Assault at the Midtowne Spa, Los Angeles; Or, How Sex History Can End With a Bang

Things had been going downhill for quite a while, and I say this not just because of my age (I was born in 1960), but also because of a historical trend: back when I got started being active, way back in 1980 just before AIDS when Greenwich Village was still at its peak, there used to be great bars and the Great American Baths; no one had heard about condoms; people like me would think nothing of finding ten partners a night. Now we are in 2019 (happy new year) and the trend that was all set to last forever in a perpetual delirium-bath of orgies, fizzled out, and it wasn’t just AIDS that did it; what finally killed off the old style was the Internet and especially the Smartphone. Now everyone is on an app called Grindr sending nude pictures to fifty potential partners a night in the hope of reeling in one of them. Some people under thirty spend most of their lives on Grindr.

And then one day I saw that the great Hollywood Spa had just shut down. It wasn’t a surprise. Business had been lousy and it was like a ghost-town. But that was a moment: when I walked up to the front door of the Hollywood Spa and saw a note: Closed For Business Please Try Our Other Facility in North Hollywood… I knew that was the end of an era. You’d think people would get the message and make the long trek from Hollywood to North Hollywood, but it didn’t happen. The crowd never moved anywhere except to oblivion. Then, three years later I noticed one of the world’s last remaining sex clubs, the Zone, had let all their valets go—it wasn’t worth it to keep them around because business was so slow. It’s just a matter of time now…

And the online thing, to which I was addicted for so long, that died too. How? After I got a dog who was not fooled by “Dog TV” (to entertain him while I was away) I realized that I myself was not fooled by screenfuls of youths from New Zealand who wouldn’t show their faces and just typed me messages. Yes, there was a camera, but after a while even the camera got old. Even the chat rooms started losing business and we (I) started living life as a sort of Incel.

The last remaining place  (until last Saturday night) was the Midtowne Spa, located literally in the middle of Skid Row, outside downtown L.A. And not the Midtowne Spa any night of the week, but only once a month when they turned the lights out—literally, and the males partied in the dark. I could almost make believe it was 1980 again. Until I was assaulted.

It happened last Saturday. I got there late at night hoping there wouldn’t be a long line to get in, because who wants to wait for 30 minutes on Skid Row? I was right. There was no line, and I found parking safely in the structure next door. But: inside the bathhouse, the crowd had thinned out drastically compared to the other times I’d been there on lights-out night. After a shower I walked through the dark just in my towel, just like 1980. I walked into the darkest room. I approached two men doing the deed of darkness in the dark and hoped to join in (by this time my eyes had adapted a bit so I could make out something). One of the two seemed interested and motioned for me to join. The other one pushed me away. When I tried a second time, he pushed me away more forcefully, and in front of everyone in the almost dark, I fell down a small set of stairs within the room. A bit shaken and without any clothes I just sat there, hoping I hadn’t made too much a fool of myself. But I was naked, so I reached for my towel, which I’d left up the three steps where the couple was, and as I reached, one of them held on to the towel and wouldn’t let go. We had a tug of war for maybe five seconds, and then I felt it: unlike anything since  the seventh grade. It was like a baseball bat hit me in the face, it was that hard, like bone-crushing strength. I didn’t know what hit me. I just sat there shaken. I was so shaken I said “Sorry” (for trying to reclaim my towel?). I sat there dazed and the two abruptly left. I never saw their faces. And: my towel lay there, so someone had realized “his mistake” after all.

Later, I looked in a mirror. Nothing. No blood, no bruising–on the outside.  I could feel it though, and I still feel it, like when I kiss my dog on the nose I still feel where the fist or bat or foot slammed into my face.

For the first time in almost forty years I have nowhere to go. Except maybe Barcelona…

Or: an angel spoke? God did for me what I couldn’t do for myself? If  I weren’t in the midst of reading all these Enlightenment philosophers, I might almost believe that.

 

 

 

A Barely Readable Account of … What Exactly?

The following was written in the summer of 2000. A love addict’s memoir. 

 

 Weeks have passed, months, and still I can’t forget–or perhaps I don’t want to.  I live in a kind of frozen time, a kind of non-time, outside real time; the seasons have changed–it is now summer–and yet I stay in the spring, dwelling on the hope of spring.  Soon I will go away on a long trip, but will that do me any good?  Will the sight of a beautiful village in the Alps or the feel of a busy London thoroughfare or the comforting smell of fish along the Barceloneta pull me out of the past and restore me?  I have tried everything, but I am not getting over him (but have I tried everything? Do I want to get over him?)  He follows me wherever I go.  Sometimes I believe the tragedy is not that he left but that he is still here.  I am writing this for no one but myself.  I am writing to feel better.   Perhaps he was always more a story more than a reality.

The most twenty-first century thing I ever did was to post a personals  ad in the male-seeking-male sector of an Internet dating service.  It was the end of last year. I called myself “Sensitive Dreamer” and had a picture especially taken.  I listed my interests and hobbies and wrote honestly about who I was.  I didn’t write much.  What I said, I think, was something like this: “I am a witty, charismatic, bookish, bohemian, fairly intellectual kind of man.  I like poetry and classical music and the gym and the outdoors, and I would like to meet a white or Latino or Asian man, late twenties to late thirties,  who preferably  gets turned on by the same things.”  Something like that.  The picture was flattering, the profile honest, and I sent them to make their way into cyberspace.  I got  (to my astonishment) many responses every day, more than I knew what to do with.

There were so many dates during the next several months, I met between twelve and fifteen different people, and liked very few of them.  There was Roberto, the competitive volleyball player, who met me in front of the Cinema Dome.   We had Thai food and held hands in a cafe, and I never saw him again.  There was Derek, an airplane mechanic who lived all the way in Ventura.  “I’d move mountains and walk on water to meet you,” he wrote.  We arranged to meet up in the Borders Books on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.  At first he ignored me, then the first thing he said to me was he didn’t like my earring and would I please take it off.  Then there was Joe from Rosemead, who sent me his “hot underwear pictures.”  We met in front of Mickey’s on Santa Monica Boulevard, and as we walked through Boys’ Town he commented on how many men were cruising him. I think I fell in love with him.  I saw him twice, only for coffee or dinner: nothing else happened.  It was never consummated with any of these young men.  I rarely saw them more than two or three times.  Roberto and Derek and Joe were the three I liked, “fell for”–I do that so easily!  There were all Asian and we had little in common.  I liked Roberto because he was strong and played sports, and I had not been athletic in high school.  I liked Derek because he was a gym rat with a dragon inked on his arm; he surfed and did martial arts and was completely closeted.  I loved Joe because he advertised himself as a “masculine top” and because he had played varsity tennis in high school.  With all these people there was an instant mutual physical chemistry yet we didn’t hit it off;  it wasn’t comfortable.  But I don’t want to rehash the story of Roberto and Derek and Joe.  They are forgotten.

 

I met H*** at the end of February.  He had responded to my ad and sent me a picture of himself.  In his email he wrote that he was 27–which made him 12 years younger than I–half Vietnamese, half Latino.  He said he was doing a masters in English and also considered himself “bohemian” since he wrote song lyrics and sometimes worked freelance as a DJ.  The picture he sent me of himself–just a driver’s licence picture–was nice but not particularly flattering. (I had gotten used to not trusting pictures very much.)  He did look like an ethnic mix: very short dark hair, a tanned broad face, a small flat nose, lips tight together, and a rather prominent chin.  He wasn’t smiling at all in this picture and seemed a little plump.

He also sent me a poem he had written. It was called “My Blues.”  It seemed very simple-minded and very bad.  He’d written it, he said, two years earlier, when he broke  up with someone after  4 ½ years.  I don’t have this poem anymore.  I remember one line: “Will the pain ever end?” It seemed a strange thing to do, sending me a poem about a break-up.

“Emails are a very impersonal way of communicating,” he wrote to me after we’d only been in touch for a few days.  “Let’s get together for a drink.  If you’re seeing someone else, be brutally honest, I can take it like a man!”

I sent him my number, and he responded back with just a few spare words: “I’ll give you a call.” It was the shortest email I’d ever received.  And that night he did call, and I was immediately impressed with his voice.  Even though he had a foreign name, it sounded to me like a very American voice, a very boy-next-door kind of voice.  We didn’t talk too long, and I told him about living in Spain and being robbed in Pamplona in 1993.  I told him about being homesick for Barcelona.  I don’t remember now what he shared about himself that first call, but he said he was going to be in Alhambra the next day–a Saturday– and he wanted to meet me.  So we arranged to meet at Starbucks at 12:30. Every time I drive down Main Street Alhambra now, I turn my head and look at that Starbucks, at the table where we sat and got to know each other a little. Why do I do this?

I didn’t have too many expectations for that meeting.  I thought he had a funny name.  He hadn’t written much about himself, so I had nothing to fantasize about.

I got to Starbucks. . . Now, as I write, I am reliving that day!  I was wearing torn old jeans and sandals and a t-shirt and sunglasses, and just a couple of weeks before my hair had been bleached.  When I got there, I looked around and immediately recognized him, but he hadn’t seen me yet.  He was putting cream in his coffee in the corner.  I went up to him and said hi.  Now, as I write, I am happy to get every last trivial detail out of my system for the last time.  Things  have been cluttering up my mind every since they happened. But I must be careful to spare myself or any potential reader minute details that couldn’t possibly be of any interest.  For instance, does it matter who spotted whom first, or that he was stirring his coffee when I first caught sight of him?

“Hi, I’m Alex,” I said.  I noticed right away that he was pleased with what he saw.

I was pleased, too.  He was not beautiful like Joe from Rosemead and so I felt a little bit at ease.  He was a little shorter than me, and he appeared to have a fairly developed body. He seemed very young–I guess twenty-seven is very young for me now.  His face was broad and his nose very flat and his nostrils a bit jagged and imperfect.  But what I liked most was his voice, his accent.  It turned out he’d been born in Vietnam but raised in Texas and spoke with a slight Southern drawl.  I am trying to remember now exactly how I felt that moment of the first meeting.  I think I was happy, not afraid, not desperate, not at all intimidated.

He seemed like the kind of person no one would ever guess was gay.

 

We found a table outside and sat down and got to know each other a little.  I  asked him about the master’s degree he was getting.  He told me he was at the University of La Verne, which was near Claremont, where he lived.  He said his favorite period in English literature was “the Renaissance.”  Then we found out there was  a writer we both liked: Don Delillo.  Joe from Rosemead or Derek or Roberto would never have been able to talk about Don Delillo.  I’d found a soulmate!  We talked some more, and I found out H*** was in the closet.  He had no gay friends, he told me.  No one knew he was gay.  He was, he said, “exploring.”

“I can’t believe you’re 39!” he said to me.

It turned out he was free the whole day, so we went to Heritage Park in front of the Alhambra Historical Society Museum. I drove in my car, and he followed in his, close behind.  I looked at him in the rear-view mirror and noticed how close his car was to mine, how fast he seemed to be driving (though this was an illusion) and how broad, plump, eager and hungry his face looked to me.

We sat in the park for a while.  I asked him–it’s a question I always ask–if he had any tattoos, and he said yes.  “Where?”  I was getting excited.  “On my leg.  It’s a Wolverine,” he said, pulling up his pants.  “Is that a turn-on to other guys?” I asked him.  “Yeah,” he said, “but that’s not why I got it.”

I don’t remember the tattoo that well, but it had at least two colors, blue and red, and there was indeed a Wolverine there.  I’d never heard of Wolverine and didn’t know if it was male or female.  But it looked like a space alien.  It was quite a big tattoo, and quite a big deal for me that he had one.  A tattoo meant danger.

“Now I won’t be able to sleep all night!” I said, and he laughed. I was kidding, of course, but I woke up too early the next morning thinking about his body, thinking about the intricacies and contortions of the Wolverine tattoo.

“I wanna kiss you,” he said as we sat there.

We talked about other things but these things would not be interesting to repeat.  They are interesting only to me.  I think we discussed, once again, his being in the closet, and I made it very clear that I wasn’t and that being gay was not really an issue for me.  I think I still did not fully comprehend that I was dealing with a young man who was a different kind of homosexual than what I am.

We ate lunch at Wilde Thyme in South Pasadena, and with crayons I drew on the paper tablecloth. “You’re very happy!” he said, referring to the colorful doodles I was drawing, and it was true.

As he sat across from me in the restaurant I noticed something odd and quirky and individual he did with his face:   staring at me, he would “squish” his mouth over to one side, distorting his nose.  It was an I’m-thinking-and-waiting-and-staring-at-you-wondering-what’s-going-happen-next-and-if-you’re-game kind of look.  It was endearing, and thinking about it now, I wonder for whom and under what circumstances he would contrive the same expression. Did he do it for his mother?  For his three brothers?  Only for potential lovers?

“I wanna see where you live,” he said as we left the restaurant.  It was cold, and he loaned me his sweater.  As we walked toward the car, I noticed him check them out two young Latin men sitting on a bench waiting for the bus.

Was it a mistake to bring him up to my place?

We sat on the couch and listened to classical music, and I read him one of my poems.  I don’t know why I did this.  I think now it was inappropriate.  What business did he have listening to me read my work?  My boundaries with him were, from the beginning, weak.

He told me more about himself.  He had a nine-to-five job at Boeing in Seal Beach.  He told me at one time he’d applied to law school.  He told me he had graduated from college with honors– “high honors,” said.  And I still can’t forget the way he said that.  I guess people want to impress each other on dates.

We kissed.  He had such a professional way of kissing that I could hardly believe he was as inexperienced as he claimed he was.  He put his tongue in my mouth but rather than joining it to my tongue he would go over my upper gums with it, and I went crazy.  We did too much kissing on that couch, I think.  So there was no way back from where we’d gone.  I suggested going to the movies.  “I’m fine where I am!” he said, smiling, and I said “Me too,” and we went on kissing, music in the background, some Mozart symphonies, I think, but especially Ferdie Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, which I’d just bought a few days before.

 

Finally we did go to the movies, and nothing “happened” that night.  I have a “four date rule”; I am in recovery for my sex and love addiction.

As soon as we left my apartment and it was clear that he wasn’t going to get what he wanted that night, his mood changed.  He was polite, but there was a shift.  Going to the movies with him was not like going with a friend.  Not that he was sullen or distant, but it was as if he’d climbed back into his Clark Kent role after being, briefly, Superman.

I am still carrying so much of this around with me. . . I am still holding on. . . Why? It was months ago, months. . . I am glad to get this out of me, it has no place in me anymore.

After the movies he drove me home and we arranged to meet the next day at half-past-one. Driving back from the theater, he put his arm on my leg in that nice proprietary way I like.  He wasn’t cheerful or upbeat but serious–definitely not gay. We had said something about my going to Claremont, but now there was no talk of that anymore: he would come back to my place.  He seemed very straight, very Asian, very male and very American and very young sitting behind the steering of his brand new little car putting his hand on my leg.  I was worried.  I was worried I would never see him again.  I got out of the car and said good-bye and walking to my door and turned around to wave but he didn’t see him, he was, I thinking checking the messages on his cell-phone.  Oh!  He won’t want to see me again, I thought.  He doesn’t like me.  He won’t want me. 

The next day was a Sunday and I woke up much too early, thinking about him. This was the beginning of the beginning.  I remembered his kiss, remembered his Wolverine, remembered, suddenly, his “4 ½ year relationship” though that didn’t seem to fit in with someone who was so closeted and now in the process of “exploring.”  I began to want him very much; I couldn’t sleep though it was only six and I’d only slept five hours.  It was raining.  I thought the rain might keep him away.  I lay there for a few hours and when I got up there was a message from him on my machine saying he was looking forward to seeing me and asking me to call.  So I returned his call and  he told me he was reading the Don Delillo book I’d loaned him–End Zone–and liking it a lot.  We talked a little about American Beauty. He seemed a little cold on the phone, a little reserved.   I imagined the house in Claremont where he lived.  I imagined his room.  It was a brown room, with a large window and a balcony overlooking trees.  It was a boy’s room, with a disheveled bed and a couple of bookshelves and many records and CD’s and posters.  I did not understand him.  I began to wonder if what I was doing was wise.

I played the Grand Canyon Suite again and made myself some breakfast.

I am remembering exactly how it was with me that day.  Exactly how it was while I was still just getting to know him, very attracted and scared.

One-thirty came and he was not there.  One-forty-five.  Nobody.  There was no earthly reason why he wouldn’t show up. I played the Grand Canyon Suite again.  Listening to it now,   especially “On the Trail” and “Sunset” I remember precisely the texture of that rainy afternoon in February.  I felt slightly sick.  My contact lenses were not fitting well.  I hadn’t slept enough hours and I was anxious.  H*** hadn’t waved to me the night before when I turned to wave good-bye: there was meaning in that: there is always meaning when someone does not know how to say good-bye decently. Listening to “Sunset” now, this lush, expansive, very American and slightly ingenuous  music goes perfectly with someone from Texas who read Don Delillo.  More than a sunset, what I picture when I hear the ethereal shrill violins that open this movement is a brilliant daytime sky and full sun over South Pasadena, a large very blue sky with mountains ; what I feel is something earthy and solid and ruggedly romantic, and then I get his face and hear his voice again: it is a whole landscape in itself, a whole universe of quirks and anecdotes, with its very own rhythms and idiosyncracies, a creature like none other: an individual.

 

H*** got there at two.  He didn’t ring the doorbell, just knocked on the door.  I opened and I saw him.  He was beautiful there!  And he was carrying a copy of Delillo’s White Noise for me to read.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  He sat down on my couch and suggested going to a museum.  Someone who wanted to take me to a museum!  A month earlier I’d mentioned to Joe from Rosemead something about going to the Huntington Library.  He’d seemed hesitant and then said, “Can’t we just go to the movies?”  That was what I would call the “Huntington Test.” And now H*** was passing with flying colors.

As we left my place, I noticed that instead of walking down the stairs H*** slid down the banister; it was a gesture so spontaneously boyish that my heart almost stopped.

He drove us to the Museum of Latino Art in Long Beach.  It felt good sitting next to him in his car, and yet there was something reserved, something distant and shut-down about him that disturbed me.  It was not like going on an outing with a friend.  Behind all our interactions I could feel the presence of a kind of fantastic and blissful tension.

Walking around the museum with him, I sometimes felt at a loss for words.  I was happy!  But wasn’t sure he was comfortable in a museum even though it had been his idea.  I don’t how comfortable we were around each other.  I was conscious of him wanting to make a good impression on me; I wanted to say witty and interesting things to him.  All the while, I knew I was in the presence of someone much younger, almost of a different generation.  He hadn’t lived as much, hadn’t traveled; this at once excited and depressed me.  I wanted him badly but I didn’t think he had, after all, that much to say.

Over lunch he ordered beer–it was so different from me, a teetotaler!  I ate oysters.

“They say oysters are aphrodisiac,” he said with a smile and I told him that was all I needed, being already so oversexed.  He liked that.  Over lunch I shared intimate things with him–my boundaries were weak!  I felt I could trust him. I talked about going to high school with Ethan Canin and how Ethan had gone on to become such a success and how my father would never let me forgot that. I had no business sharing that! We walked along the waterfront and in the harsh overcast late afternoon light his face–wearing glasses now–did not seem at all beautiful and yet I was powerfully drawn to him.  He talked about his job; he said he supervised outside contracts for Boeing and was working on a project for the new space shuttle.  I frankly don’t remember too many details about his job.  It seemed an ordinary nine-to-five job to me.  He seemed ordinary to me–the kid-next-door type, a regular guy, a guy-guy.  Walking along the waterfront with him, it felt–once again–like the beginning of the beginning, like there was so much yet ahead for us.  It was a “romantic” moment.  All my life I had never had luck with relationships and I remember thinking, He’s so enthusiastic, but why should this one be any different from the ones that came before?  It seemed too good to be true.  He mentioned going to other museums together– “We could do that next weekend,” he said, “if you’re not bored with me by then!”

