In love, despite any efforts to stray—my “type” has always remained—the artist. As artist-lovers know, the path can be colorfully romantic, but, often unrewarding. Male artists are sensitive, but selfish, they are passionate, but mercurial, they are full of hope, but also self-doubt. For the women in their lives, it is a constant battle between holding them up and fighting to stay relevant as an equal, a lover, and a muse.
I met Coen at an art show in the city; his eyes are handsome and dark and at first glance, opaque and intense, making it difficult to see what is behind them. At best, they are warmly pensive, at worst, they are sociopathic, a portal of resentments and secrets. His paintings are of landscapes and cowboys, urban sewers, worms and gutters, isolated images and modern structures laced with futuristic imagery, what I took as alien transport beams, science experiments gone awry, the ideas to me somehow representing isolation, the insecurity of a man, the tempestuous nation-state, the American West, bowed by the future, the dangers of experimentation and the unknown.
But, again, who knows—he is the artist. He doesn’t explain his art to me, and we don’t talk about it much. He gets nervous when I stand too close to his paintings.
Our love affair began innocently, though in hindsight, there was a maelstrom of individual chaos—I was recently sober, he was fraught with ennui and a kind of painter’s block I never was able to fully grasp. To me, painting always seemed the most fluid art form; picking up a brush was like swimming, not like the laboriousness of writing, dangerously clunky sentences, agonizing and wandering plots, or a musician’s awkward attempts at melody or missed notes—the demands of reworking to exhaustion. It always seemed that visual artists had it easy…but I have been wrong before.
Sobriety was a foundational point of interest, though I think our bond was deepened by our mutual and respective “fucked-up-ness,” which we were never forced to hide. On our first date, he revealed that he had been an unapologetic and relentless alcoholic until he woke up in an L.A. hospital, his wrists shredded in an attempted suicide. This was four years ago, followed by in-patient, then out-patient treatment, years of AA meetings, sobriety honors and now a regular citation of the Serenity Prayer.
Also first date fodder: he had defecated and exposed himself in public and was a self-proclaimed sex addict. As some kind of consolation, I revealed that I had also been in rehab and been admitted to the ER for alcohol poisoning twice before I turned 18. Along our first date stroll to a restaurant a few blocks from my house in the Mission, we had already shared our most humiliating and degrading alcohol-induced war stories. The actual battle wounds and scars were never disclosed, but revealed, in time.
It was comforting, and telling, that we made ourselves known within only a couple hours. This is not surprising: we are all seeking out someone who understands us, who takes our weakness and faults, and values them as our assets and strengths. The early conversations also proved that, though he may have been clinically more fucked up, his palliated disposition was more stable than my own. He had four years of sobriety under his belt and a healthy prescription of Prozac, which towered over my one week into sobriety and a host of other unresolved modern-day mental deviations—unbridled depression and narcissism, to name a few.
From our first encounter, through the course of our six month affair, which had its ups and downs, intermittent break-ups, and more than one “writing on the wall” episode, I never let him off the hook. As I have always been, a dreamer—it is not difficult to me to ignore shadows of doubt, to cast any lover in the best light possible, and wait for the power of my adoration to manifest into the most compelling and prolific period of his art. This is one of many problems with a narcissist’s desire to fill the role of muse.
Beyond my compulsion to inspire, I trusted him to direct and guide, to provide some kind of compass in navigating sobriety and a new kind of mental health, as it were. While I have been most comfortable and at-home in an airport, flying out of town and out of reason, he is afraid of flying and professedly has no intentions of ever leaving the country, the state of California, or even the house he grew up in. My torpedo restlessness craved this kind of grounding. He has reminded me steadily, that sometimes the hardest thing to do is stay put. Together we face our fears. I prod him into considering a trip to South America, which trailed into discussions about antidotal prescription medications.
Coen lives on his mother’s property outside of San Francisco, where the gardens look like something out of a Tolstoy novel. He is old enough that this arrangement should be questioned—and I did a lot of explaining to friends and family—yes, he lives with his mother, with an attractive caveat: he built the guest house where he lives—alone and by hand.
Despite the strangeness of his living in his mother’s backyard, I was drawn to his passion for building, even considering that, for addicts, sobriety induces strange and highly productive behavior. He owns a book literally titled, “How to Build a House,” and from what I deduced, the key components—laying the foundation, the electrical wiring, plumbing, dry wall, things are not so complicated—once understood. The house is essentially a studio with a bathroom, an unfinished kitchen and a second floor loft where I am able hang from the rafters, climbing over the wood planks with two cats he rescued on the streets of Los Angeles. The ground level has concrete floors and is split between the painter’s studio and the living area which consists of a mattress on the floor, a permanent pile of laundry and collection of horror movies next to the wide screen TV suspended from the wall. Between the painters studio and the mattress, there was just enough room for me to practice handstands. Also, enchanting, there is a skylight which, either intentionally or unintentionally, is a perfect window to track the moon crossing over the night sky.
Late one evening, our backs flat on the mattress, we stared at the ceiling as I listened to him explain what a problem mold can be when it gets into the insulation. I was attentive, not to the details, but to the passion, the art of commitment and his dedication to this project, which was terminally incomplete. According to him, building the guest house was the sole reason he remained in his childhood home.
“Then you gotta tear it all out. Hope the wood isn’t rotted through. You can also spray it with tea tree oil… that stuff kills everything.” In the same frustrated, but completely absorbing voice, he has also explained to me how to wire an outlet and the steps to running plumbing through the bathroom. Again, I let my mind wander while he expounds, taking in the description as a whole, sympathetic, mostly to his artistry, his passion, which I had believed and trusted profoundly.
Love makes admiration easy.
Behind the gardens and the main house, there is his guesthouse and then another, a large open barnlike structure used for a pottery studio, lined with fresh clay, glazed bowls, plates, and the occasional broken vase. A disabled and rusting kiln rests in the gutter next to the front door. What I called, the art barn was built by Coen’s father who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when young Coen was in high school. From the few details I was given, it was a slow and grueling death, a heartbreak that wrenched a child and son through high school and ceremoniously ended, the day of his graduation. The death seemed to define Coen through adolescence, into adulthood, directing his myriad addictions, his art, and his understanding of self. The images in his artwork take on a different meaning given this history.
I have always been fascinated by the father-son relationship: the constant need for validation, a father’s own sense of pride in the family, a competition for dominance coupled with the demand for love, acceptance and approval. It is complicated and from the outside, something to both revere and dread. Coen built an exact replica of the house next to his father’s—only bigger. It seemed too obvious a metaphor—the house, next to his father’s, as it became clear to me that he still was desperate to prove something, to build something, to beat him, to achieve something or succeed his father, even in death. Perhaps this is why the project haunts him so deeply and why he is so afraid to complete it.
Coen’s face looks young, and he often looks at me curiously; his head tweaks, like a dog or a small child. Sometimes I treat him that way—I give words of encouragement, tell him that he has huge biceps and that he is brilliant. I try to make him feel stronger, supported, and secure. I work tirelessly to love him in a way that I think a man would want to be loved. The role of a woman comes unnatural to me and I find myself superficially doting, awkwardly demure, and even perceptively misleading in my dedication.
Despite the warning signs, we were happy. One weekend we managed to run the most benign, domestic errands (Verizon, Best Buy, and Target), places that normally make me want to tear out my heart and hang it from my rear-view (“Okay, I give up.”). But on those days, I didn’t feel so oppressed or sickened by modern life—we held hands and laughed and stuffed the receipts in our bags and carelessly walked through the parking lot, like we could have been anywhere but a strip mall— the beach or the mountains, or on the moon.
When we were together, I was inspired and changed, and for the first time in my life, ironically normal, as we gazed passed our respective problems, we could both say, “Baby, you’re just the right amount of fucked up.” There was a comfort in our deviance, like the skeletons in our closet came out to dance.
The weekend before he left me, Coen put his arm around my waist, looked at me earnestly and said, “Sometimes I think I’m schizophrenic, and you are this awesome hallucination I just made up in my head.”
We thought this was a funny idea, that we had made each other up: “Maybe we are not really hanging out, we are both just sitting in a psyche ward, drooling and looking out the window, holding hands and pretending that we are doing all this stuff, when really, we are on lock-down and tons of meds.”
I decided that if we were actually in a pscyhe ward, staring out a window, at least we would be holding hands. Then I wondered later, what it would mean to get dumped by my own hallucination. It is a twisted thing to imagine your invisible friend is breaking up with you, mostly because it is indicative of a very sad and unmanageable, deeply subconscious case of self-loathing.
Then he said,“I think though, that if we were making all this up, we would be doing more than just eating pizza and breaking into elementary school playgrounds.” I agreed. Still, this was some serious sober fun. There was an elementary school playground and art school in the neighborhood with a tree house and a rope swing, where we would play after dark. We did eat lots of pizza and M&M’s and drank Pellegrino on the concrete floor of the guest house. When we needed more sober entertainment, we would go out and pretend we were drunk-driving, swerving over the median and driving under the speed limit, hoping to get pulled over and breathalyzed. This was particularly amusing, especially since, at least one of us had a prior DUI.
After six months, there were signs of his coming undone—the outbursts, the mistrust, the sense that nothing was good enough, and no amount of benevolence or sympathy on my end was sustainable. Things spiraled quickly, but unfolded naturally as with any relationship—coldness settles into distance, words are confused and twisted, subtleties and exchanges carry a new heaviness. Glances and gestures become symbolic. Everything has meaning, when the end is near.
It became clear that as much as I aligned myself with his problems, his distance, his tortured artist-ness, we were both unsettled. In the end, the weight of his pain was not mine, as much as I wanted to envelop myself in a blind faith that we belonged together. Finding comfort in his tenderness, in his escape, in his isolation, was like holding up a mirror—but, suddenly my own problems seemed dwarfed and shallow.
I never considered myself a fixer-type girl, but I do have an active fantasy life, and a narcissist’s ability to believe that I am more powerful than pain or death, or loneliness, or sadness. What I once confused with art, I think has more to do with loss and insecurity. What I once romanticized as a fundamental gift, is only a substitute for a pain that cuts deeper than I understand. Romanticizing the artist shadowed the truly broken archetype, the tortured self, the man who, quite possibly, can never truly love or be loved.
The allure of the artist is that they will show you something you have never seen about the world or yourself, that they can change the way that you see it, that they will see you as some kind of vision or muse, that possibly you can become part of their landscape. For a narcissist, the artist-muse arrangement is intriguing, though—ultimately unsatisfying. At the very best, you are a tool, at worst—you become passé, uninspired, and at your very core, unable to “be” without scrutiny. For the artist, the object of affection, is just that, an object, not a love, but a form, that can very easily be taken out of context.
In the end, give or take semantics, I was dumped. I harbor the words of encouragement from friends, “You are better than him,” or “He couldn’t take it, he was just pushing you away.” As with any artist, of his type, he thinks this is unique; he doesn’t realize that I have done this before, that I know the routine and how the artist moves and digresses. I know that while he may even love deeply,in the end, he leaves, even if begrudgingly.
In any event, I have mustered some strength in the tragedy. We have exchanged belongings, leaving behind those remnants of better times: a vintage swivel chair, some of his paintings, and a six-month sobriety chip.
The old adage that people come into our lives for a reason often holds true. In the timeline of our self-narrative, we can find profound points of intersection, and we mark a change in direction, in ourselves, in our lives. I imagine this is what it must be like when people meet their spouse. You often hear the words, “He changed me,” or “She made me a better man,” which can inspire a cinematic quality, but also lends to the legitimacy of the union. This can also happen in reverse. I said to a friend of mine recently, “I need to stop falling in love with artists.”
“That may mean stop falling in love,” he said calmly, as if this were possible. Clearly, this is not the answer, and, still, I don’t think love is a choice. If we are lucky, the artist will leave behind an indelible and indecipherable mystery, which we can admire and ponder, or choose to forget.
This is what it means to fall in love with an artist: I have learned not to fight for them, but how to let them go.