The first moments of adolescent affection in my hometown were a game of silence and touch, of the vertiginous point between language and bodies, but never either entirely. A body might come together with mine, but there was no word for it—at least no word that we knew, boy and sex and love all sounding wrong. My adult relationships aren’t always recognizable to other people, either, although they’re familiar to me. I used to gather my sister’s Barbies and bring them to my Ninja Turtles, placing them all on top of the Ninja Turtle Sewer Playset and acting out complex, sexualized dramas. The Barbies were often upset, and the Turtles a bit naive in their good intentions. I didn’t know what the tensions were, between these women who towered over these guys, only that things were tense and that I had to hide the play. It was many years later, walking to the beach-bound bus in New York, the girls all taller than the guys, that this game came back to me like Oh, of course.
The distinction is between narrative and something else, between the way a town looks in a photograph and the way a town looks when you play flashlight tag in it and you are nervous. Sometimes it takes so much momentum to escape your context that you seem to never stop straining at escape after that. Sometimes you meet people you love but that still won’t be enough because you won’t know who you are, when you are someone who isn’t alone.
As with the golden curtain he made for Roni Horn, the strands of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Water) touch just slightly.
It is a curtain of plastic beads, some blue and fewer clear or white, hanging in vertical lines that collide.
The rows of blue are wider than the rows of clear, which appear white from a distance.
Like many of the artist’s candy spills, like some strings of light bulbs, the curtain begins not as a set object, but as text, instructions for installation—
here, that its width should fill a space in such a way that the audience is required to pass through it,
and that the beads should be acquired cheaply, and locally.
I have not seen this curtain in person, but imagine the feel of the beads against my body, the movement of the beads (waves), and the plastic clatter of their collisions.
Like just softly, all of me is touched, and I hear it.
Simon and I finally go to Berlin for the summer, my first trip outside the United States, sparing a visit to Toronto with my high school marching band.
A job writing multiple-choice questions for textbooks lets me travel, working extra hours to save, my life mobile.
Are Simon and I in a relationship? A: Yes B: No C: Maybe someday D: All things exist in relation
I always leave as many “none of the above” and “all of the above” answers as the style guide allows me.
Before leaving, we browse through apartments to sublet on Craigslist and think of location, think of space.
We decide on a place near to the Oberbaum Bridge—a white-walled unit overlooking a courtyard, one bedroom and one living room, everything about it spare.
When we leave, Simon takes a different flight than I do, and I cross the border alone.
It is an awful, shameful thing, the violence of its doing and what it means,
and when I cross it a headache comes on, stays with me.
Simon is hours ahead as I lean my cheek on the airplane window and try to detect whether I can feel the change in temperature from which it keeps me separate, or whether I am just feeling plexiglass.
Although I know I am in the sky, and that the ocean is beneath me, I can’t see beyond this small, dark reflection of my face.
This is probably the farthest I will get from the earth, I think, and I am bothered by having thought it.
To receive the key to the apartment, Simon and I have to go to the café downstairs and speak to someone there, someone who expects us.
This is all very romantic, I tell myself, as we sit at the café, and as we take our beers into the street and wherever we may care to take them.
What exactly I find romantic about waiting for a key and drinking a beer, I am not sure.
After we unlock the door, we throw our bags onto the tile floors, and he begins arranging the furniture of the living room into a second bedroom.
I feel rejected, as two nights prior, in Brooklyn, our bodies had fit together as they always do.
How absolutely silly that we name some things as romantic, some as not.
I have spent many afternoons waiting in cafés, impatient for something to occur, or for the day to become different.
I could not recognize a single key from my past were I to see it now, despite holding each of them daily, despite each being so necessarily unique.
Simon and I quickly leave the apartment again.
We find a park where we smoke, and later, a small bonfire by the river.
It is late, although much earlier for us.
We approach people with our awkward German, and they reply, again and again, in English.
As at home, my intimacy with Simon in Berlin is ineffable, not in that it cannot be said, but that in being said it would then cease to be.
This is true whether we sleep in one bed or two.
This is true as he links his arm in mine and we walk our way back across the bridge, its two spiral towers and the countless padlocks fastened to its gridded rail by people in love.
The shape of the moon’s orbit, an ellipsis around our own spin, means that we glimpse the edges of its far side but never catch more than 59 percent of its surface.
At its closest point to the earth, it slows, and we can see a bit more of its western side,
while at its farthest point, it speeds up, revealing more of the east.
This subtle movement across that 59 percent is called libration.
Similarly, we exist not at the earth’s center, but rather on its uneven surface, each space unique to us,
and each affording an imperceptibly different view of the moon.
The movements and geometrical quirks of libration are similar to the movements and quirks that bring the seasons.
I for years believed the moon was responsible for the tides, for instance, but know now that a combination of sun and earth and moon as moving bodies,
of gravitational pulls in all directions and of the shapes of ocean floors,
all of this and more is at play in moving the water.
The moon is just a thing near some other things, a complicated thing to be.
