David Braga

Pure Experience

The morning sky was a slate board and the warehouse where they were lined up didn’t look much different: all of it gray on gray, the building and sky blending together, mute and hopelessly modern, foregrounded against the river and the city on the other side. Gray city. It wouldn’t make for a bad piece of art, Robert thought. A cheap one, yes. An easy and outdated one, certainly. But not a bad one by any means.

Karyn shuffled next to him, restless, her face almost hidden under her snow hat and the puff of curled black hair that sprouted out from under it. She’d been tapping her feet, walking in circles, peeking at the people ahead of them in line and eyeing them with disdain. It was all she could do to speed up time now that morning had come. They’d arrived, bearing only a blanket to keep warm, at two in the morning, shocked to find that they had been beaten to the starting gate by a hundred or so other fanatics. On the warehouse wall above them, spray-painted in letters delicately constructed to appear amateurish, were the words “Pure Experience—a new installation by gustave ballard—one week only.”

Karyn checked her watch for the hundredth time since the sun had risen. Barely past seven.

“When do they open the doors again?” Robert asked.

“It was supposed to be on the hour,” she said. “It’s seven-oh-eight now. If you think that there’s maybe a hundred people in front of us, and it takes five minutes for every group, that’s like a whole extra hour we have to wait. Maybe more.”

“We’ll still be some of the first people,” Robert said and ruffled her hat, shaking the hair underneath. In truth this wasn’t his scene. He wasn’t an art-head, and he didn’t care much for Ballard. Or, at least, for what he knew of Ballard’s work from Karyn’s personal worship of the artist. But he and Karyn had been sleeping together for the past couple months, and as this semester had begun, they’d decided that maybe they should put a bow on what they had and become an actual, official, living and breathing couple. So when she told him that she, or more precisely, her father—who was able to foot the bill for his daughter’s adventures in studying art at a non-art school—had gotten tickets to the first day of Ballard’s new exhibition, Robert had said yes out of both obligation and desire. He had no real interest in whatever was inside this warehouse. His major was history, and any knowledge of art that he had acquired from sources outside Karyn was placed specifically within that context. But sneaking out to the edge of the city with his new girl, his official girl, camping under a cheap blanket and huddling to keep warm until they were allowed inside? That all sounded just fine. There was also, of course, the added incentive of whatever they might do once they returned to her single-bed dorm, once he’d proved himself a loyal boyfriend. When he thought about the role he was playing—the dutiful young man, the good guy to settle in with—it made him pause. Not out of uneasiness. Nothing he was doing felt against his nature or contrary to how he would have acted anyway; rather, it was the recognition that he was slipping out of one persona and into another. He supposed that she was aware of it too. A natural progression, probably. When it had just been the two of them, fucking in one of their dorms after the rest of the floor had gone to sleep, it had felt like things were different than they were now. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly what had changed, but something certainly had. Now, in their glances, the way they spoke, even the way they made love, everything was altered ever so slightly.

Too much art on the brain, he thought. It was making him overthink things. He looked at Karyn. “You hungry at all? There’s a bagel place a few blocks over. I can run and get us something.”

“We should wait,” she said. “Just in case the line moves really fast.” Then, looking up at him, her eyes wide and round, she leaned up and kissed the bottom of his chin. “Thanks, though.”

But there it was again. That small hint of difference that left him wondering if she would have kissed him like that, tender and cute, two weeks ago, rather than going for his lips and not caring who saw. A subconscious performance of their new roles. Him cast as boyfriend; her cast as girlfriend. Did it even matter? Maybe she’d been wanting to act one way the entire time and had acted differently out of fear of appearing too needy. Jesus. That was overdoing it. If he kept this up, he would wind up spending more time worrying about why they were doing what they were doing—the authenticity of it, the simulation of coupling—than actually just enjoying any of it. It should’ve been enough that it was a Wednesday morning and he was with Karyn, and she was happy, and both of them, despite the cold, were warm just by virtue of being together.

He watched her tap her foot on the concrete, her dirty sneakers kicking up small plumes of dust. Ever impatient.

“So give me a refresher on this guy,” Robert said, swinging his head to nod up at Ballard’s spray-painted name above them. “Not that I haven’t been doing my homework. Just, you know, to pass the time.”

She smiled at him.

“Also,” he said, “maybe we could, you know, sit down while we wait. I’m freezing.” They did, and he drew the blanket out of his backpack and cast it over the two of them. Both sat with their backs to the warehouse and their knees up in front of them, the blanket forming a miniature tent over their laps. As soon as the blanket had settled, he felt her hand sneak over to find his.

