escape

It made sense that he kept repeating the word “house” over and over because he had an undeniable air of homelessness about him, despite his clothes, which were spotlessly clean.

We watched him from an audience that was small but still big enough to pack the circle-shaped room, on the second floor of a domed cylindrical building, right next to the Gowanus Canal. Escape felt impossible. To get up and walk out at that point would have meant entering the personal space of the man in the black porkpie hat with his back to the wall, cavorting almost like a stripper, not reading poetry—as we had been told to expect by whomever had emailed us about this—but dancing, in his black turtleneck, blazer, and jeans that matched his hat. The 60-year-old man had a way of moving his hips from side to side so that his pelvis physically looked like a leering mouth smiling exclusively in either its right or its left corner at any given time—he executed every sound and gesture he made with overflowing erotic relish, even when he extended his right hand in front of him, his fingers wiggling at the end of it, as though he were contemplating some topic with the deepest thoughts imaginable.

Roberta and I sat in the third row back from him. The people in front of us were so close to us that their hair tickled my nose and the arm skin on the man sitting to my right brushed mine in a way that felt competitive. Roberta sat to my left and we looked at each other, she open-mouthed with rage and I with fear. With his porkpie hat and black turtleneck and blazer, the old man looked like an apparition from a New York that Roberta and I were too young to have ever known, like a Bob Fosse-era jazz dancer coaxing us to return with him to the land of the dead with his twisting hips and thrusting crotch.

I remember that night, seven years ago, as the nadir of a particularly dark time in my life, and I bet Roberta does, too (though we have never discussed it explicitly). It was the penultimate year of the Bush Administration and it was as though both Roberta and I, independently of one another, had slipped into metaphorical Bush Administrations of the soul, having surrounded ourselves for too long with nasty people whose combined dark energy had now herded us, like hooded Guantanamo Bay prisoners, before the crotch of this hideous undead dancing hat-wearing old man.

Roberta and I were there together because even though we were not ultimately the people who we wanted to be with, our friendship offered us a small token of authenticity in lives that were otherwise as false as wax museums. Of course there was an undertone, but it’s the same undertone that’s always there, no matter what—you hear it from birds, smell it in plants, and enjoy it in music, and you’d hate the world without it.

What made that night special was that in addition to a poet and a dancer, the old man was also essentially an analytic philosopher, and for that reason reminded us of a guy named Julian who we had known from college. The man in the porkpie hat jazzed his hips and made S’s with his wrists while engaging in facile, meaningless wordplay to the effect of “If a poorhouse gets poured, is it still a house?” and “If one were to fire a firehouse instead of a mouse would it still be a house? And if the mouse that is still a mouse were replaced by a louse would you know it was a house if it weren’t on fire?” The old man spoke these frivolous, idiotic questions not only with conviction, but with the sultry, triumphant air of an irresistible seducer. That was exactly what Julian had always done at parties—his only audience was the party itself, as though he thought we would all think he was special if we knew how giddy he felt losing himself in the self-contained ocean of language and meaning.

One night, we all stood at a window and watched Julian walk out into the rain with his violin. He had not really been dating our acquaintance, Nina, and she had dumped him preemptively. We all stood at the window and watched him, in the middle of the front yard, soaking himself to the bone, playing music that no one could hear, as though determined to take the minor humiliation that Nina had dealt him and deepen it himself until it totally defined him.

It made sense that the man in the porkpie hat kept repeating the word “house,” because he had an undeniable air of homelessness about him, just like Julian had had from that rainy night on. One had the sense that neither man had any control over his life at all.

Full of anger and disgust, Roberta looked at me as though I were Julian. Abashed and small with shame, I looked back at her as though I were Julian and she were the rest of us.

I breathed a sigh of relief when she whispered, “I’m leaving,” without making eye contact with me, and stood. She planted one foot on my knee, hoisted herself up, and planted her other foot on the knee of the man next to me. He protested, “Shit!”, but made no move.

Roberta zipped past the man in the porkpie hat so fast that he didn’t even notice her, or so it seemed.

Roberta and I both became more like real live human beings from that night on, she for having mustered the life force to refuse the man and I for having learned from her example. She became a restaurant in Bushwick with a beautiful garden in which I watched World Cup soccer games and unhurriedly sipped beer. The beer always tasted best on sunny, breezy days, when the exits were clearly marked, and there was room to stand even if you didn’t mind sitting down.

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