Porttrait of a Girl on the Train

All artists are simply looking for their Mona Lisa. Not so much “Mona Lisa- The Painting” but “Mona Lisa- The Idea.” They need to find someone who will capture the imagination of any and all onlookers. They want someone who is a work of art before a canvas or a brush is ever involved, someone who will carry the artist’s name well into the future with just a look. I’ve just found my Mona Lisa.

I’m sitting on the subway just a few seats down from her right now. She’s perfect. She’s beautiful and she doesn’t even know it. She has a soft quality about her that makes the entire train appear to fisheye towards her. I’d like to be able to sketch the whole car right now, her and everyone surrounding her but these trains don’t exactly ride smoothly and I’m having a hard time just writing. I’m also not sure how to approach this. Sure, I draw portraits all the time but it’s always of someone I know, someone I care about. I don’t do portraits for money, either. I can’t. Believe me, if I could get paid to draw people I would. I am poor, I don’t like the term “starving artist” because it sounds so… needy. Like they want or need so much more than they have. I’m content, though not always well fed. So, I’m not used to drawing strangers, let alone asking if I can draw them (and I’ll be the first to admit, that is a bit creepy). But she strikes a chord with me, like I’ve known her forever. I just hope that I can capture that effect. Could I do it justice? Could I make onlookers fall in love with her? Would they admire her, befriend her just based on my work? I’ve always thought that art should be an augmentation of life and not an imitation of it (someone smart said something to that effect, though right now I can’t remember who,) but it would be a feat for me to even match her, I don’t see what I could improve.

There’s a stop coming up, I think. These announcers all seem to have terrible speech impediments. If it’s hers I’m getting off too. Maybe I can strike up a conversation with her, mention that I’m an artist. I have my pad with me so that could provide some kind of proof, I guess. Though I’d feel weird showing her my work, especially if she knows anything about art or thinks she does (and these days everyone thinks that they do). I can’t imagine her being that kind of person though. She’d probably find something positive to say about every piece I showed her because an indifferent silence would be just as painful as an insult and she understands that. I know she does. She would never hurt a complete stranger; she doesn’t have it in her. She believes that everyone deserves some form of respect and decency afforded to them simply for being born. And she actually believes in what she believes in. It’s not a system of carefully crafted theories and morals to her. It’s something much, much more. No, she would appreciate the fact that I would even open my book to her. I just need to make sure that she understands there’s nothing sexual about this. I mean, granted, I find her attractive but right now my mind is on something else, something more… lofty. I still don’t know how to start the conversation. “Hi. I’m an artist. Do you want to see my work?” Oh yeah, there’s nothing strange about that.

I wish I could capture moments of her on this train. It’s her interaction with other people that makes her truly beautiful. The way she smiles at them, gave her seat to an older woman who she lightly touches the hand of every time the ride gets rough. She silently reassures the woman with a glance and a smile. She’s genuine, she’s sincere, she’s an exemplar. She obviously cares about them, all of them. Probably to a fault. She’s the kind of girl who befriends a man, completely believing that men are capable of genuine relationships with women (sadly to say, most are not), helps him through his problems, all the while all he thinks about is how to get closer to his goal. And she has no idea. She’s lost many friends that way. It surprises her every time, too, that someone would find her attractive just based on her looks. She’ll never see just how beautiful she is and how most guys aren’t interested in a conversation. I am. I want to talk to her. I want her story. There’s something dark about her. Not sinister dark, just sad dark. Her smile is a war-torn one. She’s seen so much and never said a word. Grin and bear it. Could I tell her story? It’s not art unless it evokes some kind of emotion. Technique isn’t enough. Will I be able to fascinate people with my interpretation as much as the original fascinates me? I hope she understands what a massive artistic undertaking she is. But, I know she doesn’t. I don’t know if I’d be able to show the final work though. She already means so much to me and I’ve never even met her. I would never be able to part with this piece and I’d be doing the world a great injustice to keep her all to myself. But that’s where I want her.

