|Oct/Nov 2014 Nonfiction|
Photograph courtesy of Lee Brozgol
Time: Early 1980s.
His personal in Drummer Magazine was unlike the others—forceful, graphic, explicit. It summoned me into a world I did not know and would only experience vicariously:
San Francisco, SM, 33, 5'8", 135 lbs., 8", cut, good-looking, hard-edged Libran into top/bottom trade-offs or one way clashes with serious leathermen into hot bondage and belt sessions. Bodies in leather and toys in hand, we'll put tits, cock and ass to their proper use. Skip the bullshit, forget the scat, tune into the head and body and let's explore. Photo gets photo.
I wanted to know who he was and so I replied with an imaginary ad:
ARTIST SEEKING MODELS: NYC, Married Man, 41. Wants to portray people I do not know; nor do I have any idea of what kind of art. We can figure that out through our letters. We will never meet face-to-face. If interested, write to: P.O. Box 89; Prince Street Station, NY, NY 10012.
29 March 1983.
He replied: "It has always made me very uncomfortable to write to an unidentified entity, but your project sounds interesting, if vague."
His name was Jon. In his letter, he enclosed copies of photographs taken by Mark Chester, a gay photographer. Jon had modeled for Chester's photo essay, "Bondage Confessions," that had been published in Drummer. In the first image, Jon is perched at the foot of a makeshift bed in an empty room. The room is dark except for a halo of light focused on Jon. He is wearing a jock strap, crew socks and work boots. His head is bound with duct tape. The shots are from high above. Even though Jon's body looks powerful, he appears dwarfed, isolated and vulnerable. In each successive shot, more ropes crisscross his body—simultaneously highlighting his musculature while binding it and rendering his strength useless. The final photos are close-ups of Jon's erect penis jutting out of his jock strap. It is buoyant and glistening like a balloon twisted into the shape of a dog by a devilish trickster.
For years, I had followed the Personals. They evidenced a depth of need and a longing for connection. I deluded myself into thinking these ads had nothing to do with me. Although I was deeply in love with my wife, a childhood in which I had been emotionally battered had left me with wounds I refused to acknowledge, but the darkness that threatened to envelope Jon in his bondage photos was a darkness I knew quite well; and it bound me to him.
In an effort to save us both, I based a two-edition series of papier mache masks on "Bondage Confessions." One for Jon; one for me. Mine is staring at me right now. The acids beneath its lacquered surface are slowly turning it as yellow and brittle as an ancient skull. The mask glares with fixed, impenetrable eyes and bares teeth as jagged as broken knives. Ropes twist across the mask's surface. They imply direction, but lead nowhere.
Jon—30 April 1984
For a number of reasons of which you could not have been aware, the mask says quite a bit about some substantial aspects of my personality. I am a wearer of masks. Sometimes socially, often emotionally, occasionally professionally (12 years as an actor). Many people relate to me only as the mask and ignore revelations I might make. All of this means I was particularly surprised at the kind of art our letters prompted. Thank you! It has provided much deep thought—all of it beneficial.
Jon was reluctant to continue our work together. He did not want to feel obliged, but over the summer I persisted in writing to him about wanting to do a drawing. After a few letters and no reply, I wrote and said good-bye.
Jon—11 September 1984
A difficult letter, but one I must write, as I don't feel comfortable about allowing my silence to be misinterpreted by someone who has been so kind and thoughtful.
The situation: I became an AIDS patient in June, first diagnosed with Pneumocystis (which, for now, was successfully fought off) and now with Kaposi's Sarcoma showing up in addition to an assortment of other but minor plaguing difficulties.
It is all right—I'm taking one day at a time—trying to stay as healthy as I can as long as I can.
Perhaps your "good-bye" is prophetic. In any event, I know I have had your concern in the past and hope you will understand if I cannot write again.
I wish you well, my long-distance friend.
Me—20 September 1984
The coming months aren't going to be easy for you. Within the unfortunate limits that our circumstances allow, I want to help as much as I can. The best way I know how is to listen. So, I've enclosed a tape for you to record. If you told the story of your life, perhaps we could write it together and create something more enduring than your life—or mine. You and I touch each other in small ways in a small context, yet I think it stands for a great deal. What I'm offering is a wish as well as a suggestion. If you decide not to respond, it changes nothing.
