The Rules of Getting To Know Someone

We are sitting so close I can barely see her. We can’t say anything because the park is having a show and the actors are right in front of us. We whisper. This close, faces have a natural gravity. When she looks away from the actors, I say, “You missed it.” We are having a whole conversation in whispers, about schools and kids and studying Shakespeare in high school. There is so much I want to say, but I can’t, we have to be quiet. But then we start talking again, because we are here. We came all this way so we could meet.

Over text she’d said she was cold, so I brought her my sweatshirt, a navy blue just blue enough to not be black — a birthday present from my mom. My ex-girlfriend used to steal my sweatshirts, even though they were way too big. As we stand up to leave and move into the reality of the date, I hand it to her, and she accidentally puts it on backward. I’m charmed by this, though I have an idle thought that if she raises it, the hood will obscure whoever she is. I don’t ask how many siblings she has. She doesn’t ask what I do for a living. It is like we already know each other, we are simply continuing.

2.

It is a few hours before I meet her and I am in the Noguchi Museum. It is an empty day — I am wandering around Queens with myself. The museum is divided into areas. Area 1 is mostly vertical sculptures that look particularly pared down, almost like people — people who’ve lost something. I walk around and around, there’s no rush, I have nowhere to be. I am really trying to look at the sculptures. I don’t dare touch them. Instead, I rest my hand on the wall, which is surprisingly cold.

The thing is, people can’t resist touching the stones, though you’re not supposed to. Near me a young couple is waiting for the museum attendant to leave the room, to resume her rounds. When she does, they each put their hands on the stone. First he, then she. Quickly, as though it would scorch them if they held it for too long. They giggle and run to another room to compare notes, like it would be discourteous to talk about the sculptures in their presence. I love them for this. They haven’t known each other very long, I decide.

I am texting her by now — I am telling her about the Noguchi Museum to tell her something about me. I tell her how people touch the stones, though they’re not supposed to. This wins her over. Usually she likes talking to someone longer, to screen them, vet them, but she likes what I said about the Noguchi Museum. She is willing to break her rule. So much so, she decides that yes we should meet, this same day, even. My phrase stands in for me, everything else omitted. The long days, the nothingness. My whole life is omitted except the Noguchi Museum.

I love Noguchi, the intensity of his quotations. It’s fun pretending I’m a correspondent from an obscure foreign country, observing the way of life in the museum, thinking about this artist and the things he once thought. They are in every room on laminated display cards.

“I attack the stone with violence. Is it to tame it or to awaken myself?”

I wonder about him. About what happens to the rest of the stone.

I’ve already said I’d like to meet her; I don’t see the point in so many phases of vetting. I don’t think people are their words. People and their words are different things — the important thing is to meet. At first we text slowly, a day here, a day there, very slow. Today, a weekday, it accelerates. It escalates.

The museum is so silent it feels like it is just Noguchi and I.

3.

The kids come. Big groups of kids, loud and wild. We are all in Area 3. A teacher is telling her young students to use their museum voices. She is telling them that because of me, because I am in the room too. But I am only in the room because I like hearing what the students have to say about the sculptures. I am reporting on the kids, via text, since she likes kids and so do I — we both work with them. The kids are less subtle than the adults. There is a black mound the kids don’t understand, but they’re curious. They kick it, nudge it, jump over it, test it. There is nothing the attendant can do but loudly sigh.

There is a sculpture that looks like a bench, that I mistook for a bench.

Even Noguchi says, “A seat which is a sculpture or a sculpture which may be sat on.”

The museum staff asks of us “Please do not sit,” on one of their signs. I am certain they have good reasons for this, the wear and tear on the stone. Noguchi is not around to make another one, since he has been dead for nearly thirty years. The kids though, they don’t even think about whether it is a bench. It looks like a bench, so they sit. The attendant is not always in the room, is not then. In Area 2, the teacher has instructed her students to draw some of the sculptures. The works here are very different, smaller and more horizontal and not so obviously made of stone.

“That one looks like a bone,” the teacher says.

“That is a bone,” say the kids.

“Keep looking until there are no more details,” the teacher says.

I am still there, sketching but really listening. Taken out of context, her statement makes me wonder about seeing as an act of removal. Maybe I just forget she is only talking about sketching. When there are no more details, when you’ve given them all up, they aren’t yours anymore. Your memory is no longer your own.

“We are a landscape of all we have seen,” Noguchi says.

4.

We are walking to the bookshop, the only one in the neighborhood. Side by side in the space of the sidewalk I can see her better. She’s not exactly who she was up close. Sometimes on dating websites, apps, what happens is I’ll get attached to a particular picture within the gallery. I decide that this one, the one I like best, is the reality, is what they truly look like. Like the others are aberrations. This is who they really are. But of course this is a lie, an illusion. They are all of them.

In the bookstore, we browse. For some reason I feel more interested in the browsing than in our conversation. She tells me about her books and I tell her about mine, the ones we’ve read. The overlap is surprisingly small. Not that mine are better, but our tastes seem so different.

I ask the attendant if they have a particular book. They do but only one. Less than a minute later, a harried woman, very old, comes in. “I’m looking for a book for my book group,” she says. She mentions the book I have picked, the book of which there is only one.

She can have it.

I know I am only buying it because I am in a bookstore.

5.

We go to a bar with a lot of open space and huge wooden tables. We only have an hour left, she tells me, since she has plans to meet a friend for drinks later. We sit side by side, because across feels too far away. We toast. I haven’t eaten all day, but in a certain way, I am full from the museum, from all this activity. A few sips of beer and the malaise of the last few weeks feels like someone else’s life.

I turn toward her and ask how she got in her life from A to B. She has a sketchbook with her, she takes it out, starts drawing and explaining. She asks what’s made me happiest in the last month. She asks about something I regret not doing. I start drawing too. I’ve turned the page and we are both drawing diagrams of our lives. In spite of what people say, lives are long. She texts her friend, breaks her rule, cancels.

6.

It gets later and the evening is gone — it is night. Darker, colder. We need to decide what to do. She says she’s concerned about fastforwarding, about going too fast. It’s burned her before, she says. The faux intimacy that is sometimes borne out of comfort, the glaze of newness. I know the feeling too. It sounds to me like we’re talking about sex without talking about sex. I shrug.

“I’m very go with the flow,” she says.

We walk back to my apartment, which isn’t a short walk. I don’t know what it is, but outside of defined spaces, things are too laid bare. Maybe there is less to disguise our lack of chemistry. I ask her a question, something about movies, and for the whole walk she can’t answer it because she is thinking of something else.

Later, we are kissing and then she stops because she needs to know why I want to kiss her.

“I like how it feels. I like you.”

She continues with the interrogations, like the whole thing is a word problem. It seems like there is a history here I don’t know. All of a sudden, the way she sounds reminds me of a relative I don’t like. I’m irritated that she’s unwilling to suggest any songs to listen to. I have to pick them all.

7.

There is another man in the Noguchi Museum when I am there, who arrives around the same time. He takes a picture of every single sculpture; a completist. He only sees the sculptures through the lens, never once looks up, like the camera is a part of his face.

As a person starts to disappear from your life, time will whittle them down. Noguchi says about one of the sculptures called Torso that sometimes the fragment is better than the whole. At our table, when we are side by side, not across, when we are talking about kissing, about the feeling after a first kiss, she says that’s when all the rules change, of how you can move and be and touch. This is my favorite moment of her.

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Debut book NO ONE YOU KNOW forthcoming May 2021 from Outpost19 | Founding Editor, True.Ink | Twitter: @jdschwartzman | Website: jdschwartzman.com

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