The Wickburg Art Museum was a restored textile mill that spanned across two buildings, with a skyway bridge that connected them. Though it wasn’t as large as its Boston or Worcester counterparts, it still held its own and served as a centerpiece of the community that housed it.
Mitch stood outside by his car, finishing off a cigarette while he stared at the outdoor installation: a giant red stick figure that appeared to be holding up the bridge. The mental image of Toby pulling into this parking lot every day and seeing this sculpture, probably relating to it as if he himself propped up the art scene of North Central Massachusetts, made Mitch snicker.
He wondered if Toby was truly satisfied here, or if he compromised all of his dreams and settled. Years ago, he talked about working for the MET or the National Gallery of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago. It was one of the reasons that he never fully committed to their relationship when they were together, because when it came to serious conversations about their future, he got cagey and said that it was only a matter of time before he was anywhere else. To younger Mitch it never made any sense, he would have moved as well. As someone approaching 30, he understood it much better now.
Toby was an asshole. The end.
Halfway done with the butt, Mitch snubbed out the rest and deposited it into a nearby receptacle. He pat himself down one last time to shake off Estrella’s loose fur on his dark slacks, then meandered over to the front entryway. Someone at the reception desk asked for his name, which he gave and explained that he was Toby’s +1 as they pored over their list. He was handed a sticker and instructed to put it somewhere visible like his lapel, which seemed like a funny thing to suggest to literally anyone else present considering that they were all in much higher tax brackets and their clothing probably didn’t come from a thrift shop. The receptionist gave him directions to get to the gallery: up the stairwell to the right, and into the room diagonal from the landing. He thanked her and moved on, attaching the sticker to his blazer and shoving the backing paper into his pocket.
Even if he wasn’t given directions, the chatter was loud enough that he could navigate towards it. At the top of the stairs was a standing floor sign with ‘Danse Macbre’ printed on it and an arrow pointing at the room. From where Mitch stood, he could see Toby standing tall in a crowd of middle aged women that gave him their full attention while he went on and on about the “vision of the artist” or something in that vein.
God, cougars loved him. At some point, Mitch should be a real bro and introduce Toby to Louis so that he could play wingman for a night.
Not wanting to interrupt Toby going full ham- which realistically was the man’s job- Mitch elected to examine the artwork instead. True to the name, it was a collection of paintings and prints that were morbid in nature, containing dark backgrounds and jaunty skeletons in various scenarios. It reminded Mitch of some of Goya’s work, and he knew that Jodie would love this if she didn’t hold such a grudge against Toby.
“Hey there,” Toby’s voice came from behind Mitch, and fingers ghosted up his spine, making him shiver. “Why didn’t you come over?”
“I’m quite familiar with your lectures,” Mitch smirked. “Besides, couldn’t risk taking your attention away from the patrons.”
“You’re a patron as well.”
“I’m your date,” Mitch clarified, unsure of how the word felt on his tongue. “Anyway, I’m starving. You said there’d be food.”
“Oh my god, you’re so needy. The table’s this way, come with me.” Toby led him by the arm to a nearby hall where an enormous spread awaited on a table, ranging from appetizers to finger sandwiches to desserts. Mitch grabbed a plate and considered what to load up on, while Toby explained that everything was catered from some local place that sourced local ingredients from local farms.
“Sounds local,” Mitch quipped before biting into a pinwheel sandwich. After swallowing, he asked, “Do they have any vegan stuff?”
Toby’s face scrunched. “Probably? I didn’t check. Why, are you vegan now?”
Mitch’s mouth hung open, realization dawning about what he just asked. Why did Avi always, always have to be on his mind? “Sometimes, I guess,” was the fastest response that he could get out. He followed up with, “I’ve been toying with it lately.”
“Well, there’s vegetarian options here, if you aren’t too scrupulous,” offered Toby, which Mitch picked through to save face.
