What did you eat that disagreed with you, Glenn? Food?
-A Friend of Glenn Gould
I want to go down to the water. I want to go to the boathouse when the light of evening colors everything amber. I want to listen to the tide lapping at the piers and look into the purple water that hugs the white, undulating boats. I want to touch the gray and weathered wood that makes the stairs and pillars of the boathouse. I want to hear the cries of sea birds coming back to roost, and the wind chiming the halyards against metal masts. I want to hear the bells call out loneliness, and the tinkle of ice in glasses from the yacht club. I want to see candles in red glasses on the tables and hear the garbled conversation of couples who look out over the lake. I want to feel the fresh cotton shirt of wealth, savor the sharp bite of a martini. I want to be able to walk up from the boathouse to the club and see you standing in a seersucker jacket looking out at the glistening water. I want to surprise you with my indifference. I want to look at you when you least suspect. God, I am wounded by your beauty. I want to say something witty and wise. I want to feel complete as the sunset. I want you to come to me, to say hello, to take my hand. I want you to realize we are married in the sight of one another, I want you to swallow the word love, and in all of this we two settle into the realization that we come together out of something inevitable, lonely, and necessary. Together we listen to the music coming from the silence of our glances, coming from moonlight on the water, coming from the gulls, and the lapping of tides. It is the music that comes from ice and the mull of conversation. Together we listen to the melody of our days pouring out their juice. O rare singing of regret, O music of men, what are the twilight melodies doing to my memory? What are the songs of birds and the rhythm of the wind on leaves doing to my wish? Tell me, music of delight, tell me, music of despair, what is love, what is life? What mysteries are below the water's broken mirror, what joys in his eyes, what magnetism in his skin, tell me, violin of yearning, why this one, why the hours going down, why the walks barefoot in the sand, the shells, the tossing of stones, the faraway splash, the swallowing to oblivion?
It begins in a dream. I am dancing with a naked shape in the fog. Who is it? Then I am in the old house. The room is bare. Light streams in from the bay windows. Yellow and white light, made more brilliant by reflecting off the lake. It blinds me to look at it. Outside, I see the smooth surface of the water. It is like a blue mirror. Inside, the parquet floor is polished bright. I am dancing. He is naked. There is no surprise. I let my hand slide down the curved muscle of his back. Oh, Gordon, I hear. Now there is another note. My solo is a duet. Desire and peace begin to waltz, then stumble. It begins in a dream. The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. So God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And God said, Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And God said, Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures. So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas. Then God said, Let us make men in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea. So God created men in his image, in the image of God he created them.
My family had a summer house by the sea. When I was a boy, around fourteen, I would spend the bright months of late spring and summer there. I remember the sun room facing the bay. Light would come into the room filtered by gauze curtains and wooden blinds. There was a rattan couch and chair with their backs to the window. They had soft cotton cushions covered with a green and blue print. I would lie on my stomach on the couch and read books about sailing, books about boys who had adventures on the sea. I would lie on my stomach with just my tan shorts on and read. Below my window, the white sails of yachts cut across the blue sky. As I read, I thought about the boys I wanted to have adventures with, I thought of Johnny, the boy I often saw on the beach with his father. They had a thirty-foot sloop painted white and green. The brass fittings were always polished to a military perfection. Sometimes I would see Johnny down at the dock alone. I would say hello and look at him. At night I saw Johnny in my dreams. I felt myself go hard. What was happening to me? Once, in about the middle of summer, I was walking the beach looking for shells to make a box for my mother. I saw Johnny on his bike. He stopped and asked if I wanted to go swimming. I wasn't a good swimmer, but he excited me, so I said yes. We went down the road past the yacht club to a place on the island where the sandy beach gave way to rocks. This was a perfect spot to be alone. I told Johnny it would be best to swim near the shore, where I knew the water wasn't too deep. When we reached the spot I had in mind, I realized I didn't have my swimming suit. Johnny said it didn't matter, we could swim naked. Who would see? I was worried. What if I gave myself away? When I saw him take off all his clothes, I decided to follow. We jumped into the water and swam. The water was cold. I felt so alive. The sunlight seemed to outline everything in a way that made it stand out as unique and absolute being. When we got out from the water, I noticed Johnny looking at me. Your dick is funny, he said. I didn't know what he meant. Then I looked at him and realized he was circumcised and I wasn't. Funny, what do you mean, you're the one who's funny, I said. Oh yeah? he said, and lunged at me. We fell on the sand and rolled around, laughing and struggling. He was much stronger than me, so he was soon on top with his groin in my face. I noticed he had a hard-on. I want to take a closer look at that thing, he said. Go ahead, I dared. He turned around and grabbed me. By now I was hard too. What would happen if I pull the skin back? he asked. Try it and see for yourself, I said boldly. I felt a shock go through my body as he gently pulled down my foreskin. What if I keep doing this? he wondered out loud. I did not say a word. All of a sudden I felt a spasm of joy rush through me. Hey, look at that, Johnny said, Mount Vesuvius. I tried to catch my breath. I relaxed, like a puppet when the strings to its limbs are cut. My legs and stomach were covered with foam and salt. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to laugh. Now you do me, Johnny ordered. I did what I was told. My family had a summer house by the sea. I was used to doing what I was told.
