‘If that’s all you think it was –’ began Sita. But her teeth were chattering. She was wearing only a thin silk sari and pashmina shawl. ‘Let’s get coffee.’
‘No, no,’ said Riz. ‘Walk fast. That’ll warm you up.’ He strode along with his long legs swinging from the hips, his shoulders thrown back, black leather jacket open. He claimed that his thick facial hair protected him from the cold. ‘All the time I was sitting in front of the artist, only one thought was going through my head: this is how you’ll earn your millions once you’re living in this country –’
But the two weeks she’d spent with Riz were enough to have taught her he’d rather auction off one of his fingers than pay for a coffee. Especially when they were just twenty minutes away from his uncle’s apartment.
They had it all to themselves, that apartment. It was on the corner of Lex and 34th, tenth floor, with a great view of the Empire State building. It was theirs to use for a month, so long as they didn’t mind the minor renovation work going on. Given their circumstances, it had been magical.
‘What Abramović offers in each performance,’ said Sita, half an hour later, perched on a bar stool in the kitchen, ‘includes the totality of her life up to this point.’ She had changed into a white sweatshirt two sizes too large for her, the better to show off her graceful shoulders. She had unpinned her hair so that it framed the sparrow-bones of her face in dark tendrils. ‘For the price of the entrance fee, we have access to the entire archive of the artist’s experiences.’
Riz was making the coffee, grinding the beans.
Sita waited for the adenoidal shriek of the machine to stop. ‘It’s what we take from her that makes the interaction worthwhile.’ A spicy, caffeinated aroma spread through the kitchen. Riz included a handful of chilli seeds with his coffee beans. ‘Or not.’
‘Nah,’ said Riz. ‘That’s . . . horsefeathers.’ He had told Sita he was trying to avoid using profanities for her. Not just for her, actually. He wanted to be a good father, an example to his future children. He had made it clear, at the very outset, when they were still only exchanging chaste emails, that he wanted to have a large family. Four children.
‘I’m not saying she isn’t smart,’ he went on now, as he emptied the powder from the grinder into a filter cup. ‘It takes brains to manipulate an audience into believing she’s delivering a product that anyone can manufacture.’ Traces of his Indian accent remained even after twelve years in the US, consonants that emerged from his mouth like granite bullets, punching holes in the air. Most times however, softer American tones prevailed. The r’s and the d’s, for instance, were exceptionally rounded and buttery. ‘You’re just as smart, but you’ve not learnt how to use your smartness in a commercially viable way.’
‘You’re not seeing my point,’ said Sita. ‘I already know what my talent is. I paint. I draw. I don’t need to be a performance artist. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to use my body to attract attention to myself.’
‘Get naked you mean?’
‘Well, some performance artists –’
‘No, no, I’m only talking about what this woman did today. Sitting in a chair, staring –’
‘She’s done skin shows in the past. Her body, her physical appearance is very much a part of her performance.’
‘Isn’t that true of any artist? Your hands, your eyes, your brain – they’re all parts of your body, aren’t they?’ He grinned at her over his shoulder, as he reached for mugs.
‘I meant body parts that aren’t . . . ’ She paused to clarify her thoughts. ‘I wasn’t talking about organs.’
He laughed. ‘I know what you meant. What I’m saying is, doing this takes less effort. It draws attention to the artist. You need that attention in order to get started here, while you’re still unknown. All you have to do is arrange two chairs facing each other and sit down in one. That’s it! That’s all SHE did. She sat in a chair and visitors queued for hours and threw money at her to be allowed to sit in front of her. All she did was set up the chairs.’
The coffee apparatus began to hiss and groan. They drank the coffee and ate leftovers from the night before, arguing all the while. Then they brushed their teeth and ran, giggling, to the bedroom. It wasn’t even ten o’clock. This had been their routine every day for the two weeks since they had met.
Then it was three a.m.
Sita’s eyes opened of their own accord. Light from the street filtered in through the pleats of a honeycomb blind, creating soft, unfocused stripes on the white walls of the room. On her left, under the goose-down comforter she shared with Riz, she heard his steady breathing.
She sniffed the air. Nothing.
Would she be spared, she wondered? Just one night?
She sniffed again. Nothing.
A moment later she smiled ruefully.
From the bathroom came the familiar scraping sound.
It was the cat, using her litter box.
She was a small, self-effacing stray belonging to the uncle. She had no name or pedigree, not even any markings. She was smoke grey all over, with lemon yellow eyes. She never left the flat. She never sought out affection or company.
Taking care of her was easy. Fancy Feast twice daily. Dry food kibble container topped up. Water dispenser bottle replenished when necessary.
The litter box took a little more effort. It had to be raked out, damp chunks removed and deodorizing powder reapplied in the mornings. Though the master bathroom was out of bounds for human use because of the renovation, it was the most obvious location for the litter box.
Therein lay the problem.
The door to the bathroom had to be kept open to permit the cat access to her toilet. She entered in the early hours of the morning, regular as a company clerk, to make her deposit. Her routine began with a few diffident scrapes, followed by a long pause, more energetic scrapes and so on, ending with a frenzy of excavation.
The cat exited the bathroom and bedroom as soundlessly as she had entered. In the twilight, she was barely visible: a tiny horizontal wraith, with her tail held high, stalking out the bedroom door with all the self-possession of a queen. In the wake of her departure, drawn in as if on a string, came the filthiest, most stomach-churning stench that Sita had ever encountered.
Having lived in India all her life, she thought she knew a thing or two about obnoxious aromas. But this, she believed, was beyond anything the Third World could produce. This was the entire corruption of the Western way of life, all its toxins and nuclear waste, its cultural imperialism and carpet-bombing approach to interior decor, rolled into one concentrated post-excretory feline miasma.
On Sita’s inaugural night at the apartment, when she and Riz were meeting for the first time, he had suggested that she sleep in the guest room. This was partly because it had the only functioning bathroom, partly to allow for the possibility that one or both of them ‘needed time’. But their romance had been consummated online several months ago. So they ended up spending two nights together in that room before Riz suggested that they shift to the master bedroom, with its king-sized bed, memory foam mattress and the wide-screen TV. It was only then, early in the morning of her third day in America, that Sita heard noises issuing from behind the door on Riz’s side of the room.
All she knew about the door was that it led to a bathroom that was currently out of commission. At the time, she had no idea there was a third mammal on the premises. She had grown up in homes with big lawns and large black Labradors. So the very concept of pets with indoor facilities was unknown to her.
Her first thought when she heard the energetic digging was that some kind of giant mutant rodent had clawed its way up from the sewers – those famous New York City sewers! Infested with crocodiles flushed down the toilets! – via the unsealed bathroom pipes. When the stench began, she felt not only nauseated but profoundly demoralized. She thought of herself as worldly and sophisticated, well prepared for all that might be new or strange in America. She thought she was open-minded. Modern. But to sleep with a putrid stink creeping into her bedroom? No. She couldn’t do it. And it filled her with shame to acknowledge her own limitations.
So she lay in the huge, luxurious bed, repulsed and unhappy. Ten months of emails and steamy Skype sessions: was it all going to end because of a bad smell? Then again, the fact that a smell could indeed make a difference forced her to wonder whether she was really willing to trade twenty-six years of her former life on the strength of a mere ten months? She had built a name and a career in India. She was happy there. Was she really willing to throw it all away to live in an alien country with a man she barely knew? Whose place of residence, howsoever temporary, harbored mind-altering stenches?
The morning after the Abramović exhibit, Riz had originally scheduled a visit to the Met. Part of his informal crash course to encourage Sita to become a resident of the city he called home. But, ‘I’ve found something more interesting,’ he said. He wouldn’t tell her what it was. She heard him on the phone, setting up what sounded like a restaurant reservation and then, later, talking to one of his cousins. He spoke in Punjabi, which he knew she didn’t understand. He mentioned her name and then ‘performance art’ and ‘MoMA’. She guessed that wherever they were going, it would be an extension of their discussion of the previous evening.
