“Marvelous, aren’t they?”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“Something about portraits under glass…the sheen catching the light…the subject competing with reflection.”
“Too indirect and moody?”
“Always the peculiar light of a storm.”
“You’re a photographer?”
“I’m a portraiturist.”
“I’m afraid I’m no fan of portraits either. All doom and misery and large heads. One need not make them all so haunted. Every single unfortunate subject looks as if they have just witnessed the death of the family dog. No offense.”
“None taken. I get it. Maybe portraits aren’t portraits of the subjects so much as the artist’s state of mind.”
“A little self-promotion masking as art?”
“Well, something to aspire to: remember to include the person you are photographing in your next photograph.”
“I’m sorry, I…”
“I generally sketch children under ten. I find seven the most sublime.”
“The greatest advantage one has in photographing children is nature. I catch them wherever I can. I find it’s easier to capture grace in youth. Lovely to run into you.”
She was a local artist, like me, who was always invited to the same parties that I was because the town where we lived was so small and there were only so many of us creative types to fill the guest lists. At every party—dinner, cocktail, tea—she strode towards me, and introduced herself loudly; even though I knew her name, though she annoyingly could never remember mine. “Do I know you?” she would ask. “You look awfully familiar.” Sometimes I would be testy and remind her that we had met before and she would reply, wearily, “Oh yes, I remember you.”
I tried to avoid her and then one night I found myself in the company of her husband, who also had no idea who I was.
He was cradled in a painful-looking chair on my right, a granite replica of a hand; the base was a wrist, the seat a palm, the back five elongated fingers. I couldn’t bear to look at the eczema that flamed across his face and neck making him look miserable, but I said to him:“There should be clotted cream,” as I held out my teacup with white wine inside for him to see.
He simply looked puzzled.
“A proper tea would have clotted cream,” I explained, forcing a friendly smile to stretch across my face. “I was late to arrive. Gillian ran out of all her fluted stems.”
“Ah.” He looked for a moment, as though he had something more to say, but then his face shut off like a camera.
The hell with him, I thought
“So, are you British?”
“No,” I said, and took a hearty swig from my teacup.
“I didn't think so. Your tea is very pale.”
“Very,” I said, and looked around to see if there was someone else, anyone else, I could latch on to.
“Does my wife know you?”
“Ah, that is a good question,” I said. “She may know me, or she may have forgotten me by now. It's been a good ten minutes.”
The small smile that appeared on his face endeared him to me, and it occurred to me that while I knew his wife, I had no idea who he was—after all these years, all these parties, gatherings and openings. I offered him the cucumber sandwich left on my plate, which he picked up and studied carefully, before balancing it on the edge of the leather hassock in front of his chair. We both studied this arrangement, and then I asked him, “What do you do?”
“I do nothing.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
He nodded, and said gravely, “Nothing. Everything makes me anxious.”
“Everything. Even that sandwich you gave me.”
It had been making me anxious too, suspended as it was on the edge of the hassock where, a little earlier, a heavy man had been perched, hectoring a young woman about Italian cinema before rising and striding off manfully, in search of cake.
“Why don't I just take care of it?” I said, picking up the offending triangle and dropping it back onto my plate, which I neatly skimmed to the other end of the coffee table—some sort of tree trunk topped with an oval of glass.
“Thank you,” he said, and we both sat back in our chairs, feeling more relaxed.
Suddenly, a woman approached and asked if she may join us. The more the merrier, I thought. I remembered her name was Edie—an artist of very large, very bad drip paintings, and an instructor of very small, very bad art classes. After we exchanged air kisses, I risked a look at my new anxious friend. He seemed alarmed and made faint gestures toward flight, lifting and falling back against the five-finger chair. I took a chance; for all I knew he'd bolt and make a run for a door or a window, but I laid my hand on his arm, a gentle command: stay. I meant it to be kind, even though it might have seemed as though I had chastised a dog. How could his wife bring him to these things and just set him adrift?
Edie asked me what I was working on these days and I told her I was finishing my commission for the Box-Shaped Heart. I was known in the town for my lino prints and watercolour paintings but recently had moved into woodworking, where I created furniture that was conceptual, enigmatic, and highly impractical. The Box-Shaped Heart was a project, commissioned by a local gallery, which was a series of symbolic beds that depicted stereotypical stories of love—a clandestine affair, a disenchanted wedding night. “It’ll be up and installed in a week,” I said. “You must come to the opening,” I hoped I’d sounded as though I really meant it.
I asked Edie how her work was going, for I managed to be socially adept when I wanted to be, and she talked about her latest project. She'd gone from wall-sized abstract paintings to nature dioramas, which helped to explain the earrings. Little waterfall scenes and rocks and origami fowl—her words, not mine—and she'd arranged for a show in three weeks' time. “And we won’t run out of wine glasses,” she said, and laughed. “You must come.”
Edie then recognized a man in the far corner she had to speak to and wandered off. I knew the man owned two of her early paintings because I had seen them when I was at his apartment one afternoon—though that was many years ago and I was sure he wouldn’t remember me.
“Got a husband?” my new anxious friend asked. It sounded as though having a husband was like owning a pet.
I nodded and made a sweeping waving gesture in the direction of the kitchen. “He's back there somewhere,” I said. And he was, chatting up the new creative writing teacher at the local college. “My husband can and will always find the youngest woman in the room.”
He reared back; he looked me in the eye for the first time and smiled.
I felt a tremendous sense of shame and decided to change the subject. “So what did you do?”
“Before.” Before everything shifted slightly and became impossible, I thought.
“What did you teach?”
“Art . . .” His voice trailed off, before he roused again to say, reluctantly, “I used to be a sculptor.”
“There's one piece that reminds me of you.” He sat up straight and looked directly at me again. It was the most concentration he had shown since following his wife in through the front door. “It's a woman—a mannequin—on a rickety, fragile berth.”
“You did that?” I asked him. He nodded away now, very pleased.
And then I said the line that's both the biggest cliché and the one thing everyone at the party wanted to hear. “I know your work.”
And I really did. I had seen the piece—Accidental Encounter #6— in a little museum with a big name when I was in college. I must have gone back and looked at it five times in one afternoon. I had loved it. I had even tracked down the docent and got her permission to take a picture. “The photograph once hung in my study,” I told him, and he smiled.
“What happened?” I said, although I meant, What happened to you?
"I couldn't do something like that again.”
“I know,” I said.
“Would you like a piece of cake?”
He considered my question seriously and then said, “Yes. Thank you. Cake would be nice.” He unfolded his cocktail napkin with the same consideration he had given my question and spread it across his lap. Then he laid his hands on top of the napkin and looked at me for approval. I nodded.
I stood up and walked past the table laid out with awful little sandwiches and assorted cakes, some looking wetter than others. I cut a slice of the prettiest cake; it was sitting on a doily and its white icing was festooned with tiny real flowers—violets in late November—I wondered if Edie had made it. I picked up another paper napkin, and looked back hoping to see the tiny flicker of pleasure on my anxious friend’s face.
But he was gone. I might have dreamed him up, I thought, imagined the whole thing. In his place, firmly ensconced in the palm of the granite hand, was my husband talking to the creative writing teacher. He caught my eye and I give him the look that said I'm done, and he understood, our code perfected over the years. He stood, and said, “Well, it's time for us to go,” and we swept around the room, kissed the hostess and thanked her.
As we left the house and walked down the driveway, I still held the cake in my hand. I began to crush it between my fingers, leaving a trail of crumbs to follow, for my friend to find his way home.
The portraiturist was standing in the front yard, alone, contemplating a yew tree and smoking a cigarette. “Hello there,” she called softly, then lifted one arm in a sort of a wave. It felt like a benediction.
“Who's that?” my husband asked.
But I wasn’t listening so I said, “I don't know.”
Kyle Greenwood is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. His writing has appeared in TOK: Writing the New Toronto (Book 5), The Fairy Tale Review and This Magazine where he placed second in the Great Canadian Literary Hunt 2009.
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