I hear Lieutenant Randon say to one of the guys, Omaha Beach, Normandy. It is crowded in the landing craft. The boat surges forward, rocking with the waves. The sea is high. I hear the drone of engines. We sit side by side on supply crates. Pete is to my left. Some guy I don't know is to my right. Other men are standing in front of us. I feel the warm press of Pete's leg against mine. I hold my M1 rifle between my legs. I notice the odor of gun oil on my hands. I'm scared. I wish I were back at a summer house by the sea. For some reason I keep repeating what I learned in boot camp, Clip fed, semi-automatic, shoulder weapon. Pete nudges me. Are you all right? he asks. I'm fine, I say, then I belt out, Shit no, I'm scared. Me too, says Pete. I like Pete. We had a great a time drinking and talking together while we were waiting in England. He was from Philadelphia. He's a few years older than me. I'm just nineteen. I'm on this boat heading for a beach in France. Listen, that's machine gun fire hitting the front ramp. Ting. Ting. Ting. Ting. It sounds as if somebody were throwing bolts at a metal plate. I look up and see clouds of black smoke. I see a plane, one of ours I think, maybe a P38, angle in above us and dive out of sight. It's hard to talk over the roar of the boat's engines. Up front the lieutenant gestures to the platoon sergeant. When the door falls down, we are supposed to stand up and hit the beach running, my side runs to the left, the other side to the right. Blam. Something explodes above us. My ears seem numb. I look over at Pete. He looks at me. His face is white. I look to the back of the boat. A guy at the end of my row is lying on the deck, face down. Blood is running from his shoulder onto the gray metal deck. A corpsman goes over to him, unfastens his backpack. He yells something, but now the lieutenant is gesturing for us to get ready. We are almost at the beach. The boat lunges to a stop, then shudders and holds still. The ramp flops down. Splash. I see it hit the water. We didn't make it to the beach. Instead, we are about twenty-five yards out. I can see the door of the landing craft, which is now a ramp, submerged in about three feet of water. Some men ahead of me are starting to leave. I stand up. Ting. Ting. Ting. I hear the sound of automatic fire again. I look ahead and see two guys fall face down in the water. Shit, I say to Pete, let's get out of here. I stand in line for what seems like an eternity, then we move forward. Somebody is yelling commands, but nobody seems to listen. We all want to get out of the boat before it's hit again. I can see the beach now. A stretch of rocks and pebbles goes inland for about twenty feet, then what looks like sand stretches up to a cliff. I pick out a sand dune and tell myself that's where I'm going. If only I could just get off this boat. I look at Pete. Follow me, I hear him say. He has seen the same spot, and we both head toward it, sloshing through waist deep water, our rifles above our heads. I can't hear anything any more. I see flashes of light going off all around me. I know the sky is filled with death, but I just can't hear it. Pete and I reach the low dune. We crawl for cover. Wizz. Wizz. Now I hear the sounds of bullets above my head. The dune is about four feet high. It's good cover. Tufts of grass hang over the edge, like a crewcut on a kid. I look at Pete. My leg, Pete says. I look at his leg. There is a dark red spot on his left pants leg. Jesus, I'm hit, he says. Oh, Pete, I'm sorry. Then I yell, Corpsman, corpsman, over here! No answer. The battle rages around me. OK, I think, first aid. I open my pack and take out a bandage. I put it on the wound. Then I remember a tourniquet. I take one from my backpack and put it above the wound, below the groin. I apply pressure. Pete is propped up with his back against the dune. I can see he is starting to go into shock. I slap him gently on the face. Stay with me guy, I say. You can't die on me, Pete, you can't, damn it man, no. Don't die. Pete, I love you.
I could have been Glenn Gould's lover. I saw a picture of him as a young man. The eyes looking at me, the hands playing with me, it was possible. This man who had such a touch, such a feel for music and form, could have been my lover. I would put up with the scarves and the hats, even on the warmest days. I can get into the soaking of fingers and lower arms in hot water before a concert. I can understand carefully washing arrowroot biscuits in skimed milk before eating them. I can expect the small Oriental cushion placed below the piano pedals so that your feet would not contact the wood floor. I know about the walks by the shore in winter, looking at ice piled up like boulders. Ice, the third stage of water, the solid stage of water, that was something to contemplate. Was this ice frozen music? Was this the third person of the Trinity, the word made flesh? Was there, in the beginning, steam, something like mathematics; then water, something like music; then ice, something like a person? What about that person? Who would be Glenn Gould's lover? The interviewer asked her probing question in a most bland voice, Well, then, are you homosexual? No answer. Let the music answer. Let the ice answer. Let the water answer. Everyone will tell you the constant sound of water dripping can drive a man crazy.
We are flying above the Atlantic Ocean to England in a Boeing 707. Years ago I made this trip in a troop ship. I can't believe the difference in time. We travel in an hour what I once traveled in a week. Christopher, my lover, is asleep in the seat next to me. The plane is dark, with the exception of a few overhead reading lamps. There are other passengers on board who can't sleep either. I can't sleep because I've always been afraid of flying. I bend over to look out the window. Pitch black outside. I decide to take the pilot up on his offer to look into the cockpit and watch them fly the plane. I walk forward. Christopher doesn't even know I'm gone. The plane slants slightly upward. I feel like I'm ascending a small hill. Halfway up, I talk to the stewardess and she walks with me the rest of the way. The door to the front cabin is open. The stewardess motions not to go beyond the door. I look in and see the backs of the pilot and co-pilot. All the gauges and dials are lit with a soft green glow. The machine seems to be working well. Outside I see the black sky with stars. Below I see black water. I can't find the horizon. For a second I feel we are in space, nothing above, nothing below. The rush of air and engines, and the pounding of my heart, are the only noise.
I almost drowned once. It happened when I was a boy. Brother Thomas, one of the clerics at Saint Rita's Church, took my brother and me to the beach at Michigan City. He was teaching us to be altar boys. This trip to the beach was our reward for the hard work of learning Latin. I liked serving at Mass. I liked the formality and dressing up. I liked the smell of incense and the free rose we would get each year after the novena to Saint Rita. She was the saint of impossible causes. I'd bring the roses home to my mother. Mother would look at me as if she knew I was an impossible cause too. Saint Rita prayed that the lives of her own sons would be taken before they fell into sin. She had the stigmata. Even though I liked going to church, I also felt guilty going there. What if they found out about what I was doing to myself? I thought this was the perfect place to hide. I would hide behind the candles, the robes, and the round, thundering syllables of Latin that came from on high. Anyway, we were at the beach, and I went out over my head and an undertow got me and I thought I was going to be swept away. Luckily, Brother Thomas, a tall man, was nearby. He grabbed me. I remember being under water, struggling to catch my breath, my mouth full of water and my eyes wide with the murky, dappled light of being submerged. I remember trying to grab on to something, but there was nothing to grab, nothing to hold on to, nothing. I was being punished. Was Saint Rita praying for me too? Years later my lover Christopher committed suicide by hanging himself. Hanging is a kind of drowning, a drowning in air.
