Losing Irina | Aria Aber | Granta

Losing Irina

Aria Aber

I met Irina that cold, foggy January after I first moved to America. We were both young artists then, enrolled in the same fine arts program, studying under the same professor. I noticed her in a crowd of people getting up to leave after a lecture and though she was all buttoned-up in a brown suede coat and ugly scarf, a pang of envy pulsed through me: she had a face of pure beauty. Irina was skinny in a way I hadn’t been since I’d stopped taking drugs – getting clean was a lie; I wasn’t clean, I just wasn’t using all the time. She had glossy, black hair that hung down to her waist, and her dark eyes were downcast, like those of an ingénue. She could’ve featured in an advertisement for good personal hygiene, I thought. When she noticed me laughing to myself, she smiled as if I were an old friend or relative, and though those first weeks remain dazzling and awkward in my mind, they perhaps serve as an indicator of the course of our friendship.

Our professor introduced us to each other a few minutes later. This is Amira, she said; this is Irina. Our names sounded even more similar in our professor’s accent, and we joked about it. Then we walked to the bus station, past the cafes and restaurants buzzing with undergraduates, the pink Spanish church tucked on a hill close to the wharf where you could see the Golden Gate bridge, and the Turkish coffee shop on Pacific Street. This was over fifteen years ago, and San Francisco smelled different, of salt and mildew rather than gasoline, though something was already changing under our feet. Soon, the city would disappear into a wasteland of digital worldmaking, and our respected school would go defunct, but back then the violence and dissidence of the last century still loomed. I was a foreigner in America, a European citizen on a student visa, and I loved to think of myself that way: a twice-immigrated Afghan girl in the big city, finally living her dreams.

The streets were wet from the rain, and Irina spoke of her upcoming vernissage in the fall, an installation which would be exhibited in a former warehouse. She said she worked her entire life towards this piece, and I restrained myself from joking that she couldn’t have been working on it very long, after all: like me, she was still in her early twenties. Irina’s relationship to art was either before or beyond a point of irony, I wasn’t sure. She was a second-year student, and our professor’s Meisterschülerin, a term borrowed from German, where our professor had been raised under Joseph Beuys not far from the place where I grew up. Meisterschülerin just meant master student, denoting an academic rank, but our professor used it as beatification. When other students said the word, usually with a coarse American accent, it was like passing an insult between their mouths. It meant she was our professor’s star student, her apprentice, the one who’d eventually surpass her.

We met up later that week at a small Japanese restaurant and I watched Irina pick at sashimi. I had ordered noodle soup, which was awkward to eat, and we sat facing the window, side by side, which too was awkward. She talked little, but with precision and control. In turn, I felt like I was speaking gibberish – using too many words, hoping to find the right one between jumbled and non-idiomatic expressions. While I thought about our different eloquences, I became absorbed by the scene in front of us: across the street, a homeless man sat leaning against a shuttered shopfront, inspecting a gaping wound on his shin. When he wiped at his leg with a cloth, he exposed pale skin, which glimmered an unnaturally bright red, and almost instinctively I thought of how much yellow pigment I’d need to achieve the same tone. He poked at the pus, pulled at the skin, and then paused to drink from his flask. When he resumed worrying his leg, I thought he was looking for an answer, or a clue about his condition, though perhaps I was projecting a rational explanation on his tragic and meaningless tick. Eventually, he stuffed something – tissue paper, small pieces of cardboard – into the orifice, and rolled his trousers back down. Already I was sketching him in my mind, his triangular body against the rectangle of the shop window, but when I began talking about it, Irina just shook her head. She looked away undisturbed, and gestured with her disproportionately large sculptor’s hands while continuing a topic she had broached earlier: the ending of a recent relationship for the sake of her art. I didn’t know whether she hadn’t heard me, or if she was just bored; either way her attitude perturbed me, but soon I too forgot to see the man, and instead watched our reflections in the glass.

