~after Frank O’Hara
Being painted wasn’t what she had expected. No, it was dull she found, sitting still while he peered at the canvas. He looked at her, momentarily, then his eyes were back on his work. He scratched at it as if there were something emerging, something he must chip away at. Something he must peel from the layers to reveal.
She looked out of the window. He didn’t notice at first, he was leaning so close to the canvas. She imagined the smell of the thick oils beading near his skin. He looked as if he were about to press his thumbs into the paint. But he didn’t, he looked up and said—move back, sit still.
Her eyes roamed around the studio. It had a low, southerly light. She had shivered that first day because the light was watery and cool in the long shadows. She longed to be outside where the sun was bright and high. He had explained to her that a studio must have consistency of light—it must be diffuse, it must be even, it must not wax and wane throughout the day. So she shivered as the sun busied itself on the northern horizon. The windows were closed, but she imagined the icy southerly blowing up from Antartica and felt colder still.
After that first day, she had begun wearing thicker jumpers to the studio. When he wasn’t looking she rubbed her fingers together, or stamped her toes. She imagined the brilliant winter sun that was licking the other side of the house. She imagined light.
She stole a glance his way. He was peering at his brush, rubbing the tip together between his finger and thumb. She took the opportunity to stretch her arms and felt the tingle of blood returning as she pushed them high above her head. She rolled circles with her neck. He looked up and she quickly dropped her hands back in place. He nodded at her and picked up another brush. He seemed to sweep away the paint he had just laid out.
It was interminable, this waiting. Her mind wandered. She thought of the orange she had for breakfast that morning. She had oranges for breakfast every day in winter. She thought about the oil released by her fingernails as she peeled the skin. She could still smell it, she was sure. A warm smell, like a splash of gold.
She thought about the paper she was writing, the research she still needed to do. She thought about the library, like a cave of glow-worms, the long threads of words laid out to trap her, to reel her in. She thought of other things too, what Charlie had said to her that morning—about the way she came here, the way they didn’t talk, the way she wasn’t sure why she did.
When it was finally finished he wouldn’t show her—wait for the exhibition—he told her. When she went, a month later, to the University gallery she walked around once, twice, three times before she found herself. She recognised it only for the shape of the canvas, the back of which she had stared at all those weeks.
She didn’t see herself in it at all. It was abstracted, the paint was pushed this way and that, her face exploded in a cubist crush. She did not recognise anything in it. Then she saw the title. Oranges, it said, A Portrait.
She thought again of the smell of orange that she carried on her fingers all winter. Yes, she thought. There was no orange in the painting. There wasn’t even yellow or red. There was nothing in the blue and green and grey that swept across the canvas that could be said to be orange. But she thought of the O’Hara poem that he had recited to her all those months ago, in that low and tangled voice. Yes, she thought, it was a portrait of Oranges after all.