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 afternoon when I had cleared away every distraction, mailed out the phone bill and the rent check, written letters to Europe, tidied up my desk, and settled down at last to work on Burma, after weeks of inactivity, Victor called. Victor made cheery, inconclusive noises, hemming, hawing, it seemed he had time on his hands, didn’t quite know what to do with himself, Victor’s habit is never to propose anything, never to extend a concrete invitation, but always, invariably, almost abjectly, to make these non-committal noises via telephone, ending in what is often called a “pregnant” silence, in hopes that I will pitch some concrete proposition into the furry static of the telephone, which on this occasion carried two far-off metallic voices, a male and a female voice, chirping away along some glitched line.
So now, said the man’s voice, she’s using the kids to speed up the court order.
Oh Hank, said the woman’s voice, she’s cutting up her nose to spite her face. And the sick part of it is, she knows it.
I said to her, the man said, you already found out we don’t have any overtime. I mean she knows we’re not delivering a full week and if the local walks off on Monday, I’m a monkey’s asshole on the picket line for the next six weeks.
It’s what I’m telling you, the woman said, Sylvia’s letting Annie lead her right by the nose. She thinks because Annie got that big settlement from Frank, all she needs is power of attorney over your paycheck.
Using my kids, the man said, that’s what frosts my ass.
Can you hear that, Victor said.
This phone sounds funny, the woman said.
What Sylvia tends to forget, the man said, Annie’s case was open and shut, she had before and after pictures of her face.
Frank is prone to violence, the woman said, which for one thing, you’re not.
Try telling Sylvia that, the man said. She makes a mountain out of a molehill.
Do you want to meet somewhere, I asked Victor.
Something’s funny with this phone, the woman said.
‘Swat I told you, the woman said. Hank, I hate to say this straight out but Sylvia’s nothing but a little whore.
Yeah, the man said, but she’s the mother of my children.
That’s the tragedy, the woman said. She was damned lucky, Hank, very damned lucky to land a man like you in the first place, and now she’s cutting up her nose to spite her face to destroy you.
So what if I come over, the man said.
I’ll come over, Victor said.
This phone’s wacky, the woman said.
An hour later, Victor showed up, holding a quart of Ballantine ale in a soggy brown bag. A bad sign, I thought, once it starts with Victor, it never stops until we’re sloshed and maudlin. I’ll lay out all my insecurities and frustrations, and he’ll tell me stories about his hillbilly relatives, all those shit-kickers in the Tri-State area, shitkickers and general practitioners and county pathologists and federal circuit judges married to his sisters and cousins. Or else, we’ll get on to Richard somehow, and Richard’s quirks, and how phony and superficial the world Richard moves in is, Victor will describe some recent uptown dinner he’s been dragged along to by Richard, and how he replied to some errant snottery or inane comment from one of Richard’s dim-witted filthy rich chums, stopping the person’s mouth dead in its tracks with a penetratingly candid observation, such is Victor’s conversational agenda. Or, he’ll explain in Gothic detail why he admires my integrity and my mind. Victor can be a regular little toady when he works himself up to it. And yet we do amuse one another, hardly ever does an evening passed with Victor seem humorless in retrospect, even when there are lugubrious patches of self-pitying exposition, on his part, or my part, the real problem with Victor, as far as I can tell, is that Victor’s never carved out a place for himself, never entered the fray, the city grows harder and harder to live in yet Victor maintains this low-level equilibrium, he’s never focused on anything, never said to himself, I want x, y, or z, I’ll do whatever I need to get them. Instead, Victor has been content knocking out custom furniture, sedating himself with manual labor, standing on the sidelines of my career and Richard’s career, Victor extracts his sense of himself from his intimacy with Richard and his friendship with me, he wins points in that bar he spends so much time in down the street, Richard and I experience all the real conflicts of life, and Victor gains simply from hanging around us.
Richard hasn’t slept with Victor in years, or rather he’s slept with him but hasn’t made love with him, Victor’s become a sort of honorary consort to Richard, who has all kinds of desperate sick affairs with insane people while Victor lolls around, cleaning Richard’s loft, cooking Richard’s meals, doing Richard’s chores, making the world safe for Richard, who says Victor’s hanging around drives him nuts, that it gives him a false sense of security, and Richard’s too lazy and too comfortable to do without it, so the guilt he feels gives Victor a further wedge. Richard tells me: I love Victor, he’s one of the nicest people in the city, but the fact is, he’s too nice for his own good, I can’t shake him off because he’s like this overgrown puppy, and the sex part has been finished for years, Richard says, frankly it wasn’t anything wonderful to begin with, Victor has a sweet Italian face but his dick is miniscule and he doesn’t know how to use it to excite anybody, that’s why he flips out over Orientals, they don’t expect anything gigantic in that department, Victor’s all cuddly and soft like a pussy, Richard reports, he’s so gentle you want to kick him. It’s strange, Victor works out every day, his body’s perfect, he’s built like a brick shithouse but in bed he’s like a pussy.
With me, too, Victor assumes a subservient role, something between a friend and a valet. He opens the ale, pours it, carts the glasses into the living room, plants himself down on the floor and looks at me with puppyish expectation. It’s my job to decide what to talk about, he’s not exactly brimming over with news, and so, naturally, I tell him I’m nervous about my job, it’s taking all my productive time, the hours leading up to my deadline are so pathologically anxious I sometimes think I’m having a heart attack, but of course it’s also bringing in money, right now I need money, I suppose I’ll always need money, and once you have money it’s impossibly lowering to go back to having no money, here I’ve been scraping by for seven years, begging and scratching for chump change over the telephone, whoring out on little acting jobs, little rewrite jobs on little movie scripts, selling the occasional slender essay to ill-paying magazines, whining to rich friends about the unfairness of it all, particularly to M., who gets a commission whenever someone flushes a toilet in North America, and now, at least, I’m getting a regular check, I can fix up this flat, which is crumbling apart at a frightening rate, buy some clothes, go to the dentist, start really living, but then, now that all my time won’t be consumed by begging and borrowing, I’ll discover that writing for the paper chews up every second, making it impossible to finish Burma.
Oh, Victor says, once you get this house under control, you’ll find yourself using your time more productively. The clutter of all these unshelved books and papers everywhere distracts your mind. You really only need a few shelves, and a file cabinet, what you need are tables, and a proper bed, get your life up off the floor, you’ll be amazed how it changes your entire attitude.
I nod stupidly as Victor gurgles on about beds and tables and shelves and file cabinets, we both know perfectly well I’m not going to do anything. Richard often says: Have you noticed that Victor’s paranoid about smelling bad? It’s true. Victor thinks he smells. Sweats from labor and then smells, sometimes for no special reason Victor says: Jesus, I really smell today. I’ve never noticed any odor coming from Victor, but for a while now, Victor has been advertising the idea that he gives off a miserable smell. I wonder why he goes on about it.
Richard has no body odor, no body insecurities either. Richard dances his nuts off whenever he goes out, Richard’s all body, it probably works his nerves that Victor’s so stiff, so uncomfortable with himself. And Victor wears these ugly square glasses that ruin his face, thick frames that make his jaw more square than it is, though they do hide the softness of his blue eyes, which are so soft and watery they retreat into his skull when he takes his glasses off. When he takes his glasses off he looks like a weepy little boy. Victor has a black belt in karate. I don’t know what he gets out of it, developing this complicated skill he can’t use, when he never develops any that he could use.
I read Victor my recent notes for Burma. Except for the early pages that flowed so lyrically, all I have are notes. The narrator travels to Rome or Venice, probably Venice so that something important could occur on the Rialto Bridge, just as the morning bells toll and echo across the canals, though maybe that’s too stagey, and from there, he catches the slow night train to Ancona, meeting in the pitch dark compartment a coffee-skinned boy named Antonio, who wears a red beret, who takes him into the WC, where they clumsily have sex as the train lurches back and forth. In Ancona, the friends who had been living near some caves on the Adriatic have vanished, he’s stranded suddenly with $40. He hangs around the square, loiters under the palm trees, waits for someone to pick him up. No one does. He wonders if he’s beyond the age when other men will protect him. In Rome, his bank wires New York, it takes ten days to answer, when the wire comes the account’s empty, the friend he thought he could trust to deposit checks hasn’t done so, he now ends up sleeping in the Termini, guarding his pockets, woken every few hours by the carbinieri’s nightstick, placing collect calls during the day from the phone center under the station. He has enough lira to shower at the station every day, checks and unchecks his luggage as he needs clothes, washes his feet in all the fountains. At a big fountain near the station, a Brazilian guy invites him up to an expensive suite, treats him to an all-day fuckorama that leaves his ass bleeding, then shows him a green chamois sack full of square-cut emeralds. You’ll never have things like this, the Brazilian tells him, you’re a loser, a wimp. Good for fucking and that’s all.
He tells the Brazilian he’s a lousy lay, that his dick tastes like goat cheese. Later the same night, they meet up again, in the cruising park near the hotel, he gives the Brazilian another BJ and this time lifts the guy’s wallet from the pants around his ankles. The guy comes, with macho sound effects, then as he’s pulling up his pants the narrator runs from the park, runs past the Termini, gets lost, runs till his lungs ache, spends the night under a bush near the Teatro Marcello. Under a carpet of stars. The next day he buys a ticket for Munich with the Brazilian’s dough.
This all happened, I tell Victor, though it’s fictitious as far as I’m concerned. These things that go on between people who don’t know each other and never see each other again might as well be fantasies. The big problem, I say, is getting him from one place to another, so far this book is stalled in South Hampton. We’ve gone for more drinks, the bar on Avenue A features dark mirrors set in smoked wood and tables full of magenta-haired teenagers in spraypainted black leather jackets. Some of these kids have soft, kind faces. Others are full of a strange fascistic rage. Behind the bar, a chubby man with a dozen studs in one ear, a wrinkly shaved head, and oddly endearing bad teeth: at least one flaw that isn’t self-inflicted. The kids and the bar are among the things that have taken over the neighborhood, though hardly the worst things.
Maybe it’s too complicated, Victor suggests, the train stuff, going from country to country. Then you have to paint this vast panorama full of close details. Why not making everything happen in your apartment?
Who would want to read what goes on in my apartment, Victor, virtually nothing, not that anything has to happen in a book, but you’d think I could put all my adventures to use, a lot of people never even have any adventures, whereas I’ve had many, just think. If they die on the vine I’ll feel like a terrible vagrant.
Victor asks about Gregory. This unleashes a Niagara of complaint, to my own surprise. I’ve been storing anger without realizing it. Gregory’s invariable lateness, our fizzled dates, the casual contempt that flashes through his personality like the metal threads in that vest he’s always wearing. Gregory adores himself with such incredible ardor, and yet he hates himself, too, and so hates anyone who adores him as much as he does. I’ve been a masochist before, I tell Victor, but no one’s ever quite picked up the ball the way Gregory has. Victor has heard this catechism of lamentation before, he doesn’t even need to tell me, You see the pattern here, two days on, four days off, one day on, three days off, the guy’s a fucking flake. It’s at least partly because he smokes so much grass, I suggest. And he used to be a heroin addict, Victor says, right? Yes, but he’s not now, I protest, I’m sure about that.
In the street, I suddenly feel that Gregory is much better than I’ve painted him, I rue having poisoned Victor against him before they’ve even met. At first I would only tell my friends that Gregory made me happy, but now he scrambles my feelings every other day and I don’t know what to think. Since my friends don’t know him, the only picture they have is the one I give them, and I’m continually retouching it according to how he treats me. I burst into tears in front of my house, blubber and drool against Victor’s shirt while he whispers that I deserve better than that little asshole, that he can’t bear seeing me so upset. As he says this I get the creepy feeling that Gregory has somehow heard every word of this conversation. In fact, I never say anything about Gregory without feeling he’s inside my head, listening to everything. He knows me, knows when I panic, knows when I hate him, he even knows when I forget to think about him. And of course the prudent thing, the grown up thing, is never to discuss the details of a love affair with anybody. But what lover, abandoned time after time without warning or explanation, can sustain himself on prudence.
3:00 in the morning. An iodine breeze off the river, the streetlamp rakes flecks of mica in the sidewalk. The middle-aged homeboys who usually occupy all the stoops on the block have crawled back into their flats like tuckered-out cockroaches. A skinny, 50-ish leather lady marches past with the Times and his Afghan on a rhinestone lead. I remember I’ve invited Gregory for dinner on Friday, that I need Victor’s help to clean the apartment; now, after running on about Gregory all night, I can’t very well ask. So I make up something: I just remembered, Victor, I’ve got these important people coming Friday, I hate to ask, but it’s business, and I’m tied up all day tomorrow, I won’t have any time between now and then to clean, please, as a friend.
What people, Victor wants to know.
A memorable lie, as it turns out. On Friday Victor arrives two hours late, adding to the senseless panic I feel on waking up: Gregory’s coming here, finally, if he sees what a slob I am he’ll have all the more reason to despise me, we’ve got to get everything spotless, and how is that even possible, there’s no place to hide all these years of idiotic accumulation, all these books, newspapers, it’s my mother’s fault, she’s never thrown anything away, at home there are thousands of shoe boxes full of receipts and notebooks and family snapshots, I’m just like her, with Gregory I’m actually turning into her, why has it always been so strange between me and my mother when I’m exactly like her, and Gregory, Gregory’s a bit like my father, clever with his hands, anyway, this is the trouble with getting involved with people, they don’t know what they’re supposed to be so they turn into their parents. Dear God, this place is filthy. It’s a wonder I’m not insane. Victor can somehow manage all this brutal organizing, what stops me, exactly, I’m afraid of this piled-up crap everywhere, it’s my life, it’s stronger than me.
I don’t mind watching Victor clear everything away. It’s less a decision if he does it. I’ve lived here too long. You can’t have your own life in New York, except if you’re rich. For years and years I’ve been going out this door, down and up those stairs, in the door again, the mailbox has ingested millions of pieces of paper, most of them still lying around in tall clumps, stuffed into cardboard boxes, Victor sweeps through the flat swabbing down surfaces while I yearn for a garbage bin big enough to hold the entire past. Books, books everywhere, I suppose this is my life, my books: Virginia Woolf and Leopardi and Henry James and Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann and Heinrich Mann, Chekhov Turgenev Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë and George Eliot, Defoe and Fielding and Swift and Pope, Byron Shelley Keats, Hazlitt, beloved Herzen, sacred Nietzsche, Sartre, Darwin, Levi-Strauss Plato Plutarch Pliny the Elder Pliny the Younger, Seneca’s letters, Olga Freidenberg’s letters to Boris Pasternak, Brecht, Euripides, Don Quixote, Dante, Ford Madox Ford, Swift, Kleist, Kafka, the Fugger Newsletters, these are the memories I’ve chosen to keep, Herodotus, no snapshots, Emerson, no souvenirs, History and Class Consciousness, one day I’ll regret not holding on to other things, when my parents die, though of and six months later the former occupant, missing for three years, appeared on the roof of the building next door, like the ghost of Christmas past, demanding his spaghetti heels and Chianti bottle lamps and the rest of his junk. He wore a powder blue suit and looked like an embryonic Daddy Warbucks, bald, with giant freckles, bulldog mouth, eyes glowing with the fixity of rampant self-deception. I called the police. They made no particular effort to flush him from the adjoining building, but instead searched my apartment for drugs. A year later our paths crossed, in a bar. He claimed he had a razor in his pocket, that he’d been “waiting to kill me” for three years. Well then, I said, tonight’s your lucky night. He subsided. And then there was the embarrassment of telling him, as gently as I could, that his warehouse was empty.
The house still carries a faint musty smell of that faraway time, and other times. A period of pickups and bizarre micro-affairs with boys whose points of reference belonged to another planet altogether, disturbed youths and borderline schizos harvested off Second Avenue in the wee hours, lean bodies and adorable faces that evaporated in daylight or loitered for days in carnal stupor, living out of the refrigerator, sometimes helping themselves upon departure to small, electronic objects or pathetic amounts of cash. Lots of damaged youths have fluttered through this place, surly moths on their way to inevitable bonfires. This all tapered off, wound down, whittled itself into chastity, a long time before the disease made sexual loneliness fashionable. I lost the energy, the zeal for seduction. The script became too familiar. The real sex of our time is fame and money, and all sex is negotiated through the porthole of these ambitions. Even with Gregory. We can’t get through a day without rooting around for equilibrium between his potential and my reality, what he feels entitled to and what he believes I already have.
