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Neither of us wanted to talk about politics. Neither of us wanted to belabour the headlines. I talked about killing politicians. Geoff talked about protests and boycotts. “Why don’t you go take your nightly walk,” he said, when I brought up our government botching its coronavirus response. “Neither of us has the energy to risk another fight right now.”
Our political opinions were the same. We only expressed them differently. And I couldn’t blame Geoff for avoiding a fight.
Our last fight, after all, had led us to break up, the longest split we’d had since COVID-19 began – this one lasted nearly an hour. In our pre-virus lives, we might have taken arguments like these more seriously, but Geoff and I assured ourselves that being isolated at home caused the problems in the first place. That, and Geoff being so much older than I am.
Before the pandemic, I was deep in my 20s – 28, to be exact. I celebrated my 29th birthday during lockdown, knowing that by the time my life adopted its old order, I would be in my 30s, maybe even 31 or 32. Geoff is 73, and if our pairing seems unusual, let me assure you that I have a type.
I’m a cultural critic, with dim dreams of becoming a staff writer someday at a prestigious publication. Geoff is retired. His days of being a research librarian are behind him, as are his 40 years being married – to a man, now dead – and his stint being a dancer in a performance art troupe that made waves downtown in the late ’60s. When he was young, he slept with two of my heroes, Joe Brainard and Michel Foucault – the former was nice, shy, and sort of acid-damaged, the latter a very selfish, controlling, mediocre lover with a shockingly great body. The art world had overhauled itself four or five dozen times since Geoff was on the scene. By the time we met, Geoff liked to cook, read about politics, and write a short newsletter he sent to his friends about cuisines of the world.
Back in March, he got sick. We had just finished having sex when he came into the bathroom and told me that he was vibrating uncontrollably. His limbs moved like he was shivering. We pricked his thumb and took his glucose levels. We broke out the monitor and pumped up his arm, but the reading was not a matter of concern. We considered that the marijuana gummies we ate earlier might be responsible, but finally Geoff thought to take his temperature: 104°. At the hospital, we listed his preexisting conditions: diabetes, hypertension, a blocked coronary artery that led to the installation of a stent back in 1998. Could he have coronavirus? The doctor made fun of me for asking questions and told us that the state could not approve him for a test. “You probably have it,” she said, shrugging, “Who could know.” It took a month before he got the approval necessary to go to a military facility on Staten Island and get his nose swabbed. By the time the results came back positive, weeks had passed, his symptoms long gone. Months barrelled on – fast and weighty, like an 18-wheeler trying to pass on the highway. We drank a lot every night, bought a bong, the first I had smoked since college. Our desks were positioned so close in our studio apartment, pushed against adjacent walls, that our chairs clinked when we backed up too quickly, as though they were toasting.
Illness had brought us closer, but the return of good health split us apart. In between bouts of commiserating over our shared hatred for the Republicans, a question arose, usually over meals: What happened to our lives? I was supposed to go to Europe, funded by a grant, to write an essay. Geoff was supposed to make his semiannual trip to Los Angeles to visit his best friend Patrick, a single man in his late 70s who liked to put on bolo ties and go to gay cowboy bars and lived alone. In April, Patrick was found dead in his apartment. Geoff and I each had other men we saw from time to time, and now that we could not see them, our hook-ups had become friends, people we checked in on to make sure that they weren’t dead. We spoke to some of our friends on Zoom. Others were not fond of Zoom, or the phone.
“My future is nonexistent,” I told Geoff.
He said, “All my friends are dying or dead.”
“I have trouble writing when you interrupt me.”
“Patrick is dead.”
“I’m a complete and utter failure as a writer.”
“I hate when you hug and kiss me while I cook.”
“I do that out of love and affection.”
“I might have a knife in my hand.”
