I gazed with both awe and skepticism at Kevin as he sipped his coffee, bit into his muffin and surfed the web on his phone. We had been together for four months, yet there were still times when he felt to me like a figment or dream. It seemed as if he might vanish at any moment, leaving me alone in my Brooklyn apartment.
In the decade before I met Kevin, there wasn’t one Sunday that I didn’t take breakfast alone. I’d had a few one-night-stands, but always crept away or convinced the guy to leave as quickly as possible. It was no wonder I occasionally doubted if Kevin was real. For my entire adult life and most of my childhood, solitude had been my only companion.
I met Kevin at a Hell’s Kitchen gay bar. I didn’t go to bars often, but once in a while did crave human company. Kevin walked in, slender, bespectacled, gawkily handsome, in khakis and a buttoned-down shirt buttoned to the top. Appearing as wholesome as a fifties sitcom character, he seemed as out of place there as I felt. That was surely what possessed me to approach him, ask him the name of his cerulean blue drink. We ended up having three rounds of “bluebirds.” At the end of the night, we exchanged numbers and went to our respective homes, a rarity in the gay world. If I were to find love, it couldn’t be with anyone remotely normal.
Kevin was strange because he was so “normal,” raised by two devoutly religious, yet wholly accepting parents in a small Minnesota town. He had moved to New York from Minneapolis a month earlier, transferred by his consulting firm. He’d recently ended a long-term monogamous relationship. There was no Grindr on his phone. The only “Molly” he knew of was his sister-in-law.
On the surface, it was a case of opposites attract. Kevin’s idyllic upbringing contrasted starkly with mine. He was logical and business-minded. I was an artist. He was tall, pasty and blond. I was a five-foot-five half-Mexican, half-Colombian. Yet, we shared the same off-kilter sense of humor. We were both sensitive and soft-spoken. We both loved the Dutch Masters, alternative rock and engaging in a good debate.
Suddenly, he grimaced. He set down his mug. He scrolled down on his phone, his expression growing increasingly perturbed. I knew instantly something was wrong. Perpetually even-tempered, he gave only a resigned shrug even after realizing he had been pickpocketed by the fat Spiderman on Times Square.
“What is it?” I asked.
Glaring, he turned his phone around and held it out. Evidently, he had Googled my name and a painting came up from my upcoming exhibit: a Klansman Grand Wizard was bound with rope, prodded with pitchforks and threatened with torches. Visible through his singed, tattered hood was the face of the president. Despite Kevin’s angry expression, I couldn’t help smirking. Seeing my reaction, he petulantly stuffed his phone into his pajamas pocket. While many of our differences ultimately proved trivial, there was one that always seemed impossible to get past: Kevin was a Republican.
“Wow, they put that online?” I said, gratified. I had never seen my work online before. Whenever I Googled my name and “painter,” the results would inevitably be for a house painting company. Perhaps those Pedro Padillas had been shipped back to their countries of origin under the new administration.
“I respect your political views. You have every right not to like him, not that she was any…” He abandoned that thought, spurred by my glower. “If you don’t want to admit he’s your president, fine. But this painting is sick! It makes me wonder what kind of person would think it up.”
“Do you think I’m sick?” I asked. Though I put on an indignant face, “sick” was an accurate description of my mind. I had all the symptoms of PTSD. I woke up shouting some nights, startled easily, needed to be alone often. Even my aversion to the president could be ascribed to what Miguel, my mother’s ex-boyfriend, did to me. It gave me issues with authority figures, made me detest anyone I perceived as abusing his or her power.
“No,” he said, with a surety I didn’t possess myself. “Is it the only piece like this?” he asked hopefully.
“It’s kind of the theme of the show,” I admitted. Wendy, my agent, had insisted on it. When she discovered me last summer, peddling my work in Washington Square Park, it was a painting of the then-presidential-candidate as an exploding piñata that caught her attention. She admired my impeccable technique, but said there were countless artists about whom she could say the same. A politically outspoken Latino with impeccable technique was less common. She expressed disappointment when I revealed I was legal, but assured me that could be “fudged.”
