If he had really been honest with himself in the first place, he never would have gotten involved with Therese. But he had been so smitten with her during their first encounter that he failed to see all the warning signs. They met at the loft-warming party of a mutual friend who had just moved back to the Cities after a long absence on the West Coast, a painter who, after spending almost a decade in the sun, realized that what he really needed to do to produce the art he sought was return to his roots. Scott and another casual acquaintance whose name he couldn't quite recall had been discussing the art of their painter friend's most recent influence, a local legend who went by the acronym HFCS, pronounced "Haffix," (news to Scott, who had never heard, only read, about the man's work) who produced his particular brand of art exclusively with hand-colored, high-fructose corn syrup. The casual acquaintance whose name Scott couldn't quite recall had been going on at some length about how Haffix's middle-period was his best—it was, apparently, the only time he produced truly genuine art, the kind that elicited the most visceral response, as a protest of sorts against the very medium in which he worked—when Therese interrupted their conversation to scold them.
"Trash," she said by way of introduction, "pure drivel. Do you really comprehend what you are saying? Haffix is in his middle period—you make it sound as if he is washed up, done producing, and his oeuvre can now be neatly divided into sections."
"Excuse me?" said Scott's casual acquaintance, whose tone and cocked eyebrow scoffed at the idea that anyone, let alone this woman, could possibly question his authority on Haffix's work. "We are talking about the same Haffix, yes? The one who just accepted an endorsement deal from ADM?  Once any artist goes commercial, child, he's done producing real art."
"And what would you know about art? You dress like a child too embarrassed to tell his mother to stop doing it for him."
The exchange went on for some time, while Scott swirled the wine around in his glass and watched the film crawl back down the rounded sides. When he became aware that the sniping had stopped, he looked up to see that the woman he came to know as Therese and the casual acquaintance whose name he never really could recall were both looking at him with eyes that said, each in their own unique way, "Come on, casual acquaintance/complete stranger, you know I'm right, so back me up." Putting aside the fact that Scott had not been paying enough attention to know what he would be agreeing with should he take either side, it should be noted that he was the kind of man who had gone to college to learn how to use a semicolon.  Rather than make an ass of himself, he employed the only rhetorical technique he had been able to master in his stint as a debater in high school.
"You know," he said slowly, still swirling the wine in his glass, "I really don't see Haffix's influence in our mutual painter friend's work at all."
Under normal circumstances, anybody with any knowledge at all would see through such a transparent ruse, but Scott had an in that allowed him to get away with it in this crowd: he was the senior arts correspondent for Making a Scene, one of several local color magazines (the 3rd largest in the state, in fact). Even though he had more connections in the art world than knowledge of it (it was a tangled web of casual associations that usually led straight back to his younger sister, a self-proclaimed bohemian who had gotten him the job in the first place), his title—meaningless to anybody who knew anything about publishing, and especially about the hierarchy within Making a Scene—gave him credibility that he could cash in readily in a setting such as this, where everybody was an artist of some aspiration and desperate for a mention in even their school district's community announcements. Were he to casually slip "senior arts correspondent for Minnesota's 3rd largest local color magazine" into a conversation, he would find that suddenly he was the Authority. Anything he said smacked of authenticity. The burden of evidence was placed upon his detractors and the naysayers, no matter what asinine thing he might come up with.
"Now that you mention it, you're right," said the casual acquaintance.
"No he is not, he is full of shit," said Therese. "Are you even familiar with our mutual painter friend's work? Or Haffix's, for that matter?"
As if it needed to be said: had not been for that challenge, Scott would not have been as intrigued by Therese. Here was a woman who wasn't impressed by his cred, who maybe even knew just how undeserved it was. He suddenly needed to know more about this woman, immediately. But the casual acquaintance turned his back on Therese and led Scott to a quieter corner of the room so he could talk his ear off about some other local artist of note. Scott looked back over his shoulder just once, but Therese wasn't looking at him.
The next time their paths crossed, Scott and Therese were attending a happening staged by yet another of their mutual artist friends. She (the performance artist) had rented out one of the old abattoirs down by the river, and, with the help of another friend who had graduated with a degree in stage design and gone straight into a job as an insurance sales associate for a mid-sized firm in downtown Minneapolis, converted it into a replica city street, complete with magnesium lights, trash cans, and mail boxes, for a one-night performance. Several other friends from a struggling troupe had been recruited to fill out the rest of the population. The idea for this happening was, as stated on the invitation, "a simulated mundanity." The artists and the invitees would wander the street for the evening, supposedly unaware which people were the performers and which were the audience. By the end of the night, the theory ran, everybody would spend some time as both.
