by Corinne Manning
On August 14th 2003 I decided to put my roommate’s painting out on the curb. My girlfriend Tracy and I weren’t living together at the time, it would turn out we never would, but I was living in an apartment on Bedford Ave. with two of her friends from college. Tracy got me in when my last roommate situation ended horrifically: a bout of bed bugs, a robbery, and my roommate eating all of my cream cheese and not fessing up to it. Tracy’s ex-girlfriend had finally moved out of the apartment on Bedford and my moving in there meant she would get to hang out with those friends again more regularly. I have to admit that in retrospect I should have seen that she was dooming me to some new pattern of hers, but I was only 24, of middle class stock, and hadn’t yet learned that the individual has a tendency to fuck up in a specific way, over and over with varying degrees the same goddamn problem, the same goddamn habit.
I aspired to be a poet, and after a treacherous job search settled into work at an organic market most of the week and for two days at a theater in Flushing, Queens where I wrote thank you letters to donors in an office they’d fashioned in the electric closet. There was one moment where I thought my New York time had come, the world shifting for something to truly happen, when at a party a former professor introduced me to the poetry editor of The New Yorker, one of those not-for-profit-for-life lesbians with lavish hats, who, as we shook hands, looked me up and down and said,
“I like your handshake.”
By the end of the night she’d given me her card and told me to come in on Monday and she would see about setting me up as a fact checker, but when I showed up she wasn’t in the office, and though I followed up with her on email, I never heard from her again.
My roommates Charmaigne and Lo were artists of different disciplines: the former a dancer, the latter a writer and a dabbler in oil paints who mostly made a living writing small occasional articles for hip online blogs and established conservative newspapers. Her parents very obviously supported her in between gigs, so to be fair, this made it easy to criticize and resent her especially when, because her bedroom was the smallest, she was grandfathered in paying less rent then the rest of us. This didn’t add up as she had taken over a substantial part of the living room as her office. It seemed to me that we should each pay $583.3 rather than the $650 Charmaigne and I had to pay, but this was the way things were long before I arrived on the scene. This new guy status meant that I was put in the strange center room that had almost no windows except for one desperate 6 x 12 inch slit up near the ceiling that, if I got up on a ladder and looked out, revealed a view of three concrete walls. I got one of those alarm clocks that mimics the sun, slowly getting brighter and brighter as the time for the alarm drew near, but all that did was create the appearance that I had slept with the light on, a depressing result which meant I started each day feeling unhinged and like I had no control over my life.
Though I technically did have control over my life then, I was inept at enacting that control and oblivious to all the ways I was supported despite my floundering. And while Tracy, Lo and I would get into deep self-pitying white girl conversations questioning what we were supposed to be doing Charmaigne never participated or looked moved. She was Brooklyn born, her parents Haitian immigrants, and they weren’t into her being a professional dancer. One dinner when I asked her what she thought and why she was being so quiet—I’d assumed she’d just been thinking about other things and wanted to draw her out—she sat up and slung her arm over the back of her chair and smiled at me the way you do at a baby.
“Who cares what I’m supposed to be doing? I don’t have time to think about that. The rest of the world is busy enough trying to make that decision for me anyway. Struggling to be a dancer is the least of my problems,” she said. Then her face became more serious, more tired. “Steph, if I’m gonna do this I have to make it work.”
She didn’t play the game the rest of us did, where we expressed destitution one moment and next bragged about some pipe dream opportunity someone in their 30s promised us that always fell through. Instead, Charmaigne was focused and in a professional company making money dancing and always worrying about the potential of some injury, Googling phantom pains she felt in the fascia of her feet or in the tendons of her knees. She drank teas that looked like she’d just scooped up the forest floor and used our blender for herbal poultices that gave off a warm sweet odor when she heated them against whatever part of her body was feeling precarious that week.
The night I put the painting outside was so hot—we were in the midst of an unbearable heat wave that threatened to knock out the city’s power and I hadn’t been able to sleep at all. I tried all kinds of New Jersey childhood tricks, like putting the pajamas and my pillow cases in the freezer. Charmaigne was understanding of my situation, since she once had the windowless room, and left the small door that connected our rooms ajar and placed her plastic fan in it with the hope that whatever hot air was coming in from her window might make it to my room. It was kind but didn’t work. I tried sleeping in the living room but Lo had a boyfriend with whom she had effortful sounding and noisy sex, and (from the hum I heard in her bedroom but that she denied) an air conditioner so they could fuck all night long which made staying on the couch just impossible. I should note that I tried to catch her on the air conditioner multiple times, because that meant that she should carry more of the electric bill but I was certain that her boyfriend took the air conditioner in and out and hid it in her closet—because, yes, her bedroom had one of the only closets in that apartment.
The painting was a grey and yellow checkered pattern but the lines of the pattern weren’t exactly straight. Some waved out slightly so when you stood close to it you got a headache and when you stood back there was this ghostly form of a man in a suit from the waist up. He looked like a sadly drawn news anchor—the curve of his elbow, the funny oval of his head. Tracy moved me into the apartment in the fall. The cool air prompted us to dark beer and attempts to make a heating pad sexy and between these activities she taught me how to look at Lo’s painting.
“Okay go up close.” I stood in front of the couch where the painting hung, my shins hitting the edge of the cushions.
“No, closer.” I was a new roommate, this wasn’t my couch, but because she told me to, I slipped off my shoes and stood on the cushion. I stared at the squares and then looked at Tracy for support. Her lip piercing recently healed and she compulsively spun the hoop with her tongue as she had seen done by every pierced lip person before her.
“Now stand back here.”
I stepped back into her arms and leaned my face on her face as we stared at the lumpy man in the painting. She rubbed her piercing against the edge of my ear, and I let out a little grunt—felt the heat of her body against my back.
“I know,” she said and kissed my cheek. “It’s just so stunning. I knew you would see it. Mega just didn’t get it. She thought she was so above everyone.”
Mega loomed over the relationship. Mega who was in her thirties, and a fashion photographer, and wasn’t as femme. Tracy was fresh off the break up when we got together and so in the beginning all I heard about was the drama, which continued because it took awhile for Mega to move out. I was so used to hearing about it that I didn’t consider what it meant that I was still hearing about it.
“I mean, what kind of person tells an artist to ‘hang that fucking piece of shit in your room’ and then within days makes a pass at Charmaigne, who, I mean, told me and all and I can’t blame her because Mega is so manipulative. I should know. If it weren’t for Lo being so hurt by the whole situation I would probably still be with that snob and missing out on you.”
“Well, I love it,” I said, which was a lie I because I was hungry for any opportunity to be a better, more appropriate girlfriend for Tracy. Lo walked through the door as we stared at it, she had the kind of long, commercial hair that she could flip over her shoulder at specific moments and this was one of them. She smiled.
“Tracy, I swear you are like my biggest fan.”
“Not for long. Soon I’ll have competition from Steph here.” Tracy held me forward like she was presenting me and like a puppet I smiled at Lo.
“You know, you might be right about having competition thing.” She closed the door and came over to us, like she had to whisper some precious secret that would make the rest of New York jealous.
“An assistant from that gallery I was telling you about loved my Nerve piece about female orgasms and they want me to report on an upcoming show and they said they’d put me in touch with the Voice. We’re going out for drinks tonight and I suggested they come by the apartment first so I can show them some of my paintings and they are totally in. Could you imagine? If I just got a gallery?”
“Oh, Lo, it’s totally going to happen for you. I can feel it.” Lo was always on the verge of some significant breakthrough, and the news often sounded climactic like this and I looked between Lo and the painting. I dug my nails into my hand, not to keep myself from saying anything, but to be sure that this was all really happening. When Lo went into her room I closed my eyes and prayed silently: please, please, please, don’t let that work out. It didn’t work out, drinks got cancelled, but I was only partially relieved because I knew, at some point, my prayer would not be answered.
