Sport 16: Autumn 1996
Michaelanne Forster — Art Robs
I knew a man called Art Robs once. He was a disaster, let me tell you. Take, take, take; two thousand dollars I gave him in the end. Stuffed them into his twee leather knapsack when he wasn’t looking, all the tens, fifties and hundreds bunched together like a crumpled handkerchief in a trouser pocket. My darling Art Robs. Smooth talker, silver hair, pocked aquiline cheeks and a tragic childhood to boot. By the time he finished with me I was naked as a needle.
I met Art at his Bugshit opening in Ashburton. Susie Orfbach—who reminds me of my mother before she got divorced—pointed him out to me. There he was, crushed into a corner holding a glass of wine, a carnal presence even at a distance. I invited him for coffee so we could discuss his work and my short film script. Actually, it wasn’t quite a script yet but it was all in my head like first draft, only better. Art was interested; I could feel him rising towards me like a fish.
The exhibition—mainly bug excrement and ink on paper—was unexpectedly panned. ‘Portentous cosmic imagery heavily reworked’ was the headline that nearly took him down. He still hasn’t forgiven Maynard Seltzer, the weedy little reviewer who reportedly swayed and turned pale and sweaty when Art brought him face to face with framed beetle dung.
It was a bad time for Art. First Maynard and then the retrospective of a friend of his who had died of septicemia after cutting off his middle finger making a sculpture of titanium pineapples. We walked round the gallery looking at the remains of his mate: brick drinking fountains, tropical landscapes and adolescent figurines made of mud and straw. As Art stared at a smeared orange canvas entitled Papaya Relic I felt something unlock inside me. He turned and met my eye. Then he smiled. Slowly. Deliberately.
‘You’re good for me,’ he said.
The temperature in the room shot up. At that moment Art became a plausible alternative to the ostrich farmer I’d been seeing. The Canter- page 174 bury Plains, open golden and rolling, mixed to a narrow set of wooden stairs. Dozens of giant black lashed birds roamed out of frame as my future came into focus. Art and me on the cutting edge. I’d carry the baby in a hip sling through Indonesia. Or Russia. Wherever Art needed to go for inspiration I would be there too, with my beta-cam. We were destined for one another. I had found my soulmate.
We didn’t consummate our relationship straight away. That would have been tacky. First we talked. (God, how we talked.) I told him everything. How I used to pee the bed and hide my soaking pyjamas in mortified shame. How my father stepped on my pet mouse Scampers and squashed him flat. How I lost my virginity in the Student Union carpark after a poetry reading. How my mother ran off with a podiatrist two days before my debut as one of Ophelia’s best friends in The Hamlet Machine. Memory after memory, my deepest self, my truest self. All laid out on a smorgasbord for Art: delectable miseries, scrumptious embarrassment, mouth-watering intimacies. I fed Art the story of my life until he had eaten me whole.
It wasn’t all one way, of course. Art talked too. He had a wife—oh God, what a wife!—that he’d suffered under for years. He described her. Small, dark, round, furious. She hated the way he wasted time. The way he spent money on nothings like cappuccinos, hand-tooled leather boots and books. Books! The woman was a harridan. A suffocating bourgeois hausfrau. A suburban angel of death. When I found out she was a lawyer my worst suspicions were confirmed. I’ve never liked lawyers. Barracudas among the goldfish. No wonder my darling Art was miserable. It was a mismatch made in hell.
The final offering of my deepest, truest self happened like this. I lay on my side in his loft. I was naked. The room, which once housed files for an insurance company, was lit with hundreds of sputtering candles. Art had smashed most of the fluorescent tubes during a particularly bad artistic blockage. There I lay, red hair tumbling over my shoulders, my skin milky white. Art cupped his hand on the arch of my instep then let it drift northward to my calf … my thigh. There it rested on one snowy hip before sliding down to my waist then rapidly traversing the twin hills of my breasts. Art sucked each nipple. He licked me all over until we page 175 began thrashing like two crabs in a plastic bucket.
‘Physical synchronicity is evading us,’ muttered Art. Then, ‘Oh God, baby, baby …’
I felt the wooden floorboards vibrate. Trip. Zing. Trip. Zing. High heels were marching up the stairs to the loft door.
‘Shit,’ said Art. He leapt up and grabbed his knickers.
‘Art?’ a woman’s voice called. ‘Open the bloody door.’
Art jammed his legs down his jeans then stuffed his hands and head through a turps-stained teeshirt which declared ‘Civilisation sucks’ in subtle Gothic lettering. I think he got it at a book fair in Bologna but anyway in comes his wife and there she stands madder than a wet hen.
‘I’ve been standing in front of the City Hotel for half an hour in the fucking rain,’ she said. Her voice sounded very private school in spite of the expletives. ‘You were supposed to pick me up at nine-thirty. When my Zonta meeting finished.’
Art slapped his forehead. Not a very convincing gesture but it was all he could come up with. ‘Jesus, Bettina. I completely forgot. You should have rung me.’
