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"The Man" by Rima El-Boustani
inspired by "Self Portrait" by Darren Orange
Art can inspire madness; if not in the creator then in everyone who chances to see it. This madness engulfs the visionary, and we are drawn into a world that was not intended for human life. A portrait can do this, absorbing us, pulling us ever inward until we are inside the painting itself. Like nothing else, it clutches us in a skeletal grasp, unwavering. It won’t let us go surrounding us in the myriad of a dream. As I dream, I see his face. He is weathered from the Sun and the hot farm air. His life seems indigent, impoverished and lacking to me, in my urban and pejorative mindset – the same thing every day. I begin our encounter scornful of him and all he holds dear. But it’s this that makes him.
As sure as grass grows, a farm will not look after itself. There are sheep – perhaps? Or cattle? Crops? He must tend to them all, not to mention the dozen hens his young wife looks after for meat and eggs. She helps him, sometimes, when he needs it, but her chores and her life are centered around the home more than anything else. He has several handymen to help him with the farm work, men of strength and character who work for the meager pay he can afford to give them. They are basic in their minds. Rough of mind, strong of build – they are more reliable in their simplicity than the metropolis of men I am used to here in my city life. They arouse an urge in me to know the simple way of life.
In his world, simplicity extends to everything – he is unshaven, the hairs growing on his chin in more abundance than a meager five o’clock shadow that would have made many men I know proud. His clothes are rough, like his face and calloused hands. Basic white T-shirts accompanied by blue denim shirts and dark trousers, good for hiding the dirt of his labors. His lovemaking is also rough. He touches her at night, just before bed – the only time he has to spare. She is pretty, his wife, but not beautiful. It isn’t easy to find a wife willing to live on a desert farm in the middle of nowhere, much less one that is beautiful. He feels his luck in finding her at all. She moans in the right places, encouraging him to penetrate her again and again. But once his climax is over his mind returns to the endless chores of farm life.
I feel drawn into his world. The endless bales of hay to be harvested and left outside for the sheep and cattle to feast upon during the colder months, when snow prevents them from being able to reach fresh grass. He must smell of grass and hay, I think. His life intoxicates me. I feel that I can hear his wife calling out to the men when their lunch is ready. She cooks in bulk so that everyone can eat. In some ways, I think, she does not deserve him, and I imagine myself in her place. Tending to her dozen or so hens, washing and darning clothes that should have long since been thrown out or given to charity, cooking for an endless copious of men and washing the dirty plates they leave behind them as thanks. It never occurs to me that it is he who does not deserve her.
I wonder what she cooked today? I suppose he – whom I have yet to find a name for; perhaps, Ted? – often slaughters his own cattle so that they can enjoy meals rich in the meat of their labors. The cattle won’t miss one less ox, I think. Or is it cow? The herds they do keep are fed twice a day by his wife, whose name I do not care to know. Once early morning and again in the late afternoon. While his wife fulfills these duties with great cheer, he goes about greasing and refueling his tractor, ready for the days work. Each day’s duties depend upon the time of year – and it’s the same thing every year. He finds the rhythm soothing to his nerves. He would be out of place in the city scene. I imagine he would find my life as strange as I find his. Would he be as intoxicated by me as I am by him?
Would he stare into my eyes with the deep blue hue of his, touch my cheek with calloused and hard-worn fingers that would remind me of the days he spent in hard labor tending to a rural wonderland of a farm. In my mind, he can do no wrong. His face is partly hidden by the shadow of a hat which he uses to keep the Sun off his eyes and mop the sweat as it gathers on his brow. Would he dream of me at night as he lays beside his wife, who loves him with much the same spirit as me? He, with his coarse cut sandy blonde hair and tanned skin, his rugged face and the penetrating glare of his gaze as he stares, lost in his thoughts and not really seeing me – or her?
Who is worthy to love him, sleep beside him, conjugate again and again, night after night. I have elevated him to a seat so high; it is worthy of no man. None can live up to the man I created as I stare at this portrait and wonder if any person existing could measure up (even a little) to this little bit of madness.
I feel doomed to the fantasy of him whom I wish I could touch, caress and know more deeply, more intimately than any other man. He has inspired in my loins a waking, shuddering feeling that I cannot stay blind to. The man behind the face, the face beneath the paint. I wish I may; I wish I might – I hum the tune of the nursery rhyme I remember from childhood and think how apt it is.
I am blind to the rest of the world as I imagine the view he must see every day – of trees and fields, fenced in cattle and drinking troughs. I wonder if they harvest milk as well and if it tastes sweeter than the liter I buy once a week from the supermarket near my home. I imagine the milk on my tongue and how wonderful it must be fresh. I think of things that the guard watching me would blush to know.
