He lived in the city. Almost literally so. He used his apartment as a place to sleep and write, but he spent the rest of his waking hours hanging out in the city, making a living room out of the cafés and bookshops and bars in his neighborhood, and housemates of the men and women he met there. He ate out with friends and had breakfast at a neighborhood diner or coffee shop, where he’d read the paper and write letters.
At first I thought the reason he spent so much time outside was because his space inside was so cramped. The walkup apartment on Christopher Street was a builder’s afterthought, an orphan from a larger apartment that had been renovated into a warren of small burrows.
It had only three very small rooms—a kitchen, a study and a bedroom—and could only accommodate the most essential of furnishings: a desk and chest of drawers in the study, a bed, a small kitchen table and a pair of chairs. There was no proper bathroom, just a closet with a toilet and a sink. He showered in the kitchen and served tea on his bed
It was obscenely expensive for what it was, though perhaps not for where it was, but he was happy with it. He was exactly where he wanted to be and doing what he always wanted to do. I knew many people with much more space but far fewer claims to happiness.
“New York is the most fabulous city in the world.” he said. “Why would I want to spend time inside an apartment? And besides, how can you expect to write if you don’t watch people?”
The sole window in the apartment was in the bedroom and it looked out onto a little pocket park and beyond to a street of brownstones. It was a grand window for such a place, almost as tall as the room was wide, a dramatic frame for the park’s elms and gingkoes. Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he would prop himself up on his bed, which lay flush under the window, and watch the city of night recede, like a fairground closing up after the last visitor has gone. He’d see men making their unsteady way to the subway station in the first hours of twilight, crossing streets that he said Whitman and Crane and Ginsberg had walked. He once wrote me, “I live in a neighborhood haunted by poets and visited by men looking for comfort in the guise of sex.”
The letters he wrote me from the diner were composed with pen on paper. For him writing on paper was an act of embodiment, and our correspondence a way in which we could touch each other despite the distance that separated us. He told me a handwritten letter was a transcript of feelings as much a record of thought.
“I can tell when you’re excited or upset. Or sad. Especially when you’re sad. Your handwriting gets all angular. And you tie all the letters together, as if you’re trying very hard to write neatly. You don’t usually write that way. ”
“I’m never sad when I write to you,” I protested. But lying to him was like lying to myself.
His was a proud and energetic script of erect letters with ample bowls and decisive crossbars, mine an arabesque of long lazy curves and open loops. We were different in many unimportant ways, and our handwriting was no exception: the scripts of a soldier and a dancer. When he got excited his letters would tighten. The ascenders would higher and straighter, and the commas would fall more sharply. Mine would become expansive and ornate, the tails of y’s and q’s sweeping across the page in a flourish like the arms of a whirling dervish.
I would take the train down from Boston to visit him and he would greet me with the same marvelous fanfare of affection and in the exact way in which he always began his letters. Darling! he would exclaim. He made me feel like a sailor home on leave.
After I got settled in, which essentially meant dumping my duffel bag in the study and washing my hands, we’d go out and he’d take me through the rooms of the rambling house that was his neighborhood. We’d sit drinking caffè lungo and talk about our lovers and our work, the things we were writing and the books we were reading, picking up strands of conversation we had begun in our letters as if to say against all evidence that this city and our letters were of a piece and that we were not really apart.
Later in the afternoon we would make love to each other, the way we had when we were lovers at university, innocent and uncomplicated, without artifice or fetish, but also without the hunger that marked those years. Ecstasy had long yielded its place to gentle pleasure, and if we made love through our letters, we conversed when making love.
But we never actually spoke about that time, those first years in which we had been so insatiably, so recklessly in love. We both knew that if we did, we would inevitably begin to talk about what went wrong and why we had fallen out of love, or more disturbingly, if we had ever fallen out of love. We knew that once we began to speak, our recollections of those remarkable days would become clouded with the silt of our failings and carelessness. And so we looked back at that time, each in his own quiet reverie, as one gazes from water’s edge upon a lake on a still afternoon.
After I moved to Europe my visits became even more sporadic. We continued to write as faithfully as we always had, but our letters were increasingly troubled by a new and terrifying presence.
He told me his illness had already made enough claims on his body and work that he didn’t want to allow it further room in our letters. But it was consuming so much of his life that he found it impossible not to write about it. He recounted to me how his skin and gums and blood had fallen victim to infection. He told me of an onset of mania that sent him on a spending spree in which he ran through his entire savings in two months’ time.
