A WORK OF ART is a first-person narrative, but the main character’s flashbacks are told in third person. This was a deliberate choice on my part to show how seventeen-year-old Tera has removed herself from her past, as if her memories belong to someone else. To further set off the flashbacks, I gave each one its own chapter, and whereas none of the other chapters have titles, the flashback chapters do. Once again, I wanted Tera’s memories to feel like events that she’s packed up and stored in a box, with the chapter title acting as the box’s label.
The first flashback shows Tera as a five-year-old, and that’s the one I’m sharing here because it sets the stage for Tera’s relationship with her father. This was one of the easiest chapters to write because I remember so vividly what it’s like to want to please someone, even while suspecting I’d never quite measure up.
Chapter 3: Self-Portrait
Sunlight brightened the kitchen table where Tera sat, waiting with her paper and crayons. Her dad put his leather bag on the floor and sat beside her. He smelled like paint. Better than her mom’s flowers.
She opened her drawing pad and held it to her nose. Paper was another good smell.
Her dad was shaking his head. “That cheapo paper is for kindergarteners.”
“But I’m in kindergarten.” Maybe he forgot how big she was.
“Not today you’re not. Today you’re an artist.”
He reached into his leather bag, the one he carried with him everywhere, and slid out a thick pad of paper. This was the special paper, the stuff she wasn’t allowed to borrow when she wanted to draw horses. She leaned in closer as he opened the pad. He flipped through drawings of all kinds of things—trees with kites stuck in them, men with swords, monsters with sharp teeth. All of them so good. She’d never be that good.
He stopped flipping pages when the drawings ran out and all that was left was blank paper. His hand slapped down on a page of clean white. “What do you see?”
At first she didn’t see anything, but she leaned closer, just to make sure. That’s when she noticed how the paper wasn’t really white. Up close she saw gray and red and blue threads, all tight and mashed together company website.
“It looks dirty,” she said.
“Not dirty, but not pure either. That’s your blank slate. Tabula rasa.” He smoothed his big hand over the paper. Took her hand and did the same. “Feel that?”
“Right. That’s real life. This is what you draw on. Those little bumps give your drawing texture.”
She didn’t know what texture was, but that didn’t matter. He was sitting here next to her, teaching her stuff. She pulled her box of crayons closer.
“No crayons. Not today. Use this.” He handed her a pencil. Not a fat pencil with an eraser, but a thin one with a flat top and a point that looked sharp enough to cut.
“What if I mess up?”
“No big deal. Artists learn from their mistakes.”
“And disguise them sometimes. Do you know what that means?”
“They hide them.”
“Right. Or turn them into something else.”
“So no eraser?”
“Erasers are for babies.”
Could that be true? She saw lots of grownups with erasers.
He tore a sheet from the pad. “Today I’ll use the tear-out sheet. You draw in the sketchpad.”
He slid the pad of special paper over so it was right there in front of her. That made her feel proud, like maybe it was hers, not his.
“Now when you’re drawing a face, you want to get the proportions right—unless you’re Pablo Picasso.” He smiled, and she smiled too. Because her dad made a joke and Pablo Picasso was someone important.
She watched him draw an oval on the paper, watched him cut the oval into four pieces with a cross.
“This is where you put the eyes.” He pointed to the top pieces of the cross. “This is where the nose goes, and this is for the mouth.”
She drew an oval on the sketchpad, making sure to get it right. Then she drew a cross on it.
Already he was filling in his oval with eyes, the beginning lines for a nose, a slit where the mouth would be.
“I started learning by drawing myself,” he told her. “That’s a good way for you to learn too.”
“You want me to draw me?”
“I love to draw you.”
His hand moved over the page, making little strokes with the pencil, using his thick fingers to smudge black lines into gray. In only a few minutes, the oval with the cross turned into a face—her face. The way it looked when she saw herself in the mirror.
“That’s a portrait,” he said. “And when you draw yourself, it’s called a self-portrait.”
“It’s good,” she said, because that’s what you said when you liked what another kid was coloring. She wanted to say something else, something that would let him know how good it really was, but she didn’t have the right words.
“Now you try it.” He guided her hand to the first cross section of her oval. “Right there. Draw your eyes.”
She squeezed the thin pencil, pressed the sharp tip down on the paper—too hard. The point broke off.
“Careful. Don’t try so hard. Let it flow the way you think it should feel.”
She tried again. Already she could tell hers wouldn’t be as good as his, but maybe he’d still be proud of her. She drew a circle for an eye and added eyelashes, then another circle for the other eye. The nose came next—easy except for the nostrils, which turned out way too big. The mouth came last. She drew a smiley face, then round circles. The circles she colored gray, for rosy cheeks.
“Is that you?” he asked.
“Do you like it?”
“Hmm.” He leaned back and tilted his head. “You’ll get better.”
His hand flashed across the paper. A sharp rip and the page came out. Like pulling a loose tooth. Quick hurt and then it was over.
The thick pad of special paper went back in his bag. So did his pencil, but not the one he let her borrow. That one she kept under the table. Maybe he’d forget to take it back.
He did forget. He forgot her drawing, too. But that didn’t matter so much. Her heart felt excited when she looked at what she’d done. A self-portrait.
She pulled it closer. Maybe later she’d get an eraser and fix it. Maybe later her dad would hang it on the fridge.