Grace Tatlow, "Jak"
Art, Music, Books & Film

Blind Date

I’ve been told to wait for him inside the metro station, the one off the city’s flea market, across from the Old Mosque and the ruins of Hadrian’s Library. I am not to address him; he will speak to me if he needs to. He will find me and I will follow him.

I stand waiting for him in front of the wall by the escalators, holding a paper sign with his name. It looks like an African name but it could be Iraqi or Tamil. I don’t how it’s pronounced because I have never heard his voice. I wonder if it will sound like music when—if—he says it; I imagine it as the strum on a double bass, a mix of hums and plosives.

There was surely an easier way for us to meet than waiting here with the sign. I could have worn something distinctive like a bandanna in my pocket, as one used to do in bars. But amid the coral and peach and robin’s egg blue and the dozens of other colors that are the insignia of fetish for the initiated, there is none that would have been appropriate for this encounter.

A few of the passengers ascending the escalator glance at me as they turn to head out of the station. If they give me any thought at all, they think I’m waiting for a visitor or business client from abroad. An innocent ascription, but I feel uncomfortable being looked at in this way.

I recall times when I provoked the gaze of others. But if I walked the streets of Berlin in a bomber jacket and skinhead boots, it was within the radius of a tolerant neighborhood with a cluster of bars frequented by like-minded patrons; my uniform served only as a coded message, like good shoes worn to an elegant restaurant. But this is different. I am the start of a story.

I realize why I am holding this sheet of paper. He wants me to experience this sense of losing my anonymity, of becoming visible against my will. I have become a spectacle and an object of speculation both. The stories the others tell of me are different from the ones he would be cast with, but I am on exhibit nonetheless.

If he were in my place, of course, he would be scrutinized more. He’d be an immigrant day worker waiting to be picked up by a new foreman, a poor soul in the eyes of some, an unwanted interloper in the eyes of others, but in any event a man unmoored and adrift, destined to go back to wherever home had once been or to move on, for few would believe he wanted to stay here.

I don’t know if he’s coming by train or by foot. Looking for a man I have never seen, I scan the commuters that emerge in waves from the tracks below and the more irregular procession of those walking into the station from the square outside. Though I have no reason to believe so, I have decided he will be beautiful. My gaze lingers on men I think might be him–or want him to be–waiting for a sign of acknowledgement. I’m surprised how often these beautiful men appear, rising up the escalator like sailors emerging from the hull of a ship to begin their shore leave.

As instructed, when the hour changes I put on the headphones I received. An unexpected luxury, they’re a better pair than the ones I own; the padded earcups cancel out much of the noise in the station. The player to which they are attached will begin to play on its own, I’ve been told, and once it does, I am not to touch it.

Is this also part of the ritual, to yank me out of my surroundings so that I can see him more fully?

And then he appears. He’s standing five meters across from me, a tall, black man in his 30s,  thin and narrow-shouldered, his head shaved as mine is, looking at me with a faint smile on his face.  He walks up to me as first music then a voice comes on through the headphones. “This is my face,” it says. “This is not a disguise.” It tells me that the voice I am hearing is not his voice. But I know that already. He has borrowed the voice of a native son to tell his story.

“Walk behind me,” the voice says

Then he turns around and I follow him out of the station.

He leads me along the back streets of an old working class neighborhood near what once was the city’s gas works. I know the area. It is home to a handful of galleries and a makeshift sidewalk market where I sometimes pick up bok choy and mustard greens on Sundays. But it is also home to cheap brothels and hookah lounges and dimly lit storerooms stocked with cheap Asian imports, places I never visit. I have no friends who live here. I am a tourist to the neighborhood, as I am to this man’s life.

Most of the buildings are cheaply constructed apartment blocks from the 1960s, a monotonous sheet of concrete façades and stingy balconies broken now and then by the vestiges of an earlier neighborhood, one of modest dwellings with courtyards shaded by bougainvillea and decorated with begonias potted in olive oil drums.

I’ve read the numbers in the papers. One in four apartments is empty. One if three residents is an immigrant. This could be his home, his neighborhood, though few in the city think of this area as such. For most, it is only a sign of the crisis, a no-man’s land.

He stops and turns around. I stop too. The voice on the player says, “Look at me”.

I do, but timidly. I feel awkward standing before him on the sidewalk as we silently look at each other, as if we were performing an intimate act in public. But not sex. This is not cruising. I would feel less uncomfortable if it were. I know how to tell him with my gaze that I want him. Now I need to tell him something different and with my eyes alone: I want to know you. This is harder to do.

His gaze is more relaxed, more confident, more direct than mine. He’s obviously done this before. He is not appraising or undressing me; instead he looks at me with concentrated curiosity, as if he were memorizing my features should he need to find me again. It is more than an act of scanning, however. The faint trace of an occasional smile suggests there are features of my face that please him.

But what? I am too old for specifics. A man might still tell me after we make love, “that was hot.” Not me. That. The act, the experience, but not me, or at least not directly me. Perhaps my authorship, or my direction and attentiveness, but not the line of my jaw or my eyes or the sound of my voice. I’ve become a generic, valued for my agency and not my packaging.

I’ve accepted this blunting of compliments as an inevitable part of getting older. One could make love to this body even when one does not praise it. But there is something he sees in me that he likes. Something physical, unless he can divine character in my carriage and mien alone, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he could; constrained by language the newly arrived immigrant is by necessity a careful observer, obliged to extract (and at first often doomed to misinterpret) intent and meaning solely from the signs and gestures of others. With practice, the immigrant comes to observe more carefully and read more faithfully.

I begin to contemplate him in turn. I see his smooth skin shine in the sun, his well-formed white teeth and the ridge of his collarbone protruding above the line of his tank top. As I look longer I notice the trace of a smile that keeps resurfacing. He is indeed beautiful, though I would not have noticed him coming up the escalator.

He’s making himself visible in a way that would not be otherwise possible had we met in the street or for coffee for a hastily arranged date. He is giving me time to look at him.

He—how quickly I have come to hear this voice as his—tells me how as a student he read the stories of the gods and heroes of this fabled, ancient land, how he expected upon his arrival years later to see the modern equivalents of Pericles and Euripides on the streets of the city, but instead found ordinary people of ordinary imagination caught in a crisis that seems will never end. He tells me of hearing the native’s surprise that he, a foreigner, can speak the language so well and has read the poetry of Cavafy and knows the words to the songs they sing on feast days and weddings. I know this experience, and it is something that binds us, the first sign that we have more in common than I first imagined.

He tells me other stories of his life, but these are dark tales that mark our difference. He tells me of being held at knife-point and forced to watch rebel soldiers rape his sister. He tells me of almost drowning on the unseaworthy boat which brought him here.

I call up memories of loss in my own family, a young uncle who took his life, my mother’s death from cancer. I grieve these losses no less than he does his own, but I don’t pretend they are the same. They are an approximation to a horror I have been spared.

The man signals to me that we should resume our walk, and eventually leads me to a shack on an empty lot. He opens the door and sets me down on a chair before a small screen. Standing behind me, he takes off my headphones. For the first time I can feel his flesh against mine. Though it is just his hands against my ears, I feel his touch I feel the warmth of his touch seep through my body. I want to clasp his hands and turn around and look at him again, but I know I am not supposed to move.

A video is projected on the screen, perhaps scenes from his native land or a collage of home movies his father had taken of him as a child. But I remember nothing. I can only recall the pressure and gentle heat on my ears. If this is all I can have of him, I think, it is enough for now. And then the screen darkens. I wait for five, ten minutes, but he doesn’t speak. And then I realize the headphones are back on my ears. I turn around but he’s gone.

-/-

Readers familiar with the work of Dutch director and set designer Dries Verhoeven will know that I have based this text on his award-winning experiential performance “No Man’s Land. In this piece, 20 viewers at a time are paired with one of 20 political refuges or immigrants, who then leave, each pair on its own, for a 40-min. walk through one of the city’s central neighborhoods to join up at the end with the other pairs at a row of 20 shacks on an empty lot.

