My Ex Cheated, But I Outlived Him
"Phillip is Dead" from Self-Portrait with Ghost by Meng Jin, recommended by Rachel Khong
Introduction by Rachel Khong
The fact that Phillip is dead is the least interesting thing about “Phillip is Dead.” This is only one of many reasons I love this story by Meng Jin. Here’s a narrative inverted: We learn Phillip is dead before we learn who Phillip once was. More importantly, we learn who our narrator was and is. Who she was when she knew Phillip—when they were both exchange students studying on an unnamed island—and who she is now, after many intervening years. The story is about many things: about being in a Chinese American body; about who is expected to be the artist and who isn’t; about how we make and unmake one another. And it’s a story about death, life, and art that in the wrong hands could be heavy, but in Meng Jin’s is airborne.
Paul Valéry said, “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.” Not slight like a feather, weightless and without substance and drifting down with gravity, but achieving flight, like a bird, thanks to an elegant, complicated skeleton. I Googled this, and it turns out the bones of birds are pneumatized, meaning they’re not hollow, as commonly thought, but have spaces for air. Basically, birds’ lungs extend throughout their skeleton. If you shrunk yourself to the size of a pin and wandered Jin’s bird bones of stories, it would be like wandering catacombs.
The other day it struck me—a strange surprise for someone who has been a writer for most of my life—that writing was just letters, in standardized fonts, arranged on a page. Words—on this screen you’re reading, for example—can often feel divorced from the physical body. In longhand writing—a vanishing art!—one can feel the movements of the physical body. Typing, sure, is movement of the fingers (and manifests, physically, in the writer’s aching back), but there’s less intimacy. An arrangement of these familiar letters can exist unmoving, inert, or somehow—through some alchemy—come completely, vividly alive. In Jin’s writing, it’s the latter: physicality animates the words. Her narrator describes: “my skin a tight membrane stretched thinly over gallons of fluid feeling.” At one point she is “hollow and agitated” in this too-sunny place with a headache. Always, correctly chosen words make the sentence leap to life: “In a foreign land, buried in first love, I heard constantly the whisper of ‘you must preserve this,’ which was really the cry of ‘you are afraid’” (here “buried,” “whisper,” “cry”).
I think of movies, where someone cautiously ties a vine around themselves while they venture out to a place they’re not sure is safe. It’s an impulse I have with Jin’s stories—an unease about where I might be taken. But, actually, the best course of action is to cut the vine with a jackknife and fall forward, surrendering to her work’s surprising physics, emerging from “Phillip is Dead,” for example, astonished and richly alive.
– Rachel Khong
Author of Goodbye, Vitamin
My Ex Cheated, But I Outlived Him
“Phillip is Dead” by Meng Jin
Poor man. I got the news as I was coming aboveground. “Phillip is dead,” the subject line said. In the body of the email were details of the memorial.
I was shocked. Not so much because Phillip was dead but because I had not thought of him in years. “Phillip is dancing,” the email might have said, or “Phillip is wearing a yellow hat.” It would have been news as much to me.
Well, these words were different. Phillip had been as good as dead to me, for no pernicious reason. Just—irrelevance. Now he’d been resurrected and killed, in one swift blow.
I went home and poured a shot of scotch. I waited for my lover to come. I was in love, oh yes. Not the rapturous kind that turns and thins your sleep, but a satisfying, contented love. I woke in the mornings well-rested and warm, like a loaf of risen bread. I was still learning how to manage myself in this state. For much of my adult life, I had been sustained by a vision of doomed loneliness, a tragic fate I could run away from and toward, simultaneously. Movement was something, drive was something. But the engine I’d relied on—my lover was rendering it false.
He walked in the door. I kissed him on the mouth. It was sour from the long day, and so was mine.
“You’ve ruined me,” I said.
He laughed; I said it all the time. “What did I do now?”
“You’ve made me so happy, I don’t feel the need to prove anything.”
“Is it such a bad thing?” he said. He tipped the drink down my throat. I swallowed. “Not bad, no, I don’t think.”
Which is to say I was glad it was Phillip who was dead and not me. Oh, I felt a little sorry for him, sure. But mostly I felt like gloating. “How lucky I am, I’m still alive!” If Phillip were still alive, I thought, he wouldn’t begrudge me this feeling. He had believed in pursuing victory with ruthless glee. He had fancied himself a Nietzschean. All this came rushing back to me, all the dumb things he’d said and believed. Once, I’d almost forgotten, he had taken credit for me:
“I made you,” he’d said. Winking, but I could see he wanted to be serious. He cocked his head as if to ask, “Don’t you think?”
I’d humored him. “Sure,” I said. “Of course.”
