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Still Life

Meredith Stafford

Late afternoon sun casts drowsy rays into the art museum, settling like silk. I sit alone on a

low bench. The air is musky with the scent of old canvases, mingling with the acerbic bite of the freshly mopped oakwood floor. Silence lies thick, the occasional footfall echoing into the rafters of the cathedral ceiling.  

You’re ten minutes late and that’s never been like you. The messages I’ve sent sit unseen

and unanswered on my phone. I sip from a scalding cup of coffee, ordered like you used to when we were teenagers—dark with a lone shot of hazelnut—and wince at the bitterness. 

Black-and-white photographs pattern the walls around me: Southern gothic scenes of

graveyards, churches, rotting barns. They’re unchanged from our childhood, the kind you called depressing and I called haunting.   

My shoes squeak as I stand and drift past them towards a thin, dull hallway. A mother

squats in the corner of the gallery, one hand rocking a stroller back and forth and the other wrangling a pouting, squirming toddler. She’s scolding in a hushed, intense voice, words coiling around the little boy like a rearing snake.  

A smile tugs at my lips and I pause as images of us, only a few years older than him, dance

in my eyes, disjointed and dreamlike, as we tear through this museum away from our parents. The nylon pockets of our puffy winter coats flapped behind us like wings as we imagined ourselves soaring between the exhibits like osprey. You stood a head shorter than me, and people always mistook us for sisters because we were locked at the shoulder and hip, in joint-step wherever we went.  

Even then, we looked nothing alike and I wonder why that never confused anyone. You

were all sturdy delicacy, thinly boned with arched cheeks and nimble fingers accustomed to turning thin pages in thick books and gliding through etudes on a piano. At the same time, you had a sharpness to you, eyes the keen shade of dried sage leaves and a mind fine-tuned like violin strings. I was your antithesis: a freckled and gap-toothed child with persistently skinned knees, whimsical by nature, always flitting from one passion to the next. 

The scenes fade from my mind as the hallway yields to a long, sunlit wing, brimming with

sculptures. I stop to lean in the entryway, taking it all in: the alabaster Greek gods, the twisting modernist absurdism, the rows of ancient terracotta jars and bowls. This was a favorite of ours as teenagers; we used to come when I could coax you away from studying and we’d talk too loudly and strike poses in crude caricatures of the statues.  

A stone sinks from my throat to the pit of my stomach as I wind my way through. At the

end is a pair of heavy doors leading outside to a small, wire-bound balcony overlooking the river. It’s the site of where I first felt a fracture between us, the early threads unraveling.  

You had leaned on the railing, chin pointing skyward. “I can’t wait to get out of here and

just do something big.” 

“Where do you want to go?”  

“Somewhere important. New York or London or anywhere away from home.” 

A seed of fear settled in me. “You’ll keep in touch, won’t you?” 

Your eyes pierced through mine. “You know, you could come with me.” 

“Maybe I will.” My laugh rang hollow. We both knew I was too much of a creature of habit

to leave. 

A curtain of inevitability hung thick between us. I laughed again, this time, forcing sincerity

and linked an arm around yours, leaning against your shoulder. Your familiar scent crept into my nose, sweet and resinous like bergamot. We let the silence settle.  

You’re in town this week, back from your work at a prestigious firm up north. Your text, the

first in months, appeared on my phone at a prompt eight a.m., tagged with a simple “Kindest Regards” as if you were penning a letter. You might have let me know as a polite but detached formality that you were back, but I immediately jumped at the chance to reconnect. I feel as if I’ve changed so little.  

I bend over to examine a glass case containing a dark bronze statuette of two muscular,

battle-scarred warriors. One’s arm is drawn back, fist grasping a spear and the other leans into a shield, head down, bracing for impact. You liked it because it was simple: nothing to tell, just two unnamed men fighting in an unnamed battle. I liked it because it wasn’t, because there was a story in the grimace on the spearman’s face, the reluctance that creased his brows and the sadness in the slack mouth of the other, resigned and regretful. I thought they might have been friends once as boys, torn apart, only to be reunited on the battlefield. You shook your head and said you didn’t see it.  

