Maricón (Part 3)
And Jesus was asked by his students,— The Gospel of Thomas
“When does ‘rest’ for
the dead begin,
and when will the
new cosmos arrive?”
“What you are looking for is already here.
You simply have not recognized it.”
I got the call that Pedro had died from Father Andrew. Although I was fully prepared, those things always come as a shock. As I stood before the bathroom mirror, that summer morning, taking a good hard look at myself, I chastised myself for not being with him when he died; I blamed myself for being out so late, berated myself for being so hung-over. Putting on a pair of dark shades, to shield my eyes from the glare, I got ready for the last act of our little melodrama.
On the street, as I walked to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where his body waited, I dreaded seeing his corpse. I had been with him on and off for the final days, giving him massages, clipping his toenails, cutting his hair, and we had continued to argue and get pissed off at each other but we were still a bit in love before he slipped into the final coma.
As I passed a pair of boys, on the street, I noticed a fleeting quality of innocence on their faces, as the two youngsters bounced a basketball between them. As they frisked with their dog, I felt once again that innocent quality prior to the inevitable heartbreak, the cynical disdain. That quality of innocence I saw in those two boys, Pedro had seen in me that night at the opera in Central Park, a lonely boy by himself. If he hadn’t befriended me, I would have ended up in the gutter.
But what had I accomplished since I arrived in New York? Almost nothing. I was still caught up in the magic of the amusement park; the ups and downs of one-night stands, the consumer driven lonely city. I had turned into a professional fag. Everyone has a price tag and mine was getting slashed down to bargain basement prices, each year I got older. The gay crowd was getting aggressively younger, more Republican, and hostile to camp and irony. Growing older in a world that worships beauty and youth was a dismal prospect. Our elders had fled the scene, and like Pedro, they were vanishing into thin air, leaving me to fend for myself in a world of Peter Pansies, waving our magic wands in this never, never, never land.
When I got out of the elevator on Pedro’s floor at St. Vincent’s, I prepared myself for the worst, but what I saw when I entered his sun-drenched room, filled with flowers, was a relief. That quality of innocence I had seen in those young boys I saw in him when I entered his hospital room. I was unprepared for how beautiful he would look with his arms folded across his chest, the majestic calm of the countenance, as calm and ancient as the mask of an Egyptian pharaoh on a sarcophagus.
I took off my jacket, went to the side of his bed and kissed his forehead, which was smooth and cool. Father Andrew, Pedro’s oldest friend, who had known him at the seminary, stood on the other side of the bed, with a rosary in his hand. Father Andrew said to me, “You smell like vodka.”
“I was out late last night.” Shrugging my shoulders, still feeling the effects of the vodka, and the lack of sleep, I moved guiltily to the window and watched the street traffic below. Father Andrew stood at the head of the bed, and began to silently pray over Pedro’s dead body, while I, feeling ashamed of the alcohol on my breath, sat down, opened my brown paper bag, ate a doughnut, and sipped the coffee. The coffee tasted good. It was so ordinary, really. I was tired, very tired. I knew there would be no more fever, no more vomit, no more shit, no more blood, no more plans, no more poetry, no more Pedro. What a relief.
All of those memories of my arrival in the New York that I had loved, of leaving the Texas that I hated, flooded through my awareness. I watched those confused scenes as if I was fast forwarding with a remote control; they became jumbled up, out of order, nor was all of it pretty, and I was unsure if any of it was real. Now that I was past thirty, past my prime, I should know the difference between dreams, imagination, and reality, but I didn’t.
And though it was a summer day, this day at St Vincent’s, the day Pedro breathed his last, I kept thinking of winter and my mind was back there again revisiting my first winter in New York when I still lived in Hell’s Kitchen with Pedro. I tried to put it all in some kind of chronological order, but after all the booze and boys and cocaine from the night before there was a chaos in me that resisted my effort to figure it out.
