I had been looking forward to this moment for as long as I could remember. My excitement, in fact, was a great relief after all the anxiety that for years had consumed me about missing the call of my ambition. Throughout my 20s I walked around feeling as if my talent were some treasured gift I had inadvertently left on the seat of a train. As if in a dream, I always imagined that fateful train leaving the station, my impulse to catch it compromised by the futility of the chase.
I was going to be an artist, I would say to myself, walking through somebody else’s show, looking at someone else’s work, my curiosity weighted in a gnawing fear about my own artistic aspirations, as if they were withering on the vine before I could figure out how to reach for them. I was haunted by an image of myself growing old and seeking solace in a maze of pathetic delusions.
I was going to be an artist, I would say to myself even more recently, in my studio, steadying myself as much on the quicksand of doubt as from the core of my conviction. When a photograph hadn’t turned out the way I wanted, or I couldn’t summon the energy to focus, or I had lost the point of what the work was about, the endless tango between my will and some vague sense of despair threw me out of step with the destiny I was longing to construct for myself.
Only on rare occasions did I make a picture that I liked. Then, in a tedious process I did not particularly enjoy, I tweaked it and coaxed it and eventually made a print that matched the way I actually perceived things to be.
In art school I used to think that all I had to do to be an artist was to draw well and to get the right tension in the line. Eventually I figured out that native ability was just foreplay. Talent—whatever that may be—had to be challenged by experience, summoned by life as it unfolds in one’s time, responsive to the forces at play in the world.
Thus were my thoughts as I entered the gallery building on Geary Street, a song in my head that I had hummed in mockery of myself when I first moved to San Francisco: Doo-wa, doo-wa, doo-wa ditty, talk about the boy from New York City. I breezed into the elevator, pressed the number four, and watched the brushed-chrome door glide to a cushioned close in front of me. The anticipation I was feeling about my show seemed to alter the molecules in my body. In the giddy rush of my excitement, Theodora popped into my head. The first woman I had slept with in my adult life. Last week. Quelle surprise!
It was no secret that I was gay. Sleeping with a woman was the last thing I expected of myself. I had been invited to a party Theodora was throwing at her house in Berkeley. It was the first time we had met. For some reason I stayed after everyone had left. I had been drinking vodka during the party. She opened a bottle of very good Barolo, which we finished off. Then she lit a joint and we smoked that on her deck, the lights below glistening in the crisp October night. No question at all that I was dazzled by her platinum blond hair and heavy eyeliner and outré black dress, a look that conjured for me some Weimar-esque version of Marilyn Monroe—at once a parody and homage. She was equally eloquent and foul-mouthed and the combination was funny and riveting and recognizable, as if she were someone from the old country, which, to me, was New York. Maybe it was the novelty of the situation, but I just gave into it and let her seduce me. When at first I hesitated, she said, “Now, Roman, you moved from New York to San Francisco. Transitions do not seem like much of a stumbling block for you.” At that she walked up to me, slipped her arms around my neck, pressed her small body against mine, and all of a sudden I got very hard. We had passionate heterosexual sex. It was new to me. It was great. But, quelle surprise!
Now she entered my thoughts with a sense memory of the dense, bourbon-and-roses fragrance of her perfume. What had transpired between us loomed larger and more ambiguous over the past week. How I hoped she would be here tonight.
I stepped off the elevator into the gallery, and my brain effervesced. My pictures were hanging in the stark white gallery, 16 wall-sized light-box portraits, the colors radiating exactly as I had hoped. From contact sheets to work prints to final prints to these laboriously produced objects: The light boxes had to be engineered and the frames had to be built and the prints had to be mounted in the frames. Now they hung on the walls as if none of those stages had ever occurred, as if they all just came that way—seamless. I was vibrating.
