Melissa Yancy

If they had to be stuck in one elevator in the world, this would be the one: the Barbara Kruger elevator at the Broad Contemporary, a lift as big as their first studio apartment, only without plumbing. Which could get problematic pretty quickly, the woman thought. They were surrounded by the demanding declarative of Kruger’s customized Futura Bold, as though the elevator had paused only to provide sufficient time for the woman and her girlfriend to consider these nouns. MOISTURIZERS COMPUTERS SNEAKERS SUNGLASSES CELL PHONES HANDBAGS.

There were two Japanese tourists on the other end of the elevator car who didn’t yet seem to understand what had happened. They took photographs out the glass elevator doors as though this stopping — stuck halfway between the second and third floors with a split view of each — was part of the elevator’s normal descent.

The woman waved to the tourists from across the elevator like they were on the other side of a street.

Hello? she said. We are stuck.

I don’t think they speak English, her girlfriend said.

It was worth a try. Do you think they’ll panic when they realize?

How long do you think that’ll take?

A voice came out of the control panel apologizing for the malfunction and informing them that servicemen were on their way.

The tourists giggled and did not seem to catch the meaning. This was a contemporary art museum, after all. Half the rooms had disembodied voices coming from the walls or the ceilings. It must have seemed like part of the show.

We should have gone to the east building first, her girlfriend said.

They had waited a long time to ride in the elevator, looking down the massive shaft to locate the car, where its red mass had lain dormant at the bottom floor. The security guard had pointed out a regular elevator just to the left. It looked so tiny next to the massive elevator, like a sad dumbwaiter.

You don’t have to wait, he said.

We are waiting, she told her girlfriend. We have been waiting four years to come here, and we are waiting for the elevator. They were not the sort of people who waited years to attend a new wing of the museum just miles from their house; they were, or had once been, opening weekend sort of people.

It’s just that I have a lot I want to see today, her girlfriend said.

So do I, she said. But let’s not rush. Then what’s the point? What’s the point of today? It was her girlfriend’s only day off between her old job and her new one. The point was to pretend there was a reason they still lived in a city where they could spend a day having chocolate croissants and coffee and going to the art museum and remembering when they spent every weekend together and never seemed to tire of one another, when they cared to see what was happening out in the world.

We can always come back, she said.

But we won’t come back, will we? I’ll be in menopause by the time we come back.

The tourist on the left was dressed like a cupcake, in a purple tulip skirt and a miniature cream sweater with a tiny print of bows. Her companion looked like a futuristic elf in tight black leggings and a black hooded sweatshirt made out of a shiny, space-age material. It was the shoes, though, which appeared hand-cobbled and came to a tiny crest just above the toes, that evoked a woodland creature.

We could have put more effort into our attire, the woman said.

We are wearing what we always wear, her girlfriend said. Her girlfriend in frayed cutoff shorts and a gray t-shirt, no bra. She in high water jeans and a linen button-down. Both in very comfortable and ugly sandals. She remembered her girlfriend in this exact outfit twenty years ago, but with the addition of a red headband, when it seemed effortless and hot. So hot. Her girlfriend was fit now, her skin a natural tan that everyone envied. The woman had always believed the sexy things about a person — the gait, the particular way their body falls when in repose, and the way they gesture with their hands — don’t change with age. The two of them were never especially beautiful when they were young, and it didn’t bother the woman then. Why now does it pain her so much, seeing so many young and beautiful people, as though she’s feeling sentimental for youth, when she was never that kind of young? Perhaps because they were artists, then, and their clothes were a badge of poverty, or simplicity, or a willful objection to the fashion of the 1980s and now, as a database manager and software salesperson, respectively, these clothes seem to only signal a kind of hopelessness. It was not the clothes, then, but the context, in the way mom jeans could look sexy on a teenager, and be unbearable on an actual mother.

Her girlfriend pressed the button, asked for a status update.

The tourists became suddenly aware. The cupcake pointed to the control panel and said something in Japanese.

Yes, we’re stuck, the woman said. She nodded several times. How does one motion, stuck? She threw her hands up and shrugged. Stuck.

It seemed strange, with the elevator only populated by four bodies, for them to be standing on opposite ends. But they had taken those positions when they entered the elevator, and to cross over to the other side now would seem intrusive. What would they do over there? Shake hands? Take bets on how long this will last?