As I glanced at Pedro’s body, I witnessed Father Andrew standing beside him whispering a prayer. Pedro, with his eyes closed, looked like he was deep in that other world, from which no traveler returns. I didn’t want to come back into present time, into the hospital room, and closed my eyes again, trying to escape, going back into my repertoire of memories again, looking for something to hold onto that wasn’t ugly and painful, but every memory, even the pleasant ones, hurt.
That hard, fast talking rhythm that I heard all around me, had crept into my own speech and behavior, and I had adapted to it. I had turned into a loud cartoon like everyone else. I was still nourished by the anxieties of the city, even as I was back then, when I first arrived off of the bus, in Times Square. I still thrived by being at the edge of chaos, but how long could this go on? My head ached.
Father Andrew asked me if I wanted another cup of coffee. I said no thanks. He said he would be back in a moment. I placed the chair next to Pedro’s bed, sat down and studied in silence his pale face, trying to feel something. And I guess that’s all there is.
Father Andrew had returned with a cup of coffee which he sipped as he gazed out the window. Father Andrew said nothing. He was a handsome man in his late forties with silver hair and a sensitive face. I liked him, though I knew him only slightly. Then he broke the silence. “Would you like an aspirin?” I thanked him and took the white pill he offered and swallowed it, washed it down with some of the coffee he offered. “I made the arrangements to have Pedro cremated.” I nodded my head in silence. “They are ready to take his body to the morgue.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I want to thank you for your to devotion to Pedro. You were a good friend.”
Father Andrew put a hand on my shoulder, which steadied me. He placed a pile of notebooks on my lap. “Pedro’s journals. He asked me to give them to you. He asked you to read them if you want and then destroy them. He asked that you not show them to anyone.” I nodded my head. He shook my hand and left the room.
Alone with Pedro for the last time, I opened his journal, to an odd passage, that he wrote when he first met me, so long ago. The attendants came and put a sheet over the corpse and wheeled it away; the nurse came in and told me they had to prepare for the next patient.
I put the journals under my arm and went to the nurse’s station and thanked the staff for taking care of Pedro. They said they were sorry for my loss. As I walked through the familiar streets of the West Village I felt the need to sit in a café. I read from his journals in the dim café, sipping espresso. His style was like his voice. He was often immensely amusing.
For Pedro, I suppose, I was the waif, the kid in the park without a place to stay, a stray cat he took pity upon, and for me he will always be the man who got away. Then I felt the pleasant effects of the aspirin and my mind felt at peace for a while.
At the memorial service, a few weeks later, Father Andrew gave me a plain wooden box, wrapped in black silk, which held Pedro’s ashes. He told me that Pedro wanted me to have them. He told me I could do with them whatever I wanted to do.
One of Pedro’s mourners—a drag artist, as she preferred to be called—dressed in a long black gown and a mantilla, told me she felt she was the Mother of all sorrow. Pedro had done her hair for decades; how could she go on without him? She asked me what I was going to do with Pedro’s ashes. I shrugged my shoulders.
“You could always snort them,” she said, and she started to chuckle at her bad joke. “Snort Pedro? She would just die!” Then she started laughing hysterically, tears streaming down her gaudy face.
I had to get out of there. Holding the precious box of ashes, I headed for the exit. Father Andrew stopped me at the door but I kept walking and did not look back.
Under my bed, I put the plain wooden box, wrapped in black silk, which held his ashes, just as I once held his living, warm body, long ago, that night in Central Park when I first arrived in New York.
Later that night, as I walked down one of those tangled tiny streets in the West Village, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man inside a bar wave at me. Not recognizing him at first, I stepped into the dimly lit bar. It felt as if I was meeting a dream figure, someone who had an important message to deliver to me. I noticed his denims and sneakers and a baseball cap, and for a brief moment imagined that he was like my father. Then when he took off his cap I recognized him. I felt disappointed, because I wanted to maintain my picture of Father Andrew as a good-looking priest, an older man, who was faithful to Christ, chaste, above the sins of flesh, someone that I hoped I might one day wish to confide in.
