Buste de Femme
A short story
Shelbi Polk | 1 June 2018
It was all angles. Sharp edges and aggressive colors. Olga stared at the canvas and Pablo watched her reflection from behind, pretending not to notice how wide her eyes had grown.
This, then, was what he made of her. Gone were the pictures so soft and round and melancholy. Olga wouldn’t say very much, because there was nothing that would not come out as sharp and horrible as he’d painted her. It was a subtle kind of trap, so she left the studio.
She ran to her room, their room, and Olga stared at her face in the mirror for a long time. She tried frowning, smiling and showing no emotion, as she looked for the monster Pablo had painted. She pushed her fingers into her cheeks, but still there were no angles. She tried nagging, singing, laughing, speaking words of love at the man who absorbed her. She could not find the monster, but she couldn’t exorcise it either. Perhaps when she laughed, there was a way the light glinted, and there were angles to her strong teeth. But even so.
She ran her eyes over every inch of her face. It had been beautiful once, she and Pablo had agreed on that, and even now it was a face which she was proud to show the world. She pulled her skin tight to remove the fine lines that were just beginning to creep towards the edges of her face. What had they done to each other?
She had given him her face so many times, and they had agreed that it was precious. He had used it, but only to show the world their love. She had given him her love, her loyalty, her body and her career. She had handed him every little one of the pieces that made her up, and he had done the same. Their bargain had been beautiful. He pulled light gently across her face and beatified her to their friends, the public, perhaps even the future. He painted what she gave him, while she could only live with what he gave her.
Olga closed her eyes and bowed her head, and there were the lights. The heady rush of the curtain rising and the calm tension of the dancers, muscles tight and ready to fly. The eyes below, incredulous as children who have just broken something understood to be solid. And her, Olga, on stage, spinning and spinning in the parade. Was this no longer how he saw her? He had infected even that part of her life. Dreams of the ballet ran into dreams of his hands fitting her costume and then of the first. But he could not take it away. Olga opened her eyes again and no, she was no longer 26 or in the Ballet Russes. Her lives have been built into her face since then. Artist was still there, and it always would be, no matter what he forgot. But now there was also wife, there was friend and sister and lover and mother. She could see all these beside the secrets smoothed into her skin along the way.
Olga raised her chin, threw back her shoulders and stepped out of his vision of her. She had dinner to make and a family to care for.
It was a subdued affair, quiet and quick.
She tried that night to lay still near him, but his breathing seemed to congeal above and around her into the angry shapes of his paintings.
Olga got up, shuddering against the edges in the air, and crept back to Pablo’s studio. The creature looked more probable in the dark, like it could seep off the canvas and take her place, leaving Olga’s idea of Olga trapped inside paint. She turned away, swiftly. What did it matter anyway, the power of representing their relationship, of representing her, was his. She went to leave the studio, but she noticed a painting scraper on a table by the door.
Yes, there were the edges he’d painted and she could show him how they could tear. Olga spun back around to the canvas but stopped with an ‘if only I were only his model and not his wife who he can expect and ignore. If this was all there was between us, I could do it, I could sink my teeth and the claws he gave me through his canvas and I could remember me like I think I am.’
Olga stared once more at the canvas and moved to go back to bed. Unthinking now, she moved her right foot out to the side, then slid it behind her. She didn’t turn to the door.
She spun, as if there had not been a jagged decade, all the way back to the canvas. But she would not focus on that. Eyes on her own face in the mirror, Olga began the perfect twists of a fouette over and over again, her eyes snapping back around to meet themselves in the night reflection. She danced for herself and for her vision of herself, in soft spirals, until all the sharp was gone out of her face, dissolved into the spinning. The painting could not keep up.