I sometimes imagine that there is a parallel universe in which a version of me, one who has made wiser decisions than I have, is leading a richer and more satisfying life. The thought doesn’t sadden me, and I am not terribly envious of him. For if this is true, there must also be versions of me who made much worse decisions and are now languishing in a loveless relationship or trying to get clean in a detox clinic.
Parallel universes are the stuff of science fiction and thought experiments of physicists. I don’t really understand the mathematics which prompts such speculation. From what I gather, it has to do with a divergence of events on the quantum level. But that doesn’t make for a very interesting story.
Let’s say instead (as some thinkers have) that each time you make a decision that alters your future, the universe splits and another self is generated to live out a different life. Apparently there’s no communication between these parallel universes, but I think the fun only starts when you start imaging that you could quantum jump from one universe to another and discover your alternative selves.
And so, I decided to conduct my own thought experiment, one in which I could jump from one of my histories to another.
I discovered as I shifted between these parallel universes that many of us—me, that is—have lived very similar lives, even if we have different jobs and live in different cities. Oh, a few are fatter than me, though none obese, and a few are much fitter than me and have done the triathlon I was training to do before being sidelined with a SLAP lesion. None of us who have beards have dyed it, in the same way that none of us married a woman or became a surgeon. There are doctors among us, yes, but no surgeon. A man who spent his childhood painfully aware of his lack of coordination does not easily take up a trade with knives.
Most of us are missing our gall bladder, and the others are just waiting for the stone to make its presence felt, as mine did one night at a friend’s riverside apartment in London. Jörg got me to the hospital where the doctor administered a shot of morphine to relieve my pain, the first and only time in my life I was given an opiate. I wish I could say that the drug made me woozy and not myself and I didn’t like it at all, but that’s not the truth. I have encountered versions of myself in these parallel universes who are addicts, and I can understand them. They are very few in number, but that does not surprise me, seeing how cautious we tend to be.
At first I suspected this sameness could be a sampling error. Perhaps the selves I was encountering were just an unusual sequence of very similar variants, like a rare repeated series of 2’s and 3’s in a chunk of digits of an irrational number, and that this freak region of sameness lay in a distant sector of Stephen-space far from the majority of possible selves who were published authors with fabulous husbands. What if I am an outlier?
But no. I come to realize that the less fortunate versions of my self were drawn by native intelligence and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility back to the person I am now. The store clerk became a manager, the short order cook a chef. At the same time, the more successful variants were never enormously successful, handicapped as they—we—are by an aversion to taking risks and discomfort in leading others. Both our gifts and our failings have nudged most of us towards a mean, as if some guiding hand held us all on a leash, allowing us the occasional foray into impulsiveness or imprudence and giving us the illusion that choice alone determined our lives.
All of us are gay, of course, and all of us know it, even the earliest of our permutations, even the rare ones who have channeled their love of men into a love of God and bound their passion in the friendship with their fellow monks.
Yes, most of us have converged back to an archetype of self, whose contours and scope of possibility were laid down long ago. We are like twins separated at birth who later meet and discover they’ve married the same kind of woman.
We, I say. I’ve already begun thinking of these variant Stephens as a collective, a “we”. And if we are a collective, then we deserve our own term of venery, as foxes and otters and nuns all have. Gang and colony don’t sound right, and coalition and convocation are too formal. Besides they’re already taken by cheetahs and owls. But an accident? That hasn’t been used yet. Yes, an accident of Stephens. That sounds apt—we are, after all, the result of a long series of chance events as much as of discrete decisions.
During one of my jumps, I met a man who suggested that we have a dinner party. “It’s so much more efficient than us jumping about on our own,” he said. I smiled. It was such a Stephen-like thing to say. And so we organized one, and of course news of this quickly got around, and countless other get-togethers were organized, all happening at the same time.
We all wanted to cook, of course. The translator in Antwerp, and the man with the small bookstore that he had opened in the city of his (our) birth, and the psychiatrist—they all wanted to. It’s our way of taking care of people. But none of us is particularly comfortable with sharing his kitchen with other cooks, and since we couldn’t all cook, we decided it was best to take turns.
As I walked into the dining room I saw that a few guests were elegantly and expensively dressed, though in the same muted palette of earth and coal that marked the chinos and dress jeans that the rest of us wore. A few were wearing contact lenses, the rest of us wire- or horn-rimmed glasses. Nothing that would make a statement, naturally. None of us had had laser surgery to correct our vision, even the men who could easily have afforded it.
Despite our native introspection the conversation was lively. We are good at taking turns and we listen attentively. We tend to ask a lot of questions anyway, so no one needed to take the lead in conversation; it was given to him. Few of us could remember the last time we spoke like this. Unaccustomed to being so courted we rushed to end our story and let the others talk.
During dinner I caught a Stephen—the one wearing the Armani trousers and a black turtleneck sweater—nibbling on crumbs of bread that he picked up from the table with the tip of his middle finger. Funny that he, too, hadn’t shaken this early childhood trait. Later he came to talk to me. He had meticulously trimmed eyebrows and much whiter teeth than mine, and the body of an older man who has the money for personal trainers and manicurists. I didn’t much like his company. He seemed too studied, too foreign to me, even if I could feel the inner anxiety scratching at the surface of his consciousness. I thought to myself that he had hidden it well but then I wondered, perhaps he is really different than me. His presence spoiled the camaraderie that the rest of us had established simply through our similitude. He was a reminder of what we could have been if we had been braver and more daring. “And luckier”, another guest said to me later.
Whenever two of us first meet, our conversation centers on discovering when we emerged. I didn’t use that word when I first started jumping. Emerge. Instead I wondered what point the other originated from—when he diverged—as if I were claiming the line of true descent, the standard-bearer of the true faith and all the others heretics.
“When did you come into existence?” I would ask.
“When did you?” he would answer.
