She painted me that night in reds and yellows. Splashes of blue flecked my cheeks and I watched the deepest shade of red in my hair drip down the canvas like blood running down, down, down. Down my forehead and over my nose, splitting my lips and sliding past my chin, breaking the depth and continuing as if there was no barrier between the ending of my face and the continuation onto the background. My neck jutted to the right, turned to show my back, light green freckles sprayed thicker than I knew of myself. The girl on that canvas was not someone I knew, no matter how familiar the face was. I reached up and brushed my fingers across my eyes, wondering if they held the depth of panic I could read like a book from the painting. It took me a second to remember I shouldn’t have moved, but she seemed not to notice, not to care.
I could’ve left then and she likely would not have noticed until morning. But I didn’t. I stayed to watch. I watched more colors drip down, paths changing slightly at outlines, splitting and covering but never muddying the details of the face. There was so much emotion in that picture, emotion I didn’t have the depth to feel. I looked at her, searching her face for any of the emotion she was detailing in front of her, but her face was frozen, a statue, concentrated and wild. Her hair stuck out and her hands were covered with paint and she looked so dialed in to her own thoughts, jaw and eyebrows set angrily, like she might punch the painting any second, no matter how gentle her brushstrokes. I wondered if it was her that the woman in the painting was afraid of.
Maybe if I was on the receiving end of that look I would seem that panicked too.
When she asked me to model for the painting I didn’t want to. It didn’t feel right. I’ve always been a writer, constructing people and giving them a purpose, never the subject of such construction. But I really wasn’t. I wasn’t the subject at all. I was the pose, the face, the structure, but I was none of the things that filled the space between that frame. I don’t have the capacity to fill that space. I don’t think she does either.
I went home early in the morning. She had stopped painting at some point and just began to stare, her eyes breaking down every square centimeter and analyzing it. She shook her head sometimes, violent, quick, but small movements, barely a shudder, and that was all. She didn’t move. Not to get up or wash the paint off or edit the painting in any way. She would grunt in what sounded like dissatisfaction sometimes, but mostly made no sounds. By the time I left the paint on her hands was cracked and I wasn’t sure if she was still breathing.
I don’t know how long it had been since she stopped painting when I finally left; I was far too deep in my own thoughts. I couldn’t remember what I brought with me, so I just stood and left. I walked down the street, not sure where I was going, but definitely headed towards the sunrise. I couldn’t help but think how flat people are. We look at paintings and writing and the sunrise and try to find meaning. We make poetry and search for purpose. We see these flat pictures, flat paged books, flat backdrops of sky and think “it’s deeper than it looks.” But it isn’t. It just exists as flatly as it looks. It accepts its flatness, but we refuse. We look for emotion but it’s just materials. We are just materials. Flat people, looking for emotion, for depth, in everything. In art. In nature. In each other. We make it up because we want it to be there, but it just isn’t.
I realize I have to head home eventually. At some point I have to get on a train, go home, prepare for the day, continue my life. I don’t question why, even though I do question why I don’t question it. But I know that answer. I don’t question it because once I do, the spiral begins. That spiral that always, always leads straight down into the bottomless pit that is the search for purpose. There’s no point in falling through it again. You never find the bottom. Sometimes you will hit a wall and think “this is it, this is the bottom,” but it never is. You could think you’ve found the bottom your whole life, but you’re wrong. There isn’t one. You’ll die without ever finding it.
Eventually I get on the train, which arrives two minutes behind schedule, because that’s what it does, and I go home and get ready for the day, because that’s what I do, and I continue my life with everyone else, because that’s what we do.
A few months in the future, I’ll go to see the finished painting before it is sold. I’ll stare at it for a while, trying to see any changes that have been made since I left. The only one I’ll notice is the shimmering, golden leaves woven into the hair. I’ll look at it and think “I was part of something,” but I wasn’t. Someone will buy it for whatever reason they have, hang it somewhere where they think it looks perfect, but it doesn’t. People will keep looking for purpose, in the painting, in their life, in the world, but they shouldn’t.
One day I will die. Who I was when I was alive will be written on paper or etched in stone or carved in wood. People will talk like I was something that meant something, but to them I will finally look just as flat as I am. My body will break down, whether by fire or water or earth, it will break down, and become a part of something and a part of nothing and flat. Flat, flat, flat. Flat line, flat person, flat body. Flat something, flat nothing, flat everything.
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