An Unanticipated Titanic Legacy

by Diana Spechler

Although it’s been 100 years since the Titanic went down, it’s been only 15 since James Cameron’s Titanic. I was a freshman in college, and Titanic was one of three movies (along with As Good As It Gets and Great Expectations) that offered nude drawing scenes that year — beautiful Rose donning nothing but jewels; doomed Jack, sketching her feverishly, his eyebrows impeccably tweezed. Not coincidentally, that was the year I posed nude for an art student.

If “posed nude for an art student” suggests formality, or financial gain, the language misleads. It was, like most things that happen in college, pure fun. But I was like Rose — in love with the magic of an insular world, oblivious to its impermanence.

Not then, not ever, did I identify as “one of the guys.” In my experience, “one of the guys” means “feigns enthusiasm for televised football” and “will tell the men that you have a yeast infection.” But on my hall in the dorm that year, I didn’t fit in with the girls. They laughed about things I didn’t know were funny. And they wore occasion-specific outfits — cute leggings with off-the-shoulder T-shirts (hang-over apparel), monochromatic sweat suits and pigtails (studying-in-the-library apparel) — while I wore a T-shirt that decreed, Harvest The Sun. No Nukes. I had no idea what that meant, only that our uniforms divided us. So I spent my time on the other end of the hall with Tyler, Michael, and Sam, all of whom wore the Pumas of the era with bright, fat laces; always had pot; and liked to rock climb (at least in theory). That was the year Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival came out, and we played it until it made us sick, Michael and I on the Salvation Army couch in Tyler’s and Sam’s room, Sam in the desk chair, Tyler perched on the bottom bunk bed. Maybe I didn’t have much in common with those guys (they enjoyed genteel pastimes, like rubbing Gold Bond on their balls to make them tingle), but we had never-ending conversations, as if we’d been waiting eighteen years for them, as if we would never catch up.

Sam was a Fine Arts major who, like Jack from Titanic, was always drawing on a sketch pad. Sometimes he drew Michael and me sitting on the couch. Sometimes he drew the tree branches through the window. Once, when Michael spilled a jug of Carlo Rossi on the carpet, Sam sketched the still life before painting it on a canvas. When he told us, right after we watched Great Expectations, that he was sketching nudes in his drawing class, I thought, I could be a nude. I loved easily attainable acts of rebellion. Months earlier, when I’d graduated from high school, I’d lied about my age to score a job in a bar and gotten a couple of piercings. With each act, I felt the rush and promise of adulthood. I thought that being grown up was the same as being free.

“I could draw you,” Sam said, reading my mind.

In my fantasy of my nudity, I was Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella — an angel face by a window, my hair platinum, my body waif-like, my crotch erotically clouded by cigarette smoke.

“Okay,” I said.

And just like that, in front of three boys, I took off all of my clothes.

Once naked, because I was not, in fact, Gwyneth Paltrow (or Kate Winslett, or Helen Hunt), I was only brave enough to lie stomach-down on the couch, the front of my body hidden, my feet hooked over the arm rest, my cheek resting on my folded hands. At first, no one was sure how to act. Tyler picked a scab on his arm. Michael, who had stood to give me the run of the couch, stayed standing. We weren’t used to one of us being undressed, or to acknowledging that I was different from them. My heart thumped against the couch cushion.

I didn’t know what to make of my body. I saw its imperfections, and its femininity, through three pairs of male eyes. Silently, I dared them to say something lewd, or to try to touch or disparage me. What did I know? What did they? We were eighteen years old. We’d just been released from childhood. We could have made every mistake. Instead, Sam’s drawing and my posing became a nightly occurrence. I’m still heartened by the trust I found in that room — Michael reclaiming his place on the couch; Sam filling page after page, his forehead crinkled, his teeth pinning his bottom lip; the three of them voting down my Enya CD; our long discussions over who on our floor was most likely to steal our bong. In spite of my nudity, life continued.

Once I got comfortable, I posed sitting cross-legged, my hands in my hair. I lay on my side, my head propped on my fist. I stood with my back to the wall, snow-angeled. Every evening, I looked forward to coming home to my friends, shedding my clothes, and listening to music. Never since have I felt so unfettered.

And then it was May. We moved out of the dorms. One of us transferred to the other state school. The rest of us scattered to separate houses.

A couple of years ago, a tactless guest looked at a framed drawing on my wall — me from the waist up, my fingers interlaced behind my head — and said, “Nice drawing. So college-art-class.” Soon after, I took the picture down and stowed it away. But for thirteen years, I’d displayed it; it had graced the walls of at least ten apartments. During that time, the four of us had kept in touch to varying degrees. Two of us moved to remote locations. One of us became a staunch conservative. One of us entered a soul-crushing relationship that would swallow most of a decade. For a time, three of us turned on the fourth. Later, one of us discovered pain killers, constructing a life around the wish to feel nothing.

But that year, the year I was naked, I think that we were happy. I haven’t wanted to watch Titanic since — to see that the special effects look fake, that Jack’s love of Rose is overwrought. I still think of the Rose that Jack first saw — concealed by her high-society hat, shackled to the expectations of others.

Then he drew her, and she became free.

Diana Spechler is the author of the novels ‘Who by Fire’ and ‘Skinny’ (both Harper Perennial). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, O Magazine, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and elsewhere. She teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio.