|THE SLEEPING PERSON EXHIBIT|
by Alexis David It was raining when we went to the sleeping person exhibit and when we came out both our wool sweaters became damp and maybe between our legs too. I remember you said the sleeping person looked like a child, even though he was a man in a business suit.
“I felt the exact same thing,” I said and decided I liked this external and internal dampness. “But, who’s this artist? They remind me of Marina Abramovich,” I said, trying to look in your eyes, but your glasses were covered in specks of rain.
“Possibly,” you said, “More mysterious.”
We had not heard of this artist. Their name was R.L.. Hernandez.
The next day, I texted you that I wanted to go back to the museum. My hands were shaking. I couldn’t tie my tie. You hadn’t sent any follow up text after the museum. But, you responded, “You should!” The exclamation point gave me hope in a lot of ways. I shaved my beard. I bought a new sweater at J.Crew.
But you didn’t say we should go together and I wondered if I’d see you again. Your damp wool reminded me of the sheepdogs from my parents’ farm. But, I had always felt exactly like a sheep dog. And you seemed so much higher, like a wolf or an asteroid.
We had met online. You said you loved conceptual art and we spent our first meet up talking over warm beers and the different artists we liked. I used to drink a lot of beer back home and when you suggested “The Tooth and Hair” pub, I thought you had googled me—I thought you knew that I was from the UK and picked the most English pub in Toronto.
You mentioned the British artist, Hamish Fulton in the conversation and it felt like another drop. I was impressed. I had liked the idea of his walks and his photographs. I had always liked his name too. I had the feeling that you and I would never get past this beer and conversation stage. We had a coziness, but it was a very deliberate platonic connection. Maybe we got close too soon so there wasn’t any time for the weird tension that can build up to sex. Women who I almost have had sex with get in my dreams and in the vapors over my kettle. Your friendship was actually quite refreshing. Romance can be exhausting and time consuming and dangerous.
So when I got to the sleeping person exhibit again, I wondered if I would see you. I had included the time I was going: “Going to museum at noon.” It was a statement that was a question. But, I didn’t see you in the few strangers who walked around, softly, holding pamphlets to their chest, whispering to each other or taking photos of the other art work. Photography was not allowed in the sleeping person exhibit. The flash would disturb the sleeping person.
I walked into the dim room, painted with a really sad and lovely yellow. And in the middle was a raised platform with a single square mattress. I think that yesterday the business man looked so much like a child because no one sleeps in single beds except children and maybe nuns or priests.
The room had the white noise of people whispering and there was a fan going on in the corner. The kind a mother would prop up on a hot night, after the daughter asked for one.
The sleeping person today was a very tall woman with very red cheeks. She looked Russian, but like the old way we think of Russians. Not, the new way, where they are actually quite beautiful and contemporary. This woman had on a hand-knitted sweater and she had dark hair that had been braided, but I could see from the rubber bands near the bed that she took them off to sleep.
The rules of the exhibit were that anyone could take a nap, but the person waking up had to ring the chimes and anyone standing in the yellow taped triangle on the floor would be the next sleeping person. I think this was to discourage lines and to discourage people from sitting and waiting. The curators were afraid of the hostility similar in the Marina Abramovic “The Artist is Present” exhibit. People were eager to connect with her and so oddly, were mean and awful to those in the line. It was ironic, since the line could have been a chance to connect with a stranger, which was the point of the exhibit. It showed how much we care about Gods and celebrity and heroes. We think that certain people have the exact thing we need and no one else.
There were these little tiny stools around the room to sit and watch the sleeping person.
I sat down. I think I liked the exhibit because I liked to feel the vulnerability that comes with watching people sleep. It’s a strange inclusion into their life. When I was little, I’d watch my father sleep on the couch and his face looked like a still bath of emotion. Or like a statue or maybe someone that was a step away from death. It was actually quite frightening to me and I had the habit of blowing air on to his face, so his eyelids would react. I needed to constantly reassure myself he was alive.
In the corner of the exhibit was an attendant who brought in new sheets for each person. But, the sleeper had to change the sheets for the next person. This added another weird and beautiful moment of intimacy. A stranger prepares a bed for another stranger.
The Russian woman made me realize the divinity of sleep. Sleep was a gift from the gods. Hours in the day where they would take care of the work of our world.
I stayed on the stool for an hour until she woke up, changed her sheets and rang the chimes. A middle aged man was in the triangle and he smiled when he heard the music. He took off his blazer and the glasses he wore. He looked like a professor and he was one of those people whose face, with the absence of glasses, looked like a weird owl.
I wondered if the date would come here again. I guess I wanted to share this man’s sleep with her. He looked like he was from India or Pakistan and he pulled off his shoes to reveal long dark socks. Then he took off his socks too. There was an audible change in the people watching, like he was letting us in on another layer of secret of his life: his bare feet. He slept with a small smile on his face and I felt a real sense of happiness from him. His feet looked like his face without glasses, in that they were exposed without the presence of the hot socks. He looked like he only needed a good book to be happy. His life had been full of so many interesting thoughts that they shaped his mouth into a smile.
My date never came back to the exhibit and so I stood behind some kids who looked playful and rambunctious. They didn’t look like they would hold out for the sleeping part. They kept saying, “Is it real? Is she really sleeping?” I wondered then if it were real. I read the artist’s statement. It was in Helvetica on the wall. The artist R. L. Hernandez had been born in Portugal but now lived in New York. There was no photo of the artist but I googled the name and I found a photo. It was my date.
I had just gone on a date with the artist of the sleeping person exhibit. And now, looking back at our interactions, with this knowledge, it clicked. Of course you were R. L. Hernandez. And, I wondered if maybe your whole life was curated experiences. You had curated those beers and this exhibit. You had curated the statement to not include your photo and to not say your full name and I knew then I could never love you because you were trying to be someone in control of everything. Like you were the God of Sleep. And, so I started to cry. There were other sadness in my life, what I had left in England, the memory of my father when he was alive but sleeping and suddenly, I was back in England as a child weeping inside the bathroom, looking down at my flannel pajamas and thinking how I really wanted the blue ones, but my mom got me the red ones. We can’t control anything in our lives.
I inched up closer to the mattress and I was on the triangle. The walls at the museum had gotten so intensely yellow and it smelled faintly of hand sanitizer which was a cruel reminder that outside this space, everything was sanitized. I wish I could tell those kids that it was real. It was absolutely real. And, I knew then if I had kids of my own, I would never tell them these stupid myths about Santa and the tooth fairy. I would always be on the inside with them; whatever I knew, they knew too. And this decision, resolved something deep within me, fixed a skewed internal alignment.
And then the sleeping person awoke and he rang the chimes and I was in the triangle and he looked at me happily, as if sleeping here would cure me. As if I would be my dad sleeping on the couch. As if I would finally get the blue pajamas. As if I would understand my date somehow. Not really know her, but understand something deep and essential about her. Like, I could enter this platform and sleep on the bed and I would have the experience of a long marriage with her and when I woke, the marriage would be turned into the memory of dream. The man fixed up the sheets and then he sprayed some lavender spray, which I hadn’t realized was available and it felt like a gift and like everything would be okay if I just took off my socks and lay down in my new sweater and slept, like a child, in this museum, in front of all these people. As if this would be enough. About the Author:Alexis David is a fiction writer and poet. She holds a MFA in fiction from New England College. She also has a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where she went to school as an Art Scholar in Creative Writing. She has published in My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry (BlazeVOX 2017), Green Mountains Review and Ghost City Press, among others. She writes in a glass room while looking at trees.