We’re in the gallery—actually a small café—looking at and pretending to be interested in some silver and platinum photographs a colleague I don’t even know has shot and miraculously convinced a small town proprietor to display. I’m trying to do the right thing: support a fellow teacher who works at the same art school, act like a team player, make an appearance, the news of which I hope will find its way to my department chair, who appreciates loyalty more than stellar evaluations. I’m with my friend Ava, and that doesn’t help. Ava’s face is a map of her inner feelings and desires, and you don’t have to be a top-notch cartographer to read it. She stares at a photo of a mannequin wearing a wedding gown titled Bride. The mannequin has a large gash across its forehead, and I read into it lobotomy. Ava, lip curled and eyes squinting, reads into it bad art. The next photo is a mannequin with a snake, the next a wedding gown with a snake, the next a snake on a chair. There are 15 photos in all, various combinations of the emotional, the functional, the reptilian.
I see colleagues whose names I don’t know staring at me; they recognize me from the halls at work, perhaps, but don’t know me since I’m a part-time English teacher with a creative repertoire of excuses to cut meetings. I love my work, but I hate meetings more, so I try to make up for lost time at extracurricular functions where I will not be trapped in the excruciating minutiae of parliamentary procedure. My colleagues and I offer cursory smiles over cheese and crackers, and I turn away. The plan is to make an appearance without taking on the burden of interaction. This is not as easy as it sounds.
The café is really an urban dive in a small town making an aggressive bid to appeal to the hipster crowd. The photos are hung by wires from speakers, light fixtures and pipes running along the walls, which are pitted and holed, the drywall apparently succumbing to the cumulative strain of exhibits. Some of the holes are large enough to accommodate my hand, and I wonder why they don’t cover them with photos.
“They probably have more holes than pictures,” Ava says sarcastically, a dark storm crossing the plain of her face. “Although I can’t imagine why. She could have taken ten more of her chair and her snake and her dress. Twenty. How hard could that be? Hell, I could have taken them.”
“Yes, but can you develop them?”
“The PhotoMat can develop them.”
As we stare at a grainy photo of a snake coiled in a wedding gown, we are approached by a handsome man with thick gray hair and a full beard.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“Well,” I say, and turn to Ava, a tactical error, in retrospect.
“I think she needs more props,” she says.
The man and I laugh, but we can see the topography of disgust on Ava’s face.
“Do you work at the Institute?” he asks her.
“No,” she says. “I work in the real world.”
The man laughs again; everything’s funny to him. I hope he’s drunk and won’t remember. I hope he’s fallen in love with Ava’s marked defiance, her blatant negativity, her utter refusal to buy into pretension. I hope he doesn’t ask again what I think of the photos, because even though I know I will likely launch into an interpretation that will embarrass all present, I also know that I am powerless to stop myself.
“Is that a real snake?” Ava asks, and the man looks confused until she points to Snake in Bridal Gown.
He stares at the photo. “It’s got a tongue,” he says, “but it could be rubber.”
Precisely something I would have said and regretted. He’s so close to the photo his breath steams the glass, and I imagine the snake coming to life, springing from the frame to sink its fangs into his thick neck. I whisper this to Ava, who says, “Now that would be something.”
“What’s that?” says the man.
“The snake,” she says, “she wants the snake to jump from the photo and bite you.”
He stares at me, and he’s no longer laughing.
“Not really,” I say. “I was just thinking about three-dimensional art. You know, interactive art.”
“Of course,” he says. “Excuse me.”
He swaggers toward the bar and I pinch the back of Ava’s hand. I imagine breaking the skin and puncturing the vein beneath, and I understand that this is not a healthy thought.
“Ow!” she screams, and several people turn to stare. I act as surprised as they are, and Ava laughs. We are tremendously immature when we are together, and I understand the depth of my self-hatred when we are smack-dab in the middle of functions at which reputation enhancement is key.
A glass of wine later the thick-necked man materializes with a rail-thin woman wearing granny glasses and a blue velvet bodysuit. “Ladies,” he says, “forgive me. My name is Alfred Coft, and this is the artist, Naomi Sucher-Leone. I’m sure she can answer your question.”
