Nate Lippens ~ Pompeii

Rudy and I talk on the phone late at night, often from one or two until dawn. He lives in New Orleans and I live in Wisconsin. Both of us have returned to our home states after decades away in New York, Los Angeles, and Berlin.

When I was still liv­ing in New York, mud­dling through one sub­let fias­co after anoth­er, I would call Rudy. “Babe, you have got to get out of that city,” he’d say. “When I left, I nev­er looked back.” Finally, I gave up on New York and told Rudy about my Midwest plan. He said, “How long have you been feel­ing suicidal?”

Nearly two decades sep­a­rate us but Rudy talks like we’re peers. “It’s not that we’re old. It’s that we’re from anoth­er time,” he has said many late nights. Sometimes it ran­kles me and some­times it com­forts me to be lumped in with him.

We’re the last two queens on phones not look­ing at dick pics,” Rudy says. In truth, I exhaust­ed the seizure-induc­ing strobe of hookup apps hours before, but I play along with Rudy’s por­trait of us as old maids.

I say I pre­fer the term spin­ster because it gives the impres­sion of mon­ey stashed in the end pages of books by Wharton and James and Sitwell. This imag­ined library in a crum­bling house delights Rudy because it is the kind of place he has actu­al­ly known. The fact of my tiny bar­ren apart­ment with its pover­ty queen min­i­mal­ism doesn’t intrude, the same as the real­i­ty of what sep­a­rates us––thousands of miles, an age gap, finances––is closed by hours of chat­ty bitch­ery and our need to laugh.


I met Rudy when I was sev­en­teen. He thought I was a girl at first. I had rat­ty bleached blonde hair with dark roots, eye­lin­er, lip­stick, nail pol­ish, and a thrift store dress over jeans.

Rudy had a large run­down apart­ment with a war­ren of small musty rooms with heavy draperies and cat piss-stained rugs. Days and nights were indis­tin­guish­able. He shot high anti-fash­ion pho­tos for mon­ey and snaps of junked-out girly boys for art.

Many of Rudy’s pho­tos were beautiful––and bor­ing for it. The right light, the per­fect angle, the film still sheen. Some were beau­ti­ful in their ugli­ness. The best were unre­solved, beau­ti­ful­ly ugly but unfin­ished. They couldn’t decide which to be.

Rudy sent me on errands and let me keep the change. He gave me advice: Avoid the games, men are shit, don’t ask for per­mis­sion. So I stole a few lit­tle trin­kets and baubles and pawned them. I nabbed books. If I couldn’t pro­nounce the authors’ names I assumed they were good. It was my night school.

I posed for Rudy a few times. Dressed up in thrift store clothes and cos­tumes sal­vaged from an abort­ed movie pro­duc­tion, a mix of pirate and south­ern belle with streaks of make­up where lips and eyes should be.  Rudy was high and we went up to the roof with its ques­tion­able areas––don’t stand there––reminding me of out­door ice skat­ing as a kid: Thin ice. It was windy and start­ed to rain. Almost done. Hold still. Hold it. Hold it.


Rudy says our ances­tors didn’t sleep for eight hours straight. They slept in three to four hour peri­ods. He wants me to shake label­ing myself an insomniac.

It’s neg­a­tive think­ing. A neg­a­tive label.”

Negativity is my strength. I’m a man of my word and that word is usu­al­ly no.”


Rudy says that I’m a stay-at-home dad with no kids or pets, “but you are a queen of a cer­tain age with facial hair so you qualify.”

My ago­ra­pho­bia is cam­ou­flaged by win­ter. Everyone hiber­nates so who can tell. In the last week a polar vor­tex has hit the Midwest with tem­per­a­tures of forty below zero. Online I’ve seen friends lament their shut-in sta­tus and cab­in fever, mak­ing jokes about The Shining. I’m not about to tell any­one that often days, some­times weeks, pass with­out me going outside.

Rudy knows, sort of. “You’re like Greta Garbo,” he said once.

But Garbo was known for her long walks of up to six miles a day. I’ve seen the pho­tos of her wear­ing her Hush Puppies wan­der­ing Manhattan. I’ve read the quote attrib­uted to her: “Often I just go where the man in front of me is going. I couldn’t sur­vive here if I didn’t walk. I couldn’t be 24 hours in this apart­ment. I get out and look at the human beings.” Of course, the human beings in New York and the human beings in Wisconsin are a very dif­fer­ent look.


