Anxiety and Comfort

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Gay and Lesbian  |  House: Booksie Classic
Who lowers your shoulders by simply being there?

Submitted: October 13, 2013

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Submitted: October 13, 2013

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Anxiety and Comfort

 

The dark purple theater drapes hanging in the gallery’s front windows mocked Aurora’s lack of showmanship. Tomorrow evening they would part and feed the shy Norwegian artist to New York City’s critics. She breathed in the odd tasting urban air, nervously tucked her short, blonde hair behind her ears, and opened the gallery door.

 

“You’re here, wonderful! I’m George,” the gallery owner dramatically extended his hand toward the young artist several meters before it was reasonable. “This is Felicia, my wife. She’ll be helping you unpack and hang your work.” Felicia, leaning in with her head tilted, shook Aurora’s hand in a caregiver manner. Though Aurora had turned 30, her slight figure and pale, tattooless skin often inspired parental warmth.

“I am very sorry to be late,” she apologized in her accented English, her glacier blue eyes glancing from Felicia to George.

“Me too. I’m afraid I have meetings and such, so I won’t see you again until tomorrow evening. But you’re in good hands with Felicia, yes, good hands,” he pecked his wife on the cheek and left them alone. In the center of the white gallery were seven wooden pallets, and on them, her boxed artwork. Two of the pieces she would be showing were from her private collection, and she hoped they were as whole as when she packed them up in her studio in Northern Norway. Her first exhibit in the United States should not begin with mixing epoxy and dabbing paint.

“My brother won’t be here for half an hour – he’ll help us hang them,” explained Felicia gesturing toward the boxes. “Would you like a coffee?”

“No thanks. May I begin unpacking them?” Aurora had already placed her knapsack on the floor and was rummaging through it for her knife.

“Let’s, I’ll get the box cutter,” said Felicia as she walked toward the desk in the back of the room.

“No need, I’ll open them with this,” the artist held up a five inch blade, its flame birch handle firm in her hand. “Ok if you take off the packing material after I open them?” Felicia nodded her agreement.

Superstition, though generally avoided by the artist, ruled the unpacking procedure. The knife she must use to cut open the boxes was her grandfather’s. He had taught her about dimensions and elements and the order of things. The birds he sculpted from ice played with light and dark, temperature, time and air as they hung from the craggy birch tree outside his kitchen window far from New York City, North of Tromsø at the foot of Storkjølen Mountain. The reindeer gut string, gently wrapped around the sculpted birds, allowed them flight until wind unleashed the delicate creatures. In the light of the Aurora Borealis and moon, his weathered fingers sculpted new birds to be set free. Wind brings change; change often brings freedom, but not always.

“Is there a system to where they hang?” Felicia asked as they put down the box near the back of the gallery.

“No, I try random first and then move them as the room requires.”

Once the boxes were placed throughout the room, the artist ran the knife down the vertical corners and then horizontally around the top until it loosened. As she lifted off the top, the sides fell to the dark wood floor revealing an aluminum crate. After opening the crate and sliding it away from the stand, Felicia peeled the bubble wrap from the four foot sculpted painting, and stood back to admire the work.

 “George said you brought two from your collection and the other 12 are new,” Felicia said as the artist touched the painted surface of the sculpted man stepping towards them from the canvas. He was a handsome man, a Sámi man walking through his reindeer herd before the autumn slaughter of the males. It represented the first of the warm years when the rivers couldn’t freeze enough to drive the animals over them and across tundra to the slaughter house. In the painting, the reindeer are eating moss pulled from the snow and the man’s expression is solemn. Looking at the reindeer, she thought about the snow cave she slept in three weeks ago and how cold she would have been without her reindeer skin.

“Yes, and I’ve only shown the 12 in Tromsø and New Delhi.”

“What did they think of your work in India?”

Felicia had read the positive reviews from the art community online, but wanted to hear something more personal. India, like Europe, marveled over the artist’s unique technique of detailed plaster sculptures held to the canvas with silk cloth. In some pieces, they sprung out of, and nearly off, their backgrounds. The flawless realism attained through her tender brush strokes and layered color on the silk had won her fame soon after her first exhibition in Scandinavia. The only break from realism was the numerous perspectives from which the people, animals and objects in the paintings were presented - the misunderstanding of this representation landed her work in the surrealism category. In the New York Times column, Subtle Codes, the pattern recognition expert Penelope Luce explained to the art world that each perspective represents a point in time and that there is a distinct chronological order within each piece. The artist felt exposed by the discovery, but confirmed that the work was spatially and temporally realistic.

