As soon as I enter the building, a voice in my head tells me that it's not too late, that I can turn around right now, scurry down the sidewalk, scalp my ticket to the first person I see, and save myself an hour or two of embarrassment. I know how these things end. But then the ticket taker holds out his hand, clammy in my own when we exchange the paper stub, and the art museum welcomes me back.
Inside, the world is drenched in color. The walls are dyed a muted shade of blue, crammed with portraits and landscapes and tableaus, hues so rich they could burn your eyes. Tapestries flow like rivers. Families rush past in a blur of light. Couples sit on benches and point at paintings. I take refuge in the corner by the directory.
It's a few minutes before eleven, which is enough time to open Tinder and find a new reason to back out of this. His profile engulfs my screen. In his photo he's standing by the ocean, chisel-jawed and stubble-crusted. The sky provides an orange backdrop. He's wearing, of all things, a white tuxedo jacket and dark sunglasses. Superimposed on this image are the words "Liahm, 26," and below that his tagline reads "I hate long walks on the beach and commitment. Ask me anything!"
So I did, last week. "Tea, coffee, or tequila?" I wrote, adding a smiley emoji for good measure, and he replied "Yes," and we got to talking. When I mentioned my job at the art museum, he suggested it for our first date.
Why not? My last date was over a year ago, and it ended before dessert when he told me how many kids we were destined to have together based on our astrological signs. After that, I figured love just wasn't in my horoscope. But when all your friends are either getting married or pregnant, you start to wonder if there's some big secret you might be missing out on, some inside joke with you as the punchline.
Now though, six minutes after eleven, I'm considering all the willfully-ignored red flags: the aversion to commitment, the sunglasses-tuxedo combo, the spare letter in his name. This whole thing is a mistake.
Before I can chicken out, the automatic sliding doors whir to life, ushering in sunlight. And in the glow stands Liahm.
Gone are his tuxedo and dress pants, replaced by a vest and a pair of khakis. He's still wearing his sunglasses, which makes me feel a little better about the Rutgers University sweater I let a friend talk me into.
And he's not alone.
Alongside Liahm is a woman who looks like she belongs on the cover of a tabloid. You know the type: blonde bob cut, almond eyes, beautiful with or without makeup.
The two of them walk arm in arm. As they brandish their tickets, as the yogurt in my stomach plans a rebellion, I play a game in my head: Sister, Friend, or Ex? I'm not sure which I'm hoping for.
The ticket taker does his job and then they're past the stanchion, scanning the lobby. It is the woman who sees me first. She grins and waves like we're old pals from kindergarten. Her smile could bloom a sunflower. She strolls over, Liahm in lockstep, and says, "Hi! Lucy, right?"
I feel myself nod but don't recall my brain telling my body to cooperate. There is nothing more embarrassing than being addressed by someone whose name you don't know. Almost nothing.
"Sorry we're running a little late," Liahm says. The word we're levitates in the space between us. "Traffic."
He offers neither a hug nor a handshake. How could he with this woman clinging to him like a lifeline?
"This is Karla." He tilts his head in the woman's direction. That's it—that's all the information he gives me. Just a name, two syllables. Karla.
"Nice to meet you." My voice comes out small, like a dollop of paint on a palette.
"Likewise, hon." Karla smiles again and it makes sense why Liahm wears those sunglasses—her teeth are that white. I narrow her down to being a sister or a friend; no man would let go of a woman like this.
"I was hoping you could hook us up with a tour, Lucy," Liahm admits, and no matter how much I try to distract myself with the musk of his aftershave, the word us joins we're in no man's land. "You prolly know where all the good stuff is."
Which is true. I work here as a docent, giving tours to the public. But truth be told, the idea of doing my job on my day off isn't exactly appealing. Still, this is a date, I think, and Liahm actually showed up, even if it is with another woman. That's more than I can say for some of my Tinder crushes.
"Sure," I say, glancing from one to the other. My eyes linger on Karla a beat too long. "Sure, okay, I'd love to."
"Hell yeah," Liahm says with a smile. He has a slight overbite and his teeth are more off-white than white-white. And just like that, the possibility of Karla being his sister goes out the window.
When he asks where we should start, I propose going upstairs. "We've got a great exhibition on Dadaism." From their expressions it looks like maybe they're trying to decipher what dads have to do with art, but they smile and tell me to lead the way.
We are halfway up the winding staircase when I make the mistake of peering over my shoulder. There, half a floor below me, Liahm and Karla shamble up the steps. They're still linked to each other, so close you couldn't even slide a dime between them. I pause, blink a few times, try to do some deciphering of my own. My left cheek aches under the weight of my teeth.
Karla lifts her head and our eyes meet and she smiles. She says, "We're coming, hon. Don't you worry about us."
But that's precisely the problem.
We go through Dadaism. We pass through Impressionism and Futurism and Cubism. Only now, forty minutes later, as I'm guiding them to the Surrealism exhibition, do I realize their pattern.
They work like they walk: as a couple. Karla begins with a phrase like, "Wow, look at that shade of blue," and Liahm, right beside her, stares and muses, "Yeah, it's just like the ocean." Every time, without fail.
When I showed them a Dadaist painting of a urinal with legs, they mentioned only the gray and how it was "just like a koala." In response to a Futurist portrait of a robot jumping from a red skyscraper, the building was "just like an apple." Ten minutes ago, when we stood before a Cubist sculpture of a man and woman embracing, I was informed that the gold was "just like a goldfish." And every time I smiled through gritted teeth and bit my tongue and tried again. Without fail.
This is no regular tour: I'm giving them privileges people dream about. I'm even letting them touch the artwork while I survey the room like a madwoman, praying my boss doesn't materialize. And the best they can give me is color commentary?
In the Surrealist exhibition, we stop at one of my favorite paintings. In it are five clocks sagging in the heat, warped and melting like ice cream, their numbers barely legible. The sun lazes and the sky is tinted light green, almost yellow.
They stare at the painting for a full minute. Then Karla, right on cue, motions to the sky. "Wow, look at that shade of green."
Liahm leans forward and nods, his glasses practically touching the art. "Yeah, it's just like the forest."
I shake my head and officially give up.
Because the color he's referring to is chartreuse. It does not look like the forest. Is he even trying?
You could probably see better if you took off those douchey sunglasses, I think, and am this close to letting him have it. Instead, I say, "Will you two excuse me? I have to use the restroom."
I'm about to head out to my car when Karla says, "Good idea, I think I'll go too." And for the first time today, the two of them separate.
The muscles in my shoulder tense without asking permission. My cheek screams for mercy as my teeth take another bite. Karla's heels echo against the floor as we march to the restroom. I don't hold the door for her.
"Lucy," she starts, but the rest of the sentence is drowned out by the bang of my stall door. I fasten the lock then flop down on the toilet lid. "Lucy?"
There is nothing uglier than hearing your name in a stranger's mouth. Absolutely nothing.
The toilet in the next stall over flushes. The faucet gurgles. The hand dryer wheezes. Then the door opens, ushering in faraway voices. The noise floods the restroom for a moment, suffocates my stall, and then everything falls silent. The second time this happens, when the voices and the silence do their little duet, I take a breath and crack the door. To my surprise, Karla is still standing there by the sink, fiddling with her bangs. Our eyes meet in the mirror.
"All done in there, hon?" she asks, more bored than curious.
The slam of my stall door answers her. "Go away."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Her voice floats over the door, falls in my lap.
"I want you to leave. Why are you even here?" The words resound through the stall.
And with my statement comes a comforting thought: Any moment now Karla's heels will click-clack on the linoleum. Any moment and the sounds of the museum will surface. Any moment and I can leave this place.
It takes me a while—seconds? minutes?—to realize Karla isn't leaving. She's waiting for me. She'll keep waiting as long as she has to.
My hands are shaking but somehow they manage to unlock the door. The words come out before I've even left the stall. "Look, what's really going on here?" My eyes are focused on the Karla in the mirror.
"Take a guess," she retorts, tilting her head. It is the first time I've seen her without a smile.
"Okay. I look like an idiot. There you go, that's my guess." And it's not just my hands that are shaking anymore because my legs and my voice have joined the fray. "I look like an idiot and the two of you will probably have a big laugh about this later."
"I wouldn't worry about looking like an idiot in front of Liahm, hon." Mirror Karla swipes a strand of hair from her eyes. "He can't see you anyway."
The reply on the tip of my tongue evaporates.
Time becomes a melting clock around us, heavy and meaningless. Words swarm my brain but my mouth can't seem to get on the same page. A blush creeps across my reflection's face. Standing there in the glare of the restroom lights, I start to think. Those sunglasses in his beach picture, in the museum. The reliance on Karla. His forest green remark.
She turns to face me. "I thought you figured it out by now."
And maybe I should have. I scroll through the catalogue of our Tinder conversations in my mind's eye. Are there more red flags I'd missed? "Then all those messages he sent," I begin.
"No, all I did was help type them. The words came from Liahm, every last one." She speaks like she's been preparing for this talk all day.
