The woman walked out of the museum first, with a steady movement that clearly embodied confidence. She had black hair, long enough to barely touch her shoulders and fall in soft curves around her cheeks. She was wearing small glasses and her face was hard, as if the skin had ossified into permanent features that now would hardly move at all. She wore a long white shirt and blue jeans. She walked with the decisive manner of a soldier and her mouth was pressed together into the promise of a frown. She turned around to look at her boyfriend as he crossed the glass doorway and stepped out into the sunlit sidewalk. He was taller than her, thin and wiry. His hair was also black but cut much shorter. His eyes had a sense of calm that bordered on sleepiness. He wore a long brown T-shirt and blue jeans like hers. He walked toward the woman nodding, as if to say without words: ‘Now, that’s done.’ After him came her friend, a younger woman in a flowery dress and medium heels. She held a camera in her hand and she walked towards them with an enthusiastic grin drawn from cheek to cheek. The three of them came together at the top of the stairs and then walked down the gray cement steps. The boyfriend looked over towards the wide open plaza, covered in thin little trees and the sound of kids playing and birds singing. The woman looked straight towards the sidewalk instead, ready to move on. The friend smiled some more and looked towards a dark sculpture that stood in the middle of the lawn that surrounded the museum.
"Look at that… what is that?"
The sculpture had the shape of a black inverted funnel. The surface was shiny and polished, making a deep contrast with the grass and the gray sidewalk around it. The inverted funnel was covered with little angels, cherubim, who climbed up the slippery surface and over each other, trying to reach the top. Each of the angels was different and each made its effort in a particular and distinct way. Some were falling backwards, some were almost reaching their goal. The friend walked ahead of the couple and examined the sculpture carefully, even running her fingers over the angelic bodies, trying to feel their struggle through her hands.
"Look… they’re angels… they’re climbing and climbing…"
The man nodded and the woman looked at her friend and at her boyfriend with a sense of growing impatience.
"Well… we should be going back and…" she said, trying to sound as if it meant nothing, as if anything that happened would be fine with her, but she was unable to betray a bit of annoyance, a touch of cold impatience at the edges of her words.
"Just a second… I want to take a picture of the two of you… right here… in front of the sculpture."
The woman looked at her boyfriend, looking to see how he would react. He shrugged his shoulders and his eyes looked more sleepy than ever. Then, in a voice that was barely loud enough to be heard, he said:
"Sure… why not?"
The friend, lifting the camera to her eyes, looked at the woman and nodded towards the large black funnel that rose up from the green grass. "Well?"
The woman shrugged her shoulders like her boyfriend had and said: "I guess it’s ok…let’s just do it quickly."
The two of them walked towards the sculpture, which rose to three times their height. They stood in front of it, about a feet apart, waiting for the friend to take the picture. The friend made a gesture with her free hand and said:
"Closer you guys! You have to get closer!"
She stepped back slightly, trying to make sure she got them both into the picture as well as the dark shiny figure that rose behind them. The woman stepped closer to her boyfriend and he stepped a bit closer to her, without looking at each other. Their shoulders bumped together awkwardly and they both looked towards the friend, who was still getting ready to take the photo.
"Well? Go ahead and take it!" the woman said, feeling her boyfriend’s shoulder against her own.
"Just a second…" the friend said, and she stepped a bit farther back. "I think I got it… but you guys need to smile more… why don’t you hold hands?"The boyfriend sighed lightly and the woman couldn’t stop a burst of nervous laughter.
"Just take the picture!" She looked sideways at her boyfriend whose eyes were squinting against the sun.
"I want you to hold hands. It will look much better that way!"
Again a burst of nervous laughter came from the woman’s lips. She turned towards her boyfriend who was still just squinting into the sun and she grabbed his hand in hers and pulled both their hands, now pressed together, in front of them.
"There! You happy?" her voice dripping with a forced nonchalance.
The friend shook her head. "No, it doesn’t look right. You both still seem very awkward…. Like something’s wrong. It will come through clearly in the picture."
The woman tried to press closer to the boyfriend, feeling the tight muscles of his left arm against her shoulder. She rearranged the hands again and she smiled towards the camera. The boyfriend just stared ahead.
"You have to smile too!", the friend said to the boyfriend.
"C’mon! Just take the picture!" the woman said, feeling that there truly was something wrong but completely unsure of how to fix it.
The boyfriend turned to her then, looking steadily into her eyes. His pupils opened up slightly and he pulled on her hand and turned it over, so that his own hand was secure on top of hers. Then he pulled her closer to him and turned towards the camera with a smile. The woman smiled then, but it was not for the picture. The smile rose from her like mist from a clear lagoon in the middle of summer. It spread across her face like a transparent cloud barely touched by blue and pink, and her face became softer, and her cheeks became red and her eyes became brighter. Her body suddenly seemed to acquire curves it didn’t have before. She could feel her right hip barely touching the edge of his thigh and the sensation sent shivers all over her now relaxed body.
"There!" the friend said, and the camera clicked a couple of times. "That was good!"
The friend put the camera away. The boyfriend released the woman’s hands and the woman stepped away from the touch of his upper thigh and his wiry forearm. He started towards the sidewalk and the friend followed. The woman looked up at the shiny surface of the inverted funnel and at the angels that still struggled to climb to the peak. For a moment she admired their effort and she wondered at the nature of their plight. She wondered if it was love that propelled them forward and she wondered at the power of such love, love that could last a lifetime, love that could last beyond. For each of these angels, she thought, there must be many down in the darkness, unable even to start. She felt sympathy then for the lost ones, the ones that would always live in the shadows, the ones that would never make it up through the ground. When she turned back to the sidewalk, the friend and the boyfriend were already a hundred feet ahead. She rushed to catch up with them. In the distance, a violin was playing a strange sad melody. A car passed by and a group of teenagers were laughing loudly inside.
The friend turned around to see if the woman was coming. The friend smiled brightly when she saw the woman walking towards her, but the woman’s smile was gone again, along with the softness of her body and the brightness of her cheeks. The sunlight was too bright just then and the woman had to look down, away from her smiling friend, away from the shadow of her boyfriend, away from the bright light that would make her cry.