Though I’ve only been here seven weeks I did something last week that cemented my New York residency. I helped my friend Norman move. Say what you will, and undoubtedly some pushy New Yorker will write and tell me that “you’re not a true New Yorker till you…” because that’s how New Yorkers are. In fact I may not become a true New Yorker till I become just as pushy and obnoxious as everyone else here, God love them.
Norman moved from a dingy third-floor walk-up in the East Village that he shared with two roommates, to a beautiful bachelor-pad studio in Chelsea. Once again I didn’t leave myself enough time to eat first. So on my twentieth trip down the steps of the building on Second Avenue with a box full of vinyl, my legs began to shake and tremble and I had visions of pitching head-first down the steps to the grimy tile-floored lobby, where I’d be trampled by the three other parties moving out of the building at the same time. I envied Marcel, who had the classic New York moving job of Waiting-on-the-Sidewalk-and-Watching-the-Truck. She perched on Norman’s amp and scribbled in her notebook.
Luckily we stopped en route to the new apartment at Bagels on the Square, where I devoured the most amazing salt bagel with herb cream cheese ever, sitting with Norman and the others on a park bench in the sun, the U-Haul van parked illegally on the street behind us. It was a lovely moment, one of the best I’ve had since my move, once my blood sugar level equalized.
It was a good antidote to the previous week, especially the moment on Monday afternoon when I was sitting on the steps of Low Library under the heavy gray sky, re-reading the notes I had scrawled in the margins of Gogol’s “Taras Bulba”, glancing up glumly at the hordes of students streaming over the quad just long enough to think, “I hate it here.”
In some ways it was a relief to finally admit this to myself, to stop pretending that my “new life” was one exciting thing after another, rather than admitting the truth; that my new life was an exhausting, overwhelming, homesick-inducing series of days and that, for as seldom as I left campus, I might as well be in Houston.
It was frightening to wonder if I had made a mistake; if indeed I wasn’t cut out for the life I thought I wanted. Maybe I should have just stayed home and set my sights lower on the horizon.
I thought back to the weekend of my stepsister’s wedding, when a friend of hers, a woman who had been through a graduate program at Harvard, told me that for the first three months she and a fellow student used to walk home everyday together, crying and wondering the same things. I tried to take solace from her words, knowing that if nothing else I could certainly endure three months if better days were on their way. Watching the thousands of students pass me on the steps, my heart detached from the rest of me, I tried not to dwell on the fact that my first submission would be critiqued in Tuesday’s workshop; the moment that I had been anticipating and dreading ever since Columbia called me back in March.
Added to my usual (and by now boring) insecurities about the quality of my intelligence and my writing was the strange altercation that took place last week between me and a woman in my workshop.
That particular day I had arrived to class with ten copies of my 18-page manuscript in hand, nervous and exhausted from having stayed up all week making major revisions to the piece, one of the essays that I had originally submitted as part of my grad school applications. Each week three students would hand in manuscripts; we’d take them home and read them, making notes and a written summary of our opinions, so that the pieces could be discussed in the next class.
For the sake of clarity and anonymity let’s call this young woman Maria. That day her work was up for discussion. She had turned in an introduction to an anthology she had edited, a collection of short stories and essays by men writing about failed relationships. Apparently she had previously edited a similar book from the woman’s perspective, and it had done well enough that the publisher had suggested the second anthology. The introduction she had written was, in my opinion, pretty disjointed and long-winded, containing a section where she quoted her fiancé, a “jazz scholar”, talking for paragraphs about Muddy Waters. I believe the section was used as an attempt to connect jazz and contemporary literature about heartbreak, but I wasn’t able to follow the argument. The professor pointed out that, by and large, people don’t talk in paragraphs.
As the class discussed the piece, Maria’s true feelings about the anthology became clear. She wasn’t enthusiastic about it. In fact she made a point of saying that the whole experience was creepy because, in contrast to the woman’s anthology, the men had all written about sex, often “pornographically”. She told us that she had done a heavy amount of editing for this reason, and that there was one particular word that absolutely, positively was not to be allowed, for any reason, in the anthology. That word was “cum”. She launched into a diatribe against “cum”, accusing it of vulgarity and arguing that people only spelled it that way because they read too much pornography. Maria said the proper, literary spelling was “come”. She was passionate about this perceived misspelling and as she continued her argument I shrunk lower and lower in my chair.
In the first paragraph of my manuscript, the one sitting in a pile waiting for everyone to take a copy, was the word “cum”. I was already self-conscious about both the content and the quality of my manuscript, having taken a few risks submitting a piece about sex and longing. I thought it might be a good idea to admit this up front, in class, with a bit of humor, since everyone was going to be seeing that word in my piece. Maybe if I joked about it everyone would be able to get past the word with less drama and concentrate on the rest of the piece. But it didn’t seem the right time to draw attention to myself. The discussion continued.
