The name on the door pierced him with guilt. But the church—perhaps the last vestige of Catholicism left in what is now Chinatown—appeared when he was most in need of penance.
Though he would not self-identify as a Christian and had never been a Catholic, his sin drove him, with its emptiness and its immense weightlessness, toward the despair of the unpardonable. The tears that had burst out of him down by City Hall turned his baby face to raw hamburger, and he wandered in a daze through the stinking summer streets, among the thousands of strangers, among the fishmongers and the fish and the massage parlors, among the red and yellow signs with their Chinese characters unknown to him. Until there appeared, from behind the dragon streamers and the paper lanterns—the church, with the marvelous, flame-like windings of its gothic traceries, with its great gray heft pulling downward, as though to hold back the city from launching out of orbit.
The sign read: “His Precious Blood.” Andy stood before the church’s name, accused—charged, he suddenly felt, not only with having betrayed Dominic, but of having betrayed God Himself. For had not God shed His own blood by the buckets, the red raining down his boney, beautiful body? And had He not only shed His blood, but was not the blood, indeed, precious? And His blood not only precious, but a sacrament? “Drink of it, all of you,” He had said.
Hanging in Andy’s memory was the boney, beautiful body of Dominic, aquiline nose with a cut on the bridge, weathered cheeks, hair in greasy, messy dreads, Dominic wearing only a loin cloth skirt as he marched down Fifth Avenue, twirling his flag in last weekend’s Gay Parade. Dominic’s boney, beautiful, dancing, nude body bore with such freedom its crucifixion, nailed fast as it was upon the cross of its own deadly blood, which pulsed and raged within him as if with the wrath of God—God, with the boney, beautiful body, like Dominic, betrayed before the crowing of the cock.
Dominic, who had lifted his skirt and shown off another kind of cock, before the parade got underway—that’s how they had met.
Dominic had said, “Do you want to put glitter on me?”
And Andy had said, “Should I put the glitter up my ass?”
And Dominic had said, laughing, “Yes, you’re my type!”
And Andy had said, “Well, I like you, too.”
And Dominic and Andy had marched together, swishing and dancing in the Gay Parade with the Anarcho-Marxist Faggot Occupier Troupe, screaming at the police and ranting about the bosses, about the government’s collusion with the banks, about the needless wars, about the gays who had assimilated, conformed, given up. And they held hands and were together in their joy and in their fury.
And Dominic had said, after the march through the city and all the cheering crowds, “Come over next week and I make you dinner.”
“You like to cook?”
“I’m slave to the stove!”
And Andy had said, “I’ll bring gazpacho.”
And Dominic had sent an email later, writing, “I don’t know if you know already…”
But Andy had known already, had been made aware—forewarned, apprised, consigned with information entrusted to another, made the trafficker of stolen goods; he, simply put, had been told (by some lonely anarchist who had been cruising Andy the whole parade, the nervous, cross-eyed, jealous boy with the crowbar-crater in his fag-bashed scalp).
Dominic had sent an email later, writing, “I don’t know if you know already. I really like you but I don’t know how you feel about what I’m going to say.”
Dominic with His Precious Blood, infected since he was a sixteen, back when it first began.
But it didn’t change anything. It wasn’t for that, that Andy wanted to “just be friends.” It was because of the illegal drugs that Dominic was taking, and the ones he was selling. Not just all the joints he smoked, but the L.S.D. and the ecstasy. It was because he kept chain smoking. It was because he smelled like sour cherries. It was because Dominic didn’t care for himself, and how, therefore, could he ever be expected to care for someone else? It was because of Dominic being fifteen years older. It was because he had an estranged son. It was because he spoke with nonstandard grammar. It was because he didn’t read Hannah Arendt and didn’t have an opinion about the Symposium and couldn’t be introduced to Andy’s colleagues at English Department cocktail parties. It was because Dominic had weird teeth. It was because Andy had just gotten out of a bad relationship—a humorless, thankless, sexless relationship, a pay-all-the-fucker’s-bills-and-cook-all-his-fucking-meals relationship, a don’t-even-fuck-once-in-a-fucking-week-and-feel-blue-balled-every-goddamn-day relationship. It was the wrong time. They weren’t right for each other. That was all. It wasn’t because of that.
If no spiritual consolation, the church at least was a cool and dark reprieve from the Chinatown heat. Its shadowy vaults held pious, neoclassical busts of Francis and John the Baptist, and there were tacky, flamboyant dolls of Padre Pio—idols by the dozen in every nook. The grandmas sat in scattered pews, chatting quietly with each other before Mass; they were the last remaining citizens of Little Italy from before the neighborhood had become incorporated into Chinatown. The cool, ancient nave soothed him and, as a dandy, he was moved by that aesthetic kinship which the church’s grandeur offered as a friendly gesture to his senses. The gold leaf columns reached up, as if to heaven, to the frescoed ceiling, and the candles flickered in the darkness, reverently and romantically. Breathing deep, as he had learned to do in yoga, he stepped, a tourist here, into a side chapel, and there he knelt clumsily—not knowing how to genuflect, or if he should—at a prie-dieu; and gazing at a statue of Our Lady where it was crammed in the niche of a kitschy foam cave and surrounded by plastic ivy, he confronted the fundamental truth about himself that, all bullshit aside, no amount of reason or therapy or deliberation had ever before deterred him from entering into what at first glance was obviously going to be a bad relationship.
Bad relationships were his modus operandi. Under other circumstances, he certainly would have fallen in love with Dominic. He certainly would have gone home with Dominic after the parade, and made dinner with him, and danced with him, and put glitter all over him, made love with him, slept next to him, woken up with him, said “I love you” to him, and given, given, given to him, given all the love he had—he would have given it. And he would later become disappointed, let down, and he would feel unappreciated, and he would be bitter and codependent and frustrated and furious and lonely and sad.
That was why, after all, he had marched with the Anarcho-Marxist Faggots to begin with: for erotic as well as political reasons, in order to meet a wild, radical, kooky guy with dreads and a skirt—someone wholly crazy, who didn’t give a fuck, didn’t want to participate in the system, didn’t have a dog and a Gucci bag, but was pissed off, who acted up, who occupied, who challenged hypocrisy, who was political and artistic and edgy, and who was not going to be found through OkCupid.com or at English Department fucking cocktail parties, but only through direct action. Yet now, in the face of finding what he wanted—i.e. to totally fuck all bourgeois values—he turned away, like Peter who had turned away from Christ, and he could take no action; he had pussied out.
When the traveler is stripped and beaten and robbed, left for dead on the road, who, then, is his neighbor? Like a good Samaritan, Andy would call 9-1-1 and let the specialists with their rubber gloves fulfill his neighborly duty for him, love his neighbor for him, love his Dominic for him. He would let a socialist utopian Dictatorship of the Proletariat love Dominic, let a government bureaucracy love Dominic, let the President nationalize health care, let the People tax the rich, let there be a scholarship program, free housing, public works. Let the full faith and credit of the United States love Dominic. But Andy could not, except abstractly, as another fucking liberal.
Because he was not going to get HIV. Even if practically every movie he had ever seen about gay people ended with everyone dying from AIDS. Even if his own earthly father had cursed him and disowned him, screaming: “Fine! Move to New York City! See if I care! But when you get AIDS, don’t come crying to me!” Even if the F.D.A. would not accept his blood donations, and even if he was thereby officially marked as having HIV, despite all scientific evidence showing that, in fact, he did not have HIV. Even if God Himself wanted every faggot to die of AIDS. Even if he felt so fucking guilty that he thought he really ought to have HIV, that he deserved to have HIV, that he was obliged to have HIV, that it was his responsibility to have HIV—so much so that he felt that indeed he did have HIV, when empirically he did not have HIV. Still, it was always with him, less so than it was with Dominic, but with him the way that Christ was with him, unbeliever though he was, judged no less for his being an atheist but perhaps more so. Always it was with him the way that the wine was blood, when clearly it was not blood, but still it was blood—there was no denying it—and the blood was precious, and its preciousness came from the beauty of the boney body of the man who had spilled it for him, from the terrible beauty of the tens of thousands of his beautiful boney brothers who had spilled their blood for him, their precious, faggot blood.
Then he remembered: The first time that I wacked off, it was to a man naked in a photo from Auschwitz.
He clutched his eyes shut and stopped up his mouth, choking. Before the Virgin from her foam cave could intercede on his behalf, suddenly his cellphone rang.
It was Vener, Andy’s sometime lover and best friend, calling from San Francisco where he had moved (the bastard) three years ago to start a Ph.D. at Berkeley.
Andy opened his phone and after a few moments was able to say, “Hello.”
“Hey. You don’t sound so good.” Vener’s voice was warm and deep, the Filipino accent clipped and round.
Andy pulled himself together and went out of the chapel and through the dark nave and out through the giant doors of the church and under the city’s million metric tons of bright solar fusion.
“Yeah, I feel pretty depressed.”
“What’s going on? Are you o.k.?”
“I don’t really want to talk about it right now. Maybe I’m just hungover.”
“I hear that. I had so much to drink last night!” said Vener, who undoubtedly was cool under the Bay Area fog. Andy sat down on the church steps. He swatted at a pigeon. The pigeon had a mole on its head. It trotted to a step below.
“I can’t believe what I did last night,” Vener said.
“Let me guess,” Andy said. He wiped his eyes. A spasm went through him. “Let me guess. You slept with that guy you just met, and now you’ve ruined any chance of actually having a relationship with him?”
“Worse? What do you mean?”
“I don’t even want to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“Well, I did sleep with him. But that’s not it.”
“Come on, now you’re scaring me.” The pigeon popped back onto the step where Andy sat, and he shooed it away again.
“I … I told him that I loved him.”
“You did what?”
“I said that I loved him.”
“On the second date?”
“I couldn’t help it. He wanted me. Well, I wanted him. I really wanted him to screw me. You know, I usually don’t get screwed. But there was something about him. And he was so sweet. And charming. And I really, really liked him. And I just thought, I don’t know why, but I just thought, I can’t let him screw me until I tell him. So I told him. Like, just before he did it. I was like, ‘Wait, before you do it, I have to tell you something.’ And he got very nervous, and he was like, ‘What is it?’ And I was like, ‘Promise you won’t be mad if I tell you?’ And he tensed up, and he took a deep breath, and he was like, ‘O.K., I promise.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to come out and say it. I love you.’ And he rolled me over and pulled my ass up in the air and …. It was hands down the best lay I’ve ever had, maybe the best lay ever.”
“You have no idea.”
The pigeon found a crumb and began to peck about, banging its beak into the stone. Two other pigeons, one a purple-gray and one with blotches of brown and white, flirted with each other on the sidewalk below the church.
“How can you make that kind of a statement, Vener? On what basis?”
“Trust you? You’re fucking crazy. I can’t believe you would tell a guy you just met that you fucking love him.”
“I couldn’t help it. What was I going to do?”
“You’re like some kind of weird slut. Only you’re, like, a love slut.”
“I know! I don’t know! Oh, geez, I even don’t know. Last week I told a homeless man that I loved him. In Dolores Park. He said he was from Portland. And I just love Portland. All those roses! And he had a lock of his mother’s hair from before she died. She also had breast cancer. And, you know, I always carry my mom’s picture. So I showed it to him, and we talked about it. And I just had to hug him and tell him I loved him. I couldn’t stop myself. Of course, then I ran home and took three showers. He smelled so bad. And I keep, like, psychosomatically itching with paranoia of bedbugs.”
“Vener, you’re like one of those romantic comedies, where the girl says ‘I love you,’ but the guy can’t say it back. Because he has commitment issues, or whatever. You’re like that, only instead of not being able to say it, you have to say it. It’s, like, pathological.”
“I feel bad enough as it is!”
“Well, I guess it’s sweet, in a way.”
“I should think so!”
“But you need to get to know somebody before you say something like that. You need to protect yourself.”
“Well, how well do you have to know somebody?”
“You have to really know them.”
“But how do you know if you know somebody?”
Andy said, deadpan, “It takes at least three dates.” They both laughed together, on their cell phones, across the continent.
“You’re a bitch!”
Andy said, “Well, my friend Tweety told me that a person is the thing that they’re most afraid of.”
Vener asked skeptically, “You mean that to really know somebody you have to know what they’re most afraid of?”
“Yeah, that’s what they really are.”
“And if you get to know somebody, then you’ll find out what they’re afraid of, and that’s what they are?”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard.”
“Oh, please. Who is this Twinky anyway?”
“Tweety. I think you met him when you came to visit last. He’s that cute little bartender who makes the tiny line drawings of torsos.”
“That guy is such a jerk!”
“You’re just saying that because he didn’t want to make out with you.”
“Well, that might be true. But he’s still a jerk. It doesn’t matter what my reasons are. I can’t believe you’re giving me relationship advice from that guy. I mean, how fucking pretentious does that sound? ‘What you’re most afraid of is who you really are.’ I don’t believe it for a second.”
“Because, whenever I’ve gotten to really know somebody, like, really, really know them, I’ve always discovered that I’m the thing that they’re most afraid of.”
Andy’s belly erupted with laughter at his wicked best friend, his laughter so big that it went from the East Coast to the West, and it scared the pigeons away. But the pigeons came back, and they kept on flirting and pecking, and the crowds on Canal Street pulsed by, a little quicker now, rushing for shelter as thick purple clouds swarmed upriver and spread out over the sky. The clouds began to sink down onto the darkening city, ready to bust their nut across the island.
“Sorry, Vener, but I’ve got to run to the subway before it starts to storm.”
“All right. Call me when you get home.”
“Hey, Andy,” Vener said. “What are you depressed about?”
“I’ll call you and we can talk about it when I get home.”
“All right,” Vener said. He became serious. “Well, listen, Andy. I love you.”
Andy said, “But what the hell does that even mean, Vener, coming from you?”
[box type=”bio] A.W. STROUSE is a poet, academic, labor activist, and political commentator. His poems and short stories have appeared in various literary journals. He holds an M.A. in Medieval Studies from Fordham University and is currently a Ph.D. student in English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he studies medieval poetry, with a special focus on the history of love. For more of his work, see AWStrouse.com.