Who Will Catch You In the Middle of All This?

“In school, I assumed I would fall into the right circles after graduation. Things would work themselves out. I know you used to feel that way, Kath.”

“Yeah,” I reply, too embarrassed to admit I’m still hopeful.

Joe rests both elbows on the small circular table, face in her palms. Her untouched beer creates a wet stain on the wood. We’d been talking about easy stuff for an hour. “I think LACAD relies on teen superiority complexes. Why else would anyone go?”

“I don’t know,” I say, rubbing one of the lines that frame my mouth.

“Life two years out is so different. But I’m glad.”

“That’s good.” I remember when Joe and I used to make fun of people in the classes ahead of us who did anything other than successfully pursue art. We frequently scrolled Instagram decimating high school art teachers and art history graduate students that we felt had given up.

“Sorry, I’m talking all about me. I guess things are pretty close to what you were picturing. With the whole stamp thing.”

I wipe beads of sweat off my upper lip with the back of my hand. The sun hasn’t quite started setting yet, and I regret choosing a table outside of the bar. The heat and heavy pedestrian traffic are distracting. “I guess I’m doing pretty well. I probably should’ve sold more.” Right before graduating, I answered a call for a USPS stamp design competition. The design had to feature a black bear, and my depiction of a mother with cubs won. That was the last time I made money off of my art. I’d spent the two years since I graduated working behind the front desk of an art museum.

Joe nods and wipes at the condensation on the bottle with her long fingers. We’ve only seen each other a few times in the past year, which is when Joe started dating Tom seriously. In school, Joe came to my dorm almost every night. We’d get drunk and talk about the problems in our field, or sometimes hook up. I feel like we’re too far from that to speak honestly anymore, but I want to try.

I quickly add, “How long can you be an artist if you’re broke? It’s not sustainable; a lot of people get burned out.”

Joe has to know I’m a failure. The stamp thing was the last sale I’d told her about. I wouldn’t have met her if I knew she was happy. She responds, “Unless you’re independently wealthy or get popular super quick, how do you avoid burnout?”

“If a lot of famous artists from the twentieth century killed themselves trying to produce work while supporting themselves when the cost of living was lower…I mean, imagine how much more difficult it is for us now.”

“Yeah.”

Joe picks at a cuticle on her thumb. I watch as she pulls it back too far and rips some skin by her thumbnail. She grimaces and wipes at the blood with her pointer finger until it clots and stops bleeding. I ask, “You okay?”

“We’re self-indulgent,” she says, “Or licking our wounds.” Her toothy smile smooths the rough edges of the sentiment. “Or I’m licking my wounds. You’re doing well.” The last part is almost a question.

I say, “Everyone is self-indulgent.”

Joe accidentally clinks the mouth of the bottle against her teeth when she takes a sip of her drink. She runs her tongue over them to make sure nothing is chipped. “That’s true. At least painting is a unique way to express it.”

“Except when it isn’t.” Her hair is a wavy, clean-cut bob without split ends. She leans forward, and it frames her large brown eyes and their dark circles, bushy eyebrows, and wide mouth. She’s wearing rose-colored lip balm. I’ve watched her reapply it a few times. I add, “Thinking about art or a career or any future at this point seems naive. I feel like the world is falling apart.”

She says, “Cynical. Why does misery always come up when we talk about this stuff? I hate tortured artists.”

“It’s a pretty prevalent thing.”

“I wish it wasn’t.”

“Yeah.”

We watch a group of people crossing the street narrowly avoid stepping in the path of a car. They laugh as they jog the rest of the way past the distressed driver. I say, “Earlier, you were talking about biological clocks.” I don’t know where this came from, but I am aware it’s jarring, and my face gets hot. She had said something jokingly about Tom running out of time to get her pregnant while we were waiting to be served.

Joe laughs. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Only that it doesn’t sound like you.”

She presses her lips together and leans her cheek against her hand. “What do you mean?”

I take a sip of my drink. “I mean, what about how you were in school?”

“What’s that got to do with Tom? Or with having kids?”

“Because won’t it be pretty routine? And you’ll barely have time to work if Tom keeps his job. You told me a while back he doesn’t like it when you focus on a project.”

She runs her hand through her hair. “Routine is good. I’m not miserable all the time like in school.” The likely innocuous statement makes me bitter. She goes back to playing with her cuticle and adds, “When I told you about Tom getting upset, it was all out of context. I ditched plans we made to tunnel in on a project, and he was disappointed. At that point, I still bought into the LACAD attitude about work. I’ve found a better way.”

She leans back in her chair and looks up from her thumb at me. “Well, it sounds like you’re happier,” I say. “It seems like a waste; sounds like everything you thought was important fell to the wayside.”

She looks down at her hands, and I feel guilty. But before I can quickly apologize, she says, “Kath, when I said I was miserable in school, I didn’t mean…”

“Oh,” I say, sick and excited in tandem. “We don’t need to talk about all of that. That’s not what I thought.”

