The Best Time I Fainted While Posing Nude
by Meredith Graves
Twenty-two was my worst year. I was broke, deeply depressed, and wrapped up in an emotionally destructive relationship. The one nice thing I had going was the semi-successful band we’d started when we first got together; but between that, our shared living situation, and the overwhelming sadness which had rendered me inert, I felt trapped.
Thanks to our band’s increasingly ambitious touring schedule, and my seeming inability to do anything other than cry, my retail job was in jeopardy. My boss didn’t support me doing anything that involved running away with that particular boyfriend; she cared for me, and she’d watched my mental health wane over the year I’d worked for her, and was reasonably fed up with me coming in every day with eyes swollen from crying. Indignant, I put in my two weeks.
We started to book more and more shows, but it was never really enough. We’d be home for weeks at a time, trapped together in a one-bedroom apartment. He worked day and night to convince me that our relationship would be fine if I wasn’t damaged goods. Anyone in his situation — stuck with me — would do the same. At the height of his abuse, when I, not wanting to set him off, would simply stay in bed for days, he gave me an ultimatum: get psychiatric drugs, or be abandoned. I would have no band, no job, and nowhere to live, and because I was crazy, I would be alone.
Drugs had frightened me ever since junior high, when I’d been bounced around between different SSRIs, bringing on a predictable onslaught of Alice In Wonderland-like side effects: one pill made me grow bigger and another, smaller. One made me sharply happy but kept me up all night, one made me fall asleep at Thanksgiving dinner. After that year, I never tried them again.
With no health insurance and knowing almost nothing about psychiatric healthcare, I was soon paying out of pocket to switch medications every two or three weeks. A healthy dose of Prozac first thing in the morning was the only constant. I didn’t mind that; it felt like cheap speed and got me out of bed long before my boyfriend, which meant I could work for a few hours, buzzing quietly, undisturbed. The second medication was an ever-changing X factor: one pill brought on a few hours of unsustainable bliss followed by a sharp crash in the afternoon. The next made me lactate. The dictator who shared my bed didn’t care about the toll these pills took on my body, only that I was taking them.
Between my uninsured office visits and the gas to get there, to say nothing of the prescriptions themselves, my savings were dwindling. I needed money bad, but we had tours booked. My paper-thin nerves made even temping impossible. Every day I looked on Craigslist under ‘Gigs’ but couldn’t envision myself as a mover, voiceover actress, or sexy housecleaner.
Then a local art gallery posted, looking for models for a life-drawing benefit meant to raise money for youth arts programs in our community. I emailed them, and heard back almost immediately. I was in: a hundred bucks for two hours of work.
I’d started a new medication the week before, and so far hadn’t felt like dancing or dying. The only side effect I’d noticed was a little light-headedness and physical weakness, which caught me off-guard as I carried my bike up the fire escape to the back entrance of the gallery. I was greeted by the coordinators, an older, gray-haired man and his younger girlfriend, a petite blonde. They were excited I’d volunteered: the other models were mostly in their thirties and forties, experienced athletic types, and there I was with my soft figure, shaved head, and prominent tattoos.
The crowd was an interesting mix of university students, professionals in suits, and amateur artists. Some people were there to draw, some just to observe, but everyone seemed happy, enjoying fruit and cheese as they mingled with the barefoot models. It felt extremely well-orchestrated and professional.
The gallerists turned on the overhead lights and brought out stools for models who wished to do sitting poses. In the middle of the room, the artists assembled in chairs arranged in a semi-circle. We’d be doing three poses of our choosing for twenty-five minutes each. The gallerists weren’t kidding — most of the other models were older than me and extremely fit — but once we slid out of our robes and into our first poses, I felt much more at ease. I could let my eyes wander off in the distance or down to the floor, and it would feel like they weren’t even there. I took a seat at the far right of the lineup and sat backwards on a chair with my hips and legs turned to one side, my arms casually folded over the back, head in my hands and eyes cast lightly upward like a child-angel in Renaissance painting.
After the first pose, people applauded, and everyone took a brief break to get more wine and snacks. Several of the artists lined up to show me their drawings. It seemed as if a large percentage of the room had chosen to draw me, which confused and surprised me. I threw my robe on haphazardly and, with my ego slightly inflated, didn’t bother to tie it in the front. The drawings were elegant and highlighted not my nakedness, but my arms, my shoulders, my hands. One man had chosen to draw me from the hips down in a vaguely abstract way, my thighs ovate like a Matisse paper-cut. I was emboldened by my new status as muse; it felt like a long time had passed since someone wanted me around or thought I was good at anything. I felt I owed them better.
I was so busy talking to the artists that I didn’t have time to get a glass of water or a handful of grapes. We reassembled to take our second pose. Not wanting to be caught for the amateur I was, I went with what I’d seen many of the other models do during the first pose, and stood. I opted for feet shoulder-width apart, hands on my hips, chest brought up and out, jaw rigid and eyes forward, standing square and strong like Joan of Arc. My muscular thighs, earned on my bicycle, would be highlighted by the angled overhead lighting. Nobody there knew who I was or what I’d been through. I could be strong here, and it felt good to be seen as such, even if it wasn’t entirely honest. I stood proudly, knowing that many people in the room were having a great time drawing me.
At important intervals — ten, fifteen, twenty minutes — the male gallerist who had initially greeted me would call out the time remaining. This time, when he called out “ten minutes,” I cringed, my knees sore. I silently gave props to the more experienced models. This was harder than I thought. I stood up a little straighter, locked my legs more firmly in place, undefeated.
At fifteen minutes, I realized I’d started to feel quite hot under the lights that hung just a couple of feet over my head. My buzz cut didn’t do much to hide the fact that I was sweating. I felt thirsty and dizzy. When the man called out “twenty minutes,” my heart started to race. I broke, and called out to him. “Hey, is it OK if I sit down? I’m not feeling well.” Some of the artists looked up and smiled.
Then, for a split second, everything went black.
The next thing I remember was the feeling of a dirty hardwood floor under my ass. I was laying on my back. I could feel that I’d been covered with a light sheet. My neck hurt. It took a great deal of effort to open my eyes, and when they finally focused, I realized I was surrounded on all sides by strangers standing over me, worried and staring.
“She’s awake!” a woman shouted. “What’s your last name? When is your birthday?”
She kneeled next to me and showed me a laminated badge. “Don’t worry, honey; I’m a nurse. Are you pregnant, or on any drugs?”
I racked my brain for a few seconds.
Her eyes got wide. Someone set a glass of water down next to my head.
“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine!”
The immensity of my surroundings caved in on me. I looked around at the nervous faces of the ever-growing crowd and brought my hands up to my forehead, covering my face in shame. “Oh, Jesus” I groaned, and for whatever reason, burst out laughing. More than a handful of people started clapping and laughing along with me. The nursing student, who took the occasional art class along with her regular curriculum, insisted I sit on the floor for a minute while the rest of the attendees took a break before the last pose.
One of the older male artists came over to console me after what was obviously the most embarrassing moment of my entire life. “It’s pretty common for models to faint,” he said, “if they lock their knees in standing poses.” In my attempt to look like a seasoned professional, I’d made a rookie mistake. I smiled weakly, my cover blown.
“But look at this,” he said, as he pulled out his sketchbook to show me his colored pencil drawing from the first session — me, from the shoulders up, head in my hands, rendered in a wild, abstract rainbow. My hair was green, my eyes were pink and orange, my lips blue, but it was me. He smiled as he ripped the drawing out of his notebook and gave it to me. “You did a great job today.”
I suffered through the last pose laying on the floor, trying to recover any shred of respectability I had left, partially wrapped in the sheet they’d used to cover my lifeless body. As I dressed, away from the other models, it hit me that other people might have been judging me really hard once they heard the nurse asking me about medication. To them, I might have looked like the stereotype of a scarred, tattooed burnout who showed up to the event on drugs. I burned with shame. The gray-haired gallerist and his blonde partner thanked me coolly as they handed me my check on my way out. I rolled the envelope up with the picture of me rendered in a psychedelic rainbow, and walked out, defeated.
