I don’t like change.
Worse than the dawdling crowds of small-tourists jamming every midtown Manhattan corner, this particular eccentricity threatened to topple my sanity. With the first warm days came palpable shifts in the landscape: tiny disappearances, incremental vanishings welled up like unexpected storms. Early warnings came in April, when the Plaza announced it would close its doors for renovation. The hotel told the press to tell us not to cry or mourn; though they planned to convert their magnificent palace to condos, management promised to set aside rooms—the hotel would endure. Just don’t expect a suite facing the park.
After that, the closings came fast and furious. I read that that sleazy marvel of an East Village gay bar, The Cock, had its last call on July 10. One evening as I raced up Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, I discovered The Big Cup was no more, its circus red storefront deserted like an abandoned parade. That was the day afterI walked past the Howard Johnson’s on 46th and Broadway only to discover that it too had shuttered its doors, relegated now to the landmark graveyard where it would join the ghosts of the Morosco and the Ritz Theaters, the 43rd Street Nathan’s and the 42nd Street Automat.
Not to mention The Gaiety Male Burlesk Theater. The strip club butted against HoJo’s rear—HoJo’s back door, chuckled a friend one evening as we passed on the way to the theater. A dichotomy despite the proximity: filled with rows of red vinyl booths, the restaurant exuded middle-American hominess, a place where you could get a grilled cheese sandwich or a bowl of its renowned tomato soup. An invitation to sin beckoned just around the corner: the Gaiety’s simple black awning jutted over an always-open door through which a narrow white staircase ascended. I never took that road, one I imagined led to seedy carnality: some guy in a g-string wriggling for drug money perhaps, or maybe a slumming porn star bending way over to give the audience a wink.
I’d been inside the Howard Johnson’s maybe once or twice since I moved to New York 26 years ago. I had a beer at The Cock in the mid-90s, but quickly discovered I wasn’t man enough for the bar culture that defined gay life back then. The Big Cup was more my speed: under the guise of killing time or reading a book, I could passively, but longingly sneak glances at men who’d sometimes return the favor. Work called me to the Plaza—a few times a year I’d attend dinners there at the request of my bosses, fundraisers, some of whose clients contracted the hotel’s ballroom for gala $600-a-plate dinners.
But it was a mid-July stroll down Greenwich Avenue that made me feel how absence unearths vulnerability, how sharply change could wound. Bouchon was a small, elegant bistro nestled between Charles and Perry Streets. It wasn’t the only one in Manhattan—something tells me it wasn’t even the best, but none of that mattered. When a new sign emblazoned with the name JONEZ caught my eye, a weary sadness descended. The chickens had come home to roost.
Jonathan and I had our first New York date there five years ago. We’d met at the beginning of a cross-country tour with a renowned downtown performance artist. I was an understudy with guaranteed performances; he was the troupe’s company manager. We started out in Pennsylvania, and by the time I left the troupe in Arizona, he and I had come to an…understanding. Still, we’d decided to put on the brakes until he returned to New York to test whether our feelings for one another were true, or merely a backstage dalliance fueled by the convenience of proximity.
On the advice of a friend I made a reservation at Bouchon. Whether it was the atmosphere A sea change occurred that chilly March night as Gallic waiters glid past tables, coiled in a pas de deux for man and tray, and diners slightly older than us murmured in low conspiratorial tones. Jonathan and I sat there for hours laughing, fawning, flirting, awash in happy discoveries of our likes and dislikes—“I can’t believe you love Joni Mitchell but hate her Mingus album”—while razzing each other for our romantic caution on the road.
While we were on tour, we had the odd habit of ordering the same dish. Jonathan and I interpreted this tendency as comic evidence of our compatibility. Comic because, in the five years we’ve been together, enough of our differences have surfaced to reduce that little dinner trick to a mere fluke. But that night our telepathy was in sync: we both ordered the monkfish wrapped in bacon served on a bed of endive in a sauce the menu said was red wine, but tasted more of balsamic vinegar. He was beautiful that night, and so was I—but then, candlelight is a miraculous thing. Around us, the staff whispered in French accents, witnesses to the moment when two shy men lowered their walls long enough to fall in love.
Bouchon was personal. Bouchon was evidence. Stupidly I believed it would always be there; I took for granted that one day we’d go back and relive our singular night. That thought echoed each time I passed the purple brick building, its bright red awning splashed with jaunty white letters. Whenever I was on that stretch of Greenwich Avenue I’d peak in the window for a look, hoping to see some other spellbound couple, their heads almost touching, hands clasped under a tiny table—our table—drunk on Pinot Noir and each other. Sometimes I’d check the menu to see if they still had the monkfish. I always stopped. Stopping was essential, something you do when you spot an old friend.
I let my pal down. We should have gone back.
I am 49 years old. My fifties loom large, and in my misguided attempts to take stock I’ve realized that 1) the years ahead will fly as fast as the years I’ve already lived, and 2) the lithe athletic man I once was becomes more of a memory as days go by. When I make these observations my friends laughingly shrug them off, or ask if I’m depressed. Out of love—or fear, for to acknowledge the aging of one’s peers is to see yourself in a sobering light, so out come the plaudits: You’re in excellent shape, they say, or the hoary but reliable You don’t look your age at all as if that might silence the reality of diminished energy, the incremental bodily sags or my sense that somehow life’s gotten away from me and there’s no getting it back.
