Originally published in Headlight Anthology 16.
My grandfather told me that you should never feel your heart beat. A good heart should beat in silence, politely knock on the bars of its cage. Because once you feel your heart thumping, something is about to go wrong. I can still smell his breath and his cologne, feel the buttons of his shirt between my fingers, my ear on his chest, hear the slow, repetitive rumblings of his large body in time with the stream of conversing voices and jazz from the kitchen radio. He was an old man and a doctor in possession of a fairly large library, so I guess he was right.
I had had a few glasses of wine; my friend Sandy had just opened a gallery in a hip neighbourhood and the premiere vernissage was going well, he thought. It's not about conceptual art anymore, he said, I'm sick of that stuff. Who isn't? There was a time, you know, when artists were actually artful: when ideas didn't equal artifacts, when brushes and strokes and colour and texture and aesthetics had meaning, when artists and intellectuals were of two different classes, when language couldn't encapsulate art, not like now, when words have all but eclipsed the image.
He was getting drunk, his eyes were swimming, but I agreed. It was refreshing to see pictures hung on a wall. Still, as I listened to his ramble, I couldn't help but think about the vast geometric landscapes between the frames, the halogen lights reflecting off the pearly white walls and illuminating the polished parquet floors. I told him that the tall, wide, monotone rectangle, sectioned off by splashes of colour in sharp-cornered cages seemed to me to be the true piece of art on display.
He said, this line of thought doesn't interest me anymore. I used to imagine that the people in attendance were the true artifacts. That their trek from home to the gallery, their attire, the makeup on their faces, their carefully chosen words, their perfectly timed bursts of laughter, their remarks, both the earnest comments and the ironic commentary, the patterns created once they scattered around the room, the almost geological drift of characters within the space, the music created from layers of chatter in different pitches and rhythms, the slowly dissipating pile of wine, the gathering butts of cigarettes on the pavement, the gusts of wind punctuating the function of the thermostat and our own temperament, the stream of blood in our veins, the electricity discharged between neurons; I used to believe that this was the true piece of art and it was the artist's responsibility to create conducive conditions for such a symphony to be performed. But I don't feel this way anymore. It's interesting, but it's pointless. It degrades art, brings it closer to nature, too close, dangerously close, within critical proximity. Moreover, it deadens your heart. It cloaks the heart in a thick fog.
I didn't tell Sandy about my grandfather. He had made a good point or at least put it well, I never really knew the difference. We were having fun.
The following morning I woke up next to a girl who had stayed until the very end of the vernissage. A glass or two had broken, shallow pools of white wine had dampened the hardwood and filled the air in Sandy's gallery with a sour smell. She had offered to help wipe up the wine; she was crouching, holding a moist napkin halfway between her legs and the floor when our eyes met. She was a freelance journalist or a student, or part of an artist co-op around there, an intern perhaps. I forget. But she was petite and delicate and helpful and her smile seemed like she needed me so I obliged. As we lay there I thought about whether sex would qualify as art, and if not, how it could, and if I were an artist. I thought about my grandfather and whether feeling your heart race noisily after an orgasm was dangerous. I thought about fucking on a treadmill. She was asleep, her breath was unpleasant. I took a deep breath and put my hand under her left breast, listening closely with my palm. Nothing. I moved my hand around, I edged my way like an earthworm towards the middle of her chest, right between her breasts. They looked nice when she lay flat on her back. Her right was slightly larger. Nothing. I exhaled.
She was adjusting her black leather skirt when I woke up again. Her tights were turquoise, her face was pretty. I had dreamt that I swam through a sea full of tiny little seahorses like a swarm of flies, pulsating and changing shape like a single organism against the deepest of blues and greens. In this light, she seemed somewhat seahorse-like.
I'll leave you my number, she said and looked at me; did her tights match her eyes? I looked out the window. The sun was up. My room was going to be very hot very soon. I wanted to leave this city forever.
- Did you feel your heart?
- When you came? Did you feel your own heartbeat?
She looked away and smiled and I instantly figured that I should probably stay another while. Look after the queen of seahorses. Or the princess.
- I don't think I came. But I had a great time. She leaned in to kiss me on the mouth. I hadn't brushed my teeth so I held my breath. This was a nice girl. This was a pleasant thing. I heard the downstairs doors close and decided to return to the sea.
The gallery looked different in daylight. It seemed vacant, deserted even, but then I heard some rustle in the back. Sandy was out, he had a meeting, an undernourished intern in his early twenties told me. I nodded and paced around the gallery, thinking about last night, collecting my thoughts. The walls were now like a frozen ocean on which the pictures floated, prams full of colorful garbage. A glimpse of Friedrich's Sea of Ice flashed behind my eyes, those enormous plateaus piling up and pointing towards the sky, a glacial lake captured on expired film at dawn. I had a hard time focusing on the pictures in front of me and imagined that there were other paintings hidden behind them, like the images strobing in my brain. This was interesting: An invisible exhibition, art in disguise. A collection of paintings that have been painted over, the actual piece of art obscured by a second piece masquerading as the real work on display. Of course this existed in all those exercises and first sketches hidden underneath the layers of masterpieces. The ugly faces time had turned its back on, the horrible underside of history, the ever-present ghost in everything. I walked to the front window, over hardwood floors that glistened in the stark sunlight. A bearded man in neon attire emptied a plastic container full of cups and bottles and nasty smelling napkins into the back of a noisy truck as it slowly passed the gallery. He seemed content as he stopped for a second to light a fresh cigarette.
In the afternoon, I tracked Sandy down at a dark-wooded downtown café with horrendous African statues and carvings crowding the space. He didn't think much of my musings on phantom art; this, too, was interesting but it was only commentary, he said, without any real content. Time unfolds singularly, no matter what quantum physics say, or philosophers obsessed with what lies outside of or above or beneath existence, we sense only one trajectory, the ghost may exist but he is only imagined, and imagination is only ever half of any art, this is the difference between children and artists. Give the artist some kerosene and put him to work, art is about exposure not concealment, about ripping your heart out and documenting its slow death in your hands. He took a bite of his sandwich and wiped his mouth with a cheap serviette in a sickly brown shade. I pretended to take a sip from the empty coffee cup in front of me. He didn't notice. Maybe he didn't care.
My grandfather had this theory, I replied, that one should never be aware of one's own heart. It should act silently and unconsciously pump blood to our toes and to our brains, leaving only the slippery trail we call the everyday. It's when you feel your own heart beat, when you know, for sure, with sensual certainty, that it's there, that you know something is about to go awry. Your body is a ghost but your mind is constantly present. Raw feeling is interesting, but you can't escape thought. We shouldn't feel our hearts, they're too soft and disgustingly warm, like a rotten plum in a sunny kitchen, the fruit flies driving you crazy.
Silence. A hint of world music, the buzz of an insect. I looked up. Sandy was gone. They were closing the restaurant in a minute, they said. I paid for my coffee and went outside.
The sun was coming down when I strolled back home, lending the third and fourth stories of houses a golden shade of wonderful melancholy. I thought about taking a picture, a nice photo that I could process before I went to sleep, something I could give a vintage feel, as if it were a slightly faded slide projected onto a sheet hung on my grandfather's living room wall. I remembered how the image disappeared once I stood in the light, how I suddenly held my mother's infant head in the palm of my hand. And the smell of lamb roast, rosemary and jazz. I thought of that post-it on my desk, its obnoxious yellow forming an exaggerated contrast with the promise contained within the ten numbers scribbled on it, a code waiting to be unlocked; the imperfection of her handwriting in cheap blue ballpoint, the stain that remained once she lifted her left pinky which had kept the paper in place while she scratched the surface, did irreparable damage, scarred the tissue with her right. This was a nice girl.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I thought of all the invisible particles that constituted the world, like a cloud of tiny little seahorses. The face of a princess embedded in the fading rays of the sun. I listened for my heartbeat. Closely. Nothing. Everything was fine.