Your student loan officer is a woman named Brenda who holds the phone in such a way that you can hear each keystroke in her quest to “move some stuff around” and get you an installment plan that “makes sense for everybody.” After Brenda’s finished restructuring, she says you’re looking at $700/mo. Which is pretty good, all things considered, the only catch being that the reduced monthly payment ups the lifespan of your plan to somewhere around 30 years, which is, your dad keeps reminding you, the same number of years as a typical mortgage. “Mortgage, mortgage, mortgage,” you say. You repeat the word to yourself until it sounds totally foreign and made up (which it might as well be, considering the state of your affairs).
“I’m sorry?” Brenda says, coming back on the line after checking with somebody who you’re sure is fictitious re: the possibility of an even further and more generous slashing of monthly dollars owed in exchange for a hefty increase in interest rates.
“Nothing,” you say, and Brenda tells you that her superior is already like appalled at the insanely generous and great deal she’s slipped past the guards for you and it’s a no-can-do situation beyond that. “Thanks anyway,” you tell her.
You hang up and order $40 worth of sushi on Grubhub.
And during the time you’re waiting for your 6pc. salmon nigiri and 6pc. tuna nigiri and California roll to arrive, you hunt around in sock drawers and dirty jeans for three or four singles to tip the delivery guy with, because adding the tip on the card will take 24 hours to process and during that time you will experience this weird anxiety of not knowing exactly how much money you have in your bank account, which will in turn give you pangs of worry when you have to make other purchases in that 24 hours (Uber, tequila, and $4.99 for a digital HD rental of Black Panther which it turns out isn’t as great as everybody says it is).
During this hunt you will remember your light wash jeans that you haven’t seen in a while. You know there’s gotta be a crumpled bill in there, or at least some quarters, so you play the If I was my light wash jeans, where would I be? game and it’s like, duh, the closet?
So you go to the closet to find the light wash jeans to find the money to tip the delivery guy to avoid the anxiety of putting the tip on your card, and what greets you there is a half-finished painting of a man holding a child and running away from what appears to be not a tornado, exactly, but a menacing tempest. That’s the name you’ve toyed with for this particular painting: “Menacing Tempest.” You like the name because it’s very on-the-nose in a self-aware postmodern way, and not douchey and vague like “Sacrifice” or “Above All Else,” or something like that which would be intended to remark on the relationship between parent and child—that a parent can and should do anything to shield his child from the cruelties our world would inflict on her. Except in this painting you’ve done something to subvert expectations: the man carrying the child is black, and the child is white. And you’ve made their skin colors sufficiently extreme to quash any theorizing that maybe the child is mixed-race and therefore belongs biologically to this guy. Nope. In this painting, it’s very clear that this kid is his only in an emotional sense. And there’s something beautiful about this, you think, the total absence of hatred and bigotry and racial divide when faced with something as mindless and violent as a menacing tempest.
Except now that you’re looking at it, you’re wondering does it feel forced? Does it feel like maybe you’re beating the audience over the head with the race thing? And further, has that fear lived inside you since you got halfway through the painting and stalled out on it, like, a hundred years ago?
Then the delivery guy knocks on the door. You let him in and tip him with the crumpled bills and the whole time you’re wishing you had done literally anything to make your hair look better because he’s kind of cute. Then you put the sushi on the counter and stare at yourself in the reflection of your microwave and start musing about your sex life. (This is a theme, you realize, the self-reflection cute guys provoke.) You wonder why you get laid so infrequently. You wonder if maybe its tied to some sort of slut complex you have (i.e. your upbringing has made you think sex is something only boys should be able to wantonly enjoy and that girls had really better not). You wonder if it’s because you are less cute than you think. You wonder if it’s because—and here the dilemma of the half-finished painting rears its ugly head—if it’s because you’re really just too fuckin’ lazy to bother.
You open the bag of sushi and guess what: it’s not sushi. It’s sandwiches. And the implication of it being sandwiches descends on you violently, wavelike: the delivery guy will realize he screwed up and return.
Which means that you get a do-over.
Which means it’s go-time, hairwise.
So you brush and tease and perform ancient feminine rituals to get yourself looking hot for this dude, all while wondering how far away the sandwiches’ recipient lives and how long it’s going to take this guy to get there, realize his fuckup, and come back to swap the food. The time between his departure and rearrival seems vast and eternal but also super quick—funny how that can happen. Here’s him knocking now.
