blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
installment 4

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, second, and third installments of You Are Here can be found in v17n1, v18n1, and v18n2. Additional excerpts will be serialized in forthcoming issues.
   —Blackbird editors

One afternoon, as I was padding back down the hall outside John’s apartment, I heard these small cries for help. I was wearing a disreputable pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt that was mostly holes, bare feet. My Superman costume was in the dryer back down the hall with the rest of my rags. I paused. Listened intently. Nothing. I’d never had auditory hallucinations before, but they would probably sound like this: faintly definitive enough to unnerve you. No, wait. There it was again.

“Hello?” I called.

And again, a baby bird of a sound.

“Where are you?”

“In here, here, in here . . .”

“I can’t tell where that is.”


“Hold on. I’m coming. I just need to figure out where you are. Keep . . . making sounds.” It seemed like the apartment next to John’s. “Here? Are you in here?” Muffled hysteria. “OK. I’m coming in. I hope this is right.”

The door was unlocked and I opened it slowly in case some easily startled tenant with a sawed-off shotgun was on the other side. “In here,” he wailed, so at least I was on the right track. About six slow steps to my right was a bathroom the size of my laundry basket with a fat man squeezed into it. By fat, I mean the kind of person who would have to be lowered out of a window in a piano crate when he died. He was also naked, five, six hundred pounds of white flesh, a candle factory after a fire. He was on the toilet, which was invisible under his bulk, and he was gripping a walker. Silent, perfectly shaped tears were catching in the blotchy folds of his face. Shit was dribbling down his thighs. I couldn’t believe it, and yet what choice did I have?

“OK,” I said. “OK. What’s the problem here? Do you need a doctor?”

He shook his head no, tried to catch his breath, snot and tears glazed around his mouth.

“OK. Everything’s going to be fine. I’m here now. I want you to calm down and tell me what the problem is.”

He shook his head, like, OK, just give me a minute.

Which gave me a second to get a better look at him, not that I wanted one. Wisps of what was left of his red hair rose from his scalp like smoke. His face was freckled. You could have cut the acreage of his pubic hair with a riding mower. His penis was lost in it. Those two rotting eggplants were feet, though you would have been hard-pressed to identify them had they not been attached to his hairless legs. I was also becoming regrettably aware of a smell, like rotten baby food, that was going to be turning my stomach any second now. The bathroom itself was antacid pink. He was garish against it. David Lynch had to be choreographing this from behind the opaque shower curtains.

My new friend sniffled, then said, “I need you to help me get up.” His voice was pure graveled Bronx, the kind of voice that usually made snitches beg for their lives. But his milky blue eyes were sorrowful and humiliated and frightened, uncannily expressive, possibly because the rest of him was hopelessly inert.

I don’t think I’ve described myself. I’m about five-seven and weigh in the vicinity of 145 pounds. I’m generally perceived as being on the smallish side. Also, I’m no athlete. I don’t run unless chased. I couldn’t tell you the last time I lifted something heavier than my own dick. I can’t go to the gym because it implies, if it doesn’t involve, actual nudity; and I don’t even like being naked in front of myself. I console myself with the thought that people who do work out have no inner life. My point? That the idea of me lifting a six-hundred-pound naked man from a toilet was laughable unless there’d been some last-minute changes in the laws of gravity.

“Uh, I’d like to help you, but I don’t think I can do that. I mean physically do that. I don’t think it’s physically possible.” I hated to say that because I was essentially saying he was too freakishly fat to be helped. But what else was I going to say? Sorry, I just don’t feel like it?

The expressive eyes began to brim again. “You have to,” he said. His lips, the only thin thing about him, began to tremble.

“But how? I mean, how?”

He took another breath to still the jagged spasms of grief knifing through him. “OK, see, what I do is I rock, and you put your arms around my neck and pull.”

“And that works?”

“Yeah, yeah, all the time.” The griefy, Bronxy voice was now gold-threaded in hope.

All the time. Try shoving that into your brain. It wouldn’t fit into mine. I looked into his blue eyes, which were now sharp little sapphires of expectation. I tried to breathe through my mouth. If any part of me wondered if this was real, the smell, rotten and sweet, something vultures would circle, overpowered any doubt. My mother used to say, “There’s plenty of things I don’t want to do either, mister, but I do ’em,” and this had to be a dictionary definition of one of those things.

“OK,” I said. “OK.”

I moved the walker into the hall. I went back in and looked at him, tried to gauge an angle. Why oh why hadn’t I listened in geometry?

“OK,” he said, “put your arms around my neck.”

