They call it hipster heaven, where all the cool kids go. I walk the dark street alone, searching for the entrance, but no one I pull aside will give me any details. None of them look me in the eye. They shake their heads, shuffle their thrifted boots, and tell me no in a way that clearly means not for you. Not for me, with my wrong-season dresses and my secondhand knowledge of the art scene, with names like Rothko and Duchamp clumsy on my tongue. But for you, nowhere was off-limits. You were always the one who belonged.
I try every velvet-roped door until I reach one with a pearlescent sheen. The flickering sign above the awning says Exhibition. The bouncer won’t let me in, but he doesn’t stop me from lurking in the back alley, which is half hazy darkness and half the scent of stale beer. That’s a lot more my speed than museum marble, so I lean on the cold brick in the shadow of neon, waiting for someone to open the back door. Waiting for you to bring me into the light again and make me into somebody worth seeing.
The business name on the bar’s posted liquor license is the Northwest Mind and Time Movement. It feels like forever ago that we drove to this street–I want to say it’s been a week of wandering now–but I remember you telling me about that movement as we coasted down the freeway. You said they were the descendants of James Turrell’s light-drinkers, a group of experimental artists that played with retinal perception as easily as painters might mix pigments. Their descendants are trying to move beyond the eye.
“It’s the natural progression for art to make. Neurons are the next canvas,” you told me, lounging in the passenger seat. Your cigarette dangled out the window between your slim fingers, sprinkling ash along the asphalt. I watched the red dot of heat as it faded to gray. I’m sure I said something, but in the darkness of the back alley my memory crumbles like your cigarette tip, here and there and gone.
You took me to a Turrell exhibit, once. It was a massive room that narrowed at one end to a bright screen of pure light, forever morphing between soft shades of purple and aquamarine. When we stood near it and let our eyes unfocus, it felt as though we were pressed against a solid wall of color. It felt wrong to move, to walk into the gap between flatness and depth, but I did it anyway. I had to shake off that perceptual fog.
“Don’t go into the light, baby,” you joked as I stepped forward into deepest blue.
The back door opens as a guest leaves, winding his drunken way past me. The air fills with the twangy chords of a band I’ve never heard. The world inside glows.
They call it hipster heaven, and I guess that must be true, because I haven’t seen you since you died last week, and there you are in your dancing shoes. You’re waiting alone at the crowded bar, swaying to the unfamiliar beat atop heels so narrow you almost float. The bare bulbs give you a halo of flyaway hair, and your wings are loose jacket sleeves slung just so over your shoulder. Through the half-open door, I watch as you lean over the counter and wave down the bartender for a drink. At least here the staff will know what your order means. Your bones are unshattered, your lungs reinflated. Even your lipstick is no longer smeared. Your restoration is a work of art. But if it is you, really you, why don’t you see me waiting here?
The door closes. Laughter from the patrons still inside drifts through the air like vanilla smoke, sweet and light and wholly unreal. Unreachable. I strain my neck, trying in vain to see through the crack by the hinges. If I squint hard enough, I can see a sliver of you, and my memory fills in the rest.
I fill you in wrong, though. All I can remember is how you looked in the car on the way here, in the moment just after the squeal of brakes and the horrible rending of metal. Even when I close my eyes, I see you, bone-white and blood-red in all the wrong places. I can feel my mind straining against the cognitive dissonance. You look like an echo of yourself, a cave painting silhouette. I want more than anything to place my hand in the outline of yours. I want to say it didn’t happen like that. I want to say let’s go home now.
Time stands still. Time turns back. When the door opens again for another guest to stumble out, you’re dancing with a cocktail in your hand. Your hair is the color your hair is. Your lips are the color your lips are. I recognize you in the easy way of dreams, straight to the answer without any of the guessing. But this isn’t a dream, and no matter how hard I look, I can’t see your eyes.
I reach for you, my arms shaking. I try to step forward and cross that impossible divide, but the exiting guest grabs my arm. His grip feels like iron and twisted seatbelts.
“Please don’t touch the art.” The voice is monotone, almost bored. It’s not his, or yours, or mine, and for the life of me I can’t think of anyone else that exists. Maybe it’s a light-drinker, calling down from the sun. I remember the sun. It never rises here. I think it looked like you.
With each swing of the door, I am granted fragmented glimpses. Mine is a curated experience. My memories are brushstrokes, layered like oils, but I’ve never been able to see the picture in those Magic Eye paintings. I struggle against the bar guest’s grip.
“Please don’t touch the art,” the voice repeats. It lingers in my skull like an afterimage from too-bright filament. I relent, falling back until I am released to my alleyway wandering. The man shakes his head and leaves me behind.
The next time the door opens, I’m ready. I lunge through.
Pain surrounds me. It hurts like an airbag to the nose, like a steering column through my ribs, like watching you bleed out on the I-5 asphalt. I don’t see you inside. You died. You died on the way home from the bar, and you died on the street and you died in the dark and you died with your cigarette half-smoked and I don’t know the first thing about what happened to me.
Time smears to a stop. The world tears open. Lights flash in the corners of my vision while my body spasms. I feel my mind, my thoughts, my memories, slipping away, dripping down like water splashed across a canvas. My senses narrow. The sign still has a color, the air still has a smell. I just don’t know what they are.
I stand in an alley in the shadow of neon. The door is closed.
They call it hipster heaven, but heaven’s not for me. My world is this dark alley, my sky the crack at the back door’s hinge. I lean forward as the door opens, hoping to drink in some of your light. Someone bumps into me on their way out.
“Please don’t touch the art,” the bright voice says. I don’t try to go inside anymore, though. All I do is watch you. Your hair is the color your hair is, and your lips are the color your lips are, and your eyes are the embers in cigarette ash, burning, burning, burning.
Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Recognize Fascism, and Glitter + Ashes. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat, Moomin.