Lives of the Muses / by Amber Gallant

Downstairs, her sister Helen and brother-in-law Richard were talking about her again. “Serena said she could take Emilie out to the Marden exhibition today. The one I recommended to her, you remember? From the Reader. I have a couple of errands to run. You think Serena can manage that, right?

Richard laughed. “Sure. They’re perfect for each other. One wanders around, one can’t look up from her phone for five seconds. Tell me, did she really want to see this show or did you tell her it was the place to be?”

The old floorboards creaked menacingly; Emilie could tell her sister was pacing around the kitchen. “You’re being mean. Listen, can you still drop her off at the airport tomorrow? I need to know now. I have a meeting with a possible new patron, so don’t back out.” Her voice rang with finality. Emilie imagined Richard pulling his elbows back from the counter, defeated.

Emilie tried to concentrate on the poem she was reading. My wife whose calves are sweet with the sap of elders, whose feet are carved initials…she put the book down. People were always worried about her. Worried she would lose her way or forget where she was going. It made her feel like a burden. Borne on long-suffering, slightly unwilling shoulders.

She thought she was doing all right. She’d been in Chicago for nearly three weeks now, most of that alone while her sister’s family went about their normal activities and the house simmered in silence. She had gone into the Pritzker Library and admired the collection of wartime sheet music, yellowing into dust at its edges, before she remembered that, in fact, she had no interest in military history. She had bought a guidebook that told her State and Madison had once been the busiest intersection in the world. She had taken photos she never intended to develop of old buildings on the South Side. Run her hand along the stone of the impossibly gorgeous Riverwalk balustrades watching the bright azure river flow past.

Her methods were wayward; down one street and then the next at random. Helen worried about this, Emilie knew, that she would get lost, that she’d have to come pick her up in the middle of the day. Emilie, in turn, didn’t need her sister watching over her all the time. 

She felt around for her bookmark. She went into the bathroom to apply the customary four layers of makeup to the right side of her face.  One layer of thick foundation a shade too dark, the second one a shade too light, a bit of concealer to smooth them off, and a generous dusting of powder to top the whole construction. If done in a hurry it looked a little caked-on, something Emilie hadn’t quite figured out how to avoid yet, but at least Serena wouldn’t be embarrassed to walk around with her.

Serena wandered decidedly less. They walked out of the house, turned left at the next block, and hurried so many blocks south that Emilie lost count. They passed the riverwalk, which Serena hustled past without stopping to look. Emilie felt a desire to moor herself in the azure waters, to stop floating along, but Serena had moved on already. Emilie followed her exacting steps down a side alley to the gallery, where they entered the line lazily snaking out from the entrance. Emilie pulled her cardigan closer around her shoulders. The April chill was unfamiliar, irreconcilable with the sticky-sweet, hot winds of home.

Serena immediately pulled out her phone and started texting someone without a word to Emilie, becoming a motionless pillar in the middle of the slowly shuffling line. Emilie grabbed Serena’s arm to stop her from backing into a squat man busy rhapsodizing about architecture in front of them. Serena looked up for half a second, then shrugged Emilie’s hand off and went back to her screen.

The right corner of Emilie’s mouth tugged upward. This was what her niece did all day? Come to think of it, there were interns only slightly older than Serena in the office who looked like they were always reading articles on their computers rather than doing what Emilie needed them to do, which was answer messages and catalogue the wardrobe pieces on loan. Of course, Emilie didn’t truly look at them, walking past more often than not in an early-morning fog. They came and went and she couldn’t remember any of their faces.

“Excuse me?”

Emilie looked up.

“Hi…sorry?”

“How many tickets? Five dollars each.” The ticket seller on her left peered at her from underneath a pink visor. Her eyebrows drew together.

“Right. Sorry.” Emilie hadn’t realized that the doors had opened already. Emilie rummaged around in her black fake-leather backpack. She noted how dirty it had become in such a short amount of time. A minute passed. The ticket seller cleared her throat.

“Aunt Emilie. It’s in your front pocket. I saw you put it in there earlier.” Serena, behind her now, sighed in exasperation. Before Emilie could stop her, she unzipped the front pocket of the backpack and reached into it to produce Emilie’s wallet. Sighing, she handed it to Emilie. Emilie, feeling awkward, turned and proffered a ten-dollar bill in the direction of the pink visor. Two tickets were shoved into her hand.

