The Pinedo family cordially invites you
to a private party to celebrate the opening of
the Nestor Pinedo Retrospective.
Friday, January 20. Nine o’clock.
North Capitol Street, Washington, DC.
I do hope you will join our little gathering. Father is finally starting to feel his age and hopes very much to see you again. There are so few friends left from the old days. Time comes for us all, no?
Fuck their party. Fuck this expensive invitation which some unpaid intern probably agonized over for weeks. Fuck Nestor Pinedo and his retrospective. Fuck Pilar Pinedo and her little personal note in her elegant handwriting. Fuck their amazing champagne and their interesting friends and all of Nestor’s glorious paintings.
Fuck all of it. I am not going.
There’s half a bottle of the good whiskey left in the cabinet above the fridge. I climb up there for it, then pour a glass, neat. Here’s to telling Pilar and her heartless troll of a father to piss off. I slap the invitation down on the counter, which is none too clean, cross my arms and stare at it, as if it’s not quite safe to turn my back.
Dear Pinedos, Johanna Porter warmly requests your presence at leave-me-the-fuck-alone.
Dear Pilar, For the sake of the young women in attendance, please ensure that Nestor keeps his withered old dick in his pants. My regrets.
Dear Nestor, My body will already be present on your canvases. The presence of my Self was never particularly important.
She doth protest too much—I know that’s what you’re thinking. And yes, I doth. (Have you ever tried this whiskey, Templeton? It’s delicious.)
A preopening party? Friends from the old days? Since when was I a “friend”? Not since twenty years ago, and even then—not exactly how I would characterize myself and Nestor. And Pilar hates my guts. Yet I still can’t throw this invitation in the trash where it belongs.
Johanna Porter disrespectfully declines.
There will be no paintings by me at that show, but there will be paintings of me. I refill my glass. As much as I detest Nestor and Pilar, they form a direct line to the years when I was on fire. When I felt my own greatness. When I very nearly made it real.
But I failed. The fire is dead. I’m nobody. They are inviting me back inside—god knows why—but all that’s in it for me now is great champagne and beautiful people and big, clean galleries full of someone else’s art.
I hate galleries. They make me want to cry.
It’s not that I didn’t like to sell. I was good back then. I held a six-figure check with my name on it once. But now no one knows me. Not even me. I snatch that sophisticated square of cardstock from the counter, sloshing liquor on my wrist in the process.
Boo-hoo. Pity the unfulfilled housewife. That’s what you’re thinking now, right? I am not a housewife. I’m a single mother with a job. But fine, I am unfulfilled. The very people inviting me to this party strangled my career—my calling—in its cradle. It’s been twenty years of exile and decline ever since. (Okay, I am getting drunk and dramatic. So be it.)
Actually, let’s call it nineteen years of exile and decline, overlaid with seventeen years of my baby girl, Mel. That’s her, clomping down the hall to our apartment, still wearing her cleats from practice. I set my drink and the invitation on the counter and try to clear up the frown lines I can feel on my face.
She drops her duffel bag by the door and comes to the kitchen. Seventeen years old, nine feet tall, and built like the goddess of the hunt with a face to match. Not exactly, but that’s how she reads to a room. More like five nine, all long, lean muscle, and glorious hair. She towers over me as I hug her firm, sapling waist.
“Any plans tonight?”
At least half the time Mel comes over for her weekends, she takes a shower, transforms herself from warrior-athlete to sweet-smelling ingenue with a few swipes of powder and a hair tie, and is back out the door before I can even get a good look at her.
“Nothing tonight.” She heads for the refrigerator. “You coming on Sunday?”
Home game at ten. “Yep. I’ll be there.”
She drinks some milk straight from the carton and forages a cheese stick from the dairy drawer.
“What’s the matter?” she says, not even looking at me.
“What do you mean?”
“Mom.” She turns and raises an eyebrow. I have never been able to do that.
They say predators can smell fear. Mel Porter can smell existential distress. If I’m just pissy about the dishwasher being broken, she barely notices. But if something is grating at my soul, she’s all over it.
I pick up the invitation. Holding it up by a corner, I let her read it.
Her brow crinkles. “I thought he was dead.”
“Not dead. Just old.”
“His daughter. And publicist. She hates my guts.”
“So why the note?”
“My question exactly.”
She takes the invitation and turns it over. Looks at the matte detail from an early Pinedo on the back. Chews her cheese stick in contemplation. “Are you going?”
“I don’t know.” I may be expert at lying to myself, but I’ve never been any good at it with Mel.
She looks at me with those teddy-bear brown eyes. I wish I’d had half her emotional intelligence when I was her age. Or now, for that matter.
“What if you looked really smoking hot?”
I can’t help a good laugh at that. “Mel, this body does not do smoking hot.”
“It could. I mean for your age, with the right dress and some badass boots?”
I am writing mental Fuck you notes. Mel is already going shopping.
Mel goes to bed early, giving me some alone time as I get ready for bed myself.
If it were just an invitation to see Nestor—a dinner or a cocktail party or something—I wouldn’t still be thinking about it. But it’s a gallery. And not just any gallery. Shimon-West is the elite gallery in the city. A shrine where Art and Money go to get married. No matter the passage of time, I am not over the lure of a place like that.
My invitation does not include a plus-one. I would gate-crash a date, but honestly it would all be too much to explain, even to Mel. If I go, it’s just easier to go alone, even if I have to manufacture a smile and carry the weight of heartbreak in my chest the whole night.
Hanging on the wall in my room is a painting I did a year and a half after Nestor. As I’ve done many times before, I take it down and hold it in my lap. It’s only twenty by thirty and unframed. A self-portrait, mother and child, me and my Amelia. My baby Mel.
No, she’s not Nestor’s baby. She’s Ben’s baby. As much as a girl can be like her father Mel is, down to the big dreamy eyes and the shimmer of anxious energy.
I painted this one looking in a mirror with Mel at my breast. A local collector offered me decent money for it at the time, but there was no way I’d part with it, then or now. It’s part of my soul. We have a weightless quality in this painting, almost hovering, but with the gravity of Mel’s body on mine. Highly saturated shades of blue and purple predominate. In the near background, a vase of red flowers bursts through the midnight tones. The brushstrokes are subtle and confident. The arrangement of our bodies has both languor and energy, and the way my head is tilted says everything about how wholly I loved Mel, but also how I was burdened.
I shouldn’t, but I run my thumb over my signature—in that corner, the paint is wearing thin—then hang it back above my bed. My own mother died when I was seventeen. On my bureau I keep a picture of her in a glass frame. She is wearing ice skates and standing by the entrance to the rink, her cheeks pink with cold, and her smile winter-bright. I never got a chance to paint her portrait from life.
In the morning, I startle awake to the sound of Mel making a smoothie in the kitchen. Staring hard at the ceiling, I contend with the truth.
Right in the center of who I am, a fire once burned bright. It has been dormant a long time. Most of Mel’s life. She brought me a long way from the broken young woman I was, accidentally pregnant at twenty-six, but she is almost a woman herself now, and when I held that goddamn invitation to Shimon-West in my hand, an ember sparked and glowed to life. I tried to drown it with whiskey, but it’s tenacious. And it’s hungry for a source of fuel. Who am I kidding with my snark and resistance?
I find Mel at the breakfast table, feet up, looking at her phone.
“I’m going to that party.”
She puts down her phone and claps her hands. “Yes. I knew it.”
At a gallery party you either need to look like you make art or like you make money. Thus, smoking-hot women who used to be artists (“Still are, Mom”) do not go to private Pinedo parties in Gap dresses. Not even Anthro dresses. No. While working artists can and do wear practically whatever they want, smoking-hot women go to Pinedo parties in Rodarte dresses, Miyake suits, and handmade shoes.
Mel understands this. She also understands that smoking-hot former artists who teach art at her high school do not shop anywhere within a mile of Rodarte, so she has located a consignment store downtown. I may still spend half my paycheck on a garment, but according to Mel we will achieve a high-class-kiss-my-ass look that will make me feel like I’m doing them a favor showing up at their fucking party.
If only a dress could do that. But I do know that a dress can buy a person that crucial hour of self-confidence that will get her through the door. And once I’m in, I’ll sip some champagne, flirt with rich men, and let the Pinedos see I’m fine, thank you very much.
It’s gray out but mild for January, and Mel and I take a comfortable walk with coffee in hand down the block from the subway. She finds the building and the narrow door, and she leads us up a flight of stairs to the boutique. The proprietress, sixtyish and slender with a gray updo and amazing eyeliner, nods at us as we enter.
I’ve been in a lot of used clothing stores, and I have no idea how this one got rid of that smell that all the other ones have. Instead of dust and stagnation with an undertone of feet, this place smells like a boudoir. And it’s not jammed with clothes the way they always are. We move easily between racks of slacks, blouses, cocktail dresses, gowns, coats. The side wall is tastefully arranged with shoes and accessories, and windows in front let in a gentle light. Behind the antique desk that serves as a counter, a large reproduction of Beardsley’s strange art nouveau drawing John and Salome gives the whole place an air of sex and conflict. I love it here.
Mel holds up a velvet minidress. I shake my head. I’m too old for mini. I examine the garments, feeling like I should have washed my hands. Gucci, Chanel, Ford, Herrera. I lift a long-sleeved black gown off the rack.
Mel frowns. “You’re not going to a funeral.”
“Can I help you find something?” the lady with the eyeliner says from her desk.
Mel waves her over. The woman is about my height and less intimidating than I first thought.
“She’s going to a private party at a fancy art gallery,” Mel says. “Like really upscale. And she hates everyone who’s going to be there, so she needs to look smoking hot. But not like she’s trying. Like she just is.”
Lady Eyeliner laughs. Where Mel learned to talk to salespeople I have no idea. It has to be genetic, and not from my side. Mel is wearing slides, baggy sweats, and her father’s fleece pullover, and her bun is coming loose, but this sophisticated woman takes to her immediately.
They stand me in front of a full-length mirror, and together they size me up, clearly confident that they can pull this off. I wish I felt it myself. All I see are dark circles under tired eyes. Narrow shoulders and a smallness in my posture. A woman who does not command space. Mel brings over a dress that looks like a full-length slip in blood red. I shrink some more.
Lady E understands me better. First a black strapless. She shakes her head before I have a chance to. Too plain. She comes back with a military-style shirt dress. Mel grimaces.
Finally I retreat to the fitting room and try on a minimalist gray knit. Too big. Then a color-block shift. Not bad, but Lady E says, “Cliché.” I unzip myself from it and sit on an upholstered stool in my underwear. This is supposed to be fun, and I suppose it is. Fancy shopping with my daughter is always fun. But this time the fun competes with the voice inside that says Fraud. Poser. I could find the perfect dress, but all it will take is someone asking me that most miserable of cocktail-party questions, What do you do? for it to all fall apart.
“Can you do one-shoulder?” Lady E calls from across the store.
“I guess so.”
In a moment she slips a black velvet dress through the door. The zipper is stiff and sticks in a couple of places as I get it open. Then I step in and shimmy the dress up over my hips.
“Do you need help?” Lady E says. I crack the door, and she steps in.
As she works the zipper closed, the dress embraces my body like it’s known me carnally. Fitted around the ribs and waist, it angles from the shoulder sharply across the bust, showing one collarbone. The skirt is gathered at a seam below the waist where the velvet falls in sculptural folds.
“What do you think?” Lady E smiles at my reflection. She turns me so I can see the back.
“I think I like it.”
“Oscar de la Renta.” Her voice is gentle, and I wish she were my friend. She smooths the skirt. “This wrap here is such a nice detail. Like an upside-down tulip.”
I smile back at her. It’s the strangest thing, a dress like this. It makes me feel like it could be possible. It could even be fun.
Excerpted from Johanna Porter is Not Sorry by Sara Read, Copyright © 2023 by Sara Read. Published by Graydon House Books.