Listen to the first chapter of Xochitl Gonzalez’s forthcoming novel, Anita de Monte Laughs Last.
If it weren’t for what happened later, everyone would have forgotten that night entirely. It wasn’t like the ’70s, you know? Nights when you never knew what could happen, what to expect. No, by 1985, the parties in New York were all the same. One night, one party, bleeding into the next. Nothing specific or momentous enough to press itself into your memory. The guests, the conversations, the taste of the fucking wine on your lips, all more or less the same. Especially Tilly’s parties. Formulaic, interchangeable. Some felt that’s what made them work, but me? It depressed me—that impossible distinction of the passage of time.
The drinks were always set in her claustrophobic galley kitchen. To force intimacy. The food (what little there was—WASPs hate feeding people) was set atop the piano in the center of her massive loft. The poor, young artists hovering while it lasted. The music just loud enough to soften silences, but too muted to inspire true revelry. Over the years, Philip Glass was replaced with Sun Ra. The “hot new” artists aged into establishment figures or disappeared altogether, replaced by other, younger faces. All the big museum people were always invited, naturally. Tilly enjoyed the thirst shared between those two groups in particular: the haves dangling their opportunities tantalizingly before the have-nots. It created a great “friction in the room,” she’d remarked once.
After years when I was the only brown speck in attendance, lately there’d been a noted effort to populate the guest list with more “Third World artists.” This sudden concern for diversity coincided with the Met hiring its first Black senior curator. I’m not being cynical, just honest; it would have been embarrassing to invite her to a party and have her see only white people there. But outside that, in all the years of these fetes, very little had changed.
Except, I suppose, for me.
If you were in New York and in the art world, you did not refuse an invitation from Tilly Barber. And, for whatever reason, that night was particularly crowded. Bodies and conversation packed close enough to create a hum. I remember feeling a restless excitement when I arrived. The kind you feel when you’re giddy from holding a secret, one with wings that flap furiously against your palms. Knowing that, any moment now, that secret could fly up! Out into the world. Its motion changing fortunes and futures, oceans or even lifetimes away. And I, the only one containing it. Such a power! Giancarlo was telling me a story. I was listening, but not. He always came back from Rome with the longest stories. I was distracted, knowing that at any moment, he’d arrive! Jack Martin. My husband.
And then, as if I’d willed it by simply glaring at the doorway, he did.
Jack likes to enter rooms slowly. To stand and hover before he makes his way, glacially, into a space. Some people think this is because of his size; he’s become quite mammoth these past years. His physical form expanded, I think, intentionally to match his scale of import in the art world. The more generous attributed Jack’s heavy-footedness to the rumored injuries sustained from years of lifting rods of iron and setting down plates of steel. “Each and every piece of art that’s ever borne my name,” he will tell you within breaths of meeting you, “was installed by me and me alone.” That explanation is, for me, the most ripe—picked with callus-free hands from the vine of Jack’s decades-old propaganda tree about working-class roots.
But here is the truth, the kind of truth only a wife can really know: Jack plants himself like a lightning rod, drawing the kinetic energy of everything and everybody his way. Still and quiet so that, for a moment at least, the attention of the revelers is pulled from whatever conversation they were having or joint they were smoking or person they were trying to fuck, and drawn instead toward him. The party, if not the world, spinning around Jack Martin.
So it was that night. From the corner of my eye, I watched him enter the loft and linger. Waiting. Around me, conversations, bright and raucous just seconds before, suddenly became muted as people noticed his presence, and they all mentally calculated if and how and when they could talk to him. Even Giancarlo’s voice trailed off. I stole a cigarette from him and pretended not to notice as Jack, finally feeling acknowledged, crossed the room toward the kitchen. I didn’t need to look up to know that’s where Tilly was.
Normally, this would have annoyed me: that he always sought her out before he ever even looked for me. That she was, in my opinion, the only one he genuinely respected, far more than for being one of the best art dealers in the world. Far more, even, than for making his career. Really, I think, just for being her: steely. New England elegant. Any other day, this would have driven me up a wall. Drawn out my sharp cat claws. But on this night, I had the flapping wings of secrets, restless in my hands. I was excited—delighted, even—that he’d finally arrived. I was wearing my favorite dress, the one I’d bought in Iowa from a secondhand store. It was from the ’60s, with big, silver paillettes, each as large and round as the eye of a cow. Clustered so tight and voluminously, they tinkled softly, like wind chimes, when they rustled together. I had put on the only heels I wore anymore. Artists, when they are working, should have little need for heels. I was wearing the red lipstick from Guerlain I had gotten in Paris. Tonight was an occasion: the close of a special day and also the opening of … I did not know in that moment what. But it was going to be something new.
I was ready to start the adventure.
“Giancarlo,” I said, as I grabbed his hand, “my husband is here. Let’s go and tell him our good news!”
We wound our way through women in black dresses and seductions in progress and scrawny boys with paint-stained pants arguing about nothing, until we finally reached the kitchen. I paused in the doorway for a second and watched them. Together. Tilly mid-thought, cigarette in hand, lips parted to say something thoughtful. Tactful. Jack, midway through opening a fresh bottle of champagne, the festive gesture in chiaroscuro to his dour expression. Both so wrapped up in what they were talking about, in one another, that neither of them noticed me.
“Perfect timing!” I finally said. Giancarlo, behind me, pushed his way into the tiny cookery. “We need a refill! To toast my wonderful news.”
Jack looked me up and down, a closed smile curling up tight against his teeth. He hated this dress. He thought it looked cheap. Like New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Hated the racket it made. The way the paillettes shed like snake scales if I moved too quickly. Hated that I moved too quickly.
