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In 1978 my friend Denise left her family and moved to New York City to become an actress. She enrolled in drama school and lived that year in a dormitory in Greenwich Village. On Sunday evenings she would shampoo and condition her long, light-brunette hair, put the original cast album of Camelot on the stereo and sing along, combing out the wet tangles with a large blue comb and testing herself to see if she remembered all the words of Guenevere's part. Denise had always wanted to be Julie Andrews, or, rather, be the actress that Julie Andrews was, singing and acting all the roles Julie had done on Broadway and then going to Hollywood and making all the movies Julie had made, only doing them all bigger and better, and, of course, achieving more fame, success, stardom, and awards. After reliving Guenevere's trial, her rescue by Lancelot, and her reunion with Arthur on the battlefield, Denise, feeling exonerated, triumphant, bewitching, and clean, would then go to the pay phone in the hall and call her mother in Shelbyville, Kentucky.
"I've been so worried about you," Denise's mother, Mrs. Connelly, would sigh into the phone with an exasperated motherly concern. "I thought you were going to call me yesterday."
"I always call you on Sunday, Mother," Denise would answer, shaking out her hair and rolling her eyes, the lilting Broadway melodies of du-tu-du-du-tu-du-tu-du still humming along in her mind. That year she was twenty-two, and what surprised her most was the potency of her mother's disdain about everything in her life and the power it still had to dampen her mood. Denise would lift herself onto the stool that was placed by the pay phone, cross her legs and adjust her bathrobe, settling in for the long, agitating conversation ahead.
"Oh, well, I mean I thought you were going to call me earlier," Mrs. Connelly would correct herself, Denise recognizing how her mother stressed the last word to apply guilt. "I thought you might have had an accident."
Mrs. Connelly feared everything about New York City, worrying constantly that something fantastically horrific would happen to her daughter, like a chunk of sidewalk garbage would suddenly whirl around like a tornado and butcher Denise into tiny, unequal parts. Every conversation between Denise and her mother could potentially include the topics of crime, rape, starvation, poverty, and unemployment; Mrs. Connelly gleaned the atrocious headlines of the newspapers and the nightly news for assurances that New York City was not the place where her daughter should be. Denise equated life in Manhattan to that of Camelot, continually reassuring her mother that she made plenty of money as a part-time waitress four nights a week at a restaurant on Hudson Street, that she was never at a loss for food because the cook always let her bring home leftovers. And that garbage storms were something she was not afraid of--in fact, they only entertained or irritated her, depending on her mood.
"I'm fine, Mother," Denise would reply. "I had brunch with some friends."
"Brunch?" her mother would ask, as if the word were a foreign phrase she had difficulty pronouncing.
"I went with some girlfriends to Phebe's. It's this restaurant on the Bowery."
"The Bow-er-y?" Mrs. Connelly would repeat, drawing out each syllable.
Denise would immediately regret having mentioned the place, knowing her mother was now searching her memory for some unfavorable comment about the neighborhood, knowing the word "bum" was somewhere right around the tip of her mother's tongue. Denise was always trying to remember safe places to talk about with her mother--Macy's, Radio City, the Metropolitan Museum--and she knew that if she kept talking her mother might fail to focus her concern on any one thing. "And then we walked over to the west side, it was a really beautiful day--and watched the boats along the Hudson River." A safe subject, Denise would think: the weather. "The air was so light today. Like spring."
"It sounds, well, lovely, dear," Mrs. Connelly would work her way back into the conversation. "I'm sure you had a wonderful time. You must be meeting so many new people. Anyone special?"
Denise, then, would feel the first stab of tension racing down the knots of her spine like the shock of an electrical current. Since Denise had reached the age of puberty she felt her mother had paid too much attention to Denise's finding that "special friend." And what really irked Denise was that her mother's concern was such an illogical paradox; sifting out clues of reassurance that Denise was not having sex, but that she was seeing someone and wanting to get married. But the truth was Denise had felt alienated and vulnerable upon arriving in Manhattan. She had not been able to align with any of the other girls in the dormitory; the friends she went to brunch with were a group of girls on the hall who went to the restaurants in the neighborhood en masse. She had been unable to connect with any of the other acting students in her classes. She hadn't thought of many of them as talented; most of the other girls she felt had only bubbles of air between their ears, pretty girls that Denise resented because she knew their looks would get them the kind of parts Denise wanted to perform.
Denise had always been suspicious of her own beauty; she felt she was too short, too thin, too birdlike to really make it as an ingenue. Still, she hoped that one day someone would give her a chance to prove herself, prove her beauty and talent and acting and singing. And so she felt, that first year in New York, that if she kept herself slightly at a distance from other people, perhaps she would be considered special, unique, an enigma waiting to be decoded. The same thing had occurred her first year in college in Louisville. It took time to meet people, Denise knew. It took time to find friends. This was not the time, she felt, to rush things. It was the time she should use for studying.
"No, Mother, I'm not seeing anyone," Denise would answer her mother's question, hoping the subject would change quickly.
"You don't want to be alone forever, you know. You need to find a good, honest man. Are there any decent men in New York?"
