Art by Chuck Nanney
Late March, 2020:
Masked, I turn left, running toward the avenue. Pigeons scatter. The Facebook posts I read this morning keep whirling through my mind. I’m not sure if my anger is justified; I’m angry about a lot of things; maybe I shouldn’t be. I’m angry, in particular, with Melissa. “There’s so much contradictory information,” she’d written. Fair enough, I think, as I pass the shuttered dry cleaner, in front of which red geraniums bloom. How long does the virus last on fabric? On cardboard? What’s happening now in Wuhan? The news pell-mells toward us, I think, quickening my pace. Melissa, who lives in Portland, had then gone on to wonder whether it was safe for her to go to the grocery store. “It’s so hard to figure out what to do,” she’d written, “we’re living in unprecedented times.” These words had set my fury off. Fucking straight people, I’d said—in my head—to some unknown auditor. And now I said it to myself again. And wondered if this thought—or was it a feeling—was justified.
Reaching the corner, I turn right, begin to head uptown. The avenue, almost empty. A masked cyclist goes by. Looks like it might rain. Or not. Darling, I say, in my head, to Melissa (or to the unknown auditor), this is not my first rodeo.
The pavement glistens from last night’s downpour; a siren passes somewhere; Philip comes to mind. I met him at The Twilight, a bar on the Upper East Side, in 1985. He was the first person I’d gone home with from a bar; it had taken three years to get the courage even to go into one. I’d take the subway in from Brooklyn, get off at Second Avenue, walk to The Bar on Second Avenue and Fourth. As you may know (I don’t know who you are) it was just called “The Bar”; I’d been told by a coworker at the Scribner Bookstore that this was the place to go. When I’d arrived in New York three years earlier, my best friend Gary—who was really my only friend—had promised to give me a bar tour. But this, among other things, hadn’t happened. I’d get near The Bar, but not quite have the courage, walk around the block, then walk around again, then at last go in, stay ten minutes, or an hour, then depart. I was lost when it came to starting a conversation with anyone. There seemed to be some secret knowledge others had as to how to do this. When I got back to Brooklyn, I would put on The Smiths; Morrissey would tell of how he too had stood on his own, had left on his own, and, when, he’d gotten home, wanted to die; I would want to go home; I would try to convince myself I was home, and, with Morrissey, I’d dive even deeper into my loneliness. If I went down enough, it seemed, I might find a way out. Some secret tunnel at the bottom of the sea. Perhaps it would take me home; perhaps my mother would comfort me. These weren’t thoughts, they were feelings. Some empty taxis go by. I run past a shuttered bodega. In front of it, a mangled black umbrella, abandoned on the sidewalk. The summer before I met Philip, I’d gone to visit Yoshi in Los Angeles. Yoshi had been, for two semesters, my roommate at RISD. I’d lived with him and Gary, before Gary and I had returned to Wesleyan (we’d come from there as transfer students). Yoshi had been one of the ambassadors homosexuality had sent to greet me, during that year in Providence. He too had left RISD, he’d dropped out—another story—and had returned to LA. In the summer of 1984, on my way to visit him, I’d gone to my sister’s wedding in Flagstaff; I’d been furious, during it— mostly at myself, but also at my family. Didn’t I have the courage to come out, I’d asked myself; didn’t they ever think about what an oppressive institution marriage was, I’d asked myself. I was used to not saying things, although surely, in the family, I was thought of as someone who said a lot of things. At the wedding, I’d listened to my mother’s worries and confidences, some of them; I’d listened to my sisters’ worries, and confidences; I’d spent most of my time on my inner rituals. I’d danced the Hora.
Then I continued on to LA. One night, Yoshi took me on a bar tour—the thing Gary hadn’t done in New York. We went to various spots in Boys’ Town. The last was called Faces, and was, like The Twilight, an Asian bar. I almost went home with someone from Faces; something at Faces—perhaps it being an Asian bar—I wasn’t certain—made it possible for me to actually talk to a boy; he invited me to go home with him; he lived in Santa Monica, for a moment I considered doing so, but was frightened. What if I decided—for one reason or another—that I needed to leave, go back to Yoshi’s parents’ house in Culver City?—how would I do that? One of my projects in the eighties was overcoming fear. I often failed. I was afraid of a number of things that might happen if I went to the boy’s apartment in Santa Monica—to say it was this or that would be to miss the corporate character of fear, I think, as I head up the almost empty avenue, as a cyclist goes past. I declined the invitation. Still, I thought, I’d gotten close, it was progress—I measured progress in a manner different from many of my contemporaries. Afterward, in the parking lot of Faces, Yoshi affectionately reproached me: why hadn’t I gone home with the boy; I thought Yoshi didn’t quite appreciate what a triumph it had been for me to actually talk to someone; I shivered with a sense of accomplishment. This difference in our understanding of the event was a space between us, as we got into his mother’s Volvo, in the dark, jacaranda-scented lot. Surely he thought me a slow learner; he was patient, but also impatient. I wondered, as we drove through the night, whether I had a type.
The city has, I think, something of Pompeii to it—everything left as it was on the day of the closure. Back Soon! reads a sign in the window of a shadowy pizza parlor. There is no closure. There’s a mask abandoned on the sidewalk. I continue up the avenue. A few months later Yoshi returned to New York; his plan was to pursue a PhD in psychology at Columbia. One Friday night he took me to The Twilight. “In the twilight of your years, you’ll be going to The Twilight,” he’d joked. There were lots of older white men there; many, Yoshi informed me, were Vietnam Vets—his type. I was repulsed by—and judgmental of—these old white men at The Twilight. In the theater of my mind, the theme of corrupt, lecherous old men exploiting young men, was, on occasion, staged; I made some paintings based on this theme; I made, that first night at The Twilight, eye contact with Philip. Or he made it with me. “Go talk to him,” Yoshi urged, with some impatience. I could not reveal to Yoshi the obscure, abstract rituals I had to perform in my head before I could do so; I’d chanced, at age twelve, on the fact that thoughts are behaviors and can thus be performed in patterns; this had taken up a good part of my life since then; but, once my patterning was, for the moment, taken care of, I did walk over to the bar, where Philip stood.
