eminence upon which I stand, and from which I shall shortly hurl myself to my
death on the piazza below with my mauve soutaine and lavender moiré silk
sash fluttering in the wind behind me -- but not like the notorious diva Floria
Galas in her role as Tosca in the 1953 Teatro Fenice production when she leapt
off the staged parapet of Castel Sant Angelo to find that backstage workmen had
replaced cushions beneath the set with a trampoline, thus bouncing her back up
to the battlements, and down, and back up, to the audience's delight -- is the
famous Michaelangelo cupola for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy -- the Eternal
City -- the virtual nipple on the breast of Holy Mother Church. I have been a
priest of the Archdiocese of Rome -- Carolina, United States, the Infernal City.
Why I would take my own life at the pinnacle of my career -- recently appointed
by the Pope as the secretary to the new Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care
of Perverts and Deviants (I know it sounds awful, but quando in Roma, festina
lente, so to speak, and it's really rather a sign of progress for our kind
in the attenuated squint of ecclesiastical history) -- is a long story. I suppose
I am about to do violence against myself because of a young man -- of course --
and therefore I must tell you about Angelo -- hair the color of harvest wheat,
breath of cinnamon -- but before I do that I should tell you about Vergil, my
friend Vergil Hieronymous Roebling, now gone home to glory, and perhaps another
reason I am about to exit. All the really interesting people -- and I hope you
won't take offence at this -- are dead.|
I was a second-year theologian when Vergil arrived mid-year at St. Monica's Seminary. Bearded and gaunt like a mosaic saint, he had a quiet absorbing demeanor, which I learned later was only partly temperamental since he had spent years as a journalist for various Catholic newspapers, eventually becoming the Vatican correspondent for the progressive independent, New Catholic Review. Vergil kept his counsel while others spilled theirs, with the result that he was respected or feared (and sometimes both) by members of the Vatican Curia, the Catholic Church's bureaucracy. May I admit to you that I did not warm to him immediately? I was going through my Gay Feminist stage (an idiosyncrasy the seminary faculty tolerated that year), and although I sensed in Vergil an erotic fellow traveler, his Euro enculturated discretion struck me as unliberated. Perhaps it was not until the next year -- The Year of the Parties -- when I invited Vergil to one of my "evenings," that we became friends and some of his reticence and my distrust dissolved.
Shortly before the end of the fall term -- recovering from studying for and taking master's comprehensives and the completion of my thesis -- I lay sprawled on the divan that I had rescued from a thrift store and with the addition of a carelessly spread throw that I had that year made the centerpiece of my cubicle's décor. As I smoked and exhaled a gold-tipped Balkan Sobranie cigarette in blue whorls, lamenting that my latest infatuation was serious about celibacy, Vergil knocked, opened the door slightly, and discretely passed only his face in the opening, "Are you decent?"
"My dear Vergil, deliriously, decadently decent."
"Are you receiving?"
"Only my closest advisors -- which puts you on the top of the list."
Throughout our friendship, Vergil and I would maintain an exquisite tact on matters of the heart and matters of the nether organs. Part admiration, part attraction, our relations with each other combined some moments of seduction with others of reticence, tenderness with archness.
"I wanted to talk with you before the Christmas Party, just in case some sylph-like underclassman seduces you and takes you away on a skiing holiday between terms."
"I'm done with sylphs. This year I'm only falling in love with straight men, which means I have to leave the seminary to search for unrequited love."
"Would you like to meet me in New York for a few days, after Christmas?"
"Vergil, it's been years since I've been to Manhattan, I'd love it!"
We began to conspire, he offering possible itineraries, I concurring with all of them, enough events, sites, and experiences to warrant weeks in the city, but settled on my flying out of Greater Rome Metro airport the day after the feast and returning on New Year's eve.
If before Christmas New York City fairly crackles with spiritual, sentimental, and commercial aspirations, after the feast it slouches away from Bethlehem like a drunk off a bender promising never to do that again. After Virgil met me at Newark Airport and we dropped my bags off at his parents' home, we took a train into the city, none the less shimmering in the cold damp, the eternal festivity of its street, advertising, and building lights overwhelming the seasonal variety, then took a subway downtown. "I want to show you something," he said to me. Already disoriented by planes and trains, travelling underground was nearly hallucinogenic so that I had no hint where we were even after leaving the subway station until I saw the neo-gothic arches: "The harp and altar of the fury fused." We were walking across Brooklyn Bridge--Walt's and Hart's Brooklyn--at sunset with the city before us so various and new. In silence we watched night lights eclipse the sun in drama if not splendor.
"Hungry?" Vergil asked and wide eyed I nodded.
All the rage then was a nouvelle Italian restaurant in the West Village called La Vita Nuova, which afforded Vergil an opportunity to refresh his Italian and me to indulge in arch faggotry of a sort that Southern boys can only dream of: I found myself surrounded by walls covered with cinnabar leather, lit from above by pinpoint spotlights, faded Tuscan brocade banquettes, orange poppies in slender amber Venetian vases, and handsome men preternaturally tanned from a few days in Aruba. In keeping with the nouvellity of the place, the menu offered detailed glosses on each entrée's arcane ingredients, which after our orders were presented seemed in their lavishness inversely proportional to the size of the portions. The food's minimalism struck a contrast with the décor's baroqueness: we were at the cusp of a tectonic shift but had not yet detected the tremors. One dined no longer for sustenance or even satiety but for status.
"Vergil, this is all too glamorous for words; I'm afraid I'm going to gush but -- the atmosphere, the men, the food -- did I mention the men? -- why aren't you living here?"
"I did for a while, before moving to Rome. I love to visit New York, but I don't want to live here again. Here you're only as good as your current triumph; after that you're amnesia. I've also lived in Paris and London -- too much history -- everyone is either a bored actor reading scripts for the pageant or an even more bored audience. I am not brilliant or handsome or connected, so I've learned to surrender to my dharma. By the way, have I ever told you about the time I had to pick up Giancarlo Menotti at the Rome airport?"
I shook my head.
"My lover's lover was an impresario, old Roman family, who had commissioned Menotti to compose an oratorio. My lover was supposed to pick him but something happened, I forget what -- he was an officer in the Swiss Guard and the pope needed his ass wiped or something -- and at the last minute he called me and I scooted over to the airport. Menotti's plane had arrived about thirty minutes before I got there and I found the maestro pacing and gesticulating. When I introduced myself and apologized for my lateness he was simply relieved and said to me pressing his palms together, 'When I thought that there would be no one to drive me and I would have to rely on a wretched taxi, I was so nervous that my asshole began to twitch like this' and he began to pucker his lips like little kisses.'"
Such was Vergil's genuine humility that he rarely revealed in casual conversations such episodes in a life already full of incident, so I felt gratified by his story. Nonetheless I felt like a poor relation without a tale to trade. That also motivated Vergil's reticence; his greatest delight was in making companions feel that they were bright and beautiful. All those years we thought that his sun revolved around our planets; only when he died did the Copernican revelation occur.
Over dessert Vergil's face took on an unusually sly expression and he said to me, "Have you been to any of the bars in the city?"
"Vergil, the last time I was in New York I was six and my parents brought me up here on vacation. I don't remember our going to any gay bars! I do remember vividly, however, coming down here to the Village, which is when I think I caught the queer bug. I know this is going to sound crazy, but I think I remember some of these streets and buildings; it's almost like I've lived here in another life!"
"'Not in utter nakedness nor in mere forgetfulness . . .'"
"'But trailing clouds of glory do we come,'" I finished. "But what sort of mischief did you have in mind?"
"I thought we might go pub crawling. I could take you to some of the places your parents never would."
At that moment if he had suggested running naked on the observation deck of the Empire State Building I would have.
"If any of this gets to be too much, just let me know," Vergil offered as we walked to the west end of Christopher Street, a seedy area where my parents might have brought me if my father had gotten lost and refused to ask for directions, which he probably did the first time I visited New York. There was nothing remarkable about the warehouse building or the single steel door that was the only entry into it from the street, but men were lined up for half the block to get in.
"It's called 'Inferno'; let me do the talking," Vergil advised. As we approached, I became aware that the bouncer seemed to interrogate the aspirants, and when we were only a few bodies away from him, I heard him growl, "Come back when ya's washed off the pansy perfume and took off the preppy shirt." Vergil turned to me and said, "Zip up your parka," which I did as inconspicuously as possible; I was wearing a polo shirt, but mercifully I had not put on cologne. With a hand on the shoulder, the bouncer nudged Vergil into the doorway; I can only imagine the panic registered on my face as he grabbed me by the coat and sniffed at me like a dog. But apparently I passed this first test because I too found myself in a gloom beside Vergil.
