He’d decided when he called to just go for it, make or break, accepted or rejected. He thought: ‘Tis better to have loved and gotten smacked down for having assumed a little too much, than never to have rushed things at all. So he’d called Helen at work and asked her rather suddenly if she’d be interested in going along with him on a weekend jaunt to some small museums and college galleries in southern New England. He was writing a freelance piece for a travel magazine that actually encouraged him to stay in picturesque inns and eat at better restaurants. It would be a. . . "pleasant" was the adjective he arrived at after an agonizing pause. . . trip, he said. Well, Helen replied, she thought she could use a little time out of town herself. She needed to clear her head, she said and then, realizing how that statement only prompted further questions, fell silent.
After a pause, Arthur had asked, "Is that a yes?"
"Yes," she’d said.
Arthur put his hand over the phone and cleared his throat to keep his voice from cracking. He wanted to ask Helen if she knew his agenda here. But he regained control of his own love-struck brain in time to realize that asking that question would have been an insult. This was an adult woman in New York City in the twenty-first century. She knew full well that spending four nights on the road, and sleeping in hello- young-lovers New England inns with a man meant having sex with him. Arthur’s age was showing. Worse, it showed most clearly to him.
It poured the first day of the trip. The hoped-for idyllic sightseeing drive with continuous sun-drenched vistas of bucolic, newly-budded nature or steepled American antiquity did not appear in front of their windshield. That, nevertheless, was fine by Arthur for reasons both carnal and -- Arthur couldn’t find a way around the word at that juncture -- spiritual. He and Helen pulled off the road in midstate Connecticut and checked into the Old Hampstead Inn ("restored" with vinyl siding) well before five o’clock.
"Do you want to park the bags at reception and have an early dinner?" Helen whispered to him in the lobby. "Or do you want to go to the room first and go out for dinner. . . afterward?"
Arthur’s ears burned and his eyes watered. He’d suffered from a nervous dry mouth ever since pulling out from the rental car garage onto University Place in the Village. "I’d rather go to the room, Helen," he said. "Yes, to be brutally honest, I’d much rather go to the room."
Helen didn’t utter a sex-kitten "Me, too," but she did smile. She carried her own luggage up the thickly carpeted stairs to Room 207. Arthur had the key. Helen went in first, put down her bags and threw her coat onto one of the two double beds. When he put down his single bag (luggage austerity was a major travel conceit with Arthur), he placed his hands on Helen’s shoulders and kissed her softly on the neck.
She turned and kissed him -- pecked him was more like it -- on the lips. "Turn down the bed," she said. "Take off your clothes and get under the covers. I need to tend to my ablutions."
"What about me?" he said a little too earnestly. "I’ve been driving in the rain and yelling at bad New England drivers all day. I’m not exactly a rose."
"I like you the way you are," Helen said over her shoulder. "A bit of road grime is manly." The bathroom door closed. Arthur slid naked beneath the blankets. And fell asleep. In moments of stress -- including impending ecstasy -- Arthur could go narcoleptic.
He awoke to Helen, nude and on all fours, kissing his chest where she’d slid the covers off of it. The first thing he noticed were her breasts -- smallish, as white as porcelain, with large light pink nipples outlined, almost, with a faint purple halo. He touched one with his fingertips. Helen grabbed his hand and pressed it tight to her breast. Arthur put his other hand on her back and drew her to him. They kissed -- a single uninterrupted kiss that, in all its various undulations of lips, tongues and teeth, must have lasted a couple of minutes. Then she sat up and reached to the end table for a small purse, from which she withdrew a condom in a foil packet. He told her he had his own, but she smiled -- more widely this time -- and said, "My treat."
Helen was astride him and supplying most of the motion. Arthur wondered, as one wonders about the goddamnedest things in the midst of extreme pleasure, whether, technically, he was making love to Helen or she was making love to him. At one point, while he was struggling not to come, Helen reared up and told Arthur to open his eyes.
"You’re an art critic," she said. "I know you like to look."
She sat back on his cock, closed her own eyes, moved her hips ever so slightly, and had her orgasm. Witnessing that, Arthur had his.
At dinner, in the inn’s dining room, she said, "I know you want to ask me two questions."
"I do?" Arthur asked.
"Yes," Helen said. "The first is what I told Ben Greenleaf in order to take part of next week off."