She turned and handed one to Serena. In the corner of her eye, she saw the ticket seller’s eyes gravitate to the long, sharp scar running down the right side of her face, eyes widening. 

The thing about Emilie was that she perpetually looked surprised, Serena thought. Her aunt’s hair frizzed out into a brown triangle—the Chicago winds hadn’t been good to it today, and Emilie had yet to notice. 

When Serena was young, Emilie had been impossibly tall, the fun babysitter who came to watch movies and eat strawberries they’d dipped in chocolate themselves whenever her parents had a benefit or event to go to. Then Serena moved to Chicago with her parents, and the visits to New York got less frequent, and the Christmas cards and birthday cards and “just-because-I-wanted-to-say-hello” cards Emilie used to send came less and less often. The last time Serena had seen Emilie was in the hospital in New York after the car accident. Mom was always worried about her now, tried not to show it, but Serena had grown very adept at detecting the undercurrent in her voice. Her parents always fought in subtle undertones, edges of steel they thought Serena couldn’t hear.

She felt her phone buzz. Can you meet us for dinner at Herb & Pine? Like, an hour from now? Jess typed.

Serena texted back. Not yet. I took my aunt out to some exhibit she wanted to see. Give me three, probably. She’s leaving tomorrow, so I’ll have to say goodbye and all that. Three should be good; time to deposit Emilie at home, change into a halter top and apply some eyeliner, get out of there before her mom attempted to make her help prep the food for her party tomorrow. Serena had no interest in making another fruit salad for her mom’s industry friends, all of whom seemed only to eat fruit salad.

Meet us at Altitude, then.

Serena smiled. Lights flashing blue-pink-green. The pleasant dew of salt on her skin. Music that seeped into and pulsed inside your dreams.

Sure. Who’s coming?

Austin, probably. With a couple of friends from Eastern. Me and Sarah and Corey. Don’t know who else Sarah invited. 

Serena thrilled. She couldn’t get enough of the city at night, the lively, heaving masses of people crawling from club to club, the way you had to shake off the rind of sleep that weighed your eyelids down long after you should have gone to bed. So different from the suffocating weight of nothingness hanging over her parents’ silent house. And since she’d agreed to go out with Emilie for the day, her parents might not question her when she said she was going to Jess’s house…

She turned to make sure Emilie was still behind her, surprised to discover that Emilie wasn’t hovering at her shoulder like she had been in line. She was a few yards behind, studying the floor. The ticket seller, whom Serena had thought was a little rude, stared after Emilie. Serena instinctively knew what had happened. People tended to react like that.

Emilie tried to hide it as best she could, and they were all used to it, but every once in a while, someone would stare for far too long at the scar running down the right side of Emilie’s face. It had mostly healed by now, but you could still see the edges of the burn. Mottled reddish scar tissue spread out over Emilie’s right cheek like a tree, creating slight ridges where it met unblemished skin. Emilie withdrew into herself whenever anyone noticed; Serena thought she was too sensitive—she was still beautiful—but then again it wasn’t her face. She tried her best to cover it with makeup, but the thickness of it often caused it to flake off entirely.

Emilie didn’t make it any easier for herself, though. She was always unsettled for hours afterward. Serena slowed down so Emilie could catch up to her and looped her arm through her aunt’s, dragging her into the gallery.

Emilie still hadn’t gotten used to people staring at her like she was an endangered species. In the office, whispers seemed to congregate around approaching corners, even when there was no one there, dissipating whenever she poked her head around to confront them. 

She and Serena passed through double glass doors. Serena grabbed two programs and shoved one into Emilie’s hand as Emilie blinked against the harsh light. The building, one of many in a small alley with red brick facades, had been gutted and renovated on the inside, refitted with blinding white walls to show off the art. She looked down at the program, shaking her arm free from Serena’s grip. 

