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The Portrait

He had seen her in a café two days ago, and now the phone was ringing. She had been cool and aloof in the coffeehouse, but the bright jangle of the telephone seemed to hint at the way she had once been, the smiles that had once graced her face, and as the phone rang he remembered the sound of her laughter.
He moved towards the receiver, but as his hand grasped the cold plastic the ring stopped as soon as it had started, and he thought better of calling back. Perhaps she had hung up the phone out of anxiety, but he guessed that she had remembered her last words to him.
She sat at her wobbly kitchen table in a cheap plastic chair, a telephone in one hand and her head cradled in the other. Her fingers traced the stains on the tabletop, her feet tapped out a mismatched, rough beat on the linoleum floor, and tears splashed into the wineglass before her.
The patter of small feet jolted her from her stupor, and she looked up towards the little boy running towards her. His long, unkempt hair swung from side to side and dirt coated his bare feet, but a broad smile spread across his face as he ran to her and wrapped two short arms around her leg.
She glanced down, and though her mouth held a stiff smile for the boy, her eyes remained flat and lifeless. Reaching down, she lifted him into her lap and swathed him in her embrace, her chin resting on his head and her fingers clutched around him desperately. She tried in vain to stifle her tears, and saltwater mixed with her boy’s tangled locks.
The child twisted around in her arms to face her. Seeing the tears, he placed a small hand on her face and stroked her cheek gently. She winced at the touch that exacerbated the bruises already there, and quickly he withdrew his hand and placed it in hers. His warm body close against her, the boy whispered, “It will be alright, Mama.”
The artist sat by the bank of a creek, his sketchpad in hand and a girl before him. He frowned in concentration as he penciled in her features. Every so often, in his moments of great attention to detail, the tip of his tongue would poke out of the corner of his mouth, and she would giggle.
He lay the finished drawing before him, and she dropped her pose, walked over to look at his picture. She sat beside him, and he pulled her into a warm embrace. “Someday,” he whispered in her ear, “this picture will hang in a museum, and people from all over the world will come to see it.”
She turned to look at him with a grin on her face. “You’re getting a bit arrogant, aren’t you?” she said. He smiled, leaned forward to push her hair behind her ear, and shook his head.
“It has nothing to do with the skill of the artist,” he said. “People will come to look at the beauty of the subject.” She leaned in to kiss him, and together they sat in the tall grass, dragonflies and mosquitoes buzzing about them, the portrait fluttering in the warm summer breeze.
Ten years later, the subject sat alone at a wobbly table in a cheap plastic chair, the portrait in front of her but the artist missing. She smoothed a wrinkle from the corner of the page, wiped away a stray tear, and held her child close as she studied the portrait of the girl she had once been and remembered the artist who had captured a snapshot of it.
The little boy on her lap tugged at her hair. “Mama!” he cried, “put it away! I can hear Daddy pulling in.” Hastily she rolled the drawing and stuck it in the back of a cabinet. She wiped her eyes, pasted a false smile on her face and quickly ran a comb through the boy’s hair as the heavy footsteps rapidly approached. The front door swung open with a bang, and preceded by a strong smell of alcohol, a large man appeared in the kitchen doorway.
Picking up the boy, she hurriedly stood at his presence and coughed nervously. Rage was on the man’s face, and inadvertently her eyes darted to the slightly ajar cabinet door, his gaze following hers. He took a step towards her, and she put down the child, who quickly scurried from the room.
He crossed the room in two strides, opened the cabinet and pulled out her picture. She let out an inadvertent whimper, and tossing the drawing aside, he grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. He raised a fist, and as she winced, her eyes screwed shut tight, he brought it down on her.
Sitting alone in his two-bedroom apartment, the artist considered a portrait he had done ten years ago, and how its subject had changed since it had been drawn. Her beauty had remained, but the laughter in her eyes was gone.
She had sat in the café with her shoulders hunched, her presence minimized, holding tightly to the hand of the little boy beside her. When the man accompanying her had risen, she had followed behind him, never once looking up, making no acknowledgement of the artist’s presence, but as she had passed him, he was sure she had let out a small cry.
He considered the telephone, its presence just as imposing even with the years that had passed. He hadn’t heard from his subject since she had spoken her final words to him eight years prior, but still not a day passed without his worrying for her safety and happiness.
