Portraits

“As your best friend, I’m obliged to tell you that this is fucking crazy,” Hannah said. She was sitting on a chair in front of the canvas, studying her friend’s work.

It was that same man again. Short black hair, brown eyes, dark skin. This time, Jane had only painted his upper body – his broad shoulders and his eyes looking right at you, through you. The man was not at all remarkable – only the mole above his upper lip distinguished him from an ordinary passerby. “It’s been three months and you’re still painting him. You had only talked to him for like five seconds,” Hannah continued.

“I know, but… Maybe it was his energy, his aura or something,” Jane tried to explain, fumbling with her brushes.

“I thought you didn’t believe in that kind of stuff.” Jane took off her apron, her painting now finished. She examined it once again – she always used sober coloring when drawing him. She didn’t want anything to take away the focus from his face, not even occasional splashes of color.

“I didn’t. But experiencing something like this makes you wonder.” Hannah sighed in response.

“Experiencing what exactly? He held the door open for you at the metro. That was it.”

“You don’t understand,” Jane said. Hannah stood up from her chair, making for the door. She had better things to do than listening to her friend obsess over a stranger. But then Jane said: “I decided to exhibit all my paintings of him.”

“What? Why?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Jane asked innocently. “They’re good, aren’t they?”

They were, Hannah admitted. Entrenched with melancholy, ambivalence, and intensity.  “But that’s not the reason you want to display them. I know you better than that.”

“He’ll see them. My paintings. An exhibit about only one man, that will be publicized. He’ll hear of me. Of us,” Jane said.

“God help me. You’re mental.”

After Hannah left, Jane took her place in the chair, inspecting the white gaps, planted like snowflakes in her painting. Maybe her friend was right and this obsession was getting out of hand. But she couldn’t help herself. Every action, every thought was infused with his memory. Since the moment he held the door for her and told her to have a nice day.

Jane never called herself an artist but an observer. Walking on the streets, she scouted her surroundings for interesting faces, radiating personalities, and entrancing color pallets. She remembered all the faces, all the people she met. She never used models. Only her mind’s eye. She was never fully present because to see, she had to remain unseen herself. Maybe that was why she hadn’t replied the man. And now, she was in love with that stranger, without even having had a conversation with him.

 

“You want to exhibit what?” the gallery owner asked. Madeleine Richmond owned one of the most highbrow galleries in Newport, one where Jane had exhibited her work several times before.

“Portraits of a man,” she replied. The hand in which she held the cell phone was clammy from sweat.

“Just one man?”

“Yes.”

“That’s weird.” Madeleine never shied away from honesty, a trait Jane both admired and loathed. Jane was one of those people who rather sugarcoated the truth, afraid to hurt others’ feelings.

“Maybe a little bit. But the drawings are good. You’ll like them.” When talking to galleries, she always tried to come across as more confident than she was. Although she knew that Madeleine liked her style and approved of most of her work, she still had her doubts about whether Madeleine would enjoy these paintings.

“You have to come up with a concept, though. There has to be some theme.”

“There is one.” Her story.

“I want to see the paintings before I make any promises. I’ll come over tomorrow,” she promised and hung up.

“It could work,” Madeleine said, standing in Jane’s studio. Her hair was twisted into a tight knot, and her eyes were heavily made up with black eyeshadow. She didn’t look like a woman who used makeup to look prettier. She looked like a woman who used makeup as war paint. That’s why Jane was nervously watching her from a distance. Even after all those years of working together, Madeleine slightly frightened her. “But you will have to spin some interesting story around it.”

“Is the truth not enough?”

“What? How a man held a door open for you and you made seventeen portraits of him?”

“There are more, actually. These are just my best ones.”

“You’re not twenty-three anymore, Jane. Romantic stories lose their appeal after you pass your thirties,” Madeleine countered. She could be cruel but often, she was right.

“I’m only thirty-one. You can hardly call that old. And what story should I make up then, if it can’t be romantic? People do everything for love. This will only make sense if I tell it like it is.”

“I’ve been running my gallery for fifteen years and I know how art works. Your brushstrokes won’t make people go to your exhibition. You’re a good artist but painting is not your strength. The people you paint are. And if you’re only painting one man, he has got to be damn interesting. Tell me why.”

“I can’t.”

“What had drawn you to him?” Madeleine persisted.

“It’s hard to explain. I can’t really put it into words.”

“If you can’t, then I don’t know why you decided to make this ode to him. He looks pretty ordinary to me. And I’m sure my visitors would agree.”

“I can’t get him out of my mind,” the painter said defeated.

“That’s not good enough, Jane. Unless you find a better explanation, you’ll have to find another gallery,” Madeleine said and turned around. She left without even saying goodbye.

That night, Jane sat down on the floor of her studio, facing the last portrait she had drawn. It looked perfect, more accurate than the others – after twenty-six portraits, she had finally found just the right shade of brown. The brown of old leather-bound books. For hours on end, she sat there staring. And when the sun started coming up, she fell asleep on the floor.

 

For weeks, she called, wrote emails, and negotiated. But the magic she felt her portraits radiated, passed by unnoticed. “They’re raw, they’re beautiful but they’re not enough,” gallery owners would say. She almost wished she would have gotten herself a manager. The days when she wanted to be a self-sufficient artist seemed long gone, and she only grew more tired of everything.

“You should get out more,” Hannah said after Jane hadn’t left her studio for more than a week.

“I don’t have the time. I have to prove to people that my art is worth seeing,” she answered frantically, violently splashing the canvas with more tinges of gray, brown, and black. Jane was completely covered in paint – even her brown curls, dangling in front of her eyes, were stained red and blue.

