I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I’m living in hell, Richard told me in the steam room. Victor’s so heavy. I’ll be working on something, you see what I mean, really into it, he lets himself in with his key now, any time of day or night, hoping he’ll surprise me in the middle of a fuck. When we were actually together that way he’d never come over without calling up and asking.
So I got into this thing, Richard said. I met this guy from Cleveland, a major money person, married with three kids and some guys no matter what they look like, out of their clothes it’s like there’s nothing but you and them and the universe, he’s into, like, the best wine, the best food, gentle sophisticated vibes and he’s in love with my schlong, 50 60 million dollars with a nice family and everything. And guilty about it. If you saw him you’d laugh but I’m in love with him and it’s over with, I never got hurt like this before.
It isn’t like he broke it off but I just couldn’t stand it. Like you can never have anything normal, just pieces. Always if he was going to be in town, and what if he changed his mind, I was always at the mercy of his life and his priorities, Victor’s been really supportive through the whole thing and tried being a true friend, like he put his jealousy over in New Jersey in storage. So I am always going to like be grateful for what he’s been for me during this heavy period but now it’s like he’s assuming all this stuff, protecting me from myself and, in other words, knowing every move I make.
You know he’s the nicest person, Victor would cut his balls off for a friend. But after a while that can get pretty heavy too. I’d like to be, like, responsible for my own shitty messes instead of knowing Victor will clean them up for me, I mean I know I have a tendency to put myself into extreme situations sometimes with guys who I don’t know that well, there’s been some psychotic shit over there, that’s why I want to stop drinking, because my judgement breaks down and I get looped and wild and I let go, like with Randy, I’m sure Victor told you about when Randy, at first I thought, here’s a really built hung guy who likes doing shows, that was when I had all that mirrored effect in the bedroom, he was ready for anything. Randy, I’d get him to sit on a broomstick or that Brancusi copy I have, or with cowboy boots, when I got those boots in Marfa and came back I said. Randy, wouldn’t you like getting fucked by these boots? It felt funny, kind of erotic. And he turned out to be a complete psychopath though he dug getting fucked with almost anything that looked like a cock he also liked getting stoned and taking a razor blade, first he made these cuts on his thighs and all across his chest and this went into something I couldn’t handle at all and Victor was the one who kicked him out, I mean, with my permission but it was heavy. I only want to work any more. Just work and fuck the rest of it.
I had let Richard talk me into joining the health club. It had something to do with Paul, and the strange things which now appeared nearly every day in the newspaper, the tumult and confusion of the times. When I saw Paul in the hospital, he showed me oblong, puffy red lesions on the heels of his palms, and one of the white socks he wore had a pink damp patch around the shin. It was a drab room with a view of Roosevelt Island. Paul’s hospital gown reminded me of a convict’s uniform. Someone had brought him lilacs.
I told him stories about my life, wrapping them in bemused petulance, as if to say: Well, what can you do? He listened too closely, watched my face too fixedly, I could tell he evaluated every visitor’s performance, measured the exact degree of discomfort each one experienced in the theater of his distress. He lay on the bed with his head up, extracting private wisdom from the situation, and clearly pleased when I seemed to forget what I was doing there. I made him laugh, once, when he asked what Gregory was like and I said, very much as an aside. Oh Christ, that’s all fucked up, too.
If I hadn’t had Gregory distracting me, perhaps I would have noted the sudden omnipresence of death with greater clarity. Instead the fatal pneumonias, sarcomas, and neuropathies reached me as isolated incidents, or manifestations of an abstract social problem. I convinced myself that since I’d been sexually unhappy for years after breaking up with Paul, this unhappiness conferred special immunity against the virus that I suspected must be floating around inside me. I reasoned: if Paul’s sick, wouldn’t I be sick by this time, if I’d picked it up from him? This made no real sense, Paul could have gotten infected long before our relationship, infected me in the middle of his incubation period, by which token I might fall ill in roughly the same time after we broke up that Paul got ill after his initial infection, and then again, perhaps the thing develops at different rates in different people, with one person getting sick a few months after infection while another falls ill years later.
I shunned as much information as possible. People talked a lot about “safe sex,” usually in a derisory way. Victor informed me that sodomy with a condom, which he’d tried out on his occasional Japanese boyfriend Hiroshi, never transpired very smoothly. You could never quite lose yourself in love-making since foreplay no longer led directly to insertion, but rather to the peeling of a foil packet and the usually clumsy rolling of the latex down the length of the penis, which quite often shrank if you didn’t slip it on right the first try. Blowjobs with a condom on the penis were really not worth talking about. Licking the penis without inserting the head of the penis into the mouth was like eating the cone and throwing out the ice cream.
On the other hand, Victor expatiated, sodomy without a condom had always had a lot of glitches too, if the person’s asshole were too tight, or too dry, and you didn’t happen to have the vaseline open and ready to hand, and I remembered with Paul, who always tried getting in using spit, he’d often find the area constricted. Damn, he’d murmur, ease himself off the bed, pad off to the bathroom for the K-Y. Of course, we were so high most of the time the little interruptions heightened the excitement, in fact Paul liked pulling out, rummaging around for a bottle of amyl nitrate, and sticking his cock back in while holding the bottle under my nose, once he spilled it directly into my nostrils and I spent ten minutes with my face in the sink, now they say you should never drink or take drugs if you have sex because it breaks down your inhibitions and you find yourself “going all the way,” getting come down your throat or up your ass and then you’re paralyzed with fear the next morning.
So, Victor went on, if you do it as you’re supposed to, both people are completely lucid and therefore completely self-conscious, and any break in the continuity makes the whole affair seem ridiculous and arbitrary, and, on top of that, five out of six times the condom snaps or mushes up, at the end of the night you’ve got scads of wet latex sticking here and there all over the apartment.
There was Rainer, who directed the film in Colombia, an intermittent pal of my ex-flame, Alexis, and one of the only people from the European other world I sometimes lived in who ever met Gregory: in March or April, he phoned to say: Willie’s dead, Willie having been his lover of ten years. Rainer said: I take a strange inhuman comfort from the fact that the worst that could possibly happen has already happened, and what I’m now left with is the intelligent planning of my suicide.
And Martha, a photographer who lived uptown, a friend I hardly ever saw. She had started looking after Todd, another photographer, after his first pneumocystis episode. The thing that was special, she said, the way we could talk about pictures together, it doesn’t happen any more. And it never will again. I go shopping with him and if I watch him picking out a sweater, I know if this happened to me of course I’d go on, taking care of myself as long as I could, but it requires such hideous courage. Sometimes I’m over there cleaning up the dishes, and I’ll stop for a whole minute, thinking: why on earth wash another dish.
We’re mutating, M. said. Becoming something new. A species at the end of its run.
I’m scared, I told Jane. I really want to live.
Hey, she said, it’s the only game in town.
Libby said her grandmother gave her three pieces of advice at her college graduation, about how to have a successful relationship with a man: listen to everything he says, constantly tell him how smart he is, and worship his penis.
If we seldom spoke of it directly, it must have been because Gregory’s entire art project presumed certain evils inherent in pornographic magazines, lustfulness, and even the body itself. He greeted the news of my health club membership with superior irony, as if it implied a vulgarly death-defying attitude towards my physical envelope. His collages had begun featuring porno models, spliced into settings that heightened the absurdity of their smiles, their foregrounded erections, and their brazenly offered buttocks to a pitch of supreme ugliness. I laughed when he showed me them, one morning when he fixed breakfast at his place and seemed, for once, relaxed and happy. His anxiety for my approval put me on guard. It pleased me that Gregory could make technically sophisticated pictures, ones with a strong content that his peers wouldn’t despise. But what Gregory craved was my complicity in his message, his ridicule. Something of the zeal with which reformed sinners make themselves odious sparkled across Gregory’s photographs. His physical poise that morning, as he briskly arranged plates and coffee cups and orchestrated a continual medley of irritating albums on the stereo, reminded me of some keenly deluded junior architect unveiling his plans for demolishing the red light district.
There were times like this when, unplugged from the erotic current that usually ran between us, I saw Gregory not as someone unusually developed in matters of the heart, but as someone painfully unversed in the art of survival. As we ate he fretted over “which pictures to put in the show,” how the public might receive them, whether or not there would be copyright problems with the porn magazines. I asked him if he thought the porn industry vigilantly monitored exhibitions in obscure East Village galleries. This obviously stung, but only for a moment. Gregory explained that he was thinking ahead, because “objectively,” he felt, his images were destined to shock people and hence to acquire a certain fame. Maybe so, I said, but look, you’ve only done four of them, I think you’ve got plenty of time to worry about lawsuits or what you’re going to include.
He seemed positive that Bruno would eventually offer him a show, though Bruno had expressed to me a certain skeptical distance from Gregory’s activities, saying that what he’d seen looked clever enough but finally not very difficult. But how firmly did Bruno draw the line between his opinion and his desire for Gregory? Bruno was currently dating a fashion designer but he still had an unfinished lust that compelled him to drop in on Gregory all the time without warning. Perhaps he would feature Gregory’s work in a group show, holding out the prospect of a one-person number, and Gregory would amplify his charm in proportion to Bruno’s munificence.
When Gregory put something into his mind, if it did not conform to practical reality, he searched the corners of his daily life until something, or someone, offered confirmation of his fantasies. And so a few days later, he reported that Pugg, the mysterious Pugg, whose rather tepid bon mots infiltrated Gregory’s jumbled accounts of third persons, of people in his life I hadn’t met and didn’t know, this Pugg had agreed that “there could very well be problems” regarding the rights to these skin pictures. Artists who used images from existing sources, thus spake Pugg, had often run afoul of litigation. And Pugg had further said, according to Gregory, that people would “flip out” when they saw Gregory’s pictures, meaning, in Gregory’s interpretation, that the photographs were so “transgressive,” so bound to hit a raw nerve, that Gregory was fated to erupt upon the art scene like a regular little Vesuvius. Hadn’t I been a trifle … abrupt? A wee bit thoughtless, possibly even … slightly envious in my temperate advice? Not at all, I told him, I just don’t want you to get worked up and then be disappointed. I said, things don’t always arrive on a serving tray, just like that. You’ve got to prepare yourself for some struggles, some setbacks, some low times and boredom. It could take several years to establish a career. And even then, I pointed out; no matter how good something is, everything passes in and out of fashion. Think how many things used to be considered shocking. Don’t be negative, he told me.
When he saw me reading the paper someone had left on the seat, the cab driver, an Egyptian with long, thick fingers, told me he was a Virgo, and please would I read him his horoscope. It cautioned that Virgos could anticipate certain snags in their business relations by getting their feelings mixed up in matters of strategy.
In the hospital pavilion, the blue-gray linoleum floors had colored lines trailing across them in different directions. The cancer ward was cerulean, dermatology red, cardiac unit and x-ray yellow, green stood for emergency services, and so forth. A wooden maquette of the hospital rested under a sort of oblong cake saver on a platform near the information desk, complete with tiny trees, drive-up horseshoe paving, miniature nurses and doctors and visitors, a model ambulance with paramedics wheeling off a gurney, and life-support systems.
Whole chunks of the actual hospital moved about on wheels, metal instruments and dialysis machines and people on stretchers with cloudy IV bottles plugged into their arms, people with nostril tubes clamped in place with white tape, clutching the padded arms of wheelchairs, all dappled with the greenish yellow aquarium light flooding in through the atrium windows, which gave the procession of medical technology a floaty underwater logic. I thought: that’s what happens, you creep over to the other side one morning, and suddenly a chair takes on an incredible solidity, it begins to weigh what it would on Mars. Lying down becomes a complex negotiation. Even if your body feels normal, you know the slightest unconsidered movement will shake something vital loose or shift something around, this big elastic bag of flesh you’ve carried around in total confidence for years and years falls in love with its own demolition and starts courting randy microbes, loose virus particles, plaques and embolisms and alien cells, it offers bits and pieces of itself for any invader to nibble on, you watch as your body entertains your enemies at dinner, its loyalties divided between you and them, and after a while, you become hypnotized by the disappearance of you.
I took the elevator to Paul’s floor, where nurses passed in every direction. No one questioned my presence. I wondered why, in a city where so much violence has been directed against people with Paul’s disease, patients weren’t guarded against the much-touted general population. But of course the people with the most to say about the illness would never go near its actual victims. All such people are ruled at any and all times by cowardice, and a staggering capacity for abstraction. Me too, I thought. Did I think I’d catch it if I visited Perkins, or had I really kept away because I had nothing hopeful to offer him? I have nothing much to offer Paul, either. He’s standing in the alcove near the elevator, smoking a cigarette. That’s him. He doesn’t look himself. It takes an effort to walk from the room, he’s looking at me with those deep eyes, I smile but I smile differently than I would if he wasn’t dying, tighter, as if it wouldn’t be nice to look happy. He doesn’t exactly smile, he adjusts his body on the wooden bench after sitting down in a way that insists that he’s physically there, still in his body, even though he’s lost about 30 pounds, his face used to be so broad it really beamed when he smiled his devilish smile, now it’s tightly glued to his skull.
Don’t look at me like that, he says. Why would I need to give up smoking now?
I’ve been determined to kiss him on the mouth, but forget in the crucial moment when I should. Now it would seem histrionic and “brave” instead of normal. I light a cigarette instead.
