I spend my first year of art school wishing I was anyplace else. My first boyfriend is also a painting major and he teaches me to hate almost everything about my art. After we break up, I switch to illustration. I find new friends, wild ones, girls he always told me to avoid. Most nights, I follow them to bars that don’t check IDs. We roam dance floors and pool rooms in search of men to buy us drinks. When we strike out, we head to house parties or DIY spots. We bob through crowds with plastic cups, waiting for someone to fill them. Sometimes we shove our way into living rooms where sweaty guys thrash to hardcore. Sometimes we hit warehouses packed with noise kids, nodding to feedback. Sometimes we wander through old sewing factories and find dreamy boys strumming guitars, singing like they’re underwater.
No matter where we go, I drift away from the group. I sneak into hallways, creep down steps, duck into darkened kitchens where people pass cloudy bongs. This is something my friends yell at me about on Uber rides back to campus, on steps outside the dorm, beside coffee carafes in the student center. “Why do you always have to disappear?” they ask. And I never have a good answer. My mother says I was like this as a child, always getting lost in shopping malls and grocery stores.
One night, I stumble out of the sewing factory into an alley filled with puddles and weeds. Fuzzy patches of herbs grow along a pathway leading to a rusty gate. I walk through it and feel my high heels sink into the muddy grass.
The gate clangs shut behind me. By now, the music from the sewing factory sounds as if it’s coming from a faraway party. A razor edge of light buzzes from the street. It’s enough to see the shadow of a middle-aged man slumped in a lawn chair, and my first thought is that he might be the landlord.
I slip a pack of Camel Lights out of my purse and pretend I’m there to smoke.
“I’m Angie,” I say, lighting a cigarette. “My friend knows the band.”
“You can go where you want,” he says. “You don’t need permission.”
“I was just telling you.”
“Got a cigarette?”
I pass him one. He takes a silver zippo from the pocket of his flannel shirt.
“It smells like Thanksgiving out here,” I say.
“It’s the wild sage,” he says. “It grows all over this part of Cleveland.”
“I’ve never noticed.”
“You’ll see it everywhere now,” he says, as if this is a fact.
After our cigarettes, I walk back to the gate but it won’t budge. I wiggle it a few times and my palms itch from the rust.
He stands and walks over. He’s taller than me, even in my high heels. “Oh, no,” he says, his voice low and facetious. “If we’re trapped, it’ll have to be like the Garden of Eden.”
I am only scared for a second.
He jiggles the latch. The gate loosens and the door swings open. “There you go,” he says, waving his hand, allowing me passage.
I stride back into the sewing factory and find my friends lounging on couches with guys from the band. I tell them all about the Garden of Eden.
“You mean Paul?” a floppy haired drummer asks. “The upstairs dude?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “He was like forty or something.”
“If that guy tries anything on you, I’ll kick his ass.”
This makes my friends jealous, which makes me swoon, and after the next band starts their set, I go searching for Paul.
I find him in the back yard, sitting in the same spot.
“Do you want to hang out?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says, crossing one leg over the other. “You got another smoke?”
He invites me up to his apartment which probably used to be a factory manager’s office. It’s all one room, separated by hanging sheets and curtains. No couches or chairs. He offers me a can of Schlitz from a mini-fridge. There’s no kitchen, only a table with two boxes of generic wheat shreds, a percolator, and a waffle iron.
We sit atop a patchwork quilt on a twin size bed. The air tastes a little like sawdust. Orange light shines through the window from the post office across the street.
He lifts an acoustic guitar. “Wanna hear something?” He plucks a neon-orange pick from under the neck.
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” I say, wondering if anyone will come looking for me.
He strums a few chords and sings a soft, melodic song that makes me think of golden embroidery. It’s the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard another person make in real life. It almost doesn’t sound real. His voice is deep and soft and clear like a famous folk singer you’d hear on a record, or in a movie, or in a giant concert hall—not upstairs from a shithole like the sewing factory.
I finish my beer and wait for him to try something on me, but he never does, so I’m the one who kisses him.
It startles him. He drops the guitar. He asks if I’m sure. And I say, “Yeah, yeah, sure,” and he says, “No, I mean, are you really sure?” and I say, “Yeah, I’m really sure,” and then he’s the one who kisses me back.