Emilie didn’t recognize the name of the artist, Augusta Marden, from anywhere. She couldn’t remember why she’d wanted to come here. She’d been having a lot of trouble with her short-term memory lately. She racked her brain. All this wandering around Chicago, around New York, and in the halls of her office amounted to an endless hunger that shifted direction suddenly and without warning, and she felt she couldn’t help but follow blindly. 

“Emilie!” 

Serena was standing in front of a drawing that looked like the torso of a person with wings sprouting from their back. Emilie couldn’t tell the person’s gender. The figure was only outlined, but the wings were delicately shaded in, so that you could tell where the light fell upon them at the point of illumination the artist had chosen. 

“So what is this, anyway?”

“I’m not, uh, sure?” Emilie admitted. She consulted her program. “Um…these are the sketches for the figures in the last room, I guess.”

“Oh. Ok. What’s so exciting about them? Why did you want to see this?” Serena looked at her expectantly.

Emilie decided to lean into her indecision. Maybe her niece would get a good laugh out of it. “No idea. Isn’t that sad?” 

Serena chuckled. “You used to like stuff like this, though, right?”

“I guess. Your mom certainly would.”

“Yeah…she really wanted me to come with you. Maybe she thinks it’ll rub off on me.” Serena stuck her tongue out. “It’s fine, I guess, whatever. But—oh my god— if I have to listen to her rave to another one of her ‘industry’ friends— ” here Serena dragged air quotes through the space in front of them “ —about Renoir’s, what is it she says, empathetic forms, and how they influence the portraits that Bri Thompson is doing of rappers on the far South Side, it’s like…I really don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Sounds like Helen!” Emilie said. “You know that’s just how she is.”

“Takes her work way too seriously? Takes everything way too seriously?”

“Don’t tell her I agreed with that—not on the record, so to speak.”

Nooo problem, Aunt Emilie.” Serena leaned in conspiratorially, her eyes hardening slightly. Her voice lowered. “Listen, that ticket person back there…she was kind of…you know…”

“Rude?” 

“Well, I was going to say a bitch, but—”

“Lucky your mom’s not here!” Emilie proclaimed. Serena pursed her lips in fake concern. Emilie leaned in. “I won’t tell, though.”

“Why, thank you very much, ma’am.” Serena flattened her hand over her heart. 

This conversation felt older. It felt right. Part of their language of jokes. From the before, Emilie thought. Before an SUV ran a red light in Brooklyn and they spun  straight into another car in a minuscule number of seconds that felt like forever. Before the burning of her face and the hunger that followed her around.

She had nearly forgotten about the ticket person until Serena said, “Seriously…that wasn’t cool. You know you don’t have to listen to those people, right? You really don’t. I mean, I could teach you to do your makeup really well, if you wanted, next time you visit…”

“Hard not to.” A hard knot formed somewhere near Emelie’s liver. Couldn’t Serena simply enjoy right now, the glimmer of their old friendship?

She walked away, leaving Serena standing in the middle of the gallery alone. Michael would have understood. It felt like he was the only person that did. After all, wasn’t that the whole reason they’d broken up? So he wouldn’t have to live with the everyday guilt of seeing what the accident had done to her? 

She was vain. She knew that. She wasn’t an idiot. But she couldn’t live with the pity that constantly flitted over his face when he looked at her. 

The days before the accident had been especially good. That made it so much harder. There was one moment she liked to retreat to in the face of other people, a safe haven. A regular old day in their apartment in Brooklyn. She stretched out over the chaise lounge on the couch, her hair wet and fresh from the shower. She had been reading a mystery novel. Michael was eating blueberries on the couch next to her, reading his own. They could stay like that for ages, whole days, in silent company. Suddenly she felt something round drop onto her stomach. A blueberry. Michael had dropped it into her bellybutton. Half a second later, he craned his neck over and slurped it up, then dropped another one. Until he’d eaten the whole container.

Emilie smiled. She’d dreamed of endless summer fruits, a future that didn’t include every channel on TV shouting about the melting ice caps.

Sitting down on one of the benches in the middle of the room, she watched people file in a slow semicircle from the doors to the next room. There was a couple in the far corner to Serena’s left, pushing a baby’s stroller with a yellow blanket hanging over the tray. The woman’s hair was long and almost jet-black, reaching halfway to the floor. They were laughing quietly at some unheard joke, the man’s hand resting lightly on his wife’s back. 

