Let it Burn: Part Three

Soon the fantasies of my “new life” smacked against reality. “I love books!” I’d told my friend Brian before I left for New York. “I love libraries!” But eleven years had passed since college, and I was out of practice. Two weeks into the semester I sat on the steps of Low Library under a heavy gray sky, re-reading the notes I’d 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.”

It was a relief to finally admit this to myself, to stop pretending that my “new life” was one exciting thing after another, and instead admit the truth; my new life was an exhausting, overwhelming, homesick-inducing series of days and, 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. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for the life I thought I wanted. Maybe I should have just stayed home and set my sights again on the lower horizon.

Once, the year before in San Francisco, I’d sat with Brian in the back row of an AA meeting, listening to a man ramble his way through a convoluted story. At one point he paused, looking bewildered. “And then I was standing in my kitchen yesterday,” he said, “and I was making myself a ham sandwich and I just thought to myself, you know, what’s it all about, Alfalfa?”

I pondered his question, as if he’d just offered a prose poem for our enlightenment. For weeks afterward, every time Brian and I had dinner together, I’d pause meaningfully and ask the same question. Soon Brian took to calling me Spanky.

That was the early spring of 2004, a few months before I moved to New York. As luck would have it, Brian himself had just been accepted into graduate school in L.A., where he’d pursue his Marriage and Family therapy license. The evening after I’d sat on the steps of Low Library, I was back in my apartment, reading in bed when the phone rang.

“Spanky, I’m calling you from the Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I am absolutely surrounded by rabid extroverts.”

I could not picture pale, skinny, cerebral Brian, with his funny scalp, in L.A., even after I’d visited him at his West Hollywood apartment complex, where everyone lay around in the afternoon by the courtyard pool, reading scripts. “You’re living in an episode of Melrose Place,” I’d said.

“You’re just jealous.”

I turned onto my side, cupping the phone between my shoulder and ear, and peeked through the curtain. My neighbor was watching a rerun of Friends. “If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “I’m laying in bed in my dark cave, reading Proust.”

“Dear God.”

“I know,” I said. “I read three books a week. I haven’t seen the gym in days, and I’m a horrible example of sobriety.”

“When was your last meeting?”

“I can’t remember.”


“I know, I know, I’m headed for disaster.”

“Well,” he said. “I suppose these are unusual circumstances. You and me, we’re on the Hero’s Journey.”

“Fuck Joseph Campbell!” I yelled. “He never said following your bliss would be such a pain in the ass.”


“School is all I do. The last time my life was this unbalanced was when I was smoking crystal meth.”

“Now you’re just being dramatic.”

“I know,” I said, suddenly on the verge of tears.

“Look, I’m miserable, too. But it’s too late,” he said. “We can’t turn back.”

“I know,” I said quietly. I didn’t want to hang up. I didn’t want to have to face everything on my own.

The next week I had a strange altercation with a young woman in my workshop. That evening, after class ended, someone suggested that we all go out for a drink together, and we wandered down to the Heights, an upstairs bar with windows that opened out over Broadway. It was happy hour, and though a pint of Guinness sounded heavenly, I ordered a pineapple juice instead. The young woman, Maria, joined us late, having stayed behind to talk to the professor. The only open seat at the table was across from me, and as she sat down I sensed that we were both a little disappointed by this twist of fate. I’d noticed over the past couple of weeks that Maria held certain opinions of men. One of her favorite prescriptions for other women in the workshop was to get rid of the boyfriend subplot. Or at least make him less likeable. She spoke this way about all men. All men, that is, except her fiancé, who was a “jazz scholar” and who was frequently quoted in her submissions, speaking in full paragraphs. The professor had mentioned that, by and large, people don’t speak in full paragraphs, and Maria had given her a blank look. Later, in discussing a book she’d once edited, Maria launched into a diatribe against the word “cum,” accusing it, and any author who used it, of reprehensible vulgarity. She informed us that there was a literary “tradition” behind the word “come,” which was spelled properly. As she ranted I’d sunk down in my chair. There, on the table, sitting in a neat pile of ten copies, was my first submission, and in the first sentence was the word, “cum.” She’d taken the manuscript without glancing at it, and it sat now in her bag, which was slung over the back of her chair.

