My first place in Manhattan was a dingy East Village apartment with a black light installed in the living room. The previous tenants, a warren of goth chicks, had painted the walls blue, the ceiling a metallic silver. Nothing worked. The pilot light on the stove was constantly blipping out. The bathroom door had fallen off its hinges, so you had to drag it in front of the frame for privacy, like Christ returning to his tomb. The floor was filthy.
I arrived there straight out of college in 1996 with my two best friends, Scott and Brenn. At the time, living in the East Village felt like moving to Calcutta. Our college campus was set on 350 acres of rolling hills and creeks, the plants tagged with Latin names, the grass cut religiously. I had never lived with Scott or Brenn, but I wasn’t worried. Even slobs looked reputable when surrounded by all that fieldstone and Quaker gardening.
Our new home encouraged louche living. During the day, it was quiet and dim, and for the first few weeks, I’d come home from my job at a Midtown publisher to find Brenn lounging on a ratty easy chair we had dragged up from the street, reading a book and sipping tea. Brenn worked when he wanted to, temping at odd jobs, then quitted abruptly. He also spoke with a British accent, which he had picked up while studying abroad in Scotland.
Scott was all business — at least that was his pose. Each day he commuted two hours to Stamford, Connecticut, where he told executives how to cut costs for a company that made millionaires of its recent hires. The job had an immediate impact on his wardrobe. Each morning he buttoned up one of his shiny blue shirts, slipped on $400 loafers and clacked out to the subway. The slam of our front door was my alarm clock.
I didn’t know it then, but these were the closest years of our lives. Around eight o’clock each night, Scott would come home and make highballs. Afterward, we tromped upstairs to the roof and smoked Nat Sherman cigarettes and talked about our new life. It seemed bizarre that the oil refinery of lights around us was New York. Even stranger that it was the backdrop for our various ambitions, which were so vague they hovered around us like a perpetual aura of expectation.
To escape the magnitude of these dreams we had to party. After wiping the melted tar from our lace-ups, we headed downstairs to a bar or went out dancing until 4 a.m. Brenn didn’t smoke, but rather sat in the corner with a notebook, which always managed to flush the crazies from the crowd. “What are you writing?” some slightly wounded looking woman would ask, and that would be the last we’d see of him for a few hours.
We pleasure-mongered out of sheer joy sometimes, but what kept it going was fearfulness. My girlfriend had returned to Pennsylvania for her final year of school, and I missed her desperately. Visiting made it worse. So I just stayed in New York and went out. Brenn did the same, only his girlfriend was living in Scotland, or some such place, which meant that Scott and I often left the apartment as he burrowed deeper and deeper into the kind of conversation that only happens on international calls between separated lovers.
Scott was the only one of us who had a present girlfriend, a fabulous and volatile writer who lived in Woody Allen’s former apartment. When K. wasn’t around, which was often, Scott would marshal us out into the streets to drink down the city. He taught me to inhale while I was smoking, took me to dance clubs that are now closed. When I read Bright Lights, Big City, I recognized myself, minus the cocaine.
Oddly, it wasn’t McInerney’s classic which resonated with us first but James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. I had come across an old Atlas Books edition of it in a basement bookshop on St. Mark’s, and promptly fell into the novel as if it were a manhole someone hadn’t covered over. It was a compellingly dramatic story. A young American named David moves to Paris following World War II. After his girlfriend leaves on vacation, he meets an old man, who introduces him to an Italian bartender named Giovanni. The two men trip into a sudden, furtive affair, returning to Giovanni’s room in the wee hours of the night. “I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea,” David says, a sentiment I could relate to, “time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning.”
One of the strange things about the book is that it’s told in the first person, and the narrator is both white and in denial about being gay — two things James Baldwin was most definitely not. In a way, this border-crossing permitted me to make my own. I translated what was clearly a gay experience into my own language — something I had done before. Not long before I read Jean Cocteau’s The White Book, and found myself identifying with the spirit of the book — not of wanting men, but of feeling monstrous or freakish in my desires. Of trying to funnel them inward, pulverize them into something useful.
