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
One night, after taking a valium, I ask Gregory why he needs to hurt me. He says it isn’t him, but Bob. Bob? Yes, Bob, he insists. Bob “takes over” when Gregory feels threatened. Bob unplugs Gregory’s phone, cancels Gregory’s dates. Bob hates Greg and wants to ruin his happiness with Anna. Who is Anna, I ask him. That’s you, he says, Sweet Anna, when you’re sweet and nice with me. But when you’re upset because of Bob, you change into Ruth. Ruth? Ruth’s the one who protects you from men, Gregory informs me. Bob protects Gregory even when he doesn’t have to, he thinks if Gregory gets serious about another person, even Anna, he’ll suffer so much it will kill him. And Ruth’s afraid Anna will give herself body and soul to some worthless creep. Ruth is beginning to trust me, finally, Gregory says, so she doesn’t threaten any more to destroy our relationship, but she still insults me, to test my love for Anna.
So Gregory and Bob and Ruth and Anna are locked into this thing together, apparently. Do others live like this, I wonder? I have to admit, the discovery of these auxilliary beings defuses some of our antagonisms for a while. When an argument gets tripped off by an edgy tone of voice, Gregory says: Is that you, Ruth? Would you mind putting Anna back on the line? And I find I can coax Gregory out of a nasty sulk by asking Bob what he’s done with Gregory. This game runs its course in a few weeks, but for a time it plays out at absurd length whenever we talk.
And then other games, fictions we weave between us, one holding the yarn, the other knitting. First it’s him assuming a Southern accent. Soon he’s doing it all the time, without any great dramatic skill; from this artificial voice comes all the tender language I want to hear, the gurgled intimacies, the brazen sex talk, the things he can’t or won’t say when he’s Gregory. In his own voice he’s mercurial, drifting from enthusiasm to irritability without any logical transition. In character, his face colors up with reckless optimism. He flies into the apartment, beaming with upbeat news: he’s met X, X looked at his slides, said nice things about his work. Y talked to him, Y has befriended him, Y is an important artist. People around him are perking up, paying attention.
Against this pile of hopeful developments, the weight of his—what is it, exactly? An infernal dissatisfaction that contaminates everything. The expectation of disaster. Fear of the sabotage his own mind can easily wreak upon his plans. Trivial incidents oppress Gregory with an obscene power. As long as I’ve got you, he moans, in his assumed voice, as if we were clinging together amid debris. But he doesn’t have me, declines every opportunity to have me. When he plants kisses up and down my neck, I wonder who exactly is the “you,” here. He bursts in one afternoon, croons that he’s met Anna’s sister, and presents me with a xeroxed photograph on green paper, from where I can’t imagine: a woman in a loud ’60s dress, nursing a drink at a cocktail party. Her face matches mine in three-quarter profile. Who is this? Gregory smiles coyly, then rattles on about something else: Pugg wants to meet me. Pugg read a story of mine, he thinks I’m a classic. Pugg told me, Gregory says, This story’s a classic. I liked it last week, and I like it this week. Pugg has been floating around in the white space of our relationship long enough for me to wonder about him. From what Gregory tells me, they’re like kids together, schoolmates or something. Pugg, for that matter, is a kid, 20 or 21. I’m reluctant to meet him, though, worried that our age difference will make me seem old and out of it.
Pugg turns out to be a tall, broad-beamed, quiet boy with a shaved head and nervous looks. His brown eyes flash away when you look directly at him. His mouth has a gliding, reptilian thinness. His voice, soft and uninflected, provides no clue to his personality. He’s abstemious, guarded, and like Gregory an ardent, obvious narcissist. Every time I catch his gaze he tilts his head as if peering into a favorite mirror. We’re introduced at so-called brunch, in a dreary Art Deco joint where the glare of dead Sunday afternoon light filters through inch-thin hyacinth blinds. Gregory talks and talks, telegraphing their private jokes and observations. He knocks himself out to sound clever, and at one moment when he actually does, I touch his arm, affectionately, then catch Pugg’s eyes indignantly widening as they fasten on the point of contact. From this look I understand that he and Gregory have just woken up in the same bed. Gregory immediately shifts the force of his charm from Pugg to me, talks in our private lingo, pushes Pugg into the wings of the conversation. He doesn’t miss a ripple of tension. By the time we finish eating, I’m no longer sure what Pugg’s look signified.
Pugg desires him. But does Pugg possess him? They’ve slept together, I can tell, but maybe not so recently. Later, the three of us walk around in the maze of Gregory’s neighborhood. We poke into shops, examine clothes hanging from awnings on Orchard Street. The two of them seem very bonded, at least on the level of shopping. The lens of the afternoon keeps shifting: at some moments, I’m the object of their interest, an adult they’re curious about. At others, Gregory’s my lover. Then again, he’s Pugg’s. Gregory is threading his way to work. When we leave the Lower East Side, the walk becomes a silent tug of war between me and Pugg. I wait for him to detach himself, he waits for me to leave them alone. I’m tenacious; Pugg pretends obliviousness. When we reach West Broadway, though, Pugg abruptly relinquishes his hold. But before he gives up, Gregory launches an overbearing rap against Sex. A familiar theme lately. Gregory feels clever articulating it. Now, he says, because of AIDS, he’s not having sex with anybody until they find a cure. The only safe sex, hne says, is if one person jerks off at one end of the room and someone else jerks off at the other, both trying to hit the same spot in the middle of the floor. I hate the smug, funny delivery of this little speech. It’s as if the disease gratified Gregory’s sense of justice. As he rattles on, Pugg’s face parades an odd morphology of appraisal: hard to tell if Gregory’s letting him know he doesn’t sleep with me, or letting me know he doesn’t sleep with Pugg, or letting Pugg know he’s kept me in the dark about the fact that he sleeps with Pugg.
Then Pugg skulks off in the direction of Washington Square. Gregory asks me what I think of his wonderful friend. He’s charming, I lie, I guess the two of you are pretty close. You see how beautiful he is. Gregory says, catching my drift. Now he throws a petulant sigh, his “I’m tired of explaining but since I care for you I will” sigh: the first time we saw each other, Gregory says, we wanted to rip each other’s clothes off and fuck, but we didn’t, he claims, we decided being friends was better. And isn’t it, he shrills, when you consider how fast the other thing gets used up? Couldn’t you and I be friends like that?
I’m startled, first of all, because I don’t find Pugg even remotely attractive: his face is so evasive and creepy, everything about him is alien and slightly repulsive.
If you think I’m always thinking about having sex with you, you’re wrong, I tell him, lying again. But I’m tired of hearing how awful and disgusting sex is, Gregory, I mean, you made your point a long time ago.
It’s the same as death, he says.
No, I say, it isn’t. There’s this disease, and it happens to get passed around through sex. That doesn’t mean people who’ve had sex in a spirit you don’t approve of deserve to get sick and besides, Gregory, you were just as promiscuous as anybody else a long time after this thing got started. Maybe you’re afraid of getting it from me, but I’m a lot more scared of getting it from you.
And it’s true, though I would probably waive any consideration of my own health if he wanted to sleep with me. Some of Gregory’s former life has surfaced recently from other sources, including a suite of provocative photographs taken years ago at the Everard Baths: these pictures, in the collection of a local jewelry designer, have fueled my jealousy of everyone who ever had him. And it’s galling to consider how many people that includes.
Believe me, he’s saying, you’ve got nothing to worry about, because I’m not taking any chances.
That’s your prerogative, I say, but it’s one thing that you’re phobic about it and another thing to judge everybody else.
People are killing each other, Gregory replies, climbing on his mental soapbox, because they can’t control themselves. I don’t think it’s wrong to pass judgment on that. Yes, I tell him, it is. I happen to think, he continues, that it’s immoral to risk another person’s life for the sake of your own uncontrollable libido. These queens, he says, you see them all over the streets, all they’ve got in their brains, evidently, is getting their mouths around a dick, it’s like they want to die and take other people with them.
Maybe there’s a future for you, I say, disgusted, as a right-wing crackpot.
Gregory makes a face. Look, he says, now gravidly reasonable, these are the times we’re living in. We’ve got to adjust, and that’s it.
He keeps it up until we reach the restaurant. No one is inside, except the cleaning lady. He taps on the window with his house keys. She opens the door. Her mouth creases into Slavic delight. We step into the entryway near the bar. I have a strong desire to slap him around, I want to bully him into submission.
The cleaning woman gives him an adoring look. The golden child has arrived. The restaurant smells of garlic, stale smoke, and cognac, with ammonia wafting off the floors. Round tables crowd the narrow aisle between the bar and the dining room, where the walls bear large tin advertising signs for French products.
I watch him as if through soundproof thicknesses of distorted glass. He wraps me in his arms and squeezes, an unexpected present. Darling, he whispers in his Southern accent; he drawls something about dropping in later for a drink, as if he wants me to. Call first, he says, if things are slow you could come over. He talks as if it were usual for me to visit him at work.
I can’t resist the invitation, though I sense it’s a trap, another way of measuring my enslavement. When I call he tells me the place is a madhouse, don’t come. If I could seem just for a few days not to care, one way or the other—this is my fantasy, that the ratio of need would reverse itself. It’s useless to imagine such a formulaic redress of a necessary injury. I don’t need you, he sometimes says, that need stuff is from a movie. l can love you exactly as I do now without ever seeing you again. And If you really have to get fucked, just go out and find someone who’ll fuck you. The bath house photographs make his coldness doubly insulting. If he gave himself so freely and indiscriminately before, why can’t he give me what everyone else has had?
I can’t sleep. I decide to “leave him.” Even this dire part of the lover’s vocabulary sounds absurd, things being what they are. How can you leave someone if you aren’t living with him? Break it, then. Break off. I’ll suffer, I’ll go crazy. But if I wait, it will kill me. I live two different lives with Gregory. In one of them things really happen as they do, but the other proceeds on wishes and dreams that can never materialize, since his strength consists in keeping them alive and slightly out of reach. Not only physical love, but steadfastness, loyalty, the things to do with friendship. The fantasy life has buckled and warped like a bit of cardboard in a bathtub. I can no longer picture happy endings, or suppose that the twists and hairy turns are part of a baroque courtship ritual. We are traveling exactly nowhere. Away from the purring spell of his voice and the inexhaustible enticement of his body, I feel madness brushing my skin. My solitude has the fatal ugliness of wanting.
* * *
On Monday nights, fear puts me into a condition like shock, though Peter assures me that whatever I feed into the newspaper computer Tuesday afternoon will be, at worst, “enough to work with.” Gregory stages our worst quarrels on Monday evenings, a fact he seems truly unconscious of: he knows his only rival is my typewriter, and if he could amputate my legs to prevent me from walking to it, he would. The typewriter is my only source of self respect. Gregory has already taught me that my face is ugly and my body doesn’t look nice and nobody wants me. He lets me know every reason why people he encounters don’t like me. He skewers any flaw in my thinking he can find. The only thing I can do that he can’t comes out of the typewriter. And so, on Monday night, he calls up and says, This guy’s been after me at work, he buys a drink and then tells me how he wants to get it on with me, he says he wants to get my meat hard. He says it like a joke but I know he means it.
Everything he tells me on Monday night is about his meat, his prick, his dong, his dick, for starters: Guys used to tell me, You’re crazy but you’ve got a fantastic cock. This queen used to pay me $100 to beat off while she dressed up like Marlene Dietrich, it actually got me turned on. I’d squirt and she’d rub the come all over her dress. And then Gloria drifted into the narrative, like an errant coal barge: I’d wake up and she’d be licking my balls, or sucking my toes, or have her tongue halfway up my asshole, and I’d say Gloria, why don’t you just fix yourself a sandwich or something—
I thought: Oh, do go cram it, Gregory. The verbal invocation of his penis was foreplay to darker themes. He’d gone into the neighborhood bar after work and this guy I used to shoot up with, he said you were in love with him years ago and told me you’d write him these desperate letters. Gregory conjured a smoke-filled, gibbering underworld of low types eager for gossip and full of stories about me. It’s strange, I told him, how in a world where there are no brains there can be so many long memories. Why do you go in there unless you’re trying to score? Are you so insanely jealous that everything has to be about sex? Can’t you imagine I might want to unwind a little after 14 straight hours of hell?
Meanwhile, after a month on the job, I’m gleaning “feedback” from so many peculiar sources that it seems, for a while, that my every written word is carved somewhere in marble. I’m somebody now, surprise. Gregory is proud and envious and tries to sabotage me. A bin-size wooden mailbox at the office, stuffed to the brim every Tuesday with letters, announcements, folders, solicitations, phone messages, galleys of other people’s books. Letters thank me. Sometimes a nasty, anonymous message comes puking out of an envelope. Nothing earth-shaking ever arrives, though the insulting letters bother me more than they should. I always plan to answer the encouraging ones, but never find any time for it. It’s too much paper, too many proper names sailing by, too much ambition and yearning compressed into too small a box.
The deadline terror feels like something worse, so I make an appointment with M.’s new doctor. I notice blood, sometimes, on the toilet paper. Bright red, which usually means hemmorhoids, if you’ve got real internal bleeding the blood comes out brown. But my mind jumps to stomach cancer, perforated ulcers, obscure diseases. Maria Lorca, a short brown-haired woman in her late twenties, exudes thoughtful competence and a faintly terrorizing, ruminative manner. Her practice has clean lines and muted colors, her voice lets the air out of the doctor-patient helplessness I’ve brought in with me. I complain of unbearable tension, debilitating sleeplessness, and shakes, hoping to wangle a valium prescription. Maria Lorca peers into my rectum with a proctoscope and declares it free of pathology. She palpates the flesh of my stomach, my back, my chest. She says she can’t feel any tumors. Is there something besides your job bothering you, she finally asks.
In the floating zone of medical confidence I free associate. Maria Lorca treats a lot of fags, this won’t surprise her. I have this friend. He’s sort of my boyfriend, though that isn’t always too clear, he used to be an addict. He kicked, but the way he acts seems kind of left over from the junkie thing. For instance he’s always late. Not a few minutes late, but at least a half hour, sometimes so incredibly late I can’t believe it’s happening, he never understands why it upsets me, sometimes he doesn’t show up at all, or he calls, he’ll insist on seeing me, tells me it’s urgent, so I get all prepared, interrupt what I’m doing, if I’m working I stop dead, an hour goes by, he calls and says he’s been delayed but now he’s coming right over, another hour passes, then another call, at this point I say, If you don’t plan on getting here soon, I’d really like to go out, I feel trapped in this apartment. He gets very pathetic and tells me, Of course if you’ve got something more important to do, and I say, There’s nothing more important than you, but you can’t consume hours of my time like this. I’ll be there in five minutes, he says. So I get on the phone and call a friend, to make the five minutes go by without going nuts from anxiety, I’m talking to this person, I even tell the friend, I called you because he’s on his way here and I don’t want to feel like an idiot, frozen in anticipation. So we talk. But I can’t concentrate on what we’re saying, because I’m expecting to hear his key in the door. I even take the phone to the window and stick my head out while I’m talking, if I think I see him coming my blood pressure drops about 20 points, but no, it’s never him, then I walk away from the window, thinking if I don’t look out that will make him get there faster, and when I think, well, he’ll be here any second, I get off the phone, more time passes, I start freaking, really, and call another person, this time I say, The little bastard has stood me up again. I tell them I’m at the end of my rope and he’s been doing this to me since we started going out, I know I’m debasing myself by putting up with it, the friend says, You’ve got to be strong and put your foot down. I say, I don’t have any choice, I’ve tried dozens of times to show him I won’t play along with this craziness but somehow he talks me into a position where it happens again anyway. For example, a few times when he phoned I waited the usual time, more like an hour, then went out. Naturally, the whole time I’m away, I’m thinking about him, wondering what his reaction was when he found out I’d left. So. I go home expecting to find calls from him on the machine, or a note, but surprise, he hasn’t called, even to say he’ll be late. Then I can’t get him the next day. Or the day after. When I finally hear from him, he tells me on the night in question he went off with some friends, not because I wasn’t home, but because between the time he called and the time he said he was coming, someone else phoned him and asked him out so he just went without thinking anything about it.
He sounds, Maria Lorca says, like he’s about 13.
He’s easily distracted, I lamely agree.
Well, she says, let’s cut through this a little here, if you have any doubt in your mind about whether or not he’s on junk, never mind the rest of this romantic crap, if I were you I’d make it my business to find out. You could really compromise your health right now if you’re having sexual relations with a junkie. We’re finding that 60 percent of the addicts in New York are seropositive.
