Perfection

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The palette holds life-giving colors, waiting to breathe, to speak. I can set them free. My fingers take the brush—its handle, smooth, cool—and I swirl it in the jar of turpentine. The odor of the chemical whirlpool burns my nose with a tangy bite, the scent of creation— as necessary as air to breathe. I dab the brush in the paint, then touch the bristles to the canvas. The image comes effortlessly: sweeping, twirling, and dancing. The fiery reds chase the yellows. Umber adds depth, a dark secret, as exhilaration flows through me, tingling like magic.

The image must be perfect. Every mark sings, adding to an expanding chorus. My heart beats uncontrollably as I grab the wooden handle of the palette knife, its angled metal head ready to add the melody.

The blade scrapes across the taut cloth, yet the stroke deviates from my plan.

I step back, staring at the jagged blue line. My fingers tighten on the tool's handle as if to strangle it, to punish it for making such an ugly streak. With a scream, I throw it. A trail of color splatters across the canvas before the knife clatters to the table.

"Not good enough!" I press my hands to my head, my fingers digging through the tangled mess of a disintegrating ponytail. The perfect image lurks in my mind, taunting me, my hands incapable of translating the idea to reality.

The perfect painting. My perfect work of art.

To prove my worth.

The world of creating fades to reality. My feet on the icy concrete floor of my studio. The constant whir of the fan drive the fumes of art from the room. Uneven wooden racks line the walls. My grumbling belly. Grimy twists of paint-coated, brown hair fall across my vision.

The streetlight outside my window tosses a strange orange glow over my fingers as I curl them around the unfinished work, the mistake. My thumbs dent the canvas as I yank the offensive painting from the easel and hurl it on top of the pile of rejects. A mountain of failure. A cry of rage, of frustration, bursts from my throat in a quivering screech and I pace the room, swatting at tears as they trace lines on my cheeks. The invigorating perfume of turpentine reminds me to work. Always work.

"I need this," I mutter.

The poster still hangs in Masters Hall, the announcement. A contest inviting college art students to submit a portfolio, an opportunity to be seen and recognized by art critics and gallery owners. A mere three days until my professor will call for the work. I have to show my best, an epitome of line, color, composition.

The perfect image clings to my brain, claws penetrating every facet of my life—claiming my dreams, stealing my desire to eat, robbing me of relationships—yet refuses to be pulled into the real world. Jars full of brushes clink as I slam my palm on the table and glance at the palette covered in blobs of red, yellow, a vibrant cobalt blue, smeared like the remnants of crushed dreams. My gaze shifts to the rows of canvases on weary shelves: assignments for classes. All lacking the element of perfection, all done to satisfy someone else. And they had. The great collection of Jane Wilford. Each one given high marks. Each one praised.

Each one worthless.

Miles away, Father demands more, questioning my ability to be an artist...to be anything at all. His voice booms in my mind, fueling my desire to succeed. Do more, Jane. Be the best, Jane. Only the best.

I drop my gaze from the paintings, ignoring their constant screams that they can be better. My fingers curl in anger.

Good enoughdoesn't matter.

Red drops of paint dot the floor like blood, myblood, shed with each stroke of a brush and swipe of a palette knife.

"Not good enough." Jaw clenched, I force the words through my frustration, through my fear. "I can't just be good enough. I willbe perfect."

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