The Power Ballads
I didn’t invite anyone I knew to my solo show because I couldn’t think of anyone who I wanted to see the work, or the gallery. The gallery was actually a Best Western motel room in South Pasadena that Benny rented once a month for two nights at $109.95 per night and outfitted into an immersive exhibition space, with work on the walls but also tucked into bed and hung in the closet and slipped where the bible goes. Spidery people wearing Matrix glasses and Tabi boots would talk shit on each other while drinking gin Benny brewed in Target Tupperware bins in his side yard, and collect the art at such a markup that even after cutting in the artists, Benny owned a winter home in Santa Fe with copper pipes, he told me, like I knew what copper pipes meant. That was the first night. The second night Benny would fuck a girl in the hotel room, huff nitrous oxide out of a Williams Sonoma whipped cream dispenser, and watch the I.D. channel until checkout. I know this because I met Benny on a first night and fucked him on a second, which was when he told me about the copper pipes in Santa Fe, and when I said no to the whippets and he asked why, and I got into my New York years, and he told me he’d give me $300 to show the void project. “You had a vision,” he said, nudging his dick against my back, and I thought about how my car had been driving cyclops since July because I couldn’t afford the headlight, and I wished I still huffed whippets.
I’d only gone to Benny’s art show in the first place because someone I looked up to on the internet posted about it in her stories, a glossy and flexible art girl with blunt bangs and opinions. I was the perpetual receiving end of our relationship, which was not actually a relationship, but just me absorbing her content. Sometimes I would think about replying to one of her posts and then paralyze myself with doubt. We would interact in person, I’d decided, as if more immediacy and more physicality had ever made anyone more chill.
When Benny handed me a plastic mouthwash cup of Tupperware gin that first night, I’d assumed he was a tech bro. He had small teeth and swoopy rich-boy hair. He turned away and I put the drink down on the TV and walked around, looking at things. The artist airbrushed t-shirts, except when I read the informational print-out I learned he didn’t even do that, he just explained what he wanted to a booth at the Slauson Supermall, and on the nondescript abstractly patterned Best Western bedspread was a pile of shirts with carnival teddies fucking each other and speckled showers of cocaine dusting airbrush titties where the hypothetical wearer’s hypothetical actual titties would be. A sort of multi-shirt mural tribute to a celebrity I didn’t recognize, with dolphins, was pinned on the ceiling in a dizzying mandala around the nipple-tipped ceiling fixture.
Benny found me when he slid open the closet door and I was sitting in the closet, wearing one of the shirts. I’d found it hanging in there and it was the only one I liked, a Boris Vallejo-esque dragon with the heart-shaped diaphanous wings of a butterfly, flecks of airbrush paint spraying off of it like it was fading back into the mist which was the shirt, and if you wore the shirt then you became the mist too. I was just looking, and then I could hear people laughing behind me, saying “Mmm” while they looked at the ceiling, and I was sliding the door shut for just a second.
“It’s $2600,” Benny said about the shirt. He watched me silently while I flushed red, apologized, peeled the shirt off, stood, hung it back up, smoothed it, and checked it for any stains that might have occurred just from being close to me. He smiled as I walked out, and then he told me to come back the next night, for a VIP tour. The art girl from the internet never showed up.
“It’ll be a performance,” Benny said the second night, after what was not a VIP tour.
“I don’t perform,” I said.
“A performance,” he said again, to himself, flipping the channel.
Benny never asked about my inspiration, so I never told him, but six-years-ago me had started the void project as a way to talk to the dead artist Joe Brainard. Joe Brainard has this autobiography called I Remember, which he wrote because they were drafting for World War II and he was sure, with Cassandra-like clarity, that he was going to die. He had to get it all down on paper, his life, to prove something. I Remember has a line that goes, “I remember how much rock and roll music can hurt: It can be so free and sexy when you are not.” I remembered this line every day, in New York, in a melting late winter when I wasn’t going to class, and instead I was feeding bodega ham to the cats that hung around my apartment, or visiting psychics, or taking photographs of my boobs.
Six-years-ago me lived in New York just like Joe Brainard had, and also couldn’t forget what I was not. I was flunking out of art school, and the only reason I hadn’t already was because the photography teachers unilaterally hated confrontation, and after failing to show up for class for weeks, I would leave a manila folder on my professor’s desk while she was getting coffee, with a note like “I am the ark and the flood,” and a bunch of 35mm prints of plastic toy animals from the dollar store lining up to get into my vagina. I got consistent B-‘s.
