There is a saying in Japanese, “To love someone who doesn’t love you is like going to the behind of a wooden devil and trying to worship him.” They were all wooden devils to me—all of them—Alan, Bethany, the Cowboy and Eric. Like a composer whose only gift is one melody that he heard late at night perhaps randomly because the moon was silver and the water passed by, I wanted to hold on to any chance for talent that was thrown my way. Perhaps it’s like that—you hear the melody, you hold on to it, you play it. But somewhere along the way, in between Wild Mountain and the world, I lost the rhythm, and I never found my way back, and like those who feel for their way in the dark, I grasp for those details that were once given to me.
My name is Theresa Riviera, born Theresa Michelle, and later Theresa Michelle Maria, the name that was given to me as I sat stiffly in St. Catherine’s with a civil smile on my face. I grew up on a very cold island in Maine, where you need to take a ferry to leave. I remember cold, wet nights, layers of homemade blankets and crisp afternoons making angel patterns in the snow. It was a good childhood, but as a teenager, I had become rather restless. My parents and I would diligently clean people’s summer homes in Kennebunkport. The homes would sit, unused for the winter season, and then spring back to life in May. We owned a toxic orange van with all orange supplies—that had been my father’s idea, although he mostly sat with his paper and read while my mom and I went on these trips that took our van onto the ferry for one hour, and then another thirty minutes away. Instead of seeing these jobs as work, I imagined that they were expeditions for pleasure. I would go through books and jewelry and touch things, curious about the meaning they held for the person who hired us. I always did this behind my mother’s back, behind closed doors with my orange uniform lightly damp with sweat. I was always respectful, and always put everything back, exactly where I had found it.
I did take something, but only once and never again. It was a book on the artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. I put the book into a dry, empty bucket, and hustled it into the bathroom. I looked at the first page I opened the book to—a trick that I had discovered for writing term papers. I would randomly find myself a page, and then expand upon a topic that I had found. Page 236 was where I found Jupiter and Thetis, 1811. Thetis’ half covered nipples in a salmon blanket raising a finger for Jupiter’s mouth. Jupiter, with a thatched beard, and honeyed skin next to Thetis’ white soft glow, aroused my attention. Solemnly, I put the book safely back into the bucket and went to do the dishes, then went back to Jupiter and Thetis again and stared. Inside the Steadman’s shell-themed bathroom I took a breath and ripped the page from the book. I tried my hardest to imagine Mrs. Steadman missing the picture, but could not come up with this image. This sparked a curious arousal—an interest in art.
The first time that I went to an art museum was when I was thirteen years old and had been studying Peter Paul Rubens in a class. The teacher urged me to take a bus down to Boston and to talk about it. Even then, I knew that the marble staircase leading into the museum and into an exhibit was light years away from my normal life, and offered channels to more complicated worlds. For one moment before turning to leave, I wanted to frame that moment with the pale gray staircase, leading to a Rodin sculpture of an angel.
Everything comes down to the Cowboy, who I will not name, because none of them called him by his first name. The name didn’t fit him and it wasn’t natural to call him anything but the Cowboy. The Cowboy was the tallest, most finely featured man I had ever seen, and he had an “I’ll save the day” quality like John Wayne. He routinely walked around with a sunburn and shirts with holes, he found his clothes in dumpsters in Brooklyn, New Mexico, he had been all over America but nowhere foreign. He would sometimes shave, sometimes not, and he was incredibly quiet and stoic. When he did speak, he spoke with a low voice, he was clearly thoughtful and watchful, but did not possess the witty brilliance of Alan or the aesthetic sensibilities of Bethany or Eric. Eric and Alan had both traveled to Japan on fellowships; Eric made sculptures that looked like heavenly blobs of wood. Bethany was friends with the world famous Russian artist Agraf Lischinsky’s daughter. She had gone with their family to Turkey and Israel in search of mausoleums from the 1500s to base his work on. Apparently, he was quite a presence in the art world; he was friends with the performing artist Yuri, who had trapped himself in cages full of African wild dogs, and the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, who had inspired Bob Dylan. Bethany told vague, bored stories to everyone, she was everyone and no one’s friend, and she was bored to be there, but also quite lively and mean-spirited if someone was discussing a topic that she felt passionate about. As I get older and older, I realize that I am truly passionate about nothing.
