‘In the future, everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes.’
I hated myself for using this line. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it, or read it, but I knew enough to know it wasn’t mine. I was in ne plus ultra seduction mode, pillaging my arsenal. Everything was fair game.
Jack was buying what I was selling. We were in a very dimly lit bar on a frigid night, our third in-person date after weeks of texting, sexting and instant messaging. I couldn’t let this become a discussion about the ubiquity of social media. I couldn’t even bring myself to say the words social media out loud, which was hard to avoid, given the ubiquity of social media. So I pivoted to Italian Baroque architecture, a subject I knew little, but just enough, about.
‘I’d always thought of myself as a Bernini girl, but I’m more and more attracted to Borromini. I think he might be the one.’
‘Tell me why,’ said Jack, dilating his upper-RP accent so that ‘why’ had two syllables. He enjoyed being a semi-famous Englishman in a mid-sized American college town. We were both somewhat happily stuck there, not far from the Great Lakes in a tertiary city that was big enough to work and small enough not to work too hard. We called it a happy accident, ourselves the accident victims.
Our attraction was a fast train. Our chemistry birthed chemistry-babies, matryoshka dolls of longing. My body bent toward him like a vining plant to the light, but we were both married – him unhappily and me happily except for some burgeoning concerns. Steering the conversational ship when I was with Jack gave me some illusion of control.
That night in the bar, we were surrounded by our own coats, sweaters, hats, scarves and gloves. Being swaddled by piles of clothing reassured me. It meant that there was matter filling the space, if not between Jack and me then near enough to temper all that open air, giving me something to rub up against that wasn’t him. I thought of the deep-touch pressure and subsequent calm of Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine.
Jack and I had kissed during our two previous encounters and we’d put hands on each other’s knees under tables. The kissing had been explosive; he smelled essential and foreign at the same time.
‘Bernini brought the dash and flash,’ I said. ‘He talked a good game and had the right connections.’
‘What’s wrong with dash and flash?’ asked Jack. ‘And the right connections?’ With those nimble blue eyes and arched brow, the silky Belgravia timbre, he was central casting and then some. He even wore a salt-and-pepper turtleneck to match his salt-and-pepper hair. You just knew he’d been called ‘rakish’ too often in his youth.
‘Dash and flash are fine,’ I said, pausing for effect and giving him playful impatience, all eyes. ‘He was a genius, obviously.’
‘Ob-viously,’ said Jack.
‘His sculptures look like they could get up off the plinth and join the living, and his churches – all sugar-high, no comedown. When you see them in person, you feel hot, disoriented.’
‘What’s wrong with hot and disoriented?’ he asked.
‘Nothing. Ob-viously. Borromini was less socially graceful. Less telegenic. But I can breathe when I’m in his churches. The geometry’s soothing. I feel like myself.’
‘Breathing’s overrated, don’t you think?’ He reached across the small table to take my hand. ‘So is feeling like yourself.’
He knew he was laying it on with a palette knife but there was a nudge-wink self-awareness to his aging Casanova shtick, which made it less unsexy than if he were playing it straight. Jack, who at fifty-two projected an uncommon spryness and virility, was not a serious man, despite the fevered claims of smitten undergrads and flush octogenarian board-members in the business of appearing relevant.
He was in town for another couple of years, riding out the last of one of the country’s most luxurious academic fellowships. My fellowship was good, as was my husband’s, but Jack’s was better, especially for a painter whose work hung in obscurer corners of grand places. Little-used stairwells, vestibules connecting great rooms, walls hung expediently and lit suboptimally. A few of his paintings were in bank lobbies and collectors’ homes. But his work was too sentimental, too verging on maudlin, to be embraced by the cognoscenti and too dark to be bought and sold with any velocity. But people knew Jack. People who may not have been familiar with painting, or art – they knew his face or remembered some vaporous pop-up collaboration or a delightfully arch quote from the Sunday magazine. But the work didn’t tend to ring a bell. This killed him.