Hours and hours of epic cleaning: for him. I leave Victor mopping and rush to the Associated on Second Avenue. What does Gregory like to eat? A chicken, possibly. A stuffed chicken: mushrooms, onions, crumbs. But maybe he’d like a fish. All their fish here is frozen and greenish. I could run to the place on First before they close, pick up a pound of scallops. Vegetables. I’m sure he’s vegetable conscious, probably likes broccoli the one vegetable I hate. Jane likes broccoli too. Jane really enjoys her food, whereas I have trouble with food. I can’t always get it down, especially first thing in the morning, it depends what it is. When I travel, I have a better appetite. In Japan we had pickles for breakfast. It’s funny how food has its own special hours. You eat this for breakfast, that for lunch, something else for dinner.
If he loves me, will he pretend he likes what I cook, if he doesn’t like it? Touch and go, eating what your lover cooks sometimes, you eat to humor him. Friends too. M. made a horrible omelette once, with all the gristly parts of a take-out chicken, I gag just thinking about it. Some people can eat every edible part of anything. Even marrow out of chicken bones. Turnips: forget it. No one eats turnips, or parsnips for that matter. What I loathe are funny things in meat, those little veins in beef that look like suckers. We shouldn’t eat our fellow creatures. When you walk through Chinatown you see fish gasping in wooden bins, the Chinese are cruel, no more cruel than we are but we hide everything. Even pork has some gross passages, even lobster, it’s all cultural. Maybe my body’s not perfect enough for him: I’m too thin, my chest’s too narrow. And it could be too that my looks really are gone, I can’t tell from the mirror. The gym doesn’t help, all we do there is gossip and look at pricks.
I return with the food. Melon and prosciutto, three cheeses, grapes, salads, red wine, the chicken, an illusion of abundance. If it were only for me this would all rot in the refrigerator. Victor’s finished the floors, he’s drinking a beer and reading a porn magazine, an old one I bought a year ago. It shows very young threesomes, all about 19 or 20. Victor’s sprawled out expansively on the floor in the front room, his paint-splattered work boots crossed at the ankles, as if he plans on sticking around. The apartment still looks cluttered, but clean, as if the person living in it has a relaxed but secure grip on things.
I lay out the beginnings of dinner on the blue metal desk that functions as a kitchen sideboard. This desk is the bane of my kitchen, as the built-in shelving is the bane of my study, the flimsy fiberboard closet and yellow foam chair the banes of the living room area. Each room with its special bane, mainly residue from the Arabic languages expert. Disposal of the blue desk is a perennial topic of speculation. Victor says the desk could be folded up or taken apart by internal hinges, if the hinges hadn’t rusted, but the hinges have rusted, and therefore to remove the desk I would have to hire large, strong people with equipment for getting it down the stairwell, this always seems an absurd extravagance when I have money, and when I don’t have money it becomes an urgent impossibility. I must have considered a million times, at the strangest moments imaginable, getting rid of the blue desk, it has often seemed, in fact, that getting rid of the blue desk would dislodge a staggering freight of recurring problems, liberate my mind, and allow me to really live. And yet, here it is, as always, the blue desk, the symbol of everything oppressive and stultifying attached to this apartment. I tell myself I cannot afford to dwell, just now, on the implications of the blue desk, removing the puckered, yellowish chicken from its plastic wrapper. I know I could easily, easily become paralyzed, if I think too long not only about the blue desk in the kitchen, but all the related, unsatisfactory things which make me less than perfect, the things Gregory will instantly notice. The childish objects I save and leave out in the open, for lack of more precious objects. This general look of disorientation, the visible evidence of mental asymmetry.
Victor came into the kitchen. Do I look all right, I asked. Oh, you look fine, he said. Chicken. Yes, I said, chicken, I thought this chicken, plus rice, plus vegetables. Good idea, Victor said. Yes, I said, but I seem to have forgotten how to fix chicken. Chicken’s simple, Victor said. I know, I said, I’ve cooked chicken millions of times. Nervous? he asked. Yes, I said, although God knows why. Well, Victor said, chicken. Chicken’s easy. You take the chicken, he said, and run it under the cold water. Victor snatched the chicken from the blue desk and bathed it under the tap. There, he said, popping off paper towels from the roll, laying out the chicken. Now, we’ll salt the cavity. Salt the cavity, I repeated, fumbling on the shelf for salt. Got the stuffing? Victor inquired. I indicated a bunch of celery and a net bag of onions. Victor washed the vegetables and commenced chopping them into bright mounds. I felt helplessness washing over me, helplessness and relief, Victor was taking control of the chicken problem, I opened a beer and sat on the rim of the tub, watching as Victor kneaded his choppings into a mash of damp bread, chattering the whole time about the placid spirituality of karate training and the locker room at the 23rd Street Y. Rousing, touchie-feelie escapades flourished at Victor’s Y, in contrast to the furtive cruising that occurred at the health club. Victor was always vocal and explicit about the day’s libidinal peaks. Richard did things without talking about them, Victor talked about them without doing them, and I didn’t do them and didn’t talk about them.
