Emma pads through the living room, over the thick, ivory carpet, and settles on the chaise longue with her wineglass. As she tastes the cold white wine, her gaze falls to the fields on the valley... [+]
“You’ll do.” He winked at her over the easel.
Downstairs, the front door banged.
“Kathie,” Laura said.
“Mmm,” her father agreed, tracing the curve of Laura’s cheek with his eyes, lingering on her chin, moving up to her mouth. “The check’s on the coffee table.”
“Don’t you want to come down?” Laura asked.
“Kathie knows where to find me.”
Below them, footsteps tramped closer. Laura slid off her stool and hurried out of the sunny studio, through the attic’s greenish, underwater darkness, past paintings leaning against unfinished walls, to the stairs. At the bottom, Kathie posed with a walking stick.
“Hello, little sister. It’s me, perfect in every way.” She fanned her free hand on the lapel of her old high school band jacket, drawing herself up until the gold fringe quivered above her bellybutton.
“Stop it,” Laura said. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she added, “You’re being gross on purpose.”
“Am I?” Kathie held out her hand to shake, but Laura walked past into the living room. “It’s not catching,” Kathie said. She followed Laura to the coffee table and stood, feet turned out, looking down at the check. “Will I take it? Why, yes, I will.” She folded it in eighths before tucking it into the band jacket’s tiny gold-trimmed pocket. “Dishwashing at China Garden is great fun, but hardly lucrative and, alas, roommates require contribution.”
Perverse choices their father said about Kathie’s job and friends. Still, he gave her the monthly check.
“So many portraits. How can you stand it?” Kathie brandished her lion’s head walking stick. “Laura’s pensive charcoal face.” She rapped the silver lion head on the picture glass. “Laura’s cartwheel in crayon.” Rapped again. Turning around, she froze before the mirror hanging above the fireplace – “Goodness, a frame with me inside.”
So dramatic, painful, fake. Or maybe not fake. Who knew what Kathie felt?
“Only a mirror creates images so indiscriminately,” Kathie said. “The artist-above-us is much more selective.”
Laura pressed her thumb against her lips, unable to respond.
“I forgot,” Kathie said. “We don’t talk in this house. We just stare!”
Laura dropped her hand from her mouth. “Don’t,” she said, but couldn’t help staring at Kathie. “Why do you wear that old thing?” Laura reached out to her sister and yanked on an epaulet. The tinsel came loose in her hand.
“Laura?” Their father’s faint voice called to her.
“I have to go,” Laura said. “He’s waiting.”
“The last time I sat under that skylight my sweat stank up the studio and stung the zits on my back. Ah, puberty. Dampness and bulges. You’ve got about a year.” Kathie tilted her head, considering. “Though you might turn out pretty.”
Laura squeezed the clump of tinsel in her right hand: Please don’t mention mom. But Kathie went on in a singsong voice.
“Of course no one will ever be as beautiful as our mother was.”
“She was,” Laura said “She is. In pictures.”
Kathie shrugged, agreeing. “But he never speaks of her without mentioning her beauty. It’s like—he keeps mentioning her beauty to show he still loves her.”
Laura’s thumb went to her lips again: Please don’t say she wasn’t beautiful at the end. They both remembered their mother sick, even if their father never spoke of it.
Kathie shook her head as though defeated and then pointed to the ceiling with her walking stick. “Go to daddy.”
“Come up with me?”
“Why? I got what I came for.”
Laura’s bare feet ticked up the stairs. Again, Kathie had lacked the courage to come and ask their father the question she’d once asked Laura.
“There you are,” her father said, and tipped the brush in his hand toward the stool under the skylight.
Laura climbed back onto her perch. Her lips parted with a smack, announcing her intention to speak.
“Who made you judge?”
“Something Kathie asked me before she moved out, before you chased her out.”
Laura’s father’s eyes blazed the way they had when Kathie laughed at him for calling her ungrateful. He glowered, as if to say, how dare you, and he looked—not at the color of her hair or at the shape of her lips, but at Laura. She waited for words to match his expression.
“That’s all for now, I think,” he said.
Was that it then? She’d wanted to fight with him. Or maybe not. His eyes had scared her, if only for a moment.
He wasn’t looking at her now—he was screwing caps onto tubes of paint, acting busy—but she gazed at him as though she’d just learned how. For example: A brown smudge on his hand matched his trimmed beard, matched the age spots on his forehead, matched his thinning hair.
Without speaking, Laura’s father rose from his chair and walked out of the studio toward the bathroom, clutching a fistful of dirty brushes and leaving Laura alone with the portraits on the wall. They were: Girl with a Pink Rose, Girl by an Open Window, Girl Reading a Book.
Laura’s father only painted pretty girls. He chose not to paint the other kind, just as he’d chosen not to hear her ugly words, but she’d seen anger in his eyes. Ugliness upset him. No wonder Kathie stayed away.
Who’d made their father judge? The answer to Kathie’s question might be simple. They had, every time they sat for him. Laura liked to please him, and when he winked at her over the easel, her stomach tickled with pleasure. Lately, though, the pleasure left a sick feeling when it faded.
He’d love her less if she stopped posing. She must be sure, mustn’t change her mind later on, because that would be like letting go of a balloon and then reaching up to its vanishing color.
Laura threw the wad of sweaty tinsel against the bare floor, a gesture of anger toward her sister who’d taught her that love withdrawn is never offered again. Still, she was sure now. Kathie would find no new portraits when she came for next month’s rent.
Heavy footsteps trod out of the bathroom and down the stairs, while Laura sat in the silent studio. Alone under the skylight, she tilted her head so that the sun transformed a picture glass into a blank square. In the instant before the light hurt her eyes, she found her own true face within the frame.