There are two entrances to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The main entrance on Huntington Avenue is serviced by the E branch of the green line and swallowed by Northeastern University. The grandeur of the facade is almost entirely muted by its surroundings: dorm buildings, greasy pizza-cum-falafel shops, a few anonymous offices.
The other, more secluded entrance faces Fenway and offers a segmented glimpse of the Boston skyline. Two sculpted-iron infant heads flank the gray stone steps. Between them, lit softly from below, are a deer and a hunter with a half-taut bow. The hunter has released his arrow and the deer’s hind legs are folded toward its midsection; we never see the arrow, so there’s no way to tell if they’re folded in escape or defeat.
There’s also no way to tell whether walking between the sculptures and up the steps means putting yourself in harm’s way. You could, in theory, chart a path around the action, but it’s difficult to describe how obtuse that seems in the moment. There’s something desperate and incorrect about swapping one threshold for another when the first one is… right there.
I’ve always preferred the Fenway entrance. It’s the one I used during my freshman year of college, when I would walk to the museum from my dorm in Kenmore square as a reminder that being here, in this city, with the liberty to walk from my bedroom to a hall of Monets, meant that I’d accomplished something.
It took me over a year to stumble on the Huntington entrance. One night, I was breathless, drunk, and needed to lie down somewhere where an Uber could find me without too much trouble. I sunk into the first patch of grass my feet found, and one of my friends said, “Hey, this is the MFA,” and I said, “No it’s not,” and I shut my eyes, and I was wrong.
Today, I’m taking the T to the museum, and it will drop me off on the drunk-and-wrong side, so I will walk around the block and cross the hunter’s threshold and assure a hesitant older woman that yes, this entrance is open, even at night. I’ll show my student ID to get free admission, even though I graduated eight months ago, and I’ll hope that an evening to myself in this place will make up for the fact that I had a bad day at work, but also for other things, and it’s because of those other things and also the bad days at work that I’m probably going to leave Boston in the next few months.
In 1967, Joan Didion wrote “Goodbye to All That” when she decided to move from New York to San Francisco, barely two hours out from her native Sacramento. From the essay: “There was a song on all the jukeboxes on the Upper East Side that went, ‘but where is the schoolgirl that used to be me,’ and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that sooner or later, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”
I’m writing this as my resolve hardens to move from Boston to Portland, barely one hour out from my native Banks. I’m about to be twenty-three and I can’t make my lips form the words “I want to move coasts because I’m unhappy” because I can’t stomach the thought that my extra-singular singularity might be swallowed up by all that contrary evidence.
I liked going to college here. I made some of the best friends I will ever make. I wrote for and about and alongside people I never felt worthy of writing for or about or alongside. I fell in love and then fell sharply out of love and forced myself to have things and nights and weekends I didn’t think I was allowed to have.
And now it’s time to go.
I’ve made it up the stairs and through the lobby and I’m wandering the museum’s contemporary wing when I come to a rectangular room hung with Nan Goldin photographs. Each wall tackles a discreet subject — one for drag queens, one for couples, one for opium, and so on. The eastern wall is covered in beautiful, grainy portraits young queer men, some my age, some a little older. Two grad students embrace on a bed somewhere in Cambridge; a pair of lovers both named Matthew mug for the camera. In one photo, a shirtless boy in cutoff jeans lays on his stomach at a sun-kissed pier. He’s surrounded by other boys in other cutoff jeans and girls in sunglasses and plenty of things I can’t see that I’m only beginning to realize how much I want.
I’m staring at this picture when I think something equal parts humiliating and sincere: how did anyone do anything before the Internet?
I can’t remember the last time I went somewhere new for dinner without googling the menu first. Just a few minutes ago I was sitting in the dark of a video projection room, scrolling through Grindr, flummoxed at the thought of actually meeting any of the men I saw face-to-face on this freezing Wednesday night.
How did the Matthews find each other? What’s it like to sculpt your life without the prying eyes of The Culture providing constant comment? How do you deal when you discover that your own eyes are prying hardest?
I catch my reflection in edge of the photo’s glass frame and recoil. I look… good. I got new glasses and a good haircut and a nice wool shirt that cuts my neck in just the right way. I don’t look happy, though, and I’m rattled to see my face splattered with the wear of what is clearly more than a momentary dip. My jaw is clenched and my brows are pushed together and I look profoundly lost in this room full of pictures of lost people finding one another, and it occurs to me that for the first time, my difficulty might not be the byproduct of hard-but-necessary self-improvement.
I think about all the traditionally horrible costs of becoming a beautiful person: all the gouging and snapping and harvesting that feeds our growth. I think about the serenity of stasis; how it’s politically moderate and fundamentally attractive. And I think about the horrors and the comforts of my life right now, and I realize how easy it is to mistake atrophy and decay for gouging and snapping.
On my walk to dinner, I consider the very real possibility that all of this is a temper tantrum. I start ticking boxes: no, I’m not running from a mess I’ve created; yes, I realize that wherever I go, that’s where I am; sure, I’m forming this plan during the bleakest weeks of the New England winter. For the first time in my life, though, my cataloguing doesn’t put my yearning to bed. I sink into my stance a bit. I think of the deer’s hind legs.
I pick a restaurant at the edge of my old college campus. When I finally sit with a beer and a sandwich and a notebook to start writing all of this down, I overhear the phone conversation the boy next to me is having. He’s impeccably-dressed, kind-eyed, and probably gay.
“We’re gonna FaceTime every day,” he says, his tone so reassuring and stern that it almost laps itself and becomes a whine. “It’ll be okay.”
It’s the second week in January, and the study abroads have just flown the coop. Two years ago, I was one of them. I called my then-boyfriend the day I touched down in London with a tangle of fears and premonitions caught in my throat. “We’re gonna FaceTime every day,” he said then. “It’ll be okay.” We didn’t, and it wasn’t, and tissues got gouged and tendons were snapped, and all of it made me better.
Where is the schoolgirl who used to be me?
I close my notebook and walk into the night. The air’s so much colder on the outside, but it’s a relief, and for a second, trading one threshold for another doesn’t sound so insane.