These short stories appear in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.
"Have you done this before?" says the man in the hotel room. Before she can speak, taking his answer from her face, he says, "How many times?"
Not knowing whether he will find the number too high (making this seem less significant) or too low (causing her to seem inexperienced), she replies, "This is the first time I've done it in a hotel room like this."
"I hope it's the last," he says. "You shouldn't have followed me in here alone."
His concerned and curious face is something like paternal.
He watches her like he doesn't trust her, like she might be up to something more than drawing, but he can't figure out what it is.
"Are you going to let me draw you, or did you just invite me in here to admonish me for not being afraid of you?"
On the couch she shifts her legs, opens the sketchbook to a clean page. From the pouch in her purse in which she keeps her drawing utensils she extracts a special graphite stick her husband ordered from a French website and presented to her Christmas morning.
That he would be angry and alarmed about her being here occurs to her, but it also seems of only mild significance, like a scene in a movie that pulls at the emotions but has nothing to do with real life.
"But you are afraid of me," he replies incredulously.
She has begun to draw. She doesn't answer.
Am I? she thinks. And, as she studies his face studying hers, How do I look to him? She wears one of her better outfits (tall black leather boots with silver buckles, a wool skirt, a snug white cashmere sweater with a low V-neck, and beneath that a white lace push-up bra). She has put on makeup.
With graphite she blocks in the dimensions of his face.
"Did you follow me to that restaurant?"
"Do you hope I followed you?"
This comes out more flirtatiously than she means for it to, as it has on other occasions over the past few years; with her husband's boss, for example, at a buffet table at a Christmas party, soon after which the man "accidentally" brushed up against her, infuriating her husband, who could not until they were safely out of earshot of any of the other employees, in the car, vent his rage. Do you want to fuck rich old men? He snapped, his eyes hateful, vigilant for any reaction from her he might use as confirmation. She ignored him, stayed quiet, still. As he drove he described things under his breath about what she wanted to do with rich old men that if she confronted him about he'd deny having said. This had happened before—him saying things he later denied. It made her feel crazy. An hour later, at home, the anger turned to lust (the lust, as she understood it, having as much to do with his boss as she), and afterward her husband seemed to love her again; it was just a bad night.
"No," she quickly adds, before he can answer the question she posed in return, in case he attempts to flirt back with her. "No, I didn't follow you. I just recognized you at the bar and thought, This is the second time I've seen him now, so I just have to draw him. Your face stayed with me. You have that kind of face."
This devoid of flirtatiousness. Said clinically. Authoritatively.
He seems to accept it.
The fantasies of what they might do instead—of him reaching out to place his hand on her knee, of him rising up in the middle of the sketch to push away the sketchpad and put his mouth on hers—flash intermittently as if on a movie screen at her periphery, a movie she isn't watching but doesn't have the power to turn off. Sometimes she doesn't know the men are handsome until afterward, studying the sketches that, though not flattering, accurately show the structure of the faces, the eyes.
In drawing, just before she slips into the trance, she's aware of doing what she should not being doing, because she doesn't want her husband to see this and she dreads the lie that will have to be told if he does, which is that this is someone she saw only from a distance or even a face she made up. She thinks some part of him knows the truth while another part denies it and even that he's aroused by the deceit that puts her at a distance from him, that renders her powerful and opaque, like the pornographic images he's addicted to; but this is just a theory, a theory that presents itself and just as suddenly gives way to other thoughts that stream alongside the act of drawing.
"I want to see it," he says after.
And it is this moment she both anticipates and fears; she can't very well not show it to him.
The book in his hands makes her anxious because she imagines him ripping out the pages, tearing them up, even though this has never happened with a sketch she's shown to anyone.
He stares at her as if seeing her now for the first time. Looks back at the sketch. His fingers go up toward his temple, hover there without quite touching it before curling, pressing briefly against his mouth. He looks back up at her.
"I don't know whether I should be flattered or offended."
Both, she thinks. But she says nothing. Waits.
"Let me take you out to dinner."
"You just ate dinner."
"I know," he says, flustered, amused. "I mean—"
"I'm married," she replies.
When, after stepping off the elevator and being buzzed through yet another set of doors, I find him standing in the gallery, he looks less than happy to see me. Except for my own footsteps against the hardwood floor and the faint hum of the air conditioner switching on, there is only silence, him acknowledging me with a curt hello and a bothered expression—like I'm interrupting him rather than responding to an invitation he himself made—then striding away from me, back to the painting he seemed to have been studying before I came in. This puts his back to me. I feel snubbed, dumbfounded. Maybe because he doesn't seem to like me anymore, or maybe just because the afternoon doesn't have the magic of the night of our meeting, he looks less appealing to me. His jean cuffs, turned up above his ankles in the style I've noticed with cosmopolite men in their 20s and 30s on the street, and in recent issues of the fashion magazines my husband subscribes to, irritate me, seeming feminine somehow.
I do like his shirt—a worn white button-down, untucked—and in the bad air of his mysterious upset with me and my fickle assessment of him, I think how stupid infatuation is, how silly I am, how we probably won't even have time to go out for coffee before I find myself back in a cab, heading toward LaGuardia.
"I'd begun to think you weren't coming."
And maybe because I hear in his tone that I've hurt him—that I can hurt him—everything changes.
"I'm sorry. I misestimated the travel time. I'm not used to taking cabs."
I was only 15 minutes late, I consider, and this just for coffee on a Sunday afternoon.
Yet the feeling I've committed the unforgivable persists. Is it my imagination?
"I may have to get away soon," he says, rather dismissively, as if some part of him were already gone. "There's something important I might have to attend to this evening."
Something in me drops. Quietly I panic. While at first my outpour of questions—about what he does, about how things work at the gallery, about my situation with him—seems practical, I realize as I'm speaking that the questions themselves don't much matter to me, that they are secondary to my reason for asking them, which is to draw him back to me. The sound of this, of my voice in the otherwise silent gallery, saturated with interest, disturbs me because I think he might be able to hear its disjointed (and desperate) relationship to the words.
But no, he believes we're really having a conversation and is in fact delighted by the questions, my naïveté. Gradually he warms to me again. We discuss the problem of value. He must create a sense of the value he sees in the paintings for other people, he explains, and the people in whom he creates this must be the right ones.
"We can't let just anyone buy them," he says of my pieces. "Do you understand how it works?"
There on the second floor, he stands in front of large-scale oil paintings of what appear to be lower-class Southerners engaged in domestic dramas. In one of them a woman clutches a yowling infant to her chest while a man in jeans and a soiled white undershirt yells at her, his hands thrown out, his face taut with fury and pain. And in another a woman in cutoffs and a tank top holds a pool stick javelin-style, at the threshold of a bedroom, pointed at a nude woman with a deer-caught-in-headlights expression standing in front of a bed where a man (whom they both obviously desire) sits also nude, the navy sheet cast over one luminously rendered bare leg only partially obscuring his groin.
That painting is in fact titled Deer Caught in Headlights, and I suspect he directed me here, to this floor, to see it.
"But what do you mean?" I want to know. "Don't you have to let whoever offers the price have them?" I say.
"No. Of course not. It's good I got a hold of you before you started throwing it away. The wrong collectors would devalue your work."
"But it seems unfair to be so exclusive about it," I argue, for by the light of his returning attraction to me—palpable in the way his eyes cling to my movements, follow my hand reaching down to adjust the strap of the flimsy sandals I'm wearing that day—I've begun to feel the beginnings of obstinacy, of the casual resistance a woman can assume around the man to whom she by instinct already knows herself bound.
"Ah, but it'd be unfair the other way too, wouldn't it?" he replies. "Do you think some dumb trader yuppie is going to understand what you're doing? That there's no difference between someone like that and L— [a name I don't recognize] having your work? Knowing how to display it? To whom to lend it? By what context to interpret its necessity?"
You need me, is what he seems to be saying. And I saved you. I read between the words. In his green eyes. In the pregnant pause in which I feel his continuing awareness of the painting behind him, the painting he wishes for me to admire.
"It's by a Swiss painter," he tells me. "He has never been to the South but is obsessed with American country-music videos. This is what he imagines the American South to be like. These are his fantasies. Aren't they fascinating?"
Nodding, I think I might hate them but am fascinated by his fascination, by how he sees. I say something about the use of color in them, and in a manner I'd identify as pretentious, had someone else been talking, go on about the biblical implications of the use of purple throughout. The knowledge that I need to pull my phone from my purse to check the time distracts me; I sense if I do this he'll take even that brief loss of attention as a slight, so I go for the direct approach, bring up that it's almost time for my flight; and what about those contracts he mentioned when asking me to meet him, the paperwork I could sign here instead of receiving through the mail?
"Ah, contracts," he says, eyes pointedly sweeping to take in my ringed left hand. "I use them because it makes everyone feel better, but personally I think they're silly. Don't you?"
Realizing I am not going to answer, he then begins to describe the hanging system, and as he does this he reaches for me, his hand lightly encircling my wrist to draw me closer, where he then positions me between his chest and the painting affixed to the wall.
His hands at either side of my bare upper arms, he directs my focus straight ahead, toward the middle of the work. The rush this gives me causes a backlash of helplessness; I try to will myself into feeling nothing, worried he'll know.
The work is such-and-such dimensions, which is X number of inches from the floor, meaning the center of the work is at X inches, and that sort of thing—all very specific and logical but nothing more than nonsense being murmured into my hair, into my ear, in comparison with the explicit thrill of his touch and breath; of the laundered scent rising from the shirt he must have owned for years, must have worn thin and soft with the heat and exertion of his upper body and put on again and again because it feels and looks a way that he continues to regard as right.
"Before, this one was there and that one was here," he explains. "But I called my assistant to come in and help me switch them. I told him they were in the wrong order. He put them like this because he thinks the one with the baby belongs after the one with sex. But this one is better, so I think it should be viewed after the other one. Because of its excellent handling of jealousy. I am a very jealous person. It radiates off this one, doesn't it?" He pauses, seems to be considering whether or not he should say what he's thinking. "My assistant is very good-looking. Everyone notices. I rushed him out of here before you came in because I didn't want you to see him."
That he's made this confession seems to surprise him as much as me.
"He was irritated with me," says my art dealer. "I think he was with his girlfriend when I called him to come in earlier." He makes a face suggesting the whole idea of this, of his assistant having a girlfriend, is humorous to him. "They hate when I call them in on the weekends we're closed, but they've come to expect it because they know it's when I most like to work. Usually I'd be working now," he says. "And I suppose I am," he observes, it seeming to have only just now dawned on him that his switching the paintings had coincided with this. With us.
"But I suppose you wouldn't be, would you? Because you work late at night," he added, surprising me by remembering it. "I suppose at home around this time you'd be about to make dinner for your husband, yes?"
This last part is put to me in a falsely light tone, undercut with accusation, but is quickly followed by his saying how sad he is to see me leave.
"I am too," I reply.
"Yes, it's too bad you have to go now. I feel like we could've talked for hours and hours."
The air is thick with something not quite lamentation.
"Yes," I agree. "Me too."
Back in the office you couldn't stay on the couch with me for more than a couple minutes; you were restless; you stood. You walked over to the window through which the now golden last part of the afternoon lit the glass, and you told me how you hadn't had a girlfriend until after college, at the age of 22. "I couldn't even talk to women," you said, lighting a cigarette. You smiled. It was as if you were talking about someone else, and again I had the sense of two men, each of them wanting to impress me with his contrast to the other.
"I worked in the library in college," you said. "I was obsessed with this woman who came in almost every day. A graduate student. She looked like a young Isabelle Huppert. Some of her blouses looked like negligees. What do you call them?"
"Camisoles," I said, pleased to know something you didn't.
"Camisoles. She'd wear these camisoles under blazers. White. Pink. Champagne. No bra. Remarkably poised. Some inborn nobility about her. Small-breasted but large-nippled. I could see them occasionally when she was leaned over her books, these rose half-dollar-size areolas. Forgive me if I'm going into too much detail, I—"
You would plan things to say to her. You'd write them down and then practice saying them in a way that sounded casual, but whenever you saw her you froze up, couldn't say anything at all, and if she came toward the desk when you were behind it, you acted busy with something else so the other clerk would have to help her.
"Finally, one day at a bar near campus, she approached the booth I sat in. She looked at me like she recognized me; she smiled; it was like being in a dream. I could tell she was about to ask me something. She appeared hopeful. She was wearing one of the champagne-colored camisoles I'd dreamed about her in. This was the closest I'd ever been to her. She was wearing perfume—very light and clean, not what I'd have imagined she'd wear but strong enough to momentarily override the smell of my food, the bar. She leaned in toward me."
At this you brought the cigarette to your lips, inhaled. Held my eyes. "She said to me, 'Are you using that ketchup?'
"A decade later I ran into her at a party. She looked pretty much the same except that her face was leaner. She had remarkable bone structure, I saw. I could see she was going to age well. She wore a man's gambler hat. It looked perfectly ridiculous. Upsettingly sexy. She felt she knew me but didn't know from where. I didn't tell her. I pretended not to know. She was... receptive." This said pointedly, you staring into my eyes. "But she turned out to be boring and not very intelligent."
This twist in the story caught me off guard. The air changed. I felt a little like I was being warned.
"So you went out with her?" I asked.
"Out with her? No. I could tell from that short conversation at the party she was terribly dull. I had to make an excuse to get away from her. It was such a disappointment for me—here I was with the woman of my dreams on a summer night, but just not into it, just wanting to get away; what she was saying didn't even make much sense to me; I couldn't decide whether or not I even liked her voice, really—and at the same time, as the girlfriend that I almost married pointed out once, what I was in love with was her image, and I'd had it that year in the library. All that time I'd thought I was missing out on something, on more, but what interested me was there all along. I still remember her outfits. I remember how her hair looked when she came in from the rain. One day she wore this awful yellow shirt and I felt less attracted, like I'd made a mistake. The next day when she looked right to me again I felt like we'd made up. Now that I've been in some relationships, I understand that they're not much more than that, essentially, but involve talking and sex."
You exhaled. The smoke from your cigarette was a blue haze. The window overlooked the gray wall of the building across the street, speckled russet in places with discoloration. In retrospect I would think a relationship is nothing like staring at a woman in a library who doesn't know you're watching her for a year—and what I think now is that when you finally did have the chance to be with her, you just chickened out, wanting it to end with you feeling superior—but there in your office what you'd said sounded profound to me and more than likely this had to do with the way your pants fit your ass, and your way of bringing the cigarette to your lips, your knobby carpal bones giving way to long, tapered forearms; the dandy, almost prissy quality of your perpetually critical air riding over some raw and puritanical desperation about this world that would never be good enough for you; and I don't know how to explain it, but there was something thuggish about you around the edges; something a little seedy not concealed by fine brands of clothes; I could imagine you in jail; and was I being typical? Was there really anything exceptional between us two, or was I just taking up with the first "bad boy" who presented himself during my bout of marital despair?
"But you could say my first love was my sister," you said, going on about other women. "At the age of five I believed we'd marry, like our parents, and when I told her about it she called me an idiot and explained brothers and sisters couldn't do that. I was devastated. She was the center of my existence. She regularly broke my heart, and had we not been related she'd have had nothing to do with me. I asked her this before she died, and she confirmed it, happily. She said, 'Of course not. You're such a creep.'" Your face was pleased as you said this—you loved your sister's sense of humor, I could tell, and I liked it too, and maybe this was when I began to like you. "She was so... she was..."
Then you stopped. As if shaking yourself from nodding off into a dream. You were staring at me again.
"You look hungry. It's time to eat."
But at the restaurant I grew detached as I sat at the table alone while you lingered up at the front, flirting with a waitress you knew. The waiter taking my drink order noticed too, seemed to pity me, and as I sat there in the air-conditioned dining area wearing your jacket over my tank top, I regarded you with the safe humor of a married woman on an outing with a cad: a cad whom once, now to her own amusement, she'd actually imagined herself to be in love with despite that he was so obviously—
Did I tell you, as we ate, I decided you were the saddest man I'd ever known? Loneliness clung to you. "Her fiancé is Albanian," you said of the waitress after you'd finally sat down to join me. "She's Italian but he's Albanian, and he speaks her language but she doesn't speak his. They see an English tutor together." You seemed to like thinking this at the same time you gave off a hint of jealousy. "I come here on Tuesdays usually." In the brief lulls in conversation, when your face fell, I could see: You were one of those miserable bachelors who went to the same restaurant on the same day each week and had fantasy relationships with your waitresses. You spoke of the details of her life as one inside something, as one having entered a much larger construction, so that I pictured you with your head against a pillow, dreaming of sitting beside her as she saw the tutor, your Tuesday waitress with the olive complexion and cascade of dark curls and full chest, dreaming of stealing her from her fiancé like—
But now you were with me. Recalling your face in front of the cab, I saw now and then the glow of triumph, of the fantasy of me having become reality, the sense of increased possibility with which you viewed the waitress just before your attention turned to me. If it could happen with me, then why not with her?
And frankly by then I'd decided to sleep with you as an act of compassion. Poor thing—that night, I'd never seen anyone who so needed to be fucked. You were the kind of sad person who'd become so numb he didn't even know what sadness was anymore, who thought he was fine because he couldn't even remember being happy, and I wanted to help you.
Happy. I saw I was making you happy. I had forgotten what it was like to make someone happy.
Excerpted from the novella Vulnerability