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The Living Room

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CW: mild references to violence/aggression 

             The first time I painted him, we stood in the garden for hours while he posed against the oak tree and I put down brush strokes nestled carefully amongst one another. I painted his eyes, his nose, his lips, his lapels, his collar, his waist, his stomach, his thighs, his calves, and I painted his wingtip shoes. His black tuxedo stood out against the background of the sprawling orchard and his dark brown hair sat atop his head and his smirk lifted up into his right cheek. Each detail made its way onto the canvas, unmistakable in the sunlight.

              It was no sooner than 4:00pm that I painted the last stroke and rinsed my brush for the final time. I looked down at the muddy waters of my rinsing cup and looked back up to admire my work, but instead of his eyes meeting mine, it was my own that stared back at me from the canvas. I had not painted him, I had painted myself.

             I remember he yelled at me and flung the canvas across the garden. He told me how he had stood perfectly still for hours while the back of his shoe pierced his heel. He didn’t complain. He was good. He was well-behaved. He put his hands where I told him to and fought back a sun-induced squint.  In this rage, he flung my paints, my palette, and even flung my easel, telling me how much money he was paying for his wedding portrait, and how many hours of his life he would never get back. He told me that I must be the most self-absorbed person he had ever met if this was my idea of a practical joke. I tried to explain that I had painted him, but he wouldn’t hear a word of it. His argument was very convincing, and all the evidence pointed to him being right. 

             The second time I painted him was the very next day when he begrudgingly asked me to come back because there wasn’t enough notice to hire a different painter. With great displeasure, he posed against the oak tree in his oh-so-uncomfortable shoes as he stared me down, no doubt tallying up the lost hours that he spent with an artist who had no regard for his time or for her work. If you doubt that he could communicate all this through nothing but a stare, then I suspect that you have never seen his face in the daylight.

             When I arrived home, paint was streaked down my limbs and my clothes. He had thrown my palette right at me, but not before calling me a fraud, a liar, and a manipulative cheat. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was right. I wasn’t trying to cheat him—perhaps I was cheating myself. In any case, my living room was now adorned with not one, but two paintings of myself, both propped up next to the fireplace. With the two versions of myself next to each other it became quite obvious that I had changed from one day to the next. My demeanour, my facial expression, the way I was standing, had all shifted. In the painting on the right, I was standing tall, looked calm and put-together, and my lips were pursed in a manner that conveyed a sense of importance. In the painting on the left, I had a slight, but noticeable, slouch and my lips were still pursed, but, here, it conveyed something more akin to arrogance.

*

             The first time I painted her was just two days later. She was an artist, too, so I explained that I was having trouble with my work and needed a willing subject to trial some new techniques. I, of course, didn’t mention the more notable events of the previous few days. She was more than willing to oblige; she was not one to pass up an opportunity to spend a few hours with an empty mind while she sat in the sunlight.

             I spent the next few hours staring intently at the canvas and at her. I carved out her arms, her collarbones, her neck, her cheeks, and each strand of hair. I painted the paisley of her long, tiered skirt, and each individual bead of her jewellery. If I was acting at all strange, she didn’t seem to notice. She sat, she smiled, and, every now and then, made a comment about something that had slipped into her mind. “You know it’s been years since I’ve been on the receiving end of a portrait. I think it’s long overdue that I see myself through the eyes of an artist who’s not me.” This comment was made mostly to herself, but I couldn’t help but worry that she would never get to, and, in my living room that evening, with three portraits of myself lined up along the wall, my worries were substantiated.

             The second time I painted her, she pressed me for details as to why. “Won’t you let me at least see the first portrait?” This was, of course, an impossibility, but she persisted: “It is a painting of me, after all. Even just a glance. I’ll happily sit for this next portrait and ten more after that, but I don’t see why I can’t see it.” Eventually, I wore her down. I might have been better off choosing a different subject—my persistence certainly aroused suspicion in her—but something in me had to see if it was a fluke. Maybe I was so convinced that I would paint myself that my subconscious took over and did just that: painted myself.

             It is from this point that, I imagine, you are perfectly capable of deducing what my life looked like for the weeks that followed. I wish that I could regale you with a story of how I overcame this cyclical horror I found myself trapped in, I sincerely do, but I feel that you deserve to hear the truth, and I feel that I deserve for the truth to be told. So, I will tell you that, among others, I painted the baker, the milkman, the postman, the butcher, my brother’s wife, and her brother also, the English teacher at the local school, the haberdasher, the editor of the gazette, Mrs. Vaughan’s maid, and the grocer.

