*Notice/Caution - I don’t want to seem like I am spoon-feeding anything, but I want to explain my tense and dialogue choice (in case my future self reads this and cringes at me for using bad technique). Please forgive me (and brace yourselves) for the confusing shifts between past and present tense that will occur. Everything is written from a retrospective perspective, but I just wanted to experiment with the contrasting effects the past and present tense can have on a story. When she remembers seeing and interacting with the character and having that epiphany, I wanted her to be so present in the past that the tense shifts. As for the reported speech: I cannot replicate Donna Tartt’s bone-chilling dialogue in the prologue of The Secret History, and what I wrote is far from perfect. But I wanted to highlight the subjectivity and unreliability involved in the retrospective narrator. So future me, take note and please don’t get mad.
Plus, I welcome any feedback!
He slumps on one foot while the other rocks back and forth like a pendulum, sending ripples through the fuzzy maroon rope which fenced up the paintings. I doubt that he is remotely aware that he is leaning dangerously close to the artwork, or that the security staff grimaces rhythmically at every forward swing of his foot, ready to pounce if he moves any closer. To his relief, the leg brushes against the fence one last time, steps away, and curls itself around an oak bench, a smoothed-out seat glistening from years of acquaintance with the rough, sandpaper texture of jeans.
From my nearsighted eyes, it becomes all but a pointillist painting: the pixelated effect I imagine you’d arrive to if you take a transparent picture of the
Earth from space,
zoom in on this very art museum,
and circle to the wall opposite the man-sized boy mannequin that gives me the creeps. Trace the last bend of the waves reverberating down the fence; catch the dull, mustard-colored frame of the painting; glimpse the rings of halos from the light above his head; and finally him, camouflaged in the mundanity of it all. The soft curve of his curls distort into mosaic tiles; a rosy flush smears across his cheeks from blurred out pimples; shadows pool into the nook of his collarbone. Him, elbows on knees, frozen in the act of leaning forward
like a trembling swimmer on the diving board seconds before exploding through the surface of the water. Looking into this blur, I feel an intolerable urge to sit by him and religiously echo his posture as he studies the painting. But with it follows the second wave of despair, dread, and terror from haunting clarity that even then, I might as well be hypnotised by the spin of a yo-yo and he rolling his eyes at a chemistry experiment. Nor is there any use following his thoughts—all the words in the world could not articulate the honesty of a silent stir in the mind.
He stood up, and the momentary painting erupted into action. Time hurried to catch up with this accidental lapse as crowds swarmed around the paintings like flies around a rotting banana peel. Their headless movements interrupted my gaze, and he was engulfed by the humming wave of motion and crowds. It took me a while to find my footing—art museum, ground floor, gallery 3, behind that creepy statue. Absent-mindedly, I drifted over to the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus painting and glanced at the artist and description underneath. How could they still call an art theirs if it is reborn, repainted in a new mind every time an eye flickers upon them? If an artist knew all the meanings and interpretations their painting evoked in different people, they would probably be horrified enough to never pick up a paintbrush again, let alone hang it in a national gallery. I suppose Basil Howard had some sense hoarding his best art. The original meaning that he created behind it would not be watered down and diluted among the various interpretations of others. Only then, the artist can truly call an art their own, as it would exist in an universe where there is only one objective meaning behind the art, which is defined solely by the artist. Overwhelmed and slightly repulsed by this discovery, I stumbled through the entrance and sat on the top of the staircase.
The last mechanical cool of the AC radiating off the marble tiles left me. Stranded among the heat and the croaking cicadas, I began to debate whether to go inside or not. But I suppose I liked it out here, on the edge of the stairs, surrounded by blurred leather shoes and swinging handbags, people-watching. People are most beautiful when they are not looking at me, which is why I hate Instagram pictures, whoever’s in it. They always lock eyes with you through the screen, deliberate, aware, tight-up, on their tip-toes, with their fight-or-flight mode on or whatever. But looking through the tinted windows in a car, or an ignored corner in a room, or a busy street, there’s always the protection of invisibility, and then you start to overromancise the mundane. A matching two piece. Ashes falling off a cigarette from a flickering hand hanging outside the driver seat window. The curve of her calf muscles when she sits cross legged. A fading pedicure. This is what I feel like now, on the edge of the staircase, dissolving into oblivion.
A familiar voice pulls me back into existence—art gallery, top of the stairs. My heart throbs once, twice.
Cooling down after seeing that Icarus painting? he says. Tendrils of smoke from his cigarette cradles his jaw, disturbed by his sudden motion of sitting down beside me.
Hope you don’t mind it? he says, waving the tendrils of smoke that played with his hair away like an insect. I shake my head. The dull glow of his cigarette almost kisses his lips. A subdued grimace flashes across his face as he tries to bend his fractured finger to smudge the cigarette to ash. From my peripheral view, I became exceedingly aware that he was watching me. He had a pair of the most intense eyes, studded with a hot shimmer, like sunlight striking off the hood of a hearse. Dimmed by the soft curves of his eyelashes, the pupil often dissolved into the muddy darkness of the iris. Seeing my gaze fixed on the finger splint, he responds:
Parkour. Always end up trying too hard. It’s not like I can help it.
No. Didn’t think I would see you here, Dion.
Neither did I, but I’ve already been surprised twice and it’s only late morning. Once by myself, and the other by seeing you. What brings you here?
The paintings, I shrug.
Do you draw?
No, I say.
Why, so then I could be as ignorant as you are?
No, so then you could be as privileged as I am. Never used to believe it, but this is where ignorance is bliss finally applies. Studying a painting from the perspective of an artist distracts you from seeking the truth of it. And when I say seeking, it’s not like there is an objective one. It’s something you have to create. When you draw, you analyse the techniques of the painting headfirst. The golden rule, parallelism, or whatever. And then get to the core, the emotional quality of it, or never even that part. By that time, you’ve already lost on the starting line. And as our parents say, never 输在起跑线上。So I say, we’re not bad art connoisseurs after all.
I suppose so. The language of art is universal, because it is felt, not understood. You don’t get that much from STEM subjects.
Exactly, though I might be wrong, because I don’t paint. My dad does, so I’m only explaining his thought process. Anyway, no worries, it’s just that I think we’re fine, as non-artists. It doesn’t make our opinion any less valid than an artist or in fact the artist of the painting.
Your dad’s an artist?
Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t really say—but yeah, I guess. He sketches, paints, although it’s not very precise, like those ancient Greek statues. Right. Rather abstract. He follows a visual arts textbook and explains his paintings in technical terms, though he can’t really articulate the meaning behind them. I think he missed the whole point of creating art.
Can’t articulate it, or doesn’t want to?
Well, I-uh, you know…
As he rambled on, he looked up to the sun, but did not actually see it, for his eyes were lost in remembrance and confusion. A cloud shifted, and his jet black eyes and hair were set alight the same way in the sun. To this day, I still remember that striking image of him, scorched to the back of my eyelids. It’s the kind you get when you stare at a bright object for too long in the dark and it imprints onto your retina and haunts your vision for a while, but this time it’s temporary, eternal, immortal amongst the erratic shifts of my memory.
水急不流月。The still reflection of the moon upon the waters is undisturbed by the choppy waves.
Remember when we gave the moon credit for its silky, ivory glow, when it was in fact only a reflection of the sun’s light? The composed countenance when he glanced towards the sun—no wrinkles rippling through his eyes, nor a hand shielding his face—probably succeeded to pull off the same illusion that the warm, gold sunlight radiated from him. It thrashed through his tumbling curls, swelling in the halo of the glow, and seeped into the dormant black eyes; the colors of amber and late autumn exploded like a volcano inside a snow globe.
But I wished I could do something more than looking, like I was Nick Carraway or a writer of a biography: passive, distant, helplessly obsessed with a life I don’t lead. Somehow, this reminded me that we never really touched. I don’t mean in any sensual way—I curse my mind for even going there—, but the mere brush of a shoulder, an accidental step on a shoe, or my hair getting stuck on his coat buttons. I suppose it was one way to tear apart the shallow mirage I build for the people I think about excessively, and another way to be more involved in the lives of others. I looked down at his fingers, at the whites on his roughly clipped nails and hair sprouting out behind the silver ring. Then at his other hand, which stroked the accessory: the shadows they reflected, the pink spots on his open palm, and the three curves slicing through them. I traced the parabola of the longest one down to the copper green veins on his wrist—which disappeared into a darkened scar on his forearm, probably from some fall while playing sports.
I remembered that I forgot what the first touch of anyone felt like, even my childhood crush. It was trivial, but why should it be? It suggested a new level of intimacy and comfort to be familiar with the touch of someone. The hard calluses on his fingers from playing guitar, the bounciness of his hair, the way my temple will probably line up with his collarbone when we hug and how comfortable or disagreeable that will be. He sat beside me but seemed so distant, and I couldn’t break the reserved, friendly, just-getting-to-know-you comfort that we slipped into, or risk putting ourselves in an awkward situation. In retrospect, I think it would surprise both of us if we touched, then. I would be surprised about how I managed to manifest any fantasy into action and reality, and both of us would be confused about why I did it. Even now, I don’t know why I had the sudden urge to do so then. But thankfully, I don’t act on my impulses.