Woman at Exhibition

Because it was the only decoration on the cracked white walls of the apartment, Estelle found herself gazing for the fiftieth time at the faded print of Nighthawks that had survived Luke’s college years with its corners thumbtacked to lace. Her attention drifted from the counterboy’s white cap and shoulders to the gleaming coffee urns to the bright spots of the saltshakers while Luke spoke.

“I told you, I don’t believe in it. We’re getting married because you want to. Tell me where to show up and when, and I’ll be there. But I don’t want to hear about the planning. You wanted a ring, I got you a ring. That’s my end of the bargain.”

“It’s a lot to handle on top of the commissions. I could use help.”

“Me too. Tonight’s set won’t learn itself. Do me a favor and pick up a pizza if you’re not gonna cook. Half bacon, half eggplant.”

Estelle moved toward their upright, its lid scarred by beer rings.

“I thought I’d work on the sonata before dinner. The deadline’s Tuesday.”

“Not here. I need practice time. Composing’s mostly in the head, isn’t it?” Luke slung his saxophone over his shoulder and kissed her. The touch of his mouth sent sparks crackling and snapping through her, bright as magnesium, and she softened into him. The saxophone bumped against her hips. “You’re a genius,” he said, running a hand through her hair. “You can write anywhere, it’ll be brilliant.”

And just like that, Estelle was clumping down the six flights of stairs to the street. She hadn’t bothered to grab her notebook; she needed the piano and the fine grain of the chipped keys. It was June, and the air oozed like a sponge. While she waited for a train, moisture puddled under her arms and in the gutters of her chest and lower back. All along her skin she felt the sensation of tiny, rolling droplets. Her rayon blouse grew dark and tacky. As she came above ground she flapped its hem, gathering a breeze out of the dead air.

Four blocks southwest from the station, she met the protruding gray forehead of the Whitney. There was a special exhibition of Edward Hopper’s work. Now and then in the subway an advertisement for it had caught her attention, and today her long look at Luke’s poster had, in gentle and unobtrusive fashion, settled her upon a visit. Inside, dazzled in the sudden dimness, she paid the entrance fee, groped her way to the elevator, and pressed the button for the fourth floor.

The air conditioning sucked her damp skin into goosebumps. She did not realize until too late that she was walking the wrong way through the exhibition. But by then she was already lost in the colors and could not turn away.

Smaller chalks and charcoals trailed each of the stark, luminous oils. Fifty–two sketches flanked the vermilion theatre in New York Movie, where a blonde usherette leaned against a wall, sunk in thought. A black–and–white film played on a screen she could not see. Consulting the sketches, Estelle spotted the painting’s slight of hand. An entire hallway had been elided, a staircase compressed. The theatre had first been sawn apart, its colors boiled down to pencil annotations, only afterwards reconstructed in splendor as a palace of the mind.

The general effect of the sketches was that of an optical illusion. Passing the preparatory studies for Office at Night, she watched a charcoal typewriter appear and disappear from a corner desk. When she came to the final oil, she looked hard at the typewriter, willing it to vanish, and was disappointed.

Everywhere were harsh blondes and redheads who seemed somehow a single woman, and everywhere, too, were gaunt, beaky men who seemed in all their disguises the same man. The two figures migrated from canvas to canvas, occupying dozens of incongruous lives, always enigmatic, always monumental, always cold.

Estelle liked best the corner room crammed with sharp caricatures and soft oils that Hopper had done in Paris at twenty–four. She had gone to Paris with Luke for a jazz festival, and her memories of the city were as gentle as the oils. Luke had fetched them almond pastries in the morning and red wine at night and introduced her to other musicians, a kiss each cheek, you must meet my beautiful Estelle. Behind her back she had squeezed his hand.

After the stage and scaffolding had been dismantled but before they flew home, the two of them had sat at white café tables like the ones in Soir Bleu, Luke smoking, Estelle trying to read the future in the grit from her coffee cup. Hopper’s painting brought together a clown in white paint and white ruff, a prostitute, Rembrandt in a beret with a pointed orange beard. The next table over, a macquereau smirked and smoked. Could that be Rembrandt? Estelle pursed her lips around an imagined cigarette. One painter’s salute to another. It had to be. It must.

