A dear friend on their deathbed entrusts you to take care of an old painting.
“I trust your wise and knowing heart not only to take care and protect this invaluable treasure that the world has never heard of, but I encourage you to connect with the painting. I’ve spent hours on end carefully studying every millimeter of this canvas. The more I studied, the more fascinated I became. The different facets of the eternal truth were revealed to me. These hours by far were the most vivid, precious and meaningful memories of my life.”
The friend passed away a few days later.
At home, when you unfold the scroll, a mysterious moment occurs where you feel a jolt of energy pass through you. Was it real? Confused, you shook your head several times.
You felt nothing.
The washed colors of the old painting were a bit obscure for your taste. The depicted subject disturbed you and added an element of drama you weren’t entirely comfortable with. The painting didn’t fit the decor of your house either. After all, your house was your safe place and mirrored who you were. The colors were sublime. The lines were clean. Why surround yourself with things that might upset your inner peace? You never liked surprises. The unpredictable annoyed you. You always had to be in the know, in charge,in control.
Despite this feeling, you considered yourself a person of your word. It was something you valued about yourself and weren’t about to change, given the circumstances.
A brilliant idea came to you on how to keep your promise to hold the painting without letting it afflict your comfort zone came.
You’d use it as a coffee table cloth!
There was a quiet sunny corner. A few times a week your multiple friends would come by to have challenging, intellectual conversations. You loved people who were capable of that. Your mind was sharp and perceptive. You enjoyed healthy exchanges, and there was never any shortage of people coming over to engage you. You were rarely alone.
You see nothing offensive about covering a coffee table with a canvas. In fact, you were proud of your creativity. You were convinced that you were giving the art a place of honor and purpose in your house.
“The times have changed, I’m not devaluing the painting by using it as a table cloth. After all, art was meant to be public and decorative,” you mused to yourself as you adjusted and readjusted it in its newfound home.
Friends came by as usual. People from all walks of life saw the art adorning your coffee table.
Few of them even mentioned, ironically, that the old painting gave a sophisticated modern twist to the slightly type-A, militant feeling of your space. The mix and match style was en vogue. Everybody talked about the importance of the acceptance and the coexistence.
The painting was there. Sometimes covered with books or stacks of paper, sometimes with wine or whisky bottles, sometimes with coffee cups, but it was always there.
You kept your word and did your best taking care of it.
When red wine or cigar ash dropped on the surface, you would clean it with a goose feather or with a little wet sponge.
The subject was still disturbing. You couldn’t find a way to be at peace with it. Your emotions spiraled out of control when you dared to keep an eye on it for a little more than a second.
With time, you were less careful. Spots of deep merlot had been absorbed into the canvas, ash left tiny gray, rigid edges in it’s wake. You’d get mad at your irresponsible friends, who couldn’t appreciate the uniqueness of the cloth on your coffee table, but then you would forgive them. The tablecloth was just a tablecloth, after all.
Spots and scratches remained on the canvas that weren’t pleasing your eyes. You were an esthete. You rolled it and tucked in the basement storage between a wine refrigerator and home supplies shelves.
One afternoon, you went to a home decor boutique to choose a set of a plastic place mats with Renaissance painting reproductions. They were giving the same sophisticated twist to your still quite stringent environment, but they were replaceable . They resonated with your esthetic desires because you chose the subject and they were easy to take care of. Years went by.
Your life was going precisely the way you envisioned it. Full of achieved goals, full of satisfactory meetings. People lined up for your advice and company.
You were just happy to be there for them. You loved helping, supporting, and giving to strangers. It was the ultimate in satisfying your purpose. You were never alone, despite maybe a few hours before falling asleep.
In those hours, everyone was with their beloved. You were with a book and a drink. You could unwind. You could reflect. You could feel proud of how your support was changing the lives of others for better. You loved your solitude. You were a solitary creature, ironically, and consciously ignored the basic human need for trust and intimacy at night. The nights belonged to you alone.
You felt comfort in your control. You knew that you were stronger than those who needed another. You soul was self-sustained.
Year after year met you with smiles, laughter, and warmth, until one stormy night.
It was 10:39 PM and you were basking in your solitude, flipping through TV channels, trying to find something to watch that would satisfy your relentless curiosities. An image of a woman with an irresistible smile, head leaning on her hands, fingers lost in short, messy, venetian curls. The dangerous contrast between angelically innocent blue eyes and the seductively messed hair had the glass of whiskey in your hand paused mid-air.
The sudden paralyzing cold froze your breath.
There was no question it was her. The one that adorned your coffee table before you put it away. On the TV screen, it was a modern drawing, not the renaissance painting.
Art historians were overwhelmingly emotional, discussing the conspiracy behind the portrait, whether or not this painting ever actually existed, whether or not this woman ever existed. It was an enigma, an unsolved mystery that you had the answer to in your own home. There was evidence contributing to the idea that she was real. In the span of one month, sketch after sketch of this woman appeared in the artist’s diary. He obsessively attempted to capture her eyes and passionate fingers and smiling lips and messy golden hair. However, there was no written reference in the artist’s diary about the time and details of their meeting, and no painting was ever uncovered. If they ever met – why wouldn’t he describe it? What secrets was he protecting? Where was the painting?
The experts went on discussing further that if this painting ever existed, this would only reaffirm the artist’s place at the Pantheon as a recorded proof that he was ahead of his time to be able to capture a fleeting moment of innocent happiness that was too controversial, too theologically overloaded compared to most paintings of that time.
The glass of whiskey finally escaped your hand, clattering to the ground.
Legs shaking, you ran downstairs almost tripping over stuck boxes to search for the long forgotten painting. There were piles of suitcases and cleaning supplies, boxes of wine and lots of books that you had read long ago, brought out of storage as you organized your library.
You raced to the scroll. You rubbed off the thick dust layer, excited to see the familiar smile.
The wine drops, cigar ash, dust, and humidity caused the familiar smile to fade away. You could only recall that it was somewhere down there, because you saw it at the beginning, years ago, when holding it for the first time.
You now desperately wanted to turn back time, to bring back this mysterious, irresistible smile back to your life.
You held the old painting in your arms like it was the most precious asset you’d ever been gifted with.
You couldn’t sleep that night, heart racing like a crazed horse.
Soon after sunrise, you made a call to one of your friends, asking to be introduced to the best restorers.
You went from one to another, describing what was the painting originally.
They only saw dark traces of lost colors and undefined shadows. The common conclusion was that the painting is irreparable.
That night you returned home, holding the scroll close to your heart. The sudden realization that this smile was something that during all these years gave you an unconditional support and supernatural courage, only because you always knew it was there. It would always be there.
But now it was gone. Forever. And only glimpses of angelic blue eyes would stroke through your memories.
For the first time in your life, you felt your heart to be empty. For the first time, it hurt you to breathe.
If you could only go back and bring back this smile, that you missed so much now. Alas, you learned that when the sun has set, there was no candle that could replace it.