blackbirdonline journalFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
installment 9

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 have serially presented 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. The excerpt offered here completes the book.
   —Blackbird editors

The next afternoon, a Saturday, I went to look at another apartment on the Upper West Side in the midnineties. This was a relatively good deal, six-fifty a month, but it didn’t include anything. The neighborhood was a mixture of SROs and older people wheeling groceries around in wobbly carts. The man’s name was Guy—rhymes with “spree”—DeVille. Cruella’s brother. Guy was probably in his sixties, though he could have been in his fifties or his seventies. He was squat, but ominously well preserved.

He opened the door with a subdued, undertaker’s smile. “Wesley?”

“Guy?” He’d already corrected my pronunciation on the phone.

I followed him down a cavernous hall so dark you couldn’t see the bats hanging from the ceiling. Huge, framed posters seemed to cover the wall to my left, but that’s only a guess. We turned into a drawing room, that’s the only thing you could possibly call it. The ceiling was tented in pleated, green satin. A chandelier the size of Versailles hung from it. The furniture was baroque, and a small nation of china figurines bowing at violins and curtsying and doing minuets capered across the various marble tabletops and mantels-for-no-good-reason. Gilt everywhere. A pop-eyed pug was drooling on a settee flocked in green velvet.

Guy himself was dressed as an ordinary man in a short-sleeved shirt, Ban-Lon pants, and loafers. He sat down beside the pug, put her in his lap, and began stroking her, a gesture I was almost certain he’d copied from Morticia Addams with one of her pet spiders. “This is Gigi,” he said.

“Hello there,” I said, bending toward Gigi. She turned her head from me, ostentatiously. I hadn’t known that dogs felt human emotions, like disdain.

“Have a seat.”

I did, on a Louis XIV chair in the same flocked velvet, so spindly it looked like it would splinter under me. “This is quite a place you got here.”

He shrugged. It was nothing. “So, tell me about yourself, Wesley.”

He’d put the quarter in. He’d pulled the lever. But this time, in addition to the usual dim palette of responsibility I painted from, I added a few bright colors that made me sound perhaps a tad too civilized for this mortal coil, not unlike Guy himself. He nodded approvingly. Yes, our mutual sophistication was a burden.

“Well,” he said, “that all sounds splendid. This Gay Roommating Service thing.” Mock shudder. “You wouldn’t believe some of the types that have paraded through here.”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe some of the places I’ve looked at.”

“No doubt. Would you like to see the rest of the apartment?”

He kept Gigi in his arms. Decent kitchen. A bathroom lit by candles spinning Norma Desmond shadows across the royal-blue walls. My bedroom was neither here nor there, but it was sizable enough. A window with a fire escape, where I could imagine sitting in spring, with a gin and tonic, after Telesessions. Except for a certain mausoleum musk, and even that had its appeal, it looked like a good gig. We retired back to the drawing room.

“So, Wesley, do you think you could live . . . here?” He waved a hand at his humble splendor.

“I think I could, Guy.”

“I suppose we should both think about it for a day or so. My dear friend, Alicia Alonso, used to say it was never a good idea to rush into anything. Not that she ever heeded her own advice.”

“Alicia Alonso, the dancer?”

“Is there another?”

“Wow.” I’m almost embarrassed to admit how impressed I really was.

“You don’t get to be my age without meeting a few people.” He tickled Gigi’s nose. She snorted. Keys clattered in a door and then footsteps creaked down the haunted hall. “Oh dear,” Guy said.

Ax murderer? No, just a man in a hip-hop sweat suit with pockmarked, peanut-butter-colored skin and white, spiky hair. He sort of fell against the doorframe. It was hard to tell his age too. Anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five. Whatever it was, there’d been heavy mileage over mountainous terrain. His eyes were bloodshot and the vodka on his breath insecticided the room.

“Mario,” Guy said. Duchess-at-tea posture. “Aren’t you supposed to be at school?”

“We got out early,” he slurred, and made his way to the cocktail cart with the slow, steady precision of a drunk keeping his balance. Guy closed his eyes in disgust. Gigi’s loose skin oozed up between his fingers. You could tell she wanted to hop down and start licking Mario’s sweat suit as he slopped gin into a crystal goblet, and had a gulp.

“Mario stays with me sometimes,” Guy said. Rictus of a smile.

“Yeah, hey, don’t worry,” Mario said. “It’s not like I live here or anything like that. You know. Just a flop sometimes.”

“It’s a bit more than a flop, Mario.” Guy raised his eyebrows at me. I smiled understandingly.

“I don’t know about this air-conditioning-repair school,” Mario said. “It’s like, you know, it’s gonna interfere with my music. My music, man.”

“Your music?” Guy said. His tone could have poisoned a tristate area.

“Yeah, my music. My. Music. My dad’s the greatest fucking guitarist in Panama.”

“Mario, we’ve been all through the career of your illustrious father—in Panama—a number of times.”

“Yeah, well, he’s played all over the world. Not just Panama.”

Guy rolled his eyes so far back in his head I thought he’d bruise his corneas. “My manners. Wesley, this is Mario. Mario, Wesley.”

Mario, forgetting to concentrate on walking, staggered a bit on the way over to shake my hand. I stood up. He pumped my arm like oil might sprout from my mouth. “Hey, man. Nice to meet you. So you here looking at the room?”


“Great place, huh?”


“Guy’s really into antiques. This stuff’s the real deal, not the cheap shit.”

I could feel Guy wincing over Mario’s shoulder. “It certainly looks it,” I said.

“Wanna drink?”

“No thanks.”

“It’s a little early for me too, but hey. Weekend.”

Guy stepped between us, Gigi cradled in his arms. She leaned over to lick Mario’s drink. Snorted. “See,” Mario said, “even Gigi likes a little drink. Nothing wrong with that.”

“I’m sure Wesley’s a very busy young man,” Guy said. “I’m sure he doesn’t really have time for all . . . this.”

“I probably should be going,” I said.

“OK,” Mario said, reaching around Guy to clap me on the shoulder. “Great to meet you, man. Maybe we’ll be seeing you around.”

“I hope so.”

Guy let Gigi down. She waddled over to the door, looked up at us expectantly. “She thinks it’s time for her W-A-L-K,” Guy said, smiling. She was a naughty girl. Demanding, but loveable.

Gigi tapped along beside us down the hall, me pressing like a mime against the dark to make sure I didn’t smack into a wall. Guy said, low, “I hope Mario won’t influence your decision.”

“No,” I said, same decibels, “he seemed. Charming.”

Guy made a sound in his throat. “You haven’t known very many charming people, have you, Wesley?”

“When you get to be my age, you’ve met a few.”

At the door, he said, “Well, I hope this will work out for both of us.”

“Me too.”

I was in, and I felt OK about it, not great. But I supposed that Guy and his ilk were my fate, the ones who had sort of wandered out of time. My life had always been populated by hopeless eccentrics, derelicts and losers, like some Leonard Cohen song. As a little boy, the suburbs had seemed like a sinister Disneyland. The air fresheners and the spray cheeses had all seemed pretend to me, probably because I couldn’t get the simplest little-boy thing right, not Little League, not Hot Wheels, not fistfights. What was happening inside me had nothing to do with what was happening outside me, which was what appeared to be happening to everybody else. What had made me sad, as a child, was that I knew that people died in this pretend world, which made it not pretend at all. And that’s why I’d gotten religion—I’d wanted it all to solidify into someplace where you died and then it meant something. That never happened.

But several years later, as I pushed through the pages of a magazine, I ran across a big spread about pop art. There was a collage, and though I didn’t quite understand what that was, I couldn’t stop watching it: a muscle-man dad sporting a giant Tootsie Pop that even I could see was meant to be his dick; a glamour-puss of a mom in black underwear and sunglasses; the house a jumble of products, and that was the thing, I could see they were meant to be the things I saw advertised on TV. The picture was called Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Modern, so Appealing . . . ? And I laughed this disbelieving laughter I had never laughed before. It was a storm breaking through and flushing away one of those horrible, humid Virginia days, flooding everything with cool breathable air. So, there were other people out there like me. All I had to do now was find those people when I grew up. At any cost.


Becky left a nice note. Late Sunday night the parents arrived. I didn’t see much of them. They were basically camped at the hospital.

On Wednesday night Telesessions ended early because one of the conferences had crashed and burned. That happened sometimes. You called the docs and nobody was home. I got in at about 9:00, and John’s parents, instead of snoring under their home-brought blankets on the foldout, were huddled over slices of pizza at the dining-room table. It was the first time I’d gotten a good look at them. Mom had a little shrub of tight, gray curls, those big, eighties-style glasses. She wore sweaters and her skin had an Oil of Olay sheen. Dad had a comb-over and dressed like a golfer. His ears were enormous, stuck straight out like shutters, and the light showed pink through them, highlighting the discreet fur collar around their edges.

“Hey there, Wes,” Dad said. “Care to join us here for a little slice of pizza?”

“Thanks. No. It takes me a little while to work up to food.”

“You need to eat,” Mom said, though she’d had about one bite of her own pizza and was now smoking. I could tell she was one of those women who basically lived off coffee and spite.

“How’s about a little drink?” He waggled ginger ale and something at me. It looked like a urine test, with possibly bad results, but I figured I’d choked down worse.

“Sure, that would be nice.”

He pushed back his chair to go get it, but Mom said, “I’ll do it,” wearily crushing her cigarette out. “I don’t drink anymore,” she said to me.

“Yeah,” I said, not thinking. “Becky said something about that.”

She gave her husband a look, like how many times have I told you about that girl, and said, “I’m sure.”

He didn’t look up from his pizza.

From the kitchen, the sounds of her making the drink, loud. The smell of the pizza was comforting, so normal somehow, like next we’d be playing Parcheesi while the World Series played in the background. I shrugged off my backpack, wondered where I should sit. It seemed impolite to sit at the table while they were eating. The living room felt too far away.

Mom handed me my drink, sternly. I ended up pulling out a chair and joined them at the table. Dad chewed. Mom lit another cigarette. Ginger ale and bourbon. That’s what the drink was. It was way too sweet, like something a drunken brunette would cadge from a horny businessman. I lit a cigarette to take the edge off and Mom pushed the ashtray toward me.

“So John tells us you’re a writer,” Dad said.

Oh God, not that. When people said that, they meant something else. They meant that you effortlessly pirouetted to your desk, and then you transcribed all the important events of your life, you made it deep and moving and then Dino DeLaurentis bought the movie rights after discussing it with his wife, Sophia Loren, who might play you. What it meant to me was that I dragged myself to my desk, chewed my fingers to the bloody stumps of my knuckles, tried this, despaired, tried another phrase or word or maybe I needed to switch this to the third person, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It felt, except for certain occasions of mysterious inspiration, like backbreaking work, and that made me feel guilty because I came from a family where I knew what backbreaking work really felt like, and I wasn’t working in a coal mine, so what the fuck was I complaining about?

So there was a certain admiration to Dad’s simple statement that felt false, and I winced, smiling, but I winced. I wanted to try to explain what it really meant, for me, but I was, unfortunately, way too inarticulate on the best days, and now I was tired from Telesessions, and weirded out because they were his parents, and their son was dying, and I didn’t even know him, and yet here I was. But that conversation seemed so much more complicated that I didn’t even know where to begin. Besides, he was just making polite conversation, and I was sane enough, or at least mannerly enough, to realize that.

“Yeah. Sort of. I don’t know.”

“What’s your book about?”

“Uh. A family.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“Hm, I hope so. It didn’t do very well.”

“So how’d you get to be a writer?” Mom asked.

“I’m not really sure.” I thought about that. “It seems like I just kept doing it until somebody finally published me. So what do you guys do?”

“Well, John Sr. here’s retired from the military.”

“My dad was in the Air Force.”

“How long?” John Sr. asked.

“Thirty-some years,” I said.

“The service is a good life.”

“He seemed to like it.”

“So you’re an Army brat.”

