Joyland

a hub for short fiction

From "The Bad Arts"

Bernard went to the nearest liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. He had been invited for a dinner party at Jeremy Croft’s in honor of his first solo exhibition at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin. For years now, it felt like a large portion of his social life revolved around events related to Jeremy. He would need to bring a bottle of wine. It had taken Bernard a few years to understand the etiquette of invitations, far past a socially acceptable age. When he figured out that he needed to arrive at all domestic social engagements with wine, even if he didn’t want to drink it, he also realized that he could not show up with a two-liter Pepsi, like George Costanza in Seinfeld, or even, as he would prefer, a bottle of bourbon. When the automatic door of the liquor store failed to open, he pushed, having to force it slightly. The clerk glanced in his direction. Buying food or beverages in general made Bernard nervous, but buying alcohol was worse. With food, he might blankly gaze at the sandwich board of a coffee shop for minutes, even if he ordered the same thing every time, or in grocery stores he might wander up and down the aisles, forgetting everything he needed to buy. But liquor was an exaggerated case for, at least, two reasons. The first was ID. Bernard had been straight-edge in his teens, and, as a result, he had no memories of trying to buy alcohol underage. Throughout his twenties, when he was often carded, he found the experience embarrassing, not old enough yet to find it flattering. Even past his thirties, if he was asked to show ID, which rarely happened, but sometimes did, because he still looked younger than he was, he feared the encounter, mostly because it would mean that he had to interact with the clerk. He would have to be social; he would have to engage in small talk. He felt that meant that he would have to seem like he had nothing to hide, which, of course, was the case; he would have to appear calm. But he had nothing to hide, he was buying booze in a liquor store, not smuggling either cocaine or illegal immigrants across a border. The question, he thought to himself, was how not to appear embarrassed or startled when the clerk asked for ID. The perception that he had to prove he had nothing to hide, or rather, perhaps more accurately, that he felt he was supposed to project calmness, or even, god forbid, confidence, made him nervous about the whole thing. It was the anticipation that an encounter might happen that bothered him the most. Drinking was something Bernard enjoyed, perhaps even a bit too much, and there was never a problem of forgetting his ID, or of not having it on him, he always carried at least two pieces whenever he left his apartment, because he was afraid of what would happen if he died on the street. People would have to know who he was, would have to be able to identify him. It was always possible he could die. As he began to overcome those anxieties, these problems of fearing identification, which were more and more manageable, that is, if he was buying drinks for himself, he was fine, but whenever he bought liquor for a party, as soon as he set foot in the liquor store, the nervousness returned again, like eczema in springtime. And then, even worse, the second problem developed: he knew nothing, or very little, about wine. Who knew about wine? All of this would run through his head before he got to the wine aisle. And then that aisle posed the next problem. Which country’s wine should he choose from? All of the flags representing different wine-producing nations flummoxed him. Argentina? Australia? Spain? He feared the best he could say about wine was what he considered the worst comment about art: he knew what he liked when he tasted it. But the only other thing he actually knew was that it was expected that a man in his socio-economic standing knew at least a little about it. So, as he stood in front of the shelves, first off, he needed to decide which country would represent so-called his discerning taste. But he hated countries. He hated the whole idea. He considered himself an anti-nationalist. So how else could he choose? Often he went for the parochial choice: a local wine. It projected an air of being down-to-earth. No middle-range mediocre bottle from Italy or France, but a local winery, and preferably something organic. So there he was fidgeting in front of the “British Columbia” wines, not knowing what to do. Picking a bottle came down to a crude, rather random, process of elimination: he knew that he didn’t want any of the large corporate wineries—and the names of those knew, at least the biggest ones—so often he chose either something he didn’t know, or something he’d already had. And this time, he went with something he’d never heard of: a new product that the liquor store was promoting. It had a promotional label below the shelf describing all the awards it had received that year, all with a brief description of the wine itself in a language that meant very little to Bernard, something about bouquets and end-notes. But the design spoke to him. The bottle’s label was tastefully—that is, conservatively—designed: nothing too nouveau riche, nothing too “urban” or “hip.” Bernard knew, and loathed, that the choice had the potential to say a lot about him—like cars, or some other fucking thing, something he didn’t care for, all these status symbols.  He picked it from the shelf, and he hoped for the best: that by the time his bottle was corked everyone at the party would be tipsy, or even already drunk, at least enough not to notice the wine or make a judgment on the pick. Still, the fact of the matter was, he didn’t know who would be drunk or when they would be drunk, so he figured that he needed to pick carefully in case his bottle would be opened first and the façade of Bernard’s discerning was taste exposed. This whole thing—wine—mystified Bernard in a way that even the complexities of contemporary art did not. He clutched the bottle he had chosen, and walked toward the counter. At the check out, he fumbled with his bankcard, uncertain of how to inserted it into the machine. He asked for a paper bag, which he took from the clerk, mumbled “thank you,” and walked into the street.

