State of Grace
Grace and I met when I was 20 and had just dropped out of the middling art department at my local state college in Connecticut to pursue my dreams of creative success in the city. To earn some extra money, I began nude modeling for a university design department, something, I quickly discovered, I was preternaturally comfortable with, the eyes on my body, staying still for long periods of time, the itch of charcoal intimating images of my naked self.
Grace was a drawing instructor at the school, an experimental artist and a model herself. She was the strangest person I have ever met. I felt an immediate connection to her. Some hidden engine in my stomach stirred and kicked whenever I spoke to her, at first solely about work, and then later art, love, dreams, the future. We hit it off right away.
Let me describe her briefly: She was short, perhaps 4’ 9”, her aspect somehow both brittle and resilient, like a bristlecone pine. She dressed in a seemingly limitless collection of fur coats, black Levis, and white and black saddle shoes. Her hair she wore in a floppy, schoolmarm-ish wave, kept in place with dozens of silver barrettes. Her tiny, triangular face was dominated by massive tortoiseshell glasses attached to a gold box chain that drooped like a bridle down the back of her neck. I wanted, whenever I was around her, not to just be like her; I wanted, instead, to be her, literally, in the flesh.
One day after class, having hot toddies at her apartment, as we had taken to doing several times a week, I confessed this desire to her, somewhat sheepishly, transitioning out of a conversation about Robert Smithson. She seemed intrigued. Soon we were hatching plans, throwing out hypotheticals. We decided, by the end of the evening, to give it a try.
The first step was to move in together. I had been living in gentile squalor in a decrepit brownstone with seven other people since arriving in the city, so relocating was no problem. I gathered my belongings into two suitcases and a couple of garbage bags and took them and myself in a cab uptown to Grace’s apartment, leaving my mattress and desk behind for whomever would replace me in the flophouse.
When I got there, I buzzed her apartment for fifteen minutes before someone walked out of the building and I slipped in the door after him, dragging my train of stuff into the lobby and cramming it into the elevator. Grace was waiting in the hallway, in a fur coat of course, and made no effort to help me with my luggage. “I’ve been trying you for fifteen minutes,” I remember saying, hauling my cargo toward her. “Look, I’m sorry about the inconvenience,” she said. “But if this is going to work you’re going to need to pay close attention to what I’m doing, what I’m telling you about me when I do a certain thing.” “Meaning this is a test?” I asked. “No,” she said. “It’s a demonstration.”
We moved inside the apartment and I stacked my things by the bookcase, which was about half books, a quarter overflowing manila envelopes, and the remainder potted plants in various stages of mortification. Grace made us drinks, gin and tonics since it was too early in the day for anything warm, and I joined her at the table, which looked out a window over a fire escape and down into an overgrown backyard filled with appliances rusted to anonymity and a rooster owned by the landlord.
“Let me be serious for a moment,” Grace said. “For this to work there can be no eye-to-eye. There’s just one eyes here: mine. We’re not talking glasses. We’re not talking a mask you can put on and take off as you please. We’re talking get inside my head and hook up the wires.” “That’s why you couldn’t help me with my bags?” I asked. “I always hire movers,” said Grace with a shrug.
“If we are to be truly indivisible,” she told me the next day as we ate a breakfast of corner deli croissant sandwiches and oily cardboard-cup coffee, “you can keep nothing of your own. You have to lose all evidence of yourself.”
That afternoon she furnished me with several days’ worth of her trademark getup. The jeans and coats all fit fine, but the shoes were small enough to constitute a form of torture. The blisters I got from walking around the city in them during that first week of co-personification made me long for more time at the apartment, where Grace went barefoot.
One night, after I’d had some time to adjust to the arrangement, Grace and I, dressed identically in sable, brought my baggage back down in the elevator, hauled it to a secluded area of the nearby park, and burned everything I owned in a fire pit. Watching the flames lick the lenses of her glasses through the lit-up lenses of my pair of the same glasses, I felt we had crossed a certain, sacred boundary, pierced some phenomenological membrane. Behind the wall of fire reflected in our eyewear, a conversion was already taking place, spirit soldered to spirit, the remainder of myself evaporating out as vapor.
At some point a cop came over and started asking questions, saying we couldn’t burn anything in the park without a permit. He ended up issuing us a citation. “I’ll need your IDs,” he said as he scribbled out the ticket. Grace obliged, pulling a red leather clutch from the folds of her fur, but my driver’s license, along with everything else of mine, was long gone, carbonized in the smoking pile of suitcases. After insisting I too was Grace, without any documentation to back it up, the cop handcuffed me and shoved me in the back of the cruiser. The charges, according to him, was that I was a freak with a lip and a bad attitude, and I could spend the night in lockup contemplating what I was doing with my life. I spent the evening balled up in the fur coat, eyes closed, rooting for a direct line back to Grace, who was at that time, I guessed, back at the apartment, eating Thai food, painting her toenails. Some time around midnight, she must have taken a sleep aid, because despite the unending commotion of squabbling drunks and looped-out schizophrenics, fatigue swept over me like clouds across the sky before a rainstorm, and the next thing I knew I was waking up to the news I had been bailed out.