Disturbed by this secular Father Andrew, with the tipsy grin and a sexy slouch, whom I suspected was eager to get laid, I extended my hand but he ignored that, leaned into me and kissed my cheek. I sat down next to him and allowed my eyes to adjust to the dark bar. The sacred is the profane.
It was Happy Hour and the bar was filled with aging men from the neighborhood who had peaked too soon. Having let go of their beauty long ago, they felt no sense of urgency, no sense of shame, no sense of pride. They were openly lecherous, dirty old men. Hiding out in this dive was their idea of a safe bet, a way of hiding from the harsh scrutiny of the outside world, a way of sharing a bawdy tale with fellow inmates. This was not my idea of a happy future, a future that I felt was drawing me towards it slowly but surely. I felt constrained by this dingy bar scene, as I noticed the denizens were observing me cynically. The dirty old men checked us out.
Father Andrew offered me a drink. The bartender conjured up the frosty mug of beer with a shot of tequila. I reached nervously for some peanuts and chewed them quickly, causing me to cough. I took a big gulp of the beer to clear my throat, followed by the shot and a twist of lime. This was not a good beginning.
“So, Father Andrew, what brings you here of all places?”
“Every whore has a future,” he quoted Oscar Wilde, with a slight trace of a working class Irish accent, “every saint has a past.” He lifted his bottle slowly to his lips. I must have looked surprised, for he added, “I’ve never pretended to be a paragon of virtue. I live in the world, my dear, just like you. I heard you were quite a party boy—”
“Oh really?” I asked, feeling coiled up and wanting to run. “I’m not feeling nostalgic for my lost youth.” I evaded his direct gaze as I surveyed the old beer hall, sadly amused by the stout middle-aged men playing pool.” I used to visit this place with Pedro back in the old days, when he gave readings over at St. Mark’s. Still looks the same, dreary, old hell hole.”
In the dim corner, I saw a young guy hustle an older guy, the well-known old predator and prey dynamic. I hated seeing the old dudes fall down drunk and go home with some young guy who would steal their wallet while they slept. No fool like an old fool. Time stood still in this old, dank dungeon, smelling like the torture chamber of an ancient castle. On the large TV above their heads they watched with mild interest a pretty blonde boy bend over and get his butt spanked by a hairy old bear. I noticed an old drunk sitting by himself. A sad expression passed across the old drunk’s red face, as he turned away from the porn action on the TV screen and looked directly at me. He had the look of a lost soul. I felt a shudder.
“The old should neither be seen nor heard.” I quoted Oscar Wilde, as if I was in a dream. I feared that I had quoted too glibly. “I’m sorry,” I apologized to Andrew quickly. “I wasn’t referring to you. I don’t think of you as old.“
“Oh but I am,” he said, “I am quite ancient.” Andrew gave me a roguish smile, with unconcealed lust in his blue eyes, and placed a hopeful hand on my knee.
“I have to go in a minute,” I added tactfully, looking at the clock that read a quarter to six.
“I really don’t like this place.” I realized I was exaggerating a bit. I just wanted to play hard to get. I hadn’t made any commitment that evening but I wanted Andrew to think I had. I felt my vanity operating, a need to make my life more glamorous than it was. I had nothing to look forward to, a can of tuna in the fridge, a bottle of beer, the evening news. I shook my head trying to sort out my priorities, catching a glimpse of myself looking puzzled in the wide mirror behind the bar.
“I was talking to Pedro’s sister,” he said, in his most diplomatic tone of voice from Puerto Rico. “She asked about you, says you don’t answer her calls.”
“That’s because I don’t want to talk about Pedro anymore.” I put my hand across my face.
“She said he left you some money in his will. Two thousand dollars. She said she would send it to you.“
“What was Pedro like,” I asked carefully, “when he was at the seminary?”
“He was a beautiful boy, shy, withdrawn-quite innocent.”
“What happened to him?”
“What happens to most of us?” Andrew evaded my question. We were going in a circle. I felt compelled for some reason to ask Andrew more than he was willing to answer.