On the morning of August 14th I was enjoying an unusually quiet afternoon at home. It was my day off and Lo had gone off to East Hampton for a long weekend with her boyfriend—one of his friends had gotten a gig house sitting for Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson and had invited them up to party. I rested on the floor, feeling sticky and uncomfortable but better than the furnace of my room. I had my shirt off—Tracy had stayed over the previous night but our bodies had gotten so overheated from wanting each other as much as we did despite the heat that we decided we needed to spend at least the day apart or we might develop some sort of heat exhaustion. She went home to Jersey for the day—her parents promised to give her some money for an air conditioner for her bedroom. That morning, we spoke of it like a great dream.
“I’ll buy a cheaper one so we can use the rest of the money to take a cab home from Target,” she said.
“We’ll leave it on all of the time,” I said “with the door closed so we can walk into the room and feel relief.”
“I’m going to stand in front of it and suck on a popsicle while you go down on me.”
Alone, with my shirt off, I contemplated this last scenario, when the lock tumbled. It was only 1 pm and Charmaigne wasn’t due back until at least 7. I gasped obnoxiously, which startled Charmaigne, elicited a similar sound. I moved to put on my shirt but she just waved a sweating bottle of vodka at me. In her other hand was a small container of orange juice. She limped into the apartment and slammed the door with her foot.
“What happened?” I called. Her left foot was bare except for an Ace bandage and she walked carefully on the toe of that foot, letting out little grunts whenever her weight shifted off of it.
“Wanna get drunk with me?” she called from the kitchen.
“I do,” I said with such conviction that I blushed. She came back with the bottles, two coffee mugs and a package of frozen peas, which she wrapped around her ankle. Once she was settled she pressed her face into her hands. Let out one sob then stilled.
“It happened.” She moved her ankle with the frozen peas forward. The skin, where it was swollen, was brick red. Her ankle was swelling.
“I twisted it. I knew it was going to be this ankle too. They told me this was my weak one and I thought I was doing everything I could but it was such a simple move and I landed down and my foot went one way and my ankle went another way.”
“What does this mean?” I asked. The intensity of her grief was contagious and I gave myself over to it.
“My director told me to ice my ankle and then he gave me this bottle of vodka and told me to drink it. In a few days I might put a hot compress on it and we’ll see. But in the long run I know this means I’ll become a Physical Therapist or masseuse who used to dance and if I’m lucky, fucking Lo will be an editor and will solicit a review of a dance concert for the Times and then, when I send it to her, she’ll reject it.”
“What a bitch,” I said.
Neither of us had actually spoken poorly of Lo before. I stiffened, the heat covered us. Charmaigne snorted and poured our mugs to the top.
“A total fucking bitch.”
I splashed orange juice into our mugs and we swirled it with our fingers and we chugged it down because this was like no vodka I ever tasted. This was like how vodka was supposed to taste, kind of smooth and like it was made with vanilla.
“This is a successful New Yorker’s vodka,” I said.
“It’s because my career is over. He would have given me something in a plastic bottle if everything was going to be fine.” I covered her mouth with my hand, felt the ridge of her tooth meet my skin.
“This will heal. We will do whatever it takes to make sure that ankle heals,” I said and though she didn’t immediately move her mouth away from my hand she gave me that look she’d given me before—you really don’t understand anything. I poured us more. The drink warmed going down but I felt myself forgetting the heat.
We hit our high, halfway through the bottle when we stormed into Lo’s room, took the air conditioner out of her closet and jammed it into the window in the living room. We couldn’t figure out how to get the window to seal around it, but it didn’t matter. We knelt in front of the cold air like it was time for communion, our tongues extended. At one point I even started to shiver and crawled away towards our bottle. The air conditioner made loud chugging sounds and the power on it blinked off and then on again and finally in a great scream off. So did the electricity on the rest of the block. There was a commotion— the people of Bedford Ave. shouting “Hey! as their air conditioners and TVs silenced. We waited a few moments for the rush of electricity to surge our appliances, but there was nothing. Some people were gathering outside, kids ran into the street like it was a holiday. In normal circumstances I would have run outside to be part of the commotion but we were both too disoriented by the headiness of afternoon drunkenness. We brought the bottle close. We leaned against a wall. I talked to Tracy on the phone and I worked hard not to sound drunk. NJ Transit trains weren’t running back into the city due to the blackout and so she was stuck with her parents. I could tell she was disappointed, and I did my best to comfort her, but I was drunk and I couldn’t stop watching Charmaigne as she created a dance, her beautifully potent leg lifting into the air.
