Fiction by Nancy Smith
Mostly, I’m jealous—a petty and semi-illegitimate emotion—but I should be used to it by now. All of Charlotte’s friends are doctors.
It is Charlotte’s fortieth birthday.
We are celebrating at home.
Whenever anyone at the party asks me what I do, I feel like an idiot when I say I’m a painter.
Oh, they all say.
Oh, that’s nice.
What kinds of things do you paint?
Houses, I say.
They never get the joke.
Oh, how nice, they say again, searching desperately for some doctor friend to come to their rescue so they can talk about DNA or cancer or liver functions or something.
Nice is such a non-word. I’m always depressed when people use it.
Behind the couch, there is a painting of a dead horse. The horse is lying on the hardwood floor of a giant penthouse overlooking Central Park. It’s called Dead Horse On West 85th. It was my first major sale. Charlotte bought it for $27,000, which was basically like a million for me at the time.
I finally escape from the living room, and hide in the bedroom. I can only take so much doctor-talk. Actually, I think I was a pretty good sport putting in three hours, nodding along to such and such study and such and such symptom.
I don’t understand science. I never have. How does one go about splicing up genes? I haven’t the slightest idea. I envision splicing DNA to be analogous to slicing a tomato. This is the image I have in my head whenever Charlotte talks about work. I’m not stupid, science just isn’t my thing.
Another painting of mine hangs on the wall in the bedroom. A girl with the head of a wolf, standing in a field of daisies. The sky in the painting is dark, filled with deep blue storm clouds. It’s called Wolf Girl. I finished it last month, and Charlotte said I absolutely couldn’t sell it. It would look perfect in the bedroom, don’t you think? She has a way of phrasing things so that I can’t say no. It does look perfect, though. Charlotte is never wrong.
Grey Gallery told me they could sell it for $3 million, easy. But Charlotte really loves it, so it’ll stay on the bedroom wall. Sometimes when we’re going to bed, we’ll say, goodnight, wolf girl. Joking, like we’re saying goodnight to our daughter. And sometimes I dream about having a daughter who really does have a wolf head. Now, there’s some DNA that should be spliced and studied.
Charlotte and I tried to have kids, but it didn’t work. Between the two of us we don’t have enough working parts. Strange, since we’ve got two of everything. But everything, it turned out, is faulty. There are some adoption papers sitting in my studio. Charlotte says I need to decide soon because these things take a long time. I know, I know, I tell her. It already seems like we’ve been going through the process forever, and now we’re at the “picking” stage. Charlotte has already picked. Ranked them as if they were favorite books. She hasn’t told me because she doesn’t want to “taint my opinion.”
We’ve narrowed it down to: Jenny, Anna, Eliza, and Grace.
I can’t just pick a child the way one picks an apple at the grocery store. It’s too much pressure. I like to leave these things up to nature. Nature said no.
So now what? I’m supposed to pick a kid from a file. How can I?
Charlotte is very beautiful; as if it weren’t enough to be smart. She got all the good genes, which doesn’t happen very often. Although it occurs to me that the living room is full of beautiful, smart people. If this party were a random sampling of New Yorkers, this would be a swell-looking town. But this isn’t random. It’s like a Petri dish of the upper-crust. This is Columbia in our living room. Charlotte is the head of the Biology Department.
My mom put a paintbrush in my hand when I was twelve. She signed me up for painting classes at the Pittsburgh Community Art Center, because she said I could waste my whole summer sitting around the house whining about how bored I was or I could get some practical skills. Why on earth she considered painting a “practical” skill is beyond me. If she had put me in a cooking class, I probably would have become a chef. I was very impressionable then.
The door bursts open. I jump a little on the bed.
Oh, there you are, Charlotte says. Are you hiding?
She sits down on the bed.
I’m sorry. I know William is a bore. I saw you were stuck near the fireplace with him forever. Why did we invite him? Did he talk about that stupid genome article?
God, what a moron. The whole thing was based on faulty research in the first place. I was on the peer review for that article. I’m so pissed it was published.
I shrug my shoulders.
Don’t worry, it’s almost over. Thank god I’ll only turn forty once. We don’t have to do this again for ten years. Deal?
I managed to lose an earring, she says, as she walks over to the bureau and rummages through a jewelry box. Diamonds or silver? She holds up one to each ear.