“I always wondered,” I thought out loud, “what he wanted with me?” As I swiveled around on the bar stool, our knees touched. “I’ve been reading his journals slowly. He never talks about me. I was a peripheral figure. He was obsessed by sex and God.”
“I have observed,” he said, with one finger poking the air as if he were bursting a bubble,“that issues surrounding sex and God are rarely resolved and easily disturbed. That was Pedro’s big obsession.”
“Sex and God or sex and death.” I repeated his phrase, feeling a slight slur in my speech brought on by the beer on an empty stomach. “Is that all there is?” Feeling self-conscious, I sat up straight, aware of my sloppy posture reflected in the mirror.
“I think I can see what he liked about you.” He touched the center of my forehead, gently, with his finger. “It’s right there. The life of the mind. You have an inquiring mind. He liked that about you. You are actually a lot alike. You are both seekers. Seek and ye shall find. Pedro was looking for something beyond himself that he could surrender to.”
“Sex or God?”
“Oh, something like that.” He sipped his beer and leaned back on his stool. “You are a lot alike.”
“We are not.” I shook my head, frowned, almost feeling angry, exposed. My annoyance I knew was a coverup, for I was trying to attract Father Andrew, and he knew it. “I’m not a big intellectual, I’m not a poet. If I were I wouldn’t be sitting here in this depressing dump. Pedro was into Twinkies, just the way I was into hot Latinos. I know that sounds cynical but it’s true. I was looking for an older man to fuck my brains out and pay my rent. I was lucky to find Pedro. If I hadn’t I would have ended up on the streets.”
Annoyed with my own cynicism, I made a sweeping gesture that nearly knocked over my glass. Andrew studied our shadowy reflection in the mirror, behind the bar, with an otherworldly wisdom. Suddenly, Andrew looked like a sage, with his silver hair shining, instead of an aging fag looking for a date. I felt warmer towards him, less guarded.
“Okay, I admit it. I wanted to be in love, I wanted to be normal like everyone else. None of that faggot shit. Look at me now.” Annoyed with myself for feeling the performance take over, I felt vulnerable, a need for Andrew’s approval. I tried to find the right word, hoping to receive a blessing and some guidance, as we were both traveling on the same treacherous path. I hoped he had some wisdom to share but my hopes were sinking fast.
“Pedro, on the other hand, didn’t care about the love stuff—well, maybe he did, a little bit, but like he was always hiding something. I guess we are all hiding something, aren’t we Father?” I polished off my beer, having drunk it too quickly.
“I don’t believe you,” he said, seriously. “I think you are deceiving yourself.”
“He was a loyal person. And so are you. You have a deeply loyal nature, too. I saw your devotion to Pedro.” Andrew put his hand gently on my forearm. “I know how close you were to Pedro.” Andrew’s eyes lit up. He seemed to radiate a light from the inside, as he did at the Memorial service.
Tears came, foolishly, to my eyes. I softened but not too much, keeping a distance, but I felt touched by his remarks. The puddle of beer I’d spilled on the bar began to have a gleaming light in the center of it looking much like the puddle of light inside the center of my head when I go sleep at night. As I gazed into the puddle of beer, I could see an image of my own face in the puddle swimming around like a goldfish. I took my napkin and wiped it up.
“Andrew,” I asked, “did you ever have sex with Pedro?” Andrew had a pained expression. “Sorry. Don’t answer that. I really don’t want to know.” I felt we had gone too deep without a life guard.
“No. That is a fair question. I met Pedro when he was sixteen down on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. I was much older, already ordained. He followed me back to the seminary where he visited me often. We became good friends. Then he joined the seminary. I was surprised what an apt pupil he was. I tutored him in Latin. He was a wild child—indiscreet. He left shortly after the first year. We kept in touch. Is there anything else you want to know?”
“What is your definition of a mystic?”
“A mystic,” Andrew answered dryly, “is an agnostic who is in love with the unknowable, someone who is compelled to explore the dark side of the moon.”
