The Art of Life

 
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I thought it was gonna be great. I’d make friends, I’d be invited to parties. My self-discipline and strict personal goals would be admired here, not ridiculed. I’d shed the nerdy girl image the boys overlooked. But nothing was turning out the way I imagined. College sucked.

My roommate hated me. My classes weren’t challenging, I found myself on my own surrounded by strangers and too much time on my hands. I needed something to distract me, something to throw myself into. I found art. 

I walked across campus to the Lehman Museum of Art. I flashed my student ID to the girl behind the registration desk but she barely glanced my way. She didn’t need to. She’d seen me every Thursday afternoon since classes started six weeks ago.

The place was near perfect silence with only the occasional swish of the doors or the glide of a shoe across the floor. I stashed my backpack in a locker and walked eagerly toward the modern art exhibit.

I viewed the same exhibits every week, but I'd look at them again as if seeing them for the first time. My habit was to read the description posted on the wall, draw close to the artwork, then step back. I would repeat this pattern as I worked my way clockwise around the room. 

I was about a quarter of the way around when I became aware of another person in the exhibit. Not like the subtle feeling you get when you know you’re not alone. No, I became aware because this person wasn’t moving around quietly, enjoying the exhibit in an orderly way. This person stomped noisily, crisscrossing from one side to the other.

I looked in the direction of the movement to see who was disturbing me. It was a male student with a black backpack. He was studying a strange-looking work that resembled a lump of soiled toilet paper to me - it was called Tranquility. No matter how many times I read the artist’s inspiration, no matter where I was standing, I could never find tranquility, only toilet paper.  

I’d seen him around campus. He was one of the dozen impossibly handsome guys who played soccer in the quad on Saturday mornings. My roommate set her alarm and made me go with her once to watch. That was in the beginning, when we were still trying to be friends.

He was tall and skinny, but had broad shoulders and nice posture. His dark hair was a mess of wavy curls. He wore faded jeans that hung low on his hips, a grey t-shirt that showed off some nicely muscled arms, and scuffed up black motorcycle boots.

He shifted his backpack and looked over his shoulder at me. The corner of his mouth pulled up and he gave me one of those head bob greetings. His green eyes locked in on mine and stayed there too long. I felt my face flush. I shot him an irritated glance then turned my back on him. 

He crossed the room in my direction and stopped behind me. I pretended to be studying the painting, hoping he would move on. After a few anxious minutes - maybe it was only a few seconds - he spoke.

“What are you thinking?”

The boom of his deep voice startled me. I jerked my head in his direction and furrowed my brow.

“What?” I said, in an appropriately hushed voice. 

“When you look at this, what are you thinking?” His voice, still at full volume, echoed off the art-clad walls. He nodded his head in the direction of the work in front of me and cocked his head. 

I looked back at the painting. He slid up to stand shoulder to shoulder with me. He was standing too close but I fought the urge to move. I forced my attention back to the painting but my mind was blank. I cut my gaze to the description posted on the wall. I read it moments before but couldn’t remember what it said. 

“The movement and asymmetrical balance indicate chaos and disorder,” I said with a quiet certainty I didn’t possess. Thank god I came up with something to say. My response sounded so intelligent.

“Wrong,” he said, shaking his head.

Wrong?

I watched him cross the room feeling both embarrassed and enraged by his intrusion. He considered the toilet paper work again, his hands clasped behind his back. A moment later, he tipped his head back and laughed. “Perfect,” he said. He walked heavy-footed out of the exhibit. I couldn’t help but turn to watch him leave. 

I tried to pick up where I left off but I couldn’t. I crossed the room to Tranquility. I searched, looking for what he had discovered, but saw the same thing I saw every time. Wrong? What did he mean I was wrong? My stomach twisted. 

I should have known college would be different. That I wouldn’t be the smartest one anymore. But when you live in a small town and you’re at the top of your class every year, you start thinking you’re something special. With that one simple word, he put me in my place. 

But why should I care what he thought anyway? He didn't look like he knew about art. Plus you weren’t allowed to carry backpacks in the museum. The girl behind the reception desk would have told him when he came in. Maybe he was her boyfriend, hanging around until she finish her shift, deciding to screw with me while he waited. 

It didn’t matter what he was up to, it was too late. I’d have to start over if there was any hope to get back into my routine. I wasn’t motivated.

If I were honest I’d admit that I didn’t appreciate modern art very much, at least not yet. I preferred the European Art section. It was filled with religious depictions, portraits, and still lifes that were exactly what they said they were - David with the Head of Goliath, A Man with a Quilted Sleeve, or Breakfast Still Life with Meat Pie, Lemon and Bread. There weren’t any hidden meanings, no looking for tranquility in a lump of toilet paper.

