Eleanor stood on the empty landing, her fingers curled around the stem of an even emptier glass of champagne. Her wrinkled eyes looked up at the display piece that evening for the Mercurial Arts Gallery. The piece was a great gray moth suspended against a white void. Its wings were reaching out for something that stretched beyond the empty canvas. Or were they dead, were they pinned?
She took a sip at the glass, realized it was empty, and set it down on the bannister. The Gallery was quiet. The guests had left long before, but the Moth had made her linger.
The Gallery was a warm yellow, lit by lights that accentuated the sharp decline of her cheekbones, the scattered patches and unsightly bumps of wanton fat beneath her skin. Eleanor hated the way she looked in the Gallery’s light, which was meant to be flattering for canvas and paper, though intrusive for anyone at the age of fifty-five. She could feel the light bleeding down into every inch and wrinkle of her face, scrutinizing her thinning skin, her thinning hair, her thinning patience. The light would have to do, however. A fitting final spotlight for her suicide, fifteen feet below on the marble floor.
She reached for the champagne glass again, out of habit, but once again it was empty. With a scowl, Eleanor set the glass down again, clinking it against the bannister. But her hand slipped, and she missed, and the glass tumbled down, down, down, through the air and collided with the marble. She leaned over the railing, squinted and saw in the warm light that the glass spread out into four separate corners, reaching out against the marble like wings. Yes, like wings. It was so easy to get them, she supposed. Looking between the floor below and the Moth behind, she felt easy, supported, sane. Life was too short for her to become any older. For her mind to shrivel any tighter. Even now, she couldn’t recall her last name.
Eleanor pursed her lips and decided that she was too old to clean it up, so she left the glass alone. It wouldn’t matter, not after throwing herself off the same railing. She was content with it, too, until she heard the sound of footsteps crunching against the shards.
“Hello?” someone called from below her.
Eleanor peered over the railing. Her heart beat fast.
“Did you drop that?” A young man looked up at her, his clear face framed with round eyes and a shock of brilliant white hair. “Are you okay?”
She waved her hand at him. “Yes, don’t worry about it. Are you one of the guests? The gallery closed a half hour ago. You should go home.” Some sort of irritation was rising inside of her. She just wanted to be done with it, to get it over.
“Oh.” The boy looked down, pushing his hands into his crisp jeans. “So I’m late.”
“Yes, too bad.” Eleanor pressed a hand against her cheek, and then thought twice about being rude. She didn’t want those to be her last words. “Sorry. Was there something you wanted?”
He shrugged. “Do you work here? Cause I really just wanted to see the Moth, before the exhibition ended.”
Eleanor tapped her fingers against her cheek. She took a deep breath, glanced at her watch, and then waved the young man to come up the stairs. Might as well, she thought. She watched as a bright smile split across his pale face. “But hurry up, you’re not supposed to be here.”
The young man looked in awe at the painting, a giant piece that spanned the entire wall, nearly touching the windows on both sides. He was quiet as he craned his neck, tilted his chin and eyes up to gaze at the fluffy antennae that sprouted out from the creature’s head. All of it was done in shades of sepia, lavender, and gray.
“It’s amazing,” he breathed.
“Yes.” Eleanor nodded. “Absolutely stunning.” If she held her breath, the Moth fluttered its wings.
They stood in silence for a moment, until Eleanor looked over at the young man. She found that instead of staring at the painting, he was staring at her, his big irises reaching for her, gazing up and down. “What is it?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be going home?”
“Um.” The young man looked down at the floor, kicked his shoe at the ground. “In truth, I meant to get here late.”
Eleanor shook her head in confusion, she thought that maybe she had already forgotten something that he had said to her earlier. Was it already getting so bad that she couldn’t remember small talk? Her mind was a bubble, constantly popping, losing things to the void, and then closing back again before she could grab them back. “What? Why?”
“Well,” he carried on, “I really just wanted to see you.”
Eleanor crossed her arms. “Do… do I know you?” She squinted at him, trying to recall if she had ever met the young man before. “I’m sorry if I’ve forgotten. I don’t think I remember.”
The young man smiled, “No, you don’t know me. Oh, this is crazy.” He rubbed a hand against the back of his neck, and stared up at her meekly. “But I’ve seen you here before, and there’s just something about you. I kept telling myself that I was delusional, but I swore that you saw me, too, and I felt like I knew you. I just needed to come talk to you myself and ask you something before you left. I didn’t know if I would ever see you again.”
Eleanor blinked. “Were you here earlier today?” She played through her memories for that day. Between the silhouettes and globs of people, she thought she could see the plume of white hair bobbing among the bodies in the Gallery. Yes, she could see him now. She had seen him, had studied him, thought he was a ghost.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, but you were busy, and I couldn’t think of how to approach you, so I came back. But now, I guess it’s too late. I really shouldn’t even be here.”
He turned to leave, but Eleanor reached out and touched his shoulder, touched a bulge of fabric where wings would have been. “Wait, no, it’s okay. I believe you. I’m a curator here, so it’s okay for you to be with me. What did you want to say?”
The young man turned around, his eyes ringed with sadness. In the blink of an eye, Eleanor’s atmosphere exploded. “I think I’m in love with you,” he whispered.
She coughed, suddenly wishing she had more champagne. “I think you’re mistaken.”
“No, no!” He held out his hands, took her hands in his, and pleaded, “I’m not wrong! I know it’s a lot to ask of a complete stranger, but would you consider taking off to dinner with me somewhere? This is something out of a movie, I know. But I have this feeling.”
Eleanor laughed, unable to fathom how she had ended up there. “Me? Do you know how old I am? You’re not in love with me, come to your senses.” She took her hands away from him. “I don’t even know you.”
“Please! You’re not much older than me, really,” he said. “Please. It’s just,” he hesitated, “moths gravitate towards light, don’t they?”
“You’re like a light. And I can’t help but make my way towards you. It might kill me to do so, but I would rather die, transfixed by scorching beauty, than to be left alone out in the dark forever.”
Eleanor felt a tiny shiver run through her hand, and she reached out to touch the young man on the shoulder again. She would never remember why she decided to say her next words, but forever and until her deathbed at the age of eighty-nine, Eleanor would be thankful for saying them.
“No one should rather die than be alive,” Eleanor said. “Come on, let’s go out into the dark together.”
Eleanor had once thought that bodies were meant to serve each other, but only if they were similar in make and age. But as her young Moth undressed her in the dark comfort of a strange bedroom, as he pressed his pale lips against her wrinkled shoulders, ran his hands down the ridges and wingless vertebrae of her timeworn back, she felt alive. Her memories couldn’t recall a time when she was told that one adult body was ever too old for another, even though she had reservations about older women making love with younger men. But Eleanor persisted. Though her mind waned throughout the ebbings of the night, her body fell in flutters against the body of her Moth.
She never would remember his name, though she would remember this.