Home > Sweetbitter(8)

Stephanie Danler

I HAD the next day off and wanted to celebrate. I took myself to the Met. The servers were always talking about the shows they saw—music, film, theater, art. I didn’t know a single thing they mentioned though I had taken an Intro to Art History course in college. I went because I needed something to contribute during napkin time.

I don’t know how long I had been in the city, but when I got off the train at Eighty-Sixth Street I realized how narrowly I had been living. My days were contained to five square blocks in Union Square, the L train, and five square blocks in Williamsburg. When I saw the trees in Central Park I laughed out loud.

The lobby of the Met—that holy labyrinth—appropriately took my breath away. I imagined being interviewed ten years from now. Not like with Howard where I was tested, but interviewed with admiration. My amicable interviewer would ask me about my origins. I would tell him that for so long I thought I would be nothing; that my loneliness had been so total that I was unable to project into the future. And that this changed when I got to the city and my present expanded, and my future skipped out in front of me.

I stuck to the Impressionist galleries. They were paintings I had seen a hundred times reproduced in books. They were the rooms that people dozed in. Your body could go into a kind of coma from the dreamscapes, but if the mind was alert, the paintings galvanized. They were almost confrontational.

“And that confirmed what I had always suspected,” I told my interviewer. “That my life before the city had only been a reproduction.”

After I ran out of rooms I started again. Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh. “This is what I want,” I said, showing my interviewer the painting of Van Gogh’s cypresses. “Do you see how, up close, it’s blurry and passionate? And from a distance, whole?”

“And what about love?” my interviewer asked me, unprompted, as I stared at Cézanne’s apples. For a second I saw Simone’s red lips asking the question.

“Love?” I looked around the gallery for the answer. I had wandered out of Impressionism, into early Symbolism. Where a moment earlier I could have sworn the room was crowded, it was now nearly empty except for an elderly man who stood with a cane and a younger woman holding his arm in support. When I was driving to the city I had said to myself, I’m not one of those girls who moves to New York to fall in love. Now, in front of a jury of Symbolists, Simone, and the old man, my denial felt thin.

“I don’t know anything about it yet,” I said. I moved next to the man and his friend. His huge ears looked like they were carved of wax, and I was sure he was deaf. He was too at peace. We looked at Klimt’s woman in white, Portrait of Serena Lederer, the title said. She certainly wasn’t one of his most daring, and stood in contrast to his later gold-leafed, erotic works. But though she looked like a virginal column, she had in her face a restrained joy. I remembered something about an affair between the artist and the model, rumors that her daughter was actually Klimt’s. She stood above the three of us, unconcerned with being stared at. The old man smiled at me before he walked off.

“Show me,” I said to the woman in white. We regarded each other and waited.

I GOT OFF the train and the streets were glowing. I went to the wine stall in the mini-mall on North Fifth and Bedford. The man behind the counter had long hair and tired, hanging eyes. He turned down the Biggie he’d been blasting when I came in.

I looked at every single bottle, but I didn’t recognize anything. Finally, after ten minutes, I asked, “Do you have an affordable Chardonnay?”

He had paint all over him and a cigarette behind his ear. “What kind of Chardonnay do you like?”

“Um,” I swallowed. “France?”

He nodded. “Yeah, that’s the only kind, right? None of that Cali shit. How’s this? I have one cold.”

I paid him and held the bag to my chest. I ran home, crossing to the opposite side of Grand Street so I wouldn’t be contaminated by the demons lounging outside of Clem’s. I ran up my four flights of stairs too, ran into the apartment, stole Jesse’s wine key and a mug, and ran up the last flight, pushing out onto the roof.

The sky was like the paintings. No, the paintings were trying to represent this sunset. The sky was aflame and throwing sparks, the orange clouds rimmed with purple like ash. The windows in each high-rise in Manhattan were lit up like the buildings were burning down. I was out of breath, overtired from the museum. My heart drummed. A voice said, You have to live with it. Another voice said, You made it, you made it, and at the same time, in a blistering chorus I said, Made it where? Live with what?

I WALKED IN on them in the locker room. Simone had been speaking loudly, sitting in a spare chair in her stripes with her legs crossed. He was standing in front of his locker, buttoning his shirt. They both looked at me, startled.

“Sorry. Do you want me to come back?”

“Of course not,” she said. But neither of them said anything else. The silence was accusatory. He dropped his pants, stepped out of them, and turned back to Simone.

“Ignore him,” she said. It sounded like an order, so I obeyed. I looked away.

“PICK UP” was the call.

“Picking up” was the echo.

“Six and six, table 45, share,” Chef said. His eyes didn’t leave the board of tickets in front of him. “Pick up.”

I put my hands in front of me and grabbed. Another sweltering day. Air conditioners all around the city were giving up. As I pushed into the tepid dining room I noticed the ice was melting in the oyster tray in my hands. Pale blue bodies amid sloshing ice chips. It looked disgusting. And six and six meant nothing to me. I had forgotten to check the day’s oysters. I forgot the table I was going to. Simone flooded by me and I reached for her.

“Excuse me, Simone, sorry, but which are which oyster? Do you know?”

“Do you remember when you tasted them?” She didn’t look at the plate.

I hadn’t tasted them when they had been passed around at family meal. I hadn’t looked at the menu notes.

“Do you remember tasting them?” she asked again, slowly, like I was dumb. “East Coast oysters are brinier, more mineral. West Coasts are plumper, creamier, sweeter. They’re even physically different. One has a flat cup, the other tends to be deeper.”

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