My department intrigued him, although he confused Chantal Akerman with Agnes Varda – both Belgians – and he lacked the patience to watch most of the films about which I lectured. Which is not to say that Jack could only get it up for the money shot, or that he favored explosions or plotty plots or even films in English. He lacked patience is all, and while he considered himself a feminist, as did most artists in progressive college towns flanked by hamlets purportedly less enlightened, he found female filmmakers less interesting than female talent. He followed twice as many women as men on Instagram but his Twitter feed was almost exclusively male. Pictures of women, the rest from men.
Tonight he was trying to convince me to go away with him. Just for one night, to the National Gallery in DC to see a painting called Mound of Butter (Antoine Vollon, 1875–1885). He’d never experienced it IRL, and felt that an up-close viewing might shed some light on a project he’d started last winter, abandoned, and was revisiting with new vigor. Jack was going to be the one to make still life painting relevant again. Not that it was ever A-list, having occupied the lowest rung in the Hierarchy of Genres (even Animal Painting was above it). And while the Hierarchy fell somewhat out of favor in the nineteenth century, still life never regained the modest luster it had intermittently enjoyed. Jack, thought Jack, would be the one to change that.
I had reasons to reject the invitation to Mound of Butter, beyond the fact that I was married and knew that no amount of conversational brio could keep us apart once the intervening table and watchful townies were gone. We lived in a city where enough people knew enough about us to feel as though they knew us.
Another reason: I didn’t want to taint my attraction to Jack, or his to me, by taking our act on the road and playing it out in a grande-dame hotel full of high-end DC hookers on wobbly stilettos, or worse, in a poignant, freshly vacuumed room at a Days Inn, overlooking a loading dock, fluorescent lighting in the bathroom, and a hulking armoire we’d never even open, except maybe to watch CNN in the morning. I couldn’t let our thing get debased by all that earth-toned, noise-machined liminality. Why pry open the Leyden Jar and set its contents loose into a place that smelled of all-you-can-eat hot breakfast buffets or the non-smell of individually saran-wrapped apples engineered to grow big as grapefruits? If Jack slept in novelty pajamas or did Sudoko in the morning, I didn’t want to know. There are things you can’t unsee.
The final reason to skip Mound of Butter was that I’d just had my trigger shot. I’d been ‘trying’ to have a kid for a year. I put ‘trying’ in quotes because my commitment wasn’t exactly unswerving. It swerved a little, and in the baby-making game when you’re of a certain age, there can be no swerve.
But my statistics were not actually so bleak. My anti-Müllerian hormone levels were through the roof, with an ovarian reserve in the ninety-ninth percentile and an endometrial lining far too lush for someone who’d been on earth for so long. My husband’s sperm was similarly covetable; his motility, morphology and concentration were all much higher than they needed to be. I’d be lying if I said our freakish numbers didn’t please me, but that and a nickel wouldn’t have gotten me a bottle of Poland Spring, much less a matcha smoothie. Advanced Maternal Age, we learned, trumped everything.
‘We should all be adopting,’ I’d say to friends and colleagues with whom the subject would come up. It seemed so wasteful, so banal, to make more people. Weren’t there enough? Other than posterity, staving off the fear of death and managing the odds of growing old alone, the reasons I kept hearing were, ‘I think he/she would make a great father/mother,’ and ‘it’s an experience I’d hate to miss.’ The threat of irrelevance, of obsolescence. Newsflash: we are already irrelevant, and obsolete, no matter how cleverly named, healthily fed, or progressively educated our babies. ‘But I’m finally ready to focus on something bigger than myself.’ Then volunteer somewhere. Do charity work. Help someone who doesn’t share your DNA – that’s altruism.
I assumed all bets were off once the kid was in your arms. Once you smelled it, stopped its crying, maybe even once you felt it growing inside of you – once the bean had stuck around for awhile – maybe it could reset the cogs and tumblers in your brain, flip the switch and launch you to the next realm. But for those not heart-set on parenthood, it was a terrible gamble. I kept thinking the urge might yet come and find me. All I needed was time; the thing I couldn’t have was time. Despite my numbers, I’d lost a few pregnancies in the very early weeks. It was time for science.
