Approaching Thunder Storm, 
Martin Johnson Heade, 1859
Memory

The Great Exchange

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

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

But no one came.

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

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

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

And then Leonard came down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-/-

Image: Approaching Thunder Storm, Martin Johnson Heade, 1859

Henry Scott Tuke,
Sexuality and Identity

You’re It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was the cape.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-/-

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

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

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

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

 

Detail from manuscript of Arthurian Romances in the Beinecke Rare Book Library
Writing

On Second Thought

I’m allowing myself today the luxury of writing about writing. Or rather, about my writing.

This is a big step for me. I may think of myself as a writer on occasion but only in the most private of moments. I’d never call myself one publicly. Instead, I write posts. Nothing as ambitious as a tale or a story, though some of my posts certainly look like stories. But stories are things my author friends write. I do posts. Naturally these same writers—since they are my friends—scold me for thinking this way, but I have the feeling their protest is a case of noblesse oblige.

I used to call them “texts”, but text doesn’t sound very literary, even if it is the stuff literary critics work with work. But that’s exactly the point—the work, I mean. A text is something one works on. Or from or with, a source for a translation, a starting point for a homily, something to be sent to proofreaders or set in type or delivered on stage. A text is investigated or articulated. It is set before exegetes, interpreted in court. But it is not especially relished. Text focuses on the writing, post on the reading.

But I’m digressing. (That’s the problem with confessional writing. Once you get started you allow yourself all sorts of liberties, like opening parentheses you don’t close or wandering around a point with no apparent intention of arriving there.)

A year or so ago one of my writer friends, who runs a small online journal where she publishes flash fiction and personal essays, was kind enough to host a few of my little stories—there, I said it—on her site. She didn’t edit my stuff very much, and the changes she made were all for the better. “I could have done more,” she told me. “You can get repetitive at times”

“I repeat myself?” I asked.

“Oh not in the way you’re probably thinking. I meant how you write, not what you write. We all have a repertory of devices we use when we write and we need to be careful not to overuse any of them. You’re not always careful.”

“For example?”

“Oh, I think it’s better if you find this out on your own,” she said.

Overuse. Repetition. It made me think of a bad pop song or a tic.

I had to look. I’m a methodical investigator; detecting patterns, albeit in numbers, is part of what I do in my day job anyway. The principles were more or less the same, I thought.

We exclaim our singularity in voice and gait. Why not, too, in the way we write? Our identity is encoded in the lakes and forks of our fingers, and in the furrows and crypts of our eyes.  Why wouldn’t it be in our choice of words and syntax as well? The material was there–my texts (here the term fits perfectly). I just had to read them closely enough.

A skilled programmer can write a 60-line routine in Python that will, with the help of a table of frequencies of letter and sound combinations, automatically detect the language in which a text is written. All I needed to do was to find the diacritics of my own language, the stylistic equivalents of the slashed l and hooked c, the telltale signs of my authorship.

I went back and reread the previous ten texts I had written, paying attention not to content but to style. I did it as an editor or forensic scientist might, ignoring content to look instead for feature vectors, recurrences of tropes and rhetorical devices. I even translated a handful of paragraphs into (some rather pitiful) German, which forced me to pay even greater attention to the surface of the texts.

It was easy enough to identify the more egregious offenders. Parataxis and appositives jumped off the page. So did my trouble with conjunctions. I omitted them where one would expect them or added too many. I looked this up. Technically these devices are called asyndeton and polysyndeto. I use them a lot, sometimes in the same sentence or paragraph.

This from Attic Beds:

It is as if in ridding ourselves of the woolen sweaters and heavy shoes of less temperate seasons, we begin to put aside the burdensome distractions into which we are drawn the rest of the year, the intrigue and politics of work and school, the deadly commute and the clamor of bills. We shed layer after layer until in the end and for a short but blessed while, we find ourselves stripped of clothes and worry alike. We can once again feel our nakedness: the swirl of a breeze against our skin, the thin film of salt drying on our back, the tickle of grass between our toes. It is as if the world is trying to make love to us.

Asyndeton. There was one in nearly every post I examined. Definitely part of my m.o.

I discovered I also have a weakness for metanoia, which is loosely speaking Greek for “wait, I’ve reconsidered.” It denotes the recalling of a proposition in order to reformulate it more tentatively or agressively, as in ‘or better’, ‘no—’, or ‘on second thought. I still do it. The day before yesterday I wrote: “A cabinet of curiosities gathered over the years and ‘of interest only to their collector. Or rather, to their accumulator…”

There were other, more quantitative clues as well, like sentence length and readability. As a data nerd I naturally generated these for a sample of five posts with the help of an online text analyzer (average sentence length, 11.5 words, skewed in small measure by the presence in the sample of one rather nicely crafted sentence of 66 words).

The analyzer also showed me frequency counts of words, one of the salient markers used in deanonymizing scripts (think of your preference for one or the other element in such common synonymous pairs as immense and enormous, or since and because). I was struck by the high rank of words like think and feel and know.  And then there was ‘something’, which was much more frequent than such workhorses of the language as ‘make’ and ‘ask’ and ‘come’. Which made me wonder, why such ambiguity?

And then I realized. I hedge.

I reread the texts like a detective who’s chanced upon a breakthrough clue and goes back to the scene of the crime. And there they were, like hardy well-adapted weeds, the play-downs and mitigators and shields that denoted evasion or equivocation: perhaps, actually, apparently, I think, kind of, essentially, particularly, maybe.  (I also seem to be quite enamored of the word “seem”.)  Even more so than metanoia and asyndeton, hedging turned out to be a very discriminating marker of my writing.

