Image: Purple by Steve Clark & Yulia Vasiltsova, 2014, pintura
It’s the loudness that makes her shift back and forth in her high tops, not the humiliation. This is what she tells herself. The smash of the night crowd, their sharp tipsy voices–that’s the issue. She’d act the same if this wasn’t happening. They are on the other side, her three friends. Their pretty faces, pretty heels. They wave their hands around him, they entreat, palms out and apart, as if holding a baby, while they snap their glossed lips. They emit energy, distaste, anger. He doesn’t budge. They’d be taller than him without the heels, but still look like they belong at the same feast. They, at least now, seem less with her, more with him, this button of power, though their demeanor and words project the opposite, that they are on her side. He’s beautiful in his way, a turkey vulture in a gray suit and black V-neck. You could bounce a quarter off him. That he is not young, that he’s most likely her age, makes it worse. It’s not frivolity that excludes her, that keeps her on this side of the velvet rope, this smiling noose; it’s been thought out. He looks over their bobbing heads, scans the nightly glob vying to get in. Her friends cajole, plead, but they are only motes of dust for him, angry motes certainly, almost beautiful; but have no effect. He looks like he’s about to smile.
They usually went to a bar where they could talk, but one of them wanted to dance (fucking Clara with her pointy breasts); and suddenly they were all on the way. Usually she would’ve gone home (she hated clubs, the volume obliterating her strongest assets, her voice, intellect, humor.) But he was coming, and he knew she knew he was coming. It was mild enough when they’d met through Camilla, one of the select on the other side. A work friend of hers. They’d run into each other on Prince and Spring, had all gone for a drink. He was just out of her reach, but smart enough to notice and give her time. Shy and alluring behind his tortoise shell prescriptions, there was that glint. Of course he’d take an interest. She was the smart one, the funny one, the driven, the one who’d succeed. Who knew about books, film, philosophy. The other girls too, yes they were smart, independent, modern women, but when push came to shove, could rely on other natural gifts. Camilla had kidded her after he picked up the tab, how long they’d talked, rendering her, more or less, invisible.
When he shows up, she still has not crossed the rope. She watches him notice the girls over there hoping to pull a golden string. Trying to part the stanchions for her. She knows he knows what’s happened. He frequents these places enough to understand but not to affect. He smiles as if he doesn’t know what’s happening. The kindness of that. The kindly shape of his eyes. He says, «Hello,»and she’s recharged momentarily. This is all of no consequence, in the larger scheme (she knows this), though against her will, her cheeks and chest burn. Having him see her like this. «Hello.»
The man in the gray suit breaks away from her attacking gaggle, her pretty champions, unclasps the rope, and a group of five or six, a shiny cluster pulsates by her . . . Hair, teeth, victory. As the beauties strut in, two dudes fist-pump him. His colleague, the other man working, a sleek Jamaican fellow, whose job also is too unclasp, gestures back at the girls, the consort of anger simmering by the entrance, says, «What’s up?» The buzzard doesn’t think she can hear him, says out the side of his mouth. «Face Control.» He’s referring to her. It’s her face that’s being controlled. Being excluded, shut out. The colleague looks at her. Does she detect sympathy? A crack in the hard stance, this Saint Peter of the night? Perhaps for a second, but then he’s searching the crowd. Back to work. The vulture walks over to her friends, and she’s sure he’s telling them they can go inside or leave. Though she heard the two words, Face Control she’s quite sure he hasn’t. She hopes. She looks up, looking for escape in his attentive eyes. He takes a breath, and she knows he’s going to say, Let’s go somewhere else, but that’d be admitting what has happened has happened, and she can’t. She quickly raises her cell phone like a badge, and points to it, loudly shows her friends, I have to go, but they come toward her, struggling against another flashy influx. She calls out, «I really have to go!» They’re coming to leave with her, but she’ll not have it. She says something fast to him, hopes he’ll let this moment die quick. I have to be up so early. Something like this, she says, and apologizes, as she darts thankfully into a cab whose door has just vomited forth another burst of party people.
In the cab she feels relief. Relief the knife was not twisted by his disguised pity. She shakes it off, but tries not to feel rage toward this other man, the commander of the rope. She knows it’s not him specifically, it’s business. She does not add to the business model, does not contribute; in the loudness, where all is surface, she somehow costs them; and he is there, the buzzard, the whole festive machinery, is there, to make money. Who should she rage against? Soldiers don’t kill the men who make war, only other soldiers. Pawns eat pawns. How she would like at this moment to kill him. To watch him die. Face Control. She knows this feeling is temporary. Tomorrow, she’ll feel better. What will they have done? Hopefully they stayed. They did. She gets texts over the next couple hours. This place sucks, one of them writes. Where was she? Where did she go? They wanted to meet up. Later, it’s Clara mostly texting, telling her, they all went home early. She knows it’s true, though early for them is still two hours after her self-imposed curfew. They stayed, danced and drank. Who did he dance with? He doesn’t write her. She doesn’t expect him to. He doesn’t even have her number.