“Now I get why you discouraged me from attending the opening,” he said. He pushed his half-eaten muffin aside, pointedly losing his appetite. It was true: I had intentionally deceived him. Still, I didn’t feel as if I did anything wrong. I had struggled for years without success. At thirty-one, I’d never had a public exhibition, public parks notwithstanding. Wendy was giving me a career, lifting me from nothing.
“Sorry,” I said. Unfortunately, it sounded as insincere as it was.
“It’s been four months. What do I have to do to earn your trust?” he asked. He knew the source of my trust issues, and presumably knew I couldn’t give him an answer. But apparently, the question wasn’t rhetorical. Angered by my silence, he stomped off to the bathroom. As he showered and dressed, I Googled myself on my phone. Wendy had used her connections to publicize the exhibit in several venues, art journals, local papers.
When he reappeared scowling, I ignored him. It wasn’t that I didn’t care that he was upset. Withdrawal was my natural response to being hurt. It always had been.
“If you come up with an answer, call me,” he said. He left, taking his backpack full of clothes with him. I had been looking forward to a relaxed, romantic Sunday with him all week. The thought of spending it alone provoked an anguished groan.
These last four months with Kevin had been blissful. We argued occasionally, but it was always about politics, religion, or art. Clearly, he was less content than I realized. Perhaps what I had with him wasn’t as real as I thought. It wouldn’t be the first time that love proved illusory.
I only thought I was in love once before, and that love ended up being no more than a dream. Since meeting Kevin, I rarely thought about Vic. Yet, the memory of him hadn’t been completely erased. For, some part of me had always anticipated the moment when Kevin would be gone and my joy would turn to despair.
When I met Vic, I was a freshman at Manhattan College of Art. My interest in art began when I was seven years old, soon after my mother took up with Miguel. Art was my way of escaping what Miguel subjected me to.
Though Miguel was only around for a few years, he inflicted lasting psychological damage. Long after he left, I had nightmares every night. Family members were murdered. Grotesque monsters chased me through dark alleys. Acquaintances turned into enemies, attacking, mutilating, killing me. Ghouls haunted my home. Plagues ravaged the world.
I withdrew into a protective shell. I failed to develop basic social skills. Others interacted with each other so freely, tossing out “hellos,” “good mornings” and “nice to meet yous” unthinkingly. My mind never found the right words. My body never made the right motions.
Starting at MCoA, I was a hopeless basket case. Even so, life there was a definite improvement over Phoenix. I had the chance to create art every day. No one ridiculed me. Most of the students were outcasts themselves back home. I was a subway ride from the best museums in the world. The Met alone held more Rembrandts than the whole state of Arizona.
When Vic walked into Professor McHugh’s studio, a roll of canvas in his arms, the class was painting a watercolor still-life. I was seated by the door.
“It arrived, thanks! We’ll need these for the next class,” Professor McHugh said.
“Acrylics, I remember,” Vic said. He must have been Professor McHugh’s former student. Vic’s face was ruggedly handsome. He was hawk-nosed with high cheekbones and a square jaw. His ruddy complexion suggested Italian or Greek ancestry. He had broad shoulders, thick biceps. He had emerald green eyes, accentuated by smokey eyeshadow and mascaraed lashes. His hair was dyed platinum. He wore several rings on each hand, gemstones, a Pisces sign, a Chinese character. His fingernails were hot pink.
“I’ll take it, Vic,” Professor McHugh said.
After Vic handed over the canvas, his eyes casually panned across the room. His gaze lingered on me. He grinned, clearly not just checking out my artwork. My face burned red. I looked down, as I always did when I met someone’s gaze. Yet, something compelled me to glance up. Vic was beautiful. He was unapologetically flamboyant. I hated being gay. I hated my eyes, large and pretty like a girl’s. I hated my soft voice. I found myself repulsive. Vic didn’t find himself repulsive, and he obviously didn’t find me repulsive.
“Thanks again.” Professor McHugh said brusquely. Vic finally looked away. I glanced at Professor McHugh, who was scowling. He was straight. He often mentioned his wife. Surely, he thought us disgusting.
