The Painter’s eyes weren’t ordinary eyes, nor was he an ordinary sketch artist, bargaining for a twenty dollar bill on Times Square. He had a little booth next to a bodega on 3rd, and he didn’t work in chalk or pencil, but in fast-drying egg tempera, with particularly dark yet vivid hues. The Painter wasn’t known to anyone by name, as far as anyone knew. He was simply “the Painter” and, if you sat for him, he looked at you the way you look at a bug in a jar. Your surface persona – that was the jar.
We went to the Painter because *she* wanted to. Cindy, I mean. Cindy was my girlfriend, though she is not now, and I can count the days that wound down our relationship from the day I sat for the old man in the beret and tried to hold very still, though in fact he never asked me to. The Painter didn’t do traditional portraits – that’s why he was so well known. What you got might be anything, seemingly – a smouldering flame, an overturned car, a bull tearing at the earth, but somehow you knew that it was yourself, the part of yourself you don’t show to anyone.
No two of the portraits were alike and, while there wasn’t a thriving market for them at that time – the Painter lived on fifty dollars per canvas – they are much prized and fairly scarce now, especially since so many people feel a deep personal connection to theirs. Few people are willing to part with them unless they’re really hard up. It would be like selling your soul, if you could have your soul in a canvas mirror.
Cindy wanted to get her own portrait done, but the man would have none of it. He looked at Cindy, as though he were seeing straight through her, and then kept turning his gaze back to me. The Painter doesn’t talk, but Cindy said, “I think he wants to paint you.” I didn’t care about a painting, but since she said, “that’s a great idea” I went along. I always did.
You always paid up front – probably in case you didn’t like what you got. “$50 – up front, no exceptions” was painted in deep blue on an old piece of canvas tacked up on the open door. You didn’t enter his “studio” – he sat in the way, blocking it with easels and mounted portraits of people who, presumably, had walked off in contempt at the sight of their inner person, if that’s what it was. You positioned yourself on a stool on the sidewalk, and the Painter received his money and then began.
Cindy was excited, the moment he dipped his brush. She squeezed my shoulders. I remember, it was the last real excitement I had from her, about anything other than her new future and going away without me. The Painter’s beret half covered and shadowed one eye, while the other bore into me like a gentle drill, letting out the tumescent humour of what it saw in paint. I thought he was kidding, at first.
But the Painter never smiled, that I saw, and no one else says he ever did, either. It’s not hard to understand. If you saw everyone wearing their skin like a costume, and then saw into them for what they actually were – if that was your gift – you might laugh occasionally, but it’s unlikely you would smile. Or maybe he was just tired of so many souls longing for escape from the prisons of their decorations and social pretenses. That sounds like how the Times put it when he passed.
The thing the Painter put on canvas… to describe it would seem to trivialize it in a way that might be impossible to really understand without seeing it up close, without seeing it the way I did, and apparently the way Cindy did. There are portrait artists who paint for everyone else, who stoke the social posture you’ve chosen to adapt, augment and enhance it. And then there are the ones who paint for you, for the place in your mind that’s still capable of self-recognition when you peer into the unadorned gloom, and they’re quite rare and tend to live alone and work in silence.
What he painted was a mountain. See? It sounds ordinary like that – not that it’s wrong to be an ordinary mountain. Most ordinary mountains are fantastic places, full of wonder and magic, merely on account of their history and if only because they are what they are. But the Painter didn’t brush up any ordinary mountain. It was a mountain of cliffs, one after another – the kind that invited you to think of yourself standing on them like ledges, but which were sloped toward the edge and empty space in a way that was disconcerting once you did – as though at any time you might stumble off the side and fall screaming out the last of your life in gasps. It was a mountain of black and purple, with storms rising behind it, and broken bits of its fallen past tumbled at the base, washed by furious and unrelenting seas.
It was “craggy and forlorn” is what Cindy said, not smiling. Then she asked, “Do you want to take it home?” I didn’t know if she meant “are we really going to have that thing leaning, let alone hanging on a wall in our apartment?” or if she meant, “are you hurt, that he didn’t get it right?” Except, that somehow, I knew he had gotten it right. Exactly right. And in that moment, wondering if I could trade that mountain for Cindy, because as silly as it seemed, that’s what it felt like it would mean, I answered, “Of course I’m taking it. This is me.”
