3AMGuy

I'm John Weir. This is my blog: fiction, non-fiction, some rants. All stuff I wrote. The picture above is a slice from Cy Twombly's *Cold Stream*, 1966.

Scenes from a Marriage

The second to the last time he gets out of the hospital, the last time being his death, Dave goes on a farewell tour, like Cher. He has just published his new book. His third, his last. It’s an account of the last year of his life, and it’s impossible to read – partly because I’m in it, doing nothing to keep him alive, and partly because he won’t stop kidding about the worst thing that happens. “My T-cell count is lower than my IQ,” he writes. “If I were Dan Quayle, I’d be dead now.”

Two weeks before he dies, the publishing company sends him thirty copies of the book, and I load Dave and his books into a cab, and we drive around town handing them out to every agent or editor or cute boy who ever rejected him. He is also trying to get someone to publish the diary he kept while he was in the hospital. It’s a black Mead Composition notebook, and it’s an aborted novel, a toilet joke, an archive of AIDS obituaries from The New York Times for September and half of October, 1994, a list of results of blood tests, CAT scans, MRIs, bone marrow tests, colonoscopies, and bronchoscopies, a document of rage, and a draft of Top Ten Lists – Top Ten Most Embarrassing Public Bowel Movements, Top Ten Cutest Nurses.

And it’s an autobiography in the form of a questionnaire. There are 500 questions, which Dave has written in block letters in his careful 3rd grader’s print:

1. Name: _________

2. Age: ___________

3. Religious Persuasion: ____________

4. Number of lifetime sexual partners (in thousands) (circle one):

0-10     10-20     A Lady Doesn’t Tell

5. Life expectancy: ____________

And so on, for pages. Of course, he has supplied answers. They’re scribbled in his barely readable cursive script. His name is “Legion.” His age is, “You should die like this, you’d know what aging is.” For “Religious Persuasion” he has written “Liza.” He doesn’t answer the question about sexual partners. Next to “Life Expectancy,” he writes, “I’ve got ten minutes to live, but who’s counting? Now I’ve got nine.”

We take this diary to several literary agents. David already has an agent, but he fired him because he brought ice cream to the hospital room. “Ice cream, for God’s sake!” Dave screamed. “Ice cream is dairy! Dairy goes right through me! If I had lung cancer, would you bring me a pack of Virginia Slims?”

We visit Charlotte Sheedy, Audre Lorde’s agent, and also Ally Sheedy’s mom. “In the future, I won’t work with anyone who hasn’t repped a Lesbian and raised a movie star,” Dave says, when our cab pulls to her building on lower Broadway. Then, “Fuck you,” he says, for no reason. He is always meanest in cabs. I’m getting money out of my pocket. I’ve been broke most of my adult life, but I took a steady job just as Dave started getting sick, and for the first time in our friendship, I can pay for things. Lately, I’m paying all the time.

Which: fine. He has always paid for me, bought lunch, taken me to Broadway shows, orchestra seats, shelled out a cash loan for a month’s rent, several times. I’m happy to pay. Relieved. I can’t keep him alive, but I can pay.

He, though: hates the shift in power. Paying is his job, his privilege. It’s his way, he jokes, of making people love him. “Don’t overtip,” he screams, as we’re leaving the cab. “Jesus. Get a receipt. Do you think you’re a Rockefeller? You’re not. Guess why? Guess why you’re not a Rockefeller? Rockefellers have money because they don’t tip and they save their receipts.”

We climb from the cab. He weighs ninety-seven pounds. So he walks slowly. His death walk, all bones. The skin at the back of his neck is creased and dry, sinewy. His hair is pin straight, slicked against his skull. One arm goes out to the side for balance. The other ends in a fist that clutches the waistband of his jeans.

His pants are a sight gag. Let go, and they fall. He knows this, and he’ll drop them to shock you. And he leaves his zipper open to show his diapers. The pants and diapers are white, and so is his T-shirt, which is scrunched up over the Hickman catheter that’s spliced to his chest at his right nipple. His down coat is a blue pall. He’d scold me for that line. “‘Blue pall!’ Miss Thing! What is it, Poetry Month?” And he’d laugh his three-syllable laugh, “Hant, hant, hant.” He’s a little diapered man in a blue shroud holding his pants up and moving stiffly and delicately across the sidewalk. He is thirty-eight years old.

Now we’re pushing through the door to Charlotte Sheedy’s office, and there is the surprised assistant at her guard post. She stands up, then darts back, Tippi Hedren in The Birds, freaked-out by what flew in. AIDS is good for something, a way to get access to anybody, push past office punks. Waving his hand, Dave says, “We have an appointment,” and we keep walking, through the door to the inner sanctuary, straight to Charlotte Sheedy’s desk.

Dave sits in a wooden chair. Sits, slides. The chair’s slippery, or he is, or both. Or the problem is his coat. It’s a sled, and he rides it down off the chair seat until he’s sitting on his neck. Then he pulls himself up. Again. And Again. “Such a little figure / slipped quiet from its chair”: Emily Dickinson. It’s on my mind. Did I say it out loud? More poetry, my response to loss. Don’t help, just recite. Dave hates me, because I can’t help. Or I can, only a little bit, and right now. Dying is a series of instant victories over nothing fatal, in preparation for complete loss. Will he not die if I find the right poem? If I can separate him from his coat? Let’s pretend it’s true about his coat, at least. Our lie agreed upon. I get him out of the thing, which he drapes over the arm of his chair, and sits still.

Now he’s a pair of shoulder blades in a T-shirt, and above them, a face. Huge head, shrunken body. His glasses are Dr. Eckleberg’s, a billboard that stares at you. There’s a narcissistic boon in watching David die, because he lights on you with an urgency and directness that no one else has ever spent. His gaze. Sure, it indicts you, dictates and controls, but you’re hot and lit, a movie star in her key light.

Floodlights on Charlotte Sheedy, who has been sitting behind her desk and watching calmly, waiting for the best moment to speak.

“Oh, Charlotte Sheedy,” Dave says. His voice is high and loud and raspy and sweet. “I have brought you my new book, and also my newest book.” I’m standing behind him. He’s a film director and I’m his people. He raises his right hand, signaling me, and I step forward and hand Sheedy his two manuscripts – the new book, and the hospital diary.

“I want you,” he tells her, pausing to haul himself higher in his chair, and to catch his breath, and to grab his pants, which have not moved up the chair with the rest of him, “to represent me. From now on.”

Charlotte Sheedy is spectacularly cool. She opens Dave’s new book, the published one, congratulates him, thumbs through a few pages, and then sets it aside with a palm flat on its cover, both stamping it with her imprimatur and absorbing its contents through her fingertips in an apparent flash of superhuman appraisal. Then she takes up Dave’s diary, which, in her hands, is not a receptacle of rage and rubber hospital gloves and blue pills stapled and glued to lined notebook pages, but an ordinary book proposal. She is so smooth, I want her to be my agent, too, possibly my mom.

One page of the diary is entirely black, and she stops there. Dave inked it solid with a magic marker one afternoon, frowning while he told me that he hoped he didn’t go to hell because he was tired of running into me. “Even in hell,” he said, “I’d have to buy you lunch.”

She stares at the page and says, “I see.” Then she closes the book, looks up. Our eyes meet over Dave’s head. I am trying to make my face say, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Charlotte Sheedy is nicer than I am, though. She doesn’t collude with me in silent commentary about a man who is clearly at the end of his life. Instead, she looks at Dave.

“I’m not sure this is ready to be shown around,” she says. Maybe she gets sick writers in her office all the time. Maybe all writers are ten minutes from death. “Please keep me in mind, though,” she says, “when you have something that’s finished.”

Dave grins, showing all his teeth. “Darling,” he says. “I completely agree.”

He stands slowly and heads around her desk for a hug. They meet by her chair and do a quick, theatrical, cheek-to-cheek air kiss.

And then we’re listening to Dave breathe.

His fierce breaths.

It has been an effort for him to stand up. I didn’t dare help him, because: there’s nothing wrong! That’s the story he’s telling, and why deny it? He’s not a man with just days to live. He’s a potential client with a literary property he’s shopping around.

And what am I, then? His people, his amanuensis, development girl, his chauffeur, his “longtime companion,” non-sexual, his stock boy, carting books, his pocket change, hailer of cabs, his walker, as if he were a woman in a fur on the Upper East Side. His George Hamilton, conducting Lynda Bird Johnson, the President’s daughter, to the Academy Awards, which Hamilton did in 1966, in white tie and a spray tan. Dave would get that reference. He loves anything tacky and obscure. He loves failed and minor stars. Three months ago, it would have made him laugh. Now, though. He’s going to die, and all I have is George Hamilton in a fake tan.

He’s breathing in Charlotte Sheedy’s office. We’re all breathing. She breathes, I breathe, we listen to Dave breathe. We count the breaths, which come slowly, with labor. Breath, pause. Breath, pause. In the pause, we stand there, waiting for what’s next.

*

I’m with Dave on the futon couch in his living room in Chelsea. He’s decided to throw a theme party – “I’m Still Standing,” which is a lie – and I’m addressing invites that need to be out fast because the party’s a week away, and he doesn’t want to die before anyone can RSVP.

I’m writing names on envelopes. He’s doing an 8-hour IV drip. Pentamidine, a prophylactic against pneumonia. A guy named Santiago, health care professional, has come with equipment: IV bag, rolling stand, yards of clear tubing, and a hypodermic needle. Santiago is a straight guy with a tattoo on his left arm. He sets up the IV in the corner near the window. The fat bag hangs on its silver pole, and Santiago unwinds several feet of tubing, which he hooks to the needle. Then he smacks Dave’s arm to find a vein.

“I won’t let you slap me again unless we have a safe word,” Dave says.

Santiago laughs. He’s wearing rubber gloves, blue jeans, and a sleeveless T-shirt. “What a fabulous tattoo,” Dave says. He’s right, it’s awesome. It stretches from his shoulder to his elbow, curving around his bicep, and it shows a military grunt in battle fatigues cradling his wounded buddy in his outstretched arms.  An all-male Pieta in blue and gold, framed by swirls. “I have an outfit that color,” Dave says.

I’m reading the tattoo like it’s about me. Pieta: I’m Mary with her wounded son in her cradling arms. Or switch roles, and I’m Jesus, crucified by what I’ve been sent to save. No wonder David yells at me. My Christ thing. Closet Catholic. When Dave told me he had AIDS, the day we met, I liked him more. Creepy fetish, dying men. Except it was 1989 in NYC, and the chances of meeting someone who didn’t have AIDS, in that place and time, were, forgive the word, slim. And I hadn’t kept anyone else alive. Maybe Dave. If he had five years, surely there’d be a cure. . .

He had five years, in any case. Now he’s dying, and I’m jealous. I’m competitive with Dave’s death. It’s all he cares about, dying, not dying. I want him to care that he’s losing me. I know how selfish that sounds. I never say it to him. Death doesn’t just shroud, it also snaps the sheet back, and you get to see how your best beloved looks naked and stripped of flesh and left a bone clutter in a sack of skin, sometimes smeared with shit. That’s what a body is and does. You see him, and yourself: you’re a sniveling want machine, saying, “Stop that. Don’t die. Talk to me.”

I have to outwit my rival, Dave’s death. So when Santiago pinches Dave’s skin and pierces it, digging the needle into the green-veined underside of Dave’s wrist, I force myself to watch. Needles make me sick, but I want David to know I’m not afraid. I’m better than death. I can handle whatever happens to his body. I must be turning pale with nausea, though, because he screams.

“Stop staring,” he screams. I’m sitting next to him, holding a ballpoint pen, my lap a writing board. There is a half-addressed envelope on my thigh. Santiago is tracking the flow of viscous fluid through the tube into David’s wrist.

“Stop looking at me like nothing human could ever offend you,” Dave says.

“I’m sorry,” I say, putting the pen down.

“I want you to be offended.”

“I wasn’t trying to upset you.”

“Of course you were trying to upset me. You want my attention.” He splits “attention” into its three parts: uh – TEN – shun. “How brave you are. How caring. I’ve got news for you. You’re not the Messiah. You’re a fag. I’m a dying fag. I win the Suffering Sweepstakes. You think this is happening to you. Well, it’s not. Look,” Dave shouts, holding up his pierced wrist.

“Me,” he says, showing me his wrist, which he waves in the air.

The needle pulls at his skin. Santiago leaps forward. Dave ignores him, and points at me.

“You,” he says.

He moves his hand back to his chest. The needle’s tearing at his skin, and there’s blood. He hits his chest.

“Me,” he repeats.

“You need to chill,” Santiago tells him.

“Go fuck yourself,” David says. “Not in a fun way.”

*

A week later, Dave’s Chelsea living room is packed with queers and a few straight women, ten days before he dies. Everyone is standing, only David is sitting. It’s impossible to find him, unless you glance down, which is hard, because people are shoulder-to-shoulder. Dave’s at knee level. He’s been taking Haldol for anxiety, and he’s doped up and zoned out, nesting in a corner of his futon couch like a small brown hoot owl.

People ask me what’s up, where’s Dave? I’ll show you, I say. Then I guide them to the couch. Dave, I say. His chin is on his chest.  Slowly, he looks up.

“Someone to see you,” I say.

“Oh, darling,” he says, stretching out his hand, which is blue with puncture marks from IV drips. “It’s been such hell.”

He’s known for his theme parties, which are famously bad. My first was his David Party. Five years ago, in his old place in Midtown Manhattan. He said all gay men in New York were named Christopher or Stephen – “Full names! With a ph! No gay man is ever just ‘Steve!’” – and in protest, he invited thirty Davids to his cattle chute in Hell’s Kitchen. Cramped and airless studio apartment. You could stand in the middle with your arms spread and touch both walls. It opened off the second floor landing of a 9th Avenue tenement building and ran straight back to a foldout couch under a window that was closed tight against the fire escape.

He sent invites to David Bowie, David Geffen, and David Letterman. “I couldn’t believe that Letterman was in the phone book!” He made nametags – “Hello, My Name Is: David” – and served David’s Cookies. On his TV, he showed a video with the sound turned down: Richard Gere in King David.

I called from the corner pay phone on 52nd Street. “Can I speak to David?” A few minutes later, I showed up at his door.

“You can’t come in,” he said, “because I’m expecting – ”

“I get it,” I said.

He let me stay. Mute gay men stood against the walls, holding drinks. He had invited twenty men who’d never met. Twenty strange Davids. No one moved or spoke. It was a gay bar on Friday night before anyone was drunk. “Let me do introductions,” David said, leading me around. “This is David. That’s David. Over there is . . . David! So many Davids, only one John,” he said, “Hant hant hant.”

Now in his new apartment, I guide guests to him, one by one, and say, “Here’s David.”

He falls against them and naps. If he’s not napping, he’s shitting. Every twenty minutes, he jumps up and runs to the john.

“Out of the way,” he screams, “out of the way, out of the way!”

He reaches the toilet, and I close the bathroom door behind him and lean against it, facing the crowded room.

*

Freud says we retool the lost object and stick it in a display case in our brain, which is not the same as letting it go. We keep it and lose it at the same time. Part of my mind turned into David. David and others. I’m not a man, I’m a psychic receptacle of dead guys firing neurons at my synapses. Dave is my gag writer, long dead. When I say something funny, I’m him.

“How convenient to have a lost object you can plagiarize from,” Dave says.

*

Nathan Lane is in a play. Limited run, sold out. David wants to see it. He’ll be dead in three days, so we can’t wait for cancellations. He sort of knows the playwright. It’s my job to call him. Dave says, “Get him on the phone and tell him I’ll just die if I don’t see his play.”

Dave’s off Haldol since his party, which is good news and bad news. The good news is, he’s alert again. The bad news is. . .

“Hant hant hant,” he’d say.

Somehow, I track down the playwright’s assistant, who has never heard of Dave. “Tell him I’m a semi-famous gay author,” Dave says. I don’t. But the assistant calls back, and we have two seats for the next night. Full price, of course, but they’re house seats, third row center, and they’re Nathan Lane’s.

Dave is ecstatic. Nathan Lane’s house seats. He wants to brag. Who can he call? No one. He has reached the stage of terminal illness when people figure if you’re not dead, you should be. I’m not being harsh. No one wants to say good-bye twice. After all, he had his farewell tour. Threw a party that was really a wake. Why keep staging his exit? People have departure fatigue. Even he does.

So it’s just Santiago and me in his living room when Dave says, “I’m going to give Nathan Lane copies of my books! After the play. We will wait at the stage entrance to thank him, and you will hand me each of my books,” he tells me, “and I will sign them, and give them to Nathan Lane. And if I hate his play, I won’t tell him! I’ll just say, ‘Nathan Lane, you’ve done it again!’”

*

We’re fifteen minutes late for the curtain when Dave and I show up at the City Center two days before his death. The City Center is a big Moorish Revival theater built in 1921 as a meeting place for Shriners – the guys in Bye Bye Birdie who watch Janet Leigh do her table dance. If you squint as you head through the gold doors on West 54th Street, you can see 2,200 white men from Warren G. Harding’s administration adjusting their red fezzes and filing into the house.

Dave and I have time to picture Shriners, because it takes us fifteen minutes to walk from the ticket booth at street level to the lobby one flight down. He’s in his uniform of white jeans over diapers, white T-shirt, and blue down coat. Slung on his shoulder is a knapsack that’s flat and square and thick and grey as a garment bag doubled in half for hanging shirts and suits on a trunk flight to distant dress balls. It holds his portable IV bag. He’s getting a Pentamidine drip on the run. A clear plastic tube hooked to the IV bag coils out of the knapsack. It slides under his shirt and plugs into the port in his chest.

We walk downstairs while ushers watch. They are figuring out how to seat us. Or how to prevent us from being seated, since we’re so late and slow. And we’re infusing. David is being infused, he’s a walking pneumocystis carinii pneumonia prophylaxis. I wonder if anyone has done a Pentamidine drip in the house of the Shriners before. Pentamidine Drip in the House of the Shriners would be a great title for a Tony Kushner play, and I’m about to tell Dave, when he says he has to go to the john.

So that solves the problem of getting our seats. Anyway, for now. One crisis resolved, another in its place. Our life is a drama, who needs plays? We detour to the Men’s Room, where we spend most of Act One.

We’re together in the stall. It has a wooden door, which I swing shut, locking us in. He needs me here, because someone has to hold the Pentamidine bag while he shits. He doesn’t need help to undress. He takes his right thumb out of his belt loop, and his pants fall to the floor. Ditto his diapers – he unsticks the Velcro, and they drop. He squats on the toilet seat. I hear liquid splatter. I don’t want to watch, but I don’t want to seem like I’m grossed-out and turning away. Anyway, in the tiny stall, there aren’t many places to look.

“Why are you watching?” Dave says.

“I’m not watching.”

“Who would watch this?”

“I said I wasn’t watching.”

“If I were Liza, and you were Baryshnikov, that would be one thing.”

“I’m sorry I’m in the toilet stall with you,” I say, which is a sentence you would cut from the film. Unless it starred Peter Sellers.

“Everybody poops,” I want to say. Should I be freaked out by his shit? I’m not saying I’m into it. I can’t stand watching needles sink into veins, that’s my pitfall as a caregiver. I have penetration anxiety. Blood and shit, though: whatever. Why should either of us be embarrassed? Okay, I wouldn’t want anybody in the toilet stall with me, but my body isn’t falling apart. Not yet, not from a wasting disease. Will I be grateful that someone who loves me is willing to wipe my ass when I have days to live? “In sickness and health, till death do us part”: that’s marriage. But David and I are not married – to anyone, nor to each other. My loyalty to him goes beyond what’s expected of the unmarried, and that’s why I hate marriage. It’s smug. There are realms of commitment and intimacy, involving an order of devotion and sacrifice and love, that are equal to the terms of anyone’s sanctified, legalized marriage.

David is narcissistic, enraged, abusive, accusatory, helpless, wisecracking, incontinent, and dying. That’s what is meant by “dearly beloved,” it turns out.

And this:

He sits on the toilet with his pants and diapers on the floor, and I hold his bag high and make sure the plastic tubing has enough give so it doesn’t tear at his chest. His eyes are closed. I wonder if he’s falling asleep. When he’s done, he asks me for toilet paper. I tear him a length. He wipes and flushes. Then he wants to check his IV drip. I pull up his t-shirt, and we look at his chest. The port, a white disc. His blue nipples are clipped to his skin. I count his ribs, naming them the way anatomists do. Five are “true,” five are “false,” and two are “floating ribs.” All twelve are there. We trace the tubing from the port to his knapsack, which I unzip. Dave makes me uncoil, then recoil the tubing. I roll it tight, tuck it away. Re-zip the bag. We get his diapers up, then scoop his pants off the floor and hook his thumb through the belt loop. Then we head back to the ushers, terrifying them.

