When Tomas arrived at the apartment, there was a naked hooker sitting on the kitchen table, one leg above her head. The music was so loud, he’d heard it from the street– techno, or pop electric, and now that he was inside the apartment, the floor shook. Vélo stood a few feet from the table, spraying paint everywhere. He painted with his hands these days, instead of a brush, flinging paint onto the counters, the cupboard, the floor, the fridge. Judging from the painting, Tomas assumed they’d been at it for a while.
“Flexible,” Tomas said to the girl, impressed.
She flashed him a smile.
“How long has she been sitting like that?”
But it was no use speaking to Vélo when he was in this state. His brain was somewhere else, and his body in a sort of trance that bordered insanity. He said painting was a religious experience where he found God. Or felt God. Or God controlled him. Something like that.
“Cool, cool,” Tomas said now, for no reason except a naked woman on the kitchen table.
Tomas knew he was getting old because his first thought was not about sex, but about how unsanitary it was: her bare ass on the table like that. They’d have to wipe it down before cutting their bread. Then he thought of sex.
He was hungry and wanted something from the fridge, but it was partially blocked by the easel, so he surrendered, and went into the bedroom that he and Vélo shared– big mistake, sharing a bedroom with an artist. Big mistake sharing an apartment! But what other choice did he have? Susan had left him.
That was three years ago.
Why was he blaming Susan?
The night before, Tomas had gone to a concert. Now, he retrieved the orange earplugs from the metal trash bin in the corner of the bedroom, brushed off the dirt and stuffed them into his ear canal. He hated the feeling of the foam expanding. He could still hear the music. Then he remembered that Vélo had safety earmuffs from a construction job. Tomas found them in the closet, in a box. He put them on, but still could hear the thumping.
This had been a terrible idea, to move in with Vélo. What had he been thinking? He threw Vélo’s earmuffs onto the top bunk where a woman’s dress lay crumpled, and the sheet was twisted and pushed against the wall.
“I’m going out,” Tomas yelled, as he made his way back through the kitchen.
He was out of cigarettes so he patted down Vélo’s jacket, which hung by the door, and found a pack in the breast pocket. New pack. He took a cigarette, then shrugged and took two: for my trouble, he thought. He tucked the cigarettes back into the pocket and went down the stairs.
The madwoman who lived downstairs, was smoking on her porch. Her hair was slick and wet against her shower cap, pink towel over her shoulders– she was in the process of dying her hair. Her hands shook as she took a drag of the cigarette. The shaking was normal.
“Hey,” she shouted. “The music’s been on all afternoon! The baby can’t sleep.”
Baby? Tomas knew there was no baby, but she was crazy, so who knows what she meant. Maybe she meant her boyfriend, or herself, or one of her personalities.
“Sorry,” Tomas said, and he was genuinely sorry, but he wasn’t about to tell Vélo to turn it down.
Was he afraid of Vélo? Scrawny Vélo with his face like a skull, dark under his eyes all the time.
“Turn it off. Turn it off,” the madwoman said, but Tomas was far enough down the sidewalk to ignore her.
What was her name? Patty? She used the Laundromat where Tomas occasionally worked. She was furious if someone used two or three washing machines at once, despite the signs saying “First Come First Serve. No Wash Limit.” The owner, Marco, had underlined the “No Wash Limit,” because of her.
The madwoman did multiple loads of laundry, one load after the other, using the same machine, for hours. There was no reason to do this: often there were other machines available, and they’d sit there empty, with their lids up. Tomas begged her to use the machines: he did not want to deal with her all day, but she’d loudly proclaim that she was the better person. She knew how to share. She left machines open for the rest of the community, because she was considerate. She thought about others.
“It takes me all day to do it this way,” she’d proclaim to the other customers. “But it’s the right thing to do! Who comes into a Laundromat and does three loads all at once? It’s selfish!”
Perhaps the person she was speaking to was, in fact, doing three loads at once.
“There were three machines available when they got here,” Tomas would shout from behind the counter. “It’s allowed.”
She made sure her sacrifice was well known again, while the other customer sheepishly moved her multiple loads into multiple dryers.
Tomas had once been so frustrated by the madwoman’s boasting that he’d kicked her out.
“You’re harassing the customers,” he’d said. “You’re making people uncomfortable. You’re saying their doing something wrong when they’re not: they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Afterwards, watching her walk away, heaving her wet laundry in a garbage bag, crying and muttering to herself, Tomas was struck by guilt. Maybe he’d been too harsh. He was paralyzed for days afterwards, coming and going into the apartment, preparing for a confrontation if she saw him. But when she saw him next, she did not recognize him, because of the madness. She did not register that her neighbor was also the clerk at the Laundromat, as if those two places were separate universes.
