Chapter One: Angie
And I know I have been released
But I don’t know to where.
Angie pulled her cell phone out of her pocket to check the time. She was late. Actually, she was over an hour late. She had two missed calls both from Harold. He had warned her not to be late.
“You absolutely cannot be late,” was exactly how Harold had phrased it. “There will be press and photographers there. They do not want to wait around for you. Don’t screw this up.”
She pressed her hand to her throbbing temple as she clomped down Crosby Street with her thigh-high buckled boots. On any other woman, the platform boots might look sexy but on Angie they looked like a little girl playing dress up.
Angie reached the gallery door, stood for a moment trying to collect herself, realized she couldn’t really do anything and then resignedly pulled open the door. She entered the gallery with her head down, afraid to look up. It wasn’t Harold she was afraid of. It was one of her bad days today, the gray shadows were lingering in her peripheral vision. She didn’t want to see them. She stood for a moment just inside the door. She pulled at her black, short skirt encircling her fish-net legs.
The gallery was bright and crowded. No one noticed her. People huddled in groups with fluted champagne glasses chattering. She did not like the loud room but at least it drowned out the voices from inside her head—if just for a little while.
She started to slowly slide around the edge of the room. Once or twice, a person glanced at her and gave her the “who-let-her-in” look. No one knew who she was, and she grinned, clicking her studded tongue against her front teeth.
At twenty-seven, Angie was still “Goth.” She dressed in black clothing. Tonight she wore a black long-sleeved tee shirt on her flat, braless chest, complete with skull and crossbones. A slim crack of her stomach peeked out between the bottom of the shirt and her studded belt. Her eyes, made up with heavy makeup, making them look like black, empty holes. Her hair teased into an impossibly tall, shiny, spiked Mohawk held in place with a product called “hair glue.” Her face was covered with piercings; her eyebrow, her nose, her upper lip and her labret. People said this was a style she would outgrow. Outgrow? How do you outgrow the contents of your soul? Didn’t they realize that she was black inside, too? When she signed her paintings, she mixed some of her blood along with the paint.
Her paintings. She glanced up. There they were, hanging around the room. Her whole body sighed when she saw them, and she was able to relax a little. These were her portraits. She called them “her people.”
Angie slid passed people in the gallery and caught snippets of conversation.
“Really haunting,” she heard a woman say, a raised glass to her lip as if she were talking to the glass itself.
“Yes, these are amazing. Rumor has it the Met wants a show,” her companion said referring to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “but I hear the artist is a real fruit cake. I can’t wait to meet her.”
A fruit cake. Angie chuckled. But the woman was right about one thing. Harold had left a message that the Met was interested in a show. She knew what this meant. She was on her way to success. Success; she pondered that idea for a moment. Then for just an instant she saw a figure move through the crowd. She looked down and up again quickly as if trying to clear her vision. Had she really seen the shadowy figure? She moved away from the two women, touching her temple again.
Angie stopped in front of one of her paintings. She glanced up at the boy she had painted. He was a young boy, maybe seven or eight. She had seen him in the park near her home in Kingston, New York. Like the image she had seen in the park, the boy was standing alone, away from other figures in the pictures. His lips were tight together in an almost grin. He was looking directly at the viewer. The picture was painted in black and white, except for the boy’s eyes which had the thinnest hint of blue. In the corner of the boy’s forehead was a miniature city, as if the boy’s head had opened up and revealed it. The best thing was all the secrets she had painted into the picture. You couldn’t see them all at once, you had to move about, view the picture from this way or that.
“I see them, too.” A woman was suddenly at Angie’s side, whispering in her ear. Angie did not move or even acknowledge the woman. They both stood there, side by side for a long time gazing at the boy with the city in his head as he gazed back at them. Angie knew that if she turned her head, even slightly, the woman might not really be there.
“Jesus Christ.” Harold approached her from the other side. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Um...I just got here...” she said. She glanced and the woman was gone. Angie turned back to Harold. “I got lost.”
“Again?” Harold said running his hand through his hair. His gray roots were just beginning to show. “You have to get a studio down here,” Harold said referring to Manhattan, “I don’t want to be schlepping your work from Bumfuckia anymore. This is where the action is.”
Angie saw something, a shadow, a movement out of the corner of her eye. Her eyes glanced away from Harold.
“Hey,” he said softening a little bit. “You hear me?”
“Uh huh,” she said. She hadn’t heard him.
“Come on. Claire has been up my ass asking for you. Now you have to go kiss her ass. Ok?”