I walked up to the first picture, the portrait of my father. He looked as if, at any moment, he might stand up and walk out of the frame. He resembled in some ways every television father of the 1950s—Jim Anderson, Ward Cleaver, Alex Stone, stiffened by age, not undignified, sitting on a quilted bedspread, gazing out of the picture in a dark tailored suit. I was convinced that watching television as a child had been an evolutionary grooming for the cartoon reality of the adult world. Watching Lucy and Ricky and George and Gracie had given me so many cues about the way adults lived and looked and behaved, and, over time, my memories of my parents often got scrambled with those of their television equivalents. Was it Lucy who left the potholders in the oven to burn, or my mother? My father—rational, even-tempered, vaguely aloof and often bemused—reminded me of Ozzie Nelson. Ozzie and Harriett, who set the stage for the First Family of the 1980s. Ozzie and Harriett Reagan.
Laughter erupted from across the room—the wild, searing cackle of Lacey Cohen, my art dealer. There she was talking to several people and I could imagine her self-aggrandizing monologue: First, the travails of opening this pristine new exhibition space; then the renovation of her apartment in New York; her most recent trip to Berlin. She was a good-time girl, but she could go on and on about herself.
Lacey spotted me and, bracelets ajangle, she bolted in my direction, her laughter echoing through the room as if she were a satyr being tickled by the muse. She was not an unattractive woman. Her well-organized face had strong, defined features. Her make-up was always meticulous and jazzy. Her almond-shaped glasses were thick and black and lent her an air of quirky sophistication. She had an unfortunate haircut, though, a blunt geometric chop that exaggerated the weight of her chin, but I liked her black silk dress with the flat yellow buttons running down the front. Money, alone, was what saved Lacey from looking average and dumpy and out of control.
“I sold two pieces for you today,” she blurted out.
"You’re kidding," I said, pecking her on the cheek. In my complicated anticipation of the opening, it hadn't occurred to me that I was in a position to make any money. Wasn’t having the show merely reward enough?
“Want to meet your first collector?" she asked, and without waiting for an answer, she grabbed my arm.
I was wary of Lacey. Treacherous was a word I had ascribed to her on more than one occasion. One day, we were the best of friends, the next she wouldn't return my calls. When I first moved to San Francisco, she treated me as if I were some kind of cultural treasure, as if I actually knew something. But things got complicated because of her money, particularly when she followed a whim to its most extravagant destination.
Lacey pulled me toward Marina Vincent, a well-known local art collector I had met on several occasions. She was standing in front of my portrait of Will, my best friend. Her gray hair was cut handsomely to the nape of her neck and she fingered the strands of a delicate silver necklace.
"You must be very proud, Roman," she said, extending her hand.
“A little overwhelmed would be more like it,” I replied.
"Oh, he just needs a drink," Lacey said, wiping something off the lapel of my jacket and looking up at me with boastful eyes. "Marina just bought your picture of Will Specter."
Not only had I overlooked the fact that I could make some money from this exhibit, but the reality of having to part with my pictures suddenly knotted my stomach. I looked at my portrait of Will, so youthful and rugged in a white t-shirt, his honey-colored hair tousled in the wind. The flash of his smile gave the portrait a kind of sizzle. We had been joking as I focused the camera; I remembered telling him that if he were not heterosexual and already married, I could fall in love with him. But what would we do in bed? Will demurred, and that sent us both into explosive laughter. It was so intimate a moment between us that I didn’t want anyone else to possess it. I looked at Marina and tried to smile.
"There’s John Ryder," Lacey said under her breath, squeezing my arm. He was the curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, a man with art world power on both coasts. Clearly, Lacey thought that his presence at my opening was a coup.
"Don’t get your hopes up," I said to her. "My work isn't bleak enough for him."
John came to my opening not as a curator but a friend, and I was glad to see him. He was a southern gentleman with an East Coast finish, always proper and conservative in his Ivy League tweeds. His buttoned-down appearance masked the irreverent side of him I was more familiar with, and I liked the discrepancy between the private man and his public role. We met while both of us were still living in New York. John was older and more formal than most of the people I knew, but we had established a very nice rapport in the last few years—a co-conspirator in a foreign land. We had dinner every few weeks and get stoned and talked about art and gossiped about the art world and eventually got around to talking about my past sexual escapades, which gave him the voyeuristic fix he seemed to relish. I once wondered aloud if his interest in the apocalyptic in contemporary art might have something to do with his never having been in love. On the contrary, he laughed. He had been in love often, but it was always unrequited. Hence, my conclusion about the sadness from which he gravitated to austere artworks made of heavy industrial materials that he favored and bought for the museum. He walked toward us and I smiled.
"Now, Roman,” John said, “who is the odalisque in that picture over there? The attractive young man with that Ingres line of a shoulder?"
"Dean," I said. " My boyfriend of four years. He died of AIDS before I moved out here.”
That was one of the first color photographs I had ever made. Dean was sitting by the pool on Fire Island on a hazy day in August. The water behind him was silvery and mirrored. He was looking into the camera, begrudgingly, eyes clear and wide, offering nothing but a neutral, unflinching gaze.
I used to think of us together as Apollo and Dionysus; Dean aimed for the rational overview, always, which I found to be admirable, if exasperating. By contrast I was more indulgent of my impulses toward pleasure, scandalizing him at times with my excessive behavior. We were unsuited for each other in so many ways and, yet, we balanced each other remarkably well.
“Where was the picture taken?" John asked.
I could just imagine John arriving at Pines Harbor and getting off the ferry, overwhelmed by the sight of so many half-naked men with their overly constructed bodies. "On Fire Island," I said.
"Oh!” he said, his eyebrow rising above his tortoise-shell glasses. “I've never been there."
Lacey returned from the bar. "I’m serving your favorite vodka," she said, handing me a drink and, then, all smiles and brass tacks, turning to John.
"Lacey, how are you?" John said, cheerfully, with a gesture toward a bow.
“I couldn't be better, John," she replied in the upbeat tone of an art dealer. If the opening of an exhibition were a ballet, then Lacey and John, alone, were about to commence the pas de deux,. It was an intricately scripted choreography in which the museum curator descended from pantheonic heights and the art dealer fluttered in his wake—a dance in which the dealer entices the curator with the ephemera and veils and gravitas of her wares so that the finger of creativity might be accorded the wedding band of history. I was far too conscious of the fact that, in just so auspicious a consummation, an artist’s career could be launched.
“I think, John, you fare quite well in your portrait," Marina observed.
John was something of a mentor to me, and I liked the idea that certain people in my personal life touched a circle of influence in the larger world. I thought of Berenice Abbott’s portraits of Andre Gide and Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Peter Hujar’s portraits of Candy Darling and Charles Ludlam, work that had come to define a time and a place, an attitude and a sensibility. I could only hope that my own work might one day fall in place with the same relevance.
I sipped my vodka and scanned the room. Finally, by the door, more than a week of anticipation erupted at the sight of Theodora. I stood up straighter and remembered how small her body felt against mine. The proximity had made me feel so much more powerful than I had ever felt with another man.
I surmised that the group of people she walked in with were her graduate students and I excused myself from the power field of Lacey and John.
"The gaze is the erection of the eye," I heard her saying to them as I approached. "This is evidenced in so much 19th century French painting. Manet, for instance. 'Olympia' is the characteristic. . . ."
She saw me, stopped in mid-sentence, and looked all at once like an animal trapped by the people surrounding her, caught in a performance of social burlesque. She smiled wildly, stepping out of the role of a lady and becoming a zany, eye-rolling teenaged girl. It made me laugh. “Roman,” she said sweetly, reaching out at me with both hands.
“The gaze is the erection of the eye?” I said, slipping my arms around her and kissing her briefly on the lips. “Quite a line."
She exploded in a bubble of laughter, stepping back with her hands clasped against her chest. She removed her coat and pointed to the coat rack. As I watched her walk across the gallery, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Lacey again, now peering out at me from those thick black glasses. "So, Romeo,” she said. “Tell me about that little blond tart.”
I glared at her as if she had transformed herself into a mammoth bee—full-blown, life-sized, black, buzzing, bulbous, bubonic. If I shooed her away, she would surely sting me. “That’s not very nice,” I said.
