I buttoned the gray skirt onto the canvas mannequin and smiled at the finished piece. Tension in the brushed wool made it hang perfectly; the A-line cut flared into a circle that Japanese painters would envy. I pulled on the material and released the tension that held it taut. Waves curled around the skirt. Now it looked like something someone would wear.
I hoped someone would wear it – and soon. Last season’s income was gone, and next season’s expenses were overdue. Every three months was the same excruciating cycle. I glanced over at the corner of my studio. An air mattress sat on the floor covered by a tangle of sheets; a one-burner hot plate rested on my worktable. This month I had to leave my apartment. Three years as a one-woman small business had taken its toll. My thirtieth birthday was a month away. I was fully prepared to celebrate it with a can of soup in my studio.
Hanging on the wall above the air mattress were layers and layers of sketches. If the income could catch up, I had ideas that would last years. I dreamed of using fabric to exalt the human form. We’ve had the same limbs forever, but I imagined combinations that would make us all new again. The potential made the sacrifices worth it, hot plate and all.
The door chimed. I glanced at my watch: five to five. He always came just before I closed. I took a deep breath, smiled my front-of-the-house smile, and went out to the showroom.
“Good evening, Mr. Payton.” I walked out onto the floor and shook his hand. His grip was strong, confident, and his skin was warm. My hand seemed miniature in comparison.
“What are you working on back there, Lucy? I’m dying to know.” He stood trim in his usual hand-tailored suit, created by his family’s private tailor. He was probably in his mid-sixties, but he showed the best that age and wealth had to offer: a perfect haircut, a toned physique, manicured nails. He smelled, very quietly, of lilac and the explosions of champagne. He wore a family ring that had enough diamonds to keep my doors open for a decade.
“You know that next season’s work is highly classified. The new pieces come out on Wednesday. You got the invitation to the reveal, I hope?”
“I rearranged my travel to be here.”
I met his eyes and smiled with flattery. He was a very important client. Yet his presence threw me off balance. He was exceptionally enthusiastic about my work, something I found both gratifying and suspect. Was it just my work, or did he want something else?
He turned away from me, and I exhaled ever so slowly. Silently. He should never know that he makes me hold my breath. He touched last season’s pieces. All that was left were a few shirts, a few pants, and two one-of-a-kind dresses that listed for five figures. As his hands touched the fabric, goosebumps rose on my neck and shoulders. Was I anxious? Excited? Strange how those feelings felt so similar.
His hands rested on the one-of-a-kind dress in the display window. “I’ve loved this since you revealed it last season. Why hasn’t it sold?”
I walked over to the dress. Crimson wasn’t one of my usual colors. I aimed more for the colors found on a December day on the coast – neutral colors, earthen colors. Colors that were subtle and universal enough to make the wearer part of the landscape.
This dress, though, seemed to call for crimson. This dress had the waves and layers of a tide coming in, but it also had the energy of sunrise and all the force of a new day. I played with blue and gray and sand-colored fabric, and they all fell flat.
This dress was unique to my body of work, and I priced it accordingly. Even my most ardent collectors balked.
I touched the material. I’d chosen cotton, another departure, but a cotton that rivaled the best linen, silk, or wool that I usually employed. I ran my fingers through the layers. This dress felt like a cloud.
“Every one-of-a-kind dress has a person out there that it is destined for,” I said and looked at Mr. Payton. He stood close enough that I noticed the small fireworks of rosatia on his nose. “This dress just hasn’t yet found its audience.”
“What about you? You must have worn it after you made it.” He pulled the tie in the back that held the topmost layer of the dress. A patch of the cream-colored canvas of the mannequin opened into view.
“No, actually. The mannequins do a perfect job of displaying the piece,” I lied. This dress I had worn. I had considered keeping it.
“Wear it for me.” His voice dropped low.
He’d never asked me to model for him before. In the past, he’d come in just at close, stayed for longer than necessary, and bought thousands of dollars of my work. That fact alone made me amenable towards him.
But I never modeled for any other person – only alone. Modeling is its own profession, and as a rule, I’d never touched it. I looked out the front window. People walked past the shop, heading home after their day at the office, or off to a date, or out for a drink. A few looked in. I wasn’t alone and yet there was no one to help me.
If he bought this dress, I wouldn’t have to worry about what sold at the reveal. I wouldn’t have to worry about money at all for the rest of the season. I could move the air mattress out of my studio.
I untied the second ribbon of the dress and it fell open, hanging off the mannequin like a robe. I slipped it off the shoulders. “I’ll be right back.”
I locked the studio door. I unbuttoned my shirt and slid out of my linen pants. Then I took a paper towel and wiped under my arms. Cotton was unforgiving in that regard, and my body churned on overdrive. My breastbone rose in quick, tight breaths. I pulled the dress over my head and tied the first ribbon against my lower back. I saw the quick pounding of my heart against my skin, against the fabric.
I tied the second ribbon. Waves of cotton layered over each other, over my chest and the knobs of my hips. My flat shoes were wrong. This dress cried for heels. And the delicate gold necklace I’d been wearing hung too high. I took off the necklace and pulled off my shoes. It would be just me and the dress.
I paused at the mirror. I looked sculptural, a flame given form. My art and my body. Together, in this moment, in this dress.
The door clicked as I turned the handle to come out. Unlocked. Mr. Payton stood in the back corner of the shop, well away from the front window.
“The mannequins do not do a perfect job of displaying that piece. On you, it’s alive. Together, you’re perfect.” He stepped over to me and slid his fingertips down my arm and to my hand. My stomach tensed, but my skin shot flashes of electricity to my brain. I let him hold my palm for a split second before turning away.
“This piece took a bit of coaxing.” I let myself ramble. I could talk artistic intent for as long as he would listen. And as long as I was talking artistic intent, this was a professional interaction. “Cotton, as a material…”
“Is a departure for you,” he finished. “I’ll buy the dress.”
Relief relaxed my shoulders. “You’re making an excellent choice.”
“But something else. I want to sponsor your work.” His eyes were on my body, then followed upward to my face.
“Excuse me?” My vision clouded, and I grasped at each breath. A sponsor? I’d only dreamed of such a possibility.
“I’d like to be your artistic sponsor. My lawyer can draw up the standard contract. I’ll worry about costs. You create art.”
“I just ask one small deviation from the norm. I want you to wear this dress for an evening with me.”
My first thought was of his wife, a client of mine on her own, who came to my events and hung on to her husband’s elbow. She always seemed so small, so light. I dressed her in dark colors so that she wouldn’t wash away.
And here I was, wearing crimson, being propositioned by her husband.
My second thought brought images flooding through my vision. I saw my sketches executed by staff, I pictured models wearing my lines on runways, I imagined my work photographed in glossy magazines that wafted perfume.
Sponsorship. No more money worries. Just my work, my ideas.
The room brightened, and all the lines grew sharper.
I reached over to his hand. His palm was thick and commanding. I laced my fingers through his for a moment, and skin brushed against skin, softer than fabric against wind.
After living in Washington, DC and McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Erin Popelka now makes her home in Oregon. Her writing has been published by Johnny America, The Berkeley Fiction Review, and The Externalist, among others, and is forthcoming from The Milo Review and Main Street Rag.