THE LAST TIME JB tried—really tried—to stop doing drugs, it was Fourth of July weekend. No one else was in the city. Malcolm was with Sophie visiting her parents in Hamburg. Jude was with Harold and Julia in Copenhagen. Willem was shooting in Cappadocia. Richard was in Wyoming, at an artists’ colony. Asian Henry Young was in
Reykjavík. Only he remained, and if he hadn’t been so determined, he wouldn’t have been in town, either. He’d have been in Beacon, where Richard had a house, or in Quogue, where Ezra had a house, or in Woodstock, where Ali had a house, or—well. There weren’t that many other people who would give him their house nowadays, and besides, he wasn’t talking to most of them because they were getting on his nerves. But he hated summer in New York. All fat people hated summer in New York: everything was always sticking to everything else, flesh to flesh, flesh to fabric. You never felt truly dry. And yet there he was, unlocking the door of his studio on the third floor of the white brick building in Kensington, glancing involuntarily toward the end of the hall, where Jackson’s studio was, before he let himself in.
JB was not an addict. Yes, he did drugs. Yes, he did a lot of them. But he wasn’t an addict. Other people were addicts. Jackson was an addict. So was Zane, and so was Hera. Massimo and Topher: also addicts. Sometimes it felt like he was the only one who hadn’t slipped over the edge.
And yet he knew that a lot of people thought he had, which is why he was still in the city when he should be in the country: four days, no drugs, only work—and then no one would be able to say anything ever again.
Today, Friday, was day one. The air-conditioning unit in his studio was broken, so the first thing he did was open all the windows and then, once he had knocked, lightly, on Jackson’s door to make sure he wasn’t inside, the door as well. Normally he never opened the door, both because of Jackson and because of the noise. His studio was one of fourteen rooms on the third floor of a five-story building. The rooms were meant to be used only as studio space, but he guessed about twenty percent of the building’s occupants actually lived there illegally. On the rare occasions he had arrived at his studio before ten
in the morning, he would see people shuffling through the corridors in their boxers, and when he went to the bathroom at the end of the hall, there’d be someone in there taking a sponge bath in the sink or shaving or brushing his teeth, and he’d nod at them—“Whassup, man?”—and they’d nod back. Sadly, however, the overall effect was less collegiate and more institutional. This depressed him. JB could have found studio space elsewhere, better, more private studio space, but he’d taken this one because (he was embarrassed to admit) the building looked like a dormitory, and he hoped it might feel like college again. But it didn’t.
The building was also supposed to be a “low noise density” site, whatever that meant, but along with the artists, a number of bands— ironic thrasher bands, ironic folk bands, ironic acoustic bands—had also rented studios there, which meant that the hallway was always jumbled with noise, all of the bands’ instruments melding together to make one long whine of guitar feedback. The bands weren’t supposed to be there, and once every few months, when the owner of the building, a Mr. Chen, stopped by for a surprise inspection, he would hear the shouts bouncing through the hallways, even through his closed door, each person’s call of alarm echoed by the next, until the warning had saturated all five floors—“Chen!” “Chen!” “Chen!”—so by the time Mr. Chen stepped inside the front door, all was quiet, so unnaturally quiet that he imagined he could hear his next-door neighbor grinding his inks against his whetstone, and his other neighbor’s spirograph skritching against canvas. And then Mr. Chen would get into his car and drive away, and the echoes would reverse themselves—“Clear!” “Clear!” “Clear!”—and the cacophony would rise up again, like a flock of screeching cicadas.
Once he was certain he was alone on the floor (god, where was
everyone? Was he truly the last person left on earth?), he took off his shirt and then, after a moment, his pants, and began cleaning his studio, which he hadn’t done in months. Back and forth he walked to the trash cans near the service elevator, stuffing them full of old pizza boxes and empty beer cans and scraps of paper with doodles on them and brushes whose bristles had gone strawlike because he hadn’t cleaned them and palettes of watercolors that had turned to clay because he hadn’t kept them moist.
Cleaning was boring; it was particularly boring while sober. He reflected, as he sometimes did, that none of the supposedly good things that were supposed to happen to you when you were on meth
had happened to him. Other people he knew had grown gaunt, or had nonstop anonymous sex, or had binges in which they cleaned or organized their apartments or studios for hours. But he remained fat. His sex drive had vanished. His studio and apartment remained disasters. True, he was working remarkably long stretches—twelve, fourteen hours at a time—but he couldn’t attribute that to the meth: he had always been a hard worker. When it came to painting or drawing, he had always had a long attention span.
After an hour or so of picking things up, the studio looked exactly the same as it had when he began, and he was craving a cigarette, which he didn’t have, or a drink, which he also didn’t have, and shouldn’t have anyway, as it was still only noon. He knew he had a ball of gum in his jeans pocket, which he dug around for and found— it was slightly damp from the heat—and stuffed into his mouth, chewing it as he lay supine, his eyes closed, the cement floor cool beneath his back and thighs, pretending he was elsewhere, not in Brooklyn in July in the ninety-degree heat.
How am I feeling? he asked himself.
Okay, he answered himself.
The shrink he had started seeing had told him to ask himself that. “It’s like a soundcheck,” he’d said. “Just a way to check in with yourself: How am I feeling? Do I want to use? If I do want to use, why do I want to use? It’s a way for you to communicate with yourself, to examine your impulses instead of simply giving in to them.” What a moron, JB had thought. He still thought this. And yet, like many moronic things, he was unable to expunge the question from his memory. Now, at odd, unwelcome moments, he would find himself asking himself how he felt. Sometimes, the answer was, “Like I want to do drugs,” and so he’d do them, if only to illustrate to his therapist just how moronic his method was. See? he’d say to Giles in his head, Giles who wasn’t even a PhD, just an MSW. So much for your self-examination theory. What else, Giles? What’s next?
