Authors: Hilton Als
Tags: #Literary Collections, #Essays
ALSO BY THIS AUTHOR:
Copyright © 2013 Hilton Als
Some of this work appeared in different form in the
New York Review of Books, Artforum, Studio Magazine, Grand Street
Believer, McSweeney’s Quarterly
, and the collection
In Our Own Image
All rights reserved, including right of reproduction in whole or in part, in any form.
McSweeney’s and colophon are registered trademarks of McSweeney’s, a privately held company with wildly fluctuating resources.
I Am the Happiness of This World
One evening an actor asked me to write
a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly
is a black? First of all, what’s his color?
I know these girls they don’t like me
But I am just like them
—The Roches, “The Married Men”
SIR OR LADY
(as I shall call him) sits on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love. He’s running the same old flick in his head again. In it, the stars kiss breathlessly, in true love. This is the kind of movie he enjoys: the movie guy kisses the movie girl and they are one. I listen to Sir or Lady detailing this or that movie scenario and look for myself in every word of it. I don’t want to exist much outside his thinking and regard. I’m convinced Sir or Lady’s movie tales are his way of telling me he and I are one; he’s a romantic, but a silent one. He says: The movie girl overcomes her resistance to the movie guy and then we know they are in love forever. (He’s never told me this part of the story before. He’s never used that exact sequence of words before.) Who is the “we” Sir or Lady is referring to? And what do they “know”? I’m off his screen, apparently. When I can’t find myself in what Sir or Lady says, the world as I know it is nearly washed away by wave after wave of ocean-gray fear: how can he have a thought, a feeling, without me? How can I be a we without him?
The truth is, I have not been myself lately, and for a long time. In the three decades or more since Sir or Lady—or SL—and I have been friends, I have felt myself becoming him, to a certain extent. I’ve adopted his vocal intonations, his vegetarianism, and his candor. He is my second but longer-running we. This did not come about without its share of relationship noise. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to apprehend—in the blind, awkward, and ultimately solipsistic way many of us strive to articulate why the beloved has become just that—how SL came to fill my mind like no one else on earth.
Metaphors sustain us. For some time before we were known as an “Oh, you two!” I felt SL was my corny and ancient “other half.” Nearly from the first I wanted to “grow into one” with him, as Aristophanes sort of has it in Plato’s
. We are not lovers. It’s almost as if I dreamed him—my lovely twin, the same as me, only different. I cling to that story in
, of the two halves coming together in “an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight,” because that’s all I want to know. Like most people, I respond to stories that tell me something about who I am or wish to be, but as reflected in another character’s eyes. With it all, though, I know I will lose sight of SL eventually. I have before. To the movies and movie kissing. To his love of women. To his interest—unlike me—in the plural aspects and manifestations of the world, from its vastness to its multitude of worms. To his politics. To his various subjects (he is a photographer and a filmmaker). To his migraines. To his social drinking. To his lack of interest—unlike me—in delineating who we are. To his lack of interest in speaking of our friendship—our twinship—to anyone at all. To his lack of interest—unlike me—in
seeking anyone’s validation for what he thinks or feels.
Nothing accounts for me and SL getting together, and everything does. Our respective biographies and hence personalities don’t add up to us being a we. We were raised in different parts of the world, in different kinds of families. But we shared this: we each had a daddy, and that can send you packing, even from yourself. Still, SL and I met at a moment when we’d relaxed into that particular conundrum; it was just part of who we were. By the time we met we were anxious to share our black American maleness with another person who knew how flat and not descriptive those words were since they did not include how it had more than its share of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker in it, women who passed their “white girlhood” together. We were also the first line of Joni Mitchell’s autobiography: “I was the only black man in the room.” We were also the the gorgeously corny complications one finds in Joni’s 1976 song, “Black Crow”: “There’s a crow flying / black and ragged / tree to tree. / He’s as black as the highway that’s leading me. / Now he’s diving down / to pick up on something shiny. / I feel like that black crow / flying / in a blue sky.” We were Barbara Smith and her twin sister, Beverly, and their feminism and socialism, and we understood every word of what Barbara meant when she and her co-editors titled their 1982 anthology
All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies
. We were the amused “sickness,” that Eldridge Cleaver felt existed between white women and black men and he said so in his 1968 memoir,
Soul on Ice
. Our bodies could never forget how Louis Gossett’s character goes mad in the 1970 film
upon discovering that his wife has taken the white title character as a lover: “Christ has never known the horror of nappy
hair in America.” In our lives we had been, variously, the landlord, Louis Gossett, and his wife. We were equal parts “butch realness” and “femme realness,” as delineated in Jennie Livingston’s essential 1990 film
Paris Is Burning
. We were every word of “Racism: The Sexism of the Family of Man” in Shulamith Firestone’s seminal 1970 book,
The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution
, except when she said: “Just as the child begins with a bond of sympathy with the mother, and is soon required to transfer his identification from the mother to the father, thus to eradicate the female in himself, so too the black male, in order to ‘be a man,’ must untie himself from his bond with the white female, relating to her if at all in a degrading way.” Part of our shared tragedy—we recognized it at once—was that we never separated from our mothers, which meant we liked girls more than the world liked them, which is to say more than they liked each other, let alone themselves. We were the twin boys—one dead, one not dead—in Thomas Tryon’s fantastic 1971 novel
. We were, in short, colored male Americans, a not easily categorizable quantity that annoyed most of our countrymen, black and white, male and female alike, since America is nothing if not about categories. But despite the perplexity of the outside world we could not give the other up. Having finally found someone who spoke the other’s language, we could name who we were, which was rare enough indeed, given the history others like us—fellow spectator bait—had with being named incorrectly, or not at all. But what galled our audience, really, is the fact that our friendship grew out of wanting to interest each other. We wanted the world to have no part in it.
SL had been a we before he met me. He says: What else is there but other people? He’s taken his share of his previous other halves to
the movies. There’s hope at the movies. (As an army brat and an only child, SL moved with his parents a lot; movie palaces were the only homes he recognized as such.) While sitting in a movie theater on one of our first dates, I stole glimpses of SL in the dark. He’s a lovely shade of brown. The silvery movie light and dark made him look more colored. I loved his profile, his long strong neck and perfect posture. He looked as authoritative as someone you might call Sir, and as beautiful and poised as someone you might call Lady. Watching him watch a movie, I noticed how his eyes would open and close slowly, like the folds in an accordion. The movies filled his eyes up.
Some movies and stars and scenes in movies we saw and loved on our first nights out together: the two actresses who look alike in the opening sequence of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film,
. David Bowie and Candy Clark drawing our attention to how much they resemble one another in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976
The Man Who Fell to Earth
. Sissy Spacek as Pinky Rose and Shelley Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux in Robert Altman’s brilliant 1977 movie,
. In it, the two stars work as physical therapists, along with a set of blond twins. Driving in a car one dusty afternoon, Pinky asks: “I wonder what it’s like to be twins?” Then, continuing: “Bet it’d be weird. You think they know which one they are?”
Millie: Sure they do. They’d have to, wouldn’t they?
Pinky: I don’t know. Maybe they’d switch back and forth. You know, one day, Peggy’s Polly, the other day Polly’s Peggy.
Pinky pauses. She smiles a small mysterious smile before saying:
Pinky: Who knows? Maybe they’re the same all the time.
To SL, I was always Pinky. I don’t know, I’ve never asked him, but maybe he knew that, like Pinky, I longed to be his other half long before I found him.
We met in 1982—I was twenty-two, he’s seven years older—and the only time I effectively left our twinship for a time was in 1992. That year my beloved K died from AIDS. He was diagnosed in 1990, and I spent 1990, 1991, and 1992 in a kind of couple daze. I’d look on as old men walked down city streets arm in arm with their wives. I would watch babies resting on their mothers’ bellies in patches of grass and sunlight in Central Park. I would watch cigarette-smoking teenagers glittering with meanness and youth, whispering and laughing as they shopped on lower Broadway. These exchanges of intimacy were all the same to me because they excluded me, that twin who somehow lost his better half. I was an I, an opera of feeling with a very small audience, a writer of articles about culture but with no real voice, living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a dream of love growing ever more expansive because it was impossible, especially in the gay bars I sometimes frequented in Manhattan, where AIDS loved everyone up the wrong way, or in a way some people weren’t surprised by, particularly those gay men who were too indifferent to be sad—in any case night sweats were a part
of the conversation people weren’t having in those bars, in any case, taking your closest friend in because he was shunned by his family was part of the conversation people weren’t having, still, there was this to contend with: that friend’s shirt collars getting bigger; still, there was this to contend with: his coughing and wheezing in the little room off your bedroom in Brooklyn because TB was catching, your friends didn’t want you to catch it, loving a man was catching, your friends didn’t want you to get it; his skin was thin as onionskin, there was a lesion, he couldn’t control his shit, not to mention the grief in his eyes, you didn’t want to catch that; those blue eyes filled with why? Causing one’s sphincter to contract, your heart to look away, a child’s question you couldn’t answer, what happened to our plans, why was the future happening so fast? You didn’t want to catch that, nor the bitterness of the sufferer’s family after the death, nor the friends competing for a bigger slice of the death pie after the sufferer’s death, you certainly didn’t want to catch what it left: night sweats, but in your head, and all day, the running to a pay phone to share a joke, but that number’s disconnected, your body forgets, or rushes toward the love you remember, but it’s too late, he’s closer to the earth now than you are, and you certainly don’t want to catch any of that. So. You search, like some latter-day Frankie Addams in Carson McCullers’s
The Member of the Wedding
, for your “we of me,” but at a distance. Your we could be dying, but so filled with love, all those couples in the park, dancers in the street, unlike you, so resentful of the romantic strain love engenders, the pulverizingly tedious self-absorption loss wraps you in:
I was subjected to that. This is what it meant to me
. The ego—what a racket. And what of the person who actually disintegrated, and
the imprint of his sad eyes and rotten luck in your living atmosphere of air and buildings? He has only you to go by now. To stay awake to the memory of his toes, and small buttocks in those jeans, the sound of his heels on the floor, and what it sounded like when he said “we,” as you lay in bed holding his dying in your now relatively well-ordered world of health and well-being.