The Search for Love in Manhattan A gay odyssey of neurosis
Wednesday, December 31, 2003
In the late 1920s, my grandfather was imprisoned in Palestine for plotting to overthrow the British regime. Undoubtedly he was plotting to overthrow the British regime, but given the efficacy with which he carried out various anti-capitalist schemes during the time that I knew him, in this case his offense probably consisted of something like handing out leaflets.
In any case, he was held in jail for a year at Akko Prison (also known as Acre). During that time, he occupied himself, among other activities, with carving sandstone with his fingernails. Here is a bronze cast of one of the pieces he carved--it's been on a farm in Israel for decades but my father finally managed to get ahold of it and have copies made.
I would say "note the Communist iconography," but since it consists of nothing but Communist iconography, such an admonition would be superfluous.
We went through his papers after he died; they were full of letters that ran to dozens of pages predicting the imminent demise of the capitalist octopus and the imperialist running dog. (At least that's what the letters in English said; my Yiddish wasn't really up to the level of rhetoric of which he was capable.)
This was my father's side of the family. My mother's side includes my grandmother, who was married nine times, and a great-uncle who was the first serial killer ever to be convicted when authorities matched the hair under his fingernails with his victims' hair. He's one of the waxes in the wax museum episode of The Twilight Zone.
I believe this convergence of influences explains much, if not all, of my character.
I spent last night at E.S.'s apartment in Brooklyn, because he had a residency interview this morning at a hospital much closer to his place than to mine. He left for the interview at some ungodly hour but very considerately let me sleep in. Eventually I awoke, showered, got dressed, and tried to leave, only to find that the door wouldn't open.
It was unclear to me whether the door was somehow locked from the outside--I don't have keys--or just viciously stuck, but I pulled on it as hard as I reasonably could in as many different directions as I could, and it remained closed. I could have yanked on it with all my might, but E.S. has a complicated relationship with his landlords as it is, and I didn't want to complicate it further.
I did, however, want to go home.
I called E.S. in the vain hope that he'd be on a break from his interviews and could tell me where extra keys were or how to unstick the door; no such luck--I got his voice mail. Then I tried to resign myself to spending the day locked in his apartment, with no food and no cable. It would be horrible: I would spend the whole day building up resentment, and then when he got home we would have our first fight. I started making phone calls to the people I had plans with during the day letting them know that I probably wouldn't be able to make it, as I was locked in an apartment in Brooklyn.
Then I saw the fire escape.
So I opened the window and climbed out, only to find that the metal of the fire escape was terrifyingly pitted and discolored. I'm not particularly afraid of heights in most situations, but when I'm three stories high and my only support is made up of narrow slats of rickety iron and it's raining, I'll make an exception.
However, given the alternative, I figured it was worth risking breaking my neck. Moving at the snail's pace my terror kept me to, I managed eventually to get down the incredibly steep stairs to the second floor of the fire escape.
Where the way to get down involved a thin wet ladder that ended ten feet above the ground.
Furthermore, even if I'd been able to work up the guts to climb down the ladder--I will point out that I had a heavy bag on my shoulder--it was so blocked by various metal bars at weird angles that nobody but a Hollywood stunt man would have been able to get onto the damn thing. Add to that the big and many-angled plastic toy at the bottom, belonging surely to the young child of the landlords, and you had a situation that was beyond my power to overcome.
I started to inch back up the stairs, figuring that even without cable or food, an apartment with high-speed internet access was a better place to spend the day than a wet fire escape, when I remembered that E.S.'s sister lived on the second floor, and that I was in fact right in front of her window. Praying that she hadn't left for work yet, I tapped on the pane. She appeared from the other room, looking at me with the most perplexed expression I've seen on her face in the course of our brief acquaintance. She opened the window, I explained what had happened, she let me in and out of her apartment, I left the building, I got on the subway, and I went home.
E.S. was profusely apologetic when I spoke to him later in the day. He had in fact unthinkingly locked the door behind him, and it was in fact a lock that couldn't be unlocked from the inside without a key.
I thought about starting our first fight anyway, but instead I just took a nap.
Not too long ago, the New York City subway system moved from a token system to a swipe card system. (Those of you who live in New York must forgive me, as you already know everything in this paragraph, but the rest of the story doesn't make sense unless you know how the subway system works.) The kind of card I usually get is the unlimited ride card, which can be used any number of times during the period it covers (a day, a week, or a month); to avoid its being used to get more than one person onto the subway at a time, once you've swiped it through the card reader at the turnstile, it's invalid for the next eighteen minutes. This is not a problem during the ordinary course of events; when things go wrong, however--when you accidentally go through the downtown subway entrance at a station where there's no inside transfer to the uptown subway, say--you are at the mercy of the station attendants, who are more capricious in their whims than any Greek god ever was. If they choose to let you through, then you're fine; if not, you have to 1) wait eighteen minutes while train after train goes by or 2) jump the turnstile and risk arrest.
I promise this is relevant.
One day a few years ago, after spending the day running errands, I went to take the subway back home. I swiped my card, but before I could go through the revolving gate on my way in, somebody else came through on his way out. I tried to enter, but no go. I swiped my card again, but got the dreaded "JUST USED" message. Since there was no station attendant at this entrance (and since this was one of the entrances at which there are gates instead of turnstiles, making illegal entry impossible), I had to go back up and find another entrance at which there was a station attendant. I did so, and explained what had just happened. She asked to see my card. I gave it to her; she checked it and barked, "You just used this."
Trying to keep my rage in check, I said, "Yes, I explained to you that I--"
"You didn't use it at this station. I can't let you through."
"But I did, I told you that I--"
"I'm not letting you through. Next customer, please."
I had had it. My relationship with my then-boyfriend N.T. was at the height of its dysfunction, meaning that my emotions were running at a fever pitch all the time anyway. There was clearly no reasoning with this monster in human form, so I went for it.
I jumped the turnstile.
That is, I tried to jump the turnstile. In actuality, I didn't jump quite high enough, and my feet caught on the bar, which sent me tumbling down in a heap on the other side.
Along with the gallon of paint I was carrying in each hand.
The integrity of the paint cans (blue in the left hand, purple in the right) was of course not enough to survive the fall; the lids came off and paint spilled out all over me.
Broken and defeated and bruised and covered in paint, I left the subway station, crossed the street into Central Park, cried for eighteen minutes, came back, got on the subway, and went home.
As you can perhaps tell from the fact that I'm writing this, I survived my Christmas trip into the wilds of New Jersey.
E.S., his sister, my dog, and I drove for about two hours--which is to say that E.S. drove, my driver's license having expired months ago, and just as well, really, given the number of car accidents I caused when I was driving--to get to his parents' house on the Jersey shore (where they had recently moved from Iowa).
This is the second time I've ever met a boyfriend's parents, but the first time can hardly count, as it was the parents of my ex, N.T., and I met them in the waiting room of Bellevue Hospital, where N.T. was having surgery--he was having surgery in the hospital, that is, not in the waiting room--and the terror of meeting each other was second in all of our minds to the terror that somebody would accidentally remove one of N.T.'s limbs. Which, in retrospect, would really have been doing the world a service, but that's neither here nor there.
In any case, E.S.'s parents were, thank God, utterly wonderful and generally unintimidating people. His father looked at me for a few moments in such a way as to fill me with anxiety--you know, the kind of look that can be communicating either "I think you're a fine match for my son" or "I can see right through you, you fraud" but you can't quite tell which--but then luckily my dog A. jumped up on him, both melting his heart and shielding me from further scrutiny. Then I complimented E.S.'s mother's furniture, and all was well. The whole thing was as traditional a Christmas as one could want: we talked about the weather, we ate hors d'oeuvres, we looked at embarrassing pictures of E.S. as a child, we ate Christmas dinner, we opened presents, we ate pie, we talked about the real estate business they were opening, we pulled out their custom-made Ouija board and contacted their spirit guide.
