A battle on horseback.
A woman leaning over a candle in the dark.
One after another Donna trudged by these and other scenes as she made her way through the labyrinth of galleries. Clutching her handbag, she turned left, then right, then left again. Her knee ached. She walked down a long corridor, and when she entered the next chamber she swore she’d already been there.
After all, it’s not everywhere you see a naked man talking to a sphinx.
Or a woman in battle armor, a wisp of a halo circling her head.
At the passage between the halls of the museum there sat a thin black man dressed in a blue uniform, so frail that an ebony cane leaned against the wall next to him. He looked up from his chair as Donna headed in his direction, her rubber soles squeaking on the marble floor with each step. She swallowed hard and applied her best smile.
“Excuse me,” she said, “but do you know how I can get back to the Impressionists?”
He stared back, impassive.
“The Impressionists?” she repeated hopefully. “I’m afraid I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.”
He raised his palms in a sign of helplessness, shaking his head to show he didn’t understand. The radio at his belt crackled.
“Do you speak English?” she asked, and again he wagged his head. Donna didn’t even have the phrasebook with her—though maybe it was just as well, because then she’d have to figure out how to pronounce the words, which hadn’t worked out so well at dinner last night. Or breakfast or lunch today.
So stupid, she thought as she gave up and continued down the hallway—and she wasn’t referring to the guard. No, she meant herself: Really, how dumb do you have to be to get lost in a museum? There were signs, yes, but they showed the titles of galleries, named after donors or royalty or God knows what, none of which meant anything to her. It was Tom who had the map. No big deal, she’d told herself back then, twenty minutes ago. After all, there’d been the glowing green exit signs that she’d known would take her back to the main entrance, and from there she’d be able to find the right path. But instead these signs had led to ever more remote passageways and finally to a steel door with a push bar at the end of a narrow hallway. An emergency exit. Donna wasn’t so desperate as to set off an alarm, but that’s when she’d realized she was completely turned around.
The guidebook bragged of over six kilometers of exhibits, and although she wasn’t exactly sure how great a distance that was, she knew it was long. Really, really, long.
Where was Tom, she wondered. She’d left her husband cooling his heels in front of a painting of glowing water—a Monet (or was it Manet?)—while she popped into the powder room. Though perhaps popped wasn’t the right word. The blue WC arrow promising toilets had in fact pointed to another blue arrow, which in turn led to another and then another. And although Donna had reached the final destination just in time for her weakened bladder, when she reemerged from the restroom, she’d discovered that retracing her bread crumbs of signs wouldn’t be easy: blue WC arrows converged on this location from multiple directions—forking paths that all looked pretty much the same.
By now Tom was probably trying to hunt her down. He’d never understood how anyone could have such a lousy sense of direction. Frankly, although she’d sometimes make a joke of it, Donna herself found it embarrassing, this inability to keep her bearings. At least when they’d landed in London, their first stop, she could blame her disorientation on the jet lag. She’d felt logy and off-balance those three days. By the time they’d boarded the Eurostar she was sleeping regular hours, but she still felt turned around—her internal compass spinning like a roulette wheel. It must be the light, she’d thought. Somehow the sun seemed to follow a different course here. Not like in Ohio.
She walked past a series of large canvases peopled with languid figures, some covered in flowing robes of pastel colors. A naked woman with a turban reclined on an oriental bed, looking over her ridiculously long back, right into Donna’s eyes. Other paintings teemed with crosses, arrows, thorns, pikes. A few visitors lingered before various canvases. In one gallery two slender young women chatted in a language Donna didn’t understand and couldn’t even identify. She hesitated at the exit from this room, taking a moment to rub her left knee. Great, she thought. A perfect time for that joint to act up. Another blue arrow pointed from the right, and Donna decided to follow it upstream. As she passed through the opening she caught a glimpse of her reflection in a glass panel, and she frowned.
Never mind, she thought. It’s nothing.
But it wasn’t nothing. In the instant of that glance she’d seen plenty. Sure enough, that was her stout figure, her double chin, her graying hair. Those were her khaki pants going by, and that was her white cotton sweater.
