The gallery was white, gleaming, awash in light, money and foreign tongues. The string band was testing the equipment and the interns were scuttling in and out of unmarked rooms, whisking away the last remnants of the preparations, while guests continued to deepen along the walls and between exhibits. In the main hall, a figurative ecological installation by Natasha Bowdoin towered overhead, surged into corners and crept beneath the guests’ feet, making them a part of its verdant statement.
Two women greeted each other exuberantly, one speaking in native French, the other making halted, twanging sounds that marked her as a Texan. They must know each other through the consulate, he thought, and moved into another room to find a faux cadaver surrounded by a group of onlookers. The shroud was biodegradable, part of a movement to embrace death and decomposition as natural and healthy. The cloth would contain an as-yet-unfinished strain of fungus – the Infinite Mushroom – that would eventually be trained to consume human flesh and return our bodies to the Earth safely, ecologically, avoiding the fuss, bother and hubris of preservation. How could this possibly go wrong, he thought, suddenly seized with images from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He resolved to watch less science fiction.
Another room was entirely devoted to an installation by Michel Blazy. The placard read “We Were The Robots” alluding to the oft-imagined machine-led apocalypse. A wasteland of biological materials, charred wood and ferns, stretched throughout the center of the room, punctuated by various mechanical installations: a refrigerator that occasionally spewed ice onto the ground in front of it, a garbage can that routinely vomited foam and suds into the air, and other various machines rigged to erupt in absurd ways. The walls had all been painted with a toxic blue, a kindergartener’s sky, peeling here and there as if it had simply given up on itself. He was almost glad not to find her in this room; he wasn’t sure he could have listened to her explain the art to him with a straight face.
Upstairs, along a bar, he found a perch from which he could see the entrance to the gallery across the main hall. The string band was now delighting the patrons with swing standards. An elderly white couple with dreadlocks cut a lackadaisical path across the exhibition floor, occasionally glancing at the band as if to apologize that they were the only dancers. He’d already made a circuit of the entire gallery and hadn’t found her, which seemed improbable. She worked there; she had to be there. He was familiar with this kind of event: all hands on deck! She was probably trapped in a back room stuffing gift bags for donors. He’d catch her sooner or later. And he knew that she wouldn’t miss the speech. Laurie Anderson was one of her favorite artists. But she hadn’t been at the front desk where he normally saw her when he visited, and he’d never thought that he might need to look for her anywhere else. So he sat, and he watched the crowd assemble.
Just behind him, a family speaking heavily accented Spanish installed themselves, commenting loudly on everything from the band to the other patrons. He kept turning to look at them and almost felt like apologizing to them. Sorry, it’s not you. I just keep turning around and expecting to see someone I know. Hoping to see someone I know. Carry on. They did, without his prompting, as a middle aged woman with long grey hair slid into the seat on his other side. She smiled the polite smile of someone who is hoping not to have to introduce herself. He responded in kind.
The main hall had grown so congested that people were taking places on the floor, waiting for the speech to start. He momentarily felt foolish. Maybe she wasn’t coming. Maybe she was out of town or at home watching Netflix. Maybe she’d gotten sick. Or maybe she’d gotten the night off and was out on a date. Perhaps the invitation had just been an offhanded remark, the sort of thing employees do in pious reverence to their employers. Oh we’re having a thing. It’ll be great. Come by any time. He’d said he would, but then wasn’t that just the sort of thing everyone said? Of course, I’ll stop by after work… unless I don’t.
Just as he’d resolved to leave, feeling ridiculous and a little annoyed with himself, the university President stepped onto the dais and the crowd fell silent. He gave all the standard congratulations and thanked all the important people who needed thanking and revved the crowd for Anderson. The consulate representative stepped forward and pointedly reminded the attendees, many of which could trace their family fortunes to oil leases, of the importance of the Paris Climate Accord. An anemic glissando of applause gave way to the keynote speaker, who had concealed herself behind a paper bush in the corner. She was whispering into the microphone so that the audience could barely hear her, let alone see her.
It’s an awkward arrangement, said the grey-haired woman. It is, he agreed, but then hastily added, of course when you ask a performance artist to speak, you can always just chalk it up to art. Do you think she’s a performance artist? I thought she was a musician. Oh yes, definitely a musician, but there was that whole experimental period when she did things like wore ice skates that had been frozen into a block of ice and played a duet with a tape recorder that lasted only so long as the ice hadn’t melted. Oh, that certainly sounds like performance art, the grey-haired woman admitted, and then returned to straining to hear the speaker.