We were all, I soon realized, each of us but a permutation with no special claim to authority. And so I now look instead to the point of our emergence. There is no one absolute point, of course, it all depends on whom you’re with. A screenwriter—yes, there is one, I was flabbergasted to discover—he and I emerged when he, but not I, joined the university newspaper. A man who lives on an island in the Dodecanese and makes a very modest living giving private English lessons to the more affluent of the island residents emerged with me when a few years ago my boss, contrary to my own history, accepted the resignation I had tendered. It is dizzying to think how many times I have emerged in the course of my life.
We go back through time, recounting memories to learn which ones we share and which we don’t, circling closer and closer to that one decision or event that triggered the split in our shared universe. Do you remember gathering oysters in the pond on Martha’s Vineyard? Our first Gauloise? (Some have never smoked, others have never quit). The appendectomy?
We fire these questions as they come to us in no particular order, like Scrabble tiles withdrawn from the bag. But unlike the word game, the a’s and e’s of oft repeated pleasures are the most difficult to play. Matthew and I spent five Easters in a row on a quiet island in the Western Cyclades, each time with different friends, couples mostly. I’m not sure which couple came when. It didn’t matter; they all split up after the trip anyway. But they are no help in writing our history.
I ask one guest if he remembers the night our Boston landlord brought up a pair of prospective tenants to the roof for a view of the Charles River and instead came upon us lying naked in the arms of an oboist we had met on the Cape. He asks me if I remember the orderly we met swimming at the City Hospital pool, who took us back to his apartment in the South End for dope and sex, the one who would bite but not kiss.
It’s funny how our milestones are the men we have loved. We could ask about places we lived. It would be a helpful unit of measurement for the early years, when I was moving around a lot, though it is useless now. I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere else in my entire life. But an apartment is not a milestone. We are not only attempting to date ourselves, we are telling stories to one another. I think we play this guessing game less to identify our point of divergence—sorry, emergence—than for the pleasure of remembering.
But I realize that the members of my accident don’t quite remember events or people the way I do. We fit our past to our present. The story must have coherence.
One of the other guests had stayed with Matthew after I had left. How could that have happened, I asked? At the time it seemed so inevitable that we would separate, like a gargoyle weakened by years of stress that breaks off and falls crashing to the street below. I asked. “What about Lucas?”. The other man.
“Who?” he asked.
In his world there was no Lucas. One night years ago, it was soon after we had moved into our new place and just as we were beginning to drift apart, I told Matthew about a dating site I had heard about from a colleague. He insisted we go online together, joking at first that we would find a threesome but then becoming very earnest about hooking up. I got annoyed and left him to go to bed. But he stayed up the whole night, clicking on profiles and chatting, dazed at first by how easy it was to arrange to have sex with another man and by how desirable he was. But my interlocutor at the party had a different story. He sat with Matthew that evening and they talked to a young archaeologist who was very much into threesomes and who came over. Though they never saw him again, this Stephen and Matthew had found a way of injecting an element of adventure and passion into their relationship, and it was enough of a nutrient to keep the love they still felt for each other alive.
I wanted to ask if he was happy, but I knew it is the kind of question we never answer.
“It doesn’t matter in the end, you know,” he said to me. “You’re me. I’m you. We just have different memories.”
The painting featured in the post depicts the artist Karel Bruckman and his twin brother. Bruckman, a Dutch artist who lived for many years in the United States (with his life partner Evert Zeeven), worked largely in the tradition of magic realism.
My brother and I live in very different places a continent and ocean apart, but the city that appears in our letters is neither his nor mine. It is an imagined city, the one we both grew up in.
I thought at first we were exchanging experiences, the way we once traded baseball cards. I had some of the players, he had others, and together they made up a team. He had some memories, I had others, but they’re all fit into a coherent whole.
Sometimes they do. But the scraps of evidence can be maddeningly ambiguous, and we are left to guess. Details have gone missing, our recollections but images in shards. It is not memories we exchange but interpretations. Unable to return we content ourselves with photos from newspaper archives, vintage games, old postcards, and the stories of friends and family.
Such memory work is at the heart of Andro Wekua’s Pink Wave Hunter, now on exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens. In his installation Wekua, a Georgian artist who lives and works in Berlin and Zurich, has reconstructed the city he was forced to abandon in his youth and has never returned to since.
His city is an unhappier one than the city my brother and I grew up. Sukhumi lies on the coast of the Black Sea in what was once the northwestern finger of Georgia but is now part of the Russian Federation. The once fashionable resort city on the Black Sea still bears the scars of the heavy air strikes it suffered in the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, and the ethnic cleansing that ensued. The artist’s family was among the tens of thousands of Georgians who were forced to leave the city, fully 40% of the population. Wekua never returned.
The installation is composed of scale models of 15 buildings and structures from his birth city. In fashioning these maquettes, Wekua has relied partly on his own memories, partly from old photographs found on the Internet or sent to him by friends.
The documents are incomplete. The camera can capture only a part of the building, memory is retrieved in fragments. The constructions are thus unevenly remembered. Some are almost devoid of detail, a featureless slab of concrete with only the faintest of marks to suggest the presence of windows. Others, for which perhaps the artist had a better store of evidence, are made to painstaking detail and with remarkable workmanship.
But even here the construction is incomplete. The back or side of a building that the camera’s lens could not capture has been left unfinished in its sheath of aluminum or polyurethane casing. A row of old houses has been reduced to a strip of façades, propped up by scaffolding in the back, like a set for the stage. A railway bridge is viewed in chunks, minus its abutments and pillars. An exterior staircase ends in a blank wall.
In the middle of the city stands a scale model of a crumbling beachside café. A sign stands above the round, squat stone building, rusted metal letters on wires strung like a wash line between two poles.
Some of the letters are missing. They are like gaps in a game of hangman whose players had run out of time, when the bombing started and people fled the city. But enough is there to decipher the name. Dioskuri, the twin brothers Kastor and Polidevkes, sons of Zeus, whose coachmen legend has it founded the city.
These missing letters are emblematic of a deeper absence that haunts the city. Buildings stand empty. No one fishes from the pier. Signs of abandonment are everywhere: the rusted trusses of a railway bridge, peeling paint, the brown-ringed splotches of dampness on the roof of a station.
Wekua has likened the empty buildings of his boyhood city to the ersatz towns built in film lots, “a city of façades [that] still stands and waits to be used for a different movie.” He writes:
“I am more invested in the architecture of this city, and how its nature is being conserved and untouched while being allowed to deteriorate, a mirage of sorts… maybe this city does not and has never existed.”
Wekua designed the exhibition space himself. Eschewing the single platform on which these works were earlier presented at the Kunstahlle Fridericianum in Kassel, he has set each building on its own plinth and arranged the pieces in the hall according to a logic—if there is one at all—that seems to bear little resemblance to the geography of the city.
A conceptual axis leads from the pier at the entrance of the hall to a government building at the far end of the room. Cast in bronze and towering over the other constructions, it stands like a tabernacle of a sinister deity, and its soulless concrete plaza, a sacrificial altar. But apart from this axis, there seems to be no apparent reason to the arrangement of these constructions. The route we trace as we move from one building to the other corresponds to no tour that could be plotted on a guidebook map. There are no streets in this city. We become its boulevards and thoroughfares; we compose the city as we make our way through the exhibition.
This seems fitting, though. The landscape of memory is a terrain of mostly empty space that is interrupted only here and there by a structure of significance—a neighbor’s porch, a beach café, the boardwalk on the pier, the topoi of a first kiss or a lover’s betrayal—and we wander through it almost haphazardly.
Like memory itself, Wekua’s city is muted in hue and sound. The colors are those of the artist’s materials, the browns of firebrick, wax and plywood, greys of stone and concrete, here and there the metallic shine of bronze and aluminum. The only exception, the specks of powder blue on the shield-like panels in the railing on the pier.
As I wander through the exhibition, I can hear the noise from the café that’s around the corner from the gallery. It surges in when my concentration lapses and threatens to tug me out, like a wave breaking on shore that then sweeps sand and pebbles back out to the sea. It’s background noise, indecipherable for the most part. But if I listen carefully I begin to pick out the clang of tableware on the porcelain plates, individual voices, the clinking of glasses.
At first I’m annoyed by the sounds of the café crowd. What a curatorial oversight, I think, to place these meditative pieces next to such noise. But then I think maybe it was a deliberate decision. The noise – of life, company, the sharing of food and wine – only underscores the haunting desolation of the city.
Paradoxically, it is the crowd that seems insubstantial, and not this quiet deserted city of memory. Voices gather force and then fall silent, conversations rise and dissipate, friends meet and dine and say goodbye. The sound of fleeting encounters. Whatever has happened at their tables is gone. It will have left its mark, a layer of sentiment, for some a resin of deeper intimacy, for others the bleach of indifference or the hurt left by a careless remark or a confession of inconstancy. But even that will recede.
But the pier stands, its pylons rotting unseen in the brine of the sea. I look at its restaurant, oddly shaped like the prow of a ship, and think how it, too, once contained conversations much like the ones I’m now hearing. Conversations that will soon be lost.
Or perhaps not? Perhaps some were retold in the stories Wetua gathered in his effort to rebuild—to remember—his city. Stories shared by fellow exiles or distant cousins. Perhaps by a brother. Remembered.
I sometimes send my brother pictures I find of our city, the way it was when we were boys. He doesn’t want to see them, though. He doesn’t even want to go back, though unlike Wetua, he could. He’s afraid the city will be too small, too leached of color. I want to go, though I’m afraid, too. I’m afraid the city will be too real, too true to memory, and I will feel my exile more intensely than I do now.
We are like two scientists trained in different disciplines, the memory work of bugs and bones. He delves into board games and girder sets and the other toys of our childhood that he finds on e-bay, I work with the postcards and old photographs of our the city that I find on the Internet. But we’re not all that different. We are both overlaying history on memory, the archival on the personal, trying, each in his own way, to give substance to his recollections.
We are all exiles from the city of our childhood, and the place we unfaithfully but lovingly remember, indeed never existed. But that’s not the point of remembering, is it?
If I had been able to open the door and run out of the car, I would never have told him. At least not the way I did, barking it out like a cornered dog, and not then. I was only twelve. I would have waited. But the car had a childproof lock that could only be opened by a small key that my father kept on his keychain.
The car was a square-framed compact station wagon, a survivor of a line that was discontinued a year or so after my father bought his. Though a station wagon, it was much smaller than the Cadillac and Chrysler sedans my uncles drove, and missing their sleek curvature. Their cars were like hawks in flight, ours a box with an engine, the reincarnation in metal of a child’s wooden toy on wheels.
The car’s cherry-red body paint only underscored its quality of make-believe. Now and then my father would get us to wash the car, and for a moment while still wet it would shine. But inevitably the patches of water would evaporate, leaving behind the dull finish that was its ordinary day coat.
I hated going anywhere in the car. It felt like showing up for a party in a pair of old scuffed shoes. It stood out in the parking lot at school and church and now at the supermarket we were parked in, waiting for my mother to pick up some groceries.
“Skumata iki go. I bet you can’t say it,” my brother Charlie said. He was sitting in the middle as usual, flanked by me and Daniel, the youngest.
“Why would I want to say it? It doesn’t mean anything,” I said. It was one of his games, egging me on to repeat a phrase that apparently only he could reproduce.
“It’s Italian. I heard Grandpa talking to Uncle Leonard yesterday.”
“That doesn’t even sound Italian.” I replied.
“You’re just saying that because you can’t say it,” my brother said.
“Skumata iki go,” I said. “Satisfied?”
