As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Abrons Art Center
Feb 1, 6:30pm
On the streets of Melbourne, the Australian parades around dressed as Superman, paying his way through university by posing for photos, conscious of the bulge of his cock. Novelty, sex object, comic relief—it is all good. Radios across his nation have been playing a song that goes, “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money.” In his mind, the Australian is both of the people in the song. He is smart—smart enough to know when effort is absolutely required and when he can fake it—and he is handsome, with chiseled abdominal muscles underneath the chiseled abdominal muscles of his costume. He smiles widely, his teeth luminous, his canines threatening. All his life, he has been indiscriminate with his enthusiasm, invincible within the hedonistic splendor of the present moment, like some kind of inverted Buddha.
This is not to say that the Australian’s life has been without adversity. He never had a father, and while his mother means well, her ceaseless affection is like an ill-fitting homemade sweater, all itch and chafe. But these misfortunes are deep in the background, monotonous as a refrigerator’s electric hum. They take conscious effort for the Australian to discern—and why bother? His head is filled with sunlight, cricket, mischief, girls. Then, one sunny Friday morning during his last month of schooling, he suddenly acquires for the first time a distinct ambition. As he wraps his right arm around a group of Irish tourists, and as they cram themselves into his sweat-stained armpit, and as he flexes his left bicep, round and stiff as an apple, the Australian thinks: I will be a rich man.
After graduation, the Australian moves to New York to work on Wall Street, but right off the bat, he can’t stand his boss. She reminds him of the heartless provocateur who took tickets at the public pool in the seaside town where he spent his childhood summers, who flaunted her tremendous breasts and treated the Australian with what he perceived to be hostile indifference. Day after day, he is unable to focus on the neon river of information that flows from his computer screen—Dow Jones, NASDAQ, symbols, numbers. His attention drifts to the window. Pigeons congregate on a rooftop across the street, and the Australian ponders what diseases they carry, the subtleties of their social order, and how exactly they achieve sexual intercourse. For his inattentiveness and what his boss describes as “failure to demonstrate a sense of urgency,” he is reprimanded regularly.
After six months of trying to reckon with his haughty overseer, he quits the brokerage firm and goes to work for himself. He takes the money he has recently inherited from his estranged father, who perished in a rather foreseeable hang-gliding accident, and triples it within eight months through some risky and uncalculated investments. The Australian knows he has struck upon the kind of luck that can turn on you in a heartbeat, that he must take his winnings and move on to some other pursuit.
On a summer afternoon while he is musing over possibilities, the Australian happens upon a coffee shop called Esperanto. A sign in the window reads:
Welcome * Bonveno
Esperanto is the universal language of peace and
understanding. Invented in 1887 by the physician Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhoff, Esperanto is free from any national, political, or religious affiliation.
“Esperanto” means “one that hopes.”
It was Zamenhoff’s hope that Esperanto would one day be the mother tongue of all humankind.
Peace * Paco
He thinks of his friends and mother back in Melbourne, and he is submerged in an achy, sloppy feeling. The words homesick, solo, and lost flit through his brain. He wonders whether this feeling is common among expats, and then whether an Australian in New York City can be considered an expat—a word that invokes rough-hewn men in their fifties and sixties playing card games over tequila at tropical beachfront bars. Can a guy in his twenties living in one of the world’s great cities, an international hub, be classified among such men? The Australian is disappointed to admit to himself that he is, likely, simply an immigrant.
Reading Esperanto’s sign a second time, the idea of a universal mother tongue excites him. “One that hopes” is a description the Australian finds befitting of himself. Perhaps he will learn Esperanto one day. Entering the café, he feels like a citizen of the world.
While sitting in an armchair drinking an iced coffee, he meets a young girl. She is a plump high school student in a tiny red T-shirt and pale blue jeans with ripped knees. She bites her nails in between sips of hot chocolate, a curious choice considering the monstrous heat. The Australian listens to her talk for a long time about how everyone she knows has sold out. When finally she winds down in a way that reminds him of a particular toy from his childhood, he tells her he is a venture capitalist. She follows him home, does some coke with him, spreads her legs.
“What’s a venture capitalist?” she asks afterward, sprawled with her limp limbs heavy over his.
He thinks for a moment, distracted by the pain of his knee hyper-extending under the weight of her ample thigh, and then says simply: “It takes money to make money.”
The girl seems satisfied with that answer.
Henceforth, the Australian tells everyone that he is a venture capitalist.
The Australian swiftly enters the period of his life during which, on Fridays, a dealer named Elijah comes to his apartment with a metal briefcase and sells him an eight ball of coke. It is so pure it makes the Australian’s entire face go numb within ten seconds of snorting just one line. Sometimes the Australian asks Elijah to fuck him. Elijah always laughs like it’s a joke, and the Australian laughs along with him, although he wants to cry really badly. Usually, after each of these interactions, the Australian goes out and picks up a woman. Eventually one of the women sticks with him—Fiona, a designer of hair accessories and belts. The Australian first meets her during happy hour at an Irish pub dotted with gin-blossomed old men, where he plans to drink the edge off both another pitiful interaction with Elijah and the Colombian cocaine they snorted together. On his walk to the bar, he silently berates himself for having a homosexual attraction and then admonishes himself for feeling ashamed of a desire that he believes should be totally fine. At least, were such a desire to strike another man, he would not stand in judgment. Can a fellow be sharply averse to thinking of himself as gay, yet not be a homophobe? He cannot reach any conclusion. Entering the bar with his head hung, he silently swears that he will quit the whole thing—Elijah’s visits and the cocaine—and it occurs to him that perhaps it is simply Elijah’s association with the narcotic’s euphoric effects that kindles the attraction, as opposed to some deep-seated proclivity. This possibility brightens his mood a bit.
The Australian raises his head and sees a woman seated upon a barstool. Like a fairy on a flower petal, he thinks. She has strategically messy short auburn hair, and the pale skin of her face and arms is lightly freckled. She is not with anyone, nor is she speaking to the bartender, yet she is smiling a little. As the Australian approaches her, he is sharply aware that he can’t remember when he was last hugged.
“What are you drinking?” he asks.
“A shandy,” she says. “Grapefruit juice and beer. It’s really good.”
“Grapefruit juice? I’ll give it a go. Do you mind?” The Australian points to the barstool beside her.
She shakes her head, and he sits and orders a shandy for himself. Fiona asks where the Australian is from, and they tumble into a conversation about his relocation to New York two years ago.
“Has it been hard to adjust?” asks Fiona.
“It’s tough to meet people,” he says, unsure whether he is enacting loneliness as a ploy to reel her in, or whether companionship is something he really wants.
Fiona talks about leaving the Chicago suburb where she grew up to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology on a full scholarship, six years ago now. “My family was dead set against me leaving,” she says. “They wanted me to be a townie, go to community college for phlebotomy.”
“A person who draws blood. A professional vampire, basically.”
The Australian thinks of his mother, who always hoped he would be an artist, teacher, or musician—professions she thought would put him in service to humanity. When he announced his plan to work on Wall Street, proclaiming that he would make “buckets of money,” his mother sobbed. Later she raged, which he had never seen her do before, using phrases like “capitalist hogs,” “plague on your spirit,” and “razor-fanged piranhas.” The Australian loves his mother and feels guilty for leaving her alone in Melbourne; but more than that, he is glad to be outside the reach of her adoration, which always made him feel pressured—to please her, to stand by her as she cycled through various jobs and men, and to love her in the particular way she understands, which requires a closeness that now seems to him borderline incestuous. His mother slides back into the darkest region of his psyche, where all of the things over which he believes himself to be powerless reside.
Fiona tells him that her first couple years in the city were rough, but she eventually adjusted.
“How?” asks the Australian, embarrassed by the urgency of his tone.
“It just took time.” Fiona shrugs. “At first I was terrified, but eventually that turned to excitement, still with some nervousness, though, and then one day—literally, I just woke up one morning, and I was happy here. Even my body felt strong, like in those stories about mothers who suddenly have the strength to lift a car or fallen tree or whatever massive thing threatens their babies’ lives—not that I have a baby.”
The Australian nods, although he doesn’t quite follow.
“Well, I guess I was my own baby,” Fiona continues. “I came out from under my fear, and my guilt for leaving my family, and holy shit—I was living in New York City, I was studying fashion design at one of the best schools in the world, I’d made some awesome friends, and I hadn’t even realized it. Not really. I wondered if I was going crazy or if I was finally waking up, and so I thought, ‘Give me a sign.’ It was like a prayer, except I’m an atheist. I remember the moment exactly. I was in the living room of my old apartment, cutting my former roommate’s hair, and I thought, ‘Give me something. Show me this is really happening.’ And I looked out the window and there was a triple rainbow in the sky.”
Fiona initially claims to like being spanked, which turns out to be a lie. She lies about a lot of things. Not typical things like age and hair color, but strange things like what time she woke up or whether or not she likes papaya. The triple-rainbow story, she confesses, was a fabrication, too—”But a good one!” she says, and the Australian must admit it is true. She has interesting friends and lives in a relatively spacious, rent-controlled apartment. She is not just surviving the city, she is flourishing in it. The Australian keeps her around because he feels elevated by her presence. Also, she is very affirming. “I wish you could see yourself like I do,” she says. “You really are incredible.”
Five months after they begin dating, Fiona suggests she and the Australian move in together. “You’re here, like, six nights a week,” she says while making goat cheese and tomato omelets in her kitchen.
The Australian feels certain he only spends two or three nights at her apartment each week, tops. He thinks more carefully and realizes, with some apprehension, that she is correct. “Living together—that’s a big deal,” he says. “I’ve got to think about it.”
Sitting on a stool at the kitchen island, he shuts his eyes. He has never lived with a girlfriend before. He feels at ease in Fiona’s home, more comfortable than he feels in his own. He wonders whether this is because Fiona’s apartment is charming and cheap while his is barren and expensive. Yes, he concludes, but there is more to it. She never criticizes him or tries to change him. She views him as good-hearted, intelligent, and adult, which sometimes makes him anxious, but mostly just feels nice. Being with her has forced him to bulldoze his way into venture capitalism, lest she discover he deceived her about his job at their first meeting. He has networked, forged a few connections, partnered with some guys to get a couple startups off the ground—one that makes virtual patients for nursing students to practice interviewing, another that manufactures cars that run on algae. He has yet to make any real money, but he figures it’s only a matter of time.
More importantly, the Australian realizes that he loves being loved, particularly the way Fiona loves him: simply, tenderly. He would be a fool to say no to a woman whom—yes, he is sure—he loves back. He loves her laugh, her buzzing energy, her lies. Also, the sex is fantastic. The Australian had exciting sex with a couple women during university, plus a few top-notch flings in New York, but he was never able to sustain interest for longer than a month or two until now. For this, Fiona deserves credit. He opens his eyes. There is an omelet steaming on the kitchen island in front of him.
“I want to live here with you,” he says. “That sounds perfect.”
The Australian’s foray into venture capitalism is brief. Despite what seemed like a promising start, he has a difficult time getting investors of any real means to partner with him. It is a misfortune he can’t make any sense of, although he doesn’t really try, because he is not one to dwell in mystery. Instead, he puts his efforts into an idea that comes to him as if by magic one evening as he is smoothing the calluses on his heels with a pumice stone. Along with a business acquaintance from his Wall Street days—a middle-aged woman with hair straightened by a highly toxic Brazilian method, who is constantly trying to get other women to straighten their own hair by the same method—the Australian opens a club. The club is called Day Club. Complete with darkness, booze, and unce-unce techno, it is open from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon.
At first, the hottest party kids in the city come, twenty-somethings with trust funds and pronounced cheekbones and ecstasy holes in their brains. When the time comes to renew his immigration visa, the Australian does so without incident. He is making good money, has employees, pays taxes. A lush red carpet to a Green Card seems to be rolling out in front of him. However, the club soon hits a downturn and becomes all high school kids, greasy-haired ravers pressing their bony bodies against the velvet ropes, waving fake IDs at the bouncer. Within a year and a half of opening, Day Club is raided by the city, loses its liquor license, and goes out of business. New York City has no more ideas for him, and he is twenty-eight, and he doesn’t want to go back to Australia.
“Why would you go back?” asks Fiona, when the Australian voices his worries.
They are sitting together on the living room couch, watching a thunderstorm roll over the city. Fiona has just been hired as an accessory stylist for a major pop star, whose former stylist was axed for making her look “middle-aged”—never mind that the pop star is forty-six.
“I can take care of us for a while.” She kisses his cheek and neck, rests her head against his chest.
The Australian’s heart begins thumping irregularly. He wonders if he is experiencing a life-threatening cardiac event, and then he realizes that he is about to ask Fiona to marry him. Some drive is pushing him toward proposing, a need even greater than his desire to remain in the United States. It must be love. What else could it be, this invisible force squeezing his ribcage?
The Australian takes her hands and rests his forehead against hers.
“Fiona,” he says. “I have to ask you something. This isn’t just a citizenship thing. When I’m with you, I feel like I’m going to make it, even though my plans have fallen to shit. You make me want to—well, try. I’ve stopped eating processed foods. I shut off the tap while I’m brushing my teeth. I gave up my seat on the train the other day—not to an old lady, either. To some bloke, just because he looked kind of tired. I really want to be the guy you deserve.”
Fiona pulls her face away from his. She looks him in the eye.
“I want to ask you,” he says, trailing off, emotion obstructing his windpipe. He swallows hard.
“Yes,” Fiona says. “I know you love me, and you know I love you. Let’s do it.” She smiles, running her fingers through the Australian’s thick, golden hair. “Let’s get married.”
As husband to Fiona, the Australian quickly gains a firm command of the nature of her dishonesty. He comes to realize that all of it is hope, simple as that. Hope for the ordinary and the slightly extraordinary, but never the extravagant. It embarrasses and infuriates him that her lies are simple and modest. He finds it alarming that some version of himself is housed in a mind so enchanted by the idea of a Checker cab sighting that it would manifest that enchantment in the form of a fib. Having lassoed his wife’s greatest idiosyncrasy, the Australian gets down to the business of breaking it. She says: “I saw the prettiest thing today, an albino pigeon, but it still had those iridescent wings.” He says: “Lie.” She begins a story: “When I was a kid, I had this lunchbox—” and he cuts her off with: “Lie.” Although this tactic deters her only slightly, the Australian vaguely senses that he is perpetrating something truly grotesque, and he is ashamed, which is not a feeling he is accustomed to. He begins to consider that he might have a deeper attachment to Fiona than he previously imagined possible.
Other strange things start to happen. Fiona’s salary not only pays their rent but allows them to have a housekeeper, yet the Australian, who is unemployed, finds himself scrubbing and cleaning. He secretly fantasizes about enrolling in some kind of course, not a vocational one, but one that would provide him with a quiet means of self-expression. He wants to make something with his hands, be it a still life painting or a magazine rack or a savory soufflé. As the first year of marriage comes to a close, he begins to miss Fiona while she’s gone from the apartment, off working on photo shoots and music video sets. The pop star is a notorious wreck and frequently depends on Fiona for support in times of crisis. She calls at all hours, hysterical on account of her boyfriend’s addiction to Ginkgo biloba supplements, panicked over her incapability to trust herself around chocolate, distraught over the fast-approaching end of the Mayan calendar. The Australian has met her a handful of times and is certain she can’t stand him, though Fiona says that is ridiculous. “Who wouldn’t like you?” she says, laughing, but he cannot be dissuaded. Every time Fiona tends to her employer, the Australian feels sad and lonely and as though he’s being robbed.
One night, when Fiona finally returns to bed after a two-hour phone call, he asks her to tell him a lie.
“You want me to lie now?” she asks.
“Yes,” he pleads. “Just make something up for me.”
“No.” She sits up against her pillow. “It’s your turn. Tell me a lie, something really outrageous.”
“Okay,” says the Australian. “I used to be a superhero.”
It has been two years since the Day Club fiasco, and although the Australian makes money investing here and there, he has yet to find a new full-time job. He doesn’t speculate on why his Wall Street ambitions faded or why Day Club fell through. Failure has integrated itself into the fabric of his being. Self-loathing is an intoxicating elixir—one to which, little by little, he has become habituated. By and large, he lives off Fiona’s generous salary and the stipend she receives as part of the pop star’s entourage. Fiona has decided to buy the apartment in which she and the Australian live, a two-bedroom in Chelsea with high ceilings and good light, but his anxiety about his own unemployment only mounts. Though the mortgage is in Fiona’s name, he ought to contribute toward the payments, and he is embarrassed by his inability to do so.
Not to mention that he will be eligible to apply for a Green Card in about a year. The Australian fears his joblessness will be a hindrance.
“We’re in a good position,” Fiona assures him. “And you have some big opportunities coming up.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes,” says Fiona. “Of course you do.” She is inviting him into one of her lies. “You have a lot brewing right now—like the interview for the position at the big, airy office with floor-to-ceiling windows and bowls of fresh fruit and mixed nuts, and a billiard table, too, where everyone will see how incredible you are.”
“Right.” The Australian forces a smile. “Of course.”
“You’ll see. It’ll happen.”
The truth is that on the occasions when the Australian has applied for a position and been granted an interview, he has botched it almost willfully, unable to stomach the idea of working under a boss. His days are spent doing intermediate-difficulty word puzzles in hotel lobbies, or wistfully watching construction workers on the job, or trying to learn Cantonese from an audio cassette, or wandering the streets.
One afternoon the Australian stumbles into a bookstore where an author is giving a reading. The author has a faded tattoo of a lizard on her bicep and is from Berkeley, California, and she has written a memoir from the perspective of her vagina. The Australian is transfixed. He stays for the whole performance, listening and watching from the back of the room, hiding behind a books-on-tape display at the edge of the children’s section. He marvels at how, while every woman has a vagina, this particular woman has decided that hers deserved not only a voice, but a publisher, too, and maybe even a publicist. It is precisely the kind of boldness and ingenuity that the Australian respects. She barks out her vagina’s litany of complaints, recounting its moments of triumph in a gurgling, throaty vibrato. Her vagina has adventures. It takes risks. The Australian is struck by the humbling realization that it might be more of a man than he presently is, this milksop he has become—drooling on his pillow, aimlessly wandering, pining for his wife—and he’s got to buck up.
The Australian really likes Jim Foreman, whom he located in the back of The New York Post, because Jim is not a therapist, he would like to be very clear about that—he is a life coach. Jim is not a shoulder to cry on, and if the Australian is looking for soft tits to rub his face into, he is barking up the wrong tree. According to Jim, the Australian’s problems derive from the fact he grew up fatherless, and the solution is to forge that connection and thereby discover his wolf spirit, but it is up to the Australian to figure out what that means for him. After his third session with Jim, the Australian is walking back to his apartment when he sees a window washer hanging from the side of an office building, and he is reminded of the only image of his father he has ever seen. It is a tattered, bleached-out photograph his mother had taken in the Gibson Desert during their weeklong fling, in which the Australian’s father is abseiling down the side of one of the Kata Tjuta rock formations. The Australian remembers vividly how the fabric surrounding his father’s groin was bunched into a formidable convexity by a leather harness, and how the tanned muscles of his bare calves looked like braided beef jerky.
He asks himself when he last faced his own mortality, but all he can come up with is the night a few months back when he choked on a bit of yellowtail sashimi. The incident occurred at a gala he had reluctantly attended with Fiona, at which the pop star had sung a cappella for the benefit of children with a certain dermatological condition. Although the description of the condition, which had been delivered with both levity and compassion by a well-known sitcom actor, had left the Australian rather nauseated, he had forged ahead to the buffet, only to get food down the wrong pipe. During those eternal seconds of complete tracheal obstruction, he really and truly feared for his life. The Australian is achingly aware that this incident is hardly comparable to mastering the steep, hot slopes of the Kata Tjutas, or free diving, or shark taunting, or BASE jumping, or any of the other things he’s always imagined his father doing. He looks up again at the building, squinting against the sunlight, and as the window washer reaches far to his right, and the bench he is balancing on teeters just a little, the Australian finds his wolf spirit.
Emma Smith-Stevens is the author of The Australian (Dzanc Books, May 2017), and the short story collection Greyhounds (Dzanc Books, 2018). Her work has appeared in Subtropics, Wigleaf, Conjunctions, Joyland, and many other publications, and her essay ”The Sun” will be included in the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture (Eds. Roxane Gay and Ashley C. Ford) forthcoming from Harper Perennial. She lives in New York and teaches with the Bard Prison Initiative.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.