Mignon, as always, wants to know what I’m thinking.
I’ve finally agreed to meet her in person, at the Berkeley Art Museum. The new one, with its blinding white walls and tomato-hued doors and echoey stairwells. A basement café with wine and salads of watermelon and feta and mint.
“Meat time,” Mignon called it.
But by the time we finish viewing the Peter Hujar photos in the lower gallery, I’ve formed the view that no one, ever, should visit an art museum in the company of another person. I want to stomp in the metal stairwell.
Yet here we sit in the museum café, emptied splits of champagne before us. It’s hot and my hair is heavy, redolent with horsey-smelling henna. Everyone else is in camisoles and shorts in ice cream colors. Last night I did my hair — yes, for “the occasion”– and it came out too bright.
“I liked the ones of the wrecked cars,” I say. “And that glum man with the giant penis.” What I am really saying is what I am always saying at museums. “You don’t know me! You don’t know my taste!”
I met Mignon online. Our exchanges have been filled with nuance and shy disclosures. Once, I related the details of a violent crime to which I’d been victim. Mignon confessed she’d once driven into a kid on a bike. Another time, we’d negotiated logging off to cry, after confessing to each other the depth of our loneliness.
But in person, Mignon emits a river of combat and insecurity. Just like everyone else around here. What band/bistro/hiking trail am I obsessed with, that no one else has heard of? Who eats the local-est, grass-fed-est food? Who’s vacationed in the farthest-flung place?
I gaze at the office supply store across the street with its industrial carpeting, balm of greenish light and wide aisles.
“It’s annoying how Hujar framed his subject in the middle of the shot.” I say.
Mignon brightens, pouring the remaining champagne into her flute. “He learned a way of composing called the Angle of Depression,” she explains, eyebrows raised self- importantly. “See, it’s the idea that the viewer’s eye takes this angle — technically this diagonal line ends below the bottom edge. There’s something we don’t see.”
She continues, telling me how Hujar’s last name would be pronounced in Spanish, if he were Spanish, which he probably is. How the British television show, The Office, was modeled after a David Foster Wallace story about working for the IRS. Then she shyly adds that she puts away a bottle of wine every night before allowing herself to open her computer to see if I’ve written.
Mignon meets my eyes then. She picks up a ball of melon and tucks it into her mouth. Meaningfully, it seems.
“Will you excuse me?” I said, then glide to the women’s room. A pullover youth with pimples around their mouth enters behind me.
Determined to act casual, I attempt a “selfie” in the bathroom mirror. My russet hair smolders nicely in the recessed lights. Then my bag slips into the sink, setting off the automatic gush from the faucet. My legs fly from under me. Fucking hell!
I consider staying down for a day or so. Who would know, other than half-in-the-bag Mignon and now this waif currently attempting to exit their stall.
“Hi! Help!” I say, rolling aside. The waif’s sweater as they easily lift me smells of fabric softener.
They ask if I’m all right. “You betcha!” I say, and the waif toddles off.
I gingerly settle back at the table. I feel like I’d been attacked by a javelina. My flank throbs. I swear to fucking god the infant is coming back with a fresh split of champagne.
“You know him?” Mignon asks. “He’s so… frat boy.”
“No frat boy uses Downey.”
“You have an awesome day, ma’am,” the waif says, their mouth a hard line.
Why did I wear these ridiculous heels? And why does this pain feel good and right and deserved?
Mignon snaps her fingers, as if an idea has occurred to her, or maybe just to capture my attention. How long have I had my nose pierced? Because she recently removed her nipple ring, which she got in her thirties “because of National Geographic.”
“I could give it to you!” she says. “I just have the one…”
“Oh! I guess I always thought they came in twos, like earrings. Or, you know, none,” I say.
“… although I have been wondering how much I could get for it, like, at a We Pay Cash for Gold place…”
Meat time. Who needs it?
Let’s say I summon the courage of my convictions. Soothe myself by purchasing pencils and notebooks across the street. A squishy strip to soothe my wrists.
Or more dramatically, I could emulate the mountain lion in that recent news story. Remember? The one where the two cyclists did all the things we’re told to do: holler real loud, make themselves appear larger. If I could be that magnificent beast, I’d rake Mignon with my claws and let the pimpled waif go, to tell the tale.
But that isn’t the way the story went. Remember?
In real life, it was an elderly couple. The lady neutralized the mountain lion by jabbing it in the eyes with her ball-point pen. She saved herself and her mate.
See, in the end that you can do everything you are supposed to do, and fate really doesn’t give a hoot. Me, Mignon, the cyclists. The mountain lion. The waif from the woman’s room. Even beautiful Peter Hujar, with his portraits of the famous, the abject, the endowed, and the ruined cars.
“I like people who dare,’ Hujar famously said.” Yet here we are frozen, cast in our living roles. I am lonely as hell, and that is no lie.
I split the bubbly between our glasses and say, “To meat.”
Patricia Q. Bidar is a California-based writer with family roots in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. An alum of the UC Davis Graduate writing program and a former fiction editor at Northwest Review, Patricia’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sou’wester, Wigleaf, ellipsis…art and literature, Litro Online, The Citron Review, Jellyfish Review, Barren Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Riggwelter, among other places. Her Twitter handle is @patriciabidar.