“Not even close.”
“So if it’s Italian, what does mean?” I asked.
“Why should I tell you?” he snapped. “You can’t even say it.”
“Skumata iki go” I said, drawing out each syllable carefully.
“You’re a joke,” he snorted.
“It was exactly how you said it,” I said.
“One more thing you can’t do.” He turned away from me and sat back, looking straight into the car’s rear-view window, just in case my father was looking at us. “Skumata iki go.” he crowed.
Daniel slouched further into himself. My father lit up another cigarette and faded into a swirl of sickly blue fluorescent smoke.
Maybe I really missed something, I thought. Maybe I misheard, maybe there was a tiny vowel wedged between ki and go that got lost, like the sixteenth notes I struggled with in my flute lessons that were just too fast for me to play.
I listened to him as he repeated the call, straining to imprint the sounds in my head, slicing the syllables into smaller bits that I could put together again. Maybe it wasn’t iki, I wondered. Maybe it was egi.
I tried again.
“Ha, now you know why Grandpa won’t ever teach you any Italian.” he said.
I wanted to punch him and make him shut up. I probably could have beaten him up, but I didn’t trust myself enough to let go. I had only thrown one punch in my entire life.
“Tell him to stop!” I shouted to my father.
Charlie kept hammering the word, the way he meted out punishment when I lost to him at cards. We didn’t play for pennies or privileges. We played for knuckles. Whoever lost would lay his hand, clenched in a fist and knuckles up, out on the table. The winner would hit the loser’s knuckles with the edge of the deck. The exact penalty was determined by the loser drawing a card from the deck beforehand. The rank would dictate the number of hits, the color the intensity. A spade or club meant soft, a heart or diamond, hard. Black was easy. Red, at least the way Charlie played, was blood.
“Skumata iki go, skumata iki go…” It was like the drone of a merry-go-round you can’t get off.
“Jesus Christ, you guys. You can’t even sit in the same car without fighting,” my father said.
My brother ignored him. “Just admit it. You can’t do it.”
I shouted back the phrase, but it came out even more distorted. Charlie caught the tremor in my voice and pounced on it and went back to chanting his phrase.
I could feel the tears welling up within me, and I knew I was going to cry. I hated myself for it—I had never cried at school, despite the taunts and bullying—but I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“Ah, for Chrissakes, what are you crying for? It’s just a word. You’re a grown boy. Only sissies cry. And you,” my father said, turning to Charlie, “that’s enough.”
Sissy. It wasn’t so different from the words that Jamie Marsh used in the playground to hurt me.
I wanted to get out of the car and run. It didn’t matter where, just as long as I was far away from my father. I clutched at the handle of the car door but it wouldn’t yield. I was stuck.
I hadn’t told him what was going on at school. He didn’t know the reason I’d gotten a “D” in gym was because I used to cut the class so I wouldn’t wind up alone in the locker room with Jamie and his friends. I never told him about the stomach cramps I’d sometimes get in the morning on my way to school.
I didn’t tell him because I was ashamed. Ashamed for his sake. It was my fault, I thought. I stood out just like the boxy red station wagon on this wide empty lot. I knew I was different but I didn’t see how it showed. It wasn’t something like the color or shape of a car.
But now I wasn’t ashamed. I was angry. I hated him for not protecting me at school. For not showing me how to protect myself. And now, most of all, for taking sides with the boy who spoiled school for me. And I wanted to hurt him the way I had been hurt.
I could feel my tears receding, like water from a breaker sliding back into the sea. “Well, maybe I am a sissy,” I answered back.
“Don’t be an idiot. Of course you’re not,” he said.
“How would you know?” I spit out. “Some of the kids at school say… they say I’m a faggot.” It was the first time I had ever said the word. It felt sour in my mouth.
“And you know that’s…” I struggled to say the word. “It’s hereditary.” And I added, just to be sure, “it passes from father to son.”
Charlie sidled up to Daniel. I sat looking at my father, waiting for him to say something. To say I’d be ok and he’d make things right.
Then my father said, “No, it’s not passed from father to son.”
He swivelled back in his seat and crushed out his cigarette. No one said anything until my mother came out of the store five minutes later.
My father and I never spoke of that day again. He never asked me about it.
The following year I started high school. It was a Catholic prep school miles away from home, a good school with nice kids and a proselytizing track coach that encouraged me to try out for cross-country. To my surprise I discovered I could run. My father never came to my meets, the way he did to Charlie’s baseball games. Daniel says it’s because I never invited him.
This was our pattern of avoidance for years. The clues to my life that I left behind, unintentionally for the most part, like the consent forms he signed for my track meets, were left unexplored. Our discourse was stripped down to “How you’ve been?” “Fine, you?” Maybe he feared that even the most innocuous gambit, the slightest warming to intimacy, would lead our conversation back to that evening in the car.
When my father died, Daniel and I went through his papers. He had saved whatever traces of our lives came into his hands—grade school report cards and school projects and prom pictures. Among these yellowed and brittle papers were a thin stack of small newspaper clippings. There with my name and time circled in red were the results of the cross-country meets I had run in.
Skumata iki go. Faggot. The one incantation meant nothing. The other gave me cramps and turned my school into a place of ambush; it was a charm that distracted from my true nature and turned me into a cautious, self-conscious boy who could no longer trust himself freely.
My brother Charlie’s spell was broken that night. I never played knuckles with him again, never tried to mimic the odd-sounding phrases of his made-up language. It was simple in the end. You can’t lose if you don’t play. Jamie’s hex took longer to break. I could have tried to ignore him, too. I could have told myself I didn’t care. But I wasn’t brave enough at the time to do it then, and the man who could have taught me how was too distant or just too unseeing to help.
For years I told no one of this story. In the beginning because I believed in the power of the curse and was ashamed that I had broken down in front of my father. Years later when I came out, I would remember this story again with shame, but one of a different hue, as I recalled how that night in the car I had used my sexuality—something good and beautiful that lay at the core of my being—in the same hateful way that Jamie had. As a weapon.