As Emilie watched, a sippy cup flew out of the stroller. Serena, still standing where Emilie had left her, turned her head sharply when she heard it land, and swiftly picked it up. The woman thanked her profusely, and the man inclined his head. Serena and the woman began talking, gesturing to the sketch on the wall beside them. Emilie watched them, awestruck with her niece’s ease with everyone she met. This was the Serena she remembered. Words spilling out of her a mile a minute, forever moving. 

“We’re visiting from Dearborn,” the woman with the baby said. “How about you?”

“Oh, I’m from here,” Serena said absentmindedly. Being brushed off by Aunt Emilie had hurt. “That’s in Michigan, yeah? Sounds lovely.” She looked down at the pink-cheeked infant in the stroller. He was wearing a yellow onesie with buttons at the bottom. He gurgled happily and shook his fist at her. 

“Just outside of Detroit,” the woman said. 

“Cool. I went there once. My grandparents live in Detroit, so we passed through. It was really pretty,” Serena said. She swept her hand around the gallery. “So, what do you think of all this?”

“Hard to describe, honestly,” the woman said, “though I might’ve just lost my touch. I’ve been on maternity leave for months with this guy,”—she smiled happily down at the baby, smoothing some hair off of his forehead,” —and I’m not sure I remember how to interact with anyone besides a nine-month-old yet.” She sighed. “So easy to forget that time passes.”

“I know someone you’d get along with,” Serena muttered. 

“Huh?”

“Oh, nothing.” 

The woman narrowed her eyes for a fraction of a second. “What do you think of it?”

Serena laughed nervously. “I’m not sure. I just came with my aunt.” She gestured to Emilie, sitting on the stark white bench in the middle of the gallery. “She’s leaving tomorrow. Wanted to see it before she left. My mom recommended it. She’s a curator at the DeWitt.” She left out the fact that she was increasingly unsettled by the charcoal figures in this part of the gallery. To her, the sharp angles seemed fearful and cold. Why had her mom picked this one, specifically?

“That’s pretty neat! She must teach you so much.” The woman accentuated her words by fluttering her hand 

“Yeah. She knows everything. And just about everyone in the art world. It can get exhausting, really,” Serena’s phone was vibrating again. She checked it quickly. Austin changed his mind. Can you meet us at the park? Bring a bottle of wine, if you can get one. Hmm. Serena wondered if her parents would notice if she took one of the old bottles of wine from the corner of the bottom shelf of their liquor cabinet—they never looked there. Barring that, her fake ID was in her wallet.

“Your aunt—she looks familiar, you know,” the woman said. 

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah. Like a model or something.” Serena turned to look at Emilie, who was looking down at the program in her hand determinedly. Serena could tell her eyes were watery. 

“Well, -actually—”

“Oh, I’ve got it. She reminds me of one of these paintings, here,” the woman said. She pulled her own program out of the back pocket of her billowy pants and showed Serena. “See—we went through this section first. It was the best one, I think, the later work, but it really only takes one piece of art to draw you in. Yep—that’s the one, there. Doesn’t it remind you a little bit of her?” 

The painting in the exhibit brochure was a little grainy, but Serena recognized the tilt of the head. The figure’s hair formed a halo of brown around her, not so different from Emilie’s Chicago-humidity frizz. More than that, though—the sad eyes, the hint of strength in the softness of the arms. 

“Yeah, it does! That’s in…what, the last room? Thanks!” She could tell that the volume of her voice surprised the woman, but it didn’t matter. She walked away toward Emilie and sat down. “Hey, I found something you might like. Let’s go see it. Last room.” 

Serena abruptly shook her back to the present and pulled her up. Emilie hadn’t realized she’d spaced out so much; her phone, in her hand, fell to the floor as Serena jerked her to her feet. “Come on!”

“What?” Emilie bent to pick her phone up. Luckily, it wasn’t shattered, though she didn’t know if she cared. “What’s so exciting?”

“The good part,” Serena was saying. “Follow me.”