My main quarrel with Phillip had been regarding the nature of humanity. To put it simply, I’d believed in goodness, and he in the opposite. Not exactly in evil—even Phillip was not so simple—but that morality, and its various manifestations, was a scam. It had been revealed to Phillip during an acid trip that the true nature of things lay in their dying. In the trees and in the dirt, in the flesh on his own hands, Phillip saw cells losing form and decaying, maggots and worms nibbling at the edges of things and bursting from their cores. He could not unsee this vision. Even when he was stone-cold sober, it would ambush him. Once, when we’d fucked, he’d looked into my face as he was coming and saw my eyes pop out, dangling from their sockets, and the edges of my mouth rotting. Phillip always kept his eyes wide open while fucking.
Phillip’s visions played in my head like a warning reel. For years, I feared altering my sight. I accepted the tab on my tongue only much later, when I was altered already, suffering from boredom and invincibility. I braced for death. But I saw forms shimmering beyond their boundaries, every rock and plant and breath of wind vibrating with life. Colors and shapes extended their hands to make themselves known to me. Hello, I am blue. Hello, I am a line.
“Ew,” Phillip would have said. “Your feelings,” he had said often, with disdain, of my need for beauty. He had called it my great weakness. “Your moral failing,” he’d said, “as a person and as an artist.”
We were trying to be artists. We were very young and foolish. All of us were, but Phillip and I were the worst. We lived in the same two-story house in the southwest quadrant of the city, with the rest of the young Americans. Phillip was rich, and I was too, though once I had been poor. Young, American, idealistic, we had come to the island to take classes at the national university, which in every department culminated in theoretical forms of utopianism, theories the nation believed it was realizing in practice. Really we were enacting a shared adventure of poverty, living as the locals lived, but with our reserves of cash and our promised escape. At the end of term, our special visas would expire, and a plane would shuttle us back to America. The certainty of our departure transformed what should have been tedious into experiences of meaning: the thick heat, the crumbling infrastructure, the food and power shortages.
I had opted out of the special classes in English created for the Americans. Instead I populated my schedule with punishing courses in which I was the only foreigner. Because I’d been poor, and because I had not always been American, I’d believed I was there for different reasons than the rest.
To my disappointment I was not the only American in Theory and Practice of Art. I walked into the classroom and saw Phillip slumped in the back row. I had avoided him in the house and I avoided him here, easily: boys like Phillip never noticed me. I took pride in disappearing. My skin had darkened under the island sun, and a childhood of foreignness had taught me how to become invisible, picking up ways of movement and speech unfamiliar to me. I wore the local mannerisms so successfully that one day, on a teaching rampage, the professor called on me.
“What does Nietzsche say is the difference between music and other forms of art!” he bellowed.
“That music is the direct expression of primordial truth, a rip in the fabric of appearances,” I answered. I spoke slowly and deliberately. “Other art forms are merely representations of things as they are.”
The professor folded his arms and squinted at me.
“You’re a foreign student,” he said.
I nodded. Heads in the room craned to take a better look at me.
“Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“You look Chinese! Korean? Japanese!”
“I was born in China.”
He nodded with satisfaction: “Your accent is Chinese!”
“No, it is gringo.”
“Sounds Chinese to me!” he said. He turned to another student. “Arnaldo! Is China correct, is primordial truth what separates Nietzsche’s music from other forms of art? Explain how that applies to Tintoretto’s Ascension of Christ!”
That day after class Phillip ran after me.
“Hey, hey!” he shouted. Phillip was unabashedly American, yellow-haired and pinking in the sun, with a loping gait that was confident and neurotic at once. “You! Wait!”
Finally he caught up to me. “So you get that class?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he fell into step beside me, speaking in loud English of his failures of comprehension at the university and generally, “in this fucking place.” He was reading the texts in English and that was hard enough. He had signed up for the class thinking it was an art class, thinking we’d actually get to practice art, that was what the course name said, right? Because, he said with aplomb, quite literally puffing out his chest, “I’m an artist!”
I must have given something away then. He stopped talking and looked at me. “What, are you an artist too?” He paused, with apprehension or with hope. “It’s okay if you aren’t.”
“Tell me about your art,” I said instead.
“Tell me about your art,” he shot back. I sniffed and kept walking. Phillip said, “You think I didn’t notice you, and you’re all tense with it, aren’t you? I’m not stupid, I’ve seen you at dinner. I thought you were probably boring, I thought you were a little nerd. I was wrong, okay? I was wrong!”
Phillip waited for me to speak.
“Sometimes I take photographs,” I offered.
“Hmm!” He looked me up and down. “Where’s your camera?”
I shrugged with haughty secrecy.
“I mostly paint,” Phillip said. “I’m a painter! I’ll show you my paintings when we get back to the house!”
His paintings were of rot. Interested in expression, but not in beauty or technique, though they were recognizable as of a piece, the palette in blues and browns with splashes of dull green and a violent, pukey yellow. The most accomplished depicted a tree growing up and down, like a rotated Rorschach, with the branches decaying and the roots flowering, the ugliest flowers one had ever seen. “Are these meant to be ugly?” I said. “Or are you just bad?”
