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(This is part three of a five part serialization.
For the first part, click here.
To see the previous part, click here.
To see all the parts, click here.)

 

Amber and I ran away from camp twice when we were 12. The first time was during swim class. We turned our t-shirts inside out so that the name of the camp would be hidden but we didn’t change out of our khaki shorts which sort of defeated the purpose of running away. We walked one mile to a convenience store and bought peach rings and one large hazelnut coffee loaded with creamer that we shared on the way back. We changed into our swimsuits and ran through the hose outside of the shower that we used to shave our legs with. We got away with it, and that emboldened us.

The second time we wore our regular clothes. It was the era of bright, cotton sport shorts with the waistband folded over. I had a blue gingham top with baby doll sleeves that was my favorite that summer. She wore a black spaghetti strap camisole. We went the other direction down the road this time. “The road less traveled,” she said. We talked about how English and art were our favorite subjects. I told her I could make a paper cutting of her. I even started to rehearse it in my mind. I would start with the skinny straps of her top because that was the easiest part. Sneakers were harder because of the laces but Amber wore hers tucked in, skater style. “I could really go for a cigarette right now,” she said.

“You smoke?” I asked.
“Just once, with my Canadian cousins,” she said.
“They are way less strict up there. My cousin has her belly button pierced and she’s only 13.”
We were 12, but 13 was much older. I pulled my top up to look at my belly button.
“I heard it stretches if you get pregnant,” I said. “I don’t want kids,” said Amber.
“I don’t want to be fat and ripped open.”
“You’re not fat now,” I said.
“You’re not fat either,” she said. I smiled.
I told her a little about my parents’ divorce. My dad didn’t want me to go to camp that summer. He accused my mother of taking his weekends but they were nobody’s weekends, they were camp weekends. One time he called the house and didn’t recognize my voice and said “I want to talk to the kids.” The tone of his voice scared me.

“Dad, it’s me,” I said. And then he sounded like himself again, excited to talk to me and ask me about school. I didn’t forget the other voice, though.

“We had to get caller ID,” I told Amber. “What’s that?” “It’s when your phone tells you who is calling. Because sometimes people call looking for my dad and they say that he owes them money. One of them yelled at me because I said I didn’t know where he lived.” It was true, I hadn’t memorized his new address yet.
“Fuck that,” Amber said. Then, “I think I want caller ID so I know if a boy is calling me and I can make my voice extra good.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”

There was an alpaca farm along the road, with a sign warning that they were behind an electric fence. We wanted to look at the alpacas but we were nervous about going on someone’s land. We went back and forth, hyping each other up, talking about the best summer of our lives and how we would never be this young again and if we pet an alpaca everyone would be jealous. Also how alpacas were cooler than goats because they were like big, fluffy poodles. While we were going back and forth a lady pulled up in a pickup truck.

“Don’t you girls belong at the camp?” She was the wife of the maintenance man. I saw them in the dining hall together sometimes.
“What camp?” said Amber. She elbowed me hard.
“We just wanted to see the alpacas,” I said.
“Yeah, we wanted to feed the alpacas and then we’ll go back.”

The woman took stock of this weak negotiation. Took the sunglasses off her head and set them in a cup holder. “I know the man that owns these alpacas. I’m going to ask him for some of those little pellets to give them and then I am taking you back,” she said. In the end, it was anticlimactic. Only one of the alpacas came over, his hair was matted and yellow and as much as we coaxed the baby alpaca toward the fence he stayed in his mother’s shadow. But we got the story we wanted.

The woman never gave us her name and she didn’t tell our counselors. For the rest of the session Amber and I had our secret and we didn’t associate with anyone else because they hadn’t been there so they didn’t understand. If another girl annoyed us we would wrinkle our noses and say “Do you smell alpaca? It kind of smells like alpaca in here?”

I think about messaging Amber and asking if she still remembers about the alpaca. While I am looking at 45 to 55-year-old men in a five mile radius she uploads a photograph of her dinner. A grapefruit salad in a large, teak bowl surrounded by white linens embroidered with lemons. No, it isn’t grapefruit actually, it’s salmon. I take out the binder.

WHITE PARENTHESES BANDEAU
PEACH PISTIL SOLDIER CANDLE

The Chanel lipsticks are still in my cart but I will deal with them later. I slide the tub of cardstock out from under my desk and pull out one crisp, white sheet. My scissors are a little gluey from last time and I wipe them down with some vinegar and make sure they are very dry before I make my first cut. I finish an hour later. Lately, I have been drinking too much coffee and staying up until the British internet logs on. I only use Twitter to read other people’s tweets, but I follow a decent number of people in London who work in the art world. Ten days ago, around 4am in New York, I started to see tweets about a train derailment in a suburb of London. Twenty people were killed, some of them children. I visit the BBC homepage. The body count has risen to 22. August passes.


