The light outside was fading by the time Katya made it to the museum; she had been meaning to stop by all day but the time went by faster in the winter, when everything was pale and grey. She felt she had less energy, even though her obligations were fewer. A trip to the Metropolitan Museum on Fifty-third was a breath of warm air, filling her up and sustaining her for weeks afterwards, until the cold reached her bones again. It was a physical and emotional cold. She was lonely.
She was wrapped in a thick, black shawl, over one of her winter mourning dresses. The costume of a widow suited her well, and she almost enjoyed how performative it all was, though she could never say so. She secretly loved the way her hair shone brighter against solid midnight fabric, and how other women were constantly allocating her sympathetic glances. Society dictated that she should wear black for at least three or four months, or until she found a new husband, and society did not dictate this rule for fashion purposes alone. But somehow she couldn’t bring herself to mourn.
Inside the museum was a labyrinth of dark tiles and railings, gilded bannisters and high windows. It was a maze she gladly lost herself in, though she hadn’t been lost inside for a long time. The pieces were switched out infrequently, and after fifteen or so years she knew the building itself like a melody, even with all its twists and turns.
The Wolfe collection was the highlight of the experience for many, tourists and residents of New York City alike agreed on its universal merits. She had always preferred the less popular parts of the museum however; even when people spoke in hushed and reverent tones their presence was bothersome to her. She came for solitude, to stare into the eyes of painted ladies and wonder if they felt the pains she felt alone. Sometimes she held dialogues with them, as if they were sympathetic friends as opposed to oil and canvas on a blank wall.
Now, after pausing to take her bearings, stare up at the ceiling and politely nod to a younger couple passing out the exit behind her, Katya made her way through the galleries toward the far end of the museum. Usually she let herself wander and take things in with no real destination but this afternoon she had a real idea of what she wanted to see. The painting that compelled her to speak most of all was Bouguereau’s Evening Mood and this was where she was headed now. The curators of the museum had tucked this hidden gem in the far galleries, where people could avoid it if they were offended, which she wasn’t by any means. The painting was of a nude woman, hovering in the waves, draped in diaphanous black fabric underneath a crescent moon. Her eyes were closed and cast downwards, as if in sadness or posterity but Katya liked to imagine her in mid-motion, throwing her head to the side as she flung out her arms in total freedom. It was difficult to imagine what that would feel like.
She passed a few more couples, and unaccompanied men on her trek, but mainly the galleries were emptying out. Though the museum wouldn’t shutter its doors for a few more hours people were heading in for tea and to prepare for dinners, and post-dinner engagements. Since her husband died Katya had felt a far lesser pull towards her social circles, and had gradually abandoned her obligations towards them. She would only suffer for her actions later, if her allowance ran out, but that dim possibility was years away, and disregarding those who had scrutinized her appearance and behavior for years prior felt too good to give up. Still, she was caged by the city she had lived most of her life, and she had never felt the ocean’s water roll over her feet.
As she entered the familiar room she was confronted with two women at the far end, standing in front of another Bouguereau and whispering excitedly. They were young, in relatively bright colors in contradiction to the seasons and the serious setting. Katya didn’t look at them beyond those basics, and diverted her attention. She tried her best to disregard their presence as she moved more slowly in, settling on a heavy antique bench facing Evening Mood. She arranged her skirts first, spreading them out around her on the bench and folding her small black shoes up within the lengths of her heavy dress. Self-consciously, as if preparing for a big outing her fingers danced lightly over her hair, held up in an elaborate series of braids in a style still uncommon in the city, but which she was familiar with from home.
Finally Katya felt she was pretty enough to engage with the art and slowly looked up at the canvas, with its singular inhabitant. The woman was pretty too, in a deliberately simple way, and her body curved softly, skin painted indistinguishably from real flesh, as if the artist’s brushes were made of the most delicate materials, maybe feathers. She smirked before she could stop herself, at the idea of the artist who she pictured as an old man, laboring intensively over his painting of a younger woman with a feather. It wasn’t enough for her to appreciate the art and feel comforted by it, and have it resonate, she needed to find something to laugh about, otherwise there wasn’t enough lightness in her life to sustain her. There was always something nice and new in the best art, always something different she could feel.
