March 24, 2012 § 2 Comments
This was originally published on drunkenboat.com, but I wanted to share it here, too.
I wrote about my twin brother’s death before it actually happened. In “The End of Being Known”, a book I wrote about sex and friendship and the riddle of why, up to that point, I had been outside an intimate relationship for 15 years, there’s a piece of writing that imagines my brother dying in the street – gay bashed, I guess you would call it – a dark and rhapsodic riff circled around the violence I always imagined was at the edge of my brother’s living.
I had to imagine my brother’s life towards the end of his life because I wasn’t in his life the way we had lived it before. He was living in a different state. He didn’t leave his house except to go to work and to the bar.
The piece about my brother’s death is near the beginning of the book to erupt the book into being. And then, at the end of the book there’s a piece to counterpoint the violence which is about somebody else: Andrew, the man I had just met online and with whom I eventually fell in love.
Both sides of that book were strokes of imagination.
And then they both came true.
How could that happen? since it was in the imagination that both men were fully realized.
As strange as it was to have love’s edict break through in that book (Andrew, the once and seemingly everlasting elusive someone to love) – the prophesy about my brother’s death was even stranger. Had I written, without knowing it, a book of secret desires – one awful one and one good one: a love wish and a death wish? Isn’t any memoir dangerous when it departs actual life and enters imagined life; when the writer forgets what must have happened and starts to follow the line of mind that personalizes the randomness, even the recklessness of living? The memoirist insists life is most authentic at the point where there’s no turning back; when, in a dazed confession, it could all be told as someone else’s life.
I was telling someone else’s life.
I was telling my brother’s life.
And every twin lives two lives – one real, one imagined – one of being alone by night and with his twin by day; the other lit by wondering what life would be like without the other one. Twins co-joined are actually hardwired that way – made to think about what a life, detached from the life, must really be like.
* * * * *
I’m the survivor because I thought like the survivor even when I didn’t voice it plain. The survivor thought kept coming and going in my living and in my writing.
I’m the survivor because I think I can feel my brother more now than I could feel him in our living.
I’m the survivor because I feel guilt not to have survived but to have always known that I would be the one who would write this sentence.
I’m the survivor because we said in a game 100 summers ago that involved trees and an American flag and a bandage and a bottle of ketchup that I would be the survivor.
I’m the survivor because my brother knew he didn’t want to be the survivor.
* * * * *
I didn’t want my brother to die, nor did I secretly wish him to die, but writing about his death before it happened is – let’s face it – an odd thing to do, even if it came partly out of the imagination and partly out of some innate understanding of how he stood – however shattered – in his own life.
While it was no secret to anybody who knew him that my brother was an active alcoholic and could die from it some day, he wasn’t – I thought he wasn’t – as close to his own ending as I’d written him down in my book. But that spell – what turned precursor – was made even worse in a way by the fact that I never showed Kevin the piece of the writing the spell made me say on the page. What I did show him – what I had to show him in the form of reading it over the phone one afternoon from an attorney’s conference room – was an essay about the weird and important sexual relationship we had when we were young and stood in the frazzled threshold of impulse and sexual (was it gay?) desire.
I had to read my brother the essay about the weird and important sex because it was being published in an anthology of erotic gay memoirs, and in order for it to be considered, the piece had to be cleared through the legal department of the publishing company. There’s some strange stipulation whereby even if a name is changed (I changed Kevin’s name to “Rex”) in a piece of “non-fiction” – you still have to get permission from the real person in case they can identify themselves in a character, even if that character lives in non-fiction.
I needed permission from my brother to tell on him.
Now that he’s dead, Rex is back to being Kevin. Writers get their people back after their people die. People revert back to the people.
I was very nervous on the phone telling my brother about the anthology because I hadn’t spoken to him in a long time (silence there, to an already dangerous mixture of the truth about the sex): “Um… look, I’ve written this piece about our incest and they want to publish it and I’m going to read it to you and ask you if it’s okay because if it isn’t, you can sue me or something.” Kevin only had to approve the “story” or it wasn’t going to see the light of print.
After I had read it to him, I was surprised by my Kevin’s reaction. My brother very casually said, “sure it’s fine, it’s a good piece, when is it coming out?”
And it didn’t occur to me at the time, but my brother’s approval may also have been a plea on his part to not discuss the back-story, relieved now that the piece was written and that he was off to one side of the potential firework-danger of strange sex going off too close to him. My brother was relieved that what I had written stopped the incest in time – painful and ambiguous still, I suppose, but no longer the central heating of the here and now.
When the anthology came out, Kevin called me every now and then to say he’d seen the book in the gay section of some bookstore somewhere (where else would it be? The general population’s casual interest in gay life abruptly stops at erotic memoir). But he didn’t live to see my own book of essays published and died never knowing I had made him dead in the middle of a summer street in the middle of a paragraph of creative non-fiction.
And in these five summers away from his final summer, I am thinking of the fragility of any family once it enters that required pact with grieving when we all try to unravel the riddle not of the death, but of the life.
All of us die, but not all of us live.
I know that my brother died of acute alcohol poisoning that took it’s last good shot at his already broken heart, but I don’t know how he managed to stand in one place for so many years or how he lived in the one room or work in the same one basement or inhabit the one mind that he lubricated with fear and resentment toward most of his people but would let break down occasionally with joy, thank God – for the people he knew who made – no matter how cluttered their lives may have been – a place for art. To be an artist.
Like so many families into which a writer is born, I don’t know if my brother really saw me as a practicing artist. I was someone who wrote poems and a couple of books of prose, but I was not the artist doing it, I was my brother’s brother doing it. I was the big mouth with a pen who should have let lying dogs sleep in the middle of the road: a memoirist, in a family of secrets and lies!
Of the many unspokennesses between us, perhaps the oddest was the conversation my brother and I never had about how serious I was about my work, about getting it published and, finally, about finding a community of writers in a world that did not begin with writers. My brother had certainly written (his only book of poems was published posthumously) but he was never really that concerned about what would happen to the writing, supported by the fact that he only sent it out occasionally.
Occasionally, though, he did let somebody help. Stephen Sondheim, of all people, had pointed my brother in the direction of J.D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review, who would publish a poem called “Atlantic City” – again, posthumously.
But my brother never tried to have a career, which was something I always admired about him but also something that stopped him from having some necessary ambition to have a writing life.
Still, maybe he was the real artist after all.
I don’t know, because we never talked about it. I don’t know what he thought about how real artists see themselves.
We never talked about the things I talked about with other people.
We watched movies and read books and talked about them, and we watched the family go up and down on a ride we weren’t on and talked about that.
Or we gossiped, and like anyone who gossips, neither one of us walked away from the conversations with any real sense of connection, just enough facts to get us into the next conversation. Enough talk to remember each other.
We didn’t reveal what wasn’t already public domain and we didn’t look away, when we were looking at something together.
When my brother was looking at his twin, he saw the alcoholic and the homosexual who was miraculously able to maneuver long-term relationships which had always felt to my brother as such a task of heart and mind that he spent most of his life standing outside the long-term.
I see my brother in the painting that represents long-term loneliness as someone in the arduous task of pulling an ocean liner to a shore. And when I look at that painting and see my brother alone and vulnerable under so much weight of his own creation, I shudder with the thinking that I have always been thinking when it comes to the subject of my brother and romantic love (and it’s hard for me to say this without a smug irony) that one of the things my brother saw when he was looking at his twin was the fact that he couldn’t have him. The sex I had with my brother was over, but to my mind, it was still happening somewhere in Kevin’s own time.
The twin waits for the other twin to stop thinking.
And because that unrequited something kept imperfecting the frequency, my brother and I never really there for each other when it really counted:
when my mother died and he was hospitalized afterwards;
when I broke up with my lover of many years and finally had to get sober;
when I met Andrew and was afraid to have him meet Kevin because it was the first real relationship in 15 years and I couldn’t let Andrew fall for the thing in Kevin (something softer than physical) that resembled in any way the thing in me.
Kevin had the facts about my meeting Andrew, but my brother and I weren’t in the habit of talking about our lives as they were happening. We found the language in the after-it-happened.
We found talk rummaging around in the results.
Somehow, being born together magically activated something called the “virtue” of being a twin and gave us permission not have to ask anything.
Of course we knew what the other one was thinking.
We were twins, weren’t we?
And because we were twins, how could I not know that there would be a night like this:
he picks up the guy that leads to the door
that leads to the stairs
that leads to an unmade bed in the center of the hot night of his hot death after the stranger leaves him alone with his heart just before it stops.
How could I not know that my brother was going to be dead before I was?
Richard, my ex, called soon after Kevin’s death to tell me – as though it were important somehow to know – that it felt as though a piece of me had died – not all of me, just a piece. (Which piece, I wonder?)
And for every twin whose twin is dead, there must be the nagging – or is it misplaced? – grief of not being absolutely sure who to grieve, which of the two had, in fact, died?
But I was sure.
Kevin was dead.
I was alive.
When I was a twin, Kevin was alive.
March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
The first time I heard the music, I thought Nina Simone was a man of course, with that deep amazing voice but also something in the phrasing. That ambiguity made me listen to her singing even harder. Most women didn’t sound like that (they still don’t sound like that – okay, Macy Gray sort of sounds like that but who is Macy Gray?) and the songs she sang were so unclassifiable: of her time, but way outside of time; somewhere else. Somewhere very high that I could feel but could barely reach.
In the ‘70’s, I had the amazing accident of meeting Nina Simone after a concert she played in the US to make money to settle her famous debt of back taxes. She was standing in the vestibule of the Village Gate, smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine. It was very dark and rainy outside and the only light that filled the space we were standing in came off the reflections of rain and windshields of the traffic passing by the front of the club. Simone’s album Baltimore had just come out and I asked her how she felt about Randy Newman, who’d written the title track. She told me how gifted she thought he was and how strange it was more singers weren’t doing their own versions of his songs. “He’s not commercial,” I said, which I felt, as soon as I said it something I certainly didn’t have to tell Nina Simone who was patently uncommercial before there was even another word to differentiate one from the other.
Then she asked me if the Brasserie Restaurant was still open 24 hours and I said, to my knowledge, it was – open and bad food. She laughed. She asked me if I wanted to go with her but I was too shy and I said no. But mostly, I knew that if I went, I would have broken the spell that was only about a chance encounter in a vestibule in the rainy light after a concert.
She gave me her empty wine glass and got into the shiny black limousine that had been waiting the whole time we were together and drove away. It was the first real intimacy I ever had with an artist and the new feeling of being in the presence of greatness washed over me like a storm. It’s wrong what choirs preach, some people are different than other people.
Of all the goofy advisories in popular music none may be more true than the greatest thing that you could ever learn is just to love and be loved in return – the epiphany in the song “Nature Boy”, a recording of which exists by the genius jazz singer Kurt Elling. I love Kurt Elling. Kurt Elling is the new jazz singer that I love.
I heard him on some college radio station and have wondered – the way I always wonder at something I love immediately – where was I when that happened?
Kurt Elling will never love me in return, I know that. We will never meet and I will never break my fan’s anonymity again, ever since I broke it once only to meet a mean and soul-crushing dismissal by Keith Jarrett in the kitchen of the Village Gate when I was 20 years old when I asked him if he taught piano and he said … it doesn’t matter what he said … I don’t approach jazz musicians. I just approach their music. And besides, I don’t love Kurt Elling in the romantic way. I don’t even have a crush on Kurt Elling. My love for Kurt Elling is the love that lasts: I love what he talks about when he sings.
What Kurt Elling Talks About When He Sings
Kurt Elling likes harmonies that emphasize the notes that are in the shadow – notes you might hear in back of the ones that are actually in the song. On one of his recordings Kurt Elling reads poetry while the jazz is playing in back of him – like the beats used to do in the ‘50’s. Those were the days – jazz and poetry taking off their clothes in front of each other. We’re so guarded about art now.
We’re So Guarded About Art Now
I read an article once in the newspaper about how the downward economy has affected artists, which I thought was such a strange thing to say. It’s like wondering how the downward economy has affected poor people. Poorly, I imagine. Poorer. It said artists, because they have no money (as opposed to a time when they did have money?) can now do things they really want to do. Art, I imagine. Artier.
Kurt Elling says: “There are times when fans will stop me after a show and say things like, “I’m so glad to hear a Christian Jazz musician who is able to speak up for God, “ or, “Thank you for being such a strong Christian.” Then I have to stop them and say, “I’m sorry, but while I am a Christian in many ways and refer to that tradition, I am also not a Christian; just as I am both a Jew and not a Jew – a Muslim and not a Muslim.” Then they’ll ask, “What does that mean?” And I answer, “It means I am an artist”.
March 21, 2012 § 6 Comments
Once, I had to go to the emergency room – some weird upper stomach spasm or I was getting a hernia or something else that never happened to my body and couldn’t be explained by a memory. It was new.
The person who did my intake told me there were 14 people in front of me to see a doctor. It was 11:48 pm and I was tired and wanted to go home. It’s strange how you can remember a certain time when you are in a certain place – the place, of course, where you have never been before. A certain time exactly: 11:48. My stomach wasn’t doing anything strange so I just left with my boyfriend and we took a gypsy cab down the 10 blocks or so back to where we live.
At one point, during my whatever-this-is attack, Andrew said it was like somebody was sticking a pin into my voodoo doll. And it actually did feel like that. But I didn’t think it was funny: Andrew pointing to a doll of me. I wanted support in that rough draft of something happening in a hospital and because he is funny, I got something else. You always get something else with funny people: the thing itself, which is what you share and the funny version, which is yours alone. I wanted to judge Andrew but I realized that nobody really has any right to custom order the comfort just as long as its there. I wanted Andrew to take the pain away or make me think of something else and instead he put his hand on the pain to listen to it as I was listening to it.
I love to lie in bed and watch TV late at night. And no matter what my living situation has been – and they have been as varied as the television manufacturers – there has been a television across from me when I am bed-horizontal.
I remember happiness when I was lying in the unhappy hospital having my appendix out when I was a kid and my stepfather (in an uncharacteristic stroke of generosity) actually rented a television for me to watch in my room. The television was so high in the corner that when it wasn’t on I imagined that it must have been filming me sleep walking with my dreams.
What happens with the television now is that I lie with Andrew while it’s on and he goes to sleep and I go back and forth from whatever show I am watching to softly pushing on Andrew so that he’ll stop snoring.
It used to make me lonely: him, the beloved, falling away and me still very awake, involved in a story, a guest host, an old movie – moving through time projected from inside a screen to find something that will make me unthink softly softer into sleep. But now it’s pleasurable: my little world of shows in the dark. And turning to real life every now and then to watch Andrew sleep. It is such a distinct and total departure from the self to watch somebody sleep that it almost feels religious. And I always resist the urge to wake him up by letting Andrew enter my mind for the last time.
March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
Spring is so much in the air today that everything is happily confused. My dog won’t take her usual nap and is walking around in a dizzying sort of way — stopping every now and then to look hard at the mere air, and then back again on her hunt for whatever it is that French bulldogs know is out there. And I’m confused too, sitting in a tee shirt and sweating a little while I’m writing this — both windows open. It’s too early for the air conditioner and even though the day actually calls for it, there’s something conceited about turning it on before the official start of — I suppose — summer. I used to be embarrassed about air conditioning because it’s one of those comforts that so many people in the world simply don’t have, but now that I have a dog that requires it (she can’t stand the heat, and she isn’t allowed in the water), I don’t feel so bad.
Spring is also — for me, anyway — a season of remembrance. And for somebody who has been outside of drinking life for more than 20 years, some of those remembrances take place in old haunts — like the Tijuana Cat – a Cuban gay bar on Restaurant Row in New York City during the 70’s and early ’80’s. As it was with every bar where my boyfriend worked during those years, I drank for free and spent the nights at the Cat listening to a language I couldn’t speak (the boyfriend spoke fluent Spanish that he’d learned from a former boyfriend of his). It was a great bar: full of happy noise in the form of the lives of beautiful Cuban men, most of whom had just gotten to this country to live: off the boat and into the Bar: the international symbol for queer, whether you are a drinker or not a drinker. Tijuana Cat was also a kind of makeshift cabaret (one pin spot, an old stool and an upright piano that teetered on the edge of a tiny stage) and it showcased two truly astonishing singers: Blassy, a well-known Cuban diva, and a 70-year-old black dynamo named Dawn Hampton. Like every great singer, Dawn’s nightly repertoire consisted, in part, of songs most people were hearing for the first time and after listening to her renditions from the obscure, we all wondered why those songs had never become part of the American popular music canon.
One of those songs was “Did I Ever Really Live” by Allan Sherman and Albert Hague. It’s a song from a failed musical called The Fig Leaves are Falling – the title of which alone projects its demise – that lists the necessities of life (“you’re born, you weep, you smile, you sleep, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall”) but forgets in that popular song naiveté to put love on the list. Without love on the list, the song hauntingly asks, did I ever really live? I hear the song in my head every week or so – almost as much as I hear, lately, Adam Guettel’s “Fable” from The Light in the Piazza. I also hear junk, but that’s not important – junk gets in between one song to another.
There’s a wonderful rendition of “Did I Ever Really Live” recorded by Mark Murphy that I’ve been listening to lately and there’s also a strange (but worth looking at) rendition on YouTube by Pat Paulsen from an old Smothers Brothers TV show. He kind of clobbers the song because the serious eyes of this otherwise very funny performer don’t really know how to look into the camera. But the song still comes across because it’s that good and that powerful. It could have easily borrowed any body. I liked “Did I Every Really Live” most when it borrowed Dawn’s body.
March 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
In early recovery, I was sponsoring someone who ended up sponsoring me. Bob F. was the house manager of a theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and before that he had been a sheriff in a town in Connecticut that I forget the name of, if I ever knew it, which I don’t think Bob ever told me. Bob was sponsoring me because he knew a lot more about how to be in a relationship than I did and I wanted to be in a relationship with somebody. I was sober now. It was time to meet some fellow citizens!
But I wasn’t quite sober enough. In those first sleepless days of sobriety, I would get crushes on guys who were very newly sober and whenever that would happen, Bob, the good sponsor, would ask as a way of gauging the seriousness of the crush (and thus the potentially disastrous aftershock of being crushed by the crush) did you give them the Sondheim tapes yet? He was referring to that moment where – because these crushes were always on people who were too young to know Stephen Sondheim’s music – I had come to a kind of musical rescue, turning my beautiful boys on to a beautiful kind of music they would fall madly in love with. More than any composer I know, Sondheim’s music is in my head more than other music and I wanted my objects of obsession to hear it, too.
I loved being Stephen Sondheim’s secret messenger (though, I strongly suspect, as a group of gay men, we are legion), not only because the composer meant so much to me in my own life, but because anyone who truly appreciated him was somehow – in my humble recovering opinion – a sophisticate able to see another man as a diva, as much as the old way of seeing a woman that way.
But my dead twin trumps me when it comes to the iconic composer. Kevin wrote letters to Sondheim and I have a shoebox in my closet full of the letters Sondheim wrote back. The correspondence started when by brother wrote a love letter after seeing Sweeney Todd. I don’t know what Kevin said but it must have been interesting enough for Sondheim to have written back. Kevin was a bit of a serial letter writer and much like the fate of messages shoved into bottles, it was always a surprise whenever a message had actually reached its destination – made golden by an actual response. I remember the letters from the fiction writer Joseph Hansen to my brother as particularly filled with writerly advice – advice of someone who traveled quite a bit and was very much in the world, as opposed to my brother, who rarely left his room. You have to get out of your house and see how other people live he told him in one letter. Kevin wrote back two words to that advice: Emily Dickinson.
My brother’s back and forth with Sondheim was, thankfully, advice-free. But it was also inspiration-free or, at best, inspiration-lite. I never understood why Sondheim kept writing back because most of those letters were merely answers to Kevin’s letters and never elaborated on the public life or remotely approach the private life. The juicer news (two standouts: a snide remark he made during Madonna’s Dick Tracy recording session about her artistic worth, and a story about Barbara Streisand taping phone calls with him in the name of “posterity”) came out when Sondheim would call my brother occasionally at the lighting store where Kevin worked in Elmsford, New York. I don’t know what to do with the shoebox of Sondheim letters, but like Kevin’s empty wicker suitcase, I know not to throw them away. They both sit in the darkness of their past – not saying very much about Sondheim, not saying very much about my brother.
Whenever Sondheim would call Kevin at work, someone else would answer the phone and make Stephen Sondheim calling for Kevin sound like the joke they all believed it was. There couldn’t actually be a real Stephen Sondheim calling a clerk in a lighting store. And my brother left the collective response alone because it was easier than saying that there was a real Stephen Sondheim.
March 18, 2012 § 2 Comments
I wasn’t born in New York, but I feel that New York is the city of my birth. Everything important and life changing that ever happened to me feels like it happened here. Even if I wasn’t here when it happened, I brought it back here where experience moved into result. And there’s something about the iconographic imagery in this city (Times Square, Central Park, Grand Central Station, the Grand Concourse, the 59th Street Bridge) that I always respond to with a mixture of joy and sadness — for New York is both those things — 50/50.
I took this photograph (a view through the courtyard of the building that I live in), because it looks like — for someone who has never been here — proof of something about this city that is timeless. It could have very well been taken 50 years ago. Everything in it — the brick and the steel — is at least that old and it could have been taken the day I am starting the 11th grade at the High School of Music and Art on 135th Street, even though I live even more uptown now. The view from my bedroom window in 11th grade looked a lot like this one and I remember it exactly the same way as far as this particular light is concerned — the sun beginning it’s fall towards dusk.
The city is always reminding the native of how it used to look and when something disappears — like the complex of businesses that went up in flames a month ago up on 207th Street — the lapse in the landscape takes longer to get used to than the new building that will probably go up to relieve it. The new Apple store in Grand Central Station, didn’t really relieve anything (the space used to be occupied by a restaurant) and while the designers respected the exisiting space and basically just covered one end of the station with tables and technology, one feels as though the future has blasted a hole through one of the walls of the terminal with the reminder of our own life’s architecture: technology, not a reverie of the past, is where we go now to disappear.
March 17, 2012 § 1 Comment
“Try to make your life as though it’s a movie, and you and God are going to watch it. Try to make some parts that he will like.” — Bawa Muhaiyaddeen
I went to a screening of “Being Flynn” in Chicago a few weeks ago and had that exhilerating and eerie experience of seeing somebody I knew in real life being presented as a character in a movie. How strange it was to see scenes played out that were once real conversations I had with somebody named Nick Flynn years ago on Cape Cod. It’s a hard movie to watch, even if I wasn’t already familiar with the true story that makes up the screenplay of Nick’s life (based on his memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City”) and specifically, his relationship with his narcissistic father who is homeless and living off and on at Pine Street Inn, the shelter in Boston (the movie made it New York) where Nick himself works. When I met him more than 20 years ago with Marie Howe at a pot luck dinner at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, I thought that he was also homeless in some ways — wild and unmoored, trying to get clean and sober, just beginning a serious commitment to writing poetry and working on a boat that was parked on dry land at the end of Bradford Street so it could hopefully one day hit the water again. I think Nick was living on it, but he may have gone inside somewhere at night. It was that kind of relationship in the beginning, I didn’t see him much. And over the years, we’ve become good friends and he’s stayed remarkably the same person while the frenzy of fame and whatever fortune rushed in to meet him with the life that he has now — a very different life and like so many of us, a resolutely saved life. I kept being hit with that hard knowledge of Nick’s saved life as I was watching his movie about it and struck harder still by the idea that he and his father have been living off and on at different ends of the same boat.
I ran into Nick the next morning in the hotel lobby where we both had breakfast and asked him — like a fan — what he was working on and he told me that he was finishing a book called “The Reenactments” about the making of the movie “Being Flynn” and of course, I thought in the same way that a mirror reflects a mirror reflects a mirror through a hall of eternity that I was looking at Nick Flynn who wrote a book about his life that was made into a movie about his life that was made into a book about a movie about his life. How odd. What if nobody likes the movie? Who’s going to read a book about a movie nobody liked? And then in back of that thought came this: it didn’t matter. However “The Reenactments” turns out, it will be like everything else that Nick Flynn writes — a gorgeous meditation on the new version of Nick, in Nick Flynn’s life.