Adam Sturtevant is the third place winner in the 2009 SFWP Literary Awards program. We’re excerpting a story from his winning collection, Ease Chest Tuck Hid Debt Art.
The Most Important Thing in the World
When I first asked my wife, Shelly, to be a bitch, it didn’t take much convincing. She jumped right into it with her usual generosity, as if I’d asked her to do the laundry. I was taken aback by how easy it was, how unoffended and understanding she was. You understand? You’re fine with this? I asked. She actually bought my bullshit about feeling complacent and uninspired to paint, and agreed to try, just for a little bit, just for my sake, being a bitch, to, you know, spice things up, get my creative juices flowing. I’m a painter, you see, or at least I was back in college, before I met this beautiful woman, and we moved into this fairy tale brick cottage, with sun coming into the windows all day, every day. All this natural light is perfect to paint! I said when we moved in. Horseshit. The perfect light to paint in is darkness. Bottomless, hopeless darkness, filled with nothing but desperation and despair. Like my old professor, Harold Lankins, used to say, Without suffering, there is no art. I used to have plenty, before Shelly came along and rearranged everything.
So I asked her to be a bitch. I explained, as delicately as I could, my predicament. I was careful to explain that I wasn’t blaming her, and that I still loved her with all my heart, which was all true, but that I just wanted to try it out as an experiment to fuel my creativity, because like most people, I was so much more creative in college when things were hectic, when my only lovers were cocaine and whiskey, and things like food and sleep were the last resort; when my life wasn’t so…so…
So what? she asked me, and I said, predictable. But she wasn’t mad, not at all. She was fine with it. It even sounded like fun to her, and we began the game right away, right at the kitchen table. We made the agreement, and after a few minutes of drinking our coffee and eating our breakfast in silence, she suddenly slid, or practically threw her plate towards me, and shouted, How ‘bout YOU clean the fucking dishes for once? and stomped out of the room. That was how it all started.
It felt silly at first, like acting in a play, but she was good, and all I had to do to stay in character was feed off of her. That first day I was in my studio, starting on a new canvas, and she walked down the hallway on her way to work, and without even looking in shouted through the door that she thought she had told me to clean the fucking dishes. It was good. It felt like we were on the right path, like some progress in my psyche was being made. I decided right then and there that I would not clean the dishes, and see what would happen. Would she cave in and do them for me, or keep on yelling about them? And if she did keep on yelling, and I kept ignoring her, what would happen then? I was so damn curious, more than anything.
Harold Lankins was an intense old man, with huge elephant ears brimming with white hair and a wobbly mouth you couldn’t help but pay attention to, as much as you kept your distance from it. He spat constantly as he lectured, and never smiled. He liked my work, and I liked him. I felt like he could read my paintings and see what I was trying to invoke, and also see all the obstacles in my way, all the mental clutter that makes most of us fail. Be honest, Derek, he would say, again and again. Stop worrying about what other people think, and think for yourself. That lesson was the only one that seemed to make sense to me back then. I guess the man practiced what he preached as well because he was a phenomenal artist whose paintings sold at galleries around the world, even before he died from cancer last fall. But he also got divorced four times, partly because he was also an alcoholic and cokehead, like myself at the time.
But all that changed when I met Shelly. She was an Art Education major at the university and we met at one of my shows. She loved my work and was in awe of me. She came back to my apartment that very night and we had incredible, vigorous sex for eight months straight before we eventually moved in together and she taught me how to be happy, first with the home cooked meals then with the movie nights at home. Wine replaced whiskey and coffee replaced cocaine. My paintings of strung-out junkies in abandoned, apocalyptic buildings morphed into beautiful women in gardens who all in one way or another resembled Shelly. Our lovemaking became gentler and more routine, and her rapturous screams softened into tender moans, until finally, last Saturday night, afterwards, when I laid heaving on top of her, she actually patted my back and I knew something was wrong. I laid awake for a long time that night and eventually snuck out of bed and went to the studio. The blank canvas sat there on the easel, lit by moonlight. I stood there naked, staring at it, realizing I hadn’t painted anything in weeks. I looked at myself in the mirror and was pretty sure my dick had gotten smaller.
It wasn’t just for my art that I wanted Shelly to scream at me. I wanted the old Shelly back as well. I wanted her to not know what I was thinking all the time and vice versa. I wanted us to be unsure of each other. I wanted her to go down on me like she used to, like she was thirsting for me, not like she was doing me a favor out of love, like cooking breakfast or doing the laundry. She did so many of these things, and never, ever complained. You don’t have to do that, I would say. But I want to, she would reply. She was lovely in every way, I have to admit. I didn’t want to lose her. Quite the contrary. That’s why I painted the cat.
When Elmo wandered into my studio that first day, I grabbed him and dipped his paws onto my palette and shooed him out of the room, him leaving little yellow paw prints on the floor on his way out. Shelly didn’t get back from work until that evening, and I had forgotten about it by then. I was working on a painting of a scrawny, naked old man with a tiny penis, staring at a blank canvas in an empty art gallery, when Shelly came home and screamed. She said, What the fuck is this?! and I remembered the paw prints. I snickered when she opened the door to the studio looking pissed, but she didn’t think it was funny, or least she pretended not to. She told me I better clean that shit up. I didn’t.
An awkward part of the game came when we went out to dinner with her two best friends, a middle-aged gay couple named Matt and Matthew. They were two very sweet guys whom she had known for years. Matt was a teacher in the school where Shelly worked. Matthew was an accountant who had always shown a polite interest in my painting. We had a routine of going out to dinner with them once a month, always on a Saturday night, usually for seafood and wine. For some reason, Shelly and I didn’t discuss whether or not to keep up the act at dinner. We rode in the car in silence, and the curious tension in the car was too exciting to break, so I kept quiet and figured the game was still on.
We greeted them with the usual enthusiasm at the restaurant. Shelly and I hugged each Matt in turn, pretty much ignoring each other. After we sat down she talked to Matt about work, and Matthew asked about my painting. He suggested submitting my portfolio to a new gallery he had heard of. The waitress took our drink order and when I ordered whiskey instead of wine, Shelly shot me a dirty look. The Matts immediately picked up on it, and asked if everything was okay. Oh no, she said, everything’s fine. Dinner went on.
For the most part, Shelly and I ignored each other for the duration of the dinner, although she occasionally rolled her eyes and made subtly sarcastic remarks under her breath at certain things I said. I was kind of enjoying the new atmosphere and ordered two more whiskeys, much to her chagrin. Her attitude was so out of character but the Matts didn’t seem to notice. I figured that they were both too sloshed on wine to notice. When she finally excused herself to go to the ladies room, I felt like I had to let the Matts in on the secret. I started to tell them about my strange request but Matt stopped me and leaned close with a mischievous grin. He whispered to me that they already knew. Shelly had phoned them ahead of time. They thought it was fascinating and hoped it worked. It sounded like fun to them. Matthew, who seemed especially hammered, chimed in that he and Matt also did a little role-playing to spice things up, a certain game involving a bad student going to the principal’s office to be disciplined. Couples do that sort of thing all the time, they said. It worked wonders for them, apparently.
I felt reassured by our dinner with the Matts, and the game continued into the night. When we got home, Shelly gave me the cold shoulder but I pursued her into the bedroom, and after much forceful coaxing, we made amazing, passionate love. I fell asleep that night with testosterone and whiskey seeping out of my pores. It seemed like something useful was happening between us, and when she left for work on Monday, I went to the studio and went back to work full of vigor. I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and had a few glasses while I worked, and in a few days I had finished the old naked man in the gallery. He had a droopy, wet mouth and the belligerent spirit of Harold Lankins. I stared at it for a long time, getting drunk and thinking about Harold, about how close we were, about our intense coke-fueled conversations about art. We would blow lines in his apartment and look through each other’s portfolios, practically screaming in excitement about the truth they contained, about his greatness and my potential. He would grab my arm and pull me real close to that wet mouth as he spoke. Nothing you do, and no one you meet is as important as your art, he said. Money, success, wives, children, houses, these are what normal people strive for. But you and I are different. We are artists.