2002-04-24 - 3:41 p.m.
H. reminds me of a bird. She is slender, and almost delicate, with an arching neck, and when she is excited about something, her hands dance in front of her like tiny misplaced wings, as if she moved them fast enough, they could lift her from the ground. The only time she appears to be in control is with a paintbrush in her hand. The fluttering stops, and her eyebrows furrow in concentration, and even though she worries and second guesses and paints and paints again – you can’t see that on the other side of the canvas. All you see is the furious jabbings of the paintbrush, H.’s eyes darting above and to the side of the canvas – glance, jab, glance, jab.
H. has painted my portrait five times – odd hours stolen over Christmas, or spring break, or Memorial Day weekend, when she is home from school. I think I’m the only one of her friends that will sit for her anymore. I like sitting in one place; when you concentrate that hard on not moving, soon it is the only thing you can think about (and everything else fades away). And H. is different when she is painting, easier to be around, less engulfed by her anxieties and self-deprecating attitude. We listen to NPR, and she paints with a steadfastness and attention to detail that is absent from her everyday life.
She has yet to finish a portrait of me.
I imagine finding all five canvases, and lining them up in a row. My own private gallery exhibition – Unfinished Portraits of Me. I have one of them, leaning against my bedroom wall, half obscured by the trash can. It both looks like me and doesn’t look like me – my facial features compressed into a two-dimensional form. Anne says it is what I will look like when I am forty. The portrait was painted at various points during H.’s first year of graduate school, before she had really developed a style; I remember pulling the green and white striped shirt out of the laundry basket, limp and stained, to wear for yet another sitting.
Each time I saw her again, she would want to start a new painting. "But your hair's shorter," she would say. Actually, she was becoming a better painter; each portrait was slightly better than the previous one.
I made her give me the most recent one when I saw her last weekend in Baton Rouge. It was in a box in storage, but I made her fish it out. She grimaced when she saw it; I think she would have preferred to leave it in the box. But I wanted it; it felt like a part of me, somehow, if only the time I invested in it by sitting still. She painted it a year ago, when I visited her in Baton Rouge (at the end of yet another failed relationship, when I know that eight hours in an unairconditioned car with no tape player through the ugliest industrial landscape you can imagine will only cheer me up). I balked at sitting for, yet again, another unfinished portrait (I pictured hundreds of them – all stretched out in a row – each representing some path unchosen, some potential unfulfilled). She didn’t finish it. Another one to add to my collection.
[Context: Anne and David and I went to Baton Rouge this weekend, for H.’s thesis show, which was good, despite H.’s warnings to the contrary. Then we drove to New Orleans, stopping for a swamp tour, where we rode in canoes, and saw five alligators. I thought I would be scared, but it was all I could do to not snipe at H. the entire way, who kept rowing our canoe into the riverbank – first the right one, then the left, and then the right again. I also learned that switching to all-organic deodorant just prior to spending two hours in the blazing sun in the bayou is not a good idea. New Orleans was…good and bad. Good: Being chauffeured (and sleeping almost the entire way, there and back). Riding the streetcar, remembering not to poke my head out the window, because those poles along the side are awfully close, and getting decapitated would probably ruin the trip for everyone else. Huge balcony overlooking St. Charles Street. Hearing someone use the word blog in conversation. Reminiscing about Atlanta, and Tortilla’s, and Waffle House. Bad: Feeling that anxiety and frustration that is usually only reserved for when I’m around my mother. Indecision. That inimitable smell in the French Quarter – heat and humidity and sweat and piss and alcohol. Waiting in line for a table at Café du Monde.]