They call them vintage couples. But unlike wine, the portraits of these men were not made for later generations; they were never intended to age. The few that remain have been rescued, more like a flapper’s dress or an old army bicycle might have been. They have survived because of eccentricity or forgetfulness, a few perhaps out of willfulness. Countless others have been destroyed by family members anxious that no record be left of what was then an illicit love. Now they’ve been made a part of our time, dissolved into binary digits and recomposed to find their place in the frames of tumblr and flickr, though they show their age. Indeed, that is part of their charm.
There aren’t many of these images, though more than I expected to find when I first started collecting. Some keep reappearing on sites I visit, like the icons of patron saints found in the workshops of confectioners and truckers’ cabs. Others travel less widely.
Some seem commemorative in purpose. Formal portraits of two men in coat and tie, seated on a studio bench set before a curtained backdrop, the same drapes that would appear in the engagement photographs of their neighbors’ daughters and sons. A few strike a more daring pose. A man sits on his lover’s knee, his arm brought round his companion’s back to cup his shoulder. In another, two men, both in uniform, sit next cross-legged on the ground, their arms crossed over their laps to reach each other’s hand in a moving saltire of troth.
Most of the photographs, however, are simply impromptu snapshots of a happy moment, much like the pictures one would find in any family album: pictures of couples at the beach or the lake, lovers lounging on a picnic blanket or horsing around in the yard. Two men squeezed into an armchair
The faces in these photographs never reappear. It is as if they have played only one role in their roles and this is it. If there are other photographs that continue the narrative of their love, they have remained in the keeping of family or friends or have been forgotten. Perhaps there is a trove of photographs lying in a coffer at a flea market stall waiting to be discovered, like fossils in a shale. But for now, the photographs we have are solitary specimens.
Most of the pictures have no names. When they do, it is the equivalent of a “Chuck” embroidered on a vintage bowling shirt. But why should they bear names? They were never meant to be shared among strangers.
The only thing certain about the men is their mutual affection. I am not even sure at times if they were a couple. The men on the picnic sprawled out on the grass—lovers on a trip out of the city, their first long weekend together? Or are they two just best friends on a late summer hike, posing for a farewell photograph before they return to their separate colleges?
The affection is too palpable to be other than an index of love, I think. But I am not sure. These photographs are isolated finds, stripped of context and history. And that is the problem.
One picture of a couple can tell a thousand stories, some more likely than others, yes, but all existing as possible narratives of parallel lives. A hundred pictures of the same couple would tell a single story. It would be a long story and it might be hard to put the pieces in exact chronological order. The men and women in cameo roles would be hard to identify. In places the story would be sketchy in detail—why is his arm in a sling? Why is the dog covered in tar?—but by and large you could trace the outline of their life together.
If you found such a trove you could plot the photos along time like notes on a staff, and they would yield the score of a relationship. You could hear the oft repeating notes of the basso ostinato, the lover puttering in the garden, the other forever reading, the frequent presence of dear and constant friends. And then you’d hear the musical phrases of ski trips and stone churches, of fried clams and beer, and the cheap hotel in Flanders where the two caught lice. There would be long rests in the score, too, the lacunae of illness and domestic ruts.
But the photographs of vintage couples are like notes of a song whose score has been lost. They have been salvaged, though we don’t know what the melody was like.
Did they get fat as they grew older? Did they buy a cat? Go to Rome? We know nothing except that this love was indeed once sung.
We should be grateful for even these snippets, though. We are lucky to have them at all. The washed out greys of these old scratched and faded photographs may speak to another less hectic, less cynical time, but the innocence is deceptive.
Our eyes, now more accustomed to the embrace of two men or two women, fail to perceive how daring these photographs were at the time, and how rare they must have been. Time has rendered them innocuous. They are like a talisman drained of magic that now lies inert in a museum display case. They have become curios, sweet mementos that point to a history we know little about. We forget that the men in these photographs could have been jailed for the love they so tenderly express before the camera.
Our daily life has become an endless series of photo ops, and we are never without a camera to make use of them. We just need to slip our hand into our pocket and take our phone and the moment is recorded. Our camera has become an extension of thought. See it, shoot it. But for earlier generations taking a photograph was an occasion in itself, if only because someone had to remember to bring a camera and film. It was even more an occasion for these lovers.
Who took these pictures of men embracing at the water’s edge, of naked torsos pressed together and legs intertwined? The pictures of lovers on the rumpled sheets of a summer cot? A close friend, perhaps, or a like-minded photographer?
A person they could trust, in any event. Such pictures could change a life and compromise their subjects, even if some of the men in these photographs were out to their friends and family. The camera would not steal their soul, but it could command their future.
How great, then, these men’s desire to distill their love into an image they could hold in their hands. To document their love and say, yes, I lived this. I loved this man. What could not be enacted in public—the clasp of hands, a caress—could be embodied on film.
The photo booth was safer, though that would come later. There weren’t many kinds of pictures you could take in a booth, but the kiss was one of them.
The booth, no larger than a broom closet or a confessional, was for most men the only way to even capture a kiss on film and the closest they would come to kissing in public. If they had looked under the booth’s curtain they would probably have seen the shoes of strangers as they passed by. Inside the still darkness of the curtained booth, they would be invisible save to the camera’s lens. This anonymous eye would look at them for just an instant, record their kiss and then forget about them forever. It would keep no negative—that now obsolete currency of blackmailers—and would thus reveal no secret.
The prints would remain, guarded from the eyes of family members who wouldn’t understand. A few would survive the passing of the lovers whose kiss or embrace they recorded, and these would become part of a history, recondite and for the most part still unrecorded, a history of men who loved other men.