Silver, don’t you think? she says.
Sure, silver, I agree.
She’s wearing a champagne dress that matches her eyes. She hasn’t done a thing with her long dark hair; it just falls, perfect, as usual.
She sits down on the bed and kisses me on the cheek.
Come back to the party soon?
She stands and looks back before closing the door.
We have to do something about that bedspread, she says.
I agree, looking down at the giant coffee stain that befell our comforter last weekend, during a disastrous breakfast-in-bed attempt. We tried washing it, to no avail. Charlotte referred to the coffee as a toxic mutant since we’d always been able to get coffee stains out of things before. We’ve been so busy all week we didn’t replace it yet. Actually, I was surprised we didn’t have a spare duvet cover. Our linen closet was full of various blankets, quilts, sheets, towels, and even a tablecloth or two. Alas, we only had the one duvet cover, which was now ruined from a toxic coffee spill.
She closes the door and I walk across the room and stand in front of the mirror. I brush my hair, and prepare to face the living room again.
I am not beautiful. I am fine with that, or as fine as any woman can be, which is more like a pleasant resentfulness.
I don’t have to be beautiful because I am talented.
I can’t imagine why Charlotte married me. I don’t know if she even likes me.
Saturday rolls around and I find myself looking at a box of cookie cutters shaped like dinosaurs at Crate and Barrel. Charlotte got stuck near a giant canister of spatulas. She’s debating between two different jars of honey. Finally, she brings them both over to me.
Do you like mint-flavored honey?
Yeah, she waves the jars in front of me.
No, I’m an old-fashioned girl. I like my honey to be honey flavored.
She puts the plain honey in my hand and goes to return the mint variety.
The whole place amuses me, with its abundance of chipper salespeople, kitchen accoutrements, and yuppies. How could the same store sell couches and chutneys?
The weirdest part: our whole house basically looks like a Crate and Barrel catalog.
OK, let’s look at comforters, Charlotte says, pulling me up the escalator.
Charlotte and I are successful because our blue couch matches the specks of blue in our green-and-blue-and-white rug, which matches our white curtains, and our rustic-looking (but not truly rustic) coffee table, along with the table-cloth on our kitchen table, which has that same blue running along its border, which is a flower pattern that matches the flower pattern on the towel folded neatly over the towel rack. Nothing in our house is an accident.
Charlotte has positioned herself in front of a wall of duvet covers, as if she’s planning some sort of attack. They are all draped over various hooks, or folded over faux drawers. None of them are too bright, or too unusual. Everything is nice. This, I think, is the aim of the Crate and Barrel duvet cover. To be nice. There’s that non-word again.
I need to see these in action, Charlotte says.
So, we start to wander around the furniture area, paying close attention to the beds. Charlotte runs her hand along each of them.
We cruise around the furniture area twice. We manage to avoid the salespeople, which feels like a minor victory. I refrain from mocking the paintings (though Charlotte does not) and eventually she narrows it down to a Roman-patterned batik in white and cornflower blue (that’s our blue), and a mauve and moss paisley. She paces back and forth between the two beds. One of the beds (the blue one) might actually be our bed.
I think blue. What do you think? she says.
I pretend to carefully mull them over. I do the requisite amount of pacing.
I like the blue.
Are you just saying that because I like the blue?
Charlotte looks at the paisley for a while. I stand with the jar of honey in my hand.
Maybe we should get this green one. It’s more exciting, don’t you think?
As far as duvet covers go, it’s pretty thrilling, I say.
The difference between Charlotte and me is that she takes this stuff seriously.
Do you like the paisley one?
Sure, I say.
More than the blue?
So, you like the blue?
Yeeessss, I roll my eyes, and eventually wander over to the dishes area.
Charlotte will take another twenty minutes.
Finally, I just sit down at one of the tables.
There is a pregnant woman looking at placemats. When you can’t get pregnant, pregnant women seem to be everywhere. I see them all the time now. I see them more than ever before. But there can’t possibly be more pregnant women now. In fact, there are probably fewer. Aren’t people having fewer babies these days? I think my perspective on the matter is skewed anyway. I try not to hold myself responsible for my nonfunctional reproductive system, but who else am I supposed to blame?
I look over to see that Charlotte is still deep in thought over the course of our comforter situation.
