What Do You See In Her?
by Celeste Kaufman
“What do you see in her?”
Damien sighed and shifted his weight away from me in bed. “I don’t want to talk about this again.”
“There has to be something.”
He turned a page of his book. “Sometimes it’s just a feeling.”
“Is it her eyes?”
“Her hair? Her tits?”
There was a long pause, and then he said, “Fine, yeah. If I had to pick something I’d say it’s her eyes.”
I looked into them, big and brown and full of yearning, or maybe sorrow, or maybe mischief. My eyes, a pale blue, a constant struggle to make them pop, make them bigger with mascara and eyeliner and complementary shadow. I picked up my own book and tried to read a few sentences, but I kept glancing up at her. In a whisper I asked, “Do you like them better than my eyes?”
Damien shut his book. “I don’t even know if it’s her eyes, Christine. I just picked something to shut you up.” He got out of bed, pulled his shirt off, tossed it to the floor and said, “I’m taking a shower.”
He walked out of his room and down the hall and in his wake I said, “That didn’t answer my question.”
I pulled my knees up to my chest and hugged them, staring her down. When he brought the painting home from a street fair, it sat on the floor of the living room leaning against the wall for a week. The next time I came over he asked me where he should hang it. Woefully untrained in the art of decorating, I shrugged and pointed to an empty space above a side table. “I don’t know, there?” A week later, we came home late, drunk, wanting to go right to sleep. I climbed into his bed, put my head on his chest, and saw her hanging on the wall in front of us. The first woman he would see when he woke up each morning, and the last he’d see every night. Right before drifting off to sleep I mumbled, “You know, usually that spot is reserved for a picture of Jesus.”
The next morning, I had woken up to the smell of coffee brewing and as I slowly adjusted to the light he came in carrying two mugs and balancing a plate with two bagels on his forearm. “Finally, my college years of being a waiter have come in handy,” he said, smiling.
I said, “So why did you get this painting anyway?”
He looked at it with an air of surprise, as if he’d forgotten it was there. “I don’t know, I thought it was good, and it wasn’t too expensive. The guy seemed cool and I wanted to support an independent artist.”
“But why would you want a painting of someone you don’t even know in your house?”
He set the plate of bagels on the bed. “Why does anyone?”
“What, are you banking on her becoming the next Mona Lisa, or something?”
“Since when do you think of art as a commodity?”
“And why is it in the bedroom? I thought we decided it was going to go in the living room.”
“We didn’t decide anything. This is my apartment and I thought it looked better in here.”
“Just say it.”
“Just say what?”
One night, with an old boyfriend, I looked through his computer while he was asleep beside me. I was suspicious of one of his coworkers and I thought if I looked at his history it would show him going from her Facebook to her Instagram to her Twitter and back again, over and over like how people do when they like someone. (Right?) Instead, I found a dozen Pornhub links from 2a.m the night before. I muted the laptop and clicked through them. By the third one, I was crying. Within moments, my sobs were loud enough to wake him up. First, the rage at the snooping. Next, the frantic assurance that the gangbangs were just a fantasy. Then, a resigned apology he didn’t believe in. But it was for the wrong thing. Video after video showed big-breasted redheads with piercings and tattoos. Me and my blonde hair and my B cups and my Kate Spade were never going to make him happy. The countdown to our breakup began.
After the painting had been hanging for a month, I climbed off Damien one night to take it down. I thought I could continue where I left off but he jumped out of bed before I got back in. “What the hell is wrong with you?” It was the loudest he’d ever raised his voice to me.
“What, is it too much to ask that we have sex without looking at another woman?”
“She means nothing to me!”
“You know that’s not true!”
As all twenty-three year-olds must do eventually, I relented to another boyfriend’s hints and “jokes” and sat down with him to seriously consider a threesome. He thought it would be fun to cuddle on the couch and look through a dating site together to find a third. It didn’t even have to be the one we went through with, he said, it was just to ease into the idea. I guess he thought me looking at a digital parade of hot girls would awaken some latent bisexuality in me and I’d start advocating for this all to actually happen. “How about her?” He’d say, clicking on girl after girl’s photo to make it bigger for me to judge. I’d shrug and shake my head, getting quieter and quieter. “Come on, pick one,” he said, tickling my side.
“I don’t know what I like but I haven’t seen it yet,” I said.
“You haven’t liked any of these girls?” He said, his shock slicing me.
“You know, you haven’t picked a single one that even remotely looks like me.”
“Why would I do that? I already have you.”
I looked up the artist on Instagram and saw that he exclusively painted the female figure. Most of them were nude, of course, and at least Damien had not picked one of those. I had hoped, maybe, that the painter only worked with one model so that Damien had never had to make a choice, but that wasn’t the case. What compelled him to paint all these women? I imagined an artist’s statement full of excuses. It would be about their inner worlds, actually. It would be a celebration of their strength and power. Really, the work is downright feminist, if you think about it. He just finds women so inspiring. It certainly has nothing to do with lovingly rendering a pair of breasts for an hour. “Would you be a dear and stroke your nipple for me? It’s softened and, out of respect, I just want to make absolutely sure I’m getting this right.”
Is it better when all of your man’s exes look exactly like you, or nothing like you? Does it hurt more when the next girl reminds you so much of yourself, or when you can’t recognize yourself in her at all?
I gingerly got out of bed and tiptoed down the hall. Perhaps I was being a little neurotic about the painting. I shouldn’t be the only beauty he was allowed to admire in the world. I could maybe make him forget about my little outburst and we could move on and I’d never question him about it again. I quietly opened the bathroom door and stepped into the steam. His back was turned to me, but still I could see his wrist moving through the glass shower door. I reached toward the sink, grabbed a bar of soap, and threw it hard against the glass. Damien jumped and turned around, his eyes wide and his erection falling. “I know who you’re thinking about!” I shouted before I could stop myself.
I rushed back to the room, hearing him scrambling to turn the water off behind me. I grabbed my clothes from around the room, knowing what was about to happen. I clutched them to my chest, slung my bag over my shoulder, and stepped into my shoes. Damien was thundering down the hall now. He was already yelling. I was turning to leave when I noticed that, actually, her skin was built up out of tiny brushstrokes of pinks and blues. The shadows at her jawline were not grey like I had assumed, but shades of purple. I had never noticed the tiny points of white in her irises that made them shine. The fabric of her shirt seemed to be shifting as she was sighing. Her lips were just beginning to part, after all, just enough that I could see the edges of her front teeth. The hair, which had appeared to be merely a swath of color from the bed, was actually painstakingly composed hair by hair, a startling contrast to the more freewheeling expressionistic approach to the rest of her.
I made a note to return to the artist’s Instagram to see whether or not he was as careful with every other woman’s hair in his work. Was it a stylistic choice of his or was her hair just particularly inspiring? I pondered the question as I slipped on my dress in the living room, shoving my nightgown into my bag with my bra and underwear. I recognized the look in her eyes now. She was reveling in her power. I saw it in myself, from time to time, glancing up in the bathroom mirror of a stranger’s apartment. The bedroom door slammed. I swiped some lipstick on, just to have a little something, and headed to the subway.
Celeste Kaufman has written for Elle, The Outline, Lit Hub, Teen Vogue, Self, Bust, Dance Media and elsewhere. Her fictional podcast, “This Used To Be The Place,” can be found on iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn.