But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
A new short story.
In the chilled air of the Metropolitan Museum, Rainey Royal studies the dark orchid mouth of Bashi-Bazouk. His name means headless, the label says, which is weird. The dude has an exquisite head. His eyes are onyx. His ear is a complicated bronze shell.
Rainey wants to kiss this painted warrior before she sketches him, but the painter has captured him turning away. Rainey thinks: Would you fucking look at me? A woman donated him, a Mrs. Someone. Maybe it was unrequited love.
I did look at you, says Bashi-Bazouk. You’re hot. But I am a warrior, pure of body and heart.
She drops her pack noisily. I could fix that.
Rainey figures if she sketches every portrait in every museum in New York, or at least the ones she likes, it will be an art education. She has maybe twenty sketchbooks filled from her trips to museums. Maybe twenty-five. She has all the time in the world, right? Cooper Union rejected her twice after Urban Day. Now she attends the College of Rainey Royal in the University of New York Museums, so Cooper Union can just go fuck itself.
She turns from the painting, drawn by nothing: a prickling on her scalp.
Across the gallery, too, a man turns from a picture to look back at Rainey, and when he shifts his weight, the herringbone floor grunts. Tiny antennae prickle on the scalp of the woman who is with him. Lie flat, the woman commands her antennae.
Bashi-Bazouk tells Rainey: Quit it. Those two got married a year ago.
So? Rainey knows some things, too. She knows that he, the guy, has a voice like bourbon and cigarettes. She knows he can handle himself with a knife, which is the sexiest thing ever. His hair is thick and black, and curls over his sweater.
She pulls the sketchbook out of her pack, fishes around noisily for whatever pencil comes to hand, and considers the wife.
The chick wears a beret. As in: she wears it. It does not wear her. She does the damn thing justice. Her head tilts right and her hip juts left, and the hip is a bowl of fruit. The wife has cheeks like lady apples, and obviously that is his leather jacket she has on. It is zippery, hard-worn. He may have slept in it somewhere down the line. Rainey wants to get this man alone in that leather jacket. She wants to lick it.
Quit sparking, says Bashi-Bazouk.
The man looks over. His eyes are doorways left ajar for her. He wears a wedding band, but it does not wear him. Rainey and the man gaze at each other with intent.
Stop making trouble, says Bashi-Bazouk.
To perceive someone, that is a powerful thing. It is beyond sexual. You could be with a person forever and never see them. Besides, Rainey wants to make trouble. Just the tiniest bit of trouble. Then he can go home with the sexy cow, and she’ll never look for him in the Met again.
Rainey smiles at the man. Then, to show her power, she turns her smile to Bashi-Bazouk. He looks disdainful now. With that attitude, maybe that’s why he got donated.
As for the man, he’s drawn to the way Rainey rustles paper. It makes him hot. She feels it. She flips the sketchbook to a new page, then back to study her previous efforts, then forward. She feels her bones radiant, like those nuclear rods they encase in concrete and stash away in caves.
The man and the woman cannot stare at one picture forever. They ease toward her, to the next. “Kevin,” says the woman softly.
This seems a good moment to stretch. Rainey leans the sketchbook against her leg, laces her hands behind her neck, presses her shoulder-blades together behind her and makes a muscular purr. The man and his wife both turn. Rainey’s chest is in the sticking-out phase of the stretch. What the hell, right? She beams right at him.
Of course, the woman sees. She shoots Rainey a terrific smile of her own. Sister! the smile says. I am alive all over, the smile says. I have so much lovely money, the smile says. I have a Princeton education. I know so much about art. I have this husband-lover who never read a page of Shakespeare, but holy moly, the shit he does in bed. Isn’t it great? Life?
In the stall of the ladies’ room, the flyer peeks mockingly from Rainey’s pack. You were supposed to tear off just the phone number, a single eyelash, from the bottom, but Rainey had peeled the whole sheet off a lamppost in Union Square.
It actually says that, in paranoid-looking black text on a bright yellow page. “Fuckin’ A,” Rainey says combatively.
“You need some paper?” This from the next-door stall, a disembodied woman’s voice. “Or you okay?”
“You ever wronged anybody?” Rainey demands. She smooths the creases while she does her business.
What has she done? She slapped Leah in the girls’ room till Leah said “Uncle,” but that was seventh grade. Tina dumped Leah’s purse in the toilet, too. She and Tina were an absolute bitch to that poor girl. Is that what Mr. Apology means?
And what about things done unto you? Do those count? What about things that feel like wrongs but don’t make sense, like last weekend, when her father took her and Tina shopping to celebrate something that hadn’t happened yet—namely his selling a record in France, because he is that kind of superstitious—and Tina got a three-hundred-dollar hand-painted silk-velvet scarf from Bergdorf Goodman, while Rainey got fake patent leather boots from Macy’s?
Toilets flush, sinks gush. She listens to running water as copious as if she were out in nature. Doors bang like falling trees.
How Rainey got the bad present was, Howard got visibly restless in the shoe department. So she’d said yes to the first boots she put on her feet because they only hurt a little. And how Tina got the good present was, they stepped out of Macy’s and Howard swooped open a taxi door and said smoothly, “Tina’s turn. On to Bergdorf’s.” No, Rainey wanted to say, you’ve got us reversed. I’m the daughter. I get the fancy store. But Howard could be so snappish about money, even though the money was technically hers. Hers in trust. Hers in four years when she turns twenty-five. Howard is the trustee. And Tina lives in the townhouse with them since Tina’s grandmother died. She’s on the top floor, rent-free, in one of the extra attic rooms where Rainey’s grandmother used to stash the servants. Tina chose that room. Rainey figures it’s because she lives like a nun. But Tina got Bergdorf’s—why? The question needles her.
Every line of the Mr. Apology sign is alluring.
Tina would go crazy. Tina would be saying, Don’t tell them about the gun. She would say, It’s a trap. It’s not. It’s performance art. Rainey can tell.
Anyway, the gun was years ago. The gun was high school.
Rainey folds the phone-number eyelashes carefully into the flyer, then folds the flyer into quarters. She zips her jeans and leaves without washing her hands. Outside the Met it’s a brilliant May day, bright and blue. She waits for a bus that will whisk her down Fifth Avenue to the Marble Arch. Near the stop, a Sabrett guy’s radio scratches out Jermaine Jackson. You have to feel sorry for Jermaine. He was the lead, originally. Then Michael opened that pretty mouth.
In Bergdorf’s, the saleswoman had worn pumps and black tights, and kept her gaze fixed above the garish red Macy’s bag. How may I be of help, she asked Howard, who had a celebratory arm around Tina—again, why?—and Rainey said, Oh, I think we’re way the fuck beyond help.
You want to know if I wronged someone. If I tell you, what, you forgive me? You’re a machine. This is conceptual art. So really, I should forgive myself. Come on, that’s fucking ridiculous. I’m hanging up.
Wait. Wait. Okay. I’m lighting a cigarette.
Man, you don’t say a thing. What are you, a Freudian analyst? Okay, I smoke Kools. My father smokes Kools. Ha. Go interpret that.
This has to be a gas for you. Listening.
You want to know if I wronged someone. I found a gun. Are you happy? No? Tina and I showed it to some people. That is to say, we shoved it in their face, and they practically died. Wait, not because we shot them—because they almost had a canary. Tina with a gun? Frightening. That’s how I got this cape. And these beautiful old handwritten letters I used in my pictures. She said they were her mother’s. The woman. The letters. We were fifteen—does that still count? If you were fifteen?
What if I tell you all this and don’t apologize?
Is there a time limit on this thing? Three minutes and then you hang up on me?
Fuck, I used Tina’s name. She’s going to kill me.
Do you like that? The music? It’s my contribution. Soundtrack by Patti Smith.
Okay, so. We put the gun in my purse, and we changed our identities and we followed this man and this woman down a bunch of streets in the Village to where they lived. I’m not saying which village. We could be in Connecticut. The woman was wearing the cape I told you about. And these Frye boots that didn’t fit. Well, they fit her. We wore Gordy’s T-shirts over our real clothes. That’s my father’s best friend who lives in our house, if you need to know. I wore Chick Corea and Tina wore Larry Coryell. Do you believe I remember? Eight years and I remember Larry Coryell? I had to iron the shirts and sneak them back into Gordy’s room. They’re signed. He says they’re his retirement. In four years that townhouse is legally mine, and I am throwing his ass on the street.
Maybe that’s harsh. Ummm, no. Harsh is you let a grown man live down the hall from your daughter her whole life while you sleep on another floor. Why not just serve her up on a plate?
I don’t know why I even called. Maybe you should apologize. Fucking with people’s heads.
At the clinic the next day, they crowd into this little room where you meet before the clinic people send you home. Tina’s sister, Carmen, reclines in her orange plastic chair as if she got spilled there, and Tina snaps, “Carmen.”
Carmen is twelve and has a boyfriend, sixteen. Rainey’s opinion is that Tina missed the boat on this one. Tina and Carmen have a mother, but she’s worse than useless, and they have a grandmother who’s a saint, literally, because she’s dead.
Carmen fiddles with a pink plastic pelvis. Tina plucks it from her hands and sets it back on the desk. “It’s okay,” says the nurse, and her tone says, How about you let me do my job. Rainey wants to take Carmen to the townhouse on West Tenth Street and get her out of those tight clothes and say, This is how you dress. This is how you say no to boys, this is how you look at art, and this is how you make art, too.
They are having the talk now. The nurse holds up a luminous bone-white dome the size of a demitasse cup. “I’m not putting that thing inside me,” says Carmen.
“Why not,” says Tina. “You put everything else in there.” With the nurse, she drops her voice and talks right across the patient. “My sister wants an IUD. If it’s in her, she’ll use it. And the failure rate is oh-point-eight percent.”
Rainey gathers up Carmen’s hair and begins braiding it. Tina is missing the boat again. Tina leans across the desk and narrows her eyes at the nurse like she wants that IUD coughed up one two three.
The nurse looks hard at the hands on her desk till Tina steps back. Then she opens a drawer and extracts a bit of metal scrap. “This is an IUD,” she says.
Carmen rolls her head into Rainey’s hands.
“I want the pill.”
“She’s a tobacco user,” says Tina in her doctor voice. “And she’ll be noncompliant. She wants an IUD.”
“Are you a doctor?” says the nurse knowingly.
Tina cocks her head. “Premed.”
“Huh,” the nurse says. “Maybe you’d be more comfortable outside.”
Rainey lifts the tip of the French braid, looking around for a rubber band; if she stops holding tight the ends will fray. “The pill works great,” she says lyrically.
Tina looks at Rainey and says, very slowly, “When you are thirteen, and your father gives you the pill every morning with a glass of milk, it works. You think our mother’s going to do that?”
The nurse looks hard at Rainey. Carmen’s eyes go wide. Tina is right about the mother. Tina grew up with the grandmother, who had four rooms and one leg and three words of English, including beautiful, and who taught her to cook and study and pray, and who straightened her the fuck out. So now Tina has Barnard on full scholarship and also a rent-free room and a silk scarf from Howard, and also she has Jesus Christ, whereas Carmen has one abortion down.
“Why don’t you sit outside and study?” the nurse tells Tina.
“Jesus,” says Carmen. “Your dad did that for you?”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” says Tina, on her way out.
“Not for me,” Rainey says. “More like to me. But yeah.”
The next week at the Met, Rainey wears a buccaneer shirt she sewed herself. She unbuttons another button. She wears jeans she’s tailored with seams down the front. She wears boots with heels.
