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How Do We Get Back

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Soft music played from somewhere, infused into the space like just the right amount of an expensive perfume: not enough to draw attention to itself, but enough to help round out the aesthetic with taste and class. The white walls positively glowed under warm, carefully selected lighting, offering a contrast to the pieces on offer to buyers. Minimalist and spare, every item was lovingly placed by the owner in exactly the perfect spot to highlight its assets and mask its flaws. It was why buyers went out of their way to come here, or so the proprietor had been told in more prosperous days.

“Tell me about this sculpture,” said a woman in a severe suit and a severe haircut and impossibly high heels.

David Rose, the gallerist she was addressing, put his hands together in an obsequious manner and walked over to stand at her side. Her command had come without the courtesy of turning and looking at him; rather with the expectation that she would get a prompt response — she was the kind of woman who always got a prompt response.

“This is another exciting piece by Devonaé Streeter. She works out of New York now, but after a few months in Prague—”

“I don’t want to hear about the artist. Tell me about the work.”

David squinted an eye at the bronze sculpture, standing its solitary vigil on a white pedestal. He imagined the… woman? it depicted was looking back at him, or would have been if she had more than empty eye sockets to look at him with. He launched into his patter.

“Devonaé’s bronze works often challenge the viewer to look past the grotesque features of the art to see the grotesque features in themselves. This particular figure is an allegory for the way in which we fail to recognize each other’s pain, and I think—”

The woman turned on her heel and walked away, dismissing him and the statue with one quick wave of her hand. She turned her attention to the art on the walls, scanning over the canvasses quickly. David could almost see the calculations going on behind her eyes, like a scrolling ticker on a cable business news show. She wasn’t here to appreciate the art, she was here to find something to invest in. Most of them were, especially people like her.

“Tell me about that one,” she said, pointing to the largest canvas.

David winced. He would have taken the painting in question down a while ago, or perhaps never would have hung it in the first place, if he weren’t hurting a little bit for artists these days. And of course if he hadn’t signed a contract. He’d met Carmen at a party, and okay yes, she’d seemed a little crazy at the time but he’d assumed that was because of all the drugs they were taking. He’d agreed to display her art in his gallery. Now, months later, not a single one of the paintings had ever sold.

Clearing his throat, David said, “Carmen Herrera. She has a… unique vision, as you can see from this piece.” He focused on the track lighting above the painting as he talked; he’d never been able to look at this piece without developing an anxious flutter in his stomach. “It is intended to shock, of course. The worshippers…” He let his eyes glance over the blood-soaked imagery, wondering why he was bothering. This woman was never going to buy one of Carmen’s paintings. “The worshippers hurt themselves and each other at the behest of their goddess.” He gestured vaguely upward.

“Mictēcacihuātl,” the woman murmured.

“Umm… bless you?”

“The Aztec goddess of death,” she explained, still staring at the painting.

“Oh, uhh, yes exactly,” he vamped. “Personally, I’ve always thought the worshippers represent the American electorate, voting against their own self interest because of the lies politicians tell them.” He didn’t really think that. He wasn’t sure Carmen could have said, if pressed, who the President of the United States even was. But he gave potential buyers this line, figuring they might recoil a little less from the painting if they thought it was allegorical.

The sharp-suited woman couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of it. “No, I don’t think that’s what it’s about,” she said. Then she turned to him. “I’ll take it.”

David gaped at her for a second before he recovered enough to respond. “Yes, of course.”

After several minutes of dealing with the payment and shipping, tasks that always made David’s palms sweat with anxiety that he’d screw up some detail of the transaction, the woman was gone and the gallery was quiet as a tomb — its usual state. David sighed and looked up at Carmen’s terrifying painting. “See you never, you creepy fucker.”

He walked back into his office and pulled out his phone. Opening Instagram, David scrolled aimlessly through posts by celebrities and influencers, many of whom he had met and a few of whom he had fucked. When no images of his sister appeared after a few minutes of scrolling, he pulled up her profile and checked her last post — two days ago, which was very unlike Alexis. David’s heart started to hammer in his chest with familiar worry for his sister. He checked the time and counted forward. It would be close to midnight in Italy, probably as good a time as any to catch her on her phone.