Angie followed Harold. Again she cast her eyes downward, but halfway across the room, Harold and Angie approached a woman whose back was to them. She was dressed in shadowy grays. She turned her head, unsmiling and looked directly at Angie. Then she turned away again. Angie paused a minute and then, as she passed the woman, reached out and just slightly touched the edge of the woman’s gray batiste blouse. Angie felt the coolness slip between her thumb and forefinger. She sighed with relief. The woman was real.
“Angie,” Claire Mercer exclaimed as she greeted Angie, “my little baby doll.”
Claire grabbed Angie in a big grandmotherly hug. The folds of Claire’s brightly colored kaftan smothered her for a moment. Claire’s oversized earrings banged into the sides of Angie’s face as she kissed her on each cheek. Angie was sure there were bright red lip marks on each cheek now, too.
“She got lost,” Harold said as she shrugged.
“She got lost. She got lost.” Claire moaned as she looked up like she was imploring heaven. “Let Claire find you a nice little studio. I’ll get you a view of the river. Harold says you love the water.”
Angie tried to smile but pain was now coursing through her head like flood water through a narrow pipe. Claire put her hand on Angie’s shoulder and spun her around. “Come on, sweetheart; let me introduce you to some people.” Claire leaned in, the aroma of her perfume entering Angie’s nostrils and exacerbating her headache. “There is a man here, Gregory Lonstein, he says he isn’t, but I just know he is representing a collector. He is interested in Marta on the Shore,” Claire said, referring to one of Angie’s portraits. Marta on the Shore, the painting of a homeless woman Angie met in the park. In the painting the woman stands glancing off to some unseen horizon, the Rondout Creek behind her, and inside her half-open mouth is a city at night.
“I... uh...” Angie stuttered as she tried to think up a lie. ”I have to go to the ladies’ room. I’ll be right back.”
Angie slunk away before either Harold or Claire could say anything to her. She moved around the periphery until she found the ladies room. She should feel guilty, she knew that, but she didn’t. Harold had worked hard to get her this show. Claire Mercer was the queen of the New York City art world. A nod from Claire was all an artist needed and her career would be on its way. But Angie was too creeped out about being among all these strangers gawking at her paintings. Her paintings were private, intimate. Angie felt like her naked body was on display. That and the thought that she couldn’t tell which ones were real people and which ones were just a product of her brain.
Angie went into the bathroom and stood at the sink. Several women moved in and out of the bathroom stalls as she stood looking at her reflection. She leaned in and ran her hand over her face. It was ghostly white with a bluish cast. That wasn’t makeup. That was real. She thought about Harold and Claire wanting her to get a place in the city. She was not getting a place in the Village or Chelsea or SoHo. Not even in Brooklyn. She didn’t like New York City. It made her head hurt worse than it already did. The city was noisy, smelly and dirty. In the city, there were so many people; she didn’t know who was real and who wasn’t. She sighed heavily and leaned on the sink. Out of her periphery she felt a presence. A woman standing in the corner of the ladies’ room, as if waiting for a stall. But Angie knew better. Even out of the corner of her eye, she could tell the woman had no color—her clothes, her hair, even her flesh were all shades of gray. Angie moved slowly away from the woman, without acknowledging her, and pushed open the door. Angie could feel her eyes on her even after the bathroom door closed behind her.
She thought that she could leave the gallery before anyone saw her, but Harold found her again.
“I have to go, Harold,” she said.
“What the fuck, Ang? What sort of artist leaves her own opening early when she is getting rave reviews and some good sales?”
Harold was old enough to be her father, a full-bodied man with a neat trim beard and thick, black hair, combed back away from his face. He tried to look casual, a button-down shirt, open at the neck, neatly pleated pants and a thin belt. Everything was tailored close to his body but not clingy. He worked out at the gym each day trying to beat back the onslaught of late middle age. He had started to button up his shirt one button higher when his chest hair had started to turn gray. But Angie liked Harold, not quite a friend, not quite a father, but a mix of friend, father and agent.
“I have to catch the train to upstate,” she said. A thin annoying buzz had started in her ears.
“Sleep at my place.”
She knew this was truly only an offer to sleep there. She and Harold had no sexual tension between them.
She shook her head “no.” He pulled her to the side, away from the small crowd to avoid a scene. He inclined his head to her, spoke in a confidential tone.
“You taking your meds, Ang?"
He put his hand on her shoulder; it felt fatherly there. She thought to lie, but then responded honestly, “You know I can’t paint when I take them."
