The bathrooms are first. I edit the opinions, critiques, quotations, confessions, cartoons, entreaties, and general philosophies limned the night before. That’s my job. Clean up the walls at the restaurant. All four walls of two unisex bathrooms. They are blackboard walls, with sticks of colored chalk sitting in a thin trough just above the old cedar wainscoting.
The messages are surprisingly civilized for such an anonymous, transient population in various stages of intoxication or a bad date; a curious cross between Chauvet cave hieroglyphics, 80s NYC subway graffiti, and foursquare.com. Initials inside hearts are the most popular iconography, followed by birthday greetings and pledges of endless love. Quotes from Lewis Carroll and the Buddha pop up continually. Favorite dishes are declared and often sketched; renderings of fish and vegetables are in abundance. Seems like everyone in the Hamptons can draw an elephant's ass or a cat's face.
Over the course of a long weekend, the following conversation was built, retort by daily retort:
"God is dead" —Nietzsche
"Nietzsche is dead" —God
"Neitzsche & God are Deadheads" —J. Garcia
"J. Garcia: Live tonight" —Saint Stephen
That stayed on the chalkboard for several days to encourage more self-expression. I confess to a weakness for musical references, spiritual apothegms, foreign language agitprop, and prurience. Like the pithy exchange that started with Nicole writing "I masturbated here," amended the next night with: "I masturbated to your message, Nicole. Love, Maria."
In the dining room, chalkboards are used to announce wines on tap and beers by the can; personalized chalkboards are given to children, along with a little pot of chalk. It helps them pass the time while being ignored by grown-ups. Some wee techies have never touched chalk before and end up yelling at the adults, "Look what I made!"
One autumn Friday, I walked into bathroom B and found, just above the sink, a large drawing of a nude woman leaning over a sink. It was not your quotidian doodling. It was elegant. The woman was turning away, looking down from a mirror after washing her face on an ordinary morning, or before going to work at night. A lover might be in the adjoining room. Probably not. A loneliness emanated. I stood there, dreamy, loopy, gawking at the woman, amazed at how few chalk lines can convey so much intention, mood, age, sensuality. I knew enough of Eric Fischl's work (and dining habits) to know the artist was Eric Fischl, world-renowned painter and sculptor. I had often fantasized about finding a drawing by a local artist in the lavatory. Donald Sultan or Chuck Close or Julian Schnabel. And here it was. Unrequested. Untitled. Unsigned. A gift. As if Degas had drawn on a napkin and, after a few absinthes, left it on a table.
Bathrooms are hard and utilitarian things, tile and towels, handles and drains and plain white porcelain. But these few artful lines elevated the room from lowly loo to a studio or atelier, no longer the last place you'd expect to find a fine drawing. So it came as less than a shock when, after my reverie dissolved, I absently noticed amidst the cursive proclamations another drawing on the adjacent wall. It was entirely different, striking but softer, pastel-like, devoid of pointed lines and skin. Produced by rubbing the length of chalk sticks against the blackboard, the landscape was all blurs and smooth strokes, a textured, spectral image. The sun was either setting and reflecting on a body of water, or it was dawn. As with the washing woman, it could be morning or night. And this too was a study in economy—of space, tone, and chalk. I was familiar enough with her work (and dining habits) (and marital status) to know it had been drawn by April Gornick, creator of landscapes hanging in various museums, oil paintings with names like Sun Storm Sea, Rising Moon, and Mirror Lake.
A nude woman and a sunlit landscape. Two images, in propinquity, contrasting and complementary; husband draws woman, wife draws sun; men obsess about sex, women about time. Is there a difference? Fischl draws a solitary female. Gornick draws a sun with its twin image. The real thing and its distorted reflection? Two circular symbols of womanhood? Of eternity? Perhaps a pair of siblings. Is sun a homophone? A father of twin boys, my paternal instinct told me to care for these creations, protect them, preserve them, introduce them to the world and the world to them. In a spectacularly un-Zen moment, I was, in a word, attached. I called my wife and asked her to stop by the restaurant, excited to share the good news of the painless and surprising birth of our newest additions.
"Let's go into the bathroom." I said when she arrived.
She arched one eyebrow.
"You won't be sorry," I said.
She opened the door tentatively and smiled.
"Fischl," she said softly.
I pointed to the adjacent wall.