I saved the postcard from the ship Coho showing her continual voyage from Victoria to Port Angeles. Day after day she steams across a shelf of blue, the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Day after day she rubs her metal hull against the thick, jelled sea, like a plow rubbing compressed earth. The rubbing of water on metal, the opening and closing of effort, these are equal to breath exhaled on a cold, vacant night. Across the vast space which fills the world like ice, the sound of breath repeats the lap of waves, surges like the wheeze of steam in and out of great pistons. Here is a vacuum as profound as water swallowed by the sea. If you have been far to sea or looked alone into the well of night, you know how much they are like what remains to us after alliance and loss. You know how the earth's swelling with the breath of a new grave is not a lacquered box lit by stars or the salty liquid of complete desire. It is a vast something else. Out on the purple water, a power to pull us under searches like fingers against the hull's metal plates. Likewise, we could be sucked into a new furrow or scattered in space among the stars. This could be if we were not fixed, held in place by some evidence. If you have heard of Noah, you know how day after day he sent a dove, like these words, across the flood.
The sea floats up what it cannot dissolve-ribs of wood, shells, old nets, the bones of those still drowning. Wave after wave the sea returns, folded like the wings of wisdom, its letters under the stamp of the sun repeating, Let him go-let him go. Wave after wave the sea returns the bones of those still drowning, ribs of wood, shells, old nets. The sea floats up what it cannot dissolve. It is the same sea that throws itself on the sawtooth rocks like Midas tossing coins. Look, the shadow I made last year painting oars is washed away. It is the same wind that makes the boats pull at their bridles like a team of wild horses. It is the same flight of sails, the same easy talk of courage, and undertow of tide. It is the same drowning. Look. Down by the sea, sunlight, gulls, the perfume of water. Look, the granite of the stairs sparkles, remembering in stone the stars; the leaves remember light too, and our bodies likewise remember, drawn to kiss, like my pen across paper, like boats sailing on foam, or eyes reading this.
I always liked fountains. They are the place where water becomes feathers. I especially like fountains of young men, fountains where the water cascades against their verdigris bodies. There is a nice fountain in Chicago of a young man leaning up against some bulrushes in the Grant Park Rose Garden. Most people stop and look at the statue of the girl on the other side of the garden, but when I pass through I always pause and look at the naked young man. I guess they feel uncomfortable looking at naked young men in public. It's all right to look at a girl, but if you're caught looking at a young man then you're a you-know-what. There is a certain freedom evident in statues of naked young men. They have a beauty which is sensuous, even sexual, but it is also forgiving, free with laughter, opening to grace. I remember when I was working in Argentina, there was a lovely fountain of a reclining young man right by the police station. Many times I would leave my apartment on Boulevard Orono and walk to the post office past this fountain. This was in the better part of Rosario, a provincial town north of Buenos Aires. Rosario was made famous during the First World War by her meat- packing industry. They supplied the European troops with provisions. Many men in Rosario made a great deal of money. Now the place was like the rest of Argentina, depressed, but beautiful with the decrepit beauty of autumn. While I was living in Rosario, Ongania was president of the country, and ruled it by a puritanical military dictatorship. Just like most puritans, the dictatorship was also silly. For example, there was a statue of a Greek discus thrower along the boulevard where I lived. Once it was totally naked. Before I came to live there, the government went around and riveted a little brass triangle over its private parts. It did that to all the other naked statues in parks as well. The new patch was quite noticeable, all shiny and bright, while the rest of the statue glowed in that rich green-gray skin only time gives to bronze. For some reason, they left the statue of the beautiful young man in the fountain alone. Maybe because you really couldn't see his private parts the way he was reclining, or maybe because it was in front of the police station where the soldiers were put up. There was no difference between the police and the army then in Argentina, either. When I walked to the bookstore or the cafe to meet my friends, I would always walk past that naked young man. I wanted to stop and linger because he was beautiful. Truthfully, I desired him. Unfortunately, there were always soldiers in front of the doors to the police station. I wouldn't pause too long to admire my favorite fountain. Why would the dictatorship overlook this statue, I often wondered? Were they going to use it to entrap someone? Had they discovered, to their chagrin, you cannot dictate to beauty? Were they simply blind to the wonder before them? One day, as I walked past, I noticed a young man in uniform alone by the stairs. I walked by and looked at him. Suddenly, I felt my heart sink. He was more beautiful than the young man in the fountain. Those who serve God in this world will be blessed with such beauty in the next, I recalled. His eyes even followed me. He was alive. The eyes of statues never follow you. That's what's ultimately disappointing about the most beautiful statues. Oh, no, I thought, the dictatorship has won. They have enrolled now the most beautiful young men. Then we both looked at the fountain and smiled. He walked up to me with an unlit cigarette and asked, ?Tienes fosforo? Do you have a match? Como no, I replied, Of course. I lit his cigarette. I noticed his hand was shaking. No debemos fumar aqui, he said. We are not supposed to smoke here. Then I realized he was breaking the rule on purpose. He wanted to get caught. I supposed he wanted out of the army, so he thought this was a good chance to mess up. ?Te gusta el fuente? I asked. Do you like the fountain? Si, he said. Que fortuno es el chico; sin armas, sin ropas, siempre guapo. How lucky the young man is; no gun, no clothes, always handsome. Puede ser, I said. You could be right, and walked past just as his sergeant came to the door.
