He stood outside the Guggenheim, panicking.
The light was about to change and his thoughts raced down 5th Avenue like a yellow taxi. God, I love her, he thought. Then, you’ve never spoken to her. Why’d you have to stalk her through the museum like an incel psycho? God, I’m a loser, he thought, twisting his baseball cap more tightly on his head.
She was fumbling through her large tote bag, through which objects were poking angrily, masked in canvas. It was Fall and the light on her red hair was more frightening than any of the art in the museum. Beauty unsettled him (as did Chaos, and excessive Orderliness). He didn’t know what he was thinking—going to the museum when he was in the dumps. But he had seen the girl again and he barely noticed the art.
She lit a cigarette, leaning against a pole. Smoke spun around her head, and the greyish white against the white sky, like a haiku, he thought, made his head swim. Biting his cheek, hard, he touched her on the shoulder. She jumped and turned around.
“We met at Sam Esterhazy’s party a couple of weekends ago…I saw you earlier in the museum and was going to say hi but you seemed very into the art and here we meet again. I’m James Wu.”
Now, outside, in her long blue coat and her hair the color of blood, she carried the image of a battlefield; he wanted to hand her a musket and lay down on the pavement waving a white flag.
She was frowning, she was looking at the street lights changing. It blinked WALK and she took one step, hovering her foot above the curb.
“I don’t know a Sam Esterhazy,” she said. “Was it that party in the basement? With the bad DJ?”
“No.” He crossed the street with her. “His apartment is in the Upper West side, on the sixteenth floor. All white. Danish modern. It has that broken…umm…buzzing system.”
“Oh, that party.” Her voice was clear and bubbling and cold. “I don’t even remember how I got there. Was swept along.”
Swept along. He was being swept along. Dust in a pan. If only she could hear me, he thought, then she would know I love her, stupidly and without reason. We’re walking together now, he thought. Just two New Yorkers walking at a New York pace. Ten years in, he was still trying to get comfortable calling himself a New Yorker. It made him feel awful, like a teenage poser. This was the kind of thing he thought about when he wasn’t thinking about food or art. They kept a brisk pace. He was looking at her feet, which were encased in tiny black boots, the kind you see at the vintage clothing stores in Brooklyn. Like they used to belong to Victorian children. He got the impression, watching her feet, that she was not a girl at all but some elfin creature that lived in a cupboard. “I waited a long time in that vestibule. Someone kept answering the buzzer and forgetting to buzz me in,” she said.
For a second, he didn’t know what she was talking about.
“The buzzer? It was broken. It’s always been broken. It’s been broken for years.” It was warmer then, the night of Sam’s party. He had noticed her at once, in a long summer dress with blue flowers and skinny straps. Her hair a burning star. He had nodded to her across the room, out of embarrassment, when she had caught him looking. He had even raised his plastic cup to her a little bit as if toasting to something. That night he had drunk like a demon and vomited on the subway. She had left the party midway.
His courage shriveled up, he couldn’t say a word, then.
Now she smiled at him. “I was supposed to meet someone at that party and he never came,” she said. They were waiting for another light to change so they could cross the street. “You know what’s wonderful, though? I met someone else that night. A girl. A very smart and charming girl that I’ve kept in touch with.”
Ah, he thought. There’s the rub. She’s a lesbian. Then he slapped the side of his head.
“Oh, nothing,” he said, dropping his hands.
They crossed the street and now they were walking along the Park. It was a different New York from his usual New York. His New York was Crown Heights and fried chicken with a bulletproof window at the counter. At night the roaches from his apartment crawled down the building to lick up whatever was left to eat on the restaurant floor. During the day, the roaches lazed about his place. His New York was very long subway rides and the excitement and guilt of gentrification, one coffee shop at a time. His New York was a rat. Its name was Fred and his favorite food was donuts.
This New York, the New York they stood in, was a wide, clean avenue, with autumn light crashing between the leaves and making lace of the ground. It was trees and birds and women in yoga pants that cost a tenth of his rent and light that bashed him over the head. Now the light made the store windows into a river of glass. It was so bright he could not see into the shops. It was the kind of brightness of something about to die. What time was it? Soon the awful blue would be filling the trees. Light was what made him want to be a painter. Light that made you cry and black that asked intolerable questions as he lay awake at night.
He tried very hard not to have the conversation move to what they did because that was death to any conversation in New York. It usually happened very early and then it was all over. “Oh Hey Nice to Meet you What do you do Oh that’s cool It was nice meeting you.” Or maybe it was only like that because he was a painter and no one has anything to say to a painter anymore.
He got the girl talking about the new exhibits at the Guggenheim, then that faded and they walked in silence, along the Park. She knew too much about art. It made his heart ache. Here she was, a girl who knew the masters, who clearly read books. How could he explain himself? I spend my days at cafes educating myself? I went to Yale but now I’m on food stamps? He let it slip that he was an artist, and the girl didn’t latch onto it, asking him how he made money or what kind of things he painted.
Instead, she said the thing that was the problem of his life.
“It’s very hard to be an artist, isn’t it?”
“Yes, very,” he said.
