Long ago, the man with clear glasses would knead into the places she could not reach. It had been four and a half months. Training her limbs to extend farther, to hold the position just a few seconds longer than felt natural, convinced that she could teach her body to do what he had done so well. The training cut down her writing time considerably. Somehow, even in his absence, he was a distraction. Each time her fingers left the keyboard, she would cock her elbow and with her opposite hand apply pressure so that her elbow extended her arm to the middle of her back. She would trace the length of her shoulder blade and absentmindedly pinch her skin.
The mauve polish was chipping from her fingernails. The man had always hated the chipping away, but she admired it. It was a messy transgression yet to be stylized by the comedians and actresses at the Los Feliz watering holes. There had been a time at Trader Joe’s, early on in their relationship, when she tried to tell the man about her fondness for mess. He pointed to a “CAUTION: WET FLOOR” sign across from the Two-Buck Chucks and reminded her that mess is slippery. Her lips, stained a light purple, turned upwards into what she hoped was a smile. He grabbed his favorite Chardonnay, she her Malbec. Later that night, after two and a half glasses, she jotted down a quick poem. In it, the man kicked the wet floor sign to the ground, and they slipped together, gleefully. And when their heads hit the floor, they did so in unison.
After these kinds of misunderstandings, her body would lurch into a state of permanent tension—what her chiropractor called the absence of serotonin, and all she knew was the blank page. She was never much for rhyme, but anaphora suited her well. On the third and last Christmas they were together, the man with clear glasses gifted her an illustrated collection of John Keats’s poetry. As she tugged off the ribbon and ripped through the glittered wrapping paper, he recited “Bright star” from memory. She wanted to want to throw herself at him, this man who loved her so much, yet she could not stop staring at the cover: forest green with a large gold emblem etched beneath a calligraphic “John Keats,” printed in the twenty-first century but made to look like Keats had chosen the cover himself between bouts of opioid addiction and dramatic fits for Fanny Brawne. What about her said Keats? He had read her poems. Is this who she was to him? A burning lined her gut, but she told herself it was just the heat from the fireplace. Several beats later, she bent forward and pressed her lips to his, whispered thank you, and poured herself another glass of eggnog.
That night, as they lay naked in bed, he slipped his arm around her stomach and pulled her into him. She recalled his murmuring into her ear and how he ran his hand over her landscape in the dark. She had stayed so long with a man that knew her body in the darkness, yet when the lights came on he did not have the words to describe her skin—or worse yet—he had them, believed them to be true, but they were nothing like she hoped them to be. Only now, with her thumbs, unavailingly, working to undo the absence of serotonin, did she realize the greater pain of not knowing the words herself. It was like when she went to the doctor and they asked her to describe her stomach pain.
When she first moved to Los Angeles, her side started splitting open. The doctors tried to fix her. They scanned her and kept her still. They pressed hard into her stomach. They fed her drinks to make her insides light up for them. Each time, with each new doctor, she would be asked to say what was happening inside her body. Is it sharp, like a tack? Shooting, like a gun? Stabbing, like a knife? Is this all they could offer her? It was so easy for them to name the violence that could be undoing her, but none of them were right. Many months later, she took a sip of water and the pain subsided. The entire time, her body had not been attacking her. It was simply trying to say, Listen to your needs.
The clock’s hands had ticked forward several hours without her writing any letters, words, or images. Despite her best efforts, the absence remained. She rose from her red cushioned chair and walked to her closet. Slipping off her morning robe, she was determined to make the day unlike the other days. That is, she would not sit at her desk forgetting to remember herself: a woman with a history longer than the three years her body would not let go of. Surely she could do something with her days besides staring at her computer and massaging her shoulders.
On the second Tuesday of every month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had free admission. She had not been to LACMA since the years before the man. He preferred the Getty. The last time she visited the museum, Alexa Chung had been hanging onto the tall, imposing lampposts amidst a gaggle of tourists, arms akimbo. Alexa, she recalled, wore a low-cut dress with a t-shirt underneath. In homage, the woman paired her own white dress with a yellow shirt and made her way to the museum on Wilshire Boulevard.
Once, when she was very young, her parents took her to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her father dallied little and scoffed regularly. He did pause, though, at a photography exhibit where his eyes wandered out of his head. One hazel eye cozied up to a shot from Vietnam and made kin with the napalm; the other walked far across the room to be with a woman dancing on a picnic table. The rest of the day, the words that he said were still the words that he said. But the words that he meant were only war and dancing; no one knew this, of course.