The woman’s hand is soft and bony at the same time, all knuckles and joints wrapped in silk, something inhuman in my own fleshy, callused hand. The hand is the least of it, though. The realization that I have to comment on the work, that I have to say something both complimentary enough to satisfy her yet honest enough to keep Ava quiet comes down hard and sudden, and I smile brightly. “Congratulations,” I say, and she says “Thank you.” We both know that she hasn’t sold anything, and that at $600 apiece for 5x7 photos she most likely won’t, but congratulations seems like the thing to offer.
Ava points to Snake on Chair.
“You like that one?” Naomi asks with an optimism surely borne from the head count at the café and the cursory comments of supportive colleagues.
“That a real snake?” Ava asks.
Although this seems like a question easily answered under the circumstances, Naomi walks toward the picture slowly, removes her glasses and squints like someone searching a group photo for a specific person.
“Ah,” she says, “this one’s real.”
“Does he bite?” asks Ava. She points to me. “She wants him to bite someone.”
Naomi shoots me a stern look and I shake my head weakly.
Ava points across the room to Snake II. “Is that one real?”
“They’re all real,” Naomi says, “but one. One is of a rubber snake I bought because it looked like Ka. An understudy.”
“Your snake has an understudy?” Ava asks, eyebrows arcing into incredulous mountains, and Alfred laughs like he’s at the Improv.
“He eats mice,” she says, “and looks pregnant afterward. I don’t want to send that message. You know, pregnancy and the wedding dress. That’s not what this is about.” She snaps her bony hand around the room abruptly, as if backhanding someone. “That’s not what’s behind these photographs.”
“What’s behind that one?” Ava asks impatiently, pointing to Empty Chair, a blurry photo of a chair with both a snake and a wedding gown draped across it.
“That one,” she says, “is about love.”
“Well,” says Ava, a divorcee who’s been batting in the teens in the dating department, “I think it’s about fear.”
“Really,” says Naomi, considering. Artists always consider. Or act like they consider. “Are you afraid of snakes?”
“No,” says Ava. “I’m afraid of wedding gowns.”
Both Naomi and Alfred laugh, Naomi in short, practiced squeaks and Alfred in a full-throated staccato. “Yes,” says Naomi, “the wedding gown is often the site of atrocity, a specter of annihilation, a locus of fear.” Something that would have garnered stares of disbelief if proclaimed by me is met by an “Ah” from Alfred and a head nod from Ava, who I can only surmise acquiesced because she cued in on some latent male bashing.
After Naomi’s deep philosophical pronouncement, she glances absently around the café. “Well,” she says with the air of the burdened artist, “thank you so much for coming.”
She extends her hand toward me like royalty, fingers bent downward, and I take them briefly in mine as Ava turns away. Naomi and Alfred slip behind the paisley curtain that separates public and private space, and when I turn to Ava she stares at me in wonder.
“She’s a trip,” she says. “She really thinks this is art.”
“Suddenly you’re an expert on art?” I say.
“I may not know what it is, but I know what it’s not.” She points to the blurry photo of the snake and the dress on the chair.
“Maybe it’s blurry for a reason,” I say.
“Or maybe there’s a reason it’s blurry,” she says loudly, “like she screwed up but they had a big hole to cover.”
“Let’s look,” I say in an effort to get her moving so no one can get a fix on just how disgusted she is, how unwilling she is to pretend she gets it, how stupid I am for bringing her.
“She’s annihilating the snake,” Ava says as we stand before Empty Chair. “She’s denying its existence.”
I don’t know if this is a good faith attempt at art interpretation or a symbolic wounding of the enemy with her own sword. “There you go,” I say. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Aren’t you going to look?”
“Who cares,” I say, suddenly realizing that lifting the photograph will indicate false interest in either the work or a possible defect in the wall.
Ava looks exasperated, as if I’m leaving one French fry on my plate or buying two dollars worth of gas. “Here,” she grabs the bottom of the frame, her thumbnail clicking the glass, and I slap her hand away. The photo springs from her grasp, and as it spins toward the floor I am already living the aftermath of this long and venomous night: Naomi’s theatrical outrage, Ava’s righteous disdain, the crowd at the café turning its collective, reptilian eye on me.