09 August 2007

David Dornstein

David, in the last year of his life, very much as I remember him

David, a classmate at Brown, was killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December, 1988. Quite apart from the circumstances of his death, he was one of the most remarkable people I ever knew, or ever will know. His brother, Ken, a documentary producer, wrote movingly about David, first in an article for The New Yorker, then in a book, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky.

In preparing that book, Ken reached out to a lot of David’s old friends and asked for memories and insights; the essay that follows is my response.

It turns out that I didn’t know David as well as I’d thought — although my image of him was very much like that of other classmates. In his book, Ken seemed almost disdainful of us. We romanticized his brother, we ignored his mental illness, we didn’t know the real David. I daresay he’s right, and maybe if I’d known David better, I’d be a little disdainful of the portrait I wrote. In many ways, perhaps inevitably, it's more a portrait of me than it is of David.

But this is all I’ve got.

I began writing this in the fall of 2001, when the United States was mourning again after terrorist attacks. It seemed the right time to write about David. I could imagine that he’d ponder the coincidence for possible significance — comparing 1988 and 2001 for meaning — before concluding with a shrug of his superb shoulders that there was none. But he would keep writing.

He would want me to write as he did: copious, long-flowing streams in bold black letters, rushing almost faster than thought itself BECAUSE THERE’S NOT ENOUGH TIME.

I don’t write that way: he would want me to write this his way. You could already see his impatience with my writing, the last times he saw any of it. A tone of exasperation entered his speech. I’d never heard it before. We were growing apart.

His reemergence now, through your e-mail contacts, from the secret confines of memory to the forefront of thought, seems timely, almost prophetic. I cast him as a prophet once, in a play, and perhaps I’ve cast him as a prophet again, for all time. The conflicts that led to his death haven’t been resolved; now hundreds of others have died, in bursts large and small. The grief that was born of his death has not been resolved, either. Maybe there are no resolutions.

I always liked to feel that my friendship with Dave was special, singular, unique to me. Whenever I talked to others about him, I learned that, on the contrary, he played a similar role in their lives, bounced ideas off them in much the same way, borrowed books, proposed schemes, read aloud from his writings, cadged cups of coffee, moaned about some pretty girl. Other people, I daresay, "discovered" David as surely as I did — thinking myself a great man of the theater and casting him in a play — when it was perfectly obvious to anyone that Dave belonged in the theater, and was going to create his own dramas and spectacles whether or not anybody ever invited him. Other people who knew him were also writers, and entered into the same kinds of discussions and were subjected to the same peppered questions about the craft — as if I had any answers — as if Dave weren't already aware I had no answers. Probably other people called him David, as I did, more often than they called him Dave.

I haven't uttered David's name aloud since your piece came out in The New Yorker, when I had to close the door to my office at CBS and sit in the dark, doubled over as if struck in the stomach, for half an hour before I could be with people again. The passport picture, reprinted in that article, was the first glimpse of him I’d had since he lived. I didn’t save the article because I couldn’t bear to look again into eyes that can’t look back. So long as I talk to no one about him, he remains all mine. But the minute I share him with others, the spell is broken.

That spell was all of his making. It's not only due to my vanity that the spell is precious to me.

I like to think that I knew Dave pretty well. Very well. I like to think we were very close friends. I liked to think so when he was still around. I used to tell people that the day I figured out how David Dornstein's thought-processes functioned, I'd be bored by him, but of course that wasn't true, and I never heard of anybody figuring out how that boy's brain worked. In retrospect, I seldom did have to share him. After Salomé, our conversations were usually duets. I was singled out, made special. A lot of other people probably had that experience of him, too. Well, too bad for them. The experience is mine. He gave it to me.

I don't want confirmation of the friendships other people had with David. I don’t want confirmation of my suspicion that we were growing apart. I'll remember as much as I can, and write it all out for the first time in thirteen years, because writing it out is precisely what he'd do, and I'll share it with you, but I don't want to know what anyone else says.

I’m afraid I’ll lose David, or learn that I never had him — never knew him the way I thought I knew him, never understood him, never accorded him the correct significance, and was accorded no special significance in his mind. So long as I keep him to myself, he can be whatever I want him to be. Often enough, I remember him almost as a first love — I was in love with him, of course, although I hardly understood it at the time. I wasn’t the only one: everyone I knew was in love with him. I can’t imagine anyone not being in love with him. So long as I keep him to myself, I am permitted a sweet sort of widowhood, with no rivals.

