He asked me to call him Eros. I complied. His real name was Paul, and he lived in a one-room apartment above a Chinese restaurant, downtown. I looked around the room, and then set up my camera, an old 1920s Rolliflex with a waist-level viewfinder. He sat down at his vanity set and applied some moisturizer to his cheeks and forehead.
"What do you want me to do? Should I pose or something?"
"Just continue getting ready; do whatever it is you normally do. I'll have you stand for a portrait a bit later."
He removed the elastic band from around his ponytail unleashing a wave of long, smooth, golden locks. I looked down into my viewfinder and started shooting. He then commenced dabbing foundation carefully around the crevices of his chin and nostrils. I had never seen this type of make-up applied with such tenderness; my wife just slathers it on like sunscreen.
"What kind of exhibition will these pictures be in?"
"An art exhibit showcasing photography. My work is about people - portraits of fascinating people."
"You think I'm a work of art." he stated with an air of satisfaction.
"Not exactly - but these photographs could be."
I moved the tripod and positioned the camera a few inches away from his face, documenting the painterly quality of his made-up complexion. He wasn't a transvestite, more of an occasional cross-dresser, a tranvestic fetishist. But even while dressed as a man it was hard to tell what he was exactly, due to his youth and the delicate features of his face and hands.
I spent a fair amount of time searching for a new muse, a unique subject as striking as Eros, for my upcoming exhibit. We met at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, a gay theatre company on Alexander Street; he was playing the title role in the Greek tragedy Hyacinth. According to the play, Hyacinth was a beautiful youth beloved by the god Apollo (artfully played by a male stripper from the west end). The two competed at discus (a pink Frisbee in this case). They took turns throwing it, and Apollo, to impress his love, threw it with all his might. Hyacinth ran to catch it, to impress Apollo in turn, and was struck by the discus as it fell to the ground, and died (a melodramatic scene where Eros swooned repeatedly and cried out in pain for over ten minutes). Upon Hyacinth's death, Apollo, stricken with grief, couldn't allow Hades to claim the boy; rather, he made a flower (yes, Eros came twirling out from stage-left dressed as a flower), the Hyacinth, from his spilled blood.
I actually had no intention of seeing the play, but my wife dragged me; the stage-manager was an old friend of hers from high school. We popped backstage to congratulate her on a show well done, and there was Eros, a 5'7" flower in green tights; lavender petals smeared across his cheeks. God, if only I had my camera! I'd never seen such an exquisite specimen. But I'm not shy about recruiting my subjects. I immediately introduced myself and set up a time to shoot him at his apartment the following week. I must have sounded like a complete pervert: "hi, was wondering if I could take some pictures of you at your place next week?" I quickly explained that I was an artist, and wasn't looking to make him do any nude work. After darting his eyes back and forth apprehensively, weighing-up both me and my offer, he finally agreed.
It was August, and his apartment had no air-conditioning. The humidity covered me in a sticky film that glued my shirt to my chest. The smell of food wafted up from the restaurant below - Kung Pao chicken and boiled dumplings. I had to wipe the sweat out of my eyes every couple of seconds just to see into my camera. Eros appeared immune to the heat; his skin was dry and his expression cool.
"There. I'm all done. Where do you want me?" he asked coyly.
I smiled. "Stand over there, next to the couch, with your back against the wall."
"No problem." He sashayed across the room, gazing at me over his shoulder.
He made me nervous. He was too sure of himself. It's one of the side-effects of youth: being young, healthy, beautiful, and knowing it; feeling as though you're invincible. I knew he was beautiful too, and he knew that I knew; maybe that's what made me nervous.
"Can I smile?"
"A sexy pout?"
He wore a kids' t-shirt that was far too small. It was stretched tautly over his torso, and rose up so that his belly button peeked out. He lifted his chin smugly, looking down at me and my lens.
"That's good, but I wanted to catch you looking a bit more natural."
I went over to him and angled his head and shoulders the way I wanted them. As I leaned in towards him I noticed that he smelled like one of those exotic, fruit-scented shampoos; kiwi, mango... and I quickly moved back behind my camera.
"This is boring" he yawned.
"This is exactly what I want."
"I thought you chose to shoot me because I'm interesting. Are you sure you don't want me to dress up and pose or anything?"
