1

The room was dark, and a woman’s face was softly illuminated as she viewed one of the paintings on the wall, one of the few light sources hanging above. Meanwhile, O’Donnell watched her from the shadows as she assessed his work. He had designed the space to feel as if one were in the zoo, in the reptile section with little terrariums along the walls. Most people only saw the orchids. They did not ponder the pairing of the paintings with the songs wafting throughout the gallery as if they were simple lullabies and accompaniments. “Yes”, O’Donnell thought to himself, “the majority of these spectators have only superficially penetrated beyond the surface of my Orchidstra.”

The spectacle had extended into the streets for days prior to the opening. Streets had been adorned with living orchids scattered within the trees along the sidewalks and within the parks. People had been stealing them and there were reports of people making runs upon the florists, angrily demanding one for their own home. That afternoon, while O’Donnell was driving to the gallery, an economics professor had jokingly compared the emerging orchid bubble to the tulip bubble on the radio, highlighting it instead as a floral market success, at least for now. O’Donnell appreciated the warning. He knew that all trends come as waves, that when one creates a big wave, they get to ride it, but he recognized that the momentum of the orchid boom was a temporary phenomenon. He had been in the game for quite a while at this point and this was by far the most intricate and exciting of the effects that he had produced. His work was animating people throughout the city, going so far as to pique the interest of economists, a feat that he had never imagined accomplishing.

The woman was now slowly and ever so slightly shaking her head in delight. “Mmm… It’s so graceful”, the woman said softly, yet still audibly above the faint music of the orchid mantis’s haunting call. Each painting emitted a unique song from the mantis hidden within. They were eerie sirens’ calls, beckoning the spectators to approach their lairs, their illuminated flowers like lights in the deep sea, their melodies like the scent of nectar calling from a carnivorous plant. Meanwhile, the woman seemed to only perceive the flower, its delicate petals and vibrant glow amidst the shadowy sanctuary of pigment. “At the end of the day, not everyone will understand the artist”, O’Donnell reminded himself. Thus, he stepped closer, prepared to begin the mating dance.

The woman was slightly startled as O’Donnell emerged from the shadows to stand at her side. She jumped ever so slightly, emitted a quiet “oh”, and smiled quickly in his direction before returning to behold the painting. Only a moment later though, she did a double take. She was suddenly looking back at him and was clearly on the verge of asking the question. It took a moment for her to feel confident and O’Donnell continued to look forward at the painting, watching her through his peripheral vision, knowing the words that were coming next.

“Are… Are you the artist?”, she questioned, looking at him intently now.

“Yes, Thomas O’Donnell. It’s a pleasure. May I ask your name?”

“Louise Strunk. The pleasure is all mine. I quite admire the collection. I have actually read some of your work as well. It is truly a pleasure to actually meet you Mr. O’Donnell. You know, The Precedent is one of my favorite novels, to be honest, from the last decade. It was so unprecedented!”, and with that she laughed gently, covering her mouth with her left hand to muffle her self-induced joy. Meanwhile, O’Donnell did his best to keep from scoffing, laughing, or reacting at all. He blinked and breathed in through his nose to accomplish the feat as the muscles in his jaw and chest tightened; the pressure was sudden, sound and a smile surging upward from deep within him, attempting to breach the surface, yet he managed to suppress them. Then, moments later, Ms. Strunk continued, “Tell me, Mr. O’Donnell, where do you find the inspiration for all of this?”

O’Donnell responded softly, taking Ms. Strunk on a very brief guided tour of how he would like people to believe it all works, “I meditate and visions come to me. I look within and I seek to present my world to you, to give it life and to give you beauty. The orchids… they came to me in a vision, and I could hear these songs. I knew that I had to seek them out.” He turned then to look into the painting once more. “This particular collection of orchids belongs to a charming couple on the outskirts of town. I had to search for weeks to find somewhere that existed between my vision and a realistic source for still life painting. I transformed them though, marrying them to the vision”, he elaborated. The statement was primarily true. It had taken a long time to find a large enough collection to use as the foundation while painting. However, where he had gone to seek inspiration was another story altogether.

“You know, Mr. O’Donnell, this collection reminds me very much of the work of Helen Lov. Have you drawn any inspiration from her? Are you familiar?”, she questioned.

O’Donnell’s face was somewhat puzzled now, “no… and yes… I am familiar”, he responded, somewhat amused. “She’s quite lovely and I do admire her work. The fuchsia collection from last year was quite stunning”, he added before questioning, “I take it, Ms. Strunk, that you might be a collector of flowers?”

“Why yes, I am quite partial to them…”, she mused before looking back at him intently. “Who have you derived inspiration from, if you don’t mind my asking”, she pressed further, her eyes narrowing inquisitively.

“I do not adapt the work of others. I create only original art that springs from within me”, he responded immediately and coolly; it was now, two decades into his career, a well-rehearsed reflex.

“Ah I see”, she responded, absorbing the words, processing them, imagining what they might actually signify. “To be inside your mind Mr. O’Donnell, I can only imagine what it must look like”, she said then, returning her gaze to the painting. “If this collection is any indication, it must feature some truly fantastic places, a paradise. Thank you for this little slice of your heaven, Mr. O’Donnell”, she said before slipping back into the shadows.

O’Donnell followed suit, similarly dipping back into the shade. Once amidst the shadows, he began scanning the gallery as he moved through the dimly lit chamber. He could see the forms of people moving as silhouettes around him, the gentle glow of the spectators viewing his collection along the wall, and, as he looked to the right, a crowd congregating within the adjacent room that housed the collection’s centerpiece. Thus, he began moving toward it, a separate room within which one significantly larger piece was hanging. However, as he approached the entryway, he captured a whiff of a new scent as a woman passed before him, emerging from the crowded room. Alarmed and sensing danger, O’Donnell quickly stepped backward, watching as she began to peruse the main gallery.

There was also a game amongst friends taking place this evening. How many people were playing no one was quite sure—everyone wears perfume. However, those who knew were aware that at least one person in the gallery was wearing a unique perfume that one of O’Donnell’s friends had designed especially for the occasion. If she touched you, and you spoke to her, you had to leave the gallery. The mission was to survive to attend the afterparty. It was nascent, but they imagined it as an extension of the art that would similarly spill out into the city as the scent of the orchid mantis’s pheromone began to diffuse from the epicenter of her birth. One would have to learn the scent from watching the others fall, remembering what they had smelled if they were present before one of the players was eliminated. One could also learn the safe scents. Thus, people’s first moves were wary, and one could clearly discern who was playing at first within the initial reception hall; they appeared anxious and antisocial until they started building networks with which to enter the gallery and travel like little bubbles.

Thus, O’Donnell began to follow her, the woman whose scent had captured his attention and induced fear. He wondered whether he might have already located the orchid mantis lurking within his exhibition. The paintings were spaced such that the songs within the main hall were discrete. Where one ended another began. Watching from the shadows, he observed as the woman approached a man admiring another of his pieces within the main chamber of the gallery. She touched his shoulder and the man looked over to her with a nod. They might be lovers O’Donnell thought, but were they playing the game? One could not be sure who exactly was actually playing, after all. Then they began to speak, and the man remained in competition, if he was actually playing. Relieved and disappointed, O’Donnell studied the woman’s face, eliminating yet another suspect, before continuing toward his favorite piece in the adjacent room, Daedalian Honesty.

The room was dangerous. Whoever it was, O’Donnell realized, she had to be a skilled hunter. She might tap him at any moment, the still unknown scent heralding her arrival masked within the subtly aromatic and more dense collection of spectators. Then, as he walked deeper into the room, a polyphonous chorus of the mantises’ calls echoed gently, growing as one approached their enclosure within the frame. Together they produced an alluring harmony and O’Donnell thought at that moment that his friend who had composed the music had truly outdone herself. Now experiencing it all in the proper context, amidst the symphony of scents within the gathering of shadows, he thought to himself, “Yes, true beauty is like an orchid mantis…”

It was then that a man gently touched his arm, startling him. “Oh, don’t worry Thomas, it’s just me”, his acquaintance Alex assured him, whispering and beaming with an unseen smile, proud to have terrified O’Donnell.

“I see that she hasn’t gotten to you yet Alex. I was growing worried. I already see so few familiar faces”, O’Donnell said, looking around and toward the visible persons closer to the painting, his heart having returned to normal after the quick jolt that Alex had induced.

“Charlotte did that to me earlier. Damn near made me shriek out loud out in the main hall”, Alex mentioned while laughing. “I figured with her being so close to you that you would have made her the mantis”, he said before more playfully adding, “sneaking around in the darkness, hunting your prey for you.”

Suddenly quite interested, O’Donnell responded, “Interesting… I left it all up to her actually. I thought that she might have chosen herself. This is good to know… very good to know”, he said chuckling for a moment before adding, “I can stop avoiding her now.” He hoped at that moment that she actually had been hunting his prey for him and that her mating dances on his behalf had been more successful than his own so far.

“Say, Thomas… the frames, why so dark? It’s all so dark…”, Alex questioned a moment later. The frames were a deep, reddish acacia against the black walls. One might have expected a lighter wood that would pop a bit more in contrast to the shadows within the frames as well as the surrounding gallery.

“Ah yes… the acacia… well first, I imagine the buyers hanging them in well-lit rooms, but the darkness works for me, you know…”, he responded, smirking invisibly amidst the shadows, his smile keenly felt to himself. He paused for a minute then, as if lost in thought, drawing upon a distant memory. “That, and there’s also something quite beautiful about acacia…” he said, pausing, and then adding somewhat wistfully, “beauty rising from the desert…”

It was then that Alex sensed a change. He began to wonder what might have suddenly caused the strange shift in O’Donnell’s demeanor. He sounded as if he had suddenly travelled somewhere profoundly within or perhaps distant, detached, melancholic.

“Hmm”, was Alex’s response, quite certain that he had sensed something odd, but not quite sure that he should pry. “Well, you should be out selling yourself, shouldn’t you?”, Alex questioned wittily. “I’ll leave you to it”, and with that Alex drifted into the current of shadows mulling about the gallery.

Suddenly alone again amidst the crowd once more, O’Donnell approached the painting. It was much larger than the others, taller than him actually, depicting multiple orchids gently glowing amidst their endarkened habitat. Dark green and brown faded into the darker shadows beyond which there were also subtle details that most probably overlooked, elusive eyes peering back upon the beholder from the depths of the painting itself. Nature was presenting the beholder with her twin beauties, her orchids and her orchid mantises, seeking to be accepted as a whole.

The other spectators, the fear of the lurking mantis, and the drive to make a sale briefly faded away as O’Donnell experienced a moment of atonement with his art. He was suddenly back within the greenhouse once more; he could feel the humidity of the air within, the smell of the moss and the soil, earthy and raw. However, he gradually returned to the space and began to look upon the others admiring his work, wondering where the paintings transported them if not to the place where he had created them.

His mind continued to wander as he found himself immersed within the hushed conversations of others. Their murmurs were unintelligible though, unless one got very close. Thus, he had to imagine their conversations and he found himself wondering who else might be anxious about the lurking mantis. People expected the orchid mantis to smell floral and sweet. “Might she have become more akin to the substrate within the sanctuary or perhaps donned a leathery scent?”, he questioned himself. O’Donnell smiled at the thought before stepping back deeper into the crowd, still in the dark as to how his own creation might have manifested itself.

Once he was within the main hall again, he quickly encountered Charlotte. “Thomas! Oh Thomas!”, she shouted, having somehow recognized his form from across the room. She was standing in front of one of the paintings, one that he quite admired actually, with an inscrutable looking elderly couple. Their faces appeared to be indifferent, unmoved, and yet there was a gleam of interest in their eyes as he walked closer. “Thomas, I would love to introduce you to the Shattschneiders. We’ve been discussing Orchid #7 for quite some time now”, she added.

“Yes, I was quite surprised when the little scythe popped out at me”, Mr. Shattschneider remarked, “it gave me a little jump.” He paused for a moment then, looking at O’Donnell as if he were assessing him, before saying, “oh well, yes, ah… Jacob Shattschneider, honored to meet you”, he said, extending his hand to shake O’Donnell’s. “And this is my wife, Hannah Shattschneider”, he added as she similarly extended her hand without any intelligible changes in her facial expression.

“Well, it is such a pleasure to meet you both”, O’Donnell said sincerely. Charlotte had disappeared at this point and O’Donnell caught himself before attempting to draw her back into the conversation. He paused for a moment though—Was this the moment? Had the mantis struck?—but no one indicated that he should leave. Thus, he began the dance, “I do quite admire #7. This particular mantis, and I do hope that you will keep this discrete, I found her to be peculiarly difficult to capture. The first ones were too obvious. It took time to achieve the effect so that only the keenest of eyes could detect her. I’m quite impressed to be honest, Jacob. May I call you Jacob?”

“Yes, yes, of course”, Mr. Shattschneider responded.

It was then that O’Donnell looked over to Mrs. Shattschneider. She appeared to be remarkably unimpressed. “What stands out to you?”, O’Donnell questioned, looking directly at her while attempting to provoke some indication about what she might be thinking.

“Mmmm… to me, at first, it’s the composition. The elements are all perfectly arranged, but the shadows also appear deeper. I can feel it pulling me in toward her. I’m quite partial to #9 as well, it’s brighter, but this one has gravity. There’s something to all of them, I’ve seen your work before too…”, she said, trailing off briefly before capturing that which was on the tip of her tongue, “I believe that the word is patina.” She explained it all without a hint of emotion, tilting her head ever so slightly to the right. Meanwhile, Mr. Shattschneider smiled, looking from his wife and then back toward the artist.

O’Donnell remained silent for a moment and nodded gently while still in thought. Then he replied, “I do that… some push and some pull… not everyone feels it though… I’m impressed, and I’m honored…”, he said with a nod and a pause. Returning to thought, pondering her words, one word specifically, he found himself quietly remarking, “patina…” out loud, as if only to himself. It almost made him smile. He caught himself and relaxed for a brief moment after that though. Mrs. Shattschneider’s gaze had returned to the image. Thus, he addressed the husband.

“Jacob, your wife appears to have remarkably refined taste and quite an eye”, O’Donnell stated before looking over toward Mrs. Shattschneider again, capturing her attention, and questioning, “I imagine that you are a painter yourself? You certainly must dabble?”

As she looked back at him, a small smile broke across her face, a mild perturbation that appeared to mask a tiny laugh. It was only for a second though, as if a pebble had broken the surface of a pond.

Yet, she remained there, still and silent for a moment before responding, “Oh no, Mr. O’Donnell, I am merely an admirer”, and smiling once more.

2

The rest of the event went smoothly. The Shattschneiders purchased #7 and #9 and O’Donnell managed to evade the lurking mantis, whoever she might have been. There had been a brief reception within the main atrium of the gallery near the main entrance and the time had come to emerge victorious. However, as O’Donnell was preparing to leave, he took a moment to search for the gallery manager. He found the gallery manager in the back room quietly arranging some affairs, paperwork, and he looked up as O’Donnell approached.

“Quite a night, Thomas! Hard to spot them in the dark though, you know!”, he cheerfully announced, standing up and approaching O’Donnell to give him a hug. “Quite a success. Two to the Gelfords, one to the Dr. that you mentioned, Dr. Goce, and we have an interested party in the Honesty. That’s not counting the ones that Charlotte snagged for you”, he reported proudly before adding, “lots of interest in the remaining pieces as well!”

“Yes, indeed! That is quite an opening night. Thank you for making this all happen, Charles, for indulging, what was that that you called it? ‘The dark vision’”, O’Donnell said sincerely and with pride. Beyond the successful sales, O’Donnell’s vision had been perfectly realized; people appeared to have been enchanted, under his spell, and would remain so as they ventured forth from the lair to attract others to his work.

“That was quite a game as well, Thomas; fairly simple, Murder Mystery, Assassin, Orchid Mantis… really, but the context was quite excellent”, the gallery manager added, sitting back down at his desk.

“Ah yes, to be honest I fully expected her to be going straight for me the entire time. I didn’t think that I would survive to the end of the night. It tastes sweet”, O’Donnell mentioned, smiling and feeling quite relaxed.

“Well, Mr. O’Donnell, you haven’t quite arrived at the party yet, now have you?”, the gallery manager remarked with excitement and a quick laugh.

“No, I haven’t yet, have I?”, he said laughing as well with a little gleam of excitement in his eye, the thought not having crossed his mind prior to the gallery manager’s comment.

“I had a run in with her myself, but being immune you know, it would really have been unfortunate after all to have me taken out of the gallery. Imagine how different the night might have gone. Anyhow, I am not going to disclose her identity. I wish you luck sir and I might stop by later in the evening to celebrate as well”, the gallery manager rambled for a moment before shouting pleasantly, “away with you then, Thomas! To the party now! Godspeed!”

Thus, O’Donnell emerged from the gallery and into the evening with a slight rush of adrenaline. The air was fresh and crisp, especially compared to the odiferous den of parfums that the exhibition had become later in the evening. He hadn’t realized quite how thick it had become inside until he was suddenly thrust back into the cool seminatural air of the city. As a gust from a passing car washed over him, he began to laugh to himself, imagining those who were not aware of the game questioning why so many of the other spectators had arrived so heavily scented and why they might have been dropping like flies for unknown reasons throughout the exhibition.

Then he remembered that the lounge where they were to meet was still five blocks away and he knew that the mantis could be anywhere between him and the survivors’ sanctuary. O’Donnell walked swiftly, nervously looking around corners while taking a circuitous route to avoid any traps that might have been set. He knew that some of his friends would find special enjoyment if he were eliminated from attending his own party. They might be in cahoots, he thought, the fallen ones, hunting him like a stag.

However, he eventually arrived at the building and there was only one woman standing out front. She had greasy dark hair and wore a tight short black dress while shouting into her phone. “Well, I already paid for the fucking babysitter, so I’m going with or without you”, she angrily informed some unseen other on the end of what must have been an uncomfortable phone call or, perhaps, a brilliant cover identity. “No, we can’t just reschedule the date Timothy…”, she continued.

Thus, hurriedly and with the maximum distance possible, he sprinted to pass her in order to enter into the building. To the outside observer this must have looked strange. Yet, O’Donnell fully expected her to suddenly reveal herself as the mantis and attack him. He felt very silly once he was safely within the building, looking back for a moment to witness her staring at him as if he were a madman. However, mere moments later, he breathed a sigh of relief. He was in an elevator ascending to meet his friends and nothing could stop him now. The evening had been a success in multiple ways. Nonetheless, as the elevator continued to climb, he found himself scanning his mind for any indication of error. Had he made some silly faux pas? Misrepresented himself in a way that would be problematic? He determined that he had not, and he exited the elevator with a cool sense of calm.

3

The room was buzzing when he arrived, but there were only ten of them, ten survivors of the mantis’s prowl within the gallery. “So few”, he thought to himself with a smile, “she must be quite full.” As he scanned the room, he discovered that Alex was nowhere to be found. However, after a moment, Charlotte turned around, looked up, and smiled, beckoning for him to join her at a table near the window. The windows of the lounge extended from the floor to the ceiling and high-top tables dotted the room. Charlotte’s was in the corner, and he acknowledged her invitation while pointing to the bar. He had to get a drink first, obviously.

The walls on the inside were red and a small bar with a charcuterie plate awaited him. There was some fruit too: figs, oranges, apples, and grapes. It was all quite simple and elegant. Thus, with a glass of red wine in hand, prosciutto, a fig, and some of his favorite cheese—a creamy blue cheese with thick, vibrant veins—he approached the table to join Charlotte and others who had survived. A couple at one of the other tables smiled and nodded at him as he walked over to meet her, a silent “congrats” of sorts. He nodded his silent thank you in return before sitting down on one of the stools to join Charlotte and the others, two of whom he recognized from prior outings.

“Well, that’s another one for the history books”, Charlotte said, stroking his ego as usual. She had always been a true friend, since the very beginning, at the right place and the right time; they had been fast friends ever since.

“Did you know that figs aren’t a fruit”, the unfamiliar woman suddenly interjected, looking at O’Donnell’s plate without introducing herself. Charlotte quickly threw him a glance that indicated forbearance was necessary with this one. She was still staring at his food and O’Donnell wasn’t quite sure how to respond, similarly looking down upon what he now realized was a fruitless plate.

“No, thank you for that little bit of knowledge”, he said before inquiring, “and you are?”

“Oh oops, Sara, I’m Sara. I work with Charlotte, but you will probably know me as the fig lady from now on…”, she stammered, pausing for a moment before asking for confirmation, “won’t you?” Charlotte looked away and shook her head, resisting laughter. They were coworkers at the university and while Sara certainly had her charms within the anthropology department, she was a very strange and loose cannon outside the confines of her professional environment.

“Thank you, Sara. It’s a pleasure to meet you and I’m sure that I will forget about the fig, somehow”, he said smiling and laughing very softly in a friendly manner. He then quickly said hello to the two others, Charlotte’s friends Wes and Leo. The couple had been to a number of his events in the past, but he had never gotten to know them that well. They joined happy hour on Thursday infrequently.

Wes and Leo were quite friendly though and they proposed a toast, “to the artist!”

“To the artist!”, resounded throughout the room and O’Donnell was beaming, raising his glass, and thinking, “to me!” He savored the moment—It was always very sweet, the sensation of touching the peak, higher and higher each time—and he looked out through the window upon the city below, on top of the world once more.

