I posted a picture of “The Birthday” by Chagall a few days ago but I didn’t really talk about it the way I wanted to because I was so hasty. Buttt I really really like this painting:
Mostly the reason that I love this painting so much is the sense of afterthought in it. It’s hard to explain, I guess. But okay. Here’s the story I decided is behind the painting. I told it to one of my friends in art class the other day when he asked why I was so obsessed with it.
The painting is called “The Birthday.” It might be the guy’s, or maybe someone off the canvas. But I have decided that for my story, it is the girl’s birthday. We’ll call her Alice. This man (let’s call him Jack), who is bending over backwards to kiss her is actually sitting across the room at a table, maybe at the kitchen table and they’re talking. He is probably a very good friend of hers. He comes over early in the afternoon, maybe at ten or eleven o’clock, ready to wish Alice a happy birthday and to finally tell her how much he loves her.
Jack stands outside the door to her apartment and knocks; his heart is pounding in his ears because he ran up the stairs in haste. Her shoes make a tapping noise on the wooden floor on the other side of the door and he can see the shadow of her feet beneath it. Then she’s there in front of him and she’s glowing with palpable happiness. To see him? He hopes so. She gives him a hug and he wishes her a happy birthday. He offers a little strawberry bundt cake and some jelly that they can share for lunch, or for a snack later. She takes the packaged food with a smile and invites him into her apartment, placing them aside. He notices some flowers sitting on an end table. He notes that they’re pretty nice; he might have picked out some like that if he had thought earlier to get flowers for her. They were probably from her brother or her father. He comments that they complement the color scheme of the room nicely.
“Oh, Edmund sent them over this morning, aren’t they lovely?”
Edmund? Who the hell is Edmund? Apparently some guy she met down at the farmer’s market when she was buying fresh blackberries to make jelly and pie with. And she really likes him. She gushes about him: about the art that he does and about the way his words and observations breathe vivacity into tiny mundane details of everyday life. Not to mention, he has gorgeous hair and a perfect body. To Jack, he sounds like a pretentious, contrived little prick. Clearly he was fooling her. And the flowers were way too over thought to be genuine tokens of affection. Now food, that was a real gift. It could nourish you from the inside out. Flowers just sit on a table and rot.
Jack sits at the wooden table and stares down at the grains, swiveling continuously across the plane before disappearing over the edge. He doesn’t know what to say, really. But that’s okay because Alice fills the silence with her ramblings about the time that she and Edmund met for lunch last week and walked around the park together, tossing bread to ducks in the pond. Alice’s shoes tap away from him to the kitchenette and she places the flowers in a glass vase that had been set out to dry in the window after being cleaned earlier that morning. It is all Jack can do not to throw a childish tantrum right there, to pound his fists and wail and cry because he can’t get what he wants. He sits there instead, watching her contently fill the vase with water and arrange the flowers. She hums a little to herself. She’s so completely happy.
It’s only recently that he’s begun to have feelings like this about Alice, which he had doubted at first and passed off as mere inevitable side effects of a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex; easily overridden with logic and reasoning. But she had worked her way into everything in his world: into the sun shining through the trees onto the sidewalk, into the words in the books he read, and into the deep taste of his coffee. No, he loved her. A lot. And now, apparently, this Edmund character has taken his place– a place that he hadn’t even had the chance to occupy first. He imagines himself now, the willful side of himself, leaving his body right there and telling her everything and sweeping her off her feet and taking her wherever she wants to go because he can. Because he loves her that much.
But she is turned away from him. The sun streams through the window and her face is lit up and her thoughts are elsewhere completely. They are with Edmund now. And Jack sits there alone and imagines how it could have been.
So I might be overreaching a teensy bit. But that’s what I see. Really. And that’s why I love this painting. I feel for Jack so much. The unnatural curvature of his body suggests the impossibility of the feelings that he has for her; how he can never act on them. And she’s just going. Her eyes are wide and not focused on him because, clearly, this isn’t really happening. Her thoughts are somewhere else entirely. And his eyes are closed in the fantasy of what is happening but not happening. Sooo there. I don’t know how to end this blog.