"I've been hearing rumors," she allowed in an accusatory singsong.
My face flushed. How could she possibly know about Theodora and me? Peyton Place was a state of mind that Lacey could have invented, but just because she gave me this show didn’t give her the right to ask me a question like that. I dropped my voice. "I like men, remember?"
"Oh, you," she said, her hand flapping back and forth, her eyes dancing with a strange loaded canniness that actually made me wince. "You're teetering right there on the edge and you don't even know it."
I looked at her as if she were speaking Czech.
"Do you remember Vera Similitude?" Lacey asked, the mention of the name bringing her to another wild cackle. People turned around to look.
Vera Similitude was the drag name I created when Lacey had invited me, along with seven others, to fill her table at the annual Beaux Arts Ball. Lacey required everyone to dress in drag and to wear banners across our chests that said Art Terrorist. This was San Francisco.
I had been a lovely drag queen in a black dress with spaghetti-string straps, a blond wig with hair cut longer on one side than the other, white gloves, pearls, and heels. When I introduced myself as Vera Similitude, Lacey countered: “Honey, you look more like Montgomery Clift playing Zelda Fitzgerald.” She hadn’t gotten the pun. The event turned out to be a raucous, drunken dinner in the rotunda of the museum, and when I stumbled into the men’s room and looked at my reflection in the mirror, my lipstick was smeared all over my face. No one had taught me how to eat while wearing make-up. "What about her?” I said, unable to contain my smile.
Lacey sidled up closer and spoke in a more confidential tone of voice. "You once told me you think gay men are attracted to the men they want to look like, and I thought that was so true. Well, I think Vera Similitude is the kind of woman you're attracted to, and doesn’t that brainy little blond just strike an uncanny resemblance?”
I turned to look for Theodora, who was now headed our way. Vera Similitude. Lacey had a point. Theodora had become her more womanly self again, elegant and composed, a study in black and gray. I couldn’t tell if she might have combed her shock of platinum hair. "Theodora,” I said. “Do you know Lacey Cohen?"
"We haven't met," Theodora said, holding out her hand and smiling her sweetest smile. "I'm Theodora Weiss."
"I've heard so much about you," Lacey said, glancing at me with mischief in her eyes. “In fact, I just saw your piece in Artforum.” Lacey reached into her purse and took out a stainless-steel compact and her lipstick. Even I knew that there are some men around whom women automatically reach for their lipstick—a woman's way of drawing lines in the sand. Lacey pressed her lips together, looked up at me, and snapped her compact shut. "Okay, Romeo, time for me to go sell more of your work."
As Lacey sauntered off into the crowd, it became more difficult for me to understand my relationship to the event. It was my opening. People were there to see my work. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing, but I was beginning to feel responsible for everything. “Lacey can be a little abrasive,” I said to Theodora.
“She’s an art dealer,” Theodora said knowingly. “What do you expect?”
There was so much I wanted to know about Theodora and so much I wanted to ask her, but I felt, suddenly, self-conscious and exposed in context of my photographs, perhaps not the best moment to throw myself naked into the question I had been waiting to ask her: “So, any thoughts about the work on the wall?"
Theodora glanced at me with alarm in her face, and looked around. "Well, of course they’re well made portraits," she allowed, registering something unsettling in the timbre of her voice and, then, dropping into an obdurate silence.
I could feel my smile lock in place, as though I were bearing my teeth. Of course I wanted her to tell me the truth, but, then, her silence was pulling at me and I fell into a black hole. Did she think my work was banal? I thought to myself: That’s what you get when you fish for approval.
Glancing just then at my portrait of my mother didn’t help. I had photographed her standing at her desk in a corduroy jacket and jeans, her hair a mossy gray bird’s nest, the impatience in her expression obvious as she stared out over the rim of her glasses. My mother’s judgment always had the effect of a betrayal, one that first made me hate her, then, eventually, feel nothing for her, and, finally, come to accept her for who she was—a civil rights lawyer on an endless mission. I had come to see her not only as representative of a breed, but to respect her for her integrity. Still, my forgiveness remained a precarious business.
I looked at Theodora, also representative of a breed. An art historian. A critic. An academic bound, as if by some secret oath, to tow the presiding ideological party line. She maintained an abiding fidelity to the position of her academic colleagues, all those intellectual soldiers marching to the call of art’s purpose in the service of social critique. Not that I disagreed completely. After all, I didn't much care for the spirit of my age. All the glossy magazines and fancy products and endless information and the rush of adrenaline on which the planet seemed to rotate. Everything had become so Reagonomic. Capitalism was running amok. It annoyed me to think that this was the moment in history when my destiny got to play itself out.
“Hey,” Will said, dropping his arm around my shoulder and tugging at me affectionately. “The show looks really good.”
I slipped my arm around his waist feeling rescued, as if by an older brother whose presence in the schoolyard secured my protection. “Thank you, Will. You know Theodora, don’t you? She just gave my work the brush off.”
“Theodora,” Will said, looking at her reproachfully. “This is Roman’s moment. Don’t be a pill.”
Theodora touched me on the arm. “Now, Roman,” she said, her voice softening, becoming more melodic. “Don’t take anything I say about your work—or anyone else’s—seriously.”
Peter Olivetti walked up to our little pod. “Hi, Roman,” he said, tentatively. “Congratulations.”
I cleared my throat. “Thank you, Peter.” He was one of my graduate students at the Art Center and I introduced him to Theodora and Will.
"I just met John Ryder,” Peter said with a kind of awe in his voice. “I read his essay about Jeff Koons in class. You know him?”
“Roman knows everybody,” Will said.
“How did you get him to pose for you?” Peter asked me.
I shrugged, and laughed. "The art of schmoozing, I guess. That’s the most relevant skill I could teach you. Ask Theodora. She's pretty good at it herself."
"It's the devil's work," Theodora said, touching Peter’s arm. "But Roman's right, a skill worth cultivating."
I looked at Theodora standing next to Peter. He was a young, innocent American-Italian heart-throb with black curly hair and beautiful features and the well-proportioned body of a swimmer. Peter was male. Theodora was female. Peter was off limits. Theodora was hostile to my work. What was my libido telling me?
"Schmoozing?" Will asked, smiling impishly. "And, what would be those lessons be?"
“Well, let’s see,” I said. “Number one, always find a way to compliment someone you have just met. Here’s an example. Theodora, let's say this is Will’s opening. You have to say something about it, so you approach him with a big smile, extend your hand, and, say: Will, you've done it again. Upbeat, noncommittal, makes him think it's a compliment when you haven't really said a thing.”
“Oh, Roman, my darling,” Theodora said, her fingers touching my cheek. “You’re much too sensitive. Why don’t we go get you another drink?”
We walked off in the direction of the bar. "Since you merely find my portraits well made,” I said with a little diffidence in my voice, “does it stop you from wanting to sleep with the enemy?"
She looked up at me with such a delicious smile that it softened my feelings for her all over again. "I live with contradictions all the time," she said.
“The point, it seems to me, is to bridge them," I said. "Accepting those contradictions is just a convenient form of hypocrisy."
"Well, of course, you know what Randall Jarrell said?" she asked, pulling the reference out of a hat.
"That you first have to arrive at a level of moral sophistication where hypocrisy is even possible."
I felt as if I had been put in conversational check. I looked around at my pictures throughout the gallery. There was my mother, my father, my ex-boyfriend, my best friend, and others I knew well, all of them larger than life and lit from behind, all leveling their gazes in my direction, as if I stood surrounded by a tribunal awaiting my next step. “Well, I can’t remember where I read this,” I said, turning to Theodora and smiling, “but, isn’t hypocrisy the tribute that vice pays to virtue?”
Her eyes lit up and she laughed out loud. In her face I observed an intricate, kaleidoscopic adjustment. It felt as if, for both of us, some wonderful drug had just taken effect.