Although the text reproduces the structure of the performance—the meeting in the subway station, the iPod and headphones, the walk and the story—I have chosen to focus on only one aspect of this particularly rich work and re-appropriate it for my own purpose (and in ways not intended by its creator), namely, to explore the various acts of seeing that are present in this piece.

I have no way of knowing whether the stories I heard were my guide’s. I learned that Verhoeven spent considerable time in Athens before the performance, interviewing refugees and immigrants and collecting material for what I suspect (after talking with a friend of mine who also “viewed” the performance) was a single narrative shared by all guides.

“No Man’s Land” was presented in Athens at the Fast Forward Festival organized by the Onassis Cultural Center in May 2014. Here’s a short clip about the work; it’s in Dutch but even if you don’t know the language, it gives you a sense of what transpires during the performance.

The image for the post is by Grace Tatlow, a young British photographer. Though the photograph was taken as part of a fashion shoot, I find it a striking image of the act of looking. I was particularly moved by the contrast between the barbed wire (that speaks of separation) and the look of desire and expectation in the subject as he looks down the street (that speaks of union, in whatever way one imagines it). The  palette, too, of the photograph is intriguing, with its myriad shades of greys punctuated by the dark maroon of the man’s shirt and suspenders, which in turn is echoed in the building at the end of the walkway.

Gustave Caillebotte, "Man Drying Himself", 1884
Vignettes

The Prep

I celebrated my birthday with a purge. No shit left behind, I joked to friends.

The decision was prompted by a few wispy streaks of blood on a clump of toilet paper. Now, the appearance of blood anywhere sends me rushing for band aids and iodine to cleanse and seal the rent in that precious sheath between the self and the world. But blood in the feces is a whole other matter. Blood in the feces screams. The following afternoon I was in doctor’s office.

I described the color and shape and distribution of the blots, which looked a bit like an archipelago of crimson islands. Possessed of an inordinate respect for evidence, I had first thought of saving the paper in a zip-lock bag or taking a picture of it on my mobile phone, but that seemed a rather extreme measure. I never know whether my doctor sees me as the ideal patient or a crank. A bag of used toilet paper would certainly have tipped the balance to the latter.

He said the bleeding was likely due to hemorrhoids, but there was also my recent history of stubborn lower abdominal pain that had defied earlier diagnosis and that concerned him. “Am I right you haven’t had a colonoscopy?”

I shook my head.

“Well, it’s not too early for your first,” he said, and gave me a referral to a gastroenterologist.

I’d have to do it sometime, I thought. I wasn’t bothered by the thought of a probe winding its way through my intestines, much less by the idea of penetration, which seems to freak out some straight men; really, I wonder, have they so little curiosity about their own bodies that they have never explored this orifice on their own? Besides, anyone who shudders at the thought of a tube being inserted into their rectum forgets that far thicker matter descends from the same canal daily (the tube’s diameter is only about that of the little finger).

Nor was I concerned about the doctor finding something worrying. That was the whole point of the procedure, wasn’t it? Why would I not want to know, especially when the alternative of not knowing could be metastatic bowel cancer?

No, I wasn’t anxious about a tube in my rectum or the discovery of polyps. I was afraid of exploding.

My father wouldn’t have known about colonic explosion. But I had the internet.

I scheduled the procedure by phone and was emailed the instructions for the prep. It would have been nice to have had a nurse explain the  procedure to me in person, and answer my questions, of which I had a score. Instead I scoured the web for advice and tips for the prep.

And then I ran across it. A comment on a colonoscopy forum—of course there were such boards—likely from a prankster, who wrote that his intestine exploded during the procedure. Which then led me to Wikipedia and the following entry, reproduced here in its pithy entirety:

An intracolonic explosion is an explosion inside the colon of a person due to ignition of explosive gases such as methane. This can happen during colonic exploration, as a result of the electrical nature of a colonoscope. The result can be acute colonic perforation, which can be fatal.

It only takes three things: a sufficient quantity of methane and oxygen, produced by gut bacteria, and a spark. And then, bam!

Upon further research I learned that there have been only 9 such explosions reported during the tens of millions of colonoscopies performed in the US between 1952 and 2006. It was probably the same number of bear attack fatalities. Poor colon preparation was implicated as the cause.

Despite the rarity of such incidents, I was determined to be perfectly prepped. It felt a bit like wanting to ace my SATs but with a much shorter time span in which to prepare and with greater stakes than getting into Yale.

“You’ll be so much lighter,” Liz said, when she learned of the regimen I was to follow. A diet of bland, fiber-poor hospital food, broths and gelatin for a few days and then a day on which I would drink four liters of a laxative solution. “You’ll get rid of all the toxins in your body,” she said. “You’ll be ethereal, like a yogi.”

Well, maybe not all toxins, I thought. The deposits of mercury from the fish I ate, the pesticides from the fruit I’ve eaten, the unhealthy residue of my ingestion of the outside world, it couldn’t all be sitting around in the lining of my gut.

We renew our skin every four weeks, our blood every sixteen. Even our bones are regenerated. If everything is rendered anew in this never ending process of blasting and clasting, where do these poisons accumulate? Ah, yes, of course, I thought, it’s in our fat. And that never leaves, and certainly not with a bowel cleansing.

I also knew that I’d lose a good share of my gut bacteria, electrolytes and a lot of fluid, and was instructed to keep hydrated with lots of clear, read-a-newspaper-under-the-glass liquids. I didn’t want to associate any of my favorite drinks with the prep, so I stocked up on iced tea and ginger ale, neither of which I’m particularly fond of.

Salty, vanilla-y and chemical-tasting all in one, the laxative was the most vile liquid I’d ever drunk. It’s been years since the last time I had to take something into my mouth that I didn’t like. Even cough medicine these days is palatable. And when it isn’t, you only have to down a tablespoon or so of liquid, not four liters.

I am lucky in being a rather catholic eater; most of my challenges are with things that are too salty or sweet or cloyingly rich. Birthday cakes were always a problem, because, unlike other foods that I could decline feigning an allergy or a traumatic childhood experience, cakes are offered not as food but as an act of celebrating the birthday boy or girl. There was no excuse that I could reasonably offer for not eating it. Who doesn’t like butter cream? (Me, I want to shout).

I’ve eaten and drunk unpleasant things, of course, when there was no choice: an unripened Camembert served at a dinner party that was all ammonia, a cocktail overtaken by Fernet Branca, a bitter liqueur that resembles the cough medicine of old if you mixed it with toothpaste. And there was a veal stew that Matthew’s cousin made for us one evening with an obscenely large amount of heavy cream that she had added to make it, as she said, more special for company. But the last time I gagged on food was eating a mayonnaise-laden tuna fish sandwich I had at the pool club when I was eight.

I gagged on this solution with the first glass.

I had read the tips. The less contact with the taste buds, the better, so drink it through a straw. Have it as cold as possible. (Apparently the receptors in our taste buds react more intensely and send stronger signals to the brain when they are stimulated by food or fluid at warmer temperatures.) Hold your nose when drinking. Suck on a lemon—being careful not to swallow a pip—right after drinking.

I followed all the tips, and it was still disgusting. And I had to drink a liter of it an hour for four hours. Unwisely, I first thought it would be less unpalatable if I sipped it. It turns out the trick is to drink it as quickly as possible and then concentrate fully on not throwing up.

Liz was wrong. There was nothing spiritual about the purge. I spent too much time on the toilet shitting. No, that’s the wrong word, with its connotations of slow deliberateness and time for crosswords and cogitation, as Auden once wrote. This was no good omen. It was a violent expulsion.

Imagine needing to go to the bathroom. No, desperately and suddenly needing to go. Multiply the need and the volume and force threefold. Color the liquid brown and rocket it out the rear exit. And do this again and again and again, until the liquid turns the color of pale straw.