You have to stare them down, these ladies who sit in Admissions under the big Suggested sign and look at your single dollar like it’s crawling with AIDS. What is suggested on the sign is four dollars. Her father always says, Just walk the fuck in, Rain, it’s tax-supported. Suggests. He suggests that.
She finds the lady with the parrot way over on the second floor. The lady is naked on a green velvet chaise. They just about crucified Courbet over this, not because of a naked chick—that was cool in France in 1866—but because her hair was unkempt, her clothes strewn about, all that abandon. Still, they put it in the Salon because it was good.
Two men are peering at it. Their arms touch all the way. “It showed in the X-ray,” the first man says. He makes an emphatic curlicue in the air. “Right there. He painted himself in, nude. Then he painted himself out.”
“No kidding,” says Rainey. She moves closer. One of them smells of almonds.
“No kidding,” he says.
“Well, that bird stand is pretty phallic,” says the second man. He is baby-plump and wears a baby-blue sweater.
Two boys burst into the gallery and chase each other around a bench. One is pale as a bone; the other flashes a plum-colored stain on his face. He has been marked, but for what? They stop and stare at the nude. The painting has news that they need, and Rainey watches them consume it.
“He was pulchritudinous,” the first man says, tasting the word. “He often painted himself into things.”
Rainey sketches the lady with the parrot. She wonders about the artist who lurked between layers of pigment and light, deeply concealed. It was like sketching Madame X with her strap up, knowing she’d let the real strap slip. You could almost see the ghost of the thing.
Tina likes birds. Maybe she’ll give Tina the sketch, in a thrift-store frame. And maybe, while she is up in Tina’s narrow room on the fifth floor, extending this gift, she will caress the hand-painted scarf till Tina offers to let her borrow it. It is only fair. ‘Cause if Howard had thought of Bergdorf’s first, he might have given his daughter the genuine gift, and Tina the plastic boots.
Not that it matters. They are best friends.
You don’t get bored, hearing all this confessing? Last time all I did was whine. I’m sorry I bored you. Hah! There—I apologized.
I was telling you about the gun. We robbed those people. I’m not sorry. And I’m not sorry I have the cape. You think Tina’s sorry she has the dude’s leather jacket that she still wears? God, don’t get me going on leather jackets. And I am not sorry about the guy at the museum. Ask me if I care that he’s married. Ask me.
I could tell you about Mrs. Teagan. I’m not sorry about her at all. Mrs. Teagan was second grade, and she taught me everything I know about art in one day. She was teaching us the story of Icarus. His father made those wings out of feathers and wax. He said, You can fly, Ic, but if you go near the sun, the wax will melt, and you’ll fall and die even though you’re only like, twelve. You know what that story means, right? It means aim low. It means rein yourself in. They should never tell that story to children.
So Mrs. Teagan tells us to take out our crayons and draw Icarus. Every kid in the class draws Icarus flying. But not me. I draw him plummeting, his wings dripping, feathers everywhere. She walks up and down the rows, praising everyone till she gets to me and goes, “Rainey Royal, that is morbid. Draw it again, please.”
Shit. If you’re listening, splice that out. My name. Not the “shit.”
So they called my father to come get me. He loved my picture of Icarus falling, and he was so proud that I refused to draw it again because what I drew the first time was true. But Mrs. Teagan said, “Art is not about truth, Mr. Royal. Art is about beauty.”
My father said, “This woman is a danger to children. I don’t want her near my daughter.”
I’m sorry I keep not saying I’m sorry. I’ll leave you alone now. Bye.
The following day she goes straight to Bashi-Bazouk, in case the guy in the leather jacket is telepathic. You should not, says Bashi-Bazouk,
It doesn’t matter. He isn’t there.
She stalks off to Drawings and Prints, looking for a Mary with some steel to her, or a Mary who secretly wants to be an artist, and wanders the rooms till she’s arrested by a Leonardo Mary, specifically, the Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right. A dreamy, sweet-faced chick who probably made milk-carton candles and tie-dye T-shirts. Later today she will go see Basquiat at Mary Boone, where the gallery girl will fix her green, arrogant Bryn-Mawr gaze on Rainey’s sneakers and jeans. Sometimes you have to see big, lavish work that can’t be sketched. Work that is coming together while coming apart.
