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The Museum

Story by Olivia Schwartzman (Read author interview) September 18, 2023

Getty Images via Canva

Because I realized the easiest thing I could do was to ruin my own life, I quit my job two weeks ago. Because I don’t have a job, I am standing in the Natural History Museum on a Wednesday afternoon, facing two Neanderthals. They are bent with their mouths open, standing over a mangled antelope. The male is trying to ward off a vulture. It is spring outside. I am trying to pay more attention to how the sun looks. Behind me, a pack of school children pass through the room. They are very loud. A girl with short brown hair and pink jelly sandals trails off from the group. She stands next to me. She must be seven or eight. We look at each other and then I look away. When I look back, she is still looking.

“I have a snake!” she says.

“You’re going to lose your friends,” I say. She keeps looking at me. I feel like I am disappointing her. “What’s its name?”

She creases her eyebrows and plays with the hem of her dress. It has watermelons on it. I want to tell her that I am allergic to watermelon but I am afraid this will upset her in some way. I realize she does not have a snake. But I have done something for her. I have believed in the snake, and I have helped her. This feels good to me. I am trying to pay more attention to what feels good to me, because this is how you ruin your own life. You pay attention to what you want and not what anyone else wants.

“Patsy!”

“That’s a nice name,” I tell her. “That’s my mother’s name.” It is not my mother’s name. My mother’s name is Nancy. She is not speaking to me since I have decided to ruin my life. According to her, it is a phase, and I am in control of it, and she won’t give it any attention. She wears silk handkerchiefs around the collar of her white button up shirts. They usually have limes or lemons patterned on them. I consider telling this to the little girl because of her watermelon dress, but instead I keep looking at the Neanderthals.

“My dad has sleep appendix,” she tells me.

“What is that?” I ask, not turning to her.

“When you can’t breathe in the night and you feel like you are falling so you wake up crying.” This sounds very sad to me. When I realized ruining my life was the easiest thing to do I had woken up crying. It wasn’t a sad crying, really. It was the way people cry when they have a revelation. I think it’s described a lot in religious texts. I could hear it happening. It sounded like a key sliding into a lock.

“That sounds very sad.” I pause. “Are you sure it isn’t called sleep apnea?”

“I think it’s called sleep appendix. But maybe yours is something else.”

“Maybe.” We both go quiet. In my periphery I see the girl turning in circles. I wonder what to do with her when I leave the exhibit. She makes a squeaking noise with her sandal on the brown linoleum.

“I bet they are lonely,” she says.

“Who?”

“The nanthals.”

“Do you mean the Neanderthals?”

“They don’t have anyone with them and they are hairy and angry. And the bird is being mean to them.” I nod silently. My eyes get glassy. I don’t have much energy to respond to anyone anymore.

“I have to go now,” she says.

“Wait,” I say, “I have to tell you something.” I want to tell her that I was walking down the street yesterday evening. This is another thing I have been doing since I decided to ruin my life. The houses looked like they were taxidermied models of real houses: this is a window pane filled with yellow light, this is a red door, this is the look of tinsel through a second story window. This is white paint chipping off of cedar board, this is a flag against a steel blue sky. This is the look of streetlamps and telephone poles and this is the sound of a door creaking at this moment in history. It all felt so quiet and necessary. It felt like the museum of something. Like you could get up close to the glass and look into the window and see statues of people drinking out of enamel mugs at the kitchen table, a clock with birds on it hanging above the checkered tablecloth. At some point you’d hit a barrier and not be able to get closer. There would be a plaque, too. But you could get up close, and when you did you got a sick feeling, the feeling of terror that you were on someone else’s lawn, and they might see you staring into their kitchen window if they looked up from the kitchen sink. They would be scared. It would break the whole thing down. It would implode into itself. The perfection of a creation in hindsight would be lost, because it would actually be happening. I want to tell her this is exactly how I felt about my entire life. I had to ruin it because it was something that was actually happening, and I wasn’t a taxidermy version of myself. I want to be very young again.

Instead I say, “You have some gum on your shoe.”

She lifts her shoe and looks at the gum very intently. It is light green against the bright pink of her sandals. I imagine her sticking to the floor in that spot. But she puts her shoe down and turns from me and runs off into the next room to look at stuffed wolves.

About the Author

Olivia Schwartzman lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Emerge Literary Journal.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-One
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