"Cezanne, Les Grandes Baigneuses, about 1884 - 85 (1)" by Prof. Mortel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
short story

muse

"It started the week an artist was going around New York City bashing Asian women in the face. In his Twitter Manifesto, he called it 'The Nose Game,' describing the conceptual process as a form of retaliation against rejection. Although the performance piece was generally ignored by the local media, he was lauded by fellow fetishists as the latest male genius."

muse

Winner of the 2016 Sydney Harman Fiction Writing Contest, judged by Amitav Ghosh, this piece was first published in Encounters Magazine in their Fall 2016 issue.

***

It started the week an artist was going around New York City bashing Asian women in the face. In his Twitter Manifesto, he called it “The Nose Game,” describing the conceptual process as a form of retaliation against rejection. Although the performance piece was generally ignored by the local media, he was lauded by fellow fetishists as the latest male genius.

But Lola loved her nose. She fluttered bitterly on the L train platform Monday morning, calculating the distance she should stand from the yellow Lego strip should she have to employ a roundhouse kick. Suddenly aware of all the plastic bags potentially filled with metal objects, she flinched from each person who exited the subway car. “Be careful,” Eric had joked the night before. “I don’t want my muse stolen by another man.”

In an effort to distract herself, Lola began eavesdropping on a bespectacled woman with an afro, who was recounting a radio podcast about blindness as a social construction. She couldn’t explain why, but she could swear her own peripheral vision began to take on a vignette effect. She told herself it was just the heat; it was rush hour after all, and her head was sandwiched between the afro and an armpit. Beads of sweat rolled down her face into the neckline of her dress as she fought to regain her spacial perception and maintain her balance. She wondered if Zelda Fitzgerald ever enjoyed taking the train.

When the train screeched into Union Square, the afro collapsed and Lola’s hand let go of the pole – of this, she was absolutely sure – but she did not lose her grip. None of the other grumbling commuters paid any mind to the young woman as she pulled and pulled at her skin, merely pushing past her to exit the car. To her horror, it appeared that her fingertips had melted into the pole itself, as if they had never been separate entities at all. Only by sacrificing a few epidermal layers was she able to peel these metal metacarpals away, but the subway doors had already slid closed. She was late to the office, and yet dexterity proved to be impossible even then. She blurred inexplicably into everything she touched: skin and subway turnstile, nails and elevator button, elbows and desk.

On Wednesday, Lola met her parents for their bi-weekly dinner, where without fail, they asked about her latest writing project and tried to convince her to go back to law school. Just when her father began his lecture on the economic instability of working without a license and the statistical improbability of getting published, her left eye began to lose focus. She looked down just in time to see the carrots and broccoli morph into more and more abstract orange and green blobs. When she reached up with her already vague fingers, she felt her eye droop down to her jawline. Her tongue went novocaine-numb. “I think I’m having a stroke,” Lola announced in broken Korean. Her father laughed in his trembling, wheezing way.

Her breasts were next as they began to swell grotesquely and impossibly, stretching her button-downs beyond repair. There were three negative pregnancy tests in Eric’s bathroom trash bin Friday morning to both of their reliefs. While he made pancakes, she scrubbed her inner thighs in the shower. She thought briefly of Gala Éluard’s hysterectomy, imagining her own blackened ovaries and intestines spilling out into the porcelain tub.

On her way to work, a panhandler on the 6 train preached against homosexuality and then managed to insert, “Help feed the homeless. If you’re really attractive we take hugs and smiles.” He went from person to person, breathing stale beer in each face until a genuine grin or sympathetic simper was relinquished. Lola gave him her best Madame Cézanne, her lips mangled and gnarled, and glared back in silence until he moved on to the next car.

She had become very quiet by Saturday, focused primarily on maintaining her solidity. She sat stiffly on her boyfriend’s bed, not  – as he thought – to keep the wrinkles out of her pale silk dress, but rather as a preventative measure against oozing flesh into the threads of his Egyptian cotton sheets. He, meticulously tying and retying his speckled bowtie, was denouncing a former fellow street artist who would be making an appearance at his show that night. Apparently she was now going around the city pushing eggs filled with paint out of her vagina, and it was too misogynistic for Eric.

