WHEN THE CONFERENCE ENDED, Eve left the hotel’s windowless room and refused a man’s invitation to have a drink. He was bald, overweight, and anyway she didn’t feel like being picked up. Her headache felt like a watermark behind her eyes. Returning to her room she fell asleep and woke at twilight. She felt better. She watched TV for ten minutes, knew that she didn’t want to sit here all night, waiting for her flight tomorrow morning. Consulting her laptop, she read via the Internet that an art museum was free on Thursday evening and not far away. Reaching the lobby, she saw rain falling outside. She looked back at the suits at the bar. The bald man waved. She pretended not to see, ventured into the rain.
A few steps down the street she found a throwaway to use as an umbrella. Walking north, she passed people leaving lobbies radiating corporate light. At one point, she slipped on the wet street and had to grab a light pole to stop the fall that would have carried her into a car’s path. The mishap had twisted her ankle, and she was about to veer back to the hotel when a man came up to her, his face obscured by the black parasol he tipped toward her.
“Looking for the museum?” he asked.
She might have nodded.
“It’s not far,” he said. After pointing, he drifted away. She dropped the throwaway, already soaked, and hobbled a half-block. She spotted a cove of doorway light and saw “Museum” printed in sans serif on glass. Inside, a receptionist, a young woman with corn-row hair suggestive of tiny serpents, smiled. Behind her, Eve saw in the museum’s glass façade that her own short-trimmed coiffure had a wet, licked look.
The museum was almost empty except for the few security guards who did box steps of boredom. Now barefoot, holding her shoes, Eve limped through doctored photographs, sound loops, and a bean bag with a cell phone sunk into its center, suggestive of something faintly anti-technology, anti-modern, or anti-American. She didn’t know which and didn’t care. The “installation” seemed to come from a sensibility to which she didn’t belong.
Descending stairs to an empty floor, a short corridor closed at both ends, she saw an unmarked door to her right. Unlocked, it opened soundlessly to the top of a metal stairwell that descended some forty feet. “I was looking for the restroom,” she would say if anyone asked.
Closing the door behind her, she took the switch-back stairs down, past brick walls mortared like layered epochs. A lower light lifted her elongated silhouette. Reaching the last landing, she stepped through another door. It was an exit to an underground garage, she figured, but on its other side she found herself alone in a warm, blue-carpeted gallery with one painting. It was of a large, nearly wall-sized tree, its leaves depicted in light blues and greens and sun-dappled white. She crossed the room, moving under track lights and past a narrow bench, toward the painting with its fake apples protruding from the canvas, shiny and reflective as Christmas ornaments. A plaque to the side said, Garden of Eden. Nothing identified the artist. Stepping back, she sat on the bench. The walk down the stairs had aggravated the ache in her ankle, though as she rubbed the spot the soreness vanished. She stood. Barefoot, she approached the large canvas, squinting at the strong brushstrokes that, along with the use of impasto and the apples—in reality, wood carved to roundness and painted red—made the scene rise from the surface.
She wondered in what curatorial way, if any, this painting was connected to the rest of the gallery. It seemed too carefully mounted for storage, and the placing was curious, to say the least. Whatever the case, she loved the warmth that radiated from the picture and from the track lights above. Removing her wet jacket, she still felt warm. She saw nothing that looked like a camera and found that the door locked from the inside. She locked it. She removed her pantsuit and bra and, after hesitating, the rest.
She had never thought nudity was a component of art appreciation. Yet staring at the painting with the light from above warming her head and shoulders and bared breasts, she admired its vibrating colors that suggested movement. She even felt something like a soft, warm wind, and one leaf on the tree seemed to ripple. She studied an ornamental apple. Pressing her fingernail against its surface, she released a small squirt of juice. These apples were real.
Everything about the painting seemed real. Its warm colors reached out to her, enfolded her, challenged her by the intense privacy and freedom they offered. When she saw her reflection in the shiny apples that hung from the tree’s lower branches, she thought she looked beautiful, voluptuous, the soft curves part of nature’s generosity.
She heard a noise above her. Leaves moved. She saw a face. She jumped back, ran to her clothes, and paused when she saw it wasn’t a man looking at her, but a snake.
“Hello,” he said. From a branch, he smiled. He was a big fellow, and his wide grin reminded her of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.
She took a breath before she spoke. “Hello,” she said. The snake slithered down the tree for a closer look.
“Nice suit,” he said. “Is it your birthday?”
“Very funny,” she managed to say.