When one has attained a certain age, personal history and experience form a sort of pentimento on life’s canvas, a layering of actions and decisions and changes that lie under the surface, former selves and histories and beings and natures and states that simultaneously form the Procrustean bed of self as well as the milieu for the unknowable, the life to come, that which has yet to be painted. The accordion-like folds of experience and their effect on one’s perceptions are incommunicable, incoherent, above all felt and therefore somewhat outside of the realm of articulation. What marks the space between oneself at the age of eighteen and now? It is more than the accompanying physical deterioration. It is, to a certain extent, the construction of an edifice (a Superstructure?) upon a base (Base?). At least that is the teleological, straightforward (Left) Hegelian way of thinking of the development of the self.
Within our minds, the teleology may be plain, or rather perhaps it is the way we are trained to see the world, so we enforce the overarching ideology on a series of events or developments that may in fact be random, inchoate, tenuous. But inside, within the internal movie of our minds it all makes sense, if at times resembling an art house movie that resists straight narration. But to the others outside of our minds, the person we are now and the person we were then may be irredeemably collapsed and confused. This past weekend I had the opportunity to see up close and personal a pentimento of my own life reflected in the pentimento of another’s. Since this encounter of the self and the other and the other self is largely theoretical or rather a hypothetical narrative impinging on a series of potentially meaningless (or alternatively meaningful) events, I shall tell the first part, the Base, as a fable of self—
Once upon a time Oso R. was a young and sassy lass skipping and tripping her way in high-heeled clogs, Pippi Longstocking pigtails, and a gingham pinafore through the dreaming spires of Prestigious Eastern University, a lush green forest of misapprehension and potential, always potential. She met many other creatures of the forest who, like herself, were bewildered and afraid, or alternatively, valiant and full of shit. But this particular bosque at this particular point in time was alive with the sounds of youthful indulgences, which usually settled around a trinity of incomprehensible yet powerful spells: race, class, and gender. While having some correlation with materiality, in fact at this particular time in this particular place these spells were largely free-association metaphors towards a) all that was wrong with the world, and b) all that was wrong with ourselves and the bewildering forest we found ourselves in.
Moving on, some of us, through foolishness or bravery, found particular voices with which to call out among the trees and ferns of the bosque, revealing our brilliant colours that identified us to ourselves and others like us, while some other animals of our species preferred to remain hidden, the better not to be eaten by owls and lions and tigers and bears and the other aggressive, hateful creatures that stalked the palisades amongst us. Those who remained hidden were resented by those of us strutting about like peacocks, daring the predators to come out and engage us in battle, voguing on the precipice of student loans and sticker shock. We felt that while we carried the burden of representation within the bosque, those that remained hidden profited from their obscurity and betrayal of what we, at the time, considered our true selves: beautiful birds of the bosque. Of course, along came the day when we all had to leave the enchanted and delusional forest and leave as well the fairy tale where neat endings and exclusive states of identity gave way to the uncertainty of real life, or rather life as we have experienced it. Meeting many years later, far away from the enchanted bosque, two creatures of the same brilliant colour meet and eye each other suspiciously, thinking not of what has transpired in the years and miles since the forest but rather of the forest itself, and old battles largely forgotten except for the players themselves.
Jota was someone I knew at college, back in those heady, chaotic days of the eighties. I haven’t seen him since, basically, although I remember once spotting him in passing on Market Street in San Francisco a year or two after we had left Prestigious Eastern U, pointedly making myself known from a distance of twenty feet, then melodramatically looking away. Whatever antipathy existed between Jota and myself has, at least on my part, been long forgotten, although through the white noise of a forgetful memory I believe it had something to do with the closet (his) and righteousness (mine). At the age of twenty-one, it is easy to feel one has all the answers. Knocking on forty’s door, it is harder now to imagine a place of answers, surrounded as I am by questions with no easy or convenient answers.
I had known Jota was in residence in Cold City, and he I, and a visit by La Antropóloga to Cold City in the fall was an opportunity for a reunion, of sorts, but was missed, for reasons which are now clear: He didn’t want to see me. La Antropóloga knew Jota in graduate school, when whatever issues regarding his sexuality had been resolved and he was in fabulous! mode, Gay variant. I did not follow his career closely at the time, but knew what I did about his life from La Antropóloga and later Prancilla, who had also made his acquaintance at some point. Academia’s one degree of separation working its magic inexorably, in the pathways and nodes of knowledge from disparate and disconnected sources coming together and falling apart. In any event, after graduate school, a couple of contract jobs, and a bad experience, Jota decided to leave academia and enter a sort of professional and benevolent activism, in which he has been quite successful. Aside from a strangely snarky moment over the summer, when Jota revealed a personal detail about me in a decidedly gratuitous and purposeful manner to Prancilla (remember, we knew of each other’s presence but had not actually even seen each other at the time), which did raise some red flags (Why the snark? After 15 years? Let it go, Mary!), I was vaguely aware that sooner rather than later we would meet again. Why I felt strangely nervous about this seems curious to me, as I couldn’t even remember the nature of any disagreement between us. But sometimes one makes a stronger impression on others than in one’s own mind.