It’s as if I’m negotiating with my readers, politely asking them if they wouldn’t mind agreeing to the proposition I’m putting forth. Why can’t I just come out and say it?  But of course I know why.

Since then I’ve been more aware of what I (over)do and try to trim back the worst offenders. But I have to be vigilant. If the way we write is as unique as our gait, it is just as hard to change. If you reread the first four paragraphs you will notice some of these devices. I didn’t deliberately write to include them. They just came up and I didn’t edit them out, as I would have done in an ordinary post.

Though I prune and weed, I can’t eliminate them entirely. But then, I don’t want to. This is, after all, my voice.

-/-

If you think the idea of a writer’s unique  stylistic “fingerprint” is far-fetched, consider that algorithms to deanonymize authorship are already being developed. Arvind Narayanan, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Princeton who studies information security and stylometric analysis, is sufficiently worried about what will happen to political dissent with the full advent of this technology that he is already calling for the development of obfuscation techniques to protect anonymity online. (Until these are developed, he suggests using a thesaurus, changing tenses and altering punctuation at random)

For an encompassing inventory of hedging terms and their functions in discourse, see Bruce Fraser’s illuminating article on “Pragmatic Competence: the Case of Hedging.”

Image from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 229, detail of f. 133v. Arthurian Romances

From the Men of Pallados series, photographs by Marina Siakola
Memory

Making Room for Love

“I never noticed how clever your closets are. Or that you had so many,” Liz says, as she pokes around one of the kitchen cabinets. It’s a deep, thigh-high pull-out cabinet, outfitted in the front with a rack for wine and at the back with a metal frame supporting a deep canvas bag. “What’s the bag for?” she asks.

“Baguettes. Maybe not so clever if you don’t eat bread.”

To be fair, I did when I was with Matthew, who designed the kitchen, and the rest of the house and its wondrous closets. But he’s long gone, as is the habit of eating bread, an ironic but wholly spurious correlation.

“It’s your Jesus cabinet,” she says.

“Huh?”

“A drawer for bread and wine. But I don’t think I need one.”

Liz wasn’t always so interested in closets. She always had more than enough or none at all, and neither made an impression on her.  After she got married she and Anthony set up house in a sprawling duplex apartment in the northern suburbs. After they split, she lived in a series of nondescript rental apartments, none of which made her feel at home in or inspired her to make a home.

These half-empty, make-do apartments reflected the unsettledness in her own life; neither her current job nor the last two men in life offered even an illusory sense of commitment. If she could have rented furniture as well, she would have. Her space was the brick-and-mortar equivalent of one-night stand. It satisfied a need but not the soul. And like the anonymous tryst, it was never spoken of and mostly left unshared. Liz never entertained at her place.

Her current interest in closets only emerged when she started renovating the small apartment her father had given her for her wedding. Even though she and Anthony had never lived there, the place had too many associations with their marriage for her to want to live there in the years right after their divorce.

But now was a good time. Her freelance design work was finally gaining momentum with the addition of an important account in Shanghai. The pain she had felt when their marriage was dissolving, as Anthony began his inexorable retreat into his solitude and whiskey, had attenuated.

She was surprised one day to realize that she could no longer summon up the anger and hurt she had felt then. She could recall afternoons lying in bed with him for a nap after Sunday lunch and could retrace in her mind in remarkable detail the twist of his torso as he turned onto his side without a kiss. She could remember how his wordless rejection, like the workings of a slow-working yet undetectable poison, would make her sick with self-doubt and guilt without her being able to say why.

But now the sharpness of feeling was gone and she realized how far Anthony had receded in her consciousness. That same day she decided to fix up the house that was her father’s wedding gift.

And now she needs to have closets built.

“So did you have half and Matthew the other half?” she says, pointing to the bedroom closet. It’s a wall-to-wall built-in unit with two sliding panels.

“Yeah. Surprising how quickly it filled up after Matthew left.”

I tell her it’s where I store carry-on suitcases and out-of-season clothes, and the out-of-Stephen clothes, too—the muscle tees and bow ties that were worn in the summer of a younger self.

It is home to things I want to keep but have no daily need for: boxes of letters from friends and lovers, and the journal that my brother kept during a year in New York—each entry written as letter to me he never sent—and that he gave me only years after he had written the last page. It is home to things I have to keep but don’t want to see, like receipts and bank statements, and the plans to the house.

A closet of farewells, the ones I’ve made and the ones I am preparing to make. A closet of absence, like the side of the bed that it faces and on which I never sleep.

And then there are the things I have no reason to keep but can’t throw away. The gear and toys I used with Wacław. The MRI’s of training injuries, and the swim paddles and cycling singlets I no longer use. A couple of flannel shirts I bought in Boston ages ago.

A cabinet of curiosities gathered over the years and of interest only to their collector. Or rather, to their accumulator, for collection implies intent and discrimination, whereas I have amassed these objects in the way thin people put on a little weight as they get older, a simple corollary of ordinary living.

“No wonder you’re not meeting anyone!” Liz says, when I slide open the door. “There’s no room for anyone else.” And then, as if seized by a premonition of dangerous things to come, like the scent of ozone before a storm, she shouts out, “Oh my God, what if this is your romantic corner?”

“You have to get rid of some of this You have to let this room breathe more,” she tells me. “This room doesn’t really say, welcome soul-mate. Though at least you’ve got two bed lamps, that’s a start.”

