Issue 7

All of That

 · Fiction

But I admit the reason I tracked you down and burned your paintings that night had nothing to do with my credit report. Just understand I was attempting to change and become a different person. I was still only in my twenties. I was working for a public relations firm located not far from that bar in Rittenhouse Square where it happened. This was the first job I’d ever had that provided insurance and didn’t make you clock in or ask supervisors if you could piss or smoke. This was one of the signs, my mother said, that I was finally over you and all of that, as she always described my lifestyle with you, with a wave of her hand: all of that.

I was doing adult things I’d only ever seen in jewelry commercials or on weekend visits with my father and it was exciting, at first. I purchased tailored suits, arranged payment plans for my student loans, and invested in a 401(k) plan. I furnished my condo with actual new warrantied furniture, not stained thrift store stuff or cabinets made from boards and cinder blocks. I paid $600 to have my teeth professionally cleaned and practiced this open-mouthed laugh in my mirror and in my phone’s camera that I projected to people at the office, at bars, at galleries like this.

There was something ennobling but also frightening about changing, as if I were betraying you. The more I changed the more I remembered our time together, my previous self’s life, and wondered if you all were still the same. You all in the painting here, our old group Seth designated “The Whole Sick Crew.” We were spirits of exclusion, Dr. Sterling would say, where the healthy social ambition is to become included. All those nights we gloried in as spirits of negation: artists, bohemians, dropouts, sleeping all day and partying till dawn, making art, you painting with your knees bent and back’s posture so perfect and me trying to write poetry like Bukowski, and the others who sometimes lived with us making movies or playing music too loud for the neighbors, dancing around the fires that often got out of control. How many times did you sweet-talk landlords out of evicting us?

By avoiding the realities of adult life we were implicating them, we thought, which I found childish and immature when I started working in the city and investing in conservative bonds and becoming a good and productive citizen. Well-mannered, was a phrase I repeated to myself often. You must be well-mannered… I began to appreciate those quotidian details and social customs I’d thought myself superior to, before, when we were together doing all of that. The almost religious sense of communion with the greater rush of things I experienced waking up at 6 AM, brewing coffee out of this Swedish device while listening to neighbors’ alarms go off; watching the morning news anchors’ holographically stand around a transparent glass desk (like the one Ross fell through at Krieger’s party the night Obama was re-elected) discussing the weather and smiling too hard about local news stories, realizing that this was my weather and my news; driving home after work on Fridays, looking into the cars of other people likewise relieved (I imagined) after completing a week of satisfying and enervating work, thinking of weekend plans at the Jersey Shore or the Poconos. In these imagined echoes of fraternity or camaraderie, I received a kind of approval or acceptance I had missed since being with you, Dr. Sterling posited, before suggesting we consider inpatient treatment.

I believed that the more I could sort of insert myself into this system of notched and imbricated stock fluctuations, weather patterns, sports- and eco-friendly cars (this was back when the oil industry ran the government and ‘green cars,’ as they were called then, were rare and derided as fey and feminine), even religion, as well as discussions at office parties with aperitifs in hand about the most efficient traffic route from here to there… the more I would feel real, like I fit in, like I didn’t have to publish a book of poetry like Ruba or be this famous painter like you to be considered successful or “a credit to myself,” to quote Dr. Sterling.

Around this time, about six months after I had started becoming a different person, I decided to purchase a hybrid Honda Civic Manual SX-TLR 800, the one from that commercial where the Brady Bunch woman remotely opens the door with her smartphone application… I guess you haven’t seen it. Florence Henderson is her name. I desired this car because I had begun to fear that my colleagues were secretly snickering and making conjectures about my past based on Car-Car. You remember Car-Car? That dented Altima we shared which still had all those ‘Impeach Bush’ stickers and graffiti’d anarchy signs and the passenger-side mirror we never fixed but just re-attached with duct tape? My basic emotional state at this time was probably equivalent to that of a spy or an informant who feared that those around him would discover his or her true identity. So that was what the new car was going to be, another way of fitting in and concealing my past. And that was when I found out how bad my credit was and tracked you down at The Black Sheep and saw you for the last time.

It was Experian especially. Transunion and the other one were fine. Dr. Sterling has pointed out that the fact that I can’t remember the name of the third credit reporting bureau signifies how little I really cared about my credit report to begin with. But Experian seemed especially fixated on those years when we lived in that place off Passyunk and then the other place in Chester with the stained glass windows and stuccoed walls you’d painted swirly colors. Those days when we used yellow late notices from Comcast as napkins and wrote poems on the blue and pink notices from the electric company and sent our landlords checks without signatures to buy more time at the beginning of the month. When Sue Oh, who depending on context would say she was either from South or North Korea, made politically subversive origami shapes with gas bills and jury summons’ and DMV registration expiration warnings and hung them like mobiles in galleries and bars and friends’ parties where you first started showing during Nutter’s first years.

