Miss, someone says before Ella can leave the room. Miss, the voice says again—a well-meaning & well-mannered man’s voice—I saw you admiring the Benton.
She stops. She turns. Of course she does, because she hasn’t been admiring the Benton painting “The Prodigal Son,” but instead she’s been standing in front of it as she lets her eyes slide over to the young security guard—named Nero Green according to the maroon label on his muscular chest—who stands nearby. She’s been trying to decide what to say to him. She’s been hoping he would say something to her so her internal debating & unending doubt would be made moot. So even though usually when a man she doesn’t know speaks to her she averts her eyes, ducks her head, & walks away briskly, this time she turns. She turns as if she’s decided something final & life-altering, as if she’s decided to save someone from drowning or to kill herself. She turns as if it’s some sort of statement about the future, as if now she can live her life knowing about real love, as if she’s found the beauty that cuts through pain & the smooth jazz murmuring over cold silence & the moonlight that makes the black & white of her existence gleam with glamour instead of shadow.
@Her2223 turns her face away as if she’s just been slapped. No, she says, don’t take it yet. I’m not ready. She brushes her fingers through her black hair & smooths her t-shirt, self-conscious but graceful too. She looks fine to him, @Him45. She looks fine to him after she’s spent about a decade & a half grooming herself, & she looked fine to him before.
This annoys @Him45, the wasted time, but he doesn’t mention it. You look fine, he says, raising the camera. It’s just a picture.
As Ella turns, she takes a deep breath & reminds herself that the art of seduction relies on a touch of panache, being calm, collected, sure of yourself, sure of what you want & how to get it. A hand running through her black hair, a charming smile, a brush of her fingertips against the smooth flesh of his arm—messages that he won’t miss.
In her mind, he is the most beautiful work of art in the whole museum. He glows as if standing in front of a spotlight, but there is only the bare white wall behind him & a sign that forbids photography in the same clinical type as the signs labeling each painting. Sunlight comes down from windows high above & the air wafts with climate-controlled coolness. He rocks on his heels with James Dean boredom. He’s young—the baby fat on his cheeks making Ella think he must be fresh out of high school, quite a few years younger than her, a few years out of college. She has wondered what that means for her, whether she’s desperate to reclaim some sort of youth or beauty she never actually possessed or whether she has simply fallen in love & age is just a number like a name is just a word.
She’s already seeing him again in her mind, but when she turns he’s obviously not the one calling out to her about her interest in the Benton painting. Nero still rocks on his heels, his back bouncing on the wall, his arms crossed.
A man with a wart above his upper lip & a friendly but wrinkled face smiles at her, his eyes far away from each other, gentle but almost amphibian. Flustered despite her mental preparation to remain collected, the touch of panache, etc., she says, Yes, & mumbles something about the painting’s use of lines—something she overheard earlier while she was leaning toward the painting, her h& holding her chin & her eyes pulling to Nero, his broad shoulders & stiff jaw & strong thighs.
Did you know he modeled his subjects with clay before he painted them? the man asks.
@Him45 gets the picture developed & shows it to her that night at dinner in his apartment. @Her2223 ruins the candlelit atmosphere by turning on the light to study the picture, her fingers running over the smooth surface, chuckling, You probably think I’m so vain.
I don’t, he says.
It’s just that pictures are important. You don’t realize it until you’re seeing one at somebody’s funeral.
Or wedding, he says.
Yeah, she says.
She flips the lights back off & puts the picture on the table. He senses her withdraw & worries that he’s said the wrong thing, that he’s made the conversation too serious—she doesn’t like talking of the future almost as much as she doesn’t like talking about the past—but Jesus you don’t mention funerals unless you’re ready to get serious. & surely she knows that the picture represents a sort of permanence. I got them to make one to send to my parents & one for you, he says, pulling another copy of the picture out of the paper envelope & holding it out to her until she takes it & smiles warmly, hugging it to her chest. Encouraged by this display of fondness, he says, My mother already bought a frame.
Ella shakes her head at the man & says, I’m sorry, but I’m going to see the robots.
She is lying—she wouldn’t go back into the robot exhibit for a million dollars. Okay, maybe for a million dollars, or perhaps a kiss from Nero, but for nothing less. She saw the robots on her first trip to the museum a few months ago—she walked past the Aztec masks & into a room below a sign yelling in all-caps that the future is now. At first she was confused. The walls were blank—no paintings, no sculptures, no photographs, drawings, or films. She hesitated, thinking she’d wandered into an exhibit not yet open to the public, but she lingered because there were others besides her milling about—others not dressed in security guard uniforms like Nero or wearing museum curator badges. They seemed like people, normal people like her. They checked their phones, sniffed, coughed, paced, & gazed at the architecture of the city buildings outside the window. Among them, a mother pulled along a little boy, an old couple held hands, a lone girl with a notebook tapped her temple with a pencil.
