She Paints

She paints people. It is a hard job, because people are so full of light and shadow and color that they cannot fit fully on one canvas. Today she is painting the man who stands behind the counter at the bodega on the corner. She sets herself up on the sidewalk. The easel leans just so, the canvas propped against it, her spurt-stained palette and rags and brushes in a jar all crowded by her feet. She does not sit, because when you paint as much of a person as you can fit on a canvas, you cannot be comfortable. Besides, when she looks so closely at somebody else that she can see the color of the pulse beating in their throat, she tends to forget to feel her own feet.

The man does not see her, but she does not intend him to. The artist has to find out about him when she paints. If he sees her watching him, the awareness of being watched will cloud him over. She needs a clear view, because even when she sees perfectly, her painting will only be a jumble of colors. People don’t look hard at her paintings, hard enough to see everything she’s making with them, as hard as she has to look at people in order to make them. So she angles her easel and watches the man in the bodega for a while. She starts to sketch without looking at her hand or altering its jabs and scratches across the white. She just watches the man and moves, making the shape of his head, adding in the curve of the hollow of his throat, twitching back his hair where his ears stick out. Only after she has darkened the shadows to her satisfaction does she pull a paintbrush from the jar and stand back, studying what she has done.

She paints in a fury. His skin, his hair, the color of his eyes, the wrinkles in his shirt and around his mouth. Once she has pushed color and form onto the canvas to show what he looks like, she begins to paint who he is. Now the artist studies the lines pressed into his cheeks and the way they jump when he smiles, how they tremble when he frowns. His mouth presses close when he is annoyed, the words caught behind his lips. His hair is smoothed down with a comb because it springs from his head when he gets up in the morning. His hands are small with short fingers and broad palms, and they are cracked and rough with the cold. When he turns his head against the light, the shadows well in his eyes and trace the shapes of bone beneath skin. She paints the blue shadows that deepen when he sighs. She paints the tension corded in his neck when he is startled by a sound. She paints the hope held in his mouth, tucked in the corners, tugging at his smile. On her canvas she shades the sadness he’s accumulated over the years, that he wraps around himself, that makes him shiver. His wistfulness, the ache he pushes away when he watches a stranger smile at someone else. His anger that draws his shoulders into a droop like bone-deep weariness. His bottle of memories, held within, of his children when they were so young that they reached for his hands without thinking. She colors and shades. Her paintbrush rasps and smears, pokes and smudges, carves and feathers across the canvas. She paints his impatience with the customers in the store, his fear and loneliness, his quiet contentment when he watches crime show reruns, his brittle bitterness, his rare fierce joy.

When the painting is finished, it is because no more of him will fit on the flat square of canvas. She can paint no more of him. The artist picks up her paintbrushes in their jar, her rags and her palette, her tubes of paint. She folds up the easel and carries everything, canvas and all, in a jagged unwieldy lump in her arms. When she gets home she lays it all on the sofa, carefully enough that the paint won’t be touched. She goes down to the bodega and buys a carton of eggs to make herself dinner. She eats standing over the sink.

On some days, the artist tries not to paint. It is exhausting work. She leaves her brushes and canvasses leaning in a corner and does something else for the day. Inevitably, always, the turn of someone’s wrist or the flicker of someone’s eyes will pull at her, and she will wish for her colors and brushes again. She will get on the train and go home, where the paints are waiting.

Drawing the Figure

It was hard to think of it as anything other than a naked person just sitting in the middle of the room. Then again, it was also hard to see it as that without getting caught up in the twisting curves of her body. Not in a sexy way, even, though it would have been easy to be just a kid about it, to snicker and save jokes up for later. Elaine wished that she didn’t want to make jokes at all, but possibly the urge to giggle would go away. The woman hunched as she took her robe off, and her shoulders were still trying to curve around to cover her body even as she was sitting nude in the midst of a bunch of staring strangers. Elaine felt a stab of empathy for the woman, uncomfortable as she looked despite most people’s seeming indifference. Everybody else was just measuring limbs with charcoal held up before them, squinting and sweeping confident strokes across their paper. Elaine picked up her pencil and held it to the paper, waiting for some idea of what to do. She watched the light cling to the woman’s hip and thigh, studied the shadow reaching down her waist, looked for a long time at the flow of her neck into her shoulder and the jut of her collarbone.

Sarah kept her eyes on the guy by the corner. He was looking at her too, but he wasn’t looking at her face. She felt the blood coloring her cheeks and tried not to wince. So there was a good-looking man staring intently at her naked body. He wasn’t exactly smiling about it. It was a strange and singular experience to have her body be the subject of such an academic way of looking. People had looked at her body in a lot of different ways in her life, and when somebody that handsome looked at her naked it was either with something approaching indifference, or with lust. She’d never felt that detached kind of interest before, and she didn’t think she liked it. Still, it was intriguing. Their job was sort of to find something beautiful in her as she just sat there, more or less, wasn’t it? She didn’t know anything beautiful about her own body most of the time, except for the times when she fit perfectly with somebody else, or the odd moments when the shape of her own face and body in the mirror after a shower startled her like that of a beautiful stranger.

The model was pretty, in a bland kind of way. She was sort of skinny but with a charming swell of the hips and belly, and her face was okay. That wasn’t the point though. Trent was trying to figure out how to draw her, and he was sort of stuck. He had an outline on his paper, her vague shape sketched in, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Was he going to color big blocks of shadow and streaks of highlight in white, or was he going to shade exhaustively until you could almost feel the slopes and hollows in the deepening of black? Maybe he should crosshatch. Maybe it should be very stylized. This was always his problem. He could see her as a person, as a girl, and then she was not very interesting. Trent wasn’t great with people. He didn’t know how to talk to girls unless they talked first, because then he could tell if they wanted to sleep with him or not. Either way it was easy from there. This girl would probably sleep with him. That wasn’t the point. The point was that he was looking at the naked body of this woman in front of him, a stranger, and he couldn’t figure out how best to draw it. As a girl her face was dull and her body predictable, but as art she was altogether too fascinating. The bumps and crevices of her body wanted his pencil to trace them. He had to carve out the shadows and round out the light shining on skin. The problem was that there was too much beauty in one body to put on a piece of paper. His pencil was still and the paper was full of possibilities.

Yellow Moon Future

He couldn’t find himself in the painting. Mason knew he was there. He’d felt the shapes of his head and his shoulders somewhere, and he felt the curve of the light slipping against his skin in the tender smudge of yellow. It could have been anywhere though, anywhere tucked into the details of the trees and the buildings. He’d painted a slow yellow moon precarious on the horizon, fat and round against the deep blue-black of the sky. When he looked at the painting, he tried to look for himself. The moon kept pulling his gaze back, though. It almost shone from the canvas. Sometimes he was amazed at the light that came from the smeared shapes of oil and pigment.

There – maybe he was there, in the corner. What was he doing? Mason squinted, leaned, and smiled. There he was, definitely. Now that he’d found it, it seemed obvious. The light trickling down the side of his neck was a ridge standing out from the painting. It would be bumpy and hard when it dried. He – the him in the painting, the little one – was curled against a tree, fitted into the waves of the trunk. The leaves spread out over him in points of light, like a string of Christmas decorations pinned up on the sky. When he looked, Mason could see his head bent and his arms clenched around his knees. He wondered what he was doing, what he was feeling, when this would happen.

The Moon as seen in Hockessin, Delaware.

As it turned out, it was only the next week. Once the paint dried and he could run his hand across the wrinkly-smooth surface of it, the moon was hanging heavier in the sky. He drove out to see Alan. When he pulled up to the house and got out of the car, the balance of the light on the trees and the shape of the leaves on the sky was suddenly and differently familiar. In his painting he hadn’t noticed that forest there, but when he saw the trees he could see his own strokes curling up the sides and pressing in the shadows. When he got into the house he knew something was wrong.

Alan made him a cup of tea. Mason was fidgeting, at once, his fingers moving to scoop the sugar and turn and pour, as he usually did. His heart tapped a rapid tattoo against his ribs. He watched the steam puff and billow over Alan’s shoulders and thought it might spill down his hunched back, the bony spine that curved toward Mason while the rest of his body reached away. Alan poured, stirred, and turned to bring the cup over to the table. When he sat down, Alan looked into the shimmering surface of the tea and said, “Listen, honey, I want to talk to you about something.”

When it was over and the silence had stretched too long, Mason escaped. He curled and bent like Alan had, like a leaf withering and twisting on the ground in the autumn, like he was trying to fold into himself or wrap around the edge of pain in his throat where he wouldn’t let the tears come. He walked, without thinking, not toward his car. He got to the edge of the trees and listened to the creak of the forest, the chirp of the birds and crickets, the timid crunch of his shoes on the bits of forest carpeting the ground. He nearly walked into a tree. It loomed over him, leaves tipping and straightening in the night breeze like uncertain dancers. Mason knelt and leaned, fit himself against the curve of the tree and nestled into it like a lost lover. He stayed there, huddled against the tree, until he realized that he had painted these moments. A canvas at home was splashed with the colors and the beauty of this heartbreak. He closed his eyes then against the glitter of light on the edges of leaves, the fat yellow moon, the forbidden glow of the windows half-hidden.