Drawing Toes, Insatiable Desire


“I only want to be who I am”

{Vérsion originale. Pour la version française déjà publiée, passez svp à Dessiner orteils ; désir insatiable.}


To tell the truth, young lady, I have so enjoyed embroidering this medieval ensemble, I ask nothing in exchange.

— Adapted from “L’Horloge,” prose poem by Charles Baudelaire


Jamie, looking regal, pen drawing, June 2017, William EatonDear William,

Carolyn here. Six days ago I had the most intense—erotic!—experience of my young drawing “career.” Drawing—for an hour and a half—the naked toes of a young woman—that a young woman seemed to be offering, free of charge, to my hungry gaze and pen. A stranger—this other, and me too. Separate and together in silence, doing some unnamable task. Only at the very end of our session—our obsession, or mine at least—did I say a few words to her, and she a few fewer to me.

I recently read of a fad in Japan, many decades ago—restaurants where the waitresses wore miniskirts and no panties. I suppose from time to time one of the hungry male patrons glimpsed a bit of buttock or a black velvet tuft, but—to me, at least—the idea was more that these men knew—or imagined—that these young women were naked under their skirts, and yet—delicious agony!—the men couldn’t quite see clearly; they couldn’t quite be sure that the essential was there, accessible. My first thought, then—and heterosexual woman that I may well be!—was that the young woman whose naked toes I was drawing and redrawing might have also been naked under her loose-fitting, black-pinstriped white dress. (“Work-to-weekend fit & flare dress”—that’s what Macy’s website was calling it when my daughter ordered something similar for her college visits.)

But this isn’t it at all. What was it? “It is erotic when parts exceed their scale,” a poet has proposed, but I don’t know if that’s true (or if the poet even meant it to be true). But certainly there was an illicitness in my drawing over and over another person’s naked body part, without permission, and yet also this possibility—the strong possibility?—that the other person was as engaged—and as silently, secretly—as I was. There was, if you will, a part of her that understood, deeply, why a big brother—or, in this case, a very much older sister, complete with drying eggplant chest—was slipping into her room and lifting the sheet to look at her, her nightgown having ridden up over her hips.

Please excuse my imaginings. I’m trying to get at why I kept drawing and drawing that young woman’s toes, and until—afraid I was going to explode—explode with desire? Something like that. In any case, it got to such a point that I had to run away.

Weird, you may be thinking. Weird, I am thinking too! And may I also say that I appreciate you and your readers being here for me. There are things a body needs to say out loud. Can I, and without being a Protestant, call this “testifying,” bearing witness, if not to The Light, then to a darkness knit between my legs, in my mind? My daughter excepted—and she deserves a break now and again—I have no one to say some of these things to except you and your readers, none of whom I have even met (and perhaps none of whom actually read my letters?).


Rebooting. Six days ago I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts with my daughter, visiting colleges. This particular afternoon I left Alexandra back at the hotel, happily texting or working out at the health club, and I went—I didn’t know where. Out in the sun, in and out of Harvard courtyards. I ended up in a coffee-and-sweets place, apparently popular with students (and very good latte). All around me were students—mostly women, but a few men, too—who were working at their Macs. On a brochure we’d gotten from Tufts, I started trying to sketch a few of the noses and lips. Noses are penises—I’m hardly the first person to have realized this. Lips have become an obsession for me. I can’t get them right. I try to get the curves just right and end up making too many lines, so that (Alexandra says) my women all look like they have mustaches. Frustrating.

Is my inner lesbian finally coming out after 54 years? Or my inner foot-fetishist? Yesterday in my Pilates class I found myself looking at the bare feet and toes of the two young women, and they looked beautiful. The graceful high arch of the second woman’s foot—I remember that. I can almost wrap my hands around it.

And meanwhile—back in Harvard Square—I noticed that the young woman sitting just to my left on the banquette had very nice toes. Each one an individual. None yet scrunched together like we older women’s toes, though they were already beginning to be bent in unnatural—but expressive!—directions. (I’m thinking of a jade plant I have in my kitchen window. The window frame keeps it from growing as it would like, but still it keeps growing, twisting this way and that.)

I couldn’t see much else of this woman besides her feet because a sun-swept curtain of hair blocked my view of her face, and I didn’t want to turn and give her the once over. There was a pair of lime-green flip flops on the floor beneath her. Her left leg was crossed under her right, so it was that bare foot and toes that were closest to me and my eyes. Her other leg hung down, the toes just touching the ornate-ish metal base of her table, not too far from the flips.

I started sketching—on a photo of female tufts playing soccer—blue pen on green grass. Quick glance to my left at toes, a few lines on the brochure, another quick glance. Glancing, too, to see if this woman noticed I was drawing her or looked at my lines, her toes.

I suppose I could have just asked her, “Do you mind if I draw your toes?” But somehow this didn’t sound right. And she was working hard on what appeared to be a term paper. I didn’t want to disturb her. If she had objected, I would have told her that she had very nice toes, I was envious. (I think it would be good if my envy showed in my lines, but . . . My art has yet to catch up with my psyche.)

After the first drawing I went to the bathroom and then did some more noses and lips work, drawing people who were farther away from me. But I was drawn to those toes. Trying to get their curves and straight lines exactly right? Yes, that was part of it. But I found myself thinking, too, of “the little priest,” as my mother used to call him—a distant cousin of her older sister’s husband. After I began to “bud,” in my gawky way, my patellae at first more protrudent than my breasts—he used to give me these looks. As if I were a grapefruit and his eyes one of those little, serrated spoons that are specially made for eating grapefruits.

So, you might say that this Harvard student, in her polyester/viscose/elastane dress, was my pink grapefruit. And rather than protesting—or crying out, outraged—she was accepting my spooning.

In all I made six drawings. Each one as stubbornly not right—not what I was seeing? not what I really wanted to say?—as the previous one. And, again, not until the very end did the woman say a word to me, nor did I ever catch her glancing in my direction, at the Tufts pictures—like the ads in a suburban train station—getting graffitied with cocks and cunts, or, in this case, toes. At one point she changed her position, wedging her legs under her dress. Ah well, I thought, and went to get another latte. By the time I returned, however, she had re-readjusted, returning her feet to their former position. I wondered if she had done this for me—out of pity?—or was there a moment when she realized, or her unconscious did, that she or it was not disinterested? Did there come to be nights when she—in my little fantasy—nights when she herself pulled her nightgown up before her brother (or big sister) came in, or afterwards, after she lifted the sheet and was looking, so expectant and so hungry? (Molding sentences—this is what my sensual life has come to?)


Brown pen outline figure over charcoal, drawing by William Eaton, 2017One Sunday afternoon when I was 14 I had pity on John (the priest). There was a big family picnic in a park beside a river. I agreed to explore the bushes with him. At some point we decided to cross the river and go up a hill that seemed to offer a nice view of a little valley below. On the bank we “stripped”—him out of his black priest shoes and socks, me out of my no-longer-pure-white Keds. Otherwise, I had on a long “peasant” dress, which, as we were crossing, I dutifully lifted over my hips, giving the church a good view of my backside (in celestial blue underpants). When we came back the other way, John motioned politely for me to go first, and again, dress up. At the end, when we got back to the picnicking group, he said, “Thank you,” and I have always remembered how softly he said it. Like, in a furniture store, running your fingers over a brand-new velvet sofa.

And meanwhile at Harvard I kept drawing or scratching with my pen at the velvet student toes, until, you might say, my panties finally came off. Until I began to feel, under my blue-jean shirt-dress, how naked I might be.

There’s an English expression I quite like: to get one’s “knickers in a twist,” to get worked up, a bit excessively or unnecessarily. You might say that with my eyes and pen and memories and that girl—I want to call her a girl—her toes exposed below the rumpled white sheet of her dress—I got my knickers in a twist. And such a twist that I had to go hurrying out of there before they ripped! (Is all this some kind of shaggy dog story or was I getting to some bottom of myself, which had long wanted to get out of its hole?)

Weird, you’re saying. Weird, I’m saying. But I’m not ashamed. I only want to be who I am. I want to say to the little priest (now deceased) that I knew he was going to be watching; and that—of course—this, and not a fear of getting wet, was why I lifted my dress so high. I can’t imagine him and I trying to actually have sex, and yet I did, 13, in the dark, in my room, try to imagine, or think through, how we might have “done it.”

In the coffee-and-sweets shop what I found most surprising was—beyond how transfixed I was; unable to stop looking and drawing—this fear that came over me. Was I afraid I might reach out and wrap my fingers around the girl’s big toe? I think actually—though I can’t say that I’m sure—that my fear was of something inside of me. DESIRE. Insatiable desire.


The hotel left The Times in front of Alexandra and my room door. The next morning, front page, there was a story about problems at a fancy boarding school, teachers having affairs with students, kissing them against their will, taking them on panty-less motorcycle rides, etc. I had the thought that if you put kids together with adults who are drawn to spending a lot of time with kids, you’re going to end up with sexual abuse. And if you have men and women working together in offices, you’re going to have affairs.