Her niece pulling her along, Emilie rushed through the current gallery, leaving the sharp figures and their shadowy wings behind; into the next, a whirlwind of bronze casting and thumbed forms, and finally into the last where Serena let go of her hand. “Well?” Serena asked, impatiently.

“Um…” Emilie thought. “Listen, I’m sorry.. to snap at you, I didn’t…..”

“Not that. Doesn’t matter. Look at this,” Serena said, dragging Emilie over to stand in front of something she must have passed over in the brochure.    

“Wow.”

The whole world shrank before Emilie’s eyes, into this single fecund painting. Simple on the surface, it depicted two figures, a man and a woman, embracing. You couldn’t see the man’s face at all- his head was turned toward the woman’s cheek. The woman tilted her face toward the unseen painter, eyes closed, a slight smile on her lips. The white placard to the right of the painting read Meet Me Half-way. 

Forest greens, dark blues, and royal purples dominated the canvas. They danced around the figures in the background, lightening so that it looked like the man and woman were surrounded by pale haloes. They rested on a seabed laden with the outlines of coral. They each wore a deep burgundy robe; the man’s was blank, but the woman’s glimmered with thin gold strokes outlining the seaweed that twined around her feet and lazily over the border of her robe. It looked like she had swum up from the depths of an underwater forest and was nearing the top. On her cheeks where two pale pink spots of blush would be were curling pieces of seaweed. 

Emilie recognized, faintly, the positions of the two figures from The Kiss. She had seen it once in the Belvedere in Vienna. She remembered being surprised they’d let her in, on a Tuesday, an hour before closing, especially since she couldn’t have imagined how she had looked to anyone else; she hadn’t been able to afford even hostels, and showed up sweating, with a giant backpack strapped to her chest and across her back, in clothes that hadn’t been washed in ages. She’d run through the galleries, suspiciously empty in her memory, trying to see everything before the museum closed. And then, Klimt, whose bold darks and gold leaf you couldn’t help but be arrested by. She must have stood in front of The Kiss for a full fifteen minutes. In hurriedly flipping through books in the large bookstore on the way out, she’d read that Klimt painted it ten years after a passionate, failed love affair.

That was before Michael, the accident, and anything but a wide-open hope. She’d seen it very differently then, akin to something like a fairytale. Seeing a reproduction like this felt like she was meeting an old friend, coming up for air. Before she could stop herself she felt tears slide down her cheeks. She missed that version of herself, its forgiveness and fancy and lack of fear. 

“Aunt Emilie? You like it, right?” A look of concern crossed Serena’s face and furrowed her eyebrows. 

“I love it!”

“Really?” Serena’s face relaxed, but she kept her worried demeanor. 

“Absolutely. Something like this. That’s definitely what I came for.”

“Oh, good.” Serena’s shoulders relaxed. 

“Thank you for coming with me.”

“No problem, it was just—”

“No, I mean it. And I am sorry I snapped at you. It was stupid. Come on, we’ll go to that ice cream place by the river you like, I’ll make it up to you. Should have just enough time before I have to go to the airport.” Emilie started out toward the exit. “I’m going to miss you all, you know. What are you doing after I leave tonight?”

“Oh, Mom and Dad have some party at the house tomorrow they have to prepare for. I’m just going to my friend’s house,” Serena said. 

Emilie noted a sly smile on her lips, and narrowed her eyes at Serena. “Really?”

“Sure,” Serena said, after pausing for a moment. 

“Hmm. I tried to pull that when I was younger too, you should know that.” Serena’s eyes widened. “But I need the fact that I’m a chill aunt going for me, so I guess I won’t talk to your dad if he asks on the way to the airport…”

“Thanks,” Serena said. “Our secret, right?”

“Sure. Just do me a favor, and lend me a little of your fearlessness? Hold on just a second.”

Emilie walked briskly over to the postcard display. She’d hoped there’d be a small postcard of the painting. She was rewarded when she found them in the far right corner, tucked behind some of the charcoal drawings. Three; one for Helen, one for herself (when she got home she would pin it up on the memo board in her small kitchen, which she’d left blank and dull for far too long), and one which she would keep in the drawer in her desk for two weeks, deliberating, before finally mailing it to Michael with a greeting in looping cursive on the back.

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