Caravaggio, San Gerolamo Scrivente
Language

Keeping Company

Translators have not often been subjects of painting, and when they have, they are usually the translators of the Bible. The Hebrew scholars of the Septuagint appear in a few, together with the man who commissioned the translation, Ptolemy II. Another Bible translator, William Tyndale, is depicted in a couple of paintings, including one in which he is shown translating in his prison cell.

It is St. Jerome, however, who appears most often. Domenico Ghirlandaio, Claude Vignon, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, Jan van Eyck and Antonello da Messina all painted the saint-translator. None of the paintings, however, captures for me the act of translation more revealingly than the one Caravaggio made for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1605-06. (It is known as San Gerolame Scrivente to distinguish it from two other paintings the artist made of the saint).

Caravaggio depicts the translator saint in relatively advanced age, his emaciated body clad in a cardinal red robe, seated alone at a table in a darkly lit room. Jerome’s head is bowed down to a large book  before him—his source text, the Hebrew Bible. He seems transfixed by the page he holds in the fingers of his hand, oblivious to his surroundings.

His other arm, with pen in hand, extends across the table to end at another book, on which a skull sits and which is opened to page that appears to be only partially filled with script. If that is true, one could assume that this the target text of the Latin translation. Curiously, the pen is held not an angle on the page, ready to write, but a few inches from the edge of the book, upright, as if suspended in space.

The long horizontal described by the saint’s protracted arm heightens the sense of distance between the source and target texts. Here the arm is both a measure of the void between the two and the bridge that connects them. At the halfway point between the two texts, the saint’s slightly bent elbow parallels the fold in the volume on which it rests. A vertical line drawn down through the vertex of the  fold would divide the panting into two panels. On the one side, the saint, the source text and the cardinal’s robe, on the other the skull, target text, and a white shroud.  On the one side, the translator’s intense concentration, on the other, distraction. The translator is both here and not here, absorbed and displaced at the same time.

It is a fitting depiction of the act of translation, I think. Translating dislodges us from the world we know and draws us into another, less familiar one, the milieu and culture of the author whose text we are translating. Like all journeys made in good faith, this encounter with the world of the source text must in some way affect us, when it does not change us. It certainly dislocates us.

We do not just enter our author’s world and culture, we move in with him or her. Their company may charm or fascinate or disturb us, but we are always their captive. We are shackled to the text in a way other readers, save for exegetes, are not. We sense this bondage most vividly with badly written texts. However much we want to skip over the clumsily rendered sentence or the chaff of jargon that substitute for thought, we must pay attention.

At times I am privileged with the company of good writers. They are all people I wish to spend time with, even when they confound me. The majority of texts that I work, however, with are unremarkable but competently written. Manuals, websites, business proposals, the soulless prose equivalent of hospital corridors and office cubicles—these are dispatched quickly and painlessly, and the claims on self and soul that they exact are no more than what one would pay working with a capable but rather boring colleague. Luckily I am spared the noxious company who enter into the lives of more heroic translators, the men and women who are saddled with the task of rendering into their native language the propaganda of hate and intolerance, the intercepted texts of jihadists and the modern-day versions of Mein Kampf. 

On a few rare occasions I will be given a badly written text to translate.  Their ugliness eludes definition, but it is easily recognized. One will be fraught with endless nominalizations, clichés and jargon, the other will be a mash of incoherent passages riddled with needless words and non-sequiturs. Each is ugly in its own way.

Their authors do not make for good company. Some are sloppy, others pretentious, but nearly all are slightly lazy and self-absorbed (if they had a better appreciation of their readers, they would have edited their texts more carefully). Translating their texts sometimes feels like spending time confined in an isolated ramshackle cabin as the guest—or hostage—of a self-important Orwellian bureaucrat or dimwitted bully.

The ugliness of text has little to do with “difficulty”. A text may be “difficult” and its author very interesting company because it is semantically dense or riddled with elliptical cultural referents and untranslatable puns. It may even have been written with the intent to conceal meaning or at least require the reader’s devoted engagement (and in turn that of the translator as well, whose challenge here is to decode and re-encode that opacity. Most translators I know delight in this challenge.) Difficulty, in this respect, is a matter of style and reflects deliberate choices that the author has made.

The only choice the author of a badly written text has made, when he had made one at all, is not to have written it more carefully. A text is ugly not because the thoughts it seeks to convey are unwieldy but because it has so few of them.

“It’s just a job,” my father would say. “You distance yourself and do the best you can.” A deeply pious man who worked in the movies as a negative cutter, he was sometimes confronted with material he found indecent. Though the films were not what we would think of as pornography (especially now)—they were all destined for mainstream cinemas—they were not good company for him. I imagine him going to work during those assignments, knowing he would spend his day with a movie that carried him across—translated him, in as sense—into a world he wanted no part of.

Distance. It’s something a therapist with a surly, unlikable patient might say, or an architect when asked to design an unlivable house. How is the translator of badly written text different from the glazier obliged to lay down gaudy tile? Or the hairdresser asked to coif a head of frizzled, spare hair. You work with what you have.

The architect, however, has much more interpretive freedom in the (considerable) gap from desire to built space. The hairdresser is expected to intervene. “I didn’t have much to work with,” she might say, but in most cases the end result is better than what she began with. Translators, on the other hand, are expected to retain the deformity of the original; they must become as awkward, trite or verbose as their authors.

It is crap, however, with your name on it. No one faults actors for the lines they deliver on stage (though how they are delivered is another matter.). The glazier’s success is judged by the trueness of the grouting, not the patterns on the tiles. On stage and in the shower, performance and authorship are more or less distinct. In translation, however, without access to the source text, the reader will never be sure whether the ugliness lay in the original or was introduced by the translator.

“That’s the way it is in the original!” the translator cries out. “I was there, I know”, but who will hear this voice of protest? Vox clamantis in deserto, as Jerome once wrote.

