Thursday
Jul202017

At the Art Museum

Jae Kim


 

The guard moved slowly on the other side of the glass case in the center of the room. The case held a stack of three same-shaped plastic bowls in shades of blue. Her uniform shirt was a deeper blue. She wore black boots and black slacks, a black transceiver in the back pocket. The boots' heels tapped the floor gently. She looked to be in her early twenties, and her slim figure was alluring. I had to remind myself why I was there. I was looking for a friend.

The exhibit was of tables, weavings, and other such things. The room's ceiling was so high that the space above could have been made into a different exhibit altogether. Along the walls, subtle, pale gradations formed between the lights. They were white lights. They made weak mirrors out of the glass case. The guard moved through the fluid outline of the chairs behind me, pausing now to look up, now to look between her feet. She moved behind an old couple who stood by a plate rack shaped like a tree. The old man, with sunken eyes, perused the description. The woman, broad-shouldered and a bit taller than the man, looked into the display as though the sharp angles of the rack's branches were linked to another part of her life. There were other visitors: by the weaving with sawtooth and polka dot patterns, by the chrome ice crusher. Everyone was quiet with a kind of forgetfulness. Echoes of brighter sounds came from neighboring rooms. The guard emerged from behind the old man, on the other side.

I was looking for a friend. Her name was Summer Wilkins. She was thirty-five years old, five-feet-four, of average build with reddish, curly, shoulder-length hair that she usually pulled back in a ponytail. There was a small mole next to the tail end of her right eyebrow. Her eyes were gray but from time to time she wore colored contacts. One day she would have green eyes, and the next time, rainbow eyes. It was intriguing, charming, but also unsettling, as though an alien being was staring out from within a human suit. I couldn't look straight at her for too long.

The guard went past me. I caught a whiff of her perfume or shampoo.

"Excuse me," I said. "I'm looking for a friend."

I thought I'd spoken. The guard merely looked at a part of the tall ceiling. The visitors—the old couple had now reached a black coffee table by the far wall, whose legs were paint dripping from the tabletop—synchronized in their deliberate, clockwise movement toward the next piece, which seemed to hold for them a design no more or less intriguing than the previous one. A different guard peeked into the room, and then went away. I didn't have the heart to try again. "Excuse me."

Summer was nearsighted. She had an unreasonable fear of public bathrooms. She had little patience for those who wouldn't speak loudly and clearly. She disliked the bitterness of coffee. Bittersweet, with sugar, wasn't any better. She liked large supermarkets. She liked to honk when no one else was near enough to hear. She rode on a white scooter, with a matching white helmet, slowly on quiet roads, quickly in traffic. She hated cats and dogs alike, even the supermarket aisles with pet food.

She didn't have mood swings, but she had a cheerful yet melancholic disposition. That is not to say she feigned cheeriness, or that she liked to wallow in self-deprecation. To Summer, life was somewhere between knowing a flower was beautiful and knowing the insignificance of such recognition, and accepting nonetheless the experiences that came her way, though experiencing wasn't the point either, not any more than creating or communicating or fulfilling a certain duty was. Which is not to say she was a defeatist. She was an optimist, if anything. She liked living. She looked forward to tomorrow.

The old man began to speak in a language I didn't understand. His voice, though a soothing baritone, broke the silence. His companion gave a short (though not curt) reply, in a register not far above his own. A balding but still young man in a baby blue button down looked their way. A younger man sporting an ornamented headband—arms crossed, his muscular back stretching the t-shirt—stared at a silver wide-brimmed hat, and paid them no heed. Two ladies in beige scarves left the room, talking about a painter. The guard had her back to me. Then she turned to face me. She came toward me until she was on the other side of the glass case. I kept my eyes on the bowls, then on the words that described their significance. She went on to the plate rack and circled around. Rather than dullness, her expressions contained an effort to resolve a conflict, one that required knowing better what one wanted. She was likely just fine in the public privacy the room offered. I wondered, could it be about a lover? Could it be about secrets that were coming to light? Could it be about her life's direction, or about a lonesome journey, leaving behind everyone she cared for, those who cared for her? The old man came too close to a weaving and set off a sensor. The guard approached him. Perhaps such interjections were a welcome distraction. He protested with gestures, that his fingers hadn't crossed the red line on the floor, and in doing so, he set off the sensor once more. The guard cautioned him. Though her voice wasn't quiet, its muted timbre made it unobtrusive. The old man apologized and the couple left the room. We were alone. Others had already passed through. The guard stared at the weaving that the old man had been drawn to, in which many circles, all differently sized, crowded together.