That guy thought he’d mess with me but he did me a favor. His interruption gave me an excuse to move on from modern art to where I really wanted to be. I hurried up the steps as if getting away with something. I began my rotation around the European Art exhibit in complete solitude and peace. I didn’t hear him approach until he stood right next to me. 

“Tell me about this one,” he said, nodding to the dark scene in front of us. 

“It’s the fear of death, the final reckoning,” I said. He could screw with me in modern art but not here.

“How do you figure?”

“The illumination on the woman tied to the post, her nakedness, the way her skin looks almost transparent. The artist is saying that in the end you'll be exposed for your sins.”

He cocked his head as if I were speaking a language he didn’t understand.

I knew he was trying to rattle me but I had this one. “Then there’s Satan himself,” I said pointing to the scaled, spear-wielding demon. “It’s obvious.”

“Obvious?” He chuckled, his playful green eyes locked in on mine. “I agree with you there. It’s obvious just not the way you described it. Look again.”

I leaned, searching for what he saw that I didn’t. 

“Look at her submissive eyes,” he said, “look at her flushed cheeks.”

I furrowed my brow.

“Look at her beaded nipples,” he said.

I was no longer looking at the painting, I was searching his profile for a clue. 

“She’s turned on,” he said, still staring at the painting, “it’s obvious.”

“No, she isn’t,” I said in disbelief, my voice rising to an uncomfortable volume. “She’s terrified. Her arms are shackled behind her. She’s completely naked, completely at his mercy.”

“Yeah, she’s definitely into bondage.” He turned and gave me a lopsided grin. 

I was mesmerized by his good looks, confused by his attention, and baffled by the joy he was taking by challenging me. I was also mad as hell. 

“Why are you bothering me?” I asked, pushing my bangs away from my eyes. 

“Bothering you?” 

“Don’t you have something better to do while you wait for your girlfriend?”

“My girlfriend?”

“Downstairs?” I said, pointing in the general direction.  

He looked at me sideways and shook his head. “Not following you.”

The corner of his mouth pulled up in a smirk revealing a dimple in his unshaven cheek.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to piss me off or if he wanted something else.

“You’re not supposed to have a backpack in here,” I said in a half-hearted attempt to explain my assumption.

He grabbed the straps of his backpack and looked me in the eye. “You have a lot of rules.”

“Not mine, the museum’s. You’re supposed to put it in one of the lockers downstairs.”

“Downstairs? Where my girlfriend is?” He laughed, showing off his perfect smile. 

My stomach did a little flip flop when he smiled at me but I wouldn’t fall for it. I’d been fooled by guys before, thinking they were interested in me only to find out they needed help with their chemistry homework.

I raised a dark eyebrow. “What do you want?”  

“I’ve seen you in here before,” he said.

“I’ve never seen you.”

“That’s because you only see what you want to see. I’m Tyler. Your name’s Hannah, right?”

I looked into his amused eyes and nodded. I would remember being introduced to someone that looked like him. Suspicion gripped me.

“How do you know my name?” 

“You walk around here like you’re at a funeral, Hannah,” he said, “like you’re looking at someone in a casket.”

“Why are you saying that? Just because I’m respectful of where I am?”

“You’re only seeing the shell of the artist, you’re not seeing the passion, the flesh and blood.”

I glanced around the room. The quietness, the still air, the empty benches that I usually found comforting, now felt sort of stifling.

“You know that these artists you’re adoring were real men, right?” he said. 

I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t think they were aliens.”

“That’s not what I mean," he said, shaking his head as he held my gaze. "They ate, they slept, they farted, they burped, they scratched their asses, they got drunk, they took drugs, they had torrid, sometimes very deviant sexual desires.”

I wanted to say something smart, to put him in his place. “So?” I said. Where were my finely honed debate skills when I needed them? 

“So you need to stop thinking them superhuman. They were just guys - like me.”

My eyebrows slid up. “Like you?”

“Yeah, like me.”

“You paint?”

“No, I’m in a band.”

I snorted. I couldn’t help it. I snorted then started giggling.

“What’s so funny?” he said.

“You are. You think you’re like Michelangelo, Cézanne, Matisse?” 

“In a way I am. I’m creating art, just a different kind.”

“Not following you,” I said, shaking my head. 

He looked amused by my mockery. 

“Look at this next painting,” he said, nudging me over a few feet with a bump of his shoulder. 

His innocent touch sent my heart racing. I forced myself to focus on the painting in front of us. It was a Caravaggio. A portrait of a young man with dark curly hair. 

“It looks like you,” I said.

“Does it?" He leaned in and studied it. "That’s not what I want you to notice.”

I looked a little closer. The young man was draped in a white sheet, holding a basket of fruit. He had a wistful gaze and a smile that hinted of intimacy. I knew what Tyler was going to say before he said it.

“No doubt Caravaggio was gay.”

