Inside a glass box, on a small pedestal, a sculpture of a green woman calls to me. I do what I like to do when I’m in an empty art museum on a weekday: take my time in front of each piece, bask in the beam of the artwork until I have learned everything I can. The woman wears fauvist clothing; she is simultaneously pretty and bloody, elegant and warlike. Jarring visions of womanhood were combined by the sculptor, and the parts of me that I love and the parts that I fight against fly to me as if summoned: the struggle against either/or, the shouldn’ts and thou shan’ts I grew up with. My concentration is broken by a docent approaching, staring. Being observed during an intimate moment, when I am so nakedly immersed and emotional, makes my awkwardness flare. I can’t switch from interacting with the sculpture and the sculptor to interacting with a stranger.
He is smiling, though. The world can feel hard and small and ugly and no one can afford to reject a smile. My entire being longs to sink into studying the sculpture. But he is being friendly. Or maybe he’s bored. Maybe he’s met the artist when she was installing the work, and he would like to talk to someone who so clearly enjoys her art. But I’m clumsy at small talk, and despite decades of experience as a woman, I haven’t mastered the trick of doing friendly but not too friendly.
My hello and smile must have been wrong because he looks disappointed. As I grow older I respond even more awkwardly to strangers, knowing that I am slowly becoming invisible, surprised sometimes when I’m seen. Men seem more offended if I don’t respond to them, as if I should be grateful for any attention. Certain women, who used to treat me with stiffness, are now friendly, overly familiar, like some men used to be. They view me as one of them, approach me in public places and complain about their weight, their difficult daughters, lazy men, with an air of certainty that I’ll agree. They become hostile when I reveal that I’m not one of them, because I say I don’t have any when they ask about children, or I don’t complain about my husband or reveal my insecurities about my own body. Their demands for instant intimacy make me uncomfortable and I resent their attempts to make me into their version of womanhood. I won’t play girl to your girl, I want to say. But that would build an even bigger wall, when all I want is to use a restroom or shop for clothing without being forced to explain myself and my life to strangers.
I steel myself and build a shield against my guilt for letting down the docent. I want to give myself over to what the sculpture is saying, to let my eyes and brain feast without intrusions.
When my senses are saturated and I can’t fit anything else in, I leave the museum and walk aimlessly. This is a newly excavated joy. I used to be embarrassed about the way I traveled. My friends have more energy than I do, and when they visit a new place, they fill their time with a blur of tourist sights. I am a slow and obstinate traveler. After my trip to Argentina, my friends asked, did you go to Patagonia? Did you see the mountains, the glaciers, the water fall? No, I told them. I stayed in Buenos Aires the entire time. I wanted to know the city, I wanted the sidewalks and the storefronts and the houses and the way neighbors called to each other, all of that to seep into me. To look and think for weeks, free from the interruptions of travel itineraries. Was I missing something? Failing at traveling? I was afraid I was. And then a friend reminded me of Flaubert and the flâneur and layers of self-reproach fell away. I wasn’t a failed traveler. I was a fucking flâneuse.
I remember the docent and that old I’m doing it wrong shame starts to rise up again. I consider returning home. Walking around a city, alone, requires a certain amount of confidence. The green statue materializes in my mind’s eye. Throw that all off, she says. I am fine. You are fine. Her words soothe me, and I repeat them like an incantation.
Willow Barnosky lives in Northern California. Her fiction appears or is upcoming in The Honest Ulsterman, Spelk, Ellipsis, The Write Launch, and other journals. She hopes to resume her work this fall as an English Language Fellow, teaching and training teachers in Poland. She can be found on Twitter @onomatopoesia.