Surveying the gallery, Ana noticed a woman with asymmetrical salt-and-pepper hair. She was examining her work down the sharp incline of her pointy nose, an impressive feat given that the paintings were hung above eye-level. She looks snooty, Ana assessed her. She then spotted a more promising prospect. A gentleman in a dark suit was contemplating her latest painting. It featured two naked lovers locked in an embrace: but not a happy one, God forbid. The figures’ tortuous positioning, the angular shapes of their bodies, the grayish tint of their sickly skin and the anguish reflected upon their pasty features, all suggested an attitude of suffering and despair. Well, I had to put a sexier painting in this show since Tracy asked me to, Ana justified to herself this concession to what she considered to be popular taste. Tracy, the gallery owner, had recently speculated that perhaps the reason why Ana’s paintings weren’t selling so well was because they were too somber: “When the economy’s bad, people want to look at something bright and cheerful,” she had suggested.
“But my paintings are meaningful and expressive,” Ana had modestly retorted. “They’re more likely to touch art critics who actually care about the human condition,” she defended her aesthetic standards over trivial market considerations.
“Too bad those critics haven’t set foot in my gallery yet,” Tracy had responded. Although she was as sensitive as a businesswoman could be without going bankrupt, Tracy nonetheless indicated that perhaps the expression of anguish, which was obviously Ana’s forte, could be combined with motifs that were more popular, such as nudity and sex.
“So you want me to depict rape scenes?” Ana put two and two together.
“What? No, of course not! I was only making a suggestion. If I were you, I’d paint pretty landscapes, flowers or vases. Something neutral that people might actually want to display in their homes and offices,” Tracy advanced a novel idea.
But Ana dismissed such a crude vulgarization of her artistic talent. “I don’t paint to sell. I paint to express,” she said. Tracy, however, politely reminded her that if she wanted to continue expressing in her gallery, she’d need to become more adaptable to the taste of their customers. As she was focusing upon such sobering recollections, Ana spotted a young man with glossy hair and dark eyes. For some reason, he looked familiar to her. Within a few seconds, she recognized him. It’s Michael, that nice, adorably shy Catholic young man she recently met in church! Without making direct eye contact with Ana, Michael went straight to her new painting of the two lovers. He appeared to be examining it closely.
“Hi. Thanks for coming to my exhibit,” Ana approached him.
“I said I would, didn’t I?” Michael turned to her with a friendly smile.
Gosh, he’s even better looking than I remembered, she observed. Don’t look at her tits, Michael told himself, attempting to focus on Ana’s eyes instead. But he couldn’t help but notice in passing that her outfit was less modest than the one she had worn in church. This time the young woman wore a short brown dress that hugged her curves.
“I really like this painting,” he said, assuming a contemplative demeanor. “I especially love the set of contrasts you establish here.”
“Which ones?” In her mind, the painting expressed a unified theme: the suffering that results from a dying love.
“Well, the angularity of the lovers’ position versus the soft curves of their bodies, for instance,” Michael remarked, gesturing towards relevant parts of the painting. “Plus the antithesis between the tenderness with which they hold each other and the anguish of their facial expressions,” he pursued. “Not to mention the complementary color palette you use,” he added, risking overkill.
As she listened to Michael’s comments, Ana wondered, does he even notice that this painting shows two naked people having sex? She was surprised that Michael seemed to mention every other element of her work, omitting only the most obvious. “You know, this painting’s mainly about sex and love,” she helpfully explained.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” Michael replied with a bemused smile.
“My gallery owner asked me to do a painting about something that sells,” Ana shrugged with an air of resignation.
“And you thought that two people looking like they’re both in excruciating pain while making love would do the trick?”
Michael followed the lead of her conversational directness. Will she take offense? he wondered.
To his relief, Ana laughed good-naturedly. “That’s what I call a compromise. Usually, I paint only serious themes,” she made a sweeping movement with her hand to indicate her other paintings, which featured popular themes, such as death, disease, massacre, hunger and despair. “I depicted the scene just to please Tracy.”
