This short story explores betrayal, access, and appropriation in a queer melodrama.
Tonight’s the night, Clark thinks, walking up to the New Museum in New York City for his boyfriend Richard’s first post-college art show. Clark smooths down the edges of his new black suit jacket and enters the building.
“You’re all spruced up,” says Laurel, one of their mutual friends. She approaches Clark wearing a simple black midi dress, clutching a black purse, with an elegant gilded collar around her neck.
“Oh. Hey, Laurel,” Clark says, looking around, standing stiffly. “You seen Richard?”
“You gays. I never get the attention I deserve.” Laurel says. “I’m gorgeous by the way, thanks for noticing. I haven’t seen him yet. You want something to drink?”
“He wouldn’t have invited you if he didn’t want you here,” Laurel says, rubbing Clark on the back. “There he is! Good luck.” Laurel slips away into the crowd.
Richard enters the room to booming applause. He smiles and bashfully waves for the crowd to quiet. Clark knows that he’s faking; the glint in Richard’s eye reveals his lust for attention. Richard mills about the room, shaking hands, and smiling with various guests, scanning the crowd the whole time. Clark and Richard’s eyes meet from across the room. Richard’s smile broadens, continuing his gaze toward Clark while ending the conversation. He breaks from the crowd and walks toward Clark.
“You clean up nicely,” Richard says when he reaches Clark. “I’ve never seen you in a suit.” He gently grabs Clark’s lapel and his green eyes twinkle.
“Thanks for coming tonight, it means a lot.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. How are you handling the patrons?”
“They’re just like my parent’s friends. This is practically my native habitat.”
“It’s making my skin crawl. But I’m here for the art! Is this a work I’ve seen before?” Richard folds his hands in front of himself. “I have something to tell you–”
A woman wearing a pink pantsuit sticks her arm between Clark and Richard, grabbing Richard’s arm and turning him. “Richard, this is Mr. Montegna. You remember Mr. Montegna, don’t you? He’s our host this evening.”
“Hello, sir. Are you enjoying yourself?” Richard says.
“Oh yes, I’m quite enjoying. . .” says the man, linking Richard’s arm and walking him toward the stage.
Clark steps away quietly into the crowd. He glances over and sees Laurel in the corner nibbling on a tiny piece of toast with a shrimp on it. “I might vomit if I stay around much longer,” he says as he sidles next to her . “How can you possibly be eating seafood around all these—”
“Rich fucks—just say it. It’s healing. I just imagine them as sentient stacks of cash. Works better than imagining them naked, unless melted candle physiques are your thing.”
“Laurel, you haven’t changed a bit,” Clark says, chuckling.
The sound of clinking crystal stills the crowd.
The conversation quiets until the only sound is the soft rustling of fine fabrics and champagne bubbles escaping their flutes. Richard and Mr. Montegna stand holding a microphone in front of a painting concealed by green silk.
“At the New Museum we strive to find burgeoning talent, and we have had our eyes on this one for many, many years. We knew he would be successful and would be the perfect addition to our museum. And was I right. Let’s hear from the artist himself, shall we? Richard Sands, everyone!”
“Thank you all for coming tonight. I feel lucky to have been awarded the opportunity to have my first exhibit here, at the New Museum. There are many people I’d like to thank for this work, but in particular, I’d like to thank Clark Watkins for being my inspiration. I love you more than you know. Thank you for everything. I could spend eternity repaying you and it’d never amount to what I’ve received from you,” Richard smiles and motions to Clark. The crowd gives faint applause turning around confusedly, unsure to whom Richard pointed. Clark’s knees wobble.
“Well then, without further ado,” Mr. Montegna pulls the tassel hanging next to the obscured artwork. The green silk drops to the ground, revealing a painting Clark instantly recognizes as his own.
Clark’s jaw tightens, his fists clench, and he turns around and pushes through the crowd. The room is filled with clapping and mesmerized faces unable to take their attention from Richard. Clark makes it to the front door, slams it open and breathes the stench of the city sidewalk, letting out a guttural yell. He kicks the garbage can as he makes his way down the street to the subway.