She only drank one glass of wine, and refused the second with the kind of casual restraint that irked me. I preferred awkward friend dates where you end up so tipsy you both roll home, abloom with regret but laughing, leaking secrets. The itch for intensity was a remnant from my druggy days, and it was easier to achieve with women – we get drunk quicker. Despite her refusal to join me in this, I sensed a darkness in her, which enticed me as much as her seriousness.

We discovered that the surface of our lives was very similar, even though I had grown up in a university town a thirteen-hour flight from here and she had spent her childhood in a house surrounded by the New Mexico desert. We both had one sibling – my brother was three years older, hers four – an emotionally distant mother, and a father who left our families when we were young. Mine started a new family and hers had disappeared back to Iran, never to be seen again. Heritage too connected us – I wasn’t Iranian but close enough, and though her mother was Russian we had the same olive skin tone and dark hair. Classmates and teachers often asked us if we were sisters. And yet, her life had been an arrow shot straight into the famous professor’s world and a solo show at twenty-five. While I had been snorting speed off a club toilet seat, getting undressed by strangers and spending sleepless days doing nothing but talking shit and taking more drugs, I imagined her crafting subtle sculptures under buzzing studio light. At twenty-four years old, I was already shattered and trying to recover while she shone safe and unalloyed, as if flaunting what was possible.

The country I’d left behind was nothing I liked to talk about. I grew up a few hours west of Berlin, in a council block enclosing a concrete playground. But most of my childhood was spent in the university library, where my mother deposited me and my brother while working shifts at the canteen. It was there I first encountered art – a Velasquez print of Las Meninas hung in the special collections room, and I spent hours staring at it, mesmerized by the shift in perspective, the light invigorating the fabric of the girl’s dress, and later, in school, I would try to draw similarly elaborate scenes, smuggling in elusive self-portraits. I barely spoke to my brother – we were close as children, but he had turned into a strange adult, fidgeting and paranoid, always looking for the nearest exit, whispering about a new world order. He mixed sea moss into sugary drinks and kept books of botany nearby. Now he lived in Cologne, where he flipped cars – or stole them, I wasn’t sure. In any case, I had only seen him a handful of times in the last few years. My mother had fallen ill when I was eighteen, with a condition that was slowly eroding her muscle tissue and since she never remarried it was my responsibility to care for her. But I fled to Berlin, where I lived with a DJ, an older man with an unhealthy amphetamine habit, and my mother, who never liked to show signs of need, or weakness, or love, only called to discuss the medications and treatments her doctors prescribed. Of course, I knew the pact I’d broken, and heard, or believed I could hear, reproach and loneliness in her voice.

I occasionally sent her money from my waitressing salary and lied about my studies in Berlin. But I’d lost my place at the prestigious college because I preferred partying, and on the weekends, when I could’ve visited my mother, I jumped from one dancefloor to another. New clubs were sprouting everywhere and most of my friends lived in communal spaces where art was valued, but only very few made it; most of us sunk into consumption and woke up one day on the other side of a decade ruined. Looking at Irina, I felt ashamed to admit to any of it, let alone tell her about my recent psychotic break. You aren’t a serious artist, my teacher told me, you will never amount to anything. Why aren’t you moving back home, my mother said when I told her about moving to the new country – the disappointment in her face, the way she’d refused to return my gaze, would haunt me for the better part of my adult life. So the degree in California presented the chance to prove everyone wrong, and, though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, the relief to forget about myself.

The university was on the eastern part of the peninsula, on a hill close to the water, and sometimes I took the cable car up to the wharf, arriving to class with a windswept and frenzied exhilaration. Walking a few blocks to the south, you reached the warehouse where our studios were. The second-year studio space, where Irina worked, was right next to ours, and when I walked out to the communal kitchen to refill my thermos mug with wine from the cooler, I found her at the table, picking at a bowl of strawberries. She radiated power, even during break, sitting there with a straight back and a sketchbook. This performance of commitment seemed ridiculous on the surface, but I secretly envied her, and over the semester, I grew determined to leave the stink of failure behind in the old country, trying to log as many hours in the studio as she did. Meisterschülerin, I whispered to myself in the correct pronunciation, smiling as I mixed the colors to paint the homeless man.