I contorted my face and raised my voice while I ranted about the selfishness and greed of politicians and corporate America, two bodies that had become all but indistinguishable over the last century, and the irony is that Geoff thought that I was angry at him. In reality, I was angry at everyone else besides him, and besides my other friends and lovers, all of whose politics are progressive.
I only wished that I could give them a hug. I had Geoff to hug.
We did agree on certain targets for our anger, such as people who did not wear masks. Granted, the maskless were low-hanging fruit. “Excuse me…?” we asked, emboldened because there were two of us. The dreadlocked man at the liquor store and the short guy at the supermarket both had forgotten that their masks were pulled down to their chins. “Sorry,” they said. Later, we saw the short guy beneath a scaffold during a rainstorm, a cart piled with books and clothes parked next to his nest of blankets. I gave him five dollars. I was impressed when Geoff told off a cop who was patrolling the subway stop. The cop pulled his mask up, walked part of the way down the platform, and pulled it down again, tauntingly. The most menacing of the maskless were the young white men who roved between the delis and their apartments, carrying cases of spiked seltzer in their muscled arms while walking as though their pectorals were too bulky for their frames, or as though they had just had a wooden broom handle shoved up their assholes. We never said anything to them, because they outnumbered us.
For Geoff, the city had changed beyond recognition. When we met, people had looked at him on the street, his eccentricity and his just-partnered glow. Now, he felt invisible. On his way to the supermarket or the liquor store, an earbud-wearing queer nearly bowled him over. A stroller cut him off. A bike almost mowed him down. Geoff came home and reported all of these occurrences angrily. I looked up from whatever piece of criticism I was working on at the time, wondering why he interrupted me. Of course, I understood Geoff’s feelings. After all, I enjoyed the daily game of stares men played in this city, which not even our masks could do away with entirely. Rude pedestrians and aggressive drivers bothered me, too. Bikes went the wrong direction down one-way streets, and motorcycles and mopeds had begun to ride on sidewalks and the pedestrian paths in parks and on bridges. We saw someone crash a rentable electric scooter into a parked car, and a whole fleet of dumb go-carts that resembled Batmobiles took over the West Side bike path one afternoon, revving their engines as though to scare pedestrians. Once, a skater did hit me. I was left unhurt and impressed by his amazing athleticism: The skater rolled off my back, landed on the board again, and stood on his toes, body wavering while he kept his balance and rode on.
Of course, it would have been much worse, if this same person had hit Geoff.
Recently, I was crossing Houston Street when a Nissan from New Jersey barrelled through the crosswalk and nearly clipped me. I hit the trunk, exclaiming. The driver undid her seatbelt and got out of the car: “I’ll destroy you.” We screamed at each other for a little while, dozens of cars behind her honking. When I turned back to the crosswalk, I could hardly believe what I saw. An editor at a publication I write for was staring at me while he crossed the street. He was masked, but I’m sure it was him – I knew his eyes, his hairline, his eyebrows, from the pictures I saw when I Google-searched his name. I don’t think he knew it was me. We had never met in person, only corresponded over email.
Another time, I hit the side-view mirror of a cab that ran a stop sign. This was before the pandemic: I walked to the next block before I turned, remorseful. The glass was shattered. The driver pulled over to the curb of the busy, narrow side street and turned his emergency lights on, setting his head in his hands while he surveyed the damage. A young businesswoman clopped around him, speeding on her high heels.
All of our breakups that summer ran together. I could hardly distinguish the reasons that they began or the torrential course they plotted through our nights. I could divide our breakups into two groups – breakups in which I packed my bags and those in which I did not. Sometimes, I think I broke up with Geoff just to prove that I could, that we each had the freedom to make changes in our lives.
As July bled into August bled into September, my feelings during the early months of lockdown turned full-blown with despair. I was not able to handle even the smallest of problems. Particularly not if the news upset me when I woke up, and the news invariably did. Or if I got an unfavourable and involved edit on a review I felt was finished, and there are always edits on finished pieces. One of these melancholy days, I accidentally knocked a cup from my desk and became so angry I threw a chair at the wall. I stubbed my toe and pulled a filing cabinet from its mount. I stomped a plastic garbage can when Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, and kept trampling until it was a heap of worthless shards: “I can’t stand this anymore!” “I can’t go on!” “I’m going to explode!” “I want to die!”
