When my parents moved to a smaller place this past winter they gave us some of their furniture and art. One of the works of art—to use the term loosely—is an oil portrait of me at sixteen, basically copied and enhanced from a prom photo, that had been languishing unseen in their attic for years. It is very expensively done, all by hand, with a frame worthy of a Sargent. I actually looked forward to owning it, and was pleased when my husband “Max” said how much he liked it and suggested that we add it to the paintings in our downstairs hallway.
But now Max seems to like it too much, and it creeps me out. He stares at it all the time, and even copied it onto his phone—to look at when he is away from home on business. One time I saw him standing in front of the portrait and kind of shaking his head. When he noticed me he looked around almost guiltily and then shrugged his shoulders and said: “Man, were you hot!” He has told me several times that he wishes he had known me back then. And he keeps showing the painting to male visitors. When he does this he strikes me as weirdly proud and possessive.
I wish we had never gotten the painting, and want to take it down. Should I? How do I explain it if I do? And do you think I am overreacting?
—Middle-aged (and feeling older every day) in Mount Airy
Dear Golden Mean,
I can’t really tell whether you are overreacting, but the situation does sound odd and distressing. Have you told your husband what you’ve told me? Does the man know how upset you are?
I think that you should give him an inkling. It might be a good idea to keep the tone light, at least at first: although it does seem that he is the person making a fool of himself here, you don’t want to rush into any needless drama and come off as the one who is turning what is ostensibly his appreciation of a painting into a serious competition between you and your younger self. But I would let him know that it’s time to stop talking about the beauty and hotness of Painting Girl and turn his attention to the woman who has the benefit of being corporeal, extant, of legal age, married to him, and standing right there.
I don’t know enough about Max to gauge his levels of self-centeredness or self-awareness. It is possible that Max sees his open attraction to the painting as funny and cute—it is amazing how often people think their most foolish, distressing stances are actually some sign of adorable originality. He maybe even see his attraction as a kind of compliment to you, either because he has never really separated you and Painting Girl in his own mind or because he thinks that you, too, take a proprietary pride in your teenage beauty. If any of this is the case, he may just lay off once he realizes that his admiration for the painting was, or became, hurtful and in no way cute.
I wish I could tell more about your relationship from your letter. For example, is your sexual and romantic life with Max otherwise satisfying? Does he also have more current photos of you on his phone? Has he ever openly lusted over other underage girls (HUGE minus)? Has he given any indication that what he likes most about the painting is that he sees something of the current you in it (medium-sized plus)? If he really does seem to be obsessed with the painting or the girl in it—and not simply as some aspect of you—this could be a sign of a major problem in your marriage, and his character. In fact, if you feel so neglected or unappreciated that his interest in the painting strikes you as a real threat, this is reason enough to take the matter seriously. In either of these cases, you will need to go beyond the light touch I recommended earlier and have some weightier, more somber conversations with Max. Unless the results of these conversations exceed your expectations (and mine), I further recommend that you seek some professional family counseling.
But what to do about the painting? You should do what you want. The painting is a portrayal of you; it was a gift from your parents; and its presence has been a strain on your marriage. Each of these, to my mind, is sufficient reason for you to take control of the painting and do pretty much what you like with it. If you do decide to remove it, I’d just make the change while Max is away and put a beautiful wedding picture, or a flattering enlarged contemporary photo of the two of you (if you’ve got one, or can create one) in its place. How could he object?
If you and Max resolve the matter so amicably that her presence no longer bothers you, the least fraught option may be to keep Painting Girl around. Or you may not be sure what you prefer or how things will turn out, in which case you can always put her on probation. If you discover that this image of your younger self still makes you feel as if you are your own sister-wife, or perhaps Bette Davis in Sunset Boulevard—or if you catch Max ogling her again!—by all means give her the boot. Put her in the attic, or see if your parents might like her back. Better still, give her to—or, if they are still too young, save her for—someone in the younger generation. If you are like most of us, you will probably actually enjoy the thought of your descendants seeing and admiring your younger self.
That is a little strange. And creepy. I have to agree with her there. I’d just ask Max why he is so obsessed with the painting. I wish I knew how long they had been together. If they have not been together long and his answer is also creepy, she and the painting should both get out!
My best friend, whom I will call Jess, and I always take the day off work on our birthdays—hers is in August, mine in February—and treat each other to an extravagant, lavish lunch with plenty of wine and dessert and calories. We have been doing this for almost fifteen years now. We both try very hard to keep the dates open, and have only had to switch maybe three times (sick kid, court hearing, flu). It turns out that this year I can’t make it on her birthday because my husband is having minor surgery. But when I asked Jess what other day would work for me to treat her to our fancy August lunch, she told me that she would have to pass this year because she is on a (weight-loss) diet and is afraid that, if she indulges herself on more than one day—birthday dinner with her family, then birthday lunch on another day with me—she will start to backslide.
I can’t believe that she is being so rigid and dismissive. This has been our tradition for fifteen years, for God’s sake, and you’d think she could pace herself and switch the calories from one day to the next, or whatever. I tried to explain my side of things, and she said she was sorry but refused to budge. How do you think I should handle this?
—Spurned in Spring Garden
Unless your friend is anorexic or bulimic, or does not actually have a weight problem and is just trying to put you off for some bizarre reason, I think you should handle this by taking her at her word and respecting her self-assessment. Presumably Jess is concerned about her overall health and well being, and knows what rules or limitations she cannot afford to disregard. You do not want to distress her on her birthday, or undermine her efforts on any day.
I am guessing that you have not spent much time trying to stick to a diet—or, as we are now supposed to think of it, a nutrition-related lifestyle change. Doing so can be wicked hard, and the smallest setback can lead to disaster. So please, be understanding. If I knew more about the situation—for example, if Jess is pre-diabetic, or obese, or has yo-yo’d before—I might also advise you to apologize for your insensitivity.
On the other hand…did you suggest any alternatives? Was she saying no to any lunch, or just the hi-cal lunch? Assuming that Jess can take a second day off or free up an evening, what about going out for sushi or gourmet salad, or just having a glass of something (vintage wine for you, Vintage seltzer and lime for her) and heading out to a matinee, museum, spa, pedicurist, arboretum, pool hall, karaoke bar, zoo, boat ride, you name it? You could still pamper Jess and yourself, give her the usual thoughtful presents, and have fun playing hooky together from your jobs or your spouses.
I do hope that, over time, Jess will be able to make some exceptions to her birthdate-only rule and the like. One may laugh—I just did, about three paragraphs ago—at made-up-sounding expressions like “lifestyle change,” but the fact is that it is hard to sustain any mode of living, much less one involving food, where you feel as if you are in a state of crisis and deprivation. Like Lent, these states imply an ending—and then what? So I hope that Jess is keeping up on all the literature about making eating habits sustainable, and I hope that, over time, she develops a system that can accommodate the occasional date change for semiannual wicked lunches.
It’s quite possible, though, that she has been cursed with the kind of metabolism and willpower that require a lifetime of strict rules and extraordinary vigilance. If this is the case, let’s hope you can block out your dates far enough in advance to keep those pesky jury summonses and scheduled surgeries from interfering with Jess’s rare moments of self-indulgence. You probably can’t do much about the flu, though. If one of you gets sick, you’ll just have to pretend that sushi and tea are as exciting as red wine and things called Death by Chocolate. I have heard that some people actually feel this way.
Can’t they just go somewhere that works for Jess’s diet? People who have been adults—and friends!—for at least 15 years should be able to deal with this.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.