A Place in the World
I was getting some sun during my lunch hour the day I met Fisher. We were in the middle of Central Park, on that big, green lawn called the Sheep Meadow. It was a warm afternoon in late April, and the sky had the pale blue look of faded denim. The park was crowded. The previous winter had been stubborn and miserable, like a houseguest who won’t leave, so now everyone had been cheered by the nice spring weather. Wherever I glanced, New Yorkers were wearing expressions of gratitude and contentment. They didn’t look like themselves at all. I was lying on the grass with my shirt off and my khakis rolled up above my calves.
“Won’t you get itchy like that?” said a voice to my right. I propped myself up on my elbow and shielded my eyes from the sun. The man who was talking to me was seated on a blanket a few feet away, with a book in his hands. He had the round, plain face of a middle-aged infant and a look of weary politeness. All told, he was quite ordinary, like an extra in a crowd scene.
“You think I’ll get itchy?” I said, in the bored, mirroring tone I often used at bars when talking to men like this.
“I mean to say, I have a towel that you can use.”
And with that he produced and handed me one, which I took without even thanking him. I stood up, put the towel down on the ground and sprawled out on it. Then I waited for him to ask me some more questions, which I planned to disregard. It was a way to spend my lunch hour. But he didn’t say another word. This annoyed me. I turned on my side to show him my ass and then stretched a bit and flexed my biceps. I was twenty-four at the time, at the peak of my stretching and flexing powers. I wasn’t used to being ignored. When eventually I caught him looking over, he gave me a prim, embarrassed smile. You didn’t see much prim in this city, not in my experience anyway. I was intrigued. I thought about my friend Buzz.
He would have called this “an opportunity.”
I knew Buzz from one of my first temp jobs after I arrived in New York. We were in a word-processing pool at a law firm where all the senior partners had the dead-eyed stares of serial killers and the associates scampered around nervously like so many potential victims. Buzz was also my tour guide through the gay bars and clubs of the city. He was fun and campy and fond of using phrases like “A boy’s got to take care of himself” and “Long live the checkbook romance!” He was the living example of such sayings, and now he no longer needed to temp, because he’d met a married doctor from Scarsdale who paid the rent on his little apartment near Sutton Place and gave him an allowance to buy ties and things at Bloomingdale’s.
Before Buzz met his doctor, we would go out to certain bars in the city that he would laughingly refer to as elephant graveyards, because of the older, less desirable clientele. We’d let these old guys buy us some drinks and then we’d sit back, aloof and sneering, like royalty from a small country, while the rest of the evening passed in a blur of unspoken negotiation and protracted tease. Buzz had actually found his doctor in one of these places, and I went home with a few guys I met in this fashion, too, men who regarded me with the determination of hungry lizards, until they’d get me to their apartments, where they’d finally pounce, smothering me with their damp coughs and too much aftershave. As their hands traveled over me, I’d often will my mind to wander, like a runaway pet, and sometimes I’d disconnect entirely from myself and have something that resembled an out-of-body experience.
When I described all this to Buzz, he referred to the phenomenon as my “fugue fucks.”
But other than being treated to a few expensive dinners or getting a knockoff Baume et Mercier watch or going away for a Hamptons weekend with a burly banker who wanted me to put him in a headlock while he recited German poetry, nothing much ever came of these liaisons.
“What are you reading?” I asked the man on the blanket. I was sitting up now. He looked at the cover of his book, as if he needed a reminder, and then told me a title by Edith Wharton. I don’t remember which one, but he said he was writing an article about this book, comparing it with something by Henry James and focusing on modernism’s relationship to realism or something like that. I was concentrating on his jaunty little demeanor as he spoke more than on the actual words he was using. He looked like a happy cherub as he babbled on, but then after a while he wound down, and his face returned to its plain roundness or round plainness.
“I suppose this sounds very dull to you,” he said sheepishly. I noticed he was blushing.
“I guess I’ve heard duller things,” I answered, in a tone that suggested that maybe I hadn’t. When he laughed at that, it surprised me, not least of all because I liked the sound of his laugh, a sort of joyful trilling I didn’t expect.
“I’m Fisher,” he said. “Fisher Dunleavy.”
“Vincent Marshall,” I said, pointing to my bare chest.
Later, when we went out for the first time, Fisher would tell me he was still in the grieving process. He’d lost his partner, Charles the Great, as I would come to think of him. When Fisher started to surface from that long hibernation (that day in the park), I was the one who happened to be there, with my clean-cut appearance and my wide, flawless grin, though my fresh-faced looks didn’t exactly reflect my less-than-wholesome history. I suppose that was when the lies started and the omissions, too. When he asked me about my past, I made up a sunny childhood in a pretty little town by a slow-moving river, conjuring the life of a teenage jock, complete with baseball championships, broken fingers during football games, and winning baskets at the buzzer. I was tall, strong, and athletic-looking, so at least I looked the part. Then, for sympathy, I stirred in some bigoted parents (bullying father, devout mother) who tossed their boy from the house when he came out to them at eighteen, scattering his clothes and possessions on the lawn, like the aftermath of a boiler explosion.
I knew Fisher would question me about my higher education. He taught English at City College, so of course it was going to come up. So I told him I’d attended a tiny liberal arts school in northern Maine. It was a place I knew about because someone from one of my temp jobs had gone there and made jokes about it, how it was basically a summer camp where you could get a degree. Fisher had never heard of the place. I was self-deprecating about this college and the education I fake-got there. So later on, if I missed one of Fisher’s quasi-intellectual references or if my grammar failed me, I could blame it on my haphazard, backwoods schooling. I threw in some standard descriptions of evergreens, lobster dinners, and Maine accents to give the account the proper New England ambience and left it at that. This seemed to satisfy him. It was an education (I explained to Fisher) that had been paid for with high-interest loans and odd jobs. Of course, if it were happening today, I would do better research with the help of the internet. I’d scan Wikipedia pages for more interesting and varied details. I might lie about a better school. Or maybe, if I was meeting Fisher all over again, I wouldn’t lie at all.
