Onstage, I’m thinking about the postman who was so overwhelmed by the amount of mail he had to deliver that he threw it all, and then himself, into the sea. I’m thinking about the agoraphobic grandmother who refused to go outside, even when the fire started on the floor below. I’m thinking about crying mothers, refugees fleeing crumbling cities, and infinite human hatred. It isn’t working, but I’m weeping anyway. It’s just muscle memory at this point.
I go through my entire act. I rub my hands together on the lip of the foot-high stage. I moan beneath the fluorescent lights. Every now and then I squeeze a clump of hair and mime a howl. I finish by dropping to my knees on the sticky floor, a small puddle of tears between my legs.
Someone takes a photo with their cell phone. A few people clap.
As I maneuver around the billiard table, two of my students come up and ask whether they get extra credit for attending. I say, “Email me on Monday,” and take my free-drink ticket to the bar.
I’m a professional feeling artist, but lately I haven’t been feeling so great about it.
Donald walks up behind me and slides his hands over my shoulders and down my chest. “Sorry, had to piss. How’d the ending go?”
“Same shit, different night. I can’t make anyone here feel.”
“Hey, that was some grade A Misery up there. Prime Sadness. I teared up for real, no joke.” He points to drops on his cheek. They look like water splashed up from the bathroom sink.
Donald kisses me on the cheek, signals the bartender for two more beers.
“Listen, I’ve been thinking. Maybe it’s time to switch it up. You’ve been doing the Sadness beat for years. Why not get into Righteousness or Anger? It’s an election year, those feelings are easy money.”
Donald knows I look down on multifeelers. I’ve always believed that a feeling artist should dedicate himself to a singular vision, hone one emotion until he’s mastered it. And, of course, no one can completely master an emotion. There are always tweaks and improvements that can be made. Always a deeper way to sense. Art is a lifetime process, and, despite everything, I’m still an artist.
Donald sees my scowl and winks. “Looks like you’re practicing Righteousness already.”
“My thesis statement is that, uh, since the dawn of time feeling art has been the prime art form, like how a painting or a song has to, you know, show feeling with paint or music instead of just showing it directly.”
The student looks up from her paper, smiles nervously.
I twirl my ballpoint, employ Pensiveness.
“Do you mean primal form or primary form? The rough, unrefined basis of the other arts, as Maxine Brod argues in Darwin’s Artist: History of Art from Feeletics to Deconstructivism? Or do you mean the purest form of aesthetic expression, of which the others are pale imitators, as Plato suggests in The Diogenes Dialogue? Be clear in your thesis statement.”
“Which one is better?”
“One idea isn’t better than the other. It depends on how you argue your point.”
“Oh.” She looks down, then back up. “I feel like the first one is better?”
I sigh a “sure.” Put a check mark by her name for conference points.
The student thanks me and scribbles a note I know she won’t follow up on. Few of my students really care about Feeletics. They only take the class because it fulfills the art requirement and they expect an easy A. They think I have nothing to teach them that they haven’t learned from TV and pop songs.
Mostly they’re right. I don’t want to be here either. I want to be making art, not lecturing undergraduates who are checking their cell phones under the desks. But you can’t pay the bills with feelings.
Donald is a feeling artist, too. Or was. We met in grad school, years before we started dating. I sat behind him in a craft class called On Being Green: Envy and Its Discontents and admired his biceps as he jotted down notes. Donald never performed much, just used it to pick up guys during dollar-beer nights. He sidled up to me at one, said he was majoring in Joy and minoring in Mind-Blowing Orgasm. A cheesy line, but it worked on me.
“Why don’t you start practicing again?” I ask him as we settle into our separate sides of the bed. “I know a good open mic this Friday.”
“I don’t have your dedication. Except to this,” he says, grabbing my cock through my flannel pajamas. It stiffens, yet as he works me to orgasm I can’t help but think about how we embody our chosen fields. I’m not a happy person. I feel trapped in my dull life, like a hamster in a wheel so small I can barely move, much less spin. Even my orgasm is a sad dribble, the semen rolling out like tears. It’s nothing like Donald’s, which sprays, ten minutes later, so joyously into my throat that I gag.
I spend a lot of time reading up on the history of the feeling arts. I like to imagine that I’m part of something. A lineage. A legacy.
The art form dates back to ancient Greece, where the emotion scientists would stand in the marketplaces of Athens practicing a single expression for hours on end. This is where the greats pioneered the four core feelings, as delineated by Aristotle in Feeletics: Sadness, Joy, Anger, and Fear.
“Did you know that eleventh-century kings used to keep feeling artists at court? They were the second-highest-paid entertainers in their day,” I tell Donald. He’s doing push-ups on the floor while I browse my phone on the wicker couch.
“What?” he says between huffs. “After executioners?” He laughs as his pecs graze the floor.
“Don’t you care about the history of our art?”
Donald finishes counting to fifty, stands up. He grabs his crotch with a sweaty palm. “I’ve got a history you can feel.”
“I’m serious. Don’t you want to be doing something with your life? To be contributing to the culture?”