E.S. had suggested that this might happen. Apparently, it's the job of this entity--who is known, by the way, as "28"--to greet the recently deceased upon their arrival in the afterlife. However, he's also very interested in the spiritual progress of those of us who have yet to shuffle off this mortal coil; he's been sharing his insights with E.S.'s parents (and, through them, with E.S. and his sister) for almost 30 years now. His communications while I was there were concerned partially with E.S.'s parents' failure to talk to him in a while--it had been some five weeks--but mostly with E.S.'s sister's path in life. He gave her what seemed to me to be a lot of really good advice.
At one point, somebody asked me if I had any questions; of course, there were any number of things I was dying to know, but somehow I couldn't quite see my way through to asking about them, especially as many of them concerned the first-born child of the people wielding the planchette. So I said, "No, nothing in particular--though if 28 has anything to say to me, I'd be happy to listen"; I hoped thereby to get some good advice while circumventing the awkwardness of asking questions of a cardinal number.
Twenty-eight, however, saw right through my ploy; he bade me welcome and told me to read the transcripts of his other communications (which run, evidently, to some 1,500 typed pages) so I could get to know him better. Then he went back to castigating E.S.'s parents for neglecting him for so long, and then eventually those of us who live in New York piled into the car and went back there. (I'm figuring that 28 is more or less omnipresent, so, though I met him in New Jersey, he probably lives in New York too, and was almost certainly in the car.)
This was, in fact, the second communication I've ever received from the spirit world; the first was the time in high school when I went to a meditation group and somebody channeling St. Catherine of Siena told me I was an old soul and that I had to develop my psychic powers.
Clearly, the lesson here is that I should avoid all communications with entities from the beyond, because first they will tell me things of no use to me and then they will give me homework.
Today, E.S. and I will finish making the gay gingerbread house we've been working on. (Fear not, photos will be posted.)
Tomorrow, we will go to New Jersey for Christmas.
Let me clarify: tomorrow, we will go to the house of his parents (whom I've never met before) in New Jersey for Christmas.
I'm spending Christmas with his parents. Compared to this, the use of the word "boyfriend" pales into insignificance.
Let's hope I can manage not to flee the country in terror before then.
Of course, since the national threat level was raised on Sunday from Elevated to High, fleeing the country may no longer be an option for those of us who aren't straight upper-middle class WASP Republicans.
Last night I went to David's birthday dinner with my boyfriend (oh, fuck, there I go again) E.S.
I'd been looking forward to the event for several days, when shortly beforehand I found out that David had also invited T.H. This meant that I would be going to a party with my boyfriend (shit) and the man with whom, not to put too fine a point on it, I cheated on him the last time he was my boyfriend. (This is an oversimplification, but it'll do for the present.)
"You invited WHO?!?!?" I shrieked electronically and ungrammatically at David.
"I forgot," he said. "The idea of you and T.H. together makes no sense to me, so I never remember that it ever happened."
So now I had to figure out how to handle the situation. I could just keep mum about the whole thing. But since T.H. reads my blog, he would know who E.S. was, but E.S., though he knows that T.H. exists, would have no idea that that's who he was sitting across from; this seemed an unfair and disrespectful state of affairs. Which meant I'd have to tell E.S. that T.H. would be there. Not that there was any real problem here, because, as charming and delightful as T.H. is, E.S. is really a far more suitable boyfriend for me; still, the thought of the conversation I'd have to have filled me with agony and anguish. My past behavior towards E.S. has been reprehensible enough that I fear a confrontation with it in the same way that Dorian Grey might fear a confrontation with a certain portrait.
I agonized and anguished about how to tell him--the more so because, being totally broke, I'm taking time off from therapy, so I couldn't get my therapist to write my lines for me--and finally, Sunday night, I called E.S. and, in the course of our conversation, said, "um, there's something slightly awkward about David's party."
"Let me guess," he said. "T.H. will be there."
Stunned, I asked, "How did you know?"
"Well, I knew they were friends, so when you said there'd be something awkward, that leapt to mind immediately. Don't worry. It's fine. I think."
Slightly terrified at how intuitive my boyfriend (drat) is, I hung up and went shopping for a birthday present.
In the event, the guests at the dinner were seated at a long table. E.S. and I arrived slightly late, and the only seats were at the opposite end of the table from T.H. (and, incidentally, next to this man, whom I was glad to get to know a little better).
Though I was sad not to be able to participate in the conversation happening at the other end of the table, I was not sorry to leave the portrait wrapped up.
All the early signs of incipient homosexuality people offered in the comments to the last post--and, incidentally, all the early signs of incipient homosexuality I might offer--are as nothing compared to those exhibited by my friend K.N.
I offer two stories.
1. In kindergarten one day, K.N. stood up all of a sudden and burst into screaming, bawling tears because he realized that his underwear didn't match his socks. Ordinarily, if he was wearing green underwear, he made sure to put on green socks; red with red; and so on. But he'd gotten distracted that morning and accidentally put on socks of a different color from his underwear.
All efforts to assure him this was not actually a problem were vain; he didn't stop crying until his teacher called his mother to come and get him. She took him home, waited while he changed, and drove him back to school.
2. In junior high, K.N. was in class with a boy he thought was a bad dresser. K.N. would buy boxes of No. 2 pencils, sharpen them to razor-sharp points, lie in wait for this kid on his way home, jump out from behind the bushes, and stab the kid in the back with a pencil as hard as he could.
Then he would hiss things like, "Next time, tuck your shirt in."
Like a fool, I waited until the last minute to get my tickets to Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and so I ended up having to see it at a theater on the east side. (For those of you who don't know Manhattan, crossing from the west side to the east side or vice versa, while not physically too difficult, is the psychological equivalent of swimming the English Channel naked and bleeding when it's full of sharks.)
In any event, as I sat knitting on the crosstown bus, a boy of six or seven across the aisle spoke to me. He asked, "What are you knitting?"
Now, I do not ordinarily like to be spoken to when I'm knitting on public transportation (though being spoken about is a different matter entirely--there's no joy quite like that of hearing people whisper, "What's he knitting, it's so complicated, I used to be able to crochet but I would never have the patience to do something like that") and I also hate children. One would think these two facts in combination should have inspired me to a stony silence, but somehow I didn't mind.
"A glove," I answered condescendingly, glad to be able to broaden the child's horizons.
"I just finished a scarf," he said, "in fisherman's rib. Now I'm working on a hat in a cable stitch."
As soon as I recovered my equilibrium, I responded. What I said was, "That sounds terrific. Good luck."
What I wanted to say was, "Does your mother know how gay you are?"
For Thanksgiving, my dog A. and I went to the middle of nowhere in western Maryland with this man, his dog Goblin, his boyfriend Rob, and his boyfriend's sister Rindy. Rob and Rindy did virtually all the cooking, with two exceptions, and were also obsessive-compulsive enough to do all the cleaning up before David and I could get to it. On Thanksgiving Day, however, they exacted a price. "We'll cook Thanksgiving dinner," they said, "but you two and the dogs have to put on a Thanksgiving play."
We presented the play in the form of a puppet show, in which the dogs were the puppets and we manipulated them as we crouched behind the couch that was our stage (after covering it with green blankets to represent the fertile bounty of an unsullied new land); we spoke the dogs' lines in eerie, Talky-Tina-from-the-Twilight-Zone-like falsettos. A. and Goblin made their stage débuts to great acclaim, and David's and my performance as puppeteers was such as to make me think we have bright futures ahead of us as high-ranking members of the Republican cabinet.
Here are two photographs of the stars, in different attitudes.
The girls look off artistically into the middle distance.
The girls express their true feelings for each other.
And so here, without further ado, is a reconstruction of the script we developed. (Unfortunately, we didn't write it down, but we agree that this is fairly close, with one notable exception.)
A Thanksgiving Play in Three Scenes
starring A. and Goblin
A.: Hello. I’m an indigenous person.
GOBLIN: And I’m a pilgrim.
A.: Let’s have Thanksgiving.
A.: Great. Here’s some maize.
GOBLIN: Thanks. Here’s some firewater and some smallpox-infested blankets*.
(SHE begins to die, loudly.)
Argh! I’m dying from the smallpox-infested blankets! Argh!
A.: Hello. I’m an indigenous person.
GOBLIN: And I’m a fat, greedy, rich American capitalist.
A.: You killed my people with your smallpox-infested blankets and then took all our land and then forced us all to run casinos. We want our land back!
GOBLIN: No. And now I’m going to win lots of money in your casino.
A.: Hello. I’m an indigenous person.
GOBLIN: And I’m still a fat, greedy, rich American capitalist.
A.: With all the money I made from the casinos you forced me to run, I’ve become a billionaire and taken over the world and also developed superpowers!
A.: Now I’m going to kill you!
A.: I win!
GOBLIN: And I’m a ghost.
With material like this, how can I fail to become a star?
*David insists that this line was actually "I bring you firewater and smallpox-infested blankets," but I believe my own version.
When I started this blog, nobody read it. Then a few people started to read it. Then lots of people started to read it.
Then people I knew started to read it.
I want to write about E.S., but I keep censoring myself because, since he knows about the blog, he might read it--not that I'm hiding anything from him this time around, but still. And he's actually informed me that he's purposefully not reading it, but still.
I want to write about cheerleading, but I keep censoring myself because a handful of cheerleaders on the squad who've stumbled across the blog, including the coach, might read it--not that I'd be writing anything more extreme than what I've already written, which seems not to have bothered anybody, but still.
This medium used to be so safe. And it doesn't feel that way anymore. So for the last few weeks I've taken refuge in very brief posts and in stories from my childhood. I've drafted a few posts about things closer to my heart--or whatever performs the function of that organ in my body--but haven't yet found a way to make them work to my satisfaction. And as a result I feel both less funny and less interesting than I used to be.
I'm a long way from giving up this enterprise, I think. But still. It's a treacherous ocean I seem to have entered.
And I'm terrified that I'll lose you if I don't learn to navigate it.
When I was about six, I asked my mother why tube socks were called tube socks. She said, "Because it doesn't matter which way you put them on."
Ignoring the fact that this wasn't properly an answer to my question, I inferred correctly that, if it didn't matter which way you put tube socks on, then it did matter which way you put other socks on. I further inferred that, with non-tube socks, there was a right sock and a left sock.
And I couldn't tell the difference.
I figured that, according to the laws of statistics, I was wearing the correct sock on the correct foot about half the time--clearly an unacceptable state of affairs, but I was far too ashamed of my ignorance to ask for help.
I finally overcame the stigma, however, and asked a particularly well-dressed teacher how to tell the right sock from the left sock. She patiently explained to me the way socks actually work (she wore stockings all the time, so don't ask me why I thought she'd know about socks, but in the event she did) and put my fears to rest. I was free from that day on.
I would find the whole thing less embarrassing if this epiphanic conversation hadn't happened ten years later, when I was sixteen.
Yesterday, after a harrowing and largely unsuccessful shopping trip, E.S. and I decided to lift our own spirits by baking chocolate chip cookies.
Now, I have a recipe that consistently turns out perfect chocolate chip cookies. Without fail, people to whom I serve these cookies are amazed and delighted at how wonderful they are.
So of course I decided to use a different one, just for fun.
I looked through my recipes for a while and eventually found one that looked kind of elegant in its simplicity; what made it more interesting was that it was written in my own handwriting on the flyleaf of the first cookbook I ever bought, but I had no memory of writing it there.
So we went ahead and made the cookies according to the recipe. They turned out fine--nothing like my perfect cookies, of course, but certainly acceptable. In fact, they tasted vaguely familiar. I clearly hadn't used this recipe for years, if ever, but somebody had.
In fact, a great many people had, as the recipe proved, to my horror, to be the Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe.
At least it's good to know that my tastes have become somewhat more refined over the years.
One of the drawbacks of being from South Carolina is that I am related to people with names like Bubba. Bubba, my mother's half-brother, was kicked out of the Citadel, South Carolina's military college, which should tell you all you need to know.
When I was a small child, my parents occasionally left me in the care of Bubba and my other uncle, Billy. (Billy was Bubba's half-brother but not my mother's brother--my grandmother was married nine times before she died, which is a tale for another day.) I loved it when Bubba and Billy babysat, because it meant that we ate no actual food, subsisting on a diet of ice cream and marshmallow fluff. This was apparently not enough of an incentive for Bubba and Billy, though; eventually they decided they'd had enough of having me foisted upon them, and hatched a plot.
The next time my parents came home from a weekend away, having left me in my uncles' tender care--I believe I was three or four--Billy and Bubba suggested that we all go out for lunch. On the way there, Billy and Bubba said, "Hey, Faustus, why don't you sing your mom and dad the song we taught you?"
I burst spontaneously into a beautifully executed rendition of "Dixie" and my civil rights worker parents just about had a stroke.
Then we got to the restaurant, and when it came time to give my drink order, I asked for beer (which is what Bubba and Billy had told me Mountain Dew was really called).
But the coup de grâce came in the form of the following conversation, for which I'd learned my lines as instructed:
Bubba: "Hey, Faustus, what do you like?"
Faustus: "Dumb broads."
Faustus: "'Cause they don't tell."
Billy and Bubba never had to babysit for me again.
In fact, I believe it was several years before they were allowed within thirty feet of me.
This is a modification of a traditional Hebrew prayer:
It is ours to praise the beauty of the world,
Even as we discern that it is torn.
For nothing is whole that is not first rent,
And out of the torn we make whole again.
We live with promise in creation's lap,
Redemption budding in our hands.
Let us begin.
Though usually I think I've successfully rooted out all traces of hope from my life, every once in a while I stumble while crossing the street and there it is.
Not too long ago I went to the bookstore, fiercely determined to get control over my tendency to slobbishness and disorganization, and bought a book called How Not to Be a Messie. It contained lots of good advice about getting rid of clutter once and for all, and I started reading it in preparation for the day I'd be able to start implementing it.
Today at the gym, the instructor introduced a particularly grueling exercise and said, in honor of last week's holiday, "We'll call this one Pie-B-Gone." After the glimpse I'd caught in the locker room of the tiny love handles that weren't there this time last week--I actually thought I saw Jesus in one of them but then realized it was just a freckle--I redoubled my efforts with Pie-B-Gone. Wish me luck in getting results.
Then I started thinking about the time when this woman took the summer musical theater writing class I was co-teaching. One day there was a guest instructor who introduced us to the principles and practice of sketch comedy; one thing we had to do was come up with a commercial for a product. She and I were paired for the exercise, and we came up with an idea for a product that I still think somebody ought to put on the market. It was called Enemy-B-Gone, and it was a machete. The commercial included several illustrations of the various uses of Enemy-B-Gone; all of these illustrations are long gone from the sieve that is my memory, but I do remember our tag line, which was "Enemy-B-Gone. Because some people just deserve to have their heads chopped off."
It's occurring to me now that what would really sell, though, is a two-in-one product: Pie-'n'-Enemy-B-Gone.
Does anybody have any contacts at the U.S. Patent Office?
I am now back from western Maryland, having survived a week in the middle of nowhere with this man, his dog, his boyfriend, his boyfriend's sister, my dog, and some very scary movies. On the drive back, we passed a site on which someone was rebuilding Noah's Ark. We knew the structure was Noah's Ark because of the sign that said, "Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here."
The thing is, we passed the very same structure with the very same sign on our way back from western Maryland when we went last year. And it was in the very same state of completion.
Clearly, somebody has been falling down on the job.
I mean, come on. How long can you really think it'll be before God destroys the world again in a flood the likes of which hasn't been seen on earth for millenia?
Except wait. The whole point of the damn rainbow after the flood was over was the covenant God made with Noah that He would never destroy the world in a flood ever again. So what the hell is the point of rebuilding Noah's Ark?
I guess the builder came to that very same realization.
When I was six, I picketed my house, hoping to be allowed to eat breakfast before getting dressed rather than after.
I marched back and forth in front of our front door, carrying a sign that said "BREKFAST FIRST DRESSED LATER."
My parents, being civil rights workers, didn't cross picket lines, and that was the only way into or out of our house,
so they were trapped there until they acceded to my demand.