Return to Sender by Klaus Kertess

BOMB 21 Fall 1987
021 Fall 1987
Article 951  Bomb 21  Fuss

Adam Fuss, Lovers, 1987, silverprint, 20 × 24 inches. Courtesy Massimo Audiello Gallery.

October 3, 1985

Without your knowledge of my name, our act would be drained of all outrage. Had you but asked first. Had I but given another name as I have so often done in such places, then we could again relish, in innocence, what you now hold for crime. And I, too, I must concur; although the last drops of pleasure’s juices have not yet evaporated in the heat of memory, not even in remorse’s fire. How totally taboo is our last taboo? More taboo to you than to me. You still have some expectation of a father; I no longer expect a son. How do we proceed now? Certainly not by threatening your mother, as you proclaim. Neither she nor I are famous enough to get you validated with headlines; and headlines would be the most your violence could hope for. But why another crime? Even if she is still as capricious today, as she was then, was it really she that forced you upon me in the dank glow of that bar? She who threw us together in that steaming embrace? She who led us to my apartment and so hurriedly pushed your mouth over my cock? She who . . ? I’ll stop; only, please, let’s not plot a gay Oedipus.

You refuse to see me but demand this correspondence. Will letters mutually bind us to our name? Will the mailman unseduce me? You must explain—or is this entirely the father’s duty?

Why did you come to find me? What were your expectations? Your hopes? What had you been told? How long will it be before our words have adjusted to the absurdity of this situation? Even signing this letter becomes a tribulation. How shall I end? “Yours, once as a trick, now as a father”?

Am I really to be your father? I await your response.


October 12, 1985

Was your tardy response intended to make me worry or for the sake of reflection? If for reflection, you saw very little. If all your synonyms for cruel and heartless were intended to drown me in guilt, your words have lost their weight. “Glib”—yes, of course, that achieves its mark. I have to hide behind something, at least for this long moment. Accept “glib” as the mask and hope that it becomes the bridge. I have little more to offer, at the moment. That warm paternal embrace you so rightfully longed for, how would you have known it that night? How could I have given it, when semen was still glistening on your stomach?

Angry, I too can be angry. You must remember you are not a choice I thought I had made. You had to think about having a father; I never had to think seriously about having a son. I spent no more than a week with your mother—a week of profound abandon. When she wrote me from Rome that she was pregnant with my child, I hardly knew how to respond to this unforseen bond. Love, a child, some semblance of permanence—none of these, I was quite certain, either of us had intended. I wrote back saying I would take whatever responsibility she deemed fit, but that I would not move to Europe. I never heard from her again. No phone was listed for her in Rome, nor in Stockholm, nor in Munich (all the places she called home). Concern soon unconcerned itself. She might have chosen an abortion; maybe it had been a false pregnancy, perhaps one of those outrageous whims or wishes she was so capable of. Two months later, my letter was returned unopened, stamped with the information that the addressee had moved without leaving a forwarding address. Our affair’s image of untroubled glamor was gradually reinstated and laid to rest in one of my memory’s brighter chambers. She became the first of many “addressee unknowns” to pass through or by my life. Twenty-three years later you appear to rob me of the last flickering illusion of youth. If I am your father, I must be as old as I am.

I have passed that divide that places me somewhere between 40 and death. Fulfillment and decay fight bitterly, sometimes unfairly, for control of my body and soul. Almost daily I see new evidence of decay’s eery delight etching itself on my face. Gums and eyesight recede; hair still grows but grows more grey. At the moment, maintenance is still capable of challenging entropy; my body is still willing to engage in younger tasks and pleasures—and almost looks it. But no lie can hide the face that I have earned. A face that I am mostly happy to deserve.

Without serious responsibility to anyone but myself, face and body still occasionally conspire to turn desire for youth into an almost believable illusion of youth. How young I was when I was mirrored in the sleek succulence of your flesh. How old I became when we discovered we were lying under the same name. What desperate ¡maginging can make me younger now? You who are exactly half my age have made me a double I could previously dare to deny. You have hastened my exile from the democracy of flesh. You who unwittingly initiated my adulthood, have just as unwittingly terminated my youth. Is my vain anger more selfish than yours? Are there rewards promised by this new responsibility? Will I soon be able to sign “your father” and still have hope?

Please answer me more quickly this time. With this letter you receive one half my stock of Venetian writing paper. Let paper be our first bond.

October 15, 1985

Had I known that anger would increase with the speed of your response, I would have opted for delay. So much hatred gouged into the soft weave of that paper. My still feeble struggle for love can gain little strength from the mockery of your blot of blood disfiguring your signature. Don’t so uselessly threaten yourself and me. Distill your anger and clarify it.

We are victims of outrageous circumstance, not of the vague, grandeloquent fate you invoke. First you threaten your mother, now me. Let me repeat again that I had no evidence of your existence. Do not lose sight of this fact, this gratuitous fact. You must grant your mother some good reason for concealing me for so long; and you must not indict me for violating your imagined role model. Surely I was totally imagined; for, what could your mother have told you of me? Can we agree that we unknowingly, not knowingly, fulfilled that most outlawed of fantasies?

Why must “incest” and hatred so monopolize your pen? Will incest really stain the rest of our lives? The law we broke, the law so primal it is called “taboo,” was a law imposed to protect the family structure. Sex between mother and son or father and daughter would ethically and biologically threaten and divert the smooth flow of regeneration. Disrupt the tribe. Sex between mother and daughter or father and son have potentially negative emotional consequences but no negative biological consequences. But isn’t homosexuality itself disruptive of the tribe? Are we not preoccupied with squandering the seed in infertile orifices? Have we not subverted the multiplication table? Are we to feel guilty about our homosexuality? Do you feel guilt about yours? What family structure did we actually destroy? Is our robbery of multiplication a felony? Have we not been tolerated, at least until quite recently, because multiplication had reached some absurd conclusions? I will not risk more of your rage with this probe. Had I already known that you were my son, I would surely still have had the same desire (perhaps even a stronger one) but surely would not have let desire race into fulfillment.

On second thought, still more incest, but in a grayer realm. Had you read me more skeptically (which you must do), you might well have wondered if my pursuit of youth was not freighted with some frustrated paternal desires—if more than mere sensuality hid behind my body’s acts. Indeed, less fatherless than you but fatherless still, I grew up with little access to masculine measure. My father was first physically absent from my life (between speech and early puberty), then emotionally absent for the rest of his life. From the age of 14 on, a dizzying array of older men, some known to me, some not—teachers, athletes, a famous painter, even the long dead paternal grandfather I was said to resemble—became the focus of my father-wanting. Slowly the son without a father became a father without a son. My first chosen adult role was as daddy to my peers’ careers. My last heterosexual desire was to father a male child—a desire not lost or totally rejected but buried in ambivalence when finally I followed the compass of my sexuality, at some 35 years of age. Not most but many of my partners were 21 or so, sometimes beautiful, always graceful, never dumb, but almost always more physically than mentally self-composed—all to varying degrees searching for the missed experience of sonness. Their yearning gave me strength and magnified the already abundant pleasures of smooth skin and lithe limb. They remained always around 21; I grew older. The confidence we gave each other only recently began to curdle with my flesh. As I reached or exceeded the age of the natural father, sex soured. The roles of father and son became too explicit to tolerate such fantasy; often gone was the wonderful play permitted by ambivalence. Now it appears that I was imagining you all these years. And you me. We did not commit the first but perhaps the last of our incests. Maybe our act was less sin than syndrome. Now that the imagined has become tangible and present, we must learn to want it all over again. Rules now rule our roles. Rules, that under more normal circumstances, we would now be shedding and rejecting. In America, you will soon learn, a son of your age and a father of mine hardly owe each other anything at all. In Europe, there still remain more debts to be collected. So, at once, our roles are too old and too new—now forcing me to write to you in the stilted prose of generic father to generic son. The details and redundancy that could breathe breath into our roles must still be invented. How long will you insist that the page be our sole stage? Can we really build a trust with words alone? How different the emotions of the pen from those of the heart.