The bloated bodies of slaughtered men, women, and children float down a river in Rwanda. There was a civil war here. This was just an excuse to kill one another. What they wanted in the first place was to slit throats, hack off heads, see the surprise on the face of children as they had their limbs sawed off. It's like that with human beings. The bodies of the slaughtered float downriver. Caught up in the rapids, they break apart. The gray and swollen bodies of the slaughtered tumble downriver, snagging on rocks, twisting over stones made smooth by the rush of centuries. The bodies of the slaughtered float downriver, bent in half, pecked at by birds, tangled in the roots of old trees that cling to the overgrown banks. The bodies of the slaughtered float downriver. They are tumbling in the current. Their blank eyes look up at the sky, at the crows that come to eat, then turn over, to look at the fish, at the sand, at the small bites of the crabs. The bodies of the slaughtered give up their flesh, bit by bit, the way the trees give up their leaves. The bodies of the slaughtered become bones and fall to the bottom of the river. The bones of the slaughtered melt away to mud and sand. The crabs are filled with the flesh of the slaughtered, the crows and vultures are filled with the eyes of the slaughtered, the rivers of Rwanda are clogged with the bones of the slaughtered. All these bodies are without faces, all these bodies are without stories, all these bodies in the river. The bodies of the slaughtered are nibbled, ground to sand, worn away, the bodies of the slaughtered are forgotten in the river. In Rwanda they say there are no more devils in hell. They are all cooling their feet in the river.
The young men sunning themselves on the Belmont Rocks are beautiful. Years ago, I wouldn't think of coming here. That's the homo beach, people used to say when I was a young man. Now they call it the gay beach. I belong here now. Some of the young men wear those string briefs; a few risk it and wear nothing at all. Occasionally, you see an old queen, covered with oil and brown as a berry, go off to the bushes, or toss back her hand that holds a cigarette, and laugh a queenish laugh. See, that could be you, I hear my dead mother say, looking down from heaven. Yes, mother, I reply. Really meaning No, really meaning this scene is nothing but a variation on a theme. This queen, that butch dyke, that boy, this girl, all are a variation on a theme. It is our song of love played out beneath the sun and moon. Don't you remember, beautiful forms are rungs on the ladder up to God? See, even now, my fingers type on the keys, type these words the way Glenn Gould's fingers moved across the keyboard of his piano. I can keep time to the notes. I can write as if I were playing. I can type my song. I can type my counterpoint. I can remember the bodies of the beautiful young men sunning themselves on the Belmont Rocks, and say this one will be mine, this one is the beauty I desire, this one will complete my soul, the way music completes the traveling of the mind across feelings, the motion of ideas dancing, the sailing of ships on a sea of glass, the joy of moving with God at the still point of being. Ta da da, ta da da, ta de dum, ta da da, ta da da, ta ta dum. I have to be honest and tell you sometimes I just don't understand music. I mean I don't understand the form. This troubles me. I like music. I like to listen to it, and somewhere inside me I know there is a part that grasps the structure, that draws me the way all things shapely draw us to their beauty, but I can't explain why this happens. It's the same way with the young men sunning on the rocks. I am drawn to them, but I don't understand them either. I am drawn to them like the music I love, drawn to them like the Goldberg Variations. Play them for me, Glenn Gould. Explain them to me. Go slowly. I need help.
Two years before I met Christopher, I was working in India. Strange as it sounds, I went to India to forget another young man named Roger. I was in love with Roger in a way I still don't understand. I met him while in college. He was the most beautiful young man I had ever seen. I told him that. I told him too I loved him. He just shrugged his shoulders. Such fantasies I had: Here, wear this mask while I suck you off. I can't bear to look at your eyes. Nothing ever happened, however. Except for a winter night in bed together. Friends say he is straight. In spite of that, I'm still in love with him. It was foolishness on my part to think such a love could be forgotten. His beauty cut a canyon in me the way a river cuts a canyon through rock. This work was done at night, while I slept. It was done in India while I dreamed. In India I saw many strange and wonderful things dreaming and awake. Still, most of the time I was afraid. I was afraid of the monsters I saw inside me. I was afraid of sickness. I was afraid of my desire. I feared most I would die in India, I would die as a faggot and go to hell. One day some students asked me to go with them to Benares. They wanted to bathe in the Ganges River. At first I was hesitant, but then I decided to go along. I had made up my mind a while back there was no answer for me at the foot of these gods and gurus, but I was curious, and this was a sight to see. Besides, I was here to do a job, and I decided to stay and do it the best I could. It took every ounce of my strength to do it. Do it I will, even if at night I dreamed of Roger, even if I dreamed of him as a river. Thus he tore through the bedrock of my soul, leaving a canyon of emptiness in his wake. Sometimes I would sit in the cool shade of my room's balcony and clutch the gold crucifix I wore around my neck. I could hear the sound of rushing water. Maybe a visit to the Ganges was what I needed. So I went. I went and saw the stone stairs that go down to the water. At sunrise people gathered there to bathe. Then the light is best. It is soft and smoky. It gives even the rags and rot a color that is like the glow on gold. I would like to take that color with me and wear it on my skin. I marvel how even the stones seem flesh in this early morning light. I look at the broad stretch of water. It is like a dark mirror. There are a few boats breaking the surface with Vs of ripples. Somewhere a voice is singing a morning raga. My friends encourage me to go down to the water. I look at its black surface. I can see the garbage and turds floating by. I look around. Many Indians are bathing. I see in their eyes a faith I do not have. No, I tell them. I just can't. Not today. In my memory I hear the piano music of Glenn Gould. The twenty-first Goldberg Variation is playing. I turn back and walk up the stairs from the water. The low notes precede me. I follow. What I am looking for is not here. The body and its desires are not to be washed away in this river. The beauty of young men is not to be forgotten by getting drunk on this water. Step lively, now, a voice says. I realize if I die here, I die a faggot.