In September, my mother comes to visit. She wants to go shopping. I flash back to the paper mall of my high school years, fights in the dressing room about low-rise jeans. This time we go to 5th Avenue, the stores lined up like cotton jewelry boxes. The mannequins in their billowing caftans and gold chains feel suffocating. White eyelet miniskirts, leather sandals, blazers pinned in the back to look expensively tailored.

I much prefer the possibilities of my browser and the sterility of my tiny digital cart. Here are other people brushing up against me with shopping bags and phone conversations from the next dressing room over, just one degree of separation away from being in a bathroom stall

I turn to the side and smooth the front of the floral sundress my mother brought me. “Do you need it in another size?” she asks through the door. I start to take a mirror selfie with my phone, but I have nobody to send it to. The lighting in the dressing room makes my face look jaundiced and yet last year’s bathing suit strap lines are still visible. I drop my phone back into my purse and the sound echoes off the cheap triangular shelf it’s balanced on.

“What was that?” my mother asks.
“Nothing,” I say, “Just my phone.”
“Is it broken?” I want to scream; I will not scream.
“No, it’s fine. I dropped it on the case.”

I place everything back on their hangers. So many straps. Everything has that plasticky in-store smell layered with overpriced throw pillow potpourri. “Let’s get lunch,” I say.

“I feel bad that you didn’t find anything you liked,” my mother says over her bowl of French onion soup. I don’t know how to explain to her that shopping is just about control. Shopping is looking and scrolling and pressing buttons and refusing and zooming in and opening a new tab and spending and then hiding. Whatever we are doing now feels primitive by comparison. It’s just fabric. It holds no attraction to me.

I know that she is worried about me. I talk about work, forcing myself to run on into long sentences that justify my art history degree. I tell her about Alice, an older mentor, the type of woman I aspire to be. And Kimberly, my “work bestie,” not just another appendage to the desk under the electric chair. I rehearsed what I will say about my love life when it inevitably comes up, but am able to hold it off for a while by asking about the children of her friends.

I know my mother takes a secret pride in having a daughter that lives in New York and everything that signifies. She draws a throughline between the Monet and Degas books she bought me as a child and my success in what she thinks of as “the art world.” Every time I see her I appreciate her innocence more. To her, art is art and not a market. My mother views museums as cathedrals and not compendiums of ethical compromises. She raised me in this innocence too and I repaid her with dishonesty and credit card debt. But the money isn’t real to me, no realer than the value assigned to the neon letters spelling virgin and whore. No realer than the million dollar electric chair that sits above the desk where I order my clothes before concealing them in the same filtered air as these so-called investments.

“Are you still seeing...Scott?” she ventures. Am I still seeing Scott? Seeing isn’t really the right word for it. After ten days of silence in August–refreshing Dakota’s feed, buying things and not telling him about them, pent up energy building–he reached out with a casual “hey.” A dam burst: I sent him selfies from the storage facility licking an unopened tube of Chanel lipstick. “Good girl,” he said. We made plans to see each other but he cancelled the day before because of work.

Still, we were in touch, whether it took him a few hours or a few days to respond. And I knew exactly how to distract myself. Last week I went on a date with one of the 45-55 year olds. His name was Kenneth but he told me to call him Ken. He was divorced and living in Yonkers. I told him about living with my grandmother when I was first working in the city and my nostalgia for the morning train commute that ended at Grand Central. The bagel and coffee I bought in the station every day until my needs were anticipated without asking. I went back a year later and the women there recognized me. “Hello darling,” they said.

Ken said that the women called him darling too. I could see he was tiptoeing around his loneliness and what that verbal affection really meant to him in the twilight of his marriage. I can diagnose other people’s unhappiness so easily. Ken had a boyish face and receding hairline. He looked like a child carrying his father’s briefcase. He fiddled with his cocktail straw and cracked his knuckles as he told me about a trip he took to Greece last year. “Lemons taste better there,” he insisted, anticipating some pushback from me. I rubbed my bare shoulders and smiled. “Wow,” I said.

I told him there was a Greek fish market across the street from where I worked and that we should go there sometime, knowing that I would never see him again. It wasn’t until the check came that he asked what I did and when I said “art storage” he looked excited and asked if I knew a cheap place where he could store his vinyl collection. When he left me a voicemail five days later I deleted it without listening.

Anyway, I won’t tell my mom about Ken. “Scott and I are both busy with work, but we text a lot,” I say. Half true. “Do you have a picture of him?” she asks. I remind her that I sent her one, the one of him in The Frick. “But do you have a photo of you together?” I do not. I take mental stock of my evidence that Scott exists and that I exist in relation to Scott: several blurry photos of the stacks of books around his apartment taken in the morning before he woke up, a photo he sent me of his reflection in the elevator of his office (face obscured), and several shots of him jerking off which I realized after downloading were not taken for me and were dated the year before we met. I pull up the photo of the pancakes at the diner. “That’s his hand,” I say to my mother. She looks at me with something like pity.


(To read the next part, click here.)

 

image: Daisy Alioto


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