"I never thought about it," Arthur said. "I guess I assumed you just took some vacation time."
"Vacation time, for this?" Helen laughed. They had a bottle of a reliable cabernet on the overcrowded table. It was two-thirds gone, and Arthur was only halfway through his first glass. Helen took a big swallow. "Such a conceited male you are. Which is to say, absolutely normal."
"All right," he said. "What did you tell him?"
"That I was going off to look at some small museums to see if there was any possibility of gathering together a kind of joint catalogue, a coffee-table book that would be part travelogue. I stole the idea from the article you’re going to write from this trip. That’s naughty, except he thought you actually might want to write such a book, too. Does your magazine allow that sort of thing?"
"It couldn’t care in the least what I do on the outside," Arthur answered, "as long as I get its stories done with dispatch and don’t libel anybody in them."
"Wonderful," Helen said, taking another substantial sip of her wine. She was having the marinated tuna -- specialty of the house -- while he’d ordered his typical dual appetizers, a half-size order of bisteca tuscana,and scallops.
"But you don’t care if Greenleaf knows?" he asked.
Arthur said, "When my piece comes out, he’ll certainly figure that you and I were off on the same ramble, won’t he?"
Helen looked right at him. "Arthur, even assuming that Ben reads that travel magazine, which I seriously doubt, what would it matter? This is -- I hate to employ such a cliché -- the twenty-first century. I’m an adult woman and I have lovers now and then. Are you trying to protect my reputation? That would be touching, Arthur, but irretrievably quaint."
Arthur allowed the waiter to pour him a second glass. "Helen, I know perfectly well what century we’re living in. It’s not that you have lovers; it’s that I’m loosely connected to Greenleaf -- Jonathan Hirsch, art books from Castle / Cartwright that I could end up reviewing, maybe a book idea or two of my own I’d like to peddle to him someday, a lot of things -- and him knowing you and I are an item might complicate matters."
"We’re not an ‘item,’ Arthur," Helen said.
"O.K., O.K., we’re not an item," Arthur conceded. "What’s the second question I want to ask?"
Helen said, "You want to know whether I’ve slept with Tom Mannheim."
"Oh, Jesus Christ," was all Arthur could think of to say.
"Arthur, almost any woman can tell not only if a man has eyes for her, but also if he’s looking sideways at possible competition. And you’re astute enough to have noticed that Tom’s interested in me."
"He’s a married man," Arthur said, then immediately regretted it.
She reached across the table and put her hand on his, to soften the contours of her imperative reply. "Don’t go there," she said.
"All right, I won’t. But since you brought up the subject, have you gone to bed with him?"
"Whatever the answer is, I’m not telling, and I won’t tell," Helen said. "I just wanted to get that out in the open between us."
The early evening’s joy was turning to doubt which, Arthur could feel, contained considerable potential of morphing into outright misery. Leaving things totally fluid, entirely unsaid, would only intensify the doubt. So Arthur gathered himself and said, "What just happened between us back in the room wasn’t just a roll in the hay, Helen. I’m more serious about you than that. I want more of you than just the occasional pleasure of your. . . your body. I won’t spell it out because I know you can feel what I want. But after a while, Tom Mannheim -- or any other man in your life, for that matter -- is going to become very relevant to me. If I can keep on seeing you -- please, please,keep seeing me, Helen -- sooner or later I’ll have to know about somebody else. If there’s somebody else."
Helen closed her eyes gently and spoke slowly. "How long could you go on seeing me without wanting to know if I’m seeing somebody else, too?"
"Where you’re concerned," Arthur said, "I’ll probably end up being a glutton for punishment. I’ll probably want to see you as long as you want to see me, no matter what the circumstances. I don’t want ‘doormat’ tattoo’d across my forehead but, as the Brits say, you have the advantage of me."
Suddenly, Helen brightened. She flipped her napkin back down on the table and said, "I’ll try not to take too great an advantage of this supposed advantage I have. I’m in the mood for coffee and a fattening dessert. Will your expense allowance tolerate that?"
"If it won’t, I’ll wash dishes," Arthur said. "However, I’d stay away from. . . [Arthur re-opened the small dessert menu the waiter had left after he’d cleared their dinner plates]. . . here it is, ‘Classic New England Creme Brulée.’ It’s probably even worse than ‘Classic French Banana Split.’"
