“We’d be in more danger driving down the 101, Amanda,” Brandon says as we sit on the New York D train. “Statistically, you are literally one thousand times more likely to die in a Volvo after drinking half a glass of chardonnay.”
As he talks, the subway hurtles into Brooklyn. Warm and oxygenless air presses against my throat and thighs as Brandon and I squash into the D’s orange seats. The dark outer world, flickering with small starships of light and featureless faces, whirls past the grimy windows. The dirty floor is barely visible for manifold shoes—sneakers, black boots. Men in jeans and smirking, pretty-lipped women crush alongside us, insult-flirting with each other. Have you seen Lawrence of A Labia? It’s a really good movie. Shut your dumb mouth. Or else they just slump over, like the homeless-looking woman in a Mets cap sitting next to me. Ugggggghhbbbbbb. I can’t tell if people are upset about the headlines, or the election. Everybody seems fine.
“I see your point,” I say, nodding.
I move my knees to the right as the Mets-cap lady kicks out her legs, and give myself a gold star for not saying, But I wouldn’t have gotten killed in a Volvo, Brandon, because as you know I only take public transportation so as to not participate in the oil-economy time bomb that is detonating as we speak. I did not fly five hours to the East Coast so that I could self-destruct my new relationship with Deleuze-citing rants about georacial heteropatriarchies. I came here for other, diametric reasons, which relate to personal happiness and the prospect of encoupled stability.
I did not fly five hours to the East Coast so that I could self-destruct my new relationship with Deleuze-citing rants about georacial heteropatriarchies.
I am from Studio City, California. I am a media strategist who is also an artist, or a former artist. Brandon is a lawyer from Culver City. He is not a hyphenate or a former hyphenate. We have traveled to New York for our first vacation as a romantic couple. It’s not exactly a romantic time, though, since Orlando happened yesterday. I’m aware that as a heavily leveraged thirty-eight-year-old single woman, I need to say simple, economical things like, “That’s terrible,” or, “What a tragedy” about the Pulse massacre, but not act unnervingly bizarre in front of my beloved Brandon. In the three months that Brandon and I have been “hanging out,” he has so rewired my neural system with the unlikely astonishments of love that I now (yet again) believe in impossibilities like soulmates and other halves.
However, as I have learned from my roster of failed relationships with both men and women, the preservation of such exquisite passion mandates the attainment of a strangely mundane status: Regardless of how much your boyfriend or girlfriend initially enjoyed your “intensity” and “authenticity,” they must ultimately regard you as a potential real partner. Attaining the coveted status of a real partner requires more than Brandon witnessing my radiant soul as it shines out of my eyes and penetrates the shadowy layers that have accumulated around his heart. He must additionally see me as a healthy and attractively productive person.
Healthily attractive productive people do not, as I have in my not long-ago past, go to Yaddo to make arte povera out of baby clothes and napalm to illustrate the environmentally doomed prospect of childrearing. They also do not use their Slamdance Grand Jury award money to publicize their relationally aesthetic hunger strike protesting the acquittal of Michael Brelo. And they do not have elongated nervous breakdowns when fundamentalists of whatever stripe gun down minorities and queers. Instead, they must be able to demonstrate that they can do things like hold a job, attend social events without getting drunk, safely drive potential future offspring to and from various extracurriculars, and also organize fun vacations that remain unpunctuated by savagely panicked responses to the New Normal.
“Anyway, I’m not worried about being killed by a terrorist,” I say.
That’s why Brandon and I are on one of the sightseeing excursions I planned two weeks ago, to prove myself as a solid and dependable person. I had never developed an “itinerary” before but found it an interesting challenge: I decided almost immediately on a New York art history tour, since that would play to my strengths. So, the day before yesterday Brandon and I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, where in 1989 Diamanda Galás participated in the mass “Stop the Church” Act/Up demonstration. I stood by the Lady Chapel and sang her You Must Be Certain of the Devil (“Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord”) until a praying woman wearing a collaborationist I’m With Her T-Shirt brusquely asked us to go. “That was pretty interesting,” Brandon had said, as we hustled out. Then, yesterday, I took him to the Town School Library on East 76th Street, where Audre Lorde was head librarian from 1966-1968. We saw a lot of children’s books there, and I recited a part of Lorde’s The Erotic as Power (“I find the erotic such a kernel within myself”) until told to leave by a male guard. Brandon liked that, too. He bought me a caramel vanilla ice cream cone from a food truck and hugged me while I talked about Sister/Outsider.