Geoff was no less upset than I was, but his rage eked out in less dramatic proportions. He offered to pay for me to see a psychologist, although this would have meant seeing a psychologist on Zoom while Geoff sat across the apartment with his earbuds on, trying not to listen.
He taught me the breathing exercises he had learned after his husband died. He suggested that I deal with politics more actively.
“Demonstrate,” he said, “Volunteer for election campaigns.”
I phonebanked. Most of the people who agreed to take my calls were elderly people. More often than I had expected, the people on my list were deceased.
“My wife died yesterday,” said a 73-year-old, void of emotion. “He’s no longer with us.” “Passed.” “My grandfather’s been gone seven years now, why do you keep calling about him? I’ve told you people four times this week. Can you take him off your list? Can you never bother me again?”
Sometimes, a potential voter answered but never said, “Hello,” and in the background I could hear televisions mumble, children run, barbershops and hair salons and social clubs brim with humanity. Rooms and routines sounded different than my own. On a couple of occasions, couples fought. Usually young couples, and often ones that were younger than I was.
Some of the campaigns asked us to log into a Zoom meeting while we made calls. I scrolled through the boxes at the top of the screen and looked at each speaker, their lips moving on mute while they talked to potential voters on the phone. I searched these other volunteers on Google and found out where they lived, what they did for money, whether they were heterosexual or not, if we had anything in common otherwise. Other times, I took screenshots of them, not to invade their privacy, but because their faces and homes moved me. I photographed people who put on makeup or combed their hair, and others who sat in their pyjamas. I photographed close-cropped elderly ladies and men with thick beards. Some had Peace on Earth posters, cheesy decor. Others called from bed, wore beanies that made their heads look like uncircumcised penises. There were young women who looked like they went to college with me and others who looked like they had colds, their turtleneck sweaters pulled up over their chins. Some wore masks, although I could only imagine that they were home, or sipped drinks out of reusable containers and mugs branded with cartoon characters. There were ping-pong tables folded up in the corners of rooms and ancient video game systems tangled in wires and photographs on mantelpieces and further reminders of children who had left home. So many of the people who phonebanked were in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, but there were younger people, too. Some of the potential voters thanked us for calling and told us that we were doing great things. They were usually older people, who felt that it was important to do that.
Geoff and I fought that summer because we were both unhappy and neither of us had many outlets, and the tenuous pact that each of us had made with his own unhappiness did not leave room for human error. Certainly, not on the part of a partner. Undoubtedly, I was a worse offender. I blamed Geoff for being old. I told him that I envied him for being able to have a life, a long relationship, a career, friendships that waxed and waned. I envied his ability to be in the world, to sharpen the cutting edge of New York as a young man and to sit in a building full of books as an older man, helping people find what they needed. Geoff had lived like a bohemian, an independent, directing his life apart from the sort of communal sacrifices his parents made during World War II and the Great Depression. By necessity, my own life would consist of increasing degrees of communal sacrifice – plus, the avant-garde was dead, without hope. Many times, I assured Geoff, I would be displaced from my home because of a natural disaster. The city I had bent my life to live in would become uninhabitable.
“But imagining the future isn’t how you approach the present,” Geoff told me. “All of the stuff you’re saying, it’s pure fantasy. The present isn’t you shooting a sniper rifle and becoming a vigilante. It isn’t you killing Donald Trump. That’s a movie plot. The present is you and I stuck in a room together. You’ve never even shot a pistol. You abhor guns. You hate violence. The present is writing, protesting, volunteering. The present is begging you to stay calm so you can be the best person you can be.”
“But I’m violence.”
“You’re not violence, darling. You’re going to be an emissary of peace and goodness in your time. Now stay calm.”
This was the end of our most recent fight. We had already been broken up for an hour, and after my backpack and wheelie were fit to bursting with my belongings, we reconciled. I don’t even remember what the fight was about, because our fights were never about anything. We fought to fight, continued fighting to win.
I always stoked the fire, once the embers were almost dead. For example, after Geoff said, “You’re going to be an emissary for peace and goodness in your time,” I walked over to the cupboard, pulled out the Japanese knife I had bought him for his birthday, and sliced my lips off.
I stayed in the hospital for two days. I was high on morphine most of the time. “No visitors allowed,” said the nurse who had become like my gay older brother. “Virus.” When they finally unwrapped my face, I noticed that the skin graft made me look like I had leprosy, or advanced syphilis. “Discharge is tomorrow,” he told me.
Geoff took me home on the subway. I cut the hairs that grew from my graft with a little pair of scissors once a week. Wearing the mask no longer seemed like a chore, because it made me look like a handsome gay man in his late 20s. By the time I can take my mask off, I’ll be invisible, or at the best, visible in the worst way. Then again, by the time I can take my mask off, I’ll no longer be in my 20s.
Geoff never laughed at jokes like these. He saw his shrink three days a week, cooked himself meals, and pureed my food in a blender we ordered since chewing hurt. The doctor answered my questions. She did not know if or when my situation would improve.
Mending our relationship was like building a bridge out of toothpicks and glue. I had always taken walks, but I had never walked so far in my life. Sometimes, I walked 10 miles. Other times, I walked 20.
Geoff was usually asleep when I came home. Many nights, he woke from a nightmare and called my name. The imagery of his dreams was relentless, repetitive. He was trapped in a house with a family member, and when he finally managed to leave, he ran from young men who wanted to kill him but ended up tearing each other to bits. I went over to the bed and hugged him.
“It’s not reality, dear,” I said. These words became less and less comforting the more I used them.
When Geoff was in a liminal state, I felt that he still loved me, the way he cried over my scars as though he had forgotten what happened. For a few minutes, he felt such terrible empathy, and then he remembered where he was, turned his body from mine as though annoyed, and said that he needed to go back to sleep. Otherwise, he’d feel even worse tomorrow than he did today.
“Do you want me to sit with you until you drift off again?”
He nodded, face slackening. Last night, when I put my hand on his ass, he did not squirm away.
Once, Geoff came home from the supermarket while I was looking at the photographs I took of the other people who phonebanked with me. I tried to explain what I saw in their faces. An optimism and determination, I said. Perhaps these qualities suggested another era, but they’re from our own era. I said, “These people are all fighting for a better future. It doesn’t matter how much they stand to benefit from this future, whether they’ll die in 10 years, 20 years, or 40 years. You can see in their gazes, and in how they stare at their computer screens, that they treat the world with the same importance. They even seem to be the same age. They all seem young or old. Either or. It makes no difference. Hope is the great levelling factor.”
“What a moving idea,” said Geoff. He smiled at me the same way he smiled in the beginning of the relationship, without any reservation, and kissed my head. Geoff went into the kitchen to purée my dinner. For a moment, everything was perfect, and happiness gurgled through our apartment like heat from an old radiator. And then I called, “You look at them, and how could you not want to leave your life behind, just so you could be with new people again?”
About Daniel Felsenthal
Daniel Felsenthal is a regular contributor to the Village Voice and Pitchfork, as well as the Assistant Editor of NOON. His short stories, essays and criticism have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Baffler, The Believer, Hyperallergic, Kenyon Review and BOMB, among others. In 2019, his novella, Sex With Andre, came out in The Puritan, and he received a 2020-21 Fellowship Grant from The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. He is currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories. Read more of his stuff at Danielfelsenthal.com and find him on Twitter @D_Felsenthal.
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