It was certainly easier to tell Fisher I’d gotten a spotty education on a bucolic Maine campus than to admit that I’d never applied to colleges at all. Getting my high school diploma had felt like the bittersweet end to a hostage crisis. I couldn’t tell him what I’d really been up to for the four years after high school in Pennsylvania. There wasn’t much of a positive spin I could have put on the depressed town where I grew up, or my half-dozen lost jobs in fast food joints, or my succession of drug-dealing boyfriends. And it wouldn’t have been a happy choice to bring up my own brief dependency on painkillers either, which had been a fucking bitch to kick. I’d been arrested a couple of times too, for trespassing and disorderly conduct, done some community service and had my record expunged. At least I was able to recognize the dead-end quality of that life, its grim futility, like fishing line tightening around my neck.
When I got to New York City, I’d noticed there was plenty of futility here too, but it was gussied up like a drag queen, with dirty glamour and street noise. I found temp work, but two years later I was barely getting by. I lived in a small apartment in Alphabet City with two roommates. One guy danced nights in a cage at a leather bar in the Meatpacking District, and the other was a grad student in anthropology at NYU. Our building had the blown-apart look of collateral damage and the walls of our apartment were grimy and pitted, like the complexion of a grubby teenager. There were cockroaches in our cereal every morning and we had a neighbor who shot off M-80s in the middle of the night.
I preserved a few of the real details about my life—the temping and the crummy apartment—though I turned my cage-dancing roommate into a Canadian bartender. I told Fisher I was saving up so I could apply to law school, so I could one day work on treaties for some international environmental concern. I’m not sure where I came up with that one, but I revealed some volunteer work I hadn’t really done for the Central Park Conservancy, though I had worn an orange vest for several months, picking up soda cans and used condoms from the side of the road in Pennsylvania, as part of my court-ordered community service.
I sanitized my sexual history for Fisher too, inventing a winsome roommate from the college I never went to, who wreaked havoc with my heart, and a lacrosse player I rolled around with a few times. I professed an aversion to casual encounters, telling Fisher I was basically this rather bashful sort of person, despite my hunky and robust appearance. I didn’t mention my larcenous ex-boyfriends back home or my safari work with Buzz at the bars or the jerk-off video I’d done a few months earlier for some troll I met at an after-hours club because I was short on rent money.
It wasn’t really so astonishing when I began to view Fisher as the potential antidote to my snakebit existence. I figured if I could create a sweet, winning image for myself, it would be better for everybody. From the beginning, Fisher wanted to see only the best in me anyway, like some indulgent grandmother in a storybook about naughty children. So I wove this earnest narrative into something modest and believable, and with the help of some bright smiles, a cheerful mood, and my habitual gee-whiz line readings, I became something to Fisher that I had never been with anyone else before: irresistible.
This was many years ago, back in the eighties.
We’d been out on a few dates before I finally agreed to go back to his place, thereby further demonstrating my innocent ways. Fisher lived in a two-bedroom co-op in a doorman building on Riverside Drive. He seemed both proud and nervous while showing me around for the first time. The entrance foyer of the apartment led into an oversize living room with several built-in bookcases, some sleek furniture, and a working fireplace. There was a formal dining room, which was rarely used, Fisher said, as if describing a disappointing relative he didn’t like to visit. The wood floors throughout the apartment were rich and glossy. They shimmered like sheets of ice. The bedrooms were good-sized, the closets as deep as small caves. It was a prewar building, and Fisher pointed out the moldings and other original details with the glee of an archaeologist showing off the results of a successful dig. Coming from the combat zone that was my downtown apartment, I was duly impressed.
The master bathroom was really something special, with its art deco fittings and huge glassed-in shower sporting half a dozen showerheads. It could fit a rugby team, if one were so inclined, though I caught myself before making that particular observation. Best of all, off of this was a utility room with a washer and dryer. Outside of the city, these things—large closets, fireplaces, laundry rooms—were standard-issue, but in Manhattan they were prized above jewels.
It was a corner apartment on a high floor. Sun spilled through the windows at all times of day, and there were river views, Fisher told me, but now it was night, so all I could see of the outside was the black marble sky and the lights of New Jersey, winking in the distance. Aside from all the books, the entire space was neat and streamlined, in the manner of an airplane hangar. But on most of the pale walls and on nearly every surface, even in the kitchen and bathrooms, there were framed photos of Charles.
Sometimes Fisher (a younger and better-looking version of Fisher) was standing next to his late spouse in some kind of rollicking pose, but mostly these pictures featured Charles alone, square-jawed and dashing—rappelling down a rock wall, steering a kayak, deep-sea fishing. It was like paging through an L.L.Bean catalog with only one model. When Fisher told me, over dinner on our first date, that Charles had died at the age of forty-six, he had been quick to add, “It wasn’t AIDS,” as if my assuming that it was would somehow sully the memory of their ironclad monogamy.
“I didn’t think that,” I said defensively, though of course I had, given the realities of the world we were living in and my own cynicism about idyllically monogamous relationships.
Fisher had told me he met Charles at Dartmouth, tossing a Frisbee around on the quad, which seemed an appropriately sun-dappled beginning for these two. Not long after this, they’d fallen into each other’s arms and embarked on the kind of iconic, against-all-odds gay romance that now spawns so many indie films.
“It was acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” Fisher explained. “Charles was sick for a long time, and he held on a lot longer than anyone imagined he could. Even the hospice nurses, who’d seen everything, couldn’t believe it. He’s been gone almost three years now.”
Fisher still sounded numb and hollowed out when he told me this. I offered up what I guessed were the right sympathetic sounds, but I didn’t have much experience feeling sorry for anyone, so I wasn’t sure how convincing I sounded. Now, on my first visit to the apartment, as we reentered the living room after our little tour, I picked up one of the photos from a bookcase: Charles in a Mets cap in front of Shea Stadium, smiling and carefree, like a guy in a beer commercial, the way he looked in all of these shots, more or less.
