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.

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Writer’s Retreat

I don’t know what I should be writing about. I don’t even know why I’m still pretending to be a writer. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea? Sarah cursed herself for ever letting her mother persuade her into applying for this writer’s retreat.

26, single, and unemployed, she felt that she was failing not only herself but also everybody around her. She used to waltz through life with confidence but now seemed at a total loss for it. When she was 18, she wrote a letter to her 25-year-old self, promising to become a successful, and happy adult. She found the letter in her bedroom closet when she moved back in with her parents three months ago.

 

Five years ago, she quit college, despite all the efforts her parents had put into persuading her of doing otherwise. “I can’t live my authentic life if I’m being inhibited by social constructs!” she had shouted then, sweeping her purple hair back with a dramatic gesture. She vaguely remembered that during that same monolog, she swore that she would become a bestselling writer that same year, and prove them all wrong. There was only one problem. To become a writer, she had to write a book.

That’s why her mother thought it would be good for her to ‘immerse herself’ in the writing atmosphere. To ‘get inspired’. She brought it up when Sarah was inspecting the pimple above her upper lip in the reflection of her smartphone. Distracted, Sarah agreed. For a month, her mom looked through leaflets and magazines and even tried looking on the internet – although that plan quickly fell through – to find a writer’s retreat ‘suitable for her daughter’s needs’. What exactly her mother had meant by that, Sarah didn’t know.

Her father was less enthusiastic about the idea. “Janie, she hadn’t written anything for the past four years. She just isn’t going to be a writer.”

“All she needs is some encouragement,” she overheard her parents say during pillow talk in the adjacent bedroom.

Her father was right, of course. But it’s not that she hadn’t tried.

Eventually, they settled on the Walden Woods retreat, which had nothing to do with neither woods nor Thoreau. However, it was the cheapest option, and pretty much the only one her parents could afford since Sarah got fired from her checkout job for always coming in late.

Her mother insisted on driving her, and Sarah didn’t have the guts to tell her no. It made her feel like she was 15 again, on her way to school. But her mother was the one who had arranged it, after all.

 

That’s how she found herself in a room full of strangers, every one of them probably hoping to turn out an undiscovered writing prodigy. It was the first workshop and Sarah was twenty minutes late because she couldn’t find the right room. The retreat took place in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, together with an AA convention and a gathering of Jehova’s witnesses. By accident, she had first followed the sign to the meeting titled ‘Letting go of disappointment and anger’, which she thought meant something. She only realized that she was at the wrong place when the man sitting next to her asked her how long she had been sober for.

When she came into her writing class, all eyes turned on her. A woman with silver-gray hair handed her a pillow to sit on, and made room for her in the ‘circle of creativity’. “Let all your creative energy pass through you and into this circle,” the woman said. “This circle is where we will share our ideas and initiate a fearless flow of stories. All of you have the magic of storytelling. Now is the time for it to get out.” After the speech, some people clapped, but the applause quickly died out. Most of the people stayed silent and just watched the woman skeptically.

“Let’s dive in!” she cried cheerfully, not paying attention to the doubtful looks. She pointed to the man in front of her, and the gesture was accompanied by the clanking sound of the metal bracelets on her arm. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“I’m Jonah.” Jonah was a white male in his early forties and had ginger hair that was covered up by his baseball cap.

“Well, Jonah, tell me, what do you want to write about?”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, and Sarah smirked.

“I sense some negativity here. Don’t you believe in your writing talent? The only thing you have to do is believe.”

“Then I wish they would have told me before I had paid a thousand bucks to be here.”

“Now, now. Let’s start again. Everybody has their own writing method. Maybe yours is more structured than mine. To me, writing comes like a wave, just as sudden, just as uncontrollable. But you, I see, are different. Try to let go. You’re blocking yourself. What about you?” she asked the woman sitting next to Jonah.

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