"I want to capture you looking the way you would normally look this time of day."
"You think I look interesting, just like this?" He beamed.
"Yes, you look perfect to me. Please hold still."
He eventually took my direction and stared soberly into the lens. His body went limp and his lips, relaxed, gently parted.
"You're very photogenic, did you know that? My camera loves you."
It was true. Later that week when I got the prints developed, he looked ethereal in every shot, as though I had photographed a doll or a statue.
"Was that your wife with you at my play?"
"Who? No. Just a good friend...Turn to the left."
Good friend indeed! I wasn't myself; that room was a pressure-cooker, the heat, the smell, and Eros...
"Let's take a break" I blurted out. "Can I have a glass of water?"
He went into the kitchenette and filled a chipped glass with tap water. With his back to me I noticed the slight curvature of his hairless legs; shapely, too masculine to belong to a woman, but smoother than any mans'. I suddenly pictured my wife's unshaved legs, scratching me like sandpaper under the covers...
"Here you go."
The water was lukewarm, but my mouth was so dry I hardly noticed.
"When's the exhibition?" He sat down in the chair next to me, his elbow touching mine.
"It's a few months away. You can come if you like."
"That sounds like fun, I'd love to", was his quick reply.
The idea that I might see him again filled me with a giddy anticipation I hadn't felt since college. I guzzled down the rest of my water, dribbling down my chin.
I'm not gay. I kissed a boy once when I was fourteen, on a dare, and that had been the extent of my experience with homosexuality. But Eros, I must clarify, seemed to be neither male nor female. His demeanor blended the gestures of both sexes so seamlessly it was as if I was standing before a new sex entirely. By anyone's standards he was attractive; women and men craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him in that crowd backstage, after his performance. In profile he had the features of an ivory cameo my mother used to wear; head-on, the sharp Roman nose and round cheeks of a Titian cherub...
I wasn't crazy for saying what I was about to say, after all, we had been enjoying each other's company most of the afternoon:
"Maybe we can get together some time before the exhibition? Out to dinner, or for drinks?"
He tucked his blonde curls behind his ears and leaned in: "Maybe." His hand was now resting on my knee.
I was short of breath. Intoxicated by his presence and slightly disgusted with myself for being so forward; I got up and motioned that we continue with the shoot. My head was spinning, not only with thoughts of Eros, but of my wife, who was probably flipping though the Pottery Barn catalogue at that very moment, figuring out which type of lamp would go best on our nightstand.
"Let's finish this" I said.
For that last role of film, I decided to do something unorthodox; I let him pose however he wanted, anywhere in his apartment. He dressed up, gave me smiles, sexy pouts, licked his lips and arched his back. I shot him on the couch, on his bed, on the balcony, and in the kitchenette. I thought that these were the worst pictures I had taken all day; contrived, unnatural and false. I was wrong. When I carefully reviewed the proofs the next day, these images revealed much more to me than I expected; I no longer saw Eros the Greek god, the enticing boy-girl, the Roman cherub; I saw a regular kid. He was a boy, no older than twenty; desperate to be noticed by me, by anyone. I saw the make-up cracking around his mouth when he smiled, his knees clumsily knocking together when he arched his back, the self-conscious expression on his face between pouts.
As I left his apartment that August afternoon, we stopped in the corridor and he kissed me goodbye, firmly on the lips; I kissed him back, staring into his eyes with complete adoration. I couldn't see him for who he really was in that moment and I'm glad; that's what made it heavenly. Perfect.
The following week I spoke to him on the phone:
"You look great in every shot. I'm very happy. Thank you."
"Well, I'm glad that you're 'very happy' with me." He answered, waiting for me to say more.
I gave him the date and location of the exhibition, but that's all. He never came. I must admit, I spent half the night looking over my shoulder, hoping he'd show up. In the end, I suppose I'm glad he didn't.
Eros now sits in a frame on my desk. He watches over me while I work; positioned the way I wanted him, forever young and in bloom, always impressing me with his beauty.
About the author:
Monica Pacheco is a Canadian and Portuguese citizen with a Hon. B.A. in art history and political science from The University of Toronto. She currently lives in Lund, Sweden, where she studies creative writing at Malmö University. She resides in a small student apartment with her Swedish husband, Benny, and their dog, Conan.