Crystalizing by Melissa Minsker
As we shuffle down the sidewalk and emerge from the swollen springtime air into the cool stillness of the museum, I am certain that the guard at the door believes we are kin. He can see the similarities. He gazes at us appraisingly as he takes the admission money from my fingers.
Even though Irene is rail thin, her face drawn and freckled with early age spots, she is sophisticated, supple. On the drive down, her left hand quivered against the armrest on her seat. She hates being in the car, but she hates the train more. She said that the train would be too crowded. She could not bear a crowd. I tried to assure her that on a Tuesday afternoon, we would be safe. And I promised we would head home before the evening rush. She would not be moved. So, we drove…and we parked as close as possible. Still, that was nearly five blocks.
It was a good day for walking; one of the first truly good days to be outside. We’d been planning the trip since October, when Irene read about a new acquisition at the museum. She told me about the sculpture. She’d studied it as a girl in college but had never seen it except in photos. She longed to stand next to it. I knew that we had to go.
The museum was quiet, only a couple of solitary people roaming around the main gallery, carefully examining some of the hanging artwork. No one spoke except the two guards standing near the unplugged x-ray machine. Their murmurings were the sole sound in the entire, great hall. It was eerie and made me too nervous to speak aloud. I wished Irene and I could communicate without speaking. Maybe our minds could be connected and we would just hear one another’s voices without opening our lips. Or, maybe I might just understand her thoughts and she mine without any voices involved. I wanted to ask Irene if she ever thought of these things. If she had a rich imaginary life. I couldn’t do it. Instead, I said, “Which way to the Sculpture Gallery?”
She looked over her shoulder at me, her eyes a little clouded and almost empty. “It should be this way,” she said, pointing. She turned her back to me again and began to move across the marble tiles. Her little red slippers made a muffled scratch, which echoed endlessly around the cavernous room.
I met Irene in the elevator of our apartment building. She was wearing a Pucci-print scarf, in deep purples and grays, wrapped tightly around her head. She looked at me severely, her non-existent eyebrows knitting, and raised her skeletal right hand.
“Irene Baldwin,” she said. Her cheeks were sunken and her skin was pasty. I recognized the signs of chemotherapy. I thought, for a moment, that I could smell the chemicals bleeding through her paper-thin flesh. They were sights and smells that made me shiver.
“Ophelia Frost,” I said, carefully shaking that fragile hand.
“What was your mother thinking, calling you Ophelia? She’s tragic,” she said.
“Well, Ophelia also means ‘helper’,” I said. “She thought it would make me kind.”
“Well. Did it?” she asked, marching off of the elevator as the doors snicked open. She didn’t wait for me to answer, but just slipped around the corner and out of sight.
Before I met Irene, my life was very quiet. I cooked a lot of sad box dinners and watched whatever horrible reality show I might manage to find on TV. I wasn’t picky, either. Former teen idols, terrible singers, women vying for the love of a man who didn’t deserve them. When I met Irene, though, things became kind of magical. She taught me to cook vegetarian meals and how to tell the difference between Monet and Renoir and dragged me to her Toastmasters meeting. We went shopping for fresh flowers on Saturday mornings and got coffee and Danish at the corner shop on Sundays.
“Do you see that one?” she asked, pointing at a small, religious painting hanging near the doorway into the sculpture gallery. “That’s 2nd century,” she said, never stopping. “All the gold leaf.”
“The gold leaf is how you know?” I asked.
“No, it has a certain look, in Christ’s face.”
It was impossible for me to say anything. Irene knew more about most things than I felt I ever would. The walls of her apartment were lined with books and prints and reproductions. She had devoted her life to understanding art. I don’t think that she had any real specialty, either. She knew as much about pre-Columbian art as she did about Andy Warhol. For years, she was a professor and sometimes she would get started on an old, long-memorized lecture. I never could bring myself to stop her.
She paused every now and then to gaze at certain sculptures. In this room, everything was smooth, shimmering white marble. The sunlight spilling in from the windows glistened all around, practically blinding me. At one statue—a young man dressed in a goatskin loincloth with a wicked smile on his face—she stopped and placed her hand over the boy’s foot. “Feel his skin,” she said, beckoning me with her free hand. “It has a pulse.”
I placed my right hand over his left foot. All I felt was downy marble. I wanted to feel a pulse, but I only felt my own. Maybe that’s what she meant. “I feel it,” I said, sliding my fingers up his ankle to the knobby knee.
She stared for several minutes. It stood completely unprotected: no velvet rope, no laser barrier. The sun shone on the marble, a luminescent gleam. It seemed to smolder.
“I see your sculpture,” I said, pointing.
Her face followed my hand and, when she saw it, her eyes lit up for the first time in months. “Ah!” she sighed, picking up the pace.
She stared for several minutes. It stood completely unprotected: no velvet rope, no laser barrier. The sun shone on the marble, a luminescent gleam. It seemed to smolder. The two figures, their legs tangled together, were separated from the waist up. I felt as if we had stumbled upon them, in the throes of passion, in the middle of the forest. The longer I stared, the more embarrassed I felt. Irene’s eyes roamed over it, slowly taking in each subtle line, curve, the pocked surface of the rock.
