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Portrait courtesy of Victoria Smith

Short-story writer Victoria Smith bought this copy -- "painted by someone named Reynolds," she says -- on eBay. It is a reproduction of an original 1864 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, titled "Portrait of Madame Rimsky-Korsakov," that hangs in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

'Portrait Other Lady'

The winner in the Ventura County Writers Club's fifth annual short-story contest is Victoria Smith of Agoura Hills, with this, her sensual, modern yet timeless tale of heart and soul.

November 28, 2004

What sort of trash did you get this time?" her husband snickers, holding up the van's rear door while Sandra lays the painting on the storage floor.

Without looking at him, she replies, "Oh, you mean like that teapot I sold for $1,500?"

She carefully wraps the painting in an old blanket that's a mainstay in the car.

No treasures today, except this one. Her husband slams the door. They don't say anything else during the drive home.

Earlier that morning, Sandra -- woman with a mission -- plowed and combed through aisles marvelously cluttered with various curios and junk: the magnificent excesses of other people's lives.

The Agoura flea market is fairly new, not too big, but now and then a real gem comes up. Like that pottery she bought from an old Japanese woman sometime ago -- a teapot shaped into koi.

The fish almost looked primeval to her, reminiscent of skeletons of prehistoric fish at the Chicago Museum of Natural History she visited some years back. Its delicate fins fanned out in wafer-thin porcelain spikes. Its open mouth with tiny sharp teeth guarding the entrance acted as the spout. Its body twisted and turned in fluid sculpture, suggestive of beverages swimming inside its huge belly. The matte glaze swirled in pools of emerald on the scaly body -- a curious color, since it lent it an almost reptilian quality.

Sandra found its ugliness the very thing that made it beautiful. But her friend, Lily, was so repulsed by it that she warned Sandra to never serve her any drink from the awful monstrosity.

A few months after she bought the teapot, a local newspaper featured an article about the Japanese potter, now deceased -- and famous. Her few remaining works had been sold at a benefit auction. The simplest pot fetched $500.

Sandra remembered she paid $30 for hers. She figured she could sell it to the highest bidder of a similar pot for 50 times more -- which was still less than what the guy had paid at the auction. She was right.

"See?" she bragged to Lily. "I have a special antenna for these things."

A day for finding treasure

Sandra is treasure scavenger par excellence or what they call in the antiques business a "buyer," someone who shops the various local antique and flea markets on behalf of dealers and collectors, picking the valuable from the worthless, the unique from the mundane.

Now and then, however, when she becomes especially fond of an item, like the teapot, she retains it for her own enjoyment until she tires of it and sells it for a tidy profit.

Today was such a day -- for finding treasure, and keeping it. It happened just before she spotted her husband, Alan, across the parking lot, impatiently tapping his watch and moving his lips, "Time to go."

She signaled to him in similar hand and lip-speak, "OK, OK, just one more round."

It was then that she saw her -- the painting. A portrait of a young, beautiful, aristocratic French lady, 18th-century style.

She doubted the painting was that old. An old reproduction, most likely. Perhaps a student's copy of an old masterpiece. Her guess was confirmed when she inquired about the price.

"This old beauty?" the vendor said. "For you, only $350."

His gaunt face widened into a smile that revealed a broken front upper tooth among yellow crooked ones. He had cigarette breath, and Sandra pulled back.

"Three hundred fifty? Isn't that a bit much?" Sandra countered.

"Well, what would ya offer for it?" the man asked. "It's an old fav'rit of my late aunt."

Sandra examined the 2-by-3-foot framed portrait. No signature.

The lady's skin glowed ivory alabaster against the dark background, with a hint of blush on her high cheekbones. Her auburn hair fell in graceful waves below bare shoulders. Loose folds of soft silk in Marie Antoinette blue framed her slim body.

She held the fabric around her in a careless clutch just above her swollen breasts, as though she had just risen from bed and the gown might fall away any minute, exposing her nakedness. Her lips curved in a timid yet teasing smile, as though she was looking straight at her lover. Her eyes gleamed with delicious secrets.

"Aunt Liz'beth bought it at an antiques market many years ago," the vendor continued.

"Who knows what its real worth is today," he stressed.

Sandra had almost forgotten about him. The painting had mesmerized her.

"I'll pay a hundred fifty for her. She needs a new frame; look, it's falling apart, and she's loose. There's a small tear and crease down this side, see? I could get a better-conditioned repro at a gallery for the price you quoted."

"Oh shucks, lady, you drive a hard bargain. Couldn't you up it a bit more? I'm just trying to help my cousin. Aunt Liz'beth didn't leave her much, y'know."

"OK. Two hundred, but that's my best offer."

"Two hundred it is." The vendor smiled.

Thoughts of art and love

Now, going home with Alan at the wheel, she kicks herself about having brought her husband along. "Why haven't I learned? He's indifferent to my interests, to what I do -- to me!"

