Joanna Acevedo is a student living and working in New York City. She has published work in Flying Island Literary Journal, Seventh Wave and many other literary journals. In her spare time she likes to spend time with her cats.
by Joanna Acevedo
Beauty is one of those things.
“What do you do?” He asked. I was nineteen, drunk in a bar, and I couldn’t tell the truth.
“I’m a curator,” I lied.
“So you decide what art goes where?”
“No,” I said, and now I was telling the truth. “I look for beauty, and I collect it when I find it.”
“Is that why you’re talking to me?” There was a sardonic flicker around his mouth. I returned it with a smile of my own.
“Beauty is cruelty,” I said. He understood what I meant.
He was pretty as a picture, but I was tired of boys, even the pretty ones. With their hands and eyes and arms, and the way they always wanted something. I didn’t mind giving it to them, back when I was eighteen and I didn’t know any better about it, but now I was almost twenty. I had my feet under me a little bit more. Still, when he slid over to me with his eyes and hands and arms, and bought me drink after drink, I let him.
Eventually I had to leave him, because he made me feel like I was shrink-wrapped, like all the air had gone out of the room. That’s a sensation one can only tolerate for short, attractive bursts of time. His phone number was in my pocket, but I wasn’t going to call.
In the morning I was tired, tired of talking to people and having to express myself, and with a tool as inelegant as language. Words are so tiresome, so clunky, especially late at night and after a few drinks. I was almost disgusted by the thick layer of poetry that had left a residue on my tongue. I am not a great lover of literature.
He was waiting for me when I got to work in the morning, a grin stretched across his face. “What do you want?” I said. I was hungover, annoyed.
“I love you,” he said. “I want to marry you. Let’s run off to the country and raise children and goats.” There was an unlit cigarette tucked behind his ear. “Have you ever had goat’s milk? It’s incredible.”
I went to the espresso machine, which hadn’t been cleaned, and made myself an Americano. Waitressing is not a romantic job. It’s not romantic in the grit that accumulates behind the coffee machine, or the grease that lines the inside of the counter where the sponges don’t reach. Still, I could see him painting a picture in his head, a picture of me as the nineteen-year-old waitress and art student, struggling to make ends meet and picking up boys in bars, hoping that one day, someone will rescue her from her tortured, but ultimately poetic, existence. He was the type of boy who did things like that.
I was not in the mood to be rescued. For that, I would have had to be slightly stoned and wearing much more comfortable shoes. No one ever runs away from their problems in an apron with their name embroidered on the front. “No,” I said shortly, and sipped my coffee in a way that let him know that I was finished with the conversation. He was crestfallen, slightly. It was sweet, the way puppies are sweet. Suddenly I didn’t want to see him, didn’t want to remember him touching me. “That’s enough of that,” I said, and shooed him out of the diner with a damp rag and my indifference.
Calvin came in around closing, and leaned himself on the counter. “Mary Ann,” he said, for that was the name I was using in those days, “you really need to learn how to connect with people. A good waitress is personable.
I poured him a black coffee. Calvin was unemployed. He was utterly unsuited for labor of any kind. Some family member sent him checks every month, not a lot, but enough to live on, some kind of trust fund, and he never seemed to mind being broke all the time.
“I’m not a waitress,” I said. “I’m an art student.”
“You say that,” he said, “but I’ve never actually seen you draw anything.”
I reminded him of the charcoal sketches from life drawing class, the still-life paintings, the sketches on napkins of customers who stayed particularly still.
“That’s not art,” he said. “You do it for class, or because you’re bored. I want to see what you make, on your own time.”
“Art school is more of a conceptual experience,” I said. Calvin gritted his teeth, took a drink from his coffee, and said he was going out for a cigarette. Calvin was always going out for a cigarette, or coming back from having a cigarette, or thinking about having a cigarette. He had been fired from his last job for excessive smoke breaks.
Everyone had theories about my art, not just Calvin. When Angela and Janice came in twenty or thirty minutes later, they were full of conspiratorial notions about the art world, about the regular world, about everything. Angela was a heinous tweaker who occasionally said insightful things, and Janice followed her around, writing them down. Janice swore that Angela would be famous someday. They were in love, but it was a tactful, perfunctory sort of love, more of a business agreement than a passionate one.
Last to arrive at the diner was Timmy. They all gathered at a booth in the back, near a window so Calvin could smoke and Timmy could roll a joint, or so they could all pass around a small amber pill bottle, unmarked. Once in a while, a legitimate customer would come in, sneer at them, and order a BLT, plus coffee, black. Anyone who hangs out at a diner after ten p.m. is not to be trusted.
