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Fiction Feature: “Self-Portrait” By Halimah Marcus

 

Self-Portrait

 

Going to the Frick was Mabel’s idea. The purpose was for her and I to get to know one another—me, the new wife, her, the old friend. Or not that old, really. She and Daniel had become close in the last year, which was unusual, given his moratorium on new friendships. Friends were demanding. Friends required time. Friends were a threat to the next drawer-bound novel.

            On the Q train he stood above me, feet apart, my knees between his. Daniel never sat on trains unless they were empty. How he considered the needs of others before his own, before mine, it made me feel inferior but I also respected it.

            “I used to have a company pass to the Frick,” Daniel said. That was back when he worked at the hedge fund, before he saved enough money to quit. “Maybe it still works.”

            I held the back of his knee and grinned up at him. “Either way,” I said.

            The three of us met on 70th street on a lukewarm spring day. I wore a short skirt with a crochet scarf—I didn’t like the outfit but suspected Mabel would, based on pictures of jewelry she’d made that I’d seen on her website, crafty stuff. If Daniel was anxious I couldn’t tell—anxiousness was not one of the qualities he displayed visibly. Those were limited to anger, satisfaction, and resolve. Most days, lust wasn’t even on the list. He made love almost entirely with a straight face, buried the lede on orgasms.

            As we milled about the galleries it was difficult for all three of us to stay together, so I drifted apart to the far wall or the next room. Whenever I looked for Daniel he seemed always to be with Mabel, their tolerance for each painting exactly matched. I sulked by pretending to be more independent than I felt, charting my own course through the wooden and white rooms.

            Truthfully, I wasn’t all that interested in paintings. I was practical—I appreciated culture but I didn’t confuse art as passion and I think Daniel liked that about me. I left room for him to be the creative one.

            Eventually Mabel came and brought me to stand in front of Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait” where Daniel was waiting. It was a brushy number with a lot of affectionate self-loathing in brown paint.

            I thought I was standing next to Daniel but then somehow Mabel was between us. “Peter Schjeldhal says this is the best painting in all of New York,” she said.

            I let her stay there. “And what does he say is the best pizza?”

            Daniel intervened. “I think he posed it as a question—is Rembrandt’s ‘Self-Portrait’ the best painting in New York?”

            “Well, I think it is,” Mabel said.

            “Have you seen them all?” I couldn’t help it.

            “At least the permanent collections.”

            We sidestepped to the adjacent painting, which was also a Rembrandt, and I asked her to send me the article. At least I was trying. “The Polish Rider” had more hope to it, an out-of-sight sun that was either rising or setting and a white horse that caught the light.

            “I will,” she said. “And I brought something to read about this one. But I’ll save it for dinner.”

            “You’ve made quite a syllabus.” A comment that Daniel, poor guy, let me get away with.


*

Dinner was Korean Barbeque, a place Mabel knew, at 35 35th street or 34 34th street or another restaurant with some such failure of a mnemonic device. The food was delicious—I have tried to go back but haven’t been able to find it and of course cannot ask.

            On the way there we stopped at a bead store and Mabel talked about the custom wedding bands she was designing for a friend. I knew from Daniel that she had family money and I kept the knowledge like a stone in my pocket, touching it for comfort—there would always be a question about her success as an artist.

            We ordered BBQ skewers and bibimbap and the waiter brought out a complimentary array of pickles—pickled onion, pickled seaweed, pickled shrimp heads, and others pickles we could not identify.

            Mabel asked vaguely after my work and I told her about a new electronic pill bottle that helps caregivers monitor medicine intake remotely. She told me about a jewelry collection she’d assembled entirely out of pills, which was meant as a comment on the pharmaceutical industry.

            “I work in Medicare research,” I said. “Not pharmaceuticals.”

            Mabel nodded but the difference seemed lost on her. Daniel wanted to know what kind of pills she’d used (not gel, which melt), and that set her off on a long story about hot glue guns.

            It seemed that Daniel might let her go on forever, his attention so rapt, and I became impatient. “Didn’t you say you had something to read us?”

            Mabel demurred, said perhaps it was silly after all, clearly to put us in the position of having to convince her. I wasn’t going to encourage it anymore than I already had, so Daniel stepped in, and she liked that. The reading turned out to be a poem called “Having a Coke With You” by Frank O’Hara. She started with confidence:

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time

*

I had never heard the poem before, and I’ll admit that, in that moment, I wanted to be the object off its simple and unadorned affection. But despite the poem’s effect on me, asking her to read it was, in retrospect, a mistake. Because when she got to that last line she began to cry, without much effort to hide it, and it occurred to me that despite my petty contemptuousness, my jealousies, however justified, all day I had taken comfort in being wrong, and here I was, learning I was right.

            She paused to collect herself, and I looked at Daniel to see his reaction. His face was unchanged, except for a tightness around his jaw that made him look stricken. Already I could feel his refusal, how he would insist later that what I had seen was not what I saw, that she was thinking of someone else, someone for whom he could not produce a name.

            Mabel brought a cloth napkin to the corner of each eye. “I’m sorry. That was embarrassing.”

            Daniel told her not to worry and looked helplessly at his lap. As if all he could think to do was give up his seat. Neither of us dared ask her what had started it. I suppose we both had our theories. I wondered, still wonder, what conversations they might have had about it later.

            We rushed through the rest of the dinner and parted, as we had met, on the sidewalk. Though it was well into the evening there was still a bit of light in the sky, a foreshadowing of summer.

            Daniel and I stood without touching, watching Mabel walk away until she rounded the corner. I reached for his hand, and that was the last time I saw her.

 

*

Soo Jin Lee (Fiction Editor): Halimah Marcus’ “Self-Portrait” is absorbing in the way of the best short stories. It wastes no space, concisely telegraphing the complexity and delicacy of its protagonist’s position as unwitting third wheel. I found her barely concealed jealousy and hurt—and the manner in which she tries to appear neither—to be painfully familiar and, given the final confirmation of her suspicions, heartbreaking.

*

This piece appeared in Indiana Review 37.1 in Summer 2015

Halimah Marcus is the Executive Director of Electric Literature, an innovative digital publisher based in Brooklyn, and the Editor-in-Chief of its weekly fiction magazine, Recommended Reading. Her own work has appeared in Indiana ReviewGulf CoastOne Story, the Out There podcast, and elsewhere. She is the co-chair of the Brooklyn Book Festival Fiction Committee and has an MFA from Brooklyn College.

 

 

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