-/-

Featured image: Caravaggio, “St. Jerome Writing”, 1605-06

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

He Could Have Been in Pictures

The men in my family were good providers or drifters to be pitied. They could be brave, like the uncle who was an Army paratrooper, or successful, like Uncle Pete, a businessman with a thriving tax business, a funeral parlor and a small convoy of hotdog carts. Some, like my father, were called decent and hard-working. The rare few who remained unmarried and childless and left the area of the three counties in which all my other relatives lived were rarely spoken of, but when they were, it was in that tone of anxious sympathy my aunts reserved for acquaintances who had gone bankrupt or lost a finger in an accident.

But no one ever called any of my uncles or cousins or any of the more numerous and distant relatives who appeared at weddings and funerals beautiful. With the phrase’s disturbing undercurrent of femininity, a beautiful man was someone to be feared instead of admired: a man with a trace of softness. Real men were supposed to be rough, scarred by the world and furrowed with responsibility. They could be handsome, in the way a well-crafted oak desk or leather-upholstered sofa might be, but not beautiful.

The men in my family did not ordinarily talk about the way other men looked. Even if they had, and even if they had been comfortable with the word, no one would have called any of the men in my family beautiful because, in fact, none really was. Except my Uncle Ricky.

He was the youngest of my uncles, only fifteen years my senior. I have a picture of him taken at the reception following his wedding to my aunt, retrieved from a box of photographs my mother had kept; my brother gave it to me because I’m standing in the background, a tiny figure half-hidden in the shadow of an elm tree.

It didn’t occur to me at first to wonder why I was standing under the tree a few yards from him. There are likely explanations. I was waiting for the barbecue or for my father to bring the car around. I was bored with the games of catch my cousins were playing. I had spotted and followed a box turtle waddling onto the lawn. But I know now. Before I dared to think of men as beautiful, I looked at him in a way I didn’t look at my cousins or other uncles.

In the picture Ricky is standing in contrapposto with his hands in the pockets of a size-too-small rented tuxedo, a cowboy lounging around in borrowed Sunday clothes. He looks like a dark-haired James Dean, with a broad forehead and a strong jaw still free of the sash of flesh that hung below my other uncles’ chins. I see his pale, unblemished skin taut against the relief of his high cheekbones and the shadow caught in the slight hollow in his cheek. The sharp angularity of his face is relieved only by his large brown eyes, each crowned by a thin perfect arc of brow, and his thick well-formed lips.

I could not have noticed these details at the time, but I see him now for the beautiful man he was. As I boy I only thought he looked like one of the superheroes in the comic books I read, or the figures in a book of paintings my Uncle Leonard had.

Many years later during a trip to Rome I would see the painting that made the greatest impression on me and in which I had recognized Ricky. He was the young Christ in Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. This is a spare and swarthy Messiah, younger than the Jesus depicted in The Taking of Christ, less muscular than the one in the Entombment, but more darkly attractive than either.

Ricky hadn’t been born; he’d been drawn by an artist with a love of the male body, and given life.

I look at the photograph and wonder how the other women in my mothers’ family saw him as they sat at their tables for the reception later that evening, whether they envied my aunt for the seductive, beautiful man she had married or thanked God for the dependable, beer-bellied one who sat at their side, even when later in their lives they would chafe at this same dependability, as one does in a woolen shirt worn in warm weather. Did they imagine him making love to them, or did they think of her reckless, the sister with the most education who had married a man with the least promising prospects?

Ricky and I never talked very much. The longest conversation we had was when he drove me back home once after I had cycled down to see them in high school.

“Your father says you’re smart,” he asked in the car on the way back.

“I guess,” I said.

“What’s it like?” he asked.

“What?”

“Being smart.”

“I don’t know, I never thought about it,” I said.  “It just happens. I can see the way to the answer.”

I wanted to ask him what it was like being beautiful, but I knew this was a question I dare not pose. Why would I have noticed what a man looks like?

But I thought about it the rest of the trip back and for a long time afterwards.

I wonder now what it would be like to be as beautiful as Ricky was. Not just good-looking or attractive, but devastatingly beautiful, a black hole of desire that would make strangers turn on the street to look at you, mindless of the upcoming fissure in the sidewalk, entranced, incapacitated. What would it feel like to know that the sight of you alone would cause their pulse to quicken slightly and a sudden, almost imperceptible wave of warmth to flush their groin?

If Ricky was aware of his beauty, he gave no sign of it. It was as if he hand’t realized how much at variance he was with the physical ordinariness of the men and women around him. Perhaps he had always known he was different, but had grown impervious to the way that women (and a few men, too) looked at him, as burned-out teachers might to the look of boredom or inquisitiveness in their students’ faces. This is what I do. I turn heads.

If he had thrived on the attention, the way a performer is charged by the attention and applause of the audience, he dazzled without rehearsal. He had no lines to recite or song to sing. Nor did he have any of the qualities we ordinarily think of when we imagine an attractive man: charisma, wit, self-confidence, a way with telling stories, elegance, success. Ricky didn’t need to do anything, except be Ricky.

If beauty provokes awe in a way that intelligence or athletic prowess does, it enjoys a different, less overt kind of affirmation. In school, skill, strength and speed were judged and scored in each race or game. Intelligence was tested, graded and ranked. If beauty was praised, it was obliquely so.

Ricky had no record of achievements. His was a different kind of daily recognition, as I noticed when I got older. People smiled at him more readily than they would at others. Women perked up when they saw him, straightened their backs and fixed their hair, as if subconsciously preening themselves for his audience. They wanted to do things for him. I was no different.

He warmed to them, though it was only out of good manners. Down to earth and devoid of any note of pretension, Ricky made others feel welcome in his presence. There was no artifice to his affability, but no substance either, for at heart Ricky was detached from those around him.

He seemed genuinely pleased to see you, but in the way one is friendly to the barista or the passenger sitting next to you on a long train ride. He was comfortable in the others’ company because he had so few demands of it. He said little, but people seemed more than willing to fill in the gaps.

As I was to learn much later, his reticence was the mark of an overwhelming sadness. I was too young at the time, too peripheral and infrequent a visitor to be able to read his unhappiness, though an older, wiser eye, my aunt’s or mother’s perhaps, would have seen it, as a mason might notice the faint yellow stain that reveals the dampness seeping into the wall.

I cannot know what lay at the root of Ricky’s depression, not what would have rescued him from it. He had the makings of a happy, if modest and ordinary life: a loving wife, his own house, and a more or less regular, if poorly paying job. He had no calling, as far as I could tell, nor was he exceptionally good at anything, though he knew his way around car engines. But many have lived a contented life with less.

He was extraordinary in a way that his brothers-in-law could never be, despite their bravery and success, for these are virtues shared by many men. Ricky was an outlier because of his beauty. If it was a gift, it was one that did not come with the expectations that come with the bestowal of extraordinary talent, or so I imagine, since I have never been beautiful and have no idea what it was like for Ricky to be so desired.

In another world, one in which Ricky would have left the scrubland and small town of his birthplace and moved to the city, he might have been discovered. Had he hung out in certain bars and clubs, or drank his morning coffee in the cafés of the Village or uptown Manhattan, he might have been seen by those in search of beauty. He wasn’t tall enough to be a runway model, but his face could easily have graced advertisements for cologne or eyeglasses or a button-down shirt. He could have been a model, when not a muse, for a painter or photographer. He was not much different from the man who modeled for Caravaggio’s Christ figure whom he so resembled—a commoner, a swordsman, a drinking buddy. He could have been in pictures.

I don’t know if the knowledge that he gave pleasure to countless women and men who would have seen him in photographs and films would have relieved his innate sadness. I am just sad that he is remembered among us only for his tragedy.

-/-

Featured image: Caravaggio, “The Calling of St. Matthew”, 1599

Church at Dusk
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

The Fitness of Godfathers

“The priest wants to see you,” Ty said.

“That sounds ominous. Why, does he want to check if I’m fit to be a godfather?” I asked him.

I was aware that technically a godparent needs to be in good standing with the Church and an upright moral person. I thought I was the latter, though not precisely in the way the priest would probably define it. But I was definitely not the former.

“Relax, it’s just a formality,” Ty said. “Besides, you know what Waugh said about the lapsed. They’re often the nicest ones in the family.”

In truth, none of the four godparents to the twin brothers, or Ty and Alicia themselves, practiced the faith in the way the Church would have expected, except to the extent that they all went to mass on Easter and Christmas, and those who could get married, had done so in a church. I attended services on those days, too, though only because the alternative was staying home alone on Easter Eve.

I’d have to denounce Satan and recite the Creed, I told Ty.  I was comfortable with the former, substituting other abstract concepts such as injustice, oppression and narrow-mindedness in its place. The Creed, however, was a stumbling block.

“There are four of you,” Ty said, “no one will notice if you don’t say it.”

I had felt honored when Ty asked me and I immediately agreed without really thinking about the theological implications of my decision.  They had chosen me out of love and because they thought I’d be a good person for Harry to have in his life. I’d be in Harry’s life anyway and his twin brother’s, even if I weren’t a godfather, of course, but Ty and Alicia thought that this public acknowledgement of my role was important.

Despite my reservations about the Church, I wanted to do it. I imagined myself teaching Harry chess and reading him stories of valiant heroes and talking badgers. I’d give him gifts of drawing paper and colored pencils and guitar lessons. I’d show him paintings in museums and take his him to plays.  I would help teach him to be true to himself and a loyal friend, and as he got older, to cultivate a critical mind and be wary of fanaticism. I’d help him foster a measure, not excessive, of self-discipline but more importantly of self-awareness. I’d be the best godfather imaginable, I promised myself.

The priest welcomed us into his study.  He was an imposing figure, almost as tall as Ty, stocky and barrel-chested with a lush but meticulously trimmed beard, as black as the cassock he wore. The dull, black cloth and unflattering line of the cassock reminded me of a widow’s dress. I found myself thinking how peculiar his cloth of mourning was. If there were a God who created this world of turquoise skies and verdant hills and filled it with creatures sporting  feathers and scales in a riot of brilliant color, this world of trout and limes, and parakeets and raspberries, how could this God be satisfied with servants in black? I knew it represented an abnegation of the material world, a willing death in witness of the life to come, but still I imagined him dressed in the colors of a parrot. We sing hymns of praise, why should priests not be dressed in garments of praise as well?

But this was exactly the kind of thinking that would get me into trouble if he interrogated me on my faith and I tried to focus on his speech.

He told us that god-parenting was a lifelong commitment. It meant more, he said, than just showing up on the child’s name-day or Easter with gifts. I could have delivered this spiel, I thought. But then he started to talk about our helping distill in Harry a desire to serve Christ and the Church. He talked about how we would serve as role models of faith, how we should take our godchild with us to vespers. Our gifts would be books on the lives of saints, prayer beads and their first bible.

In the end he didn’t ask us anything personal. I imagine he assumed that if we were here, we belonged. Or maybe he knew that if he assessed each prospective godparent on their spiritual fitness to sponsor, he would not be baptizing many infants.  It must have been painfully clear to him from the ever dwindling number of congregants at Sunday services that faithful communicants were few in number.

Years after the christening, I see that I have done none of the things I imagined doing with Harry when I accepted Ty’s request to be his godfather, apart from the gifts (thought not the guitar lessons yet) and teaching him chess. Harry and I talk but mostly about his school and friends, movies he’s seen and crafts projects he’s done. He’s only 8 so perhaps that’s to be expected. I’m not around kids enough to know. He tells me about a clown he saw at the circus and a rod lodged in stone at the beach (“Just like Exclaibur!”). He’s a happy, outgoing kid with seemingly inexhaustible stores of enthusiasm and a trace of the sybarite. (He called me once from a food fair his father took him to; I had rarely heard him so excited. “I had four different kinds of sausage!”)

I enrolled him in an engraving workshop, and bought him a book about a young giraffe who overcomes her fear of heights. But I’ve done nothing to guide him spiritually. I’ve turned into the godfather who brings gifts.

Moral education is so much more complicated than teaching a kid how to castle. It requires presence and opportunity and I don’t see him often enough to have many opportunities, except for the occasional lesson in fairness and sharing I’m called upon to deliver when he and his brother fight over the i-Pad I bring with me when I visit.