The paper that is our only bond you have already once defiled. Should I, as father, demand more respect? Or simply request that you reflect more kindness in your next response? Herewith, I risk two further gifts—one a pleasure, one a precaution.

Let the tulips dance for you, as I can not—and in my favorite purple too. Let them see you, as I may not. They, that when picked, still grow and bend and sway, in their curved way; they that, like our words, even after they have been plucked from their bulbous roots, still seek to create an illusion of life. May they please.

The precaution is self-explanatory. Let no one enter you, nor you him, without one. If you have not already done so, you must immediately guard yourself against the vile fury of our plague. This invisible voracious vampire capable of alchemizing sex into suicide. How sad for you that sex is stigmatized, just when you need it so. Do what you can to cast the pall from pleasure and don’t let prophylaxis deeroticize you completely. May the rubber make you more, not less, resilient.


October 17, 1985

The messenger has just fled from my surprise. My curiosity made me open your parcel before his eyes, while telling him to wait for his tip. All of a sudden our sight locked over my left hand holding a dollar bill and my right hand dangling your condom with its seemingly still steaming trove. His wide-eyed dismay was no more exaggerated than my laughter. These bicycle-propelled couriers seem equally divided between pimpled White, choir boys and sleek Blacks in skin licking racing suits; you sent me the former. Stumbling and mumbling he left me with both my hands still full.

Now become bittersweet, your trophy is tacked to the kitchen wall and disquiets my mealtime organization. Will (can) a letter validate my prize?

October 21,1985

For several days sporadic paranoia tracked the trail of your package. Were its contents more hostile than I cared to surmise? Had I laughed on the wrong side of ambiguity? Were you closing what I saw opening? Happily your letter left the echo of my laughter in its wanted place.

You, you say you’ve laughed so seldom and seldom wrapped your hand around a cock that wasn’t your own. An analyst’s tongue replaced the lover’s lips. Yes, certainly you do carry a heavy burden. But, if your mother’s friend was as drunk and drugged as you say when she ran in front of your car, how much and how long can you be paralyzed by guilt? She was your mother’s lover I assume; perhaps the very same one so submissive to my presence, so certain I would leave, who met us every day during the Roman revel that produced you. How well it could be she if, as you write, you knew her since infancy. And she loved you like another mother. You can not explain the drugs and alcohol and fights, nor bear your mother’s supportive sympathy without feeling still more guilt. Is this what forced you here? Am I to assuage the guilt the analyst could only stir?

Quite likely the analyst kept uncovering the wound that your mother sought to heal. Without probing guilt, what can a psychoanalyst work with? His/her power can only remain operative as long as the psyche continues to squeeze out the sour juices of guilt. Didn’t the analyst expect you to hate your mother’s friend—wouldn’t a she so insult the he of your missing father? How could you bear a doubly feminine parenthood? Weren’t you embarassed to bring home friends? Were you mocked in school and shocked at home? Did the other she ever try to seduce you? Didn’t you hate your mother too? Wasn’t it impossible to proclaim your innocence? You whose youth would demand innocence or guilt could tolerate nothing in between. Black or white, what would it be?

But did you ever think your mother might be relieved? Her lover too? That your mother was to be the driver of the car, not you—was that a possibility? That your guilt, if any, was in being the only patch still holding the thread-bare cloth of love together; and, when that patch began to detach, as you assumed some semblance of adulthood, only threads of anger could hold together the relationship—was that a possibility? What portion of guilt must a passive patch assume? Is this guilt woven into the very fabric of the family, even one as warped as yours? Must I too be fitted with this scratchy sackcloth as part of my new uniform of paternity?

Answers are in short supply; questions are overly abundant. The opposite of what you think you require. “Think grey” is all I can say. I haven’t the faith or the youth for black and white; I have only the imagination for grey. Accepting, even embracing, the ever widening spectrum of grey rewards aging with a certain grace. Let grey help you to grow older and me younger in another way. Do not let black and white force sense and rob the senses. Let your authorship be grey.

Don’t let guilt repress your sensuality. Dare I remind you how giving you were? You have not only the obstacle of your personal guilt but now a renewed culturally given guilt as well. The new conservatism, here subtly, there blatantly, grafts a moral determinism to the medical nightmare. Faggots and drug addicts have been punished by having their crimes against nature written all over their flesh. “Resume your roles as lepers, with or without medical cause,” we are told. Not a few have done so. Yet all along the doctors seemed to know that this demon fever drew its heat from the fires of Africa’s heterosexual land? Who takes the blame for impure gama-globulin shots and blood transfusions?

The paternity you seek to imprint upon me reels at the risks that now embroil the release of your sexuality. The obsolescent crankiness of parental warnings of pregnancy and syphillis have returned in another guise—again drowning sex in foreboding, and mocking and undermining the achievements of what was only recently hailed as the sexual revolution. But enough.

Other matters. Having left your not-so-native Italy, what are your intentions in the New World, other than the construction of my fatherhood? What career, what business? How long can you afford to stay in that hotel? Must dollar signs help signify my new authority? What hopes must I have for you that are not my own? Are we to modify each other’s daily lives or cultivate a more casual bond to be bound when the occasion requires or desires? Have you made any friends that you can laugh with?

November 2, 1985

You answer my questions with your own. To forestall stalemate, let me promise a letter concluding all sentences with a period (still no guarantee that your questions will be answered). Our past it seems must remain more urgent than our present.

Your mother first. I was just out of college, quite adequate in knowledge, excessively inadequate in experience—attractive but living awkwardly in front of my body. History of art and alcohol largely defined my profile. The clamorously jaded boredom of Fellini so ambivalently stigmatized in La Dolce Vita obsessed not only me but countless of my peers. Marcello had joined Gatsby in the WASP sanctuaries of daliance. Names that, for you, perhaps lie deflated on the page; but they were once capable of releasing a fragrant radiance that countless acolytes flocked to bask in. Weekly, my best friend and I drove to New York in his expensive convertible to get drunk in the then most fashionable nightclub and afterwards wade solemnly in the fountain of the Plaza Hotel—even now, I’m hardly embarassed to be writing you this. The parental wealth and prominence of our customary female companions wrapped us in a cocoon of delighted indifference to the baser world surrounding us.

Upon graduation we set off for Italy, not to reflect upon the robust clarity of Tuscany that had already become home to my eyes, but to Rome to be ravished by the Baroque and maybe even to be able to bargain for a ticket to Fellini’s circus of earthly delights. The accompanying convertible would make quite certain we would not go un-noticed. But first to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto.

Spoleto’s arty plays and anxiously avantgarde dance performances were hurriedly applauded into oblivion by one and all, so that audience and actors, waiters and watchers might resume their more relished roles in the masquerade staged behind the proudly frayed facades of this medieval town. I was too thrilled and intimidated to dare to question the mauve willingness that engulfed me. The once famous and macho movie star who dragged me to a daily drunk in a workers’ bar, the cosmetic widow of a cosmetics king solicitously proffering a New York I had never dreamed of, the rising young conductor who insisted my hands demanded to be at a piano, under his surveillance; the wanton waiters begging for a spin in the convertible, and on and on. And your mother—your mother who saw instantly that I was too overpowered to make a choice.

What made me so attractive? Ambivalence and inexperience and wide-eyed wonderment that saw a sparkling palace where others saw a prison. I saw your mother as Dietrich when she was merely Hildegarde Knef’s understudy; my wondering eyes promised her some replenishment. She was the clichéd woman of experience so many inexperienced young men dream of—whatever more or less she was or is, I could hardly know or see. I who had previously known but one pleading whore and an almost perfectly matched string of squeamish debutantes, was overwhelmed by your mother. Without any sense of being led, I discovered a physical joyousness I had never dared imagine.

We met at a party at Menotti’s palazzo; she complained of her rented room’s unreliable plumbing; I offered our bathroom that boasted a view of the colisseum (that year guarded by the gaunt and heroic grace of a battalion of sculptures by David Smith); she arrived the next morning for a warm bath; my friend made a discreet retreat. Encouraged by your mother’s exuberant expertise, I spent the day, first anxiously then deliriously trying to compensate for all the sex I had denied myself since adolescence. There was no compensation; I became insatiable, ravenous. Descriptions seem indelicate; let me only record that your mother stimulated pleasures exceeding all my reveries.

