Originally published in Instant City, Issue Five, 2007.
The T.A. from Metal Arts stood me up, so I suck on a martini and pretend to be alone on purpose.
Slayer’s on the juke, sounding tinny and operatic. Murio’s Trophy Room is a comfy Haight Street dive that always smells a little like old piss. The walls are Cadmium Red Deep and there are a couple of warped pool tables in the back. Caricatures of folks from the neighborhood wallpaper the ceiling. I frequented this bar when I was underage. I’m a grown woman, 24 to be precise. I have no business here.
A middle-aged man sits a few stools away, doodling on a napkin. He looks overused and overstuffed, like an old armchair. A skimpy ponytail drools down his back. I check him out because there is nothing else to see.
The doodler catches me watching and sets down his pen. A lock of hair slips forward into his pint glass and dances in the beer. He winks.
This is my cue to leave. As I pass, the doodler stretches a napkin towards me. I don’t want it, but take it anyway. It’s a portrait.
There, on the napkin, is my long neck, hawk nose and heavy eyebrows, in smooth strokes. My frizzy white hair pops in front of a black scribble background. The outgrown roots accentuate my natural trashiness.
“That’s wonderful,” I say.
I flip the napkin over and sketch his face on the other side, exaggerating the worry lines and the bags under his eyes. He frowns.
“I promise I’ll look younger after you have another martini,” he says.
“I have to get going.”
“Ash Levitz,” he says, pumping my hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
I laugh too loud. Ash Levitz is one of the best living painters in San Fran. He’s famously antisocial. My teachers at the Institute would murder to meet him.
“Right, I’ll have one more,” I say, settling onto a stool.
“One won’t do it,” he says. “You need to get drunk. I know a thirsty female when I see one.” I roll my eyes, but Ash is right about me.
Before long, I’ve put enough down the hatch to make a graceful exit impossible; I’m a’sailing a rough gin sea. Ash talks furiously. He asks questions and answers them himself. I lose track of the words and watch his features tumble through expressions. He exaggerates like a high school drama student.
On his feet, he shouts, “You have to see it! Light Napthol Red and Interference Oxide Green are splendid together!”
“Yuck,” I say, chewing an olive.
“My next canvasses will be enormous and full of that red and that green.” Ash throws his trembling hands over his head like a Holy Ghost preacher. “10, 12, 15 feet, or taller. I’ll have to take them off the stretchers to get them out of my studio.”
Sometime during the night, I make a note on a napkin and stick it in my pocket to find later. It reads, “Ash Levitz is a solipsistic alcoholic asshole. He’ll eat your life for breakfast.” My father is one of those. My ex is one of those.
But how can I let a modern legend skate past? Maybe I’ll model for him. Perhaps he’ll do a series. Like Dali and Gala. When his liver finally shuts down, they’ll call it The Dolores Period.
Ash befriends me with stunning vigor. He calls me late and calls me early. He calls me drunk and calls me hung over. He even lets me talk, once in a while. “Just come over,” he says. “Just come over for five minutes and have a beer. Then you can go.” He never lets me leave without a fight.
In Ash’s studio on Division St., we sit on wicker mats, surrounded by his bright paintings. I pick at cigarette burns and try to avoid the fresh splotches of paint and beer. Sometimes I stay all night and morning light breaks through the curtains. The birds haggle and fuck. The traffic grinds into a frenzy.
We sit a hair’s distance apart, until Ash runs out of talk. I leave with my zippers up and my buttons buttoned. I’m proud of my underwear and lipstick for staying where I put them.
The phone rings at 3:58 AM. It can only be Ash. I answer in the dark. My room smells of socks and rain. Ash says, “I’m too depressed for words.” I hear him light a cigarette and hack the smoke back out.
“Beardsley and Gauguin went out like that,” I say sleepily.
“Tuberculosis.” I laugh at my own joke.
“Save it for your fucking professors,” he slurs. “I don’t give two shits. Anyway you’re wrong because Gauguin had Syphilis.”
“He was co-infected.”
Ash hangs up on me. I ring him back with softer edges.
“What you don’t get is that I’m really through,” he says. “I’m done with it. Kaput.”
“You can’t paint dead.”
“My liver’s swollen like the fucking Hindenberg. I pissed blood today. So who cares?”
“You’ll be forgotten.”
Ash gets quiet, so I know I’m making progress. I talk about his growing fame, which never fails to cheer him up. Then I turn to Thalocyanine Green and Quinacridone Pink. Ash wants to use them together. I tell him he’s a sick puppy.
“Thanks D.,” he says, when the birds get loud. “You’re too good.”
I hang up and snuggle deep into my pillows, feeling nauseous and self-satisfied. I am the sort of chick who stops suicides years in the making. You have to be glad to know me.
Ash and I sit on the floor, fenced-in by a circle of empties. His eyelids droop unevenly. First one, then the other closes over watery slits. His hair hangs in his face. I try to brush it back and poke his nose instead.
Ash leans in suddenly and wraps his arm around my waist. He kisses me. Our teeth click. He pinches my nipple through my shirt. I try not to make a sound, but make one anyway. I struggle to my feet.
“Don’t go,” he says, his cheeks slack like a basset hound’s. I leave, closing the door softly behind me.
I head up Duboce through rolling, sighing fog. The birds are silent, sleeping. Ghosts mumble from park benches at the Triangle. I pull my leather close around and talk to myself out loud, which is a habit of mine. It keeps the shades away.
Instead of turning down Divisadero towards my house, I head into Corona Heights. I want to look at the morning from Alien Rock. You can see both bridges from the nook at the top. You can see the old organ factory my parents bought when I was a baby. You can see murals and rainbow flags and all the places the hippies used to go. The bay will be visible too, gray when the gray day finally brakes and the fog settles just above the buildings.
The way into Corona Heights is strange. It is very European (so I’ve heard), how the streets tangle like a woman’s hair and the hills rise under them like breasts. The Heights have no grid.
At an intersection marked Beaver Terrace and Flatley Lane, I don’t know which way to take. I choose Beaver and follow it in a circle back to the same spot. Then I try Flatley and spiral up and up through the fog. A boozy vapor hangs in the back of my throat, making my stomach flip-flop. I ease onto a doorstep to rest and fall asleep. A mustached man in a striped tie nudges me awake. He drives me four blocks back down to Divisadero, where I can catch the 24 home. The bus comes right away.
Ash shows up at my door around noon. His pupils look muddy. The laugh-lines around his mouth are folds and his skin is pink and flaky. I realize I’ve never seen him during the day. He’s at least a decade older in the sun.
“Morning Dolores. I need help getting something up the stairs,” he says. He flashes a crooked grin.
“I slept through class.” I wipe mascara from under my eyes.
“I have something for you. I walked it up from my place, but I’m afraid your stairs are for a more chivalrous man than I.”
I shuffle to the living room window and crane my head out to see the sidewalk. A large, bright canvass leans on the lamppost at the corner.
“Ash, you bastard. You’re nuts!” I’m suddenly very awake and very happy.
“I painted it years ago, but I think it was always meant for you. You shouldn’t put up with me unless I paint beautiful pictures and hand-deliver them.” His left eye droops.
“You’re trashed,” I say. The eye springs open.
“Help me up with it so I can get out of the sun. I wasn’t made for daylight.”
The 7’ tall painting is of a fat woman nursing a baby. I’m flat-chested and I can’t stand children. But the colors are astounding! Ash’s combinations would drive my Color Theory professor gonzo. Looking at any one spot, I see an awkward, mismatched jumble. But from several feet back, each color finds a complement elsewhere in the painting and a woman and child emerge from the chaos. I hang it across from my bed and look and look and look. It is always new. It’s always mine.
My flat is on a hillside in the Western Addition. It rests at an angle of about 10 degrees. If you drop a marble in the kitchen, it rolls to the bedroom. The same goes for drunks. If they end up in my bed, it’s only gravity.
This building was raised in the 30s, but has high ceilings and beveled this and beveled that, just like its Victorian neighbors.
My closet door won’t stay open because of the angle. I have to prop a chair under the knob, in order to look at myself naked in the closet mirror, which is what I’m doing now.
I’m skinny. I’ve seen ribs like this on sick animals. They look all right on me, in an Auschwitz chic sort of way. My breasts are like a boy’s and I have nipples like pencil erasers. It’s hard to imagine anyone milking me.
What I dig is the way lamplight breaks between my thighs when I stand with my ankles together. My first boyfriend called it holy light and claimed to have found God there. I have long, floppy-looking feet. I might be exotic, but I’m not sure. Ash says I’m exotic.
I thought the old painter wouldn’t get to me, but he has. If Ash plays nicely tonight, maybe I’ll let him win. In fact, yes.
Having decided to surrender, there is much to do. Ash will call at 9:30. I have time.
The bathtub is disgusting and I am out of cleaner. I dress myself and bounce down three flights of stairs to Broderick Street. The evening is damp and close. Nicer houses than mine lean over the sidewalk and the gray underbelly of the sky grazes their tops. At Nimer’s Market, RC grins from behind the counter and says:
“Yo, yo, there she is! Tell me beautiful, are you a good witch or a bad witch today?” His skin is very dark and shiny. The gray sky reflects across his cheeks.
“I’m a very bad witch today.”
“That’s my girl,” he says. I place a container of Comet and a bottle of tonic on the counter and ask for a fifth of Tanqueray.
“Uh-oh,” he says. “Who’s the Comet cocktail for?” I try to smile mysteriously, but blush instead.
“For a very bad warlock,” I say finally, feeling moronic.
“Ooooooooooooh. Black magic in the air!” RC can smell sex hours before it happens.
At home again, I kneel and scrub the claw-foot tub. It rinses to a sterile Zinc White. I draw a fiercely hot bath and sprinkle the surface with honey-chai salts. I light votives decorated with Mexican-Catholic saints.
The water closes around my foot like a mouth. It burns a little and I let it. There is a painful thrill when my clit breaks the surface. I continue down. The steam climbs my face to blind me and I disintegrate like a lump of salt.
I shave my bony body from ankle to armpit, taking special care around the crotch and belly. I scour myself pink with a loofah and exfoliate my face with citrus gel. I rub rose oil into my hair.
Once out of the tub and dry, I scrape out the leftover goop from a bleach kit and smear it above my lip. I find tweezers to perfect my eyebrows while the bleach processes. The phone rings.
“I don’t think I can hang out tonight,” says a low, tremulous version of Ash’s voice. My stomach tightens.
“I’m sober. I’m not drinking.” I can tell he’s measuring his words.
“Shut up. Really?”
“I hate every second of it.”
“That’s great, Ash.”
“I need to clean up. I haven’t painted in weeks.”
“I’ll be over in an hour.”
“No,” he says, “You go out with friends. I’m bad company.”
“I don’t have friends. We’ll have coffee.”
I talk him into meeting me. I practically threaten him. I’m inexplicably terrified. What more could I want than a clean, healthy Ash, one who doesn’t slur or drool, one who might live out the decade? Poor thing, I’ll help him through this. I will be his solace, his one small light. I yank a hair from the bridge of my nose.
Ash and I sit at a corner table at Café Abir. Around us, people study and flirt. On a nearby couch, a scrawny boy with coke-bottle glasses strums an acoustic guitar. He lacks rhythm completely.
Ash has the shakes. He spills his coffee. He doesn’t talk about art. He barely even talks about himself. Occasionally, he complains of aches in his gut and neck. Mostly, Ash is silent, save the hacking cough. I fluff my scented hair.
Ash wants to go home. I go too and we sit in his studio and don’t talk or laugh. He doesn’t try to kiss me. He can barely get his cigarette between his lips, due to the trembling.
After a while, he says, “You can go on with your night, you know. Or you can stay. I don’t care. I’m going to try to sleep.”
I should leave. But I am so nicely shaven. Maybe soft skin will help him through the first night.
When Ash goes to his bedroom, I follow. Where the floor should be, there are bottles, clothes, ashtrays. The bed has only three legs. The walls are a dingy white, strangely bare of paintings. I smell groin and sour booze.
Ash curls on top of his sheets fully clothed and puts his arm over his eyes. I sit next to him. The bed tips. I laugh.
“How did you break your bed?” I say.
Ash says nothing.
“Should I stay with you, Ash?”
“Do what you want,” he answers in monotone. I lie beside him.
“I’ll just stay until you sleep.”
“Turn off the light,” he says. I do. I lie with him again and stroke his chest with my hand. I breathe through my mouth because of the smell.
“That feels kind of nice,” he says in the dark.
Then his hands are on me. They seem to be everywhere at once, clumsy but warm. I try to respond. This is it. We’re really doing it. My shirt leaves my body. Then his dry skin is on my oiled skin. I wish for a very strong drink. I wish for several drinks and a laughing night on Ash’s dirty studio floor.
I try to find Ash’s eyes in the dark, but they don’t seem to be in his face anymore. I see black holes.
His fingers push inside me. It almost feels good, so I say it feels good. Ash doesn’t respond, so I shut up.
He wants a condom. I climb over him and step on clothing and feel around for my purse. I consider leaving for a drink and coming back, which is ridiculous.
We get the condom on and have sex in the way we were each trained. We put our bodies into various positions. We grunt. Everything that’s supposed to happen happens. I cum; he cums. When it’s done, we both say it was good. It might have been. I don’t know.
I lie with Ash on his dirty sheets until I’m sure he is sleeping. I climb over him, find my clothes and walk to the Lucky 13 for a Jack and Coke.