Monday, September 17, 2018


cities build themselves
ribcage elbow arm outstretched
rising without you

Saturday, September 15, 2018


Bespoke Clown

 “I’m friggin’ bored.” Jude Kowalski gazed skyward, puffing her doughy, pockmarked cheeks.
Tessa Scott frowned.
“Tessa? You mad at me?” Jude reached for her friend, who neatly avoided her touch. “I hate Hartford.” She picked distractedly at some fresh eruption on her face.
“Cut it out, man!” Tessa snapped, immediately regretting her sharp retort. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
Jude, rattled, folded her hands onto her lap. “S’okay.”
“What do you think?” Tessa shot back. “Hartford’s the last place on earth I want to be. I hate Connecticut.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Jude moaned. “You’re never bored. Why would—?”
Tessa shot back, “It’s not my friggin’ fault you’re bored!”
Stricken, Jude stared down at her mannish hands, willing them to reveal the reason for her friend’s pique.
Tessa shrugged off Jude’s dismay. Only slightly apologetic, she recalled their first adventure. “God, remember that friggin’ dog in New Britain? Oh man, you were freaked out!”
“Ma-a-an. He was friggin’ e-e-evil,” Jude drawled, relieved.
Short of carfare on a long holiday weekend in early October, the two high school seniors had made the nearly nine-mile trek on foot to an art museum in New Britain, the next town over from Hartford. At Tessa’s instigation, they’d plotted a route, packed a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and started out at dawn. Their only misstep brought them uncomfortably close to a nervy Alsatian pacing his domain, his matted coat oilier than the floor of the gas station, his bared teeth the color of old piano keys.
The museum turned out to be old-fashioned stucco that looked like somebody’s grandmother’s house. It housed a sizable collection of paintings by artists of the Hudson River School.
“You hated that stuff,” Jude laughed.
“That stuff” was nature portrayed as gaudy backdrops, what Tessa called calendar art. Her preference was for the modern, like Rothko’s dark abstractions that made her cry, or the art that pissed off her dad and made her laugh, like Andy Warhol’s Mona Lisa. She loved it all, every radical thumb that flicked at the nose of convention.
Tessa grinned. “It scored points with Miss Merz, am I right?” She mocked the art teacher’s prim New England lilt. “Albert Bierstadt was a painter of such grandeur. What divine brushstrokes….” Tessa twirled an imaginary brush in Jude’s face.
There was that irrepressible shriek, followed by the spluttered coughing sound Jude made when she laughed. Jude’s friendship laid bare such ferocious intensity that had Tessa not been so lonely it would have put her off. Instead, Tessa laughed along with her friend.
Again, Jude trailed her fingertips lightly across her face, exploring the scars.
“Don’t do that, okay? You’re bumming me out.”
“Sorry,” Jude mumbled.
Tessa searched for distraction among the unruly flame-colored daylilies fanning the porch stairs the girls sat squarely upon. It was still a novelty for Tessa—roomy old houses and the wicker furniture that creaked with exhaustion. A silent fusillade of wildflowers spilled across the worn selvage of the unkempt lawn.
Tessa lived with her father in a small, furnished apartment on Laurel Street, a few blocks from the high school where she’d spent her senior year.
On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she’d grown up, front porches and backyards were as scarce as swollen bank accounts. What prevailed in the 1950s were drab tenements, tough housing projects, Italian pizzerias, Jewish delicatessens, Ukrainian coffee shops, and bars. There was Tompkins Square Park—a place she’d avoided at the best of times—despoiled by the career homeless, as her dad called them, and paper-bag winos. He had equal disdain for the other bums, the artists and poets—the beatniks—who had put down roots and whom Tessa secretly admired. “Get a job,” he’d mutter or, “Get a haircut.” There had been talk about fixing up the park, but the neighborhood families were less bothered by its derelict band shell. They wanted something done about encroaching crime, rival teen gangs. They wanted to leave their airless apartments, return to park benches of a summer evening, and linger among desultory conversations with their fellow escapees. They wanted their park back.
On any enervating summer afternoon, Tessa, her skin glazed with sweat, languished on a stoop in the projects, where she’d lived since birth. She watched through letterbox eyes as drugs were passed in narrow doorways on Avenue D. Older boys jimmied the hydrants, drawing sunburnt kids out of nowhere. They fanned out across the street, braving the icy cold torrent. A dare would prompt one of the braver among them to bodily redirect the deluge to an open basement window until the building super rained his fury upon them, scattering them like cockroaches at first light. Hartford had none of that. Tessa couldn’t get good pizza, not like in New York, a whole pie for under a buck. For beer, Connecticut had package stores. A hero back home was a grinder in Hartford.
The student population at Hartford Public High had taken her by surprise. Arriving on opening day, she was struck by the scramble of Negro teens discharged from a convoy of yellow school buses. Her old public high school in Manhattan had been fully integrated. Back home, some of the students at the High School of Art and Design—including her best friend, Hugh—had adopted Black as a self-descriptive term. Buses were for public transportation. Both the financially underendowed and the students who were better off coalesced from neighborhoods near and far for the purpose of generating some kind of art. Martin Luther King’s dream was not quite the reality on Forest Street in Hartford. Apart from Miss Merz’s class, which suffered from twentieth-century blindness, there was nothing close to that at Hartford Public High School: no painting, no photography class, no sculpture studio, no fashion or advertising design. Woodworking was a “boys only” class, relegating Tessa to home economics, a subject she found laughable.
All expectation of fitting in was abandoned early on. She’d been thrust into her senior year in a strange school. Her clothes were wrong. She spoke with a funny accent she refused to modulate. She unabashedly declared herself an artist. Friendly overtures to Negro girls in her homeroom were met with wary amusement. The madras-and-Weejuns crowd gave her wide berth. Asylum Hill seemed a perfect name for the neighborhood.
A big girl with a coarse complexion was seated next to her in art history class. The girl cackled with delight when a flippant comment escaped from Tessa, causing Miss Merz to pucker with irritation. “Jude, we’ll have none of that,” the teacher warned, not unkindly. Then, addressing the transplant, “You’ll find there is culture beyond New York City, Miss Scott.” Tessa’s face had burnt brighter than the Bierstadt sunset projected onto the pull-down screen at the blackboard. But the incident brought her the admiration of the few defectors from preppy she’d found there.
She’d left her old schoolmates and neighborhood pals back in New York. It was also where she had left her mother.
Tessa was an only child. Jude never asked, and Tessa never revealed her mother’s violent outbursts, rages that came from nothing ever being good enough. Her mother had a flirtatious side that bordered on hysteria. Tessa suspected she had been unfaithful. There were times when her mother fell into an almost sweet confusion, as if she didn’t know who or where she was exactly. The three of them were like strangers thrown together, and for a brief while they steadied their little boat until the tranquil sea turned savage again. Avoiding the flare-ups, Tessa sought refuge in her journal, her art, and the many galleries and museums in the city. Her father put in even longer hours at his antiques repair shop on First Avenue near the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge. Sometimes Tessa would walk the few blocks after school, spending the rest of the day into evening at her father’s side.
He sometimes talked about leaving New York. Tessa had assumed he’d meant the three of them. Finally, in 1963, there was a citywide newspaper strike that lasted one hundred days. After that, leaving was all he talked about. Tessa imagined it was the real reason he abandoned his idle business, taking a job with a decorator in West Hartford. He never talked about his wife. If Tessa asked about her mother, he’d reply, “You’re better off not knowing.”
All of that was behind her, allowing a dozy intermission on a muggy afternoon in June, the air so warm you could hear the trees drone. It was Tessa’s first summer away from New York. Liberty in a strange city stretched ahead for a few weeks longer, until the summer job started.
Jude’s life was just as it had always been. She was living in the house where she’d been born, still mired in submissiveness on a splintered porch. Her older brother, an abstract painter and radical by necessity, had left for Canada just before Tessa arrived, before the draft caught up with him. “An escape artist,” Tessa once joked, and then took care never to mention him or the Vietnam War again. Jude had a few friends before Tessa came along, but they fell back as Jude embraced Tessa. They could not compete with a girl from New York.
The houses on Jude’s street wore their benign neglect without rancor. Only its inhabitants differentiated Jude’s home from the neighbors’. Her family was white. The neighbors were black, apart from a few elderly Poles and Lithuanians who lived further from Farmington Avenue. The houses set back from the street shared a common fall from grace that demanded they respect each other’s privacy. They did not mix. There was no need.
A command, gruffly served in Polish, broke their reverie. “English, Mama,” Jude sighed. She took the straw hat leveraged above her from the thick, purposeful fingers of her mother. Mrs. Kowalski did not like Tessa, granting her only the thin evidence of a smile. It did not sit well that Tessa’s mother had stayed behind in New York. Jude’s Polish family was die-hard Catholic. “She’ll like you once she gets to know you,” Jude offered. When the girls bent over homework or hauled oversize sketchbooks to their laps, Jude’s mother appeared, wordlessly shoving her daughter’s bedroom door open. If Tessa stayed overnight, Mrs. Kowalski was sullenly even more uncommunicative in the morning. It was disconcerting. Mrs. Kowalski made Tessa uneasy, though Jude tried to reassure her. It was the language thing. Summer brought the girls out into the open, out of Jude’s airless bedroom under the eaves.
From the start, Jude followed Tessa’s lead, though her ardent nature was bothersome at times. They’d had other outings, closer to home. Many Saturday afternoons were passed in the cool marble interior of The Wadsworth Atheneum. It was graveyard quiet there. They wandered the empty galleries unnoticed, heads close, brooding over their reflections in a shallow pool under a statue of Venus in an open sunlit court. They huddled giggling in a dark corner, mimicking the marble statue of a couple of scowling women. “Let him perish!” they’d squeal, tearing up the staircase behind it.
“Caked-on blustery of dusty history.”
Jude often recited aloud fragments from the poems she wrote but never showed Tessa. She’d nod in earnest as Tessa excitedly described the meaning of a certain minimalist artist’s installation—the “approximate invisibility” of the piece—but Tessa failed at enlightening Jude as to the deeper meaning of Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tube. Compared to the museums in Manhattan—apart from contemporary bright spots—Tessa found the Wadsworth antiquated. She missed the welter of emotions that sprang up when she’d stumbled upon the ordered chaos of a Twombly at the Modern, both disturbed and aroused by a swan’s ecstasy.
They sketched outdoors in Elizabeth Park. Tessa showed Jude how to abstract the landscape around them. They had explored all three floors of Mark Twain’s pink-and-red Victorian Gothic mansion that rose above Farmington Avenue. Smaller, but no less interesting, was the cottage around the corner, which had once belonged to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Writers Tessa had devoured as a sophomore back home. “We’re reading it for English this year,” a senior classmate offered. “Uncle Tom’s Cabinet.” Hartford was a desert she’d not have to endure much longer.
Tessa stabbed a loose floorboard with her foot. Unthinking, she pouted. “What did you ever do without me?”
Jude, eager for validation, gushed, as if on cue, “M-m-m, my groovy friend.” She gauged Tessa’s irritated squint. “I meant groovy in a good way.” And then helplessly she blurted, “I mean, special. You’re my beautiful, special friend.”
