I am standing still, smoking a cigarette, staring at Marilyn Monroe. This is Dublin. In the mid-1980s. I am waiting outside the Gay Men’s Health Clinic, or whatever it’s called, on Haddington Road, off Baggot Street. Marilyn is looking at me. And I’m looking at her.
And I am walking with a semi and a cigarette through the Upper East Side of New York City. And it’s a few months earlier. And I am staring at Andy Warhol, wondering if that is Andy Warhol, if it is really Andy Warhol.
I’m twenty. In both places, all the time.
Marilyn is huge, on an advertising hoarding, sitting or half-lying, her head and shoulders thrown back, her legs stretched out, chest pointing upwards, one hand touching her hair. She’s wearing a one-piece swimsuit. She’s smiling a big sweet smile, and her legs are long and her body is perfect, and her face is beautiful and she is looking at me like I’m beautiful too. The picture is black and white. Except for Marilyn’s lips, which have been touched up in blue. She has blue lips. They match the label of the beer bottle that sexy, dead Marilyn is advertising with the slogan ‘SOME LIKE IT COLD!’
And there I am, smiling under a dollop of sunshine in New York City, so pleased with my clever self, my skin so warm, doubling back to stalk Andy Warhol, and approaching him when he stops outside a fruit store and stares at a crate of oranges. I walk straight up to him like New York is mine as much as his, and he catches a glimpse of me and we’re eye to eye.
—Excuse me. Mr Warhol?
I’m staring at Marilyn and thinking about necrophilia. Maybe advertisers know us better than we know ourselves. I wonder what my interest in necrophilia amounts to. And I wonder, as I stand there smoking my cigarette, waiting to go into the clinic, putting it off, I wonder again about New York. And I number my fears to myself, and I know that death is in the wrong place. And I know that there are things on the list that should not be there. And that the list is too long and too stupid. And I wonder whether there is, in the prospect of death, a place to shelter from being alive. I wonder about that, in all seriousness, I do. Look at me. With my wispy beard and my Dublin coat and my head to one side, wondering. Like I am the only person in the world. And I wonder if there is a way of talking about this that does not involve me. And there isn’t.
—Hi, he says. Brightly. With only the most minor of hesitations. I think he looks old. He’s in slippers, house-shoes, something like that, and he has a stack of magazines and a string bag and yellow baggy trousers like pyjama bottoms, and a blue jacket, also baggy. And he has his silver hair and his glasses and he is about the same height as me. And there is something about him that makes me feel tentatively happy and I don’t know what it is. He smiles and looks in my eyes for the briefest of moments before looking elsewhere—at my nose, my throat, my shoulder—shyly. Maybe it’s that.
—Can I have your autograph?
I don’t know why I’ve asked for his autograph. It’s because I can’t think of anything else to ask him. I think I should ask him how he is, if he’d like an orange, if he’d like to go for a walk, have a coffee. But I am stupid. I don’t even have a pen on me.
—Sure, he drawls. Let me write it on one of my magazines. These are my magazines. You can have one.
—That would be great. Thank you. I don’t have…
—I have a pen. Oh my.
I don’t know what the ‘oh my’ is for. He rummages for a pen, comes up with a big black permanent marker. I want to make conversation. But I am tongue-tied. I want to ask him about film, art, the twentieth century, New York, beauty, love, car crashes, death, but I just stand there dumbly and he glances at me.
—Oh my. I’m doing. Oh there. Ok. Let me see. It’s warm today.
—Yeah. It’s lovely.
—Oh. Where are you from?
—Oh my. I’m from Pittsburgh. It’s near there.
He mumbles that last bit, and I spend a couple of seconds trying to untangle it, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he says. And meanwhile he’s writing his name across a copy of Interview with Stevie Wonder on the cover. And I’m saying nothing, because I am stupid.
—There you are. I make this magazine, you can have this.
—That’s really great. Thank you so much.
And I think of something to say.
—This is a good day for me. I just got a job. My first job in New York. And now I meet you.
