Theories of Blank Space

In the back of the Chinese exhibit a painting grabs Victor Samson’s attention. He walks over and plants himself firmly across from it. Two-and-a-half feet tall and four feet wide, it’s large but not especially so, and the colors are unsaturated — brown tones with touches of blue and white. A lush island fills the bottom third, making up the foreground, and a second, larger island fills the background, or upper third. The brush strokes are thick and watery, the ink soaking into the parchment.

A young couple passes behind him talking in hushed tones, commenting on the exhibit. Its all so monochromatic. He wonders what Ellie would think about the painting before him. Or what she will think once she finds out he was in a museum all afternoon. He gets back to inspecting the work.

The middle of the piece is blank. A washed-out white stretching across the parchment. Afloat in this sea of blankness is a small skiff — the name of the painting is uncomplicatedly Returning Skiff. Given this framing, the empty space becomes water. The human mind, Victor’s mind in this case, is so suggestible that context cues can give rise to an entire solid world. This reminds Victor of an illusion he once saw in a book: three black circles with slices taken out of them, arranged in such a way as to suggest a triangle. He wonders if the couple was able to see what he is seeing. Probably not. He pulls out a notepad — always the same notepad — and scribbles in the words:

If one’s mind can reach there, there is no need for the touch of any brush.

He is satisfied with his observation.

Victor Samson keeps walking through the exhibits. Through the South-Asia exhibit, down to the Korean wing, past the Japanese tunics. The exhibits are in stark juxtaposition to the western Beaux-Arts architecture of the museum containing them, and the visitors at this hour are mostly young, taking advantage of a weekly discount. He tuts as he passes next to a gossiping couple — the same one from earlier? When he and Ellie were first dating they acted the same way, snickering when their elders told them to be more respectful. She’d wear earrings like the ones in the glass cabinets here — not antiques obviously, but still bought at a market in Indonesia.

Out on the street the wind bites, but Victor is elated. He crosses to the bus stop, and waits for the 513 bus that will take him back to the apartment he bought with Ellie in 1976. The bus stop is empty, and Victor looks out at the automobile traffic cruising by, silently judging the cars he deems too gaudy. The concrete pavement is shattered, the pedestrians hurried. Eventually a homeless man ambles over, stooped low, carrying a black trash bag of possessions. The man is old, his clothes worn down by years of rough sleeping — a sight all too common in this neighborhood. He makes his way around the sign and the plaque displaying a tasteless marketing slogan, finds a seat, and settles down with a rasp. It’s only when the man keeps staring forward, eyes cloudy, that Victor Samson realizes he is blind.

The 513 bus pulls up, and both Victor and the blind man board. From his seat, Victor watches the man ruffle through his pocket for change — the whole bus is now silently watching the event unfold. The man places the exact amount required into the slot next to the driver, and he sits down in the first empty seat, staring ahead once again. All the other passengers have now lost interest, but Victor’s gaze keeps returning to the man. There’s something strange about being able to stare at someone without their knowing, a social convention being bypassed.

Twenty minutes later the blind man gets up, gathers his belongings, and steps off the bus, dipping down into the concrete gully below the overpass as the bus accelerates away. Victor wonders if he could ever achieve such a level of familiarity with a neighborhood. Could he ever understand a place so thoroughly he could navigate it blind? He closes his eyes but keeps an image of the bus’s interior in place. He believes his representation is faithful, but when he opens his eyes a minute later a few of his fellow passengers have shifted around, and some have gone.

Eventually Victor tries to imagine the opposite: a world without sound. Years ago he and Ellie had figured out how to communicate without speech. By focusing on the shape of her eyes or the hunch of her shoulders at the table, her posture in the doorway, he could tell what she was thinking. Ellie could ask a question by lowering her gaze, and Victor would respond with a shallow exhale, a slight furrow, or a roll of the eyes. They could both remain completely still, and understand each-other perfectly well. Many times the best answer is an understood silence.

Victor watches the world go by through the window. Barring everybody learn sign-language, such communication on a city-wide scale would probably require a lot more societal intimacy than presently exists — Victor places his thoughts on hold and stands up, having almost forgotten to request his stop.

“Ellie, I’m home! I had a beautiful day at the museum.” Victor closes the apartment door behind him and pauses for a response.

The thin curtains framing the window catch the air passing through a crack.

“I know, but I thought that could wait. This morning was so nice that I just had to walk into town.”

Motes of dust catch the light as they swirl slowly through the air.

Victor acknowledges the answer with a nod and a sigh.“You’re right, as usual. I’ll go tomorrow.” and he sits down in his armchair, picking up the book left open on the coffee table.

He reads for a long time, the sun casting increasingly tall shadows on the walls opposite the windows. As the day sets he turns on a small reading lamp and resumes in silence.

The apartment is empty, but not blank. Her chair — unmoved, the toiletries on the sink — untouched. Little context cues that hint at a presence only momentarily absent, a space only temporarily unoccupied. It might take a few months more for the empty room to fade into a blank one, but for now — Victor looks over at the photo on the mantelpiece — his mind can paint in the gaps.