It's the early 2000s and I am living on the Lower East Side, with one roommate, in a shoebox of an apartment. Well, it's square, actually, but it's small. Two bedrooms separated by a wall and a living room/kitchen/dining room/office where we housed a twin futon. We paint the wall above our couch slate gray and hang on it three pictures of animal bones stolen from library books surrounded by black and white frames we bought as a batch from the 23rd Street market.
The neighborhood has already begun sprouting signs of rapid growth. Coffee shops and retail stores give way to lively bars and restaurants with cocktail menus at night. Only a few of the neighborhood landmarks have held their ground. Live karaoke on Monday nights. That Jewish deli. That bar that was light instead of dark.
And somewhere in the midst of all of this is a Chelsea-like gallery, small like our apartment, but showing much promise. The owner is a woman close to my age who is already well known to the art and fashion worlds. And though she is a stranger to me, the photos on her four white walls change me forever.
The name of the show is "And Her Shadow, Death." The artist is Hanna Liden, an art school graduate who had taken a group of her friends into the Scandinavian countryside for a photo shoot. Her pictures are both grim and alluring, like a horror movie you watch through the cracks in your fingers. She gives her friends costumes and handmade masks and takes their photos against a barren landscape.
In one photo, three figures wear hoodies and walk, heads down, past a wild fire at the edge of a lurking lake. In another, they are naked in the woods, serpentine-like around an old and knotted tree. But the one that calls to me most is a photo of three women, one pregnant, taking an afternoon swim in the shallow water of a clear lake under the light of an almost white sky.
Now, there had been visits to a museum here or there. There were art walks on Thursday nights in Chelsea with free beer and wine. And there had been some art fairs that were open to buyers and lookers alike.
And I had seen a few hints: black bird cast and feathered with a ruby set in place of an eye. A cabinet shaped like a bat. A set of silk-screened tarot cards.
Hello, they had said to me as I passed them by. This is a collect call from your dark side. Will you accept the charges?
Shhh, I had said. Don’t call me here. I’m out acting like a lady.
I had brushed them aside, those little outcasts who only wanted me to pay them some attention. In response, they had curled up dormant-like in the center of my body waiting for a better connection.
Now it’s the woman in the center of one photo calling. She is standing there, looking at me through her gray-black mask. Her fingertips are dipped into the top of the water.
Come on in, I hear her say to me through the walls of the gallery. Join us, she says. The water is fine.
"How much," I ask the gallery lady minding the shop. "For the whole bunch?" She points to the price list. $400 each. And there were thirteen of them.
Before we start to do the math, let’s just say that I didn’t have enough for even one of the photos, not in a secret bank account, not in shoes that could be sold for cash, not in a rich uncle's house, nowhere. I’m a waitress at the place on the corner that’s open until 4am. I serve truffled eggs and fresh-squeezed orange juice to the brunch crowd on Sundays.
For a moment, I imagine making a call with my cell phone from the center of the gallery. Darling, I’d to someone fictional person on the other line. I’ve just seen the most AMAZING photographs. Yes, Yes, I say after a pause, I’m here at the -- and I cover my mouth -- where are we again sweetie, I say to the woman minding the shop.
In real life, I say, "Thank you." And I stare at the ladies a little longer. And then I walk out.
These, I think, these are my haunts. Streets that are under construction. Pizza that you can buy with change from the bottom of your bag. And a 400-square-foot apartment you struggle to pay rent on every month, but every month you keep doing it anyway.
A few years later, I see a photo at a big art show and I know it’s her in an instant. Her bleak landscape calls to me in the just the same way. She is snowy and she is white and she is the isolation that I have come to know so very well.
These other people, there at the Whitney Biennial with their makeup and their heels and their long, heavy necklaces, what do they know about this artist? Don’t they know that her message was meant for only me to hear? Don’t they know that I am the only one who ever feels that alone?
Someone go back and shake that me who wished she had photos on the walls of her big loft in Soho to prove to anyone who came to visit that she knows what is cool. That me who wanted to be someone who could have bought the photos and then sold them once their value had gone up as they most certainly had. Take her by the shoulders and tell her, Don't worry! That's not what's important!
It is only recently that I am able to stop myself in my own tracks. I'm talking to a coworker who is beautiful and stylish and does everything one would do if one wanted to be known for appreciating art. She tells me she remembers exactly all those things, the photos, the show, wanting to buy a print but being slightly put off by the idea of wanting to own something so dark and moody.
And then, suddenly, I finally fucking get it. All those people who liked this artist? The curator at the gallery that booked the show? All the other women who came to the museums on art night? They too understand what it means to feel lonely.
Does my heart still make a cringing motion when I see that a young and stylish actress has one of Hanna Liden's pentagon light sculptures mounted on her brick wall? Yes, yes, it does. But even if I could give my 25-year-old self the $400 to buy a photo, would it have served me well?
Now, a postcard from the show sits in a frame on my windowsill. Those three ladies on an encyclopedia between my boyfriend's collection of sci-fi favorites and my collection of spiritual/self-help. They call to me now, to me and you and to everyone with an outcast settled in somewhere deep inside.
"Come out, come out," they say to us now. "Join us," they say. The water is fine.