The American Painter Bridget Callaghan | Fiction | Chicago Reader

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The American Painter Bridget Callaghan

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I met him in October, at the opening of my first solo show in New York, a series of ten portraits. I was saying good night to my sister-in-law at the door when he parked his silver coupe at a hydrant in front of the gallery. We watched him walk to the center of the room to greet my dealer and two of her clients, an older couple he seemed to know well. My dealer kissed him on both cheeks and complimented his navy double-breasted suit. Her clients clasped his hands in theirs, embraced him, and clapped him on the back. They all repeated his name many times, excited to be with him, calling him by his first name. I heard him complain that he and his wife had caught a cold from their teenage daughter, that he had a sore throat and a headache. He was upset because he had loaned a painting from his collection to the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf and they had not used it to advertise the exhibition, as he had been promised. I saw how his mention of such a well-known piece pleased everyone who could hear his voice. We all inched closer.

My husband and our friends were restless. They had their coats on and were saying good night to people, slowly making their way toward the door. The gallery had made a reservation at a restaurant a few blocks away. My husband had just been hired as the production designer on his first big budget feature and a friend had quit her bad job at a magazine the week before. We had a lot to celebrate but I couldn't leave until I met him. I asked my husband to wait a little bit longer and then I went and stood in front of him, next to my dealer. She put her arm across my shoulders and introduced us. We shook hands and he congratulated me on the show. He said my paintings were well suited to the space. I liked the timbre of his voice and how he looked close-up--fine silver hair and bright but crooked teeth. I liked his compliment even though I was certain he had barely glanced at my work in the ten minutes he had been in the gallery. He said he'd like to see what I'd been working on since I finished those portraits. I gave him my card and we agreed he'd come to my studio in Brooklyn the following week.

Soon after we were seated, my dealer arrived at the restaurant with her husband, her assistant, another artist she represented, and his boyfriend. Our group of 15 took up a long table at the back of the noisy room. My husband raised his glass first. He said he knew, everyone knew, my exhibition would be a success, and that hopefully a painting would be sold to one of the best contemporary collectors in the country. My dealer gave me a wink. None of us mentioned that he only collected abstract work. We were excited that he had been at the gallery, to know he was going to come see me.

He was four hours late. He was drinking an extra light coffee and brought one for me. He had been visiting a friend, an artist in his collection, whose studio is a few blocks from mine. I showed him some studies for my new paintings, photographs and drawings I had done of people who sat for me. There was a large canvas on one of the two wooden easels, a painting I had just started of a boy's naked back. He stared at my face and neck while I spoke. He walked around the room, taking his glasses off and putting them back on again, and examined my books and CDs and the photos and cards tacked to the walls. He picked up art magazines and tubes of paint. He looked strange in my studio, sitting on a dirty chair in his dark suit and overcoat, but I liked having him there. He touched my things as though they belonged to him but he'd forgotten about them, like he was reacquainting himself.

He said the portraits in my show were good. I said, Then buy one. I wasn't going to pretend I didn't want his help. He wouldn't buy anything, but any interest he showed in me could attract other collectors. He sat in my chair in front of an empty easel and took a cigarette from a pack on the floor. He said, I will buy one. He took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and blew his nose. Then he told me about his friend's studio, which I already knew was about ten times the size of mine and had a view of the river. She was the first of my contemporaries to have exhibitions in big galleries. She made serious money from her painting. I told him which piece from my show I wanted him to buy and bequeath to the Modern with the rest of his collection when he died. It was a big painting, 108 by 102 inches, of a man in three-quarter profile; his eyes are downcast, he is turning away. He laughed and said, OK, I'll buy that one. But I knew he wouldn't.

He came over again the next day, in the early afternoon, and we ordered Thai food. The lemongrass soup made his nose run. He hadn't slept well because he was still sick. He wore another dark suit. I liked the way his voice sounded in the tall quiet room, deep and slow. Twice he held out plastic forkfuls of his pad thai for me to taste even though we were eating the same dish. He was going to California the next week to see exhibitions and thought I would be interested in seeing the work there too. He pronounced his words carefully. I said, I am interested. But my show was hanging: two paintings had sold at the opening and I wasn't going anywhere until it came down. He kept saying he had to get back to his office but he didn't leave until it was nearly dark outside, and then he went home.

He came over every morning for the rest of the week. He knocked on the door and called in to me, Hello Bridget Callaghan. If I wasn't sitting in my painting chair he sat there, drinking his extra light coffee and smoking my cigarettes. Otherwise he stood at the back of the room, where I couldn't see him, and waited until I was ready to take a break. I liked to work while he was there and for him to see I knew what I was doing, that he didn't distract me. He flipped the pages of art magazines and talked on the phone. Then he ordered lunch for us, usually from the Polish restaurant around the corner. I wanted to go out with him at night, but I didn't bother mentioning it because I knew he had to be in Connecticut then.

Unless there was an opening in the evening, I worked until late. At nine or ten I took the train back into Manhattan and stopped by my husband's studio on Canal Street to see the drawings he was making for the movie. Our friend managed a restaurant on First Street, down the block from our apartment, and we usually ate dinner there. My husband wouldn't have left his studio if I didn't pick him up. He came out to do business and to be with me. We liked to stay out late drinking at the restaurant, talking about work and the future.

I wanted this collector in my future.

The first time I kissed him we were eating clam chowder he brought from a diner on Church Street. He had wanted to share a bowl, but I was afraid he might find it romantic to spoon-feed me so I ordered my own even though I wasn't hungry. He gave me a book of short stories that he had just read and said, I want you to like these, too. There was a photograph of a woman's pale back on the cover. I knew that he wanted something to happen, more than watching me paint and buying me lunch and giving me things. I leaned my shoulder into his and kissed him on the lips. He closed his eyes for a few seconds afterward, which made him look weak.

The day before he went to LA he came over in the morning with a liter of ginger ale and the crossword. We sat at a round wooden table by a window that overlooks the air shaft. I told him the answers and he filled them in with the shiny lacquer pen he kept in his breast pocket. After we had finished most of the across clues he suggested we go outside and take a drive along the river. I had a date to meet my husband and the director of the film he was about to begin work on for lunch in Manhattan. He said, Cancel it, I want to spend the day with you. But I didn't want to make up an excuse to tell my husband. I knew that we would have a good time and I looked forward to meeting the director, whom I'd heard was beginning to buy paintings. He absently filled in the puzzle squares with blue cross-hatching, his fine hair fell over his forehead. He said, I think we both want this to go further but it can't. He dropped his fancy pen and it rolled across the paint-streaked floor. I said, I know. He said, My wife has saved my life so many times and I am going to die in this marriage. I pictured what his wife might look like: a woman a few years older than me who used to be an artist, driving the shiny coupe to the bank or garden center. I nodded as though it were a reasonable thing for him to say, possibly even flattering to his wife. But it made me feel superior, knowing that my husband wouldn't invoke me mundanely if he was trying to get somewhere with a woman. I said that I trusted him because he was happily married and didn't want to replace the person he already had. I knew he would like the sound of that.

We arranged to meet at my studio the following evening before he left town, but I waited for him outside the bar downstairs. It was not quite dark when he arrived. He got out of a car at the end of the block and stood in the street, waiting for the driver to pop the trunk. He was impatient, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. I stared at him as he walked toward me, the only person in sight wearing a suit. I liked his broad shoulders and that his dark eyes were already meeting mine. He was pulling a large suitcase and had another overstuffed bag slung across his back. Other people on the sidewalk looked at me, and one guy turned his head to see who I was waiting for.

I wanted to go inside but he was afraid there might be people in the bar who knew who he was. I asked him twice but he refused. He said, Come out to the airport with me. He couldn't stop reaching for my hair, twisting the ends of it around his fingers. I called a neighborhood car service on his cell phone, and we smoked a cigarette on the street while we waited to be picked up. After he told the driver where to take us we were quiet. I had spent the day with my husband, making love and watching movies in bed until late in the afternoon, when we went to our studios. It was all I could think of when the car started moving. Our silence bothered me: I was first attracted to him because of the way he spoke. But I was pleased to finally be with him at night.

I kissed his hand when he complained that he was worried about being away from his wife and daughter, the upcoming auctions, parking his car on the street in Brooklyn when he visited artists' studios, being with me, how I was going to get home from the airport. That was the second time I kissed him. His face was lit by the headlights of the cab behind us. He looked very handsome to me, but old and maybe a little afraid. I kissed his hand because I felt sorry for him and to remind him that he should appreciate that he got to be with me.

He wrestled his bag from between us to the floor of the cab. He is an awkward man and I looked out the window to not feel embarrassed for him. For a few seconds I pretended he wasn't there, that I was just taking a ride in a cab alone. I remembered cab rides at the end of nights years ago, before I was married, when I looked through the car window at women who were out with men who didn't seem to suit them. I used to wonder if my life was like theirs, or if it would become like theirs. How would I become a woman in my 30s, stepping into traffic to hurry across the street and disappear into a restaurant or apartment building? The women I saw ran purposefully through the city, vanishing into places I didn't know existed.

He slid closer to me on the seat. We tried to make out but the road was too bumpy and our teeth knocked together. I stuck my tongue in his mouth to brace myself so we wouldn't keep coming apart. His hand on the side of my head felt good, better than I expected it to. His fingers smelled soapy. He said, I want to mess up your hair and your clothes. I unbuttoned two middle buttons on his shirt and kissed the center of his chest. He took his glasses off and said we had enough time to get a room by the airport. But I didn't want to fuck him somewhere depressing. All I wanted that evening was to kiss him and then to meet up with my husband and our friends. I told him if we went to a motel he might miss his plane and he agreed we should wait, but he didn't want to.

He held my hand as we walked through the bright, crowded terminal. I expected him to be concerned that he might see someone he knew. We didn't speak while he checked his bags and then he quickly led me to a quiet lounge I hadn't noticed before. At the bar he wanted compliments and reassurances that I liked him and for me to talk dirty. I enjoyed it, but it was hard not to laugh. I put his hands underneath my sweater and told him to remember my skin while he was gone. I dared him to touch me between my legs. He did whatever I told him. There were two women about his age sitting behind him who watched us kissing. One of them caught my eye a few times. When he said things about feeling insecure about being old, about being a little overweight, about being shorter than me, I stuck my tongue in his mouth to shut him up. He liked it. I think it made him feel like he was doing something naughty. His mouth tasted like beer and cigarettes and faintly of the sweet orange candy he chewed when he was trying not to smoke.

I drew a diagram on a cocktail napkin of a room with a bed, a window, and a door. I drew an X representing him standing against the wall beside the door and another X representing me, standing in front of him, toe to toe, as close as I could be without touching him. I would stand there as long as I could until it was impossible not to touch. Then I would take my clothes off, staying so close it would be difficult for him to see all my skin as I undressed. We looked at the diagram while I told him this and then he put it in his jacket pocket.

Pressed against me at the departure gate he was a much better kisser than he'd been in the cab. He raised his chin slightly to watch my expression while he touched me. I found his face beautiful, the curve of his forehead, the lines around his eyes and mouth, and I pushed myself hard against him. People hurried past us. He chewed at my lips. His hands were warm on my breasts and stomach and across my back, but he kept finding the places where my bones stuck out and leaving his hands on my hip bones and shoulder blades and the sides of my rib cage. I moved his hands off my bones and put them on my waist, like that was the place for his hands to start over, to slide along my skin, avoiding the sharper spots.

I would think about kissing him while he was away. I would kiss him more when he returned. It was simple.

He was the last person to board the plane. I walked through the terminal, outside to the taxi stand. I didn't have to wait long. There was a middle-aged couple with luggage and a woman in an airline uniform ahead of me. The front section of the Times was folded on the seat of the cab. I put it on my lap even though I'd read it in the morning. All the way home I looked at a photograph of a good-looking American soldier guarding some distant border.

I imagined him settling into his seat, looking out the window as the plane took off, waiting for a stewardess to serve him dinner and a drink. I tried to imagine him striking up a conversation with whoever was sitting next to him but I couldn't picture whether that person was a man or a woman. If it was an attractive woman he would be afraid she'd noticed he'd had a hard-on when he put his bag in the overhead compartment. I pictured him reading or looking around at the other passengers.

Two days later he telephoned from a busy office at a museum. My husband had left for his studio early and I was alone in bed. His call woke me up. He was whispering so I whispered too. He said he missed me, especially my tongue and my hips. He called me sweetheart, a name I don't like. I thought he might call his wife sweetheart and so was used to calling a woman by that name, or maybe he was actually pretending to speak to his wife in front of people he knew. I didn't really care. The sound of his voice made me want to be with him. After we hung up I walked over the Williamsburg Bridge to my studio, trying to imagine what it would be like much later, how I would benefit from knowing him.

He called every day for the next five days to tell me what it was like in LA and that he thought about me while he was driving his rental car and looking at paintings. He spoke in a low voice or a whisper. Sometimes I pretended I couldn't hear him and said, I think our connection is failing. He didn't once ask me how I was. He was having a good time but he was anxious about returning and getting caught with me, and he was certain that anyone who'd seen us together knew we wanted each other. I told him he was wrong. No one saw us. I told him to enjoy himself and when he came back we could fool around and worry about things then. That's what he liked, for me to tell him that I wanted to have sex with him. He would say, The diagram, let's do that. I thought about how it would begin: in a hotel room in the afternoon. He would check in alone and I would meet him when I was done working for the day. He would have the television on when I arrived and would click it off with the remote after he let me in. I would ask him about what he had seen on CNN while I undressed. I imagined that if I took my own clothes off I wouldn't be nervous, but if I let him do it I would be. I wanted to fool around with him because I liked his expression when he was excited, the way he left his mouth open. I liked his shirts that buttoned up and I wanted to unbutton them. When he was nervous he wanted to drink and smoke my cigarettes or talk about his family and his worries. But I didn't care about those things. I liked the way he said my name and took his glasses off and put them on again and how he'd forgotten himself in the airport.

I didn't tell him that my show had already gotten two good reviews because I knew he would have read them. Both write-ups said that my work is exceptionally well painted. One described the figures as elegant and suggestive and the other said that the palette is elegant and vivid. The Times used the word bravura. Three paintings were sold and another was on hold for the museum in Toronto.

At my studio I covered a large glass palette with paint and pushed the wet reds around the glass until it was a sticky mess. Then I moved it out of my sight, to a shelf at the back of the room. I stared at my canvases all afternoon before I picked up a brush. I played the interview game that my husband and I made up, but I had to do both voices. The interviewer is Artforum or Le Monde or it's radio for the BBC. I said, We are here today with the American painter Bridget Callaghan whose work is currently on view at the Tate Gallery. Amazingly, I converse with my interviewers in English, German, and Japanese; my paintings are in the best museum and private collections. I have dealers in five cities who are quoted about what a great innovator I am and the records I have broken at auction. It's all accolades from the interviewer, whom I have bewitched in my black chiffon dress and sling-back heels, and witticisms from me until I am asked, It is rumored that you are having an affair with a prospective collector of your work: is this true? How does your husband feel about the way you conduct yourself? I answer, I didn't touch him until after he said he would buy a painting. Or, my husband is no fool. He understands what I do.

I cared less and less about what he would say when he called. I waited for him to return because I wanted to see more of his skin and taste his mouth and I wanted him to say something about my show. I wanted to make him sweat and to feel the weight of him on me and hear his breath get deeper and faster until he stopped talking altogether. He could never say too much because he called from places where there were other people nearby. He said, I can't really talk from here, you talk. I told him stupid things like that I was in bed and I was naked or that I had bought a dress especially for him to take off me. I told him I wanted him to come back so that I could touch him more. I couldn't do things that required concentration, not even watch television or read the newspaper or the book he gave me. I told him I wasn't hungry for food at all. I just wanted to taste him. He made a funny humming sound into the phone which made me smile, then laugh. He wasn't trying to be funny. He sounded old when he made that humming sound, like an old person falling asleep. He made the same sound in the airport when I put his hands on me. I asked him why he didn't telephone from somewhere he could be alone and he told me he didn't know. It was careless. If he was going to have an affair with me he had to be more resourceful.

He telephoned me at my studio the morning after he came home. He said his wife was upset with him for going away and for being distracted when he was home. He said she knew he was lying to her and that he had to stop spending time with me. I thought that was fine since I didn't want to be with him and talk about his family and his regular life, which was never interesting to me. I liked him when he was trying to not have a regular life and was feeling good because he thought wanting something he wasn't supposed to have made him different from who he really was. Even proved it. I didn't care whether this was real or not. He felt that it was real.

We had two conversations that ended with me walking away from him. We met at my gallery where I had to pick up a check. I leaned against the front desk gossiping with the receptionist about a new bar her friends were opening and about the artist whose show was being hung when mine came down. I watched him walk in. His face was red and hungover looking. Standing in the long room surrounded by my paintings, he seemed uneasy. He didn't look around, he only looked at me. We went outside and stood in front of a quiet warehouse at the end of the block, close to Ninth Avenue. He only asked me rhetorical questions or questions that required meaningless answers. I let him answer himself. Is it cold in your studio? It must be. Are you busy working on new paintings? You must be. He acted like he was making a wise decision and told me I should realize, as he had, how terrible it is for married people to cheat on each other. Then I found him ridiculous and I began to hate him for saying such ordinary things to me. Everything he said irritated me, and when I looked at him I found him ugly and regretted that I had touched him and let him come to my studio whenever he had time and that I had put his hands on me. I hated to remember how much I wanted to be with him at night and how it had disturbed my life for almost a month. But when he told me how much he loved his life and how we shouldn't do anything to ruin our marriages, I thought he was a bore and I walked away from him.

A few hours later he telephoned me at home and apologized over and over for upsetting me. He sounded nervous and disappointed. He said he was thinking of me and was sorry that we hadn't had a chance to fuck. He said he had even chosen a hotel for us but we couldn't go there. If he hadn't seemed like someone who might actually fall apart if he had to face some consequences I would have told him to buck up. But I didn't want the responsibility of how he might end up if his wife really did know he'd lied and maybe even left him for cheating on her.

The next morning he telephoned from his car. He was a few minutes away from my studio. I went downstairs and met him on the street. I didn't bother locking the door; I wouldn't be away long. We stood close to each other until he said, Don't look at me that way. I didn't care if he was uncomfortable. But when he reached to pull a long strand of hair away from my mouth and then asked after my husband, I walked away from him, crying a little because I wanted to touch him and wouldn't get to and I didn't like anything about him anymore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Lauren R. Weinstein.

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