“Am I going to have to pay you to go home, Jacob?”
My boss claps me on the back and lets loose a hearty, but fake, laugh.
“I’m going, I’m going,” I say.
I pack up my laptop and check my watch: It’s nearly seven-thirty. I’m not trying to score points with the boss. I just don’t have anything to go home to. I don’t even have a cat.
There’s not much to do in this town, unless you’re a fan of sports teams that never win. That isn’t fair—the Cavs won back in 2016. I didn’t much like basketball, though. Or any sport, really.
On my walk home, I stopped by a local pizza place for a slice to take with me. There was a Skyline on my street, but even after fifteen years here, I still didn’t like their chili.
I walk up the three flights to my floor. Why do the corridors in this building always smell like piss? Whatever.
My apartment doesn’t look like a typical bachelor pad. I have an actual bed (not just a mattress on the floor) and I own more than one fork. I suppose the one passion I have is art.
The walls of my living room have run out of white space. Covering every surface are prints by Monet, Renoir, Degas, da Vinci, Vasari, Dali, Picasso, Marc, and Kirchner (I wasn’t a fan of Munch—his work gave me nightmares).
If I had to choose a favorite style, it would have to be impressionism. And it seems no one paints classics anymore. Everyone seems to be going for pop culture, shock value, or they’re creating digital art. It’s all so boring.
I sit in the living room to eat most of my meals. At least I can watch something slightly stimulating while I feed myself.
A documentary about some serial killer catches my eye. In fact, I usually watch docu-series about murderers. I wonder if I should look into that?
Tonight, I’m bored. I lose interest in the documentary halfway through, so I pull out my phone and scroll through local events on Facebook while I eat my lukewarm pizza.
The museum down the street is offering free admission throughout the month of May. It has been a while since I’ve visited. Maybe they have some new art to display. I may as well check it out after work tomorrow. I have nothing else going on. I decide to go tomorrow.
It’s a Tuesday, so the museum isn’t all that busy. I left work a bit early so I could see as much as possible before the museum closed tonight.
As I walk from exhibit to exhibit, I note that digital artists deserve a bit more credit now. Some of them seem to be using classic techniques with digital tools to create vibrant pieces of art. I’m somewhat impressed.
“Good evening,” a woman says. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”
She’s wearing a dark suit, black or navy, and she looks important.
“Something inspiring,” I say.
“Inspiration works differently on all of us. Can you narrow it down for me?”
I mull over her words for a few seconds. I wonder what will inspire me when everything in life seems so dull, so pointless—so lonely.
“I want to see a piece of art that speaks to me. That speaks loudly.”
She smiles and nods, but I don’t think she truly understands. Still, she leads me down a few hallways to a room with massive canvases—seriously, floor-to-ceiling canvases—and tells me to enjoy.
I don’t enjoy it. The art here is … full of itself. It insists upon itself. It—holy shit, am I pretentious? I don’t mean to be, but sometimes artists are just so obvious about their intent. They’re all trying so hard to say something, but it ends up just being derivative and pandering.
I walk from piece to piece until I reach the end. I’m pretty much done with this place, so I turn to the next room looking for the exit. That’s when I see it. I see her.
On a modest sized canvas is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She’s angelic in her cloudy landscape. Light shines on either side of her. She has that Mona Lisa smile that’s not quite a smile. And her gaze is … intense. She’s staring directly at me—or through me. I’m not sure which.
Almost without choice, I sit on the bench opposite her and stare. Time seems to have no meaning. I study the lines of her face, the color of her eyes, and the asymmetrical shape of her lips.
I tear my gaze away briefly to see who painted this striking woman. The portrait is unnamed. The artist is anonymous. The only information on the card is that this is a digital painting. Well, I stand corrected. This may be the greatest work of art ever created—and it was done with a fucking computer.
I don’t even turn my head to look at the woman in the black (navy?) suit.
“The museum is closing. You’ll have to leave now.”
I stand up to leave, but I can’t pull my gaze from this woman in the painting.
The woman next to me clears her throat, a universal sign that someone is waiting for you to move or respond or something.
I shake my head slightly, as if breaking a spell.
“Thank you,” I say.
We walk in silence toward the exit. Once we get to the door I realize I’m the last one there.
“I’m glad to see you found art that speaks to you—loudly,” she says.
I nod and hunch over as I leave for my apartment.
It’s probably going to work in my favor that I burned the midnight oil over the past four or five months. I can’t concentrate on work at all now.
My office is close to my apartment, which means it’s also close to the museum. I do have to sprint across a street that’s always full of cars speeding by. There’s a particularly dangerous curve, and there are lots of memorials left on the side of the road for those who weren’t fast enough to cross before the light turned green.
I’m now taking my sandwiches and power walking (jogging sometimes) over to the museum on my lunch breaks. I time it so I can spend about forty-two minutes with Mina (I call her Mina now) before I have to get back to work.
I’m getting to my job earlier in the morning now. Only because I want to leave at four every day. This gives me about three-and-a-half hours with Mina every night.
The museum director asked me to stop bringing pizza and soup into the museum. So, I pack two sandwiches every day—one for lunch and one for dinner.
How are you so beautiful? I wonder at Mina. Are you real? You must be. There’s no way someone invented you with all your lovely imperfections.
You see, most artists these days would probably try for perfection. They’d create a painting that’s the equivalent of a social media filter. The lips would be impossibly plump; the eyes would have sharp eyeliner or something; and the hair would be big and curled and I don’t know. Who’s that family that’s famous for being famous? All the women look exactly alike—probably because they all use the same plastic surgeon.
Anyway, that isn’t you Mina. No, your hair is fine and hangs a bit limply. It’s a dirty blond and it suits you. You’re obviously trim, but it seems natural for your slight frame.
Even your nose is a bit crooked. Unless that’s the light.
If you were real, I’d make you my wife. I know, I know. That’s very forward of me. I just feel like we have a connection. I connect with you like no one else, Mina.
Each night, as I walk home from the museum, I play out little fantasies in my mind of how life would be if Mina were home waiting for me.
I’d stop by the store to pick up whatever we needed and I’d grab some flowers too. No special occasion. Just some pretty flowers for my pretty girl.
I’m making better lunches and dinners now. No more cold sandwiches. I still can’t make hot meals to take with me to the museum, but I’m focusing on nutrition and flavor. I make tabbouleh and gyros; tacos and salads. I can safely bring these with me to the museum and no one seems to mind.
Today, the museum lady stopped to talk to me.
“Sir, I just wanted to let you know that we all really appreciate your passion for the arts.”
“Oh, sure,” I say.
“Well, it’s just that our free admission month is nearly over. We do sell a monthly membership, if you’re interested.”
I stare at her for a moment. Maybe it was longer than a moment. If I’m honest, I’m a bit annoyed that she’s cutting into my time with Mina. The museum lady seems a bit scared.
“We do offer discounts for locals,” she adds.
“Yes, yes, I’ll pay for a membership.”
I pull out my wallet.
“Oh, no sir. You can pay downstairs. Before you leave?”
I’m not sure why she says that last thing as a sentence. Does she want me to leave early? I guess I’ll leave five minutes early to take care of that one thing.
“It’s only five minutes less,” I say to Mina.
The museum lady is still here.
I smile. I’m hoping that gets her to leave.
I watch as the museum lady walks into the next room, leaving me alone with Mina.
“It’s just us now, sweetie,” I say.
Mina smiles at me. It’s a small smile. She’s a bit shy most of the time, but she saves her smiles for me.
Today is a special day, so I’m baking a cake. I’m so nervous. I haven’t baked in years, but this is important.
It’s six in the morning and I’m dancing in my kitchen as I frost this miniature cake for two. I’m not even sure what Mina’s favorite flavor of cake is, but I think she’ll appreciate it anyway.
At work, I’m watching the clock. It’s like having senioritis. In two more hours, I’ll be with Mina and we can celebrate.
“Jacob, hey, how are you doing?”
My boss pulls a chair up next to me and straddles it from behind. Here comes the “hey buddy” talk.
“Hey, everything’s good.”
“Yeah, well, I noticed you’ve been leaving work really early the past few weeks.”
I squirm in my seat.
“I’m hitting my deadlines,” I say.
“True, true,” he says, nodding. “You’re hitting your deadlines. But when you were putting all that extra effort in before, it was a real help, you know? We’ve had to lay off a few people and so we’re going to need you to put a little more time in. What d’ya say? Be a pal?”
I stare at him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t blink, and that seems to unnerve people. I force myself to blink.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll put in a few extra hours at home.”
I can’t afford to lose this job. I have to save as much as I can for our nest egg. When Mina’s ready, I want to make sure we can buy a house together.
To show an effort of good faith, I dive into my work. When I focus, I can get a lot done. I end up working for three hours (I stopped watching the clock) and I cross three tasks off my to-do list.
I make record time getting to the museum. Before I open the door, I wipe the sweat off my brow and straighten my collar. I always want to make a good impression on Mina.
“Good evening, Mr. Whitman.”
The museum lady greets me every day (except the weekends, which must be her time off). She’s nice enough. Most of the staff seem to avoid me when I visit Mina. That’s fine by me. I prefer private time with her, anyway.
“Hello,” I say, and head straight up to the fourth floor.
Mina doesn’t seem happy to see me.
“I know I’m late, darling,” I say. “My boss got onto me for leaving so early every day. I had to placate him.”
Mina just glares at me.
“Please don’t be angry with me.”
I pull out the plastic container that I managed to fit the cake in and pull off the top. Frosting sticks to the top of the lid, so the careful knife strokes I used to create a design are ruined. I close my eyes and try to maintain calm composure.
“Look, my love,” I say, holding the cake up to Mina. “I baked a cake for us to share. To celebrate one month since we met.”
Mina’s face softens. Her eyes are rounder and the corner of her mouth curls into that slight smile. She forgives me.
I lose track of time as I eat cake (Mina didn’t want any tonight) and we reminisce about the past few weeks. The first time I told her I loved her; when we talked about marriage; and whether we should have children. The museum was closing and I hadn’t packed up yet.
It was the nice museum lady.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have … well, I got caught up,” I say.
I look back at Mina whose eyes have shifted to the museum lady. Is she accusing me of something?
“No, Mina. We’re only friends,” I say to her.
The museum lady looks concerned. Oh goodness. Does she think I’m interested in her? That’s silly. Obviously I come to visit Mina, not the museum lady whose name I can never remember.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” I say, nodding toward Mina.
“Yes, it’s a lovely painting,” the nice woman says. “Though no one’s taken such an interest in this piece of art quite like you.”
It’s no wonder. I monopolize all of Mina’s time. Not that she minds, of course. She seems to only have eyes for me.
“Yes, well, she’s special to me,” I say, getting up. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, see you tomorrow Mr. Whitman.”
I wasn’t talking to the museum lady, but I smile to be polite and walk out the door.
It’s Saturday, so that means I get to spend the whole day with Mina. I have my breakfast as I walk to the museum. It’s a beautiful day today. The sun is out, but it isn’t too hot. I wish Mina would take a walk with me, but she seems to prefer to stay indoors.
As always on the weekends, I’m the first at the door. It isn’t the usual weekend person who lets me in today.
“Thanks,” I say, and try to walk past him.
“You’ll have to purchase a ticket first, sir.”
Right, he’s new. Most people know me here and they know I have an annual membership. I pull out my card from my wallet.
“Oh, I see. Thank you,” he says. “Is there a particular exhibit you’re here to see?”
I stare at him as though he’s an idiot. It’s a bit unfair of me, but my patience is thin these days. I just want to spend time with Mina and anyone who cuts into that time is a thief.
“I’m here to see Mina,” I say, and walk around him.
There’s no point in waiting to hear his response or see his reaction. Given how eager he seems to be to help, I’ll probably see him upstairs later.
“Ah, there you are, Mina. My girl,” I say, and sit down on the bench across from her. “What would you like to do today?”
Mina says nothing. I can’t fault her for that. She’s always been shy, and weekends are harder for her. There are more people in the museum and she’s not a fan of crowds.
I spend the morning telling her about the houses I’ve found on the outskirts of town. They’re small, but they’re far from others, so we would have the privacy we want.
After lunch, I tell Mina I’ll be right back. I only take breaks to use the restroom. When I return, the new man who works at the museum is messing with Mina.
“What are you doing?” I bark at him.
“Oh, hello, sir,” he says. He sounds cheery and he’s smiling.
I wait for an explanation for why he has his hands on Mina.
“I was just looking at the back of this painting for a number,” he says, placing the frame carefully back against the wall. He doesn’t bother to straighten it.
I walk forward and adjust the frame. Mina seems okay.
“Why do you need a number?”
“The owner of the painting called earlier to request that we move this painting to its country of origin. It’s going back to Poland.”
Thoughts swirl in my head.
Owner? Going back? Poland?
“You’re taking Mina away?” I say, my voice merely more than a whisper.
The museum man laughs and I glare at him. I glance over at Mina. She looks so sad.
“I don’t think this painting has a name,” he says.
He looks down at the small white placard on the wall.
“Nope. No name here,” he says. “No worries, though. We pack up paintings very carefully before we ship them.”
The man’s smile is replaced by a look of worry or concern. I’m not sure what expression is on my face, but it causes him to take a step backward.
“When are you taking her?”
“We’ll likely take it down tonight, sir. Have a good day.”
He hurries away, but stops in one of the doorways to talk to a security guard. I’m not sure what they say, but there’s now a guard posted in this room.
“Don’t worry, Mina. They can’t take you from me. You can stay. You can. Just decide you want to stay.”
I try to reason with her the rest of the afternoon, but she won’t budge. She isn’t talking to me about this. Mina just gives me that blank stare, but it’s clear to me she’s distressed too.
After a couple of hours, I take a break for some water. I grab my water bottle and head to the drinking fountain. The security guard nods at me. I nod back.
I’m not sure what else to do. I’ve told Mina to stay; to come home with me. This isn’t her home, anyway. The museum only wants to send the canvas back to the painter—not her. I take a few deep swallows of water to quench my thirst, fill my bottle back up, and then go back to my spot.
Mina is avoiding eye contact with me.
