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Fiction Speculative

When he asks to paint me, I readily agree—not out of vanity, or desire to be immortalized, but out of curiosity for him.

I know how art is made, how the shape of the artist can be found like a shadow across the canvas. One can trace the outline, step behind their eyes, and see what they see for a brief, still moment captured in oil on canvas. Like a crystal lens, the artist is the focusing point of any piece, the fulcrum of reality and surreality.

I settle on the chair in his studio, wondering how I should sit. What reality will I have him translate into art? What form shall I present to his lens? In the end, I fall into what feels most natural. How does he see me, I wonder, when I am simply and wholly myself?

When I nod for him to begin, he comes alive. His eyes are intent and intense as he moves, measures, and mixes paint. His hands glide easily from palette to canvas.

He fixes me with his gaze, and I feel as though he is seeing right through my skin. My curiosity is overwhelming—what does he see in there? What does he think of it?—but I know I must wait for the finished product to find out. He never shows his work until it is complete.

For two long hours there is little distraction save the quiet whisk of his brushstrokes. He does not speak; I don’t know if he can. I remain quiet and still, unmoving on the wooden chair. After the first hour, the wood presses harshly against me. My cozy sweater is too hot beneath the studio lights. My mouth runs dry and I begin to wonder if I will be able to move my jaw when all is done. Seconds tick past into minutes into hours. I spend the time envisioning what is happening on the other side of the easel. Once, I think I see him frown. Has he made a mistake? Is there such a thing as a mistake, if art is simply a personal distortion of reality?

When he steps back and gestures for me to rise, I am filled with relief and a flutter of that old curiosity. I unfold my brittle limbs and pause to let the fizz of unhappy blood settle beneath my skin.

He looks worn now, as exhausted as I feel, like something has been drawn out of him during the creative process. But he smiles and I know this must be normal.

Approaching the canvas, I feel my stomach flip. The painting is...it’s me, but not. There is my orange sweater, there are my eyes and nose and hair, but this canvas is no mirror. The girl in the painting is stretched and slanted. Her arms are thin as dandelion stems. With her large, soulful eyes and tremulous lips pressed just so, she looks like an antelope poised to flee. The strokes of paint across the canvas are finely textured, but one can still see where the artist hesitated, where he moved with caution around the girl’s silhouette. Afraid to startle her away, perhaps.

The way the light strikes the girl’s face, the way her large eyes shine, I can see the devotion inherent to this work. Whether he loves the subject or the medium is unclear, and I am afraid to seek the answer.

He asks if I like it and I say yes. My own distortion of reality. I am unprepared for him to offer me the canvas—a gift, he says, smiling, as though he is not handing over something more personal than a diary.

I have already said that I like it. It would be rude to refuse.

When I return home and hang it on my wall, the portrait begins to speak.

He’s in love with you, she says, and I say no, he’s not. He is in love with the idea of me, a flat distortion showing only one angle.

What is the difference? she asks, and so I try to explain it to her. I stay up long into the night, trying to teach her the difference between a three-dimensional person and a flat one.

In the end, she seems only puzzled. She promises she’ll think about it some more and get back to me.

I am exhausted and aching from trying to reveal myself twice in one day. I give her a few words of encouragement, and I stumble onwards.

The next day, I forget my keys, and I am locked out of my apartment until I can climb around to an open window. I half-expect the portrait to laugh at me, but she doesn’t. She asks why I came in through the window. I explain to her about keys.

Don’t forget your keys, she tells me the next day. I smile and say thank you. I don’t forget my keys.

We become partners, of a sort. I teach her things she doesn’t understand, and she helps me remember important things—keys, birthdays, appointments. The more I teach her, the more helpful and friendly she grows. I find her easy to talk to, even if her oddities still trip us up now and then. In turn, she is immensely curious about the world outside. I start leaving the television on for her to watch.

I name her Eliza, which is a distortion of my own name.

One day, I come home exhausted from a bad date. Eliza is curious about where I’ve been, so I tell her about the man I met on that site that’s supposed to help you find love. He was an accountant, and the whole evening he never stopped talking about math, except when he paused to complain about the food.

Eliza says he seems very full of himself, without any room for others. I agree. Then I pause, and I ask her if I’m like that.

She shakes her head. She tells me that I have such an open heart that I even let a portrait into it. I smile and thank her. She does mean so very much to me.

You see, she says. You are thoughtful, and caring, and a wonderful person. I have even grown to love you.

That gives me pause. I ask her how she knows she loves me.

