Contest #225 shortlist ⭐️

6 comments

Fiction

In another life, I was a whip-smart, no-nonsense corporate lawyer who worked 70 hour weeks without flinching. In this one, I was struggling to complete the simplest of tasks. “Give it a shot. No judgment, no overthinking, just a simple drawing or painting or representation of yourself”, Ranjana, my therapist, had said not-so-convincingly. Her lilting, soft voice, typically a comfort to me, had irked me that day. I thought the assignment was a waste of time, and I was artistically challenged. That didn’t seem to matter to her though.

On day one, I looked at myself in the mirror and was immediately irritated by my own face. It had been a few days since I last washed my hair, so my thick mane was unkempt and frizzy. One of my eyes looked a little bigger than the other. Were they even pointing in the same direction? Pockmarked remnants of teenage acne dotted my cheeks. My nose was a little too big, and I had my grandmother’s decidedly unfeminine square chin. My lips were okay though. I was no Angelina Jolie, but they were full and plump and pink, and I liked how they looked when I smiled. I sighed and began to brush my teeth. That was enough self-reflection for the day.

On day three, I took a selfie to serve as a reference photo. More accurately, I took seven and then picked the one I liked best. A few of my grey hairs (which had come too early) were showing, and the bags under my eyes were particularly big, but I was having a good hair day, so this would have to do.

On day five, it was time to draw. The previous day, I had gone out and bought a set of HB pencils and a Leuchtturm1917 sketchbook. Sadly, while I had the right tools, I didn’t have the requisite talent. A few hours later, all I had produced was an oval face, a nose not quite in the right place, a smile too wide, and lines (intended to be hair) that stuck out diagonally from my head. My drawing looked like a five-year-old Picasso’s reinterpretation of Quentin Blake’s illustration of Matilda. Maybe my true talent lies in abstract art, I chucked to myself. I tried a few more iterations but didn’t get anywhere. It was like my brain was full of great ideas, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to properly express them. Screw this. I needed a smoke.

I stepped out onto the fire escape and the wave of sweltering June heat punched me in the face. The metal rungs were too hot to sit on, but I leaned over the railing and took a deep breath, flicking my cigarette distractedly. I was prone to giving up on things when I wasn’t automatically good at them. It was a cowardly way to live, but it was hard to shake the habit. That wasn’t the point, I had to remind myself for the third time that day. The bigger question, and one I couldn’t readily answer, was what I was trying to depict. It was hard to put it on paper when I didn’t really recognize myself. 

A few months prior, I had been on the partner track at my elite New York law firm. I was definitely overworked, but I had close friendships, and I felt intellectually challenged by my work. That was the mantra I had been repeating for the past three years, to remind myself it was all worth it and I was a strong career woman who was achieving work-life balance effortlessly. Things started to shift six months ago, when I was staffed on a huge acquisition - a billion-dollar, career-making deal. Most of all, I had been thrilled to work with a senior female partner, the head of our mergers and acquisitions group, for the first time. But inspiration soon turned to trepidation. In the months that followed, she systematically destroyed every shred of self-confidence I had spent years developing. She was effusive and saccharine in our team meetings, and vicious and scathing in one-on-ones. She would call or email at all hours of the night, and my failure to respond within 30 minutes, even at 1 AM, would be considered a weakness of personality. I slept with one eye open for months, operating on minimal sleep, maximal caffeine, and all the willpower I had left. It was a badly kept secret in the industry that this happened to everyone. I always thought I would handle it differently when it happened to me, but as it turned out, there was nothing that special about me after all.

I wish I could say I had stood up for myself, but I knew doing so would be akin to throwing my career into the Hudson. There was no climax and no catharsis. There was just me, coming home to Neil in tears every night, and him, gently suggesting that it may be time to leave Big Law behind. I resisted and rationalized and reconsidered, until I finally quit. And now here I was, waking up every day without any routine or any clue what I was going to do with myself; trying to unlearn bad habits by going to therapy; floundering in my personal relationships, my sweet fiancé excluded; and most devastatingly of all, grappling with the reality that I had dedicated my life so wholly to my job that I had no other interests, no personality to speak of. My eyes welled up, a routine occurrence these days. I tried to take another deep breath, but this one got caught in my closed-up throat. 

In a moment of divine intervention, Neil called at that exact moment. My iPhone screen lit up bright cobalt blue as his contact picture popped up, a photo of us in front of Casa Azul, the home and studio of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. On our trip to Mexico City a couple of years prior, I had walked up and down and through each of the rooms at Casa Azul, mesmerized by Frida’s self-portraits. Her life had been rife with torment, stemming from a bus accident in her youth that left her with a broken spine, broken limbs, and chronic pain. She had given voice to that pain through her autoportraits, each of which depicted her with a stoic expression, against different backgrounds and with varying accoutrements. In each one, her eyes pierced straight through to my soul with a palpable intensity. She had told the story of her life by putting everything that was important to her into these portraits, keeping herself at the center. I hurriedly sent Neil’s call to voicemail as the sparks of an idea began to form.

On day eight, I returned to Ranjana’s office, my completed assignment in hand. After the usual pleasantries, we got down to business. “Did you bring a self-portrait with you today?”, she queried. I nodded. “It took me some time to get into the spirit of it, to be honest. It’s not a painting, or a drawing, but the idea was to rediscover who I am, to bring the things that make up my personality to the forefront, to remind myself that I contain multitudes”, I explained. Ranjana’s pursed lips relaxed into a smile as I unfurled the A3-sized sheet under my arm. I had printed out various photographs of myself from formative stages of my life: my first day of kindergarten, my roller skating championship award ceremony, my sixteenth birthday, college orientation week, my call to the bar, and the day Neil and I got engaged, among others. I cut them up and glued them over each other, so that my adult photos contained the hopeful eyes of my childhood, and my adult face held up a children’s participation trophy with pride. Around the edges were cutout photos of my most prized possessions, like a family photo from our vacation to Turkey or the cover page of my dissertation. At the bottom, I had transcribed my favourite Frida quote - I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.

November 24, 2023 11:30

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6 comments

Philip Ebuluofor
17:22 Dec 03, 2023

Fine work. Congrats.

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Marty B
08:14 Dec 03, 2023

Congrats! Great detail in your writing.

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Mary Bendickson
19:33 Dec 01, 2023

Well, welcome to Reedsy and take your prize! Congrats on the shortlist!🥳 Inventive portrait. Nicely woven together.

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Chrissy Cook
08:03 Nov 29, 2023

This was a really lovely read. It makes sense to me that a corporate lawyer would immediately go to buy the best materials possible - I don't even know why that works in my head, but it does. :)

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Joe Sweeney
17:25 Nov 28, 2023

This is an excellent story! It flows very well, and we really get inside the mind and heart of the main character.

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Sheena Singh
07:32 Nov 29, 2023

Thank you Joe, appreciate you reading!

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