Illustration by Naï Zakharia
When you hit that great brick wall that hopefully breaks through to heaven, where will you be? My dear friend and mentor, novelist and linguist Ursule Molinaro, had her “brick wall” all planned out. A “graduate” of the Nazi-run prison of Fresnes in France for hiding a Jewish couple, she decided forever after to escape all institutions. Hospitals were at the top of that list. Making her future departure foolproof and pill-enabled didn’t prevent her from conjecturing endings that could happen before her well-planned exit. Once I flagged down a New York taxi for the two of us. To the dangerous swerves of the clumsy cabbie she conjured the following: What would happen to us if we left this level together in the company of this whistling, gap-toothed Haitian chatting on a cell phone and his coconut-oil-infused cab? Would it somehow entangle our afterlives with his? I don’t know. What I do know is that it matters where you die because that’s also where you’ve been living.
Such conjectures never concerned me until July 2 of my 40th summer in Manhattan. That was the day in 2014 when a substance-fueled boyfriend with whom I had foolishly assumed I would spend the rest of my life peremptorily dumped me. Gazing back upon decades of sexual encounters numbering in the thousands, including 11 failed “love affairs,” I asked that Peggy Lee question: “Is that all there is?”
I was sitting in my spacious East Village apartment when I faced that issue, among mostly midcentury furnishings and original art by friends. I gazed at the several books I’d published that had all finally found their way to the remainder table. My eye strayed to the oversize flat screen and my hard-drive collections of over 2,000 films. I studied the walls cleverly painted in an array of Technicolor hues inspired by my favorite films.
No, I did not want to die here.
I was born and raised in the do-you-really-call-it-a-city of Syracuse, a land-bound enclave so median that it had become a national center for market research product testing as I grew up. So brutal were the winters that snow in May was no occasion for comment. So conservative was our upper-middle-class Republican neighborhood that children barely set foot on its manicured front lawns. Sidewalks were few that knew the footprints of anyone but the mailman. When the sun fell and the tastefully retro streetlamps blinked on, the empty lanes looked like footpaths in the tonier sections of Forest Lawn Cemetery.
I suppose I should admit that I’m even old enough to have graduated from my segregated high school before busing changed it in 1969. Our white-kid dress code was rigid. The principal stood in the hallways with a ruler to measure hemlines and sent any girl whose skirt was more than one inch above the knee home to change. First to don an olive army jacket, round-framed glasses, and a “Jewfro,” I’d made a vow by junior year to escape my origins and dump my provincial upstate accent. By 1974, after a four-year hippie hiatus in San Francisco, I became a confirmed New Yorker.
In 2001, my brother and I inherited the family house after my mother’s death at 98. I couldn’t wait to turn it into cash. Bro bought me out, and I used the money to get more notches on my belt of promiscuity throughout four countries in Western Europe. Then I came back to New York for another 13 years. When 2014 hit and the brooding boyfriend coldly split, I suddenly realized how old I was. I also realized I had used up all that the city had to offer. Was that why I found myself hoisting a giant Victorinox suitcase onto the racks of an unreliable Amtrak headed for Syracuse on Oct. 14, 2014? Why was I bringing so much with me?
To say I stayed a long time is an understatement. It is now August 2015, and I’m still upstate. Roughing out one of the worst winters in history without a car, I figured the supermarket was a mere five-mile round-trip walk through snowdrifts and howling winds. I had a lot else to keep me busy, too. Six months previous, I’d been hired at a discount rate to translate an award-winning French biography of director Jean Renoir. The thing is 1,000 pages, for gawd’s sake, and the type is small. After a couple of months of tackling it and cleaning out a 10-year collection of take-home hospital inhalers and those weird yellow circular hospital wash basins my parents had come home with in the last years of their lives, I set up a couple of old TVs from childhood with signal converters and rabbit ears. Then I settled into my routine of translating, punctuated by twice-daily viewings of Perry Mason over the air on MeTV. I rose early, and mornings were never wasted. The first hour, over a Keurig cup of coffee, I spent bawling and cursing my ex. (Still doing it, too.)
Only now have I fully realized what kept me in the town I’d made every effort to escape. In the first place, every street in big bad New York City still reminds me of the pitiless person who has destroyed my chances for love. I can’t pass a McDonald’s without remembering the sweltering day in June I waited two hours in front of its Delancey Street location for him to come from Brooklyn and “discuss our relationship.” Turns out he’d gotten arrested that day for having an open can of beer on the street. I frantically called every hospital, as he was calling his best friend instead of me.
Knowing I wasn’t at the top of the list even in Central Booking set the tone for that summer. It included the temporary loss of that parade of 20-something, attractive, gay would-be writers who I’d thought were enthusiastically connecting me to the younger generation. They laughed at my jokes. However, the youth connection stopped abruptly all last summer as they flocked to shares on Fire Island. Apparently there wasn’t room for me. My only consolation was being saved from having to appear in front of them in a bathing suit. I think you call what they are “fair-weather friends.” My only companion that entire summer was Turner Classic Movies and my broken heart. TCM was comforting because of the childhood era it projected. Kind of like having Mommy and Daddy dug up and placed handily in the corner.
I could go on about the many things that disappoint aging gay men in the context of city life. Instead I’d like to list some of the benefits of the provincial lifestyle. One trustworthy long-term friend whom I’d taken to the senior prom is still in Syracuse. In getting to know her again, I rediscovered something very exotic for a New Yorker. In friendships with the people of small cities, there is no complicated subtext. They actually mean what they say and do what they say they will. When my friend agrees to spend an evening together, there isn’t the slightest chance in the world of getting a text saying she decided to go to a gallery opening instead. As for the rare friendly overtures from those I have met up here, I can be fairly certain they haven’t researched me on Google first and aren’t hoping I can connect them with a dealer or publisher.
The best aspect of all of provincial life, however, only showed itself with the spring thaw. It’s the land, and the rich earth of which it is composed. One spring day, while sipping my Keurig and surveying my mother’s sad, weed-overgrown rose-of-Sharon-and-daffodil garden, a strange power overtook me. It sent me to the dust-laden garage in search of a hoe that hadn’t been touched for more than a decade. As I dug into the moist earth, checking arms and ankles for signs of deer ticks periodically, a wonderful sense of reconnection to the world was born. The results of this revelation climaxed in July, with a burst of zinnias grown from seed, a newly planted Japanese maple, a hydrangea, and an indigo plant. Not in a million years could I have imagined wisecracking, snarky, story-crafting, international me finding gentle ecstasy in working in a garden. But the best thing of all is that even if the care and love you lavish on the kingdom of flora does not reach its goal and the plants all disappoint you, they don’t expect you to take it personally.
A complete collection of Bruce Benderson's stories, titled Urban Gothic, will be published by ITNA Press.