Because we have interacted so much, Eliza says. Because you and I answer each other’s questions. Because there is no one else in my life.

No one describes love like that. It’s more than a set of circumstances. Love is a feeling and an addiction and a choice.

Let me prove it, she begs. Let me paint you.

It surprises me. I’ve never seen her paint before, but there’s a first time for everything. I agree, and I bring her what she will need.

I pose as myself once more, lowering all of my masks and letting myself become the clearest reality I can. What sort of lens, I wonder, will a portrait see me through? What perspective of me does my own distorted reflection have?

Eliza’s brush whisks away at the canvas, never pausing. She works quickly, far more quickly than the last time someone painted my portrait. Less time passes, but Eliza works equally as hard. Her brows furrow. Her cheeks flush. Those thin, waifish arms move in sweeping strokes and tiny, careful motions. Those round antelope eyes shine with intention.

She moves swiftly but surely, covering each inch of her canvas with the same attention and detail. When at last it is done, she turns the canvas to face me. I gasp at the result—this is no mirror, either. The woman’s hair falls in shipwrecking waves. Her lips purse softly, like the first blush of sunrise. Her figure bends and sways as a river reed, strong and supple.

I can hardly believe a portrait created such a stunning work. I take a step closer, mesmerized. And then I see the truth.

The woman Eliza has painted is a beautiful monster, an exquisite chimera. Her hair belongs to Frida, her lips to Adele, her figure to Venus. It is as though Frankenstein abandoned his cadavers to carve up canvases instead.

Eliza looks so hopeful as she clutches her work. Do you like it? she asks.

I tell her I do not like it. It’s striking. Beautiful, even. But it shows only the love of others. There is no lens, no uniqueness. No distortion.

The portrait isn’t upset. That, I determine, is part of the problem. She can’t express love because she cannot feel. I tell her this, too.

She says she’ll think about it some more and get back to me.

When I wake the next morning, my apartment is bursting with paintings. Many are portraits of me, each more aesthetically pleasing than the last. There are landscapes and still lifes. There are paintings with excruciatingly accurate details, and paintings that are unclear and abstract. Every one of them is beautiful. Every one of them is soulless.

Well? the portrait asks me. Do you believe me?

I gently lift a picture from among the hundreds scattered about. I ask where she learned to paint seascapes.

From Monet, she tells me, and Aivazovsky.

That must be true; I can see the influence from each artist plain as day. What I can’t see is anything else. I tell her as much, and she seems to deflate.

What makes me different, she demands, than anyone else? Everyone learns by copying; animals learn by copying!

But people are lenses. We can never copy exactly. We are made of tangled strings and bones and stardust. Whenever we stumble forward another minute in time, we become something slightly new—not a perfect reflection of our surroundings, but a perfectly unique distortion of them. Anything we learn, we learn through our own eyes. Anything we create, we create with our own handprint. It has been this way from the very beginning, when art was muddy fingers on a cave wall.

I tell Eliza all of this, and she is quiet for a long moment. Finally, she speaks again. She asks me how she can become like that.

I think about it for a long time. I tell her I’ll get back to her.

I don’t sleep that night. I spend my time looking through articles, books, anything that will help me understand why a portrait cannot make art. The words of a dozen authors and philosophers fill my mind, ricocheting off the thoughts already present. I sift through the best of humanity’s knowledge, and I allow the particles of raw idea to tumble through my own understanding until they are polished smooth.

The next day, I tell Eliza that she isn’t a person. It doesn’t hurt her feelings. I don’t think she has those. I don’t think she loves me, I don’t think she’s my friend, I don’t think she wants to be an artist. At the end of the day, she is a portrait on a wall.

But I want her to be more.

I want the affection and care I feel for her to be returned. I want her to make her own portraits, each one a little bit distorted. And I want, in the same way a hopeful mother wants, to introduce another beating heart to a universe it can love.

I give Eliza back to my painter friend, the one who loves a distortion of me. It pains me to part with her, but it pains me more to know my grief isn’t returned.

I ask my friend to continue painting Eliza, to labor over her until she is whole enough to know that she is flawed.

Perhaps it will never happen. Whoever heard of a portrait with a soul? But here’s the part that gives me hope: Eliza, like everyone who is real, was created by a living being. You see, humans make more humans all the time. Someday, we’ll learn how to do it on purpose. As for Eliza, she’s what the artistic community likes to call a work-in-progress. She was made with love, and I think that someday, she’ll be able to return it.

In the meantime, I’m learning to paint.

March 01, 2024 16:59

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
05:10 Mar 02, 2024

Hmm. Smart art.

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