I was 19 when I met the sculptors. That previous year, I had been an Engineering Major at Agnes Scott College in a remote area of Georgia. My experience with men dwindled down to one twenty-four year old named Wade Fredericks. His saving grace was that he was tall and lanky. I liked that—there is something graceful about thin men.
He found me reading Anna Karenina at Junie’s Diner. Wade actually grabbed the book from my hand, and looked at the cover. The book was a worn copy, with an old-fashioned portrait of a woman with long curly brown hair and somber eyes.
“Wanna see my place?” he had asked.
I foolishly went back with him, and lost my virginity. I remember looking at the ceiling, bored by his conversation, but enjoyed tumbling with him on his the rather firm mattress. Afterwards, Wade stared at me. He stared for several moments. I thought that he was thinking about marriage. “Are you Chinese?” he asked.
“No, I’m Portuguese.”
“Oh,” he said. “You speak Mexican?
“Well, Mexican is not a language, and Portugal is in Europe.”
He looked too bothered by this. “What’s the time?” he asked.
“8:14,” I said. I was precise because I didn’t want him to know that his comment had hurt me, although I clearly understood that he was just ignorant and foolish.
“Well,” he said.
“Was that all you wanted to know?” I asked, searching his face for meaning.
I held the blankets over my breasts.
I was hoping to escape the desolation of the Maine island where I grew up, a place where I wasn’t seen as an outsider, but I had found a place even more remote and desolate. I realized that if I wanted something exciting out of my life, I had to go get it myself. Maybe I could do this without help from men.
That was when I found out about the job at the artist colony. It was posted at my dorm. The ad read, “Wild Mountain Artist’s Colony seeks an experienced member of the cleaning staff. Room and board, small stipend and supplies provided. Work in a community of world renowned artists.” These words sent a slight spark in my system. I had always had an interest in art, and wondered what it would be like to be surrounded by artists. I went on the web and found that an artist colony is essentially a summer camp for adults—however, Wild Mountain was exceptional. There was a selective admissions process that involved sending slides and manuscripts for judging. After reading about this exclusive element, I simply grabbed the whole notice, and went all around the campus and grabbed every notice that I saw. When I went to Wild Mountain to meet Steve, he said, “Well, you’re the only person who called. The job’s yours.” I silently hoorayed to myself. My face was red with excitement, and my cheeks lifted up in a smile. Last summer, during my breaks working for my parents, I read Madame Bovary on a bench and cried, while I listened to other children on the beach crying for their mothers.
I remember thinking how similar humans are, and how comforting that can be, no matter their age or desires. But how I longed to be different. The paradox.
* * *
At Wild Mountain, there was a coffee shop named “Moe’s” and a bridge, which led itself over a sleeping pond. Piles of birch were everywhere. The stones were gray and marble shades of white and black that covered the entry to a red farmhouse. I stopped the car in a dusty parking lot and went to meet Steve at a door that said “Wild Mountain Admissions.” Steve had fleshy lips and a paunch belly. “Deb wanted me to give you the keys to your room. You’re number three in Poltsky house.”
The room was in an attic. There were two doors—rooms two and three. I went straight up to my bed, a single bed with high wooden frames of pineapples carved into the wood. I stroked the pineapples for a moment, and then rested. It was the first room that I had by myself that wasn’t a dorm room. The Maine weather would still be cool back home. The differences in the climate and weather made me frightened. I pictured a soft and gray globe and myself as the lone transporter, in a pineapple framed bed, making my way through the scattered white and gray clouds. If I held my chest to my pillow any tighter, I might spill onto the floor. The pine wooden floor that showed no remorse.
I methodically did my work in the early mornings. My duties included vacuuming when the artists were away at their studios, cleaning the bathrooms and dusting. Sometimes Steve asked me to clean the kitchen floor in the far back of the dining hall. It was a very easy job, with only an hour of work a day. I made a point of cleaning when no one else was around. I used a substantial amount of bleach on the kitchen floor. Chunks of egg and bread remained at the bottom of the bucket. Sometimes I cleaned the kitchen drain and that could get stuck. The food would not leave, so I stuck my hand all the way down the drain, and was awarded with the scent of eggs up and down my arm. I wrestled with the drain, pulling brown sludge out of the bottom. At one point, I looked to Steve for help. “Don’t look at me,” he begged. “It’s summertime. I don’t do any of that shit for three months, thank God.” He hummed to an amped up Primus CD. “You’re an angel, Theresa. Absolutely an angel.” After my morning wrestle with the sink, I eavesdropped on conversations. Very few people had arrived. There were only twenty people so far. A woman wearing a white furry skirt and tattoos of stars on her arms asked me for more eggs. The first few days, I ate my breakfast alone. I sat in the corner near the window near a waterfall that streamed underneath the building. One morning, a harried man with curly blond hair that sprouted all around him, and who wore a grey jumpsuit sat down with me. “I’m Eric,” he said. “I can’t talk for very long,” he explained. He lifted a pair of square plastic glasses from his head.
“Theresa,” he repeated, he was eating oatmeal lethargically. “That’s a paralyzing name. Are you going to the opening tonight?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t—”
“Didn’t you get an invitation in the mail?” he asked.
“I didn’t,” I said shyly.
“Where are you from Theresa?”
“My family is from Maine.”
“Amazing! So am I. I’m from Cape Elizabeth. Do you know it?” he asked.
“Yes—” I almost gave myself away, Cape Elizabeth was a town where my mother and I had both cleaned, but I was ashamed to say it.
“How?” he said. “I am very curious. You probably know members of my family.”
“I worked there one summer.”
“Where?” he asked.
“A dental office.”
“At Doctor Lieberman’s?” he said.
“No, not that one.”
“It’s the only practice in Cape Elizabeth,” he said. “He’s the only dentist.”
“This guy went out of business,” I explained.
Eric invited me back to his studio. We walked across Wild Mountain, into a hill where the sculpture studios were located. There was a river and a net set up for badminton. Inside, there was a large workspace for steel—a firing machine and long, paint splattered tables. Eric had one of the largest studio spaces—with long, cranky, wooden floors and a window at the far end that looked over the River. Inside of the room, there was a large pile of wood and what looked like a leg in an arabesque, entirely constructed out of tiny, chopped pieces of wood.
“A dancer’s leg,” I said. “It’s gorgeous.”
“I don’t know if I would call it that,” he said. “Just yet,” he said, with a devilish glint. “It’s unfinished.”
He motioned for me to sit on his lazy boy chair, a seat that was quite old and musty and ugly, but incredibly comfortable.
“You’re so funny,” he said. He immediately took a pair of tweezers and began lifting tiny little rocks to glue onto a wooden dome that was made of different shades of blonde wood. “How did you get interested in art?” he asked, without taking his eyes off of the tweezers. “We’ll talk while I work,” he said.
“I found a book on Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres,” I said.
His lips curled, he had a face that wasn’t entirely pleasant, but kind eyes that weren’t afraid to show surprise, emotion or fear.
“Tell me about Ingres,” he said.
“I have a painting he did of Jupiter and Thetis ripped out of the book, it hangs on my mirror.”
Eric looked up, replacing his memory, “Shades of salmon and peach,” he said. “I always liked his use of color. I could never do that,” he said. “I cover everything up.”
“Well,” I said, leafing through his book. “The end result is quite beautiful.”
“Thank you,” he says.
“How old are you, Theresa?”
“You don’t have to lie to me,” he said, throwing the tweezers down and running his hands through his hair. “When I was your age, I didn’t care what anyone thought of me—you should do the same.” He smiled serenely. I could tell that he was intelligent in the way that ice is cold, he needed to be one step ahead of me, and he liked to provoke.
“I don’t judge anyone.”
“I’ve heard many people say that. It’s not always true though, is it?”
“You don’t want to talk to me,” he said.
“It’s not that, it’s just—”
Eric walked over to where I was seated; he stood over me and touched my hair for a minute. His hands had the delicacy of feathers. “Just a minute,” he says. “You’ll see why I stole this thing from another artist a few years ago.”
