The 2000 documentary Keep the River on Your Right follows the aging Tobias Schneebaum as he returns to the old stomping grounds of his transgressive field work—the places where he slept with his male subjects and, most notoriously, participated in light cannibalism when the Peruvian Indian tribe that adopted him attacked the neighboring village. But when I met him for the first time after an Asia Society lecture in the mid-’70s, he just talked about the wagging of his penis as a form of Asmat greeting. A couple of decades later he became a lead “boy” in the life of my great-aunt, one of the two elderly gay men who dined with her weekly as she headed through her nineties and beyond, almost blind, almost deaf, and eventually almost senile.
About when I was finishing high school, Tobias sat next to my grandmother and me at a family dinner in a stuffy midtown restaurant and told me about his conjugal visits to his lover at Attica, a hustler who’d been unfairly jailed when his old, white, and (if memory serves) married john died in the midst of some complex s/m maneuvering.
“What was that, Tobias?” asked my grandmother from across the table, suddenly focusing in on our conversation.
“He wanted to be tied up too tightly,” he patiently explained.
Did my aunt call them “boys” because of the 20 years she had on them? She had 60 on me, but I ceased to be a “boy” after puberty. Was it a gay signifier from a distant era, some Peter Pan vision of queerness? It may just have been about camaraderie, her posse, her boys.
I met Floriano, the other lead boy, at his Tuscan house during a magical mid-’70s summer but grew to know him (and Tobias too) on the nights two decades later when I joined them at my aunt’s apartment. She’d drink gin and tonics, chain-smoke Benson & Hedges, and tell the stories we’d heard so many times before: escorting George Bernard Shaw to the Royal Albert Hall only to be embarrassed by his refusal to stand up for “God Save the King,” feeling terribly upset when Maria Callas cruelly dispatched her first husband, Meneghini, for Onassis—a sore point nearly half a century later.
Floriano was a painter and lithographer. In the mid ’90s, his friends paid for a show of his work, which featured his large paintings of the Passion: the descent from the cross, the Last Supper. A friend of his (who maybe didn’t just happen to be African American) had modeled for every role: 13 Alans spanning the famous table. After that high point, Floriano grew sadder. His years at the Tiber Press, where (with his long-dead lover Richard) he published works by people like Frank O’Hara and Georgia O’Keeffe, were now so long ago. Famous dead friends (he told me he taught Warhol to silkscreen) did nothing to gain him recognition. His cherubic cheeks stayed lovely, though, as well as the curly white hair, which must have been Aryan blond when he roamed around postwar Rome with Mastroianni on his Vespa.
Tobias and Floriano, who were best friends but as far as I know never lovers, hardly ever came on the same night, as the point was to fill as many of my aunt’s evenings as possible. Insatiably social, she was upset one New Year’s Eve well into her nineties to hear no commotion on the street when she opened the window. The boys couldn’t stand to have her even a little lonely or a little bored. They’d take my blind aunt, leaning on her “stick,” which was what she called her cane, across the street to her Italian restaurant.
Toward the end of the ’90s, after kitchen floods and near-fires, Novlet Ebanks (who had been taking care of my aunt during the day for a year or so) agreed to spend the nights as well. Before that, though, one ofthe boys would bring my aunt back home in the evening after she’d finished her espresso and cigarettes, help her out of her old-fashioned undergarments (enormous bras) and tuck her in for the night.
The boys first got to know my aunt when she was already in her eighties but had a good decade of her generous storytelling. They’d tell her own stories to her after she could no longer remember them, fictional nonfictions. There was the one in which a very young Vladimir Horowitz desperately grabbed her arm in the back of a car on some wintry Long Island evening, hearing dogs bark and saying (in the old days my aunt would attempt to Russianize her slightly Margaret Dumont–like New York accent), “Wolves? Wolves?” A photograph of a familiar woman gazing adoringly at the pianist at the peak of his languid youth makes the story more plausible.
There was the unfortunate case of a much, much younger boy, a hustler, freelance writer, and meth addict avant la lettre, who played my aunt’s piano for her, dined with her, loved her in his own way, no doubt, but grew gradually more blatant in his stealing from her. In his memoir, published a few years after his expulsion from my aunt’s midtown Eden, he offended me by saying that they had been “in love.” Infatuated by the sounds of her own piano, perhaps, but I could not imagine him taking his place in the pantheon of her great affairs, alongside the Spanish pianist who got Rivera to make a drawing for her and the Lebanese antiquities dealer who snuck her into the Damascus of the ’30s by claiming she wasn’t Jewish. Tobias (who was one of the younger boy’s lovers) and Floriano were pained and no doubt conflicted, but managed with careful diplomacy to maintain their connections both with him and with us.
When she could no longer make it across the street, my aunt and the boys would order food, mostly Chinese, and after drinks solemnly parade through the deteriorating apartment to the dining room. In her last few months, she shrank wholly into herself, but that did not discourage them. They’d chat with Novlet while they ate, then approach my aunt in her chair, and if she did not demand solitude (“Go away! Leave me in peace!”), they would shout details of their own lives into her nonfunctioning ears to maintain the idea that she was still with them.
By the time of my aunt’s death in the summer of 2002, the boys were on their way out as well. Parkinsoned, Alzheimered, and weak-hipped, Tobias negotiated the trips to Peru and New Guinea required by Keep the River on Your Right, and the public appearances after it came out. He managed to accept, with the calm resignation of which he had always been master, the loss of his much younger lover and domestic partner (who had fallen in love with someone else) as he moved toward his death at the end of this summer.
Every few months for years, Floriano endured procedures to keep his failing heart alive, but last spring he died on the floor near the door of the West 13th Street apartment in which he had lived for so many decades. Tobias, only a few months shy of his own death, was taken by Kwame, his Ghanaian home health aid, to the burial and managed to say a few words.
My aunt is gone, and the boys are gone. Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World gives us a conventionally unconventional family—two male former lovers and their pregnant friend. My aunt and the boys made a more peculiar one. They all had other family—my aunt had my parents and me; Floriano had a brother in Italy; Tobias, a nephew and sister-in-law—but their weekly dinners were fundamental. It was clear from early on that only death could stop them.
David Winner is a fiction writer and teacher.