He sees them every day. They come alone, dressed in low heels with pointy toes, richly patterned scarves, and earrings that brush against the cashmere or silk around their necks. They carry large bags that pass as purses. He often wonders what a woman carries that takes up that much volume.
This woman looks like the others, but her careful stride is just a little off-center, as if she were accustomed to walking in low-ceilinged rooms. She’s remarkably attractive with black eyes and smooth black hair that’s pulled away from her face with something sparkly. He watches as she leans in close to one of his favorite paintings. She studies it as if trying to make out the direction of each individual brush stroke. Then she tips slightly over the gold rope that cordons off Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight. He lets it pass, wanting to watch her a little longer.
She steps away from the painting and that’s when she sees him.
He sees her take in his dusty blue jacket that’s been laundered so many times the cuffs are slightly frayed. She glances at the emblem embroidered over the left breast pocket, the patch designed to mimic a police officer’s badge. His walkie-talkie is in his right hand and he sees her look down at it, its red light glowing, waiting for a call of distress.
He observes her reaction to him. Her eyes are hard to read, but a shadow of something like shame darkens her brow. Then her powdered skin relaxes, the facial muscles easing into passivity.
It is always the same when he is noticed. These women who visit alone all look guilty at first. They are the kind who have followed rules all their lives. He can tell by the way they speak in low whispers, silence their cell phones, and stand, for the most part, at respectful distances from both the paintings and their fellow museum-goers.
These women feel guilty for everything. For the waterboarding at Guantanamo, for the bombing of Hiroshima, for the man whose seat they take on the train. Maybe they’ve done things in their lives they’re not proud of and they’ve sentenced themselves to Saturdays in art museums. These women come alone because they’d rather be alone than have to negotiate which gallery to visit next.
He sees the tension build in their jaw lines and around their eyes before being kneaded away as if by some efficient and robust masseuse. The look of guilt is replaced by one of relief—a slight upturn of the corners of the mouth, an involuntary half-wink, a quick lick of the lips. He used to think that the relief came from not being caught, not being guilty. But now he knows the relief comes from having seen him. He’s safety, he’s nothing to be afraid of. Even if they had touched the Miró or Gauguin, they wouldn’t have been frightened of his reprimand.
It’s not just the frayed uniform that castrates him of his presumable power. It’s also the four wheels.
By virtue of the wheelchair’s timeless design, he is shorter than everyone. Even the third graders on field trips tower over him. They point and stare at his withered legs, the blue polyester that hangs on them, the feet in blackened shoes that dangle at an unnatural angle.
The women don’t stare. But they see his chair and they are not afraid. They don’t take a moment to wonder why he’s lost the use of his legs. They don’t pause to reflect on their own good fortune. They become anxious to see the next room where, around the corner, they can see one of the striking Van Goghs. They feel nothing. He is nothing.
But today this woman is different. Her guilt floats away faster than most. He knows that means she’s one of those women who have nothing to feel guilty about but carry the weight of the world on their linen-covered shoulders. She steps back from the Singer Sargent, her kitten heels making delicate taps on the marble floor. And then she looks at him and smiles.
He breathes in this moment before he smiles back. This is the friendliness, the common courtesy he was given before. When he was five foot eleven. When he lead these same women on walking tours of the American artists. When he stood in army fatigues.
He nods at her and then wheels toward her. She is walking toward him, too, and they meet near a French still life he’s never liked. The gallery has emptied of the families and young art students. A silence made more intense by the whir of ductwork closes in on them, as if the museum—the world, even—is vacant except for the two of them. She stands in front of him and her long hands are so close that the faint scent of lilac soap drifts off them and he can see that her nails are bitten and raw. He looks up at her face and she is even more beautiful.
He points back at the luminous moon that hovers over the nineteenth century dreamscape and she turns to look in that direction before facing him again. Her eyes are so dark there is no sparkle in them, just deep chasms. He looks away.
“John Singer Sargent is my favorite,” he says. He’s not supposed to make conversation with the visitors. Pretend you’re part of the exhibit, he had been told at training. Be seen and not heard.
She nods and smiles and then glances toward the broad brushstrokes that make a vase of roses. A strange, guttural sound emerges from her throat and she gestures wildly. He shrinks into his chair with surprise. Her dark hair looks suddenly ominous and her bitten nails seem disconcertingly grotesque. And then he realizes she is communicating with him through her hands, and he can feel guilt creep into him.
When the strange sound turns into a sort of deaf laugh, her features rearrange themselves back into the beauty he first noticed.
She holds out her hand, offers it the way you might to an ailing gentleman at the bus stop. Or to a dear friend for not just a handshake, but the double-handed grip of friendship. Even with her bitten fingertips, her hand is graceful and lithe. He reaches out and slides his fingers into her palm. He’s not sure if it is a shock of static electricity, but he feels a vibration when skin meets skin. Then, with a touch as soft as thread, she pulls him up.