The Case of the Missing Nude
The bathrooms were first. Every day. As owner of the restaurant, it was my job, and mine alone, to read the blackboard walls and edit the fresh critiques, confessions, opinions, quotations, entreaties, and general philosophies limned the night before. Initials inside hearts were the most popular iconography, followed by birthday greetings and pledges of endless love. Quotes from Lewis Carroll and Khalil Gibran popped up weekly. The messages were surprisingly civilized for such a transient, anonymous population in various stages of intoxication, relief, lipstick retouch, or a bad date. Favorite dishes were declared and sometimes sketched; renderings of fishes and vegetables were in abundance. It seemed like everyone in the Hamptons could draw an elephant’s ass or a cat’s face.
A few plum selections were always spared the eraser. I confess to a fondness for foreign language agitprop, musical references, spiritual apothegms, and prurience. One day I found, “I masturbated here. Love, Nicole.” Didn’t touch it. The next day, underneath, appeared: “Nicole — I masturbated to your message. Love, Maria.” Social media from a distant epoch.
Over the course of one July Fourth weekend, the following conversation was built, retort by daily retort, and stayed on the blackboard for a week:
“God is dead” — Nietzsche
“Nietzsche is dead” — God
“Neitzsche & God are Deadheads” — J. Garcia
“J. Garcia: Live tonight” — Saint Stephen
All four walls in both unisex lavatories were chalkboard, with a thin trough that cradled sticks of colored chalk just above the cedar wainscotting. The theme was continued in the dining room, where chalkboards were used to announce wines on tap and beers by the can; we also handed out personal chalkboards to children, with a little pot of chalk. It helped them pass the time while waiting for their food and their parents’ attention; pint-sized techies are enthralled by such a primitive medium of expression.
When I missed that rare night at the restaurant, I looked forward to reading about it the next day; the walls said as much as sales reports or check averages. One Friday in autumn, I walked into bathroom B and found, just above the sink, a large drawing of a nude woman leaning over a sink. It was not your quotidian doodling. It was elegant. Captivating. The woman was turning away, looking down from a mirror, I imagined, after washing her face on an ordinary morning, or before going to work at night. A lover might be in the adjoining room. Probably not. A loneliness emanated. I stood there, dreamy, loopy, gawking at the woman, amazed at how few chalk lines can convey so much intention, mood, age, sensuality. I knew enough of Eric Fischl’s work (and dining habits) to know the artist was Eric Fischl, world renown painter and sculptor, whose autobiography is aptly entitled Bad Boy. I had often fantasized about walking into the bathroom to find a drawing by a local Hamptons artist. Donald Sultan or Chuck Close or Julian Schnabel. And here it was. Unrequested. Untitled. Unsigned. A pure gift. As if Degas had drawn on a napkin and, after a few absinthes, left it on a table.
Bathrooms are hard and utilitarian, all tile and towels, handles and drains and plain white porcelain. But these few artful lines elevated the room from lowly loo to a studio or atelier, no longer the last place where you’d expect to find a fine drawing. So it came as less than a shock when, after my reverie dissolved, I absently noticed, on the adjacent wall, another drawing amidst the printed proclamations and cursive declarations. It was entirely different, striking but softer, pastel-like, devoid of pointed lines and skin. Produced by rubbing the length of chalk sticks against the blackboard, the landscape was all blurs and smooth strokes, a textured, spectral image. The sun was either setting and reflecting on a body of water, or it was dawn. As with the washing woman, it could be morning or night. And this too was a study in economy — of space, tone, and chalk. I was familiar enough with April Gornick’s work (and dining habits and marital status) to know it had been drawn by April Gornick, spouse of Eric Fischl and creator of landscapes hanging in various museums, paintings with names like Sun Storm Sea, Mirror Lake and Light Before Heat (below).
A nude woman and a crepuscular landscape. In propinquity. Two images, contrasting and complementary; husband draws woman, wife draws setting sun; men obsess about sex, women about time. Is there any difference? Fischl draws a solitary female. Gornick draws a sun with its twin image. The real thing and its distorted reflection? Two circular symbols of womanhood? Of eternity? Perhaps a pair of siblings. Is sun a homophone? As a father of twin boys, my paternal instinct told me to care for these creations, protect them, preserve them, introduce them to the world and the world to them. In a spectacularly un-Zen-like moment, I was, in a word, attached. I called my wife and asked her to stop by the restaurant, excited to share the good news of the painless and surprising birth of our newest additions.
“Let’s go into the bathroom.” I said when she arrived. She arched one eyebrow. “You won’t be sorry,” I said. She opened the door tentatively and smiled. “Fischl,” she said softly. I pointed to the adjacent wall. “Gornick too,” she said. “How lovely.”
We stood there, husband and wife, and thought about the husband and wife who had recently walked into this lavatory and spontaneously created yin and yang art. Antiphony art. Maybe call and response art. Was it a game they often played? We stood there, wife and husband, peering at the chalk Gornick and chalk Fischl. This is how art should be viewed, I thought, semi-privately, leisurely, more like a dressing room at Bendel’s than the perfume department of Macy’s. Just close the door and let your thoughts and fantasies fly. No guards to wonder about, no people who may be as clever or beautiful or disturbed as the canvases they are observing. Not even the bathrooms at the new chockablock Barnes Museum in Philadelphia will have this much original art.
“What should we do?” I asked, semi-rhetorically.
“What do you mean, do?” she asked back.
“I could put a frame around them.”
“A chalk frame?” she wondered.
“Chalk or maybe wood. Either way.”
“Might as well brush them with polyurethane first.”
“Or cover them with a plastic window.”
“Why not cut them out and replace the wall? It’s only painted sheetrock, right?”
“Cut out the wall?” I echoed.
“Don’t you want to preserve them?” she asked.
“I do, but that sounds extreme, like we’re forcing the issue.”
“Oh, this has to be organic, like the restaurant?”
“Yes,” I said. “Why not?”
“Maybe the artists don’t want us to preserve these at all.”
“Will they feel flattered or exploited?”
“Well, you can’t just erase them,” she said.
“I know that much.”
“When have Gornick and Fischl exhibited together, in the same room at the same time?”
“I don’t know. Maybe never. Maybe this is it.”
“I wonder who owns these images,” she pondered.
The conversation continued along these lines for a while. There was no need to make a rash decision, for the drawings were safe — no one other than myself had ever erased anything in either bathroom. They were my turf. One couple had dined at the restaurant 27 times and kept track of their visitations in the corner of one chalkboard wall; every fifth visit saw four vertical lines crossed and tied together with a slanted line, like a segment of fence. No one had touched any of their five chalk fences and two posts over the past year and a half. Employees are very respectful of blackboards in bathrooms when you ask them. You wouldn’t think it, but they are.
So my wife went about her business and I joined the staff meal and then picked some lemon balm in the restaurant’s garden and opened the doors at 6 PM. During that night’s service, I would, every so often, stop in the lavatory to take a look at the espousal art. It warmed me. And filled me with anxiety. What should I do? Would the couple sign them? Could I put the artists’ names on the drawings without their permission? Do these images have any value? Would I share the lucre with the artists? Would they resent the whole idea? Could I enjoy the moment without fretting about the future? I took photographs. The Gornick drawing was in a dark corner and the flash kept exploding her suns. Bad representations. The Fischl fared much better. I played around with it in like a kid in a sandbox.
Then I did what writers without prescriptions do to tranquilize themselves: I made phone calls. I asked questions of friends and experts, artists, art dealers, and one intellectual property attorney. Conflicting stories cascaded into the nervous system. One artist said I should cut the paintings down and sell them. Another thought it was sacrilege to exploit what artists never intended to be exploited. A gallery owner said they might be worth a couple thousand dollars apiece. The attorney assured me that I was now the rightful owner of these images, but predicted that no one would buy them without provenance, reducing them to virtual worthlessness in the marketplace.
Complicating the issue was a brief conversation I had had with Fischl several years before. He had donated a small sketch to a favorite charity only to find it on eBay two years later at twice the price, meaning someone other than the charity was profiting from his labor and largesse. From that moment on, he would donate only money, he said, like any civilian, and never a painting or thumbnail or sketch. Recalling that conversation convinced me that the chalkboard art wanted to stay where it had been born and should be protected with same matte polyurethane used on the floors and tables, and then enclosed with rectangular chalk frames. Nothing permanent, yet far less temporary than a flash in the pan or a windstorm. Wait. Why am I preserving this? Could envy be the motivation? Did I want a Fischl drawing because Nick & Toni’s has a Fischl mural, and Nick & Toni’s is the most iconic of all Hamptons restaurants? Maybe displaying a Fischl and a Gornick, albethey in a latrine, would one-up any and all competition. Or maybe I wanted a Fischl because of the apposite word play — we were, after all, a fish restaurant. Naturally, I would have to talk to the artists to see how they felt about the mini-exhibition, what objections they may have, but at least a plan had been hatched, and any decision, good or ill, tends to soothe a writer without a prescription.
Arriving at work that afternoon, the bathrooms were, as usual, my first stop. And the walls of the first bathroom were, as usual, crammed with messages and drawings, except for the blank space where the Fischl had been. The what? The blank space where…what? The woman was gone! Vanished! Kidnapped? I rubbed my eyes. I suspected unconscious guilt was playing some new and twisted trick on an excitable brain. I looked again. Girl gone! Escaped? Erased! And poorly erased at that, leaving tragic smudge marks as evidence; a poorly cleaned palimpsest; old fashioned erasers don’t really work, not even the classic Hammett wool numbers; you have to use a damp cloth, rub horizontally, twice and…Focus, you fool! Focus! The Fischl nude has gone missing.
I walked out of the bathroom in a daze and asked the first person I saw, “Do you know what happened to the drawing of the woman?”
“The nude?” asked the hostess at the hostess stand.
“Yes, the nude,” I said.
“Yes, I know.”
“You do? What?”
“I erased it.”
“You did what?”
“I erased it.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I thought it would offend someone.”
“Children use that bathroom.”
“You were protecting the children?”
