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I pick up our tickets and then offer to buy Megan a cafe au lait. She accepts, and we walk over to the ritzy cafe opposite the exhibit entrance where a number of middle-aged couplesâ€”mostly the wealthy urban type, wearing evening dresses and sweatersâ€”have gathered. A morose-looking man tugs at his wife’s sleeve and nods in our direction with a condescending expression on his face. We are here to see Winter Silence: Modern Swedish Photography. “I’m gonna grab that table over there,” I say, handing Megan a few dollars, “so get yourself something, and the exhibit should open up pretty soon here.” By the time she sits down across from me, I have done a thorough visual search of the vicinity and concluded that we are the only patrons under the age of twenty-five who have shown up for opening night. It’s not unusual, though. We’re typically on the younger side of the curve at these kinds of things.
“Look, I don’t want to argue,” she says. “So don’t bring up the Mark thing, okay?”
“Well, don’t you think we were making progress? I thought I hit on a legitimate point. You always want to kill the discussion just as soon as I start to make my point.”
“I think you’ve made your point.”
“Well, what is my point, then? I think I’ve tried to make a point, but it doesn’t register with you.”
“I don’t understand why you always have to psychoanalyze me. It doesn’t always have to make sense to you. Sometimes it’s easier for a girl to have an easygoing relationship. You don’t understand. It doesn’t matter if she really cares about the guy. Look, there’s no emotional risk, don’t you see? It’s just about having fun, all right? Why is that so hard to understand?” Again, she emphasizes the fact that I don’t understand. It’s always because I don’t understand. I can press her with more questions, but I know I’ll get the same response. Each time the topic comes up we repeat our same points in the vain hope that we will persuade the other. But it won’t happen.
The exhibit opens. Megan takes three hasty sips of her drink and then throws the cup into the trash. We jump in line behind a diminutive older couple and pace slowly across the polished concrete floors of the museum. Megan, I can tell, is taking notice of the exotic lighting in the foyer. She has always been aesthetically sensitive.
After we step inside, as she approaches the massive image on the wall before us, I place my hand on her shoulder and stop her. “Look,” I say. “I didn’t want to bring this up earlier, but if I don’t now it’s just gonna fester and make me uncomfortable. This next Saturday they’re playing Face to Face at the theater downtown. It’s sort of an exclusive engagement, one-night thing, and I want you to go with me.” She won’t look back at me; her eyes drift off in the direction of the music.
“You hear that?” she asks. “That tinkling sound? That’s a celesta. It’s a French thing. Sort of looks like a tiny piano.”
“Okay, Megan, please,” I say, trying to suppress the pleading tone in my voice. “I know you have a thing with Mark. But it’s Face to Face. Ansikte mot ansikte. This is a Liv Ullmann, and when we first met you told me how much you liked Liv Ullmann. Please, just…come see it with me. Just bail on Mark. He won’t even notice.”
She ignores me. I walk up to the tiny placard next to the first photograph and squint at the silver text engraved on its surface: Victor Something-or-Other (I notice an umlaut on one of the characters but can’t make out the last name). The image is untitled. I step back to where Megan is standing. In harsh black-and-white, frozen water cascades over the rough edges of a dark cliff. Her tone shifts.
“It’s something I don’t really get,” she says, then pauses. “You know Sweden has, like, the highest suicide rate in the world? You know? But look at that. It’s so beautiful up there. It’s just a naked sort of beauty. It’s not busy. The city’s beautiful, too, but in a different wayâ€”from all the energy, and the people, and the lights, and the cars…but look at that. See the way the water’s rushing over the rocks there? The way it’s just frozen in motion? It has a really…quiet sort of beauty. What’s the word? Sort of an austere quality.” I nod along. “I don’t know,” she says. “I like it.” She pauses. “I’m so mixed upâ€”at home and everything. There’s so much going on and I feel like I’m just getting lost in everything.”
I look back at her. “Your emotional instability is your most adorable quality.” She doesn’t find this amusing. “Look,” I say. “Why don’t you just calm down? You need to just calm down and take a break.”
“I know, I know. What am I doing here? Modern Swedish photography… Look around. Everyone here looks so depressed. I should be having fun somewhere.”
“We are having fun. It’s just a more somber kind of fun.”
“I can’t relax. I don’t know why. I just can’t calm down. I’m so nervous.”
We slip into the next room. Megan plays with the buttons of her coat as I read the plaque about the artist. She traces the tip of her shoe along the lines on the floor. I watch the way the light plays off the surface of her hair.
“Why don’t we just get out of here?” she says.
“Yeah. I mean, c’mon, you’re not having any fun, are you? We’ll just…leave. There’s a door right over there.”
“What about theâ€”I mean, it cost me twenty bucks to get us in here…”
She laughs. “Well, I can reimburse you, I guess. If it means that much to you.” I shrug. “C’mon,” she says. “Let’s go.”
I try to make our exit as discreet as possible. We cut through the middle of the exhibit, pretend to admire the last few photographs on display, and then slowly cross into a room which is supposed to be a gift shop but contains very little for sale. A twenty-something woman sits at the counter flipping through a magazine. She doesn’t even look up as Megan and I open the door and run into the breeze coming down the street.
We walk to the corner of the block and wait for the lights to change. I start to ask Megan where we’re going, but then I decide I won’t. We’ll go wherever she wants.
“I’m sorry about that. I wasn’t kidding, though, if you want me to pay you for the ticket. I don’t mind. It’s not a big deal, really.”
“No, it’s fine,” I say. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Thanks. I’m just…I need to get out. I need to be outside. I feel trapped. I know that’s so stereotypical, that lineâ€”â€˜I feel trapped.’ But it’s true, really.”
We cross the street and she keeps walking and I follow her and I realize she doesn’t know where she is leading me. It’s dark out, now.
“Do you remember, in the exhibit, that very first picture? The one with the frozen water running over the rocks? That’s where I’m gonna live. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. All beautiful, still and quiet. Remember when you were kid, everything was like that? My parents used to tuck me into bedâ€”they’d pull the blanket over me and I would lie there in bed and everything was still and quiet and peaceful. Don’t you remember that feeling? It used to be like that…”
She starts to skip along the sidewalk, picking up her pace until I am struggling to walk along fast enough to keep up. Then she breaks into a stride and dashes down along the street. Her jacket blows in the wind. I start running, but I am too exhausted to catch her. She reaches the end of the street and stops, spins around and shivers with a great smile on her face. “Don’t you feel great?” she asks me.
I stop. The marquee over Megan’s shoulder is advertising the screening of Face to Face. She spins around several more times, teetering slightly with each step. She sees the sign, too. Then she looks back at me.
“I’ll go,” she says. Then she lies down across the bench next to me and hugs her coat against her body. “It’s okay. I’ll go.”