For Services Rendered
Jake’s opening was in 14 days, and he still had five canvases to complete. Were the five he’d already finished any good? He couldn’t tell, and he’d already asked Claudia to come into his studio and offer her opinion at least 12 times.
“I don’t know what you want me to say. I like the ones with teal. I just don’t really like orange,” she’d said when looking at one canvas.
“What’s going on with the figure-ground relationship here?” she’d said another time.
“You’re doing something with surface and depth, or trying to create some kind of illusion of depth, but it’s too confused.”
One more visit: “These are well-painted, but they feel empty. You keep telling me there’s no ‘narrative’ in them, but I still don’t get what you really care about here.” Jake told her that for this show (his first, ever) he was interested in the things he was always interested in, tenets of abstraction itself—color, scale, light, improvisation, and materiality. Labor, too: ideas about the artist as worker.
Claudia rolled her eyes and said, “okay, I’m clearly not getting any of that from all this,” and Jake said, “well, maybe you’re not looking hard enough,” and Claudia said, “how much work do you expect your viewer to do for you here?” Jake said he didn’t understand what they were talking about anymore and maybe, for the next few days, she should just stay out of his studio, to which Claudia said, “you’re the one who keeps asking me to come in here to begin with.”
What did Jake’s paintings look like? His compositions resembled multicolored galaxies that spiraled outward, or inward, depending on whom you asked. Jake made them by dropping paint-drenched clothes, bedsheets, and rags atop the canvases, allowing them to land wherever they may, then swirling and swiping the fabrics across the surfaces in order to create smears and suggestions of stains and imperfections. He repeated this process, layering paints of varying viscosities, until he felt the thing was complete. His resulting marks sometimes retained the texture of the original fabrics themselves, generating localized grids and other patterns. Then Jake splattered his canvases with more paint. He’d begun mixing mica into his pigments, so that the canvases adopted even more of a celestial sheen.
When Claudia looked closely, some of the forms seemed to resolve into a bunch of phallic arcs, with the splatters resembling ejaculate, which would make sense given the fact that Jake was using their old bedsheets to make the paintings. But Claudia could never be 100% sure that all this wasn’t just in her head. Depending on her mood, the splatters sometimes also looked like stars, sprinkled across the night sky.
Claudia had once asked Jake directly if all the splatter was supposed to be splooge, and he’d told her that it was abstract art and whatever she saw probably said more about her than about anything to do with him or the paintings themselves. So Claudia, for the most part, had stopped asking too many questions.
The real problem, Jake thought, aside from the fact that his dealer expected the paintings to be ready to hang in a week and a half, was that Claudia made more money than he did. She hustled, compiling jobs and shifts from magazines and people she met online and coffee shops and coffee shop customers—Claudia had even finagled their apartment, at deep discount, from a favorite customer who’d lived in his place for 15 years, then moved to LA—and then she complained that none of this left her any time to work on her photography. Jake had more time to paint, though he made less money as a studio assistant: He sanded and primed canvases for an old guy who’d gotten famous for making broad, straight brushstrokes, then letting them drip. This covered Jake’s living expenses. To purchase stretcher bars and other art supplies, Jake supplemented his income by cleaning apartments once in a while. He was tired of hearing Claudia complain. He’d never asked her to take every gig she got offered.
“Why don’t you just go out and shoot today,” he said. “I took a cleaning gig.” It was Sunday morning.
Claudia stared at him. “Today was supposed to be the one day we both had off this week,” she said. “We never get to hang out on Sundays.”
“Don’t you want to be a photographer? I’m confused,” Jake said.
“Fine,” Claudia said. “If you don’t want me here, I’ll go out and shoot today.” Claudia slammed the bedroom door, Jake heard a rustle that sounded like things getting tossed into a purse, and then the apartment door slammed. Claudia was prone to overreactions due to some childhood trauma or something, and Jake felt for her, he really did, but that was her issue to deal with, and he had to go to work and figure out these paintings.