We were poets, artists, bohemians, living the life of the spirit and the mind. Why would we pay bills? If we didn’t have electricity, we’d use candles and you would paint outside under candlelight. If we didn’t have cable, we’d just borrow one of Tua’s collection of foreign films. If we didn’t have gas for the stove, we simply wouldn’t eat — we never really did, anyway. You almost literally never did, is the shame of it all — even in this painting of The Whole Sick Crew here you’ve painted yourself thinner, almost translucent, as if even then you knew you’d be leaving me, and us, all of it.

The more I tried to fit in at my job in the city the more I felt I didn’t. I started to walk or in colder weather take SEPTA so nobody would see Car-Car. There were times before every meeting when a motherly secretary would steer me into an alcove or behind a column to straighten my tie or tell me my shoelaces were untied. I had this problem with my blazer’s buttons where I could never remember if professional adult men (like I was pretending to be) should button up the blazer as they sat or as they stood, so I was constantly fiddling with my buttons so that I could not be accused of buttoning when social convention demanded de-buttoning, or the opposite.

Once one of my colleagues left nail-clippers in my cubicle because I still have that terrible habit of biting my nails (remember you used to say they cut you inside when we did it) and it became worse when I was stressed out, which I increasingly was after I met with the credit management official after the really friendly car salesman suddenly became brusque and unresponsive when running what he said was just a routine credit check before I could get the keys to my new eco-friendly hybrid Honda Civic Manual SX-TLR 800 — the one with the customized chrome-plated gear-shift and Apple CPU with Bluetooth syncing capabilities, which I planned to return to my firm’s parking lot around five when everyone was leaving to drive around in first gear with the windows down and NPR blasting, parking every so often in random populated spots and walking around until there was enough of an audience for me to use my smartphone application to remotely start the engine again and then jump in like the dude from Knight Rider (the gay singer the Germans love) and then drive around them for one more lap wearing sunglasses, looking bored and unaware of their attention while they admired the little trees I hung from the rearview mirror to make the car smell nice, because now I had whitened my teeth and chewed special gum with xylitol and no longer smoked or drank —

— Sir.

But that never happened because, as the credit management official explained to me, a credit rating of 490 indicated a significant history of irresponsibility and thus a future credit risk or liability.

— Could you please, sir.

The first thing I thought of when the official gave me my credit report score was you, and those times together with you, and how if I tracked you down and talked to you alone maybe together we could fix it, what went wrong before.

— This is a no smoking facility, sir. You’ll need to extinguish —

That night at The Black Sheep, which was a lot smaller than this curated gallery here where your work is now exhibited under bright lights and banners with your name and date of birth and death, I planned on showing up late and checking my smartphone repeatedly for emails and texts with loud audio notifications, thereby indicating to those present that I had better places to be and had only stopped in to perform some frustrating errand involving you, but when I walked in at 8:30 the space was empty and I still to this day remember immediately bumping my head into one of Sue Oh’s mobiles and I heard her boozy giggle and an ironic, “Well look who’s here.” She approached me with others trailing behind her and I could feel moving voices from behind me coming closer as all my former friends converged on me. At the time, I was such a narcissist that I thought they were angry at me for defecting from the cause or betraying them in some way by Being Successful and Joining the Enemy, but they were all pleasant and wanted to bring me to see you. They said how much you’d love to see me but instead of going to talk to you about our credit situation and how I wanted to be together again I pretended to take a phone call and retreated outside, where I stood under a hotel’s umbrella, watching you through the window which didn’t have dark red frames like now and having my first cigarette in years.

— Sir, smoking in here is not permitted; I must insist you extinguish that in this receptacle.

That was when I concocted my plan to flaunt my financial success and contempt for art by purchasing all your paintings and burning them one-by-one in front of you and everyone else in The Black Sheep. I had decided to display no expression while I did these things, like it were an impersonal act, one so tedious that I would continue to check my phone for business emails and text messages even while pouring more gas from the little red cylinder I’d siphoned from the Sunoco station down by Spruce Street and had hidden in the left interior pocket of my new tweed overcoat I’d purchased from Torre’s Big and Tall —

— Is this the guy Roddy was telling us about last night? The one who cried?

… thinking I’d go back to my apartment and take a huff or two for old time’s sake and not do anything rash or something that I might regret in the morning, since both your email address and studio location had been provided on the gallery handout, so I could meet you whenever to discuss our credit situation and show you pictures of my eco-friendly Honda Civic Manual SX-TLR 800 and maybe even stream a YouTube video of the commercial where Florence Henderson ignites the engine with a smartphone I owned.

