by Gina Yates
As I rinse my paintbrushes in the bathroom sink, I make a forlorn James Dean face in the mirror and try to recall when 3-day stubble became my signature look. Seriously though, at what point did I become so mired in angst that I succumbed to this half-assed grunge aesthetic? I don’t recall it ever being an intentional rebranding choice. Then again, I’ve run from one identity to another for so long, it’s easy to lose track.
I do bear a tinge of responsibility for my victimhood, as perhaps – in the first place – I could’ve avoided provoking the crazed individual who has persecuted me for the past 20 years. But I was itching for a fight on that Friday evening when our paths crossed at the bar. Flunking out of art school had become imminent because this one uptight professor kept trashing my paintings – large panels depicting women I’d had crap dates with as grotesque one-eyed harpies with maggots on their faces – calling the works “misogynistic.” A lumpy old battleax of a woman, she also refused to honor the moniker I planned to make a career with, Ben Bankrupt. That morning I had stormed out of her class, the only class I needed to graduate, after Professor Snatchface called me by my given name for the third and final time. “One day you’ll regret this,” I’d said, knowing deep down it was more likely me who would regret it.
I’d made a beeline for the Rusty Heron off Wilshire Boulevard, and at its entrance is where I guess I committed my first fatal mistake, brushing off the penetrating visual examination I received from the neo-hippie female panhandler outside.
Back then, my adolescent penchant for self-sabotage hadn’t fully subsided yet. Instead of drinking alone as I should have, I sidled up to 3 out-of-work actors who stood at the bar puzzling over crumpled sheets of notebook paper.
“It’s actually kind of brilliant,” one of them said; “pretty spot-on,” agreed another. My inner monologue quieted down, curious to find out what had them so enthralled. Though I hadn’t bothered to read it, the cardboard sign held by the sketchy woman at the door had read, “psychiatric help, $1.00,” and collectively this group of couch-surfers had donated $8.00 to her weed fund instead of calling the cops. Even more annoyingly, they’d convinced themselves that the generic handwritten Oprah-isms they’d received for their money could be of use to them in their acting careers.
I was eventually urged to ask her about my artistic crisis by my new drinking companions – we got to know each other about 4 beers in – but I loudly protested. I have a special distaste for white chicks with dreadlocks, I told them. Cultural appropriation aside, they smell like Patchouli and sweat, and I prefer my psychiatric help to smell like sterile doctor’s offices. Our discussion migrated to a table near the door – well within earshot of guru Birkenstocks herself – and by night’s end, that psycho had devoted half her sage-infused notebook to figuring me out.
Some say coincidence is in the eye of the beholder, but I say that’s a crock. I began running into that blasted white dread everywhere I went; at the bus stop in front of my headache center, the parking lot outside the payday loan place; she even startled me once as I turned from a drinking fountain in Venice. Whenever she saw me, she would bug out her eyes and open her notebook to a pre-marked page where she’d written her directives in large bold print. The messages started off innocuous (“people want to like your work”) but the less interest I showed in her words, the snarkier they became (“the world won’t reward you for hating it”; “acting tortured doesn’t make you an artist.”)
Each time I saw her I made a mental note to avoid the place of the encounter, but she still managed to turn up everywhere I went and soon it started messing with my process. I could visualize exactly what I wanted to see on the canvas but when it came time to execute, I’d hear a woman’s placid, patronizing voice, and my painting arm would seize up. I went to see a shrink who prescribed anti-anxiety meds and showed me some Lamaze-style breathing exercises. But in the haze of one Friday rush hour when I saw her holding her infuriating cardboard sign in the cactus-lined median of Wilshire, I wanted to flatten her with my parents’ hand-me-down Subaru.
A guy in an SUV shoved a handful of change out his window and she jotted down some horseshit for him. That’s when it hit me, with sudden rage; she probably made more money with this hustle than I would ever make selling paintings and she sure as fuck didn’t have 120 grand in student loan hanging over her head. I leaned on my horn, and as I rolled past, she held up a page reading “True inspiration can’t be faked.” I did what anyone would do then; I flipped her off. And I’m not ashamed to say it gave me great satisfaction to see sheets of notebook paper fly from under her arm as she responded in kind. I was half a block away when I heard that earsplitting screech, followed by the explosive bang that made the ground and my cold blood shake.
I pulled over and got out of the car to see what happened, moving slowly and smoking a cigarette lest anyone think my intention was to rush to the scene and start doing CPR. A semi had crashed into a hardware store causing a three-car pileup behind. Word on the street among the spectators was that the truck had swerved to avoid hitting “some homeless lady;” a crowd had gathered around White Dread, who basked shamelessly in the attention.
Did I feel sorry for her? Hell, no. A week or so later, I ran into one of those improv troupe guys from the Rusty Heron who told me – get this – the crunchy fruitloop wasn’t even homeless. She was a third-year medical student, she’d confessed over beers one night– an aspiring psychiatrist. Her sob story was that she’d always dreamed of helping people out of their pain through “insightful articulation,” but modern psychiatry consisted of little more than filling out boring checklists in order to make questionable diagnoses and dispense pills. On the verge of dropping out, she had taken to the streets trying to forge the human connection she craved. Pretty fucking pathetic if you ask me. Eight people were injured in that crash and two of them never recovered.
After the accident, White Dread was charged with being a public nuisance and ordered to pay a slap-on-the-wrist fine, and when the school heard about it, they expelled her. It’s clearly not my fault that her life went tits up, but she has decided to blame me for it anyway. She dropped the cardboard sign act, so I’ve never had a chance to confront her in person, but I know without doubt she’s behind the twisted harassment campaign that has plagued me ever since.
Every time I show my work anywhere, no matter what alias I use – Art I. Fischel, Sid No1ever – the same tone and tenor of feedback seems to magically appear. Sometimes it’s in the form of published reviews (“Mister Fischel seems to believe evoking pity will earn him admiration,” and sometimes it’s sarcastic comments made at close range (“Sheesh. Mel N. Colly? I’d love to be this guy’s therapist.”) Call me paranoid, but, I’m sorry, the odds of the phrase “phony pretentious crybaby” coming up in 11 out of my 11 gallery shows is a bit absurd, even within art reviewing circles. Eye of the beholder my ass.
The real bitch of it is, I can’t charge her with anything. To call it stalking, you’ve got to prove the person has made a credible threat to your safety. I mean, what am I gonna say? Help me, officer, my creative life-force is being crippled by a vicious anti-muse?
What this vicious anti-muse doesn’t realize, though – what she’s failed to consider ever since the launch of her entire calculated design – is that I am not one to let my circumstances define me. Like the great psychologist Carl Jung once said, “I am not what has happened to me; I am what I choose to become.”
The medicine cabinet makes an ominous creaking sound as I open it to pull out the sharpest blade I own, a souvenir straight razor from Germany. I originally bought it for its folding sandalwood handle, which seemed like a good defense against my tendency for self-harm. It’s time for resolute action, I say to myself. Time to lay down a clear intention amidst all this chaos.
Once the last traces of shadow are gone from my face, I turn things up a notch, dig out my electric shaver and give myself a Mohawk. My rebranding is almost complete, then the perfect new trade name hits me like a semi through a plexiglass window; Justin Sane. If they’re gonna call me crazy anyway, I might as well embrace it. Let White Dread think she’s won for a minute. Let her think she’s finally nudged me right off the slippery edge of reason.
Then let her stop and realize, it’s all just part of the show.
Gina Yates‘ debut novel, NARCISSUS NOBODY, is slated for release in 2021 by Three Rooms Press. Her short fiction has appeared in Ghost Parachute, Typishly, Literally Stories, and others. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where in addition to writing she owns an eclectic vintage clothing shop. Her other claim to fame is being the youngest daughter of the late literary author Richard Yates.