School children walk through the Art Institute, two by two, holding hands. They are quiet. They are clearly under strict instructions, filing in behind their teacher, but still I think maybe.
“The Vitruvian Man” is superimposed upon himself and stretched within a circle, within a square. I lean closer. He is bare, anatomically perfect—he could breathe. In 1490, there must have been a real flesh man flayed with ink by da Vinci down to muscle, sinew, vein.
I sit on the front steps, eating sushi from the gallery cafeteria. He walks up the steps towards me. His security pass swings on a lanyard. His glasses catch the light and they flash, making his eyes invisible, then visible again. He leans down and kisses my cheek and smells of his last cigarette.
“What are you doing here?” he says, and it is kind.
“The da Vinci exhibition.”
He sits beside me, twenty centimeters away.
“You should come after hours,” he says. “I can show you around without the crowds.”
The sushi rice is sticky. I push my tongue across my teeth. I smile.
I have pushed my tongue along his neck, across his knuckles, down the ladder of his ribs. He was underneath my hands so that it was not his skin I felt, but his blood that hummed, hot.
His voice is low, so low, crawling around the pit of my stomach. It takes its time, scraping over and over, finding its old place.
“Are you okay?” he says.
I nod. “Sure.”
He smiles, but I see it: she was always a dreamer.
How to tell him that I am listening intently? Not to his words, but his voice, the texture of it, the timbre, the base, the way it moves through me, the way it stays.
A group walks past us up the stairs and I slide five centimeters closer to him.
Almost two years ago now, he took off his shirt for me for the first time. The afternoon light got in around the edges of my bedroom blind and his skin ran with goosebumps. His clavicle was a wishbone, stretched across him. I wanted to break it in two. I did. I wanted him to push me to the edge. Sometimes he said, “Are you sure?” He pressed the words into my skin. Nothing hurt then.
I pay attention. The things I could tell him: clavicle derives from the Latin “clavicula” meaning “little key,” because the bone rotates like a key when the arms are raised. The clavicle is the bone most often broken in the human body.
We danced in a club and the music beat and vibrated through me. It soared. He leaned against me, his skin burning. He kissed me, pushing a pill from his mouth into mine. I swallowed. He smiled.
“Let’s go home,” I said.
He bent closer. “Home? Why?”
The crowd pressed against us, strangers, every single one of them. They slid against us. I could not breathe. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back away from mine. The chemicals hit my veins and they ran and ran.
“Studies of the Fetus in the Womb,” dated 1510-1512/13. Leonardo da Vinci drew a foetus with its knees raised, its head bowed and pressed against its hands and knees, hiding its face. The umbilical cord sweeps across its body. The womb is cleaved open, like two halves of a shell.
The children leave the gallery and run down the stairs, a tumble of legs, arms, small bodies, oversized backpacks. They laugh and shout. They push their faces to the sun and they grow, their cells dividing, multiplying, unfurling.
He was illuminated by the moon, its cold wash of lilac-blue light. Shadow lines of the window fell on him as he looked into the night.
“What’s out there?” I said.
He turned to me. “Nothing important.”
I believed him.
In bed, he slept and I drew my finger along his clavicle, first one way and then the other, finding the halfway point, finding the ends.
The gallery asked him to help curate an exhibition of Impressionist works at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He planned to travel through Europe afterwards.
“For how long?” I said.
“I don’t know. There are so many things I want to see. Cities I want to visit again.”
All I heard was I, I, I while he listed galleries, cities, icons.
A drawing of da Vinci’s compares man and animal: “Studies of legs of man and the leg of a horse,” dated 1506.
Another drawing shows a man inside a woman: “Coition of a hemisected man and woman,” dated 1492. She is far less detailed than him. She fades into nothingness.
He sent postcards. One was from the Galleria Nazionale di Parma in Italy, da Vinci’s “Head of a Woman,” dated 1500, painted in oil on wood. On the back he had written—she looks like you.
I studied that postcard. “What the fuck?”
Her hair was tangled, her gaze downward, fixed on nothing it seemed. I threw her away.
“I should get back to work,” he says. “It was good to see you.”
He puts his arm around my shoulders and he is hot all down my side. I see his clavicle beneath the collar of his shirt. Little key. Old friend.
“Have you seen the drawings of the human heart by da Vinci?” I say.
“Of course. Why?”
In 1513, da Vinci must have reached inside a human body and pulled out the heart, or somebody did it for him.
In the gallery gift shop, “The Vitruvian Man” is everywhere. I buy a fridge magnet and I don’t know why.
I walk back to the train and realize the actual man that da Vinci drew from in 1490 might not have been alive at all. In fact, he probably wasn’t.
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, SmokeLong Quarterly, New World Writing, Split Lip Magazine, WhiskeyPaper, Atticus Review, (b)OINK, and Jellyfish Review, among others. One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company Jungle. She lives in Australia. You can find her here: www.melissagoode.com and @melgoodewriter.