Quentin sauntered through the museum alone, taking a serpentine path through crowds of people all thoroughly more interested than he. A vibrant red Cardinals hat sat over dark locks of unkempt, thinning hair; he told his girlfriend, Lila, it would make it easier to spot him in the crowd. He found any museums boring, but to him, the modern galleries of any art museum were the bane of his existence.
Small groups of backpack wearing children followed tour guides around like the seven dwarfs trailing Snow White through a forest of chipper woodland creatures. Clusters of tourists shuffled to and fro, snapping pictures as guards waited to reprimand them for not turning off the flash. Quentin looked around for Lila; she was nowhere in sight. He glanced at his watch. He still had two hours to kill until they met back at the gift shop. He groaned.
Turning a corner to an empty whitewashed hall, Quentin noticed a bench half shrouded in shadow by a burned-out bulb. He strolled along, planning to sit and kill some time on his phone by mindlessly scrolling through social feeds. As he was about to sit, he noticed a dark room cordoned off and approached; the exhibit was closed, but the name caught his interest: The Cozen.
Quentin furtively scanned the empty hall for patrollers or cameras, then ducked under the dividing straps and entered the dimly lit room. He immediately heard a faint thrumming; it was almost melodic, undulating on the air’s current. The pieces lining the walls left nothing but vague impressions, strange shapes, and indistinguishable forms.
Quentin jumped, spinning around in a start. He was busted.
But the room was empty; he spun around again, his heartbeat falling as his fear dissipated.
Then, he saw it. A faint azure glow, beaming from a void in the middle of the room toward an obscure piece on the far wall. He slowly advanced, the work becoming more evident in his approach. The sea-blue glow reflected off his face like moonbeams off a rippling lake, shooting fractals of aqua light in all directions. Momentarily, Quentin thought he was looking at the most beautiful naked woman he’d ever seen doing a hypnotic under-water dance. Then, as he stepped directly to the edge of the partitioning rope, he gasped. He was looking at himself, but this was not a reflection.
The man who stared back at him was more. More than Quentin had ever been. His double-chin, stubbled and flecked with gray, was gone, replaced by a smooth, masculine jaw. His shoulders broad, his paunch vanished, his waist tapered. It was a reflection of all the potential he’d ever dream of obtaining; his weaknesses all swept aside, born with the genetic potential of a greek god. He removed his hat to discover a hairline in its proper place, his hair lush and thick.
“This does not have to be a fantasy…” his reflection revealed a mouth of perfect teeth in a smile that would melt women’s hearts.
Quentin’s pulse quickened, he inched forward, mesmerized. He reached out toward this other self, this underwater sculpture of muscle and dreams. The Other, the magnificent reflection of realized potential, extended a granite arm, reaching, reaching. They connected as separate icicles melting into one frigid pool. Every fear, every doubt, every worry, and care or cause for concern that had ever fallen heavily upon Quentin during his mediocre life vanished.
Three weeks later, Lila braved a return to the gallery. As far as she knew, her good for nothing boyfriend had skipped town for some unknown reason, and she believed revisiting the last place they’d been together would be therapeutic. Lila heard a new exhibit was open, and this time she’d be able to stay as long as she wanted without hearing her significant other’s complaints. A surge of painful emotions swept over her when she saw the bench at the hall’s end – the place where they’d found Quentin’s phone.
The room was packed; a person stood at the entrance clicking a handheld device as people came and went, ensuring the gallery didn’t become a large can of human sardines. Lila eyed the exhibit’s curious name and stopped to inquire.
“What does cozen mean?” she asked the man in the burgundy jacket.
“To trick, or obtain by deception, ma’am,” he replied.
“Hmm, that’s a peculiar name for an exhibit,” she said, thoughtfully.
The man nodded with a subtle smirk and extended an arm to welcome her inside.
She found the artwork grotesque, devoid of meaning, heartless and empty somehow. Each piece was a massive floor to ceiling work depicting the human form in terrifying and confounding manners. Lila imagined the artwork as horrid recreations of the circles of torment in Dante’s Inferno. Somehow, each figure was split: half wrapt by an indefinable bliss, the other half overcome with infinite affliction.
When she reached the final piece at the back corner of the room, Lila stood in a vortex of inexplicable confusion. She knew this piece; it was eerily familiar. She felt she had seen it, yet, this was impossible.
In it, a man flailed underwater; she could barely comprehend how a two-dimensional work could convey such movement. The man was muscle grown soft, contorted and twisted by an invisible pain. One aspect, however, became increasingly peculiar the longer Lila gazed upon it.
The man wore a distorted red cap, and though it was hard to discern in the image, the hat appeared inscribed with the letter C.