There are some stories that seem to have no logical origin at all as you’re writing them, and then there are stories that make their inspiration very clear. This is one of those stories for me, and I imagine anyone who knows me very well at all will be able to figure out what planted the seed for this little tribute. It’s a bit more than 1,000 words, but sometimes that’s just how things go. Anyway, Happy Friday to you all. Hope you enjoy.
The young man was growing restless. He could see his friends across the way, already admiring their own portraits. In this part of Montmartre, there were dozens of sketch artists waiting to pounce on tourists for as many euros as they could swindle. His eyes refocused on the artist, and the look on her wizened face startled him. It was piercing, as if she were trying to see his soul. He opened his mouth to stutter out a syllable or two, but her eyes were back on the paper before they managed to leave his throat. She made exactly three more marks and then nodded.
“Fini,” she said. She unclipped the paper from easel, rolled it up into a cylinder, and then handed it to him. “Voilà.”
“Merci,” he said. She started packing up. Night had fallen whilst he’d sat for the portrait. He unrolled the paper as he walked toward his friends. The image on the paper made him stop in his tracks. The face staring back at him was angular and jarring, nothing like his own, which still bared traces of adolescent roundness. He searched for his own features, but found none. The eyes were dark, much darker than they should have been, even in the charcoal medium. They certainly didn’t depict the almost ice-blue eyes staring down at them. This wasn’t even caricature. He saw no trace of himself at all in the portrait, and he felt his cheeks flushing red. He turned back to the woman.
“Excuse me,” he said. She stared at him blankly. “Sorry, excusez-moi.” Her look became one of impatience.
“Um, ce n’est pas… correcte. It’s not me.” He pointed at the paper, and then he pointed at his face, shaking his head.
The woman gave him a mocking smile. She pointed at the paper and then patted his face. “La même chose.” She winked at him and then hobbled away, carrying her easel and supplies with her. The young man grimaced. He didn’t like being had, but what could he do? He sighed, called her something cruel under his breath, and walked over to join his friends.
“Let’s see it,” the pretty girl said.
“It’s not very good,” he explained. “Really. I got gypped.”
“Oh, come on.” She made a grab for the paper. He pulled away, but then she smiled and tilted her head in such a way that there was no possible way he could refuse. He rolled his eyes and handed it over. She unrolled it and examined it closely. Her eyes went wide.
He forced a laugh. “See? I told you it was terrible.”
“What are you talking about? This looks just like you. This is way better than mine.”
“Let me see.” Another boy reached for it, and she handed to him. “Whoa. Man, I wish I’d gone to her.”
“Stop kidding around, guys. I’m pissed enough as it is.”
“We’re not kidding,” the girl insisted.
The young man reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. He slid his driver’s license from the plastic and held it up to the portrait.
“You’re saying these two pictures both look like me.”
“Yeah! It’s uncanny,” the girl said. He searched her eyes. No sign of teasing or sarcasm.
He looked to the other boy, who was nodding emphatically. “You’re being way too hard on her, dude. This is a great picture. You’re going to have to get it framed.” To the young man’s dismay, there was complete earnestness in his expression as well.
The young man spotted their adviser across the way, chatting animatedly with a shop owner. He grabbed the paper from the boy’s hands and walked through them toward their teacher, leaving them dumbfounded in his wake.
“Mr. Hallward?” the young man called.
The teacher finished up his conversation with the shop owner with a polite nod and a smile. “What can I do for you, son?”
“I got this sketch done of me –”
“Yes, I saw. Your artist certainly took her time, didn’t she?” He chuckled, which did nothing to better the young man’s mood. “Let’s see if it was worth the wait.”
He unfurled the paper for his teacher. Again, the widened eyes. “Wow. Not too often you run across this sort of talent here. You didn’t catch her name, did you?”
The young man’s face screwed up in anger and confusion. “Are you guys all playing some sort of joke on me? Because it’s not very funny.”
“What do you mean?”
“This isn’t me!” the young man cried, more fervently than he’d meant to. Half in outrage, half in embarrassment, he grabbed the paper and stomped away. He heard his professor call after him, but he only quickened his steps. Once he was a safe distance away, he slowed his pace. He walked into a restaurant and asked the hostess for directions to the bathroom. She pointed him around the corner. He pushed a few small coins into the pay slot and stepped inside.
He bent over against the sink in front of the mirror. His reflection stared back at him. Impulsively, he slammed the now slightly crumpled portrait up against the mirror. His eyes darted back and forth between the two.
A stall door opened, startling him. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” the man said, his voice accented.
“How did you know I –”
The man motioned to the portrait as he washed his hands. “A Parisian wouldn’t have one of those.” He smiled, and the young man quickly rolled the paper back up, embarrassed. “Wait a minute,” the man said. He reached to smooth the paper back out, and the young man let him, his face full of hope and fear. The man let out a low whistle. “Impressive. Looks just like you.” The young man looked to the portrait and then to the mirror once again as the other man exited. Beads of sweat were forming on his brow. He quickly rolled up the portrait, hid it in his jacket, and exited the bathroom.
Ten minutes later, the professor and the young man’s friends found him sitting on a bench outside the restaurant. In front of him, a few embers glowed on the sidewalk. He paid them no mind, instead choosing to fiddle with a matchbook bearing the name of the establishment outside which he was sitting.
“Hey, we’ve been looking all over for you,” the girl said, bringing him out of his reverie. He stood, stamping out the last of the embers into ashes.
“Sorry,” he said. “Just needed some air. Is it time to head back?”
The professor nodded. “We’re late,” he said, his voice curt. “The other group’ll be waiting for us.”
The young man walked past him back in the direction of their hotel, pocketing the book of matches. The professor’s clenched his jaw shut and followed, his years of experience having taught him to pick and choose his battles. The girl and the other boy exchanged nervous glances, each clutching their own portraits to their sides. They walked in silence.
© Elizabeth Ditty 2009