blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
installment 7

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. Please visit our You Are Here table of contents for previous installments across multiple issues. Additional excerpts will be serialized in forthcoming issues.
   —Blackbird editors

Saturday night, about 7:00. I was sitting in the armchair of the living room with a very good bottle of red wine open in front of me. I’d decided, self-pityingly, to splurge. I’d had a rough week. If my young life was going to be cut short by scabies, then I was going to live it up. John was sunk in his usual segment of the couch. Ensure on the end table he wasn’t even pretending to drink. Prescriptions everywhere. Cigarettes he had lit, and not touched, lay crushed in an ashtray. All the lights were off, except for the documentary flashing over us, a profile of Erik Estrada. It was a classic case of more-than-I-wanted-to-know. I think we were to the lean years, right before he got a Mexican soap opera. It was hard not to feel critical of and superior to and in general glad you weren’t Erik Estrada, and I was imagining my own more dignified profile on Bravo or Ovation, the smart channels. A man with a bad haircut asking me questions in a probing British accent. Shots of me tousling the heads of my beloved dogs in my country kitchen as I sautéed something with sun-dried tomatoes in it. The likes of Susan Sontag and a subtitled Günter Grass speaking of my accomplishments with discreet but unmistakable admiration. A final pan of me thoughtfully chewing a pencil eraser at my solid mahogany desk, brow furrowed with pensées. Deep.

TV light is never flattering, but John looked particularly ghoulish, lost in a blanket except for the stump of his head. Still, they had let him out this afternoon, just as he’d promised; and now we were waiting for his sister to get in. Silently, unless you counted Erik and the mellow-toned narrator. I didn’t. Pouring another glass of wine, I scratched my calf through my sweatpants, which provoked another storm of worry. I lit a cigarette to still it. Big help.

“So, your sister’s coming, John.”

He smiled at me.

“Are you excited?” I tried, desperate to distract myself from myself.

He nodded, still smiling, indulgently.

“How long’s it been since you’ve seen her?”

“Oh, God, I don’t know. A while.”

“Are you guys close?”

He crossed his fingers. “Like this.”


“We don’t need . . . contact. It’s one of the things I’ve learned from the Aquarians. When you’re connected, you’re connected.”

“The who?”

“The Aquarians. Haven’t you ever heard of us?” He sounded concerned.

Us. Him. Some zodiac thing. He was Aquarius. I had friends who would guess your sign. Nine times out of ten they were wrong. These people never believed in God, and yet they’d scrounge up the exact hour of their birth, along with a small fortune, to get some vegan chick who wore rings with Chinese symbols on them to do their charts. I never really understood it. They would say, “She told me I’ve always had trouble with men!” and I’d think, what, you didn’t know that? Still, I knew better than to tangle with these types. One disparaging word and the next thing you knew they were calling you unevolved. I hated that because one way or another you knew they were right. It was like when people called you bourgeois back in the early seventies because you tied your shoes or drank a Coke every once in a while. It was the ultimate insult if you had aspirations to be anything other than a Kmart shopper. It was the “yo mama” of a certain set. Over time, of course, it turned out that we were all bourgeois, but you didn’t know that then, so all you could do was issue public denials and vow silently to do better. I kind of miss those days now, when a large segment of the population actually thought it was bad to be materialistic and shallow and apolitical, before the days of fashion television. These days, to be shallow, materialistic, and apolitical is simply to be human.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m a Libra.” Libra was a coveted sign in the astrological world. We were supposed to be artistic, wonderful lovers, with a keen sense of justice. In my case, this just happened to be true.

“Not Aquarius. Aquarians.” He looked at me scoldingly.

“Oh, yeah, Aquarians. I, do remember hearing something about that. It’s like a. What?”

“It’s a religion.”