“Charles, huh?” I said.
“Yep, that’s my husband,” Fisher answered solemnly.
“Handsome,” I said.
“Yes,” Fisher said, as if he were confirming the existence of gravity.
Fisher always referred to Charles as my husband or my spouse, though this was long before marriage equality… or cell phones, for that matter, or Facebook, or lots of other things we now take for granted.
I stood there with the photo of dead Charles in my hands, trying to behave as a kinder person might. Fisher took the photo from me and then we sat on the sofa together. I hoped he wasn’t going to hug the frame to his chest or sit there ticking off a list of his spouse’s virtues and assets. From previous conversations, I already knew that Charles had done well in real estate and later run a successful catering business before he took ill. It was his money that had purchased the apartment we were sitting in. And after seeing all these photos, I also knew the guy was great-looking and adventurous. This seemed like more than enough info for one night.
“You see, the thing of it is,” Fisher was saying to me now on the sofa, “I haven’t had anyone here since Charles passed. Men, I mean. And actually, there’s never been anyone else for me other than Charles. So you coming here is kind of this rather miraculous situation. I mean, it’s a somewhat unprecedented event, actually. And you could say I am a bit flummoxed, because I happen to like you quite a bit, Vincent, and I am not sure what your opinions are of me or on the subject in general.”
When he got nervous, Fisher spoke in a stilted and formal way, maybe because of all that Edith Wharton and Henry James he read. As he explained this about himself, there was that prim, embarrassed smile again too, the one from that day in the park. I found myself reaching out to touch Fisher’s cheek. I told myself it was because I wanted him to stop talking, but before I knew it, I was taking the photo out of his hands, putting it carefully aside, and pulling him toward me.
Fisher asked me to move in with him eight days later. I’d been on Riverside Drive less than a month when Buzz insisted on visiting. He made a hooting sound when he walked in the front door and then wandered about the place, singing “Movin’ On Up” the theme song from The Jeffersons, in a mincing falsetto.
I was glad Fisher was at his office hours at the college, which was how I’d planned it.
“It’s purdy here,” Buzz said after he stopped singing, “but a bit stark and anorexic, if you ask me. It’s like the Karen Carpenter of apartments. I don’t mind the white walls, but really, honey, where’s all the stuff?”
I’d been to Buzz’s studio, which was cluttered with clothes, magazines, and empty fast food containers. His place was brimming with chaos and unanswered questions, like a crime scene.
“Yeah, I guess we keep it pretty tidy,” I told Buzz.
I didn’t mention that there was a storage space in Chelsea with all the clothes and things that belonged to Charles, plus the accumulation of memorabilia from their lives together, everything Fisher couldn’t bear to see every day but didn’t want to get rid of either.
Buzz and I sat at the kitchen table, where he admired the fancy appliances. It was a nice, gleaming kitchen, the kind you see on television cooking shows. I had put a bowl of grapes out and poured us some water. I wasn’t offering anything else. I didn’t want Buzz to get too comfortable. Fisher’s office hours weren’t going to last forever.
He popped a grape in his mouth.
“So, it’s really nice here and all,” he said, “but wouldn’t it be better if you could convince your guy to get you your own place? I mean, if Dr. Feelgood was around 24/7 I’d put a staple gun to my head in no time. I like my independence.”
I didn’t mention that sleeping with a sixty-year-old orthopedist to get your rent paid was a funny way to define independence.
“Well,” I said, “it’s not 24/7 is it? I mean, Fisher teaches his summer classes, and he has office hours and faculty meetings and events at the school, and I’m working too.”
“That’s another thing,” Buzz said. “Why are you still temping? You seem to be doing this all wrong. This was supposed to get you out of all that. Wasn’t it?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t tell Buzz that I was probably never going to be the kind of hustler he wanted me to be. I was even contributing to the rent, though Fisher refused to take anything more than what I had been paying in Alphabet City.
“Look,” Buzz went on, “if the good doctor wants me to dress only in blue and draw a face on my dick so he can play with it like a puppet, I’ll gladly comply. But the flip side of that is, he pays my bills and I don’t have to see him all the time. Lord knows he’s clingy enough as it is, calling me up in the middle of the night to see if I’m home. And if I’m not, he gets all jealous and possessive, like some fourteen-year-old girl, though his threats still come out of him like the fat old man that he is.”
I could hear a trace of Buzz’s southern accent as he ranted, which he usually tried to hide. He was obviously from down south somewhere, though he’d never name a state or a town, preferring to keep his past concealed from view, as if it had slipped into some witness protection program. I imagined, though, that as Buzz aged, the accent would return, the way a past color bleeds to the surface of a weather-beaten house. I could also see this Buzz of the future avoiding harsh lighting, draping himself over daybeds, and trying to seduce paperboys, like Blanche DuBois.
“But perhaps in your case,” he went on, “I’ve misread the whole situation, and what we have here is what is commonly referred to as a relationship.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, surprised by the righteous indignation in my voice. “I only moved in because it’s a hell of a lot better here than Avenue C. I’d be an idiot not to take advantage of that, as you should know better than anyone.”
“OK, OK,” Buzz said, laughing and raising his hands up in mock surrender. Then he sipped some water and switched gears. “Well, how about the sex? How do you even fuck with good old Chuck staring down at you from every possible angle?”
Buzz had noticed all those photos of Charles right away as he was traipsing around the apartment, and I’d already given him a quick rundown.
“We manage,” I said.
“So it’s good, then?”
“The screwing. Don’t be dense.”
“Christ, Buzz. It is what it is.”
“Oh my God. So touchy!”
“I’m not being touchy. But have you ever heard of the word privacy?”
“I don’t know,” Buzz said. “I think I have. Is it the same privacy you employed when discussing your wrestling weekend in the Hamptons? You covered every inch of that story without taking a fucking breath.”
He was grinning like an imp.
“Don’t be an asshole,” I said.
I couldn’t exactly say what I felt for Fisher at that particular moment, but I wasn’t going to turn him into some horny, absent-minded-professor punch line for Buzz either. That’s not how it was at all. He wasn’t some creeper. If anything, I think our age difference embarrassed him. I definitely couldn’t tell Buzz how Fisher had actually wept the first time we messed around, how sometimes all we did since then was hold each other and kiss—though when we did have sex, it was always fun and suitably hot. What I wasn’t prepared for was Fisher’s tireless affection. He might rub my back for a full hour, making slow circles, kissing me between the shoulder blades as I stretched like a cat in the sun. I certainly enjoyed this attention more than the sweaty, heaving encounters I’d had with those old guys from the bar. Even my boyfriends in Pennsylvania, who were rarely sober or fully present when we went to bed, hadn’t been up to much.
Meanwhile, I was learning other stuff too. On my nightstand was a stack of books, classics mostly, that Fisher had pulled for me from his bookcases. I didn’t have a particularly curious mind, but I was slowly working my way through this stack. I sort of liked Fisher’s makeshift attempts to improve my education. He’d also given me his own collection of literary criticism, which was called A Place in the World, essays written in his deliberate and straightforward voice, a discussion of gay subtext in the classics.
“My book,” he had said bashfully as he handed it over, “such as it is.”
Fisher showed me around the city too, taking me to museums and art films, a couple of concerts, the ballet once. We’d gone on walking tours of the Village and the Lower East Side, visited the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, in the Bronx. How Buzz would have howled if I had mentioned all this self-improvement and activity! I could just hear him calling me a West Side construction project, telling people I’d been closed for repairs. He would have moved on from The Jeffersons theme to singing me the entire score from My Fair Lady.
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to invade your privacy, dearie,” Buzz said now as we sat in the kitchen. “But let me ask you something. Do you happen to have anything else to eat in this lovely place other than these motherfucking grapes?”
I hadn’t expected things to go well when Fisher introduced me to his friends either. I was certain they would view me with suspicion and hostility from the start, afraid anything I said would expose me as the twentysomething fraud that I was. Instead, the warmth and casual regard they cast upon me shocked me into silence.
Fisher’s best friend, Vern, who was about his age and taught in the same department at the college, would watch me with an odd mixture of longing and dismay, but he was always polite. Though once, when Fisher had taken a phone call and we were left sitting alone in the living room, he said, “Fish has been through a lot, you know, but he seems quite happy again. Let’s keep it that way, shall we?”
His tone was cordial enough when he said this, but his eyes were hooded and probing, as if he could see right through me, all the way back to Pennsylvania and straight into my heart.
“Yes” was all I could think to say. “Let’s.”
Fisher often talked me up like a press agent with Vern and his other friends—with Jim, who did something for the UN, and Jim’s wife, Clare, a fundraiser for a dance troupe, and Noreen, who lived in Fisher’s building and was a prop master for Broadway shows.
They were all established, successful, and middle-aged, these people. I realize now that Fisher must have looked pretty foolish as he bragged about my alleged high school athleticism, my phantom plans for law school, and my real-life temp work. Even my invented persona, the main ingredients of which were law-abiding modesty and youthful effervescence, didn’t leave much to boast about. And still Fisher praised my wit, and had me do my impressions of some of the lawyers I’d encountered at work, and this did get some genuine laughs. He was always trying to put me forward, to have me share my own opinions.
“So, Vincent, tell Clare what you thought about the Degas exhibit at MoMA,” he might say, nodding and smiling.
At which point I would usually just mimic whatever he had said, but in a bubbly and interested tone. Maybe he was trying to prove to these people that I was somehow more worthy and substantial than I appeared. Maybe Fisher was trying to prove it to himself, especially after all those golden years with Charles.
It soon became clear to me, however, that the goodwill swimming my way from his friends had very little to do with any first impressions I had made, but was instead the result of the love all these folks felt for Fisher. I was simply benefiting from my own proximity to him. It was like reflected sunlight or the clear skies brought on by a high-pressure system. Vern’s devotion to Fisher was especially obvious in every heart-crushing glance he aimed in his old friend’s direction. None of these people would have hurt him for the world, and so I was given a free pass and they let me alone.
I occasionally gave thought to coming clean, to just telling Fisher the truth about my past. I mean, was my actual history really all that bad? So I never went to college. So I’d been arrested a couple of times. So I’d had a substance abuse problem, been to bed with some guys for cash and prizes, and shot a porn video. I hadn’t killed anybody. But I figured I’d probably have to lead with that part and work my way backwards. “Look, I never killed anybody, but…”
Fisher was the sweetest person I’d ever known. His sweetness fizzed up from deep within him like water from a secret spring or something, but he also had the sort of strict moral compass that prevented him from taking free soda refills at McDonald’s. I was worried that my revelations might devastate him—and also get me kicked out into the street.
One night in bed, in the middle of the summer, while we were curled around each other, the ceiling fan whirring above us, Fisher told me about how hard it had been for him and for Charles when they first came out, after they’d fallen for each other and begun to share a life. This had been pre-Stonewall. Their families had disowned them immediately, which was crushing for both of them, though later there would be reconciliations and apologies. He was telling me this, Fisher said, because he was worried I must still be suffering from the estrangement with my own parents and from the memories of being physically tossed from my home.
“I just don’t want you to give up hope about seeing them again,” he said. “My people came around eventually, and that was over twenty years ago. It’s a better world today.”
Of course, the truth was that I had never come out to my parents at all and was long gone before they had the option of banishing me. They didn’t even live together, having gotten divorced when I was twelve, each marrying the person they had waiting in the wings and starting new and improved families. After that I became superfluous, like an extra nipple or a sixth toe, as I bounced back and forth between the two busy, growing households. My teenage attitudes and troublemaking ways didn’t exactly help matters. But I’d never been the center of attention anyway, even before the divorce. I suppose I was the living reminder of the bad blood that existed between my parents and the unhappy life they had previously shared.