“Little bit. My parents got divorced when I was pretty young.”

Silence. Mom rubbed the small of her back and winced. Dad wiped around his mouth with a paper towel and patted his stomach, which was flat. Military man. The liquid candy of my drink burned. I sat there smiling at nothing in particular because there was nothing in particular to smile about, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my face. Mom didn’t worry about it. She just scowled, like everything was bound to be a disappointment in the long run, so why should we kid ourselves? Maybe she was right.

“Uh, Wes,” John Sr. said, stretching. Mom cleared their plates and picked up the pizza box. “You need to get straight with Becky about the rent.”

“You know, actually, John has my deposit.”

He held up his hand. “I don’t know nothing about that. That’s between you and John. All’s I know is that Becky’s took care of November and you boys need to get right with her.”

“Why don’t you just keep my part of it when you get the deposit back?”

He cracked his knuckles. From the kitchen, the silent sounds of eavesdropping. “I don’t know that there’s gonna be any deposit.”

“Why not?”

“Just things. With John. To tell you the truth we’re damn lucky the landlord’s letting us have November. He coulda throwed the lot of us out on our ass. You boys just need to get right with Becky and that’s all there is to it.”

The way I saw it, I was being cheated out of about two thousand dollars. The way they’d see it, I would have cheated them out of about seven hundred when the dust from John’s grave finally cleared. My deposit would have paid November’s rent twice. As it was I was going to have to beg, borrow, and blow my way into Guy’s.

Sorry. No could do. But I slapped on my poker face and said, “When’s Becky coming back?”

“Early next week.”

“I’ll get right with her then.” Shameless. I really didn’t want to screw Becky that way, especially since I knew she got fucked plenty in this family; but I couldn’t face duking out my last few weeks here over who owed what to whom.

“Okeydokey,” he said, slapping the table. From the kitchen, the sudden sounds of dishes being washed. “Mother, you just about ready to make the bed?”

Law and Order’s coming on.”

“We got us another big day tomorrow.”

“That’s my favorite show,” she said.

He rubbed his eyes, deeply, and shook his head. “Well, fix me another drink then. You want one, Wes?”

“No thanks. I might step out for a while.”

From the kitchen—“You best be careful going out there all hours. I wish John hadda been more careful. I don’t know why, you people, have to go and live in New York and everything else. John coulda had a good life. You just don’t know what this is like on your poor mothers. You don’t.”


On Thursday Alan told me that his boyfriend had found him a place out in Queens. He also had no intention of handing a red cent over to Becky, partially because of the deposit, but also because he was only going to be there a couple more weeks. He was going to string her along too, he said without a flinch of conscience. What had seemed so reasonable when I’d thought it through sounded petty and surly and small in his mouth. I could see now how scrabbling through life could turn you into an Alan. You weren’t really trying to hurt anyone. You were just taking care of number one because there wasn’t another living soul there to do it for you. I felt like I’d slunk past some invisible border where I might find myself knocking down little old ladies for their purses, telling myself I needed the cash more than they did because they were going to die soon anyway. I’d always thought of myself as a fairly decent person; but now I had to shake hands with the fact that under the right circumstances I could have turned out to be anybody.


It was officially November, officially cold. Central Park had gone on its winter diet, but still managed to have an odd, gray, strangulated beauty. The neighborhood grocery store was filled with butternut squash and crepe-paper turkeys that opened like books. The squash was cheap and I bought a lot of it, because with butter it was dinner; with honey, dessert. I was trying not to spend a dime, which was laughable. The price of cigarettes seemed to go up hourly.

John’s parents left, and I told them I’d look in on John, which I did. The usual horror story of the end was near. I didn’t know why we had to die, so savagely, and in such fear. I really didn’t. The machines, tucked into him, did their mindless jobs with infuriating assurance. The sun was out there, burning and burning and burning, bathing the room in a milk of light; outside, making chlorophyll and evaporation and carrots; outside, making everything. In fact, the nurse down the hall was eating carrots she’d brought in a Ziploc bag. She’d been flipping the pages of her clipboard and the edges of her mouth were stained orange. That was her life, trickling away. She’d never remember that carotened moment; I’d never forget it. We just went along, one thing after the other, wiping out an ashtray with a paper towel, having our hearts wrung like dishcloths.