He wrote without self-pity but with a novelist’s restraint and attention to detail, as if he needed to document his affliction and then forget, if only for a little while, the greater terror of what was to come. For him, our correspondence was another kind of room, one that was neither in the city nor at home, and one in which he rarely wrote about the future. When he did, even towards the end, it was with measured hope.
He guarded this pocket of respite from the trespass of the future as carefully as we had avoided the what-if’s and how-come’s that would have breached the close of our shared past. But the ink in which he wrote of night sweats and sores that would not heal seeped through to trouble my waking hours. Though there were countless practical reasons why I, an ocean apart, had to content myself with the occasional and all too short visit, it felt wrong to be away.
I tried not to think that there might not be another visit, but of course that time would come.
He was still a beautiful man, when I saw him the following summer for the next and last time. The onslaught of infections had spared the long mane of black hair he had inherited from his Syrian mother, and his blue-grey eyes—the legacy of his Irish father—had kept their light and brilliance, though they now were set in a much gaunter face scored by the lipodystrophy left by his course of retroviral therapy. His gait still had its familiar happy bounce, and he walked as if he were listening to some inner music.
We were sitting at a sidewalk café having coffee. It was the first thing we did when I arrived, and it had become a ritual of sorts. We hadn’t been talking very long when he reached for his bag and retrieved a pack of Marlboros, which he set on our small oval table. “Darling, I’ve shocked you,” he said. “But I’m dying for a smoke.”
He perched a cigarette between his long thin fingers and fished out a lighter from a pocket in his jeans.
“I quit for a while but I can’t really see the point now. And I have to be so fucking disciplined about everything else. And besides…” he paused to light the cigarette, sucking in the smoke in one long drag and allowing it to billow out his mouth and nose as he went to say, “It’s one of the few things I have any appetite left for… You must think me terribly debased.”
“No, no, it’s just… never mind.” I had never seen him with a cigarette but I was perhaps more surprised that he had never told me he smoked.
“May I?” I said, reaching for the pack. As with many of my interests at the time, I was a dabbling amateur when it came to smoking. It was an affectation acquired during a stay in Paris, and more a mannerism than a habit.
“You, too?!” he squealed, though he may have suspected I was only keeping him company (what smoker does not carry his own pack?).
We shared our tobacco stories and laughed with the conspiratorial delight of two school friends pulling off a prank. At some point we got to talking about movies and cigarettes, and of course about the scene in Genet’s Un chant d’amour where the two prisoners share smoke through a straw in the wall between their cells. “I sometimes think of it as that sadistic guard.”
It. I didn’t have to ask.
He said, “He beats me and degrades me and he’s got a gun down my throat, but, you remember, in the end, he doesn’t win.”
I remembered. The prisoner escapes with his lover to the woods, even if he’s still in his cell.
Our conversation slowly tapered off into a comfortable silence. We sat quietly smoking and watched the people coming down the street, the locals with their supermarket bags and the gym guys in muscle t-shirts and the tourists in their sensible shoes and baseball caps. He smoked unhurriedly and with great pleasure, slowing expelling a plume of bluish smoke that wrapped his face like a veil that rises in a breeze.
I thought of what we had shared in our letters all those years, the long and careful narrative of lovers and illness that we recounted, the stories we told of our minor glories and extinguished hopes. Why, despite the countless details of our daily lives that we shared so freely in our letters, did we omit this one?
We didn’t stay at the café very long. He said he was getting tired and wanted to take a nap. When we got back to the apartment, we took off our clothes and got into bed. I drew him close to me, just to have him near me really, and as I did, I felt his bones press against my flesh. But he slipped out of my embrace and slid down to my crotch. I tried to pull him up to let him know it was enough for me to hold him. But he resisted my tugging. “No, I want it this way,” he said.
Afterwards we lay in bed with our heads on a pillow propped up against the sill of the bedroom window. Now and then a breeze would steal up and make its presence briefly felt before retreating again into the street. Sounds came in from the street as well, more insistently than the breeze. If at first it seemed just noise to me, this indeterminate wave of sound began to resolve itself into a motet of distinct voices. It was the city speaking to us. There were the usual players, dogs barking, kids shouting in the street, yells and whistles and horns and sirens, and much scraping and banging of metal. I could imagine the people walking along the street outside, like the ones we had seen at the café. Occasionally an odd sound, like the buzz of a saw, would make its entrance. And then, whenever the drone of cars rattling down 7th Avenue subsided, I could hear the chirping of birds.
I turned my head and looked at him and I knew that this was the way I wanted to remember him, with the city above and behind him, cradling him, its gifted noble son, in its embrace.
Image: David Blakeley, by Alex Beer