— Sir, may I ask what that is you have in your pocket that smells so pungent?

But the painting you painted of us all caught my attention, this painting here, which again isn’t for sale. Why is this painting always exhibited when it’s not for sale? I know it was a gift, you said, and that if you make money off a gift it can’t be a gift anymore… I remember all that — but it was a gift for me. You painted it and gave it to me to take to the hospital when we both agreed I needed to admit myself as an inpatient that time… I keep telling them that it’s mine but they don’t believe me even when I offer money.

Most of the paintings I could see through the rain and the window and the room’s smoke that night at the Black Sheep were familiar to me, having been painted while we lived together. I recalled then, watching from under the umbrella, the frenzied passion and torsional energy that warped the apartment when you were painting, working on your knees with your ankles folded like a finishing school child and your straight back and long hair (dreaded then) with big metal plaits, humming to yourself or playing that ambient Eastern music with all the percussion instruments that looked like starships, so intent on what you were doing that nothing could distract you… whereas when I shut myself in our room where my typewriter was to write poetry I usually just typed out a few words and then carried the heavy old thing over to my laptop and looked up obscure Bukowski stanzas and copied lines down, imagining you listening from the other side of the door, thinking of how impassioned and energetic I appeared about Art, like you — but you never mentioned it, and when I gave you poetry around the house to read or I wrote poems on the utility bills you just smiled or laughed — but you never said whether you knew they were about you, all of them; if you did you would have realized that I wasn’t cheating on you that winter when we split for the last time, that I never even considered it, cheating, and the things I said when I told you to take this painting back cuz I never wanted to remember you or The Whole Sick Crew again were untrue and rationalized.

— Sir, I’m calling security.

So that’s what was going on in my mind when I re-entered The Black Sheep and bought all your paintings, except for this painting I’ve tried to buy for three straight nights. Right there in front of Everhart and Ruba’s sister and Tua and Seth and Robin — all of those with whom we, as in Prospero’s speech we’d make Underhill quote when he’d had psilocybin, “made midnight mushrooms and rejoiced the solemn curfew” — I crashed to the floor, dousing gas all over the paintings, burning my hand with my lighter’s tilted flame and imagining your hurt and pain — but all I heard was an initial rush towards me and then your calm laugh telling everyone, “Well he bought them he can do what he wants with them now.”

When you said that, I remember feeling more ashamed and in love with you than at any point in my life, and immediately removed my new Torre’s overcoat and hugged all the paintings to my chest with it to put out the nascent flames, and my eyes started to tear up from the smoke, and then when you walked me home I held the paintings tight to my chest still like a newborn while we shared a cigarette. You appeared neither angry nor said, twirling Seth’s brother-in-law’s girlfriend’s famous blue umbrella above your head in the increasingly biblical deluge or tempest as we walked back to my lobby. I was talking to you, of all things, about my projects at work and how my statistics on some of the condo’s more sophisticated exercise machines were so high that the trainer —

— Can I see your ID, sir?

… and in my building’s lobby, you said you were sorry how things had gone for me, which I guess I didn’t understand at the time, and you told me that I would always have a special place in your heart. You said you loved me. I didn’t say anything back, but instead just huddled into the elevator with your paintings and my tousled wet hair and damp socks and increasing tears from the paintings’ fumes, and, walking away, without looking at me, you said quietly, “I hope you are finally happy, Bobby.” I didn’t say anything as the elevator door closed slowly nor did I mention anything about my credit report and didn’t notice until a few months later, in retrospect, how skinny you were, how your head wasn’t just buzzed but bald in places, how I could see blue veins in your hands and forearms, or how you had a fine downy growth of hair on your arms and even the sides of your cheeks, which I’ve read happens in the later stages. I didn’t notice anything then and didn’t say anything then and so I —

— Unit three respond to a trespasser in the Hines Exhibition Room?

… needed to come back here now how many years later to look at this same painting, to remember what it was like, after being divorced now twice myself and still with the same public relations firm but really now we do more social media with a larger office on a higher floor and an eight-page resume, and two Honda Civics and credit that is finally so good that I can buy or finance anything in the world… except for this painting of The Whole Sick Crew —

— Sir, the exhibit has officially closed and the cops are an their way. They’ll have to detain you this time.

… coming back here for the last time to remind myself that at least once in my life I, like Prospero, lived in a magical land with magical people, none among them as close to my heart then or now as you, and I just had to say — which is weird, because now that I’m 46 and you’ll forever be 28 it sounds like I’m saying it in a sort of unconditional love way, like to my daughter, and not in the way I mean it to you— what I never said properly to you when we were together and all of that…

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