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An Unaffectionate Memoriam

Walking out of my building yesterday, I ran into the older woman who lives downstairs. Without warning she grabbed my hand. Even fully vaccinated, I’m still shocked when someone touches me these days and her grasp carried an extra frisson. So did her words: My husband died last night.

She said it in English, though she usually speaks in Sicilian. For two decades I lived above those two, and their constant battles–screams, tears, explosions—always took place in their mother tongue.

In the early years he would assault me in the corridor–boobs, ass, whatever he could grab as I scooted by their door. Growing up how I did, I was accustomed to dirty old men, but he was over the top. The landlord didn’t do much about it, just “talked to him man to man.”

These old Italians, he said, waving his hand like an old Italian. Whatever he said worked for a while, then my neighbor began to knock on my door whenever his wife was at work. In all the years I knew him, he never worked and she always did. Vaffanculo, I’d hiss until he’d creep back downstairs again, footsteps soft but sure.

For a while there also was a brothel on the second floor. Not tech-savvy sex workers with master degrees in gender studies, but dead-eyed girls who sucked off johns in the vestibule and pulled knives when you complained. You could ask why I didn’t move.  I’d answer the apartment was rent-stabilized, and if you don’t get that, you don’t get living in NYC when you weren’t wealthy.

Eventually the crack whores were replaced by hipsters with jobs I didn’t entirely understand, and the vials and small baggies littering the hallway were replaced by a small gym and laundry room. People complain about gentrification, but it has its advantages. So does aging out of being prey. My downstairs neighbor began to bother the blond millennial on the first floor instead, and that generation doesn’t mess.

When the girl called the cops, they put him in lockup where he had a mild stroke. After that he was a tamed man, though the fights never let up. I’d hear them through the floorboards—her anguished squawks rising and falling; his deep vibrato. I didn’t mind their soap operettas, which validated my decision not to marry, but I did mind the baleful glances he shot at me. Head down, he’d flatten his body dramatically against walls whenever he saw me or any other female in the building. Predators play victim better than anybody.

I wasn’t surprised to learn of his death. A few weeks before I’d been awakened at 4 am by red lights pouring into my front room, and through the window I saw his body–frail, shrunken, intubated–being shoved unceremoniously into an ambulance. I may never see him again, I’d thought. Maybe it’s just the sustained devastation of the last year, but I’d felt a profound lack of sentiment. Something was shifting that lived below emotions–the Earth itself, hurtling forward on its axis.

Their apartment was quiet after that, but I didn’t check on them. The only time I’d gone down there was when he’d begun swiping my deliveries a few years before. He old, she’d said as she handed over the unopened packages.

Then shut the door in my face.

It’s so strange when someone you’ve known a long time but didn’t like passes over. He must have had good qualities, but I saw him every day and never cared for him nor his wife, defined by her marital boulder. That man, she said once after yelling at me for calling the LL. Like he was both of our burden.

Devout even by the standards of our neighborhood elders, she was known as a “black stocking”–someone who attended Catholic mass every day. “It don’t make her happier,” said Mikey, my seventysomething pal from the coffee shop. “It don’t make him faithful,” said Paulie, my other seventysomething pal from the coffee shop. I sighed. “It makes her faithful.”

She did feed him beautifully. I always envied the aromas drifting from their apartment at mealtimes: garlic, tomato, basil. She grew it on the fire escape.

Now he’s gone and when I looked into her eyes she seemed to be registering this loss as if tonguing the gap left by a pulled infected tooth. Anxious and angry no matter what. I felt compassion for her if not affection. I feel this way so often. O humans.

The Long Way Home

Maybe because my love life is in the crapper once again, all day I’ve been thinking about a moment I shared with a woman I dated briefly. I’d gone upstate to see her, and she was running the visit because being in charge was clearly the only way she felt comfortable.

It’s an aspect of queer life I don’t dig—the gender roles that can become more bald than in heterocontexts, though younger generations are loosening up those binaries. With my lipstick, big blond coiffure, and tight skirts, I present as femme, but only in that world. Certainly in my last decade, the only people who have dared boss me around have not been cis-men. On the rare occasions I date straight guys, they often see me as more masculine than them. In terms of temperance, they are absolutely right.

Really, I’m only me in every context: someone who prizes freedom over security, who can change a tire and style anybody, who drives a stickshift, who is more than a little vain, who cries at the drop of a hat, who shies away from processing but says what needs to be said.

Anyway, this woman I was dating was butch but barely and that was fine with me. I liked her lush breasts and hips and pussy beneath her suits and country-boy gear; her curly, silver-streaked bob. Maybe not so much the silver chain she wore at her neck but only because it was ugly, not because it was a feminine flourish. I have a very expansive and flexible definition of beauty, but find ugliness—a jarring lack of integrity in construction or presentation—to be tough. Continue Reading →

Painting at Audre’s: Part I

Once when I was 9, a mother and her two kids disappeared from our neighborhood. It wasn’t a kidnapping. It was just that for years they lived down the street from our house, then one day they were gone.

The husband was still there, but when my mom took my sister and I around to visit his wife and kids, he said they were out. His normally polished appearance was unruly—clothes rumpled, face unshaven—but he offered no further explanations and shut the door before my mother could ask any more questions. When we went back the next day, he didn’t answer the door, though his orange Volvo was parked in the driveway. Nor did he answer it the day after that.

For a full week my mom kept finding reasons to drop by. A cutting from her favorite fern, an invitation to take all the kids to the park, cookies she’d just baked, a mug that seemed up the wife’s alley. My mother liked to collect things for people, like a mother bird dragging treasures back to her chicks safe in their nest.

But no matter what time of day we stopped over, no one ever answered the door. The orange Volvo was always there, each day covered with more leaves, but the mother’s car never reappeared.

The real reason my mother kept looking for this woman is she was one of the few people in our neighborhood whom my mother liked. Having spent her young adulthood in downtown Boston, she’d never cottoned to the suburban town to which my parents moved after I was born. She never said it directly—my mother said almost nothing directly—but even as a kid I could tell she found the other mothers in our neighborhood grating or phony or both. She relaxed around this woman–told jokes, pulled faces, lingered over coffee.

I liked this woman too. Let’s call her Audre, because it’s close to her real name and she possessed the practical, large-hearted lyricism of Audre Lorde, whom she liked a lot.

Back home we spent a lot of time wondering where Audre might have gone. Was she sick, I wondered. Does she not like me anymore, wondered my mother. It was my father, surprisingly, who came up with the right answer.

Maybe she left her husband, he said. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy