Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
That last summer in the kingdom of money, Vincent and Mirella met up in Soho on a subtropical afternoon, where they lingered for a while in Faisal and Mirella’s loft and then went shopping, less out of need than out of boredom. Dark clouds filled the sky. In the late afternoon they wandered down Spring Street with no particular destination in mind, having spent several thousand dollars each on clothing and lingerie, and Vincent was admiring a yellow Lamborghini parked across the street when Mirella said, “I think the rain’s about to start”—and they walked faster, too late, the first thunderclap sounded and the downpour began, Mirella took her hand and they broke into a run. Vincent was laughing—she loved being caught in the rain—and Mirella didn’t like what rain did to her hair, but by the time they reached the corner she was smiling too, she pulled Vincent into an espresso bar and they stood just inside for a moment, pleasantly chilled by the air-conditioning, pushing wet hair away from their eyes and surveying the damage to the shopping bags. Mirella’s bodyguard came in a moment later, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief.
“Well,” Mirella said. “Shall we stop for a coffee?”
“Let’s.” Vincent had been on the East Coast of this continent for two and a half years now, but she was still startled by the violence of the summer thunderstorms, the way the sky turned green. They found a minuscule table by the window and sat there with their little coffees, wet shopping bags crowded around their legs. They’d fallen into a companionable silence, and as they watched the downpour, Vincent realized that she felt perfectly at ease, for the first time in recent memory. The truth was that in the kingdom of money, before she’d met Mirella she’d been extremely alone.
“Do you find that shopping is actually incredibly boring?” Vincent felt guilty saying this aloud. It was only possible to say it because Mirella hadn’t come from money either. Ghosts of Vincent’s earlier selves flocked around the table and stared at the beautiful clothes she was wearing.
“I know it’s in poor taste to admit it,” Mirella said, “but it’s incredible how quickly the novelty wears off.” There was something about the way she looked up just then, the way the light caught her face, that made Vincent think of a nursery rhyme from childhood, her favorite verse from the Mother Goose book in the elementary school library, read so many times that she had committed it to memory by the time she was five or six:
She is handsome, she is pretty, she is the girl of the golden city…
“At first it felt like some kind of compensation,” Vincent said. “You remember the times when you had to choose between rent and groceries, and it’s like, ‘Now I can afford this dress, so balance has been restored in the world,’ but after a while…”
“After a while you find you’ve acquired enough dresses,” Mirella said. “If Faisal knew the extent of my shopping habit, he’d probably stage an intervention.”
Although of course the clothing wasn’t the point, Vincent thought later, on the train back to Greenwich. It wasn’t the
that kept her in this strange new life, in the kingdom of money; it wasn’t the clothing and objects and handbags and shoes. It wasn’t the beautiful home, the travel; it wasn’t Jonathan’s company, although she did genuinely like him; it wasn’t even inertia. What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.
When she arrived home, Jonathan was waiting in the living room. He’d been working but closed his laptop when she came in. “You poor thing,” he said. “I wondered about you, out there in the deluge.” She was shivering a little, her clothes damp in the chill of the air-conditioning. There was a cashmere blanket on the back of the sofa, just within his reach. He put his laptop on the coffee table and held the blanket open to receive her. “Come here,” he said. “Let’s get you warm.”
On a dark afternoon in August, a painter was standing under an awning in Soho when Vincent and Mirella passed by. Across the street, a yellow Lamborghini shone in the haze of the afternoon. The car had such presence that it was almost alive, all but vibrating with possibility, like something from the future. Olivia had come to this street because behind the Lamborghini was a doorway that she’d passed through once in the late fifties, when Jonathan Alkaitis’s brother was looking for models. In the summer of 2008, Olivia stood across the street under a red awning because it was obviously about to rain, eating a chocolate chip cookie even though the sugar would send her to sleep later—on a bench, in the subway, in a movie theater, wherever she might happen to land—and allowed herself to sink into memory. In 1958 she walked briskly up to the door in her new trench coat, which she was convinced made her look like the star of her favorite French movie because it’s possible to convince oneself of such things at twenty-four. When a voice crackled incoherently out of the buzzer she said, “It’s me,” which she’d found always worked at every building no matter which buzzer she pressed, and climbed four flights of stairs to Lucas’s studio.