He shrugged. “This is how I paint.” With total candor he spoke of his hallucinations: he was trying to re-create the landscape of his other consciousness. Was the concept facile or elegant, obvious or direct? Was I impressed or embarrassed for him? I didn’t know, perhaps because in spite of myself I found him handsome and sure, made in the colors and dimensions I was trained to recognize as handsome and sure: white, tall, and boyishly grinning, looking right through me.
“Derivative,” I said of his paintings. “Worst of all, they repulse the eye. I look at these and see, ‘I am a tortured artist,’ and that’s it. Life has beauty too, you know, and joy.”
“Joy?” Phillip made a face of exaggerated disgust. “There is only power.
“Now show me your photographs,” he demanded.
From then on we spent much of our time together. We disagreed about everything and Phillip liked this, liked arguing. Always I won. Because I was rigorous, relentless; I wouldn’t drop it until I won. I told myself that his arguments disgusted me, that they, like Phillip, were depraved and inhumane. I construed him as an intellectual charity case, a misguided white boy I might fix or, if he was truly as hopeless as he seemed, decommission—at least declaw. But the more I went at him, the stronger he got. He liked getting flayed. He got off on the precision of my insults. When he lost, he gave exhilarated concessions, eyes wild with contempt and satisfaction, as if he had finally gained entrance into a truth of himself he knew deep down but hadn’t until then had the evidence to prove.
It was okay that Phillip was dead, I thought at the memorial. Not many would miss him. I looked into the faces of the mourners and saw that I was right. To be sure, there was plenty of shock, among the young people especially, who stood slack-jawed and gaping in the unexpected face of mortality. But peel back the veil of appropriate grief and what remained was mostly novelty. “Can you believe it?” “I can’t believe it!” “Phillip is dead!” “My god, he’s fucking dead!” Phillip could have gone to the moon.
The memorial was held in a cathedral, cavernous and rippled with mottled light, the kind of place you never would have guessed could exist in New York City. The location surprised me for other reasons too. Phillip had been a rabid atheist, and everything about him indicated that this position had been inherited. He’d described his mother as a bohemian occupying a shawl-draped house in Greenwich Village, the kind of mother he spoke to openly about girlfriends and drugs and sex. In the foremost pew, I saw the woman who must have been her, with papery white hands pressed in prayer and shoulders sunk in a posture of resignation. “Well, it’s happened,” her shoulders seemed to say.
Phillip had spoken of his mother often and with adulation. Of his father he’d said only that the man was a loser and he was dead. I’d pressed him for more. I’d liked that Phillip’s father was dead; it made him more interesting. With this mote of information, I fashioned Phillip into someone I could pity and possibly save. I wound myself into a ball of his repressed suffering. I had been a very sensitive person then, my skin a tight membrane stretched thinly over gallons of fluid feeling. With just a light prod I could shape this feeling into expression. Most of the time I was too much of a coward to shape it around myself. Phillip, to my surprise, welcomed my displaced empathy. “Oh really?” he said, tantalized. He listened with interest as I described my vision of him. A boy terrified of becoming his father, whose greatest fear was dying young and nobody like the man who’d made him, whose depth of fear and grief were buried so deep they manifested as dismissal.
To my creation he’d added his mother:
“He wants to replace his dad—he wants to become the man worthy of dear Mommy’s love! He fantasizes that he is what killed his dad.”
“So overtly Freudian?” I had criticized. “Is his mother beautiful? Does he wish to sleep with her too?”
He considered my question seriously.
“Yeah, my mom’s hot. Sure, I’d sleep with her, why not.”
Phillip, it’d seemed, was totally unafraid. He’d do anything for extremities of experience that might be used for his art. “My art,” he called it always, whereas I spoke of Art with a capital A, something I fancied belonged only to history, or to God, dead or not. Phillip would die young, I thought often; he would get himself killed. Often I worried he’d get me killed too.
The praying woman in the front pew turned back and stared accusingly. I clapped my hand over a gasp. She had Phillip’s face almost exactly. It was drawn and hollow, fleshless, with eyes as round as coins. Were they looking at me?
I never wanted to take a photograph of Phillip. For weeks after we met I took no photographs at all. Intentionally, I’d left my camera packed in the suitcase pushed underneath my bed. Since I’d decided to “become a photographer” a year or so before, I’d carried a camera on my person wherever I went, and the motion of reaching for it had grown so reflexive that I felt naked when it wasn’t there. This was the problem: I’d begun to use it as a shield. Whenever I found myself looking at something I didn’t understand, I whipped out my camera and placed the lens between it and me.
The year before I met Phillip, I had taken a class with a famous professor. Standing before a photograph of my mother, flanked by students awaiting her judgment, she had spoken gently of my precision and technique, and of my natural formal eye. “Like the camera is an extension of her,” quipped the professor’s favorite, a broody Mark rumored to be the child of a respected sculptor. “No,” he amended, “like she’s a photographing machine.” These words burrowed into me. In the photograph, which was black-and-white, my mother stood drying a bowl at the kitchen sink. The shape of my mother occupied the exact center of the kitchen window, a bright white rectangle lit by the setting sun, but this focal image was set off-center, perfect and askew. I looked away from the photograph, at window, wall, shadow, ceiling, and realized I was no longer capable of looking at something without seeing its potential for capture—imposing around it a frame. Where was my eye? I had come to the photograph with the simple but sincere desire to preserve my sight of beautiful fleeting things. Endlessly beautiful things, things I wanted to see forever, but which I’d have to give up: my mother would put down the dish, breaking her symmetry, would turn with irritation to me.
I kept camera packed away. I challenged myself to really see what I was looking at before trying to fix it in image. Oh, I was uncomfortable all the time. In a foreign land, buried in first love, I heard constantly the whisper of “you must preserve this,” which was really the cry of “you are afraid.”
Finally Phillip was the one who unpacked the camera. “Well, well,” he said, “what do we have here?” With wicked delight he climbed on top of the dresser, holding it beyond my reach. It was a small digital machine that I liked for its sweet spot of size and power; I could carry it and remain unseen. Phillip scrolled through the images stored on the memory card, and I watched his eyes nervously, searching for the realization that I was a better artist than he, better now and more promising.
“You’ve taken no photographs since we got here! Zero! Nil! Zip!”
Reluctantly I began to explain my reasoning. As I spoke my reluctance melted into eagerness. I drank his reactions thirstily—was he quizzical, intrigued, impressed?
“Well?” I said. “What do you think?”
He said nothing. He turned the dial to capture and hopped off the dresser. Head tilted, face screwed up in concentration, he aimed my camera at me. I protested, hiding. I was naked, as was he. He was aiming the camera at my untamed pubes, my pimply breasts. He pushed me onto the bed, pinning me down with his knees, stuck his fingers into me, and shot. Oh, he got hard. He pried me apart. He pressed the lens against my opening and shot into me—I protesting, shouting about ruining the equipment, and the dismal lighting—and then he put himself into me, and as he fucked me he shot and said, “Art, my little prude! This is fucking art!”
After I swore not to delete anything, he returned the camera to me. I clicked through the shots. Phillip’s breath was hot on my shoulder; idly his hand tickled my clit. The hard flash, the chaotic framing, the grotesque focus: it was pornography. Did Phillip see this? The latter shots were not just ugly but indecipherable, blurs of flesh obscured by the gloss of my slime. “I feel ill,” I said, truthfully, and he said, “It’s how I see you.”
He propped himself up on his elbows and grinned at me.
“I don’t know if it’s true but I really want to say it,” he said. “I love you. I love you!”
For a moment, I let myself be stunned.
“Okay,” I finally said.
I made an ugly laugh: “I certainly don’t love you.”
But I was lying, it turned out, lying to squash the sick excitement kicking into realization inside me. Like any good American girl, I had dreamed of this moment—the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, the exchange of fluids and words—as the beginning of my real life.
Phillip went on a trip to the eastern side of the island with the other Americans, as part of his Americans-in-a-foreign-land class. I’d laughed at him until the moment he stepped out the door. “Have fun on your field trip,” I said. “Don’t forget your permission slip!” I’d been looking forward to getting some space, to the emptiness of the house, and to walking the streets of the city alone. That is, without Phillip. Phillip prodding me constantly to interpret and to dispute, to make him see things the way I thought they ought to be seen. As Phillip piled into a van with the gaggle of fair Americans, I imagined the sun, the ocean, the high limestone walls of the university, smiling broadly and beckoning to me.
But when the door closed and the van drove away, I was hollow. Hollow and agitated, I looked out the window at the oppressive sun and had a headache. For days I was like this, my misery made worse only by refusing to allow that Phillip was the cause of it. I filled my days with exciting things that excited me because I could imagine telling Phillip: I imagined his eyes gleaming with envy. Misery made me brave. That week, I marched up to the art professor after class and asked if there was such a thing here as “office hours.” He laughed and said, “What is an office?” but sure, the hours here were plenty. We met at the professors’ lounge and had coffee on the balcony. Coffees were very small and sweet in this country, and we sipped ours slowly.
The professor talked theatrically, with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures, waving his hands even more than he did in class. Though I did not understand much of what he said, I believed him a brilliant man. I tried to converse with him; I felt it would be a wasted opportunity if I said nothing. “What do you think drives art?” I said. “Is it emotion and expression, or a desire to capture reality?”
“Desire?” He seized on the word and spoke rapidly and incomprehensibly, for ten or fifteen minutes straight. Finally I picked out a few words I understood: “the hours” were leaving us today but we would meet again tomorrow to discuss “desire and reality.”
The next day I arrived to find a man sitting beside him on the balcony, a student, perhaps, from another class. Thinking I had misunderstood, I turned to leave, but the professor shouted, “Hey, China!” and waved me over.
“This is Picasso,” he said when I sat down.
I nearly spat out my coffee.
“I’m an artist,” the boy named Picasso said, smiling slantly, “a painter.”
For the remaining days that Phillip was gone, I saw this Picasso. He took me to galleries around the city, galleries hidden in narrow alleys and dark living rooms, in abandoned mansions and underground bars. He introduced me to artists and musicians and writers, invited me to open-air concerts where we danced with his friends in the warm night breeze. I was moved by the art, by the music, by the company. Everything, I exclaimed over melting strawberry and chocolate ice creams, was top-notch. Picasso explained that despite the general poverty, there was superb funding of the arts—an artist received the same monthly subsidy as a doctor or a professor or a bus driver, and besides, everyone in this country was bored to death so had plenty of time to read and ruminate and appreciate life’s higher pleasures. It’s true, his friend Michele chimed in. Michele was the son of a diplomat, a rare person who had traveled and even lived outside of the country. “I was shocked by the poverty in Buenos Aires, shocked!” Michele said. “People sleeping on the streets!” He punched the air with his finger. “Our houses might be small and crumbling, but at least they’re all small and crumbling.”
Picasso was a gentleman. Unlike other men in this country, he respected my physical boundaries, and seemed to understand that despite my easy assimilation, my American body still possessed a solid notion of privacy. When we greeted and parted he kissed me chastely on the cheek, with a light hand on my arm. He walked me home every night, though I had never felt unsafe walking alone. He did not come to the door but waited at the gate until I was inside. He was very handsome, with the finely balanced yet seductive features of mixed-race beauty, so handsome that I was often flattened with amazement when I looked at him. Every night we walked home together, I fantasized that Phillip had returned early and was waiting anxiously for me on the porch; I fantasized his burning look of jealousy when he saw Picasso and me.
Phillip’s class returned in the morning. The house, humid and still, chattered and clunked suddenly with English and the careless energy of the Americans. I’d had visions of being occupied when this moment came, off on some wonderful adventure—at the very least I was determined to be aloof. But excitement bubbled up in me, helpless and pure. I threw open my door and went out shouting Phillip’s name guilelessly. Happy like a girl, I saw him, walking through the front gate, and was stopped in my tracks, my body responding instantly while my mind slowly perceived. He wore a ragged tank top and a crooked, guilty smile. Scattered over his neck and chest were red-brown marks—“Are you hurt?” my mouth asked dully even as recognition arrived—on his thin white skin, the crescents of mouths, of teeth, the unmistakable marks of love.
Later, he would describe the encounter painstakingly, and I would listen painstakingly too, with a rigid, rigorous dispassion, as if swallowing a bitter medicine I was convinced would cleanse me of something worse. He watched me with detached curiosity, observing, documenting. Was it possible he was following my lead? He told of how he had ventured out alone with his poor language skills, missing me at first, wishing I were there to guide him, and wandered around aimlessly until he found himself drinking with “some local guys.” High-spirited, friendly, the local guys warmed him up, sharing their rum, and when they ran out Phillip purchased two bottles more and sat with them on the seawall, passing the drink around, pouring straight from the necks of the bottles into their throats. All this time the guys were asking him questions, throwing out simple words like “girls” and “love,” and when the bottles were nearly empty Phillip found that he could suddenly understand them, with magical clarity: “You want some love?” they were asking. “You want some good love?”
“Come on, I couldn’t pass it up,” Phillip said. “I wasn’t going to come all this way just to hunker down with a Chinese girlfriend! Besides, you’re barely Chinese!”
The local guys took him to two local girls, one big and one thin. He chose the big girl because he considered her more authentic. With clinical precision, he described what the girl did to him, how she’d bitten his neck, his arm, his chest, his ass, and took him into her, the things he tried to say and the things she said that he did not understand. In the end, he said, it was more or less the same. So much for “good love”; when it came to sex, women everywhere were the same. This he proclaimed as the revelatory result of years of dedicated research.
Oh, I suffered. Never had my mind been so certain of one thing—that I should run from this vileness, run now before its rot infected me—while another part of me ached unremittingly for its opposite. Was it my heart? I hope not. I threw myself into the streets, thoughts and emotions roiling, roiling so turbulently not a single one could form fully before another rose to smother it with equal force and urgency. On the streets I received the expected male attention, which, baffling as it had been when I first arrived—baffling because, having never received male attention before, I knew myself to be ugly, sexless at best—now soothed me. “Marry me, Chinagirl!” men shouted from the opposite end of the street, or “The most beautiful China in the world!” Though I knew these praises were sung to everybody, that even timid men whispered compliments to a passing woman as if out of obligation, the words emboldened me. “Perhaps I am beautiful,” I thought, “I am wanted, I am desired, Phillip is damn lucky!”
I went to Picasso. I continued as I had when Phillip was gone, drinking and partying with my own locals, praising myself for how differently I acted from Phillip; I was not just seeking novelty but making friends, friends who liked my company even when I was not buying their liquor, who liked to talk passionately with me about Art and Politics and Society. I imagined we would keep in touch. I imagined Picasso was falling in love with me. Did I want him? I don’t know. Even now I don’t know. In my fantasies, the clock stopped when he leaned in to kiss me; I replayed the moment again and again with different gestures and words, deliberating how I might respond—if I would push him away or take him eagerly, if I would blink back tears or laugh in celebration—luxuriating in that delicious moment in which I possessed the power to hurt Phillip, and would choose whether to use it or not.
To my great impatience Picasso did not try to kiss me. He did pay me special attention, acting at turns like a guide and a guard, and wouldn’t let any other men near me. I thought I saw an inner struggle inside him, a deliberation about whether and how to make a move. What was stopping him? The knowledge that I would be leaving in a matter of months? The desire to differentiate himself from the aggressive masculinity of his peers? A heightened class consciousness? Impatient, emboldened by drink, I made the first move. “I want to see your paintings,” I said.
Picasso paused—“Oh?” He made a show of false modesty before relenting. “Tomorrow,” he said affectionately.
Tomorrow I left the house. I told no one where I was going. Through the heat I moved languorously but resolutely, to indicate to whoever might be watching that I was headed in the direction of significance and unbothered about it. I met Picasso on the university steps, and we walked east, toward the old town, Picasso answering my inquiries about his work courteously, with extra caution it seemed: shy. We stopped before a tall building with peeling jay-blue paint. Double doors opened into a dark lobby that smelled of urine and antiseptic. “The elevator, alas,” Picasso said, “it’s always broken.” I laughed in sympathy and followed him up the stairs to the eleventh floor. The stairwell echoed faintly with laughter and music, and smelled of onions frying. Students squeezed past us with casual pardons, some turning to take a second look at me. This was a dormitory, I learned, for students from the provinces, a piece of shit but at least it was free. He hadn’t invited me earlier, Picasso admitted, for shame of its shabbiness.
“What? This isn’t so shabby,” I said. Picasso raised an eyebrow at me.
I thought I saw in him then something I recognized. How foolish that I hadn’t seen it before, that I hadn’t even thought to ask. Of course: for all of Michele’s talk of economic equality, his vision was also a dream. I thought of Picasso’s deference to Michele, the son of the diplomat, light-skinned easygoing Michele who in a different climate could have passed for European, like so many of the students at the university. I thought of how Picasso almost always wore the same neatly pressed red polo, and his general hesitation and politeness, his considered caution, his careful observation. Suddenly the person before me was illuminated with a clarity of vision that touched me. “I’m fine! How wonderful! They’re beautiful!” I said too effusively when I finally stepped inside his room, drenched in sweat and breathless while he looked as he always did, like he had just bathed and coifed his hair. He shared the room with five others, who were all out but for a studious engineer who sat on his bed reading and was not surprised or interested to see me. Picasso’s painting studio was a corner between his bunk and the window, one mini salon wall of small canvases, a stool and an easel made from a clipboard and a broken chair. He had asked me to come at this hour because the light was best at this time of day.
He painted—like his namesake. Cubist portraits—mostly of women, white women, by the look of the hair—but with bright, nearly scorching colors. Colors that matched the heat, I said, that evoked it, almost as a sense memory. Collections of lopped-off body parts—a boob here, an eye there—the portraits were none theless composed; there was an appreciation in the artist’s eye for the beauty of the female form. I told him this.
“You’re too generous.”
Then, cautiously: “Do you want me to paint you?
“I could paint you, if you wanted,” he repeated. “A Picasso, just for you.”
“Oh!” Surprised, I was quickly seduced: my very own Picasso! How romantic these words sounded in his mouth, romantic and arch. It occurred to me that I might repay him, in a way, for his friendship, that I might share some of my relative wealth with my friend, and without revealing my hand—even that I might dignify him by paying him for his art. “Yes, how special! I’ll commission a portrait from you.”
Picasso smiled. He gestured for me to step onto a small balcony. There the light was “sublime” and we could have some privacy. He positioned me beside a halved soda can stuffed with cigarette butts, leaning against the railing. He moved with the practiced confidence of one who knew exactly what he was doing. I, on the other hand, had never sat for a portrait before and must have looked very stiff. I tried to stay still. “Don’t worry about it,” Picasso said. “Be natural, change your face, move your body, whatever you like. Painting is dynamic, not like photography, freezing a moment in time”—he winked at me—“but a medium to capture the subject moving through time, caught in its locomotion.”
We talked, he painted, slowly the sun set, and the light was exquisite, as he’d promised, the pale pulsing blue of the hot sky, the yellow haze evaporating from the horizon, the blazing white where they met: charged. When he finished he set the painting aside and scooted next to me.
“Let me see it,” I said.
“Let it dry.”
“I’ve never been looked at so intensely.”