Hey r u ok? he texted, and then spent a full minute watching for any sign of a return message before he clicked off the screen and tossed the phone onto his desk with a huff. Then when that dramatic gesture didn’t give him a result, he picked his phone up again, just in time for it to vibrate with an incoming call. He almost dropped it.

Seeing who was calling, David almost let it go unanswered, but at the last second he tapped the screen. “Hi, Dad.”

“David, how are you?” His father’s voice was always confident and booming, as if he could summon happiness if he just projected from his diaphragm. David held the phone away from his ear with a wince, and then put it on speaker before setting it down.

“Fine. Why are you calling me?”

“Do I need a reason to call my only son?”

David rolled his eyes. “Yes.”

There was a pause. “Well, actually, I just heard that Eli was released from prison.”

Pulling a nail file out of his desk drawer, David snorted. “What, and you’re going to rehire him as your business manager?”

“Well, of course not, David.”

“Good.”

“I’m never going to speak to him again.”

Good.”

“I mean, can you imagine how our lives might have turned out if he’d managed to get on that plane to the Cayman Islands before the police caught him?”

“Yes, I can, because you’ve mentioned it an average of once a month for the last three years,” David said, taking a few desultory swipes across the end of the nail on his middle finger.

“I mean, it was bad enough with all the tax penalties we had to pay. If it weren’t for Eli, we’d still have the beach house!”

“Uh huh.” If David had heard all of this before once, he’d heard it a hundred times. “Where’s Mom?”

“She’s on location with Sharknado 5. And you know, the prison that jackass was in was pretty swanky.”

“Then maybe Eli will actually be more miserable now that he’s been released. When does Mom get back?”

“Two more weeks. She’s got her phone in Bulgaria; you can call her.”

David didn’t want to call her. He wanted his father to call her so that she could talk him off of this angry ledge before he had another scare with his heart.

“Just… don’t worry about Eli, okay?” David set the nail file down and pinched the bridge of his nose. “He’s not a part of your life anymore.”

“Damn straight he’s not.”

“Weren’t you telling me something about a new business venture at Christmas? Some kind of app?” David didn’t want to talk about this, or about anything really, but he figured he could at least try to pull his father out of this emotional tailspin about the former business manager who almost made off with the Rose family fortune.

“Yes, well, the spouting video market is quite crowded now, of course, but we’re making some in-roads. Slow and steady wins the race, that’s what I always say.”

“It’s streaming video. And that’s what you used to say about your rivalry with Blockbuster,” David snarked, his moment of charitability toward his father difficult to keep front of mind when he was being so irritating.

“And Blockbuster went out of business.”

“So did you!”

“It was a strategic restructuring, David. A shift into other markets. Like streaming video. Sure, the money isn’t flowing as freely as it did in the Rose Video heyday, but we’re doing fine.”

“Okay.” He went back to filing his nails.

“Are you still seeing… what was her name?” Johnny asked.

Trying to remember who his dad was even talking about, David squinted. “Who?”

“You know, the girl who used to eat garbage as performance art?”

David huffed. “Eliose didn’t eat garbage, she covered herself in… you know what, it doesn’t matter. We haven’t seen each other in months.”

“Oh. Is there anyone special in your life right now?”

An image of Brenton flashed in his mind. He was probably back in David’s apartment as they spoke, making the place reek of bong water and eating all of David’s food. He sighed. “No, no one special.”

“Well, don’t give up, son,” Johnny said. “How’s the gallery?”

“I just sold a painting.”

“That’s great!” his father boomed. “Good for you!”

“Okay, selling paintings is my job, you don’t have to praise me quite so effusively for doing my job.”

“No, of course I don’t need to. But I’m proud of you, son. Especially now that…” There was a moment of dead air.

“You still there?” David asked.

“Oh! Yes, I’m still here.”

“I thought the call had dropped. Now that what?”

An uncomfortable chuckle came out of the phone speaker. “You know, I forgot what I was saying.”

“Uhhh… okay.” David rolled his eyes again. “Anyway, the art business isn’t booming like it used to be, but today was good.”

“You know what? I just remembered I need to make another call,” his father said. “Sorry, David.”

“Whatever. You called me.”

“Talk to you soon, son.”

“Mm-hmm. Bye.” David tapped the screen and ended the call. He noticed the time and sighed, glancing out of his office door at the empty gallery. He might as well lock up and go back to his apartment. He moved quietly around the space, flipping off all of the lights and turning off the music that he played from a spare iPad that he’d gotten in a gift bag when he was Hayden Panettiere’s date to the 2012 Teen Choice Awards. Once he had his coat and messenger bag and had the security gate pulled down and locked, David pocketed his keys and stepped out onto the busy SoHo sidewalk. It had been misting rain for hours, the January day not cold enough to produce snow, but the temperature was now dropping below freezing and making the sidewalks treacherous.

The stationary store next door to his gallery was still open and doing a brisk business, and he was tempted to go in and look at the journals, but he resisted the impulse. Even though he used them sporadically, he’d already bought more empty journals than he could fill in a lifetime. The bar at the end of the block was also starting to fill up, and while he’d been known to get a drink there after closing the gallery, he wasn’t in the mood to be around people at the moment. Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he summoned an Uber to ferry him the two miles to his apartment in Chelsea.

Braulio is 4 minutes away, his phone told him. While he waited, he texted Alexis again. Can you respond pls???

“Want me to talk or not talk?” his Uber driver asked as soon as David was settled into the back seat of the black Nissan.

“Don’t talk, please,” he responded. “Sorry.”

“Hey, no worries, man. That’s why I ask.” Braulio turned up his music a couple of clicks, the kind of unobjectionable, nondescript soundscape that was like something you’d hear in a modern hotel lobby. The driver had probably read on a website that it was the key to increasing tips or 5-star ratings.

David’s block on West 21st Street was packed with four and five-story apartment buildings, the short trees at regular intervals along the sidewalk offering a tiny break from the monotony of sandstone and concrete — although not this time of year, when they stuck up like twigs haphazardly shoved into the dirt by a giant, bored child. Shivering in his too-thin but fashionable jacket, he clicked on a rating for his Uber driver and shoved his phone in his pocket before making his way over to the short flight of stairs that led up to his building.

“Spare change,” a familiar voice called from a heap of blankets at the base of the building.

David opened his messenger bag and fished for the coins at the bottom. “It’s getting cold; you need to go to a shelter.”

“Not that cold,” the woman countered, holding her dingy Starbucks cup aloft. He dropped the coins in.

“The temperature’s dropping though.”

“Cold enough to ice skate.”

He took the non-sequitur in stride. “Well, not quite, but almost.”

“Your skates have to stay on the right line, ya know. You slip off and then suddenly—” She hit the cup, making the coins rattle. “Different universe.”

“Uh-huh. Will you go to a shelter, please? Don’t stay out here all night.” He re-clipped his bag and turned to walk away.

“You’re not supposed to be here, Mister Rose.”

“Well, I live here.”

“Not supposed to. Supposed to live in a motel with your family.”

David stopped and turned around. “What? Ew.”

“Rosebud,” she murmured.

“Oh, are we in Citizen Kane now?”

She hunkered down in her blankets, putting an end to what could only loosely be termed a conversation. Sighing, David left the homeless woman behind and entered the building’s vestibule. He then unlocked the inner door, shoving his way in with a grunt when the door inevitably stuck a little bit.

He mounted the one flight of stairs to his apartment. At the height of his family’s wealth, when David had been in his late twenties, he’d lived in a very posh apartment on the upper east side, but after the incident with his father’s business manager, he’d downgraded and moved to Chelsea. It was still a very nice, modern apartment, but it wasn’t what he’d once had.

The scent of sandlewood incense greeted him as he unlocked his door, and he wrinkled his nose and recoiled a little. Dropping his bag, he made his way to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, hoping to find his leftovers from last night’s take-out. Of course they were gone. He slammed the refrigerator and swung around, ready to have it out with Brenton once and for all.

The man in question chose that moment to stride into the kitchen, shirtless, a pair of athletic shorts slung low on his waist. “Hey,” Brenton said. “Glad you’re here, we need to talk.”

“Yeah, we sure do.” David tried not to let his eyes drift down to the v-shaped crease of Brenton’s hips and failed.

“I’m gonna go stay with my boyfriend in LA for a while, so…” He shrugged. “Thanks for everything.”

