Yesterday I took a miniature trip with M., back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry. The sky was clear and bright, the day was warm enough to stand on the deck without a sweater. Going out we were light-headed and said a lot of silly things to each other, made fun of tourists, joked about the military look of New York Harbor. And then coming back we felt weighted, withdrawn, ate hot dogs and potato chips in long pockets of silence, sitting inside this time as if the water and the passing sights had been used up on the first crossing. It was fine going out, barely tolerable coming back. This problem of attrition has been creeping into my experiences lately. Things commence in reckless hope and die away in stifled longing, not that we had hoped for much from the Staten Island Ferry.
M. said the boy he’s been seeing uptown is infatuated with him and mistakenly believes this is love, true love. I know what M. means by mistakenly but it often comes out to the same thing. Affection is the mortal illness of the lonely.
I dimly recall, from childhood, a movie where a man and a woman meet on the Staten Island Ferry late at night, by chance. It’s gradually revealed that one or the other, maybe both of them, had planned on jumping off the boat. But instead they fall in love, each becoming the other’s ray of hope. Love, the rescuer’s flashlight. Perhaps we all grew up with these salvational fantasies that never get entirely dislodged by experience.
* * *
I haven’t the heart to tell my own story, and keep looking for less convoluted fictions. Love like a stone in the stomach, a penance, a noose: love like a crime. Is this about love, I wonder.
* * *
There is a wall I run up against, again and again (a dream). At times what is needed is this blank, horrendous wall. You rise up flush against its solid, gritty surface and can’t move any further. Even if you thwack your skull repeatedly against this wall, becoming bloody and insensible, the wall doesn’t know you, doesn’t yield, doesn’t pity. A pitiless wall, a pity. That’s how it is. Let’s say you think of leaping over it. Well, perhaps you can. But you don’t think you can, which is the same as not being able to. It’s too high, just looking at it brings on a spasm of fear. You think: I’ll smoke a cigarette, have a drink, come back to it. And your absence adds an inch or so to the wall. You return: my God, that’s a big wall. You seek advice about methods of jumping, phone people up. They tell you not to think about it, just jump. Jump blind. Or they might say, Don’t force yourself, take it easy. Jump in little stages. Or: Maybe you’re up against the wrong wall. Or: trying walking around the wall. Slinking around it. Pretend the wall isn’t there. Walk through the wall.
* * *
Through the wall. Like passing through an oval mirror with a peeling varnished frame, in a house where everything is running down, and the clock beats insistently while telling the wrong time. It has taken me this long to understand how dreadful it would be to say,that afternoon, I met Gregory Burgess in St. Mark’s Bookshop, planting the first stout parenthesis of a story that seems, now, really to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I didn’t simply meet him, I would say, but froze in his gaze like an animal transfixed by headlights. And it would not be my first attempt, then, to describe his oval chin, small ears, an unbroken, elegant curve of a nose with a tiny gold loop in one nostril, full lips that break easily into smiles, lips that chap and whiten in cold weather, that often go slack in a rictus of pain that obscures his bright teeth; clear coral eyes, a face fringed with onyx hair—I have more in this plangent vein, but Gregory doesn’t actually look like this, except for the nose ring. Is his chin oval? No. Yes. I don’t know. Neither oval nor square. A nicely formed chin, certainly. Memory doesn’t give me this chin, and the single photograph I possess looks nothing like Gregory: it’s a group shot, taken on my building stoop, Gregory’s sitting behind me, his fist planted loosely in his cheek, pulling the right side of his face off its axis. Memory obscures the immediate tug of Gregory’s beauty, drops the details from his finely chiseled face, the glint in his unwavering stare. I remember that afternoon in surprisingly intricate detail, but nothing remarkable occurred. I made a clumsy, untoward effort to meet a complete stranger, met him, got his address and phone number with dreamlike ease, established some flimsy pretext to see him again, and later felt foolish. It would be part of this way of telling about it to add that I knew he lived with a woman (he got this across almost immediately, pointedly), furthermore a quite possessive woman much younger than himself; that he worked killingly long hours, in four day stints, at a restaurant in SoHo, a job which drove him into spells of numbed exhaustion; and that he was, like most men in Manhattan at the time, some sort of artist.
