by Thaddeus Rutkowski

A woman I knew slightly invited me to her place for a party. It was quite a place—a duplex loft in an artists’ community, for which she paid very little because she was a professional artist. When I saw the layout, I thought I should apply for a unit for myself, but I wasn’t a professional artist. You had to make your living from your artwork to qualify for these places, and I made only a few dollars from selling the booklets I carried around. That was no living, even if I somehow wouldn’t have to pay rent. I still had to eat; I still had to get around. I’d starve in my artist’s loft if I had to live from sales of my booklets, which were worth basically nothing. (That wasn’t entirely true. I’d seen one of my booklets on sale in the bargain bin of a used bookstore for fifty cents. The joke was, the book was originally free.)

Maybe my host was interested in me; maybe she liked me; maybe that’s why she’d invited me. We’d had a date, though it might not have been a date. For me, it certainly wasn’t. It was a meeting of friends, or of two people who might become friends. Saying our connection was “just friends,” however, might have insulted my companion. So I didn’t say it. I just thought it, and I kept my thoughts to myself.

What I said was, “How did you become an artist?” It was a mystery to me how one could earn one’s living from one’s art. I thought this woman might become my mentor.

But my potential mentor wasn’t forthcoming. “You know,” she said, “I really don’t know.”

She didn’t want to talk about art. She wanted to know how much money I made. “What does a publishing assistant make?” she asked, referring to the job I worked to pay my rent.

“Well, I’ve been saving up,” I said. “I might have enough for a car.”

“A Jaguar?” she asked.

I was familiar with the model. It might cost as much as a small house where I grew up. I hadn’t saved that much money. In fact, I’d saved only enough for a used car, a clunker—probably a junker. But I didn’t say that. Such a statement might have seemed unappealing to someone who thought she was on a date.

At her party, I was lost in a crowd. My potential mentor had lots of friends of her own. Apparently, it was her birthday.

There I was, among the well-wishers. They were all strangers to me. I didn’t mingle. Instead, I looked at the birthday woman’s paintings, which hung in pools of light on the walls. They were huge, pink-and-yellow nonobjective works, full of gesture. It must have taken a long time to complete them—hours of painstaking work.

I liked the paintings. I could see in them a high level of achievement. I’d once had a teacher who told me, “There are two ways of painting. One is tight, and the other is loose.” I’d tried my hand at painting, but my style was too tight. Then I’d switched to writing, but my booklets were too condensed. My potential mentor, on the other hand, was loose, but not too loose. She was just loose enough to succeed.

I looked up from where I was not mingling and saw her on the second-floor landing. She was queen of her subsidized realm. I approached her and said, “Nice place you have here.”

“I’m happy with it,” she said, “but my daughter isn’t. She thinks she grew up poor. She thinks she was a waif. A waif!”

At that point, I noticed her daughter, who didn’t look like a waif. In fact, she looked well-clothed and well-fed. She also looked like she had a boyfriend. A young man always seemed to be standing between her and any other man at the party. He just slid in and stood there. He was a master of the quick maneuver, the fast break.

When people wished the host a happy birthday, I found out she was seventeen years older than I was. That seemed like a big gap. I didn’t know how I was supposed to relate. Was I supposed to be a perpetual mentee, always hiking the path to creative realization? Was I supposed to be the provider for her artistic activities, once I found a way to buy a Jaguar? Or was I supposed to be a guy who’d met her a couple of times and disappeared?

Perversely, I could see myself relating to her daughter. But would it be polite to speak to her? I was a guest of the mother. I’d had a one-to-one meeting with her—not a date, more of an exploration of friendship, at least in my eyes. But who knew how she’d seen it?

A plan presented itself to me. I could adopt the daughter, if I married her mother. I would be closer to the daughter that way, but if I had feelings for her, the situation would be incestuous. But wasn’t that what making art was all about, being incestuous? Wasn’t incest best? If I adopted the daughter, I’d get her boyfriend in the bargain. That would make me jealous. Since I wouldn’t be able to get rid of the boyfriend, I would feel left out. Worse, the mother would become upset because I was paying attention to her daughter, not to her. As a result, she wouldn’t teach me anything about making art. I wouldn’t learn anything about the creative process. It would remain a mystery to me.

I had some of my worthless booklets with me. I held them in my hand to see if anyone noticed, but no one did. I spread them out on a table, hoping that someone would take a look, but no one paused to examine them.

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. All three books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. His writing has appeared in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Fiction, Fiction International and other publications. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.