However, this afternoon was not optimal. As the smirk faded from her face she heard the two young women over in the corner now giggling loudly, cutting into her thoughts. She couldn’t help but shoot them a glance, with as much animus as she could contort her face into showing. This was useless since their tightly laced backs were towards her as they bent their heads together, pointing at whatever painting had struck their fancy. They were a matched pair, in blue and pink, one dark-headed, one light. Even though their talkativeness was bothersome she couldn’t help but feel newer in their company, their youth and exuberance buoyed her up. She was seven or eight years their senior at most but her experiences created what she felt as a chasmic divide between their lives.
As she glanced casually in their direction, glare no longer on her face, the two women separated. The blonde in a lacy, ruffly pink gown with bows embellished on every seam began to step away from the other in blue, waving slowly in reluctance, projecting her voice as the distance between the two of them lengthened.
“I promised David we would see each other before dinner tonight, I’ve got to get home, but I’ll see you at the De Lancey’s later?”
“Of course Trix!” the other woman shot back cattily, in a low voice, waving the tips of her fingers in her friend’s direction. Katya only saw her briefly in profile before she turned again but the quick glance somehow wasn’t enough. Her lips were a smear, blood red in her pale, heart-shaped face. Her features were unusually dark, almost heavy, in a lingering dangerous way. The overall picture was alluring, and drastically different from the light radiance projected by the faces in the paintings on the walls. Evening Mood’s muse somehow seemed faint in comparison, and Katya found her train of thought fragmenting even as she returned her gaze to the artwork.
Inexplicably she craved to be closer to the other woman, allow her own solitude to break apart around her. She chastised herself in embarrassment even as she recognized her wish, it made no sense and would appear strange besides.
She stared hard at the horizon of the painting and willed herself to melt into the canvas, another mysterious figure in black with no thoughts. Her still material thoughts kept flowing, and without being able to stop herself, she stole another look over her shoulder.
The woman in blue was gliding across the tiled floor, slowly and smoothly, taking her time. She didn’t appear to have the intention of leaving, rather she was drinking in the paint on the canvases like wine. Her movements somehow seemed deliberate, and the heels just visible beneath the hem of her dress clicked out a ponderous rhythm as she moved. It was then Katya realized the aesthetic beauty of her ensemble; her deep blue dress, simple fabric with lace adorning the wide hips, was the same shade as her feminine three-cornered hat with marten trim, her silk gloves, and her heeled boots. She was deliciously monochrome, a dark confection.
It was difficult to imagine what the particular color of her outfit would taste like, certainly it was new, and therefore stimulating but somehow soothing to the eyes. The woman tilted her head ever so slightly and Katya spun around self-consciously. Now it was as if the painting in front of her didn’t even exist, and she was still staring at the other woman, whose footsteps trailed across the marble tantalizingly. She was dragging the tips of her surely expensive shoes, a sound both exciting and disturbing to hear. Katya wanted to stop her, and stand up to join her in some bizarre ballet.
There was nothing for her to really do but perch on her bench, strangely tense, listening to the woman’s steps echo in the empty gallery. The hum of other museum-goers was faint, white noise in the background, and there were no other footsteps to be detected. The windows behind Katya shone weak yellow light onto the floor and illuminated motes in the air that she watched dance for lack of more substantial occupation. The dark-haired woman was drawing closer, Katya had heard her walk more quickly past the entrance to the room, and now she was making her way down the wall Katya herself sat facing. A confrontation seemed imminent and all of a sudden she had no clue in the slightest how to act. She could feel her cheeks heating up beneath white powder and she only hoped her makeup was enough to hide her emotion. She told herself repeatedly to calm down, that whatever she feared was unreasonable. But the steps continued, threatening and inviting.
Out of the corner of her eye, Katya saw the blue woman move slowly up to the end of the bench and then stop. She stretched her neck up to take in Evening Mood, whose canvas stretched uncomfortably above eye level. The skin of her throat looked delicate, and winter-sky white, unblemished. Suddenly, she turned, and her eyes met Katya’s. They were soft, dark and mellow, but with an inexplicable shine like the reflection of a star. Her brows, lashes and lids were harsh, exaggerated black, contrasting with the inexplicable warmth in her irises.
