Gianni told me a story about an Italian artist famous for cutting canvases into clean, puckered slits. A photographer came one day to document the artist’s work, but the artist did not want to be photographed mid-cut and so struck a deal with the photographer.
“I could not make these large cuts with someone moving around me. Sometimes I leave the canvas hanging there for weeks, before I am certain of what I will do; and only when I am sure I begin to work. I rarely ruin a canvas. But I need to feel in good shape to do these things.”
In the end, an agreement was made: the photographer asked the artist to pretend to be cutting the canvas. You see him from the back, and you see a canvas that is still empty: just a canvas and the artist, acting like someone ready to start working on it. This finished series of canvases was called “Expectations.” Whether that was because of the deal with the photographer, nobody knows.
In October, Dakota comes back to New York. I stalk her Instagram feed like a shadow, developing a mental map for the places I am most likely to run into her. I avoid those places; I am drawn to them. I linger on her captions for so long that I begin to think in her voice, convinced that her experiences have happened to me as well. Once I duck into a coffee shop to get out of a sudden downpour and am overcome with déjà vu. I know I have never been here before, but everything looks familiar down to the striped paper straws slowly decaying in mason jars of cold brew. “Oh,” I remember. Dakota.
Scott Venmoes me $50 with the emoji for painting nails. I take a screenshot and text him. “Did you mean to send this to me?” The dots that mean he is typing appear and disappear. Appear and disappear. “For you to get your nails done,” he says. “Dinner Friday?” A rush of hope. I open my laptop so I won’t seem too eager. “SNEAKERS THAT LIFT YOUR BUTT JUST BY WALKING IN THEM,” I type into Google. I spend a few minutes scrolling through shoes that look like race cars. “That would be nice,” I reply.
When I see him on Friday my nails are long and mauve. I spend a long time getting ready, shaving my legs and spraying perfume behind my ears. The tails of my eyeliner are symmetrical for once and the silk slip dress I squirreled back from the facility in my tote bag slithers along my frame without clinging. “Let’s eat in,” he says, pulling me through his door. He fiddles on the delivery app for a bit while I walk the periphery of his studio apartment looking at objects I have already studied and memorized. There are a few used cigarettes on the window sill, one with the faint kiss of lipstick. There’s a long blond hair on his desk. I file this information away numbly.
Scott finishes ordering and comes up behind me, squeezing my breasts. I turn around to look at him, really look. His hair is sticking up a little bit in the back and his eyes look sunken. Has he always looked like this? He smiles and closes his eyes and keeps them closed. “Fuck you,” I think. “Scratch me,” he says. I scratch him. I draw blood.
The Firefly ring arrives with a note from the seller. “Dear Edie, Please accept my humble apologies for the delay, for better or worse, I want every ring I make to be perfect.” It is written in cramped, male script and signed Alan. The seller drew a small pine tree next to his signature.
I open the brown box it came in, recycled cardboard, and the faint scent of wood smoke spills out. I slip it onto my middle finger, my mauve manicure still intact enough that I feel a moment of satisfaction at my own tasteful hands. It is 11 am on a Saturday and the day is still alive with possibility. My roommate left some banana bread on the counter with a note to help myself. And I remembered, after several spiked seltzers last night (scrolling the dating apps, flirting, not meeting up, one corduroy baseball hat purchased from a brand called Mochi), to prepare cold brew in the French press. It is waiting for me now.
I plunge it slowly, not thinking about how the sediment floating around looks like pond scum. A half inch of oat milk poured into my old joke mug, which reads,“Father of the Year” in Comic Sans. A couple of ice cubes from the freezer, smelling like the black bean burgers my roommate stockpiles as if for the apocalypse.
I take the mug into my bedroom and set it on my desk. I pull out my papers and glue stick. The baseball hat is done in one continuous cut. Like peeling an orange. I start to put everything away and then stop myself. I fold one sheet of navy cardstock in half and begin to cut out a horizon of pine trees like the one Alan drew. The furthest line of trees is the darkest and most abstract, hinting at mountains–what are the ones in Pennsylvania? Poconos?
In the foreground is a hand holding a jar. Transparent things are hard, but I get around it with an exacto knife, showing that there is an inside and an outside, making it look sufficiently three dimensional. The jar is open and small orbs of yellow are streaming out and at the center of each orb is a winged, blue bug. I add a halo of orange to the furthest tree line. As if the sun has just set.
I uncap one of the skinny sharpies I use to occasionally cheat on textures. “Dear Alan, Thank you for the beautiful ring. I can feel the care that you put into it. Sincerely, Edie.” I dig out a Christmas stamp from the sticky back of my nightstand drawer and walk to the corner to mail it. I have already accomplished a lot for a Saturday. I eat a thick slice of my roommate’s banana bread and navigate to the BBC.
The train disaster is pushed three quarters of the way down the homepage. The CEO of the company that built the crossing and the supervising contractor will testify this week. A Labour MP called the disaster, “A direct result of neoliberal policies which cut corners at the expense of the public good, the consequences of which are rarely this extreme but tragic nonetheless.” The Tory they are running for re-election against called this statement “Divisive language at the expense of national unity during a time of mourning.” But is anyone even mourning? Nobody mentioned it at work. My 4am Twitter feed has moved on.