He pulled the handle, and the chair collapsed out straight, I was flat, and Eric looked down on me with floating eyes. I have thought a lot about that moment in the chair. That was the moment where I came undone, where I stopped seeing the world straight for what it was. Eric grabbed the top of shoulders, with his hands skimming down to my breasts.
“How does that feel?” he asked.
He smiled at me amusedly and went back to his stool; he put on his glasses, and began to sort the rocks with the tweezers. “I need to finish this before tonight,” he said.
I walked out of the studio feeling a bit stoned, part in love, and partially afraid of Eric. I wasn’t sure what he wanted from me that night, if he ever wanted anything.
I nervously went back to my room and pulled out my only dress, a long polyester lemon evening gown that I had purchased in a thrift shop near Boston. I curled my hair and curved black eye make-up on my eyes. In the mirror, I saw my square face and eyes that were black like spiders. Sometimes I look at myself and wish to be anyone but me, but not that night.
The party was in the same building as the kitchen and the dining hall. Everything was interconnected. I had never been to a party like this one before. The parties that I went to in Maine involved bonfires and ended with screaming naked teenage boys running for the ocean. The exhibit featured chalky and in my opinion, rather ugly drawings and paintings of bathtubs. I found the most remote corner of the room, and stood with a tall, massive man who looked more like a statue than a person. It was in the way his eyes settled stilly upon the whole crowd. It was like sand sifting and then finding its level, and holding a gaze, with millions of tiny particles. He sipped a Corona beer.
In my arms, I had stacked up on crackers because I didn’t have time to eat dinner that night. It appeared rather rude, but I didn’t care, I was hungry. There was a swarm of people standing in the center, preening, talking, holding glasses elegantly by their sides and rapidly making points. The table was covered with empty wine bottles that reminded me of empty vessels for messages in the sea. I looked down at my what now seemed oddly appropriate lemon dress and began to eat—systematically and methodically next to a massive man.
We were standing underneath a metal plant sculpture. He towered above it, and I swayed below.
“What is this to you?” he asked, rubbing the spine-like structure that contained arcs of leaves, spiraling out of control in thin, spindly metal strips.
“It looks like a human spine,” I said. I rubbed the long strings of metal. “Why?”
“You think of a body when you look at this?” he said.
“What do you think of?”
He breathed in and sipped more beer; he held his lips together in rumination.
“This is metal, alloyed. The silver was poured into a plastic cast. I’ve noticed that the artist made an error. Here are parts where the casting broke.” He showed me a faint line. I peeked at it on my tiptoes.
“How can you tell?”
“The rest of the material is smooth. This is the only dent.”
His thumb pulsed upon the single error.
I lifted my heels up and peered into the indent.
“Here,” he said. “Touch it.”
My entire thumb barely covered the minor mark. It could have been done with a pencil. He padded his thumb on top of mine for a moment and looked at me straight in the eye. His eyes were set firmly apart, as if they couldn’t bear to be in the center of his face. The wide division gave him a nearly feminine gaze. There was no wonder that his mind was filled with the importance of symmetry, his face had the structure of the Romans. As he closed his eyes for a moment, I saw that he had long lashes. He sipped a beer and moved aside. A woman in an emerald green peasant dress sauntered to the back of the room, she looked at a pencil drawing in the corner and then held my glance for a moment and left quickly.
“Where did you get that beer?” I asked him. “I didn’t see any.”
“I brought it here. I don’t drink wine.” He pulled out from underneath the table a leather, weary, weather beaten cowboy hat, and placed it on his head. He put it on mournfully, as if for some revered friend’s funeral.
We stood together, rather strangely, in a unified silence. We watched the partygoers mingling out, him sipping his beer, and me nibbling on cheese and crackers. Between the two of us, we didn’t say a word.
At the end of that day, I went back to my room in the farmhouse. I found the woman in the emerald peasant dress seated on the floor near her room. Her elbows were wrapped around her knees, hugging her short hair, and she had cloudy blue eyes. I smiled at her and she smiled back.
She arched her eyebrows. “Have you made friends here? I saw you speaking to a sculptor.”
