That I shared my name with a prison was only incidental. “It’s no one’s fault,” my mother said to this and most other grievances. She wanted all lingering negativities quickly tamped down and brought to resolution, the satisfaction in aimless venting lost on her completely. Most grievances needed only airing, yet out of them she spun conflict where it hadn’t been, a tedious thickening like churning a raw egg into a velvety pile of flour.
At home I’d felt my strangeness from the inside out, radiating and tickling at my ribs as though I’d swallowed a glowing hot coal. But when I get to the city I find that the women like me have all dispensed with this kind of angst and are on another plane entirely. They pinned down what troubled them and dissected it long ago, moving on to a new wave of knowing contentment. They all say, I learned a lot then, but you couldn’t pay me to go back. They’ve all managed to buy themselves real gold jewelry and beautiful shoes.
The city is supposed to make me want to go out at night but most of the time I just want a lot of money and no plans. People like my still life paintings because there is something to them that seems threatening or perverse; messy scapes and the bread in the basket torn violently in half as though by hands wishing not to eat from it but only to see it misshapen. I can’t do them anymore. I stare into space, aimlessly opening and closing windows on my phone or pretending to read when really my eyes behind the book are unfocused or closed.
On the subject of my failings, my start-up boyfriend says, “Adulting is so hard,” and my artist boyfriend says, “All the good rappers are younger than us.” My start-up boyfriend has a washing machine in his one bedroom apartment and I wonder but never ask him how he dries the clothes. When he’s sure we’re going to have sex (and never one moment sooner) he puts on the same generic and extremely literal playlist – it’s called Let Me Luv U and it was generated by an algorithm – from a tiny speaker that looks exactly like a grade A extra-large egg with a single hole vented through the crown of it. The start of the opening track sounds like it is emitting from the depths of a wet cave, asking who’s there, and why? I’ve memorized all the songs in sequence and when I hear one out of context like under the fluorescent lights of the Vitamins & Supplement aisle in CVS I feel startled to meet it out in the open air.
My start-up boyfriend is the most beautiful man I can recall seeing. This is to say that he is not so beautiful as to deflect my gaze, like some other handsome men who, to look at them is like looking directly into the sun. He is beautiful in the way he registers with me – softly and in a gradient: eyes first (not brown but burnished gold), dark hair smoothed away at the temples with the back of a hand, top lip left with a bit of scar tissue and at a slight skew from a cleft repaired in childhood. My love. He doesn’t love me. He leaves me alone in his apartment and I am afraid to touch anything. I sit on the bed with the things I brought here like it’s a survival raft in the middle of the open water. I refresh my email and delete old pictures from my phone until he comes back and, feeling cooped up and neglected, I rush to him like a lonely dog welcoming the return of the person who feeds her.
My artist boyfriend has the thinnest walls. I hear the neighbors arguing and brushing their teeth. When he gets up to go to the bathroom afterward, the bed has inched inevitably over the hardwood and in front of the door blocking it, so to get out he has to slide the framed mattress and me on it back into place. It’s like he’s competing in a bodybuilding competition, proving his strength by rolling a boulder over, and I feel heavy leaden then and like a burden, but also like the star of a parade float, gliding by.
He wears hiking boots all summer and shorts through fall until the temperature is down to at least 40 degrees. He wants to buy a motorcycle and I try to convince him not to because my dad had one when I was younger and once when I was 14 he crashed it into a brick wall. He almost bled out on the asphalt but narrowly survived, and I had to see to his needs and change the dressings while he sat confined to a chair for 6 months. When I was 24 someone said to him, “your accident,” and he said quietly, shifty but smiling, “that wasn’t an accident.” Then he laughed a slight, self-conscious laugh and I realized I had been his hostage for a time, my escape incremental and not even harrowing, but tedious and only a chore.
I don’t tell my boyfriend this. I just say “motorcycles are statistically dangerous,” and he says he wants to weave through gridlock with me on the back and drop me off anywhere I’d like. At night he paints monochromatic canvases with globs of enamel and they are so top heavy that they topple over and fall to the ground at all hours, acting as their own ghosts. During the day he drives paintings around from gallery to gallery in a truck and installs sculptural pieces by: hoisting a hollow metal pole up into the furthest corner of an all white room, or unfolding a tangled length of copper wire and draping it across a wide smooth cube, or dumping a load of pennies all minted in 1992 into a mound on the floor, or dangling a fat and weighty chain from an exposed rafter.
“You shouldn’t worry about me,” he says when I do not any longer, and have moved on to anxieties greater than the motorcycle. He doesn’t know it. He thinks the horizontal crease between my eyes sets in for him alone and in turn thinks he can dissolve all that causes it. He can only distract me. Still I let him lift me off the couch where I am sitting and carry me to his bed. He is good at doing that– in one clean and fluid motion, while taking care that my head clears the door frame with room to spare– on account of all the art handling.
The internet won’t stop showing me Victoria’s Secret ads and so when I try to be a serious intellectual and scour the JSTOR archive on my laptop in the library, women in their underwear flash by in the margins in quick succession, like a flipbook animation, as though dancing along the periphery of my screen. The sun starts setting early and I begin to feel sorry that I left the house, and that I gave Victoria’s Secret my email address without hesitation, and that I was ever born. I get overheated and unzip my winter coat on the street, and a man who had only glanced at me before turns at the waist and stares, as though I’ve slipped the straps of a silk nightgown off my shoulders and stood there before him completely naked with the fabric pooled around my ankles. It is a look distantly related to the one I catch when I gather my hair in my hands and pull it back from my face, maybe tying it up with an elastic, maybe letting it fall again back over my ears. I learn something then, true but useless for the way it does nothing to unburden me: to be enshrouded in mystery is a simple question of selective omissions and the way a revelation lands is relative to what has been hiding.
I am only now learning that I should grease and garlic the pan. It hardly matters how, the methodology or choice of oils, only that I do it, and always. This is the kind of lesson I like, and to me it is a small but significant mercy: that if I only do it I am doing well. The kettle refuses still to whistle but I can hear the water roiling inside and I’m tired of waiting. I switch off the flame and pour.