I know what you’re saying, I say. I mean. I’ve been quite concerned about it.
I would be if I were you, Maria Lorca says.
That I’m not, by this time, sleeping with Gregory, is a secret I dissemble without actually lying. Everybody assumes that I am; I say nothing to clarify things. It’s no one’s business, and, more to the point, I don’t want to feel like a sexual failure. I cling to the belief that Gregory will desire me someday. Only M., because he hints as much, has guessed the real state of affairs. M. has had similar frustrations with guys who wanted to be “more than friends” but less than lovers, although M.’s a genius at getting what he wants. When M. asks me directly, I lie. If I tell the truth he’ll think I’m a total masochist. What if people get the idea that I’m too cranky and difficult for a real relationship? I want this to look normal, so the emotional fragility people see will seem justified by compensatory pleasures. In the meantime, I wait for Gregory to fall in love with me. What else can you do in this life, except attempt miracles?
My public life was moving upscale, but I wore, almost always, the same thing: a pair of Levis, ratty sweaters over various T-shirts, sneakers. I suppose I wanted to convey the idea that I intended to stay young and rebellious, even if the world of adult power set a place for me at table. At a cocktail party, an embassy dinner, a nightclub, a museum opening, I refused to look the way somebody with my job would just naturally look. No one seemed even slightly bothered. One night I accompanied an elderly art collector to a charity auction. Once there, I did feel acutely out of place, and unintentionally rude to the collector. I apologized for my casual outfit. Nonsense, she said, it tells people you’re famous enough not to bother dressing up.
People were constantly telling me I was famous, and I wondered when it would make me look glamorous. The few times I dressed up for Gregory, he hardly noticed, and I stopped making the effort. Don’t you want me to look pretty for you, I said. Oh, he said, you’ve got your own special flair. Kind of Annie Hall, without the layers.
Oh please, I asked, I pleaded, I begged. At least let me cook you dinner. He started coming frequently. Even when I had a fully booked day, I raced through my appointments, so I’d have hours free for shopping. I never simply bought dinner. The idea was to stuff the refrigerator with ten kinds of vegetables and five kinds of meat and dozens of bottles of mineral water, soda, quarts of vodka for the freezer, several kinds of cheeses, fruit, exotic condiments, anything to suggest an ample, nurturing environment, like the suburb he grew up in. I bought tapes of music he had at home. If he mentioned a book I immediately read or re-read it. I wanted to know everything in his head, except Friday night videos, which were somehow beyond the limits of my endurance. Gregory said he learned a lot from them about what people were turning into. I told him I could see what people were turning into by walking out the front door. But I considered buying a TV, thinking it might lure him over more often. However, I noticed when I spent an evening at his place that the TV was always on, we hardly spoke, and hours sped past without affect. It was almost like being alone.
Since he’d worked in so many restaurants and people used to drive miles to Helen’s Truro Hash Palace for his celebrated omelettes, Gregory swiftly usurped my nurturing role and wouldn’t let me cook for him. It took, he said, too much time from my work. His palate preferred blander, macrobiotic-tasting heaps of tofu and overcooked fish, which I couldn’t get down without effort. I pushed the food around on the plate while he sucked it in in bulk without ever gaining a pound.
We talked, we ate, he stayed until 11:00 or 12:00, on festive occasions until 1:00 or 2:00. Every time he left, he did it with ceremonial abruptness, without warning. He’d be stretched out on the floor with his shoes off, and a second later he was standing at the door, delivering my ration of farewell kisses.
What did we talk about? I can never recapture this verbiage. We developed certain fantasies. We talked as if we were writing a play, improvising performances in regional dialect. For a long time we never spoke in our real voices: always an accent, a fictitious character, safely distanced from ourselves. We analyzed friends, fingered adversaries. Gregory’s problems with Bruno were chronic: Bruno asked him to do things that were inconvenient, Bruno found ways to bruise his ego, bringing up his past fecklessness or casting doubts on Gregory’s artistic abilities. And there was Philippe, whose gargantuan importunities grew ever more unreasonable and fraught with cocaine paranoia, and of course the nightly horror of porcine diners, drunks, and drug addicts at the restaurant.