“It’s your money,” she had answered. Until then, she had always referred to it as “our” money. I don’t really think she decided in that moment that it was over. But when it is finally over, of course, you can see a lot of tiny things that led to the end, all amounting to one big thing. You can see where you misstepped, like a man standing on the cliff of his own soul. And you can see where the wave crashed against you, but you didn’t give. You can recall when someone called out, expecting the echo of their own voice, and no voice returned. You can see the storm coming that made the other person seek shelter, where you offered only fallen stones without warmth or comfort.
It was after the man died that Cindy called me one evening. She asked if she could come over and, when she did, the first thing she looked at when she stepped into my apartment (it was “my” apartment where it used to be “ours”), was the portrait. She called it a “painting” not a portrait, but deep down she knew, had to know, that it was me – that it wasn’t a mistake or a fluke. She had to know that what the man painted, his eyesight failing, they later said, though he never showed any signs of it – or perhaps he didn’t need to see in the same way we all do – was the person that she had once loved.
And maybe she still did love me a little bit, but it’s hard to love a mountain when you’re a wave, isn’t it? You see, I think he really did paint us both that day, in some respects. Maybe what he painted was me in the context of “us”.
Cindy accepted tea. She didn’t drink coffee, so I had made a batch of sencha. She said, “you know that painting is worth a lot of money, now. Have you thought about selling it?” I don’t know what she wanted. She always knew gallery people. Maybe a finder’s fee? But I like to think better of her than that. Or maybe she wanted now to own it for herself? It could have tempted me, the idea of her holding onto a piece of me, keeping it where she lived, except of course that it meant the newer better models of boyfriend would also have me hanging there in mute witness. Or maybe she was just trying to help me. I had struggled financially, for a while, it’s true.
But I could no sooner let the portrait go, not at any price, than it would ever let go of me. There’s a thing that happens, when you see yourself, when you see deep enough into the interior, and you know it’s you. You don’t really come back completely from that – a part of you always stays there beside your soul, maybe in honor, possibly in respect or reverence or awe – like a pilgrim praying at a shrine, or perhaps you just never again want to lose sight of a thing of such beauty or hideousness, depending on your psychological aesthetics.
We had tea that last time. I want to tell you we made love one last time, but we didn’t. After I said I didn’t want to sell the portrait, we chatted about art in general, Cindy’s recent trips to museums, and she talked a little about how odd the old man had been. I didn’t say anything to that. Not that he wasn’t odd but, if he was, it was in a way that had changed my life. She left after an hour or so, and I never saw her again.
And then I poured out the tea and made a new batch of coffee. I went in the back room, and sat down in front of the easel. And I began to mix paint. I’ll never see the way the Painter saw, I think. Who knows, maybe when I’m older. But I do see a great many things differently than most people. And sometimes the images are so vivid that, when I close my eyes, they’re still there. And those are the ones that I try to tell the truth about, even if it hurts, and even if it costs me. I suppose what the Painter did for me was help me to finally be authentic.
When you mix a batch of paint, you mix for the deep or for the surface. You apply it in layers, which is a lovely truth of some paintings – they conceal all the internal organs of the soul, even under the superficiality of their public personas. Only when you study them closely, can you perceive what lies beneath those exterior textures. All of that sounds like philosophy, it’s easy to suppose. But you look sometimes, if you ever see my work lying around on a street corner – I don’t anticipate it’ll make me any real money in my lifetime at least – and whenever it turns the light back on you, the way a mirror does, then you know how the Painter changed me and how I continue to change.
Sometimes I think it’s like the mountain, a little crumbles off here and there, and the waves crash on you, and the storms beat down on you, and you’re craggy and rough, but pushing up through the crust you keep rising, always newer and always more of you, until you’re like the painter and you’ve seen the last of your work go over the cliff, and then what you leave is what you leave. I can accept a life like that, especially now that I know what I am.