“She was bending over.”
“She was bending over?” I echoed.
“Yes, bending over.”
“But you’ve never erased anything before, not ever.”
“You are upset,” she said.
“You think I did the wrong thing,” she said.
“Do you know who drew that woman?” I asked.
“Would it matter?” I asked.
“Not really,” she said. “She was bending over.”
“It wasn’t a real woman, you know. It was a drawing.”
She didn’t respond. She did not want to think any more about her simple, spontaneous act of an hour ago, when she walked into a bathroom, saw an undressed female and erased her. Without hesitation. Without remorse. She treated the sketch like yesterday’s homework. Chalk lines were on a chalkboard and then swipe, swipe, swipe, they were gone. Evidently, she had found the chalk buttocks more offensive than the chalk breasts or chalk penises that had shown up in the past and remained untouched. Perhaps Fischl’s rendering was too real, not nearly cartoonish enough, more study than send-up, and so the hostess acted as judge and jury. The Supreme Court on a bad day. The North Korean politburo on a good day. An ayatollah any day. Pat Robertson.
If the hostess didn’t want to think about her act, I could think of nothing else: What if that had been Adam instead of Eve? Was the nude in the wrong place at the wrong time, on a blackboard instead of a canvas? What should I do with the photograph? Was the poor hostess flooded with shame, excitement, confusion, or a pressing need to cover someone’s ass? Her own? For, after greeting guests face-to-face, she was stationed at the hostess podium, where most diners see her from the rear, perhaps bending over for a napkin or a pair of reading glasses.
I wandered around the garden in front of the restaurant. It was fall. I was looking for answers among the scape and stevia, the Chinese cucumbers and lemon verbena. Cars sped by like years. I called my wife. She didn’t answer. I was relieved. I didn’t want to talk. I wanted logic, reasons a young educated woman would erase a lovely line drawing in a W.C. in Bridgehampton, N.Y. in the second decade of the twenty-first century. I also wanted to know why this incident had lowered me into a saturnine funk, obsessing about the fleeting nature of all things, the preposterous lust of attachment, the need for continuity. Working in a restaurant, watching beautifully composed dishes vanish nightly, one might build an immunity to the abruptness of such a cycle.
But any loss is all loss; all loss is any loss; and things expunged from your emotional blackboard remain in your memory as clouds of sadness. Closure is an illusion. So is desperation.
The Gornick drawing remained unscathed for the next week. That made sense. No one would want to damage a pretty pastel sun setting over still waters. It could be there for a long time. The Fischl remained gone. I felt bad for Fischl. Not that I knew him well or thought sympathy would lift him, but he had been erased before: his 9/11 sculpture, Tumbling Woman, had been removed from Rockefeller Center in the post-9/11 haze and hysteria; before that, his 14-foot tennis player at the Arthur Ashe Stadium had been excoriated for not being a replica of its namesake, only a nude bronze male with an outstretched arm holding a stub, not even a racket, or, as Fischl described it, a baton passing along the admirable Ashe attributes of hope and charity, not to mention dignity and elegance. “I believe it had to be nude,” he had said in an interview, “to give these values a timeless quality and to remind us that our immortality necessarily passes through the vulnerability of our flesh.”
Could I quote Eric Fischl to the avenging hostess? Could I tell her that the nude woman bending over the sink was not actually a nude woman bending over a sink, but a quick study in vanity and loneliness and aging? I guess not. I had trouble saying anything to her. To anyone really. For days on end. The disappearance of one fragile drawing had messed up one fragile psyche, fragmenting the simplicity of a kindergarten blackboard into the complexities of adulthood, exposing my own vulnerabilities to at least five of the seven deadly sins, and maybe six. As I wandered around the garden during service on Friday night, my phone rang, the same phone that had captured the Fischl drawing. It was one of my sons — a writer, a lover of art and purveyor of wisdom. To him I could talk. He listened to my sad staccato story and gasped in all the right places. He understood totally. Tears filled and left my eyes. I sat down on the slate stone next to the Chinese cucumbers. There was a long pause.
“On the other hand, dad,” he said sweetly, “it sounds fine.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was there and then it wasn’t there. Like a mandala. Sort of perfect.”
“But there was no plan for this to blow away,” I said.
“Of course there was,” he said.
“What are you talking about?”
“It was chalk on a chalkboard, dad.”
“How obvious does impermanence have to be?”
“Then why am I crying?”
“Because you’re an idiot.”
A family was leaving the restaurant as I re-entered. The little boy, maybe seven, showed the hostess his miniature chalkboard. He had drawn a dinosaur, as best as I could tell, a colorful and ferocious beast, not merely filling the rectangle, but threatening to knock down the thin wooden frame and run all over the restaurant devouring lobsters and patrons alike. The little boy was shy, but evidently proud. After the family left the restaurant, I took the chalkboard into bathroom B and dampened a cloth towel and wiped out the ferocious dinosaur and then unceremoniously erased the pretty April Gornick sun that was setting on the west wall and reflecting in the water.
And I returned the blank blackboard to the hostess so she could give it to the next little boy, or girl, who came for dinner.