2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
by Jessica Harman
My two friends and I were sitting in a restaurant in Brooklyn, talking about a girl named, “Knife.” Knife was not okay, when I asked. But some people’s lives never are, and never were.
The restaurant, like many in Williamsburg, had a theme. This one’s theme was a beach in Hawaii. Sand covered the floor where the tables were, and the sand was at least four inches thick. There was an inside part of the restaurant, and also a patio. Sand covered the floor both inside, where there were jukeboxes that glowed with cherry lemon lime colored neon in stripes; the sand covered the patio floor outdoors, too.
Waiters who were very skilled at moving their feet across the sand brought burgers with pineapple on them to seated people who had looks of surprise on their faces. This was a restaurant with the element of surprise, I could tell.
My friends and I were the type of people who like to do unusual things. I was the one who liked safety the best. No bungee jumping for me, though both of my other friends had done it.
Evelyn was studying curating. She kept trying to get me into it, because I am a good artist’s assistant. I worked for a year for Carlos Gallardo, gluing letters on translucent paper backwards and upside down on canvases that were going to be scribbled on and partially speckled with plaster. You have to understand the beauty of erasure, and what time takes away.
I think contemporary art is about absence as much as it is about presence. Evelyn knows this, and makes great art herself, mostly using oil paint and incredibly toxic solvents. She doesn’t want to be an artist herself, though. She just does it for fun. She wants to curate. She is more interested in putting other people’s work into a cohesive whole. I don’t understand it. I want to be a famous artist.
We were wondering what Knife would do. She was a former roommate of Evelyn’s, in the loft with exposed brick walls as well as exposed piping. There was a bathtub in the middle of the loft, and the former roommates hung up four shower curtains on a sort of makeshift tent around the bathtub. Evelyn told us this as if it were symbolic of the glamour she was living, being a curator in Brooklyn. Personally, I could not imagine a more interesting life.
There was the problem of Knife. She was one of the roommates, just a girl who didn’t know where she belonged, where she was going, or why.
Evelyn adjusted a maraschino cherry speared on a long toothpick in her Shirley Temple, “She would shake all the time, and she wasn’t on drugs.”
I asked, “Why did she shake? Did she have a disease?”
Mary said, “It was just from trauma. You know…”
I turned to Mary with a flick of my deer-like neck framed in chestnut hair, “Did you ever meet her?”
Mary was always trying to sound like she had met people she didn’t know. But then again, Mary was really smart and could find out what made people tick just by looking at them and having a three minute conversation with them. Mary knew, when we lived in Boston, that Alec wouldn’t make a good roommate for us because he was too social. She said if he ever felt upset or in need of recharging his energy level, he’d just invite like five friends over, and hang out all night. I said that no, he wasn’t like that—he was a nerdy writer/artist/musician like us, who enjoyed solitude and fine wine. However, when Alec moved in with us, there all his friends were, too, hanging out in the living room, playing Risk, drinking Coors, and ordering several extra -large pizzas at once.
Mary also knew who was consoled by philosophy, who was consoled by bad romantic vampire movies. Evelyn was consoled by bad romantic vampire movies. Who would have pegged her as the type?
I looked at Evelyn and mentally laughed at all the movie stars I knew she found hot, who I did not find hot at all. She’s into Jude Law; I’m into Tom Cruise.
Evelyn makes me nervous because she’s a genius, and a genius curator, and a genius artist, and I am not any of those things, though I still beat her a fair number of times at chess during tea and griping ceremonies we used to have at 4 AM. I remember those times fondly. They study Evelyn’s brain in studies on really smart people at Harvard. They study my brain, too, but for different reasons.
I’m just not wired like other people, for better or worse. I’m autistic. This makes me seem like I’m permanently on e. The world’s colors, smells, tastes, sights, and sounds just come at me and look all fruity all the time, much like things in the restaurant were, at that moment. Cherry lemon lime blueberry jukeboxes; maraschino cherries that glittered as if they were covered in stardust, sand under my toes feeling like grains of the beginning or end of the galaxy (I took my black flats off, and my nude toes enjoyed that).