Harry’s parents will bring him to Church on Easter and Christmas, and he’ll learn the signs to make and words to say, the common prayers everyone knew by heart, like the songs sung at weddings or heard on old films.  Catechism class will teach him the stories of a woman turned to a pillar of salt and a man in the belly of a whale, the same stories I heard as a child, though Harry will hear them differently than I had.

As a child I lived in world visited by angels, a world in which a prayer to a saint and a pair of candles crossed upon your throat could protect you from colds and infections, and there were saints you could pray to for lost things and hopeless causes. The saints whose images I saw in the ruby and sapphire stained-glass panels in church or on the postcard reproductions of paintings I would glue into my grade-school composition book and write about were agents of intercession.  I was watched over.

One afternoon walking back from school in the city—I was only a few years older than Harry at that time—and precisely at that point in my return where I felt uncomfortable, right in front of the public junior high school which all the tough kids in my neighborhood attended, I saw God.

Through a rift in the clouds a shaft of light appeared, teeming with millions of infinitesimal specks of light, like a radiant, gently pulsating beam descending to the earth. And it seemed to be coming directly towards me.

This wasn’t like the sunbeams I had seen before. It seemed to me, instead, as if the sky were emptying itself of its light through a rare window in the heavens. In Paradise.

I feel to my knees on the sidewalk and clasped my hands in prayer.

I said an Our Father and then some of the prayers I recited as an altar boy during Mass. I said aloud the centurion’s words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” which seemed to fit most of all, even though I wasn’t technically at home.

I didn’t expect to hear a voice; God, I remembered, could make himself heard in my heart without needing to speak. Then the curtain of light closed and the sky darkened and I became suddenly aware of looking at a fender of a car parked a couple of feet away from me. I got up and ran home.

My mother was ironing in the kitchen as I dashed into the house to tell her I had seen God. She acknowledged my vision with a “that’s nice”, and told me to change and go out to play. She knew I was too much a good Catholic boy to have made up a story about seeing God, but didn’t want to encourage my religious leanings and lose me to the priesthood.

I had been singled out—I had a mission—but how was I supposed to find out what it was? Willfully disobeying my mother’s instructions but knowing I’d confess the sin on Saturday, I ran up the back stairs to see my Uncle Leonard. I was sure he could explain the vision.

“Well, that’s extraordinary,” Leonard said, “though I’m not the best person to ask about this.”

Leonard was the only one in our family who ever admitted he didn’t know something. “But if I thought God appeared to me, I’d certainly start asking why,” he said.

“But I don’t know why,” I said. “That’s the problem.”

“Well, God reveals himself in countless ways all the time,” he said. “We just don’t pay attention enough.

“Here,” he said and took my index and ring fingers and placed them against my neck. “Can you feel your heart beating?”

“It does it sixty times a minute, without getting tired, every single minute every single day, for the rest of our lives. And I bet you never noticed?”

“Is that God?”

“Well, let’s say it’s a sign. Like the light was a sign, too.”

“Of what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe how important it is to notice things.”

The next day was more or less like all the rest of my days and I soon forgot about finding out what my mission was, though I would remember the image of these crepuscular rays for the rest of my life (the name I learned later from my high school physics teacher). And just as importantly, what Leonard had told me about noticing things. He wasn’t my godfather, but he is the one I want to be to Harry.

There was, of course, a downside to the immanence of the divine that filled my childhood years. The idea that I was watched by an omnipresent, omniscient deity inculcated within me an inner watchfulness, in which I measured myself against the yardsticks of the saints whose stories I was told. Am I good? Am I pure? Am I worthy?

I kept a mental tally of sins committed and regretted, and with each added infraction I imagined my soul smudged with the black soot of pollution. Granted, developing a conscience is an important exercise in developing an awareness of the ethical consequences of one’s actions, though now in retrospect I see a  certain perverseness in a 5th grader’s concerns about purity.

I was watched over but found myself wanting, the more so as I got older and became aware, ever so faintly at first, of my attraction to an distant cousin, a friend’s older brother, the beautiful young uncle whom I’d watch as he napped after dinner. I began to realize I would never fit into the Church’s notion of the soldier of Christ I had imagined myself becoming. I began to wonder how could God grace me with the capacity to love but do so in a way I could not express, a God who had given me feelings which the Church condemned but over which I had no more power to control than I had to part the clouds and release a gush of light upon the earth. And so I fell. It was easier than I had imagined.

Harry’s world won’t be poorer in heroes or magic or tales of courage, perseverance and faith. He has hobbits and holy quests and valor enough. He will encounter the hero’s revelation of his destiny and his prudent use of secret powers. The magic rod he will learn of may not have parted a sea but will nonetheless hold powers of the universe. I had the devil, he has Sauron and Melkor.

Harry is arguably luckier in his world of dragons and Star Wars and Lego heroes without the looming presence of an ever watchful God and the threat of hell. He has no saints to intercede for him, but no immaterial yet ever present judges either. Luckily he has many who love him and will watch over him.

Live well, Harry.

-/-

Featured image: Island church at dusk, author’s photograph. Alas, there’s no shaft of light, but hopefully details enough to notice.

 

Spoerri, Fallenbilder
Food and Drink

A Clean Plate

If there are certain foods that trigger nostalgia and console us, there must also be foods that that make us uneasy, foods that bring us back to scenes of discord or simply of being alone. If there is comfort food, there must be discomfort food as well.

Mine is my mother’s sausage and peppers. Her recipe was simple: she would fry links of fennel-spiced sausages in a pan and then, once the meat had cooked and released its fat, fry the peppers in the same grease until they softened into pulp and their skins turned to paper. I didn’t like fennel and I didn’t like grease, and the combination was nearly inedible.

I wasn’t a particularly finicky eater as a child and even liked most vegetables at an early age. I might have cut off chunks of fat from pork chops, calling them gristle so as not to be seen wasting food, but otherwise I was pretty much an omnivore in my mother’s kitchen. Even “good eaters”, however, don’t like everything they’re given to eat.  I’d squeeze as much grease as I could out of the peppers and tilt my plate so that the grease would collect on one side. Even after I had picked out the fennel seeds from the meat, it was a chore for me to eat.

