Joyland

New York |

Parched

by Nicole Haroutunian

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

We went to a desert town once. Stepping out of the car, though, I felt underwater—breathless and panicked. I hadn’t known a place could be so hot. In the air-conditioned car, I’d thought the terrain beautiful, all the hills and red earth, the lacy shrubs and lazy circles of the birds overhead. But I couldn’t follow Dev as he strode up the street toward what could only be described as a saloon, front porch and swinging doors. I stumbled to the nearest large rock and sat. Next to me, covered by chain link, was a hole in the ground: a mineshaft. The stone was there to mark it so no one fell. A small sign indicated that when the mercury market crashed, the cinnabar mine and adjacent town were abandoned. The town had the saloon, a few dozen residents, and the workers’ derelict quarters; it was a ghost town, a real life ghost town. The air had gone wavy with the heat. Dev’s outline quivered as he receded—spectral, too.

“Did you ever make it into the saloon?” Leanne asks.

“Beer never tasted so good,” I tell her. “I remember a high school teacher explaining to us what the id was by saying it was the part of you that would do anything for a drink when you’re thirsty.”

“Thirsty is what the kids say now,” Leanne says. “The new word for when you’re feeling…you know what.” She raises her eyebrows.

“I guess it’s the same thing,” I say. “At least it was for Dev, right? He was thirsty and he did anything.”

I’m on Leanne’s couch. It’s narrow, midcentury, and dusty rose: lovely but not my first choice for a place to crash. My back isn’t what it used to be. That long Texas drive in a rental car, sleeping wound around Dev on a mat in a tent—it was only a few years ago I could do all that without so much as an ibuprofen.

“You know I’ve been in your place,” Leanne says.

For a second I think she’s talking about our apartment. Of course she’s been there. Dev and I throw—or used to throw—epic dinner parties: a board propped over two low bookshelves and covered with an heirloom tablecloth, course after course piled onto that makeshift table, slow braises, mixed cocktails, palette cleansers. It’s where we shine; we never once had a fight while making one of our legendary meals. But that’s not what she’s talking about.

“I know,” I say. I was the one who’d spotted her fiancé with that neighbor girl. “Nothing original about all this.” I gesture to my face, which I haven’t seen in a while but know all the same is covered in a mess of mascara smears and busted capillaries.

“That’s not what I meant,” she says, taking a lock of my hair and twisting it between her fingers. She is a friend for the ages. “Each heartbreak is singular.”

I sit up, looking around for a tissue to blow my nose. “What I couldn’t figure out,” I say, “is why anyone still lived there. In the ghost town. I mean, where did they buy their groceries?”

***

At the museum, I gather a group of assistant principals around an artwork by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I’ve made the educators happy by providing them with folding stools, by acknowledging that, this being the end of the school year, they must be tired. I am alarmed, in fact, by how happy this makes them: “Thank you, thank you so much,” they say, settling onto their stools.

The installation consists of a string of light bulbs hung from the ceiling, pooling in a tangle on a platform near the floor. The light bulbs are the kind we all grew up with—not the compact fluorescents of which I was an early adopter—and the wires are white, twinned and entwined. One bulb, six from the top, is dark. The educators look to me to tell them about the work, but instead I set a timer and ask them to sit with it, silently, for three minutes. They squirm for the first minute, but their bodies still by the third. When the alarm trills, faces bathed in light, they blink as if stunned.

But, they are shy when asked to share thoughts so I start with a poll. Who says the artwork starts from the top? Half of the APs raise their hands and then everyone raises their eyebrows. The ones who thought of it as starting from the bottom never would have considering this point as contentious. A member of the first group, an older man with grey hair and a shirt disheveled enough to appear buttoned wrong, says, “But, gravity, right? Of course it starts from the top.”

A woman in a sweater set says, matter of fact, “But, it’s about heaven. So of course it’s ascending. The light is taking us up to the sky.”

I sit back, let them debate until someone finally mentions the darkened light bulb. “It’s not supposed to be like that,” one of them says.

“Of course it is,” says another. “This is the most famous museum in the world—they don’t have mistakes here.” Everyone looks to me again.

“Intentional or not,” I say, “what if we came back in a month and more bulbs were out?”

“That’s what they do,” says the disheveled AP. “Light bulbs die.” Everyone gasps.

I share with them some bare facts about the artist, ask them how knowing that he made this during a time when so many members of his community—artists, gay men, people of color—his partner included, were dying of AIDS, that he himself succumbed to complications from the disease soon after making this untitled pieces, changes their impressions of it. One of the assistant principals holds her hand to her heart.

Because they are educators and this is a professional development session, I have to get all meta. “What did I do there?” I ask. They furrow their brows. “Right,” I say. “Next to nothing. I asked two questions and shared one piece of information—that’s it. And you talked for—” I check my watch. “Half an hour.”

I mean the lesson to be: listen. Provide space. Believe in your students and their ability to be profound. But, they wipe their eyes and look at me like they’ve been tricked.

***

Dev is in Leanne’s galley kitchen when I get back that evening. She fusses with her shoulder length curls and I mouth, “traitor.” She cringes, retreats to the bathroom, the only place with a door in her studio apartment, although she leaves the door ajar. I lean on the scratched Formica counter; he stands against the fridge, a hanging basket of bananas and onions skimming his shoulder. A bit of onionskin drifts onto his pink button down shirt. I grab it, crinkling it between my fingers. I think of another one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s pieces: hundreds of shiny wrapped hard candies the exact weight of his partner, Ross, piled in the corner of a gallery. Visitors select and eat the candies, the pile dwindling, wasting away, eventually disappearing. Years after both of their deaths, the artwork is remade again and again, all over the world. That’s love. The onionskin disintegrates between my fingers. What is this?

But assistant principals be damned, I practice what I preach. I look Dev in his big brown eyes and wait.

“If anything,” he says, “I should be the one to move out.”

I chew on my lip, cross and uncross my arms. He’s right, but I never want to go to that apartment again.

“I mean, I don’t think either of us should move. Like I said, it was stupid and I’m so sorry. But, I mean, we’ve been together for four years. Every couple has something to grow past.”

I turn to look over my shoulder to the cracked bathroom door, making sure Leanne is getting this. An affront to either of us is an affront to both. Her mouth is agape.

“Are you not talking to me?” he asks. “Isn’t that sort of childish?”

Leanne’s knives are lined up next to me, neat in their wooden block. I wouldn’t want to go that route, though. I open the drawer closest to me, looking for one of those metal skewers like my dad uses to grill kabobs. I don’t know why Leanne would have one of those, grill-less as she is, but that’s the tool that would do it: I could slip it into his ear, scramble—unscramble?—his brain. Didn’t he used to be a reasonable person, a man who loved me? In the absence of a skewer, I pluck the closest thing she seems to have, one of those little corn cob holders shaped itself like a cob of corn. I turn it over in my hand. Dev and I have been together for long enough that my feelings for him are mitigated and textured rather than rosy and romantic—real-life feelings—all of them except for that one flare, that one spike of irrational passion. Who knew how quickly that spike could become a dagger?

“You want to know who it is, right?” he says. His eyes are watery, his purple lips pursed. Could he have lost weight in the space of three days? He looks skinnier. That there are so many contenders in my mind makes it somehow less essential that I have the real information. That I think it could have been any one of a number of women says more than enough.

Later, Leanne says, “Did he say ‘is’?”

***

Leanne is going to a gala for work and brings me along. Because, as I stormed out of my apartment, I didn’t think to pack anything gala-ready, I am wearing an old bridesmaid dress of Leanne’s. She kept insisting that her regular dresses would fit me, but no, I knew I needed to find that one from the summer she had a sprained ankle and gained a little weight in the absence of her usual stringent work out routine. The result is that she looks chic and put-together in a tight, mid-calf black number and I’m oddly Grecian, in yellow chiffon.