“They’re just things, Liz, not statements. I just haven’t gotten around to getting rid of them.”

“I’m just saying. I think you’re sleeping way too close to your past.”

I show her a pair of hip waders I had found in London and schlepped back with me to Athens during the time with Wacław. Liz isn’t shocked, though I knew she wouldn’t be.

“You don’t need to get rid of these, though,” she says. “They’re wonderful.” And she means it, in the way an artist would. “They hold good memories, don’t they?” she says

‘Yes, good memories,” I say, though I know it’s not that simple. Good memories are haunted by the echoes of loss, and the bad by the sense of relief of having survived. Perversely enough, it is the worst of memories that tempt me to believe in the divine: how graced am I to have gone through that and still be here, wounded perhaps but more or less intact.

“These you should keep, but do something with them. You could use them as a planter.”

I’m too much an empiricist to believe in  this feng shui protocol, but I begin to feel that perhaps there is something musty or heavy about the closet. Maybe Liz is right, and the things I’m holding on, these curios of a more adventurous and bolder past, are holding on to me instead.

“You think so, huh?”

“Look at what you write about.”

She offers to come by the follow week so that we can sort out the stuff together. “I could help you decide about the clothes. If you’re not sure, say, if something suits you or not.”

What she really means is “if you’re afraid to throw this stuff out,” but she wants to save me the embarrassment of admitting I need moral support. Still, coming from someone who’s actually designed clothes, this is a valuable offer of help.

Back in the kitchen she notices a photograph in a plexiglass case on the mantel over the fireplace. It shows a fair-skinned, vaguely Slavic man in work-clothes. “Wacław?” she asks.

“No, we never took pictures of each other. I don’t know who this is actually. The case is really an exhibition catalog. There are 14 other men underneath him.”

I tell her about the Men of Pallados, an exhibition of portraits of immigrants and Greeks living or working together on a two-block strip of shops and modest flats in an old working class district of the city. There was an electrician and a tattoo artist, a parking attendant, an architect, the owner of a bridal wear shop and a few more. The catalog was a set of smaller-scale reproductions of the portraits. I never learned who was who. Every once in a while I rotate the photographs. It’s what a curator might do, I tell myself.

I open the box for her and she begins to flip through the photographs, sorting them like an Old World-matchmaker into piles according to our consensus on their attractiveness. She asks me who I think is the sexiest. I tell her and she places his photograph on the top, closes the box, and takes it into my bedroom, where she places it on the bay window bench behind my bed. “Just until the real one comes along.”

“It’s kind of weird having a picture of a strange man behind my bed.”

“Why? Think of it as an icon. Anyway, every man’s a stranger until you meet him.”

“As long as I don’t have to pray to it,” I say. I still think it’s a little creepy. I guess I’m more comfortable with ghosts in my bedroom than with men I’ve never met.

It’s sweet of Liz to care so much, even if it makes me feel like a project she’s taken on. Of course it’s something I should be doing on my own, making room for love, that is, placing myself in the way of love. It’s not just the bedroom closet. It’s where and when and who I go out with, even how I dress. Liz tells me that wearing black at my age is an affidavit of celibacy.

Still, falling in love is not a project to manage, not like renovating a house and building–or emptying–closets. It’s more like cooking. The best meals I make are the ones I improvise when relaxed, and thus the ones impossible to replicate on demand. Besides, the soundless ghosts in my closet, like Kafka’s silent sirens, lull me into complacency. They tell me how extraordinarily lucky I’ve been in my life. They remind me of the men I have loved and been loved by. It would be hubris to expect more, they say.

I’ll clear out some space in the closets. I’ll leave the photograph of the electrician—that’s who I’ve decided he is—in my bedroom for a night and see how it goes. It is not quite the “childish measure” with which Kafka begins his story of the “Silence of the Sirens”, a trick “that may serve to rescue one from peril,” but it will get me thinking. But I know the rest is luck. And I’ve already had my share.

-/-

The image for the post is a collage of two of the 15 photographs that Marina Siakola did for the exhibition Men of Pallados, which was based on an idea of Andreas Antoniou and held at Formika in June 2009. The proceeds from the sale of photographs and the exhibition catalog were donated to the Sophia Foundation for Children.

Gustave Caillebotte "Henri Cordier, Professeur à l'Ecole des Langues Orientales"
Art, Music, Books & Film

Pick Up All the Letters

Set in a low-ceilinged attic-like space at the top floor of the Library, Meriç Algün Ringborg’s installation, The Library of Unborrowed Books, could not have found a more appropriate home. The room, if you can call it one, is probably among the least visited and most easily forgotten areas of the building during the rest of the year.

In a corner of the space Ringborg has set up rows of library stacks, on which she has placed the books she requested the Library provide her with.  Her sole criterion was that they be books that no one had ever borrowed.

She has mounted similar installations in the past: one with 600 unborrowed books at the Stockholm Public Library and another, with 1001 books, at the Center for Fiction in New York. I don’t count the books here; there must be hundreds.

I skim the shelves and come across a book of poems by the lyric poet and playwright Angelos Sikelianos, its fine rag paper still sadly uncut, I don’t know the poems but the book is beautiful.

Further along the stack I see a thin, leather-bound book with the curious title The Origin of the Kiss and Other Scientific Diversions, Written by Surgeon Rear Admiral C. M. Beadnell and published in 1943, the volume is a cabinet of curiosities in print form, a half-dozen chapters of an enthusiast’s investigations into history, biology and evolution. One chapter is devoted to “The Life Story of an Eel”. I wonder how a surgeon admiral had the time and inclination to write about eels in the middle of a war, but then I think that these little essays were, as the title might suggest, a diversion or, better, an escape from the images of the burned and mangled flesh of the young sailors he saw on his hospital rounds.