"Gornick too," she said. "How lovely."
We stood there, husband and wife, and thought about the husband and wife who had recently walked into the lavatory and spontaneously created yin and yang art. Antiphony art. Maybe call and response art. Was it a game they often played? Regardless, this is surely how art should be viewed, semi-privately, leisurely, more like a dressing room at Bendel's than the perfume department of Macy's. No guards to wonder about, no strangers as clever or beautiful or disturbed as the art they are observing. The bathrooms at the new chockablock Barnes Museum in Philadelphia will not have this much art.
"What should we do?" I asked, semi-rhetorically.
"What do you mean, do?" she asked back.
"I could put a frame around them."
"A chalk frame?" she wondered.
"Chalk or maybe wood. Either way."
"Might as well brush them with polyurethane first."
"Or cover them with a plastic window."
"Why not cut them out and replace the wall? It's only painted sheetrock, right?"
"Cut out the wall?" I echoed.
"Don't you want to preserve them?" she asked.
"I do, but that sounds extreme, like we're forcing the issue."
"Oh, this has to be organic, like the restaurant?"
"Yes," I said. "Why not?"
"Maybe the artists don't want us to preserve these at all."
"Will they feel flattered or exploited do you suppose?"
"You can't just erase them," she said.
"I know that much."
"I wonder who owns these images," she pondered.
The conversation continued along these lines for a while. There was no need to make a rash decision, for the drawings were safe—no one other than myself had ever erased anything in the bathrooms. It was my turf. One couple had dined at the restaurant 27 times and kept track of their visitations in the corner of one chalkboard wall and no one had touched any of their markings over the past year and a half. Employees are very respectful of blackboards in bathrooms when you ask them. You wouldn't think it, but they are.
My wife went about her business and I picked some lemon balm in the restaurant’s garden and opened the doors at 6pm. During that night's service, I would, every so often, stop in the lavatory to take a look at the espousal art. It warmed me. And filled me with anxiety. What should I do? Could I put the artists' names on the drawings without their permission? Would the couple sign them? Do these images have a market value? Do I share the lucre with the artists? Would they resent the whole idea? Could I enjoy the moment without fretting about the future? I took photographs to memorialize the event. The Gornick drawing was in a dark, sunless corner and the flash of the iPhone kept exploding her suns. Fischl's nude showed up much better.
The next day, I did what writers without prescriptions do to tranquilize themselves: I made phone calls. I asked questions of friends and experts, artists, art dealers, and one intellectual property attorney. Conflicting stories cascaded into the nervous system. One artist said I should cut the paintings down and sell them; times are tough and any artist would appreciate the gesture. Another thought it was sacrilege to exploit what artists never intended to be exploited. A gallery owner said they might be worth a couple thousand dollars apiece. The attorney assured me that I was now the rightful owner of these images, but predicted that no one would buy them without provenance, reducing them to virtual worthlessness in the marketplace.
That afternoon, the bathrooms were, as usual, my first stop. And the walls of the first bathroom were, as usual, crammed with messages and drawings, except for the blank space where the Fischl had been. The what? The blank space where...what? The woman was gone! Vanished! Kidnapped? I rubbed my eyes. I suspected a new form of guilt was playing a twisted trick on an excitable brain. I looked again. Gone! Escaped? Erased! And poorly erased at that, leaving tragic smudge marks as evidence; a poorly cleaned palimpsest; old fashioned erasers don't really work, not even the classic Hammett wool numbers; you have to use a damp cloth, rub horizontally, twice and…Focus, you fool! Focus! The Fischl girl has gone missing.
I walked out of the bathroom in a daze and asked the first person I saw, "Do you know what happened to the drawing of the woman?"
"The nude?" asked the hostess.
"Yes, the nude," I said.
"Yes, I know."
"I erased it."
"You did what?"
"I erased it."
"Why would you do that?"
"I thought it would offend someone."
"Children use that bathroom.”
"You were protecting the children?"
"She was bending over."
"It wasn't a real woman, you know. It was a drawing."
"I know that.”
"A chalk drawing.”
“I know that, too."
"But you've never erased anything before, not ever."
