The Muse and Her Eyes

I stand in the cold, quiet museum staring at the portrait of a woman who's supposed to be me. Long auburn hair floats delicately around her face. A face that was so obviously softened and rounded out to reflect other women of the time. That's what every portrait ever painted of me is—just a reflection of something or someone else. Other women. A political or social agenda. An art movement. The artist's own ego or hope. Every one of them says a lot. But few say anything about me.

They never get the eyes quite right either. I don't know why. I can't tell you what's wrong with them, but they're just never mine.

One might say it's a blessing, to be able to see yourself through the eyes of so many artists, through different mediums, in different decades. To inspire so many famous artists through so many different eras. To never age. But with every portrait ever painted of me, my vision of myself becomes that much foggier. Am I anything but a less polished version of some flaky paint or charcoal? Like the woman staring back at me from the gilded frame, is there anything behind her hollow brown eyes? All I see while staring at her are two vacant orbs of empty space where one's thoughts should be hiding.

But if she has thoughts, they're few and far between. And hidden too well even for herself to find.

"She's beautiful, isn't she?" I turn to see a stranger staring at the same portrait that I've been contemplating for nearly a half hour now.

"I guess," is the only response I can manage. "I've seen better."

"Paintings? Or women?" he asks, teasing.


I hear him exhale a short breath, something between a laugh and a cough.

I used to worry that people would recognize me. That someone would walk up to me one day and look at the painting, and then at me, and then back at the painting, and somehow make the connection that even I fail to make most days. But at some point in the last few decades I realized that would never be a problem. Not only did I barely resemble the innocent muse that I was so often portrayed to be, but now thanks to hair dye and make-up, I actually do look different. Plus anyone in a museum is either too focused on the art or too busy on their cell phones to spend any amount of time paying attention to a stranger.

Why spend so much time staring at replicas of yourself in museums and art galleries? Well when you've been alive as long as I have, sometimes you need reminders of the things you've lived through, of the memories you have that sometimes feel too far out of reach to remember on your own. Sometimes you need a visual history, especially for the years before camera phones and selfies were an option. The only thing scarier than remembering the past is forgetting it.

"I've seen you here before," tall, dark, and nosey says from beside me.

I smile a little, and nod, preparing to back away when he says something I'm not sure I hear correctly.

"Your eyes are too sad."

"Excuse me?"

"Her eyes," he gestures with a strongly corded arm toward the painting.

"Right," I say, shaken and suddenly unsure.

He moves closer to the painting, as close as he can get without stepping on the white line that is the difference between just being stared at by the aggressive security guard and being reprimanded by her.

"Why do you say that?" I can't help but ask. When was the last time I'd had a conversation with a stranger, let alone a conversation with a stranger about one of my portraits? My momentary companion appears to be transfixed. His dark, thick hair is pulled up into a fashionable bun by a strip of leather that vaguely reminds me of something I would have seen many, many years ago. His jaw clenches and unclenches and his brow furrows as he tries to solve the mystery of the woman he doesn't know is standing right next to him.

"Well look at her body language." He turns toward me and for the first time realizes I'm studying him instead of the painting. Did I just blush? That certainly hasn't happened in recent history.

I turn back to the painting, trying to see what he sees but only seeing me and the studious face of the academy painter who I watched intently as he created it. It's all so average. Both his skill and my image. White linen dress. Brown eyes, always the brown eyes. Soft hair. Round cheeks. I look average.

I turn back to my blue-eyed, black haired companion, noting the considerable differences between our features. "I give up," I say in defeat. "What do you see that I don't?"

"Look at her long neck. Or her proud shoulders. The full pout of her lips, with just a hint of a smile. Or even the angle of her chin. She isn't sad. She's strong. And defiant. And everything that her eyes aren't. They don't match."

For a second I don't know what to say. Even if someone were holding a gun to my head I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to utter a word. So we stand there in silence long enough for me to gather my thoughts.