If it weren't that she might need his help with bulky items, she would go alone. But in truth, she also fears their marriage is at a dead end. They almost never see each other during the week. Alan works as a techie in a software company. He often leaves home early and works late, sometimes even weekends.

She half wonders whether he's cheating on her and hopes that if she brings him to her weekend forays, they might make up for lost time and manage to reconnect, somehow. She envies couples who go to these outdoor markets enjoying the scene, walking hand in hand, eating sweet corn from the same cob, and imagines Alan and herself in their stead. However, her husband insists on staying in the car, reading his latest thriller. Vain hope.

At home, the first thing Sandra does is replace the store-bought Hudson Valley print with the portrait of the French lady on their bedroom wall. She hears Alan downstairs turn the TV on the Sports Channel. As usual.

An old dresser with a mirror stands against the same wall where the painting now hangs. She catches her reflection.

Her face and figure are showing her age. Thirty-eight. Deep lines gather where her eyes often squint against a flea market sun. UV rays, despite all the anti-aging moisturizers she smooths on in daily dollops, have still done a number on her skin -- it's leathery, though tanned. What used to be shiny, shoulder-length, strawberry blond hair has now diminished into a lackluster corn-silk bob, peppered with gray streaks. She could lose a good 20 pounds to get her back to size 12.

The French lady peers as a mocking reminder of all her futile female desires. But Sandra is drawn to her in a way she can't quite comprehend. Unlike the koi teapot, this one has something more than beauty.

She runs her fingers across the painting's surface, caressing the soft brush strokes that make up the lady's smooth face, neck, hands and the luscious fabric of her dress. She traces the smile on the thin, pink lips and tests if the glint in the eyes would rub off. It doesn't. It burns more brightly.

She closes her own eyes and imagines who the lady is seeing. She imagines the lady's lover: tousled hair, chiseled features, washboard abs, and long, tapered fingers feverishly painting from memory of their touch upon the lady's face and body. A labor of love.

Wife -- or mistress

What kind of life did she have? Sandra wonders. What treasures did she stow away in her heart when she wasn't with him? Was she wife -- or mistress?

Later that evening, Sandra struggles to sleep, staring at the ceiling. Her husband snores steadily, his broad back against her. There was a time when she thought he was handsome. Now, he's only respectable -- looking more and more middle-aged with an increasingly protruding middle and a receding hairline.

She doesn't remember when they've last made love. When it became clear that theirs would be a childless marriage, they just stopped trying. And now, she's too proud to ask. Yet her body cries out for satisfaction of needs that transcend procreation.

She turns on her side, back to back against him, when the portrait enters her peripheral vision. The alabaster silhouette is luminous in the moonlight streaming in through the windows. She rests her gaze upon it. The eyes seem to glow and stare back at Sandra. It's almost unnerving. "You're lucky," Sandra says to her. "You will never grow old. You'll still be beautiful 50 years from now when someone else picks you up at another flea market. I wish I could be you. I want to see what you see -- what rich, curious life you lead."

Day after day since then, Sandra goes through the ritual of caressing the painting, feeling the textured oils turn liquid blood surging through her veins, sensing its rhythmic pulses come to life within her body, breathing in the essence of the lady in the portrait, visualizing herself becoming more like her. She invents her day around what she imagines the lady might do in an age of antiquity, when everything was both old and new, pregnant with possibility.

In her buying quests, Sandra's developed an eye for antique French furniture. She's enamored with Louis, smitten by Empire. She's hired Two Guys and a Truck to move the big pieces for her. Yet her favorites are vintage European ladies' little things: perfume bottles, lace and linen, combs and pins, gloves and hats.

She's exchanged coffee for tea, the shower for lingering baths, and her old shirts and denims for soft, flowing dresses. She's drinking wine, wearing French perfume and watching opera. Since Alan would never go see that kind of crap, as he calls it, she asks Lily instead.

Like that night Alan rejects -- yet again -- her invitation to watch "La Boheme."

In the theater during an intermission, Lily says to her: "Sandra, are my eyes deceiving me, or are you looking younger? You seem to have lost a few inches, too. You're almost a different person. I mean, look at you: You're stunning in that blue dress. What's going on?"

Sandra chuckles. "Thanks, my friend. But ladies don't tell secrets."

"Aw, c'mon. Seriously, did you have a procedure?"

"Yes. It's called meditation." Sandra chuckles again before she adds in a grim tone: "If only Alan could see what you see. He doesn't know what he's missing."

Lily looks gravely at her and says, "Sandra, are you having an affair?"

Sandra meets her friend's stare and replies, "I wish." She catches a guy two seats away stealing appreciative glances at her. She smiles back at him.

"Sandra, if you're so unhappy with Alan, why don't you just leave? It seems like you've been miserable forever."

"Yeah, maybe; that's exactly what I'll do -- just disappear into another life."

Sandra turns her attention to the stage, where hero looks for heroine, imagining him as the lover of the lady in the portrait. "Je t'aime," she whispers to him as he kisses his lady after a passionate love song.

Night and day

When Sandra arrives home that night, Alan is already snoring in front of the TV. She doesn't bother to wake him to join her in their bedroom.