The seasons in California destabilized my sense of natural color; even in the gray fog of winter, a purple gauze hung in the air, and flowers bloomed with ferocious will. My paintings, as if through refusal, turned grayer and darker, which surprised me. In Germany, I had reached for yellow and magenta, but here I was oversaturated with them, and took comfort in the spectral aura of our empty corridors at night, when it was just Irina, me, and the Chinese fashion girls roaming the building. Those nights were the calmest and happiest I’d ever been, working with the radio operator’s lulling voice in between songs by Bob Dylan or the Stones, until all sense of time was lost, and the boundary between me and the paintbrush was corroded. I really believed in the fallacy that I could be my brush; I was my brush. But distraction was always near. No matter what time of day you wanted to stop working, you could find a party, or bar, or brunch spot, or someone’s apartment where people were still getting drunk. I always went out to drink, sometimes even to get high, and on the way home to the dorms I’d buy powdery donuts or bags of M&Ms from the corner store. I’d wolf down everything on the street, dizzy from the booze, and then I’d try to vomit into a bush. Sometimes I brought an entire chocolate cake home which I’d chew and spit, often naked in front of the mirror, to remember how fat and ugly I was.

Meanwhile, Irina counted calories and rarely came out. If she did, she stuck to that one glass of wine, preferably white and dry. Her tights never ripped, and she carried around Q-tips to fix her mascara. That her control was not necessarily healthy, that absence had become its own substance, was rather boring to me, though I did sometimes fantasize about her Ur-wound, the traumatic memory image from which her asceticism sprung: an aunt who’d critiqued her looks, or a particularly brutal ex-boyfriend. Perhaps her mother had lost all her money gambling? These fantasies nourished me, and I grew enamored with the negative space between our lives and art, which seemed to contain the secret to the tension of our friendship. She started as a painter in oil and acrylic, like me, and now focused on sculptures, which meant that she believed in the superiority of the haptic, the material. The three-dimensionality of sculpture confused me, yet I felt her craft was superior to mine. Sculpture was; it created and embodied its own project, whereas painting only represented. After all, sculpture is the embodiment of place, our professor often said, parroting Heidegger. And here was a young woman who was careful of her own embodiment, but whose life’s work was to make tangible the contents of her mind, to take up more and more space, a paradox which, if I thought about it alone in my studio at night, aroused me to an almost erotic degree.

I didn’t want to sleep with her, although I did occasionally wonder if I would have loved her if she were a man. I was attracted to her for the same reason I was attracted to the musician I was dating at the time: they were serious about their practices, and by proximity I might finally absorb their devotion, and experience the Real Essence of artistic creation. Looking back, I can’t say if my obsession with her simply derived from our classroom dynamic which was competitive by design, and always revolved around the favorite of the year. What I can say, however, is that Irina also harbored a strange, if self-possessed, interest for me; she visited me in the studio, and carefully noted down everything I said in class. She copied my nail polishes and perfume, and one day appeared in the same outfit I wore, down to the red boots, all of which I welcomed with flattery and an increasing confidence.

At the time, she was working on alien animals shaped out of porcelain. The pieces were unassuming at first glance, reminiscent of vintage figurines, but their power lay in their surreal physicality – the cat missed an eye; the cow had the head of a human. They resembled a horrid specular image, I said to Irina once: her sculptures bordered the abject. My own work was messy and maximalist: I preferred big canvases, my brushstrokes were unfocused, my paintings exceeded the frame. I needed to find restraint, Irina said, unsurprisingly; I needed to limit myself.

Although I was suspicious of her beauty – the jealous part of me was convinced that beautiful people couldn’t be great artists since their looks impeded their perception of reality – I was also seduced by the Platonic idea of the vessel as direct representation of the spirit. And it was exciting when she trained her attention on me. I felt warmed in the light of her laughter, which was energetic and loud even if rare, and stimulated by the frankness of her critical assessment. Soon we became each other’s sounding boards. Disregarding the comments of my workshop group, I shared the most important paintings only with her. When I was painting an abstract rendering of the mountains of Kabul, she told me exactly which colors to avoid. Seeing my still lives, she insisted on more playfulness. When we spent time in each other’s studios, all other students faded away, and we chatted with feverish intensity about our lives and influences. She whispered about fate, of a supernatural hand that lifted her out of her humble background. No one expected her to finish college; she was the first one in her family to go. Her single mother cried for two hours when Irina told her she’d received a full ride for a master’s degree in California.

I felt different. Irina thought of herself as having grown organically, against all odds, through the thick of her childhood. I thought of myself as a diseased piece that had fallen off and contaminated all from which it came. What I mean is that Irina already thought of her life as a success, and I continued to see myself as a failure, ridden by guilt for having abandoned my Afghan mother.

Self-mythologizing was a ubiquitous hobby among the students, and it felt imperative to understand your life as a narrative: around us, people were making it. We were retailing ourselves, our identities, in case we too would pass the threshold. At night, sitting in the empty studio kitchen, we listed what we would sacrifice in order to also make it: unborn children, future husbands, happiness. Perhaps even a limb. Although we laughed, we meant it; we truly believed in the sacrificial nature of our trades. Other young artists, some of whom became incredibly famous very fast, started selling pieces all over the world. The amount of money available just at the next corner was infuriating and dizzying, utterly tempting. One of the recent graduates, Marie, was someone who had entered the vague realm of making it: a group show in Paris, representation from a gallery in Los Angeles and twenty-thousand dollars – how much she’d sold her sculpture for, a number which at the time felt abstract and unreasonable.

Good for her, Irina said, and smiled with a serenity that suggested an absence of envy – she was convinced it would happen for her too. I remember leaving her apartment to smoke on the street, enchanted that she had cloth napkins and fine silverware. Even though most of the students lived in dorms or shared houses, she lived like an adult in a one-bedroom apartment I didn’t know how she paid for. She insisted she didn’t come from money, and I never pressed further; you couldn’t do that with Americans. Looking up at her kitchen window, her basil plant, and waiting for something grand to happen, I laughed about my silly life, amazed how far I had come from the small town in Germany with its cobblestoned streets. But she only briefly moved her hand into the frame.

May came with torrents of rain which softened my cotton dresses and the pages of my favorite sketchbooks. My first year ended and Irina’s class graduated – her piece for the final show was a life-sized porcelain fox, all its limbs deconstructed and glazed over with an intricate China pattern. Instead of celebrating, she turned into a ghost, and worked day and night for her upcoming solo show. Meanwhile, I took a three-week job nannying for a psychiatrist on the family holiday to Russian River. While there, I stopped drawing and sketching entirely, and mostly ate fruit. I spent the whole day in the water with the children and, when I arrived home, brushed the sand out of my hair and rinsed it from of my buttocks. Those days, I felt like a newborn – soft, agitated, and pure. I always loved summer, its physical inevitability, its stink and goriness. ‘I hate summer,’ Irina emailed me one day out of the blue. ‘Nothing works, nothing sticks.’ I didn’t reply, except sending a link to a YouTube song. The season always made me forget my ambitions and insecurities alike.

It must’ve been the first week of September, during the full moon, when Irina’s exhibition opened. I felt slimmer and darker, more glimmering than at the beginning of break, and although the wind was very strong that day, I wore my hair down. Irina wore a white dress, long and flowy, and was carrying flowers all evening. An air of self-satisfaction glowed on her face, which reminded me of the Virgin in Renaissance paintings. The space was packed with the usual suspects, but there were unknown faces too, mostly those of older couples framed by expensive, abstract jewelry. Irina seemed to know everyone, smiled at them, flitting around in her vintage Manolo mules, which annoyed me, for some reason.

The art, too, annoyed me – it was good, better than I had hoped. The show was called Self-Portrait, a title she had kept secret from me for the last year, and the arrangement of objects in the white-painted warehouse room was familiar and yet astounding. It wasn’t on the ground floor – we had to walk a narrow flight of metal stairs into a hall with exposed pipes and a wall of windows, the urban sunset eclipsed by the cityscape and distant hills, the water glistening just behind it.

Her tiny sculptures – Aztec vases and teacups, stools built out of wood, all those surreal porcelain animals – were arranged in circles, like an audience, around a white lily, about six feet high, formed out of clay and glazed over in a uniform matte white. From the ceiling, a metal bowl dripped purple paint, scattering the sculpture with small, feathery drops. Over time, Irina said, the sculpture would be covered in a different color. Circular mirror shards fastened to fishing twine hung from the ceiling at various lengths, and because of the wind that entered through the open windows, they moved slowly, prismatically, reflecting what looked like planets or moons onto the walls. It was a living exhibition, a piece that would breathe and change in the two weeks it existed. At once arterial and carnal, the installation contradicted the controlled surface of her methodically groomed body. This was an organic formation, derived from a deep and vivid intuition. The play between reflective surfaces and dripping paint violated all rules. It was uncanny; it was a sculpture from hell.

When I saw her, I gasped, complimenting her effusively, with a tear in my eye that I wasn’t sure was genuine. You’re incredible, I kept saying, and she kissed my palm. I didn’t tell her that the other room was less convincing. A projector played grainy footage of a Persian movie onto an empty wall, where her deformed miniature roosters and cats stood on pedestals below framed photographs of Soviet and Polish thinkers. This is an autobiography, I thought; this isn’t a self-portrait. Nonetheless I understood that it was real art, especially the Venusian lily, whose figurative vulgarity exhibited none of the frivolity I’d expected from someone who looked like Irina, though it had all the fright I suspected to be at her center.

Later that evening, still giddy in the glare of her vernissage, a group of us walked to the dive bar in the neighborhood, and Irina finally allowed herself to get drunk. She was engaged in playing a game of yes, which one of the other students had introduced her to; yes to the rows of vodka shots lined up on the counter; yes to the joint and the cigarettes; yes to dancing on the table; yes to kissing one of the bartenders on the mouth. She took off her shoes and walked around barefoot, but even now, she ensured her make-up was not smeared. Brought out her pocket mirror, and carefully padded under her eye for loose pigment. This gesture of control struck me as particularly sinister; yes, I noted, here was the darkness which I had recognized in her during our early friendship, and the darkness I’d seen again in the sculpture from hell. In the bathroom she giggled as she hovered over the toilet, her face open and uninhibited, and when I haphazardly suggested we go to the beach together she instantly agreed: yes, right now.

We left the others. I was walking towards the train station when Irina decided to flag a taxi, and as we waited for an empty car on that windy hill I smoked two cigarettes crouching on the curb. You’re beautiful, Irina said to me from above, and started petting my hair. I laughed loudly at this, then turned very quiet. My beauty was meaningless in comparison to hers, and so was my art. Everything about the girl in front of me eclipsed the little I had, and despite my best efforts to remember all the other ugly artists who had come before me – Michelangelo, Andy Warhol, Virginia Woolf – I felt very, very inferior. But by the time we sat in the taxi, I’d forgotten about my ugliness and instead was consumed by the guilt about my daughterly duties, the pain that palpitated underneath all my other pains. My mother had recently spent a week in the hospital. I couldn’t speak about it, but seeing Irina’s face lit up by the cityscape, I felt something deep and unalloyed, like the love for a sibling.

I love California, I said with tears in my eyes, because it was the closest I could come to a confession about my mother. For the first time since I moved to America, I felt the weight of my loneliness in this country, the utter irrationality with which I had left everyone behind on another continent – and for what? To spend every night in the studio painting the scene with the homeless man, over and over again? To one day, maybe, sell a piece for twenty thousand dollars? I felt terribly young and alone and was both yearning for and afraid of trespassing the walls Irina kept around her. So I started talking about San Francisco, its vastness and wilderness, its hills and dilapidated mansions. I was comparing the city to Berlin, landlocked, grey, and incapable of surprising you, or my hometown in the West, with the Gothic churches and narrow streets, the buses I took to school forty-five minutes each way, wanting to die.

Stop with the old-world yammer, you’re going to the Pacific Ocean, Irina said. She rolled down the windows and asked the driver to turn up the music. With the wind battering the car, we sang along loudly over the network of highways which Californians call freeways, we sang and laughed and shrieked. When the cab driver let us out, it was very dark, but the wind had calmed down. I was still laughing when the sight of the full moon stunned us into silence. It was the color of bones. When I mentioned to Irina that the moon wants to be compared, that its beauty practically begs for representation and figuration, she disagreed. She called this the great fallacy and insisted that the trick was to be quiet and mute in its presence, to see it as it really was, in phenomenological purity. The sand was colder and softer than I expected. Sitting there in front of the desolate cliffs and dark rock formations and cold ocean whose water traveled all the way from Alaska, I felt like we could reach the precipice of something bigger than ourselves. We sat close to each other, huddled, and talked about our childhoods and, after a while, Irina started crying.

You’re my only friend, she said suddenly, and I returned the gesture from earlier and kissed her palm.

What followed then is hard to speak about. It reflects a spitefulness within me I neither fully comprehend nor like to think of. Irina’s shoulders softened and she told me a story from her youth. Terrible things her mother’s boyfriend had said to her, the period where she almost starved herself to death, the pink hospital bracelet on her wrist. Her voice transformed into wordless melody as I began taking stock of the ocean’s color – black and purple more than blue, buttery foam. Irina was sobbing now; she was finally uninhibited. But the familiarity of the story disappointed me – it rearranged the image I had constructed of her, and her mysterious, almost villainous control revealed itself as merely a veneer for a commonplace child. It was boring. She hadn’t been beaten by an ex-boyfriend and didn’t come from a long line of disgraced Iranian royalty. Unlike mine, no one in her family was an addict, schizophrenic, or had killed themselves. I understood then that her darkness was inherent to her, it was in the way she saw the world, rather than a wound the world had inflicted upon her. It sprang through her like a well in the earth, and shaped the aura of her art. She was a chosen one. Realizing this, her tears repulsed me. What was she crying for? I was very drunk and didn’t know what to say. The quietness that followed felt heavy like a body and because I couldn’t tell whether I had introduced it or if it was a natural rift in our conversation, it terrified me. It’s possible Irina was still speaking when I took off my dress and ran towards the water and shouted for her to join me. After a moment of hesitation, she followed, and we stood there in our underwear, holding hands; we allowed the mouth of the ocean to thrash against our bodies. We weren’t very deep, the water slapped our thighs, but because the ocean is vast and violent and demands a response, our silence turned to laughter, and our laughter turned to screaming, until we reached an insane pitch which seemed to originate from neither her nor me nor the water, but from somewhere below us.

As if buoyed by the frothy waves, I screamed louder. I was ready for something to happen. I wanted more: terror, catharsis, to forget about my mother. Perhaps I even mentioned this to her. But at some point during my banshee howl for the moon, Irina had let go of my hand. It took me a minute to realize that she was shouting my name from the sand, telling me to stop. I was still laughing when I turned around to face her, to ask her what was wrong, but when I caught a glimpse of her face in the moonlight, the wind tearing through the silk of the night, I felt genuine dread: appalled, she was appalled with me. She looked frail and boyish there, just in her underwear. Marine-blue, silver, skin the color of teeth.

You’re always going too far, she was saying, something is wrong with you. She was telling me to calm down. But I was hurt and proud and childish; I walked further into the icy ocean and closed my eyes, surrendering my weight to the waves until I couldn’t feel my hands anymore. I was afraid, I think, of the real Irina – in my mind, she had possessed a wild intelligence, which was about to fade away. By the time I gathered up the strength to face her, Irina was gone.