It was around midnight when I finished, and after Artie, the night manager, had locked up and gone home to his wide wife and vaguely sticky children, there was some talk of going to the bar. I was feeling stretched out and sick, but as usual my friends were irrepressible. It was no surprise, unfortunately, that the same guy was back at the bar, nursing something in a draft glass.
“Do you know that guy?” Angela asked me, over the rim of her wiry glasses. “He looks like he knows you.”
“One of your various affections?” Calvin asked. He had the capacity to be nasty, and often utilized it. “Or affectations, I might say. He’s pretty.”
“They’re always pretty,” Janice said, in a lofty way that didn’t mask her jealousy. “Mary Ann likes pretty.”
“Everyone likes pretty,” I said. There was a drink in front of me, a gin and tonic, and I wasn’t entirely sure how it had gotten there.
“What’s his name?” Angela asked.
“No comment.” This brought a round of laughter to the group.
He caught me by the hip a little later, as I was walking towards the bathroom. “Can I come with you?” He asked.
His name was Red, and we exchanged pleasantries as we walked to his apartment around two in the morning, under the heavy blanket of the sky. There was a bottle of whiskey in his apartment; that was the pretense, but the pretense was the pretense. I was not drunk, but there was a beery cast to the way he was moving, which made me feel like I was more in control of the situation then I was.
“I’m not in love with you,” he said, in the flat, toneless way that people speak when they’ve done too many amphetamines.
“I didn’t think you were,” I said. I was a little pleased I had made such an impression. “People don’t fall in love over the course of one night.”
“Do you speak from experience?” He asked. We turned off the avenue and onto a side street, tree-lined and dark except for the buzzy orange of the street lamps. “How many times have you been in love?”
I ran a hand through my hair, fingers catching in the knots. Last time, we went to my apartment, and he was gone when I woke up. I liked it when they were gone by the time I woke up.
“Three times,” I said honestly, or honestly enough.
“And how did those go for you?” He stopped walking in front of a building made of red bricks and green paint. “This is me.”
“Nice building,” I said, ignoring the question.
“So they went badly,” he said, slightly smug. We walked up the stairs.
“Why ‘Red’?” I asked, sprawled out under his sheets.
“It’s such an obvious nickname,” I said. I watched the smooth line of his throat as he dragged on his cigarette.
“What’s wrong with my name?” He said. “Why Mary Ann? You’re not exactly a sitcom character.”
“Names are funny,” I said.
“A lot of things are funny,” he said.
Timmy picked me up for class on Monday. Timmy was from down South, a tiny town north of Atlanta, and he refused to relinquish his pickup truck, even though it was a constant struggle to find parking. He was judicious about handing out rides, but we only lived a few blocks from one another, and I had my enormous portfolio bag to lug around.
“Whatever happened with that guy?” he asked, as soon I was settled into the cab on the truck. Timmy spoke infrequently, but he was relentless when it came to other people’s personal business.
“What do you mean, whatever happened?” I asked, and snatched the pack of cigarettes that was resting on the dashboard.
“I mean, you disappeared,” Timmy said, snatching his cigarette back. “With mysterious-bar-guy. Leather-jacket-wearing, fancy-drink-drinking guy. Whose name is?”
“Not important,” I said. “Maybe I should ask you about your latest exploits.”
Timmy’s face turned scarlet. “That’s all right, thank you,” he said, pulling the truck out of its parking space. “He seemed nice.”
“I wouldn’t say nice,” I said.
“Well, who wants nice?” He said. “You do like pretty, shiny things.”
“I do,” I said.
He didn’t pry further. Friends know when to ask, and when to shut up. Instead, he prattled on about which model he thought we’d have today, and the relative merits of Marilyn versus Erica, or Kenneth versus Michael. All the models were on a regular rotation, so we got to know them personally, chatting between poses. It’s easier to stare at a naked person for six hours at a stretch when you know you can chat politics with them during break.
My favorite was Marilyn. Marilyn was not beautiful. The most beautiful of the models was a slim, Asian girl named Carla, with long hair that moved down her back in waves and a sinuous way of moving that allowed her to make graceful shapes. But she had trouble getting back into long poses and shivered almost imperceptibly, which made her difficult to draw. Marilyn was a professional, although her body was awkward, with heavy breasts and long, strange legs. She was interesting. There was something important about that.