“Do you mind if I sit next to you?” she asked carefully, dipping her head demurely in contrast to the sharpness of her appearance.
“No, please,” said Katya reflexively and perhaps too quickly, the words falling clumsily from her mouth before she could think.
The woman smiled with her red lips closed, Mona Lisa, and gracefully sank onto the bench, lifting up her skirts so she wouldn't crush the exaggerated hips of her exquisite dress. It was very much in the French style of years prior, and Katya held back the too-familiar question of who had made it, though she wanted desperately to strike up a conversation.
She looked at the painting again but by this point even the appearance of focus was useless, she also felt that she might seem foolish for sitting and staring at one painting for such a long time. She wondered if her presence was disruptive to the other woman, perhaps that was why she had made such a production of walking the length of the room.
The stranger’s breath came in dainty intervals, and she radiated a cooling energy that somehow warmed Katya’s stomach. Like wine, cold but molten gold when swallowed. Listening to her breath and feeling her physical presence like the woman was imprinted on her right side, Katya couldn’t help herself.
“Your dress is lovely,” she said quietly, willing herself to stop and willing the other to respond, give her any indication of interest. “I haven’t seen that style in a while.”
“Thank you,” the woman gushed, almost before Katya had finished speaking, and she saw her eyes light up. “Neither have I, but good taste never goes out of style, and to be frank I find trends restrictive. I had this made from old designs I found in a shop I enjoy.” Her speech was animated, her enthusiasm and sincerity were evident, as was the fact that she was rarely complimented on her fashion, which she seemed to take great pride in. She stuck out a small hand suddenly. “I’m Violet.”
Taken aback at the improper introduction and prompted handshake Katya stared at Violet for a moment before taking her hand in her own, and shaking it gently. Violet’s skin was impossibly soft. Also hot, as if underneath her classy composure she was shaken as well.
“Yekaterina Petrovna,” she saw Violet’s eyes widen at her practiced pronunciation and quickly added, “but you can just call me Katya.”
There was yet another look in Violet’s expressive eyes as she nodded slowly, then smirked in a troublesome manner. Katya couldn’t place what it meant, or how it made her feel.
“Your accent is different,” Violet said reservedly, still with that teasing smile. “I like it. Are you from Russia?”
“Yes, how did you—”
“I’ve been to Europe many times, I suppose I have something of a talent for accents.”
This too Violet was proud of, and it almost seemed as if she was showing off, displaying her culture and knowledge for Katya’s benefit. It was impressive.
A brief silence fell and Katya looked away but Violet didn’t, staring intently at her cheek. She reached up and pulled on a strand of black hair, curling it around her finger. Her hair, which looked long from the sheer volume gathered loosely at the nape of her neck, was silky and fine. She had left a section out of her bun, and it hung charmingly over her uncovered shoulder. Every detail of her appearance and manner was being burned into Katya’s mind like embers on a fire.
“What do you like so much about this one?” Violet asked finally, gesturing fluidly to the canvas they sat facing. As she spoke, her eyes narrowed slightly in focus; it was endearing to think she probably didn’t even notice herself doing it. “You haven’t so much as glanced at anything else in the gallery.”
Startled, hoping her usually cold features didn’t betray the emotion, Katya stuttered, “haven’t I? I suppose not. I come here often so I do know most of the paintings. I guess this one is my favorite, I think because she seems so free, and I envy her. But at the same time I want to be with her, and it’s nice to just think that she can have this, even if I never could.”
“Ohhh,” Violet whispered, and instead of looking at the painting again, only looked at Katya more intently. “I don’t feel free either. I only have choices when it comes to these dresses.” She said it in a dismissive manner, even though it was clear the subject meant a lot to her. Katya felt her heart leave her body for a moment.
“And the hats,” she cut in lightly.
Violet’s lips parted in her first real smile. It was dazzling.
“Yes! Hats too, you noticed.”
“There is a lot to notice, yes,” said Katya boldly, wondering even as she spoke where her words were coming from. Some deep void inside of her which had previously consumed her waking hours and dreams with unspecific loneliness, but which now gave off warmth. Violet was original, vibrant and still sharp, paying real attention to the words they spoke. Her eyes returned again and again to Katya’s lips, almost distractingly.
“This painting is special, you’re right,” she said, blinking slowly and ravishingly. “She’s very sensual, I like that. Too many artists are afraid to paint women this way. I mean she’s perfect, no one could look like that, but that’s such a part of the draw.”
As Violet spoke, she accentuated certain phrases deliberately, still batting her dark lashes. It sent shivers down Katya’s spine, she found herself fighting the desire to lean in, lean closer to Violet as she spoke. The moment felt liquid, her own heartbeat sounded to her ears like Violet’s as if somehow they were synchronized.
“It’s hard for me to focus on what you say when you look at me like that,” said Katya slowly, head swimming, thoughts drowning in Violet’s dark eyes. Her honesty slid through all her filters.
“Like what?” cried Violet lightly, pure enjoyment and charm, voice ringing like a bell through the thick quiet. Her eyes betrayed her lack of innocence, and the pleasure she took in it.
“Oh please,” murmured Katya, stretching her back to Violet’s height then lowering her eyes and looking up at Violet through her own lashes, in a pale mimicry of the heart-stopping behavior,
She heard Violet take a quick sudden breath, “Noo,” she said weakly.
“Yes, what are you trying to do to me?” Katya whispered; she had intended it to be a cry of her genuine confusion but it came out all soft and muted, like Violet’s words.
Violet’s expression darkened, and she leaned in ever so slightly, inclining herself closer in an intimate way. “I’m not sure,” she said sincerely, the sincerity and chaos Katya felt reflected in her own eyes. She looked down at her skirts, then slid closer on the bench.
“Could I?” she asked, inscrutably, before reaching out a hand like a pale moth, towards Katya’s cheek. Katya barely nodded, and Violet’s fingertips gently brushed her cheekbone, with a tenderness she had never felt before.
She reached out to Violet’s other hand and wrapped it slowly in one of her own. She was trembling with anxiety, a feeling in the pit of her stomach like fear and anticipation and some strange joy she’d never felt before. Like Violet’s moth hands were inside her, fluttering around.
With impossible delicacy, Violet traced the line of Katya’s cheekbone down her face, then slowly slid a finger over her lips, barely touching. Despite the lightness of her touch, Katya felt Violet reverberating in her bones.
“Oh,” she breathed, and then Violet leaned in to close the chasm between them, and pressed their lips together.
Everything around her faded into nothingness in that instant, there was only the rustle of her hands reaching out, around Violet’s slim waist, drawing her gently closer and closer. Violet’s silky lips against hers, the way she smelled impossibly of the flower she was named for, dark and heavy and vibrant. She wanted to kiss her forever, even if the marble walls surrounding them crumbled and fell, and dull rainbows of paint flecks speckled everything.
She bit Violet’s lip gently, instinctively, and Violet gasped deliciously into her mouth. Her red lipstick was being transferred to Katya’s lips as well, a physical imprint of the way Katya felt Violet melting into her.
She reached out a hand, softly, to Violet’s neck, and her fingers wrapped around that singular strand of black hair that had escaped an ornate hair clip. She folded it between her fingers and in her lap, Violet squeezed their hands together tighter.
Suddenly, she drew back and opened her heavy eyes, staring into the depth of Katya’s soul. Her gaze was softer, without the edge that characterized her general appearance. She looked the way Katya felt, flustered, skin pink, lips reddened and as if her edges were less defined. She was impossibly beautiful and Katya felt as if her heart was breaking. How could she have lived her life alone, with a man, with anyone else, with paintings and cats, when there was a woman like this, alone in the same ways she felt alone.
“You’re radiant,” she said, and meant it, the lightness she saw in Violet, and felt so close to her was overwhelming.
Violet smiled, shyly now, and the color of her cheeks darkened. “You’re heavenly,” she said, and Katya didn’t have to think about the implication of her words, whether it was right or wrong, she reached for Violet’s waist again and pressed their lips together.