Between Planes by Jon Robin Baitz

BOMB 28 Summer 1989
028 Summer 1989
Marilyn Lerner

Marilyn Lerner, Page of Signs, 1988, oil pastel on paper, 47 × 34 inches. Courtesy of John Good Gallery.

For Alter, the funeral had been tranquil almost to the point of vacuousness. He had made an attempt to integrate, figuring that if he merged with the mainstream of mourners, he would, by osmosis, gather some of their own grief. Instead he found, in the center of the crowd, an almost singular lack of heat. Like a cold spot on the sea, he thought. Alter stood there, recalling suddenly the memorials he’d been to (and in the past two years, they’d become a blur of bodies laid down), and he knew that he had always felt the quickness of other people’s grief—wondering why it was not his own—and here, at Corbett’s grave, everyone else about him becalmed. Alter experienced a sense of loss so sudden and so palpable, that he tasted the salt of his own tears, utterly out of sync, he thought, with the climate about him.

That had been this morning. Now Ben Alter sat in the Ambassador Club at LAX, on familiar turf. Happiest, he acknowledged to himself, in an airport lounge—best kept in flight. Positioned with a view out the dark glass onto the runway, Alter clutched a scotch, aglow in his hand, the chink of ice reassuring after what seemed too long an abstinence. He drank quickly, prepared for the sucker-punch that would follow.

“I need a new view,” he had told himself after the funeral. And looking out the amber tinted window, catching his own reflection, that was confirmed for him. A slightly paunchy screenwriter, still young, but not for much longer—features coarsening, and dressing, he felt, with an increasingly desperate hipness—a Japanese wit—that left him feeling bloated and caught out by the baggy black shirt and ponytail.

Alter turned his eye so that he could catch the planes instead of himself, and tried to track what had happened to him at Corbett’s funeral—Corbett, who had been his partner in a flirtation that endured one another’s slew of hopeless affairs and truncated relationships, a flirtation kept alive by two men who subjugated their affection for more icy, less expensive emotions.

The parents at the ceremony had seemed to Alter to own a dignity that could never have been expected of them. He had stood watching the mother, pale in her make-up, almost defiant in her refusal to wear black. Good for you, he had thought. Don’t give in to the grief-trade. His tears had started at the moment when Corbett’s father tossed black irises into his son’s grave—a son he could never have been fully comfortable with—and the mother, tossing a clump of fresh dirt in after. A fault-line, thought Alter, looking at the upended soil, a cavity on the grass. The cemetery was calculatedly sub-oasis; date-palms, and cactus with red, fleshy bodies—a vulgar plant—and Joshua trees, those trees of the desert, of Moses’s Forty Years, transplanted without irony to Palm Springs.

Corbett had gone badly, Alter found out, and not a victim of the plague, as he had first supposed—at least not that poisonous disease, infecting even the healthy with its attendant paranoid Calvinism. No. He simply drowned off the coast of Catalina Island sometime between 5:00 AM and first light last Saturday. What was I doing at the time, Alter wondered, his finger submerged in his glass, getting numb from the ice. He tended to puzzle himself with ‘where was I?’ questions, curious, he concluded, about other people’s disasters, but never present. ‘First light last Saturday, I was sitting up in bed in Chelsea,’ he said to himself. Always dawn-bound, too aware of time; an insomniac. While he was drowning, I was twisted in my sheets, self-obsessed. That’s where I was, Alter smiled to himself.

Corbett had shot pictures that Alter had rewritten. A taut young man, his eyes had seemed to catch light and send it back out—like shattered marbles, Alter had once said to him, at the Formosa. Corbett had smiled, his mouth hardly arching, a barely perceptible curve to it. And at the funeral, Alter realized in retrospect, he had felt the beginnings of a small epiphany about their two lives, wretched businesses, one past repair, and his own barely worth salvaging. Black thoughts for a graveside, and he’d made an attempt to focus on the eulogizer—a high school girlfriend who’d stayed in the desert, and was, Alter guessed, probably in real estate school. She did well with her memory, trying to articulate some banality not explicable to others, her voice rising against the Mojave wind. Alter had admired her, wanted to speak to her—she had a clear treble that pleased him—but by the time he’d decided to move, it was too late. She had been drowned out by the windstorm sweeping down from Indio, and the crowd had scattered. Alter stood watching while the girl had cut short her reminiscence, and given a tiny half-shrug before walking away. He stood there, alone, and watched as she drove towards Highway 111 in an old yellow convertible bug with a broken muffler.