But here things bifurcate, become opaque. I don’t know how much of this I found out that day. It seems important to keep events in order, not to run ahead of things. I’ve told the Gregory Burgess story to myself so many times, so many different ways. I met him that afternoon in December, and after that I hardly thought of anything else. It really was that way. Still, many questions obscure this story from start to finish. For example: did I go home that afternoon thinking, “I’ve met someone I could love.” It must have been so, but this thought was sliced apart by the feeling that such a person could not possible love me, he being first of all a lover of women, secondly physically gorgeous, thirdly eight or nine years younger than me. None of which would, by itself, make Gregory unattainable. But on the strength or weakness of this unforeseen, upsetting encounter, I decided, at once, that Gregory Burgess was indeed unattainable, and I embarked almost immediately on the project of seducing him. I would seduce him by laying myself entirely open to him, offering myself unconditionally. People who look like that, I thought, are completely selfish. They want everything, and if they know there is something they can have, without obligation, at any time, chances are that they will take it, sometime or other. Such is the flawed logic, I could say now.
That night I put aside Burma and began writing a letter. It began reasonably, as a sort of old-fashioned, literary coda to the afternoon. How pleasant to have met you, and so on, the kind of letter no one ever writes any more, which naturally has its peculiar charm for the startled recipient. I felt in the brief time we conversed, that I was speaking with someone of extremely rare sensitivity, and that you, of course, sensed my physical attraction to you, and were gracious enough to take this in stride, giving me the opportunity to show you the kind of person I am. I know it’s eccentric to come right out with this in a letter, but I have been so moved by your beauty that I, that I, at this point everything floundered, I ripped the letter into shreds and started over. Dear Gregory Burgess, I began, it was obvious when I spoke with you this afternoon what I was feeling, and I’m sure you had no uncertainty about the nature of my interest. As you were kind enough to say you are familiar with my writing, I thought I would offer you my feelings in written form, regardless of the consequences. If this alienates you, I can well understand. But I’m mad for you. When I first saw your face I had no more choice about meeting you or not meeting you than, than, never mind what, I lost any notion of control, I had to talk to you, find out about you. I can’t pretend, even though you seem to have a sympathetic personality (I crossed out “personality” and wrote “character”), that my attraction is any different than that of a stranger who might catch a glimpse of you on the subway or in the street; I desire you, as simply and awfully as that, and if you aren’t repulsed by this fact, despite your current arrangements, I want to propose something disgustingly modern, vulgar, and contrary to my own notions of how people should deal with these wishes. But: I want you. If you should ever want me, should ever have a moment’s urge to make love with me, I don’t care when, you can phone me up in the middle of the night and come over, use my body for whatever you want, and if it suits you you can then leave and never have any contact with me again. I honestly don’t know how else to present this. I’m not a subtle person, in matters of this kind. I’m open to any urge you might have. It’s idiotic, but I love you.
This was, at any rate, the gist. The letter itself ran to 20 single-spaced typewritten pages, gave a long-winded account of my personal history, my circumstances, my mode of existence, and included numerous philosophical digressions, speculative passages, lyrical paragraphs concerning Gregory’s blinding erotic attraction, and so forth. In my early youth, I had once managed to get in bed with a rigorously heterosexual, surpassing stunning fellow by writing him an incessant stream of flattering letters, and I supposed there was as good a chance if I kept it up with Gregory.
But the first version of this letter failed to satisfy me. I read it through, compulsively, nine or ten times throughout the evening, all the while opening bottles of Japanese beer and drinking them. After some readings I thought, well, just stick the thing in an envelope and mail it, you’ve already made an ass of yourself, you might as well be a complete ass. On the last reading, the excessiveness of my own sentiments sobered me. What am I doing? I’m handing this person a deadly weapon, a weapon he’ll use against me, he’ll show all his friends and laugh about me with them. I’ll be an object of derision wherever I walk. This was not an unreasonable fear. New York is a woefully tiny village, despite its apparent hugeness. Everyone knows everyone, everyone talks about everyone, everyone knows everything there is to know about everyone, to the extent that a simple stroll through one’s neighborhood often feels like a protracted crawl through a minefield, and if you are at all known for anything, a character in this city’s tiresome living novel, it’s especially true that you cannot go anywhere without being observed by people who then talk about you, who talk about you even more, in fact, when they do not see you for a while, anyone who is known who isn’t seen for a while is rumored to be dying of AIDS, addicted to heroin, living in another country, or dead, such is the idle chatter of New York and particularly of downtown Manhattan. And of course among Gregory’s peers, the young set, in this neighborhood, a letter from myself declaring uncontrollable passion for him could have tremendous gossip cachet. Look here, he would tell various odious strangers, this older writer has fallen in love with me. I painted this scene in the darkest colors, in my own mind, casting myself as an older writer, and by the same token, in light of Gregory’s extravagant comeliness, thinking of myself as comparatively unattractive, ill-dressed, not at all sportif, a natural object of ridicule for the younger generation. These ruminations advanced sufficiently for me to tear the thick letter into tiny pieces. I brooded for several minutes, then rolled a fresh page into the typewriter. Dear Gregory, I commenced, dropping the Burgess as altogether too precious and 19th century, Even though we only just met, and under such peculiar circumstances, I feel I really must see you again, to get to know you; I rarely meet anyone to whom I feel such instantaneous sympathy and attraction, anyone of such obvious discernment and intelligence. Had he actually displayed any obvious discernment, or more than quotidian intelligence? It seemed to me, just then, that he had. But perhaps this was going too far. I ripped this up and started afresh. Dear Gregory, this is probably the weirdest letter you’ve ever got, I can’t help that. I can only hope that even if I do not interest you, you will find it sufficiently flattering not to despise me for it. There, I considered, I’ve hit the right note. I continued filling the first page, then a second page, arriving at last at a length of 23 pages, assuring myself the whole time that virtually any human being given such elaborate and loving homage would almost feel obligated to bestow his favors, simply out of gratitude if not attraction. I flopped onto my bed, wasted from so much writing, noting that five hours had ticked past in a frenzy. Again I read through the letter, many, many times, and this time got up, found an envelope, typed out Gregory’s name and address, folded the letter into it with difficulty (wondering if it might burst open in the mail), licked the flap, sealed it, and placed it triumphantly on my desk. It would arrive at its destination like a bombshell, I thought. Perhaps he, despite his impossible beauty, feels insignificant, struggling along as an artist while working backbreaking shifts at some loathsome French restaurant. Whereas I, in his eyes, as a published author, an inhabitant of a world he only dreams of entering. Perhaps, receiving such a letter, from such a celebrated person, will seem like a miracle. Of course he’ll sleep with me. Not only sleep with me but become my lover. Not only become my lover, but the person closest to me throughout my life. We will adhere as one being, becoming so close as to seem indistinguishable. Or, perhaps, he’ll handle this whole business with astonishing sophistication, give this adoring older guy an affectionate toss, thereafter remaining a friend, him taking his particular path through life, I continuing alone down mine.
I drank another bottle of the Japanese beer, which was turning sour and disgusting in my mouth, then tore the letter into pieces, envelope and everything. I’m not 21 any more, I informed myself, I’m 35. At 21 it seemed noble and romantic to send letter after letter to Teddy, whose name at least I haven’t forgotten, Teddy who was hardly any older, who succumbed to this flattery in no time at all, showing up one afternoon in my bedsitter in Boston, where, after an hour’s chit chat, he unzipped his trousers to reveal what he claimed had been lauded as the finest cock in Christendom by his European girlfriend. And I remembered having thought, at the time, “Christendom” a jejune word choice, affecting a worldliness we were much too young to feel. Summertime with Teddy. Fellating his proud Christian pecker twice that afternoon, then again a few weeks later when he came in from Amherst for the weekend, then throughout the early summer he turned up at odd moments, developing a taste for sodomy, rim jobs, whatever I then had in my repertoire, by autumn his homosexual period had drawn to a close, if memory serves. I saw him a few years later, but he’d lost the taste for it, having matured into a rather uninteresting, unexceptional-looking adult academic. I was 24 then, Teddy 25. Years later, at thirty-five, I was drinking through the night and writing love letters to a 28-year-old, imagining these letters could produce the same magical effect they produced when I was 21 and Teddy 22, back in the provinces. Absurd.
