There were Maureen and Juan, who, only a year after we moved in, retired and moved out and went to Miami. Once Ed got tenure in New Jersey, he’d said, ‘I’m not living out here,’ even though I was fine with sleepy suburbia myself. He’d said, ‘We might have to live in two rooms in Brooklyn,’ and although I loved him I’d followed up: ‘I’m never living in two rooms with you or anyone else again.’
Yet we didn’t have to, it would turn out. Chelsea Commons, it turned out, was the first and last place we’d looked at. And we’d moved in and started filling up an apartment that in suburbia would have been considered cramped but which I thought for New York palatial, as upstairs and downstairs other people, mostly couples, moved in and moved out of the six-story twenty-four-unit building at approximately even rates.
And there were Gad and Denis. Gad was a stylist and the quiet but fast-talking one when he spoke, always smiling, treacherously I thought. Denis with his cane would stand on the sidewalk in front of our building on Twenty-Second and smoke a havana. He said, ‘I do marble. I do beautiful marble work. I have more work than I could ever finish. I do marble beautifully.’
I remember thinking, This is what a gay couple looks like. Separate personalities, and in some ways separate lives. Denis smoked and talked and his eyes stared. When I smoked outside on the sidewalk in front of our building, my eyes stared, too. At whatever was going on between Ed and me upstairs, at whatever I was trying to accomplish separately but under the same roof.
Denis was Québecois and said that he’d had not just HIV but AIDS for more than a decade, and that they’d have to take him out on a gurney before he left the apartment he shared with Gad. One summer Ed and I went to the South of France and when we returned, Denis had died. Gad was alone and would come out while I was smoking cigarettes and unload.
He said, ‘You know how all business has been dying after 9/11. I was bleeding my clients. They were broke and suddenly they didn’t have money to pay me and I had to get all new clients and I had a dinner party. Denis said he’d make the profiteroles. Before he did marble he was a pastry chef in Montreal which is when I met him. Not that many people know that about him. He wanted to learn another trade, and I wanted to grow my business, and we both knew we’d do better in New York.’
Gad laughed freely – a little drunk or something I thought – and I remembered that Denis had told me that he’d gotten into marble gradually. It was why they’d come to New York. Denis had even said, when I told him I was trying to become a writer, ‘Listen, there’s no hurry. I have found my dream and succeeded at it. I can’t keep up, I have more work than I could ever finish! When I decided what I wanted I put myself into it gradually, but now I must slow down. It never hurts to take your time, no hurry. I started slowly, and now at this end I am taking my time…’
Denis had spoken as resolutely and comprehensively as a sculptor toward the end of his career, and I was attracted to that. I wanted to be like that eventually. Ed modeled confidence, but it was throwaway lines: ‘Fuck it, when I sit down to write I think of a sign in front of me that says I JUST WORK HERE. It’s like knitting. I pick up my knitting where I put it down before.’
Denis would wink. I’d gotten the idea that he might want to fool around with me, but now it was too late (I wanted to stop having regrets). He was handsome. But Gad the lover, he was always around. He did his work at home. Women would come wearing scarves around their hair and leave looking very glamorously made-up and styled. I wasn’t afraid of HIV or AIDS. I’d been around. Ed had it.
Gad continued, ‘He made the profiteroles and set them aside. In the middle of dinner he excused himself and went to his bedroom. He didn’t want to disturb. He was always tired and he was half the time sick from all the drugs. When I went in to check in on him, he’d overdosed. On purpose. He picked that night on purpose. That was his sweet sad good-bye, his signature I guess you could say. And now he’s gone, and I’m alone. Business has picked up. I miss him!’
While I was out of town at a writer’s colony, still trying to ignite my career by writing a short story that would get me noticed, Ed saw Gad’s cleaning woman, Merci on the elevator.
Merci recognized Ed somehow, and was friendly, and he asked if she knew of anyone who might want to clean our apartment. She’d said, ‘I would like to! Yes, pick me!’
And she’d come to us and licked the whole apartment into shape. But at the same time, I would learn about her life, and about the life of Gad – whom she was still working for upstairs.
Ed in those days still boarded the train at Penn Station by himself and Merci would come to work and complain to me about Gad and his tyrannies. He was really, from the sound of it, spinning out of control more and more. Merci didn’t have the right vowel sound in Tagalog and she called him God and she said, ‘God is so mean! There was a bowl of white powder under his bed. I spilled a little with the vacuum and he came in and said, “Merci, what have you done! Do you know how much it costs!”’
Or God would ask her to paint an entire room before a client arrived that afternoon, this in addition to doing her usual cleaning duties. She had to go out and buy the paint and set it all up and begin just when God would come out complaining that she’d misplaced or possibly stolen something. He was getting worse, crazier. And I could see it in his eyes when he came down to the sidewalk to smoke and chat. I was beginning to think he could count on my being there, but then in those days I chain-smoked, and I preferred to smoke outside. Soon God was out of money and he had to move, but all while the drama of God’s financial fall was happening Merci’s drama back in the Philippines was continuing. She was from a small rice-growing village, very poor family.
I was coming out of the bathroom one morning and she said, ‘Boss Michael, I have a story to tell you. My brother is a builder? He’s a builder and he stepped on a wire that was in water and he was burned. My brother loses his leg, but we have not such good medical care in my village and I don’t have the money to send to them to take him to a hospital in Manila.’
The brother died, eaten up by gangrene until the toxin killed his heart.
Her father had retired from the fields and was very old and sick. Merci sent home money to buy him a television, word of which spread through the area. One night bandits broke into the house and took not only the new television but everything else she’d ever bought for her parents. They tied up her parents and held knives to their necks and threatened to come back if they told.
Her cousins asked for money. ‘They said, “Merci, I need money to send my daughter to school to learn to be a secretary. We need money for her tuition and for living expenses.” I told them, “What do you want me to do? I am poor in America, too, my butt bleeds money!”’
‘They think everyone in America is rich.’
‘That’s right. I’m sorry to tell you so many bad stories. I think I should try and think of a good story, something happy. But I am lucky. I have a roof over my head, I have food to eat.’
She told me the story of when she’d first moved to America. She had cousins in Queens who sponsored her visa, and then enslaved her and forbade her to leave the apartment while she cooked the old good Filipino recipes and criticized her efforts and forced her to clean while they watched TV and invited their friends over and ordered her to serve them. Merci slept little but eventually they trusted her enough to let her leave and do the shopping for the groceries, so she could keep cooking for them. She met other Filipino women who helped her find a job and let her stay with them, and now she worked in a design office part-time and cleaned for clients, and gradually began to save, to support herself, and to be able to send money home. She had a lot of hope, she said and smiled, she was happy. She had a husband back home she was trying to divorce though the laws in the Philippines favored men. She had a daughter. The father had no job and he raped the daughter repeatedly. The daughter sat in the jail while the father lay in his cell and she cried to be with him, to have him come out of the cell so he could protect her.
And there were Anita and Stan and their teenage son Dustin. Anita smoked outside, too, and walked their dachshund every hour while she smoked. She was often visibly drunk, slurred her words while complaining about the changes in the neighborhood and while bragging about her son Dustin’s grades at a tony Manhattan private school. On September 11, 2001, Stan was crossing the plaza of the World Trade Center, running a little late to work, moments after the first plane hit, and was struck on the forehead by falling debris. Subsequently he began commuting to New Jersey to his company’s Princeton offices and was taking an antipsychotic that broke out his complexion and turned his face red and blistery. The following summer when Ed and I returned from Maine, Anita had died. Their son was now in college. He caught me downstairs smoking.
‘I guess you heard.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘My mother was a severe alcoholic, and my father just let it happen.’
‘Can I ask,’ I said, ‘was it, then, something like organ failure?’
‘Stan found her unconscious and called an ambulance but her kidneys shut down. And when your kidneys shut down—’
We were invited to a gathering in Anita’s memory upstairs, Ed and I the first to arrive.
We stepped off the elevator and heard shouting from within the apartment.
‘You let her kill herself! You totally neglected her! You might as well have killed her with your own hands!’
‘Son, this is neither the time nor the place. It’s the day of her gathering for chrissake.’
We waited for the anger to die down before I rang. Old friends as well as neighbors in the building came, and in time the apartment half filled up. The old friends talked about a young couple happy and full of life and proud of their son, when Anita still worked and was beautiful. The neighbors remembered when the couple had moved into the building shortly after the two townhouses had been knocked through to make twenty-four units, and how Dustin was the first baby born there, and how things were different then, how the neighborhood was just coming up. Long before Ed and I ever moved in, when we saw the first wave of departures.
There were so many. Next door was an older black woman, Marie, divorced and with a scattering of children around the country, who was already preparing to die. She had a cancer, we didn’t ask what kind, and had chosen to undergo treatment while still living in the apartment. We closed our front door too hard and she very weakly came knocking to ask us to close it more quietly, and even when we tried it was never quiet enough. We came back from Europe and she was gone. Gone too in time were some of the last gay men living there. It suited Ed’s narrative that Chelsea, like our building, was less and less gay. But in the days before Grindr all I had to do was go down at night and smoke and guys would walk by cruising. One asked me if I wanted him to fuck me. I invited him down to the basement where he pulled down his pants, put a condom on his cock, applied a packet of lubricant and entered me while we stood next to piles of neatly bagged garbage and recyclables. He was too big for such a small amount of lube and I bit my lip and took it, a little uncomfortable but happy about the freedom and suddenness of the encounter. I said, ‘Do you like that pussy?’ and he said, ‘Now you’re gonna make me lose my hard-on.’ I shut up and let him finish. I wouldn’t say this kind of thing happened frequently but when it happened I was gratified, feeling that I’d gotten away with something.
Another time at about three in the morning while Ed was asleep in bed a very handsome younger guy walked by, also smoking. He passed, turned, and came back to me. In another two minutes we were upstairs in my room. Antoine was French and beautiful, his skin creamy, his uncut cock magically erect. He lay on the floor next to my bed and I sat on it. Athletically, he bade me to stand as he lifted his hips and body and got me on my back and plowed me all the way to completion in five wondrous minutes. ‘I’m about to come,’ he said, and I said, ‘Come.’
He stayed in me long enough to let me bring myself off, complaining with ecstasy. When he left, not quickly or hastily, but with a sweetly business-like efficiency, I realized that he’d left his beautiful navy mariner’s sweater behind. I roused myself and put on some clothes. I went running down the block in the direction that he’d been heading when we first met, and when I saw him I yelled, ‘Antoine! Antoine!’ He smiled slightly, and thanked me with a cheek-peck.
Years later Ed told me that a young man working at the French consulate who admired his work was coming over for tea. It was Antoine. Antoine had had some recent health problems and said that his job in New York was about to end and that when he returned to France he was going to concentrate more on his art. We were eating cookies. Ed got up to go to the bathroom. Antoine was on the sofa and I was in a chair across from him.
I said, ‘Do you remember this apartment?’
He looked around, eating a cookie very slowly, putting it down and picking it up to eat more of it, and he said, ‘Perhaps?’
‘You fucked me here before, a few years ago.’
‘It was the best fuck of my life.’
Up to then, I wasn’t lying.
He said, still slightly puzzled apparently, ‘I think I remember. It was in the back?’
‘That’s right. And I wanted to say thank you. You left your navy sailor sweater behind and I went running after you. You made me feel so good. So good about myself.’
Which isn’t always the thing you say while hoping to be comprehended by a Frenchman.
Antoine was gone in another twenty minutes.
Downstairs were a middle-aged gay couple. Don had worked in fashion but since 9/11 was studying interior design at Parsons. Greg had been a successful corporate lawyer but found the work somehow empty and unrewarding. In his forties he’d entered medical school, and when he’d finished his residency was offered a job overseeing the doctors’ training at the Florida State University medical school, which would have meant a big change in their lives, though they were both southern and could theoretically appreciate the graciousness of Tallahassee. I had gone to Florida State as an undergrad and assured them, a bit queasily, that Tallahassee would be a nice place to land. ‘It’s a little bohemian,’ I said, ‘and liberal because it’s the capital of Florida.’
