The centerpiece of Lark’s studio is the Cunt Bodhisattva, an eight-foot architectural marvel of sedimentary vermiculite clay, sustainably retrieved from someplace in South Africa, molded in the shape of a woman bent backward in an Ūrdhvadhanurāsana pose, feet planted, legs spread, and vagina on display, stomach arching toward buoyantly upside-down tits and a neutral, choiceless face, palms firm on the ground astride a thicket of load-bearing hair.
“What do you think?” Lark asks.
“I think it’s a striking confluence of the obverse elements of female fetishization and empowerment.”
“I want her to feel playful. Does she feel playful?”
“Mark hates it.”
“Of course Mark hates it,” I say. “Mark’s the embodiment of the white-male heteronormative art complex.” Lark nods. These are words she knows. “He lives in fear that the Paleolithic Venus sculptures he curates will come to life in the night and strike a pose like this one.”
“She doesn’t look frightening?”
“Like is her pussy the right shape?”
I look, really look, at the docile squiggles of the labia, the pinch of the clitoral hood, and the pearl of clay beneath, the elegant, apologetic dot of the urethra, all probably carved by her assistant Andrew, who’s here on a fragile O-1B visa, and say, “There is no right shape.” Lark nods, pleased but not sold. “But yes, it’s a beautiful pussy.”
She smiles. “I think so too.”
When she begins to understand something like this, something she’s made, you can’t help but believe that it’s your doing. You’ve taught her the words for this, penned index cards thick with the micro-vocabularies of feminism and post-feminism and post-post-feminism. You’ve gently guided the pronunciation of eurocentrism, hegemony, intersectional transmedia narrative. You’ve tenderly explained why transgender is apropos and tranny is verboten; explained why hermaphrodite is fine for bivalve mollusks but not for humans who contemporarily identify as intersex.
“Why?” she’s said. “Why though really?”
“Because a community decides what they want to be called.”
She accepts this and will regurgitate it back to a curator sometime. You’ve prepped her for this, marked the signposts of Native to Indigenous to First Peoples, POC to BIPOC to People of the Global Majority. You’ve explained what each letter of LGBTQIA+ and QUILTBAG signifies. She’s exhausted by the quantity but eager to learn, consults the cheat sheet you’ve made for her. You’ve walked around the studio, sidestepping the massive swaths of canvas drying on the floor, admiring whatever’s been pinned to the wall as a kind of low-key test, and discussed her work in terms she’ll adopt and re-present: the homages to Nan Goldin and Laura Mulvey, the dovetailings with Nam June Paik and Mika Rottenberg. The sentences, read and reread, have been meticulously memorized until someone else’s words sound like they’ve lived in her mouth for years, soundbites that will make it seem like she’s read the whole thing.
It occurs to me, often, that I’m a traitor to the authors of books she hasn’t read, the artists who couldn’t afford the buy-in, the other artists whose work has nothing to do with her work but whose catalogs are referenced in her list of influences; to women, to PhD candidates, to people whose last names end in –ez, like mine.
Nonetheless, I cash the checks, and this is the thing that Lark has always understood. To be paid for something is to consent to it. To endorse it, as it were.
One day, between the vat of drying resin and the overexposed photographs, Lark says: “Let’s go to India.”
On its surface, this exclamation has the pastiche of a whim, but if you listen closely, you can hear the machinations. The impulse is spontaneous in the way that midcentury housewives would sometimes, suddenly, fully out of the blue, swallow dishwashing liquid instead of rosé.
“I have the miles,” she says. “Enough for two seats in first.”
Already I can imagine the thrill and stress of it. Unfettered access to the finer things, with Lark watching every selection like she’s keeping score. How chic you are, how worldly you are, how alcoholic you are. How many times you’ve done this before (if none, a rube; if several, then why are you working for her?). She enjoys introducing people to things, like how the vegan meal is unfailingly better than the chicken or steak option, even if you eat meat, because it’s rarer and more intentionally prepared. But sometimes she grows weary of her calling as a missionary of prestige and simply gifts you a copy of the Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers, because, as we all know, you’ll never be taken seriously if you hold your fork wrong.
She likes you to wear good clothes, but she likes to pick them. She brings you the latest issue of Vogue, asks you to circle what you’re attracted to. You select safely. You are good at tests, but there’s no timer set, no rubric. No rules. When she finally returns, she looks at your selections. After each, she nods or tilts her head. “No,” she says, more jaded than critical, “not for your shape.”
She listens raptly to your stories of travel, stories she’s asked to hear, threshing them for points of interest, exotic kernels of potential that prove how interesting you are. Occasionally she lights up and ends stories for you with a single, often incorrect sentence like, “So you hopped the next flight and came home immediately,” or, “But that’s the brother you lost your virginity to.”
She takes you to a cake restaurant, exactly what it sounds like, right after she’s hired you, and buys you a slice of cake. Ten feet from your table, a baby shower is in the throes of learning how to make custom cakes from a comically good-looking instructor, all elbow-deep in nonpareils and piping paraphernalia and strips of festively tinted fondant. Lark, who’s been laughing and waving her thin arms around and talking about the importance of eating cake, how you only live once, sets down her fork and takes your chin in her hand. “Oh,” she says. You’ve also stopped eating cake, since your chin is no longer your own. “You know, you can get almost anything done in L.A.,” she says. “Anything. Places are so good here. It’s amazing.” Then, because you might not have understood: “Laser hair removal treatment,” she says.
You don’t brief her on your awareness of the field, your extensive history of borderline-unaffordable Groupons or the realities of genetics extending through your maternal and grandmaternal lineage presumably back to the Iron Age, when this flaw must have indicated some now-defunct evolutionary advantage. You don’t tell her you’re doing your best, and you don’t cry in the cake restaurant. “Thank you,” you say.
Every time you’re dressed wrong, for years, you blame the East Coast. “It’s a different aesthetic,” you say, as though you’re still getting the hang of things here in cryptic L.A. As though you could afford the low-rung sample-sale shift dresses and harem pants, all size zero or zero-adjacent, one-size-fits-all, “all” being a subgroup to which you apparently don’t belong.
She tells you, on one occasion, about her abortion, and all you can think is, That’s probably for the best.
Lark is insistent on the real India, not the postcard India or the Darjeeling Limited India, the tourist India or Hilton India. She’s been before, multiple times, years ago. She says her soul is there. She hopes to be buried there.
You know that you will never go to India without Lark. So you say yes.
The night before our departure, I stay up till sunrise, an attempt to acclimate myself to the new time zone—the exact opposite of Los Angeles—and to sleep through the flight. When I wake up in first class, Lark’s fallen asleep beside me, and I take the opportunity to order a scotch. “Poison,” she’d say, were she awake, although the first thing she’ll do when we land is find and buy heroin. By the time she wakes up, I’ve had two glasses of scotch and swapped the glass out for a cup of tea. She immediately, briskly summons a flight attendant, as though she’s been waiting all this time, and orders two flutes of champagne. “Live a little,” she says, handing my mug of tea to the attendant with the lithe, performative grace of a fairy godmother.
When the champagne arrives, Lark studies it and then smirks, like she’ll allow it. “Not real,” she says. “What’s that word?”
“Ersatz,” I say.
“That’s right. Ersatz champagne.” It’s clear now, with twelve collective ounces of brut or blanc de blancs or whatever is bubbling before us that Lark has set me up. That whatever she says next will have the de facto portent of a toast. “I’ve been thinking,” she says, “about the real reason for India.” She leans in, conspiratorially. “It’s the Cunt Bodhisattva. Imagine her sixty feet tall, arched over the border between Jammu and Kashmir, half her body in one state and half in the other, her belly button skyward right at the border. Body the same color as the sand.”
I nod and, because I’m exhausted and secretly drunk and trapped on this airplane, I say, “Yes. Of course yes. You’re a genius.”
“You get it though, right?”
“Of course. It’s the interstice of postcolonial conflict literally embodied by the intrinsically female dichotomy of religious idolatry: the contraposed irony of deification and objectification.”
Lark smiles, lifts her glass. “Exactly.”
Of course it’s work. It was always going to be work.
Lark’s hired a driver, and the moment we get in the car you can tell it’s only a matter of time before she fucks this guy. He introduces himself as Sai, a name she leans forward and asks him to sound out twice, despite its being only one syllable. Sai gratifies her request, foreplay-slow, then smiles like the bushes are full of paparazzi. The way he smiles, the snug fit of his Henley, you can tell Sai understands how money works.
Lark settles into the seat beside me and says, “Remember what I said back in L.A.?”
I do. I remember everything, although I’m not sure to what she’s referring.
“White linen,” she says, and when she looks at you she closes her eyes, maybe imagining something else. Some other you. “You have white linen, right?”
Lark leans back, briefly closing her eyes again, maybe this time in a small expression of gratitude to the universe, and says, “This is going to be an electric trip.”
Her hand is still on my knee, nails polished with a color that is the exact same shade as her actual nails, and she’s right, I guess, I am wearing black, all black, which is not what we’ve discussed, and although laboriously selected for chicness and comfort and some je ne sais quoi factor that’s really just a guess, at best it is 100 percent the opposite of what we’d talked about, and in a way, she’s extra right because I’m noticing it for the first time now too.
On the half-hour drive from the airport to Haveli Dharampura, Lark leans against the window, enraptured by some frequency I can’t hear. In the tighter side streets—shortcuts, Sai avers with a wink—people turn and look through the untinted back windows of the car. Lark is making eye contact with as many people as she can. Her soul is here, so I guess she knows what she’s doing. I feel a pang of the same schadenfreude I get sometimes in Venice, seeing the tourists lifting cameras on straps around their necks, dodging skateboards, huddling together over an iPhone to compare restaurant reviews, although now I’m the tourist and there’s no joy, so it’s really just schaden sans freude.
“What do you think?” says Lark. Her eyes are shining, and in this moment I wonder if I’ve just missed her all this time. If perhaps she was right all along, a savant for the things that are ugly and aren’t, correct and incorrect, repugnant and resplendent. Maybe I read too much. Maybe I don’t read the right things. Maybe, in this place, in the unpredictably scrawled circle of her magic, I can contort and flourish into some other thing.
“I’m so happy I’m here,” I say. And I am. “Thank you.”
