blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

from You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
installment 2

Since Wesley Gibson’s death in December 2016, Blackbird has contemplated ways to ensure his literary voice maintains a presence in the world. With that end in mind, we are in the process of reproducing his book, You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival, which was published in 2004 by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Hailed at the time by Mary Gaitskill as “dark and sparkling, wonderfully intelligent, flip, and deeply felt,” You Are Here provides an excellent vehicle for honoring Gibson’s many strengths as a writer and his generosity of spirit as a friend. All excerpts appear with the permission of his family and publisher. Our first installment of You Are Here can be found in v17n1, and additional excerpts will be serialized in forthcoming issues. —Blackbird editors

I never got that job. I overslept. For two very bad reasons. The first is that I have, as relates solely to myself, telekinetic powers on a par with Carrie’s. If I’m afraid that I won’t sleep and the alarm won’t go off and even if it does then there won’t be any hot water to shower with, then it happens. My fear wills it to happen. Some university should do a study on me.

The second, far worse reason was that when I finally did jitter asleep, John woke me up again. The astonishment of his coughing. The bears of his retching. I could hear him pushing his face into his pillow so I wouldn’t hear. It didn’t work. What was happening was too terrible, too discordant, the body in the full throttle of its own unmaking. I sat up again. I hugged my own pillow and rocked again. I watched my things there in the dark gather shape and volume and take on the strange weight of actually being my things as whatever was wrong with John marauded through him. It must have gone on for forty-five minutes, an hour, as little by little I made my way toward his room, pausing when he paused, pushed forward when he was ambushed again, eventually standing there in front of his door—it was like standing on a disappearing island—finally knocking once and saying his name, loud enough so that I was sure he could hear me. Nothing. When the next cataclysmic bathroom echo sounded, I could tell that he had buried his face in his arm to mute it. It was like holding up a twig to fight off the storm. Clearly he wanted me not to be there. Maybe he wanted to believe that nothing was really wrong with him—I could understand that—and I could also understand how my concern was probably making that hard for him. But I couldn’t just go about my business, I couldn’t. I also suspected that a sensible person, a finer person, would have already broken down the door and dragged him to a hospital. But I wasn’t even sure about that. So all I did was stand there, listening with all my might for any sign that maybe it was time for the rescue operation, and it didn’t help either of us.

The next day, I woke up at 11:00. TV sounds again; and sure enough, there was John at his self-appointed place: same Bat time, same Bat channel. He slugged me with that smile. It was beyond odd. I’d never seen someone smile who so didn’t mean it. It was like the smile of an inanimate object. “This woman,” he said, “you wouldn’t have believed it. She kept crying and crying. She won these CD box sets, and then she won a car, and she kept crying and crying. It was so cute. She lost on the Big Wheel, though.” He turned back to the squealing and the dinging.

I didn’t know what to say so I said, “Wow.” Then I stood there idiotically. John rubbed his thumb across the bottom of the remote. He was wearing a crystal around his neck. He yawned. I’d been disappeared again.

“Do you have a cold or something?”

“No.” He didn’t like that one bit. I could feel him refusing to look at me.

“Oh.” I scratched my right foot with my left big toenail. “It’s just you sound stuffed up or something.” Maybe that was what he’d tell himself later, that he’d caught some summer bug. Maybe that’s what he was already telling himself.


I made coffee in the machine I’d dragged down from Richmond. The brightly colored bedlam of The Price Is Right was interrupted by a commercial for Cats, now and forever, which sounded like a threat to me, and by one for insurance that covered your “final expenses” so you wouldn’t be “a burden to your loved ones.” The machine peed out my coffee. I dragged my hand through my hair and decided I needed to cut my toenails, which were good for scratching, but basically a menace. The smell of the coffee was almost soothing, but not quite, not with John sitting behind the wall rigidly pretending that nothing was wrong, and me wondering if I should tell him there was. If he just could have committed to a cold, then maybe I could have too. I was perfectly willing to deceive myself for his benefit, but he was going to have to give me a little something to go on.

But he didn’t. I leaned against the kitchen doorway, sipping my coffee. I offered a guess as to the price of a sailboat. He was granite. After several minutes oozed by like old honey, I gave up and returned to my room, shutting the door on Bob and John. The TV died immediately. After what seemed like too long, he made it back to his room. These little performances must have been life draining, and as I considered that, the world seemed like a horrible, boulder-strewn place.


And that’s how it went for the next few days. Nights of the living dead; midmornings of them too, in which I got to see the cast out of makeup, just a regular guy in a baseball cap who watched game shows. Some tidbit from John about the high jinks blasting from the tube. Me standing around alternatively suggesting that some pretty terrible flus were going around out there, or taking a crack at how much an iced-tea maker might go for. John’s silence.

Fortunately, Jo Ann was on her way. She’d know what to do.

I don’t remember anymore how long it had been since Jo Ann had been to New York, but it seems like it had been a long time because I had to meet her at the bus station, something I would have done only for my family, who thought New York was nothing but a concrete island of murderers and the people who loved them.

Naturally, I’d gotten fucked up about where we were supposed to meet. Post headlines about her disappearance scrolled through my head. I saw the grainy blowup of a photograph they’d scanned from her high school yearbook. But then, strolling through the zigzag of people preoccupied with where they needed to be, yesterday, I saw her—big, black bag hoisted over her shoulder, big, genuine smile on her face. How happy was I to see her? As happy as that guy with the broken leg on the edge of the cliff when Lassie finally shows up with the park ranger.

We hugged, hard, and I asked her how the Greyhound trip was. “The usual serial-killer convention,” she said. It was almost frightening how similarly our minds worked.

I don’t remember how we got home. For some reason it feels like it was the subway because I have a distinct memory of wrists with gold bracelets, and the stubble above the suit of some guy who was past tired, and a crumpled coffee cup with quarters drilled into it with a Bic pen. The usual body-part sightings of any subway ride. Whatever we took, it was not life affirming. By the time we staggered past the doorman and rode up the elevator with an Asian family who looked like they’d just flown in from a Gap ad, by the time we got back to the clobbering silence of John’s, our spirits had been crushed, along with our wills.

Jo Ann flopped backfirst on the bed and lit a cigarette. Then she propped her head on the triangle of her arm and had a real look around. “This is nice,” she said, with complete conviction. I looked around too: the stark, curtainless windows; the walls that had aged from their original white to some unnameable pastel; IKEA-esque—and wasn’t that esque sad—bookcases; an unpainted bed with drawers underneath that I’d bought from Gotham Cabinetmakers; art by my friends, none of whom were Willem de Kooning. Jo Ann was quite a little actress. She left Tabitha in the dust.

“No, it’s not,” I said.

“Some curtains,” she conceded. “A little table right here.” She gestured beside the bed. “The desk is great.”

The desk was great: blond wood, black iron boomerang legs, a gold-flecked Formica top.

“Let’s go shopping,” she said.

“Uh, I don’t really have any money.”

“Housewarming present.”

“I’ve already borrowed too much from you.”

“You need curtains.”

I needed my pride, but looking at the blank faces of the windows, I decided I needed curtains more.

There’s a saying in New York that if you’re one in a million there are still ten more just like you. And that’s exactly right. It isn’t so much that there’s too much of everything, though there’s certainly that, it’s that there’s not one of anything. That may seem like a hairsplitting distinction, but it’s not. One of something is an oasis for the senses, even though everything else may be kaleidoscoping around it. One of something is a rest stop for the mind, however fleeting. When there’s never one of anything, then there really is too much of everything. It’s a twenty-four/seven shift with no coffee break, no lunch, no refreshing trips to the watercooler. Even Central Park is too much. Most parks are like movie librarians before they let their hair down: discreet, unassuming, whisperingly helpful. Not Central Park. Central Park is Martha, as in George and Martha, braying at you, “I do not bray.” It’s too much of muchness.

Eventually, you adapt. One evening you’re hanging on to a subway ring during rush hour. You’re reading a magazine with the other hand. You scratch your nose with the magazine, look into someone’s armpit stain, and you think, hmmm, this isn’t so bad. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. In fact, I’m almost sure that it’s not. But it’s a necessary mutation for survival. On this day I’m talking about, though, I was still a relatively normal person with the usual sensitivity to people yelling and thinking it was talking, to odd pockets of rotting smells for no apparent reason, to bizarre little coincidences like six nail salons in the same block. Jo Ann had just come from an apartment with a huge porch that overlooked a lake, so I could just imagine.

We’d only been about three blocks when I said, “What’s your level?”

“Six.” She paused. “Six and a half,” she said, upgrading.

“Me too,” I said.

We were talking about our anxiety. Six, six and a half wasn’t bad. But seven was, so we were close. Eight was definite trouble. Nine was still pretty much theoretical. Ten was the last moments before your plane smacked into the water. Three to five was just life.

I should add that it was bright white out, hot like that.

“Why don’t we stop in here?” she said about a store with decent-looking furniture in its massive windows. I couldn’t tell if it was to level off or because she’d seen something worth inspecting.

The store was cool, shadowed; and the furniture, though of course there was too much of it, didn’t look bad, sort of sleek and modern and black with rounded edges. A person with some money and some taste could have fixed up his joint real snazzy. I wasn’t that person, but it couldn’t hurt to browse.

We looked at curvy CD holders, and blond-wood tables that stacked neatly on top of one another. Cute retro footstools in hunting-lodge burgundies. In Richmond, there wouldn’t have been enough of a market for these guys to have rented a storefront; but here, there were enough people who might buy a dresser with brushed aluminum handles in the shape of quotation marks or sperm that this place was as big as a supermarket. Testing out chairs that looked like they couldn’t possibly be comfortable—then turned out to fit you like a glove—I thought this truly seemed like a city where you might meet John Kennedy Jr., then marry him.

“You really need this,” Jo Ann said, picking up a black rubber trash can that came up to my knee. It looked like it should have been in MoMA.


“It’s only five dollars,” she said, handing it to me. “You know, that little table over there would be nice too. With this on top.” She picked up a place mat, also made of rubber, but multicolored. It looked like smashed crayons, in a good way. “We can cut it to fit.”

“I don’t know, Jo Ann. I don’t really feel—”

“You need this stuff,” she said, picking it up. “It’s only fifteen dollars.”

“But it’s your fifteen dollars.”

“I’ll put it on my credit card. That’s not real money. It’s magic.”

Also magical was that when we left, we seemed to have leveled off at about two. One, like nine, was still pure theory, possible only for people who were childlike as a result of catastrophic brain trauma.

That night we lay on my bed, smoking contentedly and watching The Stepford Wives, which we’d rented, lazily forking in delivered Thai food and comparing stomachs to see who was the fattest. There was no clear winner, as we’d both made excellent cases. We may have laughed a lot or we may not have. It all depended. At about midnight I offered to make up the couch in the living room for her. She said she’d rather sleep on a sewage grate than be defenseless and asleep out there in the wilds and weirdnesses of John’s apartment. It was the first time either of us had seriously mentioned IT. I think we both knew there’d be plenty of time for that. Later.

Which there was. If John’s illness didn’t punch a clock, it did lurch into the apartment at about the same time every night. The red numbers of my alarm clock glowed 3:12 from my new Jo-Ann-bought table. I didn’t sit up, the way I usually did, and Jo Ann didn’t either. We both just lay there, unmoving, listening to the assault. It was even darker with my new curtains, though an aluminum take-out container began to vibrate faintly with light from my desk. Almost to twinkle. The room was fat and humid and oppressive with our lying there and not saying a word. The armed and dangerous troops of whatever it was pushed their relentless way through John, sending him on his nightly—and it sounded like, stumbling—trip to the bathroom. That awful echo. I could hear Jo Ann breathing. I could feel her lying there not moving. When there was finally a lull in the hideous festivities, I whispered, “What do you think?” still hoping, I guess, for some story about one of her cousins who’d coughed like that and how it had turned out to be nothing but a hair ball.

“You’ve got to do something,” she whispered back. It was a plea, not a direct order.

So. It was as bad as I had thought. When was I going to get to the part where it wasn’t as bad as I thought? You heard stories about that all the time. “Now?” I whispered.

“Nooo . . . she said, drawing the word out uncertainly. “Not now. It’s too late, he’s too sick. But the next time you see him during the day, you really need to. He’s dying.”

I knew she was right, but I couldn’t help but feel like all the presents she’d bought me were nothing but the ice-cream sundae before they tell you the dog died. I’d wanted a witness, to make sure this wasn’t simply more of my making cancer cells out of the molehills on my arms, that it wasn’t more of my revising the shadows on the walls into vampire bats. And now I had it. That was a definite relief. Anything was better than the waiting and the listening and the unanswered knocks. Anything was better than more Price Is Right.

But how did you do that? How did you go up to a stranger, not a perfect stranger, but an imperfect one, one made imperfect by proximity? How did you approach that imperfect stranger with such unglad tidings? Hi, uh, I know we don’t really know each other all that well, but I, uh, I think you’re dying. Particularly when you knew that person probably would rather die than face it. Where was that in all your books on gracious living, Martha fucking Stewart?

“I need my asthma inhaler,” Jo Ann said. “No, don’t turn on the light. I can find it in the dark.”


Fortunately Jo Ann also agreed that while she was there was not the right time. A governor’s stay. Our own books of ungracious living told us that if he didn’t want one stranger knowing, he sure as hell didn’t want two. So we rehung my art according to Jo Ann’s taste, which made it look like the real art it was and not just stuff your artist pals had slipped you. We rented more movies and smoked quantities of cigarettes and ordered more delivered oriental food, of which there was an astonishing variety, and which made the upheaval of my move seem almost worth it. We did not go to the Met or to smoky jazz temples where it sounded like they were playing geometry equations. We did not find ourselves, after-hours, at smart little boîtes with booths of hangers-on draped over our shoulders. We battened down the hatches. We basically stayed put. Our anxiety levels stayed in the two to fives. Except at around 3:00 in the morning when we were hurled awake by John’s billboard-size memo that life was a nasty business, brimming with death, even here in the city where people paid to hear geometry played. Except that his fits and seizures weren’t confining themselves to the hollows of the night anymore. They were clawing their way into the thickly textured comfort of the daylight, where the men with briefcases and the languid women with cell phones six floors below on the sidewalk could almost convince you that death was nothing but a bogeyman, something in a book some bad man had drawn to scare the children.

Jo Ann saw him maybe twice. The first encounter was one magpie of a performance in which he offered to show us how the couch unfolded, did we have extra sheets, was she having a good time, could she believe the price of the exercise bike he was watching on TV, oh him, never mind, he just wanted to hear all about her. I wished I’d had an Academy Award in my back pocket. It was one for the ages. The second was a phone-in. John. TV. Comment about TV.

When Jo Ann left, she said, “You’ve got to do this.”

I knew. I was ready. The next morning, I promised. I’d call and tell her what happened. When this was all over, could she—and at this point I’d accepted that this could only end badly—a) lend me five thousand so I could start all over again, b) let me come and live in her apartment overlooking the lake where I’d sit in a rocker on the porch with a comforter folded over my lap in deference to my slight chill, or c) put a violent end to my misery with something from the arsenal the NRA had made so readily available to ordinary citizens like ourselves. She chose d) all of the above, though she was unnervingly enthusiastic about c), saying that They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was one of her favorite movies.


The next day, J-Day, I woke up to the sounds of bustling. I rubbed the Jell-O from my eyes and leaned over to see that it was 8:30. I was not ready. I’d had the usual John-induced sleep, three hours pre-cough-echo-vomit, three post. It was not refreshing. But maybe it was Alan, dear, sweet, alleged Alan, and maybe he could shed some light on all this. Maybe he’d be willing to have that death chat with John himself. Alan had, according to John, lived here for going on two years. I fumbled into some clothes and pressed my hair down so I wouldn’t look like a complete maniac as I tried to explain that we needed to intervene. It wasn’t just me. Jo Ann had been here. She thought so too.

But it wasn’t Alan. It was John, in sparkling white Nikes; pressed, stonewashed jeans; a polo shirt; and that Yankees baseball cap. Dressed, scurrying down the hall with a brown bottle of vitamin C in his hand, he looked like your average Joe, or John, off to a happy hour where they had steam trays of buffalo wings and women who teased their bangs. He didn’t seem sick at all. He seemed energetic and purposeful, not like the 911 call waiting to happen that he’d been three hours ago. He snuggled the vitamin C jar into a floral-printed suitcase that sat openmouthed on the couch where he was usually curled up, close-lipped. He slapped it shut, zipped it with one quick, efficient sweep of the arm, then barreled down on me with that smile of his. Except this time he didn’t seem to be faking it. He looked like a real, thin, happy, pale person, not the fakes of that person he’d been palming off on me for the last week, or was it two?

“Uh, where are you going?” I asked.

“To the hospital,” he said, still smiling.

A river of relief, with gentle eddying currents, poured through me. “Oh, John, I’m so glad to hear that, man, I mean, I gotta say, you know, I was gonna talk to you this morning, cause, you know, it sounded kind of bad there for a while.”

He smiled at me for a few more of those seconds that I’d become best buds with here lately—taffy, stretching seconds from another dimension where they were still working out time’s kinks. Then he grimaced, seemingly at himself. “I know. The coughing, the gagging but inability to vomit, the black, tarry stool. According to my medical books, I probably have bleeding ulcers.”

“Your medical books?” I probably should have expressed some concern over his condition, but John was always tackling the appropriate response from me with some unexpected development.

“Yes,” he said crisply. “I’m a nurse.”

“Nurse,” I repeated like a child who would then say all the other new words he’d learned: doggie, mommy, boo-boo.

“I called one of the doctors I worked, work, with, and he’s got me checked into Cabrini. He said I’ll probably only be there for a few days so they can run some tests.” He picked up the suitcase.

“Do you want me to, um, I don’t know, do something?”