Standing before the mirror, she inspects what Lily saw. She's grown her hair back to shoulder-length waves and had it dyed a rich auburn. She unzips her blue, silk cocktail dress and allows its soft folds to fall below her shoulders, exposing cleavage. She then turns her gaze to the lady in the portrait.

"Yes, it's working," she says, smiling.

The changes are gradual, but they're there -- almost imperceptible to the casual observer but noticeable to one who looks closely.

Slipping out of the dress entirely, Sandra climbs into bed, nude, luxuriating in the new silk sheets she bought from Macy's a month ago. She surrenders herself to warm, slippery dreams about the lady in the portrait and her lover.

In the morning, Sandra awakens to someone shaking her. It's Alan, already dressed for work. "What's with you?" he asks.

"Wha ... what? What's happened?"

"You tell me. You've been moaning and calling a name: 'Alain, Alain.' Sounded like mine, so I came over, until I realized you were dreaming."

"Oh. I'm sorry."

"What time did you get home last night?" he asks. "Seems like it was late. ... Too tired to get into jammies, huh?"

He's smiling -- surprisingly.

Sandra looks down and realizes her nakedness. "Yeah. I guess." She gropes for the reality around her, her head heavy, as if from a hangover. She covers her eyes, then rubs them. The sunlight hurts them.

"Well, I'm off to work. See you later." Alan starts for the door until Sandra says, "Alan ... may I have a goodbye kiss?"

Her husband appears to hesitate, his hand seemingly frozen on the door knob, before he walks back to her side and gives her a tender peck on the cheek. He surprises her by remaining there, as though mulling over something. Then, looking into her eyes, he says: "I'm sorry I didn't go with you to the opera. That stuff just doesn't work for me. Well, you know. I'm just a closet cowboy. ... Did you enjoy yourself with Lily?"

"Yeah. Sure."

Alan appears to search her face, then says: "You know, you seem different, somehow. I mean, it's not just the hair or the clothes. There's something else. It's as if you're more alive, more vibrant, more ... sexy.

"You're looking dangerously good, Babe," he says to her in an almost caressing tone.

"Yeah?" she asks, grinning.

"Yeah," he replies, sitting on the edge of her side of the bed.

"Maybe ... I mean, perhaps we should get away sometime. Use my vacation time. Would you like that?"

"Very much," Sandra says, almost purring.

"Where would you like to go?"

"How 'bout Paris?" Sandra suggests.

"Paris! Never thought of that. Perhaps. We'll see, OK? We'll talk about it when I get home. ... Oops. I forgot. I'll be late tonight. There's some system problem they want me to fix. Maybe this weekend, how's that?"

"Can't wait," she replies.

This time, Alan kisses her on the mouth, tentatively at first, then more urgently as his hand finds her breasts under the sheets. When he finally tears himself away from her, he says: "To be continued. If I don't go now, I'll be late."

He shoots her a final glance before he walks out the door, a naughty expression dangling on his face. They haven't been this intimate in months. He looks almost as handsome as she remembers him in their youth. "Yes, this is working out very well indeed, mon cherie."

Comes a new day

On Saturday, Sandra wakes up just before daylight. She's excited. Finally, she and Alan might take that vacation they've long needed but never got around having. As dark gives way to light, she turns toward her husband and watches him as he starts to kiss and caress her. She's confused. She sees him, but she doesn't feel him -- neither his warm body nor his seemingly fervent embrace.

She sees herself moving, succumbing to her husband's lovemaking, yet she still feels nothing, although she acts like she does. When their union culminates in simultaneous cries, they both sink into the silk sheets, still locked in each other.

After a while, her husband stirs, and she sees him gaze directly at her.

He says, "Hey, hon, when are you going to get rid of that old hag on our wall?"

The beautiful woman crawls out of the sheets, revealing glorious alabaster skin on her slim, young body. She replies, "Who, her?" She has an accent. Sandra can't place it just yet.

"Yeah," her husband says. "She gives me the creeps. Did I ever tell you I sometimes think her eyes glow in the dark?"

The woman laughs. She ruffles what hair he has left.

"Never knew you hated her that much, mon ami. I fancied her for a while. Thought her ancient face had lots of character, an interesting story to tell. Good conversational piece, you know. But since you feel that way, I guess I should try to sell her to Bigsby now."

The woman then walks her fingers playfully on his pot belly and says: "Alain, darling, let's plan our trip to Paris now. I'm homesick."

"Not unless I get the full French treatment," he cajoles.

The woman dives under the sheets again, and the lovers laugh and giggle, as all lovers do when love is new.

Sandra wants to scream, but she's lost her voice. She wants to grab at the couple, at her husband -- to let him know, in hand- and lip-speak, that there's been a mistake, that it wasn't meant to be this way, that he's got the wrong lady, but her dry, coarse lips are firmly set, and her gnarled, liver-spotted hands are painted in place, clutching a tattered blue shawl around her bowed, shrunken shoulders.

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