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Romance Fiction Inspirational


“It looks just like a picture I saw once. Did you do it?” said Debra, my sister-in-law. Debra was admiring the “Lady with an Ermine," a painting hanging above our piano on our living room wall.

“Oh, no!” Ionica exclaimed. “That painting is famous. It was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.” Ionica, my wife, a Romanian portrait artist, was a little flustered at the suggestion that she could do such a painting.

“Then what is it?” quizzed Debra, somewhat rudely. “It’s not a photograph…”

“It’s master copy,” Ionica interrupted. She put her wine glass down on the piano and started motioning about the painting with her hands. “Look, no signature. I painted arm patch green instead of blue…” She paused, searching for the right words to say. “…so…no…confusion.”

“Uh-huh,” said Debra, mouthing her wineglass. She turned and winked at me. “I’m such a dope about art! You know the other day…”

My wife wasn’t finished. “Debra, this could be… giclée printing. Old masters nice…if you want nice and you don’t want to pay a lot of money.”

“Uh-huh.” Bored, Debra’s hummingbird attention span got the better of her. “Chet, you coming or not!” she yelled through the doorway into our kitchen. “Chet!”

Chet came pounding up the stairs from the basement, clearly annoyed. “We’re going already?” He draped himself over a kitchen chair like a teenager. “We’re all watching a pretty funny show…”

“Never mind that!” barked Debra. “Unlike you, I have work tomorrow. Say goodbye now.”

***

Ionica had prepared a fabulous meal for my extended family composed of spaghetti and meatballs, with lean hamburger, tomato sauce, garlic bread, a salad on the side, and a fine Chianti to top it all off. Then to balance everything out a bit and add a little sparkle, there was a Romanian dessert, Papanasi, sweet cheese, and fried dough, flattened to make a disc shape, then fried until crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. It was served in a traditional style with a topping of sour cream and fruit preserves.

All things considered, I thought the evening had gone well. After Ionica's meal there was an interesting conversation followed by a little TV. Relaxing, and informal, just the way I like it. But later, once all our guests were gone, and we were getting ready for bed, what I thought about the evening proved not to be true. Ionica was upset.

She was banging something on the sink in our ensuite bathroom. "Periuța de dinți electrică proastă!" she yelled.

I was just a little taken aback. But controlled it well, I thought. “Honey, what is wrong?” I said in my best, most interested voice, calling her from our bed. Ionica had a firm grip on the toothbrush, but it was my brush head that had taken the beating.

I went into the bathroom, folding my arms around hers. “Here, allow me. It’s a special one, you know you push this little button, then it comes off?” I took it from her gently. My broken brush head. I would have to get a replacement, tomorrow maybe.

She was in tears. “Too complicated toozbrush!”

I smiled. There is no “th” sound in the Romanian language, the “z” or “s” sound often being the replacement. I found it so charming when she let her guard down around me, not choosing all her words as carefully as she did with people she did not know well. But she was really upset.

“What’s wrong,” I asked.

“Stupid Debra!” She likes you! Too much!”

“No, she doesn’t."

She stormed out of the bathroom and sat on our bed, her back turned to me."Bărbații sunt atât de proști!" Ionica yelled again, maybe this time not quite so loud.

I had heard that bit of Romanian before, more than a few times. “Look, you might think I'm stupid, but I'm not. Do you think I like Debra? She married my brother! She is not the kind of woman I would be attracted to in the first place. Too down home, uneducated.”

She turned a little to face me. “So, say you! I make special meal for your family to please you! Then stupid Debra says she always has chocolate cake with spaghetti. Does she? No!”

***

Ionica wanted to establish herself as a portrait artist, but this was proving to be difficult. Her English was improving but she didn’t know anyone and portrait art was not everyone’s cup of tea. Dentists decorated their offices with whimsical cats and bunny rabbits. Corporate offices had Group of Seven-like strong nature scenes with bent pines and hardscrabble earth dominating blue frothy waves and blue skies. Not knowing people meant that no one commissioned her to do portraits. It was lonely in her basement studio with me working upwards of sixty-hour weeks.

