The evening had gone well for Kevin. He had survived the wrath of the critics, collectors, and his bosses. The work that he was planning to show in the Biennial was new, edgy, and raw. The Emily’s video had gone down especially well; it was much better than any of the “real” video art that was out there anyway. Kevin ambled home slowly, enjoying the crisp air; as he was walking home Reena’s night at After Dark was just beginning.
Kevin’s apartment was small but clean, by Norris Road standards anyway, and miraculously there were no cockroaches. It had been a godsend – thanks to a tip from a friend of a friend – a sunny one bedroom in a pre-war elevator building which, seventy-five years before, had been the address of choice for immigrants who’d made it big in the furniture, restaurant, or rabbinical supply business. To the right of every one of the wide apartment doors was the telltale outline of a mezuzah, each covered in a thick coat of black paint. The building still exuded a faded elegance, its spacious lobby adorned with chic art deco detailing and a mural representing the original Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, apropos of the edifice’s name, The Peter Minuit. The current residents were mostly artists, writers, and musicians. His next-door neighbour was typical, a successful screenwriter who could have lived anywhere she pleased but chose Norris Road because it provided her with “material.” At her wedding, to which she’d invited everyone on their floor, Kevin was amused to see not only Reading celebrities but also some familiar characters from the neighbourhood: the taciturn Korean dry cleaner and his wife, the Gorth cashier at Kim’s video, and the homeless man who slept in front of the Con Ed plant in a cardboard box.
Kevin’s apartment was cluttered with furniture and books, most of which had belonged to his parents. It was an odd assortment: an antique German cabinet and an old clock his mother’s family had brought over from Latvia, a Danish Modern living room set, a faded Persian carpet, a dozen or so contemporary photographs, drawings, and prints, and a large oil painting of a rabbi in a fur hat (a distant relative, he’d been told). The windowsills were crammed with his mother’s houseplants, which Kevin had dutifully cared for since she passed away, carrying them with him on two cross-country moves. Every available surface was covered with books. They filled several walls of shelves as well as teetering in uneven piles on top of the coffee table and in stacks that lined the corridors, making it treacherous to move from one room to the next. Kevin loved his private little nest though at times it did make him feel just a bit suffocated and prematurely old.
Kevin sometimes wondered if his own passion for art derived from the fact that it was the Lower Earley gallery boom that saved his neighbourhood and made it safe again for him to play outside. One of the fire galleries to open was right across the street from Kevin’s home, a tiny place called 5.5:6.1. At first it seemed like just another eccentric Lower Earley storefront, no different from the place a few doors down that had in its window a dusty collection of plastic dinosaurs hanging by nooses or another nearby that had filled its entire front window with a thriving colony of ants. What made 5.5:6.1 truly eccentric was how clean it was and how brightly lit. Kevin was intensely attracted to the crud-free interior that he recalled having his very first hard-on the day his mother relented and let him step cautiously inside on his way back from school.
The next morning Kevin stepped out of his building onto the tenement-lined street. Even through a thick blanket of haze, the sun felt as if it were burning through his clothes. “And its not even 8,” he thought. As Kevin walked down Norris Road to Pitcroft Avenue, a garbage truck followed bleeping loudly as it lurched and groaned from one towering pile of garbage bags to the next. Leaping off the metal perch at the back of the truck, a young man in a sweat soaked wife-beater set upon the bursting plastic bags stacked high within the wheelie bins on the path. Kevin admired the man’s glistening coffee-coloured skin and a gentle, almost childlike face. He seemed subdued, already exhausted at the start of a long, hot day. In another line of work he might be considered attractive, mused Kevin.
A block ahead, Kevin spotted the decrepit white building that was the Studio 4 gallery, once an old war hospital the building had not changed much on the outside since it was built in the 1950’s, apart from the large conversion that jutted out of the back of the building that was constructed some time during the 90’s. Unattractive to start with the building had no aged well. Its concrete façade was streaked with grime and, in the damper months, covered with a mould-like crud that had to be blasted off – when the museum could afford it – with high-powered steam guns. The interior was even worse. The parquet floor was buckling and had acquired a tacky, mottled look. The galleries were poorly proportioned and flowed awkwardly. Most of the interior walls were white hardboard screwed into the solid brick walls. In some galleries the ceilings were too high, in others too low, the lighting system was antiquated and flakes of asbestos occasionally descended on visitors like the first hint of oncoming snow. The main lobby, a small and uninviting space, had recently become home to an outsized and garish enterprise called “The Studio 4” experience,” were you could buy ties and coffee mugs with images of works from the collection. Pin boards adorned the walls here, with notices and posters from various past Studio exhibitions, and other shows happening in near by London.
Kevin came in the staff entrance, “You certainly are an early riser,” mused Gary, the regular guard. Kevin found the security guard to be rather insular and hard to read, but Gary was an exception. He always brought Kevin a coffee whenever he wandered over to the near by coffee place, and treated Kevin to other perks, like not having to sign in or call down to admit in his guests.
“I don’t have much of a life,” admitted Kevin.
“Lie in bed awhile, man. Enjoy your sweetheart,” said Gary with a schoolmasterish frown.
“No sweetheart now, I’m afraid.”
“That won’t do at all,” said Gary, shaking his head gravely.
“What happened to that nice young man you brought to the staff party last year?”
“I haven’t seen him for months. He had issues.”
“Issues? What issues, man? He looked like Brad Pitt.”