Once the wave of cheers had subsided, O’Donnell interjected, “I’m dying to know who the mantis was.” He had a look of excitement upon his face that was meant to be contagious. “Could it be that she still walks amongst us?”, he questioned conspiratorially while leaning forward and scanning the eyes of the others seated at the table.

Suddenly they were all looking at Leo. “You’re looking at her!”, he said while making crazy eyes and moving his head hypnotically like a bobble head doll. Everyone else at the table chuckled softly. It was very anticlimactic. “I made quite the killing. Perhaps I should have been a little bit less of a skank and there would be more people up here with us”, he added, causing the others to laugh more loudly, especially Wes.

“Well, dammit Leo, you never even attempted to make a pass at me”, O’Donnell responded coolly, appearing wounded for a brief moment, feeling as if he had been excluded from his own game and merely provided the illusion of participation. Yet moments later, a smile grew upon his face. “Can I smell you?”, he added at that moment. The question caused Wes to crack up again and Leo to look back at him as one does at an opponent in chess that has made an impressive move. Thus, he extended his wrist and O’Donnell nodded before bowing forward to experience the orchid mantis’s aroma. It had grown faint throughout the course of the evening, but he could still detect it, earthy and leathery just as he had come to hope it would be.

“Mmmm”, O’Donnell hummed with his eyes closed as he rose, nodding his head.

Everyone at the table was silent, laughing silently that is. He looked over and Charlotte was smiling, the kind of smile that one makes without opening their mouth. It spoke of the absurdity of the culmination of the evening’s festivities. Sara was smiling as well; she appeared relieved and O’Donnell thought for a moment that she must have believed that he had forgotten about the quirky fig comment already.

People came by the table throughout the evening as they sat and chatted. As more survivors arrived, O’Donnell made the rounds from time to time, always returning to the table with Charlotte and the others. Accolades came to him from all around the room. However, as the clock struck midnight, the tide began to recede. Sara was the first from the table to retire, but another friend, Vera, took her place as the other tables grew empty.

Vera had become a mainstay at Thursday happy hours for the last year or so. She had missed the exhibition—“work darling, you know how it is, but I’ll be there for the afterparty… always.”— and O’Donnell’s personal life had become one of her obsessions. However, throughout the past year, she had only made surface level inquiries, asked about him to the others, and made little nudges that he had ignored. Yet tonight, she felt newly empowered to pry. It was his event and there was no one at his side. It became an interrogation.

“How is it that you put yourself out there like this, on the radio, the fucking morning show, advertised ‘I will be here at this time, oh and by the way, I’m an extremely talented visionary’, and you still manage to sit here in front of me alone with nothing new and pretty for me to look at?”, Vera questioned, arms crossed, inquisitively, suspect of the entire situation.

It was only the five of them now and O’Donnell similarly felt empowered to speak the truth. “You see, Vera, I am married to my art. I fucked everyone in that room tonight with it. Sometimes completing a painting, a book, realizing a vision, it’s better than any orgasm. I sit there for a day experiencing the same sensation, except I don’t feel empty afterwards.”

Unable to relate, Vera continued, “So, you’ve never met another man that inspired you? Challenged you? Tasted better than your art?”

The others were watching, amused; Vera had finally gone further than her usual, “how the fuck are you single?”, “you should meet [insert name]”, and what had become the classic, “what are you hiding?”

O’Donnell replied swiftly, “No, no, and no.”

“Well, how about a little wager, Mr. O’Donnell? Give me three chances. If I can’t make one stick, I’ll buy the goddamn D.H. That’s what we’re calling it now, right?”, Vera said, fire in her eyes. Charlotte wasn’t sure if Vera was serious and found herself wondering how much she had been drinking prior to arriving; thus, her face transitioned from one of intrigue to one of puzzlement. O’Donnell took it very seriously though and remained silent, pondering his next move.

Vera was actually very serious. She had been waiting for this moment, the opportunity to be frank, preparing for it throughout the year. Thus, she leaned back, arms crossed again, and awaited O’Donnell’s acceptance of her challenge.

“Well, I’ve already got interested parties”, O’Donnell said, sighing and leaning backward, his gaze intently focused upon Vera, “in the painting that is.”

“So do I”, Vera responded cunningly. “I’m sure that we can find some sort of equivalent arrangement, if you’ll indulge me”, she added, leaning forward now, going in for ‘the kill’.

O’Donnell breathed in heavily. “I assume there will be something in this for you beyond mere entertainment?”, he questioned, adding, “an equivalent prize?”

“A commissioned work and the pure joy of watching you fall in love, like a broken version of your heartless self”, she said point blank, further indicating that this had not come out of the blue. Leo and Wes looked at one another apprehensively, on the edges of their seats. Charlotte knew now that this was very real. Knowing Vera and the investigation that she had been conducting, or what had now become clearer to her as a low intensity period of discovery, she grew excited as well. Charlotte had made attempts throughout the years, observed as O’Donnell returned unmoved from the encounters with friends, friends of friends, always chugging along forward without attachments, other than her at least. Thus, she was confident that it would produce nothing more than lively happy hour drama.

“Well, best of luck Vera; you’ll have to go right for the heart, if you can find one”, O’Donnell said, clearly intrigued and assenting to her challenge.

Breathing in, nodding, and with a look of extreme satisfaction, Vera began her operation, “Well then, candidate one is Gregory. Shall I give him your number?”

“Why, absolutely Vera. I look forward to hearing from him”, he responded, cocksure, adding, “it will all, I imagine at the very least, be extremely satisfying for me in the end.”

Thus, the evening returned to common banter for some time before the energy began to dwindle. Leo and Wes eventually took their leave, congratulating him and noting that they would be attending happy hour throughout his upcoming ordeal to hear the stories, the aftermath, and hopefully, “god willing”, to witness him, “grow a heart”. Vera took her leave as well, assuring O’Donnell that she would emerge victorious while also noting that the game was certainly not zero sum. Lastly, Charlotte finally took her leave shortly afterwards, mentioning her excitement, but noting that unfortunately, she fully expected Vera to fail.

“I know you too well at this point”, she said, shaking her head, “he’s out there somewhere, but you’re never going to actually go look for him.”

The words resonated with O’Donnell, having pierced his façade like a needle. He had to sit alone within the room processing them after she had left; he knew that she was probably right. Then he looked down upon the city below; the people and vehicles scurried about like little mice and the streets were newly teeming with life as last call had just come and gone throughout the city.

Then, a moment later, as he rose and turned to leave the room, he noticed that someone had left a book on the counter, Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. “Exquisite taste”, he thought to himself as he walked over to it, though he had never actually read it himself, not yet at least. At first, he began eyeing the cover; it was a recent edition. Then he began leafing through it to discover markings, folds in the pages, handwritten annotations; the book had already been loved too. He began to wonder why someone might have dropped it, why anybody had brought it to the event. There was no indication of ownership. Thus, he held onto it and entered the elevator with it in his right hand, tucked against his chest. As the elevator descended, the aftertaste of his achievement still lingering, the musical strings and lyrics resonated within and around him…

A high high desert
remains behind me,
and a long road backward

with nothing left to see…”

Thus concludes The Orchidstra.
However, the story is merely the beginning of book two of A Portrait of the Artist in Decline.
Book One is available here and one may continue reading the entirety of book two.
The whole book is still in progress, though I include a synopsis of the ending that I wrote.
Anyone is welcome to write a better ending as I have a lot of other higher priority projects.

4

O’Donnell entered his apartment in a more somber mood.  The city had swirled around him on the ride home and he had looked over to the empty seat at his side, the memory of a hand upon his leg still fresh.  The memory came like a whip, unexpected, unwelcomed, and newly fresh.  His world of meaning always became heavier in his private spaces, offstage.  Sometimes it took him to dark places. 

The lights were off when he returned home, but the light from the city beyond his windows illuminated the scene.  The loft doubled as his studio and there were no walls once inside. The windows were open on this particular evening, and a gentle breeze entered, blowing the sheer curtains in the wind. He took a seat then on the sofa, moments after returning, and, as he sat in the dimly lit room, he ruminated about the car ride home, on that pang that he had felt.  It had come and gone often throughout the years.

Thus, he logged onto ChatMate, a gay webcam site where one could speak with the models, watch them, and make requests within paid private rooms.  It was not quite as dark as it sounds.  It was actually a little bit darker.  He had come here often throughout the years to see Aguirre, always with a virtual one-way mirror between them.  However, O’Donnell found that Aguirre’s handle, GayShaw101, wasn’t logged in that night.  He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.  He had managed to stay away for several months this time; it felt like a relapse.  It was a relapse he told himself.  Charlotte could never know. 

Early on in this charade, it was 2018 now, O’Donnell had entered merely as an observer, stumbling upon the existence of Aguirre’s online peep shows as an accident, a pop-up ad.  He was quite unable to believe it at first.  It began during the first year after he had left and only a few months into O’Donnell beginning to settle in within the big city.  It eventually came to make more sense to him though, Aguirre’s actions at least.  Aguirre needed an outlet and there were few such venues where one could go from his particular brand of rock bottom.  Nonetheless, he managed to make it his own, probably to the chagrin of those who entered for purely sexual motive.  He would read sonnets, perform music, and engage in philosophical debate and discussion.  Months earlier during O’Donnell’s previous succumbing to the temptation, Aguirre had also claimed to still be working on The Cosmic Archipelago; he had been presenting snippets to his viewers and fielding their questions throughout the years.  He was apparently still chugging along like a tank engine on circular track, like a dog chasing its tail.

Back in 2003, within weeks of the discovery, O’Donnell created a profile with the most innocent of motives; he had to ask Aguirre, “If you don’t mind my asking, why are you doing this to yourself?”

Aguirre responded quickly and via the cam’s audio function, apparently prepared and unashamed, “I planned on not doing this actually, never in my life, but it became apparent to me that, given the choices that I have made in life so far, I was going to end up doing this out of necessity when I was forty or so, and then I would feel very stupid about all the missed economic opportunity of not selling my body sooner.  I have sought to find balance, you know, an outlet for my art and the lower pleasures. I am like a virtual geisha.  I keep it classy… as classy as this can be.”

In the early days people would frequently log on to berate him and shame him, referring to the event.  Some of them might have been legitimately interested though.  The internet is a very strange place. Nonetheless, Aguirre remained calm, like a statue, an unshakable tower, while sifting through the incoming chats.  He appeared to almost brake once during a particularly brutal onslaught, but he assured people cryptically, that “I only look like a black hole on the outside; it looks kind of scary, but there is actually a lot of light in me.” O’Donnell thought the response was strange, but, overall, he admired how Aguirre somehow managed to keep a straight face throughout it all as the berating became farcical, as if he was being terrorized.  Despite the attacks, Aguirre proudly continued his performances with rare interruptions—epic monologues, excerpts from his journals, and criticisms of what he was reading at the time.   