Claudia decided that if Jake was going to be like this, she was going to go all-in on the series she’d blithely started when Jake got news of his first painting show. She was going to photograph men around town. Claudia sat in Brooklyn coffee shops with her camera on the table, read a magazine, drank a latte, then waited to see who approached her to talk. And when some man did come up to her, to ask her what she was reading, or what kind of film she shot on, or whatever, Claudia asked to take his photograph. It was not a particularly complex or novel project, but it was the idea, at the moment, that Claudia had.
That’s how she met Josiah on this particular Sunday morning. He approached her at a dingy place off Washington Avenue that served good breakfast sandwiches. Claudia knew women who said they hated being picked up because it made them feel like hunted prey. She respected this and admired these women, whom she assumed were in happier relationships with men and with themselves. Although some of these women were probably just liars. And it probably mattered, too, who exactly was trying to pick them up.
“Are you a photographer?” Josiah said. The only real difference between him and the other men who had approached her thus far was that Josiah was somewhat better looking, and Claudia was particularly angry at Jake today.
“Sometimes,” Claudia said. “Yeah.”
They discussed the make of her camera, and what her project entailed, and what kinds of subjects she’d already shot. It wasn’t a very good project, she admitted to Josiah, but she was hoping that it would make her boyfriend jealous.
“You know what would really make your boyfriend jealous? Letting me take you to dinner tonight,” Josiah said.
Had Jake ever taken Claudia to dinner? Once, when he’d had a gift certificate.
“Okay,” Claudia said. “Where are we going?”
Jake’s cleaning jobs were always located around South Brooklyn. Families left their spaces for two hours, giving Jake time to play heavy metal as he scrubbed shower scum and thought about shapes. He was interested in the cross-sections of grout between bathroom tiles and the angles at which late afternoon sunlight slanted into windows, how it created an interplay of patterns and hues across the furniture.
It was Jake’s first time, however, cleaning this particular apartment in Sunset Park.
The job was a referral from his friend Max, who was busy because he was planning a wedding to a woman named Melanie, whom Jake couldn’t actually stand, but that wasn’t really the issue at hand today. The problem today was that the apartment tenant hadn’t left for the day at all, as the rest of Jake’s clients usually did. Instead, here she was, lounging around on the couch. She looked to be about 40, ten years older than Jake, and she was very attractive. Her name was Carnation, but her perfume smelled like rose.
“You’re Max’s friend then,” Carnation said. She was tan and had big brown eyes and long, long, long straight dark hair that reached to her ass, and she wore leggings and an oversized band tee-shirt that hung off her tiny frame, and she seemed to be wearing no bra beneath. “Yeah,” Jake said. “Yeah, Max and I went to school together.”
“So he told you the deal?” Carnation said.
“What deal?” Jake said. “He told me the rate.”
“I don’t leave the apartment while you clean. I watch you clean it. Max always did it with his shirt off.”
“That’s news to me,” Jake said.
“And what do you think?” Carnation said.
Jake ruffled his hair. “I usually like to play heavy metal while I clean,” he said. “I’m used to just doing the job on my own, with clients out of the apartment. I’m not really used to people watching. I work best alone.”
“That’s fine,” Carnation said. “You can still play heavy metal. Do you want lemonade?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll take some lemonade.”
While Jake was at Carnation’s, Claudia went back to their apartment to change. She showered and put on a black turtleneck and high-waisted jeans, her old first date uniform before she’d met Jake.
Claudia tidied the kitchen and left a note for Jake on the fridge. He hated texting. The note read: “Photography subject buying me dinner. Will sleep at home. Probably.” Jake was fine with this kind of stuff, for the most part—long ago, they’d both acknowledged they couldn’t meet every single one of the other’s needs, and Jake was nothing if not accepting of creative solutions.
But before Claudia left to meet Josiah, she walked into the room Jake used as a studio. He’d made little progress on his canvases since she’d last been in there. When she walked over to the window, though, she saw something new: little colored pencil sketches, taped to the wall, that Jake had made of various pieces of her clothing. He’d captured the texture of her wool jacket and the cut of her lace panties and the pattern of her snakeskin boots. Claudia looked around the room and suddenly saw various crosshatches and color fields anew. How had she missed all this before? Across a few canvases, she even thought she saw the abstracted hues of her own eyes.
Claudia got on the subway and gazed, more carefully than usual, at the various parkas and hats that surrounded her, at the gritty light that illuminated her fellow riders, at the lines formed by two coats bumping against each other, and finally at the contours of her own hands.
Jake’s shirt was off and he was wiping down Carnation’s kitchen cabinets.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Carnation said. She was sitting at the high kitchen table, which was painted a chipping, light yellow and looked like a thrift store find. “Yeah,” Jake said. “For a couple years now.”
“You gonna marry her?” Carnation said.
Jake shrugged. “We live together,” he said. Why did she care? Why did she keep talking to him?
“Max marrying Melanie, that caught me off guard,” Carnation said.
“All he did, when he was over here, was bitch about her.”
“I got that too,” Jake said. “When I lived with them, all they did was scream at each other. He cheated on her in school, constantly. But maybe most relationships end up like that, at some point.”
“I’m divorced,” Carnation said. “But my ex is still my guarantor. Sometimes he pays my rent.”
“Cool,” Jake said. Then he added, “What happened?” because he felt like he was supposed to.
“I thought I was a lesbian,” Carnation said. “But it turns out I’m not. The idea only appealed when I was with him.”
“Got it,” Jake said. He nodded.
“Max and I had sex sometimes.”
Jake took a magic eraser to the white wall behind the sink. “Is that what you want here?” he said. He wondered if she might pay him extra.
“Is that what you want?” Carnation said.
“What?” Jake said.
“If that was on the table, would you want to have sex with me?”
“As a favor?”
“A favor?” Carnation said. “Is that how you’d see it?”
Jake looked at her. She was undeniably crazy, and indisputably hot.
“Hm,” Jake said. “Can I try kissing you?”
Carnation said yes.
It was red leather banquettes and standard bistro fare here, and Claudia ordered moules frites. She liked looking at Josiah: He had dark, silvery hair cut long in back, and this habit of kind of flicking his tongue out when he spoke. Josiah told her about his doctoral research, which had something to do with “pure math” and symmetrical sets. Claudia did not totally understand it, but she partially understood it, which is maybe the most a person can ever hope for. “So it has no basis in reality. No practical application at all,” she said.
“None,” Josiah said. “The money’s in stuff like tech, machine learning. I decided not to go that route about two years ago. That would have been the time to do it.” “So why go this route?” Claudia said.
Josiah shrugged. “I think it’s kind of beautiful. If useless,” he said.
“And, what? You want to teach? Get a tenured position?”
“That’s the goal,” Josiah said, without much conviction. “Not sure how I’ll pay back all my loans, though. Also, I don’t want kids. Just to be clear.”
“I told you,” Claudia said. “I already have a boyfriend.”
“Great,” Josiah said. He told her about his poor relationship with his father, who was a painter.
“Painters. The worst,” Claudia said. It turned out they both loved film noir. Josiah told Claudia he’d been an angry, solitary child, and Claudia said, “yeah, me too.” Josiah told Claudia about a skateboard-related trauma. He pulled up his pant leg to show her a scar. Claudia reached down to stroke the old wound. She decided she might be falling in love.
Jake’s problem was that he felt nothing. Here was this pretty woman, offering up her body to him, ostensibly seeking nothing in return, but for whatever reason, Jake felt he should be getting paid for this. He dutifully stuck his tongue into Carnation’s mouth and slipped her shirt over her head and felt her breasts and sucked on her nipples, but he felt absolutely nothing. The sensation throughout his body was as neutral and numb as it would have been if he were just staring at a brick wall. Carnation’s hands were sliding up and down his back, and she was trying to drag him down onto the couch. Jake thought, vaguely, of the way that Claudia had slammed their door that morning.
“Don’t you want me to clean?” Jake said softly.
“Clean?” Carnation said. “You’d rather clean?”
Jake pulled away and started to put his shirt back on. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should go.” As he walked out Carnation’s door, Jake decided there was something cold and hard about her. She was just a lonely stranger, but as Jake stared into the future, he saw how one afternoon with her could lead to the next, how Carnation could easily just become a chore to be checked off.
Josiah set a glass with round ice cubes and Japanese gin in front of Claudia. She stared at a piece of paper on his kitchen table.
“What are all these equations?” Claudia said.
“Just a problem I was working on today.” Josiah sipped his drink.
“And?” Claudia said.
“And what?” Josiah said. “You actually want me to explain it to you?”
“I’m asking you to explain it to me,” Claudia said.
“It’s not that interesting, really,” Josiah said.
“You’re not explaining it to me because you think I won’t get it?” Claudia said. “I’m not explaining it to you because it’s hard to explain,” Josiah said, then changed the topic of conversation. He told Claudia he’d always gone for bad girls. His high school girlfriend had once stolen a car.
“That’s what you want me to be?” Claudia said. “You want me to make some story up about myself here?”
“Yeah,” Josiah said. “Yeah, tell me about the worst thing you ever did.”
Claudia skimmed her memory, trying to think of people she’d hurt. “My thing is that I leave people,” she said, “when they least expect it. Things will be going fine, more or less, and then I’ll get bored or scared or whatever and be gone.”
“You’re a bad liar,” Josiah said. “I don’t think that’s actually who you are at all. I think you’re the kind of person who always comes back.”
“You don’t know me,” Claudia said. She assumed he had an ex-girlfriend with whom he was still very much in touch.
When Jake returned to their apartment, Claudia was gone. He sat in his studio, thinking about Carnation. He made one mark on a canvas, then another. Things were looking good, he thought. The compositions were coming together.
“Want to do this again?” Josiah asked Claudia.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’d like that.”
Josiah kissed her goodbye, but when he reached his hand up her shirt, she pushed him away.
“Next time,” Claudia said, mostly to keep him wanting more.
Claudia found Jake asleep on the floor of his studio. She cracked a window to dispel the paint fumes, then brought the comforter in from their bedroom, undressed, tossed her clothing across the floor, and lay the fabric over both their bodies.
Before the morning sun had fully come up, Claudia woke and felt Jake’s arms wrapped around her. He murmured, half awake. Claudia stared at the canvases, which had filled out in her absence.
“They look good,” Claudia said. “The patterns are more legible. There’s more connective tissue between all of them.”
“Who did you photograph yesterday?” Jake said.
Claudia sighed. “It always ends up being someone who reminds me of you.” “The opening will be over in less than two weeks,” Jake said. “I’ll have more time after that.”
Claudia knew this was a lie, that with additional time, Jake would just find more apartments to clean and paintings to paint, and Claudia would take on more projects and make more money and photograph more men.
“Will you?” Claudia said. “What’s really going on here?” She felt Jake’s scruff and hot breath against her neck. Maybe he could be more honest if he wasn’t looking directly at her. “Sometimes,” he said, “I wonder if I can really take care of you.”
Claudia thought she’d end up back at Josiah’s, but that’s not what happened at all. He never called, and Claudia assumed he’d gone back to some ex. Instead, Jake brought Claudia over to Carnation’s the day after his opening (a success, even if just five of the works sold), and Carnation paid the pair double the usual cleaning fee, in order to watch the two of them have sex. The trio kept up this arrangement, and it became a weekly ritual. It even improved Jake and Claudia’s relationship—finally, they had a regular weekly date, and they had more money at their disposal—and the pair started talking about getting engaged. It was a chore, Jake thought, but it was Carnation, not Claudia, asking him to do it, and Claudia, not Carnation, whom he was doing it with. For whatever reason, that worked for him.
Carnation was a weird one. Sometimes she cried while she watched. She paid Jake and Claudia with kitchily decorated checks, making them out to Jake and writing across the bottom line: “FOR SERVICES RENDERED.” Claudia thought this was a funny phrase, and she decided to co-opt it for her next photography project. Whenever she got around to it.
A. Cerisse Cohen holds an MFA from the University of Montana. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, The Nation, Artsy, and other outlets. Website: https://alinaccohen.wixsite.com/about