Lost Art by Midge Raymond


Rodin’s Pierre de Wissant, David Monniaux

“You live fifteen miles from Hollywood,” I asked my brother, “and you’re going to Australia to study acting?”

“Nicole Kidman went to the Institute,” Nick shouted. He was driving down PCH, with the top down, I guessed, judging by the fury of the wind. “So did Geoffrey Rush.”

“That’s not the point,” I said. “I mean, do they even have AA there? Actors are an unstable bunch of people. They party a lot. You can’t be around all that.”

“I’m twenty-four years old, Lise,” he yelled back. “I can handle it.” And then the phone went dead, or he hung up.

I wrapped my palm around the phone, its battery warm from our conversation. Then I glanced at my watch. If I left now, I might make it to the Getty before it closed.

An hour later, I was making my way through the galleries. As my heels echoed in the silent rooms, I thought about Nick’s Picasso, a wild, chaotic painting of a woman in a straight-backed chair, next to a tilted vase on a crooked table. Its animated lines, misplaced features, and garish colors so closely resembled the havoc in his own life that I’d almost been glad when he sold it. I still thought he should have waited until after the funeral, but he was only following our mother’s lead. I didn’t know, and was glad my late grandparents would never know, how quickly he blew through the money.

I’d never wanted to sell the Rodin. I hadn’t even wanted to loan it to the museum, but my grandparents’ estate attorney explained that the insurance company wouldn’t let me keep it in my apartment; it was far too valuable. And so I’d been convinced: The museum had the requisite security and also paid to insure the statue. I came to visit it often — the museum its foster parent, me the unfit mother.

The year I’d started high school, my grandparents had invited me to Europe, just the three of us. It was my first time out of the country. My grandfather, born and raised in London, was the son of a wealthy banker, and he had fallen in love with my grandmother, a Hollywood actress, on a family vacation when he was twenty. They married a few years later; he went into medicine and divided his time between New York and Los Angeles, where they eventually retired. Having inherited his first valuable pieces of art from his parents, my grandfather insisted on spending most of his free time in Europe, and so they did—adding to the collection when they could, visiting pieces on loan to various museums, finding new galleries and artists. Art became their passion, and they left their only child, my mother, with nannies, at summer camps and boarding schools. My mother stayed in L.A. after she finished school; she tried to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps as an actress but, like her own mother, gave it up to get married.

A part of me knew that my grandparents had been distant, unloving parents—I barely knew them until my own parents’ divorce—but the worlds they opened up to me were so vast, so different from my ordinary suburban L.A. childhood that I didn’t care. They showed me how to navigate the tiny streets of Maastricht and the wide boulevards of Paris; they taught me the difference between Impressionism and Expressionism, and that Rodin’s sculptures integrated both. I went to Europe with them every year until they died.

They’d left my mother some money—as it turned out, art was the only thing in which they’d invested wisely—and they’d left most of their collection to museums, which was among the smarter things they’d done, as my mother and Nick had immediately listed their own pieces with Sotheby’s. But I didn’t care about the money; I was grateful for the Rodin, even if I couldn’t keep it at home. I loved the wide airy room that housed the statue; I loved to gaze at it: an unfinished male nude, half cool smooth marble, half wild rough stone. The one thing I missed was being able to feel it in my hands, as I had only once, when it was moved to the museum.

Today the gallery was empty, except for a young security guard at the door. I walked up to the pedestal that held the statue, standing close, inspecting the creamy ivory of the marble, the gentle curves of the nude’s muscled legs. Its owner was listed as Anonymous.

I heard footsteps and glanced over. The guard was approaching. “Ma’am?” he said. “We ask our guests to stand at least two feet away from the sculptures.”

For a moment I didn’t move. I wanted to say, It’s mine! I could grab it with both hands and walk right out of here if I wanted to. But I stepped back.

I noticed that he kept his eye on me. I couldn’t blame him. Ever since the Munch thefts in Oslo a few years back — The Scream and Madonna stolen during regular museum hours, right in front of tourists — guards everywhere were on edge. I often worried about the Rodin, whether it was safe. The guard had certainly kept me, of all people, from getting too close — but all it took was a turn of the head, a distraction down the hall, to render it vulnerable.

###

I invited Nick to lunch in Malibu. I had a plan that he probably wouldn’t go for, but I had to try. We sat in a booth on a wide wooden deck overlooking the beach.

“So what does Mom think of all this?” I asked, ducking as a seagull dove for a wedge of bread in the empty booth behind me.

“She’s happy for me,” he said, “like you should be.” He saw her lack of interest as trust; I knew it as neglect.

When I asked him about his schedule, he handed me the Institute’s academic calendar. As the paper fluttered in the wind, I spread it flat on the table, holding it down with both hands. I pretended to study the calendar, which I’d already looked up online.

“Lise, I’m not here to get your approval.”

“I was thinking,” I said, “that I haven’t taken a vacation in a while. And you could use an extra hand in getting settled.”

He looked at me. “I don’t need any help.”

“I know you don’t need it,” I said, “but wouldn’t it be more fun if we went together? It’ll be warm there in February — ”

“This is L.A.,” he reminded me. “It’ll be warm here in February.”

“I can check out the museums — ”

He laughed. “Sydney’s not the holy grail of the art world,” he said. “Go to Paris, Lise. Go to London. I’ll be fine.” He twirled his Narcotics Anonymous key chain.

I watched the black and gold blur together, catching the sun in flashes of light. As Nick began telling me about the acting program, I pictured him living in a dormitory, going to pubs, partying backstage. This is why he’s leaving, I thought.

And yet he seemed okay; I watched him toss a chunk of bread into the air for a seagull with steady hands, and I wondered if I was wrong. But I had never been wrong about Nick. Only a year apart, we’d always been like twins. He told me once, after he started therapy, that he thought I knew him better than I knew myself. What a nice thing to say, I told him, but he’d given me a strange look. I didn’t mean it as a compliment, he said.

When the check came, he pulled out a pocketful of loose bills and change. “It’s on me,” I said, reaching for the check. “How are you paying for this program, anyway?”

My mother had put us through college, but she’d been clear that her financial obligation to us would end there. She wanted the two of us, she said, to have what she’d never had: a chance to thrive on our own, without the crutch of financial security. Yet this hadn’t inspired Nick to find a career path, or even a job. After selling the Picasso, he’d bought a cottage in Venice, which he sold a year later, and a Mercedes convertible, which he had somehow managed to hold onto despite accumulating debt and no regular work.

“I’m selling the car,” he said.

“What about after?”

“After,” he said, “I’ll be working. That’s the point.”

I decided to let that one go. “I wish you’d let me come. Have you gotten your ticket yet?”

He shook his head.

“I’ll buy them, for both of us,” I said. “My treat — a going-away present.”

###

A week before we left, I stopped by the house — my grandparents’ former home in Bel Air, which now housed my mother and Nick. I picked a time when I knew my mother would be out so I could see how Nick’s packing was coming along. I doubted he’d have gotten what he needed: a referral for a therapist, a list of local AA and NA meetings, converters for his razor and computer.

He met me at the door, on his way to the beach. “I hear the waves are killer in Australia,” he said, “so I have to get in shape.” He tossed a towel over his shoulder and shut the door. “You mind driving? I’m showing the car tonight and I don’t want it full of sand.”

At the beach, I sat on Nick’s towel as he churned under the waves, bodysurfing because he’d sold his surfboard. When he came back, I handed him an envelope with the tickets inside.

“I went through a discount traveler,” I said, “and they only use paper tickets. You can take yours now, if you want.”

“Hey, thanks for getting these.” Nick pulled out one of the tickets. “Why are we flying two different airlines?” he asked, skimming the itinerary.

“It was half the price of going through Qantas. We only have to change planes once each way.”

He looked at me. “You’re sitting on a multimillion-dollar piece of art, and you can’t buy nonstop airline tickets?” He shook his head. “Why don’t you just sell it already?”

“It’s an investment,” I said, knowing he wouldn’t understand the real reasons.

But he wasn’t listening. “Wait a minute,” he said, holding up the tickets. “They’ve got us both returning December twenty-third. You’re not staying that long, are you?”

“What are you talking about?” I craned my neck to see. “Shit.” I grabbed the tickets and studied them. “They got it right on the itinerary. I didn’t even look at these.”

“Well, if you sell the Rodin, you could live in Sydney quite comfortably for — ”

“I’ll take care of it,” I said irritably. “Come on, let’s go.”

“I’m not dry yet.”

“You can sit on your shirt.”

I stood up, then suddenly I was trembling all over. I reached out for Nick.

“Earthquake,” he said, gripping my arm as the ground rumbled beneath us, as if we stood near a passing train. People on the beach reached for one another’s hands or shoulders, exchanging anxious looks, waiting. Then it was over.

It always amazed me, how quiet everything became after an earthquake; the living world seemed to pause for a moment, as if unsure of what might happen next. And then came the universal sigh of relief, and everyone began to breathe again.

“Wow,” Nick said. “It’s been a while.”

We started back toward the car. Still feeling shaky, I walked gingerly, eyes down, as if the sidewalk might crack under my feet.

“Remember the big one?” Nick asked.

“Of course.” I’d been awakened by the jolt on a winter morning, dark as night, tossed across my bed like the dolls I used to sleep with. The quake had struck shortly after my mother had left my father, and we were living at our grandparents’ house, though they’d been in Paris at the time. Without their levelheaded presence came sheer panic: my mother leaping out of bed, lacerating her feet on broken glass; turning off the main gas line, though we hadn’t needed to; riding out three days of cold showers and takeout as we waited for the gas company to arrive. It was typical of so many moments: impulsive decisions, rapid about-faces, unnecessary consequences.

I unlocked the car and opened the door, letting the heat pour out. “Do you think we’ll have aftershocks?” Nick asked, getting into the car, forgetting about his wet swim trunks.

“Don’t we always?” I said.

###

I zipped my duffel and propped my feet on it as I leaned back on the couch. I’d been on hold for more than an hour without ever hearing a live, human voice, and finally I disconnected the call and dialed the travel agent.

Switching the phone to my other hand, I flexed my wrist, the one Nick had sprained so badly when he caught me pouring a bottle of rum down the kitchen sink. He’d come home drunk many mornings, but that was the time he’d run over my mother’s dog. It still ached sometimes.

The travel agent told me he’d gotten the discount by using someone else’s frequent flyer miles. Any changes, he said, would have to be made directly with the airline. “And don’t mention that you bought your ticket,” he added. “You have to tell them you were gifted the ticket. Just say it’s from a friend or business associate.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s not illegal,” he assured me. “It’s just that the airlines don’t like it.”

“Well, I can’t get through to the airline.”

“Try the ticket counter at the airport.”

“Great,” I muttered, then slammed the phone down. A sharp pain shot through my wrist. I took a deep breath, then went into the kitchen. I opened the cupboards, one after another. I’d quit drinking and gotten rid of my alcohol when Nick got out of rehab, an act of solidarity that had long gone unappreciated. So many times — on a date, at a museum fundraiser, and especially during moments like this — I’d have loved a glass of wine, a margarita. But something stopped me, every time.

###

I opened my eyes, the room shuddering all around me. Aftershocks, I thought. I struggled to sit up, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realized that the hum and the tremors came from the airplane, that I was sprawled on a half-reclined seat about thirty thousand feet above the Pacific.

The flight attendants had disappeared and the other passengers were wrapped in blankets and eye masks. I turned toward Nick, whose video monitor was still flickering. He had fallen asleep, earphones on, the screen casting bluish light across his face. The pale glow reminded me of the nights we’d gathered in our mother’s bed as kids, rattled by our father’s fury, by slammed doors. I always seemed to be the last one awake, watching my mother’s nervous, fluttering eyelids and Nick’s tense, clenched jaw.

