There’s a tickle in my nose from Mrs. Easton’s perfume. If I were to sneeze right now, I’d spray about sixteen thousand dollars’ worth of diamonds with a cavalcade of snot. There would be something wonderfully Duchampian about that, but the reference would probably go over her head. In the last ten minutes she’s managed to thoroughly misinterpret half my paintings, cite a museum exhibit I was never in, and drip champagne on my shoes. (Not that they’re particularly nice shoes, but it’s the principle of the thing.)
But she’s got money. And she likes my work. So I’m gritting my teeth, smiling, and nodding.
I catch the gallerist’s eye across the room. He gives me a quick half-smile, and his eyes roll towards the ceiling, and I know what he means. Persevere, man. It’s always the same, these openings, schmoozing and smarming and pretending you’re as intelligent as the artist statement written by some unpaid intern with a master’s degree in postmodernist batshittery makes you sound.
“The birds are such deep symbols, my dear,” says Mrs. Easton, paraphrasing said statement, “such icons of the contemporary fettering of freedom, emblems of the shackling of the proletariat imagination!”
I only smile once more, say, “I’m so glad you think so,” and drain my glass of wine in one gulp.
All of my paintings are surrounded by little knots of painfully fashionable people, some in expensive clothing trying to look inexpensive and eating nothing, and some in inexpensive clothing trying to look as though free wine and cheese isn’t their dinner while simultaneously eating as much of it as possible. No one’s really looking at the art. They’re all too busy looking at each other. Fancy statement, suave gallery, whatever. They don’t make a difference, my paintings, they won’t reach these people, won’t make them stop and wonder and just fucking think even for a second. Not one painting has eyes on it.
No. Wait. One does.
All the way at the end of the gallery, in front of the last little painting on the very back wall next to the bathrooms, there is a little girl, and she is gazing up at it as if nothing else exists in the world.
Who brings a little girl to an art opening? I don’t know. I don’t see any parents, no nattily-dressed hipsters determined to ensure their precious snowflake gets exposed to Culture. (Or at least the kind of culture that’s palatable to white people determined to ignore the corrupt sociopolitical inequities of the art world. But I digress.)
Anyway. She’s all alone, this kid, and she’s the only person in the gallery who’s even bothering to look.
She’s gazing up at the smallest painting in the room.
“Excuse me,” I say, interrupting Mrs. Easton mid-sentence, and walk away as she sputters.
The girl’s stare doesn’t break when I come up next to her. Her eyes are wide, pupils moving from left to right and back again, from corner to corner, lingering on one spot and then sweeping across to another.
It’s one of the smallest, but it’s one of my favorites. Birds erupt from empty space inside a shell of human skin, discarded and crumpling away like a paper towel onto to the ground; birds in blue and gray and brown shoot up from the husk of flesh into a blackening night sky studded with stars, flying free and leaving the earth behind.
We look together, me following her gaze, until she turns her face up towards mine. Her fingers twist inside the pockets of her coat, one strand of hair falling loose from a red barrette clipped at her temple.
“You painted this?” she asks me.
“I’m a painter. I paint.”
“I know that,” she says. “But why paint this? Is it real?”
“Real?” I goggle at her. I am about to say it’s all a symbol, parrot the words that someone else put in my mouth back at her, feed her the lines they fed me to make my art seem more complex, academic, acceptable.
But I feel the words forming on my tongue and it’s like the lie is oil bubbling up from my throat, slick and oozing and black, viscous and sour-tasting.
Of course it’s not real, not literally. I never spread my wings and took flight, never shed my skin like a snake.
But I remember when it seemed real.
Back when swings went so high I could see over the top of the pole, and I’d close my eyes as I went down and up again, waiting for that instant when the bottom dropped out of my stomach and I would let go, leaping, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t hit the ground again. When I climbed to the tops of trees and spread my arms wide to feel the wind roar past them, wondering if this time it would catch feathers instead of skin, if wings would billow out instead of the polyester sleeves of my jacket. When I blew out the candles on my birthday cake and wished, every year, that this would be the year I would wake up and find myself able to skim the treetops, dance over the steeple of the church down the road, whirl through clouds and come out dripping, soaking, but laughing, all with nothing but hundreds of feet of air between the soles of my shoes and the ground.
At this girl’s age all I ever wanted was to fly. Silly, really, just a dream, nothing that could ever really happen, but when you’re that age you believe it can if you want it enough.
And that’s all this painting is about. Symbols, but not of contemporary fettering or any of that nonsense
Mrs. Easton spouted. Just a memory of an unfulfilled wish.
The girl stares at me, puppy-like with her eyes wide and head cocked slightly to the left, and I don’t know how to answer her. So I don’t. I just stand there, spinning my empty wine-glass in between thumb and forefinger.
“I think,” she says just as the silence begins to creep with icy feet down my spine, her eyes darting back to the painting, “that once upon a time maybe you did know how to fly and you just forgot how.”
Her hands sweep up out of her pockets to link at the thumbs and she flutters them across the surface of the canvas, their shadow fluttering over the shining oils like a bird flapping away.
“And I think you’re sad about it,” she says.
I hear, “I am,” and it isn’t until she nods that I realize I am the one who’s spoken.
“Me too,” she says, and her bird-shadows take one last swoop over the wall and canvas before she walks away as abruptly as I did to Mrs. Easton a moment ago, vanishing into one of the knots of chattering gallery-goers. I look down into the empty wineglass and back up at the painting, and a strange feeling wells up inside me.
It isn’t until Mrs. Easton’s cornered me again half an hour later and started in on further misinterpretations that I realize what it was: relief.
Maybe I haven’t forgotten after all.