‘We’re worried,’ said Don the new interior designer. ‘I’m not sure I’m ready to give all this up. But on the other hand, it’s all changed. It’s not the Chelsea we moved into.’
Their apartment had pride of place. It had one of the two stoops. People coming over to dinner would naturally be tempted to enter the building via one of the two stoops.
Greg the new doctor said, ‘I’m ready to get the hell out of here. We’re southern, I think we can find our way. And anyway, they’re throwing a butt-load of money at me to get me down.’
I said, ‘There are so many beautiful houses for Don to work on and all these really bored kind of liberalish housewives who want to do something with where they live. Old mansions…’
In the end, they went. From Facebook, I see they have a nice house and an active social life. And I’ll admit that from time to time, especially when I’ve been unhappiest and felt like the least successful writer in my social circle, I’ve fantasized going back south. Just not lately.
Directly upstairs from us lived Ed Green, who worked in perfumes and led an active life of opera to concert to musical. Ed Green had AIDS and from the medications lipodystrophy that gave him a hump on his back, a widely spreading neck, and a jug-like face. He seemed never to be displeased. He seemed hardly ever in fact to be working. He came home early from his office from which he sold fragrances to department stores, pretending a withering, askance view of the Manhattan business world, made a joke about it, and said, ‘Oh well! I’m flying to Venice in the morning to see Così fan tutte at La Fenice. I generally prefer the Italians to anyone else, but a good Mozart is as good as any real Italian. And how can you beat the venue? La Fenice, don’t you think the ceiling is like a little portal to heaven? And I do admire a theater that seats only a thousand. To hear the language Italian, and sit there, and take it all in, and just listen…’
Ed Green lived in 3D and us in 2D, and not infrequently our mail would get mixed up. A letter or package going to Ed White got rerouted to Ed Green, and vice versa, our silly New York fun that reminded me of the first time I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s or watched the movie.
One evening an ambulance took him out of his apartment, and I thought naturally about Julien, but in another week he was home. A young man became his caretaker, Robert, who said that Ed Green was all right for the time being. ‘He knows what’s about to happen and is sweet. He sleeps a lot. I think it’s sadder for me, ironically. I look at a man of such accomplishments, of such culture, and I dream, how could my life ever begin to even start to equal his? I’m so full of self-pity, but I admire him, and he’s so grateful, for just the tiniest things, the littlest thing, like I bring him some distilled water, and he says, “This is the most delicious water I’ve ever tasted.”’
Once again, Ed and I were away when Ed Green died. Immediately Robert was out of our lives on Twenty-Second and the apartment was renovated. I went up one afternoon during a showing and because of the grandfather clause defying the upgraded condo standards, the renovators put in tile floors, instead of the dictated carpet. The apartment, an exact duplicate of our footprint’s, was bright and airy, and in moved a young student from Hong Kong and his girlfriend fronted by his parents’ considerable dough, we guessed. Night and day, it sounded as though furniture was being moved and shoved and thrown about on the tile floors. Going up to complain, I waited for five minutes, hearing more scraping and rustling, and the Hong Kong student would finally come to the door. And when I complained, seeing a table (exactly where ours was downstairs) covered in empty red plastic Solo cups, the student said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
The recession of 2008 took care of him, and a few others.
But we’re still here. Hurricane Sandy flooded Chelsea, and Ed and I were alone in the building, bereft of invitations further uptown where there was electricity. We sat for four nights without power, cold, the freezer full of stock I’d been advised to store. Our stove is gas and I’d take out a prepared meal and heat it up in the dark. Ed read George Eliot by flashlight, and we huddled at night under quilts and blankets. I’d bought gallon jugs of water. It wasn’t that. We wanted to treat ourselves, we walked a few blocks uptown where there was power. There were lights and restaurants and coffee shops and businesses open, and we did our email and ate some fried chicken or barbecue. Sexually our lives are separate, but in every other way Ed and I are entwined.
And that’s as we originally chartered it, together at this writing for twenty-two years.
This is an unpublished extract from Michael Carroll’s memoir, ‘Pretend I Wasn’t Here: A Personal Narrative’
Carroll’s Unbound book choice is ‘Sex Drive‘