All Stories, General Fiction

Lovely by Bela Khanna

He looks long into her eyes, probably for the first time. He has focused, from the bottom up, on every part of her nude form, spending minutes, hours, on the impossibly smooth contours of her toes, her hips, her breasts, her shoulders, but this, he thinks, must be the first time he’s really looked into her eyes.

He doesn’t like them, he realizes. They’re darker, sharper than the white curves of the rest of her. There’s a stunning perfection to the rest of her. Those eyes— they’re ugly.

He doesn’t know if she’s even noticed his eyes lingering on hers. She continues to look straight ahead, at the spot he had pointed out hours before, every feature relaxed. Her pink, full lips droop slightly at the corners.

He notices a stray lock of hair obscuring part of her right eye. He puts down the paintbrush on the palette, knowing full well that there is now paint on the handle, paint the color of her skin, that he is going to get all over his hands when he picks it up again. But that is a problem for when he picks it up again, and he already has her colors, her shadows and lights, all over his clothes.

He walks toward her, his footsteps loud against the rotting wood floor. She flinches, but her eyes remain trained on that spot he had showed her, on the wall above the canvas, slightly to her left. He would have blushed, if he were younger. But he raises a hand toward her face, hesitant, wondering if he would feel something when his fingers brush her skin. He has not touched anyone’s skin in a long time. He wonders if she, too, might feel something.

The thick lock of black hair is rough with sun and dust between his fingers. He keeps it there, twisted in his hand, for a moment, before clearing his throat and releasing it. He takes a step back. It’s much better now, falling delicately on her slim shoulder. His eyes travel unwittingly down her body. He swallows. Now the hair on her left looks wrong, he decides, too wild, too rough.

She looks at him for the first time when he steps back toward her and lifts his hand to her fair cheek. It freezes him, that gaze, with how badly he wants her and how badly he wants to scream at her to get out, and stop looking at him with those black eyes.

Look up, he whispers, but no sound comes out. His lips form the words and she reads them off of him, her eyes flicking from his own to his lips. She looks back to the spot on the wall, but her lips are parted now, spread open, revealing pointed tips of yellow teeth. He swallows back the gnawing hunger in his body and smooths back the locks falling in her face.

He takes a step back again, confident that he has perfected her, that he can move away from her, now, and pick up his paintbrush with her skin all over it once again. Her lips, her lips. She has moved them. He tells her to close her mouth, but no sound, again, and she is no longer looking at him.

He raises a hand to her face, once again. She does not look at him, but he knows she is watching. He gently pushes her lower lip to meet the upper. Before he can remove his hand, go back to painting behind his canvas, she opens her mouth again and kisses his fingertip, long, slow, and wet. He can feel her tongue through layers of dried paint.

As abruptly as she does it, she pulls away, wets her lips, closes her mouth, and looks back at the spot on the wall.

His heart pounds. He tries desperately to calm the lead, steel, iron urges rising in him. He knows she can see it, knows she is watching him with her eyes up, knows she did it just because she could. He takes a step back. Her eyes, her eyes, burning a hole in the wall behind him. They are coal, glowing black like embers. He remembers a day, when he was younger, when he had come across the remains of a campfire in the woods. He had wanted to paint the leaves on the ground with his feet; he had crushed the coal under naked toes, only realizing once he felt the wicked agony tearing through his skin that the fire had not yet cooled. The color black was deceptive. It could hide anything, any kind of power to inflict pain, in its shadows, its dullness.

He hates her eyes.

He walks back to his canvas, his shoes echoing horribly on the floor. He picks up the paintbrush; it is covered in her. He does not clean it, but continues to paint, his hand sliding up and down the brush in her wet colors as he continues. When the time comes, he paints her hair straight, smooth, silken brown, and her eyes a crystal blue.

The night is black when he dashes the brush to the floor, in victory, in frustration, he knows not. She does not flinch, even as the brush rolls across the floor and stops at her feet. He steps back from the woman in the painting. She is beautiful, delicate, fair. Lovely, he thinks, that is the right word. She is a lovely thing, a lovely sight to behold. When he is done admiring his work, his eyes wander back to the woman standing in his atelier.

She looks deep into his eyes. He allows his gaze to wander over her freely; her breasts are larger than the woman in the painting, her fingers longer, her hair more curled and her eyes blacker, blacker than anything he had ever seen. She is silent. He is burning from the inside out. He cannot look at her any longer. He looks back at the painting. It does not look back. It is hideous, now. Its pale eyes are hollow, hair like a dead thing hanging from an empty skull.

He feels something else rising in him. He wants to throw the canvas across the room, more than that, throw it at her, knock her to the floor. He wants to pin her wrists to the floor and scream at her until she cries, just to know that she is capable of it.

But he looks away while she puts on her dress, watching him all the while. He throws her three dollars into her hand.

She walks away and out the door, the buttons on her dress undone. He looks at the woman in the painting. Her upturned pink lips are closed. She is gazing off somewhere, up and to the left. She is hateful. He buries his face in his hands and weeps, smelling her paint on his fingers.


Bela Khanna

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4 thoughts on “Lovely by Bela Khanna”

    1. Thank you for reading! And I’m so glad the power dynamic came through, male vs. female, perception vs. reality… 🙂


  1. Hi Bela,
    This was a very interesting piece of work.
    I enjoyed considering who she was, what she was and then what they both were.
    This had depth and it stays with the reader.


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