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For Martha Kaas, half the thrill of going bohemian was not letting her husband suspect that she had. She appeared to commute to work at seven every morning, but drove the opposite direction from her former life as a middle school math teacher. She parked in a garage in the garment district and spent the day exploring her creative side from within a rented loft space she shared with three artists: Somi, who worked in plaster of Paris; Fango, who altered thrift store paintings by painting in pop-culture characters; and Asia, upstairs, who made the ceiling breathe whenever she brought in her cadre of dancers. Martha envied their birth names, though at least art lay like a seed in her own. It just needed time and care. She came home each day just as she had before: no new artsy glasses, no tattoos or piercings. She paid her expenses from a personal account she’d been tithing to for years.
But several months into her project, Martha felt a despondency she thought she’d left behind when she quit teaching. She had taken up the guitar and attempted songwriting, and though she understood the instrument mathematically, her clumsy fingers made her feel as though she suffered from palsy. She tried fiction writing, and found it as delightful as a mammogram. She threw herself into the traditional arts, but arrived at the same problem: no matter whether she held charcoal or a paintbrush or a chisel, a lack of urgency and a lack of ability thwarted her desire to produce something even halfway decent. She wanted the charge of creation, the thrill of calling forth something from nothing. She suspected that her efforts exploring forms and styles was simple evasion, busywork to justify the hours. The flow state remained elusive, possibly illusionary. Her money was evaporating as quickly as turpentine; art supplies were bonkers expensive.
Martha considered that she might be the night-owl creative type, so when it was time to spend a week visiting the in-laws, she faked a terrible cold and insisted her husband go without her. Alone, she drove to the loft and tried working for thirty-six hours straight, just in case her creativity was dependent not only on the night, but on delirium. She tried working inebriated, then high, then inebriated and high. When her husband came home and found her sleeping, she looked precisely like she had spent a week with the flu.
Though she achieved so little with so much time, Martha wondered if what she lacked was external inspiration. Nothing, after all, was truly original. She needed something to build upon. Maybe, for the creative juices to flow, something had to first be squeezed. She dragged her husband to galleries and performances, always far from the loft in case they bumped into her art mates. Sometimes she and her husband held hands on the walk to the car before the drive home, but not often. It had been that way for years.
Some of the art Martha saw was impossibly intricate. Other pieces were primitive and looked like they were by a child with a canvas and a nose bleed. She considered performance art, next. At one space, a man played Bolivian folk songs, but only for as long as you held aloft a dumbbell placed on a painted circle on the floor. In a neighboring gallery, a woman stripped naked with a kind of vicious, sexless anger, then covered herself with honey and slapped herself all over with business cards from pesticide company representatives until she looked covered in scales. The works didn’t move Martha at all. She was preoccupied with technique and execution over the emotive and evocative. What good was external inspiration if, as she suspected, she lacked the imagination through which art could find its reflection? She began to disbelieve that, if only given the chance, she too had something to give. That tale felt like a survival story she had curated out of self-pity and protection to explain her unhappiness. Feeling soulless, she went back on the sertraline, even though she worried it would deprive her of the pain art demanded.
Martha collected declarations. Art is provocative. Art is what sells—or doesn’t sell at all. Art is just someone messing around. Art is important. Art is a rebellion against the practical life. Art is flagellation. Art is a mental disease. Art is a catch-all for the non-practical. Art is a temporary escape. Art is a search for meaning. Art is elusive. Art is an anti-word.
In the spring she had an affair with the sculptor Somi. The affair wasn’t sexual or, worse, romantic. But the inordinate amount of time spent in Somi’s studio space—talking intimately about life in general, and art in particular—made Martha feel that she was being untrue to her husband and to her own project, this floundering decade-late gap year. Somi finished a piece that she said was Martha’s soul, but which looked a lot like an amphora with spikes.
At home, Martha continued the daily performance of pretending to be a teacher. She was just as exhausted and emptied as before, though the exhaustion was fuller, the emptiness hungrier. It came as a considerable shock when her husband surprised her by paying off the remains of their mortgage with money from the sale of his first and second book. She had no idea he’d been writing. She knew he could write, of course, but he had only placed a few stories in college, years ago, and hadn’t seemed particularly interested in writing since.
“I thought to tell you, but I didn’t. I didn’t know if it would be any good. And if it was good, I wanted to surprise you.”
She saw through him. The mortgage payment was his way of buying her acceptance for having kept his writing from her, for the selfish portion of time he’d taken.
“Here and there. Mornings. After you went to bed. My lunch hour. Whenever I have time alone.”
She knew their relationship had grown airy, but she hadn’t realized it held enough space in which to fit the writing of two thrillers. The books were good, or looked decent anyway. She didn’t read them. Worse than his silent success was the fact that she couldn’t tell him of her own creative endeavor. All she had to show for the many months of her efforts was a pile of scribbles and streaks, a collage of failed experiments. Perhaps if she had been successful she wouldn’t have left him.
Single, Martha returned to teaching that fall. Different school, same district. No one cared why she hadn’t taught during the last semester. Whatever their assumptions—needing a break after the five-year burnout, a cancer battle, a breakdown, an ailing parent—it had no bearing on her ability to prepare mouth-breathers for state testing. After work, she returned to the loft. Though it wasn’t zoned as a residence, she had moved into her corner of the space, erecting partial walls for a little privacy, subdividing her space into a sleeping area, a living area, and as much of a kitchen as you could assemble on top of a folding table.
She got a tattoo on her upper arm. Then another. Then another. She had her nipples pierced. She slept with Fango, and often, until he moved to New York—improbably successful for his one-hit art style. She wished him success and wasn’t sad to see him go. She graded homework. She ate modest meals. She read or watched TV. She worked out. A year after beginning her experiment, Martha reconciled with her husband, but only just. They retained their separate residences. They slept together, of course, but always at the loft when everyone else had left. She did not ask him how many books he had written since they split; he did not ask her about her many, many tattoos, some as expensive as a month’s pay. He treated her body like it was unexplored. A couple of times a week, she and her husband went out to dinner. They took in the occasional show. Sometimes they held hands on the walk back to their parked cars, he to his, she to hers.
Her husband’s third book was a flop. Half of the pleasure of moving back in with him was seeing how the house had fallen apart in her absence. He gave up writing and vacated the study. They painted the room’s walls a unisex blue. Martha bought a mobile and hung it up over the assembled crib. They had both dreamt dry their creative ambitions and what a relief it was, now, to move on.