Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Moscow I

Published in Strays.

Wassily Kandinsky Moscow

“Would you take $35?”

The piece itself wasn’t what he really wanted, but it would fill space on the blank slate of a wall in his office that overlooked his desk. It was empty, the wall, and the canvas print would help solve that problem. He enjoyed the artist’s work, but less so of this specific work–it just happened to show up in an online marketplace search, and he just happened to be in need of a piece to bring some color to the room. This was a simple problem with a practical solution.

“Would you take $35?”

The message lingered in the chat window with a “read” receipt showing the seller had viewed the inquiry, but not replied. Minutes passed. Then an hour. He would have paid the asking price, $39, but figured it worth saving a few bucks if he could. “Why not?” he thought to himself, only halfway interested in the piece to begin with and only halfway interested in driving to pick it up. Then, came the reply.

“If it would make a difference to you.”

The reaction was surgical in its precision. Regardless of intent, it sliced through a nerve in the patient, creating a jolt of internal feedback. Anger. Shame. Frustration. Irritation. “How dare she?,” he thought. But what he meant was, “How did she know?”

In a fury of activity he closed the chat window and deleted the message, as hostile a reaction as he could muster in the moment. The thoughts still lingered, however, like slightly out of reach itch, begging to be satisfied without any way of actually doing so. They were just there, sitting in his mind, simmering. “I didn’t deserve that?” came one thought. “What a wretched person,” another.

An onlooker might have chimed in with a question, reacting differently; not taking the reply as a wholly personal affront. “What if she meant ‘sure,’ but was also frustrated the already low price of her art was being arbitrarily lowballed?” “What if she meant ‘fine,’ but was taken aback that she, herself from Moscow, was haggling over an object that carried some sort of memory, if only in name, beckoning to another place and time in her life?” “What if she really just meant ‘that’s fine’?”

But all he could hear were his own thoughts, muddled together in a stew of insecurity. Hours passed with this meaningless interaction stuck in his psyche like a mental sliver. “Four dollars didn’t at all make a difference to me, really, so why didn’t I just offer less in the first place?” “Why didn’t I actually lowball her if I didn’t want the piece that badly?” “And why didn’t I do that before deleting the message, just to make sure she knows I don’t care about her or her damned art?!”

Sitting at his desk, his mind began to wander as his attention returned to the empty wall. The blankness of it stared back at him. The utter nothingness of the space that greeted him every time he entered the room was still there. He’d hoped to cover it up, to bring warmth or character to the room, but also to avoid remembering why it was now sitting blank in the first place. As he looked up and the wall looked down upon him, it now spoke back.

“At what cost?”