There seems to be no common theme in these stories other than that the Admiral seemed to write on whatever caught his interest. Much like my writing for Breach of Close, I realize, though I lack the Admiral’s methodical mode of inquiry into his subject and (I hope) his desire to instruct. Alas, I also lack his readership; even though no one has borrowed this particular copy, his volume is a second edition. I did, however, write a story once about my father and an eel.

On the next shelf over is another small, thin book. Mary Gardner’s A Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar, with Grammatical and Conversational Exercises, Idiomatic, Proverbial Phrases, and Full Vocabulary. It was first published in 1892, but this copy dates from 1910.

A preface written by her husband Ernest, who was Director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens, suggests to me that Mrs. Gardner learned the language at her husband’s side during his appointment in Greece. She does not seem to have been a linguist. Much of the book, as Mrs. Gardner herself informs us, is a translation from a self-study text for learning Modern Greek written by the German polyglot Carl Wied.

It is a quirky mix of scholarship and conversation.  Intimidating tables of declensions and conjugations are followed by sets of sentences of spoken language that the student is asked to translate into or from Greek. These snippets are drawn very much from the stuff of daily life, or at least the life of an affluent, theater-going, cigar-smoking expatriate (clearly not Mrs. Gardner).  There are, for example, sentences about selling horses and losing rings. Buying and drinking wine appears more often than having dinner.

To her credit, or rather to Wied’s, the Greek that appears in its pages is a bracingly colloquial one. Though some of the grammatical forms presented in the book fell into disuse in the century following its publication, the language is still vivid and idiomatic. A good number of the sentences I could hear on the streets of Athens today, even if in some sentences only uttered by older men and women.

Though Gardner’s work made for a handy and, for its size, a relatively comprehensive reference grammar, it was not a book to learn a language from. There are far too many tables and too few exercises for that. Besides, “How do you do?” first appears in Exercise 17, many weeks after you’ve already learned “Take care, the dog will bite you,” and “Do you want the knife still?” (Knives and cutting one’s hand appear disturbingly often in these exercises.)

I sit down at the small wooden table that Ringbord has set up to one side of the bookcases and continue reading.  The cosmopolitan, if at times violent, city that emerges in these short sentences intrigues me:  “Ask him if he is Persian or a Turk… I have never seen prettier women anywhere. About a hundred people were gathered together on the spot where the murder took place…As soon as I saw him I drew my pistol out of my pocket.”  Fire, too, seems to have been an ever present danger: a church is burnt down, a woman suffocated by smoke.

A book for beginning language learners is necessarily set in the world of things and not ideas, a world of shoes and trams and buying pastry. We need to learn how to ask for coffee or the window opened before we venture into the abstractions of politics. The practice sentences I copy into my notebook are full of simple things and simple actions. Unencumbered by adjectives and adverbs, they form a set, if you will, of spare poetic objects.

Whether it is this objectivism or the stillness of the room or the graceful 19th century font in which the English is cast, the sentences soon begin to read like poetry. Here are two sets of exercises (I have changed the line breaks in places):

Exercise 15.—B.

Following a presentation on the uses of the aorist and present perfect

Have you found my ring?
What ring?
Yes, I forgot
I had not shown it to you; I bought it
Yesterday evening.
I have left it
(Lying) about somewhere,
But I don’t remember where.
Did he find the way alone?
The flowers pleased me much

Did you see this scarf pin?
Is it not pretty?
I am thoroughly tired of that sort of thing.

Exercise 16.—B.

Following a presentation of irregular verbs

Pick up all the letters
That are lying on the ground
And burn them.

Give me the key.
Haven’t I given it to you?
Shall I say anything else to your brother?
Yes, give him this bottle of wine
And ask him to try it

Don’t leave the wine on the table;
I know quite well
That he will get drunk
If he finds it.

 

As I read I realize that more happens here than in a month on Breach of Close.

In an email interview Ringbord gave to Michele Filgate for the Paris Review, the artist talked about the origins of the work. She said he had become intrigued by the notion of things that slip through or lie within “the gaps and cracks of history”, things that get misplaced when bureaucracies attempt to catalog the world. Gardner’s book lay for decades in such a crack, lumped together in a grand classification scheme with dictionaries and teach-yourself-books on the Greek language. Too low-brow for the scholars, too daunting (or not practical enough) for the casual reader, the book went unread. Perhaps if it had been cataloged as sociology or social commentary it would have found more readers.

Mrs. Gardner wrote that she hoped her book would fill a need but ironically this particular copy, sitting on the stacks in a library whose patrons could perhaps most benefit from it, had no such utility.

I wonder if she would have appreciated my readership. I found it engaging for the wrong reasons: for the glimpse it offered into Greek city life at the turn of the century but also for its unintended poetry and its equally (?) unintended humor.

The fate of her book, at least this particular copy, was no different from the work of many other writers: to be read by few and not always in the way one thinks one will or ought to be read. But this, I have learned, is not a cause for dismay but for gratitude.

-/-

Mrs. Gardner’s book is available in full text online.

Ringbord’s work is part of a larger exhibition of installations, sculpture, video and artist’s books entitled “A Thousand Doors”. Organized by NEON (in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery in London), the exhibition is installed in the rooms and gardens of the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. It runs until June 30, 2014.

