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
In April he gave me two pictures that later acquired a mild notoriety. In April, Sarah arrived from Italy, full of wordly advice. At the end of April everything changed unexpectedly, and yet nothing changed.
Dense fogs rolled into the city at night, something so uncharacteristic that everyone felt pleasantly disoriented. Flights out of Kennedy and La Guardia were grounded with eerie frequency. The fog erased the Trade Center from my front window and even blurred the view of Second Avenue. The sidewalks sparkled with extra glitter. The bazaar spilling down St. Mark’s Place from Second Avenue looked for once as if it belonged there.
The fog made the night rich with peril. Odd encounters in bars, on the streets, had a film noir ominousness, the feeling that a culminating murder was happening out of frame. During lightning storms in my childhood the power would blow and my mother, no friend of storms, filled the house with candles: the fog carried that fear-quickened alertness and promised veiled adventures. Obsessed though I was with Gregory, I abandoned my thoughts of him during the nights of fog. He was working double shifts then and seemed safely iced. And for a few nights, at least, I felt a druggy peace after his evening call, glad to have him out of the way.
I visited Bruno after seeing Maria Lorca. I asked him if he’d spend some deliberate time with Gregory, watch his behavior, see if he could tell whether Gregory was junked out. I could feel Bruno’s wariness and a bit of suspicion that possibly such detective work was not cool. He seemed incredulous about the junk idea, or maybe just scared.
At least if I knew for sure, I said, I’d know what I was dealing with.
I told you, didn’t I? What a can of worms he was? Even clean, Bruno sighed. That’s really bad if he’s using ’cause it’s just one long shitty road back to Silver Hill.
Look, I told him, I could be totally wrong about this, but you know him from before, I don’t.
The one who probably knows what he’s doing, said Bruno.
Is Pugg, I nodded, but Bruno, I said, there’s something about that Pugg.
Bruno wrinkled his face. Kind of a scuzball, he said. He’d probably get Gregory back on heroin just to get what he wanted out of him.
Bruno, I said, tell me what you honestly think, is he fucking Pugg?
It’s possible. I mean it wouldn’t surprise me. I mean, who knows.
I knew nothing about heroin. I had heard every heroin truism through half an ear a thousand times. The drug is stronger than the addict. The addict doesn’t know what he’s doing half the time. You might as well forget any sort of friendship with an addict because an addict will sell his mother’s wedding ring for a fix, or his mother’s pussy for that matter. Yet there had always been many people around who considered heroin addiction glamorous. The idea of being beautiful and damned was an ever-popular cliche in the downtown area. People went on smack when they had money and stayed on smack after all their money got used up and then started ripping off their friends and families and usually became incredibly sick and horrible-looking and acquired these odd diseases like lupus or Hepatitis B and now, according to Maria Lorca, half the addicts in New York have HIV infection from sharing needles, and of course the really terrible thing is, the addict knows all this but he can’t do anything about it because it’s the drug making his decisions for him. And if that’s the case, I thought, what then?
And Bruno, for all his previous infatuation, knew nothing about Gregory, or perhaps by that time he didn’t care one way or the other. He simply asked him, point blank, if he happened to be shooting heroin. He was completely taken aback, Bruno reported, like it was the last thing in the world on his mind.
Did anything marvelous happen in the meanwhile? No, emphatically not ever: for the lover there is and only can be nothing except the loved one. And obstacles, and problems.
During the fog hiatus the boulder of Gregory’s depression levitated slightly, like a stone in a setting of mist. He still waxed bitter about his job, but devoted less energy to ripping apart each evening’s humiliations. He even began sounding good-humored, judging from his morning calls, which went on for hours and hours. He had turned invisible again. Seeing people, specifically me, was just too much for him, but hearing them gave him some slight pleasure. I didn’t make an issue of it, which irritated him.
We could see each other tomorrow, he finally prompted.
Work tomorrow, I said.
Can’t, I’ve got a lunch with somebody. (I liked this “somebody”: I normally told who, and he never did.)
Dinner, then, he said, disguising real annoyance under a giggling parody of annoyance.
I’ve got dinner plans, too.
Whether or not this firm pretense enhanced my “self respect,” as Libby claimed it would, it was folly to put him off. He readily found a way to re-engage me: he stopped calling. A day went by. A fresh contest of wills began. A depressing prospect, since I didn’t have the slightest hope of winning.