But of course that doesn’t happen in Giovanni’s Room. Over the course of the novel, as David’s affair deepens with Giovanni, he realizes he has become something else without admitting it — and he becomes incredibly guilty, especially since his girlfriend will be returning to Paris. His internal welter spills over into the action when Giovanni murders a wealthy man who attempts to extort sex out of him for a job. It goes further downhill from there. “People are full of surprises,” a man tells David at the beginning of the book, hinting at what is about to happen. “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden.”
Like David with Paris, I had moved to New York to find a part of myself I knew existed, but couldn’t quite locate yet. Every East Village bar felt like a new weigh station in this search.
I gave the book to my roommates, who both read it closely and twice, and for that whole first year, we name-checked Giovanni’s Room. If we were sitting around the apartment, doing nothing, Scott would say come on, let’s get out of giovanni’s room and do something. A couple of hours later, sitting on a ratty couch at bar after yet another uneventful night, Brenn would lean over and say let’s go back to Giovanni’s Room. It was basically how every night ended. Since we all had girlfriends, we went out alone and came back together, returning to our dumpy apartment like it was our secret lair, staying up late and talking — as if this were the main event, not the nervous hours in clubs or bars before. Neither of them were gay, but we were close enough to each other — and close enough to that age that dating a woman is like breaking up with your friend — that we could relate. In fact, we were so entangled that what we were was hard to name. Scott’s girlfriend was making passes at Brenn’s; when times were tough I occasionally slept in Scott’s bed, which set K. off. All of our girlfriends raised an eyebrow at this behavior. All of them dumped us.
Brenn’s was the first relationship to go, in a slow crumbling that I watched from afar like a mountain slide in awful silence. Then I got The Phone Call. Unlike him I burst out sobbing childishly. It was horrible. Brenn responded by dragging me out of the apartment and walking me around the city as if the sights and sounds of Tompkins Square could actually improve my mood. Mimicking the final scene of Giovanni’s Room on one of these walks, I took out a note my girlfriend had once written to me. I had discovered it tacked to my wallet as a plane I was on prepared for take off. “What do I do with this?” I asked him melodramatically. “Hold on to it,” he said, and then walked me all the way over to the West Side piers, where crack fiends were fighting over their sleeping spots.
When Scott’s relationship came apart, we were suddenly all free and single — the condition we had unknowingly hoped for. But when the moment arrived none of us were thrilled with the freedoms. The city seemed more dangerous and chaotic. Flirting with women at bars, we found ourselves much more inexperienced than we had imagined. We missed familiarity. Our jobs began to feel like jobs, not novelties designed to fuel our nightlife.
We eventually left that apartment, and in a move more symbolic than I realized at the time, my ex-girlfriend and two of her friends squatted there for the final month of our lease. They cleaned it up, let the air in. Meanwhile, Scott had found us a new place. It was just a few blocks south, and it was enormous: a 2,000-square-foot loft with a giant open kitchen. When we moved in, the apartment looked like a bowling alley. Brenn immediately took off to Vancouver for the summer. Scott’s sister moved in and made us four. Within a few days, my ex-girlfriend was coming by nightly to cook dinner. The apartment began to smell like a home, not a cave. Women were around all the time. The lights outside glowed. The World Trade Center rose up like a colossus right outside the window. Only now do I realize how long ago it feels.
Whenever I read essayists addressing Giovanni’s Room now, I worry that I somehow straighted a gay novel — gutted its heart and placed myself there instead. I suppose there are two things inside a book — what it means to the teller, and what it becomes during the reading. In this case, my own reading was overshadowed by New York in 1996. Something about the high drama, the purple prose, the sense of a city opening up its lurid riches, and the intensity of the relationships swallowed me. I tried to read the novel again recently and didn’t get very far. It felt overblown and silly. I closed it before I could ruin the memory. As with my friendships, much of its power was left behind in that tiny little apartment on Allen Street, ten years ago.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays.