I do not answer the Wife’s calls. Sorry, babe. I am brushing my tongue, watching an internet Pilates video, getting a hot stone massage. Not really. Really, I am scrolling through Ted’s Instagram feed. Here is a Portrait of Ted before she had children. Here, a Portrait of Ted with her German husband in Barcelona. Here, a Portrait of Ted with a semi-see-through shirt, a kind of fabric she probably knows the name of—tulle? Chiffon? Voile? Thin cotton lawn? Ted is the kind of woman who knows the specific words for things. Ted is the type of girl who blogs about her fashion choices. I pause on the picture, zoom in. I detect Ted’s nipples, a subtle shade of chestnut beneath the sheer fabric. I lie to myself and pretend it’s subversive for a woman to objectify another woman. But an object is an object is an object. And I can’t stop looking.
Here are many versions of Ted in the just-passed years.
Here, a Portrait of Ted sucking a lollipop. Tongue of hard candy. Sugar in the teeth.
I should answer the Wife’s call. Her name overtakes my screen again in sans serif, hoping to FaceTime. It blacks out my Instagram museum. The picture halls of Ted’s life become two words which are the name of the person I love. It says THE WIFE. She is the kind of woman who’s intelligent about all things with one exception: the emotional lives of others. She could care less about that. Her heart is a cold furnace that only I can heat. The Wife wants to tell me she just landed in Boston for her international law conference.
I text: you there all safe & sound? Sorry on phone with curator talking about where to position the meat cage.
The Wife and I are in an open marriage because that is a better arrangement than me cheating on her.
Portrait of Ted getting her first tattoo. Caption: I have tattoos everywhere.
That’s exactly right. Tattoos. Everywhere. Why does that sound so sexual? Cause she meant it to. You know that. Tattoos cover Ted’s arms. They splash color into the crooks of her elbow. A swan opens its wings across her chest as if to fly. A block of cheese sits on her bicep. A chicken roosts on her thigh. Hawk on the fuck-finger. Crossbones on her thumb. The word DADDY on her neck.
Each image has that too-fresh patina as if they might still smear. In pictures from a few years ago, Instagram tells me Ted’s body was an empty canvas, her haircut an inoffensive blonde bob. Now, a red rat tail pendulums down her neck. A ring has been pierced through the gum above her two front teeth. Her eyes say: try me, babe.
I answer the door when Ted knocks. A gust of winter brings her in. We hug in my foyer under a photograph of a serpent eating a mouse. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other since last month in my studio when she helped me prepare for my upcoming installation “Fast, Fast, Fast,” where I’ll re-enact a contemporary take on Kafka’s short story “The Hunger Artist,” eating nothing for 14 days, while confined to a cage made of raw beef. My only task will be to fill in coloring books with crayons. I was loopy from a 100-hour practice fast which I broke with a Red Bull and vodka and hot dogs made of wheat gluten. Ted brought me Harry Potter gummy bears to celebrate the fast’s end. On the cold tile floor, we consumed the newest flavors: vomit, boogers, dirt, rotten egg, stinky socks. When she sampled the earwax gummy bear, I stuck my tongue in her ear. She looked frightened at first, and then pleased. I kept my tongue there, twirling, twirling, twirling, while she ate her gummy bears one after the other, giggling.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m in an open marriage.”
“I’m not,” she said, meaning no more of that tongue in her ear.
Ted’s coat is snowed on. To see her is to feel my palms go slick. There is a stiffness to our hug. Her spine stands up under my palm. Why so nervous? I think, suspicious of myself. Be cool. She smells familiar—like a kind of essential oil or something one would rub on their wrist and temples to dissuade a headache from clawing its way into their brain. It’s the smell of a meditation room. Or an acupuncturists’ office. It’s the smell of wanting to heal. I want to put my nose against her eye and inhale. I would like to make love to her ear again, where that brand-new gauge is stretching out her lobe into a perfect hole-punched O. She pulls away. She brushes snow onto my floor where it melts into puddles of water that I will slip on later.
What does Ted want?
Ted tells me the frozen canals outside make the city look like an Avercamp painting. I roll my eyes at the Avercamp namedrop because what a cheesy thing to say.
“I hate Avercamp,” I tell her, and she shrugs.
During summer, the city canals stink of something rotten, and boats comb through the ancient waterways, plunging their magnetized arms down in search of sunken bicycles and trash, cleaning out the filth. Once, I sat on a bench smoking an e-cigarette, watching a boat dredge up the garbage. The boat’s limb emerged from the black water with a dead body caught in its grip. The human face was molded and fish-eaten, but it seemed to stare right at me. It gave me an idea for a future performance called Death Canal where I would reconstruct a map of Amsterdam with carcasses of rat vermin dressed in tuxedos where the canals should be.
But today the canals are cold, solid things, almost antiseptic. People are walking across them like it’s the time of the apocalypse, like Jesus did, walking on water. It seems like an omen. Frozen canals in May. Not good.
Ted runs a finger along a ceramic pot that holds a succulent. The only plant I cannot kill.
“I think you’ve watered this too much,” she says. “It looks bloated and its shedding its skin.”