“Maybe,” I said, feeling the first shot of wine. “I’m a sculptor,” I said.
“I am too,” she said.
“What do you sculpt?”
“Tunnels,” she said. She looked fiendish as she said this. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she told me that she had been psychotic in the past. “I just finished sculpting a tunnel around my boyfriend’s bed. I finished it, and realized that there was no reason for me to stay in the apartment anymore. I packed up and left.” She looked up to me as if she wished to argue.
“You came directly here?”
“Directly. This will be the first time I’ve slept alone in months.”
“I sleep alone all the time,” I said.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“You’re a kid,” she said. “That’s why.” I began to play with my door and open it to my room.
“How old are you?” I called from my bedroom.
“More than twenty, less than thirty.” She got up and followed me into the room without asking. Standing, I could see that Bethany was what Truman Capote described as a “swan,” fragile white skin, and a swinging bob that emphasized her neck. She would not have looked out of place with diamonds. She walked as if she were a little frightened, tremulously and hesitantly putting down each foot. She sat at the edge of my chair and looked down, eyes askance. Her torso created a 45-degree angle. She touched my books, lazily pulling one out at a time, inspecting the spine, and then she stood up again. She walked with ease. Bethany found the Ingres picture I had stuck on the mirror and began to stroke like a tiger. “Ingres,” she said. “I never really thought that much of him.” She put it back.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Maine,” I said.
“I bet you can do amazing things with blueberries,” she laughed.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“New York. Park Ave,” she said. “Oh, don’t be impressed. The people there collect one or two Picasso lithographs and think that they know art.” She rolled her eyes. “The bores.”
She peered down and looked at the books once more. “If there ever was a book about our generation,” she said with an air of authority, “I should be in it. I’ve had an interesting life.” She turned to me. “Well, I’ve had a long day. Good night.”
Bethany turned on her heels and left my room.
I decided to take a shower before going to bed. As I creeped out of my room in my towel, I noticed that Bethany had left her door wide open. She was strategically tousling her hair in the mirror with long arms waving around her head. She looked vain and ridiculous, but I suppose that’s what she aimed to be, which made her not so absurd.
I heard wood slamming down on the floor in loud thumps as I went to sleep that night. I wondered if Bethany had any talent or if I had any talent at all. I thought of myself—spending time cleaning so that I could work at a place like this. I could spend all of my time taking away the dirt, but not leaving an impression. I imagined that if I lived in Egypt, no one would paint me with great brush strokes in the wall, and that I would be buried, a servant to someone like Bethany. I wondered this—while breathing deeply, and then deeper, and then nearly feeling like I was losing my breath. I wondered what happened between beginning a project and all of that vital thumping around that Bethany did.
The next day I began vacuuming the hallways during lunch, so that no one would see me. I heard a rock thrown at the window. I stopped vacuuming and crouched down, I don’t know what it was that I was afraid of, it was a women’s residence and I thought that someone might be breaking in. After a few moments, I went to the window. There was the Cowboy, dressed in military fatigues and a red baseball cap. “Boo,” he said.
“Why don’t you use doors like everyone else?”
“I wanted to surprise you,” the Cowboy said. He tilted his head from side to side, like a little girl. He looked like he was on drugs.
“Will you let me in?” he asked. “Open the window.”
“Why don’t you just come around?”
“No, open the window,” he said. “I can get in easily.”
I opened the window, and he lifted his leg in through, and then his head and his body. “Hold my leg,” he said. I held his leg down to the floor. It was like a barrel of lead.
“Shit,” he said. “I’m not going to fit. Theresa, why don’t you come outside with us? There’s a group of us who are going swimming.”
“The sculptors?” I asked, quizzically.
“Yeah, I thought that all of the sculptors could go swimming.” He stuck his head in the window with his elbows hanging over the ledge. His hands nearly touched the floor. “Why are you vacuuming?” he asked.
“I was borrowing the vacuum for my room. It’s dusty in here.”
“You should meet the other sculptors here. I can introduce you to the gang.”
“There’s a gang of them?”
“Three or four,” he said looking out to the side. “Theresa, hurry up.”
