Miriam examined the canvas from different angles. Perfect? Almost perfect? What would her old teacher think?
Half an hour later, she nodded to acquaintances as she crossed the banquet hall. Then, seeing Tostermann at a distant table, she changed direction. He was even more substantial than before, a great bull of a man, his physique a visual rendering of his personality. His granite head had few lines, and minimal hair loss. The glasses were new, she noted, but essentially he was the same. She wanted to reach him, move fast through the small talk, and get to her news.
Even before they’d first met, she’d been aware of his mystique. The other architecture students had described his brilliance with reverence. And his scathing critiques. “Don’t get on the wrong side of Burned Toast, they’d told her. He’ll toast you.”
At first she’d been unimpressed. Tostermann was large, unblinking, given to Zen-like utterances of “I don’t understand,” that implied not his own lack of comprehension, but a lack of comprehensibility in the essay or utterance so dismissed.
Miriam had watched and listened, learning in spite of herself, and occasionally had challenged the teacher, boldly risking a ‘toasting’. He’d responded by showing her where she was mistaken, but occasionally by acknowledging that she was right. The effect was devastating. He won her over with his laser-like critiques combined with these fragments of admiration.
In turn, she’d laid down her mind, eager and receptive, soft as warm wax. Recognizing the tribute, he’d pressed himself into her impressionable surface, leaving a precise inverted image of himself. “You have real originality,” he’d told her once. “Follow your instincts.”
“Miriam!” he said now with economical warmth. After a detailed description of his own work, he asked the anticipated question. “What have you been working on?”
She had a ready answer, but looking into his face, she remembered her nerves as a graduate student. She swallowed, licked her lips and then blurted, “I’m doing another series of paintings.” She hoped that he’d ask to see them and then give her a shred of his precious approval.
He frowned. “You are not cut out for painting, you know. You should stick to architecture. That’s where your real talent lies.”
She drew back. Of course, the paintings she’d shown him ten years before had been naïve. But since then…
“But I’ve been working hard, getting better all the time.”
“The last paintings you showed me were very wooden. Why paint amateurish paintings, when your training and your talent all lie in architecture?”
“But my new work,” she murmured. “It isn’t wooden. It’s… My father likes it…” she concluded lamely.
The teacher gave her a look. “Well, he’s your father.” He left the rest unsaid. Her father would be blinded by doting affection or too soft-hearted to tell her the unpleasant but necessary truth, that she was making a fool of herself with this endeavor. Tostermann wouldn’t even take the trouble to look at her pictures.
She wanted to justify herself. “I love painting,” she murmured. “It engages all of me, my senses, my emotions, my intellect, my morality. With architecture, only part of me…” It was an old habit of love, to want to reveal all aspects of her innermost self, even the weakest and most absurd, and to be loved for them.
“Don’t you hear how self-indulgent that sounds?” he snapped. Noting the look on her face, he added in a kinder tone, “You’re a grown woman now. You need to set aside childish things.”
She felt the old temptation to allow the wax of her mind to soften under the blaze of his heat, to allow the sharp edges of his seal to press into her and shape her.
But then she recalled the flame that burned inside her when she painted, and warmed and filled and lifted her. Could he see that? Had she somehow failed to communicate how much this mattered? Was he that blind? Or did he see, and simply choose to spit on her dream?
He’d always been cruel. She recalled his cruelties to other students. A young man coming out of the men’s room with red eyes, a young woman dropping out of the program, after Tostermann had demolished their work. She hadn’t taken these small tragedies seriously, she remembered with a painful blush. She recalled how his cruelties to herself had stung initially but then had served to emphasize the moments of kindness that had followed. The savage criticism had spoken to her of hidden depths of suffering the great man struggled against. But now she wondered whether she had misheard.
“Have you sold any of your paintings?” he asked with seeming innocence, as if the question were not the first premise of a proof.
She felt torn. The teacher was the most brilliant person she knew. She’d wanted to tell him about her new vocation because, she now realized, her confidence depended on his good will. Could he be right? Who was she to contradict the genius, she who couldn’t even point to one sold painting as proof?
When she didn’t answer he turned to another topic, telling her about some young woman he found promising. Miriam closed her eyes and called up an image of her latest painting. She imagined how it would look through the teacher’s eyes, its flaws dwarfing its beauty. Perhaps she should abandon the dream.
But then she took another look. The flaws could be corrected and the beauty retained. The teacher was blind to her pain; why should she trust his vision of her work?
“She made this most amazing suggestion…” he was saying. He looked like a stone Buddha, as solid, as impervious, and as irrelevant.
“You’re right,” Miriam said. “I have grown up.” She stood, scraping her chair harshly. “And now I have a painting to finish.”
Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy. She is currently working on a novel.