An ’80s Memoir: A Decade of Death
January 2, 1990
Not very tall, less thin than he looked, with the kind of stage face that’s all geometry, wild surrogate hair sometimes twisted into implausible cones resembling the spires of that Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, flashy outfits knocked together from shards of purple Mylar, sequins, torn-up opera costumes: he’d appear in Mickey’s or the Mudd Club with an entourage of demented-looking freaks, install himself as a visual challenge exactly where the light was strongest. Hours later, the black lipstick and scab-colored eyeshadow creamed away, the wigs and costumes tucked in a closet, he entered the bar like a wisp, in ordinary denims and a plain khaki T-shirt, settling in the corner of one of those benches running under the windows, as if trying to merge with the burlap curtains.
His voice was a curiosity of nature, like Siamese twins. Years after he died, someone asked if I’d ever heard of him.
It began, someone said, with a hissing sound, like Enzensberger’s famous iceberg-thumbnail scraping across the Titanic’s hull: garish rumors, talk of impossibly grotesque pathology, and, as always in the face of the unknown, jokes, recounted with a modicum of nervousness, as if the efficacy of jokes in keeping things at tong’s length could not be assumed in this case, but only wished for, with fervor.
SUPPOSEDLY, SHE had access to realms he couldn’t reach with his own imagination. We knew her only vaguely. Delicate bones, high hair, a definite way with a cigarette, muted presence that could amplify without warning. Fey. Not shy, exactly. At times, cooler-than-thou. Her friends were in the music business.
The only thing he could do with her was make a movie about the pose. The look. The easiest available obsessions, transposed from a suburban Catholic girlhood. It turned out something like the George Romero vampire film set in Pittsburgh. You felt that everyone involved with it was choking underwater, even the musicians on the soundtrack.
The film was prophetic of the later idea that having Catholic saints rattling around in your brain could figure interestingly in your biography. Much of it revolved around fantasies of her martyrdom.
Then she died, spectacularly and by accident, the same day the film opened. He showed up at the premiere in a hazy conflation of art and life. The event had an ugly opportunistic taint that clung to him afterwards. Even people who understood that this was, in fact, his life, did not entirely appreciate the lack of conventional sentiment.
It was said to be some phenomenon of the nether fringe, a molecular revolt bubbling up from damp “Third World” environments, an exhaustion of the flesh by postmodern forms of mortification. The first descriptions of wounds, lesions refusing to heal, pedestrian ailments mushrooming into lethal afflictions, resembled the shocking litany of saints’ impalements, dismemberments, self-infection with leprosy.
HE MAINTAINED A novelty jewelry company out of a Tribeca loft while raising money for another movie, to be based on sadomasochist comic books published in Paris in the ’30s. I, who disliked him, was rehearsing Salomé with an actress he wanted to play “Claudine” in his movie. For reasons that remain mysterious, he contacted me and asked me to write the script.
We met twice. Once in the loft full of tacky punk mail-order paraphernalia, the second time in an apartment where she had lived, a block from my house. At the second meeting I realized that he was… well, haunted, what other word is there? Her dresses lined the open closets, her makeup was spread out before a giant round mirror on the vanity, compacts open awaiting her fingertips. The place was heavy with her scent, her aura; her presence was so emphatic that he seemed powerless and confused in the midst of it, as if he were clumsily obeying her residual wishes.
He had an affair, around that time, with a man in a theater group we were friendly with. It’s only worth mentioning because he and they were emphatically the “sensitive macho” types beloved by Eurotrash and Japanese fanzines devoted to “Downtown” and “Le East-Village” — anyway, then came the bowling craze.
Everyone went every night to a bowling alley on University Place to throw bowling balls while wrecked on coke. About him, there was… a lot of talk. Then no talk. In the spring, a lot of talk again. Finally he just came out and told everybody, “I’ve got it.” It was still far from clear what “it” was. Four weeks later he died of pneumonia.
I DID HIM IN THE toilet of an afterhours, then took him home. I’d desired him for months but this happened unexpectedly, in a blurry fever. I knew practically nothing about him. He’d been the lover of a friend of mine. He had drifted onto the scene. You’d sometimes find him sitting at your table with six other people, if you went for breakfast after the bar closed. He left town, much later he came back. I wanted him again “like anything,” as I told him in my irritating faux naïve manner of the period, but he asked me to write him a poem instead. He dropped from sight, sparking the usual true rumors. If you had heard that someone had been carried away by a spaceship, it would not have been different. I tried writing a poem for him, but nothing I came up with was any good.
