“If romanticism’s so bad, why are you always howling?,”
I asked the well-dressed assistant director at the mic.
She looked back agog, then changed into a silver fox.
Typical. I didn’t even know how I got on this ship,
or why Princeton University was now seaborne,
or why I had brought my mother along. My mother,
incidentally, had heard me give one talk before,
on the history of the haiku, at an almost diplomatic
scholarly event. Scholars as dignitaries, and my mum
wanted to be introduced, as one would a VIP.
But I was barely a P, let alone VI. Anyway,
she complained, obviously, and told me
——that she was ashamed of me
——that I was a foolish little boy
——that I wasn’t fooling anyone
——that I was a maelstrom of snot and fidget
(she was right about that, let’s face it)
——that nobody could even understand what I was saying.
Here I am, some years later and a grown transsexual,
and complaining about my mum being mean to me.
We didn’t speak for several years after that. I nearly died
of alcoholism. Anyway it’s Christmas and she’s flying here.
So I’m on a boat and it’s Princeton and my mother is here,
as is that oikish boy who I went to school with,
my erstwhile chum, who—wait, what did he do
with himself? I never thought he’d come to much,
and if I recall correctly it was a tech start-up or a minor quango.
But here, shit, I have to hand it to him: the boy learned to sing.
Robust baritone, and it’s popping out of his precisely calibrated
weskit, and he holds his hand like a singer does.
What’s he singing? I can’t hear, is it “Some Enchanted Evening”?
He’s got a following, the pot-bellied mediocrity made good,
and there’s a whole frog chorus croaking it out with him,
but I can’t hear what it is, it’s just a swirl-a-whirl.
Leaning on the boat, and the group are swaying like an iceberg,
like koalas left on the tundra, drunk on climate,
and the tops of their heads merge with their eyes,
next it’s eye-heads, now bulging out of necks. Swaying,
and it’s big eyes, pupil-balloons, mouth-lids on the bottom.
Silver fox takes the stage: “let’s have a big hand,
for our special guest P——— J———, who’s come
all the way from Birmingham, England, to be with us tonight,
and who has taught us all a thing or two about using
lawn ornaments and furniture in the most eco-friendly ways.”
GARDEN CHAIRS, fuck: do I remember smoking weed in a hammock,
with him, or maybe his weird effeminate friend I disliked?
Or one of his many cousins, who fancied themselves cooler than us?
It’s pathetic, really, trying to make oneself the origin of a prince of frogs,
we haven’t spoken in decades, and there’s no way
he would possibly have any sense I was speaking today.
My mother always hated him. Well, but she’s a creature of hate.
He had come to see me in San Francisco when I lived there.
He was impressed at how much I drank and my cocaine hook-up.
I think we even talked about lawn furniture, even. Burritos,
al pastor, the kind with pineapple, at one of the shonkier
Mission cafeterias. Who that was born to Albion abhors a palm tree?
They had one at the Kingfisher Centre in Redditch
and everyone said it was very good. Italian mosaic,
google “Italian mosaic muralist” and of course you get Veronese.
Paolo something. Anyway the burritos were good,
and I kept it together, didn’t piss myself or owt.
Silver fox continues: “our next guest is a professor of English,”
audible consternation, “who is here to talk about the genius
of Stephen Sondheim.” I wasn’t. And even if I had been,
I wouldn’t have phrased it like that. Still she went on,
“Who died earlier this year.” That, he had. I was in an art gallery,
with my lover Lily, when I heard. It was hard for me
because the art was fun and contemporary, and the
staff seemed cool. And I was like, lord save me,
from being one of those lugubrious faggots
who seem more able to whine about the death of a songwriter,
than celebrate the force and color of a thousand mosaic pieces,
and anyway his best work was a half-century past.
Except, no, I don’t believe that. I know I’m supposed to think
Gypsy the high watermark, and Company the end of it all,
but the truth is, I like the trash. Well, within reason,
not Sweeney, I mean it’s fine, but Night Music is my favorite,
and if I had wanted a name, when it came time to get one,
I should probably have selected “Desirée.” But that’s too camp,
and I have been flirting with this other transsexual recently,
and I asked her if she preferred Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton,
and she said “both too camp for my taste,” and I thought,
well, I daresay David would approve, but how can I
respond to that, in my silver jodhpurs and Liberace wig?
I sometimes think people don’t even notice I’m there,
which even sounds like a line from A Little Night Music,
and honestly it wouldn’t be any worse even if it were.
The Liberace thing is odd. Early on in my recovery,
when I was going to meetings every hour of day and night,
there was a homeless Black man named James we all knew,
he hadn’t been sober since leaving Vietnam, but he always
said he would take us all to Las Vegas if he ever made it.
He died in a fire, a block or two from the Ghost Ship,
after falling asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth.
One night, we caught each other’s eyes on the tarmac,
and I was made up and twinkled, you know, like a
whatever-the-word-is, you know, nancy, and he asked,
“you know who you remind me of?” and i said no,
and he said “Liberace,” and I said, “oh?” but he didn’t hear,
went on, “and that motherfucker was—” theatrical pause—
“the greatest motherfucking pianist in the universe.”
And I knew he was right. AND that’s how I know Michael Douglas
is a homosexual. That and an incredible story I heard,
third hand, from a professional LA cocksucker,
who told my friend he fucked Michael Douglas,
drove away, but then was recalled to the hotel,
only to be confronted and then, subsequently, fucked
by Spartacus himself, Daddy Douglas, while Michael peeked.
God knows if it’s true but my friend said the hustler was trustworthy,
and isn’t there something in it that just feels true? Is to me.
I say to the silver fox, “I actually don’t have anything
on Sondheim, right now, unless you’d like me to extemporize?,”
and he said that sounded good, he wasn’t listening,
and anyway the crowd was dispersing, nobody cared.
I can’t even remember what I did talk about, and my mother
wasn’t impressed, any more than she had been the first time,
but at least she held her tongue. When Sondheim died,
I wanted to buy a big black coat I had just found,
and it was luxe and expensive, and I thought it would
make me a real woman. And I still think that, tbh.
I wanted to go to Marie’s to mourn, but I couldn’t go
except in the coat, and goodness knows I couldn’t afford
the coat on my own, though the next day Lily put it on her card,
and I paid her back when I got the next chunk of advance.
Writing is irregularly rewarding but god knows I’m overcompensated.
I don’t know. I wrote this whole book, about love and death,
and fear, and I thought it was big and good, but then
I showed it to someone who has responsibility for me,
and she said “I love it!” like the producer guy does in “Opening Doors.”
And I guess I had to decide what to do about that,
but in the meantime I had to buy a new coat,
so I did, and now it’s Christmas, as I say,
and my mother is coming, and I hope that even
if she dislikes my work (she said my book was “redefining
what it means to be a book,” which was a compliment)
she likes my coat, and my puppies, and my husband,
and my lover, and my apartment. My cooking, candles,
scents, and everything that is pretty and nice,
my vinegars, pillows. Perhaps my friends.
She’ll go to her grave without grandchildren, in any case.