Riz was an MD. After the eight grueling years of med school, rather than plunge into work he had decided to take time off. He wanted to travel, to think about his choices, to plan his future and yes, if he was so lucky, to marry the girl of his dreams. He had told Sita, within twenty-hours of their meeting, that she was ‘The One’. So romantic. He had a practical side too, however.
For instance, he told her that he’d prepared for her visit by working continuous shifts in the emergency ward of the hospital in Chicago where he had been an intern. It was so that he could take a month off to be with her. The money he earned from one full month of Emergency Ward was enough to support him for a year, if need be. Sita found this story profoundly disturbing. She didn’t think it was morally right for a doctor to perform life-saving duties for purely mercenary reasons. When he understood that she wasn’t impressed he shrugged and smiled. He clearly believed that he knew better. One day, with his guidance, so would she.
They took a bus heading west and got off on Seventh Avenue. They were both dressed in jeans, though hers were white corduroy, to show off the long slender lines of her legs. She wore a ribbed black T-shirt and embroidered leather jacket with a burnt orange scarf knotted at her throat. She walked down the avenue with her smooth black hair flowing loose and open, rippling in the wind.
‘We’re going to a place called The Rattler Café,’ said Riz. He had found it online, tucked into the steam-pressed seams of the garment district. Tonight’s show featured a female performance artist called Sheela Davila who harangued the audience continuously for three hours while removing the 665 buttons that she’d sewed onto her clothes in layers, including, ultimately, her own skin. Needless to say, she would be unable to remove the 666th button. The one she was born with.
‘Sounds awful,’ said Sita wrinkling her nose. ‘Do we have to?’
‘I thought we needed some perspective after our chat last night. Like you said, Abramović is top of the line. So let’s see the other end of the spectrum. The bottom of the line.’
The Rattler was a subterranean cave,: a dank, dark space with a performance area lit up at one end. Riz had timed their arrival to coincide loosely with the final half hour of the artist’s performance as well as the lunchtime buy-one-get-one-free-pizza offer. The receptionist located their reservation and led them to their table, using a small torch to light their way in the gloom. The room, they realized as their eyes adjusted, was almost full.
By then Sheela was down to her second-last layer of clothes and was spewing profanities in a raging falsetto voice. She had strips of cloth with buttons sewn onto them covering every portion of her body except the ones that are usually concealed. Her ears for instance were under muffs and she wore elaborate ruffles on her elbows and knees while her bum and pubic hair were wholly visible.
Riz ordered a twenty-inch pizza to eat in the restaurant and one for take away. The moment the waitress had vanished with the order, he leaned towards Sita saying, ‘I don’t agree with you.’ He jerked his thumb in the direction of the performer. ‘You can do that.’
Sita snorted. ‘Are you crazy? Never!’
He was trying to whisper but doing a bad job of it. ‘Listen: we both know that what she’s doing is . . . nonsense. But that’s just my point. Nonsense is easy. Anyone can do it. I’m willing to bet, if you got up on that stage and recited all the medical terms for sexual dysfunctions wearing a sari and a turban, every day for a month, you’d be a millionaire!’
‘Except that I don’t want to! Doesn’t that count?’ said Sita.
A couple of people on nearby tables were craning their heads disapprovingly in Riz and Sita’s direction, making shushing gestures.
Riz paid no attention to them. ‘Okay, so I get it about artists needing to express themselves. But: here’s a fact – you can’t express yourself unless you’re alive.’ He counted off the points of his argument with his right hand. ‘Two: In order to afford being alive you’ve got to generate an income. Three: Generating an income requires an effort. Four: If that effort produces surplus capital you can eventually . . . Do what you really want!’
One of the shushers swivelled threateningly towards Riz and hissed, ‘Hey, asshole! There’s a lady onstage!’
Riz finished the point he was making, ‘A couple of years of performance art and you can be whatever kind of artist you want to be, for the rest of your life.’ Then he turned towards his critic and whispered in an elaborately courteous voice, ‘My profuse apologies, sir. We’ll stop talking now.’
