Chapter 16: Different Rooms
“Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing.” –Julia Cameron
June 3, 2012
The first Sunday in June was bright, sunny, and warm. May had brought with it four Sundays of spring rain, though it had warmed slightly with each one.
Eric was glad to be outside without any kind of coat or over-shirt on. He stopped by the usual sandwich shop and picked up his usual order. And—as usual—Ben had called it in that morning. Eric had, in the last four and a half months, become “friends” of sorts with all the usual guards that manned the control room on Sundays at the MET. The people on that shift stayed more-less consistent.
Eric had learned that Ben liked consistency, and there was little turn-over within his main crew—which consisted of those in the control room, the guards at the front entrance, and the shift leaders for the other guards that roamed the museum. Ben’s main crew of twenty people worked Sundays as well as the earlier shifts on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The only ones that really changed on Ben’s crew were the fifty-three “foot guards” that were in constant patrol around the huge museum; Eric had become familiar with some of them too as the months had progressed. However, he liked the close-knit little group in the control room the best, and—by extension—Milos and Jack, who would rotate in and out of that room as the guards took turns eating their lunches.
Ever since that first Sunday when he’d followed Sookie into the MET, he’d returned each week that he could, missing just two so far. He’d been absent those Sundays only because he’d been overseas on NP business. Those weeks had left him so discombobulated that he’d rearranged several out-of-town meetings since then so that he could be back on Sundays.
Eric always got to the museum at around 12:30, and after a few weeks, he’d started to bring lunch for the others on what Tony now called “Sookie Watch.” Eric’s unerring accuracy about Sookie’s choice for her lone picture had gotten him banned from the “official betting pool” after three weeks. However, Doris insisted that he tell them his pick each week.
He’d missed on his guess only twice—two weeks that Doris happened to win. Her only response to him had been an “Uh-huh.”
Other than Ben, Eric had appreciated Doris the most out of the crew after that. Other people had won the pool on various weeks, though about half of the time, the prize carried over—especially when Sookie visited a gallery with a lot of pieces in it. Eric could tell that the others won only through lucky guesses, but Doris seemed to understand something about Sookie that most didn’t. The shift leaders and quite a few of the more regular roving guards on the Sunday shift also participated in the pool, especially when Sookie was in a larger gallery or the money had been carried over for several weeks; however, Eric really didn’t see them much since they generally made their guesses before he arrived. Of course, the “core group” of Ben’s crew always got the first picks.
Eric’s own Sunday routine put him at the gallery for around five hours each week. He would arrive with the lunch and then watch Sookie finish up her perusal of that day’s gallery before she went to “their” gallery, number 823. There she would sit on the bench Eric had had put in for her. Of course, no one on the Sunday crew knew for sure that the new furniture had been made possible because of a donation from him. However, Ben had given Eric a knowing look the Sunday after the bench had been placed right in front of Wheat Field with Cypresses.
Ben Anderson had always been perceptive. Maria, his wife of thirty-eight years, certainly appreciated the fact that he knew when he needed to bring home flowers and when he needed to bring home her favorite bottle of wine. He could always pick up her mood from her tone; hell—he made a point of picking up her mood from her tone. He was not a fan of being the one “in trouble,” after all.
His ability to see things that others didn’t was what made Ben really good at his job. God knows—he didn’t look like he should be the head of security at one of the foremost museums in the world. He was only 5’8″, and—though he jogged—he’d never been one to work out with weights. In short, his physical appearance wasn’t enough to intimidate anyone. But he’d worked his way up the ranks in security, nonetheless, mostly because his attention to detail was unmatched.
And he certainly knew the difference between a coincidence and a gift, and the bench that had mysteriously made its way into Gallery 823 less than a week after he met Eric Northman was no coincidence. However, he’d still not quite figured out the man who had given a piece of furniture—in a public museum—as a love letter to a woman. All he knew for certain was that Eric didn’t mean Sookie any harm and that he was—for lack of a better word—”hurting.” Yes—the young man was hurting from the inside out.
However, it was clear that Eric loved Sookie Stackhouse—even if he never approached her. From what Ben had gathered, Eric hadn’t known the girl for long, but he seemed to know her “well” nonetheless.
For his part, Ben didn’t doubt the power—or the immediacy—of love. His Maria had him happily tethered to her after about a minute of conversation, and Ben had never had reason to doubt his love for her; even after almost forty years, she still took his breath away when she didn’t mean to. It wasn’t even that he loved her any more or any less than he had the moment he’d first laid eyes on her. It was just that he “knew” her better. He “liked” her better. The “love” part had simply remained the same—a constant in his life. The constant in his life. Ben had worked at the MET even longer than he’d known Maria. He’d seen a lot of art, but he knew that his wife was the true masterpiece.
Ben could recognize the same thing in Eric that had happened to him. At almost sixty years old, he had witnessed many kinds of love. He’d seen the kind that came on slowly. And he’d experienced firsthand the kind that came on like it had been propelled by a rocket. It was that kind that Eric was dealing with, but the young man was also clearly in denial, clearly keeping himself away from the object of his desire for some reason that Ben couldn’t quite fathom.