“Don’t hold the curtain,” David is shouting, though the play started forty minutes ago. “I mean it. Don’t hold the curtain.”

The ushers won’t seat us, of course. Not even between scenes. Our seats are in the middle of the row, and we’d have to climb over people to reach them. It would be too disruptive. Anyway, Act One is about done. The ushers ask us to wait. Dave’s yelling, “I’m two minutes from death.”

The ushers say, okay, we can sit in the aisle, house left. Tiered cement, thinly carpeted. David says okay. We sneak into the back of the house and crouch down on the floor. Dave is sitting on bones. We’re in time for the end of the act. It’s a play about AIDS. Naked gay white men with AIDS. We might have stayed in the john. The act ends fast, and now the usher can show us our seats. We get settled, finally. And then Dave has to go to the bathroom again.

So we spend Act Two in the toilet. Same routine: stall, pants, diapers, shit, wipe, port, tube, bag, zip, scream, “Don’t hold the curtain for me!” We miss Act Two. We’re in our seats for Act Three, but after ten minutes, Dave falls asleep with his head on my shoulder, where he leaves a circle of drool. He wakes for the curtain call.

“It was fabulous,” he says. “Wasn’t it fabulous?”

We both say it was fabulous. We stand, though standing is hard. The audience applauds, the actors bow, they exit, the stage goes dark, the house lights come up. Audience members file out of the theater, until there are just a few people standing near the stage, and Dave and me in our row.

Then Dave turns to me and says, “Now go get Nathan Lane.”

I can watch him shit. I can wipe his ass. I can hold the tubing for his Pentamidine drip, and try to bear the sight of needles piercing his veins. But one thing I cannot do is ask a movie star to talk to me or my dying, or even still living, friend.

“He’s not a movie star yet,” David says. “He’s not even really a Broadway star! He’s an off-Broadway star! I’m a semi-famous gay author! So are you! He’ll talk to us! We’re on the same level of fame!”

Hardly, I say. Don’t be bitter, he says. We bicker, Dave expectant, me stalling.

Then, deus ex machina, Nathan Lane appears.

Not the Good Witch of the East, not from out of the sky. Not in white or with a wand and the words to hurry us home. But in a burst of light, as velvet curtains part under an Exit sign at the front of the house. Scrubbed free of stage glitter and smiling affably, he comes. Though not summoned. A private audience has not been arranged, not by Dave, not by me.

Divine intervention? He’s headed for us. David is yelling his name.

“Nathan Lane, you were fabulous!” he yells. “I’m Dave! A semi-famous gay author. I brought you my books!” He points at me. “This is my punk! He’s a semi-famous gay author, too!”

I’m relieved not to have to wander backstage calling out for Nathan Lane. Then I’m embarrassed, because: um, Dave, who no longer cares what he says or to whom. Then I’m angry at being embarrassed. I don’t want to be ashamed of David, not in front of a stranger, certainly not a stranger who’s an off-Broadway star and appears through velvet curtains in a shaft of light.

Now Nathan Lane is standing at our row. The few people down by the stage move close to hear what he says. Not much. David is running the show. He raises his right hand and says, “Pen!” And I give him a pen. And then he says, “My book!” And I hand him the first of his three published books.

I forgot to say that I’ve been carrying his books. Go back and add them in. “In my hand, in a bag, in my knapsack hung on my back, I carried David’s books.” Write a sentence like that, put it where you want. Mention also that it was the last time I saw him alive. He died two days later. Also, that I was in shock. And I was protecting everyone else from shock. Which was how I protected myself.

Maybe you don’t know, or know but died, or should have known, or know but don’t want to know, or don’t have anyone left who also knows how ordinary it was for a while to see emaciated people with pin straight hair and skin like a sheet thrown over a corpse walking down the street.

By 1994 in New York City, AIDS had become ordinary, even as it remained occult, a minority affliction, the fate and circumstance of diseased pariahs, staged for your relief in downtown and Broadway theaters, providing catharsis, someone else’s loss or even your own kept distant because expected, like blindness in Greek tragedy. Familiar plot.

And David wanted to make it extraordinary again. He was a Russian formalist critic queered and dying and defamiliarizing AIDS. To show you how odd it was. How little of noble sentiment or poetic effusion could ever attach to it. How shitty it was. How pierced and bloody and diapered and screaming. How relentless and dull. How even death was boring in its incremental ravaging, a day, a day, a day. Boring also in the primal sense of boring into, drilling through flesh into bone, into marrow. How, when you laughed at David’s jokes, you were implicated in the pain from which those jokes arose. Jokes he made in order to endure his pain, and to inflict it.

His theater of cruelty.

I like Nathan Lane, too, but that doesn’t mean I want to make him watch me die.

Dave talks and talks, and signs the books I hand to him, first, second, and third. Then he gives them to Nathan Lane. Sometimes I wonder what happened to those books. Are they on a shelf with the Tony Awards? Does Nathan Lane have a story he tells late at night? Did he toss them in the garbage outside the theater? What did I do with my invitation to David’s last party? I sent one to myself. Where is the black Mead notebook with Dave’s questionnaire? His hospital diary? Did we leave it on Charlotte Sheedy’s desk? After David died, we put his white pants and T-shirts and blue coat and his IV stuff, bags and needles and tubes, in a big red bin for medical waste. Me and Santiago. Then I guess we called a special truck that came and took them away.

*

I wanted to give my life away. I didn’t know why. I wanted to render it unto to David, to people who were dying, to anyone who died.

Survivor guilt, people tell me. Political commitment, friendship, duty, love.

Maybe.

Or: Grandiosity. Catholic fervor, a form of blasphemy or pride. My life for yours. Except it’s not mine to sacrifice to you, or you, or you. It’s God’s. He gives, He takes it back. To act in His behalf is a sin.

That’s if I believed in God.

And sacrifice? Would I have fasted, set myself on fire, flaming faggot, in a public square?

David was fasting. He was flaming out. He was starving to death. Not on purpose. His body would not absorb what he ate. That’s how he died.

I loved him for the wrong reasons. I saw my chance to rescue him from death. It was abstract, not personal: someone has to not die. Or it was too personal: I can’t stand to lose you.

That’s why he hated me.

Not because I was an inept savior. Not just because I was inept. Not just because he died anyway, as he would have died with or without me. But because his death was necessary to me. I needed him to be dying in order to save him from death.

In case you were thinking I was proud of myself and angry at him.

I also wanted

I wanted to be there, in my body, with him, holding and held by him, when he died. Connected to him, part of what we were both about to lose.

What I had instead of connection or anyone’s martyrdom or salvation was the spectacle of his death.

It was.

Spectacular.

I’ll say that much for David. He knew how to stage a finale.

*

I don’t want to lie. I don’t want just to create an effect.

*

It’s 2015. Holiday weekend: 4th of July. Gay marriage just legalized. Literally, just. Dave’s been dead for twenty-one years, and I’m at my mother’s house in suburban Pennsylvania, in the guest bedroom of the condo complex where my parents moved six years ago. Retirement community. My father’s been dead for five years, and my mother’s been watching TV. Turner Classics. She’s in love with Cary Grant.

No thanks, I told her, just now, I don’t want to sit in the bedroom with her and her dog and watch the new HBO documentary about Larry Kramer. I don’t want to watch it with anyone. Not because I won’t like it. I’m sure it’s a great film. Great that Kramer – author of The Normal Heart, novelist of gay American history starting with Washington-in-love-with-Lafayette, AIDS activist, gay eminence, the guy who made sure a scene of naked wrestling between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed showed up in Women in Love, screenwriter of Lost Horizon, the Liv Ullmann musical, Cassandra of AIDS, founding member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, 80-year-old troublemaker even still – : it’s great and necessary that Larry Kramer is being given his due, especially in this moment of celebration, the success of the “marriage equality” movement.

Yet it’s a film I can’t watch, certainly not with my 84-year-old mother and her dog. Because I know it’s got footage of Dave’s last ACT UP meeting, the last one he ever attended, where he delivered his parting rant, his final public appearance and bit of political theater – the last stop on his farewell tour, a week? a day? the night before? he died.

I’m never sure who’s heard of ACT UP, and who hasn’t. Google it. There are books written. Documentaries, one of them Oscar-nominated. “ACT UP to end the AIDS crisis” was its motto and statement of purpose in 1987, and this is still its justification and plan. Dave’s why I started going to ACT UP meetings in the fall of 1989, and he’s why, five years later, I stopped.

It was Monday night. Dave’s last meeting. ACT UP/New York met on Monday nights. Still does. Was it before or after Nathan Lane’s play? Ha! A timeline organized around how recently you saw Nathan Lane.

Dave died two days A.L., After Lane. Did he? That night at the play was the last time I saw him. Him, Dave. The last time I saw him alive. Later I saw his dead body, but I’ve written that story already. Was Dave’s last ACT UP meeting the day before he died? He died on Halloween. Halloween or the next day. Halloween was Monday that year. I remember that the blue NYPD barriers from the Halloween Parade had not been taken down. They were still lining 7th Avenue, Monday?, Tuesday?, maybe it was Wednesday that I said good-bye to his body, his corpse.

Did he die Tuesday morning? I was in Flushing, Queens, at Queens College, where I teach Creative Writing, and where, as far as I can figure, at the moment Dave died, I was standing in front of a classroom writing a line from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River” on the chalk board: “The river was there.” It matters that the river is there, because nothing else is. The town around the river has burned to the ground. I was explaining this to my students. Then I stopped. I felt warm, and heavy, and slowed-down. It must have been just a few seconds, although it seemed much longer. That night after class, I got the news on a pay phone in an Irish bar near campus that David had died. I don’t remember who told me.

He could not have gone to an ACT UP meeting the night before he died, because I was there, and that meeting was not the last time I saw him alive.

I took him to the meeting. I was holding his bag. Cradling his IV bag while he ranted. Which may or may not be true. About the bag, I mean. I remember him in his white pants and T-shirt, yelling and infusing. He was an efficient guy, a multi-tasker even in death. Did I have his bag? Why do I imagine that it was hanging from a rolling IV pole, and that Dave grasped the pole, and rolled it back and forth across the floor as he delivered his rant? That’s a scene from Philadelphia. Tom Hanks did that, not Dave. There was no aria in the background, Maria Callas wasn’t singing “Porto sventura a chi bene mi vuole”: Just because you’re dying doesn’t mean that you’re the only one at risk.

I have no idea what he said at the ACT UP meeting.

“Fuck you, I’m dying.” Something like that. “Fuck you. Your fault. I’m dying.”

If I watched the HBO documentary about Larry Kramer, I would know.

But I don’t want to know.

I took him to the meeting. We had a bad cab ride downtown. The cab had no shocks, and the driver hit as many potholes as he could, across 23rd Street and down 9th Avenue. Every time we hit a pothole, Dave screamed. We were Keystone Cops in a slapstick bathtub being rolled through city streets. The cab slammed and cracked and split against the pavement and pulled up and disgorged us in front of the 13th Street Community Center, which had not yet been monetized by corporate homosexuals and was still funky and half-formed, a New York City public school repurposed as a meeting place for queers.

And so into the building we went. Me with his bag, Dave a holocaust Jew, emaciated, raging, his beautiful deep-set green eyes hot with the flame that had burned away his flesh and left only a stare and a body in white. He was an avenging angel. Not one of Tony Kushner’s angels come to deliver the divine terms of our human mission and salvation. David was the Angel of Fuck You. He was the Angel of I Die, You Do Nothing. The Angel of This Is What Your Democracy Looks Like, democracy in diapers, shit-smeared in your neglect.

He was the Angel of Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me. Dave would have loved the Canadian AIDS activists who, twenty years after his death, raged that the historical accounts of ACT UP’s “heroic era” 1987-1996, the films, books, news reports, encomia from Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper, did not stress the life-denying information: there is still no cure. He was the Angel of You Failed, Where’s My Cure? “When I die of kidney failure,” he’d say, if he were alive now, “because of the drugs I’ve been taking for nineteen years, not to mention the worthless drugs I took for six years before that, that’s when I dare you to tell me that ACT UP worked.”

Me and Dave and our Rolling Thunder Review. Twenty-one years ago. Taking the Community Center. Scorched Earth. We were revving our tanks in order to withdraw from the field and leave nothing behind. Nothing the enemy could use. Who was the enemy? Don’t say Ed Koch, that’s obvious. Or Ronald Reagan, George Bush I. Abe Rosenthal, duh. The New York Times. No. You were. The enemy was you. So was ACT UP. So were cute boys and gay girls in combat boots. Dave’s friends. Everyone who had ever loved or rejected him. Especially me.

We rolled into the Center. The meeting was on the first floor. It was a straight shot from the front door to the room with fucked-up walls and metal pillars in your sight lines. For a while, ACT UP was so large it met across town at Cooper Union, where Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had long ago tried to change the world. By the fall of 1994, no cure in sight, shrunken in ranks, we were back at the Community Center. At Dave’s last meeting, there were thirty, forty people in folding metal chairs across the concrete floor.

You can watch the film if you want to see the rest of this: Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, 2015, 82 minutes, directed by Jean Carlomusto. I’m sure it’s good. Dave’s speech, some of it, is at 1.05.11. James Wentzy shot the footage. I remember seeing Wentzy with his camera, back then, recording Dave, and then for twenty years, I forgot.

*

Two weeks after the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, I got HBO Now on my iPhone, and lay on my bed in Brooklyn, fast-forwarding through the documentary until I saw Dave’s emaciated face. And then I stopped.

*

I don’t think dying is sacred or profane. It’s routine. I mean, it happens. David made a spectacle of his death, to prove there was nothing ordinary about it. It was a political death, it wasn’t personal. I wish it had been personal. I wanted it to happen, not just to David, but to me. It was also happening to me. I’m glad he died, because people die, and I want to die. I don’t ever want to not die. Dying is human. It doesn’t offend me. It was awful to watch him not die.

*

In the cab home from ACT UP, Dave said, “Why are you watching me all the time?”

And I said, “The thing is, you seem really stressed, and I – not just me, a bunch of us were – we’re just worried, you know, and maybe if you just – ”

“What? Maybe if I just what?”

“Are you going to die without – ” is what I wanted to say.

I couldn’t say the sentence, even to myself. Without what? I can’t say it now. You repeat the story, Auden says, until you reach the point in the narrative where you stumble, where you trip. The split in the seam, rip in the fabric where the story begins. Pull the thread. You write about what unravels.

*

I get proprietary about David. I don’t like to hear people talk about him. I don’t understand what happened. Sometimes people say you learn things and move on. Or they say absurd stuff like God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle, which is clearly bullshit. God: pfft. And what was there to handle? There was nothing to handle. There was no moving on. Don’t you need to have an experience in order to move on? What experience? What did I learn? David didn’t want to die. I was not supposed to let him die. He was dying all the time, everyone knew he was dying, he knew, he made jokes about it, but to talk to him about his death was not allowed. There was no talk of death. There was no death. I was forbidden to think of his death, and then he died. It was the most painful thing that ever happened to me. I had nothing left. I had nothing, and then I had nothing left. I wish people would never ask me about him. I wish they would never say his name.

 

(Published in New South, 2008; revised 2015)

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American Graffiti

(Published in *Gulf Coast*, 2009; newly revised)

Jodie Foster came out on the Golden Globes by saying she wouldn’t.

It was the opposite of a speech act that performs what it says. Her statement performed what it didn’t say. What it refused to say. It was like how you’d come out if you were Magritte.

There she is framed in the TV set or computer screen, enacting disclosure, above a caption that reads, “This Is Not a Disclosure.”

A surrealist says, “I’m gay,” but it’s in French and it’s a collage and the words are scattered across the page in the shape of a teapot.

It was 2013. She was fifty-one years old. “If you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler,” she said, “maybe you too might value privacy above all else.”

And what I want to know is: what’s “privacy?”

*

It’s the bicentennial spring of 1976, and I’m in the middle of a football field in Annandale, New Jersey, graduating from high school. I’m high, but not as high as I want to be, because I’m still here, and aware of being here. My best friend Jenny picked me up this morning in her VW Beetle and brought me to school, and we split a joint in her car, and she gave me a couple hits of speed. “Are you high as a motherfucker?” she said, which was what she liked to say, and we laughed. She had graduated two years ahead of me, but she was a student at Trenton State Teachers College, and she was still around. I was really high.

Not high enough, though, like I said. Because I knew there would be trouble at my high school graduation, and there was.

I went to a big rural high school in Northwestern New Jersey, in a part of the state that is now a bedroom community for pharmaceutical executives who work in Rahway and New Brunswick, and Wall Street types who commute to Lower Manhattan, an hour away on Route 78, but which was still, in 1976, undeveloped hill country. And though there were new housing tracts spreading out around Pittstown and Clinton, and though there were plenty of suburban kids in our high school who lived in Tewksbury Township bordering the horse country in Far Hills where Jackie Kennedy had ridden to hounds, still, the place was – and if you went there now you would still see – corn fields, dairy farms, chicken farms, slapdash housing spilling down the Musconetcong Mountain ridge, country roads cutting through open fields, backyard horses, junkyard dogs. Hunterdon County, New Jersey. A big river valley. Isolated, verdant, up and down hills. Sometimes spreading out flat along a plateau. Delaware River up the west side, Musconetcong River across the top of the county, Lamington River down the east, and the South Branch of the Raritan River weaving in and out of the less hilly southern edge of the county. Maybe the slapdash houses aren’t there anymore. I am still afraid of chicken farmers and white teenagers, and here’s why.

We’re sitting on temporary bleachers centered on the 50-yard line. The audience is facing us in the regular stadium bleachers. There are 2500 students in our high school, maybe 600 in our graduating class. I have finished school a year early, not because I’m smart, or have good grades. All I needed to graduate in three years was the credits, and I took summer courses – Sociology last summer with a hippie guy in a Beatles-in-India white linen blouse and a big bushy beard, which would not describe most of our teachers – and I got enough credits, and fled.

I never wanted to spend a day at my high school. Not another day. Certainly not another whole year, and now that I’m done I don’t have to. Though I have been compelled to attend my high school graduation.

My parents are sitting in the stadium bleachers with my brother, back from his first year of college. People’s families and friends sit in orderly rows, with members of the freshman, sophomore, and junior classes, maybe curious to see what they can expect when it’s their turn to leave.

I’m in the back row of the infield bleachers. We’ve been seated alphabetically, and my last name comes late in the alphabet, so I’m at the end. We have rehearsed for the ceremony, and we know it will go like this: after speeches, after the bestowal of prizes, after the student valedictorian’s address, after the national anthem, and the school song, and the listing of members of the National Honor Society, and a blessing by both an Episcopal minister and a Catholic priest – all of that, maybe not in that order – the Superintendent will call our names one at a time, and we will, each of us individually, walk down off the bleachers, cross in front of the audience, climb a set of steps to the Superintendent, grab his palm with one hand and the diploma with the other, turn and go back down the steps, pass again in front of the audience, and then walk behind the bleachers and circle back to our seats.

Our names are called quickly, one right after the other, because there are a lot of us, heading in a continuous green line to get our handshakes and diplomas. Yet there is time for each of us to have his or her or their sole individual congratulatory moment.

It’s a beautiful June day in the middle of the afternoon. The football field is down the hill from the school building, a two-story red brick 1950s high school that has been added onto every decade in jutting extensions. The school grounds are banked in the side of a hill along Route 31, which goes south to Flemington and past our rival high school, the Devils. We’re the Lions. Our colors are green and gold. Our mortarboards are hung with green and gold tassels that have been stitched at the top with little gold liberty bells, marking the Bicentennial. After everybody’s name is called, and everyone greets and thanks the Superintendent, and has returned to the bleachers, we are going to grab our tassels and move them from one side of the mortarboard to the other. We rehearsed this.

Across the highway is a huge field that fades into the distance, with a white farmhouse and red barn just visible at the line of the horizon. There are woods all around us, and we can turn our heads as far as possible in every direction and scan past green tops of trees and the two green electrified football scoreboards, which are scoreless, but announce that we are statewide football champions, because our football team was number one in its division in the whole state last fall.

In the pauses between and among commencement speeches, when the public address system goes briefly silent, we hear cars on Route 31 headed to Flemington, or down the road to Clinton two miles away, where two old mills face each other across the South Branch of the Raritan River.