Image: Gustave Caillebotte “Henri Cordier, Professeur à l’Ecole des Langues Orientales”

Helmut Kolle, "Bullfighter", (c) Towner Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Vignettes

Bad Times

“He couldn’t find the toe,” she said. “It doesn’t matter really. The doctor said it didn’t come off clean. They couldn’t have sewed it back on if we had found it.”

We talked as strangers sometimes do when they find themselves together in places of fear and pain, like boats in a storm or emergency rooms like this one, where the usual notions of privacy and the etiquette of small talk do not hold.

“The worst part is thinking some bird has picked it up and eaten it.” She spoke with difficulty, like a person who has awakened in a cold hotel room from a deep sleep.

She was in her early forties, a short woman with a deep tan and bleached blond hair cut in the no-nonsense boyish coupe favored by Scandinavian women of her age but which on her looked out of place. The skimpy lemon-yellow tank-top she wore also seemed to belong to another woman, but a much younger one.

She had already been looked after, her wound sutured, her foot bandaged, her body probably pumped with its first dose of antibiotics. I was still waiting to be seen. Sprains don’t count for much in a room of severed limbs and stab wounds.

She kept looking at her foot. I looked, too, and felt ashamed for what felt like prying. But I couldn’t see anything, except for the bandage around her foot. She was wearing disposable slippers, the kind you didn’t have nudge your toes and foot into. The top was just two flaps of cloth that you brought up from the sides  and secured with a strip of Velcro, like a diaper for the foot.

At one point a man came in—her lover I assumed—and I got up from my chair and went across the room to leave them alone. I noticed she shivered a bit when he put his hand on her shoulder, as if a midge had landed on her skin. They spoke quietly for a few minutes, and then he left.

“My sister is coming to pick me up,” she told me. I hadn’t asked but she seemed to need to explain why she was all alone in a hospital with a lost toe.

“What am I going to tell him?” she said. “How can I tell him?” She didn’t seem to expect an answer.

We were in the city’s trauma hospital. They do a lot of things here, stuff like advanced orthognathic surgery and lumbar spinal fusion; they’ve got some of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country. But everyone thinks of it as the place you go when you have an accident. It’s where they fix bodies mangled by machines and guns and knives. The hospital for the kakiá óra.

That’s how she described it. The kakiá óra. The unlucky moment, the wrong place at the wrong time. No, better: the evil hour. Evil, as if time has a spiteful, mean-spirited side that reserves for each of us a moment in which it usurps the authorship of our lives (which was never wholly ours anyway) and mocks the precautions we take–the day’s jog and egg-white omelets, the vitamins and morning yoga–or upends the schedule of slow undoing the less disciplined among us prepare for ourselves with fatty livers.

The kakiá óra, the unkind hurtful hour that breaks into our lives with a random event almost as disruptive as the one that brought us into existence.

Usually we live in a world of rules so ordinary and well-observed we hardly notice their number. We spend most of our time in a world in which people wait for the red light to change and the hand holds the saw tight, the world in which we notice holes in the pavement and the fray in the cord. Until the kakiá óra, when the motorcycle finds the film of motor oil on the bend in the road or the foot the patch of ice on the step.

“I’d probably still have my toe if I hadn’t been wearing flip-flops. But who would have thought?”

She was right. Who gets dressed thinking, what if I have an accident? The blood seeping through the mesh of scrapes on my legs were proof, too. I was in shorts when the car hit our motorcycle, she was wearing flip-flops when her lover’s slid off the road. Neither of us was dressed for an accident.

Now she would see it every morning when she put on her stockings, perhaps even now as I write she could be lying in the tub soaping and massaging her foot while her husband, if he forgave her and stayed, shuffles about in the bedroom, A little stump where once her little toe sat, a reminder of the evil hour that changed her life. Was it mark of shame, the obverse of Hester’s letter, a branding by absence, or a private loss which she alone mourned?

It shouldn’t have happened. The road was straight and dry and his was the only car on it. It was midday on a hot June Sunday afternoon, a time when most of the city is at table or already at the beach. He had no distractions. The road swung down from one of the city’s hills past an expanse of shrubland. There was nothing to look at except the stubble of broom on the russet clay hills and the traffic light and two young men on a motorcycle descending the hill in the opposite direction.

He should have seen us, but he didn’t. He turned left. Matthew had only a few seconds to stop the bike. It wasn’t enough time. We crashed into the side of the car, and I was hurled a few body lengths away. I didn’t see where Matthew landed.

The police came and Matthew insisted I go to the hospital. He said he was fine, and stayed behind to deal with insurance details and statements. He was like that, take-charge Matthew, denying his own pain until others were taken care of. (He’d come back later that afternoon with his own left arm in a cast).

“What will I say when he comes home?” she said again.

He was away at sea. The Merchant Marine. I wondered how she could keep it a secret, even if it healed in time for his return, and she was freed of bandages and ointments and antibiotics. It was not the worst of scars to bear. It wasn’t like the broken bones and battered souls left by abusive husbands. I hoped for her sake that their affair was one of the best things that happened to her in her life, and that her lover made her feel loved.

Maybe she could hide it. She would have to be careful. She wouldn’t wear sandals and, of course, never again flip-flops. She wouldn’t swim with him again or lie on the beach together. How then? She could feign a sensitivity to the sun. She could say her dermatologist had discovered some worrying marks on her skin—she had more than enough discolorations and moles to make the story credible.

She would have to be careful, I thought. He could notice it when she least expected. It could happen sitting on the patio in the sticky heat of an August afternoon, playing cards with her husband and friends. Without realizing it she’d slip off her espadrilles to cool her fee and his gaze would wander—he never liked card games—down to the flagstones in the courtyard. And then he would see it: the missing toe.

She’d be safer if, as I suspected, her husband had already stopped looking at her in the way a lover would. Maybe he no longer kissed her knees or flicked his tongue down her shin, no longer took her foot in his hand, massaging it and bringing her toes one by one to his lips. Maybe he had stopped looking at her altogether.

She could hide it from her husband only if he no longer desired her. She could conceal the absence of her toe only in the absence of love.

Each love makes its claim, traces furrows in our soul. Each love steals something for itself and leaves something else behind.

Matthew left his marks, too. Good ones, mostly. He showed me that I could love well. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise but it was.

But the last years of our relationship were different, and so was the new imprint that was slowly and imperceptibly being laid within me. It was just as physical as a tattoo or the stump of a toe, but much harder to see. It was a mark made not in the flesh but within the folds of my consciousness, embodied in thickened pathways of neurons that bring like stimuli to the same choice of behaviors.

The longer we lived together, the less he initiated our love-making. I didn’t mind at first, since he usually would respond to my overtures. But in time his passivity made me feel needy, and I didn’t want to feel that way. I wonder now if she had lived through the same, the woman who had lost a toe riding to the sea on her lover’s bike.

I became adept at reading his mood, or so I thought, silently calculating the odds that he would respond or, as eventually was more often the case, instead say he was tired or stressed out or wanted some time alone.

I erred too much on the side of caution and succumbed to the paranoia of the lover who sees signs of coming rejection in the most innocent of gestures: a note of impatience in his lover’s voice, the book brought to bed, the beach towel set at a colleague’s distance. In my mind I moved them all along the ever more heavily trafficked neural pathway of perceived indifference, shuttling them to the single destination that was increasingly my favored response: don’t even try.

But that would all come later. That day in the emergency room I felt lucky, despite the pain seeping through my arm.

Our arms healed, the casts came off, and we had a story to tell. The accident changed nothing, or if it did, it made things better. We sold the bike and bought a car and drove out to the country on weekends with the dog. Our kakiá óra would come, but this wasn’t it.

-/-

Image: Helmut Kolle, “Bullfight”.  Helmut Kolle (1899-1931) was a Berlin-born painter who worked in the style of both German modernism and the innovations in painting that his French contemporaries such as Picasso, Braque and Derain—whose works his mentor and lover, Wilhelm Uhde, was among he first to collect—had brought to art. If the subjects of Kolle’s earlier work were often adolescent boys, those of his later works—if one can speak of later work in an artist who died tragically young at the age of 32 (from complications of endocarditis)—were brawnier men: sailors and bullfighters, like the one in the work reproduced for this post.

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), "Greenland Swimmer," 1932
Working Out

Ragged Sails

If I could see my butt I would probably spend more time in the gym. I have reached an age at which my pants, if unbelted, will sag. They do so for reasons not of fashion but of anatomy, the result of the slow retreat of the natural barrier that once sat high and proud between waist and thigh.

This retreat is but one sign of a more general geotropic movement of the flesh. The skin below the chin droops, the gums relax their high embrace, the torso slouches. It is as if my body, exhausted by its decades-long struggle against gravity, has bowed in surrender and begun a slow descent earthwards. Perhaps it is nature’s way of telling me where I am headed.

But I can’t see my butt most of the time, and so I don’t do squats or lunges as often as I would if I had the view of my rear that other people do. Besides, I have reached the fuck-it point of working out.

You know this point, there’s one in most things of fickle value that need daily care and a good measure of self-discipline, things like tight buttocks and the perfect garden and proficiency in a foreign language. In each there is a point of diminishing returns in which effort begins to outpace rewards and thus, out of boredom or competing desire, one realizes how content one can be with results that are only just good enough.  There are many things worse than the ragged sail of a drooping ass, as Auden might have said.

I’ve swum and run and biked for most of my life. After Matthew and I split up, I got more serious about training. I suppose it was a way to fill his absence. We did so much together that when he moved out, I was left not only with an empty bed but with countless hours of empty time. The bed I filled with pillows, the hours with working out.

I would spend hours and hours each week biking, swimming, and running, with a few weight-training sessions, lunges included, factored in. Eventually other men would come to my bed, but I still trained, year in, year out. I had a nice butt and a resting pulse of 41 beats per minute. And then I was sidelined, first by the appearance of a hip impingement and then by a shoulder injury, ironically from a fall while walking along a level campground path (granted, it was a spectacular fall).

A year later I still haven’t yet recovered the full range of motion in my shoulder and have resigned myself in the meantime to short jogs and long walks. It’s good enough, and there are other things, rewarding in quite different ways, that I do with the extra hours I now have free. I walk more in the city, the same one I used to run through, though now I pay more attention to what I see. I see more art and write more. I miss the endorphin highs of triathlon training, but, as I said, fuck it.

I have not quite fine-tuned the way I eat to accommodate the gentler and much shorter workouts I do. A flap of soft flesh now hangs over the rim of my trousers. I’ve stopped patting my stomach; the drum has turned into something squishy and foreign, and I don’t like touching it. For the first time in my life I will buy a pair of jeans in a size larger than I one I have worn since high school. This will take a bit longer to get used to. But, as I said, well, you get the point.

The shoulder injury was an accident but the hip impingement, an abnormality in which the ball and socket of the hip do not fit perfectly, could have been precipitated by decades of cycling or running or both. Or not.

If I were suddenly given a clean slate and found find myself in the body of my 20-year-old self—with his and not my life expectancy, but with whatever wisdom I have acquired in my life recorded in a series of epistles to a younger self—I am certain I would mess it up in roughly the same way I did the first time around. I have no illusion that the next time around I would be more self-disciplined and make wiser choices, even knowing what I know now and bearing the consequences of the choices that I did make. I probably wouldn’t even finishing reading the letters.
I would probably run and bike, and fall in love with the wrong men (and a few very right men, too), and pursue studies in subjects I flirted with but was never in love with. Earnest and seduced by the seeming invincibility of my youth, I would against waste time trying out and discarding identities, enchanted by the melody sounded by a promised self that I soon discovered I could not sing.

I would do it all again. What is youth if not the time of ill-made choices? A time for inappropriate lovers and unreasonable hours, when the blindness of passion is a matter of poetry and not stupidity, and a lover’s despair a drama to be savored and the stuff of long and oft-repeated talks with friends. When a night of intemperate drinking is followed by a stack of butter-slathered pancakes with bacon on the side, and paid for with a hangover, though not with the loss of sleep.

I would once again be impatient with imperfection, in myself as much as in others. If at 45 I would leave a lover or project often only after having invested too much, at 25 I did so before I invested enough. Young lovers break up in the embers of passion, not in their ashes.

The young have their own fuck-it point. It is one reached much faster than we who are older reach ours, but it, too, is prompted by time. The older will abandon the unpromising because we realize we don’t have enough of time, the young because they believe they will never run out of it.

-/-

The title of the post is lifted from a phrase of a poem by W. H. Auden, “Under Which Lyre”, the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem that he delivered at Harvard in 1946. “… And those who like myself turn pale/ As we approach with ragged sail / The fattening forties.”

Image: Rockwell Kent, “Greenland Swimmer”, 1932

Lou Gaillot by Rumi Matsuza
Memory

Something Borrowed, Something New

Nearly all of us have clothes that make us feel attractive, even sexy, a motorcycle jacket, say, or a satin slip and lace garter belt. For some it’s nylon running shorts, for others a well-tailored suit. However, fetishists aside, it is the rare item of clothing with the power to physically arouse us through the mere act of putting it on.

There were two points in my life where I had such rare clothes. The first was a pair of pants that I asked my mother to buy me when I was 10 years old.

I’ve long forgotten what they were called, if I ever knew. Now we’d call them two-tone tonic, I suppose. For me back then, they were just iridescent. My uncle Leonard had taught me the word one day when we were looking at a beetle. Iridescence, he said. The colors of beetles and peacocks, and the rainbow in a puddle of gasoline. And Jesús’s pants, as I now discovered.

Jesús was my friend Ricky’s older brother.  I’d sometimes see him hanging out, smoking with his friends on the stoops of the tenement houses on Willow Avenue or walking down the street in his tight shiny pants. Ricky told me his brother had been in some kind of trouble, but didn’t say what.

I thought it was kind of daring of his parents to name their son after our Lord and Savior, but Ricky said it wasn’t so unusual in his family. Anyway, he didn’t look any Jesus I had seen in paintings in church or in the books we had at school. Ricky’s brother had wavy black hair that he slicked back with gel, and skin the color of creamy coffee. And he danced.

He danced on the stoop with the music sounding from a portable player and sometimes he danced in the apartment when I was over. Ricky’s mother would have the radio on, and suddenly Jesús would start dancing, across the apartment and into the kitchen she was cooking or ironing. And he’d take her into his arms and dance her back out into the living room. I’d sit there watching him as his body twirled and shook, like a flame flickering in the wind. A flame the color of a peacock’s tail or the shiny green-blue of an oyster shell.

I had no such pants, of course. My mother dressed me as most mothers, including Ricky’s, dressed their sons at the time. I wore nothing extravagant or studied, nothing to embarrass me or her. She seemed to like plaids, judging from the photos I have of me as a boy, and she had more of a sense of playfulness in matters of fashion than I would ever have as a man. She bought me Hawaiian shirts and rope ties and seersucker shorts, clothes that were fun to wear and spoke of the pleasure of living that she still had.

Though my mother bought me new clothes in September before the start of the school year, as my aunts did for my cousins who went to public school, mine were always the same: grey trousers and white shirts and, when I’d grown out of the last one, a hunter-green corduroy blazer with my Catholic school’s insignia on the pocket. My mother made up for the monotony of September each Easter, when she’d take me and my brother shopping for clothes that we could wear outside of school.

The store she took us to was the same each year, a bargain clothing store on a highway leading out of the city. It was probably the same place Ricky’s family shopped at, though I couldn’t know that at the time.

I noticed the pants on the carousel rack next to the one my mother was browsing through. The pants were folded on hangars, one after the other, an arc of color shimmering in the light that flooded through the store’s plate-glass windows. It was as if the fabric hadn’t been dyed but instead woven with the tiniest beads of rubies and emeralds and sapphires. I thought of the boys walking down Willow Avenue in these same pants, but mostly I thought of Jesús.

I picked out a pair and held it in my hands. It felt light, and smooth like the silk scarves my aunt Gloria wore. As I folded them over my hands the pants seemed to change color, sliding from maroon into black and than back into a deep dark red, the color of the wine my grandfather made at his country house.

But this was a color Jesús could wear, not me. I put it back and found a pair in a silvery grey, with a shine like diamonds.

