by Marin Kosut
At four, I wore a fringed black dress formerly owned by a go-go dancer who worked at my grandmother’s bar. There’s a photo of me in the dress smirking in the driveway of my family’s ranch-burger house, eyes behind bangs, sweeping the fringe forward like liquid through my hands. I liked how the strands split apart and landed back into place.
Behind me, in the background, you can see Mr. Ort holding his smashing hammer. On the weekends, Mr. Ort smashed thick glass bottles against his driveway all day, then broomed it into piles, bagged it up, and drove it to the dump. The sound violently split the silence. My mother cried. My father called the police, but Mr. Ort had town connections. I watched him raise the hammer above his head from my bedroom window, which rattled when his glass shattered across the grass. I’d try to look out for stray shards, but came home speckled with tiny cuts.
At fourteen, I understood my geography. I knew people who lived in the heights behind iron gates and bronze plaques; I lived downhill. I rode up their driveways that ended in circles. I realized they never reversed and only steered forward. I looked out the panes of their windows at emerald hedges and ivied trellises. I heard the springy pop of tennis balls on clay courts. I wanted a grand life, but I was raised to be regular.
At forty, I found a description of a one-bedroom apartment on the “parlor floor of a historic town home” in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district. Baited, I pictured the plaster moldings and baroque crowns; what I’d do in a parlor, who I could become. It was cheap and included heat. I contacted the owner, Sandy Dune, and she invited me to an open-house viewing. Sandy said she preferred couples, and she appreciated that Andre was in possession of an MFA and I a PhD. We sent our links, she clicked. Exclamations soon punctuated her electronic messages. She wouldn’t subject us to a “big headache process like the realtors.” She said, “I’m easy!” Sandy wore flip flops.
Sandy started calling. She called our landlord, Mr. Kroker, who wasn’t a waiter but dressed like one, in black slacks and white blouses. Mr. Kroker was a talker. Before I rented his property, he ran an unsuccessful campaign to become a councilman. He showed me a box full of red pins with a gray photo of his pink face. After his mother died his bachelorhood came to an end. He brought over his wife; in four years she had three angels. They lived above us in apartment two and shrieked demonically. Unexpectedly, a letter left under the kitchen door said Mr. Kroker sold the building and we were to leave. He wrote a flamboyant letter vowing our tenant-ness. Sandy said, “He’s a real character, that Kroker!”
Andre was an artist and his credit score was criminally low. Sandy called Andre’s father, a man who’s done well for himself in contracts. She said, “Andre’s father is very polite and professional. I’m impressed.” And yet, Sandy insisted that his father co-sign the lease, binding the four of us by law. I was always wary of contractual interactions. It was sixteen pages, twenty-three with the addition of the addendums. I stopped reading after the first, but I signed my name at every arrow.
Sandy left extra keys and a bundle of magical sage wrapped in yellow string. Near it, a post-it which said, “To cleanse the vibes of the apartment.” I was alone when I found it. I set it on fire, it caught fast, flamed like a piece of paper. I gusted air toward it like a carp. The fire alarm kept mute.
Sandy’s town home was popcorn surfaced and murkishly tinted; neither gray, beige, brown, purple, or pink. If forced to call it a color, I’d say puce, the French word for flea. In the cement front yard, a chipped ceramic Zebra lay abandoned in a square of crab grass and weeds. Although we were grill-less, Sandy encouraged us to cook near it. She said, “go for it.” We could plant lavender, we could plant tomatoes. Sandy had an imagination—she attended art school in the eighties and once showed her paintings at a gallery called Pierogi. Sandy said, “Of course, you can’t make money being an artist, even then.” She told me she had to go “total wild west,” and became a pioneer by buying properties in the Park Slope district. “Not like now with the nannies. When it was dangerous, you have no idea.”
Sandy’s stretcher bars, bought at Blick in the nineties, were “like new and still good.” She asked Andre if he would want to paint on them. Forty dollars each or three for a hundred; the deal. When he declined, she asked him to reach out to his “artist network.” Sandy said they were better because they were vintage. Andre said that the stretchers were never better, and selling them was like selling broken crutches.
The town home, erected in 1920, was rejuvenated economically. Frosted glass covered the ceiling lightbulbs. I saw the shells on sale at the nearby Home Depot, displayed next to a neon sign shaped like a star; $4.99. How much light can a person absorb? When I flicked the switch, they flashed across the kitchen cabinet, the top of the stove. Rubber gloved, we scrubbed. Cleaning drew us together; Andre and I were tethered by trouble. I found russet exoskeletons in drawers. I freed the aroma of cat urine wiping the porous floors and hollow doors. I felt victorious, I outvied pestilence.
Shrunken, the bedroom fit only a two-bodied mattress. We didn’t lay down, we crawled to sleep on our hands and knees. The reduce scale and burglar bars on the windows confined and protected us, like a crate for rabbits or chickens. We banged our elbows and heads against the wall. I appreciated bruises.
We settled in for eight seasons. Sandy spent six weeks in Costa Rica every winter. “Winters in New York are dreadful, the ice on the sidewalks, oh my god, the wind,” she said. Sandy sent a photo of a wispy rainbow slipping into a mountainous rainforest canopy. Words followed: Happy Holidays…Wishing you a magical New Year! I surveyed the tableau outside the bedroom window; a ripped cardboard box, beer bottle caps, one white and black-striped tube sock, and a used Huggies for girls strangled in the snow.
Andre began to drink Jim Beam by the handle. He stayed out with his art handling friends from the gallery. Some were from Ireland, philosophers and storytellers, they were like family. He came home at an hour that was both very late and too early, and stared at me like a murderer. He said “boring bitch” to me as he lolled sideways on the couch with his shoes and coat on. A messenger bag wrapped across his torso like a seat belt. I shed tears and smoked a cigarette until I hit the tarred filter.
I watched Carl, the neighbor next door, parked on a swivel office chair in front of his building. A casual overlord, he smoked weed throughout the day, weather permitting. He had beef with Sandy, which was also transferred onto her tenants. Sandy said Carl was “all bark and no bite,” but she did take a restraining order out on his friend Khalil. She said, “Khalil threatened to kill me, so I wanted that on the record.” I never met Khalil, but I felt a connection.
Carl worked from home. His house was a trap. He hosted parties that began when we started sleeping, and ended when we were slated to wake up. The bass thudded through all matter – bones and walls. The worn-out stove clinked in the kitchen, a scorpion, mounted and framed behind glass, leapt off a nail. Andre saw the scorpion as a crucifix.
Searching for sleep, I broke it off with Sandy, who boiled over. On moving day, Carl took my grimy air conditioning unit and an antlered taxidermy. He dropped them near his sidewalk, smoked a fat blunt and sighed a cloud. I believe he winked at me while I walked away.
Our new landlord Gino, a hip hop composer from Marseilles, wore a backwards baseball cap and smoked cigars. He rented us a garden-level flat in his brownstone without checking our references. When brownstone is quarried its pinkish, but cures over time into a warm chocolaty color – a metamorphic puce. Edith Wharton said brownstone is the most hideous rock; it made New York “hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness.” I didn’t see it how she saw it. I imagined each stone came from Lascaux, the prehistoric cave drawn in symbols. Archeologists say airless caves are ontological arenas, a place to transition between states of being. I thought I would mushroom in the flat’s darkness.
Damp and dim, the flat sunk under the sidewalk. Lying in bed, I stared at the garbage cans that became a permanent part of my picture. Between them leaned a broken full-length mirror left behind by the last tenant. When I took out the trash, I looked down at my reflection and saw my body sliced inside a Gothic glass spiderweb. I smirked, imagining the conceivable scenarios that cracked the mirror. I was at ease with accidents; they were my cure.
Marin Kosut‘s writing appears in Cabinet Magazine, Rejection Letters, Hobart, and elsewhere. Her forthcoming book Art Monster: On the Possibility of New York, will be published by Columbia University Press in Spring 2024. She founded Pay Fauxn, a gallery experiment in an abandoned pay phone shell at a bus stop in Brooklyn. A MacDowell recipient, she works as a Professor of Sociology at Purchase College, State University of New York, and lives in Brooklyn.