Clark fell in love with Richard when they lived together during art school. Sexual tension had filled the apartment on 24th Street in New York with pink gelatin, slowing down time to a sensuous pace and giving everything a delightful blush. Even Richard’s greasy man bun and woke, smug righteousness seemed attractive to Clark. He liked that Richard never called attention to his lack of money. Richard was generous, but not in a condescending way, more in an “I ordered an extra pizza” kind of way.
In their second year at school, Richard confessed his attraction to Clark after they split a bottle of Cazadores tequila while playing N64 GoldenEye. He got up to get a soda from the fridge and sat down with his leg touching Clark’s. Richard bit his bottom lip as he rested his hand on Clark’s knee and said, “I like you.” Clark woke up the next day in Richard’s bed and didn’t sleep in his own room until they moved out at graduation.
After college, Clark got a small studio uptown, a job washing dishes, and sent a letter to a gallery owner every day requesting an exhibition. Richard, on the other hand, got a fancy place downtown, a stupid sum of money from his late father’s estate, and an internship at the Museum of Modern Art. Outside of the neutralizing rose-colored filter of the apartment, the disparities between the two became bothersome to Clark. When Richard offered to have Clark move in, Clark declined. He said he wanted some independence, but really it was purely principle. He didn’t want a handout, especially from Richard. They were equals.
Two months passed, and Clark was having difficulty pinning Richard down for dates. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly three weeks, a record for them. When he received the invitation for Richard’s first art show, Clark attributed Richard’s distance to preparation for the show and dismissed his own oscillating bowels as insecurity.
The night of the show, Clark walks up to the New Museum anticipating the smell of CK one on the nape of Richard’s neck. He smooths down the edges of the new black suit jacket he bought on credit and enters the building. He scans the gallery for a familiar face.
“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 gays. I never get the attention I deserve.” Laurel says. “I’m gorgeous by the way, thanks for noticing. You want something to drink?”
“I get it. Richard was sort of hinting that tonight was going to be a big deal for you two,” Laurel says, raising her eyebrows and 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 stop. Clark knows that he’s faking; the upturn in the corners of Richard’s eyes reveal 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 him. “I’ve never seen you in a suit.” He gently grabs Clark’s lapel and his emerald cufflinks flicker in the light. “Thanks for coming tonight, handsome.”
“Of course. I’ve missed you,” Clark says, pouting his lips. He glances at the crowd and then back to Richard, “How are you handling the patrons?”
“They’re just like my parent’s friends. This is practically my native habitat.”
“I bet you miss them.”
Richard’s eyes soften and lose focus. He lets out a deep sigh before shaking his head and smiling at Clark. “I’m so glad you’re here, Clark.”
“How could I miss it? Tell me about the piece. Is this something I’ve seen before?”
Richard folds his hands in front of himself. “About that–”
A woman wearing a pink pantsuit sticks her arm between Clark and Richard, grabbing Richard’s arm and turning him. “Richard, this is Mr. Mantegna. You remember Mr. Mantegna, 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. “How can you possibly be eating? I hate being around all these. . .”
“Rich fucks—just say it, it’s healing. I just imagine them as sentient stacks of cash. You’ll never make it in the art world if you don’t work the room, honey.”
“I hate that you’re right,” Clark says crossing his arms in front of his chest.
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. Mantegna stand holding microphones 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. This work is an experiment in appropriation. What art is mine? What art is yours? It asks questions about boundaries and the sacrifices we make in our willingness to mine others for what they can offer us. I’d like to thank Clark Watkins for being my muse. I’m so appreciative of your forgiveness and unconditional love. I could spend eternity repaying you and it’d never amount to what I’ve received from you already. I love you more than you know,” 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. Mantegna 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: a gender-fucked Neo-Baroque reproduction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Bathsheba at Her Bath.
Clark’s jaw tightens, his fists clench, and he turns around and pushes through the crowd. The room is filled with clapping hands 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 thief? You can fuck right off with that appropriation bullshit!” Clark says.
“How could you possibly do this to me? I’ve been trying to get a show for months! You have everything, Richard. A wealthy family, connections. Why? Why couldn’t you have just made your own art?”
“After I got the deal, I had a huge block, and. . . I thought you’d forgive–”
“So you steal my art and then give a speech about appropriation? Just tell it like it is and say that you don’t have talent so you have to fucking steal it!” The tunnel starts to glow, followed by the crescendo of click-clacks of the train approaching the station. Clark stands up.
“We can be a team, you know.” Richard drops to his knees.
“That’d work great for you, wouldn’t it.”
“I love you. I want to spend my life with you. I feel empty without you.” He pats his chest, fumbling inside the breast pocket of his suit. Richard grabs Clark’s arm, “I know we’re from two different worlds but there is no world of mine without you in it.” He opens a small box with a gold band inside.
Clark’s eyes expand to their fullest before narrowing into fine slits. “Are you that out of touch? You’ve avoided me for weeks, then you steal my artwork and propose to me. Doesn’t this seem strange to you?” Clark pulls his arm loose. “I need some space,” 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. A message from Laurel asking him to meet her for coffee pops up. He opens his wallet. A twenty-dollar bill and a stick of gum lie within the folds. He responds to her and heads to a nearby coffee shop.
He buys a black coffee before sitting down with Laurel in an alcove with two wingback chairs.
“He’s just gone off the deep end. I’m worried about him,” Laurel says, sipping her coffee.
Clark takes a sip before saying, “I haven’t seen Richard in five months.”
“A few weeks back I stopped by his apartment in the early evening. He was already wasted from a bottle of tequila 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?” Clark considers telling Laurel what really happened, but he loves Richard too much to share the truth, even as painful as it is.
“Well, he passed out shortly after that. I put him to bed.” Laurel shivers. “His nightstand was littered with pill bottles.”
“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. You’re the only family he has left.” They sit quietly for a bit before exchanging messages of goodwill and empty desires to get together again soon. Clark dials Richard’s number on his way home, getting Richard’s voicemail.
“Hey, it’s me. It’s been a while. Call me back, okay?” he says before hanging up. He wraps his arms around his chest as he continues his walk home on the chilly evening. Clark casts his eyes down at the pavement where red, orange, and yellow leaves crunch under his feet.
Clark returns home from the law office uptown, brushing the season’s first snow off his parka as he enters the building, slowly trudging up the steps to the third floor. Once inside his studio, he lays down on the mattress and pulls the documents he received from his bag, his hands trembling. Clark opens the folder and pulls out the contents. An uneven, thick, green envelope labeled “Clark.” A document titled “Last Will and Testament – Richard Sands.”
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.
“No, I didn’t,” Clark says as tears pool at his eyelids, putting the band on the ring finger of his left hand. “And neither did you.”