Uncharacteristically, she turns on the TV. It’s 2:30am. She needs to be stupid, become numb. Is there not beauty and peace in stupidity? Relief from herself, that voice bullying her. The rejection in her cousin’s eyes when they played behind the sofa. I don’t want to kiss you, you’re ugly. So are you, she’d said, and run to her mother’s lap. Am I ugly? No, my love, you are beautiful, and what’s better you are kind. I don’t want to be kind! How the table around the cooling pasta in Spring Lake, New Jersey erupted in laughter. Those awful, grown-up faces. I don’t want to be kind. Hahaha. How few are pretty, she thinks, and how little it matters, but it does, even now that it matters less, it still does. She stops on a channel in the high 100s. Something appeals to her about the mice in the cage, the guy in the lab coat. His groomed avalanche of saltpeter hair. It’s all clinical, almost sinister. He’s talking and she’s not listening but slowly the whiteness of his coat, his measured tone draws her in. What she comes to understand is that he’s been giving mice shocks, small electrical charges. Uncomfortable but not dangerous. He’s discovered the mice have two reactions. Some receiving the shock just take it, they don’t react. Others respond violently, attacking the electric wand, or the other mice. What the scientist discovers is that those who don’t react, suffer disorders. They become listless, depressed even, don’t eat. They lose the will to live. Those who lash out, thrive. She watches till the end, turns off the light and eventually finds sleep.
The next week an event happens that’s as likely as lightening striking a tin can off her head, except even that would be more likely than what happens on a Thursday at 6:15pm, when she receives a phone call from someone whose name she doesn’t catch. As it’s so absurd, I will try to put it here as plainly as possible. Her father who’s been long gone due to an unwillingness to have a camera explore his insides, or any yearly check ups for that matter, due to a stubborn, irrational fear of modern medicine and doctors, had a first cousin (she was previously unaware of) who had no children but had become immensely wealthy due to a lucky marriage and maybe even luckier divorce. When I say wealthy, I don’t mean duplex on Park Avenue, and never work again, but rather, What building shall I donate to ease the suffering of mankind? It’s so shocking, she feels the urge to vomit; in ninety seconds she has become just shy of the Forbes 400 list. She feels heat in her feet, in her chest, as she makes the appointment to sign the paperwork in a lawyer’s office overlooking Rockefeller Center. The deference this stranger on the phone, presumably a man high on the legal totem, is showing her is something she’s not used to, but will come to, if not expect, find normal over the next years. She’s suddenly Mrs not Miss. When she hangs up, she doesn’t call anyone. She needs to let this settle. She needs to recalculate what this means for the next 45 or so years of her existence.
The stylish turkey buzzard, the doorman, has a name, a full name, though most know him by the one word. The door guys, they all go by one. Flash, Jimbo, Tycoon, Rocky. At night over the ropes, the eager crowd launches these names like flares (are they made up?), hoping to be rescued from the sea of aspirants. To be let in. Into the comfortable rapture, the social knife-play of flirtation, of conquest. His real name is long, benign. This was supposed to be a temporary gig, but the money was good, a percentage of the door, plus the perks: a degree of name recognition among the «it-people», the posh and celebrated. Invites to parties etc. People were nice to him, at least the welcome residents of this nocturnal world, who meant dollars, either by spending or drawing them in. Of course there were the others, the ones who didn’t belong, and wanted to, who might, when they were drunk at least, prefer he was dead, insult him. One or two had spat at him. «Do you know who I am?» Do you know WHO THE FUCK I AM? «I’m calling [insert club owner’s name].» Though they often didn’t know the name of the real owner, but cited friends of friends. Of people inside. «Is so and so here?» «How about . . .» blah blah? It was all tiring, and now he didn’t drink or party, so it was just work. The sensual perks? He had slept around enough not to care about that anymore. It had actually become a romantic minus. Finding someone who wanted to be with a guy who worked every weekend until 4:30am wasn’t easy. Forty-two. Yesterday he’d Googled artists who were discovered after 42. Not many. So far on his resume? Paid art classes at the New York Academy of Art. His work had hung in two student shows. But that was when he was thirty. After work, he forced himself awake by 12:30pm. Coffee and then «the studio,» which was just the southern brick wall of his Chinatown loft. Dirty but enough space. These «mornings» were his favorite time of day. He didn’t look at his phone until 3pm (this was his time), then he might step out for lunch, meet a friend. On the two nights he didn’t work– a date one of them, work the other.
