Fire Island (E)

No limousine this time. Even the special Greyhound with free drinks did not enter our minds. We were just going by train. The Long Island Railroad would take us to the nearest trainstation for six bucks and from there we would take the mini van to the ferry. A shortage of cash wasn’t the main reason for this. Of course, Darrell had not had any for weeks and had been trying to keep all his creditors at bay with small payments. With my savings however, things could have been just a tad more luxurious. Besides, for Darrell not having any money was never a reason not to spend any money. For as long as I have known him he has plugged one hole with another. That was OK most of the time, since I have never been able to accuse him of a lack of ingenuity. And if it doesn’t work out once in a while, he has his phone cut off and tells the door attendant, who has no problems with telling these kind of lies, that he is on a so-called business trip. She is the first one to profit, when Darrell does have money. That’s the way he is. Do me a favor and I owe you one.
No, this opting for austerity was based on other grounds. Our relationship is past the romantic stage. We had our first trip at the beginning of our honeymoon. We were in love and Darrell enjoyed introducing me to his world in an exclusive manner. We dined in trendy restarants, we had brunch with friends on the Upper West Side and if there was an opening of a new bar or a cultural festival, we were among the guests of honor. He always knew how to wangle an invitation. We lived the life of the gay jet-set. A visit to Fire Island formed part of it. It is part and parcel of a luxury arrangement.Our trip took place on the first warm Friday in May. A limousine picked us up at our appartment and an hour or so later we were dropped off at the ferry station. A crowd of jealous men eyed us as our luggage was carried on the boat by the uniformed chauffeur. After we arrived on the island we had another boat take us to Cherry Grove, where the Belvedere was located. Darrell had reserved a luxury room at this fantastically ugly hotel. With a full bathroom and a well-stocked refrigerator. There was a merging of every imaginable architectural style in this white stucco building, because each room had its own historical theme. In ours, we were surrounded by paintings and objects which referred to the heyday of the sailing ships. Dutch admirals re-enacted their sea-battles once again on the antiqued walls and imitation beams. That history had been violated, that all the names had been misspelled and that the execution did not rise above well-meant amateurism was not important. The atmosphere matched ours. Romance has a high kitsch quality and that’s how it should be. All weekend long we plunged into nightlife and had breakfast and drinks served in bed.If the valet was good looking we had him come back some more. We were amused by his embarassment. Tanned, stuffed and more in love than ever we boarded our white limousine again on Sunday afternoon. The same chauffeur dropped us of at our door.
That was two months ago.
A lot has happened since then. It seems that we both got tired of such luxury and idleness. I can’t stomach the superficiality and hypocrisy. There is no content and ultimately it doesn’t lead to anything. Sincerity hides behind a permanent smile. After a few weeks I returned, greatly relieved, to my familiar reading and writing habits and my weekly doses of art and culture. It was different for Darrell. He found the life of luxury too boring. He was constantly looking for the extreme and the dangerous and for the last couple of weeks he has submerged himself with unflagging zeal in rough nightlife again. As of old he gets worked up about the quality of the party drugs, fills his agenda again with White-, Black- and Blue parties and has reactivated his master-slave relationship with Roger. Because our solutions for escaping boredom are so different, we avoid each other now. He often comes home when I am getting ready to go to my regular breakfast spot. He then apathetically watches television for hours, without saying a word and without knowing what he is looking at. I retreat to my room and find peace and satisfaction at my computer. If we do things together, it is unplanned, spontaneous, at moments that we both really feel like it. Now and then we still know how to find each other in bed. Desperate and awkward lovemaking that makes the end of our relationship all the more inevitable.
When Frank, a friend of Darrell’s, told us last week that his house on Fire Island would be vacant for a week, we unexpectedly were in synch. A week away from New York might do both of us some good. Perhaps we could rediscover what we once looked for in each other.
Frank’s house is about five minutes walking from the harbour. It turned out to be a house like so many in The Pines. A square, brown-wooden block with a sloping roof. Three bedrooms downstairs, a large living room and a roomy kitchen upstairs. A great terrace in front and a modest swimming pool in the back. The living room had three glass walls. One of them opened up towards the terrace. From there you could have a view of the neighbors. The swimming pool was hidden from inquisitive eyes.