It’s a big rural high school in a landscape of farmlands that were once thriving and are turning slowly into suburbs, the spent agricultural economy and new consumer economy laid out side by side or growing and decaying inside each other, in the northern part of the county, at the base of a range of low hills.

The Superintendent calls my name. I stand, walk down the bleachers, and join the students heading for their diplomas. I’m wearing a green robe over clean slacks and a button-down shirt, Wallabees sticking out under my robe, tasseled mortarboard on my head.

When my name comes over the PA system in a series of echoes, a gang of kids sitting in the audience yells that I’m a fag. I step down off the bleachers and onto the field, and they yell louder. I don’t know how many are yelling. Ten, twelve, twenty. Ten would be enough.

They yell:

“Faggot.”

“Fairy.”

“Gay boy.”

“Fruitcake.”

“Homo.”

“Girly fag.”

“Queer.”

None of this is surprising. I’m the high school homo. I expect to be called a faggot, every day. Called a fag, pushed against lockers and threatened, shoved on my way through hallways from class to class, screamed at from the windows of the school bus after I get out at my stop at day’s end and the bus disappears down the street with kids hanging out the windows and calling me a fag. That’s also how the day, each day, begins: heads of kids out the school bus windows, their voices growing louder as the bus approaches. “Hey, fag.”

I have known all along that I would not get past the audience at graduation without being called a faggot in a chorus of voices, loud enough for everyone to hear.

I walk through the sound of their voices. I go up the steps to the Superintendent, who shakes my hand and says, “Congratulations.”

I get my diploma. Then I turn around, back down the steps, past the audience, through the voices, around behind the bleachers and back up to my seat, where I sit down and wait for the signal to move my tassel with the gold liberty bell from one side of my hat to the other.

*

I got through high school with the help of two things, marijuana and musicals. It’s supposed to be sex and drugs and rock and roll in the 1970s, but I was not having sex. I was fourteen years old. I was seventeen the year I graduated. Sex was way out of my range, not to mention opportunity. Of course, I thought about sex all the time, but it didn’t involve other people. I had penetration anxiety. I couldn’t see myself mounting anything. That’s what sex was, getting on top. Boys got on top. Everyone said so, boys and girls both.

There was no internet porn, there was no internet, there was my mother’s beat up paperback copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and a novel called The Crazy Ladies, which was Fifty Shades of Grey ahead of its time, only comic, with a group of women orbiting a polymorphously perverse sexual sybarite named Robert Fingerhood, a great name for a character in Dickens, I thought. I had no idea what anyone in that book was really doing in moving cabs and big comfy beds on the Upper East Side.

Later, in the early 1980s, I was grateful that I had been so clueless about sex, because I figured my stupidity had kept me alive. Unexposed to HIV by 1982. I was glad for what I couldn’t do, but it didn’t seem to me like a blessing in 1976. When is it ever a blessing to be paralyzed with anxiety and shame about your desire? Rhetorical question. D. H. Lawrence in any case wasn’t much help. Or maybe you’ve never read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. As a sex manual, it was about as useful as Popular Mechanics, copies of which my engineer grandfather who lived five miles from us in a log cabin in High Bridge kept in his john.

My father worked in the city. He was a TV executive in Manhattan, and he left early and got home late. My mother raised and trained horses and dogs and rescued strays that sometimes showed up floating in our pond with their heads stuck in dog food cans they had dug out of the garbage. She rescued cats, dogs, chipmunks, squirrels, and whatever the cats caught: baby geese, ducklings, birds she pried out of their mouths. She hated cats. In the afternoon, she rode her mare, a retired racehorse, bareback at the bottom of the field behind our grammar school. I’d look up from my 5th grade reader, Engine Whistles, and see my mother on horseback galloping in the distance.

Often at night my mother got a babysitter from Califon or figured what the hell and loaded my brother and me into the car; and my father, back from work, drove straight from the Gladstone train station and met her at an old stone mill in Clinton, where my parents and their pals put on plays. Mostly musicals. My mother directed them, and my father played drums. I can still sing the score of Man of La Mancha, beginning to end.

When I was in 7th grade, the high school hired my mother to direct the Spring Musical, My Fair Lady, and that’s where I met Jenny and started getting high. She was the Stage Manager. I was on her crew, with a bunch of high school kids, though I was still in grade school. A few of my classmates had been calling me a fag since the 5th grade, but 7th grade was when everybody started naming me, and I was grateful to hang out at night with older kids like Jenny who didn’t yet know what I was. They found out, though.

*

Jenny was my best friend. She smoked Marlboro Lights and had a car. My brother called her “Handlebar Jenny” because she wore her hair in two pigtails that stuck out from either side of her head. She had a big German nose and John Lennon wire-frame granny glasses, and she dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts like a boy. Her mother was actually German, German-from-Germany, and her father was massive and German Irish and Chief of Police of Clinton, New Jersey. His name was Gus. Jenny was their only daughter, out of six kids.

She was my rock star and bodyguard, caustic, brotherly, and aloof. Under cover of her friendship, I could go places where I would not be called a fag. Even squeezed between two of her five mean brothers at her mom’s dinner table, I felt safe. Not because her dad was a cop. He came to dinner with Caesar, a blue-black German Shepherd with matted fur and hip dysplasia. We ate in silence while Chief Gus shared his food with the dog, and Jenny’s mom doled out seconds before our plates were clean.

Her mom must have thought Jenny and I were dating, because the night before my high school graduation, she made a huge meal in my honor. Meat loaf, creamed corn, cole slaw, scalloped potatoes, hot rolls, and lemonade. For dessert, she baked a cake. It was more a lesson than a dessert. A bitter chocolate Schwarzwald cake with marzipan icing that sealed it tight. On top was my name in gothic script. I felt warned. Jenny’s mom was Bavarian and her kitchen was hung with German samplers that said Verboten. She knew I wanted to get out of New Jersey without saying good-bye. Two days after my graduation, I was leaving for a summer job, and then I was going to college in Ohio. For the past year, I had been trying not to make an impression, so I could vanish without a trace. Yet Jenny’s mom served a cake as dense and heavy as a doorstop.

Despite what her mom suspected or wished, Jenny and I weren’t “going steady,” we were potheads. We had gotten high before dinner, and my pupils were spinning plates on a juggler’s stick. “Can you please be cool?” Jenny whispered. I could never be cool. Before dessert was done, she grabbed my arm and hurried me out to her hippie car, a blue Volkswagen Beetle, where she lit a joint and headed for the interstate. She never worried about cops, because of her dad. Or maybe she was just lucky. “She baked that thing all day,” she was saying, “your cake. Do you know what I got at my high school graduation? I’m the oldest, the first. My mom never graduated high school. You know what I got? From her?” She passed me the joint. “I got to do the dishes, that’s what I got.” Then she stepped on the gas.

We were going to Oldwick. Our friend Sherrie was throwing a party while her parents were gone, and she wanted us to meet her new boyfriend, Pierce, a senior at the Lawrenceville School near Princeton, who had pot to sell: Colombian weed, my graduation present.

We were celebrating, but not yet. Jenny was pissed off. “My father’s goddamned dog,” she was saying. “He’s such an asshole.” Her esses hissed like Satan’s. I loved her abrading voice, which I felt up the back of my neck. She hardly wasted her scorn on anything she didn’t love. “He eats cake off his plate and it gives him the runs,” she said. It wasn’t clear whether she meant Dad or the dog: Who fed whom, who got the runs, which one of them was the asshole? “He thinks he’s Jesus.”

“Who? Caesar? Your dad’s dog is Jesus?”

“No, not the dog,” she said, punching me in the arm. Days later, I noticed a small bruise. “You’re all so hang dog,” she said, “like him.”

We never fought. Were we fighting now? I wasn’t sure. What if we were? I started to sing. “I have often walked,” I sang. “Down this street before.” It was from My Fair Lady, of course. The guy who sang it at our high school looked like Bobby Sherman in Here Come the Brides.

“Oh my fucking God,” Jenny said. “He never got that song right.”

“People clapped.”

“People clap at dog acts.”

“What kind? Like eating Mom’s Schwarzwald cake off the plate?”

That did it. We fell into a laughing jag. The trigger was “Schwarzwald.” We laughed so hard she almost swerved off the road, but I wasn’t scared. I had ridden with Jenny when we were high on everything from hash to tequila, and we always got home.

“Jesus – ,” she said.

“ – is somebody’s dog,” I said, finishing her sentence, not blinking as she swerved, proving I could be cool.

“Don’t blaspheme in my car,” she said, crossing herself, which she meant and didn’t. “I never called anyone Jesus. I said, ‘He thinks he’s Jesus.’”

“So does Jesus.”

“Will you shut up?”

“That’s the trouble with Jesus,” I said, repeating something I heard my mom say at a cocktail party. “What if Jesus was just one of those guys who thinks he’s Jesus?”

That silenced us. We didn’t speak again until we got off the highway. Jenny took the exit ramp, and we were on the Oldwick Road. We lowered our windows and felt the damp air, full of the scent of pine sap and red clay dirt, and the ammoniac smell of dung rising from the low hills that rolled into corn rows and pasture for cattle. “Everything is ripe here,” I said accusingly. Then Jenny pulled to a Stop sign, and turned to me.

“Where do we go now?” she said. She sounded angry, not lost.

And for the first time, I wondered if she was upset about my leaving. I had never asked. I went blank around Jenny, especially when we got high. She let me disappear. What if she had been waiting all this time for me to, you know, “start something?” Wow, that seemed unlikely. I looked out the window. We were in front of the Oldwick Public Library, where we had once seen Bonnie and Clyde. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty played outlaws who didn’t have sex. Was that Jenny and me? Which one of us was Clyde? The whole point of our friendship was not to think about sex. We had an unspoken agreement that she would protect me from mean guys, and I would never grab her breasts. She said breasts were a dart-board under your chin.

Was I supposed to “make a move?” I couldn’t even think of the words without laughing. It was how her brothers talked. Maybe it’s what her mom’s cake meant. Jenny’s rage at her dad’s dog was because I had never stuck my head in her lap? Was that possible? She knew I was a faggot. A couple of her brothers called me a fag at school. When I phoned her house and one of her brothers answered, I’d hear him saying, “It’s your little gay boyfriend.”

No way she was waiting for me to start something.

I was high, though. We were high as motherfuckers. What if I was wrong, what if I wanted her, what if she wanted me?

I heard myself in my stoned voice saying, “We should do it.”

My just-having-inhaled-a-toke voice.

“Why don’t we – ” I said, and she put a stop to that.

“What the fuck?” she said.

I was sort of insulted. “You think I can’t do it?” I said. “Let’s go get Pierce’s pot, and then drive to the Hackettstown Mall for a pack of broncos, and we can park in a cornfield near the Fairmont Church – ”

“‘Pack of broncos?’”

“I meant condoms.”

“I know what you meant.” She was really laughing now. “Are you high, or something?”

I started laughing, too, which killed the moment. Maybe resolved it, maybe ruined it, maybe just smoked it away. Anyway, I had a gay laugh. I tossed my head back and opened my mouth and went, “Hah, hah, hah,” and then my shoulders collapsed and I was a pool of jelly in the passenger seat of Jenny’s car. She was laughing, too. Shapeless with laughter. We weren’t Bonnie and Clyde, we were single-cell life forms idling at a Stop sign. In Jenny’s earnest German household, no one was silly. I was her fool. She liked to cue me, and she liked to shush me. Shifting the car into gear, done laughing, she said, “Which way is Sherrie’s house?”

“I thought you got directions,” I said, trying to decide if she had hurt my feelings. If my feelings should have been hurt.

“Oh,” I said. “I think we turn left up ahead.”

She looked at me like she was about to say something she could never take back. “Try not to get wasted too fast,” she said. “Okay? We have the whole night.” Then she pulled away from the Stop sign and got to Sherrie’s house without my help.

*

I was twenty-five years old before I told anyone what high school was like. Told, unwillingly. I didn’t want anyone to know. I was ashamed. I knew I had caused it. The taunts, attacks, not daily but hourly threats, cat calls, public shaming, on the school bus, in hallways, like I said, in classrooms dissecting earthworms, on playing fields, in locker rooms, choir halls, onstage when I was performing in plays, in the lunch room, the library, anywhere. For years afterwards, I could not walk by a group of two of more people without wincing, steeling myself, ready to be called a fag. I spent college waiting to be named. It stopped when I moved to New York, where I could disappear. And I disappeared for half my twenties, into a blackout, not an alcoholic blackout but an emotional absence from my day, every day, for years.

Then I fell in love with a health care professional, ha. Mental health, no kidding. We got in a fight once, I forget why. We fought a lot. It was a bad fight, and he hit me, hard across the face with his bare hand. He had been married – not gay-married, there wasn’t gay marriage when he was in his twenties – and he wore a ring on the slapping hand. Maybe it was a wedding ring. Somehow, I never asked.

The ring left a scratch on my face. It was there for a while. I was more shocked than hurt. We were in his apartment, standing in the open door that led to a garden. It was August, hot and hazy, and the trees smelled like semen. Gingko trees. The smell of semen from flowering trees in the summer night.

My boyfriend was as handsome as he could possibly be, and older, which I liked. He was a man, another reason I liked him. I did not think of myself as a man.

He hit me really hard. I felt his ring scratching my face. He had been sexually abused as a child. He had been called a faggot by his father.

I cried, not from pain but surprise. Then I said, “They hated me.” The words came out. They were not planned. We both heard them. “They hated me,” I said, twenty times, a hundred times. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about. I stayed with him for six years. “They hated me, they hated me, they hated me.” I was crying, and I couldn’t stop. He was nice to me for a while afterwards. “They hated me,” I told him, just as stunned by the words as he was. My beating heart pumped them out of me. Blood spurting with the force of a bodily function I couldn’t control. A mess I made that now I would have to clean up.

*

We parked behind a Peugeot in Sherrie’s circular drive and chased the sound of voices down a slate path that led to the back of the house. The path widened and became a patio around a glowing pool whose surface sparkled with heat and reflected moonlight. “Jesus,” Jenny said, either in warning or exclamation, or both. “Yeah, really,” I said, staring at the pool, the patio, the curtained French doors thrown open to the lawn, and at the tanned girls in halter tops and peasant skirts lounging in iron chairs at the poolside, and the boys in shorts and Madras shirts standing in the living room by the liquor cabinet, mixing drinks with sneaky names – Slow Comfortable Screw, Sex on the Beach – and playing Bob Dylan on the stereo.

At the edge of the patio, we stopped. I liked to pause at the start of things. There was a chance I would giggle, or sing show tunes, or play with my hair. I had to remind myself to be cool. So far, none of the girls had seen us. Most of them were cheerleaders, like Sherrie, and they could have been as far away as a football field, they seemed so out of reach. Still, some of them were my friends. I liked to hang out with girls, because they were not afraid of anything. They were the real boys, lying, fearless, obscene, and indestructible. When they were not turning cartwheels and baby-sitting for their moms’ friends, they cut class and drove drunk and made out in parked cars with boys so trashy even I could shun them. Or they crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania where they passed for legal in red neck bars and shot pool with bearded guys who lived in hippie communes outside Easton.

And they never got caught. Girls were shrewd. They were painful and impressive. Yet they made a show of their magnificence in order to attract – who? Jesus? Hollywood? Eternity? No, boys. The object of all their audacity and rage was teenaged boys. Girls aimed low, and they got there. Except Jenny. She didn’t care about men, maybe because she had so many brothers. Sherrie, in contrast, was all about guys. And the guys at her party were forming themselves into a pack and stalking out of the house, their bodies gleaming like open razors as they headed across the lawn towards the cluster of girls.

Then Sherrie came out of the house, laughing and holding hands with a guy. Was that Pierce? Jenny’s dealer? He was tall as somebody’s dad. Sherrie was four foot nine, if that, but tonight, barefoot in blue jeans and a black hooded blouse, she came up to Pierce’s bent elbow as he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of her palm. He was wearing a pink Oxford cloth button-down shirt, un-tucked and hanging over his ass. The boys who sold pot to Jenny didn’t wear pink shirts. They were from Bayonne, and they had peach fuzz on their pimpled cheeks and Jethro Tull blasting from their eight track tape decks. She also did business with Princeton boys, but I couldn’t picture them. I was a public school kid, I didn’t know how to identify a preppie white guy from Princeton.

Pink-clad, with brown hair that hung to his shoulders – not in a girly way, like mine – Pierce delivered Sherrie to her guests. That was their conceit, that the party was Sherrie’s debut. And she made an impression. She was not flamboyant, she was just buoyant. With her black hair newly bowl-cut like Dorothy Hamill’s, she looked cute and happy and half his height, yet he leaned to her effortlessly, and she seemed to float into his grasp. Everyone had stopped talking in order to watch Pierce lean and Sherrie float. Jenny and I got a tracking shot of the action. Then the two of them turned and headed for us, for Jenny and me. Nervously, I grabbed Jenny’s hand and squeezed it hard. It was the first time we had held hands. Except for passing a joint, we hardly ever touched.

“Look,” I said. “It’s the Great Gatsby.”

She didn’t seem to care that I was clutching her palm. Or, no, she was pretending not to notice. I felt her indifference. Wow, that was new. I was startled. “Are you pissed at me?” I said. “Because I talked about sex? I was kidding.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“You’re pissed because I’m not Jesus? You’re tired of driving? I’m sorry I don’t have my license. I’m sorry you have to drive while I’m getting high.”

“I have to drive while I’m getting high.”

“And I’m sorry for that.”

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

I was being dismissed, in favor of him. That guy. He was threatening my safety. Jenny was my armor, and I could not afford to lose her to a boy. Even worse, he was dressed kind of fruity, and I was supposed to be the queerest guy around. If I had to be a faggot, then I was going to be the faggot. I’m not calling him gay. Maybe he was French, or southern, or rich. I didn’t care what he was. For now, I wanted Jenny’s attention to be centered, again and as always, on me. I was ready to bug her, if that was the only way to keep her.

“Did I say something stupid at dinner?” I asked.

“You didn’t say anything at dinner.”

“I don’t like to speak in your house. I’m afraid of your dad.”

“Everyone’s afraid of my dad. He’s the Chief of Police.”

“Why are you repeating everything I say?”

“Who said I was repeating everything you say?”

“I did. Do you want me to go? You’re my ride. If I leave, you have to take me.”

“Shh,” she said, like a Stage Manager during a scene change, hissing, “Quiet backstage!” After all, I was her stage crew. She was my Stage Manager, and she taught me to wear black and disappear into the background. If I showed up onstage while the lights were low and the audience was breathing, it would wreck things.

She was a great teacher, funny and smart, and just mean enough to make you want to do things her way. And always there was her gravelly, melodic laugh. Maybe my sudden rage at Pierce was a student’s possessive love for his teacher. I wanted to be her only pupil. I knew I was over-reacting. But I felt like I was watching the end of our friendship glide across the lawn.

When they finally reached us, their arrival coincided with a special effect: The porch lights on the side of the house went dark and a dozen lights around the ledge of the pool flashed on. Steam rose from the water, and everyone clapped. Sherrie introduced the two of us to Pierce, who said nothing. Oh, he had that silent grace, like all authentic guys. It didn’t matter if they were chicken farmers or bankers’ sons, boys knew how to be quiet and still. I was irritated by his calm, and I pulled Jenny’s hand to my lips, mockingly, as if for a kiss. I would have licked her palm if she hadn’t stopped me.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said.

Sherrie was nodding. In agreement? Normally, she was a protective pal, like Jenny. Protecting me meant you knew I was a fag, but never mentioned it. Sherrie was another friend I met onstage. Our Spring Musical last year was The Fantasticks. I was the Boy and Sherrie was the Wall, a mute part. She ran around in black tights, handing out props and dropping tinfoil rain on me and the Girl. When her back was turned to the audience, she made goofy faces, mocking our love scenes – just to be silly, not mean.

In real life, she was not satirical. She was a cheerleader. She was also the only Asian American student in my high school, and so small she was always the girl who got hoisted to the top of the human pyramid the cheerleaders built at Pep Rallies and Homecoming Games. “I’m tiny and Korean,” she said, not ironically, but truthfully. “Where else would they put me? Up there for everyone to stare at. Except on top, of course,” she said, laughing, matter-of-fact.

She was matter-of-factly laughing as she held hands with Pierce. “We’re all friends,” she said. “Okay?” It was a cheerleader’s “Okay!” It meant the game was on, and the game was, “Don’t sell pot in the middle of my backyard. Be cool.” Everyone was gravely silent. Marijuana was most serious thing we could think of. We smoked cheap weed in parked cars and cemeteries in the dark, but we acted like we were outlaw dealers hiding a million dollar stash from both the FBI and an international drug cartel.

