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Hello Stranger
Author: Katherine Center



THE FIRST PERSON I called after I found out I’d placed in the North American Portrait Society’s huge career-making yearly contest was my dad.

Which is weird. Because I never called my dad.

Not voluntarily, anyway.

Sure, I called on birthdays or Father’s Day or New Year’s—hoping to get lucky and miss him so I could leave a singsongy message like “So sorry to miss you,” get the credit, and be done.

But I called only out of obligation. Never for fun. Never, ever just to talk. And never—god forbid—to share things.

My goal was always not to share things with my father. How broke I was. How I was still—endlessly—failing in my chosen career. How I’d given up on yet another relationship and moved into my not-fit-for-human-habitation art studio because I couldn’t afford a place of my own.

That was all need-to-know information.

And he definitely didn’t need to know.

It gave me some structure, in a way—crafting ongoing fake success stories about myself for him and my evil stepmother, Lucinda. I was always “doing great.” Or “crazy busy.” Or “thriving so much.”

I didn’t actively make things up. I just worked devotedly to obscure the truth.

The truth was, I’d defied all my dad’s instructions eight years before, dropping out of premed and switching my college major to Fine Arts.

“Fine Arts?” my father had said, like he’d never heard the term before. “How exactly are you supposed to make a living with that?”

I gave him a little shrug. “I’m just going to … be an artist.”

Wow, those words did not land well.

“So you’re telling me,” he demanded, that little vein in his forehead starting to darken, “that you want to be buried in a pauper’s grave?”

I frowned. “I wouldn’t say I want that.”

It’s possible my dad wanted me to be a doctor because he was a doctor. And it’s possible my dad didn’t want me to be an artist because my mom had been an artist. But we didn’t talk about that.

He went on, “You’re throwing away a good career—a good living—so that you can waste your life doing something that doesn’t matter for no money?”

“When you put it that way, it sounds like a bad idea.”

“It’s a terrible idea!” he said, like that was all there was to it.

“But you’re forgetting two things,” I said.

My dad waited to be enlightened.

“I don’t like medicine,” I said, counting off on my fingers. “And I do like art.”

Suffice it to say, he didn’t think any of that was relevant. Then he went on to imply that I was spoiled and foolish and had never known true suffering.

Even though we both knew—on that last one, at least—he was lying.

Anyway, it didn’t matter. He didn’t get to decide what I did with my life.

I was the one who had to live it, after all.

My dad was not a big fan of losing. “Don’t ask me for help when you’re broke,” he said. “You’re on your own. If you choose this path for yourself, then you have to walk it.”

I shrugged. “I haven’t asked you for help since I was fourteen.”

At that, my dad stood up, scooting back his café chair with a honk that announced he was done. Done with this conversation—and possibly done with fatherhood, as well.

I still remember the determination I felt as I watched him leave. It seems almost quaint now. I’ll show you, I remember thinking, with a self-righteous fire in my eyes. I’ll make you wish you’d believed in me all along.

Spoiler alert: I did not show him. At least not so far.

That was eight years ago.

I’d gotten that BFA in Fine Arts. I’d graduated all alone, and then I’d marched past all the families taking proud pictures, and then I’d driven triumphantly out of the university parking lot in my banged-up Toyota that my friend Sue and I had painted hot pink with flames for the Art Car Parade.

And then?

I’d embarked on many endless years of … not showing him.

I applied to contests and didn’t win. I submitted my work for shows and didn’t get accepted. I eked out a living selling portraits from photos (both human and pet) on Etsy at a hundred dollars a pop.

But it wasn’t enough to make rent.

And whenever I talked to my dad, I pretended I was “thriving.”

Because he might have been right that day. I might be headed for a pauper’s grave. But I would be under the dirt in that grave before I’d ever admit it.

That must have been why I called him about placing in the contest.

The contest itself was a big deal—and huge prize money, if you could win it.

I guess the lure of having a genuine triumph to report kept me from thinking clearly.

Plus, don’t we all, deep down, carry an inextinguishable longing for our parents to be proud of us? Even long after we’ve given up?

In the thrill of the moment, I forgot that he didn’t care.

It was a good thing—and no surprise—that my call went straight to his voicemail. It meant I could make my next call. To somebody who did care.

“What!” my friend Sue shouted as soon as the words were out. “That’s huge!” She stretched out the U for what felt like a full minute. Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge.

And I just let myself enjoy it.

“The grand prize is ten thousand dollars,” I added when she was done.

“Oh my god,” she said. “Even huger.”

“And guess what else?”


“The big show—the juried show where they pick the winner—is here. In Houston.”

“I thought it was Miami this year.”

“That was last year.”

“So you don’t even have to travel!” Sue said.

“Which is perfect! Because I can’t afford to!”

“It’s meant to be!”

“But is it too meant to be? Is it so in my favor, it’ll jinx me?”

“There’s no such thing as too meant to be,” Sue said. Then, as if there’d been a question, she said, “Anyway, it’s settled.”

“What’s settled?”

“We have to throw a party!” she said. Ever the extreme extrovert.

“A party?” I said, in a meek attempt at resistance.

“A party! A party!” Sue practically sang into the phone. “You’ve been tragically failing at life for years and years! We have to celebrate!”

Tragically failing at life seemed a bit harsh.

But fine. She wasn’t wrong.

“When?” I said, already dreading all the cleaning I’d have to do.


It was already close to sunset. “I can’t throw a—” I started, but before I even got to “party tonight,” it was decided.

“We’ll do it on your rooftop. You needed a housewarming party, anyway.”

“It’s not a house,” I corrected. “It’s a hovel.”

“A hovelwarming, then,” Sue went on, taking it in stride.

“Won’t your parents get mad?” I asked. Mr. and Mrs. Kim owned the building—and technically I wasn’t even supposed to be living there.

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