After class ended someone suggested that we all go out for a drink together; sort of a bonding ritual since the workshop, unlike a seminar or lecture, is where you truly get to know your fellow students, especially through their writing. We wandered down to the Heights, an upstairs bar with big windows that opened out over Broadway. It was happy hour, and though a pint of dark beer sounded heavenly after the past week, I ordered a pineapple juice instead. Maria joined us late, having stayed behind to talk to the professor. Naturally the only open seat at the table was across from me, which meant she and I had to make conversation. I got the sense she’d rather have different company. We chatted a bit about our lives before grad school, and the fact that she commuted by train from Boston twice a week for classes. She revealed to us, shyly, that she and her fiancé had gotten married just the previous night, as if on a whim. The table toasted her and everyone seemed to be in a pretty good mood, and so I chose that moment to half-jokingly warn her that my piece contained the one word that she…
She exploded. “Dude! You cannot spell it that way! It’s wrong! It’s not spelled that way! You only think it’s spelled that way because you read too much pornography!” She thundered on, turning to another woman at the table who interrupted her with a question and saying, heatedly, that “everyone who spells it that way is ignorant and needs a copyeditor and is lazy with the English language.” She went on and on; I remember hearing the word “ignorant” three or four times.
I fumed. My face flushed red and I fought the urge to leave the table and head outside for fresh air since the bill was on its way. I was upset and embarrassed and pissed. Unfortunately I shut down when someone yells at me, and so all of the emotions boiled away beneath my skin, intensified by my exhaustion. I turned away from her and stared bitterly out the window. Everyone at the table was quiet, except for Maria. Eventually she climbed down from her soapbox, and saw that I was upset. “You hate me now, don’t you?” she said.
I tried to answer, to say something articulate, to explain, as if I needed to, why the word “cum” was appropriate in the context of my piece. But I stuttered, my words came out twisted and without sense. She tried to make some kind of conciliatory gesture but I was beyond reason. I may be many things, but I am neither ignorant, nor lazy with the English language. You do not get into Columbia by being lazy with the English language. Though of course I could not say, or even think, any of this at the time. Instead I busied myself with collecting everyone’s money for the bill. I had to re-count the cash four or five times, and then we left.
The evening ended with no peaceful accord. I left without speaking or even looking at Maria, and walked back to my apartment. I was upset beyond reason, and I hated that everyone had seen me that way. That I had let her get to me. I knew that this had nothing really to do with me. I knew that this was “her crap”. And yet I was shaken for the rest of the night.
As the days passed my rage subsided, but did not disappear. I talked about it with friends till they were most likely sick of hearing about it. And I dreaded, even more, the upcoming workshop, and the discussion of my piece.
It did not go particularly well. It did not go badly, either, but at such times I can only hear the criticisms, and the praise fades to background noise. I had done what I had feared; I had bitten off more than I could chew with the piece, and it had failed. It was a “gutsy” and “courageous” failure, but still a failure. Too many themes squeezed into too small a space. Too many details left out; not enough background information. I had forgotten that, unlike readers of this website, neither the students nor the professor knew anything about me, and they could not clearly see the narrator. Instead of letting the issues rise up out of the life itself, I had tried to compress life into the issues of introversion and sex and loss. I had done remarkably well, unsurprisingly, at revealing my weaknesses, but what about my strengths? Obviously someone like me, a man who grew up with two gay parents, whose mother was an alcoholic, who later lost her to ALS, someone who became an addict himself and then got sober, someone who tested HIV positive, obviously someone like that was strong enough to get through. So where were the narrator’s strengths?
It was good feedback, straight and on point. But I was discouraged that the piece hadn’t done more, hadn’t been a little more successful. I sat and nodded as each person spoke, writing down their comments dutifully, keeping my face expressionless so that they could tell me the truth. The conversation was winding down, the moments of silence between each comment growing longer, when Maria spoke up.
“Can we discuss the rape metaphor on page 17?”
Everyone flipped to the page. This was the section where I had described my first sexual encounter in the bird sanctuary near my house in Minnesota, the winter of my senior year in high school. I had ended up fooling around with an older guy, a guy whose age became clear to me only at the point when he kissed me. He had given me a blowjob, to which I had responded half-heartedly and with a limp dick. He had stopped, climbed to his feet, given me a hug and then suddenly whispered in my ear, “You just want someone to love you, don’t you?” At which point he turned and walked away. This is how it ends:
I watched him until he disappeared among the trees, my jeans around my thighs. The cold metal of the belt buckle against my leg. I pulled my jeans up and buttoned them. I smoothed out my clothes and pulled on my backpack. Then I walked in the other direction, towards home.
I felt both sickened and aroused, and strangely empty. Both stunned and relieved at his abrupt departure. I trudged up the hill, past the neighboring houses. I wondered what people were doing, that moment, inside.
I unlocked the door and stepped into the dark, cool living room. Nobody was home. I walked through the quiet house and into my room. I dumped my backpack on the floor and closed the door behind me. I wondered what I should do. I thought of movies I’d seen, where women sob in the shower after being raped. But I hadn’t been raped. I didn’t take a shower. I took off my shoes and turned on the stereo. I thought of skin and the hot wetness of his tongue. A weight holding me down.
“What did you want to say?” the professor asked Maria.
“I…I don’t feel like the word ‘rape’ is earned here. I think it’s too strong a word and it’s offensive.”
And that’s when the best part of the workshop, for me, took place, the moment when everyone else took Maria to task.
“He’s only seventeen…” one student said.
“He’s a confused kid, ” said another.
“He is? I thought he was older,” Maria said.
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, though my head was bent over the desk. It says I’m seventeen in the first paragraph, you stupid bitch.
“He’s only stating the emotions going through his head. He says, in the next sentence, that he wasn’t raped,” said the professor.
“But I feel like he entered this sexual experience willingly…” she continued, at which point one of the other woman in class gave her a hard look.
“Be very careful, Maria, ” she said. “You’re going into date rape territory, so you better be extremely careful with what you say.” She pointed at Maria, her finger pushing forwards with each word. Maria said nothing.
By this point I was sure that Maria had a thing about men. All men, that is, except her new husband, the “jazz scholar” whose words were worth quoting paragraph by paragraph. I tried to withhold complete judgment, though, knowing that the altercation at the bar had influenced my opinion. But later, when we were discussing another piece written by a woman in our class, Maria suggested cutting out the entire subplot revolving around the boyfriend, or, if nothing else, making him “less likable.”
Looking back over what I’ve written here, at the amount of space I’ve given to Maria, when she so clearly deserves nothing more than a dismissal, I’m a little embarrassed. It’s probably safe to assume that the altercation at the bar had a greater impact on me than I’d like to admit. Why else does she continue to interrupt my thoughts? Why else do I fantasize about taking her apart in workshop?
Obviously I took her “feminist” criticisms personally. My mother was a lesbian. Her partner, obviously, was a lesbian. I was raised by strong women; women who accepted no male chauvinism at home and who taught me, by example, that women were most certainly the stronger of the sexes. I take pride in this education, and maybe I’ve hidden behind it, maybe I’ve pinned it like a badge to my lapel, a medal of honor, a charm against any charges of sexism that may be leveled against me, sexism that everyone carries, to varying degrees.
Maria’s comments hurt because they cut too close; to my insecurities not only about my prejudices, but also about my intelligence, my ignorance of literature, my “laziness” with the English language. If pushed I will admit to not knowing my rules of grammar. Or that I only know them instinctually, from so much reading, but that I still make many mistakes. My point isn’t that Maria is evil, only that her personality clashed with mine and that I let it wound me deeper than necessary. Chances are these words will eventually come back to haunt me, as have so many of my words posted on the Internet.
I was thinking about Maria on Saturday night, and about the words I had written about her. I hadn’t yet posted them on my site, and I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of doing so. Most likely the words would reach her eventually, and I say that not from an overestimation of my site’s impact, but from nearly three years’ experience with blogging, and knowing how eventually everybody finds your site.
On Saturday night I was at the Patti Smith concert at Roseland, pondering both Maria and, unrelated, my libido. The crowd was a lively, cool mix of aging punkers and rock-n-roll fans, and there were some hot men weaving in and out of the crowd, plastic cups of draft beer balanced in their hands, usually trailing behind their girlfriends.
“I want a punk rock boyfriend,” I told Jennie, who stood beside me. We glanced over the crowd.
“It’s kind of an older crowd here,” she said.
“I’ll take a punk rock daddy then.”
“Except that most punk rock daddies are pale, skinny guys, with Adam’s apples sticking out of their throats.”
“Except Henry Rollins.”
“There are a couple of cute skinheads setting up the sound equipment.” I watched them, envying their apparent confidence and the speed with which they moved about the stage.
“Patti’s boyfriend is in the band,” Jennie said.
“Yeah. He looks like he’s fourteen. In a hot way.”
We were in the presence of a legend that night; Patti bouncing around in her torn jeans during “Rock-n-Roll Nigger”. She sipped water and spit it out on stage. That’s when I began to wonder. And it was later, when she sang George Michael’s “Father Figure”, that I decided. I needed more punk rock in my life.
Would Patti mince words? Would she pull herself back from rage and revenge? Or would she lay it all out? Fuck my goddamned insecurities.
And fuck Maria. She’s a cliché, a self-appointed gatekeeper of Literature who sabotages her very cause, embodying the kind of failed political correctness that valued censorship over freedom of expression.
Jammed together with the other fans on the main floor, I rocked in place to Patti Smith, turning now and then to watch all the upturned faces of joy, release, and rage. That night I had been sober for four years. And when she screamed “Hello, New York!” I screamed back, with all my might.