The Other Me
It’s my birthday, but it isn’t my night.
I arrive at the gallery and the crowd swallows me, a forest of elbows and shoulders and plastic cups of cheap wine. Even in heels I can’t see more than a few feet around me, but I can visualize the pigeon’s‑eye view. My best friend Linnea’s paintings pinned to the walls by spotlight beams; the gallery floor a seething mandala of humanity bunching, circling, coming together, and separating.
I slip between the bodies, giving out smiles and one- armed hugs. A while back I dated a guy who liked to say he didn’t know why people even celebrated birthdays. So you’d made it through another year— big deal. It wasn’t as if it was an accomplishment. He was one of those people who are always trying to prove how little they care about things, and I, dazzled by good hair and carefully cultivated body funk, took way too long to pick up on it. Tonight, though, I almost agree with him. People wish me Happy birthday and it’s all I can do not to reply, So what?
Sour grapes isn’t a good look. It’s natural to be envious of your best friend—particularly when she has a solo exhibition while you, at freshly turned twenty-nine, have yet to get your paintings into a real gallery—but it’s not constructive. Linnea would be happy for me if our positions were reversed. I’ve come to her opening to support her, and I keep a smile on my face, but my heart’s not in it. Ordinarily I’d be happy to soak up the class- reunion atmosphere: I keep running into people I haven’t seen in forever. Everyone we went to art school with loved Linnea. Most of them loved me too—in the shallow and intense way you love like-minded people with whom you share a rite of passage— but in the past couple of years a lot of us have fallen out of touch, our interactions limited to liking one another’s posts on social media. It’s taken Linnea’s getting gallery representation to draw us all to the same place. Success is more of a magnet than sentiment. People hope it’ll rub off.
I wasn’t always so cynical.
It’s good that so many people came tonight. That means reviews, which means visitors, which means collectors. Which means money, not that Linnea needs it. Everyone asks whether I’m showing anywhere, but they don’t seem surprised when I say I’m not. I choose not to feel insulted, the same way I choose not to get upset when people think it’s their business that I’m still single. In my view, being unattached makes having a career easier, though I’m further away from a meaningful career than I was when I graduated from art school.
I finish my plastic cup of chardonnay and make my way to the bar for another. I’m usually more of a microbrews-and-craft-cocktails kind of girl, but I take what I can get for free. “Kelly!” I hear as I’m turning back toward the room, wine in hand, and here’s Linnea, tall and goddess-like, the crowd parting for her the way it never does for me. She gives me a hug, then tugs me by the wrist to talk to a woman with the sleek, pinched look of an aging trophy wife. A collector. “This is the artist I was telling you about,” Linnea says to her, and the woman smiles and extends a bejeweled hand. Linnea comes from a wealthy family, part of Chicago’s Black elite, which affords her connections as well as the time and space to make work full-time. I try as hard as I can not to resent this.
The collector asks a few polite questions about my work and excuses herself, depositing my card in a snakeskin clutch that probably cost more than a month’s rent on my apartment. Linnea stands off to the side in consultation with a slender man wearing a mustard yellow waistcoat and a well-tended mustache, someone who works for the gallery. I scan the crowd for people I haven’t talked to yet, wondering idly what my life would look like if I quit. Stopped making the scene, stopped schmoozing people who might buy my work or put it in a gallery. Moved out to the country and rented a romantic tumbledown cabin where I could pile up unsold paintings undisturbed. It’s the kind of dream only someone with money could realize, the same as the urban artist’s life I’m striving for now. After I came to Chicago, it didn’t take me long to learn, contrary to any ideas I might have developed growing up in small-town Michigan, that there was nothing special about me. Nobody would catch sight of me lying on the sidewalk and see my sparkle and pick me up; I had to hustle like everyone else.
If I let go of expectations—my own and the ones I imagine others have for me—would I still paint? Maybe my fear of being seen as a failure, of being ordinary, is the only thing that keeps me going. But I’ve chosen this path, and I need to see it through until I can’t anymore. And all things considered, I like my life. It’s not perfect, but it’s mine. I can look back and see the result of every choice I’ve made—not all of them good—leading me to this point.
Someone calls my name. Very distinctly, first and last: Kelly Holter. I look around, but no one seems to be searching for me. I see Bobby, Linnea’s boyfriend, towering above the crowd, and start to make my way toward him.
All of a sudden, I’m not feeling well. If this were anyone else’s opening but Linnea’s, I would leave.
The warmth of the packed gallery, pleasant at first after the nip of the April evening, is stifling. The hard surfaces break the voices and music into a vicious babble. Dizziness washes over me. I feel a heave of nausea and change course toward the bathroom, jettisoning my wine on one of the linen-wrapped cocktail tables. Outside the bathroom door I run into a trio of art school classmates. “Kelly! Happy Saturn return!” one of them cries. I flap a hand in greeting but don’t break stride. I need the church-like echoes of white tile; I need to pat cool water onto my temples. Blood pounds in my head, shadows encroaching on the edges of my vision like mold growth in a time-lapse video, covering my eyes as I run the last few steps to the door.
I open it into another life.
Everything is black and throbbing. A rising oscillation fills my head, like the time I inhaled the gas from a whipped cream canister at a particularly dismal after-party. Chartreuse flares pop before my eyes. I lurch forward, trying to keep my feet under me.
The wah-wah-wah in my ears resolves to voices. Not the decorous dull roar of a gallery on opening night. A shout.
For a baffled couple of seconds I think Linnea must have engineered this somehow, gotten everyone ready to surprise me when I came out of the bathroom. It’s the kind of thing she would do. Except I was heading into the bathroom, not out, and where I am feels bigger than even the most spacious ladies’ room.
I pull in a breath. Instead of perfume and air freshener, the air smells like garlic. I read somewhere that a strong, out‑of‑context odor can herald a seizure. Is that what’s happening? Am I having a fucking stroke?
My hand flails out and finds the back of a chair. I close my eyes until the dizziness passes. When I open them I see my hand gripping the chair, one of those upholstered metal- framed ones you see in unfashionable restaurants. I lift my head to take in a dim room with a dropped ceiling, a long white- covered table with candles in red glass jars, a blur of faces. I can’t focus on any of it beyond the flash of impossible realization.
I’m not in the gallery anymore.
Excerpted from The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng. Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Zachrich Jeng. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.