Not everything could always be beautiful, I thought, as we pulled into a fortuitous parking spot directly in front of the Fine Arts building. There had to be contrast.
Red was outside, grinning, leaning against a motorcycle that wasn’t his, when I walked out. Angela was walking next to me, and she grabbed my shoulder as we passed the security guards. “Isn’t that the guy?” She said. I had no idea what she was talking about until I saw him.
“Hey,” he said. Angela ceased to be important. She said a hasty goodbye and rushed off.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Since when do you drive a motorcycle?”
“I don’t,” he said. “I just thought it looked cool. Like an old movie. James Dean, and all that.”
“You’re an idiot.”
He shrugged, a fluid motion that distracted me for a moment. “Yeah,” he agreed easily. “That’s fair.”
“Why are you here?”
“Why not?” He said. “I thought I’d take you to lunch.”
“We’re seeing an awful lot of each other, aren’t we?” I started walking, and as I expected, he fell into step behind me. In the daylight he looked different, brighter, with a translucence to his skin that I hadn’t noticed before. He wore a dark blue denim jacket and black jeans, and his black t-shirt was clean, but faded. He smelled like smoke and denim.
“I suppose so,” he said.
There was something pleasing, something refreshing, about the careless way he spoke to me. I knew that I couldn’t hurt him, he was untouchable, he stared at me as if through a pane of glass. I liked the pane of glass. Through it, everything had a sort of irony and light.
“So, you’re on your way to being a curator?” he asked, over a cup of weak coffee in a small coffee shop I had never been to before. We had walked and walked, talking about art mostly, before he gestured to a blue-and-white awning. “Best chocolate croissants in the city,” he said. “But terrible coffee.”
Calling it “coffee” was a stretch. It was more like coffee-flavored water. The croissant, however, was incredible, and I was considering ordering a second one.
“Sort of,” I said. “I think I’d like it, and I think I’d be good at it. I already curate so much of my life.”
“You do have a bit of a thing with control,” he said, and there was a flicker in his eye as he said. “Why do school at all, if you know what you want to do?”
“I like to draw,” I said. “It’s a luxury, being allowed to do something you like all day. I won’t always have that.”
“And it’s worth working nights and weekends, being tired all the time?” He took a sip of his coffee, wrinkled his nose. “It seems like a lot of work, that’s all.”
“Well, it’s got to be better than the alternative.”
There was a slanting, setting sunlight coming in from the window, and it lit up his hair like a halo around his face. “The alternative?”
“Getting some menial office job, slaving away, dying alone.”
“I guess that’s boring, maybe,” he said. “But it pays the bills. And I have time for myself.”
“To do what?”
“Oh, you know,” he said. “Loaf around.”
Loafing, it turned out, was what he did. When I started to snoop around his apartment later, I found strong evidence that he was a loader. There were almost a hundred boxes of macaroni in the cupboards, stacked up neatly like puzzle pieces. It looked like that was the only food he owned, that and some instant coffee, a little old milk, and some salt and pepper.
He lived alone. His apartment was just a bedroom, bathroom, and a kitchen. There were some books. Actually, a lot of books. It seemed like every corner I turned there were more books, in shelves and stuffed into milk crates, cardboard boxes and even in stacks, haphazardly arranged wherever there was room. The books, when I examined them, seemed to have no rhyme or reason. There were just as many trashy airport mystery novels as there were works of classic Western literature.
The most interesting thing I found in the entire apartment was a bin of old notebooks, full of Red’s scribbling handwriting. There were poems in there, and what seemed like pieces of short stories, descriptions of people and even little sketches to accompany them. I was deeply involved in one of the notebooks when I heard the key in the lock, and I dropped it to the floor and got back in bed.
Red held a carton of eggs in one hand, and a single onion in the other. “I got breakfast,” he said.
I pretended to be half asleep. It was past noon. “That’s breakfast?”
“When I cook it, yes.” He put the eggs down on the kitchen counter. The apartment was small enough that he could see me from the door. “You were looking through my things.”
I sat up, reached for a cigarette. “I just wanted to get to know you,” I said. It sounded like a lie even as I said it.
He laughed, a harsh sound. “Shut up and eat your eggs,” he said. “You’ll have to get to know me the normal way, through time spent together and deep conversation.”
He put a pan on the stove and turned on the burners. “That’s okay,” he said. “Who wants to get to know each other, anyways? Let’s do this instead.”
This turned out to be breakfast, a midday nap, watching some movies in bed and screwing around before falling back asleep. We didn’t talk about ourselves, our lives, our goals, all the things that people talk about when they first meet. We’d talked about those things, and we didn’t want to know anymore about one another. All I wanted to know about him was the way he fell asleep, the way he smoked a cigarette, the way he thumbed through a book of essays when he thought I wasn’t looking.
We fell in love like that, when no one was looking, neither of us trying or realizing until it had already happened. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, as experiences go. But it happened.
Time passed in a trickle, then in a stream. There were no great romantic moments, no dramatic music swells. There was waking up in the morning and turning over to find Red, smoking a cigarette and waiting to tell me about his dreams. There was going out to the bar and the way he made all my friends laugh, so much that even Calvin did a spit take into his glass of overpriced beer. There was walking twenty-five minutes in the cold, and coming home to a warm bed. He had a cat sometimes, an orange tabby that came and went from the window in his room that led to the fire escape. We named it Marmalade.
“So, what’s going on with your boy?” Calvin asked me, late at night at the diner. He was in the middle of a period of existentialist dread. “You two seem pretty chummy.”
I knew he was only asking because he was trying to distract himself. He was coming off of a week-long binge of something, and it was making him jumpy and overwhelmed with the world.
“I guess we’re all right,” I said. There was no one else in the diner; all the customers were gone, and the rest of our friends had gone to see a concert somewhere downtown earlier in the evening. Calvin didn’t like crowds, and he rarely went to those kinds of events, even if everyone else was going.
“I’m just saying,” he said, running a hand through his greasy hair. “I’ve never seen you like this before. Not that anyone else would notice,” he confirmed. “Unless they knew you really well.”
“And you know me really well?”
“Of course.” Calvin smirked. “You’re looser. You’re getting soft, Mary. It’s a little embarrassing.”
I picked up his empty coffee cup. “Are you finished with this?”
“I don’t mean it in a bad way,” he said, nodding for me to take the cup away. “I’m just telling you, because I don’t think that you realize what you’re doing. You used to be really interesting, you know? With your collections, and all that. You used to be ruthless. Now you’re just like everyone else. Another girl falls in love and ruins her potential.”
“What makes you the King of the universe? Why do you get to decide who is interesting, and who isn’t?”
Calvin smiles a greasy smile. “Everyone has their truth,” he said, simply. “Everyone has that thing they’re looking for. This is mine.”
“You should leave,” I said, quietly. “I have to close up, and I don’t want to look at your face any more.”
He nodded. “You’re weak now, Mary Ann.”
I busied myself with closing the diner, playing the music loud enough that I couldn’t hear Calvin’s words in my head. Red was due to pick me up any minute, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see his face, either.
“Am I weak?” I asked, when he showed up, riding a spindly blue frame bicycle, twenty minutes after he had said he would be there. “Like, do you think that us being together has made me less interesting?”
Red laughed. “Definitely,” he said. “People are always less interesting when you really get to know them.”
“So what, everything has an expiration date?” I said. “When it just gets so boring that you can’t stand it anymore?”
“Yep,” he said, and then I got on the handlebars of the bike, and we rode away.
Red was pretty as a picture, and I painted him in oils then sold it to a gallery owner who preyed on art students willing to sell paintings for little more than the cost of materials. “I like your work,” the gallery owner said, in a cheap, flimsy way that made me think that it was part of some kind of rehearsed speech. “Make me ten more like this, and maybe we can talk about a little show.”
I knew the kind of shows that art students got. They were small, poorly attended, and you could bet that the gallery would take such a cut that I wouldn’t make any money off of it. But I had all these paintings of Red taking up space in my apartment. It was better to sell them for nearly nothing than to keep them for nothing at all.
“You’re making money off of me,” Red said, sprawled in bed, as I sketched out my next painting in charcoal on a canvas panel. “I should get a cut.”
“You’ll reap the benefits of my eternal gratitude,” I said. Red’s face was difficult to draw, as most beautiful faces are. Symmetry is hard to replicate. I was concentrating, and his talking was making it difficult.
“What is it, with you and my face?” He asked. He asked this question frequently. “Why do you like it so much?”
“Why do you like my face?” I countered.
“It’s nice,” he said. I am no great beauty. “I like your nose. I like the way your mouth moves when you talk.”
“I’m not pretty,” I said. “Not in the easy way. You know that.”
“You can say that, because you’ve got it.” I traced the curve of his jaw with my charcoal pencil, and then rubbed it out with my thumb. “It’s like currency. When you’re rich, you don’t think about money anywhere as much as when you’re poor.”
“You’re not poor,” he said.
“Maybe upper middle class,” I said. “You can come to my gallery opening when I’m rich and famous. Be my trophy boyfriend.”
He held out a hand, and I shook it. “Deal.”
Summer came, with all of its terrible heat. Janice went back to San Fran, and Angela was house-sitting for a family in Long Island, which mostly mean that she lounged on the beach all day, and sent me long emails telling me to visit. Timmy had hit some sort of depression, and disappeared into the goth clubs in the Lower East Side, spiking his blond hair up and ringing his eyes in eyeliner. Occasionally I saw him at the bar, but he was taking a much-needed break from civilized society, and I respected that.
The only person I saw was Calvin, and that was because he insisted on lurking around. I did have a gallery opening, a very small one, in May, which was lightly attended, and I managed to sell two more paintings. Red sold a short story, which was a big deal, because he hadn’t sold anything in more than three years. We lived well, for a time, drinking a bottle of red wine every night.
Calvin sneered when he passed me on the street, which was frequently; he knew where I lived and besides, we went to a lot of the same parties. Before the semester had ended, Angela and Janice distanced themselves from him.
“He’s just getting so dark,” Angela had said. Calvin’s particular brand of grumbling was at odds with her sunny cynicism. “He’s mean, Mary. He’s really nasty nowadays.”
We only had one year of school left, and everyone figured it was easier to ignore Calvin than try to change him. He would, likely enough, end up slinking into one dark corner of the city or another after graduation. His photography had a gritty, seedy look that appealed to lots of magazines, and he would make a living feeding off of the subculture that he seemed to deride the most. Red summed it up the best, over dinner on an extremely humid August evening.
“I hate that guy,” he said, “but he’ll be more successful than any of us, because he has no soul.”
The end, like the beginning, happened suddenly. Red stood in the doorway of my apartment, in early September, and I knew.
“You’re leaving,” I said.
“Everyone is always leaving,” he said. He meant it as a joke, but I knew what he meant. He was wearing a suit and tie, and he looked like something out of an old movie, for a second, before the veil was lifted and he was himself again. “I have to see a man about a funeral.”
“That doesn’t mean you don’t have to come back,” I said.
“I know,” he nodded. He picked up an empty pack of cigarettes from the table by my doorway, and turned it over in his hands.
“But you’re not coming back.”
“I really can’t say.” He paused. “We’re a little too comfortable here, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, we’ve relaxed.” He said it like a dirty word, and I heard echoes of Calvin’s nastiness in his tone. “It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. But I’ve been feeling restless.”
I knew that. I had noticed, over the past month, the way he didn’t sleep anymore. If I woke up in the middle of the night, chances were he was up, sitting by the window, smoking and looking at the moon, or paging through some book with the cover obscured by his palm. “It’s not a bad thing,” he said, again. “It has nothing to do with you. I just need to do something else, for a while.”
“Why?” I asked. There was no answer. There aren’t answers to these kinds of questions.
I have, in my life, experienced certain visual disturbances. Occasionally, and without warning, the world looks as if it is vibrating, very slightly, as if all the molecules and atoms are just raring to go explode away from one another. There is also a sense of vertigo, tunnel vision that blurs the edges of my peripheral field, and the combined effect is both distressing and menacing. I no longer need food, or sleep, when I am in such a state; I am too distracted by the madness and movement. This was how I felt now.
There was nothing to do except pretend normalcy, and hope that it would pass quickly, like a cloud in front of the sun. I couldn't bring myself to mind very much. I dressed slowly, applied lipstick, and looked at my bulletproof face in the mirror.
Calvin got to the diner a little before closing, and sat at the counter. "Where's your guy?" He asked, in a loose, conversational tone, as if we had always been friends.
“No clue,” I said. It was an approximation of the truth.
Life goes on. I sold the last painting of Red a while back. I graduated from school, a semester early, and got an internship at the gallery that had exhibited my paintings. My boss was harsh, but fair.
I got a postcard, from Red, a little while back. All it said was, “How are you?” in his crabbed, crushed handwriting. There was no return address.
“I’m fine, how are you?” Is what I wrote back, but there was nowhere to send it to. I hung it on my fridge instead, pinned it down with a magnet shaped like a pea pod. Marmalade, the cat, who had since taken up residence in my apartment, wrapped herself around my ankles and meowed plaintively.
“I know,” I said, to the cat. “I thought so, too.”