Tessa rolled her eyes, mitigating discomfort. She took in Jude’s lank, waist-length hair, an ambivalent dishwater blonde cascade. Jude wore apology like a shroud: the thickset Polish physique, shoulders like sagging house beams, and a down-turned mouth that even laughter could not right. Tessa knew—because Jude had told her often enough—that she despaired of ever having the kind of attention Tessa got. Jude’s hooded reptilian stare, her complexion unfairly scarred by genetics were constant reminders.
They were as unalike as Lucille Ball and her television sidekick, Ethel. Tessa knew they made an odd couple in the school hallways—she with her trim, athletic build, unconventional dress, and a disposition that drew guys to her like rats to cheese. Tessa’s female classmates regarded her with suspicion, taking in her blonde ponytail, a barefaced, flawless complexion, and a laugh that struck like lightning.
Tessa wanted to scream, “Don’t blame me if I’m pretty. I hate it, hate all the friggin’ attention. I hate every friggin’ minute of it. Guys don’t take me seriously. No one takes me seriously.”
Instead, she softened her rebuttal. “You were born here at least. You weren’t dragged kicking and screaming.” She snatched the straw hat from Jude’s head, spinning it with her index finger. “You’re really talented, you know, Jude. You get to be treated like an artist. Everyone drools over your work. Miss Merz thinks you’re a genius already.”
Jude shrieked, lunging for her hat. They wrestled like boys, rolling into the wicker chairs, shoving them aside in their tussle. Jude straddled Tessa, thrusting her meaty hands against Tessa’s thin shoulders.
“Get off!” Tessa shouted, grimacing. Red-faced, she rose sharply, clapping her hands to her thighs. She tugged at her denim cutoffs. “Right. I have an idea.”
“What?” Jude asked.
Tessa grinned. “Trust me. It’s outta sight.”
They were the first ones through the entrance to the Wadsworth Museum the following morning.
 “Shush,” Tessa whispered. She pushed Jude from the smaller gallery where the new acquisitions were displayed.
Jude, surprised by Tessa’s urgency, yelped, “For Pete’s sake, don’t have a cow.”
“Cool it.” Tessa urged under her breath.
“You’re cr-a-a-zy,” Jude snorted. She drew a lank of hair into her fist. She scowled at the ends for a moment before tossing it behind her. “What’s this all about?”
Tessa coughed. “Let’s go outside.”
Jude allowed herself to be hurried past the tapestries and through the Great Hall.
At some distance from the museum entrance on Main Street, Tessa breathlessly repeated her idea. “This will blow your mind,” she said. They would create a painting, frame it, and hang it in the museum.
“We’re artists, right? Ready for anything? Ready to be a little daring?” Tessa urged.
Jude nodded soberly, still unconvinced. “But we could get in trouble, big trouble. What about the guards? You gonna hammer a nail—?”
That was going too far, Tessa had to admit, banging holes in museum walls. But she was running out of options. Downtown had taken only a few weeks of exploration before she’d covered all the historical sights. The hoopla surrounding a newly completed glass building they called “The Boat” seemed overblown considering where she’d come from. She’d be working downtown soon enough, filing medical records for an insurance company. Constitution Plaza had a desolate, crypt-like feel away from Main Street’s older department stores. She’d sauntered around the East Side neighborhood of her school back home in Manhattan and encountered the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Suzy Parker in Bloomingdale’s. She’d cut class sometimes to wander alone in Greenwich Village and check out the troubadours in Washington Square Park. Downtown Hartford got pretty old, pretty quick.
They planned their moves carefully. They made many return trips noting the uninterested museum guards’ whereabouts. Because it was summer, a heavy overcoat would only draw attention, so they had to devise a way to sneak in a watercolor portrait of a clown, loosely painted on a thick sheet of Arches that they had gingerly removed from a 9 x 12 block.
Jude balked at making it into an abstract. “I’m painting it, let me do it.”
Tessa saw the bigger picture, leaving it to Jude. Tessa signed it Maurice Rageau. They framed it with the simplest frame they could find at the art supply store, attaching picture wire to the back. It looked professional enough. It fitted nicely under an old paint smock Jude would wear buttoned to the neck. They practiced roping Jude’s waist with a perfect knot that would loosen with a flick of the wrist. They purchased gummed hangers, testing them to hold the modest weight of the picture.
The final touch was the label. Tessa typed it on an old Remington in Jude’s father’s office, in the pharmacy he managed at the top of the hill where Farmington Avenue veered off Asylum. Jude’s father was always pleased to see Tessa. Whenever they stopped in they were treated to hamburgers at the lunch counter, scarfing them down with cherry cokes. He enjoyed their giggling presence and did not interfere as Tessa pecked out the words: The Clown, by Maurice Rageau.
On a quiet weekday, under a dull sky, they set out for the museum. For a brief moment they stood before the turreted stone castle, reconsidering. Jude’s heartbeat caused her to stammer.
“We, we, shoulda done a dress rehearsal.” She gripped the bulk she was carrying, feeling for the knot atop her stomach.
Tessa breathed in deeply, steadying their resolve. “If you snooze you lose, Jude. We can do this.”
Moments later they flew from the galleries, heading straight for the main entrance. They slowed past the lone guard who had not seen them arrive. He nodded to the familiar sight of a couple of teenage girls.
Afterward, they tore across Bushnell Park, charged with adrenaline. The sight of the palatial sprawl of the Capitol building stopped them. They were joyous, sweating profusely. Relief came in a swell of laughter.
“We did it! We friggin’ did it!” they chorused.
Breathlessly, Jude ripped off the ridiculous smock, throwing it to the ground. They punched the air with a fresh round of laughter. Collapsing onto the grass, they gripped their stomachs.
“Outta sight,” Tessa wheezed. “Now, aren’t you glad we did it? For real, man.”
Jude turned on her side and gazed at her friend. “I am,” she said giddily, “I’m glad you’re my special friend. Love you,” she whispered, “for real.”
“Love ya, too,” Tessa laughed.
Jude stretched her arm, a languid motion that landed her fingers above Tessa’s face. “I mean, I love you,” she breathed as she trailed her fingers across Tessa’s cheek.
They walked home without speaking. Jude left her at Laurel Street. Tessa shouted after her, “Later!” Jude raised her arm in a half-hearted wave, and without turning, continued along Farmington Avenue.
A week later Tessa was flipping through her assigned carousel. She pulled cards on file with names and numbers of those listed as deceased. It was deadly boring, but she’d make a little money for her return to Manhattan in September. Everything was going as planned. She’d work in an art gallery on Madison Avenue that sold posters. She would be little more than a glorified stock girl, but she would attend evening classes at the Art Students League. She and a former school classmate in Manhattan planned to move into a basement apartment on Perry Street in Greenwich Village. She’d be seeing her old friend Hugh soon enough.
When her father asked, Tessa told him that Jude was getting ready to move to San Francisco, where she would take classes at the Art Institute.
“We’re both busy, you know. But we speak on the phone,” she said.
Jude’s father had told him another story.
Tessa’s dad had stopped at the lunch counter at the pharmacy for a coffee. “What happened with you two?” he asked Tessa. “Mr. Kowalski said you don’t come around anymore. He said Jude is brokenhearted, like you guys had a falling-out or something?”
Tessa felt ashamed and angry at the same time. “She’s busy,” she said. “We both are.”
In the days after their escapade, Tessa had planned to call Jude but one thing or another got in the way. Then she started her summer job. She never told anyone about the museum caper. Once or twice she thought about walking over there on her lunch hour to see if the painting was still hanging. She never did. Not because she thought she might run into Jude. Because she was busy.
In the week before Tessa was leaving, a letter came for her from Jude. Her father asked about it. Was Jude already in San Francisco? Yes, Tessa said. But that was untrue. The letter contained a poem Jude had written. It was typed, Tessa could tell, on the old typewriter at the pharmacy. Tessa’s hands shook as she read it in the privacy of her bedroom. It was a bold poem. Tessa was surprised at how good it was, but it struck her like a knife, tearing at her insides. “Some clowns are worth tears,” it said. “You get what you ask for.” The letter was signed, “Love, Jude.” Tessa crumpled the paper tightly, unable to tear it up.
Tessa thought about packing. She would get what she asked for. She wouldn’t have to think twice. She would be all right. Freewheelin’ soon, like the song said.

Saturday, September 1, 2018


wine like a dredger
stirs the bodies below me
silt is the mirror

Sunday, August 19, 2018




Plums

Lana Cook remembered exactly how she’d met Rodolfo. It was nearly fifteen years ago, in a part of Manhattan she rarely frequented anymore.
Like Lana, the decade of the ’70s had been looking for the exit. She had been recently divorced. Her future was economically unsound, but she had immediately returned to painting with the renewed passion of a newly single woman who had learned her lesson. Her friend Manu, a Basque writer, wanted her to meet Rodolfo Gomariz, an Argentine painter who had invited Manu to his studio.
On a sweltering morning in August, Lana and Manu stood under a metal canopy at the far west end of Fourteenth Street near Gansevoort Street. The Meatpacking District, as it was called, possessed a split personality driven by the time of day or night. An abandoned elevated railway line near Tenth Avenue added to the demilitarized feel of the place. Lana suspected the same characters who frequented the bars and sex clubs were dead asleep in other parts of the city, or on nearby Christopher Street. Manu would have been shocked to learn the unmarked doors they had walked past were entrances to places like
The Anvil and The Mineshaft. And probably appalled to discover his friend Lana had been, on occasion, to some of those clubs with her gay male friends.
Those friends had introduced her to a nightlife that began after midnight and lasted until they retired to some greasy spoon, like Hector’s, at daybreak, where she shared tables with frazzled, foot-sore drag queens staging a last curtain call. The sight of a bare-chested man’s naked buttocks bulging from leather chaps no longer surprised her. Once, after having been sneaked into a club dressed as a boy, she had laughed so hard she nearly gave the game away. The ruse proved fruitless. Instead of beefy naked men engaged in extraordinary sexual feats she’d only heard about, she’d seen merely one scrawny fellow in a jock strap swaying dispassionately on a swing above the bar. After fighting self-consciousness at her friends’ playful threat of audience participation, an off night had been just fine with Lana and she’d been secretly relieved. Other excursions, less charged, had brought her to The Spike for a Mother’s Day brunch as the guest of an older, leather-clad friend.
On that August morning Lana was coolly outfitted in a white sleeveless t-shirt under a pearl-gray, windowpane-check cotton dress from Putumayo. Her long, light-brown hair was pulled back in a single braid to which she had attached an artificial lily. She wore simple woven leather huaraches. Her legs and arms were radiantly tanned. Post-divorce, she wanted to feel feminine again.
Manu was a broad-shouldered man in his early seventies. He and twenty-seven-year-old Lana had developed a robust, if unlikely, friendship that entailed long walks traversing the city, debating art and politics and life. Manu was enthralled and had his wife’s blessing because it exercised his old bones. He was a Basque Separatist, far from his embattled homeland. A full head of winter-white hair capped raging eyebrows. He preferred always to wear a jacket and tie, even in the sweat-stained summer months.
He studied the scrap of paper in his bear-like hand until
Lana grabbed it from him. She looked up from the scrawled address, beyond a raw carcass that hung inches from her face. Neither of them mentioned the smell. She pointed to a red metal door and said, “This
is the place.”
Manu, who often regaled an international set of urbane dinner guests with tales of bloody revolt in his country, stepped back gingerly. “Lana, these are dead cows,” he said.
Bracing the back of her hand against a flank, she shoved the carcass aside, dislodging a few flies. “After me,” she giggled.
Later, Manu telephoned to tell her what a strong impression she had made on Rodolfo. Manu’s wife, Miriam, joined in on another phone—a habit of theirs—and reported that Rodolfo had called in high spirits to tell them he was in love. He wanted to marry Lana! She was taken aback. Not because they hadn’t clicked instantly. Lana was impressed with his work; sweeping canvases of somber urban abstracts. Rodolfo was handsome in a way that brought a flush to her cheeks, with an aristocratic bearing that melded seamlessly with his apparent poverty. He made her laugh and she was charmed by his attention, his unabashed inquiry into her own painting. Lana guessed he was a little older than she. But that was in actual years. In life-lived years he was well beyond her.
They’d drunk sherry and enjoyed a rustic spread of herbed olives, fresh baguette, quince, and the Manchego cheese that Manu had brought. Music filled the loft. Caetano Veloso’s seductive voice shamelessly explored her spine and the heat in the un-air-conditioned loft caressed her. The room smelled of turpentine and oil paint and Manu’s strong cigarettes. She’d felt light-headed, seduced by it all.
“But Miriam, that’s impossible. He can’t be in love with me.”
Manu interjected. He was adamant. “Why no, Lana? He’s very handsome. A very good painter, no?”
Miriam also persisted. “Lana, he was very taken with you.”
Lana, unable to stop herself, blurted, “But he’s gay!”
A few months after they’d met, Rodolfo hosted a party in his loft for a friend, a celebration of sorts to which Lana had been invited.
When she arrived, guests were still sparse. Shyness overtook her and she found a quiet corner to wait for Manu and his wife. The loft filled quickly and she wondered if she should circulate, if she had somehow missed her friends’ arrival. A man of indeterminate age in a rather bizarre getup, even by the standards of the rest of the party, made his way through the revelers. His rosebud lips puckered in his face, painted to look like a Kabuki actor. Shellacked hair rose in a black pompadour high above his whitened forehead. He headed right for her and spoke softly in a German accent as he offered her his hand, raised as a champion show dog might lift a paw.
“How do you do?” he whispered. “Can you tell me, vere ist ze bathroom?”
Lana, bemused, pointed in a direction and he floated through the crowd. Rodolfo swooped in. “My friend, Klaus Nomi. The guest of honor,” Rodolfo beamed. “He’s a jenyoos. We are so excited for heem. He’s singing with Daveed Bowiee—.
“I thought you said he was a pastry chef?”
“He ees a pastry chef,” Rodolfo laughed, leaving her to greet a fresh round of guests.
It was a wild affair—a bombastic mix of personalities and nationalities, genders specific and not so. Lana watched as Rodolfo, swarmed by a colony of fawning poseurs, basked in their giddy adoration. The intense level of excitement was exhilarating. Everyone danced as uninhibitedly as they drank and ate, laughed and argued. Manu held forth among a clutch of Spaniards in fervent political discourse under the smokers’ gauzy canopy. Strangers chatted up Lana in Spanish and French. Some spoke Portuguese. There was no language barrier to gesticulation and Lana, strangely, felt easily connected. She allowed herself to be drawn into a graceful tangle of dancers, swaying in a marijuana trance as if it were second nature.
Hilarity slipped into the streets with departing guests who tripped carelessly over uneven cobblestones into a cold blue daybreak. Earlier, Manu had suggested dropping Lana at her apartment, but Rodolfo drew Lana to him.
“I take good care of her. Don’t you worry, old man.”
Lana, high from the music, the wine and the pot, sensed the opening of a new chapter. She played out a scenario over and over in her sweetly muddled mind. Would she have sex with him? If he was gay what did it matter? Maybe—surely—he was bisexual.
They stood in the doorway in a brash, newfound place—eager and calculating at the same time. Rodolfo clasped Lana’s waist affectionately as the acolytes, the last to leave, exchanged pouty air kisses with him. They minced past Lana, boldly ignoring her. Later, after he had made them strong coffee and while they were clearing up, she asked about the young men. “I have a lot of gay friends. You can tell me….”
Lana witnessed a meteoric eclipse in his eyes, a brief yet overpowering shadow, dispelled instantly in a flash of white teeth.
He slipped a record onto the turntable. “No, La-a-a-na, for me only women.” He took her hand and dropped a small, ripe plum into her open palm.
“It’s kind of late in the season for these. Where did you get—?”
He lowered his eyelids and stretched his full height above her, covering her hand with both of his. “I can get anything for you.” A woman sang in Portuguese, her voice a muscular expression of lament, its meaning Lana could only intuit.
Her comment was forgotten. Rodolfo won a Guggenheim Fellowship and Lana watched, fascinated, as his reputation and his circle of friends grew. He prepared intimate meals when it was just the two of them. Impromptu parties materialized out of otherwise quiet afternoons. She found her way easily around his kitchen, listening raptly as he sketched out his future. The one-man shows in SoHo were not enough.
“La-a-a-na, I have beeg ideas.” He ran, then, with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. She was not invited along. He still wooed her, but the intensity leveled to an affectionate joke between them. Yes, of course she would marry him—someday.
Until aids put the fear into those who had the power to close the bars and bath houses, some of her gay friends still frequented Badlands and The Mineshaft. Danger went hand in hand with sexual bondage. But the playground proved intolerable when a murderous drive-by shooting scattered the men outside The Ramrod.
If Lana was at all unsure of Rodolfo, doubt sharpened at parties or at a vernissage for Rodolfo’s latest exhibition, where he encountered men who were bolder. His disdain for them was palpable. He kept his eyes averted when introduced, but she caught a flicker of interest, a covert recognition. Later these men revealed to her that they had witnessed Rodolfo—or somebody who looked very much like him—engaging in sex play or cruising the treacherous territory of the piers.
Rodolfo dismissed her encouragement to “come out” as trespassing. “You know them,” she ventured. Once he became angry with her, she never spoke of it again.
If he mentioned someone in his crowd, “La-a-a-na, I am a frahnd to Jean-Michel. What I can do? Terrible, terrible, the drugs,” she knew what kind of friend he meant.
Lana remarried. Her husband—Ian, an English musician—eagerly embraced New York nightlife. Many of the clubs she had frequented and grown tired of were now his venues. She ignored a mercurial relationship with rank caves like cbgb’s, returning to cheer his onstage bass playing.
The first place she brought Ian was Petrol. Rodolfo, bored with painting, had flung himself into an entrepreneurial role, commanding an abandoned corner of Avenue B on the Lower East Side. With minimal attention to décor he transformed the formerly defunct gas station into a hip bar and performance space for the emerging trendsetters from abroad who flocked to New York City, ravenous for a bite of fertile urban underbelly. Alcohol was served illegally. One responded to the bartender’s query, “Con gas or sín gas?” and vodka flowed surreptitiously into ice-blue drinks.
Ian’s first encounter with Rodolfo was on a bitterly cold night. While Rodolfo fed a hunk of discarded timber into a blazing makeshift stove, one of the avant-garde writers published under Petrol’s imprimatur—a Nuyorican poet—spat out his poetry as he pelted a worshipful audience with condoms. Ian loved it. He and Rodolfo got on famously.
Rodolfo moved to Brooklyn. Williamsburg would be, he predicted, the next big thing. Artists were attracted to the generous space and light, to the sense of entitled discovery an intrepid newcomer gets when renovated derelict overshadows entrenched residents. He put his shoulder to the dirtiest grindstones alongside day laborers. In no time he was a sought-after contractor. In a factory building he’d renovated at the end of Berry Street, he carved out a sizeable loft for himself.
Rodolfo had been ardently pursuing the lead singer of a band called Deus Ex Machina. Elvira was a sculpted Danish beauty, severe if you didn’t know her. Her ermine hair teased into an operatic frenzy to match her outsized voice. The Goth-driven band behind her generated a hard-core following. Rodolfo plagued Lana, moaning of his unrequited love for the singer, who coldly rejected his advances. He dragged Lana to all of her shows and stared white-hot at Elvira, frothed in billowing vintage gowns. He laid exotic blooms at her feet during the performance. Lana cautioned against stalking.
And then, inexplicably, he and the Dane were a couple. He became her Svengali, dismissed her band, monitored her, and crafted her every move. She would be bigger than Madonna. Lana, disturbed, had pulled away for a while, but eventually came to see that sweet-natured Elvira was wholly dependent on Rodolfo, and had entrusted her fate to him.
The wedding took place in the loft on Berry Street, presided over by a bald Buddhist monk in a saffron robe. Elvira was gowned spectacularly in yards of antique white satin, her hair embroidered with outlandish silk flowers, while Rodolfo was outfitted entirely in black. Never one to underestimate an impression, he wore a morning coat and a wide-brimmed fedora. A silken black veil hid his face.
The couple exchanged plain gold bands, surrounded by collective disbelief. Guests gave Rodolfo wide berth. A studied friendliness pervaded the surreal atmosphere of the after party. An Afro-Caribbean band went largely unnoticed until the guests had downed copious amounts of champagne. Commanding one end of the loft was the marriage bed, a grand four-poster. It was a gift from the Rivington Street Welders, the same artists who’d constructed the infamous iron fence around Petrol. The bed, sprung from a dark fairy tale, was heaped with duvets covered in lush funereal fabrics—dark plum-colored velvet, embossed black silk—its four iron tentacles curled against the ceiling.
Seated alone on the bed, Rodolfo motioned for Lana. He took her hand in his and she was shocked by its coldness. “Tell me you love me,” he whispered.
“Of course, of course,” she said. She and Ian loved both of them.
“No, La-a-a-na, say you love me.”
She squeezed his hand, trying to warm it with her own. “I do love you,” she said.
He lifted the dark veil from his wide-brimmed black hat, slowly. “Kiss me.” Lana brushed his damp cheek. “No, on the lips.” He held her face in his hands, her lips pillowed on his, for a long time.
Elvira’s career demanded all of his attention and Lana saw little of him after the ceremony. Rumors began to circulate; speculation boiled like an unwatched pot. He was losing weight or he was bloated. He was madly creative or he was rueful and detached.
Lana pressed Elvira, who seemed oblivious to anything but the possibility that Rodolfo had some unshakable flu.
Lana and Ian attended the premiere of Rodolfo’s pet project, meant to be a starring vehicle for Elvira. An audience of downtown luminaries took in Rodolfo’s dark tale of battling lovers, role reversal, and a hyper-realistic set design of a bombed-out urban landscape. Lana found the opera confusing at best and overwrought at worst. Critics called it ambitious but pronounced that it fell short. Elvira, they wrote, though obviously talented, seemed out of her depth. Rodolfo, in black, looked wan and angry. The opera closed after three performances.
They saw less of the couple until Elvira telephoned in a panic. Rodolfo was painting over his canvases. It was a mess, she cried, bizarre, nightmarish images. And they were broke. Lana pressed Elvira for more information. Was he ill? How could they help? They would go right away to Brooklyn. Elvira dissuaded Lana, instead begging to meet her in the city. Lana was shocked at her appearance, the careful attention to hair and makeup no longer in evidence. Absent the garnish, Elvira seemed in a state of torpor. Lana gave her the money, making her promise to keep in touch.
Lana and Ian’s invitation for a night out to cheer them up was readily accepted, but Elvira pleaded, “Please, nothing fancy, make it early.” In an Indian restaurant on East Sixth Street that Lana knew well, the three of them chatted lightheartedly while Rodolfo gazed around the nearly empty dining room. He had lost weight. His shirt ballooned over his distended belly. Elvira fussed and spoke softly to him, as if he were a child. Midway through the meal, he rose from the table and shuffled toward the bathroom. After a while Elvira, discomfited by his absence, started from the table. Rodolfo appeared clutching the hem of his shirt. He stepped gingerly as he approached. He was completely naked from the waist down. Elvira, stricken with anguish, rushed to dress him. They left their unfinished meal. Lana made apologies along with a generous tip.
Keith Haring was dead. Basquiat was dead. Klaus Nomi had died in the same hospital where Lana was visiting Rodolfo. She’d lost so many friends to aids. Some, like her friend Brendan, still made art. Bren, an overtly political conceptual performance artist, was hiv positive. A U.S. embargo on the drugs for hiv caused him to consider leaving New York, but a return to Ireland would be too painful. His lover—Adrian, an Argentine—had a job waiting for him in London. He wanted Bren to go with him, where he would be better looked after. Adrian had enlightened Lana as to the shame of gay Latin-American men. At home, even the unmarried ones avoided the stigma with bisexual relationships. It was why there were so many of them in New York.
Turner, an impoverished British writer with expensive taste, bragged about his sexual conquests, scoffed at protection, and boasted of hiring rent boys, sometimes nine or a dozen at a time. Lana found out eventually that he was whoring himself out. Another friend, a paying customer, had told her. So far, Turner was untouched by the disease.
Lana was now a middle-aged married woman with a punky bleached-blonde haircut who wore comfortably distressed linen. She’d had to ration her time for painting and go back to work. She and her husband both had. New York was an expensive city. She stood quietly in Rodolfo’s hospital room.
“No, no, no,” he whimpered.
Lana Cook, mute and uncomfortable, regarded Rodolfo’s still handsome face, his pronounced forehead struck with a single thick eyebrow drawn from a brush loaded with India ink. A puckish glint had been dimmed for some time, but she detected sparks again; coal-black irises speckled with gold leaf. His aquiline nose pinched into an elegant curve. Teeth still white and even, but ill-fitting in his gaunt face, forced his mouth into a menacing grin. The full beard was new. His flawless hands danced tenuously across her offering.
She had chosen with care but now he was displeased. Artfully arranged on the bed table, nesting in a white plastic bag, was the fruit she had brought him. It was already into November and late-season plums were hard to come by. His last-minute request that morning had left Lana barely enough time, but she’d found the obscenely expensive fruit in a gourmet specialty market on Third Avenue. Further east, his request would have proved more of a challenge. Second Avenue boasted mostly restaurants and bars. It was chock-a-block with multifarious havens for boisterous students, aggressive social climbers, and bone-weary construction workers—all easily accommodated in their choice of libation. When she was younger, Lana had foraged for cheap vintage clothing among the many charity thrift shops on First Avenue. At York Avenue it was high-end auction houses, the antiseptic grandeur of acclaimed hospitals, like the one Rodolfo was in, and the leafy, gated enclave called the Rockefeller University, which gave the neighborhood the air of a separate reality.
 “I’ll cut one up for you. Maybe?” She looked toward the door. “I could get the nurse to—.”
“No,” he whispered hoarsely. “No plums.”
She felt helpless and gripped the bed railing.
“I want a banana. La-a-a-na, why didn’t you bring me a bana-a-a-na?”
Lana pouted. He had often confounded her, genially poked fun at her by exaggerating her name, and this is what she had always resorted to: curling her lower lip into a moist rebuttal. It usually made him laugh and softened her vexation with him.
 “You asked for these. You said the kind you liked. Remember?” Lana moved to the side of the bed. She reached for a smooth blackish-purple orb. Hesitating, she picked another. After months of ignoring her calls, he’d reappeared. He didn’t want the plums. She would banish them from his sight.
He placed his hand on her sleeve. His touch was as light as the leave-taking of faeries. “No, don’t. They are beautiful,” he rasped. “I want to look.”
Rodolfo Gomariz stared up at her, his eyes dark and forgiving. It had been a while since she’d seen him, but that was not her choice. He was a painter, impresario, publisher, contractor; he wore all of those hats easily and well. He had the Golden Touch. Everyone said so. But to her mind he was a painter above all. He lay amidst the whiteness of pillows, bed linens, and a thermal blanket. He was a passive subject in a painting by El Greco: Christ nearly disrobed, clothed only in a disposable hospital gown. Lana followed the trail of an intravenous
drip. His arms were exposed, furred with the thick, black hair that undid her still.
A lock of hair had fallen onto his forehead, a black question mark on a blank slate. Lana pressed it back and, bewildered by its delicacy, let her thumb linger. At first sight it looked glossy with health, as seductive as the first time she’d met him, but stroking it from his face she felt the difference.
“I’m going to get you a banana. I’ll be right back.”
He gripped her hand fiercely, hurting her.
Lana cried, “I don’t know, what?”
Her pained expression caused him to loosen his grasp. He coughed and flashed a familiar wry expression. “La-a-a-na, where are you going?”
She smiled from relief and drew her hand from his. “To find a banana for you, silly.”
He giggled, nearly as lustily as she remembered when they’d parlayed innuendos between them. She looked back at him. His eyes were closed. His delicately sculpted fingers, like translucent porcelain bamboo, rested on his thighs.
The hospital corridors were decorated in subdued shades of gray and pink—a corporate decision to remain neutral on a ward of unjust diseases. Framed art prints pictured gazelle-necked Native American women, sleek black hair framing identical expressions, whether hugging clay pots, rolling fry dough, or gazing into a cloudless lavender sky.
“Bad Santa Fe,” thought Lana.
 “She know what she know. What I’m gonna do? She’s not a baby. She wait at the bakery across the street from her school.”
Lana stood patiently at the nurses’ station. The woman on the phone acknowledged her presence with a raised eyebrow and a finger held momentarily poised in Lana’s direction. Lana, arms folded, let her hands drop to her hips. Her elbows bent in readiness, demanding and yet respectful. The woman’s conversation continued. Lana guessed Jamaican. She made out the tiny cartoon characters printed on the woman’s scrubs: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck. When had they stopped wearing white? And those starched white caps?
 “She be aw’right. The church is there, like a block away.” The woman paused before addressing the listener on the other end, who seemed to have annoyed her. “I’m only leaving my daughter until I can get her. She have half day. I’ll be off a here soon.”
Lana tilted her head in a can-I-say-something manner. The finger curled, dropped limply to the desk and fidgeted. “Why you surprised?” There was an irritated pause. “Those boys killed by they own mama. She some ting to blame it on a black man. Why you surprised? Shame. Those poor little boys. A shame.”
“Yes?”
Lana, startled, realized the woman was addressing her. “Oh, sorry I….”
“Who are you here to see?”
Lana said she was visiting Mister Gomariz in—.
A petite Asian nurse approached Lana and said, “36A. Are you a family member?”
Lana replied that she was a friend. She didn’t think he had any family here. He’d called her that morning. “I’m a close friend,” she added. Lana started to say where Rodolfo was from when the nurse
cut her off.
“Argentina. I know. His brother is due to take him home.” She looked at Lana as if expecting a rebuttal.
“Oh,” was all Lana could manage before asking if it was possible to get a banana for him. “Only,” she added, “I brought fruit, what he asked for, and he doesn’t seem—.”
“He’s being fed intravenously. It’s a long flight to Buenos Aires.” The nurse rolled the pronunciation, and it slid off her tongue as if she were a native, which, as far as Lana could tell, she was not. “I’ll see what I can dig up.”
Lana asked: “Is there a—?”
“Water fountain? In the visitors’ lounge,” the nurse replied curtly as she hurried off.
At just after six that morning she’d known it was Rodolfo, even before she’d heard his voice: sheer, but not frail. It had been many months since she’d heard from him. Not for lack of trying on her part. His condition had been revealed in whispered allusion between friends and inflammable rumor from hangers-on.
Elvira had left a message on Lana’s answering machine a few weeks before. A dull monotone stood in for the singer’s usually dramatic timbre. “I’m leaving New York. Going back to Denmark. Thanks for everything.” Rodolfo’s close friends had no idea where he was. The studio was locked up, the telephone disconnected. Lana had tried to reach Rodolfo and gotten nowhere until the call that morning.
 “La-a-a-na, can you bring me a large bag?” was the first thing
he said.
Lana asked where he was, how he was, but he told her only that he needed the bag for a painting, a gift for his doctor. Rodolfo sounded lucid, but she was confused. What doctor, she asked. She asked again “Where are you?” And then he begged her to bring him some fruit, his favorite kind. Lana, exasperated, nearly barked at him. “You have to tell me where you are if I am to bring you these things.”
In the empty visitors’ lounge she filled a paper cup with water. Regarding the cup she decided against it, draining its contents into the grill of the water cooler. She watched it trickle and then disappear before crushing the cup in her palm. “I’ll just sit for a minute,” she said under her breath. She sank into a chair.
When Lana returned to his room Rodolfo was sitting up, laughing with the same nurse who had brought him a banana. His cheeks shone with mirth. “La-a-a-na, where were you? I have to make love to Miss Chen because you deserted me.”
The diminutive nurse slapped him gently. “Be good, Mister Rodolfo.”
“No, I’m back, sweetie.” Lana moved to the other side of the bed. “I thought you were sleeping. What can I do?”
Miss Chen removed the intravenous drip. “He’ll be going home soon. He’s had lots of vitamins and minerals.” Her small yet tenacious frame righted him into a standing position. “Walk with him a bit, miss.”
Lana was shocked, unprepared for his diminished state. “Are you…is it okay?”
“Yes miss, it will be good for him. He has a long flight ahead of him.”
Rodolfo leaned gently on Lana’s arm. There was nothing to him. They walked slowly through the halls, he sneering at the pictures. “You are a real painter, La-a-a-na.”
She laughed. “How would you know? You haven’t seen anything of mine in—.”
“I know,” he told her. She asked about his paintings. Where were they? Who had them?
He dismissed the questions with a wave of his hand. “You are the painter, Lana.”
They talked about easy things until he abruptly told her he had stopped taking the azt. It was the drug that was making him fat, he said and they giggled like schoolchildren. At a bank of elevators, Rodolfo stopped short, as though he had run out of gas. He told her he was tired.
“New York is not a good place to be sick, Lana. I don’t want to die here.” He pushed the button for the elevator. Lana hesitated until she saw Miss Chen coming toward them, waving her on. She stepped into the elevator.
The doors began to close. Rodolfo pushed a button. The doors opened. “I want to look at you.”
Lana smiled. The three other passengers smiled as the doors slid shut again.
The doors sprang open again. “I love you,” he whispered, steadied by the nurse. Lana’s fellow passengers seemed undisturbed by the scene.
“I love you too,” Lana said, fighting back the tears.

Once again the doors sprang open. “The plums,” he said, “They hurt my mouth.”