I first saw him in the museum -- among the marble bodies of Roman heroes and underneath the oil-painted tears of heaven’s angels. Like art, he was beautiful. Like good art though, he was a bit strange and a bit complicated.
He was made of sharp lines like those of charcoal. Dark smudges underneath his eyes, a shadowed profile from hollow cheeks. Harsh and unapologetic. He was a study in the art of the Renaissance -- an embodiment of chiaroscuro, the definition of idealism.
I wanted desperately to speak to the man, but I found myself at loss for what to say to him; he was staring -- no, marveling -- at a painting that I had never seen before, by an artist that I had never heard of. He seemed in an entirely different world altogether.
So there I stayed and mindlessly read plaques that recounted the plights of Greek gods, sneaking glances at the stranger between the sculpted arms of men and women whose history had been forgotten. I might have looked odd, remaining in the same room while a normal person would have soon moved on, but I noticed others openly staring at the stranger as well. Like a lamplight to moths, we were enamored.
It wasn’t until he wandered away from the painting that the spell was broken. In an instant, the museum’s visitors resumed their casual strolling and chatting. I shook my head, prepared to carry on as well, but curiosity got the better of me. I made my way to the artwork that had captured the strange man’s attention for so long. I felt oddly uncomfortable, as if I were looking through the personal photos on another person’s phone or reading a letter meant for someone else.
With dark, heavy brushstrokes, the oil painting depicted an angel kneeling in the dirt, face upturned to the sky. His halo was in pieces at his side; his wings were feathery wisps of chalk-white against the red of the ground. His face was a mess of ambiguous colors, but his misery was apparent nevertheless. Rich black sky was set against the mud of the Earth and the gold of the angel’s hair.
“Untitled” read the plaque underneath the canvas. Such a beautiful piece hanging, nameless, was the saddest thing of all.
I returned to the museum the next day. I told myself that I wanted to see the artwork again and that I was moved by antiquity. I told myself these things … and yet I visited the untitled painting with fingers crossed inside of my jacket pockets.
I was not disappointed.
Once again, he was staring at the artwork as though seeing it for the first time. His brows were furrowed and lips set in a firm grimace, as one might be when trying to solve a complicated math equation or perhaps trying to remember where one misplaced an essential item. He looked defeated and tired. Like Atlas, he seemed to bear a weight that he was never meant to bear. For a moment, there was no difference between him and the statues of Greek heroes that he stood beside.
From my place against the wall, I uncapped my camera and raised it to my eye.
“No pictures, ma’am,” said the security guard when she saw me with my camera out.
“Of course,” I said, though I’d already taken the photo that I wanted. “My bad.”
I had made the decision, that morning, that I would talk to the man despite the anxiety that coiled in my stomach and itch the back of my throat. My hands knotted in fists inside my pockets, lungs burning as I held my breath and began to approach him.
“It’s a beautiful piece,” I said casually, nodding towards the painting.
He turned towards me then, startled and a bit dazed.
“Isn’t it?” he said quietly. His voice should not have sounded so airless. “Do I know you?”
Under his heavy, golden-eyed stare, some biological instinct screamed at me to run as far and as fast as I could. I felt like prey. “No, we haven’t met before.”
He looked at me with wide, mournful eyes. I thought that if he were a drawing, his irises would be holes in the paper and his bones would be sharp, unforgiving lines. Up close, I could see just how dark the smudges beneath his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks were.
The man pointed to the angel in the untitled painting with his finger. “Do you know him?”
“I - well, no. The artist is named on the plaque if you want to --”
“And you are not an artist?”
“No, I am.” I shake my head, completely confounded. “I’m just not - I didn’t paint…”
“So you can’t help me.”
I blinked. Slowly, I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think that I understand.”
This was not what the man wanted to hear.
He took a step back from me and looked at the painting like a mother might look at her child before leaving them forever. “I have come here everyday for years and yet I still cannot find my way home. I do not think that you can help me.” He placed his hand against the golden frame surrounding the weeping angel tenderly. “How can you bare it?”
This, seemingly, was not a question that I was intended to answer, because before I could speak again, the man had already turned on his heels and begun walking from the exhibit.
I was left standing there like an idiot, mouth open and words still caught in the back of my throat. Although the less sane portion of my brain pleaded for me to follow him, I felt that a boundary was drawn firmly in the sand: he was to remain a mystery and I was to remain hopelessly curious.
