted to make art, too,” she says. “I thought there was this great big swirling thing inside of me, and that all creation required was just putting myself in enough sad and lonely and fucked-up situations that it would finally be drawn out. It turns out it’s just a lot of being boring and mediocre.”

“You were not a good poet,” Tanya imagines herself saying, with a nod and a wine-drunk laugh.

“Well neither are you; nobody’s a natural.” Clay Soyeon looks up at the ceiling and transports herself in memory to the recent past. Tanya imagines that she says, “I thought I needed a visual medium, something tactile. I thought it wouldn’t require thinking, can you believe that? I wanted to be able to just sit and work my hands through this earth and shape it into something garishly haunting and beautiful — “

“Me too,” Tanya allows.

Clay Soyeon snorts, reclaims the conversation, “But turns out, who’d have fucking guessed, it requires technique and skill and practice, too. There is no deep inner art-self that’s just screaming to break out. There’s just a lot of work. And at the end of a work day, I didn’t have the time to try like that. So I decided, I’ll take a job where I don’t need to think or do or learn, I’ll just be. I’ll just be the art. Something else will be created, and it will be me, and not me, and I won’t have to work to make it, because it’s out of my control.”

“That’s what children are,” Tanya says.

She blinks and someone is calling her. A crack is spreading from deep in Clay Soyeon’s neck and reaching up to the back of her head. Her skin has taken on a waxy pallor. Clay Soyeon parts her (comical, oversized, unrealistic) lips to speak but only cool damp air comes out. The smell of earth and dusty air is heavy and stings the insides of Tanya’s nose.

Soyeon was just a bad poet with a shaking frame and a whole life that Tanya never got to know. When she left for the retreat, Tanya had promised herself that she would “network”. She would identify the best artists present and make fast friends of them, get something useful out of them. She also promised herself that she would identify the most interesting folks — whether locals or artists — and draw stories and vignettes out of them, the better to diversify and enliven her own small, thinly worded creations. But then she never did.

Soyeon was nothing to her. There was no reason to follow her, no reason that they should speak. Nothing in the past hour of posing and working clay had meant anything. It was ridiculous, perverse even, for Tanya to stick words into her mouth.

— — –

So when Soyeon (the real, flesh-and-blood Soyeon) raises from her ghoulish posture and solemnly avoids all eye contact as she slips on the translucent robe and shuffles into the hidden inner sanctum of the studio, Tanya does not follow, and instead turns to her new friends. Katharina is smashing her pieces into moist rubble; Claire is placing hers carefully on the kiln rack. Elaine is holding up the bare-assed second sculpture of Soyeon and scrutinizing it with the disapproval of a harsh parent, until Claire sneaks up behind her, squeezes her shoulders and tells her it looks amazing, so lifelike, really, just plain good.

And so Tanya looks over her pieces and decides to split the difference. She places the first pose on the kiln rack; she bashes the second pose into oblivion and returns its damp clay to the mound from whence it came; the third pose she wraps up in newspaper and throws in her bag.

“That will ruin it,” Elaine says, and Tanya is not sure if she means her bag or the sculpture, but either way she doesn’t care so she doesn’t stop.

And the four of them go out into the frigid air and the darkness, scarves and purses hanging off their shoulders, wine-stained smiles playing at their mouths, and Tanya is staring out at the wet slick pavement and thinking about writing contests she has lost when all of a sudden Katharina asks, “What did you girls think of that model?”

“Pose number three!” Elaine yells and holds onto Claire, tight, laughing like she needs a liter of water or perhaps a sandwich.

Claire steadies her drunken doctor friend and turns left, onto Balmoral, where her SUV is parked. “Hardly what I would picture when I hear the word ‘model’.”

Katharina nods and looks at Tanya seriously. “Not very elegant; she wouldn’t do well at all if she had to keep her clothes on.”

“And that instructor,” Tanya ventures, “what a perv.”

“What a weirdo, that girl was,” Elaine mumbles. Claire’s car beeps and unlocks.

“I don’t know,” Tanya says. Claire is easing into the driver’s seat as Elaine stumbles over the curb holds her phone out, stabbing at the screen and trying to summon an Uber. “I thought Soyeon had a lot of, I don’t know, integrity?”

“Who’s Soyeon?” Katharina asks. She’s lit a cigarette and stands on the sidewalk, her palms barely peeking out of her long coat sleeves. “Is that the girl?”

“Who just flashed her gash at all of us?” Elaine says, and giggles into her phone.

“Elaine!” Claire yells. And then says, “Tan, do you need a ride?”

The snow is falling in lazy clumps. A black car with tinted windows rolls up from Clark Street and Elaine disappears into it. Roger’s Park is five miles to the north, and the train is five or six residential blocks away from the spot where they’re all loitering.

“No,” Tanya says, folding her arms. “No, I’ll just walk.”

“This late? In this weather?”

Claire can scarcely believe it. Elaine would be dismayed, would put her foot down and call it unsafe, but she’s gone and too drunk to remember other people. Tanya nods and turns back to Clark, and starts walking, calling back that she’s fine, she could use the exercise and the fresh air.

“Good for you!” calls Katharina, who always believes that Americans could use exercise, and Claire gives up too; she just sits in her car as it warms and the ice thaws from her dash and her young childless friend struts back the way that they came, west to Clark and then north, up the main road past the sculpting studio and all the way up, up, up until the houses turn to apartment complexes and the trees turn to bare lots and there are no more people to be seen but Tanya, and a slow stream of buses and taxis and a haze of heavy snow.

Originally published at

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