In all likelihood, my wife was pregnant when I wrote to Jon. Our son was born the following June. About a month later, Jon came East to visit his family in Connecticut and to spend a few days in New York catching up with old friends. He hadn't taken up my offer to write his life story; but, by then, our friendship had deepened. We arranged to meet at a Lower East Side storefront gallery where I had been invited to install a mask exhibition. When Jon arrived, I was standing on a ladder and saw him from the same perspective as I had first seen him in Chester's photo essay. He looked very different—small, wispy and elfin. He seemed to be fading as if an eraser had begun its work of taking his image away bit by bit. Yet, as we talked over dinner, Jon began to gain some indefinable kind of power. When I asked about it, he said, Yes, he was a chameleon and could appear any way he wanted. Later, that evening, when I introduced my wife and our infant son to Jon—a new life meeting one that was beginning to close—our smiles were wry and melancholy greetings across a widening abyss.
Dear Jon, I think it's going to take me a long time to understand why I was so moved by our meeting. From the beginning of our correspondence—as glancing and insubstantial as our letters were—there was something about you I liked very much. By the time we met, I was prepared for a different kind of romance; but you appeared so different from the Jon that I had envisioned, it took me a while to put the imaginary you aside so I could listen to the real man. Initially, what I experienced was the comfort of the kinship we'd established. Later, though, the wave hit. I felt as if we were Corsican brothers and I had assumed the burden of your sorrow. In reality, there is little I can do except listen to the extent that you want to be heard. In another realm, I would do anything to help you untie the ropes."
How to respond? Your letter took me by surprise. I wept without knowing where the tears were coming from. Indeed, our meeting was potent. I never expected it would happen. I thought perhaps I'd try to find a phone number, maybe give you a call. I did not know if I could meet you face to face. But I needed to know if you were real.
I have undergone a severe setback. Illness is now penetrating and constant. The weakness has deepened. I am pretty much confined to my flat. I hate it. I feel so much like a prisoner—a prisoner who has committed no crime except to be sick. But I endure—I don't know anything else to do. If, indeed, you assume the burden of my sorrow, let me ask just one thing—accept it as a mother would a handful of wildflowers from her child—lightly!
Stick by me just a little bit. For some unknown reason, I put much faith in your communication. I will do what I can to respond, although, in my slump, it is harder each day to get my brain cells to do their proper work. I strain to remember, to express myself, to make sense. I wish all of this shit had not come between us. I think we might have become great friends. Isn't that odd?
My most sincere love to your wonderful little family and to you, my compadre.
Jon continued to decline. I still wanted to draw him as a way of memorializing his life. He provided photographs and annotated them. "Father and brother. Right now, they are the center of my life"; one of his mother, "A princess with no kingdom. Sad, beautiful lady."
Jon's letters became limited to an annual Christmas greeting. Neatly printed in red and decorated with dancing Santas, his "Letter of Christmas" in 1985 was his attempt to rally:
It has been a year of extraordinary change and startling growth. Here are some of my joyous discoveries:
1) Love really does run the world engendering a pulse that everyone can feel should they choose to do so.
2) The power of friendship extends in all directions, bringing shelter and solace and healing of the mind and spirit.
3) Adversity is only what you make it. There is always sunlight, a quiet stream trickling to the sea and the song of birds to cheer our spirit.
4) Each time we give, we add to the infinite storehouse whose doors will be thrown open in our need.
5) In the space of my life I have seen these things and so much more. I can offer these visions to anyone who will listen.
To all of you, I wish the blessing of good spirits, good health and good kinship now and for all our years to come.
On the reverse side, he wrote:
Lee—So much that I want to write, but physical and emotional exhaustion has left me confused, angry and depleted.
I will be alone on Christmas most of the day. Just the way I want it. I'm going to prepare myself a special Christmas meal, make a few phone calls and luxuriate in the peace of my flat. The only visitor I will have is the nurse who comes to plug me into my medication.
(Excerpt from a letter to a friend of Jon's):
I didn't want to ask Jon how I would know if he died. I assumed it would get worked out. But it hasn't. That's why I'm writing. My letters to Jon have been returned. I've called and his phone has been disconnected. No Christmas card, either.
Ah, this is all very sad, isn't it? Jon died many months past. There's so little to say. He went through many illnesses. It was very ugly at the end, but he chose to hang on. His family was good; so were his friends. I'm at a great loss to say more, really. I don't know what would be helpful or meaningful. He was in the hospital at the time, Presbyterian, I believe. It was difficult for everyone. There aren't many heroics at the end of this thing, just great sorrow.
After all these years, it is remarkable that, in writing this memoir of a friendship, I have discovered something I had never noticed before. It was included among the copies of the photos Jon had sent. A small, black and white Xerox of a cartoon—quite corny, which is probably why I had never bothered to study it. A road narrows toward the horizon, then ascends upward and ends in a cloud. Alongside the cloud is this poem:
Take us home.