“My pleasure.” Vic left.
I was flustered for the remainder of the class, resulting in a still-life rendering below my usual standards. I was daydreaming about Vic, accompanying him to museums, dining with him at restaurants, dancing with him, holding him, kissing him. I knew it was impossible. I couldn’t speak a sentence to Vic, let alone ask him out. Vic was hardly my first crush on a boy. I had been tormented by my longings for years.
Nonetheless, some part of me didn’t abandon hope. That night, I had a mysterious dream. I was in a huge, crowded, brightly lit space. It appeared to be a house party, though there were no “houses” at MCoA, or seemingly all of Manhattan.
The oddest aspect of the dream was not the location. It was me. I felt perfectly at ease. I smiled affably at strangers, greeted people I recognized. Even my posture was straight. I didn’t gaze down, scrunching my shoulders, as if trying to vanish into myself. Why would I want to? I saw what others saw looking at me, someone boyishly handsome, smart and talented.
A platinum head of hair in the crowd caught my eye. Although I couldn’t see who it was, I was stirred by the elegant shape of his neck.
“Follow,” a voice whispered. I obeyed. I had no choice. It seemed to be the dream itself guiding me.
“Excuse me, pardon me, thanks…” I deftly wove through the guests, keeping my sight fixed on the platinum haired head. Upon following him through a door, I was astonished to find myself in a dark, empty room. It was completely silent. There was no hint of the bustling party.
“Get out of that closet!” a voice said. It wasn’t the same voice as before. This voice was deep and gruff, yet had a bit of a lisp. A hand reached in, grabbing me by my shirt. I wasn’t alarmed. I recognized who the hand belonged to from the painted fingernails. Grinning blithely, I was pulled out into Vic’s arms.
“I was lost,” I said.
“I found you,” he asserted. Gazing into each other’s eyes, we brought our lips close together.
I awoke tonguing my pillow. I jolted upright. I heard my roommate, Brian, snoring. I glanced at the alarm clock. It was three in the morning. I couldn’t quite believe the dream had ended. There had to be more. At some point, it had to turn violent, sickening, horrible. Even once I accepted that I was awake, I refused to shut my eyes. I wouldn’t risk ruining my first night without a nightmare since I was seven years old.
Vic was only a dream, but Kevin was real, I told myself. What we had was real. Yet, acknowledging that only made me more terrified to lose him. I regretted not trying harder to keep him here. While I still wasn’t sorry, I should have acted more convincingly like I was.
Not ten minutes after he left, I sent him a text apologizing. I finished my breakfast, showered and dressed without receiving a reply. I sat on the couch, sketching out ideas for new pieces. The instant my phone chimed on the table, I lunged for it.
“Traitor! We no ur phone#.” There was no name, just a number I didn’t recognize with a non-New York area code. Three gray dots appeared.
“We no ur address.” The sender proceeded to write out my address, down to the apartment number.
“We’re coming u ilegal immegrant libral scum! U’ll b sorry u insulted President…”
I stopped reading. My heart pounded. I felt dizzy. I took deep breaths, trying to keep calm. I should have anticipated this. Anyone could pay fifty bucks on a website and get all my information. If not for Kevin, I would have been prepared. I was so caught up in the throes of new love, I wasn’t my usual vigilant self. I learned long ago not to trust anyone. My faith in humanity had been stolen by Miguel, and by the relatives, teachers and neighbors who failed to notice or care what was happening to me. When the election results came in on November 8th, I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
I forgave Kevin for his political beliefs. I understood how easy it was to be deceived by someone who pays you attention, makes you believe you’re special or “great.” It didn’t mean Kevin wasn’t a good person. I was convinced that if Kevin suspected a child was being mistreated, he would report it. He would do everything in his power to protect that child from harm. Kevin had that kind of decency.
As I thought of Kevin, I felt a pang of dread. What if he hadn’t texted back, not because he was angry, but because he was jumped by a crazed redneck the moment he stepped outside? I called Kevin’s number. I held my breath. I sighed with relief when he picked up.
“Yes?” he said. I heard the muffled din of cars and pedestrians. He was out of the subway, probably heading home.
“I was worried…” My voice choked with emotion. I was so relieved he was safe. I realized he was better off staying away from me for the time being.
“Why?” he said. I couldn’t tell him. He would rush over or insist I stay at his place. I couldn’t risk either.
“About the show, about no one being interested if it wasn’t controversial,” I said. He wouldn’t like that I was seemingly more concerned about my career than him.
“I don’t care about your show. This is about your dishonesty. Listen, I have stuff to do for work. I’ve been putting it off. I need a few days to catch up,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Um, I’ll call you later,” he said. There was an awkward silence, caused by the fact that this was the first phone conversation in months not to end in a mutual “love you.” Eventually, I hung up.
Lest I consider calling him back to apologize, I noticed I had fifty new emails. I clicked on the most recent, from “AmericaFirst904.” It read simply, “You are guilty of treason!” Below that declaration was a Gif of a blindfolded prisoner shot before a firing squad. Each email had a different sender. A new one arrived within seconds.
I shut down my phone. I needed to think. Contacting the police would be pointless. Even assuming the culprits could be traced, I wouldn’t stop being a target. I could change my phone number, drop my email account. But they knew where I lived. It wasn’t safe here. I grabbed a suitcase from the closet. I tossed in toiletries, my sketchbook and as many clothes as would fit. Carrying my luggage, I took the elevator down to the garage.
Owning a car in New York was impractical. Public parking was sparse, garage prices were exorbitant and traffic was horrendous. Yet, I could never bring myself to get rid of my ‘05 Ford Focus. I was too attached to it. For a decade, I had lugged around my paintings and art supplies in the trunk, setting them up at my spot in the park. I would arrive as soon as a temp job ended, or the mornings the agency didn’t call. I painted new pieces between sales.
At twenty-one, I drove this car from Phoenix to New York, sleeping in it at night. After three years living in a house filled with horrific memories, with a mother who refused to believe me when I told her what Miguel was guilty of, I took off one morning, speeding right past the supermarket where I worked as a stock boy. I had been stashing away my earnings, fifteen grand in total, remembering the one place I felt happy, albeit ever so briefly.
Back then, I was escaping from misery, to a place I knew I belonged. Now, I was being forced to flee. I had no destination in mind. I wasn’t sure when or if I would return. I could never feel safe here again. I could never endanger Kevin either. Starting over seemed my only option. I hated to abandon my life when things were finally going my way. Yet, I knew from experience that holding on too tightly could be even more costly.
I didn’t let go of my dream of Vic in the morning. The sensation of being in his arms, kissing his lips, stayed with me. For the first time, I believed love was possible. I had seen it, felt it. Now, I was determined to make it a reality.
Unfortunately, MCoA had little communal student space. There was a cafeteria with bland food, but most students preferred the innumerable restaurants, pizzerias and fast food places around. The party scene was the local bars, but I certainly couldn’t finagle a fake ID. I hadn’t seen Vic for my first two months at MCoA, and had no idea where to find him again.
Nevertheless, following that dream, I looked for him everywhere, peering into classrooms and studios, searching the streets for his face whenever I left the dorm. I ended up finding him by complete chance.
One Tuesday, as I headed to Life Drawing, I remembered I needed new charcoal sticks. MCoA had its own art supply store, but like the cafeteria, students rarely went there. There was a large Picasso Paints nearby. I popped in since it was on the way. The instant I saw Vic behind the register, I jumped out.
He didn’t see me. He was helping a customer. I stood outside the door. I was so nervous that my entire body shook. I thought I would vomit. I wasn’t ready. Even if I could force myself to go back in, he would probably call an ambulance thinking I was having a seizure. I staggered away.
I had to get over my nerves. I had to learn how to talk to him. Immediately, I began practicing my social skills, asking a classmate to borrow a piece of charcoal. She handed it to me absentmindedly, not finding me remotely awkward. When I returned to my dorm Brian was there.
“How was Printmaking?” I asked.
“Shit, you talk?” Brian kidded. “Fine, I guess. I’m surprised you know my schedule. I figured you were oblivious to everything like one of those idiot savants, no offense.”
I mustered a fake laugh. That definitely wasn’t how I wanted to be seen; I wanted love, not pity. In truth, I didn’t consciously remember Brian’s schedule. I hoped that the keys to social interaction were buried somewhere in my mind too; I just had to locate them.
Within a week, I had improved. I said “good morning” to my classmates and dorm neighbors, forcing myself to make eye contact. If others commented on the weather, I agreed with them. I even raised my hand once during European Art History, and gave the right answer. On Tuesday morning, I boldly entered the art supply store. Vic glanced up and smiled. I smiled in response.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said, breathlessly. My original plan was to buy a sketchpad, but I was afraid to push my luck. I pretended to browse for a minute before slipping out. I tried and failed to catch Vic’s gaze again; he was flipping through a magazine. Nevertheless, I left exhilarated.
I was so content with that “hi” that I let several Tuesdays pass without returning to the store. I felt optimistic, perhaps complacently so. Since the night I dreamt of Vic, I hadn’t had one nightmare. My dreams were full of beaches, castles, horses and puppies. It convinced me that everything would work out somehow.
As I worked on my acrylic still-life, Professor McHugh called my name. I approached his desk. I figured it had something to do with the freshman semi-annual exhibit. Each professor selected several pieces per class to display. My watercolor self-portrait was among those chosen.
“We need your photo for the semi-annual,” Professor McHugh said, pointing to the door. Following his instruction, I walked out of the studio.
“Pedro?” Vic stood in the hallway.
“Ah!” I yelped. I clutched my racing heart. I leaned over, panting. I glanced up. His camera hung from a neck strap. With a frozen smile, he waited as I collected myself. I glanced back at the classroom. I was tempted to dart back in. But there was no retreating now, not unless I wanted to look completely crazy.
“That’s me,” I muttered.
“We’ll do this in the photography studio. It’s empty,” he said in a cool, businesslike tone. My shock at seeing him was obvious. It must have seemed like I was ashamed of my attraction to him. I wasn’t. I wanted nothing more in the world than to kiss him. I would do it right now, in the hallway. I didn’t care who saw. Instead, I spoke.
“I like your nails. They’re beautiful.” I knew I had to say something to win him over. It was the first thing that came to mind. They were lime-green today.
“Thanks,” he smiled, blushing. “I’d do orange for you, goes better with your complexion,” he said. I made a mortified face. Wherever I went, I tried to be invisible. The attention I would get with orange fingernails would probably make me faint from embarrassment.
“Joking, honey. It’s not for everyone. I just can’t help being a weirdo.” He shrugged.
“You’re not a weirdo,” I said. I was genuinely weird, so I could say that with certainty.
“Aww, you’re a sweetheart. I’m not ashamed of it though. It’s right here.” We turned a corner and entered the photography studio. There was a lamp, a stool, an umbrella and a gray backdrop.
“Shame is pointless,” I mused aloud. I was thinking of being gay. The insecurity I felt from my effeminate voice, facial features and mannerisms was fading. I realized most people didn’t notice those things, and I stopped caring even if they did.
“Amen to that,” he grinned. He gestured to the stool. I sat.
“It’s supposed to be all serious. There will be a little blurb about you, where you’re from, your influences, your artistic aspirations,” he explained. “No smiling!” he commanded facetiously.
“I can’t help it,” I said. I tried pulling down my cheeks with my hands. It didn’t work. I couldn’t contain my joy.
“It is a beautiful smile. Since you mentioned my beautiful nails.” He looked down at his fingernails thoughtfully. Glancing up, his eyes were filled with tenderness. The longing I felt managed to collapse my smile. His camera clicked.
“Perfect,” he said. I stood up. My shyness suddenly returned. I was anxious to get away, mull over this encounter, scrutinize every second of it. With a quick wave, I headed out.
“My name’s Vic, by the way,” he said.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“See you around,” he smirked.
“I love you,” I thought, but knew enough not to say. I was learning fast.
I decided that I had practiced enough. By just following my instincts, our first conversation turned out better than I could have possibly imagined. My instincts now told me I had to do something special to earn Vic’s love. That night, I returned to the studio. I set aside my still-life and began work on a new project.
Professor McHugh never locked the studio. He encouraged students to paint outside of class hours if they wanted to. It spoke for my newfound comfort with my sexuality that I didn’t bother hiding my work from the occasional classmate who wandered in. No one batted an eye even after the image became unmistakably delineated, two men kissing fervently, their figures framed by a swung open closet door. As it approached completion, it was hard not to admire my own work. The colors were striking, vibrant flesh tones against cool blues. The brushstrokes were thick and expressive. The likenesses were uncanny.
My plan was to swap the watercolor self-portrait slated for the semi-annual for my new acrylic piece. Professor McHugh kept a ring of keys in a bowl on his desk. While in the studio alone, I snatched it and tested the keys on the gallery door. Sure enough, one of them worked. In my fantasy, Vic’s heart would melt upon seeing it. He would turn to me with a look of adoration. I would stride up to him confidently. We would kiss, just like in the painting and in my dream. We would leave the gallery hand in hand.
On the morning of the semi-annual, I took my painting from its spot in the drying rack, concealed between two large canvases. When I went to grab the keys, they were gone. I looked on his desk, searched the drawers, but couldn’t find them. Still, I refused to abandon my plan. I wouldn’t let go of that beautiful scene in my mind, of Vic and myself displaying our love in the gallery, oblivious to anyone’s stares but each other’s.
It was before classes began, so the building was mostly empty. I heard only some faint rustling as I walked through the halls. Once at the gallery door, I turned the knob. It was unlocked. I was so elated that tears formed in my eyes. I gently pushed. I paused. I heard whispers.
“Come on, stop playing around. This should’ve been done days ago.”
“And who’s fault is that?”
“Really? Well, maybe.”
My first instinct was to slink away, wait around the corner until they left. Hopefully, they would forget to lock up. Something kept me in place. I knew those voices. But what were they doing together? Why was their tone so intimate? Overcome with confusion, I shoved open the door.
Vic’s hands clasped the back of Professor McHugh’s neck. Professor McHugh’s hand clutched Vic’s ass. Their mouths were inches apart. Their eyes darted to me. They pulled away from each other. I had interrupted their kiss.
Professor McHugh was panic-stricken. Muttering inaudibly, he fretfully placed his hand to his forehead, drawing my sight to his wedding band. Vic was calmer. Recognizing me, he sighed in relief; I wasn’t a faculty member or someone else obligated to disclose what I saw.
“Pedro, you surprised us. I was helping Professor McHugh set up as part of my work study program. I tripped against him, clumsy me.” He faked a smile, but it turned into a wince. He must have realized how obvious his lie was. He walked towards me, gazing pleadingly. Abruptly, he stopped. He glanced down at the painting I held by its frame. His mouth dropped open.
From his expression, I immediately grasped how flawed my plan had been. The painting wasn’t romantic. It was creepy. I turned the painting around, but it was too late. He had already seen it.
“What is that?” he sneered. He marched over, reaching out for the canvas. He clenched his jaw, furrowed his brow. His demeanor changed from sheepish to threatening.
“Is that me and you? Why would you paint that? Why are you here?” he snapped. I saw through his act. He wasn’t angry. He was only trying to intimidate me into silence. He didn’t care about the painting, not its beauty, not the sentiment behind it.
I didn’t answer. I stormed out, taking the painting with me. I didn’t want it. I hated it now. I just couldn’t bear the thought of leaving it behind for Vic and Professor McHugh to gawk at, inspiring scorn and pity.
I ran to my dorm, ignoring every traffic light. I stopped only once, to stuff the painting into a public trashcan. I felt humiliated. Still, I had been humiliated numerous times before by my social ineptitude. Although my heart ached, I understood that I never really knew Vic. I only thought I had. What I found unbearable was that the dream I had put so much faith in, which was supposed to signify the start of a new life, turned out to mean nothing. I was just crazy. I would be alone forever. No one would love me.
With time to reflect, I might have appreciated the progress I had made in only a few months. I might have reasoned that Vic could sleep with Professor McHugh and still find me attractive. I might have reminded myself that while my dream didn’t materialize, it ended the horrific run of nightmares. Instead, I sought an immediate end to my pain. It was hardly the worst pain I had ever experienced. Yet, it felt like the cruelest because happiness had seemed so certain.
In my dorm room, I spotted Brian’s art bin on the desk. I rifled through his supplies, grabbed his woodcarving knife. I held out my wrist, shut my eyes and slashed down. When I opened my eyes, blood streamed onto the desk and floor. The sight of it shocked me to my senses. It would be a shame to die now. Life was finally getting better. I snatched a t-shirt from the drawer. I tied it tightly around my wrist. I even considered going back for my painting. Despite everything, it really was the best piece I had ever done.
Brian opened the door wrapped in a towel. His art bin was on the desk because he hadn’t left for class yet. If I had taken a moment to think about it, I might have guessed that. After yelling a string of profanities, he grabbed his cell phone and called 911.
I was admitted to Bellevue Hospital. I spent a day in the trauma unit before being transferred to the psych ward, where I remained for a month, attending inane therapy sessions, swallowing pills that made me woozy and nauseous, but not one iota saner, and sketching constantly on Xerox paper to escape the dreariness. While I wasn’t expelled from MCoA, it was effectively impossible for me to return. Unfortunately, I slashed my wrist before finals, earning incompletes in every class. Due to the fine print in the paperwork, my financial aid was rescinded. Upon my release, I flew back home to Phoenix, ruined by a tantalizing dream that had felt so real, so possible.
Standing outside a SoHo gallery exhibiting my work, within walking distance of where I once peddled my art for fifty-bucks a piece, would feel surreal under any circumstance. The mob of angry protestors truly made me doubt my sanity. I had watched the controversy snowball on my hotel TV, beginning on NY1 News before going national. While my first instinct was to drive as far away as possible, I ended up booking a room at a Chinatown Holiday Inn. I remembered what happened at MCoA, how I crumbled in the face of adversity. I should have stuck it out. My social skills would have kept improving. Certainly, Vic wouldn’t have told anyone about my ill-conceived painting. I would have been guaranteed an “A+” from Professor McHugh. Succumbing to despair at MCoA was probably the biggest regret of my life.
“Traitor!” “Treason!” “Lock him up!” The crowd to the right of the gallery entrance roared upon recognizing me. There were several dozen in total, most clearly from out of town, with mullets, American flag t-shirts, campaign pins and baseball caps left over from the election, and other accessories no New Yorker would be caught dead sporting.
“Free speech!” “Impeach!” “Fuck white supremacy!” The crowd to the left of the gallery entrance shouted. There were roughly twice as many anti-protesters. When I glanced in their direction, a big cheer arose. It was a more diverse group, racially mixed, with millennial hipsters, old hippies, men in suits and women in pantsuits coming straight from work. It was likely much the same crowd regularly convening at the president’s Midtown digs. They must have been eager for a change of scenery.
At once, two policemen flanked me and escorted me into the gallery. The usual prim, fey receptionist had been given the day off, replaced by a steely gazed security guard with the build of a linebacker. Inside was packed. As soon as I entered, all chatter ceased. I stood awkwardly. I had always been averse to attention. I spotted Wendy pushing her way through the gaping guests.
“Pedro!” she squealed. “Can you believe it? I figured a writeup or two, maybe an angry editorial. But this! We’ll get an offer on every piece! There’s already a bidding war over that one!” She pointed to my depiction of the president attempting to evade a group of turn of the century suffragettes grabbing furiously at his crotch.