John stands in the cold river. The day is like wide water without sound. What is cold to him now, the opposite of heat, the heat of the desert? What does it matter after feeding off locusts and wild honey? What is water, what is sand? Jesus comes down to the river's edge. He is the most beautiful man John has ever seen. Something in him jumps for joy. He remembers the darkness of the womb. He remembers the shock he felt, when in the watery darkness of fetus sleep, he jumped in the presence of something beyond the breath of words. He takes the clear water of the river into his hands. Trembling, he feels it flow through his fingers like the flowing of days, like the light between Glenn Gould's pale fingers when he plays Bach's Goldberg Variations. I come to be baptized, Jesus says. Me, baptize you? It is you who should baptize me, John replies. Nevertheless, something in him bends to the river again. He scoops up water in his hands. This time he is stronger than he ever imagined. The water falls and breaks and cascades in a million diamonds over the head of Jesus. The sun catches the droplets, and John sees what he cannot say. Somewhere there is a voice, a voice sounding like the running of great waters. It echoes, This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. John looks into the eyes of the one he baptized. He knows the voice says the same about all men.
Alcoholism is a slow drowning. Christopher was an alcoholic. I was in love with him for eight years. He lived with me for two. We traveled a lot together. Brazil, Canada, Europe, we had many adventures. To be honest, I really never noticed the drinking. Well, that's not exactly true. I noticed it, but I pretended not to notice it. I'm that way around alcoholics. It wasn't just alcohol. It was drugs, too. Looking back, I can see the signs, like when he smuggled marijuana into Brazil so he could get high on the beach at Rio. He said he didn't want to take the risk of buying it in Brazil. Shit, I said, you could go to jail here for that. How did you get it into the country? Simple, he said. I smuggled it in your suitcase. I should have walked out on him immediately. I couldn't. He was beautiful. I was addicted to him. Christopher, that's an odd name. He was the legendary saint who carried the Christ Child across the waters of a raging river. Drinking too much is a way of drowning sorrow, drowning desire, drowning all the little kittens of fear and despair we have no room for. We drown them instead of carrying them across.
Picture this: a burning boat drifts across a sea of black glass. It moves with the slightest breath of wind. It carries the body of a dead king. People march on shore in a procession with candles and drums. There are rattles and spears, and priests in black robes. A chant begins. They throw blood on an altar. There is a face in my dream looking into a dark pool. It argues for the old ways. I turn away. The ceremonies of magic work in that they produce a ceremony, but nothing more. I walk through a forest of crossed trees. The wind howls. I arrive at a rocky beach, and look out across the vast ocean. Far away I see a light. It seems to approach. I wait. The old gods are dead. The continent of the old gods is passing away. By loving the beauty of young men we learn the theology of resurrection. Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord your God. The Lord is One.
The first time I ever had oral sex was with Christopher. He showed me how to do it. It came late in life for me. Other men I know have had a full range of sexual experiences before they were twenty-five. I was too careful, I guess. Christopher knew what he wanted. He showed me what to do. I lay on my back as he straddled me. He forced himself into my mouth. At first I thought it strange. Then I realized what I was doing. I realized the power I had in my mouth to give him pleasure. I enjoyed it. I had a power not only with words, but also a power to make Christopher desire me. I discovered Christopher liked oral sex best. I had no objection to giving him what he wanted. I never actually liked screwing. It made no difference to Christopher. Personally, I think there is something silly about screwing. I mean, we look silly when we do it. This goes for both men and women. I remember Voltaire saying if you did it once with a man you were a philosopher. If you did it twice, you were a sodomite. I was a little more than a philosopher, and a little less than a sodomite. Theologically speaking, all this oral sex seemed a form of subverted communion, a way of taking in the flesh of the lover, so I could have a more abundant life. Frankly, I see now it was also bordering on cannibalism. There is a thin line that separates symbols from reality. It is dangerous to come too close to that edge. I don't want to fall over the way John Wayne Gacy did. It's just I had a thirst that only Christopher's body could satisfy. Like a margarita, that strange drink with salt on the edge of the glass, a glass that makes you thirsty as you drink, so Christopher made me desire him more, even as my desire was being fulfilled. I admit I'm not a monk. I respect those men who can go off and live a celibate life. Once I prayed for that gift. I never got it. I have a body, and I let the needs of that body shape my manner of loving. My desire became something regular as the tides, something always returning like the full face of the moon. I was thirsty, and I drank what was given me to drink. I have bad habits that are too difficult now to purge. I did give up smoking, but I still dream of touching the skin of a beautiful man. I still want to make love. I still want to taste the salty water of their loins, taste the juice of their legs. Maybe I don't have enough water in me. Maybe those young men need to be milked, need to give out their juice so more beauty can come into the world. Maybe I ought to sit down and think this over rationally.
When I turned sixty I developed the nervous habit of sniffling. I think it was because I didn't get enough physical contact, enough sex. Sexual nervousness, that's what I told myself. It was as if I were constantly leaking. All the water in me wanted a way out. It came out through my nose. I always saw the nose as a sort of cock, the cock on a person's face. You know what they say about men with big noses? So here I was sniffling. I am trying to plug the leak before it becomes an embarrassing mess on my shirt. I wonder if this sniffling has anything to do with the dreams of Mount Vesuvius I've been having lately?
About a year after Christopher's death, I bought a sailboat. It gave me something to do, something to occupy my time. Even though I traveled much, and Christopher worked odd hours, so we weren't together often in the apartment, I still missed his presence. I missed the expectation he would come back. I though a sailboat would take my mind off what I missed. You can have a relationship with a boat the same way you can have a relationship with a person. A sailboat, like a lover, needs constant care. Water is always trying to get in a boat. My sailing instructor told me the first rule of sailing is: Keep the water out. In a relationship, should the first rule be: Keep the alcohol out? The second rule on the sea is: Beware of fire. It sounds strange, with all that water around, to be worried about fire, but if your boat burns up under you, where are you going to go? Should we say to lovers as well: Beware of fire? Fire and water are the two worries of a sailor. A third is the worry of sailing alone. Some sail through life with their lovers, others sail alone. Was it Saint Augustine who said, Every heart is closed to every other heart? I remember an incident at the yacht club. It happened during one of the weekly races. I wasn't interested in racing, but I would go to the bar and look at the boats coming back. I remember seeing a young woman. Her attractive boyfriend had set out earlier, and she was anxious for his return. I remember how twilight bled from the August sky into layers of pink and gray clouds. She watched from the yacht club veranda to see if the spear of a sail moved through a row of low trees. Of all the boats gone out, her boyfriend's blue one carried a kiss blown on the wind. The chatter of couples from another table broke her silence, the way ripples of wind break tinsel on the water. In this late light, the surface of water was gray, woven with white and gold. The colors settled like the cool sheets a young woman ruffles for air, then smooths on her bed. He comes back soon, she seemed to say to herself. It is darker now. The ducks are down on the sand, tucking their heads under wing. All the boats at anchor point to the wind, bows pressed like maiden hands at prayer. Their rigging slaps like little bells of praise. A breeze sends a wave down the edge of the striped awning. Ice melts and thins our drinks. One boat after another returns from the race with triangles of running lights, moving like pyramids of glass. She does not see the blue boat come back. The couples on the veranda drink and laugh some more. Every heart is closed to every other heart.
I hate to admit it, but after Christopher died, I used the services of a hustler. It wasn't a waste of money, but it was a waste of spirit. I made up the excuse I needed a rubdown. So, I paid him to give me one. He would beat me off in the process. I felt relieved, but it wasn't as satisfying as making love. I mean, it's not like they remember your birthday or call when you don't feel well. It's strictly business with them. After a while I got into the habit of calling him up when I felt horny. It was easier than going out to a bar. It was a lot safer, too. In my occupation I have a lot of discretion, my supervisor overlooks a lot of little faults, but we do have to maintain the appearance of propriety. I told you I worked for the government, didn't I? Well, having Chuck come to my apartment was a lot easier and safer than cruising the bars. It also was as unsatisfactory as pornography. It was not the real thing. You've seen those beautiful men in the movies and magazines? Granted, it is a type of beauty, but it is also a posed beauty, it is an affected beauty. The most beautiful young men are the ones who are naturally beautiful. They are the ones whose beauty comes out of the real conditions of their lives. It is an unconscious beauty. It is a beauty born from honest labor and play, a beauty that is virtuous and appropriate. It is a beauty like the sea, uncontainable, unpredictable. Hustlers and porno stars have a beauty, but their beauty is ultimately inappropriate. I learned this from Chuck. Eventually, I tried to break off our business relationship, but it was just too easy to call him up when I was horny. Besides, I could afford it, and the guy needed the money. He was a working class kid, but somehow he didn't get the breaks, or maybe he just didn't try hard enough. When I made up my mind not to call him again, I went to church and touched the foot on the statue of Jesus and made a pledge. Of course, I broke my word. I'm still trying to keep it. Scientists are still trying to plumb the depths of the ocean. Jesus Christo, hijo de Dios, soy pecador, ten merced.
OK, I know what you're saying. Why don't I settle down with just one person? Why don't I pick on somebody my own age? Great. I'd be the first to want to settle down with somebody. A life of commitment to one person is good. I would have committed myself to Roger if he had wanted me. I tried to make a commitment with Christopher. Here's what I would like: I would like to meet a young man who loves me because I know something about the world. He likes to sail, and to live by the sea. In short, we love one another the way ordinary people love one another. He is beautiful in the way I admire, which, by the way, I have come to learn is not an absolute, but an approximate beauty. We rely on one another. Somebody said I want the son I never had. Maybe. Sometimes I feel I've met enough men. I can live well, even if no one wants to live with me. Look, I'm almost seventy. The odds of another chance at love are pretty slim. Eventually, I would like to write something future generations will preserve, because they recognize truth in it. I hope to find in eternal rest the complete beauty we have been promised. Remember, Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made so by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves such for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. What an old fool I am. Half my thoughts are in the Middle Ages, the other half are on the moon. It must be water on the brain.
I worked for the government until I retired three years ago. It was a good job. I traveled much. Nevertheless, by traveling I missed much too. I helped negotiate treaties with foreign governments regulating the use of the seas, offshore drilling rights, and water pollution. It was my work with the Canadian government and the International Commission on the Great Lakes that eventually brought me to Chicago. In many ways, the Foreign Service is similar to the Church. It is an institution that asks for a lifelong commitment. I gave them that. There's really not much more to say. It was a career. I learned the surface of the sea is ever changing. The waters of the sea are sometimes deep.
Venice is a city on the water. Death in Venice is a book about a beautiful young man and his power over the imagination of a foolish old man. What fools they make of us, these beauties. Yet a man who would not be made a fool is even more foolish. I passed through Venice once on my way to an assignment in North Africa. Frankly, I was not impressed. It was summer and there was a dank odor coming from the canals and lagoon. Tadzio, what happened to you? Did you grow old and fat? Was there some poison in you that finally came out? Floating over the sea like Venus, the goddess of love, did you stay forever young, or like the rest of us, did you succumb to age and illness? Tadzio, what is that odor? Is it the stink of the rose gone beyond its bloom? Tadzio, is it worth it, dyeing my hair, exercising, waiting, following; is it worth it for just a smile?
