The Inner Crab


“Hi,” she said, opening the studio door wider. “You must be the new model. Come on in.” She let go of the door as he caught it. He hurried inside and closed the door against the grey autumn draft. She walked back down the warm tiled hallway, and he followed her. “My name’s Dawn,” she said over her shoulder.

“I’m Peter.”

The hallway opened to a large well-lit room. Easels and chairs were strewn about, and the smell of clay hung in the air. “It’s nice to meet you, Peter,” she said, stopping and turning to shake his hand. “It’s just you and me today. The other two girls in our little group are both out with the flu. Have you done this before?” She gestured to the carpeted dais in the center of the room.

“No, this is my first time. Be gentle with me,” he chuckled weakly.

“Hmmm,” she said, looking him up and down. “Take off your shirt.”

He unbuttoned his shirt as she sat down and opened her artist’s case. She took out a charcoal pencil and flipped the pad of paper on the easel in front of her to a clean sheet. He removed his shirt and hung it on a nearby chair, then sat expectantly on the raised section in the middle of the dais.

“Today I want to do some quick sketches. You won’t have to hold each pose for too long. Let’s have you turn a bit – no, the other way – and put your hands on your knees. Straighten your back a little. Right there.”

He held the pose stiffly as she measured his various parts against her thumb and began sketching on her pad. At first he kept his eyes trained on the cabinet past her shoulder, but gradually his focus slid over to her. His eyes shied away when he met her gaze, and the corner of her mouth twitched upward.

“I’ve seen you around somewhere, haven’t I?” she asked, as his eyes returned to hers. “At the coffee shop down the street, maybe?”

“You look familiar too,” he said, holding her gaze this time. “I think…maybe from the laundromat? Didn’t you steal my dryer once?”

“Did I?” she laughed. “Sorry. I hate going to the laundromat, so I try to get in and out as fast as I can.”

“I suppose in the grand scheme of things it’s not worth holding a grudge over,” he said. “Anyway, I have my own washer and dryer now, so I’m safe from your sinister laundromat machinations.”

She laughed again. “A man of means and influence, I see. I’ll have to add your name to my list of people I know who have appliances I can exploit.”

He laughed, and she smiled, and they fell silent for a moment. The only sound in the room was the skitch-skitch-skitch of her charcoal pencil on the paper.

“So I was wondering,” she said finally, “are you interested in me at all?”

“Sort of,” he replied. “You have a warm smile and a nice ass, but your eyes remind me of a woman I liked who disappointed me. I have a long memory for disappointments, I’m afraid.”

“That’s funny,” she said, “I have a long memory for kindnesses. I never date my models, but I was thinking of letting you ask me out because I like your eyes. They remind me of my third-grade teacher. He was always so kind to me, and I miss him sometimes.”

“I get nervous around women I like,” he said, “and I’m sort of starting to like you, so I’m getting sort of nervous. I don’t always know what to say, and sometimes when I think something is funny or impressive and I say it, it isn’t, and I sound like a jerk.”

“Funny beats impressive any day in my book. Most of the men I meet try to impress me with their money or their looks or their casualness. I get tired of trying to act impressed all the time.”

“Sometimes we don’t know what else to say,” he said. “You’re going to tell me you just want honesty, I bet, but I’ve tried that before and it always scares them away. They don’t run, usually, but they drift away and it’s hard not to feel worthless.”

“I don’t want you to be honest. I want you to be genuine and witty and charming, and maybe a little dangerous. And I want you to get over this other girl and like my eyes.”

“I don’t know if I can be genuine if I’m thinking about how genuine I’m being. And I’d bet that when you say dangerous you mean some cheap thrill like riding a motorcycle or having a tattoo or smoking unfiltered cigarettes, when the irony is that you’re probably most frightened by making a deep meaningful connection with someone. I’m starting to think you’re one of those pretty women who expect too much.”

“You think I like having a nice ass and a pretty smile?” She stabbed her pencil toward him like a tiny spear. “You think trading on my looks gives me any deep satisfaction? You think I don’t live in fear of being told that what’s beautiful inside me is irrelevant if it’s not wrapped in a pretty little package?”

“You started this, remember,” he said, putting up his hands in mock defense.

“You’re right,” she said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t transfer my resentment onto you, at least until I get to know you better.”

He put his hands back down. “Well, you seem confident, and I like that. I mean, part of me is scared by it, because it makes you harder to predict, but for the most part it’s good.”

“I’m confident because it’s a good defense. I wonder all the time about whether I measure up, you know, even though I know most of the standards I judge myself by are arbitrary and a little cruel. Is my stomach flat enough? Are my lips full enough? Is my hair shiny enough?” She growled a little and slapped her hand against her leg. He jumped involuntarily at the sudden noise. “When I think about it too much, sometimes I get mad and I want to take it out on the next jerk I see.”

