Upstate by Brian Fender

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I went upstate last weekend. The train left at 2:00 and soon after skyscrapers and graffiti were moving into the background. The Hudson Valley wrapped itself around the train causing my muscles to go slack. Two little girls were playing in the aisle, laughing effortlessly. My boyfriend Jake was disappointed that he wasn’t going. It was a last minute decision I made while doing the laundry. He encouraged me, but I could see his dimples weren’t completely committed to the reassuring smile. It’s something we’ve been doing more of lately, pretending that things are what they aren’t or aren’t what they are.

I caught the train in Harlem. I stood on the platform and looked down the length of 125th  street cluttered in garbage and people going about their business. An older man stood on the corner yelling incoherently and waving his index finger. He had a lot to say, but no one was listening. I could see an Apple Tour bus a few blocks down. It always embarrasses me to see all those white people hanging over the upper deck, taking photographs like they are on some sort of exotic safari.

On the train platform two women behind me were bitching at each other about the men in their lives. I felt the urge to turn around and say, “You tell em girl,” but I don’t do the queen thing well. I never have. Jake and I surprise people in that way, they say they never would have guessed that we’re gay. Women sometimes act disappointed and say things like what a shame, what a waste. Most say it unaware of what they are suggesting, while some say it before they can catch themselves and their cheeks turn red, they stutter backwards trying to undo the insinuation, until the stumbling leads to silence and the red travels down the length of their necks or splotches across their collarbones. I used to make them feel better about themselves, but I don’t do that anymore.

I sat behind two women I guessed to be mother and daughter, on the train. From what I could see the mother wore a light woven cardigan of cream and a strand of pearls. Her hair had completely submitted to gray. It suited her. The daughter wore a black turtleneck and Jackie O sunglasses that accentuated her jaw line and suggested her importance. They were both long and elegant. I envisioned their Westchester homes sitting on an expanse of land surrounded by sculptured grounds and equestrian accessories. They talked of the past and a new granddaughter. The daughter remembered a train trip many years earlier, when she was a girl in pigtails, her first visit to the city. The mother laughed and told of her standing in the seat, slapping her hands against the window, trying to catch the passing lights. A story I imagine neither grow tired of.

At the next stop a man who looked to be in his late forties sat in a seat opposite me. I have never understood the backwards seats, but am always thankful for them when men like him sit across from me, giving access to the compelling bunching and shifting that goes on. He had jet-black hair, with tufts sprouting from his v-neck and thick hands dusted in fur. He gave me a smile then went back to the NY TIMES. Some men like the attention, encourage the fantasy and make the situation more intolerable, and the others don’t, which makes it almost impossible to control mys eyes

The mother leaned towards her daughter, putting her elbow on the armrest. I watched her through the crack between the seats as she talked and fiddled with her earring. The hole in her ear was stretched so that the earring hung precariously on a small band of skin. My mother has similar, split lobes from her children and grandchildren yanking on the shiny objects that hung seductively close to our impulsive little hands. As I grew older I often felt the urge to finish the job, the incompleteness of the rip like a scab looking perfect for the picking.

The train stopped at Cold Springs. The mother and daughter began collecting their things. Their perfume hit me in waves as they moved about collecting their bags and coats. Bangles clattered on the mother’s arm. She passed with a smile. Feminine smells and softness. The man across the way was watching the daughter when our eyes met, held for a moment. The little girl’s laughter had turned sinister behind me, with, “It’s mine” grating back and forth like the edge of a serrated blade. I looked over my seat at them and saw the two holding firmly to what the other was convinced was rightfully hers. I could see that the smaller one, the one with the blue-black hair and a set jaw, the one I imagined people called the pretty one, would do whatever it took to get what she wanted. She proved me right by freeing one hand, reaching over and plucking the bigger girls arm-fat between her fingers. Her face had gone tight with resolve, she grit her teeth as she twisted and pulled until her sister’s screams filled the car. I turned my attention back to the window, thinking the pretty one will always fair better and the bigger one will resent her for it.

A rusted red barge floated past on the Hudson. The seasons first wildflowers swayed along the riverbank, leaning towards the south, standing upright, calming, then leaning again. Outside, in the parking lot, a tall man, with dark hair and angular features stood next to an important looking sports utility vehicle. So many important looking people these days. I couldn’t help but think it was so much nicer when there were just a few important looking people. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a blackberry as the women exited the front of the car and walked on the platform towards me. He didn’t notice them, his thumbs poking away at the contraption.