O’Donnell recorded one of them verbatim, an excerpt from one of Aguirre’s journals at a time when O’Donnell felt particularly drawn to him, as if he should reach out, rekindle the flame.  He literally created a new account from which to request that Aguirre repeat it and Aguirre kindly obliged,

“I recall now the idea of a moment.  Or at least the idea I used to have of what a moment was and what I think it remains for many others.  A moment is a brief instance when time slows.  It occurs when something pulls you out of the monotony of your automated life.  Something grabs your attention and alters your connection to reality.  Something evokes a feeling.  It grabs your curiosity by bending or nearly breaking your model of the world.  It squeezes your heart and causes you to feel the pain or joy emitted.  I guess the point of the moment was that for a brief second, you could truly feel alive.  You could perceive your awareness and experience a wave of uncontrollable emotion.  I have learned that we can seek such moments, we can make them a more regular occurrence.  Better yet, we can make these ‘moments’ our default experience.

We merely need to pay better attention, to be more open, and to be less afraid to truly live.  We also need to recognize the routine things we engage in that could be moments.  Rather than reading while eating or scarfing down your meal, take the time to chew.  Think about the different and complex flavors that you perceive.  Feel the sensation of the different flavors and how they interact.  Eating, like so much of life, should be an experience, even while in survival mode.” 

O’Donnell was quite torn at that time, lonely in the city, but very busy with his work and quite sure that Aguirre would be toxic to his career.  Even if he were to take that risk, embracing all that Aguirre had done while hoping that it might just be a ‘j-curve’, a brief dip before a more respectable and upward trend began, especially if O’Donnell intervened, he was also quite certain and concerned that it would make him weak.  He was in love still and he felt it, but he was also terrified.  Thus, he found himself here every night safely behind his digital veil, pondering what he should do about his feelings, watching the trainwreck—choo, choo. 

It was then that Aguirre finally reached out.  It happened shortly after the monologue that had really grabbed at his heart; he had been taking special pleasure in eating for the days that had followed, frequenting new restaurants and reliving some of his favorite meals.  It was the first time since O’Donnell had moved that they had been in direct contact with both parties clearly aware that they were speaking to the other.  O’Donnell was quite certain that Aguirre was unaware of his forays into Aguirre’s new online dark site.  Meanwhile, he found himself kind of sad that Aguirre had not attempted to follow him to the city.  The message that Aguirre sent, which follows, came with an attachment.

Dear O’Donnell,

I have written a novel.  I am writing a novel, that is; it is still ‘thickening’.  I imagine that you will find it affectively engaging.  I am sad that you are gone, though I am quite happy for you.  At the end of the day, I hope that this inspires you to build a friendship, to become my artistic rival, or to fall in love with me. 

The book is very much a work in progress.  I wrote almost all of it this weekend.  I call it a blitzroman.  You are under no obligation to read it.  It is primarily for artistic purposes, though I do hope that it entertains you, so please, absolutely do take it all with a grain of salt.  

I do not know if I should send this or not.  I feel like it could be a really awesome idea… or a really terrible one.  If you are seeing this, I have hit send.  I hope that you are having a wonderful time in the big city. You are also under no obligation to ever speak to me again because I know this is weird.  I hope at the end of the day that it becomes a memorable experience that this is happening. 

Sincerely,

Thomas

Aguirre’s brief novella, the blitzroman, which he claimed to have written in two days, appeared to have taken much more time and effort.  Apparently, it was a blend of his writing from around the time that they first met stitched together into a narrative.  O’Donnell decided to take it with a grain of salt. After all, Aguirre had recently been in a bike accident.   It was a funny story and O’Donnell and other patrons of his webcam show that had accompanied his recovery found the humor in it as well.  Aguirre had gone headfirst into the pavement, head over heels while biking to purchase ice cream, and, upon waking in the ambulance, he was relieved to discover that the events of the last few years had been nothing more than a trauma induced nightmare.  His gag reflex had never failed him so terribly; such nightmares only existed in our dreams he had reassured himself.

However, the EMTs had to remind him that it was real and that they still recognized him from his viral infamy.  “You took a bit of a beating, but I can still recognize your face…”, one of them explained.  He apparently passed out repeatedly and returned to consciousness multiple times during his journey to the hospital, each time with a fresh moment of hope and no memory of the previous disappointments.  O’Donnell imagined that it must have eventually become heart wrenching for the EMTs, a new form of torture for those who already must intimately experience the suffering and pain of others.  Yet there were two silver linings; Aguirre in retrospect found the whole story to be utterly ***king hilarious.  Additionally, there was the other one, which he never shared publicly, but he wrote about sincerely within the blitzroman; it was that he had left the hospital with the knowledge that O’Donnell was still alive and kicking somewhere out in the world.  Thus, he explained, he became resolved to make one last ditch attempt to capture O’Donnell’s heart. 

O’Donnell became deeply torn after receiving Aguirre’s message and actually reading the novel.  It was strange.  While it did contain some clear attempts to capture his attention in a romantic way, it was mostly an authentic work of art—a more effective means of engaging O’Donnell’s heart and mind, Aguirre must have thought.  It was borderline crude at points, yet it was authentic, raw, and daring.  Nonetheless, O’Donnell recognized it as a sincere romantic gesture in Aguirre’s own strange and yet, alluring way.  It was like a mating dance; “clearly I like you a lot, but look at what I can do”, it said flamboyantly. As in nature though, some mating rituals are merely performative spectacles of failure, observed and acknowledged, understood and beheld with genuine excitement; however, while they might mesmerize and capture the attention of their intended target, the desired final effect is rarely achieved.

O’Donnell felt overwhelmed and cornered, under pressure and as if his time observing Aguirre had led to a climax.  It felt like a critical juncture in his life, a moment that he might regret forever or remain proud of until the day he died, depending upon the choice he made and the actual state of reality, the interaction thereof that is.   He felt guilty to have abandoned Aguirre, having acted on the way he felt in a way that he knew had been extremely unfair and probably hurtful.  It had made sense to him in the heat of the moment, a rash decision, sitting home alone that night after a couple of beers before inviting him to drinks.  However, the fact that Aguirre had finally reached out in the way that he had surprised O’Donnell, and he thought that maybe, just maybe, as he had initially suspected, there was more beneath the surface to Aguirre than a man who gave strangers blow jobs in the dark of the night. 

It became very stress inducing as the decision of what to do weighed on his shoulders for days.  He wrote multiple draft responses that were never sent.  One included a statement that he realized might sound particularly pompous.

Dear Aguirre,

Thank you for your novel.  This is very special to me.  I feel as if, in a way, we have coauthored it.  I feel the same way and I believe that we should do something about this.  I will come visit soon.  I am sorry about the way that I left things.  I was selfish and cruel.  I think about you often and I am very grateful to know now that you have forgiven me for not keeping in contact during the past few months.  I send brotherly love and affection. 

Sincerely,

O’Donnell

He laid down in his bed and ran simulations of what might happen if he took course of action A, B, C, or some other potentially fantastic combination of actions.  As he did so, he imagined Aguirre being similarly anxious after bearing his heart and soul in a successful attempt to shock O’Donnell, wondering if O’Donnell had even taken the time to read it, wondering if O’Donnell had ever thought of him as more than a one night f***.     

Thus, O’Donnell found himself completely unable to make any decisions.  The future felt too hazy.  He had so many questions.  He barely knew Aguirre, but the sentiment ran deeply beyond reason.  Whatever the truth might be, whoever Aguirre really was on the inside, he had become a most dangerous flame.  As such, one night, O’Donnell emerged from his meditations within his apartment to find answers, a person that would make the decision for him. 

“Thank god for Charlotte”, O’Donnell thought to himself as he remembered the night of their first meeting. 

5

Yes, O’Donnell might have saved Aguirre, swooped in like a hero, brought him to the city and into his life, had it not been for Charlotte.  Aguirre stumbled out of his apartment that evening already having had a few.  He walked for what felt like hours as his mind continued to “practice” his response and process his thoughts and feelings.  In truth, it was only approximately forty-five minutes to the outskirts of the gay district where he entered, not a gay bar, but merely a bar that happened to be near the gay district.  It was one of the trendy ones that had popped up nearby to which all ordinary young professionals and bougie gays alike flocked to in the evening.  Some of the older gays lamented this development, but O’Donnell simply adored the place.    

It was called Casablanca and it literally had a Moroccan style patio and an ornate classic interior.  Upon entering, O’Donnell walked briskly and straight toward the bar to order an old fashioned.  Then, drink in hand, he searched for the person that would determine his fate.  He was spinning like a bottle, searching for someone to “kiss” with the question that was burning within his heart.  Then she walked up alongside him as he leaned backward against the bar.  Her hair was long, dark brown, and naturally wavy.  She was in her mid-twenties, had a very classic face, wore glasses, and he thought that she looked like an intellectual, a particularly beautiful one though.  There were a lot of them around here, intellectuals. 

“Are you a graduate student?”, he asked immediately after she placed her order. 

She at looked over at him, perplexed and on the verge of rolling her eyes, her face clearly annoyed.  “Yes. Is that a complement?”, she questioned. 

“No”, he said, without thinking, before catching himself and quickly adding, “no, I mean, yes, you look intelligent, but I’m not hitting on you.  I need help.”

She remained perplexed, in a different way now though, bemused yet actually interested in observing the car accident before her.  “Ok, I’ll bite.  How can ‘intelligent woman at bar’ be of assistance?”, she asked semi-robotically, semi-sarcastically, and entirely sardonically. 

“A man sends a love letter… love novel.  He sent an entire love novel, but he f***** up, you know, like bad.  I love the guy too… like actually, really, it’s rare for me… and I’m kind of thinking about taking a leap”, he explained. 

“How bad?”, she asked.

“Do you remember vom/com man?”, he responded rapidly.

“Yea, he couldn’t have done something that bad though if you’re still considering this”, she added, now extremely intrigued. 

“Yea… well, it was”, O’Donnell quickly added without providing further details. 

“Well, it sounds like he’s something that you have to overcome”, she said point blank, “like he’s toxic.” 

“Hmmm… yea, that was my thought exactly”, O’Donnell said as the negative perceptions began to cement themselves, becoming his reality. He did not know her name yet, but he felt very comfortable with her, like they were on the same wavelength.  Thus, he asked the question, “would you like to be my new best friend?”  He was tipsy, half joking, and yet still entirely serious. 

Charlotte smiled then.  “We get drinks at this bar on seventh every Thursday at seven.  It’s called Seven Bar.  I assume that I will be seeing you there?”, she responded quickly before grabbing her drink, turning around and walking to meet some friends, taking only a moment to look back at him and wink. 