“Look, I think it’s time that we move forward Mina. I said I wouldn’t do this, give you an ultimatum, but it’s finally come to this: Come with me or go back to Poland.”
I think the guard overhears my conversation with Mina because he’s talking into his shoulder walkie-talkie thing. I’m not sure why they care whether Mina stays or goes, though. No one else spends all their free time with her except me. No one cares for her the way I do.
I’m staring at the guard who refuses to look at me. Some movement to my right catches my eye. I turn my attention back to Mina, who looks different now.
“No, Mina. Please don’t go. I didn’t mean it.”
The guard stands up and I turn to give him a warning glance. Back to Mina.
She’s barely there now. Her features seem to be disappearing into the landscape in which she resides.
“We’ll find a way to make it work, Mina. I’ll buy this painting and take you home with me,” I say.
I don’t even realize at first that I’m standing close to the painting now, my nose nearly touching the canvas as I beg and plead with Mina to stay with me.
The guard is closer now; I can feel him walking toward me.
I have to keep Mina’s attention on me. I have to make her stay. But I can’t let the guard pull me from her, and I know instinctively that’s what will happen. He’ll grab me and force me out of the museum.
So, I pull back and put my hands up, as if I’m showing that I mean no one any harm. I have no weapons. I’m not a threat.
The guard stops where he is and I look over at him. I can feel the sting of tears in my eyes.
“Please don’t make me leave,” I say.
I’m not sure what look the guard gives me. Maybe it’s one of sympathy; maybe pity. I’m not even sure what my face says to him.
“I just need you to back off a little, sir. You cannot touch the paintings.”
That I understand. That’s always been a rule. I can look, but not touch. As much as I’ve wanted to touch Mina, to hold her, I know the rules here at the museum. I figured I’d just be patient and eventually I would have that moment.
I sit down and the guard takes a step backward. I turn my attention back to Mina, but she’s gone. My breathing comes rapidly, but I try to stay calm. The last thing I need is that guard throwing me out. I count my breaths. One, two, three … it seems to only make my anxiety grow. I try to focus on conversations around me.
The guard turns to talk to someone. I don’t dare look their way, but I close my eyes and listen carefully to what they’re saying.
“… I don’t know. He just freaked out.”
“Amanda said he hasn’t been a problem, just that he’s a little creepy. I don’t know what to do.”
The guard responds, but I don’t quite hear it.
“Yeah, I’ll give her a call.”
Is Amanda the name of the nice museum lady?
I look back up at where Mina used to be. She’s still gone.
To say I’m distraught is an understatement. I’ll wait until she returns. She’ll be back.
An hour passes with no sign of Mina.
The nice museum lady (Amanda?) is here. She isn’t wearing her usual black or navy suit. She’s dressed down in jeans and a t-shirt.
“I know how much you love this painting,” she says, sitting next to me. “But I’m afraid we have to send it back to its artist.”
I sigh and nod.
“I was just hoping she would come back.”
The tears are back and I look at the museum lady through a watery gaze.
She smiles and places a hand on my shoulder.
“We might be able to bring it back one day. I’ll have to ask the artist,” she pauses. “I think it’s probably best that you leave now so we can do what we need to do.”
“I understand,” I say.
We both stand and I look at the painting once more, hoping to see my Mina.
“She was so beautiful,” I say.
“She still is,” the museum lady says.
I whip my head in her direction.
“You can see her?”
“Well, of course. We haven’t pulled the painting down yet,” she says.
She looks at me and cocks her head.
“I have to ask, Mr. Whitman: What is it about this painting of clouds that intrigued you so much?”
The museum lady looks back to the painting and then to me.
“Yes, clouds. You don’t see it?”
“But Mina …”
“Mm, that is an interesting title you gave it. Mina. When I looked it up, I found that it means ‘love.’”
“I didn’t know the definition,” I say.
“Well, she’s lovely and the name you gave the painting—”
It finally occurs to me that no one else saw her. No one saw Mina, but me.
“You … you didn’t see the woman in the painting?” I say.
“Woman? There was never a woman in the painting, Mr. Whitman.”
She motions for me to walk with her toward the exit. I’m in a daze and putting one foot in front of the other simply out of habit or muscle memory.
The nice museum lady thanks me for being cooperative and opens the door. I walk out, wiping tears from my eyes. When I clear my vision and look down the road toward my apartment, I see her.
She’s standing in the middle of one of the busiest streets in town.
I feel a mix of elation and fear. Finally, I get to be with Mina. I’ll be able to touch her and hold her, and we can be together away from the prison that was that painting, that museum. I’m also terrified of what might happen if I don’t get to Mina before the light turns green.
I drop everything and run to her. I run to Mina whose hand is reaching for me. I get to her in time to feel her fingertips on mine. But it’s too late. The light is green.