Their company had been less extraordinary. She recalled American and Italian tourists, two cantankerous teenagers, a grim–faced waiter, a slobbering child. But she had been happy nevertheless, happier than she had ever been.

“You saved my ass six times,” Luke had said. “I counted. Come everywhere with me. Please.”

He covered her hand with his.

“Of course I will,” she said.

“It’ll be beautiful. Just wait. And I won’t tie you down, don’t be afraid of that. You’ll always be free.”

“Of course,” she said again, looking down into her cup.

In the center of the room, glass–topped cabinets presented quick charcoals: a gruff, puffed colonel, a pig, women mincing in bustles and heels. Among these, Estelle noticed four brown sketches of the same woman. No five–minute scribble, no easy laugh, she. When Estelle turned, she saw the woman framed on the wall. Her long legs were crossed neatly at the ankles, and a slim sly smile peeked out under a feathered hat. She wondered who the woman was and how the young Edward Hopper had paid for her time.

At the end of the room she came to Le Pont Royal. Estelle studied the smooth Seine, the high–roofed Pavillon de Flore, the bridge arcing into the gilt baguette frame. The painting was slightly broader than her shoulders, warm as an embrace, and it smacked of youth’s blunt, determined mimicry. Nothing in it foreshadowed the stormy colors and geometries of the older Hopper. He might have been pleasant to kiss at that age, she thought.

As she stood there, considering the creamy canvas, she discovered that she was hungry. No, not hungry, but starving. Her stomach twisted with want. Without comprehending what she did, or why, knowing only that her need was urgent and overwhelming, Estelle stepped forward and bit into Le Pont Royal.

The hundred–year–old canvas yielded to her teeth. She gripped the frame tightly and chewed and tore. Her mouth filled with thick, bitter chips: butter, river blue, shingle, cloud, sky. Distantly, as if through a fog, she could hear shouting.

Hands seized her shoulders, but Estelle clutched the painting and ate and ate. Not until she had swallowed half the canvas did she come to herself. The white walls, the wooden floor, the heavy smell of linseed, the hubbub of voices—all crashed in upon her senses. Estelle licked her lips, tasted metal, and gagged. Her teeth were coated with powder. Dried paint flecked her blouse, mouth, and chin. The remnants of Le Pont Royal hung sadly in their frame, still attached to the wall.

“Jesus Christ!”

“The hell was that?”

“Is she crazy?”

“You think you’ve seen everything, and then—”

“Precinct’s sending someone in fifteen.”

Estelle coughed and spat out a sliver of paint. Her throat was raw, her tongue thick and oily. The circle of museum guards contracted around her. Behind them, tourists gaped, pointed, whispered. They raised cameras and phones. Estelle covered her face, horrified.

Four months to the wedding, and she was going to prison. Estelle was accomplished and capable, Estelle was starting to make a small name for herself, and now, out of the blue, she had eaten a Hopper at the Whitney. Luke hated to be embarrassed. Here was his girlfriend with crumbs of paint down her blouse, half an hour from the headlines. It was over. Everything was over. Had she lost her mind? Where had Estelle gone, and who was she now? She started to cry.

“Dr. Glass?”

“Let me see.”

“Be careful, you don’t know—”

The crush of black suits shifted, and a woman pushed through. Raking her fingers through her short, steely hair, she appraised Estelle. Two silver loops clashed on her wrist, and two triangles swung in her ears.

“I’ll talk to her, Louis. You’ll brief the police?”

“I’ll let you know when they get here.”

“Thanks. What a mess.”

“Sure you don’t want one of us? She might run.”

“It’s probably not necessary. I mean, look at her. Come this way, please.”

She took Estelle’s arm and steered her through an Authorized Only door. Numb with dread, Estelle barely noticed the hallways they went down, the stairs they went up.

