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.