Patrick Is Writing a Book
Patrick is writing a book. He’s been feeling good about his progress lately, tick-tacking away at his laptop in the window seat of a coffee shop. The screen stands erect, angled ever so slightly towards the ordering counter. He does this nearly every day. Someday, he knows, someone will see. They’ll be passing by with an Americano in their hand and find themselves staring at Patrick’s computer, enraptured by the rapidly appearing words and the man forming them.
“What are you writing?” they’ll ask him, a keen smile playing at their lips.
“A novel,” he’ll say.
“Many things: the simultaneous danger and necessity of solitude, the nature of primitivity, the suppression of emotion, the inescapable futility of human existence.” A gently furrowed brow, a thoughtful pursing of the lips before he summates, “It’s about us, I suppose. All of us. The things we don’t realize.”
The stranger will let out a single incredulous laugh, shaking their head at the profundity of what they’d heard, the sheer magnitude they have yet to comprehend. They’ll lean down to shake his hand, thanking him for bringing his ideas to the world. Patrick will shake, but he will not respond to the compliments that follow. He will not blush. He will not grin. He will not offer any display of gratitude. Instead, he’ll exhale softly through his nose and tell them, “It’s just what I was made to do.”
None of this has happened yet, but it will. Someday. Until then, he pushes his laptop further to the edge of the table for easy viewing and clears his throat when people walk by.
Certain days are harder than others. On days like this he can’t bear to huddle himself into a wooden chair for hours, bent over his computer with nothing but a couple shots of espresso to keep him company. He has to stretch his legs, stretch his head, do something. So he shuts his laptop (the sound produced, he notes delightedly, jolts a few other customers out of their conversations) and pushes his chair in.
Today he marches downtown six blocks to an art museum, one he’s heard about but never had the motivation to step inside. The interior is far too white and smells like an airport. A woman at the ticket desk says he can donate what he likes, and he hands her a crisp one dollar bill. The smile she gives him as she hands over the ticket is plastic, twitching, but he doesn’t mind. They should know he’s an artist himself.
Patrick makes sure to remind himself that he is not here to look at art. No, he’s here to look at the people. He rides the escalator up to the fourth floor where the most famous paintings are and stands against a blank wall. As he watches crowds pass—dizzying mixes of students and tourists, retired old folk and mothers dragging toddlers, WASPs and blabbering foreigners—he pretends to be idly viewing the framed landscape across from him, or checking his phone, or doing whatever it is that mindless kids do in art museums these days. He could laugh, seeing these droves of people stop and gawk at splatter paint and collage, enthusiastically drinking in the most banal visuals imaginable. He could laugh, but he doesn’t. He’s a professional, an observer; he perceives what others do not. Carefully, he takes a picture of a group of strangers for future reference.
He moves on. Upstairs is the real modern art territory, the single-color canvases and safety pin statues. As soon as he steps off of the escalator, he overhears a tour guide rambling about the beauty of the body and the artfulness of autonomy. Patrick looks to where they’re pointing and catches an eyeful of a girl with her legs spread and lips drawn into a tight smirk, vagina bared in a thousand shades of shining Technicolor. The urge to tear the photograph off the wall nearly overtakes him. The sheer audacity of these people, thinking they’re revolutionary because they make shit no one else wants to see. He shuffles off to the other end of the hall, unable to stand the way the girl is looking at him.
He finds himself on a bench in front of a Warhol. A pair of teenagers stand a few feet away, deliberating over which will get to have her picture taken in front of the art first. Ever-so-slightly, Patrick lifts his phone to snap a picture of them. He peers at it, brightness turned all the way down, and chuckles lightly when he realizes he’s gotten a perfect shot of the taller one’s legs. If she didn’t have such an annoying voice he might want to ask for her number.
There’s a flash of movement beside him, and he turns to watch someone inch in front of him for a better look at the pieces. A girl. A heavy one with pink hair, large glasses, and cuffed jeans. Patrick studies her, scowling, and decides that she looks like the sort to dye her underarms. He photographs her, too, but the result is filled with a sickly, spent aura that makes it hard to look at. He’s deleting it when he hears, “Did you just take a picture of me?”
He looks up. Her voice matches her face.
“I said, did you just take a picture of me?”
“No,” he answers, rather than tell her to shut up like he wants to. “I was taking pictures of the artwork.”
She scrunches up her nose, and he thinks, God, she really is a parody of herself. “You’d better delete it. That’s fucking creepy.”
“I said I didn’t take a picture of you. Calm down, alright?”
Though her mouth opens momentarily, she quickly shuts it and averts her eyes, sheepish. She’s got one of those piercings every quirky hipster has to have, the sort that goes through both nostrils like a bull ring. Patrick isn’t sure what it’s called.
“Sorry,” she says eventually. “You were just holding your phone at a weird angle.”
He stares at her.
She swallows, tries to return her attention to the art around them. Patrick has to clench every muscle in his body to prevent himself from cackling in her face, this stupid, pudgy mess of a woman—hardly a woman at all, really, considering the flatness of her chest. Hilarious, how this sort of person would crucify him for looking in her direction but diminish instantly once confronted. He wants to tell her how hopeless she is, that she’s got to buy herself a push-up bra and those bangs certainly aren’t doing her any favor, but he does not. He’s mature enough to take the higher road, so all he does is stand and turn in the other direction. Pink-Haired Girl watches him go but does not say anything. He can feel her gaze on the back of his head, but he can’t bring himself to think about that right now.
Right now he is standing in front of a tall, beige canvas painted with the words, “THIS IS ART, AND YOU CAN’T STOP IT FROM BEING ART.”
Patrick gapes at it for some time, absorbing the rough fabric texture, the rust-red acrylic paint, the jagged handwriting. This is the sort of thing the art students would come for. This is the sort of thing people like Pink-Haired Girl would come for. It stands and watches him, so brazen in all its self-assured display.
He can’t take it anymore. In a minute he is back on the escalators, heading down, down, down and back outside, rushing along the sidewalk without direction.
The next day Patrick cannot find the motivation to go to the coffee shop, so instead, he goes to a 7-Eleven. He buys a pack of Camels and tries to blow smoke circles on his walk home. All he can manage to produce are thick, rounded clouds of white that are gone as soon as they were created—poorly-formed crescent moons melting into the car exhaust around them.
Perhaps a change of scenery will inspire him anew, he thinks. He finds a different coffee shop somewhere on the other side of town and packs his things to go.
On the subway he sits wedged between an old woman that smells like soup and a twiggy tween girl with her eyes shut. Letting out a heavy sigh, he reaches into his bag and cracks open the Nietzsche he’s been carrying around: On the Genealogy of Morality. He leans back, holds the book up so the cover is visible to those sitting across from him. A few people glance. Skim the title. His stomach churns with satisfaction when he considers how surprised they must be by his selection, wondering how on earth someone could read something so weighty for pleasure. There are a few people on the car, of course, that he thinks could match his wit. A young man with blond hair and a checkered button-down, leaning tiredly against the door. A businessman with a briefcase between his legs and a gold watch ticking on his wrist. A teenage boy with a face full of freckles and acne, a mop of dark hair in his eyes and a certain jadedness to his slouch. Yes, Patrick can see himself in all of them.
But a thought occurs to him, all-too-vivid and out of place. It is a picture of the painting from earlier this week. THIS IS ART, AND YOU CAN’T STOP IT FROM BEING ART. At once his chest tightens, his fingers clench the book until white. How is it art? How? Any moron could put words on a canvas. What a clever scammer that “artist” must be, raking in mountains of cash from open-mouthed twenty-somethings who know nothing of the world. Patrick would bet his life that none of them have read—much less understood—Nietzsche.
And that is what calms him. And then he can breathe again. Once more, he returns to the words on the pages before him, feeling a new swell of pride in his gut. Those pink-haired girls will never know real art. The greatest tales known to man, the writings of giants. Nietzsche. Tolstoy. Kerouac. Thoreau. Dostoyevsky. Proust. Patrick.
The girl beside him shifts in her seat. He spreads his legs further so she won’t enter into his space.
When he feels the urge to write again, he sates it with six sentences:
He found himself standing face-to-face with the owner of the museum. She—if such a creature could even be called a “she”—was grotesquely overweight, fat hanging out like lurid bags of sand above her waistband. A grin split the surface of her oily, pockmarked face, and she brushed a greasy strand of dyed hair away from her red-rimmed glasses.
“A straight white male like you can’t understand art,” she hissed, each word sending a string of spit out from between her yellow teeth.
He wiped his cheek and looked past her revolting form to the “art” on the walls, canvases drenched in period blood and shitty poems.
“If that’s art,” he quipped, lighting a cigarette, “I don’t want to understand it.”
That scene is all Patrick finishes before he heads home from his usual coffee shop, whistling as he walks. It’s June; the asphalt is hot, the air is wavy, and the sidewalks are packed with baby carriages and dogs on leashes. He weaves expertly between them. If only Pink-Haired Girl were here. If only he could stop at a crosswalk and see her on the other side of the road, sweating like a pig in the heat. She’d try to approach him as soon as she noticed his presence, of course incapable of giving up. Patrick would roll his eyes at her wave, look past her as she asked how he was doing. But then an idea would occur to him. He would walk with her for a bit, lead her into the park at the end of the block, and sit beside her at a bench by the fountain. Mist would dust their cheeks as he opened up his laptop, showing her his newest passage. She’d skim it at first, then stop, unsure of how to proceed. She would start from the beginning once more, frown deepening with each line. Then, after finishing, she’d look up at him, lip trembling, shoulders hunching with the weight of her shame.
In reality, what happens is that Patrick peers over the heads of pedestrians at every crosswalk, trying to see if maybe—just maybe—Pink-Haired Girl is there.
She is not.
He has spent five extra minutes looking for her by the time he reaches his building, a fact that he tries not to think about. It’s very likely that, at this exact moment, she’s worrying over him, wondering why he reacted the way he did at the museum. That makes him snicker as he unlocks the door to his apartment.
Immediately he’s greeted by an echoing hello from the kitchen, which he ignores to throw himself face-first onto the couch. Light footsteps pad across the floor as his girlfriend emerges, then stops in front of him. She asks him how his day was, if he got any work done. He mumbles a few syllables in response. She asks him how his book is going. “If it’s going,” she adds, giving a smile that isn’t really a smile.
There’s no need for him to look at her; nothing is worth looking at. She’s alright—her eyes are blue, at least, and she never says no when he asks her to do something. Patrick supposes her willingness to stay with him has to do with her confidence. Average background, average grades, average number of friends. Couldn’t quite make it into a sorority back in college but tried anyway. Works a job that she tries to stay positive about. Often, she sits with him with a goofy grin painted onto her face, waiting for him to say something. Did you get a haircut? I like the way you made the eggs today. You’re so beautiful. Most times he only pretends he doesn’t notice her signals, but others—when he’s in a certain mood—he gives her the opposite.
Something looks off about your ponytail.
Fuck, are these eggs undercooked?
You’re gaining weight.
Fascinating how much of an effect his words have on her, how easily she crumbles under his gaze. If it weren’t for her weakness keeping things interesting, he’d have left by now. She sees the world with a sort of blankness he can barely comprehend. There is nothing she thinks critically about. To her, his novel is a nuisance and Nietzsche is just words. Yet, no matter what, she continues to smile and nod at the things he tells her, waiting desperately for him to tell her that she’s good, she’s smart, she matters. Of course he won’t lie to her. He talks to her the way she deserves to be talked to. She takes it, brain filled with half-thoughts. Woman thoughts.
“It’s going,” he says, voice muffled by the couch cushions. She sighs softly and perches on the armrest nearest his head.
“Rent is due in a week.”
“I know that.”
“I’m not sure if we’ll be able to cover it. My boss is holding off on giving me a raise. I’ve been trying and trying to convince him, but-”
“Try harder.” Patrick finally lifts his face to stare into her, and she shrinks.
“I’ve been trying.” Her voice wilts. “I—I just really don’t know what to do at this point. Maybe if we had a second income, we could-”
“Stop,” he tells her. “Don’t even finish that sentence.”
So she does stop, though her mouth trembles with need to speak.
Before she can, he goes on: “Do you really think I’m going to go out and get an office job? Really? Fuck, I’m working on important shit! I’m writing the next great American novel! Do you even understand how important that is?”
“It’s very important,” she murmurs. “I know.”
“It’s very important,” he repeats, not fully satisfied with the way she put it. “Not all of us are content working some soul-sucking nine-to-five.”
It’s a moment before she responds, too focused on the way his voice echoes in the room after it’s gone. Eventually she says, barely audible, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything,” and Patrick huffs.
And that is the last conversation they have for the rest of the night. Soon she will disappear in the kitchen to make him dinner, and she will watch silently as he eats it. Then he will leave her to the dishes and turn on the TV, flipping through channel after channel until the static is too much to handle. That is when she’ll decide to do something nice for him. To be a girlfriend. She will lean into him and kiss his neck, and he will scoff. When they migrate to the bedroom, he’ll lie down and gesture for her to climb on top of him. She’ll fuck herself while he smokes a cigarette, too bothered by the pudge on her thighs to enjoy himself. If only, he’ll think, she had legs like that girl at the museum. God, he should have gotten her number.
