I don’t know how to explain or even justify what happened without first describing him. I noticed his poise first, the way he stood, one thumb through a belt loop on his jeans, face turned in my direction with that age-old inviting smile. From a distance he could have been looking at anyone or anything, after all, this was an art show. My work was behind me, and no one much bothered with it. Why should they? It was another failed attempt with subpar supplies bought from one of those discount stores you find just about anywhere in Southern Maine.
I had painted a portrait of a man, nude, but the angle only showed his side and thigh slightly raised… this is what happens when the model doesn’t give permission to use his face or genitals, you are stuck. True, any website would have provided the manly bits I would have needed but I couldn’t bring myself to fake it. Another artist was whispering to a friend that the those without proper equipment could never call themselves a true painter. I knew this to be false, but said nothing. The work behind me was an insult to the craft because it wasn’t the truth. Art must speak either the complete truth or create a lie so outrageous that it says only that which is real. The smiling man I saw was real to me. He was the truth and I felt compelled to paint him.
Normally, I would have brought out my butterfly sketchbook and begin with rough drawing to catch the angle he was at, but when I touched my messenger bag he was gone. Irritation and regret that I hadn’t approached him ate at me. Perhaps unsurprisingly you can find almost everyone willing to pose for a painting at an art show. Most in attendance were models or people who supported the arts and would be pleased to have their image used. Of course, I sold more private paintings for personal collections and never had a piece bought at an art show before, so perhaps I assume too much about those in attendance. My work was too raw next to the polished art graduates and artists from wealthy families. The art dealer approached me slowly, I had many speak to me about moving my work in the past so they could put another piece up instead, but only the ones ready to insult my paintings would come with a smile on their face. I cringed, ready for the worst as the smile on his face seemed a little too polite.
“We have an offer for your painting for $1,500.00. I know the asking price was a fifth of that, but the gentleman insists that we take the art down now and send it along before you receive any more offers. Frankly, I don’t see any other options for you as no one else has even inquired about the piece,” Reginald Reed’s smiling face promptly said without reservation. I nodded, not knowing what else to do, and he removed my painting. The artist who had been insulting me indirectly stared in amazement as Reed ordered one of workers dressed in tight leather pants to prepare it for delivery. I think that’s when it hit me, seeing her face drop like that, I had actually sold a painting at an art show and for much more than my asking price! I felt giddy and like screaming, but I composed myself as the director waved me to the back to fill out the necessary forms as it was my first time with this studio.
Reed was just under 4-feet, however his commanding presence and confidence would make you feel like you were in the presence of a giant. I had seen the reverse happen as well, tall men so timid that they appeared 2 feet in height to me. I had met with Reed numerous times before, often he rejected my work, and I only noticed his height when we were in his office. He was standing next to his desk and I realized he was shorter than I was. It also made me realize how little I observed of the actual physical forms of individuals compared to the general public. Perhaps that’s why my paintings never depicted more than one person- I could only see one at a time.
After the cut the art studio took, I had $1,250.00 to do with as I saw fit. It felt confining to have congratulations on my piece selling, as though it was just another scene in a play no one bothered attending.
The thing was, this was the most I had ever sold a painting for. My parents would have been proud, if they had been alive to see it. I wanted to call my siblings, but I didn’t feel I had earned that right. Why bother them with facts about me that seemed exaggerated or overblown? No, it was better to have them not know and pretend they would be happy than to tell them and hear their disappointment or apathy. Love? I knew they loved me, but time and choices had separated me from them long ago. They would welcome me back, anytime, but I wasn’t ready. Go back to questions about why I didn’t tell them about the art show, or why I was working in an office when I could make more money in a warehouse? My body would never allow me to do the work they could do. It was shameful, actually. I knew I wasn’t half of the person they were and why would I provide confirmation to them about it? I was alone by choice, but not because I didn’t want their company, but because I chose to let them live without the humiliation that a Peek wasn’t as strong as they were.
Two of my sisters tried to reach me, now and then, but my work scheduled saved me from them multiple times. “Bankers’ hours,” my brother once scoffed. If your hands weren’t rough and you could move easily after working all day, you didn’t do your best, in his opinion. I had once been so poor that I went without basic necessities simply because I couldn’t stand the idea of telling them I needed help. Pride, I suppose that’s my biggest flaw. I would have never held it against anyone to seek help or assistance from me, but I couldn’t help but think that my flaws were counted out or measured on an invisible scale. From my limited experiences, many times the youngest in the family feels this way- how can you compare when each sibling before you was so incredible? One good art show and I would call them all to come. Just one good showing…
Imagining the man again, I wished I had been close enough to see his eyes. I wanted them to be unique and captivating, but history told me they would be a dull gray without a spark of life until you coaxed it out of them by having them speak about something they love. This often took longer than the allotted time to photograph them for paintings took and I was left with lifeless eyes or uninterested expressions. One good model and I knew I could paint something worth showing my family. I left early, hoping to find the man in jeans somewhere on the sidewalk. No luck. This was disappointing, but thrilling to me that I had painted something that someone actually wanted.
Walking to my car was simple enough, it was still early and if I hurried I could probably get back to my home and sketch him. I had to catch the way his wrist had created such a delicate curve while having such large hands. From a distance these things are more easily seen, but it was the shoulders and the ease in which they rested as though he had been leaning on something while away from the walls. His hair had been dark, almost black but definitely more brown, and his lips had been a dark shade of pink but I was forgetting his features all ready, it had been too short a glance.
“Hey! Heard you sold a painting,” a voice called out to me. I turned to see my good friend, sometimes family and always my best friend, David Green. He was in his late forties, but if anyone asked I always said he was around 38, as he had requested. His Italian heritage was much to his advantage as he had a well sculpted face, my work in clay often featured his cheekbones and long but narrow lips. While it is considered stylish to have large lips, when you have pronounced cheekbones and a small chin, as a painter I can easily tell you that it is easier to balance a drawing when these things aren’t contrasting each other. David was fortunate to have a kittenish mouth.
“David, you cheap whore,” I shouted. He laughed and behind him I saw the mystery man with a cigarette on his lip, unlit. David talked about how people were losing it over the painted toilet, it was neon green with a stack of glass diamonds inside of it. I disliked it, but then again I had trouble understanding abstract pieces like that. David chatted on and then was called by one of his many lovers to hurry back to the show. Before I could stop him David rushed off, telling me not to call him tonight because he was planning on spending it with at least one artist who needed inspiration.
“I liked your painting.”
I looked at him, squarely, trying to find a flaw in him and found none. His eyes, dear God, those eyes were blue with specks of gold and brown in them! His eyes were like the wings of a butterfly. His lips were large, but he had a heart-shaped face with hair so thick he must’ve fought with the barber to cut it at all. He looked familiar, but from where I could have never guessed.
I couldn’t speak, instead he lit his cigarette, with a gold lighter and turned his head to blow out the smoke. His neck lead to an Adam’s apple and I could see just a bit of hair poking out through his v-neck shirt. I wanted to touch his chest and explore his body. Had I thought that? I felt myself flush and the pooling of heat in my chest, neck and- “So, you do this for a living?” he asked softly, in a voice that was so intimate I almost dropped my car keys.
“What? Painting? No, well, I try to,” I answered quickly and looked at his eyes once more. I had to memorize them, so when he noticed my plain clothes, old sneakers and messenger bag from the 90’s he wouldn’t walk away. I wasn’t poor, but I was far from rich. I had a job with a corporation to work on communications with customers through computers which I loved and hated because I couldn’t paint all the time. When you’re not a ‘real’ artist you have to live somehow and I wasn’t the type to be a starving artist because my talent wasn’t specific. Anything relating to words, even those on a screen, and I could understand it. I could capture it and produce it. I wanted to tell him this, but often the thought was mingled in with self-doubt and a fear of being misunderstood as a person who brags.
“I’m Opal Peek,” I said slowly, trying to make this meeting last as long as possible was my goal and if it meant talking like a fool, so be it. He smiled, he had poise all right, and skin that was so tight around his throat I wanted to run my hands on his neck and feel if he was sculpted out of marble. He finished his cigarette and said, “I’m famished, care to have dinner with me?”