The office the woman unlocked and entered was plain. It held a long, antique desk, two clawlegged chairs in a green stripe, a few shelves of large art books, and a cherrywood diploma whose lettering was too Gothic to be legible.

“Tea?” the woman said, flicking on an electric kettle. As the water rustled, she took one of the wingback chairs and steepled her fingers.

“What’s your name?”

“Estelle.” She rubbed her face, smearing tears and paint. A wet patch was spreading on her blouse. “I’m really sorry. It’s not enough, I know. But I am.”

“Call me Dr. Glass. I’m chief curator here. That was my exhibit that you damaged. Why?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t mean to.”

“What did it feel like?”

“What? Oh. I felt—looking at that painting—I felt I had to eat it. The house a piece of gingerbread, the bridge whipped like chiffon cake. And the colors, the delicious colors, sweet but not too sweet—” Her throat worked, and she swallowed. “It was awful. It wasn’t me.”

The kettle simmered and clicked, and the curator rose. From the depths of the desk she excavated a roll of cookies and a handful of napkins, which she offered to Estelle with a paper cup of tea. Estelle dabbed at her face and clothes.

“When am I going to be arrested?”

“Calm down. Drink your tea.”

The tea in the cup jumped and splashed and scalded her mouth. Estelle realized she was shaking and set the cup down.

“If I may ask, what do you know about Edward Hopper?”

“Not much. I do music, not art.”

“His wife was also a painter. Josephine Nivison was successful. Jo Hopper, not so much. She left her enormous collection of Hopper’s work and her own to the Whitney. You saw part of it out there, in fact.”

“I didn’t see anything by her.”

“The Whitney destroyed or lost her work. Most of it, anyway. What’s left is locked in storage. It was the sixties, she was a minor artist, a woman… Dark times. I have some paintings of hers that she never painted. I think you should see them.”

“Sorry?”

Dr. Glass retrieved a worn cardboard portfolio from between the desk and the wall and undid the laces.

“Title and year on the edge here. Awakening, 1915.”

They were looking at a small unstretched canvas, shimmering with color. A girl stared out at them, her brush lifted to an easel. Behind her, a mirror caught in vague outline her straight back, her bent arm, her half–finished painting of a man.

“From the mustache, I’m guessing that’s Robert Henri,” Dr. Glass said. “He taught both of them. Edward and Jo. Did a lovely portrait of her as an art student that’s now in Milwaukee.”

In New York Notices, 1923, a bright, blurred crowd moved through a gallery of watercolors. Only the watercolors could be seen in any detail. Here a beached red boat, there a yellow house under larches, women at market, a vase foaming with flowers.

“Probably Rosenberg’s New Gallery. She had two shows there.”

The Discovery, 1924, was a dark, cold watercolor of two figures naked in bed.

“This isn’t nice at all,” Estelle said. The long frame of the man dug into the woman’s back. Under his skin, the bones stood out like stretcher bars. His hands were clamped around her wrists. His face was averted. She was struggling.

“No, it’s not.”

The Artist Models, 1930, showed a woman posing naked before an open window, the curtains billowing around her. In the lower right corner, a man painted furiously. Portraits of different women spilled from his easel onto the floor: an earnest blonde, an obliging brunette, a scowling blackhaired beauty. Each face looked angrier than the last.

His Automobile, 1937, was a watercolor of a restaurant and a stately Dodge, blue as the sky. The driver’s door stood open. A body in a red and orange flowered dress was caught in the moment of falling out the door. The man hauling at her arm, doubled over with the effort, cut as lean and purposeful a shape as a tire jack.

He Draws a Line, 1942, had a man on hands and knees absorbed in chalking a line across the watercolor’s lower edge. Past him stood an easel, a line of irregular canvases propped against the wall, two uncovered windows, a table, a stool.

“That’s Washington Square.”

“They lived there?”

“For many years, yes.”

