"Hall of Mirrors" from Kingdom Come
The Hanging Gardens
You stumble across the number in a bathroom stall. For days you consider dialing it, and when you finally do, what you hear is a recording countless others have already heard, only you’re hearing it for the first time: Come relax all your tensions away in our immaculately maintained facility for gay and bisexual adult men. Enjoy sunning on our spotless patio featuring a waterfall. Take an exquisite dip in our outdoor heated pool. We also feature a gym, a steam room, and a lounge with billiards and a fireplace where you can curl up with a newfound friend. We are open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Come. What are you waiting for? You stumble over the word “adult” for you will need to bring proof. Your parents are away so for once you hold the keys to the wood-paneled station wagon without having to ask. You retrieve your passport from a combination safe and scratch out the number 9 on the year of your birth with the point of a safety pin, inking in a 6. At the window they’ll ask you to fill out a card, will place your passport in a slim metal box where you’ll deposit your wallet and keys. In exchange you’ll be given a towel and a numbered key on a rubber band you will fasten around your wrist moments before they buzz you in. You try to catch your breath, having fooled them all, still a minor, having entered one of the lost Ancient Wonders of the World. The place is near empty, 3 pm the opposite of 3 am. You leave your clothes in the locker, consider whether or not to leave your boxers on. The men who eye you over only have towels wrapped around their waists, if that. There’s no one to instruct you on etiquette as you wander down a labyrinth of numbered doors, many locked, some open just enough to see the outline of a man sprawled face down on a mattress. Where is the waterfall you saw in the ad, you wonder, where’s the Jacuzzi with seventeen men up to their necks in bubbles? Every man here is old enough to be your father as one by one they pass you in the darkened corridors your eyes have now grown more accustomed to, the occasional hand tugging at the hem of your terry cloth skirt, your nipple tweaked, you’ve got to find your way to the outdoor pool, to the gym, to the billiard room where you imagine a fire has been kept burning for you and your newfound friend who isn’t here in this maze of plywood walls and doors. You amble along, no longer sure how long you’ve been wandering through this place, the sound of disco softly thumping with moans mixed into the groove, the otherwise familiar beat when your nose catches a whiff of something from an unscrewed amber vial and you make a dash away from the hand holding it out to you, race into the light where plaster gods border a pool, its surface so still you couldn’t possibly disturb the image looking back at you, not your own face but the face of another man, a moustache you can trust, a face that knows you don’t quite know what you’re doing but wouldn’t ever think of drawing that to your attention, a face more like an older brother who is willing to show you the way, and he takes you by the hand, and you follow him back to the door with the number 29 nailed squarely into it, and as he closes the door behind you, the two of you squeezed into a space no larger than a school-room closet, you reach up towards his face and let your towel fall.
You walk into a forest and are lost. Everything in soft focus now. No signs of sentient life to be seen or heard in the forest you are entering for the last time. Sky and ground cropped out from the scene. Something pans left to right. Only the crash of tree after tree punctuates your looking, a shower of leafy debris brought down in wake after wake that glitters in the dust-moted air long after the crash has ceased to sound. This is no primordial Eden. This is an unmarked forest your family once fled, leaving behind a landscape soaked in blood. The region where these scenes were hastily shot has already been scheduled for harvest. Even as we speak, it is being cleared.
You hang a model airplane between two cages gilded gold, a doll propped up inside each cage. Sometimes the doors are open, sometimes they’re closed, it all depends. An open book lies face-down on a reading table, its hero, always in search of an adventure, walking out of its pages and onto a painted landscape shaded beneath the fronds of the wall’s peeling paper. You put on a pair of white gloves and thumb through the book's transparent pages. What's gold about the gold in Goldsboro hum the coolies who’ve been working on the railroad all the live long day, returning late at night to reconstruct a history in which a suburban cul-de-sac is grounds for a burning cross smoldering amidst the flotsam of shredded pork in a bowl of steaming congee, boiled eggs steeped in tea, and an overworked mother who ironed shirts while trying to care for a child who looks a lot like you. These are your doves, your failed auditions, your only sense of having met another human being at all. Every cage left open in the house you’ve left behind.