We wander through the cocktail hour in a turn-of-the-last-century former bank, ogling Corinthian columns and accepting champagne refills. Leanne is a different person in this context, as the room starts with fill with her fashion colleagues. I watch her toss off air kiss after air kiss, name drop, do a thing with her phone where she shoots her contact information through space into someone else’s, a trick I didn’t even know possible. Her posture is different, the way she balances in her heels. She calls her career in hipster hosiery “fashion adjacent,” but it looks to me like she fits in here.

Across the room, I think I see Carl Lucas, a photographer who was on a panel at the museum last year. I nudge Leanne and she confirms, although she calls him a fashion photographer. I picture his work, sort of voyeuristic street photography; he catches people in moments of tension, anxiety, awkwardness. In my favorite image, a mother and teenage daughter lean toward each other—they look alike, the rounded shape of their noses, the angle of their brows, the way they hold their arms slightly back as they yell—furious, full of spite, but the photograph also has an undeniable, uncomfortable erotic charge to it. I can’t believe an artist like him has a day job, but on the other hand—it’s New York—of course I can. I used to paint, going so far as having a real studio, identifying myself as a painter, but what use is that? One bleak day, I literally took a match to one of my canvases and things got out of hand. I was kicked out of the building even though the damage was almost entirely restricted to my studio. Maybe I’ll go back to it one day, but when I got the eviction notice, what I felt most was relief. I follow Leanne around, wondering if I should go to talk to Carl, engaging in an internal debate until it is time to sit down at our table for dinner.

The first speech is self-congratulatory and dull; I am not sure who or what is being feted, if we are raising money tonight or merely celebrating. My fish is mealy and bland, terrible enough that I wonder if the caterers just assumed, with this crowd, no one would be eating anyway.

I slip out, tottering in Leanne’s too-high, half-size too small heels, to find the ladies’ room. It is down a set of slippery marble stairs; I grip the railing to keep from hobbling myself. Carl Lucas, of course, is at the bottom of the stairs, watching the show.

“One cocktail too many?” he asks.

I shake my head. “Idiot in heels.” He steps aside so I can pass, but I touch his elbow, making him wait. “I want to say that I like your work.” His eyes narrow. I explain about the panel, that one photograph I think of often. He leans back against the wall.

“The fashion stuff is mine, too, you know,” he says. He pushes up his orange plastic frame glasses, cocks his head. “It’s not like I disavow it.”

“I just don’t know it.” I indicate my chiffon, my status as an anti-fashion plate. “I’m Jo.”

He pulls a flask from the inside pocket of his bright blue suit and swigs, offers it to me.

“There are free drinks here, you know,” I say.

“But not, like, right here,” he says.

I can’t tell if we’re flirting, or if he hates me, or if I likely hate him. Should I lean closer? Should we have sex in the bathroom? Should he say, you wanna get out of here?

As he swills from his flask, I notice he is older than I thought he was, maybe almost fifty. There are lines by his eyes and beside his mouth, grey hair at his temples. The impressive camera hanging around his neck rests on the slightest paunch. “You been up on the catwalk here?” he asks.

“First time gala-goer,” I say. “I don’t walk a lot of catwalks.”

“Want to use the bathroom first?” he asks, which I think is weird until I realize that is what I was coming down here to do.

“It was just an excuse to get out of there,” I say, nodding my head back toward the party. He places his hand on my back and guides me to another narrower set of stairs just past the restroom doors. I resist the urge to shrug him off because it does help me keep steady. He wants me to go first, dropping his hand to walk behind me. At my first wobble, I have to pause and remove my shoes. The marble is cool on my cramped feet. He smirks and I say, “Dude, you’re here in jeans and a leather jacket. You think that would fly on a woman?”