After cumming, he’ll ash his cigarette on the windowsill and she’ll ask if it was good. He’ll shrug. She’ll cry. An ambulance will whistle and whir past the window, for a moment bathing them in a wavering red light. “Do you love me?” she’ll choke out through strips of ragged breathing, and he’ll say, “Jesus Christ, Lauren.”
At a certain point it will become too much. He’ll slip on his clothes and leave the apartment, slamming the door behind him. His girlfriend’s cries of his name will muffle and muffle until he cannot hear them anymore, and then he will be left alone in the sharp, droning whine of the city. Somehow he’ll end up at a 7-Eleven, buying a hot dog that may or may not be edible. Regardless, he will eat it. He’ll eat it and, for no reason at all, a voice in his brain will whisper, “This is art, and you can’t stop it from being art.”
So Patrick will throw his hot dog to the ground and let out a yell that sounds more like a sob. And then he will spend the next ten minutes or so staring down at that red, meaty mess on the concrete, wondering why.
A miracle occurs in the coffee shop.
Here is what happens: Patrick is back to work, staring at the blinking line in Microsoft Word and digging through his mental thesaurus. What’s a better word for ashamed? Sheepish? Not strong enough. Humiliated? Not subtle enough. Repentant? Too holy-roller.
Eventually it will come; he knows this. For three years he has been working on this book and for three years the words have found him when the time was right. Often they hide back, not yet ready to show themselves. Other times they wait in plain sight until he can crawl out of his head long enough to see them. Whatever the case, he always meets them eventually. Perhaps it’s a gift of his, attracting them. He imagines very few people have such an inseparable connection with language.
He is pondering this when a bell jingles and the door opens and, without thinking, he glances upwards at the person who has entered.
She doesn’t see him yet; in a second she’s at the counter, craning her thick neck to see the menu above. Everything is as he remembers: blocky glasses, squat frame, clothing that looks very purposefully selected from a thrift shop. The world has come to a halt, and Patrick cannot even find the strength to move his fingers across the keyboard. He swallows and stare, stare, stares at her, sometimes forgetting to blink. Now she’s ordering some nauseating concoction of sugar and cream, and he snorts to himself while taking a sip of his black coffee. The cashier writes the order. Pink-Haired Girl hands him a card. Typing. Signing. Receipt. She turns, and for a moment, Patrick can see the back of her washed-out denim jacket, covered in the bold-lettered statement, “WE FALL IN LOVE WITH SOULS.” And Patrick thinks, What the hell does that mean? Who’s “we”? Whose souls are they falling in love with? And he sips his coffee again.
She’s moving closer to him, still not looking in his direction. Today she is donning purple lipstick. Of course she is. She grabs a handful of napkins while the baristas make her potion. Patrick grits his teeth. He wants to stand. Maybe call her name. Maybe even grab her by the shoulder and spin her around so they can look at each other. He wants to demand, “You remember me, don’t you?” followed by, “You think you’re so interesting, huh?” and, “What the fuck is the deal with that goddamn painting? What makes it art? There’s no thought or effort behind it. Why is it art, and why can’t I do anything about it?”
What might she say in response? “Get the fuck off me.” Or maybe, “It’s art because it says it is. Because someone thought of it and they made it and they put it up there for everyone to see, for hundreds of people to pass every day and worry over until it drives them out of their minds. It’s art because it was created. It’s art because it exists.”
Patrick is close to speaking. The words form on his tongue, crackling like fire. His breath comes faster. Her name is called, and she picks her drink up from the counter. To get a straw, he knows, she will have to walk straight past his table.
The fingers of his right hand fidget on the trackpad of his laptop. For a second he looks down, once more facing the blinking line. It watches him, laughs at him. Page 32 of 32, the application says.
Pink-Haired Girl begins to walk. Driven by instinct, Patrick deepens his frown in a look of mock-thoughtfulness and angles his computer towards her.
She gets her straw. She pops it into the drink. She moves past him and leaves. In the buzz that follows the bell’s ringing, Patrick sees her travel down the sidewalk until she vanishes around a corner. Then he sits. And he exhales. And he thinks about how she must have seen his book and must now be reeling in awe of it, her whole world of dreadful aesthetics and modern art collapsing around her.
He chuckles, feeling awfully proud of his victory.