No: she looked at him in the face, and did not know who he was.
Tomas took the train downtown, where he dropped by the agency. He was hungry and sometimes there was food hanging about, leftovers from the fifth floor where there were corporate meetings, or black-tie events, or photo shoots. The receptionist, Bianca, had once given him an entire cheese plate and he and Vélo had eaten nothing else for two days. But as he approached the building there was a “For Lease” sign in the window and his heart fluttered. Surely they did not mean the agency.
Bianca wasn’t there. Instead, at her desk, there was an older woman: blond, with square glasses, yelling into the phone. Tomas stood there dumbly. He’d never seen the office this empty.
“Can I help you?” the blond said.
“She was let go.”
The phone rang again. She barked into the receiver.
“You one of the models?” she asked.
She looked him over with a look that said: Of course, how silly of me.
All right, so Tomas had put on some weight, so what? These days he just did voice work anyway, cartoons and video games. He hadn’t done a film in six years. Hadn’t been to the gym either.
“Is the Big Man here?” Tomas asked. “Or has he been fired too?”
The woman motioned down the hall. The phone rang again.
He was called the Big Man not for his reputation, but for his size: he’d wanted to be an actor, but was told he was too tall at 6 foot 6, and certainly too fat. Unfortunately he was not a jolly, Santa Claus fat, but a flabby, wide-hipped fat. Too ugly for the camera.
The Big Man was standing beside his desk as he sometimes did during negotiations, phone cradled in his shoulder. He shot Tomas an apologetic look and motioned for him to come in, sit down. There was nothing in his office: his plants had been cleared from their place on the windowsill, bookshelves empty, pictures removed from the wall. The pictures had been there so long that the wallpaper was sun streaked: there were shadows where they’d hung.
“Well that’s it,” he said to Tomas.
He opened the drawers of his desk, looking for something. Then went to the filing cabinet, rolled out two drawers, and found the bottle of scotch. The Big Man filled a coffee mug for himself, and a Styrofoam cup for Tomas. Tomas looked at it suspiciously, looked like it had a film of orange juice on the bottom. He shrugged and drank it.
“I was going to call you, all of you. It’s just they let Bianca go so we’re all on our own.”
The scotch burned and there was a ringing in his ears.
“What happened?” Tomas said.
“Bankruptcy, I guess.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know the details. Something about money fraud. Three people arrested.”
They were one of the top agencies in the country.
“The other locations too?” Tomas asked.
“The whole thing. Boom. Up in smoke.”
The Big Man was red in the face and sweating more than usual. He dabbed his forehead and cheeks with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Do you have anything in mind?” Tomas said. “Join another agency? You’ve got the connections: you could probably go out on your own.”
“I just found out a few days ago,” he said.
“You’ll be fine,” Tomas said doubtfully.
Surely there were other agencies who’d take the Big Man and his clients. Or some of his clients, anyway. Reduction was probably normal, and Tomas was on the chopping block. He knew it too, and the knowledge sat there, churning in the pit of his stomach. How had this happened? He’d won an award. He was an award-winning actor!
He never should’ve taken the submarine vampire TV show but he’d needed the money. The premise was stupid: and he’d hated it from the start. His desperation showed in his work: he was overzealous in the role. Ratings were low. The show was cancelled.
“I’d still like you to represent me,” Tomas said carefully. “But let me know if I should look for another agent.”
“Sure buddy. I promise. Give me a few days to figure this out.”
Buddy, he thought, as he crossed the boulevard, and waited for the streetcar. The Big Man had called him Kid through his thirties. He had a baby face. But then, overnight it seemed, the grey hairs became too many to pluck, his chin softened, Susan left him, his designer jeans didn’t fit. In that order, too. He blew through all his money. The Big Man started calling him Buddy. He was forty-four and tired. He’d worked like a dog, and had very little to show for it. He had this panic in his chest: the rising suspicion that he was unimportant.
As the streetcar approached, he put on his sunglasses because it was bright, but also because he didn’t want to be recognized. This was a secret desire of his: to be recognized in public. He imagined a crowd pushing notepads at him, asking for an autograph. This had never happened. Once or twice he’d been recognized: Hey, aren’t you that guy from…?
“Yeah, that was me,” he’d said.