Charlotte looks very beautiful from here. She has a tendency to stand like a model, with her hands in her pockets, which makes her seem more profound than she actually is. I assume all of her students are in love with her. Could I have fallen in love with her just because of the way she stands?
The pregnant woman comes over to my table. She has long blond hair, and is wearing a red, cotton dress. She looks good. Stunning, considering the options in maternity wear. She’s one of those people who seem built for pregnancy. She glows.
Do you mind if I lay these out here? she asks, holding the placements.
Not at all, I say, smiling.
I must look idiotic, sitting there with a jar of honey in my hand. Somewhat alarmingly, I wonder if I could become one of those insane women who sit around in department stores trying out furniture and muttering to themselves.
Are you getting this table? the pregnant woman asks.
Oh, no. I’m getting one of those duvet covers. I point over towards Charlotte.
The pregnant woman nods and says, I’m debating between placemats.
She sets her various placemats around the table and stands there for a while, peering down at them. I wonder if I should get up. Why didn’t she pick one of the many tables that are unoccupied by people? I fidget awkwardly with the honey and attempt to make eye contact with Charlotte. Mostly I just wonder what it would be like to be the beautiful pregnant one in the red dress, instead of the weirdo with honey in hand. I feel like I’m sitting there with a consolation prize.
Charlotte eventually waves at me, so I head back over to the duvet cover wall.
I think we should go with blue. Do you still like the blue?
Yes, I say, I still like the blue. Even better than before.
Don’t patronize me, Charlotte says, only half-annoyed by my inability to care about this as much as she does.
I hold her hand and we walk to the register and pay.
Sitting in my studio, that afternoon, I can’t paint a thing.
The adoption papers are eyeing me, and they feel more important than my work. More important than anything.
Four folders, four different colors. Red, blue, green, and yellow. Jenny, Anna, Eliza, and Grace. I’ve read through them a number of times. Three, at least, maybe four. How many times is enough? Finally, I decide that six times is enough. Six feels like a solid effort.
I read through them twice more.
They are all girls and I wonder if we’ve made a mistake already. Maybe we should adopt a boy. Too many girls in one house seems like a bad idea. What if we’re creating some sort of cosmic imbalance by filling our house with girls?
I lay the four pictures out in front of me, thinking that if I simply stare at them long enough one will stand out as the natural choice. Jenny and Eliza, two brunettes; Anna and Grace, two black-haired girls. They all vaguely look like children that could have come from Charlotte or me, though it’s impossible to know how they will turn out. What scares me the most is that I’ll pick the one who will grow up to resent me.
What if I pick Grace and she grows up to be a cheerleader? I would be obligated to be proud of her no matter what, right? What if I pick Eliza and she becomes a serial killer? I couldn’t handle that. I shuffle through the papers and finally decide that it’s unlikely any of these kids will murder anyone and conclude that cheerleading would be all right.
I stare. For an hour. I stare.
Then I clean.
I clean when I am unhappy. I mentioned this to Charlotte once, years ago, and she said I must be miserable because our home is always spotless. We laughed.
I scrub the tile in the bathroom, even that impossible spot behind the toilet. I remove everything from the kitchen drawers, and clean the drawers one by one. Folding and stacking, I arrange the linen closet in color order. Eventually, I run out of steam, and I sit down on the couch. Charlotte has left papers and books all over the coffee table.
Falling sideways, I collapse on the couch and gaze at the table. What catches my eye, are the folders: red, blue, green, and yellow. Jenny, Anna, Eliza, and Grace. The adoption folders. Charlotte has her own copies.
I can hear Charlotte’s voice in my head. I don’t want my opinion to taint yours. We have to truly agree on this one thing.
I hold the folders in my lap.
Have I lost the ability to make a decision on my own? Is this what marriage has done to me? I wasn’t always this helpless. Or have I just become lazy? Or is this love?
I listen for Charlotte’s footsteps. I wonder where she is. The house is quiet. I slip my shoes off and pull my feet up on the couch, sitting cross-legged, under Dead Horse On West 85th.
When I sold the painting I had a hundred bucks to my name. I’d just moved to New York after dropping out of art school at Penn. It seemed en vogue to drop out, since half the artists I knew had the same story. They came from Missoula, from Portland, from Austin, because it just seemed like the thing to do. It was like we were homing pigeons set to flock to New York.