6

The next day O’Donnell woke up on the sofa, hungover, and realized that he still had to respond.  It seemed like the human thing to do.  He had come to realize that Aguirre merely saw him as an escape ladder.  That was all.  It had become so clear to him now.  Thus, he began to draft responses.

Dear Aguirre,

This is very kind of you and the novel demonstrates promise, though it appears to be a rather perverse and unhealthy outlet to create such a strange self-portrait at a time when one ought to be finding peace with reality and adjusting their expectations about the future.  I wish you the best in your endeavors.

Sincerely,

O’Donnell

Instead he wrote and almost sent a very curt reply, “This is very kind of you. I wish you the best and I look forward to reading it once it is published.” 

He wasn’t sure which one was worse, but he felt that he would be relieved to have it out of the way if he were to send something, anything.  However, he realized shortly after drafting the second draft that Aguirre would probably be on the other end wondering to himself, “does this mean that you have not even read it?”  There were no hints in the second potential response that would indicate that he had actually read it multiple times.  Indicating that fact would probably be dangerous though, providing hope where none now existed, O’Donnell believed.  Internal debates raged within O’Donnell’s mind throughout the day and, eventually, led him to reconsider his decision to take Charlotte’s advice. The period of extreme indecision was brief though and, during the depth of the cognitive dissonance that he experienced, he determined that it was becoming unhealthy for him.  Thus, in a moment of panic, he hit send and the curt message flew at the speed of light to the man on the other end.  The deed being done, O’Donnell quickly resolved to go swimming to clear his mind.

“Splash!”, O’Donnell plunged into the creek like a cannonball; the water was cold and sent sharp sensations throughout his body.  As he remained beneath the surface, he could hear a little girl nearby cheering in delight at having seen him leap from a tree on the edge of the city’s natural spring.  He rose then to see her, and there she was on the edge standing with her mother’s hand on her shoulder—a little red sundress, dark black hair, pale skin glowing in the shade of the tree, and a look of sheer joy as she clapped and giggled.  She was like a little ladybug and it soothed O’Donnell’s soul to know that he had brought her great joy.  He returned then, beneath the surface, and closed his eyes to hold his breath and leave the past behind him, allowing it to evaporate from him as he imagined all the life flowing around him within the creek.  He felt very at one with the moment, fish brushed against his skin, his body adapted to the cold, though he could still feel it prickling, causing his chest and muscles to remain tight, and his mind grew still.  He rose then to float on the surface, looking up into the clouds as birds of prey circled above and the sounds of the city remained muffled.  Someone nearby was playing music loudly as they paddled down the creek toward the city.  A woman’s voice, gritty and raw, was singing a classic ballad and it was audible beneath the surface; his life for that brief moment had a soundtrack and he was digging it. 

I was sittin’
sittin’ havin’ a ball.
Yea, I was sittin’;
never thought that I’d fall.
n’ I was sittin’
‘til you came along;
now I’m smitten
and I’m writing this song.

Cuz along you came
like a burnin’ flame
striking me down
by the lake in the town
a handsome face
making me want a taste
an allure for sure
caught me hook, line, and sinker…

Yea, now I’m sittin’,
singing you this song
cuz I think of you
all day ‘n all night long.
Yea, now I’m smitten,
singing you this song
cuz I think of you
all day ‘n all night long…

7

As always though, the effect was very temporary.  When he returned home that evening, he found himself wondering what Aguirre might be thinking.  Was he ok?  Had the response been too harsh?   He logged onto ChatMate later in the evening and found that Aguirre had not been on for days, not since sending the novel. He had, however, posted a list of his upcoming live music performances in what O’Donnell remembered to be one of most divey dive bars in the city where he had once lived; O’Donnell had never actually set foot in the place nor been to that part of town.  He was happy though that Aguirre had finally found at least one place willing to allow him to perform in public. 

The thoughts continued to race though.  How would he feel if he were the one to receive the message that he had sent under similar circumstances?  What state of mind was Aguirre in these days?  Should he have at least called, said hello, asked how he was doing on the phone before sending such a brief and potentially heartbreaking message?  Thus, he began drafting an addendum to provide relief to what he assumed might have been an unnecessarily stressful period of processing rejection and failure.

Dear Aguirre,

I actually did read the novel and it was an experience that I will be unlikely to forget.  I want you to know that I have always found you to be exceptional and impressive as a person and an artist that sticks to their convictions.  I am especially proud that despite everything that you have been going though, you have been keeping your head high and continuing to produce art.  While I do not feel the same way about you, your honesty was very brave, and I appreciate you sharing your feelings with me. 

Sincerely,

O’Donnell

Nonetheless, he deleted the message and resolved to wait to hear from Aguirre, remotely monitoring for signs that he was actually doing ok despite the rejection.  He reminded himself that he had taken time to devise his initial response.  He figured that Aguirre was probably similarly processing and determining how best to respond.  However, days passed, and Aguirre never logged back into ChatMate.  It was the longest period that he had remained offline since O’Donnell had stumbled upon Aguirre’s strange internet art performances amidst the sea of amateur porn actors.  He found also, as days went by and he became more concerned, that Aguirre’s SocialMedia profile had been silent for some time.  “Perhaps he has been travelling”, O’Donnell told himself optimistically, “somewhere without an internet connection.”  O’Donnell certainly wished that he was. 

The worries continued to weigh heavily on O’Donnell’s mind throughout the week and into Thursday evening.  Seven Bar on Seventh at seven was his opportunity to finally begin building true social connections within the big city.  He had especially high hopes for his friendship with the witty woman from the bar, but he realized that he had become a ball of anxiety and he vowed to go the entire evening without mentioning Aguirre, his ongoing dilemma, or the fact that he was seriously considering travelling to the city where he had once lived to verify that Aguirre was safe and sound despite O’Donnell’s belated and heartless reply. His demons were to remain safely hidden beneath the surface of his cool façade. 

Thus, he arrived fashionably late and, upon entering the rather nondescript bar, your classic, well lit, modern chic inner-city watering hole, he recognized Charlotte at a large round table with five others.  It was very relaxed

“Vom/com lover!”, she shouted gleefully as she saw him approaching their table.  O’Donnell realized that he had already garnered his own unfortunate nickname within the group, apparently having made an impression during their initial meeting.  He realized also though that he should have seen that one coming and he doubled down on his vow to remain silent about the ongoing internal warfare between his heart and his mind with respect to Aguirre. 

“’Tis I!”, he announced as he took his seat at the table, “Thomas, my name is actually Thomas.” 

The others greeted him and introduced themselves.  There were two other graduate students, Elliott and Yulyn, as well as three others.  Daniele was a hairdresser at a posh salon in the city center.   She had attended high school with Charlotte and had the most perfect hair that O’Donnell had ever seen; it was very curly, and she had beautiful dimples when she smiled.  Then there was Heather; she was wearing a suit, having just left the office from her consulting job.  Apparently, it was rare for her to be in town during the week to attend the happy hour, “80% travel”, she explained.  Lastly, there was Teddy.  He was very handsome, had recently left a graduate program and taken a job as an assistant editor at one of O’Donnell’s favorite magazines, one that had rejected O’Donnell’s work multiple times.  He felt as if he had found his people. 

“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what did this guy actually do?”, Daniele inquired, Charlotte having clearly presented his origin story to the group.  She cut right to the point, right to the forbidden topic.

“He cheated, that’s all.  I’m a master of hyperbole”, O’Donnell explained quickly before realizing that he was letting his audience down.  Thus, he invented the story, “but it was my friend and he lied about it”, he said, suddenly feeling even more uncomfortable with the direction that everything was taking. 

“That’s ***king awful”, Heather interjected, following it up with an “aww.”

“Well, I put my bet on it actually being vom/com guy”, Teddy added, laughing.  Elliott and Yulyn joined in.  Meanwhile, the others remained with sad faces looking at O’Donnell, poor O’Donnell.

O’Donnell arrived having already decided that no one ever needed to know the truth. He quickly changed the subject, “Yea, well, s*** happens…  Anyhow, how did this whole seven, seven, seven thing start up?”

“Well, we used to go to this place on Sundays with bottomless mimosas for $18, but gentrification happens, and they only let you have three now”, Charlotte explained. 

“Yea, and we used to know the guy that bartended here, he would double pour for us back in the good old days… so like, last year.  Creatures of habit ever since”, Daniele added.

The others nodded and Elliott and Yulyn began talking shop between themselves on the other side of the table. 

“I only come once in a while, but you’ll see me around.  The people tend to come and go, but Charlotte is always here”, Teddy mentioned before adding, “she’s like the glue.” 

“Yea, well someone has to make this happen.  I’m not just going to sit at home and wait for a good time to fall in my lap”, Charlotte explained before adding, “we have other events too throughout the year; you will, of course, be attending the Mulled Wine Olympics, our winter games, and the fruity cocktail spri(n)tz; there’s an n in it.” 

O’Donnell nodded and smiled; “let me guess, one balances fruit on their head?”, he questioned, laughing a bit to himself.

“No, we actually compete to create unique custom fruity cocktails.  It’s like one of those shows that people cook on under pressure, but we actually do it ourselves.  My favorite one last year was the Mango to Heaven”, Charlotte explained, raising an eyebrow and indicating that they were far too classy for mere fruit balancing.  “We do the balancing during the Olympics though, so I’m not going to judge you”, she added. 

“I liked the Caught in the Acid Rain”, Teddy quickly interjected, “it was like a spicy piña colada with roasted jalepeño simple syrup.”

“I can get down with that”, O’Donnell responded coolly, having adjusted his posture and his expectations.  “What about passionfruit?  Like a White Russian, but with fruit… passionfruit”, he added.

“You can play with us”, Charlotte responded with a smile. 

Thus, the happy hour went on and O’Donnell’s inner demons remained silent for the time being, replaced by fruity cocktails, new friends, and a sense of belonging.  Eventually, Elliott and Yulyn dipped out, and Charlotte explained that they were a couple, a rather strange and quiet one.  Teddy took his leave as well, quickly letting O’Donnell know that it was nice to have met him.  Lastly, before leaving for the night with Daniele and Heather, Charlotte explained that she would be out of town for the weekend, visiting old friends back home, but that they would probably be going out the next weekend; they would sort out the details during the next happy hour, next Thursday, and she promised not to call him vom/com lover again.  It reminded him ever so briefly of the little white lie at the foundation of their friendship, one that he fully expected to be able to sustain into the future. 

“I’m really happy that you invited me”, O’Donnell said sincerely, giving her a hug before they parted ways.

“I’m glad that you came too”, she replied with a warm smile before turning around and heading out the door to catch a taxi. 

O’Donnell started walking home afterward.  Seven Bar was close to his apartment, but he decided to dip into one of the bars next to his building.  “A night cap”, he told himself.  He had brought his journal with him and he began a new entry.