In short, although it wasn’t the same person she’d seen in the hotel mirror this morning, it was unmistakably her. Donna had learned to be careful about reflections. Twenty or thirty years ago she’d been on friendly terms with mirrors, and though she’d never been uncritical of what she found in them, the quibbles had been minor. Her nose could have been a little straighter, her breasts a little rounder, her legs a touch longer. But by and large she had found herself entirely satisfactory—and so, evidently, had Tom. Three decades and as many children later it was a different story. Now she was more guarded. She had a knack for averting her eyes from the mirror when she stepped out of the bath, and she could even inspect her lipstick without allowing her gaze to drift upwards to the bags under her eyes, or down toward the developing wattle of her neck. Like on TV, where they obscured a face to protect a person’s identity, Donna could blur out traits she didn’t want to see.
From a distance, with the right clothing and the right light, in the full-length mirror at home, and when she thought to throw her shoulders back, the results were, she thought, still respectable. It was the less choreographed encounters with herself that caused trouble. When walking in the city, a flicker would catch her eye in a store window, and before she had time to censor the image, she’d startle at the reflection of a thick, middle-aged woman meeting her gaze. Of those two selves—the one that lived in the mirror at home and the one that ambushed her on the street—which one was the real McCoy? Probably she wouldn’t like the answer.
Oh crap, she thought as she entered the next gallery.
In front of her was the portrait of the woman (really? a woman?) in medieval armor, and right across from it the sphinx painting again: a young man, naked but for a cloak over his shoulder, leaning forward toward the monster as if in conversation, like he was giving directions, explaining. So odd, Donna thought. It’s a woman with a lion’s body and a bird’s wings, and the fellow is chatting with her as if they’re in a coffee shop, his left foot up on a stone.
When you got right down to it, this painting was exactly what annoyed her about all these museums. It was a large canvas, a lot of work. That much she couldn’t argue with. And the painter certainly had talent—for example, the crimson fabric draped over the man’s shoulder, with all those folds and the decorative hem—well, that was certainly an accomplishment, practically a photograph. And at least he’d gotten the proportions pretty much right, unlike in some of the other pictures. But what was wrong with clothing? All these naked bodies, everywhere you turned, it was—she searched for the right word—immodest. Not to mention unrealistic. And besides, what was the big deal with all these old stories, which meant nothing to her. Why should a young man come and visit a monster? And in fact, if you looked, you could see they weren’t really talking: the lion-lady just scowled at him from her cave while he leaned forward, his fingers held as if he were counting, trying to figure something out. Perhaps he was about to speak? It was hard to tell.
Maybe it had meant something hundreds of years ago, but this scene had nothing to do with Cleveland or getting children out of the house. It showed a young man with a lot of ambition, one who was afraid of nothing. And you could tell just by looking at that perfect, beautiful body that he came from money. He was a man with a future, and nothing to worry about. Not like Donna and Tom, for whom this trip was their first real vacation in five years, and who were still putting their youngest through college, and who, the way things were going, would have a dickens of a time retiring. Even then they’d be stuck forever in their flat rambler on their flat yard in their flat state. No one would be painting a picture of them any time soon.
That’s when she heard the English. While she stood before the sphinx painting, a couple had appeared nearby, a young dark-haired woman with deep-set eyes, dressed in a black knee-length skirt and tights, accompanied by a slim man in a tailored suit. Donna couldn’t quite make out the subject of their hushed conversation, but even though the voices were accented, the words were in Donna’s language.
“Excuse me,” she said, and the young couple—practically kids, Donna thought—looked up at her with blank stares. “Do you happen to know how to get back to the Impressionists from here?”
For a moment they stood as still as statues, taken aback by Donna’s intrusion.
“I’ve gotten a bit lost,” she added. Then, to cushion the silence, she prattled on. “I was with my husband, you see—we’ve been here since lunchtime—but then I dipped into the powder room, and now I’m afraid I’ve misplaced him.” She gave a small laugh but it sounded forced, which made her feel all the more foolish.