The party grew with intensity outside, a sense of reckless freedom took hold as the sun began to set and the city, which barely acknowledged the night, descended into an electric darkness. We lit a candle, which caught Lo’s painting in a beam of buttery light. The figure in the painting was even more apparent, even more grotesque.
“God I fucking hate that painting,” Charmaigne shouted. Everyone in the street was shouting now so it felt good and safe to raise our voices too.
“This painting,” I said. “This painting.”
“Say it,” Charmaigne said, “let it out.”
“It fucking sucks it’s the worst fucking painting I’ve ever seen.”
“It makes me fall over,” Charmaigne said. “Sometimes I think of it when I’m dancing and it makes me fall over.”
“I was putting mustard on my hot dog the other day,” I said. “and I was looking at the color and the fucking painting came into my mind’s eye and I almost threw up. I carried the hot dog for a block and then left it on the ledge of a staircase.”
“If you ate the hot dog it would have been like eating the fucking painting.”
I sloshed more vodka on her mug but some of it missed, landing on the floor and on Charmaigne’s leg.
“This painting is a power totem of white mediocrity. Mega said that one night to Lo and I think about it all of the time. This painting. This painting. Ruining our lives.”
“I thought she said that Lo should hang it in her fucking room?”
“She also said that. We said a lot about it. And that’s where some of its wicked power was too. Once we started talking about it we couldn’t stop and then—we just couldn’t stop. This painting ruins lives, and Tracy just believes in Lo so much.”
“Why doesn’t Tracy just hang it in her apartment?”
“Mega said that too. You better watch out. This painting will damn us.”
The flame trembled and the man in the painting seemed to sway from side to side. Where was he going? I had the urge to lie down but I knew that once I did I’d be done for. I made my way up to my feet and took a precarious step forward, felt the top of my body lunge. I took another step. Here is where my memory becomes faulty. We were both topless. I remember Charmaigne’s face. She was spinning around the room. The painting was in my hands.
“I can dance again,” she sang. “You’ve lifted the curse, I can dance again.” Her puffy ankle at work, the thumps from her landing shaking the walls. I remember my vision trembling and then steadying, trembling and then steadying. I was outside. There was a drum circle on the rooftop next store, another on the street and they were in counter rhythms, working alongside each other, an off beat away from merging but it could be heard, coming as the hands worked skin after skin. The group on the roof gave a hoot when they saw me and I raised my arms over my head.
“I’m putting it outside,” I shouted at them. “This painting ruins lives.” I swayed, felt the painting lift from my hands. “I’m putting it outside.”
Charmaigne woke me and I felt swollen and that it was impossible that this, the waking up was happening. I rolled over, the couch groaned and my neck seemed to respond too.
“It’s almost noon,” she said. “There’s a strange man sleeping in your bed. The power is still off, and my ankle is worse.”
She showed me her ankle, which I will not explain because it seemed impossible that any part of the human body should look like that. She gave me a shirt and I felt chivalrous as I put it on. I went about my duties with a swollen tongue. I asked the man who turned out to be our neighbor, and quite friendly, to leave. I wiped up the spilled juice and vodka in the living room, which now felt more capable and lighter, the painting’s blank space on the wall like a missing tooth. Outside, there were more people out in the street than usual. The painting was propped up against a tree and seemed to be doing no energetic damage here, though maybe it was feeding the commotion around it. The deli on the corner, wanting not to let their food spoil, was giving away breakfast sandwiches for $1. I got two and a warm bottle of orange juice. There was no ice but a woman, overhearing my predicament, gave me a tube of icy hot for Charmaigne and a bottle of Advil.
“Tell her to elevate it,” the cook said as he flipped ten eggs over in rapid succession. “Drinking might help too.”