You are almost at the door before you realize you need a hook. Something to get him talking besides the sandwich/sushi snafu. And the obvious narrative choice is the painting, of course, which you wrench from its hidey-hole and place, like, so casually against the coffee table, kind of angled away from the door so you’re not a showoff but still visible because you didn’t spend two hundred grand on an art degree from RISD to not fuck this hot delivery guy.
“Worst sushi ever,” you say when you open the door. Which was unrehearsed, scout’s honor, but not a bad line at all. The guy laughs.
“My fault,” he says. “Sorry.” He hands you the sushi and takes the sandwiches.
“You couldn’t stay away,” you say. Which is pretty overtly flirty, and you see the guy register this and you watch a spark of interest ignite behind his very beautiful eyeballs. He glances around and seizes upon the painting you planted.
“Did you do that?” he says.
“Yeah. You wanna see it?”
And now he’s in your apartment and you close the door, which makes him start a little, just a twitch around the shoulder area, but the gender roles are right for this sort of thing and he doesn’t experience the same physical fear you would experience if it was him shutting the door behind you. And plus, he’s a dude. This is, like, a dude’s dream come true.
“Is he her dad?” the guy says. You know from the way he says it that he’s making a linguistic distinction between dad and father. This question proves without a doubt that he gets the painting, gets what you were trying to do with it. And because being understood is sexual and/or romantic crack to an artist (you imagine it’s the same for musicians and writers and directors), you find yourself moving toward him.
“It’s called ‘Menacing Tempest,’” you say. Your hand is drifting toward his hand as he continues to regard the painting. He doesn’t see your approach and there’s no way he can sense the throbbing adrenaline of somebody who’s about to kiss a stranger in her own home, without even knowing his name, without him knowing hers.
Then he laughs. “Menacing Tempest?” he says. It is not cruel, this laugh—it’s flavored with the same delight you might feel when a little kid shows you a good card trick. It’s mirth inspired by the gap between what the kid should be able to do and what the kid did. It’s not cruel, this laugh. But it’s enough to unburden you of your sexual desire for the deliveryman because the laugh basically said, I totally get why ‘Menacing Tempest’ is a good name for the painting but I definitely didn’t expect it, not from you, a girl, no—I expected something trite like ‘Sacrifice’ or ‘Above All Else.’
“Well, anyway,” you say, opening the door. “Thanks for coming back.”
First he’s confused. What did he do to inspire this abrupt one-eighty in your mood? But then he puts it together: the laugh must’ve done it somehow, even though he liked the name.
Next he’s conciliatory. He wants to apologize. To say some words that’ll make the situation right or at least return it to the pre-laugh tension that was so urgent and promising. But then he realizes the bleak truth of his predicament: you have so little invested in him that any overture of apology would serve no purpose, would in fact make him come off as try-hard and desperate. Maybe even creepy.
Finally he’s wounded. He didn’t ask for this, you know. You were the one to flirt, to lure, to ignite that spark behind eyeballs that are becoming less beautiful by the moment. And the sad thing is that it’s only been a moment; these emotions have happened inside of just two or three seconds, but each of you is hyperaware that this guy will spend probably months thinking about the sushi girl who almost liked him. He will replay this moment over and over in his head, building you up to be the supercool art girl who got away.
Which, as he leaves, makes you feel perversely good and powerful. Because you know that tomorrow you will go to work at 10:00am where you register people for gym memberships that they feel too guilty to cancel later. You will pick up other women’s discarded towels. And you’ll remember the thrill you got when RISD accepted you—the knowledge that the other kids in your high school were destined for boring office jobs and steady but unimpressive salaries. Wives they’d tire of fucking and husbands with bad breath.
But you were special: you were going to graduate from the best art school maybe, like, ever? And you were going to have your work hung in high-ceilinged galleries with marble floors and people would gape at the majesty of your paintings and talk about you in hushed tones. You would never shove half-finished works in your closet and drink margaritas on weeknights. You would dedicate yourself to your work because being creative—being an artist—is, in your estimation, the only noble way to live.
So watching this cute guy climb back into his Jetta and look balefully at you as he throws the car into reverse—it feels like a sliver of you has become a great artist, a person to be desired.
Later, you sit cross-legged on your couch eating sushi and watching reruns of Frasier. During one of Niles’ and the dad’s back-and-forths, it occurs to you that this guy could, in theory, join your gym. And the fear that your lone devotee in this world—someone you rejected before they could find you out for what you really are—might end up finding you out for what you really are? That fear cuts through your stomach like a cold spear and makes you need desperately to shit or vomit, but you breathe steadily for, like, two full minutes because there’s no way you’re spending $40 on sushi just to throw it up. Brenda would have your head.