I have finally made friends, interesting friends.  My time in the city is looking up, but, to be honest, I continue to look backward, backward and forward.  My job is secure, I am on the right path on that front and my time in the studio is fairly productive.  I feel very lonely though.  I’ve gone out to bars.  I’ve met men, but they bore me.  We have the same conversations, each time the same words with a different body.  I wake up alone and I spend my nights without strangers in my bed thinking about Aguirre.  Will this go on forever? 

Will I sort of snap out of it one day?  Should I be burning sage or consulting some sort of healer, conducting rituals to rid myself of his spectre?  Writing apparently worked for him.  I’m not sure what will work for me… giving it time.

I kind of need to know though at this point, to move forward, that he’s alright.  I feel a weight, like I’m responsible, not for his happiness, no one is ever responsible for another’s happiness, but to give closure, if I haven’t already.  I’m fairly certain that my attempt to do so might have been more harmful than helpful, but what do I know?  I’m not really sure if there is anything that I can do at this point that wouldn’t make me feel like I’m doing some sort of harm unless he gives me a clear signal one way or the other.  I kind of need closure too. 

8

O’Donnell slept on it and actually made the choice sober, completely sober.  He had no weekend plans, he had to get Aguirre off of his mind, and he could use a quick trip out of town.  Thus, he booked a ticket to go see one of Aguirre’s shows.  It was still on the books, Aguirre had remained a ghost online, and O’Donnell somehow thought that this was better than sending a follow up, “you ok?”  He merely needed visual confirmation that Aguirre was not mired in some sort of deep dark pit because of him. 

He arrived the following day, it was a Saturday, and he remained in his hotel waiting for the evening to come.  He had flown in the morning, rented a car, and spent the day writing. His latest book had become deeply influenced by his ongoing and deeply felt attachment to Aguirre.  Oddly, he had made it about prisoners of war; he somehow felt that maybe he could draw on similar emotions, like there were similarly insurmountable and violent hurdles between him and Aguirre.  It wasn’t going well though, and he was pretty sure that this one would never be published, but he was attempting to salvage it.  His previous book, the one about the painter, had actually been on the shortlist for best debut novel of the year.  He knew that his next book needed to exceed it and this one was slowly going downhill, mired in confusion, without direction, and with characters that were becoming less and less interesting.  It was very frustrating. 

He realized at some point that he had become a prisoner of his own ambition.  Here he was on “vacation”, but he was by choice working and huddled up in a poorly lit room.  Thus, after having that realization, he decided to go to a park and write.  Once there, surrounded by the trees of the city’s arboretum, he took some time to clear his mind.  He told himself that it was ok to scrap the project that he felt his recent ordeal with Aguirre had tainted, and he began to write poems.  He thought that it would be relieving, a collection of little piecemeal accomplishments. They were all terrible though, except of course for his Sonnet on frustration; it was incomplete, nontraditional and still raw, perhaps not worthy of being called a sonnet, but it appeared to be going somewhere.   It was the kind of writing that he was proud of, but that he would never share with others. 

[Sonnet on frustration, from The Chaos (in)filtration agency.]

“Surely every artist has a collection of these incredibly stupid works that emerge from our most frustrated attempts to produce something in the heat of a moment”, he thought to himself, feeling better about his failure to produce.  He had felt creatively inhibited for weeks, as if his internal creative energies had been dwindling.  Nonetheless, he continued to beat his head against the metaphysical wall that he experienced, and he also began to wonder if it had something to do with Aguirre.  Thus, for a brief moment, he began displacing the frustration of a common season in the life and mind of the artist upon Aguirre as if it were intentional and maliciously inflicted upon him.  He caught himself quickly though, realizing the absurdity of the thought.  He knew that he was responsible for it all, though he also realized that channeling the emotion had been particularly productive. 

Eventually, however, the time came to return to the hotel from which he would venture to the diviest little dive bar in town, a rough and tumble one that O’Donnell never thought that he would visit, and to seek the closure that he so desperately felt he needed.  Certainly, this was going to resolve everything he thought.  Aguirre would show up, perform, appear to be happy, and O’Donnell could sneak out the door and never look back. 

O’Donnell had called ahead when the idea had first entered his mind weeks earlier.  It was a dive bar and he was pretty sure that weirder things had happened.  “Is there like, a dark area, a corner or something, that one can sort of just stand there and no one will see me?”, he questioned the bartender on the phone point blank. 

“Yea man, that’s like… sort of what this place is known for.  I mean, get your kicks dude”, he responded before hanging up.   

Now that so much time had passed, O’Donnell was quite confident that no one would be on the lookout for the weird shady corner caller.  Still, he knew that he had to enter the bar cautiously.  He could only enter once he confirmed that Aguirre was up on the little stage where he wouldn’t be able to see O’Donnell.  However, when he finally arrived, he had to circle around the building because Aguirre was out front having a cigarette.  There were still a few minutes before his set was scheduled to begin and he stood there alone, leaning against the wall, and looking up toward the sky.  O’Donnell wondered what he must be thinking, and it made him glad that Aguirre was looking up. 

Once Aguirre went inside, O’Donnell waited a moment before exiting his vehicle to sneak inside behind him.  He knew that he had to at least get one drink at the bar before slinking into the shadows, and he stood outside the window, looking in to assess the available routes before making his dash for the dark corner.  “Why didn’t I scope this out during the day”, he suddenly found himself questioning, “that would have actually been smart.”  Nonetheless, he saw that Aguirre was already up on stage, though to his dismay, the bar was fairly empty.  It would be difficult to evade detection, but he had brought a hat and the bar was close enough to the door. 

He could feel the adrenaline and it made him dizzy.  Thus, he took a moment as Aguirre performed his first song.  It was one that O’Donnell had always liked and it sort of helped him get into the mindset that he needed.  He also knew that Aguirre tended to get emotional during the ending, or at least to appear emotional as it dwindled into spoken word.  He usually closed his eyes.  Thus, as the song was concluding, O’Donnell made his way to the bar to grab a cheap beer and to dart into the corner as the song was concluding. 

Yea, we travelled
All through the mountains
& that valley so low.
Now there’s a home in my heart,
Never thought I’d know,
And we’ll do it again,
Build our wild den,
Tear down the walls
Between you and me,
Our home.

Only one person clapped, some guy at the bar in a leather vest, and O’Donnell scanned the room.  There were only ten people and half of them looked like they looked like they were all in a motorcycle gang.  There was also one blonde woman at the bar that looked out of place.  O’Donnell hoped that she was here to support Aguirre, but she wasn’t clapping.  It all felt sad, but O’Donnell figured that it could all be a lot sadder. 

The next song was new, and it took a while for O’Donnell to clue into the multiple layers of meaning that were in operation.  Aguirre had apparently chosen to lean into his new identity as a sexual deviant.

Texas skies are fallin’,
fallin’ around me
cuz Texan eyes are bawlin’
didn’t like what they could see: 
naked truth slipping,
slipping through the cracks.
Well, howdy ‘bout this one, neighbor,
Mind your own beeswax…

The truth it ain’t for everyone—
it’s an acquired taste;
lend me your ear now,
I’ll give it to you slow pace.

Aguirre began to sing very slowly at that moment, tenderly allowing each word to roll off of his tongue. 

We are all born equal;
god loves everyone,
but some of ‘em,
even there in Texas,
know how to have a bit more fun. 

O’Donnell felt simultaneously concerned and fascinated. He listened carefully to each word and resisted the urge to laugh.  The year was still 2003 and at least one other person apparently understood the reference. Another man lurking in the shadows of the audience along the edge of the bar nearby O’Donnell began shaking his head and muttered “***king pillow biter” before storming out the door.  No one else in the bar appeared to be paying attention though, so O’Donnell felt less concerned about there being some sort of violent backlash.  He was mostly fascinated once he was alone in the shadows watching everyone else, though he knew that this charade could only go on for so long. 

You can have it both ways,
know the truth and keep it couth.
Cuz bottom to top now,
I’mma give you proof.

He appreciated the very positive message that he detected in this particular verse in Aguirre’s song, though he was quite certain that Aguirre had dug himself into a pit from which he would never emerge; he appeared to be digging himself deeper actually.  Nonetheless, toward the end of the song, he decided that Aguirre appeared relatively healthy; he was still doing his thing, and, though O’Donnell was not quite sure how to feel about what Aguirre’s thing had become these days, in his mind, he could call this closure.  “This is closure”, he told himself as he turned his back, opened the door, and looked back once more.  Unwillingly, a thought came to him as Aguirre’s voice grew deeper and the song concluded, “at least he still looks handsome as ever while doing whatever it is that one calls this.”  

I’mma make you sing, and I’mma make you sing.
I’mma make you sing; Yes, I’mma make you sin.

The door closed, no applause could be heard, and O’Donnell was about to start his car to return to his hotel to write and prepare for his return home the following day.  However, he merely sat there in the car for a considerable amount of time, approximately thirty minutes to be exact.  Toward the end, Aguirre walked out the front door to have a cigarette.  He was right there, leaning against the wall, alone, but still looking up at the sky.  That detail made all the difference.  “This is closure”, he assured himself before starting the car and driving away.  It hurt; his body felt like it was seizing and his mind said “go… go right ***king now”, but he turned around and looked back.  Aguirre had looked up by now and was watching the car drive away, seeing nothing but red lights as O’Donnell slowed down and paused for a moment.  His body felt like it was sinking, and he held his breath before quickly hitting the gas and speeding off into the night. “This is closure”, he repeated.  He felt like an absolute coward.

9

O’Donnell slept through the night and he felt at ease upon his return to the big city.  Aguirre appeared to be healthy, yet still with questionable judgement.  He was using his smarts, but the long-term results appeared clearer now, those that Aguirre had already attained as well as what appeared to be the steady state of his future.  It hadn’t really been closure though; O’Donnell was keenly aware of that, but he knew that Aguirre wasn’t going to kill himself or something stupid like that.  He was fairly confident at least.  He had been looking up when most people would be looking down.  Aguirre also eventually responded to O’Donnell’s message a few days later. 

Thanks O’Donnell, I wish you the best in the city and I look forward to seeing what you create. 

Apologies for the awkwardness, honestly, and for how long it took me to reply. 

I really appreciated that you actually took the time to respond though.

Sincerely, A 

O’Donnell was busy at work when the first message arrived, but his phone kept buzzing.  He hated when this happened and cursed himself for having forgotten to activate the do not disturb function.  However, upon reading them, having left his easel to see why his phone was blowing up, he breathed a sigh of relief.  “This is the end of it”, O’Donnell assured himself before returning to the painting that Aguirre’s message had interrupted.  He felt an overwhelming wave of relaxation.  His muscles felt as light as air; he felt like pure spirit within a body that had previously been weighed down by unseen pressures that had built up within him.  “No harm, no foul, the world goes on”, he told himself, “this is probably what it’s like to actually love someone and yourself… to let them go.” 