After several minutes, I left the museum feeling a bit frazzled and dismayed. I sat on a bench outside, shivering from the chill, and scrolled through the photos on my camera. The memory card was nearly full with portraits I had taken as a project for my class -- smiling faces of strangers who jumped at the chance to have their photos taken. A young man with eyes so pale they appeared almost pink. An old vendor whose mustache would make even Salvador Dali jealous. A girl covered in tattoos of mythical creatures.
I scrolled, grinning to myself. It wasn’t until I came to the most recent photo of the stranger from the museum that I paused. Where he should have stood, there was nothing but a bright light -- a glare as if from a flash hitting a mirror. The entire frame was filled with a white shine. Like taking a picture of the sun, so much light blinded the eye.
“Why,” I asked him the next afternoon. I’d come at the same time that I had for the past two days but this time I stood, waiting at the painting for him. True to his word, he returned to the museum at the same time the next day.
When I spoke, he turned to look at me as though he had not seem me standing there at all. I said, “Why do you come here everyday? What are you looking for?”
Like the nymphs lamenting the fall of Icarus, his eyes spoke of sorrows that I would never know. “Because I am very tired. I miss my brothers. I wish to go home.”
He looked at the painting and sighed. “Yes. I was very close with them long ago. We shared a love for artwork and beautiful music -- the heart of mankind. Without them, I cannot enjoy it like I once did.”
“I’m so sorry.”
When the stranger turned back to me, he was smiling a sad smile. “I am too.”
And so we danced this dance nearly every day: I visited the museum at the same time when I was available. Sometimes I would arrive first, and sometimes it would be him. Our conversations were short and sweet, polite like it should be between strangers. Often, it was me doing the questioning and him doing the answering -- uncharacteristically passionate answers. He spoke of his father as though he were a saint and his brothers as though they made up the very Earth that we walked on. I spoke of my photography.
A sort of relationship had grown between us. We were both hopeless romantics and cynics that found solace in artwork. We would walk out to the lobby together and then go our separate ways. I would leave for class. He would remain there.
“Walk me out?” he asked one day.
“Sure,” I said.
“I think I will be leaving,” he said as we left the lobby and made our way down the front steps of the museum. “It’s about time that I see Rome. Maybe Versailles or Milan.”
“That’s amazing.” I was smiling politely. “But don’t you think it’s very sudden?”
“There’s so much to see. When would be a better time if not now?”
“Will you come back?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
I felt as though I was losing a very old friend at that moment even though we were nothing more than acquaintances who happened to share afternoon chit-chat. The thought of not visiting the museum every day was not a pleasant one to think about.
“Thank you for sharing this art with me,” he said. “Do not forget about our painting. You won’t, right?”
He nodded as though that was all the assurance that he needed and, like the first time that we spoke, he turned on his heels and left me alone.
I had the strangest feeling as he walked across the street -- like the buttons on my shirt were off by one or like I’d lost an earring sometime during the day. I watched him pass by the stores with furrowed brows.
And I gasped.
In the reflection of the store windows, I saw the pale wings growing from his back. They glowed like the embers of a fire, flickering and licking the air with ferocity. They were an outrageously grand statement that no one else seemed to notice as he made his way down the street, hands in pocket as if nothing in the world could touch him. I thought that perhaps no one could touch him; with feathers of a phoenix and a golden halo of a king, he did not entirely belong in this world.
I thought of the untitled painting sitting in the museum, and I finally understood.
Many Years Later...
My room is very quiet now. I had visitors earlier that spoke with me, telling me stories about myself that I cannot remember and using names that I will never be able to assign to faces. One girl told me that she was my grandchild and spoke of a museum that I took her to long ago; she showed me pictures of strangers that I supposedly took. I tried to listen, but I was exhausted, quite frankly, and frustrated.
A knock comes at my door, causing me to open my eyes. The nurse tells me that I have another visitor.
I tiredly sit up in my bed to greet the man that walks in, cursing my aching bones. Without my glasses, he is nothing but a blur of shadows. He comes closer to my bed and I can only make out his sharp, dark profile.
“Do I know you?” I ask the man.
“Yes,” he says quietly, “you do. I like to think that we were friends once.”
“If we were friends, why have you never visited me before today.”
“I went away for a very long time to live in Rome -- to find my brothers.”
“Will you tell me about Rome? About us?”
He says, “Of course.”