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For most of his life, David Wojnarowicz considered himself the ultimate outsider and a true invisible man. “I’m a blank spot in a hectic civilization,” he writes in this fierce and unforgettable collection of four blistering autobiographical pieces, illustrated with his own arresting ink drawings. Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in New York City at the age of thirty-seven, left behind a body of work that was staggering in its variety and originality. Painter, writer, photographer, performance artist, and filmmaker, he made an indelible mark on virtually every stage of the national arts scene. Yet nowhere does his anger, love, or compassion show itself as strongly as in his writing, which earned a Lambda Literary Award and prompted critics to call him the Jack Kerouac of his generation.
The horrors of Wojnarowicz’s past inform his literature—his years spent as a child prostitute and living homeless on the New York streets, his outspoken, very public battle against the disease that would eventually take his life, and the entrenched government bureaucracy that sat by and did nothing. The world as seen through Wojnarowicz’s eyes in these four masterful short works is stark, cruel, and cold—and yet gloriously alive, ennobled by surprising acts of heartrending humanity. Memories That Smell Like Gasoline is a celebration of sorts: of sex, of love, of art, and of having truly lived.
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About the Author
In 1985, Wojnarowicz brought his fight for freedom of expression to the case of David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association, in which Donald E. Wildmon claimed that Wojnarowicz’s work was pornographic and undermined family values. Wojnarowicz won and was awarded a symbolic dollar. He was thrust back into the spotlight in 2010, at the center of a censorship battle over the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. In 2012, Cynthia Carr published the critically acclaimed biography Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz.
Read an Excerpt
Memories That Smell Like Gasoline
By David Wojnarowicz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 David Wojnarowicz
All rights reserved.
INTO THE DRIFT AND SWAY
Sometimes it gets dark in here behind these eyes I feel like the physical equivalent of a scream. The highway at night in the headlights of this speeding car speeding is the only motion that lets the heart unravel and in the wind of the road the two story framed houses appear one after the other like some cinematic stage set, houses on both sides of my face unravelling towards me and the trees casting shadows like fallen x-rays into the sides of the white clapboard and occasionally some yard dog hooting a silent fear noise it's lost in the rush of everything; and once before when I felt this way I screamed loud and long and hated the sound of my own voice and so haven't ever tried it again. I hate highways but love speeding and I can only think of men's bodies and the drift and sway of my own if sex was a dance I'd do a crawl for that body I saw this afternoon the guy stepping out from the cab of his truck in the parking lot of the bus stop he looked kinda canadian and in a sexy collared shirt and tight faded jeans and thick leather belt and boots and a crease in the front of his pants that let his dick rest lazy and calm and forearms I'd want under my tongue and after the turn on the bridge when I'd swung back going north stopped at a rest stop and a truck pulled in I walked past it a little later and a ruby red light flicked on and a silhouette of a man in worker's pants stepped out swinging from the bar next to the outside rear view mirror and walked past me in a blaze of car lights and entered the bathroom. I walked around for a while he never came back out finally I went in and bent slightly saw his legs beneath the frame of one of the stalls and took the one next to him pulled down my pants and sat on the cold toilet and looked down to my side and there was a puddle of water between the two stalls under the dividing panel and it reflected light from the overhead ceiling fixture and through its transparency was the squared outline of gray floor tiles and as I looked at it I realized that I could see the overhead-lit features of this truck driver and the pale wash of his eyes and jaw line and cheek bones and following the illuminated shoulders in the surface of the puddle down his arms only one was illuminated and part of his chest pressing through the flimsy t-shirt and down his forearms and to his wrists and the puddle moved a bit breaking the image into wavy lines and pieces of light and when his face came