Fiction · 03/25/2020

Portraiture

He wants his wife’s portrait painted. He knows nothing of art, doesn’t even have an interest, but a slew of recent police brutality lawsuits against the city, his firm’s biggest client, has accrued him the sort of money that’s got him thinking about lineage. He considers the foyer of the Garden District home he’s always imagined for himself, the entranceway where huge portraits could be hung: his and his wife’s, their someday children’s. He thinks his wife a bit ridiculous, but she makes him feel his success deserved and the best still before them. Besides, she comes from money: she’ll know how to make it work. So he commissions the local artist his wife will sit for. He’ll be in Washington for the next week and a half; when he returns the portrait will be finished.

She sits for the artist several hours each morning. For the ten days the portrait takes she’s incredibly worried, sleeps poorly, suffers nightmares. She cries herself to bed and wakes anxiety-ridden. One morning she says to the painter, You have to finish today! You have to! Don’t stop until it’s done!

When her husband returns he goes straight to the portrait, propped where he suggested it should be, on the fireplace mantle of their Mid-City shotgun apartment. He doesn’t recognize it. Yes, that’s his wife, her lithe little body in a lemon-colored strapless gown, the emerald earrings he’d bought her on their Italian honeymoon peeking from behind shimmering hair — but the pressed lips and potency behind the eyes, as if her inner life were coiled, moments from unleashing. No, that’s not her. He could dress this woman in a power suit, put her before a jury and that jury would respect her. Fear her, even. He doesn’t know whether it’s the portrait or his wife who possesses this command.

What happened? he asks.

It wasn’t his fault, she tells him. That’s what I looked like these past weeks. Don’t ask me why, but I was sure I was going to die before this stupid thing was finished. I hardly left the house, I couldn’t visit anyone. You felt so strongly about it, I didn’t want to die and leave it unfinished. My whole life I never once thought about dying, but that’s all I could think about, death crossing the room. Have you ever felt that way?

No.

Me neither. It’s not the painter’s fault. This is the only me he ever saw. He was very nice about everything, except he ate eggs for breakfast and his breath stank. I almost said something but just wanted him to finish.

They stand before it, admiring.

His wife says, I like her.

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Adam Falik is a writer of fiction, drama, and cultural criticism. His fiction publications include The Los Angeles Review, Hobart and Trajectory. He has written and produced several plays including the opera ee me and pollock thee, a fictional account of Jackson Pollock and E. E. Cummings, which was nominated for a Big Easy Award. He is an Assistant Professor at Southern University at New Orleans.