THE ALTERNATIVE WEEKLY
HE WILL TURN FORTY-FIVE soon and he is In A Good Place. Enough power to perch on, not so much power he can’t sleep at night. He runs the beloved alternative weekly in a midsize American city. He enjoys his job. He is good at what he does. Always has been. Good at whatever it is he does. Since he was a kid. Shows up on time, does the job, can be counted upon. Has a little problem with alcohol. Had a little problem. The wife turned him around. The wife is a force. Doesn’t know where he’d be without her. Eleven years in November. His second marriage, her first. His first was a joke. Vegas, road trip, twenty-two years old. Chick from high school, waited tables in his hometown. Funny, ferocious girl. Psychotic, too, but not his problem anymore.
He cooks now. Call it a hobby. Some people get into complicated coloring books; some people make food. He cooks elaborate meats. A gourmand. Can’t enjoy plain old restaurants anymore. There is wine to go with the food, obviously. And cocktail hour, sure. But he carefully calibrates, is quite in control. Does not slip up now like he used to. Lays off the brown stuff, doesn’t black out. The problem is in the past. To the extent that there was a problem. He is careful not to call it a problem.
That first wife would not recognize what he cooks now. Or: no, she’d recognize it and call him a fag. Well, fuck her. She probably has hypertension by now, a pill organizer. Fat ankles, the worst. His second wife is long and lean. Older by a few years, but girlish.
The second wife saved his ass, no question. There was never any ultimatum, nothing so silly or cliché, but she willed, silently, ferociously, slowly, the end of his drinking. The slowdown of the drinking, more like, but still: he understands her as having saved him. They are tight. Things are solid. She is badass. The ship’s captain. She is clear-eyed and gets what she wants. An architect. Built their weekend house. It was in a magazine and everything. She started a foundation for renovating the derelict old houses in the worst parts of town, giving people ground down by poverty a clean and functional place to live. She knows how to get things done.
Almost everything. Not everything. It had been seven years of wanting a child. A biblical ring to it. She had been raped in college, brutally, by a boyfriend, and was still not over it, would never be over it. She was on some level convinced that this was why the seven years of wanting a child, why the no child. He maintained respectful silence, deferred to her with the decency of his silence, looked her in the eye when she brought it up in that oblique way she had. It defined her: the rape and now the lack of child she attributed to the rape. The two things were one thing. There was a faraway look she would get, rage around the edges, and if he wasn’t very, very careful, she’d turn it on him. He’d learned that early. His job was to empathize, kowtow, solemnly shake his head like he couldn’t begin to fathom the depths of her suffering. It got old. She was pretty much just using it now.
Scrolling through his press releases on a Monday in March—cold as balls out still, still, why still, when would it finally break—he stops at one for an art show going up at the university soon. The opening is next week. Woman artist, Spanish name. Usually he doesn’t give much of a shit about galleries, museums, show openings, or the university. There had been an excellent arts guy on staff in the Nineties, but he’d dead a long time, and no one had filled his boots. So it is a surprise on this Monday in late winter to take so seriously this press release from the university gallery. This artist was arresting. Maybe someone new was in charge of the gallery. He’d have heard, though.
The sculpture is interesting enough to survive being photographed and pixelated on his screen. He types in the artist’s name and up comes her face—ooh, a Wikipedia page, even—and her eyes snare him. He’s snared. There’s an urgency to the whole encounter, severely mediated though it is. He can feel it in his pants. Genitals and/or bowels: everything you ever need to know.
Her sculptures are white figurines, armies of them, palm-to-forearm-sized. Very white. Is this a commentary on race? Made out of, what, marble? He can’t tell. They are male. Phallic. Maybe. Yawn. But not dismissible. Host to strange, subtle bulges, odd curves, unpredictable roundnesses. They are—he is sorry, he knows this will not fly in criticism, nor at the university, nor even in the alternative weekly, and definitely not with architects—organic. They bring to mind a modernist, high-end sex shop. This, surely, cannot be what the university gallery is going for. But who knew.