Rudy sends me a link to an arti­cle. A pho­to of remains dis­cov­ered in Pompeii. “For the first time ever, archae­ol­o­gists have been able to cast the com­plete fig­ure of a horse that per­ished in the vol­canic erup­tion.” A com­ment below the arti­cle reads, “Beautiful and heart­break­ing.” It’s nei­ther real­ly. It’s petrified.


Rudy tells me about how the artist Paul Thek aban­doned his best-known work “The Tomb,” which includ­ed a life-size effi­gy of him, and how it was sub­se­quent­ly destroyed. “Do you know what Thek said when some­one asked him why? He said, Imagine hav­ing to bury your­self over and over.”


Rudy says that he was called for an inter­view. “I could smell it. The guy want­ed that rub­ber­neck­ing sociopo­lit­i­cal sad shit. He kept ask­ing me about dead peo­ple. He asked me: What was it like being gay in the 1980s? I told him: So much cock. All kinds. Cock, day and night. Cock around the clock.”

Interviews with Rudy are fea­tured in sev­er­al of those books about down­town New York. I was always impressed that Rudy didn’t rehash the same sto­ries over and over again. The way he dis­rupt­ed the myths.

            I fall into the nos­tal­gia trap some­times, yearn­ing for some­thing I imag­ine was more authen­tic. All of it ten years before my time. Rudy tells me it was anoth­er world, both more and less real than this one. Once I told him I wished I’d been old enough to see it. “You’d be dead then, babe,” he said.


Rudy said he lost track of how many funer­als he attend­ed. “If you told me over a hun­dred, I wouldn’t blink.”

He told me about the clubs, piers, bram­bles, and baths. He list­ed the bars: The Anvil, The Mineshaft, The Ramrod, The Cockring, The Toilet, The Glory Hole, and Crisco Disco.

There was a year where Rudy stopped going to funer­als. “I went out every night and snapped pho­tos high and drunk. Everyone that was left looked like gor­geous zom­bies. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.”

After six months he sat down and looked at the neg­a­tives, select­ed some images, and print­ed them for an upcom­ing gallery show he could hard­ly both­er to care about. It was a hit and that became his first book and made him demi-famous. He became known as a Method pho­tog­ra­ph­er, liv­ing amidst what he was doc­u­ment­ing. His rela­tion­ship with those pho­tos and that book has ebbed and flowed between hes­i­tant embrace and petu­lant dis­gust over the years I’ve known him.

He showed me pho­tos of him and friends at Laguna Beach in the mid-80s. “Fourth of July?” he said to him­self. “David, Jason, and Steve.” I didn’t ask and he didn’t say.


I’m stuck in my apart­ment watch­ing road movies. I’ve been on a Wim Wenders kick. His 1970s road movies––Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road––and the ones that felt like road movies, or just dis­lo­cat­ed, like The American Friend based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. It stars Dennis Hopper as Ripley, which doesn’t quite work. For me, Nicholas Ray play­ing Derwatt the art forg­er, with his eye patch and crag­gy dead­pan pro­nounce­ments, steals the show. “A lit­tle old­er, a lit­tle more con­fused,” he says watch­ing Hopper/Ripley walk away. And this: “You’re right, I’m dead and I’m doing very well.”

Last win­ter Rudy and I watched Werner Schroeter movies for a month. Our mid­night to near-dawn phone calls were dom­i­nat­ed by talk of them. Divas, opera, and fables. The tableauxjobs as Rudy called them. Schroeter’s muse Magdalena Montezuma. The make­up in the ear­ly movies that made the actress­es resem­ble drag queens.

Pure Ethyl Eichelberger,” Rudy mum­bled close to 4 a.m. about one such performance.

Wasn’t Schroeter the mod­el for the direc­tor char­ac­ter in Gary Indiana’s Gone Tomorrow?” I asked.

Maybe. Probably. Who knows,” Rudy said, sound­ing like a Gary Indiana character.


Rudy tells a long sto­ry about a man he dat­ed briefly in New York.

I think he was from Superior, Wisconsin,” Rudy says. “Is that a place?”

Yes, it is a place, and it belies its name.”

In New York, I missed the hori­zon. In Wisconsin, I feel exposed and vul­ner­a­ble, eas­i­er to pick off.

Sometimes I for­get my Midwestern trans­la­tions: “You do what you think is best” means “It won’t work but go ahead and waste your time.”

Why do we live here? I mean all of us and I mean anywhere.


Rudy shuf­fles his sto­ries: He had a dis­as­trous affair with a cou­ple in L.A. (“It wasn’t called a throu­ple then,” he says. “I was just a great piece of ass.”), sold Black Beauties in Washington Square Park, aban­doned his apart­ment in Berlin to the street kids he pho­tographed. “I don’t remem­ber the order,” he says. “As John Ford once said, Print the legend.”


Last sum­mer I asked Rudy, “Where do you think all the peo­ple who called us bit­ter in the ‘90s are now?”

At the Whitney’s David Wojnarowicz exhib­it,” he said.


Dead men whose lives are described as “brief, incan­des­cent” or “short, hard.” Me, lis­ten­ing and not lis­ten­ing now to these men being pro­claimed, wist­ful­ly remem­bered, and yet, still, some­times turned into tyrants of appetite for lov­ing cock. What can I pos­si­bly say to any of that?


They feel the trau­ma of those times, too. Not first­hand, but it shaped every­thing that came after,” I say.

Rudy is scorn­ful of young gay men who haven’t lost any­one to AIDS, who grew up after AIDS became treat­able, claim­ing grief about AIDS.

They don’t know though,” he says. “They nev­er will.”

I pause and there’s so much I want to say, but already it’s falling away.

Sometimes I’ve only want­ed for Rudy to under­stand me. He has seemed to be the clos­est I’ve had to some­one who could breach that gap. But when I con­sid­er the reverse––am I that per­son to him? Does he want to be understood?––I see how stu­pid the wish is. And that’s what is wrong: It is a wish. A hope or desire for some­thing to hap­pen. The entire­ty of the phrase floats off. Yearning for Rudy to see the cause, the expla­na­tion for my life. It’s cru­el to want some­one to see every­thing about you because you can’t imag­ine your­self as real.


After much cajol­ing and bitch­ing, I vis­it­ed Rudy in New Orleans for a week last year. The house was as promised. Old and well-appoint­ed. Filled with antiques and all of Rudy’s trea­sures and junk from decades of thrift­ing and trav­el. We drank and smoked and nev­er went out­side until the sun set. No need for any ambi­tion. No need for out­side con­tact. No need for much of any­thing. I pic­tured my ear­ly retire­ment sit­ting on his veran­da in a caf­tan, say­ing, “I nev­er quite met the right one, and besides I don’t like wear­ing jewelry.”


Rudy says Truman Capote died in Joanne Carson’s arms after giv­ing her a key with no num­bers on it. Supposedly to a safe deposit box. Maybe hold­ing his last man­u­script, Answered Prayers, the long-rumored and hyped burn book of his rich socialite friends. Others claimed the book didn’t exist or they’d seen it but leaf­ing through dis­cov­ered a Missouri bankroll–-a few typed pages on top with blank pages beneath.


Occasionally Rudy talks about some of the mod­els that came by and for flash­es of beau­ty were paid in cash or drugs or both. Many depart­ed nev­er to be heard from again. Rudy com­plains about being used by them. As the night is slow­ly destroyed by dawn, he rat­tles off their names and men­tions others––friends who have left him. “They all go,” he says.

I’m not going any­where,” I say. I’ve said it before and I’ve always meant it in that lazy, sleep­less way, but in a larg­er sense it is truer than any­thing else I’ve said.

Rudy ends our night quot­ing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “Now Mary, you’ve delight­ed us quite enough for one evening.”

Daylight shows around the edges of my cur­tains. I almost for­get I haven’t left my apart­ment in a week. I almost for­get the heav­i­ness of my days giv­en over to make-up sleep and the way nights have become elas­tic and unre­al, hours mov­ing through long-gone decades, old hopes and loves shuf­fling like flash cards, names and images not quite align­ing, and the hour before dawn when the pull not to live is strong. I fight it, flex­ing my old defi­ance, sav­ing the day that I will sleep through. I can’t let them win, I think. But who is them­––some­one who has hurt and for­got­ten me, an imag­ined foe, pow­er­ful peo­ple, or is them what it has always been: every­one who isn’t me.

I step out­side to smoke. I love this moment when I’m so tired and still can hear Rudy’s voice. I exhale and watch my breath.


Nate Lippens is a writer liv­ing in Wisconsin. His fic­tion has appeared in Catapult, Hobart, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.