While we had only dimly sensed outside now became as pulsingly apparent as the boners you used to sport in high school: the insistent throbbing of music, but not the hotly soulful and brassy sounds of pop disco, but something more insidious, metrical, industrial strength. It was as nasty and irresistible as artificial flavoring. Under this noise was the cacophony of human voices, men trying to be heard, in voices of all pitches and dialects. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that we were in a warehouse whose history had not been expunged for the purposes of erotic predation. Although we had walked only a few blocks from La Vita Nuova, we seemed here on another continent among a primitive tribe of men whose customs were as unfamiliar to me as the world of women. I did not know lust had undone so many.
At one end of the hall a long bar extended the width of the room and one could not tell if men standing near it were waiting to order or had long given up. Vergil took me in tow, yanking on my sleeve and nodding for me to follow him, pushing through the men with an aggressiveness that I had never seen in him before. Without asking, he bought me beer; I suppose I looked like I needed it.
"Happy New Year. So, Toto, I guess we've left Kansas?"
"Welcome to Oz -- where we can nurture all our beautiful wickedness."
"Wicked witch or no wicked witch?"
"There are plenty of those here too. Some of those mean-looking leather boys, for instance. Pray they don't say anything because once they open their mouths it's 'quiche -- quiche -- quiche.'"
"And the man behind the curtain?"
"A gay-owned and operated business. Homos nudged out the mafiosos."
I had begun to notice the smells of this congregation. The cigarette smoke was the dominant overtone, with undertones of weedy hashish, but there was also something overripe, elusive. Then I noticed the brown bottles passed from man to man.
"How can you meet anyone here?" I asked.
"Don't think 'social graces' and 'introductions.' Don't even think 'high school dance.' Think 'grocery store' -- I'm hungry and I want that. In the course of an evening anybody can find somebody."
"Well, at least when I go to the grocery store I have a shopping list; I compare; I'm a wise consumer."
"Don't think 'grocery store,' then, think 'vending machine.'"
"Not haute cuisine but it fills a void."
Suddenly I jumped and the startled look on my face told Vergil that someone walking behind me had groped my groceries. Reflexively I turned to see a smiling black face towering at least a foot over me and then I turned primly away.
"It's not usually quite that direct, but sometimes it is."
"Cave man feels me up rather than knocking me over the head and dragging me away."
"Courtship rituals, nonetheless."
"But not very courteous. I think I understand how some women feel."
"Yes, but there's something endearingly sweet about it -- rambunctious boys shoving, playing with other rambunctious boys. Everyone here is a consenting adult."
While we had been talking -- or shouting, such was the pandemonium -- I had noticed a stream of men entering and exiting a wide door at the far end of the bar.
"Where does that go?" I asked Vergil.
"Finish your beer and I'll take you there."
It took us a long while to navigate through the bar to reach the sheetmetal door on rollers. The doorway led into a smaller landing for steel stairs descending from the main floor. The aperture to the basement glowed violet and red.
"Before we go downstairs, you should know that you are likely to see everything and anything. This is what is referred to generically as a 'back room.' No one is going to do anything to you and people down here tend to keep their hands to themselves more than the guys upstairs unless you make it very clear that you want their hands on you. This one also has some playrooms so there are always a few S&M scenes in progress. No beer bottles or drink glasses allowed; there are boys on their hands and knees down there who don't want to get cut up."
"Isn't there the presumption that I'm there for sex?"
"Lots of guys go down just to watch so we won't stand out."
As we climbed down the stairs, the disco's incessant throbbing faded; we had entered the sacred precincts of disciplines, rituals, offerings, sacrifices, invocations, and raptures. A smaller room than upstairs but just as congested greeted us, but the congregants were silent or spoke in whispers, sighs, and moans. The frantic cruising upstairs had given way to purposeful ceremonies down here. Stalls had been carved out by plywood partitions like monks' cells or clerical workers' cubicles and there was something similarly regulated and efficient about the activities in each: as one coupling was completed the space gave way to new permutations.
Something at the far end, however, seemed to have garnered more than usual attention and noise. Vergil nodded inquiringly in that direction and I nodded. Reaching the back of the crowd, Vergil nudged (with some protests) to make his way toward the front. Just as soon as he reached the front, however, he backed away and turned directly toward me saying, "I know him."