“An old woman in New Delhi told me she had never been alone – the city, all its people, her family and friends, always around her, had never even slept alone. She was now afraid of aloneness, her husband was ill. She asked me how I thought it would feel for her, her first moment alone. So, I led her to this piece.” The artist began opening the box they had placed next to the Sámi man painting at the back of the room. It was the only box that had a bird drawn on it in black marker. The others bore only the address of the gallery.

“You brought Birds! Did George tell you it’s my favorite?” Felicia asked with wonder in her voice as the bubble wrap was peeled back.

“He didn’t,” the artist answered honestly and pleased. “It hasn’t been for sale. I’m not sure it can be sold now.”

“When I see the birds, each in its own moment in time, flying through the canvas at me, well, it sounds weird, but I can feel air rushing over my skin. Did the old woman feel it?” Felicia spoke as if she was far away, flying in the flock.

“The woman saw herself in the permafrost background, like she was in the painting watching the birds fly into a place without fear, only reached with wings. People want to know how to not be lonely, this requires letting go, wings of a sort” the artist replied.

“But, what’s that?” Felicia’s voice wobbled in uncertainty as she pointed to the lower right-hand corner of the painting. There was a slice of a birch tree the size of a small hand over the spot where one of the birds was once flying off the canvas with only its tail feathers holding it in place. The words burnt into the wood read: flew off. The artist didn’t speak. “What happened to that bird?”

“The woman needed it, like symbolic wings. She was afraid – fear is not good,” replied the artist tapping her knife on the birch sign.

“You just sliced it off the painting?” Astonishment grew in Felicia’s voice though the artist had expected it to lessen after her explanation. “You’ve defaced it!”

“It was necessary,” the artist muttered and began unpacking another box. After several minutes and the realization that the painting was no longer only hers, she added, “I’m sorry.”

“No, I overreacted,” lied Felicia, trying to smooth over her anger at the artist.

“You don’t have to be polite with me. You’re upset and I don’t know why what I did was wrong. This is a difficult situation.” Aurora understood that people become attached to things in a certain state, but didn’t understand why they didn’t expect these things to eventually change, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly: trees fall, roads crumble, emotions erupt, necks turn to lizard skin, birds die in midflight.

“You ripped apart a work of art, it won’t be the same again,” gasped Felicia in frustration. But the words didn’t explain why the alteration of the artwork made it not as good. For the artist change is not inherently bad or good. This was a difference in perception.

“My brother Espen and I were eager for Kurt Vonnegut’s books. When our parents bought us a new one, the one who waited to read it paced while the other read. It occurred to us that we could rip the book in half, so the one waiting wouldn’t have to wait so long. Vonnegut’s story hadn’t lost its power in the ripping, even though a page or two went missing sometimes.”

Felicia simply did not agree, and did not understand any better after hearing Aurora’s analogy, but she had learned that it is possible to like someone without understanding them. As the opened boxes revealed crates and the bubble wrap fell away, quiet peace was made between them. Soon after the last of the packing material was stowed in the back room of the gallery, Felicia’s brother Alex arrived. The three of them hammered in the supports and lifted the pieces into place on the walls within two hours. From the cluster of spotlights in the center of the ceiling, a spotlight was turned toward each piece.

As jetlag was sinking in, a fortunate discovery was made: Alex was a drinker. Felicia frowned as he offered the artist a scotch from the bar in the back of the room. The artist smiled at being able to use the English phrase Make it a double. As the glasses were drained, Felicia stood and walked the circuit around the room.

“You’ll count while George and I greet, right Alex?” It wasn’t a question. Alex poured more scotch into the artist’s glass and nodded to his sister who shook her head in disapproval.

“What are you counting Alex?” The artist asked.

“Well, Aurora, it’s like this: George can’t multitask anymore, and if he thinks no one is counting the number of people who walk the exhibit clockwise, counterclockwise or meanderingly, he’ll count instead of host.” The artist was pleased to hear her name pronounced correctly and was relaxed by the strangeness of George’s counting compulsion at odds with his hosting obligation. “Another of the Japanese stuff?” Aurora looked confused at Alex, which prompted him to show her the label. The scotch was made in Japan, an unexpectedly successful product relocation.

“Last one,” she grinned holding out her glass.

