| Teen Fiction |

Invisible Painter

“I hate pencils. The point is too thin. My emotions are way too big to be constricted to one tiny point. Can’t I just use a paintbrush?”

mishpacha image

“One of the most important parts of capturing an image properly is to be aware of the light. Knowing where the light is coming from helps highlight and shadow the picture correctly. It makes all the difference.”

Sury’s head bobbed up and down as she swallowed each of her art instructor’s words, though she knew Elizabeth couldn’t see her enthusiastic nodding over the phone.

“When you’re painting an object, never look at it as one big picture. Each spot is individual. Each inch is a different shade.” Elizabeth’s voice floated through the receiver like a beautiful song. “Paint each spot separately. It’ll all come together like a puzzle, piece by piece.”

Sury nodded again. “I always think of the beginning of a painting as putting together the corners of a puzzle.”

“Exactly!” Elizabeth said with a huge smile, or at least that’s what it sounded like.

“My mom will e-mail you the painting when it’s done,” Sury said. “I can’t wait!” She hung up the phone with a little jig. She loved art. Art was her voice, her way of communicating with the world. It was the place that held all of her secrets, the place where she mattered.

And that’s why Elizabeth wasn’t just her art instructor. She had access to the deepest layers of Sury’s soul. What had started out as a professional relationship had turned into a dear friendship. Elizabeth was her mentor as well as her art instructor. She was the closest friend Sury had.

Sury smiled as she remembered “meeting” Elizabeth three years before. She had been in eighth grade and desperate to learn more about art. Her mother had sent her for art lessons, but Sury found them tedious and boring. Most girls enjoyed the socializing, but Sury wanted to paint. She didn’t connect to her art teacher’s instructions. She told them to draw a sketch before getting started on the actual painting, but Sury wanted to jump right in. When Sury raised her hand and said, “I hate pencils. The point is too thin. My emotions are way too big to be constricted to one tiny point. Can’t I just use a paintbrush?” everyone laughed. She came home and told her mother she needed a private art instructor.

“And I want a private fitness trainer,” her mother had said. “Do you know how much these things cost?”

And then Elizabeth came along. Her aunt’s sister’s friend was a widow who enjoyed connecting with other artists in her leisure time. She lived in another city, so she’d coach Sury over the phone, a factor that didn’t bother Sury at all. The two of them had hit it off almost immediately. Elizabeth got it. She always understood Sury and she never laughed at her.

“Ma, I’m almost done with my painting!” Sury skipped down the stairs to the living room. “I can’t wait to show it to you!”

“That’s terrific,” Sury’s mother said as she pinched her daughter’s cheek. “Who’s at the door?”

The next few seconds were a whirl of hugs and kisses as Sury recognized one of her mother’s friends. “It’s so good to see you!” her mother squealed like a teenager. “Until when are you staying?”

Sury frowned. That was the only problem — she and Elizabeth had never met. How long could you be friends with someone without ever seeing them?

Elizabeth’s lessons were very helpful, but sometimes Sury wished she could see the face behind all those words. She wished she could watch Elizabeth paint, see how she held a paintbrush and even how she mixed her paints. Sometimes Sury felt like she was walking in the dark. There was something missing. She longed to see Elizabeth in person, even if it was only once. But Elizabeth lived about two hours away, too far for Sury to get there on her own. Elizabeth did have family living a bit closer, and she had told Sury that the most feasible way for them to meet was when Elizabeth visited there. But it had never happened yet. Sury had even offered to travel there specially to meet Elizabeth, but it had never worked out.

Wait, Sury thought suddenly. Wasn’t the Chanukah concert she had tickets for in the city where Elizabeth’s relative lived? Maybe Elizabeth would visit her family on Chanukah, and Sury could arrive early enough to meet with her before the concert! She would ask her.

“I won’t be in the city on Monday,” Elizabeth said right away.

Sury sighed into the phone. “It’s crazy that we never met yet. You only live two hours away. It’s not like we’re talking about Japan! It almost… it almost sounds like you don’t want to meet me.” There. She had said it.

“Sury.” Elizabeth sighed. “I just won’t be there that day.”

Sury didn’t answer, but what she was tempted to say was, “If you really wanted to meet me, you’d drive in.” Sury’s mother didn’t drive, and her father worked long hours. But Elizabeth drove. Sury could take the bus, and that would be a fine compromise. But she didn’t want to be a pest, so she just said, “Okay. Next time.”

Sury’s stomach fluttered as she snapped a picture of her finished painting. Very little in the world gave her as much joy as observing her newly finished masterpiece. She waited for her mother to send the picture off to Elizabeth for critique, and sat down to stare at her painting again. Sometimes she wished she could walk into her paintings, touch the fragments of her imagination.

The phone rang less than five minutes later.

“Wow. I could feel the waves of that ocean on my fingertips. Wow!”