Then Pierce cleared his throat. That was all – but for a minute, nobody moved or made a sound. He was standing in the middle of the circle we had formed around him, and he filled it with an attitude of ease and fury, trapped at the center that he simultaneously hogged and loathed. Hating the attention, he refused to budge. He was martyred to our attention, a lesser crucifixion in the suburban night. I saw how foolish I had been to mention sex to Jenny. Desire was coaxed forth not by entreaty but sulking, and Pierce sulked with a sexy stoop to his shoulders and a lazy patrician frown. Jenny, who was never weird around guys, was ignoring him so aggressively it was a declaration of love.

I wanted a cigarette. That would be a mistake. I smoked wrong. Guys smoked like they were taking a lonely shit after a losing game, straining against their rage and constipation: Brief stabbing drags, the butt gripped between their thumb and pointer finger and driven into their mouths. What fun was that? Smoking was supposed to be British. I was afraid to light up in front of Pierce because he would find out I smoked with an accent. What’s more, I was staring at his chest, at the span of collarbone visible at the base of his neck. He must have thought I was looking at the Salems in the pocket over his heart, because he fished out the pack and held it flat in his palm, saying, “Want one?”

I pictured Jenny’s dad offering cake to Caesar, and I thought, “Now I’m the dog.”

“You don’t smoke menthol,” Sherrie said. “He doesn’t smoke menthols.”

“He smokes OPs,” Jenny said, maybe trying to insult me. “Other People’s.”

“Go ahead,” Pierce said. “Help yourself.”

“Sure, thanks,” I said, shrugging, like it was no big deal, either way.

I was lying, of course. It was a really big deal. Because, Jesus Christ. I had never wanted anyone as much as I immediately wanted Pierce.

*

I wasn’t gay, I was a girl.

Not just a girl. I was an actress. That’s what I wanted to be. I still do. The women in movies in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. They were so much better than men. Porous with need, but what did they need? You’re Streisand, you’re Liza, what else could you possibly need? Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Glenda Jackson. Liv Ullmann, Gena Rowlands. What were they seriously without? Yet they moved towards you, they were attuned. They knew where you were, they reached out. Trained in the Method, some of them, Actors-Studio-emotive, ferally alert, they had learned hard what to watch for and how to listen. They were heart-shatteringly attentive, no one could stand them. Protecting everyone but themselves, protecting themselves by refusing protection, they gave whatever they had and felt safest having nothing.

Julie Christie, Ellen Burstyn, Jill Clayburgh, Cicely Tyson, Barbara Harris, Cloris Leachman, Carrie Snodgress, Karen Black. Miss Diana Ross as Billie Holiday: two miracles at once. Barbara Streisand singing “My Man.” Liza, “Maybe This Time.” Who did they think they were fooling, they should lose anything for love? Joanne Woodward saying, “How can I be out of danger if I’m still alive?” When was Joanne Woodward ever in danger? She married Paul Newman! If they were lucky, they got Newman, or Redford, or Warren Beatty. Was that luck? Newman sat home and drank beer and made salad dressing, he was in love with a racecar. Beatty played lost boy and seduced your wife. Redford wanted the woods. They didn’t want you, the men never wanted anything but to grunt with each other and get high and bang strangers and pass out, and prove they weren’t gay.

The women, though. Stunned by their own abjection. Why did they abase themselves? What did they get? The communist party? Bad abortions? Linda Blair? They got Estelle Parsons. Faye Dunaway got to die in cars. Shot dead with her head forever on the horn. Swiss-cheesed with bullets in a parked car watched by several cameras set to different speeds and rolling at once. Death, solitude, addiction. All because they had wants that involved other people. Because they appeared. The guys did not appear. They gave nothing and then vanished. Why want them? The camera said we should. When the men were in the room, everything stopped. The women stopped, the camera stopped to stare with pained apprehension at the men, who would either fuck you or ignore you, or refuse to fuck you, or fuck you and ignore you. Fucking was ignoring, it was a way to erase you. And the women allowed themselves to be erased by unresponsive men.

Jane Fonda! In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, she begs a man to kill her. In Klute, she needs a man to save her. How I wanted to be Jane Fonda when I was ten, when I was twelve. I thought, If that’s a girl, I can be a girl. I want to be a girl. If I were Jane Fonda, I’d always have the right haircut. I’d look great in men’s pajamas. I would get to say things like, “Goddam hypocrite squares!” Without irony. She wasn’t big on irony, which, fine. She didn’t need irony, she knew how to be watched.   She craved and resented your attention, men’s desire, and she had learned to inhabit the circle of light in which you wanted to define or exploit her. A light she used, and required, and felt trapped by, and found herself in.

I was in love with her self-consciousness. There was a space between her performance and herself. She didn’t consume her characters the way Bette Davis had devoured every part she played as if it were her last supper. Jane Fonda left a window open between her privacy and her sense of being voyeuristically seen. She made you complicit in her self-exposure. She fought back, she was beautiful and boyish and strong and smart, she had a man’s hands with long articulate fingers. She could crush you, if she wanted. I hope I don’t sound like a Billy Joel song. She was too honest, it galled her, but she said what she meant, and if it bugged you, whatever, your loss.

Her directors and photographers with their penis cameras were men. She knew who was watching her. I wanted her power to survive their gaze. The boys who called me faggot didn’t try to fuck me. I wasn’t being sexually abused, just verbally threatened, mocked and humiliated, smashed against lockers, followed around by strangers in the hallways and called a fucking queer. If I could be Jane Fonda. If I could be Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, she was fourteen, nearly my age, playing a prostitute, Jane played a prostitute in Klute, was that a viable career option? Could I at least get boys to pay to abuse me? I was an unpaid cock whore, they pinned me to the wall and shoved their hot straining red bursting blood engorged heads in my face, and called me a fucking faggot, and splattered me with rage.

*

Sherrie’s party was nearly done. No one was left. Just the four of us: me, Jenny, Pierce, and Sherrie. It was the fag end of the night. That’s what I kept saying. Out loud. “It’s the fag end of the night.” I was sitting by the pool, wasted. We all were. For the past couple hours, Pierce had been tending bar, where he mixed highballs from the Prohibition era – Monkey Glands and Sidecars and Luigis. Who knew what they were? Sherrie tried them all. Up to now her drinking had been limited to things that went with Coke: Rum and Coke, Jack and Coke, 7 and 7 with Coke instead of 7-Up. It wasn’t long before she got sick on Pierce’s bartending, and while she ran off to puke, most of her guests left. She hardly noticed their absence when she came back out to the patio and sunk into a chaise longue. It was made of cast iron and covered with a blue pastel pillow, and Sherrie, tiny and collapsed, with her black hair and hooded black blouse, looked like ink seeping into a self-folding airmail envelope.

Disappearing ink. She could mail herself away. Jenny didn’t like to drink – “The only thing that doesn’t make me barf on contact is tequila,” she said – and no matter how much pot she smoked, she never seemed high. Sober, expectant, she lay on the diving board, stretched out on her belly, her chin propped on her crossed arms. I don’t know when or how she got up there. Had she made her drug deal with Pierce? They had hardly spoken to each other from the second they met. No one talked. We seemed to have slept, and when we opened our eyes to look around, and to anchor ourselves to the conscious world, here was our evidence of situation and self: Jenny tensile and vibrant on the diving board, Sherrie merging with the lawn furniture, and Pierce and me facing each other across the pool.

Four of us squared off around a rectangle. A wrecked tangle: I was high and punning. Sherrie was drunk and burbling. Pierce was sipping at one of his cocktails. Both Jenny and I were secretly watching him, though Jenny’s secret was much more open. At the unsteady tip of the diving board, her head slightly bounced, the shining twin pinspots of her round glasses flickering up and down Pierce’s body.

He had taken off his pink shirt and his soft brown shoes and, in his white V-neck T-shirt with his jeans rolled up to his knees, he sat by the edge of the pool, soaking his feet in the water and his white face in the moonlight. His brown hair spilled from his head and ended at the crest of collarbone where his T-shirt left a pale line of flesh before exposing the ripe burn of his suntanned skin.

I never felt the dislocating pain of desire until I saw Pierce. Before he showed up by the side of the pool, I was undifferentiated from whatever I touched or saw, as if everything were me, including, not just Jenny, but her mom’s cake, and her dad’s dog, and her hippie car. Pierce flung me out in the world. I mean, my dick got hard. What was I supposed to do about that? Sherrie was knocked out and Jenny was watching Pierce. Which of us would he pick? I had to speak up. I had no idea what it would take to get someone other than me involved with my stiff dick, but I settled on this:

“Jenny says Jesus is a dog.”

I tried to catch Jenny’s eye, to see if she heard. But she was still watching Pierce. Before I knew what I was doing, I was talking so loudly that even Sherrie grunted.

“She thinks Jesus is a German Shepherd,” I said. “Named Caesar.”

I turned my head back and forth, watching Jenny and Pierce, tracking their response, which they expressed by growing even more immobile. You couldn’t be certain they were sensate, their bodies were so still. In the background was Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, drifting out from the living room, through open French doors hung with drapes that blew in the breeze. “I came in from the wilderness,” Dylan sang, “a creature void of form.”

“Jesus eats from the table, without utensils,” I said.

“Who doesn’t?” Sherrie said. Like the rest of us, she was waiting. We were all filled with waiting, or rather, with waiting for the wait to be done: The wait for whatever we wanted or hated to happen, for Pierce to choose or Jenny to speak, for Sherrie to sink or swim, for my commencement to come.

Then Jenny abruptly stood. Swaying at the end of the diving board, she took off her shoes and shirt, her jeans and bra, her panties, and her socks, balancing expertly, partly on one leg. She put her eyeglasses on top of her clothes. And then she jumped blind and naked into the pool.

It was maybe the most selfish thing she had ever done. As in, calling attention solely to herself. She swam a lap across the pool and back. She was a good swimmer.

Pierce laughed, put down his drink, stood up, and undressed. Then he, too, jumped in the pool. I watched this naked guy swim with my friend. The water distorted their bodies, so they looked wavy and green, but I could tell Jenny was beautiful. They reached the shallow end, and pulled themselves onto the blue lip of the tiled pool.

Clearly, she was not me. Her body was athletic and her breasts were really big. She let us see them, not embarrassed, though not showing off. I was aware of the defiant set of her chin, and the way she pressed her arms into her chest to steady the slight sway of her breasts. In her nakedness, it was only her hands that seemed exposed, and I wanted to cover them with mine.

I couldn’t say what I felt about Pierce. He was surprisingly soft. Nothing like the jocks in my gym class, farmer’s sons, with their hard limbs and calloused palms. Pierce had a preppie white boy’s pale soft body. When he leaned back and lay flat at the side of the pool with his feet still in the water, his chest and hips and thighs were a straight line, his gut scooped, and the bones of his pelvis were sharp.

It was his pelvic bones that made me stop breathing. I mean the depression between his groin and the jutting, saber-edged bone of the furthest edge of his hip.

We were instantly no longer high. Everyone was brightly lit. Jenny was staring straight ahead. Pierce had an erection. I had never seen an erect penis, before. Just mine. Pierce’s curved, which shocked me. I remember how he sat up and put his arm around her, and how he buried his face in her neck and touched her breasts, without a hint of compassion or regret.

*

If I had been a girl. I was already a girl. Pinned like girls in everyone’s gaze. Girls in old gingham dresses, hand-me-downs, rural poverty, their stringy hair, their sweaty smell. Girls who played horsey and jump rope at the bottom of the field behind the grade school building and chanted while I jumped: “Gypsy, gypsy, please tell me, who my husband is going to be. A rich man, a poor man, a beggar man, a thief. A doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief. . .”

Girls named Cha Cha. And Tiny. And Sexy. And Frog. And Greasy. And Lezzie Sex Queen. And Snowflake. And Bubblegum. Holly, Laurie, Tina, Cindy, Sharon, Betty, Agnes, Diana, Cheryl, Kathy or Cathy, Maureen. Girls who kissed each other playing spin-the-bottle at birthday parties because the guests were twelve girls and me.

Girls who were suspended from the 6th grade because they wore pantsuits, and were not allowed to wear pants in grade school, not even polyester. Girls who could kick a ball farther than me, not just me, but anyone. Girls who disappeared for weeks with older boys who played guitar in terrible bands. Girls who took you into the bathroom at pizza parlors and taught you how to smoke pot. Girls who got thrown to the ground and told to spread their legs by boys they laughed at.

Some of them must have been gay. I hope they were gay. Some of them were boys. I hope they’re still boys. They were kinder, gentler boys, they made more believable boys.

The only person I ever said anything to about being called a fag all the time was a girl. Her name was Nanette. She had long thick hair like Vanessa Redgrave.

Girls who got perfect scores on standardized tests. Who jumped naked from diving boards. Who smelled like horse liniment. Who ironed their hair. Who showed me how to braid my wet hair at night with rubber bands and wake in the morning with ecstatic frizz that hung to my shoulders.

Who played classical piano. Who sang show tunes. Who sang “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar onstage in the high school auditorium. Who were fucked by their step-fathers and never mentioned it for decades.

Girls who read Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Who wrote poetry they stole from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Who wrote me long letters for months that they folded small and tied in knots. Knot notes, I have them in a drawer somewhere.

Girls who gave head to the football team. “Gave head” = got raped.

Beautiful girls. Heedless girls. Homecoming Queens in frilly dresses bending down to dance with short boys. Who waited tables and served ice cream sundaes in skimpy uniforms.

Girls who took me to movies in their father’s car. Who bought me ID bracelets inscribed with their name for the 5th grade Christmas gift exchange. Who held my hand. Girls who sat beside me pretending to play saxophone in 6th grade band. Who twirled batons or ran track or forged a Smoking Card and stood in the rain in the Smoking Lounge and smoked Camels and Winstons and mocked me in their whiskey voices and hated boys and played Cat Stevens on their phonographs and burned watermelon incense in green glazed incense burners shaped like elephants and sang Carole King songs at choir concerts: “I still don’t have any answers, but I don’t get high anymore.”

Girls who did what they wanted, and knew you watched.

Girls who loved the same cruel boys that I did, and sometimes hated them as much.

*

The day of high school graduation, I missed the school bus. I was stuck. Bound to be late for my commencement. There was no question of heading back to my parents’ house, waking my brother again, begging a ride. He had already fetched me from Sherrie’s place in the middle of the night, after Jenny and Pierce disappeared. So I started to walk. The high school was seven miles off, and I got nearly halfway there, down to Route 31, when Jenny showed up.

“Hey, you,” she said.

She had driven onto the shoulder of the road, and she was leaning out of her car, calling my name.

I hadn’t seen her since her naked swim with Pierce. Now she was back. It was like the end of The Fantasticks, where the Boy comes back to the Girl after a long time away and sings about how everything he ever saw was her. Except we weren’t singing. And no one had been gone long. What’s more, I was the pining girl and she was the rambling man, though I didn’t expect a song on her return. I was half hoping she had Pierce in the car.

“You, kid,” she yelled.

The driver door swung open as she pulled alongside me. She was alone. I could see that she had not been home last night. Her hair was both frizzy and lank, uncombed, tangled and stiff where the chlorine had dried it out.

“Come on,” she said.

She drove slowly beside me on the shoulder of the road. It was awkward for her, which made me happy.

“Ask me how I got home last night, after you went off with him,” I said. Cars sped by, north and south, blasting us with tail wind.

“You freak,” she said.

“That’s what my brother said, when I woke him to come get me. He said some other stuff, too.”

“Come on,” she said, so roughly I could tell she was worried.

I really wanted to get in her car.

“I like walking,” I said. I was a few feet ahead of her now, and she was inching along behind. We moved like this down the side of the road, sweating in the June heat. Cars honked, thinking we were idiots. I loved her following me.

“Hey, you,” she said. “Put your ass in my damned car.”

I had mocked her in front of a boy, and she had left me by the side of the pool with no ride home. Which one of us was the more aggrieved? I hoped it was me. Could I afford to sulk? No. I wanted Jenny back. I wanted her to get out of her car and come to me. I stopped walking, and stood still. Jenny killed the engine. I waited for her by side of the road.

What is the thrill of knowing without looking that someone you love has come up beside you? I loved her. It wasn’t the same way I yearned for Pierce, but so what? Stupid kid. It hurt to look at him. Jenny was different. I knew the shape of her, by my side. Her shoulders and arms. I heard the rasp of her breath.

“Fuck you,” she said, real praise.

“I’d rather walk.”

We were talking the way we always did. It would be okay. Six months or a year from now, when there was time, we could ask each other what happened. Meanwhile, I got out a cigarette that I had stolen from my mom. “Got a light?”

She reached in her jeans pocket for a pack of matches. “Stand close,” she said, pulling us inside the shelter of the car door to block the wind. We crouched, and she struck a match. The first one didn’t catch.

“Shit,” she said.

There was a red bruise on her bare neck. Scratch marks, like a cat’s. I touched it, and she frowned.

“Don’t,” she said.

“You look terrible,” I said.

“I slept in my car.”

“With him?”

“Shut up,” she said.

“You let him, didn’t you?”

She struck another match, which caught. For a while, we smoked, saying nothing. Smoking was tragic. I wanted every cigarette to taste like the first drag I ever took, when I was twelve years old, the harsh warmth stinging the inside of my mouth. It never happened. I kept smoking because I hoped it would be like it was. Smoking was nostalgia for smoking.

We finished our cigarettes. Then she produced a treat: Two joints. My present. Pierce’s Colombian. She had scored in every sense, apparently. “Happy Graduation to You,” she mock sang, handing me the joints.

“I don’t think I need these,” I said. “I’m pretty burnt-out from last night.”

“Hair of the dog.”

“Which dog? Ceasar? Jesus? Pierce?”

She smacked me. “Get in the fucking car,” she said.

So I did. I couldn’t think what else to do. “Where do we go now?” I said.

We sat in the car getting high, staring blankly at New Jersey.

Then, out of the blue, she said, “He kisses like a boy.” We were taking hits off a shared joint. “What does that mean?” I said. “‘Like a boy?’” This was new information: Jenny knew how boys kissed. Not just Pierce. She had been kissing boys. At Trenton State Teachers College. “Like the way boys kiss,” she said, shrugging. She looked like Diane Keaton with her blonde hair and her long straight nose. I realized suddenly that she was wearing Pierce’s white V-neck T-shirt. It looked good on her. I wondered what he went home wearing. “He does it with just the tip of his tongue,” she said. “I guess he thinks it’s his ‘move.’ Just the tip. It’s like kissing a guitar pick. Sorry,” she said. “You wouldn’t know about that.”

“Maybe I would,” I said, possibly out loud.

“Maybe,” she said, and then, still holding the lit joint, she grabbed the back of my neck with her right hand and pulled me forward, like training a pet. And then she kissed me. Wearing Pierce’s shirt. She still had smoke in her lungs, which she exhaled into my mouth. That was our excuse. She was shot-gunning me, in farewell. Normally it was done with the burning joint in somebody’s lips, but not this time. Our teeth made a scraping sound. She held me there for a minute. Then she let go of my neck.

I shook my head like a dog. I think I heard my ears flap. When we separated, we were both blinking, as if we had just stood for a portrait in front of one of those cameras with giant flashbulbs that went off with a brilliant flash and a puff of smoke. I took her hand as she dropped it from my shoulders. I wasn’t looking at her. Across the highway, in a cleared cornfield, were three new half-built houses, raw and pink in the morning sun. I stared at them, holding onto her hand. Then I let go, and she started the car and drove me to school.

*

When did I see her last?

Just before my graduation ceremony, in the hallway near the cafeteria, she made me spin once in my cap and gown. It was della robbia blue, she said – blue of the robe. My blue robe was robe blue. Green, I told her, not blue. It’s green, I said. She laughed. Looks blue to me, she said. She set my mortarboard at an angle on my head. I watched her push her glasses up on her nose. Then I lost sight of her. She spun out of range behind me as I went to join my classmates, to get my handshake and my diploma.

Was she at the ceremony? Did she stay to watch? I hope not. I never saw her again, and I never talked about my high school graduation with anyone – including especially everyone who was there – and no one ever asked.

*

After their swim, Jenny and Pierce evaporated, steam rising from the pool and disappearing into the dark. I wasn’t aware it happened until it already did. They were just gone. My friend, my ride, the guy, were gone. I got left behind with Sherrie, who was passed out, a string of drool hanging from her lips as she lay on her chaise longue. Horse flies were dive-bombing her arms and legs, leaving welts. I carried her into the house and settled her on the couch. While I was in the living room, I called my brother to come get me. Then I sat by the pool and finished Pierce’s drink. It was foamy and warm. I didn’t like whiskey. But it had been Pierce’s.

“This is it,” I said, not exactly to myself.

I lit a cigarette and waved my arm around, British. I tried to notice where my skin stopped and the air began. What if everything was not me? What if I was not the guy you watched? What would that be like? My flesh stung like I’d been swarmed by Sherrie’s flies. I’ve had worse feelings. I pictured Pierce in Jenny’s car. He’d be leaning back in my seat. Or maybe she had let him drive. Which one of them did I hate more? It didn’t matter. Neither one of them was me.

I thought about the people I wasn’t. I thought about circling the field tomorrow and being called a fag. Called, being. Tomorrow, I will still be the fag. Then I took off my clothes, jumped in the pool, and swam a couple of laps. Afterwards, I stretched out in the grass. I was still lying naked on the lawn an hour later when my brother showed up.

The Charm of the Highway Strip

(Published in *Gulf Coast*, 2008)

Everything Jack Kerouac wrote for about a decade was a draft of On the Road  – including On the Road.  The novel that was published in 1957, ten years after Kerouac made the first of the five cross-country road trips it recounts, was allegedly produced in 1951 in a mythical three-week Benzedrine-fueled round-the-clock writing session, when Jack sat down at a table in his new wife Joan Haverty’s Chelsea loft and hammered out an unpunctuated single-paragraph 120-foot long novel-scroll on a roll of Western Union typing paper.  Then, as the story goes, he bundled it in his arms and, still high on speed and caffeine and nicotine, carried it to Harcourt Brace, the publishers of his first and up-to-then only novel, The Town and the City, and unfurled it at the feet of his editor Robert Giroux, announcing that it had been dictated to him by the Holy Ghost and that he wouldn’t change a word.

Well, the story’s mostly false, and that novel doesn’t really exist.  For one thing, he punctuated plenty.  And it wasn’t a single roll of Western Union typing paper, it was eight sheets of architectural tracing paper that Jack found in the corner of Joan’s place, and which he cut to size and taped together.  The paper had belonged to Joan’s dead ex-boyfriend Bill Cannastra, from whom she inherited the loft after Bill climbed halfway out the window of a moving subway car and got beheaded.  You see why Jack didn’t need to invent things.  He went around marrying dead guys’ girls and getting high with William Burroughs and letting Allen Ginsberg blow him once in a while in 1948 with Bess Truman still sleeping in the White House.  And then he wrote about it.  He liked drugs and drama, and he liked to type, and by the time he was done typing what he was maybe calling The Beat Generation or maybe Gone on the Road or maybe Flower That Blows in the Night, Joan was through with him and she arranged to be found in their marriage bed with a waiter.

Jack split to his buddy Lucien Carr’s place, where Ginsberg was also living, and that’s where he finished the book, and where the last few feet of the original scroll were eaten by Carr’s dog Potchky.  He had to retype the ending from memory.  These facts are all contested.  To one degree or another.  Well, the details of Kerouac’s epic typing spurt have changed with each re-telling, including Jack’s.  And the manuscript he wrote is long gone.  Sure, the thing itself is still in the world, bought in 2002 for a little more than two million dollars by the man who owns the Indianapolis Colts, and it is currently traveling the U.S. in a road trip that started in 2004 and has already made stops in San Francisco, Denver, and New York.  I went to see Jack’s scroll last month at the New York Public Library.  Sixty feet of it were laid out under Plexiglas in a long display case that had been aligned with a giant overhanging photograph of a stretch of two-lane blacktop.  If you stood in the right place, you could see the reflection of the yellow highway strip falling down the length of yellow scroll, and there it was: Novel as narrative thread keeping the traffic in line.

Jack began defacing and erasing that manuscript – editing and emending, dropping and adding, second-thinking – almost as soon as the last foot of it rolled out of the typewriter, even before the dog got to it and Robert Giroux told Jack that no one at Harcourt Brace would be able to read a giant roll of papyrus.  The scroll on display in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library was scored with pencil markings, presumably Jack’s; words were scrawled between the lines, paragraphs were blocked off for deletion, famous passages were cut, later to be restored by – whom?  Kerouac?  Or Malcolm Cowley, his editor at Viking Press, who published the book six years after Jack hit the carriage return one last time in the spring of 1951?

In any case, the scroll was published last fall for the first time, and its name, On the Road: The Original Scroll, raises the question of what anybody means by “original.”  The Original Scroll reproduces Jack’s 1951 text without any of his later editing marks, though it includes some typos, if not his x-ing out of various lines and the many spots throughout the manuscript where Jack apparently thought twice, back-spaced, typed over his copy, and then moved on.  His scroll is pock-marked with these type-overs, but The Original Scroll presents a clean copy.  I guess it would be awkward or ugly or even irrelevant to reprint the thickly cancelled lines, but one of the pleasures of seeing Jack’s scroll is thinking about how much trouble he had with the left-hand margin.  Clearly, the typing paper slid on its roller, floating slowly and evenly to the right on a declining slant.  Jack let it slide until he couldn’t stand it anymore, and then stopped to re-align the page.  His scroll doesn’t have neatly indented flush-left paragraphs, it has weird angled blocks marked by a left-hand margin that sneaks further and further off and then corrects itself, over and over.  It’s not just a text, is a design scheme on architect’s paper.

On the Road: The Original Scroll does not reproduce that periodically slanting left-hand margin.  It is On the Road unplugged, but not all the way.  There is, for instance, a critical apparatus; unlike Jack’s scroll, it comes with four introductory essays, a dedication to the memories of Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, and a quote from Walt Whitman.  However, its editor, Howard Cunnell, has allowed a typo to stand in the opening sentence.  “I first met met Neal not long after my father died. . .”  That’s how both Jack’s scroll and The Original Scroll begin.  The sentence uses Neal’s real name and meets him twice, and it ends with a dead dad and an ellipsis.  In the version of On the Road that everyone knows, the one Malcolm Cowley published, the sentence goes like this: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”  The story of how Neal turned into Dean, and how a missing dad became a former wife, not to mention how a typo got cleaned up and how an ellipsis mark borrowed from Celine became a blunt, decisive full-stop, is the story of how Jack’s scroll of April 1951 was already – by the time he showed it to the first editor who refused to publish it – not the thing he typed in three weeks on stolen paper in a dead guy’s loft.

Hardly anyone but Allen Ginsberg read that scroll.  Certainly not Robert Giroux.  And Jack stopped showing it around after Giroux suggested that it would have to be more portable.  Insulted, Jack never re-submitted the manuscript to Harcourt Brace, but he did start re-typing it.  By the time Ginsberg pitched the book to Cowley in 1953, Jack had long since transferred the text of the scroll onto 8 ½ x 11-inch sheets of typing paper, making changes as he went.  Nonetheless, he still couldn’t get it published.  He waited five years before Cowley came through with an offer, and during that time, he kept messing with it.  There were two more complete manuscript versions before its publication in 1957.  There was a whole new book, Visions of Cody, which Jack insisted was the “real” On the Road, and which wasn’t published in full until he died.  Visions of Cody is the angry draft you write after your editor takes you to dinner and asks you, in the most discouraging possible tone, “What is this book about?”  You go home and say, “All right, I’ll start from scratch, but this time I’m not holding back on the gay sex and I’m going to get high with my reform school pals and tape-record all our conversations and then transcribe them word for word.”

Moreover, Kerouac had been taking notes for his road novel since 1947, and actively drafting it since 1949, when The Town and the City was published.  For a while, he was writing something called Ray Smith, about “two guys hitch hiking to California in search of something they don’t really find.”  Then there was The Hip Generation, focusing on a character named Red Moultrie and his half-brother Vern and their Denver clan of misfit men from the Old West.  Even The Town and the City feels like a dry-run for On the Road.  It starts as an evocation of Kerouac’s childhood in a French Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1920s and ‘30s, but then the war comes, and one of the characters moves to New York and meets Allen Ginsberg, and the rest is just kicks.  Ginsberg is called “Leon Levinsky,” and that’s also his name in the first few pages of the scroll of On the Road, until Jack gives up the pretense and says, “I mean of course Allen Ginsberg.”  By the time Kerouac finished drafting and re-drafting On the Road – after Ginsberg, and Cowley, and Jack’s agent, and the copy editor at Viking Press, and a team of nervous lawyers and libel experts all had a go at the book – Ginsberg was fictional, again.  He was Carlo Marx and Neal was Dean Moriarty, and Jack was Salvatore Paradise, not a Quebecois Canadian whose first language was French, but an Italian American who spoke bop.

If On the Road seems instantaneous, it was also highly pre-meditated, and later wildly mediated.  For years before he sat down to write the scroll, Jack had been rehearsing chunks of the book out loud for friends.  It wasn’t a novel, it was just what he did at parties.  He got drunk and said, “Lemme tell you about the greatest ride I ever got on the back of a flat-bed truck driven by a couple of corn-fed farmers from Minnesota.”  Or, “Have you heard about how me and Neal and Luanne undressed in the front seat of Neal’s Hudson and she smeared us all with cold cream?”  Jack had been dining out on those stories for a while, tweaking them, refining them.  It was just an accident of technology and temperament that, when he sat down to record his act, he used a typewriter instead of a tape deck or film camera.  The scroll version of On the Road is a dramatic monologue addressed, perhaps, to Joan Haverty, the wife whom, paradoxically, Kerouac was about to lose partly because all he ever did was take speed and write dramatic monologues.

Anyway, that’s what John Leland suggests in Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think).  I should admit that Leland was once my boss at Details magazine, and it’s possible he fired me.  Unlike Kerouac, I don’t remember everything.  Leland is an astute critic and reporter for The New York Times, and a chronicler of the American avant-garde.  His last book was Hip: The History, and it begins its story on a 17th century slave plantation and ends in trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Why Kerouac Matters was published last fall by Viking Press to coincide with the release both of On the Road: The Original Scroll and a pristine hardcover 50th anniversary reprinting of the 1957 On the Road: A marketing package.  I bought them all.  Leland is one of the few male writers who has ever seemed interested in the women in Kerouac’s life, and he posits an interesting theory about how On the Road came by its tone of intimacy, immediacy, and urgency: It started as a letter Jack was writing to his wife, the wife he had just married and was just about to flee.

Leland quotes Joan Haverty’s memoir, Nobody’s Wife, which Haverty wrote intermittently for about a decade until her death in 1990, and which Joan’s and Jack’s novelist daughter Jan Kerouac published in 1995, about a year before her death.  According to Haverty, she turned to Jack one day not long after they married, and said, “What did you and Neal really do?”  And then Jack sat down at his typewriter and started writing.  Don’t we all have that day, when we take stock of our significant ex-es for the edification, or safety, of our current love?  That’s what Jack did.  For three weeks.  The scroll isn’t a novel, or even a memoir, it’s a letter to Joan – a kind of proto-blog that treats everyone who reads it like members of the gang under discussion.  Neal doesn’t have a last name, not right away.  You’re supposed to know it.  We don’t see his face or hear much about his history.  There’s nothing like those passages in Henry James where the young girl shows up on an English lawn and before she is even served her tea we get a ten-page flashback to her childhood in Albany.  With Jack, it’s just, “Let me tell you about the dude.”

The scroll starts with Neal, and it ends with Joan.  That seems to be Jack’s point.  “Honey, I loved him once, but then you came along.”  In the chunk of text that Potchky ate, at the very end of the scroll and the close of the non-stop narrative, Jack reaches Joan: “One night I was standing in a dark street in Manhattan and called up to the window of a loft where I thought my friends were having a party.  But a pretty girl stuck her head out of the window.”  Which is how Joan’s ex-boyfriend Bill lost his head, literally, sticking it out the window.  Was that on Jack’s mind?   Is there a more un-self-reflective major post-war American novelist than Jack Kerouac?  “She stuck her head out the window and said, ‘Yes?  Who is it?’  ‘Jack Kerouac,’ I said, and heard my name resound in the sad and empty street.’  ‘Come on up,’ she called, ‘I’m making hot chocolate.”  Jack could never resist a sugar high – all that apple pie in On the Road – and he went up, and “that night I asked her to marry me and she accepted and agreed.  Five days later we were married.”  That’s not how it happens in the 1957 On the Road – instead of getting married, “we agreed to love each other madly.”  In real life, he and Joan were married in less than two weeks and stayed that way for about nine months.  And one night along the way, it occurred to Joan that she hadn’t really met her husband, and she started asking questions.  “Honey, what’s up with your love for that hustler-bigamist-car thief-sex addict you talk so much about?”

“I first met Neal,” Jack starts, and 120 feet later he ends, “There she was, the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long.”  For and for?  I guess that’s poetic.  It didn’t work for Joan, though.  She never thought much of his writing.  And while he was busy taking dictation from the Holy Spirit, she went off to her restaurant job and came home with one of the waiters.

I don’t know why anyone likes On the Road.  It’s got no plot, just a series of events.  There is no real characterization.  For all its talk of landscape, it hardly shows how Iowa is different from Texas.  What if Jack had gone to an MFA program?  Imagine him sitting in a classroom at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1951, chain smoking and wearing a fabulous shirt and trying hard to look like he doesn’t care as his classmates rip into another draft of his book.  “I don’t see the story arc,” somebody says.  Another guy is gentler.  “Have you asked yourself, ‘What do my characters want?”  “Drugs!” someone says, and they all laugh and now the gloves are off.  “What have you got against women?”  “I don’t believe you’ve ever really been to Mexico.”  “You keep telling me how ‘gone’ everything is, but you don’t show it.  How is Denver ‘gone?’”  “Or Pennsylvania?”  “Or Charlie Parker?”  Then the teacher breaks in.  He’s a married guy who’s secretly gay, and Jack has been flirting with him all semester, showing up in his office crushed and handsome and clutching a tattered copy of You Can’t Go Home Again.  “He knows five adjectives,” the teacher says, fixing Jack with a meaningful look and counting on his fingers, “great and wild and vast and empty and sad.”

In my fantasy, Jack’s teacher is a stand-in for Paul Goodman, a member of the group of New York Jewish liberal intellectuals, a generation older than the beats, who cast a cold eye on Kerouac and his pals.  Reviewing On the Road in 1958, Goodman says, “For even when you ask yourself what is expressed by this prose, by this buoyant writing about racing-across-the-continent, you find that it is the woeful emptiness of running away from even loneliness and vague discontent.  The words ‘exciting,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘the greatest,’ do not refer to any object or feeling, but are a means by which the members of the ‘beat generation’ convince one another that they have been there at all.  ‘I dig it’ doesn’t mean ‘I understand it,’ but, ‘I perceive that something exists out there.’”

Goodman is right, of course.  The hypothetical workshop students are probably right.  On the Road does everything wrong.  Even after ten years of revision.  Self-indulgent, repetitive, declamatory, it’s all sensibility: What it has to offer is the drama of a voice emerging.  It’s all voice!  Is it written as a letter, is it a story you tell at a party, is it a way of explaining to your wife why you will always love your buddies more than her?  Is it just your stoned attempt to get down on paper everything that happened, in your own distinctive style, before your id intervenes and you find yourself writing a passing imitation of Thomas Wolfe?  I would never recommend On the Road to writing students, not if they were already immersed in The Big Book of Flannery O’Connor’s Exquisite Craft.

And yet:

The damned thing works.

It has charisma, that’s all, like Julia Roberts, and you sit there feeling seduced by it and wishing it were better, all the while knowing that perfection would wreck it.

Political Funerals

(Published in *Lambda Literary*, 2014)

I’ve written a lot of stuff that was never published, for whatever reason.  Maybe that’s true of you, too.  Most of it is really bad, which: mystery solved.  It has earned its place in the back of a drawer, or in my case, neatly filed in black plastic boxes that I bought at Staples and have stashed in one or another of the many offices I’ve occupied at my teaching job in Queens.

At work, as in my life in New York, I move around a lot.  Last March I moved to Brooklyn, into an apartment where there’s room for black boxes, and I have been bringing home from school, one box at a time, evidence of my failure to publish most of what I’ve written since 1989.

Just now, I was on the E train between Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Avenue and West 4th Street, carting two boxes, which I stacked on top of each other on the white speckled black linoleum subway floor, and I opened the top box experimentally, hoping only for distraction.  I had no idea what was in it.

I found manila folders, helpfully labeled – thank you, my previous self – and containing: the typewritten fiction manuscript of a long dead friend.  Letters I sent and received through snail mail, at the end of a century in which the words “snail mail,” in their present usage, would not have made sense.  Bank statements for a closed account in a bank that no longer exists.  And in the back of the box, a file tagged, “Essay Drafts,” the label handwritten in red pen in my longhand script, which I haven’t really seen, except in my signature, for fifteen years.

I pulled the sheaf of drafted essays from their folder.  There were seven of them, each about 2,000 words, printed on computer paper and stapled in the corner.  The first one was dated, not in my hand, “11/15/93.”  Twenty years ago, almost exactly.  Here’s how it began.  “History is a grim place, filled with evidence of our stupidity, lust, and rage.”  In the margin at the top of the page, someone – my editor, I guess – had written, “Yes!  Getting close!”  It turned out to be an essay about astrology.  I was writing at the time for Details magazine, as Contributing Editor, which meant I was on staff, not freelance, and I was paid a fixed sum each month and required to produce at least six feature length stories per year, or twelve shorter opinion pieces, or some combination of short and long pieces.

“People are animals,” I wrote, further down the page, beside which my editor wrote, “Yes!!”  He also wrote, a page later, next to a reference to togas, hieroglyphics, and Cleopatra eye makeup, “too flip.”  There were more essays in the stack, and I paged through them.  “Tops and Bottoms,” the next one was called, which was not about pajamas.  I vaguely remembered writing it on spec for an editor, now dead, who worked for a New York Lesbian and gay magazine – we wouldn’t have said “LGBTQ,” then – that has since moved to LA.  Another essay, which I did publish, was a profile of a famous writer, for which I had to apologize to the writer, years later, when he was unexpectedly and extravagantly nice to me at a party.  He had never seen the profile, he said.  Oops.  Let the past stay past.

“High school homophobia” was the title I scrawled across the top of an essay I started writing in 1982 and haven’t finished writing, though parts of it are in my second novel, and parts of it are online in a video I posted last year to Youtube, and the rest of it continues to morph and change in my head.  “An unpublishable private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour,” Allen Ginsberg calls the story in your head that never stops being written, visions and revisions.

The last three drafted essays in the stack were the same essay in three different versions, “Political Funerals.”  About dead gay men and political activism and AIDS.  I don’t think it was ever published.  I can’t remember.  I’m guessing it wouldn’t have been.  Certainly not in Details, even though its readership was officially 20% gay men.  It was radical at the time for a mainstream straight guys’ music magazine even to acknowledge it had gay readers, which was part of what gave Details its street cred as cutting edge.  That doesn’t mean, however, that Details didn’t police references to homosexuality in the articles I submitted.  “This isn’t universal enough,” the editor-in-chief said of a piece in which I wrote about being gay.  It was a first person article on me and a bunch of my college classmates and our first few years since graduation.  Sort of Girls except without Twitter, or texting, or Brooklyn, or me naked.  I had to go back and de-gay myself.

Okay, yeah, it’s true that Details ran a piece where I wrote about having sex with a guy – a marine, who was stationed in North Carolina.  I can’t believe I put him at risk of being discharged from the military, in 1993.  His night with a gay guy from New York ending up in print.  Hey, wanna have sex with me and then read about it?  And then be court martialed?  I tried to disguise him as much as possible.  If he’s reading this, I hope he’s alive and well.  His name was John, which I can say now.  I’m sorry, John.  He was a straight guy.  That’s what he told me and himself, and it was the first time it occurred to me that many men don’t see or feel or live or mind the contradiction between being straight and sleeping with men once in a while.  He wasn’t a closet case.  Or a bisexual.  He was straight, is all, and it was Friday night.

Details would let me “be gay” in print – even graphically gay – if the story was about gay men and their perilous lives.  If the subject involved straight people, or if it had nothing to do with sex, I had to be careful not to mention the gay thing.  To mention even in passing that you, a guy, were involved in a relationship with a guy, was a provocation.  It was “making it not universal enough.”  Gay was personal, sexual, and idiosyncratic.  Heterosexuality on the other hand was all of us – understood by definition to include everyone.