He had always had eyes only for her, and while she loved him as well, other men would flit in and out of her life. He had never let on his contempt for those she dated, only comforted her as she came back to him crying with heartbreak. But then came the days when bruises were constant on her body, scrapes and scars commonplace. And though he expressed concern repeatedly, she would refuse to admit that there was a problem.
Their final conversation still held through word for word in his memory. He had come to her house, and her eyes had darted around nervously when she saw him on her doorstep. She had pulled him inside quickly, shut the door and exhaled loudly. She had gazed at him for a moment, and he saw sadness in her eyes, but she had spoken in a monotone.
“What are you doing here?” she had said, swallowing with anxiety, her eyes still alert.
“I came to see you,” he had answered, but as he leaned in for a hug, she backed away and he saw her muscles clench. She had looked down, coughed uncomfortably, and shifted her weight from foot to foot.
“I don’t really know what to say to you,” she had said. “I think maybe you shouldn’t come around anymore.”
He had frozen in shock. His mouth had gone dry and he had felt a sudden chill. “What?” was all he had said, gaping in disbelief.
“It’s my new boyfriend,” she’d said, blinking rapidly. “He gets jealous. He doesn’t want me to see you anymore.”
He had opened his mouth to protest, and seeing what he meant to do, she had spoken again. “Look, I would be happier if we didn’t see each other anymore,” she had said, and that was all that he had needed. He had walked out again, and those were the last words she had ever spoken to him.
The artist brushed away tears impatiently. As unsure as he had been about her, he knew that she wasn’t happy now. His portrait of her was gone, and he so wanted to see the laughter in her eyes once more. She was his living, breathing portrait, and he wanted to ensure her happiness more than anything else.
As she lay next to her child’s sleeping father, a cold sweat spread over her body. She had been trying to forget the artist for so long, but still she felt his fingers pushing back her hair, his arm around her waist, his lips on hers. Seeing the care with which he had drawn her face led her to fall in love with him all over again.
She contemplated the sleeping man beside her. She did not love him, yet she had his child. She loved the artist, yet she had hurt him. And as she thought of this, the telephone rang beside her.
She answered in a whisper, and heard the artist’s voice on the other end. Her heart began to pound, and as she looked at the man beside her, menacing even in slumber, she said quietly, “You can’t call here.”
The artist hung up the phone with numb disbelief spreading throughout him. Even after all the years that had passed, he still could not make her happy. In a state of shock, he opened his front door and began to walk.
She sat on the side of the bed, the breathing of the man she loathed echoing throughout the room, and in a frenzy of emotion, she stood. Gathering her belongings and the money that lay on the bedside table, she slipped out of the room unnoticed and headed towards her son’s bedroom.
On the way there, she passed the kitchen. Her portrait still lay discarded on the floor, and not able to bear leaving it there, she scooped it up and took it with her. In the dark of the night, the subject, her child, and all that she had left of the artist crept quietly out of the house.
The artist had walked in a stupor all night, and he found himself at a train station. Leaving no time to consider his actions, he approached the tracks.
The artist nearer than she knew, his subject and her little boy went to the ticket booth and bought the furthest tickets she could afford. Clutching her belongings, the portrait and her child’s hand, she approached the station, praying that the train would arrive soon. It was deserted and shadowed in the night, and her child clung to her.
No one saw the man waiting on the tracks, but as he looked up, he saw illuminated under a streetlight his subject holding a page and a little boy’s hand. He imagined that he was delusional, but as the wind shifted the paper he saw what she held.
Shocked to see her once more, he was held to his stance. He shouted her name, and in his overwhelming joy, he failed to hear the approach of the train. Her eyes widened, but her warning came too late.
In her shock, her grip on the portrait had loosened, and as the train came roaring into the station, the wind in its wake snatched the paper from her hand.
The artist was gone, but it had been his voice that had prompted her to finally leave the life she loathed. She watched the portrait fly away on the breeze, and once it had left her sight, she took her son’s hand once more, and together they stepped onto the train and away from fear.
She contemplated her child. The artist had once been the one she loved most, but all things change. She placed her faith and love in this child, in the small hand that held hers, in the lips that formed the word ‘Mama’. She was now the artist, gazing at her creation and hoping for his happiness.




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