“Great work,” or “I liked you in that role.”
But no one had ever asked for an autograph: though, he’d taken a few selfies. But it had been years since the last one: a girl, with an orange tube top and neon pink nails. He suspected she was more happy to have the picture, rather than have a conversation with him. After snapping the photo she’d disappeared, hadn’t even said “thanks.”
When Tomas boarded the streetcar, he paid the fare and folded the sunglasses into his shirt pocket. But when he moved through the car, no one looked up from their phones.
Tomas went to meet Vélo at the art gallery for Chad’s opening. Chad was a friend of Vélo’s, from childhood. But when he arrived, the gallery was so packed people spilled out onto the sidewalk and into the courtyard where a makeshift café had been set up. Tomas made his way through the crowd and could not see Vélo. And who was this Chad? Was he famous or something?
Tomas hovered over the food: he’d forgotten how hungry he was. He made a fool of himself eating so much: a few sandwiches, flaky pastries filled with feta and spinach, a mountain of cheese. There were dollops of chocolates for dessert: chocolate with sea salt, chocolate with caramel, white chocolate orange. Somebody has deep pockets, he thought.
He was aware that he’d become the flabby man at the food table. He took a cup of coffee with his chocolate. He would sweep by later, for a second round. He grabbed a glass of wine, and made his way upstairs to look at the art.
The work was small and spread out, sometimes so that there was only one piece on the wall, and the painting was dwarfed by the white space around it. The paintings were so small only one person could look at a time. After waiting patiently to view the painting, Tomas felt a stab of disappointment, almost like betrayal. They were painted on slabs of wood instead of canvas, and this made the paint watery somehow, less like oil and more like watercolor. There was a Grecian theme: paintings of those copper vases with Hercules and the lion depicted. Or two shirtless warriors battling with spears and round shields. He wasn’t sure what all these people were doing here, until he saw a familiar image: a roman helmet, with a red broom top. He’d seen this painting before: people sharing it on Facebook for weeks, calling the artist a genius. Tomas stared at it, this underwhelming square on the wall.
Vélo is a way better artist. He couldn’t help it, but he’d seen the paintings. In exchange for a month’s rent, he’d helped Vélo move his paintings from a derelict rooming house, into Vélo’s brother’s garage. They were massive, sprawling, and evoked a physical response. He could’ve stared at them for hours. And yet Vélo had never had a public showing. But what did Tomas know? He didn’t know anything about art. Maybe he didn’t understand art.
Great, he thought.
What had Vélo said? I’m just a vessel for God. He was probably insane, but Tomas understood this now, as he stood in this gallery and looked at these drab little pathetic attempts. He understood completely. There was no God in here, in this room. There was money and marketing in this room. God was in a cold, damp garage where no one paid attention to him.
Tomas reached the top floor, no longer looking at the art, but trying to find Vélo. A man in an olive blazer stood under a skylight and received compliments.
“Brilliant work. Really marvelous.”
The sentiment was so practiced, insincere, that Tomas rolled his eyes. He wandered back downstairs where he returned to the food table. A pretty waitress took a platter away, replacing it with another. She glared at Tomas but he smiled at her, and lifted his third glass of wine, as if to say, marvelous party.
She smirked and an unspoken thing passed between them.
Actor’s charm, he thought.
Later, he convinced her to give him a generous portion of leftovers, and a bottle of wine off the table, re-corked.
Vélo wasn’t at the apartment, and didn’t come back that night. For an entire week he was absent and Tomas got used to having the apartment to himself, where he slept in, and cooked chili, and beat off multiple times a day like a teenager. He did not hear from the Big Man, but he didn’t call him either. He phoned Marco, at the Laundromat, instead.
“I need more hours. Anything you got.”
He did nightshifts and slept during the day. Vélo returned at the end of the week.
“You got a girlfriend or something?”
“I’ve been working,” his eyes had a glazed look, as though he wasn’t present.
He climbed into his bunk and fell asleep. Tomas worked a twelve-hour shift at the Laundromat where he flipped through The Enquirer, and Star, and drank too much coffee. The madwoman came in and did three loads of laundry over the course of six hours, using one machine. As usual, the other machines sat empty. Her lipstick was smeared across her cheek and she glared at Tomas the whole time.
When he returned to the apartment, Vélo was in the exact same position.
“Are you dead? Come on, get up. Here.”
He handed Vélo water.
“Have something to eat.”
Vélo ate in the spot where the woman had sat naked. Tomas stayed at the other end of the table, his plate resting on a newspaper.
“I went to your stupid friend’s opening.”
“Chad. The art gallery.”
Vélo nodded, and kept nodding, like a bobblehead.
“His work was shitty,” Tomas said.
He looked at Vélo to gauge the reaction. Was this someone Vélo admired? Aspired to be like?
“Yeah,” Vélo said.
He slouched in his chair and folded his scrawny arms.
“Why don’t you have shows like that?” Tomas said. “Have you ever shown in a gallery?”
How much trying? What did that mean? Tomas didn’t want to pry.
“You’re still young,” he said.
When he was a young actor, his statistics were pretty good– he’d do five or six auditions and get a role. Then he’d won the award. For a year afterwards, he could turn down projects, pick and choose. But then he was back to auditions. Then it was more like ten auditions for one role, and declined from there.
“Rejection is hard,” he said, more to himself than Vélo.
“I’m not worried,” Vélo said, with a familiar confidence. “My time will come.”
I used to say that, Tomas thought.
“Vélo?” Susan said. “Doesn’t that mean bicycle? In French?”
She wore a beige V-neck sweater that hugged her breasts. She had a new haircut, 1950s wavy. She looked like Marilyn Monroe, of course. Tomas hated her.
“It’s not his real name.”
“Really? Is it like a stage name? But for an artist?”
“He said he liked the sound of it. It came to him in a dream.”
“What’s his real name?”
“I don’t know.”
One eyebrow shot up. For an actress, she wasn’t very good at hiding her feelings. She raised the mint-colored cup to her lips and sipped her latté.
“He’s legit,” Tomas said. “I’ve met his family.”
A man without a history is a dangerous man. Tomas had heard that somewhere. But Tomas had met Vélo’s brother, and his brother’s wife, and their three suburban kids. He’d decided they were good people: they let Vélo work in their garage.
“You’re doing that thing again,” she said.
“When you don’t tell me what you’re thinking.”
“Hm,” Tomas said.
“The coffee’s good here,” she said.
“Yes,” he agreed.
It was a place with exposed bricks, and white painted columns, and big windows that faced the street. On Twitter they posted grainy vintage-looking photos.
“I thought vélo means steal or rob,” Tomas said.
“No, that’s volé,” she said. “Vélo means bicycle.”
To be nice, she added, “You were close though.”
Yes, he thought, always close. Always just on the edge of something. Whenever he was about to break something happened: a bad TV show, a closed agency.
“What about you?” he said.
“I’m good,” she said.
He could tell she had news and was holding back. Their whole relationship had been like that: she always had the better career. She’d come home with good news, and would have to delicately tiptoe around it, or downplay the part, always thinking of his feelings. He hated her for thinking he was so sensitive. He hated her more because she was right.
“I was thinking about art,” he said. “I was thinking, like, what are we doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“What are we doing?”
“Telling stories,” she said.
“But are we actually helping people? Are we actually making a difference in anyone’s life?”
She looked at him blankly.
“You mean like the kids in the hospital, dying of leukemia and they just want Batman’s autograph?”
She reached across the table and squeezed his wrist.
“You shouldn’t give up,” she said.
He felt his heart in his chest, and knew he still loved her, just like he knew he would never play Batman. He pulled his hand away.
“How’s James?” he said.
“He’s all right,” she said. Was she blushing? “He still works at the hospital. We just got back from Paris. He was at a conference.”
“He was speaking about some research he did. I don’t really understand it.”
He studied her. Was there a hint of sadness in her voice?
“Hey. Aren’t you happy?”
“Yes, yes,” she said.
“It’s everything you wanted. The house. Stability.”
Why was he talking to her this way? Why convince her? She was spontaneous. A wild thing. A person who dove into backyard pools with her clothes on. On purpose. Either that, or naked. He’d seen her do both. In the presence of strangers. Had she told James those stories? Did this guy even know who she was? This doctor? They probably had scheduled sex. Every Wednesday on his day off. Was she really doing this? Trading her life for what? A wedding? A house? A baby?
Now he reached over and squeezed her hand. She looked up at him, and for a moment he thought they might kiss, but there was a table between them.
“I should go,” she whispered.
“You should go,” he repeated. “Back to my apartment.”
Almost a joke, except it wasn’t. A shadow of sadness passed over her expression.
“Your apartment? Where you live like frat boys? With a roommate whose real name you don’t even know?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Because,” she said.
She got up and walked away.
But some parts of his life had been really good, he thought.