Maybe Nothing Had Happened

Like many people my age, like Molly, I’d been deeply in love with this man, and had spent hours hurling myself spastically around the house to his songs, and I’d continued to be a partisan of his music and, what, brand, until the music got so boring that it wasn’t worth the energy anymore. Whatever bad shit he was into, I probably would have stayed loyal if there’d been worthwhile product. The sadness I felt watching the movie had something to do with a person’s art betraying them, of watching a man who has grown bored with the possibilities of his craft attempting to find, somewhere in his past, something worth preserving, and finding nothing.

What did feet feel toward hands, their pretentious, elegant cousins?

A still from Kiss (1963), by Andy Warhol.

The following is an excerpt from Andrew Martin’s Early Work, out Tuesday, July 10, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

That night, Julia and I were expected at Molly Chang’s for a “film screening, literary salon, and strategic dislocation,” the apparent manifestation of her book club idea. We’d been asked to bring “anything that might help facilitate open minds,” so I assembled a mismatched six-pack and we set off across town. (We were also supposed to have read Edie: An American Biographybut we didn’t, and it was never mentioned.)

Molly shared a house on High Street with three cats and a roommate, all of whom were in the living room when we arrived. After greeting us unenthusiastically, Molly wandered off to the kitchen, leaving us with the crew. Wedged next to a large bald man on the couch was: Leslie. She smiled like a guilty child when she saw us, in a way that seemed to make it painfully obvious that she had things to feel guilty about. But Julia embraced her first, without a hint of hesitation or remonstrance, and I did the same. It seemed, momentarily, as if nothing had happened between us, and the familiarity of the scene persuaded me that maybe nothing had happened. Adults were allowed to have fleeting fits of delusion, periods in which they briefly imagined their lives different, even took a jittery step toward ruin before retreating, no? If the mistake falls below the threshold of confession, is it really a mistake? Maybe it could be more accurately categorized as a learning experience.

“You guys ready for some disembodied enlightenment?” Leslie said.

“OK, do you have any idea what we’re actually watching or doing?” Julia said.

“I’m pretty sure Molly’s planning to show that Michael Jackson movie that was thrown together after he died,” Leslie said.

“Which I remember hearing was actually kind of good. But still. If that’s the case I’m going to need to medicate quite a bit first.”

“Has Michael’s death taught you nothing?” I said.

“Oh, man, you got any propofol? That’s what would really take this party to another level.”

The roommate and the cats already seemed pretty medicated; they rolled their eyes in our direction and shifted their necks slightly to acknowledge us, but nothing more. Molly burst back into the room with a small plateful of muffins.

“Here, newcomers, eat these,” she said. “You want them to kick in before the feature. They’re really strong. Go nuts. But there’s no nuts, in case you were worried. There is gluten, though, because fuck you if you don’t eat gluten. Sorry, that reference is, like, already dated.”

This perhaps explained the state of the room. The baked goods were gigantic and tasted strongly and unpleasantly of weed, and I didn’t really trust Molly not to poison us, so I ate only half of mine. Leslie bit into one, chewed thoughtfully, and swallowed.

“Oh right, I already had one of these,” she said. “Oh well.”

Julia nibbled the corner of mine and put it back on the plate.

“I really don’t like being stoned,” she said. “But I don’t want to be alone.”

We opened our beers and passed the others around. Julia and I settled in on the floor in front of the couch, me just to the right of Leslie’s feet, Julia next to me leaning against the sofa’s arm. The lights cut out abruptly and Molly took the free seat on the couch beside Leslie, behind the stool with the projector balanced on it. Shortly, the desktop of Molly’s laptop—a photograph of a beatifically light-bathed topless woman in pink underwear examining a Polaroid—appeared projected on the wall in front of us, followed by an out-of-focus, ’90s-era menu screen for Andy Warhol: Four Silent Movies.

“OK, so this is pretty bootleg, because the fucking United States won’t properly issue these for some insane reason,” Molly said. “But I thought a little bit of AW might be a good way to get us outside of our individualized comfort zones.”

She clicked on Blow Job and we watched a grainy, overlit shot of a man done up to look like James Dean, his eyes closed in self-conscious ecstasy. He opened his eyes and looked down occasionally, presumably at whoever was engaged with his dick, then sometimes directly into the camera or maybe into the eyes of the cameraman. It was interesting and boring in equal measure, which was almost certainly the point. After he climaxed—no big thing—he lit a cigarette and leaned back, smoking contentedly. That was the best part, the relaxed little joke. The room was dead silent except for the faint buzzing from the speakers. It wasn’t sex at all, really.