Hoisted in a leather sling was a slender pale body, writing and crying out--"No, stop, no more" -- whose rectum was impaled by the mahogany dick of the man who had groped me upstairs. Beside him were two acolytes -- the older, a thickset man with thinning gray hair who wore a gold chain around his neck, the younger, a Nuyorican who had left adolescence some time ago and who was running to fat. The older said to the Nuyorican, "He told me he'd never gotten fucked by a black guy, so I find him this black guy. Now listen to him." And then turning to the gored man, "So take it like a man!" They laughed.
"You know the guy in the sling?"
"Him and the older guy. Let's move to the back."
The dude had recommenced and so had the beslinged's screams.
"The older guy is my parents' pastor; the guy he's standing next to is his lover, I think; the guy in the sling is the assistant pastor."
"Bless me father," I tried to quip, but a worm began to turn inside me, its mouth eating my guts and its tail stinging my brain.
"Are you OK?"
"I need some fresh air." I leaned on Vergil's arm; he gently and courteously took mine in hand and led me toward the exit.
I had not noticed until then that the scene and our exit had another observer: in a wheelchair a long-haired and bearded man watched dispassionately while he toyed desultorily with the flaccid penis of a man standing next to him.
"The Wizard of Oz," Vergil whispered discretely. "The owner's a Vietnam vet, disabled in the war." His discretion was unnecessary, however, for the Wizard's attention was now on gumming the reluctant tumescence in his mouth, and we passed by him unnoticed.
We found a forgotten emergency exit, one of the few in New York that actually opened, and I was grateful for the bracing air. Still cold, the air had turned dry, almost condensing to sharp crystals that I breathed with a mixture of relief and caution.
"Feeling better?" Vergil asked.
"Much. Where now?"
"Are you ready for 'Heaven?'"
Vergil was the last of the great flaneurs, an epic streetwalker with heroic appetites for pavement, consuming sidewalks and streets and shortcuts with relish. He avoided subways at night, buses at any time, and taxis unless necessary, which for Vergil meant either a medical emergency or a flight leaving in forty minutes. By turns purposeful and curious, he kept a pace that discouraged panhandlers and muggers, hands in the pockets of his peacoat and a wool knit cap pulled over his ears. Never waiting for a light to change we criss-crossed Seventh Avenue until we reached 14th Street and crossed over to Sixth then up again.
The walk uptown purged the panic that had washed over me with an urge to cry or vomit or both. Smells from the streets -- subterranean gases, greasy garlic, sour beer, spicy espresso, moist breads, wet asphalt, stale cigarettes, hot fries, cheap perfumes, tropical pomades -- braced me like a shot of whiskey. I kept up the pace with Vergil who always remained just slightly ahead, turning occasionally as if to ask, "Too fast?" though I would smile and look away.
Heaven Disco earlier in the decade had been the last word, though in that twilight of the gods, it too had seen better days. A Gothic Revival church was built by an Episcopal parish, deeded to a high toned AME Zion congregation ("High Yella" as we'd say in Rome, Carolina), sold to a restaurateur who made each weekend a feast day, its circular dance floor surrounded by tiers surmounted by mezzanines and balconies, a mystic rose of decadent ecstasies. From the street one could see flashing strobes, police gumballs, glowing neons, and glittering mirror balls refracted through the chancel's stained glass. Because the evening was still early, the doorman -- the judge and arbiter of all who came before the sanctuary entrance -- looked on us mercifully. We were not beautiful but perhaps useful, to swell the later scenes. Once inside, we found a confessional converted to a coatcheck. The song of the week, something called "Gloria," exulted against the brownstone walls.
"Go get yourself a drink and explore some on your own; I'll find you later," Vergil told me before disappearing. I was bereft; had he devotions of which I was unaware? The baptistry served as a bar where I asked for a beer. I found stairs to the lofts: a congregational loft and above it, a choir loft--the ecstasies there, I was sure, were beyond my fathoming. I walked toward the dance floor and climbed the tiers that encircled it, sitting where I could find space, finding my cigarettes and lighting one, the smoke mediating between my inside and my outside, violating my body's fungible frontiers, while the beer, long hard bottle in my hand, aspersed my brain. As I watched I came to love every writhing body on the dance floor.
And someone was watching me. I looked up, across the floor at the same tier on the other side. He was sitting with a woman. His hair, the color of wheat and honey, aureoled around his face. His mouth smiled with grenadine lips. I smiled and looked back at the dance floor where bodies had been borne again by the rhythms manufactured by the discaire. Suddenly beside me warmth, the press of a thigh, the aureole of wheaten curls, the grenadine lips speaking, "Do you have a light?"