The void project was my answer to a self-portrait assignment that I didn’t read the directions for. It was a three-month-long performance, to be somehow completed and transmitted to my higher education institution in May, so that I wouldn’t have to take any finals. Its exact mission eluded me, but its premise was simple: I threw away all my existing underwear, replaced them with packs of Fruit of the Loom high-waisted white panties from the dollar store, and fucked as many men as possible.
I took photographs and notes, documenting rusty constellations of period stains and whether the underwear made ridges under a certain pair of pants and how insecure I felt about that, and of course notes about my subjects, the men I slept with. I made lists of trash I saw and songs I couldn’t stop listening to, also; everything, I felt, could be affected by the fact that I could finally externalize how I felt on the inside, which was somehow plain and excessive at the same time. Everything seemed worth examining. I participated in the world all the time, but it still baffled me. Sometimes I put a second pair of underwear on over my head so they made a one-shoulder crop top, and the underwear was so high-waisted that the bottom pair and the top pair brushed against each other at my belly button, making a full suit, and I walked around my apartment like that.
The morning after we fucked Benny let me type my address into his Uber app, and without mentioning it to me again he sent a courier to pick up my negatives and notebooks six days later. Benny dealt with the printing and pick-ups; he was like one of those psychic storefronts in busy neighborhoods—how do they make rent? Was this some ridiculous front? It had to be, but I couldn’t fathom for what. I worked to forget about the void project, going to my job as the client coordinator at a yoga studio where I signed people in and said things like “Happy Venus direct,” and wiped down the floors with white vinegar twice a day. I had an apartment in a stucco building in Little Amenia with hooked rugs and a freezer full of Trader Joe’s appetizers that I ate alone, a list of Anonymous meetings taped to the fridge even though I didn’t even go anymore.
In New York I’d had a psychopharmacologist on the upper west side who would sometimes want me to come in for hour-long sessions in which we talked about my dreams and what I was eating and the possibility that I had statistically unlikely illnesses like Capgras syndrome, in which the sufferer is convinced that a person or persons close to them has been replaced by a duplicate or imposter. She would hand me brown paper bags of product samples because I said my back hurt or I ate too much sugar, pills that stopped me from dreaming or inhibited my linguistic recall so I couldn’t remember the words for things and trailed off mid-sentence, panicky and lost, temporary side-effects she referred to as just weather in the sky of my definitely improving mind. Other days I pushed the buzzer in the waiting room and she opened her door, phone pressed to her ear, and we exchanged nods and she closed the door again. I waited up to ten minutes to see if she would slip a prescription under the door, and sometimes she did, and sometimes she didn’t and I just went home.
But I had appropriate outlets for my feelings, my side effects and mental cloud covers. Five days a week I rode two subways and surfaced in the flower district, a world of peaty orchids and bonsai trees in decorative pots and whole stores of fake birds and tiny plastic lovers for wedding parties. I walked to a nondescript high-rise, rode up a mirrored elevator, and punched in a code to get to a waiting room where maybe I got a cup of Constant Comment tea from the hot and cold water cooler. The seat of one of the plastic school chairs in the waiting room was marked with long, tortured scratches, and I never sat in that one.
Sometimes we had to do the banal degrading stuff, like pee in a cup, but mostly outpatient was just group therapy: wall street guys with dovetailing sex and blow habits; New Jersey moms getting over their DUIs; and once, for a few months, a celebrity talk show nutritionist with tiny pores and a polished and elegant way of articulating how they’ll get you using before you get them clean. I liked being around all these humiliated adults. We completed elaborate charts about our feelings, meditated upon the images of clouds passing over fields and leaves trickling down streams, and we presented personal shoeboxes of self-soothing items like coloring books and small sachets of lavender. I was good at group therapy, throwing myself into it in a way that I couldn’t throw myself into school, because it was actually just talking about me, and because my enthusiasm covered that I was off the wagon. My best friend and I had a YouTube channel with 16 subscribers where we posted videos of the Poppers Taco challenge, which was just us inhaling poppers and trying to eat tacos, or sometimes, as our double jeopardy, trying to call our moms. We sat around snorting coke and meth and then doing normal people things, like cleaning the kitchen or watching Netflix. Being normal required a great amount of fuckedupedness, and when I was too poor to buy drugs I would let my clothes pile up in soft, musty hills, and I would sleep all day, like an odalisque trapped in her oil painting, overwhelmed by the prospect of texting my psychopharmacologist for Adderall.
Benny grew up in Laguna and it was shocking to me that he knew so many artists, although if he was asking me for art, I might have been mistaken about the breadth of his social circle. He talked about galleries, though, and also his own artistic vision. If Benny was an artist, I thought, in the Best Western elevator, he worked only in the medium of other people. On the night of my opening, I went to the art show unaware of what parts of me would be in it.