Grace met me outside the precinct, holding a second set of the outfit she was wearing on a wire hanger. I changed right there in the parking lot.
For the next two years I lived with Grace, as Grace. At first we instituted rules to keep our behavior indistinguishable. Only one of us could leave the apartment at a time, although Grace freely substituted me in for herself, sending me out to teach her classes at the art school or visit her mother, a former titan of investment banking now wracked with dementia, in the hospital. We ate the same meals at the same time, read the same books at the same pace, agreed and disagreed and dissed and soothed one another in simulation of the vacillations of a single mind.
Soon no mental effort was required to inhabit Grace’s identity. Dressed the same as she was, carrying on the same life, with the same things to say about it, I became increasingly unselfconscious, losing myself in a state of Grace.
By the end of the first year we were constantly colliding, reaching for the laptop at the same time, going to refill our wine glasses simultaneously. We could go entire evenings speaking in unison, our thoughts like meshed gears in a watch. My old life and name faded to abstraction. It was bliss. Then Grace was diagnosed with cancer.
We had never discussed dying in the context of being the same person. The news, coming on the heels of Grace’s annual gynecology appointment, prompted a stark reversal in her outlook.
The distinction most people draw between life and art is that life is more serious, that it goes on where art ends. There is comfort, I suppose, in the idea that while we pursue our creative aims, certain constants will wait for us—our homes and families and pets and so on—undergirding the exotic circumstances we invent for ourselves. That we can return home at the end of the fantasy, that the artistic life is somehow bracketed, that the brackets can be taken off, scanned over, willfully ignored when convenient—this was the conclusion Grace came to within a week of her diagnosis.
Having cruised for years on the inertia of Grace’s pre-cancer personality, I experienced the shift in her attitude as a kind of psychic whiplash. The person I had spent two years becoming was now changing faster than I could adapt. I felt myself falling behind her, myself and herself separating out of me like fat from milk. All at once she was insisting we abandon the project, get married and move to Vermont. It was confusing, to say the least. I was 22. I had dropped out of school, had no possessions of my own, was living off of Grace’s family money. I asked her, “Is this really what I want?” “Yes,” she said. “This is what I want.”
After we got married we moved into a house near Montpelier, this little outbuilding some farmers had renovated into a bed and breakfast to bring in supplementary income. We rented the whole property, signed a yearlong contract. The housing allowance from Grace’s trust fund covered everything.
For about a month it felt like endless vacation. We’d wake up at noon and walk the grounds, drive into town and visit the library and the cheese shop and read the wacky local newspaper, and in the evenings we’d sit on the porch and watch the fireflies and read our library books by lanternlight. Every week we’d drive about two hours to see Grace’s doctor. She’d opted out of the traditional treatments, didn’t want chemo or radiation, and so we were always ferrying these strange substances back and forth in the car, various tinctures and balms and healing plants the specialist had recommended. It all seemed a bit off to me, but I was a kid, had no idea what to say or do about any of it. It was hard. That’s why in the end I ran away.
Two months in I’d had enough. I packed a suitcase in secret and kept it hidden in the basement. One night, after Grace had fallen asleep, I wheeled it up to the driveway and set off the ten miles into town. There was one bus a day running from Montpelier to Burlington and then on to Boston and New York. I remember arriving at the stop right as the sun was coming up, the sky lightening and the birds starting to sing. I sat on the bench outside a busted-up CVS for hours, gripped by a fear that Grace would come looking for me in the car and I’d have to explain myself. But the moment the bus pulled up and I took my seat and we started moving I knew I had done the only thing I could to take back possession of myself.
I imagined Grace waking up to find me not there, her searching for me and then realizing what had happened. There was guilt in that thought, a stab of morality, of wrongdoing for abandoning her. As the distance between us widened I kept waiting for some hook to snag inside me, my guilt tightening to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore and I had to go back. But as the towns turned into other towns and the landscape got denser, the office parks and malls and rest stops agglomerating into suburbs and cities, I felt that guilt start to unwind, and then somewhere around Worcester it unraveled all at once, that whole clotted mass of feeling coming apart. I almost started crying right there on the bus. The sense of myself I’d put into a coma when Grace and I first got together opened its eyes and took a breath.
About three months after I’d gotten out, I ran into an old mutual friend of ours, one of the other drawing instructors I’d modeled for at the design department. We chatted and caught up for a bit and then he asked me if I’d heard. “Heard what?” I asked. “Grace is back,” he told me. “She kicked it. She’s in remission.” If it had been anyone else I would have been stunned. With Grace the feeling was more complicated. We hadn’t spoken since I’d left, were still technically married. I was relieved that she wasn’t dying anymore but the suddenness of the turnaround left a bad taste in my mouth, like I’d been duped somehow, shown a trick I couldn’t quite understand.
She’s still alive, you know. Remarried, living well. We talk once a year, on her birthday. I call and we check in, never more than fifteen minutes. We always know everything the other one is going to say. There are no surprises. We know each other inside out.
Ben Lasman’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in Granta, Tin House, Wired, Zyzzyva and elsewhere. He is a former writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and a member of the Brooklyn-based writers’ group All Happy Families. He is at work on a novel.
Image: Flickr / kris krüg