A CHANGED WOMAN

By Michele Bardsley

"A PORTRAIT OF YOU?"

The artist, Renaud or some such, stares at Millie. His slight smile reflects his doubt; his wide dark eyes sparkle with amusement reserved for artists and eccentrics. His French accent dresses his words in silk. What am I doing? She nibbles her lip. Moments ago, as she walked past the studio, she liked the idea of sitting for a portrait. In soft, dewy light draped against red silk, she’d strike a sensual pose and the genius artist would quiver with desire to paint her. She’d recline naked, maybe with some grapes or other kind of lush fruit covering her privates, and the title of her portrait would be, “Woman’s Body, Secret Unrevealed.”

“You want me to make you beautiful, eh?”

“Beautiful?”

“Add shine to your brown hair. Make the blue of your eyes look like a stormy ocean. Thin out those curves. Get rid of the scar above your brow. Beautiful, yes?”

Millie swallows the hard knot of disappointment created by the casual words of a stranger. She almost turns away, almost discards the suddenly ridiculous idea of her portrait. But she’d promised herself to be impetuous today. Just once. She forces her gaze to meet his. “I want you to paint me. If I’m not beautiful then—look, can you paint me or not? The way I am.”

The amusement vanishes. A flash of interest darkens his eyes then he shrugs. “Yes.”

“Will you—” Millie clears her throat and attempts to calm the nervous pounding of her heart. “I would like a n-nude portrait. Do you object?”

He pursues his mouth and Millie notices that his lower lip is much fuller than the upper one. His face is long and thin; a trendy beard shadows his jaw. His eyes belong to a tiger. They’re golden brown and reflect a frightening intensity, as if he’s perpetually ravenous. She wonders about shedding her clothes in front of man who, it seems to her, looks ready to devour anything naïve enough to stumble in his way.

“Miss?”

Heat creeps up her neck. “Hmmm?”

“I said I would paint you. As you are.” He smiles at her. “I have no problem painting you naked. You will be a challenge.”

Embarrassment forces her to look away. “Fine. When should I return?”

“Tomorrow. How does seven o’clock in the evening sound?”

Not a lot of time to get up her nerve, but it didn’t give her much of opportunity to chicken out, either. She exchanges nearly all her savings for a promise and the artist's business card. Ren watches her closely as she puts the receipt into her purse.

“Portraits take many hours. I cannot paint you in just one sitting.”

“I’ll make the time, Mr....” she looks at his card and frowns at his last name.

“Do not worry about it. Call me Rennie or Ren.” He puts his hand on the small of her back and guides her to the door. “I will see you tomorrow, yes?”

“Yes.”

* * *

“YOU CAN TAKE your clothes off behind that.”

Millie looks at the dark red screen. It’s one of the few pieces of furniture in the large studio. The oily smell of paint competes with turpentine. Her stomach roils as she grips the strap of her purse. “Don’t you have a r-room or something?”

“Losing your nerve, eh?” Ren takes her coat and purse and places them on a nearby chair. “You want a nude portrait, but you don’t want to undress?”

“I’m not losing my nerve. I’m unaccustomed to disrobing in front of men I don’t know.”

“Perhaps you should give it a try.” He purses those marvelous lips and Millie’s gut clenches. Great. Nibblings of lust for the guy who would probably laugh with his colleagues about her chubby body and limp hair and dull eyes.

“I will sit in the chair. You will take off your clothes. It is a good way to begin.”

“I didn’t pay for humiliation.”

Ren tilts his head to the right, his tiger eyes sparkle. “You are a mouse and a lion. It is an interesting mix. I will like painting you, Millicent.” He pulls a small stool away from its place in front of a leather wingback chair. He sits down and stretches out his long legs. “I am ready. Are you?”

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Why do you want to do something that causes you so much distress?”

“I promised myself that I would be impetuous. I’m trying to change...a little.”

“He left you, eh? Your lover?” Ren’s voice is soothing, sympathetic. “He says to you, ‘You are ugly. You are fat. You are boring.’ And you say to him, ‘I can change.’ But your lover, he does not want you anymore. He found someone else and it does not matter what you do or what you say or what you become. So you tell yourself you don’t need him. But still, you believe his lies. And so you are here. Hoping this impetuous thing you do will heal your heart.”

Millie can’t stop the tears. Her mouth trembles and she puts her hand against it, fearing she might throw up after all. A long moment passes before she regains control. “You’re very astute.”

“I study human nature, Millicent.”

“You think I’m silly, don’t you? Just a silly girl who—”

“Do not seek the comfort of strangers.” Ren stands suddenly; the stool screeches against the wooden floor. “You are not a girl. You are a woman.” He crosses his arms and stares at her. “I think a woman in search of herself is a very dangerous thing.”

The look in his eyes is the same ferocious one she noticed yesterday. Her heart begins to pound. “I need a tissue, please.”

He laughs. “Ah, the mouse returns.”

“Do you have a bathroom?”

“Downstairs. First door on the left.”

Millie hurries down the stairs and dashes into the bathroom. The click of the door shutting is a comforting sound. She feels somewhat safer, though she can’t really say why she’s frightened. A look in the mirror reveals raccoon eyes and streaked make-up. “Damn it. Why bother?”

She scrubs her face with the perfumed hand soap shaped like a seashell. By the time she’s finished, the soap resembles a lump of pink coal. She finds a pearl-handled comb in one of the drawers and drags it through her short tresses. The curls and styling gel and hairspray are removed by the assault; when she stops, her scalp tingles. Her hair seems shiny, though she figures it’s a trick of the bright lights. Sorrow clogs her throat. She feels clean, but the trapped-bird feeling still flutters in her soul.

For weeks she’s felt like she was going insane. Jonathon left her, but the world did not care. It still expected her to do mundane tasks. It did not give her time off to deal with her heartbreak. So she went to work and to the grocery store and to the laundry mat. She listened to the advice of well-meaning friends and pretended to agree with their assessments that time heals all wounds and there are plenty of fish in the sea.

And inside she was dying.

What did she want this artist to do? To give her back her life? To rid her of the hurt?

A woman in search of herself is a very dangerous thing.

Millie removes her blouse, looks at the fullness of her breasts tucked inside the simple, white bra. Her fingers are clumsy against the clasp, but she finally unhooks it. Her breasts are big and not as firm as they were ten years ago. Millie cries as she removes the rest of her clothes. It is painful, this unveiling of herself. Her sobs jiggle her unwieldy breasts and her round stomach.

“Bowl full of belly,” she says. Laughter escapes. She wipes the tears from her cheeks and inhales deeply. She will not back out. She will not let fear take anything else from her.

She leaves the bathroom and climbs the stairs. Ren is waiting for her. He doesn’t seem surprised that she’s naked. A blank canvas sits on an easel in front of a red-velvet settee. Next to the canvas is a cart housing a much-used paint tray and several brushes.

“The lion returns to me, no?”

“A woman in search of herself.”

“Ah. So you are dangerous.”

Millie smiles. “Damn right I am.”