I had never seen Wendy this ecstatic. A through and through New Yorker, she sounded blasé even reminiscing about snorting up with a still unknown Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“You’re a celebrity,” she gushed. I shrugged. I couldn’t say “celebrity” was something I ever wanted, or that it made me especially happy now. Yet, true happiness suddenly appeared in my view.
“Excuse me,” I said.
Kevin stood by himself, looking handsome in a black tuxedo. Meanwhile, I wore jeans, a t-shirt and a hoodie, the last clean clothes in my luggage. I hadn’t called him since the day of our tiff. I refused to subject him to the publicity, the threats of violence. Clearly, he was willing to brave that for me. I made my way to him.
“Congratulations!” he said. I kissed him. I couldn’t restrain myself. I missed him so much, was so miserable without him. I saw the flashes of cameras and camera phones in my periphery. Undoubtedly, everyone would know my sexual preference tomorrow, more fodder for my antagonists.
“I couldn’t miss your big moment. When you didn’t answer your cell, I made a reservation with the gallery. Luckily that was right before it became a ‘must-see’ event,” he explained. “I like this one.” He turned to the painting in front of us: a group of patrons at a 60’s era gay bar bombarding the president with bottles. In the foreground, two men kissed defiantly.
“It’s us,” I said. It was one of the last pieces I completed. I had referenced a selfie taken at a club several months ago, for no other reason than convenience.
“I know,” he grinned. “I look at it like this.” He shut one eye and held up his hand, blotting out the assailed president. I tried it myself. The piece transformed from disturbing to romantic and inspiring. I had to agree with him; it was much better now.
“It’s the only one I can stomach. I mean, they’re all skillfully done. And you know I try to keep an open mind. But it feels wrong to attack him like this. He’s the president,” he said. Like me, he was fundamentally incapable of censoring his opinion.
“You’re right. These paintings are juvenile. I’m an opportunist,” I said.
“That’s not true,” he sighed. But it was true, and I wasn’t apologizing. I had more to say.
“Why is that bad? We’re all just looking out for ourselves, aren’t we? It’s a cruel world. You have to do what it takes to survive, to find love, fulfilling work, some sort of happiness. You have to be ruthless. You can’t care whose feelings get hurt.” As I spoke, my mind flashed back to Vic, his reaction when I caught him with Professor McHugh. He resorted to intimidation to silence me. I had resented him for years. Now I understood him. I forgave him. Appropriate or not, he didn’t want his affair with Professor McHugh to end. He might have even loved him. He was willing to exploit, lie and humiliate to get what he needed, not so different from me, or the president.
“Hmm, you sound like my grandfather. He used to brag he voted Republican since Dewey ran against Roosevelt,” he smirked.
“You had to go and ruin the moment, didn’t you?” I said. He laughed. I clasped his hand. We kissed again. Suddenly, I noticed Wendy glaring over his shoulder. She cleared her throat.
“Sorry to interrupt you two lovebirds, but the whole New York art scene is here. Opportunities like this don’t come every day. Perhaps you can make out once this is over,” she huffed.
“Go,” he smiled.
Clutching my arm, Wendy pulled me towards a group of important looking guests. “Time to schmooze. The bald one’s a critic for Artist’s Quarterly.”
I glanced back at Kevin, who continued to admire the piece, holding his hand up, keeping one eye shut. He would stand there for hours, I knew, as the night wore on and the crowd slowly filtered out. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that he was real, that he wouldn’t suddenly disappear. Perhaps in time my skepticism would fade.
As I stared at Kevin staring at the painting, it occurred to me that my dream finally came true. I had spent over a decade ruing it, but it hadn’t really led me astray, and I hadn’t ever really let go of it. That wondrous dream lingered in my mind, never allowing me to believe happiness was impossible. Contrary to appearances, this exhibit wasn’t about politics. It was about hope, the need to hold onto it however grim the world became. Just when all had seemed lost, I was unexpectedly kissing my love in a gallery, experiencing the greatest moment of my life.
Scott Bassis is a young writer eager to establish himself as a serious talent. He has had short stories published in Poydras Review, The Acentos Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Image Outwrite, Quail Bell Magazine, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Fiction on the Web and Rainbow Curve.