Her first solo show, it seems. The morning disappears down this wormhole. She is funny. Says in an interview that she makes one a day and has found they tend to vary according to phases of her menstrual cycle. Shit, if only the arts writer weren’t dead. Okay, but so what if he doesn’t know anything about art, technically speaking. It wouldn’t have to be categorical arts writing. He can spend a day with her, see the show, write whatever he likes. A profile. He is the editor in chief. It was good for outsiders to consider and write about art. It breathed fresh air. Also, no one actually read the alternative weekly. They read Free Will Astrology and Eye Saw You, the anonymous personals. (You were paying for your Charmin Ultra and I was waiting in line with my bag of apples. I made an apple pie. I wished I could share it with you.)
The alternative weekly is struggling. They had moved out of the historic police precinct building downtown which had housed their offices since the late Seventies, and into a unit at an office park twenty minutes away. Bleak. Advertising was down. The internet, blah blah. They owe some back taxes. A currently huge television personality had a job answering the phones as a college kid, but there seemed to be no way to monetize this fact. They were having a hard time paying the writers. “They,” heh: he owes five hundred plus to the one chick who writes fantastic political editorials. She didn’t seem to realize that she was good enough to write for a real publication. He should probably tell her.
Whatever. This Spanish artist girl excites him. He will put her on the cover. Why not? They could stand to do fewer Local Brewery profiles, anyway.
The cover of the alternative weekly! She knows it’s stupid to be excited about this.
She tries not to let on how excited she is about this. But one worked and worked and nothing happened for so long and then something happened and even if it was objectively no big deal one couldn’t help being a little excited. She wasn’t going to gloat about it online or anything, but in her chest was a warmth she couldn’t deny. This was dangerous. This was ego. This was how assholes were born and art died, but the fact of it remained: the warmth.
This show is giving her a knot in her stomach, the kind of thing that would blossom into a tumor if you didn’t breathe it out. She is a wreck. She was a wreck. Used to be. Her friends have been known to lose patience with her. She’s been working on this show for two years. Three hundred pieces. A sculpture a day keeps the doctor away. Not every piece survived, of course. Some got broken, some got hurled in rage. A few got spontaneously given away.
She knows that it’s good work. At the same time, she is afraid that it is embarrassingly bad work. But mostly she knows that it’s good. She knows that it’s better, at the very least, than the shit a lot of other people are showing. One took morale boosts where one could find them. So much bullshit being passed off as good work, and enough people didn’t even begin to know the difference, so why not take pride in her good work? She knows the difference, and yes, this work is most certainly worth something. It is, at the very least, better than a lot of other people’s shit. Much. She could coast on that a ways. Or else, what? Never show?? No. She has friends like that. Scared of their shadows. Better a failure than a coward. She is not a coward.
She’s been married for six years. A good marriage, to a handsome and built and kind man. He works with his hands, works on houses. Has no ambition. Takes care of himself. Reads books. A good guy. Yet she is still obsessed with a particular ex: the one who dumped her fifteen years ago. Not even dumped, really. Just left her behind. Just didn’t let her toy with him indefinitely! He’s married now. He’s famous now. Writes for magazines. So’s she. Married, that is. Famous, not quite. (But hey: the cover of an alternative weekly!) The ex was not good in bed. The ex was mean. Gloriously, hilariously, entertainingly mean. The ex had loved her with an intensity she has never since known. The intensity of a newborn deer getting up to wobble off on new legs. Naked intensity. Singular, she was pretty sure. He had taken a break from his hilarious meanness to intensely adore her, and she had been turned off by that. She had liked him better mean. Tender was a turnoff. So it was obviously not going to work out between them. But when she dumped him, he’d turned mean and charming again! Now she has to see his byline every time she opens a national publication of any repute whatsofuckingever. He’s channeled his meanness, she gathers, and man is he productive. He also seems to have started going to the gym. The woman he’d married was a stay-at-home mom. She actually calls herself that. A former rheumatologist. North of forty. Spectacular bore on Instagram. Didn’t people know how transparent and sad it was to constantly use their kids for PR?
Objectively speaking, her husband is better in every way than her ex. There was no earthly reason the ex should still occupy her thoughts. She had dumped him, remember? She had taken up with another guy, a hedonistic ex-hippie investment banker. They had gotten a place together, flush, a floor-through in the West Village. That hadn’t worked out, but then the newborn deer wouldn’t take her back; he was back to being aggressive and insulting. Which only made her want him more. They’d settled into a kind of friendship: polite, tentative. Once, thereafter, they had sex, An unfinished-business thing. He’d already been seeing the rheumatologist. Then he got married and the friendship vanished. The rheumatologist, no doubt, didn’t like their friendship. The wife, god, what a drag. That bitch: he probably loved her with his newborn deer bullshit. Loyal, faithful, devoted. Channeled all his fun interesting meanness into his work. Big success, he is.