“I’m off to double check with the caterer. See you back here tomorrow evening at seven-thirtyish Aurora. Come to the back entrance. Alex will slip you in and you can chill in the lounge down that hallway for awhile.” Felicia was pointing to the dark hallway next to the bar. “George opens the curtains around quarter to eight and then the front door. You can make an entrance around eight-thirty. Sound good?”

“Good, yes,” Aurora responded feeling the premature performance anxiety that solidifies her blood. Felicia was out the door before Aurora thought to say good-bye.

Alex opened the long curtains at the front of the gallery to the width of his shoulders and stood watching the city pass before him. Aurora walked the room counterclockwise considering the new colors of the paintings. The lighting was sharper, grayer than it was in India, though not as blue as it was in Tromsø. Once the curtains were fully parted tomorrow evening, the November darkness and the city’s moving lights would alter the colors once again. Her work didn’t require specific light; it reveled in change like that of the Northern Lights.

“I met some Norwegians in Afghanistan,” Alex said. “Good people. The whole lot of you have military training.”

“Most of the men do their military year after high school and many women now too.”

“You?”

“I did my year. My brother stayed a few years and is in Afghanistan now, Espen Hjort. You didn’t…” Aurora knew it was a ridiculous question, but anything can happen in a war zone.

“No, sorry,” he answered her unfinished question as she refocused her gaze to find his reflection in the window. “To your brother,” Alex announced louder than he had planned, and they both emptied their glasses. Espen could survive the most maniacal weather in the harshest terrain, but shrapnel and bullets slice flesh no matter how tough a person is. While wishing he wouldn’t go, she had supported his decision. He had gone a way she couldn’t follow, and she missed him terribly.

“George said you brought your own music. We should give it a whirl, make sure our systems are compatible.”

“Here,” she handed him the flash drive she took from her jeans pocket.

“What music goes with this?” Alex asked flailing his hands in the artsy, energetic way George does. Aurora laughed and realized it was the first time she had laughed today. The nervousness before an exhibition had not become easier in the five years since she left her job as a geologist and entered the world of artistic, emotional exposure.

“Røyksopp, Grieg, Björk, Madrugada, stuff like that. And I just put in a few songs from Sivert Høyem’s Long Slow Distance.”

“Nordic cheer, that’ll do,” he joked turning up the volume and clicking through the songs. “Don’t be late tomorrow, for George’s sake. Felicia might appear like the uptight one, but George is, well, he’s fragile.” He turned off the stereo and took out his keys. “You ready to meet the New Yorkers?”

“Not really,” the artist mumbled grabbing her knapsack off the floor and swinging it onto her back. He turned off the lights and took a last look at the room.

“No one ever is,” his eyebrows were raised and his mouth formed a warm half smile. As she pushed open the door, she was once again anonymous and free. “Got something to do tonight?” Alex asked her while locking the door behind them.

“I’m staying with a friend,” Aurora said thinking that English had no decent word for boyfriend or girlfriend once people have passed into adulthood. Significant other sounds over-thought, partner indicates business and lover suggests the relationship has been frozen in the hot sex stage, which is a tempting, though unrealistic, scenario.

“You’re both welcome to join us.”

“Thanks, but we haven’t seen each other for some weeks. Can we join you tomorrow after the exhibit?” Her mind already imagining the curious part of the city he would show them.

“Tomorrow then,” he winked and turned to leave. She watched him walk down the street noticing how alike he and his sister were, and how important small things can be to even the sturdiest of people. Replacing the missing bird would take the evening and some of the next day, and the smell of epoxy would accompany yet another opening.

****

It was quarter after eight in the evening and Aurora was in the lounge Felicia had pointed toward the previous day. Many artists had waited here as she was now. The walls were covered in the renderings of their expectant minds and on the table were a smattering of charcoals, acrylic paint, brushes and magic markers. Alex had come in twice to refill her champagne glass and to let her know that the room was filling up with important people excited to see her first show in the states.

“Which way are their heads moving?” Aurora asked pausing from the painting she had nearly completed.

“Many up and down. A few side to side, but those are the ones who always do that. Liking the work is beneath them. Anything that can be understood is “provincial” to them. Do me a favor: enjoy the evening, that’ll really piss’em off. And, Aurora,” he placed his hand on her shoulder, “come out in ten minutes.”

“Thanks Alex,” The snow-covered Northern plains she was painting on the wall only made her feel more out of place. She thought it would calm her. The reliable horizon line meeting the darkening sky, the snow reflecting the last of the sun, but they were not enough. The last brush strokes brought swirling wind into the work. Movement became her destination.