If I wasn’t bored with him by then?  What kind of remark was that?  Was he perhaps talking about his own future boredom?  My heart sank.  Joe from Rosemead had made the same kind of statements.  My first boyfriend, Dean, had made statements like that.  “Let’s do such-and-such in June, but do you think we’ll still know each other?” How could this thing with H*** turn out any differently from my affairlets of the past?  He was very young.

We drove back to Alhambra and he again reached over in his proprietary way of the night before.  “I don’t understand one thing,” I said as we sat in a cafe in Alhambra.  “You have a car.  You have mobility.  Why haven’t you ever been to West Hollywood?”

“It’s my background,” he said.  “The way I was brought up by my mother, my uncles.  I’m too masculine for that scene.”

He was moving his legs under the table; perhaps he was nervous sitting in that cafe right across from me.  All the time, I thought of the message and menace of the Wolverine on his right calf. I thought of how it was so close and intimate with his young body. I thought how close to and comforted by the warm odors of his sock and his foot it must be. . . The Wolverine never really left my mind.  What would I have thought of him without it?  I didn’t, and still don’t, have a clear picture of that tattoo; it remains slightly amorphous and repulsive, like the aliens in the Sigorney Weaver movies.

“Can I come upstairs?  Just to kiss?”

 

And I said yes, and we did, but we almost went too far.  We kissed and we kissed, and I was unguarded in the things I whispered to him; I outlined in graphic detail what I wanted to do to him in bed, and he took my fingers in his mouth and stared up at me as he fed on them.  His face, as he sat on my loveseat, was very broad and flat and Asian; it was not conventionally beautiful, it was not beautiful at all.  But it was beautiful!  We kissed and his face was very big and round and close to mine as we kissed: he could have been anyone.  Kissing me, he wasn’t H*** anymore; he could have been any one of hundreds of young men I’d been with, and this frightened me.  He’s going to be like everyone else. . . His mouth in mine, I kept my eyes open and he looked very hungry: he could be anyone.  “You look Oriental and scary when I kiss you,” was what I said to him, “ and you don’t look like you.”

We walked around the block.  That was the only way I could stop what might have happened too early (according to my sex plan).  I don’t think he understood.  He thought I was just playing hard to get.  As we walked around the block I noticed how his head was slightly too large and slightly protruding from his shoulders, and how he swung his shoulders from side to side.  He seemed very disappointed when it was time to get into his car.  “I’ll call you,” he said, and we kissed.  He was a guy-guy to me, a regular guy.  Nothing effeminate or gay about him. Perhaps this points to my own shame.

And here I was, dating!

We were supposed to get together the following Friday.  On Wednesday I called him up just to chat and he was very happy I’d called.  “I wanted to know if we can see each other tomorrow instead of Friday,” he said.  “I forgot that I have a dinner I have to go to.  A friend of mine is going to propose to his girlfriend.  I have class tomorrow, but I’m going to get a friend to take notes for me. . .”

When I opened the door and saw him the next day, he looked young and slightly plump and very fresh and eager and he said, “You smell good!” in that sexy somewhat Texan voice of his.  “You smell good!”  (I’d just taken a shower.)  That was our best time!  We couldn’t stop necking even as we stood there right in the middle of the living-room.  It was all too good to be real! Things were going so well!   I wanted him badly.  No one in my life had ever been so eager to touch me.  Why had it taken 39 years to find him?  Would this thing turn out well for me?

It was time for dinner, and as soon as we went down to his car I could see him change from Superman to Clark Kent again, and the change excited me.  We went to South Pasadena, to Gus’s BBQ restaurant on Fair Oaks Avenue.

“Sometimes I am a little nervous,” I said, “going out with people I don’t know that well yet.”

“Nervous?  I’m not nervous when I’m around you. That’s why I like being with you.”  And a few seconds later he knocked over a glass of water.

It was our best time, but it would be boring to relate every single thing that was said and done that night.  It was the beginning of March and we talked about my life in Spain, about his family and his being brought up without a father; we talked about possums and the book American Psycho.  I told him when I was twelve I was studying about the presidents and I asked him what he’d been doing.  And he said, “Playing baseball. . .”

 

Very much my “disowned self.”  The kind of kid who played baseball.  I didn’t.  I was a sheltered only child and I’d been give up for adoption, adopted by older German Jewish people.  I’d never had any siblings for company and grew up listening to Mozart instead of Rod Stewart and speaking with a kind of German accent.  Since I was a little boy I liked other boys but not the ones who were like me: I liked the ones who were chosen first for the team, the very active, rugged yet pretty all-American boys.  H*** was my perfect fantasy boy: Asian and yet very American, strong and ordinary, a conformist, a popular guy with a tattoo and a cell phone, someone who listened to the right kind of music.  I’m not exactly sure what to call the kind of music he liked, but it was angry and very young music.  My “operating ego” is the person I have become: the one who writes and listens to a certain kind of music and doesn’t play sports, etc; my “disowned self” is someone like H***, the kind of person I might have become if my birth mother hadn’t gotten rid of me.  We are–it is said–attracted to people on the basis of a “wound”; this is woundology.  My attraction to H*** was based on a wound.  He was–in the language of Sexual Compulsives Anonymous–a “trigger”: someone who triggers the obsession.  On the other hand, someone completely lacking in any of the qualities of the disowned self I have listed (and I went on dates with a few of those while my ad was up!) would not be physically appealing or compelling in any way.

I have often said “It’s never reciprocated” but in a sense that is false: things are always reciprocated; on some level attraction is always returned. The problem is the kind of relationship that is developed.  Part of the appeal of someone is their distance.  I am excited by the distance.  H***–from the start–had that cool, moody, sullen, shut-down sexual energy about him; that turned me on and yet also did not bode well for a future together.  The end was in the beginning.

In the beginning was our end.

That Thursday that he gave up his class to see me was our best time, our very best time.  Our feelings for each other hadn’t really been consummated yet and there was so much potential in the air, so much hope!  He was doing most of the calling; he was making statements such as, “I like the path that we are on.”  I didn’t really trust him but I wanted to see what was going to happen next; I was attracted to him; I wanted him; I was blinded by this attraction.\

Looking back, the kind of questions he asked him very simple and almost childish: “Who is your favorite actor?”  “What is your favorite season?”  “Who is your favorite president?”  He was a young man on his best behavior.  Trying to be at his best and make a good impression.  He opened and closed doors for me.  He wanted me to like him.  I was loving it.  I was loving him.   I had very weak boundaries!  Not that I “told all” by any means; I mean I had weak boundaries within myself: I was falling for someone I barely knew.

“Do you ever get lonely?” I asked him as we were walking to his car.

“Of course I do!  That’s why I’m so glad I met you!  I have lots of friends, but that’s not the same thing. . .”

He drove me back to my place but I didn’t trust myself to let him come upstairs.  We stayed in my car in the car port and made out.

“You’ve had a lot of experience?” I asked him, because that was how he came across.

“I’ve had three partners in my whole life. . .”

That made him feel very safe!  We necked and necked and I said things like “I could get lost in your body” and “You drive me crazy.”  I felt his chest and asked how much he benched and he told me 200 lbs. and I was impressed.  Two hundred pounds!  A strong young man! I even lifted his shirt and kissed his belly button.  “You’re such a tease,” he said.  It was getting late and I drove us to the 7-Eleven for a snack and he waited in the car.  I walked back to my car just before I opened the door I looked down at him sitting over in the passenger seat and he was looking up at him with the hungry, longing, desperate very hungry expression that guys sometimes have as they are giving head.  We had gone from being wholesome earlier in the evening to a very intense sexual intrigue now.  This should have been a warning to me. . . but. . .

We were planning to go to Elizabeth’s concert on Sunday, but I said to him, “So we’re not seeing each other till Sunday then?”

“I could,” he said, “come over late Saturday night.  I’m going to see my friend’s band playing, but I could come over after that around midnight.”

“That would be very late!”

“It’s no problem!”

So we arranged for him to come late on Saturday to spend the night.  It was decided.  There was no mystery or suspense now.

“I better let you go. . .” he said.

 

It felt good to be wanted, and the way he validated me, the way he nurtured me!  When we said good-night he again suggested that he could stay over but I told him we would leave that until Saturday and he still seemed very disappointed, like someone who was not getting what he wanted.  There was something too hungry and predatory about him, and yet. . .what if those qualities are missing?  Is a cold fish what I want?  How do you find someone who is sexually attracted to you and not overly predatory? Someone who wants you and yet doesn’t objectify you?

I was so happy on Saturday knowing he would come over.  I cleaned thoroughly and paid my bills and went to the gym, and then finally around 11:30 I lay down on the couch and read my magazine.  I began to fear he wouldn’t come.  Maybe he’d changed his mind.  I had many irrational fears.  Finally, around 12:15 there was a knock on the door.  It was raining that night and he was quiet and a little sullen and wet.

“You’re so quiet. . .”

“I’ve been thinking about my father. . .I’ve been thinking about you a lot. . .” he said.

Always telling me the things he thought I wanted to hear.

Since I knew he was spending the night and since it was now okay with my sex plan there was a certain thrill that was missing.  Soon we began to make out.  Slowly he undressed.  He was the more eager, the more “active” one, as if all this were his show, his production.  He stayed on the couch somewhat passively as he undressed me.  His upper arms were huge and worked-out and impressive and got to hold and feel.  When he finally took off his shirt I was a little disappointed with his torso.  I think he liked mine.  He didn’t really have a very shapely torso and this made him less intimidating and more accessible.

I saw his tattoo now for only the second time.

“Your other partners,” I asked him.  “Do they lick your tattoo?”

“You can do whatever you want with it,” he said.

I think we made love by candle-light until about six or seven in the morning. . . He was a generous lover, a great partner. . . there was nothing that he didn’t want to get into, experiment with.  I asked him to repeat “Wolverine”: I loved the way he said it with his vaguely Texan accent.  “Wolverine, Wolverine,” and sometimes before he had a change to finish coming out with that name I would stuff his mouth with my tongue: that way I literally ate the Wolverine.  Later, when I was getting hungry for a snack, I spread apple sauce and yoghurt over his body, over his genitals, and licked it off him. . .

When we talked in my bed a different H*** came out: he was not now trying to make a good impression.  He was just H***, and he turned out to be very adolescent.  Perhaps he was twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four and not the age he said he was.  He talked about a girlfriend he’d had for six months who’d cheated on him with his best friend.  He talked about masturbating four times a day sometimes thinking of getting fucked. . .It sounded to me like he’d gotten what he wanted from me and didn’t have to pretend anymore, or could at least let his hair down a little.  I began to be scared.  We were too far apart for this to work out, to last!!!

What was the “hangover” from this going to like?  Was this a wise thing to do?  Did I know enough about him?  Did I trust him?

As we were getting to sleep I took too much of the blanket on my side.  “Blanket-hogger!” he called me, pulling the blanket more to his side.

Blanket-hogger!

We slept and woke up about eleven.  I woke up in his arms!!! For the first time in over ten years I was waking up with someone.  I woke up on his big biceps and he woke up at exactly the same moment and looked at me with his big face and smile and we began making out and making love.  I woke up next to him and it was like magic, it was what made all the pain to come almost worth it.

I made us breakfast while he showered.  Sitting across from him at the table I saw a big scar on his left elbow and asked him about it.  “I fell off my bike when I was a kid.”

So “normal”!  A boy-boy!  A regular guy!  And he was in my house sharing my bed!!!

 

And we went to the concert.  Now, suddenly, he was Clark Kent again, as we drove–for once–in my car.  Outside my four walls he seemed to just deflate and be very silent and a little uncomfortable and serious.  We parked and went to the Music Center but he was quiet, very much a fish out of water.  If only I’d waited with sex a little longer (then of course the sex might not have happened at all!)  This wasn’t really his world.  This wasn’t his world at all.  They played the Verdi Requiem and I couldn’t wait till it was over.  He was next to me in those good seats and we shared the opera glasses but he was just being polite.  It was as if he’d shut down.  He did not even seem particularly attractive or beautiful.  He seemed very young and provincial and uncultured but very sexy and youthful, too, very much the kind of person I might have become. At some point as the music was playing I wanted our legs to touch, but he withdrew his leg. . . and now the enormity of my decision became apparent to me.

We drove home and I asked him about what he’d told me once about being obese as a youngster.  “Is that how you still see yourself?” I asked him.  “The way you were when you were twelve?”

He told me it was true.  He told me everyone had made fun of him for being overweight. He told me he was scarred.

We got home and sat on my sofa and it wasn’t long before we became involved again.  I reached into his pants and in the heat of passion his button came off and I apologized and he said it was no problem and we left the button there on the coffee table.  He’s a young guy just looking for sex was what flashed through my mind as we were getting involved again there in the living room.  I don’t know if anyone can understand this but it seemed too good and too sexual to really be lasting thing.  So this is it; this is what it’s really all about.  Those dinners, that trip to the museum. . . they were just the polite build-up to this. . .

I wanted to take a shower, since I hadn’t taken one earlier.  “No!” he said.  “Don’t take a shower! Don’t!”

We were at it for hours again and both of us came often and then around nine he said, rather suddenly “I have to go pretty soon. . . I have a ten-page research paper to write for tomorrow.”

(He was going home and write a ten-page research paper now???)

So now the beginning was over.  We were at the middle now.

It took us a long time to drag ourselves out of bed.  “I want to invite you to dinner,” he said. “What day is good?”

“Friday,” I said.

We got dressed.  I hated to see him get dressed.  I hated to see him go.  I couldn’t be sure–in spite of his invitation to dinner–whether I would ever see him again.  We kissed and kissed by his car in my car port (where he’d left it for the night) and he put on his glasses and I opened the gate for him, but the very last thing I said to him was “Drive carefully” and he just nodded and was suddenly distant, suddenly very Clark Kent, and my heart sank.  Would I see him again?  Didn’t he know how to say good-bye properly?  Didn’t he know that very last interaction, that very last second,  mattered a great deal?  I’d said “Drive carefully” and he’d just nodded rather coldly and then drove away. . .

I walked around the block once or twice. . . I went to the 7-Eleven for some yoghurt.  I saw the Vietnamese guy who cleaned the laundromat next to the 7-Eleven and, like H***, he had big arms and I thought, This thing is mostly sexual.  That’s what it’s all about, really.  I’d gotten what I wanted and didn’t have a good feeling about it.  It had been like eating junk food. And yet It ain’t good unless it’s nasty. 

Would I ever see him again?

The next day at around five in the afternoon I called him and left a message saying I’d had a good time and was looking forward to seeing him Friday.

Now, he’d finally gotten from me what he wanted: sex.  It was my turn to try to get from him what I wanted: love, romance.

The hours went by. . . I went jogging, I worked out. . .he didn’t return my call.

I called around ten.  I got his voicemail again. . .Was he going to call me or was it all over?  The waiting, the waiting, the terrible waiting!!! At ten-thirty I called once again and this time I got him.  “I’m just getting home now.  I was at the gym,” he said.  “I was going to call you when I got home. . . I was up till two-thirty last night writing my paper. . .”

“Why,” I asked him, “were you up so late last night when the paper wasn’t due until Tuesday?”

I don’t remember how he answered that question.

“And what was it on?”

 

“Oh, standard Elizabethan writers. . .”

I didn’t ask who.  “I’d love to read it!”

I believe it was NOW that I was having my first suspicions.  How can anyone write a ten-page research paper in just four hours?  Why would he stay up so late on Sunday to do it and then spend so many hours in the gym the next day when it wasn’t due until Tuesday?  Why was he unable to give me a more detailed answer about what he’d supposedly written?

Talking to him on the phone, there already appeared to be a slight shift.  He sounded very confident, like someone who’d gotten what he wanted and was now more or less ready to move on to the next person. . . Well, perhaps I’m exaggerating a little, but there was a subtle shift for sure.  He was going about his business at home as he was talking to me, and seemed happy enough to hear from me.  I asked him if Friday was still a good day for him, and he said it was.  “I’ll probably come over around nine. . .”

The next day was Tuesday.  On Wednesday I came home from group and there it was: 00 on my machine.  No messages.  I think I had a panic attack.  So he’d gotten what he’d wanted from me, he’d gotten laid, and now that was it.  There was going to be no dinner.  I pictured him in his house in Claremont and at his job in Seal Beach.  I pictured him “at school” doing his classes at the University of La Verne.  That first day I’d met him I asked him about different writers and he appeared to know very little about literature. . . He’d been very good in bed and yet claimed to have had only three partners in his whole life. . .He’d supposedly been in a 4 ½ year relationship but how did that fit in with being so closeted?

The next day was Thursday and I went to see Rigoletto with Elizabeth and I called him around four in the afternoon saying I was looking forward to seeing him.  By seven he still hadn’t returned my call and so, from Otto’s at the opera I called him again and he said he’d gotten my message and was sitting in his car “on his break” and had been planning to call me “during his second break.”  He sounded friendly and enthusiastic; it was a bit hard to hear him with all the people walking and talking around me and sometimes I had to motion to them to please be a little quieter.  I asked him once, or more than once, if he was sure he still wanted to get together the next day, and he seemed puzzled by this–and I was afraid I’d made a bad impression and so I said, “Well, you know, I’m a little rusty with this dating thing, it’s been a while since I’ve dated,” and he appeared to understand, but then he said “I’m not sure if I can spend the night. . .”

When the next day came I was nervous and unhappy and not at all sure if I was ever going to see him again, but he did show up, and when he got to my place everything was fine, he was charming as usual, and I was completely reassured.  Why had I doubted him?  We   went to the ABC restaurant and he was in a good mood and I was happy and we had a good conversation and I had the distinct impression that he was infatuated with me–at least that was how he came across.  Then, during sex that night, I almost didn’t want him, since I was so sure of his liking of me.   He almost seemed unattractive and boring and I licked his body only half-heartedly. Can I only like those who are distant and unavailable?  He seemed completely available to me then, interested, eager, even in love perhaps.  He said all the right things.  And he ended up spending the night after all.  It was delicious spending the night with him again.

But the dreams I had were not as sweet as the first time he’d spent the night.  I dreamed I was being encircled by a pack of pit bulls. . .

We made love again the next morning and his arms were full of hickeys.  I walked down to his car with him and he seemed very Clark Kent, very shut-down as soon as we got into the street, though the street was empty. . . It was a hot day and he changed into his tank top so that was the last view I had of him:  in his tank top, and he was very young and strong and athletic to look at.  “I’ll call you,” he said in a very male way. . .

And then it was like falling from Mt. Everest to the darkest valley.  He was gone.  Would I see him again.  How would I spend my time away from him?  Was he a boyfriend or someone I was just sleeping with?

 

I was uneasy, I was excited by him but not genuinely happy.  I wanted to spend every minute of every day with him and yet he, in his day-to-day life, had gone on pretty much “business as usual.”  Was that a good sign?  Was I the crazy one?  Or, since he’d gotten what he wanted, had he cooled towards me?  And yet the dinner Friday had gone so well.

The next time he phoned me–he was the one who usually did the calling–we talked about the book White Noise and I was a bit critical about it and this made him laugh.  We had a good conversation and he suggested getting together Thursday and I said Thursday was fine but inside me I began to worry: Why Thursday?  Why not the weekend?  What does he have planned for the weekend?  Why doesn’t he want to see me on Friday when we can have more time together…

I think I was almost normal for a few days.  I was preoccupied with him but not obsessed, my eating and sleeping were normal.  Thursday came, nine o’clock came, and I got a call from him.  “I”m on the freeway,” he said.  “I’m gonna have to cancel tonight.  I’m too tired.”

“Oh,” I said, “I was really looking forward to seeing you–”

“I’m sorry!”

He did not sound as if he was in his car.  He sounded as if he was in a room.

And there and then I knew that something was wrong, something was very wrong, I knew instinctively that he wasn’t getting a master’s degree and that our relationship was not going to last.  There is something about canceling that tells you someone is not that interested.  He’d gotten what he wanted from me.

