Tosca’s Birthday


Elatia Harris

I’m due for a significant birthday this week, the one that most women associate with the butt-end of their child-bearing potential. But I shall observe it in the same way I have observed all my birthdays back to the age of 18: I shall spend the day naked in front of a full-length mirror, drawing myself. I plan to do this every year for as long as I live, and I welcome even the most grotesque changes in my appearance for the interest they add to the birthday portraits. It is for these inquiries into the action of time and character on form that my biographers will especially thank me.

Oh, not that they’re at my heels yet, those biographers. I’m too far ahead of them, and in my lifetime shall remain so.  I can just about prove it, too. Get this. Every year, there’s a big drawing show in my city, curated by someone fancy.  It overlaps my birthday, and I always enter the self-portraits from the year before. Not once have I been juried into this show, or into any show, anywhere, that would establish me as an artist of merit. Since my eyes are trained on the future, this doesn’t bother me like you’d think. I even attend the drawing show openings to find out what’s working for the current darlings, safe as I am from imitating them.

I run into quite a few people I know by sight at these events, though I can’t imagine who they think I am. I don’t carry on like an artist. If there’s such a thing as a proofreader personality, then I must have a touch of it. That’s what I do all night – proofread for a law firm downtown, purging significant errors. When the lawyers return to their desks in the morning, they’ve got all this creamy copy. You can’t really have a conversation about it. Nevertheless, by now I’m a fixture at the big annual opening, where I’m usually thrown a few crumbs.

You’re looking at that awfully hard, you know.

That’s the basic remark that gets made to me. Yes, I know – I’m feeding my hungry eyes, I don’t say. I never know what to say. That used to be all right when I was younger – no one finds fault with slender, speechless girls. In those days I could think my own thoughts with people chatting around me, and it was almost like being among friends. It’s harder now. I’m old enough that I should be asking others about themselves, drawing out younger people and fostering their well-being – and I don’t know how to do any of that. Nor do I care to. I live for art.

So did Tosca, of course. And I get lonely, so I talk to her sometimes. You’ve heard the aria – I have lived for art, I have lived for love… Sure, Tosca feels cosmically shafted because she’s put all her eggs in one basket. But that’s not it at all, I keep telling her. To have lived for art and love both – it’s too much to do, not too little. You can’t live for love if you live for art, because you can’t mess up your life that way. If you live for art, you must sedulously avoid the whole ghastly dance of family and love. It’s a very good idea not even to have had a mother.

And, children? Now there’s a giant schuck. Who says they have to be good, beautiful, smart, healthy and self-supporting?

You think it won’t happen, but they could even be developmentally delayed – nice way to put it. A few years back, I lived across the street from a big, ugly house with a cyclone-fenced yard where they ran a program for young adults with developmental delays. An absolute torment to me! How could I know for certain that one of those kids was not the child I gave birth to twenty-odd years ago? I know nothing of it, I wouldn’t even look at it before they took it away, but there I was, possibly domiciled not a stone’s throw from it.

Worse, the inmates were no end of friendly. They’d wave and smile and try to start conversations with me when I was on my way to the market. They’d poke two or three digits through the diamonds in the cyclone fencing, fingering my air supply. It was just too much, whoever gave birth to them. And I had an almost ideal space on that street – big windows, no cockroaches, and a corner under the eaves for my futon – with hopes of hanging in for years and years.  It was so cheap! But my sensitivities were such that I had to move as soon as I could save enough money to rent a truck.

Tosca is very far from a bad person to run these thoughts by. As an artist, she understands sacrifice. But Tosca, I tell her, I am talking about tremendous sacrifices. Would you have been up to them had they not brought you fame? If they had brought you – instead of fame – simplicity?

I have always felt favored by fortune that that my body of work evolves independently of such questions as money, the approval rating of others and trendiness. I don’t ask that anyone buy it, like it, or even acknowledge it. And I require just about as little in the way of an audience as a person practicing meditation. Oh, not to suggest that drawing is for me entirely experiential. If it were, I’d be happy to destroy my work at the end of a studio day; instead, I catalog and store everything like a conservator. I’ve got a little museum of myself – a futon, a big mirror, and a little museum. A life of devastating simplicity.

Tosca knows I was not always so wise. In art school, one had to submit to critiques, and relying on others for a sense of reality was a hard habit to shake. Art students who don’t imagine they’re in the fast lane to fame suppose instead that the world will be hostile to their art, glamorously reviling it. That people who matter will get worked up enough to hate it. As if. I, no more than any student, figured on a world with an endless capacity to be underwhelmed by the very best I knew how to do. But I soon discovered powerful knowledge – that indifference is only killing if it’s what you get while seeking something else. Don’t seek that other thing, and an Everest of indifference cannot bury you.