“Can’t think of anything.”

“I’ll stop by and see you.”

“Not necessary. It’s just a checkup. I don’t really like visitors at the hospital anyway. It’s distracting.”

I’d thought that was the point, but in another way, I knew what he meant. When I’d been in the hospital for an appendectomy, all I’d wanted was my TV and the drugs that made all shows, from the WWF to NOVA, deeply absorbing in a personal way not easily shared with others.

“OK, then.”

“I’m off.” And he was, making tracks like a snake-oil salesman with the town fathers on his tail. The front door whooshed open, slammed shut. The various dead bolts clicked back to locked with tiny sounds like a mouse chewing.

Well. There. See. Let that be a lesson to me. AIDS. It was nothing but little bleeding ulcers. And him a nurse. I guess he’d know when it was and when it was not time to get to the hospital. It was the same old, same old, the pentimento of my fear layering and layering itself over the tranquil seascape until I had a full-blown, storm-tossed Turner. Well. All I could say was that I hoped I’d learned a little something about the value of not being so spooked by what was just the regular stuff of life, and also taking bulls by horns, and maybe something about a couple of other things too while I was at it. Yeesh. It was about time I shaped up.

When I called to tell Jo Ann, she said, “Hmmmm . . . maybe,” like someone who was willing to consider UFOs for the sake of humoring you. But not really.


John’s several days turned into a week, and it was the best week I’d had since I’d moved there, a little over a month ago. It was like I was the one, not John, who was recovering from an illness, and I had all of the recoveree’s heightened senses and exalted oaths to stop being dead to this carnival called life. It was time to hang from the horses of the carousel by one arm. It was time to go for that giant stuffed teddy bear. I called friends I’d been neglecting. I went to a reading of three very famous essayists at KGB, something I could never have done in Richmond; and it really and truly didn’t matter when two of them were so in love with the sound of their own voices that they read for more than an hour apiece. What—under ordinary circumstances—would have been a pummeling reminder of writers and the freak-show gigantism of their egos was still a lovely evening of Russian vodka and warm companionship. It seemed touching that two people who made a living off their penetrating insight had so little when it came to themselves. I could afford to be generous.

I went to the park. It was September, still warm. Lovers gamboled. Heart stoppingly beautiful young men tossed different shapes of balls at one another with their shirts off. Babies, dappled in light sprinkling through leaf-fattened trees, stared wonderingly from their strollers at the birds and the bees, at their own slobbery little fists. A person could learn a lot from them about innocence and experience, about how it was possible to be both fat and still cute as a button. I lay there, splendid in the grass, little molecules of melanoma not forming on my pale skin. I read, not Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies for about the five-thousand-and-first time, but books I should have read by now and had intended to before the Home Shopping Network had destroyed my mind: Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, a selected poetry and prose of Alexander Pope, another go at Sartre’s Saint Genet. This was who I had intended to be all along, before I’d been sidetracked by . . . what? Good question. Problem was, I didn’t know the answer. Congenital despair? Crippling lethargy? Simple sloth? Maybe I’d never know. The point was that I was here, finally becoming the person I’d set out to be. I held my Bachelard in the air in hopes that one of the shirtless young men was sexually ambivalent and intellectually pretentious. One in a million? That still meant there were ten of him.

I even started to write. Well, my version, anyway. I turned on my computer. I wiped the dust from its screen with a sock lying conveniently nearby on the floor near the wheels of my chair. That led me to believe that the little ledge of shelf peeping out from under my books in the bookcases needed attention too. I didn’t remove all the books and then swab down the entire shelf. That was the kind of crazy procrastination I refused to indulge in. But I did realize afterward that I needed a cup of tea, and that led me to the open living-room window, where I listened to the soothing thrum of the traffic. I tried to see if the couple across the way was fucking, something they did from time to time with the blinds thrown open in the overlit movie set of their bedroom. I figured they wanted an audience, and I was usually more than happy to oblige them. It passed the time. But when the good-for-nothings proved to be a no-show, again, I was finally forced to wander back to my desk, but not before I examined my gums in the bathroom mirror. I thought I’d tasted blood and wondered if I had pyorrhea. I couldn’t decide about the pyorrhea, so I finally opened one of the many files containing the endless versions of my so-called novel, and it turned out that there were some commas that needed changing and even a couple of words, and then I got this nifty idea for how to save the whole shebang, which had something to do with a sort of magic realist thing, comic, but also deeply fraught with significance, which later turned out to be the worst idea I’d ever had. Still, it was something.

And I found a job, and not in a restaurant. 

return to top