I did, and he put his around mine. My cheek against his cheek. Him oozing against me through the holes in my T-shirt. He was as improbably soft as risen dough. I’d locked my sinuses shut and took the smallest breaths possible through the slot I’d made of my mouth. His breath was a shell to my ear. We rocked, one, two, three. One. Two. Three. He rasped out the hot zephyrs of the numbers, followed by a huffed-out groan, as he tried to launch himself into my arms. My left foot was anchored behind me and I pulled on “three,” trying to get the exact purchase on his back that would finally dislocate him. It was like trying to hug a redwood out of the ground, roots and all. He rocked back and forth like a front-porch glider, but there was no liftoff. After I don’t know how many times, we both gave up. I sort of stumbled back, and he sank against the toilet and into despair. In an effort not to pant, I took enormous ballooning breaths. He was basically wiped out, red-faced and dewdropped in sweat. His arms, which were really not long enough for how wide he was, rested on the complicated ledges of his sides, as if he were a chair he was also sitting in. I was sticky where we’d been glued together. Another Kodak moment.

“Well, uh, I guess that isn’t working,” I said.

“Call Rashid,” he growled.

“The doorman?”

“Yeah, yeah, he sends one of the maintenance guys up sometimes. I tip ’em.”

“Uh, how do you get to the buzzer when this happens?” Maybe that was none of my business, but if he could get to the buzzer, that meant he was already off the toilet.

“My brother rigged it so it’s always on.”

“So Rashid’s been listening to all this?”

“I guess. I don’t know. Sometimes maybe he don’t hear me or something.”

“OK.” I edged past the walker, bent toward the intercom. It was a gloomy little hallway, chocolaty brown with shadows. “Uh, Rashid.”

Rashid was a tiny golden-brown man who looked like a trick-or-treater in his gold-braided epaulets. To my knowledge, he had never smiled. He was more of a nodding frowner, a scrutinizer. Every time I walked past him I felt like a shoplifter.

“NO,” he barked.

“Uh, I can’t lift Mr. . . .”

“McNally,” he called from the bathroom.

“Mr. McNally from the toilet.”

“We already come two time this week. We’re busy.”

“What should I do?”

“Call his brother.”

“I can’t call my brother,” Mr. McNally roared. “He’s at work.”

“We’re busy,” Rashid said. “Good-bye.”

“Hmmm . . . I don’t know what to do here.”

“Good. Bye.”

I guess anything can become ordinary. To Rashid it was just another day when Mr. McNally had gotten stuck on the toilet. Rashid was sick of it; he was busy. Good. Bye. I envied him because I wasn’t allowed to be sick of this. I was a first-timer. From the bathroom, attentive silence. I gave in to it.

Mr. McNally sat with the alert posture of someone poised for one more casual abandonment.

“So,” I said, smiling grimly in a let’s-face-this-thing way, “what are we going to do here?”

His eyes ricocheted with strategies—it must have gone on for a full minute in which my clothes finished drying, then went out of fashion—then his posture drained from him, his eyes dimmed, and he wailed, King Kong tumbling from the Empire State Building, “We have to do it again, we have to do it again, we have to do it again . . .”

“All right, all right,” I said, “we’ll try it again.”

I assumed the position. We both rocked passionately. Think rioters overturning police cars. The one-two-threes Heimliched past my ear, tailed by grunts that were as palpable as mud balls. His skin was slippery. I heaved and hoed and bobbed and concentrated on keeping my foot cemented to the floor. It felt like sex, the frenzied, repetitive motion, most of me sucked close to pieces of him, the almost alcoholic smell of his sweat mixed up with the shit slickered to his thighs and God knew what else. It felt like the way you learn someone’s body with your body. Except in sex, sex like what I’m thinking about, you fade in and fade out of the nothingness of absolute absorption; and here, my awareness of every single second was electric, constellated with whirling stars and dervish saturns. What we were doing was obscenely intimate, something you should never really know about a stranger unless you were going to have an orgasm with him. But somehow the suffering of this poor creature, the years and pounds of it, in my arms, trampolined me out of what was grotesque and into what was human, and that made the stench and the slime of his sweat and even the shit on his thighs bearable.

One of Mr. McNally’s grunts stretched into a whoooaaaa that fallers-from-high-places emit, arms swiveling, in comic movies. Suddenly he was a meteor headed straight for me, blacking out everything behind him. We lurched backward. If he fell on me, I’d be nothing but a smear on his linoleum. Some cartoon janitor would have to come and peel me from the floor.

You know that brass opening in the doorframe that the doorknob latch fits into? Well, sometimes it has a little lip—I don’t know why—and that lip was sunk into my back. It wasn’t crippling, but it did hurt. Impaled against the doorframe, too stunned to even wonder what the hell we were going to do next, I stared over the planet of Mr. McNally at the Pepto-Bismol of the walls.

“OK, OK, OK,” he panted, still way too close to my ear. I felt like the runt under the pileup of a sleeping litter.

He pushed against the door and got himself sort of upright, dragging me up along with him. I felt like a child hanging from a tree.

“OK.” He sighed, a waterfall of relief.

“Do you want me to get the walker?”

“Nah, nah. I can’t do that right now. I need you to get me to the bed.”

The bed. I had a better idea. Why didn’t I just hoist him on my back and scale the Empire State Building? “Where is the bed?”

