Coming of Age

It seemed that in this town you could get by with a couple singles in your pocket and nothing more. He remembered Chicago days, from before he moved to this small town in North Carolina, that he’d ride the el for what seemed like hours, transfer from the red line to the blue and take a bus out to the lake. He did that a lot in those days, when his life was crashing down around him and he felt like he had no way out.

You needed a Ventra card to ride in Chicago, and the monthly pass was outrageously expensive. If you didn’t have a card, you couldn’t ride. But this bus, this bus he stepped onto and out of the North Carolina heat, you could get on with a single.

He sat down, his first bus ride in NC even after living there for two years, and he pulled out his headphones. He took out his phone and put Spotify on shuffle. The first thing that came up was “Coming of Age” by Foster the People. He smiled. “Fitting,” he said. Someone sitting near him looked at him when he said that, but he just kept smiling.

Never Had a Home

I don’t know how to tell you I never had a home. We had houses–almost more than I could count, moving from one to the next, but no home. When people asked if my dad was in the military, I eventually just said yes, because that was easier than saying we got evicted again. Never having a friend for longer than six months, parents hanging up phones that I’d stay silent on, trying to think of something to say to the friends I left behind. They wanted me to leave it all, friends included. No reminders of the past.

I got it down to a science. Would get in a big fight with whoever picked on me first, blacken their eyes and bust their lip so I’d be left alone till we inevitably had to move again. Mom would work at gas stations or dollar stores, whatever she could hold down. Dad worked here and there as a driver, which gave him the idea that he could drive home after getting plastered at the bar on his days off. But if you pull the trigger enough times in Russian Roulette, you’re bound to find a bullet.

He went over a guardrail going 70. When the car came to rest at the bottom of the hill, it barely resembled a car. Let’s just say the ambulance didn’t exactly have to rush to the hospital.

After he died, my mom very quickly developed a chronic pain condition. The doctors had all sorts of reasons for it, but we all knew it was from heartbreak. Sometimes the emotional can become physical. She was prescribed painkillers, strong ones, but she never took them. Instead, she took to selling them when she was scheduled to work alone at the gas station, passing them to her customers along with their change. It was the only way she could keep us from being put out on the streets. She could’ve taken some and sold the rest, but she wanted to get the most money she could. She wanted me to be comfortable. So she suffered in great pain all day, every day. The logistics of managing a guilt that great are tricky, I can tell you. Having to sit by as a kid, helpless, as your mom cries in the bathroom, running the water in the hopes that you won’t be able to hear her, saying she was just freshening up when you ask.

Mom had a string of boyfriends, guys who by default went out in sleeveless shirts, made mountains of beer cans that would collect in the corners of the kitchen like some joke of an art installation. Years later, I’d do something similar at my first gallery feature: a pile of all the household items that can be used to destroy a life. Eventually, muttered insults would turn to shouts, and shouts would turn to pushes, and pushes would turn to punches. At 14, 15, 16, I didn’t have much chance of fighting them off of her, but I’d always try. Got a couple of black eyes that I’d cover up with mom’s concealer when she wasn’t around. I didn’t need Mom getting in trouble for something that wasn’t her fault.

I started reading, painting. I’d practice speaking into the mirror, refining the way I spoke. Saved up a summer’s worth of lawn mowing money and bought clothes that belied our poverty. A college roommate put it this way when I eventually let him in on my upbringing: “Man, I just thought you were some white dude from the suburbs.”

Here I am all these years later, settling in in Chicago, Wicker Park to be specific, standing in front of this gleaming white building that I’m meant to inhabit, meant to become the artistic director for this colony of artists. None of them have seen my eyes blackened, smelled the shirts I had to put on, day after day, when the washer would break and we had no money for repairs. They won’t know that I never had a home, and I’m not sure I’d be able to tell them even if I wanted to.

They say secrets keep you sick, but how bad can it be if I’ve been sick all my life? I’ve gotten used to it. So I’ll keep these stories close, hold them in so tight that they’ll never show. The best actors are the ones who don’t know who they really are. They disappear and reappear the way that they’re supposed to.

This will be the first city I’ve settled in my entire life. I have no plans to leave anytime soon, if ever, and it hits me that I don’t quite understand what this means. To plant my feet somewhere and call it home. Is that what this is? Maybe that’s what I’ll make it. And I’ll stay. Stay as long as I can. As long as the concealer stays on. As long as the new clothes hold up. As long as the smile can hide the pain.

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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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