Can You Make It Spin?
Demonstrators occupied the sidewalk outside of Sam Choy’s apartment building, many of them holding signs with direct slogans like: “Do Not Evict Our Elderly!” or “Stop Gentrification!” while others had catchier phrases like: “Sojourners, no! We won’t go!” or “Yellow ain’t wrong! It’s you who don’t belong!”
Sam often passed by the protestors on his way to and from work through the cold matinal air; it was early October, and although he’d been employed by the Maintenance Department at City University for over two decades, lately he’d feared for his job due to cutbacks and efficiency initiatives that had spurred relentless downsizing.
Also, as the sole Asian amongst the department’s ranks, he’d always felt like an anomaly or an interloper because the majority of the other maintenance staff were African American or Latino, Black and Brown dominating as if they owned every square foot of the university’s blue-collar turf. Sam had been persistent about acquiring more skills to justify being kept on; he’d learned like a perpetual apprentice how to weld, repair industrial plumbing, operate a lathe or drill press, and he’d become familiar with the best methods for bending and cutting sheet metal in case a panel that couldn’t be ordered had to be fabricated on site.
His supervisor, Dale O’Connor often repeated, “Sam, you’re like a jack of all trades, but a master of none,” which heightened Sam’s anxiousness about his possible firing. Each time, hearing such dismissive statements, Sam felt a dull pain spread across his intestines as if dread, like a recurring disease, had infected his entire body. The sad truth was that for two decades he’d never been promoted, always being passed over as others slowly ascended the managerial ladder. Had he done something wrong? Was there anything he could have done differently? His frustration over not having gotten ahead made him think of the proverb of the tortoise and the hare, only he was the tortoise without a finish line in sight.
One day that late fall, though, Sam’s cell phone rang, and he answered quickly, ascertaining that it was Dale O’Connor summoning him back to the physical plant office. Sam drove a utility cart there, and as Dale beckoned him in, Sam asked, “Dale, what do you need fixed today?”
Dale was a red-faced man with pitted skin who kept a flask of Jack Daniels locked in his top left desk drawer. He always smelled like Aqua Velva and was as broad chested as a Midwest wrestler. He wore long-sleeved white button down shirts that he kept open at the collar, often revealing thick gold chains around his neck that gleamed like harbingers of swarthy manliness. He was a white man, too, as if a department filled with minorities couldn’t be trusted being supervised by one of their own, and as if to further emphasize his position of authority he wore brown dress trousers instead of Dickies or Carhartts, none of this going unnoticed by Sam or the rest of the department.
This ghost, Sam often thought to himself, is not right.
“Hey, Choy. A call came in from the Art Department this morning,” Dale said, pronouncing art with a lofty mocking emphasis. “There’s a professor there.” Dale glanced down at a yellow notepad. “Her name is Eleanor Yoon, and she’s asked if anyone here can help with manufacturing a metal sculpture. She says it has strict specifications, but I told her I thought I might have just the right man for the job. Choy, I want that man to be you. But Choy, this woman has her nose up in the air, so what I’m really saying is that she could be a real problem. Not my problem, though, because I’m hoping you can work with her, and that she’ll be your problem. She says this sculpture is for an exhibit at the new art gallery that’s part of the Van Orden building. Since she’s one of these la dee da important types who could get me fired, I’m telling you to make sure she stays happy.” Dale wagged his head back and forth and then said, “This exhibit of hers will include a dedication by our university President, Dr. Thornton Hill. Choy, can you reassure me that there won’t be a problem? I’m too busy, and I might as well say now that I have only a few months left here. I’m going to retire.”
“I’ll handle it,” Sam said. He felt, however, a momentary sense of apprehension. Would Dale ever reward him? Or even consider recommending him as his replacement? Sam wanted the opportunity, regardless, to prove himself, to be able to continue showing how indispensable he was, so later that same day he made his way over to Eleanor Yoon’s office in Stiller Hall.
The building was a sleek steel and glass tower with suspended walkways, and contemporary artwork—abstract paintings, welded sculptures, and metal mobiles—occupied every ideal interior space. Walking through the lobby, Sam felt intrigued and challenged at a base level of inspiration; gazing upward, he sensed the freedom of creation and envied the artists for what he believed were their more vivid and imaginative lives.
When Sam knocked on Eleanor Yoon’s office door, her eyes raised slowly; he saw she was older, like he was, but more intense, her face a study of fierce concentration, her brow appearing taut with rigor. Beneath her thin eyebrows, her brown eyes appeared to be all-seeing, as if considering him with extra-sensory heightened powers. Her cheekbones were higher, distinct and angular, and despite her age—he thought she was, like him, in her late fifties—she wore red plastic glasses, the thin fashionable frames perched imperiously at the end of her nose. As she stood, she kept glancing down at a drawing on her desk, and Sam felt like he was in the presence of someone with chic style because she was dressed entirely in black; she wore black buttoned trousers and a black shirt with a collar with pointed ends, as well as a black blazer that exuded a sleek impression yet concealed the shape of her body. The plainness of his tan Carhartt trousers, gray work shirt, and brown-leather work boots made him feel self-conscious of the status difference between them; he grew very unsure, suddenly feeling as if he’d been transported to an inhospitable dimension from which there could be no return.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
Sam nearly stuttered but said, “I was asked to see you about a sculpture.”
Eleanor pursed her lips. Had she smiled, ridiculing him? Maybe so. “Oh, you’re the one from maintenance?” she remarked, seeming surprised by Sam’s presence.
“Yes. I came over as soon as I was free.”
Now as she stared even more intently at him, he wondered if it was because she was surprised by how he was Asian and spoke English without an accent. Then with an added reaction that he would always remember for its encouragement, a pleased look suddenly spread across her face. He couldn’t discern, however, if her reaction included any sense of physical attraction, or racial admiration, because of how she spoke with a slight accent, or was her expression because of some other sort of class or cultural recognition? This was all complicated by the fact that Sam was a widower; his wife, Iris, had passed away long ago from breast cancer. Still, he hadn’t ever allowed himself to consider being married again. No, as far as attraction went, he’d been living in a virtual state of suspended animation for nine years since Iris’s death. He hadn’t once let himself consider being married or even dating anyone else—as if that part of himself, as if any allegiance towards a woman, was forever reserved for his wife.
“Do you have drawings for the project, or any sort of design plans?” Sam asked, returning to the present task.
“Of course. But first, tell me how much you know about working with metal?”
“I’ve been working in construction since I was a teenager.”
Eleanor nodded. “Can you weld?”
“Arc, oxyacetylene, and spot.”
“Can you follow drawings?”
Yes.” Sam sighed and then, feeling impatient, rubbed the back of his neck.
“The university puts a lot of demands on me,” Eleanor said, as if to explain her rigorous behavior.
“I understand,” Sam said, trying to be kind, truly believing that he was capable of any type of metal work she requested. And now, for some reason—was it actually attraction on his part?—he wanted very much to help her.
“Where are you from?” Eleanor asked, her eyes discerning, as attentive as when he’d first entered her office.
Since the question had been spoken from one Asian to another, Sam didn’t feel offended; Eleanor wasn’t suggesting he was any less of an American than anyone else, or trying to tell him subconsciously that he didn’t belong in the country.
“My grandparents were from Canton Province,” he said. “They came over by boat in 1921.”
“That’s fascinating,” Eleanor said. Now he noticed, however, that her forehead wrinkled, as if she might be in a state of deeper judgment about his working-class standing and his family’s having been in the country for so long.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from Seoul,” she said. “My family flew here by jet.”
Of course, they did, Sam thought. And because hers and his were such contrasting opposite Asian immigrant and racial origin stories, he nodded as if to signal his capability of understanding her in global terms.
This seemed to put Eleanor at ease, because next she asked, “Do you think you can cast aluminum for a three-dimensional stand-alone sculpture?”
“Are there a lot of separate parts?”
“The most difficult aspect is that the sculpture has to be seamless.” Eleanor picked up a manila folder that was on her desk, opened it, and showed Sam a drawing of a globe covered with small triangular and quadratic protrusions that resembled sails. “The overall purpose is to reflect the times we live in, especially our technological age. Do you know how to polish aluminum?”
Sam had actually restored a Feathercraft boat once, so he replied with an enthusiastic, “Yes,” and added, “What exactly do the globe and the sails represent?”
“The planet, or our lives, hurtling through space, or whatever else you wish to see.”
Since the globe was mounted on a pole, Sam thought the sculpture was supposed to be stationary, but Eleanor explained, “This sculpture is supposed to turn, and the globe has to be eight feet in diameter. It needs to be precisely balanced so it will move if there’s a puff of wind or the slightest breath. What I also want to know is if you can make it spin?” She stared at Sam with a hardened cynical expression, as if she believed he didn’t possess the skills to manufacture such a unique piece of art.
Sam, however, didn’t like being underestimated. He thought, If Eleanor Yoon is so important, why can’t she figure out how to build the sculpture on her own? “It can be done,” he finally said, although the truth was that he wasn’t sure. But he didn’t want her lack of confidence in his abilities to be justified, and since she might have been basing her judgment on his working class status, he felt she was no better than all of the supervisors over the years who’d passed him over. He’d seen her type before, or so he thought. “When is the exhibition?” he asked.
“It’s in two and a half months.”
Sam frowned; she hadn’t left him much time, not for the magnitude of her request. Nonetheless he replied, “I’ll try.”
As Eleanor nodded in gratitude, Sam discerned a small measure of vulnerability shone in her eyes, as if she feared some threat or circumstance he couldn’t yet comprehend while he wondered if he would regret the commitment he’d made.
Sam completed more time-sensitive or necessary repairs for the university at-large each morning, then at lunchtime he sought out Eleanor. She usually sat at her desk and ate sandwiches wrapped in bright orange paper that were delivered from a local deli. He would report on his progress, and in the afternoons, back at the physical plant, focus on casting molds for aluminum out of steel. Three weeks passed until he succeeded in producing a viable mold and creating a globe he hoped Eleanor would approve of; the sphere was over eight feet in diameter, including the protrusions that were like small sails.
Sam soon delivered the globe from the physical plant’s metal shop to Dr. Yoon’s studio space in the art building. It was early in the afternoon, and he believed she would be pleased by the progress, but her mouth turned downward, and he immediately intuited that the globe’s size and weight troubled her.
Her eyes wary, Eleanor asked, “How will it rotate?”
“I’m going to manufacture a special base.”
“What will that look like? I need to see a drawing. I can’t move forward on faith or trust alone. We need to discuss this more.” Fear shone in her eyes as she stared at him, and then she insisted, “We need to discuss this more. Have you eaten yet today? You never bring any food with you when you stop by. We could go someplace.” Her face conveyed unbridled urgency, and to Sam’s astonishment she reached out and covered his right hand with hers as if to communicate some sort of intimacy. Then he felt a tremor in her hand, which signaled a distinct frailty or uncertainty, so he suddenly felt empathetic toward her in a way that felt forbidden, as if to know her more in any sense would be a betrayal to his departed wife.
Sam felt trapped, caught up unintentionally like a fish in a trawler net; he hadn’t anticipated that Eleanor would invite him to do anything outside the realm of work. He usually ate lunch alone, bringing sandwiches in Saran Wrap in a brown paper bag, always sitting at a weathered picnic table in the small bland concrete employee courtyard behind the physical plant. This while the other maintenance workers smoked and talked about football, basketball, baseball, or boxing matches. Now, in spite of his own reservations, and in spite of his loyalty to Iris, Sam replied, “Where are you thinking of going for lunch?”
“Can you take me to Chinatown? Do you know a place that has good dim sum?”
Sam felt surprised, thinking she seemed far too highbrow to set foot in his neighborhood or any other working-class ethnic enclave. Maybe she was more down to earth at heart than he realized, though, so he replied, “I live in Chinatown, so I know a few places.”
Eleanor nodded and smiled, obviously pleased that Sam was willing to suggest where to eat, but he couldn’t tell what her opinion was about his living in Chinatown, and during the next moment he realized that she hadn’t told him anything about where she resided.
That morning Sam had taken the subway to work, so Eleanor drove them to Chinatown in her black Lexus sedan, a luxurious vehicle that he immediately judged to be way above his pay grade. He directed her to the Emperor’s Palace, one of the popular but more authentic Cantonese places not far from his apartment building, but as they walked into the restaurant he felt conspicuous because Eleanor wore her usual black chic attire. A few of the waiters that he knew grinned, as if sensing his discomfort. “Can you order for me?” Eleanor asked.
Now Sam noticed that her eyes watched everything around her—the waiters and waitresses pushing carts, the customers chatting at their tables, or groups of diners being led into the dining room or leaving—as if she were trying to keep track of every single movement, as if her safety or her very life somehow depended upon this awareness. So he thought that she was, by far, beneath the surface bravado of her artist’s identity, most likely an extremely sensitive or somewhat frail person.
Sam asked the server for shu mai, ha kao, cha siu bow, chow fun, dan tat, and cha, hot tea. “I’ve been thinking about the specifications for your sculpture,” he said, concerned about whether Eleanor’s response would be too judgmental. Uncapping a blue Bic pen, he proceeded to draw a tapered pedestal base on a square white napkin. “We can conceal a ball-bearing ring in the base that won’t be visible. The globe can be supported by a thin pole that will be shaped on a lathe from the same grade of aluminum as the globe. I’ll polish it myself. Do you like the sound of that?”
“It’s exactly what I want,” Eleanor said, her voice brimming with enthusiasm, and for the first time he could remember, she appeared happy.
Thereafter, Sam spent several days in the machine shop, turning aluminum rods, struggling to achieve the right manufacturing process so that a rod would mate seamlessly with the pedestal, the goal being to meet specifications to a thousandth of an inch.
One morning, reeking of whiskey, Dale O’Connor loomed behind Sam in the shop, and remarked over his left shoulder, “The sculptor gave me a fine report about you yesterday. I’m glad that you can work well with a faculty member. Since you’ve always kept to yourself, it’s never been easy to make the call about whether you’d be a good team player or not. If you finish this job without any trouble, I might have to think about moving you up to be a supervisor.”
Sam was pleased by the possible consideration, but was distressed by how Dale had perceived him to be aloof. He also hoped that Dale wasn’t aware, on any level, about his long discontent over not having been promoted.
That following Saturday evening, Sam’s cell phone buzzed; the screen indicated that Eleanor was calling from her office on campus. When he answered she spoke hurriedly, barely pausing to breathe between sentences. “Sam, I’m still not sure about the installation. Forgive me, but you’ve probably guessed that I work all the time. I just realized that I might not have told you that I’m being evaluated this year for a promotion. So this upcoming exhibit means everything to me. The show’s only a month and a half away now. You can imagine, I have a lot of concerns. Can we meet for dinner?”
Sam was sitting in his apartment on the couch, watching a car restoration show on television since he’d always wanted to own a seventies muscle car like a Pontiac Firebird or GTO. He also liked the Dodge Charger, Plymouth Roadrunner, or an old Chevrolet C10 truck.
Since he stayed quiet for a moment, Eleanor said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve interrupted you. Were you doing something important?”
In only a few seconds, Sam considered how he’d probably watched several hundred episodes of different car repair and auction shows, but a woman hadn’t ever called him during the weekend. Not since he’d become a widower, and not for dinner; he was usually alone. He and Iris hadn’t had any children—they’d met in their thirties, and by then had already decided she didn’t want to be a mother—because being a good wife, she’d told Sam, was more than enough to worry about.
Eleanor surprised him again now, by saying, “I picked up fresh fish at the market this morning. It’s in the refrigerator. Do you like steamed sea bass? I’ll cook for you.”
“That’s a really nice offer,” Sam said. But the implication of her preparing a meal for him where she lived—the idea of being alone and not in public with her—threatened his allegiance to Iris on an entirely different level. Still, politeness and loneliness affected him; he was all too human and vulnerable himself.
“I’ll cook some vegetables, and I’ll make hot tea,” Eleanor added, whereby Sam gave in and told her his address, and within an hour she picked him up and brought him to her apartment.
Eleanor lived, he discovered, in an upscale condo in the borough’s commercial district. Her building had a doorman who gave Sam a questionable stare as he entered, while Sam observed how chandeliers lit the lobby, side tables with granite surfaces lined the walls, and a pair of old English wooden chairs with velvet cushions occupied the elevator foyer. The doorman continued to preside with an objectionable air, judging Sam with an expression of superiority—Sam considered rebuking him by demanding to know the reason for his attitude, but remained quiet for Eleanor’s sake. Why provoke an altercation?
Sam’s decision felt justified as the elevator whisked them smoothly up to the twentieth floor. As Eleanor showed him in, he saw that her condominium had pine floors with wide boards, white walls covered with art, high ceilings with exposed ductwork—her place had been designed with what had to be a very costly industrial minimalist style in mind, the living room, kitchen, and dining area all one vast space. From there, on high, Sam took in Eleanor’s view of the city: the white lights of buildings and bridges and streetlamps gleamed; red taillights of cars moved ceaselessly; and people bustled along on the sidewalks. It was a nocturnal beauty he hadn’t seen before, a perspective seeming far beyond him.
“What a great view,” Sam said, remaining polite to fit in, as much as he felt like some sort of imposter. Eleanor motioned for him to sit at a dining table and asked if he wanted beer or wine. He asked for a beer, and after bringing him a bottle of Corona Light from the refrigerator, Eleanor proceeded to cook.
She used a wok over a fancy gas range, frying sea bass fillets with ginger, simultaneously preparing guy lan, a leafy green vegetable. When she served Sam, he appreciated being waited upon; with a twinge of guilt, he recalled Iris doing the same thing long ago.
As they ate, Sam fought to stay in the present and said to Eleanor, “This is a fine meal. The fish is delicious.”
She thanked him and asked, “Do you know where the Van Orden building is on campus?”
“Yes,” Sam replied, pondering how overly concerned she must have been to be asking him about the locale. “I’ve driven past it along the river,” he added to further reassure her.
“Have you ever installed artwork in a gallery?”
Sam thought she was certainly all business, and replied, although he hadn’t ever worked on an art installation before, “Don’t worry. I’ll help you.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to trouble you so much,” Eleanor said. “It’s just that I don’t ever like to show a single sign of weakness in front of my colleagues. Being an artist is very competitive. Some would say it’s cutthroat, even for a showing at a university.”
“It’s no trouble,” Sam replied, thinking that he understood her. Yes, his co-workers at the maintenance department wouldn’t have hesitated to step over him for the sake of their own paychecks. Several already had. So he sympathized with Eleanor about her fears; she and he weren’t, in some ways, he would have liked to believe—despite their different Asian races, despite where they lived, and despite their different job titles and working class and white collar salary levels—that far apart.
“Sam, can I ask how old are you?” Eleanor said.
“I’m fifty-seven,” she revealed. “You told me your parents came from China. But were you born here?”
“Yes, in New York City.”
“My parents were born in Seoul. Our family has many doctors and lawyers, but I’m the only artist. I don’t ever wear traditional Korean garments, and I don’t even own a hanbok,” she said.
“I wear jeans and flannel shirts a lot,” Sam replied.
They smiled at their mutual Americanization. As they continued eating and talking, they discovered that they each liked classic movies, rock and roll, and coffee shops. Sam wondered if they had more in common, and if they had enough in common.
After dinner, Eleanor made coffee and served some pastries from a white cardboard bakery box. Out of the blue she said, “You don’t seem like you’ve always been a bachelor. Have you ever been married?”
Sam told her about Iris.
“I’m sorry you lost her,” Eleanor said.
“What about you? Have you ever been married?”
“No. I was engaged once,” Eleanor said, “but it didn’t work out. Since then, I haven’t trusted anyone. I wish my life were easier. I’ve always been able to count on my art, though. It’s been my one true constant.”
Sam thought she led a stressful and lonely life but admired her for her determination. They were alike in that regard, as well. As they finished dessert, Eleanor told him she’d take him back to his apartment. He rose from his chair, and before they reached the door he thanked her for the dinner. He faced her, they drew closer, and in the next instant Sam felt like he was living someone else’s life—he smelled her perfume; desire flooded his veins—and she leaned forward and kissed him.
“I can tell that you’re very kind,” Eleanor said. She kissed him again, and as he kissed her back, he let go a little more. Then to his astonishment, with an impulsiveness that he later attributed to her being an artist, she firmly took his hand and led him back to her bedroom.
As Eleanor removed her clothes, Sam watched and then stood at the end of her bed and unbuttoned his flannel shirt and jeans. Her willingness as she continued by taking off her undergarments moved him to pull off his own undershirt and boxer shorts. Now they were two older but naked people facing each other; he saw the curves of her breasts and the slight indentation of her waistline—she was fit but not slender, and neither was he—and he saw the fullness of her hips had also always been obscured by the black attire she wore. All told, at each moment, he felt very attracted to her.
“I have to confess. I was hoping something like this might happen,” Eleanor said. “I’ve appreciated how nice you are since you started helping me.”
“I’ve tried,” Sam said, and he felt astonished. He moved forward, they kissed again, and he followed her onto the bed, feeling like part of him that was lost and relegated was being restored. He put Iris out of his mind, focusing on Eleanor. Her mouth was soft but firm. She didn’t resist as he reached down and touched her. In time, she clung to him, encouraging him by grasping his lower back, and as awkward as he felt, he hadn’t—he realized later on—had sex with a woman, with anyone other than Iris, for eleven years, which was when Iris had first become stricken with cancer. At that time, he’d been forty-eight years old.
Eleanor would later confide that she also hadn’t slept with anyone for several years. “I guess it was meant to be,” she said with a smile, revealing this while cooking dinner for him again at her condominium, which quickly became another part of his weekly routine.
Yes, Sam had certainly never anticipated having a relationship with another woman, but now he was; in the mornings that November he continued working at different sites across the university—fixing a filtration system for a men’s room sink at the library where the water smelled like sulfur; replacing the motor for an overhead exhaust unit at the Chemistry laboratory in Golden Hall; putting down a resilient brand of sod with grass that grew well in shade behind the theatre complex—he remained the jack of all trades, master of none. At lunchtime each day, he found his way to Stiller Hall; he brought bagged lunches at first, until Eleanor ordered sandwiches for him, too, from the deli.
In the afternoons at the physical plant shop, after many involved trials, Sam matched the base to the globe seamlessly to Eleanor’s aluminum sculpture. Early on he’d struggled with how to make the ball bearing mechanism smooth enough; sometimes the ring containing the bearings had emitted a small scraping noise, but eventually, he’d arrived at a ring design that efficiently contained enough grease and oil.
At Eleanor’s condo in the evenings, aside from her cooking for him, between watching movies together, she told him about her faculty colleagues’ harsh evaluations of her teaching and art; he shared his frustrations about being the sole un-promoted older maintenance worker. Sam stayed over more, they had sex frequently, and one December afternoon at her art studio in Stiller Hall, when the globe spun silently, requiring only the gentlest nudge of her hand, Eleanor beamed with gratitude and then told Sam they should celebrate in her office. She locked the door, her hands reached out to him, and when they kissed he felt a wave of ardor crescendo within him. Then with one hand Eleanor swept some art catalogues and a small stack of papers from her desk. Next she unbuttoned her blazer, then her dark silk blouse, and lay down on the desk and encouraged him with the most seductive look he’d ever seen. “Don’t hold back,” she said.
At that moment she was the only one Sam was thinking of, there was no one else, and afterwards, contemplating their shared willingness, he felt surprised by what they’d become to each other. He thought that they were more serious than he once could have ever imagined him being with anyone, so the notion occurred to him that their meeting had been because of random events, but now, he wanted to be able to say they were lovers. What also struck him was how much more adventurous and expressive she was than him; he thought for the first time that part of him had also been broken or locked away long ago, as proud as he’d been about his loyalty to Iris.
The December dedication of the new Henry Gallery space at the Van Orden building seemed as monumental to Sam as passing through Ellis Island; Eleanor requested his help with transporting and installing the aluminum globe six days in advance, well ahead of the opening. “Can you be there early in the morning?” she asked. “The correct placement is going to take a long time.”
Sam wasn’t sure how Martin O’Connor would react about his asking to be gone during morning hours, and sure enough, Martin replied with annoyance, “Good grief. How long do you need? I told you to make sure she wasn’t my problem, but you’ve taken forever. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess you were having it with her on the side, but there’s no way she’d be slumming with you.”
“You’re right about that,” Sam replied, but then Martin stared at him like a seasoned investigator.
“You aren’t in a relationship with her, are you?”
“No,” Sam said. “How could I be?”
“I’m just making sure. Now just finish the job,” Martin said, his voice rife with impatience, “and get your ass back over here. I need you to fix a broken light fixture at the Honors College.”
On the appointed early December morning, Sam oversaw the packing and crating of the eight-foot globe and its pedestal base, the move requiring disassembly and reassembly. This was his first time seeing the interior of the Henry Gallery; he estimated the ceiling to be twenty-feet high, the loftiness causing his eyes to focus on the vast main walls. The gallery boasted three wings, with additional free-standing walls that provided more surface space for paintings, photographs, collages, or cabinets, and by an expansive single pane window, the primary installation space had been designated for Eleanor’s aluminum casting.
Sam stated that he, and no one else, should drive and operate the forklift. Once the crate containing Eleanor’s globe was delivered, using a standard electric screwdriver, he opened the crate. The piece had survived the ride over without a scratch, no smudges marred the polished aluminum, and after setting the pedestal base down, he utilized the forklift and a sling, attaching the globe to it. The light refracting through the window struck the sculpture and created a shimmering effect, the intensity causing Sam to gasp. “The quality of this light reminds me of an installation of metal boxes by Donald Judd in Marfa, TX,” Eleanor said. “The space here is ideal, but I have to return tomorrow to see how the light shifts at specific times during the day.”
Sam nodded. Most of all, relief coursed through his veins since her piece had reached the gallery; it was as if they were both achieving a difficult shared goal, like summiting a remote mountain peak.
On the day of the opening, Dale O’Connor showed up a few minutes before the noon unveiling and told Sam, “I’m here to check up on you. Your work better be first-class.”
“You won’t be disappointed,” Sam said, then escorted Dale back to the aluminum globe, well ahead of any other early arrivals. The university President, Dr. Thorton Hill, hadn’t parked in the reserved space out front yet, and as Sam and Dale entered Eleanor’s gallery space, Dale exclaimed, “Choy, I’m impressed! That’s one serious hunk of metal. You might deserve a promotion, after all.”
Sam wanted to explain more about how involved and difficult manufacturing the sculpture had been. “It even rotates,” he said, glad to be able to reveal the hidden facet that Dale couldn’t ascertain at a first glance.
“It does,” Sam said. eeling proud, he stepped forward and extended his right arm past a thin segment of braided rope that had been set up on poles around the globe. “There are ball bearings within the column,” he said. His right hand found one of the quadratic protrusions and, reaching out with the tip of his index finger, like a rock climber finding purchase in a crevice, he gained a small amount of traction and spun the globe.
The midday December sunlight bounced off the rotating aluminum, casting beams off the walls and ceilings. “Ha, it’s like a fancy disco ball!” Dale exclaimed.
Sam laughed with him, agreeing with the vintage seventies comparison. At that very moment, Eleanor arrived, followed by her colleagues from the Art Department, along with her Department Chair, Dean, the Provost, and President Hill. The sculpture was no longer rotating, but Eleanor didn’t acknowledge Sam or say a word to him.
The Art Department Chair, Dr. Claire Cebu, an older Filipino woman known for her bold murals painted on outdoor walls, remarked, “Eleanor, you’ve recreated the contemporary industrial global world. It’s astounding.”
“This is an impressive piece,” the college Dean, Dr. Jerry Bauer, a meek man dressed in a brown tweed suit and red bowtie, remarked. “Well done.”
But one of Eleanor’s fellow faculty members, Dr. Gerald Keating, an older painter, who wore khakis and a blue blazer, and who spoke with a British accent, commented with a snide tone, “The globe is quite an achievement, but the light isn’t being refracted as artfully as it could be. I’m seeing too many shadows.”
“I don’t think so,” Dr. Cebu asserted.
“I know I’m right,” Keating insisted.
“Gerald, this is not the proper time,” the Chair stated.
Silence hung in the air like a contagion.
Eleanor restored the necessary air of collegiality, thanking the Chair, Dean and Provost for their presence. President Hill had remained quiet throughout, though, as if he shared no interest in art whatsoever, and as if Eleanor’s sculpture had done nothing to alter that opinion. The visitors began to move on like an entourage, to tour the rest of the new gallery and view the other exhibits, but Sam wondered if Eleanor was all right. Before she walked away, her eyes locked onto his, glaring, stricken, as if he’d committed some heinous act tantamount to infidelity or murder.
Sam was smart enough to know that he shouldn’t have spun the globe; he realized now that Eleanor had probably arranged it so that it caught the light in the best possible way, and so, her British colleague’s comment had probably struck her like a hammer blow. Of course the comment was one she should have never had to endure, so Sam wanted to apologize. He tried to talk with her at the reception where caterers had set up tables with dainty cucumber sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and other small plate appetizers, as well as glasses of cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, but when he sidled over to her, she leaned over and hissed in his ear, “Not now. I’ll talk with you later.”
Once the crowd had finally thinned, and after everyone made their way outside, Sam anticipated that Eleanor would at least drive him back to her place or drop him off at his apartment. Without waiting or even looking back at him, though, she strode out to her Lexus, slammed the door, and sped off. He felt cut off, as if they suddenly no longer shared any kind of connection, as if any commonality between them, Asia, immigrant, or emotional, had never existed.
Sam rode the subway out to Eleanor’s upscale neighborhood. The doorman didn’t greet him, but let him pass by with the standard look of disapproval. The elevator ascent felt like eons were required to reach the twentieth floor, and then Sam knocked lightly on Eleanor’s door. She opened it but didn’t let him inside, blocking the way forward with her hunched body. Her face was red as if she’d been crying.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said.
When Eleanor spoke, her voice sounded stern, ominous, as if she were speaking down to a perpetually absent student. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done? You ruined my installation! I sat for the entire morning and afternoon in the gallery, tracking how the light shifted, making sure the globe was in the most ideal position. I spent eight hours there, and when it was done, the globe was ideally aligned so that the light enhanced its shape and protrusions. Any refracted light wouldn’t reach anyone’s eyes. And what happened? When I was finally able to reveal the globe, after all these months, I find you there, spinning it like a toy.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam repeated. “I didn’t know how much it would matter.”
“I trusted you,” Eleanor said, her voice filled with regret and what sounded like self-blame. “You knew my art is what I can count on, that it’s how I make my living. But you didn’t care, and I just can’t have that. I won’t let you do it again, either. You just can’t.”
Sam didn’t try to talk past how hurt or angry she was, or attempt to argue in any way. He wondered if they could talk quietly about his mistake, if he could try to explain himself, so he asked quietly, “Can I at least come in?”
Eleanor’s eyes were wet, and she shook her head adamantly, as if this were one of many injuries she’d suffered. “Sam, I have to be with someone I can depend upon. It might not make sense to you, but our relationship ends now. My art is who I am. It’s what I trust. I’m not the type to ever leave anything to chance with it. You might not have meant to do what you did, but I can’t be hurt like this again.”
Sam knew she meant every word she said. Her determination deeply saddened him, though, and now he felt completely alone—it was merciless, like the world had been shrouded in ice—and so he asked, “Are you really saying we’re over? After two and a half good months? After we’ve been as close as we have? Just like that, we’re over?”
“Yes, Sam,” she said, her tone conveying annoyance, and then he thought he perceived a flicker of regret in Eleanor’s eyes for a moment, but then her face appeared as impenetrable as metal, as cold and polished as the globe he’d cast for her, so he sensed that her judgment couldn’t be changed, as if she were fiercely independent in a way he’d never be. He didn’t fault her for any reason—he knew he was the one who’d made the worst possible mistake, so at that very moment he became adrift, untethered, as alone as a boy left abandoned on an orphanage stoop.
“I’m glad for the time we had. You’re very kind,” Eleanor said. “But I have to be on my own now.”
“Should I ever stop by? Can I even say hello to you again?”
“No, Sam,” Eleanor said, as if she understood herself more deeply than he would ever be capable of, as if his suggestion frightened her somewhat, and with those last two words, she grasped the edge of the door and began to close it, receding from view.
As Sam heard the lock click shut, he sighed. He thought their breaking apart was unfair—yes, that was the word for it—and it was unfair that she couldn’t trust him or forgive him, and that night back at his own apartment, he drank half a six-pack of Miller Lite. As he watched the first of several auto restoration shows, a small part of him felt glad to be alone in his own home, but as secure and comfortable as he was, at one point he asked himself, Do I really belong here like this?
Dale O’Connor summoned him with a text the following morning. As Sam stood before him in the office, Dale stated, “I don’t know what happened between you and the art professor, but I’ve received word from Human Resources that you’re to stay away from Stiller Hall.”
“Was there a complaint?” Sam asked in disbelief.
“No. I was told to tell you it’s just a verbal recommendation,” Dale replied. “But Jesus Christ, Choy! I know that woman has her nose up in the air, but you were supposed to keep her happy. You were supposed to make sure none of this became my problem. How am I supposed to promote you now?”
Sam exhaled a long tired breath and shook his head.
“Oh, hell,” Dale said. “I get it. You probably tried to have some kind of relationship with her, didn’t you? What did you do? Ask her on a date after the gallery opening, thinking you had some kind of chance? Just because you helped her with that globe?” Dale leaned over, his gold chains gleaming as he opened his desk drawer. He brought out the bottle of Jack Daniels, put up two shot glasses, and said, “I know it’s early, but all of this makes me want to have a drink. Do you want one?”
“Not today,” Sam said. “Someone will probably claim they smelled alcohol on my breath. It’ll probably get me fired, so I should just get back to work.”
Dale scoffed but then nodded and said, “You’re probably right. But just know, you can always have a drink here. It’s the best private bar on campus.”
Sam felt obligated to smile and then moved on. All day, between epoxying PVC pipes, and painting trim edges for a suite of new rooms at the Athletics Department offices, he pondered whether he should have done anything differently. He considered trying to call Eleanor at least once, to plead his case, to express again how genuinely sorry he was, and to tell her how much he missed her company. Maybe she missed him, too? But each time he weighed initiating a conversation with her, his sense of how badly he knew he’d erred told him not to risk rejection again, and he thought that if she changed her mind, as independent as she was, she’d reach out to him.
That evening, Sam took the subway home to Chinatown, and when he went out to eat, the demonstrators were standing by the front of Emperor’s Palace. They were carrying some of the same signs: “Build your own Chinatown!” “Yellow Ain’t Wrong! You Don’t Belong!” There were also new signs: “Yellowtopia Forever!” “Build Your Prisons Elsewhere!” Sam had never stopped and spent a significant amount of time with them before, but now he lingered, and watching the protestors, thought of joining them. He wound up standing with them for almost an hour in the December cold and darkness and then promised himself that he’d return. After heading inside and finding a table, he warmed himself up with some black pekoe tea, ate alone, and believed that this was how his personal life had to be—for a long while, maybe forever—as much as he didn’t want to be by himself.