Wandering the Phoenix Art Museum one evening, I saw a couple seated in front of an art installation. I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know what had brought them to the museum that night. But together with the fixture in front of them, an idea came to life.
It was a Schrodinger’s cat situation, the people in my head (who clearly don’t exist in real life) could have been on their first date, they could have been on their last. I didn’t know, and while they sat – completely oblivious to me – a story began to form in my mind.
Today, I’ve decided to share that story with you:
They were such good friends, she’d balked at the idea of change.
Dinner had been fine. It had been normal -- like two old friends sharing a meal. But she’d seen that spark in his eye, the one that told her he felt something more. He wanted something more. As his friend, she wanted to give him that, even if she didn’t know what it was.
He’d led her through the art museum, a place she thought of as his domain. He spoke of the artists as though they, too, were his friends. Voice full of hope and the excitement of sharing, he sounded more like a history major than a graphic designer.
When they stepped into the Katz Wing, the contemporary pieces stole her attention. He trailed patiently behind and she momentarily forgot he was there.
Through her wanderings, she found an alcove tucked into the furthest room. An untitled acrylic circle hung on the wall. Carefully arranged lamps cast shadows of abstract brilliance. She sank to the bench in front of it in silent awe.
He sat beside her as she was immersed in a private bubble of quiet. He placed his hand on hers and for a few minutes they were completely alone.
“What do you see?” he asked, leaning toward her.
His voice was so low, she barely heard him. “I’m not really sure.”
Her answer elicited a familiar response. His casual, low laughter sent an oddly comforting shiver through her.
She sat up straighter to avoid being pulled in by the gravity of his normalcy. “It makes me think of sound, and of electronic snow and of the depressed robot from Hitchiker’s.” Pausing, she looked at the opaque acrylic. “And it makes me wonder how much they’re paying their janitorial staff. I can’t even imagine how dusty this gets.”
This time, his laugher echoed off the white walls surrounding them. They shared a knowing glance as a stern-faced guard walked past.
They’d been such good friends. He couldn’t explain why it hadn’t worked.
They walked through the halls of the art museum together in silence, pausing at whatever painting caught her eye, until they found the piece again.
He wished he could suggest they start over. But he knew they couldn’t.
They’d taken a meandering path to reach this spot. With each painting his hopes had sunk lower. With each sculpture he’d known there was no stopping the inevitable. When they reached this installation -- their reason for coming -- he clung to the hope there was some small part of their relationship they could salvage.
He sat on the bench and waited for her to join him. It took longer than he’d expected.
When she did, he took her hand out of habit and felt her tense at his touch. They sat in silence; the installation in front of them was still. The same as the night of their first date.
It was a stability he envied and wished he could compare to their relationship -- instead of the slow degradation of what it had become.
She pulled her hand from his and placed it in her lap, her face turned away as she silently observed the piece.
“I thought coming back would help,” he said.
She glanced at him before turning away again. “If nothing else, it provides a nice sort of symmetry.”
He still needed to know if she wanted to try… still wanted to hear the last two years hadn’t been in vain. It was a selfish need and he should have let it go.
“It’s not working is it?” he asked.
“Why would it?”
Pursing her lips, she stared at the acrylic circle in front of them and said, “It’s just a lampshade the wrong way round.”
“What do you see?” She asked. A prickle of warmth coursed up her arm as he squeezed her fingers.
He studied it a moment. “I see a lampshade installed the wrong way around.”
“Stop it.” She swatted his arm and glanced quickly behind them.
When she turned back, he shrugged and squared himself to the sculptural element. He glared at it, as though waiting for it to spill some long lost secret.
“Okay…” he said, taking a deep breath and pointing at it. “I see mankind…. No, that’s not right. I see the individual person.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “If you’re going to make this into a joke, we can just leave.”
“I’m being serious,” he said. “Look, the actual circle is man – or woman – or what have you. It’s the individual self, and surrounding that one person is multiple shadows of that self. ” He pointed to the four shadows behind the disc. “They’re not whole truths; they’re missing that integral part, there, in the center.”
“And what’s in the center?” she asked, staring at it and forcing a smile she no longer felt.
“That little pocket of ourselves we share with as few people as possible. The dark part we keep hidden away and hope only those we can trust will ever see.” His voice trailed off with the last word, and she shivered.
Frowning, she looked from the piece to him, “Is this your way of telling me you’re a serial killer?”
He cracked a smile and cast her a sideways glance. “No. I also see a malt ball. But I could just be hungry, it has been an hour since we last ate.”
The laugh bubbled up before she could stop it. “Insightful to sugar-fiend in two-point-five seconds. Be careful, I might get whiplash.”
He joined her laughter. “Does that mean you’re not up for a slice of pie after this?”
A group of noisy teenagers walked past, and she glanced down to her hand now clasped in his. “We’ll see.”
She could understand why he’d waxed poetic about the shades of an individual – the quartet of shadows bleeding away her own self were unknown, even to her. She paused to wonder how the piece would shift in a less controlled light, how those shadows would move through the day and with the changing seasons. Glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, she wondered the same about him.
“Do you remember our old pie schedule?” he asked when the silence between them was unbearable.
She smiled and closed her eyes, laughing in a low tone. “Let’s see, it’s an odd date… and a Wednesday. Was it banana cream pie and chocolate chip cookies?”
“That’s evens,” he said.
“Peach pie and pixie sticks?” She snickered as she asked the question. “I don’t know how we managed to stay out of the hospital. I should have OD’d on sugar two years ago.”
“We built up your tolerance. Once you were used to it, you weren’t in any danger. I, on the other hand, have always had a natural immunity.”
They lapsed back into their silence too quickly.
With a wistful sigh, he said, “We lost this. If we just found this again, I think we could push through this rough patch.”
She shifted away from him. “We had this because we’re good as friends. We never should have tried for anything else.”
He couldn’t agree. “How do you know something won’t work until you try?”
She rolled her eyes, a gesture he should have been used to.
“I know I can’t fly,” she said. “I didn’t have to jump off a bridge to find that out.”
They’d had this argument before. He didn’t remind her that she could fly, if only she had a little help from machinery. See, he thought, I can learn.
“Is that what you think our relationship equates to, then?” He wanted her to deny it, but she didn’t.
Letting out a frustrated sigh, he asked, “If we’ve jumped off that bridge, are we about to hit water? Or will we splatter against the dry bottom of a canyon?” Then, “Would anyone paint our tragedy?”
She deflated, slouching as she stared ahead. “If they did, it would never make it on to these walls.”
At a quarter to nine, he led her back through the museum.
The warm spring air whipped around her as they walked past the others who’d ventured to the museum that night.
He looked back at the glass walls. “Sometimes I wish they had apartments inside the museum, you know? So I could live in there and be surrounded by all that art.”
“The renter’s insurance policy would make it impossible to afford.” She smiled at his fanciful idea.
He was a dreamer if she’d ever met one, and he made her think about things she’d never expected.
Her shadow split in two, then three and back to one as she passed beneath the exterior lights.
He came alongside her, and soon the sliver of light separating them was gone – swallowed by their merging shadows.
She was happy she’d insisted they drive separate cars. Space and time were needed to sort through the jumble of thoughts and emotions the evening had dredged up.
She stopped beside her car, thankful the circle of light surrounding them was from directly above. One shallow shadow each wouldn’t set her mind wandering.
He’d parked halfway down the line of cars. She turned, but he still stood between her and the museum.
“I had a really good time tonight. It was fun.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked down at her with that expectant wariness in his eyes.
Pursing her lips, she glanced behind him, to the glittering lights in front of the museum. She’d never know if they didn’t try.
When the pause had lasted a moment too long, she pressed up onto her toes and kissed him. It was a quick peck on the lips, nothing lasting -- nothing so transparent.
He looked down at her with a smile quirking one side of his mouth, and rolled back on his heels like a little boy. “Does that mean I get a second date?”
Pressing the button on her key fob, she said, “We’ll see how it goes.” She got in her car and left him standing in the pool of light.
She couldn’t go back now. Only press forward.
He stared straight ahead, eyes locked on the shadows cast over the wall. There was no point in trying to go backward.
Relationships had no reverse gear.
Hushed tones of the other visitors milling around the room beyond them washed over him. She shifted beside him in uncomfortable silence. That he’d grown so accustomed to it made him sick to his stomach.
He took a deep breath and faced her, but before he could argue, she spoke first, “I don’t want to fight about it. I just want to go.”
Biting back his words, he turned to the acrylic piece in front of him. “I think that’s worse than if you wanted to scream at me until they kicked us out.”
“I’ve told you before. The thing that got in the cracks… that took hold of us and drove us apart wasn’t something you could see or change… it was just my apathy.”
They’d had this discussion before and she always claimed the fault. She never made him feel guilty. He hadn’t been strong enough to tell her she wasn’t in this alone. Maybe if she’d realized that two years ago, they wouldn’t be hanging together by a thread.
As he watched her study the piece, her mouth firmed and she stood. Her back to him, she clenched her fists and said, “I’ll have my things out of the house by the end of the week.”
Alone, surrounded by a hundred murmuring strangers, he stared too long at the lit acrylic circle.