Crowded blocks of retail markets and one-room shops, then a passage of high cross-shaped public housing flats. Snow shrinking in filthy pyramids between parking meters, stubbled ice pools glistening with livid opacity in the roadbed. Sunlight catches every harsh angle of the street, streaks across car chrome, explodes against store windows. Time has stopped, or paused, to frame a sore picture of things, on one of those frozen afternoons that sits dead in a person’s vision like a jade lizard squatting on a plastic leaf. The occasional tree has been flogged bare by blasts of wind and stands rotting in its square of incongruous earth.
The side avenues end at a wide boulevard crossed by flat concrete islands dotted with high metal stalks with glazed lights curled over their tips. A gas station in the center of its own tar arcade sports an immense crimson M, broken at a slant for design allure. Behind it a cyclone fence barricades more stripped trees and a row of vacant tenaments, row after row of shattered windows like broken teeth in a swollen mouth.
Gregory looks different today. His body seems more organized than before, small and sinewy and animated by controlled, tottery movements, like the body of a life-size puppet. Tight gray and black jeans, thick black ankle boots, a voluminous black sweater and a thin denim jacket. He moves determinedly, on his way to an exam he knows all the answers to. He likes these squalid streets, they’re “his,” he’s used to them and they’re used to him. I haven’t walked over here for much of anything in years, too many shitty memories, though it isn’t far from my house. One of the shabbier zones of the Lower East Side: bodegas with yellow and red plastic awnings, a Nedick’s, over there a wan-looking tar playground with a basketball hoop and some smashed up orange swings. Across the street, a boarded-up synagogue. On Gregory’s corner, there’s a cocktail lounge with a sloped pink roof and jalousie windows, shaped like a roadhouse in an upstate village. We walk past it to the fifth house on the block, past a maroon monolith that used to be a day care center, past a gap in the block full of uncut gravestones, past a monument showroom—Gregory lives in the monument district—to a place with a short, scarred stoop, double black doors with rectangles of iron mesh bolted over grimy inset glass, the wood splintered and gouged around the lock. Like the other buildings, this one has a fire escape jutting down its face, an architectural scar that jumps out at me as Gregory points to the buildings across the street, waving at the nearest: That’s where Bruno lives. Bruno doesn’t care for this area, Gregory says, insinuatingly. He can’t believe I go exploring down these ratty side streets, Bruno hates all this poverty and ethnic clutter, but I’m really moved by it. I like checking out all these tiny shops, listening to ordinary people talk. Bruno’s so out of touch with real people, he just stays in that constricted world of art and artists and never comes in contact with anything real. When you watch and listen to the people down here, Gregory says, you realize each one of them has a life, full of particular things.
Gregory pushed open the door and walked into the hall ahead of me, peered into the mailbox grille. The stairwell had dim fluorescent circles coloring up the sickly green walls and the warped stairs. I followed him up while he talked, perhaps about the neighbors or the drunken super or the landlord, or he might not have spoken at all, possibly we climbed the stairs in the crackling silence that often enveloped us. Silence like: we’re normal together, everything’s normal. I’m in your mind, you’re in my mind. Silence like: now we’re content and steady. Ordinary silence, which is to say: a silence that can change character when one or the other does something unexpected, gets an abstracted look, stands a certain way, fails somehow to follow the unknown laws of this particular silence with Gregory. This happened easily, a content or approving silence changes into a doleful or an angry silence, and I would find myself outside the charmed circle of Gregory’s interests, becoming a chunk of petrified rock obstructing Gregory’s path. When Gregory had had enough of someone, he had none of the usual gift for concealing the fact. He might say in one breath that I was the most important person in his life, and a moment later behave as if I were an importunate, vague acquaintance, from whom he tore himself away with a ruthlessly terse apology. It could happen in the course of a telephone call, a dinner, a walk across the neighborhood.
A few days earlier I had gone to visit Bruno, at his gallery. We knew each other. We had even been flirtatious from time to time, in a desultory way. I had considered Bruno the best possible choice for a carnal attachment among all the people I knew, until meeting Gregory. For a time, even after meeting Gregory, I continued flirting with Bruno, in hopes that if Gregory proved as refractory as he seemed, Bruno would fill the void. And then, of course, I discovered that Bruno too was infatuated with Gregory, though he had drawn back from this infatuation, found another boyfriend, and now kept Gregory somewhat at arm’s length, emotionally speaking. I hadn’t wanted to ask Bruno about Gregory. Bruno was never especially verbal. He favored the epigrammatic, slightly irrelevant answer to almost any question. I didn’t understand Gregory’s behavior, I had told him (against my better judgement). What behavior do you mean, he responded. I like Gregory, I hastily qualified, he’s an exceptionally nice person. But, Bruno said encouragingly. Yes, I said, but what, exactly. What is it with Gregory, why is it that one minute I feel that I know him and we’re close to each other, intimate friends, practically lovers, and then without warning it’s as if I were oppressing him, smothering him, using up all the air in the room, why does he call and arrange to see me, then keep me waiting for hours sometimes not even bothering to call, sometimes never showing up, when it was his idea, not mine, why can’t Gregory just say, I’d rather not see you today, instead of making an urgent point that he wants to see me, and if he does show up, acting as if I’d begged him to meet me and he’s only enduring a situation which is actually killing him, reversing the whole thing? And if he injures my feelings and I tell him he’s treating me badly he whines and moans about how unacceptable his life is, that I’m his only reassurance, his only true friend, the only person he can turn to, how wounded he is that now I seem to be turning against him like the rest of the world, so suddenly I’m the one abusing him, before I even know what’s happening I’m plunged into a bath of guilt, when it’s all his fault.
This all sounds disgustingly familiar, Bruno said, but I don’t want to puncture your balloon.
But what, I wanted to know; I thought: Bruno’s so much less complicated than Gregory, why did I give him up when we were just becoming friendly?
But, everything you just said will seem comparatively charming, if you get deeply involved with Gregory. If you put any expectations at all on Gregory, be prepared for the worst. He wants everything his own way. He’s a child. A nasty, spoiled child. People have always wanted him, and he’s always exploited anybody who got close to him. The trouble is he’s so convincing. He could make a million dollars in Hollywood, he’s such a perfect actor. But then again, if he ever came close to a real opportunity he’d fuck it up big so he could still feel like a victim. He’ll never compromise with you even the slightest bit. He’s destroyed people for his own amusement. He’s a wretched monster, if you want to know the truth.
But he’s so intelligent, I said.
Oh, Gregory’s too smart for his own good, Bruno said. He’s really brilliant and he’s really charming and he’s really beautiful, at least in a cheap sort of way, and he’s totally seductive.
But, I said.
But, he’s so fucked up I can’t even tell you about it, Bruno went on. I don’t really even want to talk about it. If I tell you any more you’ll just resent me for it until you find out for yourself.
Perhaps, I said, you simply took the wrong line with him. The wrong approach.
Bruno made a face. I didn’t take any approach, Bruno said. That’s Gregory’s thing. Approaches. Lines.
Oh well, I said, thinking: now Bruno think’s I’m nuts. I don’t know what to do.
Look, he said, I’ll only say this once, but if you want to get along with
Just never believe a word he tells you. Ever.
As he turned the key in his door, Gregory said: Bruno said he saw you the other day.
The apartment door swung open.
Did he say what we talked about?
We entered a long room. It contained a recently installed kitchen area, a sleeping area, a work area, a shelf area, a closet area. All these areas, in a single large room. Next to the door a tiny bathroom, with only a toilet inside. A metal shower stall beside the stove. Adjacent to the toilet, a deep empty alcove, painted black, with a small window that stared directly into another apartment across a thin airshaft. Along the lower wall of the alcove ran a panoramic poster of nighttime Manhattan, seen from a helicopter.
He threw his keys on the shelf of a built-in cabinet. I noticed a bowl full of change, a stack of opened mail, some pictures in cheap paper frames.
No, he said, but I imagine you talked about me.
So, I thought, this dinky place contains his life. No wonder we all lose our minds in this city. Like kids playing at adulthood, living in these rabbit warrens with ugly floors and chipped ceilings. And areas instead of rooms.
A little, I admitted, striking a playful note which soured instantly as Gregory smirked and walked over to a small metal desk festooned with eviscerated magazines.
Do us both a favor, he said. If you want this to work out between us, don’t discuss what happens between us with Bruno. Or with anybody else, I don’t discuss you with anyone, but particularly not with Bruno. In case you didn’t notice, Bruno hates my guts. He’s amazingly embittered because I never would go to bed with him, which I would’ve thought was my privilege not to, so now he feels he’s been swindled out of something he deserved. So he tells people I’m untrustworthy, he says I’m a lousy friend, he tells this to everybody. Imagine, Brett, what that’s like for me. Look out for Gregory, he’ll fuck you over. I know what Bruno spreads about me behind my back. To my face he’s a friend, actually sometimes we can be friends, when it’s about art or ideas or day to day practical things, but periodically, Bruno gets on his high horse about what I did to him, and if you want to know the honest truth, Brett, I never did anything to him, he played this whole manipulative number with me and when I failed to play along, get seduced by him or whatever, he decided I was the root of all evil.
Gregory sifted out grass from a plastic bag, pinching it between his fingers, letting it spill down the seam of two stuck-together rolling papers. As he spoke he rolled a joint, lit it, sucked on it and held it out to me. I hate smoking dope. A few minutes later I sat on the floor, laughing uncontrollably, while Gregory put on several black wigs he’d pulled from the closet. He had switched on his stereo, and with the wigs aped various singers. With female hair he looked like a costly, big-nosed prostitute on her day off. As he discarded each wig he tossed it at me and I put it on, feeling acutely conscious of my face.
You look really foxy like that, I’d love to put it inside you, he said. He stood up and danced around the room.
Let me show you my Tricia Brown, he said, lifting one knee to his chest, lowering his leg, lifting the other, gyrating on his heels. See? Almost like she was dropping the world’s biggest turd, in an artful manner.
Gregory took off his boots, and next he was laying on top of me, grinding his hips against mine. It was gestural rather than erotic.
Screw everything, he said. I love you. Is that enough for you, or what? Of course it’s enough, I told him, noticing that I was hard but he wasn’t. He kissed my forehead and rolled off me, jumped to his feet and began slicing the air with his elbows in time to the music. He was still wearing a shoulder-length wig.
I’ve gotta get a shirt, he said, flinging off the wig. I just want to finish up something, then get a shirt. You want to wait? Or maybe it’s tedious for you.
I’m not bored, I said. But I felt time slipping by in a senseless drift that would later make me feel guilty. He sat down behind his desk and sorted through piles of paper cutouts, his office chair wheeling back and forth as he worked. I laid down on his leather futon and stared at the dirty wall. Why do I feel like I’m cracking apart, I wondered.
A radiator hissed, under a window. The room looked chalky and provisional under the bare ceiling bulbs. As if he could clear off with an hour’s notice. His clothes shoved away in the closet, boxes of packed-away treasures splitting open in there. Dishes and cookware his mother must have given him, stacked in the cupboard. Miles of albums under the turntable, a few books arranged for display: a boxed set of Calvino, probably unopened, piles of art magazines, lots of recent theoretical writings in paperback.
And a picture on the wall, over the stereo: a familiar picture, blown up big. It was an arrangement of six snapshots, reproduced on a single large sheet of white paper, six different male types, all handsome, some clean-shaven, some bearded or semi-bearded, with various hairstyles, various types of clothing: college preppie, Kennedy type young lawyer, bohemian, blue-collar worker, and so forth, in age ranging from about 25 to somewhere close to 40. The significant peculiarity was that these faces all belonged to the same person and all had been taken within four years, a so-called serial killer who had raped and murdered his way across the United States a few years earlier. A man who had impressed everyone who met him as extremely well-favored, sexy, intelligent, possibly brilliant, definitely middle-class, an exemplary neighbor, and concerned friend, buckets of fun on a date. Ted was typically described by horrified acquaintances as “a real all-American,” a golden boy. Which, in fact, is a description not entirely inconsistent with raping and murdering upwards of 30 women, though the press accounts had found it particularly rich in ghoulish irony that Ted struck everyone who knew him as such an all-American, even when he’d completely run out of control, sometimes murdering two women at the same time, abducting one and tying her up somewhere, driving off and finding another, then raping and killing the first one in plain sight of the second, who then would be raped and murdered in turn, or running amock in a woman’s dormitory with a baseball bat, cracking in the skulls of as many women as he could locate. Such is the ambiance of American society, that a person who runs out of control in this manner can effortlessly impress those he meets as a paragon of desirable national qualities. Even after being apprehended, an event that occured a ridiculously long time after Ted had been identified, thanks to the professional rivalries and murderous laziness of various law enforcement organizations, Ted attracted a flock of admirers of both sexes, fans who attended his trial every day and wrote him adoring letters full of blunt sexual propositions and marriage offers.
