MARK FABIANO - PERFORMANCE ART
Mark Fabiano's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, The Saturday Evening Review, Best New Writing, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The Long Story and others. His fiction has won Runner-Up in The Great American Fiction Contest, an Editor's Choice Award in Best New Writing 2017, an Honrable Mention in the American Literary Review, and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in Fiction. He has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from George Mason University, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka -the setting for other stories, and his novel. He has taught creative writing, literature, and other courses at various colleges for over 11 years. You can read more at his website: markfabiano.com
Her cell buzzed on the marble countertop in Sam’s kitchen as he loaded his dishwasher. Instinctively, he reached for it, pressed its green answer button, and placed it between his ear and his hunched-up shoulder. Before he managed a greeting, he heard a man’s voice on the other end talking as if directly to the phone’s owner, Delia, his lover.
“Delia? Can you hear me?”
Sam pulled the phone away from his ear as if it were a wasp ready to sting, and looked at the caller ID that displayed Delia’s husband’s name “Hudson” in green LCD lettering.
“Delia. What’s that a dishwasher? Where the hell are you?”
Still intoxicated from the combined fog of afternoon rum, pot, and illicit sex that he had just shared with Delia, he slowly recognized his error. It was wrong to answer this phone. He hung up the cell. The tiny beep lost to the churning of the Hobart, the latest edition to the kitchen of this one bedroom DuPont Circle apartment—inherited when his mother passed.
Sam put the phone back on the counter, and tried to arrange it the way he’d found it. Pointing towards the maple cabinets or away? Perpendicular or parallel to the squares or grooves on the marble counter top.
Then, it buzzed again. And again. She needed to know. After all, her husband would question her. Maybe this meant something. His answering it accidently. Maybe it was time for them to come clean. She’d never go for that. Sam tried running through his head, what sounds like a dishwasher at an art gallery?
He decided to bring it to her. She lay on the bed, propped up, drinking from a can of soda and reading a magazine, wearing only one of his “I’m With Her” t-shirts in stark rebellion to her husband’s politics. And here she was, reveling in her sleeping with the enemy. Without looking away from her reading, she murmured with satisfaction, and then slid bare legs under the black sheets.
She turned her body towards him. “What’s up?”
“Your husband. He just called.”
“Nice. What did he want?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“You mean you didn’t tell him how much fun it was to fuck his wife silly?”
He jumped onto the bed and she rolled into his arms, crumpling magazine pages. He held the cell out.
“Actually, he called like three times I think. See?”
She kissed him, drunk from their session. To play along with his game, she looked up at the cell. Then her eyes widened as she took the phone and sat up. “Oh shit. You answered it?”
“Sam. What the fuck?”
“Listen. I was just doing the dishes. It buzzed. I wasn’t thinking…”
“What the hell did you do?”
“Nothing. I mean I answered it.”
“Oh, my god, Sam.”
“He just said your name. And…”
“And what? Sam!”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t really hear but something about the dishwasher. I was running the dishwasher.”
“Then I just hung up.”
She stood up on the bed; hand on hip, the other holding the phone, looking down at him. Her slender body, tall and towering just below the swirling ceiling fan above her.
“So, let me get this straight. Your lover’s phone rings and you answer it. Then you hear her husband on the other end. Then you hang up on him.”
“What was I supposed to say, ‘hey there Hudson, how’s it going? How about those ‘skins? Delia? Yes, she is right here. We were just fucking.’”
She waved him off. “Doesn’t what we have mean anything to you? I thought we agreed.”
“Look baby, I didn’t say anything. He doesn’t know.”
“Right. He doesn’t know. But now he’s wondering why there was no wifey on the other end but there was a blissful domestic humming in the background. And look. Two, three…. six! He called back six times and I didn’t answer.”
“I know. It’s bad. I mean. I was trying to think about what sounds like a dishwasher at the National Gallery.” An idea popped into his mind. “Maybe you could say it was performance art.”
“Yeah. You know like something from the 60s.”
She rolled her eyes. “Like?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t around then. But when I was at UVA, there was this female artist who sat on a metal folding chair at a card table with a notebook and a clock. Every time someone asked her what she was doing she wrote down the time.”
“What the hell for?”
“I’m not sure. I think she was trying to determine some kind of pattern, intervals, you know between one person and the next.” Maybe a meditation on how people think about time or interact with it, he wanted to say. It would be interesting to find that artist and ask her. See what became of her project. “And so, you could say it was performance art.”