“Well,” she said, “for starters, nobody really knows who he is. Or at least, like, nobody knows what he looks like. He dropped out of high school, and that was, like, forty years ago, so any pictures anyone has of him are from when he was a kid.” Robert nodded. She had told him all this before, but in truth he did need a refresher. He had spent too much time watching her mouth while she talked, not enough time listening. She recounted the basics for him, and as she spoke the information came back, drawn out of the murky backwater of his memory by her voice. Ballard worked in large installations only and typically left his work intact for no longer than a week. The idea, Karyn said, was to limit exposure. No over saturation, no over-analyzation. His first few works had been assembled guerrilla style, in old buildings or abandoned lots, left to be found by pedestrians, always signed and dated in spray paint, like he was just another kid tagging buildings trying to make a name for himself. But his projects—his statements, as Karyn called them now—were always designed to provoke a response. A mock-up police car lit on fire in a vacant lot in Baltimore, assumed at first to be no more than an act of public vandalism before the signature was discovered. An abandoned corner market, filled with boxes of guns, all of them fake but designed and weighted to look real to the everyman, where large groups of people were let in and left to their own devices for an hour. The idea was, again, according to Karyn—though Robert thought it sounded far too heavy-handed to be taken seriously—that eventually someone would pick one up and try to fire it. As Ballard grew in reputation, he maintained only a small circle of contacts for dealers and donors and now organized exhibits that quickly became art-world events in the truest sense of the word. This, Karyn said, was supposed to be his ultimate work, the one he’d been building towards his entire career.

“That’s why he didn’t call it anything,” she said. “Just Pure Experience. See it and make up your own mind. And that’s why we all have to sign the non-disclosure and everything before they let us in, so that if we talk or ruin it for someone else we’ll get sued up to our eyeballs or something.”

“Someone will talk about it though,” Robert said. “I mean, you know all about his other ones and you’ve never actually seen one until today.”

“It always comes out online. But usually it takes some time. And even then, reading about someone else’s recollection of it doesn’t compare to the real thing. Or at least,” she added, “I hope not, now that we’re actually gonna get to see one. I mean, I only read about the Crying Woman exhibit, and that was crazy, but I can’t imagine what actually being there would’ve been like.”

The Crying Woman. Robert didn’t need a refresher for that one. Karyn had told him about it only once, but it had stuck. The exhibit had opened three years ago in New York for a two-day run, from eight to midnight each night, in a beat up apartment out in the Bronx. Visitors were led into a poorly lit parlor room one at a time and told to wait. While they did, they heard the gradually ascending cries of a young girl screaming that she was being raped. Ten minutes later, a door on the other side of the room was opened, and the patrons were escorted out to the street by way of the building’s back staircase. No mention was made of the crying woman by any of the curators of the exhibit.

“Would you have left?” Robert had asked, when Karyn had first explained the exhibit to him. “That’s the idea, right? To see if people to would do something or if they’d just wait it out because of how much they paid to get in?”

She had nodded. “I’d like to think I would’ve done something. But who knows. It’s all very mysterious.”

It was. So much of it sounded like bullshit, but as he leaned back and felt the warehouse against him, he had to admit that there was something enamoring about the mystery that surrounded Ballard. The sense that anything was possible; that potentially nothing was real.

“Well,” he said, “if I don’t understand it, I’ll trust you to explain it to me when we get back.”

“Smart man,” she said. Without changing her expression, her hand under the blanket left his and moved slowly to rub the crotch of his jeans, once, twice, three times, before it returned back to and twisted its fingers between his. She smiled—almost a smirk. Was that a break in the character of Girlfriend Karyn? Was it something more in line with the Karyn she had been before they started dating? Or was it simply a different dimension of this new persona that he had not seen yet? Thinking this much was reducing her and him to historical objects to chart and study. Floor-Mate Karyn, Acquaintance Karyn, Crush Karyn, Fuck-Friend Karyn, and finally, Girlfriend Karyn. Or Floor-Mate, Acquaintance, Crush, Fuck-Friend, Boyfriend Robert. There were too many permutations. Everything felt too new, too nameless. Maybe it would just take time. Either way, he was warmed and enlivened by the hint of sex. When he heard the crowd start to murmur as the warehouse’s small steel door opened and a woman in all black emerged, shouting instructions, he felt genuinely excited to be thrown into the unknown situation with Karyn. To see what they would do. And then to imagine all that they would do together afterwards.

