2 • EDWARD HOPPER
They were sitting at the counter in the diner beneath the Phillies Cigars billboard like they always did. The couple always dressed the same. The woman was wearing a bright red, short-sleeved dress that clung to her shoulders tightly like it was wet. The color of the dress clashed violently with the orange of her long hair. She wore too much make-up around her eyes, trying to hide her age. Her lipstick was another shade of red; too harsh for the dress and too soft for her hair. I often wondered how someone who obviously put so much effort in to her appearance could overlook such dissonant color choices. Although, in truth, she had no choice at all. Her eyes were half-closed, but full of an obvious disquiet. Her nose was pointed at the end and hung exactly in the middle of her slender face as if designed on paper with a pencil compass. She was skinny, but not pleasantly so. Her collarbones stuck out like steel beams in the skeleton of a skyscraper. A little extra weight would have been a welcome addition to her frame. She was pretending to examine something she held in her hand.
The man wore a perfectly tailored dark grey suit with a subtle hint of blue and a light-colored fedora that was shapely and worn. He was tall and slender and hunched over the counter, leaning his weight on his right elbow, which was resting on the countertop next to an empty coffee cup. He pinched a cigarette between his middle and index fingers, though no smoke rose from it. It looked as if he held it only for comfort. He, too, was hiding something underneath. His face was devoid of emotion. It was hauntingly neutral. His mouth was wide and cut straight across the bottom of his face with geometric precision. It was an achievement in linearity, which never deviated in either direction. He hovered directly between a smirk and a grimace. A model stoic.
They each rested a hand on the countertop and they almost touched, but the closeness was mechanical. It was rehearsed. Like so many other things in a relationship, their public rapport had been contrived for the sake of appearances. They were separated by the dark blue of the night that filtered in through the large window behind them. They sat there night after night. It was dark in the rest of the world. The sickly fluorescent light in the diner was their sunlight. Their only daytime was tinged with the smell of coffee and cigarettes, grease and pickles, cologne and milkshakes. I thought that it would be amazing to see them touch, just once. I thought how it would change the scene entirely if they were holding hands or brushing shoulders, but every time I saw them, they maintained the same practiced distance. The space between them was meticulously calculated to hint at the idea of a relationship without giving anything away.
The two other people in the diner included a short-order cook behind the counter and another customer who always had his back to me. The third customer consistently dressed in an almost identical bluish-grey suit and light fedora. It was the style of a generation that considered jeans clothing of the lower class. He was distracted by something he held in his hands and didn’t pay any attention to the couple on the other side of the counter. A cup of coffee sat to his right and an empty plate sat to his left on the countertop. He didn’t need the diner like the couple did. I imagined that when I left, he got up and left too, but he always returned in time for me to see him on the same stool with the same distraction in his hands. The couple never left. They couldn’t leave. The chef was wearing a blue shirt and dark necktie under his jacket and apron. A short, two-pointed chef hat covered his bird-yellow hair. The front of the hat hid an obviously receding hairline. He was at work behind the counter, but he was casting a glance toward the couple as if he saw what I saw. He never said anything to them. Rather, he went about his work with unnatural dedication. I wasn’t interested in the chef or the other customer, of course. It was the couple that I came to see every weekend.
