Portrait of the Artist as a Purse

Originally published in the Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Issue 38, July 2015.

A small notebook and a mechanical pencil, always. The notebook is unlined and the mechanical pencil—a Pentel GraphGear nicked from the art school—never needs sharpening.

There is a ticket stub in there, pressed between two pages, between a Rembrandt self-portrait and a study of Dr. Tulp. I have a thing about doctors, not in a good way. In The Anatomy Lesson, their faces float like masks against the gloom. The one hovering in the back looks just like Dr. Boushey, concerned but distant, as if he had a migraine coming on. I didn’t draw the cadaver, though I stared at him for a long time. Yes, I thought, I’ve had days like that. That is the promise of art.

There’s also a brochure from the museum’s Rembrandt exhibition, tucked against the notebook, its map much consulted. The edges are curled and the glossy paper feels a little damp to me still. I got caught in a downpour on the way home and barely had the strength to keep one foot squelching in front of another.

I walked so much that day, more than I had been able to do for months. Even simply standing in front of the paintings, extracting faces from them for my own practice, was tiring. That night my feet swelled to the size of bread loaves and I had to hobble from the kitchen to the couch with my supper. But it was still the best day I’d had in a long time.

The front zippered pocket contains a salad of green bus tickets and white transfers. Breadcrumb trails from my journeys to and from the medical building on Sheppard Ave.

Lipstick—Pink Sand by Motives—because you never know where the day might take you. I’m as prepared as a boy scout. Cover-up for the dark circles under the eyes and to camouflage the three tiny blue dots on my chest. My only tattoo. Something for the technicians to aim at.

A condom.


And there’s Sam’s number on a small triangle of paper, ripped from his notebook. While I was sketching Rembrandt, he was sketching me. It wasn’t a good likeness; I didn’t recognize myself at all. His eyes were very blue and his hair, grey and thick and wiry, shot up from his head like someone’s cartoon depicting surprise. He’s an art teacher, like me, only he teaches high school.

He caught up with me on the museum steps—I had skipped the gift shop—and right there, a stranger, as thunder detonated in the air around us, asked for my number. And gave me his.

A brand new travel pack of tissues. I buy them in bulk now and always have one or two packages on hand. You have probably never had reason to imagine how your nose would keep running, a thin constant irritating trickle, in the absence of nose hairs.

A red plastic travel comb. This is a token of optimism. The hair that has grown back so far is thin and soft, like a newborn’s. I don’t even trouble it with shampoo.

Another ticket stub from a few days later, this one screwed into a tight little ball and fallen into a corner, wedged beside the seam. I would never have saved it otherwise. Sam and I were supposed to see World War Z. It was freezing outside so I bought my ticket and went in. The concession stand had a clear view of the front doors. There was no possible way to miss him.

No Sam. Sick from the smell of synthetically buttered popcorn, I left.

A seven-day pill dispenser, rattling with the usual suspects. Tamoxifen, Gravol.

My phone, with several texts on it, saved, re-read, and unanswered.

Two green and white striped mints in clear wrappers that rustle invitingly whenever I rummage around for something. Souvenirs from Sam’s “I’m sorry” dinner at La Dolce Vita.

You were sick,” he said, like it was an excuse. “I didn’t realize at first. I didn’t want to get into all that.”

But I’m not anymore.”

I know.”

He reached across the table to where my hand would be resting if we were in a movie. He stroked the white tablecloth, damp from my water glass. I kept my hands to myself. One non-clinical touch, I thought, would transform me into an ebullient puppy, all licks and yips and tail whipping so hard from side to side that it would set my whole body vibrating. Not to mention the danger to the glassware.

I bit hard into a piece of garlic bread, surely a preventative against kissing him too soon. But Sam had ordered the zucchini soup, which came with tiny slices of garlic toast floating on its surface. By the end of the night, it didn’t matter. We ended up tasting like each other. I pretended to be what he wanted.

An appointment card for Dr. Boushey. Nine o’clock, Tuesday, on Sheppard Ave. Exactly a year since the biopsy. I won’t be taking the bus this time.

Sam said he would drive me.

I have a sketch in my notebook, drawn from memory, of Sam, of the expression his face held as he made that promise. It’s something I can hold him to.


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