A techy, twenty-something promoter had done his website in exchange for hooking him up with work at the club. So his work was up there, out there, wherever there was, which was most likely nowhere. There was little traffic. Big art collectors, gallerists, curators, came into the club; and sometimes, if it came up, casually he’d show his work to them on his phone. Nothing more than «Cool» and a pat on the shoulder. Fuckers. He imagined how stupid they’d feel when he had his retrospective at MOMA. They’d flock. The art world–most of it was just warm white wine, bad canapés and shite. His work had gone from figurative to abstract; and now he’d hammered LED lights with dimmers into the backs of his canvasses so he could control the shadows behind his non-geometric shapes. At night he’d walk his abstract hall of paint, eerily lit, like what he hoped was a modern Caravaggio. Every day, he swung from thinking himself a genius to a hack. He had sold two paintings, one to his sister, whose husband in Maryland (a lawyer) could afford the 5,000 dollars and another at a discount, 2,500, to a dentist in Schenectady, New York. He was a friend of his uncle’s. He had driven up to hang the painting in that sad waiting room with the old copies of Time, the smell of fluoride and bacterial plastic. He thought how lucky this dentist would be when he made it. This waiting room would be a destination, a New York point of interest. That money meant little to him; he pulled that in a week, tax-free easily. But that someone had wanted to buy it, meant something. Sure he was a friend of his uncle, but no one had made him buy it. Somebody paid for his art. And if someone would, maybe many would.
It was a few months later that our friend received a call too. A less stunning call than the other, certainly, but maybe more welcome. A director from one of the top five galleries, not the start-ups, the east village or Bushwick ones, but one of those blue chips with galleries all over the world. The ones where those who make it, end up. She told him that she’d been to his club, randomly come across his work online. She’d been researching him. Her team had too. Would he like to have a coffee? He looked her up after he hung up. There she was, a director, at the parties, with the big shots. When he meets her, she’s thinner than her photos, somehow a little smaller, but elegant. Jeans, stylish mocassins, Cashmere sweater. Understated, expensive watch. What were they called? Patek Phillipe or Phillippe Patek? He could never remember. A throaty English (is it English or is it just an «Art»?) accent. Back at his apartment, his studio, she looks at the work, observes, says little. After they sit, and he serves herbal tea in a mug, she looks at him, says he’s Donald Judd with a painterly touch. He’s combining light and paint in a way that hasn’t been done before. Almost braiding them together, strands of different mediums, which are stronger entwined. Why hasn’t he shown? He shrugs, he’s been concentrating on work, not marketing. She points to one. It’s called «Race Car» and reminiscent of such (though still abstract). What one might think are the wheels are not attached. They emit light. She says, «Don’t sell this one. I want it.» He will hold it for her. They speak over the next three weeks, have coffee again twice. She’s busy, but makes time. She’s interested in him, the gallery is. He luxuriates in her intelligence, her knowledge of art, ancient and new. Over the next few weeks he feels he’s floating in a pool of cashmere and old books. He comes to her office above the gallery, meets two of her assistants. They have seen his work. They are fans too.
She convinces him to quit the door, dedicate himself fully. An artist needs to be one hundred percent. It’s about character, dedication. The world awards you publicly for what you do privately, she quotes someone famous. He’s inspired. This is what he’s been waiting for. This professional nudge. He quits. He’s dedicated, produces. She has not mentioned the show yet, but after three months she tells him they are giving him one in the spring. It’s fast, maybe too soon, but someone has dropped out, only fourteen weeks to prepare, to select, to make it perfect. Because he’s unknown, it must be perfect. She thinks he can do it. He says nothing as she casually runs through the guest list. There will be a dinner the night before for 200 people. He can invite 20, the rest of the spots are spoken for. Over the next months, she works with him closely, why this one is stronger than that one. She suggests a few smaller works too. They are easier to sell. Most buyers are sheep, if the right person buys, they all buy. Two weeks before the show, she assures him it will sell out before the opening. The press: Artnet, Modern Painters, Purple, they’re all lined up. It will be cool, fun too. Not entirely stuffy. He’s become a different person, who he truly is. It has paid off, he tells himself. My work has led me into life.