Long, brittle silence. My steps gravitated toward the streets he favored on his walks, the places he ate lunch, anywhere I knew him to spend time. It’s like smoking, I thought. You tell yourself it’s finished this time, you will not light a cigarette under any circumstances, you fight the temptation for hours, the phone rings, someone’s talking to you, halfway through the conversation you look down and see you’ve got this cigarette going. I decide this time I’ll let him go, show him I don’t need his company, settle down to work, get my papers arranged next to the typewriter, fixate long and hard on the subject of my book, and suddenly I’m circling the neighborhood madly, pretending I’m shopping for food, or rushing home in case he’s trying to call. If I knew he was thinking about me, suffering for lack of me, I could go out and enjoy myself. But he’s not put together that way. Gregoryknows I’m crawling out of my skin right now.
Jane said: So, call him up, big deal.
I said: I can’t possibly do that. Jane: What, too humiliating, after all this?
I: Jane, you don’t understand, Gregory’s a brilliant, wonderful, incredibly well-intentioned person, but he’s sensitive, if he thinks he’s not getting enough attention, or affection, or whatever, I mean, from his point of view, he can’t really humiliate me unless I agree to be humiliated, he sees me as essentially better-off than he is … essentially less vulnerable.
Jane: You mean this is sort of provisional humiliation?
I: He doesn’t mean to humiliate me. He just wants to know he’s wanted.
Jane: Him and a million others. You supposed to go over and disembowel yourself on his stoop? Hey, that might make him happy. Maybe he could make an art work about it or something.
Well, I said, he probably would.
Creative type, Jane said.
An English writer I didn’t know asked me out for lunch. He wanted to talk about art, or rather what sort of art was going down well with the people buying art, and “issues,” meaning the kind of jabber academic critics were currently pasting to what was being made and sold. I was plainly one of many people he had on a list, since he only had a sketchy idea of what I did. He was a person of medium height with surprisingly sharp features; from the bird’s nest lines around his eyes, I guessed he was 45 or so, with a major investment in looking much younger. His hair was dyed bright blond and clipped in a shag. He said he’d become interested in “postmodernism.” He had a journalist’s way of asking questions and instantly rephrasing the answers he got, assimilating the languages of others. You could put him down among musicians or lawyers or cell biologists, and within a few days he’d have their vocabularies rolling off his tongue in perfect fidelity.
We went to Orlin, a cafe I dislike because it seems designed for people with nothing to lose by being overheard; a few minutes into lunch, Gregory came in, saw me, walked up to my table and said, I hope we can talk soon. I won’t bother you now. He occupied a table near the front window. I watched him order his lunch. He pretended not to be watching me but he seemed intent on projecting some kind of deep dejection. I couldn’t go on with my conversation and rudely excused myself, abandoning the writer to his glutinous-looking bowl of clam chowder, leaving my own plate of fettuccini untouched. Just made an enemy, I thought, planting myself down in front of Gregory. I opened my mouth to demand an explanation of his current silence; he cut me off with the unexpected, tearful assurance that he hadn’t known I was lunching in Orlin, that he hadn’t followed me in there. The idea that Gregory might feel insecure enough to follow me came as a total surprise, a surprise I might have enjoyed if it hadn’t deepened my sense of how defective the quality of communication between us really was. He went on: since I was there and we had run into each other, he had to ask me, why hadn’t I phoned him? Had I decided our relationship was over? He said: I thought maybe you were seeing someone else.
Paul died: suddenly, owing to “complications.” It was thought he’d exhausted his body’s recovery mechanisms by so often offering himself as a guinea pig in drug protocols. Somebody called me, it doesn’t matter who. I walked through the apartment without seeing my pathetic array of objects, my clumps of messy clothes, my promiscuously stacked books. I thought there should be special messengers who come to the door and tell you these things in person; every death in my life has been delivered by telephone, with no eyes to look into. And then I remembered that my mother, during the second world war, delivered death notices for Western Union, on her bicycle; the thought of my mother, once young and vigorous, now barely 65 but utterly immobile owing to decades of sedentary labor, chain smoking, and heavy drinking, and liable to collapse completely at some moment in the middle future, reminded me of my own unimaginable death, and the incredible quality of the deaths around me. When the news comes it’s like a dream: you believe it, yet it has no reality.
Someday, I thought, it will be called the Age of Subtraction, full of young deaths, young corpses, often the most comely and desirable. One by one you lose your friends, or they lose you. And it’s like a war, whole vast circles of acquainted people wiped out.
Gregory called later that day. I decided not to say anything. We talked as usual about our relationship.
You keep trying to seduce me, he said. I simply won’t deal with that, it’s too invasive, I can give you so much and no more. Until I say. But I do love you, you know. You’ve got to believe that by now. Any time you need me, to come to you, and put my arms around you and hold you, he went on, I’ll be there for you.