But after a moment Ella noticed something strange about them. They barely moved, or, rather, they moved like a short recording that repeated over again in a few minutes. The mother tugged the boy’s arm. The boy pointed. The older woman of the couple pulled away as she coughed. The older man patted her shoulder. The lone girl tapped her temple as if telling someone to think, shifting her weight as she stared intensely at the bare wall.
&, Ella noticed later, in the right light if she stared close enough, their metallic spines shimmered a bit through the skin stretched tight against the back of their necks.
Robots, the sign by the entrance explained. Humanoid sculptures as real as reality, blurring the line between art & life, the living & the beautiful. She ended up gawking at a mustached man for ten minutes, trying to see the shimmer in the back of his neck, until he turned around annoyed & said, Lady can I help you? She was so embarrassed & unnerved by the whole situation that she nearly tripped hurrying from the room, back to the safety of the normal art, the art you could tell what it was, the Benton painting, & Nero.
@Him45 rips the picture in half, her frozen smiling face jagged now like a figure from a Picasso-designed fever dream. @Her2223 doesn’t notice, although he did it dramatically & passionately for her benefit. It’s just words, she says. Why are saying the words out loud in front of everybody so important? We’re more than words. Our love is more than words—words can’t capture it, so why do people try?
It isn’t just words, he explodes, throwing the halves of the picture onto the carpet. It’s an important commitment, he says more gently.
I do, she says. There you go, I said it to you. Nobody else needs to hear it.
Are you trying to keep me a secret?
You’re ashamed of me.
I am not. We exist more than what either of us say, that’s all, more than contracts & invitations & money & fancy clothes & ceremony & wasted time, she says & continues, They’re all just words. & words are just another way to frame people, put them inside a box.
I’m not trying to push you into something you don’t want to do, he says. I just want to move forward.
She notices the picture on the floor. Forward, she says like a conclusion that sums up the whole discussion & her feelings about it & her fear that the past will soon be so buried in plans for the future that the person she was & once dreamed of becoming would get buried too. She once loved someone else. He can tell by the way she looks inward & faraway anytime he brings up anything but their current contented present. He is furiously jealous of this memory she keeps, but is satisfied by it too. In the end he will get her simply because he’s real & the memory is not. He will get her body & soul & share his body & soul with her, the memory just an empty room she sometimes meanders through sighing.
That’s an interesting exhibition, says the man. His voice lowers, You know, they make it sound like science fiction has become reality, but I suspect those so-called robots are really just well-trained actors.
Ella shakes her head fiercely, but is left with nothing to say. She has stood for hours in front of that Benton painting looking at Nero, beginning to wonder if there is a shimmer coming from the back of his neck—if that’s where his glow comes from. She would doubt so much she would begin to sweat & have to look away because sweat isn’t good for a lady trying to be seductive. She would look back at the painting, where a man stands swallowing his hand in a world of strange & wonderful swirls. What is he reaching into his mouth for? Putting in some stale bread or dried meat, or is he pulling something out? It seems to Ella like he’s reaching far enough inside himself that his emancipated fingers press into the soft pink flesh of the back of his throat, & if he can stand the discomfort & pain & reach further he can grab ahold of his soul & pull it out from his body, fold it gently & leave it lying on the cow skeleton in front of the dilapidated shack beside him, & then hitch a ride into a new life outside the frame. Missing something & gaining something too.
If the robots are just actors, even the painting is corrupted. Art can’t just be a word. There’s got to be a difference between it & life.
She feels she would get a better grasp of the situation if she can just talk to Nero, if she seduces him, if they end up in a back room together alone & quiet, touching each other in the cool with all the silence & solitude the universe has to offer surrounding them. She has been with men before & there’s always some distraction—knuckles knocking on the backseat car window or a creaky bed or footsteps marching somewhere upstairs—but it won’t be that way with Nero, this young man with all the light in his eyes & skin, gleaming from his fingertips & the ends of each strand of his hair.
It will be her hands on his back, his lips on her cheekbones & jaw & neck.
She can’t muster the courage to talk to him, though, to speak to him at all, if only to say hello, to ask him how he is & how his day has been, if it’s boring being a security guard when art heists are so rare these days. Does he go to college? Does he have parents, friends, a girlfriend, & plans for the future? She doesn’t care what his answers might be—she will run her fingers through her hair, give him a charming smile, & touch his arm no matter what. She will care about what emotions spring into his eyes as he talks. If he gets angry she wants to get angry too. If he gets sad she wants her bottom lip to tremble with his sadness. If he gets hopeful or nostalgic or joyful she wants to tell him it’s all right what he feels—she feels that way, too.
If he’s a robot he won’t have those emotions to give, & she would be disappointed.
But if he’s an actor his emotions won’t be real, & she would be devastated.