I didn’t know in high school that I was part of this history. Ironically, I was not only displaced from the world of my straight classmates but also cut off from a lineage of men very much like me, or men I would have wanted to be like if I had known. I was a case of one. Later as I was coming out, I began to read the accounts of the life of gay poets and writers and artists, the stories of Cocteau and Marais, and others like them. But only much later was I to read of the lives of less illustrious lovers, whose stories are the purview of historians and collectors.
The photo booth kisses are lovely but I am more moved by the pictures of couples lying on the summer grass or huddled up on the beach, ordinary pictures of ordinary men. They are among the most tender and beautiful. They are beautiful to look at. I feel as if I have chanced upon a photograph of a distant ancestor, in whose features I can discern the traits of a more familiar face. Mine.
Many of these photographs have been collected on the Homo History blog. It is an inspiring place to visit.
The idea of family photographs as a score of music is not mine, but comes instead from the artist Panos Mattheou and his installation “Once Upon a Song”. In this piece, Mattheou selected a hundred or so slides from a much larger cache of family slides that he had found in a storage box at a flea market for €5. He digitized the slides, arranging them in rows—much like notes on the lines of a conceptual staff—as a timeline along a wall. A row for photographs of the man, another for the couple and their friends (they seem not to have had children), another for travel, yet another for an odd series of foliage pictures (I assume one member of the couple was an amateur nature photographer). Mattheou used the digital data of photographs in which the characters of this family chronicle appeared as input for the production of a sound track. The timeline tells a visual story of the family (or rather, the artist’s narrative of the couple’s history), and the soundtrack the story in song. A most intriguing work.
Nicolas and I exchanged text messages from nearby islands during our holidays, he on Amorgos and I on Patmos. There were usually only a pair or two them a day, usually in the morning or late afternoon, a couplet of introit and missio that bracketed the day.
What I wanted to share with Nicolas couldn’t fit in a few antiphonal texts, but I knew there’d be time to share stories once we met up again in the city. It was enough that I heard his voice, even if disembodied and refigured in tiny pixels on a tiny screen. I know the value of solitude, and respect his as much as I prize mine. This appreciation of each other’s privacy was one reason, rendered more unequivocal by Nicolas’s dislike of talking on a mobile phone, that I didn’t call.
I found myself looking forward to his messages. They marked my day, as prime and vespers do for a monk. As one might expect from a craftsman of words, his were beautifully written, urbane and witty, resonant with feeling, and showed no sign of the strain of encapsulating an experience or feeling within the confines of so few characters. Mine, on the other hand, often seemed to me half-complete, interrupted. Yet even Nicolas’s messages were perforce suggestive rather than comprehensive, the few but (I am sure) carefully selected elements of an event or place or memory serving to engage me, the reader, in an act of interpretative elaboration.
It was through this compact and imperfect medium that Nicolas and I had our first unpleasant disagreement. Of course Nicolas and I have disagreed about things before, films and exhibitions and politics and the like, but those served as impetus for further conversation, a burrowing into a deeper understanding. They were the disagreements between friends that Hollinghurst has said are really agreements in a more exciting key.
This was different, at least for me. It began with a pair of single quotation marks in a text message about a book of all things, two tiny pins of virtual ink that like the pincers of a mite left a bite that kept smarting for days (though I must say there was nothing mean or hurtful in the message itself).
I had texted Nicolas to thank him for steering me to W.G. Sebald’s work. He had suggested I look for his novels when in Berlin, and I had returned to Athens with a copy of Die Ausgewanderten. I began to read it on the island and quickly became engrossed in these tales of four emigrants. I wanted to share this enthusiasm with Nicolas and wrote him that I was relishing the book. He texted back and said, “glad you are ‘enjoying’ Sebald”.
Nicolas’s emails and text messages are copiously annotated with an array of signs that function, say, to emphasize a phrase or mark a scherzo or introduce a note of self-deprecation. Studded with slashes and emoticons and ellipses, line breaks and dashes, his texts are at the same time textural, a palimpsest of the message itself overlaid with instructions on how to read it more fully. So the single quotation lines around “enjoy’ was a message in itself. In another context, these marks would serve as an ersatz subjunctive of distance, a way of saying that I am simply reporting what has been stated but have no way of ascertaining its veracity or, taking it one step further, don’t share this view at all, or yet further, “how could you ever even think that, you drooling idiot”?
The inclusion of the quotation marks was the work of an editor, I felt, not a friend, not as sarcastic as interpolating a [sic] in the citation but almost. It annulled the first part of the sentence, “Glad”, since it was clear he wasn’t actually glad but… what? Disappointed? Put off? Which made me wonder, why he didn’t just say it. And so I texted him back, asking “why the quotation marks,” though I suspected why. Nicolas replied that there was something ‘indecent’ about enjoying Sebald.
In a way, he was right. How could one relish these elegiac tales of men, wounded in soul, haunted by loss, exiled to their hopelessness? But no one likes to be scolded, especially by a friend, however much one needs to be at times. It disturbs the sense of equality that is an integral component of friendship, even when, as is often the case, it is an equality by tacit mutual convention alone; one always brings more to the friendship than the other (though the two may alternate in this role), one is usually more talented at friendship than the other. Still, for the friendship to continue both need to ascribe to and defend the appearance of equality, especially when disagreeing.
This is not to say that at times a friend may not be a teacher, confessor, mentor or father to you. Still, indecency is a weighty word, pointing as it does to an overstepping of the conventions of civilized behavior that is profoundly disturbing to others. It is laughing at a funeral or groping someone on a crowded subway. Nicolas’s reference to my ‘indecency’—although his sentence was wholly impersonal, he was, after all, talking about my reading—hurt. It pained me that he could think me capable of indecency. I recognize that I am at times guilty of intellectual frivolity, but indecency?
There are works of art that I would find it indecent to take pleasure in, the films and books and paintings of sadistic dystopias and apocalypse, the tales of genocide and torture, works such as The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Little’s fictional memoir of an ex-Nazi mass murderer.