The tourists made phone calls.

I never even liked Barbara Kruger, her girlfriend said.

Of course you did, she said. Come on. You can hardly take this out on her.

No, you liked her. I didn’t like Barbara Kruger or Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin or any of that shit you liked. But especially Barbara Kruger. She’s so trite. With Warhol at least there was the glee of consumerism along with the commentary. Kruger is so Stalinesque.

Who do you like then?

David Hockney. And Robert Mapplethorpe.

Gay men?

That has nothing to do with it.

Men’s asses. What else do they have in common? And you hated them. I was here then, I knew you, don’t you remember?

Yes, but now they make me sentimental. For the eighties.

When all of our friends died?

For the time before they started dying, you bitch.

She had been thinking of that time lately, too. They had been together for so long that sometimes when the woman was sure they had grown irreconcilably apart, she discovered they’d been sharing thoughts again. She kept thinking of The Living Room Series. On one evening, there was the enlightenment: a woman standing naked in trikonasana in the center of the room until she transcended. Or fell, which had taken a full hour. Another night had been Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? recast as a play about two domestic dogs; one time, at their house, there was a painting done live of half the room while the other half of the room watched. And then, the worst time, everyone present was asked to write down a one-word judgment about someone else in the room, and the words were read aloud as one continuous thread of flighty, capricious, naïve, earnest, boring, and vapid, and even so she knew which word her girlfriend had chosen but she had not been sure whether it applied to her. Predictable.

Silverlake had been seedy, then, and Hollywood had been even seedier, and it had made The Living Room Series more desperate than a beat happening.

The Japanese tourists had friends, friends who had gathered with their cameras on the second floor and who were now snapping pictures of the four of them, trapped mid-floor. The elevator doors were glass and the banks were glass, so from the top of the elevator, they could look up into the third floor of the museum and from the bottom, they could look down, with a thick stripe of actual floor splitting up the view. The tourists waved. The cupcake made a look of mock panic, both hands slapped to her cheeks.

Why are we still standing? her girlfriend said. I’m sitting down.

The woman had pictured taking their time at the museum, then going to a new restaurant, somewhere they could sit outside, and maybe try small plates of different things. Something with mussels. She was craving mussels. And then they’d walk down the street to a bar and maybe drink too much (micheladas, perhaps) or at least just enough, and they’d go back to their house, and if she were lucky they might make love before the week began. But her girlfriend might not have wanted to, feeling the pressure of a new job.

Recently, the woman had almost fucked a man, and she had hoped she might be able to bring it up that day; not the fact that she had almost fucked a man, exactly, but the conditions that had precipitated that almost fact, or, more alarmingly, how it had become an almost, owing more to fatigue than to any sense of fidelity. They had never been the types to make a filial pledge, but early in their relationship they had seen that the emotional consequences of sleeping around outlived the short-term renewal they might have felt. They’d tested it out enough in the early days.

They had never chosen to be together, or, rather, they had continually chosen, a living decision rather than one made at a fixed, distant point. She understood that commitment was supposed to push one past the crucible moments, but it could become the tyranny of the past self over the present. They had come to the end several times before; jobs had taken one of them away, and the other had had to decide to stay or go; it had been over in New York at the turn of the millennium, and then 9/11 had happened. They had started again. It had been over again, years later, when her girlfriend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It had turned out to be what they called princess cancer — not really the crisis either of them had expected it to be — but it had been enough to make them stay.

But she had always been the one who was fixedly gay: her gayness, and her girlfriend’s ambiguous sensuousness, had been like the axis they’d plotted their romantic movements around. To have been aroused by the veins in a man’s thick forearm at her age made her wonder if she had early-onset dementia.

The tourists were coming toward them now. She thought of elementary school Red Rover, of how a single interloper would run over to violate a line of schoolchildren. She had liked that game, liked getting caught up in the cradle of other kids’ arms.

Her girlfriend stood up.

They understand that we’re stuck, don’t they? her girlfriend said.

The tourists bowed, one after the other, in a mini-round. She smiled back. Her girlfriend bowed in response.

They were motioning them toward the center of the elevator.

What’s happening? she said.

The cupcake made a box with her fingers, then flicked her index finger up and down.

No, her girlfriend said. We are not taking a photograph.

Come on, she said. Art is about the audience. It was written in giant print on the elevator shaft.

