When I’m twenty five, I have a boyfriend named Pyotr who thinks his paintings are real. He paints huge canvases raw red like open mouths or portals, shadowed in bruise colors. They’re full of strange angels like crooked teeth, blackened or yellow, shedding feathers and eyes and wings, rotted claws and dangling organ meat. His paintings, he says, are of another world. He only visits this body. This other world, his real home, is what happened when the USSR spread over the entire planet, challenged God, and God descended his seraphim, monstrous dead blinking things, incomprehensible to the human eye. The seraphim bred with the earth, Pyotr said, fucked her valleys and gorges, and from these sprang the nephilim, humanlike creatures, eight feet tall, impossibly beautiful but agents of decay, interbreeding with humanity, defiling it, to return us to the fold of the Lord, to His infinite void. While we’re involved I walk delicately in the dangerous environment of his beliefs, like a deep sea diver in a protective suit.
I sit for Pyotr the rare times he wants to paint something unsullied because he says no matter how much shit I wallow in I am somehow immune to the corruption, and he isn’t sure how I do that. I know how. It is you. You, my child.
I sit on the stool, drab brown steel flecked with bright slingshot bullets of inspiration, battle wounds from the way Pyotr mixes paint. I can’t sit for as long as his professional models and this often makes him angry with me. Pyotr is beautiful. He uses me and I let him, because his toxicity appeals to me. He isn’t toxic because he’s a misogynist, not because he’s a racist or fascist. He’s toxic because his own joy embarrasses him. He once gets drunk and goes into a Hallmark specifically to smash all the cheerful crappy porcelain figurines. I film him doing it. I have to tell him when I press play on the camcorder because when I first play the footage back to him on the little flip out screen he snaps at me that he looks too happy. He was happy, picking up a doe eyed pair of children eating popcorn, smashing them on the peeling vinyl floor, but he can’t see himself that way or let other people see it. The store calls the cops and he’s taken out of there, handcuffed scowling and blissful, while I tape.
He comes back from the police station the most delusional I’ve seen him. He speaks only Russian. He writes for days, covering a series of spiral notebooks in writing I can’t read. I sleep at my apartment these days because it’s too much for me. But I come over to make him Polish sałatka, which I learned during a college semester I spent in Krakow and which he likes better than his native salat Olivye: cubed potato and apple and ham and egg and pickles, canned peas and carrots, minced dill and parsley, bound using mayonnaise cut with a teaspoon of spicy yellow mustard. We don’t fuck, these days right after he gets back from lockup. I come to his studio, make him huge tubs of salad, wash the dishes. He yells at me over hot coffee. I leave.
He was in the other world for years, he says, when he starts speaking English again. What seemed like a day wasn’t a day. Days are never days, I tell him. Days are years, or a deck of cards, or a flipbook of pencil drawings blurred and smudged by the movement of their passing, or empty boxes in a spreadsheet, or sludge you must wade through until you reach land. Days are a liquid frozen into cubes by photos and journal entries. They run through your fingers. They evaporate in the heat of the sun. Oh yeah, oh yeah, what about my paintings, he says. Painting is distillation, I tell him. Like I don’t know, you take your days and you put them in a big copper thing with little curling tubes and glass pipettes and a beaker sitting squat at the end and out drips a painting. He doesn’t like that analogy, probably because I came up with it. He says he could do better in Russian, and I say go ahead. I don’t speak it. Stun them in Russian. Shock, amaze. I’m sure you can do it, babe.