Her work was amazing though. She had many paintings too, carefully wrapped up, shipped special from Romania, some she hadn’t even shown me. Lucky for Ionica, my job kept us in the green all year round. There was no need for her to work. The only problem was the kids. She didn’t have any, being quite a lot younger than me. But my kids from my previous marriage had taken off, one daughter and my older son. They lived not terribly far away, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with us. They hadn’t even met Ionica.

***

I didn’t know a lot about art. I knew the Mona Lisa and some other stuff, but it just didn’t click with me. Ionica would call me down to the basement and she would ask me what I thought, you know there would be this tiny change on her canvas, and I was supposed to spot it. More often, especially when we were first married, I’d upset her. I didn’t get what she was up to, or what she was trying to accomplish. The worst fights were over my inept critiques, where I would question how she did a hairline or a jawline. This color looked off or it just didn’t seem right. I would know in a matter of seconds that something was wrong, but then not being an artist myself, I could not explain why it was wrong or how to fix it. She would then be in tears, talking in Romanian and almost carrying on conversations with herself. I learned to be very careful about what I said, especially when the painting was unfinished.

There was just one thing that I could never figure out about her work though. Many of her paintings were Romanian, as you might expect and I wasn’t familiar with famous Romanians from the past, which was also understandable. But she always painted from photographs of these paintings in their big old bulky frames. Those frames weren’t hers. She never brought any of them with her either. It would cost too much. What was she really doing?

Then it dawned on me. She always copied everything. Literally. I don’t know how I caught onto this. It was a gradual thing. Ionica had never done anything original in her life. Unreal. I had this precious person whom I loved dearly, but a void existed in my understanding of her. “Why do you always copy and never do original work?” I so bluntly asked her one day.

“What?” She was standing at her easel, intent on getting just the right shade of skin color on a man’s old, wrinkled face.

She hadn’t heard me. “Why do you always copy?” I tried again.

She sighed and started putting her brushes away. She usually cleaned them first. Then she faced me, staring me straight. “A-ți lua inima în dinți,” she said simply. Then she slowly walked upstairs.

I followed her. “I’ve never heard that one before. What does it mean?” She didn’t answer me.

***

“Why not have a big do?” I said one Friday afternoon when work had died down a little. “We’ll invite people from work, my relatives, even Dad.”

“Why?” Ionica, lay on the living room couch, exhausted, copies of her digital work samples scattered about the floor, laptop cast aside on the coffee table, her portrait art webpage askew. It seemed hopeless. No response to any of her efforts to publicize her work. I had helped her with everything of course. Corrected her written English, made suggestions for presentation, that sort of thing.

“Well, think of it this way. If I invite people from work, they’ll see your paintings and realize how good you are. We could drum up some business.”

She hardly stirred. “Why? I copy.”

“So, you copy, so what? If you get people to like your stuff, they won’t know the difference.”

Now she sat up and got angry. “You want me to lie, cheat and steal? Is that what you want?”

Time to spring the trap. “No. Just answer me this. Why do you only copy?”

She burst into tears. Sobbing, as I had never seen before. “No! Don’t touch me,” she cried. Then it all spilled out.

She was in her twenties when Nicolae Ceaușescu was General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, back in the eighties. It was a horrible time for all Romanians. Communism stifled everyone. The Ceaușescus, Nicolae, and Elena, his wife, owned twenty palaces all over the country while their own people starved and struggled to live. Ionica’s own father was killed in the riots that led to the final downfall of their dictatorship. Nicolae and Elena were executed by the new government on the 25th of December 1989. Then supposedly everything got better.

It was a long story, but there was still something missing. “Why didn’t things get better for you?” I asked.

She got another tissue. “What do you mean?”

I was getting frustrated. “Better. BETTER. What on earth? Capitalism replaced Communism. There was an economic miracle in East European countries. The Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Gorbachev, Glasnost. It was huge, it was the end of the cold war!”

“A-ți lua inima în dinți,” she said simply.

“Which means?”

“To take your heart into your teeth. I cannot do it.”

***

Communism wrecks lives everywhere, I knew it. North Korea and Venezuela are prime examples of this even today. But Romania? Really? There had to be a way around this impasse or Ionica would never realize her potential. I decided to Skype her mom. Mom spoke no English but Ionica Skyped her mom often, so it wasn’t a stretch to swipe her laptop when she was in her studio and call her up. I was ready for the language problem: Google Translate and a lot of patience. We’d try it and see.

First try and I got the time difference all wrong. The other way dummy, Romania is way later than you think. On the second try, mom wasn’t home. Third was the peach. She recognized me right away; she was at our wedding after all.

I had a script already, just paste each sentence into Google Translate. I fumble for my cell phone to do it:

“Buna ziua!” I had Google Translate say. Ionica nu este fericită. Sunt ingrijorat. Mă puteți ajuta? (Ionica is not happy. I am worried. Can you help me?)

She nodded, frowning a little. I wondered if something was getting lost in translation. I had turned on video recording, so the torrent of Romanian that followed each carefully chosen sentence I put into the translator, I could puzzle out later. I had to stop her at one point though. Not getting through the script.

"Ionica doar copiază opera altui artist. Ea nu va avea niciodată succes. Poți vorbi cu ea?" (Ionica only copies other artists' work. She is never going to be successful. Can you talk to her?)

More Romanian, and aside from Skype bugging out and getting weird occasionally, no doubt due to internet issues, I got most of the video. I hurried to get it transcribed.

***

“Why were you talking to my mother?” she said over breakfast the next day. “My mother is really worried about me now. I had to calm her down.”

Why? I thought. “You promised your father you would not become an artist. Your father wanted you to go into politics and be an agitator just like him. You might be dead now if you had done that!” I tried very hard not to be angry. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

She got up from the table and started pacing around. “You live like I did! You live in Communist country! Then you explain why I am what I am! Who are you? American businessman who always had everything! You judge me?" Just trembling with rage, she was. It was a truly awesome sight and I felt so sorry for her. But then I got serious and the crafty business side went to work. “OK. Well, here’s the deal. You start doing original work you can be proud of and do it for me!”

***

Months passed. I got super busy at work. The business was simply great, with more money than I knew what to do with and no time to spend it. Sixty-hour weeks were normal, even more extra hours than ever were needed. I so looked forward to our annual downtime. I started to notice that Ionica was happier. I didn’t know why. She’d scamper around when she saw my car pull in, putting things away, never asking questions. I sure wished I had more time to spend with her.

Downtime at last, time to party. “What do you think, a wingding, blowout, what?”

She smiled. “Oh, I have something planned.”

Great, I thought. Planning parties wasn’t my thing.

“It’s next Friday!” she said a week ago. I pull in, tired after being out golfing. There are all these cars everywhere. I see Debra and Chet’s car. Todd and Jan’s. Big surprise, my dad’s. A couple of guys from work, or were they just cars I didn’t recognize from another party being held down the street? I get out of the car, my briefcase slipping into my hand. It’s not my birthday, what could this be?

I key the door. “Surprise!” Everyone grins at me, shooting off party favors like no tomorrow. Ionica runs across the living room to hug me. There’s food everywhere, the whole nine yards. Dan and Jerry, work buddies, shake my hand, Dad’s nodding at me over his beer.

There are portraits everywhere. Portraits on the walls, of everyone in the room, all from pictures, all exquisitely done. Then everyone gets silent. Debra comes out of the kitchen, Chet close behind. They have a card for me. A riddle. It reads:

What crosses the mind, and bothers so much,

What thoughts come near, yet so out of touch?

Hope that we bear for what we hold dear.

Our children?

I was in tears. Debra starts talking and talking. “Chuck, I was never out of touch…I always went to visit them…”

I interrupted her. I was beside myself. “Where are they?”

“In the basement, silly!”

We all rush down, me half-tripping on the stairs. There they are, their own portraits in their hands.

April 24, 2023 18:10

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2 comments

Mary Bendickson
15:58 Apr 26, 2023

I am slow. Just so I know. Ionica painted portraits of all these people including the estranged children to surprise her hubby. And they all lived happily ever after:)

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Joe Smallwood
20:32 Apr 26, 2023

Yeah sort of like Harlequin Romance. I just had to do one of those, to say I did it. Actually I enjoyed this one more than all the others I have done. Maybe that is something I could put into my writing more. You know if you don't enjoy something why write about it?

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