I run past my reflection in the darkened window of a locksmith. Then a shuttered antique store. Philip was older than me, in his early thirties, this seemed a considerable difference at the time. I was twenty-four. He wore a Yamamoto jacket (although I didn’t then know it was a Yamamoto jacket); he worked, he told me, in fashion. We took a taxi, through the dark park, to his apartment on the Upper West Side. It was, as I’ve told you—though I don’t know who you are—1985; you couldn’t get out of that, wherever you went it was still 1985; the conditions which prevailed in 1985 prevailed everywhere. Philip had a glass table, on which lay fashion magazines and some architecture books, on top of which sat a beautiful green lacquer box. He had black-framed photographs of flowers and industrial scenes; they were on a shelf, not the wall. Or perhaps those were in someone else’s apartment. I’m not sure. I’m not sure what I imagine, what I remember. The only thing I’m sure of, really: Philip’s apartment was different from the New York apartments with which I was familiar, those of my college friends, which were furnished with items found on the streets, in which mattresses—or futons—lay on the floor. Philip was tall and thin; I was too, but he was thinner; his ribs jutted out the way roots of young trees do, just as they enter the earth. He seemed interested when I told him I was an artist; he told me he’d gone to the Brassaï show at MOMA, which I hadn’t seen. Following Gary’s lead, I was reading Barthes; I tried to think of something to say about photography, something, perhaps, about the punctum, the studium; the punctum, I understood, perhaps from Barthes, perhaps from Gary, was the unintentional detail that stood out, that pricked, that didn’t seem so important at the time the photo was taken, but that time made important; the studium was—well I wasn’t sure. “Does that have something to do with stadiums?” I’d joked, or thought of joking, to Gary. I often thought of saying things but didn’t; this was usually fortunate. I was always calculating what to say to whom; that’s still true (I’m not sure what I can say to you). Philip spoke softly, was far from loquacious. It worried me that he was older, had been in New York since the seventies; what had he done in the seventies? Gone to the Mineshaft? (Do you know what that was? I don’t know who you are.) His thinness worried me, too. But as now, when I’m confronted by an unmasked person coming down the avenue, whose invisible droplets, borne on invisible air currents, might manage to make it into me, I quickly avert my face, when I was with Philip, I turned my mind from the thought about what he’d done in the late seventies, redirecting it, like my path up the still-damp sidewalk. I was always, in the eighties, trying to control my mind; that’s what I was doing, I would like to answer, if someone were to ask me about that time, although no one ever does.
“Philip put on music; I asked what it was; ‘OMD’ he told me, ‘Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark,’ he told me; we kissed, and maneuvered into his bedroom, where my tongue explored the stadium of his ear; my mouth with his penis was tentative, friendly, shy: he was beautiful, smooth, black-haired, from Hong Kong.”
Philip put on music; I asked what it was; “OMD” he told me, “Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark,” he told me; we kissed, and maneuvered into his bedroom, where my tongue explored the stadium of his ear; my mouth with his penis was tentative, friendly, shy: he was beautiful, smooth, black-haired, from Hong Kong. I guessed he too was afraid, but to talk about the fear would be to ruin the moment, which was as delicate as his wrists, which I licked, worried I was not doing enough; afraid of doing too much. I put my mouth near his penis, but not on it. In each moment, I think, I was making a decision; I think he was more generous; this was more than thirty years ago. I pass a store with mugs and bongs, and appear, for a moment, in its window. I’m sure we came; other things then were difficult, that wasn’t. I suppose he went to get a towel. It was afterwards, I suppose, that he told me about a ferry accident he’d been in as a child. The ferry had sunk . . . or had begun to sink . . . in the Hong Kong harbor. Somehow this image, or the image I fabricated from his story—Philip and the other children swimming, floating, dogpaddling in the harbor—has stayed with me; so much hasn’t. After he told me this, I thought, a number of times, of trying to draw—using colored pencils—the children floating in the harbor; never did, but can still picture the drawing I wanted to make; the cerulean and Prussian blues I would have used for the waters of the Hong Kong harbor. Although we’d done so little, I was afraid of what we’d done; I don’t know what he felt; I guessed that the fear was there for him, too; I’m always guessing what other people are feeling (I don’t know who you are, what you think, what you feel). But we couldn’t talk about the fear. In 1985 there was the fear and the fear of talking about the fear . . . tangled and confused as Philip’s dark sheets; that’s one of the differences between then and now, I think, as, a little short of breath, I run more slowly up the avenue, past some orange cones, orange mesh, sidestepping a puddle, going under the scaffolding of some interrupted construction: you couldn’t talk about the virus in 1985; you couldn’t talk about fear, or the fear of talking about the fear . . . a wave of fury passes through me; imagine if you couldn’t talk about Covid, I think; imagine that this went on for years, decades. Imagine that it still is going on, I think; it’s been years since someone I knew died—but not that many years; I think of the brilliant director, who died not so long ago, he’d never been able, I was told, to bring himself to get tested; it is still hard to talk about. In the rural South, the numbers among Black men; men who have sex with other men; I can never remember numbers. I come out from under the scaffolding and return to Melissa’s comment: unprecedented times—they seem pretty precedented to me; the president is worse; perhaps I’m being unfair; probably, perhaps, probably, perhaps, maybe I was more afraid than Philip, there was no way to know; fear can’t be measured, unlike viral load, I think, as I pass a darkened nail salon, running through the more or less empty city. We two boys together, clinging, Philip and I, in his apartment, on the Upper West Side; I always had poem fragments in my head back then; I saw or grasped the world through books and through art. Philip had a black bedspread, or perhaps dark blue—I’m not remembering, really, his bedspread, but the bedspread in a painting I made not long after our dalliance ended, in which, in the Fischlian scene I created, I had Philip’s apartment in mind. I lay next to him, on the real bedspread. A white vase on a small black table a foot or two from his head. And a box of Kleenex, a photograph of a woman I assumed was his mother. He’s so thin, I thought. A Giacometti, I thought. He knew more, I thought, about the world than I; I mean the New York world. A water tower, past the window, posed against the maroon sky.
Philip and I only dated maybe two months, it wasn’t much of anything, still, it was the longest I’d been with anyone since Celia, my college girlfriend. The duration of a relationship, isn’t, of course, what matters, I tell myself, huffing into my mask, as, somewhere unseen, a siren pulses by. It’s just conventional thinking, I tell myself, that dictates that it’s the length that matters; I’m not a size queen; goodbye to all that. I’m alone in many ways. In some ways, the emptiness of the city is a comfort. Celia and I had been very serious. About changing the world, that is. We weren’t quite so sure about each other. We planned to dismantle the patriarchy, or at least contribute to the effort. I thought she would become a lesbian; my plan was to become gay, or, more specifically, to become Gary’s lover—or boyfriend. The inadequacy of words—at moments—made me feel, during college, almost as if I couldn’t breathe, as if I were in a confined space that I was trying, slowly, carefully, to maneuver out of. I sensed—believed—this belief was deep—that this was true, too, for Gary, that he, too, was, often, trying to find the right way to say things, almost sculpting his eventual utterances out of the air. Telling the truth is an art; Gary’s artfulness with words, his caution when it came to falsity, was part of why I loved him. Surrounded as he was by white kids, including me, being, as he would on occasion put it, assimilated, he’d learned, I suppose, to use language in a manner particular and deft. The specter of our feelings for each other had hovered in the air through college, first at Wesleyan, then at RISD, then back at Wesleyan; after graduation, after I’d broken up with Celia, in order for the inevitable to happen, for me to be with Gary. I’d come down to New York, Gary and I looked for an apartment together. On Flatbush, a homeless man—or a man I thought was homeless—called out, as we passed: “A mixed race couple. Now that’s what I like to see!” Drunkenly he began to belt: Ebony and Ivory . . . in perfect harmony . . . I’m not sure what facial expressions, if any, Gary and I exchanged. If I were, I wouldn’t know how to put them into words. We continued to the next open house; our harmony wasn’t quite perfect, we weren’t boyfriends, not yet. Nor was he ebony, nor was I ivory. Much lay undefined between us. We found an apartment in Fort Greene, we took it, I waited for him to make the first move, he made, instead, another move, fell in love with Geoffrey, a curly-blond-haired boy who lived downstairs. It was a matter of time, I thought, before we were together; I’d been unavailable, before, because of Celia, now he was unavailable. While we were still living together, in Fort Greene, I read, in the fall of 1982, an article in The Village Voice about a strange as-yet unnamed disease. For the next three years I was almost entirely celibate. There’d been one encounter with Ken, my supervisor at Scribner’s. I’d gone, on several occasions, to the gay dance at Columbia; this was somehow a bit easier than going to a bar; I felt comfortable, indeed nostalgic, being on a campus; I wished I was still in school; once I’d gone home with a boy, and had—he was persuasive—allowed him to fuck me. For months afterwards—or more—I checked for dark spots between my toes. Often I found them. I checked for the tell-tale white coating on my tongue. Often I found it. Or thought I had. How to be sure? Fear, since the Columbia dance, had been my boyfriend. Maybe now Philip would be. Perhaps a new chapter had begun. I could feel him breathing beside me.
In the morning he made me an omelet. I kind of felt like a grown up. He asked if I wanted to go to a flea market with him. He was inspired, he told me, by things he saw in flea markets. He didn’t usually buy anything, he said; I said I needed to go home. It was Saturday. I wanted to work on my paintings.
He saw me to the subway. I saw, or thought I saw, as we said goodbye, a shadow pass across his face. As I headed down the steps, I regretted not having agreed to spend the day with him; I had, I thought, disappointed him. I was too rigid, I thought, cursing myself. I’d be too tired to get anywhere with my painting once I got home. I’m like Dad, I thought, in my rigidity, in my unavailability to enjoyment, and then I tried to convince myself I wasn’t like Dad, and found a seat on the train. My father wanted, needed, to control everything, I thought. Every little last thing. How I held a pen, a fork. Some dark and lithe and bright-smiling boys, in sweats, acrobatted on the silver poles. I will never do anything so graceful, so beautiful, I thought; how can you tell the dancer; I was envious and ashamed of my envy; they came around with theatrical gestures and an inverted cap. In order not to be like my father I gave them all my change, except my quarters, which would be necessary for laundry, then regretted not having given the quarters, too, and reviewed, in my head, what Philip and I had done in bed.
How long did the virus live on skin? If it was in his saliva, could it, I wondered—trying to recall exactly what had happened—have gotten from there into my urethra? The penis isn’t often thought of as an opening, but it is, I think, on the avenue. No, I thought, underground, on the train, as the dancers left the car, it could not have. Yes, I thought, it could have. Afterward, Philip had gone into the bathroom—how beautiful he’d appeared, backlit, in the door frame—and gotten a towel, with which he’d wiped himself, which he’d then given to me; I’d tried to use a different part of the towel, but wasn’t sure I’d succeeded.