“You’re such a commie. I suppose that big march for women was performance art. I mean it seemed like they had a hundred different causes?”
“Stop it.” He snapped back. His mother had been the first female attorney at her firm, the first female to graduate with honors from her law school. Her fervent activism had made its way into Sam’s DNA so that he recoiled physically whenever they talked politics. He continued, “It was completely cohesive. All of those causes, voting, health, choice, environment, economic, family, diversity, are all women’s rights.”
“O.K. Easy there Bernie! I get it.” She held out her hands palms down like she was patting down on an invisible tabletop. “But what exactly would this performance art that sounds like a dishwasher look like?”
“I don’t know.” He looked around the room, fishing for ideas, trying to buy some time. He wished he could go back and not answer it. But maybe there was a reason he did. Fate intervened. The same way it did when they met at the Library of Congress where as a docent he gave tours, assisted scholars, and sometimes read aloud to small groups. She had been lulling about the stacks looking for fiction outside his small office in that well-to-do, bored housewife sort of way. She’d looked up and asked him where she might find Updike. But when he led her to a book of his essays, she’d frowned. Like she was now. Had he just ruined their whole affair? She was younger. She could find other lovers. Maybe she already had? He felt awkward about his nakedness, his slender, pale body. He looked at the pile of their clothes and thought of doing laundry. “Maybe it was a washing machine, and like this artist invites patrons to bring clothes in for him to wash there in the gallery.”
“Well, why would this artist have a washing machine, Sam?”
“Well, maybe he adds colors to them, or makes something from them, or gives them away to poor kids.”
He watched her shake her head. “And what if Hudson wonders why there’s no review in the Post?”
“Well, then. Maybe you were near a closed part of the gallery where they were waxing the floor.”
“Yeah right, Sam.”
“Well it’s not like he heard a man's voice say “Hello.”
“Damn you. Damn you.”
He took just a deep breath.
“We’ve got to think of something.” She plopped the phone down on the mattress and crossed the bedroom on her way to the bathroom. She turned towards him at the doorway and said, “Think! Will you?”
Yeah right, he thought. She disappeared down the hall and he heard the bathroom door close. His heart felt heavy and dark despite all the booze and pot. Or maybe because of it. Maybe it was the sex. Illicit sex was a turn on for both of them. And here he was, 49, never married. No significant relationships. Thinking maybe she was his soul mate. Light from the street cast a pale glow on the high walls. A large rectangular patch of wall, brighter than its surrounding wall, revealed where his mother had hung the painting of the country home in Leesburg. He’d taken it down and put it in storage along with most of her artifacts. He’d felt that if he kept any of her things in his bedroom, it would be like she was watching him. Like an angel or some invisible judge, implacable and critical. And judge she would-that instead of starting a fine family like his brother ,who’d also become a lawyer, he was working at a library and having an affair with a married woman- and a Republican too! He heard a buzz and felt a small vibration on the surface of the bed. Looking down he noticed a text message from her husband “Where are you?”
Sam picked it up, tempted to text back “I am with my lover,” But he dared not. Still some confrontation waited for them. Left to her taking action, they would never move forward. Noticing the tiny icons for network, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi at the top row, he had an idea. He quickly went into settings and turned on “sharing” in the GPS. He put the phone down just as she entered.
“Well, any ideas?” She returned to her side of the bed.
He took a deep breath. Here goes he thought, trying to bolster himself. But he wouldn’t tell her about the GPS. “We could, you know, just tell the truth.” There. It was out. What he’d wanted to do ever since their affair had graduated from an occasional motel room near Fairfax, to seeing each other three times a week here. If that wasn’t love, what was?
“You are incredible! I mean, I can’t believe it. You are such a…”
“Great lover? You can’t help but be in love?”
“Look Sam. What we have is great. Let’s just stay in the moment.”
“I love making love with you. And you are so smart, about books and all.” She shrugs and says “but what would we do besides…” she moves her hand in gesture across the bed “this?”
“I am sure we could find things to do, Delia.”
“Like?” She grinned even as she relaxed in that way which told him she was content even if he wasn’t. But then she continued before he could answer which was great because he didn’t have an answer. “I’m into kundalini yoga, and you call it a cult. I’m into selling real estate and you are into books. I ski and do Barre Method and you got to counseling.”