“Okay, well, it’s important to me that you know. That’s not what I meant.”

“I know.”

“And obviously I care about you, I just don’t think I’m…”

“We really don’t need to talk about it. I haven’t thought about it in forever. We were just edgy kids.”

“Exactly.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. I swear it wasn’t about that; I’ve just been stressed.”

“No, it’s okay. Sorry I brought it up at all.”

“It’s fine. Let’s forget about it.”

Joe looks at her lap. I want to change the subject but can’t focus. I think we both want to leave, but it would be weirder to end the conversation here than stick it out a little longer. Joe finally says, “I wonder why we set this arbitrary deadline for success. There’s so much beyond our early twenties. Why did we need to do everything right after graduating?”

“What’s wrong with jumping into it all as soon as you can?” I’m focused on how irregular my voice sounds.

“But it wasn’t positive like that. I felt like I absolutely had to succeed young or none of it was worthwhile. That doesn’t make sense. We have so much more time.”

Maybe I’d leaned on Joe too much. I thought we’d drift in and out of each other’s lives but always be involved in the same pursuit. “Yeah, we do,” I reply.

“And why do we need to make our stuff and sell it? What’s wrong with teaching classes or something and making art for ourselves?” I wonder if she feels uncomfortable about mocking our former classmates.

“I’m not just trying to make money, but being able to support myself would be nice. I want to reach other people who understand how I feel.”

“So, you want fame? That’s not really all that different.”

“That’s only part—”

She interrupts to look over my shoulder and yell, “—Hey! Are you okay?”

She’s getting up, eyes locked on something behind me. I turn around to a middle-aged man sitting on the sidewalk not far from our table. He’s holding a scraped knee. Next to him, there’s an open takeout container from the Thai restaurant down the street. The ground around him is littered with noodles. Other concerned people have stopped; when they see Joe helping, they keep going.

I get up too. The man says, “Yeah, mostly just embarrassed. Tripped over nothing!” He laughs, and Joe laughs too. He has a kind laugh. I welcome the interruption.

He strikes me as a dad; he’s wearing tan cargo shorts, athletic shoes with long white socks, and a shirt with the logo of a local nonprofit stamped across the front. Joe grabs his hand to help him up and says, “Let me see if they’ve got bandages in the bar.”

“Thanks so much. You don’t have to.”

“It’s no problem. I’ll be right back.”

I’m left standing by the table with one hand on the back of my chair, debating whether or not it would be appropriate to sit back down. The man doesn’t pay any attention to me, though. He brushes some stray noodles off his shorts and throws the mostly empty container into a nearby trash can.

Joe returns with a bandage and a small, individually packaged antiseptic wipe. They trade their thank you’s and your welcomes, and Joe walks back to the table. I go to sit down, but Joe’s picking up her bag. “I should probably pay and head home. It’s a long drive.”

“Yeah, totally,” I say, relieved. Joe says, “This was fun! We’ve got to see each other again soon; we can’t wait this long again.” It isn’t convincing.

Inside the bar, we make small talk while we close our tabs. It’s starting to get more crowded now that the sun has set. Outside we say goodbye with an awkward hug and little pats on the back, and Joe walks back to her car. I pull my headphones out of my pocket and start the walk home.

I am exhausted but accompanied by a sense of release, the way I used to feel after I finished finals week. Like my mind has been working too hard but finally gets to rest, disconnected from my body. Everything is finally done falling apart; even Joe doesn’t want the same things anymore.

The world unfurls before me in heightened clarity. The leaves on the old-growth trees along the sidewalk snap into sharp relief against the dark blue sky, their light movement in the breeze difficult to look away from. The paint peeling from houses is a testament to their perseverance in the face of aging, and the pots and pans hanging in warm kitchen windows are evidence of a home. I notice the depth of the damp smell in the air, dappled with laundry detergent, fire pit smoke, and crushed pine needles at different points. When I lock eyes with a girl on her balcony watering plants, it’s crucial. I feel the stones and cracks in the pavement through the soles of my sneakers.

People hold each other on benches around the chlorinated park fountain. They watch to make sure their friends get into apartments safely from their cars and throw toys for ecstatic dogs. Children follow parents, and couples hold hands. The water in the gutter carries small purple flowers gently downhill. Discrete fragments that make the city work. As I pass a house shielded by tall bushes, I remember doing cross country in high school, running through a neighborhood in the late afternoon. I am comforted that this person is still me. So is the one who was at LACAD.

I take a turn that I usually avoid, which will add an extra ten minutes to my walk. There’s no rush. There’s nothing but time.

*****

Lauren Baker studied early-twentieth-century queer literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). At UCSB, she served as an Arnhold research assistant for projects on the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, William Faulkner, and Djuna Barnes, respectively. She is an alumna of the Columbia Publishing Course and former Sunbelt Publications intern. She is currently completing an AmeriCorps term as a construction worker for a New Orleans nonprofit. In the fall, she will begin her MA in English at New York University.