I lived with six guys, all artists, in a loft on the Lower East Side—accepted into this boys club only because of my talent, and probably my lack of sexual attraction to them—and had been showing my work at a tiny, no-name gallery that Allen, one of my roommates, ran below the apartment.
I’d fallen into this dead things phase, which in one way or another is where we all fall in our early twenties. I was painting dead animals, dead plants, dead people. So, I became famous for placing dead things in living spaces. No big deal. I suppose there are more ridiculous ways to become famous. A dead chicken in the middle of a dinner party. A dead oak tree in the middle of a circus. A dead manatee on a beach filled with children. I was trying to be funny and everyone took me seriously. I guess that’s how you know the joke is working.
Some reviewer from Art Forum stumbled into the gallery and wrote an article about me that included the phrase “a layered and necessary dialogue between life and death.” So, that’s what my work was, I guess.
Dead Horse On West 85th was on the cover of Art Forum the following month, and by that time the gallery had already received a dozen calls about my work.
Charlotte came into the gallery one afternoon with a copy of the magazine. I was sitting on the floor, working on some sketches. She walked over to the desk, where Allen was sitting. She held up Art Forum and said, I want this painting.
Allen glanced at me, and stood up. He walked Charlotte over to the wall where the painting was hanging, and she dropped the magazine. It echoed through the high-ceilinged gallery.
God, it’s even more beautiful in real life, she said.
She just stood there staring at the painting for quite some time, staring as if looking through, like there was nothing and no one else in the room, while I sat on the floor staring at her. I’d never seen anyone look at my work that way.
Charlotte has always been beautiful; she looks the same now as she did then. She wore black high heels, a black raincoat, tied at the waist. Her long hair was pulled back with a silver barrette. She stood with her hands in her pockets and leaned in to look at the price, a tiny white square taped to the wall.
Allen had changed the price from $2,700 to $27,000 the day the Art Forum issue came out. This was his idea of a business plan.
Who do I make the check out to? she asked.
Allen told her, and she wrote him a check and gave him her address for delivery. Then she picked her magazine up off the floor and walked out of the gallery, her heels clacking until the door clicked shut.
You just hit the big time, Allen said to me, laughing. He showed the check to me. Minus fifty percent, he said, as I held it in my hand.
I spent the rest of the afternoon on the floor, drawing Charlotte.
The next day, I dug through Allen’s desk and found her address. I carried the address around in my pocket for a while. I sold a few more paintings. I ended up on a few more magazines. Finally, I just memorized her address.
I moved out of the guy-loft, into my own loft a few blocks away.
I moved out of my dead phase into a red phase. And then there was a furniture phase. There were many more phases after that.
A year passed, maybe more, before I rang Charlotte’s bell. She lived in the West Village, not far from me, on a street called Christopher.
I was curious to know where my painting ended up. It was my first sale, and the most important.
Charlotte didn’t believe me when I told her my name, and I probably sounded like a nut in her intercom saying I was the one who painted the dead horse painting. It’s a wonder she buzzed me up at all. When I arrived at her front door—which is now my front door—she opened it hesitantly, and then let me in.
The painting was hanging on the opposite wall, above the fireplace. There was a different couch, a gray one, which sat in the same place as the blue one sits now.
I stood silently in front of the painting.
Why did you buy this? I asked.
Because I love it, she said immediately. It’s so intense. It makes me want to cry.
I almost laughed, because I didn’t know how to react.
I’d never been around someone who was so confident, so sure. She stood in the living room, with bare feet, jeans, and a sweatshirt that said BROWN on it, and still she looked like she should be in a catalog.
I glanced around the apartment. Art hung everywhere. It could have been a gallery.
You have good taste, I said.
She offered me a cup of tea. The dining room table was covered with books and papers. It looked like she’d been working there.
How did you get this? I asked, referring to a brightly-colored Basquiat that I was sure had been sold by Christie’s for $13.5 million.
I always get what I want, she said, simply. I’ve been admiring that one for a while, and I knew it would look perfect right there.
This was always the difference between Charlotte and me: she always gets what she wants. From day one. Now I wonder if this is the fundamental difference between all women, beautiful and plain.
Are you an artist? I asked.
God, no. I wish, she said. Never had the talent for it. I’m a biologist.
I stared at her. A biologist?
A scientist who collects art, I said.
