Title: The Making of an Artist
Pairing: Brian and Justin
Time Frame: Fluctuates between 3 distinct periods in
Justin's life: his childhood, his years in NYC, and the present.
THE MAKING OF AN ARTIST - CHAPTER FOUR
You've known all along that locating a work space would be your biggest hurdle, but that doesn't really help when you're traipsing around the East Village and adjacent areas tracking down one disappointing lead after another. Refusing to let the poor results dampen your spirits, you tuck the classifieds into your messenger bag and light a cigarette, soon flopping down on the bench at a nearby bus stop to regroup. Inhaling a long drag of tar and nicotine, your dreams of taking the art world by storm are just as vivid as they'd been when you hit town a week earlier.
You smile when the scheduled bus pulls up in front of you to let its passengers off, an ad for the Grey Art Gallery splashed across its side deciding your next move on the spot. Of all the artistic riches New York City has to offer, this one's in your own backyard, its profusion of fine art just waiting to be explored. Pocketing the lighter still in your hand, you find yourself in front of the building on Washington Square East after a short hike, awed from the instant you step inside.
"I'm sorry. Meg's not working today." The girl at the information desk looks up and peers at you through her thick glasses. "She called in sick. Again." She assumes you've never been there before when she sees you scanning through a couple of brochures from the display, suggesting you might want to take the guided tour that's slated to begin in ten minutes from the very spot where you're standing. "Billy's working the tours all this week. He's the best. Brings so much perspective from an artist's point of view. I think you'll really enjoy it."
Billy . . . Billy . . . You leaf through your mental file of well-known artists and nod, not wanting to sound ignorant in your field of expertise because you can't come up with anyone by that name who could be working at the Grey. "Too bad Meg's sick today." You go back to the original conversation while you wait. "She wanted me to say hi when I finally made it in. She knows I've been anxious to see this place ever since I moved here." Idly thumbing through a pamphlet, you hope it's nothing serious. "I'll check on her when I get home."
"You live with Meg?"
"With her nephew. Her apartment's across the hall from ours." You don't know why this revelation causes the receptionist to study your face in detail, memorizing your features as if she were going to be tested on them tomorrow.
"You're not . . . No, you couldn't be." Blinking twice, she adjusts her glasses and starts over. "Um, you're not Justin Taylor by any chance, are you? Oh, my God! You are!" She laughs when you confirm her suspicions. "I knew it! I'm Andrea, by the way."
You wrinkle one side of your face and raise the same shoulder. "How do you . . .?"
"Billy! You're not gonna believe this!" Spotting him over your shoulder when he enters the lobby to collect his four o'clock guests, she hurriedly waves him over. "Guess who this is?"
You're quite sure Billy's no famous artist when you lay eyes on him, willing to wager both he and Andrea are no older than you. Shaking his eager hand when she discloses your identity, you're already forming a hunch as to why they're so excited to be in your presence. "How do you guys know who I am?" you flat out ask.
"Are you kidding? Everyone's talking about you in our circle. We've all read the review by now. So have you really uprooted yourself from Pittsburgh and come to New York to make it big?"
You find Billy's enthusiasm and interest sincere, automatically downplaying the celebrity status he seems to think you inhabit. Starting out on his tour with a few other people who've gathered around, you learn that he's one of a handful of seniors in NYU's art department to have been offered the prestigious position of guiding first-time patrons through the gallery.
You're inspired beyond measure by the smattering of works he points out, promising yourself you'll come back several more times and roam on your own until you've seen everything. Not surprisingly, your walk home is packed with budding concepts in desperate need of expression. On canvas. Soon. Which brings you back to square one as you think about the folded-up classifieds in your bag.
Your knocks on Meg's door go unanswered, but the malady that kept her from work is all too evident as soon as you step through yours. Sacked out on the sofa, her disheveled white sweater and turquoise calf-length gypsy skirt, along with the tangled tresses falling across her face, are dead giveaways.
"She's out cold." Josh looks at you from his recliner in front of the TV. "She's probably been drinking since this morning. Stumbled over here an hour ago to tell me something and never made it off the couch."
You drop your messenger bag on the table and eye his aunt with compassion. "I went to the gallery after checking out a bunch of studios that won't work for me. The receptionist, um, Andrea said she'd called in sick."
"Yeah, she does that a lot. I wish she'd admit she's got a problem and get some help."
"I've got a problem, okay? It's this splitting headache. Would one of you stop talking about me and get me an aspirin? Please?" Meg rubs the back of her neck and gingerly sits up, careful not to rattle her brain in the process. "How long have I been out?"
"Since five. I bet you feel like hell." Josh ignores the piercing glare she gives him.
"You know what, Meg? I think I can help." You go to the kitchen and start hunting for things. "My grandmother used to swear by this concoction she'd mix up every time she had a hangover." Pouring as many of the called-for ingredients as you can find into a large glass, you stir them vigorously with a spoon because you haven't seen a blender anywhere since you moved in. "Here. Drink this." Bouncing onto the sofa beside her, you mutter a quick 'sorry' when her body language indicates you're making her seasick.
