blackbirdonline journalFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

from You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
installment 5

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, v18n2, and v19n1. Additional excerpts will be serialized in forthcoming issues.
   —Blackbird editors

That night, when I got home from my run-in with Ed, the apartment was quiet, but it didn’t feel like anybody was dead. I somehow had this magical sense that if you were in the apartment with a dead body, you’d know it. Flipping on the harsh kitchen light, I weighed a tuna sandwich against vodka. Vodka won. Back in my room, I cozied up against some pillows and watched The Robin Byrd Show. For those of you who don’t live in New York, Robin Byrd is a former porn star who hosts a sort of stripper talk show on cable access. Cable access is a form of folk art, and if you don’t follow it, I suggest you start immediately. Robin wears a jet-bead bikini that was probably flattering about twenty years ago, and various colors of cowboy boots. Her hair is porn-star blonde, halogen bright. She’s tanned in a way that reminds you helplessly of white lipstick. Robin asks us to “lie back and get comfortable,” and then other, current porn stars strip to the usual titty-bar songs. Afterward, Robin interviews the lot of them. Where they’re dancing. Do they have any movies coming out? How long have they been in the business? It’s a call-in so some of the home viewers get in on the action. “Hi, Robin, love the show. I have a question for Chad Rock. Does he do private parties?” At the end, Robin lip-synchs to her trademark song, “Baby Let Me Bang Your Box,” while miming fellatio, tongue literally in cheek, or licking the nipples of women whose tits are intergalactic. Robin is 250-watt cheerful, a socialite who’s thrown a party and worries that if she doesn’t laugh every five seconds at the top of her lungs, then the whole thing is going to bomb. About the first fifty or sixty times, The Robin Byrd Show is an astonishment. Have sex and banality and commerce and klutzy production values and an insider’s smirky knowingness ever been blended together in quite this way? No. Never. It’s like a strawberry daiquiri, sweet, too sweet really, and candy colored, but spiked with demon rum. A person with his finger on the button, in the throes of dangerous doubts about the future of civilization, should be cautioned not to watch it. He’d push that button. But I wasn’t that person. I watched one of the guest strippers—a man with the angular face of a drug addict and a pimple on his butt—with all the calm assurance of a person with a plan.


Alan was, you may remember, the other spectral roommate. He lived in an eensy room off the kitchen that I had half-glimpsed through the slatted folding doors that just barely kept it private. Nights in the kitchen after work, I’d heard voices behind that door. Sometimes there was evidence of him in the bathroom we shared: a forgotten razor with fleas of hair stuck to it, some lingering cologne-ish scent that made me sneeze. The occasional beer that wasn’t mine in the fridge. There was mail John had slung across the dining-room table, mostly fat packs of coupons and address labels from Save the Children. That’s where I got Alan’s last name. I also remembered Alan worked in an office at NYU or Columbia or someplace like that. Anyway, it was remarkably easy to track him down. It required no sleuthing. All I did was call. It took about ten seconds.

“Uh, hi Alan, this is Wesley.” Pause as he scraped the barrel of his brain, trying to pin the name to some former fuck. “Your roommate.” Still no response. “Your other roommate.”

“Oh, Wesley, hi. How you doing, dude? Hey, I’ve been thinking we need to get together some night, have a drink, you know, get to know each other.”

“How about tonight?”

“No can do. I got a date.”

“We really need to talk.”

“What up?”

“Have you seen John lately?”

“Mmmmmm, no.”

“Well, he’s dying.”

Pause. Sigh. Papers rustling. “Fuck. What do you mean, dying?”

I described John on the couch.

“What do you want me to do about it?” he said.

“I want you to talk to him. I mean, how long have you lived there?”

“Few years.”

“He won’t listen to me, but maybe he’ll listen to you. He needs to be in a hospital. If we don’t do something, and I mean now, today, one of us is going to come home to a corpse, soon, and the next day we’ll be out of this apartment on our asses.”

“Goddamn him.”

“Well . . . I don’t know . . . but we need to do this. Tonight.”

“Do what?”

“Gang up on him.”

“Shit. OK. I guess. Tell you what. Meet me at Diamonds at like six.”

Diamonds was the kitchenette-size piano bar on our block. It was the only remotely gay place within walking distance. I’d been there a few times, hoping to get laid. I hadn’t even come close. There seemed to be only two kinds of men at Diamonds: older men with odd hair that suggested a nasty run-in with a Clairol bottle, or men in their twenties and thirties who wouldn’t have made it in the WWF of a real cruise bar because there was something odd about them too. They were wearing either Michael Jackson’s old red leather jacket from the “Thriller” video, or pants that seemed Sansabelt, even when they weren’t. The place reeked of alcoholism and everyone smoked. Most people drank brown liquor drinks with fruit in them. You overheard conversations about how snobby other bars were.

The waitresses sang between slinging cocktails. “Tomorrow,” “New York, New York,” “Memory.” It was enough to send you rocketing back into the nearest closet. The pianist was always some guy with airbrushed hair who seemed like he should be wearing a dickey. He always had a determined gaiety spiked with disappointment, someone who’d made it out of the backwater but not to Broadway. I’d never been much of a theater queen, but I had my own longings of a literary kind, and as far as I knew, no amusing caricatures of me had ever appeared in the New York Review of Books, my Broadway. That was the problem with bars. Everyone’s dreams seem to leak and get all over the floor.

So I sat there, nonchalantly swirling my martini, and smoking in a manner that I hoped suggested an otherworldly sensitivity coupled with an earthy sexuality topped off with a dash of piquant wistfulness. It was a lot to ask of a drink and a smoke, and there didn’t appear to be any takers. I sneaked peeks of myself in the dim mirror above the glittering forest of the liquor bottles to see how I was fairing in this light. Did I have a certain boyish, masculine quality or had I too succumbed to whatever spell had been cast over the men of Diamonds? That was the dilemma, of course. You never really knew. The man a few stools down, with hair like spun Tupperware, a ransom of fat, gold rings on his fingers, and an eerie tan, was clearly doing the best he could. In fact, you could tell from his boutique cashmere sweater that he was really, really trying. But he’d probably have come off a lot better bald, ringless, and human colored. I’d also have exchanged the sweater for a flannel shirt, something smart but casual, but nothing too butch, from the way he conducted with that baton of a Gauloise. He needed something to distract you from the Sunset Boulevard associations that were gathering around him like big, black crows.

I was just about to call that Christian group that converts gay people when Alan tapped me on the shoulder and said my name.

He was cute, dark, probably around thirty, with thick, wavy black hair. He looked like he should be picking grapes—shirtless—somewhere off the Mediterranean. In his jean jacket and his sneakers, he’d cornered the market in boyish/masculine. I realized, instantly, that I had one of those shiv-to-the-rib crushes that are never anything but trouble. The only thing I didn’t like about him was his bill-of-goods smile.

We shook. He straddled a stool and ordered a beer. We chatted, how nice it was to finally meet. It turned out he was American Indian from somewhere out West. He was a likeable enough fellow, but he also had the tinselly charm of somebody who’s always on the make. My guardian angel, who at times could be a paranoid nut, told me to put the brakes on the crush. I did my best.

After a couple of drinks I brought up John.

“So,” I said, “what do you think we should say?”

“I don’t know. This is hard for me. I’m, uh, HIV. My doctor wants me to go on the cocktail, my T cells are like fifty, and my viral load is through the roof, but I don’t know. All those drugs. I just don’t want to do it.” He stared steadily at his Bud, peeling the label.

What do you say to that? I never knew, so I said, “You look great,” like he was a guest on my private talk show.

His smile told me that looking great was no consolation prize. “I get night sweats sometimes, and fevers. I’m gonna beat this thing, though. I, uh, this is really bad timing for me. I’m seeing this guy out in Queens. His lover is sick, well, they’re not really lovers anymore, but Sal, that’s my boyfriend, he feels kind of obligated, you know I mean they don’t have sex anymore or anything, but they do live together . . . ”

“So where do you guys . . . meet?”

“At my place, John’s.”

“But I never see you guys there.”

“You never heard us fucking? I’m pretty loud. We’re probably asleep by the time you get home. We both get up pretty early. I hear you come in sometimes.”


“I didn’t mean it like that.” He sighed. “You know, I don’t have any place to go if John dies. Sal can’t put me up. I don’t know. Like I have some friends, but they’re not really crash friends. I make a decent living but I don’t have the money to get an apartment. The only reason I stay in that room is ’cause it’s so cheap. Fucking John, man. Our last roommate moved out because John hadn’t been paying the rent or the electricity.”

As he spoke, my own prospects twisted into focus. I had very little money myself. I did have crash friends, but you could only camp out on somebody’s couch for so long. What in the hell was I going to do?

Back in Richmond, people moved to New York all the time for a change of luck, a fresh start, their big break. Some of them made it, sometimes the most unlikely ones. There was one woman who’d lived down the hall from me when I was in college. She was about six feet of swizzle stick with a cloud of black, curly hair like a curse of bees. Personally I thought she looked weird. But one day, as I was balancing some groceries on my bike and digging for my keys, she dashed down the hall and shrieked, “I’m moving to New York to become a model!” I looked at the too-large features of her face—like the bees of her hair had stung her—and I thought, “Yeah, right after I swing by Oz to be declared First Wizard Deluxe.”

“That’s great,” I said, trying to compensate for my cold disbelief with a huckster’s enthusiasm.

“Yeah. Wow.” She bent down from the tower of herself, grabbed my shoulders, a big smile on the big lips of her big face. She shook me, or tried to anyway—a cup of nonfat yogurt must have felt like ten dead tons in the mascara wands of her arms—and said, “Wish me luck.”

Heartbreaking, and for weeks afterward I told the story of this poor deluded freak and her sad little dream. I guess I don’t have to tell you that not three months later I opened Vogue magazine to find her in an Avedon photograph eating Austrian chocolate from a Bennis Edwards gold lamé pump. If it hadn’t been for the carnival of her hair, I never would have recognized her. She was absurdly pretty. I never saw her picture after that, but I’ll tell you what, she didn’t move back down the hall.

But there were other movers-to-New-York as well, the majority, and you never saw their pictures in Vogue. You saw them back at their old jobs a year or two later, bartending or minding the cash register of some alternative store that sold things to pierce yourself with and interesting T-shirts. When you asked them about the big city, there were vague intimations of hardship, averted eyes, a quick change of subject. Humiliating. One guy I knew had stumbled out of a sex club at some harrowing hour of the morning, his head a jumble of X and K and God only knew what other letters of the drug alphabet; and he’d staggered to Amtrak to hop the next train back to Richmond. He left everything behind, the stack of HX on the coffee table, the Kiehl’s skin products, the hopes he’d had for a better life. He was now the head waiter of an Applebee’s and lived in the den of his parents’ suburban bungalow. You saw him occasionally in local productions of this or that, and you’d sit there thinking, this guy should really try to make it in New York. He was that good. But then you’d remember that he already had. For me, he was Cautionary Tale Numero Uno. He was what happened when you moved to New York and failed, Failed, FAILED.

I could of course move to Washington, set myself up in a modest studio decorated with framed postcards I’d bought at the Hirschhorn, get a job behind the cosmetics counter of a pharmacy. A cat. My knitting. A quiet suicide in the tub one Sunday afternoon as I was listening to chamber pieces on NPR. Or San Francisco. I’d lived there for six disastrous months once (a love affair—don’t ask). I could . . . what? Set myself up in a modest studio decorated with framed postcards from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, get a job behind the . . . No, wait. What about teaching remedial creative writing at a community college in . . . Appalachia. I’d wander around my trailer, which was perched on the rocky slope of a scrub-littered mountain, my housedress sadly stained from the bourbon that slopped from the side of my tea glass as the night waxed and my balance waned. Sometimes, Rufus, the married janitor down at the college and my Appalachian version of a boyfriend, would bang down the door, the worse for drink, demanding a blow job, blackening one of my eyes. Another one of my “falls” I’d explain to Candace, the born-again secretary of the so-called English Department. Candace, who wore scarves knotted around her neck every day of her life, would Xerox grimly and pray for my immortal soul. She’d seen too many of my falls to be convinced by them anymore.

Meanwhile, back at Diamonds, Alan and I had a bill to pay, jackets to shimmy into, and hard-bitten looks, stony with longing, to ignore. What was it, the end of September? Back-to-school promises of new starts in the cool, breezeless air. The night sky way up there beyond the tops of the buildings, sharp as a paper cut and flung with stars. People out on the streets seemed a tad too exuberant, like they’d all just come from happy hour. I could still taste the handful of bar snacks I’d grabbed on the way out. It was hard to believe that John was back at the apartment, squirreled away in his dying.

But he was, right there on the end of that couch with his standard-issue, straw-stabbed Ensure, watching a block of Full House reruns. He was pale as a mushroom, but not even remotely as fleshy. Alan looked at me, nodded grimly, and over we went. I sat down one cushion away from John. Alan took the chair catercorner from him.

“Uh, John,” I said, “we need to talk to you.” He nodded quickly, grabbed his Ensure, sipping, barely taking his eyes off the TV. “John, we think you need to go to the hospital. Tonight.”

He nodded no, vigorously.

Alan exploded. “What the fuck, man? What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Fucking look at you. You look like a goddamned corpse. Are you an idiot? Are you? Answer me, and don’t just shake your goddamned head.”

John’s lips slipped from the edge of the straw. “No,” he said, primly.

“So are you going to the hospital or what?”


“So you’re just gonna sit here? You’re just gonna sit here. Well, that’s great, John. You sit here and you fucking die. Is that what you want? Is it? Is it?”

John shook his head no, his cornered eyes blank with panic, the straw back in his mouth.

“Then you’re going to the hospital. Now.”

John pretended to be absorbed by the antics of those lovable gals.

“Are you listening to me?”

John closed his eyes and nodded.

“Good. So. You need to go. OK. So. Go.”

“Not tonight.”

“Why not tonight?”

“I just . . . can’t.” He looked over at me, calmly, sat the Ensure on his knee. “I’ll go tomorrow. Promise. I don’t like the idea of going there at night. I need to get ready. Then, I can just . . . check in.”

“Do you promise?” I said.

“Scout’s honor,” he said, give me the Scout sign and grinning. His gums were red as raspberry jelly. His head, for all that it had been sculpted away to its essential planes, looked way too big for his thin, tendony neck, a big baby’s head that might wobble.

“OK.” Alan slapped his thighs. “I still got a date to hook up with. Are we clear here?”

John did the usual nod. Alan looked over at me, like, I hope you’re happy.

I was.


You might ask, with good reason, why I had to live in New York. I can only ask for your trust here. I just did. When I was twenty I made my first trip to New York. I don’t remember the exact circumstances anymore, but I had somehow managed to attach myself to my best friend Ralph’s boyfriend’s college trip and I was sleeping on the floor of their hotel room. That Saturday night, after some hastily eaten Chinese food that it was better not to notice, we went to see Bent. I’d never been in a Broadway theater, and I sat there in the red plush of the seats, under gilt fronds arced across the ceiling, not too far (we were in the mezzanine) from a chandelier—swarming with chips of light—that could have crushed about eight people. I was insanely happy, rubbernecking every which way, trying to drink it all in slowly, but then gulping it down, I couldn’t help myself, worried that I was spilling it all over the place and wouldn’t have any left for later, when I could really savor it.

In front of me sat a woman with plumes of Ozlike green hair. Exhilarating. If you could dye your hair green, you could do anything. Behind me sat two gay men who seemed to be all sharp angles, from the creases of their pants to their born-again noses, and between them sat their fat woman friend in her spangly black dress. One of the angular men leaned over his program toward her and said, “If you don’t behave I’m going to make you dye your hair that color when we get home.” The wittiest thing I’d ever heard, but more than that, the idea that someone could be casual enough to joke about anything as dazzling as that hair spoke of an Olympian worldliness I hadn’t even known you could aspire to. By the time the lights went down and the curtains parted, I’d combusted into glittering particles, like the aftermath of a wand.

Bent starred Richard Gere, and in it, he was naked. I’d only been to the theater once before, and it was a lucky experience. I’d seen the world premiere of Romulus Linney’s Childe Byron at the Virginia Museum Theater. My English teacher, Mrs. Sally Rand—God bless her—made us go. At one point, a woman of the court, trying unsuccessfully to seduce Byron, says coyly, “Are you worried that I’ll kiss and tell?” and Byron says, “No, I worry that you’ll fuck and publish.” The audience was mostly men who had fallen asleep and the wives who had dragged them there, and about a quarter of them walked out. I was sixteen and I practically drilled through the ceiling from joy. Later, Byron kisses a choirboy right on the mouth. And it was no peck. It was the kind of kiss where your head twists involuntarily because you’re trying to burrow your way inside the other person. Rustling of coats, whispered outrage; another quarter of the audience was gone. I was in a state of paralysis. All I could do was ogle that actor and replay that kiss. I was in a pure state of bliss I later learned was called nirvana. It wasn’t the sex so much. It was the passion. It was the implication of love. It blew me, and the rest of the blue hairs, wide open. It made the rock concerts I’d been going to seem like the sandbox.

Seeing Richard Gere naked in Bent pretty much had the same effect on me. I could see his ivory shoulders, the hairless V of his upper body, the hair dusted up his lean legs. I could see his pubic hair, I could see his balls, I could see his cock. All of it attached to the paranormal beauty of his face. I stopped trying to see him with just my eyes. They were woefully inadequate to the kind of imprint my body was telling me it was imperative that I record. So I tried to see him with my thalamus and my liver and my corpuscles. I think what I wanted was to will him from the stage, down the aisle, up the stairs, and into my lap. It wasn’t purely sexual. My wires were too scrambled to form a coherent sexual fantasy. What I wanted was to stroke his preternaturally thick hair and gaze into the galaxies of his eyes before he kissed me like that choirboy. I was trying to make him love me back from the third row of the mezzanine. Or I wanted the audience to rise up as one and acknowledge that I was here and this was happening and that it was momentous. It wasn’t just that Richard Gere was naked and I was in the same room to witness it. It was that Richard Gere was naked, and, for that moment in the theater anyway, he was gay, and all these people were watching. In a way, when those rubes had huffed out of the Virginia Museum Theater, dragging their indignation behind them, I’d needed it, because it had confirmed for me that what was happening was as cataclysmic as it had felt inside me, and I wanted something equally as dramatic and external now, to stamp the moment.

Of course that didn’t happen. The audience did cheer and hoot and stand, me right along with them, while Richard Gere stood there, bowing in his hastily tied robe, holding hands with David Dukes and the other actors. Getting out of the theater was the usual sperm-to-ovum trial, but I barely registered it. I was in a trance. Life was being shot through the gauze of Richard Gere’s publicly naked and publicly gay body. Out on the street I was hopelessly in love with this brave new world. I saw Elliot Gould leaving the theater and I smiled my new idiot’s smile at him, and when he smiled back, I wondered if he would marry me now that the whole Barbra thing was ancient history. If there had been a justice of the peace there, I would have married that parking meter with its cyclops eye of a VIOLATION sign, or the watery reflection of the neon on the asphalt, or the pretzel vendor right there under the striped canopy, with squirt bottles of mustard as our witness, even though the pretzel man’s apron was dragging his checked pants and Fruit of the Looms down and you could see the hair nesting on his lower back and the indentation where his butt was about to crack its vertical smile. I would have married my friend Ralph, who was standing on the curb, hailing us a cab, or the Poppin’ Fresh Doughboy of a Pakistani driver whose name was mostly consonants, more of a pictograph than a word but all the lovelier for it. I tried to say something smart to Ralph and his boyfriend, Kirk, about the play, but it all came out in acid-trip lingo: Wow, like, I don’t . . . 

I guess we got to the Cookery, our next destination, just in the nick of time. We had reservations for the Alberta Hunter show at 11:00. That’s where I finally touched back down to earth, or at least reestablished contact with mission control. Because the Cookery was disappointing. It looked more like a Denny’s than the kind of smoky jazz juke joint with shady ladies and way-cool cats in tilted-down fedoras that I’d had in mind. They sat us in a booth. I made a couple of standard-issue cracks about the nonexistent decor just to let the boys know I’d returned to the land of the living. We ordered martinis to restore a semblance of elegance to our lives. Almost immediately a corncob of a woman who looked like she could have sat in the palm of your hand shuffled out, assisted by a man in a tuxedo who turned out to be her pianist. There was also a guy who played the bass. Alberta Hunter was in her seventies, at least, by that time, and she looked every second of it. But her hair was cornrowed into beautiful silver epaulets across her skull, and she was dressed in lots of brightly colored and patterned layers that looked like they might overwhelm her frail body at any moment, like she might just sink and that would be the end of her. Her earrings were like the rhinestone bones of a very large man’s hands. They brushed against her shoulders as she made her long way to the spotlight by the piano. She looked just about perfect to me, but I did wonder how this shrunken bird of a woman was going to sing “Amtrak Blues” the way my Alberta Hunter, the one on my records, sang it while I splayed out across my couch in the dark, drinking more than was good for me. That Alberta Hunter wrapped your blues up in hers and cradled them in the deep grooves of her voice. You might still be unhappy, but her voice somehow tethered your unhappiness to the larger unhappiness of the big, bad world and that made it sublime, made it bearable. It didn’t seem so much like the bunched polyester of your own unhappiness anymore.

As it turned out, this Alberta Hunter would practically ruin the other one for me. Hearing the real thing, the intricate cracks, the myriad bits of mica twinkling in the low gravel, the multiple subtleties of a rasp, made my records back home seem like words that had been erased on a chalkboard until you could only just make them out. The amazement of the human voice, traveling everywhere at once in that room, thrumming in all our ears, and opening up small pockets inside of us that had never existed before because her voice had not been there to discover them. I don’t know from music, but I could hear her doing things to words that were also musical notes, little drops, a shift here, tiny novas of embroidery, even something that verged on a roar except that it was singing. She could sing funny, she could sing sad, she could sing sexy, she could sing sexy sad. Before it was all over I felt like she could have sung the theory of relativity if she had wanted to. And her face was like some transcendental form of clay that the fingers of her voice could mold to fit whatever emotion was cascading or trickling or lazy-rivering from her throat. She laughed after every song, even the sad ones, as if she herself could not quite believe what she’d just done, and then she told a little story to set up the next tune. It was all so easy, so effortless, as if we’d all just popped by her house for a cup of coffee. I knew that she did this set, with the same patter, every night of her life. In fact, she’d done it at 9:00 that very night; but it seemed like she would never do it again, that we all just happened to be sitting there when this miracle occurred.

By 1:00 in the morning, it was over; but unlike Cinderella I did not turn back into the boy from the provinces trying to eke out a sophisticated life with a few mice and a pumpkin. New York, the sunken treasure I’d been diving for my whole life, still shimmered inside me. One of those tourist carriages clattered by and I was too green to see it as anything but romantic. The canyons that the buildings made echoed with it. A Fiorucci store glowed prosperously across the street. I’d only seen stores devoted to one person’s stuff in movies starring Audrey Hepburn. A burly man eating a hot dog and reading the Daily News lumbered by us, right out of a Jimmy Breslin column. I stuffed it in and stuffed it in, gorging myself.

Kirk said he was tired. Ralph said there was no way he was going back to the room, and I certainly wasn’t going to fall asleep unless there was an injection involved. They parted amiably enough for boyfriends who didn’t want to do the same thing on a Saturday night during their first trip to New York together. Secretly I was glad Kirk was leaving. He was a nice enough guy, but he wasn’t as drugged by the city as I was. Ralph, however, looked pretty well zapped by Alberta Hunter, and like me, he wanted more. So he bundled Kirk into a cab and pulled from his coat pocket one of the many guides he’d been picking up all day. It was cold out, but I was too stoned on the city to do much more than notice how picturesque our breath looked clouding out of us. It turned out there was a piano bar right around the corner called something like Ivories. This was before the words “piano bar” would set off firecracker images in my head of broken-down queens slurring out the soundtrack to Gypsy. I’d never been to a piano bar, and I instantly conjured up Lauren Bacall on the edge of a Steinway husking out “Love for Sale” while bedizened matrons shared their champagne with sloe-eyed European gigolos. My idea of decadence, which I craved, were basically furnished with the gimcrackery I’d pilfered from black-and-white movies with stark, elongated shadows.

Who knows what I’d think of Ivories now? Back then it seemed civilized to the tenth power. There was an awful lot of silver and mirrors and white and candlelight, sort of art deco, though the difference between sort of art deco and definitely art deco really didn’t exist for me. The people there looked like the kind of people I imagined went to piano bars, sleek couples of quartets, all of whom appeared to be straight. At the time I didn’t think of piano bars as havens for stricken theater-type gays. I thought only people who lived in penthouses went to them before they dashed home to the brittle but dazzling Stephen Sondheim song of their lives. The pianist was debonair in just the right way, with bloodshot, icy blue eyes that stared out at you from a predator’s face that was also haunted by a tenderness he didn’t seem to have much use for anymore. As we sat down, he said, “Just in time for the suicide set,” and then he proceeded to sing songs about the luxurious rottenness of all love.

Ralph and I could hardly believe our luck. We had a couple more martinis and listened, and each moment seemed even more tuxedoed than the one before it. There I finally was, far, far away from the cars on cinder blocks of my childhood, from the Foghat concerts of my adolescence that I’d never really liked to begin with. I forgot that when I got back to Richmond I’d be running up and down three flights of steps at the pizza joint where I worked, sweating, my mind ricocheting with orders, pouring pitchers of beer and sweeping up pepperoni and stray onions at the end of the night. It seemed like all that had to be over for good. These two lives could not exist in the same universe. It would be like matter and antimatter. Something would explode.

“OK,” Ralph said, “let’s find someplace really gay.”

We were somewhere around Times Square, and finding someplace really gay turned out to be a little harder than we imagined it would be. I guess we thought we’d just stumble across something. There had to be gay places lying around all over the place, right? It was easily 3:00 in the morning. It was officially cold and we were officially drunk. The streets, at least the streets we were wandering, were deserted, which didn’t seem possible. I personally knew that the streets of New York were crammed with passerby come sunrise or starlight.

This was the good old/bad old Times Square, so eventually we did find ourselves huddled over another one of the guides by a newsstand under the pink neon of a peep show, not that we could make heads or tails of where anything was supposed to be. We didn’t know the Battery from the Bronx. I was finally ready to wave the flag. I figured I’d had more than my share of fun and the cold was definitely becoming unpleasant. It was time to curl up in my sleeping bag on the floor and wait for my hangover to set in. I was about to say as much to Ralph when this Puerto Rican voice said, “What you guys looking for?” from over our shoulders.

Jorge was not really dressed for the cold. He was wearing tight white jeans, and oddly, the kind of hat guys fish in. He hopped from one scuffed boot to the other, in the manner of cold people, with his hands shoved into his bomber jacket. Not much bigger than me, he had a pockmarked face, and he kept looking side to side like someone might catch us. He wasn’t handsome, but he did look like he’d been in and out of prison, and that made him sexy.

I was about to tell him we were going back to the hotel when Ralph said, “A gay place.”

Jorge had “hustler” written all over him, in big block letters; but I didn’t really understand about hustlers yet so I couldn’t read the writing. He just looked like your average thug to me, and I stood there, waiting for him to mug us now that he knew we were two out-of-town pansies.

Instead he said, “I know a place like that.”

“Great,” Ralph said, smartly closing his guide and slipping it back inside his coat. We all shook hands and exchanged names. Jorge’s hand was callused and cold and he had the grip of a prizefighter. While he gripped, he stared steadily into my eyes, shaking my hand a lot longer than was necessary. “Wesley,” he said. “I never knew a guy named Wesley.”


We followed him to a bar not far from where we were. It looked more like a diner, and it could have used a good scrubbing—a long, thin place, fluorescently lit in a way that made everyone look downtrodden, though these characters might have looked downtrodden in the best light. It was just this gaggle of surly looking Hispanic men with bellies whose best days were in the history books. At least one of them was wearing white shoes to match his white belt. they looked like a little convention of uncles. If they were gay, then it was true, we were everywhere.

Jorge ordered us beers in Spanish and Ralph paid. Then we stood there drinking while the uncles stared us down. Jorge continued to shuffle from boot to boot—so it wasn’t the cold, it was some restless energy—and asked us questions that he then commented on. “Oh yeah? I never been to Virginia. I hear it’s a very nice place.” Etc. Polite tourist talk, like he was the chamber of commerce. There was no way to be bored by it because he kept catching my gaze with his and locking them together the way he’d locked my hand into his earlier. He’d undone his bomber jacket. He was wearing a shiny peach disco shirt printed in peacocks and unbuttoned just enough. He could have broken plates against the knotted muscles of his body. If he was tattooed, I was a goner.

I needed to pee. Jorge pointed me to a bathroom that smelled like a litter box where cats also buried their dead. There were splats of things on the walls and oily yellow spots and graffiti that looked like it could only have been carved with a switchblade. Blue deodorizing cakes were slumped into wads of wet toilet paper, bled brown with dead cigarettes, at the bottom of both the urinals. I was actually too drunk to care.

As I was zipping up, a hand I already recognized as Jorge’s—from the menace of its strength—squeezed my shoulder like Spock when he makes villains faint on Star Trek. I buttoned up and turned around, smiling like, you devil, you. He was smiling too. His teeth were crooked and brownish, like water-stained plaster, and I wondered how that could be so brutally sexy, a fist to my gut.

“I think you like me, Wesley from Virginia.”

“I think I do too.”

“I think you want to take me back to your room.”

“I do, but I can’t. It’s not my room.”

He frowned seriously, he really thought he’d had it made, and that’s when I finally saw it, when I finally got it. It was not the frown of someone who was disappointed that he wasn’t going to get laid. It was the deeper disappointment of someone who’d had a deal fall through. Whatever else he wanted, he wanted a place to flop more than anything, some place out of the cold, a fucking break. And that made him angry.

“So, what? Who are these people? Your mama?”

“No, but there’s already like five people sleeping in there.”

“What? You can’t fit one more?”

“It’s not my room. I didn’t pay for it.”

He smiled again, but it was a fake Rolex of a smile, something you’d sell to the hicks, and he squeezed my shoulder again, hard enough so that it hurt. “Ah, Wesley from Virginia,” he said gently. “You shit.”

“I’m gonna go check on Ralph,” I said, wrenching my shoulder from the steel ball of his fist.

“Hey, you do that. I gotta piss. Unless you wanna watch. I bet you’d like that, huh?” He smiled again, a little more genuinely, and squeezed his crotch. It looked like he had a well-fed guinea pig in there.

“Not here,” I said, smiling back in a way that I hoped looked genuinely regretful, because that’s how I felt.

Ralph was still standing at the bar, his beer finished, with a look on his face like, well, well, well. “So,” he said, “what happened in there?”

“Uh, he wanted to come back to the room with me.”

“Kirk would kill us, not to mention Jeff and Richard.”

“I realize that.”

“Good. Let’s go. This isn’t what I had in mind. I’m tired.”

“Me too,” I lied.

Jorge came back and stood behind me. Very close. I could feel his warm breath on the back of my head. I could feel his body even though he wasn’t touching me. It made me jittery because I wanted him like a fever, but also because that meant he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet. I wanted to turn around and say, look, my hands are tied—and not in the way I wanted them to be—but it took the last few shreds I had left of whatever it was that kept the body functioning just to breathe normally.

“So, Jorge,” Ralph said, “it’s been so nice to meet you. This is a great place. But we really need to get going.”

“What are you talking about, man?” Jorge said. “We just got here. Hey, you’re in New York. Live a little.”

“We have,” Ralph said, karate-chopping away any more discussion. “And now we’re ready to go.”

“OK,” Jorge said, but you could hear that something else was echoing away inside him, like, fuck, fuck, fuck, what am I going to do?

On the street corner, we stopped in front of about the thirtieth John’s Original Pizza I’d see that day. Inside, a gratuitously blond couple in their teens bit into slices of pizza the size of notebook paper. They weren’t doing it very well, moustaches of sauce, strings of cheese stretched from their teeth; and they were giggling helplessly about it. Drugs? Probably, but they looked like they should have been waving at us from atop the homecoming float. They looked like the kind of people who would never die, or if they did, they would do it simultaneously and then have matching coffins to boot. They’d die cute.

“Well,” Ralph said, turning around to face Jorge, who’d been trailing us. “I think we can make it from here.” He was polite but firm. Ralph was a guidance counselor, good at defusing any situation, and he’d decided that Jorge following us back to the hotel would be pointless, possibly painful, maybe even ugly.

“Oh,” Jorge said, like, I get it. “OK.” Then he looked me up and down, conspicuously, his jaw set into the appraising half-smile of a retailer who might take the whole lot off your hands, but for a price. “So you want me to go too, Wesley from Virginia?”

“Uh, I, don’t, like I said . . . ”

“Or you wanna come uptown and play with me?”

“Yeah,” leapfrogged from me before I’d really thought it out.

“No,” Ralph said.

“Oh, so this your daddy? He tell you what to do?”

“Uh, no.” I took a step toward Jorge, tough guy, bully boy, every dark fantasy I’d ever had.

“Absolutely not,” Ralph said.

I stopped. Jorge stood there, smiling victoriously. The stoplight clicked behind me. The kids in John’s not-so Original Pizza were eating in earnest now. It was, what, 4:00 in the morning, and little-match-girl cold. Was it crazy to go uptown, whatever that meant, with some guy who looked like he’d stepped from a wanted poster? Sure it was; and that’s exactly why I had to do it. I kept going and stopped not two inches from him. His breath smelled of beer and cigarettes and something that was sweet in the wrong way, like the stale candy old ladies handed out at Halloween. Even that was sexy. I imagined his mouth filling my mouth with it. Dizzying. He didn’t make one move toward me, taunting me with my own desire. He just kept smiling, like a kid who might give you back your homework, but only if you begged.

Ralph turned me around by my shoulder and said, “You are not going to do this,” his inarguable voice. We had an unspoken deal between us that if one of us was about to do something the other considered nuts, the other was allowed to stop him. It had saved both of us from several dicey situations. I sighed. “OK.” I turned back around to Jorge. “Sorry,” I said. He was amused by the whole thing. It didn’t seem to matter whether I went or not. He just wanted me to want him the way he’d wanted something far more essential, a warm place to catch some shut-eye before another one of these chasing days began again; and since it was clear that I did, that seemed to be enough for him.

“Hey, man,” he said to Ralph, ignoring me, even stepping away from me. It was clear who was in charge here. “You got five bucks on you?” Ralph hiked up his coat and unsheathed his wallet. He handed him a twenty, which Jorge took with a look on his face, like, hey, not bad, considering. He folded it into fourths and slipped it into his pocket, along with his hand. Nodding good-bye to Ralph, and not me, like they were the grown-ups, like they knew the score, he whipped around and started back down the sidewalk, the way we’d come. He had a confident bop to his walk and I wondered how that would have translated into the way he fucked. I knew Ralph was right, but damn.

Ralph looked down at me and said, “You,” before he raised his arm at a passing cab.

After that, I was Dracula-bitten. I didn’t have any choice, for now, but to try to survive on the bugs and mice that Richmond had to offer; but that was only until I could work my way back to the real human blood, thick with life, of New York.


The next morning, after Alan and I had had the John talk, I woke up inside of a conch shell. It was John trying to breathe and it had taken over the entire apartment. I staggered into some sweatpants and struggled into the straightjacket of a T-shirt and tried to wipe the hollandaise from my eyes. Felt around for my glasses. Pushed down my hair. Like Women’s Wear Daily was going to be out there.

John was supine on the couch with his hands pushing at his chest, his T-shirt buckling between his fingers.

“Call an ambulance,” he gasped. “I’m not gonna make it.”

I called 911, something I’d never had to do before. They were surprisingly efficient. On TV all you ever saw were the horror stories. I nudged the coffee table back with my calf and sat on the edge of it. John’s face was blistered in sweat, and his mouth was wide open as he tried to drag the air that didn’t want to go into his lungs. He was the color of lemon pudding. I stroked his hair, which was harsh and wiry and damp, and said, “Just hold on, they’ll be here any minute.” He seemed to relax, a bit. I felt surprisingly calm. I thought nothing. I just stared into his eyes, which bulged with terror and wouldn’t leave mine alone. I tried to smile a lying lullaby of a smile that sang a gentle song of everything’s going to be all right. Such suffering. I think that stroking the burs of his hair was as much for me as it was for him. I think it gave me this one simple task to concentrate on while my heart broke on another planet galaxies away where it was always night and there was no oxygen. I think it allowed me to sit there in the hideous morning light, listening to his calamitous breath. So I did sit there, one chimp grooming another, dumb to everything else.

Time was funny that morning. Everything was over in an instant, except that it took forever. The buzzer squawked and the ambulance was there. The next thing I knew I was letting them in. One guy was big and hairy. The other was lean and freckled. Like a nursery rhyme. They also looked like ice cream men in their short-sleeved uniforms, which only served to double the weirdness.

The first thing the burly guy said was, “You HIV?”

John looked at me apologetically, shrugged. I couldn’t believe it. He remembered our first interview, when he’d lied. I guess it was some nurse’s code, he couldn’t lie to them, so he shook his head yes. They snapped on the powdery gloves, rolling them up their arms. Then they taped tubes of oxygen up his nose. Almost instantly he could breathe again. You could see him luxuriating in it, a cat stretching in a shaft of sunlight. His skin faded into skin color. They folded the legs of the gurney down, like an ironing board, and lifted him onto it. Got the sheet up around him. Then they cranked it so that he was sitting upright. It was all so matter-of-fact that it didn’t seem real. It was like some Antonioni movie where everything is boring, but also horrible. John was being played by a puppet. I was being played by a part-time receptionist at the neighborhood theater. The ambulance guys were straight from central casting.

“So,” the burly guy said to me, “you wanna come?”

I looked at John. He shrugged, which for him was an emphatic yes.

“Let me get my shoes on,” I said.

The gurney clattered down the hall. They fitted John into the elevator with a miniscule elderly woman who had somehow managed to fit a pink Chanel suit over her hump. She had a matching purse and her sunglasses were like two black billboards advertising nothing. She stood perfectly still and ignored us, which seemed remarkably poised to me. John actually looked . . . relieved, I guess. The ambulance guys were discussing the best route back to Cabrini. I was cooped up in the tiny wedge of a corner, the elevator buttons to my back. The floors couldn’t ding down fast enough.

The lobby of our building was fairly nondescript. Except for the thirty-foot ceilings, it could have been a dentist’s waiting room: potted palm, couple of couches, magazines on a glass-topped coffee table. A man who wasn’t dressed all that differently from me was waiting for our elevator. His tiny dog, which looked like it had been animated in Japan, panted expectantly beside him. The man tried to ignore John, failed, then gave a little involuntary shake of the head to get it out of his system.

The doorman, an acne-scarred, Irish-looking guy I didn’t recognize, watched us solemnly. I felt acutely self-conscious, like we were doing something wrong. The sunlight, even under the shade of the awning, was crushing.

I had never been in an ambulance before. There was a little chair for me to sit on. It swiveled. There was John, of course. Beautiful and frightening medical gadgets, built into the walls, gleamed all around us.

They decided on the FDR, going a normal speed with no red light because it wasn’t that type of emergency, apparently. It wasn’t possible for me to sit there, even for that short ride, and say nothing; and since there didn’t seem to be anything to say, I began to crack jokes. Bad jokes, for the most part. I could not stop myself. It was like a case of the hiccups.

“Boy,” I said, “some people will do anything for attention.”

John smiled, wanly, politely. It did nothing but encourage me.

“I mean, if you wanted a uniformed escort from the building, I’m sure we could have rounded up a couple guys from the Spike. This is gonna cost a bundle.”

“Don’t start with me, Mary,” John said, a hand puppet’s version of a spirited riposte.

“This truck looks like they pieced it together from the old Lost in Space set. You know who I see you as on that show?”

He shrugged.

“Judy, the blonde. Remember her?”

He nodded.

“Doing Major West under the control panel.”

He smiled again, indulgently, like I was a ten-year-old pretending my mom’s broom was a baton.

“I identified with Dr. Smith,” I said sadly. “Scheming coward shrieking at the slightest provocation. I did a pretty mean Dr. Smith back in elementary school. I was constantly putting my hand to my back and saying, ‘Oh, William, my back is a disaster area.’ ‘Never fear, Smith is here.’ ‘Shut up you tin booby.’”

My Dr. Smith was way out of practice. I sounded like some road-company Eleanor Roosevelt. I could see the burly one, who was driving, eyeing me in the rearview mirror. But that didn’t stop me. I was this dog, frantically digging a hole. John never stopped smiling and I never stopped talking, not until we bounced over the speed bumps of Cabrini’s driveway.

They wheeled John into one of the examining rooms, lickety-split. In my brain, which was basically a vinyl recliner littered in Twinkie wrappers, I’d expected the nurse to ask us endless insurance questions until I grabbed her by her white collar and said, “Can’t you see this man is dying?” which would of course recall her to why she’d entered nursing to begin with, to save lives, not badger people about forms. Instead, I wound up standing there for a few minutes, bewildered, various people in scrubs with clipboards eddying around me, until it occurred to me to sit down in the waiting area, which was about the size of a bathtub. Plastic, school-cafeteria chairs. Magazines like Popular Mechanics that I wouldn’t have read on a dare. Rags of hospital smells stuffed up my nose. A few seats over sat a woman who looked Samoan and was wearing the kind of polyester that made me feel hot and poor just looking at it. Her face was as expressionless as a brick wall. Something awful had happened, you could tell. It made me so nervous I jumped up and back out of the sliding doors. The instant the fresh morning air hit my lungs, I realized I needed a cigarette. As soon as I lit that, I realized I needed a cup of coffee. I’d brought all my pocket things, IDs, keys, a comb that I’d raked through my hair on the way out of John’s. I’d never owned a wallet and I felt weirdly pleased that I’d managed, for once, to be so sensible.

I spent the next hour or so inadvertently overhearing conversations describing procedures I’d rather not have known existed. I tried to use the old Telesessions trick of hearing without listening, but apparently it didn’t work without a phone. I tried to ignore everything else too while I was at it. Cabrini’s emergency room, and I don’t mean this in an actionable way, looked gray and careworn, while it also managed to reek of things in large glass jars pickled in formaldehyde. I smoked on the sidewalk, picked up magazines from the table, frisbeed them back, stared at the floor. It was not busy. The Samoan-seeming woman had slipped out during one of my cigarettes. I finally went back up to the nurse’s station.

“Uh, do you know where my friend is, John _____? We brought him here, like . . . ”

“Sure. He’s right back there.” She pointed cheerfully to the room where they’d first taken him.

“Can I . . . go see him?”


Again. No scene.

I poked my head in, then pulled the rest of me in along with it. John was still sitting in his gurney, his head to one side, gazing at the gray wall in front of him. The tubes were still up his nose, but they’d gotten him out of his clothes and into one of those blue paper gowns. He smiled one of his new dreamy smiles at me. The room wasn’t much bigger than him on his gurney. There was a shelved metal cabinet beside him scattered with a box of gauze, an empty glass dish, and several pairs of surgical scissors, one splayed open and two in plastic wrappers, like lollipops.

I tried to mirror his smile back at him, minus the dreaminess.

“Has anybody been in to see you yet?”

He nodded.

“When are they gonna get you a room?”

“They’re fixing it now,” he said, his voice normal, easy, a miracle.

“Good.” I stood there, uncomfortably, that smile stretched over my face like panty hose at a bank holdup. I was flat out of jokes. I was flat out of everything. The only thing I had left was standing there, and I didn’t feel like I was doing a particularly good job of that. I knew the posture, but I couldn’t make it seem more natural.

Finally, John said, out of mercy to us both, “You should go. They gave me a shot. I’ll probably just fall asleep when I get up to the room.”

“Are you sure?”

He nodded, and it was a genuine, compassionate yes that also seemed to be tinged with gratitude. He was becoming the Meryl Streep of nodding.

“Ok. I’ll call you tomorrow to see if you need anything.”

Not even a nod this time, just the thread of a smile, then he closed his eyes.

By the time I hit the street I was maniacally tired. The noonday sun was a big fat bully. I sunk into the back of the cab and muttered my address. The cab driver was listening to a woman singing in Arabic who sounded insane with grief. I wanted to gouge out my eardrums. Back at the building, the doorman I hadn’t recognized asked, “How is he?”

“Resting comfortably,” I read from a cue card.

Someone had been in the elevator before me, wearing the men’s cologne counter at Macy’s. It was still so suffocating that I was tempted to charge the bastard with attempted murder. Something was stalking inside me. It followed me into the kitchen and told me to get the vodka from the freezer. I sat down on my bed, drank straight from the bottle. Outside my open window I could distinctly hear a woman laughing, and laughing, and laughing. I stared at my books since there was very little else to stare at in my room. Talk. That’s what I needed. To tell someone this. Get it out of me. Then I’d put the vodka back, take a Valium instead, fall into a deep sleep, wake up, shower, treat myself to a nice dinner out. Maybe I’d rent a Nintendo game on the way home. There was a new Super Mario you could waste a lifetime on.

I tried Jo Ann. No go. Machine. Ralph. He was a very sensible person. Former guidance counselor. Good in a crisis.

His boyfriend, David, picked up. David is an almost repulsively energetic person. He makes meals that require fourteen hours of preparation, reupholsters art nouveau couches he finds at the dump, knits summer homes. I could see him there in his shorts. Some dance remix was playing in the background, which meant he was at industrial-cleaning strength, onto some major chore, repaving I-95, regrouting the pyramids. Poor Ralph. He’d essentially sold himself into slavery when he’d gotten together with David.

“Hi, Wesley,” David said, fizzing with weekend cheerfulness, “how are you?”

The thing that was stalking pounced. I began to weep, gently at first, thinking that perhaps I could head it off at the pass, that I’d catch my breath and ask to speak to Ralph. That could be tricky because Saturdays were sacred cleaning days, but there was a certain tone I could use with David to let him know I meant business, that I was not going to be thrown over for Ajax and a toilet brush. But the trickle became a stream that was suddenly the ocean I was drowning in. Ugly crying. The coughing up of rags and filth and gnawed bones. Distantly, I could hear David calling, “Ralph, Ralph, pick up the phone, it’s Wesley, pick up the phone . . . ” And then there was Ralph, variations of “OK, what’s wrong, calm down . . . ” I kept trying to gulp out, “I’m fine, just give me a minute,” but I wasn’t fine, and a minute wasn’t going to solve anything. Every rotten death I’d ever known stepped up and set down at the table: Parker blowing his brains out when we were still teenagers, cancer chewing Aunt Gail to death before she was forty, my poor boyfriend Peter killed in a car crash before we even got to start college, Janet hemorrhaging from the ovarian cancer that snuck back into her gut. Mark, Karl, Kevin: AIDS, AIDS, AIDS.

AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. There was a while there, late eighties, early nineties, when it felt like I was standing on a tiny island that was being mown away by the tide. I could hear the water lap, lap, lapping. I could see it everywhere I looked, stretching infinitely in every direction. It was only a matter of time before everything was all swallowed up, and even if it weren’t, all that would be left was this one miserable scrap of sand.

Finally, I just couldn’t cry anymore, and I got the story out, shreds of it anyway. They listened, murmurings of how sorry they were, of how sad it was, condolences for my rotten luck. Of all the people I could have moved in with in New York . . . Yeah. I had somehow expected Ralph to say something wise or therapeutic. He had, many, many times in the past. But maybe this was a situation beyond wisdom or therapy. Maybe this was just the lunkheaded world, another one of its indifferent kicks to your gut. Maybe you just had to suck this one up.

I thanked them for listening—it couldn’t have been easy—and they made noises about if I needed something . . . I didn’t bother to say that I had a list about a mile long. They meant if I needed more listening.

One good thing. Now that I’d vomited all that out, I felt like I’d been dropped from a building. For once, sleep was my friend. I didn’t have to stalk it, wondering if it’d ever show up. Its embrace was simple and uncomplicated and overwhelming.  

return to top