Seeing Giles had not been JB’s idea. Six months ago, in January, his
mother and aunts had had a mini-intervention with him, which had begun with his mother sharing memories of what a bright and precocious boy JB had been, and look at him now, and then his aunt Christine, literally playing bad cop, yelling at him about how he was wasting all the opportunities that her sister had provided him and how he had become a huge pain in the ass, and then his aunt Silvia, who had always been the gentlest of the three, reminding him that he
was so talented, and that they all wanted him back, and wouldn’t he consider getting treatment? He had not been in the mood for an intervention, even one as low-key and cozy as theirs had been (his mother had provided his favorite cheesecake, which they all ate as they discussed his flaws), because, among other things, he was still angry at them. The month before, his grandmother had died, and his mother had taken a whole day to call him. She claimed it was because she couldn’t find him and he wasn’t picking up his phone, but he knew that the day she had died he had been sober, and his phone had been on all day, and so he wasn’t sure why his mother was lying to him.
“JB, Grandma would have been heartbroken if she knew what you’ve become,” his mother said to him.
“God, Ma, just fuck off,” he’d said, wearily, sick of her wailing and quivering, and Christine had popped up and slapped him across the face.
After that, he’d agreed to go see Giles (some friend of a friend of Silvia’s) as a way of apologizing to Christine and, of course, to his mother. Unfortunately, Giles truly was an idiot, and during their sessions (paid for by his mother: he wasn’t going to waste his money on therapy, especially bad therapy), he would answer Giles’s uninventive questions—Why do you think you’re so attracted to drugs, JB? What do you feel they give you? Why do you think your use of them has accelerated so much over the past few years? Why do you think you’re not talking to Malcolm and Jude and Willem as much?—with answers he knew would excite him. He would slip in mentions of his dead father, of the great emptiness and sense of loss his absence had inspired in him, of the shallowness of the art world, of his fears that he would never fulfill his promise, and watch Giles’s pen bob ecstatically over his pad, and feel both disdain for stupid Giles as well as disgust for his own immaturity. Fucking with one’s therapist—even if one’s therapist truly deserved to be fucked with—was the sort of thing you did when you were nineteen, not when you were thirty-nine.
But although Giles was an idiot, JB did find himself thinking about
his questions, because they were questions that he had asked himself as well. And although Giles posed each as a discrete quandary, he knew that in reality each one was inseparable from the last, and that if it had been grammatically and linguistically possible to ask all of them together in one big question, then that would be the truest expression of why he was where he was.
First, he’d say to Giles, he hadn’t set out to like drugs as much as he
did. That sounded like an obvious and even silly thing to say, but the truth was that JB knew people—mostly rich, mostly white, mostly boring, mostly unloved by their parents—who had in fact started taking drugs because they thought it might make them more interesting, or more frightening, or more commanding of attention, or simply because it made the time go faster. His friend Jackson, for example, was one of those people. But he was not. Of course, he had always done drugs—everyone had—but in college, and in his twenties, he had thought of drugs the way he thought of desserts, which he also loved: a consumable that had been forbidden to him as a child and which was now freely available. Doing drugs, like having post-dinner snacks of cereal so throat-singeingly sweet that the leftover milk in the bowl could be slurped down like sugarcane juice, was a privilege of adulthood, one he intended to enjoy.
Questions two and three: When and why had drugs become so
important to him? He knew the answers to those as well. When he was thirty-two, he’d had his first show. Two things had happened after that show: The first was that he had become, genuinely, a star. There were articles written about him in the art press, and articles written about him in magazines and newspapers read by people who wouldn’t know their Sue Williams from their Sue Coe. And the second was that his friendship with Jude and Willem had been ruined.
Perhaps “ruined” was too strong a word. But it had changed. He had done something bad—he could admit it—and Willem had taken Jude’s side (and why should he have been surprised at all that Willem had taken Jude’s side, because really, when he reviewed their entire friendship, there was the evidence: time after time after time of Willem always taking Jude’s side), and although they both said they forgave him, something had shifted in their relationship. The two of them, Jude and Willem, had become their own unit, united against everyone, united against him (why had he never seen this before?): We two form a multitude. And yet he had always thought that he and Willem had been a unit.
But all right, they weren’t. So who was he left with? Not Malcolm, because Malcolm had eventually started dating Sophie, and they made their own unit. And so who would be his partner, who would make his unit? No one, it often seemed. They had abandoned him.
