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I Wonder

    She had followed the man for two hours through the museum. It wasn’t that she had no aim of her own, it was simply that he seemed almost lost until she realized he was moving to a different beat. He was looking only at work made by women or featuring women. It had taken her at least three museum rooms before she figured this out. He was handsome, in a disheveled sort of way. He also seemed pensive in a way men seldom are. She was often criticized for being a little rash, some even said that she was not thoughtful enough. The last came from a particularly hurtful review with her dog of a boss. After that meeting, she had decided to leave the office for the rest of the afternoon. Dodging the rain was top of her list – and so she landed at the fabled Art Institute of Chicago. It was good to be indoors. Better yet to be with so few people; Tuesday afternoons seemed to be quiet in the Hall of Art.


    The day had not started well. His new business venture was in trouble. He had worked so hard, for so long, that the thought of failing created a deep fatigue. His coffee was positively cold by the time the waitress gently nudged him towards the bill, all the other diners long gone. His aunt Phoebe must have spoken to him for he found himself walking the streets of Chicago heading to the location of the newly renovated art museum. Phoebe had been such a light when he was young, her death still didn’t register with him. It was Phoebe who had stepped in when his mother was taken away for alcohol rehabilitation. Not that anyone ever told him about this at the time. As he remembered the euphemism was “your mama is sick Stevie, she is getting some treatment.” Well, she never did get better though she did come home 6 months later, the day after his seventh birthday. Just like that, Phoebe and her love of art, her laugh and her hugs were gone from the two room, five floor walk-up. She’d come back religiously for each of his birthdays and insisted on taking him to the Drake hotel for dinner, and then the next day to the museum. These were some of the best memories of his childhood.


    Now that Stella paused in front of the sculpture that seemed to have captivated him the most, she wondered why he had stood there for so long. Was it the long and graceful neck?  The line of the breasts? The exposed nipples? She thought it heartless how the artist had cut the bronze right through the nipples. She had to admit she had not taken him for an overtly sexual being, more of a lost-in-the-clouds professor type. Still. She moved in closer, the metal generated its own stillness. She shivered and pulled her shawl tighter against her own breasts.


    Steve had just decided to leave after one last look at Lehmbruck bust. It had always been Phoebe‘s favorite. On that last visit with him, she told him that the woman was whole, yet incomplete - the sculptor had cut the spirit that ran right through her breast bone. Phoebe said artists are often afraid of the heart. He tried to explain to Phoebe what she had previously taught him about the two sculptures, one of the whole woman called Kneeling Woman, and the bust of the same figure here at the museum…but she waived a trembling hand at him and moved on. Phoebe had come to that point in life where she moved from one thought to another without logic. This conversation was the last with his aunt. By then she was already in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. The ravages of that horrible disease on his dear aunt’s last years led to his entire life mission. That same mission was about to go down in flames. He could almost taste the ashes.

    A young woman stood close to the bust. Her raven locks hung a bit drably around her shoulders. Phoebe had always taken such care with her appearance. This young lady not so much. Still, she looked like a fighter. Or maybe simply she had been in a fight. Steve just couldn’t tell anymore with women.

    He surprised himself by saying “Are you a fan of Lehmbruck’s?”

    “Who? What?” 


     She jumped back. Her shawl unfurled. It was a beautiful, rich fabric. Out of sync with her otherwise disheveled appearance. Her gray eyes locked onto his, first with embarrassment and then with a hint of recognition. Did he know her, Steve wondered?


     “I’m the one who is sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” 


     Steve looked at her waiting to hear her voice again.


     Stella considered her options. She could walk away and pretend this never happened or - she cleared her throat, picked up the ends of her wrap and said, “I find this piece disturbing, so not a fan exactly.” She opted for the test.


     Steve looked again at the bronze. He saw the strain in the woman's neck, he saw a sort of pleading in her eyes. He had previously thought it graceful. He became uncomfortable just standing there next to another woman. He had no idea what to say next. He knew so much about the artist, his usual soft approach to women, the influence of Brancusi and Maillol. The man who killed himself coming back from the horrors of World War I. A sensitive soul, even his works were generally gentle and soft. Well, his other works.


     Steve stuttered. “Oh, I guess so. Never saw it that way.” 


     He was at a loss. The cut of the bronze right at her nipples did seem harsh now that he looked more carefully.   


     Stella took another look at the piece. She could see some beauty. Her eyes bore into Steve’s and she saw him considering the piece anew. 


     “You were standing here for a while.” She smiled gently. “In fact, that’s what drew me here.”  Her tone was warm now.


     “Oh! I was lost in thought.”  Steve cleared his throat. “A lot going on…you know.”


     “I don’t think any of us really does ever know what others are going through.”  


     The words were out of her mouth before her filter had kicked in. Geez, where had that come from? She wasn’t usually this deep.


     Steve was relieved, a short laugh left his mouth and quite a weight was lifted from his shoulders. 


     “So true. We’re all running around…never in the moment.” He added hastily, “speaking for myself I mean.”  


     He was easy to like Stella noted. Another olive branch followed. 


     “I do wonder if the artists ever think of what we will all make of their work later on. I mean, decades into the future.” The piece was about 100 years old after all. 


     Steve heartened; this he could speak about. 


     “My aunt explained this one to me.” He cleared his throat. “So, this guy, Wilhem Lehmbruck, was never very famous. He died young, though he did get a few of his pieces into the salons. He hung around with a lot of the more famous artists, Modigliani, Matisse, Brancusi, Maillol. But he was a married man, and always retained a softer side to him. He died right after World War 1, suicide. He was very young. No way to know what else he might have done. So in this case, we can be pretty sure he was not thinking of the future.” 


     Steve paused after that long exposé, hoping he had not bored the beautiful young woman he now wanted to spend more time with.  


     He need not have worried, Stella was impressed. “You’ve done your research.”


     “Gosh no, it was my aunt Phoebe who taught me all this. I remember her and everything she told me I guess.”  He smiled shyly.


     Stella was beginning to like this guy. 


     “Where is your aunt now?”  


     “She passed away.” His brown eyes clouded over for a moment.  


     “Oh, I am so sorry.”


     “Thanks, I guess she never really got everything she wanted from life.  I suppose that is why I do what I do.”


     “Which is?” Stella asked, dying to know what this handsome, kind man did for a living.


     “I started a company to develop new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. I had a great investor, and a good lab. No, a great lab. But our data just isn’t cutting it. I’m afraid I am about to fail – “


     The woman was staring at him now, had he gone too far? 


     “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to take up all the space with my stuff. I can get a bit, well, caught up in it all.”

     “Wow, no.” Stella was beyond impressed, the other men she knew were so self-centered. His idea of ‘taking space’ as he put it was nothing short of admirable. “I mean wow.  All this for your aunt?”


     “Yep, pretty much for her. And all the others.” 


     Steve started to edge away, turning towards the exit, embarrassed he had said so much.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

     “Wait!” Stella cried.


     He turned back and saw both women, one cast forever in cold metal, the other very warm indeed. 




     “Sure, why not.”  


     Steve held out his arm, it seemed the right thing to do.


     Stella paused only briefly before passing her arm through his.

Early in our marriage, Ed was on a course in Chicago. I arranged a surprise birthday for him. Both kids joined us there for the weekend. We all visited the Art Institute of Chicago where I saw the Lehmbruck bust. It was during that trip that I hatched the idea of strangers meeting with art as a driver of their conversation.

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