You don’t look so bad, I say.
No, he says, I think we’ve got quite a ways to go yet.
I look at the tip of my cigarette as if I expect it to talk to me, touch his arm, glance out the window. The Roosevelt Island gondola crosses the air in the middle distance. Have you ever wondered, I say, what sort of people actually live on Roosevelt Island? Not many Roosevelts, I would imagine, Paul says, looking at me instead of the window. They’ve taken me off the protocol, be says, until the other day I was getting the biggest dose of DDC of anyone in the world, but now I’m having this problem, he continues, nibbing his temples, with my face, he says, they think the virus went into the nerve ends around my cranium, into the facial tissue here and here. Insidious fucking virus, isn’t it? It’s torture moving my head right now, if I don’t seem very animated it’s because of that. They think they can treat it, he says, they’re giving me doses of this anti-seizure drug, bit by bit, they think it will gradually eliminate the … the neuropathy, other than that, it’s just the Karposi’s, but Jesus Christ, it’s amazing when you get a new pain, because they’ve got to figure out if this other drug is working. If they add anything to your treatment, even an aspirin, they’ve got to take you off the protocol. It doesn’t seem to make any difference at the moment, but then again I’m not infected with anything, a lot of people get this thrush business, in the mouth. I’ve even heard of the most incredible sort of rectal pathology, knock on wood. I think: if he knocked on wood he might break his hand. I search for something to say, acutely aware that most of my current conversational strategems involve complaining about Gregory. It’s really offensive to complain to a dying person. Paul asks about him. He asks: is he nice with you? I think he tries to be, I say, he’s someone with a lot of problems. Paul says: Well, we’ve all got our problems. After a patch of silence we both erupt in maniacal laughter, scaring two paramedics coming off the elevator. I look into Paul’s eyes. He’s a shit, I tell him, choking on giggles, an absolute and total shit. You always go right for the shits, Paul says, waving a fresh cigarette at the window. City with nine million gorgeous, well-adjusted guys, you’ll ferret out the one shit like your life depended on it.
I protest: Well, you weren’t a shit.
And look where it got me, Paul says. Right in the shit, can you feature that?
It’s all shit, I say bitterly, grabbing his hand and instantly letting it go, remembering the lesions. I’m sorry, did I hurt you, I ask him.
They don’t actually hurt, he says. They just suppurate.
We listen to the hum and throb of the hospital, and watch the soundless river shatter light into thousands of white drops. We used to say: how can we live like this? And now the question really is, how can we die like this?
The weather turns, at last, the new restaurants on Second Avenue plant their tables in the sidewalk. Are we racing forward, into the brave new world? Someone dies in an apartment three floors down, a week later the place is gutted by beefy Polish workers, three weeks later the place rents out to a prosperous, starched looking couple for $1200 per month: people who sail forth every morning with matching briefcases, dress for dinner, complain to the landlord about the opera singer on my floor who rehearses in the evening, get the hall bulletin board removed as unsightly.
M.‘s phone can now do conference calls, and he doesn’t need to hold the receiver. The entire studio and living space next door are miked. He ambles through his cast iron kingdom, touching up a painting, fetching Cokes from the fridge, talking the whole while as if other people were in the room with him. A peeping tom would imagine that M. talks to himself all day.
Richard’s new answering machine has its own voice: hello, you have six messages. I will save/erase your messages. That was your last message. It even says: I have detected a malfunction. I.
Libby’s phone has a hold button and call waiting because Fred’s a musician and if a booking agent calls and the line’s busy, the agent will just phone another band. Libby wants separate phones. Fred feels that separate phones would indicate that they’re starting to leave each other. It’s only the first step, he tells her. Next it will be separate televisions.
Jane has a friend line and a business line. The friend line stores numbers up to ten, for her ten best friends she only needs to press a single digit. Now, she said, to call you I simply push Auto and then 2. Oh, I said, hurt. In that case who is Number One?
Gregory rings me out of an alcohol-heavy sleep, from a recurring dream in which the architecture of a vast hotel continually shifts, revealing unexpected suites and corridors inhabited by figures from the middle past, along with the peripheral gnomes of everyday Manhattan. I’ve started my job. It turns out that although I can write whatever I like, what I mainly have to write about is art. This requires me to pop in and out of art galleries, suddenly affix names to long-familiar faces, figure out what people do. I have been in this world forever and ever but never of it, I didn’t even much notice M.‘s paintings for about six years. I know if anything will drive me over the edge, it’s having so many unwanted conversations, enduring the transparent sucking-up that comes with the job. People fly out of their gallery offices to greet me, rattle on about their wares, offer catalogues and cups of coffee and sandwiches and glasses of champagne. I have become a generic functionary, an element of cash flow. Things I write get xeroxed and slipped into plastic covers and laid out for the customers. I fidget before these people, hearing the same litany of fake praise in one place after another, and at night they play walk-on parts in my dreams.