Alter decided at that moment that he needed real motion, that flow was critical at this point. Corbett had displayed only the most complex, masked emotions around Alter, leaving the less rigorous, more overt ones for the other people in his life. It was precisely that which kept Alter attached and up-ended at the same time. Once, also at the Formosa, which was always the gloomy set upon which they conducted their negotiations with one another—Corbett had submitted that Alter was, in fact, in love with him. Alter remembered being taken aback. “In love with you?” he had shaken his head, leaned forward, and twisted his mouth into a bleak grin. “I might have been once,” he had nodded. “But you have made that impossible, you would never allow for that. No. I absolutely do not love you at all.” And the moment had silenced both of them, they had sat there, taken aback by the poisonousness of the sentiment. Corbett had finally nodded and looked up at the Elvis Presley shrine and replied, “Good, because there’s nothing worse or more hopeless than unrequited love.”

Right, thought Alter, fingering a stain on his baggy grey pants. Exactly, Corbett. He rose as a disembodied voice announced his flight. Nothing as hopeless, he said to himself, walking out of the Ambassador Club, past a woman brushing cheese spread off her blouse with one hand, and holding a cracker with a yellow glutinous smear across it in the other.

Alter knew how to function in an airport, knew the speed with which to walk down the long connecting hallways, loved the purpose that came with knowing that you were going to be moving at hundreds of miles an hour, suspending the lethargy of normal, workaday activity. And Alter counted amongst his faults true impatience. Motion is everything.

Alter was flying to London for what he deduced to be a non-meeting with an expatriate American producer/hustler who’d come to England along with a B-picture rat pack in the early ’70s. Californians had been presumed to hold the secrets to quick-killings and easy deals, once upon a time, and Jerome Kessler had been one of the prime boosters of that notion. He’d done well enough to stay on after the rest of the crowd headed back to Burbank, realizing that the party was no longer theirs. Kessler, instead, had married a Belgian singer and made a second fortune on the coattails of a semi-recluse star who adored the producer because of his secret vice—shoplifting in the food halls of Harrods.

Last year, Alter had done a quick rewrite for him. Kessler had the true sociopath’s knack for picking out talented people when they were at their weakest, and he got Alter practically for free. He was still in trouble, having been replaced off the last two projects, and blamed utterly and completely within the industry for the failure of one of them, and it was still costing him. He told himself that what he was doing was taking time off to rethink everything, but really, he was as scared to write as he was of the sea—never having set foot back in the ocean after being dragged out as a seven-year-old. The bookkeeper had, last week, inquired as to whether or not he was still using his credit cards, as there was nothing left to pay with. Alter had taken it well, easily masking the blood pressure drop he felt in his forehead, the clamminess in his palms.

Then, his—and Corbett’s—agent had called from Avalon, having been on the boat when his client disappeared. It had been his task to identify the body. Alter imagined it, this runner’s body, enmeshed in sea-debris, a naked white hank of lean muscle and limbs flung out, starfish-like, this thing washed up onto Isthmus Cove—the far end of the Island. Alter’s money problems had disappeared for a moment as he held the receiver to his ear, nodding. He had sat in the pre-dawn dark in Chelsea, the insistent monotony of salsa music fading away as the light came up. He listened as Ventamiglia described the accident in the controlled, low tones of a man not able to give in to shock. After booking a flight, he’d stayed in his chair, trying to gauge his immediate response. One more gone, was all he could come up with. Who’s next, who’s coming up now? And on the plane out, by the time they were over Colorado, he was awash in Bloody Marys and valium, emerging from the plane carefully, as if he’d been struck and lost coordination. The entire day had been kept at bay this way, and Alter knew he had to halt himself quickly. And now, as he approached the crowd waiting at the metal detectors, Alter’s fatigue and dislocation caused him to think he was at La Guardia for a moment, and he leaned against the tiled wall, fighting down the nausea, breathing hard. He took off his jacket.

There was a couple in front of him, and they had a refugee air, a sourness about them. The wife’s face was shiny with sweat, and she held a shopping bag with the logo of Cedars-Sinai hospital on it, while her husband clutched a plastic carry-on case, and Alter, propped up against the wall, watched them. He could only think of refugees milling about Eastern Europe after the war. They had that look, he thought, wandering Jews, taking directions from others, eager only not to draw attention, not to make trouble; lumpen-proletariat. They began to sadden Alter, reminding him of his own parents, slow, bookish Baltimorians who would, after a dinner party, show the video cassette of their son’s one produced picture. ‘The comedy,’ they called it.

Watching the couple struggle with their luggage, Alter felt that the woman had just come out of intensive care, the isolation ward. A bone-marrow transplant he decided, noting that her skin held the translucence of the gravely ill, and her limbs seemed ginger, as if they would snap at too much exertion. They were being badgered by the security people; every time the husband stepped through the detector, the alarm was triggered—a sharp, low blast. The man’s wife stood shaking her head in frustration, beads of liquid on her upper lip, and Alter, helpless against the wall, watched this couple, overdressed and formal for air-travel, and wanted to rush to their aid. The problem was a mylar balloon that the man held in his left hand. It was in the shape of a heart, with the words ‘Be Well, Get Well,’ printed on it. The officer was insisting that it be deflated. The crowd stood watching, and Alter could feel their mortification for the couple, an embarrassment as the husband worked at the string, trying to loosen it without doing damage to the balloon. He turned and smiled at his wife, who quickly jerked her head in a nod of reassurance. There’s nothing you can do for these people, Alter repeated to himself, as the balloon deflated noisily, bladder-like, and the couple hurried through the gate. Looking at them depart, Alter had a sudden sense of the woman’s illness as a low throbbing that spread upward and out from the base of her spine—a cancer that siphoned her marrow and thinned her out. Alter felt it in his own back, and told himself to go on. He was being waved on—not a threat.

“It’s Corbett,” he said aloud, walking towards his gate. It is somebody I was not finished with, he thought, now dumped like a cheapo gangland hit under the manufactured landscape of Desert Lawn Memorial.

Before getting on the plane, Alter called his agency, and got Ventimiglia on the line. They had hardly said a word to each other at the service, both on foreign turf, and Alter had thought better than to talk of business.

“Hey, Ben,” he said. He sounded oddly chipper, Alter thought. “Why’dja disappear after the thing? You fly out here … we looked for you.”

Alter wondered who the ‘we’ was. He had only recognized his agent in the crowd.

“Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Boy.” Alter lit a cigarette. “Nice service though. The girl, she was good.”

“Couldn’t hear her. She’s a shrink in Palm Springs though.” Ventimiglia was quiet for a moment. “Hey, you okay?” Alter said nothing, held the phone to his ear, listening to the low ongoing jangle of phones behind his agent’s breathing.

“Well. You know, Nicholas.” Alter didn’t want to whine. “Life’s cyclical, I tell myself that around now.”

“Listen, Ben. Cyclical it is.” Ventimiglia said something that Alter couldn’t hear over the roar of a jet taking off. “Ben, you hadn’t talked to Corbett for a while, but he was in trouble. You couldn’t’ve done anything. I saw you there. I know how you think, I know what you’re thinking and we all tried. He went spear-fishing with a half-empty tank before light, and we don’t have any idea how loaded he might have been. Maybe we should’ve been watching more closely, but fuck it, this is a man who’s done the whole game, it was la forca del destino.” Ventimiglia finally stopped.

“Whatever.” Alter wanted to get off the phone. “I’m off to London, Nico. Wish me luck.”

Ventimiglia snorted. “Bud. You don’t need luck, you’re great. Kessler’ll take you to Langans, Caprice, and you’ll get a gig. We smell it. La guerre non est fini.”

Alter laughed. “Not until the fat lady sings.” He hung up.

Los Angeles spread down below them, the dusk filtering an ocher cast over Santa Monica bay, the water glistening, thought Alter, like the scales of a hooked sailfish. He looked down as the last light retreated below the horizon. Alter felt safe in the powder blue first class cabin. The protected limited space exhilarated him. A bottle of Chateau Neuf du Pape stood on the tray next to him—he had the row to himself—and he picked up the novel Kessler had bought, planning to work out an approach. First Snow, a modest upstate New York blue-collar town murder novel added up, thought Alter, to a lot of gritty scenes and almost no plot. He had transferred his talents—whereas once he underlined passages in books he loved, the mark of a true reader—now he looked for stories simple enough not just to be translatable to the screen, but to the pitch meeting. Corbett did the same thing with air and sky and shadow, Alter thought. Irritated with himself for still being caught in Palm Springs, he swallowed his wine and closed his eyes.

In retrospect, he did not know why he had flown to California—what had there been to say goodbye to, exactly? At the Formosa, they drank and talked about other people’s affections that they were engaged in returning. For Corbett, neediness, attraction, desire—they were things he was “at peace with never being at peace with.” But he resented me, thought Alter, no longer lulled by the wine, nor calmed by the humidifier-like quiet of the engines. No. Once, Alter had recommended Corbett for a job, which he took, but never forgave his friend for getting him. It left Alter afraid of him, and even though Corbett had softened, Alter held back, and the two men circled one another, wary, tired, addicted. Now, in the plane, the trip to Palm Springs—the funeral—seemed to hold a truth for him that he could not identify, had no access to. He knew he was heading into a storm, and imagined himself spiraling out of the plane into the blackness, sucked up into the sky above Nova Scotia, into the ice below. The dirt cast over his friend—yes, my friend, he said to himself—signalled a low echo of a warning and he kept replaying the moment. Left behind were parents—always parents—in this case, frightened by their son’s agenda, imagining the late nights and unshaven faces being kissed, their boy laughing to himself in the morning, alone—part of the generation that craves and despises its solitude. Alter shook in his seat for parents left behind, more in the dark finally, than the friends.

The plane hit the clouds low and hard. At that height, 35,000 feet, they were filled with ice, almost solid, and the entire plane shuddered and bucked. In first class, faces were grey, but Alter smiled, willing for the worst. The seatbelt sign snapped on, red and panicked, and it seemed they were boat-like, trying to ride out a sea that could drag them down. Alter looked up into the face of one of the stewardesses trying to hurry to her seat, and reached out before he could stop himself, and grabbed her hand, wanting to re-assure her. She looked down at him, expecting the whitened face of a terrified passenger and was instead surprised by Alter’s composure.

“Why don’t you sit down here?” he said it quietly. There seemed to be a whale-like vibration coming up from within the core of the jet, and Alter felt Jonah-like, as if this were some huge metallic whale, and he would be spit out onto some frozen beach. He looked up into the woman’s face. What must she see? he thought. Eyes red-rimmed, the glow of the movie green on my skin, and indeed, she shook her head and patted his hand.

Alter nodded, grim-faced. Misperceiving me, he thought, and her error filled him with rage.

“You’ll be fine, sir,” she smiled, as if they trained her to it late, like a stripper at Show World in Times Square. His desire to comfort had given out in the face of her solicitude. The petrochemical sheen of her uniform filled him with revulsion as she detached her hand from his and, in a series of hard steps and lurches, made her way past the dividing curtain into coach. There it is, he thought, that’s the thing itself. Excited and heady with his own anger, he got up, ignoring the insistent seatbelt sign, and went into the bathroom, just in time to vomit into the blue-water of the toilet. It’s when they’re nice to us that they hate us the most, he understood at that moment, feeling more of his cemetery epiphany settle into place for him—how Corbett must have felt about me, he wondered, how many times have I used that stewardess trick of fobbed-off solicitude, a weapon like a mask to hide the thickness of my animal-smell. Of what?, he thought, wretching. Of contact, he concluded, stumbling back to his seat, aware of the distant disk of silver light between two levels of cloud. We’re outrunning the storm, he thought to himself as he closed his eyes, almost asleep, enmeshed in the blue wool blanket, and tied the seatbelt about him, so he wouldn’t be thrown down into the isle.

A few hours later, he walked into the arrival lounge at Heathrow, squinting under the blanket of neon. Yet again another line, he thought, this time made compliant by the flight. He stood passively while the agent appraised him. “Business or pleasure, sir,” inquired the bored old man, cadaverous beneath the lights.

