Issue 185, Summer 2008
Jack and Dwayne lived in apartment 6E in a twelve-story building facing Central Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One morning in the late fifties, I moved into the apartment above theirs with my two young sons, our clothes, a few pieces of furniture, some boxes of books and games and papers, including my divorce decree, and a carton or two of kitchen odds and ends.
I met Jack a few weeks later when he rang my bell, held out a book, and inquired whether I had lost it. He had found it in the trash can at his back door, which opened onto a dimly lit, gloomy service stairway. “By accident, I guess,” he added quickly, as though obliged to account for the book’s presence in his trash can.
No one had claimed it yet, he said. He had checked all his neighbors. Now he was trying the tenants on my floor. If he had no luck finding the owner, he might keep the book. He loved the title, Tender Is the Night, although he had never heard of the writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I recognized my worn volume at once and took it, thanking him. It had been given to me by a friend when I was seventeen and living in a small apartment in San Francisco on Telegraph Hill.
I recall wondering how it had ended up where it had. Now and then the tenants had to use the back stairs when the elevators weren’t working. It was possible that I, or the movers, had let the book fall into his can on the way up to 7E—but not likely.
There was a momentary silence during which we smiled at each other. He began to turn away then appeared to change his mind, introduced himself and held out his hand. I shook it, aware of its warmth and firmness.
I saw all of him that afternoon, as one takes in the full portrait of another person before moving in closer and noting details of face and body. Jack was in his early thirties, I guessed, boyishly handsome, tall and narrow-hipped, with short, dark brown hair. Later, after we became friends, I saw more distinctly the details of his face, its hint of secrecy, its changeability, and what I sensed was an ardent hope for affection. In the uncertainty of his smile, I felt a shock of recognition, but unlike my own smile, his was unguarded. I learned quickly that neither of us was open with others unless we felt in them the same hope—although I’ve made mistakes now and then.
Jack told me he’d been in the navy toward the end of World War II. I thought he must have been the picture of nauticalness in his uniform—except for that uncertainty, or perhaps it was hesitancy, in his voice and manner. He had joined the navy to avoid being drafted, he said.
I couldn’t imagine him battling enemy sailors. After a few days of knowing him, I realized that he didn’t want to contend with other men, but only to make love to them, sometimes to love them.
Dwayne was in a new dance company that had earned a reputation for the originality of its choreography. There were no stars yet. Dwayne would often return home to 6E exhausted from rehearsals, smoke a little marijuana, and lie down on the living-room floor to sleep for an hour or two.
Jack and I always telephoned each other before we visited, a hello and how are you. When we were together, we spoke of many things, our conversations drifting along like a slow-moving river. Our friendship deepened; even when I was tired out, I looked forward to his presence. We both seemed to brighten in each other’s company.
Once, referring to a commercial kitchen cleanser, he said, “I’ve been told I look like Mr. Clean. But actually, I’m Mr. Dirty.” He laughed as he always did at his own jokes, just as I did at mine.
One late afternoon, as I pushed open the unlocked door of his apartment, I heard a woman singing. I was so startled by the beauty of her voice, its range and muscularity, the ravishing music of her song, that I didn’t move for several minutes, listening. The song ended. I entered the living room to find Jack sitting in front of his record player, watching the record still spinning. He glanced over at me, whispered, “Maria Callas singing ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca.”
In the hour that followed, Jack spoke about the operas he loved, and the singers, especially Maria Callas. I had studied the classical piano repertoire for a while at Juilliard but was largely ignorant of other music—except jazz. Years earlier I had overheard my mother speak scornfully about opera to one of my uncles—“all those fat people standing around bellowing at each other,” she had said, and although I never consciously paid any attention to my mother’s aesthetic opinions—they couldn’t penetrate the obscuring darkness between us—somehow her words had been able to leave a stain for me on operatic music.
I taught in a private school that my children attended on scholarship. On two afternoons and evenings every week, I took classes at Columbia University. When I was out, I hired a sitter, usually a young Swiss woman from a nearby hostel where Swiss people stayed when they came to this country to go to school.
On a day when I reached home an hour or so before my children were due, I phoned Jack. “Should I come down or will you come up?” I asked. “Come down,” he replied. “There’s someone here I’d like you to meet.”
Our apartments were identical: living room, dinette, narrow kitchen, two small bedrooms, a bathroom at the end of a short hallway. But the decor was dramatically different. Except the boys’ bedroom, full of books and games, their discarded clothes all over the floor, the rest of my rooms looked bare, even meager. But Jack and Dwayne lived in a miniature splendor—silk drapes, elaborate candelabra on small, elegant tables, tassels on the corners of brocade pillows arranged carefully across the seat of an opulent sofa in their living room, and in one of the bedrooms, a four-poster bed with transparent white side curtains.
When Jack opened the door, four straight pins sticking out from between his lips, he led me to the spare bedroom. I saw a large woman standing there on a footstool. She was nearly covered with beige tissue paper, like a living gift being wrapped. Jack removed the pins from his mouth, explained that he was fitting her for a dress, then introduced us: “My mother, June—she’s visiting the city for a few days”; me he called “a lady friend from upstairs.”
She peered at me over a piece of the tissue paper that clung to one cheek and smiled as he tried to locate her waist with a tape measure. She began to talk to me at once, as though we were friends in a conversation that had been interrupted. Bits of the beige paper were caught between her lips and she spat them out moistly.
She looked like a middle-aged woman from a small Iowa town, and she was. But I had a sense of a discordance between her presentation of herself—stern, plain, straightforward, guileless—and her true nature. I noted a trace of irreverence in her comments on life—about which she said in one of her rare asides, “Well, we must put up with it . . .” I surmised she meant life in general as well as Jack’s preference for men.
I tried to hold up my end of the conversation while Jack silently pinned and measured. I spoke of the pleasures of the park on the other side of the broad avenue, asked her pointless questions about the town she came from, and mentioned neighborhood crime, attributing it to poverty and hopelessness. But then she took me by surprise. “Human beings,” she said, “have an inborn capacity for wickedness.”
Impulsively, I told her about overhearing two Hispanic men as they walked past me on the sidewalk where I had paused for a moment. “This neighborhood is a scandal, such wickedness,” one had said to the other. “It is true,” the other agreed.
She laughed outright. “You see, they agree with me,” she said.
Jack had spoken to me about his father’s death when Jack was eleven and how he had felt a secret relief. I gathered his father had been a severe man, locked into himself with his own key. Jack’s uncle, his father’s only sibling, was a distinguished anthropologist at a Southern university who had gradually distanced himself from his family until they no longer even exchanged holiday cards. Jack himself had attended the University of Iowa but only for his freshman year. “I didn’t find it friendly,” he told me once. I wondered if there had been some murky episode for his having left the school.
June and I talked for a while and parted amiably enough, aware, each of us, that there was more than met the eye in the other. I returned to my apartment thinking about Jack and how he made his way in the world, making clothes or decorating apartments. His jobs were irregular. He worked occasionally for a dress designer or a store where tailoring was done. Sometimes he was employed by a decorating firm and sent on special jobs to outlying parts of the city that involved a lot of riding on subways and buses. He never complained about his long and tedious trips. He seemed to accept it all as his destiny.
Jack and I grew ever more intimate. He was fond of my children and they were fond of him. When I began to go out with Martin a few years after I had moved into the apartment house, he liked Jack, too.
What I had sensed, fleetingly, as a child with four uncles, three of whom were homosexual, had become plain as I grew older. There is as much diversity among homosexual people—in some instances, more—as there is among other people.
One autumn afternoon as I stepped down from the bus I took from work, I saw Jack walking toward me on Central Park West, his nose covered with bandages taped to his cheeks. He smiled painfully as he told me his tale. There had been a young man in the park who had encouraged Jack to follow him into a grove of trees. When they were inside it, the young man had turned quickly and hit Jack in the face, breaking his nose, then had run away laughing loudly.
Jack shrugged at my exclamation of shock. “I made a mistake that time,” he said, without apparent resentment.
What he had done, and suffered as a consequence, made me shiver in a sudden awareness of the wantonness of sexual life. As I stared at his wounded face, I recognized how the wish for sensual pleasure can be accompanied by peril. Strange beasts shamble out of the self’s essential solitude.
He had brief fits of anger, usually set off by the sounds of a loud radio in one of his neighbors’ apartments. He would go to the neighbor’s door, bang on it violently—to be heard above the din, he explained to me—and when someone opened the door to stare at him questioningly, he’d say quietly through clenched teeth, “So sorry to bother you but would you be so kind as to lower the volume on your goddamned fucking machine?” and then turn on his heel and walk away. Usually this worked, but a few tenants, insulted by his ferocity, would only turn up the volume on their radios or record players.
At some point he acquired an Airedale that he named Kelly. He seemed to love the dog with an intensity that slid easily into rage. He called it “discipline” to me, yet the blows he gave across her back taught her only fear. When I protested, he admitted he was sometimes cruel to her. He tried to excuse his actions by saying it only happened when she was too slow to obey him. I asked him if he would treat a human being so violently. He looked at me helplessly, bewildered by his own behavior.
After a few months he gave the dog away to some people he knew who lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or Pa-a-a-ah, as he called it, drawing out the abbreviation with a grim smile as though that was the way he wished he’d addressed his father.
I visited him with less apprehension now that Kelly wasn’t crouched in the living room, her muzzle resting on her paws as she watched him timidly through her thick, curly beige fur.
Dwayne traveled to other cities with the ballet company, and Jack and I spent more time together. If he had something to sew, he brought it along and sat in my living room hemming the edge of a curtain, or the skirt of a suit for a customer. Sometimes he left early when he was planning to cook something elaborate. Mostly he made simple meals for himself and Dwayne.
He told me about a lover he had had for years before Dwayne who had been a well-known television star of the period and had played a ladies’ man in a weekly series. We spoke of Hollywood, where I had lived for a time, then of clothes and opera singers and music. And of life itself and its strangeness. “Do you ever have the feeling when you’re walking down a street—on your way to work or whatever—that you’re not yourself but a mystery guest on someone’s program? And you know nothing about the way you are and you don’t recognize the shoes you’re wearing, or your hands, and the moment isn’t a moment but somehow . . . timeless?” Jack once asked, looking up blankly as he spoke. I said, “Yes,” in a voice unrecognizable to me, as though it might have issued from a chair or the open book on a table.
He told me on one of those afternoons how dreadfully his family behaved toward him—all except June, his mother, and especially his professor uncle who, he said, hated him so much when Jack’s younger brother died in his childhood, his uncle had whispered to him at the funeral, “Why him? Why not you?”
One time he described a sexual moment between Dwayne and himself. Dwayne had returned home from the opening of a new ballet he was in, had stripped and lain down naked in the hall, curled up, and gone to sleep. Jack had jumped him and Dwayne, awakened, had behaved and talked like a street pickup, pretending he’d never seen Jack before and wouldn’t see him again. Their late night encounter had excluded all emotion but the driving force of desire, without mind, without heart.
Staring at my reddened face—I was not used to such confidences, even from women friends—Jack quickly said that it was “different” that time, that sexual fulfillment could be more than the sum of its bodily exertions. There was affection between the two of them, moments of tenderness.
A few months later I remarried. Martin, my children, and I moved into the A-line of the same building, into a much larger apartment on the fifth floor. A few days later when I was alone in the apartment putting away books on shelves, the bell rang and I opened the door to Jack’s crumpling figure and stricken face.
“My mother—” he groaned. “She died.” He wept openly like a child, without covering his face, or like someone in the first moments of shock, before grief can be dissembled. I put my arms around him. We stood in the open door, holding on to each other. June, bittersweet, brave June.
One morning a year or so later when I was typing away in my living room, whose windows gave on Central Park West, I heard a sharp report. I looked out and saw a man fallen on the street. He raised himself up twice from his waist like an awkward seal, then collapsed. The doorman, Billy, looked up from the sidewalk at that moment and saw me. The police appeared. Two cops drew a chalk outline around the body, two carried the corpse to a waiting ambulance, and two more hosed down the spot where he had fallen. A short time later, my doorbell rang. Two detectives stood there. Billy had told them I had seen the murder. Would I please come with them to the precinct house, they asked. In a large room full of oak desks, their surfaces covered hectically with papers and telephones, my memory was prompted by the ceaseless questions of a large Irishman and I was able to recall more and more of the murder I had witnessed: the color of the car, faded green, and the arm holding the gun that had stuck out a back window like a turtle’s head.
Martin and I decided to move out of Manhattan. We found an apartment in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. By the time we moved, Jack and Dwayne were no longer lovers, although they continued to share 6E. After a month or so, Dwayne found a place of his own.
Jack had told me Dwayne was using marijuana much more as time went on, and the drug was beginning to affect his ballet career.
Jack visited us several times in Brooklyn, then moved to Melville, Long Island, where he’d found steady work in a small design firm. We didn’t see each other for over a year but we spoke on the telephone. There were moments of comfortable silence in our conversations. I could visualize him sitting in a room, looking down at a little table or at the dust-free floor. He was, when it came to his surroundings, an orderly man.
Months later the firm went bankrupt. Jack moved back to New York City and I lost contact with him for over a year. By the time he turned up again, we had bought a house in a nearby neighborhood. He found our address in the telephone book and one afternoon came to visit.
He was much thinner than when I had last seen him, and for the first time since I’d known him, shabby, as shabby as a pair of rundown old shoes. He told me he’d spent months on the street—“and I mean on the sidewalks, honey,” he said. He’d sheltered in doorways when he wasn’t chased away by irate tenants or landlords, covering himself with pieces of cardboard and rags when the weather grew cold.
“I didn’t know how mean people could be,” he said. Then he laughed in his old way. “I always wanted to be a welfare queen but discovered I wasn’t eligible.”
But his laughter held an underlying note of hopelessness. He had been rescued, he went on, by Ben, a young accountant, who, one frigid evening, took him home to his Greenwich Village apartment. When Ben rescued him that day, what Jack possessed were a worn navy peacoat, a T-shirt, and a pair of blue jeans, in his pocket a nickel and a few pennies.
Ben seemed to love him, and after a few weeks Jack was happy again. Or so he said. I felt street life had permanently scared and scarred him. Ben had a small dog, Ninny. One afternoon when I visited the cramped small apartment, Jack bent down frequently to caress Ninny. He looked up at me suddenly. “I was really bad to Kelly,” he said bleakly.
Ben came home shortly before I left. He was a small person, self-contained and unsmiling, but his eyes rested on Jack constantly, and I guessed he was devoted to him, his street prize.
When Jack told me he had AIDS, his voice held a note of insouciance as though he himself had not yet heard his own news. But I detected panic on his face, and my own heart, panicky, beat violently. I imagined him dying before me like the man who had been shot down in front of the apartment house where we had both lived years earlier.
The summer of his illness, my sons had jobs in the city and Martin and I rented a house in the countryside north of New Paltz. Jack was in a veteran’s hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I visited him twice, taking the bus from New Paltz to the city and back the same day.
The AIDS wing of the hospital was neutral-looking with its pale yellow walls on which hung several inane prints. Wasted men lay like sticks in hospital beds. Jack smiled up at me as I walked toward him, noting how his cheeks had sunk below his cheekbones. It was a sight that haunted me on the way home.
He had lost a lot of weight and looked as sick as he was. His face was covered with a reddish rash. As he gripped my hand, I felt his strength return momentarily, then fade, so that his fingers felt like a handful of pencils.
“A fine fix,” he murmured. “Poor me. Poor Ben. He has it, too.”
I nodded. I hesitated for a minute to tell him about a visit I’d had from Dwayne, but realized after my first words that Jack’s former lover held only a faint interest for him now.
Dwayne had stopped by one noon at our narrow Brooklyn brownstone. When he was sitting at the kitchen table looking around restlessly, he suddenly said, “No lunch for me. Would you mind if I smoked a little pot?” I nodded. He took a hand-rolled cigarette from his jacket pocket. After half an hour, interminable to me, of a silence broken only by the sounds of his long inhalations and my own awkward words sounding grotesquely cheerful under the circumstances, Dwayne left.
Jack smiled again as he recalled his visits to our house. I had asked him to make a few things for us, curtains and the like. I was happy to see him the three or four times he came to our door. He greeted me once with, “Here I am! The gay caballero!”
I visited Jack again a few weeks later. His condition had worsened and he could barely move his head on the pillow. When he spoke, it was as if I was listening to his voice through a heavy downpour of rain.
“That book . . .” he said. “I picked it up in the lobby of the apartment house where we met. It was on top of one of the boxes the movers brought.” He ran out of breath and paused for a moment. Then he went on. “I needed a reason to meet you. I saw you smile at one of the movers. I wanted you to smile at me that way . . . The Tender Night . . .” and he smiled in a ghostly way. I remembered how he had told me he loved the title.
“Tender Is the Night,” I corrected him softly. But he had closed his eyes. I left his bedside after a few more minutes for the long trip back to the mountains. During those hours on the bus, I stared out of the window thinking about Jack and our years of friendship, our conversations, our closeness. He was going to die. I couldn’t become used to that ultimate news.
The attending nurse had our summer telephone number and she called ten days later. Jack was dead. She told me then what I found hard to bear—his body had swelled up three times its usual size, although later, in the hospital morgue, it had slowly deflated. She also told me what I was relieved to hear. Jack’s uncle, the professor, had at last come through. Jack’s body, at his direction, was shipped south by train and buried in a cemetery just outside of Columbia, South Carolina.
Ben outlived him by three weeks. Toward the end of that time, I telephoned the hospital where he was a patient. He picked up the phone himself. I heard his labored breathing as I identified myself. He whispered that he was glad to hear from me. He fell silent for so long that I finally, after saying his name a number of times, hung up.