In the next seat, Nick stirred and rolled over, turning his back to me. I heard him sigh restlessly, and I leaned over and switched off his video monitor, then watched the lift and fall of his shoulders as he slept.

###

“What do you think?” he asked.

I walked past him into the kitchen, its one screenless window wide open. A fly buzzed behind the refrigerator. In the living room, hardy brown furniture was covered with rough fabric that smelled of old smoke. I peeked into the bathroom, a humid little cube that was surprisingly clean.

“It’s not bad,” I said.

“It’s only one-fifty a week,” he said.

“A steal,” I said. We were paying more per night for our hotel room in Coogee. I scanned the bare, yellowed walls and said, “You’ll need to put something up.”

“They’re having it painted before I move in,” he said.

Downstairs in the office, as I waited for him to sign the lease, I thought about where I might find him a few good pieces of art. Nick would never think of it, and already the flat seemed depressing. Bare walls always made me feel hollow, a feeling that I connected to art only after I’d seen the empty frames that hung in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I’d been visiting Boston with my grandmother, who still remembered the way it had looked before the theft. As we stood in the Dutch Room, she’d lifted an arthritic, manicured finger and said, This was his only seascape, then pointed toward the frame that had housed Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Then she moved her hand toward the left — The other Rembrandt was over here — and turned around. The Vermeer used to be there. One of only thirty-four in the world. The paintings had never been recovered.

When I asked her why they didn’t replace the empty frames, she said, They can’t. When Gardner built this place, she wrote in her will that nothing should be changed here. Not ever.

As I considered Nick’s blank walls, I thought of my own apartment, devoid of the one valuable piece I owned yet covered with reproductions and tapestries, the walls barely visible beneath a continually revolving collection of worthless art.

###

Nick had signed us up for a pub crawl as part of his international student orientation, and that weekend we joined the queue for city buses heading into downtown Sydney. At the Orient Hotel in the Rocks, I sipped a glass of water as Nick led the way to a group of students, introducing himself as an actor and me as “along for the ride.” He zeroed in on an Egyptian doctoral student named Monifa, tall and statuesque, her silky black hair pulled atop her head with casual perfection.

I made myself scarce, but a few minutes later, I stole a glance at them. This was one area in which Nick had always succeeded. While we’d both inherited our mother’s fine features, my wheat-colored hair and watered-down eyes were a pale contrast to Nick’s thick chestnut hair, his bright, leaf-green eyes. Since he got clean, he’d put on weight and had his teeth fixed; he looked good — healthy, normal.

I stepped outside for air. The street was shadowy, its noises distant, and the damp air made me shiver as I leaned against a lamppost. I turned quickly when I heard a noise behind me.

“Sorry,” said a man standing next to me. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Daniel. Environmental engineering.”

He stuck out his hand, and I reluctantly took it. “I’m Lise,” I said. “My brother’s a student.”

“What about you?”

“Just visiting,” I said.

He smiled at me. “Will you be around for a while?”

“I wouldn’t mind it,” I said, “but my boyfriend’s waiting for me back home.”

The look on Daniel’s face made me feel bad about the lie, but it was an old habit, one that always worked. Daniel didn’t need to know I’d just had my fourth and last date with the man I’d been seeing, a screenwriter and adjunct at USC. I’d met him at a film series I’d organized at the L.A. County Museum of Art and presumed his presence there meant he might be interested in art. Yet when I took him to the Getty to show him the Rodin, he’d given it only a perfunctory glance. It looks half done, he said. I hadn’t told him it was mine.

It’s supposed to, I said. Most of Rodin’s sculptures were unfinished, or they were fragments on purpose.

Then what’s the point? he said.

It was the last time I saw him.

I told Nick and Monifa I was leaving, then got onto an express bus back to Coogee. Leaning my head against the window, watching the lights come at me from the wrong side of the road, I felt disoriented, a little nauseous, as if I’d been drinking after all.

###

I awoke to the sound of Nick stuffing his backpack — haphazardly, with tea and coffee packets, a baseball cap, assorted books. I watched him cross the room, picking up his watch, his wallet, his sunglasses. “Nick,” I said. “Can you sit for a minute? I was hoping we could talk.”