“I was thinking what about tomorrow night,” he said.

“Yeah, that would be fine. . .”

He was sullen and very moody.  He mentioned running into some high school friends the other night in a restaurant–

“Oh?” I said, “what night was that?”

“Tuesday.”

But Tuesday night you’re in class–unless of course it was a very late dinner?  But you being so American and living in Claremont and it being a Tuesday how could it have been a nine-o’clock dinner?  How COULD it have been?  This whole thing with getting a degree?  Are you really 100% who you say you are?

I didn’t say any of those things, I didn’t think them either, in the way I’ve written them.  We were cut off.  From the beginning were always being cut off on his cell phone.  He didn’t call back.  I waited and waited.  Finally I began to make dinner.  Then he called.  He was still very sullen and tired-sounding and he confirmed that he was indeed a very moody person. . .So we arranged he would come over the next evening around eight.

I called trusted friends.  No one seemed to think there was anything amiss just because he canceled and did a “renegotiation.”   But of course they hadn’t heard his voice.

The next evening I was very nervous.  I was unsure I would ever see him again and I couldn’t even listen to music.  Eight o’clock came and he didn’t show up.  Eight-fifteen.  Eight-thirty.  Nine. Still nothing.  So this was the end after all. Why had it ended?  I began to think of reasons.

After nine I called him up and he was there!!! He said he’d gone for drinks with some people from work and was running late.  So I’d had nothing to worry about after all!  H*** was still in my life! I felt so lucky and so happy.

He got to my place about 15 minutes later.  It was St. Patrick’s Day and he wore a bright green t-shirt and shorts that showed his tattoo and he brought with him a six-pack of Corona Extra. I’ll never forget the way he looked as I opened the door.  So there was no need to worry.  He was there.  He was mine.  In his presence, I always felt so reassured.

 

I drank beer for the first time in over a year.  He invited me to see “Cymbaline” with him when it opened–in May.   He said it was going to be done by a Northern California theater company that sent him information about performances.There was no need for me to worry at all! That was our most poignant time, because the night before he had showed his other self–moody, losing interest, lying–and I believed that it would just be a matter of time until that other self resurfaced, but resurfaced for good, and he wouldn’t be coming over anymore.  I think I’d lived too much not be suspicious of him.

We drank–we each had one beer–and he was sweet and very young on the couch next to me and then we made out.  I suggested ordering pizza and we did–he called.  And as we waited we got more and more involved. “They might interrupt us with the pizza,” I said, but it didn’t matter.  I was a little drunk, and he was very sexy and eager for sex. . .Then we went into my bedroom and we were getting more and more involved and then the doorbell rang and he got up and paid for the pizza and then came back and took off his shirt and fucked me and afterwards he said, “After we eat I want to fuck you some more. . .” And then he said, “Do you think we’ll still be going out in May or will you be bored with me by then?”

“Maybe,” I said, “you’re talking about yourself.  “Maybe you’ll be bored with me. . .”

“No,” he said.

We ate and he was very sexy at the table there with me.  We listened to Joan Manel Serrat on the couch and he said, “I want to enjoy this moment. . .”

That was over three months ago.  Three months!  A whole season!

Can sexual relationships last?

We slept and when we woke up in the morning it was time for Dave to come over.  “Do you want me to leave?” H*** asked me and I said of course not.

That morning–it was our best time!!!  Dave and H*** met–for the first and last time in their lives!!! Mozart was playing and I went to the 7-Eleven to get cash to pay Dave, plus some supplies.  When I got back the music was still playing and Dave was cleaning the bathroom and H*** was on my loveseat reading the New York Times Book Review.  It was such a nice domestic scene.  Then H*** and I left for brunch.  On the way he said he could smell skunk. . .We went to Wild Thyme, where we’d gone on the first day.  We had a delightful brunch and we talked about death.  Thursday night on the phone H*** had said he was obsessed with death and so now I loaned him a copy of The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  I even offered to read it out loud to him!  “That’s sweet of you,”–he was always saying that: “That’s sweet of you.”  He was always saying nice things, the things he probably thought I wanted to hear.  We drove back and as he dropped me off he said good-bye.  “Oh?” I said.  “You’re leaving?  You’re not coming up to see how the place looks clean?”  And of course he wanted to come up and we sat on the couch and he said, “I don’t know what I’m going to say to my father when I see him.”  That was a big deal, and he’d talked about it often.  At the end of April his older brother was going to be getting married in Houston and H*** hadn’t seen him since he abandoned the family when he was five or six years old.  We talked about his tattoo–that always seemed to come up.  It was never far from my mind. He told me that before the wedding in Texas he wanted to get another one. I was looking forward to this new tattoo–I was excited by the idea of my man with a new tattoo.    We sat on the couch and soon got sexual again and we both undressed and did it right there on the couch and I came all over his chest–we came together–it was great.  I’d had a lot of sex the night before and looking up at him at one point as he loomed above me his face looked a little fat and unattractive and his torso looked big and shapeless, and as at other times, I thought he was not that good-looking, not beautiful.  We looked through a photograph album I’d put together recently, and he was impressed with the way I’d looked at 25.  I watched him look at the picture. I couldn’t believe how he looked at it!  He seemed completely infatuated.  I knew he had plans for the rest of the day–haircut, gym, a party.

I was excluded, really, from his life.  Why couldn’t he have asked me to do something that night instead of going to a party he didn’t really want to go to?  It was our best time, but. . . in a sense, this kind of relationship wasn’t really what I had in mind.  And the gym!  It was always so important!

I was in love with him.

 

Around three o’clock he very abruptly got into his clothes and gave me a kiss and left–and I was left to my own devices.  I had a good sex partner–I didn’t have a boyfriend.

I want to record every detail!  Every last detail.  Because I know now that no one will ever read this except me.  This is purely for me.  It records events that could be of no interest to anyone but me.  Why are they so important?  Why does each detail have such compelling importance to me?  Well, he was climax so to speak of my internet dating experience. . .

And it was the first time in over 10 years that I was sleeping in the same bed with someone.  It was the first time in 14 years that I was dating someone. . . I felt he was too good for me.  Someone else would snatch him up.  I felt my attraction to him was based on his unavailability, his distance. And if he didn’t have those “distant” qualities I would not be interested.  Can I be interested in someone appropriate who loves me?  Or is it not in my nature?

We saw each other a couple of times in the next week.  Both times were very good sexually for me, and for him.  The following Saturday he called me first thing in the morning!  Yes, he was infatuated with me, but why didn’t that take away from my anxiety?  On the surface things were going well, but I felt he was not completely real, not completely who he said he was.

That morning he left a message saying he’d called at midnight and hadn’t left a message that time and just wanted to say hello.  “Give me a call. . .” I loved those words.  “Give me a call. . .”

Of course!  Of course I’ll give you a call!  I love you!  But I never said that.  I never used that word.  All day–in spite of his call–I felt so much anxiety and that evening when he came over he looked, for the first time, plain.  He hadn’t showered or shaved and he had hairs in his nose and his face wasn’t pretty.  He lay next to me on the bed before we went out to dinner and he gave me a massage and we listened to Tchaikovsky.

We had seen each other in the middle of the week and I’d given him a massage that time and said “I love your body” and now as he massaged me he said the same thing but there was something mechanical and artificial about it, as if he was trying to imitate what he thought was my artificiality.  Since the beginning of our friendship he’d been bothered by my complimenting and flattering him all the time and had asked me to “cut down.”  Now I understand.  In many ways, he was very fake and said fake things, and assumed other people when they “flattered” him were being fake, too, and this bothered him.   I guess it didn’t occur to him that I could be for real.

His massage felt very good, and then the music was over and we went to The Tea Station in Alhambra.  Nothing about that evening told me that this was going to be our last good time together.  We ate Chinese food at the restaurant and everyone around us was playing cards and I loved my time with him.   He told me about Kurt Cobain–it was comfortable, it was great being with him.  I talked about work.  I was talking with a peer. . . We went home and, as I’d done sometimes before, I called to register my car so I could leave it out in the street and he could bring his in to my place in the car port.  He had already taken off his shoes and socks by the time I called so when he and I went out he was barefoot and it turned me on.  There was a cat, a friendly cat, walking around and I asked him if he had any pets.  He said he didn’t but when he was little he’d had a dog named Lucky that had been run over by a car.

“I guess he wasn’t very lucky,” said H***, standing in his shorts barefoot there under the trees in front of my apartment.  I’ll l never forget that.

Upstairs we began to have sex and I tickled him and he laughed–how I loved it when he laughed like that but then he stopped and with a very serious expression he said, “I”m in serious fucking mood.”  I know I’ll never forget that.  Why can’t I forget?  Why do these tiny details still excite me and make me ponder?  What was sit about that sentence that excited me so much?  Was he objectifying me?  Was it he who was calling the shots in this relationship and was this reflected in this statement about HIS mood?   Was he just a good pornographer?

 

I remember on St. Patrick’s day he had told me why he liked Wolverine.  “I’m cunning, like Wolverine. . .” Yes, it was true.  He had a very cunning way with language. . .And perhaps his telling me he’d had only 3 partners in his whole life and telling me about that masters degree he was supposedly getting.  Cunning lies to gain his confidence.  A con artist.  I didn’t put it that way at the time, but that was he was.

The sex was great that night and the next morning we woke up around eleven and were at it again.  He kissed me and jerked me off and all the time I could smell the noticeable vinegary smell of his feet.  H*** did not have any particular smell, any characteristic smell, and wore no cologne, but his feet did smell acidy and as we kissed I could smell it and it was good.  The sex was getting better all the time, I thought, between us. . .Then he fucked me and he did it like a pro.  I was lying on my back thinking he’s been around much more than he says he has.  And then I wanted more so after he was done I kissed him and kissed him and came again and now I think this could have been a mistake: did it show I was liking him TOO much?

We took a shower together he was very affectionate.

The day before on the phone he’d said his mother was coming in from Las Vegas late in the afternoon and now he said he was meeting her at 1:30 at the Ontario Airport.  Always these stories that didn’t seem to hold together.  Like his being half-Latino.  His mother supposedly was Mexican but had learned Vietnamese perfectly.  She’d had a convenience store at one time and then was a financial analyst and now was a card dealer in Vegas.  Very strange!  And he didn’t speak one word of Spanish.  Was he ashamed of being Asian and had he created the persona of someone who was half-Latino just to be more interesting for me?

All these nagging doubts. . .

He ate cereal with me after our shower.

“I had a wonderful time with you,” he said.

WONDERFUL–Joe from Rosemead had used the same kind of slightly inflated language.  Watch out. . .

H***!  I want to drink from your OKness!!!!!

I had lunch with my father that day at the Cheesecake Factory in Beverly Hills.

I was so enthusiastic about this developing relationship that I told him about it.  “You don’t know where he lives?” my father said, shaking his head.  “You only have his cell phone number?  Is that healthy?”

“Healthy”–I funny word for him to use!!!

“But,” I said, “he has a beautiful new car and he usually treats me when we go out for dinner.”

“Oh!” said my father.  “Well, that’s all right then.”

But my heart was sinking.  I didn’t really think this was going to turn out so well for me, this thing with H***.

I had lunch with Elizabeth that Tuesday and I told her what was going on and she said she thought it sounded very good.  But she could hear my anxiety.  I said, “I think he could just disappear at any time.  I don’t really trust him.”

That day, as soon as I got home, the phone rang.  It was H***, calling from the office, calling just to say hello. We talked for about an hour.  I don’t remember who brought it up, but we talked about going on weekend trips together.  I told him I didn’t like going on trips by myself and I told him I thought Palm Springs was a depressing place to be alone.  “Maybe we could go there together,” he said, “ and you could have a different experience.”

He talked about taking a trip to San Francisco the weekend after next. . .

I told him about some of my ESL students.  I mentioned one woman, Hortensia, who was only eight years older than I who was a grandmother already and who came across as an old old woman.  He laughed.  “You’re talking about your future mother-in-law!” he said, and I didn’t know what to make of that.  Future mother-in-law.  He was talking about marriage.  I was happy.

 

We spoke for an hour, and he typed at the computer part of them.  It felt good, talking to H***. I mentioned going to the New Beverly Cinema with him on Friday.  I told him I’d call him to tell him what was playing.  Finally I was the one (as usual) who brought the conversation to an end. It was about time for him to leave the office anyway.  “Bye,” I said.

“Goodbye.”

There was something, though, chilling in way he said “goodbye.”  Nobody uses that word as a real way of saying goodbye.  We say bye or talk to you soon or bye-bye–but “goodbye”? In spite of that good conversation, I was now unsure of the future. . .

I did call the New Beverly Cinema on Thursday night to find out about movies.  Then I called him and left a message with that information.  On Friday morning I got home from work and there was now a message from him on my machine:

“Hello Alex, I apologize for not getting back to you last night.  I was tired and went to bed early.  About tonight, I won’t be able to make it.  A lot has occurred, and I want some time to myself to reflect.  It’s regretful to have to tell you this.  I wanna see you some time soon, but I want to use this weekend wisely and get things done. . .”

I walked around the room.

“There’s nothing I can do!  Nothing I can do about it!”

 

 

 

 

I went to bed and screamed and thrashed around and I thought the neighbors would call the police.  And yet I wasn’t really surprised by what had happened, disappointed yes, but not really surprised.  I called him back and left a lightweight message saying I understood and was sorry and would try to contact him later in the day.

That night we did talk, and he was the same as usual but a little more distant.  “We’ve been seeing each other every weekend for seven weeks. . .”  As usual, an exaggeration.  “And that’s a little fast.”

A little fast. . . .

A little fast. . .

And then I knew, as I’d known earlier in the day, that it was over between us.

We made a lot of small talk.  I was calling him from the street and there was a lot of noise.  I didn’t catch some of the things he said.  Now, I don’t think it was a good idea to call him from the street.  I missed some important things he might have said, things that might have helped me understand why he was pulling back.  I said we could get together some time next week, and seemed open to that: “Yes, definitely next week, before I go to San Francisco.”

I spent several days in bed.

 

 

 

 

One day I got on the computer and found out the University of La Verne, where he was supposedly getting his “masters” in “English literature,” did not even offer a graduate program in English.

I knew it was the end.

I tried to understand why.

I had become, I knew, addicted to him.  This relationship had been compulsive, fairly unhealthy from the start.

I dreamed there was a dark room and a man in a chair and he was opening a door and leaving me.  It was all over.  I could hardly sleep.

NOW I HAVE LOST A LOT OF WHAT I HAVE WRITTEN, AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY.  I will write it more elegantly the second time around.

 

I phoned him the following Tuesday after spending several days in bed.  He was now fairly distant, cold. I phoned him at work.  He talked about moving to San Francisco.  I asked him if he still wanted to go on dating.  He said yes, but he said he could understand why I would think he didn’t want to date anymore.  We arranged to see each other the following day, a Wednesday.

As usual, he came over late, after the gym, at about nine-thirty.  “Haven’t seen you in a long time!” he said.  “Don’t I get a kiss?”

I asked him about what had gone wrong that weekend and he told me he’d just wanted to be alone, to have some time to himself.  I was honest about my concerns.  I told him it bothered me a little that he was in the closet, completely in the closet, and that I would never see what his house looked like, what his room looked like.  “I have a Bob Marley poster on my wall,” he said.

Ah!   A Bob Marley poster on his wall. . .

I said I felt a little like a kept woman, someone on the side, someone not really a part of his life, but I tried to “offset” the “bad impression” this honest statements might have made by telling him how attracted I was to him, how much I liked him.  He said he was flattered, and he wanted to kiss.  Things seemed, in a way, back to normal.  He did not seem THAT handsome to me now, or THAT beautiful; he seemed a little short to me.

He told me about his plans to move to SF.  He wanted to teach English or teach business.

Teach English?  Teach business?  How was he going to find that kind of work in the city everybody wanted to live in?  What qualifications did he have for teaching those things? Did he think I was stupid?  And how did this gel with his oft-repeated idea of becoming a millionaire and retiring at 40?

Or was all this talk of moving to San Francisco just a very subtle way of trying to distance himself from me and discourage me?

We ate in the Go-Go Cafe and it seemed okay and normal some of the time, and yet different and cold at other times; he had an “edge” to him, as if he didn’t really want to be there, as if he was just doing charity work.

We got sexual when we got back to my place, right in the middle of the living room, and it seemed very good for both of us. Then we kissed on my bed and I lay there on top of him and he said, “You’re beautiful!” He  wanted me to fuck him and I got the condom and tried but then he was resistant and suddenly said, “I”m not in a very sexual mood.”

Not in a sexual mood? What kind of game was he playing with me?

Was he from Mars?  Was I from Venus?  Was it possible for me to have a sexual relationship with anyone?

“You don’t like me,” I said.

I shouldn’t have said that, but it could have been worse.  I could have said, “You don’t like me anymore,” or “You’re bored with me.” That would have been more to the point.  What I said, though, was damaging enough.

We did finish and both of us came and I sniffed and licked the soles of his feet.  A couple of days later, in Laguna Beach, I smelled the flowers by my lonely hotel, and they smelled just like the soles of his feet.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t in the mood,” he said after we finished.

He was apologizing a lot now in the final phase of our friendship.  He had apologized the other night for not wanting to see me, he had apologized the day before for never reading that short story by Tolstoy.  An “English major” who couldn’t read one simple story about a topic that interested him (death), an English major who never talked about literature except Don Delillo and American Psycho.

H*** was, in fact, a kind of American psycho.

His face was tired as he talked to me that night.  I was eating a snack on the side of the bed.  His face was very broad, very round, very Asian, no hint of “Mexican.”

 

He slept.  I couldn’t sleep but lay out on the sofa and listened to music.  I wanted to have a look in his wallet which was right there on the coffee table, to verify if some of the things he’d told me were true.  For instance, whether he really was enrolled in any program, or whether his age was really 27.  Maybe it was 23 or 24.  Or I could have found his address.  Now, I’m glad I didn’t have a look in there, though it would have satisfied me in some way.

Towards morning he talked in his sleep as I moved in the bed, watching him:

“WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?”

What the fuck was going on?  Good question.  Very good question.

He was really my type.  The type of guy who would swear in his sleep.  What the fuck is going on…………….

When he got up around six he was cheerful and flirtatious and friendly and he didn’t put on his shoes and socks because he was going home to change for work anyway.  And he said he was going to get a coffee in the 7-Eleven.  We said goodbye.

I never saw him again.

 

 

 

 

I spent a few lonely days in Laguna Beach.

I did call him one more time, almost a week later,  and he told me about his trip to San Francisco and how excited he was about moving there.

“I’d hate to lose you as a friend,” he said to me.

Well, that’s pretty clear, but he also said things like.  “I’d be very hurt if you didn’t want to see me again” and “I’ll finally read that book by the next time I see you” and “Do you think we’ll go on seeing each other after I move to SF?” Always mixed messages, now in the last phase, in the epilogue phase, of our friendship.

I told him, now for the first time, honestly about how I felt.  “I’ve been honest about who I am, you come here and see my photograph album, for example, you know who I am, but just as you conceal your real sexual orientation form your friends and family, so you conceal from me who you really are. . .”

Well, I guess after taking his inventory, “abusing” him like that, I couldn’t have expected him to want to see me again.

We talked about getting together that Friday in “West Hollywood,” I said, “we could go to a bar together.  You did say you wanted to do that.”

“We’ll play it by ear…”

He’d never used that expression before.

Neither of us talked before that Friday and then Saturday and Sunday went by and I knew it was over.  In Santa Barbara I chose a grave from a distance and approached it.  That grave would be his and I was going to say good-bye to him.  The name on this grave turned out to be  Darlings.  It was under a tree.  It was a pretty grave.  I scattered flowers and said, “Let go.  It’s over.  Go in peace.”