He tried to regain his composure. “I’m not a jerk, really, and I’m not just saying that to defuse your wrath. I think, you know, I introspect. If that’s a word. I know how much it sucks to have to wrap yourself in some superficial skin to get by. I’m one of those sensitive guys who had to build a hard shell to survive in the world, but the problem is it’s not very thick.”

“I didn’t used to pay much attention to sensitive guys – they seem so devious. Like they read the cover of Cosmo and picked sensitivity as their shtick to bag women. But when you get to know them…they’re not so perfect either.”

“What’s perfect got to do with anything? Are you sketching me because you think I’m perfect? I have a fairly well-established set of ethics and pretty good ego boundaries and I prefer compassion to cruelty, but otherwise I’m as warty as anyone else you’ll meet.”

“Well, okay, maybe not perfect, but…”

“Damn straight, not perfect. Just thinking about being perfect makes me tired. And yes, before you say it, I’ve thought about the perfect woman before, and I’m not trying to be mean here, but she isn’t you. On the other hand, she isn’t real either. And the older I get, the more I think real is all there really is.”

“I like it when you stand up for yourself,” she said. “It’s kind of…a turn-on.”

“Don’t flirt,” he said, and folded his arms across his chest. “I hate flirting.”

“I’m not flirting, and put your arms down. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with flirting.”

“It’s insincere posturing, and it makes me feel inadequate because I don’t flirt as well as other guys.”

“It’s a friendly expression of interest in another person,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “It’s like putting your toe in the pool to see how warm it is.”

“Well, when you put it that way…I still don’t like it. But I like you, so I guess we can flirt.” He put his hands back on his knees.

“We are. Maybe you just don’t like to interact with women in ways you think are stereotypical or culturally dictated, and when you flirt in your way it doesn’t always click. That doesn’t mean your way is bad…just different.”

“I never thought about it like that. Thanks.”

“Thanks for what?”

“Thanks for giving me a new thought. I like that.”

“So now you like me for my mind?”

“Hey, be fair. I couldn’t like you for your mind before we talked, could I? And anyway, I’ve been trying very hard to make eye contact this whole time and not look at your tits…I mean boobs. Breasts.” The word slid out uncomfortably.

“I know,” she said, locking her eyes on his and arching her back a bit as though stretching. “I’ve only caught you looking twice so far.”

His eyes strained a little bit, but he maintained eye contact. “So if you want me to respect your mind, why do you flaunt your body? I mean, your shirt is….” He was relieved to have an excuse to look at her shirt. “Very tight.”

“I don’t flaunt my body. I have a body. I didn’t pick it out of a catalog – this is what I’ve got. If men are attracted to me because of my body, or behave a certain way because of my body, that’s not my fault. Do not try to put that on me.”

“I’m not putting anything on you. I’m pointing out that you’re being intentionally contradictory where your sexual allure is concerned. You resent it, and you use it anyway. Doesn’t that make you feel crazy?”

“I try not to think about it too much. There are a whole lot of things I don’t have control over. I can’t control society. I can’t make men stop being men. I won’t dress like a nun because I shouldn’t have to. If I use what I’ve got to get by in the world, how is that any different than what anyone else does?”

“I hadn’t thought about it that way. I don’t think about my body much. I guess I’d probably think about it a lot more if I could get people to respond to me because of it. I’m not sure if that would make me happy or not.”

"I'm responding to you because of your body right now," she said. "How does it feel?"

"I—" he froze, giving her a look that was both dazed and fearful. "I hadn't thought of that." He suddenly became very interested in the floor, and slowly began tightening his belly and pushing out his chest. She smiled to herself and continued sketching.

"Awkward," he said, a minute later. "It feels awkward."

She put her pencil in her teeth and tore the sheet off her pad. She set the finished sketch on the ground. “Let’s do a new pose,” she said. “Stand up and put your right leg up on the seat, and lean on it with your right elbow.” He did his best to comply, but she shook her head and moved over to the dais. She stood behind him, pressing softly against his bare back while she moved him into the desired position.

“You smell nice,” she said, returning to her seat.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, blood rushing to his face and elsewhere. He bit his cheek and furrowed his brow until the rush of blood subsided.

“It’s not all bad,” she said, “having people respond to your body. I don’t always mind the attention, and when I’m with a guy I like, my body gives me plenty of pleasure.”

“Speaking of which,” he said, blushing again, “I should probably tell you that I’d like us to have sex as soon as it’s convenient for you.”

“I know,” she said casually, but blushed as well. “I tend to use sex as a reward, and I haven’t decided whether you deserve rewarding yet.”

“Isn’t that a little hypocritical? I mean, after your bit about being respected for your mind and all?”

