My Audrey

By Margaret Rennie

She is the Ideal, my Audrey, the gleaming gold standard against which I judge all the others. She looks down over the open expanse of my Manhattan loft from her place of prominence above my mantel, timeless in her chic perfection, all wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses and little black Chanel. My Audrey, at her "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" pinnacle of elegance, a cigarette holder poised in a gloved hand, and my heart hidden in her other one. Who can equal her?

I’ve found a few who have come close, but they haven’t quite compared, although God knows I did what I could. A fashion photographer like me can do a lot to enhance a woman’s natural beauty. They say the camera never lies, but the guy behind the lens, well, that’s another matter entirely.

I can do more for a girl’s skin than the best Beverly Hills salon. An unfortunate five pounds gained on a vacation can end a model’s runway career. But in photo shoots, my magic can turn her back into her bikini best. I make the models look good, and they make the clothes look good. As a result, I am in demand by all the top couturiers and fashion mags, and it is well-known that some of the biggest names in the fashion industry will not work without me.

It goes without saying that this coincidentally has been good for my love life. Every day I rub shoulders with the most beautiful women in the world, from Los Angeles, to New York, to Milan and Paris. In an industry with high numbers of gay men, I have my pick of the ladies, although I am not what you would call handsome. I am by any measure a lucky man.

I have had an eye for lovely faces from the beginning. That is what led me into photography. In my studies, I’ve learned that the beauty is in the bone structure. High cheekbones and a wide forehead can offset a host of flaws. Add to that large eyes and a full mouth, and you have the makings of a career in modeling, although most of the young hopefuls end up in a cheap studio somewhere with a camera pointed at their crotches instead of their faces.

The few that make it, however, eventually get to smile for me. I don’t know for sure if I always liked them lean, or if my work has given me a taste for slender girls. But I love them this way, and I get to see them all. And once in a great while, I see one that could maybe, just maybe, rival my Audrey.

The last really good one was over a year ago, I think, maybe longer. It was at the height of the "heroin-chic" craze, when Katie Moss ruled the runway. This last one I brought home had been doing her best to duplicate the sunken-eyed look, and I suspected she was genuinely ill, perhaps genuinely strung out as well. I worked with her the best that I could, but alas, at the end of the evening, although I had made some improvements, she wasn’t close to anything like my Audrey.

I made love to her anyway, putting my hands on her wasp waist, and holding my cheek to her own prominent one, doing my best to mask my disappointment.

She and I are still friends, I think, and I still bring her into my bed from time to time. She isn’t my Audrey, doesn’t have the same long, slender limbs, but she’s nice, and I get a kick out of her.

As I said, it’s been a long time since anyone really caught my eye in a special way, you know, showed real promise. So I was beside myself with excitement when I saw Kelly for the first time. She stepped out of a white van, dressed for the shoot we were doing that day at Rockefeller Plaza, and I’m telling you, my heart stood still.

Kelly Rudden was relatively short by today’s standards, only five feet, eight inches tall. She was exceedingly thin and long-limbed, with a cloud of dark hair that framed a fragile, wide-eyed face. Her red lipsticked smile showed white, slightly imperfect teeth, giving an overall impression of a familiar face from bygone years. My Audrey. I knew on sight that, with the right kind of help, she would be a sensation, and I intended to do everything for her that I could.

My camera burned that day, like never before. I closed in on her for the cover shot, my Nikon caressing her hollow cheeks, the upward sweep of her brows. She leaned into the lens, smiling pertly, playfully, seductively, then pouting, the fullness of her bottom lip inviting and sexual. Her shoulders opened to me, chin raised; then she turned to the side, pulling the nearest shoulder up slightly, as she tossed her head back laughing, the lovely line of her swanlike neck shown to its best advantage. Audrey’s neck.

Click! Click! Click! We danced together like lovers. I moved around her, crouching as if I were ready to spring. She anticipated my every move. I never had to pose her, to coax her. She blazed like the sun. This girl was a star. She had Audrey in her, waiting to come out. I could tell. I just knew it.

"You look famished," I said to her after the shoot. "There’s a nice little Italian place a couple of blocks from here. How about we get a meal into you?" She looked at the ground, and I thought she was going to say no.

"Pasta..." she began quietly, and I smiled. Naturally she would not eat pasta. Or cheese. She would eat the model’s banquet, which consists of half a baked potato, no butter, no salt, and a salad with lemon juice only. I always laughed at this irony, the starvation diet of creatures who freely consume alcohol like pretty little fishes, and who aren’t above a bit of nose candy besides.

"Well, let’s see," I said, pretending to think about it. "I have a loft in Soho. My car’s just down the street." I grinned my most disarming grin. "I make a mean salad." The flattery of being invited to dinner by one of the industry’s most prominent photographers, and one of its few straight men, brought a faint blush to her well-formed cheeks. She smiled shyly, nodded, and turned to go get her bag from the van.

"This is your place?" she asked me, incredulous, as my Jag pulled up to the oversized steel front door of a warehouse. "Isn’t it...lonely?" I shook my head.

"In my line of work, I need quiet. Concentration." I nodded toward the big building in front of us. "I bought the place three years ago, the whole warehouse. I saw it situated on this dead end street, and thought it was perfect for my needs. Wait until you see the inside. I had my own loft rehabbed, then furnished by the best decorator on the upper east side. The rest of the lofts I’ll do over for rental sometime." I winked at her. "Not just yet, though. I love the privacy." I opened my door and walked around to help her out of the car. "Take your bag, sweetheart," I told her. "In this neighborhood, you never know."

A model’s entire life is carried around in one big designer bag. Cell phone. Makeup. Curling iron. Extra pantyhose. Her entire life. I wouldn’t have liked to see her lose it.

We talked about the industry over dinner. I heard all about her dreams. She’d made it pretty big already, getting work for the major mags, but she wanted the runway. The House of Chanel. Oscar de la Renta. Giorgio Armani. Calvin Klein. She’d never make the runway; she was too short, but of course I didn’t tell her that. A girl can be a celebrity, a personality, without being a star of the runway. It isn’t likely, but it’s possible. Cheryl Tiegs did it, and Christie Brinkley. Certainly a girl like Kelly, with Audrey in her face, could do it too. I leaned forward and refilled her champagne glass.

"Strawberry?" I held out a crystal bowl full of ripe red berries. Her eyes moved to the silver in my temples, and lit up. They invariably thought of "Pretty Woman" when I offered them strawberries with their champagne. Mental connections with Richard Gere never hurt my prospects. She delicately took one from the dish. I watched her full lips as she brought the fruit to her mouth and began to suck on the tip of it. I sighed. It was time to move things along.

I stood, and walked to my CD player. Henry Mancini. Perfect. My Audrey’s music. I looked up at her. She watched us from her throne above my mantel, as strains of "Moon River" filled my loft. Did she approve? Did she see a sister in lovely Kelly? I couldn’t tell.

"Dance?" I asked Kelly, as I reached down to grasp her arm. She rose, smiling widely, showing me those perfectly imperfect teeth. Full of champagne and hope, I encircled her waist.

We began to slow dance. I leaned my cheek against her perfect one, and lost in the fragrance of her hair, I pulled her close to me. Suddenly, I felt it. Her waist. It was too big. The difference was slight, but it was unmistakable. The taste of the champagne on my tongue went bitter with sorrow.

I had come so close, so close. I had been sure this was the one. And now, this. Audrey’s waist, by all reports, had been twenty-two inches, uncorseted. My expert hands calculated Kelly’s to be twenty-four inches at least. Too big! Too big! My breath grew short. She would need work.

"Are you all right?" she asked, alarmed. "Maybe you’d better sit down, huh?" I looked into her wide brown eyes. Oh, my God, they said. He’s having a heart attack! This is what I get for going out with an old man. "Should we call someone?" she asked me. "Can I get you anything?" I sank heavily to the sofa, and shook my head.

"No, no. I’m all right. Just had a dizzy spell there, for a moment. Too much champagne." I looked up at her and laughed. "I’m okay. Really." She sat down next to me, her expression uncertain. I reached for my napkin and patted perspiration from my upper lip. "Tell you what, Kelly," I said. Why don’t I show you around the rest of the place, and then we’ll make a pot of coffee and talk about your future."

That did it. The watchful look on her face was instantly replaced with one of open happiness. This was, after all, what she had come for. She offered me her hand as we rose from the sofa.

"You mean, there’s more?" she asked in wonder, as she looked around the huge loft.

"Oh, yes. Downstairs," I replied, pulling her along toward the back door. She screwed up her face in puzzlement.

"Uh, but, I thought you left the rest of the building unfinished?" I continued to pull at her hand as I led her through the kitchen area.

"Yes, that’s right, except for my darkroom."

"Your darkroom?" she asked. "Oh, right. I guess all photographers have darkrooms." She giggled. The champagne was affecting her as well. That was good. It would make things easier. She needed a lot of work.

I closed the door and switched on the darkroom lamp. Its light shone on Kelly’s face eerily, making her look red and ghostly. She looked around at all the beautiful faces framed and hung along the walls, and clipped, damp, to the line strung over the developing tubs. She ran a manicured nail lightly over the bottles of chemicals that crowded my work table.

Oh, Audrey!

"How about that coffee now," she said. "I sure could use it. That champagne really packs a punch, you know?" She laughed lightly and turned toward the door. I grasped her elbow.

"No, not yet," I said. "Don’t you want to see the rest of it?"

"The rest of it?" she asked. "This isn’t it?" I shook my head and grinned.

"No, no. You haven’t seen the best part. My collection. You have to see my collection." I steered her to the second door in the darkroom, the one leading to my other workroom. The place where I tried my best for so many girls. Where I did what I could to bring out the star in them. To make them my Audrey. Perhaps this one...

I opened the door, and put my hand on the small of her back, giving her a little push. She stepped in ahead of me. I reached around the doorway to the light switch.

I barely got the door closed before the screaming started. God, she was loud! I never knew who they thought was going to hear them. But I suppose logic escapes a girl who realizes that she isn’t perfect, who sees for the first time that she is going to need work.

She ran around the vat of dark liquid that took up most of the center of the floor, screaming up at my girls, hanging from their hooks along the walls, the myriad of beauties who had come before her. Even in their present state, their exceptional bone structures gleaming bare and white under the strong fluorescent light, they failed to quite meet the standard. Legs too short, foreheads not quite broad enough, jaws too wide. Lovely as they were, they were not my Audrey. None of them. Not a one.

This girl, though, Kelly, with her too-big waist, she might just make it, after I worked on her. Everything else was perfect, especially her teeth. Trim that waist, and, maybe my Audrey. Maybe. We would see.

I walked toward her, my hands reaching out in supplication.

"Kelly, Kelly. Come on, honey. Where’re you running to? There is no place. No place to go. Don’t you want perfection? I think you could do it." I gestured to my grinning girls in a sweeping motion. "None of them made it, Kelly. None of them could be Audrey. But you. You’re so close. So...close. We just need to trim that waistline, just a little bit."

I reached her and pushed hard. She toppled over backward into the vat of fast-acting acid, and I smiled, satisfied, listening to the sound of perfect bone-structure emerging from imperfect flesh. The sound was effervescent and refreshing to hear, like a soft drink spilling out into a glassful of ice.

I slowly walked to the corner of the room and took up the pool hook from its place against the wall. I stood at the edge of the vat and waited, until Kelly finally bobbed to the surface. I reached into the liquid with the steel rod and caught her under her rib cage. That was her problem, of course, that rib cage. A little smaller, and she’d have made it, I think.

I pulled her to the edge of the vat and lifted her high, draping her over the line above to dry, like a freshly developing photograph. I sighed happily, looking at her in her new form. The waistline problem had indeed been solved. From head to toe, now she was ideal, better than all the others. They all watched her, dripping over the vat, their big eyes wide with envy. For unlike any of them, she had achieved perfection. Perfect beauty.

Perfect, like my Audrey.


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