As I dashed upstairs to get a swimsuit, it didn’t occur to me that the sculptors might discuss sculpting and that this was a subject that I knew as little about as say, coin collecting. I pulled out a pale pink bikini and undressed quickly. I shaved my legs with lotion and created three new cuts on my leg, rushing with blood.
I ran downstairs and found the Cowboy with a large tire around his waist. “I found this underneath a truck. I found some Lysol and got myself some floating equipment. You can come with me, if you’d like.”
We walked outside and I found myself seated across from Bethany and Eric. The Cowboy rode in front with a guy named Alan. Eric looked at me.
“You two know each other?” said Bethany.
“Of course,” Eric said.
Bethany was wearing a plum bathing suit with a tortoise shell buckle. She wore an oversized hat and applied sun block.
Eric touched my knee with his hand, “Hey,” he said.
Bethany interrupted with a high pitched voice, “Theresa, what do you think of Tracey Emin?”
“I’ve never heard of her,” I said.
Bethany looked reproaching at Eric. “Eric, what do you think?”
“Who gives a shit? The day is beautiful, we’re not in the studio.”
Eric rolled his eyes at Bethany and looked at me. “Tracey Emin is British. She collected everything in her bedroom and put it on display, including notes about her alcoholic uncle. Big fucking deal.”
“Being nominated for a Turner is not a big fucking deal!”
“The Turner prize is for zealots who have nothing to say. They give it away to whoever is most desperate for attention—pure capitalism. Shock value. I find it revolting, it has nothing to do with art, it’s drama.”
“Well,” I say. “That’s what most of this world is about—sound bites.”
“Listen Eric, listen to how Theresa says about, ooh, is that a Maine accent?”
I blushed a deep red. It felt like being bruised. Eric looked at her with bite.
“Yes Bethany, if you lived outside of New York for a moment, you would find that this country has its own accents.”
There was a long walk to the pond. The Cowboy and I found a tie to swing from. “How do you like the clashing egos?” he asked me. “Bethany is a typical overly educated woman who needs to be the center of attention at all times. She will chatter the whole time, and not have said a single valuable idea about art. I find it utterly pretentious.” The Cowboy rolled his eyes at her. “Here take a swing.”
I gripped onto the rope and fell in with a splash. We were treading water near a strong waterfall. The Cowboy and I swam over to a more secluded area of the pond. The Cowboy wanted to swim over there. As we tread the water, night was falling, and Bethany, Alan and Eric were building a fire. Eric had brought a blanket for everyone to sit on. Alan and Eric were arguing about an artist named Janine Antioni.
“She slept for hours doing those experiments,” said Bethany.
“It was staged,” Alan argued. “That was the whole point of her work. Everything that she did was simulated.”
Eric looked unencumbered building a fire out of wood and matches. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, while I was swimming, until he was way out of sight. In the distance, he looked small.
The water was beginning to weigh me down deeply. I lifted my head to keep it above water.
“Theresa,” the Cowboy said. “Look at this.”
We got to an inlet and walked soaking wet over moss and harsh sand. My feet hugged slimy rock and I saw a salamander crawling beneath pale violets.
The cowboy had found an open cabin. It was a small, one-story affair; the house was left entirely open without any panes of glass where there should have been windows. It looked vague and open and empty, like a mouth missing teeth. Inside, there was a rusted refrigerator and a tired looking mattress on the ground where you could see the pink foam lurching out of the formerly white frame in rotten springs.
“This is like a fucked up castle,” said the Cowboy.
On the wall, near the refrigerator there was a sign. “No trespassing allowed.”
“It looks like no one wants us here,” I said.
The Cowboy threw himself down on the decrepit mattress. He was so large that he nearly expanded over the mattress. He looked over to me. “Come here,” he said.
I knelt down to the mattress with my hair feeling long and wet on my shoulders. I couldn’t help thinking of Eric building a fire back at the camp.
“Do you like people?” I asked.
He laughed heartily. “What kind of question is that?”
“I don’t know if I like people anymore,” I said.
“I never felt like I could trust anyone,” I said. “It seems like everyone wants to tell lies.”
