By Jackson Bliss
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Cubes: It was April and the sun was exfoliating the sky. Before I knew it, I was inside the Art Institute of Chicago with a ticket in my hand. Picasso made more sense than hypothermia.
Cylinders: After getting rid of my backpack at the baggage check, I walked up the marble stairs, pushed through the glass doors and entered the Impressionism room. A battalion of ugly teenagers dressed in shorts, baseball caps and sweat- pants fiddled with their cell phones, laughing about things they didn’t under- stand. In front of them I noticed a painting of Parisian couples strolling through the city, dressed in serious gray skirts and strict black overcoats, protected by the disenchantment of clunky umbrellas. If there was one flaw this picture had— besides its two-dimensionality—it was the rain. It’s impossible to depict rain truthfully because the rain is not a setting, a color or a catharsis. Rain is the men- tal state you’re stuck in when no one sees you as you really are.
Spheres: By Chagall’s Praying Jew, I’d reached my tipping point with haystacks and melting clocks, pig Nazis and Technicolor lily ponds. I turned around and walked past Kandinsky’s Painting with Green Center to the Cubism room. That’s where I saw her for the first time. She was sitting on a bench with her back arched like a Spanish guitar. She could easily have been a college student in her own Blue Period. Wearing pomo glasses, a striped black t-shirt, heather gray cardigan and tight black jeans, she looked young and fashionably malnourished except in the face, where flushed cheeks betrayed the straight lines in her body. Her cheekbones were a bit too pronounced, her lips too luscious and succulent to embody urban starvation.
Cubes: I’d never seen such loving sadness before inside a museum. The girl sitting on the bench looked like she was waiting for a reply, oblivious to the whis- pering security guards in the hallway and the giggling teenagers strolling by in magnetized clusters. I couldn’t take my eyes off her: her singular focus was intriguing. Entrancing. For an art student, she was odd and lovely in every way a museum wasn’t, and I wanted to understand the world she lived in and the one she ignored.
Cones: The next Saturday I returned to the Art Institute and marched straight towards the Cubist room. She was sitting on the same bench, wearing loud red mascara and broken Converse shoes, the corners of her eyes filled with tears shaped like tiny flames of water. Then there was the fruit of her lips, smiling and slightly open, sucking on borrowed air. She was enamored, struck by the same painting: a man (or was it a woman?) with three green noses and two yellow pipes, a checkerboard, and a French newspaper. For an hour I stared at her, and for an hour, she stared at him. Unintentionally we were a reflection of each other, an imitation without awareness. I waited for her to break the silence with a thin little stone, but our moment together was shatterproof. She never looked at me, not even once, to say stop voyeur stop, so I filled my pockets with smooth, pol- ished words I would never throw at her.
Spheres: Over the next three months, I returned to the museum every Saturday afternoon. I began to cultivate loyalty and attachment. I felt somehow involved, or at least connected, to the girl in the museum, even if what we shared was a mutual love of distance. It’s easier to love strangers because it’s their strangeness that stops you from knowing who they are, and it’s understanding people that stops you from loving them.
Cylinders: The sadness of the girl on the bench disarmed me because her tears weren’t an accusation. It’s always easier to care for people when you’re not the cause of their suffering. And besides, those tears were not a silent violence. They weren’t a hormonal plea for chocolate bars or a silent reproach for pointy diction. Her sadness—or mutilated joy, whatever name you preferred—was an old church: a place where tourists congregated to take snapshots of broken history.
Cubes: In many ways I felt that I loved her more than I’d loved all my girlfriends of the past. In college, I was an angry child palming fresh hearts with barbed claws. Those girls didn’t deserve my selfishness; they were so soft and graceful like tissue paper in gift-wrapped boxes, so easy to rip apart without meaning to. For all those reasons, I loved the girl in the museum. She didn’t need me; she didn’t protest my existence or demand my affection. She was her own sovereign world and I wasn’t part of the victim cartography. And yet, because I was flirting with her dialectically, I wasn’t excluded.