Rainey kneels to dig out her supplies. For a time, all she feels is her pencil on the page. And then she feels him. She knows him. She knows his thumbnail is half blackened. She knows his laughing wife made the bed that morning with peach sheets. She knows. She knows. But she turns anyway.
He has that unruly Jim Morrison hair going on. His eyes are a well with old hurt at the bottom. He aims a low beam at her. He lets her see.
Rainey, kneeling, takes in that beam and lets the light traverse her, and then she turns back to sketching Mary’s face. Through her back she feels the guard in the tall doorway, watching without watching. Some kind of golden mean plays out between Mary’s eyes and lips, and kinked hair escapes her cap. Rainey draws a wisp, smudges it. She bites her lower lip and begins the flirtation of her pencil with the Virgin’s philtrum.
“All that beauty and all that pain,” the man says. “You feel it, don’t you.”
His voice: tobacco, gravel. The pressure of his shins against her back.
“I bet you’ve wronged someone,” she says.
“I’m thinking about it,” he says.
She senses his wife nearby—the water fountain, no, the ladies’ room. A timer whirrs in Rainey’s mind as the wife, nearing the stall, gives her reflection a quick appraisal.
Rainey stands, and in acknowledgment, he tips his head toward the corridor. One minute, he is telling her. Maybe two. You can ink a future in that time.
The man says, “I want to buy you a cup of coffee.” He doesn’t mean coffee. And he doesn’t mean now. Rainey traces her front teeth with the tip of her pretty tongue. Let the wife find them like this. Let a nagging little fear shadow her, like a half-seen stray cat, around the corners of the marriage.
“Milk,” says Rainey. She makes it two syllables. “I drink milk.”
He growls. He cups her face hard. In the doorway, the guard’s radar pings. In the ladies’ room, the wife plucks a black Chanel lipstick from her bag.
Rainey loops a finger through the leather cord around the man’s neck.
He kisses her. His tongue is respectful. Rainey tastes toothpaste, pot, salami, and the basil he filches from the windowsill, not in that order. She presses against him. She ankles up to the bad-behavior line and feels it spread beneath her. It is a wider place than she imagined, not linear like Broadway but leafy like Central Park, tangled as the Ramble and as dangerous, too. She could linger there. It is a place where she might live.
The wife paints her mouth carmine. A woman down the line of sinks says, At your age, honey, a red lip is all you need.
In the gallery the guard tells them to Step back. He means from each other. Far off, heels tick in the corridor. Rainey pulls a Bic pen from her pack and opens her left palm wide. He marks her flesh.
Just as he steps back, the wife clicks into the gallery. She does the calculus. Rainey sees it, sees her shake it off. The wife walks over to her man and claims him. She calls him Honey. He calls her Hey. Her voice is a lynx coat. His hands stay in his pockets. She murmurs into his hair. The wife glances at Rainey, and Rainey smiles at her, a slowball smile that says, There is no house I can’t break into.
She can’t wait to tell Tina. My God, it was like the first kiss ever. It was like we had the same mouth.
Sick of me yet?
Hah, you’re a machine. You have to listen to me. It’s your job.
So I do want to apologize. But I don’t know if it’s for a crime.
I was just Carmen’s age, and I found this little cat, pure black, a kitten. She was outside our townhouse lifting her paws out of snow like she didn’t know if it was freezing or hot. When I hold out my hand, she rubs against it, and when she purrs she lifts her tail. So I know it’s a girl. She’s got a tiny white target, right there. I pick her up and take her inside and start carrying her up to my room, and of course I get stopped.
My dad goes, “Whatcha got?” He’s in the parlor, at the piano, and I see Gordy doodling around on a clarinet with his sax between his knees, and two acolytes, one on violin and one on flute. And Gordy starts sneezing. But majorly sneezing.