In the morning, we eat eggs at the diner down the street and I see all the little lines around his eyes and face. His hair is dark and wavy, but gray at the sideburns, gray stubble on his jaw. We have no problem making conversation, but every time the waitress comes by to fill our coffees or clear our plates, she glares at us so hard we both forget what we were even talking about. We keep starting over.
After the check arrives, he thumbs through a mess of dollar bills and asks if I can leave the tip. On our way out, he squeezes my waist as if we’re an old married couple. “It’s so refreshing being around someone like you,” he says.
“Someone like me?” I ask, tapping my Uber app.
Before he answers, a homeless guy pushes a cart of scrap metal past us. He’s got scraggly gray hair and is dressed in several layers of coats and flannels even though it’s sixty degrees. Instinctually, I look down, no eye contact, but then Paul waves.
“Hey, Billy,” he says, “what’s good?”
“Hey, Paul, where’s your sister?”
They laugh as if this is some inside joke. I don’t get it. I order an Uber. It’s six minutes away. I squint in the morning light, wishing I had my sunglasses, wishing I could teleport home, into my shower, under my covers. I can’t believe this was my first one night stand.
The guy pushes his cart down the street and Paul steps closer to me, digging his hands into his pockets. “Sorry about that,” he says. “I should have introduced you.”
“It’s fine,” I say, waiting until the guy is around the corner. “How do you know that homeless dude?”
“Billy’s not homeless,” he says, chuckling. “He used to own the Ramble Room. He took me in when I got clean. I owe everything to that guy.”
“To that guy?”
“Hey, you got another smoke?”
I fish out my pack, which only has two cigarettes left. We smoke them and when my driver arrives, we exchange a hug on the curb, as that seems like something we should do under the circumstances. His flannel smells like sage.
I pull away from him and say, “Please, don’t tell anybody about this.”
He laughs and bops my forehead with a quick kiss.
“We don’t know the same people,” he says.
I think about that the whole ride back to campus. The whole day. The whole night. The next day, the next night, even when I’m back with my friends, roaming dive bars and dance floors. I think about it a few weeks later when I run into the drummer from the sewing factory at a house party. We make out on an itchy couch in the basement. His tongue feels like a helicopter propeller in my mouth and, the whole time, all I think about is Paul’s soft quilt, his soft lips, his soft voice.
I drag through the rest of the semester. In high school, I was the girl that other kids crowded around to watch draw. They’d gush over my sketches of space pirates and alien princesses. Now my classmates say stuff like “it’s fine, if you’re going for a middle-of-the-road thing,” “your techniques are decent but your subjects are so cliche.” Eventually, I stop drawing aliens and princesses altogether.
One snowy afternoon over winter break, I’m sitting at the art museum with my sketchbook, trying to draw like Dirck van Baburen, when I hear this low, soft facetious voice talking about the end of the world.
It’s Paul, and he’s strolling through the 17th century Dutch gallery with a petite middle-age woman. They both look frumpy in big sweaters, flannels, loose jeans, scuffed shoes. I lift my charcoal and start to wave, but he walks straight past me as if I’m one of the statues.
The woman laughs. “If it’s the end of the world,” she says, “I’m holding out for a Picasso.”
“I call dibs on this one,” he says, nodding past me to a painting of two roosters in a cockfight.
They leave, still laughing. I pack up my sketchbook and follow them to the next gallery, eavesdropping. They’re pretending the world has ended outside the museum and they get to pick which paintings to bring back to their apocalyptic hovel. Paul’s friend has terrible stringy, blond hair and terrible taste. She chooses the most obvious pieces: Matisse, Cezanne, Warhol, Pollack.
Paul lingers longer, taking deep, meaningful gazes before making any decisions.
In the last gallery on the modern art floor, he digs his hands into his pockets and whistles a golden melody. I stand on the other side of a glass sculpture, clutching my sketchbook, wondering if he even remembers me.
They circle the sculpture, studying its intricate prisms. “You know, babe,” he says, clucking his tongue. “I don’t think we need any of these.”
I follow them down the steps, through the lobby, into the gift shop. They flip through racks of postcards, lift novelty coffee mugs, pinch novelty socks that say Vincent Van Toe. Paul doesn’t buy anything but she brings a few decorative magnets to the register. I thumb through a coffee table book on Grecian urns.