Lucas Alkaitis was on the run from the suburbs just like everyone else, on the run from mediocrity and Brylcreem and gray flannel suits, and Olivia had met enough fake painters by then to recognize when she was in the presence of the real thing. In 1958, Lucas was working on a series of nudes: women and men, mostly women, all sitting on a sofa the color of the Lamborghini that would park outside his door a half century later. The sofa was much dirtier in real life than in the paintings.
The paintings were ravishing. But Lucas himself, to Olivia’s amusement and disappointment, was every cliché in combination: the too-long, artfully tousled hair; the white undershirt, streaked with paint; the work boots, which he’d also allowed to become streaked with paint, presumably to advertise his painterliness to the opposite sex. He looked her over and ran his hand through his hair in a way that made her think he’d practiced the motion in the mirror.
“Help you?” he asked.
“I hear you’re looking for a model.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” A slow, lazy smile as he appraised her. This was a profoundly self-satisfied man. “I can’t pay very much.”
“Actually, I have a proposition on that front.”
What Olivia sometimes wondered—even in the present, on the other side of the split screen in 2008, where she was still standing under the awning, had moved on to a second chocolate chip cookie, and could already feel herself coming unmoored, her blood sugar rising in a way that always made her think of a doomed hot-air balloon, an unsteady giddy motion before a precipitous fall—is if it might be possible to send out a memo to the entire population of persons below the age of thirty, no, forty, men and women alike, a memo to the effect that it is not in fact necessary to raise an eyebrow every time the word
is uttered in conversation. “I would appreciate it,” she muttered aloud, in 2008, “if everyone would stop.”
On the other side of the gauze, in 1958, she waited for Lucas’s eyebrow to lower before she said, “Not that kind of proposition, for Christ’s sake. Payment in kind.”
He looked confused.
“My name’s Olivia Collins.” She watched as the name registered. She’d had some success, nothing earth-shattering but enough that a certain subset of the painting population south of 14th Street knew her name. She had gallery representation, which was more than most of these floppy-haired puppy dogs could say. “I’m a painter,” she said, unnecessarily, “and I’m looking for models.”
“Okay, yeah, so you’re saying…”
“You paint me, I paint you,” she said. “I’m working on a new portrait series.”
Lucas crossed the room to a cluttered windowsill, extracted a box of cigarettes from between two paint cans that had been repurposed as vases for dying daisies, tapped the cigarette box, removed one, lit it, inhaled, exhaled while holding Olivia’s gaze, all of the stalling motions that smokers perform when they’re not sure what to say and have seen too many movies. If another memo could possibly be sent out, this one specific to smokers: You cannot be both an unwashed bohemian and Cary Grant. Your elegant cigarette moves are hopelessly undermined by your undershirt and your dirty hair. The combination is not particularly interesting.
“Intriguing proposition,” he said, “but I don’t pose.”
“Well, it takes a certain boldness,” Olivia said with a shrug. In 1958, her values included a determination that no one should ever be able to tell whether she cared about any given thing or not. “Not everyone can do it.” She could see that this stung, as intended. “Well, if you change your mind.” She scrawled her phone number on a scrap of paper, left it on his worktable, nodded goodbye, and turned away. “Your work’s good, by the way,” she said from the door, as a parting shot.
In 2008, a pair of girls were approaching. Shoppers, weighted down, somewhere in their twenties, both pretty in an expensive way, a genre of girl whom fifty years ago Olivia would have both painted and seduced. They were talking about nothing, a conversation about jeans they wanted to buy, but one of them looked away and Olivia saw that she was gazing across the street at the yellow Lamborghini, brilliant in the dull pre-storm light.