“So is the artist present?” asked Mitch, unsure how to be appropriate with Toby while the two of them were at his job rather than a bar or his apartment.
“Actually, they are.” Toby craned his neck so that he could see into the gallery room. “Do you want to meet them?”
“Not really, no,” Mitch was honest, and Toby grinned.
“You’re a menace,” he spoke with fondness, then reached over and grazed Mitch’s shoulder. “I’ve gotta get back and schmooze for a bit longer, then I’m gonna give a quick introduction to the artist so that they can do an overview and a Q & A session. Can you please stick around?”
“I already looked at the paintings, though.”
“Look at them again,” Toby said before departing. “Absorb them.”
“Absorb them,” Mitch mockingly parroted, then shoved a cracker into his mouth.
Regardless of how badly he wanted to say he fulfilled the request and leave, he stayed. He even managed to make small talk with a few of the other attendees when they approached, letting them share their own theories on what the artwork represented. All of the takeaways varied, but they seemed so much more vast and grand than what was physically on the canvas, expanding deep into the psyche of the beholder.
He stared at one of the skeletons that stared back at him, trying to grasp at what other people were getting out of this, and wondered if this is what he sounded like when he talked about music. Or wrestling, for that matter. But humility was needed when addressing the latter, since most people had preconceived notions. They either looked down upon wrestling and thought it was stupid, or they considered it to be insane questioned his mental state for engaging with it. So Mitch rarely bothered to bring it up at all.
“Good evening, everyone!” Toby started, and the acoustics of the gallery allowed his voice to project loud enough that he didn’t need a microphone. He thanked everyone in attendance, and behind him was a projector screen came to life. While he gave an introduction about the collection, a slide lit up with the Danse Macabre logo. He went at length to discuss his own involvement in curating it, radiating bullshit and definitely giving himself far too much credit. But his charisma overshadowed those grievances, and Mitch found himself envious of this because he would kill for such promo cutting skills.
The artist, Sacha de Vries, came forward after what felt like an hour, and they were so demure that Mitch felt bad for them. They gave a brief history on the origins of the danse macabre while projecting slides of medieval artwork, then explained how they personally chose to interpret it in a modern day and age which was inspired by their former career as a mortician. Mitch’s curiosity piqued as he learned about the Netherlands’ open approach to and the acceptance of death, which Sacha went into great detail about.
After a 15 minute Q & A took place, Toby once again thanked everyone. It wasn’t quite a sendoff, but it appeared as though his duty was done for the evening. He chatted with Sacha for a few minutes, then returned to Mitch. “I never asked this, but have you ever been to the museum before?”
“No,” Mitch shook his head.
“C’mon, lemme give you a tour.”
“Is there time for that?”
“It’s a small place,” Toby insisted, his hand finding its way to Mitch’s lower back while he ushered him out of the room. They passed through the skyway bridge and crossed over into the other building, where oil paintings of still life pieces and glass cases full of antique ceramics adorned the purple walls. Toby mentioned that they once belonged to the museum’s largest benefactor, and she willed her entire estate to them when she passed away.
The excursion came to a halt in front of an old mill window, which reached from floor to ceiling and was so drafty that Mitch shivered as he stood near it. Moonlight poured in, casting crisscross shadows between the boxes of light on the floor. They were alone, which Mitch suspected was Toby’s intent all along, then confirmed when he leaned in and kissed Mitch on the mouth without provocation.
Mitch surrendered and let it happen, aware of how hopeless this all was when he agreed to Toby’s request to come here in the first place. He kissed back, too defeated to be angry or indignant, too pent up to consider any other option. Toby broke away after a minute, putting his forehead against Mitch’s and he breathlessly pleaded, “Come back to my place tonight? I miss you so much.”
“OK,” Mitch wearily responded. His head felt like a revolver’s empty cylinder that someone spun wildly out of control and made him dizzy. “OK,” he repeated, quieter this time, as if a bullet was loaded in preparation for a game of Russian roulette.