I lit his cigarette, he drew, exhaled, and lay his head on my shoulder. I turned my head toward his: the smell of dry grass. I rubbed my cheek against the curls-belli capelli ricci e inanellati. His free hand reached for mine while we watched the dancers. Then his head lifted and he looked at me: eyes with brown and gold--and as my face moved closer to his -- green. His breath smelled of cinnamon and cloves and his lips were firm and moist and ripe and savory.
"Who are you?" I wondered.
"Where did you come from?"
"Italy. My father is a furrier in Milano. I'm here on business."
I kissed his forehead: "You are an angelo."
"Do you want to dance?" I asked him.
"No, but my friend would love to. I'll get her." And he was gone just as suddenly as he came. Well, that's that, I thought. Besides, I'm going to be ordained in a few months; what am I doing here?
"This is Beatrice." He had returned; she was slender, Tuscan umber, and took my hand leading me to the dance floor. Angelo watched from our tier, waving sometimes to us, smiling as though watching two old friends with whom he was enamored. I ached for his head on my shoulder. Three song circuits and I had done my duty: "I need to sit out for a while," I told Beatrice.
When we returned to the tier, she sat on one side of Angelo, I on the other, our thighs touching, my arm behind him, rubbing his spine, fleshy, boyish. They spoke briefly, in Italian. "She liked that. Thank you." His mouth opened on mine like a time elapsed blossom. My whole life seemed poured back and forth in the breaths of our single mouth.
A finger tapped my shoulder. "We interrupt this program for an important announcement: the train back to New Jersey leaves in 25 minutes. I'm going, though you're welcome to stay and we'll reconnect tomorrow," Vergil said into my ear. My life poured back into my own mouth and I swallowed it. "No, I'll come with you."
Angelo looked at me with the mask of Cupid, knowingly cosmopolitan. "He's a friend. I'm staying with him in New Jersey. I've got to go. The last train." He nodded. He smiled an unfathomable smile, with a touch of something sinister in it. All the thoughts and experiences of the world had etched and molded his face. He was older than the rocks; like a vampire he had been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and had been a diver in deep seas, and kept their fallen day about him; and trafficked in strange webs with Eastern merchants; and had been Ganymede and Antinous and Dorian; and all this had been to him but as the sound of lyres and flutes.
I turned and never looked back. Out on the sidewalk, Vergil was hailing a cab. When we got inside and headed to Grand Central, he said gently, "You could have stayed."
"That's why I left."
"Milanese . . . named 'Angelo.'"
"Ah, of course."
"If I'd left one shoe behind, would he have come looking for me?" Vergil smiled.
I never looked back. But in a crowd when I see the back of someone's head -- belli capelli ricci e inanellati -- wheat and honey, or when I sprinkle cinnamon on buttered toast or dash grenadine in a cocktail . . . If I had left a shoe behind, would he have come looking for me?
A few weeks later, my bishop called me forward for ordination and a few months later I found myself walking down the aisle of the archdiocesan cathedral of Rome, Carolina, as sick with dread as I was the night Vergil and I fled from the basement of Inferno. A Valium in the morning and a Manhattan before dinner, however, can smooth troubled waters, a treatment regimen that I've maintained since then. I became a pastor of a small-town parish, then pastor of a parish in Rome, Carolina, then the exquisitely discrete archdiocesan Vicar for Ministry to Sexual Minorities, then a monsignor, then appointed by the Holy Father as a protonotary apostolic supranumerary and secretary of the new Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Perverts and Deviants. Apart from the glamour -- I watched all those Fellini films as a teenager -- I came to Rome hoping to meet Vergil's shade and half expecting to find Angelo, if not my Angelo from a night in Heaven, somebody's Angelo. The Eternal City is full of them, but they want money and I have more pride than Pacelli.
Which brings me to Michaelangelo's cupola. La commedia est finita! I am more terrified of heights than of anything else and I have brought with me as succor some cinnamon biscotti. They are brown and gold and are baked around the corner from my apartment by a young man with hair the color of honey whose wife, a Tuscan brunette, sells and keeps accounts. The baker's smile could turn stones to bread. However, man does not live by biscotti alone but by . . . by what? I have forgotten, if I ever even knew. And throwing myself down to summon an angel is so tempting.