“Theresa, I know that you’re not a sculptor,” he said.
“I know that you came here to work,” he said. “I don’t care. I think that you’re beautiful.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“I asked Steve who you were,” he said.
“I had to know. I don’t know. Do you trust me?” he asked, in a fatherly way.
I looked up at him. “Yes,” I said. But I didn’t believe it.
“Come here,” he said. We kissed, our lips wet, and then fumbled awkwardly on the bed. He removed my bathing suit and then rested his hand on my shoulder. We laid together wet for a few moments.
The moon was out when we swam back to the campfire. It was a very strong moon—a moon where you could practically read with the amount of light. We assumed that the other sculptors had either left, or had decided to sleep at the campfire. They had chosen to wait.
Alan shouted for the Cowboy gleefully upon arrival, but Eric and Bethany were sitting next to each other with their arms folded, like they had just eaten something distasteful.
Alan ran up to us as we swam back. “Where have you guys been?”
“Some abandoned house,” said the Cowboy. “I don’t know, do we have any beer?’
“In the van,” said Eric. He looked at my bathing suit. “Do you want a towel?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. He grabbed a red towel from his backpack.
“Here,” he said.
Bethany was smoking a cigarette, on the top of a log. “Are we really going to spend the entire night outdoors?” she asked. “I didn’t bring any clothes.”
“You can sleep in the van,” Alan said.
The details are a bit hazy to me now. I remember drinking cider beer. I remember giving the Cowboy a kiss when the sky began to fog, and then it began to rain and we crowded into the van.
“Why don’t we drive home?’ asked Bethany.
“I just smoked a joint,” said Eric. “I’m not driving in the rain.”
The Cowboy was passed out, and Alan rolled his eyes. “You’re a wuss, Bethany.”
Bethany looked at me. “You’re not playing hard to get,” she said.
“You’re a miserable person,” I said under my breath, but she heard me.
“I may appear like that to you,” she said. “I just see contradictions,” she fluttered.
Eric touched my knee and then he went to get newspapers. He crumpled them into twists and spirals, and set them on fire. “I learned how to do this in Asia,” he said. “Watch this.”
The newspapers were lit on fire, and the fire propelled them into the sky. As they went into the air their fire made bright red designs contrasted by blackness. But what was amazing was the prints and symmetry they created in the light—they looked like vast and complicated and intricate systems of black and red.
“How did you do that?” I gasped.
“Here,” Eric said. “Try it.”
I ripped the newspaper, crumpled it in a ball, and tried to pitch it to the moon. My newspaper lit on fire in a U shape, and then dropped and melted with the stones of the bonfire.
“Give it to me,” said Bethany.
In her bikini, Bethany took three newspapers and made a flouncing crystal shape. She took Eric’s lighter and lit them all three on fire, rapidly, causing all three to go in the air.
“Sampson,” Eric said appreciatively.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Elaine de Kooning’s nickname. Another viciously ambitious woman,” he said, “like Bethany.”
I went to sleep on the Cowboy’s drunken arm. Then Bethany and Eric smoked another joint, while Alan sat and argued with me as to whether Bono was really a philanthropist, or just some fame ridden rock star.
“He’ll win a Nobel Prize someday,” I said lamely.
I sat and thought about what I was actually doing there, if I was meant to be anyone, and how no one really knows, and how difficult it is to know when your greatest possibility is that one day you may sell your work for millions, but the likelihood was that you will not, and Alan said, “You need to be able to make peace with that.”
Bethany remained quiet, and Eric snickered.
And how all of this somehow gave us all the sheen of being more real, this drop between fame and money and utter pennilessness. It made the rain real, the rock real, and the ground even harder. I braided my hair and felt like Pocahontas, a native among the wily and sophisticated settlers, thinking that I could never really be like them because I just didn’t think that way,
The Cowboy smoked a cigarette with Bethany. I tried to stay in the conversation, but it was all about an artist who lit up red lights all over Montreal when a homeless person entered a shelter, and the artist Jeff Koons, who made portraits of his porn star wife.
“Career suicide,” Bethany said. “But then what glory. Who knew he would become so famous?”
The Cowboy said, “Richard’s Serra sculpture killed—”
“It dropped on one of the movers,” Bethany interrupted. “That made him greater.”
We all fell asleep that night on that little section of the beach. I slept next to the Cowboy yet I was staring at Eric. I felt like I had put a dead body between us. At one point, I woke up and saw him staring at me through the light of the fire.
“Eric,” I whispered.
“Yeah,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to sleep,” he said. “Go back to sleep, Bethany.” And he rolled over.
“I’m Theresa,” I said. “Theresa,” but he didn’t hear me. I fell asleep looking at the back of Eric’s head.
And then the sun rose, and the Cowboy stood up, and his shadow cast a surprisingly large and looming shadow where there was once a fire, I had stayed up the whole night consumed with being alive, and of thoughts and conversation.
The Cowboy and I went swimming together later that week. On our way to a particularly difficult hike he said out of nowhere, “Bethany isn’t so pretentious.”
It was the first time that he had mentioned Bethany without sarcasm, and I knew that our late night conversations were over. It was over, and I wasn’t sorry about it, I was nearly relieved. Later that day, I went back to cleaning in the kitchen. The Cowboy had charged through the room with his tray, and found a seat next to Bethany. She was wearing a cranberry top that showed her shoulders; they were long and white and smooth, and never moved as the Cowboy put his arm over the chair.
I watched them talk together, with him showing the same interest and pleasure that he took in me for a few moments. After I cleaned the floors, I went upstairs to my bedroom and wrapped myself in the sheets. I became extremely cold in my chest, in my thighs, and all throughout my stomach. I felt like a plant trying to grow in a glass cube. I spent the rest of that summer doing drawings of flowers and trees, attempting to recreate what everyone around me was excelling at. Every few weeks, we would have an open studio, and I would watch and compare myself to everyone.
One day, Eric invited me to take a walk to the kiln, which was offset and behind the trees and the studios. We spent the entire night watching the fire burn. Out of nowhere, he asked. “I still don’t understand—why did you do it?” he asked.
“Do what?” I said.
The fire reflected in his eyes. “Run off with the Cowboy. Watch it,” he said. This will burn you.”
“I didn’t think that I had a choice,” I said.
He pulled out a cigarette from his pocket and lit one. “You should never do something because you feel like you have to,” he said. “You’re too young to feel like that.”
One day Bethany and I came home at the very same time. “You still speak to him, don’t you?” she said. She slammed the door shut in my face.
I never saw any of those people again. The next summer, I decided not to go back to Wild Mountain, and I got a job waitressing at Junie’s. I used to see Wade Fredericks every day, and then one day he moved, and I was left in a fairly isolated women’s college in the middle of Georgia. I did do one thing, though. I decided to change my major to studio art. It’s funny, I became more consumed by sculpture after I left and graduated college, but I never felt like a real one. I still clean apartments. In my studio in Brooklyn, I have one project that involves black reams of light. I put black light bulbs inside black valves that make them look like microphones. Together, I connect them with wires. The end result is nothing exciting, but moving the light bulbs in five different ways is calming to me. I like to change how the light looks, how it reflects onto the ceiling, near my floor, onto the bed. Sometimes I drift and think of the Eric, who has never replied to any of my letters, or the Cowboy or of no one.
Sometimes, I catch a glimpse of myself in the long, smooth rods. I can be just like the light, for a moment, I can’t see, I am blinded by the shining obscurity, and then I will fade away when I walk across the room to turn off the overhead lights. I will close my windows and shiver, trying to remember how small and insignificant everything in the world seems in the thin reflection. Then I will pull out the Ingres’ picture, with my night light next to my bed, still folded carefully inside the mirror. The colors he used were a tropical circus. Someone who painted with such strong colors must have been majestical and grand, with a big ego.
BIO: Brennan Fitzgerald is a writer from Maine who has studied Creative Writing at Harvard University and the New School. Her work has appeared in scientific periodicals, literary reviews and arts magazines. She was an assistant writer to Raouf Zaiki for the film "Santa Claus in Baghdad," a movie about children living in Iraq before the war, which will be released by RA Vision Productions this year.