How to be cool—I’d always thought the instructions were printed on some gene I lacked.

Photograph by Patrick Copley.

Midnight: Jack, the roommate, hadn’t moved in yet with his ratty furniture, and my even rattier belongings were piled in the middle of what would become my bedroom, which was mine because I would sleep there, even though Jack, a college enemy turned New York confidante, had been the one to lease it, as the one with a job. I was rooting around for my sleeping bag when I heard a knock. A snub-nosed woman stood in the yellow corridor, wearing fluffy white slippers. “Common courtesy,” she said, explaining she lived below, the floorboards were thin. “I may need to buy you a carpet.”

Over Nespresso in her apartment next weekend, conferencing about the noise our movements allegedly made, Jack and I saw how a thirtysomething had dealt with a layout identical to ours. A lacquered bureau at the far end of the entryway, a round glass and stainless table by the window, a potted fern. It smelled nice in this apartment, and I wondered if Abby was also nice.

I ran upstairs to replicate the noise, tiptoes so no one would hear anything, but back downstairs they were now chitchatting—everyone falls in love with Jack, his quick humor and Dylan curls—and they told me the problem was real, the light fixture had tinkled annoyingly the whole time. Abby was not nice, and neither was Jack. There was an alliance against me.

Squatting between two piles of musty doormats at the Better Carpet Warehouse on Atlantic Avenue, I called my mother. Where was that mauve area rug with the Sol LeWitt–style imprint from? Someplace expensive. So the roommate and I forced ourselves to choose from the floor stock, faux-Orientals and neon dots.

With Abby’s purchase of a sand-colored carpet on our behalf, we became officially involved, Jack and me and Abby, and I felt especially oppressed or controlled or patrolled by her, all week failing to write poems in the living room whose floor the carpet covered fully, the space a padded cell of her design. Still she wasn’t appeased. My step, her step, the reverse anti-gravity footstep of her broom or cane or mop shaking the floorboards right back. Nights she’d been unusually active, I locked my bedroom door before going to sleep. Out our kitchen window, the one facing the BQE and a sliver of downtown Manhattan, I could see the orange pinprick of her cigarette, dangling out the identical window below.

A man was watering the last of Abby’s plants—a whole conservatory on the fourth-floor landing from June to September. Her boyfriend, I decided, since I’d just begun dating someone myself.

Lonely on the 5 train home from Union Square, I’d said that the first gay-looking boy I saw would be my target, so the skinny blond boy with the Artists’ Space bag was my gay-looking target. We got to his stop before I’d done anything more than leer, but because his stop was my stop as well, I left the train directly behind him.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hi,” he said.

I asked him—R—if he worked at Artists’ Space, and the NYC-branded nouns accumulated for two more blocks and then throughout our first date, at a speakeasy-themed bar in the neighborhood, R wearing artily oversized clothes.

My most colorful New York story I told early, from my first summer here, when I went to Justin Vivian Bond’s cabaret show and Bond, known pronominally as “v,” invited me to v’s loft, where, in addition to participating in more prurient acts, I asked v to marry me in the middle of a room crowded with vampish boys wearing angel wings.

To my dismay, R knew a lot about Bond. As an art writer, he knew something about almost every cultural artifact or figure I could mention; what he didn’t know, like opera and poetry, was dismissed. Both his knowledge and his scorn established him as the kind of person I admired and so envied and so loved and so hated.

That fall was readymade sculpture and Epson-printed painting, galleries no one had heard of and museums when they were closed, brunches in spare apartments and parties in smoky Chinese restaurants, and since I was a pop culture ignoramus, endless YouTube of Nicki and Bieber and Bieber feat. Nicki. How to be cool—I’d always thought the instructions were printed on some gene I lacked.

Kissing outside his building, pulling up his sweater, pressing knuckles to his navel and reaching down, I felt certain to discover some unforetold deformity, some lack or superfluity against which to find myself superior, but everything was fine.

Riverside Houses, the massive redbrick building where Jack and Abby and I lived, had risen in its blighted quarter of Brooklyn Heights in 1890, for dockworkers from the nearby piers. Now that the docks were an astroturfed park for tourists and toddlers, the tenants kept solidarity by plotting in the Yemeni-run Laundromat against a racketeer landlord who wanted to saw down the big elms out back for a parking garage, or by remembering the time in 1980-something that someone got stabbed outside River Deli, the rustic Sardinian restaurant on the corner that at that time was actually a deli.

R lived only four blocks away, but it seemed like a different city there. We never ran into each other, and when we planned to meet, I tried to predict the mood and give it a physical compartment. Among the bars we had Henry Public for dignified and tactful, Floyd’s for vulgar and frivolous, Montero’s for callous and caustic. It was my apartment for special nights, his for casual ones; it was Henry at State for saying goodbye, Henry at Atlantic for saying hello, Henry at Joralemon for pausing during a walk. Parks and restaurants and subway lines—in the secret spaciousness of New York, I parsed each one for what it would determine about the experience we were to have there, and when the experience arrived I was dulled to its contours.

Things were sharp with Abby. In the bedroom above her bedroom, in the bed above her bed, I kept in constant, direct, vibrational touch with her. She knew, or might have known, when I went to sleep, when I woke up, when I vacuumed, and, from the timing of these activities and the strength of my footfall, whether I was ebullient or enraged or casually depressed. I could guess at her moods from the volume of the alt-rock looping in her living room, the quantity of trash deposited illegally in the stairwell, and of course the quality and number of her assaults on the ceiling.

A book would slide off my desk and doors throughout her apartment would slam, and then the hail of plaster-crumbling spikes, which meant, “I know you haven’t done anything wrong, but I hate everyone right now, primarily you.” Or I’d switch the placement of my bedframe and dresser and desk, a five-minute, floor-scraping affair, and I’d feel a single thump: “I understand how in New York you have to rearrange your bedroom to feel like you’re not trapped inside it, but as a reminder, I’m living underneath you, and would be grateful if you’d finish up as quickly as possible.”

R wasn’t over enough to hear Abby’s banging. “The Abby who doesn’t exist?” he’d ask. This meant that she and I had established something private and significant.

“I’m going to miss you,” I said before leaving town for the holidays, testing if I meant it.  “Well,” R said, “it’s going to be different without you.”

I decided I’d meant it, and wrote him emails about cathartic encounters with nature and with his most recently published reviews. Home again I installed myself on his couch, and when I wasn’t there texted him song lyrics and checked on Grindr whether he was scouting for sex, which we were not having much of.

One night, I made R listen to a song cycle by Robert Schumann called Dichterliebe, which means, coincidentally, “poet’s love.” I learned to sing it in high school, and wanted him to enjoy the image to which it corresponded: me, a fat but not too acned sophomore, sitting on a stool in the choir room of the Unitarian church on Middlefield Road, trying to make an “ew” sound while holding my lips in an “o” shape—one of many derangements essential to the correct pronunciation of German.

By the seventh song, the disingenuous “Ich grolle nicht” (“I do not chide you”), the singer is frothing, as I felt myself to be frothing at R, trying to show him how cosmopolitan, musical, knowledgeable I was. Not only that, but how singular also, how my love for the songs indicated a unique confluence of passions and memories in me.

R pulled a Warhol monograph off his bookcase and began pointing things out; I nodded absently and turned the music up. In the morning, we agreed that we’d see less of each other. I wandered home. Jack was there, and he gave me a hug, and I bought a ticket for that night’s opera, Maria Stuarda, about the executed Queen of Scots. As I walked toward the door, for every clip of my wooden heel there was the clop of Abby’s crozier or rainstick.

When she moved out a month later, Abby texted me asking for her carpet back. She mentioned that she’d rented a top-floor apartment in Bed-Stuy, and that a partially deaf man was replacing her below us. Not long after, R left the city for a job, and he too sent me a note before leaving. He referenced the dainty strands of yarn that the general store underneath my house used to wrap around its gourmet sandwiches.

I felt that his emotions were elaborate costumes for insults. I wrote him back, invited him over one last time, plied him with Negro Especial, and, after we woke up, told him that he appeared in an essay I was writing. It was an essay about intimacy, I said. He said he would never date another writer again.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author