I can’t complain.  It was a great job.  Everything I said above is probably not true.  I remember wrong, and to my own advantage.  Details paid a lot and my editor, who was gay, was nice to me.  Anything I wanted to write, he said, “Sure.”  If I called up and said, “astrology,” he said, “Where’s my moon?”  If I said, “declaring bankruptcy,” he said, “It’s due Tuesday.”  Gays in the military.  Evangelical Christians in Southern California making antigay videos in the high desert.  He sent me around the country on the company’s dime.  I spent six weeks in Santa Fe with a rental car I charged to Condé Nast, doing – what?  I can’t imagine how I got that gig.  I wrote nothing all summer.  I had my colon cleansed, because, you know, when in Santa Fe.  I went to a foot reflexologist.  I saw a past life regressor whose session I later put in my second novel.  But I wrote nothing for Details.

I can’t believe how lucky I was.  I’d know now, today, this time.  If the piece I wrote about political funerals had ever shown up in print, I would have saved the tear sheets, ripped them out of the magazine.  I would still have them.  I don’t.  One thing I learned in writing for mainstream magazines, as a gay man, who often wanted to write about gay stuff – death and homophobia and boyfriends, assuming those are separate categories – was that straight men, straight male editors – and straight women, just as often, I should add – thought that if they ran one piece about homophobia or AIDS or gay rights or Lesbian Avengers, they had covered the entire topic for all time, and they had thought it through sufficiently, and they understood it, and they were done with it, and they had gotten over their homophobia, and so had their readers.

“What about my homophobia?” I’d say.  “I’m gay, and I haven’t gotten over my homophobia.  How have you gotten over yours?”

And they would say, “We’ve run that story already.”

That story about dead gay men.  Every magazine was allowed to run one such story – if the magazine was bold enough to run even one.

Meanwhile they would run story after story after story about nerdy straight guys trying to get laid.

I’m talking about men’s music and fashion magazines, for straight guys and their girlfriends who read their boyfriends’ magazines in the john, and 20% gay guys, in the early ‘90s.  Glossies.  Keanu Reeves on the cover, beautifully homoerotic.  These magazines would let queers speak for themselves sometimes, as queers, where The New Yorker or Esquire or GQ or Harper’s or The Atlantic would not.

Some of this, by the way, has not changed, or it has changed in ways that obscure the extent to which it has not changed.

All the old structures of homophobic thinking are still in place, ever renewed in their strength and fervor, even as they are made to seem outmoded to some people in some neighborhoods or regions or countries.

“It was the summer of haircuts and funerals” is the first line of the first draft of my essay about political funerals.

“My friend Jon Greenberg died a week after the heat broke,” is the first line of the second and third drafts.

I don’t know if I was writing these versions on assignment for an editor, or for myself, hoping to find an interested editor.

I hate them all.  I read them on the E train.  Tomorrow night I’m going to a meeting for “survivors” of the first fifteen years of the global AIDS crisis, 1981 to 1996 – people whose lives were transfigured by AIDS, whether they are now living with HIV, or whether their lovers and friends are still living with HIV, or whether their lovers or friends went off their meds and died, because they were tired of living with HIV.

I read these essays about dead friends, sitting on the E train, headed home, thinking of the friends I will see tomorrow night.

It was an especially painful loss, I said, about Jon Greenberg’s death.

I’ll put painful in context.  I first heard about AIDS in 1981, a year after I moved to New York, and by 1984 I knew fifteen people who died.  Half the guys who came to my twenty-fifth birthday party were dead in two years.  I watched people die alone in City hospital beds surrounded by maliciously indifferent nurses, and I saw them die at home on Wamsutta sheets among a circle of friends.

A dozen of my friends are HIV positive now, I said, in 1993, including my closest friend, whose health I monitor as obsessively as if we were slipping into old age together.  He is thirty-six years old, and I am thirty-four.

Jon Greenberg was thirty-seven when he died, I said, back then.

I’m fifty-four years old now.

I like the haircuts version of the essay slightly better.  It’s silly.

A summer of haircuts and funerals.

Whole families dogged by the heat were sleeping in East River Park, I said, watched by the moon and midnight joggers.  Everyone else was either acting up or dying out.  My friend Dave switched HIV drug regimens from AZT to ddI and ddC and then to D4-T, which he called Death at Forty.  Our friend Michael made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where the streets were crammed with tourists buying glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys, and the Basilica where they went to be cured was wheel chair inaccessible.

Another friend who did not have HIV but was a regular at ACT UP meetings and demonstrations decided that what he longed for all his life was to have his head shaved by a naked guy with a pair of electric shears.  There was a group that did this, called Clippers.  My friend disappeared from activism for a while, showing up every few weeks with shorter hair.  In a couple of months, his hairstyle went from shaggy to sheared.  When he was completely bald, he grew a goatee, maybe to have something still possible to shave.

Everyone in the East Village seemed to be going through a strident self-transformation, sometimes involving tattoos and piercings, until people were marked and hung with so many amulets and emblems that their bodies needed annotating.  They deconstructed each other at parties.  I ate Häagen Dazs and had sex in the park.  My body, which I have always loathed, was suddenly precious to me, not as a means to pleasure, but just in its thing-i-ness, when so many others were being yanked from the human condition.  The sight of two men fucking naked in the moonlight was shocking not because it was sexual, or public, or unsafe for all I knew – it was dark, who could see, was I supposed to walk up and reach out and check for the condoms? – but because it showed what we were losing.  Our bodies, which we had and were.  Our friends now walking the planet.  Our ability to touch each other just because we were alive.

That was 1993.

I can’t believe I didn’t walk up and check for condoms.

It was impossible to touch my friend Jon Greenberg at his funeral in Tompkins Square Park, I said, in the middle of July.  Too many people were standing in a crowd around him.  His body was embalmed and it was on display in an open coffin underneath a shady tree near a volleyball net, where teenaged boys were tossing a ball back and forth.  Death is as intimate as sex and today it was also public, as we watched each other go to his body with offerings, flowers, kisses, strings of beads.  He was putty colored and he looked like he was staring, though his eyes were closed.  A Radical Faerie in death, which ought to be a contradiction in terms, he was dressed in a floral shirt that just covered his nipples and tight purple trousers that disappeared into the closed half of his coffin.

His death was especially painful, I said, because he was not an intimate friend.  He was one of the people who make up the frame around my life, and who are important to me because we hold each other in place.  Without him, I feel unhinged.  I knew him from ACT UP.  We were arrested together.  Once we were both guests on a Jersey cable TV show about AIDS activism.  The last few times I saw him were in passing, on the street, when we briefly stopped to talk.  He lived a few blocks from me, and it felt safer, somehow, to be here, when he was.

I have no idea how he made money, or who took care of him or tucked him in at night, or whether anyone did.  He wandered fluidly from one moment to the next, as if the laws of cause-effect did not apply to him.  Even his body, tall and angled and lean, seemed to defy the earth’s gravitational pull.  I never believed until the morning I got the wake-up call that he would die, fighting for his life in a hospital bed, ravaged by meningitis.

The last time I saw him, I said, in another draft, his skin was dried severely, but his eyes were lovely, and I told him he was handsome, which was true.  He went from being functionally sick to really sick, and he died after fighting AIDS every day for two years.

He died with a lot of his ideas about death and disease floating around lower Manhattan on Xeroxed sheets with titles like The Metaphysics of AIDS.  He died believing that the body succumbs to a virus because it can’t or won’t process the useful information that HIV contains.  Love your virus, he said.

“What is he talking about?” my friend Dave said, who’d graduated with a degree in pure math – “not applied, never say applied, please, casta diva, it was pure math” – from MIT.  “AIDS is like the UPS guy with a package you haven’t learned how to unwrap?  Or sign for?”

We carried his coffin in a public procession up First Avenue, that day, I said, in every draft.  From Houston Street, where Karen Finley’s poem “The Black Sheep” was cast in bronze and attached to a stone on the concrete traffic island separating Houston Street from First Street.  We carried the coffin past Jon Greenberg’s apartment on First Avenue.  Radical Faeries, and the Marys, his ACT UP affinity group, were playing pipes and drums and chanting over and over, “There is no end to life there is no end.”  His parents from Michigan were neatly and comfortably dressed, his straight brother from California had a beard, and his gay brother from Manhattan was wearing Guatemalan shorts and smiling sadly.  We had been asked to bring flowers and musical instruments, and people had roses hooked into their belts or tucked behind their ears or pinned to their collars.

The coffin had come in a van and we unloaded it and went slowly up First Avenue.  The blue sky was full of clouds and the sun cast shadows of the branches of the trees at Fourth Street across the dome of the coffin.  The pallbearers were in front with the body marching behind a banner bearing Jon’s name and the dates of his birth and death from AIDS.  People held hands in human chains to block traffic.  We stretched the width of First Avenue, and turned at Seventh Street to Tompkins Square Park.

There was a portable sound system in the Park and his brothers spoke.  Somebody read from the Kaddish and his parents stood up and recited aloud, from memory.  The volleyball game continued behind us, and young guys sitting on benches near Avenue B kept beating drums in the summer heat.  Towards the end of the service, John Kelly, not in drag as Joni Mitchell for a piece of performance art, but in civilian drag, so plain he seemed naked, jeans and a t-shirt with suspenders holding his jeans up and his feet in combat boots, sang “Woodstock,” with the lyrics changed to mention the Park and drag queens and a cure for AIDS.

My friend Dave, I said, best friend, living with AIDs since 1987, died in 1994, I didn’t say, because he wasn’t dead yet, Dave with whom I went to many funerals during the five years of our friendship, and who was always planning his own, and who, a few weeks earlier, at a “birthday party” for a dead guy at the Quaker Meeting House on 22nd Street, where a crooner in a cowboy hat and lime green dress had sung harmony with a shirtless guy in overalls who played ukulele, had whispered to me, “My plans for my death are as follows: everyone is getting exactly two minutes to speak.  And if they mention AA or their ‘recovery,’ get them out of the room.”

Dave was sitting beside me.  He was always silly.  He was profoundly silly.  He was sitting beside me.  He wasn’t a guy who liked to be touched.  I touched him anyway.

He died a year later, which is not how the stories end.

Nothing is being done about this disease, is how they all end, and how this ends, punk rock ending, snare drum, E train stops at West Fourth, switch to the D, head home.  I’m here, alive.  Twenty years later.  There’s still no cure.

Pet Gays

America, I’m not your pet gay.

America, I never said I wanted to marry you.  Can’t we just live together?

America, I’m not a Care Bear on your suburban lawn with an adopted Guatemalan baby in my arms and my legal-in-twelve-states-and-DC husband weeping beside me and humming the score of Rent through his grateful tears.

America, I’m not a happy happy drag queen sent to earth by Jesus, Cher, and Harvey Fierstein to teach joy and love and endurance to straight people in tour buses.

America, have you ever met a drag queen?  On a Monday morning, out of make-up and cigarettes?  Do you think her first thought is to teach you to love?

America, “straight allies” is an oxymoron.  Were you never in high school gym class?

Do the words “dodge ball” mean anything to you, America?

America, don’t raise a faggot and expect him to vote Republican.

I love gay Republicans, their even tans, their lovely sweaters, their faces tight as Barry Manilow’s, their violated houseboys, their Paula Deen black-butlered-ante-bellum lawn parties, mute servants in and out through the back door, and I mean the pun.

America, I’d rather there were gay Republicans in the world because they’re proof at least that people are different from each other.

You don’t seem to know that, America.

America, when will you uncloset your Congressional queers?

America, when will you give Lindsey Graham a Senate page with a cell phone and directions to the airport Men’s Room?

When will you cancel your subscription to The New Yorker?

I’m obsessed with The New Yorker.  My mother papered the walls of our kitchen with New Yorker covers.  When I graduated from college, my gift was the cover of The New Yorker from the week I was born.

The New Yorker leers at me from my iPad, laptop, newsstand, mailbox, coffee table.

America, Jonathan Franzen owns a coffee table!  I know because he said so in the New York Times Book Review.

I’m obsessed with Jonathan Franzen.

I’m obsessed with straight writers who publish in The New Yorker.  Here’s something they don’t know: they are published in The New Yorker and elsewhere because they’re straight.

They get reviewed in The New York Times and elsewhere because they’re straight.  They win prizes because they’re straight.  They don’t have to be good, they just have to be straight.  Advocacy publishing.

All those straight people winning fellowships, first book contests, arts grants, tenure track positions, editorial positions, international writers awards: do they know the rumors?  Do they hear the whispering?  “If he weren’t straight, no one would read him.”  “If she weren’t straight, she wouldn’t have gotten that job.”  “Okay, they’re in pain, who isn’t?  There’s more to life than being straight.”

America, when will your straight writers stop being straight?

Can’t they write about anything else?

Something more universal?  Something everyone can relate to?

America, I don’t want to be universal.

It’s not my job to be someone you can relate to.

America, I refuse to be equal.

If black people can’t vote in Alabama, or Pennsylvania, or Miami, or the Bronx; if my elderly mom can’t find her birth certificate; if war vets with prostheses can’t pull the voting lever; if college kids are sent home from the polling place because they’re voting out-of-state; if farmers in Texas don’t have a day free to drive one hundred miles to the nearest state-issued-photo-ID stand; if migrant workers who have a hard time convincing a white guy with his arms crossed behind a big desk that they’re citizens; if women who speak mostly Cantonese:

If these people can’t vote, America, I don’t want my rights back.

How dare you presume to “give” me what you stole from me in the first place.

America, do you think I’m stupid?

Homosexuals can be fired from their jobs in 29 states, America.

Transgender people can be fired from their jobs in 33 states, America.

Women can be told to feed and carry the bio-product of the men who violated them, America.

America, why isn’t there a cure for AIDS?

Go sequester yourself.

America, you made me.

America, I know how to quit you.

Go fuck yourself with your equal rights.

I’m taking my faggoty-assed faggot ass to your polling places, America.

I’ve got my eye on you.  My gay gaze.

I’m putting my limp wrist on your voting lever.

If You See Something, Say Something

(Published in *Gawker*, 2013, in a shortened version)

1.

I’ve said this already.  And the question of whether or not you have already seen or heard it is one of the subjects of this repetition, my saying it again.

And the question of whom it hurts or helps to repeat it.

It starts with a nosebleed and ends with a dead guy.  Three dead guys, actually, one of them Ed Koch.

Edward Irving Koch, recently deceased.  December 12th, 1924 to February 1st, 2013.  Sun in Sagittarius.  Born and died in New York City.  Two-term member of the US House of Representatives from New York’s 17th and then after re-districting 18th districts, January 3rd, 1969 to December 31st, 1977.  Mayor of the City of New York, the first of January 1978 to the last day of December 1989.  Dead homosexual.  Says who?

Everyone I know.

Something remarkable happened after Koch’s death: the New York Times rewrote his obituary.  Twice published, once revised.  In the first version, nobody said what many people knew, and had long known: that Mayor Koch in his two terms in office as the highest ranking public official in the biggest city in the US and world financial center presided over a health crisis that was quickly going global and would, by the end of the 1980s, kill 50,000 Americans, as many Americans as died in the Vietnam War.

Kill with particular speed and devastation gay people, black people, Latinos and Latinas, poor people, women, people with limited access to effective health care – people, that is, whose health care needs were not taken into account by a medico-pharmaceutical industry that pictured as its typical patient a middle class straight white man.  Kill also middle-class straight white men.  And this was thanks in part to two political leaders who either declined to mention AIDS throughout most of their administrations, or preferred to treat it as if it were of no pressing concern: US President Ronald Reagan, and New York Mayor Ed Koch.

The first version of the Koch obituary that Robert McFadden wrote for the New York Times said nothing about the former Mayor’s failure to provide responsible, humane leadership during the onset of the AIDS crisis.  The obit mentioned as if in a footnote “the scandals and the scourges of crack cocaine, homelessness and AIDS” that had defined Koch’s two administrations.  Hours later, after an outbreak of Twitter scorn, the obit was emended.  This was added: “Mr. Koch was also harshly criticized for what was called his slow, inadequate response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill and dying in a baffling public health emergency, and critics, especially in the gay community, accused him of being a closeted homosexual reluctant to confront the crisis for fear of being exposed.”

Whose estimate was the “hundreds” of ill New Yorkers?  More like 30,000.  Whose editorial hand limited the effects of the Mayor’s genocidal AIDS policies to “New Yorkers?”  Ten million people worldwide were living with HIV by 1990.  Why was the word “accurately” not inserted between “gay community” and “accused?”

I watched this story of two obituaries scroll past in my Facebook newsfeed.  The way we live now, some of us.  If a tree falls in a forest, and it’s not on Facebook, nobody hears it.  I have 3650 Facebook friends, a lot of them news addicts.  And though Facebook shows you status updates from only a percentage of your friends – 15% is the figure I’ve seen in articles about Facebook, posted, of course, to Facebook – nonetheless: thanks to my own 15%, I get daily postings from a wide range of media outlets, mainstream and alternative.  My friends post stuff they like and stuff they hate, from news sources they trust as well as those they despise.  Newspapers, magazines, journals, websites, blogs.  MSNBC video clips, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart.  And then there are threads unique to Facebook, created to serve a temporary need.  Someone started a thread that showed a photograph of Ed Koch’s headstone, which elicited hundreds of comments.

So I got an overview of reactions to his death.  And really, there were two:

Ed Koch was a great man who had been our city’s quintessential mayor, said current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Obama and all the major New York daily newspapers and local and national TV news stations and everyone but me who posted on the Facebook thread about Koch’s headstone.

Ed Koch was responsible for the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers, said nearly everyone I knew who had lived in New York City from 1980 to 1989.  A war criminal, some said, and: a sell-out to real estate tycoons, a mischievous player of racial politics, egregiously Manhattan-centric (Manhattan below 125th Street), a fake liberal, de facto Republican, a gay man who had remained strategically closeted for political gain, a gay man who did not respond to the AIDS crisis with any deliberate speed because he did not want anyone to think he was a fag taking care of dying fags.

Forget Ed Koch: what struck me was that a lot of people, not just those I knew in real space/time but people I had “met” only virtually, many of whom were consistently and almost comically reverent about death – all the schmaltzy well-meaning Youtube and Facebook and Twitter tributes to the merest no big deal dead celebrity – were so outraged by Koch’s mayoral record, even now, that their immediate response to news of his death was to go online and call an 88-year-old-man, a famous now dead public servant, his body barely cold, a murderer.

More remarkable to me, however, was the number of people who did not seem to have the slightest idea why anyone would call Ed Koch a murderer.

I wondered if we had lived in the same place at the same time.

Did we live in this city together all that time?

I meant to end, not open, with Ed Koch, but once I got started with him, his failures rerouted my narrative, the story of my life.

To begin again:

2.

I got a nosebleed on the way to see The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s play about AIDS.  A play in which a group of men and one woman respond to the first signs of AIDS in New York City in the early 1980s.  A play about a love affair between two men.  A play about terminal illness and death.  A Sophoclean tragedy: we know from the outset how it will end.  A play about spilled milk, metaphorically and literally, at least as it was staged by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in its original production, where the playing area was littered throughout the second act with an accumulating mess of objects thrown and dropped, medical files and a bag of groceries and a carton of milk that was lifted and flung and exploded and never cleaned up.  A play that enters into historical record, as docudrama and fictionalized autobiography, one version of the role Kramer played in forming Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first organization in the world to respond to the AIDS crisis.   And a play about Kramer’s dissension from the eventual and prevailing and deliberately limited aims of that group.

I saw The Normal Heart twice: in 1985, in its first production, downtown at the Public Theater; and twenty-six years later, when it opened on Broadway for the first time, in a revival staged in the spring of 2011.  I was twenty-six years old the first time I saw it.  And because I was boyfriends from 1983 to 1989 with a guy who was for some of that time Director of Group Services for GMHC – he organized support groups for people who were doing volunteer work with PWAs – I knew, had met, watched die, many of the people on whom the characters in the play were based.  People who had sat for Kramer’s composite portraits: Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport, Nathan Fain, Enno Poersch, Mitchell Cutler, Dan Bailey, Rodger McFarlane. . .

Actually, Rodger McFarlane, who was Executive Director of GMHC from 1983 to 1985, and Executive Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS from 1989 to 1994, died much later.  Not of AIDS, reportedly.  Though the question of whether or not AIDS killed him even if the HIV virus didn’t, and the question of whether and how and why it matters to know even now the cause of death of gay men or anyone who witnessed and felt endangered by and survived an era of epidemic death and loss, is another subject of this telling, my saying-again.