Nevertheless, sitting across from each other at the Heights, we managed to chat at a bit about our lives before grad school, and the fact that she commuted by train from Boston twice a week for classes. Then she revealed to all of us at the table, rather 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…

“Dude!” she exploded. “You cannot spell it that way! It’s wrong! It’s not spelled that way!” She sputtered for a moment. “You…you only think it’s spelled that way because you read too much pornography!”

Someone at the table interrupted her, but she thundered on. “Everyone who spells it that way is ignorant. They’re lazy with the English language and they need a fucking copyeditor.”

She went on and on; I heard the word “ignorant” three or four times, as if from a distance. My face flushed hot, and I fought the urge to leave the table for fresh air. “The bill’s on its way,” I told myself. “Just wait.” I stared bitterly out the window. Everyone at the table was quiet, except for Maria. Eventually she climbed down from her soapbox and said, “You hate me now, don’t you?” Her tone was more triumphant than contrite. I tried to answer, to say something articulate, but I stuttered, and my words came out twisted and without sense.

“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.” I thought all of this much later, of course, when I was alone in my apartment. I grabbed the check and busied myself with collecting everyone’s money. I had to count the cash five times, until my head was clear enough to add everything together. I left without even looking at her, and walked back to my apartment. I hated that everyone had seen me that way.

She’d cut too close to the bone, down to all of my insecurities about my intelligence, my ignorance of the Western Canon, my “laziness” with the English language. It was true; my grasp of grammar was shaky at best, and it was halfway through the semester before I realized that I’d let Maria, who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag, become the Gatekeeper of Literary New York, revoking my ticket into the Manhattan intelligentsia.

“Cut. The Bitch. Down,” said the Manly Fireplug when I called.

“I know.”

“Seriously. She sounds like a total pill.”

“I know,” I said. “But I can’t talk when I’m angry.”

“You’re going to have to learn.”

“I know,” I said. “Fuck, Joe.”

“Honey, you’re a New Yorker now. You’ll have to learn.”

“I don’t feel like one.”

“And put ‘cum’ in every single one of your submissions.”

I could hear noises on his end. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Don’t change the subject.”

“Just tell me.”

He sighed. “I’m walking up Castro now.”

Over the phone I heard passing laughter, and the 24 Divisadero pulling away from the curb. I could see each storefront he passed: the Chinese take-out counter, Worn Out West, Tully’s Coffee. I rubbed the back of my head. “I need a haircut,” I said.

I didn’t like who I was becoming in New York. Who was this miserable, whiny creature? I ventured down to Chelsea, to gay AA meetings, to replicate what I was missing. And I quickly fell in with a group of guys who seemed to like me. But after a week or two I noticed a disturbing pattern; whenever one of them left the room, the others would start in on all of his faults, and dish him so thoroughly that I expected him to stagger back into the room with a full set of kitchen knives planted in his back. This happened every time, to everyone who left the room, and I soon grew so paranoid that I’d hold my bladder rather than slip away to the bathroom.

Every night, heading home on the uptown train, I’d resolve to cut my ties with them, and yet each day they would call me, and whine until I agreed to join them. At some point each of them pulled me aside and spoke to me as if I was the only one in the group who truly understood him. But I was doing them a disservice, only pretending to be their friend.

I was in selfish mourning; nobody in New York knew my story; the story I’d slowly carved over time, standing at the front of AA meetings; the story of my heroic, triumphant resurrection. I’d arrived in New York with five years of sobriety under my belt, and these Chelsea boys saw me as fully recovered. In New York I was expected to be the big brother, and the change in roles, I’m not proud to admit, irritated me.

But the central premise of AA, that one alcoholic helps another, had been drummed into my head as the solution to my problems. I’d forget myself by helping someone just as I’d been helped. But the boys seemed perfectly content with their group dynamics, despite my efforts to set a noble example. They stopped gossiping about each other only long enough to discuss their half-shares on Fire Island, or dish various art world celebrities with whom they were tight.

“All the boys here are legends in their own minds,” I told Brian over the phone.

But did it take one to know one? And was I really one to judge? Had I never gossiped myself, were my friendships with Bearbait, and Brian, and the Manly Fireplug really so sacred? I had lost my sense of perspective. Everything in New York seemed about six inches away from my face, and of the millions of words I’d consumed in the past year, my favorite was “retreat.”

That summer I received an invitation to a “gay writers” cocktail party in Chelsea. The words “cocktail” and “party”, when used together, usually made me break out in hives. But it was rumored that some of the big shots might show up: Edmund White, Augusten Burroughs, Felice Picano. “Plus some publishing industry hotshots,” I was promised. So I put on a nice shirt and took the train down to 23rd Street.

As it turned out the only celebrity who showed up was Edmund White’s boyfriend. Still, every guy I talked to spent most of the conversation looking over my shoulder, scanning the crowd no doubt for David Sedaris. I sipped my diet Coke and kept my elbows close to my side, to hide the nervous sweat stains under my arms. One small group in the corner was discussing the book fair they’d been working all day, and the celebrities who’d showed up to promote their various memoirs.

“I saw Matthew Broderick today,” I offered. “On the 1 train.”

An editorial assistant at Viking rolled his eyes. “Oh God, you can’t swing a dead cat in the Village without hitting him or Sarah Jessica.”

I decided not to mention that a retarded man on the train had asked Matthew if he was, in fact, Ferris Bueller. For a moment I perked up when I saw one of my professors walk in with a bottle of wine under his arm. But he gave me an absent smile when I said hello, his eyes roaming the crowd behind me, and then excused himself. Taking everything a little too personally, I slipped out of the party without saying good-bye to anyone, taking the stairs two at a time.

That fall I accepted a couple more invitations, with the same result. One of Edmund White’s one-night stands appeared at the last one. The highlight of my evening was when a short story writer asked me about my thesis, and I gave him a general description of its plot.

“Sounds…ambitious,” he said.

“I hope to do it justice.”

“I find your modesty so charming. Tell me where you’re from, again?”

Last spring I’d attended another cocktail party, hosted by my writing program – a mixer for students and literary agents, another one of those events where six shots of tequila might have greased the wheels a bit. I left all of these parties feeling the same way: like I wanted to go home and take a shower.

There was writing, and then there was all the business around writing, which only made me want to curl around my thesis like a twelve-year old girl with her first diary. But I told myself that the business was a necessary evil, and the sooner I learned its customs, the better I’d do. And the truth was that I was the one most responsible for my discomfort at these parties; I radiated awkwardness, and could not have made for the most charming conversationalist. Why couldn’t I just relax?

Sometime that fall I began thinking about Rick Bass. Many years ago, when I was still living in Minneapolis, I’d taken a weeklong workshop led by Bass, a writer known mostly for short stories that often featured small town characters with vaguely mythological powers, acting in conflict or harmony with nature. He spent most of the year in the remote Yaak Valley of Montana, where he worked vigorously to protect the land from roads and loggers. At the time of the workshop I was more interested in literature about urban angst, so I was surprised at how often he now came swimming up quietly from my subconscious. I wondered if we might have something in common, aside from a fondness for flannel shirts. Soon, to comfort myself, I would imagine Rick Bass at these cocktail parties, hyperventilating in the corner by the wet bar, and it always made me feel better. Even his name – the casual “Rick,” the woodsy “Bass” – conjured the kind of alternate life that I now daydreamed about – the kind of life where Jonathan Safran Foer might succumb to wood ticks and poison ivy within the space of a few hours. Of course, these fantasies of life in the remote wilderness had no more connection to reality than my New York fantasies. I missed the Castro, not Montana. But as I navigated my way through the second year of grad school, I could bring myself peace of mind by asking, What would Rick Bass do?

At the end of the fall semester I was haunted by the ghosts of San Francisco. As I lay in bed reading Sophocles, images flashed through my head, certain views I knew well: the Marin headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge, the houses on the hills from my bedroom window, the Castro Theater marquee from the end of my street. I’d daydream about my old Subaru, my foot on the accelerator, driving somewhere, anywhere on my own volition, somewhere out of the city, where I’d be surrounded by the colors green and blue, mist, air smelling of sea. I dreamed about space, and light, and the sight of things blooming all year. I pulled on my parka and slipped into the crowds on Broadway, and remembered the sound of fog dripping from the eucalyptus trees on my old block. Until this time I had looked on all of my New York challenges as temporary obstacles. Eventually I’d carve out a life for myself, and perhaps even meet a few more New Yorkers that I liked. But for the first time I thought I could move back. And once I’d thought it, it wouldn’t go away…

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