“Right.” The game-show buzzer in my head was going off, faintly, but that could have been for either the musical Hair or the 5th Dimension. Up-Up and Away, along with The Cowsills, had been my first two albums. I’d played them into rice paper. Some other gelatinous thought that wouldn’t quite congeal was performing mitosis in my head. Anxiety began to nibble away at my cabernet calm. Cult. That was the word I was looking for. Brainwashing. Next thing you knew you were out at the airport wearing a curtain, peddling aphid-infested dandelions. OK. I hadn’t bolted on John when plenty of other people would have. I hadn’t had much choice. Still, I’d tried to be a good doobie. But that didn’t include being strapped to a sacrificial stone slab with a ceremonial dagger poised above my heart. “You know, I was never really very clear about what the Aquarians believe in.”

“It’s more about what we don’t believe in.”

“Oh.” That was novel. “Like what?”

“We don’t believe in death. It doesn’t exist.”


“We’ve got proof.”

On TV, Erik Estrada’s wife was talking about what a wonderful husband and father he was. How these days, he knew what was important—family. I sipped my wine. Wondering. I had to know. “What kind of proof?”

“Tapes. From the other side.”

That wasn’t computing. “Tapes?”

“Of Carol. She talks to us from the other side.”

I can’t say for certain that her name was actually Carol, but it was something equally dubious and banal. “Cassette tapes.”


“How do you record those, exactly?”

“They just do.”

It always came down to that. Faith. As a child I’d been a fundamentalist Christian, much to my mother’s discomfort. We’d only gone to church twice a year, once at Christmas, and once at Easter, after which we modeled our smart new outfits, our just-off-the-block haircuts, standing in front of the station wagon holding up Easter baskets for the Polaroid. But one Easter I got saved by the Right Reverend Farrell, a Chihuahua of a man who stoked his face prestroke red as he bombed us with his message: our imminent and endless damnation. I was eight. He was vivid. I was also a precocious physical coward who had no intention of writhing in a fire for two seconds, let alone eternity. I was his. This turned out to be a costly investment with long-term interest: once the Christians get their claws in you, you spend the rest of your life picking the fingernails from your shoulders. I basically spent the next several years with pamphlets held solemnly to my breast as I harassed shoppers at the mall up the road, asking if they had accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. They took my pamphlets. What were they going to say to a pint-size proselytizer whose eyes were brimming with passionate concern? Buzz off, kid? Not in the South they weren’t.

Later, when I discovered that homos—and I had always known, vaguely, that I was not like other little boys—were first in line for the cup of brimstone, I tried masturbating to girls, and prayed nightly, often tearfully, “to be ye made” whole. Masturbation, of course, was also a sin—that was a bit of conflict—but I figured desperate times, desperate measures. You wouldn’t burn for beating off, as far as I could tell from Farrell’s rants. After several years of that madness, I threw in my stained towel, and started doing things like dropping acid at Humble Pie concerts, which turned out to be an enormous consolation.

Once, during Bible class, I had the temerity to ask Farrell about the Indians. I knew for a fact from fourth-grade history that they hadn’t heard the Word, because they had been riding their palominos around for quite a long time, in loincloths, spearing buffaloes, before we’d gotten here with It. I wanted to know what the contingency plan was. I was not being a smart mouth—I was devout. It had simply crossed my mind. If we’d been Catholic, there would have been a purgatory and a limbo. Problem solved. But we weren’t. We were Southern Baptists, and Southern Baptists stuck to the basics. Heaven. Hell. Do not pass Go.

So. I asked a series of questions that began with the phrase, “But what about . . . ?” and Farrell stood there trying to answer until he finally bellowed, “Stand up!”

I did as I was told, keeping an eye on his hands, which he had been flexing into fists during our little exchange. As he often reminded us, he had killed a man with those very hands in a barroom brawl. If God could save the soul of a no-account, good-for-nothing, ex-con sinner like him, what made us so uppity as to think God couldn’t save the likes of us? He’d toted that story out enough Sundays that you knew it was his favorite. It was not mine. I found it scary. It also made me sad. All I could think about was not the miracle of how God saved a wretch like Farrell but rather the poor man he’d murdered. Here Farrell got to go off and be a preacher man in a wash-and-wear blue suit, whereas all his victim got was the life beat out of him until he was splayed across the pool table, ruining the green felt with his blood. If he hadn’t been saved then he was Satan’s bacon. It bothered me, but not enough to bring it up. I vaguely worked it out that he’d made it to heaven on some technicality that had something to do with being killed by a preacher.