That stop just past. It wasn’t hers, though she did shuffle around and help that old woman to the doors and held her hand as she cleared the gap off the train and onto the platform. She stood at the doors for a few seconds after, just watching the people pass. That was a big stop too, a lot of people got off there. Now there are only a few people left between us and I don’t even see them. She is the only person left in focus. Hopefully she won’t notice me over here. I could see how I might freak her out a little. I’m not exactly a clean-cut guy and I’m sitting by myself in the corner, writing away. I guess just as long as she doesn’t notice me looking at her occasionally its ok. But she will notice eventually. She’s not stupid. No, she’s definitely not stupid. She’s modest, she doesn’t understand the need people have to be pretentious and to flaunt whatever it is they think they have to offer. She wears a few pieces of jewelry, nothing flashy. She has a silver bracelet on one wrist and a few rings. All plain silver bands. Simple and elegant and doubtlessly full of sentimental value. One of the rings is on her left ring finger. She has someone waiting for her. Or she’s waiting for them. Someone she loves and has given everything to. Someone who has become an idea to her, a force, a fond memory. But it’s more than that. She wouldn’t use the word “love” if she didn’t mean it. It upsets her how careless people are with such a powerful word. Like a bunch of children swinging swords around. To them it’s just a word, something shiny to play with that makes them feel grown up. They have no idea what it can do.

She’s leaning forward now, reading. I can’t see what the book is, though. I’d have to admit, the book makes me a bit nervous. You can tell a lot about someone by they’re choice in literature, or at least you can generalize them. I’m afraid of where she might fit into my scheme of things. If she’s reading a book that places her in an unfavorable group, I know it’s stupid but I’ll never be able to look at her the same. No. I have to ignore the book. Just this once I think it’s ok if I set aside my preconceptions about people based on minute details. She deserves it. Though it’s most likely something classic. Something epic and touching. A story of loyalty and love and kindness. She values that kind of thing; the kind of thing that most people feel is outdated, useless, even harmful. When she makes a promise she keeps it. When she makes a friend, she protects them. When she gets hurt, she forgives.

I worry about girls like her, though. There are so few of them left and their numbers are dwindling. They’re hunted down, and poached of everything that makes them majestic and wonderful. People, even the shallow, are attracted to them, though most don’t understand totally why. I worry that they’ll be corrupted. I worry that they’ll allow some guy to warp them, to hurt them. I worry that someone with influence will discover them and destroy that innocence and generosity that provides so much of their beauty. Sure, physically they would still be attractive, maybe more so after all of the make-up and light effects and soul removal, but that’s nothing compared to what they were. I hope that she never loses that. I hope no one finds her. I know that she’s strong enough to maintain her sense of self but I’ve seen people break who were never expected to break. So has she, though. You can see it in her. She’s suffered loss. She’s watched friends and family disappear right out from under her, no matter how hard she tried to hang on to them. She tries to support people, tries to carry everyone. She can’t, though she’ll never admit it. Not that she’s too proud, just too stubborn. She thinks that no one wants to hear her problems, no one wants to listen to her complain. She’d much rather burden herself with everyone else’s concerns than focus on her own. I can understand that, though. She feels happy, successful, complete when she feels like she’s helped someone else because it takes her mind off of her own pain. She’s everyone’s best friend.

The train’s stopping again. I have to be careful. I can’t lose her. It looks likes she’s still staying on, though. A man who looks homeless, or at least impoverished, just boarded the train at the door right next to her and before he could even sit down she reached for her bag and pulled it close to her. She didn’t hold it though, to protect it from this new, suspicious character. She reached inside and produced a shiny little package labeled “Protein Bar,” and handed it to him with a gentle smile. Not a word was exchanged between them, but there wasn’t a need for any, I guess. He had what he wanted: food and a caring glance from a beautiful girl, and she had what she wanted: a charity high that would carry her most of the day. I wonder what she does for a living. She’s too self-conscious for the wildly intrusive job of a social worker. She’s too natural for the structured and uninspired world of business. A nurse maybe? Or something more independent? A designer? A writer? A musician? She’s not an artist, I know that much. Artists know other artists. We can smell them out. She’s too subdued, too kind. Whatever she does, she’s magnificent at it. I can’t imagine her going through much schooling though. The routine would kill her. The people would kill her. She has her own little globe, her own little designs for the world around her and those people not on her globe are not on it for a good reason. She’s loving but she’s still careful. You can’t blame her for that. People are cut throats, why should she let them in? She’s learned to be careful, but she hates shutting people out. I worry that she’ll overdo her graciousness, give too much. I feel like I should protect her, run in and warn her. Not so much her as her ideals. I worry about her getting trampled on by someone who sees kindness as a weakness, like they see wildflowers as nothing but easily paved over. They would do to her what they do to every beautiful thing they find. They’d put up lights and signs and velvet ropes. They’d charge admission. It’s amazing how quickly and easily beautiful things turn into freak spectacles.

A young mother, carrying a baby just sat down across from her. She greeted the mother with a shy smile but waved ever so slightly to the baby who smiled back, with his entire fat little body. Of course she cares about the mother but the baby… the baby is special. That kid is beautiful and innocent. It loves people simply because it can. It doesn’t worry about what they’ve done, it doesn’t hold grudges. It doesn’t worry about money. It doesn’t worry about anything. She
envies it a little bit. It doesn’t have to force itself to trust people. It doesn’t have to tell itself that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, she remembers how hard it was for her to learn that. To see betrayal, to feel it for the first time. She’s hiding behind her book now, which the baby finds hilarious. God, I wish I could draw this. This moment. Her eyes peeping over the top of the book. Her hair tucked back, draping down her neck and ornamenting it like a tapestry. The child’s full-body smile. Everything she does could be a masterpiece. This child adds something, though. It brings out something else in her, something she hides from everyone else. She lets her guard down, not that she’s cold with people normally but this child… makes her happy. She’s heard the argument a thousand times that she’s too easy on people, that she just keeps setting herself up for one disappointment after another. But she just can’t bring herself to believe that people are that harmful on purpose. She makes excuses for them, tells herself that they really are good people. Everyone makes mistakes. Only some people learn from them.

I wonder what mistakes she’s made. I know she isn’t perfect; she wouldn’t be so interesting if she was. Imperfection is the spice of life. Perfection is a standard, a mold. She is above and beyond the mold. What makes her so special? What about all of the other beautiful girls out there? It’s the difference between… the sun and a mushroom cloud. Both are infinitely powerful and awe-inspiring. Both have captured and will continue to capture peoples’ imagination far into the future. But the sun is constant and natural. It has always been there and will always be there. In fact it’s so reliable that we tend to take it for granted. We let it pass by us every day and ignore it because we always know that it will be there. When people hear that noise though, and see that cloud, that man-made freak that is here and gone in a few seconds, everyone reacts instantly. No one reacts like that to the sun until they can’t see it anymore. The sun is sitting right in front of me, I’m not going to let it go. There’s another stop coming up and she just stood and turned to face the door, holding the handrails tight. My heart is pounding, how am I supposed to approach this? I can’t lose her. I can’t. The train is stopping, I need to get off too.

I blew it. I lost her. The crowd in the station was too dense, I couldn’t keep up and I lost track of where she went. I can’t believe this. I had found her. I was just a few feet away from people knowing my name and… Exploiting and turning my back on everything that I claimed to hold sacred. Confession: I am not an artist for the sake of art. I find beautiful things and I destroy them. I sell them. In my defense, though, she made me want to be that noble, storybook artist. She forced a purity down my throat that I had long since refused to swallow. But she’s gone now. Maybe it’s better. At least now people won’t know her face everywhere she goes. Not that they would if I were to draw her but… that’s not the point. The point is that this, these words, this spurt of purity from my otherwise corrupt and money hungry person were all inspired by her. I guess this testimony will be the closest thing I’ll ever get to a portrait of that girl on the train.

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