The man with the wart & the amphibian features stares at her as if she’s in a frame & hanging on the wall. When she stares back at him she imagines the supposed robots becoming people again, wearing street clothes, walking to their cars after the museum closes. She imagines them coming in early in the crisp morning darkness before the museum opens & applying metallic makeup to the back of their necks as they chat about the weather. No, she thinks. They are too inhuman when you really look into their faces. They don’t feel. They don’t speak. They would exist only as deaf & dumb things if there weren’t a sign explaining their concept, framing them, beside the exhibition entrance.
I’m not sure that’s accurate, Ella stammers.
For years, her copy of the picture sits inside a chest they use as a coffee table in the center of their living room—always covered in magazines, books, junk mail, toys when the kids are born, &, when the kids get older, bags of chips & half-empty cans of stale Coke that she says makes the place look like a crack house. The picture sits still smiling silent in the darkness at the center of their family arguments, discussions, & meals. She hangs up pictures of the kids, of the whole family including the in-laws, of him & her together—but never that particular one of her alone that @Him45 took when they were both so young & anxious. That was when he wanted to send a picture of her home to his parents, to have her picture folded in his wallet, & for her to have a picture of herself taken by him.
@Him45 still carries his copy in his wallet, the picture repaired by smudged scotch tape where he ripped it in half during an argument, one of the many he has come to expect when loving such a complicated, distrusting, & fractured person. There’s a white line like lightning that runs through the picture, cutting through her face, & the halves of her don’t exactly match up—like when you watch a dubbed movie & the sound doesn’t exactly fit with the movement of the actors’ lips.
They both know more concretely now—although they knew then & this knowledge is still unspoken—that the picture represents the way he sees her, & her reaction to the picture represents the way she feels being seen by him.
So as they lie beside each other in the quiet nights, after kids have been corralled & TVs turned off & phones put away, they wonder about the significance of her picture stuffed into the darkness in the center of the living room & his folded in his wallet, knowing that although the picture represents their love, whatever lies outside of the frame has been missed, left behind, locked into the museum of her mind.
So easily, naturally, & fearlessly that it makes Ella want to cry, the man waves a hand at Nero & says, Hey, do you know what the deal is with that robot exhibition? I mean, they’re actors, right?
Panache goes out the window. Ella stares slack-jawed as Nero grins, glows, says, I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about it.
He’s real. His voice is human, not that she ever really thought he could be anything else—she only doubted because of his beauty, & only briefly, put into some kind of state because of her doubts & nerves & hormones & the strange Benton painting, the hot rush of air against her back as someone walked behind her, the clinically-typed labels & the overheard comments about lines & space & the use of color. But although hearing his voice gives her chills, she can’t help but think that he’s still not completely real to her, that he’s still playing the part of hot security guard & outside the museum he exists as something else & she does too. She has built him up so much by describing him to herself that he can never be anything more than the words she has assigned him & the picture she has created in her mind, & she fears that she has done the same thing with herself.
The man says something that makes Nero laugh. Oh, how she wishes she could make Nero laugh! But her throat is dry & her head is filled with confusion. There are people all around, masterpieces on the walls, the climate-controlled coolness, & the man with the wart standing there proud & chatty. It’s not exactly moonlight & smooth jazz, not exactly the kind of romantic setting she’d want for Nero, but she doesn’t know what she expected. Perhaps she hoped time would part like the Red Sea for the fleetest of moments, long enough for her to walk up to him & say something clever, introduce herself, put whatever seduction strategy she could muster into action, & then fold back together to wash the whole experience away.
But life doesn’t work like that.
&, in fact, this moment is the closest she ever comes to speaking with Nero Green.
That’s you, @Him45 says. Don’t you remember?
@Her2223 holds the picture in her hand. It’s the only copy left—the one he sent to his parents got thrown out after they passed away, & his copy got lost when his wallet was stolen. Just as well. Her copy is the one that matters. He pets her gray hair, rubs her arm, careful of the IV, & steadies the hand holding the picture. Her eyes catch on the green t-shirt she wears in the picture, the green blurry & faded by the cheap, out-of-date technology of the camera & the print. He knows there are many different shades of green in that one shirt, so many that he can’t see them all—forest in the wrinkles, avocado closest to the light, even maybe a teal near the hem where the shirt meets her jeans. The green seems to mesmerize her. She has always been entranced by colors, lines, images. She told him a few years after college she used to spend hours in an art museum every week, admiring the masterpieces, the colors. She could always label the exact shade of the sky, the grass, & the surrounding landscape.
Love is a self-destruct button, she says, her voice barely audible over the robotic beeping of her heart monitor. @Him45 doesn’t know what she means. These last few years she’s made less & less sense, her statements more muddled, elusive, & often phrased like questions.
But @Him45 nods anyway & agrees. Any attempt at understanding would be a waste of the precious, dwindling time he has with her, so, Yes, he says, content although confused. Content because, after all, they’re just words.
CASS FRANCIS is from Waxahachie, Texas and attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program, where she works with the online literary journal Arkana. She blogs about movies and random musings at screenedweb.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter @WriterCFrancis. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Déraciné Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, and Drunk Monkeys.