In the winter and spring of 2011, I did and didn’t want to go back to The Normal Heart.  Seeing it again after twenty-six years would be like watching a lot of upsetting home movies.  When I finally bought a ticket, there was nothing left but the next-to-last peformance, a Sunday matinée.  It was scheduled to close after the evening show.  I was living then in a sublet apartment on 10th Avenue and 47th Street, two long and three short blocks from the Golden Theater, and I left my apartment in plenty of time to get there before the curtain went up.

It was July, not too hot, and I was walking down 9th Avenue past Amy’s Bread. Suddenly my nose was bleeding.  I knew right away it was blood, because it ran straight and fast the way blood runs from a burst vein, as if you’d been punched or whacked in the face by a fly ball or forced suddenly to live too high above sea level.  I didn’t have anything like a handkerchief.  Not even a wad of Kleenex.  I tipped my head back, and hoped.  I was on a crowded street in midtown on a summer day, standing with my head way back and my fingers hiding my face, which was bloody.  I didn’t want to make my shirt a rag.  I didn’t see how I could walk blood-soaked into Amy’s Bread, saying, “Excuse me, does somebody have a napkin?”

My long-ago best friend, David B. Feinberg, novelist, activist, journalist, who died of AIDS in 1994, had lived five blocks from where I was standing.  I had often walked with him down 9th Avenue, before and after he got sick, before and after he needed help to walk anywhere.  Eventually, I had to watch him lose control of his bodily functions, sometimes in public.  Maybe Dave was sending me a nosebleed from the beyond.  It crossed my mind.  I don’t often get nosebleeds, or even a cold, and I felt exposed, bleeding all over myself on the tourist-encrusted sidewalk, trying not to splatter anyone but myself.

I couldn’t bleed in a boutique bakery.  So I walked half a block north to the Starbuck’s, which is usually filled with leggy chorus girls and gesturing chorus boys.  But it was matinée hour on Sunday afternoon.  The chorines were working, the tourists from Dallas and Minneapolis had headed off to Memphis, and the place was mercifully empty.  I dashed from the door to the napkin dispenser, grabbed a handful of napkins, and ran outside to the small park two doors down.  For fifteen minutes, I sat on a park bench with a napkin up my nose.  Then I washed off in a water fountain, cleared my throat, and ran to the theater.  A big glob of blood came up in my throat, which I spit in the gutter on 47th Street.  “Okay, so now I’m spitting blood.”  It was not the worst thing that happened, to me or anyone else.  I got to the theater on time.

I don’t know what to say about the play.  I mean, I knew the story.  It was traumatic because I knew: the familiar plot, the characters I recognized, everyone’s inevitable death.  The ending clear from the outset like in Oedipus.  Actual bodies I’d seen collapse in the real world given life again onstage, only in order to die again, onstage.  The packed theater audience, full of what I guessed were, unlike me, mostly not gay men in their 50s.  They were straight couples in their 50s, one-man-one-woman.  My age, my generation, as far as I could tell.  Baby boomers.  They had lived through the AIDS crisis, they had been there when it happened.  Were here now.  Maybe they had seen Angels in America, or Longtime Companion, or An Early Frost, or Our Sons with Julie Andrews and Ann-Margret, where two mothers get over their homophobia when their sons die, fiction in the most clinical sense of the word.

And yet, the vibe in the room was: “How could this have happened?  Could this have happened?  Did it really happen?  I can’t believe it happened.”

Okay, interpret a vibe.  Read an affect, a big silent collective tone.  An inflection in the manner of their sitting.  How could I know what people in the audience were thinking?  I couldn’t.  I could only sense.  I’m saying I heard a tone in their sobbing.  People were sobbing.  I sat in an aisle seat thirteen rows back and way to the right, feeling out-of-it.  Feeling really like the man in the moon, because the audience was reacting to the show as if it were news.  All around me, people were gasping with shock and surprise, as if everything that I had learned to take for granted in my twenties and thirties and ever since, unrelenting trauma and loss, hadn’t occurred to them.  As if the intensity I had grown to expect from friendship and love – the intimacy of knowing that each new relationship, new friendship, would end in death, end very soon – had never occurred to them.  Hadn’t it occurred to them?

“Trauma isn’t intimacy,” a shrink once told me, years after everyone had died.  For me, however, trauma was a daily experience for a long time.  It was how I got close to people, and how they went away.  Trauma was always there and inevitable, like weather.

The guy next to me in Row J was antsy and all elbows and he was halfway in my seat.  I spent the play scrunched to the right and clutching my armrest to stay out of his way.  I couldn’t breathe.  The play was like that, and my life had been like that.

Paul Rapoport, one of the founders of GMHC, had come to my twenty-fifth birthday party.  So had Raymond Jacobs, Diego Lopez, Peter Kunz-Opfersei, Jim Christon, Luis Jiminez-Alvarez, Richard Gambe, Ken Wien, DeeCee Husband, Edwin Alexander, people who had worked at GMHC and/or used its services.  Some of them were dead within two years of that party, some in five.  Only one of them was still alive by the time I turned thirty.

The audience was sobbing in a tone of disbelief – I read their tone of sobbing disbelief – during the play’s most upsetting speech, when a guy named Bruce Niles tells the story of getting on a plane and flying his dying lover from New York home to Arizona.  The lover dies on the way.  First, the pilot won’t leave the ground because a guy with AIDS is on the plane.  They get a new pilot.  The plane takes off.  The lover shits and pisses all over himself on the plane.  He’s dead by the time the plane lands.  They’re in Phoenix.  Police cars are waiting to take him off the plane, the police officers dressed in full-body prophylactic latex, looking “like astronauts.”  Nobody wants to touch the body.  They get it off the plane, take it to a hospital room.  No one on the ground will touch the body.  It ends up wrapped in a plastic trash bag and left outside the hospital, like garbage.  The mother and the dead guy’s boyfriend carry the bagged body into her car and drive it to a mortician, who finally consents to burn it.

I understood this speech, this recounting of death, to be not melodrama, not exaggeration, not a cry for help, not a dramatization of loss, but: documentary.  I knew every word was true.  It wasn’t sad, it was fact.  It wasn’t just sad.  It was fifty people I knew who died, and the way they died.  It was one hundred people.  How do you feel when you look at a photograph of war dead, spread across a barren field or draped over charred jeeps and tanks, how do you react to that photograph when you know you’re standing to the left of the frame, just outside of the camera’s view?

I was gripping the outside of my seat and pressing myself hard against it, leaving as much space as possible between myself and anyone else.  I couldn’t stand to hear anyone cry about it, couldn’t cry about it myself, as if it were just a terrible thing that happened, back then.  I sat there not crying.

3.

So many disasters, so many public, epic catastrophes have reached us, ruined us, affected us.  News of epidemic loss fills our daily lives, virtual and actual, our Twitter accounts, our Facebook newsfeeds.  Nobody can talk about US history anymore without saying, “before 9/11” or “after 9/11.”  Katrina, Sandy, Newtown, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Boston: we measure our lives in catastrophe.  And yet there is still an unshakable aura of otherness surrounding AIDS that prevents even people newly exposed to the disease in 2013 from seeking treatment – because they are ashamed, because AIDS happens, not to us, but to them.  People are ashamed to say what happened to them.

What happened to you?

Here’s what happened to me:

Facebook.  And twenty-five years.  Not in that order.

A year ago, on the verge of the 25th anniversary of ACT UP New York’s first action – the 1987 protest at Wall Street to confront the world financial community with its complicity in the neglect of AIDS – an ACT UP NY member and doctoral candidate in NYU’s Theater program, Debra Levine, was finishing her PhD dissertation, Demonstrating ACT UP: The Ethics, Politics and Performances of Affinity.  And she wanted to include as part of her thesis an accounting of AIDS-related deaths: a list of all the ACT UP members who died, either during the early period of ACT UP’s history, 1987 to 1996, or in the sixteen years that followed.  She posted a thread to Facebook’s ACT UP NY Alumni page asking for names and dates.  And from January to April, her thread was a spontaneous collective ongoing elegy, a profoundly apt prelude to the 25th anniversary action that ACT UP had organized in concert with Occupy Wall Street.

Every day for weeks you could scroll down the thread and see new names, not just of the dead but the living.  One of the peculiarities of having lived in New York during the last three decades of the 20th century was that you were never sure whether people with whom you had lost touch in your/their twenties and thirties were still alive – whether they had moved to San Francisco or Santa Fe or Montclair, New Jersey; whether they had fallen into a post-AIDS K-hole; whether they had gotten married in Vermont and adopted a baby in China and were running a gay bed-and-breakfast; whether they were writing their memoirs; whether they had gone home to a small town in Georgia to get over everything they had lost, or not get over it; or whether they were dead, long dead or recently dead.  It was as surprising to see names of people who were still alive as it was upsetting to find out that long-ago friends you thought were okay had died.

A mournful and a celebratory scroll, commemorating the dead and compiling a record of their individual and collective accomplishments, what we endured alone, and what we managed together. People delivered on-the-spot eulogies for friends who had died without sufficient remembrance.  People who had not spoken to each other in years were again in contact, if only online.  People memorialized and recalled and confessed and corrected.  And though we have all been subjected over the past ten years to a surfeit of grief porn, accumulating since 9/11 and flooding the Internet, nonetheless, the thread was not an advertisement for loss.  I don’t mean just that it didn’t market loss, but also that it didn’t merely represent or recall loss.  It was loss.  To scroll down the thread was to feel the experience of loss, again, and for the first time.  It was the loss, and its consequences.  And it was the story of that loss.

And though it was on Facebook, nonetheless, it felt private.  I shouldn’t even be talking about it.  I’m still not sure if people who were not members of the ACT UP NY Alumni page could read it.  I’d like to keep it to myself, though it’s not mine to keep.  It’s not mine, but it’s yours, and everybody’s: a naming of the dead, our history.

Ours, and now Mark Zuckerberg’s.  Facebook was holding onto my past.  Had I outsourced my memory to Facebook?  Was I “reinforcing my victimhood by talking about it too much,” a phrase that came up, both earnestly and ironically, “victimhood” in and out of quotes, in a series of subsequent threads on Facebook’s ACT UP NY Alumni page and elsewhere, written and read last winter by AIDS activists and past and present ACT UP members, people living long-term with HIV, caretakers and survivors of friends and lovers and family members who died of AIDS – all of us, in other words, who got out of the 20th century alive and were beginning (or beginning again) to ask ourselves about the first fifteen years of the global AIDS crisis, 1980 to 1996 in NYC and San Francisco and Los Angeles and everywhere?  And to wonder what happened?

To wonder both what happened then, at the time, and what has happened since, from 1996, when the AIDS “drug cocktail,” the life-saving antri-retroviral drug combinations, first became available, to now.  This feeling: I was there, it changed my life, it was and maybe is my life, and yet sometimes still I don’t or can’t believe: what happened.

And I can’t believe you don’t know what happened.

What still happens, is happening now.

4.

Then Spencer Cox died.  Last winter, near the end of December.  News of his death showed up in my Facebook newsfeed.  I saw it in Deb Levine’s status update.

Shall I trust the New York Times?  His Times obituary, written by Bruce Weber, said Cox had been “a prominent voice in the fight against AIDS for more than two decades,” a kid in his twenties when he joined ACT UP, a gay man living with HIV, “whose work with a cadre of lay scientists helped push innovative antiretroviral drugs to market, creating the first effective drug protocols to combat the syndrome.”

He had helped get approval for the drugs that kept him and other people alive, worldwide.  And he had reportedly stopped taking those drugs, not long before he died in New York City at the age of forty-four.  No one knew why.  No one who knew was able to say why.  He died in 2012 as he might have died in 1992, when there were no effective drugs for treating HIV/AIDS.

In a later, more pointed in memoriam in the Huffington Post, John Voelcker, a friend of Cox’s and an ACT UP member, said Cox’s death “was a wake-up call – a blaring alarm – that highlighted once again the critical need for mental health programs and studies of the powerful trauma experienced by gay men in their 40s through 70s who’ve lived through the loss and destruction of entire communities due to AIDS.”  Not just gay men.  “There are the hundreds of thousands of men and women who survived the worst of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and 1990s,” and some of them are still at risk of being killed, however directly or indirectly, by AIDS.  “Especially those who’ve lived with HIV for 15 years or more.”  Especially a few people with HIV who “inexplicably stop taking the lifesaving anti-retroviral medications that saved their lives 15 years ago.”

Especially those, especially those. . .  More newsfeed postings, more Facebook threads, more updates.  I didn’t know Spencer Cox, except from a distance at ACT UP meetings and demonstrations in the early 1990s, and then much later, as an internet boulevardier whose Facebook posts in the last year of his life were scorching and hilarious.  They were more than that.  They were a signal we had read but ignored.  Understood but failed to grasp.  His death shocked a lot of people because they must have expected it.  Expected his death, or somebody’s, or mine, or yours.  Maybe that was the surprise, that we had known but not admitted that the loss was still taking place, that so many of us were still at risk, and that the mourning we had been sharing online, or in private, or at Spencer Cox’s memorial service, was not only for him, but us.  “After all of our friends died in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, protease inhibitors came out, and there was no mourning about what we had all been through,” ACT UP member Peter Staley had told Frontline in a 2005 interview.  “We just moved on.”

In the midst of the memorializing in which many people I knew from twenty and thirty years ago were engaging, or in which they were being treated, oddly and perhaps inevitably, as stars – Anderson Cooper’s televised remarks about Spencer Cox, a tribute to ACT UP by Rachel Maddow, the release of two documentary films about ACT UP, Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, and David France’s How to Survive a Plague, nominated for an Oscar and sparking talks of an ABC miniseries – had I asked myself what a lot of people had started to ask?  Whether the chaos and pain and daily experience of sickness and death, particularly isolating in the case of AIDS; whether the stress of recalling that loss; whether for some people the stress of continuing to live with HIV long beyond the moment when there was an activist community dedicated to keeping its members safe and alive; whether the trauma was ongoing, whether it still affected me, or people I knew?  Whether you could still survive it?  Were long-term survivors of AIDS still at risk of early death?  Did it help to repeat to yourself or anyone else the events of the past?  Did it hurt?  Did it matter?  Was there no way to repeat it, was there no way not to?  Was the story of your life that repetition?  That reiteration?  Did it have to be?

5.

“Of course you can repeat the past,” Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby says.

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens says.  “It’s not even past.”

“We have talked our extinction to death,” Robert Lowell says.

People are dying, what are you doing?

I said I would end with a dead guy.

6.

My friend David Feinberg died of AIDS in 1994.  That’s his name, now: “My-friend-Dave-who-died-of-AIDS.”  It’s how I refer to him, in an awkward tone, silly and lethal at the same time, that is not mine, but his.  That’s how I’ve kept him.  His voice is my transitional object.  The sound of his voice.  I knew him five years.  I can’t picture us, back then, but I hear him.  If you had met him, you’d hear, too.  You would go back to the start of this essay and read it in his voice.  I’m writing this in Dave’s voice.  His voice when he was dying.

Nothing I have ever seen or heard or said has been anything like David when he was dying.

I had already watched one hundred people die.  In my youth and stupidity, I would say stuff like, “Death can’t surprise me anymore.”

I was wrong.

No one had ever died like David.  Not Cleopatra.  Not Robespierre.  Not medieval Sodomites with their bodies tied to two horses and ripped in half and then in half again and their heads put on spikes and raised high above London Bridge.

There is cruelty in death inflicted, there is incredulity in death witnessed, there is death written down and re-lived for centuries after.

David inflicted his death on everyone who cared about him, and I couldn’t believe it.  And I am still writing it down.

Riding my bicycle back and forth in the fall of 1994 from my East Village apartment to his room at St. Vincent’s Hospital above the intersection of 7th Avenue and Greenwich Avenue and West 11th Street – that juncture, that hospital that is now being turned into luxury condominiums – ; riding across town late at night after having spent most of the day with David, I said to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening.  I can’t believe this is happening.”  Said it out loud, and it’s all I said.  I’m not sure I existed except in that phrase, as that phrase.  The words meant nothing.  They were were a form of breathing.  “I can’t believe this is happening,” I said.  “I can’t believe this is happening.”

I knew it would happen.  I had watched, like I said, people die.  I had watched people watch people die.

I watched David, and I didn’t believe it.

I watched him as he lay in his hospital bed, or rather, writhed in his hospital bed, caroused and slept and harried and mortified from his bed.  Snapped photos of visitors with his Polaroid camera.  “Say cheese,” he barked, as they walked in the room.  And he caught them.  They were caught, he was not caught.  Their eyes in the light, their face in the frame.  And he pinned their trapped and worried hospital-visitor faces to the wall of his room as evidence, accusation, decoration, fury, and fun.

In the hospital room, I watched him.  And then he got out.  And I followed him, and so did many of his friends while he gave his farewell tour, as if in example, as if Cher were taking notes.  Take that, Cher!

He got out of the hospital and went shopping.

He got out of the hospital weighing ninety pounds and with two weeks to live and drove around town in a taxi handing out signed copies of his just published book, his last, to all the cute boys and magazine editors who had ever rejected him.

We took a cab to Midtown and rode an elevator up to the receptionist’s desk at the New Yorker, and left a copy of his book for Mr. Shawn, the Editor-in-Chief.

He got out of the hospital and attended a reading of his play, The Pathological Flirt at the Theater for a New City.

He got out of the hospital and saw other people’s plays, two plays, three plays, carrying his portable IV bag, chatting loudly with the matinée ladies while he waited for the house lights to dim.

He got out of the hospital and threw a theme party, “I’m Still Standing,” which was not true, because he wasn’t standing.  He was crumpled on his futon couch on a Sunday afternoon in his one-bedroom apartment so crowded with guests that it was hard to find his small body in the corner of the room.  Because of his diarrhea – which, nature’s joke, managed to be both constant and unexpected – he had to get off the couch and run to the john at regular intervals.  “Out of the way, out of the way,” he yelled, pushing guests aside, dribbling watery shit, and I followed behind, mopping up.

He got out of the hospital and headed for an ACT UP meeting at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center, weighing less than 90 pounds, his white jeans falling to his knees, his portable IV bag in my hands and draining pentamadine into his body through a clear plastic tube that stretched between us.  He wanted to stage a one-man zap of ACT UP, which he had joined in 1987.  The group had a tradition of members taking the floor and asking, “Where is your anger?”  Shouting, a rant.  A battle cry.  After a period of especially painful governmental or medical inaction.  A drug was released, but no one could afford it.  More people died.  Clinical trials to test new drugs were initiated, but who got to participate?  More people died.

“People are dying, what are you doing?” was a chant.  “We die, you do nothing,” was a chant.

Not a chant, but an update.

What if there’d been Facebook in 1990?  “What’s happening, Dave?” the Facebook prompt asks.  “I’m dying.  Thanks for asking.  What are you doing?”

Dave’s rant.  A chilly night late in October.  His arrival abrupt, his speech unexpcted, not on the meeting’s agenda.  People in folding metal chairs, watching.  The building had once been a public school, and the room was long and narrow, with a concrete floor with skinny iron posts that blocked your view.

Dave stood in the middle of the room in his drooping pants and shirt that showed the bones in his back, his Hickman catheter plugged into his chest.

“I’m dying,” he yelled.  He was not saying it to prevent it.  He was not saying it to know it.  He was not saying it to get over it.  Maybe he wanted you to stop it, but no one could stop it.  Many people had refused to stop it.  Now he was doing it.  He was it.  A performative statement.  “I’m dying,” he said, a verb of action that was also verb of being.

He died a week later.  Most of what I knew as “David” was already gone.

“I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying.”

He used to leave that message on my phone machine.  I’d go to his hospital room in the afternoon, stay long past midnight if the nurses let me, bicycle home at two in the morning, check my answering machine, and David would already have left two or three messages, while I biked home.  “I need sleep.  I can’t sleep.  I need to sleep.  I’m dying.  I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying.”  Every night for a month, for six weeks, however long he was in the hospital just before he died.  I would sit on the floor in front of my tape deck and make mix tapes, background music for his memorial service, dirges.  Meanwhile my answering machine played his messages.  “I’m dying.”

7.

Rewind the tape:

“If I told you I was dying of AIDS, would you not want to sleep with me?”  That was one of the first things he asked me.  Maybe you don’t find that charming.  So what.  I did.  I assumed he was kidding.  It was a joke, sure, it sounded like a joke, borscht belt humor in a funeral parlor.  But he was never kidding.  That’s what I failed to notice.  One of many things.