“Nobody says it isn’t.”

“Nobody wants to exhibit it either.”

“That has nothing to do with your talent. I don’t know what’s happening to you, Jane.”

“I’m fine. Just let me be.”

Hannah sighed. “I should go. Call me if you need me.”

Jane kept painting, never leaving the building. Friends came over, worried, bringing cake, soup, and making her mac and cheese. She didn’t notice that something was off. That her studio had become too small for her paintings. She kept calling galleries but the only response she ever got was ‘no’. All the gallery owners ever heard was a crazy woman at the end of the line.

But Jane was not crazy. Jane was in love.

 

The first time she fell in love, she was fourteen. It happened on her way to school, on the bus they took together every morning. She had never experienced anything quite like it before – the sudden, overwhelming despair and hunger. Not for sex, or any physical kind of affection. She wanted to hear him talk. But Dylan always sat on the other end of the bus, chatting up the cool kids she would never belong to. As a teenager, she was even more of an outsider than she was now. Her being an artist made her quirks look deliberate. But when she was fourteen, washing her hair once a month and compulsively stealing ballpoint pens did not make her very popular.

That first love, however, was what started her painting. She couldn’t hear Dylan talk but she would find a way to talk to him. She started drawing portraits of him – bad ones at first, not even slightly resembling him. But in a while, they got better, until you couldn’t tell the difference between a painting and a photograph. Then she would spend night after night talking to his portraits, telling the many Dylans about her day. When her friends visited, she hid them away, knowing that there were boundaries that could not be crossed and that even art had its unspoken rules.

 

“Jane, I hear you’re still making those portraits,” Madeleine said on the phone. She called a month later, out of the blue. “Some gallery owners were talking about you the other day.”

“Yes? Do they want to exhibit my work?” she asked hopefully.

“Not at all. They called you a ‘crazy woman’. Just as I said, your obsession doesn’t really strike other people as romantic.”

“Oh.”

“Look, I know I rejected your work earlier but what they said intrigues me. The public doesn’t enjoy thirty-year-olds in love, but it loves crazy.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that I want the portraits. On the condition that I introduce you to the public as a tinge insane and obsessed by a stranger. A crazy woman.” Madeleine sounded eager, not at all apologetic or distressed by her choice of words.

“Do whatever you want. As long as I get publicity,” Jane answered.

 

For the opening night, Hannah had lent her a blue silk dress and braided her hair atop her head. Jane was so nervous she thought she’d throw up. But each time she went to the bathroom, she found herself dry heaving. “Do you think he’ll come?” she kept asking Hannah who kept shrugging her shoulders. Posters of Jane’s exhibition had been hanging all around Newport for weeks, featuring her best portrait, the one with the leathery brown. If he had seen it, he had surely recognized himself.

When they arrived, the gallery was packed. It was Jane’s most popular exhibit so far. She saw Madeleine watching the visitors from a corner, still like a sphinx.

“Jane, look at all these people!” Hannah exclaimed. “This is amazing!”

“Do you see him?” Jane asked nervously. She was already searching the crowd for the familiar face.

“Can’t you let go for a second? All these people here came to see you!”

“I don’t care. I didn’t paint them for the people. I painted them for him.” Hannah didn’t answer, only sighed in response, while Jane positioned herself in the corner across from Madeleine. She stood there for three hours, until all faith and hope that she had placed on this evening had abandoned her. “I’m going home,” she told Hannah.

On her way out, however, she stopped dead. He was standing there, in front of the entrance, with hesitation clouding his eyes. Now, she was standing right in front of him. She met his blank stare and realized that he didn’t remember her. She looked right at him and tried to smile but the joy she had expected to feel at the sight of him held off. She felt empty, drained of all emotion.

“Excuse me, do you know who the painter is?” the man asked. “This exhibition is all about me but I don’t recall meeting her at all. Her name sounded completely foreign to me.”

“It’s me, I painted you. You held the door open for me at the metro,” she replied. She had imagined this encounter over and over again but now that the time had come, she felt surprisingly underwhelmed. The man didn’t even recognize her, let alone magically fall in love with her.

“Oh. Why did you paint me?” he asked. She had been wrong about his eye color – there was a hint of green in his eyes too.

“I felt a connection. I thought you felt it too but maybe I was wrong,” she whispered nervously. Her throat was closing up and shivers were running down her spine.

“But I don’t know you,” he said. His eyes were running up and down, assessing her, and she felt fourteen again. Not cool enough.

“I know you,” she tried, her voice now barely audible.

“That’s not how it works,” the man shook his head.

“But…”

“You seem nice. But, to be honest, what you did freaked me out. I thought I was being stalked.”

“I’m just good at remembering faces.”

“Jane, – that’s your name, right? – I hope you’ll find something better to do with your life. Because this is pathetic,” he said. He didn’t sound mad at all – his voice caressing her ears like silk. But the words escaping his mouth slammed into her like bullets.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think you wouldn’t like it,” was all that she could say. She felt tears welling up and wished for this conversation to be over.

“Well, I don’t. Be happy I’m not pressing any legal charges. I just feel sorry for you, that’s why,” he said and turned around, ready to go. Jane thought of saying something, asking him to stay and give her another chance. But then she wondered whether she was better off not talking to him. Maybe love was easier when he didn’t reply, when she was just talking to her paintings. And she could paint him again, better now. With the green in his eyes.

She stood there for another twenty minutes, clutching on to her dress, until Hannah came out and took her home.

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