In this scene, Anakin Carver is wandering through a social-rebranding party at an art gallery in the city. Previously in “Stockholm”, Carver returns to Los Angeles, where he now works as an advertising creative, having recovered from his disastrous unemployment “holiday” back home in San Francisco.
The room was dotted with paintings and prints roughly the size of an A4 sheet of paper. Most pieces seemed to feature a curved pipe design that seemed oddly familiar. The walls were already massively white and further bleached by harsh white spots, while the inner gallery was murky with soft overhead lamps. A bar was set up at the very end of the space, apparently outfitted with an inner fluorescent tube, which made the bartender resemble the bartender from that movie where the guy tries to kill his kid with an axe. In an effort to counter this effect he seemed to have been caked with stage foundation and rouge, further complementing his impressively white teeth and seventeen-year-old’s haircut. As I considered taking a photo of the entire bar area with my phone, I was brushed from the left by a blond girl wearing a uniform black polo shirt and pants. She glanced back toward me, not to say ‘sorry’ but simply to look. To make contact. Her hair was quite long and pulled back, slightly heavy black eyeliner that seemed to smolder in the half-light, plain lips. There was a slight movement around her mouth, a tightening at the edges of her lips before she turned around and swiftly navigated through several more stops on her way back to the bar. She stood at attention to the right of the bartender. Doing what, I couldn’t immediately guess, but I could still see her black-outlined eyes all the way across the room.
“Excuse me, do you have the time?” Before I could check my watch the woman handed me a brochure. “None of us do, but they have nothing but time. Time to wonder why their mommies and daddies went away. Why they’re kept in small containers and poked at by children whose parents want their little Timmy or Mandy to have a pet to play with.” The cover showed several puppies looking at the camera inside a plastic cubicle. I assumed we were supposed to interpret their naturally droopy features as being ‘forlorn’ or ‘depressed’. I suspected the photographer’s assistant must have been holding a bit of sausage at a forty-degree angle away from the lens. I handed the woman whatever I had in my pocket, which turned out to be a ten-dollar bill and one adult-aged pass to an all-undocumented worker performance of “Ricárd Tres” at a black-box theater in one of the popular Asian neighborhoods. I assumed it was in Spanish, but didn’t want to appear prejudiced. While she was distracted, probably deciding if it was a mockumentary performance piece or triumph of the human spirit, I slipped back into the crowd to the opening lines of “Come Undone” by Duran Duran on the sound system.
Janice Harmon was wearing a name tag, which allowed me to identify her among the bloc of people I’d never met. Coincidently to my approach the couple talking to her suddenly decided to move on (sort of like what always happens in movies).
“Uh, yes.” She looked up with a blank-expectant expression.
“Anakin Carver.” I took her half-outstretched hand and didn’t shake it.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Yeah, glad to finally meet you in person.”
She cocked her head. “Do we have common acquaintances?”
“We probably do.”
“Uh,” another cock of the head, “Who?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t think to check.”
“I think I know why you’re here. I’ll let you in on a secret, we’re all here for the same reason, to create intimacy in our lives.”
“I’d never really thought about it that way…”
“Yes, intimacy and sharing is what a balanced diet including Milwaukee Macaroni products is really about. A house is not a home without a hearth, and a kitchen is just a room without Milwaukee Macaroni.”
“No, you added me as a friend a few months ago, remember? Thanks for inviting me tonight. I’ve never been to a personal rebranding party before.”
She laughed in a way that simultaneously sounded like she was trying not to laugh and trying to force a laugh. It was mildly upsetting. “I, okay, let me ask—.”
“By the way, congratulations on the new house. I’ve been following your updates. I thought that damn inspector was never going to pass your downstairs plumbing.” I really wanted a drink. “So, what’s your brand now? You used to be a personal excellence specialist, right?”
Her eyes widened and she laughed/not laughed again. “Okay, wonderful to meet you. Make sure to stick around for the complimentary cuisine provided by Milwaukee Macacroni. You will taste three kinds of cheese, guaranteed.” She hurried that last part and transitioned away.
The girl at the bar looked away just as I’d looked at her. She was back in place, standing almost perfectly straight aside from a mild slope in her shoulders. The bartender had said something and she was smiling in response. It was probably slightly amusing, at most. He was probably in his mid-to-late-thirties, but actually looked like it, rather than just happening to be that age. She couldn’t have been older than twenty-four. Rather than approaching the bar area right then, I followed a waiter until he stopped moving to grab a glass of sparkling white wine (doubtful it was authentic champagne) from his tray.
My favorite series of pieces were of tables and chairs, done in smeared oils on blank, white backgrounds. There were several different designs of chairs; straight backed, rounded and ultra-modern Scandinavian. And most of them involved macaroni noodles in some way, now that I noticed. As I approached the row of chair sculptures, a projection screen above them displayed a basic version of my profile; including photo, name, brief biography and most recent three status updates. Party guests were encouraged to “friend” me during this time by aiming their camera-enabled smartphones at the screen. The girl at the bar was likely of Scandinavian descent. Based on nothing but a first impression I guessed a combination of Icelandic and Danish, due mainly to the roundness of the jaw and lower forehead – as opposed to the high foreheads of Swedes and Norwegians, along with their broader and longer chins. Just a useful generalization, naturally. I certainly could have been wrong. All three pieces in the chair triptych were already sold, as noted by the little red macaroni stickers on the white name tags.
An hour later the girl at the bar had shifted to ignoring me, having made three consecutive attempts at eye contact without being approached. I had actually gone to the bar to order a mixed drink, but she happened to have been dragging the garbage bin toward the service entrance. Her thin arms strained to pull the large, rubber-plastic container filled with glass bottles and recyclable cups. She bent forward to grip the handle and this outlined the bagginess of her slightly too-large uniform work pants. As I waited for my vodka gimlet I fought the urge to run over and single-handedly pick up the container and carry it outside for her while she held the door open for me. Her lips would be pursed with a combination of embarrassment and admiration. I tipped one dollar and walked back to the front of the room where the Milwaukee Macaroni belly dancers were performing in a “C” shaped pattern.
The crowd seemed to have been infiltrated by young, thin women in matching red dresses and boots, wielding handheld video cameras. One of them advanced on me, looking up with her big, curious eyes. I wasn’t sure what to do so I handed her my card. She took it without looking and moved away. I had four cards left in my shirt pocket, at this rate I’d need them all. In the middle of the room an older gentleman had apparently sat down on a sculpture of a chair made entirely from macaroni noodles, in a fit of confusion. A scruffy young man whom I assumed was the featured artist kept tugging on shirtsleeves and yelling, “Look! He’s gone and done it!” in a very broad Australian accent. Surprisingly broad. Ocker, even. Janice was all-smiles as she gently escorted the gentleman with the tired legs away from the centerpiece and toward his wife, whose face wasn’t anywhere near as red as the cheap cabernet the waiters were handing out, but as close as was naturally possible. Along the walls, an electronic feed featured profile updates where people just like me made mention of Milwaukee Macaroni products in one hundred and forty characters or less.
I placed my plastic glass down on a small table covered in fliers and folded papers. The girl from the bar was talking to one of the security guards, not facing him, but standing alongside with her arms folded. She somehow sensed my looking and glanced over at me. This time she didn’t look away.
I could approach her and hand her my card, without saying anything, during the chorus of the song that was currently playing. She’d read it, see my title and even if she didn’t understand what an ‘associate creative director’ was she’d see it was clearly better than ‘catering assistant’ (or actor/bartender) and be persuaded. Alternately, I could introduce myself and talk to her with the equality of a fellow guest, tell her how I couldn’t stand the phonies and ask what time she got off work. She wouldn’t answer immediately, but sort of look at me, glancing back and forth between my eyes to test my seriousness with an amused expression and then look over at the bartender before answering me. I’d be idling in the parking lot as she walked out of the back entrance, half an hour after closing, dressed in her street clothes. She’d wave goodnight to the four older guys in her crew who would watch with resentful interest as she hurried toward my car and climbed into the passenger seat, looking up at me with those blue-inside-black-rimmed eyes. We’d drive to the coast, in near silence. She’d lean against her open window and look back at me every so often while I tuned the radio for something properly evocative. My eyes would drift over her clothes; designer jeans and a fairly sensible floral print silk chemise top, fabric too thin for the night air. She’d try not to shiver but I would notice the gooseflesh along her fair arms. We’d be parked at the coast, several hours before dawn. Somewhere away from the main road, overlooking the ocean. We’d pass back and forth a half-empty bottle of vodka she’d liberated from the bar before final count, with a wink to the bartender who knew she’d never give in to him even though they were the closest in age among the crew and occasionally she called him late at night to talk to because he was the only guy who would listen. She’d smoke an ultra-light cigarette while I hooked up my mp3 player and cued a playlist I’d created months ago for such an occasion. Only a few bars into the next song she’d already have forgotten to put the cigarette to her lips and the ash would have burnt halfway down. She was likely an actress trying to earn money in a flexible job while going out for auditions during the day, which explained her uncanny sense of presence in the gallery. Left unspoken were the several years she’d been at this job while not managing to land much of any on-camera work. There would be an undercurrent of desperation about her that I’d have unconsciously felt within her very first glance. The hunger for recognition and to be looked at with desire. That very sexualized despair would have excited me. We wouldn’t know each other’s last names, and there would be, maybe, three hours left before dawn. The intensity of night would be crucial here. Neither of us would want to face the other in daylight. She’d ask me if I had any coke and she’d actually mean cocaine and I wouldn’t. Then she’d feel self-conscious for having asked. She’d turn away and look toward the dashboard without actually seeing it, lost in her momentary thoughts. The mournful vocals in the song would seem to underscore the loneliness and craving between us. The distance between our two bodies would seem oceanic. She’d be laying at a slant, head resting on the seatback, looking back at me from an angle. I would reach over and take the cigarette from her delicate fingers, toss it out the window, then lean in and almost touch her lips. I would notice faint freckles across her cheeks. Her bare, unpainted lips would part. Pale blue eyes lined in black. Her breath would catch and…
The song ended and another one I really didn’t like started as the waiters started coming around with Milwaukee Macaroni samples in small biodegradable single-serving containers. I looked at my phone. No new messages, but it was almost midnight. The girl finished talking to the security guard and walked back in the direction of the bar along the perimeter of the gallery, picking up discarded glasses from small tables. She was wearing a pair of black sneakers with colorful girly socks peeking out beneath the cuffs of her workpants and I’d somehow missed this all night. They were the exact sort of socks I really wanted to use in my sneakers campaign. This occurred to me as I walked toward the exit and would never see her again.
Read “Stockholm” in its entirety here. Also available via Kindle in the UK and Germany and Japan.