Spoleto’s festival drew to a tired close; shabby celebrants and sycophants left and let the town return once more to tranquil poverty. We sped to Rome in the convertible. My friend now joined by your mother’s friend, in the front seat; she and I squeezed in the back. My friend was the driver, radiant in anticipation of the Roman dissipation your mother had tantalized him with. Her friend mysteriously impassive. Only when taken by surprise were her dark eyes found clinging to your mother’s blondness. The bluntness of my youth and acuteness of my appetite easily erased her slightly ominous air. Whatever her desires, they posed, for the moment at least, no threat to mine. I was obsessed, your mother victorious—convinced she had outflanked the wealthy widow and the scheming conductor to win the prize of my innocence.

By day we four were tourists. Your mother insisted I retain the art historical itinerary so carefully planned before my libidinal detour; she had never seen the Rome I had chosen from my books. She hardly knew Rome had so long and so uninterruptedly been so thoroughly theatrical. Bernini she instantly adored; she envied his St. Theresa her exquisite ecstasy; she dared a dance to match the lush undulations of San Andrea delle Valle’s strawberry and cream interior. Even Borromini’s strident eccentricity excited her, especially Sto Ivo’s suction-cup-domed ceiling. As for me, the pilgrimmage I had so long prepared for now was but a detour delaying far more urgent desires. Raphaels’s Galatea and Michelangelo’s Adam became merely blurred reflections of your mother’s and my potential. Excruciatingly slowly the day always came to an end. Always with a drink on the Veneto. After the first drink, your mother’s friend would rise and disappear into the tremulous aimlessness of the crowded sidewalk. Then your mother would casually draw one or another acquaintance out of the throng—always someone willing to guide my friend to yet another version of a Fellini nocturne—a disco, a bathhouse, a seance, an orgy, whatever. But first we three had dinner. My impatience made me oblivious to all tastes but one—years would have to pass before the German anality of my goal orientation could be diffused in subtler configurations of pleasure. Just when the pressure was all but unbearable, the dinner bill was presented and paid, my friend dispatched for that night’s débauche, and your mother hurriedly and laughingly was dragged to our hotel room, where once again she would effortlessly lead me to the point where I was leading her into our lush oblivion. During one of those delirious nights, some speck of pleasure refused to be flushed away and clung even more tenaciously than I to your mother’s interiors. I doubt I was then capable of making you out of love, but certainly there was much joy in what was to be your creation. What instinct was it that drew your mother and I apart while that joy was still intact? Perhaps her knowledge that I would become the homosexual I couldn’t see I was. Your mother gently taunted me with the possibility of men in my life and understood, long before I could, the causes of my previous heterosexual reticence. Of course, she herself seemed at least as drawn to her own gender as to mine. Perhaps our pleasure could only be so intense because of our knowledge of its transience. Or possibly she wanted a child but not a husband. Whatever the reasons neither pain nor regret marred my departure from Rome.

The date of my conversion to homosexuality is your next query. No date, no conversion. Surely I was always a homosexual but not always a practicing one. After your mother, ten years of seeming heterosexuality ensued, starting with a number of bloodless post-debutantes left over from college years, then switching to a fullsome Japanese with whom I seem to have spent three months in a bathtub, and ending with the spare beauty of a ballet dancer as feckless as she was intelligent. The dancer brought me as close to marriage as anyone was going to; but her constant touring ended our monogamous trust. One night I simply abandoned my companions at my favorite bar and walked home with a near-boy whose smile had been daring me all night. How easy, what relief, what pleasure finally after so long to be going home with a male. How easy to embrace and laugh. Helplessly and all too soon my pleasure rose to the riveting shock of ejaculation, involuntarily releasing a fury of come together with two images that floated langourously around me in one of those infinitely layered moments only dream time can produce.

