The VICE Reader

We Were Having an Experience

By James Yeh

 

All drawings by Olivia Hinds
 
James Yeh is a writer, editor, and occasional DJ. His fiction appears in NOON, BOMB magazine, Fence, and Tin House. He lives in Brooklyn, where he co-edits Gigantic magazine. Find him online at jamesyeh.com and twitter.com/jamesyeh.
 
It’s rumored that a certain former president’s daughter is here, at the fair. When she appears with another young woman, we ignore the other woman and focus on her more famous companion’s face, hair, and clothes, as if to verify her identity and store it away for some future use.
 
We are here, R. and I, in this massive white tent sited on a subway-inaccessible island in New York, somewhere between Manhattan and Queens, seeking out an experience—an art experience maybe, or some new view of life, in new light. Fashionable people peruse temporary exhibits of paintings, photographs, videos, and sculptures. In one room we pass colorful, somewhat mangy-looking blankets strewn all over the floor. Shoeless children crawl over and through the blankets as the adults, also shoeless but otherwise professionally attired, stand around chatting. 
 
Outside another room, a talkative, middle-aged couple notices a group of us waiting on line and approaches the attendant. The attendant explains the line is for a piece by T. S., a prominent artist from Berlin.
 
“Oh,” says the man. He exchanges a look with his wife that is both knowing and somewhat patronizing, as though his ignorance of the piece proved its lack of worth.
 
Inside, the 25 or so of us audience members situate ourselves along the room’s bare, white walls. A young girl with enormous, ghostly blue eyes addresses us. 
 
“Hi, I’m Ann Lee,” she says in a flat, halting way. “Yes, Ann Lee.” She moves her arms stiffly and tells us she is a manga character come to life, and that she likes art and art exhibitions and us—the “visitors to exhibitions.” She notes, a bit sadly, that many of the people she knows “seem very busy.” 
 
“I wonder,” she says. “What’s worse, to be too busy or not busy enough?"
 
“Could I ask you a question?” she continues, although it’s unclear whether we are actually supposed to respond. A middle-aged man—the same condescending man from earlier—answers immediately. “Sure.”
 
“Would you rather feel too busy or not busy enough?”
 
“Too busy,” the man says, overpronouncing the oo in “too” in a foreign-sounding way, Israeli or possibly Russian.
 
“Why is that?” she asks.
 
“Just because,” the man snaps, a singularly unsatisfying answer—instead of addressing the child, he has become a child.
 
Still, we await Ann Lee’s reply. Will she question him further? Challenge his response? It’s possible the performer, given her age, could even break character.
 
“OK,” Ann Lee says, after a moment. She returns to the script. 
 
 
Later, outside a booth that has been constructed into a kind of speakeasy, the same condescending couple is demanding to be let in. The doorman says he can’t let them in without the key, and the man asks where to get such a key. 
 
The doorman shrugs. “You have to be given one,” he says, and the couple exchange searching, cartoonishly desperate looks. This seems to be a new experience for them, being told no—they’re not quite sure how to take it. They gather themselves and rush off in search of their key. Soon they’re back, waving around one of the small blue envelopes with keys inside.
 
“Now you have to let us in!” says the wife, shouting, victorious.
 
“I have to let you in?” the doorman repeats, incredulous. “I don’t have to do nothing. Read what’s inside the envelope,” he says, referring to the specific instructions for entry, tucked within.
 
“But we have the key,” complains the woman.
 
Inside the speakeasy R. and I discuss the couple, the man in particular, who, in a fit of rage, had ended up flinging their envelope at the doorman before storming off. The doorman had smiled, visibly pleased at what he had helped to cause.
 
“They stand here without a key this whole time,” he says to us, “in front of all these other people with keys, holding up the line for 20 minutes. That’s like standing on line without a ticket when everyone else has bought tickets.”
 
I should mention that, upon discovering a key, the couple had cut everyone else to get back on line. As she pushed her way to the front, the woman had turned to me and said, “You remember, we were here earlier,” as if that meant something, although apparently it did, since we all let them in front.
 
I relate my own theory to R., that the couple had been the type of people who think any door can be opened by simply knocking hard enough, and then here was one they couldn’t open—there are always doors you can’t get through, I say to her. We take a moment to glance around the candlelit room at the others among us, lucky or savvy enough to have managed their way in.
 
The announcement is made that the fair will be closing in 15 minutes. We make our way toward the exit, checking out any interesting booths we had missed earlier.
 
As we approach a wall-size painting of a monkey on the back of a crocodile, R. mentions that a famous Hollywood actor is a big fan of the artist’s and will be soon hosting a charity auction of his work. Knowing I enjoy this kind of thing—social interaction, new knowledge, new experience—R. asks if I wouldn’t mind asking how much this particular piece is going for. She wants to know how much it is now, to see how much it goes up after the auction.
 
The booth attendant tells me the piece is “on hold,” so he can’t disclose, but offers that two significantly smaller pieces by the artist—roughly the size of concert posters, and which have been tucked away in a closet so that they are barely visible—these two are selling for $225,000 apiece.
 
“Thank you,” I tell him, because right then we are experiencing something.
 
 
 
The VICE Reader is a series in which we publish original fiction—mostly. We also feature the occasional poem, essay, book review, diary entry, Graham Greene-style dream-diary entry, Zemblan fable, letter to the editor, letter to a fictional character, and anything else that is so good we feel it must be shared among the literary-minded and the internet at large.
 

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