She means the succulent, which maybe I can kill after all. And thank god she’s nervous which I can hear in her voice. It’s like I’ve always said, there’s only room for one nervous person in a conversation at a time.“Once, I sat on a bench smoking an e-cigarette, watching a boat dredge up the garbage. The boat’s limb emerged from the black water with a dead body caught in its grip. The human face was molded and fish-eaten, but it seemed to stare right at me.”
Ted tells me how to care for my succulent and about the problems with her new babysitter (late and rewards screaming toddlers with Netflix cartoons) as she touches all the surfaces of my apartment. She strokes my Bugs Bunny lamp, my stacks of medium format contact sheets, the bottom edge of my David Hockney original, the T-Rex mug I molded with clay. Touch, touch, touch. Her hands are large and undainty. They are hands that make things. They are the hands of a mother.
I know nothing of babies, have never changed a diaper, cannot imagine one sleeping in my house at night. But Ted has two babies, twins named Pin and Fin, little devils that don’t sleep at night. I picture Ted’s living room, populated by small armies of dinosaurs, broken whole wheat cookies, a carpet emitting the faintest odor of sour milk. The maternal side of her stays mostly hidden, but I get glimpses of it now and then (here, a tissue for your runny nose, tie your shoes or you’re going to trip), and it sends an electric shock of intrigue to my toes.
“Let’s get out of here,” says Ted while I rummage the cupboard for two cups, the boiler already cooking tea water.
I had intended for us to relax on the sofa with wimmins-only oolong, to sit holding the steaming cups in our laps, touching them to our collarbones. If we were to fold into the cushions for long enough, if the shadows would slip their blue dresses over our silhouettes, who knows what could happen?
“Oh,” I say. “You want to go out?”
She doesn’t want to be alone with me here.
I begin to list off the things I’ve eaten that day in my head. A sign I’m feeling out of control.
Banana Yogurt Piece of Dark Chocolate Handful of Kettle Chips
Banana Yogurt Piece of Dark Chocolate Handful of Kettle Chips
Banana Yogurt Piece of Dark Chocolate Handful of Kettle Chips
I should eat less, prepare my body for “Fast, Fast, Fast.” The only way to last a full 14 days is to start weaning myself off food, teach my stomach to want little and then nothing. But my self-control is basically non-existent.
“Cookie?” I say, holding up a Delft blue tin of butter sweets I bought from the tourist shop down the road. “You don’t want a cookie first?”
“Well if you want me to take an artist photo, it’s better to do it outside and soon. The light. It’s—”
She holds her fingers up in a way that signals “O.K.” instead of just saying it. The rays of winter slant toward the window behind her, the perfect texture, the pure touch of blue.
Fucking artist photos.
Had I forgotten this had been the plan? Or had I hoped that she had forgotten? I don’t even need new headshots. I love the one I have now where it looks like I’m growling right at the camera, a deranged look sitting in my eye, my upper lip snarled like I want to bite you. I figured Ted had known what I meant, that my request was just an excuse for us to hang out, maybe become intimately connected. I don’t even like her photographs—who does? People should be better at reading minds. I’m serious about that.
I open the front door for Ted and make a gesture that means after you, my lady, but now that I know she can’t read minds, who knows what she thinks I mean. Winter rushes toward us. Ted runs a hand across the flannel of my stomach as she passes through the archway she just entered minutes ago. It’s always like this, as soon as we’re in a safe zone, a public street, straight girls get all flirty. I’m almost annoyed but then she turns her head toward me, and I see that she applied makeup before she came over. The layer of foundation runs across her cheeks. The glimmer of green above her eyes. A hard kohl edge to the bottom of her lids. I’m touched by the gesture, though I’m sure she puts on makeup every day for everyone, there is still something vulnerable in witnessing a woman trying to make themselves more beautiful to the world. I soften.
“You remind me of my best friend from high school,” she tells me as we walk.
Key word here—friend. Real subtle, Ted. But this is one of the themes I’m interested in in my next performance: the way we project connections we’ve had in the past onto the new people we meet. We thread feelings from one person to the next until they are all wound up in the same knotted ball of string until we can’t disentangle who they are from who we expected them to be. I’ve already come up with a name for that performance: “Knot So Many Knot So Sure.”
“Tell me about your friend,” I say.
Ted just scrunches up her face, shrugs. Sometimes there’s too much to tell. I’ve had many different types of friends. One such friend and I spent every night of high school dry humping each other in her twin bed while the constellation Canis Major, arranged in plastic stars, watched from the ceiling. That kind of friend, Ted?
On the street, swans hobble along the sides of the frozen canals, castaway from their homes which have been transformed into skating rinks. Parrots fly overhead, exotic green birds that shiver through the air, migrating from park to park. Red-faced men with chicken pox scars and drunk, detached eyes sell hot chocolate to children.
They leer. Mothers lead their white-haired babies down to the edge of the ice where they slip and fall but do not drown. A woman whose chin has disappeared into her neck tries to get someone to buy a pair of old ice skates.
When I first moved to Amsterdam, I found it hard to live around so much water. With water, there is never stillness. There is motion, a current, somewhere always a ripple, somewhere always a tide.
The canals travel like arteries through the city, pulsing and beating and flooding it with movement. Each day, I would swim backward through the city’s salted, sea-brain. I would sink into a bathtub until my fingerprints pruned. I would close my eyes to think and feel the black sea bulging over the sides of the dikes, crashing in wild, windswept waves onto the Western coast, gasping toward land, until one day there would be nothing that wasn’t covered by the sea’s sodden palm. For years, I felt as though my brain had drowned. I could not think. It was raining in my interior lobe, a constant dreary drizzle. Clouds moved together and wept fog into my hippocampus. I blinked away the condensation which clouded everything in a watery blur.
I longed for a harsh dry heat. I wanted to sit on a parched desert floor where the sun had cracked open the ground, daring it to breathe. I wanted to burn so bad I got melanoma. I wanted to feel the sun cook the meat of me. The water continued to rise in the city. It rose. It swilled. It leaked out of my mouth.
But now that winter has sucked condensation from the air and stilled the canals into something as hard as a marble floor, now that icicles hang like teeth on the sides of awnings, threatening to break off and impale you, now that snow covers everything like a still Siberian plain, I miss the water. I take my first full breath in years and realize just that. It’s typical behavior. This insatiable wanting of the thing I cannot have.
The Wife does not have a powerful sex drive. It’s not about sex, the open marriage. It’s about another type of desire, something deeper than sex—something closer to obsession. You see, I cannot act normally around the people I like, friend or otherwise. I cannot meet someone interesting and just be chill. When I like someone, I become a train steaming downhill without brakes. The Wife has come to except this. With Ted, I think the seed of the intrigue started on the night I first met her, at our mutual friend’s wedding reception in Westerfabriek. Her husband had been brooding in the corner eating sausage and talking to a graphic designer who considered the logos he made for internet brands “Art.” Ted had come to me because she recognized me from my “It’s Not Me, It’s Me” exhibition last year. The show had been a flop. The papers hated it, and I lost my agent. Even I knew the show was a failure and poorly executed, but I could tell from Ted’s coy little expression that she thought it was brilliant. Ted, standing there with her plastic plate of crudités, how just like a woman. Of course, she liked the show. She didn’t know what good was. She dressed just like everyone else but better. She seemed to suck all the hope and goodness in the room toward her. I’m serious. Everything else was dim compared to Ted. Life seemed to be kicking around inside of her, looking for a way out. Me? Was I the way out? Was I life? Then Ted laughed, covered her mouth with her big hand, and I saw her swallow a word instead of saying it, and I thought. What word? What word did you swallow, Ted?
Ted has me lean against the wrought iron railing of a bridge, a scene of ice skaters behind me. Idyllic. The worst scene ever for artist photos. Oh, Christ. I will never use this.
“Smile,” she says. “Smile big.”
Her confidence is mesmerizing. Remember that, I tell myself. Remember that if you are confident enough people will believe almost anything to be true. They will love your art forever if you just exude a bit more conviction.
Ted takes a photo of me looking tickled, a photo of my chin resting on my fist, a photo of me throwing my hands over my head like the world is without suffering. Maybe this will be a good photo. Maybe Ted sees me more clearly than anyone else.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. I hate that word. “Here,” she says.
She walks right up to me so that I can smell her essential oils. She moves a tangle of hair behind my ear. When she smiles, the piercing on her gums says hello.
“Just like that,” she says. “So pretty, you.”
A compliment, how I love those. I want to crawl into her arms. I let her look me right in the eye. Her eyes are paragraphs typed in a foreign language. If I could, I would upload her expression into Google Translate. What does it even mean?
“You,” she says. “You, you, you.”
“You,” I say back. My voice is low and not my own. “You.”
Something is going to happen. Snow falls around us like we’re a scene glued to the bottom of a shaken globe.
“Me,” I say, and my voice is mine again.
Then we hear it. The noise mechanic I used to share a studio with in the USA told me ice sounds like aliens singing when it breaks. He had an iPhone full of those eerie reverberations. He’d traveled to Minnesota, Vermont, Alaska to capture the ice shifting and melting and splitting open. It sounds like lightsaber slicing through the air, not at all what one might imagine. That’s how I know what is happening before my eyes even grab the image. I hear the aliens singing. I hear the lightsaber unsheathed and soaring. Ted screams. I turn and look at the canal behind me, and I see it, the whole canal filled with people—mothers and children, fat men and bent grandmothers gripped by horror—as the ice below them shifts and breaks and cries right open. The ice is teeth inside a jaw that wants to swallow them. There they go, the bodies, into the black water alive and vicious and waiting to eat them. Waiting to swallow them down that frozen, heart-stopping throat. Oh god, I think. Ted takes my hand and holds it to her heart. Her heart is loud against my palm. Her heart is kicking me. I look at her, and she takes my picture. I’m not smiling, who could smile, when so many people are drowning.
From Pretend We Live Here. Used with permission of Genevieve Hudson. Copyright © 2018 by Future Tense Books.