But I couldn’t not eat it. My mother cut no slack for good behavior and expected me to eat whatever she cooked, and all of it. She had what my brother and I call a clean-plate fixation.

She would appeal first to my sense of guilt, which, as a good Catholic boy, I had large stores of. “There are children starving in China right now, and you’re going to waste this food?” she’d say. I couldn’t imagine how my mother would know something like this but I also couldn’t see how my not eating something made the Chinese kids’ situation any better.

“Then maybe they should be eating this instead of me,” I finally said. I regretted it immediately, and not only because I would have to confess it as a sin later on the week, lumped together with other instances of cheekiness under the general category of disobeying my parents. I could see that she was angry.

“If you keep this up, maybe I’ll send you to the Mary Hammond Home and see how much you like it there,” she said. There was an edge to her voice that suggested that if pushed a little more, she’d really do it, if only for a day.

The Home was a reddish sandstone row house up the block, a place, we’d been told, for children who had no home of their own. It wasn’t clear to us how the kids got there and whether they were orphans or just so delinquent that their parents could no longer care for them. This ambiguity over the admission criteria for the home suited my mother fine; she thought it gave teeth to her threat. I didn’t really think she would ever do such a thing but the threat was disturbing nonetheless. It said that she could stop loving me. Because of food. And so I would steel myself and finish the rest of the sausage and peppers on my plate.

I grew up in a family where food was supremely important. It was a currency in which love was meted out and eating was the tribute we paid in exchange. Achievement was rewarded with favorite foods and Tollhouse chocolate-chip cookies; in turn, my mother’s achievement as cook and homemaker were rewarded by our finishing everything off our plate. Eating was the discharge of an obligation as much as it was an act of nourishment.  A plate of food half eaten was an offering rejected. Hence the clean-plate fixation.

It didn’t help that my brothers and I were all on the skinny side, though for reasons of metabolism and not, of course, for a failure to eat. However, the contrast between us and our beefier cousins was not lost on either my mother or her family, and she came in for some teasing because of it. I imagine her feeling that in some small way she was responsible, if only for ensuring that the disparity be remedied.

If that was so, she was faced with a challenge in the case of my youngest brother. He was a notoriously difficult eater. There were things he liked—bacon sandwiches and applesauce and Sloppy Joes come to mind—and innumerable things that he didn’t. I am sure that if left to his own he would have eventually broadened the range of food he found palatable (as he did, of course, in high school and later). But given my mother’s clean-plate fixation, he wouldn’t be allowed the luxury of waiting.

There was no Mary Hammond Home in the suburb we moved to when my brother was six, and in any event my mother had long abandoned such scare tactics. Instead, when my brother wouldn’t (or, as was probably the case, just couldn’t) eat his dinner even with a side of applesauce, she just made him stay at the table unless he finished.

I don’t know where she learned this from, maybe a talk show or a magazine article. But it worked, most of the time anyway. My brother eventually ate what he was expected to eat, waging a silent battle against the desires of his own body in order to please my mother. He was a brave little soldier, even (or especially) when he was defeated in this exercise of self-abnegation and hard discipline.

One evening he just wouldn’t finish dinner. I still wonder if it was a small act of rebellion on his part or simply that he was not up to the task of eating what his body or mind could not accept. He was still sitting at the table with his plate of food after my brother and I had put the dishes in the dishwasher. My mother turned off the lights in the kitchen except for one in the alcove where my brother was sitting, and went to the living room to watch television.

I left him to go to my room to study and caught him in the corner of my eye as I turned to walk up the stairs. He seemed so terribly alone there, caught in the funnel of light cast by the ceiling fixture, his plate of food gone cold.

He sat there for a very long time. He never told me if he finished the plate of food and I didn’t ask. I wish I could have stood up to my mother for my brother’s sake, told her she was wrong to insist, tried to persuade her it wasn’t such a big deal. It was a failure of courage I still feel ashamed about today, and the dinner was one of the saddest I’ve had.

Eating well is much more than just calories and vitamins and fat thresholds. It’s about cultivating pleasure while respecting one’s body and what one puts in it. It means being aware, as my brother tells me, of where one’s food comes from and how it’s prepared. Eating well is being gently prodded, whether by innate curiosity, the enthusiasm of friends or a visit to a new city, into trying new foods. It is a savoring of experience rather than the goal of satiety.

They are all better lessons to learn than cleaning one’s plate.

-/-

This post is republished here in slightly altered form from my short-lived and rarely visited 30 at 100 blog, an experiment in cheap, healthy eating. Apologies for the cross-posting for those who have already read it, but it is one of my favorite texts from the blog and I thought it a shame that it should languish there unread.

As I discovered many years later, the Mary Stevens Hammond Home was built by a wealthy benefactor named Ogden Hammond in honor of his wife, who had drowned on the Lusitania the year before. It was dedicated to the care not of orphans but of “children from broken homes”.

Conditions there were likely no better or worse than in other child shelters and orphanages. There is no record of the kind of food served, except for one account that a former resident told of getting up as a child in the early morning and walking twelve blocks to a bakery to pick up leftover bread. But I imagine most would agree that the food was pretty dismal, except perhaps for the Christmases at which Frank Sinatra would come and sing.

Featured image:

Daniel Spoerri, a Romanian-born Swiss artist associated with the Nouveau réalisme and Fluxus movements, became first known for his tableau pièges (“snare-pictures”), of which the featured image is an example. In these works Spoerri would mount found objects on whatever surface and in the same random order they had been left in. The surface would then become the “canvas” on which they were displayed on the wall. Some of these tableaux were the remains of meals eaten by artists such as Joseph Beuys, Roy Lichtenstein, André Thomkins and César at the restaurant Spoerri opened in Düsseldorf above his Eat Art Gallery.