“Just business. Just two days at the most,” Alter replied. The agent was white from Guinness and carbohydrates and Alter felt himself letting go, something he had trained himself not to do, but to no avail now. He imagined the endless tube ride the man must take every night back to Pinner, he saw his life with its pub, saw even the cheap stained glass and soiled carpet, saw his organ as a lifeless thing, tried to turn off the flow of images, but couldn’t, stood there, taking it all in—the lunch eaten somewhere in the bowels of this terminal, a banger, curved and foul, and the thought brought Alter again to the edge of sickness, he felt the Chateau Neuf du Pape well up into his mouth, a red bile. This, the running imagination, terminally morbid, was his worst compulsion, a writer’s gift, and the only item he’d managed to hold onto in his divorce settlement from playwriting two and a half years ago. When he was in good health, it served him well, but at times like now, it was lethal. He looked up into the eyes of the customs man, who smiled back at him, unaware, and stamped in his passport “Leave to Enter for Six Months—Employment Prohibited,” and below that the date, “December 28, 1988, Heathrow.” Alter smiled back, and went out to the taxi-rank, his overnight bag and blue camels hair overcoat draped over his arm.

The week between Christmas and New Years finds London almost shut down, except for tourists, recalled Alter. This is no time for business, he thought, recessed in the cave-like expansiveness of the black taxi. They pulled out into the watery light past the Heathrow tunnel and Alter lit a cigarette, knowing he had to re-coup. He had to sleep before dinner with Kessler, or he’d blow it.

“Oh God, Kessler,” he said it aloud, looking at the closed shops on the Strand—it was barely half past eight, he realized, when he checked into the Savoy.

Sitting on the edge of his bed, unable to sleep, he stared out at the Aldwich down below—the wine had knocked out his REMs, leaving him somnambulent and exhausted. Late in the afternoon, he surprised himself, waking up curled atop his bed. He lay there, enjoying the odd wetness of the London air blowing in, boat noises from the Thames wafting up above the street sounds.

Alter bathed slowly, lying still in the steaming water, and began to feel some of the wretchedness of his mood lifting. He dressed carefully after examining his body, the thickening waist under a visible ribcage and narrow shoulders. He headed out of the Savoy, and tried to plot a course to take with Kessler.”

The thing that’s truest about London, Ben,” said Kessler, fingering his spinach, “you’ve got to bear in mind that they’re pathological about small things, little places, tiny behavior. And this love of history has killed them.” He smiled widely, picked up the strand of vegetable and placed it between thick lips.

Alter nodded, feeling hot and distracted. “Well I’m never comfortable here, I keep forgetting.” The meeting was stretching on, he realized because Kessler was lonely, his wife having fled for Cap Ferrat to be with her two boys from an earlier marriage. The novel they were to discuss sat next to him, untouched, next to the plate of lamb chops—black items, with little pools of blood beneath.

Kessler ignored the book. “Americans here, they go Anglo, they get staid, the accent softens, the clothes get tweedy, they lose the ethnic side, if you know what I mean,” he raised an eyebrow. Alter nodded. Kessler went on, “Guy in Hampstead does High Tea on Friday, who do they think they’re kidding? Schmucks like me from Brooklyn?” Kessler chewed his dover sole happily. He wore jeans and a green wool blazer. A balding man, his glasses hung low over his nose, and his hair was springy and reddish-grey, like an Airdale terrier’s. “We’re exiled here, outta touch.”

“Well, why do you stay?” Alter asked reasonably, leaning back in his chair, trying to ease off the tension he felt.

Kessler considered, shrugged. Alter stopped listening. You have to make this money, he told himself, just forget all the rest of it, or you’ll end up on the street. That thought stopped him, and he realized that it was fear like that that had been his prime life-motivator. Unlike Corbett—he told himself, sweating. Kessler was saying something and Alter felt his earlier dizziness return and waved his hand in front of his face. He knew he could not understand the substance of the producer’s words, knew he was being questioned, and that this was nothing less than a job interview. He pulled himself back in and smiled. “What was that, Jer?”

Kessler was onto the book, quick to make transitions. “Do you see a way in, in terms of telling who the killer is not too early.” He looked at Alter, trying to gauge the writer’s state, picking up that something was off balance in the man across from him.

“The death.” Alter looked at Kessler, thinking of death, and shook his head. “It’s all around us, isn’t it?”

And there was a silence. Kessler regarded him.

“Hey, Ben. You said on the phone last week that you had an approach. Come on, let’s hear it. You’re sitting here sweating—you’re not sick, are you? We’ve got a good internist, not National Health.”

Alter closed his eyes, thought back, and blocked out the sounds of the room. Restaurant sounds, like a cheapo a capella choir. Oh the bodies here, the exhaustion in this place, close your eyes to it, he told himself. And then he looked up at his producer, and sighed.

“Okay, Jerry. The death. You come at it unexpectedly, you think the picture is going to be about a small town upstate and people losing their farms—don’t set up the death, and shift the POV because the narrator in the book here, he’s unreliable.” Alter swallowed down icewater. “It won’t work for the picture.” He shuddered against the shock of the liquid in his throat, which was beginning to ache. “Veer towards the murder, like—turn on a dime, the picture becomes about something else.” Alter saw Kessler nod, following, and nodded back encouragingly. “So that by the time we get to the blood-sport, Jer, it’s the last thing we’re ready for. It’s a body blow, and we’re rolling. Into Act Two, we’re a whodonit, and why?” Alter shrugged.

There was a significant silence, accompanied by a nod. Kessler took off his glasses and held the stem in his mouth, looking deliberately senatorial. “Ben. You want to do this picture or what?” He stared at the writer, not blinking—sage-like, thought Alter. Maybe even wise, perhaps. Alter said nothing. Kessler jabbed. “I could’ve called someone else. You know that, don’t you? The word is funny on you now.” He paused. “Not that I should give a fuck about that.”

Screw you, thought Alter. He put his fork down and nodded, preparing to get up. “Don’t bully me, Jer. You called Ventimiglia, you brought me here.” He cupped his hands, held them out, not the supplicant. “I told you my take on the book, I think it’s too literary, full of sleight-of-hand, lots of neat Iowa Writers Workshop tricks, whatever. There might be a movie in it. I’m not going to tell you it’s easy.”

Kessler looked happy across from him. He nodded. “Well, it might work, you try, but let me tell you,” he shook his head, swallowed some wine and snorted. “I’ve made more bad pictures than most, and you outgrow your own mediocrity at a certain point or you die, and I see you, I knew Odets at the end and you look like he did already,” Kessler stopped, thought for a moment. “Don’t think people don’t know what a guy looks like when he’s sinking. I’m going to pay you more for this picture than you usually get, and you’ll remember.”

“Jerry,” Alter started, but stopped himself. He experienced a curious inflation—that old arrogance that comes with the knowledge of cash headed your way. It made him want to hit someone, or cry. He looked down. “Ten weeks, you get the first draft. I need 10–12 weeks.”

Kessler thought, nodded, and got up. “Listen, I want to say—sorry about your boyfriend.”

Alter froze in the act of rising. He felt something capsizing in him. “What’re you talking about?”

“Corbett. I heard.” Kessler looked down, his mouth open, slightly embarrassed. “Hey, look, people knew about you two, it’s okay, you shouldn’t have to pretend you haven’t been hit …”

“We were friends.” Alter felt his face, hot, red-blotched, the wine swirling in his belly. “What do you mean, Jerry?”

And the producer looked at him. “Take my advice, go to—don’t fly back to the States. Go to Italy or something, keep away from the crowd.” He nodded. “Your crowd, I know you guys, a B-crowd, eating off one another’s plates and stabbing each other in the back, it’s why I left the scene. I used to be …” He stopped himself—something in Alter’s expression silenced him.

“There was nothing …” Alter shook his head. “He was an idiot, Jerry, we weren’t …” He felt caught out, cornered and pitied, a bent hipster screenwriter, bookish-smart, turned Hollywood, all Laurel Canyon and linen. Absurdly, Alter thought to himself that all he needed, what he really needed, was a dog. Just that. He turned to the aging producer, nodded. “Thanks.”

“To die in such a manner,” Kessler was standing outside Le Caprice, facing Alter. “You know he shot a picture for me?” Alter didn’t, was surprised.

