The placement of assorted photos doesn't look right. Juhi puffs her cheeks, blows hard and pictures float and scatter—some on the coffee table, others on the floor.
She surveys the strewn jetsam of her fledgling effort at a collage. Art has never been her calling.
Her neighbor-friend and wanna-be psychologist, Ren, recommends creative endeavor. “For reflection,” she says. “Especially now. Besides, it's not as if you have anywhere to be tonight.”
Juhi wishes Ren would select her words with care.
Fifteen minutes later, she pulls herself up and reaches for old photo albums from the shelves. She hesitates before opening the first one; pasted memories, tales of upheavals—her bruised heart cannot take more punches.
But I've survived before.
In the volumes, a record of those she's loved, flaunting their best physical attributes: eyes, hair, teeth. She chooses and lifts a select few from the books and proceeds to cut out individual features, a pathologist at work on a donor's post-mortem.
Bobby's blue eyes wooed her at a school car wash. She melted in the promise of his ardor as he used old T-shirts to wipe down windshields.
Cameron's hair had her twisted around its curls. When she ran her hands over his wet head in the college rec-center's pool, he told her he uses baby oil; made her a believer.
Jose's sparkling teeth shone bright in the dark; she used them like lights to find her way to him. She converted to his brand of toothpaste, ShineOn.
She restarts the art project. After moving the frame from side to side and turning on more lights, she places Bobby's eyes on Cameron's head, and pastes Jose's teeth on his face.
Stepping back, she examines the mini-composite. “Awful,” she sighs.
An urgency propels her through more album pages, where she locates Jesse, the athlete with long, long legs and strong, supple, well-sculpted calves. He introduced her to half-marathons, sprouts and tempeh.
She cuts out his legs, adds them to her art work. Her collage is now a curious, body-less creature.
Mike. There's no avoiding him. A photo frame beckons from the mantel.
Mike said goodbye last week. He lifts weights. In the picture on the mantel, they are at the beach, his sun-tanned torso the cynosure of feminine eyes. He taught her bicep curls and tricep pushups. His chest and arms felt secure, strong.
Until he folded them away.
It's time. She cuts out his torso. Her collage has a head, a torso and legs. She snips other photos, affixing details— a polo shirt here, a hat there, flip-flops here and a pair of shorts there.
The secret to her ideal man lies in this arrangement. This is the sum total of what she's liked.
It's ugly. The eyes, the hair, the teeth, the legs, the torso: she yanks them out, segment by segment, throws them in the trash.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” Ren is fond of saying.
From the hall closet, she gathers the old T-shirts she uses to clean her mirrors and drops them into the garbage. Next, she dumps the baby oil, and the toothpaste.
Her stomach pinches in hunger. All she finds in her fridge is yesterday's salad—wilting sprouts and sauteed tempeh, crowned with oxidized avocado.
She calls the gym and cancels her membership.
A pizza craving overwhelms. She dials the Italian place in the corner, orders a laden pie.
While waiting for the delivery, she gathers up the bits of her abandoned self in the debris of cut-out photos and wonders if she can be salvaged.
She's never known how to pose for the camera. Her uneven eyebrows give her a constant, surprised look. Her head tilts right in every photo, hands on hips as if issuing a challenge.
She re-trims the pictures, picking out her best single-eyebrow lift, the funniest grin, the naughtiest wink, the weirdest costume and places them on the collage frame.
By the time the large pizza arrives, she's smiling. There's enough to share with Ren.
About the Author: Sudha Balagopal's recent short fiction appears in Jellyfish Review, Foxglove Journal, Right Hand Pointing and Flash Fiction Magazine among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
Story Song: "I Am Woman" by Helen Reddy