I could barely get my bike back down the stairs. I pedaled through downtown for a few blocks, and who did I run into but my old boss from the clothing store. I hadn’t seen her in the six months since I’d walked out in tears. “I’m fine, really!” I grinned manically, glassy-eyed, desperately hoping that I didn’t look as shaky as I felt. “I’m so happy, things with the band are going so well!” She looked concerned. My story wasn’t good enough. We half-hugged and I pedaled off towards my apartment, wondering how much of the story I’d actually tell my boyfriend.
A couple of weeks after my fainting incident, I told everyone involved to take that drug and shove it. I suffered through withdrawal on a three-week trip down to Miami where we would record our first and only full-length album. I felt wild and unpredictable. The next spring, when I had gotten low enough to realize that my very survival was at stake, I left that man in a fiery blaze, which set off a period of stalking and harassment that would last more than six months. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, but the longer I was away from him, the more strength I found. I started to feel like myself again.
My boss went out of her way to help me when I came crawling back to her, and after several months back at my old job, I was making more money and taking on more responsibilities. I had a ton of new friends, a much nicer apartment, and a handsome and gentle new beau. I had developed both a deep respect and a lingering sadness for the person who allowed herself to be convinced that drugs were what she needed to be happy. I acknowledged it as an extremely scary and awful time in my life, but I had moved past judgment and shame into a place of deep self-acceptance.
Sometime near the end of summer, right when it starts to feel like the beginning of fall, I was out on my bike, going to meet friends at a bar downtown. It was warm and I rode fast, enjoying the feeling of being powerful enough to support my own weight. For whatever reason, they wanted to meet at some weird new martini lounge that seemed ill-inspired and out of place. I figured it would be closed in a matter of months, like most everything else new and interesting in our small city.
While waiting at the bar for my drink, I was approached by a gray-haired man who I knew I’d met before but couldn’t place. He sure remembered me, he said — I was the nude model that fainted in his gallery. I was embarrassed, and stood up very straight, wondering if he’d been left with any other lingering impressions. I asked him how things had been going over there.
He seemed taken aback, and told me he was out on bail awaiting trial. “You didn’t hear?”
The gallery, as it turns out, was a front for a drug-running organization that linked a major city in China with our hometown; the man and his blonde girlfriend, liaisons for the import and national distribution of mephedrone, an ever-changing synthetic form of MDMA commonly referred to as “bath salts,” which had made the national news recently after it led a man in Miami to try and eat another man’s face.
People across the country were being arrested while high on bath salts, because the drug led them to attack other people, animals, themselves, and nothing — according to one news item, a local woman who had taken bath salts had the police called on her because she “was shooting a gun into a tree behind her house, claiming she was trying to kill a ghost.”
In the months around the time when I modeled at his gallery, three high-profile cases involving abuse of bath salts had happened in our area. One woman choked both her three-year-old son and dog before being killed by police. Another woman, already high on bath salts, added the remainder of a container to her infant’s formula.
When the gallery was searched and the organizers busted, it was because they had recently shuttled two hundred and twenty pounds — or $525,000 worth — of synthetic molly into central New York. The gallery bank accounts had been used to launder at least sixty thousand dollars, presumably under the cover of donations given during benefits like the one at which I’d fainted.
The man who now sat across from me, looking shaky and exhausted in the neon glow from the bar, had been earning millions of dollars a year when he was apprehended. He made the city into what the DEA referred to as “ground zero” for a drug whose less-dangerous side effects included increased body temperature, dehydration, and fainting.
He asked how I was doing, and I told him in all seriousness that everything had been fine; great, even. He asked if he could get my phone number, if I wanted to go out sometime. I looked him up today. He’s just started a seven year sentence in federal prison.
That night, I had a drink with my friends when they showed up, then another at a different, darker bar. At some point, I rode my bike back to the apartment where I now lived by myself, carried my bike up a few flights of stairs, and went to sleep.