“Are you a mystic?”
“No,” he said, emphatically, removing his hand from my arm. He asked for another beer. I had struck a chord in him. It was his turn to feel uncomfortable. “I’m just an ordinary priest. I have been trained in obedience. I have never relied upon my own guidance.”
“Never? Then what are you doing in a gay bar?”
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
“Father Andrew,” I began nervously,” for some reason I feel I can trust you. I’m in trouble. I need your professional advice. I need to talk to someone about my—I don’t know what they are—I guess they are visions. As I read Pedro’s journal late at night I get these visions. I get these weird experiences. I actually saw Pedro. He told me that he had seen God!”
“Visions?” he seemed worried. “With angels and demons?”
I nodded my head.
“Oh dear. Do you take drugs?”
“No, not any more—”
“Have you talked to anyone else about this?”
“No, I’ve kept it to myself but I can’t do this alone. How do I know if these experiences are God or not? At night, I read Pedro’s journals and relax and breathe slowly and get this buzzing sensation in my head and then—oh never mind.” I was afraid of Andrew’s scowling expression. I was afraid of his scrutiny into my messed up inner world.
“Perhaps you should see a therapist?” Andrew speculated, for he thought I was crazy, overly imaginative, psychotic. I looked up at the clock, suddenly very eager to get away. I offered Father Andrew my hand, abruptly, indicating that I had to leave.
“Please feel free to call me,” he said, hurriedly. He pressed his card urgently into my hand. I felt a warm current between us as I held his hand, as if we had struck a Faustian bargain. “Gnostic voices.”
“Pedro was a goodhearted heretic.” Andrew smiled sadly. “Just like you.”
I didn’t want to leave him there, alone, at Happy Hour, with a sour bunch of lecherous old queens. “I’m sorry to leave you here, but I really must go. Left something on the stove.”
“If you should ever need me,” he said, sincerely, “I am here for you. I miss Pedro, too.” We kissed lightly on the lips, a Judas kiss.
I caught a cab to my apartment, resisting a panic attack as I recalled what Pedro said about the Gnostics in his journal. In ancient Egypt, when the baby is born the ka (the life force) is breathed into them. At death the ka departs and becomes part of a statue or portrait of the person in the tomb. The person also has a ba, which is a capacity to move and after death, the ka and the ba are reunited to form the akh, a being of light, that roamed around like a ghost.
I felt that it was harder to for me to breathe and I wanted someone to put his arms around me and hold me, to bring me down. When I entered the foyer of my building I opened the mailbox, grabbed the bundle, and ran up the stairs as if someone was chasing me. When I opened the door, I imagined that Father Andrew in his priest garb pulled me towards the bedroom, his hands all over me. I resisted that image of him with all my might. The last thing I needed was to fall in love with a priest, a seedy priest from a Graham Greene novel. How cliché. Right out of central casting.
I poured myself a vodka and thumbed through the mail. I found it. The check from Pedro’s sister. Two thousand bucks. No amount of money, her note said, could repay what you did for my brother. I listened to Coltrane, cool, elegant, in a duet with Johnny Hartman’s velvety voice, and let the music help me wind down. The knot in my forehead started to uncoil and I stared out the window at the Manhattan skyline and asked out loud, “Why hast thou made me flesh?”
I listened to the quality of the voice and it didn’t feel like my own voice. Who was this voice that was emanating so deeply from my chest, from my bones?
What to do with Pedro’s gift? I wonder what he would say about my getting involved with Andrew. Pedro’s voice was starting to fade. He was slowly but surely becoming one of the mighty dead, austere, beyond praise, beyond blame. I was a double, in between. He was a being of Light in the Upper World, and I was trapped in the Lower World, run by the Archons, a hungry ghost.
And I knew, that after a few more beers and some more Coltrane, after midnight, I would be waiting under the shadow of the bridge, wanting to surrender, surrender to the stranger, willing to consent, as Pedro did, to be one of the damned.