My phone vibrates. A new work email. I have tried to resist the infringement of clients into my weekend. The coked-out emails they send are always revised seven times over by the time Monday rolls around, but this one isn’t from a client–it’s from Alice. “Hello Edie, I hope you are well. I would like to take you to lunch on Monday. Can you add some time to my calendar please? Cheers, Alice.” What does it mean? I speak each word out loud slowly and deliberately in my best approximation of her British accent. Why Monday? I pull up her calendar. Monday is already populated with meetings. Tuesday is wide open, which means this lunch has an urgency to it. Which means nothing good, because nothing good in the art world is ever urgent. My stomach drops.
Open the refrigerator. One spiked seltzer left. I take it back to my bedroom and run down the list of distractions large enough to take me through Monday. Alcohol (check), dating apps (“there’s no one new around you”), Scott (dead to me), Dakota (dead to him), Scott (but maybe?), Dakota (back together?) Instagram...an all-in-one distraction. I flick my phone open with a practiced, erotic gesture. And then I remember Alan. It can’t be too hard to figure out his identity.
His last name isn’t written on the return address of the package the ring came in but that is no problem. I type the address into Google and follow the results to Zillow. A white farmhouse appears, last sold two years ago. Hydrangeas flower along one side. “Very nice, Alan,” I think. I could look up the property records, but where is the fun in that? This needs to distract me for at least an hour. So I search various combinations of “Alan” and the town he lives in and “jewelry maker” until I find a workshop he ran at a local community college and his 5K race results from last 4th of July and that he is a socialist but gave money to the Democrats and now I have his last name.
I type his full name into Instagram and pull up his profile. Square after square of his jewelry laid out neatly on blocks of wood. Sometimes a hairy hand with neat, pink nails appears to hold up a chain in its fleshy palm or show off one of his thicker rings (“unisex wedding band, for those that prefer something less dainty”). His tagged images are mainly buyers showing off their jewelry. Some are wedding photos clutching wildflowers in lantern-lit tents that could be Connecticut, Wisconsin or Oregon. Alan’s talents lend themselves to placelessness and the placeless objects that appeal to women like me, whose tastes were forged on mixtapes and the hipster internet.
But here is a picture of Alan, standing alone at a bonfire, legs apart, about to add a stick of wood. He’s smiling and his mustache is jutting over his teeth a little bit in that way that always makes men look either deranged or shy. For Alan, it’s shy. And then there is a picture from the race last July, crossing the finish line, his face ruddy and shining and his legs braided with effort.
Both were taken by male friends. No obvious signs of ex lovers or women at all. If I dig I’m sure I can find something but Alan doesn’t interest me in that way yet. My jealousy is earned.
“How is your beau?” Alice asks on Monday. We are at a trattoria with numbers in the name, which I have come to learn is usually just an overpriced ristorante to segregate the red sauce people from those who like their risotto with a side of truffle fries. I am embarrassed to have told Alice about Scott. “He’s good,” I say, pretending to study the menu. “Busy.”
“And what does he do?”
I swallow hard. “Finance.”
I wait to see what she orders and then order something less expensive. Kale caesar salad for me with hazelnuts on top, always where they don’t belong. I’m not wearing what I planned to wear, and this feels like a disadvantage on top of the other disadvantage of me being myself and Alice being Alice. When I went to retrieve a black Theory blazer from the unit this morning, the keypad wasn’t working and I didn’t have time to reset it.
“I know about the clothes,” Alice says to the waiter’s retreating back. My brain begins to whir like the fans of an overheated laptop. “I didn’t steal them,” I say. And maybe this truth is even more pathetic, that I bought all of these things that I can’t afford because a plastic card will never say no to me the way the world has.
“We want to help you,” she says. The royal we. Like I am a drug addict or something, a liability. If they think that, they should fire me outright. Unless they know I am privy to something that can hurt the company–and I am privy to plenty of those things. My brain is still whirring. There is no way to know for sure what Alice knows. She saw a unit full of clothes and home goods with the tags still on and presumably the footage of me stashing them there. But they weren’t stolen, the credit card bills that I pay the minimum on are proof enough of that. I could just be a troubled rich girl like the rest of them and not a troubled middle-class one.
I run my tongue over my teeth. “I’m so embarrassed,” I say. “I was storing things at my grandmother’s place on the Upper West Side but my parents sold the place when she had a stroke last year. It was only supposed to be a temporary solution, but I got busy and put off looking for storage units. I’m so sorry, I’ll resign today if you want me to.”
Alice sighs in the way only British people can sigh. Maybe it’s all the rain they have inhaled. A combination of disappointment and relief. She isn’t sighing because she thinks I made it up, she is sighing because she believes me. She believes me because she wants to. Long live the troubled rich girl.
“Edie, everything needs to be out by the end of the day tomorrow. After that, I can’t protect you.” I flush when she says my name. “I understand.” The waiter puts my salad down. “I understand, thank you.” The rest of the lunch is a painful extraction of small talk. I tell her I have been following the public inquest around the train derailment, thinking that out of everyone, at least she might have heard of it. “Ah yes, I think I read something about that in The Guardian. Very sad.”
Back at my desk Kimberly smiles at me. “Promotion?” she mouths. Pure, sweet Kimberly. What a dumb bitch. “Actually, just my annual check in. She is going to schedule one with you soon.” She looks genuinely excited and, more importantly, she looks back at her computer.
I have a text message from Ken. It’s a link to a BBC story and “Have you been following this train derailment inquest? (sent from the Metro-North)” I type and delete. Type and delete. “Do you know anyone with a truck?” I ask.
(To read the next part, click here.)