Milk
May 3, 2021

The ad made it seem like a legitimate artistic endeavor, not porn. Photographer Josh Caplan seeks dancers for the original and exciting vision of the human body. Caplan’s eleventh book of photographs is destined to become the classic body book.

When Zoe was an undergrad, Playboy held an open call on campus. The campus paper interviewed some of the women who showed up. “I think being a feminist means being able to do whatever you want,” said one of the eager students. Zoe had laughed scornfully at this. “Pathetic,” she said to her boyfriend at the time, who considered himself a revolutionary. “Talk about false consciousness.”

Zoe called Josh Caplan’s number, and a professional-sounding young woman named Pascale asked Zoe to send over a couple of photos. “Not nudes, just any shots you have, and your dance resume.” Zoe did. Pascale called back that afternoon to make an appointment.

It wasn’t about the money. She wanted to expose herself without exposing herself. This was an old habit.

On the way to Josh Caplan’s studio, Zoe worried a bit that it might be dirty and isolated, that he might be lecherous, and that the photographs might end up in the wrong hands. She thought about how, as a senior on spring break in Palm Springs, she had entered a tan line contest. Zoe had lined up poolside with a dozen other buzzed, giddy girls. One by one, they walked to the end of the diving board for the raucous crowd. When it was Zoe’s turn, she grabbed her neon pink bikini bottom and slowly slid it to the side. She heard the jaws of the crowd open. She smiled. Her prize was a Modelo t-shirt.

Caplan’s studio was an expensive second-floor loft in SoHo on the east side of Broadway, just below Prince. The sidewalk outside the building was packed with people going in and out of Dean & Deluca. Zoe took the elevator and walked into a warm, busy studio full of lighting equipment. A fancy stereo played Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).” A young woman wearing J. Crew hurried up to Zoe. “Zoe Carver,” Zoe said. “2:30.” The woman looked down at her clipboard and said, “Yes, thanks for coming, I’m Pascale. Come on in.”

Pascale asked Zoe to fill out some paperwork — contact information and waivers that Zoe didn’t really read before signing. When Zoe finished the forms, she leafed through the books of Caplan’s photography on the coffee table. He had quit his day job as an exceptional and successful physician only five years ago. He will say about much of his work that it sprang from a fascination with “musculoskeletal form.” She recognized several people she knew in the index of dancer names. Zoe was horrified to see that every single vagina in the book was waxed. She had not even trimmed her pubic hair.

Pascale directed Zoe to a dressing room. “After you take your clothes off, cover yourself all over with the almond oil there. If you want, you can put on the robe. Come out when you’re ready.” Zoe undressed and patted down her pubic hair. She put on the almond oil, the robe, and emerged from the dressing room. She wondered if she had put on too much oil or not enough.

Pascale walked Zoe to the middle of the studio. “Zoe,” she said brightly, “this is Josh.” Josh shook Zoe’s hand. He was stout, energetic, and middle-aged. “Ok Zoe,” Josh said, smiling, with the jovial tone of an uncle inviting her to take her turn in a board game. “Whenever you’re ready, go ahead and take the robe off.” Zoe did. She walked to the middle of the space and smiled. She was not sure what to do with her hands. She was positive everyone was staring at her pubic hair.

“Just do whatever you normally do to warm up for dancing,” Josh said. Zoe moved through some exercises for the spine. She summoned blood into the muscles that connected her shoulder girdle to her pelvis. She moved through twists and arches and tilts. “Good, good,” Josh said. “Stop there. Hold it. Hold it. Just another sec. Great. OK, keep going.” Zoe started to relax. In addition to Pascale, there was another pert, ponytailed attendant who was managing the lights. The two women flanked Josh and responded to his unspoken needs through small adjustments in the room’s light, music, and temperature.

The posing made Zoe feel adult. She was taking care of business. She wasn’t dwelling in the whiny, squishy parts of herself. She told herself, see, I have no problem being seen. With every pose, she felt less vague and more solid. She moved when Josh asked her to move. She stopped when Josh asked her to stop. She was starting to have fun.

Zoe didn’t look at Josh’s face but at his hands manipulating the camera. They were weathered, calloused, and hairy, like her grandfather’s hands. Zoe’s grandfather was a dairy farmer in upstate New York, about a half-hour north of Cooperstown. Zoe had spent summers there as a young girl. Her grandfather kept black-and-white Holsteins shackled in two long rows of stanchions in the barn. When she stepped into the barn, she saw haunches and flanks and swatting tails. She heard chewing, stomping, sliding, and bucking. She smelled iodine teat dip and chewing tobacco. The cows had eyes like eggs.

“Zoe, can you do something a bit more dancerly?” Josh said cheerfully. She found herself in a low lunge with both hands on the ground, like a sprinter or an animal. “Sure.” Zoe stood up and tried to summon a combination from class that morning. She felt a bit light-headed under the bright yellow lights. After the lights flashed, their filaments simmered and waited for the next command from Josh’s hands.

In the old days, Zoe’s grandfather had milked the cows by hand, grasped and pulled each teat downward to force the warm threads out. Now, mechanical suction milked out each udder in under seven minutes. The extruded froth flowed into black rubber tubes that ran along the barn ceiling like veins. The tubes converged in the milk house, an antechamber off the barn that smelled of mucous.

Zoe loved that fresh milk. Her grandmother served it in tall glasses and shallow blue bowls with fresh corn or fresh peas for supper. The milk was in everything that her grandmother baked.

“That’s it, that’s it, there’s the juice,” said Josh, and Pascal murmured her support. Zoe sped up. She was practically running laps around the white paper on the floor. She found a triplet cadence. Her legs pumped down, up, down; down, up, down.

Zoe had only ventured into the barn as far as was necessary to reach the hayloft, where she and her cousins played hide and seek, sardines, and truth or dare. She entered the front door of the barn, immediately turned to the right, and quickly took the four steps needed to reach the stairs up to the hayloft.

Machines waited up there: manure spreader, Massey Harris tractor, haymow, Caterpillar diesel. There were hidden shafts that you could fall through and break a leg. This had happened to her cousin Jeff. The hay bales crouched up there for months in the dusty silence of summer, waiting to be picked up, waiting to be thrown through a shaft, waiting to be eaten. Up there, the light was yellow, almost domestic. From the top of the pile of hay bales, you could look out the small window in the top of the barn at fields flowing away in all directions. The land undulated away like a generous skirt in the wind.

Zoe’s mother had been molested in that barn. Zoe knew this because her mother told her. But Zoe didn’t remember how this subject came up. She wasn’t sure whether it was a cousin or a hired man. When she asked her mother who it had been, her mom shook her head and said, “It doesn’t matter.” They never spoke of it again. Sometimes Zoe wasn’t sure if the conversation with her mother even happened. Her memory of it was covered in a mote-filled haze. She couldn’t remember the words her mother used or where they were at the time. She didn’t know what time of year it had been when it happened. Summer, when the hayloft was full?

Whatever had happened in the barn had bisected the tensile integrity of her mother’s body, like a bridge with the cables cut. Her mother’s entire body collapses inward toward a pelvic vanishing point. In photos, her mother would stand with her legs close together and her hands clasped in front of her crotch, as if barricading her vagina. In theory, posture is dynamic, not fixed, but long ago, her mother’s posture passed a point of no return.

Now her mother was like soft wax. If Zoe inflected her voice or touched her face in a particular way, her mother inflected her voice and touched her face in exactly the same way. This enraged Zoe. To prevent her arches from falling like her mother’s, Zoe did daily ankle exercises and wore custom orthotics.

“Do you need a break?” Pascal offered Zoe a glass of water. Zoe heard herself panting. The camera shutter was still clicking. Zoe willed herself to think about anything but the barn. But her momentum was gone. Josh took the camera away from his eye and looked at Zoe. He exchanged a look with Pascale. He changed his lens. They changed some lights. Zoe waited. She wanted to fling her body at the camera like milk from a bucket. Josh smiled at her in a way that made Zoe think bedside manner. He said, smiling, “I think we’re done here, thank you.” He turned and walked to the kitchen in the back of the studio, where he busily started making coffee. Zoe smiled and thanked the room. As she walked toward the dressing room, she willed herself not to run.

Pascale called a week later. They were going to select a shot of Zoe for the book. “Great!” said Zoe. “Can I get a copy?” Silence. “Um, sure. We don’t normally do that, but…sure, sure. It shouldn’t be a problem.” Two weeks later, Zoe got a copy of the print in the mail. It was full-frontal, cropped at the neck. In the photo, Zoe stood with her legs wide and straight and rotated out. Her pubic hair was messy. Zoe’s arms hung long and outstretched, palms spread. She didn’t remember standing like that. She didn’t understand why Josh picked that shot. It wasn’t dancerly. It wasn’t an action shot. She was just braced, as if for impact.


Photo by slon_dot_pics from Pexels

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