Footnotes 3: Regarding The House Guest

August 21, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

A friend of my roommate (Sarah), call the friend Jennie, came through town once. Jennie was in the midst of what she called a “journey,” leaving an old life behind in search of a new one. She left a girlfriend in Portland but was in the process of buying a car from that ex-girlfriend’s parents, parents who happened to live in the Midwest. Jennie and I went out for drinks the first night. We had a great time. She was full of anxious enthusiasm and kept shaking her hands in the air, as though to exorcise the frenetic energy of transition. Because the gallery was between exhibits, she slept on the gallery floor.
After a few days, Sarah and I realized that we didn’t know when she planned to leave. She was waiting on the suburban parents who couldn’t find the necessary papers to change the car’s registration. Over the course of ensuing days the radius of her personal belongings extended in a wider and wider arc. Jennie’s personal possessions could be found in any number of places, a mislaid sock under the gallery desk, a hairbrush on the window ledge. The more she seeded the gallery with her things, the more frightened of asking about her plans we were. She had many un-demanded excuses, all of them likely legitimate: there were problems registering the car, the car wouldn’t start, she couldn’t get out to the suburbs that day the train wasn’t working, their family dog died. Yet also there was a feeling that she was very happy with Chicago. She dropped hints now and again about how the new life she sought might be staring her in the face. “This is so cool,” she said. “It’s a great life. All I want to do is get drunk every night and meet new people. I’ve been having the most amazing conversations. Everyone I meet is on the cusp of some massive coming-into-being transition.” There were rumors that she might have fallen in love again and she began conducting long, hushed conversations on her cell phone. Sarah and I found ourselves avoiding the gallery altogether, as though the 600 square feet had become Jennie’s bedroom.
A few weeks later, one week before the next exhibit, I came home to find laundry hanging from a clothesline strung across the gallery. I went into the kitchen and a boy came out of the bathroom in towel. He had just showered. I don’t think I said anything to him, but I imagine I was pale. He smiled naturally and struck out his hand. I ignored it. I went to the back porch and found another boy smoking a cigarette with his feet up. I didn’t recognize either of these boys. “Where’s Jennie?” I asked, snarky. “She’s on her way,” he said. I did not ask from where.
I’m quite sure Jennie would have stayed indefinitely. She said as much later; the space seemed so large and empty that a girl in a sleeping bag—or even, a boy and a girl, for that matter—in her mind, seemed inconsequential. She scoffed a little on her way out of town, because the space was not what felt it appeared, at first, to be. From her perspective, she said she thought it was a carefree environment where progressive people stayed up late, absorbed in bohemian activities, having lots of sex and doing exotic drugs, drinking black coffee all hours of the day and smoking copious amounts of cigarettes while reading German philosophy and by noon switching to vermouth.
I realized then that I was not bohemian. I also realized that the Green Lantern was more “serious” than I had thus far pretended. And then I realized that I was part of a community of artist-run spaces that had taught me, by way of example, what kind of space I wanted to run. I had never before had to define that model to anyone, because here in Chicago I was participating in a pre-existing custom. Unlike the wayward traveler, artists in Chicago understood the Spartan emptiness of the gallery space. To that audience, the space, while “empty” was in constant use. To my guest the empty space seemed wastefully idyll.


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