I was tapping out the drum solo to ‘Something in the Air Tonight’ on Jack’s hairy knuckles, thoughts of the trigger shot looming larger as the night went on. I’d been giving myself injections to stimulate my ovaries – my ninety-ninth percentile ovaries – and the ultrasounds said my follicles were good to go.
‘American women are so chinny. And they’re all called Lauren.’
I assumed this meant that Jack, who claimed to have never dallied with a student, had never dallied with an American student. ‘And they’re so painfully earnest.’
‘Earnestness – the bête noir of all British people,’ I said.
‘Like you don’t feel exactly the same.’ He slid over and jammed himself up against the layers of winter clothes between us so that our outer thighs nearly touched. Then the dreaded sound of a vibrating phone. ‘The missus is texting. I’d better vanish. Tell me in the morning, yea or nay on the trip.’ An unremarkable kiss goodbye, then extended eye contact. ‘Bon chance with the trigger thingy.’
Half an hour later, I was in bed next to Matthew, who was reading one of his journals. Since becoming a fellow in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, he’d begun subscribing to more journals than he had time to read. There were a few in each room of the house, including the kitchen and bathroom. I didn’t mind because their covers were often beautiful and I loved seeing Matthew so pleasurably immersed in something I had no way of understanding.
He was reading about plant pathology and climate change. I reached over and tugged at his boxers, not really as a sexual gambit but more to remind him that I was there. He put down the journal and took off his glasses. We talked about the dashing Belgian prince who was saving mountain gorillas in eastern Congo. He told me about petrichor, the pleasantly earthy scent that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell. His top three smells were black licorice, fried seafood and unlit Gauloise (French mother). Mine were the leaves of a tomato plant, the Pacific Ocean on a cold day and freshly baked bread despite the fact that I’d never baked bread, nor could I recall an instance of bread being baked in any of my former kitchens.
I loved our tired talks. Slurred words before the hypnic jerk. I reached over and palmed counterclockwise circles on his stomach, the tautest I’d ever touched. He squeezed my hand and chewed my earlobe for a second. That was the extent of it. It had been that way for over a year, save for the few nights each month around ovulation. I hadn’t felt the urge, but I think I could’ve if I thought that Matthew did.
He was younger than me. Like so many men in their early thirties, he was too old to act out and too young to be acting out again. Men his age were always trying to be good, experimenting with fidelity and constancy, some Old West model of the stand-up guy. They were more sincere than they’d been since childhood and sincerer than they’d ever be again. Matthew wanted a child and loved to speculate. How magical our genetic mash-up would be. A girl, preferably. Girls were sweeter and not as loud. Plus, less autism.
‘Ready for tomorrow?’ I asked.
‘You know it. Hope they’ve still got Cum Hither Sluts.’
We’d done the insemination twice before. If the third time turned out not to be the charm, we’d give up or move to in-vitro. While I didn’t, at that moment, yearn for a child, stopping trying forever seemed impossibly sad. While the thought of being a mother stirred little in me, the thought of never being anyone’s mother sounded so final – a finite and ungenerous sketch of the second half of my life, and a restraint on the fullest expression of the love between Matthew and me. It was sad, but sadness is part of life. And there was so much else that was happy.
Next morning, with the help of Cum Hither Sluts, Matthew made his deposit and left it with a technician in street clothes. A lab coat would’ve been reassuring. Matthew kissed me goodbye and walked back to campus for a thesis meeting with a student from Benin. I signed a form acknowledging the increased chances of twins or worse, then placed my feet in the stirrups. The injection was quick and painless. For obvious reasons, I was instructed to stay supine for fifteen minutes. The Department of Reproductive Endocrinology was on the eleventh floor. I looked out the window at my adopted town. The sky had that awful ashy flatness and there was old snow on the ground. Lake-effect squalls had stripped the trees of their leaves. People moved quickly, cars slowly.
Jack was double-parked in front of the medical center. His royal blue Mini was a little vulgar amidst the bleakness, but it was exhilarating, the way he sat there reading the paper, his smile once he saw me. We said little on the ride to the airport and took separate flights timed twenty minutes apart. During the hour and a half in the sky, I drank iced Bloody Mary mix despite its obscene sodium content, and avoided peeing in order to keep the Sea-Monkeys inside for as long as they’d have me.
‘And what did you tell Master Matt?’
‘Not Matt. Matthew.’
Neither a grande dame nor a Days Inn, it was a boutique hotel with one of Jack’s paintings in the lobby, which enabled him to stay there, and at any of the mini-chain’s other properties, at a deep discount in perpetuity. We were having a drink in the bar, a design-forward 2.0 English pub called The Beacon & The Bane. It was maybe the darkest bar I’d ever been in – big wood, lots of red – with wallpaper whose coat-of-arms motif looked vaguely Constructivist. The vibe was ‘workers unite’, but cheeky. I mostly remember the sickles.
‘What did you say to young Matthew?’
I’d gotten some mileage out of the National Gallery’s affiliation with the International Federation of Film Archives, where I’d just been elected to the board. It made perfect sense to pop down to DC. There was even a Barbara Hammer retrospective in progress – it was kismet.
‘You love her, right?’ asked Jack. ‘The lesbian from Los Angeles.’
‘Good memory. Did I mention her?’
‘No, silly. You talk about her in an interview I read during the stalking phase.’
‘Are we no longer in the stalking phase?’
‘Ask me in twenty-four hours,’ he said, pursing his lips around his straw. Jack was not a committed or savvy drinker, as evidenced by his fondness for fruity drinks served in elaborate glassware. He never called his liquor and he drank from a straw. Me, I drink bourbon or rye, always neat. I like black coffee, scalding baths and punitive shiatsu, and am more likely to greet friends and associates with a brusque kiss than a hug or a handshake. I like directness, sharp things, treble. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate innuendo, slow sunsets, and clothing that’s womanly (assuming Petra Von Kant is your kind of woman). That night, the crotch of my 10-denier stockings had what was previously a tiny hole, and as of a few hours before, a slightly larger hole, after having used my fingers to broaden the rip without rendering the stockings useless (they were Fogal, and pricey). I was keeping this to myself for the moment.
‘I think you’d be a great mother, for whatever it’s worth,’ said Jack.
‘Inappropriate subject. I’m interpreting that to mean I’ll look sexy with child, and then with actual child.’
‘Interesting use of the word “I’ll” as opposed to “I’d”. You feel confident it’s going to happen, then?’
‘Actually I don’t. Not confident and not interested. Still.’
‘So why on earth are you doing this? Is it lovely, planty Matthew’s dream to spawn?’
‘Don’t put me on the spot.’
‘But you look so good on the spot.’
‘People keep saying it doesn’t have to make you boring, but I see little evidence of this.’
Every pro-procreation person swore that it was suddenly possible to have a kid and still be fabulous, or rigorous, or whatever you were before, engaged with parts of life that were thought to have been off-limits to new parents. From my vantage point, even the grooviest, most bohemian mothers and fathers were saturated by the job, despite the smartened-up trappings. Privileged mothers wrote about their ambivalence and exhaustion, found it liberating to admit what generations before them stifled. Less well-off mothers didn’t know the luxury of ambivalence, but they knew what it took to keep their babies alive. And the steady, strident chorus of the proudly childless was becoming impossible to ignore. It was all so fucking dull.
‘Where does your helpmeet stand on this?’ I mentioned her in retaliation for his bringing up baby. I was reminding us both what we’re vacationing from, imbuing the moment with more something, more us.
‘I’ve no idea. She wanted three, got two.’
‘Three including you.’
‘God, no. I’m strictly third sex. Gender: husband.’
‘Is she really that awful?’
‘I never said she was awful. She’s just very her. At first I thought her was right for me, but living with her and enduring things with her has shown me a her that was different from the initial her. It’s more a problem of us than of her. Or maybe it’s her.’
Jack claimed to have dated enough beautiful women early in life to be done with them, and he seemed to think that marrying someone plain would bulk up the appearance of his heft – moral or otherwise – to the outside world. The plain wife was supposedly neither interesting nor kind, but she’d made a great deal of money in business, and never let Jack forget it.
‘What does feminist theory say about denigrating the wife of your lover?’
