The idea of a self-made person is absurd, a myth, yet that’s exactly how people described me. As I walked from my office to the contemporary art gallery of the museum, the muted click of my heels echoed in the silent hallways. This sound of broken stillness ruffled my already unsettled mind. No one could be truly self-made. There were forces supporting you, rooting for you. Of course, I had worked hard and tirelessly to get here, but nothing I had accomplished would’ve been possible without the support of people who loved me and believed in me. Parents, teachers, friends, lovers. A sibling now estranged. Sometimes, it was luck. Sometimes, a staunch mentor.
Dr. Hadden waited by my painting in the East Wing. The slight smile gracing her ageless face and the fleeting gleam of admiration in her eyes were high praise if you knew her.
“Thank you,” I said, sliding in beside her. It was all I needed to say.
She patted my shoulder. “This is momentous, Tara. I hope you’re proud of yourself,” she said, touching the plaque with my name on it in yet another validation of my achievement.
Very soon, the makeshift cardboard would be replaced with a metal plate, engraved with my name and the title of the work, Love and Loss, a title I now regretted. Almost as much as I regretted selling it the way I did: for a covetable five-figure sum, but to the one person who shouldn’t own it. The one person who actually knew what I had captured on the bold linen canvas. Own, such a crass word for an emotion so beautiful. I sighed silently, clutching my clammy hands into fists.
“Susan will bring him in.” I heard Dr. Hadden’s voice again. Susan was her executive assistant. “I hope you don’t mind. He insisted on meeting you here.”
Of course he had. He loved a grand entrance, and he never had trouble getting everyone and everything to bend to his will.
“Do you know him?” I asked.
She nodded. “He’s been a generous donor for the past few years. A well-connected man. A decent one, I’ve heard. His patronage can put you in the limelight, Tara.”
I knew that limelight. I had blinked in its glare once before. I managed a gracious nod, but Dr. Hadden read my face with the same quick, discerning eye that had made her the director of this art museum in Dallas, and of numerous others before that.
“Make good use of this connection.” She delivered the curt advice in her heavy voice, at once commanding and kind.
Her short hair was not completely silver yet, but she had always given me a fairy godmother vibe. Not that I would ever dare say it to her face. She’d swat off that moniker with haste. We had our generational differences when it came to ideas of femininity, but she’d had my back since she’d realized, years ago, that I was more than a brown, immigrant, pretty-face.
I was a brown, immigrant pretty-face who was talented, hardworking, and knew her shit. And I had continued to live up to her high standards. On the plus side, her headstrong feminism meant she didn’t mind my cursing in her presence, which I often did when I was happy, displeased, or neither. With another reassuring pat on my arm, she walked away, her slender frame carrying all its power in those firm shoulders and straight back.
I attempted to recreate the pride I had seen on Dr. Hadden’s face as I appraised my own work on the wall. My eyes drifted to the plaque. Tara Kadam. The name carried some weight in the art world. If you were inclined to believe Twitter and Instagram, I boasted of a small but fanatical following. Not as an artist but as a technical expert in oil paintings, consulted by galleries, museums, and private collectors alike. I had temporarily shelved the dream of having my own work displayed in galleries and museums while I authenticated and appraised masterpieces that sold for a fortune.
This job at the Dallas Museum was a rare chance, offering me the best of both worlds. The museum had hired me to appraise a collection of oil paintings bequeathed by the family of a local tycoon and curate a body of art for the new wing they had donated. But the cherry on top of this particular parfait was their invitation to showcase my work at an upcoming exhibition alongside other emerging artists. This break, in no small part, was on account of Dr. Hadden’s faith in me and the power she wielded in the art community.
The wooden door behind me closed with a faint thud, and I heard two distinct pairs of footwear treading in my direction. My heart began to race, ramming against my chest cavity. I should’ve turned, it was only polite, but I stood frozen. It had been thirteen years since I had last seen Sameer. Unlucky thirteen, my friend Sona would’ve reminded me, but thirteen had nothing on the pain and humiliation Sameer had dealt me. Thirteen needed to up its game if it wanted to compete with this man.
“Here she is!” Susan’s exuberant voice eventually compelled me to turn around.
It was easy to focus on her wide smile, but my eyes inevitably moved to Sameer, and the world around me came to a standstill. He was no longer the twenty-year-old I once knew. The boyish face had sculpted into tough, albeit familiar, features. He wore his hair shorter and sported a smart stubble on his strong jaw. He was more handsome now, more confident. In a formal suit but no tie, he looked every bit the rich, powerful man he probably was. The only thing that hadn’t changed were his soft brown eyes and the look of open adoration I found in them. My stomach dipped as he looked at me with blatant desire. I took a reluctant step forward as he strode toward me with Susan trotting beside him.
“Mr. Rehani, the inimitable Tara Kadam. I suppose she needs no introduction,” Susan gushed.
I smiled at her, grateful that she had pronounced my name with the dental T like I do, not Tay-Raa but Taa-Raa.
“Tara, this is Mr. Sameer Rehani. He just told me he’s your biggest fan.”
Despite the professional setting, Susan allowed herself a chuckle. And despite my resentment for Sameer, I couldn’t help but respond with a pleased smile.
Quickly dabbing my palm on my pants, I extended it and spotted a tiny smirk at the corners of his mouth.
“We were briefly acquainted.” He directed the comment toward Susan, and an errant spark zipped through my body as he shook my hand. “She was just as brilliant then. I’ve been a fan ever since.”
I retracted my hand and scoffed silently. Briefly acquainted? He’d had his dick inside me every night for almost a year. But sure, briefly acquainted, let’s go with that.
“Good to see you again, Mr. Rehani,” I said, trying to put distance between us while nerves and anger pumped blood into my ears.
“Nice to see you, Tara.” He swatted off the distance promptly. His penchant for power games was alive and kicking.
Susan’s face had frozen into a smile at our awkward exchange, her golden bob rocking against her perfectly contoured cheeks as she looked between us. The tension in the room was heavy and palpable.
“Well, I’ll let you get reacquainted then,” she said.
“Thank you, Susan.” I offered a sincere smile.
She gave me a graceful nod and swayed out of view on her enviable heels. I could never pull off high heels that elegantly, especially because I wasn’t allowed to wear them growing up. I was always tall for my age, and my mother insisted that they were as impractical as they were unnecessary.
I stepped away from Sameer and sat on a bench facing the wall. In the large, vacant hall, currently closed to the public, I heard the echoes of his shoes striding toward me.
“Sweaty palms? I thought you’d be angry, not nervous,” he said, sitting beside me. I clenched my jaw, determined not to give him what he sought: another fight. I allowed the silence between us to draw out and turn into a buzz in my ears before I heard him again. “Meeting you like this cost me a lot of money, you know. Your painting wasn’t cheap.”
“It was never up for sale,” I responded in a perfectly calm voice. “You lured my agent into the deal and blackmailed me into selling it.”
“Blackmail! Such a harsh word,” he said with a crooked smile. “I’ve never known you to be dramatic.”
It was just like him to use an accusatory tone and push my buttons, to elicit my anger so he could justify his flippant behavior. Had he forgotten how well I knew him?
“You paid seven times your initial offer until I had no choice but to sell. I call that blackmail,” I said, still managing a calm voice.
“Are you actually accusing me of forcing you to sell me the piece you made for me?”
“It wasn’t for you. It’s about you, but I never intended you to have it.”
“Same difference.” He got up and paced the gallery. “And you call it Love and Loss?”
“Creative license. I stretched the truth.”
“Of course you did.” With hands locked behind his back, he resumed his scrutiny of the paintings on the wall, then stopped mid-stride and turned to me. “Why did you insist on meeting me?”
“I always insist on meeting the buyer.”
“But this time you knew it was me.”
When I glared at him in response, he returned to analyzing the sparse exhibits.
“Why did you insist on buying it anonymously?”
“Because if you knew it was me, you wouldn’t have agreed to sell.”
He got that right.
He resumed his leisurely trek, as if looking at the displays was more interesting than holding a steady conversation with me.
“You’re doing it again,” I blurted, stunned that I had said it aloud. His expensive shoe yelped a light squeak on the polished floor as he made that quick turn to me, his eyebrows raised in question. “This bravado,” I said, pointing with my index finger. “The squared shoulders, the display of nonchalance. Are you this person again?”
His face darkened, and his jaw clenched, but he quickly composed himself. I had caught him red-handed in the act when no one was supposed to recognize it as a pretense. I could’ve flashed a triumphant grin, but I wasn’t interested in playing his games.
Instead, I returned his smoldering gaze with the ferocity I felt in my heart. But when my eyes inadvertently slipped to the shapely mouth under his short mustache, my lips parted at a memory I thought I had crushed a long time ago. A shiver swept through my body. He walked over and sat so close, I felt the touch of his fresh, woodsy cologne.
“What do you want?” I demanded.
My mother always worried that my inability to back out of a confrontation would land me into trouble one day. But until today, it had only helped me survive.
“You wanted to see me. You tell me. What do you want, Tara?”
“I wanted to meet the fool who spent an outlandish amount on an unknown artist.”
“You know better than to take me for a fool. I know exactly what you’ve captured on that canvas.”
Our eyes drifted to the frame on the wall. He had recognized the peculiar use of light against the soft black palette as the night we walked together to his apartment. The way the darkness gently blended into a rosy hue represented our first time together. He also saw the smudge where my brush had slipped, and instead of rectifying it, I had chosen to amplify it with a flash of crimson on my knife. That was the pain he had caused. I knew he saw it all, but I wasn’t ready to accept it.
“You think you do.” This time I let my annoyance creep into my voice, but was met with a soft smile. His détente smile.
“How are you?”
But I wasn’t playing. “No.” I shook my head and turned away. “You lost the right to ask me that when you sent me that text.”
I heard his startled inhale.
“What do you want, Sameer?” I asked again.
“When I saw the painting, I had to see you again. I needed to. Love and Loss, that’s not just you. That’s us.” His words came hurtling at me like a swarm of locusts, stinging, biting, bringing devastation in their wake.
