The statues are watching me.
“Leslie, come along,” Ms. Vasquez calls, but I can’t tear my gaze away from those stone eyes. Since spotting Venus inside the sculpture hall, I’ve seen her in every statue’s eyes.
Ms. Vasquez goes back to talking to the class. Her voice ebbs away like a shrinking tide.
“Yeah, Lez-lie. Keep up,” Suzie P. says and tugs at my ponytail. It’s playful at first, like maybe she’s going to ask if I want us to braid each other’s hair. But then she yanks, and I swear my head twists all the way around like an owl’s.
I should punch her right in the face. It’s what I did to Tommy F. a couple of weeks ago in the cafeteria, when he snapped the strap of my training bra. But Suzie has such a pretty face, freckled and shaped like a heart. I’d hate to see that little upturned nose broken.
Oblivious, Ms. Vasquez walks ahead to chat with the museum guide. I ignore my classmates, their hands concealing their laughter and biting remarks, their arms looped around each other’s waists and shoulders. I’m as cold and hard as the sculptures that surround me. My classmates’ taunts glide right off me. Water on stone.
Their two-by-two procession winds around a fluted pillar and toward the next part of the exhibition. I let myself fall farther behind, then gravitate back to the labyrinthine classical sculpture hall as if following a red thread. The scrape of my school shoes against the squeaky-clean floor echoes in the domed room, but nobody’s there to hear. The statues remain undisturbed, mounted high on their pedestals.
I pass scenes of battle and brotherhood; of supplication to the gods and helplessness against their ire. None of these depictions—tableaux, Ms. Vasquez called them—still my restless feet. But then I reach the end of the hall, and my breath tapers to an airless wheeze.
Goddesses and nymphs and mortal women, all so grand and imposing. Hair coiled like ocean waves, seashell ears, pearl lips and eyes. The bleached-pale marble glints opalescent where the light seems to penetrate the stone. The statues’ ample skin dips and curves, and their poses are so fluid, part of me expects a fingertip to twitch, an eyelash to flutter, or a little smirk to grace the corners of a chiseled mouth.
I wonder if their skin will feel silky-smooth like the surface of a petal. Did sunlight caress those larger-than-life bodies before they were placed under the cold white lights of the museum? Did goosebumps adorn them when the wind first whistled past their naked forms?
Can stone shiver?
My steps drift closer, then closer still. I’m not fooled by their colorless, unseeing eyes; the pain is there for anyone who knows where to look. Maybe that’s what they’ve been waiting for, these stone ladies trapped in their marble prison. For someone to see their plight. And yet it feels like they’re the ones who see me, in a way that no one else can seem to. Their collective gaze takes me in without whittling away at the outer layers of my skin.
I tell the statues about Tommy F. and the bra strap incident. About the time Suzie kissed me after gym class and then lied to everyone that I’d ambushed her in the locker-room. About the chants of Lez Lez Leslie the lesbo that quiet when a teacher or hall monitor passes by, only to start again, a broken-record loop.
I weave between the statues and fill their negative space with my voice, and by the time I’ve finished talking, I feel like the slab-of-stone weight in my chest has eased a little. We learned about catharsis at school, about the cleansing of emotions, and maybe this is it.
At last, I come to stand before Venus. My breath catches somewhere between lungs and throat. What will it feel like to touch her dimpled figure? To stroke her supple skin?
Something inside me shivers.
I stretch on tiptoes and press a kiss against the statue’s lips.