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.

Henri Cartier Bresson, Naples, 1960
Sexuality and Identity

The Outdoorsman

The first one I remember seeing was in a restroom in the boardwalk arcade. I was eleven.

It belonged to the guy standing at the urinal next to me. I remember him as young, about the same age as my uncle Angelo, who had just gotten married. Though I must have seen others before then, my brothers’ certainly, this was the one I remember first, because it was black and made of rubber. Instead of an appendage of flesh he had a short hose with a tapered end, and he was pissing through it.

Panicking I pulled up my shorts and ran out of the restroom, past by brother and cousin who were still playing skeeball, and down to the beach. I had never seen a dead person but it couldn’t be worse than this. How could a man lose his dick? Where had he put it? What had he done?

But who could I tell this to? Whoever it was would just ask, “Why were you looking at it in the first place?” I was a boy who looked at guys’ dicks in the restroom. And that was even more terrifying than the hose I had just seen.

So I told no one.

The image of the rubber prosthesis would visit me occasionally in the next few years, with ever diminishing horror as I came to believe that the soldier —that’s what I decided he was—had been injured in a mine explosion or caught a bullet on the battlefield.

Perhaps the incident explained why when I came out in college and sought out the company of other men I never cruised rest-rooms (and to this day have never found dildos the slightest bit erotic). I met guys at pools instead. I had swum at most of them: the two at my university, the Boston Y, and the pools I didn’t have access to but where I’d swim with friends who did, like the ones at MIT and Boston University. I even met a guy in the bay (quite literally in the bay), where I sometimes swam with other members of the marathon swimmers club I belonged to. And then there was the pool at the Boston City Hospital where I volunteered on the wards and where I met Tommy.

He was under the shower as I came in from my workout, standing not with his face to the wall but the other way around, with his back tilted to the shower head. He started soaping himself as I got under the shower at the other end. I could see that he was half-aroused.

Though the pool was nearly empty I was anxious that someone might come in, so I quickly finished showering and waited for him to come to the locker room. He found me in front of my locker and put his arms around me to kiss me.

“Not here,” I said. “Let’s go to my place.”

“Come on, just an appetizer,” he insisted.

At first I flattered myself that he desired me so intensely he couldn’t take his hands off me. We’d go hiking and he’d drag me off the path to a clearing in the woods to make love to me.   We’d be at the beach and he’d insist we go off to the dunes to have sex. We made love in the rushes behind a pond and at the back of a clam shack on the road to Cape Ann at dawn, in abandoned garages and the restroom of the train to Providence. We didn’t always take off our clothes or climax during these outdoor couplings; Tommy could be satisfied with a kiss.

“I don’t know why,” he said when I asked him why we were always having sex outdoors. “But it’s cool when you think of how we’re leaving our mark in these places. It’s kind of like carving our initials.”

“What turns you on?” he asked me.

“Lots of things,” I said.

“Everything turns you on a little, but nothing really makes you sing.”

“You do,” I said.

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean.”

We each have our own paths to pleasure. Why should desire, unlike our language and walk and voice, reveal no traces of the extraordinary set of circumstances and events, fortunate and not, that make us who we are. Why for one an earlobe, for the other the back of the knee? Why for one the wearing of a mask, for others games of submission? Our formative years shape the predilections of mind and heart, is it surprising they fashion desire as well? If anatomy can dictate a favorite position, why should memory play a lesser role?

We are each vulnerable in our own way. Like Tommy and the soldier, one  thrilled with the prospect of being caught, the other dreading discovery, we each have zones we fear to tread and those in which we feel most at ease.

I don’t know what confluence of events wrapped Tommy’s desire in the need to be outdoors and in the risk, however remote, of being discovered. Unlike toys or cross-dressing, his song could involve the participation of other players whose consent could not be taken for granted. And that seemed to me much sadder than the soldier’s hose.

I told him this once. He said the dunes were gay, the clearing far from the path, the door to the WC locked; it was enough that he could be discovered. But I wasn’t convinced.

We stopped seeing each other after that summer. Tommy’s fetish wasn’t exclusive—he could find pleasure in the bedroom, too—but I couldn’t make him sing, or not on my own anyway. Besides, risk was something I took pains to avoid. I had a meat thermometer and drank skim milk at 24.

My brief affair with Tommy made me feel less sad about the soldier. Though I couldn’t imagine there were men or women who would desire the young man because of his disability, I could more easily think of those who would do so despite it, men or women who would not be as fixated on the act of penetration itself, as Tommy wasn’t, but who would want to make love to him and would find ways to do so, a lover who, graced with innate curiosity and spurred by a desire to know the other, will discover different paths to pleasure.

The questions in the sexual interrogation that is foreplay when played well—do you like this? slower? here?—need not be spoken, and often aren’t, but the attentive lover needs no words and can hear the inarticulate response of the beloved. It is only the inept or selfish lover who cannot finish the sentence, “My lover likes it when I…” and who finds no reward in the ahs that she or he can coax from the other.  Granted, it may be no more than a kiss, but there are countless ways to kiss. And it is only the inept lover who knows only one.

-/-

Featured image: Henri Cartier Bresson, Naples, 1960

I’m not sure how long this post will remain up. I tried writing it in a way I could accommodate it here, devoid of the details that would breach the conventions of this general-audience blog. But a story without any details is boring.

My friend Dieter encouraged me to write it as I thought it should be told. “You’re becoming predictable,” he said, which coming from a German can sound like praise but I knew it wasn’t.

I wanted to publish the post here, on Breach of Close. “It’s home,” I said.

Dieter said, “Some stories can’t be told at home.”

I don’t think this is one of them, though. I don’t think the story is shocking and I wouldn’t mind if my grandmother read it. But as it begins with a penis and ends with a kiss, I’ve left the post untagged. Presumably the only people who’ll find it are the ones who are already reading me.

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.

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.