I’m not sure what it is about this place that cinches my gut shut whenever I’m here. Maybe it’s the history. 1906, Loma Prieta, the Oakland Hills—even the whole dot-com business. Something about it just always seems perched on the verge of catastrophe, as if the rim of the bay were the lip of an event horizon, and all it would take is the slightest hint of a nudge for it to yank everybody in.
Or maybe it’s just that it isn’t home.
Whatever it is, my body simply will not release when I’m in town, and if I want to take a dump, I’d better head on back through Altamont Pass into the valley and find somewhere else to do it because it’s not gonna happen here, no joke. Nevertheless, I admit I depend on this place, so I find myself out here networking—peddling—more often than not. Nobody buys art out in the sticks, but here, I’m an exotic. I’ve been discovered. When I go on back to Gustine, a town outside of Merced, which is itself a town outside of Modesto, which is the kind of place nobody’s ever cared particularly about except almost certainly the natives—well, I’m out of place there too. Art? That’s a hobby. What do you do that’s useful? Kitchens, carburetors, and combines—that about rounds out the central industries of Gustine. Oh, and carpentry too.
So here I am in town for my art show, or rather, it’s a joint show—so, not entirely “mine”—all stopped up with nowhere to be until six o’clock. I’ve got seven texts on my phone from my neighbor Amber Lee trying to get me to come out to a fundraiser, a gala, for the library tonight; she doesn’t know that I’m away, and I’m not about to enlighten her. The woman’s industriousness exhausts me. I never trust a person who does not understand the intoxicating powers of inertia.
And yet, here I am.
I send a message to Rick that I’ve checked into my hotel and tell him it’s a doozy. They always set me up in these boutique places when I come out, and we like to joke back and forth about all the dumb frills. I’d sat on the toilet for awhile in the lobby’s single occupancy restroom, which was wide as a master bedroom, trying to work things out, but this one had some sort of hidden TV projection in the mirror. You couldn’t look away if you tried. Some god-awful bullshit was on, too, a Disney sitcom or something abysmal like that. I sent Rick a picture of it, careful that my squatting reflection was out of the frame. He wrote back: I keep thinking I’ve seen it all, but you always go and surprise me Laurie. You’re my window to the universe. I replied: You just say things like that to get in my pants. He said: Fair ‘nuff.
Married going on twenty-five years this fall, and I’d say almost half of that time is owed in large part to the advent of text messaging. We can keep up the lines of communication without having to be in each others’ business all the time. In each others’ faces.
We’re to meet at the gallery sharply at six for a private reception with donors which goes until the proper opening at seven. Leilani tells me the other exhibitors include a gay South African photographer and a young Burmese woman who does mixed media work with maps, so it’s to be freaks and geeks tonight, and I’m the hick.
It’s always a fine line with these things. Back in my graduate school days in Fresno, I once attended the show of a young Iranian woman who painted frank but normal (by Western standards) depictions of sex. They’d smuggled out both her and her art just for the show—it was very moving, but the reception of her work in the audience struck me as incredibly patronizing, it felt like. To me, anyway. Everybody kept saying things like, It’s so good (for having emerged from such a repressive regime) or It’s so good (for the artist having had no formal training). No one was willing to label it “good,” period. It was all caveats and parentheses.
I introduced myself after the show and traded a few of my paintings from my car for one of her prints. Mine of course, being strictly night scenes of the country, would make it back passed her censors. To this day, Rick still adores that piece of hers. He’s steady like that.
Anyway, I know what people expect of me when they read my name and bio, Laurel Alvarez from Merced County—feather ear rings, braided brown hair, turquoise jewelry and long skirts—so I try to subvert that when I pick out what to wear. Or rather, I am simply not that picture that they have in their minds, and I admit to taking a bit of a delight in dressing contrary to people’s ideas of me. I know I look more like a lesbian from Baltimore (why Baltimore? I don’t know—I guess because it’s just a blue-collar place I happen to like) with my polo shirts, work jeans, and zippered REI shoes, but I don’t want to try and get dolled up for anybody because it would just be pretend. I want to be comfortable. Pretty people with their waxing and plucking and heels and thongs, you know they’re all miserable, like getting ready to go out the door is a penance for being.
I like looking like a lesbian from Baltimore, except when I’m in the valley and get mistaken for an actual lesbian. They—we—have always been behind the times out there. It’s tiresome, but I always make sure to mention “my husband”—this and “my husband”—that when I’m in a place of business back home, just so no one inadvertently spits in my food at a restaurant or fucks with my brakes at the mechanic. Even a place that feels like home can misunderstand you.
It’s almost time so I head out the door of the hotel to make my way on foot, hoping to settle things in my insides by moving around. I always get nervous before things like this. This town is so stratified, you can see its layers right out in the open like when they blast a hole through the rock to build a freeway, ripples of quartz and feldspar naked and exposed, the invisible made visible in a blink. I fear that if I don’t navigate social situations with the utmost precision the consequences will just bubble up in my blood like the bends. No warning. Or worse, emerge only later like some dormant disease.
I like to walk, and these zippered shoes really were made for it: snug, flexible, good rubber soles—never blisters. You could climb a mountain in these shoes and back down again. I have. I told myself I was just buying them for walking the dogs, but they were too goddamned comfortable and practical for me to ever take them off, so I buy a new pair every year now when the last ones are in shreds. There’s nothing sadder than a worn-out but otherwise perfect pair of shoes.
They’ve put me up near Golden Gate Park, where the Monterey Cypresses jut out all over the sidewalk, their fiercely serrated branches pointing freakishly every-which-way as if in a mad panic. The cool humidity confuses my typically dry sinuses, which begin to produce an overabundance of phlegm in response until I’m hawking loogies right and left just about every other step. Some college girls gawk and laugh as penis-sock-guy rolls by on a skateboard, and I shake my head at the lot of them. I get the nudity, but what I don’t understand is why he doesn’t wear shoes. The city is a filthy place. Last time I was here, he was wearing roller skates, and to me that made a lot more sense.
When I get to the gallery, I have to call Leilani to unlock the door and let me in. There’s a poster in the window with headshots of the three of us artists and I realize I’m wearing the same shirt now as I am in the photo, which could be a faux pas or it could be endearing, depending.
The private reception with the donors is already underway, so I guess I miscalculated how long it would take me to walk or lost track of time. I’m damp with sweat, but this fits in with my overall aesthetic so I am unconcerned.
Leilani’s in some sort of silky shift thing that makes her look like a glossy bag of bones. It suits her.
“Laurie! So glad you’re finally here. Everyone’s been talking about you.”
I walk into the open space where the owner of the gallery, Igor, waves me over and hands me a glass of champagne.
“Laurel!” he calls, though the sound gets swallowed up in his Adam’s apple and comes out more like Lorl. He’s dressed head-to-toe in black, which for some reason or another I find comical. “Come, we were just listening to Thalente tell us of his challenges growing up in Cape Town in the nineties. I’m sure you have some tales yourself.”
I look sideways at Leilani but she just stands there expectantly like the rest of them.
“Uhmm, about growing up in the country? In the seventies?” For fuck’s sake, not them too.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for you either. Not on the same scale of course, but it couldn’t have been easy.”
I look around to take in the space before formulating how to respond. The room we’re in contains what must be the Burmese gal’s work; I see her standing with a different cluster of admirers across the way in a peasant blouse of immaculate white eyelet and ironed black slacks. The work is bigger than I expected, bolder. The maps aren’t maps anymore, they’re folded and built into actual mountains of paper, layers gouged into rivers with an Exacto knife. Each piece spans several yards in each direction, and I feel small beside them. My work feels small.
I want to stop talking to these people and go and touch the maps that are no longer maps, but instead I look back at Igor.
“You guys know I’m married, right? To a dude.”
The presumably South African photographer looks me up and down and raises a pierced eyebrow while Igor snorts on his champagne. Leilani clears her throat and pulls me aside.
“I’m going to go show Laurie the setup for the Q & A; we’ll be back soon.”
I drink all of my champagne in one go and then belch out something awful. It comes all the way back up—a burf, we used to call it, back when we were kids coughing up chlorine in the community swimming pool and spitting it out into the drains. This burns my throat more than the chlorine ever did.
“You’re not a lesbian? You know we used a grant from a queer arts organization to bring you here!”
“No. Nope. I was unaware.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” she asks, sincerely, as if it is a real, legitimate question.
“It never came up? What was I supposed to say, hey guys, just so you know, I’m not a lesbian? There’s nothing on my website about me being a lesbian. Why did you think that?”
“Because everyone thinks that! Because….this!” she waves her hand up and down in front of me to indicate my appearance. Of course I look like a lesbian. I know this. I’m not trying to look like a lesbian; it’s just how I look. I like to be comfortable. I don’t dye my short, stringy yet somehow also wavy, Irish-wolfhound-grey hair. I don’t shave my legs. I expect people in the valley to think I’m a lesbian, but here? In San Francisco? I figured their gaydar was a little more sophisticated than that.
“So I’m not just your hick, I’m your gay hick?”
“Never mind. Look, I’m not Mexican either, just for the record. You didn’t get any Chicano arts grants did you? Because of the Alvarez thing? I mean, Jesus, this is not what I intended. I’m a goddamned Okie, Leilani. A straight, white, Okie.”
Her eyes glaze over when I say that and I can almost see The Grapes of Wrath scrolling before her. This goddamned town.
“What do you want me to do?” I say.
“We’ll have to give the money back. It’s our mistake. Igor will be pissed, but I’ll talk to him. We’ll push the poverty angle instead. The Merced angle. We won’t mention that you are or aren’t a lesbian.”
Poverty. As if I lived in a shack and picked peaches to pay for paints.
“Well if half these people are coming because I am one, then we’d probably better tell them I’m not. I’ll mention it in passing. I’ll say something about my husband.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” she sighs.
My phone buzzes. It’s Rick.
“Excuse me, but I need to use the ladies’ room. When I come back, this had better be sorted. I’m not going out there under false pretenses.”
I sit on the toilet with my pants down even though I know I won’t be able to go. My phone reads: How’s it going? I type: Not great. They think I’m a lesbian. Rick says: Well what else is new? I reply: No, I mean they officially thought I was a “lesbian artist.” They got gay grant money and everything. It takes a minute for him to respond. Well you could always just say you’re bi? I write back: go to hell. He writes: Love you, honey. Me: Love you too.
Gustine. We joke about it too, you know. We like to say it was named by a trucker who’d had his jaw wired shut after a bar fight and was trying to call out the name of his mistress. Gustine. Gustine.
When I do come back, everyone has an awkward laugh about me coming out as straight. I can tell Igor is horrified in general by the way he now speaks toward a vague region hovering above my forehead instead of to me, as if my hair, my clothes, my dearth of makeup were all utterly inexcusable now that he knows I’m not gay, though they were all super—and were in fact, I believe, a part of my appeal—ten minutes prior.
The Q & A is not much better than the reception. I don’t know what I was expecting, given the mix-up, a bunch of biker-chick fangirls or something, but it is worse than that. It’s just a bunch of fancy straight white couples. A smattering of Asians, but otherwise uncannily white and pretty and shiny. Everyone is wearing scarves. I don’t know what an Hermés scarf looks like particularly, but I guarantee you somebody is wearing one.
I’m up first.
Question: “Is there a specific reason you’ve decided to leave all your works untitled?”
I deadpan, “I’m not a creative person.” They laugh, and my gut loosens just a smidge.
Question: “Are you making an artistic statement by only depicting scenes at night with very little ambient light?” Of course it’s an artistic statement. Isn’t everything? Otherwise it’s just a pretty picture. But he makes it sound so intentional when he puts it like that.
Me: “Not really. I’m an insomniac. Back when my son was little and still living at home with us, I worked when he slept, and he slept at night.” I’m about to mention that my husband snores, as well, but I already see eyebrows raised, a few people murmuring to one another behind their palms; they don’t think I look domestic enough, soft enough, to be the mothering type. “Plus, there’s not much color at night, so I don’t need to buy as many paints. It’s cheaper that way.” They laugh again. Ugh: “The Poverty Angle.” One doesn’t need to be poor to understand and need to know the costs of things.
I also don’t tell them another truth about why I paint at night, which is that I fear I am inadequate to the task of capturing the nuances of daylight. Especially the grass. We’re grass people in the San Joaquin Valley, and when the sun pours over the landscape, it shines, iridescent, like on a silverback gorilla, reflecting a million gradations of color. You can’t tell if it actually is that color, or if it’s just a reflection, a refraction of the light. People get the color of sheep all wrong too. They aren’t white, they’re yellow. And when the grass goes dry and tawny in April, all those yellow sheep everywhere are almost impossible to see. They’re just golden shadows on a field of butter.