And then, with each year, they abandoned him further. He had always known he would be the first among the four of them to be a success. This wasn’t arrogance: he just knew it. He worked harder
than Malcolm, he was more ambitious than Willem. (He didn’t count Jude in this race, as Jude’s profession was one that operated on an entirely different set of metrics, one that didn’t much matter to him.) He was prepared to be the rich one, or the famous one, or the respected one, and he knew, even as he was dreaming about his riches and fame and respect, that he would remain friends with all of them, that he would never forsake them for anyone else, no matter how overwhelming the temptation might be. He loved them; they were his. But he hadn’t counted on them abandoning him, on them outgrowing him through their own accomplishments. Malcolm had his own business. Jude was doing whatever he did impressively enough so that when he was representing JB in a silly argument he’d had the previous spring with a collector he was trying to sue to reclaim an early painting that the collector had promised he could buy back and then reneged on, the collector’s lawyer had raised his eyebrows when JB had told him to contact his lawyer, Jude St. Francis. “St. Francis?” asked the opposing lawyer. “How’d you get him?” He told Black Henry Young about this, who wasn’t surprised. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Jude’s known for being icy, and vicious. He’ll get it for you, JB, don’t worry.” This had startled him: His Jude? Someone who literally hadn’t been able to lift his head and look him in the eye until their sophomore year? Vicious? He simply couldn’t imagine it. “I know,” said Black Henry Young, when he expressed his disbelief. “But he becomes someone else at work, JB; I saw him in court once and he was borderline frightening, just incredibly relentless. If I hadn’t known him, I’d’ve thought he was a giant asshole.” But Black Henry Young had turned out to be right—he got his painting back, and not
only that, but he got a letter of apology from the collector as well.
And then, of course, there was Willem. The horrible, petty part of him had to admit that he had never, ever expected Willem to be as successful as he was. Not that he hadn’t wanted it for him—he had just never thought it would happen. Willem, with his lack of competitive spirit; Willem, with his deliberateness; Willem, who in college had turned down a starring role in Look Back in Anger to go tend to his sick brother. On the one hand, he had understood it, and on the other hand—his brother hadn’t been fatally ill, not then; even his own mother had told him not to come—he hadn’t. Where once his friends had needed him—for color, for excitement—they no longer did. He didn’t like to think of himself as someone who wanted his friends to be, well, not unsuccessful, but in thrall to him, but maybe
The thing he hadn’t realized about success was that success made people boring. Failure also made people boring, but in a different way: failing people were constantly striving for one thing—success. But successful people were also only striving to maintain their success. It was the difference between running and running in place, and although running was boring no matter what, at least the person running was moving, through different scenery and past different vistas. And yet here again, it seemed that Jude and Willem had something he didn’t, something that was protecting them from the suffocating ennui of being successful, from the tedium of waking up and realizing that you were a success and that every day you had to keep doing whatever it was that made you a success, because once you stopped, you were no longer a success, you were becoming a failure. He sometimes thought that the real thing that distinguished him and Malcolm from Jude and Willem was not race or wealth, but Jude’s and Willem’s depthless capacity for wonderment: their childhoods had been so paltry, so gray, compared to his, that it seemed they were constantly being dazzled as adults. The June after they graduated, the Irvines had gotten them all tickets to Paris, where, it emerged, they had an apartment—“a tiny apartment,” Malcolm had clarified, defensively—in the seventh. He had been to Paris with his mother in junior high, and again with his class in high school, and between his sophomore and junior years of college, but it wasn’t until he had seen Jude’s and Willem’s faces that he was able to most vividly realize not just the beauty of the city but its promise of enchantments. He envied this in them, this ability they had (though he realized that in Jude’s case at least, it was a reward for a long and punitive childhood) to still be awestruck, the faith they maintained that life, adulthood, would keep presenting them with astonishing experiences, that their marvelous years were not behind them. He remembered too watching them try uni for the first time, and their reactions—like they were Helen Keller and were just comprehending that that cool splash on their hands had a name, and that they could know it—made him both impatient and intensely envious. What must it feel like to be an adult and still discovering the world’s pleasures?
And that, he sometimes felt, was why he loved being high so much:
not because it offered an escape from everyday life, as so many people thought, but because it made everyday life seem less everyday. For a brief period—briefer and briefer with each week—the world was
splendid and unknown.
At other times, he wondered whether it was the world that had lost its color, or his friends themselves. When had everyone become so alike? Too often, it seemed that the last time people were so interesting had been college; grad school. And then they had, slowly but inevitably, become like everyone else. Take the members of Backfat: in school, they had marched topless, the three of them fat and luscious and jiggly, all the way down the Charles to protest cutbacks to Planned Parenthood (no one had been sure how the toplessness had been relevant, but whatever), and played amazing sets in the Hood Hall basement, and lit an effigy of an antifeminist state senator on fire in the Quad. But now Francesca and Marta were talking about having babies, and moving from their Bushwick loft into a Boerum Hill brownstone, and Edie was actually, actually starting a business for real this time, and last year, when he’d suggested they stage a Backfat reunion, they had all laughed, although he hadn’t been joking. His persistent nostalgia depressed him, aged him, and yet he couldn’t stop feeling that the most glorious years, the years when everything seemed drawn in fluorescents, were gone. Everyone had been so much more entertaining then. What had happened?
Age, he guessed. And with it: Jobs. Money. Children. The things to
forestall death, the things to ensure one’s relevance, the things to comfort and provide context and content. The march forward, one dictated by biology and convention, that not even the most irreverent mind could withstand.
But those were his peers. What he really wanted to know was when his friends had become so conventional, and why he hadn’t noticed earlier. Malcolm had always been conventional, of course, but he had expected, somehow, more from Willem and Jude. He knew how awful this sounded (and so he never said it aloud), but he often thought that he had been cursed with a happy childhood. What if, instead, something actually interesting had happened to him? As it was, the only interesting thing that had happened to him was that he had attended a mostly white prep school, and that wasn’t even interesting. Thank god he wasn’t a writer, or he’d have had nothing to write about. And then there was someone like Jude, who hadn’t grown up like everyone else, and didn’t look like everyone else, and yet who JB knew was constantly trying to make himself exactly like everyone else. He would have taken Willem’s looks, of course, but he would have killed something small and adorable to have looked like Jude, to
have had a mysterious limp that was really more of a glide and to have the face and body that he did. But Jude spent most of his time trying to stand still and look down, as if by doing so, no one would notice he existed. This had been sad and yet somewhat understandable in college, when Jude had been so childlike and bony that it made JB’s joints hurt to look at him, but these days, now that he’d grown into his looks, JB found it simply enraging, especially as Jude’s self-consciousness often interfered with his own plans.
“Do you want to spend your life just being completely average and boring and typical?” he’d once asked Jude (this was during their second big fight, when he was trying to get Jude to pose nude, an argument he’d known even before he’d begun it that he had no chance at all of winning).
“Yes, JB,” Jude had said, giving him that gaze he sometimes summoned, which was intimidating, even slightly scary, in its flat blankness. “That’s in fact exactly what I want.”
Sometimes he suspected that all Jude really wanted to do in life was hang out in Cambridge with Harold and Julia and play house with them. Last year, for example, JB had been invited on a cruise by one of his collectors, a hugely wealthy and important patron who had a yacht that plied the Greek islands and that was hung with modern masterpieces that any museum would have been happy to own—only they were installed in the bathroom of a boat.
Malcolm had been working on his project in Doha, or somewhere, but Willem and Jude had been in town, and he’d called Jude and asked him if he wanted to go: The collector would pay their way. He would send his plane. It would be five days on a yacht. He didn’t know why he even needed to have a conversation. “Meet me at Teterboro,” he should’ve just texted them. “Bring sunscreen.”
But no, he had asked, and Jude had thanked him. And then Jude had said, “But that’s over Thanksgiving.”
“So?” he’d asked.
“JB, thank you so much for inviting me,” Jude had said, as he listened in disbelief. “It sounds incredible. But I have to go to Harold and Julia’s.”
He had been gobsmacked by this. Of course, he too was very fond of Harold and Julia, and like the others, he too could see how good they were for Jude, and how he’d become slightly less haunted with their friendship, but come on! It was Boston. He could always see them. But Jude said no, and that was that. (And then, of course,
because Jude said no, Willem had said no as well, and in the end, he had ended up with the two of them and Malcolm in Boston, seething at the scene around the table—parental stand-ins; friends of the parental stand-ins; lots of mediocre food; liberals having arguments with one another about Democratic politics that involved a lot of shouting about issues they all agreed on—that was so clichéd and generic that he wanted to scream and yet held such bizarre fascination for Jude and Willem.)
So which had come first: becoming close to Jackson or realizing how boring his friends were? He had met Jackson after the opening of his second show, which had come almost five years after his first. The show was called “Everyone I’ve Ever Known Everyone I’ve Ever Loved Everyone I’ve Ever Hated Everyone I’ve Ever Fucked” and was exactly that: a hundred and fifty fifteen-by-twenty-two-inch paintings on thin pieces of board of the faces of everyone he had ever known. The series had been inspired by a painting he had done of Jude and given to Harold and Julia on the day of Jude’s adoption. (God, he loved that painting. He should have just kept it. Or he should have exchanged it: Harold and Julia would’ve been happy with a less-superior piece, as long as it was of Jude. The last time he had been in Cambridge, he had seriously considered stealing it, slipping it off its hook in the hallway and stuffing it into his duffel bag before he left.) Once again, “Everyone I’ve Ever Known” was a success, although it hadn’t been the series he had wanted to do; the series he had wanted to do was the series he was working on now.
Jackson was another of the gallery’s artists, and although JB had
known of him, he had never actually met him before, and was surprised, after being introduced to him at the dinner after the opening, how much he had liked him, how unexpectedly funny he was, because Jackson was not the type of person he’d normally gravitate toward. For one thing, he hated, really hated Jackson’s work: he made found sculptures, but of the most puerile and obvious sort, like a Barbie doll’s legs glued to the bottom of a can of tuna fish. Oh god, he’d thought, the first time he’d seen that on the gallery’s website. He’s being represented by the same gallery as I am? He didn’t even consider it art. He considered it provocation, although only a high-school student—no, a junior-high student—would consider it provocative. Jackson thought the pieces Kienholzian, which offended JB, and he didn’t even like Kienholz.
For another, Jackson was rich: so rich that he had never worked a
single day in his life. So rich that his gallerist had agreed to represent him (or so everyone said, and god, he hoped it was true) as a favor to Jackson’s father. So rich that his shows sold out because, it was rumored, his mother—who had divorced Jackson’s father, a manufacturer of some sort of essential widget of airplane machinery, when Jackson was young and married an inventor of some sort of essential widget of heart transplant surgeries—bought out all his shows and then auctioned the pieces, driving up the prices and then buying them back, inflating Jackson’s sales record. Unlike other rich people he knew—including Malcolm and Richard and Ezra—Jackson only rarely pretended not to be rich. JB had always found the others’ parsimoniousness put-on and irritating, but seeing Jackson once smack down a hundred-dollar bill for two candy bars when they were both high and giggly and starving at three in the morning, telling the cashier to keep the change, had sobered him. There was something obscene about how careless Jackson was with money, something that reminded JB that as much as he thought of himself otherwise, he too was boring, and conventional, and his mother’s son.
For a third, Jackson wasn’t even good-looking. He supposed he was
straight—at any rate, there were always girls around, girls whom Jackson treated disdainfully and yet who drifted after him, lint-like, their faces smooth and empty—but he was the least sexy person JB had ever met. Jackson had very pale hair, almost white, and pimple-stippled skin, and teeth that were clearly once expensive-looking but had gone the color of dust and whose gaps were grouted with butter-yellow tartar, the sight of which repulsed JB.