Still, I do seek entrance to that big drawing show every year. But only because my biographers will turn up my more than twenty rejection letters from its discerning curators, interleaved with acid-free papers, so they’ll jump out at them, fresh and bright and stinging. They will never infer from the extraordinary care with which my work has been preserved how overlooked it shall have been. Oh, the linen-lined portfolios, the fitted boxes, the meticulously cross-referenced inventories… It’s as if each drawing had a genealogy, a christening dress and a cradle.

Tosca, I’ll be happy to take a hard look at my naked self later this week, in the unsparing light of my day-long annual ritual. Radiant to record whatever I see, hanging like a lover over every little difference for the worse. Rembrandt knew better than to give himself the aging diva treatment, with every passing year a more elaborate headdress, increased gaudiness, cagier fat-concealment – and I know better too. Rembrandt and I are not mocked by corsetry or jewelry, and nobody pays us to make ourselves appear grander or younger or better pleased than we are. It’s just our mirrors, our materials, time and the truth – if we can catch it.

Could you live this way, Tosca? Could you labor all night at a job so self-effacing that ideally no one even knows you’ve done it? Could you sing all day in the shower, taking care to do those exercises that will allow your voice to grow both richer and more shimmering, so that you could go on to sing even better – in the shower? And what about singing in front of a big mirror in your birthday suit? Good way to lose your audience, huh? Good way to get indisposed!

Well, a birthday is a natural opportunity to wonder why you have such a low-impact life. For this reason, it’s key to be doing something you can’t dispute the significance of on that day.  I’ve read that getting your hair done and dressing with extra care in a new garment can be good for birthday morale, but that translates directly into less money for premium art supplies and conservation materials. You want to know how I visualize morale? It looks a lot like a six-foot stack of hand-torn Fabbriano drawing paper. That’s what security would look like too. And probably even love. Yes, I would rather have a six-foot stack of Fabbriano paper in my life than anything else Italian of that height. Tosca, you would not be able to approach that purity of vision – not with a tenor like a puppy and the Roman Chief of Police hot on your tail. How much finer to revel in personal simplicity, aspiring to an ever more transparent life. A life like a pane of glass. Look at me, Tosca – I shed personal belongings as naturally as others acquire them, I spurn the entanglements they seek, would quickly be surfeited by the sensations they crave. I keep going week after week on apples and mashed chick-peas, and this is no austerity but alchemy resulting in that which is most precious – daylight, and time.

Without fanfare, Tosca, I roam the city, without having lingered to make sure that my diva-cloak and my genius-hat are fetchingly adjusted. And look at you – you fight it so, with your retinue, your feathers and your long winding train. Why not go about in public as naked as the cold allows, accepting that you are but the custodian of your gift, that it is your gift that matters and not your high-waisted, low-necked gowns. And certainly not your crimes. Yes, go about naked, and see what happens. I can tell you, no one will be making up to you then.

Do you think, Tosca, that you are the only woman ever to have to dispatch the heavy in her life? Well, you carry on like you thought so. Ooh, the candelabra, the crucifix! I came relatively late to proofreading, little suspecting till recently that I had a natural affinity for tweaking the kind of unclear sentences that give rise to legal misunderstandings. An enlightened lawyer, whom I’ve since retained for other reasons, saw that it would be the perfect gig for me, but for many years I did the kind of odd jobs that cause one to rub shoulders with the public, including of course the police. I was a hostess at De Medici’s down on Ninth Avenue, and that’s a cop joint – oh, you know how turfy they are, especially when they’re obsessed. Like you, I was stalked by a crafty cop whose head was full of ideas, intent on following me from that life into my real life in art. I did what I had to do – my art gave me the strength for it. But you? You did what you had to do, and then you leapt off the Castel Sant’Angelo. Sheer grandiosity, Tosca – you needed only the right lawyer.

But you will say you died for love. Aww! Love, men and babies! You can’t go near any of it if you want a proper studio day and the materials and peace of mind to care for your work, to kit it out for the Silent Land like a Middle Kingdom princeling guiding his gorgeous barque through the Sea of Reeds. Yes, my work is headed for the future, cunningly wrapped and accurately aimed. Oh, look, they’ll say in the future, she didn’t use a camera for that, she just…did it! Oh, man – no one even knows how to draw like that anymore. Nunh-uh, I don’t need to be there to know what they’ll be saying when the lid of the sarcophagus comes off.

I intend to keep on drawing throughout my brief incarceration. And my lawyer – also my employer – has promised that the rent on my studio shall be paid, my archives untouched, my job restored to me. I’ll be no trouble to the criminal justice system, which will hardly know I’ve passed through it, since a simpler, clearer offender would be impossible to find. Why, I’m virtually invisible: a guitar string for a digestive tract, a thickening of the air at the cortex, vertebrae like motel ice, and sinews but the shimmer off hot pavements. I don’t know, exactly, how this has come to be, but you can follow its evolution in the birthday drawings, where there’s no escaping the truth. For the last several years, really, I’ve just been drawing the mirror, because that’s exactly what I see.

This is what happens, Tosca, when you have truly lived for art.