RENÉE JESSICA TAN
I hope you have as much fun reading this piece as I had writing it.
I met Dalí in my husband’s architecture studio, which was the detached one-car garage behind our house. My husband said Dalí had started coming by in the afternoons and critiquing his work.
“Dalí? As in Salvador Dalí?” I said, pulling reheated enchiladas from the oven. “I thought he was dead.”
“Well, he certainly has a lot of opinions for a dead guy,” my husband said, plopping dollops of guacamole on his plate, leaving a smear in the bowl for me to scrape out with my finger.
I had been sitting at my desk all morning, bouncing between a blank screen where a future best-selling romance should be and a motivational article touting the benefits of self-talk. It said studies had shown that pro athletes who spoke out loud to themselves in the third person were more successful than those who used first-person I statements.
I toggled back to my blank screen.
“Come on, Vivian. You can do this,” I said out loud. That is second-person, I thought in silent rebuke. I tried again.
“Vivian can do this. Vivian is a winner. Vivian is the acclaimed author of the Dusky Mangrove pirate trilogy.” I was basically reading the bio off the back of my last book. It was printed next to a black and white headshot of me in my mid-twenties with airbrushed cheekbones and the intense gaze of an emerging writer staring into a bright literary future. I wondered if that girl was seeing a middle-aged woman in enchilada-stained sweatpants, talking to herself in the third person, trying to replicate the alchemy of early success.
I walked in through the side door without knocking. The garage door was open, providing a panoramic view of the crumbling alley behind our house. My husband was hunched over his underlit drafting table. Dalí was on our ancient treadmill, jogging at a leisurely clip.
“Well, hello!” Dalí said with long, singsong vowels and languid, liquid Ls. He was wearing suede wingtips and had a wide, loping stride, as if he was fashionably floating from one moon crater to the next. The pointed ends of his moustache rebounded skyward with every step. He swept his arm grandly at the alleyway. “A most inspiring vista for a stroll going nowhere!”
A rat skittered past.
My husband had moved back to his desk, head swallowed behind a massive monitor. “He is inspired as well,” Dalí said.
“I can see that.”
“Are you, my dear?” Dalí asked.
I deflated onto the corrugated cardboard loveseat my husband designed when he was in college.
My husband’s phone rang. He stood up and glared at the noisy treadmill. “Ken Law speaking.” He plugged his finger into his ear and turned around.
Dalí stage-whispered to me behind the back of his hand, “It could be a very important client,” stretching the length of his face in exaggerated awe. “We must let the master work in peace.” With that, Dalí gave me a courtly bow before leaping off the treadmill. He bounded out through the open garage door and disappeared down the alley, hurtling over cracked asphalt and detritus in his path.
My husband was still on the phone, his calm, professional voice swallowed by the noise of the running belt that echoed through the exposed rafters of our garage. I turned off the treadmill and quietly went back inside the house. I sat down at my computer to write but ended up spending the afternoon rereading a short story I had written years ago. It was about a woman who grows a tumor so large, it becomes another person entirely. The tumor eventually kills her and assumes her place in society, and her friends and co-workers are left none the wiser.
My agent at the time said this type of work was not for my market. It had no erotica, no swashbuckling, not even a whisper of illicit longing or intrigue.
Sometimes Dalí would come with Babou, an ocelot that liked to chew the tips of my fingers. “How can you stare at your keyboard all day but be so careless with your manicure?” Dalí would ask.
I told him I’m not looking at my hands, I am looking at the screen.
“Why bother looking at the screen when you say it is always blank?”
My husband never told me when Dalí was in his studio, and I never asked. There were many weeks he wasn’t. When that was the case, I would nonchalantly say hello to my husband, feign interest in whatever he was working on, and then duck out when the explanation inevitably became too technical.
The unfinished drywall on the garage was covered with pinned renderings of a tall structure with pretty rectangular gables and lacy eaves. “They’re for the competition I told you about—to build a new library in Persistence, Iowa,” my husband said. “My design made it to the final round. Now, residents get to vote on the winning bid.”
I peered at the colorful exterior. “Are those bricks all different colors?”
“My design is called The Pixelization of Needlepoint,” my husband said.
The intricate design reminded me of love notes my husband wrote to me the first year we met. They were all on graph paper, one letter per box. I loved the look of them, the symmetry of the page, the precision of his all-capitalized penmanship, slanted just so. Of course, the prose was horrendous. But still, the letters were very sweet, complimentary, courtly and almost shy. While not a particular fan of romance novels, he wrote of his great admiration for my modest literary achievements. To him, I was an example of the linear trajectory of success that upper middle-class American youth is indoctrinated into. At the time, my husband was a draftsman for a prestigious firm whose titular architect contributed in name only. During my husband’s tenure, the only thing he worked on was doors. In fact, the same door. Over and over again. On a rotating team with at least five other people, all quibbling over one single door. By the time this door was hung on a series of luxury villas in Florida, my husband had finally left the company to find fulfillment in our unfinished garage.