The Maya used to throw beautiful young men into a sacred well at Chichen Itza. They were a sacrifice to the Mayan gods, not unlike our country's sacrifice to the gods of war in Vietnam. The Mayan priests would dress the young men in fine fabrics and weight them down with gold. Then they would throw them in the well. Go look, they would say, tell us what you see down there. Often we forget this gruesome Mexican past. The startling art of the Maya is a mask for their cruelty. In my life I've had lovers that masked their cruelty with beauty as well. Once, while I was working in Mexico, I met an American young man. He was the occasion to discover a beauty that was neither cruel nor a mask for cruelty. Tony was about fifteen. We fell in love quickly. He wanted me to seduce him. I remember one night when we were alone at the soccer field on the campus of a small college. He asked me about sex. He said he wanted to have sex with me. I told him I couldn't. He was truly beautiful. To this day I realize what I passed by. We swam together often and I could feel his hard-on as we rolled in the water, pretending to pull one another under. Nevertheless, I could not sleep with him. I had government responsibilities, and it just wasn't right to compromise them. I gave Tony instead a gold chain with a small medallion of the Aztec calendar on it. I told him to wear it and think of me. After that, Tony disappeared from my life. I think of him sometimes when I want to prove to myself I could do one good thing. I think of him as a sacrifice thrown to the bottom of the well that is my heart. Go, Tony, tell me what you see down there.
At the ancient Greek symposia there was a symposarchon. He was the man in charge of mixing together the water and wine the participants would drink. He would vary the mixture given the nature of the discussion. If it was a frivolous topic, like the fart of a flea, more wine; if it was a serious matter, like the nature of love, more water. When I read Plato's Symposium, I learned much about the nature of love and the meaning of beauty. It was Socrates who taught me that love of beautiful young men was allowed. When Socrates talked about love, Plato understood only half of what he said. Nowadays, the only reason a man becomes a Platonist is that he grows old. When the body begins to fall apart, we look for a place where beauty will not perish. Beautiful young men point to that ideal place. It is a place pregnant with possibility. Socrates argued we want to make beauty pregnant with ideas. We want to make it pregnant with life. This is a serious matter. A desire for beauty is also a desire for virtue. In the holy sacrifice of the Mass they mix the water and the wine, then break the bread. It is the body and blood of Christ that is broken to take away the sins of the world. I hope by eating this I may take the body of Christ as my lover. So too does the priest pray, O felix culpa, in the Latin Mass. Oh happy fault, that Adam sinned, so that the Incarnation happened. O flex culpa, mix the water and wine, break the bread and bones of men. Too much water? Too little? Mix it again. The frivolous and the serious are so mixed up, I often can't tell them apart.
I never really understood the English expression standing water. You know, how people use it to mean that water on the highway cars roll through, or a fetid pool breeding mosquitoes and microbes. When I hear the words I imagine water actually standing. When you think about it, that wouldn't be such a miracle. After all, we are made mostly of water. Some more than others. I remember in the film The Man without a Face they humorously suggest women are made up of more water than men. Is this one cause for the problems between the sexes? In another book, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll has Alice slip, and in a moment, splash! she was up to her chin in salt water. Her first idea was that she had somehow fallen into the sea. However she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high. Sometimes I feel all of us stand one time or another in a pool of tears, but we are never so tall as Alice. So what's the mystery of standing water? We are made mostly of water, and that water is tears. What's the mystery of standing up and living in spite of tears? I know what to do. I know how to live my life. I get up and do my work every day. It's that simple. If the beauty I desire is not here, I get up anyway. It's a matter of habit. I hope my habit will eventually become a virtue. That's what growing old can be about, that's what I can expect. At the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changed water into wine, the men marveled because the host saved the best wine till last. I keep filling my jars, waiting for a miracle. Maybe the best will come last for me. Sometimes I have to plug up the leaks. Remember that sophomore who understood so much? Asked to write a poem about the miracle at Cana to pass an examination, he honestly wrote, The humble water, feeling its maker near, blushed. Such should be the fate of all our tears.
A rain is knocking on the roof and sill, and sullen clouds are all the light we see. With liquid shades of gray the hours distill a symphony of moods in minor key. Beyond our rooms, a block of flats absorbs November wind and rain, their windows dark and drawn to mute this endless littered orb of city life that closes on the park. It is as if a tax of centuries accumulates in blistered wood and stone, to rob us of our natural harmonies, where artists write and draw their own, where friendships warm in cups of orange tea, and we converse in houses by the sea.
This is a dream from the beach house. I am a boy again, working on an Addressograph machine in the basement of a bank. The machine is grinding away, stamping out the names of the dead. Coat hangers and pieces of wood scattered on the basement floor suddenly turn into spears and try to stab me. There is something malevolent, shaped like balls of light under the storage room table. I get up from the machine to look at them. Tony is now here. He is older, but still handsome and fresh. You have to stop them, I tell him. He looks at me. He moves to the blue-green evil in the balls of light. Suddenly, the basement is gone. We are at the gym, on a white racquetball court. We are playing racquetball. Both of us are dressed in white. The balls of light are now the racquetballs we play with. We are smiling. I am moving around the court with a new body, the body of a young man. I wake up. I kept the window closed last night. The room is stuffy. I reach for the light switch. My shoulder still hurts.
I like to walk the beach and listen to Bach's Goldberg Variations on my portable CD player. I keep the volume low enough so I can hear the waves washing ashore while Glenn Gould's piano-playing washes over me. Here are some observations from my walks on the beach: I am told an English translation of the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-tzu's name is Old-Boy. Not old boy, in the sense it is used in London to mean a familiar member of our social club or an elderly man we joke and play cards with, but someone who is literally both old and a boy at the same time. An old boy knows the Way is the way of water going downhill, the Way is the way of the river in its banks. It seems to me only gay men can approximate this condition in the present age. Also, I am constantly going back to the story of the people of Israel being led out of slavery. Their freedom was assured when God parted the Red Sea and let all who wanted go over. The parting of the waters-what a wonderful image for freedom. Salvation isn't just for me, it is for all who need it. Let my people go is what the song recalls, not simply let me go. Finally, when the wind blows from the northeast, it piles up all this flotsam and jetsam on our side of the lake. There are a lot of dead fish here. Some are big and fat. They must have been living in the cold bottom of the lake for years. They will eventually decay and fall back to water. Think about it-there are no graves for fish.