—Oh that’s so great.
—So thank you.
He smiles at me again. And he flicks his eyes for one last instant onto mine.
—Thank you for asking.
He shuffles off. I light another cigarette and I look at his name and I’m smiling, and I mouth ‘Thank you for asking’ to myself, as if it’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. And I decide that New York will make me, and that I will be open and warm and happy here, changed, and I will live in the city and the city will live in me and I will welcome everything and I will be fearless and alive.
But I am twenty. And stupid. The two do not necessarily go together, but I happen to be both.
For a while I live in Washington Heights, reading Russian novels at a kitchen table in someone’s apartment—some friend of a friend. I sweat and drink tea. I listen to phone-in radio shows and talk all night with people who come and go. I don’t know anything about anything but people seem to like me. We have enough money to go for beers, but we look too young for a lot of places, and feel too young for a lot of others. I make a half-hearted effort at finding gay bars. I don’t. New York, I decide, doesn’t have any gay bars. It’s okay, I’m not even really thinking about it.
When I get my job I move to somewhere up in The Bronx. I move in with another guy I know from Dublin, and his girlfriend, and someone else. I don’t like any of them. I read more Russian novels. People don’t come and go anymore. Everything settles down into something that begins to feel boring. I take the subway to work. I work as a doorman in an apartment building on Park Avenue, up in the 70s. Wealth. I buy a book of Frank O’Hara poems. I have never read Frank O’Hara before. He reminds me of sex. I haven’t had sex yet in New York. I start looking at men on the trains. I follow a guy once because he looks back at me. Nothing comes of anything. Work isn’t hard but the hours are long. I am bored. New York, I decide, is boring.
I am paid nine dollars an hour basic. This is more than any of my friends are earning. They start expecting me to buy the beers. I have a fight with the people I live with because they want me to pay more of the rent than they do. Even though I am sleeping on the sofa most nights. I stop telling them about tips and overtime. Whenever I call home my family has bad news. My exam results are awful. My father is ill. My sister has been bitten by a dog. I want something to happen. I am in New York and I am unhappy, and I have forgotten what I promised myself after I met Andy Warhol, and sometimes I suspect the reason they want me to pay more rent isn’t because I am earning more but because I am masturbating all the time, on the sofa.
I see less and less of my friends. I avoid the people I live with.
The building where I work is tall and wide and deep and filled with millionaires who have maids and servants. Like in the Russian novels. I find it difficult to tell the residents and their staff apart. Some maids wear pinafore things, but many don’t. Some nannies are very well dressed—they just look like rich young mothers. Part of my job is to take deliveries up to the apartments via the service elevators. The elevators are operated with a handle, a lever, and they can be stopped anywhere, so there’s a skill—that I never master—in getting the floor of the elevator level with the floor where I’m stopping. I keep tripping into the kitchens of the wealthy. Maids or residents let me in and take the bags or whatever it is, or get me to take the stuff to the kitchen table or the kitchen counters or to put them on the floor somewhere. Sometimes I get a tip. Sometimes kids let me in, and they are always rude. Their parents can be rude as well. Maids are never really rude, just impatient or abrupt or hassled.
One day a woman in a dressing gown gets me to put her half a dozen bags of groceries on the table while she watches me. Put that one on the floor, she says at one point, standing behind me. Then, Put another one on the floor. Carefully. When I’m done I look at her and she looks at me and lets her dressing gown fall open and asks me if I’d like a tip. I say No, you’re okay thanks, and trip back into the elevator. When I get downstairs one of the other doormen looks at me and laughs.
