I wrote my first book when I was still very young, and in that, naïve. Still, the reviews and sales were good, especially abroad because it was always more of a European book, whatever that means; I’ve never really sorted that out, but that's what I've heard. The book did well in France and was nicely received in America to good reviews from the places that count most to a literary writer.
What struck me most, however, was the preface, written by a man I did not and do not know, who compared my writing to that of author Elizabeth Smart who wrote the fine book By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – a book I had never read, so had not been influenced by, and an author I had never heard of – but I liked the title. I also liked the other things the preface said, but it was this one thing that made me curious.
I read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and I could see the similarities and I was honored. Smart writes prose like poetry and so do I, though she is a far better writer; that I was even put in the same sentence was a great honor and it still is. But that was it. I finished the book and hadn’t looked at it for years until recently.
You see, recently I have been in New York City a great deal and passing through Grand Central Station has been inevitable, and remarkably, one day, by Grand Central Station I sat down and I wept. Okay, I was crying as I made my way up Madison before I made the jog over to Lexington, so I was on my way to Grand Central, hiding my alligator tears behind a pair of giant RayBans and once in Grand Central, I found a small table by the tracks and there, then, at 6:35, I sat down and I wept.
To ask the circumstances seems almost absurd, doesn’t it, in some ways? Or maybe not. What would make someone like me, normally so pragmatic in my emotion in public, so controlled, mathematical almost, sit down by Grand Central Station and weep? So I sat there and I didn’t care about the passers-by, nor did they care about me. I suppose that’s the great thing about New York. You are left alone. So I was left alone with my grief. Alone in a crowd. I had passed through the room with the robin’s egg blue painted ceiling with the constellations, the grand arched windows with the summer light streaming in, I had stood in the corner of the Whispering Wall – do you know it? – if not, I’ll tell you.
A trick of acoustics – I don’t think it was planned, but I could be wrong – there is one corner of Grand Central where you can lean into a corner and whisper something and if a person stands in the corner of the opposite wall across the room, they will hear what you whisper word-for-word. If they whisper back, likewise, you will hear them. Magic. So I went to the Whispering Wall with a friend and I turned into the corner and as he stood waiting for my message across the room I whispered, “I hate you.”
I meant it.
I don’t know what he whispered back. Likely something ineffectual and banal and anodyne. It didn’t leave an impression anyway. So we left the Whispering Wall and went to the table, after an argument earlier in the day, and we sat at the table and it was there that I wept in Grand Central Station.
Life imitates fiction, and my life imitates a writer and a book that my own writing has been compared to many times. I didn’t remember the book on that day. It had been years since I had read it and even if it had not been, I was too upset anyway. I doubt I was thinking about very much other than this: “People will not only live up to your negative expectations of them – they will surpass them.” Even those you think are closest. Even this one, the first to come along in twenty some-odd years that I finally let down my guard for, even he who I let in and dropped the façade and called my best friend, in the final account was no better than any other.
I say that not as an insult to you, reader. I say that to every shitty person you have ever met. Think for a moment. How often do you drop your guard? How many people do you let into your world, and I mean really let in? Are you as shy as I am? Do you hide behind your dark, owl-like glasses in the corner and play the social extrovert when really, you are hiding behind that role because you are the introvert who wants to remain unknowable? Do you keep a very, very close circle of friends?
As to me, I haven’t dropped that guard in over twenty years. So I meet him, I go slow, I build trust slowly, and slowly, I drop my brick hajib and I let him in because he gives me every sign that it is safe. Every sign. Every reassurance. And over the course of years… years… not a quick trust, but a true friendship, I let that guard down, I take off my sunglasses, I show my eyes. I show my all, and I never do that. For me to do that is a very big deal.