His friends hated Jackson, and as it became clear that Jackson and his own group of friends—lonely rich girls like Hera and sort-of artists like Massimo and alleged art writers like Zane, many of them Jackson’s classmates from the loser day school he’d gone to after failing out of every other private school in New York, including the one that JB had attended—were in his life to stay, they all tried to talk to him about Jackson.
“You’re always going on about what a phony Ezra is,” Willem had said. “But how, exactly, is Jackson any different than Ezra, other than being a total fucking asshole?”
And Jackson was an asshole, and around him, JB was an asshole as well. A few months ago, the fourth or fifth time he’d tried to stop doing drugs, he had called Jude one day. It was five in the afternoon, and he’d just woken up, and he felt so awful, so incredibly old and
exhausted and just done—his skin slimy, his teeth furry, his eyes dry as wood—that he had wanted, for the first time, to be dead, to simply not have to keep going on and on and on. Something has to change, he told himself. I have to stop hanging around with Jackson. I have to stop. Everything has to stop. He missed his friends, he missed how innocent and clean they were, he missed being the most interesting among them, he missed never having to try around them.
So he had called Jude (naturally, Willem wasn’t fucking in town, and Malcolm couldn’t be trusted not to freak out) and asked him, begged him, to come over after work. He told him where, exactly, the rest of the crystal was (under the loose half-plank of wood under the right side of the bed), and where his pipe was, and asked him to flush it down the toilet, to get rid of it all.
“JB,” Jude had said. “Listen to me. Go to that café on Clinton, okay? Take your sketch pad. Get yourself something to eat. I’m coming down as soon as I can, as soon as this meeting’s over. And then I’ll text you when I’m done and you can come home, all right?”
“Okay,” he’d said. And he’d stood up, and taken a very long shower, hardly scrubbing himself, just standing under the water, and then had done exactly what Jude had instructed: He picked up his sketch pad and pencils. He went to the café. He ate some of a chicken club sandwich and drank some coffee. And he waited.
And while he was waiting, he saw, passing the window like a bipedal mongoose, with his dirty hair and delicate chin, Jackson. He watched Jackson walk by, his self-satisfied, rich-boy lope, that pleased half smile on his face that made JB want to hit him, as detached as if Jackson was just someone ugly he saw on the street, not someone ugly he saw almost every day. And then, just before he passed out of sight, Jackson turned, and looked in the window, directly at him, and smiled his ugly smile, and reversed direction and walked back toward the café and through the door, as if he had known all along that JB was there, as if he had materialized only to remind JB that JB was his now, that there would be no escaping from him, that JB was there to do what Jackson wanted him to do when Jackson wanted him to do it, and that his life would never be his own again. For the first time, he had been scared of Jackson, and panicked. What has happened? he wondered. He was Jean-Baptiste Marion, he made the plans, people followed him, not the other way around. Jackson would never let him go, he realized, and he was frightened. He was someone else’s; he was owned now. How would he ever become un-owned? How could he
ever return to who he was?
“ ’Sup,” said Jackson, unsurprised to see him, as unsurprised as if he had willed JB into being.
What could he say? “ ’Sup,” he said.
Then his phone rang: Jude, telling him that all was safe, and he could come back. “I’ve got to go,” he said, standing, and as he left, Jackson followed him.
He watched Jude’s expression change as he saw Jackson by his side. “JB,” he said, calmly, “I’m glad to see you. Are you ready to go?”
“Go where?” he asked, stupidly.
“Back to my place,” said Jude. “You said you’d help me reach that box I can’t get?”
But he was so confused, still so muddled, that he hadn’t understood. “What box?”
“The box on the closet shelf that I can’t reach,” Jude said, still ignoring Jackson. “I need your help; it’s too difficult for me to climb the ladder on my own.”
He should’ve known, then; Jude never made references to what he couldn’t do. He was offering him a way out, and he was too stupid to recognize it.
But Jackson did. “I think your friend wants to get you away from me,” he told JB, smirking. That was what Jackson always called them, even though he had met them all before: Your friends. JB’s friends.
Jude looked at him. “You’re right,” he said, still in that calm, steady voice. “I do.” And then, turning back to him, “JB—won’t you come with me?”
Oh, he wanted to. But in that moment, he couldn’t. He wouldn’t know why, not ever, but he couldn’t. He was powerless, so powerless that he couldn’t even pretend otherwise. “I can’t,” he whispered to Jude.
“JB,” said Jude, and took his arm and pulled him toward the curb, as Jackson watched them with his stupid, mocking smile. “Come with me. You don’t have to stay here. Come with me, JB.”
He had started crying then, not loudly, not steadily, but crying nonetheless. “JB,” Jude said again, his voice low. “Come with me. You don’t have to go back there.”
But “I can’t,” he heard himself saying. “I can’t. I want to go upstairs.
I want to go home.”
“Then I’ll come in with you.”
“No. No, Jude. I want to be alone. Thank you. But go home.”
“JB,” Jude began, but he turned from him and ran, jamming the key into the front door and running up the stairs, knowing Jude wouldn’t be capable of following him, but with Jackson right behind him, laughing his mean laugh, while Jude’s calls—“JB! JB!”—trailed after him, until he was inside his apartment (Jude had cleaned while he was here: the sink was empty; the dishes were stacked in the rack, drying) and couldn’t hear him any longer. He turned off his phone, on which Jude was calling him, and muted the front-door buzzer’s intercom, on which Jude was ringing and ringing him.