Good student that I am, I drank it all as prescribed. After finishing my rations, I collapsed in bed from exhaustion almost certain that I’d need to wake again in an hour to repeat the action. But I woke up only once in the early morning, naturally, to shit.

I was disappointed to see that my prized straw-colored stream of effluent had yellowed. I didn’t ace my SATs after all. Bile. I’d been purged but was already gathering slime. Apparently even yogis can’t stay clean for long.

I arrived next morning at the hospital “We’re a little stressed today,” the nurse taking my vital signs said.

Uh, yeah, I’m lying here on a surgery table in a flimsy hospital gown with my ass exposed. This may be a pornographic trope and the guy was cute, but I felt more like a specimen than a man. After all, I was waiting for my colon to be photographed. I was a procedure about to begin, which I suppose is precisely what you want your gastroenterologist to see you as.

The drugs were nice and I didn’t feel anything. I had the sense as I came to that the probe was still in me turning corners. But it was probably just my imagination or the remnants of impulses sent by the gut’s second brain. The doctor didn’t find a single polyp. I wasn’t lighter for the procedure but I was clean.

In the end, it wasn’t all that awful. Granted, I had spent the previous afternoon doing nothing more than ingesting and expelling liquids.  For the span of eight hours I’d been reduced to a channel of inputs and outputs, but there was no pain other than a sore ass. (Luckily I had followed the forum tips and stocked up on baby wipes and Vaseline). When I wasn’t drinking in order to shit or shitting what I had drunk or waiting to shit, I was in the shower soothing my ass. These inconveniences and an occasional wave of nausea during the prep were all there was. It was nothing like spending a day with the obliterating pain of a toothache or the chills and aches of a bad case of the flu.

It was an intensely focused and humbling meditation on the act of excretion, and of its contribution to keeping me alive and well. I emerged with a new found respect for my bowels and an intense craving for a fish curry (I had yoghurt and a plum instead). It turns out there was something yogic to the whole experience after all.

-/-

Nothing in this post is meant to be medical advice. There are reliable sources of information on colonoscopies available on the internet (this post is not one of them), such as the  American Cancer Society and the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, though arguably none of these can or should substitute for your physician’s guidance and instructions.

Featured image: Gustave Caillebotte, “Man Drying His Leg,” 1884.  I doubt if there is an appealing image to accompany a post on a colonoscopy. This intimate portrait by Caillebotte of a man drying himself after a bath is hardly congruent with the discomfort of the prep but considering how much time I spent in the shower during it and the relief bathing provided me, it seems apt enough.

Charles Demuth, "Dancing Sailors", 1917
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Original Version Subtitled

As was the case with many of the things I did for the first time as a high-school boy in New York, the Fellini film was Simon’s idea. The art house in Soho was no less intimidating than the Guggenheim the first time I visited the museum with him or the legendary midtown department stores we had seen in Hollywood movies and that he insisted we enter.

I had never been to a cinema which showed old movies, much less movies that changed every day so that you could see a week of different films by the same director. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about directors at all until Simon talked about them.

Like cold soup, biryani and bourbon, the subtitles were a mark of a future self we were trying out. It took me time to get used to them. I didn’t want to miss what was happening on screen. There was so much to see. Mise-en-scène, Simon had called it once when we were watching an old Hitchcock movie at his place. He taught me to notice where the actors were standing and how they were placed, how the shot was lit and framed. He talked about the camera angle and the depth of the shot and shadows and highlights. He showed me how to read the clues a director left in the movie about the mood and intentions of the characters on screen, the truth that lay concealed behind the words they said. Simon made movies something that had to be worked with, unraveled, interpreted–and infinitely richer.

I realized these were things my father, who was a negative cutter, a profession now eclipsed with the advent of digital editing, could have taught me. But for the longest time we hadn’t talked much beyond the essentials of how school or track practice was going. I had longer conversations with my English teacher than with him.

I realized that if I didn’t keep up with the subtitles, I’d lose track of the narrative. I had to do both at the same time, watch the film and read. It was a little like being with Simon. There was always this tension between listening to what he was saying and hoping to see something in his eyes or the shape of his mouth that would tell me what he felt for me.

“So when are you going to ask someone to the prom? Or have you decided you’re not going?” he asked me after the movie as we sat on a bench in Washington Square eating hot-dogs.

I was annoyed by his question but tried not to show it. I had hoped he’d talk about the orgy and the stingray we’d just seen.

“Of course I’m going. I’m on the Prom Committee,” I said.

“If you wait too long, you’ll look desperate, and no girl wants to go out with a guy who’s desperate. Girls can tell.”

“Unless she’s desperate, too,” I joked. But I knew that when I finally asked a girl, it would be precisely that kind. I didn’t know all that many to start with. Going to a boy’s school meant I didn’t really meet girls, except the ones who came to our school to do AP Biology or whom we met at the rare mixer our school organized.

I was only going to the prom because, well, practically everyone else was, and I didn’t want to be one of the boys who didn’t go. That’s what I said to myself, anyway, and it was partly true, but the real reason was that Simon was on the Prom Committee, and joining it was a way of spending time with him.

“What about Deborah?” he asked.

Deborah was his date Jocelyn’s friend, a petite, model-thin girl. She had straight long hair parted exactly in the middle that sat perfectly on her head and fell like a satin curtain to her mid-back without a kink or curl to be seen.

“She’s kind of flaky,” I said. But in the end I asked her out.

The prom was a mix of ordeal and boredom. Deborah kept leaving the table to go to the bathroom or talk to friends at other tables, and when she was with me, I didn’t how to talk to her. Being with her was like watching a foreign film in which the subtitles appeared only every third or fourth shot. I danced with her more than I wanted to, and most of the time watched Simon dance with Jocelyn.

It wasn’t all a loss. Simon and I were proud of our spaceship theme. We had draped the entrance to the gym with long curtains of silvery beads and decorated a wall with strips of colored tube lighting, which was Simon’s tribute to HAL, but no one remarked on the Kubrick reference. He told me later he didn’t care. “You get it,” he said.

Simon and I saw other movies in the months after the Prom. The 400 Blows, Open City, Elevator to the Gallows, Persona.  I saw Europe for the first time twice. Once with Simon in the movies, and then a few years later when I visited the cities and countryside we had seen together.

I had decided that Bergman had the best subtitles. It didn’t really sound like anything I would say—it was far too literary for that—but I could easily imagine that what I read on screen was a faithful rendition of the lilting, melodic words I was hearing. The shots were unhurried so I could read the subtitles and return to the screen. But the subtitles in other films sometimes seemed flat and ordinary.

Later, when I moved to Europe and began to speak a language that wasn’t mine, I understood why. In subtitles, the puns go first, then the references to cartoon characters and old songs that only the native speaker would know. Scraps of history are excised and slang rendered by more prosaic constructions. Obscenities seem to suffer the most. Standing on their own and isolated from the previous text like a slogan on a poster, the rendered curses and language of the street are either too quaint or too violent.

There’s no room for a translator’s gloss or extended paraphrase in the tight two-line, 35-character length of the usual subtitle. Language is stripped down to convey the key items of information in the dialog, without which viewers might not know why the woman is leaving her lover alone in the hotel room before room service comes in with breakfast.

This was the language I came to speak. A language of subtitles, flat, transactional, off-key at times, utterances squeezed into the short frame of opportunity in which I have to speak. It is not that I was given less time than my native speaker friends and associates, it’s just that I waste more of it. I speak more slowly, and squander my time with repetitions and backtracking to fix an ending or change a gender. (I can sense when I’ve made an error, and I can’t leave it alone. It’s as if I spilled my drink or left crumbs on the tablecloth. I have to clean it up.) My language is pitted with the lacunae of uncertainty as I sometimes grope for a word.

I realize that I had once been a non-native speaker in my own land, as a gay teenage boy, unsure of himself with the girl he had asked to the prom and with the boy he wanted  to dance with but didn’t dare say it.

One reason native speakers talk so fast is because they are composing with larger chunks of the language than we non-native speakers do. Smokers are occasional or recreational, reformed or heavy or simply non-.  Legs are bare or stiff, hands sure or good. The pieces native speakers use to compose their speech already fit together. They instinctively know what comes before and after.

I was missing the pieces that came before and after. Though I had heard and seen in the locker room and hallways and in the movies the scene I was to play with Deborah, it was as if it were written in a foreign language. She surely heard how awkwardly I spoke it, for we only saw each other once or twice after the dance.

The words I used with Simon were different. There I could speak the native language of our friendship but this, too, was marked by lacunae and false starts. I knew how to curse and make puns and play with the language–talking like this was yet another way to be with Simon–but I didn’t know how to tell him I loved him. I sensed what could come next but didn’t have the words for it. Perhaps it didn’t need to have been spoken at all.

-/-

Featured image: Charles Demuth, “Dancing Sailors”. 1917

The founder of the Cubism-inspired Precisionist school of painting, Charles Demuth is perhaps best known for his series of “poster portraits” that he painted to honor painters and friends such as Georgia O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. But he also painted beautiful and (true to form) marvelously colored watercolors of homoerotic scenes depicting sailors (and one wonderful self-portrait set in a Turkish bathhouse).

I’m indebted to Afrah Hasan Jassim Radhi for his enlightening article on language learning and collocations, in which he makes reference to Pawley and Syder’s theory of language chunks.

Page from Alexander Iolas' address book
Art, Music, Books & Film

Repertoire

Occupying a space two basements deep in the underbelly of the National Conservatory, the museum’s lodgings were always meant to be a temporary home. In the cavernous hull that lay under the inclines of the concert hall, gypsum boards were used to carve out more intimate viewing space, like make-do sleeping quarters in a vast cellar. It is not so much a white cube as a bunker surrounded by earth.

It is one of my favorite spaces in the city. I am drawn to the rawness of the dimly lit, hulking void, with its exposed concrete ceiling and heating ducts, which were never an architectural statement but a matter of expediency. Perhaps I like it most because it was never widely loved. I can usually expect to share it with only a handful of other visitors.

By the end of this year if all goes well (the anticipated opening has been at least twice postponed), the National Museum of Contemporary Art will have taken up new quarters in a renovated brewery a few stops from the center of Athens. Hyped by the media blitz of publicity that will no doubt precede its inauguration, the pristine airy space of the new museum building will soon draw many times over the visitors the current space attracts. I should be happy that so many will make the effort to see art they would otherwise never seek out, and for the sake of the artists, I am. But I will miss the old building.

To mark its departure, the museum has mounted a retrospective exhibition of works by artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis. Entitled “Every End is a Beginning”  and curated by the artist himself, the show is a fitting choice. In his video animations, installations and miniature 3-D printed bricolage houses of (real and digital) found objects, Angelidakis has often dealt with notions of impermanence and shelter.

And this is very much a show about leaving. I know that even before I get to the art. The entrance to the staircase leading down to the main exhibition space is arched with scaffolding; at its base a sheaf of plasterboard panels lies stacked against the wall. The space seems to be saying: “You’ve caught us at a bad time, you see, we’re moving out, but since you’re here you might as well take a look around.”

In the darkened central hall Angelidakis has set up a dozen or so packing crates, each high enough for a person to stand in, like the booth of a circus fortune teller. As I make my way across the hall, motion sensors set off spotlights that momentarily illuminate my path and then turn off, like stairway lighting on a timer. Even the light is transient in this field of steles.

We are leaving. In his video animation “Troll”, a visionary Modernist low-income housing project built in the 60s around a rare core of interior gardens, now fallen into disrepair and fed up with the neglect spreading through the city, gets up and walks away to the mountains.

The most poignant statement of leaving and loss, however, is to be found in a suite of rooms that house the artist’s visual essay on the fate of the Iolas villa.

One of the most influential art dealers of the 20th century, Alexander Iolas is perhaps best known for his pivotal role in introducing Surrealism to the United States and for organizing Andy Warhol’s first show. The catalog of artists whose work he championed and exhibited reads like an index of modern art.

The villa he built on the outskirts of Athens was intended after his death to house an art center with his collection of more than 10,000 works of art. He offered to donate the land and building to the Greek State. Fearing perhaps the political cost of accepting a bequest from an openly gay man who at the time was the victim of a vicious smear campaign by an Athens tabloid, the government declined his offer (the villa has since been listed as a national monument and the government has committed itself to acquiring it from its present owner). After his death, the villa was slowly looted, first of its precious contents of paintings and sculptures, then of its copper pipes and eventually even the wallpaper.

The room I sit in is outfitted with two chairs covered in a gold vinyl-like upholstery, a sign not only of the theatrical décor in which Iolas decorated his villa but also a symbol of its evisceration. Off to the right is an empty open crate lined with paper drapes bearing the imprint of works of the villa’s lost art, and illuminated by the light from a single orange light bulb.

I watch a video in which an invisible hand turns the water-stained yellowed pages of the gallerist’s address book. The images of the turning pages are interleaved with stills of Iolas’ vandalized villa , with its graffiti-sprayed walls and peeling ceiling, and its garden, now given over to a sprawl of vines and weeds.

The front page bears the word Repertoire. I know this is French for address book, but I think, how apt. We are in a way a theater company mounting reenactments and reinterpretations of more or less familiar works. We know the quirks and passions of the characters in each and how each will end, though if we are good friends and lovers, we will continue to discover unexplored aspects of these texts. We broaden the repertory as we change and age, retiring older works from which we can no longer squeeze any meaning or, more sadly, of which the circumstances of life have deprived us of repeat performances. We try out new ones. Of these some will find a more permanent place in our Repertoire, others will depart after a few performances.

I try to read the lines of names, but the pages skip by too quickly. Among the entries of shipping agents and insurance brokers and bankers I imagine the book contains are surely the names of the artists whose friend he was and whose work he did so much to promote: Warhol, of course, and Max Ernst and René Magritte, whom he represented in the States. Yves Klein and Joseph Cornell, and artists such as Yannis Kounelis and Takis. I wonder at first whether he had a separate book for tricks and boyfriends, as some men now have second phones but then I notice a few entries which were only a first name.

The first names and numbers at the start of each letter are written in the same ink, perhaps transferred from an earlier address book, but most have been added later. Iolas must have kept this book for decades, adding names as his acquaintances grew. Some of the entries are neatly penned in ink, others scribbled in the gauche letters of a flair pen or written in red. Some are crossed out, a deletion occasioned perhaps by death or a falling out, but if there is a history here it known only to the record-keeper.

A few names in the Repertoire have been written on a diagonal. Around a few others a box has been drawn. Some disclose only a phone number, a few look more locker combinations than a phone, like Dan’s—0705. And then on the last page, a sole entry, a number without a name: 6168.

How unlike the glossy address book on my phone. The elegantly framed entries in my own Repertoire, friends and brief affairs alike, are all set with equal billing in a crisp Helvetica Neue. There is no variety of ink, no strikethroughs, no irregularities save for the absence here and there of a last name, or the presence of a handle instead, like skinmusc and vers34, for who could distinguish one Nikos from another? Sandwiched between a dermatologist and a second cousin or languishing uncalled in the P’s or F’s, keeping company with my accountant and a locksmith, these entries are an aide-memoire to adventures past.

I’ve left them there undisturbed for years. They were not reminders for a reunion, for these men have long been retired from my repertory and I know I will never see them again. The entries were simply pointers to an earlier self, like photos pinned to a corkboard. Or driftwood washed up on shore after a storm. I haven’t decided which, though perhaps it is both.

The evidence of our memories no longer ages. Photographs never yellow. Songs are free of hisses and cracks and never skip. These perfectly preserved relics appear to be all of a single, unchanging set. It is as if all were captured, fixed and sealed on the same day.

The songs and names and pictures we now store on our phones and tablets and laptops leave no evidence of their arrival. What’s more, they will no leave no trace of their departure. Deletion is clean and easy these days. Unlike the ectomies of surgery, no scar tissue remains after excision, no sign of the destruction that lies within the root of this word delete. We need only strike a key and then one more, a perfunctory nod to the request for confirmation. And then it’s gone, without any sign of its effacement: no gaping space on the page of a photograph album, none of the mess of strikethroughs, no empty frame, no shadow on the wall.

Later that evening I sit on the tiles of my terrace under an olive tree that refuses to bear fruit. Like the museum, it is another space to which I retire in melancholy or modest happiness to do nothing more than let my mind wander. I think of Matthew, who transformed this space from an ordinary warren of tiny rooms into an airy, light-flooded loft, a new space for us and the life we would begin in our fourteenth year of marriage. A few years later he moved out. Like Angelidakis’ giant, frustrated with the stasis in which we had become mired, he got up and set off for his own mountain.

Matthew’s number remains in my address book, and we still talk on our birthdays and namedays. Sometimes as I sit here peering through the French doors into the loft I can imagine him sitting on the sofa. But I don’t ordinarily dwell on his absence.

We lose a museum, we lose a lover. Angelidakis once said a ruin is simply a building in transition. Perhaps that is true of love, as well. Perhaps all love is a ruin waiting to happen, even when we love well and true. Whether by choice or circumstance, we are bound to move.

When Sir John Soane presented his drawings for the new Bank of England building he included a perspective of the proposed structure as it might appear a thousand years later, in stately ruins as beautiful as the remnants of Antiquity.  Though the last years of my relationship with Matthew were difficult, enough of the memory of joy and companionship that preceded those years have remained intact to allow me to revisit with pleasure the ruins left behind.

-/-

Featured image: Page from Alexander Iolas’ address book Repertoire, from Andreas Angeladikis’ video Phonebook.

More information on Andreas Angelidakis and his work can be found on the artist’s site and blog. See, too, his arresting manifesto on the contemporary ruin.The exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art runs to September 7th.

Village of Ano Petali on the island of Sifnos
Vignettes

Pick a Color

Liz offered to read my colors. She thinks I’m stuck and says the reading will show me what I need to address in my life. That was her word, address. Meet it straight on, call it by its name, and fix it.

Of course, we both know what I need to address. But diagnosis is not remedy, which is why I’m still stuck. She thinks having external confirmation of my unmet needs will prod me into doing something about it. Like getting out and finding a man to love.

In preparation for the reading, she sends me a link to a website with an image of a hundred or so bottles of two-toned liquids. I am to choose four that contain the colors I could not live without, the colors I would take with me to a deserted island. The colors that are most me.

This proves to be a difficult task. Of course I could live without them all, but I wouldn’t want to lose any. None, however, calls out “I am you”. For most of the year, I dress in shades of charcoal and slate. My apartment is a study in white and grey, relieved by the wheat of the hardwood floors. What most people would think of color comes from the spines of books and an Uzbek prayer rug that Matthew generously left behind when he moved out. The space borrows color from the fruit of a mandarin tree on the terrace, which looks into the apartment like a passerby on the street.

Like many others, including those who would never confess to it publicly, I have taken quizzes that purport to sketch your personality on the basis of your favorite color. I choose grey when I can (it is indicative of the low esteem in which greys are held that the color does not always appear as a choice on these tests).

I am not surprised to discover that we greys are an unattractive lot. We are pessimistic fence-sitters, composed yet detached, craving balance but never finding it. Curiously enough, this seems to fit me. But then again, so does conscientiousness (indigo), a predilection for order (yellow) and the need to loved and be loved (green). Aren’t we all green, I wonder?

I know that the colored solutions I am asked to choose have no more predictive power than the mounds and rivulets in the coffee grounds my friend Anna reads, or the entrails a haruspex would inspect to divine the future. They are occasions for story-telling more than anything else.

The most believable futures come from the best stories. Which is why whenever Anna and I get together I make my rare cup of Greek coffee so that she can read the dregs I upturn into my saucer. Her stories fascinate me and for the duration of the reading I imagine myself their protagonist. They make me feel that something extraordinary will happen in my life. In three weeks or three months, I’ll take a long trip to a place I’ve never been before, where I’ll meet a dark-haired man whose name begins with “F”. He wants something from me but it’s not clear what. She sees bells of unexpected news and the chair of an unexpected guest, but sometimes, too, the fox of an unfaithful friend and the owl of scandal.

It’s the reading that matters, not the signs per se. As in a horoscope, meaning lies in the act of interpretation and not in the selection of details. Of course, the details are important; they anchor the future and make it concrete and thus imaginable. The details can be made to fit.

I am, for example, an unlikely Gemini. I have only half the characteristics of my sign, as if my twin had disappeared to let me contend with the world on my own. I am a Gemini who is drawn to listen but not to talk, a man who prizes clarity of thought without the inclination to share very often what he is thinking (which is maybe why I write).

No one would think of me as the charming loquacious companion that is your standard Gemini. I am surprised people even talk to me, since I say so little. Still, friends claim to recognize the traits of my zodiac once they know my birthday. They do so in the way they would see in me the tactfulness and indecision of a Libra, the loyalty of an Aquarius or the skepticism and analytical bent of a Virgo, had I told them I was born on another day.

I click on the link Liz sent me and see rows of low-resolution pea-sized icons in dull, flat color. I could easily live without these. There is no juice in them, none of the humor that animates the green of spring grass and the sapphire waters of an island cove, none of the splendor of a glass of Bordeaux held up against the light of the afternoon sun. And there is no grey.

I should keep an open mind, I tell myself, if only out of affection for Liz. Returning to the color chart I notice the deep green of the Adirondack chairs at the house where I spent my childhood summers. I see strawberry milk and blue popsicles. Most intensely of all I remember the red coat my mother was wearing one morning as she sat me on a swing in a city park, the first and happiest memory I have of her, or indeed, of anything in my life. These are the colors I would take with me to the island, the colors of memory.

As I write down the numbers of the vials I suddenly think that if there is an aura to be read, it will be that of a three- or six-year old. I cross them off and start again.

Liz made her offer during a short trip we took together to the island of Sifnos. Once the rains cease at the end of May, the island turns brown, leached of color save for the modest greens of caper plants and prickly pear, of olive groves and fig trees. And of course, the shutters and doors of the island’s whitewashed houses.

One house is accented in ochre, another in cornflower blue. One sees doors of turquoise, and the rare, daring house in Campari red. Now and then, one comes across houses with grey doors and windows, too. Unassertive yet gracious, this is a grey that even Liz could like, a romantic who reads to his lover as they lie naked in bed after an afternoon of love-making.

Each house has a single color set in its shell of white, as if the owners had painted the trim in the one color they could not live without. I look at the vials again and think of the color I would paint the shutters and doors of my summer house, if I had one. Lilac perhaps, or the moody taupe of the skies of Flanders.

But there are no such colors in the vials I look at. I do find one with magenta, which is close enough to violet; it is paired with an amber gold. I find another magenta keeping company with a midnight blue. I write down the numbers of both, and those of another two that trigger a memory I can’t seem to fix but could be a summer shirt I’d wear on the island. Only later do I realize the inspiration for the latter vials: St. James Place on top of Baltic Avenue, and the Boardwalk resting on Mediterranean Avenue. Liz will be doing a reading for a Monopoly board.

It’s a long session and I get lost in the details of energy flows and blockages, of which I seem to have more than my share. I go to take out my notebook out of the knapsack Liz says I have to lose—“for God’s sake you’re supposed to be gay!” she says—but note-taking is frowned upon in these readings.