Have you ever heard that song “Liar” by Henry Rollins? Now take that song and apply it to my situation. Ouch, that hurts my pride. I wonder, how could I possibly have been so careful and yet still… Shit, I even know the song and I was a fool. He fooled me with his Chaplinesque, bumbling, seeming innocence and helplessness and me, I fell for it. Don’t get me wrong, I am no saviour. I never tried to save him, but he made me laugh and when he said he loved me for who I am, even the shitty parts, and even as I told him more and more (the bits I never told anybody) he said he still loved me. And me, to me he seemed like me: someone who need the same reassurance, someone who needed joy in his life, a little bit of comfort, some safe harbor, but mostly, he could and did bring me laughter and happiness – and both of us, so many things in common that at a certain point you say, “This is beyond coincidence, this is just weird.”
Our eyes are exactly the same color; they change color at the same time. They are flecked throughout with black pinpricks. Our birthdays, a day apart but just barely; we were born minutes apart – yes, this and a continent and years – but minutes. Words are our currency every day for this is our work. We are Believers – we Believe because we put our faith in symbols and signs: “pessimists with hope” we once said. Should I make the complete list? A few things: we are almost the same height: maybe he is a half inch or an inch taller. His feet, stupid as this sounds, are exactly the same as mine. Not similar, but exactly: high-arched, pale and bird-boned. There is much more – so much more. It is not worth it here. You understand enough. So I think, thought, here there is symbiosis. Here is another like me. Not just emotionally, but even physically. Over time, over the years, we build a whole codified language between us that only we understand. I won’t translate here because some things should remain private. But this language reminds me of Fellini’s film 8 1/2 and the children playing the game Asanisimasa.
So we played Asanisimasa for years and as we did, the symbols and the codified language grew and that language, unintentionally but like any language, came to exclude others. I didn’t see the harm in that because it was simply our code and our short-hand and our symbols; how do you explain what a simple thing – say, for example, a clover flower (even if it has dried up and withered) – means to another person when between the two of you you know exactly what it means but cannot verbalize? After all, isn’t that the point of symbols? They say what you cannot verbalize?
No. I will not list the symbols here. Some things, even when things end, are forever private. You put them in the lockbox of your temporal lobe and maybe it is a language you never speak again. I go to New York again soon: I have nobody to speak that language with anymore, for only he would understand. No doubt, I will find myself at Grand Central Station (this time alone) and I will sit down and weep, this time over what is lost, for there is a great loss here. If you think it is the loss of a lover, then you are dead wrong. If you understand that this is the loss of something more than this, some deeper current, then you are beginning to understand the grief I feel.
I re-read Elizabeth Smart’s book this week. I realized I had missed so much the first time, perhaps because I was too young, or perhaps because I had not suffered this kind of loss. I could not have imagined it, for emotionally I was a child even though I was an adult in terms of experience — growing up in the projects, raising my siblings, getting myself through university, Vogue – but I had never dealt with my tendency to hide, to not let people in. So I learned at last to do this and I succeeded and I, after some odd years of work, I finally stepped out of my corner, removed my dark glasses and showed these pale green eyes and allowed myself to be known.
I chose so carefully. I have come a long way. I am weary. I wonder why I ever stepped out of my corner; why was that necessary? I step back now then; the dark glasses back on, me owl-like in my grief, these marbled green eyes hidden. (“Such a shame, friends say, you have such beautiful eyes,” to which I want, uncharitably, to say, “Fuck you. So what. And where does that get me? I once met someone with the exact same eyes and I saw recognition and I believed that meant something – such a fool I have been. Leave me alone.") If you want to find me, look for me in Grand Central by the Whispering Wall; I will be the one in black, weeping, eyes shielded, and if you approach, approach gently. I frighten and dart quickly as a deer in the inner-city.
Elizabeth Smart wrote:
…we sit at the typewriter, pretending a necessary collaboration. He has a book to be typed, but the words I try to force out die on the air and dissolve into kisses whose chemicals are even more deadly if undelivered. My fingers cannot be martial at the touch of an instrument so connected with him. The machine sits like a temple of love among the papers we never finish, and if I awake at night and see it outlined in the dark, I am electrified with memories of dangerous propinquity… The typewriter is guilty with love and flowery shame…
Thanks for listening.