back in focus and the water was still I held my breath so as not to disturb it I looked in the vicinity of his hands two hands lit from various angles pieces of fingers with cold white lights and parts of wrists and all of it wrapped around a silhouette of a hard dick which he waved back and forth in the reflection his image for a moment looked like it was floating upside down beneath the surface of the floor and I was therefore floating right side up and from his vantage point I was floating upside down and he right side up and up in the cab of his rig he pulled off his pants saying don't worry about the cops they always check the cars first and by flashing their flashlights through each one we got plenty of time just to enjoy it go ahead enjoy yourself and putting his big hand around the back of my neck and pressing gently till my face could make out the outline of his moving dick I could see the dim hairs covering his balls go ahead use your tongue a lot and less teeth that's it more tongue and less teeth yeah where I come from there's three brothers who come over my place when they can get away they come over for the night and they love it go ahead that's right enjoy it enjoy yourself. His fingers and face scattered into shards of lightCHAPTER 2
MEMORIES THAT SMELL LIKE GASOLINE
It's that face. I knew I'd seen it before. I was standing in the lobby of a movie theater surrounded by crowds of people waiting to enter the auditorium to watch a film about a bunch of teenagers and a dead body and codes of teenage silence. It was the end of the previous show and the doors flung open and hundreds of people were pouring out towards the exits. Suddenly that face. It was one anonymous face in the crowd that tripped the switch in the back of my head. I froze and the face became magnified. It expanded in size until it was five feet tall and disembodied and floating in the darkness of the open doors. I guess he froze too. He was a pale gray color with fastidiously combed hair plastered down around the skull. Thin lips, bloodless and tight. His eyes were colorless and they widened for a moment. We both stood there trying to uncoil each other's private histories and solve the dislocation of familiarity. I had been drugged, tossed out a second story window, strangled, smacked in the head with a slab of marble, almost stabbed four times, punched in the face at least seventeen times, beat about my body too many times to recount, almost completely suffocated, and woken up once tied to a hotel bed with my head over the side all the blood rushed down into it making it feel like it was going to explode, all this before I turned fifteen. I chalked it up to adventure or the risks of being a kid prostitute in new york city. At that point in my life dying didn't mean anything to me other than a big drag. I had mixed feelings about death. When I was trying to get enough money to eat or find a place to sleep for the night, death actually seemed attractive, an alternative. I would go without changing my clothes or bathing for months at a time. I could see my reflection in the legs of my pants if I bent close to them. Periodically if I had a surplus of money from spreading my legs in seven dollar hotels on eighth avenue I would walk Into the Port Authority bus terminal and look at all the various names of towns painted on the glass windows of ticket booths. I'd choose one that suggested bodies of water and then buy a ticket, get on the bus and ride It for as long as It took till I spotted a lake or pond In the countryside. I'd then ask the bus driver to let me off, usually having to argue with him because it wasn't a scheduled stop. After the bus continued on its way I would walk across the field and into the water until I was up to my neck. I never bothered to take off my shoes or my clothes. I would float around for hours and then hike back to the road and hitch a ride to a bus-stop or all the way back into the city.
That face. When I noticed his suit and his hands, palms back and manicured nails, I remembered. Maybe it was the quality of light or lack of it in the lobby as the door swung open and people were exiting before the end of the film. Maybe it was the color of his flesh, the look of no oxygen, the look of anticipation or fear, the complexion of anticipation. I remember that night fifteen years earlier. I had spent the later part of the afternoon paddling around this small pond, pushing my face under water looking for signs of life. It was rapidly turning to dusk and I was wet and feeling cold. The town was too small to offer much evening traffic so it was hard to get a ride. I didn't really know where I was. I was gray inside my head and wishing that killing myself was an effortless act.
