Garcia’s real name was Mel White. He was a forty-year-old former architect, let go from his firm during the widespread industry layoffs in the nineties. After spending seven years painting Gerard-Richter-style abstracts in his garage without landing even so much as a group show in Oakland, White had conceived of what he called “my all-too-successful first attempt at a disruptive performance art piece about the inherent hypocrisies of the cash-hungry art world.”
White’s original idea had been to simply pose as a young HIV-positive queer man who painted Gerard-Richter-style abstracts. To this end, White had spent most of 2001 carefully starving himself. (Saltines, Campbell’s soup with half a can of water, the occasional Framp Juice smoothie, and multivitamin pills had formed 90% of his diet that year, or so he told Los Angeles Times guest contributor Honor Lewis in their interview.)
When Rocco Morris’s Venice Biennale exhibit made the cover of ArtForum in 2002, thus opening up valuable real estate for Bay Area artists in the consciousness of the commercial art scene for the first time in many years, Gilbert Xavier Garcia was born.
Harper’s featured writer Charlie K. Cohen was given exclusive access to the artist’s first attempts at art-making as Gil Garcia:
For over a decade, White has used an empty bedroom in his house as storage for past iterations of his creative output. It is filled with architectural sketches and floorplans, foamcore and plywood models, and numerous minimalist paintings. White directed my attention to a triptych of paintings in a clean corner of the room. (The room, it must be noted, is free of the cobwebs and dust bunnies that plague the storage spaces of most other households.) White explained that the paintings—colorful caricatures of Mission Street tacquerias and groceries—were too “safe, like storybook illustrations,” whereas he sees the Mission School ethos as “a truly postmodern urban pastoral: a prettyish scene of modern American community that is always teetering on the edge of something dangerous or unpleasant.”
And herein lies the continuing mystery and madness of the GXG saga: it is difficult to listen to Mel White talk about art for very long without getting the distinct feeling that you are talking to a “real” artist.
Ben had been in a coffee shop poring over a series of articles in a contraband copy of The Economist about “systemic shifts” afoot at the world’s largest drug companies when Marin called him. Her first questions had all been about the Authorship Warranty on the auctioned work. He had thought that she was just being annoyingly curious: Marin had the collecting bug now, after all. It was not until she said the word “hoax” that Ben realized how completely fucked he was.
Ben somehow made the call to Phillip; somehow managed to cook and eat a plate of spaghetti marinara; pretended to be asleep when Judith got home at eleven; and then, when she was asleep beside him twenty minutes later, proceeded to stay up the entire night, his head throbbing with an unfamiliar, dry, squeezing pain.
The next morning, Ben got up before his wife and left the house before she emerged from the shower. He biked into work at seven a.m., the gray morning fog wetting the rubber and metal brakes in his hand.
Ben parked his bike in the hallway nook that he wasn’t supposed to park his bike in, and immediately joined a silent Phillip in his office, closing the door even though no one else was yet in the gallery. Phillip barely nodded at him, hit the speaker button on the phone, and dialed from memory the number of Mud23’s lawyer.
“Harris and Rosenberg, how may I assist you?” a female receptionist said.
“I have a seven-thirty call with Dan Redwood,” Phillip said. “It’s Phillip Mudke and Ben Blakeman from Mud23 Gallery.”
“Hold on just one moment, Mr. Mudke, let me see if he’s ready for your call,” the woman said.
The line went silent for a moment, and then beeped once.
“Hello Phillip, it’s Dan,” said their lawyer, and Ben resented the warm, bearish confidence in his voice.
“So I have the email in front of me,” Dan said.
“Which email would that be?” Phillip asked. He bit into an overhanging piece of nail on his left thumb.
“The one that starts, ‘So the jig is up. Yes, my real name is Mel White,’” Dan said.
Phillip jerked his thumb from his mouth and made a fist, wrapping his fingers tightly around temptation.
“Gotcha,” he said.
“I also am looking at a copy of the Garcia purchase agreement template. Now, the Authorship Warranty we used is pretty standard. It’s a limited warranty that covers the original buyer of record five years from the date of sale. So neither you nor the seller have any legal obligation to subsequent buyers or even heirs or successors of the sold paintings, if there are any.”
“No legal obligation, just moral, civil, and karmic,” Phillip said. Thumbnail went back into mouth.
“Well, yes,” Dan said. “You’ll need to consult your astrologer on those points. I’m afraid the scope of my counsel is limited to the legal. There is also Exclusion (iv) of the Warranty, which specifically excludes you from liability for works whose ‘authorship on date of sale is consistent with the preponderance of expert and accepted opinion, despite the later discovery of new information.’”
“Sorry, I didn’t get much sleep last night,” Ben said. “Can you translate please?”
“If we can prove that a majority of art experts considered Gil Garcia to be the author of the sold paintings on the dates they were sold, then Marin is not obligated to refund any of the money,” said Phillip.
“Of course, proving that is not simple—there is very little legal precedent for this situation. Certainly, some proportion of this group of buyers will be litigious, and they have deep pockets,” Dan said. “I would not advise invoking Exclusion (iv) in this instance.”
They wrapped up the call ten minutes later and had two hours of quiet: Ben in his cubicle refreshing his research on the Garcia buyers, and Phillip in his office either chain-smoking or eating his entire thumbnail off his thumb.
Ben’s coworkers trickled in, and the news about Garcia’s true identity spread in shocked whispers. Ben surprised himself by being able to ignore this mostly, absorb himself in his research, and then conceive of and articulate to Angela some small but useful ideas for damage control tactics. Ben fell asleep that night at eleven—missing Judith for real this time—and got a full ten hours of dreamless sleep.
Judith was gone to a brunch meeting in the South Bay when Ben woke up at nine a.m. on Saturday, and he felt refreshed all morning. After a lunch of leftovers at home, he took the bus to the Mission and sidestepped the usual clumps of cheer-filled Saturday afternoon foot traffic circling Dolores Park.
Cheer seemed a foreign language.
Ben had actually never been inside Marin’s apartment before. He and Judith had walked her and Charlie to the front door two or three times after having dinner with them in the Mission, but he and Judith had never gone up.
Ben had told Judith in January that Marin’s father had lost his job in across the board post-election cuts at Fenniskrante; Judith’s response had been unforgettable: “Well, it’s good that he has all of those free drugs to medicate away any unemployment-related anxiety.”
Remembering his and Judith’s dinners with the other couple—long three-course meals with wine and some pretty personal sharing—Ben became infuriated all over again with his wife’s lack of empathy towards the unintended victims of her success: Marin wasn’t just his friend; she was Judith’s. Something was just not right with a person who said things like what she’d said about her friend’s father.
Ben rang Marin’s buzzer, and was let in. A freckled stone staircase with a black metal railing led up to a very cold hallway, dimly lit by a narrow and filtered glower of afternoon sunshine. Ben found Marin’s apartment door at the far end of it and knocked.
The door opened, revealing Marin.
“Hey,” Marin said. “I can’t get a hold of Charlie.”
“Okay, but Jorge?” Ben said.
“He’s here,” she said.
“Okay, good,” he said.
When Ben saw the look of concerned morbidity that Jorge and Marin exchanged when Ben followed Marin into her living room—a look that was 100% about Ben’s appearance—he knew that he did not look refreshed. When he sat down on Marin’s couch next to Jorge and pulled his messenger bag off over his head and shoulder, he immediately started to shake his right leg.
“I haven’t seen you in forever Ben,” Jorge said. “Not since the last multimillion-dollar art hoax, and, hoo boy, that was two months ago already.”
“Ha-ha,” Ben said instead of laughing.
“Yes, the great Ha-Ha, the fifty-year-old woman pretending to be a sixteen-year-old performance art genius pretending to be a fifty-year-old woman,” Jorge riffed. “The reveal of Ha-Ha’s true identity was the greatest shock the international art world had ever seen... until two months later.”
“So, what does the laws say?” Marin asked. She rubbed her eyes with her knuckles.
“The laws say...” Jorge said. “Well, most U.S. intellectual property regulation focuses on authorship and originality, and Mel White was the original author of all of the work that Marin bought and all of the work that you sold at the SFMoMA auction. There’s not really so much a focus on the author’s credentials. For example, if someone invents a medical device, and you find out later that he lied on his resume about having obtained his Ph.D. at Harvard—maybe he really only had a Master’s from Ohio State University—he would still be considered the lawful owner of that intellectual property.”
“He just might go to jail for fraud,” Marin said.
“Well, he probably wouldn’t go to jail,” Jorge said. “But if the fake Ph.D. is something he used to market himself and his company to investors, the investors might be able to sue him for misleading them.”
“The problem with that example is that I presume the device that the man invented has some objective value that doesn’t go away simply because he doesn’t have a Ph.D. from Harvard,” Ben said. He felt the outer ring of his head start to deaden again, with that strange, dry pain.
“Yes, well unfortunately IP law is primarily interested in protecting and defining property that has objective value,” Jorge said. “And that’s why the Museum’s Authorship Warranty ultimately defers to expert opinion. In literature there is a long history of acceptable use of pen names, particularly women submitting writing under male pseudonyms in order to get published. It goes to the very heart of the age-old, unanswerable question, ‘What is art?’ Some might argue that Garcia’s art is more real than a performance art piece that exists only in a temporary moment of time, that isn’t even physical.”
“It’s nice to know that English major Jorge hasn’t been completely obliterated by law student Jorge yet,” Marin said.
“Oh, it’s only a matter of time,” Jorge said.
Marin laughed merrily, as if the loss of one’s idealism and intellectual integrity on a fixed schedule was a consummately executed absurdist pun.
“Marin, how are you so calm?” Ben said.
“Because if I wasn’t, Ben,” Marin said his name as if even its authenticity was not a sure thing anymore, “I would be seriously freaking out right now.”
“So freak out,” Ben said. “I am.”