But his role isn’t always pleasant. The dead become accusatory ghosts to the living, and now that I’m middle-aged sometimes David appears to me, demanding to know why I squandered youth and its opportunities, why I confined my writing to narrow, choked, passionless paragraphs, why I have embraced nothing but fear, what I have done with the world from which he was so brutally removed. I don’t have any answers. I wasn’t like him — I’m still not like him — I still wish I were — and now I know I never will be.

Youth suited him. He was better at it than most people, and we knew it even at the time. He made twenty-year-olds feel old. “That boy,” we’d say, as if we weren’t boys ourselves, shaking our heads as if they were grey, exhausted by his exuberance. I’ve wondered what kind of older man he’d have made — whether he’d have mastered age with the élan he displayed in youth. He was so raw. Expectation marked him, especially in his eyes. Disappointment would’ve come, naturally; it comes to everybody. He’d have worn disappointment in his face just as he’d worn hope. It might have saddened me to look at him. Yet he might have met with all kinds of success, perhaps a great deal of success. I wonder how he’d have worn that. Would I have been jealous of him? (Probably: I was already jealous of him. Everybody was.)

I remember a morning in the Blue Room, the day after Grace Kelly died. I was drinking coffee and sharing the newspapers with my theater professor, Jim Barnhill. Thinking of Grace Kelly’s beauty and of the panic with which other screen goddesses — Garbo, Dietrich — greeted the ravages of time, I said, “Maybe it’s better she died young.”

“Ah,” said Jim — at sixty-three, the oldest man I knew — “she might have taught us how to grow old.”

Would David have taught us how to grow old? He was so eccentric, so singular, that it was hard to follow him in anything he did. For example, his nude improvisation in theater class did not, to my knowledge, inspire anyone else to attempt anything similar, although to be sure everyone talked about it afterward. Would we have had the guts to do anything David’s way?

David demanded a clear focus from those who watched him. I realize that now. He must have pumped up my adrenaline, made every detail stand out and every moment slow down. So many memories of him are so much sharper than my memories of almost anyone else. Surely it’s not only because he’s gone, not only because memories are the only thing I have left of him.

I first saw David upside-down. The image is very clear even now. I was lying on my back on the Green, talking to people, and David was playing Frisbee just beyond me, so that I could only see him when my eyes rolled back. It was hard to take my eyes off him.

Although a lot of people played Frisbee on the Green, especially on a warm September afternoon, David was remarkable — not for his athletic ability, or for his shirtless beauty — other guys on the Green that afternoon were at least approximately in his league. But David was the only one playing Frisbee while on crutches, his leg in a cast. At some point, the Frisbee went astray, landing in the center of my friends’ conversation, and David hobbled over to recover it. “Sorry,” he said — the first time I heard his voice.

He wore cut-off blue jeans and that cast and nothing else. His eyes were blue, too, and his lashes dark and usually somewhat moist. His nose was a little large for the rest of his face, but strong and handsomely shaped. His hair had grown long-ish (he was going to cut it, but to play John the Baptist, he would let it grow longer), and it tumbled in lazy curls to his neck. His body was beautiful, muscular without apparent effort, and he enjoyed it more than anyone else — which was saying a lot. He knew people were watching him — he probably knew I was staring at him — and he liked being watched. But being watched wasn’t his purpose, not at the moment (although often enough, other times), and it hadn’t interfered with his purpose. At the time, I was still so self-conscious that I wouldn’t take my shirt off at the beach: David’s comfort with himself was as impressive as his beauty. He was quite literally what the French call bien dans sa peau, comfortable in his own skin.

I was preparing to direct Salomé at the time, and within a few days — maybe even the very next day — David showed up in the classroom I’d commandeered for auditions. “When does the cast come off?” I said, even before “Hello.”

“Tomorrow,” David said.

I smiled. “Good,” I said, and handed him a script. He read perfectly well, but to be honest he could’ve read awfully and I’d probably have cast him anyway. I already had proof of qualities I thought John the Baptist should possess: a kind of fearlessness, a kind of charisma. He had a deep, authoritative voice, a resonant bass-baritone — certainly sufficient to reel off John’s lengthy imprecations in a way that would make people listen. His hair was dark and long, his movements (even on crutches) graceful. I had in mind the prophets one finds on Renaissance altarpieces, and David was the type. Wander around Tuscany a week, and you’ll see David again and again, in museums and cathedrals and country churches. Not only his face — he was handsomer than most of the Italian saints — or his body — David was more muscular — but his spirit, the strange light in his eyes, the glowing aura of him.