* * *
The hotel is an expanse of pink and white gingerbread next to the sea, the Atlantic, briny-smelling and Whistler gray with a chill skimming off it, a flag flapping on the lawn mast, and massy formal gardens, in the Italian manner, laid out in back. Sometimes the hivelike innards of the hotel mutate, changing into parts of the Luisiane in Paris, the Locarno in Rome, the Gramercy Park in New York. The figured carpets shift patterns, rooms shrink and expand, the elevator cages change dimension from scene to scene. If the dream ever played out completely, all the people in my life would show up in one room or another, in unimaginable combinations. Even the dead would carry on a second life in the onyx-and-ormolu dusk of the cocktail lounge, regaling each other with posthumous adventures. When I awaken from this dream, the true extent of the hotel is about to reveal itself; it never does. Gregory needs $60 to ransom two Cibachromes from the lab. Instead of asking for it, he describes his current situation in Byzantine detail, implying that even if he manages to pay the lab, his problems are so wearying and tangled that it’s practically asinine for him to go on making pictures, or doing anything, really. When I offer the money, Gregory’s voice squirms, dissatisfied: he doesn’t want me to imagine he’s calling just to borrow money, he’s calling to let me know how miserable and hopeless things are, and how little my loan, which he’s unbelievably confident that I’ll give him, will affect his unhappiness. As Gregory dilates on this theme, I remember myself as an adolescent, the incurable discontent I lobbed at my mother whenever she tried to improve anything. Now I’ve become her, or rather Gregory’s mother, the place where he lodges his complaints and demands satisfaction for life’s little injuries. Except Gregory’s injuries are never, to his mind, little. He makes it sound as if he’s doing his work only to placate me, against his better judgment. I want to say: suit yourself. But this would unleash a torrent of accusations. It’s easy for you, he’ll tell me, you’ve got a fantastic job and prestige and you don’t have to slave in some menial position where you feel like a jerk all the time, you’re so unfair, you don’t understand, you’re always demanding things I can’t give you and yet you’re not even sympathetic to me. I’ve learned that the gentlest suggestion that Gregory’s feelings of persecution might be exaggerated brings instant, crushing retaliation, threats to end our relationship, intimations of suicide. He tells me I’m insensitive, selfish, incapable of really loving him. If I loved him, apparently, I would succumb to his mercurial but bottomless depression. And to some extent I do. Gregory’s a pro at ruining an evening, a day, an entire week.
I’m glad to give him money, though I can’t really afford to, and I’m afraid he’ll resent his indebtedness before long. But Gregory doesn’t simply want money: he needs my emotional involvement in his need, to feel I’ll be unhappy until he’s content. I recognize the tone of voice, the note of unslakeable grievance. I can’t just hand him the cash. I’ll have to monitor his trip to the lab, phone to find out how his prints look, ask if the money covered it, and if he needs more for living expenses. What on earth does he do with all the loot he pockets at the restaurant? He’s always bragging about how much he steals, then never has a cent. Maybe he exaggerates the thefts, to seem bolder than he is. He tells me what he says to rude customers, always things so cutting or elaborately insulting that I know he never says any such things, I know because I ask: Well, then what did he say?, and Gregory draws a momentary blank, or tells me, Well, what could he say after that, he just gave me a look.
These lies have a youthful charm, they protect his ego and he believes them. But they blur the continuity. How often, lately, I want to ask: who exactly are you, Gregory? He keeps me waiting a half hour in a coffee shop, refuses to sit for five minutes, looks agitated and vaguely scared about something, won’t hear of me going with him to the lab, accepts the money with a bleak smile and promises he’ll pay me back tomorrow or the next day, apologizes for his nervousness, tells me he feels shitty about everything but knows this will pass when he’s taken care of some details, and seems the whole time to be talking to someone else, someone he needs to convince. Then he disappears, stuffing the money into his shirt pocket. I pay my check a moment later, rush into the street and look for him in every direction. Gregory moves fast.
Gary Indiana is a writer living and working in New York. His book of short stories Scar Tissue is just out from Cadmus Press. Burma is being excerpted in every issue of BOMB.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee