Refracted lighting and bright colors caught Camille's eye as she wandered down the pristine Fashion Street of Carlsbad. Each shop had some sort of hook to get people in the door. Inviting scents or colors to cover up that each store was another high-priced clothing store or make-up store, but this place seemed different. It looked like it was as magical as it appeared. Camille hovered in the door, noticing the artwork as the main attraction, not a hook.
"You don't need an appointment for this gallery. You can just come on in and look around," said a woman who looked like she was part of the art. She wore a classy little black dress that was draped with a flowing, silk wrap, splashed with every color you might imagine for a flower. She alone would have been enough to draw Camille inside. The artwork now seemed like decor for her alone. “I’m Athena, the guardian of these paintings.”
“Do you mean curator?” Camille asked.
“I have many titles,” Athena said.
"I don't think I belong here," Camille stammered.
"If you enjoy art, you belong here."
"I mean, I... I wouldn't be able to afford anything here. I probably don't belong anywhere on this block."
Athena came closer. She took a moment to look at Camille, "Do you only go places where you feel like you belong?"
"Yes, uh, no, uh, I don't know. I was dragged here by some girls from my dorm. We were supposed to go out to lunch but now they're in that fancy boutique called Antoinette a couple of doors down. Way too girly for my taste and it feels like it's part of a secret society that I just don't understand," Camille confessed.
Athena nodded, "I've felt like that before. It might be true over there. Over here, this art wants to share its secrets. It wants to be seen. It doesn't care where you think you belong. Take a closer look and you'll see what I mean."
Camille looked back at the street.
"It's just a gallery," Athena assured her, "Nothing to worry about."
Camille walked in and was bathed in the light and colors that drew her there. As she walked further into the gallery, she saw that each painting had something in common. There was a window placed in front of each one. She explored the windows and studied the paintings on the other side. "Why so many windows?"
"You tell me," Athena encouraged.
Camille concentrated on three paintings. One was a woman getting dressed up for a night out.
The second one was a man holding a wrench while he sat on the floor next to the sink. But he was just sitting there, looking deep in thought.
The third was a teenage girl holding a baby, next to the shore. She was sitting on the beach, watching the baby touch the sand.
"The windows are to make us feel like we are spying on them?" Camille asked.
"Not spying. Viewing their secrets."
"They don't look like they have any secrets," Camille pointed out.
"Look closer. Give them their stories. I'm sure when you relax and let loose, you'll see their secrets."
Camille took a deep breath and concentrated on the woman getting dressed.
"The woman getting dressed is taking a lot of care to make herself look good. Almost like it's been a while since she's gone out. She's starting over and she's hopeful? She wants to meet someone new."
"Very good," the woman praised.
Camille continued to look around, deep in thought, pondering each secret. Sometimes placing herself in their secrets and wondering how she would handle them. Camille often wished she had more answers.
Camille felt Athena watching her, but she felt welcomed and safe.
Camille and Athena went to another room that had exceptional lighting, but no artwork, just one empty canvas.
"I have a secret too," Camille admitted.
"If you want to share, I'm happy to listen,” Athena offered.
"I plan to, hope to tell more people soon but..."
"It's sometimes hard to share your truth. If you tell me, it will stay here. My lips are sealed," Athena promised.
Camille took a deep breath, "I...I...," she felt a hum shoot up her spine, encouraging the words to come out, "I like women, prefer women. If I have a love story in my future, I want it to be with a woman."
The lights that Camille admired so much began to dance around in front of her. She saw vibrant colors race past her face, swirling around her body like a gentle tornado. She felt it surge and crackle until the colors flew past her and shot into the blank canvas. The colors started off as a blur and then came into focus. The image of two women, adoring each other as they embraced in a dance, colors flowing around them, making them float on the canvas.
Camille took a closer look and could tell that even though it had a watercolor like quality to it, one of the women was undeniably her. Awe filled her at first, with the hope that this might be her future.
Then came the rage, "What did you do?"
"I don't understand," Athena admitted.
"I shared my secret with you, and you took it," Camille gestured to the canvas.
"Whenever you share a secret, you give it to someone else. That's what's so wonderful about sharing a secret. You don't have to hold onto it alone. Now it gets to live here, in the most beautiful way possible," Athena explained.
"Everyone will see it!"
"Is that so terrible? It's beautiful."
"Look," Athena suggested, "I'm having a gathering tonight, to show off the paintings. Come by. See how there is nothing to be scared of. If you don't like how it goes, your secret will go back to you," Athena promised.
"You'll give me the painting?" Camille asked.
"The paintings can only exist here, in this gallery. If I give you your secret back, then the painting will disappear."
"Well, then, do it now! Give me back my secret now."
"Please," Athena implored, "give tonight a chance."
Camille thought she would break from the anxiety, seeing her secret right there. Athena seemed calm and kind. This entire visit, Camille felt no cruelty from her. The woman actually seemed supportive.
"Fine," Camille relinquished, "I'm holding you to your promise though."
"If you don't like tonight, you can have your secret back," Athena agreed.
Camille showed up to the gallery with her emotional walls up. She was determined to have as much armor around her as possible. She kept to the corners, watching the crowd which was a lot more people than she expected. This was going to be worse than she feared.
Guests roamed around, chatting with a reverent tone. Camille heard whispers of, “Oh my,” and “How lovely,” and “Look at the emotion here.”
Did they not understand the entire gallery was filled with people’s secrets?
But as Camille heard more of the conversations, she realized that they did know. The secrets were the reason for the respect they were showing.
Camille caught a glimpse of a woman who looked familiar. She followed her and saw the woman was about her age walking around with a little boy about four years old. They both were familiar but distant. Camille was certain she had never met them before.
The woman brought the boy to the painting Camille had admired earlier, of the teenage girl holding a baby at the beach. It was them, only older. This woman must have been here a while ago. Did she tell her secret too?
She must have and left her secret here.
It must have truly meant something to her to have come back years later to visit.
Camille looked over the crowd again. As far as she could tell, there was no one here as cruel as she had feared.
Camille decided it was time to complete the scariest part of her evening. She went to the other room where her painting was. There was a window in front of it now and several people were gathered around it. Most of them were quiet. Camille managed to get close enough to hear two older women talking. They were holding hands as one said, “Goodness, do you remember being that young, a combination of being excited and confused?”
“I remember being excited about you.”
“Aw, me too. There were days when you were the only one on my mind.”
“It’s actually not hard to remember. I still feel that excited about you today.”
Camille stepped away. Her secret was safe here. In fact, her secret was cherished here too.
After experiencing the gallery that night, Camille decided she would rather have the painting exist there than have it disappear.
She began to see beauty in its vulnerability.
From time to time, she would come back to view it, noticing the beauty in the hope that it held. Maybe she would have the love that she dreamed about.
Years later, she would come back to view it one final time with a precious woman named Hannah. They would admire it together and notice how it brings up memories of their wedding day and their first dance.
And Camille will know the beauty of the truth in her secret.