"How can you see any of that when you can't see it in her eyes? Eyes are the window into the soul." I wasn't asking a question. I knew that to be true. I could guess a great many things from the bright, lively eyes of the man standing next to me.

"Sure they are," he says locking his eyes with mine. Having his undivided attention feels like a gift that I didn't know I wanted. "But body language says a lot. And so does my gut," he says with a wink, light-heartedly, as though to lighten the suddenly heavy mood.

"So your gut says that, despite her boring appearance and unhappy eyes, she was actually none of those things?" I giggle.

Why did I just giggle? How old am I?

"Yes." He replies confidently as though he knows something I don't. Which in this situation should be impossible and yet even I find myself believing him.

"Can't she be strong and defiant and also a little bit sad?" I try to pretend it's something in the air causing my eyes to water, but I know that's not true. Just like it isn't causing the lump at the base of my throat or the tiny flutter in my stomach.

"I guess she could be," he says slowly, but doesn't look convinced. "But either way, those just can't be her eyes. Her eyes should be a bit wider, less boring brown and more caramel colored. Bright eyes. Eyes like..." his hypnotic voice drifts off and I look back at him. He moved closer, when did he move closer? "Like yours. She should have your eyes."

I nearly lose my breath at his words and if skipping heartbeats were actually a thing, I think in that moment, mine would have.

"I'm just saying," his voice softens as though he remembers he's in a museum, talking to a stranger. "The artist got it wrong."

I turn back to the portrait and for the first time in more years than I can count, someone recognizes the same thing in me that I once thought to be true. I am strong. I am not the silly painting of a mad man or the charcoal sketch of a genius inventor. I am something beyond that. Someone with brighter eyes and a spirit that can't be contained within paper or canvas. And no matter that my considerably long life has been spent acting as a muse for other's, I am more than that. I'm real.

I turn to ask my strangely perceptive companion his name, but he's gone. Just like that. As though he were never there. I swivel a couple times, almost making myself dizzy in an attempt to catch even just a glimpse of his back as he walks away, but there is no one.

It's close to closing at the museum and I'm one of the few patrons still wandering around, but of the others left none are the mysterious stranger I wished I were still talking to.

I spend the next fifteen minutes moving aimlessly, or at least I tell myself it's aimless, through rooms and rooms of other paintings and sculptures and somehow can no longer find interest in any of them, least of all ones of myself. And as I round the last corner of the last room on my way out of the building, a painting catches my eye. An oil painting that I've probably seen hundreds of times through the years. An old, larger than life, historical painting of a man on a horse, presumably riding into battle.

He sits upon the powerful creature as though he were born for war. Arm resting on the hilt of his sword, face looking out past the viewer as though he were about to face the devil himself. His dark hair is in a severe ponytail at the nape of his neck, and his strong jaw is a harsh line across the canvas demonstrating his determination, strength, and assurance in the correctness of his cause. It's then that my eyes travel up further to meet a set of eyes that are somehow more familiar than the last time I viewed this particular painting.

I can't help but smile. It's magnificent. Unlike mine, the subject is in no way boring or sad or insecure. And in this portrait the artist did in fact get the eyes right. Absolutely and unequivocally.

And as I laugh to myself, all at once elated and confused, I spot a jagged patch of white in the bottom right corner of the painting. A patch that looks very much out of place against the dark, rich colors of the rest of the peace, but perhaps wouldn't be noticeable to anyone who hadn't seen the painting on more than one occasion.

After checking my proximity to any security guard who would sooner body slam me to the ground than allow me within a foot of the painting, I slowly reach my hand out and slip my nail beneath the white patch. Just as I thought—it isn't part of the painting at all, but rather a torn scrap of paper resting between the canvas and the sturdy frame. The small card, though barely the size of my palm and light in weight, somehow held a heaviness and a significance that I didn't yet understand. And with a heart that was beating fast enough to fly right out of my chest, I flipped the card over and began to read.

"To the woman in the painting, whose eyes are anything but sad..."

(photograph by McCoyPaul


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