An Afternoon’s Observance

As the city breeze escaped from the congested streets and permeated the exhibit room, breathing became easier and the warm air bathed my skin. Just as more bodies started to exit, I saw this particular being from across the room. She was different from the categorized types I have come here to examine. Having spent three afternoons a week in the museum since I moved to the city, I have become an amatuer cataloger of humanity.

Every afternoon you could expect to see tourists who rush through the exhibit hallways to catch a glimpse of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, holding worn-out cameras and museum maps. Usually a few university kids stroll in and invade the air with an intellectual entitlement exuding superficial confidence, murmuring quick sentences about Matisse’s dancing ladies. Often, the room becomes claustrophobic when droopy nuclear families with their nuclear kids run around with crayons while their parents point fingers and mouth “shhh”s, warning them not to doodle all over Manet’s masterpieces.

But her…that nose, those cheeks, dusted with what looked like powdered snow, caught the glint of light from the museum’s overhead fluorescents. Her hair hung like feathers on her narrow frame waving back and forth like waves in the ocean. At that moment, she seemed out of context, like she was a being that belonged in a distant era, a girl more suited to a dropped waistline and Jazz-age bob than the structured dress she had donned. My eyes were instantly drawn to her as she scribbled notes in a leather-bound notebook that she held close to her chest, her furtive glance proving that she would be utterly lost if someone were to take it from her. As time passed, the passerbys fluttered on, muttering mundane comments about the weather and traffic, but my eyes kept locked on her silhouette. She seemed to be fixed to the museum ground — a sculpture fastened by nuts and bolts placidly standing.

She was staring at a painting that loosely resembled a woman, a contemporary piece rendered with wide brushstrokes thick with warm yellows and oranges, all flowing together to create geometric forms — perhaps a nod to Braque or Picasso. I myself have caught my feet drifting to this piece, standing as close as I can without getting warned by the grumpy security guard, stealing glances as I notice the intricate individual shapes that construct the woman. Then standing further back, I fully realize the masterpiece in front of me and see the woman for the first time — all summery and soft. Her hair — blond, melting into the background. Her body — a motherly figure, one with wrinkles from decades of smiling. Her expression — begging an embrace, ready to accept me.

And so I studied her, I analyzed her as she examined the painting. I was trying to understand her, trying to figure out what she was thinking, why she was here, why her gaze was drawn to this particular painting. There was something about the way she held herself that begged my interpretation of her, a certain elegance. Never had I been so engrossed by a single human being, my eyes drawn by a magnetic force. I wanted to crack into her mind, tug at her neurons, discover her. Perhaps I was fascinated by her because her nature both perplexed and amazed me. Usually you can figure out a person by briskly calculating certain nuances of her personality. But not her, no. I could not even begin to unravel her primary layer, could not even break the code that concealed the secrets to her physical nature. I would never be able to understand her more complex emotional and mental layers.

I tried to determine her name, not through conversation but by the way she carried herself, maybe a Sarah, or a Jane. Then I thought — Ivy. Ivy was soft, elegant, yet short, as if waiting for you to fill in the missing spaces. It left you wanting more than the trinity of i v y. Maybe her name was Ivy, or maybe it was as something as common as Mary. I knew I was formulating a person inside of my head that was nothing like the real girl in front of me. Perhaps it was the girl I desired her to be — something different, something extraordinary. For all I know she could have been my worst fear: bromidic. As trite as the tourists who rush past every art piece to catch a glimpse of an overrated painting, missing all the masterpieces hung on the white walls before them. But perhaps she wasn’t, because after all, she stood determined to gaze at a painting that is so often overlooked, so often passed by without even the slightest blink of an eye.

My mind kept traveling to a single thought: why was she here? She had been standing in front of this painting for an hour now and I had been watching her, noting her stiff movements, from her stance to the shallowness of her breath.

Or perhaps she had come to this painting because it reminded her of her mother. Maybe she felt warm yellows and oranges when she felt her mother’s embrace. Maybe she lost her mother’s embrace and finds herself wandering for a similar one, a replacement — a metaphorical longing.

