We got to the museum just a few minutes after the doors opened. Passed through a few galleries with no real destination, just one in a handful of scattered days she and I spent together wandering the wings before heading into our dead-end jobs.
Our strategy was to start at the top and work our way down. The sixth floor exhibit drew some shrugs, smirks, and raised eyebrows. Not much else. I suggested we head towards the surefire masterpieces of the fifth floor. A few paces from the top of the escalator, Elena’s face tensed and her legs locked up. Her eyes fixed on a woman riding down and she quickly backed away to turn towards me.
“I know her. I knew her.”
“Friends with my ex. She pretended not to see me. I don’t want to talk to her.”
At that point I didn’t know about the divorce, though I’d heard her speak of the ex. Marriage still felt remote as my twenties drew to a close, in spite of the calendar’s insistence. I assumed she was speaking of an ex-boyfriend, and maybe she would have never corrected my assumption if I hadn’t learned through the payroll paperwork a few weeks later that Sullivan was no longer her last name. Once the filing finally went through. She’d led a whole life and started over. She was still starting over.
Elena looked over the railing and watched the ghost woman from her past take a right off the escalator into the gallery where we were originally headed. She asked if it would be okay to steer clear, so we rode down an extra two flights just to be sure. The escalator spit us out in front of a screening room, beckoning us with the protection and discretion of its shadows.
The film had already started. We took our seats and as our eyes adjusted to the dark, we peered up at a sequence of clocks and watches compiled from other movies. A handful of the scenes were familiar. In some shots time was the centerpiece, and in others just an incidental occurrence in the corner of the screen
After I felt we’d done our due diligence in this particular darkened theater, I looked over at Elena to ask if she was ready to move on. Her eyes were fixed on the screen. The sight of her profile in half-silhouette struck me with an unexpected swelling in my chest. As if possessed, I moved to put my arm around her and grew dizzy with the urge to kiss her. Seeing my friend through a new and unfamiliar lens.
Without noticing any of this, as if in psychic response, she turned away and leaned over to grab the chapstick from her bag. The spell was broken. I dismissed the moment as a testimony to the power of the cinema and shook it off. Or maybe I just needed a coffee to dispel my melodramatic morning tendencies.
Turning back to the screen, I allowed myself to slip under the hypnosis of the clock faces and the single thread weaving through all of the fictitious lives that lay before us. All were products of their time but somehow immune to it. Were Elena and I immune? Were we products of our era? She leaned over and whispered.
“Do you know what time it is?”
I shook my head and reached for my phone to check, then hesitated, looked back at the screen, and then once more at Elena. I glanced at the clock on my phone and then pointed at the screen with my revelation. The clocks in the film were on a 24-hour cycle, rubbing the time in our faces. In the half-hour we’d been watching, neither of us had noticed. We stumbled out of the theater, laughing at our obliviousness to the filmmaker's seamless execution of this cinematic feat. There was a lot of laughter between us, even then.
The truth is always right there staring you in the goddamn face. And back in the light I remembered what I had almost forgotten in the dark. She was a little too tall, a bit awkward in her movements. She had a boyfriend. We worked together. She wasn’t my type.
We stopped into the museum cafe to sip overpriced coffees and talk about the film we misunderstood, the good paintings we’d missed, our lives at work, the hours in between. She told me about her dogs and showed me pictures. Threw in a few vaguely disparaging remarks about her boyfriend Paul. They had moved in together. I told her about a younger woman I'd met who might've meant something to me but ultimately didn't. The pauses in our conversation felt slightly longer than usual, and I wondered if the occasional silences revealed a lack of depth in our friendship. Or maybe that was just the inevitable limit of all platonic friendships between men and women. But it didn’t really bother me, and it didn’t seem to bother her. We could tell there was always more to be said.
The rain started just before we left, and we stayed close together under the one umbrella. Our arms were intertwined to make things easier and I let it go as the innocent gesture that it was and wasn't. She didn’t release me until we were in the station. The train arrived right away and we took it uptown.
Elena stood next to me while Beth cut my hair, relaying our confusion in the theater and then another vignette about her ex-husband’s elderly aunt and uncle. The uncle yelling through the apartment that it was time to go, the aunt replying, “What is time!” This unintentional declaration of existential crisis had become a catch phrase in Elena’s world, and now in my world. In the beginnings of our world.
Much later that night, long after we’d gone our separate ways, she wrote to me that I looked sexy with my new haircut. She followed up quickly with an apology for being inappropriate before I could respond. I thought the haircut made me look mean and Beth confirmed my suspicion, but I took Elena’s compliment and told her not to worry about it.
It would take me too long to figure out that I was the one who should be worried.