He shouldered his backpack. “About what? I need to get going.”

“About going to meetings. Keeping everything under control.”

“Everything is under control,” he said. “Everything’s terrific. I have a date with Monifa tonight — ”

“That’s great, but — ”

“Why don’t we ever talk about your plan?” he interrupted.

“What?”

“You’re still here. What are you waiting for?”

“I’m not waiting for anything.” I got up off my bed and, because I didn’t know what else to do, began to make it. “I’m only trying to help.” With a sharp tug, I stretched the sheets tight.

“I already got help,” he said. “Maybe it’s your turn.”

When I heard the door shut behind him, I sat down on the partially made bed. He made me want to stay and leave at the same time.

###

When I attempted to change my flight I was told that, February being the high season, the one daily flight to L.A. was booked for two straight weeks. My only chance of leaving before then was to go to the airport and get on standby.

By the time I returned from a walk on the beach, Nick had already left for his date. It was nearly dawn when I finally heard the door open. “Nick?” I murmured.

“Go back to sleep,” he said. He sounded different, as if he had a cold.

“What’s the matter?” I turned on the overhead light.

Nick’s face was puffy and bruised, his left eye swollen shut, a row of stitches on his cheek. His nose was twice its normal size. “Oh, my God,” I said.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said.

“What happened? I thought you went out with Monifa.”

“After dinner we met some people at a pub,” he said. “This guy jumped me in the beer garden. He had a couple of friends willing to help him out.”

“Just like that?”

“We may have been having a minor political disagreement, okay? It’s no big deal. It happens.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I said, though the sight was all too familiar. “Were you drinking?”

“Of course not,” he said.

I got out of bed and walked over to him. He stuck his arms out, keeping me a few paces away, and made a show of placing one foot in front of the other, walking away from me on an imaginary line. “Want to give me a breathalyzer, too?” he said.

I thought I caught a faint whiff of booze, but I couldn’t be sure. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“Because I knew you’d freak out,” he said. “A couple guys took me to the Uni hospital. I’m fine. I just want to go to sleep.”

He got into bed with all his clothes on and pulled the covers up to his neck. I got back into my own bed and lay listening to the ragged breathing that came through his beat-up nose. When light filled the room, I finally rose, then looked over at Nick, surprised to find him awake.

“What are you doing today?” I asked.

“Sleeping, for one,” he said. “Then moving into the flat.”

“Do you want me to help you?”

“No,” he said. “Go see more of the sights. And you should check on your flight. There’s no room for you at the flat. You’ll have to sell the Rodin if you want to stay here much longer.”

“Why do you keep bringing that up? Selling the Rodin?”

He shrugged. “You’re either too broke or too cheap to spend any money,” he said. “If you sold it, you could do anything you wanted.”

“But then I’d have nothing left.”

“You’re wrong,” he said. “You could have everything.”

I looked at him, but he only gazed back, his swollen eye matted down into a permanent wink.

###

That evening, we met at a Vietnamese café. Nick showed me his keys, and I knew what would follow. To change the subject before it came up, I reached down to show him what I’d bought that afternoon. “Just a few things to liven up your new place,” I said.

He stared at me as I showed him the curtains, the postcards to put into picture frames, the prints for the walls.

“Lise,” he said. “I’m checking out of the hotel tomorrow. Don’t you want to get back to L.A.?”

“The only thing I can get is standby,” I said. “That means going to the airport with my bags, waiting around all day, then most likely coming back again. Over and over again until I get lucky.”

“Well,” he said, “you should give it a try, at least.”

I held up one of the prints. “Isn’t this aboriginal art just amazing?”

“Lise, did you hear me?”

I didn’t answer. Our food arrived, and as I spooned rice onto his plate, I started telling him about the aboriginal works I’d seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales — the rich colors of the canvases, the quiet dignity of the sculptures.

