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 foreign languages?"
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.
Reprinted from The World To Come by Dara Horn (the full text of chapter 1). Copyright (c) 2006 by Dara Horn. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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