And then Jackson had cut the lines of coke he had brought and they had snorted them, and the night had become the same night he’d had hundreds of times before: the same rhythms, the same despair, the same awful feeling of suspension.
“He is pretty, your friend,” he heard Jackson say at some point late that evening. “But too bad about—” And he stood and did an imitation of Jude’s walk, a lurching grotesquerie that looked nothing like it, his mouth slack like a cretin’s, his hands bobbling in front of him. He had been too high to protest, too high to say anything at all, and so he had only blinked and watched Jackson hobble around the room, trying to speak words in Jude’s defense, his eyes prickling with tears.
The next day he had awoken, late, facedown on the floor near the kitchen. He stepped around Jackson, who was also asleep on the floor, near his bookcases, and went into his room, where he saw that Jude had made his bed as well, and something about that made him want to cry again. He lifted the plank under the right side of the bed, cautiously, and stuck his hand inside the space: there was nothing there. And so he lay atop the comforter, bringing one end of it over himself completely, covering the top of his head the way he used to when he was a child.
As he tried to sleep, he made himself think of why he had fallen in with Jackson. It wasn’t that he didn’t know why; it was that he was ashamed to remember why. He had begun hanging out with Jackson to prove that he wasn’t dependent on his friends, that he wasn’t trapped by his life, that he could make and would make his own decisions, even if they were bad ones. By his age, you had met all the friends you would probably ever have. You had met your friends’ friends. Life got smaller and smaller. Jackson was stupid and callow and cruel and not the sort of person he was supposed to value, who was supposed to be worth his time. He knew this. And that was why
he kept at it: to dismay his friends, to show them that he wasn’t bound by their expectations of him. It was stupid, stupid, stupid. It was hubris. And he was the only one who was suffering because of it.
“You can’t actually like this guy,” Willem had said to him once. And although he had known exactly what Willem meant, he had pretended not to, just to be a brat.
“Why can’t I, Willem?” he’d asked. “He’s fucking hilarious. He actually wants to do things. He’s actually around when I need someone. Why can’t I? Huh?”
It was the same with the drugs. Doing drugs wasn’t hard core, it wasn’t badass, it didn’t make him more interesting. But it wasn’t what he was supposed to do. These days, if you were serious about your art, you didn’t do drugs. Indulgence, the very idea of it, had disappeared, was a thing of the Beats and AbExes and the Ops and the Pops. These days, maybe you’d smoke some pot. Maybe, every once in a while, if you were feeling very ironic, you might do a line of coke. But that was it. This was an age of discipline, of deprivation, not inspiration, and at any rate inspiration no longer meant drugs. No one he knew and respected—Richard, Ali, Asian Henry Young—did them: not drugs, not sugar, not caffeine, not salt, not meat, not gluten, not nicotine. They were artists-as-ascetics. In his more defiant moments, he tried to pretend to himself that doing drugs was so passé, so tired, that it had actually become cool again. But he knew this wasn’t true. Just as he knew it wasn’t really true that he enjoyed the sex parties that sometimes convened in Jackson’s echoey apartment in Williamsburg, where shifting groups of soft skinny people groped blindly at one another, and where the first time a boy, too reedy and young and hairless to really be JB’s type, told him he wanted JB to watch him suck away his own blood from a cut he’d give himself, he had wanted to laugh. But he hadn’t, and had instead watched as the boy cut himself on his bicep and then twisted his neck to lap at the blood, like a kitten cleaning itself, and had felt a crush of sorrow. “Oh JB, I just want a nice white boy,” his ex and now-friend Toby had once moaned to him, and he smiled a little, remembering it. He did, too. All he wanted was a nice white boy, not this sad salamander-like creature, so pale he was almost translucent, licking blood from himself in what had to be the least-erotic gesture in the world.
But of all the questions he was able to answer, there was one he
was not: How was he to get out? How was he to stop? Here he was, literally trapped in his studio, literally peeking down the hallway to
make sure Jackson wasn’t approaching. How was he to escape Jackson? How was he to recover his life?
The night after he had made Jude get rid of his stash, he had finally called him back, and Jude had asked him over, and he had refused, and so Jude had come to him. He had sat and stared at the wall as Jude made him dinner, a shrimp risotto, handing him the plate and then leaning on the counter to watch him eat.
“Can I have more?” he asked when he was done with the first serving, and Jude gave it to him. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was, and his hand shook as he brought the spoon to his mouth. He thought of Sunday-night dinners at his mother’s, which he hadn’t gone to since his grandmother died.
“Aren’t you going to lecture me?” he finally asked, but Jude shook his head.
After he ate, he sat on the sofa and watched television with the sound turned off, not really seeing anything but comforted by the flash and blur of images, and Jude had washed the dishes and then sat on the sofa near him, working on a brief.
One of Willem’s movies was on television—the one in which he played a con man in a small Irish town, whose entire left cheek was webbed with scars—and he stopped on the channel, not watching it, but looking at Willem’s face, his mouth moving silently. “I miss Willem,” he’d said, and then realized how ungrateful he sounded. But Jude had put down his pen and looked at the screen. “I miss him, too,” he said, and the two of them stared at their friend, so far away from them.
“Don’t go,” he’d said to Jude as he was falling asleep. “Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t,” Jude had said, and he knew Jude wouldn’t.