“No matter what a female artist does, it’s politicized. She’s literalizing creativity as creation. I like it,” Lola interrupted fiercely. He shrugged and checked his phone. The Uber the gallery sent over had gotten lost somewhere off of Metropolitan Ave and they were late. She was always late these days.

He was nervous, she could tell, as she watched the throbbing vein below his left jaw. She kissed his jaw first, and then the vein ever so softly.

“It’s weird to think people will actually buy my shit,” he said with pride.

“It’s weird to see street art in a gallery,” she replied.

He brushed her lower lip with his thumb. “It’s going to be weirder seeing these plump man-eaters all over those white walls. Just relax and smile.”

Lola bit down hard on his thumb, “Careful when you tell me to show teeth.”

As soon as they arrived at the gallery, Eric was swept into a flurry of sycophants, one of whom presented Lola with two glasses of Dom Perignon.

“Look baby, now we’re really champagne socialists.”

He glanced over at his girlfriend with a mixture of disdain and panic, but continued to speak to a young journalist. There was a high-pitched ripple of strained laughter escaping Eric’s lips that she’d never heard before. So this was what it meant to be successful. As he drifted away to speak with vampyric art dealers and curators, she felt a twinge of guilt. She went back to the bar.

“Why does my muse only speak when she is unhappy?” said a voice near her ear. She turned around to find that the young journalist had followed her. Raising an eyebrow, she took a sip of her bourbon and noted the tell-tale yellow Livestrong band around his wrist.

He shrugged, “It’s a quote… or half of one anyway.”

“Do you always leave things unfinished?”

He almost began to frown, but instead quipped, “Not when it means I get to pleasure a pretty lady.” He paused to motion towards her glass, “That’s a man’s drink you know. So what does a strong, independent woman like you do for a living?”

She glanced at the screen print triptych of her bloody labia behind her. “I fuck the right people.”

That was, of course, quoted in a raving review in The New Yorker the following week. After eight years of internships, freelancing, submissions, and applications, those were the words next to her name.

After the gallery’s after-party, the power couple decided to take the L train back to Bushwick. As always, the car was crammed with drunk, sweaty hipsters, and they sat back listening on a slurred conversation about how Pandora and Pornhub were backed by the F.B.I. She wondered if the hipsters were employed. She later looked out Eric’s French windows at the absurd view – the entire city skyline, at least four bridges depending on dew point, and the sprawling industrial necropolis below – wondering how he could afford it all. His faux-industrial pendant lights were a status symbol, nearly as silly as last year’s fashion week women teetering bare-legged in open-toed heels on ice like newborn fawns.

“Why don’t you write anymore?” Eric asked as he unzipped her dress. “You’re so talented.” He had actually barely read a single piece she’d written in the two years they’d been together. She imagined he’d only repeat what her editors were always telling her: she had to write for the reader. Only now was it starting to dawn on her that maybe she was just a shit writer. 

“Maybe if you move in with me, you’d benefit from my creativity,” he joked. She didn’t tell him that she didn’t want him to confuse her with the hundreds of her doppelgängers hanging on the walls. She didn’t want to drown in buckets of oil paint and choke on charcoal.

And did she resent it? Standing naked in the middle of his loft for four hours at a time, holding various pieces of fruit in her mouth, reading Virginia Woolf with her legs spread open so that he could match the colors exactly? “I’m immortalizing you,” he had once said. She could never think of a satisfactory retort to that.

She slipped her heels off as her legs faded into the darkness and poured two glasses of bourbon. Eric took one from her shrinking hand, suddenly self-conscious of his own paleness against her exotic olive tone as she flinched and her almond-shaped eyes narrowed.

“You know no one one will ever find you as beautiful as I do, right?” he said.

He led his muse to the ladder in the corner that led up to his room. But halfway up, her arms dissipated completely and she crashed down onto the unpolished wooden floor, her glass of bourbon shattering into her naked skin.

“Oh shit,” Eric cried as he scrambled back down the ladder. He frantically gathered her pieces, even as they were crumbling into dried paint flakes.

She whispered into his ribcage, “I had a thought, but I lost it.”

“What color was it?” His tears were melting what was left of her now.

Just like that.

She kissed his navel and listened to his breaths getting shorter, wishing they could be sucked into a whirlpool of pulsing golden stars together.