The Hudson breeze wrapped itself around the two women as they leaned into one another. Their loose clothing billowed and flapped behind them. The mother’s pants clung to her front. Her legs were surprisingly muscular. I turned in my seat as they passed and the train began to push forward, hoping to see if the daughter belonged to him, the man by the important looking vehicle. I wanted to see his reaction when he looked up, but they were erased by the train’s white interior and my eyes settled on ‘Stewart is a Cocksucker’ crudely carved into the plastic.

I looked back at my fantasy for the trip. He was lost in the Times, sitting sideways towards me squeezing his legs back and forth, back and forth. Delightful torture. His fingers were perfectly manicured. He got off at the next stop. He suggested I have a nice day. I told him I would, but couldn’t help but feeling disappointed for what would never be.

My best friend Matt picked me up at the Beacon stop. He’d shaved his beard and cut off his long hair; the grizzly was gone with the winter. We fell into our usual assessment of where he was with his art, me with writing, the complications of dedicating your life to something that has the potential to amount to nothing and ruin you in the process. Conversations about the Diane Arbus exhibit at the Met, Basquiat at the Brooklyn Museum drifted into cigarette smoke and the quiet of passing scenery.

Matt’s loft is in an old warehouse that overlooks the Hudson. Walking into the loft is walking into Matt. I helped him move in when it was just brick walls, wooden rafters and windows. The expansive hardwood floors are dotted with various colors of upholstery and lampshades. A drafting table with an assortment of tools, scraps of paper and half finished projects sit beneath a collage of editorial images that change when their influence has worn thin. His books of art and photography sit orderly on bookshelves, open on coffee tables, strewn about. Random colors and shapes lean in on one another among a jungle of plants that make their union seem obvious.

He has an upcoming show. Life-sized oil pieces he has been working on hang between the two windows overlooking the Hudson. He stares at them for hours, smokes endless cigarettes and sips on beer until he feels the spirit. His work pleases me in a way that I don’t understand or can articulate. He always unsure about them; can’t see beyond the turmoil it took him to get there. He is thinking about moving to Maine and becoming a farmhand. I tell him he’s fucking crazy.

He says, “but I am talking about organic farming!” as if it is less difficult.

He sliced an apple with this device that sections it into eight pieces as I sat at the bar and watched him move around. A subtle smile spreads across his face at the contraptions utility. His open cupboards are lined with glass containers of different grains, and dry goods. Antique thermometers, a ceramic rooster, other interesting items dotted through out and in between. They remind him of his grandparents, the only part of his past he fit into. That’s what we share the most, a past we didn’t fit into.

Matt moved to the Hudson Valley like so many other artists who had once flocked from podunk towns to New York City. One of many aesthetic disciples that traveled to the Holly Land, only to stumble out years later, malnourished and orphaned from their paintbrushes, canvases and cameras. One of the many who moved to the periphery of Manhattan to breathe a little easier, expand in some way and hopefully reconnect to the creativity that graduate programs and the New York art scene had remorselessly squeezed from them. There was an opening in Beacon that night. We went. We always go. I am generally more interested in artists who dedicate their lives to making shit than the ones who show talent. I was reintroduced to Amy for the fiftieth time. I have watched her not progress for the past four years. She creates “installations,” a term I have grown suspect of as the, “It’s so ridiculous it must be brilliant syndrome.” Amy’s art comes in the form of panty hose, balloons stuffed with hair and things dropped into epoxy. The “pieces” are “suspended” on transparent lines. “Such tension” I said without a lick of sarcasm.

Matt was in his usual beat up t-shirt, construction pants and boots, complete with a raccoon tail pinned to the ass of his Carhartts. You can’t be too sure what is going to happen one minute or the next with Matt. He has a predisposition for random outbursts of dance and goofiness, a tendency to turn spaces into his personal runways. He did it across Columbia University’s promenade once. It was in the dead of winter, when he still had his bushy beard. He was wearing Big John overalls, a red flannel shirt and construction boots. He worked it for the entire city block in “pretend-high-heels”, slang for walking on his toes. That’s what he asks, “Do you want her in heels?” I always do. That day he did Geisel. We had just come up from the 1 train. He had my iPod. He told me later that Madonna came on and he couldn’t resist. Everyone had stopped to watch the farmer playing runway. They pointed, laughed and cheered. I was so proud.