Michael nodded in agreement. “I get it. Enough anguish to please critics and enough nudity to please customers.”
“That was precisely my theory,” the quirky artist concurred.
“Just out of curiosity, has anybody expressed interest in buying this particular painting yet?”
“Let’s just say that my hypothesis has not yet been confirmed.”
“Good. Because I’d like to buy it,” Michael offered, surprised by his own atypical impulse of generosity.
Ana directed him an incredulous look. “Did you take a peek at the price tag yet?”
“Why? Do I look that poor to you?”
“I didn’t mean to suggest that…”
Michael glanced at the title of the painting. “Goodbye forever? What’s that all about?” Then he noticed the price, “Three thousand bucks? Holy shit!”
“You are aware of the fact this is a posh art gallery, not a flea market, right?” Ana double-checked.
“Yes and I stand by my offer,” he confirmed.
“You really don’t need to, honestly. I’m sufficiently impressed by your noble intentions,” she assured him.
“No, I mean what I say. I want to buy it,” Michael insisted.
“Are you sure?” When he nodded, Ana’s face lit up with childlike joy. “Thank you so much!” She stepped forward and hugged him so tightly that he could feel the softness of her breasts pressed up against his chest. As she whispered a few more words of gratitude, currents of tingles ran from his ear to his neck, through his torso, all the way down to his toes.
“I really do like your art, Ana,” Michael said. “You have a way of expressing the sadder emotions. You give them nuance and range. Personally, I haven’t seen many contemporary painters who are able to do that as well as you do.” As he uttered the word range, he made a sweeping gesture with his hand, which accidentally brushed up against Ana’s hip. Michael’s whole body quivered, electrified by this unexpected touch. “Sorry,” he apologized.
“Don’t worry about it,” she placed her hand briefly upon his shoulder. “I’m Romanian. We Latin women are used to a lot worse.”
He looked at her with a sense of relief. She’s absolutely radiant, he thought. And that wasn’t just his impression. In point of fact, Ana beamed with delight. Many people had complimented her paintings and some had bought them. But hardly anyone grasped their essence as well as Michael. “I really appreciate your gesture. It’s so nice of you,” she repeated.
“Well, don’t thank me yet. I still have to seal the deal with the gallery owner,” Michael reminded her. The young woman promptly ushered him into Tracy’s office.
After they parted on that Friday afternoon, Ana left the gallery in a daze. She looked up at the sunny September sky. The clouds were so clearly defined that they almost looked painted upon a pale blue background. I must be floating on air, she told herself, uplifted by a sense of peaceful elation. Each time she recalled Michael’s fluid gaze gliding over her body and pausing to look admiringly into her eyes, she fell into a trance, like a schoolgirl experiencing her first infatuation.
Under the spell of these fresh impressions, Ana crossed the street to take the People Mover to the RenCen, where she had parked her car. When she arrived downtown, there seemed to be a big commotion around the subway station.
“What happened?” an elderly woman asked.
“A man fell under the train,” replied a middle-aged woman wearing clogs.
“Did someone push him?” a young man wanted to know.
“No. I heard this guy who was a friend of his say that he threw himself under the train,” a young woman commented.
“But why?” the first woman inquired.
The young woman shrugged. “Who knows? Poor guy… His friend was saying that has a wife and three kids. Can you imagine what those poor souls will feel when they find out about what happened to their dad?”
These snippets of conversation sobered Ana, taking her mind off her recent encounter with Michael. On the drive back home, she kept thinking about that misfortunate man’s suicide. What could have driven him to such a desperate act? she wondered. Was it alcohol? Debt? Drugs? An illness? Losing his job? Heartache from a failed love affair? Ana went through a few possible reasons. None of them seemed compelling, however. Nothing could be bad enough to abandon your children, she told herself. When she picked up Michelle and Allen from school that afternoon, she embraced them warmly, as one does when reuniting with loved ones after a long separation.
“Mama, stop it! I’m not a baby anymore,” her daughter protested.
But Ana disagreed. No matter how old they are, they’ll always be my babies, she told herself.
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