             The day I painted the grocer was the day I brought home the seventieth portrait of myself. In this painting, I looked confused. Well, perhaps confusing is a more accurate descriptor. A smirk pushed my cheeks up to my eyes, contorted my face, and an unnatural light shone from my pupils. I held a paintbrush in one hand and an empty palette in the other. After staring at myself for what must have been hours, I added the painting to my living room collection. There was no longer a square inch of wall visible. Portraits of myself hung on nails from floor to ceiling, but they did not stop there; they covered the ceiling, too, and on all walls they were two or three layers thick, jutting out into the room and shrinking its size to that which felt like I was living in a potting shed.

             Walls caving in, I lay on the floor and stared up at dozens of my own eyes staring back at me. Each version of me was different, perhaps, I thought, a version of the me who painted each portrait. The me who painted the milk man must have been particularly happy—my smile reached almost the entire width of my face—and the me who painted the haberdasher must have been particularly despondent—my eyes sunk deep into my skull and the corners of my mouth downturned so dramatically that it bore resemblance to a horseshoe from which even the most stubborn luck would spill.

             It’s funny how the mind can choose so easily to misremember events that we have experienced first-hand: the day I painted the milkman was the same day my beloved cat, Isla, fell down the sewer drain. All the while painting, I had to stop myself from crying and the milkman, I remember, looked at me with such curiosity it was as if he did not see me, or my attempts at suppressing my tears, at all. And the day I painted the haberdasher, I now remember so clearly: I had been unable to find a willing subject for days, almost a week, and I was becoming desperate. So, I made my way to the town centre and threw away my pride in every business on Main Street. Finally, after relentless begging, the haberdasher reluctantly agreed on the condition that she would continue to work and serve her clientele while I was painting. I, of course, agreed and painted her with an unmoving smile plastered to my face.

             Hours later, I jolted awake—I must have accidentally fallen asleep—and locked eyes with the portrait of myself from when I painted the haberdasher. The me in the portrait had eyes sunken deep into her skull and an aura of despair that was impossible to ignore.  

             I entered the haberdasher, jolting the bell on the door so abruptly I am surprised it didn’t come crashing down to the floor. I proceeded to interrogate her about the day I painted her. What did I look like? How did I act? What was my mood like?

             “You were caught up in some insufferable notion that me allowing you to paint my portrait was a matter of greater importance than the operation of my business.” My joy was—to her—so intolerable as to come across as the despair that now haunted me in the portrait.

             “Have you seen the milk man today?”

             “He made my delivery fifteen minutes ago, he’d still be on the south end of Main Street,” her lips pursed with each word like she was sucking on a lemon. I ran from the store, colliding the door and the bell with greater force than before. I suspect that it may actually have fallen this time, though I didn’t stay long enough to see.

*

             The first time I painted myself I dragged my gilded mirror from the bedroom to the living room, the corner catching on the carpet and ripping a hole near the foot of the chaise. I propped it against the wall of paintings where there once was a window and set up my easel in front of it and I painted. I painted my cheekbones, each strand of my hair, my sternum, my waist, my hips, my arms, my elbows, my hands, my fingers, my calves, my ankles, my feet, and I painted my eyes. Each eye was sculpted out by the now ever-present dark circles that encapsulated them and they were lined with eyelashes few and far between; most were long gone by now as a result of the continuous rubbing of my eyes through sleepless nights and debilitatingly long days.

             I lay down the final stroke, cautious as ever. I washed my brush off in my rinsing cup and I exhaled... But, looking up, there were no eyes waiting to meet my own. The painstakingly carved out background of my living room remained—portraits, of course, lining the walls—but there was no trace, no shadow, even, of a person; of me.

             I stepped aside to look at myself in the mirror once more, to reassure myself that I was real and true and there. But what I saw was not myself but rather a creature morphed from the many versions of myself that lined the walls. I was at once happy, sad, afraid, courageous, surprised, calm, knowledgeable, oblivious, exhausted, and energised. I was kind and hateful and jealous and proud and bitter and content. My physical appearance was changed as well. My eyes were further apart than usual, or were they closer together? I was taller, I thought, or perhaps I was shorter. I could no longer remember who I used to be, and I do not think that I would have been able to recognise myself if that version of me had appeared.  

             For months, I continued to paint myself and amassed a collection of blank portraits far greater than those containing a subject. The walls of my living room continued to accumulate new layers until they were so thick that I could no longer fit a single piece of furniture other than my easel and the mirror in the centre of the room. If you were to look at my kitchen you would think that it was a poorly designed furniture store—the couch placed in front of the dining table as though you were expected to buy them as a pair and sit on the couch while you ate your dinner. If you were to look at me, truthfully, I do not know what you would have seen. But I know for certain that it was no longer human.

             The gilded mirror no longer fits in my living room so I cannot tell you if I have returned to something I might recognise. I stand alone with my easel, painting from memory a creature that exists only in the minds of others.

 

 

 
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