Erik asked me to visit his hometown. I wanted to shout, No, absolutely not, not now, not ever!
—Honey, said Erik, you can meet my mother.
My beau begged. I resisted. He demanded. I refused. The barometric pressure dropped. A storm grew on the horizon. So I agreed. I said we’d do it. I’d acquiesce. I’d visit Narberth, Pennsylvania.
We picked a weekend in mid-May, after semester’s end. Which was also the end of my time at New York University. Graduation loomed.
I kept this momentous event on the sly, avoiding conversations about its possible meaning, adamant in my refusal to attend the ceremony. I had no taste for the flavor of tiny American piety of the commencement address.
And mine was to be no typical ceremony.
Three weeks prior to graduation, a septuagenarian resident of Yonkers named Stella G. Maychick lost control of her Oldsmobile Delta 88 and crashed through the western entrance of Washington Square Park. Mrs. Maychick injured twenty-seven and killed five. One of the deceased was a sophomore at NYU, his bleeding body crushed atop the graves of twenty thousand.
The university always scheduled its commencements in Washington Square. There was no time to find a new location. Hallowed ground newly made, the site of a student’s tragic demise.
I imagined Dr. L. Jay Oliva, our university president, offering a speech rife with the stupidities and reassurances that make unwelcome appearances at every funeral, any tragedy, all unexpected deaths. Always remember. Better place. Never forget. Honored friends. Trusted memories. Carry on.
Complete and total horseshit. Only time salves the wounds of loss. Year after year until failing synapses dull away the pain.
My last few nights as a student were spent writing a paper on Don Quixote and another examining Etruscan images of Lucretia. With these minor works completed, a sense of finality washed over my frame. I’d spent four years in the womb of NYU. There was no going back. Time to be reborn.
That Friday, Erik and I navigated the labyrinth of the Port Authority, climbing aboard a dingy Greyhound bus on the lower level. I hadn’t been on a bus since my arrival in New York. I hadn’t been outside of the boroughs in almost four years.
I’d decided to embrace the trip and the suburban weekend. Our relationship needed the time. Neutral space away from New York was an absolute requirement. It had become clear that I’d have to level with Erik about my literary output.
He knew nothing of the stories, of the publication credits, nothing about the endless span of effort.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell him, but I was embarrassed that there was a thing in my life that mattered. I was ashamed that I’d done anything. Faced with the flaws in my writing, and the atrocious aesthetics of science fiction digests, I’d never mentioned my relative achievements.
By the fifth published story, it was easier to pretend as if it was happening to another person.
The pretense was now impossible. I’d met with Parker Brickley, the squeaks of his childlike telephone voice leaving me unprepared to encounter a middle-aged bearded behemoth trapped in the clutches of male-pattern baldness.
He insisted that we lunch upstairs at Sardi’s. The portraiture was grotesque, but I loved Parker. Instantly. He was the most obscene man that I have ever met.
—I don’t fucking know why it fucking happened, said Parker, but something about the way you scribble gets my dick throbbing. You’re a fucking faggot, so you probably think you’ve mapped out the whole territory of cock. You’d be surprised about the secret knowledge of the straight pervert. Reading your stuff is like rubbing an eight ball under my foreskin and paying six prostitutes to seek the powder. Johnny fucking Cyberseed, like shitting myself in pleasure. I loved it. I’ve got literary clients, but only science fiction floods my erectile vessels. I’d trade five Jane Smileys for one of you. So please don’t tease me. Please don’t say that you’re the kind of girl who lets a man buy dinner and then won’t hike up her skirt. I want to see that big ass and those tender thighs. Tell me about the sweet treasures of your pussy. Tell me that you have a fucking manuscript. Give me something, buddy, give me a juicy piece to take back to William Morris and ram up their shit-stained asses.
A novel meant commitment. A novel was permanent. A novel couldn’t be taken back. A novel couldn’t be ignored. A novel was the past made perpetual future.
—Yes, I said. I have a manuscript. I finished in March.
—Fucking beautiful, said Parker. I’m going to piss champagne on every woman that I meet and tell them it’s Hindoo holy water from the sacred Ganges. Here’s the thing, Baby. It isn’t just that you’re a good writer. It’s not that you’re an East Village prodigy. It’s not even that you’re young. It’s that you’ve got all of that and you’ve got those looks. You’re one beautiful queer. You’re the full package. You’re enough to turn me faggot. We’ll suck and rim each other until the sun goes supernova. I can mint a million off your looks. Throw in the writing, and blamo!, okay, now we’re neck deep in the churning brine of wall-to-wall pussy, now our scrotums have retracted into the pleasure centers of our own bodies. Now all systems are fucking go. Now we’re relieving the vital center.
I took the manuscript from my backpack and passed it across the table.
Parker called the next day. He loved it. He told me not to change a word.
He’d decided to push the book upon multiple editors with whom he had a personal relationship, playing the heavy. We had to find the right home, he said. He wanted someone who could look beyond genre trappings.
Three weeks before graduation, Parker called again and, like Apollonius of Tyana, he preached holy wisdom.
—Harcourt, Brace and fucking Company. Michael Kandel wants you. You should be honored. This is the man who translates Stanislaw Lem. He’ll publish you in hardback. These people smell the meat on your bones. They want to eat. They want to drink your marrow. The advance ain’t stellar, but it’s better than anyone else would get. Trust me, Baby. You’ve got a one-way ticket on the Brickley express. I’m like true love and nuclear war. You can never prepare for Parker. I don’t stop until every hole is fucked and puddles of my kids dribble on the linoleum. We’ve got a lot of work over the next few months. Welcome to the big leagues, boy-o, welcome to the hot-shit hotshot misery of dealing with editors and copyeditors and book buyers and designers. You better go outside and get a good look at your little patch of the East Village. You better take it in, because nothing will ever be the same. And when you’re old and I’m a fucking corpse rotted out with worms, you had better fucking remember my name. You had better remember that it was Parker Brickley who gave you this bleak gift.
I signed the contract at Parker’s office in the West 50s. I didn’t tell a soul. Not even Adeline.
Later, in that same office, he handed me my advance check. I stared at the paper. It is impossible to understand the true and full occult nature of publishing. If you intuit how to pull the levers, people pay you to engage in your basest fantasies, in madness. Your depravity goes out. The cash comes in.
Two drunks boarded the Greyhound bus. They started talking about being on parole, about who they knew on parole, about who’d gone back inside. I stood up and asked them if they couldn’t talk a little lower. They apologized. I sat back beside Erik.
—I hate asking people to be quiet, I said.
—I’m amazed that you did at all, he said. I’d be so scared.
—What’s the worst that can happen?
We disembarked at the Philadelphia Greyhound terminal, a bland institutional building filled with the poor and the bewildered, all of whom bore a resemblance to the wreckage of the Port Authority. I wondered if this same scene wasn’t playing out in bus stations all across the country, with the same actors simultaneously appearing in each location.
Philadelphia was limited to exiting the bus station and walking across the street to a subway entrance. Mystified by a transit system not under the MTA’s control, I followed Erik’s lead. He shepherded us onto the commuter rail.
The city disappeared behind us, the train making its way into the late afternoon of green suburbs. I suffered nausea beneath the fluorescent lighting.
When we arrived at Narberth, the sky was dark. We stepped away from the station and entered the dead emptiness of Main Street USA.
—It’s a short walk, said Erik.
Erik had neglected to mention that his mother had no idea of his sexual longing for men. This tidbit of negligence was revealed only on the front steps of his childhood home.
He said that we’d have to pretend, which meant no touching, that she was uncomfortable with hetero displays of affection, let alone the blooming of queer flowers. We could share his bed but we’d pretend that I was sleeping on the floor. His door had a lock.
Erik rang the doorbell, then knocked and called for his mother.
—Don’t you have a key? I asked.
—Ordinarily, yes. But the locks were changed last month.
The house was a wooden frame two bedroom. His mother’s room was right beside his own, a thin plaster wall away. Adios, my dreams of sweet suburban sex.
We still managed to go down on each other. I was a quiet lover. Erik was different. He always came loud, wailing like Cathy’s wraith chasing Heathcliff back to the Grange. So our coupling tested his powers of will. An area in which he could have taken lessons from Patrick Geoffrois.
On Saturday morning, we woke with the sun, hot light slashing across the bed. I heard Erik’s mom in the kitchen.
—Is she making breakfast? I asked.
—I’m sure, he said. She loves feeding people.
She’d manufactured a feast. Eggs, pancakes, fruit, toast, cereal. I hadn’t eaten so well in years. I stuffed my face, watching Erik and his mother, feeling sweet on the both of them. She delighted in him. I wondered, really, why he hadn’t told her about his pleasure in the company of other men.
—I saw that you slept on the floor, she said. Why’d you go and do that? Don’t you know the couch folds out?
—Baby’s got a bad back, said Erik. He always sleeps on a hard surface.
—It’s true, I said. Back in New York, I sleep on a wooden board. Anything too soft and I’m a goddamn cripple for the rest of the day.
—Please don’t swear, said his mother. It’s vulgar and I don’t like hearing it in my house.
Erik called his high school best friend, a woman named Liz. He invited her over. The idea gave me the jitters, fearful of an evening with someone that I didn’t know. But we didn’t have a car and Narberth was a two-horse town.
Liz arrived around 8 PM. She rushed inside, hugging Erik, her face scrunched into bliss. All I could think was, Does every fag have their Adeline? Or was she his Regina?
Erik’s mother hugged Liz. They gabbed for the better part of an hour. Liz spoke about her life, about everything that’d happened in the last year. She talked about being a mother. Her son was 3 years old. The father was long gone. She lived at home. When Erik had called, her parents were so thrilled to hear his voice that they volunteered to babysit.
We took our leave. Liz’s car was parked in front, an old Ford Maverick from the 1970s. My father had owned the same model, in lime green, before the transmission fell out. He’d given the car up for scrap.
I crawled into the backseat, adrift in a sea of wrappers from Wendy’s and Burger King.
—Sorry about all of that, she said. But with a kid, you know.
—Sure, I said.
—I haven’t even seen your boy, said Erik. Why don’t we go see him?
—God, no, she said. There’s a party in Ardmore. I never get out anymore.
Then there was the time when Liz, Erik and I went to a party in Ardmore. The party was held in a decrepit Victorian house that sat alone on a prime piece of land. Erik and Liz abandoned me as soon as we were inside.
I wandered, examining the faces. People are the same the world over. The obvious mental cases, the jocks, the alcoholics, the madly promiscuous, the wallflowers. They could be plucked from Pennsylvania and put down in Arizona. No one would notice any difference.
Everyone was old. Not geriatric, not even middle aged, but older than I expected. They were five years older than me, at least, and they were acting like teenagers. Making out for the benefit of an audience, smoking from comically oversized bongs, chugging beer from kegs.
Life had stained them, they’d been pummeled by the disappointments of their scant years, as if they knew their injuries would never mend. As if there was nothing but long decades spilling out. As if there’d been an unspoken group decision that the future could be confronted only through a descent into the banality of petite nihilism.
I was far more comfortable with grandiose nihilism. After all, I knew Michael Alig.
I opened the bathroom door, walking in on a man and woman, both shirtless, lying on a futon mattress wedged between the bathtub and the toilet. The woman’s hands covered her sagging breasts.
—Shut the fucking door, said the man.
—I have to make water, I said.
—I have to make water.
—He has to piss, said the woman.
—Don’t worry, I won’t splash you.
There were flecks of vomit around the toilet’s rim.
Michael Alig. He was somewhere in New York, flying kite high, screaming and primping and dancing. He was with women unafraid to show their breasts. These women, the ones with Michael, exposed themselves at the slightest provocation. They shoved people’s face into their bosoms. That was their idea of a joke.
In the living room, three dirty men sat on the floor in front of a television. They were playing a video game on a Nintendo system that looked different than the one I remembered. The game was definitely Super Mario Brothers, but the graphics were too good for Super Mario Brothers, and besides, since when did Mario ride on the back of a green lizard?
—What game is this? I asked.
—Super Mario World.
—And that’s Nintendo?
—It’s Super Nintendo.
—There’s a Super Nintendo?
—Where’ve you been?
A new Nintendo with a new Mario. They’d changed the power-ups. A feather came out of the question-mark bricks. If Mario got the feather, he’d put on a cape that let him fly. Mario could fly. I hadn’t played much Nintendo, but I’d wasted hours at other people’s houses, staring into the abyss of the original Super Mario Brothers. Long philosophical discussions about the meaning and function of the Minus World, and whether or not it portended other hidden secrets within the game. It seemed infinite, like if we hit the right combination of buttons in the right location, we might discover a new, entirely unknown vista. I remember staying up late, watching my friends kill themselves over Ghosts ’n Goblins, beating the Devil only to discover that the true conclusion required another quest. I remember people playing Metroid at parties in Brooklyn, desperate to get the best ending, the one where Simon takes off the suit and wears a bikini.
A Super Nintendo. If they’d released a new Super Mario Brothers, then there was almost certainly a new Legend of Zelda.
Everything was changing. I felt so fucking old.
Erik was in the basement, drunk, laughing, playing ping-pong. A crowd watched. They’d all placed bets. Most of the room had money on his opponent, a burly looking fat kid. I had no idea that Erik played ping-pong. I was learning new things every goddamn minute.
Liz gave us a very drunken guided tour of the streets between the party and Erik’s house. She talked a mile a minute, asking Erik about people from high school. She talked about the basic unfairness of life, about how people had succeeded and left the area because of their parents, because they were born into money.
—I’m not impressed, she said. Nope, I’m not impressed.
We got home around 3 AM. We crawled into bed. I was very buzzed. Erik was wasted. I took off his shirt and his pants.
Moonlight through the window. Pupils fully dilated, I surveyed the whole of Erik’s room. His mother had never removed any of his things. The only additions from this decade were objects that Erik had sent back home, using the house as a storage space. Old objects upon old objects upon old objects. Like compressed layers of dead skin.
I fell asleep realizing that I hadn’t told Erik about my novel. It’d have to be tomorrow before we got back to the city. I’d do it on the train. Or on the Greyhound. But it’d get done.
I dreamt of my parents’ house. It started in their bedroom. I was talking to my mom about their black cabinet. Then I went down in the basement, where there was a hole in the foundation. My father and I examined it, discovering the Captain curled up with another cat.
Try as we might, we couldn’t coax them out.
Erik’s mother stood over the bed. Us with our arms around each other. Me in my underwear, Erik naked. My face pressed hard against the back of his neck. The gayest possible tableau. She was screaming, she was screaming, she was screaming.
He tried calming her. It didn’t work. She told me to get out. The woman who’d fixed breakfast had twisted into a ruddy monster. It didn’t take long to gather my things. I always pack light.
If life is a cycle, then it’s the worst things that repeat. At least his dick hadn’t been in my mouth.
I sat on the front steps, waiting over an hour for Erik. I’d brought along a copy of Connie Willis’s Lincoln’s Dreams. I tried to read it, but with the muffled screams, I couldn’t concentrate.
The door opened. Erik was wearing yesterday’s clothes. He wasn’t carrying his bag.
—You should go, he said. I’ll come to the city later tonight.
—Don’t stay, I said. Come with me.
—She’s my mother, he said.
—Please, I said. Nothing good can come of you staying.
—I’ll call you when I get into the city.
—I don’t even know how to get to the train.
—Walk in that direction. Just ask anyone, they’ll help you.
He went inside. No goodbyes. I walked to the train station. Narbeth was tiny. The sun, the birdsong, the quiet of Sunday morning. The train ride was easy, as was the Greyhound terminal. A bus waited. It was so easy. Everything was easy.
Erik and I never spoke again. I called and called and called and called. He never answered. He didn’t return my calls.