****

Though Penny had waited twenty minutes after the purple curtains were drawn before entering the gallery, she had not avoided getting stuck in a small group of people. Her mistake: she stood in one place for too long. From where she had lingered by the front windows, she had a perfect view of The Winter Sky painting across the gallery. If the painted silk that clung to the sculpted light let go, daylight would fill the room.

Her enjoyment of the work was interrupted by a man’s voice trying to gain her attention. He already had two women listening to him, but when they meandered into her space, he required her attention as well.

 “The layman’s knowledge lacks genuine aesthetic meaning because he doesn’t have the ability to assess the higher purpose of art…” His head moved from side to side as he spoke.

The music of the nursery rhyme London Bridge Is Falling Down entered Penny’s mind. It blended with the music in the gallery and the art snob’s lecture on the stupidity of people who don’t appreciate art the way he does. His words were made distant by the refreshing lyrics Penny had been injecting into this music since she was 13. This internal song freed her from peoples’ idiotic assumptions, unkind deeds and boring diatribes: You’re gonna die and rot in hell, rot in hell, rot in hell; You’re gonna die and rot in hell, and I don’t give a shit.

Penny smiled. He continued speaking. The woman who was enjoying the man’s lecture spoke supportive and adoring words about his words, but he ignored her. The other woman who resembled Marlene Dietrich said something intelligent, but he snubbed her. Deciding that the adoring woman was preferable, he asked her to repeat what she had said, which was clearly something she paraphrased from what he had said - an excellent social skill that Penny consciously avoided. Ego massaging is the first step to becoming a conspirator with a self-important jerk, Penny’s mother had taught her.

The self-important art snob wanted to hear what Penny thought about his words. She had been standing quietly looking another direction like a poised ballet dancer, but he was convinced he had impressed her, and that her silence meant she was overwhelmed by his knowledge. If he could get lovely, lithe Penny to speak, he would be paid a compliment that might top what the supportive, adoring, though somewhat unattractive, woman had said. The other woman, of Dietrich style, the one he thought was the most attractive dyke he had ever seen, had told him that he sounded like a well-informed lecturer and that most of what he said was “not new”. He was relieved that she didn’t use the word “old”, but didn’t want to hear anything more from her.

“Do you agree?” he asked Penny who he believed was elegantly lost in his voice. She was not. His tone was greasy and made her feel like a Penelope, which she didn’t like. Penny was only 13 the day a colleague of her father’s knocked on their front door and said, “Hello Penelope, aren’t you pretty today.” Her father wasn’t home and she had said so. He insisted on waiting. The only way to get rid of him and his slimy voice was to tell him that her father wouldn’t be home for a long time, but instead his hands became claws.

When Penny’s father came home shortly afterwards, he found the man hurting Penelope, and she was kicking and punching and biting. While they waited for the ambulance to come for the colleague, Penny’s father told her that she was quite capable of defending herself and probably didn’t need his help, but he needed to vent his anger on the man. She told her father about the song she had made up for such situations and it made her father laugh: You’re gonna die and rot in hell, rot in hell, rot in hell; You’re gonna die and rot in hell, and I don’t give a shit. They laughed for a very long time; song and laughter can push away pain and fear.

Many words had oozed out of the art snob’s mouth before his short question Do you agree? was directed at her. Though she hadn’t listened very well, she was aware that a response is customary and isn’t a rude person, so she spoke.

“You overwork the grey matter of memory while your white matter stands idly by connecting very little; and you like people less than me,” she announced looking past his doughy left ear at the room’s reflection in the large gallery window. Other than the front windows, the only light in the room came from the spotlights directed at the sculpted paintings and a single spotlight on the hallway from which the artist would soon emerge.

“Do you mean I like people who are of less worth than you or that you don’t like people and I like them less than you like them?” he asked disregarding her brain comment because he knew little about anatomy and less about neurology.

“Option B is the likely candidate as A isn’t even in the ballpark,” she responded sipping her champagne.

Penny considered walking away from this unpleasant combination of people that had formed where she had been comfortably standing alone, but decided to stay because there were people everywhere and changing location might be a frying pan-fire thing. People began clapping. The artist had walked in the room. George moved alongside Aurora to introduce her, keeping her in the spotlight. The artist scanned the room for Penny. When they smiled at each other in a small and valuable way, Penny didn’t need the song in her head to protect her and the artist forgot to fear the spotlight.

Anxiety and Comfort

 

The dark purple theater drapes hanging in the gallery’s front windows mocked Aurora’s lack of showmanship. Tomorrow evening they would part and feed the shy Norwegian artist to New York City’s critics. She breathed in the odd tasting urban air, nervously tucked her short, blonde hair behind her ears, and opened the gallery door.

 

“You’re here, wonderful! I’m George,” the gallery owner dramatically extended his hand toward the young artist several meters before it was reasonable. “This is Felicia, my wife. She’ll be helping you unpack and hang your work.” Felicia, leaning in with her head tilted, shook Aurora’s hand in a caregiver manner. Though Aurora had turned 30, her slight figure and pale, tattooless skin often inspired parental warmth.

“I am very sorry to be late,” she apologized in her accented English, her glacier blue eyes glancing from Felicia to George.

“Me too. I’m afraid I have meetings and such, so I won’t see you again until tomorrow evening. But you’re in good hands with Felicia, yes, good hands,” he pecked his wife on the cheek and left them alone. In the center of the white gallery were seven wooden pallets, and on them, her boxed artwork. Two of the pieces she would be showing were from her private collection, and she hoped they were as whole as when she packed them up in her studio in Northern Norway. Her first exhibit in the United States should not begin with mixing epoxy and dabbing paint.

“My brother won’t be here for half an hour – he’ll help us hang them,” explained Felicia gesturing toward the boxes. “Would you like a coffee?”

“No thanks. May I begin unpacking them?” Aurora had already placed her knapsack on the floor and was rummaging through it for her knife.

“Let’s, I’ll get the box cutter,” said Felicia as she walked toward the desk in the back of the room.

“No need, I’ll open them with this,” the artist held up a five inch blade, its flame birch handle firm in her hand. “Ok if you take off the packing material after I open them?” Felicia nodded her agreement.

Superstition, though generally avoided by the artist, ruled the unpacking procedure. The knife she must use to cut open the boxes was her grandfather’s. He had taught her about dimensions and elements and the order of things. The birds he sculpted from ice played with light and dark, temperature, time and air as they hung from the craggy birch tree outside his kitchen window far from New York City, North of Tromsø at the foot of Storkjølen Mountain. The reindeer gut string, gently wrapped around the sculpted birds, allowed them flight until wind unleashed the delicate creatures. In the light of the Aurora Borealis and moon, his weathered fingers sculpted new birds to be set free. Wind brings change; change often brings freedom, but not always.

“Is there a system to where they hang?” Felicia asked as they put down the box near the back of the gallery.

“No, I try random first and then move them as the room requires.”

Once the boxes were placed throughout the room, the artist ran the knife down the vertical corners and then horizontally around the top until it loosened. As she lifted off the top, the sides fell to the dark wood floor revealing an aluminum crate. After opening the crate and sliding it away from the stand, Felicia peeled the bubble wrap from the four foot sculpted painting, and stood back to admire the work.

 “George said you brought two from your collection and the other 12 are new,” Felicia said as the artist touched the painted surface of the sculpted man stepping towards them from the canvas. He was a handsome man, a Sámi man walking through his reindeer herd before the autumn slaughter of the males. It represented the first of the warm years when the rivers couldn’t freeze enough to drive the animals over them and across tundra to the slaughter house. In the painting, the reindeer are eating moss pulled from the snow and the man’s expression is solemn. Looking at the reindeer, she thought about the snow cave she slept in three weeks ago and how cold she would have been without her reindeer skin.

“Yes, and I’ve only shown the 12 in Tromsø and New Delhi.”

“What did they think of your work in India?”

Felicia had read the positive reviews from the art community online, but wanted to hear something more personal. India, like Europe, marveled over the artist’s unique technique of detailed plaster sculptures held to the canvas with silk cloth. In some pieces, they sprung out of, and nearly off, their backgrounds. The flawless realism attained through her tender brush strokes and layered color on the silk had won her fame soon after her first exhibition in Scandinavia. The only break from realism was the numerous perspectives from which the people, animals and objects in the paintings were presented - the misunderstanding of this representation landed her work in the surrealism category. In the New York Times column, Subtle Codes, the pattern recognition expert Penelope Luce explained to the art world that each perspective represents a point in time and that there is a distinct chronological order within each piece. The artist felt exposed by the discovery, but confirmed that the work was spatially and temporally realistic.