Scott was busy laying down glib observations in his head as he walked up and down the street, hands in pockets, when he bumped into a backpedaling Therese. She turned and started to apologize. As soon as their eyes met and she recognized him, she stopped.
"Hey there," said Scott. "I don't think we got the chance for introductions last time."
"None needed," said Therese. "An introduction would just create the expectation that we acknowledge each other in social settings like this."
"Generally, yes. I'm Scott Keyes."
"'Senior arts correspondent for Minnesota's 3rd largest local color magazine;' yes, I know who you are."
"Are you an artist?"
"Why? Planning to exchange a blurb for some favor?"
"Are you always this antagonistic, or did you forget to take some Valium before you came?"
Therese slapped him. Nobody noticed. All the attention in the room, save that of Scott and Therese, whose focus was now entirely on the reddening of Scott's assaulted cheek, was on a small quarrel that had broken out between two men on the other side of the "street." One of the men had pulled out a knife. Everybody watched (again, everybody sans Scott and Therese), unsure whether this was a real fight or part of the performance. Some people looked around for their performance artist friend for some sort of confirmation, but she was nowhere to be seen. Some of those people saw Scott and Therese on the other side of the "street," Scott holding his cheek, Therese yelling. When they saw there was no knife, their attention drifted back to the fight that had one.
"I think," said Scott, "that if you're going to insist on withholding your name, I will have to call you Estella."
And even though he still wanted to learn more about Estella, Scott left it at that and went to see what the knife fight was all about. He later discovered (and reported as such) that the knife fight had not indeed been staged. One of the actors, mistaking the man for one of the troupe's newest members, had started antagonizing one of the invitees as part of the performance. The invitee, unsure what to make of things, pulled out a knife. The actor, thinking this was a brilliant bit of improv for a newbie, continued to antagonize the man, punning on how small the knife was, and inquiring as to whether it pleased his wife. The invitee ended the fight by stabbing the actor (O untimely death!), at which point several in the crowd started clapping and commenting on how realistic the knife and the blood were.
"The evening," Scott later wrote, "was ended only by the timely arrival of the ambulance—followed soon after by St. Paul police. The artist herself was unavailable for comment—but one of the attendees, a regular at these happenings, said that in spite of the attempted murder and the boring idleness up to that point, the evening was a smashing success, and he intended to attend the next of the artist's happenings—provided he receives an invitation."
"I don't really understand why I'm so interested in pursuing her," Scott told his painter friend. "I mean, on some level I do know: she intrigues me. I know nothing about her, but I want to know more. But on another level, I have no idea why I even care enough to want that."
It was a quiet Tuesday evening, just the two of them now in the painter's new loft. Scott and Estella had met again in one of the dive bars favored by artists, and she slapped him again. When he asked if she wanted to elaborate, she told him she was not some spoiled ice-queen looking to be made out as the cruel object of desire of some hack journalist.
"So she did get the reference after all," said the painter friend.
"No, she just has access to Google."
In response to Scott's angst over his own motivations, the painter friend motioned to the freshly-separated lines of cocaine on his glass surface table and asked if he wanted any of it. Blow, Scott noted (feeling like a complete tool for using slang that he wasn't sure was dated or not), was one of the many habits his painter friend had picked up on the West Coast. One of the others was talking about art instead of producing it. Scott declined the offer, and watched as his painter friend did both lines with a rolled up dollar bill. He had heard or read somewhere that every dollar bill in circulation had trace amounts of cocaine on it. He wondered whether it was true.
"Who are we talking about again?"
"Woman, mid-late-twenties maybe. Slim. Long, black hair. Starts every conversation with a challenge or an insult."
Scott tried to play it like he hadn't noticed, to act the modest gentleman, but then he remembered that it was just the two of them tonight, and said, "Ample enough."
"Enough for what?"
"Do you know her name or not?"
The painter friend thought about it for so long that Scott couldn't tell whether he was trying to remember the woman's real name or considering another line or two. After another line (the epitome of self-control; he had enough left on the table for three more if he really wanted them) the painter friend shook his head. "I thought I had it on the tip of my tongue, but I'm not sure I ever found out. She's an animal in bed, though."
That exchange was the true beginning of Scott's quest to find out Estella's real name. He would bring it up in casual conversations with other artist friends and hangers-on, wondering whether they had met her, seen any of whatever art she produced, etc. But his niggling concern about his real motivations kept him from pursuing it with all the gusto with which he might pursue, say, a woman who was more his type, i.e. one who didn't have such an abrasive personality, enigmatic or no. Scott was repeatedly rebuffed by his friends' either not knowing who he was talking about, or knowing but not being sure what her name was. He came away with anything from "that bitch" to Anita to Evita to Gertie. Only one person (his sister) had any idea that the woman Scott was calling Estella was actually named Therese Ste-Marie.