Question: “I’m intrigued by one painting of yours in particular, the barn owl flattened on the railroad tracks. Was that real or did you imagine it? And if it was real, did you paint on location?” Of course it isn’t real. Is a photograph real? It isn’t. It’s flat, there’s no smells, no dimensions.
Me: “I paint in my studio above the garage, and everything I paint is ‘real,’ whatever the heck that means. I work from memory.” I am not feeling this crowd.
I think about that sad little owl, the one I saw crushed there on our way back from the bar one night, walking with Rick before Cecil was born. Not drunk—just happy, drinking, and walking. Never could come up with a good reason why the owl hadn’t just flown away, and it stuck with me, so I painted it.
Question: “Could you expand on your series of the church with the bell tower? Any special meaning it has for you or your faith?” My faith. Sometimes a church is just a pretty building, I want to say.
Me: “I am forever an opportunist, which means I’m lazy, and the Lutheran church you speak of is across the street from our house. I am not a Lutheran—I’m not anything, but it just so happens that it’s what I can see best out my studio window. I like the way it looks all lit up at night. The candles, the hymns. It’s simplicity.” Murmurs of quiet approval. They aren’t all bad, I suppose.
Question from the back from probably the only other normal looking person in this place (she is also in jeans, though hers are what you’d call “skinny”). She’s a young girl, an art student maybe, or possibly an intern, pixie-short hair, dyed orange and thick-rimmed glasses: “Who’s your favorite artist?”
Me: “Hemingway.” I mean it, too. Everybody laughs at that one, though the girl looks peeved as if she doesn’t know whether to take me at my word or if the joke’s on her.
Question: “How does your sexuality inform your work?”
I take a deep breath as I receive that one, then blow the air out through my nose, and the breeze whooshes and rumbles into the microphone like a wave crashing into a rocky shore. I see Leilani standing in the back behind the rows of people in folding chairs, drawing her hand transversely across her throat and shaking her head.
Me: “It doesn’t.”
Igor jumps up then from the front row. “Okay, folks! Thank you for your insightful questions. We’ve got to move on to our next artist, but if you have anything further to ask of Lorl, she’ll be mingling with the crowd after the Q & A.”
I can tell I have disappointed them.
I excuse myself to go to the restroom and hope for a good cry behind the stall door, but nothing much comes. I tear up, even manage to summon that catch in my throat, but I never have been much of a crier, which is a shame because you feel so much better afterwards. Part of growing up tomboy, I suppose. Boys could be crybabies and would forever be permitted back into the circle, but if you wanted to play boy games and you were a girl, you had to suck it up or be banished to Barbieland.
What does start to come is that solid mass that’s been obstructing the ends of my gut. I can tell it is too wide and hard and will never get through, but that doesn’t stop it from trying to come anyway, and I admit to feeling a bit of panic creeping in. I’m still sweaty but cold now, and I can’t take a deep breath because there’s just no goddamned room.
I wish I’d bought some stool softener, like they give you to help after you’ve given birth, but I’ve never been a pill popper, and anyway, it’s too late for that now. People—women—are coming and going out of the other stalls. Their boots and heels prattling on the tile remind me of the hard soles of all the old ladies on their way to Vespers across the street, which is really what sent me out here to begin with. Those deep, reverberating footfalls, the candlelight alive with motion, drawing me toward my window. The evensong: O light gladsome of the holy glory… And now I really am starting to cry because it hurts and I fear things like this that I don’t really understand, like what if my bowels get pushed outside of my body and become distended? That could happen, right? It feels like it could.
Everybody can tell that it’s me taking up this one stall because I am the only lady on the premises wearing work jeans and zippered dog-walking shoes, and I imagine their direct, knowing glances shot silently and lanceolate to one another in the mirror over their communal hand-washing, sharp with mockery and judgment.
I wish for once that I carried a purse, because purses contain potentially useful things—I’ll give them that—like pens and plastic sporks, but I’ve only got my hands. I start to work at it with the toilet paper, but it doesn’t budge, so I give up all hope and propriety and do what I’ve got to do with just my bare fingers. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it does. It sure in fact does.
I am relieved beyond mention when I am done and just a touch proud at my own gritty resourcefulness. I wipe things off as best I can and use my elbow for the latch out of common decency when I go out to wash my hands, and I stand there at the sink for the rest of the show, scrubbing and washing away at the essence of muck, but it never does come clean.