I didn’t sleep with him, in any case.  Not because I wasn’t in love with him.  I was in love with him, I guess.  What’s the colloquial phrase for, “If I love you enough, you won’t die?”  He hated me so much, because I couldn’t get the drugs he needed when he needed them.  He always needed them.

“If I said I was dying of AIDS,” he asked me, at lunch, on our first “friendship” date, in 1989, when everyone who had AIDS died of AIDS.  And I thought, “I won’t let you die.”  I had failed with everyone.  Everyone died.  Half the guys I knew in my 20s were dead, and I had split up with my boyfriend, finally, after six years, because our relationship had consisted of splitting up until we ran into each other in someone’s hospital room, someone who had just been delivered a death sentence, so we got together again for a while and then split up, and ran into each other in somebody’s hospital room, someone who had just been delivered a death sentence. . .

Play this tape over and over until you’re sick of it, and then keep playing it.

Dave bought me lunch on 9th Avenue and told me, in the tone of someone signaling for the check, that he was dying of AIDS.  It was the first of many lunches, and he always paid.  I was broke, he was working, and he would buy lunch and sometimes slip a twenty-dollar bill into my breast pocket and say, “John, am I enabling you?  If I’m enabling you, shouldn’t you be able to do something?”

As he walked away that first day, I watched him go.  He got smaller and smaller in the distance, turned back to wave.  I waved.  He kept going, then turned back to wave, and I waved.  And he disappeared.  And I thought – I remember this exactly – : “This time, I will love you unconditionally and you won’t die.  Someone will finally not die.”

I was so fucking stupid.  Narcissistic, OMG.  Was I Jesus?  I must have thought I was Jesus.  And I was raised an atheist.  He needed certain drugs, that was all, and he died eighteen months before they came out.  Other people got as sick as David, and they lived long enough for the drugs that became available in 1996, and they are still alive, seventeen years later.  Some of them, not all of them.  If Dave were still alive, he would be 57 years old.

8.

I don’t want to write about David Feinberg for the rest of my life.  Not only David.  Other things have happened, obviously.  Happened, and happen.

9.

Trauma happens all the time.  To some people, a hangnail is a trauma.  Trauma is the way forward, not the deviation.  Were you there when it happened?  The luxury/peril of being present.  The luxury of having only this to think about: Was I present?  I would like to be present.  “Present” in the sense of being aware or not aware, emotionally present or not, as when someone says, “I wasn’t present.  I moved out of myself.  I wish I had been present.”  The plan to “go back there,” back to the past, in therapy, in conversation, in print.  If you can just go back there, work it through, rethink it, get it right.

Jesus, why would I want to go back there?  To whatever degree that I was not there, I’m grateful.  If I could go back there, put myself back in my body, whatever that means, then what?  I’ve always hated my body!  If I had been there, fully “embodied.”  Actors talk about being embodied.  I love actors.  They go on Oprah and talk about living intentionally and being embodied.  No wonder some of them find purpose in Scientology, which talks about living intentionally, Level 10 intentions.

If I had been there, if I had intended.  If I had not been protected/afflicted by trauma.  If I had been able to believe at the time what was happening.  Maybe I would not have survived it.  It sounds presumptuous to speak of “survival” when I know plenty of people who got closer to death than I did, continue to get closer.

I’m sorry it didn’t kill me.  I’m not sorry it didn’t kill me.

Anyway, I wasn’t there.  I’m glad I was missing, because unlike you – maybe? – I had to be there.

Every word of this is written somewhere already, most of it a long time ago, some of it by me.

I don’t know how to end this.  Anyway, it’s not over.

A prayer for the dead, then.  For the living and the dead.  To the dead Mayor: pick a random homosexual who didn’t die and then did.  For Ed Koch, may his works and days be remembered, ficta voluptatis causa sint proxima veris: Fictions meant to please should approximate the truth.

Foolish Man Blues

(Published in *Ploughshares*, 2009)

In the summer of 1991, I was on the beach in Los Angeles.  I should have been home in New York, caring for sick friends, but I had won a grant and fled a boyfriend and I was living for a few months with two friends in Hollywood.  One afternoon we went to Santa Monica, to Will Rogers State Park – Ginger Rogers, they said, a gay beach.  The sun was hot, the surf was beating on the sand, cute guys were playing whiffle ball down by the waves.  I sat with my pals John and Randy.  John was on one side of me, reading The Gold’s Gym Guide to Nutrition, and Randy was on the other side, reading I’m Looking for Mr. Right, But I’ll Settle for Mr. Right Away, and I was in the middle, eating a mango and clutching, like an amulet against joy, a copy of The New Yorker.

As I sat there dripping mango juice down my chin, I realized suddenly that I did not have a thought in my head.  That had never happened before.  I had never not been hectored by a scolding and relentless internal monologue.  Now suddenly I was all sand and sky and boys and whiffle balls and waves, and it scared the hell out of me.  What business did I have in the gold light of the Pacific sun, thinking nothing and not despising myself?  In order to get a dose of the reality principle, and to shock my system with a jolt of New England fatalism and remorse, I opened The New Yorker and started reading an excerpt from the Journals of John Cheever.

“There is a membrane, a caul of darkness, that I think I recognize in homosexuals,” Cheever wrote, and I looked up at the bright sky and out at the sparkling sea, and I saw the flawless young men spread across the beach, and I thought, “If only!”  If only there were darkness, subtext, conflict, in this aspect of gay communion.  I like obscurity, but Cheever venerated light, he associated health and happiness with “the quality of light,” and with backyard barbecues and procreative sex, and his wife’s warm breasts filling the top of her dress as she leaned down to spear a slab of steak off the grill.  Moreover, in the daylight, he would be less likely to sneak off with a man.  Or so he hoped.  Cheever was nine years dead in 1991, and for the past year The New Yorker had been publishing excerpts from his journals, with special attention paid to his sexual self-monitoring, his lifelong, heartbreaking and tedious anxiety about his attraction to men, and his guilt about his periodic all-male trysts in public johns, Hollywood hotels, and the open woods above his suburban house in Ossining, New York.

“People who seek, who are driven to seek, love in urinals, do not deserve the best of our attention,” he wrote, lamenting others but no doubt lacerating himself.  This airing of his sexual panic and dread struck me as hypocritical on the part of The New Yorker, where Cheever had published short stories and occasional pieces from 1940 until just before he died at age seventy in 1982.  He was an alcoholic, a disease that had stricken both his father and his brother, but maybe anyone who wrote stories for The New Yorker for forty years, particularly a man who loved men, would have needed a drink.  The magazine underpaid him and it policed his content – it maintained, throughout Cheever’s career, a notoriously squeamish and WASPy reserve about sexuality and sex – and it assigned William Maxwell as Cheever’s long-term editor, a man who, after publishing a novel about idyllic boy-love in the Midwest, had undergone therapy to turn himself straight.  Cheever’s desire for men was not just – in the terms of the day – a Freudian nightmare, a threat to his marriage and his manhood, a potential legal disaster, the worm in the apple of the American way, and a risk to him in the Men’s Room at Grand Central Station.  It was also a professional and creative liability.  The New Yorker wanted him straight.

Considering how the magazine contributed to his repression, there was something icky about its publishing the man’s private confessions of worry about his sexual activity and need: his drunken leering at men he yearned to touch; the boys in tight pants whose youth and beauty gave him a hard-on while he waited for the morning train; the guy he blew while spending a few months in Hollywood writing a screenplay for Jerry Wald of 20th Century Fox and living temporarily in the Chateau Marmont, where he hooked up with a sailor in the Mitzi Gaynor suite.  Afterwards, there was always regret: “I know my troubled nature and have tried to contain it along creative lines,” he testifies, after gratifying and then fleeing the sailor.  In 1991, The New Yorker had a new editor-in-chief for the first time in forty years, and a readership that was enduring Reaganomics and AIDS – a readership, that is, with fewer illusions – but there were still plenty of people who were shocked by Cheever’s sexual history, even though his obsession with homosexuality had been on display in his fiction for decades.

It’s hard to imagine Cheever reading Queer Theory and Eve Sedgwick, but throughout his Journals he is transfixed by what Sedgwick calls a “crisis of homo/heterosexual definition,” a binary opposition that insists that if he is not straight he must be queer; that if he is straight it’s precisely because he isn’t queer; and that “queer” means one thing: men who own antique stores.  Well, his mom had run an antique store – actually, a gift shop – and Cheever had a Freud-induced anxiety about over-identifying with his mother.  His fear and loathing of what he calls “effeminate” men is permeating and toxic, though it is meant to be corrective.  Homophobia is his antibiotic, and he gulps it down.  Yet the specter of homosexuality remains ever-present in his work.  It is a specter that, in order to banish it to the margins of his art – his cheerful and despairing art, his magnificent sentences that always end in surprise, that are polished to a high finish not to mitigate pain, but to intensify it, and to ration joy – he places as an open secret at the center.

Who needs Lesbian and Gay Literature when you have American Literature, American writers?  What a gallery of panicked gender queers – “mannish acting women and skippin’ twistin’ women acting men,” to quote Bessie Smith – doing their best to hide their proclivities behind gay-baiting and self-loathing, in poems and plays and stories and novels that we all read in high school.  The year is 1960.  Cheever has published a story in the November 12th issue of The New Yorker, “Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel,” which will also be the title of Cheever’s 1961 collection, where the story is renamed “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear.”  I like the name change, because I’m drawn to simultaneity and paradox: How do you manage not to appear when the story is about you?  How are you present and absent at once?  Separated from the phrase “My Next Novel,” the story’s title would seem now to refer to a universal failure to show up.  These “Characters That Will Not Appear” won’t be anywhere, neither in my novel nor in yours.  They will be missing, not just from fiction, but from the world.

Who are these people who command our attention in order not to be there?  In the 1960 magazine version of the story, one of the “People, Places and Things” brought onto the page so that he can be withheld from the reader is a character who is a deliberate parody of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a “crazy, shook-up sexy kid of thirteen with these phony parents.”  Holden is of course one of the most famous victims of homosexual panic in the history of the novel.  “Approach-avoidance” might be the clinical term assigned to his relationship to gay men – or as he calls them, “flits” – who appear in The Catcher in the Rye as regularly and insistently as Jesus scrambling through the peripheral vision of a bad Catholic in a story by Flannery O’Connor.  Is it an indication of Cheever’s competitive anxiety about Salinger, a far more famous New Yorker writer, that Holden is erased from the story before he ends up in the book?

That’s the first disappearance.  Without Holden, the remaining characters who will not appear, whom Cheever numbers 1 through 7, are a pretty girl who goes alone to college rugby games; “all parts for Marlon Brando”; polluted American landscapes, including “gaudy and fanciful gas stations”; pornographic sex; “all lushes”; a dying novelist who bears what must be an intentional if only partial resemblance to Cheever himself; and, “while we are about it, out go all those homosexuals who have taken such a dominating position in recent fiction.”  Clearly, not all these “characters” are people – those gas stations! – and I have reversed the order of the last two outcasts: Cheever puts homosexuals next-to-last, just ahead of the languishing novelist, whose death comes at the end of the story.  All of them are banished.  The writer hits his carriage return, ding!, and they’re gone: sluts, drunks, smut, fags, garbage, Brando, and the novelists who love them.  Oh, but have they vanished, or have they pulled up a chair to the dinner table in order to help themselves to a slice of London broil and to tell us, over and over, how in ten minutes they promise to leave?  Cheever’s homosexual is someone whose absence is advertised, guaranteed, and anticipated by his overwhelming presence.

Not just a presence, but a “dominating position.”  We can figure out what Cheever means by that two-word phrase, given his hankering for “manly men,” and his tendency in the Journals to toss out random comments like, “Waking up this morning I thought I could use a brisk fistfight.”  But what does he mean by “recent fiction?”  Cast your mind back to 1960.  What prominent gays in mainstream fiction is Cheever talking about?  Did I miss the chapter in the Great American Novel of the 1950s where a leather daddy and a gang of dykes on bikes ride into Scarsdale and commandeer the country club?  Maybe Cheever means Tennessee Williams.  But that’s drama, not fiction, and in any case, Paul Newman ends up in the arms of Elizabeth Taylor in the last scene of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Has Cheever been reading Ann Bannon?  Her Beebo Brinker novels of girl-girl love were published in 50- and 75-cent paperback editions from 1957 to 1962.  Would he have found Odd Girl Out in the Ossining Public Library?

Or was he thinking of James Baldwin?  He and Baldwin were honored together in Berkeley in 1960, where Cheever read the magazine version of “Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel.”  It’s interesting to picture Baldwin’s response to Cheever’s anti-gay rant, especially since Baldwin was about to publish Another Country, the most polymorphously perverse novel any American had written since Moby-Dick.  Did Cheever mean the Beats?  “Advocates of buggery,” he called them, maybe sniffily, maybe enviously.  What if he had met Jack Kerouac?  Both were New Englanders from Massachusetts, both had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks from the American middle class: Cheever’s dad sold shoes, and Kerouac’s father worked a printing press.  Can we picture Kerouac and Cheever, closeted bisexuals, getting drunk together and going back to Jack’s room at the Chelsea Hotel, little Joey Cheever, only 5 feet 5 inches tall, and high school running back Ti Jean, each of them insisting to the other that he isn’t queer?

Or maybe Cheever was accusing himself.  “And now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale,” he writes in 1957, near the end of his long-gestated first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, “and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip.”  The “homosexual part” of the book lasts barely a chapter and involves a brief flirtation between Cheever’s hero Coverly Wapshot and a gay guy named Pancras.  They have dinner, go for a walk, circle an army garrison and wander into the woods.  Nothing happens, of course, though “Coverly felt a dim rumble of homosexual lust in his trousers.”   A dim rumble?  A noisy erection?  Cheever must have worried that his secret lust could be heard as well as seen.  He was after all a paranoid citizen of the 1950s.

But we were at the beach, pages back, watching pretty boys play in the sand.  So was Cheever, at least in his imagination, when he wrote about Disappearing Character #6, “the homosexual.”  “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear” is not just a short story, it’s an essay, an experiment, a confession, an apology, a list, and one of the earliest instances of postmodern fiction to appear in The New Yorker, anticipating Donald Barthelme’s career; and it is a creation myth, steeped in the homophobia of mid-20th century acolytes of Sigmund Freud.  It explains how homosexuality happens.  Here is the Freudian case study that Cheever offers us in “A Miscellany”: The scene is not the California coast but the New England shore, and the beach isn’t gay, just private.  We’re somewhere near Boston.  A teenaged boy and his mother have taken a picnic basket to a deserted cove.  It’s the Fourth of July.  As a reminder of what’s at stake – not just manhood, but home and nation – Cheever lets us see the American flag whipping in the distance, above a clubhouse.

“The boy is sixteen, well formed, his skin the fine gold of youth, and he seems to his lonely mother so beautiful that she admires him without trepidation.”  Fierce mom!  Lovely, lonely boy neglected by a dad who is off having an affair with his secretary, and who is, moreover, Governor of the State – Cheever is enough of a snob to make sure that even his outcasts are highborn – with little time for his wife and son.  The boy would rather be with kids his own age, instead of picnicking with his mom.  But “he is timid about competitive sports, about the whole appearance of organized society, as if it concealed a force that might tear him to pieces.”  Cheever wonders if the boy is a “coward.”  He worries that the mother’s “surveillance” of her golden son is excessive.  Has the boy become “vulnerable and morbid” because of his mother’s attention, her protection?

A pretty boy who is loved too much by his mom.  Who is lousy at sports.  Who can’t compete.  A delicate boy, who is cowardly, timid, vulnerable, morbid, under surveillance, unequal to the strain of life in the everyday world.  A budding gay boy.  Where did Cheever find this cliché?  Had he, in his casual reading of Freud, come across a neo-Freudian text called Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?  A popular book in 1956, it was favorably reviewed in Time.  Its author was a follower of Freud named Edmund Bergler, who emigrated to the United States in order to escape the Nazis and to write books like Divorce Won’t Help Neurotics and The Revolt of the Middle-Aged Man.  According to psychoanalyst Kenneth Lewes, who eviscerates homophobic Freudians in his 1998 study, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality, Bergler was “the most important theorist of homosexuality in the 1950s.”  Lewes accuses Bergler of twisting the terms of the Oedipus complex to prove that homosexuality is a sickness.  Not just a sickness, but, Bergler says, “a mixture of superciliousness, false aggression, and whimpering.”  Compare this to Cheever’s contempt for homosexuals, “with their funny clothes and their peculiar smells and airs and scraps of French.”

And their pearls!  Back to Cheever’s beach: Our lonely boy is thinking about how his father ignores him.  “When he fell out of the pear tree and broke his arm, his father would undoubtedly have visited him in the hospital had he not been in Washington,” etc.  So much lack of father-love has made the boy sad, if not queer.  It’s his mother’s job to turn him away forever from manly heterosexuality, from bracing swims in chilly lakes and ball games and the redemptive love of a wife with breasts that are “marvelous for nursing and love.”  Thinking longingly of his missing dad, the boy’s “shoulders droop.  He looks childish and forlorn, and his mother calls him to her.”  What happens next should perhaps be quoted in full:

“He sits in the sand at her feet, and she runs her fingers through his light hair.  Then she does something hideous.  One wants to look away but not before we have seen her undo her pearls and fasten them around his golden neck.  ‘See how they shine,’ says she, doing the clasp as irrevocably as the manacle that is welded to the prisoner’s shin.”

It’s hard to read this passage without making jokes.  I want to distance myself from Cheever’s hackneyed diagnosis of homosexuality as an aberration.  I want to laugh at his misreading of Freud, who did not think homosexuality was a sickness.  I want to say that I’m gay even though my mother never gave me pearls, though we did sometimes picnic at the beach.

But Cheever’s scene is an accurate portrayal of the world in which I grew up in the 1960s and even the 1970s.  “Don’t tell your grandmother,” my mother said, when I came out to her at the age of twenty-four in 1983.  “She’ll blame me.”  The notion that someone is to blame for homosexuality is not unique to Cheever, and it has not been chased away even by the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in all those New England states.  No doubt some of the openly gay guys frolicking in the sand in Los Angeles in 2009 – let alone in 1991 – are wannabe movie stars who will duck into the closet if they ever have chance at big careers.  They too will disappear.  Or they will maintain a distinct presence that is signaled by our pronounced refusal to see them, a paradox of visible invisibility that marks the treatment of queer characters in 20th century American novels not just by Cheever, but Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth. . . The list goes on and on.  “Out they go; out they go,” Cheever says, casting out the gold-shouldered gay boy and his hideous mom not just from the white page of the novel he is planning to write, but from “the civilization that we – you and I – shall build.”

Oh, what can you say about a man like that, except that he believed what he read?  That he was a man of his time?  That he is still sitting on beaches all over the United States, perhaps on the benches of the U.S. Senate or Supreme Court, sick with worry about the “gay lifestyle?”  You can also say that he wrote the most beautiful sentences.  Was repression good for Cheever?  Did he need the tension of self-loathing in order to produce his miraculous stories?  Was homophobia just a place holder?  If he were not a tortured bisexual, would he have found some other form of fear and self-loathing in order to have an excuse to lock himself in a basement room in an Upper East Side apartment building and write “Good-bye, My Brother?”  It’s tragic to read Cheever’s Journals and feel the awful suffering that homophobia inflicted on him and on the men and women he loved – tragic and irritating.  You want to tell him to get over it.  He did sort of get over it, after a while.  And then he died.  I’m hard-pressed to claim him as a gay writer, though if he wasn’t gay, what was he?  What are the closet cases and Saturday Night Butches who still comprise a big portion of the lesbian and gay community, whether or not the community is willing to acknowledge them?

Wave it all away, I say, and read his sentences.  Jesus, what a writer.  Contradictory, surprising and perfect, his sentences are full of what Elizabeth Bishop says she demands from a poem: accuracy, mystery, and spontaneity.  In a sense, they are the main characters in his stories, some of which – “The Cure,” “The Five Forty-Eight,” “The Swimmer” – are uniquely odd, part doomed realism, part Christian allegorical whimsy, as if Theodore Dreiser had merged with Nikolai Gogol.  And they are full of Cheever’s helpless love for elevator operators, sleep-in maids, doormen, handy men, sleepy doctors summoned at dawn, wayward children, building superintendents, and all the basement dwellers and denizens of the world of servants and adjuncts to the upper middle-class.  His sentences are animated by love, and by a stylistic flourish that he cannot control.  “Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” Flannery O’Connor asks.  “I think that usually it does,” she decides, “for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.”  She must have been reading John Cheever.