Thursday, September 15, 2011


We take the Metroliner to Dupont Circle and walk up from there to the gallery. It's an early November evening and the air is cool and brisk. You walk with your hands thrust firmly into the pockets of your heavy, dark-blue pea­ jacket; the legs of your Levis rub together with each step; your dark hair escapes in ringlets from under your gray wool cap. You stride along quickly, eager to arrive, although you've already seen much of the art work to be shown at this opening.

The name of the gallery is partly obscured by an overgrown hedge but you know where it is. You say, "Everyone knows where it is," although I certainly would not have known.  The gallery is a converted brick row-house, painted an unassuming gray. This is your first invitation to an opening at a major gallery and you consider it a signal that your career as an artist is finally underway. The front door opens into a crowded hallway, and a large room expands to the left, its walls a stark and glaring white. Dimly lit stairs covered by a black corrugated runner lead to the upper floors. You decide that we should go to the top of the gallery and work our way back down to the first floor.

On the way up the narrow stairs, we press past other guests, mostly oddly dressed.  We pass a black man with an iron-gray beard jutting in all directions from the skin of his cheeks and chin; his wide eyes seem wild behind thick, round glasses. A loose, gray overcoat, trailing nearly to his ankles, is open in front, exposing striped overalls of a type worn in days past by railroad engineers. A tall, thin woman, heavily made up, her hair swept into a roll set like a beret at a cocked angle on the side of her head, stares boldly at me on the lighted landing.  A dark blue body shirt plasters her flat shape; maroon, skin-tight pants are bound at the waist by a knotted red sash and tucked into knee-high black boots. The sash sags like a wilted flower on a stick figure stem. I must seem bland by contrast in a light blue shirt and khaki slacks, my normal office and lab attire.  We climb and angle to the top, to the third floor of the building. The brightness of the room and the whiteness of its walls glow into the dim hallway.

You stop just inside the door and take off your coat. Your quick glance darts first one way then another, seeking familiar objects and people around the room. You take off your cap; your dark curls swirl about your face as you toss your head in a gesture of freedom and abandon. I love you when you're like this – your excitement, the vigor of your movements. We look at the art work; I follow you, but not too closely because you don't like me to crowd you when you're in this mood. You talk with others you know or seem to know. I watch at a distance as you gesticulate with your hands, obviously analyzing a piece of wood and terra cotta sculpture set on a stone block. You draw two fingers of your right hand parallel to a curve of the piece in a broad gesture as you talk, your eyes glancing first at the sculpture, then at your listener, then back at the piece. You draw your shoulders back and open both hands, palms upward, your arms spread widely. You slowly curl the fingers of your left hand as if holding a small bird and then draw your arms together, so that they hug the sides of your chest. Your left hand rises, dove-like, toward your head, which tilts backwards as your arms spread once more like petals of a flower unfolding.  The sequence of gestures seems so understanding, so informed; even more, it has a beauty of its own that, to me, transcends its source of inspiration.  I look at the objet d'art - at its formlessness, its obscurity, the bits of stick stuck obliquely, to all appearances randomly, in a mound of clay - and I wonder that this could have inspired such a dance of comprehension and appreciation in you.

We spend two hours at the gallery and then go back to my place that evening because I have work to finish before I leave for a conference in the morning. In the small living room of my apartment, posters are laid out neatly, symmetrically, on the floor. I have to mount two graphs that were not finished by the illustrator until this afternoon. You walk slowly toward the posters and bend over thoughtfully. You take off your coat and hat and lay them carefully on the couch, then kneel and stare at the graphs and photographs for a few minutes.

Finally, you ask, "Can you tell me what you've done? What have you found out?"

I tell you that, within cells, certain chemical elements are present in different compartments but, until now, no one has known for certain where these elements were.  I tell you we now have good evidence for where calcium is localized.  I mention the measurements we made and the controls we performed to show that our information and conclusions were correct. I tell you what we expected to find and how reality surprised us. I tell of my excitement at being able to determine whether a certain element is in one cellular compartment or another, even though those compartments are only a millionth of an inch apart.

You glance first at the graphs and pictures, then up at my face, then back at the posters, an obscure look in your eyes. You nod occasionally, your brow creased with attention and concern.

When I finish the explanation, you ask, "Why have you done all this?  Of what use is it?"

You gaze at me hopefully, as if in expectation of some explanation that I realize I will not now (perhaps not ever) be able to give you.

"I can't tell you," I reply, kissing you lightly on your upturned forehead. I kneel next to the display and pick up tape and scissors lying on the floor beside it. You go to the kitchen and pour a glass of wine, then come back and settle into a chair from which you watch me, the glass tilted slightly in your hand, a disappointed expression on your face, as I finish the project.

[This was published in 1981 in Miscellany, the College of Charleston literary magazine. It was also a semi-finalist in a New Millenium Writings contest in 2009.]

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