While her father’s eyes came alive, her mother kept both her hands in her coat pockets and forgot about her child entirely. As both her parents were preoccupied, she was able to talk to nobody—and every art, except the pieces she did not understand. There was very little she did not understand in the museum. Modern art was made for children under six years old. Meeting a new piece of art was nothing like meeting a new person. There were no Hellos or How-do-you-dos. Simply Yes, me too.
The glass elevators in the LACMA parking garage were compelling, but she could not figure out how to call them so she wrote them off as more form than function. She thought this about much of Los Angeles. As she climbed the stairs from the garage, she felt the presence of those passing her: men with SLR cameras slung around their necks, flocks of children loosely following after camp counselors, parents with perfect skin holding hands with their stylish toddlers. With each blink, she scrubbed them off her body. There were days when she looked another human in the eyes and felt what Christians called grace. She wanted so badly for today to be that day, but each time she found a pair of eyes, she felt a cracking in her chest that reached all the way to her throat and made her shoulders shake. There was no grace today. She was here for the art. Where was the art? Why were there so many cafés? And why did all the cafés have a wait?
The museum was like a campus in that there were half a dozen or so buildings to walk through, and most of them were not connected. She could not say why she chose the first building she chose, but she was sure it was the right choice. Her movements were slower than normal. Her strides shorter, her swinging arms more deliberate. A man held the door open for her, and it was only after she had fully entered the lobby that she was able to swivel her head to mouth Thanks. Inside her body, she kneeled in a prayer position, and her shoulders weighed nothing. She was not a religious person.
“Emma!” The exclamation in his voice made her heart stretch to each corner of her body. She spun herself around to face the man with clear glasses and eyes that demurred when he smiled. How had he known she would be here? When she looked the man in the eyes, though, she did not know him. He wore no glasses, and his eyes were marbles. She remembered her name was not Emma and that the man with clear glasses was not looking for her. Emma, and the man who was not the man it should have been, clasped hands and walked away. The false recognition clung to the woman’s skin, gripping tighter and tighter as the couple disappeared. Bodies circulated around her in a blur as she remembered her legs, and then her feet, and then her intentions. Pivoting to the next room, she clutched the leather handle of her yellow woven bag. Her knuckles whitened as a man brushed passed her. I’m sorry. The museum was so loud. She did not bother opening her mouth.
The air moved slowly and the people quickly. It should not be this way in a museum. Art has a way of pausing time and also bringing it forward. Both of these tricks should slow a heartbeat, but when she listened to the room, all the heartbeats were distracted. She distracted herself from the heartbeats with a Rothko. She liked how Rothko knew colors mattered. He trusted people to not just stop but to stay long enough for the colors to become walls and floors and ceilings. She stayed for Rothko. A thirst overcame her, and she reached for the water bottle in her yellow woven bag just as a soft lilac emerged from the art.
“There is no drinking here.” The docent’s lips pursed, and her eyes darted from the woman’s water, to the Rothko, and back again.
The woman’s throat scratched as she replied, “R-Right. Of course.”
“I know it’s hot, but it’s not allowed.”
“Yes, okay, all right.” She wondered if the docent had seen the lilac retreat back to the painting. Like a child after receiving harsh parenting, it left a little quieter than it had arrived. With the water back in her yellow woven bag, the woman turned away from the docent and the Rothko. The air was even staler in the next room. She could hear the water sloshing around, but the other visitors were too busy staring at each other to notice.
It had been so long since her last visit that she completely lost her way. The buildings’ names meant little to her, but she gathered by the Betye Saar installation in the corner that she was near the right room. Before the man in the clear glasses, she frequented the room whenever writer’s block struck her. Though it had a handful of staples, most of the art changed with the seasons. The woman used it to mark the passage of time since Los Angeles weather failed in this regard. As she looked at the large canvases lining the walls, she knew that this must be the room before the room. She blushed in anticipation. Something was happening to her, but she could not say quite what.
Finally, she found the art she had been looking for. A boy with a backpack on his front came running for her. He let out a loud sigh that, to her, sounded like a scream. A girl with a Nikon hung around her growing neck swept in front of her. There was no collision, but there could have been. When the chaos ended, she looked up to see the art still there, waiting for her.
It was enormous. Twice her height and wide enough that if the art ever woke up, it could envelop her in a hug and still be able to hold itself. Like all other Barbara Kruger pieces she had seen, it was red and white and black. A white woman’s face starred in the center and her eyes stared back at the camera. On her forehead and covering her mouth was written, Who does she think she is? The woman seemed to have no mouth at all.
The space between the woman and the art flattened until the woman felt she was the art. The question rolled around in her head, tumbling over synapses, bouncing on her frontal lobe, and then every answer came to her. Not in words but in a flood. And then her body was gone. All that remained was floating affect. It was a deep red, and then mauve like her chipped nails, the same blue as her bra from the night she first came beside another body.
“Be careful with your bag.” The command came from a man with the letters “LACMA” on his lapel. His black hair slicked back unnaturally. A sliver of his white shirt peaked through the blue blazer. The red nametag over his chest was at a slant, making it difficult to read.
She became a body again. “What?”
He pointed to her yellow woven bag. “Be careful, please. Do not hit the art with your bag.”
“I would never hit the art with my bag. I love the art.”
“Your bag is fine now, but it cannot get any bigger.” His voice was so low that even as he spoke to her she could hear the buzzing of everyone around her. Why were they here? She was trying to understand the man. She squinted her eyes to see him better. She let her ears grow two sizes to hear him better.
“My bag may need to get bigger. What if I need to excavate my heart? It is buried in my chest, and just before you came I did not have a chest, so when you spoke to me, the process of becoming corporeal again was messy. Mess is good, but this is not a good mess. My heart was good before you came. How did you not see it? The colors? How did no one see it?”
“Ma’am, I can take your bag from you if this is going to be an issue. We can store it for you in a locker. You will get a key, and when you are finished looking at the art, you can pick it up again. Okay?”
She heard laughter, a loud sneeze, the smack of two lips. “Why are you talking to me?”
“There is no shouting in this museum. Please, come with me.”
“Where are you taking me? I do not have to follow you. Are you afraid? I heard a child shout earlier. Why can he shout? Why can I not shout?” Looking down at her arm, she saw him gripping her, but she did not feel his touch. He was taking her somewhere. They made a sharp left turn. “What do you think is in my bag? Do you believe in affect? It is all I am around Barbara Kruger. I need to know, has this happened to anyone else?” The man with the slanted nametag opened a bright red door and asked her to take a seat, which she did.
“Do you have someone we can call?” The walls in the room were white and blank.
“I am in love.”
“Can we call this person? You seem unwell. Perhaps it is the heat wave.”
She thought again of the man with clear glasses. A cup of water cried condensation onto the black table. The small pools made even smaller reflections, and as she looked at her image in them, she imagined the art watching her. “This museum is lonely. Even with so many people, it can be so lonely. You have to find your art, or you will be lonely forever. The art will make you sad and aroused and giddy and seen, but mostly it will make you feel. Do you understand what I am saying? I looked at that art—Barbara Kruger’s—and I was so in love with myself.” Her mouth was drying out, but she did not reach for the water. She kept going. “And then something happened. I lost my body. Or my body lost me. Or there was never any body. But there was still the floating color that lives in your chest.” Her hair clip had come loose. She brushed back the dark waves that blocked her vision. “Why do you work at a museum if you do not understand this?” She paused. He did not know how to talk to her. Her voice cracked, “You should not have spoken to me. I am not corporeal around Barbara Kruger. All these other people, they touch my body, but they do not know my body.” Her throat began to bleed. In the red blood came her heart. It laid itself out on the black table. The blood flowed down, exiting her heart. “I am not in my body when I am in a museum. I am looking for someone to make me feel corporeal. It should not have been you. You do not know how to respond to my anger. You did not see what I became. He never saw, either. It’s only ever been me. Me and Barbara Kruger and Rothko.”
There were twelve beats of silence before he touched his hair and said, “I do not understand.” She gathered her dehydrated heart into her yellow woven bag. As she exited the room, she recalled the bottom of the Barbara Kruger print. Below the image of the woman was a thick red box with slanted white writing: It’s time for women to stop being politely angry.
Driving out of the parking garage, she touched the bloodstain on her white dress. Still wet, it stuck to her fingertips. She painted her steering wheel with it. No matter how loud the radio, she heard silence. When she got home, she dropped her yellow woven bag on the kitchen floor, tugged her white dress and yellow shirt over her head, and walked to the bathroom. Naked, she turned the shower knob to the highest heat and waited until there was enough steam that she could wipe clean the mirror and see her reflection. It was glowing, somehow, and the glowing did not stop. Nothing stopped. The shower continued its raining, and her feet were swimming before long. She cocked her elbow, and with her opposite hand, applied pressure so that her elbow extended her arm to the middle of her back. Tracing the length of her shoulder blade, she did not feel an absence but an abundance. Smooth. Warm. Blooming.
Mattie Leila Wyndham was raised along the South Carolina coast, attended Colby College in Maine, and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her nonfiction has appeared in The FBomb and Los Angeles Review of Books. and she was awarded the New York State Summer Writers Scholarship (2019) to study fiction under Dana Johnson and Cristina Garcia, although unable to attend. These days, you can find her either under her Fleabag poster or in the park dreaming up the weird and unruly.