"What time to we have to be on the road tomorrow morning?" Helen asked.
"We could be as late as nine. The first museum’s an hour up the highway, and it opens at ten. I’d like to be the first person through the door, because we have three to do in one day tomorrow."
"I’ll just have a cappuccino then," she said. "There’s a classic movie station on the cable selection, I noticed. We can stay up and see a film. . . or whatever. . . and still get enough sleep."
They didn’t get enough sleep.
The next day, the rain continued unabated. There was something satisfying, almost comfy for Arthur, however, about looking at art in lightly refurbished mansions in once-prosperous mill towns and in aggressively diagonal concrete structures (built in the 1970s, when modern architecture was flailing desperately to avoid the exhaustion of the less-is-more International School steel box) on always-prosperous private college campuses, while raindrops fell steadily outside. He felt almost as if he’d planned the bad weather and had outsmarted nature by presciently seeking out culture.
There was one handy aspect to campus museums: Once Arthur found the campus, he could find the museum in an instant, usually without a map. Of course, at Reardon College, one of the "Little Four" and known for its small-school football prowess, he quickly located the wrong museum. It turned out to be a museum of the college -- the original home of its founder, the Reverend Josiah Reardon -- retroactively cast in amber to recapture a faded gentility. Helen -- standing in one of the two parlor rooms downstairs -- could imagine Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh, entering the Bennett home and announcing condescendingly, "This must be a most inconvenient sitting room for evening, in summer. Why, the windows are full west!"
The Zandolph Arts Center, the neo-New Brutalist kunstbunker Arthur was looking for, lay a ten-minute walk through what looked like a miniature golf course inflated to life-size. Its exhibition was called "Turn On, Tune In, Stand Back: Recent Developments in Kinetic Sculpture." Arthur approached the first piece, nearest the door, entitled The Logical Fallacy / The Fallacy of Logic, and pressed the foot pedal. Clear plastic balls with basic English words ("as," "to," "from," "his," "fact," "thing") inside were loosed from a wire cage at the top of the work of art, seven feet above the floor, to tumble through a stack of revolving sifters, to bins below. The catchments were labeled, "Knowledge," "Opinion," "Bias" and "Error." Arthur stayed with it until all the balls had reached their destinations. Then, having again played pedestrian fool to another garage inventor posing as an artist (that was his guess; the sculptor could easily have been a Reardon professor of literary theory with time on her hands), he turned around and left. Helen was waiting for him outside. She’d said she knew exactly what the show would be without having to lay eyes upon it. With a weary laugh, Arthur said that he should have admitted the same thing to himself. Another critic of Arthur’s acquaintance once said he refused to look at any art that required him to remove his shoes. Arthur’s personal embargo would have been against any art with toggle switches.
Arthur and Helen hydroplaned to the next museum, at Helen’s alma mater. Arthur had been looking forward to seeing its noted collection of 1920s and 1930s American modernism, but most of it had been displaced by an exhibition of "The Art of Native American Cooking." Enough of the collection remained on the walls, however, for him to take a few notes, which he felt confident he could inflate into a filler paragraph, if needed. At their third and final stop that day, at yet another college, they perused a canned traveling exhibition of mid-nineteenth century French prints (all delectable in an antique way, but with no real visual knockouts among them). He and Helen found themselves alone in the place. Their footsteps fairly boomed back into their own ears. The student security officer -- immensely proud of her uniform of dark blue slacks and a lemon yellow polo shirt with the museum’s logo embroidered on the right breast -- tailed them relentlessly, at a distance of never more than ten yards, never less than five.
A whole day of art-looking, plus the strain of driving to new destinations in the rain (harder on the passenger than the driver), tired out Helen and Arthur. They skipped dinner, took a box of crackers and two bottles of apple juice up to their room -- in an upscale, but far short of picturesque, roadside hotel -- and broke out the mystery novels each had brought. Ten pages (for Arthur) later, he dropped the book to the floor and told Helen he wanted to make love again. She rolled to her side and turned off her reading lamp. Arthur turned off his.
They talked postcoitally for a couple of hours, finally covering all those bases of pribble that new lovers are obligated to attend to. Nowhere did their respective tastes coincide exactly, but each was familiar enough with the other’s favorite movies and books and music to make them compatible enough for a harmonious short run. If it hadn’t been for Tom Mannheim popping up in his dreams all night, Arthur would have enjoyed the most wonderful sleep of his life.
Breakfast was complementary with the room, so he and Helen ate in the hotel. The restaurant was surprisingly crowded -- something about a parents’ day at one of the nearby colleges they’d visited -- so they shared a table with an anthropology professor (from a big Midwestern state university similar to Arthur’s alma mater) giving a lecture the next day, and his wife. They all gabbed ourselves into a cheerful disagreement over tenure. From Arthur’s vantage point outside the groves of academe, tenure primarily protected lazy mediocrities, while the professor thought it absolutely essential to "the free exchange of ideas, especially in anthropology." As the four rose from their table, filled, the professor’s wife said softly to Helen that if Arthur ever had to suffer through a dinner party with her husband’s colleagues, he’d be even more adamantly opposed to pedagogical sinecure.
At the end of that day, Arthur and Helen finally encountered an urban museum, one with a decent assortment of art by artists whose other, more major works, festooned art history textbooks, and a pretty good exhibition of -- dare he say it? -- installation art by a visiting artist (at one of the nearby colleges) from Slovenia. Arthur couldn’t figure out exactly what it meant. What exactly could four open-but-operating chest freezers filled with beefsteak, a Victorian dining table on which sat one of those leatherette-covered portable phonographs from the 1950s (playing a Sinatra LP), and a floor littered with Czech-English / English-Czech dictionaries mean?
The museum’s restaurant served Arthur the best cup of soup -- vegetable beef -- he’d ever had and Helen’s tiramisu ("layers of lady fingers soaked in espresso, alternated with layers of lightly sweetened mascarpone cheese, dusted with cocoa," read the menu) was almost as good. After lunch, a guard in the "American Narrative Painting" galleries told them that the Spartan warrior’s helmet in the biggest picture in the room was modeled after a 19th century French fireman’s helmet that the Yankee painter had purchased in Paris under the gullible assumption that it was ancient Spartan headgear.
That night, Arthur and Helen stayed in The Red Unicorn Lodge, a huge white wooden Victorian edifice dominating a small town’s main intersection. The place was a veritable maze of knick-knacks and framed posters and prints celebrating anything remotely antique American, from kiddie village "base-ball" players to snake-oil elixirs. The only hitch in their stay was a small embarrassment of overdressing. Arthur had been told when he made the reservation that a jacket would be required for dinner in the dining room. Seated coat-and-tie at the table with Helen, he found himself surrounded by hairy-armed men in short-sleeved polo shirts. Arthur mentioned the fact to the waiter. The waiter informed Arthur that the rule held every night but Saturday, and asked him if he’d told the desk that he "and Madame" would be staying on a Saturday. In a voice that threatened to rise precipitously, Arthur replied that the desk knew the date for which he requested a room, and they heard him ask out loud about the guidebook’s quote on dress code for dinner. Helen saw that Arthur was about to go off on the guy, and shook her head slowly to signify "Don’t." So Arthur behaved.
They didn’t make love after dinner. Instead, they fell asleep spooning. Arthur pressed his face into Helen’s wonderful hair and said hoarsely, "I love you." Helen pretended to be asleep.
"The decline: Way back when, people wanted to be immortalized in God (they saw themselves going to heaven), so they made art to achieve it. Then the next generation, raised looking at that art, wanted to be immortalized as artists (they saw themselves on the walls of great museums), so they made "radical" art to achieve it. The next generation, raised on "radical" art, wanted to be immortalized as radicals (they saw themselves included in histories of modern art), so they started doing silly stunts to achieve it. The next generation, raised on the publicity surrounding those stunts, wanted to be immortalized as daredevils, so they tried to get themselves into the pages of the tabloids to achieve it. The next generation, raised on tabloids, wanted to be immortalized as celebrities, so they flung themselves into the party scene to achieve it. The next generation, raised on buzz from the party scene, wanted to be immortalized as the coolest party-goers ever, so they started fawning and ass-kissing the ‘right people’ to achieve it. The current generation, raised around fawning and ass-kissing, wants to be immortalized as fawning ass-kissers, so they publicly humiliated themselves to achieve it. The next generation, raised on public humiliation, will probably want to be immortalized as the most completely humiliated artists ever. There’s no telling what they’ll do to achieve it."
PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery. The archive for The Art Critic can be found here.