My body bubbled with rage, and I jumped to my feet. “It’s mine,” I said, barely managing a steady tone. “The painting is mine, the pain is mine, the labor is mine. You own it only because I was foolish enough to let it go.”
“It’s mine now.” No smug smiles or power moves accompanied that statement, just a calm, steady gaze into my eyes.
“Well, enjoy it. It’ll be delivered after the exhibit closes.”
I turned on my heel, but he came around swiftly to block my way.
“Look, I only agreed to this meeting out of respect for Dr. Hadden. I knew it was you the moment you overrode my refusal to sell. I was inclined to cancel it, but Dr. Hadden thought it would be unprofessional. She isn’t aware of our history. I’m here as an artist, and you’re my patron. Nothing more.”
It took a moment, but a nasty sneer came to rest on his face. He pulled himself upright into his tall figure and thrust his left hand into his trouser pocket. “All right, if that’s how you want to play it, tell me about this painting I bought, Ms. Kadam.”
I wanted to scream with frustration, but I had to concede. He had won this round. He had always been clever, but I felt compelled to add cunning to the list. That didn’t mean I was giving in easily. “Didn’t you just say you knew exactly what it was about?”
“Don’t be a smartass, Ms. Kadam. My twenty-five thousand dollars have bought me at least the privilege of having the artist explain her work to me.”
Another completely expected googly rubbing his wealth in my face. I was tempted to roll my eyes as I walked away from him and toward the wall.
“Love and Loss,” I began dispassionately. “Created in the post-impressionist tradition, it flirts with colors and contrast, darkness and light to—”
“I can see that. I’ve studied art,” he interrupted with blatant condescension. “What does it mean to you?”
“Meaning is a private relationship between the viewer and the piece. It’s not my place to—"
“Yes, reception theory. I don’t need you to recite Barthes and Hall to me, Ms. Kadam. What emotions have you tried to capture?”
“Sameer…” I hated myself for pleading this way.
“Yes, Ms. Kadam. I’m waiting.”
I quickly added “cruel” to my running list and zeroed in on his eyes, searching for a glimmer of compassion. “This painting represents a time when my life changed completely. In an instant, everything good, everything I valued was taken. I lost a dear friend. I almost lost my father. It depicts my grief as much as it captures my joy. This painting is a prayer. It’s my way of seeking forgiveness and redemption.”
An eerie silence engulfed us as I continued to look into the eyes that I had once loved. Light brown with tiny specks of amber and chocolate. They reflected the sorrow I felt in my heart.
“I’m sorry about your father.” His soft voice broke our trance.
“No, you’ve lost that right too. You left without a word. Without an explanation. Without a thought of what it would do to me. I meant nothing to you. Disposable, replaceable. Who did you replace me with, Sameer? How quickly?”
He closed the distance between us and held my shoulders. “You think I saw you as replaceable?”
Behind the dilated black pupils, his eyes were brown and familiar.
“I was never enough for you. Not rich enough, not sophisticated enough, not socially acceptable. Was it the realization of my caste status that finally drove it home for you? Or was it my class position? Or was I just a body you used until you were bored?”
His eyes widened with horror. “How can you use such vile words? You know what you meant to me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry! See, I’m not as cultured and classy as you. I wouldn’t know if this is more vile than ghosting someone you’ve been with for a year, then responding to their frantic phone calls with a text, Stop calling. We are D-O-N-E, all caps.”
“I was twenty. I was a fool.”
“Yes, I was twenty and a fool for thinking I meant more to you. You’ve no idea what I’ve been through.”
“You’ve no idea what I've been through either.”
“What you did was cruel and unfair, and it hurt.”
He regarded me with sorrowful eyes. “And you’re still hurting.”
“Yes, I’m hurting. And I’m angry and humiliated.” I stared defiantly into his face. “But don’t let my changed appearance and polished accent fool you. We still remain worlds apart.”
“We were worlds apart when we met.”
“And yet I let myself fall for you. I regret it every single day,” I said and tried to mean it, but my voice gave me away—or maybe it was my eyes, because he smiled into them.
“No, you don’t. You still have feelings for me.”
I should’ve denied it, but I clammed up, almost handing him the confirmation rolled up nicely and adorned with a bright, cheery ribbon. I knew I couldn’t lie to him. He’d see right through it.
“Then here’s something you should know. Not a day has passed in the last thirteen years when I haven’t thought of you. Not one.”
He took a step back from me, looked down at his exquisite shoes, one hand resting gently on his brows, then lifted his head with a deep breath. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Kadam. I will see you again, I promise.”
He turned around and walked away. But his scent lingered on, holding me in a warm embrace.
I slumped down on the bench behind me. What had I done? The man had a propensity to feed off people’s weaknesses, and I had just handed him mine on a silver platter. My weakness? Him. Now he knew it.
With a deep breath, I pulled myself up and walked back to the beautiful office the museum had assigned me with its huge windows overlooking a lush garden. This time, the rhythmic clicking of my heels didn’t annoy me. Instead, it reminded me of the way I lay on his chest, listening to our hearts beating in tandem after we had made love.