“People are what people are,” M. says, dismissing the idea that certain people, at certain times, re-invent themselves as worthier, more responsible, more thoughtful people. One gradually becomes aware of deficiencies and virtues, perhaps over decades. I think I have known “everybody” in New York at one time or another, and I have spent years weeding out the ones with lousy characters. It’s less and less possible to be truly deceived, though it’s always possible to be mistaken. There are people about whom one sustains two utterly different opinions at the same time, people who command equivocation as other people command respect or fear or sexual attraction; people who’ve deliberately obscured the text of their own personalities, who can’t be read without incredible difficulty. In the end, the hardest thing is learning how to tell a secret from a mystery.
* * *
I haven’t the heart to tell my own story: but a few weeks later, I was offered a job, a regular job, writing culture items for a large-circulation newspaper, on a weekly basis. The offer came out of the blue, and my first impulse was to turn it down. I turned it down. Two days later, the editor again called and asked me to reconsider. I reconsidered. Can I write whatever I want, I asked. By all means, I was told, that’s what we want you to do.
I had not been an employee for many years, and the prospect of becoming one was only slightly ameliorated by the immense prestige attached to the position. It was a power job, from which one could focus public attention on virtually anything. And in a city where nearly every person carries about with him a pathological craving for public attention, a person in such a position would, of course, be regarded as powerful, courted, lobbied, hounded, importuned on every front. However, mutatis mutandis, such a person would not be powerless. Such a person might even accomplish some conceivable good in the world, using such a position in a judicious manner. A writer’s most fundamental need is to be read by people, as many people as possible. Of course one only writes for oneself, but once one has written, one wishes to be read.
Soon after accepting this job, which was not to begin for two months, I realized that my life was about to change. A person goes along in life, longing for one thing or another, wishing if he is a writer to be read, to be recognized, to produce a body of work, laboring against the self-destructive inclinations which seem almost inevitable to accompany a creative gift, despairing frequently if not incessantly because of the impossibility of doing the single thing he wishes to dò, ultimately resigning himself to his obscurity and his feeble productivity, and then, as he approaches a nadir of despondency, things change. Even if they do not change very much, even if this change is not a dramatic change, the very premises upon which his existence is based turn themselves inside out.
And now, I thought, I shall truly exist in the world. Not that I don’t exist now. But I will exist in a peculiar way, for others, too, a large and disturbing way. I will no longer be a private person, but a public figure. Not an enormous public figure, like a film star or a politician, but a modestly scaled public figure, someone whose activities are inquired about by many people he does not know and doesn’t care about, a person who takes up space, a person fated for attacks from embittered individuals, an object of envy, malice, and all the other base emotions that drive the majority of people at all times in every conceivable place and circumstance.
In that week, panic set in, and I telephoned Gregory Burgess, inviting him to lunch.
* * *
It was a cold day of soiled white sky. A few hours earlier he had called, asking if I would meet him on the street, so we could then decide what we were in the mood for. I am never happy about choosing restaurants over the telephone. So at 1:30 I positioned myself in front of a drug store on Second Avenue. Actually, I got there at 1:15, anxious not to be late. I looked at a display of unspeakable objects in the pharmacy window: bedpans, rupture trusses, ointments for varicose veins, corn plasters, for some reason this pharmacy had decided to cast its most repugnant wares into the limelight, things one finds it disagreeable to ask for, purchases for which one loiters until other customers move out of hearing range were lovingly piled up in the window, shameless advertisements of the human body’s inevitable decay. Every few seconds, I walked away from the window to the corner, to peer down the side street and down Second Avenue. Gregory’s apartment, which he’d recently moved into, he said, with his girlfriend, a woman named Gloria, was in Loisada. He would undoubtedly arrive from that direction, but perhaps he would walk up First Avenue and cut over on the side street rather than walking across Houston to Second Avenue. He might come from either direction. I hoped to catch sight of him walking toward our meeting from a distance. Every young person of a certain height caught my attention, if he were wearing a hat or had black hair, my eyes seized on any person under six feet tall who happened to look thin in winter clothes, walking up Second Avenue or across on the side street. A man who looked like Gregory made his way up Second Avenue, becoming more familiar-looking as he approached, and then, still some way off, strode across Second Avenue, in the direction of Third Avenue.
I ran down Second Avenue, thinking suddenly that I had been standing all this time on the wrong corner. I’d thought he’d said Seventh Street, but perhaps he’d said Fifth Street. When I reached the corner of Fifth Street I could make out the man proceeding toward Third Avenue, or Bowery, and saw that it was not Gregory after all, because he now swung his arms while in motion, in large unnatural ellipses, and his head seemed to be jerking compulsively up and down. I raced back to my original corner, trying to recall exactly what corner we’d agreed on. I knew it was Seventh. But it could also have been Eighth, the corner of Eighth and Second is such a typical corner for meetings of this sort, perhaps we had settled on Eighth after all, having at first rejected it in favor of the less frequented corner of Seventh and Second. But should I venture up to Eighth, I wondered, in the certainty that I could see the corner of Seventh and Second from the corner of Second and Eighth, or stay put, in front of the drug store, confident in my ability to view both the corner of Second and Eighth and the corner of Sixth and Eighth, which seemed another possibility, from my vantage point at Seventh and Second? I now felt less confident. If we had not agreed on Seventh and Second, it seemed likely that we had agreed on something even more obscure. Certainly not Eighth and Second, the popular meeting-corner, and perhaps not Sixth and Second, either, since Sixth Street has no pertinent associations in my mind. I would never propose that corner for a meeting, whereas I might very well propose Fifth, Seventh, or even Fourth.
By now, several minutes had run past the appointed time, according to a digital clock over a bank entrance across the street, though one could never fully rely on this clock, because it tended to malfunction in the winter months, sometimes erring by a few minutes, sometimes by several hours. It now read 1:36. I had never known this clock to run fast, except when the hour itself was wrong, for instance if it happened to be 5:00 and the clock reported the hour to be ten or 12 or whatever, whereas, quite frequently, the clock ran slow, in which case it might well be 1:45 or even 1:50. And if it were now 1:45 or 1:50, I most certainly had taken up my vigil on the wrong corner, had been standing at a corner which was not only wrong but so far from the correct corner that Gregory, standing at the correct corner, couldn’t see the corner where I stood, or couldn’t or hadn’t imagined it possible that I could confuse such a simply, unequivocal matter and in fact be standing at the wrong corner. In fact, if Gregory did not imagine this, he might have been standing as nearby as the corner of Eighth and Second or Sixth and Second without even glancing at the corner of Seventh and Second, and I, so keen for a glimpse of him, may have been following complete strangers with my glance, overlooking Gregory completely although he had been in plain view for several minutes.
If this had been the case, and Gregory had been standing, say, at the corner of Eighth and Second and had, like me, arrived a few minutes early, he might even have surmised, as I had, that the corner he thought we had agreed upon was not the right corner. He might then have panicked, as I had, left off waiting at his corner in order to locate me at another corner, at roughly the same time that I had abandoned my corner to follow the man who had crossed Second Avenue at Fifth Street. I began walking back and forth between the corners of Seventh and Second and Sixth and Second, my gaze searching down the side streets and ahead to more distant corners, all the time rehashing the brief phone conversation of a few hours earlier, becoming steadily more agitated and fearful of having missed Gregory already, or of missing him now by perambulating between corners, for if it was by this time 1:45 or 1:50 or, as the increasingly plausible digits of the bank reported, 2:00, and Gregory had been delayed, he might now arrive and assume that I’d grown tired of waiting for him, or that I myself had been grossly delayed, or was in the habit of making people wait for unreasonable amounts of time. If that were the case, Gregory might simply have arrived, and, not seeing me where we had agreed to meet, concluded that I was a rude, frivolous person, not worth knowing at all, and returned in irritation to Gloria and his apartment.
Of course I had arrived early, and my defection from the corner of Seventh and Second had been momentary. Almost certainly we had agreed on that corner, and even if he had shown up, say, while I walked to the corner of Second and Sixth, he would have seen my back moving away from that corner, would have run and caught up with me. And in any case, I walked back and forth rapidly, if he stood waiting for even a few moments at the corner of Seventh and Second I would have arrived back there myself within plenty of time to encounter him. Then too, although I had never known the bank clock to run fast except when it told the hour wrong, I did not observe the vagaries of the bank clock throughout the day, or pay much attention to the bank clock throughout the year, for that matter, and for all I knew the clock ran fast all the time, or a great part of the time, and though it seemed I had been waiting for Gregory, in one fashion or another, for well over a half hour, my own acute anticipation of his presence may have made a few minutes feel like a half hour.
My sense of things, at this point, told me that Gregory simply was late, delayed for some reason, and probably rushing from his apartment to meet me, unless he had assumed, having been delayed for an egregious amount of time, and unable to reach me by telephone, that I would have given up by now. In that case, he would certainly have phoned my house and left a message on the answering machine. It occurred to me that my downstairs neighbor, who has keys to my flat, could, if she were home, let herself into my place and play back my message tape, then tell me whether or not Gregory had called to explain his non-appearance. I would have to phone this neighbor from a pay phone, tell her what I needed, wait a few minutes, then phone her back. However, as I had ascertained over the previous half hour by watching people go up to them, the pay phones at the corner of Seventh and Second were out of order. The nearest pay phone, then, would be the one at the corner of Fifth and Second, so even trying to find out if Gregory had or hadn’t been delayed involved abandoning the corner he might at that very moment be rushing to, and it was quite possible that I would miss him in the process of trying to learn whether or not he was coming.
At last I returned to the pharmacy window. I would give it a few more minutes, then go home and take the messages myself. No accounting for this person, I thought. Perhaps he feels threatened and thinks I’ll give up on him if he’s rude enough. And I should, I considered, staring at a gleaming enamel bedpan, give up now, he’s too good-looking, a monster of vanity, I thought, and in this cold, letting anyone stand this long in the cold, waiting, amounts to a declaration of contempt. Rupture belts. Imagine getting old, going flabby, and having to wear a rupture belt. I’ve always been thin, my body’s in relatively good condition for someone who drinks and smokes. But I should do something, keep myself fit somehow, go to a gymnasium, work out, lift weights, if I stopped smoking my skin would clear up, it’s always breaking out in strange eruptions, thank God I’ve got a nice face, if I were plain these skin eruptions would make me really ugly.
He put his hand on my shoulder. He wore a black fleece hat with flaps covering his ears. His face was perfectly smooth.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting long,” he said. He said that as he was leaving the apartment the phone rang, and it was Gloria, the girl he’d been living with. Their relationship, he said, was now a thing of the past. My spirits lifted at this news. I pretended not to be irritated. In fact, I wasn’t irritated. He suggested an Indian restaurant, and in a few minutes we arrived at one whose festive canopy and red-and-yellow window decorations had repulsed me for years.
“I love this place,” Gregory declared. We entered a pink and green paisley dining room full of small, square tables covered with stained-looking cloths. He went, decisively, to a table against the wall. I followed. We sat. We gazed forthrightly into each other’s eyes. A waiter, who seemed about three feet tall, set down enormous menus and two water glasses. The menus, bound in red vinyl, felt clammy. The amber water glasses had a malarial cast. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I pretended to look at the menu. I kept up a brisk stream of nervous chatter about the weather, the holidays just passed. Gregory made answering remarks. We ordered korma. The room smelled thickly of curry powder.
He took off his hat. His hair was fastidiously clipped, his fingernails tidily manicured. The black shirt and knitted vest on his slender frame testified to careful maintenance. He’s dressed up for me, I thought. He’s made himself look nice for me. I noticed we were both chain-smoking.
Why does he love this hideous restaurant, I thought. Two people live in the same area, they sometimes have the same opinions or ideas about a number of different things, but the way they feel about various places that each sees all the time will be drastically unalike. One will have strange emotional associations with a bar, a restaurant, a block of houses, yet for the other one it’s just a place. There are places I can’t go, because of the past, houses I can’t pass without some painful sentiment shuddering through my nerves. And other people conquer this sentimentality, this draining nostalgia, they can live in the streets and rooms of memory as if every day were new. Why is that, I wondered. I asked Gregory what had happened between him and Gloria. He said something that shocked me, a quick phrase, with a word in it so loaded with violence and animosity that it took my breath away. It was the kind of statement that forces you to pretend you didn’t hear it. A moment later he described, in a perfectly sanguine voice, a pop singer that he’d conceived a great enthusiasm for. It was as if a tape recording had been abruptly spliced, some jarring, brittle composition interrupted by sedative mood music. It seemed, too, that we were both aware of opening a door that wouldn’t easily close again.