No response. She didn't want to think about her simple, spontaneous act of an hour ago, when she walked into a stupid bathroom, saw an undressed female and erased her. Without hesitation. Without remorse. She had treated the sketch like yesterday's homework. Evidently, she had found the chalk buttocks more offensive than the chalk breasts or chalk penises that had shown up in the past and remained untouched. Perhaps Fischl's rendering was too real, not nearly cartoonish enough, more study than send-up, and so the hostess acted as judge and jury. She was the Supreme Court on a bad day. The North Korean politburo on a good day. An ayatollah any day. Pat Robertson.
"You're upset," she finally said.
"You think I did the wrong thing," she said.
"It was offensive."
"Do you know who drew that woman?" I asked.
"Would it matter?" I asked.
"Not really," she said.
"But why did you erase it?"
"It was offensive."
"No, not to me. "
"How would you know it was offensive if it didn't offend you?"
"She was bending over."
I wandered around the garden in front of the restaurant. I was looking for answers among the scape and stevia and the Chinese cucumbers and lemon verbena. Cars sped by like years. I called my wife. She didn't answer. Relief. I didn't want to talk. I wanted logic, reasons a young educated woman in the first half of the 21st century would erase a lovely line drawing on a blackboard in Bridgehampton, New York. I also wanted to know why this minor incident had lowered me into a major funk, obsessing about the fleeting nature of all things, the preposterous lust of attachment, the need for continuity. I know, I know: Any loss is all loss; all loss is any loss; and things expunged from your emotional blackboard remain in your memory as clouds of sadness. Closure is an illusion. But desperation is an ugly indulgence.
The Gornick drawing remained unscathed for the next week. That made sense. No one would want to damage a pretty pastel sun rising or setting over still waters. The Fischl remained gone. And I felt bad for Fischl. Not that I knew him or thought sympathy would lift him, but he had been erased before: his 9/11 sculpture, Tumbling Woman, had been removed from Rockefeller Center in the post-9/11 haze and hysteria; before that, his 14-foot tennis player at the Arthur Ashe Stadium had been excoriated for not being a replica of its namesake, only a nude bronze male with an outstretched arm holding a stub, not even a racket, or, as Fischl described it, a baton passing along the admirable Ashe attributes of hope and charity, not to mention dignity and elegance. "I believe it had to be nude," he had said in an interview, "to give these values a timeless quality and to remind us that our immortality necessarily passes through the vulnerability of our flesh."
Could I quote Eric Fischl to the avenging hostess? Could I tell her that the nude woman bending over the sink was not actually a nude woman bending over a sink, but a quick study in vanity and loneliness and aging? I guess not. I had trouble saying anything to her. To anyone really, for days on end. The disappearance of one fragile drawing had messed up one fragile psyche, fragmenting the simplicity of a kindergarten blackboard into the complexities of adulthood, exposing my own vulnerabilities to at least five of the seven deadly sins, and maybe six. As I wandered around the garden during service on Friday night, my phone rang, the same phone that had captured the Fischl drawing. It was one of my twin sons, a writer, a lover of art and purveyor of wisdom. To him I could talk. He listened to my sad staccato story and gasped in all the right places. He understood totally. It was a relief. Tears left my eyes. I sat down on the slate stone next to the Chinese cucumbers. There was a long pause.
"On the other hand, dad," he said sweetly, "it sounds fine."
"What do you mean?"
"It was there and then it wasn't there. Like a mandala. Sort of perfect."
"But there was no plan for this to blow away," I said.
"Of course there was," he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"It was chalk on a chalkboard. How obvious does impermanence have to be?"
"Then why am I crying?"
"Because you're an idiot."
A family was leaving the restaurant as I reentered. The little boy, maybe 7, showed the hostess his miniature chalkboard. He had drawn a dinosaur, as best as I could tell, a colorful and ferocious beast, not merely filling the rectangle, but threatening to knock down the thin wooden frame and run all over the restaurant devouring lobsters and patrons alike. The little boy was shy, and very proud. After the family left the restaurant, I took the chalkboard into bathroom B and dampened a cloth towel and wiped out the ferocious dinosaur and then, unceremoniously, erased, twice, the pretty April Gornick sun that was setting, or rising, on the west wall.
And I returned the little blank blackboard to the hostess so she could give it to the next pint-sized artist to come for dinner.
Bruce Buschel is a restaurateur and writer based in Bridgehampton, NY. His work has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Esquire, and Rolling Stone. He is married with two sons, one cat, and lots of chalk.