By Mark William Butler
It was a Saturday afternoon; the day she said goodbye to the latest. His name was James. It was their second time together; they met on a dating app. Their first time together was coffee and conversation, two weeks before, at a Starbucks near Columbus Circle. As they sat down, a song from her imagination had played in her head: Let’s See If We Can Stand Each Other. She didn’t write music; a random melody just popped into her brain, sort of girl group, sort of punk. From now on it would be her first date theme song. She figured to hear it a lot.
So they drank coffee and talked. It was okay. He was kind of funny. Not joke telling kind of funny; more like random comments about how messed up the world was kind of funny. Observations. Nothing too deep; nothing too dumb. It wasn’t annoying. He was also kind of good looking. He had crazy hair, tousled and teased. He kept running his hands through it. She liked his hair, almost as much as he seemed to. Or maybe he was just nervous. His body was wearing black jeans, cowboy boots and a leather jacket. That made him more like a Jimmy than a James. She had no preference. Her outfit was the usual: exactly the opposite of what her first instinct told her to wear, except for the beret of course. There was always a beret.
For their second date he suggested a movie, but she had a better idea: The Met. He seemed a little surprised, and reluctant. An art museum? But she had been wanting to go back there for a long time. Her last visit did not end well. That was on a date with someone else, the last date, as it turned out, and now she wanted to start over, to somehow make it a happy place again. But why now? Why today, at the beginning with a new guy? Maybe it was a bad idea, but it was too late now, the wheels were in motion, and they were now on their way to grab a bite before they hit the museum. And she knew just where she wanted to take him: the Lexington Candy Shop, the ancient little corner luncheonette at East 83rd. It was one of her favorite places.
When they got there he was surprised again. You want to eat here? In this hole in the wall? And not only that, but he couldn’t believe there was actually a line waiting to get into “this beat-up old retro diner,” as he put it. She felt the need to set him straight: Retro is cheesy. Retro is new places that try to copy places like this. This is an original. It’s ninety-five years old. She loved old New York places. Apparently he didn’t. Just what did he want? All she wanted was a smile and an egg cream.
They stood there silently for a few minutes, on the line, and she thought of that someone else again, the one on that last date, and how he loved old New York places, and egg creams, just like her. She wondered where he might be.
Then it started to rain, and he became restless. He sighed and pulled out his cell phone. As she watched him tapping away, she suddenly had an idea: they should take a walk in Central Park. There was a little section of the park near the museum, just south of The Reservoir, which was full of pine trees, most of them packed together in a circle; the circle itself was a path, and she remembered walking on the path, around those pine trees, and smelling that wonderful smell. She remembered lunch on a picnic table just outside the circle, and even swinging on the swings that were in the playground nearby, with him, that someone else, laughing like little kids as they swung higher and higher.
But James was not the guy on that swing. What about lunch? She assured him that a food cart would be just fine. He paused, obviously not warming up to the idea of a soggy hot dog in the rain. You really want to take a walk in the park in this weather?
Yes, she did—it was only a light drizzle—but the whole thing was starting to fall apart. The park idea was out, and it was obvious that he didn’t want to wait in line for an egg cream. He suggested they go straight to The Met and get something to eat there, or afterward. She didn’t argue. He pulled out an umbrella, opened it, and held it over their heads as they walked toward the museum, and she suddenly felt resentful, feeling like she was somehow trapped with him under that umbrella, forced to be dry, and unhappy, against her will.
They made it into The Met and walked around the exhibits, each in their own worlds, barely talking. She was miserable and he was already somewhere else. Then it hit her—as she suddenly realized the real reason she was there.
She was there to see Vincent.
Of course! Because that’s how it all began with that someone else from long ago, before the egg creams and the pine trees and the swings and the rain. It had started here when they were both looking at Vincent Van Gogh. That’s how they met. And so after a few minutes, as James drifted into the Arms and Armor section, she made her move, slipping into Medieval Art and then finding her way to a stairwell and up to the second floor to 19th and Early 20th Century European Paintings and Sculpture. And there he was—Vincent—one of the many Vincents who had been painted by Vincent—wearing a straw hat and looking her straight in the eye.
When she first saw Vincent, she did some research and was fascinated by the fact that he had painted himself thirty-six times, and she had wondered why, before quickly realizing—why not? Everybody does it now, only with cameras. She was taking selfies all the time, but for what reason? What was she trying to see? What was Vincent trying to see? She read somewhere that his self-portraits were “the study of himself and his own anguish.” That struck a nerve—she took a lot of “sad selfies,” as she called them. She also read that he never really found true love, that his passion was often unrequited, and that his life was filled with setbacks, rejections, and heartache. Check, check, and check.
So what to do next? There was only one thing to do. She pulled out her phone, walked over to the painting, positioned herself next to it, took a deep breath, and took a selfie of the two of them. Her date with James was over. Today, she was Vincent’s girl.
* * *
Mark William Butler lives in New York City, also writes plays and musicals, many which have been produced and selected for festivals. His short story, “Waiting for another Train,” appeared in Bright Flash in February 2022. Another short piece, “Cool and Clean and Crisp,” was selected for Best American Erotica 1994, an anthology edited by Susie Bright.