Big deal, right? Some kid gets abandoned every five seconds, and I’m whining about a cat. But you’re a tape recorder, so you can deal.
My dad won’t let the acolytes touch the cat. He says, “Gordy can’t play if he’s sick.” And Gordy keeps sneezing. From one little kitten hair that floats across the foyer. He’s not just an asshole saxophonist. He’s an asthmatic asshole saxophonist. Then my mother comes down and baby-talks to the cat and says, “I’m so sorry, sweet pea, she’s got to go. But we’ll put milk out every day.”
How stupid am I? I figure this little cat can live in a box of sweaters behind the trash bins. I didn’t know cats can’t drink cow milk. So I hold her while my mother heats the milk, and then I set down the cat. She sniffs the bowl, tucks her tail between her legs, wobbles down the steps and folds herself under a parked car. I try to get under there. My knees are freezing on the snow but I want to help her. I stick my arm under the car, and I guess it scares her because she shoots across the street, just as a car backs out of a space. I close my eyes, but I hear it, all squeak and yowl, and then I do look. The driver is freaked. She pukes a little. My mother’s sympathetic, but I tell her, I hate you, and two months later she splits.
I’m not sorry for saying that. I apologize to the cat.
The Angel of the Waters wears a bronze dress because she’s a statue. In the park, under the Angel, waiting for Kevin, Rainey wears a top she made from part of a tight, white, man-tailored blouse and a lot of lace yardage. She wears a full-gored black skirt, and brown suede boots her mother left behind nine years ago. With majesty and excellence she has bedecked herself. Black patent boots would cinch it, but they hurt that first day out. She had tried to return them, but the salesman just glanced at the soles and smirked. You’re kidding me, right?
On a broken bench at Bethesda Terrace, a man in an olive suit nurses a paper bag. Before him, two girls twirl ropes while a third jumps. They chant, Not last night but the night before, fourteen robbers came to my door. Rainey sits straight-backed on the fountain lip, looking dreamily up at Terrace Bridge. Stole my watch and stole my ring. Then they all began to sing. Thoughtfully she unbuttons the lace one more button. Policeman, policeman, do your duty. She wishes she had something to read.
He stands before her.
He stands before her lean as a branch, his mouth a chalice, hands jammed in the pockets of his jeans. His eyes map her. That leather cord around his neck—she wants to snag it with a finger, she wants to pull him down to her.
The rhyme shifts, and Rainey senses that it is taking on a moral stance. Wiggle, wobble, do the splits, the girls chant. Can’t wear her dress above her hips.
Oh, but she can. Arrayed with glory and beauty, she can. Under the bridge, she can hike her skirt past her hips if she wants. He ditched the wife; he did that for her. For what should she apologize? For whom should she go into the clefts of the ragged rocks?
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Rainey tips her head.
She means the angel, but he doesn’t look up.
They are waiting for the thing to begin.
Dylan Landis is the author of a novel, Rainey Royal, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and a collection of linked stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, that also feature Rainey. Her work has appeared in BOMB, Tin House, the Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications.
Author’s note: The Apology Line was a conceptual art project created in 1980 by the artist Allan Bridge, who ran it out of his loft using an answering machine. He recorded more than 1,000 hours of confessions (and was sometimes called Mr. Apology) until his death in 1995, in a diving accident off Long Island.
Originally published in
Our summer issue features interviews with Mel Kendrick, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Kader Attia, Arthur Jafa and Dana Hoey, Quntos Kunquest, Katiana Rangel, and Anne Anlin Cheng; fiction by Jenzo DuQue, Dylan Landis, Anthony Veasna So, and Sophie Hoss; nonfiction by A.V. Marraccini; a comic by Ronald Wimberly; poetry by Arthur Solway, Rickey Laurentiis, and Alina Stefanescu; an essay and portfolio by Kalup Linzy; an archival interview with Suzan-Lori Parks; and more.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.