The Museum Test
…..Pavarotti sang “O Holy Night” in his head on his first date with Lucia to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They sauntered through many rooms, and he wondered at the strangeness of her being there with him, after only having sat behind her in Russian Lit class for three weeks. He’d made some joke about Gogol’s “The Nose” and she’d told him that it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
…..In the 20th century wing they stood before several Modigliani paintings, and since he’d made her laugh with his Gogol comment, and since he’d made her laugh with a joke about the ticket man’s ears, he whispered to her, “Wow, all this guy ever painted were skinny women.”
…..“What are you trying to say?”
…..“Nothing. His paintings—they’re all…skinny.”
…..“Yeah, they’re all women. And they’re…skinny.”
…..Lucia huffed, and soon they were sitting on a bench in the huge upper hallway. She complained of a headache, and Pavarotti stopped singing in his head. He nodded to the marble staircase in front of him and to some armored figures in a room nearby, until she announced that she had to go. Her head was killing her, and she had a friend downtown that she needed to meet.
…..He was silent, mad now too as he watched her go, and later he went back to look at the Modigliani paintings, pouring over the write-up for each and unable to find anything about the artist’s tendency to paint thin, long-necked women.
…..He often wandered through campus between his classes, usually ending up in the library where sometimes he went to the music wing and checked out jazz albums. He’d sit in a cubicle and plug in headphones and lay his head down. Lately he’d asked for Pavarotti in La Bohéme and copied the words to “O Mimi Tu Piu Non Torni.” That song sometimes made him tear up, as though he had lost some great love in Italy in some other life. It was the only explanation, he reasoned, as he sat with eyes closed in his cubicle, his mouth quivering at the final long note sung by Luciano himself—and whoever the baritone was.
…..He loved his art history class because Professor Rubins only lectured and didn’t put anyone on the spot, and he analyzed great paintings by Delacroix and Turner and Renoir. Rubins even made a joke about Modigliani’s long-necked women, but as everyone else laughed, he fumed about Lucia all over again. In Russian Lit class, she now sat sullenly across the room from him, and after the first day of it he made a game of not even looking her way.
…..The following semester he took another art history class with Professor Rubins. Elaine Something sat next to him and asked if he painted at all.
…..“No, I stink.”
…..“Do you draw then? Do you draw?” She said draw, like “drah.”
…..“No. I love art and music, but I can’t do a thing with either.”
…..After two lunches in the cafeteria, they took the train to the city for a Saturday visit to the Met to help each other with projects on an artist of their choice. Elaine wasn’t the touchy snot that Lucia had been. He marveled over the way she eased past paintings with a calm bemused smile. When they stopped in front of the same set of Modigliani’s, she lingered for a while.
…..“Pretty nice paintings,” he said at last.
…..“His women are incredible,” said Elaine.
…..“Yeah. Wow,” he said, and breathed easier when she didn’t throw a fit.
…..When they reached a section with abstract art, she tilted her head over a Jackson Pollock creation and smirked a little. He smirked too.
…..“You know, I was thinking of stepping in some paint and running all over a canvas. Maybe make a million dollars.”
Elaine smiled a little wanly. “There’s more to it than that,” she said.
…..They were quiet after that, and even in the Impressionism wing she didn’t say much to him, and he didn’t even linger over his favorite Van Gogh’s and Cezanne’s.
…..“Are you hungry?” he finally asked.
…..And after a long silent ride back to campus, during which she read The New Yorker and he looked out the window, he decided that Modigliani and Pollock were his least favorite artists, and that they and Lucia and Elaine could all take their canvas-splattering, skinny-women-painting, touchy selves on a long hike into some ocean.
…..During the summer he joined a small writing group on campus, but after listening to the members’ poems and stories he decided that he could never write anything worth reading aloud. Often during writing sessions he took out his favorites, Chekhov or Faulkner, and read one of their stories instead. Betty was a good writer, though. She read her story to the class one afternoon. He didn’t understand it, but her sentences were long and lilting. She used words like “pale” and “discontinuous,” and when she read the word “ephemeral,” La Bohéme’s “O Soave Fanciulla” ran through his head and he got a little misty. He tuned out the rest of Betty’s story, but her voice had a musical note to it and he felt a pang. Maybe she’d been the one he’d known in Italy in a past life. She was smart and pretty, and she had a voice that made him feel like goop inside, and after the reading she seemed embarrassed at the group members’ raves. She was not like huffy Lucia or snooty Elaine.
…..Outside, he fell into stride with her on the sidewalk and asked if he could read her story.
…..“I do much better reading than listening,” he explained.
…..“Really? And I’m a much better listener.”
…..“What?” he said, and she got the joke almost immediately.
