As Tamara washed her hands, she closed her eyes, so she would not see herself in the lavatory mirrors.
It's not that bad, she thought. You always make more of it than you should. Just look, damn it. You're not a little girl anymore.
Tamara opened her eyes. She saw her face. It was always her face. She hated that.
“You're not as pretty as your sister”, Mother had said. Tamara looked past the reflection and at a scene of a little girl getting her hair long black hair lovingly brushed by her mom. The little girl was May, Tamara's sister. Tamara always stood to the side when Mother sat down to do May's hair. Afterward, Tamara would brush her own hair with the same brush, pretending her Mother was doing it for her. Even as an adult, Tamara envied May, the little girl Mother thought was so beautiful. Mother was right to love May so much. May was thin, while Tamara always needed a diet. May had perfect skin; Tamara was fighting off pimples. May had perfect teeth. Tamara wore braces until she was 23.
Tamara closed her eyes again. Negative ideation, her therapist called it. Only manifestations of her feelings of inadequacy. “I will not let this affect me. I will not let this affect me.” She repeated the mantra she was taught until she felt better. Or until other ladies in the lavatory looked at her funny. The funny looks always arrived before feeling better. After drying her hands, she picked up her evening purse and walked towards the door.
John was sure to be wondering what was taking her so long. He was a godsend. Always there for her, telling her how beautiful she was to him. It was nice to hear. He was lying, but it was still nice to hear. He was the beautiful one, much more handsome than any man she had hoped to marry. He was quite the score.
The door to the restroom had a full-length mirror. She saw herself one more time. Her blue sequined evening gown was elegant, perfect for this event, though it did not look quite right on her. All the other ladies at the gallery's opening night wore dresses that were perfect for them with their hair done perfectly and their perfect boobs perky and perfect figures like Barbie dolls. Tamara was too fat for this dress. It was too tight and showed her rolls and flab and -
Tamara closed her eyes again. “I will not let this affect me. I will not let this affect me.” She blindly groped for the door's handle before opening the door and walking out.
The door squealed shut behind her. Tamara was ready to join the gallery of art lovers. That was when the painting caught her eye. She had not noticed it when she entered the lavatory, but it instantly arrested her attention when she exited. From the first glimpse, the flood of emotions it sparked in her – hatred, horror, anger, sadness – washed over her like an ocean wave. She took a step back to catch her balance.
She walked slowly as if it might bite her. Her heels made slight clicks as she walked across what smelled like recently laid linoleum to get a closer look. The object of her fascination hung on the opposite side of a corridor that seemed to have no purpose but to simultaneously separate the lavatories from the main hall and provide a means to connect them. Harsh fluorescent lighting and the sterile whiteness on the walls and floor gave the space an appearance more like a hospital wing than the gallery's display area, which was covered in flowing drapes of muted crimson plush velvets. She spent little more than a moment on the question of why it would hang such an unflattering area.
Tamara approached with the same combination of curiosity, fascination, revulsion, and awe one may feel when witnessing a horrifying traffic accident. She looked for the title of this piece on a nearby placard. “Through God's Eyes” it was called.
“I doubt it,” she said to no one.
The subject was a nude woman, whose arms were crossed, forming an X over her bosom, hands balled into fists. Her face was twisted into an angry scowl, her feet separated, and knees bent, her entire aura screaming a truculence that almost threatened the viewer should they continue staring. Such was the mastery of the artist's stroke that this angry woman could attack, leaping from the canvas, at any moment. Her image was crisp, her skin tone was perfectly natural, and her dimensions were realistic. Each black hair received its own pencil-thin stroke of slightly differing in shades, perfectly recreating the effects of age, environment, and lighting.
"What do you think?" a voice asked her.
An old man stood next to her whom she had not noticed before. He was dwarfish wearing a black tuxedo and carrying a black cane with a golden handle. The hair on his head, like that on his chin, was a brilliant silver and twisted into a neat ponytail. He briefly scratched his head with one stubby finger and Tamara noticed how the brightness of the hair stood out so well against his smooth dark skin. The hair betrayed his age as much as his face and skin hid it. Were he to dye his hair black, he could easily pass for being only a few years past his prime. As it was, she found it impossible to guess an age for him.
"Madam? What do you think?" His voice was soft and gentle. She noted a bit of an accent, African maybe, but she could not be sure.
"Of…um…this work?" She asked, coming out of her thoughts about him.
"You could call it that," he said.
"What else would you call it?"
The old man looked around as if he were finding the answer in the air. He then tilted his head toward Tamara and whispered, "Art." He laughed and Tamara let a chuckle slip.
"Well, that would certainly be a word for it," she said, looking at the painting again.
"Of course, it would be. It touches the soul and forces an emotional reaction. That is the true power of art. It can say words that cannot be defined, touch ideas that cannot be described and stir emotions that cannot be displayed. That is what makes art beautiful.
"So, tell me. What do you think of it?" He walked over, stood next to the painting, and looked at Tamara. "What does it draw from you? Love? Joy?
Tamara thought briefly then said, "Disgust."
"I thought I read that on your face," he said with a smile that seemed to be incomplete without a wink. In smiling, he seemed even younger. "Why?"
"No background," she said. "Not that every painting needs one, but it would at least make this one more interesting. The solid black does not do the subject any justice, especially with her dark skin."
He turned to face the painting. "Go on."
"And the subject," she wrinkled her nose like she smelled something bad. "It's a poor choice. Why does she look like that? Arms crossed…such a scowl… She looks…pissed!"
Laughter erupted from the old man. "She does, doesn't she? Please go on."
"And her figure…" Tamara gestured toward the painting, being able to move now that she found a voice and a name for her feelings. "Her body leaves nothing to speak of. She's not very attractive at all. There's nothing noteworthy about her."
"You don't find the human body to be naturally beautiful?"
"Usually, yes. But not this time. Not her. The artist doesn't seem to be trying to display her beauty. He accentuates blemishes and scars." Tamara pointed out the flaws. "The acne scars…the new blemishes coming through here…this odd one here." Tamara pointed to a long, odd-shaped scar along the subject's hip and leg. "Altogether, she's unimpressive. This seems to be more of a joke than a tribute. Whoever created this was…cruel."
He nodded solemnly. "I have been called that many times."
Tamara began to blush. "Sir, I'm so sorry. I didn't know-"
"Hush. It's OK. In fact, I'm quite happy you didn't know. I like the honesty."
"But if I knew, I wouldn't have said-"
"Not saying something doesn't make it false. If I were standing here or on the other side of the world, would that affect the subject's scowl, her body, her blemishes, or my cruelty? You were being honest. After all, isn't that what you look for in art? Honesty? Art, true art, all have the same source: the heart. And what lies at the heart but honesty?"
"Not all people are honest," she said.
"Not even most people are honest. Nevertheless, when you create from your heart, you will create from what you are, honestly. If you are honestly a crook, your ideas and passion will spring from that crookedness. If you are honestly a lover, your creativity will spring from that love."
"So, what does this say about you?"
He let out a sigh. "I love her. I've loved her from the beginning."
This answer, while sweet, was wholly inadequate. "Then why…this?"
"Because that's who she is."
His enigmatic responses grated against Tamara's growing frustration. "You claim to love her, but where's her dignity? Why did you give her so many faults? Why does she frown so much? She could be happy or even content. Why did you make her so angry? She is so closed, so vicious! Why not soften her so everyone could love her too?" Tamara trembled slightly under the force of her volley. She stared at the old man, almost daring him to offer any less than a complete and clear answer.
"Because none of that is who she is. This," he said, pointing at the painting," is she. She is nude because she cannot hide who she is from me. She does not like who she is, so she scowls at herself and anyone else who would dare look her way. Her arms are crossed because she will not let anyone in. So, yes, she is quite closed.
"But yet this is the woman I love. I love her as she is with no changes. That means that I love the scowl, the closed nature, and her anger. That means that I also love her blemishes and scars. Each one of them contributed to her development and I love them for that. I love her, who she is, as she is. Without the falsehood of rosy coloring or softening effects."
As the old man spoke, Tamara's disgust slipped away little by little. "I see.”
"Then I hope that you will see more. Like, for instance, your feelings toward her influenced to your observation of her. The scowl is not as severe, the posture is not as fierce, and the blemishes not as accentuated as you supposed."
Tamara looked with renewed attention. Everything the old man said was true. The subject did not look so much angry as she simply looked sad.
"Do you think she is beautiful?" he asked.
Tamara evaluated the subject again. She weighed all he had said and searched for the honest answer in her heart. "No."
"But she is! She's beautiful by nature. She is, after all, a work of art." He smiled and extended his hand. "Like yourself." Tamara took the old man's hand. He brought her hand to his lips for a gentle kiss. He put his other hand on top of hers and looked up into her eyes. "Do you know what I wish the most?"
"What?" Tamara felt a tad enchanted by the strange scenario.
"That, if only for one moment, she would see herself through my eyes, the eyes of someone who loves her. Then maybe she would stop frowning."
"Maybe," Tamara echoed. She smiled.
"Well," he said as he released her hand after a small pat, "it has been a delight speaking with you. You have a good night."
"You too, sir."
He tapped his cane on the ground, flashed another smile, and walked down the hall. "Stay beautiful, Tamara," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the main display area. After a second, Tamara realized she never told him her name.
Tamara started to move after him but looked back at the painting one last time. Its metamorphosis stopped Tamara in her tracks. The image's face was the same, but now she wore a blue sequined evening gown with matching blue heels and a coordinated evening purse. She looked confused. The background was the door to the ladies lavatory.
Wondering what truly had changed, she stared at the mirror.
John appeared by her side. “Hey, sweetie. Is everything ok?”
She tore herself from her reflection to look at John. She kissed him. “Sorry. I...was...just... getting a new perspective, I suppose.”
She looked in the mirror and slipped an arm around her husband's waist. “Me.” They both looked at their reflection.
John said, “That's one good-looking couple, don't you think?”
“I do now.” She put her head on his shoulder, and they walked away. As they moved down the hall and towards the rest of the world, Tamara repeated to herself, “I will let this affect me. I will let this affect me.”