On stage, the performer was down to her final buttons and the music was building towards a crescendo. According to the flyer included on the table, the last sixty buttons were secured directly to her skin. At this distance it wasn’t possible to tell whether they were attached with glue or to pre-existing piercings. There were still bits of cloth under the buttons, but for all practical purposes, Sheela was now nude. She had small round breasts with glittering piercings on each nipple, a smooth belly and a flat, boyish bottom.
Sita could see their pizza making its way towards their table. Leaning towards Riz she whispered, ‘If that’s all there was to it, there’d be performance artists in every home.’ She leaned back in anticipation of the imminent arrival, spreading her napkin on her lap. ‘There’d be no one left to be the audience.’
Riz grinned. ‘Exactly right,’ he whispered back.
Their waitress, a pretty young woman in the Rattler’s signature costume of a skin-tight snake-skin bodysuit, leaned over their table, obscuring their view of the performance area. The pizza was thick with mushroom crescents and wriggling strips of bacon, glistening puddles of mozzarella cheese and glowing vermillion medallions of tomato.
Sita nodded distractedly. The scents rising off the pizza were causing all rational thought to drain out of her mind. As she reached for a slice a shadow fell across the fragrant disk. The room had gone silent.
Sheela, in all her button-bedecked nakedness, was suddenly beside Sita and Riz’s table. There was a moment in which events might have gone any which way. Then, with theatrical precision, the artist bent gracefully at the waist and vomited a torrent of pinkish grey porridge all over the pizza.
Loud cheers broke out in the rest of the room.
The performer straightened up, wiped her mouth, bowed, smiled and bowed again.
Sita’s mind went blank with shock. From all around came the beeps and chirps of cell phone users recording her slack-jawed expression. Within seconds she would become the latest short-lived internet sensation.
It didn’t help to discover, as the wait staff swooped in to exchange the ruined pie for a fresh one, that this was the artist’s surprise finale. The vomit was indeed porridge, not vomit. Plus, as a consolation prize, the artist, wrapped in a shawl, sat down with the couple.
She still had a few buttons clinging to her, but no matter. The show was over. The other diners and the restaurant staff seemed entirely satisfied. Riz had gone from incandescent fury to pink-cheeked joviality within seconds. Sheela was still sparking and flashing from the adrenaline rush of her performance.
‘I’m actually totally shy,’ she said, turning her head from Riz to Sita, then back, very quickly, to Riz. ‘I’ve got to really pump myself to get up there and do my stuff.’ She had an accent that sawed between swamp drawl and New Yawk nasal. ‘I used to write performance prose and get onstage and people would turn to their neighbours and continue talking, you know? I could never get any attention for, you know, just myself.’
‘Sure,’ said Riz. ‘Like farting in a communal hot tub?’
Sheela erupted in peals of faux laughter before saying, ‘Well no, actually. You’re so weird? Nothing like that. One day, I was on stage and reciting a cycle of haiku about being abused as a child when I just, I dunno, I just flipped out and screamed, like really loud into the microphone, “All right everyone! Listen up! For the finale of my piece, I’m going . . . to stuff a cantaloupe up my ass!” And the silence? Wow! Like you wouldn’t believe. It was deafening. Finally, I had everybody’s attention.’
Up close, she had a sweet, girlish face with dark eyebrows contrasting sharply against the brassy blonde haystack piled on top of her head. ‘That was the beginning of the . . . well, the beginning of me. I’ve built my entire reputation on that single moment. I realized that audiences want to be grossed out and that the focus is no longer sex. The focus has shifted. From vaginas to the glory hole. Vaginas are monologues, you know? Only women can have ‘em. Buttholes are pansexual. Everyone has ’em. So they’re multi-logues. Today’s screaming edge performance artist is all about the coal scuttle of reality. It’s a fundamental shift.’ She didn’t acknowledge the pun.
‘Huh!’ said Riz, looking thrilled.
Sita leaned forward. ‘So did you do it?’ she asked. The other two seemed to have forgotten she was there.
Sheela looked puzzled. ‘Do what?’
‘The cantaloupe,’ said Sita. ‘Did you stuff it up your ass?’
At the MoMA, the previous day, they had spent a full five hours longer than the two that Riz had budgeted. After paying the entrance fee, for which Riz had a twenty-five per cent off coupon, they had to pass through security. Riz sailed through but Sita was asked to shake out the folds of her sari. When it was discovered that she secured the pleats with a large safety pin, she was escorted to a solid-sided booth and asked to strip down to her underwear. Everyone was polite and Sita did nothing to resist. When the guards were done, they apologized and told her they’d have to confiscate her safety pin but that she could collect it on the way out.
Riz was in a bad mood by the time she was released. He hated having to wait. She told him it was his fault for insisting that she wear ‘ethnic dress’. According to her, that was the reason she was subjected to extra searching. He shrugged. On account of the delay, another forty people had slipped in ahead of them.
‘I don’t mind security,’ said Sita. ‘Being frisked allows all of us the illusion of safety. What I’m trying to say is that dressing ethnically in the West really does result in special handling. I don’t mind it. I’m just saying it happens.’
They could see inside the glass-walled space they were inching towards. The title of the show was THE ARTIST IS PRESENT. Large signs in three languages outlined behaviour protocols for visitors. The signs partially obscured the view into the room. The artist’s back was to the entrance. They could see the burgundy red floor-length gown she wore and the creamy white skin of the nape of her neck.
Riz clicked his tongue. ‘It would only have made a difference if you were wearing a hijab,’ he said. ‘But you’re not.’
‘I’ll do that next time,’ Sita said. ‘I’ve always wanted to try one on.’
He said, leaned towards her and keeping his voice low, ‘If you were wearing a hijab, you wouldn’t be here with me.’
Her head had snapped around and she glared hard at him. But he chose to turn away. He knew she’d find the remark offensive but he had chosen to make it anyway. To test her, maybe? To force her into an argument just because his mood had gone sour? Or did he mean it? It bothered her that she couldn’t tell. Three people came out in quick succession and the queue began shuffling forward at a slightly accelerated pace. Twenty minutes later, they were inside.
The artist sat on a wooden chair. There was a table in front of her and on the other side of it was another wooden chair identical to the one she sat on. Sometimes the other chair remained empty but most times there was someone sitting in it. According to the behaviour protocols, each visitor had the option of occupying the chair or not. If someone chose to remain in the queue without sitting in the chair, they had the right to do so for however long it took for them to decide to get up, occupy the chair or leave the room without sitting in the chair.
Riz and Sita folded themselves down to sit on the floor along with all the other visitors, rimming the edges of the glass-walled space and gave themselves up to waiting.
There was no fixed interval of time. A visitor could choose to spend the whole day in the seat opposite Marina Abramović and none of the spectators had the right to object.
Cell phone use was forbidden and some of the visitors had been escorted away by guards. Whenever someone vacated their place in the queue all the remaining members shifted sideways along the four walls of the space. The final position for those waiting was just beside the entrance, behind the artist’s back.
Sita had never participated in an art event of this scale before.
At the still centre of it was the Serbian woman with the raptor’s nose, the fleshy mouth and the dark hair pulled over to one side. By a meaningless coincidence, Sita had met her some years ago, at the German Cultural Centre in Bombay. They had been introduced, exchanged a few words and parted company.
During that brief encounter, Abramović had described herself as ‘the grandmother of performance art’. She had laughed at herself as she said it, because she was so clearly the antithesis of a grandmother. More recently, Sita had seen images of her in a gallery in Australia, audio-visual as well as still. In one of them, she had been filmed screaming continuously until her voice gave out. The film lasted the full course of her performance, several hours. She lay on a padded pallet with her head hanging over its edge, her dark hair flowing down and her voice growing progressively ragged during her self-imposed ordeal.
At one moment during the wait, while Sita was sitting directly behind the occupant of the visitor’s chair, that occupant, a middle-aged woman, removed all her clothes. She was down to her skin within seconds. The guards came at once and drew her away. There were gasps from the spectators and muffled chuckles. Sita kept her eyes locked upon Abramović throughout the scuffle. Her face twitched, she grew faintly alarmed and drew herself back. That was all.
Some of the waiting visitors were doing crossword puzzles. Some were asleep. Sita looked around. She and Riz were the only two visitors who were clearly non-white on that particular day. Out on the streets, she was routinely mistaken for Latina. Some people addressed her in Spanish or Portuguese. She enjoyed the freedom it gave her from the burden of national identity. But here, surrounded by very pale skins and blue irises, she and her sari were clearly, irrevocably exotic.
What kind of people had the time and inclination to participate in an event that brought no tangible reward yet involved an unquantifiable amount of time? Only well fed, financially secure and highly educated people, she thought. An event of this kind in India would be absurd. Millions of citizens waited for hours every day in the slums merely to gain access to a toilet, to earn daily wages as manual labour, to see a doctor in a government hospital.
She tried to imagine a situation where Marina Abramović could ‘Be Present’ at, say, the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay. Yes, it could happen. But the meanings would change. The police protection required to keep giant crowds at bay would be prohibitive for even one week, never mind three months. Questions would be raised in Parliament about the indecent expenditure on yet another example of Western cultural imperialism. Local artists would stage their own variations, in yoga postures, in animal costumes, while fasting or with skewers poked through their cheeks. Godmen and religious leaders would be interviewed on the news networks stating that, during the centuries for which the Americas had not yet been invented and Europe was inhabited by tree shrews, India had performance artists at every traffic intersection.
Three hours passed before it was Riz’s turn to occupy the seat. He and Sita had decided in advance of entering the room that they would each take five minutes in the chair. Several of the people ahead of them had chosen to leave the seat empty rather than sit in it themselves. One of them, a bearded middle-aged man with prominent incisors, like a beaver, took half an hour before he chose to sit down in front of the artist. The moment he was seated he began to bawl with embarrassing snorts and honks. From where she sat, Sita could not see Abramović’s face to tell whether or not she was amused or dismayed.
During his turn, Riz stared impassively at Abramović for the full duration of his five minutes. When he got up, Sita rose to her feet and took his place. They nodded at one another as their paths crossed.
As she turned to sit down, Sita had to clamp her teeth over her mouth to stop herself from smiling. It was a cultural tic, a purely involuntary response brought on by entering the space of a formal social connection. She felt ridiculously nervous. For the first several moments she could not raise her eyes to meet the gaze of the other woman.
Then when she finally looked up, it was like stepping in front of a gale-force wind. Marina Abramović looked back at her directly and with no prevarication. There was no message in the gaze from the older woman to the younger one. Yet there was an enormous power pouring out of her.
Sita kept dropping her eyes, lifting them up again and dropping them once more. It took all her concentration to keep her expression neutral, to avoid squinching her lids together, as she might when staring into a bright light. The energy pouring out of the other woman’s eyes was like a barrage of painless invisible darts. Every time she looked up, Sita felt as if her eyeballs were in danger of being pinned against the rear wall of her skull.
She tried to fight back. She turned her retinas into mirrors to reflect the other woman’s energy back at her. Abramović pushed back. Sita imagined the young artist at one of her path-breaking performances, sitting naked in a vat of bloodied cow bones, cleaning them. Abramović pushed back. Sita imagined her in the House With The Ocean View, the month-long live museum installation, during which the artist bathed, urinated, slept or did nothing, completely nude and in continuous view.
Whatever Sita did to counter the artist’s pressure, Abramović matched her efforts. Her gaze was not aggressive, not hypnotic, not kind or cruel. Sita became profoundly conscious of the show’s title and its meaning. The. Artist. Is. Present.
This moment is a gift, a present. And the one after it. And the one after it.
Every moment is a gift beyond price.
Some of the visitors who sat in front of Marina Abramović recited poetry or screamed or tore their hair. Sita had seen video from a previous session, in which the artist sobbed into her hands for several minutes.
While Sita was with her, she remained expressionless yet continuously present.
There was no saying how long their session might have lasted, if someone else in the queue had not sneezed. The sound was like a geyser exploding. Sita had jerked back, first with surprise then with embarrassment. She got up at once, uttering a mumbled apology before rushing out, her cheeks burning. What had she been thinking? Twenty minutes had passed, she saw, glancing up at the clock as she went out. In the lobby, Riz was pacing up and down the lobby like a caged puma. But he smiled when she came out. ‘You did great,’ he said. ‘Wow.’
