1. Woman in Café, Michelle Valois, 2018, Words on screen, 286
An American is talking to three Brits in a museum café. I am not eavesdropping. I am looking down at my copy of the museum’s floor plan and thinking about the masterpieces I have yet to see: portraits, landscapes, interior scenes, still lives.
The Brits get up. Nice to meet you. Enjoy your stay.
When they leave, the American lifts a cell phone, dials. I am still not eavesdropping. Why did you write what you wrote today? Pause. When are you coming back? You asked if I was done, what were you trying to tell me?
On the table in front of the American is her copy of the floor plan, where she has carefully checked off each masterpiece she has seen.
The woman stands, pats down her pretty dress. The way I’d dress if I didn’t dress the way I do: men’s pants, men’s sweater, comfortable shoes. Will she see the all masterpieces on her list? Will I?
London is a busy city, made more crowded by the company I keep: in-laws, my partner, my almost-grown children.
My sister messages me updates on our mother, who roams the halls of the nursing home searching for her son, my brother, dead since two years back. I search the shops for a souvenir for her. Find a tin of short bread cookies with a picture of the Queen. Hope she remembers the Queen.
The American woman in the nice dress has left the café. I want to run after her, take her hand in mine, say, Come. Let us look together. We still have time. Which masterpieces have you yet to see?
But I do not follow. I finish my coffee and head to the temporary exhibits.
2. Hélène Rouart in her Father's Study, Edgar Degas, about 1886, Oil on canvas, 162.5 x 121 cm
My father did not have a study, but he had his own desk. This in a house where people did not have many things of their own. A Conant Ball, which probably doesn’t mean much to most people, made in a town very close to the town where I grew up, towns that once made things like desks and chairs.
Post-WWII American functionalism, walnut, square, seven drawers, three on each side, one in the middle, and it smelled of tobacco and old leather. My sisters and I would take turns hiding under the desk, stow away with orange slices and a book, catch a quiet moment in a house not known for its still life.
Hélène in the painting is dwarfed by her father’s things: an Egyptian coffin, a large desk, a painting by Corot. The chair she stands behind so large it makes her look like a monstrous child. Her face reveals not happiness but not the lack of joy.
My father did not possess the treasures of a 19th century industrialist. In his desk after he died: pipes, a silver metal lighter, a discarded wallet containing an expired license, a gold-plated pocket watch.
I stopped for the girl, not for her father’s treasures.
3. Interior, Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1899, Oil on canvas, 64.5 x 58.1 cm
She stands with her back to us in a small, Northern room. There are two doors, a stove, a table, a chair. The walls are white; there are no windows. The room looks cold but inviting.
I want to climb through the canvas, take the woman by the shoulders, turn her around, say, I am here, looking at you, see me.
She is the artist’s wife, added much later, added after the artist had finished painting the room. The curators know this from close analysis.
Her head is slightly bent, shoulders hunched. Is she reading? Her hair is pulled into a soft bun, I can see the back of her neck, which is white, like the walls. If I kissed the back of her neck… but I wouldn’t. My own wife doesn’t like to be startled in such a manner.
If I painted my wife it would be like this: quiet, domestic, unseen.
4. Saint Sebastian, Gerrit van Honthorst, 1623, Oil on canvas, 101 x 117 cm
I look for him in every museum. The arrows. The stake. The tree. I recognize this one as soon as I walk into Room 25, though it is on the far wall.
The Italians rendered him more ornate, with long flowing hair, a boyish face, flamboyant soft hips. There are some of those here, too – Ortolano and the Pollaiuolo brothers – and I will see them later.
But this one, this one is Dutch. And it’s almost a portrait – no executioners with their bows, no onlookers. He is shown only from the knees up. The tree from which he hangs – in a sitting position, slumped over, head down – is almost unnoticeable. This is northern austerity, like the cancer patient who refuses the crown of decorative henna to cover her bald skull.
But there are the usual leather straps that bind him and the arrows that impale his innocent flesh.
Saint Sebastian. Roman centurion. Secret Christian until he wasn’t. Principal protector against the plague.
Tied to a tree and shot with arrows.
I think radiation, pinpoints of light burning my disease, and the mask that covered my face bolted to the table to keep me still. I think sainthood and martyrdom and remember those who did not survive: my father; my brother; three aunts, two uncles; Hedwig, whom we called Tulla; and Charlotte; and Rose.
5. Vanitas Still Life, Jan Jansz, 1648, Oil on Oak, 90.5 x 78.4 cm
In this, we are reminded of death – vibrant colours notwithstanding, the object label states.
But the scarf is the only colourful object in the painting and it’s really not vibrant at all, a muted salmon pink, like the colours of the houses in a medieval city centre, preserved for the 21st century. In another century, I wandered such an old town. Years later, guiding my children down those same streets, I led them into a café with a cellar from the 15th century. 600 years, I say, impressing upon them the passing of time.
Vanitas – still-life painting, 17th century, Dutch.
The transience of life.
The futility of pleasure.
The certainty of death.
The scarf in the painting, though not vibrant, is brighter than the skull, true, and more colorful than the knight’s visor and even the earthenware pitcher.
Did the pitcher once hold wine?
And what about the book of music? The drawing? The broken flute? Worldly ambitions that come to an end, the hourglass tells us.
In my still life, I would put a baseball with the seams unraveled, a discarded doll whose name I still remember, the worshipful gazes of my children when they were still young, my father’s pocket watch.
The title page of an opened book tucked between the pitcher and a vase tells us, evil is its own reward.
Is it a sin to look back?
Death, ambition, time. Time, how it moves ever forward, even if these images tell us otherwise. Tell us otherwise.
I am listening, I am eavesdropping.
Why did you write what you wrote today? When are you coming back? You asked if I was done, what were you trying to tell me?
I am not done. But I cannot stop looking back.
Is this what I am trying to tell you?
It’s all right if you are eavesdropping.
Michelle Valois lives in Florence, Massachusetts with her partner, their three children, and a cat named Moxie. Her writing has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Baltimore Review, Brevity, TriQuarterly, Pank, The Florida Review, among others. She teaches writing and literature at a community college.
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