You asked for bread but were given a stone, your bankrupt quotes spray-painted on the ceiling, the edges bordered by a single cloud resembling an empty thought balloon. You’ve always said your bedroom is the best self-portrait. Just look in the mirror. What a riot of duplicity parroting back your impotence masquerading as your own. At war with yourself, you keep on acting out. As Reagan. As Bush. As Thatcher and the Arming of Iraq circa 1979-1990. Your body plundered like the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, the funding of a war mapped out in a meticulous flowchart etched into your headboard, timelines extending outward from each of the bank's major branches. Your lust attesting to a colossal conspiracy of international greed. You re-imagine love lines drawn as a battlefield you can expand just by adding more onto the edges of whatever already exists. Your bed looks like an aerial shot of London with the mighty Thames flowing through it, two embattled armored legions trying to take control of the city's labyrinthine streets. Aggressive tactics bolstered in an age of mechanical reproduction bordering on carnival kitsch. Like a naked man with a flying kite tethered this cock. Or a woman with a bloody nose trailing all the way down to her bare breasts, the child you never knew you were shouldered on her back.
Fear and Trembling
You move your body closer to the object of your desire, and the desire disappears. You face what you fear and the fear withdraws. Desire and fear feasting upon each other until one retreats further into the mind where the present moment can’t go. The closer you move towards the other, the further the other retreats even when your bodies touch. As one enters another, so the fear goes further in, dragging desire behind it. There are recesses in the mind you can never reach. You’ll simply give up, withdraw, satisfied with whatever you thought could be had. How mistaken you’ll be, for desire has more layers than rings on a first-growth tree, archaic fear bending the sapling that stands within whether you and the other are seated face to face or side by side, the silent conversation your bodies manage to carry on, the hand of innocence reaching for the knee of experience when the house lights dim but then finding itself unable, paralyzed, the inch or two that separates one body from another a chasm too wide for desire to cross and claim the fear to which it is betrothed. Was it luck or will that found you seated next to your beloved? And if your knees touched, if one of you leaned towards the other who leaned away only to find you leaning back in the other direction, wasn’t this always the dance? Each of you will take the floor in your own time, rising from your seats without needing to ask the other: “will you . . . with me?” Eyes will follow what the dancers can’t know for they have become the dance itself, fear and desire clasped together as they turn and turn, those who are watching the dance unable to feel what only the dancers themselves can feel. Whose thoughts are these?, you think to yourself, sitting among those who merely watch, lost in the steps of a dance that will never be danced again, desire and fear having taken each other hostage.
You find a page impaled on a branch outside the window where you write. If only you had a ladder, if only you could lean out far enough from the fire escape, you might be able to reach it. Was it there the day before? Had it been there all this time, through the dog days of late August, only to show itself now like a flag of surrender after most of the leaves have fallen? You feel the need to know the message it contains before the blinding snows and the arctic blasts from out of the North claim what you have come to believe is yours and yours alone. You could dial 911, say your beloved cat is caught up in a precarious crook, has been yowling all afternoon, and when the engine company arrives on the scene, you could say that your cat got down just fine, isn’t it funny how once one calls for help, things have a way of resolving on their own, but oh, there’s a scrap of something on a branch, wouldn’t they mind since they’ve already come? From the vantage point of your window, you can make out a shape resembling a cartouche, a page torn out of history that will dislodge itself and fall into your outstretched arms even as you sleep: In the tombs of the cats, bowls of milk were set along with mice and rats. So devout were the citizens that if a human killed a feline, intentionally or not, that person was sentenced to death. Though the exportation of cats was forbidden by law, many were smuggled out to cities along the Mediterranean. Armies were dispatched to recapture their cats from foreign lands. Herodotus tells of a Persian general who rounded up as many cats as his men could find or steal, only to set them free on the battlefield on the outskirts of Pelusium. That day, the entire Egyptian army surrendered rather than bringing any more harm to them. How the residue of your dreams becomes the stuff of forgotten histories, the life you lead an echo of all that has already taken place. In the middle of the night, you pull up the blinds, knowing the page will be gone.
You nod as you enter the arena, unable to see beyond. You consider "size," your image bigger-than-life yet smaller than life-size on want ads plastering the walls. You are all pose, the passing of the baton from an aging Hadrian to a spry Aurelius. You survey the landscape, knowing full well that the Empire has fallen, you who pose as a pugilist punk, sporting gloves and a large-sized jockstrap labeled "The Duke," guarding as it were your duchy. Your mouth guard's absence a silence finally broken. What remains to be said? Blood-red hues down newsprint suggest the damage already done. Sold off piecemeal, the narrative fractures further, you the rarity. There’s something tragic here, a boxed-in boxer pathetically protecting his own "box," and steadily losing, afflicted by the moment’s brutal ecstasies. And if you were to lower your eyes, cower behind the fanfare which was never anyone else’s business but yours, perhaps you would be left without an opponent, left to stage your aloneness in a theater of one, here where all has been restraint — glove, jock, mouth-guard — each movement an affront to your desired release.
You have just come down from the mountain where, earlier in the day, you had been fucking the very holes you dug with your own two hands after being fucked in all nine holes of your body at once, a donkey looking on. Serenity surrounds this beast of burden, tied up in a courtyard and facing a window. Two boys join the scene, one stripped from the waist on up and the other from the waist on down, having joined the donkey. Donkey sniffing cock. Donkey mounting human rump with fetlocks slung over shoulders. Donkey standing up on hind legs in that moment before a boy’s rib cage is crushed. Such scenes are being written onto your skin in ink, over and over, eventually blacking out your body underneath. You rise from fetal position into an erect superhuman pose, you who have been flayed alive, you who march towards an intersection thronged by paparazzi, offering them your doves while books fall out of the sky, tumbling on top of you as though you were caught in the catacombs of a library being razed to the ground.
You are kept awake all night by the sound of their vile scratching and chattering, their squeals of confused glee. Where are they coming in from? You pull the stove away from the wall and plug up the holes with whatever you can find, a greasy apron hung on a peg you tear into strips. If you had gasoline, you wouldn’t think twice. You clean the turds out of the broiler with water and bleach, you get under each and every burner, and still the acrid stench of rodent remains. By morning, there will be new holes to plug, nothing you can do about it, a hunger that will chew its way right through the plaster, the fiberglass, tufts of rat fur blowing across the vast tundra of your kitchen floor like tumbleweeds if Texas were Alaska, if someone hadn’t diddled with your private parts before you even knew how to speak. Each time you return to bed, the commotion will start up again, a party that’ll undoubtedly go until dawn, the champagne glasses clinking, the icebox raided, not a single crumb left of the Devil’s Food cake kept under a crystal charger etched with holiday bells. You’ll try blasting them with ultrasonic waves. You’ll try sprinkling bobcat piss all along the floorboards, rat traps you can hardly spring back baited with Maytag Blue but still they come unscathed, your flash-lit vigils yielding nothing but a glimpse of hairy ass and the long thick tail they drag behind. You’ll bring in professionals with rodenticide, you’ll stay at your mother’s house, you’ll check in to a motel-by-the-hour and recline on a mattress ringed with cigarette burns, rough trade strolling the halls with towels wrapped around their groins, if that, drowning in a haze of poppers, Viagra and speed chased back by a dirty martini, up. No matter where you go, the rats will follow you, always drawn to your scent, to your fears piling up like a car crash you think you can outrun, feasting on memories you didn’t even know you had, incoherent patterns woven into dreams you wish you could remember but can’t, the spiral notebook tucked beneath your bed a mockery with all its pages left entirely blank. You thought the rats were the problem, that if only you could somehow see the equation from the other side around even as you slept, perhaps you’d wake up one morning, and they miraculously would be gone. You’d finally get to sleep a sleep that you’ve never slept, not since you emerged from the womb. But you were wrong to think this. The rats were not the problem. They were the solution.
Any number, you say, except the number known by heart, the number you can’t bring yourself to call. Will someone answer, will you get a machine, everyone screened out but the one who’s always there on the other end all along? He can smell your fear, the tremble in your throat giving away the desire gnawing at everything you thought you were but aren’t. It occurs to you that behind this man you can’t bring yourself to call is another man you also tried but couldn’t call, the one you finally pushed to the edge of memory, who stands there still, doubled in the one who stands before you now, the replacement. Is he not more than adequate, the same man you have loved before only sporting different flesh? You never understood the scripture learned by rote, the one that began with perfect love casting out all fear. What you’ve known is imperfect love, a love that can’t conceal the fear it dines upon. At any moment, love could look at you lying naked there on his bed and suddenly love you no more. To lose this love is more than you can bear, the irreplaceable one so easily replaced. Or was it you all along who couldn’t be replaced, your desire the same desire as the hand you were dealt from birth, the fate from which you can’t escape unless you make the call, every possible moment an end unto itself, the Christ to whom you are betrothed crucified afresh. Can the flow of time be staunched, its ghastly gaping wound? Can the Beloved’s voice bring healing in its sound or will the wound only be opened wider, an abyss stretching out to the very edges of what you are? To place so much on a single call! It insults the very nature of what you’ve imagined love to be. Yet the more you love, the more you fear, it cannot be helped, the child crawling back to the parental bed, to a time before there was such a thing as sex. Look at you now, thoroughly scourged and lashed to a mast, your father whipping up a tempest in his groin, your mother imprisoned in the hold. Just say the word and the vision disappears. Unsay the word and hear the spine on your sea-worthy vessel crack like so much splintered tinder left behind from the tree that lightning struck. In the beginning was the Word. How you long to hear that word spoken again and again whether the word is Yes or No, so long as it is spoken by the Beloved, the one you’ve always known will answer if only you’re able to refuse what is already yours.