I was still holding the pants when my mother came up to me. I wanted them more than anything else I could remember wanting. But I didn’t know how to ask for them.

The things I asked for had always been ordinary and modest. Venus Paradise coloring sets, a model bird, change for bubble-gum baseball cards. Comic books, too, with superheroes like the Fantastic Four and Metal Men. I never asked for anything that my parents wouldn’t have thought of buying for me themselves.

This was different, though. If I asked, would she think I was becoming a boy who’d hang out in the park and smoke and get into fights? I sensed that if I asked, I’d be crossing a line, west down to Willow Avenue and the building from whose windows I could hear the salsa that Jesús danced to.

“Can I try these on?” I asked and almost wished I hadn’t said it. But if there was a line, I already was over it.

She took the pants away from me and I waited for her to say no.

Instead she fished out the label and price tag and said, “These will be too big.” She flipped through the racks and found the same pants in my size and handed them over to me. “You can try them on over there.”

Alone in the dressing room, I slipped one leg and then the other into the pants and pulled them up to my hips. I felt a small shiver as the cool fabric brushed against my legs. The pants were tight and they hugged my groin like a glove. I looked in the mirror to see a boy that suddenly looked older and different. I didn’t look like Jesús, of course, but I didn’t look like the boy I was used to seeing, either.
But I liked who I saw. I moved my hips back and forth, just a little but like the way Jesús swayed when he danced. And then the pants began to feel tighter, and an unusual sensation of warmth gathered in my groin, like the heat on my face when I sat next to the campfire. But this was a different kind of heat, one that made me want to get closer to the fire rather than retreat from it.

They were magic pants. I felt all warm and tall and strong.

But the magic didn’t return when I wore it to Mass the following week, nor at Easter dinner at my grandfather’s. It became just a pair of trousers, if somewhat flashy and out of place. Sometimes, though, when my mother was in the back yard or out shopping and I was alone in the house, I’d put on the pants. Then the feeling of warmth would return as I yanked them up and zippered myself in and stood looking at myself in the mirror. I rocked my hips more fully this time, the way Jesús did when he danced that afternoon at Ricky’s.

But eventually even that couldn’t bring back the warmth. I grew out of the pants anyway and didn’t ask for another pair. I forgot about them and then, when we moved a few years later out of the city, I forgot about Jesús, too.

For a very long time, no clothes would ever make me feel that way again. Mostly I dressed to feel comfortable, and I was most comfortable when I wasn’t being pinched or squeezed by fabric, bands and belts. With the exception of a few years when I lifted weights, I never had the body for form-fitting clothes. The tighter the clothes, the scrawnier I felt I looked. I may have embraced my sexuality when I came out in the summer after high school, but it didn’t change the image I had of my body.

Clothes could make me feel attractive at times, but this realization always came to me as a surprise. I dressed in unassuming nice-guy clothes, like the unassuming nice guy I was, in things like oxford-cloth shirts, chinos, and Shetland sweaters. I shopped for clothes the way my mother bought my school uniform, replacing the button-down that had started to fray with an identical one, the shoes and their worn-out heels with the same Cole-Haan bucks I’d been buying for a decade.

They were safe investments with a minimum return in attractiveness. I was never in fashion, but that meant that I was never out of fashion either. I didn’t have clothes that screamed “that was so last year” and that had to be retired from my closet. My clothes were the German bonds of fashion.

They were me.

Matthew tried to get me to dress more adventurously. He’d buy me retro bowling shirts and brash t-shirts, and once even a canary-yellow polo shirt, a color I hadn’t worn since my mother bought my clothes. It was his way of telling me he thought I was getting stuck.

I didn’t know what he thought I was stuck in exactly, but I made an effort to like his gifts. I would wear them on a few occasions, but then consign them to the back of the closet, where they would remain until the time came every other year when we rounded up our unwearables to give to the cleaning woman. I guess it was my way of saying that I didn’t think I needed to change. I was wrong.

Matthew and I eventually drifted apart and we stopped buying clothes for each other. Somehow—I’m still not exactly sure how—I wandered into the gay skinhead scene. Maybe it was a need to shuck the casing of a relationship and a lifestyle we cultivated that was once life-affirming but had since grown lifeless and constricting for both of us. Maybe I just wanted to feel like a bad boy again.

In any event, the bleached jeans, bomber jacket and Doc Marten boots were the closest I came to experiencing the arousal I had felt that afternoon when I tried on those tight, iridescent pants. The bleachers and boots, too, were a costume that coaxed forth desire and transformed me, if only for the span of a night, much as the Spandex costumes in the comics I read as a boy filled out the superhero and readied him for his adventures.

This time, however, I had places to wear the pants and like-minded men to hang out with when wearing it. It wasn’t a gang, like the ones I thought–falsely as I later realized–that Jesús roamed the city in, but there was a sense of bad-boy brotherhood to the scene nonetheless. The rudeness was apolitical, a function of fashion and sexual practices. The guys I met were decent men, who were appropriating an admittedly controversial and aggressive subculture for the purpose of sexual play alone, and the clothes were a mark of tribal recognition.  And then the magic disappeared.

Two pairs of pants, one bleached, the other shiny, worn decades apart, both the borrowed clothes of another persona, the boy on the edge I wanted to be but knew I would never become. It didn’t matter. They were, in the end, just a way to explore something new, on my own and for myself.

-/-

The photograph of Lou Gaillot by Rumi Matsuzawa doesn’t look a lot like Jesus, but the hair’s right and there’s enough of the cool of Ricky’s older brother that it seems to belong here.