Last night I watched My Dinner with Hervé, an HBO movie about the French actor Hervé Villechaize, who played Tattoo on Fantasy Island and gained fame and wealth in the 1970s and ’80s. He was a dwarf, and in the film is portrayed by Peter Dinklage, wearing black wigs and speaking in a high-pitched French accent so full of grief and mischief he conjures the sadness of everyone ensnared by biology and politics. Those half-lowered eyes. That smile of pain and knowledge. The movie is a bit corny. Jamie Dornan, who plays a journalist sent by a UK newspaper to write a lampoon of Villechaize, is outplayed in scenes by Dinklage because Dornan’s role is to be guided and to discover a sense of identification.
Today I flew over mountains that were right there, dark shadows rippling over bright brown rock. The lift-off felt like the breath-catch of sex, and I wondered if I could fall in love with the body of a stranger. I was thinking about the threat made last week to trans people and how it is also a threat to female humans, whether or not they acknowledge it. Females, homosexuals, trans people, gender fluid people, people who defy gendered dress codes and body norms all undermine the notion of maleness as a one-stop, biologically determined thing owed supremacy. If maleness were an essential thing, nothing could weaken its dominance. It would exist inviolate, like an atom of oxygen in a molecule of water. Everyone on the planet knows you have to protect maleness all the time or the truth of people’s hybrid nature will force a redistribution of power between the sexes. That would cost a lot of money.
I am on your street. I remember a parquet square that had crumbled like a cracker under a planter. I don’t look up in case you are at the window or someone else drifts by with a scarf at her neck. When I first saw the floors of your apartment, I thought of an animal one rescues from the street. You had a leather couch with metal studs along the edges, like a dentist’s couch, ugly and hard. I want to ask you something when I pass your building. I think of what I would say if we bumped into each other and went for coffee like friends who cannot remember why they drifted apart. The other night I killed two moths that had flown through the window to the small lamp beside my bed. I was careful to kill them without leaving powder on the rug or walls. They had more life in them than I was comfortable ending. Outside, grass poked up through the paving stones and purple light reflected off the river.
The other week I saw On Beckett, a solo piece by the actor and clown Bill Irwin. It was moving and tender because Irwin has devoted himself to Beckett’s rueful, mordant monologues, cemented in physical detail. It is the love of a son for a broken-down father who had once been the world. With Beckett, you are more inside a mind that is on all the time than inside a being with a sex. Before the lights dimmed, I wondered if Beckett would pass the Breaking Bad test. The Breaking Bad test is when you are helplessly swept into a show with male characters who have dimension and say surprising things while the female characters do not pass the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test is when two female characters talk to each other about something other than men. The Breaking Bad test is a variant of the Moby Dick test, where only male humans are real to the creator or only male characters exist, and yet if you are not male, not whale, not doing meth, or not inclined to hunt marine mammals, you do not notice your absence in a way that causes you to leave the theater or kick the book in the head. You enter a love letter to attraction that folds itself around you like your own dream. You remember a cat that blurred the outline of your body. Also a bird.
The deeper the awareness that male supremacy isn’t produced by nature, the higher the degree of panic. The higher the degree of panic, the more brutal the enforcement of gender separation and the quarantining of bodies, lest maleness itself be contaminated and fatally weakened by proximity to femaleness and other nonbinary bodies. The panic suggests to those fighting the hardest that the contamination has already set in. The attack on othered bodies is a denial of knowledge that really can’t be erased.
When I read stories set in a French villa or an Italian villa, where meals are eaten on patios and lawns under striped awnings, where there are always three courses served on gleaming pottery, vegetables from a nearby farm, eggs from local chickens, charcuterie sliced paper thin, cutlets sautéed with capers and butter sauce on the side, glasses of wine and bubbly water, mild breezes cooling summer days, a family and their guests or the young inheritors of wealth with a houseful of sexy, happy, bored, and terrified people, all I can think about are the servers doing the work.
My Dinner with Hervé takes place in 1993 when Hervé is out of money and hope. The woman he married has left him and broken something that can’t be repaired. He wonders if he actually loved her or only wanted to prove he could be loved. All his life he has been made to feel less than whole because of his size. As the co-star of Fantasy Island, he sought to earn as much money as Ricardo Montalbán, a demand thought absurd to everyone but him. The night following his meeting with the journalist, he shoots himself in the head.
Everything stops too soon when you are expecting the next note. When I imagine rebooting a lost relationship, I am reminded of a passage from Beckett’s novel Murphy: “A man is in bed, wanting to sleep. A rat is behind the wall at his head, wanting to move. The man hears the rat fidget and cannot sleep, the rat hears the man fidget and dares not move.” Every time I have told myself to accept the limits of another person, I have gone insane.
A few times I stayed in bed with you, knowing a writer or a musician was waiting to talk to me in a café. It was a time before cell phones, and the writer or musician would be sitting there, checking the clock. After you left, I took to watching a cooking show with a chef who wore his hair long like yours and had your dark skin and sad smile. If I ran into you, I would not ask you the question. I would say, “Have you repaired the parquet square?” I remember when I was younger and in pain from love. I would walk for whole days and nights, day after day and night after night as if I had all the time in the world to let time do what time can do. I do not have that kind of time anymore, but maybe I would still walk, not knowing what else to do.
In 1966, I married a man and moved into a bourgeois high-rise in the West Village. Next door to us lived Adele Mailer, who had been married to Norman Mailer and had been stabbed by him an inch or so from her heart. To think of transphobia apart from gynophobia and misogyny is to miss a core structure of male supremacy. Likewise, any woman who does not see her predicament as intimately linked to the predicament of trans people and other nonconforming bodies has a sadly enfeebled understanding of the world.
Adele was raising her two daughters, and we could hear each other’s lives through the thin wall we shared. We decided the hell with privacy and became friends. Everything in her life seemed glamorous to me, and she was warm and beautiful with skin the color of dusty roses. She was acting in those days and performed in several plays directed by the great Downtown actor and playwright Julie Bovasso. Hervé and Adele were both cast in one production. He wore a Napoleon costume and barked the word “shtupping” several times as a punch line.
The production had the quality of a dream, and during its run Adele and the man I was married to and I had a party together, with people flowing into both apartments. That’s the night I met you. You were working full time against the war. We would run into you at a camping site in Northern Spain the summer Nixon resigned, and we would drink all night in celebration. Hervé came to that party, too, and ate the Swedish meatballs I was preparing in those days. He was charming and seemed a little lost and also self-possessed in something of the manner Dinklage captures in his performance. That time came swimming back, as things do when your life has been touched.
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