I did not tell him about the piece that had struck me the most: a modern sculpture, housed in a student exhibit that I’d almost bypassed altogether. The sculpture that caught my eye was a long, thin white figure lying face up amid lines of text, illustrations, and what looked like computer chips. I’d jotted down its title because it was so strange — Mythogrammic Object No. 15743929; Walking Anciently in Modern Times, by a student named Hezki Symonds. But what had gotten my attention was a line of text that snaked down the figure’s skinny left arm: Here fear is 71.9 cm wider than love.

Walking anciently in future times, Hezki Symonds


###

“I’m not optimistic about getting on that flight,” I said. We were standing outside with our bags, me on the way to the airport, Nick to his apartment.

He gave me his new cell phone number. “Well, call me if you get stuck.”

I watched him get into a cab. I made my own driver wait as I double-checked for my passport, my wallet, the magazines I’d bought. Reluctantly, I let him load my duffel and climbed into the back.

At the airport, I found the flight full. “We’ll put you on standby,” said the ticket agent, a young, dark-skinned man with a head of longish wavy hair. His name tag read Kamil.

“I’m not in any big hurry. Maybe you have something for next week?”

He turned back to the computer, his brow furrowed. “The problem is, you’re flying on an awards ticket. There are a few seats available, if you were to buy a new one outright, but finding an awards seat for you is going to be more of a challenge.” He looked up at me. “I’m sorry. It’s the high season, you know. Standby’s your best shot.”

As I waited, I wondered whether Nick had already made plans for that night. I knew there were AA meetings in Bondi and hoped we could go to one. I glanced at my watch, wondering how long it would take me to get back to Coogee. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kamil wave me over. “Hang on,” he murmured when I approached, without looking up. His long, slender fingers moved rapidly across the keys. His face was lowered, and it almost looked as if he were asleep. Finally, he raised enormous brown eyes.

“Looks as if I have a seat for you.” He made a few more entries. “It’s a middle seat,” he said, “in Row — ”

“I’m so sorry,” I blurted out. “I — I can’t take that seat after all. I have to go back to town. It’s very important. Sorry.”

I hurried outside and hailed a cab. At the flat, Nick opened the door. His hair, slicked back from a shower, made his face look puffier than before.

“I was just heading out to see Monifa,” he said.

I looked at him skeptically: his stitches looked about to burst, and he still couldn’t open his eye. “Yeah, I know,” he said, wincing as he touched his cheek. “So I guess you didn’t get a seat?”

“Um, no,” I said. “The flight was full.”

“Do you want to come out with us?” he asked politely.

“No, that’s okay.” I said. I didn’t want to spoil his mood; the meeting could wait one more night. He gave me a pillow and blanket for the couch and told me to help myself to anything in the refrigerator.

“You actually put food in the fridge?” I said. This was impressive.

He grinned as he stepped out the door. “Don’t wait up,” he said.

In the kitchen, I inspected the contents of the fridge, though I wasn’t hungry. I opened all the cupboards, checked under the sink, in the closets. I opened every drawer in the living room and bedroom. I searched the bathroom, peeking into the toilet tank. Nothing. Maybe he really was going to be okay.

I lay down on the couch. He had no television, and the light was too dim to read. Glancing around, I saw that he hadn’t put up anything I’d bought. I shut my eyes.

###

Nick wasn’t back when I woke the next morning. I made coffee and sat in the kitchen, waiting. I didn’t know whether to worry, or to assume he’d simply had a very good date with Monifa.

Finally I called a taxi. On my way out the door, I turned back. I took out one of the unframed prints I’d bought — an aboriginal painting in deep burgundy and mustard-yellow, its vertical planes inhabited by thousands of tiny white dots — and found some tape in the kitchen. I affixed it to the living room’s largest wall. This time, as I looked back from the doorway, the whole apartment seemed brighter, and I felt a little better.

At the airport, I found Kamil behind the computer. I leaned against the counter, and he looked up, recognizing me.  “Here to try again?”

“Yes,” I said. “What are my chances?”

“Fairly slim, I’m afraid,” he said. “But we’re not oversold. I can put you on standby again.”