The day of the dinner he wakes up early. He jogs along the Hudson. He’s been eating healthy, he’s strong, lean. When he looks in the mirror, he could be ten years younger. Last night he was in the space, making the last microscopic adjustments with her. Let’s not clutter the entrance. These two should be closer than the rest. Two inches to the left, a half inch back to the right. They have chosen eight large pieces (eight feet by ten feet) and three smaller ones (four by four.) When he sees them all hanging, and she leaves for a quick meeting, he sits on the floor, and chokes up; he puts his head between his legs and hums to himself, his eyes closed tight.
«There’s nothing left do,» she says at midnight. He should rest until tomorrow. He also shouldn’t come too early, he should create anticipation, let everyone wait for him. Not much, a little. The invitation says drinks 6pm, dinner 8pm. He should arrive at 6:40. Just shy of obnoxious. No one arrives on time anyway. He goes over the guest list, in his mind, his list of 20, which was difficult because his mother and father wanted to bring all their friends from the old neighborhood. He said everyone else can come the next day but the dinner is special. It’s business. He thinks of each of them, how they must think of him now. His father, who loved but didn’t believe in him, all those conversations about law school. Something to rely on if it doesn’t work out. His sister has driven up from Maryland with her husband, and their two young boys. His grandmother and grandfather will make it though they are in their mid 80s. Their first big night out in ten years, since they’re 50th. He has hired a van for the family so they can all arrive together. Pool their excitement. What would they talk about in the van? He hasn’t invited his art teacher from the Academy to the dinner, but they hadn’t kept in close touch, nor the dentist in Schenectady but they had RSVP’d yes to the opening the next day. That was fine.
After his jog, he meditates, tries to nap. What can he do till 6:40? He paces. He decides to watch a movie. Which one? Basquiat. He watches with tears in his eyes. At 4pm, he tries to nap again but just lies in bed staring at the ceiling. At 6:15, he gets up, showers and walks out.
He takes a cab, doesn’t want to sweat, gets out around the corner. He wants to prepare by walking the block and a half. It’s cool, March air, he’s not going to sweat. He thinks of all the new faces that will look at his new face. Who he’s become. All those legends. He’s researched many of them, will drop comments here and there about acquisitions, artists they both like. He doesn’t have to be nervous. She’s already sold most of the show. They like him already and he hasn’t met them. She has said he’ll be pleasantly surprised with the sales, who’s bought. She’ll tell him tonight after the dinner. It’s better if he’s aloof, not concerned with sales tonight. He shouldn’t smile too much. He thinks of how he’ll talk about the art. I’m interested in the interplay between mediums, light and prima material. It’s a reflection of how I believe we are, we are made of the gross stuff of our bones, blood etc but also a kind of spiritual spark, or at least that’s what I want us to be, so that’s what I create (No, he stops himself, I should be humble and say, that’s what I attempt to create) with my art. He feels good, he’s ready. When he turns the corner, he catches his grandfather’s profile as he walks in. The last of his family . . . Their van idles in front. Perfect timing. He will say hello to his family first, they are, after all, what’s most important. He increases his pace. When he walks in, they are all there. His family. Fifteen of them. Also the five friends he’s permitted himself, including an ex who broke up with him (long story but this would impress the shit out of her). They all have a funny look as if they’ve entered the wrong space. His sister is typing into her phone, presumably to him. When they look up and see him, they smile. «There you are!» but he barely hears them.
Except for them, the room is empty. The works are gone and the lights have been ripped from the ceiling; they are in a construction site, not a gallery. Two bulbs hang from their fixtures buzzing. The light is very white. In the center of the space, a fold-up table with an open bag of Dorritos and a warm Tab. Nothing else. It had looked glorious and lit and freshly painted yesterday, just last night. His heart screams around in his chest before he dials her number. All eyes on him. What’s going on? Her cell is disconnected. Between shaking his head at family members, he digs up the gallery’s number, dials the hardline. Someone picks up, he asks for her. He’s in the corner now, sweating, talking and talking, until they finally put him through. When she answers, the voice is different, higher, less of an accent. She doesn’t know who he is. She thinks she’s talking to a lunatic. She is talking to a lunatic. She hangs up. He looks at his phone as if it’s dropped from an alien galaxy. He walks around touching the walls as his family stares at him. They don’t understand, no one does. He tells them about her, but they are confused, not sure what’s happening. (When he arrives home later, his works will be stacked against his southern wall, wrapped just like when they were delivered.)
No one would have noticed her. Why would they? A girl in high tops peering in. She wasn’t in the doorway more than five seconds. Ten at most. It was all she had to see.
As she walked down the Soho street, which was strangely quiet at this exact moment, one of those rare pockets of silence, in a never-silent city, she thought, Wouldn’t it be nice if they’d kept the sodium lights? Why did everything have to change? It would’ve kept downtown more romantic like Paris or Lisbon.