“You can’t control what you think about,” she tells her shrink. “Or who.”
“Can’t you,” the shrink replies, bemused, infuriating. She has slept with four-and-a-half other people over the course of her marriage. Almost one a year. She had begun seeing the shrink after the second. They spent more time than she would like discussing the ex. Why couldn’t she shake him!? It was getting weird.
“You can’t control who pops in to visit when you’re dreaming,” she modifies.
He assents, barely, with a shrug. He reiterates, reminds her: the ex was a lousy lay. She had dumped him. It’s the only thing that makes her feel better. She goes off on some monologue about her belief that this is what life is for. The kind of connection that negotiates no boundaries. Marriage is well and good and a marathon and undertaken shrewdly with the “right person,” that rare someone with whom you can build a life of days made up of hours made up of minutes, but it is by definition not the same as a careless fuck with a wildly mean, charismatic lover. Apples and oranges.
“But he was not a charismatic lover,” the shrink repeats for the hundredth time. “You’re pining for who you thought he might be. He was in fact not.”
Fuck, she is such a cliché. Everyone’s a cliché, she tells her studio art students. The important thing is self-awareness. She is stoned when she tells them this. Class is from 6–9 p.m. Wednesdays and she believes her job is to simply “be” with them, her adorable students. She adores them. Sees herself as den mother. Model her life for them: here is a working artist, for better or worse. You get to be in her presence for a few hours. Lucky you! Lucky for you. Downright ducky for you.
She tells them boredom is real and terrible and to be avoided at any cost. So long as we are not bored we will entertain anyone or anything. Boredom is death. When people bore her she despises them. When art bores her she despises it. There is no excuse for boredom. And wait, self-awareness only in moderation, actually. Too much self-awareness and you’re a paralyzed parody, a useless cum rag, the cum belonging to the artists who can manage to make things, who aren’t paralyzed. Be willing to fail, she tells her ducks. Willing to fail! This is a major trope of hers. Just don’t fucking bore me, she tells them.
Shit, she’s stoned.
They stare at her. A handful absolutely love her, worship her. They are hungry puppies, lapping it up. They think she is “the real deal.” They say so in class evaluations. Others have less patience with her. The boring ones! She is really not making sense sometimes. But it is her right to not make sense. Not making sense is in the service of creativity. Behold, puppies! Creative process ain’t pretty. You have to not make sense so you can birth the occasional gem. Get used to it, or go make sense somewhere else and leave us be with our messy fun. The world needs you, linear rigid types. Run for office, please, and ensure federal funding for the arts. Stop making sense, she tells them. They have never heard of the Talking Heads. Afraid of failure she is not!
But a problem, the nagging question, as she installs the show with the university curator: Why is most of this work, two years of work, three hundred pieces for a decent but by no means huge regional show, a solo show at a decent university gallery but by no means a big deal by New York standards, actually about the newborn deer? Not that anyone other than herself knows that, but still. She knows it. This work is about him. It pisses her off. She’d broken up with him. And then he’d retaliated slowly, brilliantly, coolly. He didn’t even follow her on fucking Instagram.
“I love these,” says the editor, circling the pieces. He really does. What is going on with him. Up close he can see that she has etched each one with inconsistent, intricate designs.
“Love, huh,” she smiles. The smile says I don’t really care what you think. There is attraction between them. It’s obvious, attraction always is. She is strong in stature and her face bears lines of laughter, cheerful angst. Great legs in tights. B-E-S-T tattooed across the knuckles of her right hand.
He has the countenance of someone who loves eating pussy. She can tell.
“They’re simple. Arresting.”
They’re so much more than that you have no idea. Two years of work. A sculpture a day keeps the doctor away.
“Takes a lot of work to make something seem effortless, doesn’t it.”
He’s trying hard. She’d do him.
(“How long do you think you can keep it up,” the shrink asked her once. “At a certain age doesn’t it get sort of sad?” He was tough love. He had a point. It wasn’t like she didn’t know that. The thing was: what age?)