I wonder if his touch is warm from the Sun he has slaved under to get the work done in time for nightfall. I envision myself waiting on the porch for him to come home, as his wife must do. Waiting with a dinner keeping warm in the oven. Waiting for the night I know will follow after he has showered the sweat off his well-muscled body. I listen as he showers, the knowledge that he is there in the next room, so close to me is too much to bear. I wish I could reach out and touch him through the paint. I mentally chastise myself for the thoughts I cannot change. There is no censor in my mind to filter out the brazen from the boring. I wonder if his wife is chaste and pure? Is she a beast like him? Like me?
He falls asleep beside her on the king-sized bed after they make love again. He is dripping with a different kind of sweat as his eyes slumber, and his snoring fills the room. I can see the rhythmic beating of his heart through the rise and fall of his chest. Like a beloved melody, I count the beats. Does she fall asleep listening to his heart as I would? The rhythm is soothing, relaxing me.
Tomorrow will be the same as yesterday whence it becomes today. He will have the same workload as though elves had come during the night to destroy the previous day's labor. The morning would begin again after a heavy sleep. He would in all likelihood be awoken by the call of a rooster, in accordance with my Amish ideas of life on a farm. The rooster’s cry would penetrate the wooden walls of his house, waking up the other residents of the farm from the sheep to the cow. It was the sign of a new day. I remember with a certain amount of irony that I am a night owl – I would be terrible on a farm. This weighs heavily on my mind, even as I realize that the man is a farce in a painting, a charade of modern farm life. A caricature of what every farmhand should be. And yet, even though he doesn’t exist, he has an obscure hold on me. He is the image of the man I want in my life, sans farm. I cannot shake him. I cannot disconnect myself from the carnal desire I feel for him.
I know that hard labor is not for me, much as I like it in a man. I don’t want early hour feedings, repeated in the late afternoon; I don’t want to cook for hungry farmhands and wash their dishes. I do want to fall asleep next to this man night after night after our passions are satisfied. His as well as mine. What could a farmer want with me? I wonder if he would see me as a rich, spoiled city girl, someone who values sales at high-end shops more than hens and eggs, which I do. I wonder if the passion I feel would be enough or if this (even without ever having accumulated in a real meeting) would be all that we could have. Are we too different? Is the passion imagined, stemming from a tide of boredom and the brushstrokes that rendered his features handsome, making me want him?
He is the epitome of a man. A god amongst mortals. In my mind, in my heart, in my loins, I know this. And because I know this, I cannot ignore the hatred I begin to feel for the wife; it quivers in my bosom. She who has the life I want. The man I crave. Why should she have him - even though she is imagined? Why must I stand by as they lie together, eat together, even shower together? I wish that I could pull him out of the painting that shackles him and bring him to my bed. I wish that I could wake every day to his chiseled face. Know that it is me he dreams of as he moans in his sleep. Me he wants.
More than anything I want to be that girl. The woman who beds him, feeds him and nourishes him. I drift in and out of conscious thinking of what life as his wife might be like. Do I want him because I cannot have him? Because he is not mine? Or because in some sense I must know that he isn’t real?
Or is it something deeper? Are we interlocked, connected on some other plane, stronger than any connection that our normal state can provide. I see a man pass by in front of me – he strongly resembles the man in the painting. I notice that he has calloused features, his skin is rough from the sun, a chiseled jawline and deep blue eyes. His hair is sandy blonde, coarsely cut. His clothes are rough from hard labor. He smells of freshly cut grass and hay. There is no wedding ring on his finger and no tan line there either. I wonder what he is like? Does he like me?
As I wake from my reverie, I realize that I am sitting here, staring at a famous painting, hanging in a famous gallery. It is about the life of a man I do not know living on a farm I know not where. Should I stay here and watch his figure, trapped in a dream that doesn’t exist? And which of us is truly trapped – he a form created in oils or acrylic or me who cannot let him go? Once again, I realize the madness of Art.
A short biography needs something shocking. Writing is something of a cruel art, somedays my wit flows sure and other times I have nothing interesting to say. But it is an art I will never give up. Writing this biography was harder than the two thousand plus words that became the story, The Man. Where to start? Where to end? Where is the middle? At the risk of sounding cliché, everything that I can think to say is cliché. Even talking about clichés is cliché. Oh, the terror that is a biography. It is better left forgotten.
To add to this, I have a background in Development Studies (Economic History, Political Sciences, Sociology and Human Geography), and Strategic Human Resources at University level, as well as an Art year prior to that. I have had the privilege of living in Qatar, Lebanon, Sweden and Poland and am bilingual in English and Swedish.