She gets a whiff of the stuff and cringes. "This reeks, Justin! I don't know if I should thank you or smack you!" Draining the glass with a shudder and handing it back to you, she smooths out her clothes and pushes strands of unruly hair behind her ears. "So no luck finding a studio, huh?"
"Not yet. I do like this one loft in SoHo. If I could have it all to myself. Three other artists living there are looking to make some cash by renting out a corner. Not exactly what I had in mind. I'm gonna keep looking, though."
"Hmm." Meg's lone syllable is loaded with wisdom you've yet to pick up on. "Did you give him the enrollment forms, Joshua?"
Flipping through every channel his basic cable service provides, he settles on ESPN. "Yeah. They were on the table."
"Well, but . . . I didn't come here to . . ." You avoid the fact that the papers in question are currently lining the bottom of the small waste basket in your room. "Thanks for thinking of me, but I told you what happened. School and I just don't get along."
"Right. You told me about your partner and you teaming up to thwart that homophobic politician. An admirable feat. But don't you think the unique circumstances that led to your expulsion from PIFA shouldn't color your outlook on universities in general?"
Fuck! You can't believe your alcoholic grandmother's elixir works this quickly, Meg clearly back among the land of the living. "I haven't really thought about it."
"I know how to paint. I don't mean to sound arrogant, but what good will going back to school do me now?"
"Ahhh." Another lone syllable. She understands that boys your age do best when they figure things out for themselves. "It's true you might not necessarily need more education to get where you're going, but what is it you do need? Right now."
You almost think you're cruising for a lecture, and then you suddenly get it. "Studio space! I'd have all the space I need if I went back to school, but . . . I don't know . . . "
"Free space. The art department seniors practically cakewalk through their last year at NYU. Come and go as they please. Work on anything they want. Didn't you say you were only a couple of credits shy of graduating when the shit hit the fan in Pittsburgh?"
"Well, I'd had two years done when the Stockwell thing blew up. Brian was always trying to talk me into going back. He even cheated on a bet one time so I'd have to do it. Then I got another year done before I went out to Hollywood to work on the movie."
Meg thinks about that for a minute. "So you could join the senior class here at NYU right away. That would solve your immediate working space problem, but the other benefits are nothing to scoff at. The networking, the connections, the exposure. It's a nurturing environment, designed to launch young artists into the art world to start their careers. In your case, you may not need a degree from NYU, but working toward it could be your ticket to success."
"Jesus, Meg! You better shut up. I just might take you seriously!"
She feels around under the sofa for her shoes, ready to make it back to her own apartment. "What was it Simon wrote? New York is waiting to be conquered? Good artsy-fartsy prose that his editors love, but the real world doesn't work that way. You need a game plan. So where're those forms?"
You're pretty sure they're crusted with Popsicle juice, the wrappers and sticks permanently bonding to them by now. You're also pretty sure you've got a game plan. "Meg?" Your future shines brighter by the second. "It's 2005. Everyone knows you apply online."
Restlessly stirring, you gradually awaken with your skin on fire and thousands of sharp knives slicing up the back of your throat, tossing and turning until every last blanket on your bed slides to the floor. The rasp in your voice is your mom's first clue that something's wrong when she peeks through the door to check if you're up and getting ready for school.
"Oh, honey!" She rushes in and presses her palm to your forehead. "You're burning up!"
"It hurts when I swallow," you squeak, your matted hair dripping with sweat. You don't even mention the pain in your head because it hurts too much when you talk.
Your mom verifies your raging temperature with her trusty ear thermometer and bundles you up for a trip to your pediatrician, notifying Dr. Holman that you'll be there within the hour.
Diagnosing a nasty case of tonsillitis, his injection of penicillin into your preadolescent butt cheek stings like nobody's business. But you're too big now to cry when you get a shot. You're back in the examining room two hours later with a violent reaction to the antibiotic, scratching yourself raw as the eruption of angry red hives on your neck and arms won't stop.
"Okay, no more penicillin for Justin. Buy an over-the-counter package of Jr. Tylenol chewable tablets. They'll relieve the sore throat and headache and temporarily reduce the fever." Old Dr. Holman smiles at your mom and gives you a pat on the back.
You wonder why he seems intent on killing you, the grape punch flavored tabs causing more agony that afternoon than you'd suffered in the morning, especially when the teaspoonful of codeine-laced cough syrup he recommended starts to kick in. Spending the rest of the day on the toilet with bouts of simultaneous diarrhea and uncontrollable vomiting, you're ready to give up, your ten-year-old body unable to withstand much more.
"So what'd Dr. Holman say?" your extremely concerned dad needs to know when he gets home from work, having waited much too long while the physician's answering service patched the doctor through to your frantic mom on the phone.
Thoroughly at her wits' end, she considers calling her bank and putting a stop payment on the checks she'd written that day to cover the co-pays for both visits. "He said Justin must be really allergic to a lot of drugs."