Their compliments get contradicted daily. Mostly by kids, who barrel past me with the obligatory “excuse me, sir.” “Thank you, sir,” drones the cashier at Duane Reade, her words robotically respectful. Sir. Such a damming word, a cruel reminder that I’m almost the age my father was when he had me. Four siblings followed—I guess that bodes well for my continued virility, though were I to become suddenly single, it’s doubtful the guys who’d turn my head would deign to throw me even a charitable glance. Goodbye meat market; hello wrinkle room.
I can’t run anymore, at least not the way I used to. Regrettably my knees ran out of miles, necessitating meniscus surgery. These days I’m good for twenty-five minutes on the treadmill at the gym—when I have the time to go. On the other hand, I can still walk from midtown to the Village in less than 30 minutes, still squawk out a set of pull-ups every time I pass the chin-up bar outside my bathroom door. I’m still limber enough to do those yoga poses I taught myself too many years ago. I can still ride my bike to midtown, or even loop the island, as I’m wont to do when the weather and my inclinations collide.
Sometimes my feet hurt, or a mysterious ache emanates from my hip. I get headaches. I appear to be drying up from the inside, as evidenced by skin that feels continually parched despite the copious slathering of expensive moisturizers and Vaseline. My nearsightedness is in a holding pattern, but my ophthalmologist warns me that the era of bifocals is close at hand. I shudder when Jonathan, in the matter of his folks’ yearly sojourn to Florida, asserts, “old people need to be warm.” I bury the thought as I burrow under a comforter—never mind that it’s 70°.
This year my stomach decided to go south. Everything I eat turns to gas, which prompts my doctor to ask, “Have you tried Metamucil?” She and I turn it over, this new development. It’s stress, she says, and attributes it to work on top of my graduate school course load. She says it in such reasonable, conclusive tones that I want to believe her, but long before this talk I’ve had conversations of my own as I lay awake nights listening to a grumbling tummy, imagining everything from ulcers to pancreatic cancer.
My gray hair bugs me. I’d been keeping my head on the fuzzy side of shaved for most of the year. I’m not crazy about the way the gray is coming in, the way it clings to my hairline like soap residue. The “snow” lives resignedly in my brows, eyelashes and especially my nose hairs, a depressing development requiring frequent trimming. Ugh, goes my brain on the mornings when the mirror finds me shoving a pair of tiny scissors up my nose to beat back the hedge. The sages are right: growing old isn’t for sissies or vain, self-absorbed men.
I’m a database manager for a business that relies on names: everyone from Mr. and Mrs. Fifth Avenueto successful movie stars, masters of the corporate universe, the Astors and the Rockefellers, hot shot technocrats and anyone else that reeks of old and new money. Our Donor Management System contains over 300,000 entries, and it’s my job to record whatever changes occur, be it new addresses, phone numbers and executive titles—or bankruptcies, divorces and incarcerations.
Each day begins with a reading of the New York Times’ obituaries. Checking the paper’s rolls of those who’ve said farewell take the most time; I log anywhere from one or two (a slow week), to upwards of ten dead folks a week. Every day I type a minimum of 30 names in the search function, not counting those deaths passed on from our crew of phone solicitors, or other websites like cnn.com. I rarely spot someone I know personally, though any database keeper will confirm that after a while certain names become so familiar that you begin to feel as if you do.
When noteworthy people die the Gray Lady gives them anywhere from a short column to an entire page, and I learn about people who heretofore were strangers: CEOs, congressmen, doctors, and deposed dictators vie for space alongside the mothers, wives and children of other long deceased luminaries. The obits alert me to the work of an American painter “widely recognized for his often immense geometric abstractions.” It’s here I’m told of “a nun who became a lesbian activist and organized the first White House meeting of gay leaders,” or that someone from my Cincinnati hometown was “an ethicist,” one who “took a leading role in formulating mainstream Christianity’s response to modern ethical challenges.” I read mini-bios of inventors and notorious murderers, wacky socialites from the ‘50s and founders of just about any institution one could imagine. In these pages, all become famous again, or at least have their fame confirmed—for the last time.
The paid death notices are something else. These mini-eulogies suck me in like the evening news—where else can one see an In Memoriam dedicated to the lionhearted Richard Plantagenet and the lynched Leo Frank in the space of a week? Call them paragraphs as tombstones: so-and-so passed on such-and-such a date, leaves behind who-sits, visitation at Frank Campbell, etc. Here too, are those who’ve achieved a name in life (you can tell the bigwigs by the number of notices they rack up, which by the way, aren’t cheap), but most of the deceased in these snaking columns of fine print are famous to no one but their families and friends.
Hence, the tributes to the partner in a brokerage firm, whose colleagues “will miss his intelligence, sense of humor and friendship.” Another notice will cite a departed love one “committed to social justice and activism.” Often, the loved ones of the deceased acknowledge that it’s enough merely to have endured, like one doctor’s widow who lived to be 103: “Mrs. Yang witnessed the 20th Century almost in its entirely and was personally touched by a number of its most visible events and people.”
Typical of this section are elegies honoring those whose impressions were made subtly: “She was a devoted, wise, inspirational, loving, treasured wife and mother” who “filled the room with warmth, selfless generosity, good humor and empathic insight.” Everyday angels: they’re our mothers and fathers, our sisters and brothers; the guy you met on jury duty; the kid who walked your dog; the women who taught us our multiplication tables in grade school, or the ones who lightly tapped your arm at the supermarket, so’s to draw your attention to the glove you just dropped.