Charlotte raised her arms with a “yep” gesture. She poured me a cup of tea and asked me to tell her everything I knew about painting. I laughed and gave it my best shot. She attempted to explain DNA to me. I’d never met a scientist before. I suppose I fell in love with her then and there.
I lie back on the couch and look up at the painting. It’s still my favorite, after all these years, all my phases. My dead phase was my best.
I open each adoption folder one by one because I decide that all of my opinions have become Charlotte’s opinions and that’s just how marriage is. It’s easier that way.
She’s made notes everywhere. Half of the notes seem to be inscrutable shorthand of some sort or generic observations like, “nice eyes” or “mother from Brooklyn.” I find what I’m looking for: the numbers. In the upper right corner of each folder, she’s written a number and circled it. I hear the front door open; I quickly memorize the numbers and then shove the folders back on the coffee table under a textbook.
Have you been cleaning? Charlotte says as she enters the living room.
She’s holding two cups of coffee.
I thought you might need some coffee since you’re working.
I couldn’t work, I say.
Want to grade these papers? she asks.
If you’ll get my work ready for the Foley Gallery, then I’ll grade your papers.
Sounds good to me.
Can I give everyone an A? I ask.
Sure, she says as she sits down, lifts my legs and puts them on her lap.
We both stay on the couch, hit by Saturday afternoon lethargy. Eventually, Charlotte turns on the TV and we watch Project Runway reruns until we decide it’s time for dinner.
For a week, I mull over Charlotte’s numbers. How was she able to rank these kids? I spread the folders out over the kitchen table. Jenny, Anna, Eliza, and Grace. They all seem exactly the same to me. Equally good. Equally adorable. Equally worthy of our love. She’s ranked the blue folder with a number 1. Anna. I scan the documents trying to figure out what makes Anna better than the others. I can’t figure it out.
She’s the only one with green eyes. Eliza has blue eyes, which I kind of love. Is there some superior genetic code in green-eyed kids? Something scientific that Charlotte knows, and I don’t?
I stare at the photos, unsure.
We’d met all these kids at an adoption meet-and-greet sort of affair, and I’d held them all, had actual conversations with the girls who were old enough to talk. Grace was two years old. We, Grace and I, had colored on a coloring book for a while. This could be my child for the rest of my life, and I was basing it on an afternoon of coloring. She was pretty good, though. That must count for something.
According to the folder she has creative tendencies, loves animals, and playing outdoors. Doesn’t that describe all children? Choosing children seems just as arbitrary as having them.
Anna’s folder says she loves ice cream, Play-Doh, and swimming. I look into her green eyes in the photo. Can’t argue with that.
Charlotte comes into the kitchen. She grabs an orange from the bowl on the counter, and then sits down at the table next to me.
She peels the orange in one long spiral, saying nothing.
She offers me an orange slice, which I take and pretend to continue reading the adoption papers.
Have you decided? she finally asks.
I think so.
She continues eating the orange.
I know she’s dying to know, but she doesn’t let on.
I slowly finish my orange slice and look at her. How, I wonder, did I get her? How did I end up in the same house as my favorite painting?
I pick up the blue folder.
Anna, I say, dropping it in front of Charlotte.
She smiles. Really? I love Anna. She was my favorite too!
Charlotte is happy. I can tell when she’s really happy, because she has a dimple on her right cheek that only shows when she’s genuinely smiling.
She stands up and kisses me. I kiss her back and for some reason start crying. Charlotte thinks it’s because I am happy, and maybe it is. We stand there in the kitchen for a while. Charlotte puts her hands on my face, and she smells like oranges, and she tells me she loves me. I nod.
Let’s go to bed, I say, suddenly exhausted.
I watch Charlotte get ready for bed. She always looks most pretty at night, pajama-clad, with no makeup on. I settle under the new comforter. It still smells new. I miss the old one, because it was soft and smelled like us.
Charlotte climbs into bed and asks me what I think of the new comforter.
I say I like it.
The window is open and cool air makes the drapes flutter like they are breathing. The comforter matches the drapes to perfection. Our flawlessly curated home remains intact.
Charlotte pulls the chain on the bedside lamp, and says, Goodnight, wolf girl.
I roll over, toss my arm around her, and kiss the back of her neck.
Tomorrow, I think to myself as I’m falling asleep, I’ll sell that painting.