Alternative Weekly is way overdressed, spends an obviously great deal of time and money on his clothing, which is forgivable in a woman because, you know, evolutionary biology, but which in a man is only a sign of extraordinary boredom. And boredom, nooooo, definitely no to boredom. She will not fuck a bored man. She has limits.
“When did you start to make art?” He is taking notes by hand. His handwriting is small and boxy. ‘Make art.’ Heh.
“My father was an artist. Artsy, more like it. Still. He painted on weekends. Landscapes and shit. Figures, too. Your basic hobbyist. Said it calmed him down. I was drawn to his studio. Felt we spoke the same language. My mother was nuts. I identified more with him. Since I was little.” El Paso, New Mexico, Arizona. Her mother running from her crazy, criminal family in Mexico; her father along for the ride, trying and failing to make her happy. Dentist during the week, painter on the weekends. No children after her. Her mother never right in mind, body, or spirit. Her mother liked pills now. Pills, what a bore. Married to a pro golfer in Florida. Happy, idle, on pills. Her father gone. Lung cancer. Only the good.
“My mother was a painter, too,” he tells her, like he’s suddenly realizing it. His mother had taken up painting classes at the community college after his father had died. It had been the center of her life, actually, until she’d died. She had taken incredible joy and pride in her work. He doesn’t think about his mother very much. She has been gone for a while. Since he was in college. So why doesn’t he cover art, it occurs to him. Maybe this pisses his mother off in the beyond. Maybe his mother has cursed his marriage with childlessness. Maybe his mother, in the other realm, has moved him toward writing about this woman artist. Maybe his mother has a message for him here. Jesus Fucking Christ, he freaks himself out sometimes. “Anyway, so you hung out with your dad in his studio?”
“All the time. He used to paint me.”
“He used to paint you?”
“He used me. As a model.”
“Ah. How old were you?”
“Nine, ten, eleven. I’d read and he’d paint me. Naked, though. Which started to be weird at some point.”
“Right on schedule.”
“My bat mitzvah.” She says it wrong, like the flying rodent: bat. “My quinceañera. Yeah, I remember this one day we got into our usual positions, him behind his easel and me by the window, but I was wearing jeans and a button-down and didn’t take them off. Just sat there staring out the window, didn’t move.”
“What’d he do?”
“He stared at me for a while with this blank look on his face. Then he understood and he started to paint without a word and we never spoke about it. He wasn’t happy with that painting, though. He started to go to a nude model class after that, painted anonymous women.”
At lunch, he surprises her by sitting next to her rather than across from her. Rather bold. One of those farm-to-table places with a huge communal table, empty except for them and this one boring looking chick reading a self-help tome. His breath is cigarettes and mild digestive disorder. He is recording their conversation. He drinks too much, it’s clear: that breath. You can’t treat your body like shit forever without disgusting consequences. Vanity, at the end of the day, usually reigns her in.
“What are the pieces . . . about?”
Oh fuck. Make something up! She composes herself. This has gotten lame quick. She assumes the tone she uses in conversation with students: “What are they about for you?”
“Well, I didn’t make them.”
“I made them, and I can’t tell you, and I don’t want to try. I made one a day for a couple years. They’re repetitive and they’re different and they’re the same. Like . . . consciousness? Reality? Emotion? Look, there’s not some concrete answer. I can ramble, but it’s a mistake to make the artist an expert. Nothing I can say about these pieces means anything. It’s on you, you know? Sorry.” Like sex: if I have to tell you what I want, it’s no good. We project something on each other, and if it’s working, it works, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. The less said, the better.
Architects didn’t talk this way. He is regretting this. He should go back to school, get a law degree like his father had urged him to do, work for the ACLU or something. The architect would eviscerate this crazy artist. Why did artists talk this way? Then again, the architects—the wife’s cronies—were hellaciously boring at parties. A lot of pontification and certainty, both useless in terms of conversation or any hope of fun.
“Bodies,” he says.
They look at each other and both decide to chill. The woman at the other end of the communal table is intent upon her book. GOALS! is the title. How to Get Everything You Want is the subtitle. They stare at her until she looks up.
“That looks like a great book,” he says in monotone. The self-help woman examines him, examines her book.
“It’s pretty good,” she says.
“Yeah,” the artist says, “wow.” Her face open and cruel. “I’d love to borrow it when you’re done.”