“There are no promises.”
“None at all.”
“It’s hard to keep going, all on your own.”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Are you an artist, too?”
“No.” She smiled at him. “Thank god.”
Though the time to ask had long passed, and he was afraid in case she struck out her hand and said It Was Nice Meeting You, he asked her name.
“Virginia,” she said.
“Virginia,” he said.
He peeked at her face. The light above her lip was snow piling at a hanging cliff. Virginia, Virginia, Virginia. Her eyelashes, the color of dirt in Oklahoma, cast two long shadows on her cheeks. An expanse opened up in his chest and he was ready for crushing deflation or marriage. This was what marriage was for. He had not understood it before.
“Shouldn’t we shake?” she said.
Her hand was delicately formed but strong, like it could pull him through the abyss. He studied her face in case this was the moment she would walk away from him forever, into this New York that was inaccessible to him, even as he stood in it, the rolling greens, the perfume, the specialty salmon, the lake, the swans, all of it. He could hear the lake, suddenly, beneath the swell of other noise.
“Let’s go to the lake,” he said. And he turned from her, holding his breath. “Let’s see what kinds of ducks there are.” He was trying hard for the first time in his life to be wonderful. Like Gene Kelly. Promising, like he was about to tap dance away at any moment. A tall, gangly Chinese Gene Kelly. She probably didn’t like Asian men. Intrusive thought, his brain yelled. He injected a pep in his step as they entered the Park.
The lake was right there, waiting for them.
He sent a prayer straight to God, in whom he did not believe. Thank you, he said, for putting the lake here. That I wasn’t just hearing the sewer sloshing.
There were black ducks with iridescent purple and green around their faces and white ducks with green faces and ducks with pink beaks. God, he said, thank you for all these beautiful ducks.
They sat on a soft, worn bench, and he talked of his father, who owned a coin laundromat in Atlanta, and his mother, who was bitter and mean. The closest he could come to describing his mother was Tony’s mother on The Sopranos. It was hard for him to watch that show. Everything that came out of his mother’s mouth was vile. But James couldn’t bring himself to hate her. His mother folded clothes all day, clothes that she washed, clothes that belonged to strangers. In their last phone call, she had been screeching at him; he was her biggest disappointment was the gist of it. James had pulled the phone away from his ear, walking down 2nd Avenue on the way to get a falafel sandwich. Still, beneath the breath of cars, he heard it. 失望, 失望, 失望, she repeated, in her voice that was full of rage tears, the voice that had made him shrink as a child.
While he talked the sun weakened and cold rose from the concrete below their feet. His toes numbed. His socks were thin. Virginia seemed unbothered though the tip of her nose was red now.
She was twisting a gold ring around her pinkie. He wondered why in the whole two hours that had passed, she had not once taken out her phone to look at it.
“You’re Girl X,” he said because he had run out of things to say, and he had been thinking it since the first time he saw her. “Like Madame X in Sargent’s painting. The one of the pale woman in the black dress looking back. The very famous one. You have the same red hair and the same lavender skin.”
“Maybe I am,” she said, looking out at the lake. “I like that painting.”
“I wish I weren’t a painter.”
“Because I’d die to paint you now, in this light.” He wanted to say a little more. That a small part of him would rather paint her than sleep with her, that a small part of him wanted to die because being an artist was somehow the same as wanting to die, that it was not about living but the past and future, which were nothing, dead things, only dreams. There was nothing tying him to the present, not toothpaste, not a dog, not his cold mother and newspaper-reading father, nothing. Nothing but a roll of canvas to stretch, a box of materials that traumatically pulsed in his closet. There was only painting or not painting, and when he was not painting, he was dead.
“Let’s get closer to the water,” she said. They walked along the lake and came upon some steps that led straight in. They sat on the highest step.
A swan slowly moved from one end of their vision to the other. Now it was all blue. Sad evening blue. If they left the park, they would separate. He would start the long journey home to Crown Heights. Thinking of the subway ride filled him with despair.
“If I told you that your muse was in the center of the lake, holding all your fame and fortune, would you swim in?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I’d jump in right now.”
“Don’t you ever get an idea like that? Like that might be how life is?”
“Uhh, yeah, probably.”
“Like don’t you ever think, if I don’t go out right now, and go to X place, and meet X person, I’ll never become who I need to become?”
He wanted to say, if you were in the center of the lake with everyone I know, I’d save you first. He was looking at her fingers, loosely intertwined between her knees. He could turn and kiss her. Be brave, he told himself.
He lurched his body towards her with his eyes closed.
He fell straight to the floor, his nose smashing stone. She was gone. He got up and looked around the trees. Warmth was trickling down from his brain, over his lip. His nose was bleeding. Maybe she was hiding. Virginia, with her red hair and blue coat and lavender skin! He began to jog. She couldn’t have gotten very far.
He circled the lake, then it was night.
Back in Crown Heights, the smell of fried chicken on his stairs demolished the crazy idea he had had during the subway ride—swimming to the center of the lake. Instead, he went into his closet and took out his paint, and an old canvas he had stretched. He started with the purple of her eyelids, he mixed the color of her hair.