I thought there was still a chance I would hear from him again and so I waited a few more days and then, ten days after our conversation, I called him. It was late on a Friday night.  He hung up on me.  Then I just got his voicemail.  I said:

 

THIS IS ALEX I GUESS I CALLED JUST TO SAY GOODBYE I GUESS WE’RE NOT DATING ANYMORE I JUST WANTED TO SAY GOODBYE YOU STILL HAVE TWO BOOKS OF MINE I WANT YOU TO HOLD ON TO THEM, LOOK AFTER THEM FOR ME. I’ll UNDERSTAND IF YOU DON’T WANT TO CALL ME BACK…IF YOU GO TO SAN FRANCISCO, GOOD LUCK THERE. . . WELL, ANYWAY. . . GOODBYE…

 

I didn’t expect a response to this, and none came.

 

Sometimes I think, that last time he came over, if I hadn’t made some Sleepytime tea before we went to the restaurant then he would still be mine.  If I hadn’t made that tea he wouldn’t have gotten tired.  If he hadn’t gotten tired he wouldn’t have said “Im not in the mood” and I wouldn’t have come out with that negative comment “You don’t like me.”  And yet I know that is all nonsense.  It’s like not being able to see the forest for the trees.  The further away I get from that relationship, the more I realize its not lasting had nothing to do with making him or not making him a cup of  Sleepytime tea.

But that is where I go: If I had done such-and-such.  If only…And it’s all my fault… The only thing I did wrong was choosing him, and yet even that I don’t regret…

`           I don’t know.  It’s been over two months now since I last saw him.  Two months!

Someone called H*** Manh Truong was in my life for a while and is now gone.

Someone was there and is now gone. We knew each other for five and a half weeks.  That’s it.  We never signed any contract.  Kisses are not contracts.  I know.  I understand.  My misgivings about him were justified from the start. From the beginning, we were not really moving in the same direction.

I really do think all this has gone on much too long.  It is the MIDDLE of June and still I think about him so much, about our showers together, about sex together.  I play Sunset from the Grand Canyon Suite and I remember that first lunch in the Wild Thyme restaurant.  All the joy and potential and excitement of that time, and now I am almost forty and will that happen for me again?  What have I learned?  Can I have a relationship that isn’t obsessive, in which I maintain an identity?

Sometimes I think I need a 12-step program in which promiscuity is okay but dating absolutely taboo…

I want to finish writing this pretty soon.  Time has passed.  It is finally time to move on from the tyranny of that sexual fantasy.  He was a potent symbol for me.  The Americanness, the Ansianness, the youth, the muscles, the tattoo. . . I was always aware of that tattoo, of how he had defaced his body in such a masculine, fashionable way.  That Wolverine was h is true mate.  He’d be married to it forever, forever!  And it will  be a turn-on to all his ephemeral buddies.

I will never understand completely what went wrong.  Boredom, I guess.  We were too different.  He wasn’t really looking for a serious thing with me… I know that… We had our moments, though, there were loving moments.

I think that what I will miss most of all is the sound of your voice, H***, your young American voice, the way you talked in your sleep: THAT was honest; THAT was who you really were:

WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?

 

WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?

 

 

****************

 

It is morning and I’ve woken up after a good much-needed rest.  I’m having my tea.  I dreamed of my grandmother.  We are sitting at home and she is sitting in a huge armchair and my mother or my father, I forget who, is asking her what she wants to drink.  Then a young girl is asked to play the piano–she’s asked to play a request.  She goes to the piano and plays a virtuoso piece and I am impressed and envious.  Then we are walking in a wide open area, mostly concrete, in the middle of a city.  There are many birds of all kinds, mostly pigeons and seagulls, huge flocks of birds descending on us.  A black man hates these birds and grabs one or two of them and asks something like “What the fuck is going on with these birds?” and hurls them down on the grown where they limp away, wounded and unable to fly.  “You need a shrink!” I call to the man.  “You need someone to work on your issues with!”   He walks away and says nothing.

 

It is now the 17th of June and I still think about H*** all the time. I know this is unproductive.  After he was gone, the only thing I had left was a piercing he made in the water container on one of his last visits.  That small slit from a knife was all that was left of him!  Then I received the phone bill and saw all the times I’d called his number.  There it is on the phone bill: the only physical evidence that he and I ever knew each other.  That 909 number reads like a kind of poem to me, showing exactly all the dates and times we talked (but only the times I called him, not the times he called me of course).

Not even a button of his is left!  The first time we slept together one of his buttons popped off in the heat of passion.  I held on to it but a couple of days later, believing that he’d already had enough of me after that one time and wouldn’t want to see me again, I threw the button out. I just blew it out the bathroom window.  If I’d held on to it then it would be my one tangible souvenir of his body, like the silver button which is all that remains of Rumpelstiltskin after he vanishes into thin air.

Perhaps he felt tied down by me, as if he were being trapped.   I guess I as a person clashed too much with who he was.  And (outside bed) he clashed too much with who I am.

I think I realized this when I went into the bathroom once  as he was standing over the urinal.  He hadn’t raised the toilet seat.  There was something exciting and “low-class” about the way he was standing there, something rough and foreign and young.  Without being able to put into words I think I knew then and there that we were not really for each other.

I had the same feeling every time I felt his arms–they were too big, too strong! And I felt this every time I saw his tattoo.  And also when he came, the way he would say “I’m gonna come! I’m gonna come!”  or the young way he shut his eyes and grimaced as he ejaculated. What I’m trying to say is he seemed too much a fantasy kind of person, too much my sexual ideal, to be someone who would want to stick around for very long. Though he was not exactly a Playgirl centerfold person, he was like a very good hustler. When I saw his tattoo or felt his arms or watched him come or heard him say exciting but impersonal things like “I’m in a serious fucking mood!” or “Fuck my mouth!”  or “What the fuck is going on?”  my heart always sank and I would think:  This guy  belongs to the world, he does not belong to me, and sooner or later, probably sooner, he will be re-absorbed into the world.  This was why every time I he left I thought I would never see him again, and every time I was expecting him, I thought he might not show up.

I have written enough for today.  Perhaps there is nothing more to say about H*** and what he meant to me. . .

 

 

 

******************

 

But there is always more to say!

I still think of him when I wake up in the morning, when I go to bed at night.  I have no other sexual fantasies.  Since I have not been with anyone else lately, there are no fantasies to superimpose on him, no new fantasies to replenish the glass.  I especially think of the times on my sofa when I lay back and he sat on the floor making out with me and opening my fly and jerking me off–it is so powerful!  Or I think of him fucking me, saying, “I wanna fuck you some more after we eat!”  Or I hear him saying, “I’m in a serious fucking mood.”  Or I hear “Fuck my mouth. . .”

 

At times I want to do a search on the Internet: I might be able to find his address and the places he lived over the past five years.  But what good would that do me?  I will never be able to have his tongue in my mouth again–his tongue will never slide over my upper gums the way it did that day long ago in February when we were still getting acquainted.  I will never feel his arms or bite into his neck or dig with my fingers deep into his rectum and watch his face contorted with pleasure or pain.  I will never feel his hand on my genitals or his dick up my ass or watch him come all over me. I will never hear the voice on his voicemail with the message: “Hey you’ve reached H*** Truong…leave me a detailed message and I ‘ll get back to you. . .”  I will never lick his ass and ask him, “Does that feel good,” and never hear his voice saying “You’re great. . .” Years and years will go back and will never hear that voice again!!!

H***, where are you?

Who were you?

It’s the second half of June and the pain has lessened but I still think of you so often. . .

Is there such a thing as a sexual relationship without suffering?

For such a long time after you walked out of my life I was so hungry for your body! I hungered for the smell of the soles of your feet and I hungered for your tongue and the warm feeling of your anus as my fingers slipped through it and the way you laughed when I tickled you.           Is a sexual relationship possible?

What do I have to do to get it right?

 

 

********************

 

 

It is July now.  Mary read the foregoing and called the “paper”  “very good, remarkable, straightforward, and quite moving.”  And I was happy to hear her say that.  She also said, “It is clear H*** had the upper hand, and knew it.”  I went to bed and literally got off on those words.

Once, when he came over–it was a Wednesday night, I think–we were lying there after sex and I asked him, “What are you thinking about?”

He said, “I’m thinking about. . . going.”

At the time those words struck me as so cold and even cruel.  And yet they excited me.  “You don’t have to leave–you’re welcome to spend the night!”

And of course he did–that was what he preferred to do.  And I went downstairs to see if there was some space for him in the car port, so he wouldn’t leave his car out in the street overnight and get a ticket.  But there were no available spaces.  I was just wearing a t-shirt and shorts and it was still March and I got very very cold, and I ran back to my apartment shivering, I had the chills, and I wanted to put on his sweater.  He was already in bed.   “No!” he said.  “Don’t put that on!  I’ll keep you warm.”  And I jumped into bed and with him and his body was so warm and I rubbed all over it to get warm and I found he had a hard-on again and it was so good, his warm body.  Earlier that night, he had said, “You didn’t have to say ‘Dreamer’ in your ad, I could see in your eyes that you were a dreamer.”  And yet just a little while later I’d asked him what he was thinking and I got the response: “I’m thinking about. . .going.”  All those things together–the coldness and the cruelty mixed with the tenderness and sweetness.

He perhaps gave me precisely the experience I was looking for.

There were good moments.  I want to think about, emphasize, those now.

It’s July 2 now.  The day after tomorrow I’m going away on a long trip.

Early yesterday morning I had a dream.  I was talking with my Scottish friend who had come in the door.  He said, laughing, “I just got it on with H***!”

“No,” I said.

I ran.  I ran across freeways and highways and fields and I ran and couldn’t stop.

I woke up crying.

 

 

After Thirty-Eight Years, a Look Back at “Romance”

Jose Luis and me, 1986

Sometimes I ask myself, What went wrong? The question doesn’t come up too often anymore, especially in the last five years, a long period of relative serenity and freedom from obsession.  But the other day, with my guard down and me actually feeling nostalgic for a bit of intrigue and excitement, I had a long chat with someone on a dating/hookup site, CVsouthland a.k.a Caleb. It was a moment of spring, a moment of potential and hope…

For about an hour or two afterwards it felt like a refreshing change of pace, a bit of frisson that’s been lacking for so many years. I was once again experiencing something like that special thing most people live for, most people want. But then those pleasant feelings evaporated and I remembered what I am.

I had my first encounter in my dorm room at Columbia in New York back in 1980; it was with someone I’d met in a bar in Greenwich Village. Thirty-eight years ago now. In those thirty-eight years I’ve had many, many (very) casual partners (it would be impolite to state how many, but I have a rough idea). I’ve had only four relationships in these thirty-eight years. Even to call them “relationships” is a generous way of putting it; they were more like extended one-night stands, or affairlets. I’d say all four added up to about three-and-a-half months.  The third of those, with Jose Luis in 1986, resulted in me seeking therapy, and I’ve been in therapy in one form or another for the last thirty-two years.

My first therapist, a Freudian in Barcelona, thought it was helpful that I was taking a step back from all the insanity to just lie on her couch and analyze…and analyze and discuss and remember and ponder.  She said to me explicitly, “I don’t think you are looking for a real relationship.”  In some ways I think she understood me better than my later, American, male therapist who said, “Yes, I think you do want love” and “We grow through relationships: they are a classroom.”  Whereas her idea was that I’m looking for intrigue and sexual fantasy and an idealized version of myself that I can only find in me and not in others, the American therapist’s idea was that however painful relationships are, we grow and learn through them and come out knowing ourselves better. Also, he believed the more I dated, the more I would get desensitized and hardened to all the turmoil involved in man-to-man love. These therapists had very different backgrounds and perspectives and both are right about some things.

If I were much  younger than I am, I might still hold out hope of a lasting relationship, but since thirty-eight years have gone by and all four of my affairs were nasty, brutish and short, I wouldn’t go into any future endeavor with confidence that anything has changed. And I’ve always clung to the notion (I know it will sound simple-minded) that some people are meant to merge, and others aren’t. The ones who end up merging, I’ve always intuited, are looking for friendship and companionship more than anything else. The ones who don’t merge, and go from partner to partner, are living more in fantasy, and more than anything else are looking for excitement, intrigue, and drama; for them, the long-term marriage bed is a graveyard of dreams. During my time in group therapy and twelve-step groups, I constantly saw people who fell into one category or another.

But not to talk about them, and those people, but rather to make it more personal here: in the last day or so, when I asked myself what happened over all these thirty-eight years and why I had little trouble finding sex but a lot of trouble finding even short-term romance, I came up with the two characteristics of the ideal young man and, more importantly, the one characteristic in myself that made a relationship so challenging.

First the young man. He should have these two attributes: he needs to be very different from me; and he needs to give off an atmosphere of unavailability. Only then can I start to feel excitement. I was adopted by an older German-Jewish couple—Henry and Vera Frankel—who were uptight and so very different from the beautiful hip American people who parented most of my classmates in grade school. I was brought up wearing a bow-tie, carrying a briefcase to school, being bullied, being bad at sports, and so on. During my first days in junior high school, I saw near the edge of the schoolyard some boys who were maybe a year older than me, very pretty and tough, who were smoking cigarettes (they weren’t bullies, by the way). When I think back to them, I see the ideal. And it’s also clear that that kind of person would never be a good fit to spend the rest of my life with. I like opera; I read books. They listen to rock or rap and watch TV. And so on. I never liked the person that Henry and Vera Frankel brought up. I always preferred the young, sexy birth parents who gave me up for adoption. And by the time I did meet my birth parents in 1990 they were of course not young and sexy anymore, but they had some of the same characteristics I admired, especially my birth mother: coldness, nonchalance, unavailability…

All four of the young men I was involved with, and virtually all of my one-night stands and quick partners, were people much younger than me. It wasn’t just their age, though. They were masculine, tough, often working-class, and, even though they slept with me and were attracted to me, were incapable of returning any sentimental feelings. Well, I’ve known that for a long time, but a few years ago, when I saw someone’s profile on a dating site and read how much he wanted a nurturing partner in his life, I was suddenly and depressingly made aware that that’s the last thing I want. I don’t think I would have been able to come to this conclusion twenty or even ten years ago. I couldn’t have faced it. It’s a sorry state of affairs. Who’s the ideal? This guy—at least the fantasy of him:

So far I’ve been talking about the ideal youth. As awful as his attributes may sound, they would not be insurmountable barriers if it weren’t for the one characteristic in me that makes relationships hard. It’s not just the kind of people I choose. It’s the way I react to them inside me.

With all my partners, major and minor, after the moment I first met them I didn’t have a life anymore except to focus on them. I ate, I slept, I worked—but my mind was on one thing and one thing only. I lived for the moments I could spend with them. I sat by the phone waiting for them to call (not daring to make the call myself). I would lose weight, usually ten or twenty pounds. I couldn’t sleep. I would go out with friends or watch movies and not really pay attention to the friends or the movies.  From the moment “romance” began, depression also set in. And the depression could only be temporarily lifted if I was in the loved one’s presence. How many laundromats and hardware stores have I sat in or walked through and felt the impersonal ugliness of everything; how those places dragged me down because inside I was desperate for Him to reach out and lift me up.

Of course, this state of affairs couldn’t last. What really doomed the relationships was mostly not the fact that these people were so different from me or that they weren’t nurturing; it was that inside me the turmoil was so profound that, try as I might to conceal it, the young men had to have noticed—even unconsciously.  I didn’t act in a clinging way; I’d never say “I love you”; I tried to act nonchalant. But they always could pick up my desperation.  And who wants to be around that? They sensed the power they had over me. They got their fill of rubbing meat together and whatever else they were looking for, and then it was time to move on.

Here’s the number one characteristic of the love addict according to Pia Melody:

Love Addicts assign a disproportionate amount of time, attention, and “value above themselves” to the person to whom they are addicted, and this focus often has an obsessive quality about it.

And so…thirty-eight years have gone by since that first encounter in my dorm room. And thirty years of therapy and many of twelve-step work and group therapy. Maybe some would say that I’ve been lazy and I haven’t done the work. But I’ve seen from other people around me (in programs and groups) that I’m not the only stubborn one. I’ll say a controversial thing: it’s as hard to change your “type” and your “relationship style” as it is to change your orientation. You can grow; you can be more aware, more mature; you can give up destructive things like drink and drugs and overeating; but change whom you’re attracted to and how you feel inside whenever someone shows you a little attention? I doubt it. I guess I’m a kind of dry drunk. And my lack of relationships over the years has resulted in a lack of relationship (and dating) skills. A kind of stunted growth, you could call it. I know less about the give-and-take of real relationships than your average sixteen-year-old.

What went wrong with all those young men all those years? Freud talks about an id, an ego, and a superego in the mind; others talk about the self being divided between the gut, the heart, and the head, or the primal brain, the emotional brain, and the intellectual brain. There’s also the theory of the “operating ego” versus the “disowned self.” What happened all these years is that I responded to youths with just my lizard brain, with just a part of me, and they in turn just responded to me with their lizard brains. I heard this quote: “You pursue someone out of lust; you have affection for them out of romantic love; you bond with them out of desire for family.” I pursued out of lust which was, often, returned; then usually romantic love was ignited inside me but it was only met with lust on their side–but dying lust, lust that quickly shriveled up, and they moved on. But if they started to have romantic feelings for me, then my romantic excitement would fade. I needed them to be porn-star tough and jock-inaccessible. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for love from hustler types.

I should qualify the last sentence: Unlike a lot of love addicts, I haven’t madly flung myself from one train wreck to another. Because of my sensitivity, and the unlikelihood of extracting anything promising from my “type,” I’ve been content to be single most of my adult life. I’ve only slipped and fallen occasionally.

I came out at a time of the gay baths in New York City in 1980 when you could go to any one of several establishments and stay all night and have loads of partners. Those were also the days of the Mineshaft, the Anvil, Alex in Wonderland, and the great St. Marks Baths. They were like opium dens. I thought the late ‘70s and early ‘80s would be the rest of the future. They weren’t. Now the bathhouses are dying, and we have apps. Apps?!? In the old days, anonymous sex was great for love addicts:  there was less chance to get hooked/trapped. Now, with apps, you have to spend hours on your phone chatting people up and then inviting them to your home, going to theirs, or finding a motel. What times we live in. And this is the perfect storm for the love addict. Having a long cyber-talk plus an hour or two at my place is a recipe for a horrific obsession. I ought to know. It’s happened before:

I chatted with the great Chuy Barajas. Must be some years ago now. He was a swimmer and water polo player from South LA, and the next day we spent two hours together. Perfect “union” and then a shower and then good-bye; I watched him coldly walk away and wait to cross the street, never to be seen again.  A few days passed and I sensed I was in love—in “love” and in “loss” simultaneously. One of those nights I happened to watch Once Upon a Time in America and the harrowing theme by Ennio Morricone for pan-flute, chorus and orchestra became the anthem of my passion and my loss. I still cry every time I hear that music.

And what happened to CVsouthland, a.k.a. Caleb? I ran into him on the same dating/hookup site a week after our memorable chat. He remembered my name! But then after half an hour he drifted away from the conversation and was never heard from again. I was somewhat relieved, to be honest, and quietly went back to my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam – A Birth Family, 1990-2018

Frank & Marcia

Marcia and Frank during our reunion, 1990. They’re younger than I am now!

What began in the summer of 1990 with a search for my birth parents Marcia Cranston and Frank Verges; and continued at Christmas 1990 with our reunion in Southern California; and blossomed into their dating and marriage; and our time together in Spain and England in the early ’90s; and my subsequent big move from Barcelona to Los Angeles to be closer to them; and my gradual realization that Marcia was uncomfortable with me in her life—especially being just thirty miles away; and the eight-year silence between her and me; and the disintegration of their marriage even though they continued to live as roommates; and Marcia’s illness and death in early 2007; and Frank’s quick decline after that; and his being moved away to Davis by a daughter (my bio half-sister) anxious to inherit his estate; and his further retreat into senility over the next years…what began with so much hope and fanfare twenty-eight years ago came to an end, finally, when Frank died in a Davis hospital on the 12th of February, 2018. He was barely Frank anymore. I was still able to talk with him briefly on the phone and hear his voice. He never got to the point of not recognizing people. His daughter, the lovely Samantha, was with him the night he died. She’d made sure to call me only at the last minute, so there was no chance of seeing him alive.

For the first thirty years of life I didn’t know who I was. Then I found out. And for the next twenty-eight years my birth parents were, in some form, in my life. But we didn’t have enough time. There was so much to make up for, but the work was only half done. When Frank first made contact with me in September of 1990, there was so much excitement in his voice about my coming into his life. It was a characteristic in his family—to be excited and energetic about things but then not to completely follow through. In this case he did follow through up to a point. A reunion happened only a few months after that phone call. He was gregarious and impulsive and cultured and fun; Marcia, my birth mother, was reserved, severe, and unconvinced of the value of any of this reunion stuff. And she was poor. She’d just lost a house in Hawaii, a house on the beach. Frank offered her financial security, and that’s perhaps more than 50% of the reason they got married. The ceremony took place on a Hawaiian beach. These two people, who’d first had an affair in Iowa and Illinois in 1960 and hadn’t seen each other until the reunion in 1990, were now in love and hoped to build a life together. They were happy for a year or two, but only unhappiness followed. I now think he had Asperger’s or was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. As for her,  she was a sprightly but angry, uptight person. In Orange County she found a comfortable home and created a lovely rose garden. She had cats and read her mystery novels, but spent most of her nights sleeping in an RV.

When I moved to L.A. in ’95 I hoped that I’d see my birth parents every weekend. Marcia, I hoped, would cook meals and the three of us would go to Blockbuster and rent movies and sit in front of TV and watch all the old movies we’d missed. This  didn’t happen. They fought an awful lot. Marcia, even though she’d married my birth father, didn’t embrace me. Half a family had been recreated; the other half just sat there wilting.

So the years went by. My birth parents were miserable. Occasionally, I did see Frank. He and I got along well. But he always considered me rich. He had a very keen sense of who was “rich” and who was “poor.” He often complained that I boasted about my “rich” background (my adoptive family). Toward the end of his life we talked about how much he might leave me, and he said “just some small token amount, because you’re rich, right?” There was a will in which I was left $5,000 and his daughter everything else, but even $5,000 was considered too generous by his warm-hearted daughter,  and when his faculties were limited toward the end and Samantha got him isolated, the old will was torn up and every cent went to that lady, whom I barely know, that divorced lady in Davis who was never the least bit interested in getting to know a long-lost biological half-brother.

A. I am not married.
B. My children are:
Samantha B. Havens
Alex M. Frankel
C: I intentionally do not provide for Alex M. Frankel.

Now they are all gone. Adoptive parents. Biological parents.

Perhaps our best time was in the beginning, when I still lived in Spain. We were walking down the street in Sitges, near Barcelona, and discovered a store named “Verges” and excitedly took pictures of it. Then we went for a chicken dinner and it was ecstasy. We were happy! And another peak moment: London, a few months later. We were sitting in a pub and it was so gemütlich. That’s a word the Germans have that we don’t. Cozy and cheerful with high spirits and a sense of belonging. There were moments like that at the start. But after I moved to the States things were never the same. Ideally, Marcia should’ve stayed in Hawaii, and I would have gone to see her once in a great while, and things would’ve been fine. And Frank and I would’ve seen me once a month or once every few months and things would’ve been fine.

We just didn’t have enough time. I heard about Frank’s death over a month ago but it’s just hit me. So much could’ve been different and better. But that would’ve entailed Marcia and Frank being very different people from what they really were.

The worst feeling is to walk by his house. His house was sold after he was taken away. Whoever owns it now must be renting it out to students. Not a lot of love has gone into the place. It doesn’t look like a home. No garden. It’s as if no rose garden ever existed there.

I unearthed a video of Frank and me from 2009. Most of Frank was still intact. His dog Pookie is running around trying to get us to play with his ball. There’s string music in the background and I’m reciting a little bit of poetry by Dylan Thomas. Things are light-hearted. Things are gemütlich in a way they rarely were, but it was captured in this one video. See for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGYtH8Ygj30&t=13s.

What happened? It seemed we were just getting started. There was so much hope and promise in the beginning. Where are Marcia and Frank? I’d like to try again and get it right this time.

I could never quite believe, when I was in Frank’s presence, that I was in the presence of my biological father. The concept seemed too unreal. The same with Marcia. I couldn’t quite grasp that she was my mother but not my mother. Where are they now? We didn’t have enough time, the three of us. We could’ve used another twenty years.

I remember the end of Theodore Dreiser’s The Bulwark. After a funeral one character, sobbing, looks at another and says, “Oh, I am not crying for myself, or for Father—I am crying for life.”

Frank's ashes

Frank’s ashes are among the few gifts I ever got from him.

 

 

 

 

 

My Birth Father, 1936-2018

IMG_0855      Frank Verges, my birth father, died on Monday, February 12. He was living in a nursing home in Davis, in Northern California, near his daughter, my biological half-sister Samantha. The last six or seven years of his life he’d become cognitively impaired. The man who through most of his life had been so introverted and unresponsive became even more introverted and unresponsive in his last years.

I did what I could to help take care of him here in Southern California, up until 2013, when Samantha took over and escorted him—along with her generous inheritance—to a life of solitude and neglect  in her house and eventually in an institution. When that happened, I realized he was really gone. When that happened, I began the biggest project in my life, my memoir now called Fallen David. I got a dog, too. Both events were indirectly a result of his departure—and virtual death—in 2013. An era was over. I no longer had a birth father.

I first made contact with my birth father in 1990. I was 29. After the first phone calls and letters to and from him, Frank managed to track down my birth mother easily. Her name was Marcia. In 1990 both of them were divorced from other partners and living in different parts of the country. We had our reunion at the end of 1990, Christmastime. It was fun and strange and awkward. From the beginning, Marcia’s attitude toward me was, “Yes, I would like to see you again, why not?” And Frank’s attitude was, “I hope and pray we become loving friends!”

Not long after our reunion, the two of them began long-distance dating. They fell in love and got married. They lived together unhappily for fifteen years until her premature death in 2007. After that, Frank—a heavy smoker, drug-user, couch potato, and consumer of junk food—gradually went downhill. I remember the day of Marcia’s “celebration of life” event in their rose garden, months after her death. He made an appearance for some small part of it, but spent most of the time in bed watching C-Span and sports.

Whereas Marcia (even though she married Frank) never wanted much of a relationship with her long-lost love child, Frank appeared much more outgoing, open-minded, affectionate, and friendly. But that was true only up to a point. Compared to Marcia, anyone would appear affectionate and friendly. In reality, he had a habit of keeping people at arm’s length—and this included everyone. In fact the problem between him and Marcia was that he wanted to keep to himself most of the time, and was more interested in TV than in her. She noticed this, and didn’t like it. And friends of his noticed, and former wives and girlfriends, too. He once told me how he enraged women in his youth by his sullenness and indifference after sex was over.

And with me it was no different. Yes, we bonded. Yes, compared to Marcia, he was a caring, considerate birth father. But deep down the two weren’t so different. They were both very introverted, standoffish people. Whenever I saw Frank, he had a habit of cutting off our conversations abruptly, extending his hand, and declaring, “I am now going to bring this visit to an end.”

He once told me, “Of course I’d like to leave you a little something after I pass, but just a token amount—you come from a rich family.”

After my adoptive father died, Frank drove to the house in San Francisco and visited for a few days. “I’m doing you such a big favor, you have no idea!” he said. And he took me to task for grieving for my father so much. “I can’t sit here and listen to you whine about your predicament, I just can’t!” And so I had to apologize for grieving. The last day of that visit, I came home expecting to go out to dinner. His dog dropped a tennis ball out of its mouth in a playful gesture as I walked up the stairs. Frank himself stood in the kitchen. “No, I do NOT want to go out for dinner with you. I am tired and have a long drive ahead of me tomorrow. Good-night.” The next morning I woke up alone in the old house. It was my last day in the family house in San Francisco before it was to be staged and sold. And Frank was gone, unable to share the moment.

It seemed I always wanted to set up our relationship for a cozy fireside pow-wow, for a prolonged  tête-à-tête  surrounded by pets and tea things and autumnal colors and maybe some string music in the background. That was my fantasy. It never happened. He would appear, and just when things were getting friendly, he would disappear.

That day in 2007, when Frank disappeared on my birthday on my last day in the family house, I said to myself, I said in these words: When it’s his time to go, I will not grieve for him.

I am thinking about him a lot following his death on Monday. I haven’t cried. I am not grieving in any conventional sense. My birth parents were definitely and determinedly my biological parents. A relationship was established. Nothing like parent-child bonds were ever formed.

There was of course no funeral (they are expensive and he wasn’t religious). I will receive no ashes. I will probably never see the meagre $5,000 Frank set aside for me. The bio half-sister will try her best to cheat me out of even that.

And yet his presence over the last twenty-eight years enriched my life. He was a philosophy professor; I majored in philosophy a decade before I even knew of his existence. We could talk—especially back in the 1990s—and it was stimulating and exciting. If I hadn’t met my birth parents, I’m not sure I would ever have left Spain and returned to this country in the mid ’90s. He was cultured and smart and could on occasion be lively, and we had a good rapport. We are very much alike (—ha! I just wrote that in the present tense). My birth mother once said to me, “You and Frank are the two most negative people I’ve ever met.”

Frank Verges and I met twenty-eight years ago—a whole generation ago. He’s now gone. With him I probably had a better relationship than most people do who track down their birth parents and try to make up for what was lost.

In lieu of ashes, I will go to what was once his house in Fullerton, dig up some dirt in the front garden, and in a sort of ceremony scatter it in the sea somewhere near Catalina Island.

 

 

 

 

 

My Terrorist Friend, David (“John”) Dinsmore, Has Died

DavidDinsmorePic

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Mao Zedong

 

The other day I got word that my Scottish terrorist friend, David Dinsmore, who for a short time in the mid 1980s was my best friend in Spain and the world, had died of cancer and AIDS. He was 54. Last Friday they buried him in London.

We were roommates when we were both very young. Then he decided to live his dream and fly to Rio de Janeiro to look for love and adventure, which he found in spades.  Later on, in the ‘90s, he gave himself up to British authorities and—courtesy of the police—was flown back to the U.K., where he stood trial for terrorist activities and was acquitted. He lived the rest of his life without needing to work, thanks to the British welfare state. He didn’t need to work because he’d been diagnosed with AIDS following his exploits in Brazil. He lived in a comfortable “council flat” in London’s popular Camden Town. He had plenty of money and was free to travel the world. He still worshiped Stalin and Lenin and marched for Scottish freedom from the “English dogs” until the end.

In all my life I never knew a more complex  man. David was a kind, generous, fire-breathing atheist; he was a fine debater, angry and righteous, addicted to booze and young men, political to the core of his being, smart, violently working class, tall, gaunt, explosive and gregarious; I never knew anyone who loved people so much.  We stayed on good terms all these years even though an ocean and a continent separated us, and even though he was, for me, a relic of a much earlier time in my life (something I never told him).

We met in Madrid in a bar in early 1985. We often hung out together, and one day David mentioned that there was a room in his rooming house for another roommate. Since I was still living in a hotel and new to Madrid, I said yes, why not? So I moved into the rooming house owned by the faded Flamenco singer Tomás de Antequera, who had been a big star in Spain between the Civil War and the ‘70s but was now decrepit and half-blind. Antequera made my bed every day—imagine, a bed being made by a Flamenco singer! The distance to the bathroom was very far, so late at night I would often pee in a wine bottle and forget about it the next morning. Unfortunately Mr. Antequera, being almost blind, would stumble into the room the next morning and more than once knocked over my bottle and all its contents…

After we knew each other for a while, David made this confession to me: he had been imprisoned in Ireland for his illegal political activities in Scotland and had been awaiting trial (though I don’t think he ever killed anyone, he once tried to send some Englishman a bomb…); then he was let out on bail, jumped bail, and fled to Spain…He was living under an assumed name (“John Parks”) with a fake passport.  I looked at him and just said “Oh!”  I was such a dumb American boy.

What was our life like in Spain? Teaching English as a foreign language, going to bars and bathhouses, drinking, teaching, going out, drinking (he did more drinking than I did). We both loved Spanish youths. He hated Americans (except me). He hated Reagan. He hated Israel. He hated Fascists. But he loved people. He had an insatiable appetite for people, even when their politics was very different from, or opposed to, his own. David’s other best friends were an old Italian priest and an impoverished Spanish count.

We taught in a summer camp that first summer. The camp directors didn’t like our untidiness or David’s drinking or the way he belted out Scottish ballads and eyed some of the kiddos. As for me, I read Thomas Mann, while he drank with a slew of Irish girls. Then, once free from the camp, we traveled to Berlin. One day in West Berlin David woke up and told me he wanted to defect to East Germany. I offered to help him in this enterprise, since I speak German. We spent a whole night interrogated by the East German authorities, but they didn’t accept him, for whatever reason. All night I had visions of being imprisoned for the rest of my life. I had visions of President Reagan going on national TV to promise the world that I was going to be rescued. In the end nothing good or bad happened. The police returned us to the Free World and I drank a schnapps in one of West Berlin’s five hundred empty gay bars.

After the German escapade we lived together in Barcelona for over a year. He wasn’t happy. He was bored. He always compared Barcelona unfavorably with Madrid. It was too staid for him, too bourgeois and European and boring. He wanted adventure in South America. Late at night he would get very drunk, after he finished our dinner of haggis or paella. He would call me a Fascist. He would talk about Scottish independence. He would rant about Stalin’s correct world view. He hated Trotsky and loved Stalin and Lenin.

David felt sorry for street people and invited them to come and live with us. One of them was a Peruvian hairdresser with AIDS. We took the hairdresser to the hospital and once he was fully recovered he became a male prostitute in a “house of boys” under the aegis of a lady named Madame Clot. She promised the hairdresser they would make millions. I don’t know if they made millions, but the Peruvian seemed completely restored after half a year with us. He was very critical of the mess and dirt in our apartment. Then he bought a kitten, even though I’m allergic to cats. Finally he robbed us blind and fled to Castile and a life of picking mushrooms.

The longer David lived in Barcelona, the less he liked it. We didn’t get along. He drank a lot and called me Fascist and sometimes taxi drivers would deposit him at the front door of our building, and I had to carry him up five flights (we had no elevator). He kept dreaming of South America. When his Scottish parents came to visit him, I was amazed they didn’t look at all like him. “Can’t you guess why that is?” David asked.

“Were you adopted?” I asked.

“Of course!”

His biological father had been an American airman who impregnated a Scottish girl and then abandoned her. His adoptive parents were much older than his birth parents; they were short and quiet and conservative—everything he wasn’t.  Now I understood part of the reason David hated America.

And then one day, suddenly, he decided to relocate  to Rio de Janeiro. “You can find love in Rio,” he argued. “In Brazil they’re not just looking for sex. They’re looking for love. And it’s nothing like Barcelona! In Rio people dance while they’re waiting for the bus!”

And so he started making plans to leave. With my father’s help, I gave him two thousand dollars. He also lifted several grand from one of the language schools where he worked.  It was all right to steal from the rich, in his book. I saw him off at the airport, together with two other close friends of his. I wasn’t sorry to see him go, because he was a hard roommate and “teacher” to have, but I didn’t know what would happen to me in Spain without a friend.

The day after he left, I went to Sitges by the coast; I was alone. People chatted me up on the train, but by the time we got to the beach they made it very clear I wasn’t welcome in their party anymore. I spent the day in the sand alone. When I got home, I was completely and utterly alone, I broke down in tears—and a lady in the building across the street saw me from her balcony, and took pity on me.

Things got better. I lived for many years in that apartment on my own. In the beginning David and I talked a few times on the phone. He was enjoying life—boys galore, cocaine, buddies in the drug cartel, teaching, booze, loads of friends, even a lover for a while. He was becoming fluent in Brazilian Portuguese. And me? I moved on. I loved my apartment on the fifth floor of our building in the center of Barcelona on the Carrer de Casanova. David and I had painted the walls yellow and pink. I took over what had been his bedroom, with the French windows overlooking the noisy street and the ambulance sirens and the swallows that descended on the city in May and the potent smell of bread from the busy bakery downstairs. I didn’t miss him. I made new friends. I spent years in therapy. David was now part of the past, a quaint relic of an early and immature phase. Years passed and I assumed I’d never hear from him again.

I did hear from him again, of course, after seven years. He was back in London. He’d decided to leave Brazil and return home to Scotland, even though it meant possibly doing time in prison. He’d wanted to see his adoptive parents, who were getting old. He turned himself in and stood trial and was found not-guilty. This was good for him, but unfortunately around the same time I received an unpleasant phone call from the anti-terrorist branch of Scotland Yard (or some such organization) and my father in San Francisco received a visit from the FBI. Apparently David had given the authorities my name so that someone (I) could corroborate his (true) story that at one time he had been living in Spain. There wasn’t much I could help them with, but for a few nights I didn’t sleep…

And so—with good boundaries—we reinitiated our friendship in the ‘90s, but things were never the same. I visited London often, even after I’d moved back to the States. We got our ears pierced in Camden Town in 1997. He was very accepting of me changing my first name from “Marcel” to “Alex.” I told him about writing poetry and living in America and being in a program for sex addicts. He was mildly amused. We never fought at all. He never shouted at me or called me Fascist. That first visit to London in the mid ‘90s, he cried when we said good-bye at Paddington Station. This touched me, especially because I no longer felt the same closeness. And yet we were still in each other’s lives, and stayed that way until the end. But though he was now cured of cocaine addiction, his drinking was getting worse. I once took him to an AA meeting in London. He even shared about his drinking binges and everyone in that room was listening intently and nodding–“There but for the grace of God…”  But he never joined.

The last time I saw him was in the summer of 2008. He had met his birth family (partly due to my encouragement) but was now estranged from most of them. As always, his apartment in Camden was open to all sorts of folks who wanted his help, or were fleeing the police for immigration violations, or needed a space where they could go with their johns for an hour. David was very disturbed by the cockroach situation. They were abundant and alive and healthy on all the walls and ceilings, even beside my bed, where he’d also placed some good roach poison. Finally I moved into a hotel but didn’t tell him I was doing so. I doubt he noticed. He was standing in his living room alone, completely lost in his alcoholized haze. He was very far away. He just stood there and smiled. Many, many empty beer bottles littered the floor. The statuette of Lenin was as prominent as ever on his dusty shelf, along with books on the militant proletariat and the story of Che Guevara.

This was the last message he sent me, just a few weeks ago:

“Hi Alex, how are things going?” he wrote. “Unfortunately not too great here, since in May I have been told that my head and neck cancer has spread to my lungs and intestine. This time there isn’t much other than palliative (including chemo) that can be done. At that time they gave me up to a year (or at any time in between). Strangely it doesn’t seem to bother me too much! Though I’ve been in and out of hospital a few times since, right now I don’t feel too bad and no pain at all really. I hope to head off to Barcelona for a couple of weeks in October with a few friends, all things permitting….”

He never did make it to Barcelona.

I got word of his death by glancing at Facebook in a small town in Utah in the middle of watching The Good, the Bad and Ugly.

I looked at his pictures again. I hadn’t looked at them carefully. I hadn’t fully accepted how sick he was. How could anyone sound so lucid in a written message and yet be so sick? (He was always braver than I.) The next day I hiked around Zion National Park and thought about David “John” Dinsmore all day. My best friend in Spain for a while. Wild, loving, gentle, confused, insane, rowdy, and passionate about an independent socialist Scotland.  Someone once said of him that he’d make a good Christian. Even though I’m halfway around the world, I feel the loss acutely. I feel that someone who should be there is no longer there. He did not believe in heaven and hell. He always argued that we just stop being. Just stop. I don’t know where he is. I feel he will always be a part of me. For a short time in my life, I lived in the fast lane, lived among street people and beggars and hookers and counts, and my best friend was a Scottish terrorist.

