At first I am thrilled to work at the museum. I am about to consign myself to waitressing once again when suddenly I have a job in one of the most recognizable buildings in New York City. Where the cost of a ticket had previously prevented me from visiting more than once, now I am there five days a week guarding and talking about art with the public. It is by a twist of fate that as a painter who could never afford art school, I end up getting paid to study and discuss exhibitions that span mediums, countries, and centuries. In my twenty-two years I have never been so lucky.
However, as fate enjoys delivering luck with slippery hands, I also meet you: a tall, brooding French ex-soldier who lives and paints alone in an apartment in Astoria and has the air of a Byronic hero. When assigned to follow you for a day during training, my attention fixes on your physique with such vigor it startles me. In your stern, arrogant way, it is clear the attraction is reciprocal; I watch you notice me watching you, and behind the cold façade a flicker of curiosity rises to meet mine. From the outside, we are just two people standing in conversation, not really hearing what the other is saying as a separate dialogue unfurls between our eyes.
The game begins. Older by over ten years, you start calling me coquette, but something more serious is happening when soon we cannot bear to be apart. We cross paths while wandering through different shows and galleries around the city by ourselves. We trade music, books, films to watch when we’re not together, letting their lines speak for us. The main obstacle is that I am already effectively wedded to a madman who does not play to share, and therefore the only place where we can securely behold one another is at work, positioning ourselves around the spiraling ramps so we’re always within sight of each other. Without ever speaking about it, we take turns exchanging break times with colleagues so ours will match up. When I go to smoke, you follow me outside through the revolving door at the entrance like you’re on a leash and just ignore our friends when they tease you.
Violating rules that could get us both fired, we sometimes switch to a forbidden frequency on the two-way security radios when we’re supposed to be working. One catches the other’s attention and taps the walkie-talkie at their hip: go to channel six.
“You need to watch that ballet scene I was talking about. But only the version with Nureyev and Fonteyn.”
“Why does it have to be them?” you ask.
“Because they're the ultimate pair—you forget they’re playing roles or even dancing. It’s sublime, you’ll see.”
“Okay, I’ll find it later.”
“No, tonight!” I insist.
You beam at me across the naked space of the rotunda.
“Okay, tonight. I promise. Now here’s what you have to find…”
Our thoughts whirl and intertwine, sensuous conversations about all things ephemeral, hovering at the precipice, suspended in ether, laced with risk. Innumerable moments find us accelerating side by side towards decisive action, consummation, truth. But where’s the fun in finality? Instead, I make us continually maneuver, alternating pursuit with rejection. When I feel you’re getting too confident, I offer you the same lean gaze I’d give anyone else and remove all double meanings from the words that pass between us. This offends and then inspires you to catch me off my guard with the loan of a book about the Chinese painter you admire or a film by Melville. You retreat for few days until I need to find you again “just to return what I borrowed”, after which we renew our positions reaching out from opposite sides on a void, tempting the other to fall in first.
While my evenings at home become increasingly infernal, for two years I can breathe again each morning when I see you waiting for me on the bench against the wall of the park. That final stretch on Fifth Avenue where my keeper releases me from his grasp (unaware that I walk straight over to you and commence a separate romance) is my internal bridge to a happier—no, not happier, more expansive existence. But work mostly bores you; eventually you become frustrated that I never get on the train to Astoria like others you sleep with along the way as you tire of waiting. One day I tell you I’m planning to go on a trip to Egypt with the madman, and you decide to quit the museum. How can I ask you to stay? You leave scraps of paper with hints for me to find, lyrics from a Serge Gainsbourg song:
Tandis que des médailles d'Impérator
font briller à sa taille le bronze et l'or
Le platine lui grave d'un cercle froid
a marque des esclaves à chaque doigt
This phrase about cold circles of platinum engraving the mark of slaves on each finger is your direct reference to the rings I wear, given to me by one you recognize as a rival and yet against whom, in very French style, you hold nothing personal. However, what you’re saying is I'm choosing to be shackled, that a braver soul would cast aside all hesitation and obey whatever desire demanded. This is a convenient argument for someone without much to lose. While minimal thought is given to self-preservation on my part, that is not to say I’m entirely impractical: maybe I’m shackled, but a prison is still some kind of a shelter. And what would happen to my hard-won studio, my paints and supplies, these tools that are holding me together? Already conditioned to expect more peril than comfort from this life, I’ve only recently discovered the solace that lies in my nascent artistic powers. Every time the madman rages through my space, sending glass jars of turpentine crashing to the floor, I clean up and keep going. I’ve started making large canvases full of charcoal smudges only I know represent abrasions caused by skin friction and splashes of oil signifying burst grenades, car crashes, the Big Bang, cum everywhere. I can’t say what will happen if we don’t both work at the museum anymore, but I draw a line at being kicked to the street to find out, or worse.
Over the last two weeks we have together, urgency dissolves any remaining pretense. I love you, you message me from outside the museum where you have appeared on your day off. Though I shiver with victory at these words, I don’t reply in kind. What is that saying about “better the devil you know”? I need to be with you, you write. What, once? I respond, unconvinced. But it’s a rational consideration. Am I to bet everything on what might be a disappointing fuck that ruins the mirage of this cinematic passion? You have no idea what our entanglement is already costing me—the madman’s growing suspicions (“I can tell someone is trying to take you from me; I’m not going to sit by and let it happen”), his increased supervision (“I was calling you over and over, why weren’t you answering? Who do you think you’re playing with?”). And yours is not a rescue mission, nor am I concerned with being saved—we have never been interested in redeeming each other, only connecting in the darkness.
To be fair, you write to me as soon as you know I am back. When and where can we meet? To be honest, somewhere in the skies above the Ural Mountains, the madman and I, faced with the prospect of only having each other to cling to, cling to each other again. Our saga is far longer than I ever let on; the magnitude of trauma bonding has an inhibitory effect on my fantasies during that flight. And to tell the whole truth, right before I leave, something temporarily blights our attachment at what turns out to be a critical point.
One evening you are walking me as far back to my apartment as we dare, and we stop in a store so I can pick up groceries for my second shift as someone else’s lover. We’ve had a drink somewhere along the way and are laughing when you suddenly turn and pull me into a kiss. Then you grin: a sincere, full-hearted grin. As though we are on equal footing, on the same side, in love. I immediately feel something akin to revulsion—you look like a fool. I’d rather have you conquered and weeping at my feet, not brimming with some contagious joy as though we have made peace.
“That was too predictable,” I scoff.
Accordingly chastised, you leave it at that. That grin might have still been fresh in my mind when I answer your question with a picture of the sun haloed like a laser above the Great Pyramid of Giza and write: This is the end.
By the time I return to the museum a few weeks later, you are gone—and yet everywhere I look is abruptly crowded with your absence: the corners where you used to lean, the doors you would open for us; the silent paintings before which we confessed everything through coded observations (“look at that, where the shadow of my finger is,” as you hovered above a brushstroke, blocking a section of the gallery lighting—“there?” the silhouette of my finger crossing yours—“here,” the shadow of your finger grazing mine); the stairwells where we arranged furtive meetings away from surveillance cameras just to prove to ourselves that we were defiantly bound together, that we could find ways to unite no matter what. Hollowed by your disappearance, my eyes try to pour you back into these spaces to no avail. I cannot conjure you into place with the force of my yearning. The white spirals become a vertiginous container for a desolation so wrenching it deranges my senses. I begin hallucinating your black-clad boxer’s frame at every turn and the ramps of the winding building undulate like waves under my legs. I picture encountering you on the street and feel like I’m having a heart attack. I picture ripping wings out of my very bones and flying to you.
But I wouldn’t know where to go: you vanish without a trace. You leave no word with anyone, nobody knows where you’ve gone. And how can I investigate while not making it too obvious I’m imploding without you? I’ve stopped being able to see myself clearly in the lack of your reflection; or rather, the only mirror I have left is cursed. I hang around people who remember you once being among us, straining for signs if they have heard from you, brought me any message. Maybe you went back to building stage sets in theaters as you mentioned you did on the side? But it is soon apparent I am the only one to whom you have divulged this, along with numerous other details, while still not giving enough to go on. I continue to search for clues, incredulous that in such an age when privacy is a commodity one pays for and trades with, somebody has a sufficiently potent intention not to be found that they go to all the trouble it takes. What remains to do besides develop multiple theories? You worked under a false name. You spy for some government. You are an imposter who lied about everything: you never came from Lyon, you never quit the armed forces to enroll at the Sorbonne to study art. You have no brother who’s a chef, nor nieces and nephews. You didn’t get married a month after arriving in New York and divorced as many weeks later. You have no guilt, no scruples, no doubts. And you don’t love me.
How can I describe the irony of this being the moment when the madman’s distrust ruptures at the seams and he decides, without any proof, that I have most definitely been unfaithful? He has no need for truth, and he doesn’t operate in those subtleties which adorned my parallel life so richly. The only morsel for his fear to gnaw on is the time I suggest we separate because forever is too long to stay with one person and he breaks down sobbing. When that doesn’t move me, he threatens death: his or mine. (You might have been a soldier, but I’m the one who is battle-weary.) After you disappear, he might as well accuse me of cheating with a ghost, and probably does over the course of many drunken fights where even the most minimal restraint is thrown out the window. All that remains are the covert marks I keep embedding in the canvases, the songs we told each other to listen to, the secret of having occupied a brief life together inscribed beneath my skin. He tries to extract it repeatedly, but I tell him: believe me or don’t, there’s nothing there. For the affair I don't allow myself to have, I am still punished without pity. When he tries to squeeze the breath from my body, does his grip ultimately loosen because he can see that he would mostly just be doing me a favor? And yet there is this other inexplicable and mysterious part of myself: a small inner flame that refuses to be extinguished, patiently waiting to ignite some future revolt I cannot yet envision. It lures me towards survival, and in order to survive I have to invent a new plotline wherein I confess I was wrong for whatever it is exactly I’m being accused of, and act penitent. A plea bargain to buy some time.
One year later and I am still half of a mad couple, bathing in turquoise Caribbean waters. I have done a decent job of plastering over the chasmic grief and monotony I suffered in your wake. In fact, I’ve transfigured large quantities of agony into art, since that is another option: distilling unbearable emotions into potent phials of creative elixir, lining them up on the shelf to be imbibed or smashed when the mood strikes. The mask of laughter has returned to my face, and I’m much more careful who I turn it to. I’ve trained myself to suppress any treasonous thoughts just so I can keep living through this and see what comes next.
Then one night down there in Saint Croix when I’ve almost succeeded at turning the page, you arrive in my dreams: we are sitting on that bench under the giant elm trees where we would meet and you are whispering Baudelaire in my ear, just as you once did. I can feel the ripples of your cool breath and lean with glad relief against your shoulder. Tell me a poem about Hell, I say, and you grasp my hand, and our story resumes.
MD is a visual artist and writer living in Italy. After a long hiatus, she is toiling away at a memoir about life as a maker/survivor/ex-pat/queer parent.