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The Modernist's Dilemma

—Ainslie Chen

The Modernist's Dilemma

          I came to on a dinner table. The room was dimly lit, a solace for feeble eyes. Bathroom candles of different sizes surrounded me on the table—I was like a sacrificial lamb upon an altar, a martyr for the unemployed. But the altar felt abnormally cold, as if it was pressed against my bare skin. I searched for my clothes only to realize that I was naked; sitting in a bed of goosebumps, the hair along my skin was raised to the tenuous warmth of candlelight. I was examining the purple tint in my goosebumps when I noticed the man at my feet.

          I started. He was around thirty and wore a dress shirt half-tucked into brown slacks, the collar undone. He sat facing me, painting idle strokes onto a poster-sized canvas. His face was flushed. Despite his glazed eyes, they never left the canvas, even when he addressed me.

          “Hold still,” he said, “you’ll ruin it.”

          The whiskey on his breath almost knocked me out. But he seemed a harmless drunk, if his slurred speech and tired wit were anything to go by. A cigarette dangling in his mouth, he reminded me of my late grandfather, whose main occupation in his later years was to sit on the porch, a cigarette pressed between his lips, and capture the sunset in his squinting eyes.

          “How did I get here?” I asked.

          “By here, you mean...”

          He gestured vaguely at me, more focused on his painting than he could ever be with a living person.

          “Here,” I said.

          I similarly gestured at myself. The fact that he seemed to pay me no attention made me more comfortable referring to my naked body.

          “There’s not much to say. You got drunk and took your clothes off. You drank so much you couldn’t walk, so they left you downstairs. I was the only one around, but I was so bored that you inspired a vision, candles included.”

          I didn’t say anything. Suddenly the image came to mind of people talking high art and modernism while passing needles on silver trays. They were boldly in style and stylishly subversive; they wore belts for bras and layered zoot suits over lace nighties. In a black dress that kissed my knees, I’d hoped to convey a sense of tragic femininity underpinning a mordant intellect. But my dabblings in Eliot couldn’t mask my blindness to Yeats’ spiritual undertones or Kafka’s casual understatement of the surreal. And so I hovered noiselessly among drug-addled aesthetes, who never looked at you but rather looked through you.

          I nodded toward the painting.

          “What are you calling it?” I asked.

          “The Second Coming,” he sighed. “And your hair just moved.”


          I let my head fall back onto the table. My mind wandered, then decided to settle on Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table. I was like the patient—incapacitated, etherized—except by an artist. Perhaps artists were just as deadly; they manipulated your portrait and willed into existence things that never were. All the while you lay there, flattered that something in you caught their eye, disappointed that you would take self-subjection for a little bit of flattery.

          I’d recited the poem thrice in my head when the artist turned his canvas towards me. A dark, vaguely human shape hovered amidst a bright burst of light—I imagined it as the album cover of Nirvana’s In Utero with black paint smeared all over the woman’s body, until she looked tangentially like a woman.

          He stared at me in what was the first time we’d met eyes that night. I realized he wanted me to say something.

          “I love it,” I said.

          “You’re welcome,” he replied.

          He stood up and steadied himself against the table. Supporting himself against the wall, he walked across the room and flipped on a light switch. I finally saw it for what it was: a cramped, two-story apartment bedecked with vintage furniture—a cuckoo clock perched against dark floral wallpaper, two green velvet couches, and a piano in the place of a third, facing the dinner table. And clothes strewn everywhere. The dinner table was the only surface left untouched; I suspected that this was his doing.

          He walked over to a mountain of clothes and grabbed a black dress from the bottom. He hooked the fabric onto his index finger and handed it to me at arm’s length.

          “Well?” he said. “Your clothes aren’t going to put themselves on.”

          I hesitantly accepted the dress and began clothing myself. When I’d finished, he was back on his chair and scrutinizing his painting with a bemused expression, as if he couldn’t believe it was the work of his own hands. He looked full of childlike wonder. It felt rude to interrupt, so as quietly as I’d woken up, I made for the front door.

          The cold, biting air of late fall welcomed me outside. The street lights were dim, and the only light I could find streamed out of the second-floor windows. Through half-closed curtains, I made out the soft outlines of figures slumped against bed frames and couches. They breathed slowly and occasionally stirred. Looking at them, I felt what I could only describe as desire. I couldn’t put my thoughts into words, not as eloquently as they did, but I knew that I needed to be alone. My first thought was to go to a bar, where lonely, restless people slunked off to at night. During the day, they were busy attending niche parties with well-read epicureans, hosted in shady, uncharted areas of the city. And now that the lights were off and they were a little drunk, they really didn’t mind wandering the streets, armed with the wit of T. S. Eliot, in search of some meaning to it all; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells.


AINSLIE CHEN is a junior at the Harker School in San Jose, California. Though she is a STEM kid, she turns to writing as a means of escaping her everyday, STEM-centric environment. She loves making combinations out of words, some of which turn into sentences.

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