“In there.”

“Is ‘in there’ far?”

“Nah, nah.”

“How exactly are we going to do this?”

“I just hold on to you,” he said, like what kind of bozo question was that.

“And you think that’ll work?”

“It’ll work,” he said, trying, unsuccessfully, not to sound exasperated.

What the hell. I’d gone this far. If he wasn’t afraid that I’d drop him, then I guess I wasn’t either. It was his hip.

“OK,” I said.

He leaned against me, still bracing himself against the door, with the gentle expertise of someone who’d been helped to his bed many, many times before. I thought about that, about someone who was practiced, who had to be practiced, in the art of being taken care of in the most fundamental ways. Simple walking. You’d have to learn exactly how to balance your weight on someone who was about a quarter your size so that one or both of you didn’t topple over. You’d have to learn how to pace yourself, how to take these halting, mother-may-I steps, lugging one black/purple foot forward, then the other. It was slow going, but it worked, and he was such an adept that it really wasn’t hard for me, though his breathing was labored and his tongue hung un–self-consciously from the side of his mouth. Did he even care about that? I’ll never know. I suspect, from our strange interlude, that he didn’t. He seemed like a person who had left everything behind except some violent will to live, even though everything about him seemed to be conspiring in his own death. I guess I understood that. I smoked, I drank, I ate red meat, I didn’t exercise; and I didn’t want to die from any of it. I don’t think Mr. McNally wanted to either. He was too fiercely expert in all the survivor’s tricks: begging, browbeating, bribery.

We finally, finally, finally, got to the end of the dusky tunnel that was his hall, there was a light at the end of it, like in the proverb, quite a bit of light, flooding through the windows into his studio apartment. You could see every speck on the walls, which were beige like mine, though age had soured them into a brackish pink that made you think, instantly, of blood. Dr. Phibes would have been right at home. A normal person would have blown his brains out years ago. There were exactly three pieces of furniture—a bed shoved against the wall with sheets so dingy they looked like an optical illusion, the small table beside it cluttered with enough pill bottles to cater a mass suicide, and a TV of indeterminate age, on a wheeled stand that looked like it would collapse if you pointed the remote at it. The TV was all the way on the other side of the room, sitting sentry in front of a closet. There was absolutely nothing else, no pictures, no invalid’s magazines, not even, and this seemed strangest of all, a hint of food. No telltale candy wrappers, no take-out cartons, no stray utensils. Nada. There was a lot of empty space, but it was not spacious; it was hollowed out, a place where stewardesses might crash between trips, or tumbleweeds might blow by. Of all the things I’d seen that day, this was the worst: it wasn’t life; it was subsistence.

The bed was low enough for him to fall back on, and he did that, with one galumphing exhale of breath. He sat there, looking stunned and wounded, the wisps of his red hair blackened with sweat and matted to his scalp. Now that the crisis was over, his self, the one that didn’t need me anymore, seemed to overtake him. His eyes, which hadn’t been anything but panicked or pleading or plotting, settled down into the daily business of just looking. They were still pretty and blue, but without the adrenaline glitter. They looked at me and he said, quietly, “Thanks.”

“No problem,” I lied, grateful to lie because that meant this was over. “You need anything else?”

I was thinking of maybe a wet towel for the shit still stuck to his thighs like clay, but instead he said, “My walker,” which I dutifully went back to fetch.

“Anything else?”

“Nah.” He seemed exhausted and anxious for me to leave.

No problem. “OK, then, Mr. McNally, I hope everything, uh, OK then.”

He just closed his eyes and nodded, his version of goodbye.


I’d spent the day in my room smoking and listening to Joni Mitchell and rereading Iris Owen’s After Claude for about the dozenth time. I didn’t even venture out for a snack. Probably, most people would have considered that as a waste of sunlight, but as far as I was concerned, it was the whole point. It was standing in line at the bank and having to run to the store for a lightbulb that seemed wasteful to me. I suppose because it was a certain kind of work that I had never had a filament’s worth of interest in.

When I got my first encouraging letter from a magazine about a story I’d written—I was about twenty-one—I called my mother to tell her. Maybe I expected some adult version of her attaching my little drawings to the refrigerator with auto-repair magnets. Forget it. In many ways, Mom is an honest and practical woman, and in her honest and practical way, she said, “I sure hope this writing thing works out for you, because Lord knows how you don’t like to work.”