It’s so close you’d think it would touch.
Because the strands go quite literally up and down, one of the easier reference points for “Untitled” (Water) is a waterfall—
the blue and clear beads that look like they fall when they move whenever someone passes by.
The piece also offers an occasion to think of movement, water, and crossing in relation to the artist’s own life,
having been born in Cuba, sent with his sister to Spain in 1971, and relocated again to his uncle in Puerto Rico before finally moving to New York in 1979.
His parents and two of his siblings would escape Cuba shortly after that, during the Mariel boatlift.
Or perhaps some of the water he included, along with these relocations, in a 1993 version of his portrait,
a recurrent piece that lists autobiographical phrases with years—
1964 Dad bought me a set of watercolors and gave me my first cat, and
1991 Jorge stopped talking to me, I’m lost—Claudio and Miami Beach saved me, and
1990 silver ocean in San Francisco.
His personal correspondences are also wet with the stuff.
“Never thought that a natural element, such as the falls would generate such an incredible array of fetishisms,
Niagara cups, belts, lanyards, key holders, etc.”
he wrote to a friend after viewing the Falls.
“Well it was OK,”
Ross added to the note,
“but they weren’t as big as I thought they would be…”
Or maybe, like his autobiography, the water is just that—
waves of itself, lapping body and land.
Sung, inside a body again.
And then a body, singing of land and water.
Simon and I acquire two used bikes, a small girl’s bike belonging to a friend, and a matching adult bike purchased off Craigslist.
The owner of the Craigslist bike turns out to be from the us, and in only moments we connect her to a mutual friend, now living in Los Angeles.
Both Simon and I being on tight budgets, the bikes become our cheap access to the city.
The arcs of our rides expand, concentric to our apartment, and so we see more each day of the way Berlin holds its history.
Those of my ancestors that I know of were all German, which gives me a vague sense that maybe there is something I could learn by paying attention to these particular horrors and liberations,
to keep my eyes on the patterns.
We come to frequent a bar with pink fur walls and another with a sex maze in the back.
We decide the bar with a sex maze is sailor themed and refer to it as such, although there is nothing particularly nautical about it, just men there.
One night, Simon picks up a giant of a man at the bar and, too drunk to steer his bicycle, makes the man ride it back to our apartment with Simon perched on the handlebars, laughing the whole way.
Simon is good at the map, but I learn places in relation to one another.
When I am alone I might find my way by memory from an art gallery to the sex club, or from the sex club to a squat,
yet finding my way from the art gallery to the squat remains impossible, unless Simon goes on that ride with me.
Because of this, when he goes to visit an ex-girlfriend in Brussels for a few nights, I find myself stuck in only familiar places.
One evening, I follow a stranger, a dancer, to a new bar and am relieved that he agrees to come home with me,
embarrassed that I would otherwise need to backtrack to our first location of the night, the opposite direction of my sublet.
Returned from Belgium, Simon tells me of the sex he had with his ex, and I tell him of the awful sex I had with the dancer, who seemed only to sit there with his jaw slack, yet moaning.
Later that evening, he and I get drunk enough that we seem to blur into one another.
Riding around, I spontaneously manage an entire sentence in German when he tilts off a curb and I announce:
Der Mann auf dem grünen Fahrrad des kleinen Mädchens ist gefallen.
We walk our bikes and steady one another, our speech rapid and simultaneous.
When we return to the apartment, there is a note on the door, its German requiring a dictionary to translate.
Where have you gone? the giant man asks.
I would like to see you again.
The Berlin apartment is a long corridor that runs along the kitchen, then the bathroom, and then the bedroom,
all facing the courtyard, before the corridor ends by opening into the living room.
While there is no door to the living room, the foldout couch on which Simon sleeps is positioned outside the line of sight from the hallway, affording privacy.
My bedroom has a door.
In Brooklyn, Simon’s apartment is more of a cluster, with the kitchen and bathroom to either side when you enter, then a living room with three bedrooms off it.
Simon’s bedroom is the smallest, but his bed is large, and we are comfortable there both with and without the door open.
“Who knows what you two do behind closed doors,” my friend Mona jokes on multiple occasions.
I always insist, Nothing, although I can never find a way to make it seem believable.
Only rarely do we say that we love each other, but when we do, it is as we lie in each other’s arms, which we do every evening, as of late.
In Tennessee, I have only my small shack.
It is one high-ceilinged room, one porch with old barn windows for walls, and an unadorned deck, all the same width and in a row.
I find hanging doors to be one of the most challenging parts of carpentry.
A door is heavy and very particular about how it might fit snugly into a frame.
The door in my house hangs unevenly on its hinges, and its latch does not line up properly, hitting the strike plate instead of clicking into place.
You have to slam the door to shut it, which I never do.
I just feel the breeze across the deck and through the screen.
“Untitled” (Water) came the year before Felix Gonzalez-Torres died, the last curtain after “Untitled” (Chemo), “Untitled” (Blood), “Untitled” (Beginning), and “Untitled” (Golden).
