“I need to paint your portrait,” Marnie’s husband, Lee, told her. “It’s for class.” She was resistant because she didn’t like sitting still. Marnie felt like something, or someone awful was constantly searching for her—the universe itself, maybe—and that if she stopped moving long enough in daylight it was sure to catch her trail.
“Can’t you just use a picture as a reference?” Last semester her husband had taken a photography class, so there were pictures of Marnie all over the apartment walls. She pointed to the framed photo nearest them. In it, Marnie was blindfolded, holding a knife in one hand and a bowl of fruit in another. Lee had conceptualized it for one of his visual narrative assignments. He’d gotten a B-.
“No,” said Lee. “If I paint it from a photo, that flat sense of lifelessness will come through on the canvas. And I need you sitting a certain way.”
Marnie drank a beer to calm her nerves, then she got her laptop and set up a film to watch while he painted. It turned out to be pretty violent. The story was about a slumber party of white suburban high school girls who decided to kill the birthday girl’s mother in her sleep. Each girl—there were half a dozen of them—had a knife, and took a turn. During the depiction of the murder, Lee complained the high-pitched screaming hindered his artistic process, so she muted it and put on captioning. But then Lee complained that the act of reading changed the expression in Marnie’s eyes, “not in a good way,” so she just stared into space until he was done, mainly thinking about how she really didn’t want paintings of her hanging all over the apartment.
To her surprise, though, she ended up not having to worry about that.
“You painted Vanessa,” Marnie said when Lee finished. Vanessa was their neighbor.
“What?” Lee said. “No I didn’t. That’s you.”
It wasn’t, though. The painting was unmistakably Vanessa. She and Marnie shared some similarities—same age, same generalized coloring and hair—but they didn’t overly resemble one another. They would never be mistaken for sisters, or even cousins.
Marnie sat for another painting the next week, and the same thing happened. “You really don’t see that you’re painting our neighbor’s face on my body?” she asked. But Lee was adamant.
“It looks exactly like you,” he said. “Photo realism. Besides, doesn’t Vanessa have a mole or something?”
Marnie wondered if maybe he wasn’t taking a painting class at all, but a course in performance art, and this act between them—her reaction to this impossible situation—was his actual piece. Was he just messing with her? Or was she truly not seeing things correctly?
But the follwing week, when the landlady dropped by for the rent, she saw the paintings and asked, “Is Lee having an affair with Vanessa?”
“I wish Lee were here right now,” Marnie said, “so he could hear someone else saying that the paintings look like Vanessa.”
“Well. Where is he?” the landlady asked.
Marnie took out her phone. Her plan was to record a video of the landlady confirming Marnie was right. Lee would probably argue that she was only saying it to be nice, or that Marnie had coached her, but it was still worth a try.
Before Marnie could get the camera pulled up, though, the landlady said, “If I were you, I’d go see if he’s at Vanessa’s place,” and left.
Marnie had a strange thought then: What if Vanessa was also taking a painting course? And what if she’d painted several so-called portraits of her significant other, too, except they always came out looking like Lee? Maybe Vanessa and Lee had been together in a past life, and these paintings were their subconscious minds enacting a forgotten truth.
When she knocked on Vanessa’s door, Marnie realized she’d prefer Lee to answer with his shirt off than to see a few paintings of Lee on Vanessa’s wall. She’d rather it be an affair than a spiritual link that spanned lifetimes.
Vanessa opened the door holding a large water bong. Marnie realized they’d only ever spoken in the hallway. “Oh, hello,” Vanessa said. “Do you want to get high?”
“Do you paint?” Marnie asked. “Are you having an affair with my husband?”
Vanessa took a long hit off the bong and exhaled. “No and no. Not unless he’s my weed dealer.”
It occurred to Marnie that maybe if Lee painted a portrait of Vanessa, the process might be reversed: the painting might look exactly like Marnie, then. “Do you think you could sit for a painting sometime?” she asked.
But Vanessa wasn’t interested. “That sounds super boring.”
“It is,” Marnie agreed. “By the way, do you have any moles?”
Vanessa scowled. “Are you hitting on me? What is this?”
That night, when Lee arrived back at the apartment, Marnie was waiting. “I think we should keep your art and our relationship separate,” she told him. “I can’t be your muse. It’s not fun for me. It’s messing me up.”
Being honest was like opening a heavy door that closed too slowly. She couldn’t let out just the things she wanted to without a few unintended items squeezing through. “Do you have a crush on Vanessa? Did you want to hang a painting of her in our bedroom so you could look at her face while we have sex? Did you figure, ‘Oh, I know, I’ll just tell my wife it’s a painting of her and not Vanessa so she’ll let me hang it over our bed; she won’t be able to tell the difference!’”
Lee’s expression was incredulous. “Those are portraits of you. Do you even know what your own face looks like?”
For a moment, Marnie actually found herself wondering.
Alissa Nutting, author of the novels Made for Love and Tampa, is an Assistant Professor and Writer in Residence at Grinnell College.