That Thursday he joined Charlotte and the others.  There were seven this time, Teddy, Daniele, and Heather had returned.  Charlotte was there too, obviously.  Meanwhile, the others were a similar mix of grad students and working professionals.  He was beyond fashionably late this time, and, upon his arrival, it was a little bit rowdier than the time before.   Nonetheless, he jumped right in, snagging a seat from another table and squeezing in alongside Charlotte. 

“Anything newsy with you?”, she asked.

“Oh no, just a quiet week working, painting, doing my thing in the studio”, O’Donnell replied, “You? How was the trip home?” 

“Meh, it rained the whole ***king time.  We sort of played drinking games in my friend’s garage like we were high school again… but, yea, once I got over the disappointment, it was kind of fun”, she responded, chuckling at the absurdity of her weekend regression.  “What did you do during the weekend?”, she asked only a moment later.

“Oh, I went to a show.  Some guy sang about butt sex and I manage not to laugh”, he said, finding a way to be honest without being completely honest.

“Interesting, I hear that’s like a trend lately.  I swear this guy singing about breakfast tacos a couple of weeks back was actually talking about vaginas”, Charlotte added with a laugh while shaking her head.  The noise within the bar had grown loud and the others at the table were actively engaged in their conversations.  That’s what happens once you reach a happy hour grouping of more than five or so; it starts to disintegrate.  O’Donnell and Charlotte looked around for a moment.  They were both silent and then they looked back at each other and Charlotte shrugged. 

“So, boys… any in your life?”, O’Donnell asked, seeking to break the ice. 

“Um, sort of… there are like five.  There’s this one guy though that I’m really into.  He’s basically the only one of them that isn’t actively pursuing me.  I think that it’s a sign… like, it says something about me as a person”, she said, still pondering it herself and with a very serious face, nodding. 

“I know how that goes actually. My brand of f***** up is a little different though”, he said, being entirely frank for once.  “I think that you’re ok though as long as you’re like, still interested in that one guy if it actually happens.  Then it’s like, not just about the hunt, you know?”, he added, hoping that she felt the same way.

“That’s exactly what I tell myself”, she assured him, and they both sort of smiled and nodded. 

“So, you? Boys?”, she questioned in return. 

“Oh yea, well, as you know, I have moved on from that one guy.  Completely… it’s a nonissue, and I’m, um, like on the market, I guess.  Do you know anyone?”, he responded, including the fateful question. 

Charlotte tried everything during the beginning of their friendship, friends, friends of friends, strangers at bars.  It took a long time for her to break into O’Donnell’s mind to truly understand what was happening, why nothing was sticking, why nobody lasted more than one or two dates.  It was obvious that it was always O’Donnell that ended it, but “why?”, she questioned. 

“They bore me”; “Not compatible”; “I’m too busy with my work for this s***”, O’Donnell would always explain.  This went on for years, and Charlotte knew that there had to be something else at work, either something that O’Donnell was hiding or something that remained hidden from him, something that he was probably ignoring. 

Had she been behind the scenes, had O’Donnell been upfront about what he did alone in the nights when he felt lonely, had he explained his true origin story, she might have been able to attempt to help with the root cause in mind sooner.  However, during their second happy hour all that she knew was that he seemed chill, on her wavelength, and was in need of mates and dates. 

“Yea, I think I know someone that would be perfect for you”, she said, leaning back in her chair, focusing her eyes and imagining him with this mystery other.   

10

O’Donnell had actually been excited the first time, but this was the fifth date that Charlotte had set him up on.  He couldn’t figure out what was wrong though.  The sex was good.  The men knew how to have conversations.  They were on the right track, career focused, and they seemed legitimately interested in him, but nothing ever felt like it cut beneath his surface.  He always felt like an actor on a stage and the world marched on after each encounter.  His world felt unchanged, unmoved, and the second date always felt uncomfortable, unnecessary. 

With Charlotte, as it had been during his few moments with Aguirre, he could be in touch with something different or, at least, he felt like he could.  It was relaxed and natural, like they were in sync, in different ways of course with Charlotte and Aguirre, but he could feel it.  He craved it. 

“So, you’re a painter, Charlotte tells me”, the man sitting across from O’Donnell inquired. 

O’Donnell’s attention had been drawn to the windows.  It was snowing outside and everyone passing by was dressed in thick jackets, trench coats, and their wintery accompaniments.  The question drew him back to the moment and he gradually brought his attention back to the table and the man sitting before him, a consultant, one of Heather’s coworkers actually; he was quite handsome.  “Oh, yea, I paint, and I writ,e and I sort of try to come up with conceptual projects”, he responded, forcing a smile. 

“What exactly does that mean, conceptual projects?”, the consultant asked, genuinely interested. 

“Oh well, I come up with ideas that might be interesting, new ideas, ideas that might bridge my projects or that people might execute in tandem… the goal is to sort of come up with something new, but I find that I mostly rehash the past.  The buzzword at work, I work for an art director, is illustritech  at the moment… it’s like illustrate, technology, times three… something created and egregiously overprocessed”, O’Donnell explained.

“Oh… well, I guess that’s interesting”, the man responded, “conceptual projects… it’s sort of like coming up with ideas then?” 

“Yea, exactly”, O’Donnell responded, not wanting to go any deeper into it, smiling and still digesting the man’s definition of his conceptual art.   

The man smiled as well, but O’Donnell found himself extremely uninterested in continuing the conversation.  He realized though that he had to do so.  “So, what kind of project are you working on now?  Heather talks about work all the time, so I kind of have an idea how consulting works. Are you travelling?”, he asked, searching for a way to sustain the momentum of the conversation. 

“Oh yea, I spend five days in Canada and then I’m here on the weekends with this current project.  I get to eat a lot of poutine, so that’s nice”,

“Hmmm, that sounds nice.  Cheese curds, gravy, carbs…. I hear that they sell it at Costco up there, like in the food court.  Is that true?”, he asked before adding, “it’s not that I would ever eat Costco poutine, but I just find it incredible that such a thing might exist.” 

“Oh, I don’t know.  I actually haven’t been to Costco in Canada”, the man replied.  O’Donnell nodded and there was a prolonged awkward silence after that. 

O’Donnell picked at his pasta and decided to just start being friendly, as if this weren’t a date.  “How many dates have you been put up on lately?”, he asked. 

The man seemed uncomfortable with the question.  “Oh, not too many”, he eventually responded, clearly curious about why the conversation had jumped to that topic so suddenly. 

“Well, this is my fifth”, O’Donnell explained, attempting to make it a comfortable topic.  “I sort of come out on these with no expectations, so I’m never really disappointed.  You seem nice, but this probably isn’t going anywhere”, he said, sincerely hoping that it might take the conversation into a sort of unknown more friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  It unfortunately had the opposite effect. 

“Well, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say now.  I thought this was going somewhere, but I guess you have been a little aloof all night.  I can leave you be if you’d prefer”, the man said, scooting backward from the table and visibly indicating that he was about to stand up and walk out while giving a moment of opportunity for O’Donnell to say, “wait, no, stay!”

O’Donnell crossed his arms instead and looked at the man as if he were confused and yet slightly amused.  Thus, the man quickly followed through on his physically signaled threat, stood up, said “well, I wish you a wonderful evening, but I should be going”, and, with that, he left the building. 

“That was probably me”, O’Donnell told himself before returning to look out the window, examining a hoar of frost upon its edges. He was happy to have a moment of peace and he felt more relaxed, merely sitting alone in the restaurant.  However, as time passed, his thoughts lingered and he longed for some real connection with someone.  It had been such a long time since he had actually felt something for another person.  As he pondered that fact further, he felt a pang of despair strike him deep within.  He knew that he couldn’t just force it, but he also didn’t know where to find it nor exactly what it was that he was searching for, that feeling. 

11

Upon returning home alone that evening, he grabbed a handle of whiskey and sat on the sofa, pouring a heavy glass and grabbing his pen.  At first, he spent the night writing in his journal, attempting to understand what it was that he was seeking, comparing his recent dates and the string of hook ups from the big city to what he felt with Aguirre. 

It felt like he understood me and sort of saw the same thing, like we could be nearby each other without saying anything and still feel connected.  I didn’t feel like I had to put on a show, at least not relative to how I feel now.  I guess I kind of felt like I put on a show, but it made sense, it was me, hyper me…   

The exercise continued throughout the night and began to spiral into nonsense, somewhere between reality and imagination.  Then the relapse finally came; at some point he found himself logging onto ChatMate, viewing GayShaw101, and not judging himself for doing so, merely letting it happen.  In the early days, he began to find little sparks of inspiration from these forays into Aguirre’s strange digital theatre.  The mixture of attempts at high art amidst the context within which he observed Aguirre actually inspired his next series of paintings—collages of male figures with geometric shapes, phallic objects, dripping in semen, somewhere between realism and the abstract. He also wrote a collection of short stories about artists that were unable to leave their homes communicating with one another through unexpected means.  Suddenly, though he only realized it gradually, Aguirre became O’Donnell’s muse, and his productivity, the quality too, began to skyrocket.  O’Donnell never spoke to anyone about this, it was his secret, and no one needed to know.  It was like a tree having reconnected with its roots, roots that extended deeply and catapulted O’Donnell further into the canopy and the light of the heavens above.

Throughout the years, he found that people still entered once in a while to heckle Aguirre.  One time, in response, Aguirre mentioned that he wished that there was someone that could hack his memory, or better yet, that of everyone else on Earth.  “I kind of want to remember it, the faces that I saw that day, my own and those of others…” he said, visibly retreating into the past to relive them.  “The only problem is the other people who still remember.  They are like the bars in my prison”, Aguirre explained succinctly and vividly.  O’Donnell actually became instantly inspired after this observation.  It was like lightning striking and he wrote a book titled The forgetting

As O’Donnell spent more time observing, he found that some people had become regulars like him throughout the years; trustnoone, blackholeexplorer, and TheCoryfagus had become the most frequent and active contributors.  Sometimes O’Donnell wondered if they were speaking in a code that he had difficulty penetrating; there was clearly something weird going on above and beyond the art sharing.

Trustnoone: What news from the archipelago?  Has a new island been discovered?

Coryfagus:  Yes, how long has it been since the last island popped up? Last GS101 informed me, the explorers had been coming back to the capital empty handed, only tales of the known.  Have there been any developments?   

GayShaw101/Aguirre: Yes, one of the expeditions beyond the western mountains has finally been fruitful.  I was writing about it the other day, due South, beyond the jagged cliffs of the nesting grounds that were discovered by an earlier generation.  I sometimes wonder though, gentlemen, how much of this world creation actually contributes to the generation of the final written novel. [sigh]

O’Donnell, witnessing these strange interactions, found himself wondering what exactly happened during the private shows.  He arranged some of his own throughout the years, but Aguirre always seemed to be annoyed, probing the unknown person and testing whether he knew what was up.