“So?” He didn’t want to go there. Not in the middle of another disagreement about where they were headed. In fact, his counselor had challenged him to list the reasons for having this affair, for believing Delia and he could be more permanent. To date, he’d only listed items about her smart attitude, her looks, her style. But he knew this was as superficial as he’d thought her to be. Yet he wanted her, them to be together so badly. He felt it in his bones, he’d said to his counselor.
“We are very different you and I, right down to ow we think even about art. For example,” she held up the empty diet soda can. “What does this logo mean to you?”
He acted wary. After all, she’d worked in fashion. He felt like it was a test that if he failed, would mean the end of what they had. Not to mention what he hoped they could yet have together. And besides, how could a stupid ad compare with serious art. If indeed performance art was meant to be serious, fine art. He wished he knew more about that genre. But he could only dimly recall an example from his art history class. Something about Dadaism. Besides, the whole purpose of performance art was to challenge the norm. Not conform to it. But he didn’t want to correct her. You couldn’t confront Delia-she didn’t like being contradicted in her beliefs. He studied the design. A silver can with a circle in the center where the top half was red and the bottom half was blue. A wavy, white line separated the halves across the center. It could be anything he thought. “Well it looks like a setting sun, over an ocean.”
“That’s nice, but think about what action is being performed.”
He didn’t care. He didn’t want to play. He hated advertising, marketing, commercialism. And at once before answering he saw her point and that realization held his breath in check. Of course, she was right. But he wouldn’t admit it to her. Her little demonstration, this act of hers, was just that. Something out of a bad soap opera. “It’s just pop. Red white and blue. Go USA. Whatever.”
“No. It’s more than that. It’s a tennis ball getting hit by the racket at just that point when it twangs! And that matches the fizzy zing of the taste, right?”
He shrugged a little less than he would have if he’d been right. He held the truth of her point, they were very different in how they saw the world. But then, he let it play a little more. “Well, so what? We’re different. That’s a good thing.”
“I’m not saying it isn’t. Just adding a little perspective. Right?”
He threw up his arms. “I get it. I’m fun but I am just fun! No need to think about any future.”
They turned away from one another. Her phone buzzed several times, like large question marks, signifying their own confusion. She didn’t bother to pick it up. He imagined Hudson’s Porsche pulling up beside his building below. Frantically searching for the possible location of her signal. Honing in closer
She spoke first. “Look Sam. Remember when I talked about trust. Its just that for me trust means money. I have to know you have something.”
His stomach tightened and he shook his head in a daze. Inside he felt as if he hardly knew this woman. How could he ever fall in love with a woman so ironically bereft of feminist principles? But had he?
“I know Hudson’s not all that. But at the end of the day I know he will take care of us. And you just don’t have…”
“I make more money than you do.”
“But what do you have to show for it? I can’t live in this tiny place.”
His ears rang. His gut roiled with frustration and anger. What am I thinking here? I’m not thinking. That’s the trouble. He sat up and began sorting through the clothes on the floor, and separating them. A pile for hers and a neat folded pile for his. He could only blame himself. He’d let himself fall in love. It was supposed to stay fun. Light. “In the moment” to coin her favorite phrase.
He heard her sigh and felt her eyes at his back. “Look, we’ve talked about that, Sam. It doesn’t make any sense to tell him now.”
Was Hudson out there, driving smaller and closer circumambulations, trying to get within the few yards to better locate her? Will I put up a fight?, thought Sam. “Oh, that’s right. I forgot. The kids. The ones you and Hudson send off to camp for the full summer. That’s ok. You want to spare their feelings, I know.”
“And what the hell does it matter. I know you don’t really love me. Delia. You don’t. You say so when we make love, but you don’t care. Hell, for all I know you probably have other lovers too!”
“Men are such babies. Listen to yourself.” She reached towards him from her kneeling position on the bed, but he jerked away. Then she threw her arms up in the air, “I will think of something. I can say I stopped off at Heather’s. And she went on and on about her divorce again while she was doing the dishes and the signal dropped.”
Was that the building door buzzer ringing? He was finished making the piles. He was wondering if he had been harsh not to fold her clothes too. He started thinking maybe he should, when he felt her hand on his shoulder.
“Come back to me. Let’s have another drink and relax.”
“And your husband?”
“Look, I’m turning the phone off. See?”
“But what will you tell him. Will you? Ever?”
“Now’s not the time for that, lover.” She pulled him back down onto the bed, and climbing on top, lowered her face close to his, her blond mane covering their faces, like they were in a tent of her hair, and no one else could see. But he could see. And now he hoped the footsteps he heard coming down the hall towards them would neither interrupt them nor change anything.