I was certainly a coward. She and I existed on different planes, and as much as I wanted to breach the barrier between us, I also wanted us to stay where we were. This was my shortcoming. This was why I was looking for Summer, when I knew she was in another life elsewhere. I would wait, let the guard go. Let another guard replace her, and that would be the end. The moment I reached over, the incongruity would render all that I'd dreamed a dream. Stay put, and I could continue on a fool.

 

"Excuse me, I'm looking for a friend," a man said, touching my shoulder.

He was the only visitor in the room. Soft voices leaked from my transceiver.

"Can I help you?" I said.

"Yes," he said. "Can you help me find someone? Her name is Summer. Summer Wilkins."

I'd run into a childhood friend by chance a few days ago. He'd grown so tall I almost didn't recognize him. He recognized me right away. He said I looked the same, whatever that meant. We'd last seen each other in fourth grade, in our hometown, which was miles and miles away. He said, "Goodness, Vida, you look exactly the same." Did he mean I looked like a child? Did he mean he'd gone places, and I was still stuck where I had been twenty years ago? "Hello, old friend." If only I'd said that. I'd always wanted to try saying that. Besides, I couldn't remember his name.

He did look different, though. His face was longer and had formed pronounced cheekbones. He'd gained a few acne scars. He was clean-shaven and in a suit. I was sitting on the cold bench at the train station, waiting to go to New York. I liked to wander through the city, the streets full of people. He was just going to Newark Airport Station for a flight to Frankfurt. We caught up. When the train came, I said I was waiting for someone, and let him go. He promised he'd get in touch with me, waving his hand from behind a window on the upper level like we were in a soap opera.

What I remembered about him was that he'd once called out to me after school, across the playground, to tell me I wasn't wearing my backpack properly. It wasn't true. I was wearing the backpack that was in fashion at the time, which only had one strap to begin with. I hadn't bothered to defend myself.

Why had this man touched my shoulder instead of simply calling out to me? Was I not listening? In the year I'd been working as a day guard, no one had ever asked me to help find someone. I was somewhat excited by the prospect, and tried to recall the way to make announcements over the radio. When I figured it out and spoke into the transceiver, my voice came out through the speakers transmuted.

"Ms. Wilkins, could you please come to the information center?"

The echo died slowly. Distant footsteps were clearer in the moments following.

"Thank you," the man said, and began to walk away. I watched his departing form. There was something pitiful about it. Then he turned around and came back. He asked, "Would you mind accompanying me to the information center?"

"It's the front desk," I said.

"Right," he said. "Can you take me there?"

Another strange request. It was a slow day, so I could afford to abandon my post for a while. The man began to tell me about his friend, as we made our way over.

"The truth is she probably isn't here," he said. "She used to always be here on days like this, but I haven't seen her in some time."

"You didn't come together?" I asked, pausing in front of a vintage Corvette in lipstick red, with black-and-white highlights. I was still thinking about my old friend. The truth was I'd already been self-conscious about my backpack. By the time I got home, I was angry. The next day, and the day after, I couldn't face the boy. I stopped wearing the backpack, which gave my mother an excuse to fight with my father.

"That exhibit was new," the man said, "so I thought she might come." He went on to describe his friend's appearance in detail. We walked from room to room. I led the way, nodding to the guards in each room. I stopped in front of my favorite painting, a large, four-panel abstraction of a waterfall. It made me imagine the painter standing on a stepladder, scraping the canvas repeatedly, drenched in sweat.

"I met her not long after I first moved to the area. I came to this museum on a tourist's impulse, and because it was so close. I saw her, before she saw me. You know those paintings made to look like photographs? She was by one of those, the one of a man in glasses. I learned later that the man wasn't even a real person. It's amazing how they can do that, just create a person out of thin air.

"She came toward me. Perhaps she saw me looking. She didn't so much as say hello but started telling me about a sculptor. I forget who it was, what she said. She started telling me about herself, what she liked, what she didn't like. She never talked about the items on display, though she did about the artists. She moved through the rooms quickly, never spending more than a few seconds on a piece. She was always ahead of me, moving to the next room on her own. But when I paused in front of a piece, she'd come back to tell me about the artist, about herself. Then at some point, she'd be gone, not in the next room, or in the next room over. I couldn't find her anywhere.