The waiter’s smile was intimidating it was so broad. All I saw of him was his mouth. I didn’t even hear him ask me if I wanted another mimosa. I deduced his question from the blank gaze of mine he was returning with his smiling mouth and staring teeth, which were pretty straight, I noticed.
I glanced at Mary and Evelyn, and their faces said, “Say something to the waiter.”
I said, “Yes, I’ll have another mimosa, thank-you.”
The waiter spun around in the sand, satisfied, apparently. He receded into the shadow of background chatter that was illuminated by little strands of colorful Christmas-tree lights strewn across a raw wood picket fence that made its way through partitions.
We were happy. I was happy, but I think all of us were happy. We were friends, and we were together, and we were living life, and we were here, where it was at. We were cool. We were not “there,” yet, but we were up and coming, and on our way there. What more, really, could you ask of the moment?
My mimosa came in a shower of hands like invisible wings fluttering.
“No, I never met Knife. But…” Mary said.
“She saw her from a distance, down the street.” Evelyn said.
Mary said, “I saw her blue and orange Mohawk.”
I asked, “She had a Mohawk?”
Evelyn said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and I had just said something incredibly offensive or naïve, “Yeah.”
I tried to save myself by getting deep, “So what was her deal? I mean, what was she about?”
A shadow appeared on my friends’ faces. Mary looked at Evelyn in a concerned way. For a moment, Evelyn was speechless.
An order of fries came for the table next to ours, where two guys and two blonde girls were wearing DIY T-shirts with spiders and skulls on them. I was momentarily distracted, and wondered why I didn’t know what to think of the younger people next to us. Who were they? Did it matter?
Evelyn’s black braids made her look like an ingénue, and her skin glowed. She always used amazing four-hundred-dollar face cream, then complained for two weeks afterwards about how much it cost at Saks. I could use a little face cream, myself. I made a mental note to invest in a thirty-dollar bottle of Oil of Olay. I hear it really works.
Evelyn said, “She ran away when she was sixteen. She was living somewhere upstate or something. She decided New York City was where it was at. I don’t know. She came here.”
I said, to get more out of her, “Yeah?”
“She couldn’t get a job because of the Mohawk. So she just went around with these guys who she’d live with, and, I don’t know, they abused her. So that’s why she shakes all the time. And now she can’t get a job because she shakes all the time.”
We all looked at each other trying not to look at each other.
I asked, “Is she okay?”
Evelyn spat, “No, she’s not. She’s not okay.”
We all looked at everyone trying not to look at me. It was a terrible thought to think that someone was not okay. It’s one thing to not be okay in a small town, and another to not be okay in New York City. I felt helpless at that moment, realizing that if someone’s not okay, and you don’t know them, there’s really not much you can do.
Human nature is often ugly. The best thing you can do is to try to not be ugly, yourself. We all are, though, so you can’t really avoid it. We are all beautiful and ugly from the skin down to the bone.
I put my shoes back on, underneath the table, and bid farewell to the sand with my toes. I didn’t want to feel too comfortable, too happy, knowing that someone else was not okay. But a lot of people are not okay. Are most people okay, or not okay? In Brooklyn? In New York? In the world?
We ate our burgers with pineapple on them and our sides of fries when they came. We had all ordered the same thing, and that was just a coincidence.
On the way home, we went to a bakery and got cupcakes with chocolate frosting and blue, pink, and yellow sprinkles. We ate them on a bench overlooking a street with houses whose front yards had all been paved over with concrete.
After cupcakes, we walked towards the subway station. Under an overpass, I felt very glamorous in a Brooklyn kind of way as the wind blew. Knife was not okay, but I was okay. I felt a little guilty about this, but not too much. You have to be happy for yourself now and then.
At that moment, I wanted to fall in love, desperately and passionately, the way lovers do in romantic vampire movies. I wanted to be epic, but I was in Brooklyn among genius curators, and I felt small. I felt like I could get there, though. I knew I could. If I put my mind to it, I could get there.