They meet on a Friday afternoon outside the museum. They’ve forgotten that it is the most crowded time. They wait in line. It starts to rain, sprinkles from a light gray sky. Behind them, a family from Spain talks rapidly. In front of them is a tall, silent woman in black. She admires the woman’s coat and he nods. They do not talk much.
Inside, they go up to the third floor, to the painting. They stood in that same spot two years ago. Then they held hands and laughed easily. He leaned down to whisper in her ear and she shook her head in false irritation.
It’s my favorite painting, she told him. Later that night, in his dark room, she tried to explain again why. Perhaps in that delicate, serious intimacy after sex she could get him to understand. He nodded and murmured agreement, but slipped into sleep quickly. She closed her eyes and settled her head close to him.
Then she could forgive him for not trying to understand, and he could find it endearing, how fervently she loved a painting that was just circles and dots on a white background. I don’t have an artist’s eye, he said.
She sketched his portrait on a page from her journal and gave it to him, and he was startled not by her skill but by some quality she captured that he himself could not have defined. She took off her clothes and stood before him and handed her the journal. Now you try, she said.
He did, and the body he loved, the curves and balances, turned into something childish and ugly in his hands. She laughed for a long time when she finally saw it. It’s a masterpiece, she said, I’m keeping it forever. Thank you.
It was not surprising that it ended, but it is surprising that they ended up here, again. He isn’t sure why she agreed to come, isn’t sure why he asked to begin with. He does not imagine that there will be a reunion. Perhaps he is hoping to really see, this time. Or maybe he wants to see the inevitability of their failure, in that he cannot ever see what she sees.
The dots, she says. He looks at her. Her eyes are focused on the canvas. Can you see the path they follow?
He looks. The dots are scattered haphazardly around the circles, multicolored and playfully bright. He can’t see a pattern.
You just have to look the right way. And then it’ll be there, and when you see it you can’t unsee it. It like an optical illusion.
The painting doesn’t change, no matter how hard he looks. It seems as ridiculous as the first time. Only this time he feels a sting of disappointment, that he can’t even pretend.
We should go, he says.
They go to a cafe. He watches her stir her coffee, slowly, deliberately. She tells him about the man she met, a Swedish pilot. He said he’ll take me on his plane one day, she says, and what about you, are you seeing anyone?
He shakes his head. Oh, he’s had his flings, as usual. Short romances, unanswered texts.
She leans forward and looks at him, an old, teasing light in her eyes. Oh, the poor, unlucky dears. The Swedish pilot is a nice change, she says, he asks and listens and touches with delight. He doesn’t tire of me.
Suddenly he feels very tired, tired of how easily she slips into her old role, how easily he recognizes her version of himself, how much he resents her for it. He tries to make a joke of it, but the air between them is brittle, charged.
Do you miss me? She says.
He imagines her sometimes as she was, draped across his couch, barely clothed, eyes closed and the window wide open, the breeze on her skin. He imagines kissing his way down from her throat. Other times he remembers the ways she ripped him apart, her taunting laugh, how much pleasure he felt watching her face shatter, watching her cry.
Yes, he says.
They go back to her apartment. Its familiarity fills him with a kind of dread. He tells himself that he wants this. Her moans, her fingers digging into his back. It is so easy, all of it, how she settles against him, how he can kiss the top of her head, the back of her hand. He doesn’t want to linger. But it is she who gets up first. She ties up her hair before the bathroom mirror.
Goodbye, she says, at the door. He looks at her, and she looks back, her eyes calm.
Bye, he says. He feels a heaviness in his throat that sinks into his stomach. He watches her shut the door. The rain is heavy outside.