‘I denigrated no one, I’m not your lover, and this has nothing to do with feminism. If I loved and adored all women because they were women, I’d be a monster.’ I faux-kicked him in the shins. ‘Ever notice which politicians say they’re “pro-women?”’
While I believed this to be true, I still felt slightly bad about carousing in a boutique hotel with another woman’s husband. And for reveling in the male gaze of a man who was not Matthew, since Matthew no longer looked at me that way. I taught Laura Mulvey (‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, 1975) and I knew Laura Mulvey personally but Laura Mulvey wasn’t life. Who doesn’t want to be looked at in that way?
‘You’re already a monster,’ Jack said. ‘You’ve destroyed me, you realize. You and your sharp incisors. Your talons. Same drink?’
He brought our empty glasses to the bar, which had gotten busy with graphic designers and the people who love them. Were we the only ones in the bar who shouldn’t have been there? Doubtful. I watched from the tiny red banquette and found that Jack stood out, wondered whether he would’ve if I didn’t know him. This knack I had for zeroing in on that man, the one who chose the wrong woman. These were the men who believed that the right woman could fix things. They banked on this creature as a reflection of all they’d learned and become in the years since their matrimonial mistake. Why did being someone else’s solution feel so . . . native to me? The do-over. The counterpoint. Had I been dismissed too often as a child? Convinced I was bad?
We’d been told and retold about a man’s drive to proliferate, to spread seeds, his yen for disbursal. And yet. It was women who knew the dangers of consolidation. Sure there was the possibly real need for physical protection, but a new study revealed that long-term intimacy kills women’s sex drives faster than men’s, and that women are more turned on by novelty. The study hadn’t gotten much publicity.
Few things excited me the way it did to be the one, the one that got away despite being right there, in secretly torn 10 denier stockings. It almost made me believe.
‘Look. I’ve become a man in the interim,’ said Jack, putting two identical lowball glasses of brown liquor on the table.
‘Bourbon, neat?’ I asked.
‘Mais bien sûr, mon petit chou.’
‘No little pink umbrella?’
‘No brolly. Despite my surging torrent of desire. I don’t mind getting wet, being English.’
‘You and your innuendos. Nuanced as The Three Stooges.’
‘As long as I get to be Mo.’
‘I’m Mo. You’re Shemp.’
‘I feel so far from you, Mo,’ said Jack, reaching in between our bourbons for my hand.
‘I have a solution to that.’
‘Show, don’t tell. Haven’t you heard?’
‘Then show. By all means.’
‘But why show when you can feel?’
‘You’re killing me, madam.’
We took a few quick nips of bourbon. I spread my legs and pushed my hips as far forward as the banquette would allow. ‘Find me,’ I said.
‘Find you where?’ His face broke like kindling, motion in the eyes.
He leaned into his right shoulder and reached down beneath the table. I felt his fingers tap around and land on the Fogal hole. Was this really happening?
‘Crotchless?’ he asked.
‘They are now. For you.’
‘Handmade crotchless tights. How artisanal,’ he said, entering me with his index finger. ‘Your resourcefulness is really – [thrust] – quite – [thrust] – astounding.’
This was maybe the hottest and sickest thing I’d ever done, especially given the real or imagined potential for spillage from the morning’s procedure. We finished our bourbons and tore at each other in the elevator. In the corridor, I told him to count to fifty, and I let myself in to my room. After gargling some water from the bathroom tap, I waited on the bed in the dark with only the faintest memory of the flight to DC. On the nightstand, limited-edition condoms (complimentary) and small-batch vodka (available for purchase). It occurred to me that I’d never been outside with Jack – only bars, cars, the airport and now here – when he came in.
We fell sleep when the sun rose. The hours preceding saw two adult humans exhibiting an athleticism that surprised them both. You might think it was a disappointment after so much build-up – the swift dissolution of two fantasies in one night. But we flipped and lurched like fish on hooks, gasping for air, drawing tiny dots of blood. He was fleshier than expected, and I liked this expansiveness, his broadness, the zones against which I sunk a little. It made me feel strangely safe, made him seem slightly greedy in a way that roused me. I thought I saw him shed a tear. I thought I felt myself do the same, but who’s to say it wasn’t sweat?
