It was Sara's fault, really. She was the one who persuaded him
to go to the singles' cocktail hour at the museum. In the weeks since his
divorce, Sara had begged him to try to meet someone new, to make at least some
vague effort toward being happyperfect, productive Sara, hopeful enough to have
just gotten married in their mother's hospital room two weeks before their
mother died, and tough enough to already begin picking up the shards. It had
been easier to say yes to Sara than to explain to her why he had no hope or
interest in going.
But when he passed through the museum's metal detectors and
entered the crowded gallery, he saw that the other people at the exhibit of
"Marc Chagall's Russian Years" were little more than walking ghosts: his mother,
his father, preserved in other people's skin. Glimpsing the side of a woman's
heada younger woman, of course, but another remarkable thing about the dead is
that they are all ages, preserved at every age you ever knew them, and at no age
at allhe had to fight the impulse to glance at the profile again, unwilling to
feel the sick relief that came with confirming an unfamiliar face. It was easier
to look at the art.
Ben edged away from the crowds at the center of the gallery,
toward the paintings on the walls. He stopped alongside a giant canvas titledhe
stooped to read the captionThe Promenade. A man stood in the middle of the
painting, legs apart as if striding with confidence, one hand at his side
holding a small bird, the other in the air, holding the hand of a womana woman
who flew in the air like a flag on the flagpole of his wrist, her magenta dress
fluttering in the wind. Another large canvas, called Over the Town, cast both
man and woman into the sky, wearing different clothes this time, a green shirt
for the man, a blue dress for the woman, with petticoats flying at her ankles.
The two of them soared over the town below, in a sky pure white, as if the
flying people, ruling the air, hadn't yet decided what to fill it with. For a
moment Ben wished he could fly. And then, as he turned around to cross the
gallery, someone called his name.
"And what about you, Benjamin Ziskind?"
Ben looked up, startled. Had someone from the show tracked him
down? But as he scanned the unfamiliar faces of the three women who had closed
in around him beneath the flying woman, he realized that everyone was wearing a
name tag, and someone had just read his aloud. He was trapped.
The three women laughed, and Ben forced a smile, wincing as he
remembered why he was ostensibly here. He glanced at the name tag of the woman
who had spoken: "Erica Frank, Museum Staff." A shill, he thought. Too bad; she
was the most attractive of the three. She was slightly shorter than him, with
curved hips, long hair the color of damp rope, and (Ben was captivated and then
ashamed to notice) a glimpse of shadowed skin that shimmered between the buttons
of her bright blue blouse. Her green eyes were watching him. In the glass
covering the painting behind her head, he turned away from his own reflection:
short, dark, unworthy. He remembered how he had first met Nina two years agoat
a party like this one, but in Sara's apartment. He was happier then, less
fearful. He had told a joke, a bad one, some horrible pun, and she had laughed.
Ben wasn't used to people laughing with him instead of at him. He would have
married her on the spot. On the night two weeks after his mother died, when his
wife failed to come home from work, he had assumed she had been kidnapped.
"We were just talking about languages in museum work,
translations, that kind of thing," Erica Frank was saying. "Do you speak any
Ben resented being forced into this inane conversation, but he
remembered Sara pleading with him and knew he owed it to her to try. He in fact
spoke several languages, but he tried to pick the one that would end the
conversation the fastest. "Yiddish," he said. He immediately wished he had lied.
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