Blind, in the Museum

Kathy Torma West

There was an accident in the photo lab behind the art studio and Livy went blind. The voice she heard when she woke up to the dark was Eli’s, the hand that slipped into hers, his. He told her the doctors had done everything they knew. When they removed the bandages, she reached her hands to her eyes, which ached and stung. She opened them to what was not the blinding, sterile light of her hospital room. She opened them to nothing. Eli asked if she remembered what happened—that Charlie had said she just slipped, but the burns seemed so bad.

She thought she did, but she only said, “I’ll miss the exhibit,” and lay back in the bed.

 

She had organized an event for the museum downtown: finding opening-night musicians and caterers, arranging funding with the curator, helping invent the exhibit’s title—Less is More.

But less is less, she thought now. Less is hard. Less is ruinous.

Blindness alone would have made bad news. But Livy was a painter, not yet finished with an art degree. Painting was a skilled movement, a hand-and-brush dance that she once said she could do with her eyes closed. But she made those brief movements in order to see permanent lines on canvas, not just for movement’s sake. She moved to see.

 

Livy spent some days bumping into things, taking medications, thinking the light was off, feeling around counters and floors when she dropped her toothbrush or a spoon, blaming her sightlessness on her own naïveté, hating Charlie, wondering if she should tell the story or stay quiet, having lost enough already without risking the loss of most faithful Eli, too. On the exhibit’s opening day, she cried. Eli held her and did not make her go.

 

He did, a week later, take her arm and lead her toward their usual bus stop, which required so much time to reach. Being in public, Livy felt she was supposed to sweep a stick in front of her. But she didn’t have one and she wouldn’t know how to use it. Eli said they were going to another exhibit—a less famous, less anticipated one on campus.

“Don’t do that to me,” she said. She stopped on the roadside.

“Please?” It was the question mark in his voice that told her she could choose. She could say no, which was why she said OK.

 

When he opened the door to the art building, she heard a pianist dancing on keys, a jazzy bass bopping around, and a drummer stroking a snare. She and Eli lingered near the sound. Livy tipped her head back, imagining notes floating down, resting on her eyes and then sliding back into her head where she could keep them. The trio finished and Eli murmured in her ear, “Keep me company?” She moved with him toward what she knew was the art.

“Megan did this first one,” he said. “Oil. A woman’s laughing with her mouth wide open.”

Eli stood behind her, hands on her shoulders, his bristly face brushing her ear. She reached up and touched the metal band he already wore, the one she made in a metalworking class she’d been surprisingly terrible at. The ring was lopsided, but Eli called it asymmetrical. They were supposed to get married this summer, on an island he had shown her pictures of.

“The colors?” Livy asked.

“Her hair is the color of yours.”

“And?”

“Skin the color of yours.”

“You can do better than that.”

“She titled the piece Livy.”

Livy said nothing.

“I wish you could touch the colors,” he said.

She couldn’t. And for a moment, she was angry with him. And herself. Why would he bring her to an art show? And why would she let him parade her around, blind, in a museum? Why not take her to a concert? A poetry reading? Even a movie, where at least the pictures had sound?

“Well, I wish, too,” And she turned as if to go, knowing she couldn’t find the door without him.

“But Livy, they’re all you.”

“All what?”

“Everyone in the program made something for you tonight. They’re all waiting to talk to you after you’ve seen it,” he said.

“Seen? Seen? Really, Eli.”

“I’ll describe them to you?” That question mark again. She closed her eyes and inhaled. She turned and let him move closer to her again.

“OK.”

“The next one isn’t a painting. It’s a photograph.”

“Of me?”

“Charlie took it.”

She was glad Eli was standing behind her so he couldn’t see her expression.

“I don’t want to see this one,” she said.

“It’s beautiful.”

“But not really an interpretation of me, is it. When you describe it, you’ll describe me and not the picture. What’s the next one?” she said. She didn’t know which direction to step.

I want to see this one,” whispered Eli, his breath going across her throat. She didn’t want to know what was in the photograph.

Charlie had said the shoot would be artistic, nothing edgy. But by the time the lights were set up and she was wrapped in a sheet, he said the other models couldn’t come and that he wanted to recreate an Ingres on film. She had said she wasn’t the odalisque type and she would be photographed under the draping of cloth. She had nothing against the nude body as art—just something against Charlie’s lens traveling her bare skin. But he’d made her laugh and she ended up posing on the couch, letting him draw the sheet away, looking at the camera from over her shoulder. He hadn’t touched her and she’d left. Here in the art college gallery, she wished she had gone sooner. Eli leaned his forehead into Livy’s hair.

“Did something happen?” he asked. “You know, with Charlie?”

Nothing inappropriate. Not on purpose. Charlie had asked her to come to the lab to see the prints. If she just hadn’t. If she hadn’t let him kiss her before she said No. If he hadn’t slammed her against the developing table. If she hadn’t tripped when she turned, scared of what would happen in the dim room.

“What’s in the picture, Eli?” she asked.

“You’re just standing there, Liv. With your bag. Wearing boots, that plaid shirt. You look like you don’t know your picture’s being taken.” She hadn’t. When she’d first entered the studio, she thought Charlie was just testing lights. “Tell me,” he said. “Please?”

She turned away from the picture she couldn’t see, toward Eli. She could tell him. Not here—Eli would kill Charlie in front of everyone. But she could tell him. Later.

“Yes,” she said. “Something. But not that. I’m with you. I’ll tell you when we’re finished here.” She wished she could see his face. “OK?” He said nothing. She wished she could see his eyes. “Talk to me.”

“The next one is you,” he said.

“But they’re all me.”

“No, you painted the next one. For your show.”

“Tell it to me.”

They moved carefully and whispered close. Livy closed her eyes and leaned her head back to hear him tell her what she could not see.

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