Karyn stood while he bundled up the blanket and shoved it into his backpack. They listened as the woman at the front of the line repeated her instructions. No cameras, phones, or anything else electronic allowed inside. Nothing in your pockets besides medical necessities. All personal belongings would be returned upon exiting the warehouse. Entry would be allowed for groups of up to six people. Robert saw Karyn smile with relief when she heard that. Lastly, of course, everyone would be required to read and sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement before entering, which would allow them to describe their reactions to what Ballard had prepared, but would restrict them from sharing or publishing any specific information.

“And remember, if you think we won’t find out, we will,” the curator said. “And our pockets are very, very deep.” The crowd laughed at that, and then everyone joined in a round of applause. The sun was starting to break through the gray that had marked the beginning of the day, and now across the water the city shimmered with a brilliant metallic light. The first group admitted was a cluster of three, all of whom looked to be working professionals with gray in their hair and briefcases in their hands. Robert couldn’t imagine how they had gotten to the warehouse line before he and Karyn had—the dedication of the art crowd continued to baffle him—but here they were, and as they were waved in Robert followed Karyn and the rest of the line in taking a single large step forward. When he turned to look behind him, he saw that the queue stretched down two blocks and rounded a corner out of sight. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people waiting to get in. And he would be among the first to see it. To experience it, he thought. Pure experience. Pretentious, yes, but ambitious. He felt excitement starting to bubble up as another group was waved in. He gave Karyn’s hand a squeeze. She smiled up at him, then turned her attention back toward the front of the line, ready and waiting.

It was nearly an hour before they were at the front of the line. In the minutes between the group ahead of them entering—two girls, college aged or a little past it, probably not much older than they were—and the curator waving the two of them in, time seemed to congeal until it wasn’t moving at all. Robert’s legs and back were sore from being stationary so long, and he yawned as exhaustion began to catch up with him. Karyn yawned in return—it was contagious, people said—and leaned her head on his shoulder. When he looked at her, she seemed strangely placid, devoid of the urgent excitement that had filled her earlier. Or maybe she was just tired, too.

“You ready?” he asked. She nodded. The curator listened to something come across her earpiece, and then opened the door in front of them. When Robert looked through, he saw a small, bright waiting room and a desk, where another curator, also in all black, was waiting. He and Karyn looked at each other and stepped inside.

“Enjoy,” the female curator said and closed the door behind them.

“Please hand over all personal effects, electronic devices, et cetera,” the man behind the desk said. Robert could tell that the room they were in was improvised, added on to the warehouse for this sole purpose.

After he and Karyn had emptied their pockets, handed over his backpack, and submitted themselves to a swift pat down, the curator slid two crisp pieces of paper across the table to them. At the top of each sheet, in thick bold letters, read: non-disclosure. Robert started to scan down the lines, trying to wade through the legalese, but then saw Karyn sign her name without regard for what the sheet said. He laughed, did the same, and handed both sheets back to the curator.

“Alright,” the man said. “You enter through that door on my left. You can walk around, but please do not touch anything, or you will be fined. Significantly. When the exhibit is over you will be escorted out. Thank you for your patronage.”

Robert and Karyn exchanged a look that turned into a nervous smile, and then both reached for the knob at the same time. Karyn laughed, and Robert withdrew his hand. This was her artist; she should be the one to lead them in. She turned the knob, opened the door, and they both stepped inside.

The space around them was huge and mostly dark. Robert guessed that the warehouse had been gutted and that they were standing in the hollowed-out shell of the building that had been left behind. He heard the door they had entered through click closed behind them. His eyes took time adjusting to the darkness—there was some light coming in from a source he couldn’t find, but not much. He reached for Karyn’s hand, found it, and took a step forward. The sound of his shoes on the concrete floor bounced off the walls, up and away.

“Do you see anything?” he whispered.

Karyn didn’t answer, but he heard her hair move as she shook her head no. Together they took a few more steps in, each footstep a repeating echo of the one before it, until he wasn’t sure how far they were from the door behind them. His heart was racing, but he wasn’t exactly sure why. It wasn’t fear, just excitement, he told himself. The waiting was  making his nerves go all electric. Maybe that was the idea. An art show without the art show. Pure anticipation.

He was about to ask Karyn what she thought when a huge light turned on above them, casting a single circle of yellow down into the center of the room. Within the circle, sitting on a small wooden stool in nothing but a pair of dark gym shorts, was a man. At first glance, Robert thought he was maybe Middle Eastern, but when he looked closer he wasn’t as sure. His eyes had only just adjusted to the dark, and the sudden entrance of light made it so that he couldn’t see with any real clarity.

They looked at the man, the man looked at them. He was completely still, but Robert could see that he was breathing. He was skinny enough that, when he inhaled, his ribs rose up from his chest and became perfectly defined, a skeleton trying to escape from its skin. Robert looked at the man’s eyes and tried to read his expression. Blank. Resigned, maybe.

“What do we do?” Karyn asked, whisper-quiet. Her tone wasn’t worried. Simply curious. Here was the situation Ballard had crafted for them; what was the next step? Robert thought of the Crying Woman, or the room full of guns. Whatever was being put on display, their actions—or inactions—were meant to be a part of it.

“Hello?” Robert asked, shocked at how loud the room made his voice sound. He took a step forward. Karyn followed. The man in the chair made no movements and gave no indications that he had heard Robert speak.

“Hey, hello?” he tried again. He wondered how long they had been inside. The groups before them had been shuttled inside in five minute spurts. Whatever was supposed to happen, if there was anything beyond this, would have to happen soon.

“Try to touch him,” Karyn said.

“We’re not allowed.”

“I know. I’m just saying try. See what happens if you reach out.”

Robert looked back at her, his eyes now as adjusted as they were going to get, and saw that she looked almost scared. A spot of pride welled up inside him. He liked knowing that if she was worried, she trusted him to act. It was a primal thing, he guessed, wanting to be trusted as some kind of protector, but even though he could identify it and recognize that it was feeling rendered unnecessary by the modern world, it still pleased him. So he took two steps towards the man and reached forward.

The snap of the shot was so quick and so loud that he didn’t register it as anything when he first heard it. In fact, he didn’t process the fact that he had heard anything at all until after the man’s head disintegrated into a shower of red pulp that splashed its way across the floor to Robert’s side. Only then, when the man in the chair had been extinguished, his body toppling off the seat and onto the ground, did Robert realize that he had heard a gun fire.

Karyn screamed and grabbed onto him. He shouted—what, he did not know or remember—and reached back to find her. The light above them flickered off and sent the whole room into darkness for a moment, and then a rectangle of light appeared across the warehouse from them. An open door.

They scurried towards it, Karyn still making some kind of noise between a scream and a cry, or maybe even a laugh, heavy with relief, behind him. They could not see the man in the chair’s body as they passed by the place where he would’ve fallen. Robert ran a hand down his shirt to check for wetness, for blood, but found nothing, which seemed impossible. But it had all happened so fast. One minute the man was there, sitting in his chair, calm and motionless; the next minute his face had simply exploded in front of them. And then darkness, and now light.

Karyn and Robert stepped out of the doorway and found themselves on the back side of the warehouse, on a small strip of concrete lined on the opposite side by a fence that blocked off access to the water. The sun was blindingly bright.

“Thank you for your patronage,” two female curators said, handing them back their belongings. “You can walk down the block that way,” one said, pointing, “and you’ll find yourself on M near the Metro.”

Robert and Karyn followed the instructions, still dazed. They walked along the pathway out towards the main road, passing a few of the groups that had gone before them. Some were laughing and joking about who had reacted which way, others were arguing if what they had seen was real. In one cluster of patrons, Robert saw three men gathered around another who had vomited on the sidewalk.

“So,” Robert said, and the words felt like they were perhaps the first he’d ever spoken in his entire life. What did you think?”

“I’m not sure,” Karyn said. He looked down at her and realized that she had slipped back into the role of girlfriend, of a known entity. He supposed he had slipped back into his role as well. But there had been a moment in all that darkness when the thin sheets of their performances had fallen off. Now that they were outside, he was sure of it. He wondered what it would’ve been like to look back at her when the man’s head had exploded, when she had screamed in a voice he’d never heard and latched onto him. That was her at her truest. No roles, no categories to fit into. He had been similarly transformed, so overcome by shock that he had shed everything about him except for his reaction. What would it have been like to lock eyes with her in that moment? To grab onto her and her onto him and know that this was as honest as they would ever be with one another, while behind them the slush of brain and chipped bone splashed its way across the floor.

But he hadn’t looked. And now it was over, and they were back in the world where they would continue to live, together, at least for a while, being who they thought they were, performing without awareness, each trying to please the other.

“You know,” he said, pausing a moment to figure out how to phrase what he wanted to say. She looked up at him, her expression familiar, expected. He shook his head . “Nothing,” he said, listening to the river. “I guess I’m not sure I really understand.”

David Braga

David Braga’s film and fiction writing have been published by Redivider, Necessary Fiction, Typehouse Magazine, BrightWall/DarkRoom, and Pantheon Magazine, among others. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. www.david-braga.com