by ELIZABETH BARTON
21 by Didriks | Flickr
Leila feigned interest in the nearest sculpture as she moved behind it, glancing quickly over each shoulder to make sure there was no one in back of her—all clear. With the artwork as cover, she wriggled her hips, reached underneath the skirt of her sky-blue charmeuse gown, and tugged on the legs of her shapewear shorts. They had ridden up into a torturously uncomfortable position. That’d teach her to buy knockoff Spanx.
She sighed, relieved of her discomfort. With that off her mind, she regarded the sculpture in front of her. Was sculpture even the right word? Installation? Heck, she should just call it what it was: A pile of avocados.
It’s not that Leila didn’t enjoy contemporary art. She just preferred her art to be more…accessible. But this? Leila circled the pedestal beneath the heap of green-black produce, searching for its label--Seeking Salutations. This kind of stuff she did not get. It seemed pretentious and purposefully abstruse. Worse, it was a waste of perfectly good avocados! Plus, knowing how quickly they went from rock hard to complete mush, she wouldn’t be surprised if Avocado Swapper constituted a full-time position at the museum.
No matter. Tonight was really about raising money for the Sickle Cell Alliance. The venue was bait to lure in donors. This evening’s gala provided an exclusive after-hours preview of a much-touted exhibit that wouldn’t open to the public for another week, along with the chance to meet some of the artists—although exactly which ones was a well-guarded secret. Leila had been heavily involved in planning the event, and not even she knew. But she’d never heard of most of the contributing artists anyway. The important thing was that turnout was great, and the Alliance was on track to meet its fundraising goal. For that, she’d gladly smile and nod as attendees discussed the Deep Meaning of stacked avocados or the Pivotal Nuances between two completely white five-by-five canvasses. Leila found them indistinguishable, but she was willing to fake rapt attention for anyone whose formalwear had deep pockets.
A tuxedoed server extended a tray toward Leila. “Thank you,” she said and took one of the flutes filled with effervescent straw-colored liquid. Once the server had moved away, her lips curled into a sad smile as she lifted the glass and silently toasted Aaron. He’d been gone almost two years now.
A lot of her friends told her it was time—past time even—to get on with her life. And by that, they meant finding someone new. What people didn’t seem to realize is that she had gotten on with her life. Her work with the Alliance was a way to honor Aaron’s memory, but it was so much more than that. It gave her a sense of purpose and fulfillment like she’d never had before. She hadn’t found someone new, but she’d found something new, and she was happy, for the most part. Sure, she got lonely sometimes, and if someone new happened to come along, she was open to that. She just couldn’t see herself chasing after romance, though. She had better ways to spend her time and energy.
She sipped her champagne and noticed a nearby group of patrons gathered in a semicircle around something. Curious, she sauntered over to see what they were looking at.
“It’s certainly eye-catching,” said a woman Leila could only think to describe as a middle-aged goth. Her iridescent blue-black corseted gown wasn’t something Leila ever would have worn, but she had to give the woman props—she was totally pulling it off. “But I don’t know,” the woman continued, “it’s so violent!”
Leila shifted her gaze from the woman to the artwork that had attracted the group’s attention. A single green olive sat on a small white plate. A red pimento drooped, partially extruded, from one end, and a clear cocktail pick that pierced the fruit’s flesh stuck out at an oblique angle.
Leila sipped her drink again as she stifled a laugh. A strikingly handsome man sidled up beside her to join the semicircle. His close-fitting charcoal-grey suit hugged a Men’s Health–worthy physique. He gave Leila the faintest of smiles and a nod of greeting. Leila returned the nod and felt her face get hot while a fluttering sensation arose in her chest.
“Violence is the point!” said another man who Leila had already sized up as an art student with a trust fund. “The olive represents an eye—the constant surveillance we’re under as we’re tracked, both online and in the real world. The pick signifies rebellion—skewering those who perpetrate these invasions of privacy.”
Several members of the group began to nod slowly as they digested the statement. It sounded like grandiose nonsense to Leila.
Mr. Handsome shook his head. “I don’t buy that at all.”
Here we go, Leila thought, bracing herself for the battle of grandiloquent rhetoric that was sure to follow—one of the more genteel displays of toxic masculinity that wealthy men seemed to favor.
“Is that so?” said Trust Fund, straightening his spine.
Handsome smirked. “It is.”
“I’d love to hear your interpretation.” Trust Fund didn’t try to hide his goading.
“It’s not interpretation so much as intent,” said Handsome, “seeing as I’m the artist.”
Trust Fund’s face fell amid murmurs and at least one gasp from the semicircle. He tried to mask his embarrassment by hastily donning a smarmy grin. “Please, then, enlighten us!”
Handsome smiled, shrugged, and tilted his head. “I’m just not a fan of olives.”
As if on cue, a busser swooped in and cleared away the “artwork” the group had been admiring. The semicircle members—except Leila and Handsome—muttered and scoffed as they dispersed, slinking away in chagrin.
Leila laughed and looked at Handsome, whose smile was now directed toward her. “I didn’t lie,” he said. “That was my plate.”
There was that fluttering in her chest again. Leila became aware of something, long dormant inside her, stirring awake.
Elizabeth Barton has been making stuff up for most of her life. Her first short story, The Worm Who Got Lost, although highly acclaimed by her mother and first-grade teacher, has, alas, been lost to time. Undaunted, she has persevered, making contributions to Gemini Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and Prime Number Magazine, among other journals and anthologies. She has an oft-neglected blog (lizardesque.wordpress.com) and is a reluctant member of the Twitterverse (@lit_lizardesque). She lives in Chicago, has millions of quirky socks, and is prone to hyperbole.