They posed for a few photographs, then the cupcake turned her phone around for a few selfies.

Get your phone out, she said to her girlfriend. We should do one, too.

Fine, she said. But we’re going to look fat from this angle.

After the photographs, the two parties retreated to their respective elevator sides.

Her girlfriend pressed the intercom button again. Can we get a status update? she yelled into the box. I have to go to the bathroom.

You do? she said.

I might, she said. If I think about it.

A new voice came on, less apologetic and more authoritative than the one before. This one said the problem should be fixed momentarily.

But it was not momentarily. They both sat down against the wall and waited.

Today is ruined, her girlfriend said.

We’ve only been in here for thirty-five minutes, she said. Nothing is ruined. Once upon a time, something like this would have made the day. We’d have a story. We got stuck in the Barbara Kruger elevator. Shafted! Ha!

It’s not a story if you don’t have anyone to tell it to, she said.

Oh come on now. It’s not that dire.

It’s a software company. It’s sales, she said. Would any person there understand the irony?

You’re working there, she said. Don’t assume. Who knows what your colleagues are like?

It was true that they rarely saw their friends from The Living Room series days. A few had died. A few more had had children and moved to more affordable parts of town. And a few had gotten their big breaks, now too successful in their own film or art careers to have much time to get together anymore; their success and wealth had been almost as divisive as children had.

The woman had thought about this. It wasn’t that she or her girlfriend had been any less talented; they had shown just as much early promise as any of their friends as filmmakers. Their problem was that they were smart. Their friends who had done well in the arts were not employable; some of them were barely functional; they could not have put on office clothes and gone off to jobs as systems analysts. Their intelligence had been their undoing, really.

Or maybe they had just outgrown the lifestyle, in the way she had always feared her girlfriend might someday outgrow being a lesbian.

And how to explain this thing about the man? She understood what was happening. She had signed up for a digital art class, an activity that wouldn’t make a mess in the house and would get her mind off the database conversion she was overseeing at work. And for three hours each week she had been in college again, and it so happened that a man she had known in college — a man who had bedded almost every single one of her female schoolmates back then — had been in the class, too. She had never understood the attraction before. His neck was too long, his head slightly too small for his body, a body, which — from an objective perspective — had always been impressive, extremely long and lean as though he’d been a professional swimmer. But the kind of male cockiness she’d been immune to her entire life now overwhelmed her. He flirted with her shamelessly because he knew she was stone-cold queer. He was the same guy, still teaching college freshmen, still single, still an alcoholic. And all that regressive sameness had made her uncontrollably aroused.

But of course she hadn’t done anything, and that was just the thing: she was past doing anything. What could be more terrifying than that?

Did you see the Orwell quote at the top of the shaft? her girlfriend said. Amidst the magazine words that plastered the shaft, were the words:

If you want a PICTURE of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever.

Yeah, she said. I noticed it because it should say stamping — the book says stamping, not stomping.

It doesn’t matter, her girlfriend said. The future doesn’t fucking look like that. It looks like technical difficulties. It’s no great drama. It’s getting nibbled away at. Like death by ants.

Are you okay? she said. You sound hungry.

Don’t patronize me, her girlfriend said. Even cancer wasn’t cancer! she cried out.

The tourists stopped chattering and regarded the two of them.

It didn’t crush me like a boot stomping on a face or stamping on a face! Is anything ever going to be crushing again?

It seemed wrong to reassure someone that something would in fact crush them someday. And she still wanted to tease out this difference between stamp and stomp.

Let’s think about what to eat, she said instead.

I miss the eighties, her girlfriend said. When everything was so nasty and the wall hadn’t fallen and we still didn’t know whose side would win.

The elevator lurched, jostling the cupcake and elf, who were still standing. It slowly began to descend. They pushed themselves up off the floor and headed toward the door, eager to push out as though amidst a crowd.

I miss it, too, she said.

When the massive doors slid open, the lobby erupted in applause.

Oh please, her girlfriend said.

The tourists were reunited with their friends, who were now posing as a group outside the elevator doors. They stood right in front of the text that read, SPAS SUSHI FLAT SCREENS. Intersected down the middle was text the woman had not read before: PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH, RIGHT?

She took her girlfriend’s arm. Let’s eat something good, she said. I’m done with art.

Mussels, her girlfriend said. All day I’ve been craving mussels.

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