Saturday, April 23, 2016


It was in the fine print. She read it to him. He had left his glasses at home.  "Thomas Hart Benton: a portrait of George and Sabrina West deaf mutes. Residents of Chilmark, on Martha's Vineyard where residents were relegated to relative isolation since the seventeenth century, produced generations of intermarriage resulting in half the population suffering from hereditary deafness." He knew the West family. As a kid his family had spent two weeks every summer at a rental belonging to a friend of his parents. He knew their youngest kids marveling at their silent language involving fluttering hands and a lot of touching. He liked the way they slapped at each other and laughed as their hands played cat's cradle in some unexplainable way of talking. His strict Germanic family made touching seem dirty. He was never able to cross that barrier. He rarely held Hildie's hand or kissed her cheek. The Wests made him sometimes wish he had been born deaf.
It was their first date. They had both signed up on They'd paid their membership fees. This was his second time, her first. He'd had a few first dates but no seconds. She'd been nervous about signing up, this was the first time she'd been the one to respond. She refused to use the wink button. The wink made her cringe and feel a bit silly. She sent an email instead. He worked for Google as a communications writer writing incident reports. It wasn't a glamorous job but it was with Google. In their profiles they both liked art, he was a Mets fan, she followed fashion blogs, they both wrote down Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as their favorite film. That was what made each of them show up on the other's Singled Out daily notice. She liked his nerdy style. She typed out "Saw you loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's my favorite film as much for the art direction as the story." That was it. She didn't want to say too much. She didn't want to appear too aggressive; it wouldn't have been her. She didn't know the protocol for a woman responding to a man. She felt uncomfortable with who should be making the first move. He wasn't expecting to see any woman make the first move toward him. It hadn't happened before. He was the one giving a wink and then waiting while nothing happened. He asked Simran, the woman who sat next to him at Google if he should respond, if she thought it was real and not a prank. He didn't have a lot of friends in New York. He had only been in the city for a few months. He had moved here from Michigan once he had landed the job. Simran had helped him with finding the new apartment he now shared with an Indian friend of hers. She liked him in a very protective sisterly way. She suggested he write back and ask her to go somewhere safe where they could talk but not be obligated to anything more. He looked up her profile and saw the interest in art. He wrote back "I saw you liked art would you like to go to the new Whitney Saturday afternoon. I could meet you in the lobby at 2". He refrained from adding any emojis.
She wrote back, "Yes, that would be nice."
He went early and picked up two tickets. Then he worried that she wouldn't show up and he'd be left having paid for an extra ticket. He recognized her immediately. He tried to smile but the muscles in his cheeks twitched and made him nervous. She noticed he had dressed up for her. It made a small crack in the ice. They talked about the weather. It was spring but there was a hefty wind blowing from the west off of the Hudson. He had thought about walking the High Line if things went well. He was now racing ahead in his mind trying to figure out a plan B.
They crowded into the elevator on their way to the top floor. They had decided to start there and then work their way down. He was happy she hadn't decided to bolt with some pre-prepared excuse she might have composed if her first impression wasn't good. The crowded elevator took the pressure off of immediate conversation. There's a written code of museum conduct requiring you whisper. It was comforting for both of them to have small talk in hushed tones. It made the risk of saying something awkward less likely.
They took their time walking from gallery to gallery trying to be adult when it came to the nude photography. The naked bodies made him uncomfortable. She was hoping he might loosen up. She wanted to be able to laugh. If it had been with someone she knew better she would have.
He asked her if she'd take a picture of him when they came up to Gary Simmons' piece: Lineup. He was hoping she'd see the measure of him through the camera's lens. He pulled out his iPhone and handed it to her. She gave it back and took out her own phone.
There was nothing self-conscious about their relationship. Their world reached no further than the embrace of their arms. It was as if they wore an invisibility cloak that shielded their view of the world rather than the world's view of them. There wasn't anything particularly erotic in the painting but Muriel couldn't help whispering her vision of the art on the wall into Cindy's ear, Cindy's white hair moving ever so slightly as words like rounded curves slid over her fleshy lob, the one holding the dangling silver earring. The softest sound coming back to Muriel from the tiny earring was like a wind chime tinkling the song of a lover's caress. Where others saw fruit and leaves in the painting in front of them Muriel saw passion and desire bursting like a squeezed ripe fig dripping sex down the wall and spilling onto the floor.
I tried to talk to her when I thought no one was looking. I did most of the talking my mouth moving like a ventriloquist's the words spoken at such a high pitch I thought only a dog could hear. Yet the dog at her feet made no move to acknowledge the sound of my silent voice and she never met my eyes. I wanted her to hear my story. I wanted to know if the letters she was reading were my letters. The ones I hadn't sent. The ones I held back. The ones that now would be too late for her to hear. I know she's not my mom. I know the dog isn't our old dog, Harry. I know she sits there only a wire substructure covered in wax and tinted to look like flesh yet I want to tell her so much I never said when she could have heard me. I thought maybe this wax figure could be the medium, the whisperer in the ear of my mother telling her how her sense of humor put endless smiles on my soul, how her energy inspired me, how much I loved her. She now sits like Duane Hanson's sculpture looking but not seeing, listening but not hearing, ravaged by Alzheimer's. I bent over the line to whisper "I loved you" but the alarm went off. A security guard asked me to move on.
Baptism in Kansas, 1928
John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946,
First Artist in Residence at the Agricultural College of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Part of the permanent collect at the New Whitney, NYC
Theses stories were written as an exercise in flash fiction writing where I give myself a limited time frame (3-4 hours) to construct stories on photos I’ve taken while walking through the museum. The people photographed have no connection to the stories. The scenarios are completely made up. My apologies to anyone depicted in the photos.

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