We had our reunion, for what it was worth, last week. It was an unmitigated disaster. Arranged by La India Bonita, ex-colleague of Prancilla and someone who strikes me as truly invested in sociability as a human (and humane) condition (and who has excellent taste in cheese) via the mechanism of a pre-opening cocktail, I knew going into it that I was to meet Jota again chez elle. He unfortunately has not been apprised of the surprise reunion. Needless to say, the look on his face as I walked into the room in all black and looking pretty good if I must say so myself (I had dressed to meet faggots, which is to say elegantly) was priceless, in a sort of horrifying way. Whereas for me the once and future encounter with an old collegian promised to be at worst a slightly awkward moment, he clearly had little desire to even be sociable in the most basic sense. After a strange and tense greeting, he proceeded mostly to ignore me, surrounded as he was by old chums and La India B., who he has known for several years. I made some initial forays into friendly banter, mostly ignored or cooly received with one-word answers. I waited patiently for any question inquiring as to what exactly I had been up to for the last 15 years. You know, basic sociable exercises. None were forthcoming. So, I too became cool, and we suffered through 45 minutes of discomfort, while his boyfriend guzzled wine (3 glasses, not that I was counting) and La India B. wrung her hands nervously, the dear. I excused myself to smoke a cigarette on the front porch, and as Jota and his boyfriend left the gathering, Jota offered a breezy and deeply chilled goodbye. Ice cold. Oh My!
When I told the story to Mr. Gordo, he asked me, incredulous, what exactly had I done to Jota? In all honesty, I cannot remember anything that bad, aside from the general dyspepsia of ideological excess that was characteristic of our time at Prestigious Eastern U, although the memory of our encounter on Market Street reveals perhaps more antipathy than is warranted by my vanilla narrative, and my mild memory of nothingness was clearly not shared. All of which made me wonder both about how our former selves follow us into whatever life we find ourselves, as well as the vulnerability of knowledge, of intimacy, how seeing someone who knew us as a different person can be either an opportunity for the rich tapestry of change and memory or alternatively a terrifying descent into uncomfortable and embarrassing revelations, or rather, the potential for such revelations, and the risk they entail for the narratives of self.
There are so many theoretical avenues to follow here: is Jota embarrassed because now he is a “professional gay” and I knew him when he was still a pathetic closet case aligned with the forces of heteronormative reaction (not to, ahem, put too fine a point on it)? His preemptory strike against me in conversation with Prancilla last summer seemed a strange case of information exchange and brinkmanship. Unfortunately (for him, at least), what he told Prance was not really a secret, so I had no problem addressing it; the aggressiveness of the moment is what is striking. Why was he telling tales out of school? Or is the issue that Jota has left academia in a way that suggests that his departure was not wholly and independently chosen? Is there a professional ressentiment combined with angry memories of whatever transpired between us in the enchanted forest? Once, I was very close to a peer in graduate school, and there came a moment when our relationship ended primarily because of the intimacy we had developed. The Fierceness called this person the Vivisector: someone who could not stand to be “known” beyond a certain level, who needed to excise (vivisect) the people who were familiar with her (conocer) on an intimate level. Most of us desire and treasure such relationships, however for others they threaten to destabilise the person who exists here and now, the "real me" person of l’instant. And if hard feelings still exist so many years later, I think acting like a Mean Girl is just silly, now, with all the water that has gone under the bridge (like many in academic circles, I knew quite a lot of what has transpired in Jota's life, if through chismes and hearsay, and am sympathetic as both a professional and a person; I can only imagine he must have the same information on me, although his response to this information is impossible to measure with any certainty). Fighting old battles, however, is not a tendency exclusive to our weary national political class. A few years ago, through the auspices of Big Sis, I was reunited with an old college chum who I hadn’t seen for about ten years, and we spent a desultory New Year’s Eve all together in New York, at a party hosted by someone none of us knew. During the course of that evening’s many, but many drinks, my old chum turned to me, and in a blaze of inebriated effusiveness told me, point blank, “You’re a lot nicer now than you were in college. You were such a bitch!” As one is wont to write online nowadays: well, DAYUM! Recovering, and cool as a cucumber, I responded by saying “Well, I would hope so. It has been ten years.” What is striking and powerful is that generosity was not the first response of either my old chum or Jota in meeting me again after so many years, whereas I think my first response is generous (I went to the party, didn't I?), is to give the benefit of the doubt, is to realise that where we existed before was in many ways not real, not cogent, not clear, and on top of it all we were teenagers.
This is not to serve as an apologia for my past selves, my past behaviours, my past attitudes (and maybe, on second thought, that is part of the[ir] problem). What it is to say is that moments of this type of pentimento, either at a miserable New Year’s Eve party surrounded by strangers or at an awkward reunion over really good cheese, are disturbing even for those of us who live (or consider ourselves) within the moment of transparency, when old and new selves combine on the canvas. Part of the tragedy (although to use that word strikes me as hyperbolic in this case) of whatever is happening with Jota is that we actually have quite a lot to talk about, in terms of the academy, the profession, Cold City, and everything else that potentially bonds gay men together. Such petulant refusal is not only a sign of immaturity, but also of the loss of community, of a lazy and judgmental relationship to the heavy lifting of community-building that gay men in particular are often guilty of, given the absolutely horrible way we can treat each other, given half a chance. Jota made me feel horrible and uncomfortable at a cocktail party. Hurrah for him. Up with Gay Pride! A small pathetic revenge, in my book, for crimes (if any) so long ago as to be meaningless. What? I gave you shit for being in the closet at college, when you were surrounded by out gays and lesbians including other Latina/o lesbians and gay men, all working so you could later accept yourself with some modicum of decency? Deal. We all were in the closet at some point, but some of us tried to avoid using that position to hurt other gay people, either through words or actions. Can you say the same? Deal, baby doll, because we've got bigger fish to fry nowadays.
It is easy to mouth the words of community, alliance, and coalition, but it is where the rubber meets the road that really counts. And that also entails looking in the mirror and getting real with oneself, and others, about our complicated pasts, frustrating presents, and potential futures. But a dialogue implies two, not one, the ability to listen as well as talk. And I am not terribly interested in engaging in a one-sided conversation. I can have that alone, in the comfort of my own garret, staring into the blue haze of my twentieth cigarette of the day.