You Only Live Once

Posted on August 16, 2012 by


Something was wrong with us; that was our meeting place. It was like we both had a kind of fever. Or a bottomless hole, in the same part of our souls. Or maybe it was only that his hole fit perfectly around the edges of my fever. I don’t know.

Technically I lived with Callum 10 months at Carolyn Kronski’s loft, along with 6 others, while I was on my internship with the gallery. At the time he made these sculptures involving dead pigeons he found in the street. He would seal them in big ziploc bags with a bunch of sweepings from his workshop. Glitter and dander, cuttings and dust. He began experimenting with backgrounds, just a sheet of pastel construction paper or later printout screenshots from 1970s pornographic movies, and when he hung them that way on the wall his effort seemed more like collage. How the pigeons entered his work I’ll never know; later still, of course, the black and white porn became his motif and, when arranged in varying degrees of connection with painted lightbulbs, made his future. But during this period of evolution, from sacks with birds to tented dioramas, I was there in the nights, and Tuesdays, and soon every night, when we came home at all, and most of every day, by the end, and always all day Sundays. We could never escape Sundays.

Sunday was either not a day, just a parenthesis between Saturday and Monday, or a double day, two separate 24-hour spans somehow straddled between those other two, a bonus made from forsaken sleep.

But it started one week on a Tuesday.

Tuesdays were more or less my day off, but for a little extra pay I used them to work from home cataloging artist biographies for ArtNet. This almost mindless chore came with no real deadline so long as I filed a certain number of assigned entries per week, and I could always get them done in the one free weekday without gallery shifts, usually in a few hours in the afternoon.

I let Dwight O’Hara spend the night before, my first boy in Carolyn’s subleased room, and inhabiting the room was still so new for me that after I let him out I spent the morning indulging in the space as if I were a woman left alone in some stranger’s house after a tryst, rather than my familiar own. I put on a long tshirt and tiptoed around the large common room, pulling books off the shelf, Aphra Behn, Hunter Thompson, everyone had a shark to hunt. I stole some roommate’s coffee and brewed a cup. I stowed myself under covers and read alongside a lit pipe of hash.

I wandered out again sometime after 3 to use the toilet, when my illusion crashed. Callum looked up at me from the dining table, now covered in his craft. A curious, unashamed stare.

It was not the first time I’d seen him. In point of fact, we met at an exhibition downtown some weeks earlier, when Carolyn put our elbows together. It was a show of domination equipment and torture devices, quite surreally constructed but all functional, and I held my own by telling him how I planned to write a book with my dominatrix friend about her trade. (She ended up dating too many of her clients to maintain my comfort in the project.) I knew when he’d been around the house at times, stuffed up like a troll inside his studio. But it was the first time I’d actually observed Callum inside, now suddenly so extremely, my home.

I wore no undies. The shirt ended right above a crop of hair between my legs. I squeaked something audible and took a series of rapid tiny steps, pointlessly trying to keep my legs together, toward the bathroom. When I reentered the common room, now in a robe, Callum’s eyes remained right where I had left them. It wasn’t creepy, the way he looked at me, nor gentlemanly. He just stared like I was some feather from one of his dirty birds, wafting across the room.

Very deliberately I left the door open to my bedroom and then reemerged one more time to offer, sure and sociable, some of my coffee and a hit on the pipe. He declined the latter. “No work today?” he asked. I told him my deal. He invited me to play with him while I filed my bios.

It seems to me like an ice age in history, source of ancient nightmares, more than a minor note in an unpopular artist’s career.

“Play what?”

The apartment was perfectly contemporarily appointed with artifacts — ancient dress forms, writers markets dated the late 1980s, a salon dryer chair — from decades of bohemianism, connected and inherited, as people moved in and out like a chain of plastic monkeys. Our board games situation reflected this, and here Callum produced a vintage Connect Four, replacing his pile of cutouts in the space between us on the table.

I wanted to sit in my room and get high, but it seemed like he welcomed my distraction. “Won’t you be bothered?” I asked.

“Oh no my work is really in my head right now, you know, this,” meaning the construction paper, “is just something for my hands.”

So began our little conspiracy, but the screw did not turn fully until, three or four rounds later, I must have shown more excitement in the deeds of Natalie Charkow Hollander than in slotting checkers down vertical shafts. Callum decided to remedy my boredom by installing higher stakes.

We played 20 dollars a game and he gave no mercy. Callum didn’t bother hustling. I was 80 deep almost right away. It was the only way to get me hooked.