Denise felt again another stab of tension; she knew her opinion on men differed from her mother's. Denise was drawn to those men who enjoyed the theater as much as she did, the ones who could quote lines from Tennessee Williams, sing phrases from Cole Porter, mimic the dance steps of Michael Bennett, gossip about the current backstage romances and revenge. These types of men Denise knew would alarm her mother; they were, after all, homosexuals. Denise would gravitate toward them in classes, in the hall, in the cafeteria of the dormitory, eager to hear their opinions and learn their source of laughter. Her attraction, though, was not a sexual one, nor did she consider herself what was then termed a "fag hag." She identified with them because they made her recognize her own difference from other women. What she liked about them was that they were all, well, so open. She had no idea, though, how to begin to describe this to her mother.
"I'm not trying to meet someone," Denise would instead explain. "I don't have time to be involved. I'm working on a career."
"Well, you don't want to come home to an empty house, you know," her mother would reply. "You should find someone while you're still young. What about that boy you dated in college? What was his name?"
"Rick. Do you ever see him?"
"He lives in Florida now, Mother. I haven't spoken to him in about two years."
"I just don't understand why you didn't settle down with him. A mystery to me," Mrs. Connelly would say and Denise would again hear that exasperated sigh. At times Denise was convinced that her misery in life would be not understanding what her mother did not understand. At times like this she felt sure she must have been adopted or dropped by mistake by her true parents--aliens visiting from another planet.
"Your father thought he saw you on TV last week. What was it? A toothpaste commercial. Was that you? Your father thought it might be you."
"No. I haven't done any commercials yet."
"Well, then, what are you auditioning for?"
"I'm not auditioning yet, Mother. I'm training."
"Training? For what? Your father paid for all that college for you to move to New York so someone could tell you how to walk and smile at the same time? What's there to train? The girl in the commercial just brushed her teeth. You have to take a class to learn how to do that?" Denise would hear her mother laugh, that girlish giggle that sent another stab racing down her spine. "What happened, Denise? Don't you miss all those civics classes you took in college? I thought you wanted to be a teacher. Your sister said they were hiring some substitute teachers over in Clayton."
"Let her go apply."
"Don't be such a sourpuss, dear. I'm just concerned about you, that's all. I just want you to be happy, you know. Are you careful when you're on the streets?"
"Yes, Mother. I strap a shotgun to my leg before I go out."
"Now, don't be smart with me. Just don't stare at people and they won't pay any attention to you."
"Mother, you're going to make my hair turn gray from all this worrying."
"Well, it's just such an unhappy place. All that violence. Why don't you just come home? I heard they're doing My Fair Lady in Lancaster."
Again Denise would feel uncomfortable, her heart would sink at the thought of not being able to do My Fair Lady, until she realized this was just another one of her mother's ploys to try and make her homesick, even though Denise had not lived at home for over four years, since she had left Shelbyville for Louisville and college. "I've already done My Fair Lady in Lancaster."
"But you weren't the star, were you? Your father just thought it would be wonderful for his daughter to come home from New York and be the star."
"In a community theater?"
"Well, you are coming home, aren't you? Your father's birthday is next month. It's his fifty-fourth."
"Mother, I have classes here. I can't come running home every month. It's too expensive." Now, Denise would detect her own inflection of exasperation. "And don't start up about Thanksgiving. I can't make it down for Thanksgiving this year."
"Well, it won't be the same without you." Her mother's voice, here, affected that thin, tiny, pleading sound.
Again, Denise felt another pang, this time as if a surgeon was about to wheel her mother into an operating room. Why, she wondered, was it so difficult to break away from her mother's grasp? Why was her mother so unwilling to let her daughter live her own life?
"You are going to make it for Christmas?" Mrs. Connelly would then ask. "Your sister, Melanie, is bringing Butt over. She's getting serious with him, you know."
"I'll take the train down."
"The train? Oh, do be careful, Denise."
At this point Denise would feel the loneliness stirring within herself. She would look out at the shuttered doors of the dormitory hall, the long vacant beams of fluorescent light. "I need to go," she would say to her mother. "Someone else wants to use the phone."
Denise would lift herself off the stool, grateful at last that the conversation was coming to an end.
"Dear? Denise?" Mrs. Connelly would ask hurriedly into the phone, a final question before hanging up.
"What?" Denise asked, her irritation rising again.
"Your father wants to know if you have met anybody famous."
Many of the things Denise's mother feared about New York happened to me the first month I arrived in the city. In rapid succession I was mugged, robbed, fired, and evicted. I moved to New York the same year as Denise, the summer of 1978, having dropped out of college after my sophomore year, moving from a large house that I had shared with a professor in Atlanta to a tiny, gloomy yellow-painted room at the YMCA on West 34th Street where I stayed my first few days in the city. Coming home one night from job hunting I was mugged by two boys near Penn Station; in full view of two policemen and the crush of rush hour pedestrians, my assailants ripped my pants as they grabbed for the wallet I had stashed in my back pocket, punched me in the stomach, and fled. The next day I began a job at a telephone answering service on Eighth Avenue and when I returned that evening to the Y, I found my room had been broken into; the few possessions I had to lose were some jeans and T-shirts, my camera, and a clock radio I had bought the day before at Macy's. The following morning I went to meet a man who lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side and who had advertised for a roommate. I paid the man, Richard, a deposit and my first month's rent in cash, and when I arrived at work later I found out I had been fired for supposedly giving a client an incorrect message. That sent me back out to the street, looking for another job, and the next day when I checked out of the Y and went to Richard's apartment, I discovered the landlord had evicted Richard for five months nonpayment of rent and the door locks of the apartment had been padlocked. Richard was nowhere to be found, of course, and the super was quite unsympathetic. I was so green and naive I should have just had "FOOL" or "SUCKER" tattooed across my forehead.
