painting Blue Dancers (1897) by Edgar Degas
Blue Dancers (1897) by Edgar Degas

She was only able to think of three things to do and she’d done them all so many times but she was doing one of them again – she was going to the art museum. Because like a robot she was trained to believe you should go see art so she was locked into lifeless plodding from Lexington Ave. to Fifth Ave. to get to the museum.

Hatred. She hated the walk on 86th Street from Lexington to Fifth. Just when you were in the mood to start absorbing the meaning-stuffed caverns of the museum, you were forced to tromp wearyingly on deadening grey square after grey square of sidewalk, across aggressively blank, boring avenues, until you questioned your own aliveness and your choices.

There was no comfort. Seeing someone walking their dog just reminded you some people live near the great museum and don’t need to take four subways in an over-an-hour trip to get up there but “up” there is one thing – getting over to the grand avenue where the museum was was another matter. You were never ready for that silent plodding and miserable postponement of the thing you’d come for.

By the time you got to Fifth Ave. you were in such a bad mood the museum seemed like just one more chore. You’d forgotten all those steps. The grand building was so gargantuan you had to climb it like a pyramid. It was like being an ant at the foot of a pyramid.

Mesopotamia. Edmund had said there was a stunning piece in the Mesopotamia section. “It restored my sense of possibility,” he’d said. She loved that. She loved when people pointed to things that helped them and she would go anywhere, anywhere on earth, for a sense of possibility to be restored.

Where was Mesopotamia, though? Where was it in general, and where in the museum? She must be in Oceanic Art. Huge masks with straw poking out; elongated figures with spears. A massive canoe or something.

She was finally in the great museum after nearly two years lying in safe and smothering comfort. She had to find something meaningful – you had to keep your mind fresh with input – well, that had gone by the wayside.

Great Scott! What did you have to do to get a man’s attention these days? In the city it helped so much if you achieved things. But she was finding it impossible to get clarity on her series about buttons – a show set in a famous button store on Sixth Ave. where the proprietors were as grimly serious about their business as Tony Soprano but the currency was buttons. There would be many lovingly photographed close-ups of beautiful buttons as she’d decided the only pleasure left from narrative was sensual – a joy in the beauty of things.

The buttons would turn slowly in these close-ups (how, though? Someone would know how to do that, hopefully), revealing their rounded edges, their homey but artful contouring. And then what. She was always reaching the limits of her craft – there had to be characters worth following and there had to be actual stories, not just close-ups of buttons. Even if she could think of a few characters, what should they do? There was never an answer, for her own life or that of the sketchy figures she’d dreamed up.

She saw a Renoir of a smiling woman in dappled sunlight in a garden. That was in the Masterpiece Game. It was too known, too familiar a sight to give her any warmth. She saw a foggy sunset. Monet or Manet. That was also in the Masterpiece Game.

She should be able to find Mesopotamia. She hated to bother Edmund with a text asking where the show was. She’d go to the ends of the earth to not bother people, especially now. These days no one talked to anyone and it was extremely gauche to bust in on the privacy everyone had wrapped around themselves like soundproofing. Just, no one did it.

Edmund hadn’t told her personally about the Mesopotamia painting. He wrote it on the internet message board, how his trip to the museum had given him all kinds of life and hope. She read it with tears swimming in her eyes – life and hope! She would go to the ends of the – oh there was Gauguin. Now she didn’t know why but she hated Gauguin. His boxy shapes annoyed her, the flat colors too. Why was he so famous? He got so much space in every location. He was an absolute inevitability everywhere you went.

She was already tired because of that walk from the subway. And now she had to walk through Gauguin. She had a finite amount of energy so the arrangement felt abusive on the part of the museum.

She saw Edmund as a guide – she needed a lot of guides – but he wasn’t. He didn’t understand how his phone worked, for instance. His phone chimed once when they were talking and she said “What’s that?” and he said “I don’t know.” For that reason but already many others she loved him, had fallen in love with him. He was handsome and intense and never thought he was wrong about anything. They spent all day every day together because they worked in the same place. Edmund’s arrival on the bland carpet every day was like the descent of ____ from _____. His intelligent eyes and his smile in that obliterating sea of cubicles and off-tan walls were the warmth of _____ .