“And why does that matter?”

“It doesn’t, I’m just trying to make a point. Caravaggio didn’t paint these images to hang in some sterile environment, for people to fuss over, to discuss his technique. He painted beautiful men to look at, to enjoy.”

He had a point but for whatever reason I didn’t want to agree with him. "Okay?"

He ran a hand over his stubbled chin and locked eyes with me. My heart rate climbed. Finally, he pressed his lips together and sighed.

“Moving on,” he said, tipping his head to the side.

When I didn’t move he bumped me with his shoulder again. He wasn’t the only one having a little fun.

We stood in front of a Rubens, a gathering of nude women in a clearing. 

“It’s safe to say Rubens liked women,” he said.

I felt embarrassed to be gazing at this painting with him. Women in various states of undress were all over the walls. It wasn’t that.

Where other artists created idealized images of women, Rubens captured reality. Every crease, every bump and bit of cellulite that would make me cringe to see in my own bathroom mirror was lovingly captured, reverently perfect in the imperfect. I felt like a voyeur. 

“Could you imagine Rubens meeting the Kardashians?” Tyler said. “He would have been in heaven - he loved him some big asses.”  

I put my hand over my mouth to stifle a giggle. “Are you finished now?” 

He reached up and pulled my hand from in front of my face. “You have a beautiful smile. You shouldn’t hide it.”

The touch of his hand on mine, the way he was looking at me had me spinning. My instinct to protect myself kicked in. “Why are you doing this?” I said. 

“Why do guys do anything?” he said, shrugging his shoulder. His eyes traced a line from my face to the floor and back. 

A couple wandered into the room and distracted us. They stopped at the first painting next to the doorway. The man was whispering, gesturing at the painting.

“Look,” Tyler said, “it makes me crazy.”

I glanced toward the couple then back to him. What? I mouthed. 

“That guy over there,” he said pointing with his chin. “He’s probably trying to impress her with some intellectual bullshit when he doesn’t even see the dick.”

My jaw dropped. “The dick?” 

“Yeah, right in his face.”

“I don’t see it,” I said. 

Tyler looked at me like I was disappointing him.

“The only thing these guys liked better than painting their sexual desires was their own junk. Look around you.”

Apart from a few depictions in Michelangelo’s work, I didn’t remember seeing many penises. I certainly didn’t see what he was talking about in the painting the couple was studying.

Tyler looked at me. “Don’t be so literal. You know artists hid things in their work, don’t you?”

I knew about the hidden images in the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling. Were there more? I scanned the paintings I loved, the ones I studied, the ones that brought me joy. I noticed a few triangular shapes. I knew an upward pointing triangle was a pagan symbol for man. But that couldn’t be what he was talking about.

I wandered over to the painting the couple had been looking at. Right there in front, right where Tyler said, tucked into a trailing vine hung a gourd that had a shockingly familiar shape. I traced along the walls scrutinizing every canvas, noticing towering structures, trunks of trees, even cherubs that took on the shape. Everywhere I looked I saw penises. 

“You see it now, don’t you?”

I stared incredulously around the room. 

“Now look at this one,” he said. 

My mind was numb. I was thrown off by what Tyler was revealing to me. My world was upside down. 

He grabbed my hand and led me to a beautiful Cézanne. It’s one I’d seen so many times before. It was a still life, a table filled with fruit, delectable in its realism, glistening with moisture. 

“Really look at it,” he said.

I looked up close, noting the beautiful soft brush strokes. I stood back and took in the fore and backgrounds. I melted into the image and felt the passion. I stood mesmerized by the imagery, every piece of fruit a representation of a part of a woman’s body.

I threw my hands up in surrender. “You’re right,” I said in disbelief, “it’s all about sex.”

Tyler smirked and shook his head.

“Nah,” he said. “The dude loved fruit.”

He burst out laughing. It was irresistible and infectious. I couldn’t help but join in. 

“Tyler,” registration girl said. She was across the room chewing on her thumbnail.

Tyler tipped his head in her direction. "Sister,” he said, shrugging his shoulder. “Gotta drive her across campus.”

I felt my stomach drop. I didn't want him to go.

“Thanks for the art lesson,” I said shoving my hand awkwardly in his direction. 

He looked down at it and shook his head. “Nah, uh,” he said. “I’m not letting you off that easy.”

I pulled my hand back. 

“You owe me,” he said. 

I should have known better. “I owe you?” I asked, arching my brow.

I was ready to let him have it, to tell him what a jerk he was for messing with me.

He cocked his head and smiled. “I just spent the afternoon in this stuffy place just so I could talk to you and you’re blowing me off?”

“What do you want?” I said, the starch suddenly gone from my voice. 

Tyler stepped in close and looked down into my eyes. “I think it’s obvious.”

 

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash