The Forgotten Portrait by Mehak Oberoi

This story is one of the February Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.

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She was beautiful. She really was. Not the kind that made people smile and say “she’s really pretty,” though. But the kind that made you want to preserve it, to trap it in a glass cage and call it your own. And that’s exactly what the world did, with lenses and signatures on contracts she was too excited to fully read through. Because when it all began, she saw it as a present: a magic pill that made people smile at her more. Adoration. Except adoration often acts as a temporary substitute for love, and that’s just how she used it, to fill herself up and make the memory of dark nights when her body ached with desire go way. To be able to look at the ceiling fan and pretend that you didn’t try to make it the moon.

The cameras were kind eyes. The clothes were beautiful.

Like a chasing dog, though, the truth caught up with her. And although she couldn’t put her finger on it at the time, she often felt like a lab specimen on shoots, the crew morphing into scientists, peering over to stare.

So when one day she was approached by a boy with blue on his cheeks who, without any introduction, said, “I’d like to paint you,” with an intensity that would startle even the most unflappable, she couldn’t help but say yes. She knew of him, of course. Around the large studio building in which she worked, he was often talked about, the resident artist who, although officially part of the design team, spent all of his free time in his office, painting. He was young too, around the same age as her at 19. A prodigy, snatched up as soon as he could. Looking back on it, she would remember the whole thing as surreal, would not be able to shake off the image, as they went to his office, where a comfy chair had been set up in the middle, of walking on a path of brilliant light, their faces illuminated like the moon.

That wasn’t what made the incident memorable, though. It was the way she was admired. Like she was not a heavy sack you knew you could exchange for a pot of gold, but only if the contents were just right. But simply as someone beautiful, in the way that everyone wishes to feel but few ever do. And in coming days, she would try to forget. But it itched constantly, always at the back of her mind until, 5 days later, she quit. But for now, she just grabbed the finished artwork and ran.

Upon quitting, she made a resolution: to temporarily isolate herself. Only until she didn’t look the way she did and wasn’t this weird oaf people kept at arm’s length. Till she was able to form a human connection. So she went through with it.

She never expected it to work, though.

Time passed. Her story became a job of typing numbers without meaning, an apartment that always smelled like bleach. Dark nights when her body ached with desire. Looking at the ceiling fan and wishing it was the moon.

At first, her mind helped her cope. It allowed her to stand in front of the mirror and become the girl the world would see on magazines and in articles. Somebody she didn’t know and wanted to be. A new girl, funny and smart, who would talk with her for hours, about the colour of the sky and the bakery down the street that had amazing bread and going to a movie theatre. They would make plans to go out all the time, but because the girl in the mirror was too busy, they wouldn’t carry through. Because she was too busy.

Really.

Eventually, though, her face did change. And she jumped right back into her own skin. It didn’t matter, though. She could go to talk to people now. And so she went to bars, fairs, malls. But the world didn’t welcome her with open arms, even when she repeatedly asked it to. Repeatedly.

And so she quit.

____________

It was her 50th birthday. She got up early in the morning. Went to the bakery down the street to get cake. Said it was for a friend. The baker asked her to wish her friend happy birthday from him. She said she would.

She didn’t want to ruin the day, didn’t want to ruin the memory and make it bitter. So she came up with a resolution: to clean up the attic. It would be a resourceful day. Satisfactory. Just like the cake, right?

So she headed up. But in the second box she pilfered through, she found something much more interesting.

A forgotten portrait from a boy with blue paint on his cheek and a different life.

She almost wept with joy. Her friend was back! It was a birthday gift. They’d talk about the colour of the sky and the bakery down the street that had amazing bread and going to a movie theatre.

It didn’t matter if it was enough. She made it so. And it all ended with an ambulance, a screaming delivery man, and a seemingly asleep old woman on the couch, her arms wrapped around a painting of a smiling young girl who had the same eyes as her.

 

 

Mehak Oberoi
14
India
Germ Magazine guest author
… is a contributing guest author for Germ, which means the following criteria (and then some) have been met: possessor of a fresh, original voice; creator of fresh, original content; genius storyteller; superlative speller; fantastic dancer; expert joke teller; handy with a toolbox; brilliant at parties; loves us as much as we love them.

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