I suppose you might even say I was raped and pillaged that first month, though what happened happened willingly on my part when an Italian sportswear buyer I had met at a bar on Seventh Avenue took me back to his hotel room and seduced me with champagne and drugs, or, rather, after the booze and the drugs and the backlash of my misfortunes, I willingly plowed my way into him. A few days later I felt an itching, burning sensation in my crotch and which is how, after a few discrete questions at a bar on Christopher Street, I ended up at the clinic for gay men on Grove Street in the West Village.
I was so new to New York City and felt so foreign myself, I was not even certain that anyone knew how to speak English. I was only nineteen years old and not one person I met in Manhattan those first few days could be considered as "friendly" or "civil" to me. So I was amazed when the guy seated next to me in the waiting room of the clinic widened his already large brown eyes, smiled at me and said, "So what are you in for?"
"Bad behavior, I suppose," I answered.
"Ahhh," he nodded his head, and I felt him looking me over and, here, I turned and studied him, too. He was the embodiment of what was referred to as a "clone"--a lean, muscular young man with a thick, clipped black mustache and shiny black hair but whose ears were disproportionately large for his head and tipped out from his face like wings. Even though it was summer, the middle of July, he wore jeans, workboots and a gray T-shirt, the collar of which could not contain the curls of black hair that climbed up from his chest to his neck. "A run of bad luck, eh?" he said.
"Like you wouldn't believe," I laughed, disbelieving it all quietly to myself. "And you?"
"Just making sure everything is back in working order," he said. "And I've got this huge crush on a volunteer here." Here, he took his hand and fluttered it over his heart. "Vince," he said and stretched out his hand to me. "And you're..."
"Robbie," I answered. "Robert Taylor," and I took his hand and briefly, politely, shook it. I'm sure I must have seemed anxious to him, darting my eyes around the room and then back to him, trying to figure out if I was in the process of another misfortune.
"Whereabouts you live?" he asked.
I'm sure my puzzlement must have registered on my face. For years I had been told that I was never one who could, well, hide his emotions; my sturdy, too-cute-boy-next-door looks easily crumpled with the onset of confusion. "That's debatable," I answered.
"Oh?" Vince said, as if he had, at last, uncovered a secret.
And what I did next was to begin to explain the whole sorry mess of my saga to him. He disappeared, though, somewhere around the rape and pillage part; his name was called and he was escorted out of the room by a rather handsome man who I took to be a volunteer and who was also wearing jeans, workboots and T-shirt. A few minutes later I was ushered into a tiny cubicle where I dropped my pants and my little itching, burning sensation was diagnosed.
I was given the card of a doctor who could see me that evening and sent on my way. Climbing down the four steep flights of the building I felt as if my miserable luck would never end. I was upset because I still hadn't found a job, upset because I was broke and again living at the Y, upset because I was sick, or, more to the point, inconvenienced, and I thought, as I took each step as if it were to be my last, that maybe I had just made a huge mistake in thinking I could move to Manhattan, and maybe I should just hitchhike my way back to Atlanta where at least everything seemed familiar to me.
When I reached the street, the sunlight was blinding after the darkness of the hall and I stood for a moment wondering what to do next.
"So what's the prognosis?" I heard a voice coming from behind me. I turned and saw Vince leaning against the wall.
"Ahhh, the clap. They give you a referral?"
"Yeah," I held out the card to Vince.
He didn't even bother to look at it. "Come on," he said. "I know a doctor who owes me a favor."
I have often wondered why I invested such blind trust in Vince that day--and why he, too, extended such kindness to me. I think it had something to do with my feeling that, well, things could not get much worse, but something more, too, was at core of it than just willingly accepting the kindness of a stranger. I have often believed that it had something to do with that sexual chemistry that attracts two men to each other in the first place, the way many friendships were first born out of prior sexual encounters.
After escorting me to the doctor, then accompanying me to a pharmacy where he paid for my antibiotics, I expected Vince to just give me his phone number and disappear. My thanks, I expected, would be offered to him weeks later when I was well. I knew there was nothing, really, that I should do with him that day; I did, after all, have my little drip to attend to. What happened next was that he led me out into the street and then he looked up at the sky as if expecting a miracle to happen; it was one of those brilliant late New York summer afternoons, the kind where the air is thin and clear and the sunlight makes everything shine and shimmer and sparkle as if new. "It's too late for the beach," he said, as if I had suggested the possibility. "I bet you've never even been to the Empire State Building."
"No," I answered, shaking my head in response. "But I see it all the time," and turned my head uptown as if I expected it to materialize between the buildings.
"Come on," he said. "I'll take you to the top."
The view was magnificent that day, the visibility stretched, it seemed, for miles. We stood outside on the observation deck, our elbows leaning against the concrete walls, entranced by the strong, warm summer breeze and the twilight painting the sky with deeper and darker hues of blue. The city beneath us, so minute and detailed, seemed to me like one of those miniature enchanted kingdoms where trains run through the mountain slopes, only now on a larger scale there were cars and buses and the microscopic dots of people. So many stories, I thought as I tried to alight my vision, but couldn't. How could I ever find my own--my way to fit in? But then there was a moment, too, when I was seized by the enormity of the city and the luck of having met Vince, finally finding someone who might be a friend, that I felt that I had been truly blessed by something grand, the witness of something special, or, perhaps, as silly as it sounds, embarking at the start of some great new adventure. I was so full of exhilaration that I half expected at any minute to turn and kiss Vince or that, perhaps, he would lyrically spin me around as if we were two actors on a movie set.
Instead I drew in the air, swelled my chest, and hoped to myself that a day and a feeling like that would not end in disappointment. "How long have you lived here?" I asked.
"I was born in Brooklyn," he said. "Somewhere over there. But we moved to New Jersey when I was little. See that building?" I looked to where he pointed, a skyscraper misplaced, it seemed, on the New Jersey skyline. "Near there. When I was in college we were always driving into the city to do something." That, I felt, explained his ease with the city. Vince was twenty-two, three years older than I, and as we watched the sunlight break into pink and violet strips in the west, he told me that he had gone to college in the city and had majored in economics, but was really working on being a writer, a playwright, actually. He was taking some courses and working on some scripts in some workshops, though at the moment, he was unproduced, unpublished, and unknown. For money he worked part time at a bank three days a week, sorting through checks, though he also mentioned that his grandfather had left him some money, which explained to me, too, his ease in other matters. He talked some more about his writing, saying he wanted to some day write something witty and significant, but what he was still searching for were the themes and subjects he needed to explore. "I can't just write about sex, you know, although I think sometimes I might be an authority on it," he said, followed by a quick belly laugh at himself, which led him to explain that he had been in love exactly four times, but preferred for the most part to maintain his independence, or, rather, to play the field.
We stayed until the sun had disappeared completely; the stars, so vivid and precise at that height, began to appear in the sky as if a tube of glitter had been tossed in the air. On the way back down to the street Vince suggested we return to the Village for something to eat and I agreed to go with him. Later, after dinner, I expected him to want to be rid of me at any moment, but we set out walking again, and he lead me to the entrance of a cafe on Bleecker Street.
"I'm on the top floor," he said, motioning to the door beside the cafe.
He must have sensed my hesitation. I was not only nervous but confused. What exactly did he want from me?
"You can sleep on the floor if you want," he said. "I've got some extra pillows and a blanket." He pushed his key into the lock and opened the door. "It's got to be better than the Y."
"Why are you being so nice to me?" I asked. I watched his face, lit by the street lamp, move through his confusion. It was clear he was not used to being asked questions so bluntly.
"You're a cute guy," he said, trying to dismiss the intensity that I felt move into my own expression.
"Cute? That's it?"
"Yeah, and you've just had some bad luck. You just need one good thing to change it." It was here that he shrugged his shoulders in exasperation. "Look, I've met a lot of guys," he said. "I can tell when someone's honest, you know?" And this was where he locked his stare into mine and I felt, in that second, the certainty of his trust.
"Everybody needs a friend. Maybe some day you'll do a favor for me." He pushed the door open and stepped reside. And I turned and followed him up the stairs.
"I collect favors," Vince said as he unlocked the door of his apartment. "Someday I'm gonna be a rich and happy man just from favors." As he flipped on the light it was clear to me that he collected other things too; his apartment, a studio, was crammed with piles of magazines, manuscripts, books, and newspapers.
"I keep thinking I'm gonna move out of here," he said, as if he had detected my shock. "So I really haven't invested in a lot of furniture." The furnishings were, well, almost spartan: a table, a chair, a typewriter, and a single bed.
"Problem is, this place is real cheap." He flipped on a stereo that rested on the floor and the piercing voice of Gloria Gaynor filled the room. In a matter of seconds I found myself seated on the floor next to a pile of books on top of which was the script of Philoctetes.
It was such an odd moment witnessing this mixture of disco and Sophocles, but Vince seemed not to notice, or, perhaps, think it commonplace. But he did lower the volume to allow us a conversation.
"Want a beer?" he asked, but before I said that I probably shouldn't, he realized it too. "Sorry," he said. "Soda?"
I shook my head no; I was, at that moment, satisfied. Vince opened a beer, took a few swigs from the bottle, then opened a closet and withdrew a blanket. "If you put this on the floor it won't seem so hard." Then he tossed me a pillow and as I caught it I noticed a glass bowl behind a stack of magazines. I lifted it up to examine--it was a large fishbowl, the kind normally used for goldfish. But into this one Vince had stuffed business cards and scraps of paper where names like "Mike Lavaca" and "Todd Luther" were written alongside their phone numbers. It was clear, too, that Vince collected people; they would, after all, be necessary for collecting all those future favors.
"One day I'm gonna paint this place," Vince said, sitting down beside me on the floor. "I want to get a bigger bed and put it against that wall, and get a real nice print or something and hang above it. I want to turn this wall into bookcases," he waved his hand in the air. "But look," he said, and, here, he got up off the floor and walked over to the place where the two walls intersected. "They don't meet at a ninety-degree angle. I'll probably have to get them custom built."
"That's not hard to do," I said. "I could build them for you."
"You know how to build a bookcase?" he asked, with almost a laugh.
"Bookcases are easy. You know someone who has a saw?"
"An electric saw would be best."
"An e-lec-tric saw?" he asked, somewhat flabbergasted.
"To cut the wood. You probably already have a hammer."
"A hammer?" He looked at me, disbelieving. "What kind of guy do you think I am?"
"Well, you must know someone. Collect a favor," I said, with a sort of wry smile.
"Where did you learn how to do this?" he asked, his hands resting mockingly on his hips.
"God," I answered rather soberly. "God taught me."