Her issue came out the day of the opening. Curator was thrilled, tagged her like the world was ending. Photo wasn’t bad. Photo was pretty great. Piece was flattering. He’d done his research on her. Her whole, shining résumé in there. How accomplished she sounded. She took a stack home to show her husband.
“Cool,” he said. “You look hot.” He wasn’t going to go to the opening. He didn’t like parties. “Unless you really want me there,” he said.
“No,” she said. “It’s fine.” Wasn’t worth it to force him. She’d made that mistake before.
The editor was coming; she dressed for him. Inlaid turquoise butterfly boots, bespoke, from Texas. She had sold her father’s wedding ring to pay for them when she was twenty-two. Best investment she’d ever made. Wanted to be buried in them.
Opening was fun. Modest. Same thirty people you saw at every opening around here. She enjoyed herself. Her friend Tiana showed up. Her friend Andy and his wife Ally brought their kids, gallery pros. A couple dozen pieces sold. They were priced right, she guessed.
She’d always imagined her own kids running around gallery shows. Everyone had been having babies for a while, now. Her friend Janey is even having a baby on her own. Bought some sperm, gave herself some injections, tapped an army of godparents.
Babies. Anecdotally, women seemed to go off the deep end in general for a long time. Sometimes they came back; sometimes they were lost forever. Her husband’s sister had two, and could not have a conversation not based around what they ate, how they were schooled, their sleeping habits. Not a single conversation. There was a little game they played, waiting to see if there could be a conversation about anything, anything else.
“Amazing birth control,” she said to her husband when they drove home from his family gatherings.
She had stupidly not anticipated that her marriage was assumed to be a mere pretense for childbearing. That after seeing her married off, people would be increasingly anxious about her childbearing prospects. People. When are you going to have a baby!? They practically tore at their hair. I have no idea, she’d say. I don’t run the universe. Well are you trying? What could she say to that? Trying! She’d shut her eyes tight, twist her face into a mask of exertion. I’m . . . TRYING . . . to have . . . a baby! Please. Possibly she was infertile. So what? There were worse things. She liked kids, mostly, but she liked her life, too. There wasn’t a child-sized hole in it or anything. What a waste of time that would be. What a bore. She’d rise to the occasion of motherhood if she had to, but otherwise she’d go on liking her life just fine. A radical proposition, judging by its apparent incomprehensibility. The shrink deeply approved, though once he’d asked why she was opposed to fertility science.
In fact she had begun to harass her ex’s wife, the stay-at-home, the former rheumatologist, who, at forty-five, posted those endless selfies with the baby. First she created a false profile, then sent a message one night. It read: “What is it like to give birth to your own grandchild!?”
The editor had really outdone himself waxing lyrical about her work. Someone you can’t get over, says the piece. Someone you used to love and can’t even really remember anymore. Because bodies, it’s impossible to forget bodies. You can forget names, but bodies are trickier. He knows exactly what her work is about. Look at that: he’s quite the arts writer after all. Yeah: that’s what her work is about. Bull’s-eye. Now she will have to figure out something else. Now that she knows. You can’t make anything good if you know beforehand what it’s actually about.
And two weeks later, after a rash of indecent e-mails, when they finally meet at the motel on a northerly stretch of Route 17 and they take off their clothes—it happens very fast, all the shedding—all she can register is how he smells. She doesn’t like it. Her senses flood, and not in a good way. A natural disaster. She will stop fucking people who are not her husband. After this.
He knows he’s being stupid; knows the architect would never ever forgive him. But she won’t know. The artist lives two hours away and she’s clearly not the attachment kind. They’re just passing the time, doing what people do. He’s not going to think about it. It’s not a big deal. It’s not like he does this kind of thing serially. Relax.
It’s weird that neither of them even mention birth control, not a word about a condom, nothing. Not a pause. So used to not needing it, they both are. Not thinking about it. Not considering it.
She is the lousy lay this time. So maybe she will haunt this guy from now on, once she’s left him behind. Yes. Now a circle is complete. An oval. Or, like, a hexagon. No: a diamond. A trapezoid! A parallelogram. A quatrefoil. Something. And like a miracle the ex will be gone from her thoughts hereafter. But she has, hasn’t she, had that hope before.
ELISA ALBERT is the author of the novels After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and the story collection How This Night is Different.