There were quite a lot of stories like that in our church. These people had usually been excellent sinners of great stamina.

So I stood, hoping I wasn’t going to be churned out as the next Sunday morning parable illustrating Farrell’s temper and God’s sweet forgiveness of it.

“Now,” Farrell ordered. “Sit down.”

Not wanting to take any chances, I did.

“What did you just do there?” he asked.

Panicky, I tried to figure out what I had just done. It was like digging around for that hall pass you know was in your pocket just three seconds ago and coming up with lint.

“What did you do?”

I was about a dozen hot gulping breaths from tears. “I don’t know.”

“You sat up, and you sat back down.”

OK. I could have gotten that. Maybe that was my problem. Maybe I was making things way more complicated than they had to be. My mother sometimes accused me of that. Grateful, I said, “Yeah.”

“And when you sat back down, did you ask yourself if that chair was gonna hold you up?”

“No, sir.”

“THAT’S FAITH, SON,” he said, leaning in and pointing at me with his whole body.

So I knew about faith, son. It was the rock that the pick of reason couldn’t break. If John thought he had tapes from the other side, then John had tapes from the other side. How did they make them? They just did.

“Oh,” I said, not a skeptical, “oh,” more like, how very, very interesting.

Which only encouraged him. “We don’t believe in AIDS either.”

“Huh,” I said, still monitoring tone for interest level and any stray chords of stark disbelief. They didn’t believe in AIDS. That was interesting. I knew several extremely, you might even say radically, dead people who would be surprised, perhaps even pissed, to hear that AIDS had been something they could have had the luxury of not believing in. It was somehow insulting, as if all those dead people had brought it upon themselves because they hadn’t had the fortitude to pooh-pooh away the blindness and the purple lakes slapped across their skin, the shriveling down to dust. Part of me knew that people who might be dying needed to believe what they needed to believe, whatever that was, to get them through the blank terror of it. But part of me wanted to leap from my chair, wrestle him to the floor, and twist his arm behind his back until he called uncle and admitted that AIDS was a fact, not a state of mind.

“I have a picture of Jesus that bleeds healing oils,” he said. “Would you like to see it?”

OK. Where was the hidden camera? Where was Alan Funt? Boy, they had really gone through a lot of trouble for one lousy stunt. I mean getting Cabrini in on it was the limit. Come on. The only people who had pictures of Jesus that bled healing oils were tiny Italian widows in black kerchiefs who lived in remote mountain villages. Or sun-shrunken geezers in Kentucky who’d had one snakebite too many back out at the revival tent.

John was smiling at me, but it wasn’t the you’re-on-Candid-Camera variety. It was the hopeful smile of somebody who smelled a convert.

“Uh, OK.”

He jack-in-the-boxed from the couch, and I poured another glass of wine. His bedroom door squeaked open. I glanced over to see what Erik Estrada was up to. Nothing good. I lit another cigarette, hoping this would be the one that would restore my cracked equilibrium. No such luck.

John dialed up the dimmer switch and suddenly light was everywhere you looked. I don’t mean that in a good way. It wasn’t a living room that could withstand that kind of scrutiny. Frayed cushions. A chair leg patched with duct tape. Scratches on nearly every surface. John stepped around the side of my chair, the painting in front of him like some lunatic’s placard about the end being near.

It was. A Jesus-on-velvet head shot. I sipped my wine several times. Then I switched to smoking thoughtfully for a little variation. I think I’d somehow been expecting something more Byzantine, something tiled and ancient. Not this. Don’t get me wrong. It was a good Jesus-on-velvet painting, if there is such a thing. I mean, it looked like all the other ones I’d ever seen, and where I come from, I’d seen plenty. But it seemed, even after I factored in my genetic inclination for hysterical overreaction, tragic. I’m sorry. There are no possible metaphors here. There are no metaphors because it was already a metaphor for everything that was cheap and degraded and yet also embodied the deepest longing for transcendence from the muck and the sorrow and the crumminess of life. I didn’t find it the least bit funny, and I was ashamed to be reminded, with chest-thumping force, of what a condescending fuck I was.

“It’s great,” I said, taking another nervous sip. Given my background, I found it hard to lie with You-Know-Who staring me down. Friends who know my taste have often given me things like baby Jesus night-lights. Camp. I get rid of them as soon as that friend is out the door, before the divine lightning has a chance to reach down and smite me. No kidding.

“It is great,” John said, his voice awash with the passionate attachment of the true believer.

“How does it, how does it make the oil?”

“I don’t know. It just does. I collect it sometimes at night in these little vials.”

“So, you’ve actually seen it, make the oils?”

“Oh yeah.” Emphatic nodding.

I guess most people would have thought, nut job. But some fragrance had perfumed the apartment on certain nights when I’d come home from work, something too pungently thick and sweet and . . . oily. I’d assumed it was some wretched cologne Alan had doused himself with to set the boys sniffing. So I was willing to consider it for a moment. Besides, life might just be strange enough to accommodate oils trickling from a velvet painting.

I have had, consistently, or consistently enough, interludes that take on the quality of the miraculous. They’re usually pretty simple. I’ll be sitting, say, at a bar; and the moment will begin to dawn, all the foldings and unfoldings, the origami of history, the personal and the impersonal, my grandfather the farmer, the Revolutionary War, that led me to be here with all these other people who had been led here too by the myriad happenstance of their own lives, all the sedimented accumulations—the smoke and the cologne and the grease, all the amber of the past layered in fly wings and sand dollars and spent Bic pens, the man who discovered how to make red light emanate from the jukebox blasting Elvis Costello, along with Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine—someone would not have been here without it, perhaps even me—not to mention that lime grown in California, now a mangled wedge in someone’s half-finished gin and tonic, all of it, all of us, stitched together in this little knot of time, and even the fact of the dawning itself, there, inside of me, how many angels were dancing on the head of the pin of this moment, how could such radical complexity be an accident? It couldn’t. It was only that the designs within the designs within the designs sometimes looked like chaos. Healing oils from a velvet Jesus? Sure. Why not?

“So, are you using them?” I said.

He nodded again, a little too vehemently, and I knew why: they weren’t working; he knew it.

“I wish I could rub some on my career,” I said.

“You’d be surprised,” he said, dead serious, hauling the painting back to his room.

We sat silently after that, watching some Whoopi Goldberg movie from the mideighties that would have been a crime in a properly run culture. Nothing against Whoopi Goldberg. It had not been a good period for her. John coughed intermittently. It was nothing more than your average smoker’s hack, but every time he did it, my heart did a disco step. It made it hard to smoke with any real pleasure. Also, the wine was not working. Instead of the connoisseur’s calm I’d hoped for, I was listing toward melancholy.

How could that Whoopi Goldberg movie bear to be in the same room with the mystery and cruelty of John’s dying? It seemed like we should have been chanting something low and primitive to appease our own dread, that we should have been robed and hooded, in a fog of incense, possibly slitting the throats of lambs, crying wretchedly out to God as we tore at our hair. We should not be watching this movie. Bring back the velvet Jesus, I wanted to cry out. Make it bleed. Let us rub the all-too-temporary temples of our bodies with its oils. But that moment had already passed, and in my heart I knew I could not bring myself to be in thrall to a painting that looked like it had been bought in the art department at Wal-Mart.

I once knew a young man who’d said, “I’m too scared to die. I don’t know how to do it.” As it turned out, he hadn’t had to do anything. A few days later, it had simply dragged him, speechless, into its lair. But that was the problem. We, none of us, knew how to do it. It was all improvisation. I didn’t know how to die either, but I knew we should not be watching this movie. I could feel it trivializing us into another kind of nonexistence, where all our souls came in café colors and were plastered in decals.

Fortunately, the doorman buzzed. John’s sister. Maybe she could save us.

I’m going to call her Becky because I once knew a Becky, and John’s sister could have been that Becky’s stunt double. John did another of his startling antelope-leaps from the couch and ripped the door from its hinges. It was one of these flashes when I thought, this man does not have cancer complicated by HIV. Becky dropped her aquamarine, floral-printed luggage on the floor and they crushed themselves into each other, squealing. I stood up, the way I’d been raised to, and waited to shake her hand, a real smile pinned to my face. My blues were sifting away in the bright colander of their filial love, nothing like the restrained back patting my family doled out.

Becky was a big gal. Some people, like Mr. McNally, to use an unfair example, look fat. Lumbering, breathless in their baggy clothes, they end up drawing attention to the very thing they’re most self-conscious of. But other people, people like Becky, inhabit their bodies in such a way that they seem naturally large. They wear brightly patterned clothes that fit; they swoop around effortlessly. There’s something impeccable about them. You never think of them as fat.

I used to work with a girl, Marie, who was also a big gal. Marie had big tits, big hips, and big lips that she painted cannibal red. Her hair, though it had to be dyed, was some radiant blond. There was something Germanic about her, and I mean horned-hat-about-to-hurl-a-spear Germanic; but she was so funny and kind that she wasn’t the least bit frightening. She used to zoom past me at the club where we both worked—she was the busiest and most efficient person I’ve ever met—and say, “Wesley, do not think about ‘Muskrat Love,’” effectively trapping that song in my head, where it would whirl for the rest of the shift. On the one hand, you wanted to strangle her. On the other, it seemed like the cleverest trick ever. With the possible exception of Tina Turner—and folks, if you ever see her live, bring the buckets you’ll have to be carried out in after your meltdown—Marie was the sexiest person, man or woman, I’ve ever seen in the flesh, with all of the flesh’s dreamy possibilities. Straight men practically fainted in her presence, what with the blood rushing from their heads into their instant erections.

OK, Becky was no Marie; but she was stylish in a way I could never hope to be. She was an accessorizing mama, doing things with broaches and scarves and fringe that would have left me looking like a window treatment after the big quake. She had that thing large women dread being told they have: a pretty face. But she did have a pretty face, with a smile that looked like it could have powered a small city. Her hair was dyed a sunny blond. She had the conquering air of a superhero.

After she was finished with John, she charged over to me, hand extended, and said, “Wesley or Alan?”

Finally. Finally. The cavalry had arrived.


I got a job teaching at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop. My first class was Saturday, noon, which I later learned was the absolute bottom of the barrel. All the new kids had it shoved down their throats.

I actually liked teaching. I had plenty of artist friends who didn’t. Go be a greeter down at the Wal-Mart, I’d think when I heard them bitching about the hours, the students, the money. For someone like me, who’d been programmed for minimum wage, forty skull-clubbing hours a week, it seemed miraculous that you could squeak by on twenty hours just talking about writing. Which I really did find interesting, even when it was bad. Trying to figure out how to make a story work was a puzzle I enjoyed putting together. I liked the transaction of it, the osmosis of what I knew becoming what they knew.

Most people want to write because they’re sad. That really is true. Our feelings often stalk us, ruthless and determined as contract killers, and if we could somehow etch our particular sadness into glass, the light might shine through the spidery lines of it in LSD trails of prismatic beauty. We want a record. We don’t want to pass unnoticed into the silent mob of the dead. We don’t want to become our photographs—that, and nothing more. I felt I understood that, even when my students didn’t know their semicolons from their rectal colons.

Of course there were the people who just wanted to write a potboiler so they could ride the rest of life out on a magic carpet of cash. Their feelings were deep too, in a seven-deadly-sins sort of way: greed, envy, a localized desire to be the subject of a People magazine spread. They always seemed to be filled with lunatic optimism and a balls-to-the-wall determination that would have been chilling in a normal person. But they wanted to be writers, and in my experience, writers—let’s just go whole hog and say most artists—were not particularly normal people. They were this bunch of freaks standing in the middle of the busy intersection, frantically waving their arms and yelling, “STOP. EVERYONE. I HAVE SOMETHING VITALLY, VITALLY IMPORTANT TO TELL YOU.” It made some of them crazy, some of them bitter, and many of them into the kind of cutthroat careerists who would have made Eve, as in All About, look like somebody who wasn’t really giving it her best shot. By comparison, even my most ambitious students still had a certain beginner’s charm.

I had gotten this job by begging an art-colony acquaintance I’d run into at an opening. He taught there. I’d learned long ago that naked desperation, a fairly steady companion of mine, worked better than when I tried to be a suave operator who could smooth talk his way around the chutes and ladders of success. That Wesley ended up sounding like Eddie Haskell—That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, Mrs. Cleaver—and people understandably recoiled from him. I recoiled from him.

The interview was about eight hours long and was conducted by one of the two young men who owned Gotham. They were both about ten years my junior. Everyone at Gotham, it seemed, was ten years my junior. I was getting to the age when people who actually were younger looked younger still. Twenty-year-olds looked ten to me; and they all seemed to have a terrible-twos sort of energy, hurtling around with a pointless enthusiasm that was pure novocaine to a bum like me. I’d stand there in the office, numbly trying to figure out how to Xerox a Lorrie Moore story I wanted to go over, while they swarmed around me, e-mailing, faxing, cell phoning, instant messaging, saving, deleting, cut and pasting, beaming via satellite for all I knew. I could tell they thought I was weird in a gay-old-geezer sort of way. They didn’t think my vintage overcoats looked retro and spiffy, but like something from the Boone’s Farm Wino Collection. I hated to acknowledge how close to the mark that was. I was about two unsteady steps from the sheer drop of homelessness. As John went, so went my fortunes.

Gotham rented classrooms in various buildings, like AA. My first was in an elementary school in the West Village. In the lobby, Gotham workers sat at folding tables, handing out packets and MasterCarding people. An eastern European-looking man in a green janitor’s uniform sat behind a reception desk, reading a paper with words that looked more like a wallpaper design than news of the world. Beside him, on the floor, a little boy, who I assumed was his son, was playing toy trucks, crashing them into each other, rolling them up the side of his father’s chair. I was handed my own fat teaching packet, which turned out to contain lots of exclamatory advice that I knew I wouldn’t be capable of following on how to conduct the class. Exclamation points made me nervous. Punctuation-wise, I was more of an ellipsis-type person.

My classroom smelled like art paste and Fantastik. Maybe third grade? There was a fish tank, and beside the fish tank was a large piece of paper on which the students had crayoned rules concerning the fish. DO NOT TAP THE GLASS, DO NOT PICK UP THE FISH, DO NOT EAT THE FISH, and other sorts of sensible advice. The bulletin board had autumn things cut out of construction paper stapled to it: pumpkins, a haystack. The teacher had a bouquet of dried corn on the edge of her desk. I wondered if children who lived in the West Village had ever even seen a haystack, and that got me to wondering about how fall might really translate into construction paper for them; but the only things I could think of were so sordid that I was saddened by how corrupt I’d become.

I had four students—three black women and a very large white man I’m going to call Fred. Two of the black women, Tryphine and Ngong, were African. The other black woman was named Mai and had just moved back from Florida. Tryphine and Ngong were both very dark, but Tryphine was plump and wore kerchiefy, African-looking things, whereas Ngong was angular, wore wire rims, and dressed like a nice Connecticut lady who might bring us all egg-salad sandwiches some afternoon. Mai was not angular but twig-thin. She was light skinned and also wore glasses, plastic designer ones that made a statement. Glasses with exclamation points. She dressed like a frat boy: khaki pants, a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I was almost certain she was a lesbian, but she began nattering away, almost immediately, about some boyfriend, like she’d guessed that I’d tried to peg her.

Mai was, to put it mildly, a chatterbox. Watching her talk was like watching someone drive an obstacle course in one of those expensive-car commercials. She’d veer here, there, never hit the brakes. In about ten minutes we’d all learned that she rented a house in Jersey, was a recovering alcoholic, worked for a start-up dot-com, had a boyfriend about twenty years her junior, was about forty-five herself, had been a drug dealer’s girlfriend back in Florida, was sort of psychic, and baskets of other info that would have taken a lifetime to learn about a normal person. Mai was fascinating and exhausting. I wondered what kind of chemical imbalance coursed through a person who had to take every corner on two wheels? As a student, she was already a problem, since there didn’t seem to be any way to shut her up, short of surgically wiring her jaw shut. I smiled pleasantly, raised my eyebrows, and chuckled at the proper moments. Fred also feigned an interest. Ngong studied Mai like she was a rare specimen, a giant bug who had mastered sign language. Tryphine paid her no mind, just thumbed through the pages of her own manuscript, scribbling notes to herself in the margins. Finally I threw myself in front of Mai, slamming her to a halt. I half-expected to see an air bag blossom from the table in front of her.

The first class was good. We went over a disturbing-in-a-good-way story by Fred concerning a man who ends up falling from the top of an Aztec temple in Mexico, a modern-day sacrifice of sorts. Tryphine and Ngong liked it too. Naturally it reminded Mai of her vacation in Acapulco a few years back when she and her then boyfriend, the rock star, not the drug dealer, had been forced to stand naked in the ocean, at gunpoint, while thieves had bundled up their things into the beach towels with giant margaritas printed on them—this was when she still drank—that they had just bought in town. We never found out if Mai liked the story or not, but we all agreed that the Acapulco experience sounded harrowing.


That Tuesday I got home from Telesessions to find John and his sister in a sinister wonderland. Some Christmas album was playing. I don’t remember which one, but it was something heart freezing, like A Very Brady Christmas. I opened that door and reared back, like the room was a deranged motorcycle gang, headed straight for me.

I have a pronounced sense of unreality. Normal things, something as simple as a woman in a khaki skirt inspecting a frog-shaped bank in front of a grocery cart stacked with plaid flannel shirts, can whiplash through me. It can make me so nervous that I begin to get this trembly feeling, like the edges of my skin are vibrating, like my heart is a dolphin. The armpits of my shirt go sticky as honey. I feel like, OK, wait a minute, here we all are on this rock whirling and orbiting in the middle of outer space, and where did orbiting even come from, this great star of disintegrating heat that we’re just far enough away from so that instead it makes lilies and algae and the person suddenly gripped with this terror, not to mention some psycho who slits open women’s bellies so he can fuck them in the appendix, which is just for starters, what about some regular guy who traded his records in for CDs when that came along, and whose favorite show was Cheers until that was canceled, but then there was Seinfeld, OK, so he buys his aftershave and has this girlfriend who’s the hostess at T.G.I Friday’s, and then finally dies of testicular cancer when he’s thirty-nine, what about that shit, and I think, how can you just be standing there picking up that frigging frog bank in your khaki skirt, what is wrong with us, I mean I’m just standing here behind you, a box of unfrozen Freezie Pops under my arm because they were on sale for, OK, it was an incredible price, a buck ninety-nine for a box of one hundred, but what the fuck?

Have you ever wanted to scream like that?

Probably not. Still, I think just about anybody would have been shaken by the sight of his apartment, in October, draped, blanketed, drenched in lights, an orgy of them, twinkling lavender and yellow and green, garlands of plastic mistletoe slung across walls, looped through the backs of the dining-room chairs, crawling across the back of the couch, angels and Santa Clauses and mangers and characters from Peanuts, battalions of them, either blinking or glowing from within, or splattered with gemstones of light from without. A little fake tree on the coffee table, about the size of a toddler. It was pornographic. If the Grinch had shown up, I would have pinned the Legion of Honor to his furry breast.

John sat, smiling, gums red as wassail, in a green elf’s hat trimmed in fur. It bent in the way those hats do, and the little matching ball dangled by his chin. Very traditional. He was wearing a spanking-new, extralong Cathy-cartoon T-shirt for a nightgown, which he’d tucked his legs inside. You could see his gaunt feet. Those were pure Halloween.

Becky was smiling hysterically. She was in full Becky drag, a shawl pinned around her by a poinsettia broach the size of my fist. She’d turned up the volume of her hair and makeup to holiday decibels. She didn’t look bad, just harrowingly perfect, like she’d popped in from the Sears catalog, and might best be viewed from about fifty paces.

All around them was the carnage of opened presents.

“Merry Christmas,” Becky said, jolly as a shopping-mall Santa.

“Uh, hi.” Sorry. Couldn’t do it. Christmas was that time of year when the world conspiracy to bring me to grief operated at peak efficiency. I must have looked like I’d stumbled onto the site of a mass grave.

“We decided to celebrate a little early this year,” she said, a little more tentatively.


They both continued smiling at me. I tried to smile back, but the muscles in my face were refusing to cooperate.

“Look what John got me.” She held up the crystal figurine of an angel you could have bludgeoned the pope with.

“Wow. That’s. Very nice.” Completely unconvincing, which made me feel rotten, because who was I to make people feel bad about their Christmas in October? My mother always used to say that I thought I was better than everybody, and I guess she was really onto something there. I only wished that it made me happier.

“And I got this,” John said, striking a model’s pose in his Cathy nightshirt. “I picked it out.” Then he coughed, explosively. It whacked him forward and bent him over. Becky patted his back, looking over at me and shaking her head, not smiling for the first time since I’d met her. I shrugged, shook my own head. What was the correct gesture for a moment like this? Who even knew there were going to be moments like this? When he was finally through, his eyes were teary from the strain of it.

“Better, sweetie?” she said.

He nodded, tried to squirm back into a comfortable position. The life had gone out of both of them.

“Well,” I said, “guess I should hit the old sack”—something I never said, but somehow hoping a folksy tone would rescue us all from this moment.

“You know what?” Becky said, slapping her thighs, “I haven’t seen your room yet.”

“Oh. OK. It’s really not much to look at.”

“Oh, I bet it’s just wonderful.”

“Yeah, well. It’s home.” Except, of course, it wasn’t.

She followed me back.

I lit the place up, threw my backpack on the bed, had a look around myself. Dear God. Who was this person? What did he have other than a few books, a boom box on the radiator, and a doddering computer? Becky, a Martha Stewart centerfold who’d pulled the staple from her belly and sprung to life, was probably thinking, poor kid. But she said, loudly, “This is great, great. So many books. Have you read all these?”

The truth was, I hadn’t, maybe even only a quarter of them. I bought books all the time, thinking one day I’d get around to them, and I usually did in my stumbling fashion. I’d recently read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a little paperback I’d picked up for a quarter from a thrift store, like, six years ago. But I was suddenly ashamed to be a person who had very little but books, and didn’t even read those, so I said, “Yes.” Maybe she’d think I was poor and noble and destined for greatness after my death.

“I’m a big reader,” she said, but I knew she wasn’t. People who were big readers never said that.

She took me by the wrist—her skin was soft as a fresh doughnut— and whispered, “I think John thinks he won’t be here for Christmas.” Tears were already helplessly forming in her eyes.

“And what do you think?” I said, low.

She shrugged, but it was the kind of shrug you use when you can’t bring yourself to say yes, you thought so too. That’s when it hit me: he was going to die, wasn’t he? It was an idea I’d been circling almost from the first day I’d moved in, but that’s all I’d done—circle it. I’d been throwing him these little life preservers in my mind: when he went to the hospital that first time; when Alan finally confronted him; now that Becky was here. But no. All the life preservers were the cheap, kiddie kind that went flat after a few hours in the pool. He was going to die, really and truly and deeply; and I was going to be homeless; and the thousands of dollars I’d thrown at this place were going to be lowered into the ground with him. Comparatively I was the lucky one here, but only by comparison.

“Why won’t he do the chemotherapy?”

She shook her head, she didn’t know, beyond speech. The tears were coming at a clip now, gliding effortlessly over her flawlessly prepared face. Her mascara did not run; it must have been top-dollar stuff. Her head fell slowly, tiiimberrr, to my shoulder, and then shook there. I rubbed her back through her slick shawl. She wore nice perfume, something vanilla with floral accents, discreet but solidly there, like the middle-class conviction that everyone else was godless. Her hair, frozen with mousse, sanded at my chin. It was an awful moment, because you knew that this was a woman who had mown down the crises of her life, a bulldozer of optimism; but she wouldn’t be able to micromanage or delegate this away. My heart broke for her, but I was also thinking, I’m fucked, no lube, no condom, just flat-out fucked. Here a man was dying and his sister was sobbing on my shoulder and all I could think about were my own sad prospects. I’d joined the Gambino family of my New York friends. I was a made man.  

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