“Tilly was just telling me,” Jack said as he refilled our glasses, the grin still taut on his face. “A dozen prints sold to the Met. Not bad for my little orphan Anita.”
“Anita!” Giancarlo exclaimed. “All night talking, and you didn’t even tell me! Well, that will definitely build buzz around your show.”
I raised my glass and ignored the shock that had seized Jack’s countenance. Didn’t even look at Tilly, lest she ruin my mood.
“Giancarlo is going to show me in Rome,” I announced. “Solo.”
“Congratulations, Anita!” Tilly said, genuinely impressed. The fact of which almost annoyed me more than if she’d treated it like garden-variety information.
“What’s the expression, Tilly?” Giancarlo offered. “A no-brainer! Have you seen her new sculptures?”
“Nobody has,” Jack said, his voice strained, his smile finally faded.
“I haven’t,” Tilly said, disregarding Jack. She avoided my gaze. Her manners masked her cowardice.
“Tilly hasn’t asked to see my work since 1979,” I said to Giancarlo, “and even then, it was only as a favor to Jack. Isn’t that right, darling?”
Jack pulled me tight to him, the sequins and my lungs crunching together as he did. He raised his glass.
“Well, cheers! Quite the lucky day for our shooting star,” Jack said, saccharine dripping from his voice.
Human will is a particularly powerful magic. Alchemy happens when a person truly decides something, when a mind is changed. We’d shared exchanges like this hundreds of times before, my husband and I. Tiny acts of violence enacted with words. Exchanges that had cut and left me bleeding, with my best stuff—confidence, clarity—pooling down, away from me, onto the floor. But not that night. No. Because that day, I had decided to reclaim my might, to cease to be shrunk. And in my decision, I’d grown a new version of myself. My new skin thick like coconut shells, impervious to his attempts to crack my joy. My triumph at my accomplishments, my exultation in my own art, my euphoria at this new power I’d discovered in simply deciding to change my mind. All of it now in safekeeping, deep inside my new self.
Later, when I saw him across the room, practically entangled con esa cabrona gigante—Inga or Ingrid or whatever her name was—it wasn’t that I didn’t feel rage. No, it was that in my decision to strip him of his power, I was able to transmute that anger into joy. The specific type of joy one can only feel by really fucking with someone’s head. Poking at exactly the right tender spots. The spots only a lover, and surely a wife, can really find. So yes, I saw them—that other woman, with her long, blond hair hanging down like a sheet, leaning against the glass window; him, with his arms braced on either side of her, their faces practically touching—and my first feeling was anger. Resentment. Not just because we were in a room where everyone knew us—because I am someone too!—but because she wasn’t even a good artist! She made derivative, exhausted, color-field shit that he would have pissed all over had it been done by someone with a cock. Instead, he’d bought three of them and hung them in the fucking living room. At least if he was going to carry on this way, he could do it with someone with real fucking talent! But of course, talent scared Jack.
Then, like finding a $5 bill in an old coat pocket, I remembered my thick, coconut-shell skin and that I had changed my mind.
“Quimbara” trumpeted from the stereo, and I turned to my friend Jomar and suggested, loudly, that it seemed like a great time to dance.
“Someone turn the music up,” I commanded. The boy Giancarlo was trying to seduce eagerly obliged.
Tilly’s parties were not dancing affairs. They were more gatherings than celebrations. Openings without the art. While I knew that dancing was not something she’d like, it was something she’d tolerate. Americans love to see Latins dance. Dance, fuck, fight. Anything, really, that’s meant to be done with passion. And besides, the guests who remained by this point were the most drunk, the most high, the most bored. Thirsty for entertainment. Jomar was an amazing dancer, the kind who knows how to make his partner look better than she is. As we moved, I could feel the attention of the room now move toward me. Not as a lightning rod, but as a wind, a wave. Something in perpetual motion that touched everyone gathered. Around me, I could feel their thoughts and assessments and presumptions: Anita de Monte, art star on the rise. Anita de Monte, winner of the Rome Prize, winner of the Guggenheim. Anita de Monte, a once-in-a-generation artistic voice. Anita de Monte, immigrant opportunist. Anita de Monte, a one-trick pony. Anita de Monte, the wife of the legendary Jack Martin. Anita de Monte, lucky bitch. Anita de Monte, the most miserable bitch alive. No one realizing that I was all of these things at once, and more.
“It’s just that I miss dancing,” I said to Jomar, in my best stage whisper. “My husband doesn’t dance, you see. Not a salsa, not a waltz. He won’t even do the twist.”
I didn’t direct any of this at Jack, of course. I didn’t need to. I could feel his gaze on me, hot like fire. He hated a spectacle. Unless it was his. I saw him swat la sueca gigante’s hand away, sensed him heading toward me. To “save me” from embarrassing myself. My hero. I kept up my performance.
The crowd began to clap to the beat of the music. They cheered us on through lunges and copas and dips. And then Jomar began—slow, and then faster, faster—to spin me. Around once: I saw Tilly stop Jack. Around again: glimpsed the giant Swede storming out. I laughed loudly. I had just ruined his night, as he had ruined so many of mine. I felt radiant with delight, felt the flutter of my secrets, knowing soon they would be free! Jomar spun me around and around, again and again and again.
Later, when word got out that I had fallen (jumped? or, could it be, pushed?) out the window, this was what everyone would talk about. How they had just seen her! Anita de Monte. That very night! How she had been laughing. And how she had been dancing. And how, when she spun around and around, the silver sequins of her dress went flying. Up and into the air. Like the feathers of a molting bird.
This story has been excerpted from Xochitl Gonzalez’s forthcoming novel, Anita de Monte Laughs Last.
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