I continue uptown. A piece of wax paper blows past. A woman with purple hair and a floral mask passes. We avert our faces. The meaning of not-looking at people in New York has changed; now we want to ward off each other’s droplets. Before we didn’t want each other’s psyches, glances, demands. Other people enter us. My father is in me. I pass some orange cones, orange mesh, the avenue damp, almost empty; part of me would like it emptier, so I could write a dramatic Facebook post about the empty city. I still could. There is a cost to little lies, but perhaps not such a big one. I’m now halfway through Volume Six of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. And, I think, regaining some strength as I head up the avenue . . . he hasn’t mentioned AIDS once. Maybe it shouldn’t matter that he doesn’t mention AIDS. Maybe it shouldn’t matter that, in his coming-of-age tale that’s so much more than a coming-of-age tale, the narrator goes through the eighties and the nineties in a world in which it’s as if the pandemic never occurred. A world in which, for that matter, homosexuals don’t seem to exist. OK, in fairness, there is one homosexual in My Struggle, his name is Carl. He appears in Book Five. He’s given a paragraph or two. He seems to exist in order to give the narrator the chance to meditate, briefly, on how strange homosexuality is. Carl, he tells us, is the first homosexual he’s known. In the second half of My Struggle, Knausgaard writes, for several hundred pages, about Hitler; I’m looking forward to this part about Hitler; since I’m Jewish, I always like to read about Hitler; I’m tempted to say that Knausgaard is more successful at ridding his world of homosexuals than Hitler was, but that would be facile and unfair. Still, there’s something incomprehensible to me in the utter invisibility of AIDS in Knausgaard’s epic; it’s as if someone were to write a book about 2020 and not mention Covid; I’m sure that Knausgaard, in his writing, is being true to his experience—or non-experience—of the AIDS pandemic. But there’s something about this that’s incomprehensible to me, in the same way, I think, heading up the avenue, that if you’re in prison the indifference of those not in prison must seem incomprehensible, or maybe it’s all too comprehensible; what do I know; I only really care about myself. I can’t quite take in the fact that, because of Covid, the world I knew a month ago is gone. Or is it? People on Facebook say it is. What do they know? Most of what I know now comes from Facebook. The fact that the central truths of your life are always utterly peripheral to others is always, I suppose, hard to take in; I don’t know if I’m entitled to be angry. Get over it, I think; don’t get over it; what’s true in Knausgaard is true in almost all straight writers, I think, passing a closed Chinese restaurant. It’s true in almost all straight people, I think. Through the use of the term straight people, even in my head, I am fortifying a binary I don’t believe in. In my life, I think, only Gary has understood we’re trapped by words. I mean he understood it physically, struggled with it. At least I thought he did. Felt he did. We use the descriptions we are given; by using them, again and again, we make them stronger, more real—gay/straight, Black/White—of course there are no Black people in My Struggle, perhaps there are Muslim immigrants, I can’t remember, perhaps it’s a problem that I don’t remember; I run underneath the parallel shadows of the scaffolding outside a darkened eyeglass store; out of breath, I worry a moment about my lungs; I slow, I pant . . . furthermore, I think—or re-think—for it’s a thought I’ve thought a number of times before . . . in Knausgaard, this happens. Then that happens. There doesn’t seem to be any uncertainty about the past. For me, writing about the past, even rehearse-writing in my head about the past, is so much about uncertainty. Is my sense of the past queer? Oh lazy academic abstractions, I think, again out of breath, my glasses foggy, leaning, for a moment, against a mailbox, dark blue as a certain shade of jeans.
Philip came out to Brooklyn, to the apartment I’d moved into after Gary, breaking my heart a bit, or, I suppose—to be honest—more than a bit, had gone to live with Geoffrey in Washington Heights. It was a third-floor walkup on Second Street between Fourth Avenue and Fifth. Seen one way, a one-bedroom; seen another, a large studio, for there was, in the middle of the bedroom, an archway; when Gary had first seen it, he’d mused on the original purpose of the archway, something I never thought about. I loved it for aesthetic reasons; there was, I thought, something a little romantic about it. The part of the room on the front side of the archway I used as a studio. Before Philip arrived, I cleaned and cleaned. I made stuffed peppers. Made a salad; in it I put avocado and hearts of palm, as, in her salads, my mother would. I tossed it in a wooden bowl, and, waiting for Philip to arrive, thought about what record to put on. In the end, concerned I might put on the wrong music, I didn’t put on any. Bareness, I suppose, was my comfort zone. In it, you couldn’t make mistakes. I liked Philip’s politeness, though I wished he would be less reserved. I wondered what he wasn’t telling me. There were moments of silence between us that weren’t comfortable, that felt like failures. Outside the window, on the fire escape, ivy undulated. After dinner, he looked at my paintings, my anguished, figure-crowded, quasi-neo expressionist work. I’d been influenced—as it were—by Fischl, Chia, Tintoretto. In these paintings, I hoped to express the conflict between my still-recent discovery—the beauty of boys—and my old knowledge—the violence of boys. (High school was, then, something real in memory.) In college, Celia and I had read Andrea Dworkin, Adrienne Rich, Robin Morgan. Dworkin’s writing about androgyny had given me some hope about the future. As a child, I’d wanted to be a girl, not because I wanted a girl’s body, but because I wanted, or thought I had, a girl’s soul. This aspiration caused some problems in the family, but that is another story. Which was, while I was at Wesleyan, one of my deepest secrets, which I shared only with Gary and Celia. Not only did Dworkin write about androgyny, she seemed to me, more than any other writer, to understand the vastness of male violence. She provided, for my experience of this phenomenon, a framework, a theory. But desire resisted understanding. Or so it seemed to me. Beauty couldn’t, in the end, be understood. Why was something, someone, beautiful? Philip stood, slender, under the archway. He didn’t comment on my subject matter; he said he liked the colors and forms; I made a mental note of this: something I would—at Philip’s expense—repeat, wryly, to Gary. I was a little disappointed, but not too . . . Not far back in my mind the conviction that Gary and I would, sooner or later, be together continued, as always, to hover. I knew Gary’s relationship with Geoffrey wouldn’t last; he complained about him too often. Any boyfriend I had, I thought, would be a placeholder, until the inevitable came to pass: being with Gary. I would, I told myself, get experience in having a boyfriend from Philip. Heading up the avenue, I pass a homeless woman, encamped under cardboard in the entryway of a closed Papaya Dog. Pigeons ascend. Or should I say doves? My breath fogs my glasses. I didn’t tell Philip he was a practice boyfriend. Didn’t feel guilty about this. Maybe no reason to, I think, heading up the avenue. But who decides these things? Philip pointed to a figure on the edge of one of my paintings, a figure outlined in orange.