After the gift shop, they walk to the coat check. She hands the tickets to the clerk. Paul helps her fit into a giant tweed blazer. He wears a faded bomber jacket with a cartoon character on the back, something so uncool it makes me embarrassed.
They walk out of the museum into the snowy, blue night. I sit at a table near the café and start a new sketch of cartoon ducks and mushroom clouds.
The next day, I’m studying pointillism and my phone rings with a number I don’t know. I think it’s probably the manager of the print shop calling to offer me the job I interviewed for last week. Instead, it’s this low, soft, facetious voice asking if I know where to get good clogs.
“Loud ones,” he says, “the kind that go click-clack.”
I don’t get the joke. I don’t even know how he got my number. Yet, part of me wants to play along, ask if he’ll wander around a museum with me some time.
But I don’t.
I say, “Wrong number.”
A few months later, my friends drag me to a strip mall bar that does live music and two dollar pitchers on Tuesday nights. It’s the kind of place with giant jars of pickled eggs on the counters and signs above the bathroom doors that say: “You Look Like I Need a Beer.” Almost everyone is over forty and I don’t know what we’re doing here. My friends, who have to like everything ironically, grab a table by a small stage and order a pitcher and a round of eggs.
I’m prodding a pickled yolk with my tongue when Paul walks onto the stage with his guitar. Quickly, I swallow it, and scan the room. His girlfriend from the art museum sits at the end of the bar, drinking a draft beer that looks too big for her petite frame. I scrunch my shoulders, trying to make myself look as small as possible. One of my friends even says, “Isn’t that the old guy from the sewing factory?”
However, once he starts singing, my friends shut up. They prop their elbows on the table and watch, entranced.
Later, on our ride back to campus, they chatter about how amazing that was. They make comparisons to Leonard Cohen, Eliot Smith, Sufjan Stevens. They don’t get what he’s doing in a place like Cleveland, playing strip mall bars. And I don’t say anything. I don’t add to the conversation at all.
Over the next few years, I see Paul sporadically. After the sewing factory gets shut down, we run into each other at new DIY spots: an old Mexican restaurant that’s been converted into an art gallery; a former barber shop run by noise kids; drafty houses with creaky floorboards and nicknames like “The Open Wound.”
At the start of senior year, I buy a used car and it breaks down two weeks later. I have it towed to a garage where a friend of a friend works. When I’m waiting for the bus, it starts to rain. Paul pedals past on a dirt bike that’s too small for him. He skids to a stop, his hair soaked, and asks if I need a ride. I glare at him and say, “On that?” And he glares back and says, “I can grab Anthony’s car,”—as if I should know who Anthony is—and so I say, “I’ll take the bus,” and he says, “Are you sure?” and I say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure.”
A few months later, I’m buying bread and cheese in the express lane at Stop N’Save. Paul is two lanes over, trying to write a check for a gigantic fruit basket. The cashier says they’ll only take cash or card. He asks for a manager. She says, “He’ll tell you the same thing.” I swerve into their lane and flash my debit card. I say, “I’ll pay for it with my stuff.” The cashier glances between us, waiting. Paul stuffs his checkbook into his shirt pocket and says, “Are you sure?” and I unload my groceries and say, “Paul.”
We walk through the parking lot together and I ask what the basket is for.
“My girlfriend’s aunt died,” he says. “I got it for her uncle.”
“You’re giving him fruit?”
“Why?” he asks, stopping under a bright orange spotlight. “Wait. Do you think that’s weird?”
After graduation, I get promoted at the print shop. My new job requires me to visit clients at their offices. I invest in a wardrobe of slacks and blazers and pencil skirts. I move into a duplex with a couple friends from college. They convert our living room into an art studio. In the mornings, when I brew coffee, the kitchen always smells like acrylics and burnt rice.
On weekends, we hit gallery shows. My high heels clack against the hardwood floors, my underarms sweat beneath my blazers. I feel like a giant when I enter crowded openings. I swerve around corners, barely glancing at the art, searching instead for secret doors and stairwells.
And sometimes I look for Paul, leaning against a wall, chewing on a toothpick, swirling a plastic cup of wine. In most crowds, he’s a hazy spot of comfort. Someone I can talk to without putting on a face.
He glances at my navy blazer and pencil skirt. “Are you like a banker now?” he asks.
“No, I do graphic design,” I say, reaching over him to grab cheese and grapes from the refreshment table. “I just came from a client’s.”