Seated Man, attribtued to Roger de la Fresnaye
Memory

Writing to Remember

When I came out to my parents, my mother, like many other mothers who had heard similar stories, asked me how long I had known. Her question was merely a way of checking to see if the year corresponded to her own reckoning of my sexuality. She already knew.

The behavioral clues she used to deduce this were almost wholly a matter of gender roles and had very little to do with sex: I hated contact sports, spent too much time reading, and was all in all much too nice for a boy. When asked what instrument I wanted to learn to play, I told her the flute. Instead of the baseball mitt my brother asked for Christmas, I wanted watercolors.

I couldn’t give her a date for when I “knew” I was gay. It had always been a part of me, like my voice or being left-handed, and like my left-handedness was revealed again and again in a growing awareness that I didn’t fit all that well into the world around me. My uneasiness with the locker room talk of breasts and my equally uneasy fascination with the men in the fitness magazines I’d furtively skim through at the supermarket were the equivalents of school binders with rings on the left and the pencil smudges I left on my homework assignments: evidence of my deviation from the norm.

I told her that as long as I could remember myself, I knew I was different. This was true enough. I had countless examples of not fitting in as a child, including my lack of a romantic interest in girls. Had she asked, however, I would not have been able to supply her with a concrete example from my childhood of a romantic interest in a boy. Of course there were such examples, but it was only when I began writing about those early years did I fully discover the immanence of desire that marked my later childhood.

Each of the fragments of desire that I recovered as I wrote led to others. As in the retelling of dreams or the confessions of therapy, the recollection of these early memories was aided by the ascesis of narrative: the more stories I told, the easier it was to remember.

I recalled a childhood fascination with Popeye’s sexy nemesis, Bluto, and then a pulp fiction paperback that was the first in a series of books I would read as a teenager that spoke of men who loved men. I saw again the outline of my cousin sleeping across from me on an attic cot one summer night, and then remembered how I looked at Jesús, who dressed in tight pants and danced on the street. Later I would recall the attraction I felt for my chemistry teacher and for a rebel classmate.

Simon, my best friend at high-school, first appeared in a post of mine three years ago. Occasioned by a visit to an exhibition and spurred by memories of the petit-fours his father, an Austrian-born baker, used to make, the story talked of our forays into the city but was obliquely suggestive of my feelings for him. I could remember the restaurants we went to but could only sketch in lightly tinted outline the attraction I felt for him.

Simon continued to appear in subsequent texts. As I wrote, I remembered him in an ever deepening hue of feeling, the way an artist might build up a painting from ground to detail by applying layers of ever richer, oil-saturated pigment. In these later texts our friendship acquired a vibrancy missing from the earlier ones; they became saturated with desire.

I hadn’t expected this to happen. The memories were there, I thought, all I had to do was uncover them, as if they were a neatly arranged set of burial artifacts lying in a tomb. If I dug through the sediment of the intervening years and got down into the crypt, it would all be there.

The finds of memory, however, are less like an intact tomb than a field of shards. We have at the most fragments of a scene: the image of a man on a rowboat pulling up crab traps or a cellar illuminated by flashes of lightning. They suggest, some more evocatively than others, the story of which they are a part. But only when the shards are gathered together can their contours and edges be compared, the arcs and lines of their motifs and silhouettes matched, and the pieces reassembled—with ample supplementation from later material—into the more certain shapes of amphorae and daggers. And the more numerous the fragments, the richer the detail of lovers, banquets and battles that can be reconstructed.

All texts of memory are acts of interpretation, of course. I am aware that I may be suffusing my recollections of those years with feelings that emerged only years later, as a 19th century restorer might repaint an original surface with scenes of his own invention or conceal the groin of a nude figure in drapery. Was I instead removing the drapery from the figures, seeing desire when none was present?

But no, the shards of memory I recovered were so vivid and the desire I recalled so palpable that I could not doubt their authenticity. Although I could not always date them and knew that I might be constructing the pretext and aftermath with memories borrowed from other times and places, the fragments themselves were true, even when they were no more than the momentary sight of a shirtless boy walking down a resort boardwalk.

He was a few years older than me and had the deep and even tan of a boy who spent his whole summer at this beachside town. Even the tops of his feet were brown, except for a thin crescent of white that rimmed the cleft between his toes. His skin looked even darker in the early dusk, and dusty, too, as if the sea had left a trace of powder over him. I remember envying his endless days at the ocean, envying his freedom and his tan, and wishing I could be like him. I would not have been able to articulate the pleasure I felt when looking at him, but now I know it was there.

I started writing Breach of Close almost six years ago. I had no specific purpose in mind or niche I expected to nestle in. Characteristically enough, I didn’t write my About page until weeks after I started the blog.

The first post was essentially an announcement of my intention to write to my brother after a long period of silence. I suppose I thought I would be less likely to renege on my resolution if I exposed it in a public text. But the post soon wandered off into recollections of a bubble-light Christmas tree that had been a constant part of my brother’s and my childhood holidays.

The blog never acquired a true focus. There were a good number of texts about sexual identity and coming out, but also a few about food and politics and music. Sometimes I wrote to work out my reactions to a work of art, though these posts, too, often wandered off; they were texts not of a reviewer but of a memoirist.

Keeping this blog has been a key to cultivating an ascesis of narrative. It has helped me strengthen the habit of writing. Unlike the journal in which I record scraps of the day’s events and conversations (or merely fill a page with inchoate musings), the blog has provided me with the opportunity and incentive to craft something more deliberate and cohesive. And given the prospect of publishing the text for the small audience of fellow bloggers who have honored me with their readership and have followed these stories (some have even read the first post of Simon and the petit-fours), hopefully more carefully written. More importantly, it has helped me remember.

-/-

Featured image: From the Hooover collection, attributed to Roger de La Fresnaye

Although the subject matter of the painting has little to do with the content of the text per se, there is a curious history to the work that does.

The tale is told by Niccolo Caldararo, the conservator who was invited to examine the painting by the San Francisco art dealer who had acquired it at an auction at the estate of George de Batz, an enigmatic and reputedly rather brilliant but eccentric collector. The painting had suffered damage before its sale; apparently the work had been sold, unframed and folded up, as a rug.

Although typical of de la Fresnaye’s richly colored Cubist compositions, the identity of the artist who painted it has not been ascertained beyond all doubt. It is missing from Germain Seligman’s catalogue raisonné of the painter’s works. Drawing on conversations with several art historians Caldararo suggests two possible explanations for this peculiar absence.

One proposes that the painting had been confiscated by the Nazis and was later acquired by de Batz under dubious circumstances. The other concerns the artist’s sexuality.

Caldararo reports that the relative responsible for the sale of the artist’s work after the painter’s tragic early death at the age of 40 gave a number of paintings and drawings to the painter’s friends and male lovers. The Seated Man could have been one of these privately held works. Though some of these paintings were never publicly exhibited, the conservator notes that they could well have been seen by de Batz, who was also gay and whose father had been a collector and art dealer in France (de Batz only left France in the 1930s)

The rest of the article describes Caldararo’s curatorial detective work (it is a fascinating story if that kind of investigation interests you). After comparing the fibers of the canvas with that of other works by the artist, analyzing ground and pigment, brush strokes and painting surface, he concludes there are enough similarities with other paintings to suggest authenticity but not enough to confirm it.

John Singer Sargeant, The Bathers, 1917
Vignettes

Street of Dreams

I know better than to have expectations this September. The past few years at Alexandra’s airy spacious house on the bluff have spoiled me, with its gardens of bay laurels, hydrangea and jasmine, and its view of terraced hills of olive groves and the sea beyond. Stupidly I delayed booking the house this year as I negotiated the dates of my summer leave and by the time I called to reserve, the house had been taken.

The one I’ve rented instead looked nice enough from the pictures I saw of it online, though I’m a seasoned enough traveler to know that an owner’s photographs tell only part of the story. Still, the few travelers who left comments seemed pleased with their stay and a friend who lives in the village tells me the place is quiet.

I check the hand-drawn map I was sent and follow the village’s main street to the bakery where I turn right onto a high-walled fieldstone path, and then left into an alleyway. It leads past a pair of ruined stone houses from a much earlier century to the place I’ve rented; from there it ends a few meters down in a courtyard flanked by two squat dwellings with weather-beaten shutters.

Later that evening in one of the houses I will hear an old man coughing up phlegm and in the other a couple of Pakistani men chatting, day laborers, I imagine, recruited from Athens to work in the fields.  I don’t hear a woman’s voice, but I’m not surprised; a woman would have had the trim on the houses scraped, primed and painted, and the work-boots taken in from the porch steps.

I am staying in a cul-de-sac of single men.

My rental is a whitewashed stone house that is approached through a flagstone courtyard. On the left a hatched door opens on to a kitchen that I soon discover does not lead into the house. Another door from the courtyard leads to the living quarters: a high-ceiling main room with exposed rafters, a dining table, and a massive stone fireplace; a bedroom just big enough to fit the cast-iron bed; and a third room with a sofa, crib and folded up cot. The bathroom, or rather bathrooms, for oddly there are two, one right next to the other, are in the basement below a narrow high-stepped staircase.

I walk through the house again, imaging myself living here for the next month and hoping to find things I will like about it, as one might do upon meeting a college roommate one doesn’t immediately warm up to. Unlike other travelers who have come here for the sea and the hill towns and for whom lodgings are merely a necessary displacement from the beaches and café-bars and restaurants which are their true places of residence, this will be a home of sorts.

The kitchen is unexpectedly well-equipped. Among the utensils and dinnerware I find a bewildering collection of pots and pans, three clay casserole pots, a whisk, ice tongs, ladles of various sizes, graters, colanders, a nutcracker, serving trays and enough soup plates to serve a party of twelve. What island guest needs a whisk, I wonder?

Like most summer rentals and unlike hotel rooms, which after a scrupulous cleaning leave no trace of their former occupants—even our microbiome quickly displaces the bacteria of the guests who stayed the night before—the house has collected the flotsam of past vacations. I come across half-empty tubes of mosquito repellant and a travel Scrabble, jars of greenish-grey dried herbs, a box of coffee filters and drooping candles. In the bookcase I find the usual beach novels, Grisham, of course, and Le Carré, and P.D. James’ Death in Holy Orders, which I will be tempted to reread, though I’ve brought books of my own (I always overestimate my ambition when I pack books for vacation).

Alongside novels of crime and spycraft, however, stand books that no vacationer would have left behind, handsome hardcover editions of works by  Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Faulkner, and Maugham. The editions all date back to the 1950s, long before the house first was rented to summer travelers; their presence in this humble country house, like that of the elegant stemware and Limoges china I see behind the glass doors of the hutch buffet, are remnants of a story I cannot yet make sense of.

I decide I must make the best of it. I soon become accustomed to the eccentric layout of the house with its inconvenient detached kitchen and the paired basement bathrooms. (Unsure of my ability to negotiate the staircase in the drowsy dark of night I have taken to keeping a large Mason jar at my bedside should I awaken needing to pee).

Though it is not a place I would have chosen had I seen it beforehand, there are small compensatory pleasures to the house. The foot-thick stone walls keep it cool and I sleep well on the ample bed. In the mornings I smell anise and cinnamon from the bakery, and though there’s no view from the courtyard, I can see the moon and a fuchsia gush of bougainvillea spilling over the garden wall.

One day I notice a vintage advertisement on the wall, set in a simple wood frame . The headings are lettered in a tall, thin vaguely Art Nouveau font, the body text in Garamond and slab Egyptian for the Greek and French, respectively. I decide it was printed for the grandfather and great-uncle of the woman from whom I’m renting this house (the last name is the same) and who seem to have been provisioners to the privileged classes in Istanbul. In the advertisement they present themselves as fournisseurs des Ambassades et Grands Hôtels selling fine wines, caviar and fois gras, game and cheese, confits and butter—apparently there were two kinds, one for cooking and another for the table—along with soaps and perfumes. I imagine their shop the fin-de-siècle equivalent of the food emporiums of elegant department stores in Berlin and London.