We make our way up what feels like a hundred flights of stairs, like we are mounting some mythical castle tower. When we finally emerge, it is onto a narrow walkway rimming the room where the party is being held. The track lights are just below us, as are the pulls for the red velvet curtains. Of course this is the kind of catwalk he meant. From up here, the tables and chairs fanned out around them look like sunflowers, the disorder of plates and silverware and glasses upon glasses of wine like sequins sparkling. There’s a wrought iron railing holding us back from quite a fall. The colors below swirl, the shapes distend and retract. I have a funny feeling in my limbs, a sort of tingling itch.

“Are you afraid of heights?” Carl asks, leaning over the railing to snap pictures.

If he’d asked me while we were still in the basement near the bathrooms, I would have said no, but I have to catch my breath before answering. I rub my arms. “I think a little,” I say. It’s that desert town feeling, but the flip-side. I feel speedy rather than slow, yet just as breathless.

“Sit,” he says. “Ground yourself.” I gather my sunny chiffon skirt in a ball and slide down the wall, sitting cross-legged on the catwalk.

“Better?” he asks.

I close my eyes, breathing as best I can. When my heart quiets, I open my eyes again, licking my lips to unstick them from my teeth so I can answer him. He isn’t waiting for my answer, though; he is pacing, taking pictures. I feel a little better. I keep most of my body pressed to the wall, but crane my neck forward, and, working backward from the podium where the speeches are still happening, pinpoint where Leanne is sitting. I can tell it’s her from the tense, birdlike way she holds her shoulders, but I can’t see much else from so high. “I see my friend,” I say.

“Point her out,” Carl says, stepping back toward me, and I do. He trains his camera on her, performs some adjustments, clicks, clicks, clicks, looks at his screen, does it again. “Is she a good friend?” he asks. “Or maybe overbearing?”

“That’s a strange thing to ask,” I say. “Why would you say that?”

He crouches, his knees straining against the tight grey fabric of his jeans. “Look,” he says. He shows me the screen on his camera. I see Leanne with remarkable clarity. Dressed in her elegant black dress, she is perched at the edge of her chair, looking toward the bathroom stairs, her napkin twisted in her two hands. Everyone else seated at her table is nebulous, blurry to her sharp focus, their edges permeable, laughing at whoever is at the podium. Leanne looks apart, separate from the crowd. The way she’s dressed, she seems divorced from time, as well—a beautiful, anxious woman in black. He’s isolated her, but also identified her; she looks raw, herself. It is a photograph to make a hundred assistant principals cry.

“How did you do that?” I ask.

“Art is hard to talk about,” he says.

“Easy to talk about,” I counter, shaking my head. “Easy to set on fire.”

He looks at me for a long moment. I wonder if he’ll take my picture but he doesn’t.

“I need to go back down,” I say. He holds my hand, helping me inch my way back to the stairs. Before I descend, I say, “I am in the midst of a romantic implosion and my friend is trying to rescue me. She cares about me more than he ever did. If I give you my email, will you send me that photo of her?”

“Doesn’t work like that,” he says.

***

Back at ground level, I slip my feet back into Leanne’s shoes and give her a little wave as I make my way back to my seat. Her relief takes the shape of a full body sigh. “Where, what, why?” she whispers.

“Carl Lucas,” I say.

Her eyes widen. “Thirsty?” she asks. I wink. She reaches her clammy hands around my shoulders, squeezes. A conquest for one of us is a conquest for both. “I told you the yellow dress would be okay.”

As impossible as it seems, the speeches are still ongoing when dessert is served. I spoon vanilla panna cotta, my gaze drifting skyward, toward the catwalk. The lights lining it are so bright I can barely look but I do. I close my eyes, watching the blue-purple after-image dance behind my eyelids. When I open them, one of the bulbs is out. I can’t remember—was it always like that? I blink again, and shift my focus: the rest of the bulbs are still burning strong.