"Is that one of you?" She asked sweetly, pointing to the large painting I was holding. She was a waitress in a restaurant in New York City, the restaurant that's been hanging Billy's paintings for over a year. Last night, after work, we climbed into his car and drove in to pick them up.
I stood in the back room of the tiny restaurant, a large portrait of a sad brunette balancing against my legs, while Billy removed more of the paintings from the walls.
"No," I said with a giggle. "It's not."
Clearly, this made her uncomfortable. The smile she'd been wearing flickered off and then back on again, only this time, it was forced. Her grin was hard, and she struggled with what to say. Finally, she settled on "Oh. Uh...Okay then." She nodded, turned on her heel and headed back to the bar.
"Sore subject," Billy joked while he hefted a larger painting up and away from the brick wall. I laughed with him. "You know, you could've just said it was. She wouldn't know."
"But it's not." I shifted my weight and rested the art against my knee.
"Can I trust you with that one?" he said, coming toward me with a mass of canvas in his hands. "You're not going to drop it on purpose or throw it into traffic, are you?"
"Well," I replied, contemplative, "I hadn't considered that. But now that you mention it..." He laughed and tilted his huge painting on its side, freeing the inches of dust that had accumulated on the frame. It slid off and made clouds around us. We coughed and waved our hands around to help it dissipate.
The painting I held was of a woman. But not just any woman. The one woman that I know from his past. My relationship with her is casual at best, and my feelings for her are mostly neutral, but tend to lean toward the opinion that she's a little crazy. But my discomfort with the painting has nothing to do with how I feel about her as a person. It has everything to do with the fact that he painted her. And I know her.
Many of the paintings that hang throughout Billy's house are of women. Mostly, they're nude, with pert breasts and closed eyes. There's one over the bed we share. There's one in the kitchen. And I love them. But those women are strangers to me. I know nothing of their history with my boyfriend, and I don't care to know. I don't know their names, the spot they held on the timeline of his life, where they met, how long they knew each other: Nothing. And while I don't want to know the graphic details surrounding the inspiration, pure curiosity makes me want to know what made him choose them, what about these women inspired him to pick up a brush and alter a blank canvas to forever reflect their images. But I have never even considered asking. Because asking one question leads to another, and the last thing I want is to open up that can of worms. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
I look at the paintings of the strangers, the women whose names I do not know, and briefly consider the story behind them, but quickly move on to simply appreciating them for the phenomenal pieces of art that they are. But the painting of a face I know belongs to his ex is painfully magnetic - Even though I don't want to, I stare at the painting and wonder: Did you pose her, or did you find her like that and commit that moment to memory? Did you tell her you were going to paint her? Did you show it to her? And where I can admire the anonymous women as an objective observer, it's the painting of someone I know - who she is, her history with the artist - that, for some reason, kills me.
I've always had a hard time looking at pictures of my boyfriend with past girlfriends. I guess I want to pretend that I always was his one and only, that he was locked into some sort of suspended animation, lulled into romantic inertia by this innate desire to find me. But that's silly. Of course he has a past. And I have boxes and photo albums of my own, full of snapshots of me with my past. But still, it sucks. Even though the past is the past for a reason, I just don't like to stare it in the face. It gives me something to compare myself to in my weaker moments: I try to recall the stories he's told of what she did that he hated, I imagine things she did that he must've loved...Even though what she did, who she was, has nothing to do with me.
But seeing paintings he's done of women he's been with is a different beast entirely. It's not just the split-second slam of a shutter capturing happiness, satisfaction or defeat. It's a process. It takes months. It's the sketching and color selection and altering and changing and working until he was satisfied with the final product. It's him making the conscious decision "I want to paint you," either out loud or simply to himself. And I suppose that a selfish part of me wants to inspire him just like that; I'd love for him to paint me, to recreate the arch of my cheek, the curve of my hip - To see myself the way that he sees me. He hasn't picked up a brush in well over a year, and when he says that he's dying to paint, he just needs the inspiration, something to paint, I feel...well...like shit. What about me? Don't I inspire you?
To be fair, he never actually told me it was of her. But it was easy to recognize her face in the portrait, where her head is tilted slightly forward and a lock of hair has broken free from her mane of black tresses.
"Can I ask you something?" I asked one night a long time ago.
Without pointing it out or referencing the art, I asked him if "that painting" was of her. He knew which one I was talking about.
He hesitated. "Yes. Why?"
"No reason. I thought it was, but I wanted to...I don't know...confirm, I guess."
"I hate that it's her," he said. "I love that painting, I just hate that it's her." He calls their short-lived relationship his one regret in life.
I let the conversation end there, not willing to toss in my own thought: As disgusted as I am to admit it, I hate that it's her, too.