I had read once that Hopper didn’t intend Nighthawks to be a statement about the loneliness and isolation of life in a modern city when he painted it in 1942, but he later admitted that he might have “unconsciously” included the message. It was hard to say if he really believed that or if he was merely confirming the insightful observations of an astute art critic to maintain the facade of a deep-thinking painter. The diner in Nighthawks was inspired by a real one in Greenwich Village, where he had once lived. Whether he was as brilliant as art professors and museum curators suggested or just a man who painted what he saw was irrelevant. When I looked at Nighthawks, I saw what I wanted to see and not what he painted. His painting was merely the medium through which my thoughts and feelings flowed. I came to the Art Institute of Chicago every weekend and followed the same path through its halls. I always spent most of my weekly visit in the American Art Gallery staring at Hopper’s iconic diner. Of all the art in the museum, this painting was arguably one of the least visually interesting pieces, but something about it drew me in, like the inviting eyes of a first kiss. When I examined it, my mind became unusually focused. Most of the time, I couldn’t control the direction or frequency of my train of thought. It rampaged down the tracks from station to station ignoring schedules and regulations. It picked up unwilling passengers and took them to unintended places. It felt like a train had been hijacked, but the government of my mind didn’t negotiate with terrorists and as a result, I had never regained my powers of concentration. But, when I looked at Nighthawks, my train seemed to slow down and allow a conductor access to the controls for a brief time. I was able to focus on the couple at the diner. They became like old friends that I visited regularly. I never said a word to them and they never spoke to me, but we shared a deep feeling of loss that only we were able to understand. They were alive when I was present. When the Art Institute was closed, I wondered if they left the painting and wandered the museum looking for me. I silently confided in them every weekend and I experienced a brief reprieve from the usual chaos in my head.
The usual crowd of families, art students, and senior citizens passed by with only a brief look at Nighthawks. The art students stayed the longest. They made sure to hover in front of the painting just long enough to give the impression that they understood something profound about the scene. Something that “normal” un-artistic people could never see. After fulfilling their mandatory analytical visit, they would soon move on out of boredom. The senior citizens, usually in couples, would stop and comment with quiet remember-when’s and now-a-days’. They, too, would soon move on. Kids rampaged through the bright halls, screaming and chasing each other. Their parents did the least possible amount of parenting, a cautionary word here and there accompanied by a roll of the eyes or a deep sigh. I noticed the chaos around me with a sort of quiet detachment. I was aware of it, but it didn’t become part of my world. In my world, the American Modern Art wing was completely deserted. The hall was dark except for a single soft spotlight that illuminated Nighthawks. The painting hung on a freestanding wall in the center of the long hall. The wall was painted a dull grey color so as not to distract the observer. The floor was a mosaic of wooden tiles of different grains and colors. The mosaic formed an illusory three-dimensional picture that seemed to rise from the floor in the distance. It was highly polished and reflected the light back on to the painting. Everything in the room was funneling the light back to the diner scene on the wall. The high ceiling was invisible in the low light. Looking up was like looking into complete nothingness. Paintings extended in to the darkness, perfectly spaced and aligned on both walls. Infrared censors stuck up from the floor in perfect little rows about six inches from each wall. They looked like the poles of an invisible electric fence used to steer the herd of museum patrons in the right direction. But, in my world, there was no herd. It was quiet. Nothing, but my thoughts, was audible. They bounced off the canvas and came back to me in different colors. And, I listened.
Today was no different. I watched them from a few steps back, knees slightly bent and hands thrust in to the pockets of my jeans. I always stood when I looked at Nighthawks. Something about sitting in front of it felt disrespectful. Not to Mr. Hopper or the museum. Rather, it felt like a slap in the face to the couple at the counter and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
I knew it was stupid, but I had come to think of the couple as my parents. My father left when I was born and I had never met him. Now, every weekend I came to see my parents in a painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. They were still together in the painting. Immortalized. My father would never leave. It sounded like something out of a psychotherapy textbook. I felt childish for thinking it and had never admitted it to anyone. It was far too embarrassing.
“The time is now 4:45 and the Art Institute of Chicago will be closing in 15 minutes. Thank you.”
The woman’s voice was cold and monotone as it bellowed from the museum intercom. The voice sounded like that of a black woman. I tried to picture her, but nothing came to mind.
“Inviting isn’t it?” The voice came from my left, but I had been too engrossed in my thoughts to notice that a woman had been standing next to me for…for…
Well, I didn’t know exactly how long she had been there, but the shock of hearing her voice snapped me out of my Nighthawks trance with such intensity that I suddenly became overly conscious of my body and was worried that I might fart. My pale face became flushed at the thought of it.