“An old woman in New Delhi told me she had never been alone – the city, all its people, her family and friends, always around her, had never even slept alone. She was now afraid of aloneness, her husband was ill. She asked me how I thought it would feel for her, her first moment alone. So, I led her to this piece.” The artist began opening the box they had placed next to the Sámi man painting at the back of the room. It was the only box that had a bird drawn on it in black marker. The others bore only the address of the gallery.

“You brought Birds! Did George tell you it’s my favorite?” Felicia asked with wonder in her voice as the bubble wrap was peeled back.

“He didn’t,” the artist answered honestly and pleased. “It hasn’t been for sale. I’m not sure it can be sold now.”

“When I see the birds, each in its own moment in time, flying through the canvas at me, well, it sounds weird, but I can feel air rushing over my skin. Did the old woman feel it?” Felicia spoke as if she was far away, flying in the flock.

“The woman saw herself in the permafrost background, like she was in the painting watching the birds fly into a place without fear, only reached with wings. People want to know how to not be lonely, this requires letting go, wings of a sort” the artist replied.

“But, what’s that?” Felicia’s voice wobbled in uncertainty as she pointed to the lower right-hand corner of the painting. There was a slice of a birch tree the size of a small hand over the spot where one of the birds was once flying off the canvas with only its tail feathers holding it in place. The words burnt into the wood read: flew off. The artist didn’t speak. “What happened to that bird?”

“The woman needed it, like symbolic wings. She was afraid – fear is not good,” replied the artist tapping her knife on the birch sign.

“You just sliced it off the painting?” Astonishment grew in Felicia’s voice though the artist had expected it to lessen after her explanation. “You’ve defaced it!”

“It was necessary,” the artist muttered and began unpacking another box. After several minutes and the realization that the painting was no longer only hers, she added, “I’m sorry.”

“No, I overreacted,” lied Felicia, trying to smooth over her anger at the artist.

“You don’t have to be polite with me. You’re upset and I don’t know why what I did was wrong. This is a difficult situation.” Aurora understood that people become attached to things in a certain state, but didn’t understand why they didn’t expect these things to eventually change, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly: trees fall, roads crumble, emotions erupt, necks turn to lizard skin, birds die in midflight.

“You ripped apart a work of art, it won’t be the same again,” gasped Felicia in frustration. But the words didn’t explain why the alteration of the artwork made it not as good. For the artist change is not inherently bad or good. This was a difference in perception.

“My brother Espen and I were eager for Kurt Vonnegut’s books. When our parents bought us a new one, the one who waited to read it paced while the other read. It occurred to us that we could rip the book in half, so the one waiting wouldn’t have to wait so long. Vonnegut’s story hadn’t lost its power in the ripping, even though a page or two went missing sometimes.”

Felicia simply did not agree, and did not understand any better after hearing Aurora’s analogy, but she had learned that it is possible to like someone without understanding them. As the opened boxes revealed crates and the bubble wrap fell away, quiet peace was made between them. Soon after the last of the packing material was stowed in the back room of the gallery, Felicia’s brother Alex arrived. The three of them hammered in the supports and lifted the pieces into place on the walls within two hours. From the cluster of spotlights in the center of the ceiling, a spotlight was turned toward each piece.

As jetlag was sinking in, a fortunate discovery was made: Alex was a drinker. Felicia frowned as he offered the artist a scotch from the bar in the back of the room. The artist smiled at being able to use the English phrase Make it a double. As the glasses were drained, Felicia stood and walked the circuit around the room.

“You’ll count while George and I greet, right Alex?” It wasn’t a question. Alex poured more scotch into the artist’s glass and nodded to his sister who shook her head in disapproval.

“What are you counting Alex?” The artist asked.

“Well, Aurora, it’s like this: George can’t multitask anymore, and if he thinks no one is counting the number of people who walk the exhibit clockwise, counterclockwise or meanderingly, he’ll count instead of host.” The artist was pleased to hear her name pronounced correctly and was relaxed by the strangeness of George’s counting compulsion at odds with his hosting obligation. “Another of the Japanese stuff?” Aurora looked confused at Alex, which prompted him to show her the label. The scotch was made in Japan, an unexpectedly successful product relocation.

“Last one,” she grinned holding out her glass.

