Every couple of months – there’s no precise pattern here – a work of art will talk to me. I don’t mean the dialogue you get when you stand in front of a painting for 45 minutes, interrogating it with your eyes or otherwise letting it wash over you, a prisoner of composition, as you let yourself get caught up in the brushstroke, the colors and lines and shapes, the treatment of space. I mean, really talk to you. Like a conversation, voice to voice, statement and response. Like real life.
The first time it happened was at the Getty. I was blasting through the galleries, looking for the person I was going to meet. Turns out she had left. “I don’t care if they closed the 405 and you had to come up on Sepulveda,” she texted, “I waited 20 minutes in front of the Ensor. Your loss.” No emoticons were necessary to express that irritation, hers, mine.
My loss indeed.
After my scamper through the lobby, up the stairs, through the galleries (“Hey, no running here!”) to the Ensor, a summery bouquet of flowers crumbling as I ran, I retraced my steps and ended up back where I started from, in front of “Christ’s Entry into Brussels.”
“Tough one.” Panting more out of frustration than from my recent sprint, I consoled myself by looking at the military musicians in the middle space, the ones that look like something out of The Nutcacker. “Huh?” I said, not in response to the comment but to the fact that I heard a voice come out of the painting.
“I said, tough one. I was watching her when she walked up. Leggy, well-dressed, eager, if you know what I mean. Her glasses are fake, though. Did you know that her glasses are fake?”
Yes, I knew that her glasses were fake.
I scanned through the faces of the clowns and the various citoyens. I didn’t see any lips moving. “I’m here, in the middle, damn it. Front, center, looking up.” I saw the religious guy in the miter hat – he was belly up, like he had just dived into a mosh pit - and moved closer so that my nose almost lit on his belly. “Sir, please step away from the painting. “Oh, okay, sorry,” I said to the guard who had appeared at the gallery entrance. “How’s this?” I said, a good arm’s length away. “Better, much better.” He left and I resumed my position, up close.
“These little shits,” said the mitered mosh pit diver, “how are you supposed to see what’s going on if you can’t get up close? If I wasn’t stuck in this silly procession I’d consign their souls to eternal hell.”
“You’re talking to me?”
“Whom else would I be talking to? There’s no one else in here, is there?” I turned and looked. No one. I did notice the four security cameras mounted in the upper corners. I’d love to know what the guards monitoring them would make of this.
“No, I guess not. Anyway, so, let me put a fine point on this. You’re in a painting and you’re talking to me. Why?”
“Why? That’s easy. I wanted to tell you that while she – what’s her name, by the way?”
“Okay, well, the comely Deirdre might have been put off by you not showing up…”
“A tanker truck. Took out all northbound lanes and half the southbound ones. Shut the whole damn 405 down. Sig Alert. Yay.”
“Whatever. She’s not cross, she's disappointed. She likes you. And I can assure you that she’d have flipped if she saw that you had brought her flowers.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because she was talking to her girlfriend apparently right before you were supposed to show up. She said you were dreamy and romantic and a gentleman, old school like. That you weren’t pushy but that you weren’t meek either about asking her out. You must have made quite the first impression. Where did you meet?”
A lot of the details elude me.
“A fountain pen shop in South Coast Plaza. I asked the clerk if she could order me some rose-scented ink. She responded, ‘Sir, this is Mont Blanc’ and walked off. As I turned away, vowing I would only use my Pelikan pens from now on, I bumped into a woman who had been standing behind me. “What a bitch,” she said. This woman, brunette, leggy indeed, was wearing a white cashmere sweater, pearls, and a charcoal gray pencil skirt. And perfume. She wore perfume! There was an immediate disconnect between her and her words just as, I suppose, there was one between that clerk and the high end retail place in which she worked.
“I’ll say. The nerve. Excuse me.” I counted to five as I walked to the door. At five, I turned – she was standing where I left her, smiling, – and said, “You know, there’s a ducky little bar across the street, Scott’s, would you like to have a drink.”
“Love to,” she said, "thought you’d never ask.”
“So that’s how you met her? What a great first encounter story. And how did the drink go?”
“Drinks, actually. We were there for pretty near three hours, just talking about life and fountain pens. And art. We ended up drinking gin cocktails. Her idea. “18th century recipe,” she explained to the bartender as she gave him the recipe. As I recall, they were quite good. Only later did I remember that I told him they should, from that moment on, be rechristened The Deirdre. I asked her if she’d like to see my favorite painting…”
“Let me guess. This one.”
“Yeah. She said she’d love to. We got outside. Waiting for me outside was a cab (her treat, bless her, though I have no clue how she set that up) and, of course, a limo for her. The chauffeur looked like Captain Crunch. As he’s closing the door, she blows me a kiss. “See you at the Getty!”
The next morning I woke up asking myself, “Did that just happen?” Sure enough, written on a calling card (apparently they still exist), was her phone number and the recipe for The Deirdre.
“Anyway, I did all the usual due diligence…”
“That’s what we do in the 21st century. Easy peasy. It’s good to know what you’re getting into. Nothing. Never before had I come across someone who was ungoogleable. Not necessarily a red flag; perhaps a pink one. This was just a museum date. Separate cars, if things go sideways, though I didn’t’ think they would. I can still smell her perfume.”
“And then you showed up late. Well, as I said, not a problem, I think she’s rather keen on you. Give her a call. She’d be glad to hear from you.”
“For some reason I’m okay with talking to someone in a painting. A man of the cloth, no less, heralding the arrival of the Savior. But why should I be taking dating advice from an oil-based life form?”
“For the simple reason, son, that I’ve been around since 1889, so I’ve seen a thing or two. Besides that, in a prior life, I used to live in a Fragonard painting. I’m the swain courting the girl in the swing.”
“Jean-Honore Fragonard, 'The Swing,' 1767, the Wallace Collection, next to the Adams-designed place that used to house the Courtauld Institute?”
“Yes, that one. And so on and so forth. I was all over the place in Rome and Greece, but those works no longer exist. So, yes, I’ve been around for centuries and, let me tell you, I know when a woman is interested in a man. And she is, for all the right reasons. So, if I tell you that you should call this Deirdre, then you should bloody well call her. Do you question my pedigree?”
“Do you doubt my experience in matters of the heart? Really now, do you?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Good, so call her. Tell her that you’re really sorry what happened but hell, it’s Los Angeles. Tell her that you know this perfect tete-a-tete place in Venice you want to take her to. Tell you you’ve been thinking of her, that you can still smell her perfume. Oh, and get another bouquet of flowers. Those are ghastly.”