Footsteps ring in my ears and I’m no longer alone. Hope spreading through my chest, I

turn, but it’s only a couple, hands in each other’s pockets, murmuring little nothings between them. The longer I stand, the more I feel disappointment flowering, so I head towards the vast halls filled with paintings.  

First comes postmodernist abstraction, canvas after canvas filled with dizzying

kaleidoscopes in brash shades of vermillion and cobalt, collisions of stripes and dots and squares. “Geometric nonsense” you once called it. We were older, college sophomores home on break, looking to kill some time outside of mind-numbing work shifts. You wore your hair long then, in strict braids down the back; mine was buzzed and bleached.  

“It’s imaginative,” I argued. “I thought you liked simplicity.” 

You scoffed. “I like reality, not whatever that is. I could do it with my eyes closed.” 

I was always drawn in by the washes of color, the psychedelic patterns, the mess and clutter

of lines and unspoken emotion. I can hear your voice again now as I stand in front of them, poking fun, but not too harshly, as you cast small side glances to make sure you haven’t gone too far. For a moment, I linger and hope that I will hear it, imagining that a stranger’s whispers are yours. But it’s too unmistakable, steady and gentle like water flowing across smooth river stones. 

I wander past the realist portraits, precise to the exacting detail, and my eyes skim over

them. You adored these. Their replications are perfect, down to the smallest pore, the tiniest fleck of a leaf. Four smooth woodframe edges capture still life, holding the subjects in a thin, two-dimensional grasp. A bowl of mandarins, forever preserved from the taint of rot; a tabby cat, frozen in breath, devoid of the warmth of fur; an 18th century French bureaucrat, eyes a gunpowder black. I feel an intangible sense of dread when I look at them and their stiff imitations of existence, but to you, art was meant to be like real life, nothing more than a physical portrayal of what was there. 

“It knows what it’s trying to be and it doesn’t try to do anything else,” you had said. 

I had stood a ways behind you, squinting and trying to imagine the paintings coming to

life. “I dunno. I think it takes itself too seriously.” 

The next room was our sanctuary, home to the impressionist paintings. There, we could

meet in the middle, as realism was too austere for me and abstract too meaningless for you. We would sit, shoulder to shoulder, in quiet reverence. Each piece is a small symphony, thin brushstrokes free and colorful in their mundanity, coalescing into harmony. There’s a bit of the artist in each, a whisper of their imperfection, of fingernails grimed with dried oil paint, of sweat creasing their brow, of the soft scratch of hog bristled brushes.  

They’re doing a small exhibition of Monet paintings now and the center piece is of an oat

field: Champ d’avoine, oil on canvas. Small red poppies dot a muted meadow, cast in a hazy shade of blue. I lean forward and suck in a breath because the gentle greens of the tree line remind me of your eyes. You would like to see it; you’d say it shows exactly what it needs to, nothing more and nothing less. And yet, it’s tinged with a subdued air of melancholy that makes me recall the feeling in my chest the first time I felt you slipping away from me.  

In wonder, I lower myself to the floor in front of it, cross-legged like we would have sat as

kids. I imagine myself enveloped in the painting, listening to the shiver of wind through the grass, the low rustle of the oat stems, their warm, yeastlike scent mingling with the sweet perfume of the poppies. A slant of rosy light bathes the strip of paintings and the wall blushes a faint sunset peach. The museum won’t be open for much longer.  

Maybe you have forgotten or maybe you don’t care anymore. Maybe it doesn’t matter

anyhow; this place is awash in the memories of our time together, in its tangles and knots and frayed ends. I let myself sit, savoring the aftertaste of our friendship, waiting for dusk to settle.  

Cut from Fall 2022

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