The Life You Save Isn’t Your Own
y her forty-third birthday, Seema Venkatramanan had almost stopped minding that she had messed up her life. By then her wrong decisions had all bloomed like seeds. They’d flowered into vines that bound her tight, without the titillation of some fifteenth-century naked satyr-nymph, S & M scenario.
First, in college, making the mistake of thinking that she didn’t love him enough, and that they would never be alike enough, Seema had broken up with her tall and handsome white, blue-eyed boyfriend, who promptly found Indian Girlfriend the 2.0 Version – smarter and calmer, with prettier tits and less traditional parents. This decision led to seven years that Seema was alone, followed by a quasi-arranged marriage with an alcoholic engineer who’d been in love with his ex, too, for all the years they’d tried to make it work. On top of that, Anand was sterile. Weeks after their third wedding anniversary full of forced smiles, Seema learned from a cable that he’d divorced her and moved to start over in the UK. By then she was already thirty-two and diagnosed as having problems too. Miscarriage number five from the sperm bank by thirty-five only confirmed what she’d already suspected. There wouldn’t be kids.
And then there was her job in insurance. Four years of college, graduating as a nurse and turning out to hate the hospital, but then making massive wrong decision number two. Instead of quitting to be an art historian like she’d always wanted, Seema had sold out and gone into managed health care nursing mid-level leadership, boring meetings, endlessly pedestrian white binders full of pages no one would ever read, and miniscule numbers on screens. Her company job paid well, but more than that, soothed her fear, assured her that she wasn’t a loser. She was successful at sustainable unhappiness, stable enough so that she came to work without fail, but soaked so thoroughly in misery that each night, she couldn’t remember what she’d done that day, and melted like a rum-cake in her whipped-cotton-sheeted, cool white bed.
The sight of numbers, staccato black strokes, soothed but sometimes suffocated her. To the dollar, Seema knew what was in her bank account – that so much went to an IRA, so much to her parents’ expenses, and just a little bit for that one trip, the Uffizi. She’d been to Florence, to that museum, on a vacation by herself, only weeks before the big fire-bombing in 1993.
When Seema had seen the news about the fire, in her house alone after a shower, she’d wished for a second that she’d managed to curate a completely different life. As if it existed somewhere, the colors brighter than reality, like a painting she had yet to see. As if there’d been a moment where she could have been in it.
The rumors were that disgruntled Mafiosi bombed the street adjacent to the museum. A famous tower was destroyed, never replaced; brutalized too was the room that worshipped Niobe, the mother who’d lost all her children for bragging she was more fertile than the gods. For one moment of exuberant maternal pride, Niobe had to pay with centuries of weeping, turned by the gods into a rock gushing water.
That May in 1993, a two-month old Italian baby, child of the Uffizi caretakers, was also killed in the bombing.
Seema wondered, if she had been working for the museum, whether she could have prevented the whole thing. Imagined herself late at night leading a special guided tour for some fat-fingered gangster in exquisite Armani. Standing close enough to the David to see her reflection in his beautiful torso, that gleaming stretch that left gay men and straight women weak, the lean abdomen into pubic triangle. Being like a protective mother to the reddish-blond Venus with breasts of pink champagne on the half-shell, every day noticing the timelessness of that beautiful face, the wide spaced eyes, the long, almost boyish torso, a counterpoint to the doe-eyed expression, the duplication of the same beauty in numerous other paintings by that master.
Botticelli. Wasn’t it the name of a guessing game as well? A word game based on biography and one letter. Know me by my life, my deeds, each famous person said, speaking through each raptly-listening player of the game. It was too painful to think, to acknowledge, that Seema would never be known. That Seema’s life didn’t intrigue anyone enough to lead them to guessing. That her name would never rise to the level of symbol.
She was an only child herself, without children. Pointless to think of playing Botticelli anyway, back then, in 1993, Seema thought, because it was a game played at parties, a social game. By then, Seema didn’t go out, except for work.
t the end of her twelfth straight year at the insurance company, in May 2000, a week before she turned forty-three, Seema comfortably made her bonus by persuading many doctors not to spend money caring for patients. There was an announcement at a staff meeting that Seema was number one for hitting the target. The day she confirmed that the money was present in her account, Seema bought her first major artwork, just so she would have something to say when people at work asked her how she planned to celebrate. The work, a few hundred, was a print of a famous Caravaggio made by a promising student. Boy with a Basket of Fruit. The student succeeded, probably beyond his own expectations, in making a sketch that fully captured the leaves’ irregularities, the boy’s fanciful curls. Seema stood looking at the painting in her living-room, fighting her pride in this young man, reminding herself that this single decision, because it was one in a set of decisions, would doubtless prove to be as crappy as all of her other ones – she just couldn’t recognize how, not yet.
The Medici’s had left entire museums to descendants. She’d seen other shrewd, skilled, yet somehow discontent executives, devote their lives to building similarly vast collections. Rare wine, books, and, creepy when done by the childless, dolls in elaborate costumes. Permanent objects of devotion who never made demands like children would. There was, however, only so much satisfaction to be gained from each acquisition. Seema knew that fully, going in. To make the pleasure last, she considered cooking the numbers that she entered on the spreadsheet she’d been keeping, rating each purchase alongside the objective data like its sticker price and estimated resale value. When quantifying how much she enjoyed each on a spreadsheet, she might buff the numbers slightly, so that when she looked at the whole thing, and saw numbers like “ninety-nine percent”, she would experience a flush of happiness, a pinkness of the cheeks like one of Tintoretto’s demure girls.
In other areas of life, she’d often try to fool herself this way. Look at a photo of an interracial couple, in some trendy ad, and say out loud, if she were alone, “He’s probably going to break her heart.” Pass by a flyer for a university lecture, starring some historian or art critic and think: “But how much, hourly, could some professor be earning anyway?” She avoided completely any images of children. It sometimes worked, unless the couple looked too much like they were really in love or unless the art historian looked like he had a great sense of humor. Then the pain stayed, and all she could rely on was her art. The Janson textbook she kept in her office, the pair of leopards staring at each other in the section on Titian, top folds of the pink robe thrown back against the wind behind Bacchus’ head. Her eyes moved there; she pictured the leopards whispering their growls. She supped the blue of a woman’s dress; a visual feast, the eye going from blue to the pink, rich texture to texture, wave of the ocean to a rose. Contentment she couldn’t measure.
What got in the way of them being as soothing as she’d like was how each image in the textbook was so distant and condensed. She was never close enough to see the texture of the paint. Never had a feeling of being inside the picture, of letting it contain and soothe her, even when she bought high-quality prints and hung them on her walls.
Still, the act of collecting, at least for a time, satisfied Seema. She’d scout out gallery shows in small Northeastern seaside towns, drive up, eat clam chowder – which for some reason, out of all dishes, she never minded eating alone. The thick salty whiteness comforted in its sameness and its solidity, and made her feel more one of the locals than eating a salad would have done. Despite the rich food, Seema remained thin, and always came to galleries wearing her corporate uniform– black blazer and heels, cultured pearls dangling from her ears. Out of sheer habit she still wore make-up every day, and since she was miserly when it came to personal expenses, she drew from her stores of deep red lipstick and purple eye-shadow, the same paint that her college boyfriend had enjoyed seeing on her dark mocha skin. People either mistook her for being a well-organized wife from one of the banking enclaves, like Marblehead, Back Bay, maybe the Vineyard, or wondered if she were some man’s Oriental mistress. Only the gallery owners who became friendly with her, who sold her the meticulous reproductions, learned the truth by asking about her husband, her employer, any men? Any at all? expected to weigh in on the sale. In awkward moments, the owners learned that Seema had no one.
Soon enough, she tired of answering their friendly, or maybe prurient, questions. That was how she came to use a whole week of vacation time to go to San Francisco, boarding the ferry to a Sausalito gallery, where no one would know her history.
The gallery was rococo, not austere. Its doorway framed in golden curving arches, the Palace took up much of the Main Street, where previously there had been small sandwich shops and smaller galleries. Its oval windows overlooked the dock where the Sausalito ferry would sit waiting, its captain reliably patient with how slowly rich shoppers would walk when laden with their wares. The captain, always a white and sunburnt man, with few naturally dark faces to be seen anywhere on the island, was less patient with little kids than single adults, Seema noticed. Cleaning ladies, janitors’ children, fruit sellers in Sausalito brought their kids home on the boat, buying them treats. But the captain wouldn’t tolerate ice cream being dribbled on the clean wood of the boat, or the thrilling escapades that several children attempted, throwing open the door to the boat’s engine and trying to jam themselves inside, or running toward the boat railing as if they’d vault themselves over.
The open sun and dream-white spaces of the boat made a physical prelude to the gallery with its vaulting walls that could have had ocean outside. Seema knocked. The mustachioed proprietor looked startled to see her, but let her in after a pause. She must look different to him, she imagined, from how she sounded on the phone. Perfectly white. Inside, the walls were also clean and white, with the gallery somehow containing preserved rubble from reclaimed antique palaces, its white floors gleaming, its hallway inlaid with tapestries like those that once lined the hallways of the Uffizi.
Seema found it comforting that Uffizi meant “offices.” Her office at the company was where Seema forced herself to go, hating the weight of her heels walking on carpet, the strained smiles of people forced to live as closely as families, yet never able to trust as family should. Seema’s parents had become kind enough but impaired from dementia now, living mostly in comfort on savings and Seema’s own contributions. Or maybe it just seemed like they were kind, now that they could only smile vaguely.
Soon her parents would be out of money except for what they counted on from her. Walking in a dark corridor behind the fat mustachioed man, who turned and smiled periodically, encouragingly, saying, “We keep originals from Europe that are for sale in a vault here, just for security,” Seema justified her plan to spend fifteen-thousand, more than she had spent so far on any single visit, by assuring herself that she’d be making a sure investment. Better than buying the work of some modern hotshot. Life sculptures, meaning the artist sat on a stage pretending to be inanimate. Mobiles made from toilet paper. Decapitated heads made from real, presumably donated, frozen blood. None of these art. Whereas the workin front of her now, in the last room that they’d come to, the one the man opened, with grace, hung by itself on a clean wall, well-lit, security walking just outside – this was art without being intrusively artful. She’d come to the island for this reproduction, again by a talented student from Tintoretto’s studio, of an early sketch of what became the master’s self-portrait, somehow capturing, as if in advance, the bottomless black stare of the artist, simple and pitiless.
Seema appreciated, too, the way the gallery owner had the sense to let her stand before the painting, to possess it mentally, even before he took possession of her check. This man, the bearded artist on the wall, particularly satisfied her, she couldn’t say why. As if he wouldn’t bother trying to fool her. As if he could commiserate with how she’d chosen the wrong life.
hen the blast came, Seema felt peaceful and was already on her way out. There was a boom and shattering, the combination loud enough to dull her ears. She and a guard dropped to the ground, holding their knees, eyes shut tightly. After sustained quiet, they made their way to the front room of the gallery, the guard cautioning Seema to stay back behind him, though it wasn’t as if he carried a gun.
Once in the open air her full hearing returned. It helped too that the front room was colder than it had been only a few minutes before. One of the big windows had been smashed, that was all. It made the light come in and dance with fury, varied colors a sudden spectacle, on all the shards of broken glass, on walls, even on the lone face of the young and slender woman in black who worked for the gallery owner, and whose face, Seema was glad to see, was free of blood and unwounded. But the fat man in the grey suit and the mustache, though he was well too, had blood on his hands and was standing near the doorway, shouting down. The boy was cowering and brown at the entrance, his faded white T-shirt streaked with blood. Without thinking, Seema ran forward, realizing quickly, with a surprising surge of joy, that he was still alive. She pushed aside the gallery owner and instructed him to go call 911.
Seema held the boy, who could have been no more than ten, precisely in the way that she’d been taught. He breathed, he moved. Then one by one she asked him all the questions she still carried in her heart, though she had not been in a hospital for years. Palpated, checked, confirmed, counted. Saw he was fine, though his face, arms and hands were bloodied by the glass, with most of the cuts at least appearing to be superficial lac’s, one or two better with sutures. Learned how lucky everyone had been, that the firecracker he and his friend were playing with had gone off suddenly when he’d thrown it, but only broken the window and taken no life, damaged no sculptures or paintings. Severed no fingers. “But it sounded exactly like a bomb,” the owner shouted. “Why would you bring fireworks here? Why on earth would anyone,” repeating the phrase, over and over, over the phone with the police, until Seema asked him to please lower his voice and bring some gauze and bandages.
“What is your name?” the boy asked. His lashes were fluttering black brushstrokes. His friend had disappeared long before the police and the ambulance came. He seemed alone, refused to answer when they’d asked about parents. By then Seema had a bedsheet around him, the kind used to cover paintings that were in a state of repair.
There was confusion everywhere, police sirens blaring, people talking loudly into walkie-talkies, the street cordoned off so all the glass could be cleaned off the road. Seema helped the boy into the ambulance. Settled into the space next to him, nodding at the paramedics that she was riding along, without consciously deciding to. Finally, she whispered her name in the boy’s ear. She didn’t mind, not even a little, that he would likely forget it.