Christina’s Portrait

My pal Silvi used to spend all her time cooped up in a rather distinguished arts studio in mid-town Manhattan sketching and drawing and painting and molding and shaping and all that other stuff that artists tend to do — On the occasion that she did leave the premises, I usually waited for her in small restaurants and joints across the street, the local McDonald’s would do, and people-watch the ordinary folks biting into their sandwiches and licking mustard off their chins, waiting in line to pay a quarter to use the public restroom for crying their everyday sorrows off their backs, the homeless bums leaning on the other side of the building, drinking out of a paper bag and sleeping on the pavement — All those on the city streets walked in near daze, searching for life’s answers and the world’s attention, most of them just desperate to achieve what they believe is something worthwhile in life – something that I suppose we all are in this crowded frying pan, and something that Silvi was striving for herself as an artist — I sat there eating my sloppy burger, listening to the crowd stampede and charge up the stairs to the second floor where I sat – “Here they come,” I thought to myself as I looked out the window to see the building where Silvi spent her days amongst a sea of eraser shavings — I crumpled up the sandwich wrapping paper, tossed it in the bin, dragged my chair across the bleached floor, and let myself out.

I decided to pay her a visit in the tall building where all the artists gathered, a parallel universe I soon found out – I walked in and found everyone perched on stools easily four feet above ground holding some obscure sharp-edged tools and graphite pencils, slicing a cork board in half amongst a sea of eraser shavings, conjuring up recollections of the arts store in Chinatown that she recently dragged me to– I remembered entering into this massive storage room with bins full of steel rulers, colored pencils, pastel crayons that smelled so fresh– all this construction material that I was far too uneducated to comprehend at first – But I knew what I felt and I felt intrigued — Anything I drew or sculpted ended up looking like a donkey’s ass, but Silvi always came home with something of a masterpiece, be it a glazed Aztec pot, a clay ashtray or vase, a painting, or whatever.

She didn’t seem in the slightest bit fazed to see that I had climbed what felt like sixty staircases for a visit.

I asked her, “Watcha working on?”

“It’s a secret.”

“Then why aren’ta hiding it?”

“Ok it’s not a secret, but it is a surprise – You can stay here and watch but don’t ask too many questions – You’ll find out later.”

That was not a problem for I plunked down on a stool beside her and continued my steady observations – I watched as she chiseled away at what she likely considered her magnum opus – She never said so but the look plastered on her face was undeniable – From afar I saw the sweat on her brow drip down her cheek and settle on her chin whenever she etched just the right line, just the right feature at just the right angle.

That evening we left the studio with not a single word exchanged about her artwork but the day came when she finally caved and told me it was a sketch of an anonymous friend. Had she not unveiled it, I would have earnestly wondered whether I was that lucky gal in her portrait but by the looks of it, it was someone else – She was a young gal with flat, wavy, shoulder-length hair, round-rimmed spectacles, and an overturned lip that curved out with her rounded nose – Her barely-arched eyebrows stretched out toward each other like long-lost lovers at sea reaching their arms out for one another, and her hooded, droopy eyes told a familiar sad tale I’d heard before.

“Who’s this then?”

“Anonymous.”

“Oh come on! The first time I saw this you told me that it was a secret and now the secret’s out –You’ll tell me who this is eventually so you might as well speak now. Reveal, don’t conceal, do you hear me?”

“Alright, alright. Her name’s Christina. She’s just a girl I know who sits across from me in one of my classrooms — Honestly, we’re not close mates since she’s such a downer, always moping around, ambivalent, quiet — Real nice but real cryptic, that one – But that’s enough of that – Say, how do you like the portrait?”

“Brilliance. Pure brilliance.”

I was touched by both the story and the painting and as it turned out I wasn’t the only one — In a matter of weeks, some high-up people from a Manhattan gallery rang to tell us that they’d chosen to award the portrait and display it for one whole month – Best of all, we were invited to a showing among crowds we could only dream of.

That night we polished ourselves up to take everyone’s breaths away, but when we entered our own breath was taken by the room’s enormity, the night’s sophistication — Gee, it was the fanciest cocktail I’d ever sipped from — Red curtains lined the walls where windows showed a view of the city skyline, a whole different one than the one we’d known, where lights twinkled and music played lightly in the background and a whiff of something so pleasantly fresh and delectable swirled and mingled around with our noses – The help, dressed in black slacks and white shirts, weaved in and out of the crowd who stared at all the works of art displayed on the wall – They carried goodies on platters like slices of cakes and rolled-up salami on a stick that pierced some cheese and an olive on either end.

“So this is an art exhibition!” I nudged Silvi, “Fancy!” I couldn’t help but run from one end of the room to the other, in between pantyhose-clad legs and stiff trousers, absorbing the evening before it wound down. I whooshed past pin-up photographs, paintings of burnt and desolate landscapes, stick figures, and alcohol-induced paint splatters and somewhere in between all those other masterpieces hung Silvi’s, framed in all its glory, with the title of “Christina” gleaming above it – I strolled past it completely taken aback – Its hypnotism felt hard to resist – I could just get lost in those penciled eyes forever.

Then it struck me — the muses in all these paintings, the muses in all art, the muses in life – I gazed deeper into Christina’s eyes as they pierced me to the core with a look of desperation, a reflection of a place where good was no longer good enough – I could almost hear her screaming for a speck of attention, a scrap of recognition – If she only knew that she was hanging at the center of everyone’s minds that night.

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About Veronika Carnaby

American writer and poet Veronika Carnaby's prose pieces have appeared in a number of publications. Carnaby infuses her writing with a passion for 20th century culture, music and literature.