I remember the names of my vials, though. The Archangel Samael (the angel who takes away the soul of man, I later read) and the Puppeteer and two Rescuers, one of the Wisdom Spirit and the other, the Spiritual Rescue.

The two rescuers are not a good sign. In her voice I hear the same grave yet emotionally uncolored alarm a physician might use in relaying a diagnosis of hypertension, and yet the same confidence that this can be treated. The puppeteer and the archangel prompt questions about Matthew and Waclaw, the one who spoiled me for romance, and the other for sex. I tell her things I’ve never shared with her before.

She stops to fix us a platter of quail eggs, prosciutto and tomato salad, which we nibble as she resumes the reading. Some of what she says doesn’t apply—me, obsessed with power?—but she says it doesn’t all have to fit. Like the traits of Gemini, there’s enough that rings true to keep me intrigued.

The school in which Liz has studied puts out bottled scents that one dabs on the skin or sprays in the room, aerosols of botanicals that are said to facilitate the release of energy. She tells me I should use the red. For the passion that’s missing in my life. I don’t tell her I once spent weeks tracking down a supplier of hypoallergenic fragrance-free soap. When supplies run out, I use surgical hand scrub to shower with.

But I like the part about the “morning intention”. She says I need to start my day with a small goal to accomplish in the hours that follow, like the tasks I write on the small chalkboard in the kitchen–Gas bill! Theresa! Ferry tickets!—the manageable to-do list of an ordinary adult life, but this time with an imperative. There is one thing to do with a gas bill, and that is to pay it. Tickets need to be booked, and Theresa, who lives in Miami, is to be written to. But I must be more explicit with the guy on the trolley. Flirt or cruise, I need to add, since I seem to have forgotten what one does with these men.

Like returning from a trip abroad, ripe with resolutions to recapture the excitement of the new—I’ll take walks in the woods and see more art and rediscover a rarely visited neighborhood in the city—I take the trolley back home determined to put Liz’s recommendations into practice. I have no idea how long this inspiration will last, but it doesn’t matter.  As I get off my stop, I realize I  would choose the vials differently. I’d find one with the petrol of Liz’s nails against the white of the sourdough bread she slices for our supper and another with the sindoor of the Aperol spritz we sip as our conversation broadens from readings of auras to stories of lovers and plans to return to the island in September. The colors of stories and a friend who cares enough to want me to be happy.

-/-

Featured image: Sifnos, Greece. Author’s photograph.

Ilya Mashkov, Self-Portrait with Pyotr Konchalovsky 1910
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

A Minimal Pair

Wacław and I didn’t speak much when we made love, but when we did it was in a language we otherwise never used.  On those rare days when we’d eschew the bed for a walk in the city or in the hours before and after we made love, we conversed in the language of our adopted home. In bed we spoke English.

I had never much liked talking during sex. When a man said, “Talk to me,”  I’d become flustered, not knowing if I was supposed to deliver a narrative or a set of instructions. But whatever the genre, I always sensed I was writing a script for a character whose motives I couldn’t quite understand. I felt the same reticence to compose on command that I have when asked to add my comments to an exhibition guestbook or my wishes on a staff birthday card. “Let me think about it first,” I want to say.

But with Wacław I knew how to talk. He didn’t need commentary or directions. He wanted a soundtrack.  The words we exchanged were less dialog than a ground bass to our lovemaking, like the melodic deep trance that played on the stereo during our session. That was our word for our encounters, session, as if we had come together for a few hours to jam or do therapy and would then depart, unattached and out of contact until the next session a week or fortnight later.

I asked him to speak in his native tongue. I wanted him to make love to me in this language of the wind and murmured prayers, to caress me with the hushes and hisses in which it abounded.  I wanted to hear him. I could draw his body from memory. I knew his scent and the taste of him. But I rarely heard his voice in its most natural and intimate embodiment, and never when we made love.

He wouldn’t speak to me in Polish. He said it would make him feel exposed and alone. “Like you’re sitting there with your clothes on watching me jerk off.” And so we spoke in a tongue in which we never conversed, much in the way we met in the borrowed gear of the rebels we  never would be.

Wacław hadn’t learned English at school. His was the last generation to be taught Russian as a second language and what he knew of English he had picked up from porn. But it was enough for when we made love.

We said little. Our vocabulary could fit on a restaurant check. And like the items on the bill of a regular customer who comes in for the same order of ribs or peach pie, it never varied much.

Wacław’s favorite was “fuck you.”

Not fuck me, or ah, fuck. With his head pressed against mine and the warm of his breath on my ears, he’d say to me, “fuck you.”

The words jarred, as if he had slapped  me. But if I recoiled, he didn’t notice. I told myself, he doesn’t know what he’s saying, they’re just words to him, his way of telling you that you make him feel good. But all I could hear was contempt.

Go to hell. Go fuck yourself.

Later, as we stood soaping each other’s back in the shower, the penultimate ritual of our encounters, I thought of telling him. I rehearsed the lines in my head “You know, what you said earlier, the fuck you, well, you see, it’s not a nice thing to say to someone.”

But the words would never be gentle enough. Correcting him in this, his sole and daring foray into a language he was ashamed he never learned would worsen the inequality already present in our relationship. I would become the lead pointing out the bit player’s off notes, or worse, a player turned critic.  And he was so earnest, so pleased with his contribution to the score of our love-making. How could I spurn his gift?

I thought of the kinks in my German and Greek, the oft-repeated errors that, like the imperfections in the stroke of a self-taught swimmer, have become second nature. They sound right to me, and I rarely notice that the native speaker would never say things quite that way. They lie uncorrected and forgiven, for a friend will not be a teacher and the stranger understands well enough.

Wacław’s fuck you was likewise an innocent error that no one had bothered to point out. It was born, I soon realized, of a misheard vowel; his words had been lifted from the commonest of lines heard in porn: fuck yeah. All it took was a rounding of the lips and a slide of the tongue to the back to turn a refrain of pleasure into scorn.

At first I made myself hear the yeah of the original, but the stress was wrong. The spondee always dragged me back to you.

If I couldn’t correct him, I could model the phrase for him. I recast his words when I heard them, clipping the fuck to a brief hiccup and stretching the yeah as far it would go, hoping he would notice the difference. He never did. Maybe he never really heard it, just as I would miss the change in tone that turns a Chinese horse into a mother. You and yeah were just another minimal pair, two words differing in but a phoneme, like the bit and beat or cup and cap that trip up beginning learners of my language.

In the end I came to see it as a harmless affectation, a phrase of pleasure adopted in error but well-intended. It was only a vowel after all, a slip of the tongue, the spoken equivalent of a misspelled subtitle that appears for a few moments on screen and then dissolves as the scene segues into its next shot.

Though I got used to it, I never heard it in the way he intended it. I never found it erotic. Except one night when, in a rare moment of exasperation or on a lark, I can’t remember which, I answered him back in the same way. With you, not yeah.

It sounded studied when I first said it, like a carefully enunciated foreign phrase injected into a conversation. But the foreignness soon receded and in its place I could detect an edge of aggression gathering in my voice.  For a while this felt subtly erotic, as if we were trusted sparring partners trading jabs in the ring or school friends roughhousing. But then the undertone of aggression darkened and the words came faster and louder, the jabs harder, until I thought I heard myself finish the phrase.

Fuck you for making me want you so much. For not letting me love you. For these sessions that end with a shower and a smoke and the door closing behind you, but which mark my days like a Sunday in Lent.

-/-

Featured image: Ilya Mashkov, Self-portrait and a portrait of Pyotr Konchalovsky, 1910

Approaching Thunder Storm, 
Martin Johnson Heade, 1859
Memory

The Great Exchange

I sat in the dark on the edge of the basement cot counting, as my great-uncle Leonard had taught me, the lag between the thunder and lightning. The storm was only two miles away, and I was alone, but I was sure that the others would come down soon. The basement was the only safe place in the house.

