Trying something new: I’m going to post a short-short (aka flash fiction) on Fridays, at least for the next few weeks. Let me know what you think! This one is about the upcoming AP Art History exam, with (of course) a cameo from Hannah Gadsby. (You haven’t seen Nanette yet? Come on!)
Les demoiselles d’Avignon
Aidan asks me to skip the afternoon with him and go to MoMA. “It’s basically studying,” he says. “We can get in for free. Calc is going to be whatever because Popov isn’t here today, and then, like, what, you have studio?” He leans up against my locker, all that long curly blonde hair slipping out from behind his ear, hiding the curved row of silver studs climbing up his left earlobe. I’ve looked at that ear every single day in AP Art History. I know how many earrings there are (nine) and the shapes they’re in (a skull, a cube, an X, and six little balls).
“I can bring my flash cards,” I say, and instantly know I’ve said the wrong thing. But I was planning on flipping through them during studio while spacey Ms. Abrams just drifts around our easels, so I don’t want to miss my study time.
He rolls his eyes and smiles. “Whatever, Swann. Let’s just bounce after lunch is all I’m saying.”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure, whatever.” I push a handful of hair out of my face, tilt my head back a little, pretend to look down the hall for no one.
“Meet you by Shake Shack? We’ll grab some fries and then go?”
“Yeah.” But my heart is pounding. It depends who’s covering Popov’s class, if they’ll notice I’m there or not; it depends if Abrams remembers to take attendance. My parents will get that stupid text and be like, Swann, got a message that you missed calculus? What’s up with that, honey?, trying to just be cool and interested. I wanted him to see me this whole time, but not like this.
But I go. I meet him by Shake Shack and he buys us fries and the Game of Thrones shake, which I love even if it’s kind of corny, and then we take the train to MoMA. I pull up the list of the 250, sorted by location, on my phone and start reading them off: “Starry Night, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, Fur-lined Teacup, Migration…”
“Chill, Swann, chill. Let’s just go, like, look at some art.”
“Well, you said we were going to study.”
“Look, the test is tomorrow, either we know it or we don’t.”
“Easy for you to say. Pratt is, like, your safety school, because of your mom and stuff.”
“You’re going to hear from SCAD any day now, and you’re going to get in, and it’s not going to make a difference whether you pass the AP Art History exam or not. Let’s check out the Miró exhibit.”
I don’t like Miró, but I smile and ignore my phone buzzing in my jeans pocket and pray it isn’t Mom or Dad. I follow him to the Birth of the World and watch him look at the canvas, just a tangle of greens and yellows with a few strong geometrics on top. I agree, yeah, that does look like Slenderman or something, prostrate on the ground. There’s no one else around to care about his joke so I force myself to giggle a little while my phone buzzes and my flash cards molder in my tote bag.
Finally he’s done with Miró and we move on to the permanent collections, and the first one I see is the Picasso, the women at uncomfortable obtuse angles with their African mask faces. “Here,” I say, and start to rummage in my bag for my cards.
“Just look at it.”
“I don’t know if this counts as studying.”
“How is this not studying?” he says, not looking at me. “There it is, right there. Les demoiselles d’Avignon.”
“Quiz me. On the identifiers.”
“Well, you know the title and the artist already. Come on, Swann, enjoy it.”
“Just do it, would you? Here’s the flash cards. Content Area Four, so it’s pink. It’ll be, like, halfway through.”
He sighs and takes the flash cards from me. “Fine. Picasso. What else?”
“Oil. Paris, 1907.”
“You know this already. What does it make you, like, feel?”
“It makes me feel mad that Picasso was such a rapey weirdo. Didn’t you see Nanette?”
“Yeah, I guess I heard about that. It’s still a great painting, though. I mean, cubism, perspectives, you know?”
“I just can’t see it without thinking about how gross he was.”
“Well, then, why do you care at all?” he says, turning to look at me then. “What does it matter if you get it right on the exam or not?”
I sigh. “Fine,” I say. “I see the women. They were prostitutes, right? And it’s like they’re showing off for him. He can see everything, or at least he thinks he can. They’re naked. He’s painting them from five different angles or whatever. But that’s all we get in this painting. How he sees them. How they are in this moment, when he’s paying them, or someone is. And you can say that’s part of the point of it, but it wasn’t his point, and that pisses me off.”
Aidan stands back a little and slides the flash card back into the color-coded deck. It took me a whole rainy weekend over spring break to make them, cutting all the images out of the color copies Dad ran for me at his work.
“Well,” he says, handing the cards back to me, “you’re not going to forget it now, though, are you?”
I don’t answer.
“You ever see the Duchamp one, The Passage from Virgin to Bride? It’s right around the corner. Definitely influenced by Picasso.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Let’s check it out. And then I promise we’ll see the other stuff from the 250, okay?”
He tries to take my hand. I put the cards back in my bag, for the moment, and let him.