I did a sweep of the gallery when we got there, did the best I could to see the work around groups of people socializing and then went on the back porch for a smoke. I was disappointed that there weren’t any summer insect noises yet. I really wanted to hear summer insect noises. An old, red lamp was hanging above the back door. Its influence was very specific and everything outside its round impression lay in darkness until your eyes adjusted and things took form. I sat on a bench and looked towards the Hudson.

A young woman stormed out the door. She was tall, streaky blonde, tight jeans with intentional eighties boots, white and black striped shirt, asymmetrical haircut. Definitely got the impression in my two-second assessment, before she moved out of the influence of the old red light, that she’s used to getting what she wants. Probably another trust fund kid slumming it for a couple of years before she meets the investment banker, before she becomes a curator, opens her own gallery. Her boyfriend followed a few minutes later; not in a hurry, relaxed with an uncomplicated look on his face. He looked my way. White v-neck t-shirt, muscled, tattoo licking his neck, black hair, gorgeous crooked nose. I watched their silhouettes; she turned away from him as he approached.

“Give me a cigarette,” she snapped.

“This is the only one I have left.”

“Don’t fuck with me right now, just give me a goddamn cigarette.” “I want to ring that bitches neck,” she said.

“Well she would probably enjoy it if you did.”

“Why do you always make it into a joke?” “Do you see how she attacks me? She is always cutting me off. I can’t take it anymore.”

A group of hipsters came bursting out the back door with East village written all over their bespectacled, obscure vintage t-shirt clad selves. I felt the bench shake and looked to my left. Crooked nose was sitting next to me.

“Can I bum a smoke man?”

“Sure.” I handed him the pack. “Should I look forward to a cat fight,” I asked.

“No, that would be too interesting. Just a lot of bitching and moaning.”

His profile was worthy of a coin. I’m not usually into noses, but found myself fixated on it, enamored with it.”

“You live in Beacon, he asked.”

“No just up from the city. What about you?

“Same. Weird little town.”

“Where are you in the city.”

“Upper West, you?”

“Brooklyn. I pretty much live in my art studio.”

“A struggling artist, with a beautiful crooked nose.” “You’re the guy I always envisioned being with,” slid out before I had the opportunity to repress it.

“It never turns out the way we think it will does it, but thank you. I’m flattered. I should be flattered shouldn’t I?”

“Yes, definitely flattered.” “Is that your girlfriend,” I asked nodding to the tall blonde.

“No, that would be a disaster.”

“Trust fund baby?”

“No, trailer park in Idaho, a whole different kind of entitlement.”

“Ah, the I didn’t have anything when I was growing up so I will kill you to get what I want kind of entitlement.”

“You seem to know her.”seats

“Yes, I have met many of hers; and hims for that matter.” “So where is your girlfriend,” I asked.

He looked at me and laughed. “Very subtle.”

“Yeah, that was a little obvious I suppose.” I said.

“There is no other in my life. I am far from taking myself out of the game.”

“And would you like to be more specific about what game you like to play,” I asked.

“No, I don’t like to close myself off.”

“Good answer, but sounds like a load of shit to me.”

He looked at me did a visual sweep. “What about you, you’re a big strapping man, I can’t imagine that you’re in need.”

I laughed. “Tethered and harnessed in an LTR. So, yes profound need.” I took a big swig off of my beer.

“So have you ever kissed another man before,” I asked.

“I don’t believe I have ever kissed another man before,” he responded.

“How open to experiences are you?”

I was breaking all kinds of personal records in a matter of minutes. It was the way he was slumping down, his playful eyes, the way he pulled on his beer that kept me going. I sat up, with my elbows on my legs and looked back at him. “What would you say if I decided to lean over and give you one right her on this back porch?” “I don’t know what I would say.” “But your not saying no?” I asked. He looked at me and laughed again. I turned toward him, put my left arm on the armrest trapping him and leaned in until I could feel his breath on my lips. I stopped and looked him in the eyes. His lips were soft, his stubble gave just the right amount of burn. It was deep and momentary, but I was swimming. When I pulled back and he was looking at me with a funny expression. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t.

“That was really different,” he finally said.

“Good different?” I asked

“Yeah, I liked it, supple but kind of rough,” he said.