The conversations had a strenuously pleading tone, a trajectory of complete agreement. We argued against the obtusity of others. We championed the underclass. We denounced sexism. We focused our keenest disdain on the fatuities of the art world. Another cherished target, for Gregory, was the wrong type of homosexual. Gregory saw himself as the bellweather of “postmodern sexuality,” a broker of images exposing cliches of masculinity. “Serious” talk happened in normal voice, then tapered off into jokes, the accents, dialogues of hair-raising obscenity. He liked talking dirty as another person. The other person was the kind of faggot who used to circulate from the baths to the parks to the Mineshaft tunnels sucking and fucking anything that didn’t move. He missed all that, apparently.
Gloria has left off bothering him, having found a new beau. The only person Gregory now feels “really close to,” besides me, is Pugg.
Pugg. Puggy. I bump into Pugg at a loft party in Tribeca. We’re standing at a table festooned with carefully cut raw vegetables and a vast bowl of mint green dip. There are too many overexcited people in this place, despite its cavernous endlessness. Pugg questions me, about neutral things. Everything about him conveys neutrality. Reserve. A preoccupation with looking out for number one, not giving anything away free. A prig, but not an especially bright prig. He’s studying video art at SVA, not that I’m curious. He casually cruises every man in the room. The way he opens and closes his mouth suggests that he performs this activity for hours every day in front of a mirror. Since he doesn’t mention Gregory, I assume Gregory’s connection with me causes him problems. Stupidly, I quiz him: has he seen Gregory? I haven’t, not for days. Does he know what Gregory’s up to? I even become confidential: he’s so weird, I see him every night for a week, I say, and then he just vanishes, what the fuck do you suppose is wrong with him? Well, Pugg retorts, through clenched teeth, but with a vague air of satisfaction, that’s Gregory.
Pugg lacks charm, and grace, and personality, but perhaps he has something more valuable in Gregory’s eyes: he’s seven years younger than Gregory, 14 years younger than me. And his mental age is even younger.
A few nights later, still missing Gregory, I send M. out of his naptime into the chilly evening, to walk his dog seven blocks beyond their usual perambulation. I ask him to “casually” drop into Gregory’s restaurant and see if he’s at work. M. phones back two hours later. He reports having had “a nice chat” with Gregory. Gregory talked about his new work. He says he’s “getting into pornography.” And, M. adds promisingly, his face lit up when I mentioned you. He adores you, M. tells me, he thinks you’re the greatest person he’s ever met.
Gregory calls the next morning and slyly asks, Were you checking up on me, sending M. into the restaurant?
Stop and start. Stop and start. Hullo goodbye. Gregory takes me for a drink, to a new place on Avenue A. A bar full of dusky alcoves, torch music from the ’20s, and lacquered tables that belong in a cozy Victorian sitting room. The sort of spot that will be fun for two weeks, until it degenerates into a scene. We hold hands on a sofa. Gregory nuzzles my neck, his palm sweating freely in mine.
I don’t want to drink my rum and Coke. He sips a Remy Martin. I know he’ll only have one, but I’ll keep going and get sloppy. I squeeze his hand. I kiss the shoulder of his vest. His face looks translucent, he’s pleased. He knows the guy who opened this place. A skinny fellow with blond crewcut hair who pops out of the office a few times to chat. Gregory knows a surprising number of young, skinny, tall, blond boys with crewcuts. The owner looks about 20, wears a diamond stud in one ear. He’s offered Gregory a job. He’s nice, Gregory assures me, even if he isn’t very bright.
These joints resemble one another so closely the street could be one continuous sushi bar. At home, Gregory picks apart the banalities of the East Village, the pointless visual shock effects worn by the young at heart and the stale repetition of restaurant decor, boutique themes, crypto-Bohemian art galleries. But out in these places Gregory seems entirely relaxed, in his element. Heads swivel like radar sensors picking up his vibrations. We’ve walked into certain East Village rooms where I felt the atmosphere ripple as if he’d slept with everyone in the place. Rooms are fatal, every last one of them.
—Gary Indiana’s novel Burma is being published by Grove Press in the Winter of 1988. His book of short stories, Scar Tissue is just out from Cadmus Press.
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