When I was twelve years old my mother died and my father, attempting to assuage his grief, embarked upon a mission of repairing the small, clapboard Methodist church in my hometown of Galena, Georgia. My father, a chemical engineer by profession, had always felt that he had neglected what should have been his true calling, that of being a minister to a needy flock of sinners. To amend his oversight, my father feverishly devoted himself to the church, teaching Sunday school, organizing youth projects, and forming prayer groups. Because he was also so adept at those, well, husbandry skills--carpentry, electrics, and plumbing--after my mother's unsuccessful battle with breast cancer, my father took it upon himself to become the church's custodian, keeping the building in a polished and working order.
I had always resisted my father's religion, as minister's children are often wont to do, and as the years went by I felt my father hid a lot of his flaws behind his religious mask: his narrow-mindedness, his bigotry, his fear of change, and yes, even his alcoholism. But the winter that my mother passed away, I followed my father to the church, hoping myself to find some sort of alleviation and wisdom from my own loss. It was then, during those cold, wet days that my father set about repairing the pews, or, rather, rebuilding them one by one. He had set up a small workshop in the basement of the building, having brought over his lathe and vise and electric tools and sawhorses from his workroom at our home. My father and I, dressed in layers of shirts and pants, would puff out our cheeks and blow hot air into our palms, then set about drawing the outline with a pencil onto the wood we would later cut and sand. My father must have hoped that the experience of us building together would bond us, rebuild our relationship too, but what happened was that it distanced me even further from my father, his blustering mannerisms and paradigms about the godliness of carpentry were such a bitter paradox to me when I measured it against the sour stench of his whiskey breath. What happened as I turned away from my father was that I turned into the work, sawing and sanding like a demon in the temple of God, my pride and joy attained from each new notch of craftsmanship I achieved.
It only took me two days to build and stain Vince's bookcase for him; Vince had remembered that Alex, a friend of his from New Jersey, ran a construction business out of a loft on 17th Street and had all the tools that I needed and had agreed to let me use them because he owed Vince a favor as well; a few months earlier Vince had helped him get a large group of theater tickets for some relatives who had come into town for a vacation. Vince was so impressed by my work that he began to recommend me as a sort of handyman to his other friends, including pushing Alex to use me as a freelance carpenter whenever possible. A few days later I found an apartment on West 19th Street in Chelsea, a small studio walk-up on the fourth floor above a Chinese restaurant.
I always expected Vince to drift away from me, but what happened was we began going to the gym together; Vince loaned me money for a membership at the YMCA in Chelsea till I could pay him back, his stipulation was that I would be his work-out partner, a favor for a favor as it were. Vince preferred the larger but more seedy gym at the Y over the tiny high-tech health clubs that were springing up in the Village and Chelsea; he took his workouts seriously, moving quickly from one set of exercises to another till his body and clothing were coated in sweat. "No pain, no gain," was his philosophy, but during breaks he would love to talk about philosophy, pondering Kant's definition of rational understanding or Neitzche's rejection of Christianity at the same time he was ogling a guy's buttocks on the other side of the weight room. I confess, even now, that I have only a little grasp of what he was talking about--philosophy was never my strongest subject--but I was awed, certainly, by the absurdity of the situation: the reps to achieve the peak of, say, a bicep, juxtaposed against the idolatry of, perhaps, the guy with big arms in the navy blue tank top matched against the primal existence of man or, a favorite of Vince's, the ontology of existentialism.
The sexual tension that had initiated our friendship was always there between Vince and myself, but instead of being a source of frustration it now became an accepted fact; at times, it even introduced a healthy competition between us--we were, by then, too close of friends to want to jeopardize our friendship by having sex with each other, so instead we would often point out men we would like to, well, meet, or, perhaps, we sensed would like to meet us. Vince loved to cruise, especially on the street, and, walking beside him along Seventh Avenue on our way back to the Village after a workout, he would suddenly stop talking as a handsome man approached us; then, just as the stranger was out of earshot, he would whisper, "Did you get a look at that one?" and, if I hadn't noticed, he would always add, "Well, he gave you a look over."
Being with Vince turned the city into an erotic adventure: eyes met, glances were exchanged, smiles bequeathed like presents. It happened everywhere: the subways, grocery stores, theaters, and banks; cruising was the recognition that bound gay men to one another. Vince loved to scan his eyes over a crowd of men at a party; his gaze exploring and lingering, almost tauntingly. Vince collected invitations to parties as easily as he did business cards; he never worried about what sort of opening line he should say to a guy who caught his attention--he had no trouble drawing men in with an alluring smile and a nod. Sex was an easy and uncomplicated accomplishment for Vince, and, though his religion was the same as mine was--the worship of the male body--he was not after the same thing that I was--finding a lover. In fact, it was my quest that often set us apart.
I went with Vince to those parties and bars and restaurants and beaches full of expectations, thinking and, well, believing that I just might stumble onto the man with whom I was destined to fall in love. I was such a young, recurable romantic that everything had such a heightened sense of possibility for me. On the nights Vince and I would go dancing at the Flamingo, a gay disco not far from the curbs of Soho, moments after we had entered the club together, Vince would disappear in the direction of a cluster of friends or a guy who, perhaps, he felt he had to meet. I would nod him away and go and stand on the perimeter of the dance floor, watching the crowd of swirling, sweating bodies spin and twist into the pinspots of flashing lights, the bass line of a song passing through my skin like a thunderous heartbeat.