“Yeah, Dead Letter. Morocco. He made the desert look like an ocean, but he was a shmuck to sit in a room with.” They stared out into the damp. Kessler started to walk away. “I’ll get the start money to Ventimiglia by the end of the week—so it’s next year. Happy New Year, kid.” Kessler was gone and Alter stood alone for a moment before heading in the opposite direction as his producer, down Germyn Street.

He was quite drunk, he knew, stumbling haphazardly towards the Santo Claro Club in Bloomsbury. Corbett had led him there last year. It was, Alter recalled, all dark rocks embedded in the walls and low ceilings and utterly cave-like. I have no business going there, he told himself, all boys, all younger than oneself. But he made his way through Leicester Square. It’s all tourists and Arabs, he said to himself, bumping into bodies in the dark.

“How disagreeable can I be,” he wondered outside the Santo Claro—where a doorman spotted him standing behind a milling crowd—mostly male, all absurdly young—made younger still by their Englishness. Alter was surprised at the doorman—that was a new twist—not one he associated with London. His London was different, was restaurants and ease, not bouncers, he thought, responding to the doorman’s waves. He laughed as one of the kids—eyes all shiny from something, flowed through in his wake.

Inside, the music was just some heavy atonal percussive vibration he felt enveloping him. Oh I love my life, he grinned to himself. Remember the rules of such places—leave before the smell of sex becomes too acrid, and it all turns. Gauge it. See how much air you’ve got in the tank. The bar loomed up to his left—a place best reserved for men past the dance. This party is not mine. He downed vodka, telling himself that the sweat is good for the fever.

They look like we did, he told himself. God, but will they look like I do? Corbett had cruised this place, feral and absolutely in control. Alter had watched, thinking it a form of carnage. He had stood red-eyed, hopeless, as Corbett whirled about—a presence. Alter put his hands to his eyes, hoping to stop the flow of memory. No, he told himself, let it do you in.

He had wanted to obliterate his friend, and taken action of his own, spotting a kid dancing across the room, and after the briefest visual-morse-signaling, navigating him into the alley. Alter leaned back against the bar, mouth open in recollection of those white English hands on his jeans, the feeling of release and submission that comes when someone else unsnaps the buttons, and the pressure of the Brit-kid’s mouth on him, surrounding him in the alley, the strangeness of teeth on him, and his shirt being lifted up towards the spire of the church behind them. And Corbett, he had been there too, engaged against the bricks, looking out into the middle distance and had caught his friend’s eye, raising his arm into the air in a salute to a freedom—that Alter—in that moment of releasing into the foreigner’s mouth—knew he would never own. At the time, Alter had hated his friend absolutely, and spent, he had stood there, watching. It was their last time together. Alter had pulled back after that.

And at the bar, he spotted a path to the door, a lull in the action and took advantage of it.

Alter walked back towards his hotel slowly, the din of the Santo Claro diminishing gradually behind him. He recalled some Cavafy lines—

I never found them again—all lost so quickly …

the poetic eyes, the pale face …

in the darkening street …

I never found them again—mine entirely by chance,

and so easily given up,

then longed for so painfully.

The poetic eyes, the pale face,

those lips—I didn’t find them anymore.

“Corbett,” he said to himself, as he entered the warm room, “we lied about everything.”

He went into his bathroom at the Savoy, and ran warm water over his face, and then he sat by the side window, for 20 minutes, watching a barge moving up the river towards Greenwich, before he went to bed.

for G. N.

Jon Robin Baitz’s play, The Film Society, was presented last season at The Second Stage. His new play, Dutch Landscape, just completed a run at the Mark Taper Forum. He is the recipient of a 1989 Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship.

Life of a Liar by Martha King
Related
Parable of the Birds by Paul Maliszewski

The man was doing chores when he noticed the first baby bird. His little boy was with him, in his arms, held against his hip.

Three Stories
The Middle of the Night by Daniel Stolar

My mother died in the middle of the night. In my mind’s eye, I see it like the lights turning off in an old factory, shutting down one circuit bank at a time, an electric hum the only thing remaining.

Originally published in

BOMB 28, Summer 1989

Featuring interviews with Patrick McGrath, Craig Lucas, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Toledo, Guy Gallo, Gary Indiana, David Kapp, Bobbie Ann Mason, Roland Legiardi Laura, John Ford Noonan, Roni Horn, and Richard Edson.

Read the issue
028 Summer 1989