If lightning struck it would come through the roof, I thought, or angle through the windows or the porch, along the path that sunbeams took as they slid into the house in the afternoon. I had already traced the entry points and trajectories the lightning would take. In my mind the house filled with virtual arrows slanting in from the sky, like a hive pierced with dozens of long thin needles. There was only one place free from penetration. The basement. Surely they knew that.

But no one came.

And now with the storm so close I was trapped. The basement stairs didn’t lead directly to the main floor but instead to a glass-enclosed porch and from there to the back door of the house. There were too many windows to risk on the way in, too many arrows to dodge.

I had put on my sneakers, though only out of habit. I no longer believed they’d save me. I knew a car was the place to be to if you were caught in a storm and for a few years I had believed it was because of the rubber tires. If I was wearing sneakers, I’d be grounded, too. But Leonard had recently explained that it was not the tires that would save me but the metal frame of the car—he called it a cage—which would channel the current to the ground.

I sat and waited as the sky blackened, blotting out what little light passed through the small ground-level windows along the kitchen wall. The basement became a field of shadows, briefly illuminated by spurts of white light. As the intervals between thunder and lightning shortened, my heart beat faster and harder, so hard I thought it would burst through my chest. I felt dizzy and weak, like the time I rode the Tilt-a-Whirl at the boardwalk.

And then Leonard came down.

He didn’t take me into his arms and tell me there was no reason to be afraid. Perhaps he sensed that if I was afraid, I had my reasons. Or perhaps he knew that if he did he would only alarm me further. He was not a man who touched others easily, even those he loved. The hugs he gave me on birthdays and Christmas were guided by genuine affection, of that I am certain, but the act itself was awkward, executed as if he were following a sequence of movements he had learned imperfectly and needed to recall. I was only slightly less self-conscious physically, at least with adults, and thus our hugs resembled the embrace of marionettes.

Taking me into his arms would have been an extraordinary measure for Leonard, the equivalent of a siren denoting a state of emergency rather than a means to comfort.

And so instead  he said, “It was smart of you to come down here. This is the safest place to be.”

“Upstairs is almost as safe, you know. It’s like the difference between 98 and 99, as long as you’re not on the phone or taking a bath, of course.”

He took the pole hook from the corner and went to one of the basement windows. “No one remembers these windows in a storm.”

But instead of closing it he took a deep noisy breath through his nose.  “Have you ever noticed it? The scent of a storm, I mean?” he said. “Well, maybe you can’t smell it. Not everyone can. Or if they do, they never notice.”

He breathed again through his nostrils. “I hope heaven doesn’t smell like this.”

I got off the cot and edged toward Leonard and the open window, and breathed the way he had. I smelled something.

It was like the smell from the pool at the swim club in the morning before the other families came, before the air filled with the aroma of coconut. It was like the smell, too, of the sparks of the bumper cars, but sharper. If metal could be air, this is what it would smell like, I thought.

I moved a little closer to the window and took a deeper breath, and then another. He called it ozone. The scent of the storm. And I could smell it, too. Maybe ozone was like kryptonite or the language of dolphins, something only a few people could perceive or understand, and Leonard and I were part of this elect.

He shut the windows and took one of the kerosene lamps he sometimes set out on the patio in the evenings. He lit it and placed it on the floor beside the cot, where we sat playing checkers as the cracks of thunder got louder and then faded, and the rain began to pelt the hatch door over the steps to the yard. As we played he explained to me in a way a ten-year-old could understand how lightning created ozone and how the wind then carried it down from the sky onto the land. A message from the sky. He talked about sparks and flows and waves of tiny, restless particles, but I suspect the science in his story would have been obvious to other adults.

Eventually the thunder stopped and later the rain, too, and Leonard got up to open the windows. He took another set of deep noisy breaths. “It smells different now,” he said.

I went up to the window. I knew the smell; it was grass after the rain and the scent of the soil when we dug deep for earthworms. It reminded me of the zoo and the red clay banks of the creek at the end of woods.

He told me how the rain had brought to life tiny germs of scent that lay like powder in the dry earth, and set them free to rise toward the sky. “It’s the earth’s message back to the sky. Everybody can smell it. But ozone. That’s special.”

Years later I would wonder if it had been an effort for Leonard to turn an account of physical phenomena into a story about the communion of the spheres and messages passed between heaven and earth. A story of the Great Exchange. He worked for a newspaper, and although he was in ads and not at the City Desk, he had the newspaperman’s reverence for fact and proper reporting. He was as precise in his language and thought as in the way he dressed and ate. Myth and fable were like the crusts of bread he neatly cut off his sandwiches, an expected but superfluous casing that was to be discarded.

Knowing about ozone should have made me more anxious, as I now had even greater advance notice of the storm. The pungent metallic scent was messenger and message alike, born of and foreshadowing the violence that was approaching.  But although the scent made the storm all the more physical, it also made it less capricious.

Leonard had said ozone was the way the storm revealed itself.

I knew the word from the Catechism. “Faith obliges us to make efforts to find out what God has revealed, to believe firmly what God has revealed and to profess our faith openly whenever necessary.” Revelation, I had concluded, was when someone tells you a very important secret plan you don’t really understand. Ozone meant there was an order to the storm, though I couldn’t yet see it. But it was there to be discovered.

I continued to be frightened of lightning after that day, but less so. I no longer needed to stand in the basement or the middle of the house, though I still veered away from the windows.  And I still wanted to be inside, but only after I smelled the ozone.

I now live in a city without summer storms. I brought very little with me when I moved here, just a suitcase of clothes and a wholly impractical wood-ribbed umbrella. I brought no mementos with me, no relics of my past life.

Priests who accompanied soldiers on Crusades and other travels to the East would carry with them a small portable stone altar so that they could celebrate the liturgy wherever they might find themselves. The Eastern priests had one, too, when they ventured to Venice and other centers of Renaissance learning, though theirs, the antimesion, was more practical—a rectangular cloth with a pouch containing a sacred relic.

Memory would be my antimesion; I had no need of relics, I thought.

Until one afternoon many months later when the sky darkened and a distant rumble of thunder made itself known and I went out to the terrace to take in the wash. And then to my great surprise I smelled it again, this message of the heavens. I never felt so far away from home.

-/-

Image: Approaching Thunder Storm, Martin Johnson Heade, 1859

Henry Scott Tuke,
Sexuality and Identity

You’re It

Apart from an early appearance as Joseph in a Cub Scout Nativity skit, my first theatrical role was Dracula. I performed it in a summer play that my brothers and I staged at our grandparents’ country house. It would be followed by other summer plays, all revolving on the same theme: monsters.

As the oldest I was director and writer, and thus claimed the role of Dracula for myself. My brother Daniel was a werewolf. As far as I know the two characters never appeared together in a movie, though Bela Lugosi did have a role as a werewolf in The Wolfman.

Our stage was a row of seven houses on the dead-end street on which my grandfather’s house stood, and the woods that lay at its end. I didn’t have a castle but our garage served as my crypt, and the neighbors’ yards the equivalents of cemeteries and haunted fields. Jonah’s back garden with its giant sunflowers became a pen of bewitched spirits entrapped in stalks. A hedge of buffaloberry concealed a trove of poisoned fruit. And in the Spencers’ excitable collie, tied to a cable run, was the soul of a boy who had wandered into the vampire’s castle and never emerged.

Though I insisted on calling it a play, there was no script; instead I would think beforehand of things that could be said or done during the game, mostly lines of dialogue and plot turns culled from movies and books. I would throw them into what was essentially an elaborate game of tag with elements of hide-and-seek.

In our game the tagged boy or girl, instead of changing places with the tagger to become “it”, joined the other “its” whom my brother and I had turned. The victim was then sent out with the others to round up the remaining innocents. Contamination was not transferred but accumulated, victim by victim, until all but one had been found and transformed into a neophyte vampire or werewolf cub.

