We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon.
A few weeks earlier, the owners had repainted the diner walls from a grease-splattered beige to a thicky pastel blue and had spray-painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup. It ruined the place somewhat, but the food was cheap, it was never crowded, and they always had a place for us.
I shared a breakfast special and a grilled cheese with Margaux. Jon asked for our fries. I don't remember what we started off talking about, or who was the funniest that day. I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I had looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn't enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn't attracted to. Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home.
These are a few of the sordid fruits that led to the Ugly Painting Competition.
* * *
When Sholem was a teenager, he had dreamed of being a theater actor, but his parents didn't want him to go to theater school. They didn't think it was practical, and encouraged him to go to art school instead. So he went, and his first year there, up late one night painting, as the sun began rising with the morning, a sudden and strong feeling came up inside him that said, I must be an artist. I must paint for the rest of my life. I will not settle for anything else. No other future is acceptable to me.
It was an epiphany and a decision both, from which there would be no turning back — the first and most serious vow of his life. So this past spring, he completed his M.F.A. thesis and graduated.
* * *
Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don't remember, but once I got enthusiastic, suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly I envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting — pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. What would my painting look like? How would I proceed? I thought it would be a simple, interesting thing to do. I had spent so much time trying to make the play I was writing — and my life, and my self — into an object of beauty. It was exhausting and all that I knew.
Margaux agreed to the competition right away, but Sholem was reluctant. He didn't see the point. The premise turned him off so much — that one should intentionally make something ugly. Why? But I egged him on, pleading, and finally he gave in.
As soon as Sholem returned home after brunch, he set about making his entry — so he wouldn't have to think about it anymore, he explained to me later, or have looming before him the prospect of having to make something ugly.
He went straight into his studio, having already decided what he would do. He imagined it would be like this intellectual exercise that he could sort of approach in a cold fashion. He would just do everything he hated when his students did it. He started the composition smack-dab in the middle of a piece of paper, since paper is uglier than canvas. Then he painted a weird, cartoonish man in profile with fried-egg eyes, and he outlined things instead of shading them, delineating each individual eyelash. Instead of making a nostril, he sort of drew a hole. In the background he painted fluffy white clouds over orange triangular mountains. He made the background a gross pinkish-brownish gray, using mineral sediment dug up from the bottom of the jar in which he washed his brushes. For skin tone he just mixed red and white, and for the shadows he used blue. Though he thought in the end there would be some salvageable qualities to the painting, it just kept getting more and more disgusting until finally he began to feel so awful that he finished it off quickly. Dipping a thick brush in black paint, he wrote at the bottom, really carelessly, The sun will come out tomorrow. Then he stepped back and looked at the result, and found it so revolting that he had to get it out of his studio, and left it on the kitchen table to dry.
Sholem went out to get some groceries for dinner, but the entire time he was gone he felt nauseous. Returning home and setting the bags on the counter, he saw the painting lying there and thought, I cannot see that thing every time I walk into the kitchen. So he took it to the basement and left it near the washer and dryer.
From there, the day just got worse. Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged in despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone into the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying that nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. It's like you work so hard to train a dog to be good! he called through the door. And the dog is your hand! Then one day you're forced to beat all the goodness out of that dog in order to make it cruel. That day was today!
Then Sholem plodded into the living room and sent an email to the group of us, saying, This project fills me with shame and self-loathing. I just did my ugly painting, and I feel like I raped myself. How's yours, Margaux?
Margaux, the better artist, wrote back: i spent all day on my bed island reading the new york times.
From How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti. Copyright 2012 by Sheila Heti. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co.