A full English breakfast in bed after four hours of sleep, culminating with lime marmalade on buttered toast. Crumbs and marmalade globs, the mood was airy. I had insisted he pull out so as not to interfere with the earlier deposit from Matthew. Superfecundation, I’d explained to him, is when two different men father fraternal twins in one woman, during one cycle. It does happen, although this didn’t really concern me. The real issue was: if the insemination had worked this time, even without Jack’s actual DNA in the mix, Jack himself had been up there. The child, should there be one, will have inhabited roughly the same space as Jack.
It had been bittersweet over the past year whenever my period arrived. There was an acute, fleeting sadness, especially in months during which I thought I’d been briefly pregnant. But as the first cramps hit, I’d engage in a frenzy of activity that had been verboten. I’d dye my graying roots, maybe take a Vicodin, eat sashimi, or drink espressos or balloon glasses of Barolo, and I’d languish in a too-hot sauna or sunbathe at high noon or do a hundred sit-ups. Often I’d enjoy these simultaneously – any three or four of them worked beautifully together. A part of me cherished these few days at the start of each follicular phase, before having to try again.
I was always a little caught off-guard by the National Gallery’s hulking reserve from the outside, the kind of stolid neoclassical certitude that chastises as you enter. Light streamed down from the oculus in the West Building’s central rotunda. Each time I’d been there, I thought of the architect, who died before his building was built. Would he have liked the East Building, built a quarter century later, with its interlocking shapes and spiky angles?
We followed signs toward the permanent collection until we were face to frame with Mound of Butter, the painting we’d come for. We stood and looked, said nothing. I felt my mouth begin to water before the sunny tumulus of butter rising up from its cheesecloth. It was many-sided as a glacier but with a voluptuousness I’d rarely seen in a still life. Calling it still was an affront, since the creamy hillock appeared to physically soften under my room-temperature gaze until Jack elbowed me in the ribs. ‘Told you,’ he said.
A group approached. Because it was mid-day, the tour was made up of the very young and very old.
‘Look at the docents,’ Jack whispered. But there was no obvious docent.
‘Down there. Wheelchairs. His and hers.’
‘Which brings us to impasto. Merriam-Webster calls it a thick application of paint that doesn’t even try to look smooth. As you can tell, it’s thick and luxurious. It exists to show off the brush and knife marks. See all that nice texture,’ said the man in the wheelchair. He was somewhere between Jack’s age and elderly, with atrophied legs and a somber Gregory Peck face.
It can also be used to convey feelings and emotion, as well as dimension, said the man’s female counterpart. The technique in Vollon’s Mound of Butter is so extreme, I like to call it mega-impasto.
I found it hard to stay focused in the midst of these tag-teaming docents, human bookends motoring around at knee-level. How were the tour-goers so unruffled? I thought of Diane Arbus’s twins, and Tweedles Dee and Dum – mostly in the John Tenniel illustrations – and Joan Crawford in Baby Jane, the diabolical Mr. Roque in Mulholland Drive, and naturally of Richard Widmark pushing Mrs. Rizzo down the stairs in Kiss of Death. I’d always resented docents, those piercers of reverie, but this old couple was heightening my experience of the Vollon. I was riled. Was it Lyotard or Barnett Newman who said the sublime is now?
This picture, said the female docent, looks as though it might’ve been painted with actual butter, which could’ve been the case. The artist was known to have mixed pigments with whatever materials he could find. Sometimes he applied his paint with rocks or clothing, if you can believe it.
Now the male docent: Vollon preferred to paint such domestic items as fresh fish, dead rabbits and fruit, and would often eat his subjects for dinner at the end of the day.
‘Just like you,’ I said to Jack. He laughed.
‘Quiet, please,’ said the male docent.
‘Apologies,’ said Jack. I knew he was stifling a laugh, just by the sound of his voice.
‘Is something funny?’ asked the female docent.
‘What do you mean funny?’ said Jack. Silence in the room. ‘Funny haha, or funny peculiar?’
‘Nothing’s funny,’ I said.
‘Then why the snickering?’ asked the male.
‘You think you’re the first?’ asked the female.
‘The first what?’ asked Jack.
‘First to snicker. To mock us,’ said the female. ‘Fine art is an equal opportunity employer.’
‘If but that were true,’ Jack mumbled sotto voce.
‘You disagree?’ asked the female.
‘Of course he agrees,’ I said. ‘He’s a painter. We were enjoying your talk about impasto.’
‘This is absurd,’ said Jack. ‘We meant no disrespect.’ He grabbed my hand and led us away and downstairs to the gift shop. I’d never seen him with his dander up. The storminess was sexy, even if it minimized him.
There were hanging racks of silk scarves at the entrance. I grabbed the one printed with Klimt’s first Adele Bloch-Bauer for my mother. All Caillebotte-themed Christmas supplies and paperweights were 30 percent off. Jack went to the postcards. There were enough gingko leaf brooches, seed pearl pendants and dangling filigree earrings to adorn every post-menopausal woman on New York’s Upper West Side.
Museum gift shops were like evening baseball games. So exquisitely neutral and without controversy. Reassuring not just in their constancy but also because there was something for everyone, which we’ve learned is a bad thing but really maybe isn’t.
On an early date with Matthew, when we still lived in New York – we were at the Fricke, I think – he’d mentioned how ridiculous it was that all museum shops had botanical sections. They were geared toward Sunday hobbyists in floppy hats, and in a funny way also to Matthew, who enjoyed them as I enjoyed the crappiest Hollywood-themed tchotchkes.
There were heirloom vegetable seeds because of course there were, and a birdhouse kit, a terrarium-starter, Botany For Dummies and The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: How the World Got Into Your Garden. I wanted to buy Matthew some silly trifle. I liked the comic potential of seeds, given the prior day’s procedure.
‘Does madam fancy a hummingbird feeder?’ It was Jack, with a handful of postcards, ostensibly still lifes. He picked up a book – I didn’t see the title – a reissue of something old, and began to leaf through it. ‘Ever heard of tropism?’ he asked.
‘Sure. When something grows toward some external stimulus.’
‘Of course you have.’ He was skimming the pages. ‘This is nice. Can I read?’
‘Mais bien sûr, mon petit chou,’ I said. It felt funny to call him my cabbage in the plant section.
Giambattista della Porta (1535–1615), a well-known practitioner of natural magic. . . described plant phototropism as a ‘rejoicing’ response to the sun . . . he proposed that the same fundamental law of nature, which he called ‘sympathy,’ governed the attraction of iron toward magnets, hens toward eggs, and the phototropic movement of plants toward the sun.
‘That’s lovely,’ I said. It was.
‘It goes on.’ Jack continued.
The inductive nature of the response was finally confirmed when Julius von Wiesner (1838–1919) showed that plants continue to bend toward a light source even after the light is turned off.
It was a stirring, if obvious, metaphor. How I pined for Jack, mostly at night. How I missed Matthew terribly at that moment in the gift shop. How in spite of my pining and missing, neither man seemed fully formed and I felt a little lonely in the presence of both.
But it’s not the things we bend toward, is it? It’s the bending itself. Light sources change, they may overlap, but the bending – the capacity to bend and keep bending when the light has gone – is what fuels our desire, imagination, our empathy. It’s what makes us us, and what makes life life.
I paid for the seeds and Jack’s postcards and the Klimt scarf for my mother, who I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. We retraced our steps back to Mound of Butter, which looked yellower in the deepening afternoon. Not counting the stern half-presence of the guard, we were alone.
At the earlier viewing, I’d not noticed the butter knife stuck unconvincingly into the mound. There was no way it was lodged in far enough to have stayed upright at its 1.00 angle. The two eggs in the foreground looked like late additions, forced in under the cheesecloth without displacing it even a little bit. The eggs were impossibly small, meant to give a sense of proportion, maybe, to further exalt the formidable mound. It was a so-so painting. Still, I could’ve looked at it for god knows how long. It may have belonged on the walls of stores that sold housewares but its appeal was unassailable.
Feature image from Mound of Butter by Antoine Vollon, © National Gallery of Art, Washington DC