I felt preposterous. I never gambled, then, yet I was about to lose my stipend playing a dusty children’s game. Some plastic tower of hybrid bingo-tic-tac-toe. The lever release, checkers falling out all over the table. Something about that sound, a cross between bowling strike and slot machine jackpot. I opened a bottle of wine to calm myself, and won back a bit of my money.

Now, presenting this event as a kind of gateway to a labyrinth, a rabbit hole or what you like, rings false to my memory. I can relate how betting led to drinking, how wine was followed by whatever bottle we happened to have left over, how weed got overthrown by cocaine and Xanax and sex and butchery and, sure, all as if we fell down a series of stairs from the top flight. But motion’s trick’s an illusion one thing leads to another. There was never really any descent, no bottleneck. No process. You can find a sequence, if you overlay time and fact, but that’s forcing it. These things happened indirectly, across months, slowly and out of joint, in leaping storms but also retrograde motions and birthlike resets. And we were never rookies, either of us, in drugs or horseplay, on that Tuesday, my introduction to proposition wagers aside. It was just an opening. What I entered with Callum instead was a union of complicity in piling wreckage next to wreckage, where we belonged. The only progress was marked by how those storms blew other angels away from us.

The way it worked, one of us usually had something better to do. That served as the gambit. If I was home on a Tuesday and wanted to play but Callum stayed shuffling about inside his studio, I would just start stacking the checkers (now a fixture at the table) like poker chips, riffling and cascading them in a mildly noisy way.

Sometimes he arrived with a pained expression on his face, like he was in the middle of a breakthrough and wished to resist in order to hold any thread of inspiration in his hands. But the sound was a siren call, as irresistible for him as it was for me. Often he came eagerly, of course. There developed a desire to outdo one another in our frenzy.

I might pause in the middle of a decisive turn, retrieve a bottle of Scotch from the top of the refrigerator and pour out two jiggers. If Callum abstained, say he was hungover or had a meeting later or just because it was 9 a.m., I’d down them both. He would likely join me in a turn or two; if my move forked him into a tight spot, invariably.

The roommates would hover around, laughing at us or tensely fascinated, as if we were locked in epic arm wrestling. Other times they walked by in disgust, especially in cases of particularly degenerate sessions, when the drugs and liquor were out and it was clear we had not stood up from the table while a dozen hours or a dawn had passed in their world, yet hundreds of dollars had changed hands in ours.

Our drunken compact spilled beyond the dining table, out of our loft, into the nights and parties. The first time I ever took coke with Callum he had Yuni Kang in his bedroom, his friend and a dealer at one of his regular card rooms. She didn’t want any blow because she had been going to NA meetings. “I’m pretty sure they’re not cool with smoking weed either,” Callum said. Yuni was lolling on the floor next to Callum’s futon, drunk. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not quitting weed, so it doesn’t count,” she said. Callum never smoked marijuana, always refused mine and it was only occasionally I could get him to try a cigarette. So I rolled her some of mine and we sat in the windowsill drinking gin, while Callum made out lines for me and himself, away from the breeze. Its customary veil now removed, cocaine started making regular appearances at our Connect Four matches, but it also drove us from Tribeca sidewalks into doorframes and next to stoops, bursting powder up our noses in the streetlight. The dynamo spinning between us demanded it. Fuck waiting for a bathroom stall. Everything private became something to be brave about, with Callum.

After Yuni stopped fucking Callum and quit school, they didn’t have anything else to talk about. It had been a partnership of poker and coke that disintegrated when the circuit came up short. Callum and I never spent a lot of conversation on art history or the meanings of our most secret choices, either, but we entertained each other.

I can remember crushing up a ketamine on a magazine cover, browsing Neo Rauch’s teaching credits with my eyes, and asking Callum about getting heroin.

“Trilla—” he said, and this a Callum original no one else could get away with. I never permit anyone to call me anything but Ester as a nickname, because it’s the only one that makes a point of pronouncing the second syllable in Esterella, which everyone always screws up. But that was Callum, all about contractions and the ends of things.

“Trilla, did I ever tell you about my friend Tyler Das’s birthday in Los Angeles?” he was cradling a red checker by his ear, as if it were a mouthpiece dictating the tale. “Benny Dalton had found these three girls at the Bicycle Casino to go with them to a little rented room, only someone convinced the hookers they could get opium, and one of them wouldn’t work without it. So they, Benny and these two other friends, leave Tyler with the girls in the motel. And Tyler, he didn’t ask for any of this, and the guys are gone a really long time. I don’t remember if they got in an accident, or Benny had to take his mom to the hospital—something sudden. Or maybe it just took a while to find the dope. I wasn’t there. But Tyler tells me he’s hanging out with these three women, alone, and after a while one of them says you know we’ve been paid for 6 hours and we’re supposed to do whatever you want. So Tyler thinks a minute on this arrangement, about the opportunity involved, the four of them, and he looks at the girl and says: Do you know how to deal pai gow?”