“No critique?” Sury asked eagerly. She hated critique, but from Elizabeth it was different. Elizabeth understood Sury’s art so well that it made it sound like they were coming up with the critique together.

“Not this time. I mean it. No painting is perfect, but the image you just created leaves me at a loss for words.”

Sury thought her heart would explode from happiness.

“Really?” She beamed. “Okay, so let’s talk about my next painting, because I’m very nervous. My teacher, Rebbetzin Feldman, asked me to paint something for a presentation of hers! She wants it by the beginning of next week. Are you gonna be available tomorrow to guide me?”

“Hmm, I won’t be available tomorrow night because I’m going to my friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. She’s making a very grand bar mitzvah, in Golder’s Paradise.”

“Wow, I thought they only make weddings in Golder’s Paradise. I mean, I was never there because only very wealthy people make — wait a minute. Did you say Golder’s Paradise? That’s only 15 minutes away from my house! Elizabeth! Maybe we could meet!” Sury’s heart was racing. “Maybe you could come earlier, or we could meet afterward—”

“That would be lovely,” Elizabeth said. “Afterward will be too late, and I can’t meet you before because this is a very dear friend of mine, so I want to get there extra early.”

A dear friend?

“And what am I? Chopped liver?”

“Sury,” Elizabeth sighed. “With the traffic on the way… it just won’t be possible.”

“Okay,” Sury said quietly. “Next time.”

“Look at those shades of red,” Elizabeth marveled. “It seems like you were very upset at the time you painted that section.”

“I was,” Sury said. “Some girls in my class were laughing at a student who got an answer wrong and nobody did a thing about it! Is it her fault she has a hard time in school?”

“Young girls can be so insensitive,” Elizabeth said. “I’m glad you realized it was wrong. And that you were able to paint your feelings. Well done!”

“Sometimes I wonder how I’d survive life without my ability to paint,” Sury said.

“Oh, yeah, I know just what you mean,” Elizabeth said with an almost bitterness in her voice. “Anyway, should we get started on your tower painting?”

“Um, there’s something else I wanted to talk to you about first.” Sury swallowed. “Guess where I’m going next Sunday?”

“Can’t imagine.”

“I’m going to the city.” Sury said the words so fast that it sounded more like one word — I’mgoingtothecity. “Is there any chance at all that you’ll be there?”

“I’m actually having guests over next week, so no, I don’t think I’ll be in the city.”

Sury dropped her paintbrush. “This is insane. We’ve been friends for over three years, and I don’t even know if you’re  blonde or purple!”

“Ha, that’s funny. I’m actually auburn.”

“No, it’s not funny!” Sury was pacing around the room. “You know, how can I even be sure you are who you say you are? For all I know, maybe you’re a spy. Maybe you’re working for the FBI, and you’re on some kind of a mission. Or who knows? Maybe you’re part of the mafia and you’re trying to—”

“Okay, really, Sury. That’s enough of that. Do you want to go back to your painting, or should we end this conversation?”

“I don’t feel like painting now!” Sury hung up and flung the phone onto her bed. Tears streamed down her cheeks. It wasn’t fair. It just didn’t make any sense. Why didn’t Elizabeth want to meet her? Angry thoughts raced through her brain, but she stopped herself. Her relationship with Elizabeth was still very precious. It wasn’t worth it to have it destroyed, even if she couldn’t meet her in person. She waited for her tears to stop, and picked up the phone again.

“Hello?” Elizabeth’s voice was even.

“Hi.” Sury sighed. “I’m sorry.”


“I shouldn’t have said all that. I mean, if you can’t come to the city, then you can’t. I understand.”

“I’m sorry I upset you,” Elizabeth said. “You’re so set on meeting me, but think about it: We have a wonderful friendship. Your art is superb. You’re gaining all you can from our phone lessons, which I told you right from the start would be over the phone only. Why is it so important that we meet? You got this idea into your head, but everything is just fine without it.”

“Right,” Sury said softly, though there was a whole lot more she wanted to say.

“As our school year is drawing to an end,” Mrs. Stein read, “Bnos Leah High School will be featuring our own exclusive art exhibition, which will be displayed for three other high schools. In addition, students are encouraged to invite as many guests as possible in order to promote our exhibition.” Mrs. Stein continued reading, but most of the girls had already begun to excitedly discuss the event.

“The head of the exhibition event will be Sury Friedman in the 11th grade.”

Sury’s heart pounded. A smile appeared on her face. This was her dream!

Her fingers were clammy as she dialed Elizabeth’s number.

“Amazing!” Elizabeth said. “I’m so proud of you!”

“I’m so excited!” Sury gushed. “We’re going to show it to three other high schools, and we’re supposed to invite as many people as we can. Anyway, guess who’s on the top of my list of invites?”

“Your Aunt Faiga?”

“Nooo. You!”

“Me? That’s so thoughtful of you! I’m honored. When did you say this was? April 10th? Let me see…. I’m actually leaving town that day. My sister, she’s having…”

“Elizabeth! This is an art exhibition! How can I possibly perform without you? How can I get up there knowing you’re not even there?”

“Relax, Sury. You’ll have your mom there and your sisters and your delightful aunts. Why do you need me?”

“Because you’re the one who taught me all this! Everything I am is because of you. This is an art exhibition, and I’m the one in charge of it, and you’re the one who taught me all the art I know!”

“That’s not true, Sury. You were a very talented artist way before you met me. It’s not only because of me that—”

“Okay, bye!”

Sury slammed the phone.

“Hi, sweetie. How was day camp?” Sury’s mother asked as she walked through the door.

“It was okay,” Sury said as she put down her swim bag. “My campers are really cute. I shared a snack with two of them today. It was hysterical.”

“That’s cute,” her mother said. “Anyway, I have great news. We’re going away for Shabbos Nachamu.”

“Yay!” Sury said as she bit into a pretzel. “Where?”

“Lawrence Hotel.”

“Lawrence Hotel? Isn’t that in…” Sury’s pulse hammered. “Hold on.” She ran up the stairs to her room.

“Elizabeth, you won’t believe it. We’re going to a hotel for Shabbos Nachamu. Lawrence Hotel! So close to you! You won’t have to travel anywhere. You can stay home! On Thursday night or Friday or Motzaei Shabbos, I’ll come visit you! Elizabeth, this is perfect!”

“So exciting that you’re going to a hotel! I’ll be staying with my family in the city on Shabbos Nachamu. I won’t be home.”

Sury goggled at her reflection in the mirror. “Whenever I go to the city”—her throat was dry—“I let you know, for the tiny chance you’ll be there, but nope, you’re never there. And now the one time I come to your hometown, where are you? In the city!” Sury sat down. “You can’t be making that up.”

“Life can be funny like that,” Elizabeth said.

“No, life’s not funny like that!” Sury said as tears gushed down her cheeks. “I get it — you’ll never, ever meet with me. And that’s fine! I don’t have to meet you, and I don’t have to speak to you either. I don’t need you! I’m fine on my own!”

Sury hung up the phone, fell onto her bed, and cried uncontrollably. Not even painting could make sense of this. Her heart hurt so much. Elizabeth was her mentor, her role model, and she didn’t even want to meet or at least give her a logical explanation for it. Who needed such a friend? Sury buried her head under her pillow. “I never want to speak to Elizabeth again.”

The phone rang. It was Elizabeth.

“I can meet with you Thursday night,” she said flatly. “I’m leaving for the city on Friday.”

“Really?” Sury whispered.

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. Her voice sounded defeated.

“Yeah?” Sury asked again, pining to hear some emotion.

“Let me know what time you’ll be coming. I’ll give you my address.” Elizabeth’s voice was rusty and frail.

Something inside told Sury she should say, “It’s okay. We don’t have to meet.” But her longing was stronger than the voice, so instead she said, “Okay. Thanks, Elizabeth.”

The next few days were an endless blur of nail-biting and introspecting. Sury had been longing to meet Elizabeth, but now that it was happening, she felt funny about it. After all, who wanted to be an unwelcome guest?

On Thursday night Sury pressured her father to leave early. She didn’t want to keep Elizabeth waiting up too late.

The two-hour drive felt more like six. Sury was excited, yet so nervous, though she wasn’t even sure why. She was going to meet Elizabeth! Wasn’t that what she had wanted to do for so long?

Sury’s father dropped her off at Elizabeth’s address and told her to call him when she was done. Sury waved a numb, clammy palm and felt her heart pounding viciously.

She opened the heavy gate and walked toward the front door. There was a car parked in the driveway. Why were the blinkers on? Wait — was there a woman inside? That wasn’t Elizabeth. She was young and didn’t look Jewish. Did Elizabeth have a chauffeur?

Sury walked up the front steps. She took a deep breath and rang the bell.

“Come in,” Elizabeth called.

Come in? Wasn’t Elizabeth going to open the door for her? That didn’t sound like proper Elizabeth.

Sury opened the door. She glanced around the large living room. There was no one there.



A tall lady appeared, auburn sheitel and…

A sharp pain slapped Sury’s chest. Her hand flew to her mouth. Elizabeth had no arms.

“Elizabeth!” she choked.

“It’s very painful to lose a talent,” Elizabeth said softly. “Perhaps one of the most painful things in the world. But at least I can still teach.”

Sury shook her head. She buried her face in her palms and sobbed.

She looked up. Elizabeth was watching her.

“Elizabeth,” she whispered. She strode over to Elizabeth and put her arms around her.

Elizabeth didn’t hug her back, but in that second, Sury felt surrounded by a wholeness and understanding that not even her paintbrush could depict.

*Many thanks to Sury Neuman, a professional artist, for her art tips.

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 744)


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Tagged: Teen Fiction