*

People one never expects, or have even thought of, have a way of appearing in unexpected times and places: of being conjured, of suddenly presenting themselves, as if the very act of recognition rescued them from the oblivion they had been assigned to. One day, for example, Bernard was idling in Strand, waiting to hop on the L Train to make an appointment in Williamsburg. He had lost himself in the crates of both Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction catalogs on the second floor. Those catalogs always fascinated him, because they represented the artworks with no interpretative material: no chronology—just the title, date, artist, provenance, and, perhaps most importantly, price. Bernard felt that there was something, how shall he say, frank about old auction catalogs. While browsing, Bernard had become transfixed on a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph he had never seen called Wrestlers on Independence Day, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 1958. It depicted Mongolian wrestlers, the three wrestlers forming a line in the foreground, behind them a crowd, and in the background treeless mountains. Something looked artificial about the image, and yet it was clearly a straight photograph, no doubt taken during one of Cartier-Bresson’s assignments across the world. Cartier-Bresson had been of that first generation of world travelers: a class of people for whom the airplane made intercontinental travel mundane, a class who, for the first time in human history, experienced jetlag. The picture in front of Bernard looked staged, like many of Cartier-Bresson’s pictures. Yet there was little chance of that: each snapshot was an example of what Cartier-Bresson had called “the decisive moment,” the acumen of a cameraman whose cunning had captured a moment of reality. Amid the crowd watching the Mongolian wrestlers, one man, wearing a white suit, looked directly at the camera, meeting the gaze of the cameraman, when, a few years later, Bernard would recognize the picture in a restaging by the artist Stephen Waddell. In Waddell’s work, simply titled Wrestlers, a crowd of spectators in front of the Altes Museum in Berlin watches a Mongolian wresting match. The two figures in the right-hand corner of the foreground observe the wrestlers locked in combat, while the wrestlers look away from one another, the camera, and the crowd. The two spectators in the foreground appear just larger than life, but the middle ground, which includes the crowd and the wrestlers, was developed at a lifelike size, so that the scale of the photograph is bifurcated. Bernard looked up from the catalog to realize he would be late if he didn’t leave immediately, so he put the catalog down, without enough time to stand in line and pay for it. He rushed downstairs and made directly for the exit. As he was heading toward it, his gaze landed on a woman. She reminded him of Maria Schneider in The Passenger. Bernard noticed a man with her, but he didn’t turn to look at him, an aggressive and totally useless instinct, because the man was obviously her boyfriend; his body language made that clear. Bernard had no intention of confronting the man’s gaze after he had just checked out his girlfriend, but Bernard was still far from the door. He couldn’t help but think that the woman seemed familiar (was she a model, a C or D list movie star?). He didn’t have the time to think about it, in fact he hadn’t thought about it, all of this occurring on instinct, but as he turned the corner to exit, his gaze met the boyfriend. It was an old childhood friend whom he hadn’t seen in ten years. They had worked together at a bookstore when they were teenagers. The reason why the woman looked familiar was not because she was a model, but because she had been “tagged” in photographs with his friend on a social networking site. By the time Bernard had caught up with his old friend, who was visiting from Montréal for a few days, he was late for the meeting.