We are pleased to bring you the 5th place winner of the Becoming Writer Anniversary Contest.
She’s the girl next door and he can’t stop sketching her face.
Used sketchbooks pile like growing mountains in his room, each filled with the same dainty nose, the same arched brows, the same shadow under the tapered edge of her jawline. He can draw her without glancing at the page, but he still sees something new each time he looks at her.
“Don’t try to be perfect,” his mother used to tell him when they would draw a model airplane borrowed from big brother’s shelf or recreate in paint a photo from the latest family vacation, side by side at the dining room table. “There is no such thing as a perfect piece of art. Instead, try to capture the subject’s likeness, find something that emphasizes who they are as an individual.”
He’s tried. Lord knows he’s tried, all different perspectives, all different pencils, all different grades of paper, but something’s always… off. Not wrong, exactly, it just isn’t right.
He can’t figure it out, so he keeps trying, page after page, sketchbook after sketchbook, pencil after pencil rubbed into a nub too small to hold.
She finds him on the deck one day, her honeyed skin glistening with sweat after her daily two mile run. He sets about adding the highlights created by moisture perched on her Cupid’s bow to his latest attempt at a profile.
“Do you always hum when you draw?” she asks. He isn’t sure how to tell her he only hums when he’s pleased with how a piece is coming together; instead of figuring it out, he turns the pad around so she’s staring at a face that isn’t quite hers. “That’s amazing,” she says—polite, he knows, only because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings.
He stops humming. He knows better—it isn’t amazing, it isn’t right.
It isn’t her.
Maybe, he muses, pencils can’t do her justice.
She’s the girl he’s dating and he’s lost track of how many times he’s captured her likeness.
Velvety charcoal smooths long, dark strands of hair away from eyes with limbal rings that are too dark, too lifeless.
Watercolors and gouaches allow for the many tones that reside in her luminescent bronze skin, only to blot out the high arches of her cheekbones.
Oil paints bring out the luscious pinks and reds and browns in her lips, but he can’t for the life of him create a green that matches the one suspended around her pupils.
Acrylics are versatile, lend themselves to dozens of styles, but abstract butchers her features, and the texturing is never right, no matter what brush or sponge he uses.
Colored pencils, oil pastels, chalk pastels, spray paints, ink, even digital painting and 3D-modeling—they all work for one feature but devastate the others. In what he thinks is a stroke of genius, he tries a mixed media piece, uses each medium for the single feature it captures best. The result is an atrocity he burns.
“Darling, they’re all gorgeous,” she says, bending over his shoulder and tickling his neck with the tips of her pulled-up hair as she studies his latest failure. “It looks like a photograph.”
He doesn’t want it to look like a photograph. He wants it to look like her.
Maybe, he muses, he’s approaching this from the wrong angle.
She’s the girl he’s marrying today and he doesn’t have a gift.
Sculptures were a bust. Tapestry weaving left him in a snarl. Carving wood and glassblowing prove outside his skill set, and he cannot commission the piece out. It must be from him.
He refuses to believe she is the first person whose likeness he cannot transpose.
“Don’t stress about it,” she told him this morning, the last time he saw her before she vanished into the waiting hands of her bridesmaids. “You never need to give me gifts to earn my love.”
The sentiment is reassuring, but he’s still determined to complete a satisfactory portrait of her.
Maybe, he muses, he’ll see her different once they’re husband and wife.
She’s the girl he wedded three months ago and he’s giving up.
Not on them. Never on them, even though the honeymoon’s still on and he knows there will be hard days ahead. But he has to stop sketching and painting her features and seeing only the mistakes, or he fears he’ll lose his appreciation of the real thing forever.
The thought is unacceptable.
So he turns his attention to other projects, ideas he’s been nurturing for weeks and months and years. It’s refreshing to apply his talents to something new, and he’s pleased to discover his skills have improved, although he has to knock the dust off with a few practice sessions.
“I’m glad to see you’re enjoying art again,” she says, wrapping her arms around his waist and sighing into his shoulder as he daubs seabirds above the waves cresting across the canvas. “It’s been a long time since you hummed while you work.”
It has. He forgot what it feels like to relish in the satisfaction of a piece that matches what’s in his mind’s eye, even though there’s a lingering disappointment that it isn’t of her.
Maybe, he muses, a break is all he needs.
She’s the girl who’s been his muse for eight years and he thinks he’s finally done it.
Brushes, paints, palette, jars of water, one sheet of Egyptian cotton spread over the bed, another torn into rags for collecting trails of wayward paint—simple tools but each is necessary for creating his masterpiece.
And what a masterpiece. Gossamer lines of neon paint swirl across her smooth shoulders, fill the hollow of her spine, loop and twirl their way across her lower back to vanish beneath the red silk sheet draped over her hips. He isn’t following an image in his mind this time, nor is he trying to transfer her features onto a blank, static page.
The landscape beneath his fingers is alive in every way imaginable, and his fingers and brushes wander in equal measure, tracing curves, highlighting the glistening triangle of her scapulae and the points of her shoulders, darkening the shadows residing in the small of her back. Dots and streaks of metallic paint shimmer wherever toned muscles move most often, reflecting warm candlelight as she breathes, slow and steady.
“I’ve never heard you sing while you paint,” she says, strands of loose hair fluttering over her cheek as she rests her head on crossed arms so she can watch him work. “What does that mean?”
It means, he explains as he angles his brush to complete a delicate pattern across her side, that he has achieved the painting that has eluded him, haunting his waking hours and his dreams, for eight years.
His mother was right: there is no such thing as a perfect piece of art. Trying to achieve perfection is a waste of time. Right here, right now, reveling in golden skin and the way it’s warm under his fingers—this is it. Not the painting mapped out across her back, not the colors he’s chosen to use. The moment, not the art, is perfect.
But maybe, he muses, tangling his paint-smudged fingers in her soft, apple-scented hair and pressing a kiss to her temple, maybe he’ll try sketching her face again tomorrow, just to make sure.