I still had an hour to wait and headed for the row of pay phones near the restrooms. I held one hand over my ear and waited for Nick to answer.

“Oh. Hey.” He sounded strange, his voice too deep. “Did you get on the flight?”

“I don’t know yet. What’s going on? You sound terrible.”

“Nothing,” he said.

“How was your date?”

“Fine,” he said. “We had dinner. Then met up with a few people from the program. Downtown, at the Rocks.”

Recognizing the slow pace of his voice, I realized he was hungover. “I’m coming back,” I said.

“No,” he said.

“Nick — ”

I heard a click as he hung up.

The flight was ready for boarding. I studied the passengers lining up in front of me, dutifully inching forward, step by step.

I glanced at Kamil and found him looking at me. He quickly turned his eyes to another passenger. Finally, after the gate area emptied out, he called me over. “Nothing available, I’m afraid,” he said.

So the decision was made for me.

“You look knackered,” Kamil said.

I put my hands to my eyes, pressing into them until I saw stars, and when I lowered my hands I was looking into Kamil’s startled face. “Sorry,” I said. “I guess I am a little tired.”

“Hang on,” he said. I heard his fingers on the keyboard. “I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’ve arranged for a hotel voucher for you.” He handed me a slip of paper. “It’s only five minutes away, and it’s got a pool. You can relax a bit before coming back tomorrow, yeah?”

“Really?” I stared at the voucher in my hand.

“It’s done,” he said with a smile.

“Well — thank you.” I walked back to the row of telephones. My call went straight to voice mail. “Nick, it’s me.” I hesitated, then said, “I got on the flight. I’ll call you when I get home.”

I headed for the exit, then looked over my shoulder. Kamil was still at the counter. “I’d love buy you dinner,” I told him, “to say thanks.”

“Oh, no worries,” he said.

“I’d really like to.”

“I’m not off until ten anyhow,” he said.

“Drinks, then?” I held up the voucher. “You know where to find me.”

###

Kamil called at ten-thirty, and I waited for him in the hotel bar. I sipped a martini as he told me he was from Bangladesh, that his family moved to Sydney when he was three. He was working at the airline, he said, to save money for university.

I invited him upstairs. Against the soft sheets of the bed, the warmth of his skin reminded me, inexplicably, of the cool marble of the Rodin, and suddenly I decided I would have to feel it in my hands again, as I now felt Kamil in mine. I needed to have it near me, even though I knew it may not be safe, that nothing ever was.

Later, as Kamil dozed next to me, I lay awake and looked at the long eyelashes resting against his cheek, the curves of his chest under the sheet. Rodin had once said, “Sculpture is an art of hollows and projections,” and I knew then that art did imitate life.

In the airport later, I sat in the same familiar chair as I waited on standby again. As the last few passengers went through the gate, Kamil waved me over.

“I’ve got a seat for you,” he said, quietly. “It’s literally the only one we’ve got, and it’s in first class.”

“So this is how people get upgraded,” I said.

He smiled. “How many bags?”

“Just one.” I looked at his tousled hair, his wrinkled uniform. “Thank you.”

He leaned down and tagged my duffel, then held out my boarding pass. “Enjoy your flight.” I took it carefully, so I could touch his hand.

As I got in line behind the last passengers waiting to board, I glanced back at the chair I’d occupied over the last three days, at the phone booth, at Kamil. The boarding area suddenly seemed too empty, too quiet, echoing the breathlessness in the air after a quake. I felt as though I were forgetting something — I checked for my passport, my wallet — but nothing was missing.

So I took my seat in first class and accepted a glass of champagne. Wrapping my fingers around the stem of the glass, I closed my eyes and waited for takeoff.

 

Midge Raymond’s short-story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and “lights up the poetry-circuits of the brain” (Seattle Times). Originally published by Eastern Washington University Press in 2009, the book was reissued in an expanded edition by Press 53 in 2011. Her work has appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times magazine, TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Ontario Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and has received three Pushcart Prize nominations as well as an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship. Midge currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is an editor at Ashland Creek Press. Visit her online at MidgeRaymond.com