Damian begins his performance art project “Vomiting Inside Art Galleries” on a crisp Thursday night in October, as the first leaves sneak from the trees. He strides into the basement art gallery at which a rising star in the photography world, Tara Kelsey, is opening a show of images of trash cans being dumped into bedrooms. The gallery, artSPACE, is white with a gray concrete floor, stained with grease from its previous life as a short-order kitchen. I can tell it’s a significant show because some people are actually looking at the outsized photographs, holding their plastic wine glasses at crotch level. Soft indie rock plays from the PA system.
We do not know anyone at this gallery.
A wild-eyed girl in a black sequined dress pours us two glasses of red wine without saying a word. She towers over Damian, who’s only five-seven, and slightly built besides. What is it with tall women in the NYC art world?
Seven of the large photographs fit into the gallery, three on each wall and beside the bar. In each of them, a girl’s lower legs are visible as she holds the trash can upside-down and spills the assorted garbage into the center of the room. The legs all look like they belong to the same woman. I look around for a likely pair of knees but everyone has already switched to pants. The series progresses in colors; a blue room has yellow trash being dumped into it, a fuchsia room with green trash, and a red room having white trash dumped into it. And so on.
Damian’s wine glass shakes as he brings it to his lips.
“Is it hot in here?” he says. “It feels hot in here.”
“It’s ‘cause it’s in a basement,” I say. “The heat never exits. You should take off your jacket.”
“Where am I going to put it?” he says.
“Is there a coat check?” I ask the bar girl. It’s been a fallow few months since my girlfriend broke up with me. I glanced at her breasts when she looked away. “Or, like, a rack?”
She shifts her weight onto her back leg and purses her lips.
The space is about half-full of men and women wearing black, with the occasional splash of plaid. At these things, that counts as a statement. The woman I’ve decided is the artist stands in the center of the room, rotating her wine glass in her hand as she speaks to a tall, rangy man with gray hair.
We make eye contact. I try to smile but I’m nervous for Damian. His white t-shirt is stained almost the same shade as his stick-like arms.
“Are you nervous?”
“No,” he says. “Yes. I don’t know. Maybe. I’m nervous I won’t be able to, you know, perform.”
“It’s like losing your virginity, I guess.”
“Hopefully with more vomit.”
“That’s what you think.”
He downs his wine and sets the glass on the floor. I open my iPhone camera and point it at his face.
“Wait a second,” he says. He pushes a curl of hair out of his face. “Okay.”
“I’m Damian Schimke,” he says in a flat, affectless tone. “And this is my art project.”
I gave him a thumbs up.
He turns, walks into the center of the room, and clears his throat. The artist flicks her eyes at him but returns to nodding and smiling at her conversation companion. Nobody else looks.
I watch through the iPhone screen as he closes his eyes and begins to hyperventilate. The Indian food we had earlier does not sit well with what is about to happen.
Then, as someone turns to see what the deal is with that small dude having a panic attack in the center of the room, Damian puts his hands on his knees and roars. It sounds like a lion that has just found out his girlfriend has left him for a more popular lion. As he does so, our all-you-can-eat Indian buffet lunch exits his mouth. Orange chunks of Tandoori chicken share airspace with yellow basmati rice and green bile for an instant before splashing on the concrete floor.
I place my finger to my lips to suppress a dry heave.
For a moment, the wet splatter that Damian’s vomit echoes. The man the artist is talking to has his hand over his mouth in an expression of horror. The woman to Damian’s left with the red felt jacket and huge prescription glasses twists her lip and pulls her head back in revulsion. The thinnest of smiles crosses the artist’s, Tara’s, lips.
Damian spits once, straightens, wipes the corners of his mouth with the hem of his shirt, winks at the artist, and walks back over to me. Blood throbs in my ears. I want to hug him but do not. I make myself stand still while he approaches me.
The crowd shifts their weight, waiting for someone to evaluate what has just happened.
Damian reaches me and takes his coat. I try to think of how I will describe this scene when I submit it to Art F City.
“Ew,” the woman in the red felt jacket says.
“Fuck, my shoes,” this guy with wine on his shoes says.
“Oh, my god.” A girl, in a floral dress and complex-looking sandals, who I had not seen before, wriggles through a gap between two of the four men surrounding her in close proximity. “That’s so gross.”
“I know,” one of the guys she’s with says. “So nasty.” He takes a smug sip from his wine.
“Ugh,” another of them says, looking annoyed. “Awful, terrible... Disgusting.”
The bartender’s sequined dress shimmers as she laughs behind her hands. I try to return her smile but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes are on Damian. He asks for another glass of wine without looking, staring at the mess he made.***
Tara runs out after us as we walk out of the gallery and up to the street.
“Wait,” she says. “Hold on a second.”
We turn, I stiffen. I’d hoped to avoid this.
“Who are you?” she says. “What is that?”
“I’m Damian Schimke,” Damian says. He looks bored, he turns to go.
“What’s the deal? You puked in my art opening? Seemingly on purpose?”
“I’m doing a project.”
“Listen,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “We didn’t mean to—”
“Don’t apologize,” she says. “Don’t apologize for art.”
“I guess we wrecked your opening,” Damian says.
“No,” she says. “No, that was actually great. Like, shockingly great.”
“Thank you,” she says. “This is going to be fantastic. So many people are going to write about this. At my show. Wow.”
“It is my pleasure,” Damian says.
“Listen,” she says. “I’m going to give you my number, if you ever need help with anything. Art, whatever, anything. Don’t hesitate.”
“Thank you,” he says, as she enters it into his phone. We turn to go. She calls out to us again.
“Hey,” she says.
Damian turns; I walk the rest of the way to the street.
“Make sure you include my name in the title of your video.”
“Of course,” he says.
I watch her walk back into the now-buzzing gallery, my eyes fixed on the place where the strap of her dress bisects the flower she has tattooed on her right shoulder blade.
“She’s gorgeous,” I say.
“I’m more into blondes, I think. Do you want her number?”***
I upload the video the next day around noon sitting on the living room floor of our shared apartment. My MacBook Pro, blazing fast when my dad first bought it for me, crashes twice before it finishes the process. Damian paces, smoking a spliff, in front of the record player by the window. He wears only blue jeans, and he slides on his socks on the hardwood floor.
“Is it up, yet?” he says. “Never mind, don’t check. How do you think it went last night? Okay?”
“Yeah,” I say, taking a sip of coffee from the RISD mug Damian’s mom bought him as a graduation gift. “I thought it went great. That artist girl wanted you bad.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think so. I think she wanted my video to be a hit so her art show would be a hit because everyone would see it in my video and be like, ‘Wow that looks like cool art that he’s throwing up on.’ I don’t think she, like, wants me, wants me.”
“She wanted you. They all did.”
“Yeah,” he says, stopping for a second to look out of the window. “Those guys are working on their bikes again.”
“I don’t think I ever see them ride those things,” I say, joining him at the window. “They just endlessly tinker.”
Across the street from our place there is a biker gang clubhouse: a low white building with “BKMC” stenciled over the door. The bikers, overweight guys who wear sleeveless t-shirts and drank beer, stand in a semicircle around whoever is fixing his bike that week. They are usually quiet, except some Friday nights when they rev the engines of their bikes and play ZZ Top at top volume. I never see them riding their motorcycles. I watch them sometimes when I’m writing, or attempting to write, after my shift at the coffee shop a few blocks off Lorimer. They usually distract me enough to where I think should post something about them on Twitter or interview them, then smoke some weed and decide against it.
“I wonder if that’s a metaphor,” Damian says.
“For what?” I say.
“It’s done,” I say.
“Call it ‘Man Vomits in Tara Kelsey Art Opening.’”***
I return home from work to find Damian sitting with the lights off on our futon in his underwear and a flannel with an idiot grin on his face, bathed in the glow of my MacBook.
“You have to see this,” he says. “I’m rolling a celebration joint.”
“Okay,” I say, sitting next to him on the couch. “My weed?”
“Sorry,” he says. “I’ll get you back.”
“What do I have to see?”
He has it open to the video, which has been viewed over 3,000 times.
“Holy shit,” I say. “That’s a lot. That’s a lot, right?”
“Well,” he says, licking the gummed edge of the Zig Zag. “Not a whole lot. Not, like, mega-viral.”
“Right,” he says, shifting his eye focus from the end of the joint to my face. “Anyways, you know what this means, right?”
“We have to do it bigger.”***
We do it again, several times. The next opening is the next Thursday, at /the/box/, a gallery that functions as a black box theater on weekends. The piece is a large structure built from driftwood that fills almost the entire room. Wind chimes, also found secondhand, hang from top beams at eye level in such bunches that I can’t see the other side of the room through the metallic forest. The artist, Erubiel Moctezuma Saavedra, a garrulous and dwarfish Mexican, has hired male models wearing protective headgear to run at top speed through the chimes at regular intervals. It’s quite a scene. Damian walks up to Saavedra, smiles, shakes his hand, tells him he enjoys his artwork and finds it dangerous, then vomits on the top of the man’s bald head. Saaverda seems stunned, then punches him in the face.
At Art Hangar, a converted hangar on the outskirts of an unused private airstrip in Queens, the Israeli artist Moishe launches ANTimal Farm. The piece is a huge ant farm-style edifice (two of the walls are Plexiglas), complete with sand tunnels and an “ant queen:” the artist himself dressed in ant-themed drag. Visitors can enter the structure in order to meet Moishe or observe their fellow art appreciators as the progress. At each successive level, Moishe posts a “guard,” one of his friends in increasingly-complex ant-warrior costume. The costumes range from a simple breast plate to a full-body latex suit festooned with cave-style paintings of made-up ant battles. In order to progress to the next level, the guards ask participants to reveal deep personal secrets. Many people cry at the exhibition. At the third ant guard, Damian vomits on the coat of a well-known art blogger as she struggles to answer the question: “Why don’t you deserve to be loved?” He has to feint and pirouette past the other two guards, whose costumes prevent them from getting an effectual hold on him. I film him from outside of the structure, so we have to record screams for maximum realism and effect.***
Blogs begin featuring Damian, reviewing each individual video and attempting to categorize his performances and influences. TheArtbeat called the ANTimal Farm video “appalling and yet impossible to look away from... a compelling examination of the expulsive nature of confession.” Eye on NY says, of Saaverda punching Damian in the face, that “contemporary art has found its confrontational bad boy.” Damian’s seldom-used Twitter account now has over 4,000 followers.
“They actually say ‘bad boy’? Like, those words?” Damian says as I read him quotes while we sit across from each other on a beer garden patio nursing foot-tall pilsners in the waning afternoon.
“Confrontational bad boy.”
We continue our campaign of artistic terror apace. Every night and weekend, between shifts at work, and while he spends the day laying around the house, daydreaming about fame and fortune, we sit combing through art calendars of the city, looking for our next target. We look for minor openings, or artists Damian admires. My writing, which I had not attended to with any regularity before Damian’s popularity, has fallen completely by the wayside. I am, as much as anyone, in awe of the sudden and mercurial rise to fame my roommate is experiencing. At a party, I tell a gorgeous brunette that I am his roommate and she grabs both arms and drags me into the bedroom to ask me what he is really like.
His videos—our videos—gain in popularity rapidly. After being written up on ArtBabble by the blogger whose coat he ruined at ANTimal Farm, who says that she is so affected by the experience that she cried for hours and unfavorably compared it to street harassment, Damian achieves a minor celebrity in the art world. Girls ask him if he is “that puking guy.” He tells them not to get too close. They ask him what his secret is, their hands first on his shoulder, then on his forearm, then on his knee as they lean in close to hear his reply.***
For weeks, since the ANTimal Farm performance, we have a deluge of messages asking Damian to give an interview, or to come puke at some Pratt party or NYU student show. Unless it comes from a girl Damian likes, we ignore these messages. I check them haphazardly, trying not to get sucked too deep into Damian’s celebrity.***
One night, as we sit and smoke our third joint of the evening while watching The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, he gets an email from a familiar name. Tara Kelsey asks him to call her, she has a gig to offer.
“We already did her,” Damian says. “There’s no way she has another relevant show going on right now. I’m telling you, we have to only go after the big fish.”
“I’m going to message her,” I say.
“Somebody has a crush.”
“I do not.”
“You so do,” he says. “I’ve seen your Google history.”
“And if you want her number so bad, I’ll give it to you.”
“I just think we need to remember where we came from.”
“Where we came from. It’s been two months. We haven’t even begun.”
“Two months ago nobody knew who the fuck you are,” I say. “Now, we can’t even walk into a gallery without everyone taking a step back or talking behind their hands.”
“Whatever,” he says. “I hope you’re not, like, satisfied, or something.”
“No,” I say. “It’s just…We should hear her out.”
“You call her,” he says. “Let me know if it’s worth my while.”
When Tara and I meet at my coffee shop on my lunch break, the windows are fogged from the temperature difference between the toasty interior and the snow outside. My boss stares at me between orders. I go out for lunch most days, but today I’m in the shop, picking at a homemade sandwich reflected in the lacquer of the wood table.
I, alone among the other patrons of the coffee shop, do not have my laptop out in front of me. I do, like the four others sitting in the coffee shop, have a worried expression as I hunch forward over my espresso drink. Nobody else makes a sound except the soft clicking their keystrokes made as they compose the blog post, short story, script, whatever. Every few minutes someone comes in and asks for a drink, which kicks off a minute-long interruption of the library-like silence with a whirring of grinders and a whooshing of steam.
The door tinkles again and she walks through with a heavy coat and an apology. I try to look nonchalant.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “The L...”
“No worries.” Lunch is almost up.
She takes off her coat and scarf.
“Where’s Damian?” She looks around. “Is he in the bathroom?”
“He’s busy,” I say. Probably a lie. Probably he is smoking weed or watching porn.
“So, what are you, like his agent?” She looks disappointed. I try to compose myself.
“I’m a writer,” I say. “We live together. He’s pretty busy at the moment.”
“Are you guys—?”
“No, no, no,” I say. I laughed. Should I have laughed? She looks uncomfortable. “Just friends. Young people in the city, you know? I guess I’m sort of handling this part of his… thing for him.”
“Right,” she says. “I remember my first place here is this studio with this girl I went to Wesleyan with. We did everything together. Inseparable, you know? Everyone assumed we are lesbians. I think it’s called a Boston marriage.”
“What happened?” I say.
“Life happened,” she says. “I know it’s, like, trite, but you just grow up. Someone gets a boyfriend or gets their piece bought by a gallery and then you just don’t really have time to smoke pot on the couch and watch Jeopardy anymore.”
“Do you still see her?”
“Yeah, sometimes. It’s weird. Like, every time we hang out, it’s just instant, like we’re both looking at a picture of how we used to be. But then you leave and you wonder why you ever hung out in the first place, you know?”
“Yeah, I have some friends like that. It’s sad.”
“It’s not as sad as when you don’t grow up. Then you get the guys ‘working on their novel’ until they’re thirty and decide they can’t work in a coffee shop the rest of their lives.” Her air-quotes look like claws.
I laugh, out of courtesy, but feel anxious. I decide I will write tonight.
“Sorry,” she says. “We’re not here to talk about me; we’re here to talk about you. Talk about Damian, I mean.”
“No,” I say. “It’s fine.” I wonder if her slip-up means she likes me.
“I’ve got this thing for him. It’s a friend of mine. She’s showing at the Saatchi Gallery. You know, in London? They’re giving her the entire space and she is going to continuously paint it for, like, three days straight. She wants to explore the narrative of layering meaning through, um, layering paint.”
“Right,” I say and bob my head. “So you’d like Damian to, uh, layer some of his own meaning on top of hers? I can probably set that up. I mean, just talk to me, you know?”
“Is there some reason I can’t talk to… Never mind. This girl, Sarah, she’s really talented, she like tells stories with her art, and some people care. If Damian’s there, everyone will pay attention. And there’s some money in it for him.”***
Damian agrees as we sit over delivery Chinese food at our seldom-used kitchen table. He says the table somehow feels more business-like than the couch.
“Free trip,” he says. “I’m sorry you can’t come. Next time.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Whatever, I doubt I could get work off.”
“That’s too bad,” he says.
“I was thinking,” I said.
“I was thinking I might be able to write something.”
“Yeah, you know, like about you. Like, an interview.”
“You want to interview me?”
“Well, yeah. It would be good for me. For us.”
He bites his lower lip. “The thing is... you’re so close to me. Like, isn’t that a breach of ethics? Or, like, bad journalism?”
“I don’t really know.”
“Let me think about it,” he says. He smiles and taps the table twice before getting up to roll a joint. I look out the window for the bikers, but they’re not out this afternoon.***
I spend a day daydreaming about how London will react to his performance. The bikers are revving their bikes, so it’s too loud to work anyway. I touch the top of my iPhone to my lips, almost kissing it, before calling my dad. He asks if this is really important. I tell him I have to go see Damian perform. He sighs.
“Okay,” he says. “Have fun. Say hi to Dame.”
I smile ear to ear and tap out and delete two Facebook messages to Damian. Better to surprise them. Besides, if I want to keep being involved, it’ll have to be something that I edge my way into.***
The Saatchi Gallery is a huge white-walled space with high ceilings and a beechwood floor sanded to nearly the same shade as the walls. Natural light would come from the skylights in the roof, but it is raining out, a freezing rain evidenced itself by the water trailed into the first few feet of floor space, and night anyways. I wonder if Damian has arrived yet. I shake the rain from my umbrella and enter to a half-full room of people dressed more or less the same. They wear expensive-looking blazers—black, gray, or navy blue—and matching slacks. Their footwear is the only thing that differentiates them: a motley assortment of galoshes remind that even the artistic elite fall to pieces when there’s a bit of weather. The chatter mimics the dull roar of my coffeehouse on a Sunday. A woman in a black dress takes my coat.
There is no evidence, yet, of the artist. The walls are still blank and the time is 11:30.
The bartender, an acne-scarred young guy, struggles with the cork on a bottle of red wine. A man waiting at the front steps behind the bar, takes the bottle, and pulls the cork out. His date golf claps, and the man bows. The bartender looks humiliated. I try to make understanding eye contact when I take my glass, but his eyes never leave the table. I mumble my thanks as I walk away. I stand, back against the wall, trying to locate Damian.
The crowd shifts to reveal Damian and Tara talking to the same man that she was talking to at her own opening. His hair is slicked back this time, not so wild. Damian looks attentive but fidgety. He takes nervous, rapid sips from his wineglass and his attention shifts between the man and Tara with each moment, like a child looking for parental approval. I walk up to them mid-sentence. Nobody notices me approach.
“—very interested indeed,” the man says. “I’m surprised nobody else has approached you.”
“I guess I’m a little new,” Damian says.
“New?” the man says. He has a light voice that quivers with every word. “The name on every set of lips in New York is Schimke. You were new a month ago. Now, you’re hot. And you have to ride that heat, because it’s not going to last forever.”
Damian smiles, nods, takes a sip of wine.
“The only thing, the only thing. Is that your videos just aren’t quality. You’re shooting them on a cell phone, which was fine, and they have that DIY feel, which was fine— You see where I’m going with this? All these things were fine, but you’re in the big leagues now. It’s time to act like it.”
“Right,” Damian says. “Right, it’s just... I’ve never had the money or the pull to get someone real to shoot them for me. I need someone. The current situation...”
I hover behind him.
“Well, it’s like Tara here. She had a good idea, and she executed it, but it wouldn’t have been for shit if she never stepped her game up from amateur to polished. The guerilla shtick works once, maybe twice, but you’ve got to have some professionalism. That’s where I come in. Improve, get paid, keep making art. Simple.” He looks up at me. “Can I help you?”
“Hi,” I say.
Damian glances at me and an unidentifiable expression crosses his face before he grins.
“Hey, man,” he says. “Holy shit, how did you make it? I thought, work and money and—?”
“My dad sent me some money.”
“That’s so great,” he says. “Oh, sorry, this is rude. Tara you know already, but this is Joseph van Pelt, art agent extraordinaire. I’m told that he is the man to know if you have to know a man. Joseph, this is my friend, roommate, confidant, videographer...”
“Manager,” I say.
Damian winces. Maybe he’s just psyching himself up for the performance.
“Charmed,” Joseph says and gives me a small smile and a cursory handshake. “Anyways, nice to meet you, but I really must mingle. Tara has my information. Do contact me.”
“He seems... important,” I say.
“Something like that,” Damian says.
“Don’t be modest,” Tara says. “I hate modesty. Modesty sucks. It’s the worst. That was Joseph van Pelt, he’s my agent. He’s kind of a genius. I really can’t say enough. You would be so lucky to have a professional like him—”
Damian looks at her as if she farted.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and glances at me. “I’m just so excited. I’m so happy for you. This is a big step. You don’t realize it, maybe, but he’s—Wow. You’re, like, this close,” she holds her thumb and index finger a millimeter apart. “He’s going to get you there.”
She looks at us, expecting a response. They exchange a glance.
“Yeah,” I say, smiling. I’ve learned that when people are being minorly rude it’s better to pretend to ignore it. Then, afterwards, you can figure out your action plan. “It’s awesome, right?”
“It is,” Damian says.
“I’m babbling. I’m sorry. It’s just, gah, I’m so excited. Anyways, I have one more person for you to meet, then we have to get you ready.”
“Another person?” he says, glancing at me. “I was kind of hoping—”
“It’s that lovely white girl I was telling you about,” she says. “The skier?”
“Right,” he says, and drains what little is left of his wine. “Right. Sorry, do you mind waiting? I know you’ve come a long way. After this, just you and me, I promise. How long are you here?”
“It’s fine,” I hold up my hand. “I get it. You’re busy, I’ll hang out. Until you puke, then we’ll go from there. I’m only here the one night, I fly back tomorrow afternoon.” I decide I’ll leave tonight.
He smiles his big, electric smile, which lights up his entire face. “Wow,” he says. “One night. Okay, well we’ll have to make the most of it. I’m going to get ready, I’ll see you in a second.” He claps me on the shoulder and wanders off into the crowd. Normally we stand together until showtime, when Damian goes into his vomit-trance. I try not to have my feelings hurt.
I stand, holding my wine glass for a moment, then go to get another drink.
A hush comes over the room. I turn towards the source of the silence and see a tall, angular woman with sharp features — an aquiline nose, gaunt cheeks, and a hyper-defined clavicle — standing in a corner next to a stool. She wears a white dress and a beige leather, utility belt slung over her shoulder, like a bandolier, but for tubes of paint instead of bullets. Her hair stands in a bun on the top of her head.
“Good evening,” she says in a posh accent that sounds like palace bells. “I’m Sarah. I’m going to be painting for you this evening, and for the next three days.”
The crowd laughs. She smiles. I didn’t realize she had made a joke. Sarah gives a curt nod, turns, picks up the palette from the stool, and begins painting. The silence holds for a moment as she begins painting the wall a deep blue near its junction with the ceiling, then whispers begin, and the buzz soon returns to its previous level.
I am among the few people watching her paint and not holding a conversation, but my mind wanders to what Damian has in store for this evening. Maybe he’ll try to color it something outlandish, like purple. He has a weakness for purple. I have a satisfying picture of what his vomit will do when it hits her white dress. I picture her, drenched in puke, almost like Carrie at her iconic prom, standing, seething. I picture Damian wiping his mouth off, and regarding her with calm eyes. Then I picture him looking at me and nodding as I raise my glass. Then, I don’t know. That’s where the daydream ends.
Damian appears twenty minutes later, just as Sarah has finished painting a bright blue patch that seems on its way to becoming a sky. I notice him because of the chorus of “Beg pardon,”s “Excuse me,”s and, “I say”s coming from the side of the crowd. He looks sweaty, but confident. His movements are herky-jerky. He stands at the front of the crowd, staring at Sarah for a long moment. He breathes in shallow, rapid rhythm, his chest heaves and a sheen of sweat covers his face. Maybe he’s already gone into his trance. She seems to feel his eyes fix on her, as she turns to meet his gaze. I notice someone holding a DSLR camera slip into the front row and train his lens on Damian. I smile in anticipation. They hold their eye contact for a moment, then he looks at the crowd, who has now registered the oddity of this moment and fallen silent. I wonder if they know what is coming.
Damian bends at the knees—the moment of truth—and begins to dry heave. Strange, this has never happened before in all of our attempts. He usually goes up, vomits, is done. The strain tells on his face. His eyes bug out and he holds one finger up to the crowd to stay the commotion. People back away from him. He sticks a finger down his throat. This has never happened before. I stop smiling and try to locate Tara or Joseph in the crowd.
Damian makes a noise that sounds like “hurr.” The vomit must be coming. Instead, he spits a big ball of phlegm onto the floor. It does look a little purple, probably from the wine. I wince. This is not good.
“Ew,” someone says.
Sarah returns to her work. The crowd resumes its buzzing. Damian’s shoulders slump, his face turns red. He turns back into the crowd, which now allows him to pass without complaint. I circle the people in the audience, trying to catch him on the other side.
I see him, his head on Tara’s shoulder, who looks around, nostrils flared, trying to keep him on-balance. She shakes her head once when she sees me but I keep coming. Damian needs me at a time like this, and they’re the only people I know.
“Fuck,” he says as I reach them. “I fucked up. What the fuck.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s fine. We can try again tomorrow.”
“No,” he says, her shoulder muffles his voice. “I can’t. It’s ruined. It’s fucked.”
I put my hand on his back, to comfort him. I feel his muscles tense. He turns around.
“Oh,” he says. “Thank god. My manager is here.”
“What?” I say, taken aback.
“What are you doing here?” he says.
“Hey,” Tara says, putting her hand on his forearm. He draws his arm away.
“You just couldn’t leave me alone,” he says, white spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. “Had to get a piece of the action. Couldn’t let me have my moment in the sun.”
“What the fuck?” I say. “What are you talking about?”
“Ever since that first time, you just hang around. You’re like a leech. You just drag me down. ‘Damian, smoke this joint. Damian, where are you going? Damian, can I please come.’ I’m sick of it. I want a friend, not some fucking—fucking—acolyte.”
“Acolyte?” I say, trying to keep my voice below a shout. People are staring at us. “You mean the person who filmed every one of your shows? Who smokes you out every day?”
“Whoop-de-fucking-doo,” he says. “You film them on your fucking iPhone. You know who else has an iPhone? Everyone on planet earth. You film them and you fuck it up and you think you deserve a big fucking pat on the back from me.”
“Damian!” Tara says, and smiles at some people who have now turned towards us.
“And you couldn’t leave well enough alone? Had to follow me to London? Coming to share some of this spotlight? You have no talent of your own so you have to leech off me, who actually works for what he gets. And who sent you here? Your fucking daddy.”
“Okay,” I say. “Okay, thank you. I will be going.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Walk away. Get the fuck out of here. Run back home.”
“Asshole,” I mutter as I walk back through the crowd.
I push through the crowd, face red, clearing my throat. I wipe my eyes with the back of my shirt. I don’t bother to get my coat as I walk out into the driving rain. As soon as I open the door, the rain pelts me in sheets. By the time I hail a black cab back to Heathrow, my shirt has soaked through. I spend the cab ride shivering in the back seat, head pressed against the glass, staring out the window. The rain makes it opaque.***
Five days after I return, two days after Damian’s scheduled return from London, I wake up at 4:53 staring at the red digital letters of my alarm clock and wishing that I could sleep 7 extra minutes. I get up, switch off my alarm, and retrieve my robe from the closet. Typically, waking up that early, the entire world is quiet. Today, I wake up to find the light on in the living room and Damian's door ajar. I steel myself for the confrontation ahead, to walk in and tell him what I’ve been rehearsing in my head since I landed a few days ago. I walk up to his door but hear a pair of soft voices coming from his room.
“—he's holding you back," the woman says, she drew in a deep breath and spoke without pausing. "Look at this place. It's a fucking dump. You can do better than this, you should be doing better than this. Shit, with what you made on that one trip you could rent a place yourself for half a year."
Tara. It has to be. How could he? How could she?
"Yeah," Damian whispers. "I don't know. I hate to do that to him. I mean, he's supposedly my best friend. Well, he is my best friend. I feel so fucking bad about London. He flew all the way out there and for what? I lost my shit. I’m so embarrassed."
I hear a sound like someone was trying to hock up an especially recalcitrant loogie. Like the loogie had got lodged in the back of a throat and would not come unstuck despite jet-engine-type forces being exerted against it. That’s what it sounds like when someone tries to snort coke through a blocked nostril.
"Listen to me," she says. "Listen, will you listen?"
"I am listening," he says.
"Okay," she says. "What I'm about to say is important. In this business, in the business of art, image is everything. Literally everything. Look at fucking, fucking, fucking Duchamp. The man is a genius. Why? Because he had a great image." I hear someone doing a line, but she did not stop speaking, "He put his name on a fucking urinal. A urinal. Everyone loved him. Could not get enough. A ur-i-nal."
"Yes," he says. "A urinal. Established."
"My point, the point. The point I'm trying to make is that it isn't Duchamp and his loser fucking roommate—"
"Don't say that."
I brighten for a moment, to hear Damian defending me. I lean closer to the door.
"I'm sorry. But the point is that he did it alone. Living alone, unencumbered. Maybe a girlfriend. Maybe. But you have to get out of the nest, you have to fly. I know that sounds dumb."
"No," he says, and laughs. "I mean, it does, but I get you."
"Good," she says. "I like you. You're a good egg."
"Egg," he says. "But we have to be quiet now, he's about to wake up."
"Can we make a little noise?" she says. I hear motion coming from the room.
"Ah," he says. "Maybe a little."
When I hear the sound of the first kiss I move past the door in two long steps. His door clicks as I walk into the bathroom. I wait another moment before I turn on the light. They are, she is, giggling. I stand under the shower a long time wondering whether or not it is okay to cry. I decide it isn’t.
When I walk back into the living room, the lights are off. The soft, gray dawn light illuminates the futon and TV. I stand for a moment, reconsidering the furniture. The ratty futon from his college apartment. The flatscreen TV my dad bought me. The beat-up, chipped wooden coffee table, sprinkled with weed crumbs and ash. The Fat Elvis ashtray, covered in joint ends, which obscured Fat Elvis, making it just any ashtray. I rub my hands on the grooves on the side of my nose.
"Fucking assholes," I whisper to myself.
Damian's door starts to open. I cinch the belt of my robe tighter, prepared to have a talk with him when he emerges. The doorknob finishes turning, the way doorknobs do when you're trying not to wake your parents. I cross my arms. I am ready to lay into Damian, to remind him off all the months I had carried him when he was a little short on rent. To remind him of all the weed I bought for him, of all the joints I had rolled. Of all the plans we'd had together, that we would never leave the other one behind. That I had recorded him puking in an art opening.
Tara walks out, putting her arms into her heavy winter coat, covering her shimmering cocktail dress. It looks like snow falling out of a darkened sky. I swallow, hard. I am not prepared for this.
“Hi,” she says, shrugging her shoulders into her coat.
I give her the finger and walk past her into my room. I slump against my door for a few seconds before I hear her heels on the hardwood and the careful slam of the front door.
When I get changed and into the living room, Damian is pacing around the couch with the television turned on but muted.
“Hi. You’re still up?” It’s too early in the morning to have this fight. “Jetlag?”
“What? No. Tara and I were just doing a shitload of coke. I feel like my heart is about to explode.”
“Oh,” I say. “I saw her walking out.”
“You did? Did she say anything?” He stands, hands on hips, then arms crossed, then hips again.
“‘Hi’,” I say.
“Right,” he says. “Want to smoke? My treat.”
“I would love to, but,” I gesture to my work clothes.
“Right,” he says. “Right, sorry. Can we talk?”
“Listen,” I say. “I’m late, and you need to sleep, and whatever we need to talk about can wait. Can it wait?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, yeah.”
“Okay,” I say, my hand on the doorknob. “I’m going. Are you good? Do you need anything?”
“No,” he says. “I should be fine. I have some Valium.”
“Cool,” I say, opening the door. “We’ll talk when I get back.”
“Hey dude,” he says as I close the door behind me.
I poke my head back through.
“Thank you,” he says. “For everything.”
I shake my head as I walk downstairs, out the black grate front door, and into the morning.***
Work that day drags. I rest on the glass of the pastry display case, standing only to attend to customers. I take no pleasure from my work, not even when the usual crew of early-morning-alcoholics with their exploded capillaries, five-a.m. shadow, and boozy sweat shuffles through the glass front door, the bell attached to the door signaling their arrival. Their hands shake as they take change from me, and I wonder what they do for work, and how they get the money to keep coming back. They sit, one each to the five dark-brown wooden tables we keep inside, and alternate between glancing at each other and staring out the window, dreading the world that awaits them.
They file out, replaced by the 8 a.m. pre-work crowd of hustling men and women on their third email of the day, which they look up from just long enough to order the same things they always order. That time of day, the line extends out the door, and the store is at its loudest, full of half-shouted early-morning phone conferences and their attendant dirty looks from the people just trying to get coffee and others on the phone wishing everyone would quiet down for just one second. I recognize some of the people, but to them I must have been another cog in the wheel of their day. They march out, one-by-one in black pea coats, leaving the store empty just an hour after they fill it, before the sitters arrive. This is the slow part of my day, during which I envy the bloggers or dreamers or whatever they are, with the luxury of sitting here for hours, abusing the free WiFi. It’s true that I sit there as well, but they pay for the privilege. Damian will soon become one of these people, these coffee-shop sitters. I envy him that.