As I picked my friend up after school in the twilight hours, she clamored to the car with a large carryall under one arm and a folded up full-sized easel in the other, sopping wet. I was surprised she didn’t trip over the legs as she hurried to avoid getting any more wet than necessary. I love the rain and climbed out of the car to open the trunk for her artistic tools. I thought she was a bit crazy, but if she was happy, she should take any and all art classes to find that contentment. At least that’s what I told her, regardless of the thousands of dollars she’d invested in her acts of self-discovery or getting pneumonia in the meantime.
We climbed into the car, looked at each other and cracked up laughing. “What can I say?” she giggled, “It’s the artist in me. Screw sensibility, right?”
“Yeah?” I laughed putting the car into gear as I pressed the gas. “The artist in you is probably going to be sneezing her head off all weekend at this rate.”
Sabina had a “special” personality. Not that I’m criticizing her, just stating that she’s a little too open and honest to have a lot of close friends – or rather, they didn’t want to be friends with someone unpredictable. Maybe that was it. I couldn’t care less what others thought of me and I think she knew that. That’s what made our relationship genuine. Her bold brown eyes and warm smile, along with her silky black hair wrapped up and fastened in a ruby hairpin, bundled her into a neat little best friend package was all I ever needed.
I’m not sure if the Italians have an innate sassy side to them, but if the argument came to the table with Sabina anywhere near, there wouldn’t be a thought in the jury’s mind. Just listening to her pronounce her name appeared to excite men as the name Sabina Alexandria Franco rolled out of her cheerful Italian mouth. Reactions alone made any night with my friend out at night worthwhile.
“Coming to my place for coffee tonight?” I asked even though I had a test I needed to study for that weekend. I was quite the procrastinator, and this was my way of setting up an escape.
The car bounced along the street sending up splashes every now and again as the perfectly shaped water droplets committed hari-kari against the windshield in a repeating splat! Seconds later, the wipers swished them away as if they’d never existed. Sort of seemed like that was every life in a manner of speaking. You know, hanging in the air and shooting toward a goal that would be gone in the blink of an eye. No trace. The loved would leave behind a memory of themselves – for a while.
“I don’t know,” Sabina sighed, slumping into the seat and resting her head back. “I’ve got an assignment I’m excited about, but I don’t really know where to start.”
“Oh?” I said, feigning interest. I knew she was going to tell me anyway.
“Yeah,” she cocked her head to one side and peered from the corner of her eye. “You know how I’ve been getting A’s on just about every piece I’ve created?”
“Oh yes. I really liked the one with the blue chair that sort of looked like it was sitting on glass. That was pretty cool.”
“Yeah, that was impressionistic. And it wasn’t glass, it was water.” She crossed her legs and closed her fingers around her knee. “Hence, impressionism.”
I pulled into my driveway and ignored the fact she’d never given a direct answer about visiting. I figured it was what she wanted; otherwise, she would have protested by now. Her house was a few blocks from where I turned left.
My house was definitely nothing to boast about. Small and quaint, I’d inherited the shack from my grandmother as a graduation gift. The idea was I could use it while attending school and then lease it out afterwards if I felt like it. I had a notion I’d be staying for while. Perhaps I’d never leave. It was the perfect atmosphere for studying without interruptions. An arrangement others envied.
The funny thing is that I’m a stereotypical bookworm. Most people would describe me as average height with a medium build, sporting curly red hair. If I had to say any characteristic stood out at all, I’d say it was my green eyes. But the glasses I wore seemed to take away from that with the plain black frames. I don’t know—I wasn’t the swimsuit model type by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t care.
Parking the car, we both dashed onto the porch in the torrents of rain hammering down on us, and I jabbed the key in to open the door. Sabina flopped on couch right away and snatched the blue afghan my mother made from the back, bundling it around her.
“You want a cooler?” I said as I strolled into the kitchen to grab one for myself. But I got no response. “Sabina? Do you want a cooler? You know the rules; if you don’t speak up while I’m in here, you’ll have to get it yourself.”
I carried my raspberry cooler into the living room and noticed the front door was open. The heavy raindrops spit across the porch, bouncing up from the concrete, one after another, and a bolt of lightening flashed across the sky. But there was no sign of Sabina.
Plopping down on the couch to remove my shoes, I propped my stocking feet upon the coffee table, and swallowed a refreshing gulp of raspberry drink. Sabina entered with her easel under one arm and the hefty bag over the other shoulder.
“What are you doing?” My face crinkled up as I watched her struggle to get the easel up in the middle of the room. She’d told me earlier about how the latch got stuck on a fairly regular basis. She refused to get a new one though. Sabina was convinced that inanimate objects had just as much personality and emotions as a person. She seldom threw anything away. Most people call it “hoarding” but she refers to it as “collecting.”
