curving staircase in art gallery full of visitors

Woman Behind Glass

She was not afraid to walk beneath the towering structures of dinosaur bones, held together by wire that was made to be invisible. She moved slowly. She was in no hurry. Before looking at an exhibit she examined the plaque intently, then took two steps back and surveyed the thing with an air of a judge trying to read the face of her defendant. For several minutes she stood before the axolotl tank, gazing in bemusement at their smiling little faces. The few other people in the room surged past her in their haste to get to the end.

The museum was constructed like a donut, with long, narrow rooms forming concentric circles around the core. The outermost exhibits had floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a panoramic view of the city, not that there was much of a view most days. The interior walls were windows, some sort of translucent glass, that looked out onto a courtyard. She worked through the exhibits methodically, bottom to top, outside to in. Some people wore the little headsets with the museum guide inside them, but she preferred to read the plaques.

Somewhere around the third floor, though, the little engraved letters started to swim. Her body wasn’t tired, but her eyes were. She’d just lay down and rest them for a moment, she decided, after squinting her way through a few more exhibits. She was already in the primate section, plenty of time to see everything before lunch.

She walked until she’d found an empty room and laid down on a bench in the center. Facing her was a life-sized bust of the first known australopithecine, cast in plaster, with a plaque that just said “Lucy.” She rolled over. White wall, brass heater. Better.

Beneath the baleful gaze of the simian creature at her back she drifted off into a fitful sleep, the sort of rest one might get on an economy class red-eye to Bangkok. When she woke, mouth dry, sand in her eyes, a small crowd of people had gathered around her.

The woman sat up quickly and gave them a bashful smile, as if to say ‘Hey, three kids and two small dogs, what’s a girl to do, gotta take it where you can get it, right?’ and, hoisting her purse up onto her shoulder, she walked straight into a wall of glass.

A soft titter rustled through the crowd. The woman laughed, too. Ha ha, very funny, very slapstick, so Charlie Chaplin, how did that get there? She turned to leave the other way. Three steps and she stopped short, realizing just in time that another glass wall had been erected parallel to the first. She looked left, then right: glass on either side, glass in a perfect cube all around her. Inside it was just her and the bench.

The other museum-goers pointed at her, murmuring to one another. She caught the eye of a bespectacled man and rapped politely on the glass. “Excuse me, sir, could you help me get out of here?” she called.

His eyes widened and he turned in glee to his two companions, a paunchy middle-aged woman and a young man who must have been their son. He pointed at the caged woman, laughing in delight, and said something in German. She knocked again.

“Excuse me, sir! You’re being very rude,” she said. “Please help me get out of here, I need to pick my children up from daycare, I need to get out of this cage.”

He turned back to her and cupped his hand to his ear in an exaggerated motion, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses: I can’t hear you. She repeated her lines, louder this time. Still he pretended not to hear. The woman whirled around and went to the other side of the cage.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said to an elderly lady wearing a rhinestone tiara. “Can you hear me?” The lady’s hand flew to her chest and she started back, her eyes widening at the sudden address.

The caged woman looked down at herself – she was just as she had been that morning, a little rumpled perhaps, but certainly not worthy of such alarm. The poppyseed of anger that had sprouted in her gut swelled and pushed out leaves.

“WOULD SOMEONE GET ME OUT OF HERE?!” the woman shouted at no one in particular, though she was quite certain now that her voice couldn’t carry through the glass. Everyone laughed.

She began to scream, to strike out against the walls with her fists. People scrambled for their cameras.

The adrenaline had just begun to seep from her body when a man in the beige uniform of the museum pushed his way through the crowd to the wall of the cage. The woman ran in relief to meet him. Her knuckles were raw, her face was crusted over with snot and tears. When she wiped her nose with the back of her hand she left a smear of blood like war paint.

“Please,” she begged, “Please get me out of here, please, it’s so horrible, no one will help me, no one will listen to me, I’ve really got to get out of here, my husband will be worried, I’ve got to pick my kids up from school, please help me, I just fell asleep here and I woke up and there were these walls and all these people around me taking pictures, can you get me out of here?”

The museum attendant watched her intently, nodding every few words.

“Can you hear me?”

He nodded, and pulled a notepad out of his pants pocket. He wrote something down, tucked it away, and left. The caged woman sank to the floor. Now that her fury had abated people were beginning to drift on, though a sizable clump still stood around her enclosure. She stared dismally back at them.

Some time later, the woman spotted the museum attendant weaving back through the crowd. She stood up, relieved. Finally an end to this… whatever this was: a mistake, or a joke, or some sick social experiment.

A bucket was swinging from his hand. What was that? He came over to the cage and pressed his hand to the glass. A slab of wall seemed to retract into itself, leaving a gap the size of a microwave. The woman lunged towards it, though of course she’d never have fit, not after two kids.

Alarmed, the attendant threw the bucket inside. It landed on its side and spilled its contents all over the floor – hard brown pebbles like dog kibbles. “Eat,” he said, and slapped his hand to the glass. The gap closed, encasing her once again in silence. The woman sank to her knees. People giggled noiselessly and flashed their cameras.

The woman crawled back and curled up beneath the bench. It was poor shelter, but better than nothing. Maybe if she stayed in the fetal position people would get bored and leave her alone, the way people got bored with the anaconda when he hid underwater all day with only his eyes peeping out. All she could see now were peoples’ shoes.

They walked up to the edge of the cage, stood pointing towards her for a moment, then turned and went on their way. Tennis shoes, loafers, light-up sneakers. It seemed to her that the shoes came in cycles, repeating themselves every hundred pairs or so. Time wasn’t real, anyway, under that artificial light.

A dull ache began to grow inside of her. How long had it been since she’d eaten? She’d given up on breakfast since her last high school reunion, and dinner last night had been – what? Hamburger Helper? The vilest concoction, but her stomach still rumbled at the thought. She couldn’t – wouldn’t – eat these pellets. They looked like what she fed the dogs. And so she laid there – it would be best to lie still, she thought, to conserve energy.

A diminutive pair of mary-janes outside her cage was all of a sudden joined by a half-eaten orange popsicle. The girl’s mother stooped to pick it up, trying to wipe the floor with the side of her hand, and clearly trying to console her daughter. The caged woman shut her eyes. Her hunger was yawning, cavernous. But she wouldn’t eat the pellets, not even if it meant starving here.

They would let her out, eventually, wouldn’t they? Yes, of course they would, and she’d walk calmly down to her car and get off the highway at Exit 22, and she’d order enough food at Panda Express to feed a whole family. Orange chicken, fried rice, pork rinds, egg rolls, chow mein – she swallowed a mouthful of saliva. And she’d eat it, yes, she’d eat it right there in the parking lot using all five of the cutlery sets she’d asked for, one for each dish, and she’d watch people pass through her tinted windows, and then she’d go home to see her family… The thought only gave edges to her hunger. It felt as if her stomach were slowly consuming itself, gnawing at her insides like a living creature.

She stared at the sticky, half-dried puddle left by the popsicle. If only she could lick it off, the sweet artificial orange tinged with grime, anything besides the taste of her own saliva.

She stared at the handful of pellets that had landed next to the bench. Maybe they tasted better than they looked? But she didn’t care what they tasted like, of course. There were so many feet outside. Maybe she could try them, if only no one would see… she lay in wait. Sometimes there were lots of feet, sometimes hardly any. They came in fits and spurts.

A few times it dwindled down to just three or four pairs, but then while they stood pointing towards her a new throng would come and the woman was overcome with frustration, cursing the owners of those feet for waiting so long, it wasn’t like she was anything to look at, curled up under this bench. But finally, all she could see in front of her was a pair of scuffed brown boots, and they were pointing the other way.

She lurched forward, scooped up a handful of pellets, and shoved them into her mouth. At first she almost gagged – they were bland and chalky, faintly sweet, like the tablets she used to take for constipation. But they were food, they were beyond doubt food, and she scrambled forward to grub up more. All she could think of was filling her belly as quickly as possible. Hot tears leaked from her eyes as she crammed handful after handful into her mouth.

She took the bucket upside down and shook it, but there were none left. She’d eaten it all. Though it hadn’t seemed like much, her stomach felt tight and swollen. She looked up to the floor outside and felt bile rise in her throat. It was crowded – no, thronged – with shoes, all sorts of shoes, all straining towards her. She raised a quivering hand to her face and wiped away the sheen of saliva and crumbs. She didn’t dare to look up further. It was enough to see the camera flashes, brief spasms of light; she was certain that she’d die if she met their eyes.

Feeling heavy and bloated, she dragged herself to her former position under the bench. But no matter how long she lay there, the shoes didn’t leave, or turn away; people simply stood there staring at her. She felt tears of shame rise unbidden to her eyes. She felt sick. But no, not just emotionally sick, not just disgusted with herself, her stomach began to churn the way it had churned when she was twelve and was left home alone by herself and ate the entire box of donuts meant for the tennis bake sale and vomited on the rug and laid there until her parents came home. The discomfort sank into her pelvis, into her lower intestine, oh. She clenched her eyes shut in her effort to hold it all in. She’d had a fever that night. She remembered feeling, quite vividly, as if there were seven copies of the state of Illinois roiling around in her belly. Why, she didn’t know. Now, with all the shoes and their beady little eyes she felt it all again, her forehead hot, but this time there were nine, and they grew larger and larger and rose up into her throat.

She could hear the distant sound of laughter as she vomited on the floor. It was chunky, full of half-digested pellets, and followed by a hot surge in the seat of her pants. The cage reeked, but the woman was so clogged up from crying that she hardly even noticed. She spewed again and propped herself up on her elbows, retching out what was left. She crumpled back onto the floor. Her thighs chafed and her mouth tasted like shit. She was shaking. A hundred pairs of eyes drilled holes in her, all the way through to the opposite side. She laid there for what felt like forever.

“So I hear the refreshments didn’t agree with you, eh?”

A door opened in the side of the cage, a full-sized one this time, and a pair of brown loafers approached her. The woman stared at the opening but didn’t move. The attendant knelt beside her and tugged at her arm.

“Well, come on then, we won’t keep you if you’re feeling ill. Come on.” He was insistent.

The woman allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. He led her out of the cage. The crowd gave them a wide berth, no doubt because of the smell. She kept her eyes down. The attendant lapsed into silence, and in silence they walked down the stairs, into the lobby, and out into the sun-drenched parking lot. It couldn’t have been past three in the afternoon.

“Well, I trust you can get yourself home alright from here,” said the attendant. He released her arm and wiped his hand on the front of his pants. The woman looked at him dully. He met her eyes for a moment. And with that he turned on his heel and walked quickly back into the air-conditioned museum.

The woman stared at his receding figure for a moment before returning her gaze to the even rows of cars. She felt strange, exposed, in the blazing expanse of asphalt. The feeling of being observed lingered as if it’d been grafted to her skin.

She stood until she saw a family emerging from the sliding-doors. Then she hurried back to her car, hyperaware of the stain on her pants and the dried vomit on the front of her shirt. Fumbling only a little bit with the key, she unlocked the door and slipped inside. It was uncomfortably hot in there, despite the tinted windows that should’ve kept the sun at bay.

She turned the car on for just long enough to roll down the windows, then took the key out of the ignition so as not to waste gas. She wasn’t ready to go home yet. Out of habit she glanced at herself in the rearview mirror. Oh, no, she was a wreck. Her makeup was smeared all under her eyes, her hair a tangled mat, and the lower half of her face was caked with vomit.

She tried to wipe herself off with the napkins crumpled up in the cupholder, but it was no use. She glanced at the open windows with sudden panic. She couldn’t let people see her like this. With a trembling hand she turned the car on, rolled up the windows, and turned it off again. Despite the heat she felt a stirring relief as the dark glass slid up, concealing her. She looked down at her clothes. The front of her shirt was even filthier than her face, and the dark stain below had spread all the way forward to the crotch of her pants. Her thighs itched and chafed. She’d certainly get some sort of infection, unless… well, why not?

The woman glanced up to the windows, as if to ensure that they hadn’t rolled down of their own accord, and wriggled out of her pants. Oh, it felt so good to be out of those sausage-cases; her thighs, pale and pocked with cellulite, oozed out onto the patent-leather seats.

To think that the people passing by outside had no idea that she… she! a respected bank teller and mother of three!… was sitting there in her car with her pants around her ankles! She kicked them off and rolled them up into a ball. She pulled her shirt up over her head. There!

She looked down at the three rolls of fat that bulged over the waistband of her panties and smiled. She squeezed them with her hands. When she was in her twenties, when she hardly had any fat there at all, she used to squeeze her stomach into a little mouth and talk to her husband with it, to his infinite amusement. Now she made the mouth again, she could’ve made two.

“Feed me,” she said in her stomach-monster voice. What little air there was inside the car felt heavenly on her exposed skin. She took her bra off, then her panties, and made herself comfortable in the driver’s seat. For a long time she sat there as the sweat pooled between her breasts, gazing out through the one-way glass.