"I went again another day, and she was there—here—again. She appeared next to me and told me how the makers of the glass-blown sea creatures in front of us—sea anemone, sea cucumber, sea star (upside down so we could see the little feet)—had a small museum to themselves now, and had filled it with oversized human parts. Heart, feet, each one six feet tall. She told me she regretted not taking Mr. Dilly's welding class in high school because it overlapped with choir, and she had a crush on Mr. Clare, the choir conductor. She said she fancied putting metal plates together, wearing thick gloves and protective gear, sparks lighting up the dark. She liked Christmas lights. The first ones to go up in the fall.

"She disappeared into rooms. I wanted to follow at her heels, but of course, I couldn't exactly do that. In the next room, when I eventually made it there, I was happy to find her there. I was happy even when I didn't find her there. You know, perhaps she was in the next room over, perhaps she was gone. A little game.

"I came often. She wasn't there every time, but she was most times. It could also have been that those times we didn't meet, we were in different parts of the museum, just never running into each other. I'm not sure exactly how long it's been, but it's been a long time since I last saw her."

We walked past the shelves packed with brightly colored beads. Some of the shelves were also plastered with golden foil, cut out like the outlines of continents, or like bacterial growth in a Petri dish. The man gave me his name. Thomas, I remembered then, was the boy's name. Thomas Edelstein. Somehow, he was always Thomas, never Tom or Tommy. There, we were even now. It had been bothering me that he'd remembered my name. I gave the man my name as we passed a set of clay curtains.

Who was Summer Wilkins? I liked crows. I liked to play badminton on sunny days. I liked house plants, the kind that grew without water for days. I liked the kind of metal spoon that was dulled around the edges so it didn't bite into the inside of my cheeks. I liked my father's last ex-girlfriend. I liked my grandmother's grave. There were always flowers from some other person. I liked places with very high ceilings. Was it claustrophobia if I simply disliked being closed in? I always kept a window open, even if only a little bit, even during cold winter. But I liked being in a crowd, from time to time, as long as there was room above. I could probably afford to be more driven. I could probably climb a mountain and feel that sense of accomplishment and start over. I once drew murals in tunnels, large ones that took weeks and months. I liked to get up close and run my hand over them, once they were dry. That was one thing I disliked about a museum. I had to keep my distance.

"Do you like it here?" the man asked me. We'd come into the entrance hall. Hanging on the opposite wall, beside the island of the information center, was a rendition of a black hole. It looked like the storms in weather forecasts. Large black triangles were joined together to form a spiraling vortex, their seams highlighted in neon green. The surface wasn't flat; the triangles made jagged hills and valleys. The piece hung at a diagonal, leaning forward so one could stand completely under it.

"Yes," I said. "I do."

"Me, too," he said.

I walked toward the center of the spiral. "Thanks," he called after me, instead of coming with me.

I went as close as I could and stopped to look up. I liked to find a different triangle each time, so eventually I'd know all the triangles and then the piece, as a whole, might become something new to me. But it was hard to keep straight which triangles I'd already studied. I turned around to catch a glimpse of the man exiting the museum. It was raining outside. I thought I saw him pulling his jacket over his head.

I walked back to my post. In the room I found the woman who had been with the old man when he'd set off the sensor earlier. She didn't notice me. She was absorbed in a ceramic kettle, the unremarkable one in plain white. It would be strange for me to say, "Hello, Ma'am. Is there anything I can help you with?" This wasn't a department store. I began to walk toward her. Then I turned and moved away from her. The speakers from which my voice had flowed out were in adjacent corners of the ceiling, hidden, camouflaged. Another guard came in, and I went to replace a different guard.

The new room, mostly pop art, had more people in it. It was brighter. I stood by one of the doorways, saying hello to comers and goers. I said hello to a woman who I thought looked a lot like me. I said hello to a teenage boy with two silver rings on his lower lip. One in the middle, tight, the other to its left, thinner and looser. He paused to consider me, then said "Hello?" like it was a question. Older people said hello more easily, more fluidly.

Throughout the rest of the day, I said hello to everyone I met. When I said hello to the owner at an Italian restaurant I liked to stop by on the way home, he asked if something good had happened.

"Won the lottery?" he asked, feigning bitterness.

He was a likeable person.

"Shitty weather," he said. "You know what my wife says? She says it's not the weather that's shitty, it's me that's shitty. I'm the loser, being all negative and pessimistic. She says, 'Look at that beautiful rain.' She calls me Shitty Frankie."

He paused, then added, "My name is Franklin."

I'd forgotten the man's name. It had long vowels and harsh consonants. There was an unruliness to it, each syllable burrowing beneath others to be excavated by the listener.