Former Occupation: Child rearer, landscaper, cook, laundress, errand runner, social planner, travel agent, and all-around indentured servant of high-powered attorney.
Contact Information: Denise Emanuel Clemen became a mother at the age of 16—but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Since then she’s worked as an art model, an au pair in Paris, a merchant of her own blood plasma, and a worker in a toy factory where she was expert at assembling miniature manure spreaders. Her fiction and essays have been published in several literary magazines (most recently “The Rattling Wall”) and in the anthology “Saying Goodbye” from Dream of Things Publication. Denise has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska. She blogs as if she were getting paid for it at http://leavingdivorceville.blogspot.com/ http://deniseemanuelclemen.blogspot.com and http://myfrenchunderpants.blogspot.com.
The Business of Blood and Skin
My mother was getting married. No need to come home, she said. It was going to be a no frills kind of wedding—a justice of the peace, and there wouldn’t even be a reception. My new stepfather was the father of my grade school crush—the first boy I’d ever kissed back in the sixth grade in a planned tryst at the park. The complications to my family tree were unthinkable. Now in addition to my adopted half-sister, my half-brother, my stepsister, and my two younger brothers, I’d be acquiring a new family with six stepsiblings, one of whose lips had pressed against mine. Not to mention that both my mother’s new husband and his son, my former crush, bore the moniker “Duke,”—also the name of my brother’s German Shepherd.
Now what? I didn’t want to share a house with Duke, Duke, and Duke. I’d had enough of assembling miniature manure spreaders in my hometown toy factory. And I needed a break from college. My friend Karen was teaching at a “free school” in Knoxville, and she and her friends had a big apartment in the upstairs of a ramshackle house. “Come down,” she said.
The balmy January weather in Tennessee redeemed the bone-numbing ride stuffed into a sleeping bag inside an old VW bus with a broken heater. I’d never started a new year without the assault of ice and below-freezing temperatures. Now, outside the door of my southern digs, flowers exploded from a landscape that was so green it looked fake. But azaleas couldn’t buy my share of the groceries, so I went to the university and applied for work as an art model for figure drawing classes.
“You can undress right here,” the professor told me as he sat down in his desk chair and swiveled ever so slightly away from me. There was a small mattress covered with a plush zebra rug on the floor just inside the door of his office. I stepped around it and unzipped my jeans. I’m in an art professor’s office, I told myself. I’m two feet from the door. Someone will hear me if anything goes wrong. I took off everything then, and the professor swiveled back to me. “Go ahead and lie down,” he said. He got up and fiddled with the Venetian blinds on the opposite wall of the narrow room until bands of light and shadow cut across my body. All of the scars from the back surgeries I’d had during the previous two years were hidden from view by the wall behind me, and with the zebra markings beneath me and the stripes from the blinds on my skin, the stretch marks across my stomach and hips felt camouflaged, too. The professor slipped his camera strap around his neck and knelt down to adjust my long hair, his hands grazing my breasts. “These won’t do,” he said, grasping my nipples between thumb and forefinger. “They need to look interested for the photographs.” I worked at mumbling some sort of excuse, but he flicked his tongue across each nipple while my own tongue lay mute and dry inside my mouth, my body frozen to the zebra rug as if it were some sort of exotic tundra. He pulled away and crouched a few feet from me, clicking away with his camera. He made little satisfied sounds underneath his breath, and when he stood up, he smiled. “You’re hired,” he said.
I had two classes a week, one for freshman students where I was instructed to wear a leotard and put a chalk mark where my navel was. Upper division students were allowed to see me stark naked, and for them I undressed behind a partition and came out in a soft gray plaid flannel robe that hung on a hook for all the models to share. On a platform in the front of the room, I shed the robe and did short poses for two-minute warm-ups, and then longer poses of ten or twenty minutes depending on what the instructor asked for. No one ever commented on my scars, but one afternoon I found that someone had chalked on the partition wall, “You’re fat.” Another hand had scrawled beneath it, “And we like it!” I was only ten or fifteen pounds overweight at that point, but I’d seen the other models coming and going, and they were all as lithe as ballerinas. The chalked messages, mixed though they were, and seeing the way the students’ charcoal sketches traced my curves, I decided that my body held some appeal after all.
In addition to selling my skin, I discovered I could also sell my blood in Knoxville. I noticed the sign through the bus window and got off to check it out. $$$ for Blood Plasma! sounded too good to be true. The pay was thirty dollars, and a person could donate every two weeks. The only catch was that two pints of whole blood had to be extracted and then run through the machine that spun out the plasma. After that, what remained of the blood had to be returned to the donor. Still, thirty dollars for an hour or so of my time reclining fully clothed on a cot was more than four times what I was making modeling.
The process went smoothly the first couple of sessions, but the next time the technician had trouble transferring what was left of my blood back to me. Evening fell while the petite woman in the lab coat tried first one arm then the other. After three or four jabs in each arm, she propped me up with an extra pillow and brought me two cans of 7UP and a package of cheese and peanut butter crackers. “Your veins don’t seem too good,” she told me. “We’ll try again in a little bit.” After about an hour, the needle slid in smoothly, but I retired from the plasma business after that. Every needle poke had left a bruise, and at the next figure drawing class, everyone’s eyes traveled up and down my ravaged arms.
Money was tight for my housemates too, and a couple of them had found an ad in the newspaper asking for people to deliver advertising flyers. We had to go for an interview, and even though this wasn’t the sort of job that required a wardrobe, I was embarrassed by how ragged my clothes were. My jeans were patched and re-patched, and even the newest layer of patches was wearing through. My dressiest shirt was equally threadbare, which wasn’t exactly a faux pas in the circles I traveled in, but having nothing to fall back on reminded me that I’d already sold all the parts of me I could bear to offer. The second semester was about to start at my college back in Minnesota. I took my blood and skin money to the bus depot and bought myself a ticket.