The Portrait (latest draft)

July 22, 2009 at 10:16 pm (Skrifa)

The Portrait

The hotel sheets are supposed to be smooth and soft, because that is what they promise existentially. But they are not, and they rub against the backs of my thighs as I look at the portrait.

It is of a woman. I shift my weight, separating my sticky legs. Her head is thrown back over the pillows, her cheeks are flushed peach, and her blonde hair curls over her cheek. I stare at her with an open mouth, my back hunched, slightly squinting, until I realize I look ridiculous and straighten up, look around, lick my lips and grin sheepishly at the phantom cameras hidden in the walls.

What do I expect? That they’ll show pictures of me looking gormless to everyone I know, or ever knew, these imaginary interlocutors? The woman in the portrait is a splash of rose and flesh and gold. Her fingers are plump and delicately tipped.

Her womb is hidden with the sheets of the bed that stretches out behind her. Presumably it is meant to be this bed. Her leg reposes, meaning that under those rumpled linens are folds of dimpled flesh. She is plump. The artist cannot accept both her smoothness and softness and the folds of flesh that necessarily come with it. This woman is strapped in, held in, by the loose caress of the sheets around her.

She dares me to stand up, to study her painting, and I do. It is not a replica. I nearly trip over my overstuffed luggage, dropped around my feet in a ring. I step awkwardly over the dark green, frayed duffel bag with wheels, and find myself nose to nose with her, my hands splayed out on either side of the painting and just under it to prevent slapping my face into the wall.

She is painted in oils, or perhaps gouache. The artist took great care with her body, applying paint delicately, smoothing over evidence of the passing of his brush. I say his because the sexual attention to detail he gave the softness of her skin, and because of the rough hastiness with which he painted the bedsheets surrounding her.

Her finger is hanging towards me, towards the artist perhaps, carelessly, as though she had not been posed. I can smell my dirty skin, my dirty underwear, through my clothes. The rim of my jeans, unnoticed until now, cuts into my belly.

I look down, ashamed. I glance around again, wrap my elbows close to my torso, to prevent my smell escaping. I rummage through the bags, trying to find my toiletries, frowning at the smell that overwhelms my nose. I am not clean.

When I get to the shower, it helps a little bit, but I can’t look down. Unevenness does not wash off. I wrap myself in a towel, hiding. I look in the mirror to wash off my face, and can’t see the imperfections I know are there. Bathrooms are flattering. Then I turn my head and it’s there; the lumpiness, the awkwardness, the clumsy arrangement of jawline and cheek and neck, the crooked nose.

I smooth my hands down my sides, hoping to wipe away the existential grime that coats reality. The woman in the portrait must have had them, but they were disregarded by the artist, slavering at his brush.

Perhaps women have at least this grace, a grace in the eyes of men. Whatever lust might damage when it fades, for a moment it shines perfectly, making worry unnecessary, if only for a little while. Despite its inevitable shallowness, and despite the judgment of women.

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