I run a hand over my sweatshirt sleeve, just to touch something, just to make sure I'm still there. The question from earlier comes to me: "Sister, friend, or ex?"
"I'm his ex," she declares, her tone impossible to read. I must have a funny look on my face because then she says, "He broke up with me."
When I ask why, she tells me about Liahm's condition, some rare disease whose name I'll probably forget by the time I go to Google it, and how he fully lost his sight last year. She explains how he dumped her because he didn't want her, or anyone, to waste time fretting about him. She admits to being the one who convinced him to try dating again. Her voice stays even and cool the whole time.
"I just want him to be happy. That's why I agreed to help him today." Her smile is back from its vacation. "And I think you'd like him. The real him."
"Maybe," I say, unwilling to promise anything. What else can you say to something like that?
She gives me an understanding nod. "I didn't mean to ruin your date."
"You didn't really." I shrug. "Believe it or not, this isn't even in my bottom three."
Karla laughs as though we're sharing a secret, an inside joke. The sound is like a rainbow in winter. She says, "We should head back now, hon. Liahm probably thinks we ditched him," and I agree.
She takes a few steps then stops, pursing her lips. Happy, muted voices come from the world beyond the restroom's entrance. I'm about to speak when Karla whispers, "He doesn't really hate commitment, you know," and resumes her stride.
I'm not sure why it makes me smile.
She holds the door open and we wander back into reality. Liahm is waiting where we left him, sitting on a narrow bench. His sunglasses are trained on the painting. He bobs his head from side to side, pretending to see something he can't.
Before he can welcome us back, Karla says, "Jig's up, Liahm. You can stop faking now."
The bobbing stops. His lips twitch, a movement as fast as light. If I'd blinked, I probably would have missed it. He resembles a goldfish, opening and closing his mouth every few seconds.
"Sorry, Lucy," he finally says. It sounds believable enough, but it also sounds like a kid who got caught cheating. I wonder how long they would've kept up their charade if I hadn't decided to walk off.
"We both are," Karla interjects.
Liahm slides his hand along the bench. "Real talk, this whole thing just got way out of hand." He must know how much of an understatement that is because he adds, "If you wanna leave, I get it. I won't blame you. But I'd like to make it up to you sometime. I really am sorry."
It's not the world's best apology, I know. But it's sincere. And it's mine.
I nod, then remember he can't see me doing it. "It's okay," and I leave it at that.
We all stand there for a while—seconds? minutes?—looking anywhere but at each other. Laughing children skip by. A couple approaches the painting we're standing beside and gives us the side-eye until we step away. The world passes us, and we let it. We understand that the date is winding down.
But there's no reason to end on a low note.
I beckon to Karla. "Hey, come with me real quick. I want to show you two my favorite room." And when they walk together this time, side by side, arm in arm, my teeth stay where they are and my cheek thanks me for taking it easy.
We trek through the halls, twisting and turning in the museum's kaleidoscope of shapes and shades, until we reach a large white room at the back of the building. It's an unfinished exhibit, and we have to maneuver through a cobweb of caution tape to enter.
There are only four paintings in here, one per wall. We start with the still life of sunflowers at the north end of the room. The canvas is a typhoon of yellow, paint so bright you can almost taste it. When Liahm asks what we're looking at, it is Karla who, perhaps out of habit, tells him to look at that shade of yellow. "Yeah, it's just like a moldy banana," Liahm jokes, and our laughter fills the emptiness.
I guide them along through the east and west pieces—a landscape of a lone lighthouse by the sea, and a tableau of cats playing poker. We establish a rhythm: I lead, Karla describes, Liahm quips.
Then we reach my favorite painting.
The artwork is abstract, an array of bright hues and sharp angles and soft lines that make it hard to focus on one single area. It's all over the place, so I guess I relate to it. But if you look closely, you can identify things hidden within the tempest: an eyeball, or a bulls-eye, or a doorway. Last week I saw a woman's face trapped behind a streak of magenta.
I must've seen this painting a hundred times and I still find things. Now, my eyes search for something they haven't seen before, some new meaning.
"How does it look?" Liahm asks before I've discovered anything. He's staring at the painting as though the image, any image, will magically reveal itself to him.
Five seconds pass and still no response. I look to my right and realize that it's just the two of us. Karla is across the room, occupying herself with the sunflower still life. Maybe she senses me staring because she turns around, all smiles, and waves like she did when we met, like an old friend. This time I wave back.
"Well?" Liahm turns to face me. My reflection engulfs every inch of his sunglasses. "Don't leave me hanging," he says.
The painting looms over us, a whirlwind of color: imperfect, messy, charming. I close my eyes to see it better. "Beautiful," I tell him.