“I’m off to double check with the caterer. See you back here tomorrow evening at seven-thirtyish Aurora. Come to the back entrance. Alex will slip you in and you can chill in the lounge down that hallway for awhile.” Felicia was pointing to the dark hallway next to the bar. “George opens the curtains around quarter to eight and then the front door. You can make an entrance around eight-thirty. Sound good?”

“Good, yes,” Aurora responded feeling the premature performance anxiety that solidifies her blood. Felicia was out the door before Aurora thought to say good-bye.

Alex opened the long curtains at the front of the gallery to the width of his shoulders and stood watching the city pass before him. Aurora walked the room counterclockwise considering the new colors of the paintings. The lighting was sharper, grayer than it was in India, though not as blue as it was in Tromsø. Once the curtains were fully parted tomorrow evening, the November darkness and the city’s moving lights would alter the colors once again. Her work didn’t require specific light; it reveled in change like that of the Northern Lights.

“I met some Norwegians in Afghanistan,” Alex said. “Good people. The whole lot of you have military training.”

“Most of the men do their military year after high school and many women now too.”

“You?”

“I did my year. My brother stayed a few years and is in Afghanistan now, Espen Hjort. You didn’t…” Aurora knew it was a ridiculous question, but anything can happen in a war zone.

“No, sorry,” he answered her unfinished question as she refocused her gaze to find his reflection in the window. “To your brother,” Alex announced louder than he had planned, and they both emptied their glasses. Espen could survive the most maniacal weather in the harshest terrain, but shrapnel and bullets slice flesh no matter how tough a person is. While wishing he wouldn’t go, she had supported his decision. He had gone a way she couldn’t follow, and she missed him terribly.

“George said you brought your own music. We should give it a whirl, make sure our systems are compatible.”

“Here,” she handed him the flash drive she took from her jeans pocket.

“What music goes with this?” Alex asked flailing his hands in the artsy, energetic way George does. Aurora laughed and realized it was the first time she had laughed today. The nervousness before an exhibition had not become easier in the five years since she left her job as a geologist and entered the world of artistic, emotional exposure.

“Røyksopp, Grieg, Björk, Madrugada, stuff like that. And I just put in a few songs from Sivert Høyem’s Long Slow Distance.”

“Nordic cheer, that’ll do,” he joked turning up the volume and clicking through the songs. “Don’t be late tomorrow, for George’s sake. Felicia might appear like the uptight one, but George is, well, he’s fragile.” He turned off the stereo and took out his keys. “You ready to meet the New Yorkers?”

“Not really,” the artist mumbled grabbing her knapsack off the floor and swinging it onto her back. He turned off the lights and took a last look at the room.

“No one ever is,” his eyebrows were raised and his mouth formed a warm half smile. As she pushed open the door, she was once again anonymous and free. “Got something to do tonight?” Alex asked her while locking the door behind them.

“I’m staying with a friend,” Aurora said thinking that English had no decent word for boyfriend or girlfriend once people have passed into adulthood. Significant other sounds over-thought, partner indicates business and lover suggests the relationship has been frozen in the hot sex stage, which is a tempting, though unrealistic, scenario.

“You’re both welcome to join us.”

“Thanks, but we haven’t seen each other for some weeks. Can we join you tomorrow after the exhibit?” Her mind already imagining the curious part of the city he would show them.

“Tomorrow then,” he winked and turned to leave. She watched him walk down the street noticing how alike he and his sister were, and how important small things can be to even the sturdiest of people. Replacing the missing bird would take the evening and some of the next day, and the smell of epoxy would accompany yet another opening.

****

It was quarter after eight in the evening and Aurora was in the lounge Felicia had pointed toward the previous day. Many artists had waited here as she was now. The walls were covered in the renderings of their expectant minds and on the table were a smattering of charcoals, acrylic paint, brushes and magic markers. Alex had come in twice to refill her champagne glass and to let her know that the room was filling up with important people excited to see her first show in the states.

“Which way are their heads moving?” Aurora asked pausing from the painting she had nearly completed.

“Many up and down. A few side to side, but those are the ones who always do that. Liking the work is beneath them. Anything that can be understood is “provincial” to them. Do me a favor: enjoy the evening, that’ll really piss’em off. And, Aurora,” he placed his hand on her shoulder, “come out in ten minutes.”

“Thanks Alex,” The snow-covered Northern plains she was painting on the wall only made her feel more out of place. She thought it would calm her. The reliable horizon line meeting the darkening sky, the snow reflecting the last of the sun, but they were not enough. The last brush strokes brought swirling wind into the work. Movement became her destination.

****

Though Penny had waited twenty minutes after the purple curtains were drawn before entering the gallery, she had not avoided getting stuck in a small group of people. Her mistake: she stood in one place for too long. From where she had lingered by the front windows, she had a perfect view of The Winter Sky painting across the gallery. If the painted silk that clung to the sculpted light let go, daylight would fill the room.

Her enjoyment of the work was interrupted by a man’s voice trying to gain her attention. He already had two women listening to him, but when they meandered into her space, he required her attention as well.

 “The layman’s knowledge lacks genuine aesthetic meaning because he doesn’t have the ability to assess the higher purpose of art…” His head moved from side to side as he spoke.

The music of the nursery rhyme London Bridge Is Falling Down entered Penny’s mind. It blended with the music in the gallery and the art snob’s lecture on the stupidity of people who don’t appreciate art the way he does. His words were made distant by the refreshing lyrics Penny had been injecting into this music since she was 13. This internal song freed her from peoples’ idiotic assumptions, unkind deeds and boring diatribes: You’re gonna die and rot in hell, rot in hell, rot in hell; You’re gonna die and rot in hell, and I don’t give a shit.

Penny smiled. He continued speaking. The woman who was enjoying the man’s lecture spoke supportive and adoring words about his words, but he ignored her. The other woman who resembled Marlene Dietrich said something intelligent, but he snubbed her. Deciding that the adoring woman was preferable, he asked her to repeat what she had said, which was clearly something she paraphrased from what he had said - an excellent social skill that Penny consciously avoided. Ego massaging is the first step to becoming a conspirator with a self-important jerk, Penny’s mother had taught her.

The self-important art snob wanted to hear what Penny thought about his words. She had been standing quietly looking another direction like a poised ballet dancer, but he was convinced he had impressed her, and that her silence meant she was overwhelmed by his knowledge. If he could get lovely, lithe Penny to speak, he would be paid a compliment that might top what the supportive, adoring, though somewhat unattractive, woman had said. The other woman, of Dietrich style, the one he thought was the most attractive dyke he had ever seen, had told him that he sounded like a well-informed lecturer and that most of what he said was “not new”. He was relieved that she didn’t use the word “old”, but didn’t want to hear anything more from her.

“Do you agree?” he asked Penny who he believed was elegantly lost in his voice. She was not. His tone was greasy and made her feel like a Penelope, which she didn’t like. Penny was only 13 the day a colleague of her father’s knocked on their front door and said, “Hello Penelope, aren’t you pretty today.” Her father wasn’t home and she had said so. He insisted on waiting. The only way to get rid of him and his slimy voice was to tell him that her father wouldn’t be home for a long time, but instead his hands became claws.

When Penny’s father came home shortly afterwards, he found the man hurting Penelope, and she was kicking and punching and biting. While they waited for the ambulance to come for the colleague, Penny’s father told her that she was quite capable of defending herself and probably didn’t need his help, but he needed to vent his anger on the man. She told her father about the song she had made up for such situations and it made her father laugh: You’re gonna die and rot in hell, rot in hell, rot in hell; You’re gonna die and rot in hell, and I don’t give a shit. They laughed for a very long time; song and laughter can push away pain and fear.

Many words had oozed out of the art snob’s mouth before his short question Do you agree? was directed at her. Though she hadn’t listened very well, she was aware that a response is customary and isn’t a rude person, so she spoke.

“You overwork the grey matter of memory while your white matter stands idly by connecting very little; and you like people less than me,” she announced looking past his doughy left ear at the room’s reflection in the large gallery window. Other than the front windows, the only light in the room came from the spotlights directed at the sculpted paintings and a single spotlight on the hallway from which the artist would soon emerge.

“Do you mean I like people who are of less worth than you or that you don’t like people and I like them less than you like them?” he asked disregarding her brain comment because he knew little about anatomy and less about neurology.

“Option B is the likely candidate as A isn’t even in the ballpark,” she responded sipping her champagne.

Penny considered walking away from this unpleasant combination of people that had formed where she had been comfortably standing alone, but decided to stay because there were people everywhere and changing location might be a frying pan-fire thing. People began clapping. The artist had walked in the room. George moved alongside Aurora to introduce her, keeping her in the spotlight. The artist scanned the room for Penny. When they smiled at each other in a small and valuable way, Penny didn’t need the song in her head to protect her and the artist forgot to fear the spotlight.


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