“I’m sorry, your what? You never mentioned a boyfriend before,” David said, grimacing. He’d met Brenton last month at a cocktail party he’d thrown at the gallery. Young and blond and in his mid-twenties, Brenton was the son of a well-known hedge fund manager, and he seemed to be a guy whose sole occupation was drifting from one party to another, looking for a good time. He and David had hooked up several times in recent weeks, but their conversations had been limited to fashion and art world trends and what kind of sex they were into.

“Because we weren’t like that, you and me,” Brenton said with a disarming smile. “This was never about, you know, unpacking our pasts. And we never said we were exclusive.”

“I know that,” David snapped. “I didn’t say I expected exclusivity. Still, you might have mentioned—”

“He and I were figuring some things out, you know? But he’s gone out there for pilot season and the auditions are stressful, so I think I really just need to be there for him.”

“Oh, he’s an actor,” David said. “How fun for you.”

There wasn’t really much more to say, so after a few more empty platitudes from Brenton, he disappeared into David’s bedroom to get dressed and to gather whatever belongings he’d brought over in the course of their month-long affair. David sat at the kitchen island and flipped through an issue of Vogue without seeing the pages. He probed a little bit at his feelings, pressing against them like you’d touch a bruise, trying to determine how painful it was. He didn’t really care that much about Brenton — he was shallow and mostly unkind. David didn’t think he’d miss him. What did hurt was once again being shoved aside as soon as something better came along, after a lifetime of being shoved aside as soon as something better came along.

Once Brenton was gone, David tried cracking open a window to air out the apartment, but quickly closed it when it let in a biting cold wind. He was starting to get a headache, and he reached up to massage the back of his neck, trying to stave it off. Pulling out his phone, he checked Alexis’ instagram again, and then opened his messaging app.

[David]
911. Call me.

Surprisingly, his phone rang only a few seconds later.

“David, what? What’s the emergency?” Alexis sounded manic and not a little annoyed.

“I’ve been texting you all evening!” he almost shouted. “I’m sorry for worrying that you were dead.”

“I’m fine, why would I be dead?”

“Your social’s been dark for days.”

“Ugh. I’ve just been busy, David, I don’t have to post something every day as proof of life, do I?”

“You have to at least respond to my texts, Alexis.”

“Look, the club we were in might’ve gotten raided by police earlier, a little bit, but it’s fine because we found a back way out and we ran. It’s no big deal.”

“It kind of sounds like a big deal,” David said, rubbing his neck again. The headache was getting worse; the muscles running down from his skull were like iron rods. “Why were the police raiding the club?”

“How should I know what the Monaco police were doing?” she asked.

“Monaco? I thought you were in Italy.”

Alexis laughed. “Monaco is in Italy, David.”

“Monaco is a separate country, Alexis.”

“No, it’s… is it? Well anyway, Tiff and Lily and I are back at the hotel. I might come home, though. Stavros called and he wants to see me.”

David moaned unhappily. “Alexis, no, don’t go see Stavros. You’ll end up getting back together with him and that would be a terrible life choice.”

“Speaking of terrible life choices, is that Brett guy still crashing at your place?”

“It’s Brenton, and we were seeing each other, he wasn’t just ‘crashing’ here.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“And it’s over anyway.”

“Oh.” Her voice softened for the first time. “I’m sorry, David.”

He waved his hand, not that she could see him. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t like him that much. He was just really hot.” He looked around the quiet, empty apartment. “You could stay here for a while, if you want.” Alexis was a chaos engine, but he also kind of missed her. Her whirlwind life would keep him from thinking about his own sad existence as much.

“Ew, what? Why? I’ve got way more space at Mom and Dad’s, and when I want to stay in the city, Klair lets me stay at the apartment with her stepmom. Who’s actually really cool, although she takes way too many pills.”

“Fine, whatever. Far be it from me to come between you and Klair’s stepmom.” He fluttered his hand again.

“Okay, don’t be like that. See, David, I know how you are. You’re lonely right now and you think you miss me, but you’d be sick of me the second I set foot through your doorway. You’d complain that I was too messy and that my friends were too loud and that I hadn’t used a coaster for my water glass.”

“Well, if you’d use a coaster—”

“David, it’s 3 a.m. here and you’re lecturing me about a hypothetical coaster. I’m gonna get some sleep now, okay?”

“Fine.”

“Go to Mom and Dad’s if you’re lonely,” Alexis said.

“I’m not lonely.”

“Goodnight, David.”

“Goodnight, Alexis.”