"I NEVER PAINT DREAMS OR NIGHTMARES. I PAINT MY OWN REALITY." - Frida Kahlo
"You seem distracted, Justin. Are you okay?" Lindsay's angular, puzzled face is lined with concern. She hopes you snap out of whatever it is she sees before long, her buyers never failing to loosen up the purse strings after a glass or two of white wine and an amiable chat with their favorite artist. "You guys usually arrive much earlier than this."
Your husband draws you into his side even closer, shooting the mother of his son a pointed warning. "Justin's just fine. He's fabulous, all right?" Kissing the side of your jaw, your five o'clock shadow tickles his lips. "Don't you have a painting to straighten? A bouquet to arrange? Perhaps an hors d'oeuvre to prepare?"
"Oh, Brian! Well, I guess I'll leave you alone for awhile, Justin." She gives you a quick hug before she flits off to find Sidney.
"Thanks." Squeezing his hand, you're grateful he knows when to run interference for you. "I need to—"
"Want some company this time?"
"Sure." Your preshow ritual hasn't changed in seven years, Lindsay and Sidney having learned to keep their distance until it's completed and you indicate you're ready to begin.
Brian knows the drill, too. He's observed it many times, hanging out in the background unless he's needed to buffer an interruption away from you. Now he lingers with you in front of the first piece that hangs on the Bloom Gallery's west wall, understanding it'll be anywhere from five to ten minutes before you move on to the next one while you mull over what you'll say about it when engaged by the gallery's knowledgeable clientele. He likes to claim you're saying good-bye to your works of art, but he gets that it's so much more than that.
You can't help thinking how right it feels to have him go through the process with you tonight, loving him for standing beside you and keeping mum for however long it takes. By the time you've meditated on the last piece, you've not only composed your remarks but you've also wrapped your brain around the events that had gone down earlier that afternoon, thoughts of the miraculous breakthrough inevitably creeping into the silence. You can't say you minded the intrusion, though, the story of recovering your long lost memories certain to preoccupy your mind for days to come.
It started when something inexplicable had forced you out of bed that morning to shower with your partner after your early morning fuck, compelling you to climb your way to the attic as he drove off at the ungodly hour of seven thirty a.m. Bemused by the absence of your familiar dream, you wondered what was pulling you in while you deftly mixed the color of optimism. The tears flowed as usual, fueling you as always, but somehow it wasn't the same. You lashed out with your brush, furious streaks telling your tale, yet there was light at the end of the tunnel. Feeling cold and wet and blind and at sea, your ears were filled with the strains of music. You didn't know why, and maybe you never will, but an eleven-year void was suddenly erased.
You'd lost all track of time when Brian appeared in the open doorway, your abstract no-locks policy recently expanded to include your very real studio.
"Justin," he whispered, approaching with care. "You've got to get ready . . . the opening . . ."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I did tell you." He laughed, happy to hear it was you and not the broken Justin who normally painted the thing in the corner he'd grown to abhor. "I said I'd be home early today. So we could get to the gallery."
"Your eyes. They don't lie, Brian." Turning away from the easel, you neared him, smiling when he insisted he told you he'd be back by four. "At my prom. I saw it in your eyes when we danced to that corny song. And later when you leaned me against your Jeep and kissed me." You stood on tiptoe, slipping your hands to either side of his face as your lips met his. "Was it because I was only eighteen? A dumb, stupid kid? Is that why you waited four more years to tell me? And only then because a fucking bomb scared you shitless?"
"What the hell happened today? Did you and Daphne have one of your marathon phone fests or something?"
"I remember, Brian. All of it. I've been painting since you left, and . . ." Glancing once more at the canvas, you saw the gaps in your life reflected in your strokes, newly found memories attached to each one. You took him by the hand, eager for him to see the painting's transformation. "You loved me. It's all here. You loved me, didn't you?"
"Justin." He groped for the words to convey what he felt when he focused on your lifeless body levitating above the blood-soaked pavement and then again while he stared at your tuxedoed forms dancing atop your grave.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't go that far. It's still fucking disturbing." Tilting his head, he recoiled when the centered jewel jumped out at him from its hiding place among the gore, his brain deciphering the hologram-like image with a start. "Justin," he repeated as his own likeness peered back at him through the small pane of glass, only discernible when viewed from the perfect angle. Shifting his gaze, his line of sight had caught it just right. "The hospital."
"Uh-huh. I saw your face in the window so many times while I thrashed in that bed."
"Christ. It's been years. I thought you'd never remember."
"But I have. I remember everything now. It wasn't just guilt over the bashing. You loved me. Even back then." You wove a hand around him and reached for the sheet on the work table with the other, watching it flutter to the ground at your feet. "You fell in love with me on the night of my prom." You sighed as you lay with your husband and undressed, the sweet sound of him not denying it the last coherent thought to run through your veins.
"Are we ready to start?" Lindsay eases back into the picture when she sees you and Brian lift flutes of Pinot Grigio from the caterer's tray, pleased that you've emerged from isolation just in time.
You look toward the front of the gallery, where Sidney's already greeting the usual suspects. Recognizing a few stuffed shirts and high society dames, you can't have anything but a good night.