The girl in the skirt broke into a tight-lipped smile and spoke in lightly accented English, pointing down the corridor to the left, naming galleries, listing turns—all as casually as if giving directions in her own neighborhood. Donna hoped she could keep it straight. She felt the details already slipping away, but if she started in the right direction she stood a fighting chance of making it back. She thanked the pair energetically, and as she struck out on the indicated path, the strangers’ soft conversation resumed behind her. The man said something in muffled tones. The woman laughed. And Donna’s ears burned.
As she exited the gallery she walked past an empty chair where a shiny black rod leaned against the wall, right where the frail old guard had sat. He’d stepped away, leaving his cane behind.
Her knee was hurting again. Not a sharp pain, but a dull ache that she knew would lead to fluid in the joint. She’d have to take it easy this afternoon. Assuming she made her way out of here at all, that is.
In fact, maybe she should never have made her way in. This was the trip she’d been asking for since, well, forever, and that Tom had been resisting. Shortly after their marriage he had promised to take her to Europe, but the time had never been right. First he needed to get settled in his job. Then she was pregnant, first with Chris, then with Shelly and Marie. Next, the kids were too small. He’d gotten his promotion. They had to save for college. Et cetera, et cetera. There was always something, always some reason to push it just a little further back, year after year.
Donna stopped at an intersection of corridors and looked in both directions. What had skirt girl said? Right, she thought, and so she veered off past a row of small statuary.
Now, she realized, the trip had come too late. These European capitals were no place for middle-aged women from Ohio. There exists that brief window when youth trumps money and class, when everything is possible, but if you miss it, you’re too old and you no longer have an excuse for your lack of experience or worldliness. Innocence ages into ignorance. The thought of it angered Donna. They had waited so long that she now felt out of sync everywhere they went. Earlier she had hoped to blend in with this other world. Now she understood: she was nothing but an intruder from middle age.
And to make matters worse, she kind of had to pee again.
Thinning of the muscles, her doctor had said, that was the culprit. They get weakened by childbirth, and then menopause finishes them off. Of course, Tom didn’t have these bladder problems. No, in fact, he was having the time of his life here. He hadn’t really cared about this trip in the first place, had said he could take it or leave it, but once they got underway, he really warmed to Europe. OK, not so much to the art museums. But he reveled in the London pubs, and in Paris it was the sidewalk cafés. She knew he enjoyed watching these slim-waisted, exotic women in the streets, and although she could hardly fault him for it—they were gorgeous, after all, even she could see that—it left her feeling bitter. This whole trip, his reaction and hers, it was the world turned upside down.
She walked past a glass panel—was it the same one as before?—and managed to ignore her reflection. A blue arrow marked “WC” pointed in one direction, and the green sign for the emergency exit suggested another. But she knew enough not to fall for those traps. She pushed on. She had a feeling she was nearly there. The entry down to the left looked familiar.
Maybe it wasn’t just the muscles around her bladder. Maybe it was all of Donna that was thinning. No, not in the losing-weight sort of way. Unfortunately. More in the sense of fading. She knew she didn’t turn any heads when she walked by cafés where men like Tom sat drinking their beers. They’d stopped looking at her in that way long ago. She might as well be invisible. She might as well not have come on this goddamned trip. In fact, Donna thought, she might just as well—
She halted in the passageway. In front of her stood the same naked man leaning on his spear, chatting with the same old sphinx. Across from him was the woman in armor, holding the flag. But the paintings weren’t in the same place, they were backwards, as if someone had switched them around while she was out. It was insane, impossible. Then she understood: she’d gone in a giant loop, entering the same damn gallery from the other side.
Shit, Donna thought. At least she thought she had thought it, but the way a man at the other end of the room looked around, she realized she’d spoken the word out loud. Well, she didn’t care. She’d had it up to here with these stupid hallways by now. All she had to do was walk up and put her finger on the sphinx’s nose and every alarm in the museum would go off. She knew it. Guards would come running. That sure as hell would get her out of here.
