Vieve

View of the Flat Iron Arts Building from the Coyote Tower

Coming out of the suburbs and into the city felt, for him, like grabbing his passport and crossing the border. He came from a shitty suburb, sure, but the culture was night and day. So he’d take walks around the block when film classes would let out, listen in on cell phone conversations and jot down good dialogue for possible future use.

Crossing the streets became knuckles turning white, crushed between your mother’s hands as a small child, always told to look both ways. But then as now, he was making his messes, assuming that he could always clean them up later. Weeks of film school in this “foreign land” became episodes of a show he didn’t have the show bible for, no clear course to chart, no lines in the sand.

Other students in his classes obsessed over technique and form, but that all seemed like staring at the glass instead of looking through the window to him. There were more productive things that you could do. So he rented out a Bolex from the film cage, kept it out days after he was supposed to return it, and captured footage from all over the city. Met up with an artist colony in Wicker Park that had bought an entire building, were forming it into their own artistic micronation utopia.

Met an artist there: Vieve. A couple years older than him, she was a Columbia College dropout who worked in multimedia, emphasis on the “multi.” She was working on a project that started out as an autobiography but turned into visual/written alternate realities when reality could no longer keep up with the fiction. In one timeline, a claymation film, she was already married and had kids, the homemaker her parents always wanted her to be. Existing alongside this Vieve was one scripted in a series of short screenplays: the one who graduated, went off to grad school, and accepted a position as an art professor at a prestigious school. A series of miniature paintings you needed a magnifying glass to get the full detail of, paintings that told the story of a globetrotting vagabond who sold art for just enough to buy a plane ticket, then lived off of the generosity of others once she got wherever she was going.

All of that was just what he could see, in between classes and on his days off, when she was in her studio and would let him in while she worked. More than half of her work was under blankets, and no amount of coaxing on his part would make her budge.

The final project for his foundation film class was to shoot a short documentary, subject matter up to him. Naturally, he picked Vieve and her art. She was apprehensive at first, for two reasons. 1. She didn’t like being the focal point of anything. 2. He was shooting this for Columbia College, and there was still bad blood between her and that school. But she caved when she saw how interested he was, how he wasn’t going to be exploitative.

In the second week of pre-production, they kissed. It wasn’t planned at all. It was just one of those things. He’d been standing behind her while she demonstrated a mini Vieve robot she’d constructed from a bunch of junk, when she turned around to say something. Their faces in kissing distance, they both smiled, and she turned away again. She turned the robot on, let it skitter around the enclosure she’d made for it, and turned around again even though she didn’t have to. And that’s how they kissed. When the moment was over, they both turned back to the Vieve-bot and watched her scramble around, not quite knowing which way to go.

The thing about Vieve was that she didn’t want to name any of her pieces. So he’d go around naming them out loud, asking her what she thought of this one, or that one, and she’d just nod and say sure, turn to work on something else while he worried about naming everything. All of his projects started with a title, he’d tell her, something so he could understand where it was headed as he went along. That it gave shape to everything else. But she wouldn’t acquiesce. Everything remained untitled.

After a while, he just couldn’t find her. He’d knock on her locked studio, but she wouldn’t answer. The door’s window was covered up by a blanket, but it had already been like that before. Vieve liked her privacy. He came again and again, day after day, looking for her. He already had enough footage for his documentary, but that didn’t matter.

Weeks passed. He submitted the completed doc, got an A on it. It was hard watching Vieve as he edited, noticing every detail of her smile, the way her eyes wrinkled at the corners, proving that it was genuine. It was hard to hear the smokiness of her voice, how it could go from a whisper to warm excitement when she was explaining one of her pieces. More than any of it, he just felt like a rat in a maze.

He waited a couple more weeks before returning. But for some reason, he couldn’t go inside. So he stood out on the corner, looking at the building, his jacket collecting snowflakes. The snow haloed the light around him, and what was on the ground shushed cars as they drove quietly past. Who knows how long he was out there, silently waiting.

He could’ve sworn he saw her out there in the night, walking off down a long road, scarf coiled tightly around her face, but he couldn’t be sure.

He just couldn’t be sure.

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Karen

Either you were a civilian, or you were a veteran. There was no in between for Karen. Never knew where the next meal was coming from as a kid? Beer bottles made brown explosions on the wall during fights between M & D? Veteran. Got the crusts cut off from the lunches your mom made you every morning? Taken on annual summer vacations that you complained about for being “lame”? Civilian.

While most people would consider being adopted as qualifying you for veteran status, Karen felt like she still hadn’t earned it. So she started going on undercover missions. Did shit like mess up her hair, forego makeup, wear her crappiest clothes, and panhandle. On the missions when she was homeless like this, she’d talk with the actual homeless, level with them as one of their own. When her mission was complete, she’d divvy up her earnings amongst the people who actually needed it and head back home. When she did this enough times in her hometown, she’d take the Amtrak to other cities, other states, so as not to arouse suspicion.

She’d watched Titicut Follies. While she assumed that the treatment of those who’d found themselves in the psych ward had no doubt improved since then, she still needed to know what it was like. So she stopped at the 7-Eleven that was a block down from the nearest hospital and bought three of their strongest energy drinks. Chugged them, one after the other, to induce a “manic state.” Left her ID at home so they couldn’t alert M & D. It was during the summer, so Karen was even able to tell her parents that she’d be staying the week at a friend’s. Waited a half hour or so for the energy drinks to take effect. Figured it was time to check in once her vision got hazy and her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest.

She’d psyched herself up beforehand, thought she’d need to to make it convincing. Thing is, once she got into that reception area and the lights were too bright and she met the bland indifference of the receptionist and felt like she might pass out, she didn’t need to act. Could barely get out that she’d been having suicidal thoughts, constant panic attacks on top of that. And then she was made to wait, for how long she didn’t know. And then she was led to a concrete hole of a room, a room with nothing more than a metal slab that you were meant to lie on and a smattering of cameras. The kind with a door that locked once it closed.

For some reason, they put her in the wing that housed those who were prone to violence. At least, that’s what Karen assumed once she’d witnessed two fights within a half hour of being there. Most of the people in this wing had done things you’d usually be arrested for, but had done them in a way that freaked out the cops involved to the point where they didn’t want to deal with them. Stuff like resisting arrest by biting. Taking off their shirt before getting in a fight, then dropping their pants too. These people gave the rest of the patients a bad name, Karen decided.

Maybe she’d been placed there because of her high anxiety. Who knows. But they eventually realized their mistake and placed her in a wing with other suicidals, mostly quiet types who either ate too much at meals or not enough. Who had to excuse themselves from groups because of crying spells. Who stayed in bed for days at a time. Who sported thousand yard stares and took a few seconds to respond when you called their name.

These were people who would sit down next to you and strike up a convo if they sensed that you needed one. And that’s the funny thing about veterans of that kind of shit: They could always sense that you needed one. Once you’ve been to the depths and back, you become acutely aware of others’ internal states. Sensitive to their inner sufferings.

They kept her longer than anyone else. It wasn’t because she hammed it up or anything. She ditched the act after day four, but apparently they saw something that she didn’t and decided to keep her there longer.

It’s the silent moments you have to reflect that get to you. One after another, her new friends left, slipping her their number scrawled on the backs of group therapy schedules, scratched in with the nubs of pencils.

She was encouraged to share in group, and she did. She went in with a whole character bio and story ready, but all of that fell away after she made her friends. Making it all up didn’t seem right when they were letting everything out. So she talked. About finding out she was adopted as a kid. About collecting everything she could carry in a backpack and running away. About getting picked up by a cop and brought home three days later. About not being able to talk for another three days after that, memory wiped. All of it.

Karen left with a prescription for an SSRI she’d never take, a hospital wristband she’d keep in a lockbox with the numbers after she’d put them into her phone. They gave her fare for the bus, the card for a therapist who accepted Medicaid. She hadn’t planned on riding the bus till its final destination, but that’s what happened. She got off at the end, caught a bus going back home, and looked out the window. Watched the way that dusk played with the sky, purple segueing into black.

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