Preservation

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Preservation
When we went to the MoMa years ago, you made us go to an exhibit in a dark room called The Killing Machine. I didn’t like museums before I met you, which you never knew because I never told you. It felt childish then and it still does now. I tried to explain it to a man at a party once: “They look like morgues,” I said. “It’s like standing in a room of corpses.” I remember him sticking his fingers into a plastic cup filled with brown liquid and stirring the ice cubes around with his knuckles. I can’t remember this man’s name or what he looked like or why I would have been at a party with him. Maybe I never really told anyone, I just meant to.

The Killing Machine was moved around a lot, but on the day we saw it, it was housed in a gallery on the fourth floor. They put it in the center of all the other galleries, a false room made by flexible dividers, and I could feel the weight of the other art pressing against the white walls, choking the air with the smell of bodies and cleaning fluid. The room was dark and set around the perimeter were small faux leather benches, the kind you can only buy in bulk.

The machine was already part-way through one of its performances when we came in, and it felt like we had stumbled in on something intimate. The other people in the room watched it whir and spin and we watched them, and it occurred to me that it was impossible to know what it would be like to watch the machine without being aware of the watching.

This was before you got sick, before the house where you lived stank with antiseptic and stasis, before I met your mother who came down from Montreal and didn’t know any of our names.

That day in the museum, you made me push the button to make The Killing Machine start again. I cried about it at night when we got home and then years later in your bed after they moved you to the hospital. In the hospital we would sit up with you, combing your hair and rubbing the heels of our palms on your back in circles. When your mother would visit we would flip through tattered magazines in the cafeteria and test the different coffee creamers. We would get upset when someone sat at our favorite table and then we would remember how many people have had favorite tables at hospital cafeterias, and we would eat stale sandwiches in the hallway outside your room instead.

Maybe it isn’t true to say we saw The Killing Machine before you got sick. Maybe you were sick then, too; maybe you have been sick your whole life, it just took some time for the sickness to show itself. I think you would be comforted by the idea that we are all more like clocks that will eventually wind down than we are wheels that fall off our tracks.

I asked you once if dying felt like it did in the museum. “No,” you said. “It’s so much quieter.” You asked me if watching you die felt like how it did in the museum, and I changed the subject. But you should know it does. When I sit in the room where you are going to die and the curtains are drawn and your breath struggles in and out of your chest, it occurs to me that it is impossible to watch you without being aware of the watching.

We went from room to room to room after we left The Killing Machine, and on the way home I asked you why you liked it so much in there. I was holding a coffee you bought me, and if I had known that it would be one of the few gifts you would give me, I would have held onto that paper cup. “Preservation,” you said. “I like being around things that have been preserved.” You dropped your wallet on the sidewalk and when you bent down to grab it your head disappeared behind the outline of your back. You could have been anyone.


Photo used under CC.

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Emma Grillo's writing appears in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Vice. She lives in Brooklyn.

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