If our parents had witnessed this last scene, with a gang of kids descending like a frenzied horde of zombies on the sole remaining untagged boy, they might have forbidden us to stage another play. With its notion of contagion and the disturbing metamorphosis of prey into predator, our game was dark play. But it was democratic. Eventually everyone was tagged, everyone became a freak. Then the game was over.

I didn’t care much for the tag part. I played monsters because I could wear a cape and be debonair.

I had heard my grandmother use the word when we watched old movies together. “He’s so debonair, that Cary Grant,” she’d say. I didn’t know exactly what it meant but I knew it described a man very different from my father and the other men who visited us at the summer house and sat around in t-shirts drinking beer from a can. Debonair men spoke in subdued voices with elegant turns of phrasing, and got dressed for dinner, which was served at a grandly laid table with decanters of wine. Like Dracula.

Debonair men were smart and well-mannered. They lived in another world quite separate from the one in which men shouted and cursed and fought over money or girlfriends. I wanted to grow up to be like one of those debonair men, though I wasn’t tall and had no idea how to dress well or dine at stylish restaurants (these men, I learned, didn’t eat out, they dined). I couldn’t do anything about my height except hope I’d catch up in a few years’ time. But I could learn the other things.

And then there was the cape.

I never had the slightest interest in dressing up in either of my parents’ clothes. But as a boy I would sometimes wrap the bedspread around my shoulders and walk around my room in the slow measured steps of what I imagined a royal processional to be. Now with the play I had an audience. And a better cape in the form of an old wholecloth quilt that my mother had washed and given to me.  It was dark blue but regal nonetheless.

“I am Dracula. Count Dracula. I bid you welcome.”

 

I stopped playing the game the summer before I started middle school. And then the monsters got real, and I was one of them.

No one called us that, of course. The bullies had other names for us. Queer, freak, dork, faggot. Except for Alicia. Among the outsiders and outcasts in school, Alicia Carr was a minority of one. Her divergence from the norm, unlike mine, was unnamed but she was shunned by nearly all.

Alicia lived in a post-war tract house by the river. It had been built like all the others in the development, a starter house with a low-pitched roof on a treeless, postage-stamp front lawn. But the maroon paint on the sidings had long faded and peeled, and the lawn had yielded its place to a unmowed parcel of pigweed and rye. It had taken on the look of a haunted house.

To compound matters, Alicia’s mother dressed her in ill-fitting floral-print dresses and heavy stockings that reminded me of etchings of Alice in Wonderland or the Amish farm-girls I had seen during a trip my father had taken us to Pennsylvania. They made her look like an oversized doll from an earlier century.

She always had a book with her. In good weather during recess she’d sit by herself under one of the oak trees beyond the playing field and read. I could understand her retreat; I had often found similar refuge in the worlds conjured up in the novels I had begun to read. But Alicia didn’t seem to realize how provocative her public reading was, or if she did, didn’t care or thought the alternatives not attractive enough to stop. She made me think of the early martyrs who were mocked and spit at for their faith, when not branded, scourged or boiled alive. Whether intentional or not, reading for her was an act of defiance. Alicia was a martyr of the book.

Maybe it wasn’t a matter of faith after all. Maybe she was just as paralyzed by fear as I was, trapped in the dresses which her mother made her wear and in which she would emerge from her strange sad house each morning, as unable to change the defining marks of her differentness as I was unable to change whatever mix of intelligence, voice and demeanor had prompted Jamie to call me queer.

Unlike Alicia, I would have tried to change if I had known what set me apart. I had no distinctive mark like her doll-like dresses and public reading.

It must have been something, though. Why me and not Todd, the first of the friends I had made at school? Like me he was smart and slightly built, and somewhat reticent. Moreover he had the choirboy’s delicate beauty, the kind that bullies seem drawn to vandalize. But Jamie left him alone.

But I knew why it was me, even if I tried not to think about it much.

The last summer I played monsters with my brother I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or rather, an abridged version of it that I realize now had been sanitized to remove a good part of the violence and sexuality of the original. Still, enough of the uneasy attraction that Harker feels for Dracula in the beginning of the novel remained to color my reading of the rest of the book. “I think strange things which I dare not confess to my soul,” Harker writes in his journal.

For me it was not strange things that I thought but strange things I looked at that set me apart. I didn’t look for them but I would see them nonetheless—the bodybuilders on the cover of magazines I’d see in the deli in town, the muscles on the back of a young uncle who had come out with us on a crabbing trip, the college lifeguards at the beach. These men beguiled me more than the debonair men on screen, and frightened me more than a vampire ever could. Maybe more than Jamie did.

This way of looking, this inner sign known only to me, must have seeped through and been made visible to the world. I have an aura, I thought, one that was imperceptible to most but there for those who knew what to look for, a sign like the pallor in the vampire’s countenance or the ecstasy in the martyr’s eyes.

I didn’t want to be it but I wasn’t yet ready to be me. I should have let Jamie know I had the streak of a wolf in me and would fight back and hurt him if provoked too far. Instead, I tried to disappear. I’d wait until the last 10 minutes of lunch to go to the cafeteria when I was more certain my tormentor had left. I absented myself from the hallways and playing fields, and found ways to excuse myself from gym class. It was a bad plan. My reserve just fanned Jamie’s animosity.

Alicia  was a potential ally and certainly braver than I was, but being her friend would have colored me even more conspicuously. I would be tagged again. I would be it twice over.

And so to my shame I avoided Alicia, just as Todd had started avoiding me. I used to go over to his house in the afternoon after school where’d we play with his hamster or explore the woods along the river. I sometimes stayed for supper, after which we’d play ping-pong with his father, who looked like the kind of man who fought in war and shot pool. But Todd stopped inviting me over when Jamie started bullying me and calling me faggot. Maybe Todd thought he’d be next.

I made other friendls. Marianna, a chubby girl who lived in a clapboard two-family house near the bus depot, and Yves, whose family, like mine, had recently moved here (though his from much farther away) and who, like me, longed to return to the city of his birth. There was Chance, a half-Korean boy with flyaway bangs and a voice I thought Katherine Hepburn would have if she were a boy. Outcasts all and all more openly contemptuous of Jamie and his like than I could have been, Yves especially, who had once called Jamie an imbecile to his face.

“Am-beh-seal,” he had said. I remembered it all through the rest of middle school.

Yves made me laugh at Jamie. He helped me peer through the hatred and I fear I harbored for the bully to see him for what he was: a dull, mean-spirited boy who would know nothing more of life than what this small town had to offer, a boy condemned like the sunflowers in Jonah’s backyard to grow tall but never move.

Yves gave me the first sign that Jamie’s hold on me would eventually break. A few years later I would come to see my difference as a mere fact, stripped of the connotations of perversion with which my tormentors in middle school had taunted me. And then I would come to see it as a gift. My sexuality would enable me to love and to be whole. Without it, I would be half a man without a soul. A monster.

-/-

The image for the post, taken from an untitled painting by Henry Scott Tuke (1858 – 1929), may seem at first an odd choice for a text about monsters and bullies. Though also a portraitist and painter of maritime scenes, Tuke is best known for his paintings of boys swimming or boating off Falmouth Harbour in the artist’s native Cornwall. Tuke’s dreamy summer palette of pastels and the idyllic world of gentle play and camaraderie he depicted in these paintings seem the very opposite of the shadowy world of vampires that was the inspiration for my “plays” and the intolerance and meanness that haunted the playing fields of my school.

There is something, though, about the youth’s tentativeness that reminds me of the boy I write about here, the way he’s slouched up against the rock, perhaps peering from a distance at the other boys playing on the beach.

If only that boy could see himself the way he would be a few years later. Or the way Yves and Chance and Marianne saw him.

There was, of course, nothing freakish about the boy, except perhaps his willingness to believe that he was not beautiful.