You walk into a party. Seven o'clock in the evening. People mill about a cavernous, dimly lit atrium, throngs of them, neatly picking hors d'oeuvres off trays carried by arthouse hipsters, the servers, who are clad in black and topped with the sort of odd identity-defining haircuts customarily found on people with no identities. The rumble of the crowd echoes back and forth between hard walls, off of a gray concrete floor. Booze flows, mostly wine. You are on the job; and you clutch desperately to a weeping bottle of Stella Artois.

Nothing unusual at the moment. The din can be ignored, assimilated into the standard cacophony of background noise and neurotic insanity; the crowd itself simply an environmental variable—pitching and swelling, yes, but predominantly benign.

So you swallow the rest of your beer quickly and duck upstairs with a co-worker to stroll around through the exhibits. Maybe it's the light buzz, or maybe your eyesight has gotten worse than you thought, but you have to squint and lean in to view the placards. There, you get a much needed refresher: Mondrian, Picasso, Schwitters, Dali, Bréton, Van Gogh, Wyeth, Chagall, Gaughin, Modigliani, Duchamp, Léger, Ernst. You remember their art, of course, some more than others, and you have always loved much of it, but it's nice to revisit old work and receive a few surprises along the way. Thinking about them takes you back—to college, to the sensation of purpose, to pleasant dreams. The feeling is bittersweet, dishonest in the way that nostalgia tends to be, but you cling to it. You allow the illusion that you left a piece of yourself back in another time and place, none of which exist any longer, to wash over you. After all, what could you have left behind, and where could you have left it? Suddenly, you begin to feel the weight of missed opportunities, a youth squandered on worry. And you hide the subtle—what you hope are subtle—paroxysms of woe behind a distant smile and a shifting art-gallery gaze.

This is all fine. You can handle this. This is your life.

But then the elevator won't take you to the third, fourth, or sixth floors, and you realize the fifth-floor gallery you just ingested is the only one that has been rented for the evening. You will be forced to return to one of the first two levels, though forced might not be the right word. See, you've been wanting to head back into the fray. For whatever reason, you feel drawn to some vague purpose, the nature and aim of which escape you. You feel compelled.

When you reach the second floor again, you race to the drinks table and get another beer from one of the hipsters. A Heineken. You hate Heineken, but they are out of Stella, and Amstel Light seems like an ill-defined yet potent sacrilege, even to a lightweight like you. So you take a greedy swig and turn around to survey the room.

The place is more crowded than before. The din is louder, and the food lines are backed up. As you scan the seething human mass before you, a debilitating sense of dread begins to creep into your chest. There is something different about the nine o'clock crowd, and when you put your finger on it, your heart sinks; you feel your face flush—a dry feeling, like dehydration. Your knees give way. The desire to flee is overpowering. Before you, what was once a mostly harmless gathering of older professionals, is now a group two thousand strong, and trending younger.

That last one is the fatal detail, because there they are. You can see them.


And goddammit . . . most of them are beautiful.