One image dredged up from my adolescence—of a classmate in prep school, a fellow member of the swimming team. Blonde, round and muscular, he was all plushness and tensile strength. Pale, hairless skin wrapped his bones loosely but lovingly. He flaunted a pouting, protruding lower lip and an almost perfectly rounded ass. One day he came up behind me and began slowly to knead my ass with both his hands. “You like this, don’t you?” he softly taunted. If only I had been able to say “yes,” so much of my life could have started earlier. His name was Tad, and his image became that of one of the two blonde demons who celebrated the belated consumation of my sexuality. Often I still feel him or wish him at my side.

The other blonde demon who was not so deeply buried as Tad, was your mother. Surely she can lay claim to providing me with my first homosexual experience. Her androgyny unleashed what Tad’s hands had only hinted at. She applied the pressure on the potential of my sexuality. A potential so self-oppressed as to require another decade of semi-conscious deliberation and debate before my cock and my consciousness could become one. How obvious then that I was always homosexual, just as I had always been a writer after I finished my first novel.

Since that first night, only males have written on my sheets. I had some years of wildness when pleasure was still pleasure and not a mortal risk. Monogomy became a choice and not a clinical necessity. You must find another way. You who are twice a bastard, once legally, once socially—the faggot son of a faggot father. What demons are available to you to fictionalize the painful boredom of your life? Surely my fatherhood is not enough.

See, I have almost kept my promise. I have written this far with only one ?. So may I end now with hope for us both.

November 8, 1985

How violent your look, how alien your tremble, how threatening the sudden forward thrust of your arm. Delivering that letter like a mortal blow. Your sobs swallowing my cries. How I called you back. And you, you call me cruel.

Worse still, your letter. My words rasp in helpless congestion. Whose lie is truest? You can only choose but never really know. You came to find a father, only to loose a mother; perhaps you have killed your mother. What is the narrative order?

Your mother raised you without a father. You accidentally ran over your mother’s lover. You subsequently sought out the man whose name you carried and whom your mother identified as your father. He retold the torrid tale of your probable birth, a tale you claim to be a cruel and vicious deception, since your mother has always been the dark-haired, olive-skinned one and not the wild blonde in your father’s story—the blonde, who in all likelihood, is the same one who may or may not intentionally have thrown herself in front of your car. If that blonde was not your mother, I am certainly not your father. The dark woman who calls herself your true mother and now calls your reputed father a brutal deceiver surely has some motive for so thoroughly confounding your legality. No matter what the reason, only one of us can be your parent. Only one of us can be telling the truth. I wonder why and how one of your mothers kept so close a watch on me and why she would encourage your quest when the end could have only have come to this.

Now surely these roles are better left empty than stuffing them still further with deceit and disaster. Shouldn’t you be parent to yourself and question your future instead of your past—parent to your future and not son of your past. Before you were even the meekest organism your mother (whether the dark one or the light one) and your father (me or x) had already spun the wheel of genetic fortune to determine more of your character than anyone wishes to admit. Careless genes were more crucial to your (and everyone else’s) formation than caring parents. Work with the genes not with your lying mother or lying father.

Haven’t you yourself renounced fatherhood by becoming homosexual. Hasn’t your sexuality relinquished Christianity’s most palpable promise of immortality—the living on of offspring, the continuation of the name. Or have you decided to fertilize a donated egg with your sperm and have the embryo implanted in your bowel or large intestine? (Our not wholly reliable evening newspaper assures us this is soon to be possible.) Maybe surrogates and simulated familes of homosexuals and lesbians will become the true reactionaries of the future.

Is this all too cruel? Am I taunting? Have you not taunted me? You gave birth to me perhaps more than I gave birth to you. Was I a fool not to question my simulated paternity? Why did I feel inadequate when I couldn’t immediately turn on the faucets of fatherhood? Did you know how easy it was to turn a middle aged fantasy into a nightmare? Maybe that bar was really where you wanted to find me. And what meaning did fatherhood have to you other than a name?

Numbed by confusion, I ask myself over and over again whose illusion is this?

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism and lives in New York City.

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021 Fall 1987