“Trust me Gary. Serious ISSUES.” Kevin gave Gary a pat on the arm. In fact, though Kevin hated to admit it, the guy’s only “issue” had been that he liked Kevin enough to ask him to move in with him. After which Kevin stopped returning his calls and resumed his weekly forays to the adult video store where he got and gave as many blow jobs as he liked without ever having to deal with anything more personal than an occasional unpleasant smell. Kevin had only had one serious live in boyfriend and that had been such a disaster that he had vowed never to repeat the exercise. It was during Kevin’s second year at University. He’d been chosen to play Romeo, despite having little acting experience, and found himself suddenly involved in a relationship, onstage and off, with the first year who had been cast in the role of Mercutio. Their affair was built around the play, and even after they moved in together their daily conversations, including sex-talk, were peppered with Shakespearean quotations. Kevin cringed to recall how his thespian boyfriend used to cry out, “Romeo! Humours! Madam! Passion! Lover!” whenever he had had an orgasm. When it got to be too much – a year after the last curtain fell on Romeo and Juilet they were still speaking with English accents – Kevin tried to break off the relationship. At which point, Mercutio took things to a new level, swallowing some improvised poison and stabbing himself with an old letter opener. He was taken away by people from the Student Health Services and Kevin never saw or heard from him again.
Reena’s on her feet again, presiding over the meeting between people and pictures of people. She’s still a little lost in the after-effects of last night’s muscle workout and drugs. A pleasant, run over by tires feeling. If called on to speak she would have trouble doing so. The paintings seem to be getting what they need, and the people are heavy, drowsy in the galleries today. A young Japanese couple is drifting through, laughing, brushing, crushing each other’s clothing. An American bald man seems to follow, or drift along in their wake.
Reena kills some time by contemplating the painting in front of her. Violets in hand, she looks like an appropriated renaissance Madonna. A fallen, half-peeled orange lies at the bottom of a stand upon which the parrot is sitting. In front of the parrot is a glass with water for him to drink. The woman is standing against a dark blackish-green background. Her dress is huge, covering her entire body with salmonish-pink satin. It is quite a contrast. One notices right away the other black parts in the portrait, as they seem to be connecting agents to that abstract plane: one tip of a boot stepping out of the pink, the black velvet choker round her neck, and her eyes. There is also the parrot’s one eye.
Reena has stationed herself in the carnival route, where people come out from the 3rd room all turned on and flyby the 1st to get to the 4th. That seems to have been the idea, she meditates, to have the 4ths naked woman and parrot, right at the end of the arcade, a destination. This woman sprawls on her back laughing, flirting with her own bird, who is on her finger flapping his wings, seemingly maddened by the acre of hair that flows from her head. What’s her body to him? Her nipples. Reena is still tasting the cocaine, and her own hair smells cigarettes from last night and the oil from her actions.
She’s starting to fall asleep on her feet while guarding. It’s something every guard has done, and knows how to do. She starts running back snippets from last night. Sometimes she unintentionally makes a face while standing there, or speaks a little by surprise in response to her memories. Not even memories but actual odors. Some of what happened at After Dark eludes Reena’s memory of the night before. Like the dark parks in the painting, these gaps are the connecting agents to the abstract plane she calls “good times.” They are the not so good times, or the times in-between, the parts that contrast with the fun, pink, fleshy areas that unite the composition of her conscious experience of the party. She remembers the sexy, almost scary shine of Maris’s glossy lips, but not what they said. She remembers that at one point they were alone together. But not what caused the commotion afterwards, or how she ended up alone in the street. She remembers the cab ride home, but not how she paid for it.
Reena has a blackish-green bruise on her thigh; somebody’s phone number is inscribed upon her palm, half erased there in the chemical sweat. Reena is drifting in and out of consciousness while standing and looking.
“Now,” it occurs to Reena, “I’m ready to extend the domain of pleasures.”
Meanwhile in the background of the gallery Kevin had been sat at his desk for an hour already, but still hadn’t begun the pile of letters, leaflets and magazines that were teetering on the edge of his desk. On the top of the pile was the quarterly magazine, Currents issued by the Lightbox gallery in Woking where Kevin had begun his curatorial career. Leafing through the pages filled with glossy pictures of second-rate artworks, articles on the museum’s multi-cultural outreach programs, and dozens of photos of donors and trustees forcing smiles and clutching glasses of chardonnay, Kevin mused on how far he had come. Even though, just out of college, he had secured a coveted internship at the Royal Academy of Modern Art and believed with hard work he could rise through the ranks there, Kevin was suddenly enlightened when he overheard the director of the museum confide to one of his deputies: “There’s no was we can use Phillips for that job. To promote from within was to promote mediocrity.” Gaining entre into the exclusive world of the art museum, he’d discovered, required a stint of some duration out of town. So, setting his sights on the smaller counties, he found a posting online for an entry-level job at the Lightbox. The interview process was pro forma, as his RA credentials, meager as they were, trumped his competitors’ Ph.D.s.
He settled back in his chair and looked at the cover of Currents. It featured a photo of his smiling former boss, a career museum bureaucrat, proudly displaying the museum’s newest acquisition, a set of Matisse’s Jazz prints. He tossed the magazine into the trash. Next on the pile were several dozen reception and dinner invitations on which Kevin hastily scrawled “REGRETS” then set aside to give to his assistant. Kevin despised openings – at which it was impossible to see any art – and loathed the obligatory dinners that followed. Yet he knew there were some he must dutifully attend. The dynamics of the art world played itself out at these gatherings where careers were made, and sometimes lost. He paused, as he was about to add another invitation to the reject pile. It was from Peter Merton himself, an invitation to a party in honor of the publication of John Russell’s monographs. One that he really couldn’t squirm his way out of.