When I was ushered into the eating area by the young gallery assistant in gold Fendi platform sandals and a long silver tunic, her hair a sleek black panel pressed against her back, I looked furtively at the place cards for my name. I found it, thankfully next to Charles’ at one of the outlying tables amidst lesser collectors no doubt. We were used to being the token artists invited to entertain them. Too bad I’m not very entertaining anymore. I’ve long outgrown my appetite for shocking audiences, but apparently not my reputation.
So I was surprised when I sat down later that my husband and I were sitting at the table with both the artists in the show, Raymond, who is an important curator, and the gallery owner, Jeremy. One of the artists was in town from Brooklyn, a painter whose canvases were strewn with images from current media, an epic visual barrage of the daily news. I can’t say I liked them. They were ugly and cynical. The other artist was Ash. When we were in school together she changed her name from Ashley. It was a shortening she had refused as a kid, but as a BFA candidate she was eager to trade a flowery, much too common name for an edgy reference to fire and smoke.
Ash was one of those people who would obviously be a big deal someday. She had an aura of importance and strategic planning. We were smoking pot in her studio one night and I was complaining about someone in the MFA program when she said, very seriously, “You should be nice to everyone May, because you never know who’s going to make it.”
I remember being surprised that she was thinking that far ahead when I was the older MFA candidate and all I was concerned about were the costumes for my next extravaganza. I needed a truck load of pink tulle, and a new piercing somewhere.
Ash wasn’t looking at me. She was talking to Charles, being polite. Raymond was next to her, the curator who had recently been forced to resign at the museum because the new director was an ass. Raymond was probably making twice his former salary as a consultant, and Charles said there were several galleries trying to get him on their team. Raymond was talking to the guy at the end of the table, a man I didn’t know but whose casual suit and Rolex watch gave him away. Ash was just waiting for Raymond to pay attention to her.
I tried to get her attention. I wanted to say something intelligent about her show but I couldn’t think of anything. The paintings were meditations on organic forms in delicate symmetrical patterns that were stunning but seemingly vacuous. I was either missing the important part or there wasn’t one and nobody cares. To have her first show be in such a major gallery was just more proof of her birthright to success, and I was jealous. The show was much better than the guy from Brooklyn’s, even if it wasn’t very deep. I could tell a winner when I saw one, and I guess most people can.
I had the feeling she couldn’t be bothered with me anymore. Maybe it was the fact that I married one of our professors as soon as I graduated. Charles is fifteen years older and everyone thought I was trying to get somewhere but the truth is I had no control. We were crazy in love and we resisted it for a long time until we couldn’t anymore. We did the right thing, waited until I graduated and then surrendered to married life even though it wasn’t what either of us planned. We knew it would likely damage our careers and it probably has, but we’re happy. One day we’ll have kids and be a typical family.
I watched Ash talk. Her long sinewy arms were barely visible behind the sheer white blouse she wore but I could see them twitching. Her arms were always in motion, even if it was almost imperceptible as she listened to you talk. It was as if they’d always rather be pushing paint.
I wanted to know two things: Why we had been moved to the important artists’ table, and if we were still friends. I’d given up texting her when I graduated and she started the MFA program. If we ran into each other at an opening she would apologetically say she was busy all the reading and trying to get work done in the studio.
Jeremy made a joke about how much he hates public speaking as he stood up at the end of our table clinking his glass with a spoon. I watched Ash’s face as he gushed over her paintings and glanced over at the other artist (was he called George?) who was doing a good job of pretending not to notice she was taking up more real estate in the dealer’s speech than she was in the gallery.
Ash was flushed after Jeremy sat down and Raymond finally turned to her saying he knows a young curator at the Pompidou who she should meet. It was hard to watch her. She’s only twenty-five but she was acting like some confident mid-career artist who has had millions of conversations like this before. There was no sign of excitement or eagerness. Her eyes were slightly glazed, as if she wasn’t interested at all. It was the same look I got from wealthy collectors when I used to work at the front desk in a gallery before I went back to school. They kept their eyes focused just over your head, making sure you knew your status was far below theirs. I’ve never gotten used to that look. Never been able to play that game. Those were the walls I was trying to knock down with my obnoxious performance art.
Ash and I used to joke about how superficial the art world can be and how stupid certain collectors are, buying up whatever some slick dealer or art consultants tells them to buy. We went to visit a huge private collection once in Bel Air when we were still in school. One of our teachers had finagled it and we made fun of everything. There were amazing minimalist and pop art pieces all crammed in together with some of the crappiest paintings from the nineties you’ve ever see. We laughed out loud when we saw a painting by one of our professors hung sideways. But here she was, reaching across the table, practically flirting with the guy at the end, the man with the Rolex who was complimenting her paintings without saying anything about them. He lacked the vocabulary you only acquire by going to art school, or obsessively reading art magazines.
She looked amazing in her white ruffled blouse. She had on some incredibly expensive looking cream-colored slacks and white leather booties that worked perfectly with them. Her hair was lighter than it used to be, and like the young gallery assistant, she wore it long and it flowed sculpture-like, bending over one shoulder into a curl that resembled a seashell below her breast. She was like a bleached mermaid, as whitewashed as her ephemeral paintings hanging upstairs.
The servers were clearing our plates when Raymond and Jeremy got up from the table and the collector disappeared. Only the two artists, me and Charles and the other artists’ wife were still sitting at our table. I had a feeling Ash was just waiting for someone important to sit next to her and try to talk her into doing a project with them. She had worked hard to get where she was and I respected that. But I hated her confidence. I was jealous of the fact that she was born with it.
I had no idea how long the window would last but this was my chance. I stared at her until her eyes couldn’t resist mine and smiled big. “Congratulations Ash. It’s a beautiful show.” She smiled the same gracious smile she had been doling out all evening. I had to get to her. I had to know if we were still friends or if I was just a there to be stepped over. “I feel so lucky to be sitting here,” I said, trying to sound light. “I thought we were destined for the boonies.” She lifted one corner of her mouth into a half smile, half smirk as her eyes grazed the table behind me. “Ash, remember when we were driving up to your Dad’s place in the central valley and broke down on the five?” Her eyes opened up and I noticed how perfectly pruned her eyebrows had become. She used to not care how bushy they were. Had she bleached them?
“Why yes!” She answered. What was with the why yes? Was she from 1950? Her eyes were so wide it was like she had practiced opening them that big. In school, her eyes were always sleepy and soft, as if she was only half awake, and her hair was a disheveled mess. “I remember how freaked out you were,” she added laughing and really looking at me for the first time. Her eyes were intoxicating. The blue was so clear and deep they made me want to swim. Somehow they made me understand everything. There was something in her that elicited pure desire. I wanted her. I wanted to be her. I always had. I saw through our friendship as my own greed for a piece of what she had. What she saw in me I wasn’t sure. “That was right before my Dad died,” she said without a hint of sadness. “That was a crazy trip,” and her eyes were moving again, glancing around for something better. She was finished with me, and our moment of reminiscing. A good-looking man in a beautiful suit the color of the ocean was sliding into the seat next to her, and I still had no idea why I was there.