She Bites, He Pushes, 1942, was full of sharp angles. A woman toppled into a squat refrigerator, windmilling her arms. Her head struck a shelf stacked with dishes and mugs. The colors were hectic, the atmosphere strained. The woman was alone except for a shadow cast from outside the frame, which crawled over the floor and the lower half of her torso.

There was something familiar about the mugs on the shelf. Estelle blinked and looked closer. The same mugs sat on the counter in Nighthawks. She had seen them often enough to be certain.

“There are hardly representative, of course, but you can still see how her work tends to be vibrant and open. This one is a departure, to say the least.”

Mourning, 1967. A black table, a black vase overflowing with white flowers, a heap of black pearl necklaces. Through the open window, a white beach ran into a black and endless sea.

“Did he die?” Estelle said.

“May of that year. Jo a year after.”

Dr. Glass shut the portfolio.

“You said she never painted these,” Estelle said. “That doesn’t make sense. They’re here. They’re dated. You have them.”

“Are you sure?”

The curator passed her the portfolio. Holding her breath, afraid of another disaster, Estelle raised the battered flaps. Where watercolors had run riot, there was only a heap of burnt paper. As she exhaled, the sheets flaked and fell into ashes.

“I don’t understand.”

Dr. Glass took the portfolio and shook it over a trashcan. Specks of gray fluttered upward and clung to her suit.

“Jo Hopper never painted these,” she said. “They’ve been appearing since her death in 1968. Appearing and disappearing. As you saw.”

“Why did you show me?”

“You ate Le Pont Royal. Jo wanted you to see. I can’t tell you more than that.”

Estelle shook her head.

“I’m not any happier about it than you are, I assure you. It came with the job.” Dr. Glass knotted the strings and replaced the portfolio.

There was a light rap at the door. A frazzled head poked around it, then a rumpled shirt, then the rest of the man. He was followed by a policewoman, and Estelle felt her heart drop into her flats.

“Here’s the draft of the loss report, you’ll have to sign off on it—”

“Thanks, Will.”

“Is this the vandal?” the officer said, coming to a halt in front of Estelle. She had a jaw like granite, and every bit of metal on her uniform glittered.

“I’m not—” Estelle broke off under her stare.

“That’s an engagement ring, isn’t it? Nice girl like you, with a future, now you’re looking at several years. Should have thought about that.”

“I didn’t—”

“It was an accident,” Dr. Glass said. “We won’t be pressing charges.”

“Your assistant says that was hundreds of thousands in damages.”

“She’ll be permanently banned, of course. But accidents happen.”

“If it was up to me—”

“Our art can sometimes have an overpowering influence. It’s unfortunate but not unheard of. My predecessor dealt with a few cases. If you look back to, oh, September 1976, April 1982—your precinct should have the files—”

The policewoman snorted. “It’s your funeral.”

“You’ll want our statements.”

“Let’s make it quick.” She uncapped a pen and pointed it at Estelle. “You. What happened.”

“I had to get out of the apartment,” Estelle began. “Luke needed to practice.” She watched the policewoman’s eyebrows rise higher and higher as she described the events of that afternoon.

When the paperwork was filed and the officer gone, muttering about lunatics and slippery slopes, Dr. Glass rumpled her silver hair and heaved a sigh.

“The museum’s closing soon. Shall I show you out?”

Estelle followed the curator down a fluorescent stairwell to a back door and stepped out into the hot, noisy world. Madison Avenue throbbed with six–o’clock traffic. A pigeon whirred past them, shedding fluff.

“You can’t come back here. You understand that.”

“Yes.” Estelle shivered. “I’m not sure I’d want to.”

“That’s that, then.”

“Thank you.” She watched a shred of down sink softly to the pavement. “Just one thing, about Jo—”

But the door had already closed.

(Editors’ Note: E. Lily Yu is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)

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E. Lily Yu

E. Lily Yu received the 2012 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her short stories have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. Recent work appears in Terraform and Upgraded.

Photo Credit: Tiffany Ira Huang

One Response to “Woman at Exhibition”

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