It's a lie. We never had a house by the sea. I was a poor boy living in Paxton, Illinois. We hardly had a house. My father died when I was ten. I had to go to work after that. First newspaper routes, then cleaning up in a dress shop, then working at a soda fountain. I worked one job after another. Thank God, I was drafted. After the war I left home and never went back. I went to college on the G.I. Bill. I got a job working for the government. Yes, I liked books. I liked young men too. I remember there was a boy on my street named Billy. He was in Little League. I would secretly watch him from the windows of my front room, as he went off to practice. I admired his uniform. I liked the way his uniform fit tightly around his legs, around his ass. I realize now the light that surrounded his body was the light I've come to love by the sea. I studied my books. I worked hard. I was an altar boy. I was in hell. What was happening to my body? Why would I stop in the middle of the morning, delivering newspapers, to sit on the dark, foreign stairs of an apartment building, look at pictures of the men on the sports pages, and beat off? I could not say the truth to anyone. I had to pretend always. High school was a place where the devils were waiting to trap me. I wished we had a house by the sea. I could go there, retreat from the world. Instead, I worked on an Addressograph machine in the basement of a bank printing out address labels. One summer, when I heard others in my class were going for a vacation to the Michigan Islands for a week, and I wasn't, because I didn't have enough money, I stopped typing on the keyboard. I let the machine run wild. I let the address plate stamp envelope after envelope in some mad mailing. I stopped working, and laid my head in my hands and cried. I remember the fluorescent light above my head was cold and indifferent. I remember the grinding rattle of the machine with its mechanical laughter. See, that's what homos get, it mocked. It's a lie. We never had a house by the sea. My house was on a street across from a coal yard. At my house on hot summer nights we sat on the porch and looked at the stars. Sometimes Billy would come by. He would sit next to me and talk about the stars. I was in love with Billy. One day Billy walked by my porch without stopping. I saw him go up the stairs of his house a few doors down. I looked at him. He had the strangest expression on his face. I know he did not say anything, but I saw his lips move. They said the word homo. That's what my soul heard, homo. Say it now, homo, say it to the sea rushing ashore in a storm, say it to the purple sky boiling with clouds. Oh holy homo, poor homo boy, come home my homo, come home to the sea my boy, come to the water that loves you, to the salt from which your salty cum comes, come homo boy, come home. Come to your house by the sea, the house that words built. They can't hurt you now homo boy, come home my homo, come, come, come.
I settled finally in Chicago. I bought an apartment by the lake. Once, when I had my brother and his wife over for dinner, I was complaining to my sister-in-law about my nephew. He avoids me because I'm gay. It bothers me. I mean, it's been twenty-five years since Stonewall. I told her he'd better start treating me right or he won't get any inheritance. Then she asked me, Now that you are getting older, who will take care of you, should something happen? I thought for a moment. Glenn Gould, I told her, Glenn Gould will take care of me. She looked at me. She hadn't a clue. Sure, it's easy to be witty when nothing is at stake. But what about the real time of loneliness, the real moment of being old and abandoned? Looking out at the great open space of sky above Lake Michigan is just like looking out at the sea. You get the same answer from both. If I turn and look behind me, a great wall of buildings rises up like the wall of a canyon. The city is on one side, the water and air of freedom are on the other. Sometimes I put on my CD of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, make myself a drink, and look at the boats sailing the lake. I look at the clouds sailing the sky. I remember when we rise from the dead, we neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. Sometimes in summer I use my telescope to watch the young men sunning on the Belmont Rocks. They are bound to break themselves for love in spite of what is said. There is a crucifix on the wall of my bedroom I look at in the same way. The broken body of Christ floats above the wooden cross. On clear nights I may take my telescope and aim it at the moon suspended above the dark water. The cool blue light of the moon fills my eyes. I am looking for something. I can see mountains, and the moon's jagged edge. Who would want to go so far for nothing? There is no water on the moon.
Aria da capo
I want to go down to the water. I want to go to the boathouse when the light of evening colors everything amber. Come with me. It's not far. I want to listen to the tide lapping at the piers, and look into the purple water that hugs the white, undulating boats. I want to touch the gray and weathered wood that makes the stairs and pillars of the boathouse. I want to taste arrowroot biscuits washed in milk. I want to hold your hand, feel the warmth of someone who accepts me for what I am, accepts me and all my past. I want to hear the cries of sea birds coming back to roost, and the wind chiming the halyards against metal masts. I want to hear the bells call out loneliness, and the tinkle of ice in glasses from the yacht club. I want to say your name, and have you hear it. I want to see candles in red glasses on the tables and hear the garbled conversation of couples who look out over the lake. I want to feel the fresh cotton shirt of wealth, savor the sharp bite of a martini. I want to surprise you with my indifference. I want to look at you when you least suspect. God, how I have been wounded by your beauty. I want to feel complete as the sunset. I want you to realize we are married in the sight of one another. I want you to swallow the word love, and in all of this we two settle into the realization we come together out of something inevitable, lonely, and necessary. Together we listen to the music coming from the silence of our glances, coming from moonlight on the water, coming from the gulls, and the lapping of tides. It is the music that comes from ice and the mull of conversation. Together we listen to the melody of our days pouring out their juice. O rare singing of regret, O music of men, what are the twilight melodies doing to my memory? O happiness, what are the songs of birds and the rustle of leaves doing to my wish? Tell me, music of delight, tell me, music of despair, what is love, what is life, what is the water we all thirst after? What mysteries are below the water's broken mirror, what joys in his eyes, what magnetism in his skin? Tell me, music of the days and nights, violin of yearning, why this one, why the hours going down, why the barefoot walks in the sand, the shells, the tossing of stones, the faraway splash? Tell me, love, why the sigh, the tear, why the wondering at time? Don't you remember the promise? Show me a pure river of water, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God. Here the thirsts of men are met with satisfaction. It is the water of life everlasting.
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