I was no stranger to clubs--those dark, music-filled places were where, years before in Atlanta, I had discovered there were other gay men, learned, too, that there was nothing really wrong with myself. In high school, tormented by the confusion of my homosexuality, I would borrow my father's car and drive to the discos in Atlanta, and stand and watch men dancing with other men. Those clubs and those men, to a naive suburban teenager like myself, was like being granted free admission to a glittering, urban amusement park; each step and each man contained the possibility of a new adventure. The first man I ever had sex with had first asked me to dance. The first man I fell in love with I had first met at a disco.
And on those nights at the Flamingo in New York, I would scan the crowd the same way I had done a few years before, pausing to study the way a particular man danced, the way he moved his hips and feet, shifted his shoulders, or tilted back his head into a spotlight, wanting at first to be like that man, wanting to grow up looking like that, moving like that, then wondering what sex would be like with him, then wondering, too, what life could be like with him, wanting him, then, as a lover.
At some point Vince would return and tweak my nipples or clutch my crotch or breathe a heavy "errr" into my ear and pull me out to the dance floor. We would dance until we were sweaty and wet, removing our T-shirts and dangling them through the back beltloops of our jeans, our fists shoving in tempo to the music like synchronistic pistons. A rag soaked with ethyl chloride would be passed before my nose, and I would crunch up the muscles of my face before the bleachlike scent expanded into my brain. By then, Vince had usually disappeared and I would be dancing with someone else, watching this other man shift and tilt before me, then suddenly sweep his eyes across my face to find my own. And then I would find myself waiting in a line to piss, some tiny pill pressed into my hand or, on occasion, right into my mouth, and I would be back out on the dance floor again, perhaps, now with another man, caught up in the magic of the moment: the swirling lights, the heaving drum beat of the music, surrounded by dancing men who played tambourines and whistles and symbols and fans like a band of traveling gypsies.
I would dance until the Flamingo closed, into the early morning hours, and back on the street, squinting at the light and with some guy's arms tucked around my waist, I would feel, as the cool, oily air of the city swept over me and chilled the sweat at the base of my back, my father's disapproval hanging over me. My religion--my worship of men--was what had caused a rift between me and my father and his religion, as wide and impossible to bridge as that of the Grand Canyon. I was also, in those early days of mine in Manhattan, enthralled with the decadence of it all, of urban gay life. I would be so tanked up after a night of dancing I would have to stop in the archway of a building and pee, or, waiting with a guy at a crosswalk we would instinctively slip into a kiss in full view of the morning traffic, without any sort of thought that this might be illegal or immoral to someone else, moving, certainly, without any fear. At the heart of all this was my hope that all this dancing and drugs and booze and sex were only the beginning of something else; what really was so shameful about wanting to fall in love with another man? But even though I still had a boy's raw and naive consciousness, I nonetheless had the cravings and needs of a young man on the prowl. And as much as I saw myself as an optimistic romantic, there was still so much delicious joy and satisfaction in being bad every now and then.
That was the same year that Denise was paired with a young man in her acting class named Jeff, a tall, well-built guy with a strawberry-blond crewcut and a regal looking face, long and rectangular, with narrow blue eyes and a squared off chin as broad as his forehead. At first glance Jeff appeared to be haughty and aloof, but the truth was, Denise was soon to learn, he possessed the burly and playful personality of a four-month old lion cub. Their first assignment in front of the class was to perform the rape scene from A Streetcar Named Desire and Denise and Jeff seemed to be a perfect cast to play Blanche and Stanley: Denise, petite and frail-looking; Jeff, large, virile and athletic. But there was also something a little, well, too-too about the both of them--Denise, too young, too bright, too Miss Junior Majorette-looking to be regarded as someone so decaying and mentally delicate, and Jeff, too handsome, too wholesome, too, well, All-American-Bible-toting-football hero, to be believable brutalizing such a pretty young woman. It was Denise's lighthearted suggestion one afternoon while they were rehearsing in the basement of her dormitory that maybe they should change roles, maybe she should be Stanley and Jeff should be Blanche; wouldn't this, after all, be a tree test of their talent? This struck Jeff as a wild and outrageous possibility; already at the ripe old cynical age of twenty-three he had grown to dislike the constant effort to fight being stereotyped into bland, heroic roles, tired of being considered nothing more than just another vacuous chisel-jawed matinee-idol-mannequin. Denise would often remind Jeff, however, that it was these same drop-dead looks that had helped get him into this school with a scholarship.
Jeff and Denise's resulting reenactment of Blanche and Stanley's pas de deuce became something of a scandal to the class, several students objected to Jeff's frank, effeminate portrayal but others were even more horrified by Denise's precise, streetwise Stanley. But it was a liberating exercise for both Denise and Jeff, its ramifications lasting well beyond the confines of the classroom. This was the moment that Denise broke out of her shell, found both her self-confidence and creative spark, and Jeff, so confused before as to how much of his sexuality to portray not only on stage but also off, opened his closet door partially and showed his fellow actors that he could, well, wear a dress and not at all be ashamed of it. Not that he stated, specifically, anything about who he really was, of course, but the instructor was so taken by Jeff's new candor that after class he pulled Jeff aside and asked him for a date.
Not that Jeff ever had a problem with suitors or dates before; just walking down the street Jeff could cause quite a stir. Jeff kept his "interests" private, however, as was the wont of most handsome would-be actors trying to find a break, his needs satisfied by late night excursions to bathhouses and members-only clubs. He had been worried, in that midwestern Christian sort of way, that his proclivities would somehow taint him, criminalize him before the public, though now, with his new friendship with Denise, Jeff felt comfortable enough to tell her about his joy of being privately gay. He would come to her dormitory room in the early morning hours, having just been with someone, a man named Stan or Bill or Peter or Jerry, and sit on the floor at her bedside and describe his newfound passion to her, the adoration of other men, and Denise, so intrigued and polite, would curl herself up in her blanket as if she were settling down to read a novel, and listen to Jeff describe the men he had found, reveling in the way he would compare the firmness of one man's ass to that of a basketball, or describe the striated muscles of another man's shoulders.
It was during these early morning confessions, hunched over the cups of instant coffee that Denise would make for them, that Denise would realize she had at last found her first New York friend. Denise loved being bitchy and queeny with Jeff, as she had secretly witnessed the gay boys in her class do amongst themselves, and she would ask Jeff questions, in her campy, tiny, affected voice, "Dahrling, are you only interested in size?" or "But dear, didn't all those tattoos scare you?" Her concern for Jeff's safety was genuinely honest; as large and intimidating as Jeff could appear to be, he also possessed a cautious streak, as though he were a titanic waiter balancing a miniature tray of crystal champagne glasses. Denise, however, preferred to get a comic rise out of Jeff, something to stir a waggish retort from him. "But he must have had terrible breath," Denise would wonder out loud about one of Jeff's more, well, oral connections, for instance. Jeff, playing along with the game, would respond with a coy, "But how would I know? He wasn't anywhere near my mouth." But what gratified Denise most about her new friend was, when he had expended his revelations, his puppylike candor of sexual joy, he would look up at her on her bed, pull her into his cool-blue stare and say, in the boyish tone that Denise had so come to love, "But what about you? What have you been up to?"
What Denise did, after finding Jeff, was to let the joy of him, the ecstasy of his doting, easy-going friendship, push her out into the city. Now she went out buoyantly with the girls on her hall to find new restaurants, with fellow actors to ride the Circle Line around Manhattan or tour the United Nations or for a shopping jaunt at Bloomingdale's, happy, at last, to have a purpose and to be able to retell, hours or days later when seeing Jeff again, all the things she had done, share with him the details of her happiness. And it was here, too, she began to affect her own opinions, though often mimicking the gay spirit of the day. She would look at Jeff and smile and say something with mock exasperation, "Oh, dahrling, you should have seen the windows at Macy's yesterday. Those poor designers must certainly be on drugs. They have misplaced a statue of Cupid amongst the Easter lilies." Jeff, in turn, would continue the bitchy banter. "But dearest," he would implore to Denise, "They aren't designers. They only maintain their employment for those literal fifteen seconds of fame they are granted." Denise, here, would show her mock confusion. "The parade, dear," Jeff would explain to her. "Just to be able to say to their coterie how they were captured in all their beauty on television at Thanksgiving pulling a giant Goofy balloon down Broadway." He would laugh, then sigh, then lure Denise in again with a tilt of his head. "Did I tell you about the beauty I met at Macy's?" he would ask, and then he would be off again, detailing the glory of the male physique.
Their friendship spilled over on one another in many ways. Denise brought Jeff to the parties she was invited to and Jeff, in turn, introduced Denise to guys he met, guys whom he would describe in beautiful and explicit details and who would, eventually, make their way into Denise's acquaintance and offer her discounts on things like clothing, jewelry, shoes, and haircuts. It was sometime near the end of the spring term that year that Jeff, through one of these tricks, heard of a large apartment in the West Village that was cheap and vacant. Denise had no qualms about living with Jeff, jumped, in fact, at the opportunity to move out of the dormitory and into a real apartment, even if it was a fifth-floor walk-up located near the end of Bethune Street.
Jeff often referred to that first apartment they shared as "the tenement," though Denise preferred to describe it as "a railroad flat with character." The apartment was a series of four large rooms and a bathroom, designed so that one had to pass through one room to enter the next. The "character" of the space was acquired from the overpainted walls, the broken window sills, the stingy water pressure available in the bathroom, a wall of electrical outlets that refused to work, and the floors that slanted so much they seemed to belong inside one of those lopsided carnival fun houses. They decorated their home as many New Yorkers often furnished their first apartments, assembling a collection of boxes and crates that became coffee tables and bookshelves, a couch or a chair found from garbage piled up on the street at night, waiting to be picked up by the city sanitation department. Jeff moved into the last room of the apartment, the one where the door could be closed for privacy. It was decided between them that Jeff should have the private room because, well, he hoped to entertain a lot. Denise took one of the small middle rooms as her bedroom, accepting a sofa bed bequeathed from one of Jeff's friends, and stringing up curtains for her own privacy, though she rarely found the need to close them.
Jeff and Denise never even locked the bathroom door; whatever personal restraints they harbored had evaporated after the first few days they lived together. Jeff loved to roam around the apartment draped in a towel, singing at the top of his lungs, "The truth is I ne-ver left you." The truth, of course, was what thoroughly alarmed Denise's mother. On top of all of Mrs. Connelly's fears of New York now loomed the fact that Denise was unmarried and living with a man. Denise explained to her mother that there was nothing wrong with living with Jeff; she slept on the sofa bed entirely by herself and Jeff had his own room and that, well, Jeff was gay, so what was the problem? That, of course, was the problem; and only another in the string of things that convinced Denise's mother that her daughter's life was deteriorating into decadence.
Jeff, on the other hand, was amused by Mrs. Connelly's provincial concern. Jeff would often tease Denise after her phone conversations with her mother, asking her if she had told her mother about the Hispanic guy he had tricked with the night before, or about the young man he had met in the porno cinema near Union Square. Jeff told none of this to his own mother, of course. Jeff had moved to Manhattan from Ohio and he explained Denise to his parents as "someone special;" they, in turn, accepted Denise as Jeff's asset.
Denise, in fact, never worried about the guys Jeff brought into the apartment, not even the ones late at night who would bump into the edge of the sofa bed on their way to Jeff's bedroom. Denise was actually intrigued by it all; but at the time she was more concerned about her career than about sex. And she wasn't really jealous of all the men Jeff was able to attract, though she once told me that she was envious of all the attention Jeff was getting. Denise always looked upon Jeff's "guests," as she liked to call them, as new faces to meet in the morning--those who stayed till morning, and most did. Denise would invite Jeff and his friend of the moment to join her for breakfast, sitting down opposite them at the cafe table that crowded the tiny first room of their apartment. She confided to these strangers, on those mornings, her fear that really, deep down, she knew she looked too thin and birdlike to be considered a serious actress. She knew, too, she was much too short to ever make it as a fashion model. Her greatest claim to fame to date, she would explain with her light-hearted sarcasm, besides her debut as Stanley, was the time in Louisville she had worked as a shampoo model at a department store; she knew her best feature was her Pre-Raphaelite hair: thick and long and wavy brown. Jeff and his guest would nuzzle one another and Denise would hunch over her coffee mug and draw them into her stare and say her time would come, years from now; she felt she would make a great elderly character actress. All she had to do was to train and hope.
It was into all this hope that Vince appeared one morning at that little kitchen table, having met Jeff the night before at the Flamingo. Denise has often described that first morning with the two of them as being something akin to breakfast with two kids in hyperdrive--Jeff pumped up from his night of dancing and sex and Vince chattering away from the side-effects of too much booze and drugs. Denise knew instinctively to fix decal that morning, staying away from caffeine or any other sort of stimulant that might only heighten the animated state Vince and Jeff had reached; they could not remain still, could not contain their infatuation for one another, could not keep their hands off each other's bodies, their tongues out of each other's mouths, except, of course, when they had something to say.
Vince, suspicious at first of a woman's presence, tested Denise's composure by talking about the various pecs and nipples and biceps and yes, cocks, on view at the Flamingo the night before, comparing them to Jeff's own beauty and checking Denise's expression for any perceptible sign of disapproval. Denise, of course, was enthralled by Vince's monologues on male beauty, and Vince, satisfied, drew her into the conversation. But she then drew Vince into another conversation, one of hers, about her concern over the current state of the Broadway musical, and about the presence of Sondheim and Strouse and Hamlisch and was it all just becoming, really, just one big messy nonsensical revue. Jeff, still elevated by his evening of stimulants, started singing whatever phrase crossed through his euphoric mind, and Vince was only too satisfied and eager to offer his own opinion on theatrical matters. Then, once Vince realized he had been accepted, had been taken into both of their confidences like an old friend, he took one look at that tiny, cramped kitchen and proclaimed, in his best imitative Bette Davis voice, "What a fuck-ing dump!"
He got up from the kitchen table and began walking through the apartment, running his fingers along the cracks in the plaster walls, inspecting the missing light fixtures, the warped door frames, the floorboards creaking beneath his steps, Denise rambling on and on in defense of the charm and the bohemian quality of their lifestyle. Vince began to see the apartment as he felt it should be seen, saying, "You should paint this wall a real light color and the woodwork in a darker color, maybe something in peach or dust tones," and, "A couch would look nice here--a large floral design or a thick tweed look." When he reached Denise's room, the floor tilted so much that Denise, where she stood, appeared as tall as Jeff. Vince shook his head and asked, "Are you sure this is not a structural hazard?"
"No, I don't think so," Denise said, though she knew nothing of what Vince was talking about, but then neither did Vince. Vince reached out and touched the curtains Denise used to define her room but which were never drawn, and here, turned to Denise and with a nod of sincere concern, said, "You really need more privacy than this." He lifted his chin toward Jeff, capturing, too, at that moment his understanding, and said emphatically, "You should build a wall or something," and then gestured his hand toward the ceiling with a wave, "Maybe something dramatic--like Japanese screens."
Denise backed away, captured by her imagination of Vince's suggestion; she had, up until that point, not taken anything Vince had said with any sort of seriousness.
"But it would be so expensive," she said, fighting back her disappointment.
Here, Vince reached over and grasped Denise's hand, bequeathed her a warm, knowing smile as if he had a secret he would share, and this was the moment that they would both recall, years later, as the beginning of their friendship. "I have a friend who can build it for you," Vince said. "He'll do it for you very cheaply." Then he turned to Jeff, caught his eyes and, here, smiled even wider as if to assure his promise. "He owes me some favors," he said, and, then, reached out his free hand and placed it on Jeff's bicep, bonding the three of them together as a minister would before prayer. "You'd really like him," he added, arching an eyebrow at Jeff. "Short. Dark hair. And very cute."
Posted July 29, 2000
This is an amazing book that was superbly written. Currier is able to draw you into the lives of his characters to the point at which their happiness, sorrows, journeys, and life changes become your own. A tale of passion which will you will be unable to put down.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 30, 1999
I thought this book was excellent and have shared it with my dear friends. I also came from a very religious family and this just brought back old feelings, and eventually the breaking away.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 17, 2012
No text was provided for this review.