If the paint had still been as wet as it was a century ago, Amir would have been close enough to feel himself getting high from the fumes; his face was so close to the canvas that he could almost touch the brilliant mountains of teal, tan and green with his nose. The wire boundary he leaned over rose a foot from the gallery’s polished wooden floor, and apparently failed in keeping him a foot and a half away from the artwork. Eve looked around the gallery and caught the judgmental glances of other visitors, who turned away once their eyes met hers.
“Stop getting so close to the paintings. People are staring at us.”
“Fuck them,” Amir said dismissively. “Look at this texture.” A security guard wandered near them.
“Let’s go into the next room,” she whispered. He stepped back and looked at the work in its entirety, then pointed to a section of the canvas. It was a busy representation of an eye; a glossy, swirling blob of green and black near the middle, surrounded by planes of tan with thick lines curving around it. The pupil was a quarter inch thick, so that it made the eye into a vortex, and Amir stared at it intently, trying to find the subject’s soul or something else.
“What is this supposed to be?” she asked, struggling to see whatever it was he saw in the blob. He continued staring without responding to her. She looked around again, and noticed the unusual amount of empty space that surrounded them in the crowded exhibition. People continued to steal glances in their direction, and she wondered why the painting before them was so interesting to Amir, but seemed to be so unremarkable to the other people in the room. She turned back to Amir and waited for him to finish marveling.
“It’s an old white man’s face,” he said finally. “Let’s go.”
Everything looked the same to Eve. She scanned the long walls of the adjacent gallery, struggling to make herself interested in the work. Old men in tiny shorts and sneakers tied tight enough to strangle their ankles walked with their wives from piece to piece, lifting the digital cameras that hung from their necks to their faces whenever they saw something they liked. Women with quirky glasses and black clothing strolled up and down the gallery floor, and stopped to look at the colorful works with their hands behind their backs. People congregated around one massive painting in the corner. She tugged on Amir’s jacket and pulled him in the direction of the popular work.
It featured a man with blood-red skin and large yellow eyes. White triangles with streaks of blue hung from his nose and eyelids three dimensionally, in thick blobs of paint much like the one Amir was so dazzled by in the other room. He bared a pale set of jagged teeth, and the edges of his face were painted with zigzag lines that traveled down to his shoulders, creating motion as he appeared to shiver. A small black dot decorated his forehead. A security guard with thinning hair stood idly at the congregation’s perimeter. Viewers mumbled amongst themselves, filling the gallery with the low hum of shared ideas, and as they approached the crowd, Eve saw a woman in a pixie cut turn her head to look at them. Her green eyes widened slightly, darkening the crow’s feet at their corners and spreading a concerned look to the edges of her face, before she turned her head back to the painting.
Entranced, Amir walked ahead of her, directly into the crowd. Eve wished he wouldn’t get so close again. He marched towards the green-eyed woman as if he could not see her, and Eve stopped and watched as she stepped out of his way, taking a long, exaggerated stride backward and nearly falling into a middle-aged couple. They said nothing to the woman, but instead turned their heads slowly as they watched Amir pass through the crowd. The green-eyed woman watched him as well, seemingly perplexed, and then turned back to Eve, who stared back and stood still in the middle of the gallery. The woman whispered something to the couple, and they turned their attention to her as well.
Eve crossed to the other side of the crowd and entered it, and made her way to the front. Amir was leaning into the painting again, looking up, and examining the texture white triangles on the canvas.
“Amir,” she said, gently grabbing hold of his arm. He lifted it and laid it across her shoulders, without looking away from the painting. The weight of his arm slightly eased her anxiety, but only until she turned her head and saw the swarm of pale faces with widened eyes, staring uncomfortably at her like the green-eyed woman. Her eyes made contact with those of a man with a white mustache, and he pointed to a spot near the top of the canvas as he whispered to his wife. Eve looked up and saw the circle.
“Amir, we should move,” she said.
“Why? You don’t like this one?” he asked, turning his face to her. He noted the flaring of her nostrils that happened whenever she was anxious. “Are you okay?”
“People are trying to see the painting and you’re blocking it,” she said. He turned his head and saw the people. Everyone looked in their direction, and once he turned back to the painting his felt their eyes singeing the skin on the back of his neck. His eyebrows moved toward each other, his dark eyes narrowed, and the corners of his mouth began to turn downward as he looked back at his girlfriend.
“I keep telling you to stop getting so close to the painting–,” she continued, pretending to look at the canvas.
“I’m not really feeling this exhibit,” he said. “You want to leave?”
She looked up at him, and before she could answer “Yes”, he was already leading her back into the crowd, which hurriedly dispersed and made a path for them.
Amir scanned the room, and spotted the guard at the edge of the mob. They began to walk back towards him, but as they approached he spotted another one, a tall, dark-skinned man in a black suit like the others, with a low caesar haircut and a clean-shaven face. They bypassed the first guard and marched in the other guard’s direction. He turned his head and lifted his chin slightly, anticipating their question.
“Excuse me, how do we get out of here?” Amir asked.
He looked into Amir’s eyes and chuckled, and then pointed to a glass door near the corner of the room. “Go through this door, and take those stairs down to the main exit.”
“Good looking out,” Amir said. He grabbed hold of Eve’s hand as they walked away from him. He held the door open for her, and looked around one more time, at the people and the walls.