I don’t think he had a purpose to telling this story. I never shot heroin until after I went back to Baltimore. I also had to look up pai gow. Still the punchline made me laugh. We entertained each other.

When I say there was something wrong inside us I don’t mean the compulsion toward vices. Plenty of people get into habits, or contract them from another. You handle it or don’t. You say no at the right time or you get bullied. In this respect we were fine, better than most.

No, my problem and Callum’s were more elemental. If the philosopher’s quest ends in a sick joke, then it may be a cleverer response to make a joke of sickness. We were only trying to keep up, to keep serving answers to the problem that other people might not think to offer, not any total solution. We were artists, after all. Someone else might just as soon go climb a mountain.

It’s pretty easy to find an ally to guzzle whisky with, or shoot a needle in your arm, if you go looking. I could have drunk myself to death by myself, if I was ever just sad about anything. I never met anybody else but Callum who would use Jamaican red table wine, basically Twizzler-flavored syrup but 14 percent alcohol, as a mixer for vodka — not to get a higher fix but because, at that minute, that singular discovery rescued us from the futility of destiny, filled a piece in a drifting, invisible puzzle.

When I put it this way, about how special Callum could be, you probably think we had something more tender going.

It wasn’t like that. We never talked about our bond, only executed it. Almost like professionals. We never talked about destiny, like I say, or fevers. Callum took thousands of dollars from me in Connect Four, over the long run, and never gave me a break. Nor should he have. It would have disqualified the stakes of everything else we tried. Yes, we had sex plenty of times, but neither of us even liked the sex. It was only we were drunk and out of drugs to do.

Sometimes when we fucked I’d ask him to hit me, just to bury the degradation deeper. He’d oblige, but he always kind of spread his slaps over the side of my chin and neck and shoulder, like he was afraid of doing any real damage, or even making a mark. He made care into a failure. It didn’t matter: his weakness only made it more senseless, and therefore sickened our joke even more.

If the philosopher’s quest ends in a sick joke, then it may be a cleverer response to make a joke of sickness.

Callum and I killed each other and together saved our lives so many times in those days it seems to me like an ice age in history, source of ancient nightmares, more than a minor note in an unpopular artist’s career.

Now that he’s dead, you come here to ask me about when I knew him. And I understand that, but he changed a lot later, as you know, more than I did anyway, and I got to see Callum a few months ago when his tour came through Baltimore.

He paid for my cup of coffee and we caught up on housekeeping things: Carolyn financed a digital media company out in California; what was new at Carlier-Gebauer in Berlin.

Then Callum asked me if I was painting. I told him the truth, but he kept needling me about it. Something he never would have done if we were drunk. I was getting annoyed, so I told him something I thought of on the spot, but I tried to make it sound plausible and considered.

“There’s so much to do,” I said. “I wish I had a separate life for each thing I want to do.”

“More lifetimes?”

“I don’t mean reincarnation or what you like. But say parallel lives. One for each project, yes, but everything, so I could try every piece of life fully. I’d give one to heroin, for example, I know, just to see where it goes. I’d spend one watching butterflies. In one I could paint all day, like I really want. We could make bets again. And I could drink again, maybe in a different one even than that.” He looked at me expecting something else. “But as it is, you just can’t sustain anything. You run out of time so quickly, with all the things to do. I’d give one each, to everybody. If I had another life, I would like to get to talk with you forever, Callum.”

I added this compliment to tie it up kindly, my deflection. Instead he looked shocked.

“Trilla,” Callum said. “Trilla, but you’ve got it already. I don’t know about any other dimensions. But you’ve already got a separate life. You’ve got one of them anyway. This is that life.”

I waited for him to find another way to put it. Wasn’t that what I’d been saying? There was only this one, and no room to balance it all.

“I’m not talking about striking a balance,” he said. “I’m talking about all those distinct lives. So you get one of them after all. So it’s only one, so what?”

Callum wanted me to admit I have more control than I say. I don’t think he grasped my suggestion, in an artistic envelope, of wishing to create singular ideas in their own space. He wanted everything all put together at once.

He was always more a montage artist than a fashioner of objects.

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