November '05 -- guest edited by Claudia Smith
He didn’t ask her to sit down. Maybe it was because he himself was so casual. Caroline stepped in and her heel caught on a wadded-up shirt. The carpet had originally been good, expensive, a Berber, probably, though now it was an indistinguishable mass of colors. His furniture, too, was crazy: overstuffed yellow sofas and chairs stained with things she didn’t want to guess though she counted pizza, vomit, and blood among them.
"Have to use the bathroom," Ben said. "Will you be o.k.?"
Caroline touched her mouth.
"I’ll be right back," Ben said. "Prune juice for breakfast," and stepped on a pile of clothes.
He was crazy--that was clear. Did Caroline really need to know such a person? And yet, he exuded his own kinetic energy; the walls thrummed. A series of five or so paintings were hung at various angles around the living room, some toward the ceiling, others near the floor, each consisting of a single large circle with a dark-brown bull’s eye.
No animal sculptures.
Ben came back, belting his jeans. A raw odor flooded out of the bathroom; Caroline tried to pretend she didn’t notice.
"Hey," Ben said. "I know you. From...the gallery."
"Hell, no." Ben laughed. "Much smaller. Where I show. I saw you there yesterday...didn’t I?"
"I didn’t see you."
"Yeah," Ben said. "I obviously made an impression."
"I liked your sculptures."
"’Like’ isn’t the word," Ben said. "’Like’ is never the word. C’mon," he said. "Let’s go to the kitchen."
She wasn’t scared, Caroline told herself. Not too scared to follow him.
The kitchen was where he painted. The entire left wall was dominated by a single painting in progress; she estimated it at seven feet by seven. The subject was a woman, an abstract Caucasian: her features were eerily defined, her skin a strange shade of beige; her breasts were full but lacked nipples, aureoles; her vulva was visible from her crouch, a thin little skin-split that bagged as if she must have given birth; her arms were wrapped around her torso but she had no pubic hair. Caroline stepped closer to the painting; she felt as if she were invading its "space."
And now she became conscious of Ben, standing slack-shouldered beside her. She’d been so nervous when he opened the door that she hadn’t really looked. Now that she saw him, he was...unprepossessing at best, ugly at worst, but with that weird energy that made his every motion (his body thick and squat) seem fluid, alive.
He was wearing clam-digger pants, paint-stained, that rode just above his ankles. His thick blond dreadlocks coarse and black-rooted. His face acne-streaked, his nose broad, his pale lips full.
How was it possible, Caroline wondered, that an ugly man should be so appealing?
Because of his energy, maybe. Some painters possessed it. If he walked across a desert, he’d emit a metallic sheen as brilliant as the sand. If he stood under a 100-watt kitchen bulb, the magnetism of his presence might cause the bulb to pop into blackness.
Oh, Christ, Caroline thought.
She was a sap. A hyperbolic sap.
He was a short, ugly man.
And his feet were dirty. She noticed that, too. He wore heavy brown Birkenstocks with big brass buckles: open-toed. His feet were smeared with a fine layer of dirt, his toenails thick, yellow, ragged.
He caught her looking at his toes. And smiled.
"What do you think of my painting?" he asked. "Isn’t finished yet."
"Didn’t know you were a painter. Thought you just sculpted."
Ben gazed at her for a second. Then: "Renaissance man," he said, and tossed back his head, laughed; Caroline crossed her arms over her chest, took a step back.
"Who’s the subject?" she asked.
Again, the laugh.
Caroline glanced around the kitchen, unsmiling.
"Still waiting to find out," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well...look at the face. The features. Can you tell who it is?"
A swath of beigeness. An inchoate mass.
"Amorphous," Caroline said.
"No," Ben said, "no," and then walked out of the kitchen without saying goodbye.
She quickly understood that he wasn’t going to ask why she was here, as if he accepted her presence because it was of no consequence. He did feed her, though, went to his cupboard and brought down two boxes of Little Debbie Honeybuns, cracked the boxes open, laid them on the table, brought a roll of paper towels over, then said, "The coffee maker’s in the cupboard."
Caroline sat on the folding chair, her dress hem dripping water; she watched it pool across the linoleum.
He didn’t make her feel ridiculous, exactly; he seemed too oblivious for that.
She wanted to ask where his animal sculptures were--if, in fact, he had any in progress--but couldn’t. So she watched him go to another darkened room, bring back a roll of butcher paper, measure off a section about six feet long, cut it. Then, he tacked it to the kitchen floor, leaning his weight full against one palm. And now Caroline saw that the linoleum was dotted with hundreds of holes.
"Renting, I take it," Caroline said.
He looked up as if startled.
"Uh," he replied, then crawled to the opposite corner of the butcher paper, drove in another tack.
Caroline stood up, found the coffee maker in the cupboard, rinsed it out, made Folger’s. She sat down again on the folding chair, kicked each heel off. She had a hole in the left toe of her pantyhose, but now it didn’t bother her. She studied Ben as he crouched, mixing paint. He didn’t use a palette but brought in three or four buckets, blended colors. When he squatted, his thighs thrust powerfully against his jeans. He wasn’t fat, only square-shaped.
Caroline laughed out loud.
"What?" Ben asked, then smiled.
In a few hours she felt dazed. She’d eaten three of the honeybuns, and they’d given her such an intense sugar high that she wobbled when she stood, wandered to the front window in stocking feet. A trash-cluttered New York Citywhen what she wanted were the mountains of New Mexico, vast dizzying expanses of sky, O’Keeffe’s paintings, too, the paintings.
If she felt that way about nature, why couldn’t she reveal it in her work?
She was too close to O’Keeffe. If she wasn’t copying her paintings detail by detail, color by color, she couldn’t even remember what she’d once wanted to paint.
Sometimes she dreamed that O’Keeffe was her mother.
Crazy, Caroline thought. I’m really going crazy.
Caroline wandered back to Ben. They made her feel drunk, those honeybuns. Definitely not herself. She knelt beside him as he worked, feeling her thighs and calves tremble, her blood sugar plummet.
She thought she might faint.
She sank onto the floor, braced herself against the linoleum.
He was using a paint can labeled "Ebony #2." He dipped the narrow-tipped brush, held it aloft, then lowered it to execute slender characters on the paper.
"Symbols?" she asked, quietly. "Of what?"
He shook his head. She could smell the grit from his scalp. "Not symbols. A private language. I use the paintings to talk to myself."
Caroline looked at him. "What do they say?"
He placed two fingers under her chin, tilted her face back. She shivered at the contact, and she knew that he saw it. "You’re smart," he said. "Smart."