There are slight references and happy suggestions across these works, reasons to find joy in them.
There is his golden friendship with Roni Horn, the warm reference to bodega curtains.
The words in the untitled works of curtains are all words of life, in one way or another.
Friends and colleagues always called Felix Gonzalez-Torres generous, that description humming through interviews and recollections.
And it’s true, the curtains are generous, they give more than enough.
They work to undo the institutions that procure them, forcing the owners to go and buy some cheap beads,
just as other pieces require owners to give away, endlessly, what was just purchased—
paper, or candy.
Even with his billboard-installed photographs of unmade beds—cryptically personal and public at once—the artist would retain the rights to the photograph,
as the collector purchases only the right to distribute the image, to proliferate it in endless variations, to rent another billboard in another place.
And shouldn’t those things be free?
Medicine, water, blood, the goldenness of something beginning,
for whoever might need them?
One day, when we arrive to the sailor-bar, we find out that someone had been murdered in the sex maze the night before.
This brings on an awful series of attraction and repulsion, which we talk about for days, exchanging horror stories of our sexual undergrounds,
eroticizing the things that try to kill us.
There is something specific, also, about the giant man coming to our courtyard, more so than if we had offered him a street-facing door or steps descending into an alley.
Perhaps it has to do with the windows facing inward, with the public intimacy of the display.
“I work all day like a monk /
and at night wonder about like an alleycat /
looking for love,”
Pasolini begins one of his Roman poems, written early in his relocation to that city.
The filmmaker and poet had fled there after being caught with teenage boys, hiding in the trees,
a scandal exaggerated to cost him his teaching position and drive him from the Communist party.
For Pasolini, Rome was a chance to reinvent himself, a necessary prospect.
In Rome he could write novels and face the self that existed in this new place, which could be neither “an old nor a new Pier Paolo.”
“I pity the young fascists, /
and the old ones,”
he writes in the 1964 poem, and describes himself in its closing—
“Passive as a bird that sees all, in flight.”
It is a poem of confronting, not just the mobs that condemn and disparage his sexuality, but his own actions as well,
the contradiction of feeling both hate and love at once.
Which part of it might have appealed to Gonzalez-Torres, when he selected the poem for the press release of a 1995 show at the Andrea Rosen Gallery?
It is placed alongside an excerpt from Barbra Streisand’s 1995 speech, “The Artist As Citizen,”
in which she defends both abortion and gay rights,
and an excerpt from Rimbaud’s “The Savior Bumped Upon His Heavy Butt.”
“The Citizen As Artist” might be another way to say it, to acknowledge that we are making something by joining together.
I suppose I can pity the fascists, sure—
I know how painful it is to be defined by something so large that it seems to swallow every bit of who you are.
That’s why feeling joy is so revolutionary.
So that later, when I feel like I am a memory, all alone in the moonlight,
I will know that I must wait for the sunrise,
and I must think of a new life,
and I mustn’t give in.
Simon must know my disappointment at our separate bedrooms, but we offer each other the generosity of leaving this disappointment unspoken, too.
Over the past years, I have selected readily available explanations for the why of these periods (a year one time, more) when our touch isn’t sexual and we are not quite together—
the long weeks of mending bones following a bicycle accident, for example,
and there was always the fact that we both loved other people, too.
Mainly, however, I just remind myself that I like this,
that what matters is that we’re together.
I used to think it was a horrible idea, to move somewhere new as a way to escape your problems.
But now I know that sometimes you can run, that sometimes you can get away, so long as you keep your mouth shut.
Simon makes a plan to visit his ex-girlfriend in Brussels again, leaving Berlin the morning before I do.
Our last night in town, walking down the bridge, we joke about taking metal-cutters to the padlocks so each would drop to the water below, a plunk.
When I return to New York, I am exhausted and broke and find that my phone no longer works.
I leave my bags at Simon’s Brooklyn apartment and borrow a few dollars from a friend to get to the beach at the Far Rockaways.
I love this beach because I know that I can go alone, and that there I will find several friends.
It’s very important, I think, to keep going to a gay beach,
because that way people who are strangers to you will be able to meet their friends there.
Off the bus I am immediately high and naked, stepping into the cold water until it reaches my hips, the rise and fall of water obscuring and revealing my shaft.
People give me things to smoke and sugary alcoholic drinks in little plastic bottles.
I walk back and forth, to towels and to lapping waves, rinsing the sand off my feet and stepping again in it.
Touching the ocean I think how far away I was yesterday, and now I am here.
I see the moon, luminous enough to be visible in the day sky, and realize that I could have stayed, rather than returning to this place.
When I am exhausted, I enter the water once more, dunk my head, and begin to find my way back to Simon’s empty room.
I get lost on the wrong bus, then wander around the neighborhood with my sunburn and sports bra before collapsing, finally, in a bed that smells of him,
and I suppose of me, too.
* * *
Used by permission from Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through (Coffee House Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by T Fleischmann.