John farted, so much for death with dignity; but then he opened his eyes, smiled at me, and reached for my hand. His skin was papery and warm. The bones of his fingers were as sharp as broken Bic pens.

“Buddy?” he said.

“No. Wesley.”

“Oh.” His eyes drifted back shut. “Buddy must have just left.”

“Must have.”

“Have you seen my jeans?” he asked lazily.

“I don’t think so.”

“The ones with the rip in the knee and no back pocket?”

“Oh yeah,” I lied. “I think I saw them back home.”

His head lolled to the side. “They make my ass look nice.”

“I’ll see if I can’t find them the next time I come.”

“I hope Carmine didn’t pee on them.”

Carmine? “Hmmm . . . I’m sure Carmine wouldn’t do a thing like that.”

“I don’t know. She’s a very bad cat. I told and told and told Buddy about her. But he loves her.”

“What are you gonna do with a guy like that?”

“I don’t know why we come here anyway. It’s so hot and smoky.”

“But oo-la-la, the men.”

“No fats, no fems.”

And with that, his grip went limp.

A couple of days later, he died.


Jo Ann came to see me my last couple of days in the apartment. I was grateful because it was all packed up and echoey. All these things were waiting, unbearably, to be dumped off at the Salvation Army, and then to be scattered into lives where their exact meanings would be blurred. John’s dreamcatcher on a guest-bathroom wall, a poor place to catch dreams. During the good hours, I imagined that his Johnness would still cling to his crystal wizards somehow, like a scent. But mostly it just felt like some final abandonment; except a brother, who showed up at the very end, did take the giant TV. Those crazy people who preserved the rooms of their dead, the sachet just so on the vanity, the dried willows on the sill, all the Mrs. Havishams of this world, how well I came to understand them in those final days. Maybe the Egyptians had been right: you should take it with you.

John’s parents had asked me if I’d wanted anything, and in truth, I didn’t; but I said that I really liked that one drawing, one of a futuristic city, because I wanted them to think that even though they didn’t understand it, or him, some of us had thought he was a neat guy with cool stuff. I was thinking of myself, of course. My mother or sister or brother shaking their heads sorrowfully over the baffling—to them—choices of my own life, and packing them up, not even bothering with newspaper so my Barbie Christmas ornaments wouldn’t lose an arm or a sliver of ball gown or a chip of their ponytailed hair. I didn’t want my Barbies on some lady’s tree—a lady who’d picked them up at the Salvation Army and couldn’t see that they were both pretty and funny.

So I took the drawing, even though it was flat and proportionless, even though the future didn’t look like much of one. John said a friend of his who’d gone to art school had given it to him. I lifted it from the wall and I said, too heartily, “I always liked this.” Stretching out my arms, I eyeballed it, nodding, like, yeah, this is really something; and his mother said, tentatively, but trying, perhaps, for one flickering moment, to understand her son’s life, “Yes, I can see how a person might like that.” Then she shook the thought from her head the way a dog tries to shake off water and said, “Of course it wouldn’t go with anything in my house.”

Of course.

So it sat askew on top of my own boxed-up belongings, and Jo Ann had said she thought she could collage some pictures into it, things John would like—a space helmet, candles, maybe a tiny velvet Jesus (no Jesus, I said quickly)—that might also make it nice for me to look at. I liked that idea, of our lives being pasted together, John’s and mine, the layers of what he had cherished overlapping with the layers of what I still did. It seemed like a fitting inheritance for a world where friends were family, and family were strangers, and you might find yourself helping someone else to die because you’d been yoked to them by accidents of commerce and the mysterious trick of your own sexual nature and some fumbling attempt at compassion.

Jo Ann and I went to a neighborhood diner for lunch because it was cheap, in theory. But between the seven-dollar tuna melts and the three-dollar Cokes and the jewel-encrusted fries, we may as well have gone to Tres Chez Nosegay for Château Margaux and fruits de mer. Also, it wasn’t really a pretty place. It looked like it had been redone in the eighties, based on the evil pink floral prints of Laura Ashley. I couldn’t stop thinking: shoulder pads. I’ll say this for it, it sure did gleam. This was the Upper East Side, so there were a lot of older ladies having the $1.95 cup of vegetable soup with crackers and bread, their far-from-new shopping bags filled with God knows what tucked by their hips.

“I don’t know how you stand to live here,” Jo Ann said. We couldn’t smoke, but you could tell that her hands, though they were perfectly still, were restless to do just that.

“I like it when you go into the subway and there’s this unbelievable Chinese violinist playing Mozart for quarters.”

“OK, in the first place it’s sad that he’s only playing for quarters. And in the second, how do you even know it’s Mozart? You didn’t even know the ‘Kill-the-Wabbit’ song was a real classical song.”

“OK. So maybe it’s Chopin.”

“Look, you can’t even get a decent Coke in this town. Have you tasted yours?”

“OK, what about this? I like looking at the Vermeers at the Met. I’ve been, like, six times to see them. I could look at them every day for the rest of my life.”

“I know. It’s just this whole tuna-melt thing. What’s it going to come with, a side of Elizabeth Taylor’s diamond necklaces?”

“I was hoping it came with a blow job until I got a load of the waiter.”

“I don’t think we should be talking about blow jobs in the middle of all this pink vinyl. I feel like I’m inside Chatty Cathy and she’s listening.”

The waiter, a Greek guy with a mop of black curls, a belly he was working on, and one technologically advanced pair of Nikes, brought us platters of tuna melt the size of satellite dishes. Two great pyramids of potato chips. Two dill pickles like martian canoes. The fries could have fed the block.

“Hot,” he said.

“I’m full just looking at this,” Jo Ann said.

“I’m having full-blown nausea.”

Still, we nibbled at the slabs of tuna melt, picked at the fries. A gooey version of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” was caramelizing the air. Suddenly this image of John sitting in here, the billboard of the menu unfurled before him, considering the atomic colors of the BLT photograph, hit me like a seizure. I thought I was going to cry. There was no reason to hide anything from Jo Ann, but I didn’t want to cry over the punk-rock green of the dill pickles.

“Hey,” I said, to whack it out of me, “here’s some good news.”


“This girl I’m teaching, Ngong, she’s really talented.”

“What a musical name.”

“And I think she’s actually learning something from me. She turned in a revision this week and it was like, she got it.”

“That’s practically a miracle.”

The lady beside us dumped her plastic basket of cellophaned crackers into her shopping bag, and over by the cash registers the waiters were muttering in Greek. I could hardly stand the thought of them throwing out our potato chips—there was enough for a $1.99 bag, and I wanted a cigarette. But I was OK. You thought you were going because your own life had you by the throat, was throttling the last breath out of you; and you wanted to plug in, recharge, find your way back to the only thing you’d ever been good at. For me, that happened to be writing. Then you got there and it seemed like you were supposed to save somebody else’s life: how noble, how bold. But it turned out you couldn’t save anyone’s life, not even your own in the long run. Still. You could point Ngong in the direction of her voice, and you could lug Mr. McNally from the toilet when you had to. Friends like Jo Ann were there to hoist you back up and dust you back off and get some fluids into you. Help was possible and necessary and true.

“You know,” I said, “I’ve always wanted to end a story just with ‘I love you.’”

“That would be difficult.”

“That’s why I’d like to try it.”

“I don’t know, that has huge ick potential.”

“OK, what if it wasn’t the very end? What if it was just like, close to the end?”

“You know, all I can see here is Ali MacGraw on her deathbed.”

“I love you, Preppie,” I said wanly, clutching my fork to my breast and dewing coleslaw juice on the collar of my sweater.

Jo Ann rolled her eyes. “Here’s an ending for you. Two people are sitting in a diner and one of them shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I don’t know.’”

Shrugging my shoulders, I said, “I don’t know.”  

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