What makes me part of quite another cohort is that if I were to discover that I had a thing about young students or a married colleague, or, say, about the sockless toes of a Harvard “co-ed”—and this even if I had convinced myself that she was deliberately exposing her toes to me—and this either to have some fun at my expense, or to feel the power of turning an older woman on, of having her fixated on your young body. And there is always the modern pleasure of exposing oneself and having the exposition recorded (if not on a brochure than by a phone). But if I were to discover or feel some corner of any of this, . . . Count on me to go running away, my knickers in a twist.

I don’t hang around for the orgasm, you might say. I did not stay until things with that Harvard girl started heading toward terribly or wonderfully out of hand.

This feels a bit sad and regrettable, but of course it’s also a sign that I’m mature, sensible, trustworthy. To say nothing of my exalted status—senior manager, salary and comportment sufficient to keep her, in the year 2017, on the right side of the bars.


DESIRE. Desire for another person? for “the other,” whatever that means? Desire for someone to expose herself to me? (And not the way my dear departed husband had—old socks and long periods on toilet seats and griping about the people at headquarters and lawn-care products. But I loved him! I don’t want you to think I didn’t love him!)

Would I have also liked this girl, this neighbor, to have looked at me, at my drawings, at my toes or my tuft? In retrospect—six days later—my sense is yes, this is something that I wanted so much. So much that I became afraid of words, of the truth slipping out? In a private place, to have spread my legs and exposed my lips and clitoris and openings. I would like, too, for it to be possible to look without either drawing or thinking. (And without having to be reminded, yet again, of the isolation of the “elderly.” How after about 50 a woman could sit buck naked in a coffee-and-sweets shop without anyone—and certainly not any young woman—taking the least notice.)

I stuffed the Tufts brochure and my pen in my handbag and took a last moment to bus my dishes and glance at the girl. Now “full frontal,” her little sun-pink nose in its vestibule of hair. She glanced up from her laptop screen toward me. “Good luck with your paper,” I said. And she responded, in a soft voice, “Thank you.”

Thanks again, Carolyn


Notes from William Eaton on the Images and Desire

Female student foot, Tatte Bakery and Café, Harvard Square, 10 April 2017, China marker and wax crayon, by William EatonWith her letter Carolyn did not include any drawings, and she vigorously demurred when I requested them. So I have done my best to fill the gap with drawings of my own. And must leave to readers’ imaginations the toes and general appearance of both Carolyn and the young woman.

While translating Carolyn’s letter into French, I was reminded not only of the line from Baudelaire, but also that the British child psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips had made a number of penetrating observations about desire. After copying out old notes, I was further reminded that Phillips’s ideas were an extension of Freud’s. Herewith four examples:

  • “Our desire,” Freud wrote, “is always in excess of the object’s capacity to satisfy it.” (From Phillips’s “Five Short Talks on Excess”)
  • Because what we desire is forbidden to us, in Freud’s view, we have to work hard not to know what it is; if we are asked what we are working on, we can say that we are working on our ignorance. (From “Children Behaving Badly.” And may I add that it’s hard to get more penetrating than this! A large ocean of academic and artistic endeavor is submerged here.)
  • . . . the people we desire, the people we are drawn to, are secondary, an afterthought; . . . we are simply the bearers of free-floating desire that is always seeking its targets; . . . if we are having a primary relationship with anything, it may not be with other people but with our own desire. Other people are what we attach our wanting to. (Houdini’s Box: The Art of Escape)
  • Through desire the child discovers his solitude, and through solitude his desire. He depends upon a reliable but ultimately elusive object that can appease but never finally satisfy him. (“On Risk and Solitude.” These last two citations suggest that Carolyn’s—and our own!—solitude may be rooted in phenomena yet larger than social media or the certainly very sad fact that most Americans, women and men, after they pass a certain age, become isolated and invisible.)

It is erotic when parts / exceed their scale — from Lyn Hejinian, “The Cell.”


Since November 2012, Montaigbakhtinian has been receiving letters from this Carolyn (assuming, that is, that this is the same person who first wrote using the pseudonym “Whyde Eide.” Several of her letters involve both drawing and erotics of one kind or another—e.g. My Best Friend (June 2013) and Down Time (December 2016). Readers interested in other William Eaton pieces touching on similar subjects might see Morandi, Bonnard, and Silences Within or Drawing, Conversation, Life.


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Drawing Toes; Insatiable Desire

Categories: Listening for the Unconscious, sex (more or less), Zed

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