blackbirdonline journalSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
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back WESLEY GIBSON

from You Are Here

Since Wesley Gibson’s death in December 2016, Blackbird has contemplated ways to ensure his literary voice maintains a presence in the world. With that end in mind, we are publishing an excerpt from his book, You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival, which appeared in 2004 from Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Hailed at the time by Mary Gaitskill as “dark and sparkling, wonderfully intelligent, flip, and deeply felt,” You Are Here provides an excellent vehicle for honoring Gibson’s many strengths as a writer and his generosity of spirit as a friend. The excerpt appears with the permission of his family and publisher. We will serialize additional excerpts in forthcoming issues. —Blackbird editors

That second day, I knew something was wrong. The apartment seemed, not quiet, but desolate. I was looking around, trying to feel at home. But it’s hard to feel at home when you’ve moved in with a stranger named John, a man as pale and waxy and elongated as a candle, a man you met through a gay roommating service, a man who had seemed touchingly eager when he’d interviewed you, and you’d perched there on the edge of the love seat, giving the usual performance, trying to convey that you paid the bills on time but were also good for a few laughs, that you were a gourmet cook who liked nothing better than to whip up coquilles St. Jacques for yourself and whomever happened to be around, but that you wouldn’t ever consider using his cream for your coquilles, that you were never there, at least not when he was, unless he wanted you to be, in which case you hoped you hadn’t given the wrong impression, you actually were a homebody, someone who liked nothing better than to curl up around the VCR with a new friend and microwave popcorn, watching, what a coincidence, Home for the Holidays was your favorite movie too (note to self: find out what Home for the Holidays is).

I’d just moved back to New York. Studios were going for fifteen hundred. After first month’s, last month’s, a deposit, 10 percent for the agent, you were looking at five thousand dollars just to get in. That was my whole budget. That was if I was picked from the restless mob crowded around me with its own marked-up Village Voices, in a room the size of a golf cart with a view of someone’s filthy venetian blinds. People kid about New York; but they’re not kidding.

John bit and invited me to rent a room in his apartment on the Upper East Side. It was larger than any studio I’d seen, and cheaper too, with a view of someone’s garden. An elevator, a bathroom I shared with the other roommate—some guy named Alan, who actually was never there. A real live kitchen. Most of the kitchens I’d seen had been appliances shoved into closets. I’d marveled over this place to everyone I knew, and they’d listened with the polite disinterest of people who have apartments, before steering the conversation back to their more established lives.

But now the euphoria was wearing off, and the first thing I had noticed was that this place was not really my taste. I actually don’t know what my taste is, or if I even have taste, but this was not it. This was suburban, but stitched through with New Age Kitsch. Who even knew there was New Age Kitsch? There was a plaid living-room suite, circa 19-hideous-something; but little wizards made from crystals formed tiny gesticulating groups on end tables, on top of the gigantic TV. They were arranged in a lit brass-and-glass sort of exhibition case. There were vases of bridesmaid’s-dress-pink cloth flowers; but dreamcatchers were nailed to the wall. An answering machine blinking its red light with about sixty messages sat next to . . . Wait. An answering machine with sixty messages. It was probably nothing; maybe he just didn’t erase. But something, the hazy August day (that was another thing, it turned out the central air­ conditioning didn’t work), the morguelike calm, the disconcerting juxtapositions—Southwestern prayer rugs hanging next to reproductions of enormous-eyed-children paintings . . . The day was a conspiracy, and my mind was weak from the dislocations of moving. John was a serial killer. Of course. Innocent boy from small city. Next thing you know you’re nothing but a few hacked-off limbs and severed eyeballs charred beyond recognition in the incinerator conveniently located down the hall.

I called Jo Ann.

“Hello?” She sounded like what she was: mildly depressed, somnolently moving through her life under the suicide gray of the Ithaca skies.

“It’s me.” I probably sounded like what I was too—mildly panicked, flutteringly paranoid (business as usual, really)—because she was suddenly alert and saying, “What’s wrong?”

“I think the guy I moved in with is a serial killer,” I whispered, looking around for a blunt object to stun him with in case he had the seismographic hearing nine out of ten psychopaths seem blessed with. The air conditioner was too heavy. The ashtray was vintage. I finally settled on a lamp, knowing it would be no match for his superhuman strength.

“Why?” Unlike most of my friends, Jo Ann took me seriously when I called to say for the fourteenth time that week that I had cancer. That’s because she’d had it fourteen times that week too.

“I don’t know. It’s eerie, like nobody really lives here. There are sixty messages on his machine. Sixty. Exactly.”

“Check ’em,” she said firmly.

“I can’t do that.” I was still whispering. “What if he’s in the bedroom right now getting messages from Plato and the Virgin Mary?”

“You’ll just say you left his number with some people and you’re checking to see if they called.” Quick, decisive, a prizefighter of deception. I was usually not bad myself, but I was out of my element.

“I don’t know.”

“Do it,” she ordered.

I crept with my phone cradled against me. My bedroom door, having read the script, squeaked ominously. I stopped, waiting for him to burst out of his room with a straight razor and a macabre laugh. Nothing. Nothing but that awful grove of silence.

“Where are you?” Jo Ann asked.

“Ssssshhhh . . .”

I walked in a peculiar, huddled fashion, which made me quieter and possibly invisible. When I got to the answering machine, I crouched and turned down the volume. At eye level were several doll-size gods made of coconut pieces painted primary colors. Their expressions were standard-issue gleeful/vengeful. God only knows what sacrifices they’d presided over.

I pressed rewind. The spinning cartridges whirred in my stomach. When the red numbers flicked down to twenty, I freaked, hit play, and caught the tail end of a Miss So-and-So from Citibank who could be reached at the following number until 5:00.

“Can you hear it?” I whispered.

“Yep,” she said. She’d lit a cigarette. I could hear her smoking.

The next message was from his sister. John, please call, we’re wondering how you are.

The next one was from Cablevision. They needed to talk to him about his bill.

Sis, again, this time a little more jollying, sort of come-out-come-out-wherever­you-are.

He needed to pay his phone bill or he’d only be able to receive calls.

Sister. Joking, but worried.

Then there was the electric bill.

Sister.

Citibank.

Sister.

A credit agency trying to fool him into phoning with a chummy little come-on. And that was the pattern. Sister, creditor, sister, creditor, sister, creditor. Dead silence from Jo Ann’s end. Not even the sound of her smoking. I could see her cigarette, one long worm of ash, suspended in the air between her fingers. I could see her jaw on her clavicle. By the time we got up into the forties, each message was an ice-cold glass of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid cascading down my vertebrae. The sister tried, variously: cajoling, threats, entreaties, nonchalance, appeals to their shared past, bribery.

I told myself that I was a nervous Nellie who had often mistaken people for serial killers simply because they were inappropriately friendly or dressed in uninterpretable ways. Once, a man in a bar, who I’d known long enough to sip my beer, asked me to pretend that he was Axl Rose and I was Michael Jackson (I’m not black) and then we could go to his place and wrestle in a child’s pool of baby oil, which apparently he kept at the ready in his living room. Then the winner would tie the loser up. Did I think I could beat him? I was almost sure about him; but generally I was content to be convinced by my friends that I was simply a borderline hysteric, that it wasn’t mathematically possible that one out of four persons I met were psychopathic killers. Even a borderline hysteric could acknowledge those odds.

Expecting that same reassurance now, I said, admirably calm, “Maybe it isn’t as bad as it sounds.”

Have you ever heard hysterical laughter? Probably not. I’d heard of hysterical laughter, but until you’ve been privy to the real thing, you will never know. It is high-pitched laughter to be sure, but indistinguishable from the sound a wildebeest makes on the Discovery Channel when it comes to the awful realization that that nice branch is actually a thirty-foot anaconda. That was the sound Jo Ann was making in my ear, hiccupping, “Oh, my God,” when she could catch her breath. My heart NASCAR-Funny-Car-barrel-rolled in my chest.

The Twilight Zone of the messages finally ended. Jo Ann descended back from the helium of her laughter, and she did reassure me that he didn’t sound like a serial killer. She was an avid fan of COPS, so I figured who would know better, right? But we both agreed that he was unstable, perhaps dangerously so. Not a tough call. Only another dangerously unstable person would think otherwise. I should move.

I should move; but I’d blown my wad on moving trucks and gay roommating services and trips back and forth to find a place to begin with and it seemed like every time I peeked through the curtains, another fifty dollars evaporated from my hand and all I had to show for it was a pack of cigarettes, a diet Coke, and some sparklers a guy in a knit cap was selling from a folding table on the street corner. I should move. But I’d only just gotten here yesterday. I’d quit my job and abandoned my boyfriend and moved out of our house after more talks than I could shake my broken heart at.

The last year was one long blur of me in bed watching the Home Shopping Network, at first conning myself that this was all sociological research for the masterpiece I was going to start writing as soon as I started writing again. There had been a time when I had written avidly, with the sort of idealism that didn’t give two fucks about anything but itself. But a few bad breaks and a dash of bad luck, not helped by a lot of fair to poor writing, had cracked the spine of my will in several places, and at this point teams of specialists were working round the clock, wondering if I’d ever write again. That’s really why I’d moved back, hoping that the invisible wires crisscrossing the city and coursing with energy would jump-start my life again, most specifically, my writing life.

I couldn’t go back to the Home Shopping Network, having given up the con that this was any sort of research. No, I’d actually started thinking, “Wow! That is a rock-bottom price for amethyst studs,” and it was a short hop from there to calling friends and asking if I could use their credit cards to buy a four-hundred-dollar doll named Stevie, who was outfitted in genuine green velveteen britches! An Austrian lace collar and matching cuffs! He came with a certificate of authenticity! You could hear the exclamation points in Tina Berry’s voice! My God! Why weren’t the phone lines of the Home Shopping Network jammed? Except that they were, and I was trying to convince my friend Anne to help me jam them up further with all the other Home Shoppers out there, courtesy of Anne’s MasterCard. She refused, she told me I needed help; and as I lay there, unshowered, the ashtrays surrounding me eensy burial mounds of crushed cigarettes, knowing that I’d empty those ashtrays and hop in the shower just minutes before Mark got home so he wouldn’t know, I saw Stevie through her eyes (I’d told her to flip to it so she could see that I wasn’t crazy) and I knew she was right. So I’d vaporized my life, and now I’d started another. Yes, I needed to move; but if it meant moving back to Richmond—and that’s what it did mean—then whatever John was, he was stuck with me.

~

I guess it took me three weeks to find a catering job. In all that time I never saw John, or the alleged Alan, though I occasionally heard the sounds of humans moving furtively in the night. It was not reassuring, though Jo Ann did an admirable job of concocting perfectly ordinary explanations for why two people would all but abandon a two/three bedroom (Alan’s quarters had been blocked out from part of the living room) apartment to me. In the afternoon, anything sounds plausible. The day is still filled with sunlight and possibility. Maybe they were just on vacation. But at 3:00 in the morning, when cabinets were clicking open and clicking shut in utter dark, every explanation ended in a homicide.

I’d worked in restaurants since I was fourteen, starting in the kitchen and finagling my way to the floor, where the real money was. I told my family, my friends from school, I told anyone who smiled down at me from the loft of their paid vacations and their health insurance that I did it so that I would have time to write, back when I did write. A half-truth, maybe more. Because being a waiter did force me to write—if I wasn’t writing, then what the hell was I doing? I was waiting tables, that’s what. I was waiting tables and I was out carousing with all the other misfits who found themselves in the restaurant business: the aspiring this-es, the given-up thats, the just-plain-couldn’t-hack-its-in-the-real­world. But another part of the truth, which you could never admit to an outsider, was that I loved it when the vibe was good, when the owner wasn’t a cokehead or martinet. I loved the speedy nights, the easy money, and the strange hours. I loved the drunks and the crazies and the just-plain-couldn’t-hack-its who staggered into the business; and they all eventually found their way to it, they all did. Prayer is not the last refuge of scoundrels; restaurants are.

And I’d gotten good. When I was twenty-seven, I’d lied my way into a French bistro, thinking I was ready to take the next step and go for the really big bucks. After one lunch, it became apparent to M. Alliman, the owner, that I didn’t know how to serve bread from a basket with two soupspoons—to cite one example—when a crusty French roll rocketed out of the rigor mortis of my grip and past the chignon of a woman who simply continued to sip her vermouth and converse in speed-of-light French with her equally unflappable companion, pausing only to brush the crumbs she knew must be there from the shoulder of her discreet silk blouse. She never even glanced at me. She didn’t need to. M. Alliman could spot a salad fork one millimeter off its mark from ninety paces. I expected to be fired. I wasn’t. It was one of those things that happens in restaurants sometimes. Some hard-ass decides you have balls or promise or just wants to fuck you and suddenly you’re in. M. Alliman did not want to fuck me. He already had a wife in a black leather miniskirt for that. But he was astonished that I would dare weasel my way into his restaurant—him, third-generation restaurateur—with the basest lies. It was beyond belief. Had I no idea who he was? Didn’t I realize that this was a three-star restaurant?

Finally, once it was unequivocally established that he was French and I was the scum his chef skimmed from the fish stock, he allowed as how he sometimes admired a man who would dare such a thing. He ordered us lunch and two glasses of Alsatian wine and began to tell just such a tale about himself. Flourishes of the arms. Head thrown back in Gallic gales of laughter. So French I thought there’d be a Jerry Lewis film festival to follow. At the end of it all he clapped me on the back and said he was going to make me a “soljair in my army,” that “here at La Gauloise, zee food is zee good news, and jou are zee apostle.”

He spent the next year kicking my ass. I usually left my shift with shattered nerves, which I spit-pasted together with martinis until the next round; but by the time M. Alliman was done with me, I could have deboned Dover sole table side, served it to Charles Manson, and still gotten Charlie in a headlock if he got cute with me. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant has a story like that. It’s called “How I Got My Chops.”

All I’m really saying here is that I knew what I was doing. There was no reason why I couldn’t waltz into Lutece or Chanterelle or Boulez, and then waltz out with Saturday nights in my back pocket. Actually, I knew better than that; and I was prepared to do my time in trenches of low-paying lunches and sanity-shredding brunches. If worse came to worse, I could get on with a caterer somewhere. Right? Wrong. To get on at a New York T.G.I. Friday’s you had to have a doctorate in buffet tables, curly fries, and frozen-drink machines. I dutifully breaststroked my way through the swamps of August heat. I dutifully put together outfits that I hoped were two cups of professionalism and a soupçon of hip. I dutifully sat at the ends of bars filling out applications with my own pen, which I was always careful to bring. I went through the Yellow Pages calling caterers. When they didn’t outright snort at me, they asked for a resume, letters of recommendation, a passport, head shots, a Polaroid of me in my tuxedo, a DNA sample. The only one I’m kidding about is the DNA sample. Besides, even if I did have all that, they weren’t hiring now anyway, though they might be in the fall, and what’s more, no one ever left there, and even when they did, you had to call, like, that day, because when there was even a sniff of a job with them, the lines started forming in triplicate up and down Fifth Avenue, so I should really just keep calling back until something actually opened up, though they really didn’t appreciate it when people bugged them like that, so I could call if I wanted to, but hey. Had I considered atom smashing or code breaking? They’d heard there was stuff open in that.

So I called everyone I knew and everyone they knew and I asked them if there wasn’t someone I could bribe or blow into giving me a fucking waiting job. No, they didn’t. They were sorry, but they hadn’t done that sort of thing in years, having achieved their goal of being bloated with cash and self-satisfaction. A rich lady photographer I’d met at an artists’ colony a few years back informed me that people were constantly calling her and asking her things like that, and she really resented it. In other words, though she refused to speak those exact words, she was tired of being hounded just because she was rich. Poor dear. I knew just how she felt. People were always hounding me too, and just because I was poor. Money, money, money was all those people ever thought about. They wanted it for food. They wanted it for lodging. They wanted the shirt off my back to pay for the shirt off my back. I didn’t tell the rich lady photographer that she was the last person who I thought might know about a good catering gig, since her family name could be routinely found on endowed buildings scattered throughout the city, but that I had hoped she might bully one of the caterers she regularly employed into hiring me. But I’m always so stunned by the arrogance of the heedless rich toward the plight of the grasping poor—of which I was a card carrier—that I think I actually may have muttered that I was sorry. That’s power.

Finally, some guy—God bless him—who was the fuck buddy of the cousin of a woman I met at the video store, something like that, thought he had, hold on, the card of a guy he used to cater for back when he was pathetic. Yeah, here it was. Dan. He lived in Brooklyn. After I called Dan two or three times a day for a week, he finally agreed to let me send him the usual portfolio. So I fabricated a resume with tons of New York experience, forged letters of recommendation, borrowed more money from Jo Ann for the head shots, scrounged around for the passport, hair follicles for the DNA. FedExed it. Sucker. He called the next morning wondering why I wasn’t captain of the White House dining room. He had a job that very night. I was learning.

Dan turned out to be the kind of needlessly enthusiastic person who always seems on the verge of bursting into the school song. His lieutenants were only fractionally less ecstatic about pushing hors d’oeuvres. People designed to exhaust you. At least he didn’t seem like a prick, though you never knew with these rah-rah types. Sometimes their pom­poms concealed switchblades. But despite the fact that he did things with his hands too much—clapping, rubbing them excitedly—he did have a big smile, and it was hard not to smile back. We scurried about, setting out dyed carnations, lighting candles under the steam trays, snapping open chairs. I went into my legendary impersonation of a person who liked nothing better than to make cloth napkins into interesting shapes, zipping around with the best of them, a smile chiseled over my lips. Not chiseled, exactly. I was, if not happy, then at least relieved to be making money; and that relief, after the last month, was a cozy sort of comfort.

They gave us half an hour to eat before the shift started: glops of pasta, drenched wads of salad, chicken that had been inadvertently baked into jerky, all of it slopped out by barely paid Hispanic cooks who spoke no English and actually seemed to know only three words in their native tongue—“hot,” “whore,” and “faggot.” We devoured the food; it was free. One young woman fought her way back to the buffet pan to swipe up the last few smears of pasta sauce. She burned her finger, and even though she had to swish it in her glass of Sprite until the wedding guests began to trickle in, she seemed to think it was worth it.

It’s hard when you’re the new kid. Caterers, even nice caterers like Dan, expect you to whirl through the party, arms loaded with either bus pans or canapés at all times. They expect you to know where the paper doilies are stored and who Svetlana is. They expect you to know how to flambé when some wise guy yells, “Green card!” and the kitchen vamooses. They do not expect to have to tell you any of these things. They’re too busy torpedoing past you braying orders and having nervous breakdowns because the bride wants to cut the cake and they can’t find the sterling-silver cake knife—handed down through three generations of Weinbergs—that the mother of the bride entrusted them with a scant three hours ago, and have you seen it?

Oh, sure, before the lunatics are loosed on the asylum, they’ll swing an arm around your shoulder and tell you that if you don’t know where something is, just ask. If you don’t know how it’s done, no problem, it’s your first night. Anything at all, don’t hesitate. Filthy lies. Lie low, look busy, learn later: the beginner’s motto. I knew that, but I also knew that I had been doing this, on and off, for the past twenty-two years. I could see that all the other waiters were about twelve, and I had listened to their eager-beaver talk over so-called dinner about auditions, about the studios they were sharing to make their art, about the classes with Merce, about how Grace Paley had said in their last workshop that they were a genius and how “Grae” was going to pass their collection, when it was done, on to her editor. I loved Grace Paley.

True, there was one poor dear who looked like she’d been summoned from the Cater Waiter’s Crypt; and another fellow whose ruffles were stained, whose cheeks were neon from alcoholism, and whose mouth was set in a scowl lodged somewhere between rage and resignation. And, oh yes, one of the lieutenants was graying at the temples, but she smiled the secret smile of someone who’d never expected that much and had gotten it. I wasn’t the only one, but I felt like the only one. At least the drunk seemed involved in the drama of destroying his life, and the Crypt keeper had a relationship with the Pall Mall Gold 100s she chain-huffed that looked stronger than most marriages. The lieutenant looked like she could have been a prison guard or the queen of Denmark and it wouldn’t have mattered either way. I wanted to be her. If it didn’t matter either way then I could have stayed in Richmond, working a couple nights a week in the restaurant, teaching the occasional class at the local university when the homophobes had run out of buddies to hire, not even trying to write anymore, just going shopping and eating toast until one day I died.

I was thirty-six. In less than four years I’d be forty. “Control Tower,” a disco line dance, was playing over the loudspeakers. I was offering caviar on cream cheese in puff pastry from a silver doilied tray to babbling clots of strangers in clothes that cost more than I’d ever made my whole life. Dan was racing around on the diesel of an enthusiasm I didn’t even have the fumes of, and quite suddenly, the guillotine of I-don’t-think-I-can-bear­this-anymore chopped my head off.

Later, as we dragged ninety-pound marble cocktail tables up three flights of stairs, the twelve-year-olds leaping past me like fawns, I was almost certain I couldn’t bear it anymore. And even later, as I leaned against a pillar in the subway station, the heat like glue, the noose of my loosened bow tie slung around my neck, as all the late-night hustlers and the other dubious characters eyed the damp cowl of my tuxedo, as the train thundered up and I swayed into it, I knew I couldn’t take it anymore. I got back to the usual creepy quiet of John’s and took the vodka bottle to bed. I sniffled to Jo Ann that I had to find another way to live. She must have said, “I know,” about forty times. I said I was even willing to be the lady who handed out hot towels and spritzes of perfume in the bathroom at Macy’s. Did she think they had that job anymore?

I finally drizzled off to sleep; but at some point I bolted awake into the cave of the middle of the night. Something calamitous was happening next door in John’s room. He was coughing. But his coughing, compared to regular coughing, was the difference between a mosquito buzzing somewhere in the room to a 747 breaking the sound barrier right outside your window. It was epic coughing. It sounded like he was being clawed to death from the inside out. It did not sound survivable.

I sat up, my covers clutched in my hands, as if that could protect me. In the darkness, the shapes of my few things were beginning to assert themselves. Whatever drunk I’d tied on had completely unraveled. I was six-cups­of-coffee awake. My heart hummingbirded in my chest. It sounded like he was coughing up whole stretches of road and mountain ranges and dictatorships. Hot little tears began to bead in my eyes. It sounded like he was throwing up all the sorrows of the world. I rocked back and forth, hugging a pillow. My flimsy bookcases, my ancient computer on my desk, the tiny, tiny table piled high with stuff: in the dark it all looked like primitive groupings I’d pushed together that had failed to ward off evil. The end of the world was still at gale force next door. The paralysis bled from my brain. I had to help him. Of course. What the fuck was wrong with me? I got up, footed around for my underwear. Turning on the light seemed too gruesome. Whenever horrible things have happened near me, it’s always the ordinariness going on and on and on around it that has killed me. Like my books just sitting there worthlessly on the shelf.

John had his own bathroom off his own bedroom, and he seemed to have made it there. His agony now had a tiled echo to it. I squeaked open my door, walked in that funny way that made me invisible, and stood outside his room, my hand poised and ready to knock. He seemed to be subsiding, little waves of whatever it was lapping through him. I decided to wait until he could hear me. It felt like one of the only times in my life when I was absolutely filled with what I was doing: waiting. My mind didn’t wander. Nothing itched. I had achieved the kind of perfect attentiveness I’d heard my Buddhist friends go on about. As far as I was concerned, they could have it.

It seemed to be over, the Olympian event of his body. I tapped, lightly. I felt embarrassed to have overheard something so intimate and obscene. It seemed imperative, and also insane, to be polite. “John?” I tried.

Nothing except the trap of the apartment’s silence, the grave of its dark. I tapped again, a little louder. “John?” A little more forcefully.

I waited again, but this time there was nothing perfect about it. My head was cyclonic with what I should do. Given my imagination, I was hurled from the cyclone to the conclusion that he was dead. It only took about three seconds, but in three seconds I had considered several thousand courses of action, including suicide, because the world was just too awful to live in. I officially knocked. “John.” Urgent.

Again, nothing; and just as suddenly I was convinced that he was waiting too. I could feel it like a rope tied to both our waists, him there, exhausted in the dark, hugging the bowl, embarrassed too, maybe, not knowing me well enough to want to share whatever was happening to him, not knowing me at all, in fact, hoping, praying—I could almost hear the “Please, Gods” rowing around his head—that I would just go the fuck away so he could rest his cheek there against the cool porcelain, just that, that’s all he wanted, if he could only have that then everything would be fine. I stood for one or two more eternal minutes, then drifted back to bed, too drained to even bother hunting down a Valium. An utterly dreamless sleep fell on me like a house.

~

I woke up at about 11:00 the next morning. TV burbled from the living room, the first normal sound I’d heard since I’d moved in. I pulled on a T-shirt and went to make coffee.

There sat John on one end of the couch, gaunt and white, with charcoal marks burned under his eyes. He looked like a gargoyle, posed with the remote in his hand, his long arms wrapped around his knees. A gargoyle in a Yankees baseball cap and a SYSCO T-shirt tented around him. On the other hand, he didn’t look that different from most of the New Yorkers I knew. He turned, tilted his head, and high beamed a smile at me that was almost garishly big for how thin he was. That’s when I knew he was sick, when his smile was too big for his face; and I assumed it was AIDS, even though he had offhandedly remarked during my interview that he was negative. Still, gay man, New York, early forties, looking not good. I knew the drill.

Really, I’d been remarkably lucky. I was negative. By some miracle, everyone I knew was negative. A barely functioning sex life, deformed or nonexistent social skills, simple timidity: something had saved us. By “lucky” I mean that I had only lost three close friends. By “lucky” I mean that I hadn’t crossed out an entire address book. I knew people, and I’d heard of plenty more, who had.

“Hi,” John said, too bright, more high beams.

“Hi,” I said, a little more tentatively than I would have liked. “How are you?” From my tone, which I could not seem to get a grip on, I felt like I may as well have been asking if he was dying.

“Great.” Chipper, somebody breezing by you at the office. “I love Bob Barker.” He turned back to the hysteria of The Price Is Right and concentrated like it was the bar exam. The performance was over; it was all he could muster. I made coffee and padded back to my room. I’ve never been so studiously ignored. Five minutes later the no-longer­comforting sounds of the TV disappeared like they’d been karate chopped in the throat. John’s door clicked open, clicked shut. Quiet reflooded the apartment.

~

That afternoon I found myself sitting in an office in Soho next to a woman named Tabitha who dressed like an ice­skater: metallic-looking leotard, dyed blond hair pulled back so tightly I thought her eyebrows would pop off, stage makeup. She was an aspiring actress, about twenty (though she was agelessly hard-bitten), and I had the feeling she’d be aspiring for some time to come.

There were other people sitting around waiting too, and there was a barbed-wire feeling of teeth-gritting determination in the air. We all felt that we had to have this job or die. Tabitha had said as much. Their outfits, mine included, looked mainly befuddled, like we’d all been dressed by children. It had been hard to guess what to wear. The ad had been one of those generalized ones that promised unheard-of wages for virtually no work. There had been talk of flexible hours, vague intimations of unspeakable glamour. It seemed to imply that the right person, a self-starter, a people person, could float to some unnameable top on mighty, mighty clouds of cash.

Anyone who knew me, starting with my mother, could have told you that I was not a self-starter or a people person. I usually couldn’t find the ignition. Other people struck me as either terrifying or tragic. But since I couldn’t program computers or design interiors or direct accounts, since I was not a laboratory histotechnologist, to name only one of the many things the New York Times Help Wanteds reminded me I was not, since I, more than anything, wanted out of the restaurant business, I was here. What I was was desperate and, in general, a good to excellent liar; but looking around me, I could tell that I had competition on both scores.

The office was militantly spare: plastic chairs for us to sit on, a girl at a desk paging through Allure. Everything was gray. The only signs of personality were the girl’s Garfield coffee cup and the gigantic, luridly colored photograph thumbtacked to the wall, not of Garfield but of another kitty-cat in a ribbon with its head thrown back and a come-hither stare, a JonBenet of a kitty, kitty porn. It made me so nervous I could not look at it, even out of the comer of my eye. It seemed like more than a weird photograph. It seemed like the end of civilization. I talked nonstop to Tabitha so I wouldn’t think about it. She confided to me that people had told her she looked like Princess Di. Then she made me run lines with her for an audition she had right after this. I played a psychiatrist. She played a woman who was going to a psychiatrist. I developed an accent and my own motivation for the scene. Tabitha, who wasn’t easily impressed, was, and suggested that I take classes with her at HB Studios. In the middle of my acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, which seemed realistic given that I was probably more of a character actor, a man erupted from the door behind the desk. He was good-looking, with brambly, black hair, and his confidence whacked you from thirty paces. He scanned the dozen or so applications on the desk, frisbeeing most of them to the floor. Then he barked out four names: mine, Tabitha’s, two other gaping people.

We stood up and walked, hypnotized, toward the open door, behind which Barry—that turned out to be his name—had already disappeared. The other contestants were gathering up their backpacks and grumbling. The girl behind the desk continued to gaze vacantly at models whose lips looked fatter than their thighs. In a way, they reminded me of John.

We, the elect, sat down in four more plastic chairs. Barry’s office was as barren as the rest of the place, except for one extravaganza of a mahogany desk importantly messy with papers. He leaned back in his chair, his fingers templed under his nose, studying us like bugs that had inconveniently smacked against his windshield, a movie pose, really, a pose Dale Carnegie’s evil twin would have taught to up-and-coming corporate raiders. I relaxed. Even if he was serious, he had to be kidding.

Barry suddenly pushed back his wheeled throne and jumped onto the desk. The importantly messy papers scattered like storks sensing an alligator on the Discovery Channel. He made jazz hands and said, “Are you prepared to do this? If this is what it takes?”

Well, it was startling. The other two were saucer-eyed. I could feel that my own eyebrows had met with my forehead. Only Tabitha was unimpressed. She sat there, leg crossed over metal-looking leg, like pylons. Defiant chin in bored palm. “Yeah,” she said. “What for?”

He lowered himself into a sitting position on the edge of the desk, jeaned ankles crossed and swinging, your basic kid on bridge with fishing pole. “Aaaahhh, but that wouldn’t be any fun if I told you, would it?”

“Whatever,” Tabitha said.

“This is the kind of job where you’ve got to be prepared to do anything to get, and to keep, people’s interest.”

“I’m an actress,” Tabitha said flatly.

“It’s not glamorous. But it is an opportunity. A potential fucking gold mine. And you guys would be getting in on the ground floor.”

Beside me, I thought I could feel Tabitha rolling her eyes, but she said, “Sounds interesting,” and it sounded like she meant it. She was either a lot more gullible than I’d given her credit for, or a lot more talented.

“What about you two?” he commanded, pointing with his whole arm at them. They clutched the sides of their plastic chairs and nodded sures, yeahs, uh-huhs, and one absolutely.

“And you?” He cocked a finger at me.

“Sure. Why not?” I’d calmed back down. Unless the moon was dyed the red of blood and the sun now set in the east, there was no way that my nervous system would allow me to even consider a job like this, whatever it was. I was not the type to jump on desks. I was more the type to hide under them.

“You don’t sound very sure there, uh, what’s your name again?”

“Wesley.”

“Right. Gibson. You don’t sound so sure there to me, Gibson.”

Oh, so he was one of those drill sergeants who called you by your surname. Got it. “Look,” I said, rotten with confidence now that I knew this job and I were star-crossed. “I had to hold the attention of a bunch of bored twenty­year-olds when I taught college. I guess I can do this.”

“You taught college, huh?” he said, pouting out his lower lip and nodding his head like, hey, pretty impressive.

I was suddenly embarrassed. “It wasn’t . . . all that,” I said, wondering when I’d started talking like a Ricki Lake audience.

“OK,” he said, giving us a final once-over, “you guys seem OK to me, even you, Professor.”

Professor. What a fraud. I’d taught adjunct creative writing in a third-rate English department. I winced and turned it into a tight, little smile. “So,” I had to know, particularly since I’d never be back, “what are we being hired to do again?”

“Two words. Comedy clubs. And that’s all I’m going to tell you. Everybody be back here at eight-thirty sharp. If you’re one second late, don’t bother.”

He hopped off the edge of the desk and up-upped with his hands. Now we slung on our own backpacks, not really looking at one another as we did, like we’d all been a part of something shameful, a circle jerk, an Avon party. Once again I was projecting, at least as far as Tabitha was concerned. She stuck out her hand and he shook it. “I like you,” she said.

I continued to struggle with my backpack, which had turned into a cat’s cradle. The other two slinked out. Tabitha strode. “Hey, Professor,” Barry said, putting his cute hand on my unemployed shoulder, then latching on to me with his even cuter brown eyes. Serious gaze à la camp counselor in a Lifetime Original Movie. “What are you doing here, man?”

“I need a job.”

“This is not for you.”

“I need a job.” All my bravado about not being able to jump on desks steamed away. Even if I couldn’t do a job in which I had to possibly make jazz hands, it suddenly seemed vital that he at least think I could. If I could trick him into seeing me as a people person, a person with spunk and initiative, real drive, then maybe I could fool others too. If not, if I couldn’t pull off this one minor deception, then I was headed down the chute that led to the bottle-strewn gutter. So I stared back, equally serious, the kid at the camp who had heard him, man, and was now showing his cards too, all of them, faceup, no more bullshit. “I want this job.”

Another shoulder pat. Tentative smile. “OK, man,” he said. “OK. I’m going to give you a shot.”

“You won’t regret it,” I bald-faced lied, breaking into a Super Bowl of a smile.

“Get out of here,” he said, giving me an affectionate shove toward the door.

Yes, it was true, we’d bonded as superior beings, me with all my book learning, him with his street smarts. What a team we’d make, me his second-in-command, as we moved the offices into increasingly impressive digs and I convinced him to get rid of that kitty photograph. Eventually, of course, he’d realize that he loved me, and he’d understand when, increasingly, I’d have to spend time at our place upstate on the Hudson to pursue my artistic passions, until one day he died. Sure, I’d go on, I might even be seen out in the company of desirable young men, but I’d never really love again.  


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