“patterns of masochistic behavior are a delirious addiction and often lead to artistic
productivity but are ultimately soiling and should be transcended”
–@CampMarmalade (Wayne Koestenbaum)
(This is part one of a five part serialization.)
Gianni comes in once a month to check on the artworks. The collection is Italian and Gianni is Italian but the owners of the collection are not Italian. The husband is Swiss and the wife is English, or maybe it’s the other way around. I like Gianni because he always accepts an espresso from the machine we keep behind the desk and drinks it slowly as we walk through the hall to the showroom (although this technically isn’t allowed) and then folds the tiny, plastic cup and puts it in his blazer pocket to throw away later. All of his suits look expensive to me and I always tell him “you don’t have to do that,” after he manipulates the cup until it gives a small crack of protest. He smiles and waves me away. “Figurati!”
Sometimes Gianni asks me about my dating life. “I’m on the apps,” I say, not offering more. Gianni once flashed me a look at his phone screen and the little yellow mask on a black square. He raised an eyebrow. “Nice,” I said. I know from Instagram that he has a long term partner, a short, blond actor who poses across his grid in Corsica, Cannes, Miami, and Hong Kong–his unnatural smile like a postcard from all of the places they have been together. I stalk all of our clients on Instagram, it’s part of the job. Anticipating their needs so that they feel they have none. Rich people can tolerate the ache of need but the people they employ cannot. Gianni is polite, but I know he has needs too, and however much he probes I will never let him see mine. This is the alliance gay men and straight women make.
I won’t see Gianni this month. It’s August, when all of the Europeans go away. The first year I worked at the facility I didn’t understand the totality of their retreat from obligation. I still sent out regular communications until my inbox was clogged with away message after away message in as many bad fonts as there are languages. Never again I thought. Gianni’s bosses bought a new piece at one of the spring fairs. They moved it into the facility in July, a single line of neon script that took up the entire wall of our largest showroom. I asked him what it said and he elbowed my upper arm. “What, you don’t read Italian yet?” I tried to think of a clever response but I was waiting for Scott to text me back and the audible buzz of the neon was playing tricks on my starving brain. “Sorry,” I said as I pivoted to leave the room. He looked a little wounded.
“In the opera of life I’ve performed both the virgin and the whore,” he said, falling into step behind me. I stopped walking and he must have sensed my confusion. “A translation,” he said.
I look the artist up now. I am sitting on my bed, as close to the air conditioner as I can get.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe a buzz cut or a distinguished skunk stripe. Someone in her 60s, finally reaching her auction potential, humored and ignored by the machismo that runs through the market like oil. I thought I would see her on the party websites, posed in the corner behind the watermark, loose tunics hiding whatever tunics hide. I had a whole picture in my head, you know, but she is just a few years older than me. Pouting in a dirty mirror in a seaside town, her lips burnt and luscious, bikini bottoms pulled high and hooked above her hips. Her top is off and dangling from one finger. “Scott would like her,” I think. I almost check if he follows her but I know how to stop myself–keep scrolling. Next photo. High-waisted jeans and a fuzzy bandeau top. Turning her tongue sideways to show off the gap between her front teeth. “Fuck you,” I think. I hover over the bandeau top, following it away from Instagram to the blank, white beach of my browser.
The brand is called Parentheses. I click on the section of the website labelled, “Our Story.” The page is beige with a picture of a single daisy in what looks like a test tube beaker. “We were taught that everything important happens outside the parentheses, but what if we changed the rules? Parentheses are a fence keeping us away from the rest of the world. A reprieve, a place where everything that matters…” I click back to the homepage. “Fall in love,” reads a banner across the top. “30% off our most popular transition pieces.” I click on the banner. A model is wearing a bucket hat and blazer and the same fuzzy bandeau as the artist. The top is $60–on sale. “Fuck you,” I think again. I open a new tab.
“Tops like Parentheses,” I type into Google. The first few results are clickbait websites I know better than to trust. Articles written by women my age whose salaries are paid for by referral links to the big, bad shopping website. No thank you, next. But it is hard to find exactly what I want. Google thinks I want grammar advice. I dig my pinky nail into the dome of dead skin on the top of my thumb and open another tab.
My Tumblr, another familiar landscape. The childhood bedroom of the internet, a box filled with magazine clippings and handwritten quotes about lust. I suddenly become aware that my chin is almost touching my neck and scoot myself back against my pillows.
“Bandeau,” I type into the Tumblr search bar. The results load like a quilt of skin. Cheap, metallic tops with the nipples photoshopped out. No. A cashmere, blue version that looks like a workout headband...no. #Hot #pink #retro #barbie #dream #vacation. I open another tab and type in the artist’s Instagram page. I already have her handle memorized. I zoom in on the photo. What is it about this top, specifically? I like the way the white fuzz looks against her tan skin. And some ruching in the middle I didn’t notice the first time, a gold thread that pulls the middle section slightly more taut between her breasts. She has gold rings on every other finger. Maybe it is the rings that I like. But they aren’t tagged. Of course.
I check the air conditioning to make sure the dial is turned all the way up. My bed is pushed against the window unit and I am still sweating. A drop works its way from the inside of my armpit toward my elbow. I time it. “One, two, three, four,” then get frustrated and wipe it away with the back of my hand. I lick my hand without thinking and taste my drugstore deodorant. Gross. Why did I do that? I bring my laptop with me to the bathroom, careful not to nudge the trackpad. I prop it on the closed toilet seat and run a lukewarm bath. It’s hot, but not hot enough for cold water. I just need to wet my skin. I’ll wet my skin and sit in front of the air conditioner again. Find out if my roommate is staying at her boyfriend’s tonight–maybe steal her fan, create a cross-breeze.
If she’s staying at her boyfriend’s I’ll order takeout and keep shopping. That’s what I am doing, shopping. I click back over to the Parentheses bandeau top. $60 isn’t too much. If I wear it three times, that’s the equivalent of three $20 tops and I have plenty of those. Half of them don’t even look good in pictures and this one looks good. I add it to my cart.
Next, the rings. I sit on the edge of the tub while it fills up, pretending the toilet is my desk. “Minimal rings,” I type into Etsy. The cool porcelain rim of the tub on my bare crotch makes my nipples hard. I open my legs and cup myself, trying to decide if I want to grab my vibrator or not. Or...not. I don’t remember if it’s charged. Maybe just my hand would be enough, but not until the bath fills up. I scroll through Etsy with my free hand, looking for sellers with a lot of reviews. I find one in Pennsylvania who shows his rings on creamy log cross sections, sometimes with a few wildflowers in the corner of the frame.
I like that mason jar shit. The first time Scott came over he asked me about the Christmas lights in the living room. “They’re my roommate’s,” I said. “Yeah, I didn’t think that was your style,” he said with a smirk. “You seem... sophisticated.” He drew the last word out. A compliment or an insult? I add a thin gold ring called The Firefly to my cart and Etsy suggests a matching necklace.
But is the necklace just a chain with another, smaller ring? I turn the faucet off and squint at the screen. The steam is condensing on my laptop, making it hard to see. I open the window above the tub slightly and the sound of traffic on Flatbush creeps in. The sound of three voices on the sidewalk: a female voice, an angry voice and a reasonable voice so low I cannot hear it. The angry voice is easy to hear, it repeats I don’t give a FUCK I don’t give a FUCK. I sink my ears below the water.
My hand floats between my legs again. I start to think about Scott, but if I think about Scott I will get sad and when I am sad I can’t cum. So I think about Alice in her black shift dress and blazer. British and impenetrable, the highest ranking woman in the company. Everyone is intimidated by Alice, including me. Recently, something happened between us. At first I thought I imagined it, maybe I had, but by that point I had already spun it out into a fantasy. Alice washing her hands at the sink (true). Me coming in to reapply my lipstick (true). She asked me about the weekend and I lied and said I spent it with my boyfriend, picturing Scott as I said it. Actually I had done what I am doing now.
She said something about her house in the Hamptons. I tried to follow the outline of my lips while smiling politely and overshot the corner of my mouth as she watched. “You should leave it like that,” she said, leaning away to grab a paper towel and then so close to my ear that I could smell her Chanel perfume and feel the heat of her breath. “Add a little intrigue.”
Suddenly inspired, I sit up from the bath and wipe my hands on the bathmat. Residual drops of water land on the keys as I navigate to the Chanel website. A woman in a blue-and-white striped breton top smiles coyly at the top of the page, her bright red lips a punctum to the busyness across the rest of the screen.
I think about what I might like to do for the 4th of July before remembering that it has already passed. I did nothing. Well, not nothing. I did get drunk at home and text Scott to ask whether he was back with his ex, Dakota. Dakota... just thinking her name is a summons. I know what comes next. I toggle out of my Instagram account and into my alt @seltzerqueen69. I’m holding my hand in front of my face in the profile photo. A blurry brunette, I could be anyone. “i am nobody! who are you?” I wrote in the bio section. Mushroom emoji. Wine emoji. Knife emoji. A far more accurate reflection of myself than my actual account.
According to her feed, Dakota is in Los Angeles. Scott is not, I checked his account from this one an hour ago. I feel something like relief. But it’s not enough, I want to hurt myself a little bit. I look at her tagged posts. Here she is with a jammy toast. Denim jumpsuit and jade hoops. 500 likes. Posted by Sarah, but I don’t have time for Sarah at the moment. I want to know how much the jumpsuit cost. I want to know if I can pull it off.
“Denim jumpsuit 70s style brass zipper string belt.” Poshmark jabbers from the browser, like the loudest woman on the subway. “Bootcut denim jumpsuit vintage no label, biker chic.” Poshmark wants to tell me about her study abroad. Human Poshmark...that’s Dakota. I need to do something about this. I waver between tabs–I’ll buy the bandeau, that’s what I’ll do. But the water is getting cold, so I’ll do it back in the bedroom.
I pull my towel off the back of the door and towel myself off. My hair is already half dried, clinging to my neck. My clavicle is slick with sweat. I think about taking a picture, maybe sending it to someone on the apps later. Tasteful in black and white. No nipple! (I am nobody...who are you…) Sometimes I recognize one of the art handlers that come in and out of the facility on the apps. I always swipe left, even on the cute ones. I can’t risk a collision between my work and home selves. At work I am the quiet and dutiful front desk drone. I rotate positions with a girl named Kimberly who is more or less my twin. We wear neat and unthreatening attire from eco-conscious brands. She wears one of those Cartier bracelets with the screws on it. I wear pearl studs and an expression of self-effacing competence.
During my final interview, I toured the facility. The man who took me around gave me the same speech I now give prospective clients. How far we are above the floodline, the superiority of our generators, the biometric scanners, and above all the privacy. “We don’t open the crates,” he said. “There could be live bees inside for all we know.”
“Or heroin,” I said. He laughed and then looked serious. “It’s ok to say that in front of me but it’s kind of a sensitive subject so I wouldn’t make a joke like that in your interview,” he said. “Of course, I’m sorry,” I said. He smiled again, his eyes blank. “I know where I’m hiding out during the apocalypse!” he said, sweeping his arm toward the ceiling.
The front desk sits under a famous painting of an electric chair. Lately this has started to feel like a metaphor. I matched with Scott back in January. I remember where I was when I saw his profile, in the Starbucks closest to Grand Central killing time before the train to visit my grandmother. I almost swiped left. He was handsome, but something about his pictures scared me. I lingered on each of them for a long time. The first picture was a photo of a passport photo. He stared straight ahead, unsmiling. The photo appeared to be on a desk and I recognized the pinkish corner of the Financial Times at the edge of the frame. There were a few food crumbs visible and a long white or blond hair. I felt like a creep for even noticing this. Next: sitting on a dock, his legs hairy and splayed. Face turned toward the sky and obscured by solar eclipse glasses. He looked like he was in the middle of saying something.
Next: the courtyard of The Frick, wearing an Adidas tracksuit. Hands clasped in front of his crotch in mock seriousness, delighted by his own incongruity. Next: another photo of a photo. It was labelled in the bottom corner in girlish script (his mother?) “Scott, age 6.” He was holding a baby duck and grinning so widely his blue eyes disappeared. I swiped right. It was the app where the woman has to talk first. A quote came to mind from Tumblr: In a room full of art, I'd still stare at you. Can you imagine if I had said that? Instead, I had to run for the train and I forgot about Scott for three days. On the fourth day I wrote, “Hi Scott, how are you?” And after that I never forgot about him again.
(To read the next part, click here.)