Those eyes, that face gray and floating disembodied in the dark of the open window. A small beat-up red pick-up truck coasted to a stop along the side of the road. He was waving me into the truck. I remember thinking his skin was fake, like a semi-translucent latex. I asked him how far he was going. Oh, a ways. Thin tight voice layered with a friendliness I couldn't hook into. We drove for a while in silence and I looked out the side window at all the illuminated houses and occasional glimpses of people in driveways, interacting with each other. A stray dog running along the highway in a small panic. He said he worked for a bank in the city. That depressed me for some reason, maybe the formality of it that translated into an image of years and years of writing in ledgers and stale cups of coffee and dealing with people in need. At some point he had his dick out and stared out through the windshield at the beacons of light illuminating the dark roadway. He steered with one hand and jerked with the other. I was leaning against the door and didn't answer when he murmured something about this place he knew where we could go. After a while he made a left turn down a gravel and dirt road winding up through a forest over small hills. I remember moths and bugs diving into the headlights, a small wooden sign with a boy scout symbol on it, and then some scattered cabins. The sound of lake water in the near distance.
He got out of the driver's seat and pulled open the passenger door I was seated behind. Squat down and make it squirt. I didn't move. He had shut the engine and the headlights off. Get out. I felt suddenly much more tired than I ever remember feeling. I swung my legs out from the seat and stood in front of him with my hands in my pockets. A wind was coming up and it was starting to bring with it a light rain. He took me by the arm and led me to the back of the truck and turned a metal latch and swung up the back door of the camper. One of his hands floated up to my face and then encircled the back of my neck and I realized I was being propelled forward towards the black interior of the camper. I crawled obediently inside, it was loaded with blankets and sleeping bags and boxes of indecipherable stuff. It was kind of moist and smelled like earth and grease. He climbed in behind me and pulled the door shut. Everything was reduced to smells and the sound of trees and the squeak of his shoes against the metal parts of the floor. I lay down and curled up on a mass of smelly cloth. I could see his silhouette half-rise before me, blocking out the minimal light and then dropping to my side. The sound of a zipper opening. His hand on my neck again. Pulling. I want to go home, I said. What are you talking about? I realized his head was further back in the truck than I had thought. I couldn't see anything. The rain was coming down hard; sheets of water making the dimness more dark. I don't know, I said, wondering where I would go even if I got out of the truck without him stopping me. You like it in your ass? No. Good, he said and then hit me. Very hard.
I'm blind to the world and he's turning me over and over and over. Where am I? In a muddy field in the back of a stranger's truck and the truck is backed up to a fence and the stranger has put his full weight on my back and I feel like I'm in motion like something flung out of a giant sling shot. A pale length of rope hastily torn out of a wet cardboard box and wrapped around my hands pulled behind my back. I'm on my belly and if I yelled or hollered the only thing to hear me is the dead house miles back on the road dark and empty. Or the handful of rundown shuttered factories on the main road. He's pulling my hair, yanking my head back so his face appears upside down floating before mine and he's smiling. But the smile looks like a frown, it's upside down and he leans in and kisses both my eyes. The windows have fogged up and he opens one slightly and I can hear the occasional shine of an insect. He's slapping my bare butt and driving his tongue into my ear and running it down over the line of my neck and turning me over and over periodically. I'm overwhelmed by the smell of wet metal and the musky thickness of the cloth when my face is ground into a blanket or sleeping bag. What's he doing kneeling on my head, I ain't no doll with replaceable body parts. He's stuffing a rolled up blanket beneath my naked body forcing my ass up into the air. I can't feel my hands any more all the circulation is gone. Funny how everything all my life moved excruciatingly slow until this moment and now I'm just begging for it to stop. He giggles and disappears from the truck. I hear the sound of shoes on the grit and wetness of the road and the truck dips as he climbs back in. He lies on top of me. I'd feel fucking cold but his body is generating intense heat. His shirt's off and his pants are down or gone. He starts slamming his body down on top of mine periodically his arm curving around my face. Lick that bleep. His arm pulls back, fingers shove something in my mouth; it's a wad of mud and sand. He treats me like he owns me. I'm stuck in a drift, lost, no hope, or anything familiar. Maybe now I'll get relief, maybe he'll crush my skull or strangle me. Suddenly I recall something from earlier when he loosened my belt and dragged my pants down to my calves and smacked me as hard as he could and it hurt so bad I tried to make it sexual I tried to imagine it was gentle or that he was somebody sexy or that I was a mile away walking in the opposite direction. Oh hit me I said trying to act like I was into it so maybe he'd get bored. Turning over and over and over what the fuck is he doing that for? He lunges and reaches far into the darkness of the truck and I hear a container of liquid, sounds like a metal container and liquid sounds the image of lighter fluid or gasoline went through my mind. Is this it? I could see the flames; I could see my body being turned over by campers looking like a side of beef left too long in the fire, black and charred with bones poking out of it. I felt the squirt of liquid all over my ass, a memory smell from childhood flooding the truck. Baby oil. I just want to die, I just want to die, I just want to die. If say it often enough will I lose my fear of his hands tightening around my throat? I'm sinking in dark pools of atmosphere and his palm is sliding around the small of my back, into the crack of my ass cheeks. Oh what a gift you're giving me, he mumbles. He grabs my tied arms pressing his full weight on them pinning my elbows at an outrageous angle to the cold metal floor and he shoves his dick into me. Ow. He's biting my cheek. Slap. Slap. Burying his face in my neck and biting again. I'm still sinking and his bites and slaps are so specific I think he hasn't lost control just four fingers in my mouth weight holding me down kissing my eyes breathing hard in my ear pumping like a machine. You like that steady rhythm? Uh.
In the codes that I carry in the sleepy part of my head, personal histories can turn on a dime and either rush away into disintegration or else turn and speed towards me looking to envelop. In the moment he was swept up in the crowd and moving across the lobby towards me I shrunk mentally and in size like a kid with no defenses not even my pocket knife. I wanted walls to suddenly and abruptly burst out of the floor and rise between us. I wanted dozens of walls made of reinforced concrete and steel to keep us separated, to keep his hands from touching me. But I knew he would smash through them like some kind of dream psycho. It was like he was bleeding me right there in the crowded room. All my history and language had suddenly been erased. I knew somewhere that I could finally beat him up but I was stuck looking at him through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old skull. I just kept thinking I wanted to kill his gaze. Something weird happened where I physically shrunk and I took the moment where he and I lost track of each other to duck down the staircase to the restrooms. I went into a stall and sat on the turned down toilet seat for a long time listening to the sounds of dozens of people coming in and out to piss. When I finally went back upstairs he seemed gone. But I could still feel his gaze; it lingered like the stink after a bad fireCHAPTER 3
DOING TIME IN A DISPOSABLE BODY
Just below eighth street I tipped into a greek diner and sat on a stool near the cash register. It was almost empty except for the cook, the counter man, and a woman who looked like she hadn't washed in a long time. She mumbled a lot and ran her fingers through her hair as the counter man worked on her trying to pick her up. Finally he brought me some coffee and the piece of pie I'd asked for then returned to the woman. Halfway through my meal the door swung open and this deaf mute walks in and leans against the counter a couple of seats from me. He uttered a series of squeaks and grunts and flashed me a smile. Something clicked in my head, I mean, he was intense and oddly sexy with a muscular body covered in scrapes and a few bruises. He looked like he just walked out of some waterfront in an old queer french novel. He managed to order a burger to go and as the counter man went in the back to place the order he leaned over the counter and lifted the plastic lid of the danish case and slipped one inside his filthy shirt. He winked at me as he speared a second danish and dropped it down his neckline, then he walked over and extended his hand and I shook it.
Excerpted from Memories That Smell Like Gasoline by David Wojnarowicz. Copyright © 1992 David Wojnarowicz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- Title Page
- INTO THE DRIFT AND SWAY
- MEMORIES THAT SMELL LIKE GASOLINE
- DOING TIME IN A DISPOSABLE BODY
- About the Author
- Copyright Page