He, Victor, gnawed his lips contentedly and made a display of practiced motions around the cored, sanitized corpse of the chicken. He derived a certain pleasure from making himself useful, a pleasure that instilled indolence in everyone around him. As usual, I thought, Victor hasn’t the slightest disabling dread of real life and the little physical chores that go with it. Victor can clean and dust and soap things down and mop and then stuff a chicken without falling apart. I thought: this must have something to do with karate discipline. And lately he’s been blabbing about “creative visualization,” perhaps if I could creatively visualize, I’d take control, snip off these loose ends, these threads of distraction. I thought: I don’t really know anything or how to do anything, my memory’s lousy, all these books I read don’t make me erudite or learned, knowledge simply passes through me like this beer, nothing sticks, I don’t make anything out of it. And now I’ve even forgotten how to cook, I’m afraid of everything and I’m particularly afraid of Gregory. He idolizes me, but he also looks down on me, because I’m not 24.
I felt a rush of tenderness for Victor, tenderness and schizophrenia. Victor did not occupy the world of my other friends. He saw himself, in some convoluted sense, as opposed, economically or politically estranged from the groups Richard and I knew. A few years earlier I had had more friends like Victor, marginals, who had and continue to have a great illusion of bohemianism, all the while the city changed around them, suburban kids had trickled into the neighborhood and used its fabled bohemianism as a media cachet, marketing the things they did as products of this exciting urban mix, a 72 load of horseshit from beginning to end. And suddenly the slum housing turned choice and pricey, the blacks were driven out first, then the Puerto Ricans, now it’s all white and gleaming and cold as cash, but Victor’s friends, Victor’s familiars continue even now to ruminate bitterly, living in dead dreams and city-owned buildings, and because I removed myself from bohemia I am resented. It was not so simple to remain friends with Victor, since he could not refrain from reporting what various people said about me, and no doubt could not always refrain from reporting on me to various people. And I yearned for a truly private existence, I only wanted to write and make enough money to live, but the simplest desires are always considered the most outrageous ones. As a child, the phrase that held the greatest magic for me was none of your business, since the concept of privacy was unknown to my family.
Victor asseverated his loyalty so often that I knew he betrayed me all the time, not maliciously, but from habit. I sometimes caught a look at Victor’s darker side, just a peep through the keyhole, really. Victor’s excessive devotion, I surmised, concealed a perpetually tabulated score of grievances. He reveled in discovering my little character flaws and moral lapses. He did not really wish to jam bread and vegetable mush up the anus of a chicken, for example, but doing this on my behalf added to my staggering debt. And one day, certainly, Victor would present his bill for all this kindness.
That, I thought, is really how human beings are. Unless they perceive themselves as equal to each other, there is always some form of deranged accounting going on in one or the other’s head, and we live in a system where no one is equal to anyone else, all are exploited by everyone, no one gives anybody anything and everyone owes everybody everything, the only equality available is equality in misery, and even the miserable argue about who is more miserable than whom. But that is another story. This one continues with Gregory’s arrival, just as Victor steps out the door: I embrace Gregory, hurry through the introductions, send Victor on his way and wonder why Gregory is early. When Gregory’s conscientious, it usually spells trouble. If he’s on time, it means he’s not staying long. The timely phone call presages a cancellation. But no, he’s actually planning to eat dinner with me. I nail this down as soon as Victor’s out of hearing range. Gregory looks exuberantly healthy: rosy cheeks, clear eyes, the customary all-black outfit that matches his hair, the embroidered vest. Chatty. He’s spent the day at labs, getting test prints. His work, he says, is developing in leaps and bounds. When I get these two new pictures, he says, I’m giving them to you.