What sequence of terrible events, I wonder, obliged them to leave behind their business, and settle in this small stone house? The pogroms of 1955 would have been too late. Was their business, like medicine, law and carpentry, among the dozens of trades and professions that Greeks in Turkey were barred from practicing in 1932?

I imagine the brothers and their wives leaving the port with a trunk of clothes and other essentials that they could salvage from the home they were forced to abandon, and another with less practical belongings, like the china and crystal wine glasses I found in the hutch and the engravings of old Istanbul hanging on the walls.

I am living in a house of exile with Pakistani neighbors.

 

“I’m a little pissed off you didn’t tell me you were coming,” Yannos tells me. “You could have stayed at my house. There’s certainly enough room.”

“I didn’t really know until the last minute,” I say and explain the problem I had in getting September off. It would be harder to tell him that I need to have my own space, however much I enjoy his company. For Yannos, time alone is something to be endured, like staying in the house in the cul-de-sac.

“Don’t you get depressed in that hollow?”

“Oh, I’ve gotten used to it. It has a history,” I say, and go on to tell him about the advertisement and the story I’ve pieced together of the two brothers with the food emporium in Istanbul.

“There’s no history to the place,” he says when I finish. “Why would a city merchant ever come to an island like this?”

He tells me a different story, a story of a man from Athens who fell in love with a local woman and bought the house for the times in the year he could leave the city and be with her. The stone house had half fallen into ruin at the time he purchased it, which was why he could afford it. Though he could have paid a laborer to do it for him, he spent endless days digging and clearing out the rubble himself. Then he called in the mastores, the master tradesmen who repaired the roof and laid the flagstone floors and replaced the wiring and shutters.

At the start of the following summer he put a hand-painted sign above the doorway, “The Street of Dreams”, and welcomed the first guests to their little restaurant.

The place quickly drew locals and tourists alike, who came for the good simple fare the woman cooked, things like lamb stewed in a clay pot and braised wild greens and fried sand smelt. Yannos tells me he used to eat there, too. I know now how my kitchen came to be so well-equipped and why there are two bathrooms.

I enjoy this story, though I cannot be sure of its veracity. Yannos is like a gifted composer who hears melodies in the crooning of gulls (and would in my neighbors’ chatting, too), but instead of music, he hears the calls of lovers. He is a man whose passion is passion itself. And so I ask, “And the advertisement?”

“Who knows? Maybe they found it at the flea market. If there’s a connection, it’s a distant one,” he says.

“And the porcelain? The books?”

“Why does everything need to make sense to you?” he says. “Let’s go swimming.”

 

I come back to the house late in the afternoon to find my Pakistani neighbors in their courtyard. The younger of the two is squatting shirtless and holding a tarnished oval wall mirror. He has the taut, lithe body of an acrobat; as he swings the mirror around, I see his slight back muscles flare over his ribs like the vestige of an angel’s wing. The other man is seated on a wicker stool behind him, snipping the strands of his friend’s wet black hair.

I go up to them and say good evening. I have to ask, though it seemed unseemly to interrupt such an intimate scene.

“Can I ask you guys something?” I ask in Greek, hoping they have been here long enough to understand me. “Why do you need the mirror?”

“The mirror?”

“I mean, you can see his hair,” I say to the man with the scissors, gesturing with my finger from my eyes to his face and then to his friend’s hair. “Why do you need the mirror?” Another gesture, this time to the mirror.

He smiles. “I am not a mastoras. He tells me what to do,” he says, pointing to his friend.

I apologize again for the interruption and walk back to the house.

“What do you think?” the young man asks me as a half-hour later as he and his friend stop by my courtyard, where I sit drinking an ouzo and writing up notes of the day.

“My first time!” his friend says.

“Looks good,” I tell him. And it does. It could be a city haircut, the hair closely trimmed at the base and rising to a fuller layer at the top.

He tells me they are on their way to the festival of traditional food in the village this evening. Kiosks have been set up in the square, one for each of the islands o the archipelago offering visitors a taste of a local specialty, things like spoon sweets and farmer’s cheese and chick-pea croquettes, food like the kind once served in the “Street of Dreams”.

“Where are you from?” he asks. He knows I am not an islander but his Greek is not good enough to discern that I, too, am a foreigner. Like him and his friend, and the merchants I insist on believing have a connection to this house, I have also crossed a sea to come here, though my uprooting was not the work of poverty or religious strife. Unlike them, I had a home to go back to, but chose to stay to make a new home with the man I fell in love with.

He is gone now, and the memories of our years together seem at times like the rose-painted tureens and leather-bound volumes of fiction in the house. They have no utility now, though they afford me pleasure when I recall them.

“Athens,” I tell him. He doesn’t have the language for the longer story of how I got here, and even if he had, I am not sure he’d want to know. Besides, he has probably made up one of his own to make sense of my solitary presence here, as I had done to explain his. Wrongly I realize, as he tells me that he and his friend live in Athens, too, and are visiting an acquaintance on the island. They are not farm laborers but tourists, like me.

I wish them a good time and watch as they walk up the alleyway. Though I haven’t Yannos’ ear for passion, the affection they have for each other is unmistakable and contagious. I imagine them one evening at a table in the courtyard of the Street of Dreams, as they linger over the remains of a good home-cooked meal, reluctant to leave the embrace of light cast by the glimmer of ship-lanterns, this parenthesis of timelessness. I can hear them exchanging stories in the hushed tones that lovers use in the morning bed or a congregant in prayer. And then I see the man from the city come to their table with a plate of honeydew melon to end their meal. On the house, he says.

The man from the city and the woman from the island he fell in love with were provisioners, too, I realize, but of a different sort. They offered a few hours’ respite from the troubles of the day and the fixings to celebrate companionship. The Street of Dreams was a labor born of love that nurtured love in turn.

-/-

Featured image: “The Bathers”, John Singer Sargeant, 1917. I chose this idyllic watercolor of Sargent as a proxy for the quiet beach my neighbors on the island spent their afternoons at. I thought of using a photograph of the house, but doing so would have given the story a claim of factualness that it does not have.

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.