All My Little Words is The Argus’ love-centric column. We publish personal essays, poems, humorous pieces, and other creative written work that focuses on themes of love, loss, labor, and loneliness—romantic and not. To submit an article, please send 1000-1500 words to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.
In Gallery 613 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is a painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze called Broken Eggs. It lies in the heart of the museum, in a room dedicated to French portraiture from the eighteenth century. The painting is oriented around a dropped basket of eggs, strewn on the floor at the bottom of the canvas, the linen that once held them together tumbling out of the wicker structure. Around the basket are clustered: an old woman, seemingly outraged by the mishap; a younger man attempting to soothe her rage; and a young woman seated next to the basket, gazing sadly down at the broken shells and spilled yolk.
The emotional crux of the painting, though, is a young boy pushed off to the far right of the composition, who hunches over a stool holding two shell halves together with the kind of crestfallen, regretful guilt that only a young child can express. His pudgy fingers clutch the shell with foolish urgency, and his cherubic cheeks flush with shame as he tries with all his might to hold the shells together as their contents ooze onto the floor not so far beneath him. Even the curly wisps of fine hair atop his head seem fraught with effort, straining to recapture something that has very definitively fallen apart.
I used to gaze at the painting as a young child, maybe a few years older than the boy himself, while my parents wandered the gallery in search of Rembrandts and Vermeers. It seemed so silly that he thought he could fix the mess that it seemed he’d clearly made. It was childish, and naïve, and I felt smarter than him. I never guessed that, at 21 years old, I would end up understanding him more than ever.
Since I stood below that painting as a child, its events looming over me in all their irrevocability, I’ve acquired a number of lenses through which to understand it. I could tell you about the triangular composition formed by the young woman’s bowed head, the man’s cap, the old woman’s hunch, and the child’s miniature figure. I could point to how each figure draws the eye down toward the basket, whether through a pose, a line of sight, or a very literal pointed hand. I could inform you that the man stands slightly contrapposto, a pose most famously associated with Donatello’s marble David sculpture from the 15th century. I could belabor you about Greuze’s effective use of chiaroscuro, and the way the sun streaming in from the small window at the upper left highlights the painting’s primary focus while casting the rest of the room in dark shadow. I could even tell you about the Paris Salon of 1757 where the painting was first exhibited, a prestigious biennial show put together by the Académie des Beaux Arts that would eventually reject the first-ever Impressionist paintings.
But nothing I’ve learned in any art history class equipped me to understand this painting in quite the same way as I do now. Now, the look on that child’s face gives me a sharp pang of recognition that only someone trying to mend their own eggs can truly feel.
I’d largely forgotten about Broken Eggs when, more than ten years later, I placed all my eggs in someone else’s basket. I did so tentatively, gradually cradling each one in my palm and deliberating before lowering it gently down. Henry was clumsy, in ways that weren’t just physical, and he knew it. The first week we spent together, I spent every night in his eclectically decorated room, surrounded by old prints gifted to him by enamored professors and tattered posters ripped from skateboarding magazines. That week I learned about his scars (literal and figurative) and I told him about mine (figurative). His damage was so apparent, so present, it was there on his skin, in ink that pierced it all up his right forearm and jagged stitches that ran down his left. It made him reckless, and it made me wary.
He had broken more eggs than either of us could count, and he held their shells together with such fervor that he merely crushed them more. His determination to fix his own recklessness manifested in a childish belief that, if he could get it right just once, he could fix all the other times he couldn’t. We convinced each other that, maybe, that was true.
Needless to say, he broke all my eggs. I don’t think he meant to. Sometimes I think the child in the painting resembles him more than it does myself, utterly befuddled by what has just occurred and, despite knowing deep down that it can’t be undone, foolishly attempting to do so anyway. I think he felt old enough, steady enough, stable enough, to carry the basket, and when he realized he wasn’t, he held on as long as he could, grasping for control until he lost it completely and the little white orbs tumbled to the floor in a mess of heartbreak, regret, and bitterness. I’ll never forget how guilty he looked when he ended things, how disappointed in himself he seemed. He couldn’t mend what he’d broken, and I knew it was up to me to gather up the mess and find new eggs, ones larger and hardier than the first set. I had at my disposal a cohort of dedicated, patient friends who would help me find them. Until then, they helped me hold the shattered ones together.
The morning after he left, I woke up early and I cleaned. I gathered up the bottle caps strewn around the house and put them in the recycling bin. I transferred all the glasses to the sink, emptying them of their miscellaneous liquids and squirting a few drops of dish soap into each. I wet a sponge and wiped down all the sticky surfaces. My roommates joined me one by one, each emerging with a yawn from their rooms as morning turned slowly into midday and silently telling me, as they donned rubber gloves and dug through drawers for extra sponges, that they understood. I found myself wishing I could turn all the scrubbing inward, wash away the bad feelings and stow them away in the cupboard while I went about my day. Clean up the mess that had been left there by lost love and render my mind spotlessly happy. But for the moment, the plates and bowls would have to suffice.
That week, we cleaned what there was to be cleaned. It felt silly, vacuuming away my broken heart, sweeping the crumbs of a severed relationship into a dustpan. But most of the time it felt like the only plausible option. Sometimes all you can do is scoop the yolk of a broken egg back into the hollow shell and hold the top half to its bottom, no matter how ridiculous it feels. You do it until you can find another basket of eggs.
Two weeks ago, I quite literally dropped an egg. It was the last one in the carton, cradled by the ovoid chamber on the far left side, and I knew it was a mistake to hold the imbalanced cardboard sleeve in one hand while emptying the contents of a skillet into a bowl with the other. I didn’t even feel it slip out, nor did I see it land—the only indication of its dismal fate a very faint crack drowned out by the oil sizzling near my right elbow. But when I turned to toss the pan into the sink, there it was, an ugly muddle of yellow flecked with brown shards, pooling in the corner where the linoleum floor met the wall. I watched the viscous liquid ooze lazily from where the shell had been crushed by the impact of the floor. I thought of Henry, and of messes, and I wondered if he would ever find a way to clean his up. I hope he does. It seems like a sad way to live, surrounded by shattered shells and oozing yolks. I tore a lengthy portion of paper towel, wet it, and bent to gather up what I’d dropped, compressing it into a soggy bundle and tossing it into the trash. The next day, I woke up to the smell of fresh omelettes and a gaggle of roommates yawning over toast, impatiently awaiting their breakfasts. In the fridge sat a fully stocked carton of large, brown eggs.
Danielle Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org