On the bright and humorous side, I believe she has every gift I’d given her since we met in the third grade—including Tuesday Taylor, the Barbie with flip-around hair. I don’t know of anyone who held onto that sun skunk. Still, she kept it.
I casually sipped my cooler and watched her meticulously set up the easel and paints in the middle of the room, across from where my feet were propped. Her paints were standing side-by-side on the table. Humming softly to herself, she entered and returned from the kitchen with a roll of paper towels. One thing I can say about Sabina is there’s never a place she doesn’t make herself at home.
“I’m sure you don’t mind, bestie,” she snickered as she ripped the cellophane from the towels and lay them beneath the paints, removing the lids.
“Don’t mind at all.” I watched her for a few more seconds as she meticulously set each of the paints about half an inch from each other across the table in a perfect line. “What are you painting?” I removed my glasses to casually rub them with my T-shirt displaying a large star-spangled hand making a peace sign. I breathed on the glass and rubbed them across my shirt before replacing them on my nose.
Sabina smiled curiously, “It’s not a what but a who that I plan on painting.”
It took me a smidgen longer than it should have to figure out exactly what she meant. I straightened up and set my feet on the floor. “You’re not painting me.” It almost sounded like a question more than a statement. Not my intention.
Her brush waved through the air. “Oh, relax. It isn’t like you have to do anything but sit there. As much as you like to think, that shouldn’t be an issue.”
“Fine. Whatever.” I was too tired to argue in a fight I would undoubtedly lose anyway. “What do you want me to do?” I asked, pushing my glasses up with my index finger and swooshing my bangs from my forehead with the other hand.
“Just sit up straight.” Disappearing for a moment, Sabina returned with a wooden kitchen chair and set it down behind her easel, taking me in with her large dark eyes. “Okay, now let’s take your geeky glasses off,” she glided over and removed my glasses, setting them on the coffee table. “Put this in your hair, so you can have a sexy yet sophisticated look.” She reached up and took the jeweled pin from her hair, pulling my own red curls behind one ear and jabbed it in.
“Now you are a force to be reckoned with,” she grinned stepping back to admire her work. “Believe me, I’m the artist, remember?” Apparently, she could tell I was about to object. So, I closed my mouth instead.
Walking backwards, she cocked her head and made a rectangular frame with her index fingers and thumbs, peering through them with one eye closed. “Perfezionare!”
I actually felt a bolt of pride for a moment. She pouted, “You’re slouching again. Sit up tall!” Emphasizing by running her own fingers below her chin to lift her face upward. “Like this—with pride! No?”
“Fine! I’ll be stiff.” I raised my chin a bit and remained still. A small, smug smile lit my face as I wondered just how long Mona Lisa’s patience endured, or if her smile was due to a secret she knew about Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps he painted her with his bottoms off. I snickered a bit and pressed my lips tightly together.
My smirk broadened.
“What’s so funny?” Sabina pouted as her brush dabbed into the paint and whisked across the canvass. “You may think this is a joke, but this is extremely important to me. It’s my final grade for this class. If I can get an A on this, I am certain Boston University will welcome me with open arms. My papa will be so proud. I just know it.”
“Why is everything always about your papa?” I emphasized the word “papa” with an Italian accent like hers. “Do it for yourself for God’s sake.”
“You don’t understand. My papa will always be the most important man of my life. Even when I’m married. He’s the man who made Sabina the way she is today, and I’m very proud of that.” I hated when she talked about herself in third person. It was so bizarro.
I had to admit it, I was jealous. My father left before I was even old enough to form a memory of him. Scientists say a person doesn’t retain memories until they’re about four-years-old. I had been two. I wouldn’t know his ugly assed face if he became president of the United States. He left my mother so belittled; she never regained her confidence. Now, in her fifties, she claims to never want anything to do with men again. She’s devoted herself to making me happy and given up on herself.
Sabina slid her brush against the canvas as the sounds of the bristles raked the colors over the fabric. A swish here, a dab there, and the occasional jabs created an orchestra of sounds as she hummed some Italian song quietly. It sounded like some sort of soothing lullaby.
“…Quanto mi piace vederlo passare
Cosa farei per poterlo toccare
Lo cosa farei…”
“What’s that song you’re singing?” I asked. “Sabina?” I shifted to stand.
“Wait, I’m almost finished,” she motioned with her hand for me to sit back down. I did. After a few more strokes, she clearly impressed herself as she stood admiring the portrait. “Come. See.”
I warily rose to my feet, setting down my empty cooler bottle with its six empty sisters, making my way to where she stood. I rotated to see the work of art I’d just sat for nearly six hours for, according to the clock. I was speechless as I stood with my chin touching the tops of my feet in awe.
“That’s really beautiful,” I said, “But it doesn’t look like me.”
Sabina stood in silence a moment longer. “No, it looks exactly like you.”
I pretended I wasn’t me and that I was a stranger and closed my eyes to clear my mind. I wanted to see the photo from an unsuspecting person’s point of view. When I opened them to see the portrait again, the image was even more breathtaking than she’d been the first time. But she still didn’t look like me.
“I – I’m speechless.”
“Thank you so much.” Sabina’s eyes welled with tears. “This is by far the most beautiful piece of artwork I’ve ever done. I’m sure to get an A and win that scholarship to become a terrier.” She added, ‘They’re Boston Terriers, you know.”
“I’m so happy for you.” I gave her a hug. “As long as they don’t see the real picture of who you’ve painted, you should be fine.”
My friend shook her head with a chuckle and put her paints away, setting her bag by the front door. Taking a bottle of water from the fridge and gulping a swig, she left.
I felt sort of empty as I picked up my eyeglasses and slid them on my face. I felt certain I looked nothing like the portrait.
Sabina had left the painting in the living room at the side, sort of out of the way to dry, saying she’d pick it up in about a week. Of course that was fine with me. After all, it isn’t like I had a trail of suitors lined up at the door to trounce through my apartment. And my partying roommates hardly showed their faces. Perfect.
I stood staring at the portrait and the breathtaking redhead with her hair pinned up. Long ringlets wound sinuously around the base of her neck against white satin skin. A delicate pink mouth curled up at the corners, and her long black lashes hovered over pools of emerald eyes. It literally stole my breath as I reminded myself to exhale with a shaky breath. Is this who Sabina really saw me as?
I closed my eyes. “God what I would do to truly look as sexy and confident as the woman in the painting. I would literally give my soul to be as beautiful.”
The lights in the house flickered and the house went dark. A rumbling like a huge delivery truck tooling down the street erupted from outside and the door blew open. Dead leaves circled around on my porch in a mini twister, collapsing in a heap.
Quickly, I slammed the door closed. Behind it, on the wall, a mirror hung with golden vines draped around the oval frame. I caught my reflection staring back at me. The lips of the woman in the mirror said, “You shall never age another day.”
“Wouldn’t that be too good to be true?” I removed the spectacles and was surprised to realize I could see just fine.
The painting at the side of the room captured my attention. Her lips also moved, and the identical words rang from her lips in unison with the mirror, “You shall never age another day.” The portrait failed to glow as much as before. I took a couple of steps back. The collected bottles clinked together when I bumped into them and they rolled, chiming, in different directions across the wooden floor.
“Oh my God. This is just like The Picture of Dorian Gray.” I wondered if I should destroy the image my friend had worked so hard on. She’d never forgive me. Or perhaps I should remain as the stunning image I currently am. In the original story, Dorian Gray dies at the end after living an absolutely abhorrent life. I certainly didn’t want that to happen. I was a good person. What Hell had I created for myself wishing something so selfish?
I picked up the phone and called Sabina. There was no answer. She was probably asleep. But I had to talk to her. There was no way I was getting any sleep.
I opened my kitchen utility drawer and removed her spare key, tucking it into my pocket. Snagging my purse on the way out the door, I stole a glance at the portrait and shut the light off. The bitch on the canvass winced and glared at me.
Sabina’s house was only a couple of blocks away and she hoofed it home. But I wasn’t walking. I was far too tired. I climbed into my car. Starting it up sounded distant and far away—sort of like in a fog-laden dream. Shifting into reverse, I stomped on the gas and cranked my head over my right shoulder to peek out the back window.
A horn blared through my eardrums. In slow motion, the headlights crept in on me through my rearview mirror momentarily blinding me. Out of the blackness of rainy sky, a delivery truck appeared from nowhere. Ever so slowly, it connected, ravaging through my car’s trunk. The metal blew through my rear window with the magical stardust of broken glass showering me. There was nowhere to go. Even if there was, there was no time to get there.
With no way to react swiftly enough, my head shot sideways against the steering wheel. A deafening crack reverberated through my head. I wasn’t sure if it was the steering wheel or the windshield bursting.
That was when I heard the gravelly voice again, “You shall never age another day.” Suddenly, I understood. The crack that I’d heard wasn’t the steering wheel or the windshield. It was my neck. And I certainly wasn’t going to age another day.