Man Stares At Painting

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He’d been leaving a lot lately, Fridays (his half-day) at mid-afternoon, still in his slacks from work, his shirt’s crispness gone limp but with the sleeves rolled up to display wiry, strong forearms. He’d sigh at his desk, pushing his hair back from his forehead, stand up, take his wallet from the counter, stick it in his back pocket, slide back into his leather shoes, and just go out the apartment door. He wouldn’t wish me goodbye. He’d turn and give me a slow, purposeful nod, half a smile shining through dark eyes above the graying bags that had been hanging below them lately.

He’d come back roughly three hours later, often with a bag of takeout food in hand. Hot falafel or white folded Chinese-food cartons. He’d set the warm brown paper package on the coffee table as he’d sit down beside me, undo the top button of his shirt, and pass me the first pair of chopsticks, often telling me about whoever he’d sat across from on the T.

Where I saw a canvas backdrop, he saw an intricate lace of stories and lives. He’d smile shyly at the small children whose legs dangled from the grubby train seats beside us, and stand to attention when an elderly person would enter the car, grabbing the top rail and beckoning the individual to the now-vacant seat. He could look around a crowded Dunks and instantly pick out the “characters,” the guy talking to his bagel or whatever, but never made fun of them, instead seeming to point them out in wonderment. I think he was one of the few people with the ability to sit in the car in a crowded intersection and fully comprehend that the bodies in the cars that surrounded him were not background actors but individuals with a backstory just as rich and toned as his own, and who were going from somewhere to somewhere with purpose. I had never heard him honk.

Tonight, he was taking extra long to come home. I decided to ask him. That is, where he seemed to go on Friday afternoons. I paced to the fridge and opened the door, letting the cold waft of air and white light wash over me. Maybe it’s not always the same place, I thought, extracting an apple from the crisper. This didn’t make sense to me, though, since the entire experience seemed so uniform: leave at 3:15-30, work attire, return just in time for dinner. I spread a dollop of peanut butter on the apple’s smooth, red-green dappled skin.

As time drew nearer to three hours, I wondered if he didn’t want me to know, if the location was deliberately hidden. Tension crawled in my stomach and chattered in my teeth—I didn’t want to fight. I couldn’t. My adrenaline accelerated when the doorknob turned, and my heart thumped uncomfortably. He entered smiling, two giant subs wrapped in festive yellow paper in tow. “Vegetable or beef?” I reached for vegetable.

“Where,” I started and faltered, voice crackling, “Do you… go?” I stared down at my knees. My mouth was as dry and papery as the restaurant napkin in my hand.

I turned to see his face, unsure what to expect, but finding mellow congeniality. “Do you want me to take you tomorrow?” he asked. I nodded heartily, too relieved to seem overeager.

Rather than alleviating my wonderings, the prospect of the big revelation in less than twenty-four hours just accelerated the thoughts’ bouncing around in my mind, colliding with visions of stacks of paperwork, fragments of grocery lists, single lines of songs, tangled conversations, and titles of articles and books I’d told myself I’d “look at later,” reverberating off the sides of my skull and ringing. My feet sticking to the cold floor, I traipsed to the bathroom in the night to take some Benadryl for sleep. Saturday morning, I awoke eagerly, bounced through my run from Kendall down Commonwealth, and downed two slices of dry toast in four or five chomps.

I sat by his side on the T wondering again if I was going to meet another person, one he knew in a spectrum different than my own. He, like everyone else we met in college, exists in numerous circles outside the school, from family and old acquaintances to previous dates and jobs. Perhaps it was someone he met at work. We transferred at Park Street, and I kept pace at his side rather than asking him which train we were changing to.

Northeastern slid by outside the window of the car, and when the train slowed to a stop at the MFA, he stood and beckoned for me to follow. I glanced around on the sidewalk, from the manicured grass park to the tall-fenced soccer field, but he led me into the museum proper. Without looking back, he led me up to the center floor, to Europe, and the impressionist landscapes. He halted in front of a Monet seaside.

I must have looked expectant, because he seemed almost embarrassed. “When I’m about to have a panic attack, I come look at this painting. These too, sort of,” he said, indicating the neighboring pieces. “Sometimes everything’s just so overly full of stuffand feels so complicated, like it’s kind of smothering me, that I need to come stand in a white room with a tall ceiling and look out ten windows at fields and seas and just breathe.” His hands had sunk into his pockets. Mine followed suit. He seemed to think it was his turn to look uncomfortable, to look away.

“I think that’s great,” I said. “I think that’s really cool, like, if I didn’t take a break and go for a run every morning I’d lose my mind, and that you work way too hard for such a young guy. And I love the way these are painted in neat little dabs, like the most vivid sunny day I’ve ever seen.”

I wasn’t staring at a painting, though. I was staring at a man staring at a painting, and it was the greatest work of art I’d seen in a long time, possibly ever.

The painting spoke to me. “Do you want to get falafel after this?”

I responded, “For sure.”

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(Note: there is an actual Man who Stares at Painting, but I have never met him. One of my favorite professors said a friend of hers goes to the Met every time he verges on a panic attack to look at the same painting, and that idea just really got me)

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