And here, on Gregory’s wall, are the six faces of Ted. He notices me noticing it and says: That’s my first large-scale work. He resumes clipping pictures from GQ with an x-acto knife. I think: what does this picture indicate here, about Gregory, no killer he.
Of course, it’s obvious. He tells me every day, in one way or another, “I’m not what I appear to be.” He reproaches me in fact for doing what he calls fetishizing his looks and what I call being attracted to him. But that’s not me, he says. That’s not what I am inside. He says: I think I’ll eat everything I can lay my hands on and grow immensely fat, then you’ll see how much you love me for who I really am. Are you immensly fat inside, then, I asked. Perhaps, he said, you never know. One day, when we noticed an elderly female begging on the street, Gregory said: I think when I’m old I’ll have my dick cut off and pass myself off as an old woman, they have more style than men.
Bruno had been working on a sort of pencil drawing throughout our conversation in the gallery. A sort of castle tower, with macaroni-shaped lines flowing down from the top. He worked with a green-hooded light shining on the paper. Whenever the discussion of Gregory flagged or went dead, the tip of his mechanical pencil gathered his attention. I smoked and flipped through an issue of Vogue, feigning interest in Gaultier’s spring line. Nice jacket, I said, hoping I’d sound less than totally obsessed about Gregory. Bruno spoke to his drawing. “But if a body falls from a certain height …” he muttered, then stared with pale lips pursed, as if the thing before him had assumed a vexing identity of its own. He turned his head, shot me a quizzical look, which I see again as I look at Gregory, who watches as I walk to the cupboard. I study his odds and ends, poke into a bowl of buttons and keys with my fingers, pick up one of the framed photographs.
Is this you, I said. No, he said, he’s my younger brother. He’s in school. I saw him in a play they did, you could see he’d be dynamite on stage. He sang and danced and everything, I could never get up in front of people and do that if my life depended on it. And what a heartbreaker Joey is, isn’t he? If you met him, you’d drop me in a second. You’d say, Forget Gregory, this guy is boyfriend material.
What an odd thing to say, I said. Gregory does sing to me, sometimes; I’m your private dancer, he sang the other day, and crossing Astor Place last week he sang, close to my ear, I’ve got you, under my skin. He played the accordion as a child, his mother loved for him to play the accordion and sing to her, Goodnight, Irene, goodnight, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams. His mother’s name is Marina.
That other picture is my parents.
Smiling, gorgeous, dated faces: Marina, and Jirik-that-got-changed-to-Jack.
They’re beautiful, I said. Well, he said, they certainly thought so, in fact that’s about all they thought. I said that people get together for mysterious reasons. Gregory said he didn’t think it was all that mysterious in their case, but you could apply that to a lot of situations. What, I said, like ours? That’s something else again, he said.
Has Gloria still been pestering you, I asked. He said he’d gone with her to a coffee shop in the West Village to talk things over. I said why doesn’t she leave you alone, thinking if he’d agreed to see her perhaps he’d also done it with her. Gregory said it wouldn’t be normal not to have a chat, that he showed her the slides of his work. Gloria had asked why none of his pictures featured any women. I had to explain, he said, this work is about men, I’m not a woman, I have no right to use images of women, I’m trying to figure something out about male sexuality, she didn’t get it of course, Gloria’s dense when she wants to be and anyway it was obvious what she was driving at. Why doesn’t she give up, I said with irritation. He said, she’s still pissed off and you know I didn’t treat her so wonderfully if the truth be told.
She should grow up, I said, why don’t you tell her you’re going out with me. At this stage, he said, that would hurt her terribly and I’ve already done enough damage to her, she’s still in love with me, Brett, can’t you understand she doesn’t have any choice, she’s under a compulsion, she’d follow me around like a dog in the streets if she had any choice about it.
Well look, I said, that’s all very well, but enough is enough, also, I said, I find it very odd that you’ve gone on for weeks and weeks telling me how malign Gloria is, how she’s given you all kinds of grief, and now you seem to be getting indignant because I don’t feel any sympathy for her, I’m insecure enough without that cunt hanging around.
Brett, he said, that’s tacky and mean to call her a cunt, you don’t even know her. No, I screamed, and I don’t want to know her either. Well, he said, I’d like to introduce you to her sometime, she read some stories you wrote, she said she thought they were quite good. I don’t give a shit what Gloria thinks of my stories, I said, is she some sort of literary critic, suddenly, besides being an interfering cunt?
Is the reason you’re calling her a cunt, he said, now his voice shot up though he didn’t get up from the desk, because you’re jealous she had my dick? That’s not worthy of you, that’s mean-spirited and shitty, Brett, she’s a nice girl, she wants to be a writer, it’s so unfair to hate her just because she had something you didn’t, I mean you don’t have to worry, she’s never getting it again and I told her so.
It must be something pretty special, I said, since you seem to get everything you want with it.
He laid the knife down and said, That’s what you really think of me, isn’t it. I said, I don’t know what I think. You confuse me, I said, everything you do confuses me and makes me feel crazy. Well maybe, Gregory said, if you didn’t think about me every minute of the day you wouldn’t imagine me doing all sorts of things behind your back. There’s really nothing going on between me and anybody, he said. And anyway, he went on, even if there were, what rights do you have, what claims do you have over me? I don’t ask you, he said, if you screw other people, and frankly, he went on, lighting a cigarette, I think it might be healthy if you did.
I said, You’re saying it wouldn’t bother you if I were sleeping with someone else. He said of course it wouldn’t bother him because he didn’t expect me to deny myself anything on his account. Oh for Christ’s sake, I said, I suppose by the same token you’d sleep with anybody else if you felt like it.
Gregory’s voice thinned to a crackle. How many times, he said, how many different ways, do I have to tell you I don’t want to sleep with anybody?
Then why are we together like this, I demanded, fooling around with each other and talking on the phone as if we had this intense relationship? Why do you act like you’re my boyfriend, is that how you are with other people?
I’m not the way I am with you with anybody else because I love you, Gregory said, though you don’t seem able to accept that idea. There’s nothing I’d like better in the world, Brett, than to be able to fuck you into a coma so you wouldn’t feel so deprived all the time. But I can’t, I just can’t, I can’t force myself to, either.
Why can’t you, I said, am I that repulsive to you?
Gregory looked pained, he crushed out his cigarette and put his hands over his face. He said, It has nothing to do with you, and I’m running out of ways to tell you it’s got nothing to do with you, you keep insisting like a child, Brett, how can a person as bright as you are fail to understand something so simple? Because, I said, it isn’t simple. He said anyone except me would think it was. I said I knew he wasn’t impotent. He said, I didn’t say I was. He said, I prefer not to. He said, haven’t you read Bartleby the Scrivener?
In other words, I said, this is just about free will.
Gregory said, I’d like to see you happy. Obviously I can’t make you happy if you define happiness as having my cock up your asshole. Don’t be vulgar, I said, in any case I’m not expecting to be happy. Well, he said, I am. I’m happy with you, I’m sorry you can’t be happy with me. I’m older than you, I told him. He said that didn’t mean anything. I said yes it did. He said, What, for example. I said, Things about death, what you want life to be like. Gregory sneered. I suppose he said you’re referring to some greater awareness I wouldn’t have acquired from shooting smack for two years. I said that some things don’t happen until you get older, that I hadn’t exactly been a drug virgin in my twenties either, that the thing about drugs is you don’t really learn anything from taking them.
You were never an addict, Gregory said. Since you were able to stop using heroin, I said, I assume you never were, either. That’s a creepy mean thing to say, he said, it took me more than a year to get clean, I stole money, I sold my ass, people paid me to jerk off in their faces, he said, do you want me to list all the degrading things I did before reaching something vaguely resembling sanity?
I said: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to start an argument. This isn’t easy for me, I said. I’ve been alone for a long time, it’s hard to trust a situation like this.
But, he said, that’s because you’re not giving things a chance to develop slowly so we can really have something that’s worth it. Look, he said, if you really want me to I’ll take off all my clothes right now and dick you right there on the futon and then you can go home and forget all about me.
That isn’t how I want it, I said, I want to make love with you.
And I can’t, he said, so do you really want me to when I don’t want to? You decide. I can get it up for you, no problem, tell me which hole you want me to put it in and how long you want me to keep it there, God knows I’ve gone through the motions before, I’m sure I can do it again.
Look, I said, I didn’t come over here to get laid, I just want to be with you. I’m sorry I blew up about Gloria. It’s not that I’m jealous, if I dislike her it’s because everything you told me made me think she was hurting you and adding to your problems.
I know, I know, he said, that’s the thing, Brett, you can blow off at me as much as you like and I’ll just wait quietly until you’re finished. The real you doesn’t want to get mad at me, in fact the real you hates the other you when that happens, because the real you is terrified of losing me. But see, I can tell those two people inside you apart. The other you can’t hurt me because it’s not the real you.
He crosses the room, plants his hands on my shoulders, squeezes them. He touches me: there. I say: Why are you touching me. He says: I want you to feel better. I say: Now I feel manipulated. He steps back to the desk, sighs, sits down. He smiles the smile he knows is irresistible. Anger-proof.
I’m refusing to fight with you, he says. That’s very clever, I tell him, because I have the feeling I’d win. But I smile and show him he can always melt me down between my legs and this will always draw a bead on anything he doesn’t want to deal with.
Oh ho ho, he laughs, you can’t win with me, haven’t you figured that out yet? I suppose, I answer, if I’ve learned anything from this relationship, it’s that.
Yup. You’ll never get the upper hand.
Everything on your terms.
That’s the way it’s got to be.
It’s nothing to brag about, really.
Come on. Don’t. You should actually feel good about it, Brett, because basically you don’t want the upper hand. Now come on. Come here.
I went over and stood near him.
Look, he said, your hands are shaking. Relax. You know what I’d like? Kiss my … collar. Not my neck, Brett, my collar. Twenty kisses. One, two, three, four … Kiss my sleeve, all the way down, down, kiss just along there, down to the cuff, 20 kisses … kiss that button. That’s so nice. Now the belt. Stay away from the buckle area, you can only kiss the side there, where the loop is, kiss the loop. Now the knee, just the left knee, kiss it 30 times … very nice, honey. Oh, all right, do the other knee too. You know something, Brett, you’re an angel, you’re all warm and soft like an angel. Your hair feels like an angel’s hair, it’s so smooth … kiss my pant leg, all the way down, now kiss my socks, kiss all around my feet, kiss under the toes, 20 kisses … do the insteps, that’s so beautiful, Brett, you’re really my slave, aren’t you, it’s funny because, do the heels now, 30 kisses each, if people only knew you’re a complete slave to me, now around, up to the ankles, people would be so surprised, Brett, I bet people think I’m your dumb little trick. Lick with your tongue, sugar, taste the whole sock, go ahead, put the toes in your mouth. Wouldn’t Bruno freak if he saw you right now, like this. You’re an angel slave, Brett. You’re the most beautiful angelic slave I ever had.
* * *
An hour later, tramping again through the cold streets, the sun blotted now by a cloud cover, walking beside him but feeling, in the immense pauses between his bursts of talk, as if I’m several feet behind him, like a Japanse bride. He walks even faster than me, races along like a keyed-up robot. Houston to Broadway, Eighth Street to Sixth Avenue, over to Seventh, up Seventh into the 20s, and then even further west, near the river, breath steaming in the chill. People like blurred rag heaps, snatches of skin. The air has the bluish pall that sets off shop lights like clusters of stage jewelry. The first trickles of snow drift listlessly down, bits of spare confetti, melting to brownish muck as they kiss the sidewalk. We’re both powdered with clingly white specks.
This is quite a distance, really.
Not far, he says.
My boots soak up slush. He says it’s a few more blocks, but we’re already in the low 30s. The wind off the Hudson gnaws through my serge jacket and under my scarf. Gregory shakes. Neither one of us has thought to wear gloves, or a hat. I notice, as if for the first time, Gregory’s emphatically shaped, muttonchop sideburns, which extend to an inch or so above his jawline on either side. I see the oddity of this topiary dressing cocky and sleazily suggestive. Gregory’s hair is blacker than onyx, and these paddle-shaped whiskers belong to a gigolo in some Nebraskan microcity. Like the ring in his nose, the sideburns go with the look of a man who wants to attract women of a certain type, drunk and not very bright women in cocktail lounges.
In the vast, musty Salvation Army third floor where I wait for Gregory to zip through rack after rack of stale-smelling garments, I understand what oppresses me: the way he presents himself courts sexual attention from the widest possible constituency, male and female. Bluntly, brutally. He flips across dozens of stained, frayed, torn, superannuated shirts, trousers, vests, and neckties, exclaiming at choice monstrosities. The place is like a penitentiary for old clothes, ugly and dust-bound as a welfare office. Yes, I think, it’s the style, the look: it makes being attracted to him feel pornographic.
For someone who doesn’t want it, Gregory talks about sex a good deal. Usually in a deprecating way, but still he’s immersed in thoughts about it. He despises homosexuals who “can’t control themselves,” ridicules anyone who vaguely conforms to a type. He waxes sarcastic about the obviousness of people’s cravings—certain women who show up in the restaurant, as well as fags he meets in a bar on Second Avenue when he pops in there for a nightcap. He describes these sex-hungry bar flies in close detail, nastily, as if their loneliness was criminal rather than pathetic. Even so, he cultivates a penis-on-legs look certain to attract these very people.
The shirt and tie he settles on are ghastly. Blue and white broad stripes on the shirt, with a bone-white wingtip collar. The tie a yellow and red psychedelic antique. At a scarred wooden counter, an octogenarian cashier of drastically blurred gender rings them up and stuffs them in a soiled bag.
But they’re awful, Gregory.
Hideous, he agrees.
Why don’t you get something that suits you?
Darkness outside, thick motes of snow falling in heavy veils.
I don’t wear things I like at the restaurant, he tells me.
Yes, but it looks like stuff a pimp would wear.
He cocks his head, squints, pushes out his lips and nods. The look says: Now you’re catching on.
He’s so impudently eccentric. Suddenly it’s very funny. His revenging joke on the louts. The clothes fill out something blank and sexy people expect to find waiting tables and delivering drinks. He acts the part, detached from his body by way of his clothes. At this moment Gregory becomes something new for me: a noble soul, trapped in a widely desired form. He has something everybody wants, but for him it’s without value. A total artist, a dandy of sleaze.
You’re fantastic, I laugh, brushing snow from the fringe hanging over his forehead.
He screws his face into the mask of a Gallic clown: Philippe. He recited the menu of daily specials in a raspy accent. Gregory is an extraordinary mimic. He’s almost frighteningly adept at changing into people he’s observed casually, his visual memory of bodies, faces, pictures, and rooms startles me when he plays it back. I walk around oblivious to things, blinded by my ruminations. Gregory drinks things in.
I feel around in my pockets for dollars. We should take a cab, it’s getting late and wet. My teeth chatter. You’re freezing, he says, here’s a hug, don’t freeze. We walk. Now I’m wet from his snow and my snow. On Seventh Avenue, I flag a taxi as we slog to the corner, pretending we’ve agreed on it. He gets in without complaint, though taxis and similar expenses are awkward for us. If he can’t pay, he feels deficient in the husbandly role he assigns himself, my protector. We’re exactly the same height and slender build, but Gregory emits an honorary manliness around me, a pretense of greater strength and practical resourcefulness I gladly defer to because he’s small and not so tough and needs to feel strong and needed. When he says: I’d kill anybody who tried to hurt you, the absurdity of Gregory killing or even slightly injuring anybody moves me inexpressibly.
Now, he says, I’ve got to iron this shit, pulling it out of the bag. Some days they’ll have a tasty item or two with no wrinkles but these are a little far gone.
It’s so far out of the way for you, I said, you know the thrift shops over your way, there’s four or five of them.
Yeah, this one generally has the best stuff.
Do they make you wear something different each night.
The streets are crawling, the usual mucky swarm.
Look at them all, he says. I can’t stand putting these things on more than once.
You have to wash them and everything. I’m lucky, I never have to dress. Blue jeans and sweatshirts. But maybe you’d like for me to become more glamorous, now I have a job?
The windshield turns the gleaming tail lights and walkers into a melt of drooling colors. Wipers cross the glass, returning things to their solid form, dapple again with snow, pour into each other.
I take this stuff in with me, I wouldn’t wear it out. At the end of the night I stuff it in a trash can.
The cab stutters in traffic. We pass a pet store. Gregory leans over me. Our legs touch.
What great puppies. I really miss my dog.
You could get one.
I’ll never find another Lucie. That dog loved me so much. I’d come in, she’d be wagging her tail, she cheered me up.
You throw your clothes away every night?
I have to. I don’t want them crapping up the apartment.
You don’t buy different ones every day, though. You must stock up for the week …
It’s taking eternity, he says, I’m really getting shit from Philippe if he’s there. Well fuck him. I go there every day I have to work, it kind of puts me in the mental frame of working.
But Gregory, you don’t go way over there every day.
Some weeks I do. Sure.
It takes your whole afternoon, it’s too much.
He takes out a cigarette, taps the end of it on his thumbnail. Gregory’s nails are unusually wide and stunted-looking, incongruously lacking in elegance: the nails of a Serbian peasant. He offers a sharp, strained-looking smile, a smile of irritation. His eyes narrow into slits, he’s looking into his private thoughts, I’m not there any more. He lights the cigarette, sitting closer than he did before the pet shop, now he links his fingers with mine, but my hand is a bobbing mooring hook, his mind is a boat drifting to the limit of its line. The remaining minutes are glazed, quickened in narrowing intervals by his impatience, there’s no room left in this cab for anything but worry over what Philippe might say or do to him when he arrives at work, something characteristically insensitive and menacing, no doubt, or, worse, he’ll greet Gregory in expansive spirits, zonked on coke and booze, feel him up in that obscene way that he has and then make some typically insane demand, sending Gregory out to pick up his, Philippe’s, dry cleaning, or to buy magazines at the kiosk in Sheridan Square, these are a couple of Philippe’s standard, insane orders, and there are others, sometimes requiring Gregory to get things from Philippe’s apartment on the other end of town, or to deal with wholesalers at the Fulton Fish Market, or to “deliver packages” at various addresses, packages which almost certainly contain coke or smack and for which Gregory’s obliged to collect money, thus involving himself in a felony, all things entirely outside Gregory’s professional obligations, outside Gregory’s job description, tasks that have nothing to do with waiting tables or bartending but instead are connected with Philippe’s criminal depravity and insanity. However, should Gregory refuse to do these things, Philippe will fire him.
I leave the cab at Second Avenue, in front of Gem Spa: we don’t even kiss goodbye, it’s all perfunctory and sour, and as I walk home my mind fills with horrible scenarios, pictures of what may befall Gregory. And since what usually befalls him at work results in his becoming incommunicado for days, unplugging his phone and vanishing from my life, and since he increasingly reports sensations of extreme despondancy, hints that he can’t hang on much longer with the kind of depression he has, feels himself skidding towards the edge, turning the mental corner, believes he could easily lose his sanity, contemplates suicide much of the time, “goes blank” for longer and longer periods, finds himself snarling and insulting customers, refusing to wait on certain individuals, often thinks there is no hope in the world for him, I fill the time when he’s out of reach with fears, especially with mental pictures of Gregory dead, his beautiful face when he’s dead, like the face of an animal viciously slain, lying in a field of pissy snow.
The next time I went to his apartment, Gregory showed me a card that Gloria had sent him shortly after New Year’s. Not a store bought card but one she’d made, on a square of gray cardboard, with cut-out photos. It showed a pair of ample tits, and glued between them a meaty, erect lala. Just the tits and a bit of model torso, the prong and its wrinkled scrotum. Happy New Year, Gloria had written at the bottom, in infantile script. He rolled his eyes while exhibiting the card. So that was what she liked with him.
He still got stormy calls, and letters demanding cash. On a whim she’d appear in front of his door, as he left the house for work, planted on the stoop with too much cadmium lipstick on, a lovesick cow imagining herself a femme fatale. His finding her not just resistible but weirdly ennervating bewildered her. Had they not been lovers just a few weeks ago? Hadn’t he put it inside her, come between her breasts?
He said she’d heard he was going out with me. He’d refused to confirm or deny it since it was none of her business. I let that go by, though it obviously meant he hadn’t decided if he was going out with me or not. At any rate, “going out” would have been a strange description of what we were doing. We never went anywhere.
Excerpted from the novel Burma.