Sunday, November 22, 2009

The woman who wasn't happy

The woman sits in three-quarters face, the right side of her face toward me, looking out the corners of her eyes at me. Her hair is an incredible vermilion, a lock in front has been pulled back and secured at her crown with a barrette, and mercilessly bleached. Her lips are sensual, her cheeks thin. She is wearing a blue t-shirt. She is not happy. She is definitely not happy. Sadness shows in the dark blue rings under her eyes, discontent in the pout of her mouth, anger in her gaze.

I'm a little startled to realize that the artist herself , or the husband she met in art school fifty years ago, framed the painting. It is complete, though in places the paint barely covers the canvas. The woman and her frame of mind have been captured in the absolute minimum of brush strokes—more here on the forehead, fewer under the eyes, just a few strokes delineate the shirt. The mouth is perfectly, fully drawn in a few deft strokes of pink and red.

The background is mostly a detail-less tan-brown, except for three short horizontal strokes of dark blue to the right of her face. They might have been abstracted from a window sill or fence rail, but now they are emotion or aura or waves of alarm the painter felt in the face of this unhappiness.

The fact that the painting is framed, yet sitting in the studio after the artist is gone tells me that it was a gift rejected, and now I remember the story: The artist laughed uncomfortably. She had offered it, but the sitter didn't want it. "Too accurate," her husband had diagnosed. He meant it as consolation.

There were other occasions when the artist said her truth and was surprised by the reaction. She interceded between a father and his daughter when she thought the daughter was being abused. And again years later, she defended a different girl against her abusive mother, at Thanksgiving, causing a family brouhaha for which she seemed completely unprepared.

I imagine the unhappy woman sitting for the painting, having her portrait done by the kindly old artist, what she must have been hoping for. "Show me I'm beautiful." But truth, as the poet said, is beauty, art is about truth, and this old woman was an artist at the height of her powers. When she turned her gaze on a subject, kindness had nothing to do with it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Mirror at 55

You look in the mirror, and it's not your mother you see any more. It is perhaps the least sexy woman you know of—your grandmother. She may have been kind and a great baker of cookies, but sexy? No, no, no.

There's a new level of compassion that the end of collagen and the Kegel imperative bring with them. The hot flashes are the least of it. If you're going to have any sex life when your lips have suddenly (SO suddenly) developed those little wrinkles like living room curtains, and your labia have suddenly deflated and deformed—nobody mentioned THAT would happen--and you can't count 100 percent on your urethra, and you aren't sure if you can even come any more—if you're going to have any sex life at all under those circumstances, you have to develop some sympathy for other women in the same situation. Because you have to find some way to imagine another woman finding you sexy.

And you'll have to reciprocate. Oh my dears, there is so much beauty and excitement in a firm, slim, energetic female body with a light sheen of sweat on it. And what can you say about a high mileage, well-worn, rather dry, menopausal woman? That she's wise? She may or may not be… Is that sexy? The skin on her arms--even if her cheekbones are prominent and her eyes are a perceptive clear blue, even if she has knowledge, skill, and wisdom—the skin on her arms stretches and wrinkles with every motion. It's like the earth's surface from outer space—looking down at the foothills. And yes, John Updike described it as looking like lizard skin. What about that inspires lust?

For now, I leave the question open.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

In His Dreams

In his dreams of pogroms, he is the Jew.
Each night he hears the dogs coming for him,
the horses’ hooves on stone,
the men with whips, shouting.
Each night he escapes many times,
and wipes the dogs' saliva from his neck.

In his dreams I speak his language.
I understand him perfectly when he tells me of
his hunger, his loneliness, his wanderlust.
I do just as he asks. He is the lonely hero.
I am the whore with a heart of gold.

In his dreams flowers turn into birds
birds turn into rabbits,
mice have feathered wings, are fat, and taste like fish.
It is always night. All the dogs are caged
and foxes jog freely down deserted streets.