By high school I was mostly on my own, couch surfing at friends’ places most nights or occasionally shacking up with guys I’d met in the Harrisburg bars, which I would crash with a fake ID. I rarely saw my parents after I got out of school. I think that old phrase describes it best: there was no love lost between us. They knew I’d gone to New York, because I’d approached them both for some financial help with the move, which they had each categorically refused.
We hadn’t been in touch since then, which was perfectly fine with me.
However, Fisher’s concern had an impact on me that night. I knew he had really fallen for me. I should have told him the truth right then. He might have been as sympathetic to this real story of my family as to the one I had fabricated, and then who knows what might have happened? But that thought didn’t occur to me until much later. Besides, I wouldn’t have done anything to jeopardize the trip to Denmark.
In August, after the summer session ended at the college, Fisher was supposed to present his paper on modernism at a conference in Copenhagen, a city he had visited before and liked. I would go with him to Copenhagen, but first we would be meeting up with some friends of his, a straight couple he’d known for many years. They had rented a vacation house at the northern tip of Denmark, and we would be staying with them for a few days. It would be “our first little holiday together.” That was how Fisher described it. I had never even been on a plane before, let alone out of the country. I chose not to lie about this, and Fisher found it rather charming. He paid to have my passport application expedited, bought the tickets, and made all the arrangements.
Buzz, of course, was ecstatic for me and probably a little jealous, an all-expenses-paid trip being the equivalent of hard currency
“Finally,” he said when I told him. “Some progress.”
The notion of foreign travel had always appealed to me—the possibilities of glamour and fresh surroundings and the idea that one day I could tell people about the places I’d been, as if I was a citizen of the world. We flew from JFK into Copenhagen, on a plane filled with so many high-spirited summer backpackers that it felt like an airborne keg party.
We arrived in Copenhagen in the early morning, then changed planes and flew north to the Aalborg airport, where Fisher’s friends were to pick us up. The winds were strong on the short flight, and our small plane was tossed around so violently that I was too frightened to look out the window. I was a big guy, used to swaggering around at all hours in rough neighborhoods. Nothing much scared me, so my discomfort amused Fisher some, though he patted my hand anyway and whispered some reassuring things in my ear.
We were picked up at Aalborg by his friends Nils and Freida, who, when they weren’t on vacation like this, lived on a small farm in northern Sweden. Fisher told me he and Charles had been quite close to this couple, traveling with them on a number of occasions, all around Scandinavia and to other destinations in Europe. He’d met them during a sabbatical year when he was doing some research for a book on Isak Dinesen, a project he’d eventually abandoned. I was surprised when I first saw them waving at us across the terminal, this short, bespectacled pair in their mid-fifties. I suppose I was expecting some vigorous Nordic specimens or maybe actual Vikings. They hadn’t seen Fisher since Charles died, as they’d been unable to come to the funeral, so there was a difficult moment at the airport when the three of them fell upon one another and hugged for a long time. Fisher’s face looked watery and crumpled when he pulled away from this embrace, but the Swedes were more in control of their emotions and they just blinked a lot. They greeted me with brisk kindness and then we headed off in their poky little car for the trip to Skagen, where they had rented the house.
The flat, grassy countryside that streamed past didn’t look too different from what I remembered of that ill-fated trip to the Hamptons with the banker, except here the houses were more modest and spread around the landscape like markers on a board game. Then we reached Skagen, and the scenery and the quality of light stunned me to the point of disorientation. The town was situated on a peninsula, against a wild landscape of shifting dunes, field grasses, and fir trees. The light was spellbinding, like flashbulbs going off everywhere I looked. The white-sand beach strobed and popped before my eyes, and the sky rose above the rolling ocean like a great blue screen. It was the place on the map where the Baltic meets the North Sea, their waves clashing for eternity.
As Nils drove (in an erratic and worrisome manner), Freida turned around from the front seat to point out some landmarks (the art museum, a lighthouse or two). She spoke slowly, in careful English. Her phrasing was genteel, and she had a hint of a British accent, making her sound like a governess in one of the old costume dramas that Fisher liked to rent at the video store.
The vacation house was close to the beach, yellow-plastered, with a red-tile roof and a white picket fence.
“A typical Skagen house,” Nils told us as we climbed out of the car.
He spoke faster than his wife, but with the same formal lilt in his voice. Fisher and I were to have the large bedroom on the second floor, which was sparsely furnished, with just the bed and a pine dresser. The windows looked out to the impeccable beach and the sea beyond. We’d slept some on the plane, but after we put our bags down, Fisher and I stretched out on the bed, with its clean white sheets, to rest for a while.
“We’ve arrived,” Fisher whispered as he reached out to hold my hand. He’d been watching me with a sort of shrugging wistfulness ever since we left New York, and it pleased me now to shut my eyes and focus on all the miles we’d traveled between here and there.
I liked the Swedes, their blunt observations and unfussy ways. They were friendly to me, treating me like a lost pet who had stumbled into their yard. I felt that at any moment they might pat me on the head. They smiled encouragingly whenever I joined in the conversation or asked questions. And I saw them notice the affection in Fisher’s eyes when he glanced my way, and I could tell that this pleased them too. Our age difference didn’t seem to faze them—perhaps evidence of Scandinavia’s tolerance for free love, a stereotype I’d occasionally seen perpetuated on the silly American sitcoms of my childhood.
Fisher spoke enough Swedish for the three of them to fall into private conversations every once in a while, as we walked into town or picnicked on the beach. I wondered if this was when they spoke of Charles (I heard his name now and then in the gale of foreign words), perhaps sharing some memory of their time together on some longer, better vacation. I used to think that Charles couldn’t be so perfect, that something dark and sinister would eventually surface about him, that he’d be revealed as an embezzler or a pyromaniac, a bully or a cheat. But aside from an apparent fondness for eating in bed and a habit of losing his keys (the only two examples Fisher offered when I pressed him for some less-than-flattering details), Charles continued to float around us pretty much as advertised, no matter which language was being spoken.
