The Woman From Ukraine

On a winter day with snow falling outside my window, I buy a painting. From page to page on the art-gallery site, my fingers fidget on the keyboard as I move from one offering to another, finally settling on her. She is perfect.

The artist has painted the woman’s face on particle board. I wonder if it is a matter of being too poor to buy canvas or whether there is a preference for recycled material. The work is done in oils; the face shows a black-haired, brown-eyed woman with her head turned slightly to the right, her hair blowing in the wind. Her lips are full and slightly parted. Her eyes are not staring at me, yet I sense she knows I am here. 

I click “Buy,” pay by charge card, and wait for my purchase to arrive, all the way from Ukraine, well over four thousand miles away. Within two weeks, a package is delivered to me, carefully wrapped, the beautiful woman inside.  There’s also a note from the artist whose name is Zofia. She thanks me for buying her work and asks if I might write a good review for her on the art-gallery site. 

At night I relax in my bed looking across the room where the larger-than-life-size face of the mysterious woman hangs. The particle board gives her skin a slightly creased look, as though wrinkles crept in when her beauty wasn’t watching. Zofia has varnished the surface so, in daytime, when the light comes through the window, the woman’s face goes in and out of shiny shadows.

I am very attracted to this woman. On the gallery website, I write a review of Zofia’s work that sounds more like a love letter. Zofia writes back to say that she is glad her painting is living with me; she feels that I truly understand her artwork. I let a little time go by, but I can’t resist – I write to Zofia and ask her if she had a model for the art or whether it is a self-portrait or perhaps just a face made up out of her head. She writes back: “I confess. It is me.”

The nights go forward. I lie in bed and look at Zofia. The portrait has a name. She is a real person. Sometimes I talk to her, tell her how lovely yet enigmatical she is, wonder what she is looking at off in the distance, and sometimes, looking at her lips, I say: “Talk to me?”  But she never does. She is there to tantalize me, tease me, and make me think. But she isn’t going to speak to me, so it is good that I have enough words for two.

I write to Zofia a few times via the gallery site. We talk about art, materials for making art, and I consider buying another piece from her. It is difficult to separate the artist from her painting. I have Zofia on my bedroom wall, and seeing her each night feels very intimate, yet I don’t know the real Zofia at all. Her photo isn’t on the website; I don’t know if she really looks like the intriguing woman painted onto the particle board. And does it matter? Occasionally I will go onto the art-gallery website to see if she has painted anything new. Usually, each month shows two or three new works. They are all well done, but not a one is as seductive as the one who shares my life.

Two years pass. I still talk to Zofia, the portrait, each night, but I haven’t corresponded with Zofia, the artist, in quite a while.  Originally, I bought my bedroom painting as a birthday present to myself. This year, when I awake on my birthday, it is to the news that Russia has invaded Ukraine. 

Today, in the portrait, I see a woman looking toward the border. Maybe she knows the invasion is coming. Maybe her eyes are putting a spell on the Russian troops to keep them away from her city, her country, her home. I have no email address for Zofia; I have always corresponded with her through the art website. I go there, send off a quick note, ask if she is safe, and tell her that I am thinking of her.

She writes back immediately from the countryside of Western Ukraine. She left her apartment in Kiev, her art studio, and all her paintings. She left quickly. She doesn’t know what will be there when she returns. She doesn’t know if she will ever be able to return. She isn’t sure where she is going or if she will make it there safely. 

How can I help? I write back with concern. I look from the particle board Zofia to the keyboard and wonder what I can do. I can’t buy her artwork anymore. It’s in an empty studio or perhaps a bomb has hit, and all the particle board and paint is disintegrated and has become a part of the earth. I wonder if Zofia has reached safety.

There is no more communication from her. At night I still look at the other Zofia, the one on my wall and realize I love this woman whose dark eyes are brave, whose lips are determined.  Am I in love with a painting or a real person? I watch the evening news and try to imagine being Zofia.

I fear I have lost the Zofia in Ukraine, but she lives on my wall.  I long to know whether I am living with a past or a present person. Love is strange, but we live with it in many ways. War is unfathomable and the finale for so much and so many. I look at the Zofia in my house and am glad she is safe with me. Maybe her human counterpart can join her. I have an extra bedroom.

Kyle Ingrid Johnson

KYLE INGRID JOHNSON won First Place in Madville Publishing’s recent Kirkus-starred anthology “Taboos & Transgressions.” Her work can be seen in 13th Moon, Water ~ Stone, OPEN: A Journal of Arts & Letters, Welter, The Dillydoun Review and in the Harvard Bookstore’s travel anthology “Around the World.” Kyle Ingrid won Honorable Mention in the Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction Contest published in Cutthroat, and has a well-received essay in Madville’s “Being Home” anthology. She has the winning piece in On The Run’s Pride issue and also appears in Quillkeepers Press LGBTQ anthology, “The Heart of Pride.” Kyle Ingrid lives in Boston, MA.
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