Portrait

My mother always says that magic can happen on trains. It’s like quantum physics, she says, inaccurately. You’re moving through time and space faster, but with the illusion of stillness, so the laws of nature are different than they are in human time. It’s as if the past and the future are surrounding you all at once.

“Cars and planes do the same thing, Mom. Why would trains be any different? That’s not magic, that’s just modern transportation.”

Her response: “Where’s your imagination, Margaret?”

I know one person on this train: Lily Charles. She came in after me with her leather trunk and sat at the very front, and I didn’t try to get her attention. We live in the same town in Sussex, took the same bus every day to the same prep school, and now take the same train home every summer from university. When we were kids and everyone was the same, it was easier to talk. I wouldn’t know what to say to her now. I’m also intimidated by her, though I don’t know why I should be. I’m sure I have no idea what she thinks of me.

Last summer, when I slept with Bobby Messina and he told me I was too pretty to be so boring, I stopped thinking of myself as a certain kind of girl. I know how I look walking down the street, but I realized that in thinking of myself that way alone in bed in the dark, I was giving myself to the world like a pencil drawing. Erase me. Now, I think of myself as a mind, not a face. I know the layers of shades and hues that go into one oil-painted cheek; the reason Modigliani waits to paint his subject’s eyes. When I get my degree in art history, people won’t find it so easy to sell themselves the lie. Not even people like Bobby Messina. Not even me.

Lily doesn’t study art. Lily does art. That’s what she reminds me of: an abstraction rather than a concept, a vessel for things to flow through; a blank canvas, not a painted one. What do you say to a blank canvas? I don’t know what she likes to talk about, or what she expects to hear. Maybe she doesn’t expect to hear anything in particular.

That makes it even harder.

 

“What do modern artists paint?” people ask me, as if all modern artists are the same, as if we’re privy to a secret rulebook that lets us lord our enlightenment over the short-sighted schlumps at museums. The truth is, I call myself a modern artist because it’s the only thing that fits. My paintings are not easily categorized. If the word “modern” can stamp legitimacy onto the stuff that comes out of me like snot out of a runny nose, I’ll take it.

When people ask me what I paint, I tell them I paint interpretations of things. “Interpretation” is another euphemism; it’s more things as they truly are to me. My favorite subject is people. They tend to be the most abstract, or, shall we say, “modern,” of my works of modern art, because most people are very complex; a whole landscape of light and shadows and hues; and all that has to show up on the canvas. The hardest ones to paint are the ones that seem easy to understand in real life. Then the painting just turns out to be an exact likeness, and those aren’t the kind of portraits I paint.

Someone like Margaret Hall. For ten years, she’s dressed the same way; Oxford shoes, collared shirt in pink or white, and a plaid skirt; like a cartoon character. She’s always wanted the same things and had the same hair and made the same sort of remarks, and everyone knows at first glance just what kind of girl she is. I envy that. I know I shouldn’t, because she’s made up of moving atoms, too. Sometimes I just wish I could feel that stillness, that cartoony permanence I see in her.

The train speeds through the countryside, casting to the wind each thought that tries to burrow inside me, carrying me away from myself. Patrick says I have a gift for seeing things. Patrick is a journalist. He sees everything exactly as it appears, so anything beyond the realm of fact is prophetic to him. Sometimes I think the way Patrick sees things is the most accurate way, in the end. He sees things as they choose to present themselves. Sure, there are deeper truths and things that go unsaid, but in this world in which anything can be any thing to any person, aren’t people ultimately simply what they believe they are?

That’s the thing about atoms: they’re always moving. Maybe we just have to pretend they aren’t so we can construct our little universes.

 

“Anything to eat, miss?”

I must have been daydreaming as I was looking out the window, because the woman’s voice surprises me. I remember that I am there.

“No, thank you very much,” I smile. The woman is stout and twinkly-eyed, a grandmotherly type. As she smiles back at me before moving on, I feel the waves of approval. Old people, people who are old enough to forget how youth feels, always like me. I look like the girl they imagined themselves to be at my age. I am the quintessential young lady.

I take out my art history textbook, craving the undeniable weight and presence of facts. On some instinct I don’t examine, I flip to Rembrandt’s chapter, to the dark, oily paintings filled with uncanny golden light. Stalwart blocks of text in Times New Roman contain the oozing pictures, make them barely bearable. How does Lily contend with that radical truth for a living? Is it something she sees by nature, like a snake sees thermal energy, or is it something she grits her teeth and allows herself to see?

My eye lingers on Ship at Sea. It’s a tiny, white-sailed frigate on a stormy sea, under a hot sun or a blood moon; it’s hard to tell; and cast as always in that strange gold light. I don’t think I’ve ever related to any person or thing more than that frigate. You could say I did it for Bobby, but really, I did it for me. I wanted to stop seeing myself like a portrait, never meant to change or change my mind. I don’t want to have to keep up continuity in my own head like a thing in a frame.

And that’s all to the good, my mother would say, but I’m still terrified. Won’t all that chaos distort and confuse me? Take me away from myself? Surely, it will change everything.

As the world races past me outside the window, I realize it doesn’t change anything that anyone can see.

I like being my own frigate.

“Last stop: Sussex,” calls the conductor.

The train slows to a halt. I look toward the front of the cabin. There in the front row is Lily Charles. She stands on tiptoe to get her trunk from the overhead compartment, blue eyes looking about, long blonde hair sashaying with the last latent movements of the train. I’ve seen Lily every day for the last ten years, but right now, something about her is different.

As she stands there hugging her canvas to her chest, it dawns on me that she is a finished painting.

 

“Last stop: Sussex,” calls the conductor, a kindly-looking man with a mustache. As the people around me get up and gather their things, I stay seated, my blank canvas across my lap. Something is calling on me to savor this moment.

“Front row, huh?”

“I like to be first.”

The conductor winks at me. “Brave girl.”

I stand up, and immediately, I feel a difference. The past hour of moving-forwardness has honed something inside me, casting away all the moss and amorphous things around it, sharpening it into a single node. I take down my trunk from the overhead compartment, testing. The node is still there. I look around at the people on the train with me. They look crystal clear. The whole world around me is crystal clear, everything rendered calm and simple by the tiny, hard diamond of self I realize has always been inside me.

This must be the thing Patrick sees when he looks at me; the thing that makes me feel strangely whole mirrored in his eyes. The permanent thing.

I look down the aisle of the cabin. I see Margaret coming toward me, Margaret Hall, a brown-haired girl in a blue-and-red plaid skirt. She is rushing to get off the train. A new and vivid humanness radiates from beneath her bangs: a Modigliani, the eyes painted once the soul has been seen. She stops when she reaches me, as if my calmness has grabbed hold of her and held on. We stand side by side waiting for the doors to open, entranced by each other’s energy in the silence, wondering how to put a name to what has changed.

“Bye, Margaret,” I say when we are standing on the platform.

“Bye, Lily,” she waves, and smiles. Something must have happened on that train, because as I look at Margaret Hall’s face, she doesn’t look like a cartoon anymore. The atoms in her face are moving; I can see them in her eyes, moving. And the way she looked at me, I think she could see mine, too.

Joelle Jones is a writer and college student who divides her time between England and California. She hopes to travel the world and translate her experiences into stories that free people.

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