A new theme. He owes me everything. My encouragement has given him the self-assurance to forge ahead. His exhibition will be dedicated to me, by name. As I picture some egregiously corny press release bearing this dedication, Gregory pelts me with flattery (“Everyone’s talking about your column in the paper!”), which stiffens my mouth, makes me hold my breath until it’s over, glazes me with embarrassment—I hate compliments, and even Gregory’s praise sounds grossly overdone, calculatedly therapeutic, phony. I know what I’m worth, I don’t need to hear about it.
He looks over the apartment, especially the books (“Gee, you’ve really got everything here”), impressed (I think) by the austerity of my private mess. No TV, the cheapest kind of tape player for music, a shortage of all the typical comforts. Actually, I don’t know what he’s noticing, though it all appears to jibe with some picture he’s gleaned from our conversations, since he acts as if he’s at home, following my routine in the kitchen. Just before dinner’s ready, I ask him if he’ll settle down in the living room and let me serve him. There comes a moment of felicity: not quite anticipation, but an affectionate pretense of it.
Nothing holds, though. He refuses wine, encourages me to go ahead, but his expression hints that too many drinks on my part will spoil the evenings for him. I’ve never been drunk in Gregory’s presence, but I feel uncomfortably defiant as I pour a glass, and inhibited while drinking it. He consumes a very full plate of chicken and most of the salad, whisks out of the room for seconds which he eats with fastidious, piglike concentration, as if he were alone. I’ve laid the plates out on the floor, we sit on cushions facing each other. His feeding pleasure ought to gratify me, but as I watch ample forkfuls of meat pass into his mouth and observe his lusty chewing, his sensuality seems gross, like the lewd exposure of a half-pumped erection. He eats the way other people masturbate, in a dreamy detachment from his surroundings. He sits cross-legged, bowed forward slightly. I look at the crest of his hairline and down the lithe slope of his nose, ponder the grip of his thick, spatulate fingers on my dime store utensils, and notice a light speckling of dandruff on the shoulders of his vest. His slender frame looks vulnerable as an eggshell, but there is something fierce and stolid in his body’s self-protective signals. The way Gregory polices the space around him repels the thought of touching him: I want to shatter this barrier but I realize that any movement will freeze before contact. His eating is carnal, yet it belongs to a special order of self indulgences, misleadingly sex-like, like the gigolo costumes he wears at work. These displays of physicality suck attraction from the atmosphere. The stirring of desire, anyone’s desire, confirms Gregory’s existence, and thwarting the same desire softens the awful powerlessness he complains of in so many different ways.
He gnaws a final chicken bone, slumps back against the base of the yellow foam chair, burps. His lips curl. He draws a cigarette from his shirt pocket and says, You know something, I went in the bar last night, Victor was there talking to some friends of yours. Oh, I say, you knew Victor by sight? I’ve seen you with him, Gregory says, and then he says, I heard Victor telling them he had to get up early and help you clean, because you had these very important people coming for dinner and your place has been a dump for months …
I laugh, but I can feel my face turning red. Gregory enjoys this moment. He enjoys letting me know I can’t hide anything from him, can’t pretend to be different than what I am. His amusement is gentle, but it’s unnerving. It’s so simple for him to destroy my defense, yet his are impenetrable. I realize now that he showed up early so he’d catch me fretting over the dinner.
This is how he likes to see me: psychologically off-guard, distracted, embarrassed by the obviousness of my desire for him, powerless. He enjoys deflecting my attempts to contrive “perfect moments,” wants to show me he knows how my mind works and that he won’t be taken in by it. Sometimes I think he’s trying to discourage my erotic longings with elaborate tact, hoping I’ll eventually accept him as a friend and nothing more, and perhaps he’s afraid if he lets me down too bluntly I’ll become an enemy. But when I aim for a studied cool and treat him as anything less than my most intimate connection, Gregory burrows under my skin until his attention reaches my crotch.
He’s brought some tapes for me, of Egyptian music he says he bought in Cairo. Chanting, flutes, tambourines. With a faraway, musing lack of eye contact, he reminisces about camel rides in the desert, the spontaneous friendliness of Egyptians, burnooses and casbahs. And the oblivious infatuation of his travel sponsor, a “fat old queen” who he says descended on him like a bird of prey just after Gregory got out of high school, plying him with gold watches and opal rings and designer clothes. “I didn’t know any better then,” Gregory qualifies. The fat old queen whisked him off to London, then Cairo. Just those places, none other. Doesn’t sound like much of a world tour. This long ago sugar daddy sounds real enough, but I don’t believe Gregory has ever been in Egypt, or in London, either. His memories sound a little too generic. Maybe he’s inventing them because I’ve recently told him a fair amount about my own travels, and Gregory can’t permit any experiential differences between us unless they support the idea that he’s felt and seen more than I have. A few days ago when we were talking about politics, Gregory suddenly let me know that the President’s son was an old school buddy of his, that he’d travelled with him to California one summer and visited the Reagan ranch, had dinner with Ron and Nancy, etc., etc. At first the description sounded just colorless enough to be true, but as it developed, I recognized the bravura, hurried style of Gregory’s improvisations. When Gregory invents, he patters, giving his listener no space for questions.
When I don’t believe what he tells me I work my face into what I hope is a neutral, credulous expression. His lies embarrass me, for him. As he tells this fat old queen saga, I find myself translating it into more plausible terms. When he got out of high school, this is what I think, he was even more gorgeous than he is now, completely unmarked by experience, not that he’s much marked now, but Gregory’s eyes look like he’s seen a lot of things he shouldn’t have. An older man came along, offered him an easy ride out of Connecticut, maybe he met this guy in a gay bar in Hartford or something, and the guy, who may or may not have been fat, installed Gregory in a townhouse on Grammercy Park (he pointed out one of those houses once, as a place he used to live; I’ve forgotten what else he told me then, with him I’m a bad listener, always waiting for what I want to hear and not hearing what he wants to say), dressed him like a proper trick, and for a while gave him the tasteful life lived by a certain dated kind of respectable faggot. Gregory was soon bored but afraid to shift for himself, without the fag’s money, torn between friends his own age who were less ossified and uptight and maybe played with drugs and easy sex, and this man. Eventually the lover also got bored, with Gregory’s petulance, and angered by Gregory’s physical indifference to him, and one night, there on the park with the private keys, a horrendous fight occurred, and Gregory found himself on the street. He drifted to the nearest gay bar, one the older man wouldn’t look for him in, found a companion for the night, worked his way into this new person’s life until he found a job and a place to live. Maybe this sequence looped over and over until Gregory returned home and enrolled in Yale. After two semesters he craved the anarchy of Manhattan. Nothing really awful could happen to him, with that face; if Gregory stood on a corner for ten minutes, something promising would land at his feet.
I knit this background from the odds and ends he’s dropped since I met him. His flights of exoticism may be real, for all I know, but they don’t really matter. What he wants me to hear is that his life has been disjointed and weird and now he’s trying to be good and careful. He tells me about former transgressions to show how deeply he’s changed. His relationship with me is his first genuine step towards responsibility, balance, mature caring. Gregory’s speeches on this theme are frequent and disturbingly histrionic, when he effuses about “us,” about this unique bond between us, I feel he’s jumping a chasm whose true width is unknown to him, and that he’s putting words on things that should exist in silence. Where we actually live from day to day, Gregory continually redrafts the terms of this “us,” but abstractly, he considers us glued together in a holy pact of behavioral rectitude, of exemplary moral fastidiousness, a “correct” homosexual couple. We just haven’t evolved into our future state of happiness, where the physical stuff will flow naturally from everything else. For him there’s no disparity between his brave declarations of love and his abrupt displays of frigid pique.
We try going out for a movie. Gregory insists on Desperately Seeking Susan, I suggestThe Purple Rose of Cairo. We relinquish these first choices and then can’t agree on anything else. I thought you hated Madonna, I tell him. And you said you hate Woody Allen, Gregory counters, acidly, pulling on his leather jacket, his face dejected and closed as if he regrets having wasted time with me.
Well, you don’t have to be pissed about it, I say.
I’m just annoyed, he says through his teeth, moving quickly for the door.
For Christ’s sake, I say as I follow him, do we always have to leave everything in some weird place? You know I’ll think about you all night wondering if everything’s all right between us, can’t you just talk to me in a normal way? Look at me, I told myself, in wonder: I’m following right behind him like a dog.
How can it be all right, Gregory says, when you want too much too fast and you don’t leave me any room to breathe?
What about you, I say.
I want everything, he says.
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