Whenever I’ve told that story to friends, I’ve always gotten the same reaction: sympathy. Used to nailing their own parents to the therapy cross, they assume it’s a featured item in my catalog of grievances; and I always have to explain that no, actually she was right. I didn’t like to work, and writing was the manifestation of another little homily she used to haul out—“You work to get out of work”—whenever I dodged (or tried to anyway) whatever slave labor she’d devised for the day. I did work to get out of work. I devised schemes for weaseling out of, say, cutting the grass, which I detested; or else I made brisk, simple tasks intricate—and I don’t mean laborious—enough to sponge up enough time to get me out of something else. I could clean the bathroom for an hour. I could have cleaned that bathroom for eight hours if it had meant that I wouldn’t have to weed the tomato plants; but at some point it would occur to her that I’d gone missing, and then there’d be a little set-to before I had my ass dragged to the next numbing chore. My dodges only half-worked, but that didn’t stop me from trying. Writing was like that. It was work to get out of work. Because real work, where I came from, meant running a cash register for some dickhead who’d “learned everything he needed to know back in kindergarten”—and it showed. It meant either something testosterone-driven, like roofing, or something a little more ovarian, like typing and filing. It meant any sort of death by wages designed to chew you into paste until you lined up for your pacemaker. For the most part, I’d been hugely successful in avoiding real work, and that was partially due to writing.

On this day I’m talking about, though, I wasn’t even working to get out of work, and guilt glittered just below the gently rippling stream of my calm, like some poisonous mica. The elephant of my novel sat in the middle of the room, not trumpeting the way elephants might trumpet, but still sitting there, grooming itself with its trunk, fat and gray and unavoidable. The other zoo animals of my stories lay sleeping around it, their paws and noses twitching with dreams. I had considered shooting the whole lot of them many times in the last year, just go to law school and bore strangers in bars late at night with stories of how I used to be a writer. But the sad truth was that I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer, being the butt of lawyer jokes and taking the secretary out for a swell lunch on Secretary Appreciation Day and doing whatever else it was that lawyers did. I lacked some faith in ordinary life that would have suited me for ordinary life. I was twisty inside, and in the past year it had dawned on me that I was only happy—though anyone with a dictionary open to the Hs would never describe me as that—when I was trying to squeeze the twistiness out of me and onto the page. I was starting to realize that, like it or not, I was chained to myself like escaped cons in a thirties movie who were wading upstream to throw the bloodhounds off the scent; and that the biggest part of myself was, regrettably, this writing thing, which felt more and more like an addiction, and less and less like anything as noble as a vocation or a calling.

At about 4:00 I hopped into the shower, threw on some Telesessions gear, and enjoyed one last cigarette before I would be swept downstream and over the Niagara Falls of a New York rush hour. I was never late. It made me too nervous. So I was probably ambling down the hall when the cartoon anvil of John sitting on the very edge of the couch flattened me. I hadn’t seen him in a few days. He was wearing a ratty blue robe I’d never seen before and it dangled around him. His briefs were startlingly white—they looked bleached—and they made his pale, pale skin a white-chocolate color streaked in blue veins. He was classically gaunt, hollows in the cheeks, visible ribs. The flesh of his thighs hung from the bone like flags. The white-brown stubble of his beard completed the picture. He stared glassily ahead as if he were looking miles into the future, and his mouth was wide open. If he’d been lying on his back with his arms crossed over him, I would have shoved a lily in his hands. But he wasn’t. Instead, he was breathing. Or trying to. His chest sounded haunted: cobwebbed, full of dust and wraiths. Not a loud noise, but horrible enough at any volume.

“John,” I said.

He didn’t answer.


Nothing but that stare.

“I’m calling an ambulance.”

That got his attention. It seemed to inject him with the adrenaline that surges through mothers when they stop buses with their bare hands to save their children. His breath returned and he exhaled, “NO.”

“John, this is ridiculous. You’re suffering.”


“John, it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said between gulps. “Ijust needaminute.” And with that, he had no choice but to fiercely refocus on breathing.

“John,” I practically wailed, and now my own throat was swelling with sadness, and my eyes were pooling helplessly with the always-too-warm tears; but John vigorously shook his head no, his jaw set against me, his eyes two determined black headlights that I was caught in. “I have to go to work,” I choked out, hoping that the prospect of suffocating, alone, would slap the shit out of him.

To my despair, he nodded, and flapped both his hands toward the door.

“JOHN,” I said in my best commandant’s voice.

He looked at me with pure hatred. I was distracting him from the one thing he wanted more than he’d ever wanted anything: to breathe.

“OK,” I said. I felt as flat and powerless as a paper doll. “OK. I have to go to work.” And I did have to go. If I called in forty-five minutes before my shift to say that I wouldn’t be there, it would fuck up the whole night. My boss, Larry, was a nice guy, but you couldn’t put up with losers who didn’t show or were chronically late. It made life hell for everybody. I’d be fired, and then it’d be back to the old suck-and-swallow of looking for a job. I’d have to decide between cigarettes or soup, and cigarettes would win. I’d be buying off-brand deodorants with names like Smell Guard, and drinking two-dollar six-packs as tasteless as club soda. Visions of me behind a shopping cart—littered with a few oil-stained clothes and dolls missing body parts—would dance in my head nights as I lay saran-wrapped in an insomniac’s sweat.

John closed his eyes and nodded again. Please, go. He was begging me.

So I did.

When do you force someone’s hand? If anyone’s hand had ever needed it, it was John’s. But it wasn’t as if he didn’t know what he was doing. He knew exactly what he wasn’t doing. He didn’t want to take the one small step that was actually the giant leap of admitting that he might be dying. As long as he was home, there was every possibility that he’d be fine. Going back to the hospital would be the mirror’s glare that reflected his own death back at him. He didn’t want to look. He couldn’t bear it. Who could?


I zombied my way to work, bandaged in a gloom. The rush-hour crowds knocked by me on the sidewalk, still buzzing from their workdays. I barely registered the crush of the train, rooting around inside myself for the right thing to do. I didn’t stop at the deli for the nonfat pretzels and diet Coke that got me through the night. I didn’t make sure I had matches in case I found myself above the giant fan alone. I had to keep stopping myself from grinding my teeth into dust.

When I got to the office, Ed said, “You’re late.”

Ed was the other manager, lower on the pole than Larry, but he could still boss you around and bitch you out and make life hell if he chose to. Tonight he was choosing to. He was a small barrel of a guy with a blunt head and a buzzed haircut that made it look even blunter. He was wily enough to know that if he was going to make it in the workaday world, then he had to at least pretend to play well with others; but at heart he was a bully, and he had all of a bully’s capriciousness. You probably know the type. The guy’s just walking along, jiggling his nuts through his pocket, when he catches you out of the corner of his eye, and the mere fact of you inspires him to shove your head in a toilet and shake you down for lunch money. There’s nothing premeditated about it. It’s a change of weather, an act of the devil.

It galled me to be under the yoke of Ed. He should have ended in high school along with class rings on chains and hand jobs in the backseat of your dad’s Chevy; but there he was, with one of his trademark smirks locked into his face, and there I was, late. Late, and scooped-out hollow from my latest John run-in; and even though John’s predicament and his reaction to it could easily have been anyone’s, it felt gay to me in ways I could not define. Even though John didn’t have AIDS, my feelings had been shaped by AIDS, by how I was sick to death of death at the age of thirty-six, and how if he were straight there’d have been someone from his family there instead of his puns about homos for the holidays, and even his denial seemed like some analog to some theorem that was gay in its construction and gay in its equations, and I knew that some of what I felt was fair and some of it was absolutely unreasonable, but at that moment I did not care which was which and I hated Ed’s guts because when he died I knew it wouldn’t be tinctured, not like this, the smug bastard.

But he was right. I was late. “Sorry,” I said. “Stuff at home.” I knew that wouldn’t be the end of it. Once the utensils of torture had been unpacked, they had to be used or they just sat there, glittering at you, winking with promise.

“We all have stuff at home.”

Like that poor bitch you’re married to. “Yeah, you’re right. No excuse. I won’t let it happen again.”

“You’re right you won’t let it happen again.”

“Yeah. Absolutely. What do you want me to say?”

“I don’t want you to say anything. I just don’t want it to happen again.”

“Like I said, it won’t”

“Good, because this is a job, not like some charity you show up to whenever you want.”

“I got it.”

He thought about that, like a bulldog contemplating a bone. Decided he’d had enough. “OK. As long as we’re clear about this. Get to work.”

Ed: workplace rampage waiting to happen. Fortunately I wasn’t the man to trigger it.


Can I pause here for a word about straight men, or rather, me and straight men? I used to say, jokingly, that I was prejudiced against straight men, and that used to infuriate Mark, my boyfriend at the time. He’d always say, why is it OK for me to go around spouting off, if it wasn’t for them? Theoretically I was on his side; but these things don’t live in the cool, well-lighted place of theory—they live in the stricken hovel of the heart. Personally I didn’t care if straight men liked me or not, as long as they couldn’t fire me, kick me out of my own house, or throw me in the slammer.

When I was little, the men and the women of my family were starkly divided. The men stood outside with one foot on the fender of their pickups, passing a whiskey bottle and talking about killing things, animals mostly, and games that involved the throwing or hitting of balls. There were detailed discussions of automobile engines and less detailed discussions of what they’d do if they ran this country, which basically boiled down to more guns, less taxes, and shipping all the malcontents either over to Russia or back where they came from. I was viscerally uninterested. Even as a child they struck me as a pack of gorillas thumping their chests and bellowing impotently at the jungle. Once they were half in the bag, the pronouncements got louder and bolder. If they’d been in a bar, and not out there in the moonlight on my grandmother’s scantily grassed front yard, somebody would have gotten his butt kicked.

But I have to tell you that these men loved me. I was just a little boy, and I was their nephew. Blood, at that time anyway, quilted you immutably into my father’s family. You were flat-out loved by everyone, and my father had eleven brothers and sisters. It was a lot of love. You were one vine twined with the others into something larger and more verdant and lush than you could ever be on your own. My father’s family was this wonderful, continually unfolding event, and you were always a part of it.

But later, when the lady gym teacher at the local community college and her roommate, who taught some equally lesbian subject, bought a house together, they had a cross burned in their yard, and these people, these men, these cousins and uncles, could easily have been the ones who burned it. Yet if anybody touched one towheaded hair on my head, his ass was grass. In my family, I was “different,” but I was kin. If I’d been a stranger they’d have turned their pitchforks and torches on me too. It was off, knowing that you were in love with a group of people who loved you by accident, and with one genetic twist of the dial could have gone the other way, just as passionately; but the love was so enveloping that it blotted out everything except itself—in you, and in them too.

Still, the men were as dull as the dirt they kept one work book anchored to. To me, anyway. It was the women I was interested in. This was the sixties, the seventies, and my aunts sat around the kitchen in their bouffants and their slacks, sucking down lipsticked cigarette after lipsticked cigarette and picking at slices of chocolate chess pie. Somebody was usually cooking, more iced tea, a pan of biscuits. They might be canning tomatoes or snapping beans. Something. They didn’t drink. Somebody had to be sober enough to get their sorry-ass husbands home to bed. In a way, the men seemed little better than children, the way they had to be cared for. Like children, they had to be fed. Like children, they had to be cleaned up after. Like children, they were tolerated. They were men. Who were you kidding?

Unlike my uncles, who were all starry-eyed fantasists (remember what they’d do to this country when they ran it?), my aunts were cold-eyed realists, and they had a fairly low opinion about what could and could not be expected of men. Expectations included bringing home the bacon, mowing the grass, and fixing things, and sometimes the men had to be bullied into these few, simple tasks. My aunts were more than willing to do the bullying. Stamina and a willingness to mix it up were the virtues prized by the women in my father’s family. I grew up believing that women were supposed to be tough customers. That was my idea of womanly glamour.

But it was only part of why I hung around, sometimes crawling under the table with their chipped toenail polish and their flip-flops, or leaning against a cabinet by my grandmother’s legs while she stirred one of the pots that always seemed to be on the boil, or cutting for myself another chunk of my aunt Gail’s gooey orange slice cake, or squeezing into a chair with one of them, where they’d absently drop an arm around me or rub the bristles of my crew cut as they gobbled down another cigarette and shucked corn and kept some young’un in line and God help him if she had to get up from that table, and in general did the two or three things at once that they were always in the middle of, one of which, always, was talking. Voices percolated like the coffee that forever gurgled on the counter. But unlike the men, poor bastards, whose ramblings always seemed to have numbers in them—points on a buck or points on a scoreboard—the women told stories biblical with drama. Birth. Betrayal. Accidents. Illness. And sex. Sort of.

That talk was hard to decipher, but I understood enough to figure out that there was something ungovernable out there in the dark wilds where the world of women intersected with the world of men. It made marriages and it shattered marriages and it got girls into trouble and sometimes men found themselves looking down the wrong end of a shotgun because of it. Who could get it up for a carburetor when something had happened in a motel and she’d “lost the baby” and Aunt Lois had personally seen the so-and-so up at the Roses buying a locket and don’t think she didn’t give him a look to let him know exactly what she thought about that especially after his brother like to tore his arm off when the tractor rolled over on him, nothing but jelly in a socket, and you’d think people’d learn from a thing like that, but you couldn’t tell nobody nothing, especially not a man, not when it came to that (raised eyebrow here), but just you wait, one day they’d be a’laying there just like poor Beulah, they like to have killt her up there in the hospital, she had knots, they said they were knots, but anybody could see plain as day they were tumors, can’t even hardly lift a spoonful of corn pudding to her lips. . . . That’s the Readers Digest condensed version, which seemed to be the only books my aunts ever read (my uncles didn’t read). A whole hour might be spent on Beulah alone.

Then the next week you’d see Beulah at the feed store, a chicken feather she didn’t know was there caught in her home perm, hurling hundred-pound sacks of grain into the back of her dented station wagon. Miraculous recovery. But that was another story. There was always another story, and that’s what I was there for. Later, as an adult, I realized that there was no small amount of exaggeration and bragging at work at these gabfests. You heard a lot of, “And don’t think I didn’t tell her either?” and “I give him a piece of my mind.” They were women warriors, wrathful and fully capable of bringing the county down around all our ears with one dirty look. Some of them really did speak their minds, and they were the family troublemakers, always not speaking to somebody. But most of them only spoke their minds in their minds, revising themselves later, when the story was told, into people who weren’t to be fucked with, half-believing in their own press. I fully believed in it, every word of it, and I couldn’t wait for the day when the pint-size dramas of my own childhood were gallon-jugged, like theirs. I couldn’t wait for the day when giving somebody what-for wasn’t considered sassing, because all sassing somebody got you was a knock upside the head or a trip to your room. It didn’t earn you any respect at all.

So I grew up transfixed by women and flat-back bored by men. I did have guy friends in high school. I smoked dope at Allman Brothers concerts with them. I feigned interest in four-on-the-floors and kung-fu movies. There was very little talk of pussy. It wasn’t that they didn’t want some, but for the most part they were too clumsy to figure out how to go about getting any, and so it was embarrassing to even bring it up. Fine with me.

There was something humorless in the project of becoming a man. If you laughed too much or used too many big words or didn’t walk like there was a stick up your ass (ironic, that) or didn’t dance stiff-necked and rigid and only because you had to, or in general showed more than a flicker of emotion over anything, there was every chance that you were a fag. Those are just a fraction of the rules. Boys are constantly under siege. Practically anything could brand you a queer, and “brand” is exactly the right word: it was scalding, scarring. There’s something grim afoot whenever two or more boys are gathered, even when they’re horsing around. They’ve always got their scanners out, checking one another out for molecules of homoness. It’s exhausting, and it doesn’t change all that much when they get older, which is probably why they usually die before women. They’ve had to spend their entire lives defending the size of their dicks.

Girls were a lot more fun. They got to get weak over Neil Young and have “outfits” and could not only laugh but also giggle and scream and throw their arms around one another. They could read tomes or Tiger Beat and nobody gave a good damn. They got to dance their little hearts out. I realize that I’m generalizing wildly here. Girls who played basketball and overweight girls and girls who liked science (which seemed to go hand in hand with wearing stretched-out sweaters and odd shoes) were miserable. You could see it in the straitjacket of their posture and the straight-ahead stares of don’t-look-at-me as they raced down the halls between classes. But the girls I’m talking about, the ones I was friends with, wanted to be girls in a classical, Maybellined sense, and they didn’t have to beat the crap out of one another to get there. Becoming a woman seemed a lot more lighthearted, at least from where I was standing.

After high school, and up until I was about thirty, I had no straight guy friends. I didn’t have to pretend anymore, and I didn’t bother. It wasn’t even a conscious decision. I was naturally drawn to women, and if they had some dumb guy in their life, I paid no attention to him. Even when boyfriends and husbands were sensitive types who burned incense, I’d find myself drifting. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve snapped to during some guy’s monologue and wondered what the hell we were talking about, before smiling politely and steering the conversation away from him and back to us. Proust scholars, grease monkeys: they were all the same to me. My emotional life usually consisted of one boyfriend mixed with a couple of gay men and two large heaping tablespoons of women.

The only thing that could focus my attention on a straight man was fear. Having grown up with my uncles and cousins, with the potheads back in high school, I had no illusions about them. They were my natural enemy on the food chain. If anybody was going to tie me to a fence and beat me to a bloody pulp, it was going to be a straight man. Their girlfriends might be back in the cheering section, egging them on, but it was the man who had to kill you. It was a fail-safe way of shoring up his battered manhood, of wiping out any trace of cocksucking in himself. I’ve always thought that if little straight boys were taught that the one surefire, telltale sign of repressed homosexuality was the beating and killing of gay men—and the truth is lurking around that idea somewhere—then gay-bashing would shrivel away within a generation. To be gay is to live, always, with a certain hesitancy, however slight, out there in the world. Even when it only flickers through you, you can’t help wondering how the gay thing is going to play itself out with your sister’s new husband, in that class you’re teaching, at some stupid party. It’s born from the understanding that the simple act of walking down the street could be enough to instigate the day of your own death. Some people, even some gay people, think that’s melodramatic; but just try walking hand in hand with someone of the same sex through any given city of the world, even New York. If, at the end of no less than fifteen miles, you have not been either harassed or beaten or murdered, I’m willing to concede that I’ve misjudged straight men. People accuse gay activists of being strident, but all I can say is: Honey, people wanting to kick the shit out of you for no good reason—it will make you strident.

So I may have had a straight-man problem, but it didn’t come out of nowhere.

For a while, I lived in what could easily be described as a white slum. The guys in the hood were mostly high school dropouts on the road to a prison sentence in a series of souped-up cars. They knocked up their fourteen-year-old girlfriends and slapped their illegitimate kids around. Generally speaking, they were mean as fucking snakes. They had the kind of swaggering, tattooed glamour that John Waters once described as “everybody looks better under arrest.” Quite a few of them hustled. They needed drugs. They knew by some poverty-stricken radar where the fags who would pay them hung out. The rest was simple business math. It was understood that hustling wasn’t gay, and the majority of them cut it out by the time they were out of their teens, when most of them had lost their looks anyway.

I lived in this neighborhood, and it was clear that I was gay, but it was understood that you didn’t hustle your neighbors because then you were getting your cock sucked by a man way too close to home—the old shitting-where-you-eat-syndrome—besides which I wouldn’t have paid anyway. I didn’t want to eat where I shit either. It would have been dangerous. These guys basically tolerated me—they usually only killed their own and I kept pretty much to myself—but it was understood that if I happened by on the wrong night when they were drunk and bored and looking to scratch up some action, I’d have the fuck beaten out of me, and that might be just for starters. So I was careful. I’d heard about what happened to people who weren’t careful. A few times I’d seen people who weren’t careful on the 11:00 news. I wasn’t exactly crazy about our little arrangement, but at least we all knew where we stood.

In a way I preferred them to the straight men I’d met before who were supposed to be cool. They never were. There was always this nervousness. Either they had to reassure you that it was, hey, no problemo, all the while making damn sure you knew they weren’t that way, or they practically raised their fist in the air to express their solidarity with your kind. Or they asked you “gay” questions, as if each gay person was the world’s leading authority on every other gay person. You could say their efforts were better than a sock in the jaw, and they were. You could say that I was being ungenerous, that at least the guy was trying. Granted. But in a way, they irritated me more than your run-of-the-mill homophobes.

The trouble with the guys who were supposed to be cool was that they were insidious. Oh sure, they liked you well enough; except there were those pesky and insulting safari questions about your exotic little tribe. You couldn’t really fight it because your opponent allegedly wasn’t one. You’d find yourself swinging at air. It was shadowboxing at best. So instead you stood there, feeling peculiar, like your life was some weird artifact that needed examining, and there was some tacit understanding that you were supposed to feel grateful that they’d taken an interest, and in some corner of yourself, you were grateful, because at least they weren’t kicking your ass. It wasn’t humiliating, not exactly—that’s too strong a word—but it was some kissing cousin of humiliation, to have to be grateful to someone just because the steel toe of his boot wasn’t aimed at your skull. The whole experience, and sometimes it only lasted a few minutes or less, was like a searchlight had been cast on you, not so that others could find you, but so that you could find yourself: hey you, yes, you there, look at yourself, how strange you are. It was isolating, and you couldn’t help but wish ill on the person who was stranding you out there. Again.

Case in point. There was this guy I knew in Richmond; and though he had a definite penchant for fucking his graduate students, he was a decent, likable fellow. Richmond is not a large city. Every artist knows every other artist, and in many ways it is as incestuous as a West Virginia holler. The parties were pretty much the same party over and over again, with a different set designer. This guy was a poet, I was a novelist, the rest was the laws of inbreeding: we couldn’t help but run into each other. And every time we did, he unfailingly sidled up to me and made some sexual crack about some boy, some more subtle than others. Now, I will admit that I have used “cock” and “suck” in the same sentence if I thought it might make someone squirm who seemed uncomfortable about my being gay to begin with; and I like talking about sex as much as the next guy. But I’m generally conversant with a number of topics, including art, music, literature, my troubled past, my troubled present, yours too, speculations about the lives of others based solely on their appearance or their appearance on The Charlie Rose Show. I’m affable that way. And I resented the implication that my head was nothing but a cauldron simmering with hopes and dreams of fellatio. OK, sometimes it was, but I actually spent gobs more time sleeping, reading, and making money, to name only three. In fact, in terms of actual number of hours, I was much more of a smoker than I was a homosexual, and I would have been a lot more pleased to have him mosey over and chat me up about American Spirit versus Merit Ultralight Box. Compared to cigarettes, dicks were more of a hobby.

So I was suspicious when, at one of those parties, I met a straight man named Tom. We were the only two out on the porch, smoking, and I said something about us being a dying breed, and he laughed, which meant that he was intelligent enough to appreciate my jokes, and then it turned out that he was the new writing professor in town, a novelist, and since I’d just sold my first book, we talked about writing, basically how it sucked. He was from New Jersey, and this was his first real teaching job, and he was excited about being in a community of writers, the way he had been back in graduate school. He missed that. It was one of those instant, genial conversations unstained by any sort of one-upmanship or awkward glitches that have you fabricating an urgent need to hit the bathroom line. I figured he had to be gay. But at some point—I’d gone through several cigarettes and my little plastic cup had been dry for a while—he mentioned his wife, his kids; and I thought, well, that’s the end of that.

I assume people know I’m gay. I’ve got the voice. But some people are willful. So I casually, but not really, brought up my boyfriend, just to be sure, and I waited for the panic to skitter through him and work itself out as the usual reassurances that weren’t. Nothing. No mention of some cousin he’d always liked who was too. He didn’t drag out the fact that he’d read Genet back in college. He didn’t reference public homophobes like Jesse Helms to establish his own sterling political credentials. It wouldn’t be too much to say that I was astonished. I still felt that gratitude I spoke of earlier, but this time it was unasked for and unwanted. He was the first straight guy I’d ever met who paid exactly as much attention to my sexuality as I thought it deserved, which was none at all. He could not have cared less. He lit another cigarette and said something about Hoboken. Everything else about me was far more interesting to him, including the fact that I was a junkie-class smoker. I felt seen, not in silhouette, and that’s probably all anyone wants, and more than anybody usually gets. For future reference, boys, it’s the one true marker of sexual confidence. There’s something sweaty and pop-eyed about your average ladies’ man. You always feel like he’s holding a gun to his own head to get laid. It doesn’t exactly seem confident.  

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