Charmaigne greeted me when I came home like a husband with a kiss on the cheek. This was the last time in my life that I would ever acquire a best friend with such swift intensity. She extended her hand and I pulled off my sweaty shirt and she hung it on the key rack. We ate our sandwiches topless on the fire escape. We didn’t talk about the painting. We used the last of her computer battery’s power to watch a movie, snuggled in bed. This is what it would be like to have one roommate that I liked, I thought as she lightly tickled my arm. My hand rested on the thigh of her propped leg. The battery was about to die and I was slipping towards sleep. Then a bang, a great hum and the lights came on. Cheers rang out from outside and there was so much noise that we pulled away from each other. My phone, where it was plugged into the wall, buzzed with Tracy’s name and a kind of roar came from the kitchen and the living room. We stepped out of the room like the first people, or the last people. The refrigerator was back on and, we discovered in the living room, so was Lo’s air conditioner, as it rattled, cockeyed. We felt our half-nakedness, the strangeness of our intimacy, the absence of the painting. We put the air conditioner back in Lo’s room. I grabbed my shirt off the hook, started outside.
“Wait,” Charmaigne said and suddenly her touch felt different and my breasts felt different. In retrospect, it all would have been better if we’d have just gotten together then, instead of spending the next two years wanting each other and pretending we didn’t. My phone kept ringing and I let it keep ringing.
“Leave it outside, just for tonight,” she said. “I’m not ready.”
She met me after my shift at the store—we knew that our time together was limited. We walked together so closely that our forearms met and separated in predictable beats that we aided. We needed to bring the painting inside, no matter what state it was in. Lo was asked to cover the aftermath for a blog and called Charmaigne to let her know she would be home sometime that afternoon. Our plan was to confront her about the rent, we would tell her that we wanted to move the painting to her office area in the living room or give it to Tracy. If she didn’t agree then Charmaigne and I would move out, get a two bedroom in South Slope or maybe Gowanus. Redhook was very cheap, inconvenience then still kept the Boro affordable. I pictured us riding bikes while holding hands as we rode over cobblestoned streets. But likely no one would have to move. We would talk calmly, we would all behave like adults.
Just before our building, I grabbed Charmaigne’s hand and pulled her close to me, our bodies rested lightly against each other, except for our faces. Our first kiss wouldn’t come for two years and by that point it would be so desired that it wouldn’t matter that I had accomplished little else, except my job in the electric closet would be full time. Charmaigne’s ankle, though never quite the same, would still pivot and pull her body through movements that took her beyond someone else’s company into the leading of her own. In this moment, the city no cooler from the blackout, our lips teased close and pulled away, teased close and pulled away. The painting kept our lips from touching, because as I gained the courage and moved in with certainty, I heard Tracy’s voice. She held the painting over her head and if it weren’t so heavy it probably would have hit us, she threw it with such force. We watched it sail through the air, looking harmless, looking not half bad as it landed, miraculously, face up.
Tracy was shaking, and I had caused it, I wasn’t the first but I had caused this trembling that would come for her in the wake of each subsequent relationship’s end. She fell for someone like this again, and would keep falling again and though this time it was the painting’s fault it wouldn’t be forever. At least Charmaigne and I don’t think so. We don’t even know where that painting is anymore. At some point we all had to stop giving it power.
CORINNE MANNING is the founding editor of The James Franco Review—a journal dedicated to the work of underrepresented artists through reimagining the publishing process. “The Painting on Bedford Ave.” is part of a linked short story collection WE HAD NO RULES, stories from which have appeared or are forthcoming from Story Quarterly, Vol 1 Brooklyn, Calyx, Moss, and Southern Humanities Review. Corinne’s essays and cultural criticism have been recognized as notable in The Best American Series and can be found on The JFR as well as Literary Hub, The Oxford American, The Nervous Breakdown, Arts & Letters & Lake Effect. Corinne is at work on a novel about a queer family in post-Columbine America and manages the distinction between desire and longing by wearing wigs while chopping wood on a farm in the PNW.