When it ended after about ten minutes, somebody—the silent dude, I guess—gave a couple of slow claps.

“OK, now we’re going to watch just a little bit of Kiss,” Molly said. “It’s like an hour long, but we’ll just watch the first bunch.”

So that came on, long black-and-white shots of people kissing for a few minutes at a time, really going at it, but dispassionately, almost clinically. You couldn’t help but start thinking about how strange kissing was, how odd it is to spend so much time with your mouth attached to someone else’s. But the alternative was true, too—why shouldn’t two mouths find each other, being of the same basic shape and texture? What better way for a mouth to understand itself than to explore a different one? I wish I could attribute these observations to the drugs taking hold, but it was unlikely, at least in my case, that that had happened yet. I turned to the sofa, to Leslie, Molly, and the other guy, all presumably at least a little bit ahead of me. The guy was frowning; he seemed to be trying very hard to figure out what was going on, as if there were some kind of twist to be sussed out. Molly looked anxious as always, brushing her hair out of her eyes, checking her phone every few seconds to see how much time had passed. Leslie looked adorably stoned, her eyes wide and attentive, her mouth slightly open in awestruck happiness. She noticed me watching her and ruffled my hair, then placed her big hands delicately back in her lap. I leaned over to Julia.

“Does this make you want to kiss me more, or less?”

“Pretty much never again,” she said. “I hope that’s OK.”

“Maybe just little kisses?” I said.

“Only if you wear some kind of mask,” she said. “To disguise your human flesh.”

By the time Molly stopped the film, on a still frame of a man with glasses deeply engrossed with an enthusiastic long-haired person of indeterminate gender, I was in deep enough to join the group in a disappointed “Awwww.”

“Hey, be good or I’ll make you watch Empire,” Molly said. “You’ll be here all night.”

She put in the next DVD and stood before us in the bright light of the projector.

“OK, now what you are about to see is a film about the last months in the life of our greatest performer so far, the incomparable genius Michael Jackson. I bet none of you know this, but this summer marks the sixth anniversary of Michael’s death, and that is the real reason I have invited you here to bear witness to his legacy and, through our collective energy, bring him back to our world for a little while longer. Michael was very important to me when I was a little girl. It seemed like I could be him, because we both had long black hair and loved dancing and animals. I even pretended to myself that he was Chinese, and I was so excited watching the ‘Black or White’ video when one of the people he morphs into is an Asian woman. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it would be like if Michael morphed into me, or if I could morph into him, and feel what it would be like to be singing for all of these people, and to have women fainting and collapsing and wanting so badly to touch me, like I could heal them. I dreamed about Michael all the time, and I know that no one’s going to believe me, but the night before he died I think I dreamed that we were sleeping in my bed together and that he told me he wasn’t going to be able to perform his last concerts. And I asked him why, and he just smiled and said, with a little quaver in his beautiful voice, ‘There’s somewhere I have to go, Molly. Don’t be sad.’ And when I woke up, I knew I was going to find out he’d died, and I tried not to cry because of what he’d told me. But then everybody in LA was driving around playing ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’ and ‘Man in the Mirror,’ and I couldn’t help it, it was just so sad. I think it was OK because I was crying just as much from the joy of everyone being united in their love for Michael, and I knew that would have made him happy because he believed most of all in love. And so I haven’t cried about it again since, and I think that’s important for me. OK, let’s just watch the movie now.”

Somewhere in the middle of this speech, I’d started to feel the vibrating high that I’d been anticipating. The light reflecting off of Molly’s face had taken on an astronomical quality, and I imagined her standing under a dome of stars, delivering her eulogy to Michael Jackson on a mountaintop in the open air. Julia put her head in my lap, the weight of her skull pressing into my crotch in a not initially unpleasant way.

“All the crazy make me sleepy,” she said quietly as Molly turned the lights off.

I leaned back and bumped against Leslie’s leg. She shifted, I shifted, and I was against the couch, though her leg remained, ever so lightly, pressed against my gut. Her legs and feet were bare. I didn’t think of myself as particularly susceptible to the charms of feet, and these ones were not, in the Platonic sense, anywhere near perfection. The one I had visual access to was long and unwieldy, but with stubby toes that seemed to have been jammed onto the end as an afterthought. A jagged scar ran across her instep. Her foot was also marked up from some kind of shoe, though I couldn’t discern, from the bands and divots, what kind it might have been, or what she could have been doing in it to make that kind of pattern. Maybe this was when I really knew things were going to get difficult: I loved that foot. I wanted to know about it, ask it questions, understand it. I knew it had a story. And since it belonged to Leslie, it would be a good one. I moved my hand so that my pinky bordered her big toe. I felt, I thought, a shiver of recognition. What did feet feel toward hands, their pretentious, elegant cousins? Envy, longing, and distrust.

The Michael Jackson movie was stranger than I’d imagined it could be. I knew it had been “cobbled together,” but I hadn’t expected a series of long rehearsal takes, shot in ugly low contrast digital video, with MJ at center stage, lost in his head, trying out an endless series of half-finished dance moves. It was claustrophobic, like being trapped in someone else’s nightmare of isolation and stage fright. During a “Billie Jean” rehearsal, in which Michael imitates a robot skeleton while a wedding band vamps listlessly behind him, I started noticing the way he held his sunglasses to his face when he went into a spin, and then I couldn’t stop noticing it. It was a child’s self-protective gesture, a way of making life slightly more difficult than necessary in order to maintain petty autonomy. I felt tears in my eyes as the song went on and on, whatever meaning it had ever had lost completely in the band’s cheerless, perfunctory performance and the widening gulf between their professionalism and Michael’s ravaged stabs at dancing, limping along as if under threat, as if in fear that he would be punished if he stopped moving. The man was so thin that it was hard to believe there was even a person under the clothes. The usual comparisons—scarecrow, puppet—didn’t begin to do him justice. There was nothing there.

Like many people my age, like Molly, I’d been deeply in love with this man, and had spent hours hurling myself spastically around the house to his songs, and I’d continued to be a partisan of his music and, what, brand, until the music got so boring that it wasn’t worth the energy anymore. Whatever bad shit he was into, I probably would have stayed loyal if there’d been worthwhile product. The sadness I felt watching the movie had something to do with a person’s art betraying them, of watching a man who has grown bored with the possibilities of his craft attempting to find, somewhere in his past, something worth preserving, and finding nothing. Of course, once he died, the rest of us found what he was looking for almost immediately, those perfect content-free jams that everyone knew but hadn’t listened to with real attention for so long, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “P.Y.T.,” “Working Day and Night”—the songs relatively untainted by recent hyperexposure and thus absorbed into the cultural subconscious as influences rather than monoliths. I thought about how beautiful he’d been, in his sparkling suit and microphone, backlit by spinning green disco lights, and I wished we could be watching that.

Instead, the movie went on—a bizarre montage of dance rehearsals for “Smooth Criminal” intercut with old gangster movie footage, a harrowingly bad duet of a post-’90s song with a shrieking gospel singer—and I felt my buzzing body recede from any attempt to analyze or assimilate the images on the screen. It became light, just light. What was very important was the weight of Julia’s head in my lap, the slight pressure of Leslie’s leg, and my increasingly strong conviction that Leslie was transforming my life into something it had not resembled two weeks earlier. The fact that we’d still only spent a handful of hours in each other’s company seemed, in that moment, further evidence that something unique and dangerous was at work, rather than leading me to the more rational conclusion that my feelings were ephemeral, and would pass if left unheeded. I thought about how much happier I’d be if, sitting at Leslie’s feet like I was, I had a collar around my neck attached to a leash in her hand, so that I couldn’t get up and walk away. Best would be one of those pit bull collars, so I’d have to choose between listening to her and strangling myself to death. Or, better yet, a shock collar, so that I wouldn’t be able to speak, either. Julia could be part of it, too, an adjunct, two for one. Leslie could rule over our household like a benevolent dictator, or not so benevolent, whatever. She could choose whichever of us she wanted for the day’s tasks, and, at night, exile whomever she chose to the couch or the floor, or, why not, the disused dog crate in the office. It would be up to her. Thus we would carry on as a household on a precipice, always on the verge of catastrophic power shifts and jealous vendettas, but kept in place through one woman’s will.

I looked back at Leslie again and remembered that she was a real person, at this moment a real person with a slack jaw and a line of drool dripping out of the side of her mouth. What had Molly done to us? And how long was this fucking movie? Julia, I could tell from the rise and fall of her breath, was deeply asleep. So was the big guy on the couch and, it seemed, all of the cats. Molly caught me looking around.

“Movie,” she said abruptly. “I mean . . . what? I’m talking now. Are you tired of the movie?”

Leslie turned her head very slowly.

“No, no,” she said faintly.

“I was just scoping,” I said. “I’m a scoper.”

“He’s a good scoper,” Leslie said. She mussed my hair more distractedly this time, languidly. Caressed, really. It felt so good.

“Do you believe . . .” Leslie said, then stopped. “Sorry, can we talk? Do you believe, if MJ has any postmortem ability to monitor the living, that he’s happy with this DVD?”

“Michael wanted to share his gift with the world,” Molly said with self-assurance. “And monetize it. As long as he’s sharing, and the designated beneficiaries are being compensated appropriately, I think his spirit is satisfied.”

Leslie nodded solemnly.

“I hope, when I’m dead?” Leslie said. “That everybody just cools their shit. I’m not saying that dumb thing where, like, I just want everybody to have a big party and be happy or anything. But just, you know, congregate, reflect, move on. If there’s any money, give it to my brother. Publish anything you can find from my computer if anybody wants it. Go on daytime TV if I died tragic. I don’t care, I’ll be dead. It’s not like it can ruin my reputation any worse than what I’ll have already done to it.”

“I would like my posthumous legacy to be carefully curated,” Molly said. “The past is remembered through deliberate shaping. We forget this at our peril.”

She was speaking in a formal monotone that was far removed from her usual revved-up style. In the glow of the projector, it gave her entire person a spooky quality.

“Neither of you is going to die,” I said. “I’ll make sure.”

“Do not make promises that you will be unable to keep,” Molly said. Now I was pretty sure that she was purposely talking more and more like a robot, to amuse herself or weird us out, or both.

“He’s being sweet,” Leslie said. “He wants us to live forever.”

“That is a really long time,” Molly said.

“Not for a robot,” I said.

“Ex-cuse me, are you calling me a robot?” Molly said in the robot voice. “I take offense to be-ing characterized as such when I am a liv-ing and breath-ing hu-man.”

“Should we turn this off?” I said, tilting my chin toward the screen. Michael was dancing in a teal T-shirt, tight pink pants, and an oversized trench coat; he looked like a shut-in wandering down to the bodega for nonperishables. “Fine,” Molly said, reverting to herself. She rapidly hit a series of buttons on the projector and the room faded to pitch dark, though my eyes perceived ghosted light against the wall for a few more seconds.

“I’m assuming everyone’s really stoned,” Molly said after what felt like five minutes of empty silence. “My basic goal was to, like, incapacitate a roomful of people.”

We were silent for another long moment, contemplating this in the dark.

“I think . . . you succeeded,” I said. “Where’s, ah, Bojo? Think tight? Brain glow?”

“Oh, Jill,” Molly said. She exhaled heavily. “I dunno, man. I thought it might be kind of transgressive or something to date this super-bourgeois dude, but now I wonder if it might just kind of suck. He’s smart and all, but I think he just thinks I’m, like, this weird chick.”

“In my experience?” Leslie said. “Those normal-seeming guys can turn out to be super fucked up. Sometimes in a good way? Like, they’ve repressed all this stuff, and then they meet a groovy lady and suddenly they want to try sucking cock and stuff.”

“Huh,” Molly said. “I guess that would be interesting. If I had a cock.”

“I just mean you never know what those normal people are like. They’re mysteries. I was with this one guy for a couple of months in Missoula, and I swear, watching Game of Thrones, like, flipped a switch in him. All types of sex coming out of this dude.”

“But everybody just watches porn now,” I said. “I mean, so I’ve heard.”

“I think that’s just mostly reinforcing very specific mainstream desires in most cases,” Leslie said. “Like, ‘You want to get fucked hard, slut?’ That kind of thing.”

“You might be surprised,” I said.

“I’m sure you’re into weird-ass shit. But I’m talking about the wider public.”

“Hey, I’m getting wider every day.”

“You’re going to make a really great dad,” Molly said in her robot voice.

“Is the movie over?” Julia said sleepily. She sat up, her hair sticking up like a porcupine.

“The doctor did it,” Leslie said. “That’s the punch line.”

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