Last time I came here, I arrived on the train. Jeff picked me up at the station and drove me to his house, the top floor of an ancient, Ichabod Crane-style dwelling divided into three apartments, reached by a scoliotic flight of rickety stairs. There were no lights anywhere, it seemed–I was too tired to find it anything but a welcome change from the insomniac brilliance I’d just left behind.
This time, I drive the dark streets myself, swerving in and out of woods, occasionally seeing lights that frame a sign like “Orange County Motorcycles” or “Tuxedo Motel.” Jeff and Alicia are now married, and now have a baby, and now live on the building’s middle floor. You still get to it by means of rickety stairs, though.
An inflatable skull wearing a top hat takes up most of the balcony; we must squeeze past it, through a doorframe rimmed by orange twinkle-lights. We enter a hallway, where the first door is Jeff’s–a piece of rough reclaimed wood hangs there, with the brushed steel letters of his logo: HVG.
The apartment looks mostly similar to the old one, except here the kitchen is in back, and the front room is entirely devoted to Jeff’s workspace. The print roller, a countertop with a cutting mat on it, fastidiously organized shelves and trays full of his supplies, and the expansive Mac monitor, which has a thing underneath it that looks like a compact mixing board for a DJ. I’ll have to ask him later.
Last time I came here, Jeff and Alicia weren’t married yet. They had a spare room with blackout shades, where they put me to sleep. The morning after arrival, I woke up obscenely late, and peeked through the blinds, and nearly fell down in shock. I ran out to the balcony. The entire world was a color wheel–blinding gold, berry-hued red, crystalline blue and sere white. And I thought, “What the hell have I been doing in New York City?”
This time, Jeff’s younger brother Nicholas lives in the spare room. So I’ll be sleeping on the living room couch.
Jeff has been steadily building his business for the last five years, fighting tooth and nail against the entropic economy. I think he enjoys it; he says, for instance, that he loved the moment in high school when he stopped trying to be a nice kid, and instead started beating the shit out of people with his wallet chain when they fucked around with him.
He’s gained a lot of weight–the good kind. His face has filled out, making his head look round instead of triangular. He looks like a young family man should, like he really could beat the shit out of anyone who fucked around with his family, instead of a skinhead who could break your face with the sheer desperation of his angry blow.
I don’t mention any of this; I just tell him that he looks really good, when he mentions how much weight he’s put on.
“My wife feeds me good,” he says. “When I lived with my mom, before, she didn’t take care of me. I never knew what time it was; I would just work until my stomach was like ‘rawr rawr.’ Now my wife tells me ‘It’s time for breakfast, it’s time for dinner.’
“I looked like an alien before,” he says disgustedly, shaking his head.
Last time I came here, we sat in the kitchen and drank some kind of liqueur that had Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” on the label. Jeff had bought it specially in memory of our scholarship trip back in 2007. I was anorexic and was trying not to eat anything, at least not in front of people. But I saw that the fridge had little in it but peanut butter, grape jelly, and ketchup.
This time, we eat eggplant parmigiana, a food that I can consume great quantities of with dangerous ease. Jeff proudly tells me that the eggplant was grown right nearby, that the area is full of farms that they like to support as much as they can. The fridge is full of Coca Cola (on the top shelf), Monster energy drinks (on the bottom shelf), and tidy plastic boxes of leftovers (in between).
Jeff never hesitates to say he is an artist. He was a photographer when I met him; now he does monoprints, as well. He’s built himself a space for it in the attic, which he shows me with immense pride, of the self-evincing kind that needs say no more than,
“I have my own space now, for my own work.”
Original art from all over the place hangs on his walls. Some of it looks like it belongs in the office of a progressive California dentist; others would look more at home in a college town coffee shop, and still others walk a fine edge between classical and gritty that drags me in. Among these pieces, a folded American flag hangs in a pentagonal frame; so do a bunch of faux dried flowers and a few of those contrived “Cafe” lithos you can buy at Marshall’s.
The upstairs hall is blanketed with the Army certifications Jeff received during his tour in the Middle East. He talks about it with Nicholas, as we intermittently watch the final night of election debates.
“People talk about the war, and the veterans, like they know what happened,” he says. “Nobody knows what really happened. I went there ready for anything, to fight people and see terrible things. I was a gunner, and not once did I see combat. I saw people die from getting mortared, but I never got up close.
“I worked as a prison guard. We had a UCC come through, so we cleaned the whole place up. As soon as he left, we were back to our old shenanigans. I could do whatever I wanted. There was one guy, who was suicidal. I saw a piece of glass on the floor and”–he clicks his tongue–“kicked it under the door, into his cell. They busted in there and he had the glass up to his neck; they beat the shit out of him with batons and took it away. Stuff like that happened all the time.
“I still don’t know what I was there for,” he says.
When the baby is asleep again, he turns off the talking heads of MSNBC and goes into the kitchen, coming back with a breast pump stuffed into either pocket of his jeans. In the darkness, they look at first like holstered guns.
“That’s awesome,” I tell him.
Jeff grins, a little sheepishly. “I’m a 50/50 guy,” he explains. “I tell her, she’s the milk producer, I’m the milk manager.” He turns off the light, saying,
“Alicia goes to work at 3 in the morning; I’ll be down around 9. This is your house while you’re here, though. Do whatever you need to do, to be comfortable.”
Last time, I spent the day watching a documentary on Sally Mann, and wandering around the leaf-carpeted cold streets, where I watched people file out of church in black suits.
This time, I’m writing on a coffee table with a used diaper, folded up like a wonton, perched on adjacent to my computer.
You tell me which is better.