Actually, I said, look here, it so happens I need you to do that right now. I’m in a bad state right now, in fact.
I can’t right now, he said. I’m doing paste-ups.
The day Sarah came from Rome, I spent the morning rolling it all over in my head. I’m too far gone, I thought, to cut my losses. Strange. We’re here on this planet, all these people. Upside down at the antipodes. Endless people. We all have this stuff in our heads that sounds like gibberish. Outside, unavoidable chance and plain catastrophe, and inside all these feelings we don’t know what to do with.
Sarah. I had been spending each summer at Sarah’s place in Italy, in an isolated world, like a ship floating in mid-ocean. It was a cross-shaped stone building, formerly a monastery, that Sarah and her mother had bought in the ’60s, with dozens of cats roaming the grounds, noisy sheep cropping the surrounding hills, the property bordered by deep sleepy forests. Sarah kept a farm sized garden; for a few pennies we got eggs and meat from the local farmers. Tuscany: orange smoke in the hillside, summer lightning. Weeks passed when we didn’t use money for anything.
I had my own suite of rooms at the north end of the house, where I holed up for days without seeing anyone. At night we drank many bottles of the light local wine and talked until four every morning: Sarah, her boyfriend Jacques, her mother Ursula. The nights blacker than velvet. From fields behind the house, skies bright with constellations. The stars in a bowl that looked as if it would suck up the earth. The social world seemed far away. When I left every September it seemed unthinkable that I was coming back to the squirrel cage on Tenth Street. Normally I stopped for a few days in Munich, to visit Rainer, who took an interest in the world. That visit would jolt me back into “life,” and the restless motion involved in wanting things to happen.
Sarah had left off wanting things. In the ’60s she had a short, spectacular career as an actress, retired at her peak, and now spent most of her time painting. Jacques directed movies, the kind of light sex comedies that typically feature Monica Vitti. Sarah sometimes played secondary parts in his films, for the money. I met them when Jacques hired me for the part of a newspaper reporter in a film that went nowhere. Sarah came to New York the next year, for the first time in a decade, to find a gallery. We slogged around SoHo for a month with her vinyl folder of transparencies and eventually settled, with misgivings, on Doris Sachs, whose place in northern TriBeCa was both out of the way and lacking in a strong aesthetic definition. But Doris had enthusiasm, which made up for a lot.
Sarah started getting to New York every three or four months, staying with her ex-brother-in-law, Cyril. Cyril did theatrical lighting. He had turned gay at 40 and now lived in a bare, all-white-inside townhouse on Grove Street. I liked Cyril, and he liked me, but we traveled in completely different circles and never saw each other except during Sarah’s visits. Cyril’s crowd was a fashion crowd, a Seventh Avenue crowd, a crowd of impeccable taste. And Sarah, with her show biz history, spent half her social time around glamor people, the other half with more “cultural” types. Her stock was higher in the world of glitz, and so she needed both.
This had an unfortunate effect on Doris’s marketing efforts. She wavered between pushing Sarah as a serious artist and capitalizing on the scads of free publicity available to Sarah as a former movie queen. Although art was widely thought to have merged with entertainment, it hadn’t melted decisively enough for Sarah’s background to be of much practical help. A kind of postmodern, reverse snobbery was working against her. No one denied that her work was good, but many people “preferred” for Sarah to be a movie actress.
They’re hanging Sarah’s paintings in the gallery. Two young guys in white overalls lug the pictures out of the office, into the hangar-like white space, hold them up here, move them there. Sarah stands in the middle of the room, directing. Jacques, perched on the front desk near the door, untwists the wire ribbing around a champagne cork. Pop, fizz. I’d rather not get drunk this afternoon. Lately my resistance to alcohol is nil. What’s dangerous is Monday night. When he calls up and talks about his cock. I know I’ve got to be at work and get my copy into the computer before 2:00 the next day, but what I want more than anything are shots of vodka, one after another. Then the night’s gone. Sometimes I can work up into a rage and call him, but the little prick usually unplugs the phone before he goes to bed. God forbid anybody should need him for anything.
Jacques has a lot of floppy brown hair and deep soulful matching eyes, big features, thick nose, he laughs easily like Sarah does, makes jokes in lieu of complaining. Hanging the show takes concentration, but after a while the serious way we’re appraising the effect of moving them here and there becomes ridiculous. It takes two hours to get them settled on the walls, the champagne is long gone, Jacques says: Let’s get out of here and get a drink.
Oh, in that case, I suggest, we can visit Gregory, he’s right around the corner.