"And you're sure?" he asked. Everyone who had given him a serious answer had been fuzzy on whether or not they were steering him wrong. His sister alone was completely confident.
"Of course I'm sure. A woman like that, who's an animal in bed, you don't forget her name very easily."
"Most of the list of our mutual acquaintances could prove you wrong."
"I like that word, 'mutual.' Good word."
She pulled out a little black notebook that she kept for such occasions and wrote down "Mutual" at the bottom of a page. Scott was not fazed, as this was something she often did—a word would strike her just so, and she would feel the need to record that word for posterity. Many times, as in the case of "mutual," she would also add this word to a growing list of baby names that she felt had potential, should she ever feel the need to squeeze one out.
"So out of curiosity, why exactly do you want to know her?"
"I don't know."
His little sister stood up from the futon mattress she used as a bed, and she patted her older brother on the head. A whiff of patchouli grazed Scott's cheek.
"Think about it, then. You might be better off not knowing Therese."
"What aren't you telling me?"
"You're relatively observant. There's nothing I can tell you that you don't already know."
Wondering why he expected anything more, Scott came away from the conversation in a sour mood. Even knowing Therese's name wasn't enough to buoy him. So he did what any self-respecting senior arts correspondent for the 3rd largest local color magazine in Minnesota would do: he went to a dive bar favored by local artists, got shitfaced on Maker's Mark to the musical stylings of some punk band that called itself Ralph Nader Is A Motherfucker, and went home with the first woman who agreed to it. He awoke the next morning to find that that woman had been Therese Ste-Marie.
And she really was an animal in bed.
As he sat in bed, watching her sleep heavily beside him, Scott thought ahead a few months, to a point when he would be introducing Therese to his family. "How did you two meet?" an aunt or uncle would ask. "Well," Scott would say, smiling tenderly at the lovely woman beside him, "we really met at a couple of arts gatherings. Got off to a rocky start. But then we both got shitfaced at some bar one night and she fucked my brains out. The rest is history."
What a horrible story! He resolved, then, to lie to his family if it ever came up. He would have to brief Therese on the matter, too. (It was at this point that he began to think about that first encounter, and he remembered that he had no idea what ADM was. He promptly got up, went to his computer, and searched the internet for answers.) Later in the morning, Therese began to stir. Her first word was, "Shit." She lifted her head, looked around, and upon seeing Scott there, repeated herself, much more loudly and emphatically.
"Good morning," Scott said.
"What have you got against me, anyway? I mean, you must like me on some level, since—"
"Since what? Since I managed to get drunk enough that I would fuck anything that walks on two legs, and you happened to meet that criterion? Sex and alcohol are not the measures of a relationship."
Scott almost opened his mouth to say that his parents might disagree, but he thought better of it and just stayed where he was seated. Therese finished dressing and walked out into the hall, where he heard her searching for her shoes. She walked out of his apartment without another word.
The poetry reading he and his sister attended with an entourage of casual acquaintances was, he would write later, lackluster at best. Although a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd had shown up for a man who was, by all rights, unknown but to his friends and those in the underground art scene, the poet himself was just not prepared to make a decent show of it. He read too timidly, spoke too much between poems, explained things that didn't need to be explained—it was as if he didn't care who had shown up, that anyone had bothered to make a show of support for him. By the end of the reading, only a quarter of the original audience remained. And although tradition usually dictated a round of drinks and discussion after a reading, the poet went home alone. All the books he had sold, but one, had been returned to the bookseller by the next morning.
The only thing that Scott got out of the evening (that is, aside from an article and time spent with his sister) was another encounter with Therese Ste-Marie. He spotted her as soon as they walked into the café—she was standing near the stage, her hand on the podium, talking to a couple of people seated in the front row. He started making his way toward her when he felt a tug on his sleeve. His sister had him in a powerful grip.
"Where do you think you're going?" she asked. "I wanted to introduce you to one of my musician friends."
"Later. There's someone I need to talk to."
He shrugged her off. The rest of the room seemed a wall of people. Scott slowly made his way past them until one of the men, a tall, muscular man in a derby, stuck out his arm. "Whoa there, buddy, where do you think you're going?"
"Why does anybody care where I'm going?" Scott said. "I need to talk to someone."
The man in the derby nodded in Therese's direction. "Her?"
"As a matter of fact, yes."
"Then get in line."
He jerked his thumb back at the wall of people Scott had just passed. Everybody? Yes, everybody. And now that those people knew that Scott was trying to cut, they all glared at him and jerked their thumbs toward the back of the line. It was a much larger group of people than Scott had expected. Any relationship came with its share of competition, but this was something else entirely, something that he did not know he wanted to deal with. But the wall of scowls and jerked thumbs planted some seed of antipathy in Scott, and he raised a hand. He gave them all the finger. Twice. Then he turned around to go to Therese. She looked up and saw him coming, and even as the hands started rushing toward Scott from behind, started to restrain him, and even as Therese excused herself from the conversation and began to approach him, Scott did not stop. She did, though, as soon as she reached him; the hands did not, they still restrained him, though they did stop the pummeling so as not to make a bad impression in front of Therese. Scott and Therese remained silent as they stared into each other's eyes.
"Fuck you," he said.
The hands clenched him tighter, and someone punched him in the small of the back. But the most surprising thing of all to Scott was that Therese was actually taken aback by something he had said. "What?" she said. "What did you just say?"
"Fuck you. That's all I wanted to say."
He shrugged off the hands just as he had shrugged off his sister, and he turned his back on Therese and pressed through the wall. Even though he had cussed out the object of their affection, he now presented no threat to their collective claim on Therese's attention, so they let him pass unmolested. And Therese simply stood there, watching him vanish into the body of the crowd. Scott felt better about that than he had felt about his pursuit, which he still didn't entirely understand. There was an undeniable something attractive about her, about unraveling the mystery around her—that nobody knew her name or anything else about her aside from a loose physical description had not made it easier to accept the enigma. He walked out a side door into the alley behind the café to catch a bit of fresh air and collect his journalistic thinking before the reading. He started composing an article in his head to conclude the weeks lost in pursuit of an unattainable Therese, stopping only when she appeared beside him in the alley. Their eyes met for a brief moment, and then he saw it all.
The inevitable presence at any artists' function, despite an apparent lack of any artistic pursuit on her part; the way she planted herself in your memory with insults and arguments, yet nobody remembered her name; the promiscuity, or rumors thereof; the throng of suitors; the contempt for everything living; the moments of vulnerability that seemed to convenient to be anything but planned—Scott managed to lock on to all his memories in his pursuit of her and lined them up.
"Estella," he said. "You're called Therese, but really you're Estella: the persona artist. You don't paint or write or sing or act—at least not in any traditional sense. You are your art, you and the people you draw into it."
"Maybe you aren't as much of a hack as I thought you were."
"Maybe you're not as worth pursuing as I thought you were."
"So that's how it works, huh? You don't start treating people like people until they can see through your persona? How's a person supposed to have a meaningful relationship with you?"
Therese smirked, and Scott got it. That was the point after all.
"I guess I have just one question left, then," he said. "Knowing I would be in a position to expose you, why did you decide to draw me in?"
"What fun is that? Once you see the act, you're part of it. It's the difference between watching a movie multiple times and going into it for the first time with a head full of spoilers. In both scenarios you know what's going to happen, but scenario A is more fun because you can look for things you didn't see before, and can watch other people's reactions. Scenario B doesn't give you that opportunity.
"In any case," she said, "I'll be seeing you around, just like always. Only now you're in the know, and that's half the fun."
She headed back inside and left Scott alone in the alley. He looked up at the strip of black sky above, a space of nothing, a black blank slate lacking any chalk, any stars, and any hopes or wishes you might be tempted to write upon it. The thrill of the pursuit had left him completely, and he had to admit to himself at last that his sister, despite her tendency to do nothing but sit in her apartment and smoke pot and listen to "Within You Without You" on repeat and stare at the ceiling all day long, had been right about him and Therese.
As he headed back inside to attend the reading, he was stopped by a young man who wore hemp pants and a stocking cap that barely contained his white-boy dreads. He leaned in too close when he spoke, and smelled strongly of cheap hash.
"Hey man, are you with that hot chick who just came in? Can you introduce me?"
Scott looked the kid—for he really was just a kid; nobody except a freshly-indoctrinated art school freshman would dress up like a stereotypical stoner, at least not unironically, and this kid clearly lacked the jade required—right in the eye, and he told him, "Her? I can't really introduce you properly, since I'm not sure what her name is; but I can tell you that she is an animal in bed."
"It's retro-chic," said the painter friend.
"Yes," this friend admitted. "I don't know her name. Although I do know that she's an animal in bed."
Scott didn't like it; it sounded like all the other punk music that had come out in the past 20 years. So he guessed he could fuck off.