“It makes me think of Kirchner,” he said.
“Oh,” I told him, thinking, perhaps I’d underestimated him, “I wrote a paper in college about Kirchner.”
“Maybe,” he said, “you could vary the focus. Have some parts in sharper focus.” This was, I thought, insightful, which surprised me a bit. Perhaps more was possible between us than I had, moments before, imagined. On my futon, I focused on his nipples, circled them, lingered there awhile. His moan: soft and lovely.
The next morning we had breakfast in a diner on Seventh Avenue. He told me he knew someone who was a collector. He could, he said, introduce us.
It’s possible I’m being cautious enough, I think, huffing up the avenue. It’s possible I’m not being cautious enough. I am wearing a mask. But maybe I can be infected even while wearing a mask. Doreen hasn’t left her apartment for weeks. Her girlfriend walks the dog. When they get back from the walk, the girlfriend washes the dog’s feet. They have a separate bin for outside clothes. I don’t have a separate bin for outside clothes. I wear my inside clothes outside, my outside clothes inside. While at Wesleyan, I sometimes wore my shirts inside out. Perhaps this was attributable to the focus my secret rituals required. The rituals that had begun when, after discovering that thoughts were something you could do, I’d gone on to discover that they could be done in patterns—as when I was a bit younger, I’d begun to do with swallowing. It’s perhaps remarkable that, in spite of my inability to dress in a manner deemed adequate by some on the Wesleyan campus, Gary, who was significantly clothes conscious, endured me as a friend. Indeed more than endured me. He’d followed me to Providence. Then back to Wesleyan. Perhaps I’m getting this history wrong. I pass a line of masked figures, waiting, spaced at six feet—more or less—to use a cash machine at an Amalgamated Bank. It’s the “more or less” that can kill you, I think, stumble-jogging past. As I inhale, my mask is sucked into the cavern of my mouth. Could my mouth moisture cause it to disintegrate? In the eighties, my mother was active in SIECUS, an organization that promoted sex education in the schools, a controversial topic in Arizona; on one visit, I slipped some copies of the organization’s newsletters into my suitcase; this was how you got information then; there was no google; back in Brooklyn, I read about the failure rate of condoms. No condoms had failed when I was with Celia, but I knew that they could; one of our housemates, Carol, had gotten pregnant due to such a failure; this was why Celia and I had used both a diaphragm and a condom. I took a kind of pride in my extremism, I think, stumble-jogging, an extremism that bore not a little resemblance to the uncompromising, perhaps rigid, determination I brought to bear when I took my slides around to galleries in the East Village; I took them to every gallery, no matter how unlikely it might be they’d be interested. Perhaps this approach wasn’t extremism. Some thought it extreme, just weeks ago, to close the schools. It was impossible for many to imagine that the schoolchildren, the beautiful boys and girls, could be vectors of death. It was impossible to imagine that the boys—in the bars, on the streets, in the clubs—could be vectors of death. I mean you could think it, on one level, but it was hard, on another, perhaps more basic level, to comprehend how such fresh beauty could bear death.
Everywhere in the city, now, you can hear the birds.
I never introduced Philip to Gary, or Yoshi. Nor did he introduce me to his friends. I wondered whether he would bring up, again, the collector he’d mentioned; likely I asked Gary his advice—should I mention it to Philip—Gary likely encouraged me to do so, or perhaps was non-committal. Perhaps I did somehow manage to bring up the topic; no introduction came of it. Philip and I went, a number of times, out to brunch, to Sarabeth’s, to the Pink Teacup. He told me his family had fled Mao; perhaps I said something in defense of Mao; how he’d ended hunger; I thought this then. We want and do what those around us think and do; my sister, who was, at the time, a lawyer in Boston, had been, for a while, while we were growing up in Phoenix, pro-Mao; she’d put up a poster of Mao; there’d been jokes about this in the family. Philip didn’t argue, wasn’t political. We weren’t, in my mind, boyfriends, although it was possible we might become that, in my mind as well as elsewhere. He passed the biscuits. I wish I could remember other things we talked about. In all likelihood I wasn’t as socially inept as I sometimes portray myself—but that’s how I felt. I could function. In spite of the internal rituals, I still got to work every morning, although, once there, I often made mistakes. Philip took me to a flea market in Chelsea. He took me to several sample sales. I suppose Philip and I went to something or other at the Film Forum. I wished I had more in common with him. Sometimes I thought I had some things in common with him; how much did one need to have in common with someone, I wondered. I wondered what my family would think of him. The only person I really felt I had a lot in common with was Gary; although I certainly felt I had some things in common with Yoshi, with Sarah and Taije, who’d been with Gary and me at Wesleyan, in the art department, but really it was all about Gary. One of the theories I had then about the future was that if Gary and I didn’t become boyfriends, but if I had a boyfriend and Gary, then that would be enough. Then my life would be good.