Another time I get stuck in one of the elevators with a guy who is doing work on one of the top floors. The elevator is always getting stuck. You have to fiddle with it and if that doesn’t work you have to use the intercom to try and rouse someone downstairs and the building super does whatever it is that gets it moving again. It’s never stuck for very long. It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t seem to bother the guy either. We chat while we wait and he tells me that a kid like me must be drowning in pussy in New York City. He tells me that with a peachy little Irish ass like mine I must be fighting off the faggots in New York City. I just smile at him. He starts rubbing his crotch and goes quiet for a while, and I fiddle with the elevator lever. And then he says I really want to cum do you want to cum too? And I say No, you’re okay thanks, and he says, Well, let’s see, and he takes his cock out and starts stroking it and looking at me. Come on kid, he says, I can see you’re hard. What’s the harm? He drops his trousers and his shorts and gets into it. I don’t know where to look. I think I should probably tell him to stop but I don’t. I’m worried about where he’s pointing it, but when he comes he turns slightly and it goes all over the floor. I enjoyed that, he says, gasping. I’m glad you enjoyed it too. When we get down he steps out and takes the super aside to talk to him about something. I get a cloth. When I stand up the super is there with his head stuck into the elevator, sniffing. He doesn’t say anything. At the end of the day the guy gives me a hundred dollar tip and his card, with his home number written on the back.
I decide that people in New York like sex after all, and that some of them might like sex with me, and I decide to work out ways of making that happen.
It is always hot. The long streets shimmer and I pad down them, across them, and I look for shadows and I start to hate my job and I check the magazines and I traipse all over the place when my shifts are over, and I start to find dark air-conditioned bars and clubs and sex shops and porn cinemas and I begin to look different. I research. I work out what I need to do. I look at other guys, how they dress and behave and what they end up with, and I work it out. I get a fake I.D. and some new jeans and T-shirts and I buy a couple of pairs of shoes and I buy some good shirts from a discount store somewhere, and I get contact lenses and aftershave.
I realise that it’s easy. I watch and learn. I learn what people learn.
So there I am, new to myself, standing with a beer in the corner of a bar, and men look me over, and come over, and buy me a drink. Or there I am loitering by the video cabins in a Times Square basement, men gesturing to me, flashing their stomachs or their cocks at me, inclining their heads like serious little puppies. Or there I am getting into a club with a wink from the doorman, and looking at the dance floor until someone looks back at me, and walks up to me and says something, or doesn’t say anything, and touches me.
The first time is with a guy from Brooklyn. He is about the same age as me and he kisses me in a bar and asks me if I’d like to go back to his place for the night, and I say okay, and we go to the subway and the train takes a while and all the time he talks about cars, about which is the best car, which car he’s going to buy when he graduates, where he’s going to buy it, what he’s going to do with it when he has it. He’s handsome but he’s annoying. I worry that he’ll think I’m weird because I don’t really talk. But he doesn’t seem to think anything. At his place there are some other people in the living room eating and we just go through to his bedroom and when we’re naked he just wants to jerk off and nothing else, and I try to suck him or get him to suck me, but he bats me away and tells me No, no man, we have to be careful now you know? And eventually he comes and then I come and he doesn’t say anything about me staying and I don’t want to stay anyway so he sees me to the door, past the people who still seem to be eating, and I get lost trying to find the subway and walk all the way back over the bridge and go home to the Bronx, and all the way I curse the guy and his stupid cars. What an asshole.
I smoke all the time. I smoke and I don’t make friends. I see the same faces in bars or clubs, and especially in the sex shops. Sometimes people nod at me. For a while I stick to the sex shops with their video cabins, because if one guy turns out to be an asshole you’re not stuck at his place before you find out, and there is always someone else. I find out that older guys are better. They are more relaxed. They do more things. So I prefer them to be older. In the video cabins there is never much talk and I like that. And I like the porn. And I like to suck guys off through the glory holes. Glory holes seem like a really good idea. And I like that I am sometimes not sure that the cock in my mouth belongs to the good looking guy I saw outside a minute ago, or whether it belongs to someone else. And I like to put my cock through those holes and cling to the top of the partition and arch my hips and stare at the cheap wood at the end of my nose and I love that cheap wood, those partitions. They are the face I want, most of the time, they are the face of New York. They are a beautiful nothing. Chipboard and hard plastic, red usually, bloated flat. I spit at them. I head-butt them and come. I wrestle with them and fight them and I want them to buckle and break and crumble, but I don’t want what I want.
In the bars I have to talk more, work harder. But I find out that if you hook up with a guy in a bar who is good, and who maybe has a nice place, then you can have a really good night. But it is always hit and miss. And I make mistakes. And I try to stop making mistakes by not making decisions, by not caring, by allowing myself to drift through men, letting them talk to me if they want to, letting them like me or not like me, letting them make decisions about me, a series of decisions and calculations about me as if I’m a problem that they try to solve and they give up or keep at it and really I am not much of a problem and I usually go home with whoever asks first.
I don’t make friends. If someone just wants to talk or be nice to me I move away. Guys my age. They look into my eyes and they want me to talk. Beautiful ones, ones that make my heart gulp—I avoid them. I steer clear. All I want is the men who want me.
And these men live everywhere. They take me in cars and cabs and on the subway to places I have never heard of, sometimes very far away, into New Jersey or out to Long Island or upstate somewhere. And they lead me into buildings, and I follow them with my cigarettes and I get to see apartments and houses that are plush or seedy or ordinary or strange. I let myself get fucked by these men and most of the time they use a condom but sometimes I don’t really check or know or care, and sometimes I know full well that they’re not using a condom. And I like to fuck too, and I fuck these men with a condom unless they ask me not to. Because he says it’s okay, that he’s clear. Or because he tells me that it’s all bullshit, that they’re just trying to scare us out of fucking because they hate us. Or because he tells me that he is immune, that he gets his blood changed once every three months in a Swiss clinic, or that he’s a virgin. Well, I’m not, I tell him. And he says, I don’t fucking care. What I like to feel is like a body. Just a body. What a body feels. That’s all.
Once or twice I get scared. Several times, I get scared. A man who stops his car in the middle of nowhere and wants to go into the trees. A man who ties me up and then someone else is there. Sometimes I find myself walking home. Or just walking, at dawn, lost somewhere, and I find myself crying or cold or unsure of what I’ve been doing. Sometimes I’m bruised. One time I don’t know about it until I turn up at work and someone winces at my face and I turn out to have a black eye.
I get scared but I stamp down on it.
In one man’s house I see a lot of medical paraphernalia. Some men won’t touch me without gloves on. Won’t go near my cock unless it’s covered by a condom. In the bars sometimes I see men who look sick. They have friends. I notice that they usually have friends, sitting with them, chatting, holding their hand. I don’t want friends. I am closed. I am not gay. I am not queer. I am not anything. I am not Irish. I am not in New York. I am not twenty. I am not doing any of the things that I am doing. I press my head against the board.
I lie awake on the sofa and I count them and stop. And I think that when I get back to Dublin I will be finished. That will be the end of it.
I am in a bar in Midtown, I don’t know why. I haven’t been here before. Someone told me about it. I’m tired. It’s my day off and I am tired and I am thinking about going to the cinema. And there is this guy at the bar. He is quite feminine. He’s dressed in jeans and a shirt, or a blouse maybe, and he’s not much older than me, and he is wearing mascara and some lip gloss but his hair is short. And I don’t really know that I’m staring at him until he winks at me from his barstool, a sort of ducked-head, half-smile, up from under his brow wink, which makes me blush, and I realise that he is blue-eyed and pale skinned and beautiful and drunk. And coming over.
He totters to my table and stands for a moment swaying slightly and I just smile at him, and he says, in a voice that is from somewhere else entirely…
—What you looking at kid? Are you enamoured? Are you enamoured of me?
I don’t talk to people.
—Kid? I say, trying to drop my smile.
He sits down beside me.
—Well I haven’t seen you before, he says. So you get to be kid for a week.
I don’t want him there because I like him. But he stays there because he likes me.