An important element of the void project’s success—if the project could be said to include a rubric for success—was dressing aggressively slutty. I bought skintight one-size polyblend dresses at $8.99 apiece from the Rainbow Store by the 1st Avenue L, plastic platform heels, nude sheer pull-up stockings with wide bands of elastic that bit my thighs and looked like massive bandages, which thrilled me. I wanted to reference despair in the medium of joy, in the style of doo wop ballads. I liked walking up to men in bars and saying “My dad never validated me growing up. Do you live around here?”
What I loved most about that Joe Brainard line about rock and roll was the way that loving something can keep you from it, because the act of loving is transitive, and thus inherently reminds you that you are always separate from the thing you are reaching out to love.
There was another girl in outpatient who seemed like me, but from another dimension. Jane was Victorian pale, Yale educated, and two years older than I was. One of our group warm-ups was to go around the room and alphabetically list medications, and Jane was always really good at it, never forgetting which pills began with H or J. We took the elevator once and I made a joke about my antidepressants and Jane mentioned that her parents were making her go to outpatient because they found out she’d been stripping, but it had been more of an experiment than a thing she had to do, she emphasized. She was both bulimic and on Welbutrin, an unstable combination that fucks with your lobes, but I was of course unstable in my own ways, and we formed an alliance, if not a friendship, a hushed rehash of all the bad things we’d been doing, our sad and self-destructive realities contained between the lobby and the 30th floor.
The door to the Best Western hotel room was wedged open with an ice bucket, and impossibly, a few people were already inside. Benny hugged me, toothy and manic. “There she is, the art,” he repeated, introducing me to people like there wasn’t a four-by-five-foot photo of my face staring blankly out at them from over the bed, one hand shoved into my Hanes. Next to it I felt small and boring. I felt like I was the photo, like when you try to take a picture of an overwhelming full moon and end up with a white smudge. Projected above the TV was a slideshow of blue-lit Photobooth selfies. In New York I lay on my unmade bed in my underwear and pretended the white plains of cotton were absorbing me. I could do this for hours, tripping out on lack of sensation. Jane and I made repeated plans to get coffee before group, and I overslept and was so late that we only had time to take the elevator together. The underwear became a sort of anonymous space of its own, a vacation where I could reframe leisure as being blitzed out on 5-HTP supplements, hoping to beat my high score again that day in cell phone solitaire.
Benny had torn up my notebooks—Good, I thought—and tiled pages across the wall in precise lines. To do lists with most of the tasks un-crossed, moody doodles, inventories of dicks. Joe Brainard’s I Remember has a line that goes, “I remember the day Frank O’Hara died. I tried to do a painting somehow especially for him. (Especially good.) And it turned out awful.”
In New York I went to the college administrative buildings where counselors would read aloud frustrated emails my teachers sent them about how I was always late to class and disappointing them. When they were done reading the emails I would nod and thank them and take the subway home again and try to fuck someone so they would tell me my underwear was ugly. I told myself no artist makes a sculpture without a solid block of marble.
I went to bars and poured myself over people until my self wavered around the edges of my body, the way the horizon blurs on very hot days. And then some dude would start leading me away, into intimacy, and I felt myself click into focus, my ego a shiny barrier between me and everyone else. I told myself I wasn’t losing anything.
I sat on the bed of the Best Western and watched people wander in and out, like breath entering and leaving the body, an unremarkable life force. Benny was talking to a tiny girl wearing a cat collar with a bell and ethereal purple highlighter on her collarbones. I could practically hear the whistle of my discomfort sucking all the joy out of the room. I was the reason every party gets to the sad stage, the disorienting stage at 4am where you can’t tell if it’s early or late and nobody really wants to talk anymore but going home seems like giving into despair. Maybe, though, it takes a certain sort of optimism to believe that the world revolves around you like that. I decided I needed a shower.
The Best Western bathroom had beige plasticky counters that matched the shower curtain. I decided to leave the door unlocked in case anyone needed to pee, checked behind the curtain for stray nudes—it would have been on the nose to display them there, but Benny was an on-the-nose kind of guy—and fooled around with the inexplicably complicated hot-and-cold knob until I achieved some level of warmth, though the white noise of cold played around the edges of the heat, and I couldn’t get myself to feel consumed.