“Do you honestly think I’m not phased about the fact that I threw away my career in international development—again—for whatever this is?” Marin said. “Or do you think I’m just really zen about the fact that I haven’t been able to get a hold of my boyfriend of eight months since I heard the name ‘Mel White?’ Charlie’s fucking going to try to get a by-line out of this, I know he is. Fucking writer.”
Jorge reached over and rubbed Marin on the back.
“Oh, Marin, shit, I’m sorry,” Ben said. “I had no idea. You really think Charlie would do that?”
“Charlie loves Charlie—a lot,” Marin said. “I knew that from our first date. I still hoped that, when the stakes were high enough... Well, he made his choice.”
“The choice of a buttmunch,” said Jorge.
Ben and Marin laughed.
Judith certainly compared favorably to Charlie. She had earned her righteousness. All those stories about drug companies selectively publishing trial results to make their drugs look more effective and less harmful: that wasn’t just political rhetoric, that was real. Judith had taken on a powerful, amoral industry and won. So she had done it by exploiting the fears and faith of low-income, rural communities. All’s fair... right?
And yet, maybe it was a difference in generation here, a difference in growing up with Clintonian triangulation instead of Reaganist hypocrisy-with-a-smile, but Ben still felt disturbed by the brutality of his wife’s actions and thinking. He had looked through the over eight-hundred photos from their wedding on PicView in search of some actionable evidence of a concrete betrayal of him by Judith: something that would justify the mix of shallow contempt and disappointment that he’d felt towards her since election day. Finding nothing had not given him closure.
Ben was just being childish, wasn’t he? Hadn’t he been looking down on his unmarried friends—basically all of his friends his own age—for months now? Snubbed their indulgent standards, their “need” to date or marry people who were this or that thing that didn’t exist? He’d wanted to grow up, so he needed to grow up.
“Well, thanks, Jorge, this was really helpful,” said Marin. “My choice is clear: I’ve got to buy everything back.”
“But then you might end up with nothing,” said Jorge. “Who knows what Mel White did with your money. And the gallery...”
“Well, the gallery has to keep its fee,” said Marin. “I mean, Ben and I have been in this together since the beginning. I’m not like Charlie. I couldn’t damage your relationship with Phillip even more than I already have.”
“But Marin,” said Ben, “I was the one who found Garcia.”
“I wanted him to be real just as much as you,” Marin said. “Anyway, it’s my money. Job trumps money.”
“And you quit your job for Garcia,” said Ben.
“I quit a job that I hated when I no longer had a reason not to,” said Marin. “Garcia, Mel White, just quickened the inevitable.” She looked at the wall above and behind Ben, on which, Ben realized only now, hung the two un-auctioned GXG paintings.
The room was quiet for a long few seconds.
Ben looked behind himself again, at the painting hanging over his head. This would have been one of the paintings that he’d have kept, too. He had always loved the way that “Garcia” had painted the purple ears of corn in the field in the painting’s foreground: the violet-red highlights where the sun hit the individual grains, the wrinkled black and blue leaves. It didn’t seem possible, still, that the person that Ben had thought had painted this was all an illusion.
“Does anyone else want water?” Ben asked.
Jorge and Marin nodded noncommittally.
Ben stood up and went into Marin’s kitchen. Orange sunlight soaked the softened skins of ripe nectarines in a large purple bowl on the kitchen table. On the very edge of the table, quarantined forebodingly, a balled-up pair of men’s socks sat atop a used paperback copy of A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that Marin had borrowed from Charlie. On the opposite end of the table, just in the shadow of the nectarine bowl, was a printed presentation deck. The title page read:
The New Normal:
A Comprehensive Post-66A
California Drug Sales
By Dr. Walter Choo
GlaxoSmithKline, March 2005
Ben immediately turned away from the table and opened the doors of Marin’s cabinets one-by-one in quick succession, not remembering that he was looking for water glasses until he’d closed the door of the cabinet containing mugs and glasses. He opened it again and took out three glasses. He turned on the water in the sink and filled the glasses with it, getting everything within a six-inch perimeter of the sink wet in the process. Holding the glasses together in a triangular grip with both hands, he brought all three to the living room at once.
Marin was kneeling on the couch where Ben had been sitting. She was holding the Garcia cornfield-and-drug-bottle painting by both of its vertical sides, taking its weight off the nail in the wall. She slid to the floor with it and set it down on the ground in front of the other, already-removed painting, which was leaning against the base of the couch. Ben put the triad of tap water on the coffee table and stood uncertainly, running his fingers through his hair. He felt warm.
“What are you going to put there?” Jorge asked.
Marin sat in the armchair by the window, crossed her legs, placed her arms queenly on the chair’s armrests, and looked at the blank wall.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Ben came home to the familiar sight and sound of Judith cleaning to public radio. A novelist was being interviewed about his spare, powerful prose style. The novelist began reading an excerpt from his spare and powerful post-apocalyptic novel.
Hey how was brunch? the husband said. He closed the door behind himself. The latch clicked. The city, outside.
The wife had a broom in one hand and a plastic pan of dust and sheddings in the other. She stepped on the pedal of the trashcan and opened its lid. She banged the pan side against the cans lip. The gray and black clouds of waste slid out of sight.
Hey babe, she said. It was okay. She yawned. We had crepes at this new place in downtown San Jose. Harriets thinking about leaving her job to start her own org. Whereve you been? Wooing some topsecret client to the gallery? I havent seen you in three days.
He told her about the Mistake. The Great Fake.
She washed her hands quickly and turned off the radio. She asked him How When Why WhatNext. She seemed to understand everything immediately, as always. Everything except that he had betrayed her. The husbands silence about what hed seen in that other kitchen, earlier, betrayed the wife even now.
She said, How could you have known?
She said, They cant blame you.
She said, We can get through this.
He said, I know.
They came together then and held each other. Her body could have been anyones. The change in him, so sudden—and so unlike him—could not be undone. His name was Apostate now and no search for faith could bring him to god again.
The wife turned the radio on again and continued cleaning.
The husband remembered the full hamper in the bedroom closet and said, I think Ill do some laundry.
He dug his arms into the bin of stalesmelling fabrics, pulled and dropped a pile of clothes onto the floor. He sorted them with one hand—lights on the right, darks on the left. He looked at a dark gray pair of yoga pants (hers) for a long time before putting it on the left pile.
Dinner was pasta and clamsauce, his favorite asachild. The husbands mother had given the wife the recipe on their first trip to his hometown after their engagement. The smell of the clamshells wine herbs and cream steaming together on the stove. Clam season on the island.
As he Went inside her that night he felt the usual bliss and a new emptiness. He turned over onto cool bedsheets the color of a scaled fish.
He remembered shopping for bedsheets. Hot outside, over eighty. Wearing shorts, wanting icecream, theyd argued about colors threadcount and price, both teasing the other for not being able to decide on a simple thing as bedsheets.
So is Mel White even gay? the wife asked.
I cant remember anymore, the husband said. I think we might have confirmed not, but I honestly cant remember.
Sunday was eggs coffee newspaper emails slicepizza parkrun sushiwithfriends rentedmovie sleep.
Work was some but small comfort. The husband hated the offices smell of wetpaint and spicedbeans. Hated being interrupted. Hated being ignored. Sometimes he went to the bathroom to the furthest stall and sat, notcertain he would be able to go out again.
On his bike during his commute and semiweekly longdistance ride afterwork the husband made risky turns and speed changes. He almost crashed one morning and another night. Each time he vowed after to be more careful but the ability seemed gone from him. Taken. A kidnapped child.
Friday everyone else hurried through their work. They could not wait for their two days away from the demanding the rich the crazy. The husband knew that the wife had questions to ask him. The husband was not ready to answer her questions.
The husband received an automated message from an invitation website. His former coworkers housewarming party. Tonight. Eightaclock. He had not planned on attending and had forgotten it.
Billy Earhardt and Honor Lewis had bought a two-bedroom condo in Hayes Valley in March, moving in together a few weeks ago. Ben hadn’t seen Billy since his and Judith’s wedding. Ben had last seen Honor at the SFMoMA auction, but they hadn’t spoken. Even if Ben had been in regular contact with Billy and Honor, he was in no state to arrive first at their party.
After being the last one to leave Mud23, at five-forty, Ben biked out to Japantown and parked his bike in the mall garage. He wasn’t hungry yet so he didn’t go inside the mall. He started walking without a destination and felt and followed the gravitational pull of Fillmore Street.
He walked north on Fillmore all the way to Washington Street and then was suddenly ravenous. He reversed course, and, under more careful scrutiny, the numerous food establishments that he’d passed on the way up revealed themselves as not-viable dinner options. Several were too fancy to eat alone at, some too crowded, some too empty, several had closed in just the past thirty minutes. He entered the red zone of his hunger when he was still seven blocks from Japantown. If he didn’t eat now he would feel sick all night, and he couldn’t afford that kind of physical discomfort right now.
The only open restaurants within a two-block radius of his current coordinates were a $16-a-plate tapas place and the Szechwan Boat, a standalone outlet of the national food court chain. Szechwan Boat it would have to be.
Inside the Szechwan Boat, a tall man dressed like Eponine from the musical version of Les Miserables sat under bright white light eating chow mein and sweet-and-sour something from a styrofoam plate. Ben approached the glassed-in steam table and surveyed his options. Some of the metal trays in the buffet had been removed, revealing the not-so-steaming pool of water underneath. Broccoli florets, wilted, browned, and bleached from too much slow steaming, sat in a shallow pool of beer-colored water. Three soggy pork nuggets and a square-inch of onion in a thick pool of bright red jelly was all that was left of the sweet-and-sour pork. The pepper beef looked surprisingly fresh, however, with squares of red pepper that were still red and squares of green pepper that were still green sticking out from a black-flecked black sauce along with fat fingers of steak. Ben caught the attention of the Asian woman with penciled-in eyebrows mopping the floor behind the counter and ordered a pepper beef and white rice. It came with a self-serve fountain soda and an individually-wrapped fortune cookie.
Ben filled the waxy inside of his soda cup halfway with diet cola and sat at the cleanest-looking table. As hungry as he was, his food did not taste good—the beef was very tough and the sauce all salt and starch—but it went down easy enough. He sipped at his soda and removed the wrapper from his fortune cookie. He cracked the cookie’s wings apart and pulled out the slip of white paper sticking out of the left wing. It read:
Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it.
Ben knew that it wasn’t a good sign that the dots of the i’s in the sentence seemed to be transmitting a hidden message that he couldn’t decipher. He ate the cookie and let the paper fortune fall into a black pool of beef sauce on his plate. He deposited his used plate, fork, and other trash in the trash bin inside the soy-sauce-streaked box near the door and returned to Fillmore Street.
He continued down to Japantown, went to the bathroom in the mall, and then found his bike. It was now eight-thirty. If he could have afforded a hotel room, he might have checked into a room at the Miyako Hotel, taken a hot bath, put on a robe, and watched premium cable all night in a king bed, but Ben really, really could not afford a hotel room. So Ben double-checked his printed map and directions to Billy and Honor’s place and unlocked his bike.
Billy and Honor’s building was four stories, the top three with large mangaris wood and pre-cast concrete balconies jutting out from the right side. Party guests carrying beer bottles and punch-like cocktails in drinking jars chattered and laughed on the highest balcony. As Ben buzzed Apartment #4, an inflated plastic palm tree was tossed over the side of the balcony to the walled-in garden on the first floor. There was a loud female scold, “Carl!,” and Ben was buzzed in.
He climbed the stairs past the closed doors of quiet apartments flanked by small, expensive-looking oriental plants and high-end pet and camping gear. The door on the fourth floor was open, and Ben went in. A small vestibule with a built-in bookshelf filled with travel photos opened onto a large living space that itself opened on the left onto a large and gorgeous blue-and-gold kitchen and on the right to the balcony that Ben had seen from the street.
The apartment was filled with people who seemed to have been transported from six months in the future. They were dressed strangely: it was the curated strangeness of high fashion, but minus any attempt at sensuality.
It had not yet been two years since Max, Ho, and Pierre’s housewarming party in the Richmond, but clearly something was different in the state of young people in San Francisco.
Where had Ben been that he’d missed out on this transformation until now?
Oh yeah, married.
Honor and Billy appeared in Ben’s sightline. They were both at peak cocktail-induced happiness levels that would be paid for at a much later time when Ben would no longer be in their company, so Ben felt lucky about his timing at least.
Honor was wearing a toy tiara that had silver plastic letters glued to it that spelled “TROLL QUEEN.”
They did their host-guest routine, and then Billy said, “People are a leetle bit more drunk than usual because editorial told staff today that we’re shutting down print operations in August.”
“MBAD’s shutting down?” Ben said. This was news to him.
“Shutting down print operations,” Billy said. “We’re untethering ourselves from our Gutenberg past and blasting off into the future!”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Honor said. “If you could see the numbers some of these blogs are doing—working alone, at home, by accident even... With our connections, brand equity, and publishing and editorial experience, all we need to do is to invest in the technology and resell our advertisers, and our ability to scale goes up, what two, three orders of magnitude?”
“Online or bust,” Ben said.
“Change is good,” said Billy. “But still scary.”
“That’s what I was talking to Shell about in the kitchen,” Honor said. “She said that a big part of any web venture today is still educating people—employees and customers both—about why it makes sense to change even if it seems like the current system isn’t broken. You can’t just assume that people are as excited about the possibilities of technology as you are.”
“People don’t realize,” Billy said. “I mean, I didn’t even realize until we started discussing the transition at MBAD—how far into the future people like Honor and our web architect Luke are thinking about and planning for all of these issues. All of those Luddite questions that us BFAs have about what this means for community, dialogue, authenticity, credibility, craft, quality control... Honor and Luke have really thoughtful, serious answers to all of these questions, and about a million other questions the rest of us haven’t thought of yet.”
“Speaking of authenticity,” Honor said. She smacked the air on its cheek. “I must be really drunk—I almost forgot.”
“You heard,” Ben said. Of course, she’d heard about Garcia already. She’d been at the auction. The San Francisco art community was a very small world.
“Your Mexican street kid is a middle-aged white dude, and here we are blathering about the amazing future that is online publishing,” Honor said.
“Sorry, Ben,” said Billy. “He sure had me fooled.”
“So anyway, I guess the L.A. Times saw my item about the auction in MBAD,” Honor said, “and they approached me about doing a profile on Mel White. I haven’t gotten back to them yet. Would you be okay with that?”
Ben had already felt uncomfortable with much of this conversation because the Honor Lewis speaking to him did not square in profound and basic ways with the Honor Lewis that he thought he knew and loathed. Now here she was extending this devastating courtesy that Ben probably did not deserve.
“I think I need a drink,” he said.
“Yes, yes!” said Ben’s hosts. “Drink on it! Sleep on it!”
They led him to the liquor table, where Billy had one of his bandmates make Ben a manhattan with three cherries in a converted mason jar.
They left him alone in the kitchen with what Ben’s peripheral vision told him were eight Valencia Street power lesbians dancing to the Franz Ferdinand song that was playing and hugging each other.
Ben sipped at his drink, feeling oddly shy. He tasted shockingly good bourbon.
One of the lesbians waved at someone behind him.
“Ben!” the girl shouted. She waved once again more slowly: hello?
It was Shelly Yang. With Billy Earhardt’s haircut. She came over to Ben.
“I haven’t seen you in, like, three years,” Shelly said. “Since a few months after graduation. How’ve you been?”
An impossible question.
“Busy,” Ben said.
“Naz said you got married?” Shelly said.
“Yes,” Ben said. “Last September.”
“That’s really cool,” Shelly said. “I was seeing someone pretty seriously, a former employee actually. We broke up last week, though. She wants to settle down and have kids. She’s a few years older so she’s very conscious about the biological clock and everything. I’m like, look, I just came out of the closet.”
“I actually hadn’t even heard that you had been and were now out of the closet,” Ben said.
“Really?” Shelly said. She seemed surprised. “Yeah, I came out on my blog in January. It was kind of a big deal.”
“And you know Honor and Billy,” Ben said.
“Yes!” she said. “My friend Luke is working with them on the MBAD website redesign. But we also all met at our friend Alice’s birthday party in Tahoe last year. Do you know Alice Cheung? Stanford ’99? Works at Sequoia? Oh, ha-ha, I spy a hungry Nazneen Abadi at twelve o’clock.”
“A famished Nazneen Abadi,” Nazneen said, coming over. “Hey, Ben.”
Nazneen was drinking a pink cocktail in which floated a stack of thin round slices of grapefruit and lemon.
“Oh my god, is Nazneen Abadi drinking citrus?” Ben asked.
“Shelly’s not the only one who’s made big changes in her life,” Nazneen said, smiling and putting her arm around Shelly’s waist.
“I guess not,” said Ben. He was genuinely as disoriented by this revelation as the revelation that Shelly was gay.
“The things we do for love,” Shelly said. “Facing the eternal wrath of our Christian parents, eating rinded fruit.”
“Did I start eating citrus because of Rick?” Nazneen said. “I guess I did. Because of Emma. When you eat and drink with a kid, you can’t be too picky.”
Shelly looked at Ben and looked at Nazneen. “I think I’m going to head out, kiddoes.” She removed her waist from Nazneen’s arm.
“Okay,” said Nazneen. She gave Shelly two one-handed-clap waves. “See you at Gaurav and Nancy’s engagement in two weeks.” They hugged goodbye.
“Bye Ben, it was nice to see you,” Shelly said. She waved at him shyly and walked out into the living room.
“Where’s Judith?” Nazneen said.
“Home with the flu,” Ben lied. “I probably should go home soon and be a good husband. I just hadn’t seen Honor and Billy in awhile.”
“Oh that’s right, you used to work with them,” Nazneen said. “I think of Honor as Shelly’s friend.”
“So Rick and Emma?” Ben said. “Dare I ask?”
“Oh, yeah,” Nazneen said. Her face visibly changed seasons, from the spring of party small talk to the autumn of introspective musing. “They’re old news. Rick is this divorced guy I started dating not long after your wedding. We broke up a few weeks ago. He has a three-year-old daughter, Emma. We were pretty serious. I mean, I would take Emma to the playground by myself sometimes. I helped tuck her into bed and read her her books every other night. The break-up was friendly. We’re just on different journeys right now. I’m having to travel a lot now for my job, and that doesn’t really make for a stabilizing home environment for a kid whose parents are divorced.”
“Yeah,” Ben said. For the first time since their break-up six years ago, Ben was becoming aware of his ex-girlfriend’s sensory-pleasing womanliness: the softness of the skin around her jaw; the way her curves expanded the knitted ribs of the mustard yellow tanktop that she was wearing; the fatty shampoo musk of her hair, which she’d grown out to her back.
“I met Marin for drinks last night,” Nazneen said.
“Oh yeah?” Ben said. So Nazneen knew too. “Is she doing okay?”
“Yes, she’s fine,” Nazneen said and laughed. “You know Marin. That girl never met a shitstorm she couldn’t find her way out of, with a bunch of daisies in her back pocket. She’s worried about you. This Garcia thing is pretty bad, eh?”
“It’s not just Garcia,” Ben said.
If anyone would have understood Ben’s strange need to protect Dr. Choo, it would be Nazneen, Marin Choo’s number-one fan. Marin could do no wrong in Nazneen’s eyes.
“I’ve felt pretty guilty about this Prop 66A stuff, after I heard Marin’s dad lost his job right after the election,” Ben said.
“Well, retired early. Same diff, I guess,” Nazneen said. “But he has an even better gig lined up now, here, near Marin! Hopefully it comes through. I get that, though. The conflicting loyalties. Does Marin know you feel that way?”
“I haven’t said anything,” Ben said.
“Does Judith know you feel that way?” Nazneen said.
“Kind of,” Ben said. “I’ve hinted at it. But—this is the worst thing. A week ago, at Marin’s place, when I was over to talk about Garcia, I saw Dr. Choo’s PowerPoint deck for his recent presentation at a big drug company out here.”
Nazneen was listening raptly.
“And I didn’t, I couldn’t, tell Judith,” Ben said. “I’ve been protecting a Republican drug company executive—from my wife. That’s pretty fucked up.” He finished his drink.
“Judith isn’t sick tonight, is she?” Nazneen said.
“No,” Ben said.
The fast dance song that had been playing ended, and a slow indie rock power ballad started. It was a waltz.
“It’s amazing how quickly things end once they’re over,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s how it was with Rick and I,” Nazneen said. “One day, we were making dinner together every night, going to the park: a family. But then one day Emma came home from school and decided that she wanted to call me ‘Mom.’ And I just could not. Be called. ‘Mom.’ I’m twenty-four years old! Things unraveled really quickly after that.”
Ben nodded. His and Nazneen’s situations were not at all similar, but Ben was in no position to be choosy.
“Are you,” Nazneen looked around, making sure the kitchen was still empty. She continued softly, barely vocalizing the words: “separating, then?”
“Yes,” Ben said, needed to say. He added quickly, “but this is not public information.”
Nazneen mimed zipping her lips and throwing away the key.
Ben felt really stupid. Nazneen could not keep a secret. In fact, she was the absolute worst person he could have told any secret to, let alone the fact that he and Judith were having possible terminal marital difficulties.
“I think we both need shots,” she said.
“I thought you were ‘famished,’” Ben said.
“Shots got calories,” Nazneen said. “Lotsa calories.”
She nudged Ben towards the drinks table like the wayward beef cow that he was. Nazneen looked at the assembled bottles for a minute, considering her options. She plucked a bottle of Jägermeister from the middle of the crowded back of the table and placed it in the middle of the cleared front triumphantly, as if the bottle’s new position was checkmate.
“One shot,” Ben said. “I’m not at the denial stage of things yet.”
“Are you talking Kübler-Ross?” she asked.
“Bad joke,” said Ben. “Sorry.”
“I’ll give you Kübler-Ross,” Nazneen said. “Let’s see, we’ve got...” She pulled out a bottle of vodka and said, “Denial?” Another bottle, tequila: “Anger?” Whiskey: “Bargaining?” Rum: “Depression?” Red wine: “Acceptance.”
“Cute,” said Ben. “Very cute.”
“I try,” said Nazneen. “So what’ll you have, sir?” She did her best game show vamp to the row of six bottles.
“Water?” Ben said.
Nazneen looked disappointed.
“Shot of Jäger,” he said.
Nazneen poured two. They cheered their glasses and took them back.
A man wearing a striped scarf and Buddy Holly glasses appeared at the kitchen counter and looked Ben up and down.
“Nazbunny, did you just do a shot of Jäger?” the man said.
“Hey, shots keep a girl young,” Nazneen said.
“You can take the girl out of Pi Phi, but you can’t take the Pi Phi out of the girl,” the man said.
“Ben, this is Link Mueller,” said Nazneen. “Link just left Apple to start his own company. Link, this is my college freshman-year boyfriend Ben. He’s a curator at Mud23 Gallery.”
“Your college-freshman-age boyfriend Ben?” Link said.
“Gross!” Nazneen said. “Be nice or go away.”
“Very nice to meet you Ben,” Link said. “And congratulations on surviving dating this one in one piece.”
Honor and Billy came in from the balcony then, leading a large troop of party guests in search of provisions, both liquid and solid. Twenty minutes later, Ben realized that this was the real party just begun. Over the next three hours, Ben found himself in a continuous stream of conversations, exclusively with very smart, engaging people that he didn’t know. Billy came over approximately every thirty minutes and exchanged Ben’s empty mason jar for a mason jar with a delicious new cocktail experiment in it. Honor came over after the third cocktail round and made Ben and the person he was talking to each eat one of the homemade buttermilk biscuits she had just taken out of the oven. They were buttery, soft, and warm.
At just after one a.m., Ben looked for and found Nazneen on the balcony talking to a lesbian couple that he had met earlier in the evening: Yael and Jan. Yael and Jan were huddled together under a blanket on an adirondack chair. Nazneen was leaned back against the wood slats of the balcony railing. The night breeze blew once through her hair.
“Are you still living in Pacific Heights?” Ben asked Nazneen.
“Same place,” Nazneen said. “I walked here.”
“Can I crash on your couch tonight?” Ben asked. “I’m in no shape to bike to Bernal right now. I’ll probably just sleep it off and bike home early this morning, so I won’t impose on your Saturday at all.”
“I don’t know Ben,” Nazneen said. “If you weren’t an ex...”
“Yeah, it would be weird, you’re right,” Ben said. “I can call a cab and come back for my bike tomorrow.”
“No, it’s fine,” Nazneen said. “You’re married or whatever you are. You and me were so long ago. It’s fine.”
“Can I park my bike inside your apartment?” Ben said.
Nazneen closed her eyes for a few long seconds. She opened them, smiling her trademark buddha’s smile of old. “Don’t push it, buddy,” she said.
Nazneen and Ben said their goodbyes to Billy, Honor, and the remaining party guests and then walked back to the ground floor and into the deathly quiet San Francisco night together.
Ben had initially hoped that during their walk he could say something to contain the damage done by their brief talk about Judith earlier. However, Nazneen never brought it up, and Ben hoped that that meant that she’d known that he hadn’t meant that a divorce was imminent or even going to happen at all. She had categorized him as “married” just now. Regardless of how much real damage had been done, everything he thought of to say would have only made it worse.
Instead, he and Nazneen mostly talked more about Rick and Emma. What Rick allowed Emma to stay up past eleven o’clock for. The time Rick and Emma had made brunch for Nazneen and burnt the scones. Rick’s rules for dating as a single dad, and how he had broken all but one of them for Nazneen. The difficulty Nazneen had had with not cursing around Emma.
“I didn’t think I curse a lot, but apparently I do,” Nazneen said, stopping in front of a white building with bay windows and a gated stoop. She looked in her purse for her keys.
“Don’t you mean, ‘I apparently curse a fucking shit-ton?’” Ben said.
“Yeah, fucking cocksucker thinks I curse too fucking much, what’s his ever-bleeding damage?” Nazneen said. She pulled out her keys.
“That last one was weird,” Ben said, trying not to smile at her expense.
“See, now I get confused! I’m so used to trying to censor myself...” Nazneen started laughing. “Now I can’t even curse properly!”
“Well, it’s the thought that counts in swearing,” Ben said.
“I guess,” Nazneen said. She opened the gate.
Ben rolled his bike slowly up to the stoop, stopping when his front tire bumped against the lowest step. He rolled it back an inch and then into the step again a few times as he said, “Bike can haz sleepy Naz house?”
“Seriously?” Nazneen said. “You really can’t park it on the sidewalk?”
“There is a 98% chance it’ll get stolen if I do,” said Ben.
Nazneen growled. “You so owe me.”
“I do, I do, I really do,” said Ben.
Nazneen had the standard upwardly-mobile single twenty-something living room setup: flatscreen TV; DVD player; DVR console; MP3 player dock; couch; armchair; modular cube bookshelves filled with middlebrow novels, essay collections, and travel guides; and desk in the corner with sleeping desktop computer and charging laptop computer. There were signs that the frequent work travel that she had mentioned had not just been talk. A framed Toulouse Lautrec poster was propped up against one wall, on the floor. There was a green drawstring laundry bag on the sofa, full of clothes. Two open, halfway packed or unpacked black rolling carry-on bags sat side-by-side at the foot of the sofa. On the coffee table was a vase of dead sunflowers and five remote controls.
Nazneen switched on a small desk lamp, and then grabbed the laundry bag by the loose ring of fabric at its top. She placed it on the floor beside the sofa. She quickly zipped closed the two suitcases, stood them up, and rolled them off to the side next to the laundry bag.
“So there’s the couch, I guess,” Nazneen said. “You don’t need anything else, right?”
Ben didn’t want her to leave him. As long as he was with her he felt safe, still a guest at Honor Lewis and Billy Earheardt’s housewarming party. He took off his jacket and draped it on the arm of the couch. He walked over to Nazneen and wiped the hair from her face. He kissed her on the mouth. She kissed him back and put her hands in his hair. Her chest squeezed into his in the process, and Ben was conscious of kissing a woman of a different height and proportion than his wife.
Maybe Ben had been innocent until two minutes ago; maybe the whole night had been one long tease. He reached down and picked Nazneen up under her hips. She squealed with surprise. He carried her into the bedroom and threw her crossways, backside-down onto the bed. She squealed again.
“Oh my god, this is too weird,” she said.
“You started it,” Ben said.
“You kissed me,” Nazneen said.
“You started it with the shots,” he said.
Nazneen sat up halfway and kissed him, her tongue moving in and out of his mouth artfully, slowly. She reached under his shirt to his shoulder and brushed her nails down his chest and his soft, right side. “You can leave any time,” she purred.
Ben woke up at noon the next day, alone in Nazneen’s bed with four hours of sunshine. He smelled browning butter and sugar and eggs. Pancakes. He was such a bastard.
He put his clothes on and rubbed the dead muscles of his face awake with his palms. He stole a quick peek at himself in the vanity mirror on Nazneen’s dresser. His reflection—young, healthy, All-American—induced in him the same repulsed reflex as the face of the most alien and inhuman of state enemies.
Ben reached in his back pocket and found his phone, opening it for the first time since he had put it on silent mode when he’d left work on Friday. Nothing. No missed calls, no texts. Judith apparently did not think that he had been kidnapped or run over by a truck.
“Entropy, Harriet, entropy,” Mel-White-as-Garcia had said once.
Ben had thought that the artist was either insane or full of shit at the time, but now Ben understood him perfectly.