And I don’t want to talk to him but he asks me if I’m a hustler and I am so embarrassed at this idea that I bluster and blush and stammer out all sorts of denials. And he is laughing at me, his head ducking down onto my shoulder, saying, Oh don’t worry about it, I’m kidding you, don’t worry, you’re cute, look at you, where are you from? And I tell him Ireland and he looks at me for a moment and stops laughing and then his kisses me on the cheek and tells me that he just knew it, and that he loves Irish guys, and that he knew this Irish boy once and, well… and he trails off. Then he stands up and goes to the bar and comes back with another gin for him and a beer for me and he tells me that his name is Paulie and that he is the worst drag act in Manhattan.
We talk. I forget that I don’t talk.
I am smiling.
He has problems. There is his drinking and it is such a nightmare and he doesn’t know what to do about it. There is his rent and his sister who is just insane and there is the money he owes and there is the bar that owes him for two shows from last month when he didn’t get a penny, and there is this and that, and I have nothing very much to give back to him.
—You’re a fucking doorman? A doorman? Jesus. Look at you. Tell me your name. Tell me about you. What are you doing in a stupid damn bar like this? On your own? Why are you on your own? I don’t mean a date, I mean your friends. Where are your friends? Where? Are? Your? Friends?
—I don’t have any friends, I tell him.
—What are you talking about you don’t have any friends? Honey. Please. What sort of cute damn Irish doorman boy has no goddamned friends?
And I tell him no. And he asks me what I do all the time I’m not working and I don’t know what to tell him and he looks at me and arches his eyebrows like he can guess.
—Oh boy. You’re a hustler alright, you just don’t charge.
And I buy him more drinks. And we keep talking. He asks me if I have a boyfriend back in Dublin and I say no, I do not have anything back in Dublin. Nothing at all. And he calls me by my name and he is tactile, relaxed, and he lays a hand on mine or an arm on my shoulder. And then he goes to the bathroom and comes back ten minutes later and seems to forget that I’m at the table waiting for him, and I feel drunk and weird, and he goes to the bar and is talking to people there, and I get up to go, but he comes at me across the room.
—STOP RIGHT THERE.
And he drags me around the bar on his arm introducing me to people as his new boy, My new boy, meet my new boy, isn’t he cute, say something, wait for the accent, say something, oh go on, oh he’s so shy isn’t he adorable, isn’t he the cutest thing? And I don’t know why but all of this is okay. It’s funny. He’s funny. And he looks so good, and I am happy to be with him, and I remember something interesting that I can tell him.
But when we sit down again straight away he whispers in my ear that he is not after my ass. He is, he says, incapable, he is like an old man—he can’t get it up no matter what. He hasn’t, he said, had an erection in a month. Don’t flatter yourself kid. Not even you. Not even your sweet little Irish tush. And he gives me his ducked head low-brow wink again. And I have a hard-on. He doesn’t know, he says, what it is, and he reels off a list of drugs so packed with ridiculous names that the recitation is like some sort of poem, so it reminds me of poetry, and I ask him if he likes poetry, and he looks at me silently and says nothing for a minute, and then he kisses my cheek again.
He knows so much more than I do. We talk about Frank O’Hara. He tells me about Ginsberg. Berryman. John Ashbery. I talk shyly about Yeats and MacNeice, trying to remember what I learned at school. And I tell him how I love Anne Sexton. And he tells me about Rimbaud, and he speaks a poem of his for me in French, close to my face, and I don’t understand the words but I look into his eyes while he says them, I don’t take my eyes off his, and when he stops I have nothing so I kiss him. I kiss him on the lips. And I feel his body minutely, in the course of this kiss, tense and tremble and relax. And I know, I know completely that what I am doing is something good and right and beautiful and that I am really drunk and if I am not careful I am going to cry and tell him every stupid thing I have done wrong. He takes my hand and holds it.
I don’t really know what happens after that. I am inside myself feeling cold and I cannot understand what I am doing, and I am baffled by everything I say because it seems to be true but I have never heard it before. And I hear shouts start up in my mind. I hear panic and alarms. And I know that I have put myself at risk, that this is a bad situation, that this could kill me, this could kill me. I leave when he is next in the bathroom. I walk out and I walk for a long time. I pass the building where I work. I walk up the spine of the island and I look at people and at cars and buses and I look up at buildings and I explain to myself that I have had a lucky escape. A close call. I explain it to myself in detail and I enunciate the potential for disaster and I berate myself for my stupidity. I take a cab to the Bronx and I shudder in the heat and I sleep on the sofa.
A week or more later. I’m on the night shift, on the front door in my stupid blue suit with a guy called Barney. And Barney says to me—
—Here’s that tranny again.
—There, see? By the trees down the street. Was here last night too. Just staring at me for about twenty minutes. Probably harmless but hey.
Paulie is wearing a black dress, a slim-fitting dress, and he is wearing high heels and carrying a tote bag and he is still swaying, and he’s squinting at us. I go to the bathroom and stay there for a half an hour. I suppose I told him where I worked. More or less. When I get back he’s gone, and Barney is pissed at me.
The next night I am on again, and this time Barney goes off somewhere and I’m there on my own and Paulie appears out of nowhere, in jeans this time, and a shirt and jacket, still some make-up, and his hair is different, longer.
I just look at him.
—Where did you go?
—Beg your pardon?
—That night. You just left. You know. I thought we were doing good.
—I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re referring to.
—Maybe you’re mistaking me for someone else.
—Oh come on. You have to be kidding?
Barney comes back.
—We okay? he asks.
Paulie ignores him.
—Don’t do this.
I look at Barney and shrug as if to say I have no idea.
—You looking for something buddy?
—I’m just talking to my friend here.
—I don’t know you.
—You fucking do. Jesus.
—You’re confusing me with someone else.
Barney just stands there.
Paulie looks at me hard, and then his shoulders crumple and he looks down. And he sighs.
—You are one serious fuck-up. And that’s a shame. That’s a stupid damn shame.
He takes something out of his pocket and holds it out to me. I just look at it.
—Oh take it, you dickhead.
I take it. Paulie walks off.
He’s handed me a folded-over piece of paper with my name on it. On the inside is his full name and his address and his phone number and beneath all that he’s written lines from a Frank O’Hara poem:
It's a summer day,
and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.
Barney watches me tear it up into little pieces and throw it in the flowerbeds.
One night I am with three men in a loft apartment in Queens and they are taking turns fucking me and in the middle of it all I start to cry. I just lose it. And they stop, and they are freaked out, and I tell them that I think that I have had enough now, and I get dressed and I go.
It is weeks before I remember that I had something I could have told Paulie. That I met Andy Warhol. I think about going back to the bar. But I have a list of fears, and at the top of the list is love. So I get ready to leave New York and I think about Paulie all the time.
I stare at Marilyn and I smoke my cigarette and I wait to hear if I’m sick. We just do things. We do one thing and then another. That’s all. There are only the multiple pinpricks of living, and the tiny scars they leave, and if you look at them in a certain light they can look like constellations. But the stars are senseless too, dead or dying, and their light is a memory.
First Published in The Stinging Fly (Ireland)
Editor: Declan Meade
The Stinging Fly has worked since 1997 to publish and promote the very best new Irish and international writing. Each issue of the magazine features a mix of poetry and prose by a range of new, emerging, and established authors. Our main objective is to offer new writers the opportunity to have their work published in a high-quality publication. We are particularly interested in promoting the short story form. We operate an open submission policy, with submissions accepted from January to March each year. In 2005 we established The Stinging Fly Press, which now runs in tandem with the magazine, publishing new Irish literary fiction.
Keith Ridgway was born and brought up in Dublin. He has lived in London for most of the last ten years and he now lives in Edinburgh. His first novel, The Long Falling, was published in 1998 and was made into a film in 2011. Ridgway was awarded The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2001 for his short story collection, Standard Time. He is also the author of the novels, The Parts (2003) and Animals (2007). An excerpt from his new book, Hawthorn & Child, appeared in The New Yorker in April 2011; it will be published by Granta Books in 2012.
Featured in Issue #7 of The Literarian.