“Wait,” Clark hears off in the distant.
Clark keeps walking. The underground station glows a blue fluorescent light as he rushes down the escalator, swiping his MTA card at the turnstile. He sits on a metal bench at the far end of the platform, loosening his tie to accommodate his rapidly increasing breath. His elbows rest on his thighs, fists clenched.
“I can explain,” Richard says from a distance.
“That you’re a fucking thief? No explanation needed,” Clark says.
“How could you possibly do this to me? I’ve been trying to get a show for months,” Clark says.
Richard drops to his knees. “Please. Listen to me.” He pats his chest, fumbling inside the breast pocket of his suit. Richard grabs Clark’s arm, “I love you. I want to spend my life with you.” He opens a small box with a gold band inside.
Clarks eyes expand to their fullest aperture before narrowing into fine slits. “Are you that out of touch? You’ve been quiet for weeks, you steal my artwork and then propose to me. Doesn’t this seem strange to you?” Clark pulls his arm loose. “You have everything, Richard. A wealthy family, connections. The world is yours. Why? Why couldn’t you have just made your own art?”
“After I got the deal, I had a huge block, and at the last minute–”
“I get it. You decided to steal the one thing you couldn’t buy: talent.” The tunnel starts to glow, followed by the crescendo of click-clacks of the train approaching the station. Clark stands up. “I need some space.”
“We can be a team, you know.”
“That’d work out great for you, wouldn’t it?” Clark steps onto the train when it stops. He turns around to say, “good luck on your next show,” before sitting down facing away from the station. The train pulls away, making its journey uptown.
Five months later, Clark sits down on the mattress laying on the floor and adds minutes to his prepaid phone. Half a dozen blank canvases lean against the wall. His painting supplies are covered in dust next to a pile of bills stamped “overdue.” He dials Richard’s number and then clears it. Laurel calls and invites Clark to coffee. Clark grabs some change from a jar by his door and heads to the café. He buys a black coffee before sitting down with Laurel in an alcove with two wingback chairs.
“He’s lost it, Clark. I’m worried about him,” Laurel says, sipping her coffee.
Clark takes a sip before saying, “I haven’t seen Richard in months.”
“He started partying like crazy after his first show. A few weeks back I went to pick him up at his apartment. He was wasted from a bottle of scotch and told me what happened with you guys.”
“Go on,” Clark says, drawing the cup of coffee to his lips, raising an eyebrow.
“That he proposed to you on the subway, but you turned him down.”
“Is that all?”
“Is there more to share? He passed out shortly after that. I put him to bed.” Laurel shivers. “He was such a mess.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“You’re all he talks about. I know you must have your reasons, but–reach out to him before it’s too late.” They sit quietly for a bit before exchanging messages of goodwill and making their exit. Clark heads back home debating whether to call Richard. He dials the number and gets Richard’s voicemail.
“Hey, it’s me. It’s been a while. Call me back sometime, okay?” He hangs up, wrapping his arms around his chest as he continues his walk home on the chilly evening.
A neighbor winks at Clark as he hands him an overnight mailer. Clark forces a smile.
“Thanks,” Clark says as he unlocks the door to his apartment. Once inside, he lays down on the mattress. The parcel has Richard’s return address. Clark opens it and pulls out the contents. Some documents. An uneven, thick, green envelope labeled “Clark.” He looks more closely at the paperwork. It’s a copy of a letter Richard sent to the museum coming clean about his theft.
Clark sets down the documents and peels the green envelope open. Two items are inside. The first is a New Museum postcard with a picture of Clark’s painting (attributed to Richard) on the front, with the words “You deserved this.” in Richard’s handwriting on the reverse. The second is a gold ring with the inscription CW x RS on the inner band.
Clark’s phone rings. It’s Richard. Clark smiles. “Don’t think you’re going to get off that easy.”