…..In the music library he cringed over his weak joke. He drew a thin-necked Lucia with a twisted mouth and a caption bubble that read, What are you trying to say? Soon La Bohéme’s “O Mimi Tu Piu Non Torni” sounded through his head phones, and he dropped his plans to draw Elaine as a jackass reading The New Yorker. He yearned for Betty, whom he was certain he’d known in Italy, maybe in the 1800s or something. They’d been married, or maybe he’d lost her before marriage when she caught a cold that quickly turned into a death. But it had to be that he had lost her, not the other way around, because otherwise his eyes wouldn’t have welled up every time he heard that song. If she’d been the one to lose him back in the day, then he would have been too dead to feel the loss. Betty was the one for him, he was sure of it, and he wondered how he could ever have wanted Lucia the snip or Elaine the snob. He imagined down-to-earth Betty laughing at his Modigliani comment and agreeing about Jackson Pollock, or at least shrugging over their different tastes. Betty was like that, and had probably been like that in Italy one hundred years ago—before tragedy separated them, whatever it was.
…..Along with some baritone, Pavarotti held the last beautiful note of “O Mimi Tu Piu Non Torni” and his eyes filled.
…..In his favorite film The Bronx Tale, Sonny told Calogero about the door test, and so he decided—after reading Betty’s story and not understanding it but telling her he loved it anyway—to invite her to the Met and maybe have lunch. If she did care about whatever he said about Modigliani or Pollock, then maybe he would take Sonny-like advice and dump her.
…..Are you sure? he pressed Sonny in his mind. Dump her?
…..Dump her, Sonny answered. Because if this broad—
…..If this broad Betty cares what you say about those stupid paintings, then she’s a selfish broad and it’s just the tip of the ice-boig.
…..He imagined himself married to Betty. Maybe she’d paint the kitchen a muddy yellow and he’d tell her it looked too much like puke, and she’d stomp around the living room.
…..Dump her if she does that too, Sonny said, eavesdropping on his further thoughts.
…..He and Betty had lunch in the museum restaurant that Saturday. They went through the Asian Art wing first, then passed quickly through the Renaissance. He had nothing to say about any painting, and soon they were walking shoulder to shoulder into the 20th Century wing. They faced the Modigliani’s.
…..“Oh my God, they’re all the same woman,” Betty said.
…..“Yeah,” he said after pause. “Lots of long necks.” He watched her face. She chuckled and nudged him along.
…..When they reached the Pollock’s, he suggested that he and Betty run. “I think we just walked into some little kid’s play room.”
…..She titled her head, and he winced.
…..“I never saw the attraction,” she said. “I’m sure he’s very talented…”
…..“Oh, of course. Look at that colorful…splatter. Takes a steady hand.”
…..“So randomly precise,” she chimed in, and he breathed easier.
…..Good, good, Sonny said in his mind. You’re doing good, kid. She’s all right, this broad.
…..“Wow, Chagall,” she said when they wandered into another room. They stood in front of one painting. Another couple stopped behind them to look too.
…..“I like him,” he said to Betty. “He’s always painting flying people and…horses flying around.”
…..The couple behind them laughed to each other. “Horses flying around,” the man snickered, and they laughed again. He turned to glare at them but they’d already moved on. His face burned and he felt Betty watching him.
…..He frowned his way through the other rooms, both of them quiet until she slipped her arm through his while they were looking at a Cezanne.
…..“He’s my favorite,” she said quietly, but he only nodded. “Do you like him?”
…..“Yeah…I like him.”
…..“Do you know,” she went on, “his paintings were criticized brutally, but that never stopped him.”
…..Her “brutally” sent a pang through him. He loved her voice. It reached into his belly, and he thought of asking her to say “brutally” again, but he only stared at the Cezanne.
Outside they bought pretzels and water and went into Central Park and sat under a tree.
…..“Nice day,” he said with an effort, and she nodded appreciatively at the grass and the trees and the sky.
…..Look, stupid, she already passed the museum test, Sonny said to him. But you failed it, with your flying horses. All you had to do was keep your mouth shut about Chagall. Even if you did know this broad in Italy way back in the dark ages, it don’t make no difference now. You blew it.
…..“Wow, look at that man with the blue face,” Betty said. “But wait, let him pass first.”
…..A man with a face painted blue walked by them.
…..“Picasso must have got to him,” he said miserably after the man passed.
…..“He’ll suffocate in his own skin that way.” Then she laughed. “Maybe he stepped right out of a Chagall painting. Blue faces and flying people and—” she leaned into him and giggled, “…and horses flying around…”
…..Her face was bright, and she bit at her bottom lip.
…..Later they walked along Fifth Avenue all the way to 59th Street. Sonny had gone back to his club for an anisette, and Luciano was drowned out by traffic noise and the rattle of strollers on cobblestone and the ching-ching of bicycle bells and the laughter of women walking together. And there was Betty’s voice too, giggling with him over Chagall and the blue-faced man and any other old silly comment they could think of making.
© Lou Gaglia
Lou Gaglia’s short story collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction. His stories have appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Menda City Review, Serving House Journal, Thrice Fiction, and elsewhere. He lives and teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner. Visit him at lougaglia.com.