“Aw, too bad,” he says, snapping his fingers, “I was gonna ask you for a mortgage.”
I first meet Jason at a comic book themed gallery show. He’s a painter, only a couple years older than me. We get to talking about how one of the pieces is definitely a rip-off of a Daniel Clowes panel. We spend the rest of the night hopping from bar to bar. He seems to know people at every stop. The bartenders give us free shots, slip us baskets of wings, let us stay after last call, invite us to their after-hours parties. As the pink sky rises, he asks if I want to go back to his place and see his paintings.
He lives in a warehouse in a mostly deserted part of downtown. On our way up the freight elevator, he mentions having anywhere between four and seven roommates, depending on the month.
“It’s cheap rent,” he says. “People come and go.”
Inside, in the hazy morning light, it reminds me of a half-finished construction site. Exposed pipes, wide open ceilings, standing walls, buckets of paint. Jason has an entire room devoted to his studio. The main subject of his paintings is urban decay: mattresses leaning against telephone poles, cars on cinderblocks, skinny girls draped across chain-link fences. He tells me he never went to art school, he taught himself craft from watching You-Tube.
We don’t wake until two p.m. We spend the afternoon tangled in his sheets, half-drunk, still jubilant, talking about everything—neither of us taking a breath, lest the conversation ends. Around six p.m., it starts to get dark again and he asks if I want coffee. I think about my usual Sunday evening routine of going to the gym, listening to true-crime podcasts, and prepping work lunches for the week. I know I’ll be wrecked come Monday, but I don’t care.
He dresses in a paint splattered t-shirt and a pair of red checkered boxers. I change into my sweater and mini-skirt from the night before, no nylons. He tosses me a pair of flip-flops and says, “There’s always shit on the floor.”
I sit on the kitchen counter as he boils water on the stove for a French press. While we wait, he pushes himself against me, sliding his hands along my thighs, lifting my skirt.
Heavy footsteps thump around the corner. I jerk upright and see Paul passing by with a foot long sub under his arm. He’s dressed in army green coveralls and steel-toed boots.
“Hey, Jason,” he says. “Hi, Angie.” Then he hurries past the kitchen, disappearing down one of the haphazard hallways.
Jason buries his head into my chest, laughing. My cheeks burn. He hops away from me to turn off the stove and I lower my skirt, covering my thighs.
“How do you know Paul?” he asks, pouring water over the coffee grounds.
“From around,” I say, hesitating. “I used to hang out at the sewing factory.”
“No shit,” he says. “I don’t remember you.”
And that’s all we ever say about it.
Most weekends, I stay at Jason’s. Unlike my place, there’s almost always something happening at his. Three of his roommates are in bands, and when they practice, everyone hangs out afterwards. Some nights, they throw shows and the loft is packed tighter than most clubs.
But when there’s nothing happening, Jason sulks. He’ll drag around the loft, texting friends, scrolling Facebook, pestering me and his roommates. Entertaining him isn’t so easy, since all my friends bore him, too. He works odd jobs, so his schedule is never set. Some days, he hauls lumber, other days he cleans foreclosed houses. Days he doesn’t work, he starts drinking around two or three, and by seven he’s looking to pick fights over nothing. There’s no predicting what details will aggravate him. He’ll complain about my high heels making me too tall, say I use too many cups of water to make coffee, groan about my ringtone, cough because my hair spray smells like lemon Pledge.
He does the same thing to his roommates and friends, but all of them seem to have their own ways of dealing with him. Paul is the best because nothing ever seems to bother him. He’ll chuckle and shrug, crack a dry joke, and Jason will sulk off to find another target.
One night, when Jason’s painting in his studio, I talk to Paul about this in the kitchen. He spreads peanut butter across bread and I sit on the counter, kicking my feet. Jason’s got the music cranked so loud I know he can’t hear us.
“If he’s not constantly doing something,” I say, “he just looks for fights.”
“He’s always been that way,” Paul says, scraping the knife against the jar. “It’s how he is.”
“But why?” I ask. “Why is he like that?”
“He’s my boyfriend.”
He steps up to the sink to rinse his hands. He’s so close I can smell that scent of sage and smoke that lingers on him. “Angie,” he says, drying his hands on a rag, “understanding why he is the way he is won’t make him any less annoying. You either like him for who he is or you don’t.”