A few times I walked in on Dalí and my husband in conversation, but it was never about art or process. It was usually about sports, esoteric ones like cricket or curling. Or cage fighting.
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
“Do you not see the beauty of a bruise that blooms in front of your very eyes? It is painted with the most exquisite palette found in nature, the abject stain of man’s irrepressible need to eviscerate Man,” Dalí said. “The only time it is acceptable to celebrate the absolute annihilation of another human being is when thousands of people are watching, and money is on the line.”
“One time I was in Burgundy. It was the very end of spring, and the sunflower fields were burning coronas into my retinae like all impertinent flowers do. We were there, of course, for the wine. But before my glass was poured, the purveyor of the vineyard, a simple French farmer, said, ‘You must first eat this.’ He went away to the kitchen and came back carrying a butcher block by its fat handle. He set it down in front of me. On it was the largest strawberry I had ever seen, as big as the heart of a sacred cow. It was deepest red, and the leaves were as green as a jealous rage. The stem was the thickness of my middle finger, and longer still. The strawberry was so enormous, I ate it with a steak knife. And when I cut into it, I swear to you, it bled. And inside this strawberry, once you were through the juicy red flesh, were the icy white chambers, so sweet, and so crisp, and so cold it made me shiver. Or maybe I was just shaking in ecstasy. I can’t remember now. But I do remember it took me exactly twenty-seven minutes to eat the whole thing. And when it was done, I wept. Because it was done, and no one would ever know the pleasure. But, no, I didn’t cry for anyone else. I cried for myself, because I knew I could not lose this virginity twice.”
His eyes were closed, and his mouth was wet under his moustache. He smelled the air, conjuring the memory.
“Why did you tell me that?” I asked.
Dalí opened his eyes, appalled I would insert myself into a memory of such sensuous intimacy. “Because when I soliloquize, I don’t have to suffer your banal conversation.”
My eyes and throat went dry. I looked to my husband to have him reassure me that I am a sparkling wit, astute and uncanny. But he was so deeply immersed in the page under his pencil, I thought it best to leave him be. And besides, I would probably find his answer less than reassuring.
It was Dalí who told me the good news.
“The maestro! The creator!” Dalí said, bowing with flourish towards my husband. Dalí and his ocelot danced circles around the garage like lights shooting off a disco ball. My husband came over to me, his arms spread for a congratulatory hug, heart open for a word about how proud, how happy I was for him, for us.
“Now what?” I asked.
“I have to build a 3D model and go out to Persistence to do a site study. I’d also like to thank the town council in person,” my husband said.
Dalí pointed to all the printouts taped to the wall. “Iowa is the Barcelona of the western world! The gentlepeople of Persistence understand symbol. They understand icon. Like Chinese characters, each a piece of art itself, the sum of their parts being more than mere text—it is a masterpiece!”
I looked more closely at the sketches of the building my husband was going to build. It was simultaneously quaint and edgy, modern and timeless, understated and ornate. It was perfect.
I texted my husband a poem I wrote while he sat next to me in bed, finishing his nightly crossword puzzle.
“What’s this?” he said.
“It’s an emoji haiku.”
He gave it all of four seconds. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“It’s representative iconography. Emoji as alphabet.”
“But how is this a haiku? Isn’t there supposed to be a certain number of syllables per line?”
“It’s not about syllable count!” I said.
“Then is it hieroglyphics? Or, I don’t know, emoji algebra?”
I wanted to scream.
My husband sighed. “Well, at least you’re writing again.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “I write all the time.”
“When? You spend all day in my office talking to Dalí.”
“Why can you spend all day talking to Dalí and I can’t?”
“Well, he’s coming to my office, for one thing. He’s not visiting yours.”
I pulled the blanket to my chin, headbutted my pillow, and rolled away from my husband’s brutality.
My husband sighed, reached over, and turned off the light. I lay in the dark, trying to channel my anger into words, into plot. I tucked myself into the deepest wrinkles of my brain, furiously looking for any sort of new story to tell, but eventually I faded into sleep, unable to find a single one.
The little model of the library took up a lot of room.
My husband stood over the drafting table with a pair of tweezers. Foam board, X-Acto knives, paint and all manner of adhesive were strewn on the ground and on every available surface in the garage. Dalí was sitting at my husband’s computer, Googling himself. I was lounging on the cardboard sofa, trying to entice Babou away from my husband’s delicate operation with a bowl of strawberries.
My husband frequently looked up, raking his hair, jaw clenched, sucking in air through nostrils flared like those on a rampaging horse. I didn’t know what my husband was upset about. We were being very quiet, especially since we agreed that the treadmill would remain off while my husband was working. Still, my husband said, “Now that I have the library contract, I really think I need to find a legitimate office space. It would be nice to have a place to meet clients and just have room to spread out.” He looked at me, as if I were the clutter.
“Excellent idea, my friend!” Dalí jumped up. “A redwood cannot reach the heavens if planted in a decrepit garage. Excitement awaits! Where shall we go?”