But then we found out about the shooting early this morning when I saw the Google Alert. There was also news about Donald Trump tweeting, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” I found my maintenance of the “real partner” hygiene rituals difficult to maintain after that, and accidentally smashed one of the wineglasses that we had gotten from room service along with our Lover’s Delight dine-in smorgasbord. Brandon just cleaned the shattered glass, though, nodding as I read Mother Jones tweets out loud while crying and standing on the bed wearing nothing but his Stanford sweatshirt. I said I wanted to go home. He kissed me and said that we should stay, that I should distract myself with the Weird Artist Tour and not be sad.
And so that’s what we’re doing. Tonight we have plans to see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at the Lucy Lortell on Christopher Street, but for the larger part of today we’re going to stalk the ghost of one of the nation’s greatest artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat, on the D train.
“Then why did you have a meltdown last night?” Brandon asks-yells over the thwaka thwaka thwaka commotion of the subway. He has buzzed off his blue-black hair, an austerity that gives him an Air Force elegance, though he went to UCLA law school and works for a left-leaning firm called Miller & Watanabe. We met at a Ralph’s. Today he wears a dark blue insignia-less polo shirt and khakis. Humidity bronzes his high cheekbones, and I’d like to sink my teeth into them, then bite lightly yet firmly onto his jaw so that he can’t escape from me.
“I just needed a reboot,” I say. “I slept, I feel fine now.” I hold Brandon’s hand and look down at my lap. I have black hair, brown eyes, and am a medium-dark brown Xican@. I’m wearing a green flowered dress that I allowed him to buy me yesterday at Forever 21 on Broadway despite F21’s Uzbekistan slave labor problem. My black cotton backpack that I bought in Argentina sits at my feet. I’m also wearing leather huaraches that I purchased four years ago in Mexico City, which was when I endured a couchsurfing/homeless period that finally got resolved at Yaddo. Inside the backpack are my phone and my wallet, the latter of which harbors Chase Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover credit cards. I obtained these economic passports on the strength of my new and astonishing $76k annual salary, as I am done gifting my art to the sacred space that exists beyond the cares of capitalism. In the last half year I’ve become a platform whisperer for Snapchat, which means that I discover trends through campaign-wide analyses and execute strategies to optimize campaign performance and company metrics. At night, I calm myself down by writing criticism for frieze and making collages using a personal Fun Tools app that I designed a few months ago.
“You were really out of it, I was worried,” Bradon says.
I found my maintenance of the “real partner” hygiene rituals difficult to maintain after that, and accidentally smashed one of the wineglasses that we had gotten from room service along with our Lover’s Delight dine-in smorgasbord.
He looks across the car to where a woman with painted-on eyebrows and a frilled purple dress, an Anglo skater punk in a green beanie, and an old black man in a khaki jacket all busy themselves reading newspapers. Eyebrows in the purple and the old man both hold subway-crumpled copies of the New York Times that bear the headline “The Orlando Shooting Victims” and selfies of happy-looking men and women. The skater punk’s reading a trashed Post that reads “Gay-Club Attack On Our Freedom.” Eyebrows is taking little bites out of a shedding almond croissant as she scans the articles. Brandon starts raking through his hair with his fingers and gives me a crooked smile. “I’m not saying I’m upset that you got so wigged out.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not upset,” I say in a strangled voice that is not in keeping with the magnanimous and emotionally composed way that I want to conduct myself on this trip.
Brandon plays footsie with me and tickles my knee. “Babe, life is for living. I just don’t get why it’s better to scream yourself to sleep at the Regis when you could just get up, wash your face, and deal with it like other people do. I mean, who are you helping?”
Or maybe you’ve seen Battlestar Orgasmica? I look up to see a tall, bearded man standing to our left teasing a pretty, petite woman wearing shorts and gold earrings.
Weak, she says, giggling.
“I’m not helping anybody.” I stare at Brandon for one beat, two beats. Thwaka thwaka thuds the subway. “Jesus Christ.”
“I’m seriously asking. I want to know,” he says.
I look down at my huaraches again. When I bought my shoes I worried about maquiladoras all the time and was also going deep into animal rescue. I had no health insurance and was so lonely that I would follow attractive men and women around D.F. taking pictures of them like a lugubrious Sophie Calle. I don’t want to be like that anymore. “Okay, so I forgot to bring my lavender oil and my lorazepam and things got a little out of control.”
Brandon leans back in the orange plastic of his seat and tilts his head at me, cracking up so that I can see the tender pink of his uvula. Then he gets serious. “Look, I get it. Something terrible happened. And I want to know how you feel about it. I’m not some douche who came here with you just to get into Sushi Zo—”
“Sushi Zo . . . ”
Brandon smushes up his face and shakes his head. “It’s a hot New York restaurant that you try to impress your girlfriend with.”
My diaphragm twinges, from a cramp caused by the strangely similar sensations of stress and hope. “Girlfriend,” I say.
“It was totally booked except for the rez I got for last night. I was online for two hours. Seriously, if I were a Washington Post reporter I’d have a better shot at getting into the Trump bus.”
I make a shrugging gesture, rolling my eyes, but not crazily. “Trump. What a guy, right? He sure is something.”
Brandon enfolds my hand with his and makes little circles on my wrist with his thumb. “The thing is, I’m not some complicated art person with the sexy political depression that I’m starting to worry you might be more drawn to.”
I grip onto him, hard. “No, you’re perfect. You’re beyond perfect. You’re cyborg perfect.” I smile at him. “Sexy depressed artist people just wind up stealing your camera equipment because they’re on meth and then they want to have a foursome with the Martinez sisters but then they don’t even look at you until it’s time for a ride home.”
Brandon tilts his head at me. “How do you know that?”
I shrug. “Not from books.”
Brandon looks up, sternly, as if he’s doing math in his head. “I mean, I like UFC. I shop at The Gap. I don’t always look at the labels to see if my underwear’s made in Bangladesh.”
“Uzbekistan.” I shake my head. “But you do civil rights cases.”
“Yeah, but I can turn it off. I’ll go home and eat—what did you call it? ‘Blood chocolate.’ I get my clothes dry-cleaned. I sit under outdoor heat lamps at restaurants in the winter. I play ‘Assassin’s Creed.’ I know that the Republicans are very Marine Le Pen right now. I’ve read The Fire Next Time. But I don’t get upset like you do.” Brandon puffs out his cheeks and exhales, thinking. “I switch off CNN and play web poker.”
I jerk, looking over at the woman in the Mets cap, as she has just nudged me in the ribs. She’s sticking her elbows out as if doing some kind of seated calisthenics that keep up the bone density. She’s also chewing on invisible food. She smiles as if she recognizes me.
“Hello Ma’am,” I say.
Brandon lifts my hand up to his mouth and kisses it uncertainly. Then all at once he blurts out: “Do you want to have kids? Or are you one of those girls who’s like, global warming, it’s the apocalypse, why inflict it on a new generation—”
The D makes a stop and there’s a humid tumult of people exiting and entering the car. The lady in the Mets cap stays put, though, as does the bearded guy and the girl with the gold earrings who are joking around. Eyebrows stands up, molting almond croissant flakes and tossing her paper on the seat. I see all at once that Eyebrows’s face is red, puffy, and wet. There’s a stress bubble of saliva on her lower lip.
“Do you want to have kids? Or are you one of those girls who’s like, global warming, it’s the apocalypse, why inflict it on a new generation—”
Then she disappears, along the Skater Guy and Old Man. Their places are taken by a trio of T-Shirt-wearing teenagers who stare at their phones.
“Do I want to have kids?” I blink, blink again, then make myself focus on Brandon. “Why are you asking me that?”
Brandon blushes so that a stripe of burgundy crosses his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. A thin glimmer of sweat slicks the right side of his face. Almost a full minute of silence passes between us.
I liked White Men Can’t Hump, the girl with the gold earrings says to the bearded guy.
That was a shitty movie full of stereotypes, he says.
“No reason,” Brandon eventually sighs. He looks up at the subway ceiling. “What are we doing here again?”
I’m still holding Brandon’s hand. It’s warm, brown, and has knobby knuckles like baby antlers. Two weeks ago these hands cut and buzzed my hair. Brandon and I were both naked in my bathroom, covered with my fur, and laughing. “It’s our art tour,” I chirp anxiously. “We’re doing 1980s neo-expressionism today.”
Brandon nods. “Oh, yeah. Basquiat? Baskweeat? That artist guy you were talking about.”
I peer closely at the subway walls, looking for any signs of Basquiat’s famous graffiti, while Brandon plays with my foot some more, gently nudging it with his Timberland. There’s no sign of Basquiat’s Kilroy, though: The interior of the car discloses only scuffed gray paint, which is cross-hatched with so many words and scratch marks that it looks like a Cy Twombly.
I wish I had something to show Brandon for today’s tour. The Diamanda Galás and Audre Lorde outings were somehow melancholicly cheerful. But now I’m distracted, and am starting to feel as if I’m being unstitched. And I don’t know what exactly to tell Brandon about the unhappy tale of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
I could tell him how Basquiat used to tag the D in 1978, 1979. That’s why I brought us here in the first place. At the beginning of his career, Basquiat went by the street name SAMO©, which stood for Same Old Shit. He’d spray crazy little sayings on these very walls before he started painting on canvas and got famous. SAMO© Saves Losers, SAMO© as an end to 9-5. Basquiat was a genius, a snappy dresser, a ladies’ man, and a junkie. He had these long dreads that he would tie up into a spiky crown at the top of his head. He created in a frenzy. He would listen to Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie on his earphones and emblazon the back wall of a liquor store with red starbursts and stuttering phrases like Mississippi Mississippi Mississippi. He sketched skeletons, policemen, dogs, and jazz men in small ringed notebooks, purchased for thirty-five cents. He became friends with Andy Warhol and ultimately showed at the Gagosian. He dated Keith Haring. He dated Madonna.
But that’s not why he was special enough to put on our itinerary. Basquiat felt things. It made his life sort of unbearable. He couldn’t cope, for example, with the death of his friend, Michael Stewart, who was a black graffiti artist, too. In 1983, Stewart was arrested by a group of Anglo police officers for tagging a subway station wall on First Avenue. The police killed him, and listed the cause of death as a heart attack, though an independent pathologist said he succumbed to strangulation.
So Basquiat’s world was kind of like today’s, except that now we have Orlando and Ferguson and Trayvon Martin and San Bernadino and Antonio Zambano-Montes and Sandra Bland and Charleston.
There’s a picture that photographer Virginia Liberatore took of Basquiat and Madonna around ’83. They were in love. In the image, Madonna is gorgeous and sharp-boned, with spiky blond hair and a tilted, pointy face. Even back then, Madonna understood Market Forces, which require that you at all times remain both relatable and aspirational and not get derailed by emotions. Madonna is relatable and aspirational in the picture as she makes a cute cat’s claw and pounces at the camera. She’s already a star, though her self-titled monster album hadn’t even come out yet. Basquiat, on the other hand, does not understand Market Forces. He looks sad, with a soft smile and wide-set, inconsolable eyes that reflect the terrible truth about Michael Stewart. He can’t handle the same old shit. You can see what a winner at life Madonna is and what a mess Basquiat was going to be. She broke up with him not too long after Liberatore shot the image.
But, no, I don’t want to tell Brandon about all of that. Once, I had this girlfriend named Xochil who left me after she started eating meat again, “for [her] health,” and I had re-explained in gentle if graphic detail the ethics of factory farming. She, along with Madonna, are just two of the reasons why I will now keep my comments meaningful yet playful, interesting yet not too dark or so deep that they verge on Schopenhauerian pessimism.
“My favorite Basquiat is called Horn Players,” I finally say. “It has Dizzy Gillespie in it, and teeth, and all these crazy scribbled words, and Charlie Parker.” I smile at Brandon, admiring his dark, swashbuckler’s eyes. Brandon’s half ethnic Chinese, though his parents were born in Brazil.
So Basquiat’s world was kind of like today’s, except that now we have Orlando and Ferguson and Trayvon Martin and San Bernadino and Antonio Zambano-Montes and Sandra Bland and Charleston.
For a second, I look across the aisle again, at those T-shirted kids playing with their phones, and see one of them has picked up the busted-up Times that Eyebrows had been reading.
“Teeth?” Brandon asks.
“Basquiat had dental problems. Drug problems, really.”
“I love Charlie Parker. In law school, I downed a beer bong and did this crazy sort of romantic spider dance at a party when ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ started playing on Pandora.”
“What’s a romantic spider dance?” I start laughing.
“It involves a lot of kissing, having eight legs, and being extremely unsober.” He nuzzles my head with his. “That was a long time ago.”
Brandon and I now have our arms around each other. The fluorescent lights in the car shimmer on his wide white teeth so that he looks like a toothpaste model. He smells like cinnamon. The bearded guy and the girl with the gold earrings have started listening to the same song on his iPhone, sharing spindly white headphones. The kid reading the paper across the car is invisible behind the Times, except for his feet, which are huge and encased in light blue Vans.
Brandon runs his hand through the long part of my hair, tenderly touching my scalp. “You’re so beautiful.”
A small sun begins faintly shining inside of my belly. As we sit there, I begin to feel better, less unraveled. After a minute or two, I realize that I actually am starting to feel happiness approaching me. It feels easy, softer. It feels good.