I feel the warmth from the gas stove on my legs. A slick of sweat runs down my neck, my back, beneath my thighs. We’ve known each other for years, Paul and I, but I realize then that we don’t know anything about each other.
Jason’s music stops. Down the hall, his studio door swings open. He strolls through the loft, carrying an empty coffee mug, his forearms flecked with yellow paint. He pays no attention to Paul as he plucks a six-pack from the fridge.
“Hey, babe,” he says, grinning. “Lou just texted. They’re all at the Cathedral.”
“Cool,” I say, hopping off the counter, twisting straight past Paul. “Let’s go.”
Despite its name, the Cathedral is not a former church. From the outside, it looks like it might have once been a storefront, selling vacuum cleaners or hiking boots. Inside, a projector shows B-movies from the 1970’s against the wall. Faded landscapes, primary colors, biker chicks in mini-skirts, demonic children, aliens in white robes, androids dressed as priests.
As the movie plays, Jason mingles with his friends and I wander. Whenever I go out with him, it feels like I’m crashing another person’s high school reunion. Everybody looks familiar from far away, but when they come close, I realize they’re just archetypes of old friends or classmates or crushes.
The movie erupts into a screaming frenzy. Loud, ominous music thumps. It’s a killing scene. The biker chicks versus the aliens with the robot clergy caught in the middle. I can’t keep track. It all blurs together. There’s no real story to follow.
I slip into the room behind the projector and grab a cold beer from a dorm fridge. I step through another door that leads to a narrow hallway, lit only by a blurry, red EXIT sign. From there, I wind up in a fenced-in backyard where a dozen people stand around smoking and chattering. None of them notice me as I circle the yard, looking for something that isn’t there.
About a week later, on my way up to meet Jason at the loft, I find Paul loading boxes into the freight elevator. I notice his guitar in the corner and ask where he’s going.
“Moving in with Stacey,” he says, as if I should know who Stacey is. “She bought a house in Parma.”
“Oh,” I say, disappointed. “You should have asked me for a mortgage.”
“Aw,” he says, wiping sweat from his brow, “maybe next time.”
“So you’re really leaving?” I say, more seriously, stepping over two army green duffle bags.
“We’ll see each other around.”
“But we don’t know the same people.”
“No,” he says, smiling, “we don’t.”
Eventually, Jason and I break up over pizza crust. One night, I grab us a deep dish pie—not a thin n’crispy—and this prompts him to lecture me for twenty minutes about how I don’t really know who he is or what he values. I grab the box and say I’ll go back to the pizza shop and get another. I drive away and never return.
In the following months, I spend more time with friends. We actively avoid bars that don’t check IDs. Instead, we go to local breweries and craft cocktail lounges. When we talk about our early college days, we swap stories about all the creeps who used to buy us drinks, who snuck us into their clubs, who cut lines for us in moldy basements. We swipe through Tinder and giggle over our mutual matches and their stupid mountain climbing pics. We have breakdowns over turning twenty-five, but by twenty-six we hardly fuss. I go on dates with utterly normal guys who work in finance and health care and law. When I bring them back to my apartment and show them my sketches, they gush, genuinely impressed, as if I’m some kind of artist.
One spring night, I’m walking with a date through downtown. The streets are busy and brightly lit. It’s sixty-five degrees and every patio bar is packed. We’re on our way to an upscale sushi lounge, the kind of place where celebrities eat when they’re in town. My date is telling me how his marketing firm represents a local celebrity chef, which is how he was able to pull strings for the reservation. I don’t catch the details because a golden melody curls around the corner, drawing me close.
Instead of turning right, I go left, and walk quickly toward the crowded patio of a craft brewery. Paul sits high on a stool, plucking his guitar. His face is lit by green and purple neon coming from inside the bar, electrifying his salt-and-pepper hair. It sounds like he’s playing a cover song—something familiar, a song everybody ought to know—but I can’t place. I never can with him.
I stand at the edge of the patio, behind a gate blooming with lavender and lemon verbena. Paul glances at me and flashes a surprised grin. It makes me smile more. As he continues singing, he nods at me, letting me in on an inside joke. A warm breeze rolls down the street, making the smoke and herbs and craft beer smell more alive. My date squeezes my shoulder, reminding me of our reservation. The crowd claps and Paul starts a new song, another one that sounds familiar. One I know I’ll have in my head long after we walk off to dinner.