When Philip and I were in bed, which was really what it was all about, my tongue would, on occasion, venture as far as his testicles. Mostly I’d dwell elsewhere, the inside of his thighs, his clavicle—which was beautiful—his neck, his nipples; I would try to make up for my hesitancy when it came to his penis through an intense effort to give him pleasure in other ways. I drew on what I knew from sex with Celia. In a way it felt like part of a continuum with sex with Celia; sex with one person always contains, or evokes, I think, the experience of sex with others; it’s a continuation, all one long but interrupted night. Of course it was different with Philip than it had been with Celia; fucking wasn’t under consideration. I would, sometimes, while nuzzling him, while making love—for it was at least as much that as having sex—draw on an image of Philip as a child, dogpaddling in the harbor after the ferry accident, or, simply on a more general image of him as a child, to fuel an empathetic passion that helped me focus, intensely, for a prolonged period, on his pleasure. There was religious quality to this; his pleasure was more important than my own. Perhaps I’m fooling myself. Surely he just wanted his cock sucked. Or maybe that’s reductive. One of sex’s blessings, which I’d also experienced with Celia, was that almost always—as when I was painting—the inner rituals vanished. Licking and sucking—his nipples that is—was a kind of brushwork. A performance. Art. People talk about sexual performance; they mean, I think, something somewhat different; I don’t know what anyone thinks or means. I could, when I looked out the window, see the water tower against the maroon sky.
Philip would, sometimes, put his mouth on my penis; I would, then, sometimes, gently withdraw, thinking that a sort of trade-off would be required; sex is or can be a negotiation, a form of trade; this occurred to me, in his bedroom, on the Upper West Side; I was, in all moments, trying to think what he was thinking. Or feel it. I wanted to enter him in that way.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that, during college, or perhaps immediately afterward, I hadn’t so much “realized” I was gay as understood I couldn’t be straight. Being straight meant I had to be a man. Being gay provided, although imperfectly, a way out of being a man, a fate I had dreaded since I’d been the age Philip had been at the time of the ferry accident. Or at least a way of being less of a man; later, in my sexual career, such as it was, I would often encounter boys who wanted me to be a man. This was a problem, but that is another story. Not long before I met Phillip, I’d seen, on a lamppost in the East Village, perhaps at night, on my way to The Bar, or to not going to The Bar, a wheat-pasted broadsheet on a lamppost; 1,112 and counting. If we don’t act immediately then we face our approaching doom; if you’re gay you spend a considerable portion of your life translating to people who don’t even know there’s another language, I think, as I pass a rack of blue Citi Bikes. Sometimes even if they’re gay they don’t know there’s another language; the young ones, I think, some of the young ones; the fresh-faced mayor who’d run for president, so acceptable, so anodyne. You can tell them—the straight people—the young gay ones—some of them—that there’s another language; they nod, but they’d rather not know this other language, I tell myself, getting myself worked up, stroking, as it were, my anger, passing a manikin abandoned next to a black trash bin. They’d rather not know about your world, I tell myself; so you disappear. Maybe no one wants to know about anyone else’s world, I tell myself.
Philip was about to go to Milan, to the fashion shows. Shortly before he was to leave, I bought tickets to The Normal Heart, at the Public Theater. I’m not sure what I knew, before seeing The Normal Heart, about Larry Kramer’s play. There’d been, at Scribner’s, a heated lunchroom exchange, between two of my coworkers, Ken had said Kramer was a self-hating homosexual. In Kramer’s denunciation of promiscuity, Ken had argued, he was mimicking heterosexual values; Tom, on the other hand, argued something other—or perhaps this argument occurred after I saw the play. Perhaps I just knew The Normal Heart was a gay play; then so rare a thing.
Philip and I had dinner before. He gave me a present. A stuffed rabbit. It was Easter. I held Philip’s hand, during The Normal Heart, at the Public Theater. The bag with the rabbit sat, in the dark, between my legs. On stage, a doctor, a woman doctor, in a wheelchair, urged abstinence for gay men, since no one knew the cause. It was probably a virus, but no one knew for sure it was a virus; no one who I knew was sure. If it was a virus, it was probably HTLV, but maybe it was another virus; perhaps it was the African Swine Flu Virus, that’s what the New York Native said; when I’d been in Los Angeles, Yoshi, whose father was a doctor, had told me his dad thought the cause was poppers; Yoshi had stopped using poppers; he did not stop getting fucked, often. At the bookstore, Ken said he thought there wasn’t just one cause, it was multicausal, Ken said; this made sense; everything always seemed to have lots of causes. There was no way to look things up, I want to explain to you, though I don’t know who you are, you who are in my mind—there was no google; now no one knows anything because there’s too much information; there are, it seems, thousands of articles every day about Covid; no one can read them all; if you’ve read one, someone else has read another which you haven’t read; which contradicts the one you’ve read. In the eighties there was no information; multicausal made sense; I ran my fingers up and down Philip’s arm, as if, perhaps, to show I wasn’t afraid. Why, I wondered, was he so thin? In my head, something like a resolution formed (I never resolve anything for sure, decide anything for sure; my mind doesn’t know how to do that). I hadn’t yet made the paintings I needed to make, so I needed to live; I had to be as careful as possible. The doctor, on the stage, under the lights, in the wheelchair, said abstinence; my fingers, on Philip’s arm, said the opposite, but they were deceptive. I always send mixed messages.
Afterwards, on the street, in front of the Public, I told him I was tired, needed to go home.
“But I want to see you before you go to Italy,” I added. I wondered if he knew that I wanted to go home, because I was afraid. I guessed he knew, I felt it in his gestures, his voice, as he replied:
“Oh yes, we’ll have to.”
In the subway, I remonstrated with myself. I’d made a terrible mistake. He knew why I’d gone home. I was already so reticent, sexually. He would not want to see me again. I’d go back to being lonely. Across from me, underneath an ad for a dermatologist, slumped across the orange seats, a large and bearded man in a stained brown track suit snored. A few seats away, a couple made out. Philip hadn’t taken away my loneliness. But being able to say to myself: I am seeing someone kept me from falling into the depths of the abyss of which Morrissey so often sang so well. I am a coward, I thought. I did not think: I do not want to die. I just felt it.
I got out at the Seventh Avenue stop. Climbing up the well-graffitied, half-lit stairwell, I wondered if I’d be able to talk about this with Gary.
Running up the avenue, I approach two young men, early twenties, holding hands, coming in the opposite direction. Their masks are beautiful, so is their skin, the skin is a mask; what I feel running through me isn’t beautiful: anger, jealousy? Emotions are physical, I think; hard to name; this feeling—resentment?—isn’t, I think, warranted; nothing is; I pass a deli, boarded up, as, for a time, I was; this year’s seniors will miss their graduations; everyone misses something; the boys I’m running past are muscular, appear healthy, may not be. They’ll live to see the oceans rise, the coasts abandoned. The apocalypse is coming. But I was lonely when I was young.
“Have you taken advantage of any of New York’s cultural opportunities?” my father asked, over the phone.
“I went to a play,” I said.
“What’s that about?”
I’ve no idea what I said.
I saw Philip once more before he left for Milan. I took the F train into Manhattan, trying to decide, all the way, en route, what I would and would not do, once we ended up, that night, in bed. I will, I thought, at Broadway-Lafayette. I won’t, I thought, at West Fourth. I will, at Fourteenth. I had to complete a series of my internal patterns; it was important I get them done before I saw Philip; they’d interfere with my being with him; they’d complicate the decision I didn’t know how to make, or talk about. Even to myself.
I changed at Thirty-fourth for the 1. Waiting on the platform, a few yards from me, a small island of space around him, stood a thin man, in a leather jacket. His face was covered with KS splotches. Or I was pretty sure they were KS. I didn’t want to stare. I did want to stare. The platform grew more crowded. People blocked my eye access. I made sure not to get in the same car with him. Didn’t want my thought processes further disturbed. Had his appearance been a warning, a sign?
66th Street. 72nd Street.
Philip and I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant. We talked about something. I talked to myself. More internal rituals. I spilled tea on the pink tablecloth. I don’t know what the fortune said. Later, in his apartment, my mouth, when it came to his penis, was even more reticent than usual . . .
No. Actually I’m lying about it. I always lie. Let me tell you the truth. I wouldn’t kiss him. Why do I feel such shame about saying this? Perhaps because I feel I was a coward. Perhaps because, years later, some would insinuate that my vigilance over AIDS was hypervigilance, that it was due to internalized homophobia. Perhaps because I fear my loneliness was my fault. Perhaps I feel this because a therapist, she was Australian and had fuchsia hair, told me—sounding so triumphant—that I was alone because I had chosen to be alone.
“The world is a place of seeping things, I think, heading up the almost empty avenue, under the gray sky; this into that leaking, ideas, feelings, stories, viruses. A month ago, just when people were starting to air kiss, before we’d been told ‘six feet,’ I ran into a kind-eyed woman I’ve known since I was, peripherally, part of ACT UP. She hugged me, saying WE’RE not afraid.”
The world is a place of seeping things, I think, heading up the almost empty avenue, under the gray sky; this into that leaking, ideas, feelings, stories, viruses. A month ago, just when people were starting to air kiss, before we’d been told “six feet,” I ran into a kind-eyed woman I’ve known since I was, peripherally, part of ACT UP. She hugged me, saying WE’RE not afraid. She meant AIDS was the real thing. She meant we’re not giving in to hysteria; this made sense at the end of February, or maybe it was the beginning of this month. Soon it will be April. Soon, perhaps, my first rodeo won’t, after all, seem like such a big rodeo; 100,000 people died, in New York, during “the height of AIDS,” it’s possible more than 100,000 will die, in New York, from Covid, maybe this crisis is unprecedented. It’s possible bodies will pile up in the streets; maybe Covid will dwarf AIDS. Millions could die, in the United States, but they won’t all be people I know, I think, or people who know people I know; AIDS was one hundred percent fatal, or so we thought, it was the thoughts that counted; it was a death sentence, that’s what we thought. The thing about death row is it’s really bad even if they don’t execute you. There’s the terrible waiting. The sound of footsteps coming. Even if millions die from Covid, it won’t just be my community, I think, hearing a siren, as an almost empty bus goes past. As if I had a community, I think. Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. A community is an idea, a description, a fiction. With Covid, everyone shares the fear, it’s sort of communal, it’s not just one “community”—oh how I hate the accepted language of generalizing abstractions. Gary did too. I’m allergic to it, trapped in it—as we were trapped in 1985. We lived in fear, I tell myself, while the rest, it seemed, traipsed on with their lives. That’s what enrages me, what I can’t get over. But maybe I should. Perhaps I’m a monster of self-pity. I pass a closed subway entrance; a woman in a blue coat, with a white mask, and dark skin—I’m unsure of her ethnicity—heads underground. An essential worker. I am not, and never have been, essential. But still I want the story to be about me. The risk now isn’t shared equally either, I think, falls brutally on the Black, the Brown, the old: a truth I look at, but then look away from. I can’t look at it continuously. But it’s continual. Call it privilege. I didn’t want to hug the kind-eyed woman I’d known from ACT UP, but did, not wanting to be thought paranoid. Although dozens of therapists have told me not to care how other people see me, I don’t think I exist without other people seeing me; I exist through their seeing me. Babies don’t raise themselves. They come into being through their parents and others seeing them. In each moment we were together, I wanted Philip to like me; I was like that with everyone. Because I was an artist, I often had paper cuts, always bleeding gums; I wasn’t that intact. I was so busy with my rituals—how was there time to floss? My rituals and concealing my rituals. How long does the virus survive in the air, how long on Philip’s abdomen, on Philip’s delicate, beautiful wrist? In his precum? I wasn’t entirely sure what precum was, just when did precum stop and cum begin; you had to figure out everything yourself; now, too, you have to figure it out yourself; there’s no way, in the pell-mell, to know how reasonable your fears are. Later, you look back and think: oh that was unreasonable, but that’s just the tyranny of the present, I think, passing a closed taqueria—can you get it from takeout? Into how much risk are you putting the delivery people? Does anyone really care about other people? If the virus was in Philip’s saliva, and if Philip too had bleeding gums, could it travel across the waters, where our harbors met, when we kissed? I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to discuss this with him. No one, I think, knew how to talk about it. There was a silence deeper than the silence now on the avenue. When I imagine/remember New York in the eighties, I picture, somehow, an empty city. Of course it wasn’t. My paintings, then, were full of figures and drama. But when I think of the painting I might make to represent that era, the city in that era, the city in my mind in that era, the image that arises is abstract, minimal, little more than a wash of deep Prussian blue.
Like the harbor I imagined painting. Without the children.
In my imagination, also, the city, then, was silent, though it most certainly wasn’t silent; Clubs, cocaine . . . a straw wrapper blows past. Out of breath. Gum pressed into the pavement. Dog piss puddle. I’d like to have more of a story, I think, stumbling on. The thing AIDS did was it took away my story, I think, leaning against a lamppost, wondering if I’m self-pitying, noting a rawness in my throat. When my siblings asked me what was new, when my mother asked me what was new, my father asked me, in order to encourage a positive attitude on my part (I’d been, in his view, a rather downbeat child), what was new and exciting, I didn’t have a story to tell. Not the kind of story I think—or I thought—would make sense to them.
On his way back from Milan, Philip stopped in Rome, where he sent me a postcard of the David; I felt, on receiving it, and then again at other moments, a warm swell. I’d written in my calendar the date of his return. I wondered if he’d call; I wanted him to, also didn’t want him to; since I wasn’t sure what I’d do if he did. He didn’t. Maybe, I thought, he’d met someone else. Maybe, I thought, he’d just realized that, with me, there was no there there. I did a pretty good job, in the period that followed, keeping the commitment I’d made during The Normal Heart: to not take any risks, to not even kiss, not until I knew it was safe. This period went on only a few months. Or was it longer? I did, in time, return to kissing; in time ACT UP came; Kissing Doesn’t Kill, a once-famous poster said, Greed and Indifference Do. But still I was rigorous, I didn’t wish to take chances; there were several boys—or were they men—with whom, because I adhered to the strictest version possible of safe sex, things didn’t work out. Or maybe that wasn’t why. Maybe there was something else wrong with me. There’s a moment in many stories written by gay male writers from this era—so quickly vanishing—in which the protagonist does something that’s, well, bad. Fucks raw, say. It’s this moment of risk, of transgression, of, arguably, courage, of, arguably, foolishness, that gives these stories their power. Their edge, their punch. Under my mask, my mouth is as dry as the desert.
I worked diligently on my art. I took my slides around to the East Village galleries. For some reason, my strategy of juxtaposing desire for boys with fear of boys—or men—of generating a sort of frisson through this, did not appeal to too many. Even when I began, in the hope of making my intent clearer, to draw on photocopied texts of Dworkin’s. In time I returned to The Twilight, where I continued my exploration of beauty. I didn’t quite become a regular there. One time, several years after seeing The Normal Heart, I thought I saw Philip at MOMA. I told Gary. We were sitting in his studio. Pigeons perched on the window ledge. The scent of Turpenoid suffused the room. Tacked on the wall were some of his new paintings on paper, into which he’d begun to introduce text. He had the radio on. Meredith Monk. I knew, by this point, that what I’d once thought inevitable between Gary and me wouldn’t ever occur; he’d sort of made this clear, in his elusive way. He never made anything fully clear. Perhaps I still thought, at moments, it might happen. Mostly I’ve forgotten that era. Most of the details in this story I’ve made up. But, for some reason, I remember the following clearly: Gary, in his studio, asking me, with a certain, soft, measured concern, how Philip—or the person who may have been Philip—I’d seen him heading up the escalator—had looked. Perhaps that’s the punctum, I think; perhaps it’s the detail that reveals that I wasn’t the only one who was so soaked in fear. Or perhaps it doesn’t reveal that at all. Perhaps he was just reflecting me. He was often doing that.
“He looked healthy,” I replied.
“Hmmm,” Gary hum-purred, as from the ledge the pigeons took off, merging soon with the pigeon-gray sky. “That must be a relief.”
Robert(a) Marshall’s biography of Carlos Castaneda, American Trickster, is due out from University of California Press in 2022. Their novel, A Separate Reality, was published by Carroll & Graf in 2006. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salon, the Kenyon Review Online, the Barcelona Review, the Michigan Quarterly, and numerous other publications. They are the recipient of the Hazel Rowley Prize from BIO, the Biographers International Organization. Their paintings, drawings, and photographs have been exhibited widely in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
Chuck Nanney (b. 1958, Memphis, TN, lives and works in Oakland, CA) has exhibited widely in the United States and Europe starting in the early 1980's with recent solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson, and Jenny's, Los Angeles. Prior solo shows include Debs & Co., New York; Galerie Patrick Seguin, Paris; among others.