Bettina gave him a withering look. Actually, I didn’t know her name was Bettina until that very instant. He’d always called her ‘my wife’ in a voice heavily laced with irony like some hammy actor in a Jacobean tragedy. I mean, I didn’t think it was hammy at the time but in retrospect Art Robs laid it on pretty thick. As I said to my therapist later on, ‘Why do I always make such disastrous choices?’ But that’s another discussion.
‘You left your cellphone in my Honda,’ said Bettina. ‘How could I ring you with your phone on my back seat?’
The candles flickered dangerously in the draught created by the dreaded wife. Strangely enough I felt completely calm. Bettina’s eyes found my reclining body in the corner of the room. I was lying on my right side, head propped on one arm, the other resting on what could fairly be called my voluptuous thigh. I smiled at her serenely.
‘This is my model. Mariana. I told you about her. She’s the one Titian could have painted. Look at that colouring.’ Art rabbited on. He was rapidly losing his cool.page 176
I got up from the mattress and extended my hand shamelessly. ‘How do you do, Mrs Robs.’
Bettina ignored me. ‘The last one had more class,’ she said. Then she turned around and walked out.
Art shut the door quietly after her. He leaned against it, his forehead pressed in an attitude of inconsolable grief. It was then I noticed his teeshirt was on backwards and inside-out. The little tag saying ‘wash in cold water, do not dryclean’ was flopping about his Adam’s apple.
It hadn’t been in the plan, not straight away at least for Art’s wife to know about us. Her unexpected appearance meant we were forced to go from chapter three to chapter twenty in the space of five short minutes. I’ve always been a speed reader but Art was shattered.
I held out my arms to him. He huddled against the door, not moving. I walked over to him, slick with bodily juices.
‘Art,’ I purred, rubbing up against him. I slipped my hands under his teeshirt and moaned but I might just be making that up. Sometimes I can’t remember if I did something or I just saw a movie of a person like me doing it. Passion seems to coagulate after a while, like blood. You’d have to be a forensic scientist to decode it properly.
Art swore he’d leave his wife by the end of the week. We fucked like crazy then made plans. He didn’t have any money but after he split from Bettina half the property would be his. Bettina would buy him out then he would pay me back. I never doubted him. I put my furniture in storage, and withdrew all the money in my savings account and bought two tickets to Bali.
We met once more. Art was desperate; Bettina was impossible, he said. She was eating him alive. The bitch, the Medusa, the dead-weighted albatross who hung on him without mercy.
‘She’s mad,’ he said. He stirred three sugars into his flat black.
We were at the Vesuvio, our knees locked together under a wrought-iron table the with a top the size of a fifty-cent piece. Stubble sprouted out of his chin, graphically testifying to his sleepless nights and tortured days. I held his hand, squeezing it sympathetically. He said he needed money straight away. He said he had to hit the road for a week or two on his own, maybe go bush for a few days before he could emerge and flee. page 177 He’d been married sixteen years; there was a lot of shit to get through. I said I understood. He looked desperately grateful. He loved me. He needed me. He was counting on me to save him. I knew he would immortalise me in some mysterious way later on, with stones on paint, with algae, ropes or bug shit. Whatever. The important thing was the meeting of our souls. Art and me in bondage to Truth. With a capital T.
So I stuffed two thousand dollars in his backpack as I told you before, not wanting to wound his pride by handing the money over directly. That was on Thursday. On Sunday week I went to the Botanical Gardens and stood in front of the aviary counting the minutes until Art appeared on the crest of the hill. How like my darling Art to choose that incongruous place for the definitive rendezvous of my life. I read the plaque on the cockatoo’s cage. Her name was Sally and she was 103. Sally hooked her claws and beak through the wire netting and climbed up and down like a two-year-old. The ground was covered with frost and all the parrots in the surrounding cages were screaming commiserations to one another.
I’d only been waiting about ten minutes when Art’s car pulled up. The back door opened and out piled three children bundled up in multi-coloured parkas. The car horn tooted, the children waved and that was that.
‘Art!’ I screamed.
The biggest child ran over to me. She must have been eight or nine. She had a flat face and a set of cherry-red lips that could pout the pants off a china doll. The other two children were boys. Twins from the look of it.
‘Are you Mariana?’ said the girl. ‘Mummy said you were going to take us to see a film.’
Two boys followed her, their breath steaming like small ponies in winter. ‘We want Lassie! We want Lassie!’ they shouted.
The children pushed and shoved one another. One of the boys started to cry and a clear wet river ran out his nose and hung on his upper lip. I took out my handkerchief and patted it dry. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s kids with snotty noses.
There was no letter, no message. Just three cold children on a wet page 178 green hillside. On the way to the movies we stopped and looked at the keas. They were green, too, with flashes of red underneath their wings. I thought I behaved very well considering the circumstances. I gave the kids a little spiel about the senselessness of locking native birds in cages and developed my theme, in the warmth of Hoyts 8, to include the cruelty of locking people in who need their freedom. The three children ate popcorn through my lecture without batting a collective eyelid. They didn’t have a clue what I was on about. And the bizarre thing was—even as I spoke—neither did I.