“There’s all sorts of new stuff on the market. Go see your doctor. Get the good stuff. You are on your way to the moon here, Ang. I want you to participate in your life, do you understand? Participate. It’s good for business.”
Business. That is what Harold called selling art. For him it was business. It was about mixing, schmoozing, cajoling. You make art; you sell it, hopefully, for a lot of money. It was simple for Harold. For her, well, for her, art was breathing.
She nodded to appease him, “I have a bad headache."
He nodded sympathetically, patted her on the back, looked away, trying not to be either disappointed, agitated or both.
“And maybe you don’t have to wear all that fucking black shit,” he added, straightening up, not looking directly at her. “Get some more piercings or tattoos, but, Jesus Christ, Angie, you’re twenty-eight years old. I know you are a goddamn artist, but you look like a loser from high school. You look like you are trapped in the 1980s or something.”
“Twenty-seven.” She squeezed her eyes against the pain. “I’m twenty-seven, Harold."
He shook his head as if to say, “whatever.” He spied a potential buyer, smiled, lifted his hand and waved with his champagne glass. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow," and moved off to sell her paintings.
Angie headed for the door in a straight line. She thought she heard someone calling her; it could have been Claire, it could have been a voice in her head, either way she did not turn around.
Angie hailed a cab and headed directly to Grand Central Station. Barely aware of where she was walking, she found an almost empty train car and fell into a seat next to the window. She had forgotten headphones to drown out the mumbling in her head. Her life was not supposed to have turned out like this. Here she was, showing at Claire Mercer Gallery in SoHo, and the Met was interested in sponsoring a show. Harold was harassing her about interviews all over the place from newspapers to high profile magazines, and all she wanted to do was go home and hole up in her apartment.
She leaned her head against the window. It felt cool against her hot skin. She glanced into the window and there, behind her, was a man. She looked up at his reflection in the window and met his gaze. Even in the glass she could tell he was gaunt, gray and not really there. She looked at him for a long time. She sat up slowly, still meeting his gaze but did not turn around. Without looking, she reached over to her bag, pulled out her sketch pad and a pencil and, looking only at the reflection, started to sketch. He was one of her Gray People. Her sketching was the only way she found to make peace with them.
She did not see her Gray People every day; however, she was seeing them more and more lately. She only saw them when her head pounded mercilessly, like this evening. She knew if she did not turn, he would stay there, standing in the aisle of the train, frozen while she drew him. If she did turn and he disappeared, another one would replace him. She had started to draw them to try and make sense of them. Instead of making any sense at all, they were making her famous. Together, the reflection and Angie made the ride north to Kingston. Just as she anticipated, when the train arrived, Angie turned and there was no one in the aisle. But she had his imagine in her sketch pad on her lap. No one could tell her the Gray People were not real.
When Angie entered her darkened apartment, she was exhausted. She tossed her keys on the table and did not turn on the lights. She lived in a small, converted warehouse on the Rondout Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River. Huge, arched windows looked down on the creek below, the moon glowing on the rippling water. She tried to smile through the pain in her head. Those windows, that view, was the reason she had bought this rundown place to begin with. Angie had done most of the work on the place herself. She had sectioned out an apartment on the top floor with plans for an income-producing space on the bottom, a studio or perhaps a classroom. She had bartered for the work she could not do herself. The place was rough at best, cold and drafty. She hung batik and tie-dyed bedspreads to cover the unfinished walls and ceilings. The whole place had a college dorm feel to it. But she had done it all for those windows.
She stood now in one of those windows looking out. The window itself was another six feet taller than Angie. She looked down at the street and the creek. She saw a person, a woman, gray and huddled. She could be a homeless woman looking for cans on her way to T.R. Gallo Park or she could be a Gray Person. It was hard to tell the homeless from the Gray People, they dressed so much alike. Angie turned away.
She pulled her phone out of her pocket again. She saw she had messages. She rarely kept her ringer on, so to reach Angie people had to leave messages.
“Angie,” an unfamiliar voice said, “saw your work in The Sunday Times. Great stuff, great stuff. Call me when you are in the city, we’ll do…”
She deleted it.
“Hey Booger.” It was her brother calling her by her childhood nickname. “I saw the article in the paper. Wowser. Give me a call when you can. I’d like to go down and see the show.”
“Hi, Sweetheart." It was her Aunt Tibby, her mother’s sister. “I just saw the paper and wanted to let you know that I am so proud of you. Your mom and dad would be proud, too. I can’t say I understand your work but…”
Angie deleted it.