He was only a few blocks away but she would never disturb him. He was composing his beautiful stage plays. Or he was ordering cute boys from the internet. He kept himself happy and productive and that was his genius, in addition to his actual creations.

Why was she so interested in buttons? There wasn’t anything else to think about was the sad truth.

The stunning chalky torsos of towering nudes were suddenly surrounding her. Sun seemed baked into their broken limbs, you could imagine them drenched in it for centuries before someone jackhammered them off their bases and flew them to this city block. You were absolutely nothing in front of these things. No one was ever that big. And now their brave, noble postures seemed unkind. The visitors were in the second year of living as if a neutron bomb had gone off. No one even remembered what their body was like.

The buttons would carry it. That’s what she actually thought if anyone would listen to her. The buttons would be enough – they’d be the main thing. There would be characters, sure, but they weren’t that important. Everyone would be mesmerized by the buttons.

Edmund had laughed when she told him the button store idea, but not meanly. He made a joke about William James’s image cabinet that she didn’t get. It was never easy that he had gone to Harvard and quoted Pliny from time to time.

She could study the classics. She wasn’t helpless. It was easy to forget that in the museum, confronted by the finished products of so many people’s ideas.

She hadn’t known Edmund was gay when she fell in love with him. He just seemed like the brightest, sweetest man she’d ever met. And he talked to her all the time and took her into his confidence with quiet, sarcastic remarks about nearly every subject that came up. Edmund’s sweetness was cut with surprising venom. But that seemed perfect too. He was too intelligent not to see through everything. Her awareness about his preference came slowly, very slowly – it was like being the frog in the saucepan water that’s getting heated up. He said nothing about it, she just slowly knew.

“How old is he?” her sister Davna said wearily when she told her about Edmund. Because her attractions were mostly for younger men and the men didn’t return her interest. And her sister was tired of her being single! Well, wait till she told Davna Edmund was gay. She hadn’t said anything yet – Davna could be like the frog in the saucepan. But she’d stopped asking about Edmund as she stopped asking about all of C’s romantic interests. She thought they were all hopeless, apparently, and that did not do anything for general morale, C thought – it just didn’t help anything. But married people were physically incapable of imagining single people with hopes and longings. To married people, the single were obdurate, refuseniks, other.

Her legs ached. Giant red zigzags with daring swathes lashed over them just reminded her of the freedom of others. ‘So I’m lost here too,’ she thought, wafting through chamber after chamber with her fellow meaning-seekers, a ghostly horde in their face masks, peering and absorbing. In that way of people in museums, they appeared to be wonderfully receptive. They paused in front of artworks and gazed and what could be in their hearts except truth, understanding, new dimensions, enrichment?

Edmund would have made fun of them. Why couldn’t she be like him? She had such an unfortunate way of thinking and feeling. And being, don’t forget being.

She’d written a letter to the owner of a button store on Sixth Avenue, asking if she could film the pilot for a TV show in his store. To her shock, he called her on the phone.

“What kind of show is it?”

“It’ll have light moments but it’s mostly serious. It’s an hour-long show,” she said, snatching all this from thin air. She did not even have an outline, much less a script. “Like Six Feet Under, except with buttons.”

“Huh. Okay. I think I get it. What network are you with?”

“I’m not with a network. I’m doing this on a freelance basis,” she said, stunned he thought she might have network backing. In New York, people always thought you knew what you were doing. It was so odd.

“I don’t mean this the wrong way, but what’s in it for me?”

“It might be good publicity,” she gasped. She pictured the walls displaying rows of buttons, the cabinets with tiny drawers full of button varieties. She would have so many ways of dwelling on the charms in this magical world.

“We do our own publicity. Thanks but I don’t think it’s for us. Good luck with your show.”

So polite! New Yorkers also never burned bridges, just in case someone turned into someone. But she was chastened. Her assertiveness was never based on anything solid. It was exposing and produced shame.

It’s better not to try, she reminded herself. Here, among the throngs, she was a spectator, a receiver. I bend with the receivers to receive.

“It’s good you tried,” Edmund told her about the button store call, but that was just what people said. Her stabs at action always revealed she didn’t know how the world worked and was using dirty, broken plastic toys as tools.

“Next time you’ll be more prepared,” Edmund reassured her, because he was a supportive friend. She’d noticed he never suggested they get together outside of work, though. She wasn’t in the inner circle; she was waiting in the wings. She minded, faintly. Would he ever beckon her into his world?

How annoyed her sister would be if she knew how much time C spent thinking about Edmund. “Why waste energy on him?” she would bark. Results were what counted with Davna. Results made C feel faintly sick. Davna bustled through the world making things happen and just like when they were children, C watched in awe and failed to get anywhere.

Except New York. She’d gotten to New York and Davna loved to visit her there – she always wanted to go to the art museum, and the park, and specialty shops for her knitting, and to visit some eccentric knitting friend. New York’s giantism didn’t defeat Davna – she liked to swing along the sidewalk, her big sleeves swinging in time with her kaftan hem, and have the fulfilled feeling people seemed to get from the crushing skyscrapers, the ugly chain businesses, and the crowds of indifferent, morose people. This was joy, to Davna.

C tried – oh, she searched so hard. On the side streets she found the little pearls of the city. The only good things were in the side streets, she learned. That’s where you could hide from the city’s obsession with blighting heights. On street level were the small specialty stores selling hats, stockings or theater books. To get to the side streets you had to walk on the avenues and it was loud and crushing. There was always a feeling that you were just literally crushed to nothing, like the gum spots on the pavement. You couldn’t avoid them – you stared at them all day long – who didn’t feel like them?

“I’d rather watch a show about buttons than most of what’s on these days,” Edmund told her.

It felt like love. She asked if he’d like to go to a movie with her some weekend.

“In theory,” he said with his quick smile. His manners. “But I have a lot on this month. There’s the deadline for the New Dramatists Showcase and I have out-of-town friends visiting.”

Out-of-town friends he’d probably gone to college with, who could all joke about Pindar or whatever. These people would know how to get to Mesopotamia. They’d wear big, good-quality, unfashionable clothes and not care how they looked. C cared a lot how she looked though she never looked good – she lacked the knack.

To escape the crowds, she went into a smaller side gallery. It was full of Degas. She sat on a bench and gazed at the familiar ballet dancers and nudes, noticing no one he painted ever looked ready. The women getting into and out of tubs were bent at awkward angles; the ballet dancers had their limbs slung in waiting positions as others milled behind them. He seemed always to paint a scene of people not quite doing the things they did. Not women in baths; women getting into and out of baths. Not dancers in mid-flight; dancers waiting to dance.

A perception! An idea! A buzz like electricity! When she went close to read the placards, one of them said, in its airy, sans serif font, that Degas had been interested mainly in painting three things: ballerinas, laundresses, and women getting into and out of tubs. This statement, amply borne out by the artworks that surrounded her, shot into her bruised consciousness like a trumpet blast of joy. He had obsessions. He was locked into his obsessions! It wasn’t wrong, it wasn’t weak. It wasn’t a sign you weren’t a unique thinker. Degas was as famous as any of them. He was mentioned with the greatest of the greats. And here he was painting the same thing over and over. He was not well-balanced!

Imagine saying to the world, ‘This is all I want to do.’ And the world saying, ‘Smashing. You will be hailed as one of the century’s geniuses.’

She could leave now. She sped through the museum and out into the sunshine. A tumbling, thundering tenderness of noise and color engulfed her. The cart men sold hotdogs, lemonade, ice cream. There was a fountain springing up at regular intervals! And in their grey urns, spring flowers were voluble with intensity. They fairly throbbed, their scent wafting over occasionally as they surged with familiar but shocking strength and opened, opened.