Always I’m reminded how the mode of departure can define an era—witness the 90’s, and the multitude of men who died of complications from AIDS, or that disease’s coded euphemism: pneumonia. I don’t see “natural causes” as often as I used to: more commonplace are deaths from heart attack or lung cancer, though in the case of the original bass singer from the Four Tops, the heart attack occurred shortly after the lung cancer, which was discovered during surgery to amputate one of the crooner’s legs. When Elvis Costello sings, “accidents will happen,” you feel he’s presaged another prevalent form of death: from a fall. As someone who perpetually trips over invisible obstacles, that one always gets my attention.
There but for the grace of God go we all, it seems, but while a reader might justifiably shrug off the passing of someone in his eighties or beyond, or the socialite who smoked like a chimney until her last days, who can accept the death of a child from drowning? The premature victims of airplane and car crash fatalities, or a drive-by shooting? Anthrax? Fire? Suicide?
My heart skips a beat when I see someone close to my own age. My knee-jerk reaction is, he’s too young—a rationale that flies out the window on the days when the deaths in your age range predominate. They’re my peer group: I know what books they might have read in high school, the TV programs they were addicted to, what they danced to at their prom and their succession of hair and clothing styles. It’s a moment of reckoning: narrow lies the gap between me and the 103-year old grandmother, and I’m reminded that whatever one’s age, wealth or state of health, all of us are assured of one thing: life will surely end. One day I’ll be crossed off the list, blacked out of someone’s phone book, excised from conscious memory.
“Do you drink?”
“Yeah, about 1 or 2 a night, mostly wine.”
It was my first appointment with Dr. Regina Lenska, and the interview round, those routine questions covering personal stats, family history and my trail of bodily breakdowns, was nearly over. When I answered the alcohol query, her sly smile made me feel as if I’d broken the law.
“Well, you might want to think about cutting back.” She made a note on her chart. Dr. Lenska was young, a brunette bob with blue eyes at once coquettish and permanently poised to roll. She’d come recommended by Dr. Kane, my former GP. He’d abandoned his practice after succumbing to a debilitating spinal condition.
Her direct, unhesitating admonishment took me by surprise; silently I calculated she was old enough to be my daughter, if I’d married.
“Do you smoke?”
“Well, yeah, lately.” ‘Lately’ meant consistently since I’d begun my new career as a grad student. “Max, two a day—if that.” It was the truth; I only had two on class days, Monday and Wednesday. The rest of the week I’d have maybe one at lunch, a breath of smoke before cramming whatever reading there was that week. This summer I’d cut back to bumming occasionally from a co-worker.
Dr. Lenska shot me a look that said wrong answer. “You know, the thing is, you’re a little old to be taking it up. And the wisdom now is it isn’t only about the people who smoke a pack a day; even minimal smoking can do harm. You have to be careful at your age—find another way to deal with your stress.”
My age. Ouch.
“Okay, let’s listen to your heart.” The interview was over. Taking off my shirt I inwardly pooh-poohed my habit. I knew it wasn’t good for me, but I grew up in a house where my father smoked a pack a day until his death at 82—not of lung cancer but of old age, to hear my mother tell it. My years as an amateur distance runner meant morning runs engulfed in clouds of car and bus exhaust on congestedManhattan streets. It was the same whenever I commuted by bike—if breathing that gunk hadn’t done me in by now, what of a few cigarettes? Fine, one more year, and I’ll stop. She tagged my sweaty back and chest with her cold stethoscope; inhaling, expelling, I make that silent promise to quit, though I wondered, once my academic time was up, whether I’d be able.
She tested my reflexes, and as my foot jumped, she complemented my shoes, a pair of dress black square-toed lace-ups.
“Thanks. Got ‘em at Daffy’s, the only place I can afford to shop.”
The blue eyes flashed—retail lust? “I’ve never been there, but the girls in front keep telling me to go…one of these days…” I relaxed, amused that of all things we’d bond on a point of fashion.
After the EKG and the drawing of blood, it was time for the prostate exam. Dr. Lenska requests that I lie down, turn on my side and draw my knees up to my chest. Fetal, I think, as her gloved wet finger enters, presses the prostrate with a shock, takes a spin before its quick withdrawal. I can still hear the brusqueness with which Dr. Kane muttered, “wipe yourself,” as if he found the business distasteful. Dr. Kane always made me bend over the front of the exam table with my forearms resting on the crinkled paper cover, a stance that brought back grade school memories of punishment. With Dr. Kane, I could never shake the thought that any moment, a wooden paddle might come hurtling through the air to smack my ass.
The pop of latex pulled me out of my head, and I heard Dr. Lenska’s assurance: “…seems pretty normal.” She left the office so I could get dressed, and as I put on my clothes it dawned on me that no woman had seen me in such a vulnerable position since I was a child. My mother took the temperature of my young brothers and sisters that way, little bawling creatures consumed by whatever it is that torments babies, passing their unease on to grownups and everyone else in earshot. At their age, I must have been the victim of similar anal maneuvers.
Mama believed in suppositories. They were the cure-all for every child’s malady—though maybe constipation really was the problem. The glycerin bullets made babies cry harder, an apt reaction to such an invasion. Then there was that hospital stay when I was 8. For two weeks I’d lost my ability to walk; the doctors were stymied as to the cause, but I could never forget the afternoon they wheeled me into an examination room and laid me on a table covered with crisp, white sheets. Soon a male doctor—at the time, probably Dr. Lenska’s age, bespectacled and wearing a white cap—put what felt like a refrigerated bedpan under my bottom, and with his gloved finger proceeded to unleash torrents of hard, painful stools.
Maybe days of immobility had constipated me, or some bright mind deduced that the root of my paralysis lay buried in my rectum. Throughout I couldn’t stop crying, either from frustration, humiliation or discomfort; all the while, that doctor talked to me—told me how well I was doing, assured me that they’d be finished soon—his words stroked the fear out of me, making me think that somehow he and I were in it together.
But now I am 49. My rectum has become the seat of constipation and other, deadlier maladies. Dr. Lenska reminds me of this when she returns. “So, in a few days I’ll call you with the results of your PSA, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
She turned to retrieve the allergy samples she’d promised me earlier. Free drugs, the adult version of the lollipops we got when we were kids, pacifiers to mitigate the needle’s sting.
I quipped, “I guess next year will be about the colonoscopy.” Dr. Lenska rolls her eyes as she hands me a white paper bag. “Yep, that’ll be quite a way to celebrate your birthday.”
By late July too many days of heat devoid of rain withered everything in sight. Small accumulations of amber leaves littered the sidewalks, and as the month limped along the sprinklings mounted and grew alongside street curbs and buildings in the Village, Harlem and along Riverside Drive. The leaves were dry as parchment; whenever a rare breeze caught them up I heard that strange sad sound like rustling paper.
The quiet rasps on cement were out of season, the wrong accompaniment to the salsa and merengue sounds that spilled out of air-conditioned shops down on Broadway, the startling bleat of drive-by boom boxes on our sycamore-lined block, and the tinkly chatter of men—about men, clothes and money—overhead on crowded stretches of Eighth Avenue in Chelsea.
That fall was early hit particularly hard on weekend afternoons when I’d visit the Jumel Mansion, two blocks north of my apartment. I pitied the weekend busloads of German and Italian tourists who invaded my adopted sanctuary for a glimpse of 18th century antiquity. The grass was dead, so singed by drought that it had taken on the appearance of burnt hay. I’d long since said goodbye to the saucer magnolia’s pink moist blossoms that greeted visitors just inside the ground’s gates, but now even its once-fat green leaves hung limp.
Just inside the entrance gate to the right, the once-dazzling sunflowers had lost their petals. What remained were chocolate brown stalks that held up the flower’s black center, an eye once surrounded by plump yellow lashes. The front lawn’s leafless red oak revealed a bird’s nest. In fact all the other trees—Siberian elms, Chinese elms, Washington hawthorns, American hollies the honey and black locusts, pin oaks—had suffered similar fates, their branches prematurely naked despite a month of summer still to go.
The fallen foliage had the effect of a dropped curtain. Usually—and this is true of all New York’s great parks—once I crossed the mansion’s threshold, the new vista created the illusion that the city has disappeared. With the lush foreground dissipated, the surrounding streets and apartment buildings rushed in: from the mansion’s promontory cars and buses were suddenly there, oddly close and invasive as they streaked or crawled along Edgecombe Avenue. Its verdant trappings gone, the grounds were no longer a refuge, no longer my much-anticipated Oz.
I wonder what Dan would’ve made of it. Summer was his season—but since he was Gemini maybe this early turning wouldn’t have fazed him a bit. In the old days he’d simply wrap a bandana around his head, pull a pair of denim cutoffs over legs that ended somewhere around his earlobes and light up a bowlful of grass. Then he’d head for the beach, or the next best thing: the roof or the fire escape. He was obsessed with the sun and abhorred the pale skin I loved, but I had to confess that yep, he looked stunning with a tan. His was the look of a Seventies archetype—unruly light brown hair topped his six foot-one frame, and that Marlboro Man mustache had made him a weird sister to that era’s print models, and iconic porn stars like Al Parker or Harry Reems.
The last summer of his life he was 38 years old. That August we’d joined the crowds in TompkinsSquare Park for Wigstock, the annual drag show. Men in dresses did nothing for me but I thought an outing would do him good, and it was close to his loft on Waverly Place. He couldn’t have weathered the crowds alone. By then his feet were useless; neuropathy had set in, a side effect from the AIDS drug DDI. His gait mirrored other bodily dilapidations—severe hair and weight loss, and the large splotch of Kaposi’s sarcoma on his right arm.
He was happy that day, game for an escape from an apartment riddled with IV poles, the ever-growing vials of pills and the stench from his frequent bouts of diarrhea. The park was teeming with people; by the time we arrived, all the seats had vanished, so I propped him against one of the black wrought-iron gates that snaked throughout the park. For him especially, I was grateful for the sunny day and the festive atmosphere—the balloons, the beautiful men and multiple Streisands, Judys and Lizas provided just the kind of irreverence we needed.
I’d held him up on the pretext of stroking his back. We’d broken up in 1989; until the disease took over, such intimacy had eluded us. Our habit had been to be careful with each other as we’d tried to go about our lives: dating other men, pursuing separate interests while often running into each other at the homes of our mutual friends. But his illness shrunk that peculiar space between us. Caring for him meant evenings filled with shopping trips for nutritional supplements and cleaning supplies; I took on the task of scrubbing his hardwood floors down with Lysol, and after he’d lost his desire to read the papers, caught him up on real news and shards of gossip. His loft became the final destination of my weekend runs from our old Harlemapartment. At last we’d become friends, shored up by our history as lovers.
At Tompkins Square Park, Dan was good for about two hours. Then he leaned over and whispered that he didn’t think he’d be able to walk back. His panicked eyes—hollowed, grayer than their usual blue—made me think he’d had one of his accidents. Fighting my own fear, I put his arm around my shoulder as we made our way to 7th Street. He’d done too much that day; once inside a cab he closed his eyes, and it was then I noticed the pink blush on his forehead. I hoped he’d catch sight of it the next time he looked in the mirror, the closest he’d get to a tan for the rest of his life.
I can still see it hovering like a special effect. Out of nowhere, sometimes in the morning, often in the afternoon, a hummingbird would appear, presaged seconds before by its subtle drumming. First it’d bob up and down the row of pale violet blue morning glories draped alongside the house before it’d stop to feed, as if suspended by a string. Bee-like then: its wings barely perceptible, its body dangled like a mouse except for the sharp points of tail and beak at either end. He (or she) never stayed long despite the abundance of flowers. Away it’d dart, leaving only the memory of its sound—a faint drone to break the stillness, distract us from the spell cast by whatever we were reading, or the field across the road.
It was our 4th summer in Otsego County. Barbara, Jonathan’s boss, owned this austere 2-story 19thcentury farmhouse situated in about an hour south of Cooperstown. Every since he and I became a couple, a week at Barbara’s became essential, a place we’d go to recover from other vacations, “big trips” to London, Paris, Barcelona, California.
At Barbara’s, the most compelling thing was the silence. Not that it was absolute: the wind in the trees, the call of birds and the occasional car or pickup truck could break it, a reminder of the world beyond the property’s boundaries. In Fergusonville, NY, there was no chance of being bludgeoned by squealing subway trains, or the strangled war cries of our one-floor-below neighbor Dahlia and her brood whose insistent racket wormed its merciless way into our marrow.
And then there was the heat of the sun. At Barbara’s the light was alternately beautiful, blinding and a balm. When we’d come out mornings, such intensity took a moment’s adjustment—on her tiny strip of front porch we’d sip our first cups of coffee with faces set on squint, worth it for the irresistible rays that bathed our chests, arms and legs after a chilly night. The sweat oozed like happiness from our foreheads and armpits, drizzled our cotton boxers and the heavy wooden antique chairs, dotted the books, newspapers and magazine clippings we’d lugged up from the city, reading material we could never quite conquer back in the far-away world of Manhattan where work, appointments and the mounting tourist trade threatened our sanity.
She planned to sell the place. That this day would come was part of her divorce agreement: once her sons were of college age, the house would be sold, and the money…well I didn’t know all the details. But I suspect Max’s death played a part. Her sons had grown up here; the oldest, Max had drowned along with 3 other teenagers a few winters ago in the frigid waters off City Island in the Bronx.
The place bulged with mementos—the tire swing dangling from its ancient rope; the dream of a tree house out back; the trampoline. Mostly there were the photos. Sprinkled throughout the house, pictures of the young Max peeked from bookshelves, from kitchen nooks and bedroom nightstands. Ironic that such a bright urchin’s face could cast a pall where gloom seemed inconceivable. The property was built for boys: from the front lawn’s sprawling green to the trail that stretched from the red barn out back up into the hills and woods, how easy to envision the brothers exploring, roaming, rampaging over the generous acres.
We made it there twice this summer. Coming back to New York after the first visit, we actually considered buying it ourselves. We scheduled another trip up—generous Barbara never required a cent, only a phone call to schedule—discarding plans for a week in Hawaii. We assessed the commute and our less-than-stellar finances, talked to other homeowners, listened as my pal Helen, warned that we were in a housing bubble and this was the worst time to buy a house, especially one we didn’t’ need.
Tempting as it was, there were too many strikes against the purchase. Our conversations took on the sheen of fantasy, as we discussed how we could replace the section of the kitchen’s roof with glass to create a light-filled breakfast nook, or ways to convert the storage barn into a guesthouse. I told myself that the pictures I maniacally took—of the house and grounds—were for speculative purposes only, rather than attempts to capture every joyous angle, every sprouting wildflower, each bounce of refracted light, the dew, the repose, all the accumulations of joy and love awaiting us every time we pulled onto the tree-shaded path alongside the house.
The days told all; leisurely mornings divorced from the rest of the world, full of coffee, fresh fruit and sharp green air, and the heat of the sun contrasted with the coolness of the house. Movement indivisible from sound—crossing in and out of the house signaled by the twang of the screen door, like Dorothy Gale bouncing from black and white to color.
Rainy days, or those weighed too heavily with the previous night’s martinis and wine, happily shackled us to the porch. Most days, we’d get out and tool around in our rental. We’d hit the mall’s multiplex, where we’d watch movies in almost-empty theatres in the afternoon, finish in time to beat it back home for more lazy reading before cocktails at sunset.
A trip to Barbara’s was incomplete unless we stopped at the head shop in Oneonta, a claustrophobically dark emporium nestled on a street that passed for the town’s center. A walk through those doors meant stepping back into the 70s of my youth: incense, bongs, all the grass paraphernalia any pothead could desire, huge machetes and the kind of bizarre weaponry that made you think of Bruce Lee. J and I’d rifled the racks for the odd jazz or pop classic; next to us stood skateboarders and baby Goths trolling for Megadeth, or cheap heavy-metal picks.
So many pit stops—the Hannaford supermarket loomed as a distraction; so did the mega Home Depot 5 minutes down the way. We spent hours at that rat’s nest of a used bookstore housed in a forlorn yellow trainer along Route 9, tumbling through obscure local journals, movie star biographies and comic books bathed in dust and phosphorescent overheads. Eventually we’d stumble home, but not before swinging by the local barbecue pit for a takeout of baby back ribs or the chicken beef combo, depending on our mood.
Always back by twilight. Saranac, our preferred beer, was great at this hour; but a martini with a twist in a wine glass (yep, we were really roughing it) would do just fine. Not that we needed alcohol: at Barbara’s, the beauty of the hour’s imperceptibly changing sky, the mountains and the pasture sprawled just across the road could make you tipsy. A deer might venture out of the woods. Fireflies might prick the air with light. A lone pickup could suddenly flood the view with its high beams and just as quickly disappear, restoring the dull roar of silence.
The email query from Jonathan came in the afternoon:
Do you know anyone in Seattle who might want to see MM for free?
“MM” stood for Meredith Monk. Her performance ensemble, for which Jonathan serves as company manager, had an engagement there that weekend, and when I read his note I thought of Al Gress. A Google search turned up an Alfred Gress of Lynwood, WA, who’d run a 5K race called the Elephant Stampede in Seattle in September of 1999. On a website called MaleSurvivor, an Alfred Gress had written a poem in rhymed couplets called Still and Small, a plaintive cry from a child reeling from sexual abuse.
We’d met in an acting class in 1981—at HB Studios on Friday nights, we were two of a group of young (and not-so) would-be actors under the tutelage of Elizabeth Dillon, a ghostly pale woman with pinkish blonde hair, tinted glasses and the withering stare of a Nazi commandant. Through a haze of cigarette smoke, her level gaze sized up our work; afterwards her low alto deconstructed it, lauding us with either compliments—“Do you know how gifted you are?”—or accusations of sloppy preparation that made you feel like a fool without a future.
Al and I were paired to do a scene—something from Look We’ve Come Through by Hugh Wheeler—and out of that a friendship bloomed. Soon Dan and I wove him into our circle of old and new friends, and when his girlfriend Juliet came to visit in the summer of 1982, we’d have dinner at each other’s cramped, vermin-plagued apartments. On our nights out we did things that were either inexpensive or free: we heard the late Ruth Laredo play at Damrosch Park on a stunning, sweltering night surrounded by a crowd held rapt by the damndest bass chords to come from a piano. At the cinema on 66th Street where Tower Records now stands, the four of us caught Hitchcock’s newly restored Vertigo, a film neither Al nor Juliet had seen, let alone heard of.
On the screen Jimmy Stewart struggled with his Kim Novak obsession and his fear of heights, but I’ll never forget what happened in the audience. At the film’s climax, Stewart’s character, struggles to climb the tallest staircase in the world, in pursuit of mystery woman Novak. Whether it was the Bernard Herrmann score, or the mysterious on-screen figure who leapt out of the darkness at the top of the bell tower, we were never able to tell, but the whole thing proved too much for Juliet: she let out an ear-piercing scream that made the entire audience jump, then titter with relief. Hitchcock would have relished that moment.
When they moved back to Washington State, we wrote for a short while. I remember Juliet had a child but I never saw a picture. Kathleen, a musician friend of Al’s, lived nearby on Riverside Drive; I’d run into her at our shared subway stop, but she never heard from them either.
My only memento of that time was a photo of Al, his friend Kathleen and me. In the spring of 1982 they’d come to see me play Tybalt in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Lion on Theatre Row. After the show, the three of us went to Barrymore’s to celebrate my first season in rotating repertory, a bill that also included Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle and Len Jenkin’s Kitty Hawk. I grew up as an actor that season, but come spring the shows would close. I’d weather summer through temp jobs and hot evenings on my fire escape with cheap beer and Dunhill Lights. I’d visit my family in Ohio, courtesy of Peoples Express Airlines. I was 25 years old.
Information confirmed an Alfred Gress in Lynwood. No one answered that afternoon. After work, I had a date for drinks with a friend. Killing time before our appointment, surrounded by office grunts and panhandlers in Bryant Park, I tried again.
A woman answered in a low voice devoid of energy, and my first thought was that I’d dialed a wrong number.
“I’m trying to reach Al Gress.”
Back came a guarded, suspicious response. “What’s this to do with?”
“Well, I knew Al when he lived in New York.” My nerves got the better of me, and I began to ramble. “I’m trying to track him down, and I got this number from information. Some friends of mine are singing inSeattle, they told me comps were available and I wanted to offer them to Al and his wife.”
She hesitated before an answer came, again in that flat dull tone. “Well, it’s been a long time since Al lived in the East.”
A bell rang, and I pounced. “Is this Juliet?”
“Juliet? This is Ennis Smith…remember me? Al and I were in acting class together?” She didn’t sound remotely like the girl I knew back then, so quick, so vocal, so excitable about…well, everything. Twenty-two years, I reminded myself, but this woman gave no whiff of the dark-haired beauty that laughed—shrieked—at the least provocation.
“I remember coming to New York, but I’m sorry, it was a long time ago.” She didn’t remember me: that crazy summer we shared was as lost to her as it remained palpably vivid to me.
“It’s really good to hear you. How are you—how is Al?”
No pause or emotion. “Al passed away last year.”
The race results of the Elephant Stampede flashed. Next to Al’s time was his age: 48. That was in 1999; in 2004 he would have been 53 years old.
“Jesus. I’m so sorry.”
“Yes. Actually, the anniversary’s soon, so we’re gearing up for that around here.”
An awful silence followed; then my nerves made me ramble on and on about how I’d thought of them over the years, how much I’d cherished our brief time spent and my memory of Al as a terrific human being, awkward hollow sounds that made me feel like the biggest fool. As I ground to a halt, out came a desperate “how are you holding up?”
“I’m okay, we’re fine.”
Meaning her family? The “we’re” registered, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask about her life, their lives: if they’d had children, if parents lived nearby. Something about her tone—vocally she was neither aggressive nor tragic, just…weary—told me not to push. But I didn’t know how to hang up, or move into a goodbye that wouldn’t be abrupt or awkward.
And I needed to know how he went.
“Juliet,” I ventured, forming the difficult question, “had he been ill?”
Again no hesitation. “He took his own life. He’d been depressed—he suffered from depression.”
That poem from the Internet took on weight. I sought to remember something, anything from the early 80’s that might have tipped this off, but kept coming back to a charming, reasonable man with a quick smile and a lazy tenor voice; in that easy drawl I’d never heard a note of anger or ego, or even mild frustration. I’d called in the hopes of hearing it again, only to discover his wife’s numb, drained cadences.
“Juliet—may I write you? This is a lot to take in, and if I say ‘I’m sorry’ one more time you might strangle me.” She laughed, and I began to relax. “I’d like to catch you up on my life, and I’d like to hear about yours. Would that be alright?”
“Of course.” I wrote what she dictated, all the while trying to imagine what I would say. I kept seeing the picture of Al and me at Barrymore’s and wondered how long it’d take me to find it; if I did maybe I’d send it to her. I wanted to blow off my drinking date and go home but it was too late to cancel.
“Juliet, it was good to hear you—and again, I’m really sorry about Al.”
“Well, thanks. We miss him around here. And I’m sorry about when you called. It’s just that the telemarketers won’t leave us alone.”
Why didn’t she have a machine? “Yep, they’re pretty bad here too. Take care, Juliet.”
When Dan died someone said, “Watch out, he’s a haunter.” Even through a haze of grief the statement struck me as comic, like something uttered by one of those stargazers sitting in an East Villagestorefront. But soon after, my encounters with seeming pieces of him began. Strangers with his shade of hair would jump out of the crowds. Stubby nails that looked as if they’d been chewed would hand me change at a deli. I’d see his slim build amble down a West Village Street—sometimes in the guise of a woman. The sight of someone’s large once-broken nose would cause me to stare a little too long; so did a million pairs of blue-gray eyes, the sight of which instantly conjured that year’s exhausting sadness.
And so it was with Al. Someone I hadn’t seen in twenty years appeared in the pale white faces of kids milling about Astor Plaza, the halls of the New School, or in a late-night subway car. In a city overpopulated with Italian/Irish ancestry, a head full of dark raven curls passing on a bike, or nodding in a restaurant window seems unexceptional, yet this August that detail explodes in the summer light and stops the heart.
When Helen proposed we celebrate my birthday with a picnic, I thought how apropos. This dining ritual—no doubt something we’d clung to from our own suburban backgrounds—had marked our relationship since our first meeting, in the summer of 1979. On that night she traveled to the tiny apartment where Dan and I lived in Washington Heights, from a place she shared with two other women on West 105th Street. She brought the meal: salad and a homemade zucchini frittata, all bound in a flimsy wicker basket with a broken handle. Dan and I provided our staple, cheap beer, and the three of us sat around a foldable card table covered with a mustard yellow plastic cloth.
Since then, we’ve had other picnics all over the city. Some were farther away: I remember a Saturday trip by car to Sag Harbor in the mid-80s, and years later, a weekend visit to her husband Ian’s old house inNew Haven. Even when Helen and I met for lunch it was rarely indoors, unless the weather was terrible. Last month, she and I spent a few hours after work in Bryant Park; she brought the meal and I furnished the alcohol, a nice pinot gris we kept hid from the park’s roving security guard in a brown paper bag.
Our belated birthday celebrations were typical. Hers was in February, something we hardly ever acknowledged until March, or later. I believed our late attentions had something to do with when they fell. Mine always got lost in the merry-go-round of vacations, travel and the sweltering smog of summer; hers was swallowed by post-holiday numbness, the impending doom of tax time—she’s a broker—and that seasonal darkness that leaves most of us hanging halfway between depression and the hope of an early spring.
Our forgetting to remember has endured for 26 years. She is Dan’s gift to me: they’d been undergrads together at DePauw University, but hadn’t known each other well. It wasn’t until they reconnected at aManhattan alumni mixer (she, after a stint in the Peace Corps, he after grad school in Cincinnati where we met) that a friendship took hold. They had contract bridge, and DePauw in common, but our bond was more elemental. Both of us came from large families. We were athletic, with a shared interest in tennis. But maybe the thing that truly joined us was our blatant lack of cynicism. In her I saw myself, someone who retained the ability to be surprised, who continually sought out the new. Hers was an informed innocence, a point of view that Dan good-naturedly heckled, though it didn’t blur his appreciation of her in the least. Before his death he counted her as his dearest friend; after his passing, she remained mine.
Helen and Ian made a picnic dinner, packed it in hampers and transported it by bike from their apartment in the East 90s. They’d found a patch of grass south of the tennis courts; its slight slope meant that we gazed up towards a view of the reservoir track while below sprawled a sweep of trees and pathways. They’d brought bottles of Rosé, though Helen, ever the Francophile, called it Provençal. As we popped the bottles, she laid out bread, fat purple olives and rounds of mozzarella topped with sliced tomatoes and basil leaves.
Helen reminded us why we were there by mourning my age.
“49,” she repeated over and over. “I just can’t believe it.” Neither could I. It was only yesterday that we were in our 20s, trying to make our way in a New York City so diametrically opposed to our naïve upbringings. All that time had passed; our milestones and disappointments, all our growing up occurred in the shadow of each other’s sympathetic commiserations.
The sun exposed the progression of age that shone on our heads, gifts of heredity and the dogged lives we’d chosen to pursue in Manhattan. Helen was a classic brunette who’d always worn her hair short, but the length never denied the thick coffee-colored waves that framed her athletic, androgynous beauty. Now subtle silver strands threaded the hills and dips like discreet pinstripes that required a special focus to discern. I studied it, wondering how it might look when we were really old—would the gray finally outstrip the brown, obliterating all signs of the coltish woman, or would a hint of the deep color always remain?
The reservoir rose behind us, and here and there I caught sight of runners in dogged pursuit of yet another mile. A few feet to our right a small group, probably a family, sat on a blanket and periodically a girl toddler would flee their ranks, giggling, stumbling with abandon, secure in the knowledge that one of the adults would happily give chase. The heat made the various tableaus of lovers, bikers and strollers a little wavy as the sky began its subtle dimming.
As always we played catch up. Jonathan had been away on tour, so there was talk of what he’d seen in Italy and Prague. Helen and Ian belonged to a book club that met regularly, and I got the scoop on what they’d been reading all year. I contributed my adventures in graduate school, throwing out titles of books that had made an impression in various lit seminars. We’d break off in groups of two, then change partners before blending back into four without pausing for breath. Anyone looking on might think a reunion was in progress: never mind that Helen and Ian were only a phone call or email away.
Right before our main course of marinated chicken, salad and tabouleh Helen touched my arm. “I have something to tell you, and I don’t want to forget.” As we finished the second bottle of Provençal, out came the news: Ronna Shaw was dead; she’d hung herself in Costa Rica. The news of her having left the States was another surprise; she’d moved to the island after buying property with an inheritance from an aunt. Helen found out from David, Ronna’s ex-husband. It happened in the spring. She and Ronna hadn’t been in touch for a while.
Ronna and I weren’t close; I hadn’t seen her since the mid 90s, years after Dan died. She was a talented artist who’d made her living as a freelance textile designer. We’d known each other as members of a theater group that Helen had orchestrated. A few times in an attempt at deeper friendship, we’d had lunch. I’d gone to the studio co-op Ronna shared with a bunch of other designers who were politely curious about my life as a performer.
The wine only slightly dulled the edge of Helen’s revelation. Al was still fresh on my mind. I thought of Dan, and of Ralph, a friend who’d died three years after Dan, from the same AIDS-related complications. Helen reminded me of Ronna’s hospitalization for depression shortly before she and David married. I recalled in Ronna’s gleaming aqua eyes, a fury hard as diamonds. She was what people called brittle—a cynical term for fragile.
Grave digging over a picket fence, I mused. This was the kind of conversation my mother would initiate, with little warning, long-distance bulletins from my hometown: “By the way, so-and-so died,” Mama would say, or something like, “you remember what’s-his-name? Well, he got shot last week.” Suddenly I saw us twenty years down the pike. As our friends and acquaintances expire Helen and I will share the news—resignedly, indifferently—the way we’d come to share recipes, or word of a must-see gallery show in Soho. Perhaps when we die our friends will do the same.
We packed up our things as darkness fell and said our never-ending goodbyes. Jonathan and I headed back across the park. We weren’t far from Central Park West, but the twisty paths turned us around for a second. The transmogrification occurred in an instant: from a benign city park to a forest, dense with trees and thick heat, like a dream. I was seized by a fear reminiscent of moments not unlike when I’d gotten lost as a child
The sinister feeling passed. Was I woozy from the heat? This was new: I was born in summer, had always felt in harmony when the warm months rolled around–while others buckled, I imagined myself a Viking, immune to whatever debilitations the humidity imposed. My skin was slick with oil and wetness. Old people need to be warm echoes as I spot the green globe at 96th Street. Descending into the tunnel below, Jonathan said something about air conditioning. He’s contradicting himself, I thought, but I don’t argue.