Cylinders: When I looked at her, I thought of all the words I wanted to say to her, pondering the right way to break our contract of silence. But I oscillated. Sometimes I made up entire conversations in my head, conversations where I always said the right things when I was supposed to, where I was clever and gen- uine without sounding contrived: Why are you crying? I’d ask. Because I’m alone, she’d explain. But you’re surrounded by people, I’d say. Yeah, but I can’t see them, she’d say. Well, it doesn’t matter, I see you, and your face is getting in the way of the art, I’d say. Is that a line? She’d ask. I’m not smart enough to use formulas, I’d say, but I’m brave enough to threaten your solitude. You’re sweet, she’d say. Only in retrospect, I’d say. And then we’d walk outside holding hands, the sun buoying our bodies through the wake of tour groups and street performers.
Spheres: Other times, I saw my hand touching the back of her neck. I pictured her turning to me slowly and reciting her feelings: she was a pile of bent silver- ware and broken pencils, she’d explain, her desire was an aneurysm split into small puzzle pieces of memory, and her words were peeled cubes of fruit, broken apart and siphoned into small units of language that tasted citric and earthy, a hot baritone to my cynical ears. I was the kind of guy that memorized clichés so I could avoid them for the rest of my life. She was the kind of girl that gave you a lemon as a gift and then told you to smell your hands.
Cones: She had this way of making stalkers feel original. And I did. I imagined her staring back at me with astonishing scorn; her entire face, disfigured by a broken heart. And it was this fatal fear that prevented me from opening my mouth, except to cough up my dried melancholy. My greatest fear wasn’t that she’d berate me but that she’d ignore me completely until I stood up and walked away, ashamed by the porous marrow of love. My silent declaration was a sickness.
Spheres: I discovered the pattern of her outfits, a continuum of bold pastels and sharp urban neutrals, conflicting fabric patterns and quiet color coordination. One day, the girl in the museum preferred wearing black high-tops, a light blue military shirt with epaulettes, unbuttoned, and a gray t-shirt with white letters that said Your Plates are Broken. The next day, she wore a yellow cardigan with tight sage pants and an orange striped scarf. She combined skin-tight pants with off-the-shoulder blouses, long tube shirts with Puma sneakers and flared hip- huggers, pageboy hats with burgundy hoodies and tweed blazers; 80s-style tank tops with rolled-up jeans and tree-torns. Every Saturday she was an entirely new world, a recreated galaxy of texture and niche, style and Zeitgeist. All of this felt like an expansion of love.
Cubes: I had a theory about the girl with a body like a musical instrument. She was redundant, simply art showcasing art, art observing art, art enraptured by art. She was Galatea and Narcissus. She was a work of art reincarnated as a col- lege student. She was motionless, cold and beautiful like the other paintings hanging from invisible hooks. Like all art, she was stuck in time. I could have placed an antique frame around her body and cornered her with velvet ropes, gluing an adjacent title card in midair that said Transfixed, Anonymous, 2009.
Cubes: Do we love strangers because for one moment we see them as they actually are? Or do we love them because we’re allowed to project our own desires and typologies onto them, superimposing our primal template upon their mys- terious bodies like film projectors that devise stories out of aluminized screens? Whatever the reason, the point is that human beings love without explanation. The girl in the museum reminded me that I knew how to fall for a complete stranger without knowing who she was, or who she was trying to be. This courage to love came from the inevitability of her separation and the defectiveness of my knowledge. Every time I saw her, it was simultaneously the first and possibly last time we would meet. She was a threat to everything I didn’t understand.
Spheres: I wanted to understand those celestial trajectories that she weaved out of stardust and orbit lines, painting a new cosmos inside of her grief. She was a self-created theogony after all, a complete and separate galaxy. And somewhere inside this alternative world was a balance of chaos and order, foreignness and archetype, to refresh and recreate you from trampled scriptures. I could have glued an adjacent title card in midair that said Parallel Multiverse, Anonymous, 2009.
Cones: As summer burned to the end of its incense cone, its ashes turned into strokes of gray stain and autumn down. And as winter became a fortress of ice, shining from the inside like a national treasure of frozen sunlight, I returned every Saturday afternoon to watch her tears falling like broken stars. And like clockwork, like the seasons, like a cut-and-dry integer, she appeared and re- appeared on the bench, more faithful than Pi and more sincere than irony.