“Did you like it?”
“I don’t know.”
He took my face into his hand. “I’ve painted Americans before,” he said, “but you’re my first Chinese girl.” His mouth hung slightly open, his eyelids at half-mast. “You know, sometimes after I paint for a customer, they want more.”
He kissed me.
Time barreled ahead, not waiting as in my fantasy. My mind lingered as it had been trained. It stopped at the kiss and replayed it, slowed it, replayed the words, picking the sentence apart. Then the body called, and my mind raced after, frantic, barely registering sensation—sensation overwhelmed every faculty. The breeze: we were out in the open, somebody might see us, his engineer roommate or a person on the street; his sighs, loud: they might hear him; then skin, the setting sun scorching the face, the dirt beneath the thighs, cutting into the flesh, so even as he pushed himself inside, I did not realize it, perceiving only coarseness, the usual pain, thinking that I should check the expiration on the condom wrapper if I could find it. His terribly handsome face, wearing an expression so intense it looked like a mask of pleasure he had pulled on, bobbed above me. I squinted and tried to see it, voicing his name, Picasso, as if to remind myself who this was, that this face and body belonged not to an animated statue but to a person I knew—and what did I know of him? My mind slammed into the present and spotted us, understanding finally that we were fucking.
“We are known to be good lovers,” he said softly, sucking a breast, and he was right, I came violently as I pushed him off of me.
He walked me home as he always did. At the gate he produced the small square canvas on which he’d painted me. “Oh,” I said, blinking. “I’ll—the money’s inside.” I went and got my cash. “How much?” I said. I handed it over without counting. I forgave Phillip. I went back to him. I didn’t see Picasso again.
My lover was a good man. He loved and celebrated easily, a quality that endeared him to me. “Such a good guy,” he would exclaim about anybody, and fervently when drunk: “Truly a good guy!”
I wondered whether, if my lover had met Phillip, they would have gotten along. If Phillip would have been deemed, in boozy goodwill, “a good guy.” No, I decided triumphantly. My lover would have been puzzled by Phillip, puzzled because he had never cultivated an ability to pin down his dislike. “What a weirdo,” I might say to goad my lover, and he would laugh good-naturedly and agree: “Yes, he really was weird!”
How this lover had changed me. Once, I had found honor in naked honesty: if there was a wound, I pressed it. I’d taken pride in dredging up buried pain; pain was how I recognized another. With previous lovers, I’d eaten up stories of other women hungrily, hurting myself with jealousy until it felt like love. I had tried it with this one too. He’d been married before me, after all.
“Do you really want to know?” he’d asked.
I saw he was telling the truth. I saw he had no desire to hurt me, or to be hurt. His instinct to look away: it was trust. Perhaps it was a little cowardly. But once I learned to follow this instinct, to rely on it, deploying it with even greater skill than he, I was happier.
I decided not to tell my lover about Phillip, who was irrelevant to our happiness. Just as I’d never told Phillip about Picasso, I realized suddenly. I’d told no one about Picasso. I’d not looked at the portrait and could not say what had happened to it. I was remembering it and him now for the first time.
Of Phillip: I’d opened my mouth to speak of the news of death, and closed it. Quite literally I swallowed my words.
“What?” my lover said. “Tell me.”
I kept my mouth shut. Transparently I changed the subject by pouring us drinks. I seduced my lover, kissing his neck and chin, pressing vodka onto his tongue. He swatted at me—“I see what you’re doing, tell me!” Finally I said, “It’s nothing, just—”
My lover folded his arms.
“Oh, just that I’m not a very good person!”
“Oh?” he said, laughing. He was always laughing at me.
“Yes. I’m too interested in my own survival.”
He cocked an eyebrow: “Oh.”
“And I have no good reason for wanting to survive—”
He wanted to laugh harder but waited for me to finish.
“—except that I like being alive.”
Oh, he laughed. He tackled me, folding me at the waist. The conversation was over: now we could make love. We clinked our glasses. I let him fall over me. I closed my eyes and sank into it. I felt that I was good, very good. I loved being alive.
I thought I should pay my condolences. After the service, I joined the line of people waiting to speak with the woman who wore Phillip’s aged face. “Who are you?” she said when I got to the front. “One of Phillip’s girlfriends?” She made a noise that sounded like a scoff, like Phillip’s scoff, like she was bored to death.
She was wearing black, of course. On her black-shawled shoulders little flakes of dandruff sat sprinkled like confetti.
I had the urge to say, “I mostly paint, I’m a painter!”
“Sorry for your loss,” as I was supposed to.
“Don’t you know who I am?”
Well, I wasn’t that famous. But I had become an artist after all, unlike Phillip, who had only managed to die. My modest success, I suspected, was the reason I’d been invited. Behind Phillip’s mother, the woman who’d emailed me milled about in a group of aging hipsters, trying to catch my eye. Vaguely I knew of her as the owner of a new gallery that had opened in the gentrified blocks of Chinatown, a tiny concrete box on whose walls, as far as I knew, had not yet hung a Chinese American work. I had not known she knew Phillip. But in the eulogy she’d spoken with intimacy, describing his noncareer as if it were part of some underground scene.
