Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Set Piece

Last night I watched a man seduce a woman in my apartment.

He had fixed a light supper in advance of her arrival, a salad and a quick beef sauté that he artfully arranged on the square porcelain plates Matthew and I had bought during a close-out sale. The man was tall and had to stoop over the chopping board as he prepped the salad. I hadn’t realized that even this, the height of the work surfaces in the kitchen, Matthew had designed in such detail to fit us.

The roomy open kitchen in which the man prepared his seduction dinner had been built with other inhabitants and other purposes in mind. Like every good architect, Matthew had designed the renovations of the apartment with a keen sense of how we would live in it. He imagined us entertaining and outfitted the generous kitchen with its own fireplace and an eating nook that could double as a space in which friends would keep me company while I cooked. It was the room in which we celebrated the liturgy of our relationship, whether alone or with friends. But there was no seduction in this room. Though even at the end of our relationship I cooked for us as if I wanted to bed him, by then we dined as if we had already made love.

It was the woman’s first time in the apartment. She knew when he invited her that they might wind up in bed but though she was flattered by his courtship, having sex with the man she worked for would be complicated; it could ruin their friendship and their work together, and both brought order and comfort to her life. She told herself she was content with the small but certain daily pleasures of their hours together. But she came nonetheless.

Though I didn’t know the man, I recognized him from television and remembered that Matthew had had a brief affair with him before we met. Now with salt-and-pepper hair, the man was graced with a runner’s build and a rough yet symmetrical cast of features that brought to mind Hollywood’s leading men of the 50s, the handsome square-jawed hero who rarely laughs. I was glad Matthew had had such a beautiful lover—it always seemed to me a great hubris to be jealous of one’s lover’s former lovers, akin to wishing that he had not had a happy childhood or success at school—and I found myself imagining the scene with Matthew as the host and the tall man the object of his affection. He would have been just as charming and attentive, clear about his intentions but patient with his interlocutor’s uncertainty, just as he had that first time we met. As he did that day—and as the man did for the woman at his table—he would have poured his guest another glass of wine and waited for the evening to unfold.

The table the man had set for supper was graced by a small bouquet of white tulips set in the vase which I had bought on a trip to Dublin but which Matthew and I never used. It was decorated with fans and roses and berries in shades of coral and pine green, and sported a gold-crested rim.

“Do you think that really fits here?” Matthew asked me when I had shown him the vase, with a tone in his voice that suggested that it didn’t.

The rhythmic repetition of petals and stamens that had so pleased me in the store suddenly seemed busy, the golden ovaries and fan ribs too gaudy.

I consigned it to a closet where we kept the misfits that had lost their utility or never had one—cruets and vials that had lost their corks, pepper mills from which only a fine dust of spice could be ground, novelty mugs we had been given as a lark. I couldn’t figure out whether Matthew disliked the vase because it was so much out of character for me or because I had bought it on my own. Home décor was Matthew’s purview.

The tasks of our common life were divided in accordance with an unspoken calculus in which first skill, then inclination and character and finally chance determined our assignments. I cooked, he did the dishes. When we cleaned house, I did the bathroom, he the living room. We did the grocery shopping together and took turns walking the dog.

Matthew did the laundry. Unlike fixing a leaky faucet or carving a turkey, this chore required no skill for its execution, so whoever first noticed that the hamper was full or whose notion of full was less forgiving than the other’s wound up doing it. Matthew always noticed first and I soon stopped looking at the hamper as something that needed to be taken care of. It was the first in a series of things I began to take for granted.

Nearly everything we bought for the house, from tea-towels to the veranda chairs, we bought together. We did so in an elaborate ritual in which each of us would rein in his own aesthetic proclivities for the sake of the other, Matthew tempering his wish for more rebellion and color and fantasy, I my desire for an even more austere minimalism, each silently asking the question, will he like this?

Without realizing it we forged a common aesthetic, and over time the question we asked ourselves became, will we like it, until in the end we didn’t need to even ask. Eventually the skin of our apartment acquired the signs of each of our lives. My books and music filled the shelves, and the floors received the prayer rugs Matthew bought on his business trips to the Gulf. On the wall we hung the prints we acquired during our travels. Cupboards filled with woks and ramekins and muffin tins, zesters and graters, tools to scale fish and pots to poach them in, the batterie de cuisine that chartered our long life together as tellingly as photographs could.

Still, as an architect and the man who had fashioned this beautiful house, Matthew remained the final arbiter in matters of design. To his credit, he rarely made use of this privilege, though perhaps it was just that he rarely needed to do so. The vase, however, was one of those times. Matthew’s displeasure at my surprise find from Ireland made me feel as if I had shown up at a dinner party with a bad bottle of wine. It wasn’t a we vase, it was a me one, and in the end, not really me at all.

There wasn’t much sex to be seen. I saw the man dance the woman into the bedroom, wine glasses in hand and their supper untouched, and then there was a gap and I next saw them in bed under a navy blue sheet. The man lit a cigarette—something Matthew and I had never done in the bedroom—, took a drag and gave it to the woman.

“What’s the second one for?” she asked, pointing to the two bathrobes that lay on a stool next to the bed.

“I was waiting for you,” he said.

The seduction scene was one of several the TV production company had shot in our apartment. I hadn’t expected to see it again, so many years after Matthew and I had watched the episode on its first airing, but a friend had sent me the internet link. “Look what I found on YouTube!” he wrote.

I told him about the fight Matthew and I had had about the filming. I remember shouting to him, “Do you know how much a dolly weighs? And the scratches it will leave on the floor?” Matthew assured me they’d be careful. “They do this all the time.” he told me. “They even signed a contract. They’ll repair any damage they cause.”

The apartment was both home and calling card to Matthew. A year earlier it had been featured in a local design magazine, in the interview of which he had never once mentioned the man he had shared it with. No mention of the relationship for which he had designed this wonderful, airy and sunlit space. “It’s just business,” he told me. “No one’s interested in my personal life.”

“I am,” I said, but didn’t press the matter. It seemed to me mean and selfish to deprive him of this recognition. Still, his  reluctance to name me rankeled me; it was a me vase.

The crew, a dozen in number, came with their cameras and lighting stands, their wardrobe rack and make-up kits, and the navy blue sheets with which they made up the bed. As they set up their equipment the apartment that had once seemed so large to me shrank into a small-scale gallery installation of a home in a box. I showed them where the plates and glasses were and left before the man who had briefly been Matthew’s lover arrived.

The eight-minute segment didn’t reveal whether the man and woman made love in the shower the next morning, but I imagined they could have.  Up a step from the rest of the bathroom and reached through a sliding glass door, the shower had a wooden deck and room for four. A glass door opened out from the shower onto a grate in the lightwell. Though we had set out a large and leafy faux weeping fig on the landing, a neighbor standing a few steps down on his fire-escape could probably make out our bodies in the shower. It wasn’t a place to make love in, I told myself at the time —too much glass and too many eyes—nor with its absence of a bathtub in which to soak aching ligaments, a place to grow old in.

I was wrong, of course. I have grown older in this place, and Wacław and I made love in the shower. But it is still a house without seduction. The men who came here after Matthew left wanted no supper. With them, but especially with Wacław, the challenge lay in the opposition direction, from bed to table, and no one has yet taken Matthew’s place in the kitchen.

-/-

Featured image: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. It will strike the reader as presumptuous that I have borrowed this image of two artists for this post. Though they were lovers for six years, there is no parallel in their lives together to Matthew’s and mine, other than perhaps the influence they exerted on each other and this tender scene of a meal together. For more on this remarkable relationship, see Jonathan Katz’s enlightening article, “The Art of Code”.

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