At supper on our third evening in Skagen, we were sitting around an old wooden table in the kitchen. Fisher had dubbed this furniture “Danish not-somodern.” We were eating some typical examples of the local cuisine: pickled herring and liver paste. There was a discussion going on about the differences between Sweden and the USA, a favorite topic of the Swedes, who seemed to admire the States, but in measured doses.
“Your America is such a brutal and sentimental country,” Freida announced at one point, citing the dismal legacy of the Vietnam War and a Hollywood date movie they’d reluctantly seen.
“Yep,” Fisher had agreed, “that sounds about right.”
“In Sweden this would not happen,” Nils said, shaking his head, but I was unsure whether he was talking about Vietnam or the film or maybe both.
This would not happen in Sweden and In Sweden this would not be allowed were common retorts on the part of Nils and Freida. Earlier, they had explained that in Sweden baby names had to be approved by the government. You couldn’t name your kids after rock bands or anything else that might seem whimsical. This didn’t seem to bother them much. The rest of the conversation that evening had centered on our sightseeing experiences in the town and Fisher’s upcoming conference in Copenhagen, which he was looking forward to. I stayed quiet, grinning good-naturedly at them. I realized that these grins, along with my cheerful reactions and easygoing demeanor, had become my trademark personality. I felt like an overage Boy Scout, but this, after all, was the persona I had created for Fisher, the one he had fallen for and that had brought me here.
I continued to eat, wondering whether I preferred the liver paste to the gravad laks, the salt-cured salmon we’d had for lunch that afternoon. We’d picnicked on the beach with the salmon and some rye bread sandwiches, hunks of Havarti cheese, and bottled water. Something had happened at the picnic. I was still thinking about it. After I’d eaten my sandwich, I had wanted to go for a swim, but Fisher and Nils and Freida told me the water was much too cold for that, even though the day itself was sunny and warm.
“You’ll regret it,” they all said.
Their snooty disapproval annoyed me. I was, after all, a functioning adult. I noticed a group of young people a bit further down the beach, wading in the waves, so I shucked off my T-shirt, threw it at Fisher, and headed their way.
The boisterous little group greeted me happily when I joined them in the water—which was freezing, as I’d been warned, but I was too stubborn to turn back. I made some obvious comments about the bone-chilling temperature and everyone laughed. They might have been high or even a little drunk. It turned out they were Danish friends in their twenties, two men and three women, renting out another vacation house on the beach. It was tough to say how any of this crowd was paired up, but the most beautiful one of the group, muscular, blond, and male, took a liking to me immediately.
This guy tottered over as the waves crashed around our midsections and shook my hand. He squeezed my shoulder and asked in flawless English how long I had been in Skagen, where I was staying, and where I was from. He seemed very impressed that I lived in New York City, mentioning some Martin Scorsese movies and a magazine article he’d read about the Chelsea Hotel. From the moment he approached me, his intentions were unmistakable and breathtaking, spoken in the universal language of arousal and pursuit. His friends all seemed amused by this and even joked with him in Danish. They were probably used to his flirtatious, philandering style. The other guy there didn’t seem to mind. He was just as amused as everybody else, so I assumed these two weren’t a couple, but who knew what their situation was? This was Denmark.
“Are you traveling with your… parents?” the guy, whose name was Alfons, asked me as he motioned up the beach. He smirked when he asked this, as if he had already figured everything out concerning my past, present, and future. I looked back over my shoulder at the picnic. I could tell Fisher was watching us now, but I hoped he wouldn’t yell anything or come my way.
“No, I’m here with my…” I could have said anything to this stranger. Instead I just let the answer hang there, like the gulls circling above us. Then I dove into the water and took some strokes. I bobbed around about twenty yards from shore, catching my breath. Alfons had followed me out. For a while we treaded water, just staring at each other. He was so ridiculously handsome, I laughed out loud.
“I come out here every morning about five,” he said. “There’s no one on the beach at that time. You should come.”
His smile was dazzling.
I was buzzed by the flattery, the unexpected lightning-quick aspect of it. Even in the icy water, I could feel myself getting hard.
“Thanks,” I said, looking toward the beach, where Fisher had stood up and was kicking sand around, “but probably not this trip.”
I swam back to shore.
At the dinner table that evening, Nils and Freida suddenly turned their attention to me, bringing me back from my vivid musings on Alfons. It felt as if someone had switched a light on over my head. Later I would wonder if I had misread their affection and they were conducting some sort of fact-finding mission.
“So, Vincent, where are you from in America exactly?” Nils asked.
“And what do you do?” Freida said at the same time. “Fisher says it is some kind of momentary work.”
Laughing, I named the region of Pennsylvania I was from, describing it, as I’d done with Fisher, in conventional small-town terms, without mentioning the smokestacks, the pervasive racism, or the drug trade. Then I did my best to explain temping, though this was not a concept the Swedes appeared to understand.
“We do not have this in Sweden,” Freida said with finality.
I laughed at that, too, and smiled some more. It was all very friendly and pleasant. And then Nils asked where I had gone to school, so I named the small college up in Maine.
“Oh, I know that place,” Nils said brightly. “We spent a good deal of time in Maine one summer. It reminded us of our area of Sweden. Do you remember, Fisher? We flew over and stayed with you and Charles in Manhattan for a week and then Freida and I drove up to Maine and Canada for the rest of our vacation.”
Fisher nodded and poured himself some Danish wine.
“In what town was your school?” Nils asked. “I am sure we passed through this place.
Isn’t there a large stone cathedral in the middle of your campus?”
I stammered. I knew nothing about cathedrals. I didn’t even know the actual town. I never had known, only that it was way up north.
“It was way up north,” I said.
“Yes,” Freida said, “but the town?”
There was a lengthy, awkward pause as they all stared at me with their glasses raised, as if there was about to be a toast.
“Outside of Portland,” I muttered. Portland was the only city I knew in Maine. Why I didn’t just make up a fake place, I’ll never know.
“But that can’t be,” Fisher said. “Portland isn’t anywhere near the northern part of the state.”
“Oh, you’re right,” I said quickly, pounding the table so hard that the plates rattled. “But I used to fly into Portland on my way up there and then take a bus the rest of the way.”
Fisher put his wineglass down.
“You used to fly into Portland? But you told me you’d never been on a plane before this trip.”
I was breathing funny now, and I knew my face must be turning red. Did the Swedes understand the significance of what was going on? I couldn’t tell. I only knew that it was the first time I’d seen Fisher look at me with anything other than trust in his eyes.
“Yes. No,” I said, stupidly. “It’s true. I hadn’t been on a plane before. That’s right. Did I say I took the plane to Portland? I meant train.”
My voice was high-pitched and artificial, a lunatic’s voice. I wasn’t convincing anybody.
There was still no answer about the name of the college town either, and that question swirled dangerously around the table for a moment like radon. Then Nils was telling us about how he and Freida had been stopped at the Canadian border by overzealous customs officials who had confiscated their jars of blueberry jam. They’d been practically strip-searched. I laughed too loud at this story and when I looked over at Fisher I saw he’d gone back to swigging his wine.
He didn’t say anything later when we went up to our room, and I certainly wasn’t about to start a major conversation right then, right there, halfway around the world and with the Swedes downstairs. Instead he was quiet and polite as we got ready for bed, a muffled version of who he already seemed to be. When we climbed under the sheets, I turned away.
“Vincent, Vincent, Vincent,” Fisher said gloomily, but I didn’t answer. I waited for him to say something else, but eventually he turned away too.
His voice had sounded slurry. Maybe the wine had knocked him out. At home he didn’t drink much. I wondered whether, because of the alcohol, he hadn’t really noticed the slipup about the college town, or my own flustered and guilty reaction to it. This was a foolish thought. Of course he had. I began to resent the fact that I was being made to fret about all this, that it was keeping me awake. It didn’t help that this far north, there was about twenty hours of summer daylight and we had no curtains on those ocean-facing windows, so I lay awake for hours, dozing off briefly before I was jolted back into consciousness. The small travel clock next to the bed read 4:45. I wondered if my body was responding to some internal alarm, my erotic subconscious nudging me awake at the promise of muscular Alfons stalking the beach. I got up as quietly as I could, threw on some shorts, and slipped out of the house.
It was gray outside. I felt as if I was moving through a black-and-white photograph as I made my way toward the water. I was thinking (if I was thinking at all) that some bone-crushing sex with Alfons, a beautiful boy my own age, would be just what I needed to bring me back to myself. It seemed important, in that moment, for this to occur. I hadn’t been myself for a while. And in some irrational way, I was still trying to blame Fisher for what had happened the night before with the Swedes. Maybe fucking around would help with that too. But when I got to the beach, there was no sign of Alfons. I mostly felt good about that, because my head had begun to clear by then and I was having second thoughts. Relieved, I turned back toward the house.
That was when I saw him cutting across the sand toward me in the dim light.
“I’m glad you decided to come,” he said as he approached.
Then he grabbed me and kissed me hard on the mouth. He led me along the shore to an area where the dunes were partly shielded by some high grass, where he pulled me down with him, yanking my shorts off and stripping off his own. His hands and mouth were on me everywhere. He was even more beautiful than he had looked in the water, but I was fully awake now and it was all happening too fast. I could tell this was a colossal mistake, some point of no return. But I couldn’t stop it. My body was responding, all on its own, while my mind remained distracted and uneasy. All I could do was try to mimic Alfons’s movements, as if I were following dance steps. Alfons could sense my reluctance, too, and this really seemed to annoy him. He wasn’t used to indifference. He mumbled what I assumed were some unkind words in Danish and then he roughly pushed my head down to his crotch. At one point I thought I heard something above us, but as I tried to shift away, he continued to hold me down and slapped me hard on the jaw. When he was finished, he got dressed without even looking at me and stomped off down the beach. I sat in the dunes and imagined what it would feel like to be the kind of person who might cry in this situation.
After a while, I put my shorts on. The sun was up now and the sky looked rinsed and clean. I was alone on the beach. When I got back to the house, the Swedes were still asleep, but I could hear Fisher banging around upstairs. I went up to our room and watched him from the doorway as he rushed back and forth.
“Fisher,” I said.
He was packing my bags in a frenzied way, whirling and spinning like a planet. He wouldn’t look at me at first or acknowledge my presence. Then, in a sharp, unrecognizable voice, he explained how he had followed me that morning and seen me in the dunes with Alfons. “I should have known,” he repeated a few times, bitterly, as he clambered about. “Vern has been warning me since I met you, but I was too stubborn to even listen to him. Too stubborn and too vain, no doubt. A fool for love. That’s what they call it. First the stupid lies last night, and now this! Christ! Fuck! Shit!”
Fisher drop-kicked my toiletry bag across the room. I’d never heard him curse before. For that matter, I’d never known him to express any anger at all. It was surreal and mesmerizing to watch, as if his rage were some rare astronomical event. When he spoke, it sounded as if he wasn’t getting enough air into his lungs. I remember thinking that someone needed to remind him to breathe. But I was having my own difficulties. I felt, in those moments, as if I might separate and rise up from my body, like the times when I went to bed with those guys from the bar—my old disappearing act.
“You must go now,” Fisher said, his voice choppy, putting periods after each word.
Not only that, but I must never make any attempt to see him again. I could tell he meant what he was saying and that it would remain a nonnegotiable point. His voice was still breathless, but now he was over-enunciating everything, as if he was reading from cue cards at a high altitude. He had stopped pacing and begun to calm down. He handed me my plane ticket and my passport and a generous amount of cash, a mixture of Danish kroner and dollars. Although taking the bills, under those circumstances, humbled me, I didn’t refuse them or give any back. (I didn’t like to remember that part later.) Fisher told me to find my own way to Copenhagen, change my ticket, and leave the country as soon as possible. He would be staying for the conference and he did not want us on the same flight back to New York. When he got home, he said, he would pack up my things and leave them with the doorman. Finally, he made me turn over my keys to the apartment, the expression on his face as wrecked and miserable as it had been the day the Swedes met us at the airport, when they’d all hugged one another, remembering poor, dead Charles. By then I knew we were beyond apologies or explanations. Those images from the beach were probably playing in his brain now on some lurid, continuous loop. I didn’t try to say anything. I was in my own dazed state. I didn’t say anything at all.
I didn’t go back to New York City, not right away, at least. I had the money Fisher had handed over and more of my own, some extra cash hidden in one of my bags, which I realize, in retrospect, I might have put there in anticipation of some calamity. I also had a nice, expensive camera, a present from Fisher in honor of my first trip abroad, which I sold to a noisy Australian backpacker who admired it at the Skagen train station, which was where I had walked after I left the house. The minute he expressed his interest, I told him to make me an offer.
After that, I traveled around Europe, on the cheap, sleeping on night trains or checking into bustling youth hostels. I made my way out of Scandinavia, first stopping in Amsterdam and then Brussels before I arrived in Paris. I stayed there for a while, gawking at the must-see attractions and wandering through the Marais, the city’s gay district. I’d picked up some Let’s Go guides at an English-language bookstore across from the Pompidou Center, which looked like a jumble of colored drainpipes. Then I traveled through the Alsace region, where it was cold and rainy most of the time. After that, I found myself in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva. This must have been very beautiful, but I mostly remember a museum there, much touted, that housed the works of the mentally ill and the criminally insane.
I liked the aimless pace of all this, my loose adherence to time, my traveler’s ingenuity. I was a leaf caught in a slow, foreign current. At the end of September I found myself in Florence, of all places, and there, on my very first night, I met a married Italian in a bar. It was an establishment not so different from the ones I had frequented back in New York. He was an older man, of course, stocky and leering. He was a local wine merchant, it turned out, with an unhappy wife in Fiesole and a grown daughter in Milan. The daughter kept track of costumes for the glossiest productions at La Scala. Luca thought I was very handsome, or so he said in his passable, booming English. He pretended I was more amusing than I was too, nodding cheerfully at me whenever I spoke, working harder than was really necessary.
When I told him that I was just passing through and my funds were running low, he rented me a tiny furnished apartment on the fifth floor of a run-down building near Santa Croce, with a broken elevator and a crumbling marble staircase. He gave me a small allowance each week. In this way, I briefly became the Florentine version of Buzz, whom I’d been sending stupid and cryptic postcards from my various stops along the way. Most days I was quite idle, waiting for this man, who was not a particularly pleasant or intelligent person, to show up for some insistent, slobbering sex and a few shards of dull conversation. My Italian never got beyond the peppy salutations phase. I was aimless in Florence. I liked to visit the Uffizi (when there weren’t strikes) and stand in front of the masterpieces, affecting a look of understanding and refinement, but the paintings didn’t really transport me, not in the way the guidebooks told me they should.
One day, while standing in the Renaissance room, I heard an American woman say to her husband, “If I see one more John the Baptist Head on a Platter, I’ll slit my own throat.”
It had been a long time since I’d had a good laugh.
Every morning, I’d walk along the filthy Arno or hike up to San Miniato al Monte, the famous Romanesque basilica, which sits at one of the highest points in the city. I’d stand in the plaza there, staring out at the famous view of Florence’s terra-cotta roofs, and wonder about the mess I’d made. I couldn’t stop thinking of Fisher. I wondered if I should have handled things differently after he confronted me with what he’d seen on the beach, if I should have confessed everything and told him how I felt about him and about our lives since we’d met. I probably should have done this, even if he refused to believe me. For the truth was, as I sat in those dunes rubbing my sore jaw, my feelings for Fisher had suddenly become quite clear. How anxious I was to see him that morning, on my way back to the house, as I crossed the sand!
When Luca tired of me (I’d become the grumpiest of rent boys) and the existence I was leading in Europe became unsustainable, I returned to New York, which was in the middle of another lousy winter. Buzz let me crash with him in his studio as long as I made myself scarce when the orthopedist showed up for their conjugal visits. It took me a while to pull it together, longer than it should have, but things could have turned out a lot worse. I did stop hustling eventually—my version of it, at least. In my thirties, I even went back to school part-time and got a business degree. I was an office manager in a law firm by then, which has more or less become my career. My own time in the word-processing pool has made me sympathetic to the secretaries and temps, so most of them like me and don’t give me any trouble. And I never let sentiment get in the way of staffing decisions either, and this is what the partners value most.
I came across Fisher’s obituary today when I Googled him out of curiosity, something I’d never done before. He died last year, “after a brief illness.” Since we parted ways in Denmark, he had written a few more books and retired from teaching. A devoted husband and stepchildren were listed as survivors, and a grandchild too. Charles the Great was also in there, of course, mentioned as the predeceased spouse. What pleased me was that he had apparently found love again in his life.
After reading about Fisher’s passing, the memories of our time together came back to me suddenly and with some force, like a cloudburst—especially the ones from when we first met in the park. When my lunch hour ended that day, I had put my shirt on and stood up. Fisher had stood up too, rather hastily. He hadn’t yet worked up the courage to ask if he could see me again. Something was telling me I should just leave this guy alone. As we were making our way out of the park, Fisher was carrying his blanket and towels and the work he’d brought with him. His books and papers kept spilling out all over. He looked like someone on a stage trying to get a cheap laugh. But finally he got control of his belongings and looked up at me, flushed and hopeless, and that was when I first smiled at him, a true and proper smile, and I remember it came to me quite involuntarily, in spite of myself.