Lit Thursday: Chelsea Martin's "Caca Dolce"

In her essay, "Ceramic Busts," Chelsea Martin writes about the fleeting teenage crush that was her art school muse.

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"Hey," I said. He didn't hear me.

I was shy enough to have waited until the fourth day of driving school to say something to him, but not so shy that I wouldn't insert myself into company that didn't explicitly want me. I was selectively shy. Or I wasn't shy at all, but awkward and antisocial. Anyway, in this case, I had nothing to lose. This driver's ed course was only two weeks long, and I was only in Los Angeles visiting my dad for three weeks. He looked like the star of a movie about cool teenagers. His scarf and denim jacket were extremely impractical for the Los Angeles summer. His long mousy hair covered most of his face, so mostly what I was attracted to, I guess, was the exposed tip of his nose and his mouth and chin.

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The class was mostly made up of adults who had been court-mandated to complete a driver's training course after what I presumed was negligent driving. There was one other nerdy teenage girl who was trying to get her learner's permit, like me and this boy.

"Hey," I said again, sitting down next to him on a bench during a class break. "I'm Chelsea."

"Sandy," he said.

I said nothing else, confident about where the conversation had gone.

It was as if my whole life to this point had just been practice, and this was the real thing. The perfect boy. The limited time frame. The rigid, semi-educational setting.

Sandy stood up and took a call on his cell phone. He walked to the street and kicked the fence halfheartedly with his white Converse. I watched him unapologetically, knowing immediately that I was in love.

I was really good at and experienced with being in love. I can't remember a time in my teenage or even childhood years when I wasn't hopelessly and obsessively in love with someone. It was just how I operated. The moment before I met Sandy, I was in love with Zach the angry raver, and before him a guy named Sage who I had briefly met and never really talked to, and before him Jake, who was technically my boyfriend but who I also never talked to, and before him a more positive raver whose screen name was CapricornBoi78 and who was three years older than I was and also gay, and before him a boy in my ceramics class who I made no effort to get to know and who I called Purple Shirt Boy, and that was just in the previous eighteen months.

"Cool scarf," I said the next day during our lunch break. "Kinda warm, though."

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"I like the way winter clothes look. I wish it were winter all year long."

"Yeah, it looks cool," I said.

Sandy stood up and walked over to the bathroom. I waited on the bench. A few minutes later he exited the bathrooms and walked away from the driving school, onto the sidewalk, and out of sight.

The next day I wore my Beck T-shirt and red polyester plaid bell-bottoms and square-toed green plaid low-tops. This was my best outfit.

"Do you like Beck?" I said during our class break, the only ten minutes I would have with him all day.

"Beck's cool," Sandy said.

"I'm going to see his concert this weekend."

"Cool."

"Beck is my favorite musician."

"That's cool."

"Who do you like?"

"I don't know. I've been listening to Rooney lately. They're my friends, though, so it kinda doesn't count."

"Oh, I haven't heard of them. I'll check it out."

"Yeah, their singer is the brother of the drummer from Phantom Planet."

"Oh, I love Phantom Planet," I said.

"Yeah."

I knew for sure that I would make Sandy my boyfriend. Despite his disinterest, despite our limited time frame, despite the huge disparity between our levels of coolness, I was going to get this boy to love me. I would go back to Clearlake and become much closer to the friends I had so I could tell them about my long-distance L.A. boyfriend, Sandy, who would sound exotic and foreign to their small-town ears. I would tell them he hung out with Rooney, a band that my friends would not know about but would still find impressive.

Despite his disinterest, despite our limited time frame, despite the huge disparity between our levels of coolness, I was going to get this boy to love me.

"Rooney is the band of the brother of one of the guys from Phantom Planet," I would say patiently, and my friends would still not know what I was talking about because they would not be as worldly as I was.

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"Which planet?" they would say.

"Music. Hello?" I would say.

Most likely, my friends would be "friends" in the loosest sense of the word. I wouldn't be able to talk to them about the little fights I had with Sandy over the phone late on school nights. Or, I could talk to them about it, but they wouldn't be able to respond with emotional depth or related personal anecdotes the way I would want them to, as that would be what I would have become accustomed to by talking to Sandy. And so, over time, I would stop telling my "friends" anything about my inner life and save it all for phone dates with Sandy, who would become my best and only friend. Probably I would accidentally reveal this to him one night when I was feeling particularly vulnerable and he would silently freak out about my dependence on him, and it would cause just enough of a rift between us for him to be seduced by some cool, chill girl who also hung out with Rooney and who had many friends whom she could burden with her emotional crises, if she ever even had any. And suddenly our phone dates would end and all I would have were my "friends," who would be starting not to like me because of how distant and condescending I had been while dating Sandy, and I would have to find ways to win them over again, like maybe by becoming a good listener or a generous compliment giver.

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"My favorite Beck song is 'Thunder Peel,'" I said. "The one that's like, Now I'm rolling in sweat with a loaf of cold bread and a taco in my jeans."

I had practiced singing the lyrics over the weekend, perfecting my falsetto delivery. I'd hoped that it would make him smile.

"Oh," Sandy said.

I giggled.

The Monday after the Beck concert I brought my digital camera to driving school and showed Sandy the pictures I had taken at the show. I described the nosebleed seats my dad had bought for my cousin and me, and how we had snuck into the area by the stage so I could take better photos. My cousin had been detained by a security guard, but I'd gone ahead without her.

"I was molested in the mosh pit," I told him. "But it was still worth it."

The photos were crisp and vivid, with highly saturated pink and cyan backgrounds, a lot like the photos in the Midnite Vultures CD insert.

"Do you like that album?" I said.

"Sure."

Sandy got up and walked away from me, and I turned the camera to film mode and collected a few seconds of footage of him walking across the parking lot, idling in the middle of the courtyard to look at his phone, then walking away again as he lifted the phone to his ear. The next day I got a few more seconds as I pretended to look through the photos on my camera while walking toward him.

"I'm gonna go get some gum," Sandy said. "Do you want to come?"

He led me to the crosswalk and then to a liquor store across the street. I followed him down the narrow aisles, then to the cash register, and then back out to the street. He gestured to me that he wanted to jaywalk. I hesitated. I didn't have anything against jaywalking per se, but it wasn't really my personal style.

"Come," he said gently.

I jaywalked. I jaywalked with him and decided that every time I jaywalked in the future I would dedicate the act to Sandy, which I didn't mean literally but which I can't help thinking about every time I jaywalk, even now.

We went back to class. The next day we started behind-the-wheel driving with individual instructors, and I never saw Sandy again.

On my computer I zoomed in on a particularly good video still of Sandy. He was smiling slightly, his head turned toward me, presumably looking at me but with his eyes completely covered by his hair. The collar of his denim jacket was slightly askew, which added, I felt, a degree of vulnerability.

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I drew this image just as I saw it, in graphite on a piece of printer paper. I filled in the bulk of his hair with the edge of my pencil, and used the tip on the finer detail work around his mouth and jawline and the edge of his face. I made up lines where the digital image was pixilated or unclear. I hung the drawing on my bedroom wall. It was better than the images on my computer, even if it was less precise and the perspective was off, because its strokes were made by my hand. The hours that were lost making it were hours from my life. It was almost as if I had touched him, this boy who was irretrievably gone from my life. It was almost like I could still touch him.

I made a second, quicker drawing and took it to school with me. I made a ten-inch bust in ceramics class based on the second drawing. I glazed it with bright blue and forest green, and white for his pale, hair-covered face.

I liked that I was becoming the kind of person who would prioritize art making over protecting my own image as a nonpsychotic person.

I understood that I was being creepy. That I had just been overcome by meeting someone who was not from Clearlake, who had none of the baggage or the simplicity that came with being from Clearlake. I knew I should be embarrassed to be making a ten-inch ceramic bust of someone I had known for ten days and who had shown very little interest in me. Still, somehow, especially now that he was definitively out of my life forever, I felt like he was mine.

I had finished most of my high school requirements by junior year, so in senior year I had time to take five elective classes each semester. I could have taken AP classes for college credit, but instead I opted to have my ceramics teacher create a new class title for each of my elective periods so that I could stay in the ceramics studio all day while still technically being in different classes.

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I wasn't actually that into ceramics as a medium. I didn't feel there was any particular reason to create something three-dimensional. But I loved my ceramics electives because for once I felt ambitious and inspired, eager to improve my skill set, and increasingly confident about my artistic ability.

I made a second, smaller ceramic bust. I made a 24-by-36-inch painting using bright pink, green, and cyan, inspired by the Midnite Vultures CD insert that I had mentioned to Sandy. My ceramics teacher asked me if I wanted to learn screenprinting as an after-school project and I said that I did, and I made a four-color print of Sandy, edition of fifty.

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"Who is that?" my friend James asked me, after seeing dozens of depictions of the same dude.

"Somebody I met in driving school," I said.

"He looks really cool."

I felt impressed by my own lack of shame, my obsessiveness, my insatiable desire to keep Sandy in my life through art. I was spending hours and hours of class time, and hours and hours of free time, making portraits of someone with whom I'd had nothing. The art was, in fact, making any future relationship with Sandy impossible. Even if he were to magically appear before me again, or if I were able to find him on Myspace, the art I had made of him was too much, too crazy, my feelings too out of touch with reality. I could never explain that I had made fifteen portraits of him in at least five mediums over the course of eight months.

It was horribly pathetic, and yet I didn't care. Actually, I liked the fact that I might appear pathetic through my art. Or I liked that I had deliberately chosen to make myself appear that way, instead of it happening on its own without my specific approval, as it had in the past.

My obsession became more interesting to me than the content of my work, which is to say that I found myself interested in myself, which was new and exciting. I liked that I was becoming the kind of person who would prioritize art making over protecting my own image as a nonpsychotic person.

I was embracing parts of myself that I normally tried to keep hidden. I felt in control of my flaws in a way that made me like my flaws.

And I was fascinated that a visual representation of someone I found visually appealing could be interesting conceptually, though I also liked the portraits visually. I was amazed that my feelings of loneliness and self-loathing and unrequited desire could be used to create something that I liked, wanted to be around, and wanted to show other people.

I applied to art school the next year, and I submitted my collected portraits of Sandy as my portfolio.

From Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life by Chelsea Martin, published August 2017. Copyright 2017 Chelsea Martin. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.

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