“You were right before – I’m a little conflicted. But that’s the way my mother did it, and that’s how I was raised. And anyway, I hope you’re not implying that a woman doesn’t have the right to choose who she sleeps with and how.”

“I didn’t say that. I just think sex should be more…mutual.”

“I haven’t met many guys who didn’t want sex every moment of every day. When I decide it’s time, then we do it, and it’s mutual. Okay?”

“I think most guys think about sex all the time because they see sex all the time, just out of reach - in magazines and TV and the woman on the arm of the guy next to them. Sex is one of the few options we have. For guys, there’s sports, handshakes, and sex. That’s about it. Women have a lot more options.”

“Options for what?”

“For human contact. They’ve done studies, you know, about how important human physical contact is – I mean, you can die without it, or at least wither away, and we have to go around not touching or being touched by anyone unless we’re beating the shit out of them or having sex with them. And guess which one is easier to find.”

“I never thought about it like that,” she said. “I always figured it must be nice to go through life being rugged and secure, zipped up snug in your suit of manhood. Maybe there’s more to being a guy than being big and stinky and confident all the time,” she smiled.

“I can’t speak for all guys, but I’d be relieved not to have to be ready to perform at a moment’s notice every day of my life. It’s tiring having to be clenched for some contest of manliness all the time. Sometimes…sometimes a guy just likes to be held.”

She laughed at this, and he couldn’t tell if it was a mocking laugh or a sympathetic laugh. “That was a laugh of surprise, in case you were wondering,” she said, lowering her pencil and gazing at him. “I just got an image of this big brutish football player I used to date wanting to cuddle instead of rut.”

“So you don’t think it’s realistic?”

“No, I’m sure it’s realistic for you, and maybe some of the other more evolved guys, but most of them just wanted to be with me until about ten seconds after they came. Then they acted awkward and cold, like I wasn’t supposed to see them being vulnerable.” She returned to her sketching.

“Did you want to see them vulnerable?”

“Only the ones who weren’t vulnerable already, I think. I guess it seemed like I’d won something.”

“Maybe you did. I don’t know. I’ve always given my vulnerability away freely – maybe that’s a mistake.”

She looked at him intently. “I saw a few hints of backbone in you, so I know you’ve got one in there somewhere. I think you’re just coming at this from the wrong end. Women like a challenge. Not a horrible traumatic challenge, you know, but something we have to work for. If most men are insensitive unless pressed, and you’re just giving it away, that makes you a novelty, but novelties get old fast.”

“Ouch,” he said, looking away.

“See? There you go. I’m not saying you’re worthless, and I’m not saying you should be a jerk all the time – just, you know…toughen up a little.” She turned her attention to the pad of paper again, and continued. “Stand up for yourself sometimes. Don’t try to make it too easy for me – most people don’t like it when the other person lets them win.”

“Don’t tell me how to behave. You’re not the boss of me.”

“Okay, now that was a little silly. Of course I’m the boss of you,” she smiled. “But keep trying.”

“So why do women say ‘He’s so sweet’ like it’s a good thing, then?”

“You can be sweet and firm at the same time. Don’t hurt me, don’t push me too far, but stand up to me when I’m being bitchy – not that I ever am – and don’t let me push you around too much. When you give in, and you will give in, do it kind of slowly. Make me work for it a little bit.”

“Don’t you think there’s something kind of…wrong with trying to de-evolve me? I mean, I’m one of those enlightened guys women always say they want, and now you’re telling me to go backward.”

She set her pencil down and turned to face him directly. “Okay, listen carefully,” she said, “Because this is the best advice you’re ever going to get. It’s not the constant fawning sensitivity that makes you enlightened. It’s the respect for me as an equal that makes you enlightened. It’s the fact that you’d never victimize me that makes you enlightened. It's the way you challenge my assumptions without threatening my individuality that makes you enlightened, and that's the kind of dangerous we like. 'Enlightened' does not mean be a wuss.”

“Huh.” He rubbed his chin. “That’s twice in one conversation. I just can’t decide whether your obvious wit and beauty outweigh the fact that you’re kind of a pain in the ass.”

“Much better!” She beamed at him. “And trust me, they do. Outweigh, that is. Now let’s go.” She rose and started putting away her materials.

“Go where?” He retrieved his shirt from the chair and put it back on.

“Out. I’m hungry. And there’s a movie I’ve been wanting to see with someone, and I’d like it to be you.” She held out her hand expectantly.

He looked at the offered hand warily. “Is this one of those situations where I’m supposed to stand up to you? I mean, shouldn’t I insist on doing something else, or something? I’m still kind of new at this,” he said.

“No, I think you’ve practiced enough for one day. I don’t want to wear you out completely. Besides…I have a feeling you’ll be needing your strength later.” With that, she laughed and grabbed his rising hand.

Site Contents © 2004 Robert M. Rowan