Of course, she didn’t touch a thing. Instead, she took a deep breath and clenched her grip on her purse. This sphinx painting kept drawing her back, like a whirlpool. Something about the picture annoyed her, but wouldn’t let her go. That young man with his foot on the stone, he exuded such confidence. Yes, he was talking to a monster with a lion’s claws and the wings of an eagle, but you could bet he’d come out all right. He had his whole life in front of him. Probably he’d start a family. Just to look at the velvety cloak draped over his shoulder, you could tell he was used to luxury. Everything would be easy.
Hah, she thought. Give him twenty or thirty years and then see how he likes it.
All right. Enough was enough. She’d follow the signs back to the bathroom, have a pee, and then ask directions in every damn room until she got out of this place. Tom could find her back at the hotel. In fact, as far as she knew, he was already there. That is, if he wasn’t out at some café drinking his beer and ogling the locals.
Then, as she turned away, something caught her eye and she glanced back one last time, doing a double-take as if startled by her own reflection, twisting mid-step and pinching something delicate in her knee. At the bottom of that painting, sticking up from the rubble below the sphinx, was, of all things, a human foot. And not just that: the ball-shaped thing next to it, which looked a bit like another stone, it was a skull. Nearby there lay a line of ribs. Good grief. Those were human bones piled up beneath the perch of the she-monster. Donna felt the vague recollection of a story.
She stepped back, and her bad knee nearly buckled.
What was the big idea? Why would an artist stick a bunch of bones into the corner of a fancy-pants picture? Clearly that was what happened to people who came to talk to the monster, and yet the naked young man wasn’t bothered. Did he even understand what was at stake? He seemed confident, untouchable—as if he had all the answers.
And then, though she didn’t know where it came from, Donna felt a surge of anger welling up inside. No, not anger: indignation. How dare they, she thought. She hadn’t come five thousand miles to see this.
She hobbled toward the doorway. The guard’s black cane still rested against the wall, and since no one was looking, she borrowed it, leaning on this third leg as she made her way to the black leather bench in the middle of the gallery, plopping herself down. My God, but she was tired!
How dare they? she thought again. Here she was, stuck in the middle of this goddamned maze, her knee hurting like the dickens, with Tom off doing God knows what God knows where, while she just turned in circles, growing hungry and thirsty, trapped in a place made for young, pretty people—sophisticated types who didn’t need signs that a normal person could understand, and where even the paintings were calculated to taunt her, to remind her, to trick her into seeing things she didn’t want to see. To think that she had begged for this trip! What in God’s name had she been thinking? What was the point? And what on earth were you to do after the scales have tipped in your life, after the children have gone, and all you have left to do is wait?
Donna didn’t know the answers to these questions. She focused on her anger, on Tom, on the purse clutched in her lap, on the painting. A flurry of images flashed through her mind: planes, hotels, housekeeping, girls, shops, beer, the babel of tongues. As quickly as she flicked through these thoughts, their edges darkened, like water wicking into a paper towel. Her lip quivered.
That handsome young man, calmly laying out replies to the sphinx in front of him—Donna didn’t buy it. It was a lie, this picture, like all the rest of the paintings. A whole museum of lies. There were no answers. It was a waste of time to look. The only thing was to keep moving forward.
She was drained. Her knee ached. And to top it all, she felt that pressure down below, where the muscles had thinned. She closed her eyes and wagged her head. There was no use fighting it. And because there was nothing else to do, she sucked in her breath and struggled to her feet, wincing as the knee took her weight. She didn’t allow her eyes to wander as she limped out of the gallery. A blue arrow pointed to the right, and Donna followed it.
Raised in the US and the UK, Scott Carpenter teaches at Carleton College (MN), where he teaches literature and literary theory. A writer of both fiction and non-fiction, his short stories have appeared (or are about to) in such venues as Ducts, Prime Number, Every Writer Resource, Eunoia Review, Subtle Fiction, Short Fiction Collective, Lit-Cast and The Carleton Voice. His website is located at: http://apps.carleton.edu/people/scarpent/.