Her dress, her shoes, her bag – everything was gone. I tried to look for her, shouting her name on the lonely beach, but eventually I took the train home, shivering and cursing.

In the month after, we went for lunch a couple of times, but something between us had been shattered. Irina refused to speak about that night on the beach, and I grew afraid to bring it up. Eventually, during her final week in San Francisco, a letter arrived – in neat handwriting, Irina wrote of our first dinner together, my grotesque ogling of the homeless man with his wound, that my subsequent painting of him repulsed her. I ruined her big day with my ‘incessant need for intensity’. I was shocked to hear her accusations, to see the sentence You want to see me break. For a few hours, I sat in my dorm room and stared out the window. I felt sick but couldn’t eat. Hadn’t we both participated in it, the intensity? Hadn’t she run into the ocean with me? And when I had brought up the homeless man, hadn’t she shrugged it off? Wasn’t the real cruelty ignorance? I wanted to respond to her epistle like a lawyer, to make a case for myself, to prove that I had not wronged her. But later that evening, I left messages on her answering machine, apologizing vaguely for burdening her with my life, for not caring about hers when she spoke. Nothing came back. She first moved out of the university’s studio space, then out of the city.

Her exhibition granted her some success, though it wasn’t the life-changing praise she expected – the biggest review called the self-portrait ‘messy and uncontrolled’, an ironic judgement for someone like Irina. But I was suddenly relieved to find her wounded, insecure and conventional. And after my second year, I moved to Brooklyn where a small college sponsored my work visa.

Irina, in turn, married a tech magnate twice her age and moved to Los Angeles. She has mostly stopped working in sculpture. According to the tabloids, she was dating him throughout our master’s program, which explained her apartment and expensive shoes – but back then he was still married to a reality TV star, and they kept their relationship secret. I was stunned by her loyalty to this bald man, by how serious she took the pact of their privacy. The walls around her were partly to do with him and what I assumed had been wounds of childhood were wounds of the present, things she never shared with anyone. Because of the media scandal with the socialite, and because of her youth, I assume, her sales skyrocketed for a few years. She made ceramics that were utilities – a limited mug series, wiggly candle holders, avant-garde bowls and salt and pepper shakers, none of them as murky or electrifying as the uncanny figurines she sculpted in school. And her house in the Los Angeles canyons – a renovated mansion which once belonged to a famous music producer – was featured in apartamento magazine, which I resentfully leafed through. She was still beautiful, although she looked much older now, with a sensible haircut and a plumpness to her face.

Then last spring, out of nowhere, Irina arrived in my mailbox. I remember this piece, the card said, referring to my first big success, a painting which was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial. But the painting had nothing to do with Irina. I hadn’t spoken to her about it; hadn’t invited her critique. In fact, it didn’t even exist when we were still friends: it was a painting I started a few months after moving to the East Coast. It was wholly and totally myself, and I had spent a year in the studio trying to perfect the articulation of textures. It was a maximalist piece, a giant linen canvas stretched and tinted with tea, then painted over with blue and white acrylic paint, over and over, and I danced it more than I painted it – I made it with my entire body, walked up and down the lengths of the studio, at times I crouched in front of the corners, rocking back and forth, and I remember one particular evening, sitting there until the morning, I felt like I was using again, that same surrender, and dawn rose through the small window and I felt so alive in front of the painting I began crying. The paint stuck to my fingers, and as if touched by a lover or a saint, I was too afraid to wash it off. I walked home by the East River, and the wind was cold in New York and God was speaking to me, God was glittering in every leaf.

The piece was about Europe – about Germany, and the life I had left behind for this one, it was about my psychotic break – one I rarely talked about without making fun of it. When I told Irina about it, long before our night at the beach, she just put her hand on mine and said, I love you, it’s okay. You don’t need to tell me your secrets. I didn’t finish the story about how I had slept in the parking lot after a month-long binge on amphetamines and psychedelics and cut off my hair and walked to work barefoot, wearing smeared red lipstick, and my boss sent me home. I didn’t tell her about the voices I heard, or that for months after I thought I could control the weather – how I prayed, my forehead kissing the wet, soft earth beneath an oak tree, for God or the universe to grant me sanity. That when my mother picked me up from the hospital, with that look of disappointment on her face, I was only twenty-two. And that’s when I left my hometown, my mother and brother, my friends all behind me, and moved first to Berlin and then to America.

After losing Irina I stopped sharing my sketches and paintings with other people, though I did sometimes grieve the tender relationship we had with each other. It wasn’t her petty insults that formed me but the charge that I wanted to see her break, which was true. My thirst for ruins was endless, I acknowledged, and even when I painted, I was looking for that moment of destruction within myself and others. But this plain, novel knowledge of myself introduced a disturbing layer into my art, one in which little creatures haunted the landscapes and still lives. I moved from abstraction towards fantasy. A few months after I finished the piece, I quit my teaching job at the college and handed in my notice for my apartment. I knew it was time to return to Europe then, that it was time to move back home, to be close to my mother. I exhibited in a few galleries in Berlin, one group show in London. And then the year after, as if by fate, a curator chose the picture for the Whitney Biennial. When she called me, she said the picture made her uncomfortable. That there was real anguish in the eye. She was interested in why it was called ‘Nude with City’, since there was no mirror, no self, and no nude. Just the small animal on the street, part-cat, part-deer, part-woman, slinking through. There’s pain in it, she said, but there is also playfulness. Specular image is the phrase she used, an expression that I once had used to describe Irina’s work.

Since there was no return address on the postcard, I was forced to look for Irina’s contact details on her website, which showed a banner of a Brancusi sculpture. I emailed her twice, thanking her, asking politely about her life. No response, though the emails didn’t bounce back. And though she is silent, she haunts my mind like the words of a language I once knew, slipping in and out of my thoughts, my field of vision. Recently, at a group show in London, I found her face in the crowd like that of a messenger – stripped bare and accentuated with plum-colored lipstick, and for the first time in years I felt envy again, the same kind of envy I felt the first time I saw her after that lecture in San Francisco. She appeared in a long white dress, once again like a bride, glowing with the light of new beginnings, carrying a small dog instead of flowers. When I approached her, smiling, her face changed from relaxation to confusion, maybe even to mockery, and I realized that something was very wrong – the eye color didn’t match, the parting of her lips was slightly different, the philtrum too long. This woman was not Irina.

If she had been Irina, perhaps there would be answers. A great resolution, a moment in which we could finally confront each other about that day on the beach, what we’d said and the injuries that pulsed beneath them. But it wasn’t Irina, and I haven’t seen her again. I wonder if she keeps track of my life. I wonder if she sits in her mansion in the hills of Los Angeles, surrounded by the two dogs I saw in the magazine spread, and thinks of her friend, and that year spent in the sorrows of our youth, night upon night in the studio, dreaming always of making it, in parallel but never close enough to burst, to truly entwine, like those mirrors in her exhibition, reflecting each other like moons. Irina’s brilliance, I now understand, originated from her intuitive knowledge that art has very little to do with ruin. Irina must’ve learned it long before she met me; she knew that you need to be quiet in the presence of beauty, you need to listen to what it says, so that it can disclose its real and regular face to you.


Image © Tom Wachtel

Aria Aber

Aria Aber was born and raised in Germany and is currently based in Los Angeles, California. Her debut book, the poetry collection Hard Damage (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and a 2020 Whiting Award. Her poems are forthcoming or have appeared in The New Yorker, New Republic, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the NYU MFA in Creative Writing, she holds awards and fellowships from Kundiman, the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing, and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Her first novel GOOD GIRL is forthcoming from Hogarth (US) and Bloomsbury (UK) in 2025

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