After a long while, she reached out to touch the man’s shoulder. Her hand was bony, frail, and marked with misshapen spots. The skin was practically as translucent as the marble. “I remember dreaming about this sculpture once,” she said, her voice cutting across the silence. “This rock was a cloud, though.”
“Is it how you imagined it would be?” I asked.
“I think you need to meet Lars,” she said one evening, about three months into our friendship. “He’s a real catch.”
“I don’t know, Irene. I’m not much good with men.”
“You will be good with Lars,” she smiled, patting my shoulder.
She had been suggesting dates for me since we met. Each new man she recommended seemed incredibly intimidating: professors and artists and curators and gallery owners. One was an installation artist whose work featured dead rabbits and ripped burlap. Another was a curator who wore only specially tailored suits. I knew that these were the only kind of men she knew: men who revolved around the art world. But it just didn’t work for me.
“Lars is different,” she said. “He was my student. He’s a sweet boy. He works as a wedding photographer right now, but I just know some gallery owner is going to see his work soon. He’ll be the next big thing. Just wait.”
“And what’ll you tell him about me?” I asked, almost afraid of her answer.
“I’ll tell him he’d be stupid not to call you. You’re too wonderful to be languishing like you have been.”
“I have this idea that one day I’ll look a stranger in the eyes and just know it’s love. He’ll be really ugly and maybe homeless but have a beautiful soul. Do you believe in that kind of thing?” I asked.
She blinked, but did not answer.
Her hand continued to slip over the smooth stone. Her fingertips carefully examined each bend, each cut, with precision. Once, I saw a blind man trace his fingers over the face of a woman sitting next to him on a park bench. It was the same kind of touch: tender but hungry. Irene’s face was active; a small smile played over her lips. I thought of all the time that had passed since she first dreamed of that sculpture. What fantastic things this bit of rock might have done in her dreams. How alive the figures might have been.
“What do you think of it now that you’ve seen it?”
“I think it is just right.”
“Yes. Just what it ought to be. Well-made and lovely. It doesn’t say anything profound about life or even about the artist. It is just beautiful. It reminds me of why I loved art when I was a girl. I admired beautiful things, then. The simplicity of a beautiful object.” She turned to face me and I saw that she was crying.
Lars picked me up on a Friday after work. He drove an old Volkswagen that sounded like it ran on a lawnmower engine. The paint was chipped and the upholstery inside was cracked and flaky. It smelled like cigarettes and Stetson cologne. My Uncle Timmy had always worn that cologne. As we pulled out of the parking lot, Lars smiled widely at me and I saw the gap between his two front teeth.
“How long have you known Irene?” he asked, easing into traffic.
“About three months. She’s been so good to me.”
“She’s a real nurturer. The grad assistants used to call her ‘Mommy.’”
“No way!” I laughed, gripping the door as he swerved into the left lane.
“Yeah, she was everybody’s mom. Once, she brought me chicken noodle soup she’d made when I got a bad cold. And my friend, Corrine, told me Irene took her shopping for a new suit when she had a job interview. Wouldn’t even let Corrine pay her back.”
We spent the entire evening talking about Irene. Lars told me every story he knew about her, and I told him all of mine: the time she used her cane to wrap the deli manager on the knuckles when he messed up her sandwich order, the time she sang along with the Edies when we watched Grey Gardens. When he dropped me off, I realized I didn’t even know his last name. I didn’t have his number…and my phone never did ring again.
The tears glistened at the corners of her eyes, filling up and then spilling over. The small drops made a clear path down each cheek. I reached out to take her hand and we walked back across the Sculpture Gallery. Still, there was no one else around. Only our footsteps. Only our breath. Only us.
The last time she went for a check-up, a month ago, she asked me to come along. It wasn’t a sentimental request. “The bus is hell. Are you free?” she said, tugging firmly at the tissue tucked into her sleeve. At the office, she took my arm and, when the nurse called her back, she wouldn’t let go. She went through the motions with a kind of stoic indifference. Height. Weight. Temperature. Blood pressure. When the doctor came in to see her, he was holding a film, an x-ray or CAT scan, and when Irene saw that, she stiffened. “It’s back,” she said, before he could begin. He looked at her without surprise and nodded his head solemnly. She didn’t once cry. Not in all the time I’d known her. Through chemotherapy and MRI’s and blood samples and endless tests and probes. That day, on the way home, she made me stop at the 7-Eleven to buy her a corn dog. “It’s been ages,” she said, handing me a wrinkled five-dollar bill.
Back in the car, she gazed out the window at a group of schoolgirls who were striding along the sidewalk in a clump. “Thank you,” she said, taking my right hand. “I wouldn’t have been able to come without you.”
“Thank you for asking me.”
“Well. It was a good day. The best way to spend it.”
“We’ll do it again,” I said.
She didn’t let go of my hand, but there was no grip. Just her soft palm resting in my palm. I could see her chest move up and down, taking slow breaths, but they were somehow less than before. As if she no longer needed as much air. Her posture was giving, her back slowly curling in. She was sitting there, but she was not there. If we could have communicated without speaking, I could have seen her on that stone cloud, reclining next to the marble lovers. We rode on in silence. Nothing else to say. I felt a pulse in my palm but, after a while, I realized that it was just my own heart, beating on and on.