That was as far as it went. I had put myself out there as much as I could for the evening and he wasn’t working any angles for a repeat performance. He told me he was from Texas, said the cultural void of a small southern town was a great antagonist for his art; pushed him to actualize what was inside of him so that it didn’t get neutralized by the homogeny of his surroundings. He said it was like a fever that he lost when he came to New York, that his work has matured since he moved here, but lacks the tension it once had. I just watched his lips the whole time, wanting to move in closer again.

I knew I didn’t want to see his art. Didn’t want to form an opinion that would potentially change the vision I had of him in his studio, paint speckled pants, shirtless of course, with Pollack-esque pieces on towering white walls. Eventually we were surrounded, the gallery had spilled onto the back porch. Conversations were reaching their typical New York roar.

“Thanks for the smoke man.”

My heart sank. “Yeah, no problem, maybe see you in the city?”

“Yeah, here’s my card. I have a show in Williamsburg coming up next month you should come check it out.”

I tried to keep my cool. “Yeah, I’ll see if I can make it.” I wanted to pin him against a wall and not let him leave, but he did.

I watched him get absorbed by the crowd and kept my spot on the bench, lopping that experience over and over again still tingling with the contact high. A statistician, up visiting his sister, sat down next to me, explained very complicated things that I didn’t want to know. He didn’t seem to mind that I had stopped nodding my head in understanding, had glazed over while returning my thoughts to crooked nose. Actually he didn’t seem to be interested in me in the least, just content to have someone to talk at, like the old man on 125th street. An ethereal woman took his place when he had talked himself out.   She wanted to know my sun and moon signs. She was mother earth incarnate. I envisioned her on some new age women’s retreat in Pennsylvania walking around nude with daisies and dandelions in her hair, releasing her vagina power to the universe.   She seemed convinced that she knew everything about me when I told her my birthday. She told me that my creative juices were going to open up when something went into retrograde. I envisioned myself standing in a club, my pores suddenly opening, my creative juices squirting in all directions with me squatting on the floor trying to scoop them up, trying to keep them from seeping through the cracks of the hardwood floor.   That’s when she told me that there was a person who had recently entered my life that would be very important to me. That’s when I realized how brilliant she was.

“Your brilliant,” I said. She beamed with this news and put her hand on mine. The entire gallery seemed to be draining onto the back porch to smoke and I couldn’t spot crocked nose anywhere. I pulled his card from my pocket, his name was Jake. Jesus, two Jakes in my life! One like a tethered novel you’ve read so many times there’s no need to pick it back up, the sentences so integrated into your psyche they seem an extension of your own thoughts. The other a glossy cover, word pairing, sentences, paragraphs that create small eruptions, force you to put the book down so that you can try and absorb what you ran your eyes across. I looked to my left and saw that Matt was trapped by someone and knew it wouldn’t be long before he would want to bolt. He made crossed eyes at me when the woman turned her attention away. I said good-bye to Mother Earth and walked back inside. There were a few people milling about, but crooked nose was nowhere to be found. Matt walked up behind me. “Lets get the hell out of here.” I followed without a word. The street was fairly lifeless except for a couple of teenagers dressed like Diddy hanging out on the corner, their amplified conversations splitting through the quiet night.

“Did you meet Franc,” Matt asked.

“No, I kind of hid out on the back porch.”

“He is trying to use semen as a paste in his work.”

“That’s original. Is it his semen or does he want the semen of others?”

“Semen of others. I’m going to his studio tomorrow.”

“Does he want to watch you make paste?”

“Yes, he says its part of the process.”

“Well, there’s nothing transparent about that.”

Matt filled me in on everyone he ran into. I didn’t tell him about crooked nose, Jake number 2. I decided to keep it to myself. We went back to the loft and drank ourselves into a stupor, smoked until our lungs hurt. He made it to bed, but I woke up in the middle of the night with my face pressed against the cold, red leather chair I was in. I wanted to get up and get under the covers, but it was too cold to move so I lay there and froze instead. I left in the morning before he woke. I slept on the train ride home.

Jake was making lunch when I got home. He seemed different in a way that I couldn’t exactly put my finger on. I was stopped dead in my tracks when I went into the bedroom. I walked into the laundry room. The dryer was going. I looked inside to find our bedding. Jake never did laundry and I had washed everything before I left. I asked him what he did for the weekend.

He shrugged his shoulders, “nothing special. What about you” he asked.

“Same” I said.
Images: MTA: Hannah Learner https://www.flickr.com/photos/hannahlearner/sets
Hudson: Thomas Cole http://www.explorethomascole.org