“Hey, baby.” It was Charles, her sometimes boyfriend. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t get away to your opening, but you know how this real estate gig is. Call me when you get in. Doesn’t matter how late. I’ll come over with a bottle of champagne. We can celebrate.”
She squeezed her closed eyes together with her thumb and forefinger. Why wasn’t she happy? The pain that coursed through her head even caused her to stop from considering questions she asked herself. She knew there was nothing in her medicine chest to help her. She had tried to talk to people about what was happening to her; the pain, the people, the voices in her head. She even had gone to a doctor once. He had given her medication that made her drool and sleep almost twenty hours a day. This was it. This was the best it would ever be.
After listening to the messages she would never respond to, she unbuckled her boots. It took a while, twelve buckles, down her thigh, over her knees, down her calves. She pulled her feet out of them, rolled down her black thigh-high stockings and let everything drop to the floor. Out of her boots and stockings her legs suddenly felt cool. She walked light-footed to the bathroom. She stood before the mirror, took a washcloth and warmed it with water and baby oil. She looked closely at herself. Her heavy makeup had begun to run. She liked the effect it had on her face, making it look drippy, melting, and sad. Her glossy black lips were now dull. She thought she looked dead. Her spiky hair had started to flatten. She rubbed the warm oil over her face; next to her ear was a tiny tattoo of a black rose with two tiny tear drops. She never wore rouge; she liked the dull blue look of her skin. She moved the cloth, rubbing her skin, rubbing off all the makeup leaving only the bluish palette of skin. With the black lipstick removed, even her lips had a bluish cast. She grabbed some bath beads, ran the water in the tub until it warmed up, threw the bath beads in and filled the tub. She shrugged off the rest of her clothes and let them lie on the floor. Her body was thin, but not tight. There was fleshiness, almost weakness about her. She lifted herself into the tub and eased her way into the steamy bubbles. She was so tired, so very tired.
She reached for the razor blade she kept by the tub, a men’s straight razor. This one was new. She stretched out her left arm, blade in her right hand. Her left arm was crisscrossed with marks of all sizes, shapes and stages of healing. Some were old brown scars, others were glossy pink and others still, red angry scabs. She pressed the blade into her skin and felt instant relief. Since she had been a teenager, cutting herself had been the only source of relief she had ever been able to find. Blood spurted out onto her white skin. It formed a rivulet, ran down her forearm, stopped there. She pressed harder and it ran down her arm until it hit the elbow and then dripped into the water. She made little hash marks across the cut, allowing them to bleed, just a little flow at the surface of the skin. She leaned back with a sigh, her whole body shuddering in relief and made another cut. She felt as if she were a balloon slowly releasing all its air. She switched arms. She was never very good cutting with the left hand; those cuts were less straight, less perfect. She lifted both arms and watched the rivulets of blood run down her forearms slowly, hesitate at the elbow joint, then flow onto her upper arms. Beautiful. She made more cuts. Then she looked at the fleshy part of her wrists, just under the palm, the little mound between the ulna and radius, attaching to the wrist. Don’t cut there. Everyone knows this. But she looked at the heavy blue vein at each wrist. That would be luscious to bleed.
She touched the skin with the blade. Hesitation. She pressed harder. No blood. A little harder. She could feel the slice then saw the spurt. She moved to her other hand. She liked her arms to bleed together, sisters in suffering. She held the blade tightly with her left hand; cut deep, less control than she had with her right hand. Without warning, half the blade disappeared into her wrist, between the two bones. She knew immediately she had cut too deep. The blood was flowing now with quick, rhythmic spurts. She thought for a moment she should get something to slow it down, maybe try to stop it. She had never bled quite like this before, the rhythmic spurting. But it was so beautiful. Blood dripped into the water, making it pink. She rested her arm on the side of the tub, watching the blood flow from her body. She was transfixed by its beauty. There was no paint this color, no matter how much she mixed and remixed. She could never capture this on her canvas. It must be the element of being alive that made this color so beautiful, so soothing. She began to feel lightheaded, just a bit dizzy. She rested back, not taking her eyes off her arm. The room suddenly started to look strange. The walls, the fixtures, the toilet, all had a strange, funhouse effect. They looked as if they were rippling, wavering like a mirage on the road on a hot day. She felt so at peace, so wonderful. No pain in her head, no voices, just a peaceful floating sensation. This was beauty, this was joy, this was ecstasy. Then, just as a little feeling of panic started in her chest, letting her know that she had gone too far this time, she lost consciousness.