I heard myself:
“I don’t feel sorry for you.
“That’s right,” I was saying, to Phillip’s mother and anyone else, “my well of empathy has gone dry. I’m sure as hell not reaching in there for Phillip.”
Did Phillip want to live? Did he love life, as I did? My imagination ended at the question. The image of Phillip’s death had been fixed in me long before it came true. Perhaps I still possessed it, somewhere, in a dark storage container where I’d thrown the camera upon returning to America those many years ago, the memory card rusting in its metal cage.
Before we left the island, Phillip and I had taken a number of excursions together to “gather material.” Noticing that I still kept the camera stashed, thinking I was stuck, or perhaps that love had overtaken my ambition and artistry, Phillip claimed that he’d conceived of these excursions for me. On one of them, we’d wandered into an old cemetery at the outskirts of the city whose iron gates had once been locked by a chain that now lay in pieces in the grass. The grounds were overgrown. Dried weeds, sprouting from the cracks of grand crumbling tombstones, crunched beneath our feet. We walked into a circle of crypts guarded by faceless seraphs and saints, garish displays of wealth and piety, the false idols of the previous social order.
Phillip was delighted. Death, after all, was his proclaimed subject. He skipped through the graves giddily, launching himself off slabs of limestone, climbing up half the side of a marble crypt before slipping and sliding down, cracking the stillness with his laughs. “Are you getting all this?” he shouted at me.
“Yup, yup,” I replied reflexively as the camera hung limp at my hip, wondering: Was Phillip putting on a show for me? I walked with my head down, following the edge of my questioning. When I looked up I was standing in a field of holes. Gone were the monuments, the seraphs, the shade of untrimmed trees. These graves lay open and waiting. Some of their lids had been pried off and thrown to one side; some had been smashed in and lay in a heap at the bottom of the rectangular cavity. I peered into one, unthinking. Not until after my mouth let out a gasp did my eyes name what they were seeing: bone, skull, body.
I felt hands on my back. They pushed. I fell hard. I turned and faced a blinding sun. A figure moved over it, casting me into shadow. He was holding my camera, must have stolen it off me. He straddled the grave and shot.
“What if you let me kill you?” he said. “I could paint your corpse.”
He hopped down. He put a hand around my throat. I don’t know if he continued to shoot. My ears were full of his voice, narrating. How he felt: super strong, he said, like I’m having a great fuck. How my skin felt under his: soft, like putty, he said, sticky with sweat. Pretty gross, he said with a laugh, describing my face: my eyes, bulging; my mouth, open, drooling. You don’t look pretty, he said, but I’m getting hard. Say what you’re thinking, he said.
Then it was over. I was standing and Phillip was lying down. I was holding the camera; he had shoved it into my hands. “Now you do me,” he said. “Come on!”
For the rest of our time together, I would point the lens randomly, shooting without looking, without attempting focus or form, to prevent this urging voice—“Come on!”—from resurfacing. I already knew that whatever I took from here would have to be unplaceable, that I had neither desire nor ability to preserve any fragment of my experience to represent a “culture” or “society” or “moment in time.” Perhaps I already knew that I would never look at these photographs, and would never voluntarily pick up a camera again.
The sun sank before us as we left the cemetery, flooding me with calm and a strange easefulness. I breathed in the hot dusk air and observed my body. Miraculously, I was not bleeding. The bruises would appear later, deep pools of blue and gray emerging beneath my scraped flesh like an alien skin. A true skin, it had felt then, and I wore it proudly.
Beside me, Phillip twirled a femur he’d taken from the grave.
“What if you had killed me?” I looked at him with curiosity. “What if I had died?”
“I guess I’d go to jail? That would suck.”
“Come on, I was fully consumed in the present, I was fully spontaneous, fully alive!”
He was. Joyful, exuberant, like a clever child discovering and testing his abilities, he pulled me to him and kissed me. “Don’t you think one moment of pure freedom is worth more than some arbitrary ideas of good and evil?” he said. I blinked back at him, examining the lines on his brow, the three bumps of his nose, the sunken curve of his cheek. If I looked for it, in the dancing blue of his sight, I could find the outline of my own face. “Oh, I’d be so sad if you died,” he was saying. “I’d be heartbroken! Yeah, I’d miss you! But I’d come out of it a better artist, wouldn’t I, my art would be so profound!
“Wouldn’t it be worth it,” he said in all seriousness, “to die for great art?”
At that moment I must have seen, though my vision would not clear for many, many years, how harmless I appeared. Phillip had posed for me in the grave, exposing his soft neck, oh yes: he had invited me to kill him. Yet it would never occur to him, not really, that I actually could—that I might become the artist, and he the corpse.