“You just want to walk in and take a seat at the counter right?” she said to me, never taking her eyes off of the painting.
“Yeah,” I managed in an adolescent-sounding voice.
“But I would never sit next to that guy,” she noted, pointing at the lone customer.
“Neither would I.” My voice was beginning to regain a bit of its normal timbre. “I would sit near the couple on the other side of the counter.”
“Me too,” she said enthusiastically. “Something about only being able to see the other guy’s back is creepy. It’s like there’s something on the other side that should never be seen by human eyes.”
“I’ve never thought about it that way. I just like the couple on the other side. They look like they’re hiding things from each other. Like they’re both leading secret lives, but when they’re in the diner, they’re just normal everyday people.” Something about this woman was disarming me. The old stone walls that contained my inhibitions were crumbling in her presence. Again, I became over-conscious of my body and worried that this new vulnerability would produce a socially inappropriate physical response. I clenched as tightly as I could to prevent public disaster.
“What do you think they eat at the diner?” she asked, ignoring my observations.
“Well, I think the man with his back toward us was eating the regular sub-par corner street diner fare, a soggy sandwich, hockey-puck sirloin, or something with ‘surprise’ in the name and a cup of not-so-fresh coffee. The couple on the other side of the counter never eats at the diner. That’s not why they sit there night after night. They complete an image that would otherwise be obscure. The diner needs them and they need the diner. And, they need each other. More than love or obligation, they genuinely need each other. The scene would be damaged if they ate there. And, the cups in front of them are always empty. The cigarette is never burning. Everything is meticulously designed to create an illusion. The details are all aesthetic. If they became functional, the image would fall apart.” I spoke without thinking.
“Are you talking about the painting or the people in it?”
“Um…I’m not sure,” I replied, somewhat embarrassed.
I could feel her eyes on me. I was afraid to look at her. If she was as beautiful as her voice led me to believe, I would never have a chance with her. On the contrary, if she was any less attractive than my expectations, I would be hopelessly disappointed.
「So if someone doesn’t measure up exactly to the standards of your imagination, you just wash your hands of them. But, if they do meet your ridiculous requirements, you give up. Selfish fool. If you were the last man on Earth, the Human race would be doomed.」
He spoke with his usual fervent tone and a splash of some ambiguous midwestern accent. He only spoke up when I was being honest with myself. I had come to think of him as my Super-ego, trying to keep my thoughts and actions within the boundaries of social acceptability. I had always feared that he was secretly plotting to take over my mind and replace me in my own body. He was a mastermind of deception and manipulation, a man who truly understood the inexhaustible power of guilt. He could level whole cities with his sense of moral superiority. I called him Iago, because I suspected him of great treachery. My Super-ego. My Super-Iago.
“Do you realize that when you spoke about the man with his back to us, you began with ‘I think,’ but when you spoke about the couple, your words were not the least bit hesitant?” She asked, interrupting my self-important Shakespeare joke.
I suddenly wondered how much time had passed while I was mentally scolding myself and making bad puns about historical literature figures. The two of us had just been standing here in silence for what felt like hours. What was she thinking?
“No, I didn’t,” I replied quickly, trying not to let even more silence pass between us.
“Why? What do you think they eat at the diner?”
“Well,” she hesitated for a moment as if she was caught in a maelstrom of thoughts. I wasn’t looking at her, but I could feel her eyes focus on the painting. Her concentration seemed to bounce off of the Edward Hopper masterpiece and meet with mine, strengthening it. “…you’re right about the couple. They don’t eat anything and the cups are definitely empty. But, I can’t see the other man’s face.”
“Yeah. I can’t see his face,” she reiterated nonchalantly as if what she said made perfect sense.
“Okay,” I conceded, trying to move the conversation past this obvious flaw in logic. “You said I was right about the couple. You agree?”