I immediately felt myself at home. It was quiet here, the weather was fantastic and one of the bedrooms had a desk with a computer, so even working was a possibility. There was no telephone. An enormous collection of cds and video tapes would help to embellish the dead moments.
We threw our luggage down in the largest bedroom and flopped on the bed. Darrell looked at me with a laugh.
“Great to be back again.”
“Isn’t it?”
When I put my hand on his chest, he flinched.
“Let’s take a walk around the neighborhood first and have a look at who´s here?”
“Seems a good idea to me. Maybe we could also go to the beach quickly. The weather is just right”.
He turned up his nose. I knew he was too restless to lie down.
“We’ll see.”
Brown wooden platforms connect the houses with each other. There were some sandy paths, but they layed much lower and were not easy to walk on because they were full of hills and valleys. Horses’ hoofs and tractor tires left some deep tracks. We were not the only ones taking a stroll. We passed several couples, but also some small groups and loners. I heard Darrell continually saying hello to them. As if he knew them all. He talked to some of them. I waited, standing aside because he didn’t introduce me. When I called his attention to it after the third time he mumbled: “Sorry, I forgot.” The last time he was a lot less forgetfull. He called me his ‘boyfriend’ so often and so naturally then that I started to feel uncomfortable with it. I sometimes thought then, that it served his purpose to present me so emphatically as his friend at the time.
To my surprise,I noticed Don and Lydell in the distance. They were coming towards us.
“Did you know they would be here too?”
“Don has friends here. He is here quite often. I am not sure about Lydell. I hardly speak to him anymore.”
Lydell hugged me as enthousiastically as ever. We have known each other for such a long time. It must be five years ago that I interviewed him about his political activities and that he took me to that strange party afterwards. “To loosen me up”, as he put it. Besides, he is still as proud as a peacock about matching me to Darrell. He apparently doesn’t know yet that this match is showing signs of wear. Don was a lot more reserved. He just shook my hand and looked at me rather probingly while doing so. I knew from Darrell that he has a thing for me, but I seem to make him feel insecure. No idea why. Actually, I had never really talked to him. No chance, since I always saw him when he was talking to other people. For instance, when they were having one of their meetings at our place, or at some sort of political gathering or other. He had a small nose-piercing now, I noticed. Meant to emphasize his virile image, it was rather touching instead. We agreed to go to The Pavilion together this evening. That is, Darrell made the date and I forgot to resist. Maybe it was better this way. If I wanted to give our relationship another chance, I had to be more open for these kinds of things. At the end of the path the platforms stopped. We were standing in front of the popular meat rack. The anonymous-quicky-woods. They looked deserted and almost pretty, not aware of what would happen there tonight between the trees and bushes.
“Not a person in sight.”
“That’s going to be very different in a couple of hours, when the sun goes down.” Darrell leered at the place.
“You should know”, I heard myself saying too vindictively.
“Yes, I do know. At least I let my fantasies become real. You just write them down. You commit adultery behind the computer, I do it here.”
He turned around angrily and started on his way back with large strides. I stood there for a while, dumbfounded. When I caught up with him, the words refused to come. We continued on our way in silence.
When we neared Frank’s house he said that he was going to take a nap for an hour. If I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind. I took a book out of my bag and I went to the terrace. On my left, I saw our neighbor standing there. A tall, black man with gray hair and a gray ring-beard. He held his hand up to me. I waved back. Was I supposed to say something? The sunlight shattered on his mirroring glasses. The droplets hurt my eyes. I decided to sit down again and to continue reading my book. RL’s Dream. It didn’t really captivate me. The last one, Black Betty, was a lot better. If I wanted to successfully do the interview, I had better finish this . After all, I did say that this book would form the principal part of my article. A little lie that gave me a free review copy, but that was threatening to turn against me now. He was still standing there. Was I wrong, or was he looking my way. My view at chair height left something to be desired. Reluctantly, I returned to the long-winded dream of Walter Mosley.

It was almost twelve when I left The Pavilion. I could not stand it any longer. All that worked-up cheerfulness made me sick and tired. Oh, God aren’t we having fun and God aren’t we irresistably beautiful. I lost sight of Darrell more than a couple of hours ago. He was going to score some pills somewhere, he said. Let him knock himself out. I didn’t really need it that much. Why go to a party, and then have to use drugs in order to forget its emptiness and strained atmosphere? It did not do anything for me and it never will. Don and Lydell didn’t even show up. They probably had more fun things to do.
It was quiet on the platforms. I was the only one walking there. Here and there music sounded from the lit terraces. Sometimes the sound became filled with an overwhelming barbecue smell. Not bad, those signs of life, otherwise I might have even become afraid all alone in the dark.
Once at home, my intention was to read a little more and then to dive naked into the pool before making my way to bed.
He was standing there again. We waved to each other. He seemed to be calling something to me.
“Would you like a drink?”
His invitation took me by surprise. Would I like a drink? No, not really. But to say no would perhaps be impolite. He was going to be my neighbor for the entire week. Ignoring him would be impossible.
“Why not. It is still early.”
I closed my book and threw it on my deck chair. While I still had to take the last step to his terrace, he was already shaking my hand.
“I am Gibson Wise. Nice to meet you”
I introduced myself.
“Bob or Rob?”
Everytime that confusion. Did I pronounce my name so poorly or is my name that unusual.
“Oh, Rob or Robert, whatever.”
He was surprised by my nonchalance.
“What can I pour for you Rob?”
I did not fail to notice the implicit correction. If I wanted to do something tomorrow, alcohol didn’t seem such a good idea.
“Do you mind if I stick to a coke?”
“Very wise. You’re not much of a party animal, I gather.”
Well he found that out rather quickly. Did I look that boring, that respectable?
“I have to tell you I have had the habit for years to limit myself to one or two glasses of wine a day. Believe me, it isn’t all that easy, because drinking is a sort of necessity of life on Fire Island. You would quickly be considered an outsider if you don’t come home drunk three times a week from some wild party or other.”
The cynical undertone did me good.
“An outsider then, I have been one all my life. Cheers!”
We toasted and looked each other straight in the eye. We were equally tall.
“What brings you here? Are you alone or with a friend?”
He didn’t waste any time. Quick and straightforward. The American way. Enviable. When was I going to learn that?
“We are on holiday here. Just for a week.”
“Why do I see you alone all the time then?”
He noticed that I hesitated and was trying to avoid an answer.
“When you are past a certain age you are allowed to ask anything, my mother always said.”
He was grinning broadly.
“And what age might that be?”
“You are sixty?”
I was taken aback and my attitude became more formal.
“I am sixty-two and that is absolutely no reason to become so formal all of a sudden. Getting older is not a merit. It just happens.”
I could hardly believe it. If he had said fifty, I would have believed him too. Except for his gray hair, there was nothing to betray his advanced age.
“In the mean time, you have tactfully avoided my question.”
“I don’t mean to, but it isn’t a real easy question.”
I felt a need to look around and see if there were any eavesdroppers around.
“When I arrived here this afternoon, I thought there was something left of our relationship, but now I realize that that is nonsense.”
I felt the tears welling up. Damn it. I was only just able to suppress them.
“You are forcing me to admit it. Even before I had time to realize it myself.”
“My question does serve a purpose then.”
He said it without hesitation. Detours don’t belong to his standard equipment. My emotionality did not bring him out of balance.
“Darrell and I are too different, that can’t be solved by some extra amorousness. He can’t be satisfied and needs to prove himself all day long. I get tired just by looking at it.”
“It is a pity that you are only now finding this out.”
“Not at all. I have no regrets. For a while I found it exhilirating to live as I have never lived before. At any rate, he has pushed me across many tresholds. I thank him for that. I know now what that other life entails and I know for sure now that I don’t want that. Never.”
I took a large sip of my coke. He had grabbed the bottle already and refilled my glas.
“There is nothing against chasing your fantasies, but you don’t necessarily have to live together with them.”
Again that no-nonsense intonation.
“I discovered that by now.”
“Fine, and what now?”
“Nothing special,I will just continue with the things I like to do. Writing, launching exhibitions, teaching a little. In time someone else will come along.”
Gibson was sitting more upright in his chair. He was looking impeccable in his black t-shirt and his black jeans. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. His hands were long and slender. Strangely enough they did betray his age.
“But enough about me. What are you doing here?”
“I live here. Have been for almost twenty years by now. In 1978 we..”
“Ben died almost five years ago.”
He wavered a little.
“Cancer, just cancer.”
He pronounced the word emphatically.
“You have to be blunt about that these days. A gay man can no longer die normally, so it seems. Ben smoked three packs a day. He knew that it woud do him in eventually. So did I, but it hit me harder than I thought it would.”