I kept wondering what our dialogue would be if we were friends — perhaps more. What would she say to me? How would I ease her longing? She would ask me why it hurts so much, why we all must feel this pain at one point in our lives, this pain of losing someone so close to us. I would tell her I didn’t know, and maybe that it was best we don’t know. I would continue with telling her that losing someone is like losing the smallest fragment of your memory: it can still function, but there will always be a small reminder of who that person was and why she mattered to you. By now, I would be able to see her individual heart strings, once so strong and consistent, fraying at the ends, tearing silently as tears escaped her reddish eyes. I would sit there, listening to her soft sighs, holding her soft hands, touching the soft skin under her eyes, and I would be thinking of her fragility, enclosing her small frame. How with one grasp of my rough hands I could pierce her shallow frame. My hands would feel so strong, so easy to fracture her into the abstract shapes of the painting, no longer a complete girl, and I would remain the painter and she my masterpiece. I would see the reflection of danger in her own eyes, my grin staring back at me. I would become the creator.

Or perhaps she shared the surname with the artist; perhaps it was her father. And she hated him, despised his being, from his rough skin to his brutish honesty. She had grown up only knowing hate towards her father and her world was filled with red anger. But through time that red anger has turned yellow and orange, it has subsided, growing smaller and smaller, continually out of frame. Her father had left her with distant memories of childhood, her own coming of age. At a ripened age of perhaps twenty-three she has softened. She has allowed time to soften her anger for her father, to replace a rugged lens with a crystal one, once fractured and now appearing new. And now I would tell her that you have to be careful with memories. The memories become so imbued with nostalgia that all that is left is a distant longing. Our minds formulate our memories and add a glossy sheen to the finished product, making us believe that our memories were happier than they actually were. So I would warn her, beware of memories, they force the human soul to envisage how it used to be, yet it never really was how we see it now. These memories are fuzzy, out-of place even, they miss key components, they summarize moments and make them better than they were, and we, like foolish beings, long for these moments, ones that we had never even actually experienced, we long for what has been, delving into the sorrow of the past and producing an alternate one, a happier one. So yes, she had allowed her instinctive mind to soften the edges of the memories of her father, but I would remind her that she must remember why she hated her father so she would not succumb to illusory memories.

As I stood there, creating two starkly different realities, she began to walk away. Simply stopped her scribbling, shut her notebook, carried her body out of the room. In this moment I wanted to follow her, get to know her — perhaps love her. Yet, instead of turning right and exiting out of the gallery, she walked straight — straight towards me. Her feet shuffled on the floor and the creaking of the wood beneath our feet became louder and louder as she walked closer and closer to me. Five more steps and our bodies would be less than an arm’s length away, four, three, two, one and then… I remained fixedly staring at her eyes, discovering they were as brown as the earth’s fertile soil. Her posture straightened up with the assertive beam of my eyes, allowing her head to become level with mine, her eyes meeting mine. One second, two seconds, three seconds. Our eyes were locked, I noticed a dark freckle near her eyebrow, a beautiful imperfection. Her mouth started to quiver and open slightly, as if she was going to speak to me. I wondered how her voice would sound coming from her symmetrical mouth. I waited a breath, truly believing she was walking towards me to say something, start a conversation. One second, two seconds, three seconds… and she was behind me. I waited five more steps, then I allowed my body to rotate so I was facing her the small of her back, and saw her feet continue to pace the floor, beginning to disappear out of the frame of my eye. She left a trail of lavender and something else, something darker, deeper — a note of musk. I could imagine her neck smelling sweet with this fragrance as I breathed it in. Then the trail of fragrance became notes which became small particles floating through the air until the scent was gone, and I was left smelling only musty wood and stale paint.

While I scrutinized the painting after she left, my eye caught certain imperfections woven into the canvas, a grid mark still noticeable, a smudge of paint out of place. I came to lose appreciation for the painting, it seemed imperfect with human error. Yet, similar human errors are noticeable in all of us, it is what makes us intrinsically human. As I drifted further back from the painting it seemed perfect again, I could no longer see the imperfections, I believed it to be a masterpiece. Just like the girl, I knew I would appreciate her more if I didn’t see her imperfections, with those imperfections she seemed too human to me, too error-filled. Rather, I let her remain, remain like a picture hung from the thinnest string, hung heavy over the tiled floor. I did not entertain my inclination to chase her, rather I allowed her to be the girl I was able to observe like a little kid who presses his nose to the aquarium glass. I had no right to wonder about this girl, but it was my nature. It was also my nature to leave her a mystery, keep her a perfect specimen, observe her from a safe distance. As a mystery she remains desirably untouched, untainted — an impeccable masterpiece.