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False Pregnancy

Warren felt a soft playful kick against his left ear and the light, insistent tapping of a finger just above his other ear.

"Sir?" the young woman said, tapping his temple, "That's enough, now. Please. People are beginning to stare."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Forgive me," Warren said, lifting his head from the woman's bulging stomach, "but that is a beautiful experience. Thank you so much."

On the way to his studio, Warren had sat next to the pregnant woman on the bus. He had quietly asked if he could listen to the life within her. "My wife is going to have a baby, too," he said, offering his credentials for asking such a favor. When the cautious, somewhat skeptical look left her face, she agreed to allow him to lay his head against her stomach, for just a moment. As usual, Warren overstayed his welcome. It was true what she said: people were staring.

"Thank you again," he said to the woman when he got up at his stop. She smiled at him understandingly and waved her hand flippantly, as if to say, "Don't mention it." She turned to the window; Warren thought she blushed.

Elated, Warren walked two blocks to his painting studio. When he got there, he went to the thermostat and turned up the heat. In less than an hour a new model would arrive and the loft had to be warm. Models were insistent about that.

He put on water for coffee, turned on his stereo, and placed a badly scratched record on the turntable. Warren listened to Brahms a lot these days.

When the water boiled, Warren made coffee. He sniffed the aroma, and thought to himself how real, how tactile every little thing seemed when one had something to look forward to, something to live for. He carried his coffee to the old stuffed armchair next to his curtainless window and makeshift bookcase, sat down and waited for his model.

After he finished his coffee, he would set up his canvas and arrange the model stand. But first he thumbed through the titles on his shelves and found the book he wanted. He pulled it out and turned to DaVinci's Drawings of an Embryo in the Uterus. He stared at the rendering of an unborn fetus curled up inside a dark womb. The small, barely human figure in the drawing looked to Warren like a sleeping version of Rodin's Thinker (with its oversized head between its knees), contemplating the beginning of life. The clinging veins, twined around the embryo's mythic chamber, made Warren think of the bumpy and ridged shell of a walnut.

Warren then turned the pages to Da Vinci's drawing, Coition Figure and Other Studies. He studied the anatomical drawings; the renderings --instructive, inquisitive and profound: lips and eyes of dissected models supremely drawn. Then Warren felt a sinking feeling, a backlash of the awe he felt in the presence (even though vicarious and many-times removed) of such a great artist. He attributed the sinking feeling to his realization that he would never, ever, be in that league; with his less than adequate paintings, his muddied splotches and forgettable shapes put blindly onto canvas. He tried not to dwell on his mediocrity. After all, he was only beginning and when he pondered such things, he became depressed. It didn't take much to depress him.

Soon, there was a knock at Warren's door. He put the book away, swallowed the last of his coffee, and went quickly to answer the door.

"Hello," said a young, big-bellied woman.

"Hello," Warren said. "Come in! Come in!"

He had asked the modeling agency downtown to send him a young pregnant woman. Indeed they had. She was perfect. Not only was she pregnant. She was very pregnant. At least eight months.

"The people at the agency said you 'wanted a pregnant model -- really pregnant,' they said. So, here I am. I couldn't believe it. I haven't worked since the second month I was pregnant. I figured I'd get back to work after I had my baby. But the agency called me, and said, 'Hey, Linda, there's this artist that needs a pregnant model; a very pregnant model. Are you game?' So I said, 'Sure, why not?' Do you always paint pregnant models?" The young woman looked at Warren with an ironic smile, almost a smirk.

"Well, actually," Warren said, "I paint abstractions. But, you see, my wife is pregnant, and I wanted to get back to a live model again. Haven't drawn a model since I was in school. I'd like to do some drawings and paintings of my wife when she's pregnant -- during her different stages, you know? But I thought I'd better get some practice beforehand. I think that's important. I mean, I think it's important for me, as an artist, to paint my wife when she's pregnant. I mean, even though I usually do abstractions -- this is a special occasion, don't you think?"

"Well, if you say so," the young woman said. "Modeling is modeling to me, and my husband and I certainly need the money. I haven't had any takers since I was pregnant, except for you, of course. I'm not complaining. Don't get me wrong. It's just that this is a little -- a little out of the

ordinary, that's all. But, everyone to his own taste, right?"

"The bathroom there," Warren said. "Will it do as a dressing room?"

”Sure," Linda said. "Well, if you're ready to start, I'll just take off my clothes, and when I come out, you can tell me how you want me."

"Fine," Warren said. He took her coat and hung it on the hall-tree near the door.

While Linda undressed, Warren prepared his palette, squeezing a semi-circle of colors onto an old piece of wood.

Soon, Linda came out of the bathroom nude. "O.K.," she said. "Where do you want me?"

"Right over here," Warren said, indicating the modeling stand. "Let's see. Let's try a nice-n-easy, seated pose, for a start."

Linda sat down on the plywood platform. "Like this?" she said, looking up at Warren.

"Uh, well . . . ." Warren reached down and put his hands on the taut-skinned, blue-veined hemisphere of Linda's stomach. He tried to coax the sensual melon to one side, so that Linda's stomach was somewhat off-center from her hips and her upper torso.

"Wait just one minute," she said, exaggerating each of her words for emphasis.

"What's wrong?" Warren said innocently.

"You are not -- I repeat -- are not allowed to touch me. I understand about integrity, and dedication, and all that, but the rules of the Agency are: "The artist shall not touch the model." If you want me a certain way, then you just wave your hands, this way, and that way, until I get it. You got that?"

"Linda, I'm very sorry. I apologize. I can assure you, I meant no harm."

"I'm sure you didn't," Linda said. "But, for future reference . . . ."

"Well, O.K. That's just fine. Right the way you are, then. That's perfect."

Linda then lifted her head and smiled as if she had known all along the position best for Warren to paint.

During the next two hours, Warren stepped back from his canvas numerous times to survey his handiwork. He walked over to study Linda's belly from all possible viewpoints. Finally, Linda said, "Well, time's up. I can't model more than two hours in this condition. Let's see what you've got." She walked over to Warren's canvas, carrying her robe. Warren twisted the bristles of a brush into a turped paint rag and waited for Linda's response. She stared at the few marks and splotches he had put onto the canvas. She gawked at the drips and smears as if they made up some mysterious map. "What's that?" she said.

"Oh, that's just the under-painting. That canvas needs many hours of work yet before it begins to look like you."

"I should hope so," Linda said, rolling her eyes. She hurried toward the bathroom to dress.

When Linda left, Warren put his paints away, cleaned his brushes in turpentine and soap and water, and then rushed to catch a bus to the community center. His cooking class began at two o'clock. It would be his first class and he didn't want to miss anything.

Warren knew he was a dabbler, always picking up and dropping new interests. He figured that was probably why he was mediocre at many different things, not really good at any one thing. But that's the way he was. No use fighting it, he thought to himself.

At the community center, he discovered the class was small, only eight or nine people; all women, including the instructor.

When class ended, everyone collected their belongings, put on their coats and left the room, except one woman who sat in the back. She held an infant in her arms, and she sat in her chair as if she were planning to stay awhile. Warren had noticed her before; now he decided to get a better look. He walked to the back of the room as though to leave. The instructor rushed past him, leaving him alone with the woman and her child. Warren approached the woman timidly and asked, "May I sit down?"

"Of course," she said.

"Oh, he's cute."

"She," the woman corrected.

"Ah. She's cute," Warren said. "What's her name?"

"Allison," the woman said proudly. "Four months, last week."

"Why are you waiting here," Warren asked, aware of his awkwardness.

"Well," the woman said, craning her neck to see the door, "I thought I'd wait until everyone left and then nurse her before the long bus ride home. When babies are hungry, they don't like to wait."

"You're going to nurse her?" Warren said excitedly. "Uh, do you think . . . . well, do you think I could watch? I know that's a bit of an infringement on your privacy. If you wouldn't mind . . . . You know, women in Europe and other countries nurse their children in public places quite often. It's just that we Americans are much more prudish about such things. You see, the reason I ask, my wife is having a baby, and, well, if . . . . " He paused. " . . . . if you thought you'd rather have me go, I'd understand."

"No, no. Stay. It's all right. I think I know how you feel. My husband was the same way when I was pregnant with Allison. He even went up to a lady in the grocery store once and asked her if he could push her baby back and forth in the stroller for a few minutes. Besides, I don't mind."

The woman opened her blouse and Warren watched reverently as she cupped her tumescent breast and pointed her brownish nipple into the child's searching mouth.

"That's beautiful. That's really beautiful," Warren whispered. He smiled to himself remembering Da Vinci's drawing that depicted a cross section of the network that ran from the inside of a woman's body out through the mammary gland.

The woman glanced up occasionally and smiled at Warren, intrigued that he seemed so intrigued.

"How far along is your wife?" the woman asked. She seemed more comfortable now with Warren's presence.

”How far along? Oh, you mean how far along. Uh, only a few months."

The woman smiled and lowered her head to watch her suckling child.

Warren watched the mother and the child until the baby -- appeased --dozed off. He talked with the woman as he walked her to her bus stop.

"You sure you're O.K.?" Warren asked the woman.

"Yes, I'm fine. Thank you."

He felt very alone when he left her there. Empty.

On the bus, Warren again felt a sinking feeling in his stomach, a despair that swirled within him and then rose, to dance like heat around his collar; moving up, like fever, to indistinct regions of his brain. Maybe it was because he had had such a lovely and fulfilling day, and now he was going home. He couldn't believe that something wouldn't happen to ruin it.

He got off the bus, trying to forget his depression. When he got to his building, he collected his mail and walked up the stairs toward his apartment, number 6.

He passed Mrs. Covington, who was talking to one of her neighbors in the hallway. Warren didn't like her. She was fat and cranky, and an insatiable gossip. Warren hoped she wouldn't stop him for conversation.

”Hello, Mrs. Covington," Warren said quickly, continuing up the next flight of stairs.

"Hello, War-r-r-ren," she sing-songed.

Just as Warren got to the landing, he heard Mrs. Covington whispering to her neighbor, her voice the guillotine of the day that came swishing down on his neck: "Warren is our resident bachelor."

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