He shifted in his seat and stretched his long legs. Unexpected shyness?
“Since then I live here by myself. I sold our apartment in Manhattan. I don’t want to go back to that rat race. There is nothing to look for there. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry financially.”
For the first time there was emotion spilling into his words. He filled up his glas with trembling hands.
“How was The Pines twenty years ago?”
“You have no idea. It just started to unfold here then, to the dismay of the inhabitants of the Grove. The old money was over there as well as the somewhat older public. Many drag queens and lesbians. The first fitness wave happened over here. The pretty boys who had made it. Dressed… or rather…undressed according to the latest fashion. The jet set suddenly knew how to find The Pines as well. People like Calvin Klein.The squareness of the Grove was a far cry from what was taking place over here. A world of difference, while it takes me no more than ten minutes to walk from here to there. It is no distance at all. My friend was one of those racy people. He earned an incredible lot of money in advertising. Without him, I would have never have been here. Not only was I too old for The Pines, they considered someone in his forties a sort of senior citizen: on top of that I was also black.
However trendy they thought themselves to be, the color black was unknown to them, those sun worshippers…I never had any problems with it, really. We had very little to do with the Piners. For Ben this house was a place to relax in and to recharge again. I have the peace and quiet here for my writing.”
“You are also a writer?”
“Yes…novels…short stories…now and then an essay.”
Strange that I never ran into his name before. I thought that I was pretty much up to speed with black literature.
“Under pseudonymn?”
“No, I never publish. My work has never been outside this house yet.”
“You are only writing for yourself??”
What a strange man, Absolutely no ambition? No need for applause?
“No, I don’t find it good enough yet, what I write. There’s still room for progress. Stronger yet, it needs improvement. I have a great dislike for those writers who immediately want to publish everything. There is so much junk on the market already. I can’t recall having read one good book during the past few years.”
“Aren’t you exaggerating a little?”
“No. Except for Toni Morrison there is not a single black writer that is worthwhile.”
I feverishly searched for other names, but he was ahead of me.
“McMillan, Mosley, Lynn Harris…all train-reading.”
“Baldwin you cannot dispose of like that.”
“You are right at that, but he wrote his best work thirty, forty years ago. Besides, he has been dead for years. Only when I think I have reached his level, will I start to peddle at publishers.”
“But you must be leading an awfully boring life then.A hermit on Fire Island. It can’t be more of a paradox. You live alone, you work for yourslf, you shun nightlife, you never go to the city anymore…don’t you go stark raving mad. Every person needs some attention, a bit of recognition or affirmation or whatever you want to call it..?”
I was shocked by my own triteness. He smiled fatherly and leaned over a little.
“Rob, the only thing I need now and then is someone to share my bed with. For the rest, I can perfectly manage on my own.”
I was stunned. What was I supposed to do with that comment? Was it a disguised invitation? Did he have ulterior motives after all? Gibson read my thoughts.
“Don’t worry, I have someone I sleep with. He will be here in a little while. I have no intention of seducing you. I just wanted to talk to you. That is probably the only thing I really miss. A good conversation now and then. Strangely enough, I feel that we have something to tell each other.”
He reached for the Coke bottle standing next to him.
“Do you want another one?”
“No thank you, that will keep me on my feet all night.”
He looked at his watch.
“I have to ask you to leave pretty soon. He can be here any moment, but I would like you to come back another time. As far as I am concerned, tomorrow already. After all, I hardly know anything about you. Maybe I can read something you wrote?”
“Fine. That’s a date.”
I shook his hand, but he pulled me towards him and layed his head against my shoulder. He rubbed the back of my head with his hand.
It got very dark in the mean time. The lanterns were turned off. When I leaned over to open the gate, I bumped into someone. It was Don. All in black leather. Disturbed, he looked at me.
“What are you…?”
I swallowed my words, because I suddenly realized how stupid that question was. Don silently passed me and climbed the stairs to the terrace, his boots pounding on the wooden steps. I suppressed my urge to look back.
Darrell wasn’t there yet. I took my book from the terrace and saw that the night dampness had gotten to it. It had turned all wavy. When I switched the light off in the bedroom, I noticed that I was in a terribly foul mood.

Rob Perrée
Translation Sonja Herst.