For me, however, Sebald’s Emigrants is not such a book. Granted, they are stories of loss but they are not without hope. They could even be seen as tales of a special kind of salvation. In reconstructing and narrating the histories of these men, Sebald saves these four emigrants not from dying but from being forgotten. Their histories, or elements thereof, are preserved in the reminiscences of surviving friends and the last remaining relatives, and captured in sketches and newspaper articles and vague, uncaptioned photographs. There is humor in these stories and acts of devotion, too. The men that emerge from these tales, Paul and Ambros at least, I am glad I came to know: one the gifted teacher, the other, a man who becomes a valet to his aristocratic lover so that the two of them can be together. But Nicolas was not entirely wrong. The lives of these men are marked by the trauma of the Holocaust. If reading was not an indecent pleasure, neither was it innocent.
Nicolas would say I’m overreacting, reading too much into his comment, conjuring intent in a way that did just as much disservice to our friendship. And in the end he’d be right: Nicolas was being mean or sarcastic; on the contrary, I imagine it would pain him to know that he had caused me even this moment of discomfort. Or perhaps that I had caused myself, for I realize now that the intensity of my reaction was in exact proportion to my desire to be worthy of this very special friendship.
Nowadays when an older woman stops me on street, she’s either crazy or wants spare change. It doesn’t matter, I stop anyway. I think they might need help getting back home. They remind me of my grandmother in the last years of her life, when she’d manage to wander off in her housecoat and a neighbor would bring her back. Maybe it’s a debt I’m repaying.
She was standing on the curb outside the neighborhood’s mom-and-pop store, a short and slightly overweight woman in her late 50s, dressed in a faded but clean floral-print housedress.
“Excuse me, can you help me?” she asked.
I was in a rush to get home from work but fumbled in my pockets for change. I didn’t find any and apologized.
“No, I meant, can you do me a favor?” She seemed put off that I would have mistaken her for a beggar, but only slightly so; she was more exasperated than anything else, as if she had run into this kind of behavior from strangers before. I noticed she was already clutching something in her hand.
“Could you go in and buy me paper towels?” she asked.
“I sorry, I’m not sure I understand.”
“I’m not on speaking terms with them.” She pointed to the store. “We had a fight.”
“I see. There’s a mini-market on the corner,” I said. “They have paper towels. And they’re probably cheaper.”
“I had a fight with them, too,” she said.
“Well, that must be rather inconvenient,” I said. I hoped she didn’t sense my amusement.
“What can I say?” she sighed. “I’m only human. I get edgy at times. Here, a pair costs €1.50” She unclenched her fist to show me the change.
I was thinking there must be some catch to this, some practical joke behind it, but we had spoken too long for me to refuse. I went in to buy the paper towels.
It was a coldly lit and charmless space, stocked with the kinds of things people suddenly realize they’ve run out of and must have but can’t buy elsewhere because all the other stores are closed. The stuff was obscenely overpriced, but it was the only place in the neighborhood open every day of the year, morning till night. It was a convenience store for emergencies and whims, a shop for bad planners and occasional bakers. No one plans to shop here; they wind up here. Damn, we’re out of milk. The bulb’s burnt. I thought you were buying bread. What, no batteries?
It’s run by three generations of a sullen family. I have never seen any of them smile, even when they sit together in silence on summer evenings outside the store. Like innkeepers at a frontier outpost, they know that their customers are here only out of short-sightedness or compulsion, and thus have little incentive to be pleasant. And they aren’t. It was as if the little annoyances that had prompted their customers’ visits slowly filled the store with a noxious air of discontent that in turn seeped into the pores of the family, displacing other more convivial humors.
I once had a disagreement with them myself.
“Shouldn’t these be in the refrigerator?” I asked, pointing to the cartons of eggs stacked in the summer heat next to the cash register.
“We’re following directives,” the grandson who was on duty that night said. I remembered him when he was still lifting weights and shooting steroids, but he’d gotten injured or bored and now was just a guy with boobs bigger than his sister, a body that sagged like a great sigh of resignation. He didn’t say which directive and I knew it was pointless to ask. I couldn’t imagine him or anyone else in the family reading anything other than the TV Guide or the gossip magazines they faithfully stocked.
“Well, I’ll check out the EU regulations and get back to you,” I said.
“You do that,” he said, scowling. It sounded like a dare.
I found the paper towels and went to the elevated counter at the back of the store that serves as the cashier’s desk and watchtower. Just as the woman had said, the pair cost €1.50.
“Did they ask who it was for?” she asked as I handed her the bag and the receipt.
“No,” I said. “Why would they?”
She ignored my question and thanked me, and I headed home.
I keep thinking I’ll see her again, waiting outside the store with exact change in her hand for a can of tuna fish or a half dozen eggs, like a rowdy drunk eyeing the entrance to the bar he’s been blacklisted from.
She hasn’t reappeared, though. Maybe she does most of her shopping in the supermarket, with its 12 lanes of checkout counters and stockers that work the midnight shift, invisible or nameless people she never has the chance to get angry at. I wonder if she has humbled herself and apologized to the gloomy family. I wonder if she’s done the same thing to her son and nieces and sisters-in-law and shut them out, and now had no one except a stranger to buy her paper towels once the supermarket closed.
Perhaps she has moved on, walking the extra blocks across the park to another neighborhood to do her shopping until she finds herself again prey to her temper and a tongue that won’t keep still, and then on again to yet another neighborhood farther away, in an ever broadening zone of closed shop doors.
The dragon tree was the first thing I bought for my new office. It was a hip-high plant with two puny canes that I had picked up at a garden fair in the city. Now a decade later it’s taller than me and broader than the span of my arms. Given the little light that filters through the wooden blinds behind it, I think it’s done extraordinarily well. Then again, as Ersie says, the woman who’s cleaned my office for the last ten years and who took on my plant as a spinster nanny would her charge, the plant would burn up and die if left outside under the full rays of the sun. It was raised in the shade, she says, to get it ready for a life indoors. “Like you,” she jokes.
I have never told Ersie that I also once worked as a janitor. I don’t say anything because I’m afraid she would misinterpret my attempt to find common ground as condescension. I was an amateur at the job, she’d think; she was condemned to be a professional.
My usual paranoia. It’s the same hyper-sensitivity that explains why I never buy toiletries for friends. I wouldn’t want them thinking I thought they actually needed the soap. My friend Natalie once said to me “You know, most people have a much more innocent sense of your intentions than you suspect. People think you’re a nice guy. Why don’t you?” But apparently I still need convincing.
So I don’t tell Ersie that during my senior year at high school, I worked part-time on the school’s Building & Grounds maintenance team. I didn’t kid myself, though. I wielded a mop and bucket. I was a janitor.
There were actually two maintenance teams, an inside one for the building and another outdoors team for the grounds. I don’t know if we chose for ourselves or were steered to one team or the other, or, as is the case with most hierarchies, it was a bit of both, but it was clear who worked on which team. The tougher, more athletic guys mowed the lawns and trimmed the hedges and worked with tools that could slice off fingers. Some had been on the football team.
The rest of us were misfits of sorts, geeks and nerds mostly, who worked with dusters, mops and toilet brushes. We had machines, too—the buffers we used to rid the linoleum of the day’s scuff marks, and a boxy metal monster that a few of us got to push around to clean the terrazzo floors—but ours lacked the masculine allure that gasoline and the threat of disfigurement gave the equipment the guys on the G team worked with. Their lawnmowers and hedge clippers were emblems of a future life of success in the suburbs; our dustmops and buffers reeked of hospitals, prisons, and army bases.
We were all working for different reasons. Some were saving up for a used car, others for expensive stereo equipment, things that most of our other classmates at this modestly prestigious Catholic prep school could reasonably expect their parents to buy for them. I heard a couple of the guys on the Grounds team were using the money to buy drugs. I used my earnings to buy books and eat out in the city with my friend Simon and save for a cross-country trip he and I talked of taking once school let out. If I hadn’t been in love with Simon, I probably would never have taken the job.
It suited me, though. I liked the quiet and I liked working on my own. I was usually assigned the classrooms and corridors in the north wing of the school, which at that time of the day were deserted. Had it been now, I’d probably have worn headphones and listened to music, but I enjoyed the stillness. That, and the single-minded focus on the tasks at hand. I would have called it a kind of meditation if I had known what meditation was.
I always took a minute or so to survey the classroom before I began work, as if to fix in my mind the state of disorder that I would later make right. I’d note the patches of chalk dust on the floor below the board, the gum wrappers and crumpled scraps of paper, the desks in disarray. The image would sharpen the sense of accomplishment once I was done and could look out on the room with its perfectly aligned rows of desks set on the shining spray-buffed floor.
Some of my own classes were in the rooms I cleaned in the north wing, but I never consciously looked down on the floors when sitting the next morning for History or English. Sometimes if I got bored with class my gaze would wander to the floor and I might then notice the groove-like circular traces the buffer had left in the waxed linoleum. But I made no mental note to buff out the grooves later that afternoon.
Others would say I needed that compartmentalization to deal with the loss of face I had to endure at school. But the truth is, no one ever commented about our working on the B&G crews, not to our face anyway and I doubt not behind our backs, either. Most probably didn’t even notice what we did. For the few who did, working on the crew didn’t help our popularity any, but I was on the margins of the in crowds anyway. Besides, I had other, more troubling ways in which I felt awkward and different, and they had to with my feelings for Simon. Being gay, even if I wasn’t out at the time, was turning out to be harder to deal with than being a janitor.
I want to say that my time on the B&G team taught me something about the value of manual work and the virtue of humility, or even how to clean my house. But it didn’t. Nor did it immunize me against arrogance later in my life. It was merely a job, a short-term means to an equally short-term end, and I brought to it the same purposefulness and unquestioning sense of duty to do it well that I already brought to my studies. Jobs don’t shape us; we fill out our jobs to suit our character.
Unlike the head custodian and his assistant, I was only passing through. Ersie would be right if she called me an amateur. Though I’d have other part-time jobs in later years waiting tables, making pizza, and unloading trucks at a UPS hub, I knew I’d finish university and find a different kind of job, even if I was fairly certain I’d still be working indoors.
The only thing I gained from these jobs was a tendency to tip well and the realization that I could do it again, if I had to. I could clean up after others, mop their floors, and scrub their toilets, if need be. I could live contently without defining myself in terms of my work, as I had been happy in the classrooms and corridors I cleaned later in the day. I could take care of myself.
I don’t know if Ersie feels the same sense of accomplishment at cleaning our offices as I did the classrooms of my high school. I would never ask, of course. But I know she’s proud of the plant. Apart from the urn of coffee she makes each day, tending my plant is the only act of production in a job that otherwise consists of elimination. She spends most of her day removing the traces others leave behind, the grease-prints and lunch crumbs and sloughed off skin that are the evidence of our presence in these offices, just as I had the gum wrappers and chalk dust at school. Her goal is to make the room look as if no one had even been there, just as mine was. My plant, on the other hand, is evidence that someone—she—has been there. She waters it, sparingly as is appropriate, and when needed feeds it and re-pots it. She may even talk to it. If so, I hope it talks back. It probably wouldn’t be around without her.
The painting reproduced in this post is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In its commentary to the painting, the museum informs us that Lucioni and Cadmus were likely to have met in the circle of gay artists and writers which both frequented. I was also intrigued to discover that the artist attributed his sense of discipline to the obligation he had as a boy of scrubbing the wooden floors of his family’s home (as Stuart Embury notes in his The Art and Life of Luigi Lucioni)