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“Unshocked”

            I felt the smooth powder glaze over my skin. My body felt refreshingly cool as I looked over at Gilbert. His face was already half covered in the metallic powder; the shiny paint danced across his face as he gave me a smile. I allowed myself to be taken back to the moment that I had first seen that smile. September 25, 1967. The Saint Martin’s School of Art was showing a sculpture exhibit. I stared at the pristine curves of the clean, white figure of a man that made up the first sculpture in the exhibit. I was lost in attempting to understand why the artist chose to be somewhat safe with the sculpture. I crinkled my face while looking at the curve of the statues chest, chiseled and stiff. I was lost in the sculpture until I heard a loud sigh coming from beside me. When I looked everything became silent and I focused on the man standing beside me, knowing that I would never find art as beautiful as the man standing beside me. The curve of his face contrasted too perfectly with the intensity of his eyes. I was struck mostly by those eyes; they looked as if someone had taken a pin and made the quickest dot on his face. I took in the way he stared at the sculpture, as if I wasn’t there studying his presence. He jumped when I commented on the hard, milky appearance of the sculpture. However, he pretended not to be mad and gave into the curve of his mouth. My body became warm when his smooth hand drifted into mine; I think it began as a handshake. It wasn’t that, handshakes are reserved for a pleasantry when you first meet someone and need to seem official. That barrier had been with the intensity of his eyes, which burned right into my soul, so there was no handshaking. His hand drifted into mine, holding it steady and conveying more through that single touch than would have made sense with a handshake. My body became warm and I felt my stomach tighten as he gave my hand a gentle squeeze.

There was a time, shortly after we got together, in which I was showing Gilbert the tourist-y sights in London. I was born in Plymouth, but London always felt like home. Perhaps because Plymouth was never a real home, because when I was a young boy, we were bombed out of there in 1942 and moved quickly to Tunis. London was new, exciting and feasted off art. Gilbert was embracing being a tourist and we went to various shops and gazed in the windows at all of the bright colors: deep blues outside of Givenchy, bright yellows on the sign outside of Chanel, and poppy reds that dripped from the windows of Prada. The reflection of dark hair jolted out and swallowed the bright colors, leaving them a swirl of muted remains. I remember looking at Gilbert’s dark locks and fair complexion and knowing that this was far more beautiful than window display of great artistic direction. There was never a question as to whether or not I should be with this man, it just fit, it just was and I knew I never thought about it because in that moment I realized that this was us forming a single relationship, and perhaps a single artist.

I turned towards the mirror as I pressed the powder into my freshly shaven cheek. The metallic dust hugged my skin as I pushed it in every direction until my entire face and hands were covered in the powder. My stomach turned as I started to tie my tie. I looked at Gilbert, who placed a hand on my warm shoulder. I released the breath that I had been holding in since my tie was on the desk. It was time. We had both agreed from the beginning that our audience would come first, before anything. I felt guilty for my nerves and as my thoughts consumed me, Gilbert’s hand squeezed my shoulder and gave me a smile, “You may feel nervous, but we decided that our audience would always come first, before anything, including you not being calm,” he assured me. I knew his words to be true, our love story began as an audience and would continue to be a love story between us and our audience. Gilbert placed his large, cooling palm into mine as we made our way out of the dressing room.

***

            I waited in my chair for something in the art piece to jump out at me, my chest tightened and I looked for an answer but perhaps the canvas was in no need of further help. I let my paintbrush drip onto the parchment below my canvas, the photo of the men’s mouths wide open in pleasure gave me reassurance that there needed no more improvement. Slowly, Gilbert came from behind me and grasped my hand that was still holding the paintbrush. Together, we slid the wet paintbrush over the eyes of the two men, blue. His warm hand held mine for an extra beat and together we set the brush down as there was no other use for it, the series was done. He pressed his finger into the roof of my mouth and whispered, “Thirst” into my ear.

            The premiere of our series of Thirst paintings was packed, mostly with the cigarette smoke of wannabe socialites who deemed themselves chic. Every time I looked into the bright paintings, I thought of Gilbert’s finger pressed into the roof of my mouth, as that is how we posed for every art opening. There was one woman who came up to us and started questioning out art. I know that not all people enjoy our pieces, but to not understand our art is hard to believe. Our art deals with every day feelings and actions and present them right in front of you. I knew right away that this woman was from a magazine, or some source of media. They are always the ones who try to make our art into something more gruesome and taboo.

The woman started to question the shock that might arise from the paintings. Tension started to build at the front of my head as I tried calmly to explain to her why this isn’t shocking. In fact, Gilbert and I call our art unshocking because it isn’t meant to give people the urge to be scared and run away. Gilbert and I keep people in our exhibits because it is how he and I take in ordinary things. Ordinary people are not shocked, we convey the things they think about on a daily basis in a way that must be presented to the world.After expressing our view to the woman, who was of course from the newspaper, Gilbert placed a hand on my back, cooling the start of sweat. I’m not an angry person, but I never find it completely easy to convey my passion to someone that not only doesn’t understand our work, but tries to make our work into something sinister. When I felt the pressure of the familiar hand that Gilbert placed on me, there was no longer any agitation. More than that, there was never agitation.

After the opening, we made our way to Reynold’s, the restaurant where we eat all of our meals, unless we are entertaining. When the waiter approached the table I listed our meal, “We will have the chicken with vodka sauce, red wine, and bread.” The waiter knew to bring the same meal to both of us. The most refreshing part of our dining out is that we don’t waste time looking through a menu. Gilbert and I eat at the same restaurant and order the same meal every single time. It is evident that people spend their lives being pulled to the grave, why would we spend time deciding over too many choices for food that we consume and then pass through our bodies? The rapid pull to the grave is better spent pouring our minds onto canvas with brightly colored paints because there is no one else in the world that makes the art that we make. Our art conveyed one of a kind thought and we needed to share our thoughts before we were no longer able.

***

            During December of 2000, we were unveiling the second set of Thirst paintings. I stared at the beautiful painting, a dance of red and yellow. My legs tingled as I felt the longing sensation at the roof of my mouth. I pushed my tongue upwards as my body pulsed underneath my pants. I wanted to feel Gilbert. He’d gone to the bathroom to splash water on his face and cool down. I wanted to storm in the bathroom and hold him and tell him that everything would be okay. I knew it would only be to my benefit to do such a thing. Gilbert didn’t need any reminder of the news we had received that day. Gilbert needed things to go on as they would, as they should for the audience. I thought back to the word that had left an inky taste in my mouth ever since we had left the hospital. “Cancer.”

Reynold’s was vacant that evening but if there were any people in the restaurant, I wouldn’t have noticed. I begged Gilbert to look at the menu and decide on something different, but he refused. I wanted dinner to last as long as possible so I could be given more of a chance of remembering every detail. Gilbert was dressed in a suit that was tailored similar to my own. His tie was a knitted and looked like the color of cream; it reminded me of the sculpture we were viewing when we met. The speckles of crimson danced on the tie and I didn’t want to think about what it reminded me of, so I threw my eyes onto his hands. I knew every inch of those hands as if they were my own. I watched the right hand dance across the table and drift into mine. Gilbert smiled as the waiter approached, not letting go of my hand, and he spoke clearly in his thick accent, “We will have the chicken in a vodka sauce, red wine, and some bread please.”

***

            I placed my palm on the window. The icy chill pierced through my skin, but I didn’t budge. My cheek found its way to the source of the cold as well. I sat with my back against the dresser and allowed my cheek to become tingly until I couldn’t feel anything. I smiled as I pulled away from the window, my cheek instantly starting to itch painfully. I resisted the impulse to scratch, which caused my body to become tense. The back of my neck began to feel like there was a huge weight pulling down on my shoulders. I grabbed the tie that had been thrown onto the ground. I caressed the silk but it felt like sandpaper. The lump in my throat grew thicker as the pain in my neck subsided. My chest felt heavy and I had to remind myself to breathe. I stroked the tie, sandpaper again. My throat tightened. I finally let go of the tie and felt the air fill back into my lungs. I fell into the carpet as I tried to push away my thoughts of Gilbert. I squeezed to one side, holding my legs into my chest and pressed my tongue to the roof of my mouth.

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