“We? You’re not moving with him, are you?” My yelp was so high-pitched, the ocelot hissed.
“I go where I go,” Dalí said breezily. Then he gestured to my husband. “To the redwoods! To the sky!”
I shuddered like a dead leaf right before it falls off the tree.
My husband had left to finalize paperwork for a raw office space downtown; Dali announced he was spending these last precious moments alone in the hallowed birthplace of brilliance itself. I found him sitting cross-legged on the bare cement floor. The garage door was closed, and the room was dim under the fluorescent bulb that flickered a sterile, bluish hue.
Dalí’s eyes were closed and he was holding the end of a chain leash that was wrapped around Babou’s neck. The ocelot was prancing on the treadmill, long claws shredding the belt with every step.
I could not tell if Dalí was asleep or meditating. I clinked the wine glasses I was carrying together. Dalí opened his eyes.
“For god’s sake, put your breast back inside your shirt, ma’am,” Dalí said.
I let my unbuttoned linen shirt slip further down my bare shoulders, long hem grazing the tops of my naked legs.
The bottle of wine I had brought was old and expensive, something my husband and I were saving for a celebratory occasion, say, a manuscript being sold or our fifteenth anniversary. I blew a fine layer of dust off the faded label.
Dalí was unimpressed. “What is this display before me?”
“Relax. Lie down,” I said, trying to sound breathy, self-assured. “Please. Don’t get up.”
“I dine at the table of genius,” Dalí said. “There is no reservation for me here.” Dalí picked Babou up off the treadmill.
“Don’t go! I need you!” I thrust myself forward, trying to grab Babou’s leash and block the door. My bosom heaved like one of my romantic heroines, but the scene was not unfolding as I had written it. At this point I should have been smearing caviar on my inner thigh before being thrown onto Babou’s back and riding away with Dalí to a world where elephants float on spindly legs and inspiration is evergreen.
Instead, Dalí stood mute before me, eyes dilated into saucers of horror and contempt. I could see myself in their oily reflection, a desperate, lazy, hateful woman. His silence, his imperious pity, I could not take.
I threw a wine glass, right at Dalí’s head. It exploded against the back of the garage door in a spray of diamonds. Dalí closed his eyes and yawned. I threw the other one. It shattered on the ground in front of him. He didn’t even flinch.
“I thought you said violence was disgusting,” Dalí said drolly, picking up a shard of glass with the tips of his long fingers, sniffing it, then tossing it over his shoulder.
The heavy wine bottle was all I had left in my hands, but it was too heavy to throw. So I wielded it like a club over my head. Down it came, right onto the roof of the Persistence library.
The gables crumpled with pitiful ease. The bottle didn’t even chip. I smashed it down again. And again. And again. I imagined all the little townspeople of Persistence huddled inside their stupid pixelized library, children sitting cross-legged during story time in the book nook, old women sewing cheery aphorisms onto ugly throw pillows in the community room. Each soul crushed, a particle of my husband’s self-worth. I blighted them all until there was nothing left, until finally, finally the dark bottle cracked. Red wine rained over the collapsed pile of colored bricks, sanguine rivers spilling over the edge.
When I was finished, the treadmill was turned off, and Dalí and Babou were gone.
Red liquid streamed down my forearm. I licked my hand. It tasted like metal and vinegar, and not particularly expensive at all.
My husband is in Persistence, Iowa, building his dream. I listen to his voicemail greeting at least ten times a day. He sounds professional, friendly, distant. I hang up before the beep every time.
I have set myself up nicely in my new office. The treadmill is still here, and the floor is stained with motor oil and, now, wine. The cold hardness suits me and what I am writing. It is a novel, an expansion of my short story about the woman who grows a tumor. But now, instead of killing her, the tumor becomes a glittering, effervescent bon vivant; a living and loving organism that eats her tissue but feeds her creative soul.
Renée Jessica Tan’s work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Everyday Fiction, and MacQueen’s Quinterly. Upcoming publications include Gingerbread House and Wigleaf. Her short story “Baghead” was featured on the Selected Shorts podcast that first aired October 2020. Her flash fiction story “Auntie Cheeks” was included in Best Small Fictions 2021. Renée lives with her first husband and two cats.
MORE FROM SUMMER 2022 (4:1)
2021 Prose Chapbook Winner
Resistance, Sue Mell (an excerpt)
A Conversation with Sue Mell and Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar, Prose Chapbook Winner and Finalist, Maria S. Picone, Managing Editor
Il Lupo Mannaro, Stephanie Staab
When it happens, you let it happen, Lynne Schmidt
Holiday Party 2017, Kim Ellingson
Ninety Days, Remi Recchia
The Universe, as in One Last Song for the Lonely Hearts, Michelle Hulan
Saudade Accuses Brown Girl, Yvanna Vien Tica
windmills over Zaandam, Gabriela Gonzales
Fold the Shadows, Cate McGowan
Intercession, Sasha Wade