Dependency Ballad

It is the morning of my nineteenth birthday when, after Sara treats me to steamed eggs and crème fraîche at a French restaurant in the village, we duck past sequin-hat tourists and tchotchke stalls en route to the MoMA. I have never been before, and the darkened windows on each floor leave me feeling grey, undersaturated. Sara agrees. We share an affinity for the clear, the crisp, the pure, like the night wind over the marsh walkway where we first kissed a year earlier in California or the eastern light from the big window in my Berkeley home, out of which she’s just helped me move.

We are not at the MoMA, though, to see anything held in a windowed room, so open and exposed. Instead, we speed through our rounds in the permanent collections and head to an interior gallery, kept nice and white and sterile by virtue of its temporality there. Here is Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency. A mutual friend of ours has suggested that we go, and I, knowing next to nothing about it, agree. Sara has said nothing good nor bad about it since we made plans to go a few days earlier, but she is an art student; I trust her with this exhibit as I trust her with favorite books I’ve lent to her, childhood stories, homesickness.

The exhibit, I learn from the first photos in view after we curve around a white half-wall into an enclosed room, is not birthday material. Around us are yellows reminiscent of jaundice and liver disease, whites and purples like cigarette butts and gasoline puddles. I, a serial reader of exhibit introductions, turn to the few paragraphs written on the wall and attempt to contextualize it all, polishing my private-school vocabulary for when we finally enter.

We make our way slowly around the room, photos with clean black frames thrusting out an inch from the white walls, as if to be in-your-face, but only tastefully. Sara and I do not look at each other for a while as we sidestep the narrow room. I laugh every now and then; the photos are the antithesis of celebratory. Trixie on the Cot. The Hug. Buzz and Nan at the Afterhours. Through the bleakness, the angry blues, the washed-out skin, the only thing I find to celebrate is that I might now be at an age at which I’d be unembarrassed seeing this with my parents. Maybe. Some moments I expect Sara to analyze out loud to me, in her funny, quiet, out-of-breath way, why these photos are beautiful. But even Philippe H. and Suzanne Kissing at Euthanasia and Rise and Monty Kissing are brimming with a violence that fills the spaces between their romance and passion. Two people, exploding into one another. It is foreign to us. Neither of us say anything.

I continue to walk, just behind Sara.

Her head is shaved — it has been since the beginning of summer — so as she stands in front of me I do not see the jiggling her bob used to make when her head shook at something in disapproval. Now, it is only when she turns and looks up at me that I realize she has been doing it for a while, maybe since we stepped into the room.

“I don’t like Nan Goldin,” she whispers, her accent softening the dig.

“No? Why?” I ask.

“She makes people seem ugly,” Sara says.


“Yes,” she says.

Later that year, for Christmas, I will buy her a Phaidon book inscribed by Lorna Simpson, full of paintings and collages furious and devastating and clean. She will marvel at the Sharpie signature, and we will sit on the phthalo blue couch in my dad’s Sausalito apartment, fog from the bay wrapping around the windows like big, white dust-sheets keeping us warm and untouched inside. We will take big breaths in as she turns from page to page of the artist making queens of black and white cut-out portraits, photo frames from noose-ropes. Dignified. Beautiful.

Eventually I nod in agreement. We agree on most things, save for rom-coms (I: for; she: against) and beets (see: rom-coms). It’s easier this way; we get all the comfort and perfect-fittingness of young love but with only one unit to care for, only one point of view, nothing to fight about. More time for her to surprise me with comically large brioches with pink sugar beads from a bakery on Union Square near her classes, more time for us to make for each other Altoid box art projects as anniversary gifts whose nail polish smell never fades no matter how often we open them up when we miss our other half (tu me manques, she taught me to say months ago, you are missing from me). We have never fought.

But as we continue I realize that the way I am dragging my feet, as if pulled down by the cold gravity of the photographs, is feigned. I like them — love them, in fact, journal entries from a grimy New York underworld as out-of-reach to me as it is sanguine, unpretentious, elegant. We follow the rest of the photographs and in my head I renounce my private school education, my weekly grocery stipend, my closet full of crispy oxfords at home. I imagine myself thrash-dancing next to dirty, sweaty friends, tongues throat-deep in each others’ mouths, cigarettes and beer cans collecting on the floor, in a pale, periwinkle bathroom somewhere in the city, or maybe some dirty motel near Truro, Massachusetts. I renounce the white walls, sterilizing it all. I renounce my own renouncing, aware of the hypocrisy of it, loving it all the while.

“Come on,” Sara says to me, her head a foot below mine. “Let’s do the next room.”

I half snap out of it. Walking behind her, I wonder if Sara and I ever look like Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, even sans cigarette. Sometimes, I’m sure we do. It feels good to think about.

The final room of the show is black and curtained shut, and inside snippets of the Velvet Underground and Bronski Beat and Dionne Warwick fade into each other as blown-up photos come and go on the projector screen, sorted haphazardly by subject matter. Stripper Friends. Old Cars. Hypodermic Needles/Forearms. Closing my eyes I imagine I am at a bar, dried beer on the floor like adhesive on my shoe-bottoms, mild domestic disputes between gnarl-toothed artist-types and their boyfriends at nearby tables. Nan, in the back, finger-juggling her cigarette and albums of slides, curating it all. Holy, holy underworld. But I am not there; I am in a museum, arm around Sara’s waist, cheek turned, resting on the prickly crown of her head. I make sure to wince every few photos, loud enough so Sara will hear.


We return to downtown, wend our way back from the West Village to the East. Holding hands. Laughing. Being quiet. Swimming in early-fall sunset orange. Never talking about the museum.

Later, at night, Sara cries into the pocket of an arepa as we slouch, conjoined, in my room, half-watching a benign documentary about Jonathan Gold, the food critic.

“I’m not supposed to cry; this is your birthday,” she says.

She cries not infrequently, once every two weeks or so, often in the safety of my room — about her mother, back in Mexico, or when rain pools in the bottoms of her white Converse high tops. Tonight I am not sure what she is thinking about. Each time she repents for her sobs; each time I tell her I love her because of them.

“You are allowed to feel whatever you want whenever you need to,” I say back.

It has become a mantra by now. She knows I mean it and smiles, kisses me on the temple. She stays the night, and we fall asleep like Man and Woman in Slips, 1980, our legs knotting around each other, her chin tucked into the hollow pool between my neck and collarbone, wider and deeper now than it was before moving to the city. When we go home for Christmas Sara will tell me, then my parents, that I am not eating enough. I tell her I am just walking more than usual. This is how we care for each other: worriedly, like glass vases. For now, everything is okay.

And then strange. Sara begins to ask every now and then if I ever feel deprived because she is not a man. As if there is something she cannot give me. A space she cannot fill. I say no, always, because I am in love with her, because I am scared of men, because when I look at Bobby Masturbating, 1980 I am neither entertained nor aroused like Bobby is, looking down at his erect penis with reverence that borders on religious. Instead I am fascinated by the swaths of black hair that swirl like hurricane clouds around his arms and chest and stomach, how dark and masculine it is compared to my own parchment-white frame. I start to wonder if Sara is the one who feels deprived because I am not all that much of a man in the first place. I never ask.

Often I feel like I am not enough for her. The mangoes and honey I buy and Incan music I play over bluetooth speaker no longer fill her homesickness for her family’s farm in Morelos. “We are not on the same wavelength,” she starts to say to me, then repeats it every few days.

In the late winter the fibers between us tear. I am scared around her; her interest in me waxes and wanes while the crying only waxes, for both of us now. I cancel plans to be with her, telling friends the acid reflux I had in middle school has returned. She makes me dinner and a mindless joke I make about the colors of the beans and tortillas brings her to tears. Each having made dents in each other, neither of us is whole as we pull away. Neither feels safe with the other.

Still, we spend more and more time together, indoors now, so we won’t see the punks fist fighting on Saint Mark’s, near where I live, or risk taking the subway together where a few weeks ago we were forced out of the Lorimer station as firemen cleaned up the remains of a man who had jumped in front of a train just before we got there. Sara had hidden herself in the fold of my left arm and my chest, small enough to fit, but for the first time I did not know what to do. I had wrapped my arms around her, dumbly, hoping I would find the right move somewhere along the way. So mostly we stay in my room, or hers, where it is clean and empty of outside chaos.

The bread we buy for each other, the Altoid boxes, the poetry — they are no longer gifts but flimsy concessions. Scotch tape on a fault line.

The morning after Valentine’s Day — a night we’ve spent picnicking on my bed with expensive fruit and calamari salad and listening to soft music — we wake up beside each other. By the luxury of her short hair, Sara does not have bedhead in the mornings; she looks serious, put-together from the moment she opens her eyes. When I wake up, I look stupid, like a little kid, my long hair, which only she has cut as I let it grow for the past year into a mushroomy bob, tousled and badly pieced out. Unsmilingly, she looks at me from point blank. Something is askew.

“Do you love me?” I ask, because it feels like the only thing to say in the moment.

“I think so,” she responds.

And that is the end of it. It is unsureness that finally rips us from one another, and in the course of the next few weeks we will fight every other day, I, still in love with her, she, doing her best to convince us both that she is too. One day she locks herself in the bathroom and comes out, forehead red from the butt of her hand, like a slightly-better Nan One Month After Being Battered, her least favorite photograph from the show. I hug her as we both cry, then she goes home, each of us feeling fully at fault. Now I begin really not to eat enough, my eyes yellowing, an omnipresent dizziness obscuring up most moments. My parents panic over how hollow my face starts to look, but I get used to it, start to enjoy the way my arms and legs look tacked-on and weak.

I take photographs of myself in public bathroom mirrors, over the stall doors, so my head looks small and like it’s floating. Self Portrait in Blue Bathroom, London. Someone Nan might have snapped. Someone worthy of that world.

Months from now I will start going to the gym, nervous about the men huffing plosives from the cable machines, but making it through, following it up with big breakfasts and supplements that fill out the spaces under my cheekbones, the pools near my neck. I will look less skeletal, less like dry strands of pasta, someone clean and full and beating. But  for now I half-like the shadows my elbow bones make in flash photos, the way the upward curls at the edges of my lips are slowly fading.

Sara and I stop talking. We do our best to regrow ourselves.


A year later, after turning twenty, I spend two or three Saturday nights a month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, twenty nine blocks north of the MoMA, when most of the day’s visitors have left for dinner or their hotels. A half-hour to close, the Early Renaissance galleries are empty. I stand strong and upright as a caryatid, perhaps for too long, sometimes before a vera iron altarpiece by Duccio, sometimes one by Fra Angelico. I feel now how nonreligious visitors at St. Peter’s may feel when their eyes — as if they could fall anywhere else — settle on Bernini’s Baldacchino: religious in an instant, but here, in front of what is small and unpolished. Each time I trace a thin gold strand lining the Virgin’s robe with my finger in the air, my hand never close enough to the art to trip an alarm or cause a black-suited guard to come and ripple my peace. I look to where the gilding has faded and where swaths of ochre pigment rise to the surface, washed as a base layer to make the gold look warm.

As I wait for the security guards to make their last calls for closing, I shut my eyes. I imagine we — the pieces and me, a pilgrim in my fantasy — are no longer in a museum with its unchanging, bird’s-eye light, its anti-cracking, regulated humidity. In my mind I am in some dark church, sometimes standing, sometimes kneeling, watching as an unsteady flame unflattens the painting, makes each split second of light on the gilded, uneven wood panel fleeting, meteoric, unrepeatable. In the dream I do not pray to a god or goddess or father or son. The holiness is in the crags in the wood, how the hot light finds its way in, then leaves, unable to be captured. In the dream that is what I pray to.

I am always among the last to leave. Making my way from the Astor Place subway stop to my apartment on Avenue C, I step over needles on the ground, walk past the homeless woman who yells hoarsely at me for being so tall every time I see her, sometimes past drunk couples sitting on the sidewalk, slumped motionless against each other, supported by scaffolding poles, beer and vomit on the cement next to them. There is providence in this, too.


Image: “MoMA NY” by xiquinhosilva, licensed under CC 2.0.

Jack Petersen
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