I start singing, quietly. I’m singing that Charlie Parker song:
I didn’t know what time it was
Then I met you
Oh, what a lovely time it was
How sublime it was too.
The song floats between us. My lips are on Brandon’s cheek. I touch his throat and feel his pulse. I think of how he held me last night at the expensive Regis hotel, after I’d stopped quoting the Mother Jones tweets. I remember the tender things that he whispered to me in bed.
You’re all right, you’re ok, he’d said. I’m here.
But then I make a mistake. Because when I ponder Charlie Parker’s what a lovely time it was, I think of the day before yesterday instead of right now. The day before yesterday was a lovely time because no one outside of Orlando had even heard of the Pulse nightclub. And instead of gazing sweetly at Brandon like a solid life partner with whom he can share headphones, playful obscenities, and the morning news, I look across the aisle again. I stare at the kid in the blue Vans studying the paper with a placid face. I hear something all at once, a hacking sound. I look up to the left, and notice that beyond the couple who had been joking about made-up porno movies stands a short, heavy, white, bald man wearing glasses and a yellow button-down shirt. He is also looking at the kid with the Vans. The bald man’s round, apple-shaped face is bulging and trembling as he looks at what the kid is reading. His lips have turned white. People are staring at him, the bald guy; a young black woman with red beads in her hair and a Latino man wearing a black tank top also start crying. And then, to the right of them, I see a white guy with piercings and a Stonewall T-shirt look at Blue Vans’ NYT with this dead face, and dead eyes.
I shift my gaze again, staring at the kid’s Times the way they are. I see the Orlando victims’ selfies that splash across the front page.
There’s a picture of a woman about my age, with buzzed dark hair. She’s wearing black-rimmed glasses, and a turned-around baseball cap. Her mouth opens wide into a punky, happy grin.
There’s another picture of a guy, who looks like he’s in his late teens, and might have been transitioning. He’s got a wispy little mustache and close-cropped beard, and these doe eyes, and he’s wearing those earlobe extending earrings. You can see that he’s trying to look beautiful for the camera.
And there’s a guy who’s leaning back on a pillow, smiling, so that his dimples show. He looks Latino. They’re all Latina or Latino. He has groomed eyebrows, and maybe cornrows? He’s got frosted tips and a soul patch. And he looks like he’s not thirty-five years old.
But then I make a mistake. Because when I think of Charlie Parker’s what a lovely time it was, I think of the day before yesterday instead of right now. The day before yesterday was a lovely time because no one outside of Orlando had even heard of the Pulse nightclub.
Brandon kisses me on my cheek, gently, and then smack-kisses me, playfully. “So, what happened to Basquiat?”
I rub my upper lip with my index finger and feel my mouth shaking.
“Um, he died,” I say.
I lean back, put my elbows on my knees, and then rest my head on my thumbs, like a more freaked version of The Thinker. I look down at my huaraches once more, my black backpack. I can hear the bearded guy and the lady with the earrings softly scatting to the song they’re playing on their iPhone. The lady in the Mets cap is grunting again and flexing. I can feel Brandon watching me, confused. My face is wet and I’m making an eeeeehhhhhhhhh sound.
“Bon don da ton ton ton ton, bon ta ta ton ughghggh,” the lady in the Mets cap sings.
Brandon puts his hand on my arm, squeezing it gently. “Amanda.”
I’m still making that animal noise. I try to stop. I wipe my cheek with my shoulder. I reach down, opening my backpack and pulling out my iPhone. I switch the phone on. I get on Chrome and begin searching on Orlando and clip the photos of the smiling woman in the baseball cap, the guy with the wispy mustache, and the guy with the dimples.
I feed them into my Fun Tools collage app. I begin to make a small, shifting, indigo assemblage of their faces. It’s no Horn Players. It’s kitsch. I erase it and start again.
“I – I – ” I shake my head. “Why?”
“Amanda,” Brandon says again, taking his hand off my arm.
I change the collage’s color to orange-violet. I can barely see. Tears drip down my chin. The world looks red. The subway racket is a rapid heartbeat. My hands shake but I press and slide the pictures, press and slide, the woman, the transitioning kid, the man.
I need to get myself to a march or a memorial that must be happening today. I’ll stand in a crowd and cry and it won’t help anybody and it will be better than this. I’ll take Brandon along with me. I hope to God he doesn’t say anything like it’s too depressing.
“No, I don’t want children,” I manage to say.
Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and a law professor living in Los Angeles. She is the author of six novels, including The Conquest (2002). She won a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1999.