Jacques: Gregory is the—
Sarah: Oh yes, this special person he’s met, absolutely … In my letters, I’ve made a literary picture for Sarah, Gregory with large areas left blank. “He’s not like the others.” Sarah has known at least one of the others, a solemn and brutally stupid young painter who imagined himself a social outlaw in the style of Jean Genet. I want Sarah and Gregory to like each other. I think Sarah, a great beauty, will see him more clearly than I can.
They’re both cursed with looks so out of the common. And Sarah has managed to live a real life. Gregory’s stuck inside his face, he can’t get out of it. Maybe Sarah could teach him how.
The three of us leave for the streets in a cloak of laughter. Isn’t it a relief, to still be alive? The sun’s shining. SoHo looks drowsy, like backgrounds in an old film pocketed with glare. The walls of buildings absorb a hyperborean light that flattens against the street like a coating of soot, turning the black pavement petroleum blue. I decide I am not going to die, as if I’ve been told about it by God.
The empty restaurant. They open at 4:00, but nobody goes there before 6:00 or 7:00. Gregory’s standing with his back to the door, in the passage between the bar and the dining room, where the shiny brass espresso machine faces the toilets. He’s talking to Sammy, the bar manager. They don’t react to our entrance; it’s as if they didn’t hear. I park Sarah and Jacques at the bar and walk up behind him:
An instantaneous reaction. His strangest so far. I sense something wildly unpleasant stirring the hairs on the back of his neck. The blood drains from my face. He doesn’t turn around. His back goes up, as if he’s been struck with a bludgeon. Sammy walks out of the room, into the kitchen, giving no sign that he sees what’s happening: just glides away as if my voice were his cue. And Gregory turns, turns very slowly, like a wax dummy on a carousel: I see his face twisted by an uncontrollable anger, a paper face someone’s crushed and smoothed out again, the eyes black and blazing.
I brought Sarah and her friend to meet you, I whisper. I feel he’s about to scream, he’s going to push me down the corridor and throw me through the front window. What have I done? He storms past me, I see Sarah and Jacques looking at him strangely, bewildered, cloudy faces, and Gregory shrinks as he approaches them, I’m watching him evaporate. His body stiffens as he shrinks, he’s suddenly three feet high and incredibly emaciated. I follow him, feeling like a fat nurse in a mental ward dogging some psychotic dwarf. By the time he reaches the bar he’s the size of a dashboard figurine. His mouth erupts in a livid grin, full of teeth that splay loose from his gums and shatter on the gleaming wooden floor, teeth the size of nailheads. Sarah and Jacques attempt smiles, out of their depth, obviously ready to flee. The figurine’s lips spread out across its tiny face in agonized congeniality, now it expands as it ingests oxygen, the limbs blow up enough to fill its clothing, suddenly Gregory’s wrists reappear in their tattered white cuffs and his neck swells out to fill his collar. He’s almost himself by the time he speaks, bits of him return in hazy puffs of some chemical reaction.
He catches my eye and smiles again. I return his smile grimly. He drapes his face in a weird bogus friendliness. This is, he announces, a bad moment. Inopportune. Nothing personal. We’ll leave, then, I assure him.
But he insists that we stay. He glides off into the restaurant’s hidden interior. Jacques smiles, shrugs off the situation: Ah well, he says. Life.
Sarah says: Something is wrong, don’t you think? I think we should get out of here.
I’ve never seen Gregory like this. Not like this. I think: I’ve seen him today for the first time. Almost mute with loathing and disgust. That’s what he’s got going on inside, under all the charm and those gurgled childlike assurances, he’s got this hate inside him that would blow this restaurant into the next postal zone if he let it go. But he wasn’t lying, it’s nothing personal.
He returns, magically composed. He pours out three snifters of Remy Martin. He stands in his shirtsleeves behind the bar, elbow planted on the zinc, sucking a cigarette and making an elaborate pretense of relaxed conversation with Sarah, asking what time her plane got in, where she’s staying, how she’s coping with hanging her show. I watch his face glide acrobatically through its lexicon of winning postures, a face seasoned and marinated in the shapes of other people’s longings. Now it’s his clothes talking. I imagine cracks and lesions erupting all over his skin, the roof of his skull popping open, snakes crawling out of his pockets.
In the street, Jacques diplomatically observes that Gregory seemed “anxious.” Sarah says: That look he had when you touched him, that was scary.
Gary Indiana’s novel Burma is being published by Grove Press in the Winter of 1988. His book of short stories Scar Tissue is just out from Calamus Press.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee