PORTRAIT OF MANHATTAN BY A YOUNG MAN
BODY: A tight torso, flexing with a million muscle groups. Neighborhoods connected by taxi blood. Hefty, hard shoulders of Harlem, strong pectorals of the Upper East and West Sides, the spine of Central Park and the messy lungs of Midtown. Go farther down and find the pancreatic sack, surrounded by bile, just below Union Square, and even farther are the bowels and bladders of downtown, filled with beggars, booze, little pockets of bright. And what of the parasites that have eaten up these lower guts? Who have eaten out the insides of downtown’s most wary buildings? Look harder. Ventricle streets, hydrant valves; way down here is the city’s throbbing heart.
EARS: If you had to describe this song, how would you describe it? The song of setting foot onto such dirty new concrete, the song of the soaring buildings, the song of looking upward, following a bird out of the thicket of metal and through the portal of blue sky. How would you describe this song, young, unknown man? You’d need eighteen musicians, surely. You’d need expectant, vibrating buildup. You’d need a genius composer, smart enough to capture what should not be allowed to go undocumented: this frequency of pure, unfettered hope.
FEET: It feels like running away, says an overheard voice, pumping to the rhythm of the music at a not yet familiar nightclub. What does? says another voice. Manhattan, says the first voice, and the island’s name sounds like wheeeeeee!
LIMBS: From above, Manhattan is just a lonely arm, squirting and bending from the big body of Brooklyn. It is not until you are inside it that you see it is the vital appendage, the hand that squeezes at the rest of the world, the muscle where everything that’s anything is made.
MOUTH: Come on in, the water’s fine! The water’s not fine but there’s always wine. There’s always a taxi when you need one, except when you look like you need one. There’s a shitload of everything for sale. HOT DOG, HOT DOG, COCA-COLA, PRETZEL. People are dancing in Tompkins Square Park. Watch their mouths turn into O’s and their bodies turn into S’s. Come on in, the water’s fine! This is what the bouncer at Max’s says, but only when you’re on the list. If you’re not on the list, go take a piss. The guys in the band wear skinny ties and combat boots. There’s an art project on the sidewalk, on the fire escape, in the back bathroom. Somebody’s crawling through a gallery on his hands and knees, moaning. This is a project. Somebody’s talking shit about Schnabel. This is a project. Somebody’s mouthing the words to that song everybody’s listening to: You’re just a poor girl in a rich man’s house, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh! This, too, is a project. Come on in, mouths the bouncer’s sour mouth. Someone’s making a scene tonight, and you’re about to be a part of it.
FACE: No one recognizes you here. Immediately, you want them to.
Winona George’s apartment was exotic in a way that only a New Yorker would understand. A downtown New Yorker. In 1979. This is what James Bennett professed to his wife, in a spousal whisper, as they embarked on a night within the apartment’s confines: Winona George’s annual New Year’s Eve party, their first time in attendance. Was it an old schoolhouse? Marge wanted to know. A convent, James said. The sleeping floor of a city convent that retained none of its convently attributes, namely humbleness, sparseness, or quiet. Winona had, in the way of so many wealthy downtowners, transformed the nontraditional space completely, both blasting it with bohemianism (rugs from Fez, lanterns, shells full of candle wax), and cutting it with classic luxury (there was a chandelier in every room). It was something old made new, made old again, which then made it new again. The effect was charming when it was not confusing.
James and Marge had gotten there quite late, and there was only an hour or so before it became 1980. It was the sort of party they usually avoided, Marge because she didn’t think they belonged—due to such factors as gross household income and gross (as in the other kind of gross) household wardrobe options. (James’s white suit, Marge had not failed to remind him before they left, still had that black stain on the back, from when he had accidentally sat on a spot of Lawrence Weiner’s paint while watching him stencil onto a white wall: learn to read art.) James agreed, but for other reasons, the primary being inevitable overstimulation. It would have been overstimulating for anyone, James guessed, as places with excessive wealth and excessive art and excessive alcohol usually were, but it was especially overstimulating for James, whose mind flashed with nearly psychotic colors and sounds immediately upon entering.
First and foremost there was the purple, which was the color of money—not one-dollar bills and loose-change money, but big money, and the people who had it. Mansions were purple, and expensive cars, and the towers made of glass that reflected the sun off the Hudson. Certain haircuts were purple, and certain names. Yvonne. Chip. Anything preceding Kennedy. Winona George herself was in the lavender family; her personal art collection included a Gaudí spire that had mysteriously been procured from the actual Sagrada Familia, and not one but two de Koonings.
James could sense Winona’s presence almost immediately; he saw her at practically every art opening he went to, knew her color and smell by heart, though he’d rarely had to deal with her face-to-face; she always seemed so busy. Now she flew around the mahogany room like a loon in her black silk dress, coating everything and everyone with flirtatious art babble and lilac laughter. The babble itself—overwrought with intellectual tropes, heavy with important names, dripping with references that only a crowd like this one would understand (Fluxus, metarealism, installation)—affected James in a bodily way, with the physical feeling that he was being sprayed in the face with a garden hose. The paintings and sculptures that filled Winona’s house, each with its own intense flavor or smell, flew at him from all directions; a comforting but powerful red color was being emitted by his wife; and then there was the matter of the grating chorus of violins: teeth pulling hors d’oeuvres from tiny toothpicks.
It was indeed overwhelming, but tonight James was choosing to indulge in it. Today he had received dual pieces of good news: that he had been invited to give an important lecture—at his alma mater, Columbia, on the importance of metaphor in art writing—and that, tucked under his wife’s burgundy dress and stretched skin like a ripening fruit, there was a real, live human with a real, beating heart. Both of these things—recognition from the institution that had given shape to his life, along with the confirmation via a sixteen-week sonogram that he was really and truly about to give shape to another life—were causes to celebrate. They were finally past that precarious point of not being able to tell anyone about the baby, so why not? Why not go tell the world, and celebrate with them? There was no way to know then that it would be the last celebrating they did for a very long time, that those hours, suspended like a sack of happiness just before that happiness would dissolve, would mark that night with an X for years afterward: the night just before the morning when everything would change.
But for now, in Winona George’s Moroccan-rugged and morosely lit convent living room, James and Marge were happy. And when Winona herself approached them, instead of recoiling as he might have on another, less buoyant evening, James was armed with confidence and charisma.
“Meet my wife!” he shouted proudly to Winona, a little too loudly he knew, for he always had trouble gauging the appropriate decimal at which to speak at parties. “And our kid!” He said while stroking Marge’s barely noticeable stomach through her dress. “Meet our kid! We’re just telling people.”
“Oh how lovely,” said Winona, with pursed purple lips. She had the kind of hair that was popular that year, a curtain revealing only the first act of her face: a queenly nose, confusingly colored eyes (were they violet?), cheekbones for days. “And how far along are you?”
“Sixteen weeks today,” Marge said. And James loved the way she said it—already living with a new mother’s understanding of time, where weeks were the only measurement of time that counted—with red beams coming out of her eyes like pretty lasers.
“Well congratulations to you two,” Winona said. “You’re very lucky, and your child will be, too! From what I can tell—and I am the littlest bit clairvoyant, you know—you’re going to make wonderful parents. And do we think we’ll get an artist?”
“I won’t wish it on him,” Marge said with a laugh. “Well, him or her.”
Winona laughed falsely and touched Marge’s shoulder. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I almost forgot. The tradition is that I tell you the scoop on whatever artwork you’re standing in front of, and then that’s your painting for the year. Well not your painting—I’m not going to give it to you!—but sort of like your spirit painting, do you know what I mean? You hold it with you through the year. You darlings have the Frank Stella. And you see, Stella did everything backward. He started abstract when no one was being abstract! And then once everyone started going abstract, he got lush and moody and majestic. So there’s your token of Winona wisdom for 1980: Be backward! Go against the tide! Do things the wrong way!” She laughed like a pretty horse.
“Won’t be hard for me,” James said with an awkward chuckle. He thought of how he had gotten here or anywhere: he had only ever done anything wrong, and it was only by chance that it turned into anything right.
“Oh, you shut your mouth now!” Winona practically screamed.
“Your name is on the very edge of everyone’s lips! Your articles are on the very first page of the arts section! Your brain is, well, I don’t know what the hell your brain is, but it sure is something. And your collection! Lord knows I’ve wanted to get my paws on that since I was covered in placenta! You’re on fire, James. And you know it.”
James and Marge laughed for Winona until she got pulled away by a woman in a very puffy white dress. “It’s almost time for the countdown!” the woman squealed. Winona looked back toward James and Marge and said over her shoulder: “Get ready for the first Tuesday of the year!” And then to her puffy friend: “I’ve always found Tuesdays so charming, haven’t you? I do everything on Tuesdays”—her voice trailing away—“I take my shower on Tuesdays; I have my shows on Tuesdays . . . how fortuitous that the first day of the decade will fall . . .” Her monologue was out of range now, and she ducked back under the surface of the party as if it were a lake. In the relative quiet of her wake, James found a little bracket of time to delve into his Running List of Worries.
On James’s Running List of Worries: baby food, and would it smell bad?; the Claes Oldenburg in Winona’s fireplace (Was it being given enough space to breathe? Because it was making his throat close up a little bit); the wrinkle, shaped like a witch’s nose, on the cuff of his pant leg, despite Marge’s diligent ironing; his suit itself (Was white out?); would his child, if she were a girl, shove a man against the library stacks and kiss him like Marge had done to him, and at such a young age?; would his child, if he were a boy, have a small penis?; did he have a small penis?; and what had Winona just said a moment ago? You’re on fire, James. But what would happen if his fire burned out?
It was true, he knew, that his brain—a brain in which a word was transformed into a color, where an image was manufactured into a bodily sensation, where applesauce tasted like sadness and winter was the color blue—was the reason he was on any front page of anything, on anyone’s lips, at any party like this one. His synesthesia, as they had finally diagnosed it when he was sixteen—too old for it to have not fucked up his childhood—had unlocked a key to a world of art he would never have been invited into otherwise. But the way Winona had said it gave him pause, and through his happy mood he felt the Running List of Worries gather enough speed to hop the fence onto the Existential Track, where the profoundest worries—worries that came all the way from the past—ran a relay of sorts, passing the baton through the race of James’s life, landing him, of all places, here.
SEVEN STEPS TO SYNESTHESIA
James was born different. Or at least that’s what they called it, the doctors and the nurses, when he came out floppy and smaller than average, on November 17, 1946, in a low-ceilinged hospital in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on a morning marked only by an ambivalent drizzle. A certain anxiety had been bred into him—he screamed more than any other baby in the maternity ward, as if he already had something to say. His parents, a shifty banker (James Senior, who slept with his eyes open) and a lazy housewife (Sandy Bennett, formerly Sandy Woods, who hailed from the South, loved piña coladas, and specialized in making her son feel as different as they said he was, and not in a good way), misunderstood him from the start. His early childhood characteristics—seriousness, tenacity, anxiety surrounding food, a squeaky yet sincere laugh—made it so everyone else did, too. He didn’t talk until age four, and when he did, it was in full, existential sentences.
“How old are we when we die?” was the first question he asked his mother, who swatted at him with a peach-colored flyswatter, looked at him incredulously, and said, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“No,” James said, already computing his next question in his mind, which was, “Why was I born?”
James was shorter than average, large-eared, eager to be at the center of a play group, quick to ditch the play group to study something more interesting than other humans: a caterpillar, a melting ice cube, a book. When he was eight years old he discovered his secret powers; he caught his finger in a screen door and yelled the word Mother, and he distinctly smelled oranges. His mother was busy painting her toenails the same pink as her pillbox, and so he sat on the front steps of his house all afternoon, saying Mother, Mother, Mother and breathing in deeply through his nose in between, awaiting the flash aroma of citrus.
Soon after came the realization that his secret powers—the smells he smelled, the colors he saw—were not “normal.” This realization came to him not as a sudden surprise but rather as a slow, steady amassing of minor incidents that made him feel crazy: Georgie called him a dumb-ass when he answered a math equation with the word beige; Miss Moose, his overly optimistic third-grade teacher, made notes on the margins of his homework that said things like Inventive! But still incorrect!; his mother began forcing him to drink a chalky powder that she mixed into glasses of water, which the pediatrician had told her would keep her son regular. At the young age of ten, James sensed that he was not regular even a little bit, not even at all.
Parents and teachers saw James’s condition as an oddity or a lie; he was pegged with having a “vivid imagination” or a “tendency toward exaggeration,” and was twice made to see school psychologists because of something he wrote in a paper or said in class.
“Your boy says he is seeing colors,” he overheard a teacher tell his parents when they picked him up one day. “And . . . today he said he felt fireworks behind his eyes.”
Was it a problem with his vision? Was he seeking attention? Whatever it was, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett were not pleased about it.
“No more of this crap,” his father had said on the car ride home. James just looked out the window, away from the angry gray of his father’s words. He would get a spanking tonight, he knew, a series of very hard spankings, probably, but he couldn’t help what he had felt that day in class. The numbers had made him feel sick—the way Miss Ryder had colored them had been all wrong. Nines were blue! Tens were dark blue! And she had assigned them pinks and reds. Miss Ryder, his father, all the booger-nosed kids in his classes—everyone, including him, knew that he was doomed.
High school was the beginning of his blue period. James was all acne, ears, and quadratic equations. Once he stepped through the doors of Old Forge High, his whole scope of vision was taken up by a pale, grisly blue. The green chalkboards were blue; the hair of the other kids was blue; the grass where the cheerleaders practiced was blue.
This made him incredibly depressed and difficult to relate to; the other kids, he knew, saw high school as a new and exciting rainbow. When, out of nowhere, Rachel Renolds, the generously endowed junior prom queen, singled him out in the hall to see if he wanted to join the Literary Lowlifes, the club she was starting so she could have something to put on her college applications, and James, stunned, nodded enthusiastically, the following conversation went something like this:
Rachel: “You think there’s actually a club called the Literary Lowlifes?”
James: “I don’t see why there couldn’t be.”
Rachel: “Hahahahaha! That’s the point. You are a lowlife, so of course you’d think it’s real.”
James: “Your hair.”
Rachel: “What about my hair?”
James: “It’s glaucous.”
Rachel: “What on earth are you taking about, you freak?”
James: “It’s a kind of blue.”
Rachel: “You’re simply the Worst. Nerd. In. The. School.”
The saving grace? Grace. A girl with long, silky dark hair, who, overhearing this terrible conversation, pulled James away and hid him behind the shield of her locker door.
“Rachel’s a vacuous cunt,” she said, surprising James to the point of breathlessness with each of those words. Vacuous meant she had a brain, and cunt meant she had an edge, two things that James coveted immediately. Even though she was popular, Grace ate lunch with him in the glasses-and-suspenders section of the quad that day, and for the rest of the year, and they maintained the kind of coed friendship where the male’s unrequited romantic interest in the female was both blatant and unimportant; all that mattered was that they were around each other. And because Grace’s father was a college professor, and because she asked him to come along when her father let her sit in on one of his night classes (Intro to Composition at U Penn), James discovered college.
Even more than the subject matter (they were doing a lesson on visual analysis, during which the professor asked the class to “have an intellectual argument with an image”), it was the sensation of that class that captivated James—the burgundy, regal feeling of the room, the round globes outside the windows that lit the pathways to the dormitories, the books the students spread dutifully on the desks. Driving home that night in the backseat of Grace’s father’s smooth, black car, James felt a new hope.
“I loved it,” he whispered to Grace in the back of the car.
“I know,” she whispered back, and she kissed the tip of his nose.
There was a place for him on this earth, he knew then. A place where learning was paramount and strange viewpoints were encouraged; a place where one’s worth was measured by their ideas rather than height (or ear size); a place where parents didn’t putter and pout and drink until one of them hit the other one, where showers and meals were communal, where brunette women wore their hair short, where good boys were made into great men, where golden lights lit pathways to the truth, and where acceptance happened before you even arrived . . . and that place was college.
In college, James discovered art and sex. His first semester at Columbia, while in line for overcooked pasta at the student cafeteria, he spotted a girl whose red hair made his bladder tingle the way Grace’s green eyes had, and whose face—perhaps due to the tense wrinkle in her forehead—looked like the most intelligent face he’d ever seen.
Too embarrassed to talk to her while eating soggy noodles, he waited until they finished lunch and followed her out into the quad, and then across the quad, and then into a dark lecture hall.
The room was filled with students of a different breed than he had in his classes, as he was a history major, and this—he found out as a vibrant slide show erupted from a projector onto the front wall of the room—was an art class. A graduate art class, he discovered from the header on the leaflet that was handed out, titled Marc Chagall’s Nostalgia.
As the angular, colorful, nostalgic images flashed across the back wall, James felt the same tingling in his groin he had felt in the spaghetti line; Chagall had literally given him a hard-on. The redhead, who he had stupidly chosen to sit next to, giggled when she looked over at his bulging pants when the lights came on. But then, to his great surprise, she grabbed his hand and led him back through the evening air to her dorm room, where she pulled down his pants and finished him off. It was not until after this glorious, completely novel experience that James noticed that her roommate was in attendance, listening to James’s first gasp of female-induced pleasure when he finally came.
He never saw the redheaded graduate student again, but he did see Chagall, in the art classes he signed up for every semester thereafter. Eventually his counselor told him he’d have to switch majors if he wanted to keep avoiding his history requirements, so he did—to art history—and never looked back. In a course titled Paradox: Embracing the Postmodern Paradigm he discovered Duchamp toilets, mysterious “happenings,” and art as essence rather than object. In John Cage’s four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, played during the seminar by an animated professor with Einsteinian hair, James saw the exact same speckled light he saw when listening to classical music, and tasted, quite distinctly, black pepper, which even made him sneeze. Here it was, he thought while sitting in the bright, silent room, the collisions that happened in his own brain, bursting out before him like explosions.
He called Grace from his dorm room. “I found out what I need to do!” he blurted, unable to contain his excitement.
“And what’s that, dear James?” Grace said. She had taken on a motherly quality since they’d parted after high school, and was prone to using words like dear and darling.
“I need to make art,” James said, his mind flying.
Grace was smiling on the other end of the phone. James could hear it. He explained to Grace what he had discovered in Painting 2B, that Kandinsky had synesthesia, and, as he had found out in English IA, so did Nabokov—he could see colors in letters just as James did!—and they were geniuses of metaphor and color and ideas!
“You’ll be great,” Grace said, and James thought: Grace is never wrong.
So invigorated by the possibility of being or becoming a genius, James then plunged into art like it was the blue lake of the letter O, hardly ever rising for air.
From TUESDAY NIGHTS IN 1980 by Molly Prentiss. Copyright 2016 by Molly Prentiss. Reprinted by permission of Scout Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.