Highland Park — Two bright lights shine on my face as I sit in a green chair. My elbows rest on wooden chair arms and my empty hands rest on my thighs. I lean against the right back of the chair. I breathe. And blink. And sit in silence. You wouldn’t know it, but I work hard. It’s a late Friday afternoon and I’m modeling for local artist Margaret Garcia and a weekly portrait painting class at her studio in Highland Park.
My eyes want to roam this wonderfully cluttered studio; Margaret is famous for her bright, bold colors and the way she transforms everyday scenes into studies of beauty.
The artists are silent when they paint, but there is music in the room. A speaker buzzes with old-time rock and roll, R&B, jazz classics and more. I stifle the urge to stomp or swing.
All eyes on me
Margaret and two students are focused on their easels, looking up to study my face, slowly moving their brushes, focusing on me, then on their easel. A student closes one eye and raises her thumb towards me to measure a distance ratio on my face. Wow, I think. I thought painters only did that in cartoons.
I had never been a model before and didn’t realize there would be this constant gaze. What was I thinking? I never liked being the center of attention. Especially child. At the time, I was watching the action from the sidelines, wishing I could feel comfortable BEing the action. Growing up, I learned to stand in front of people, to be on stage, to speak to crowds. Still, feeling the eyes of these artists on me reminds me of a time when I thought I wasn’t enough.
I exhale and settle back as horns blare and tires squeal down Figueroa Street. The curtains are drawn and the rays of the afternoon sun illuminate the dust particles floating in and out of the shadows.
Memories emerge from the silence
Then… I’m back in time with different sets of eyes.
I am called to the blackboard in elementary school to solve a math problem. I can’t escape the eyes. I’m sure they’re looking at my wrinkled blouse, my bad pixie haircut, and my socks held up with rubber bands. I want to tell them that my mother doesn’t have time to iron. There’s only her and me in the apartment above; she is a waitress and leaves early. The kitchen is empty when I wake up, so I spread peanut butter on bread for lunch and dream of big families with sisters to play and brothers to fight.
But I’m not saying any of that. I pick up the chalk and try not to vomit.
Sitting now in the green studio chair, I sigh for this scared little girl who wanted so badly to fit in, but spent days slipping through the cracks.
In my stillness, I feel that familiar loneliness like a fast beating heart and a heavy stone stuck in my upper intestine.
The image of the frightened little girl is right in front of me and I do the only thing I can: bring her closer. Together we sit in silent stillness, shaking hands and absorbing into each other: until she sees my eyes and finally smiles at me.
Back to the present
“Do you need a break?” asks Margaret.
The question startles me around the room. Pause? Am I tired?
I nod, stand up and stretch my arms above my head.
I see Margaret’s easel – a woman peering into the distance with tired but stubborn determination. I look at those eyes – my eyes – and I blush. And I’m filled with reverence.
See beyond the surface
I thought they were just going to paint my face, not my past. How do artists know emotions and stories from the eyes, nose and mouth? What stories do our faces tell every day?
“Do you have enough energy to stay longer?” Margaret asks, sipping tea.
“Of course,” I tell them. I sit down and rest. It’s darker outside. I expire. And find that stillness.
Sunday story features first-person essays as well as fiction by residents. We welcome submissions, but stories must be set in one of the neighborhoods we cover.