Ella

By Christopher Stoddard

 

An artist is always alone—if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness. – Henry Miller 

 Ella is sitting on her couch with her iPhone, researching venues for her show before finishing more than one painting for it. There’s no excuse why she can’t do more. Work has been light at the boutique media agency in Soho where she acts as Head of Sales. She’s in her living room taking up space, “working” from home. The blank canvases are right over there, leaning against the modern glass coffee table with an abstractly shaped oak base. There were lines of coke on it last night, which could’ve been used to fuel her creativity. Instead she opted for the routine paranoia trip: staring through the peephole in the front door every ten minutes to check if someone was outside—cops or some sort of sexual predator. With sweat-soaked straight black hair and bulging eyes, she sustained her manic watch till the wee hours of the a.m., which resulted in zero home invaders, per usual.

This has been going on for months, dare one say years. The Boyfriend learned long ago to refrain from protesting his girlfriend’s temporary schizophrenic actions, let alone trying to comfort her physically. Like he did on countless other weekend nights, he simply sat on the couch thumbing through Instagram (and, occasionally, secretly sexting a coworker, having once been too loyal to act on it in person) till daybreak when the coke was gone and Ella had no other choice but to come down and eventually fall asleep beside him.

Ella, now in her late thirties, realizes she can no longer blame anyone but herself for her bad habits and creative block. When she was in her twenties, she covered the familial inspiration in her raw, visceral paintings. The uncomfortably personal themes of her shows (with decent reviews and nonexistent sales) came from stories about her alcoholic dad who’d been imprisoned for murdering her mom and her older brother who’d been killed attempting to break up a drunken brawl, as well as the escorting years, an endless string of bad relationships and an assortment of mostly self-inflicted abuses. Nothing in her present life is inspiring her, but she still feels compelled to paint... something, anything.

During weeknights after work and every weekend, she can only focus her tired and/or hungover body on the couch, what’s new on the good ol’ Fire TV Stick and which Grubhub meal to complement it. Or when the next cycling class is scheduled at Flywheel, offsetting the overeating and keeping her body lean and toned. Or whether she has enough funds left to buy yet another pair of shoes from Vetements or Off-White (her favorite designers) after paying her quarterly dues to Soho House and the monthly fee for an all-access membership to Equinox, among other bills and whistles. And cocaine. She loves cocaine more than she cares to admit to herself and others.

 

FRIDAY

The Boyfriend already left for work, and Ella is waking up again from another micro-nap. Moseying into the kitchen, she pours herself a hot cup of coffee—he makes six cups: four to fill his to-go mug and two for her—cooling it with a healthy splash of almond milk. Holding the cup in her left hand, she sips the lukewarm drink while perusing Instagram on her phone with her right. She fingers the profiles of gorgeous male models William McLarnon and Matthew Noszka and influencers into extreme sports such as Dylan Efron and Jay Alvarrez, wondering if she’d be happier with a man like one of them: otherworldly sexy, superhero strong and Insta-famous. I’m still beautiful, she tells herself in the mirror, checking to see whether the Botox that’s been hiding the wrinkles in her forehead is wearing off (not yet, thankfully). If I were in some sort of social setting with these guys, I’m sure I’d catch their eye. She considers the fantasy for a few more seconds, an even mix of the familiar guilt for superficial, adulterous thinking, an always-on ache for what she can’t have and the growing unsurety of her love for The Boyfriend (very good-looking, much younger than she and great in bed when she’s in the mood) overwhelming her physically like the freezing Peconic River on Shelter Island in early June—their first vacation nearly three years ago (they stayed at the very chic Sunset Beach Hotel).

On the kitchen counter lie a bunch of bananas spooning each other inside a clear plastic bag with the Chiquita logo. Dressed in perishable goods, Miss Chiquita smiles festively, ready to perform the calypso dance leap. Once vibrant yellow, the fruits’ skin is now dull and freckled, foretelling their rot. But The Boyfriend’s ask via text remains unfulfilled: Would you do me a big favor and peel the bananas I left on the counter and put them in the freezer? That way they’ll keep for his weekday (and semi-weekend) smoothies. The making of which are an ongoing, unwelcome wakeup call for Ella prior to one of Amazon Echo’s more appealing alarm sounds. That unnerving jackhammer noise of a “Magic” Bullet Blender pureeing assorted fruit, ice and almond milk is anything but enchanting to her ears.

They live together in Williamsburg in a two-floor loft with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. The luxury building includes amenities such as a state-of-the-art gym with indoor rock climbing, simulated golf rooms (plus a mini-golf course on the roof), a bowling alley, two pools, three hot tubs and much more unlisted here. Some of their neighbors have children and dogs, both of which The Boyfriend wants too. Ella doesn’t think of herself as motherly and has never been a big fan of animals. This isn’t to say she’s a bad person, just selfish, and at least she knows it.

But lately she’s been struggling with her somewhat lavish, arguably heretical lifestyle, thinking she should be spending her money and time with The Boyfriend in healthier ways. Perhaps it’s biological; her birthday is around the corner, as is her body’s inability to make babies. Despite The Boyfriend’s smoothies and other behaviors that only annoy her because she’s irritable from the coke comedowns, he’s kind and understanding of her idiosyncratic, addictive and neurotic personality. Lovers of the past provided an obsession and coinciding rush similar to the drugs (a TV actor, a banker, and a lawyer, all of whom were a year or two older and a zero or two richer than she), while never showing her love, which is what she thought she wanted for oh so many years. But when The Boyfriend came into her life unexpectedly and gave her just that (after hitting her with his bike as she ran into the bike lane rushing to the office one sultry afternoon), she accepted it begrudgingly and has been battling herself from rejecting him ever since.

She finds herself more preoccupied with the fear of his imminent departure now that she’s hungover again, nearing old age and getting crazier by the nanosecond. Moreover, her name is the one and only on the lease and other legal agreements tying her to this time and place financially. He could just get up and go anytime. A slice of her, the demon inside, craves this, as it’ll allow her to fully revert to the life of the manic art slut: hard-working by day; partying with a different “date” every night; painting her lonely paintings during tear-soaked, suicidal in-betweens. But the rest of her is well familiar with how that old song and dance eventually ends. Peeling and slicing The Boyfriend’s bananas, she prays un-denominationally that she can sustain her current commitment to him. She stores the mushy fruit in a plastic container and tosses it in the freezer.

SATURDAY

The Boyfriend keeps three tabs of acid in an empty dental floss case on the bottom shelf of his gunmetal nightstand. Each piece is the size of Ella’s pinky nail and advertised by the dealer as extra strength. Flashbacks of her goth-girl-teens arise whenever The Boyfriend tries convincing her to trip with him; while hallucinating, she’d learned her life’s vocation is to paint, accepted the deaths of her immediate family, fallen in love for the first time and realized her best friend was anything but (swiftly thereafter ending their toxic relationship). Consequently, she’s fearful of an LSD-laced epiphany that their relationship isn’t for the long haul. But her intensifying self-reflection is prompting her to finally discover the truth her own way.

She rises early on this sun-drenched Saturday morning, slipping out of bed softly to avoid rousing her recovering lover. He spent last night drinking with old college friends till the wee hours of the a.m. anyway, so it’s unlikely he’ll wake easily. These circumstances are usually flipped: traditionally she’s the one sleeping off a night of indiscretions while he’s already up and at ‘em, starting the day right with a smoothie and two-mile run to the waterfront and back, then gently nudging her conscious at about 3:00 p.m. with three Advils, a tall glass of ice water and no questions asked (her last time out was less than two weeks ago). But lately he’s been gradually assuming her behavior. Seems the end may have begun, and she needs to act now to ensure their best possible future, whether that’s together or not.

Once soft, the bananas are hardened when she pulls them from their cryo-slumber along with a bag of generic-brand frozen berries and two handfuls of ice, placing them on the crowded, coffee-stained kitchen counter. A collection of half-eaten takeout and countless empty beer bottles dominate its marble surface. Shaking a near-empty gallon of refrigerated almond milk, she’s pleased there’s enough left for two smoothies. She tosses everything into an oversized blender cup and switches on the “Magic” Bullet Blender with its familiar, unnerving jackhammer noise that’s anything but enchanting to her ears.

As she pours the mixture in two glasses and tops off each with one-and-a half tabs of acid, she hears sheets rustling, a snorty mumbling and the creaking bedframe. The door to the bedroom slowly opens, The Boyfriend emerging naked with a yawn (he overheats at night, no matter how high the AC), his average body exposed and dirty blond hair disheveled. Hey hon, he greets her in a throaty voice. Whoa, you made us breakfast?! Thanks, sexy. Just what I needed. He gives her an alcohol-and-rotten-fish-smelling kiss on the cheek. She stirs each glass with a bent spoon (they’re in dire need of new silverware), allowing the secret ingredient to fully envelop their healthy meal. Yeah, well, I didn’t break up the fruit enough in the blender, she white lies, handing over one of the glasses. Drink up! It’ll help with the hangover. Take these Advils too. He chucks the pills down his throat and chugs the smoothie. A burp, then he’s off to the bathroom for a shit.

Quickly slurping down her serving with a stainless-steel straw (plastic ones are hard to come by nowadays, and the cardboard kind on her lips gives her the chills), she uses her pointer finger to pull out the soggy tabs stuck on the side of the glass. Sucks them off and swallows. The only thing left to do is wait, so she flops down on the couch and ignites the good ol’ Fire TV Stick and the latest episode of Euphoria.

The faint sound of a toilet paper roll rattling around the holder means he’s finishing his business. Materializing again, he lets out a deep sigh, dragging his body next to where she lies, bringing with him a waft of Febreze and the stench of a hangover shit. He burps again and chuckles. There was this homeless dude inside the bar begging everyone for money, so weird, he shares randomly. Oh, I’ve been thinking we should go to Portugal…

 

SUNDAY

An impressive Sunday sunrise. Life has already moved on from yesterday’s trip, but Ella’s certain she never will (not completely, anyway). Via the bedroom window blinds (she desperately needs to buy blackout curtains), the 6:00 a.m. daylight bleeds into her eyes like a vampire’s worst nightmare. Sleep is always brief for her the night after taking LSD; the overwhelming visual effects she experiences while high never disappear when it’s time for shut-eye. Instead they’re more intense. For an hour or two before dozing off half-conscious till the a.m., she’s stuck watching a cartoon of Dante’s Inferno on her eyelids, starring characters from The Simpsons.

She rises unconcerned with the sound of sheets rustling and the creaking bedframe. The reason to keep quiet has been eliminated with her relationship; The Boyfriend left her yesterday. He didn’t take too kindly to her dosing him. At first, he found it arousing, achieving perhaps the biggest erection she’d ever seen him have. He was giggling uncontrollably at the second episode of Euphoria, during which Nate (played by the gorg Jacob Elordi) beats a guy to a pulp and rapes him. As the visuals kicked in, so did her libido and the realization of how much she loved this man, how passionately generous and unconditionally accepting he’d been with her for years. All her bad habits and emotional baggage, the bold selfishness, ignored. While he looked the other way on countless occasions, she was searching for fulfillment in every direction but his. How insanely mistaken you were! she scolded herself. Rushing to her knees, she yanked down his sweatpants and devoured him. The howls he made as she orally coaxed him to completion were magnificent.

Holy shit, hon, oh my god. That was so wild. What’s going on, everything is vibrating. Barely pulling on his sweatpants, he darted for the bathroom and knelt over the toilet puking. She walked to the sink beside him and rinsed her mouth. Checked herself in the mirror. Watched as the wrinkles in her forehead became white worms, slithered off her face and flew away. Feeling beautiful and perfect, she finally divulged she’d dosed him.

We’re on the acid, hon! I put it in our smoothies. I’ve just been so horrible lately, pushing you away. You know I’ve been scared to take it because of the revelations I have on it. But it was worth the risk! I now know I love you so much and I’m so sorry. I’m going to be better to you, to us. He looked into her with incredulous eyes. You did fucking what?! Are you kidding me, Ella! My parents are coming to the city today for my dad’s birthday. What the fuck is wrong with you?! 

And that… was that. A few more harsh sentences (one of which was We’re done for good, you crazy bitch!), a packed bag, his snubbing her pleas not to go out in public high or leave her there alone and on drugs, an exit with a slammed front door. Sobbing and hallucinating, she texted him nonstop for hours (but never called for some reason). Eventually the blue iMessages turned green, which meant he’d blocked her or shut off his new iPhone (he’d just gotten the 11).

Ella enters the living room overcome with sadness and regret. She glances at the blank canvases leaning against the modern glass coffee table with an abstractly shaped oak base, then texts her coke dealer.

THE END

Christopher Stoddard’s latest novel At Night Only from Itna Press was released in June 2018, and has been praised by The Paris Review, Kirkus, Slate, Lambda Literary, and authors Edmund White and Gary Indiana. Featured in OUT Magazine’s “Tastemakers” issue in 2015 for his contributions to literature and publishing, he’s written two other novels: Limiters (Itna Press, 2014), and White, Christian (Spuyten Duyvil, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, New York.