He only noticed my armpits are not hairless and smooth the third time we slept together – although if you shave your armpits they are hardly smooth for long. You have to keep going over them to expose the delicate skin under there. Every day maybe, I can’t remember. When do your armpits become hairy – when the hair starts to show or when it gets to a certain length? When I first stopped shaving a friend of mine was very interested to know how long it would grow, as if it would just get longer and longer until I got it cut, like the hair on my head. I suppose the hair under my arms is longer than most of the hair on my head now. My head is the most shaved part of my body.
When he calls me a woman I hear him affirming his gendering of me, rather than my own feelings about that gender. He does not insist on my womanhood – he has assumed rightly I was born female – but I do not call myself a woman. Confusingly though, I call myself “mummy” when I talk to the dog. “Let mummy do it.” “Give mummy a kiss.” She acts more like a male dog sometimes, but I still say: “Such a good girl!” He asks why I cut my hair when it used to be long, but I don’t explain. I want to ask how long he has liked me for but am also scared the answer won’t be long enough.
It started with a dream. He put his arm around me; a signal he cared about what was happening to me (some kind of made-up trouble with my mother?). In real life, not just in the dream, we had been walking around the cemetery with the dogs most afternoons. His dog is much bigger than mine. She is also much better trained – she knows down and centre and come – but is still young and unruly. Having mostly ignored his dog to assert her superiority, my dog now wants to be swallowed whole by her out of some kind of desperate union.
And then he tells me he’s wanted to put his arms around me for days – just like he had done in the dream. An hour later and I am rubbing my face into the hair on his chest, telling him I don’t want to go but I have to get back to the dog who is at home alone. He will feed the cat who takes insulin twice a day, and then he will walk me home, he says. It only takes a few minutes to walk through the estate where he has lived since the mid 2000s, to the crumbling Victorian terrace house my stepmother bought in the late 1990s, where my dog is waiting at the bottom of the stairs; it feels nice to walk together.
“Bisexuality is freedom,” he reads out from a partially torn A4 risograph print taped to the wall in my studio-cum-living room. He has come inside to say hello to the dog who is now tearing around our ankles like a blur in excitement. He says he likes the room, that it’s how he expected it to look. I use it for everything – reading, resting, writing, teaching, sewing, drawing, pressing, watching TV… “You should probably have my number at some point,” he says. We have both been living on our own for a year now, alone with our animals and our occupations and our hobbies. I don’t know anyone else living alone – apart from my mother, and Mark. Years ago, Mark and I used to live together.
“The only person you’re negotiating is yourself,” he says, when we talk on FaceTime. It’s the first time I have seen his beautiful face in so long. “We have the same hair,” I say. (I’ve cut mine short and he’s let his grow longer than usual.) “We look related.” Except Mark hasn’t really been living alone, it seems. He has made these figures, which co-habit his living space-cum-studio space. Because why shouldn’t a living room be productive, generative, if it’s where living happens? Mark describes working with clay as a process – a dialogue with the material but also the figures he’s been making. “You have to trust each other,” he says. “And they observe you.”
They are also containers by virtue of their hollow bodies, vessels ready to be filled with heat, with the kiln’s breath. Emptied out, all their feelings are on the surface, but that doesn’t make them easy to read. Conflicting emotions ripple across their bodies and faces, at once withholding and emoting, agonised and ecstatic, joyful and despairing. They are also soft and hard, and unavoidably incomplete, immobile. One of them has Mark’s tummy and I cry out when I see it. In using his own body as a life model, the figures are also versions of him. It takes one body to make another – he had to hold their forms in his lap to carve out their interiors.
Mark shows me the sculptures in progress, but also the space he has been sharing with the figures. Where I expect to see walls populated with hundreds of images of other artworks and frames of moving image, as with previous work spaces he has inhabited, there are only a few scattered sparsely around the walls. Francis Bacon in Tangiers. Dirt under fingernails. An assertive young man whose gaze fully distracts from his pox-scarred skin by Hans Holbein the Younger. Mark’s sketches and drawings, which he produced alongside the sculptures at various intervals to test out ideas and materials, how they seep and absorb into others, have more of a presence than any reference images, reflecting perhaps a more robust confidence in an interior life – inside his own mind and body but also inside the process of making, as well as inside his home. (This is something we have all had to learn during the last fifteen months, after all.) The process of making is also one of becoming or reproducing: he has shaped clay into bodies, which have then been emptied, leaving an exterior surface.
Mark has treated their porous stoneware skin with beeswax, which is absorbed like moisturiser – mine has SPF now, as “crow’s feet” have emerged this year – or the amber-tinged oils and viscous acids and serums I layer on at night in the hope I will one day suddenly become radiant, the way people describe pregnant women, without the cost of actual pregnancy. The textured stoneware leaves more opportunity for chance, which is good for a live-in relationship. Their surfaces are pocked, marked by their materiality as both structural and surface. One stoneware figure became the base for another; a scalier, more flexible, more skin-like surface-as-object, a kind of preservation of its first form.
We talk about “love handles” and “beer bellies” (alcohol used to distinguish them from pregnant ones) – names for ageing body parts that are at once erotic and undesirable, indelibly masculine and also feminising, soft and relenting. To be both affectionate and offensive seems so British. Love handles and beer bellies are protrusions, flesh to be held and grasped, whereas armpits are hollows – distasteful, disgusting, political, festering and delicious. (You need your body hair; it’s where all your smells are.) When I look at the photos of the figures later, and especially the one with its armpit wide-open with their hand to their face, I think about how in raising your hand to protect your face or your head, you expose those soft places – under your arms and your belly, the yielding parts of your back under your rib cage. They look solid, and uncomfortable, leaning on pressure points, or unable to hold themselves up properly. And they are rounded, as if built for being held, or carried. The armpit is an opening and a barrier. It is strokeable – it even looks like it has been worn down with over-affectionate touch – and kissable, like a loved one’s face.
I drank too much that first night – when he told me he had wanted to put his arm around me like he did in my dream – but not too much that I did not know what I was doing. I was in control, and had actually drank less than usual, but I still exposed my weakness for alcohol when having any kind of feelings, good or bad. Drinking is a way to release them probably, so they are not contained, so I am less quiet on questioning, like opening a pressure valve (is that how pressure valves work?). It’s only been a week, but I already wake up thinking about him. Fuck. Am I obsessed?Infatuated? This question leads to a vortex of them: What am I supposed to do with infatuation, and how much space do I let it take up? Can it be shaped into sustainable love – mutual, evolving – or will it only ever be a reaction against a year of aloneness, a revision of a solitary life? I don’t want to unlearn how to live alone, how to live without being bounded by rules about gender and sexuality. I want the lessons I have learned about taking up living-cum-studio space to inhabit me forever. How can obsession ever be reciprocated anyway, if it happens entirely in your own body? For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have a whole body, not a body of parts splitting open or tearing themselves away from each other.
We find each other at the cemetery and watch the dogs sniff the grass by the road I find so loud and overwhelming I can’t think. “Huh,” he says, looking down at my dog. “Is it normal for female dogs to cock their legs when they pee?”