The Girl in the Painting

My fingers were addicted to flipping each page; the fluttering sound was the only melody on my mind. The library was quiet since it was lunchtime—usually, no one ever hung out here—but it was nice. I was hidden behind the shelves, surrounded by hundreds of books within the vast space.


I had opted for creative nonfiction this time, instead of fiction, my normal go-to genre. The book in my hand was about a girl escaping the Rwandan genocide. She was crying now—her younger brother and uncle had died along the way, and now the reality of her world was settling in, pressing closer and closer. My chest felt heavy as she gripped her mother’s hand, squeezing it tightly. I used to remind my mom to squeeze my hand tighter when we were walking to my elementary school.


My lunch break was almost over; I had to head back to my internship soon. I stood up, brushing myself off from the carpet floor, and put the book back onto the shelf. I didn’t have enough time to borrow it. Plus, I was focusing on learning about global issues a couple of steps at a time, so that I wouldn’t overwhelm myself like I knew I would. Afterward, I hurriedly rushed through the maze of shelves and headed down the stairs.


A yellow flash passed the corner of my eye. I turned to my left, and there it was, a painting of a young girl reading. It hadn’t been there before. She was wearing a bright yellow dress, with feminine ruffles on her sleeves and a bow tie that held up her short hair. The girl was cute, but the painting wasn’t my favorite.


“Jean-Honoré Fragonard. He’s the artist.”


I turned around. I recognized him: I’d seen him around the library before, chatting with the librarian and reading books on the couches.“I see.”


“Do you like it?”


“The painting?”


“Yes,” he said. I shrugged, pressing my lips together.


“I guess.” I glanced at the boy; he didn’t seem pleasantly pleased with my response. “There’s nothing too special about it.”


He mustered a small smile. “She reminds me of you.”


“I must not be special then,” I responded. “And you barely know me.”


The boy smiled. “I’ve seen you around. You seem to read a lot.”


I nodded, checking my phone for the time. “I have to go,” I excused myself, pulling myself down the rest of the stairs and out of the library. “I’ll see you around.”


He remained there, staring at the painting like it was one of Picasso’s works, one that you would have to stare at for forever to grasp even a percentage of its meaning. But this painting was simple: it was a girl reading. What was there to fathom about that? There were genocides and killings and tortures and lynchings happening as we spoke; why bother paying attention to a painting that told me nothing about the world?


/


The next Friday, I had forgotten about the weird encounter with the weird boy and headed back to my favorite spot by the largest window in the library, where the light stretched inside as far as it could and warmed my soul despite the library’s cold temperature. I searched for the same book along the long stacks of shelves, my finger dragging along the spines of other books until I reached it. Placing my bag down, I leaned against the shelf facing the window, immersing myself in the girl’s life once more.


In this chapter, she was in a foreign country with nothing but minimal belongings and her mother. She had to adjust to this new country and learn of their culture while still comprehending what was left of her own. She was crying, hugging her mother with desperation, attempting to grasp what was left of what she loved. She made sure to squeeze everything extra tightly so that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t escape this time. She pleaded for everything to go back to the way things used to be until her voice went hoarse. She was just so... so tired of life. Like I was.


My right arm was wrapped tightly around my knees, my fingers digging into my shin. My body was shaking, salty tears spilling out onto my pink cheeks, and my lips were trembling. I wished that she could have her own happy ending, but who was I to say anything? I was in this library, safe, my parents alive, my friends by my side.


Warm hands touched my own, prying my harsh fingers off of my legs. But I could barely feel anything. With blurred sight, I glanced up to see a boy with deep brown eyes. He was blocking the sunlight from getting into my eyes with his body. “Hey. Hey.” I blinked rapidly while my chest urged for more oxygen, and he bent down to see me eye to eye. “Are you okay?”


I hated being seen vulnerable. I yanked my hands out of his. “Yeah. I’m fine.”


The crying. The screams. The hate. The shootings. The massacres. The death. The murder. The blood. My eyes squeezed shut, and images raced through my mind, making me feel as if I was spinning in space with no gravity to hold me down, and I imagined it all––the gunshots, the running, the hiding. When did it all end? How did it all end? The world was spinning. Make it stop spinning. Or was I the only one spinning? It was hard to breath. My chest hurt.


“Hey.” My eyes opened slowly, letting in the light from the window, and a couple of tears spilled out again. “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?”


I shook my head, silent. I’m fine, I’m okay, I’m perfectly normal. “I’m good.” No, I’m not, I’m scared, I’m confused, and the world is ending. The boy scrunched his eyebrows, uncertain of my answer, but he didn’t want to pry.


“Do you want to talk about it?”


I shook my head again. I just needed to breathe.


“Here,” he said, opening up my palm and placing a folded piece of paper in it. Then he stood up, waving goodbye, and left me all alone. The paper was cold and sharp on my palm. I unfolded it slowly, wondering what lay inside it.


It was an image of the painting on the wall. The young girl was reading, but she was beautiful this time. I smiled to myself, not realizing how much the boy’s small gesture had made things a little better.


/


I stared at the painting of the girl in the yellow dress. She was reading a book, not one that I could interpret, but nonetheless, a book. She was learning something through those words, somehow. I wondered if I could learn, too––to accept that what happened in the past happened and that I can focus on the smaller, more beautiful parts of life. Like this painting. I tugged a piece of my hair behind my ears. I noticed that the library was warmer today—maybe it was the summer heat intruding its way into the glass doors. I held a new book in my hands; this one about a boy with immigrant parents. It was about learning and growth. To embrace what we can.


“Hey there.” It was the same familiar voice. I turned around to see him, a book in his hand, hair ruffled.


“Hi,” I greeted him. I wanted to explain everything that had happened that day but I couldn't bring myself to say anything.


“Do you like it?” he asked me again. I glanced back at the painting, my eyes moving over the girl’s dress and the background.


I nodded. “Yeah, I do. It’s beautiful.”