Inspired by this prompt from hourlywritingprompts.
What One Becomes
What does one do with a degree in art history, anyway? Perseus asked.
Grace sat in the sunny courtyard garden that lay at the center of the museum, grading exams. She’d lost the thread of their conversation while wrestling with a long-winded but woefully incomplete answer–she was trying to decide how much partial credit it deserved. All sorts of things, she answered.
After three weeks of regular visits, Grace wasn’t insulted by his faintly wry tone. His open admission of loneliness and curiosity had gotten her to come back; since then, he’d been more guarded. Perhaps he was embarrassed by how much he had revealed, or perhaps he hated how much he depended on her to sate his need for human contact. He spoke just as readily, but Grace always had the sense he was holding back, choosing his words with more care.
Some of my students are from other departments, she went on. They’re getting their degrees in other fields and only taking one of my classes to fulfill an elective requirement, or because they’re simply interested in the subject. One of my most enthusiastic students is actually a physics major. But he loves art, too.
Anyone can love art.
Truth. Grace marked the answer half credit and set the page on her growing pile, weighted down by her purse to keep them from scattering in the errant breeze. But the ones who are getting their degrees in art history? Many of them will go on to graduate school for more advanced degrees. Some will find work in museums or galleries. Some will go into art conservation or restoration, some into appraisal, some into artist representation and management. Some will become writers–after all, the textbooks I use have to come from somewhere! And some will end up teaching, like me.
The breeze kicked up again, colder than before. Grace glanced at the sky, where a bank of clouds was rolling in from the west. Rain was coming.
Interesting that you put yourself last, Grace. Do you think your job isn’t important? Do you wish you’d done something else?
The sharp turn into personal territory startled Grace so much that she nearly dropped the exams she was stuffing into her bag. Or maybe it was just the way he said her name. He didn’t, not often anyway. She was the only one he could talk to, which meant there was never a question who he was addressing.
No, she answered once she’d gotten her paper situation under control. I love teaching. Maybe not the grading exams part, but sharing what I love with my students, giving them the knowledge to appreciate something outside their previous experience, watching them explore the world in a new way. That’s why sometimes the non-majors are my favorites–it’s like I’m showing them an entirely new way to see.
Grace headed inside. She was starting to run out of excuses to be in the museum doing mundane things she could be doing at home or in her office. At least being outside in the courtyard seemed reasonable, since she didn’t have a backyard of her own. None of the staff would ever say anything, but she’d caught some odd looks now and again. Being a Saturday-morning fixture was one thing–showing up more days than not was different. She was becoming an oddity. But nothing. I’m happy with the job I have. I’d like to travel more, but that’s such a small thing, really.
I might be irritated that you were lying to me, if I couldn’t tell you were lying to yourself as well. Perseus sounded oddly stern, and Grace squashed the urge to veer into his exhibit and square off with his statue.
Odd that she didn’t think of them as the same, anymore.
Instead she headed into the bathroom to assess herself in the mirror. The wind had been at her hair, pulling stray curls loose from her twisted updo. She took the whole mess down and finger-combed it.
Still here, she answered. Running off without saying goodbye was especially rude when your conversation partner couldn’t follow you. She hadn’t done it again, since that first day. It’s silly, you don’t want to hear about it.
I want to hear about everything. You can tell me.
I’ve never told anyone, though.
Perseus chuckled. Haven’t we become close enough to share a few secrets? Besides, who am I going to tell?
Grace twined her fingers in her hair, sectioning it for braiding. I wanted to be an artist, not study what others have created. But I’m terrible at every discipline I’ve tried.
Her eyes stung with the sudden press of tears at the sympathy laced through his voice. I know practice makes perfect, and that anyone can improve at anything with enough of it…but I don’t have the vision. I see beautiful things and want to create them, but all my attempts…they were just no good.
Are you still trying?
I have a sketchbook. I pick it up every so often, fill in a few pages, then ignore it for months.
Bring it in next time you come to visit. Draw something for me.
Grace watched her jaw drop in the mirror, her unshed tears forgotten. What?
The idea was sweet and strangely terrifying at the same time. It had been ages since her last art class, which was the last time anyone had seen her work. She’d never shown anyone her sketchbook. You don’t want to hear the next part of Harry Potter?
He laughed. I do, but it can wait. Please, Grace?
She’d never thought to read him the whole series, only the first book, but it couldn’t wait long. The traveling exhibits rotated every three months, and half that had gone by already. All right, I will. But you can’t laugh.
I won’t. There was a long pause. Can a pinky swear work if we can’t actually touch? Because I can’t cross my heart, either.
Grace laughed aloud, the sound bouncing off the mirror and back through the stalls. She tied off the end of the braid and gathered her things. I’ll pretend we did. I just can’t believe you know about pinky swears.
Oh, I’ve seen my fair share. School girls never whisper their secrets quietly enough.
Closing her eyes, for a moment Grace saw her younger self sitting on top of the jungle gym in elementary school. She and her best friend Jake were always together at recess, sitting somewhere isolated from their classmates, talking. And they’d endured plenty of teasing for it, because girls aren’t friends with boys at that age.
But in her mind, now, it wasn’t Jake, it was Perseus. Or at least, what she thought he might look like–dark curling hair, olive skin, strong features and strong hands. She couldn’t picture him as a child, though, and so she wasn’t anymore either, and they were sitting together on top of a jungle gym talking about life, and he absently took her hand.
I have to go, she told him, opening her eyes and moving away from the mirror. Time for dinner.
Of course, he replied. Will I see you tomorrow?
As she headed towards the museum entrance, she had to slow her hurried pace to have enough time to respond. No, I have office hours, then a department meeting. I won’t be free until after the museum’s closed, if past meetings are anything to go by. I’ll try to come by the day after, I only have two classes on Thursdays.
Until then, Grace.
Good night, Perseus. She pushed the door open and stepped out into the rain.