“It doesn’t matter if I agree. You’re right, and a fact’s a fact,” she said, looking at her watch briefly. “Hold that thought,” she added, gesturing for me to be quiet.
I realized I was looking at her now. How did this happen? She reached in to her back pocket and pulled out a grey cordless telephone receiver. She dialed a long sequence with absolute precision. That was the first thing I noticed about her. She had beautiful long fingers. They were the hands of a pianist. I imagined them floating gracefully over the keys during a Rachmaninov concerto. They moved in brief beautiful sweeps like hands at play over the curves of a lover’s body. She didn’t play the piano so much as conduct it. She directed it. Her fingers were so light and accurate; they looked as if they hardly touched the keyboard at all. Her playing was exquisite. Sixty-forty, feeling-technique. Perfect. For some reason, the piano in my imagination was dripping wet. When she violently hit the peak chord of a crescendo, water would spray this way and that from between the keys. I could hardly make excuses for my own brain, but I honestly had no explanation for the image of a faceless woman with beautiful hands playing a wet piano. Maybe it was something I had learned subliminally. After all, sex and water had been complementary concepts since the dawn of advertising.
My eyes followed the phone receiver up to her mouth. Her lips were fleshy and full and pursed slightly as she spoke. Her mouth seemed to share the same uncanny accuracy that her fingers exhibited. Not a single movement was wasted. I had never seen such efficient use of facial muscles. The puzzle pieces were falling in to place and forming an image. My mind was slowly putting her together. There was no need to rush.
“The time is now 4:50 and the Art Institute of Chicago will be closing in ten minutes. Thank you,” she said in to the receiver, pushing all emotion out her body in a single breath. She achieved a shade of monotone that I hadn’t thought possible. Her whole demeanor changed before my eyes as she made the announcement and then returned seamlessly as she slipped the cordless receiver back in to her pocket. Hers was the voice I had heard only five minutes earlier. The announcement was identical in every way except for the number of minutes mentioned. It didn’t seem like a repeated announcement as much as an echo of the first one. Her eyes turned back toward the Hopper painting when her hand was satisfied that her pocket had taken the weight of the cordless phone.
Her dark skin covered her frame like a new coat of wet paint. Her body was generously proportioned. She had that classic hourglass figure that 1940’s Hollywood starlets boasted on fold-out pinups in the gentlemen’s magazines of the era. Her eyes were mesmerizing. Looking in to them was like experiencing vertigo. A mere glance could send you spinning. It was a strange power to be sure. Her nose was small and turned up slightly. Her face was an imperfect circle; it was longer than it was wide and ended in a dainty chin. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun and fastened in place with an amber-colored clip. She was wearing a cream colored suit adorned with a patch on the lapel that bore the emblem of the Art Institute. The color of the suit against her dark complexion, conjured the image of milk and coffee. I was unbelievably attracted to her, which meant that I probably had no chance at all with her.
“Sorry. Where were we?” she asked, keeping her eyes on the painting.
“You were saying that I was right about the couple in the diner and I was about to ask you how you could possibly know something like that.”
“It’s easy. Just look at their faces.”
“Their faces? I don’t get it.”
I gave in and looked intently at the faces of the couple in Hopper’s painting. The more intensely I looked at them, the more they became strangers to me. Instead of their secrets, I saw only paint on canvas. Crudely contrived artifice that merely impersonated the truth. It hurt me to see them that way. They had become so precious and familiar to me and now they were being stripped, layer-by-layer. My eyes were burning through them, right down to the canvas beneath. There were no concealed feelings underneath their fragile exteriors. Just more paint. Why did she want me to stare at them this way? I felt like I was orphaning myself. I was becoming detached from them. I was losing the bond we shared. Their faces revealed nothing to me about their eating habits like she had suggested. On the contrary, analyzing them to uncover some part of them that I didn’t invent myself was dehumanizing them. I closed my eyes tightly and clenched my teeth.
“Are you okay?” she asked, her eyes now on me and not the painting.
“I can’t see anything. What am I supposed to see?”
She gracefully glided to my side and, with both hands, took hold of my face. She brought my eyes open to meet hers, facing each other at a dangerous proximity. She examined my face like a diamond fiend in a pawnshop. I was speechless. What could I have said in such a peculiar situation?
“For lunch, you ate a sandwich and an apple,” she spoke so suddenly that I had to recheck my ass to make sure all systems were still on high alert.
I responded with a simple, “Huh?”
“Turkey, Swiss, tomato, bean sprouts, and mayo on rye. Cut in halves. The apple was sliced into quarters. Red Delicious?”
“Um…yeah,” I replied, sounding like a child impressed by a magic trick.
“I was out of creamer.”
“Where did…I mean, how…was there…” I spoke in jagged fragments that floated around the room like the cartoon letters in a School House Rock episode.
I broke her two-handed hold on my face to examine the fronts of my shirt and pants. I suspected that I might have been wearing my lunch. Occasionally, I was a very sloppy eater. To my dismay, or maybe happily, I found no traces of my meal. My mind was wracked with curiosity, but my mouth had been disconnected from my thoughts and forming the appropriate question became impossible. All I could muster was genuine admiration.
“That’s amazing,” I managed.
“How did I do it?” she finished my question for me.
“I read your face. It’s as simple as that.”
“Like reading a bluff in a poker game?”
“Kind of. People often overlook the importance of food. People eat on the go, in their cars, on the train, while they work, too late, too fast. Did you know that among the 17th Century French aristocracy, the average meal took three hours?”
“Nope.” It was hopeless. I was crazy about her.
“It’s true. Food is not just fuel for our bodies. It can affect our moods, emotionally and chemically. A good meal can change the course of history.”
“Like the Last Supper?”
“Ew. No. Any religion that encourages ritual cannibalism should be erased from the annals of history. Nothing is creepier than Christianity. Besides, watered-down wine and unleavened bread is hardly a good meal.”
I laughed and my eyes sank back in their sockets. That warm feeling glided over my skin and left goose bumps in its path. I was suddenly over-aware of my tongue. It felt too heavy in my mouth.
“Yeah. Symbolically eating a Jewish ascetic ... they were probably just hungry again 30 minutes later,” I said in an overly desperate-sounding attempt at a joke.
“Exactly. If you’re going to eat a fictional religious icon, why not go big, like Buddha-big. Or you could do what archbishop George Neville did at York in 1465 and endanger several species of mammals with your 3-day enthronement feast.”
I laughed even though I didn’t really understand the joke. She was obviously smarter than I was. Usually, I would find that kind of situation intimidating, but she was so modest. Using her intelligence in the pursuit of humor was a very appealing quality. I was hooked.
“Before we get too deep in a conversation about the quality of historical meals, let’s…”
“Finish my explanation?” she asked, finishing my sentence for me again.
“Okay. So, food gives us energy and nutrients that our bodies use, right? But, what happens to flavor?” She looked at me as she asked the question, but I honestly couldn’t tell if it was rhetorical or not.
“Exactly. Nobody thinks about it. Flavor is just the combination of various ingredients, but it’s also an abstract concept. Our brains interpret the sensory data collected by the taste buds, but what is it really? Electrical signals. That’s all. The flavor itself is a self-contrived projection, which is why everyone has a different sense of taste. The ingredients feed our bodies and the flavor feeds our minds. When you consume an abstract concept, the resulting feelings imprint on your face. Thus, it is possible to read those feelings and interpret a person’s last meal.”
“Fucking amazing,” I said without realizing I’d sworn.
「Don’t fall for this one. She isn’t right. Another act. Another useless talent. And, you’re lapping it up like a big dumb dog. What is it about the impossible that you find so appealing? If you want a challenge, why don’t you just run a marathon like a normal masochist?」
Shut up, I told him.
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