When I got home from work, Julian and Nova were building a giant replica of a teddy bear. Nova thought that this childhood toy was the source of her obsession with bear costumes. So she was working through that. Also, it made for a good conceptual art project.
The bear was made out of recycled newspaper and was kind of unstable. It loomed over me as I walked into the living room.
Nova was standing on a chair, applying extra texture to the ears.
“You poor thing!” she cooed when she saw me. “Did you get through your day at the office? Would you like some tea?”
“I’m doing okay. What have you guys been doing?”
“We’ve been gluing and painting all day!” Nova said. Julian emerged from the belly of the bear, covered in glitter.
Nova climbed down from the chair. She gave me a hug and I got stuck to her. “I wish you could have spent your time with us. You would have had so much fun.” She was right.
For a long time, I had a feeling of guilt over being employed. I couldn’t see how my work was helping anyone. In fact, more often than not, I made my customers’ lives worse, delaying or denying their requests for services.
Nova created art. That at least sounded meaningful. Julian worked for a co-op. I was never quite sure what it was they produced, exactly, but it seemed important.
Maybe I should try doing something creative myself, I thought. Something that would make me feel like I wasn’t just a machine for paying the bills. I never had much of a talent for anything except ranting, but….
RedGirl no longer performed superhero deeds, so she had become involved in endless hobbies instead. She was always doing something, making one thing after another, embroidering, scrapbooking, carving, baking.
It had been a long time since I’d been in her bedroom. I didn’t recognize it. It was overflowing with her projects. They were stuffed on her shelves and piling up at my feet.
She sized up my confused face. “Paper sculptures,” she decided. “They don’t last long, but they’re very easy. You can make animals, or you can make folk art patterns—that would fit your political issues.”
She handed me a book titled Paper Miracles. Apparently this was a volume for the remedial crafter, with an undertone of “even you can make something pretty!”
On my way out of the house, I stopped by the kitchen, where my parents were sitting at the table.
“Have you seen what’s happened to her bedroom?” I asked.
“I don’t ever go there anymore,” Mother replied. Father hid his face behind a magazine.
I spent the next few evenings swearing loudly and gluing myself to multicolored strips of paper. It was hard for me to imagine why people would choose to torture themselves like this in their spare time.
But I was determined to finish my project. The book contained a menagerie of paper critters, and I wanted to make the complete set, so that I could display them in a neat row for everyone to admire.
Unfortunately, all my animals looked like they were dying or severely disabled. They were lopsided, one eye larger than the other and one leg shorter than the other, collapsing and folding in on themselves, their tails broken. When I arranged them on the shelf, they looked like a cross between a zoo and a psychiatric ward.
I sighed as I regarded my line of crippled children. Still, this would prove that I was more than just a cubicle monkey.
As I was getting ready to go to work, I found Nova in front of my paper menagerie. Her chest was heaving.
“I know they are not very…” I said.
“Oh, those are perfect,” she sighed. “They take me right to that place…all the ugliness and the sadness…”
“Well, I’ve never crafted anything before, so…”
“I love them. I don’t need my teddy bear anymore,” she said. “I feel so traumatized…in a good way.”
“Thank you.” I supposed I should accept the compliment.
“Would you like to be in an art show?”
“With paper animals…?”
“We’re setting something up in my friend’s pizza restaurant. It’s going to be lunchtime experimental art. It will remind the businesspeople of how miserable they are.”
“I gotta run to work, or I’ll be late.” I moved towards the door.
Nova stretched her arm out to me. “Call in sick. You’re an artist.”
My family mocked me when they found out I was in an art show.
“A pizza restaurant, huh?” Mother asked. “I guess all the starving artists have to start out somewhere. Haha.”
At the opening day of the show, the artists got free pizza. When the customers entered the restaurant, the newspaper bear wobbled over their heads, and when they sat down to eat, they were confronted with a display of my misshapen animals.
Nova and I ate our pizza and tried to pretend we weren’t eavesdropping on the reactions to our work.
“Those are so cute! They must have been made by kids. Look, that one’s a giraffe!”
“Ha, have you seen these fucked up animals? They’re hilarious!”
“Hmmm, this is not what I expected,” Nova said. “I was hoping for something more like, I didn’t realize my life is so futile. It’s like they think this is entertaining.”
RedGirl came too. “I don’t understand. You did them wrong,” she said. “This is not how the book says to do it.”
“I think that if you want to be artistic, you have to do things differently from what the book says,” I offered. “That’s what it seems like, anyway.”
“But I thought you had to have skills. So does this mean art doesn’t have to be good anymore?”
I was already slightly embarrassed, and this wasn’t helping. I went out of the dining room and hid in the back, in between the empty pizza boxes.
Nova came searching for me. “Why aren’t you out there? The question and answer session is about to start.”
I shook my head. “Nova, we both suck at this. What are we doing here?”
She sat down next to me. “The art reviewer from the weekly is here. He thinks we’re refreshing in our simplicity. What are you talking about?” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Stop worrying about unimportant crap. You could get to spend the rest of your life doing this—you’d never have to have a stupid customer service job again.”
I leaned back against the boxes. I would have loved to give up my soul-draining job. When I thought about it that way, I had no problem picturing myself making ugly paper toys until the end of my days.
I got up. “All right. I better go talk to them about what inspires me.”
Leah was not pleased with my activities outside of the office. She was at my desk the morning after the show. “Silly bourgeois hobbies,” she said. “What a waste of your time… We have serious problems to deal with.”
“The reviewers liked it, and they were all progressives…”
“Reviewers,” Leah snorted. “Yes, I heard you were a success. Who knows, you might have a good chance of getting an arts grant from the city. You probably don’t need this job anymore.”
“Hold on,” I called out after her as she left.
I felt the cold sweat on my neck. The experts at the restaurant had hailed my new and exciting perspective, but they had not paid me. I couldn’t afford to lose my job.
All that I had been given was a positive review—words on paper. I tore it to pieces in a bathroom stall.
“Nova, I’ve got it. I know how we can pull this off.”
“Hrrrmmmf.” Nova stirred underneath her blanket on the sofa. “What…do you have an idea for your next project? Is this that midnight inspiration thing?”
“No, I have an idea for how I can be an artist and still make it financially.”
“You should get a regular job. Then I could quit mine and make my paper animals full-time.”
“Huh…no! Where will I find a job that fast? And what about my art?”
“You can get a job at a coffee shop like before. I’ve worked for a couple of years—now it’s my turn for a break. Besides, it sounds from the weekly article like I’m the one with the destiny, if you know what I mean.”
Nova stood up, shaking. “I’m so sorry, Blue, but I can’t do this for you. I’m going to have to leave.”
“But I need your help…”
“I’m sorry.” She pulled on her shirt and jeans and shoved the blanket into her backpack. “Bye. Tell Julian I’ll call him.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I have places I can go,” she said as she walked out. She was going to knock on somebody’s door in the middle of the night, the way she had knocked on ours.
I sprawled out on the abandoned sofa and smiled. I would never be an artist, and I didn’t want to fake being one. I would stick to the familiar art of getting rid of people.
I wondered what I was going to do with the extra money I would have now that I was no longer helping support Nova.
Maybe I’d become a patron of the arts and buy myself a giant stuffed teddy bear.