“I see it too,” Olivia murmured, but so quietly that neither looked her way as they passed. Perhaps she didn’t say it aloud. The sky exploded in a thunderclap and they ran away into the rain.
When Lucas came to her, she wasn’t alone. She’d been painting her friend Renata for days, from various angles. The problem was Renata’s eyes, which were worried and doelike when Renata looked at her head-on but coolly confident when she was looking away. The effect was of two different people. Which to show?
“Okay, I’ve got an idea for a ghost story,” Renata said. This was a game they played sometimes, when Renata was posing and starting to get bored, because they’d both loved ghost stories since childhood. “A guy gets hit by a car and dies, and then after that the intersection’s haunted, but the ghost isn’t the guy who gets hit by the car, the ghost is the car.”
Olivia stepped back for a moment, considering the eye problem. “So it’s a story about a ghost car?”
“The driver feels so guilty about the accident that his guilt manifests as a ghostly car.”
“I like it.”
It was cold in the studio that day and Olivia was mostly working on Renata’s face and shoulders, so Renata was wearing a bathrobe that she hadn’t bothered to close. Olivia heard her friend and neighbor Diego’s voice in the hall, his quick knock and entry, and turned in time to see Lucas catch sight of Renata’s breasts and do a double take that he tried to cover with a coughing fit.
“Fumes getting to you?”
“Those’ll go straight to your head,” Renata said, in that languid voice that always made her sound stoned, which often she was, but on this particular occasion she wasn’t.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Olivia said to Lucas, which in those days was one of her signature lines. (A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative.) “We’ll be done in a few minutes.”
Lucas stood by the door, awkward. She sensed his taking in the work. In anticipation of his arrival, Olivia had propped seven of her best recent portraits around the room. She’d been experimenting with surrealist backgrounds: the subject painted with eighteenth-century fealty to realism—or as close as she could get to eighteenth-century fealty to realism; she was aware at all times of the limits of her technical skills—but backgrounds dissolving into a fever dream of red, of purple, of blue, interiors breaking apart into formlessness, landscapes where the light was all wrong. In her most recent completed painting, Diego was sitting on a red chair, relaxed, his arm draped over the back, but the chair lost form at its extremities and dissolved into the wall, and a red pool had formed under one of the chair’s feet, as if the paint were running off.
“That chair bleeding?” Lucas asked, indicating the Diego painting with his chin.
“Take off your robe?” Olivia said to Renata, who rolled her eyes but didn’t object. Her naked flesh had the desired effect of shutting up Lucas. He forgot about the bleeding chair. (Something that troubled her even years later, decades later, all the way to 2008: Was the bleeding chair even a good idea? Were any of her artistic ideas ever actually any good? Her self-doubt had been one of the few constants in her life over the past half century.) “If you want to hang out,” Olivia said to Lucas, “we’ll be done in a half hour.”
“Twenty minutes,” Renata said. “I have to pick up my kid.” When she left, Lucas took her place on the chair. He hadn’t spoken since the bleeding-chair comment.
“You’re overdressed for the occasion,” Olivia said, but it came out softer than she intended, not at all sharp. Perhaps she could be a gentler person, she thought. Her shell was so hard in those days. “Can you take off your shirt?”
Lucas shrugged and took off his denim jacket and undershirt. He was skinny and unpleasantly pale, a strictly indoor creature. He watched her as she began. She was thinking about his work, the clean lines and restraint in his portraiture. He was ridiculous in some ways, but beneath all that he was a serious person, she understood that, he was a serious person who worked very hard. She painted rapidly, not at all in her usual style, swift short strokes. She’d hoped that if she skimmed the surface of the portrait she might be able to see him better, that something might become apparent that she could use as a starting point for a deeper, more serious work, and something did: when she stepped back to look at the canvas she saw the shadows on his face, the look she’d seen before on others, the awkward way he held his arms.
“Turn your left arm toward me,” she said, demonstrating.
He smiled and didn’t move. But she caught a glimpse as he reached for his shirt, and added it later: she painted over his left arm so that in the final version his palm was open, shadows streaked on his inner elbow, bruised veins.
At the opening five months later, he cornered her by the door. “I could kill you,” he said pleasantly, smiling so that anyone looking would think he was complimenting her work. Two or three people who weren’t out of earshot moved closer, curious. “I don’t mean this in the screwball-comedy sense, by the way, as in ‘They just got off on the wrong foot and now they’re going to fall in love.’ I mean that given the chance I could actually literally kill you.”
“Live by the sword, die by the sword.” Olivia raised her drink.
“You think you’re so cute. All those canned fucking lines. It’s not even
” he said, a whine entering his voice, “you’re a fucking
” but in ten months he would OD behind a restaurant on Delancey Street. She went to a show of his just before the end, a group exhibition in a warehouse in Chelsea. It was an underwhelming evening. The night was freezing and the room was too cold, everyone shivering with their cups of cheap wine. A few people recognized Olivia and she saw their jealousy under their smiles, which made her feel small and hollow and like she just wanted to go home. This was the thing about her life in those years: some nights it was beautiful but some nights there was such pain, throbbing just under the surface of the evening for no discernible reason, and on nights like that she understood why Lucas and Renata did what they did, the dulling trick with the needle. She found Lucas in a far corner with three of his paintings. He’d been working on a new series without people in it, just empty streets. General streets, not specific streets. She suspected they belonged to no particular city.
“I like these,” Olivia said, as a peace offering. Lucas was with a kid, a boy wearing sneakers and jeans with an untucked shirt. This was what she remembered of her first sight of Jonathan Alkaitis, years later: that his untucked shirt was somehow poignant. The kid had
written all over him but had untucked the shirt in order to look looser, more downtown, because he wasn’t quite fourteen years old and was desperate to fit in, but the shirt was deeply creased around the waist where it had been tucked into his pants before he left the house.
“Thanks so much,” Lucas said flatly.
“Who’s your little friend?”
“My brother. Jonathan, meet Olivia. Olivia, Jonathan.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Jonathan Alkaitis said. He was wide-eyed, out of his element. “Do you not like my brother’s paintings?”
“I just said I liked them.”
“You’re a terrible actor, though,” Lucas said. “Even the kid can tell you don’t like them.”
Olivia did not, in fact, particularly like Lucas’s new paintings. They were derivative of Edward Hopper and could only have been more obvious in theme if he’d maybe painted the word
across them in red.
“You’re right,” Olivia said to Jonathan. “I don’t particularly like your brother’s paintings.”
Jonathan frowned. “Then why did you say you liked them?”
“Just trying to be polite,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me.” She didn’t understand what Lucas was striving for but she could see where he was going, his face more shadowed than it had been, that awful pallor, and she didn’t see the profit in engaging with him seriously. (This was how she thought in her twenties:
I didn’t see the profit.
She was ashamed of this later.) Death was already in him. Anyone could see that he was halfway out the door. She remembered later that she’d felt sorry for his brother, who was going to be an only child soon.
Lucas’s funeral was a small, private affair near his family’s house in Greenburgh. She didn’t hear he’d died until at least a month after it happened. It seemed to her later that she might not even have remembered him, just another fallen sparrow in a chaotic and rapidly receding decade, except that forty years later—forty years of no money, of no sales, of embarrassing phone calls where she had to ask her sister, Monica, for rent money, forty years of temp jobs in interchangeable offices and selling jewelry at fairs for her friend Diego’s silver import business, forty years in the desert—there was a retrospective exhibition of downtown artists from the fifties, Olivia among them, and in its wake there was a sudden—and vanishingly brief—resurgence of interest in her work, during which her painting
Lucas with Shadows
sold at auction for two hundred thousand dollars, which was more money than she’d ever imagined possessing at one time.