After the Rattler, they had walked back to the apartment, talking about Sheela Davilla and why Sita didn’t want to attempt anything even remotely similar.
‘I’m not shy,’ Sita said. She reminded Riz that she was the one who had flown all the way across the world to spend a month with him. ‘A shy person does not do such things,’ she said. ‘Maybe Sheela was being truthful when she said she was shy. Maybe she needed to challenge her own limitations.’
‘All right,’ he said, ‘but just because she didn’t actually insert a cannonball up her anus doesn’t make her a fraud either. She said she never intended to do it. She was challenging the audience to face its own prurient interests. And she succeeded.’
Sita agreed with him. It was late in the afternoon by the time they got home. They fell into bed, woke at six, ate the Thai takeaway they had bought on the way back and fell back into bed.
When Sita woke up at the kitty litter hour, a fresh insight made itself available to her as she lay in the dark: the cat was a performance artist in her own right. The smell was terrible but so what? The cat’s point, if she could articulate it, would be that all she did was Be Present. If Sita found the results nauseating, that was her problem. Not the cat’s.
The next morning, Riz said ‘I’m being serious, Sita. I think we should try it out. We can set up the living room here with a table and two chairs. Invite a few friends. Have a stare-in.’
‘Why don’t you do it?’ Sita wanted to know. He was incredulous that Sita would even waste her breath asking the question. Sita was the artist, he was the doctor. Hanging her soul out to dry on the world’s clothes line was her specialty, not his.
Sita said, ‘Let’s talk about the rest of my stay.’ Her ticket was valid for two months. She had planned to spend three weeks with him and four weeks on the West Coast visiting a cousin who lived in Berkeley. That left one week extra. She could choose to spend it in California or to come back to New York. The uncle’s flat in Manhattan would no longer be available to them. Instead she would stay with him in his tiny one-room studio in Queens and get to know his immediate neighbours. Maybe even meet his uncle and aunt, both of whom had maintained a discreet distance. Coming back to stay that final week would, in many respects, be a ‘yes’ vote for Riz. She would plan to visit his parents in New Delhi. She’d tell her parents. The wheels of the wedding chariot would start to turn.
‘Ball’s in your court,’ said Riz. He had tawny brown eyes that caught the light prettily. They were standing by the kitchen island, drinking their first coffees of the day. ‘I’ve already told you what I feel.’
They were wearing matching T-shirts, plain white, with nothing else on underneath. There was a plan to go visit the 9/11 site. Maybe take the Staten Island Ferry to take a look up Miss Liberty’s skirts. Maybe stroll around Central Park.
Sita stroked Riz’s arms. She wished she felt as sure as he did.
A movement caught her eye. She turned her head and saw it was the cat. She was crossing the living room, moving towards the window, with its wide-screen view of 34th street. Then she jumped up and sat on the sill, limned in sunlight, looking out.
Sita drew in a deep breath. ‘Supposing,’ she said, choosing her words carefully, still looking over her shoulder at the cat, ‘we ask one friend?’ She turned towards Riz. He looked puzzled. ‘For a stare-in,’ she said. ‘It can be anyone, but just one person.’
His whole face lit up. ‘I’ll buy the cantaloupe!’
‘I’m not a copycat,’ said Sita. ‘This is going to be my show. My concept. It won’t be like either of the two artists we’ve seen. I’ll need to go out and buy a couple of props. And whoever you invite? They need to realize they’ve got to pay towards the show. Or else it’s just hospitality, not “art”.’ A token fee, she said. It didn’t matter how much.
By evening, the next day, they were all set. The friend coming over was called Jay and was also a med school graduate. He and Riz had interned together in Chicago.
Sita was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. She had told Riz she’d need half an hour alone to set the scene so he had agreed to meet Jay downstairs and grab a beer around the corner while she got herself ready.
‘What about the entrance fee?’ she wanted to know.
‘He’s taking us out for dinner afterwards,’ said Riz putting his arms around her and squeezing tight before going out the front door.
Half an hour later, he returned with Jay.
The flat was in darkness except for a single light in the ceiling of the living room.
Sita was seated on a bar stool directly under the light. She was wearing a Miss Piggy mask and nothing else. Her wrists were crossed, one hand resting along the top of either thigh.
Jay was short for Jalal and he was a Muslim. Sita had met him once already and liked him. She didn’t know for sure but guessed that, like many people of her and Riz’s generation, his faith resided in little more than his name. Nevertheless, for her to be wearing a pig mask, even a jokey, Muppet Show seductress pig mask, would be a sign that Sita had deliberately chosen to be provocative.
Neither of them could see her eyes. She had chosen to face towards the door but her own field of vision was very limited. She could see them only if they stood directly in front of her.
For a frozen second, both men were struck dumb.
Then Jay turned towards Riz. He asked, ‘Are we supposed to do anything?’
Riz was outside Sita’s field. Her guess was that he was furious. Nevertheless, when he spoke, it was in an even tone. ‘Split another beer.’
Both of them moved out of her sight line. Sita heard the sounds of the fridge being opened, a bottle being uncapped, the chink of glasses. They were standing by the island and talking in low voices. Neither of them had taken their jackets off.
Sita couldn’t hear what they were saying. She knew that Riz would be growing impatient. He would want, more than anything else, for the situation to be normalized and for the three of them to move on to dinner. At the same time, she and he both knew that the cards were all in her hands. He was going to have to wait till she was ready.
Both men returned within her line of sight, still standing a fair distance away and turned towards her. Sita could sense Riz wanting to ask for directions. Before he could say anything however, she let out an enormous, extended fart. It went on for at least five seconds.
There was a silence. Then she loosed a cataract of water.
Riz put his glass down with a decisive clunk. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘That’s enough. Jay, let’s go. Have dinner.’
Jay said, ‘Why? There might be a finale.’
‘No.’ Riz’s voice was charged with lightning.
Sita heard the jingle of his keys and then one behind the other, the two of them stepped out the front door. A pulse beat later, the door opened again. Riz returned, reached around to the coat rack for his dark blue London Fog and exited a second time. She knew, without needing to see his face, that he specifically did not look in her direction.
She remained where she was for a long enough time. Then she waited some more. Eventually she took off the mask, got down from the bar stool and put on her robe. She was smiling to herself. There was plenty of food in the house. She finished the beer both men had left in their glasses. She did a bit of email, broke open a can of Diet Coke, used the toilet.
She anticipated that Riz would take around two hours to return. She prepared herself by perching in her original position well ahead of time.
He was alone. He came in the door and shut it behind him. He was facing towards her.
She was where he had last seen her, as if she hadn’t moved a muscle all evening.
The minutes ticked by. She saw him remove his London Fog and bend to slip out of his shoes, still facing towards her. He paused once more before moving in her direction. When he was within the circle of light that Sita was under, she saw his hands reaching towards her.
She didn’t move.
He lifted the mask off her head and enfolded her in a hug. His clothes were crisp and cold against her warm bare skin.
He whispered into her hair, ‘Halfway through dinner I remembered. These bar stools are solid.’
She turned her face, burrowing into his neck. She breathed in, sampling the different elements of his scent. The beer of course and his recent dinner and his shampoo. The separate notes of his arrogance, his desire to dominate, his belief in himself. Tart and smoky, they stung her nose. But there was a faint, spicy quality too. Like the cardamom in a pot of Turkish coffee. Something that set off the tartness and gave him depth.
A single pod of cardamom! Was that enough? To flavour an entire life’s pot of time?
She told him how she had achieved her effects. The cloud burst was improvised out of a condom and a bit of twine looped around one of her toes. The fart had been made with a handheld buzzer she bought in a novelty store around the corner. Her greatest fear had been that he might invite someone else along with Jay. That would have been a disaster. She would have lost her nerve.
‘No question,’ he whispered in her ear. ‘You’re going to be a millionaire. A zillionaire.’
Sita breathed out. ‘Maybe,’ she said.
Photograph courtesy of Andrew Russeth