I squeeze her hand and she squeezes back. She smiles, and I feel myself breathe into a part of my chest I haven’t felt in weeks. I’m exhausted, dehydrated, and nauseous from the ride, but she—this—is how the sun is. When it shines, it shines hot.
Through the meticulously clean glass of the backseat windows, I try to see the world as Lark does. Low-slung blocks of concrete scroll past, ribboned with color and signage, carts and bikes, smoke and sound, and I wonder if these are, to her, the real India. The window is cold against my forehead, and my eyes keep slipping closed. Despite what looks like a melee of sensory detail, all I can smell is the pine of the air freshener, fake as grape candy, and the delicate bite of Sai’s aftershave.
We’re six minutes into the ride when Lark leans forward, touches Sai where his deltoid meets his biceps, and asks, in a way I recognize from the DeVotchKa concert in Las Vegas, the balcony of The Box in New York, the parking lot outside the Nordic pavilion at the Berlin Biennale, in a manner at once sexy and inarticulate, where she can score some black tar heroin.
The hotel is a masterpiece, blessed by UNESCO, and though it’s been around for two centuries, Lark still looks over her shoulder as we ascend the steps, immensely self-satisfied, as though she discovered it. “See?” she says. I nod, doing my best to look enchanted.
Behind us, illegally parked along the too-narrow street nearest the entrance, Sai unloads our luggage. As I turn he winks, and it’s unclear whether this gesture represents a stray bit of buckshot from his tactical flirtation or a private, conspiratorial acknowledgment of our membership in the same servant class.
A concierge and team of receptionists, all clad in white linen with brightly colored nylon vests, are poised to greet us in the lobby. I wonder if the different vest colors denote different teams or roles, like in kickball or an Atwood novel. Lark places her palms together and lightly bows to everyone at once. I abstain, feeling in this gesture the same discomfort I’ve felt at the end of yoga classes in West Hollywood amid an ocean of balayage, all blond and blond-adjacent, pre- and post-blond, women netting six figures per annum from their first divorces and more recent real estate licensures, reverently whispering namaste to one another. This, I’m quite certain, is not the real India. In any case, we’ve arrived. As we receive our keys, Sai confers with a bellhop, ensuring that our luggage will arrive at the rooms before we do. Lark has been rattling off the names of local specialties, none of which I’ll remember. “Let’s have dinner on the roof,” she’s saying. “Seven or eight. Eight is better.” I nod, with the tacit understanding that I’ll hang back and make the reservation. “Don’t sleep,” she advises. “You’ll want to.” I nod at this too—she’s not wrong, this is the core principle of outwitting jet lag—although the only thing I’ve been able to think of since the flight is a nap.
After making arrangements for dinner with the concierge, I head up to my room and lie down. The bed is a mint-green queen, nested beneath a scalloped interior archway, one among a sprawling conundrum of scalloped interior archways, facing a simple flatscreen TV. On the balcony, two small rattan chairs overlook a spacious multistory courtyard—the jewel of the hotel’s internet presence—and flank a small outdoor table, exactly the right size for a pot of tea with two cups and saucers. The bathroom, which I’ve only visited to splash cold water on my face, is white faux marble with touches of brass, complimentary toiletries, and washcloths all the same shade of faded persimmon.
I lie on top of the duvet to avoid any imprints on my skin from the seams of the sheets, pull my hair upward from the nape of the neck to ward off the telltale flatness of the hair, indisputable evidence of napping. I close my eyes, but have set a timer for fifteen minutes. Lark used to model, ages ago, to what degree I’m unsure (there’s been mention of a Pepsi ad), but to a sufficient extent that she knows, as surely as an MD with a stethoscope clocking a heartbeat, when anyone has taken a nap. “It’s in the eyes,” I’ve heard her say, “you can tell,” although I myself cannot. I don’t know if it’s a puffiness akin to the aftereffects of drinking or a hot shower, if either of these would enhance or negate the appearance of a nap, so I do nothing. My top priority is to stay awake, against all odds, so that I can appear to be awake.
When the alarm goes off, I pull a set of white linen clothing—drawstring pants and a tunic top—from my suitcase, hang the ensemble on the rod of the shower, and turn on the water as hot as it will go to steam out the creases. This is among the few pieces of sartorial intelligence I’ve arrived at on my own, uninherited from Lark.
Hers is the room next to mine, and when there’s a knock on her door I jolt. I relax upon hearing the door open, then the sound of chatter, Lark’s laugh. In nondescript language sounds: an invitation. In nondescript language sounds: a polite decline. The door, again.
Dinnertime is the equivalent of dawn in Los Angeles. Lark arrives fifteen minutes past eight o’clock, relaxed and wise in a way that suggests she’s smoked a half gram of heroin. Everywhere there are tiny scallops in the walls, each set with a tea light. Each glints off her eyes the way that fire licks and then swells against the window of a burning building.
“You were gone a long time,” she says.
I’ve only been in my room, timing everything out, but “Yes,” I say, “it’s been a long time.”
I order the things from the menu that I think I remember her saying, but nothing is right. She presses the plump exterior of every object that arrives, pale beige nail against pale beige skin against pale beige dough, with the pad of her index finger, testing each piece, then ripping a section of food from its body and setting it aside, like she’s done it a favor. “You don’t seem happy,” she says. But I am happy. I’m plenty happy—not heroin happy, of course, but happy. “I’m just quiet,” I say. “Happy quiet.”
Lark nods, dissecting another roll with her fingers. “Tomorrow we’ll find a musician,” she says. “We should have done it already.”
This impulse, something she apparently picked up on a previous excursion, is one I’ve been dreading. In the days leading up to the trip, she’s often hailed the importance of hiring a driver, then a musician, as the only real way to travel through India. “Should we ask Sai if he knows someone?” I say.
Lark looks at me like I’m insane. “No,” she says, “it’s essential to get a vibe.”
The sun has only just set, but the sky to the west has turned a violent orange, leaking upward toward a murky swath of Liatris blue, looking less like an actual sunset and more like a cocktail named after one. “I photographed the light here once,” she says. “Before your time. Leica, obviously. I blew the image up to four thousand percent. Four thousand. Huge.” She bobs a dead bag of English breakfast tea in the silty, tepid water of her china cup. “Artists do that now—you saw that fucking shit at Barry-Platte last fall? I came up with that.”
“I’ve seen the photographs. They’re beautiful.”
Lark’s expression stiffens, like I’m not getting it. Like no one is. She suddenly looks extraordinarily tired, a bit confused, like a baby that’s about to cry. “Nature belongs to all of us,” she says, eyes glassily fixed on a sherbet-hued minaret. “People think nature belongs to no one, but that’s not true. It belongs to all of us.”
She sits back from the table. On her plate, the mauled corpse of a dosa, translucent and jettisoned like the skin of a snake, sits hollowly amid a bay of decorative cilantro.
“In the morning,” she says, apropos of nothing, part promise, part threat.
She tosses her cloth napkin onto the plate and three servers appear as if by magic, clearing the table with the alacrity of mafia novitiates purging a crime scene.
In the morning, the sky has turned from bruise-black purple to a scabbed-over white-gray. Lark has a headache, so we meet on her balcony for breakfast, avoiding the clattering dishes and silverware of the restaurant. “So,” she says, “what are we going to do about this statue?”
“Well, first thing is to find a fabricator.”
Lark nods. She pensively rips apart a ball of idli, sets the pieces back down on her plate. “And we’ll need a clay guy.”
“Do you know anyone? Here?”
Lark smushes a wad of idli between her fingers, then brightens with what must be a wonderful idea. “Let’s ask Sai!” she says. “I’ll bet Sai knows someone.”
“Okay,” I say.
Sai, to my chagrin, does know someone. His “clay guy,” one of many stars in the constellation of Sai’s rolodex, will laugh, bewildered and overjoyed by the project—he, too, “would enjoy seeing a pussy of this magnitude”—before recommending that the body of the Cunt Bodhisattva be constructed in eight parts: two arms, two legs, the upper torso, the middle torso, the lower torso/nethers, and the head. He will painstakingly coat the conglomerations of metal and wire crafted by the fabricator, an underpaid sophomore at the Delhi School of Art, before loading and transporting all eight sections of the eponymous bodhisattva via convoy through the tortuous curves of Himachal Pradesh to the border of Kashmir and Jammu, some middle-of-nowhere set of coordinates I’ve been tasked with identifying through a combination of Google Maps searches and hearsay, where we are unlikely to be disturbed by armed guards (fingers crossed), before assembling, photographing, and generally reveling in the majesty of the statue and all it exemplifies before returning to our boutique hotel in Udhampur.
But first, before any of this, we must find a musician.
As we near Connaught Place, Lark lowers the backseat window of the car and props her elbows on the door. She leans out, eyes closed, and inhales deeply. Amid the cacophonies of the milieu—bicycles, carts, vendors, children—she perks up at some sound: an egregiously out-of-tune sitar, stabbing at a melody that sounds a bit like “Over the Rainbow.”
She asks Sai to pull over and, sussing out the source of the music, approaches an older gentleman who has what she’ll describe as a “kind face.” From the car, I watch with Sai as Lark speaks to the man slowly and clearly, bent at the waist in the posture of a black-and-white film heroine, couture-clad on a visit to the orphanage, dripping with beatific elegance and the salvific promise of white picket fences, hydrangeas, suburban reincarnation. The man is dressed in white linen and loose sandals, a weathered sitar nested in his lap. He nods as Lark draws a map in the air with the full length of her arms, then smiles, creases bundling along his eyes and mouth. He does, indeed, have a kind face. At last, the man gets to his feet and follows Lark to the car.
As we pull onto Ghanta Ghar Road heading east, Lark turns backward in her seat and places a hand on the musician’s knee. “Play something, Rishi,” she says.
Rishi dutifully plays a warbling riff, the neck of the sitar bobbing toward the roof of the car. Lark seems rapturously oblivious to the sourness of the instrument’s tuning. Or perhaps this is why she chose him. Perhaps this is the real India.
Sai and Lark are in their own world up front, the principal cast of a madcap road trip. Lark leans against the glass with her chin tilted at an attractive angle, a pose of extremis, lips ever-so-slightly parted. You can almost imagine the Pepsi dripping directly into her mouth. Sai glances in her direction from time to time, aware of the bait, taking the bait.
Lark and I went sailing once, with her then-husband and my then-girlfriend, and this is the face I remember, tilted expectantly toward the sun, Ferruzzi’s Madonnina by way of gang-bang denouement, before she leaned over the helm to slap the side of the boat, a trick to attract dolphins. I was beguiled, shocked when it worked. This is how I picture her at times, flanked by dolphins, white linen on white deck, cosmically at ease with her own fortune.
The “clay guy,” whose name is Varesh but to whom Lark will continue to refer as the “clay guy,” passes the test, predominantly by being nearly as charming as Sai. There is a great deal of forearm touching and laughter as they review various samples of clay. Lark believes herself to be an impeccable judge of character, and of clay. She has been ripped off numerous times.
They settle on a natural gray-gold variant, a terra-cotta hybrid, and the way the clay guy keeps referencing the spectacular beauty of the dunes of the Thar Desert, just west of majestic Rajasthan, without explicitly saying that this is where the clay has been sourced, you can tell he bought it online. Lark delicately trails her fingertips over the sample, testing the texture and color against the sun jutting through a slatted skylight. “It’s perfect,” she says.
On the drive back toward Haveli Dharampura, Sai takes a shortcut through a settlement comprised of scattered brick and concrete structures, splashes of paint on the walls and laundry strung above the road. He works the horn with staccato precision, jarring cyclists and pedestrians to one side of the road or the other, while Rishi obediently continues to play.
A handful of women look up from their work. Hauling, washing, selling, building, cooking, hustling. One has to imagine what one of these women would do had she been born into wealth. If someone had just handed her money. It isn’t until Lark turns back to look at me that I realize I’ve said this aloud.
“Do it,” Lark says, perfectly calm, her expression a dare. “Just hand her money.”
I look out the window, and there are a lot of hers. “Who?”
“Does it matter?”
I understand that Lark’s trying to make a point, but then, abruptly, there’s a one-hundred-dollar bill in her hand, fished from the caviar-leather Chanel coin purse she uses when she wants to appear grounded.
“Go ahead,” she says. “Pick someone.”
I don’t touch the bill. I smile, instead, like she’s made a cunning joke. “The distribution of wealth is already a little too stochastic for my taste.”
She slides the bill between my fingers. “Isn’t it better for someone to have it? It’ll mean more to her than to us.”
Lark asks Sai to pull over the car. Outside the window, several people have stopped to look. Rishi continues to play, his sitar scaling an atonal crest and descending, oblivious. “I’d really rather not.”
“Okay, we’ll go back to the hotel. Everyone stays poor today.”
I look out the window and try to choose someone. There’s no telling who’s better or worse off, who’s the most virtuous, most generous, who has the most children, the best idea for a startup, the smallest living quarters, or most sinister disease. Who’s having the worst day. Whose kid could write her own ticket if only the college application fees could be secured.
Before clutching and pressing the door handle, I try to do the thing Lark claims to do, getting a “sense for someone,” scouring the features for lines that might mean benevolence or malice. I get out of the car and quietly move toward a woman in a blue sari, a skittish child curled against the slippery fabric at her thigh, and hand her the bill. I try to be subtle but am too obvious. There’s no way not to be. The entire street has turned to watch. Everyone has seen.
It’s clear now that I’ve coronated a target, if not of theft then of envy. The woman’s face is only partly visible, but her eyes flicker with thrill and panic, a look not unlike game being hunted.
I get back in the car, where Rishi’s sitar has picked up pace. “See?” says Lark. Outside the window, other women stare soberly, unchosen. I haven’t just given a person one hundred dollars. I’ve given hundreds of people nothing.
Over the course of my tenure with Lark, I’ve often pretended to be her. Sometimes it’s an art-world Cyrano de Bergerac stunt, a phone interview or email to a dealer, a rescue attempt from her signature vacillation between flirting and bullying. Other times it’s to book tickets or lodge a complaint, to protect her from the anxiety of being on hold, of talking to people she can’t see, or because I have all the numbers memorized and she doesn’t.
That night, over Sazeracs in the hotel lounge, Lark announces a new interview. I wonder whether I’ve invited this, her tendency to ask me something after a drink, or if it’s a maneuver that predates me. “It’s a newish art magazine, London-based, super-chic aesthetics,” she says.
“Alright,” I say.
The interviewer (Ben) is young, self-possessed but with a tight, nervous laugh. You can hear him shuffling hardcopy notes over the speakerphone.
As Lark, the directives are to be breezy, cool, smart but not too academic. Witty but not corny. If you don’t like a question, just say something else. You’re an artist, after all.
The last time you did a phone interview on her behalf, she sat across the drafting desk and mouthed things, her lips wide with exaggerated shapes you couldn’t possibly hope to interpret as words, let alone articulable suggestions, and when you hung up she yelled, “Why didn’t you mention the post-Anthropocene!?” which seems to have been the one expression from that Donna Haraway article that stuck, and you said it was because it didn’t pertain to the work at hand, and just when it seemed like she was about to flip the table with eight different cyan oil paints or fire you or pay someone to break your kneecaps in the night, the magazine wound up gravitating toward the wrong quotes after all, printed the wrong things anyway, and basically just supremely failed to understand her work in all its complexity and contemporary relevance, and this, at least, was not your fault.
This time, the questions are all softballs. “I saw something on your Instagram about a secret project in Jammu and Kashmir. Can you say anything about that?”
“I’ll just say this”—Lark loves it when you say “I’ll just say this”—“There’s no way to create art that’s situated in both nature and civilization without aggressively inviting the post-Anthropocene.”
Three questions later, when Ben expresses his gratitude and clicks off, Lark is already handing you a glass of champagne. She gives you a theatrical kiss on the forehead, leaving an imprint you’ll see later like a ghost in the mirror, a lanceolate of lipstick the exact same color as her natural lips. “Fuck Europe,” she says. “Those fuckers’ll love this.”
After champagne, a miniature compact appears—vintage, Chinese cloisonné—with a wad of what looks like ossified gum inside. “Live a little,” she says.
You will never try heroin outside of Lark. So you say yes.
The minute it hits your lungs, you get it. You’re a fan. You understand perfectly why people do heroin. The world is fists unfurled, languid with welcome.
Lark is jaded, more experienced, lazy with bliss. “Do you remember that night at Basel, when we did molly?”
“Yes! You remember.”
“I remember, but I didn’t do molly.”
“Yes you did. We both did.”
“I didn’t. I drank the Blue Lagoon you ordered, because you don’t believe in drinking blue, which I fully respect, and then we got to the airport right before our flight.”
“But you did molly.”
Lark smiles a vicious smile, looks at you like you’re lying, like you’re a prude, despite the fact that you’ve just smoked heroin in front of her. “Okay.”
Lark smokes again. You take the pipe and pretend, already lush with regret.
“We did good tonight,” she says.
“Yes. Yes we did.”
In the morning, sunlight lacquers the courtyard in a slick, soberly green-white sheen. Lark is already gone, presumably off haranguing the clay guy about the shape of the clitoris. I drag myself to the balcony, wishing for death. My hair smells like black tea and vinegar and, with a crest of nausea, I am decisively disenchanted with heroin.
Beyond the rollickingly hazy night of half sleep, dreams of granular gray-gold sand in my teeth and eyelids, the feeling of apathy but certainty that I’ve left the garage door open back home despite the fact that I don’t have a garage, something else has gnawed me awake, something worse, something Ben said during the interview: “The border of Jammu and Kashmir and what?”
“And it’s a surprise,” I said, not understanding the question, spurred by Lark’s guidance to create mystery when one is confused.
Now, down a rabbit hole of guessingly misspelled Google searches, I discover that I have a much, much bigger problem.
Jammu and Kashmir are not two places, as Lark believes, but one place. Worse, she believes these two separate places to be at war with one another. And worst of all, she thinks these two distinct, war-torn civilizations are in the middle of the desert, a desert intended to be a perfect visual match for the clay she’s selected for the apotheotic, sixty-foot arc of the Cunt Bodhisattva.
All of this is my fault. I’ve been nodding so automatically, from the advent of Lark’s vision to the momentum of its evolution, that I have accidentally nodded at sand, at wilderness, at scribbles on maps less cartographically sound than the New World as a volcanic swampland riddled with dragons. I’ve nodded us into a shared fiction, a nonexistent border in a nonexistent landscape, patrolled by nonexistent armed guards, lush with the mirage of artistic triumph. This nod, I realize now, is something I’ve picked up from Lark: the nod of attentive, partial understanding, of trust in one’s own confidence above all, of willing one’s own rightness into existence, of sorting it out later.
Historically, Lark has gone through assistants at a pace rivaling the wives of Chinggis Khan. I’ve lasted the longest. This is evidence of strength, I’ve always thought, although plastic outlives oak. Fake things always last the longest.
I’ll be fired. Sued, maybe. She’s done it before. I’ll be ousted from the industry in L.A., a cautionary tale about giving your assistant every advantage, flying her to India even, only to be so cruelly and incompetently betrayed.
As I squelch back my gag reflex and study the map for any hope of a tenable lie, a figure appears on the adjacent balcony, outside Lark’s suite. It’s Sai, wearing only a towel and a watch. He smiles, surprised but unashamed. “Good morning.”
Sai has brought a small tin with him onto the balcony. He cracks it open, retrieves a thin sheaf of rolling papers and a wad of tobacco. As he prepares to roll a cigarette, he appraises me with genuine sympathy.
Sai sprinkles a bit of tobacco and weed into the sharp crease of a rolling paper. He licks and presses it into a cylinder, then offers it to me, leaning over the cusp of the balcony. “It’ll help with the hangover.”
“Is that true?”
Sai shrugs. I lean out over the gap between the balconies, meeting him halfway, so he can light the cigarette.
“Something else, yeah? Worse than heroin?”
I have no reason to trust Sai. He is a half-stranger in a persimmon-colored towel on my employer’s balcony. Nonetheless:
“I’ve made a massive mistake, Sai.”
I tell Sai everything. He nods with the quiet, seasoned calm of a detective who’s just learned the truth, neither predicted nor farfetched. He lights a cigarette for himself, and when his phone rings, he answers it with one hand, smoking with the other. The conversation, in crisp Hindi, is liltingly familiar, curt.
“More H?” I ask when he hangs up.
He sets the phone on the small table beside his cigarette kit. “Don’t call it ‘H.’ Makes you sound like a tourist.”
“Lark calls it ‘H.’”
Sai waves his cigarette in a gesture that says, well there you have it. “And no. That was my boyfriend.”
“Oh.” There’s no graceful way to convey my curiosity or delight, or there is and I’m too hungover to achieve it, so I say, “I didn’t know you were bi. Or pan or—whatever; I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.” It’s the overloud tone of perplexed support I remember from my own youth, from parishioners who thought themselves hip, and I wince.
“I’m gay.” Sai grins and smokes, pumping the cigarette between his lips as though he’s fellating it, and also so that I can see the face of his new watch: a Chanel J12 with a quilted blue band.
Sai shrugs. “Which part of you is sacred?”
We smoke in silence, watching as shadows move through doorways across the courtyard. I feel a surge of envy at Sai’s ease. “Still. Don’t get too excited.”
“About that watch. Her Chanel gifts are never real.”
Sai rolls another pair of cigarettes, then tucks them both between his lips and lights them at once. He hands one across the rift between the balconies.
“I’ll help you,” he says. “We can drive out to Hikkim, through the Spiti Valley. There’s a route where the signs are all in Devanagari. She won’t know the difference.”
I nearly ask him why he’s helping, but he seems to sense this already. “People like you and me,” he says, “we have to stick together. For as long as it takes.”
“How long is that?”
Sai thumbs the ridges of the watch band. “Until we’re them.”
The following days are a slur of color and sound: the gumdrop-stained glass of Alsisar Mahal, the sunken gray riverbanks of the Yamuna River, swollen with hyacinth. Beneath everything, the tremulous lilt of Rishi’s sitar.
It’s difficult, in these days, to say what is and is not the real India. The raucous commerce of the Mochpura Bazar is the real India. The postcolonial wainscoting of the Surajgarh Fort is not the real India. Camels are the real India. Camel jerky sold at the entrance of the Mochpura Bazar is not the real India.
At nights, Sai and I drink ourselves into a state of ego, guessing (always underguessing) how often the bartender (who looks nothing like Dev Patel) will be likened to Dev Patel by a revolving contingent of white female tourists.
As the connective tissue of the operation, Sai has arranged with Varesh to transport the statue to the coordinates we’ve selected near Hikkim. Varesh, who’s grown weary of Lark’s impatient, overenunciated demand for the shape of the knees to “create more feeling,” is more than on board. None of the eight drivers care, and all are loyal to Varesh.
We, meanwhile, are wending our way along a slightly more tortuous route to the west, a careful itinerary with the semblance of spontaneity—ancient temples and markets, pit stops for chai—half-built from Lark’s memories, honed by Yelp reviews. The route is partly intended to disorient Lark, but Sai is right: between the sex and inscrutable signage, Lark has no idea where we are. By the time we arrive at what she believes to be the border between Jammu and Kashmir, the hired crew will have already unloaded the interlocking parts of the Cunt Bodhisattva and pieced them together in the spectacular sixty-foot arch she envisioned. Photos will be snapped, a short video will be made, and Lark, clad in the white mousseline linen Fendi dress she’s brought specifically for the occasion, will bow in the sand and worship the idol of her own creation.
This, of course, is not exactly how it goes.
North of Kaza, in the skittish, half-quiet hours before sunrise, we barrel west along the jagged lightning bolt of an unnamed road. Even predawn, the air simmers with the threat of what will be an abnormally hot day. Sai drives with both hands on the wheel, more focused than I’ve ever seen him. Lark bounces in the passenger seat, a vintage Leica slung around her neck, raring to capitalize on the magic hour. Rishi, who has tried to make conversation once or twice over the past week, has apparently accepted that this is not the role in which Lark has cast him, and now plays a persistent, hypnotic melody that quavers grimly each time we hit a dip in the road. I sit beside him in the back, dodging the neck of the sitar, watching each crest and hairpin turn the way one might wait for a tornado to finally touch ground. My only job on this leg of the journey is to distract Lark with conversation as we near the Dhar Lung Wooh Statue Point, the one landmark she might try to Google when this is all over.
At last, the ruddy slopes on either side of the road give way to an expanse of desert, freckled with grass, gapingly empty beneath the sky. Threads of pink have just begun to claw up from the horizon like blood in a pool, casting a reddish glow against a massive, sinewy form towering six stories high: the Cunt Bodhisattva in all her glory.
Lark leaps from the car, giddy with her own magnificence. She runs toward the statue, beckoning me to record her running toward the statue.
Through the lens of the small camera we’ve brought, she looks like a ghost, her dress and skin both nearly translucent. She races beneath the arched back of the statue, then mimics its pose like a tourist.
Sai gets out of the car and stretches, flashing a thumbs-up toward Lark. He checks the face of his knockoff Chanel watch, then angles it in my direction: 5:18.
He winks. We’ve done it.
Rishi hangs back, plucks a few final notes, then stops. The valley is silent.
“Where are the guards?” Lark calls.
“Further east!” I shout back. “This section of the border is clear.”
Lark nods. She looks around like someone who has loudly declared for months that she doesn’t want a surprise party, who is now disappointed that there isn’t one.
When she jogs back toward the car, I realize for the first time that she’s barefoot. There’s a pair of sandals in the go kit, but she refuses. They won’t look right in the photos. In ten minutes, her feet will be bleeding all over the place, but that’s fine. It’ll become part of the art, somehow.
As the sun rises, each detail of the statue emerges with the drama of a freshly discovered ruin. The crew Lark hired finished their work during the night, just a few hours ago, but it looks as though it’s been here for eons. The nth wonder of the world.
Sai pops the trunk and extracts four flutes and a bottle of ’02 Pérignon. I once made the error of not properly observing some guerrilla exhibit—a wheatpasting fiasco in Portland—and have always budgeted for this moment since. The cork is popped. The glasses are poured. Lark untangles the strap of the Leica from her hair and snaps photos from every angle: the perfect curvature of the bodhisattva’s toes, the soft gaze of her barely open eyes. The meticulous rift of the ass and the v-like crease of the thighs like a strap on either side. The subtly sculpted rings of the throat.
Lark stares down the neck of the viewfinder, then smiles. She makes her way back to the car, where she leads us all—even Rishi—in a sloppily joyful, sleep-deprived toast.
As the sun continues to rise, tipping now from the magic hour to something less magical, a new revelation unfolds:
The enigmatically sourced clay, which in this light has the look of gold covered in dust, has begun to crack. Varesh has coated it in a “cured artisanal epoxy” of some kind, and when the sun hits it, the sheen of plasticky gloss begins to melt, slurring over the details of the statue. The cuticles of the toes dissolve, flattening the bodhisattva’s feet into what look like beveled fins. The same phenomenon takes her fingers, above which the beaded rings of carved jewelry have begun to drip down the vertical spires of her wrists and forearms. It’s impossible to see from this angle, but I imagine the fragile comma of her belly button caving in a widening, hollowing swell, like a meteor impact in slow motion. The curve of her upper lip (closer to the earth, on account of her backward bend), painstakingly etched by some anonymous art student to convey a Mona Lisa smirk by way of Ishtar, dips and leaks toward the nostrils of her aquiline nose, which itself has drawn a seam between the molten divots of her eyes. Her tits by now are nebulous slumps, shifting the way patches of lava might, though not at the same rate, the perk of one nipple treading water while the other vanishes toward a dislocated clavicle. At the same latitude but the opposite side of the statue, the clitoris—lest we forget, the size of a basketball—has slipped from beneath its protective hood toward the underwhelming dip of the anus. Each labium has merged with the other labia; the majora/minora hierarchy has been fully dissolved. The focal cunt, of eponymic primacy, has slid into a glut of malformed clay and grainy silicon.
Lark’s gaze, white-hot with adrenaline, already pulses with what will be a spectacular lawsuit, despite the fact that, as far as she knows, we’re committing an act of vandalism on contested land. “It’s the wrong clay,” she says simply, each syllable a bullet of self-righteousness.
“It’s the clay you chose,” I say, and the minute it’s out of my mouth, I know I’ll be fired. Worse than fired, I’ll fall within the concentric cancer of whatever legal action she devises. I’ll be one of those trees that rips at the root before the local news has even announced a storm warning. When the first of the legs snaps, the other pieces crumple in surprising sequence, half cracked, half resilient, tethered together with the inelegance of yolky meringue. Here and there the epoxy clings to a tendril of wire, like a sack of skin in which all the bones have been broken. Someone, somewhere along the way, fucked up, and this error became the foundation for another error, then another and another.
In the end, there will be only the wires: stalwart and mortified as the masonry left after a nuclear test. A suggestion of something else: a city built for the purpose of being destroyed. Lark won’t have to fire you; you’ll agree on it together. You’ll call the airline, one last time before she changes the numbers, to move up your flight.
You’ll meet other Larks. There will be Sylvie, then Ava J, then Branwen. Each will take something from you and leave something else in its place. With each apple will come a bit more knowledge of your nakedness, a bit more comfort with leaving the garden. You’ll start to meet her everywhere, but mostly she’ll live in the voice you hear come out of your mouth sometimes, when you’re tired and a server leaves your water glass empty, or when a valet doesn’t reset your seats to their original position. You’ll be free, but there will always be a shred of you in the timbre of tight skin and good cars, the tone of voice that sounds like money. You’ll be alright, better than alright. But it’ll be like a virus, treated but not gone. When Sai’s car is stopped at a checkpoint—Lark’s not a monster; he’s driving you all back to Delhi, underscored by Rishi’s increasingly reluctant score—a guard asks your purpose for visiting India.
“Just to see it,” I say.
The guard sweeps both arms outward, boredly grandiose, as if to say: Here it is.
It’s only land, as it’s always been. Ambivalent dirt, rocks that have no idea where they are. Lark is exhausted by the checkpoint but pleased by the advent of Wi-Fi, scouring apps, scouting the next big thing. Because I’m free and sad and unmoored and have always wondered and the stakes are low, I ask, “Is this the real India?”
From the front seat, although it will certainly cost him dearly, Sai laughs, then the guard laughs, and although Rishi doesn’t laugh, he stops playing, and together they cannot stop laughing.