DavidDinsmore2

Wha's Like Us

 

 

The Decline and Fall (and Rise) of Walter January

Fred Half Pic

There is one loss that still hurts.

I made the journey back to New York City for a short stay. That’s where we’d known each other. I thought of Walter January day and night. What went wrong?  I had a stranger’s apartment all to myself, the kind of place Walt or I might have rented in the old days. As I lay on the couch, I looked over at the dining-room table, and I thought, Walt and I should be sitting there over food talking about our lives. What happened?

*

We met in front of the gates of Columbia, introduced by a mutual friend. I was twenty and dumb and extremely immature. Walt was four years older and a graduate student in philosophy, also my major. After that first day, we ran into each other from time to time, went for coffee, went to museums, went to hear Allen Ginsburg read Howl, went to the symphony; once we drove to West Point and Hyde Park. Walt was mild-mannered, sharp, heavily academic, homely in appearance, a Marxist and an atheist. He’d been raised in Ohio. I’m uncomfortable saying this but I need to: over the first couple of years and maybe all the years, he would’ve liked to be more than friends, but I never thought about him in that way.

He did not live in the fast lane, my Walt.

I was in denial about the nature of his feelings. I valued him as a friend. He was my first grownup friend. Both of us spoke German: I because my parents were German; he because he’d mastered it in school. He could read Kant, Hegel, and Marx in the original. Even though he wasn’t a show-off, he did confess to me how status-conscious he was, how he thirsted for fame and recognition. Of all the people I remember from the early ’80s, he was the gentlest, but… even so… at times I sensed another side of him:

  • As when my beloved dog died, and I cried and said to Walt, “You met him, didn’t you like him and wasn’t he the most adorable puppy you ever saw?” Walt answered this way: “Oh Alex, I don’t get attached to animals.”
  • As when I applied for Christmas work at Macy’s but failed the arithmetic test, and, distraught, I said to him, “How would you have felt?” He answered coolly, quietly, “I wouldn’t have failed.”

He appeared humble and unpretentious, but he was also young and therefore growing into the personage he’d later be. He was, like me, an adult in the making. He hadn’t reached his full Walterness.

*

In those days I was awkward. I was slim and blond. I imagined I’d always be twenty-two. New York City was a fine place to be that young. In those days there were still bathhouses where you could find ten or twenty studs a night. I semiconsciously understood how immature I was and knew one reason for this: it could keep me young; and if I was young, then I’d be desirable.  Walt, on the other hand, never went to a bathhouse in his life. He wanted a relationship, and then he found one, with a young architect from India who shared Walt’s ideas of a male couple making a life together.

Our friendship went on as before. I couldn’t imagine any day in the future we wouldn’t be in each other’s lives. I loved him as an older brother, and yet I always believed our friendship was at heart one-sided. I was the more interested party. I always wanted to hang on when we talked on the phone.  Even when I decided to leave New York for good and move to Spain, I imagined things would stay the same, despite the presence of an ocean between us.

*

After college I was just a proofreader in an accounting firm, and that couldn’t go on. It was too meaningless—“alienating” as Walt put it in his Marxist lingo.  I visited Spain in the fall of 1984. I decided to move there and teach English as a second language and find romance and passion, maybe.

It was Walt who saw me off at the airport. He said, “It looks like you don’t believe you’re leaving that much behind.”

“It’s true,” I replied.

Maybe it was hurtful of me to say that, but I didn’t believe in my life in New York. I was young enough to fantasize about a new life in a far-off country. Everything would be better in Spain, wouldn’t it? And perhaps I sensed that I wasn’t getting that much from Walt. There was such a formality to him. He was so staid and proper that one always had to set up an appointment with him days or weeks in advance.  And he wasn’t curious about my writing—unless I insisted that he read something and give me his opinion, which he’d consent to do if I bugged him enough.

Youth!

*

As soon as I settled in Spain, I started the work of idealizing our friendship. He always wrote back with his aerogrammes and always responded wisely and insightfully. From time to time I phoned him.

*

Walter January was the first person who told me I should try therapy. No, I’ll rephrase that: he told me I needed to be in therapy. Until I knew Walt, I’d always laughed at people who saw “shrinks.” But after I went through love and loss and melancholia and even thoughts of suicide in Spain, he wrote this to me:

I hope you do seriously look for a therapist in Barcelona and that when you start feeling better (as you’re certain to do), you don’t just drive the whole idea out of your mind. I have felt almost everything you describe, but is there something in you that makes you always pick men like José Luis? The answer is probably “yes,” but is that what you really want? You asked me if it’s possible to love and be excited by the same person, a question I cannot answer. Is it possible for you? Why or why not? I don’t think you can answer these questions yet. Taking ice-skating lessons is a great idea. It’s something fun and affirmative. Yet I doubt that it is a substitute for a prolonged, serious self-reflection (i.e. therapy).

Sincerely,

Walt

 

“Sincerely”? What close friend writes “sincerely”? And the academic style: “Why or why not?”

Walt and I had always thought of our friendship as one of mentor/mentee, though we never said so explicitly. I relied heavily on those who knew more than I. And he? What did he get out of our relationship? Was there a physical component I was—and still am—struggling to deny? Or better yet: the physical component we’d occasionally acknowledged was there, was that what kept him in a friendship with me—me, whose writing he wasn’t interested in, who had little grasp of philosophy (even though it was my major), who was very young and silly. “You’re so dumb” he’d said to me more than once.

As to the content of his letter, of course it was decisive. I started therapy and have been in therapy ever since.

In all my time with the analyst, Walter’s name didn’t come up, not once. Why would it? We had a long-distance friendship, a solid one. In therapy one tends not to dwell on the good relationships.

*

One day he wrote on one of his aerogrammes that he’d been hired “—by Harvard!”  I’ll never forget that well-positioned em-dash and that lofty name. He’d been accepted by The Castle, and I was glad for him.

At first things appeared to go on as before, but we lived on different sides of an ocean. I didn’t at first want to admit to myself that I saw changes in him.

His demeanor was different. He seemed very sure of himself. During one of my visits back to the States, I had dinner one night with him and his lover (they maintained a long-distance Boston/Manhattan relationship) and I noticed that, when we parted for the night, he didn’t say “bye”’ or “talk to you later” or “see you soon” but “good-night.” Maybe that doesn’t appear so strange on paper, but it was also his tone of voice. Businesslike. Aloof.

And from that time on it is possible that if I hadn’t kept writing to him three or four times a year, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch. No break-up. No quarrel. Just a natural ebbing over time. He was now a Harvard professor. Imagine all the doors that were opening for him! He was on a first-name basis with icons in his field.

 

When he spent half a year in Germany, I wrote him with dumb enthusiasm about going to visit him and received this response: “I’m afraid the dates you suggest for visiting Germany won’t work.” The letter said more but that’s the line I remember. Its unadorned coldness.

The next year I found out that while I’d been seeing family in the U.S., he’d gone on a trip with his lover—to Spain!

And then it happened that I visited him in Cambridge one summer. He’d offered to put me up in his apartment for a few nights.

He buzzed me into his building and I took the elevator up to his floor. His door was open and I walked in and shut it behind me. There was no Walt. I peered over into an adjacent room and saw him with his back to me, talking on the phone. He hadn’t just picked it up to say “Sorry I’ve got a guest.” No, he remained on the phone another ten or fifteen minutes before he emerged to greet me with a light hug.

We had a few days in Boston. Sometimes he appeared his old self, but what I most remember are the first few minutes of the visit: me sitting in his living room picking up one coffee table magazine after another, waiting for him to get off the phone. I tend to forget that he told me how unhappy he was, how unfulfilled in his relationship with the architect (who seemed the more interested party), how worried about his future at Harvard, how dissatisfied with Boston (too much “Middle America” in Boston).

I have this theory about Walt. He came from a working-class family in rural Ohio, but spent his life pursuing German culture and philosophy. He even spoke English—to my ear—with a German accent, almost the way I do. I think he hated his roots and did everything possible to run away from them—and even Cambridge, Massachusetts was not far enough, full of too much “Middle America.” If Harvard could’ve been uprooted and put in the middle of Manhattan, he would’ve been happy.

He told me about some of his students from just a few years earlier who’d already become hot-shot authors. “Does that bother you?” I asked him.

“It would,” he replied, with his old candor, “if I were not a Harvard professor.”

*

A committee approved Walt for Harvard tenure, “but it’s not a rubberstamp,” he said ominously as we sat in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side, almost like the old days, a year later. “Not by any means. It’s up to the president now.”

Even though we lived thousands of miles apart, we no longer broke bread together whenever I visited New York. He would only allot me short sessions—a quick coffee, or a quick drink in the presence of other people. He did not laugh anymore. There wasn’t much spontaneity or fun in him—not that there ever had been, even in our heyday.

I didn’t feel at ease around him, this new and important Walter.

I was about to leave Barcelona after ten years and move to Los Angeles. Walt was horrified when he heard “Southern California.” He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in Stupid Country (as a character in The Buried Child calls it).

 

After our quick coffee, we walked toward Broadway and 116th Street, and I asked him where the subway was.

 

“You don’t even remember where the subway is!” Walt exclaimed. “You really are a stranger here.”

A stranger here…

After that day, I never heard from him again.

*

When I moved to “Stupid Country,” I sent him a postcard with my new address. I wrote a short letter at Christmas—still to his Harvard apartment. Then in the spring I sent him a birthday card and wrote “I hope we don’t get lost to each other forever.” I didn’t really expect a response, and none came. It would’ve been undignified to write any more letters. I promised myself I wouldn’t, and I’ve been as good as my word for the last twenty-two years.

*

My biological father, a philosophy professor, told me one day, “Guess what. Your friend didn’t get tenure!”
“But how do you know?”

“He’s working down at UC San Diego.”

 

San Diego? My backyard? I found out he’d been there for years…Then I used the Internet to discover he’d left “Stupid Country” and gone to work at Cornell. And some time after that I read he was back at Columbia in his beloved New York.

*

The other day I walked my dog and stood outside his home and looked up. He lives on the top floor of a fancy building on the corner of 109th and Broadway. He can walk to work. No commuter train or subway for Walter, at least not to get to work. I saw the janitor polish the railings in the elegant foyer. Walt’s done pretty well for a Marxist.

And then I walked on. I walked through the gates of Columbia and a girl came up to me smitten with my dog and practically begged me to let her pet him. I sat by the Alma Mater statue and enjoyed a very good view of a young man’s extremely athletic back. I walked by Tom’s Restaurant. I went to Riverside Drive and sat on a bench, the same bench where the old Walt and I had once talked about meaning in life.

*

I understand what the alternative to just vanishing would have looked like. He could have written to say—and couched it in nice language—that we’d outgrown each other. That I would’ve accepted and even respected.

There are many explanations for what happened, and I’ve thought of all of them. Not getting tenure at Harvard probably sent him into a crisis, and reaching out to me was not a priority. He needed to look good in front of me. He needed to stay on a pedestal. Now he wasn’t a Harvard professor anymore, but just regular professor who would have trouble with the successes of all his brilliant ex-students.

It’s also possible that his gradual withdrawal from me all through the early ‘90s had built up so much resentment in me that I’d occasionally let it show in snide remarks.

It’s possible that since I was older now (thirty-four), I wasn’t interesting enough to look at, assuming that physical attraction may have played a bigger part on his side of things than I realize.

It’s possible that there were mysterious (intangible) reasons he didn’t feel comfortable around me anymore but couldn’t bring himself to say so. He’d outgrown me. I’d also outgrown him but couldn’t let him go. He was Walt. He was family.

It’s possible, above all, that as he rose in his field (even as a non-Harvardian) I was not a suitable friend. His friends (though perhaps not lovers, where one’s criteria tend to be different) needed to be other academics and people of influence, people who lived and breathed in a world of Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Rousseau, and also people who admired Dr. January’s work.

*

It troubles me how keenly I still feel the loss.

When I reflect on how much I’ve changed, I realize that similar changes had to have been going on inside Walt. And when I think about things this way, I can begin to stop feeling guilty-dirty for having done something wrong, or for not being good enough to share in a Columbia professor’s life.

*

Walter January has been gone a long time. It’s time to bury him. But a few more thoughts before I close the coffin?

I saw him on YouTube, interviewed a few years ago about his work. Often during the session, he shut his eyes while making particularly profound points. Once, his eyes stayed shut for a full minute while he lectured. His whole manner is affected; he’s putting on a show. The old Walt would have laughed at such pretentiousness.

*

The last time I ever saw him was twenty-two years ago, on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street, at the same spot where we’d first met all those years earlier.

I wonder about the intervening time: his sojourn in my “backyard”—San Diego—his stay, later, at Cornell, and eventually his resumed life at Columbia. All this time I’ve been in Los Angeles, and I think about the visits we could’ve had, the conversations, the insights I would’ve gotten from him. Maybe, if I’d matured faster, he would’ve seen me as an equal and not abandoned me. Maybe, if I hadn’t made a certain snide remark that last visit in New York… Maybe…

I sometimes have visions of waiting another twenty-five years and visiting him in a nursing home and grabbing his shoulders and demanding an explanation for the decades of silence.

I believe friendship has been compared to clothing: having a shirt for a certain amount of years, and then discarding it. Some friendships, I know, are not meant to go the whole way, from schooldays to death. It’s understood that romance often fails to make the long journey, but people seem to take it for granted that friendship is by definition more permanent.

I have gained insights from other people’s losses. I’ll say, “Are you still in touch with so-and-so?” and they’ll say, “No, no, they lost interest years ago.” It’s helpful to keep things in perspective, to realize that I’m not the only one. The common thread in all these cases is middle age. The young mind hasn’t fully developed; it’s open to many things; it’s spontaneous; it’s flexible; and it’s fine with being dumb some of the time. The older mind has thickened and ossified into a state of cozy pickiness and prickliness and odd prissy rules and boundaries; it’s not as accepting of peccadillos and slights; it’s set in its ways and just doesn’t have time. And maybe Walt is just as ashamed of his 24-year-old self as I’m ashamed of mine. Who wants to go back and relive the beautiful and stupid days? Not Walt, I’m sure. And not me.

If he were sitting across the table from me now, I’d say something simple and banal like, “I am sorry we lost touch.” I wouldn’t ask him why. I’d be diplomatic, even though most of the time I despise him. What I need to do is release the anger. Put on my boxing gloves and pound the punching bag at the gym, and then do some deep breathing and affirmations, the way I learned in therapy.

One of the best concepts I got out of therapy (and therapy is the thing Walter, more than anyone else, steered me toward): “It’s not what happened; it’s how you deal with what happened.” Over the last twenty-two years I have dealt with it poorly or not at all. Releasing anger, as I’ve described, is one way to come to terms with the loss. Writing this post is another. The slogans of all the 12-step work I’ve done are useful. But as another member of group therapy (an old-timer) said in one of our meetings, “You do all that stuff, you do the meditations and affirmations and the anger work and it’s still gonna hurt.”

I’m sorry that Walt didn’t get a chance to know the mature me. But looking at the tape of him in tweed ensconced in his philosophy chair, I’m not all that sorry I didn’t experience the new him. I like what he has to say about recognition and fame and its relation to evil—I am, like him, preoccupied with thoughts of accomplishment and posterity. I like his thoughts, but the actual Walt I see before me is, for the most part, not the person I knew.

 

I wonder if the attraction he admitted to in the early days wasn’t in some part reciprocated by me in a purely platonic form. I never viewed him as an object (I was into young jocks). But in some way he may have been the “love” of my life. I had the kind of friendship with him that you only get a chance to have in your young years, when you’re free to be dumb and smart and mean and compassionate and giddy with life and future hope in one long session over French toast and coffee at Tom’s Restaurant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revocable Trust

 

Ambition and greed in fashion woman with jewelry in hands on black background

Ambition and greed in fashion woman with jewelry in hands on black background

a selection from the last part of my memoir, the only selection I’m publishing here on my blog………….

 

            The house never changed at all, and neither did our old San Franzisko neighborhood. The big house withstood the fog that came in most days from the ocean. It withstood daily gunfire from the rifle range across Lake Merced as well as earthquakes, some of them severe. People withered and died, but the house just stood there stoically facing the lake as well as the lions that roared and the seals that cried out at midnight from the zoo. I could go back to my old room and it could easily be 1974, until I looked in the mirror and discovered a man in his forties, with more than a few gray hairs. I loved the house so much that I sometimes pitied it, as you can pity a living thing. It remained empty nearly all year long, since my father spent most of his time with his lady-friend in Beverly Hills Adjacent, not far from me in the northeast corner of Los Angeles. And so, whenever I went back, I spoke to the house and assured it that one day it would welcome a young family living there again; one day it would be warmed by children and animals within its walls.

Henry Frankel shriveled and shrank, but neither of us wanted to fully accept that he was older than fifty or that I was much more than nineteen. We worked to keep me innocent and young about money, and I still called him “Deddi.” I reached my forties before I realized the significance, for Americans, of the date April 15. I sometimes didn’t pick up my paycheck from the university for days, and then would leave it in my backpack for weeks before I deposited it. The phone company often threatened to cut me off for not paying my bills. I never listened to the stock market report, and why should I?  I had a checking account, a few thousand dollars in savings, and a Visa card linked to my father. I never paid for my own gas. And yet I lived simply in a one bedroom apartment near Cal State L.A.; I dressed in the careless way of most male college instructors; I drove an old car; I didn’t travel. I accepted my unusual condition of dependence and thought about it as little as possible.

One Friday morning I lay in bed until late in the day. When I checked my voicemail, I heard a message from Deddi’s companion, Rhoda Goldfarb: my father had driven to San Franzisko, weak with kidney stones and diabetes, and had fallen in the bathroom. He’d struggled on the floor for twelve hours until he could crawl to a phone. The paramedics had climbed in through a window and taken him away. “He’s not doing well,” said Rhoda. “You need to go up there and act like a son for a change. Good-bye.”

By that evening—after a daylong drive and frequent updates from nurses who inexplicably found my father “sweet” and “kind”—I was sitting at his bedside in a hospital near my old high school and synagogue, the same hospital where my mother had died of cancer so many years before (we never truly lived in the wholesome American San Francisco, but in our own moldy German-Jewish San Franzisko).  He lay in bed awake and frail, his eyelids drooping every time he made the effort to speak. He’d taped a picture of Rhoda to the wall. “This is my love,” he declared to the nurses.

Henry Frankel now turned into my grandfather. I learned to carry his briefcase and his belongings from the house to the hospital. I learned to open his bills and his checkbooks and enter his inner sanctum of high finance. I was going to have to grow up now.

I stayed in San Franzisko two long weeks. Rhoda Goldfarb phoned from Beverly Hills Adjacent with instructions, opinions, demands, but never came up.

I stayed alone in the empty house. Sometimes, at night, I avoided listening to music, because I was afraid it would mask sounds of trouble somewhere in that big house. I could imagine an orchestra playing, but in the midst of the concert, I pictured a doorknob turning, a door opening, and a hooded intruder standing there wielding a carving knife. At night I needed absolute silence, so I could keep track of all the creaking floors, all the rumblings from distant corners.

When people want to insist on the beauty of San Franzisko, they can’t be thinking of days and weeks alone in a big house with a father in the hospital. They can’t be thinking of days of visiting a sick father and coming home to an empty house with gunfire from the rifle range always in the background. They can’t be thinking of thick fog and foghorns and a phone that never rang, unless it was Deddi calling with feeble instructions or reprimanding me for something I’d forgotten to do for him.

After I returned to L.A., Rhoda Goldfarb consented to a break from her bridge tournament in Beverly Hills Adjacent; it was now her turn to come up and take care of him in our house. My father spent days readying the place, even summoning the strength to do some of the dusting and cleaning. He knew how exacting she was about housekeeping.

She threw out my old toys, my seven unique clocks, all my art from grade school, my stuffed baby cobra, my bust of Thomas Jefferson.

He appeared to improve a little. He regained some of the weight he’d lost. He walked without a cane. He paid his bills. He read. He yelled at waitresses and left insulting tips. But his body was consumed with the internal business of shutting down.

Rhoda did not see any need to keep me informed of my father’s condition, so it came as a shock one day, near the end of October, when by chance I found out he’d been re-admitted to the hospital.

I was there when the doctors and nurses rolled him back to his room after his latest procedure. He smiled in the fake-saccharine way that might have been in vogue around 1930 somewhere in Europe: “I invite you gentlemen to the most marvelous feast!”

I was there when he saw Bill Clinton on the ceiling. “Really?” I said.  “But everyone’s talking about Hillary.”  And I began to feel my side warming up pleasantly; a moment later I realized it was his urine.

I phoned Deddi’s lawyer and asked, “If he passes away, what is the first thing that will need to be done?” He answered with a more general and ominous point: “The first thing that will have to be done is sell the house.”

I rushed home and, while Rhoda was out with her new San Franzisko bridge partners, I rummaged through the hiding place, under a bedspread in his closet, where my father had always told me I’d find his will. I saw my name: “All assets shall be distributed to ALEX M. FRANKEL” and then I saw the other name: “$100,000 shall be distributed to RHODA GOLDFARB.” A moment of relief but, just based on the lawyer’s words and tone, I continued my search for papers: I needed to know what my future would look like, I needed some firm, or unfirm, knowledge—anything. In the top right-hand drawer of his desk, I found an innocuous manila envelope with a new will that invalidated the old ones. It was dated May, 2007, after his fall, when he was weak and helpless. I turned the pages: solemn language handed down from a misty but implacable Roman and medieval past, words like declaration, restatement, hereby, pursuant, codicil, amendment, revocable, inoperative, attestation, witness, testator, trust. Trust—an interesting word, I wondered what it meant, in this context. I didn’t know many legal terms. Trust. I had always trusted my father. A twelve-step sponsor used to say to me, “You are so trusting, you take people at their word.” I turned pages, looking for changes, sensing they were coming. Falling, falling alone, more alone than ever before. I was bad, unclean—maybe people were right to want me invisible: the schoolyard children from the seventh grade, the exciting young men from the streets and the gay bars, and now my own father. “The sum of $100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Dollars Exactly) shall be distributed to Settlor’s son ALEX M. FRANKEL, currently residing in Los Angeles, California, if he survives me for 30 (thirty) days. If she survives trustor for ninety (90) days, then all of the rest and residue of the trust estate and assets of the Trust shall be distributed to RHODA GOLDFARB, currently residing in Beverly Hills, California, outright and free of trust, and the trust shall then terminate.” What did it mean to revoke trust? Who was doing the revoking? I had done most of the trusting, but it seemed to me that someone else, now, was doing the revoking. What did it mean to be “free” of trust and to “terminate” trust? Now, in my hands, I held the answer to my future. A hundred thousand from my father to me, and Rhoda Goldfarb—almost a stranger—had won. I began to do primitive calculations in my head. I knew the house was worth over a million. I knew my father had a million in investments. Where had I made my mistake? When had I been bad?

*

Before I left his bedside that night, I recited my boyhood German prayer. He didn’t seem at all surprised or annoyed, and he even joined in, with his eyes closed. He said the words meekly, innocently, together with me. What a gentle old man he could be, what a good Deddi.

           

Tired am I, and go to rest,

            Close both my little eyes.

            Father in heaven may your eyes

            Watch over my little bed.

            Amen 

 

I had an idea. I took out my phone: “Record a message for me, please! Tell me good-night!”

He smiled and nodded faintly and, still with his eyes closed, said in a strong voice, “Nighty night, sweetie!” as I held the phone to his lips.

*

I drove around until late. I needed to avoid our house with his lady-love in it. At dawn I parked by the windmills at Ocean Beach and fell asleep.

There were four messages when I awoke. Impossible—I’m never that popular. Then I realized who they were from. “Where are you? Go to the hospital immediately,” instructed Rhoda Goldfarb. “You need to go to St. Mary’s now,” she said in her second message. In her third she said, “I left you two messages already. Go and see your father. Go and see him at once.” Her final message: “This is the last time I’m calling. It’s almost nine in the morning. Go to the hospital. You know where it is.”

On the fifth floor of St. Mary’s, someone had taped a sign on the door to his room: “Please see nurse before entering.” I opened the door and found my father in a bag.

Ten, twenty years of preparing for this moment and I wasn’t prepared. I unzipped the bag and saw his face—what an odd expression there. He didn’t seem in pain. His lips were pursed, as if he were about to speak.

I said the Serenity Prayer over and over. What was going to happen to me now without a Deddi?

He hadn’t really been sick. He hadn’t had either a heart condition or cancer. Eighty-seven was too young. I needed him there another few years; I even needed an angry father, anyone, anything, just not alone.

I put his glasses on him so that he would look more like himself. I felt his hands, cold but not stiff. Why hadn’t I been in the room when he died? Someone mentioned it happened at 3:00 a.m. No one around him but the professionals.

*

I brought his graveclothes to Sinai Memorial Chapel. I stood under what memory insists was a silver and gold rotunda. I brought his blazer, slacks, a dress shirt. And suddenly, standing on the other side of the room, I saw another man, also carrying clothes for the same reason. Our eyes met. We didn’t talk. What is the proper form of conversation for such a meeting? He looked at me; I looked at him. We said nothing. I turned away.

I sat down with the undertaker, a reserved and businesslike fellow who did not shake my hand. Because I’d often heard how mortuaries take advantage of people in distress, I chose the cheapest coffin I could, which seemed to displease the man.

I still had Deddi’s voice on my phone. I needed it. “Nighty-night, sweetie!”

I drove around San Franzisko and walked in the park, where rich young couples pushing strollers greeted other rich young couples pushing strollers. I spent yet another night in my car, not willing to face our old house taken over by Rhoda.

And then, the day of the funeral, I drove up to the Hills of Eternity and walked uphill to the grave where my mother had now been for thirty years. My father was to be buried next to her. I went to the coffin, hugged it, wept into its shiny brown contours and imitation gold.

About six or seven people showed up.

I watched Rhoda Goldfarb arrive; she looked like royalty decked out in black. She did not acknowledge me. I watched her walk on the grass among the graves in her severe attire. She knew how to dress for these events.

The cantor who’d officiated at my bar mitzvah conducted the service—what a comforting act of continuity! As if all those years hadn’t passed. Rhoda Goldfarb did not speak. I did speak: I’d written up a eulogy at 4 a.m. I still have it; I keep the torn, coffee-stained pages in my glove compartment. It reads, in part:

The happiest I ever saw him was the night we went to see Life is Beautiful. It may seem odd that a film about an Italian Jew condemned to an extermination camp would be so uplifting and so positive and would make him so happy, but it was the happiest I’d ever seen him. He was a survivor. Being a German-Jewish refugee in Shanghai taught him how to survive. Life is beautiful. Life will be hard without him. He lay there in the hospital on Friday morning and all around him life was going on even though he had left it behind. On his door, someone had put a note: Please see nurse before entering. You don’t say “death.” But I say “death” and I protest.

People talk nicely by the grave because the sun has broken through. Neckties. Dresses. A scent of Sunday even though it isn’t Sunday. That coffin, glossy as a baby grand, gets eased casually, with little ceremony and no protest, into the earth.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord . . . 

Sprinklers. Neckties.

To lead him into paradise . . . the bosom of Abraham.

No one is crying.  Orchids, dresses, light, sprinklers, bugs. There should have been music. Too late now.

The coffin is covered up with dirt by sullen men. People scatter quickly.  Rhoda departs without appearing to notice me.

*

The day after my father’s funeral, a tall, grizzled lawyer appeared at the house, rang the doorbell. Maybe my time in hell would be over soon. I was swallowing a Xanax tablet in my childhood bathroom when I heard the chimes ring. “Alex!” called Rhoda Goldfarb, and let the lawyer in. Like the undertaker, the attorney did not shake my hand and chose to get down to business, dispensing with polite preliminaries. Since I had taken a look at the will, there were no surprises when the man gestured to Rhoda, who sat on a distant couch, and said, “Your father left his estate to Rhoda Goldfarb, with a provision of $100,000 for you.” I remember his hand: he sat in an armchair and so easily gestured to Rhoda, so easily, so casually with his right hand indicated that she was to receive what should have been mine.

The lawyer handed us papers. “Here are copies of all his previous wills,” he told us, “so you can note the changes.”

Where we sat seemed important: I was in the round armchair that swiveled and had belonged to my mother, her favorite chair—“Mami’s chair,” where she’d sat the day she told me about my adoption. The attorney was seated in a stiff fancy-fretwork chair from Thailand, a gift from business people of the ’70s. And Rhoda sat in the new sofa she herself had selected, having thrown out the old one which had been in our family for twenty years. And everything in the room—as per Rhoda’s instructions and wishes—had been re-upholstered in white: beautified, purified by the cool simplicity of whiteness.

“It might take as long as a year to sell the house,” the lawyer said.

“A year!” Rhoda didn’t like this one bit.

It had been a good idea to medicate with the sedative. Sometimes I caught Rhoda looking at me, perhaps wondering why I wasn’t more surprised by the news the lawyer had brought. And that interested me: the lawyer brought us news; we didn’t have to present ourselves at his office. This scene didn’t resemble—physically, at least—the classic movie or TV image of relatives sitting in a dark, wood-paneled law office while a dignified man of years, seated behind his desk, informs those gathered around of a deceased person’s good or bad last decisions.

There were quite a few boring details to mention—and the lawyer mentioned all of them.

The talking went on and on; I felt so thankful for the sedative.

And the lawyer slipped out as quietly as he’d come in, almost bashfully, like a waiter.

*

Most of Henry Frankel’s possessions went into boxes and crates.

I stopped sleeping in my car and faced up to spending a few last days and nights in my old room. Constantly I heard high heels in the walk-in closet and the master bedroom. Once I picked up the phone and overheard Rhoda talking to a man whose voice I didn’t recognize. Instantly, I understood that she already had a new admirer.

One night, while I was sitting on the floor packing books, she appeared in the doorway of my room. “You left a mess downstairs,” she said.

“Did I?” I was trying to fit venerable old volumes of my Encyclopedia Britannica into boxes they’d given me at the market. I tried not to look up. “I’ll get to it later.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rhoda crossing her arms over her chest. “Your father was right about you. So untidy. So scatterbrained . . . You had difficulties in school, didn’t you?”

“Just with math and science.” Still without looking up, I tried to focus our attention on the books in my hand. Before there was the Internet and Google, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica—a source of hours and hours of wasted time. “I used to love these books,” I said. “I even loved the smell of the pages.”

“Yeah,” said Rhoda. “Math and science, math and science. Your father told me about your troubles. Summer sessions, private tutors, afterschool classes and whatnot, but you never got it, did you?”

“I never got it.”

“You weren’t too studious either, were you? Except in English. Except poetry!” I noticed she made an effort to showcase the word “poetry.”

Near me I kept bubble-wrap and tape as well as a pair of rusty old scissors we’d had in the family ever since I could remember. They were classic and rather frightening office scissors.

“Maybe,” I said, “I inherited a few traits from my birth parents, have you ever thought of that? My biological father was an intellectual, no head for business.”

“Oh Alex, don’t get me started on that,” said Rhoda. “You hurt your father—I mean the man who brought you up. It sickened him when you came up with those people out of the blue and announced you were going through with a reunion. A reunion!”

I went on with the motions of packing.

“Those were my birth parents. I had a right to find them.”

“Who gave you that right?”

I was nearly finished with a box but feared grabbing hold of the scissors to cut the tape, feared what I might do with them in my hand.

“Well, he’s at peace now,” I added quietly, looking at the floor.

“When are you going to get to the mess? The dining room’s a disaster.”

“I’ll get to it soon.”

She took a step into the room and, hands at her hips, looked at the walls. “Pictures of composers! They must be worth something. You should have them appraised.”

“I might,” I said.

“Most American boys collect baseball cards, but you had to collect portraits of composers and classical records,” Rhoda observed.

“I guess that’s the way it was.”

“You didn’t talk baseball and football with your father, you talked music!”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

She stood close to me, in my old room, in her new house. I could smell her Chanel. I looked at the scissors, shiny and sharp.

“He worked so hard to put you through high school and college and grad school, Alex, he wanted you to make something of yourself.”

“I did make something of myself.”

I heard her laugh. I was still on the floor and she was still standing over me. “It wasn’t his idea of success,” she said. “What do you make, fourteen dollars an hour?”

“Seventy.”

“But no retirement, I heard, no benefits . . .”

With the scissors it would have been so easy to do so much, but it would have taken too long and been extremely messy. I liked where my imagination took me.

“What are you now, fifty?” she said to me.

“Forty-five.”

“I thought you were older.”

“Forty-five.”

Then she was walking around in my room—freely, openly. She had taken possession, even of this space that had once been my sanctuary. She’d been my father’s higher power, no use denying it. Was she mine too?

I wanted her out. I wanted to get the packing done. Soon it was going to be time for Ambien and sleep. What would I have done without Ambien?

“Your father worked hard for you,” I heard Rhoda say. “It’s a shame you treated him the way you did.”

“We didn’t dwell on it.”

“Oh, you’re wrong about that. He dwelled on it. When you weren’t there.”

“No doubt,” I said. “No doubt.”

“He was such a kind, generous man, but you never got to know him, did you? Sometimes he’d come back from having lunch with you, and he was so down. I didn’t like to see him that way. He was suffering.”

Hundreds of more things to pack. I’d barely started. I looked around at the piles of books but kept snagging my eyes on the bright scissors on the floor beside me.

“He knew you didn’t love him,” said Rhoda. “I wish you’d tried, but you were always too selfish for that, weren’t you?”

“I tried. You only knew him a few short years. He was my father, and I was the best son he could’ve asked for.”

“You weren’t. You never came to visit, you neglected him. That’s not how a son behaves.”

Maybe if I hadn’t been grieving, the rage in me would have shot to the surface and I wouldn’t have been able to control it. I knew that since Rhoda was not grieving, it was easy for her to pick a fight as if these were just normal times.

“You weren’t there when he had pneumonia last year,” she went on. “Or when he had  the gallstones removed. Or when he almost lost his hearing. You were never around. I did everything.”

“Yes, you did it all. He was lucky!”

But she wouldn’t be sidetracked. “I used to tell him he was too permissive with you when you were growing up. With a little firmness, a little old-fashioned strictness . . .”

“Yes, what then?”

“Why, you might’ve turned out more normal.”

I looked at the floor. “More to his liking? More to yours?”

“More normal.”
“Normal, I see.”

“With just a little strictness. I don’t know how often I told him—”

“Rhoda!” I jumped up, startling her, but she was in her element, prepared for battle, pleased with where this might be going. “Rhoda, I want to give you something.” I groped for a box full of odds and ends on the shelf behind her. I took out a picture of my father on a Caribbean cruise, circa 1974. He was strong, tanned, slim, hardly a grey hair on him yet. “I bet you haven’t seen this one.” For a second she looked confused. “You only knew him when he was older,” I said. I took her hand and placed the framed picture in it. “I want you to have this, please.”

“Oh.” She looked down at the picture. “Yes, it’s lovely, thank you.” Deddi was standing on a sun-deck in a beige leisure suit and smiling at us with lips tightly shut. “I hadn’t seen this one, you’re right.”

I turned around and sat back down on the floor and went on with my packing. She passed through the room and out the door without another word.

Rhoda packed; I packed (I almost wrote “we,” but there was no “we”). Days went by. Sometimes her new boyfriend would leave soft, flirty messages openly on my father’s answering machine. One morning I woke up and realized she’d left for Southern California—along with her new china and stemware, as well as two Persian rugs, several lamps, and a miniature Chinese village carved into ivory, complete with temple and tower. I never saw her again.

*

A few weeks after the funeral, while the house was being readied to go on the market, I took a train and then a bus up to Yosemite.

It was winter now.  The first snow fell the night of my arrival, and the next morning I struggled to walk in the wet unplowed whiteness of the valley. I gazed up at the mountains and took pictures and, when no one was looking, I cried. My Deddi and my Mami and my grandmother! It was true that as an adult I’d tracked down my birth parents, but we hadn’t become close and I didn’t mourn them after their deaths. I had only one set of parents, those who’d raised me. And so what was I going to do now, all alone? In my cabin late at night I listened to radio voices speculate about space aliens, poltergeists, sprites, goblins, UFOs, alternate universes, life after death. An expert spoke: “Always there is life, always.” If that was so, where was Deddi now? Was he anywhere besides just gone? By day I walked in the cold and the slush—cold as Siberia here—and at night thawed out in the lodge and warmed my feet as near as I could get to the fire without burning myself. One evening I sat by an immense fireplace in the lobby of the Ahwanhee Hotel and watched partygoers in costumes file into the great dining hall. They were wearing Tudor-style costumes—bodices and petticoats and ruffles and lace cuffs—and they were laughing, life was good, life seemed to have at least a temporary purpose for them. I could never have imagined my father Henry Frankel dressed as Henry VIII, though for me he’d been as important and as mighty. On my way back to my cabin I communed with a snowman in the moonlight. “Such a good snowman out here in the cold!” I said, a child of eight rapidly turning into a man of forty-five. I patted his ice-cold belly and kissed his pine-cone nose. Slowly I walked back to my cabin. What was waiting for me there? Energy bars and talk radio. I prayed to God to ease, to deliver me from, the hatred I felt for the woman who’d stolen my inheritance. I lived mostly without God, but if ever there was a time for the Serenity Prayer, it was now. A full moon lit the way to warmth. “My Deddi,” I said out loud to just cold air. It was a comfort to have his voice on my voicemail, and there it remained for a whole year, until one day I woke up and realized I’d accidentally deleted it. The good-night message had vanished, along with my father.

 

Stop Inflicting Her on Our Ears! (Thoughts on Upspeak and a Radio Voice)

Amy Nicholson

A new voice surfaced one day on my favorite public radio show, Film Week on KPCC. The roundtable format is simple and predictable: the host is joined by two or three film critics, out of a pool of eight or so, to review new releases. I sat down to breakfast expecting to learn something, expecting to smile, hoping to be entertained, even though I rarely go to any movies. But that day a young lady talking “mall talk” joined the panel. I felt an immediate hostility to her, and changed stations.

From then on I was elated whenever they didn’t feature the voice. I suspected it would return, and it did. It was now going to be one of the regulars.

The young lady’s name is Amy Nicholson.  I flipped the dial, or found another podcast, whenever I realized they’d invited her back. I was angry at the station, which at one time I supported with donations, for unleashing that voice on a whole region, when so many other reviewers would have done better. I was even angrier at Ms. Nicholson It was not only her voice: it was also what she did with it; the issue was the hip, nonchalant persona she oozed onto the airwaves.

I am not alone in my dislike. Film critic Nicholson has many critics on the station’s website. AlfaRomeo911 says, “Amy is an immediate reason to skip the show.” Shadow Lady says, “Another show made unlistenable by Amy Nicholson.” Terminatrix666 says, “Amy is dreadful. Please replace her with any of the others. When she’s on, I’m afraid I skip the entire show.” Webstuff says, “I just have to join in the chorus. I don’t mean to be mean but Amy has the perfect voice for a phone-sex worker. Please do us all a big favor: stop inflicting her on our ears and return her to her desk job for God’s sake please!” In response to these protests, the station features Ms. Nicholson more prominently than before, and on more programs.

So what does she sound like? First, what she’s not: the other panelists have meaty, engaging voices. They aren’t of course actors; what they do have is personality, three-dimensionality, and a soothing atmosphere of authority. Listening to them is like listening to brilliant dinner guests. When the show is over, you can’t wait for them to come back.

Amy, of the texting generation, talks very fast in a tone devoid of discernable emotion. She fails to fully appreciate she’s on the radio. Like many people nowadays, especially middle-class whites, she tends to upspeak, bending her statements into questions: “I like what low-budget horror movies do in terms of taking risks?” Or: “This film doesn’t just tap into nostalgia?” Or: “It’s not often in a teen movie that the female love interest gets to be recognized as her own person by the protagonist?” Upspeak is an irritant, conveying a kind of in-your-face lack of confidence as well as mistrust in the listener’s ability or willingness to listen (“You know what I mean?”) and even demanding attention in a subtly admonishing way with the unstated message “Are you still there? Do you get me? Do you feel me?” Besides the upspeak, Ms. Nicholson’s speech is plagued by a fussy, very Californian overemphasis on certain operative words: “Adam Sandler’s characters are so negative and sour, and yet he thinks that’s adorable.” “José Morales has this movie star presence.” “Rosamund Pike plays an annoyed wife better than about anyone else on the planet.” I don’t think anyone knows for sure how or where upspeak got its start, but it’s here to stay (at least for the next decades) and almost as common among young men as among young women. Alongside this habit, Nicholson often gets grandmotherly when singing a film’s praises; it’s a Julia Child/Valkyrie shrillness that grates, so that in one sentence she can go from Valley Girl to octogenarian. And not only that: she often finishes utterances with “vocal fry,” a low, growly Valley way of sounding sophisticated. As if that weren’t enough, she slurs and even mispronounces so many words that a good part of her speech becomes unintelligible. Amy Nicholson’s voice and delivery are a disaster. One listener, Peteski Archer, has put it well: “Amy, you’re awful.”

Radio voices talk from a space that is at once the idealized ether and the untidy den of the inner head. Those I know exclusively from the airwaves have never been burdened with faces or bodies: they are just smudges, analogous to mental images of abstractions like “over the last few weeks” or “in the eighteenth century.” I accept these voices as stand-ins for actual persons whom I never trouble to picture in a precise way. I’m satisfied that for me they will always be voices only. In fact, I need them to stay voices: they’re complete as they are.

One Saturday, back in the States after living in Spain for ten years, I turned on the car radio and heard a wise, comforting storyteller-voice that told an ethereal tale about a youth with terrible acne who wandered into the north woods and fell in love with the sight of a doe in the distance. Before that day I’d never heard of A Prairie Home Companion, but from then on I tuned in every week. I looked forward to the drive home from the gym on Saturday evenings when I could hear Garrison Keillor paint a picture of a forlorn, frozen, funny Minnesota town. I would have been less interested in the same material on the page. Half the charm was the voice’s music, the timing, the pauses, the baritone alternating with an occasional sententious falsetto, the cunningly crafted breaths, the downhome talk spiced up with New York style. It was also a voice that suggested twilight and farewells. It looked back to an era long-gone but cherished, and part of its genius lay in its always threatening to fade away, its continual and somber message to the audience that not only were the old days dead, but the artificially revived radio show was itself a precarious artifact forever teetering on the edge of extinction.

In the two decades since I’ve lived back in America I’ve never owned a television set. I’m content with my radio. Even with the advent of YouTube, I still get most of my facts, news, updates, and entertainment from disembodied voices. And when they leave, I often mourn them. I liked Canadian personality Barbara Budd  on my favorite station late at night. First the cheesy, tired jazz tune “Curried Soul,” iconic theme music since the ’60s, then Barbara’s matronly, mellifluous voice came on to introduce CBC interviews with the famous and the obscure, mostly the obscure, on topics ranging from the London Underground bombings to bald eagle sightings and fishing mishaps. It felt as if Barbara were talking to me, looking after me, watching over me, and so of course when she retired I felt betrayed and abandoned. She wasn’t looking out for my welfare after all.

Some voices don’t depart voluntarily. One such was NPR’s Neal Conan. I’ve never seen a picture of the man, but out of his voice I hazily, lazily construct a tall, lean, bearded, bespectacled man a bit past his prime. This urbane voice gently introduced me to MySpace; his was a voice of reason and restraint when we were attacked in 2001 and when we twice went to war and when Trayvon Martin’s death started the country soul-searching about racism and prejudice. I came to trust Conan’s warm blend of wit, polish, and aplomb. When Talk of the Nation was suddenly cancelled, it was a calamity in my quiet little world almost as shattering as the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban.

When I turn on NPR and hear Paula Poundstone , the oxytocin is released into my bloodstream and I’m experiencing something akin to euphoria. Amy Nicholson, on the other hand, is a third-grader squeaking out her practice sessions on a recorder. I loathe her voice so much that I almost get physically sick listening to it. But just as interesting as the voice itself is my reaction. I’m intrigued by my hatred; I want to learn more about it.

I live alone. Most of my voices emanate from the radio or the computer. I prefer these to be older than me: I need to be guided and entertained and protected by the droll, experienced brains and mouths of my elders. It is disturbing to hear so many junior voices born twenty years after me. I’m reminded of the passing of time and of other people’s successes, i.e., my own failures. I’m reminded that most of world is younger than me. I now know a few men and women in their nineties; I sometimes ask myself whom they have, among the living, to look up to. When they turn on their devices, they’re met with the same thriving post-collegiate faces I am, hear the voices of boys and girls talking politics and poetry and medicine and talking very smart, voices of their grandchildren’s or great-grandchildren’s generation. What can these children know? It must be common to die of loneliness in such a young world.

In Amy Nicholson’s youthful voice, I hear my own mortality.

Most of us dislike listening to the sound of our own taped voices; I didn’t realize this until late in life (I’d thought I was the only one). I was playing back the recording of a friend talking—to me he sounded like himself—when he suddenly cried out in pain. I felt satisfaction in realizing I was not alone. It was a moment of solidarity with the rest of the world. But I go further than others in that I dislike my own voice not just when it’s played back, but even when I hear it from inside me. It’s not the voice as much as the accent. Though from California, I was adopted (at four days old) by a Jewish couple, refugees from Nazi Germany, and used to speak with a heavy German accent, whereas now I speak with a light one. I don’t sound like wholesome American folks and hate my messed-up accent. True, Amy Nicholson sounds American, but I nonetheless hear much of myself in her: a lack of control, an inability to enunciate, an effeteness of presentation, a disparity between her fluid, smart prose style (she is a good writer) and her quick, mumbling voice (it’s as if she originally learned to talk in an abandoned house with a troubled single parent as model). When the other panelists opine, they do so as confident players in a larger group: there’s the lively, well-trained tenor of the show’s longtime host that plays off against the urbane, distinctively gay baritone of the animation expert that harmonizes with the wide-open, exuberant tenor of the show’s lone African-American voice that makes music with the affable, very white soccer-mom soprano of one of the other female regulars. Amy demolishes the mood of this madrigal ensemble like a baby screaming bloody murder in a theater’s front row.

In Amy Nicholson’s voice, I hear my own undeveloped voice.

Like a lot of adopted people, I searched for and reunited with my birth parents. After years of being “in reunion,” my birth mother died, and not long after that my birth father began to display signs of senile dementia. I tried to help with daily tasks like shopping and housework. I alerted his daughter, my biological half-sister Samantha, but at first she couldn’t accept that anything was wrong, and even gave him a big new dog. After a year she finally caught on that he was sick and helpless. She sold his house and moved him far away, to another state. She is now the sole inheritor of his estate. Samantha talks very fast and has a chaotic voice. Her favorite words are “Oh. My. God” and “totally.” In her presence, you have to plan carefully when to jump in, so you can get a word in edgewise—but it’s hard work and requires cunning, the kind you need when swatting a fly with your hands. I once spent Thanksgiving dinner with her. She talked incessantly and anyone could see how much she loved her beer. Her boyfriend loved his beer even more; he guzzled it down and held forth on baseball and football and motorcycles and NASCAR and his favorite topic, urban planning, as she peppered him with questions. Around him Samantha, though over forty, turned into a co-ed constantly in need of an assertive male to instruct her. She was every inch my biological half-sister: we had nothing in common. If I had said to her, “I am tired of life in the States and plan to hitchhike to Bolivia and join the Mennonites and father eleven children,” she would have looked at me untroubled with her candid, inscrutable face and asked, “Oh my God that’s totally awesome, when are you leaving?” If I had said, “Life’s not good and I wish to end it all; do you have any ideas on how I might do so?” she would have gazed at me in her chipper way, free of emotion and concern, gone on drinking, and inquired about the many available forms of suicide. Samantha’s voice is so much like Amy Nicholson that when I juxtapose the two, I hardly discern a difference. I have not heard from my bio half-sister in a year, while her ward, my birth father, languishes in his darkened room, ungroomed, unwilling to shower, deaf and half dead, looking not seventy-nine but ninety-nine.

In Amy Nicholson’s voice, I hear the silly, rejective voice of the sister I never got to know.

I wish I could say that understanding the origins of my allergy to Amy has made it possible to listen to her. But insights alone aren’t enough. At most, insights have allowed me to channel my hostility into writing down my thoughts here instead of leaving caustic comments on the show’s page. I do feel guilty about some of those comments. But what I wrote was the result of a sense of loss and betrayal: the old voices are going away, the sonorous public radio voices I grew up with are disappearing, and kids born in the ’80s and ’90s are taking over and becoming stars. This generational shift is inevitable and I should try to come to terms with it.

While reflecting on Amy’s oice and all that it does and doesn’t do, I’ve come to realize how unusual it is to hear a media or public-figure voice (even a drastically uptalking voice) that completely fails. And never in history have there been more voices or more choices. When I first moved to back to the U.S. from Spain, the Internet hadn’t yet taken off and people were still listening to shortwave radio. I struggled with my antenna and even attached a wire that I dangled out the window just so I could listen to Radio Exterior de España and the BBC World Service. Half the time the reception was so bad I had to give up. Now I not only listen to Radio Exterior but also regular Spanish radio and myriads of local Spanish stations. The way they read their news is urgent, bellicose—the authoritarian style I remember so well, though most of the voices have gotten younger. The World Service announcers read everything much more slowly, in their gracious, post-imperialist accents, though the names have become more exotic: the Francis Lyons are dying off, making way for a new era of Ritula Shahs and Razia Iqbals. What would meals be without them? Music won’t work: my racing-around thoughts won’t pause enough with music. I need to travel somewhere, hear stories; food needs to go down to the sound of a good voice telling me a story.

I’m ashamed to admit that my favorite voices come on late at night. I avoid the computer and the tablet and the smartphone and turn on my oldest radio, part of a dusty RCA stereo from the ’60s, the same one I listened to when I was little. The hour is too late for politics and debate or well-considered critiques; it’s past time for the rational and enlightened.  A host and his guests  are discussing UFOs and alien abductions and poltergeists and Ouija boards and sprites and leprechauns and raising the dead—even the embalmed dead—and truckers from all over America are calling from their lonely rides through the night to share about their ghosts and their close encounters and near-death experiences and miraculous cures. What better way to spend the time when no one is around, when all you can hear outside are the coyotes in the hills? I turn off the lamp; the ancient radio gives off its frail glow. Through venetian blinds, slatted moonlight floods a patch of bedroom near the window. The gun-show and smell-good plumber and Roto-Rooter commercials out of the way, it’s time for the host to introduce his guest and his topic—mindless stuff, you could argue. But it doesn’t matter. I manage to forget everything I found out in college and beyond, and let myself be seduced by those Middle American voices that so easily, so earnestly, spin story after story from the Outer Limits. I couldn’t imagine those voices in daylight: maybe the sun’s first rays would shrivel them up as if they were vampires. Here they come! I curl up with my chamomile tea and feel my pleasure chemicals percolate and circulate as night voices draw me in with the latest “report”: sonic booms and brilliant blue pie-plates are hovering in the darkness over Utah.
Vocal Fry

Three Books I Bought at AWP

I don’t like the Associated Writing Programs annual convention. You feel so small. It’s like trying to go on a date in a fluorescent-lit garage. It’s like walking around O’Hare Airport and brushing against the multitudes and not being recognized by anyone.  I don’t think too many other writers like it either, for the same reason. But these conventions, I guess, are a necessary evil.  I felt I had to go this year, because this event was held right here in LA and I could pick up some good books and go to some good talks. One of the highlights was seeing a tribute to John Rechy, the iconic gay novelist from the 1960s and ’70s. Very few people showed up! This was surprising. Maybe because he wrote most of his great books over forty years ago, the hot young things of today do not know him or care. He’s now 85 and looks and sounds great. Another highlight was hearing Alicia Ostriker read a prose piece (not sure if she’d call it a prose poem—I think it was) about childbirth in ’60s/early ’70s, which were still fairly unenlightened times. It was included in the anthology Far Out: Poems of the ’60s.

I bought three books (and a few journals I’ll discuss in another post). They are Swing State by Michael T. Fournier; I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life by Michael Czyzniejewski; and The End of Being Known by Michael Klein.

Swing State is a gripping tale of life in a contemporary New Hampshire small town. After about page 40 or 50 I couldn’t put it down. Fournier tells the story from the point of view of three young people; two are in high school and one is in his twenties, a vet from the war in Afghanistan. Each character’s narrative is told in a different way, with a distinctive voice. Zach is an overweight boy who lives in a dreamworld. He’s obsessed with and tormented by Dixon, a female bully fond of firecrackers. Roy occasionally encounters these two in the street and elsewhere, but doesn’t know them: he’s got enough problems of his own. He can barely get by. He has PTSD and shoots pool in his spare time. And he has nothing but spare time. All these characters are struggling and desperate. Fournier is even able to get the reader to sympathize with Dixon the bully during her monologues. We come to understand how she became a bully. She’s often beaten by her stepfather, just as Zach is often beaten by his single father. All the portraits are nuanced, subtle. And Swing State is an apt title because the fortunes of these three characters swing dramatically. Towards the middle, there’s hope. I wanted to believe things were getting better . . . I won’t give away how it all ends. Fournier’s plot is ingenious. Sometimes the book did have the tone and atmosphere of young adult fiction. It could probably have been marketed as such. But maybe not; maybe it’s too literary. I also would’ve liked to see a little more New Hampshire local color: descriptive passages, regional accents/colloquialisms. But read Swing State for the grim, masterfully constructed plot, and for Roy’s voice in particular:

Wasn’t sleeping. Heard noises. Weren’t there before. Or didn’t notice them. Maybe there before. But kept waking up. Sitting up in bed. Yelling. WHO’S THERE? Falling back asleep. Basic dream. Over and over. Standing with everyone. Heads into clouds. One after the other. Always woke up before it was his turn. But had to watch.

***

 

Michael Czyzniejewski’s I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life is an unusual collection of very short stories. The common theme: they are all, in one way or another, about breaking up, but never in a conventional way of typical romantic breakups. One of the most memorable pieces is the first, “A Change of Heart,” a perverse and deliciously sick version of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” Czyzniejewski has an amazing imagination. Where do all these ideas come from? I’m curious about his process.

The short story is now a somewhat alien art to me. At one time, in the early ’90s, before I turned to poetry, nonfiction, criticism, and memoir, I did write short stories myself. The issue I have with them has to do with character. There’s a sketchiness, even a bloodlessness about most short story “characters.” This applies to the above-mentioned O. Henry story and Maupassant’s “The Necklace” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow” and Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers” and most other stories I can think of. And this is especially true of contemporary American work. The language, the situations, the atmosphere, the action, can all be brilliant; but when it comes to character, I always feel the reader is expected to, if you will, go potluck: supply his/her own characters (based on hazy mental stereotypes) to fill in what cannot be done in the confines of the story itself. Short story characters generally don’t have three-dimensionality. In Flannery O’Connor’s novels we also get fascinating characters—not in her stories, which may be admirable for other reasons (what we get are hints of potential characters). I recently read a whole issue of The Santa Monica Review. I saw good craft and ingenious turns of phrase. But no people with flesh on them, just the stock characters from the back of my mind that I recruited to bestow life on what I was reading.

Here I am going on a rant. In spite of the (for me) traditional constraints of the genre, the pieces in I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life are surprising, fun, sick, slick, diabolically clever, and very individual. Just listen to some of the titles: “Pregnant With Peanut Butter”; “The Last Time We Had Intercourse”; “You Had Me at Zoo”; “Night of the Scallop.”  I like “When the Heroes Came to Town” most because 1) it’s like a poem and 2) it’s about a whole community, thus skirting the whole issue of individual character. It’s about a team of “heroes” who mysteriously appear in town and fix everything, make everything “right,” and then just as mysteriously depart. He begins:

The consensus, among many of us, was that we were unimpressed. Before the heroes, things weren’t that bad, and, depending on whom you asked, they were going pretty well. The county had just paid to have the throughway resurfaced, our boys had made it to the state semis, and business boomed at the tire factory up by the mall, which in turn, made business boom at the mall as well. Everyone felt confident about the economy, the kids were getting into good colleges, and if a town with prettier women existed, we hadn’t been there. . . . Which is why we scratched our heads when these heroes showed up, their jaws, their capes, their stoicism all in tow.

It’s the “we” that makes this so memorable. It’s the voice of a community, and it has character, insofar as a whole community could be said to have a character, a spirt. And it proceeds like a poem, in a vaguely sinister way. It has both the analytical, doggedly prosy style of Kafka and yet the potential to be a narrative poem. This subtle, quiet first-person-plural story—along with several other of Czyzniejewski’s creations in this book—could and should show the way to the short story of the future, which might consciously shed the tired “miniature novel” mode and develop an aesthetic that combines the best qualities of the essay and the prose poem.

***

And speaking of prose poetry, that is what Michael Klein’s memoir/essay collection The End of Being Known really is. This is a stunningly beautiful book, one that I will be rereading, often. Is it a memoir? a collection of essays? It’s neither and both. Klein writes about incest and abuse and being gay in New York in the ’70s. Every sentence, every paragraph is a work of art. After a while I got tired of underling passages, because I was underlining almost the whole book.

Many readers might have a hard time with Klein’s leisurely pace and idiosyncratic wording. This book can’t be read like a conventional novel. He’s dismissive of chronology. And he’s an uncomfortable writer to read. Many of the things he writes about, particularly his incestuous relationships, are grim in the way I’ve always felt French New Wave and Italian neorealist movies are grim: no sweeping Hollywood music, not much music at all, just gritty interiors and drab street scenes and drab people trying to cope. Hollywood is where we might want to be; these gritty mid-century European films are where we actually are. And it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes savagely uncomfortable. Here’s an example of Klein’s prose, from “A Wedding in the Sky”:

I loved a man named Richard. I told my parents. I moved away from one house into another house. If the family is a cult, the journey out of Brooklyn was leaving the cult for love life. I knew I wasn’t going to get the love kit down in Brooklyn. Thomas Wolf said only the dead know Brooklyn.

I’ll let Klein speak for himself and end with “Once, My Brother.” Its first paragraph:

Once my brother was in a hospital. He walked around in a paper crown after the nervous breakdown. The crown was made by a group of fellow crazies who gave it to him because he used to let them circle around his bed at night and jerk off on him. The dirty light in the public ward made my brother look old. I didn’t have a lot of family around at that point to go with me to visit him in the hospital. I was relegated to going with a cousin of my stepfather’s, who was at least as crazy as my brother was. Her name was Miriam, and she took medication, the residue of which painted the corners of her mouth with white powder. Toothpaste or drug? I never knew for sure. I was going to the crazy house with a crazy person.

And the essay ends:

I came home one night with a stranger from the park and my brother stormed into my room while I was sleeping. He screamed into my face,  “You’re the devil. You’re the devil.” I told him to leave. He stormed down the stairs and left the building after shattering the plate glass in the front door and becoming the ex-mental patient, without a place to live. My brother had become the kind of New Yorker that has always lived here, but one that nobody knows. The kind of person (the future will make this happen more often) who pushes people in front of trains because they hear a voice that tells them to do that.