When he woke early the next morning, he was still on the sofa, and the television was turned off, and he was under his duvet. And there was Jude, huddled into the cushions on the other end of the sectional, still asleep. Some part of him had always been insulted by Jude’s unwillingness to divulge anything of himself to them, by his furtiveness and secretiveness, but in that moment he felt only gratitude toward and admiration for him, and had sat on the chair next to him, studying his face, which he so loved to paint, his sweep of complicated-colored hair that he could never see without remembering how much mixing, the number of shades it took to accurately represent it.
I can do this, he told Jude, silently. I can do this.
Except he clearly couldn’t. He was in his studio, and it was still only one p.m., and he wanted to smoke so badly, so badly that in his head all he could see was the pipe, its glass frosted with leftover white powder, and it was only day one of his attempt not to do drugs, and already it was making—he was making—a mockery of him. Surrounding him were the only things he cared about, the paintings in his next series, “Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days,” for which he had followed Malcolm, Jude, and Willem around for an entire day, photographing everything they did, and then chose eight to ten images from each of their days to paint. He had decided to document a typical workday for each of them, all from the same month of the same year, and had labeled each painting with their name, location, and time of day he had shot the image.
Willem’s series had been the most far-flung: he had gone to London,
where Willem had been on location filming something called Latecomers, and the images he had chosen were a mix of Willem off and on the set. He had favorites from each person’s take: for Willem, it was Willem, London, October 8, 9:08 a.m., an image of him in the makeup artist’s chair, staring at his reflection in the mirror, while the makeup artist held his chin up with the fingertips of her left hand and brushed powder onto his cheeks with her right. Willem’s eyes were lowered, but it was still clear that he was looking at himself, and his hands were gripping the chair’s wooden arms as if he was on a roller coaster and was afraid he’d fall off if he let go. Before him, the counter was cluttered with wood-shaving curls from freshly sharpened eyebrow pencils that looked like tatters of lace, and open makeup palettes whose every hue was a shade of red, all the reds you could imagine, and wads of tissue with more red smeared on them like blood. For Malcolm, he had taken a long shot of him late at night, sitting at his kitchen counter at home, making one of his imaginary buildings out of squares of rice paper. He liked Malcolm, Brooklyn, October 23, 11:17 p.m. not so much for its composition or color but for more personal reasons: in college, he had always made fun of Malcolm for those small structures he built and displayed on his windowsill, but really he had admired them and had liked watching Malcolm compose them—his breaths slowed, and he was completely silent, and his constant nervousness, which at times seemed almost physical, an appendage like a tail, fell away.
He worked on all of them out of sequence, but he couldn’t quite get
the colors the way he wanted them for Jude’s installment, and so he had the fewest and least of these paintings done. As he’d gone through the photos, he’d noticed that each of his friends’ days was defined, glossed, by a certain tonal consistency: he had been following Willem on the days he was shooting in what was supposed to be a large Belgravia flat, and the lighting had been particularly golden, like beeswax. Later, back in the apartment in Notting Hill that Willem was renting, he had taken pictures of him sitting and reading, and there, too, the light had been yellowish, although it was less like syrup and instead crisper, like the skin of a late-fall apple. By contrast, Malcolm’s world was bluish: his sterile, white-marble-countertopped office on Twenty-second Street; the house he and Sophie had bought in Cobble Hill after they had gotten married. And Jude’s was grayish, but a silvery gray, a shade particular to gelatin prints that was proving very difficult to reproduce with acrylics, although for Jude’s he had thinned the colors considerably, trying to capture that shimmery light. Before he began, he had to first find a way to make gray seem bright, and clean, and it was frustrating, because all he wanted to do was paint, not fuss around with colors.
But getting frustrated with your paintings—and it was impossible
not to think of your work as your colleague and co-participant, as if it was something that sometimes decided to be agreeable and collaborate with you, and sometimes decided to be truculent and unyielding, like a grouchy toddler—was just what happened. You had to just keep doing it, and doing it, and one day, you’d get it right.
And yet like his promise to himself—You’re not going to make it! squealed the taunting, dancing imp in his head; You’re not going to make it!—the paintings were making a mockery of him as well. For this series, he had decided he was going to paint a sequence of one of his days, too, and yet for almost three years, he had been unable to find a day worth documenting. He had tried—he had taken hundreds of pictures of himself over the course of dozens of days. But when he reviewed them, they all ended the same way: with him getting high. Or the images would stop in the early evening, and he’d know it was because he had gotten high, too high to keep taking pictures. And there were other things in those photographs that he didn’t like, either: he didn’t want to include Jackson in a documentation of his life, and yet Jackson was always there. He didn’t like the goofy smile he saw on his face when he was on drugs, he didn’t like seeing how his face changed from fat and hopeful to fat and avaricious as the day
sank into night. This wasn’t the version of himself he wanted to paint. But increasingly, he had begun to think this was the version of himself he should paint: this was, after all, his life. This was who he now was. Sometimes he would wake and it would be dark and he wouldn’t know where he was or what time it was or what day it was. Days: even the very concept of a day had become a mockery. He could no longer accurately measure when one began or ended. Help me, he’d say aloud, in those moments. Help me. But he didn’t know to whom he was addressing his plea, or what he expected to happen.
And now he was tired. He had tried. It was one thirty p.m. on Friday, the Friday of July Fourth weekend. He put on his clothes. He closed his studio’s windows and locked the door and walked down the stairs of the silent building. “Chen,” he said, his voice loud in the stairwell, pretending he was broadcasting a warning to his fellow artists, that he was communicating to someone who might need his help. “Chen, Chen, Chen.” He was going home, he was going to smoke.
He woke to a horrible noise, the noise of machinery, of metal grinding against metal, and started screaming into his pillow to drown it out until he realized it was the buzzer, and then slowly brought himself to his feet, and slouched over to the door. “Jackson?” he asked, holding down the intercom button, and he heard how frightened he sounded, how tentative.
There was a pause. “No, it’s us,” said Malcolm. “Let us in.” He did.
And then there they all were, Malcolm and Jude and Willem, as if they had come to see him perform a show. “Willem,” he said. “You’re supposed to be in Cappadocia.”
“I just got back yesterday.”
“But you’re supposed to be gone until”—he knew this—“July sixth.
That’s when you said you’d be back.”
“It’s July seventh,” Willem said, quietly.
He started to cry, then, but he was dehydrated and he didn’t have any tears, just the sounds. July seventh: he had lost so many days. He couldn’t remember anything.
“JB,” said Jude, coming close to him, “we’re going to get you out of this. Come with us. We’re going to get you help.”
“Okay,” he said, still crying. “Okay, okay.” He kept his blanket wrapped around him, he was so cold, but he allowed Malcolm to lead him to the sofa, and when Willem came over with a sweater, he held his arms up obediently, the way he had when he was a child and his
mother had dressed him. “Where’s Jackson?” he asked Willem. “Jackson’s not going to bother you,” he heard Jude say, somewhere
above him. “Don’t worry, JB.”
“Willem,” he said, “when did you stop being my friend?”
“I’ve never stopped being your friend, JB,” Willem said, and sat down next to him. “You know I love you.”
He leaned against the sofa and closed his eyes; he could hear Jude and Malcolm talking to each other, quietly, and then Malcolm walking toward the other end of the apartment, where his bedroom was, and the plank of wood being lifted and then dropped back into place, and the flush of the toilet.
“We’re ready,” he heard Jude say, and he stood, and Willem stood with him, and Malcolm came over to him and put his arm across his back and they shuffled as a group toward the door, where he was gripped by a terror: if he went outside, he knew he would see Jackson, appearing as suddenly as he had that day in the café.
“I can’t go,” he said, stopping. “I don’t want to go, don’t make me go.”
“JB,” Willem began, and something about Willem’s voice, about his very presence, made him in that moment irrationally furious, and he shook Malcolm’s arm off of him and turned to face them, energy flooding his body. “You don’t get a say in what I do, Willem,” he said. “You’re never here and you’ve never supported me and you never called me, and you don’t get to come in making fun of me—poor, stupid, fucked-up JB, I’m Willem the Hero, I’m coming in to save the day—just because you want to, okay? So leave me the fuck alone.”
“JB, I know you’re upset,” Willem said, “but no one’s making fun of you, least of all me,” but before he’d begun speaking, JB had seen Willem look over, quickly, and, it seemed, conspiratorially, at Jude, and for some reason this had made him even more livid. What had happened to the days when they all understood one another, when he and Willem had gone out every weekend, when they had returned the next day to share the night’s stories with Malcolm and Jude, Jude who never went anywhere, who never shared stories of his own? How had it happened that he was the one who was all alone? Why had they left him for Jackson to pick over and destroy? Why hadn’t they fought harder for him? Why had he ruined it all for himself? Why had they let him? He wanted to devastate them; he wanted them to feel as inhuman as he did.
“And you,” he said, turning to Jude. “You like knowing how fucked
up I am? You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? What do you think this is, Jude? You think you get to be a part of the club and you never have to say anything, you never have to tell us anything? Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.”
“That’s enough, JB,” Willem said sharply, grabbing his shoulder, but he was strong suddenly, and he wrenched out of Willem’s grasp, his feet unexpectedly nimble, dancing toward the bookcase like a boxer. He looked at Jude, who was standing in silence, his face very still and his eyes very large, almost as if he was waiting for him to continue, waiting for JB to hurt him further. The first time he had painted Jude’s eyes, he had gone to a pet store to take photographs of a rough green snake because the colors were so similar. But in that moment they were darker, almost like a grass snake’s, and he wished, ridiculously, that he had his paints, because he knew that if he had them, he’d be able to get the shade exactly right without even having to try.
“It doesn’t work like that,” he said to Jude again. And then, before he knew it, he was doing Jackson’s imitation of Jude, the hideous parody, his mouth open as Jackson had done it, making an imbecile’s moan, dragging his right leg behind him as if it were made of stone. “I’m Jude,” he slurred. “I’m Jude St. Francis.” For a few seconds, his was the only voice in the room, his movements the only movements, and in those seconds, he wanted to stop, but he couldn’t stop. And then Willem had run at him, and the last thing he had seen was Willem drawing his fist back, and the last thing he had heard was the cracking of bone.
He woke and didn’t know where he was. It was difficult to breathe. Something was on his nose, he realized. But when he tried to lift his hand to feel what it was, he couldn’t. And then he had looked down and seen that his wrists were in restraints, and he knew he was in the hospital. He closed his eyes and remembered: Willem had hit him. Then he remembered why, and he shut his eyes very tightly, howling but not making a noise.
The moment passed and he opened his eyes again. He turned his head to the left, where an ugly blue curtain blocked his view of the door. And then he turned his head to the right, toward the early-morning light, and saw Jude, asleep in the chair next to his bed. The chair was too small for him to sleep in, and he had folded himself into
a terrible-looking position: his knees drawn up to his chest, his cheek resting atop them, his arms wrapped around his calves.
You know you shouldn’t sleep like that, Jude, he told him in his head. Your back is going to hurt when you wake up. But even if he could have reached his arm over to wake him, he wouldn’t have.
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?
I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.
Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.