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Oil and Canvas

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Manet: The Bar at the Folies-Bergere

It is not an easy job. There’s a lot of deceit happening and over time one learns to recognize the signs. Men act differently with the women who are not their wives. It’s the same for the women, when they step out with their lovers. Sometimes I wonder about the person left behind at home. Sometimes I ask myself, would it be better to be married, even if I had to stand such as this?

Stand. Yes, that’s what I do, until the wee hours of the morning when the last straggler disappears and the dawn’s first arrival begins to shine.

Sometimes people ask me what it looks like during the day, and of course it’s a cheaper version of itself. You can see all the dirt and dust and smudges on the mirror.

And how long have I worked there? Five years. For the first three I held out hope that I might meet someone, that someone might see me and ask to see me again. They do ask to see me, but only because they think they might use me as they would a whore. It doesn’t offend me, not anymore. It’s flattering, if you choose to see it that way.

I didn’t ask to be painted. I didn’t even know he was a painter. He asked to sketch me, just a sketch, I was busy wiping down the bar, many stains accumulate over the course of the night. A sketch? I don’t mind, I said, just don’t be in the way.

The first time someone showed me the portrait, I really didn’t know what to say.

What were you thinking? That’s what everyone always asks. You look so sad, pensive…what were you thinking? And when I don’t say, can’t say, won’t say, they like to guess.

You know what they always guess, lost love, first love, missing his embrace.

It could have been, I could have been remembering one of the men I once knew.

Somehow, somehow I think I was remembering men, but not as they suppose…my father, perhaps, or my younger brother. My family has never understood why I wanted to escape to the city. Maybe they were right! It is no escape, no, only a different sort of isolation, the distance from one person to another, the distance in thought, feeling, is unrelieved even when bodies are side by side, crushed together in the surge and row of the street. But I think of them, my kin, out in the sun or the rain, regardless, dedicated to their land. They are working, always working, as I am. Sometimes I pick up an apple at the market and I am aware that it could be from our orchard. Lord knows how small the chance is, but still I treasure that possibility!

When I must stand, always on display, purveyor of liquors and liqueurs and chocolates and oranges and flowers, when I am the intermediary between what they see and what they get…somehow my mind drifts to childhood, to a time when I imagined the world was spread out for me and when my eye spied something pretty, when my arm reached out to grab my prize, it was for me, all for me, for my desire.

So do not dare to know me, though you have learned my name and thank me sincerely when I slide your purchase across the counter.

You don’t know me and yet, when I look at that painting, neither do I know myself.
Hopper: Nighthawks

I remember, when I see the painting, I remember a perfect moment of contemplation, a sense of complete emptiness. It had been a horrible night, he’d wagered too much, I’d drank too much, we’d been screaming at each other out in the street. At some point, we’d started home, implausibly still together, still arguing, staggering side by side, leaning against each other and blaming each other when we realized we’d gotten lost. Soon enough, though, we hit a block we recognized and were back on the path. It’s always such an unbelievable relief, isn’t it, to realize you know where you are and where you need to go? My heart had been hammering, like I thought I’d never get home again. Such a relief, such a relief, we both started to laugh, and his arm wrapped around me. As my temper waned, I felt more sober, have you ever had that happen? Makes me wonder if it’s only half the liquor and half some mad urge inside. By the time we passed the diner, we were both quiet, solemn, almost repentant. It was early Sunday morning, after all.

“Come on,” Jim said. “I need coffee.” How much I wished he might for once say we.

So we went inside and he started smoking and lamenting Gehrig’s illness and retirement with the man behind the counter, because it seemed like that was what all men used to start conversation back then. No man ever needed to mention the weather that year, just invoke Lou’s name, drop your eyes, shake your head, and make a friend in commiseration. As for me, weary of talk, I started thinking about people, about what it would be like if we were all just a person, no men, no women, and I knew, I knew Jim couldn’t care for me, not like that, not without my body. Hell, I wouldn’t have felt the same for him, either. He was my man, and I was his woman, and it wasn’t all about sex, but that was the most of it, the very most of it.

And I’m looking at that faded paper flower in my hand and I know that I love Jim and I also know that we’ll never be happy together. Well, maybe he could have been happy with me, but I couldn’t stay with him.

I felt so drained that night, but when I look at that woman, that woman I was, she seems so young, I could almost call her a girl, I envy her, because she doesn’t know. See, it was before the war erupted, that is what I mean. I never could have known what was ahead. I never even gave it a thought.

So when I look back I see myself hard and grown, knowing I can’t stay with Jim, knowing it’s all going to fall apart and soon and I better get used to the idea of making it on my own and missing him, missing his body, his strength, his comfort. Hard and grown, yes, but innocent, all the same, because I can’t see what’s ahead, not just for me, not just for my country, but for so many nations, so many people, those who will die and the loved ones who will never cease to grieve.
Whistler: The White Girl

I like it, because it flatters me, because I look so pretty, so, yes, I will say it, beautiful.

And yet, I would be lying if I did not admit that it also frightens me, as though I were beholding my own ghost, a future stripped clean of all I now know.

Can you see how the curtain behind me, painted just so, might possibly remind one of a grove of thick birches? Always when I look upon it, the folds of the fabric remind me of the trunks of trees, and I imagine these birches in winter, a leafless landscape of snow and the skeletons of branches, reaching, like hideous fingers scraped raw, towards the sky.

The flower, held so loosely in my hand, its bloom falling downward, as though I, too, will soon fade, both of us in lethargy, about to be sucked back down into the pit of the earth.

Oh, and that forsaken rug, how I have always hated it, hate it even more in my portrait and fear that, as in a child’s fairy tale, the animal may spring back to life and devour me for having treated its carcass so carelessly. Yes, there is always this terror in skins. Once there was a magnificent beast, and now I trod upon his remains.

The painting, too, like a skin, my skin, that I am leaving behind, that may last far longer, far longer, than my own flesh and blood.

And when I have seen it so often, does it surprise you to learn that day by day it loses some of its glory? It is as though each time I look, my eyes strip away a thin layer of its grandeur so that some day it and myself within it will all seem quite plain and unremarkable.

No doubt it is the same for him when contemplating my portrait or my true frame. We live with our art and what was once the literal embodiment of all passion, along with its oil and canvas representative, eventually becomes unnoticed background.

We, perhaps, will one day disregard it entirely…but you, my friend, upon finding it, ah! I do know how it will first strike you, I do know that you will be enchanted…and as it is not yours, could never be yours, your desire, unlike ours, may never wane.