The void project created context, but the real star, the wildcard, was whoever I fucked. His reaction—disappointment, embarrassed politeness, no reaction at all—made him stand out for a second. Most of the sex seemed chaotic and inevitable, the way two necklaces are destined to tangle when left together in a jewelry box. On the walls outside the bathroom were photos, drawings and notes and notes of skinny dicks and rude men, men who, when they were mean, shocked me, and out of indignation I would root through their medicine cabinets and steal their pills. I dated a guy for a while and got committed enough to feel embarrassed when he started hiking up my dress. I explained my project and he told me he was into it and I felt relieved, and then not relieved, because he added that he was into it because I looked like a fucked up little girl. A different guy, a guy whose face I don’t even remember, told me I didn’t have to move so much during sex, that he preferred I stay perfectly still. Was I liberated? I was nothing, which I thought could feel like freedom.
One day in group someone was saying something about accountability when suddenly Jane’s mouth shot into a tight, perfect “O.” She was looking right at me and I smiled because I thought it was a secret between us. And then Jane’s cheeks sucked in, and her eyes bulged, and then rolled back into her head, and she collapsed off the chair, seizing, hitting her head over and over again against a plastic wastebasket. Someone moved the wastebasket and the group leader was leaning out the door and security was coming in, and then the rest of us were leaving, herded out of there, my head turning, seeing Jane shiver like she was electrocuted or like she was orgasming. Or shimmering, like a hand waving its fingers. Sequins on a dancing body. If I didn’t think of it that way there was another way, at the edges of my mind, that was sharper and more alive—a vision, stripped of metaphor, of someone I liked who was suffering. A prophecy that in moments of terror, the body couldn’t do anything.
In the Best Western, I got out of the shower and my clothes were gone. I checked behind the toilet, in case they’d fallen, but I knew they hadn’t.
“Benny?” I cracked the door. He was conspicuously across the room, refusing to hear me. A performance.
I never went back to group. I boxed up all my underwear and went to Victoria’s secret and bought the fake sexy ones, expensive stripy thongs that said PINK on them in glitter letters, and moved to California. I stopped answering my school emails and stopped paying tuition and started over, collecting NA chips and taking the yoga blankets in large piles out to the sidewalk to unfurl them and beat the dust out of them in the sun. Why did I want to talk to the dead artist Joe Brainard about rock and roll?
The wikipedia on Joe Brainard says, “He found much success as an artist, until he removed himself from the art-world in the early 1980s. He devoted the last years of his life to reading. Brainard died of AIDS-induced pneumonia May 25, 1994.”
It had been six years, and here I was, in the bathroom of a Best Western. I dried myself as best I could and wrapped the clammy towel around my torso. I was shocked that the windows opened, but they did, and I crawled out onto the fire escape and made my way down the stairs. I wondered if anyone could see me—if I would become a spectacle, this woman in white, my asshole exposed while I slithered down the greasy corrugated metal steps which imprinted red x’s onto the bottoms of my feet.
The night was cold and clear and the drone of traffic on the highway nearby was constant, like a body ache. I wondered if my wet hair would freeze. I felt sad for my potentially forfeited $300. A coyote loped across the street and through the empty gas station, flood lit.
I walked around the corner, through the parking lot, and back into the Best Western lobby. No one was there but the night clerk, who looked up at me with attention and then alarm. “Ma’am?” he eyed my towel.
I walked to the plate of complimentary cookies that they microwave at the front desk if you ask, next to the bow of complimentary apples, and I touched all the cookies.
“Ma’am,” the night clerk said. I picked up a cookie and ate it, ignoring him. There was art here too, Thomas Kincaid prints of lighthouses.
I thought about the hyphen between self and portrait, tethering the words together, so that the self and its image are bound but also fundamentally unable to merge into a single entity. I knew that my face was photographed by security and data collecting systems roughly 3500 times per day. I knew that the teens outside local liquor store thought a lot about manipulating my imagined/imaged self, because they told me about it when I bought lotto tickets and eggs.
Through the reflective glass two men appeared in parts, first their faces, then their limp-looking nightsticks, work boots last. It would have been a spectacle, if there had been an audience, but everyone was upstairs. The lobby was empty, except for the clerk, who was on the phone. It was late and no one saw anything. I could memorialize the present by performing it, but if I did, I didn’t know if I was holding onto it forever, or just pushing it away. I didn’t know how much I could look at myself. I watched them come for me. I dropped my towel.
Aiden Arata is a writer, filmmaker, and new media artist whose work has appeared in publications including Mask, BOMB, Hobart, The Rumpus, Shabby Dollhouse, Real Pants, Potluck, and others. She’s the author of chapbooks The Future (Ghost City Press, 2018) and Object of Art (Ghost City Press, 2017), and is the writer and director of the short film CREEP (2018). She lives in Los Angeles and on the internet as @aidenarata.