The head of security sighed quietly as he saw Sookie take a seat on Eric’s “love letter.” He’d seen the light in her eyes when she’d first seen the bench, so obviously it had been the perfect token of affection. Ben figured that the bench was something impersonal enough not to frighten the clearly skittish girl. But it was also a strangely intimate gesture. Ben could tell that the painting it sat in front of was very meaningful to both Sookie and Eric; however, that meaning remained an enigma to Ben, just like the two people themselves.
Even if he never figured them out, however, Ben hoped that they could figure each other out.
In the last months, Ben had grown extremely fond of Eric Northman. He was generous in more ways than just buying them all lunch each Sunday. Several times, he’d asked Ben about the budget cuts at the museum. Almost invariably after their conversations, something happened to temper the deficiencies that Ben had spoken to Eric about. Ben was almost certain that Eric was the source of the improvements that were being made. However, nothing the young man had done had been showy, and he’d certainly not talked or bragged about any actions he’d taken.
While Eric’s father, Appius Northman, donated a lot more money, Ben had come to learn that it was always in exchange for something—his name on a whole damned wing of the museum, recognition being given by the Press, or just to outdo another giver. Hell—the Matisse show that had ended a couple of months before had been called the “Appius Northman Matisse Collection.”
Eric was obviously different from his father. And—when the young man was unguarded as he lost himself in his observations of Sookie Stackhouse—Ben could sense that there was something sad and deeply broken in him. At those times, every paternal instinct in Ben called out for him to help the young man.
About a month after Eric’s visits had started, Ben had asked Eric why he’d not approached Sookie after the first week. Eric’s five-word answer had told Ben a lot about the young man. He’d whispered the words: “I do not deserve her.”
Ben could only hazard guesses about why the generous, kind young man didn’t feel he deserved to approach Sookie. Eric Northman was rich and successful. And—as far as Ben’s sharp senses could tell—he was a good man, an honorable man. Yet something big was obviously holding him back.
And Eric was certainly a sought-after young man. Doris would often bring in Page 6 of the Post and would share the latest pictures of Eric and Isabel Edgington with the crew on the days that Eric and Sookie were not there. Invariably—speculations had been made about why Eric came to the MET on Sundays.
Doris’s guess was the one that most people—including Ben—believed: that Sookie and Eric were some kind of Romeo and Juliet story, kept apart by their families or because of the differences in their social class. Ben certainly hoped that they didn’t end up like that Shakespearean couple.
Intellectually, Ben knew that he should have put a stop to Eric’s basically spying on Sookie on Sundays, but he couldn’t—not after having witnessed the moment between them in Gallery 111. Ben couldn’t hear what they’d said to each other, but it was obvious that there was something special between them—clear even through the black and white video feed.
Plus, Eric generally didn’t watch Sookie for long. He—like her—always followed a routine, coming to the MET a little before the time that he knew Sookie would visit Gallery 823. After she left that room to get her lunch, Eric would proceed to the gallery she’d visited that morning. There, he would get lost in his own perusal of the art for a couple of hours—until Ben would call him to let him know that Sookie was on her way back.
Many times, Ben had thought about not calling him; he’d thought about just letting Sookie find Eric in the gallery. Ben wanted to give them a nudge so that they could be together. However, his impeccable instincts told him that Eric and Sookie were not be ready for that nudge. Plus, he didn’t want to break Eric’s trust. He had a feeling that the young man didn’t give it easily, and he wanted to keep it.
After looking through the gallery Sookie had gone to until she returned from her lunch, Eric would always text Doris with his guess for Sookie’s favorite piece of the day, and then he would go to Gallery 823 and sit on the same bench Sookie had sat on earlier. After she left the MET for the day, Ben would text him, and Eric would walk down to the control room to find out what she’d chosen, and—against all odds or logic—he was right most of the time.
Doris called the whole thing “romantic.” However, Ben thought it was rather tragic. The thought of two obviously lonely and good individuals moving in and out of the galleries in such a way that they were never together in the same room hurt his heart—a little more each week.
However, at the same time, he understood something fundamental. His museum—and, yes, he thought of it as his—could heal people. Over the years, he’d seen the power that the art could have on people. He’d seen people break down into tears in front of certain pieces. He’d seen parents hug their children tighter. He’d seen couples embracing as they found some truth in a piece of art. Such revelatory moments didn’t happen often, but when he saw one, it always made Ben’s heart leap. Ben had realized that the kind of healing that the museum was doing for Sookie and Eric was subtle, but no less powerful for its cunning.
They simply needed time. And the museum was nothing if not a vessel of time.
Ben sighed as he looked at the young man looking at the young woman through the video feed. He was not going to interfere with their healing, even though part of him did want to push the two lonely souls together.
A/N: Please forgive this chapter for being shorter than usual. It was originally part of a larger chunk, but that section got too big, and it was difficult to break it up. I hope you enjoyed a little Ben POV.
Thanks to all that wrote in with reviews and comments for the last chapter.