The first nude model that the sculptor ever encountered looked startlingly like the Statue of Liberty, but the sculptor didn’t notice. Not then. He had other things on his 18-year-old mind.
When he was packing up his things to go home from class, he caught her looking at him. He held her eye contact defiantly. She was wearing a thin burgundy robe with an even darker red sash, and it didn’t take the sculptor much to imagine what was underneath. He approached her, and asked her to dinner. She accepted and said she knew a place.
She changed from her red robe and nothing else to a navy dress and pearls, and later that evening they were sharing a bottle of wine and eating pesto-soaked escargot. It was, just at appetizers, the most expensive meal that the sculptor had ever eaten, and although he had the money to possibly pay for it, he was relieved when the model offered to pay.
“Why are you so generous?”
“Isn’t it more fun to focus on your art when you don’t have to worry about money?”
“Some of the best art was made while in abject poverty.”
He told her about how he had come to be in Munich, in an art school, and that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t memorize more than everyday pleasantries in German. She laughed and chided him in four languages. The conversation changed to other things. Other food you wouldn’t normally think was delicious, and where he lived in Munich. What she was doing with her life, why she started as a nude model at 35.
After dinner, there wasn’t much conversation at all. They went back to her palatial penthouse, where anything said above a whisper echoed. They went to her four poster bed, and about 8 hours after seeing his first nude woman, he saw the same woman, nude again.
He had read about having muses, and he was delighted to have found his. She was everything he imagined a rich, worldly woman to be. And she seemed to really love him. Maybe desperately so. She was so serious all the time, showing up to galleries for his shows dressed in evening gowns when everyone else was in jeans, texting him constantly when he was out past 10 and didn’t come back to her pent house.
The sculptor didn’t lose interest in his model, but he started to wonder about the other girls his age, who drank wine by the gallon and carried The Ethical Slut in their book bags. She saw his eyes wandering, and she said she understood. The sculptor went to have his fun, and it was everything he thought it would be. Purposeless, but desperate. Meaningless.
The sculptor graduated school to great acclaim. He was hailed as unironic-neo-classical. Post-post-modern, earnest without embarrassment. He got offers from building contractors, banks, proud parents needing busts made of their ruddy-faced children. He took nearly everything.
One morning, he got a call from an investment group that offered to fly him to New York City for a meeting, put him up in an incredible hotel, show him the sights. He accepted. When he met them in the Flatiron building in midtown, he had to will himself to focus on them instead of the traffic patterns below.
They explained what they wanted: a male counterpart for the Statue of Liberty. They were building a new island in New York harbor, and they wanted the Norse God of Justice, Tyr, to face off from Lady Liberty. Someone had already turned in a CGI rendering of a nude copper giant, holding his spear aloft, like he was readying to pierce the green lady in the heart.
And then he saw her. The model. The Statue of Liberty looked just like her – same strong features, same downturned frown. He might have been imagining things, but it seemed like the model might have learned her not-quite-there stare from this symbol of American liberty. He laughed.
“What’s funny?” the investor on the left asked.
“Nothing. I’ll do it. Whatever you want.”
The sculptor set to work on his monument and wondered what had happened to his former lover. He understood the cultural and anti-feminist implications of a second, slightly taller statue to welcome immigrants and stand for an American ideal – but he thought she would get a kick out of it.
He called her old number, and didn’t reach anyone. Her voicemail came on, but it was a male’s voice. “I am sorry to inform the caller that the owner of this number has passed away. If you happen to be a certain young sculptor, please contact me at my separate number.”
The sculptor’s heart beat faster while he called the second number, and the same assured voice eventually confirmed his identity and told him that he had been named the sole heir of the model’s considerable fortune. He had to come back to Munich to get it.
On a train from the airport to Munich’s city center, the sculptor sat with a small exacto knife and a piece of soft wood, carving her face into the grain. She was already immortal, his model. Dozens of his pieces featured her, and it turned out her face was so classic, it was considered the visage of liberty for billions of people. He didn’t know what she had wanted with him back when he was 18, and he didn’t understand this burst of generosity now.
Back in his studio, he had sculpted the statue of liberty without her robe, working from the memory of his model. He missed her, now, like he had hidden her somewhere deep inside himself, and now she was uncovered, standing in front of him, asking him to look at her. His giant Norse god had none of her grace, her stately permanence. He didn’t know what the god stood for.
There was a good chance, the sculptor thought, that none of this meant anything at all.