Such conjectures never concerned me until July 2 of my 40th summer in Manhattan…. I was sitting in my spacious East Village apartment when I faced that issue, among mostly midcentury furnishings and original art by friends. I gazed at the several books I’d published that had all finally found their way to the remainder table. My eye strayed to the oversize flat screen and my hard-drive collections of over 2,000 films. I studied the walls cleverly painted in an array of Technicolor hues inspired by my favorite films.
No, I did not want to die here.
I was born and raised in the do-you-really-call-it-a-city of Syracuse, a land-bound enclave so median that it had become a national center for market research product testing as I grew up. So brutal were the winters that snow in May was no occasion for comment. So conservative was our upper-middle-class Republican neighborhood that children barely set foot on its manicured front lawns. Sidewalks were few that knew the footprints of anyone but the mailman. When the sun fell and the tastefully retro streetlamps blinked on, the empty lanes looked like footpaths in the tonier sections of Forest Lawn Cemetery….
When 2014 hit and the brooding boyfriend coldly split, I suddenly realized how old I was. I also realized I had used up all that the city had to offer. Was that why I found myself hoisting a giant Victorinox suitcase onto the racks of an unreliable Amtrak headed for Syracuse on Oct. 14, 2014? Why was I bringing so much with me?
To say I stayed a long time is an understatement. It is now August 2015, and I’m still upstate. Roughing out one of the worst winters in history without a car, I figured the supermarket was a mere five-mile round-trip walk through snowdrifts and howling winds. I had a lot else to keep me busy, too. Six months previous, I’d been hired at a discount rate to translate an award-winning French biography of director Jean Renoir. The thing is 1,000 pages, for gawd’s sake, and the type is small. After a couple of months of tackling it and cleaning out a 10-year collection of take-home hospital inhalers and those weird yellow circular hospital wash basins my parents had come home with in the last years of their lives, I set up a couple of old TVs from childhood with signal converters and rabbit ears. Then I settled into my routine of translating, punctuated by twice-daily viewings of Perry Mason over the air on MeTV. I rose early, and mornings were never wasted. The first hour, over a Keurig cup of coffee, I spent bawling and cursing my ex. (Still doing it, too.) […]
he tone for that summer… included the temporary loss of that parade of twentysomething, attractive, gay would-be writers who I’d thought were enthusiastically connecting me to the younger generation. They laughed at my jokes. However, the youth connection stopped abruptly all last summer as they flocked to shares on Fire Island. Apparently there wasn’t room for me. My only consolation was being saved from having to appear in front of them in a bathing suit. I think you call what they are “fair-weather friends.” My only companion that entire summer was Turner Classic Movies and my broken heart. TCM was comforting because of the childhood era it projected. Kind of like having Mommy and Daddy dug up and placed handily in the corner.
I could go on about the many things that disappoint aging gay men in the context of city life. Instead I’d like to list some of the benefits of the provincial lifestyle. One trustworthy long-term friend whom I’d taken to the senior prom is still in Syracuse. In getting to know her again, I rediscovered something very exotic for a New Yorker. In friendships with the people of small cities, there is no complicated subtext. They actually mean what they say and do what they say they will. When my friend agrees to spend an evening together, there isn’t the slightest chance in the world of getting a text saying she decided to go to a gallery opening instead. As for the rare friendly overtures from those I have met up here, I can be fairly certain they haven’t researched me on Google first and aren’t hoping I can connect them with a dealer or publisher.
The best aspect of all of provincial life, however, only showed itself with the spring thaw. It’s the land, and the rich earth of which it is composed. One spring day, while sipping my Keurig and surveying my mother’s sad, weed-overgrown rose-of-Sharon-and-daffodil garden, a strange power overtook me. It sent me to the dust-laden garage in search of a hoe that hadn’t been touched for more than a decade. As I dug into the moist earth, checking arms and ankles for signs of deer ticks periodically, a wonderful sense of reconnection to the world was born. The results of this revelation climaxed in July, with a burst of zinnias grown from seed, a newly planted Japanese maple, a hydrangea, and an indigo plant. Not in a million years could I have imagined wisecracking, snarky, story-crafting, international me finding gentle ecstasy in working in a garden.
He insisted I have a mezuza on my door, and brought me one from Israel. “I know you don’t believe,” he said, “but you should have one anyhow.” I didn’t argue.
(Slavoj Žižek: “Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I. I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!’ ”)
Also-ran: Edmund White.
Don’t worry. We’ll all be dead soon enough, and at that point gay will be over.