Money fever. Jokes about Haitians. Cold city. A paradise for empty people, slickness without end, and here and there, suddenly, an unexpected person disappears following a brief, wasting illness.
HIS FORMER LOVER had the looks of a WASP in the marines, teeth so perfect they seemed false. A gossip of genius, he knew stories about all the old queens of New York literature, and had had his prong spit-shined by most of them at one time or another, too. We often nagged him to write his memoirs: what a pity if all that precious dish got lost! He had money troubles right up until the end, the end being accompanied by dementia, drastic weight loss, etc., etc.
SHE BOUNDS HOME FROM the hospital after days of hovering at his bedside. She calls: Oh, come over, I’ve got to read you something, it just started writing itself in my head! She reads what sounds like a verbatim transcript of what she’s overheard, her soon-to-be-prizewinning story. “Well,” I tell her, “I wonder how he’ll feel about it.” “Oh, he won’t mind,” she says, “he’s a big user of people himself.” After eons of writer’s block, she’s frighteningly avid these days. It’s becoming obvious that she thinks the epidemic could put her back on the map.
He’d been a sailor in the Australian Merchant Marine for 10 years, in places like Rangoon and Singapore. Then he hooked up with a film company in Africa, met a man he adored, moved to Munich with him. He became the assistant to a famous director, who occasionally tried stealing him from the lover. They both had affairs, but nothing too serious.
He later moved back to Sydney to start a distribution company. He and the lover now commuted between continents. He turned sick in a matter of months. They brought him back to Germany. A certain friend met a doctor who operated a private clinic. The doctor had a plausible-sounding, quack theory, that the disease was really something else, and offered treatment on an “experimental” basis.
The experiment was torture. He was not allowed painkillers and the virus had gone into his nerves. He became incontinent and bloody from bedsores. When they visited, they could hear his screams from the clinic parking lot. Next the friend suggested to an actress we knew that the doctor, overworked to the point of collapse, needed sex to revive his diagnostic genius. The insanity of the situation eclipsed everyone’s judgment. The actress found herself banging the doctor every day while listening to her friend’s shrieks in the adjoining room.
THE LOVER BLAMED himself for everything. “All the time he was dying,” he told me, “I was sexually obsessed with someone else, and fucking that person whenever I could, and now he has died also.”
He said there was nothing left to do but kill himself. And we both laughed. I said: Oh, there are treatments now, things are much better than before, they can do a lot. Soon they’ll be able to do more. Do you really think so? he said, and I said, Absolutely, yes. I want you to promise, if anything… develops, you’ll come here and let us take care of you. All right, he said, fine. Then he killed himself.
WAITING FOR miserable acts of faith to fail, we take some sort of proprietary comfort from the fact that he is still alive. There is always something further to do, and because he’s suddenly well-off, always money to investigate new medicines, underground treatments, experimental programs.
Memorials. A new way to be unhappy in a group. I visit a friend who can no longer speak. A few days later he’s dead. If you ask after people you haven’t seen for a while, be prepared. Sometimes, horribly, it was like this: someone you wanted to sleep with but didn’t got sick, and along with the horror came this ugly relief that you never fucked. Or: relief that someone who died was only a distant acquaintance instead of a close friend. Later, none of that made any difference.
AFTER HE DIED I started to see people in the street who looked like him. Not just from behind, but sometimes the face, the hair, the style of the jacket even, and one night on 23rd Street so close to where he lived the association was automatic, I followed the person for three blocks thinking I’d catch up or get close enough to call his name and when I did snap out of it I realized it didn’t matter if someone was alive or dead because every street in the city was now full of ghosts that I couldn’t distinguish from living people.
She told me over the phone that she didn’t think she would die.
“As far as I can figure out,” she said, “there’s only one or two things — one thing, really, that could get me, and unless it does—”
I remembered sitting behind her on a motorbike on the Amalfi Drive, both of us so drunk we could’ve driven straight off the cliffs with the tiniest flick of inattention. And we hadn’t, so why should this other thing be so impossibly final? Especially since we had pulled ourselves together, grown up, and had started living such responsible lives.
What I mean is, it would not surprise me if I saw her through a crowd on a busy street, with a dozen bracelets flashing on her arms, eyes shadowed in green, pink lipstick, her first words a brilliant exegesis on the nature of cabdrivers — why shouldn’t that happen, in the city of the dead? If I tell it now, this story begins and ends in a glass of wine, in a sense, with every detail present in a single moment. It’s the fate of all of us to persist in the mortal dreams of those whom we haunt. ■
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