Cubes: They say that Cubism was a mistake. Cézanne claimed that nature was geometrically divisible into cones and cylinders, cubes and spheres. Braque and Picasso, after a 1907 exhibition commemorating the collective work of the departed Cézanne, took this notion literally. This misunderstanding created a wave of abstract art in 1911 and an illusory love affair in 2009. Seeing reality as it actually is, was not only overrated, but actually ugly too. Truth was less impor- tant than imagination.
Cones: She was lonely and found comfort in the multiplicities of art. Her grief was a thin shroud of sadness she wore everywhere she went. It wasn’t from drowning in a room of abstract beauty. It wasn’t even her chimerical love. What else could it be? Her tears—tiny inverted liquid cones—were the salt of the earth. They expressed collapse and organic rejuvenation, glowing in the eternal light- ness of everything she abandoned. Her translucent tears of glass and silicone were the closest thing to a Cubist homage, using the pastels of her own body to repeat suggestions about perspective.
Cubes: It was as if the girl in the museum were waiting for the painting to come to life, to join her on the other side of the canvas where pigments faded, protests turned pastel, and art movements were eradicated by the stormtroopers of the- ory before their paint could dry. I could have glued an adjacent title card in midair that said Let’s Share the Perishing World Together, Anonymous, 2009.
Cones: Or maybe, within the verb charts of her sadness, she was already creating another world inside her head. Maybe, within the soft folds of her own cognitive dissonance, she and the man with three noses, two pipes and a French newspaper, were in love, holding hands in dual portraits, his hand in one painting, hers in the other; separate paintings hanging beside each other in dif- ferent easels and sold for 100 francs by a balding Spaniard who lived in a Montparnasse flat.
Spheres: I saw her as the Cubists viewed reality: she was art when art was misunderstanding; she was ontological simultaneity, the product of conflict fused together into a unified and irreconcilable field of the imagination. The girl in the museum was a contradiction; she blurred the line between art and artist, paint- ing and portrait, cubism and geometry, subject and object. When I looked at her, I saw every outfit and season, every shape, every constellation and title card. It was easy to love a woman when she was a contradiction: there would always be part of her you would never reach, and part of her you wouldn’t understand. Beauty and equivocation, defiance and empathy, strength and separation—these qualities aroused and disturbed me. They were everything that I lacked. Everything I resented. Everything I lusted for in my modern sickness.
Cubes: The day I finally broke our vow of silence it was early spring, almost a year since I’d noticed her, and it was raining outside like that large and depress- ing painting I passed each and every Saturday to observe the girl in the museum, a picture filled with wet couples walking through the desolate streets of Paris in the Impressionism room. Were we—the damned and the disenchanted, the obsessed and the lonely—simply products of sentimental and solipsistic art? Or did we epitomize the flaws of subjective emotion? Where did we belong as flesh and portraiture? On the wall? Sitting patiently on benches? I didn’t have the answer to these questions. All I knew was that one April day, I walked up to her and started talking like we were old friends. If I could have glued an adjacent title card in midair to describe the moment, it would have said: When Silence is an Old Warehouse and Love is a Pocketful of Rocks, 2009.
Cylinders: I’m not sure what I expected, but what I do know is that her voice was incongruous. I thought it would be airy and operatic, or affected and husky; I’d fantasized about this moment for so long that I felt like I was having an out-of- body experience when it actually happened, like a narrative frame within a frame within a frame. The girl in the museum was a small conjugation of time inside my head who an final examination bore no resemblance to the physics of femi- ninity or the formulas of speculation.
Cones: In a way you could say she was no longer her own person. She became my own portfolio of grotesque impossibility. If reality were an art critic, it would have objected to my mind: real women have red flesh and blossoming capillar- ies. It’s inhumane to keep my perfect idea (even of a woman), so far away from the oxidation of Real Time.
Cubes: In the heavy tome of my daydreams, her voice was high and foreign; she inhaled as she spoke like a Swedish hiccup. In reality, her words were slightly cor- roded by a Midwest accent and a strong arctic breath that smelled distinctly Wisconsin. She was a pile of discarded frames that deserved to be melted into ash and alphabet. But maybe I just regret the rocks I threw at so many virgin windows, never bothering to find out if there was someone living inside the warehouse.
Cylinders: It was an uninspiring opening but my lips trembled. If I could have done it over again I probably would have phrased it differently, or said nothing to her at all, storing my own selfish hypotheses inside the hard-drive of my mind. I had imagined our first conversation in a thousand different ways, but in each version, everything was poetically infected. In my mind, I explained that the concept of art was an incestuous and unstable term. Everything was art, if you wanted it to be, since art has no borders. Nothing was art, if you wanted it to be, since art, by definition, has no definitions. And because art was simply reality appropriated by idiosyncrasy, I’d explain, she was like a man with three noses, two pipes and a French newspaper. In fact, I wanted to tell her, she was more artistic than art because art is always aware of itself, constantly trying to prove something or reflect reality back to the world in a way that feels foreign. But she had no mission, used no mirror, contrived no proof. She was simply a technique, an expression of protean lust and creative love. She was more stable than art. Art was corruption: stained by self-consciousness, borderlessness and aspiration. But she was a perfect idea. She was a portrait of pure emotion and desire that ignored her audience and offered no manifesto.
Cones: In my mind, my opening line was supposed to be quirky and thoughtful, but not gimmicky. It would lay the groundwork for countless moments inside cozy black leather booths where we’d make out to sleek Lo-Fi music, our cinna- mon-flavored martinis glowing inside the earthy décor of the bistro like broken lava lamps. I pictured us walking up the musty old staircase in my old Lincoln Park apartment, holding hands as summer rain dripped down our legs and left pieces of our insole in every step. I would hold an exhibition inside my bedroom in her honor that went on forever, the snapshots of her life looping into infinity. She would be my one and only flagrant character study. She would be the center of gravity inside the museum and I would be simply a catalogue, a curator who kept the walls clean and the pictures organized, neatly labeled and well-lit. And when the time was right, I would whisper into her ear, slowly and calmly, that she was blurring the line between a painting and its frame, an idea from its creator, a work of art from its exhibition. I wanted to be her one and only critic, her blank-shooting assassin, her corrupted biographer who would tell the story of her story to the world. And even with all that power, I would promise to always love her profile and listen to her voice, storing her permutations inside the catacombs of my memory.
Spheres: But that’s not what happened. Instead, too much like Marie Antoinette, I said:
—There are a lot of paintings here. —Sorry? She said.
—I said there are a lot of paintings here.
She shrugged, pulling her cardigan over an exposed shoulder blade.
—I don’t pay attention to them.
—Can I ask you a question? —Shoot.
—Why do you come here?
—Why do you?
—Well, I said, wiping my hands on my pants, I think I’m in love. —I thought so.
—So what about you? —I’m in love too.
—With him, she said, pointing to the painting.
—You’ve in love with a painting? —You’re smarter than you look.
—How does that work? —Effortlessly.
—I mean, why him?
—Because he’s beautiful. Approachable. Faithful. —But he always looks the same.
—No, he’s the opposite of static. He’s an amalgam, a series of contradictions, a changing portrait. But more importantly, he’s never broken my heart.
—I haven’t either.
—But you would, if you could. —I promise I wouldn’t.
—That’s just what men do to feel alive. They break things. —No.
—You’ve already broken me into a thousand little pieces, to understand me. I can tell by the way you gaze at me.
—The mind can be a beautiful thing too, I insisted.
—The mind is the most violent weapon of all, she said, shaking her head. Instead of trying to understand me, you’re assassinating me, cutting my body into a thousand little thumbnails of semiotic porn until I’m noth- ing except pieces of anatomical confetti, a coronation of your fantasy world.
—But you’re not nothing to me, I pleaded. You’re so much more than that.
—Look buddy, you don’t love me. What you love, is a translation. And that’s when I swallowed my words and walked away. The rain was inside my head now and the girl in the museum was still hanging on the wall.
Originally from Chicago, Jackson Bliss earned his MFA from the University of Notre Dame where he was awarded the La Vie de Bohéme Literary Award and the 2007 Sparks Prize in Fiction for his debut novel BLANK.
This story is included in Issue #45: About Seeing. Copyright © 2012 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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