A Tale of Two Portraits: Part I

It was the year we had nothing to worry about.  The Year of the Millenium: the year we spent in triumph, between our fear of an electronic meltdown and our fear of a new, unknown threat that would dominate our collective consciousness for at least the next decade.

It was also my last year as a teenager, so of course there were things that could have worried me.  Myself, as per the teenage psyche, and the particulars of my situation. I had left a soft-of boyfriend behind and had plenty of offers in this romantic new kingdom by the sea.  Eventually, of course, the summer would end, and I would have more worries: a semester at a new and different school, hundreds of miles from the tentative friendships I’d formed in my first disastrous turn as a college student.

I didn’t worry, though.  I ate a lot that summer, my first departure from my thin days in Manhattan. Everything was delicious: fresh tomatoes and cucumbers dripping with olive oil, creamy yogurt with sun-ripened fruit or garlicky dill, and the fish — especially the fish, who came to the table dressed in grill marks and lemon or fried crisply, their tiny bodies cracking easily open to reveal a delicate backbone, salty from their morning in the ocean and warm from their recent trip to the deep-fryer.

I drank, too, though never to excess, still tentatively enjoying this freedom.  White table wine, mostly, from the northwest corner of the country and over the border.  The only bar drink I knew how to order: Johnnie Walker Red, on the rocks.  Orange Fanta, lighter and less sweet than I had tasted at home, and rich, dark coffee, stopping just before the sludge at the bottom.

I got a lot of what the natives called “sun therapy,” a translation I loved for its simple logic. When the thermometer climbed above 100, I tried to remember all those nights I had trudged home from the studio in freezing despair, and I stepped out of the shade and spread my arms wide to receive as much heat and light as the therapist would give, hoping it would undo all the rest, too.  I wore tops and dresses without sleeves, and I grew dark enough to pass for a native until I opened my mouth and spilled out broken phrases.  So I favored mysterious silence, unless pressed for an answer.  I smiled a lot.

I spent a lot of time thinking: about what I would do for the day, the summer, the rest of my life.  I rode a lot of buses, but I didn’t read: I watched the people on the buses and outside on the street.  I read at home, works from a strange bookshelf.  I spent several weeks sick in bed with a mysterious fever that hung on tenaciously, and just when (maybe because) I finally decided I was going out anyway, it disappeared.

I saw everything that summer.  In the epicenter of ancient civilization, even the subway tunnels held artifacts, and museums were choked with unorganized displays, piles upon piles of treasures made cheap by their sheer volume.  The churches on every corner were like museums themselves, but with a much more familiar feel: the faces on the walls and the melodies floating through the air felt like old friends, and I often went inside just to light a candle and be still, as much as my mind would allow.

So it was that I found myself, later that summer, on a cruise of the islands with two women I hardly knew at all. They were friends of my host; we decided to travel together out of convenience, but we connected instantly in the world of beaches and crumbling cities, gaudy evening entertainment and nights when the ocean rocked us gently to sleep.

One island visit found us at a church on Sunday morning.  Not just any church: a cave with a three-fold crack in the ceiling where the voice of God had entered and delivered the wildest and most fantastic of dreams.  We sat on tiny, hard benches and listened to part of Matins, but our time was short and we had to steal away after the Evlogetaria and before we wanted to.

On our way out, I spied a doorway and asked Marianne to take my picture there. It was easily a hundred degrees, but I still wore my sweater and long skirt from my trip to the church.  I took off my sunglasses for a moment, so they wouldn’t mar the photo, but the strong morning sun reflected off the dazzling whiteness of the walls around us and nearly blinded me.  I looked down, my eyes almost closed.  My skirt ruffled in the sea breeze.

Marianne snapped the photo, gave the camera back to me, and we hurried on. That was all, but when we returned to the mainland and I saw the picture, I was transfixed by her composition, by the light and holiness of that place.  I posted it on what I suppose was my first blog, a free site where I had written a few journal entries about my travels for family and friends to read.  Everyone loved it, and when Marianne left for home a few days later I sent her the address so we could keep in touch.

There were several more months of those days, months filled with the same thoughts and scenes and dinners and Liturgies and late-night conversations with the dear friends who were so kind to host me for so long.  I had lived alone in a strange city before, but this was the summer I really grew up, and I was especially sorry to see it end.

At home, I struggled to re-adjust to modern American life, with its twin gods of individualism and instant gratification.  I went back to school, and back to work, where I met a man I liked.  Six months later, I thought, “This might be it.”  Six months after that, it was.

Marianne and I did write each other sporadically, and a few months after my wedding I sent word that I was coming to Queens for a day to see the temporary MoMA.  I wanted to have lunch with her; I requested a Greek restaurant for old times’ sake, and when I arrived with my mom she was already there, in a chair against the wall.  We ate and drank and laughed as before, the conversation plunging instantly below the surface and into the depths.

As we picked at our yogurt and honey, she slid an envelope across the table, and a small package.  I opened both: a sweetly heartfelt expression of congratulations and a CD of her musician husband’s latest work.  “Thank you,” I said, touched at her thoughtfulness.  “There’s one more thing,” she said.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t be at your wedding, but there was something I thought you might like to have.”

She moved aside, and I saw for the first time the bulky package, wrapped in a black trash bag.  With some difficulty, she passed it to me, and I pulled the top down a couple of inches.  A few vertical lines; shades of white, gray and brown.  I knew instantly.  Still, I gasped when I saw the whole image.  We both did.  The waiter rushed over, alarmed, and stood as stunned as we were.

I don’t remember how I thanked her.  How could I have thanked her?  It was more than just the most valuable piece of art I’d ever owned, or the most personal gift I’d ever received.  It was the eternal gift of a moment that had meant so much more to me than I could ever have expressed in words.  With characteristic calmness, she explained simply that she’d liked the photo, and from my credit on the website remembered it was her composition, so she felt free to paint it.  And once it was finished, she’d thought it really belonged to me.

If you’ve been to my house, you know the portrait hangs next to my piano.  I’ve never framed it; I’ve hardly dared to touch it for fear it might disappear back into a dream again.  Even now, there is hardly a guest who doesn’t ask about it with awe, and every now and then it catches me off guard, my own face in the midst of an image that can bring that whole summer rushing back in a moment.