Suddenly, he noticed the brunette weaving through the crowd. She was wearing a studded leather Barbie jacket and stilettos that looked gravitationally impossible. Of course he hadn’t been the only one she’d invite. Her friends would be here. He wondered for a moment how long they’d known each other. Years, almost certainly. How did that happen in this city, knowing someone for years. It always seemed that people were deposited in Houston for a season, scratched around, somehow found him, and then announced that they’d accepted a position on another coast, in another world, safely back where culture lived. And then they’d be gone, and they’d become just another Facebook friend who made periodic updates for a few years, until, inevitably, one of them would wonder why they were keeping up with each other anymore, and someone would ghost. It wasn’t a malicious cycle. It was just such a well-worn path that he’d begun to despair of ever making friends. And then he had met her.
It wasn’t that he was jealous of her brunette friend, only that he knew it was exponentially more difficult to break into a friend group than it was to make a new individual friend. He hadn’t accounted for this possibility tonight, and he wasn’t sure if he was up for the competition for her attention, competition that could invariably run circles around him, even if it was wearing gravitationally questionable stilettos. He got down from his chair and pinched his lips at the grey-haired woman next to him, as if to apologize that their brief exchange didn’t warrant a more formal goodbye.
That’s about the time he noticed the tall kid standing close to the entrance: her son. He was wearing a psychedelic knit hat and a fanny pack slung across his chest and he was watching the crowd with all the studied disinterest of adolescence. So she was here after all. But where? Down below him? In the crowd? He snaked down the stairs, keeping an eye on the crowd for her. And there she was, sitting in rapt attention at the edge of the circle around Anderson, who was now soliciting questions from the audience.
Who has a story they need to tell tonight? Someone need to share something with us? A woman with blonde hair stepped forward. I’m a writer, she said. I teach writing here at Rice. And I guess it’s an occupational hazard, but I always need to know how the story ends. So where are we going tonight? Where are you taking us? Because I keep thinking about Walter Benjamin and Paul Klee and the Angel of History. So how will you change me tonight?
Anderson laughed a wry little laugh and waved her hands, allowing her Japanese silk robe to flutter a bit about her wrists. Oh I don’t believe in history anymore. I believe in oh, I guess I better just show you. And then she stood silently for at least a minute, while the nervous audience began to grow more and more restless. He glanced toward the edge of the circle and saw her sitting there, watching carefully, listening to nothing. He wondered why he felt so eager to befriend her. He was closer in age to her son than he was to her.
He couldn’t explain it, and he felt like trying to do so would only send him out into the cold evening without ever saying hello. Anderson had begun whispering into her microphone again, telling the audience that they needed to learn to be quiet, needed to listen to themselves, needed to accept that they were already complete and already knew everything they could ever need to know. He felt himself become angry at this nonsensical pseudo-philosophy. In a night dedicated to the intersection of philosophy and ecology, wasn’t this the exact same thinking that permitted knuckle-dragging hordes to deny climate science because their gut instinct told them that humans weren’t to blame for climate change? But before he had a chance to voice the disembodied howl of protest that was welling up in him, there she was, standing in front of him as the crowd dispersed.
You came. Yes. Of course. I’m sorry she didn’t sing. Oh, I didn’t know she was going to. I guess she wasn’t. Have you seen the exhibits? What do you think? Oh they’re great. I love this. The Bowdoin is fantastic. He waved at the main hall around them. I want to turn my house into a pop art jungle. She smiled, pleased that he liked the art.
Where’s your husband? Oh, he’s still at work. She shook her head. You two work too hard. We do, but at least I made it, he offered. You did, she admitted, but bring him sometime. Let’s go see the film, it’s about a glacier. The group of friends made their way to the theater only to find it packed. She wanted to sit on the floor and watch the film, but he suddenly felt out of place, obtrusive. He shrank backward toward the door just as she installed herself for the film.
He lingered for a while still in the gallery, feeling as though leaving immediately would be impolitic. And then, after he couldn’t find any excuse to take another turn, he bolted his jacket and stepped out into the night, alone.