Awanderer/O’Donnell: “you’re show is a little wild compared to the others in here.  I mean, it seems more tame, but remarkably out of place.”

GayShaw101/Aguirre: “Oh yea, you know, it’s all penis et circenses with the others.  Why are you actually here?”

O’Donnell also came to wonder whether some of the other people in the chatroom were like puppet accounts that Aguirre was secretly operating himself, as if he were putting on a show.  Nonetheless, O’Donnell also decided that whatever Aguirre might have truly been up to, he was happy at least to be on this side of damnation.  Thus, he continued to find inspiration, occasionally sending messages, and sometimes asking questions. 

“What is the purpose of art?”, he once questioned Aguirre.

“To make them feel”, was his quick reply, though only a moment later, he added, “I can go on a monologue if you would like me to elaborate on that. We can go to private mode.”

Behind his veil O’Donnell nodded in silent agreement, feeling had always been first for him as well, and he became incredibly curious after the succinct, rapid, and very clear response; as with all seemingly clear responses, he knew much existed beneath the surface and, knowing Aguirre, he knew that it wasn’t merely about making people feel horny.  Thus, curious to delve deeper, he obliged, entered private mode, and the conversation began a new, “‘to make them feel?’ are we talking about your clients here or legitimate art?”, he asked, and Aguirre responded:

I think that there are multiple experiences of art.  The ones that are most profound to me are the ones that cause the continuous experience of reality to collapse, to overcome all reason.  This can take the form of aesthetic pleasure, when a painting arrests you, the comfort of tragedy, the climax of a drama when one is reduced to tears, chills, uncontrollably, or even similar experiences within our daily lives.  We live in a theatre; our bodies and words, our action and inactions are works of art.  We paint daily, we live our dreams, and our movements are poetic. 

I think that, you know, given the context, there is something that I need to clear up.  Some people take issue with erotica as art and, though I don’t actually delve that deep into it, as you can probably tell by now, that’s not what I’m doing here, I do believe that what others might find to be base or unworthy of the honor of being deemed art can, like tragedy, I mean what’s the difference aesthetically between causing people to experience another’s trauma, the ideal terror, the ideal pity, and bringing them the ideal pleasure, pure joy, the realization of dreams?  I agree that like, there is a difference between art and pure pornography without artistic elements, but pornography and erotica can be art as well, high art at that.  They should write an intriguing book about this, the academics and philosophers, aestheticians; title it Art/Porn.  There can be similarly rapturous experiences that are kinetic, felt within, evoking passions, human passions, viscerally, and that nonetheless move the human spirit upwards, toward its potential, toward wholeness. 

I agree that there is like this sacred place for those rare moments when a work of austere art possesses you, when a poem feels as if it is God himself speaking to you.  It’s just that true art is a conceptual container for more than merely the austere, the tragic, and whatever else I was supposed to have learned if I had studied this in college.  You know this whole idea of a dichotomy, good and evil, God and the Devil, it’s not a universal belief.  Some people, entire cultures, see them as flip sides of the same coin, perhaps, all parts of one being that most people fail to accept, or perhaps better put, to understand as a singular whole.  It’s like that with art, but we have to bound it somehow.  It’s all a matter of taste, to be honest… values… taste & values,, and tolerance.  I think that we have come a long way in this regard, a long way toward the true quidditas of art, of reality, and of our selves.  We can only know and truly feel it through grasping the truth. 

“Yeah, but we create the truth, wouldn’t you say?”, O’Donnell inquired then without taking much time to actually process the words.  He was recording them, and it felt as if it smacked of more bullshit than usual.  It was harder to take seriously, but O’Donnell continued to listen. 

“Yes, of course, the perceived truth…” Aguirre responded before adding, “it’s a matter of sustainability.  The good, the truly sublime and beautiful, we’re all within the same vat of nothingness.  Someone has to shape it, that which emerges and takes form, becomes the good, becomes the beautiful… it’s all built on the same foundation of truth; it’s just that there is truth, transcendental and eternal, and there is truth, subjective and incomplete, which is all that most people will ever know.  The fantastic reality and the abysmal terror is how much can be made real, birthed within the confines of the total reality and the ultimate truth.”    

O’Donnell paused from his notetaking, his notes and further questions about Aguirre’s monologue, to ponder his words, especially that final note, prior to composing his long form response. “Ok, so, returning to the question about art, are these all just situated claims that you espouse now because they make you feel better?  Do you actually believe this?  I mean, we obviously agree about some of what you have just said, but…” O’Donnell paused at that moment, thinking to himself, “where is the line between what you do and what I do?”, before completing his question, “where is a principled and clear dividing line between art and not art?” 

Aguirre shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a moment, pondering the question, his eyes having grown focused and looking slightly to the right of the camera. 

“Well, you see, there is no line.  There are gradations, gradations of legitimate artistic content, within all acts of human interaction and within the products of our creative pursuits.  There’s like this star, the source of art from which our shared, agreed upon definitions of art emanate.  The star shines with the light of art’s core values, the hegemonic definitions and conceptions.  We are all orbiting it, some of us closer to the light than others.  We’re in the shadows here, the darker edge of it, but when you’re in the light, look around you.  So much of it is trite, kitsch, bland, and amateur.  Why should that be deemed art? We should call it hobbying.  What differentiates art from all that hobbying on SocialMedia is like what differentiates what I do from what you referred to as “not art”? 

Just because you put a ***king brush to canvas doesn’t make you an artist.  Just because you went to art school and can sound holier than thou, doesn’t make you an artist.  Just because I’m here on this, this website, doesn’t make me not an artist. 

Aguirre paused then, clearly having realized that he had devolved into an emotional and person tirade.   He took a moment then to regain his composure before continuing his speech,

Anyhow, some artists are like planets, giants orbiting the sun.  Some are like moons.  Some, those I would hardly call artists, are like pesky space debris.  There is a lot of that going around.  Meanwhile, some people draw that line, that line that you’re looking for, where the light is still clear.  In that way I think that your right about conceptions depending upon one’s “situation”.  If all you’ve ever seen is the Lourve and not the art out in the streets and beyond, it’s easy to develop an anemic conception.   However, one can emerge from the center, come to know the edges and that which lurks beyond, and similarly find that not all that appears within the light deserves the honor of being deemed true art.  Meanwhile, one might find that some of what one finds in the dark places where one might not think to look also merits consideration and, perhaps, someday, elevation. 

Until then, I’m stuck here in the shadows.  It’s like tar, tar that I fell into a long time ago on one fateful evening.  I’ve found a way to make it work though.  I’ve been experimenting with “flight”, getting my ideas to travel beyond me and into the light, if you catch my drift.  Imagine it… me, a metaphysical bird flying through the mind of the artists, speaking to the people of the world through all mediums, spreading joy and beauty.  They will call me Daedelus [he pronounced it daddylus].

Aguirre paused then, reflecting upon what he had just said and mumbled for a moment, “hmm, that should have a t in it… right at the end…”, before looking up at the camera once more. “Anyhow, time will tell about the results, but for now, I’m here… So, yea… I call it beautiful; I call this beauty.  It is what it is.” 

In the end, O’Donnell felt a bit sad about it all.  Aguirre looked as if he had become something lesser than the man that he had once known, his mind having been severely impacted by what O’Donnell had now begun to frame as “low light exposure”.  Thus, once the private session came to a close, he began feverishly writing a story about an artistic plant and he thought to himself that Aguirre’s contributions, they were like pigments. 

How Does It All End?

O’Donnell goes on those dates, the ones Vera challenged him to while at the afterparty. The third one’s the charm and they’re becoming this power couple. It’s actually going splendidly. The guy’s an ambitious politician and he’s charming. O’Donnell is still secretly drawn to Aguirre though and he feels torn. His productivity dwindles in the wake of each date with his new lover. Then, in the midst of a crisis, Aguirre shows up one day, having known for a while about what O’Donnell has been doing. O’Donnell doesn’t fess up to it though, even when Aguirre makes it obvious that he knows, and he has this little breakdown where he realizes it’s this opportunity to start over from scratch with Aguirre, as if the past never happened and to finally act on the love that he’s always felt, albeit an extremely tainted love. He pushes Aguirre away again though and he’s distraught. It ruins the new relationship too, because he refuses to communicate about what’s actually going on with him.

Eventually, a couple years later, O’Donnell has been continuing to draw upon Aguirre as this font of inspiration while Aguirre’s work becomes more and more about pain and sorrow, misery and suffering. Meanwhile, O’Donnell’s career has reached new heights, like the critics start comparing him to the greats of history within multiple disciplines. “There’s a sublimity to it that is felt, as if it were the work of the greeks”, one of them writes. Then Aguirre commits suicide, suddenly, but obviously not unexpectedly. It shocks O’Donnell though. He tries to get his hands on all of Aguirre’s private writings, but he is forced to watch them burn after he pleads with Aguirre’s family, mentioning how Kafka’s writings legally were supposed to have been destroyed too. “Imagine if the world had never been able to read The Trial!”, he shouts. “Yea, well, I had to live through the ***king Metamorphosis”, Aguirre’s mother bitterly remarks at him. Thus, concludes book three.

O’Donnell reels from the event. Thus, book four is a slow and painful death as his career falls apart and, years later, after so much struggle and keenly perceived degradation in the quality of his art, both to himself and to the world beyond him, that same art critic finally writes a piece titled Thomas O’Donnell: A Portrait of the Artist in Decline. He declares definitively that O’Donnell has lost touch, “as if god snuffed out a flame that previously existed within him”, and that he should stand as a lesson to all future artists, though the exact meaning of the warning remains ambiguous. The whole book ends decades later with O’Donnell meeting a young man and artist. It’s like a beautiful sunrise and a nail in a coffin. He’s not sure whether it’s love or just what he had with Aguirre in reverse and it all ends with that moment when he has to choose to trust and open himself to another or to run back into his destructive misery. We the readers though, we know it’s not love. We just never know what O’Donnell chooses.

My mission was to a write a perfect tragedy. Anyone is welcome to take books one and two and write a different future for these characters though. Make it character driven. The architecture is too confining, like a straightjacket. I’ve actually written a lot of different “paths” forward, including one in which Aguirre’s actually alive, but I only like the ending that I wrote the day I conceived it. I was reading The Birth of Tragedy, reflecting upon 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, and admiring the work of a particular painter the days that I had the initial vision. I was also trying to impress someone, some unknown stranger with exceptional taste in literature that I met along the riverside, not the guy who whipped out his cock. A Portrait of the Artist in Decline was just a tangent, an unwise moment in my life, but it was the first of my practice pieces that I felt might become publishable. Thank You for reading.