Salomé is not a great play, and I am not a great director. I’d never directed at all before, and almost never since. I was trying to explore my love of opera, to find some way to be a part of that passion without having to sing. (I can’t sing.) I’d seen a film of Strauss’s opera, and fallen in love with the woman who sang and acted Salomé, Teresa Stratas (for whom I worked, years later). Wasn’t there some way to achieve these intense theatrical effects without music?

The answer, of course, is no, but I didn’t know that yet. I subjected my large cast to an exercise in futility, the exploration of a barren territory. Somehow, David was marvelous, a commanding stage presence who looked and sounded exactly right, who inhabited an impossible part as completely as the script permits.

I could prove all this to you with the photos of the production — except that I was the photographer, at least as unskilled with a camera as I was with a prompt-book. I loaded the film incorrectly, and not a single picture turned out. But I remember a couple of the shots I (almost) got: David, nearly naked, his body twisted in religious fervor, eyes on the stars, while his Salomé looks on, yearning to bring him down to earth, to touch him, to make him like her. If people remember him as anything less than stellar, I blame my limitations as a director and Wilde’s as a playwright.

In rehearsal one day, I told him to deliver his lines as if there were angels flying around his head — angels that only he could see. He understood immediately, following them with his eyes all around the room. We tried it again, slower this time. Some of those angels had been flying very fast; now they took their time, unhurried arcs and circles, not a plague but a visitation, John’s constant, loving companions. And while he recited, David’s blue eyes filled with tears. When he was done, he grinned. He knew he had it. And he performed the scene that way every time.

Later, though, he used to complain about that scene. He was frustrated by the fakery of acting, and cited his angels as an example. He wanted real theater, by which he meant undiluted, unforced, relevant. What was John the Baptist to him, or he to John? David took theater courses, butting his head against the limitations of the form. That’s what prompted the nude improvisation — I had to be given a special invitation to attend, since I wasn’t taking the class. In at least one sense, the exercise made a lot of sense, because David was trying to transcend two things — theater and clothing — whose limitations constricted him and made him nervous.

Charitably, I’ve forgotten the substance (if that’s even the right word) of a scene that involved David’s running naked between two studios in the theater building, and strewing around a great deal of notebook paper, on which David had written important messages. I believe the professor, Carleton Collyer (who called him by the Anglicized “Dornstan”), may even have asked him to stop after about fifteen minutes. The exercise was going nowhere. Even if David had explained his goals in advance (as he had explained them to me), you couldn’t tell what he was trying to do or say. Really, he was just lashing out, shaking his dick in the face of an art form.

Afterward he was the talk of the campus — and humiliated. We discussed the exercise during a long walk one cold afternoon, and again over several cups of coffee. I kept trying to explain to David that there were plenty of theatrical forms that would enhance, not limit, his means of expression. He could use theater to say whatever he wanted. Even if he wanted to run naked around a room throwing bits of paper in the air, there are plenty of plays where actors do that, and whole schools of theater to teach them to do it better, and structures he could use to make his points more cogently. It was a question of finding the right play, the right school, the right style, a matter of more study, not stopping but delving deeper.

But he continued to grumble, bitterly, that acting was fake, theater a prison. Sometimes he would throw Salomé in my face, as if that were as good as theater ever got. I gathered that his experiences in Titus Andronicus, after I’d left campus and moved to New York, weren’t any more encouraging: he didn’t invite me up to see the show, and he never talked about it.

Because I had first cast him as an actor, he had cast me as — if not a director, and not exactly a mentor — then at least a sounding-board for his ideas about theater. I did and do believe in theater, almost religiously, and I didn’t want to see him stray from a field that was important to me and to which I believed he could make important contributions. But you could never tell with David, when he finally applied himself, whether he’d turn out to be a movie star or a rabbi.

Sometimes he used me as a literal sounding-board. He would test his voice, flex his vocal muscles, test himself. Booming one minute and insinuating the next, these were exercises of which almost no other actor on campus was capable. He played ball with his voice, tossing it and catching it, bouncing it off walls. Perhaps those weren’t the only times that our conversations were dominated less by the content of his speech — I have forgotten almost everything he said — than by the pleasure we both found in the sound of his voice.

He shared a lot of ideas with me, not only about theater but about writing and philosophy. I knew nothing about philosophy, but I had taken a course in it my freshman year. It had been a long nap interrupted by essay quizzes. David inherited my copy of Hobbes’ Leviathan and others I don’t recall. He’d come over to my apartment and walk home with books I didn’t want any more. (Have I forgotten precise titles? Did he return books I’d meant for him to keep? I thought I’d given him my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, but lately I found it still on my shelves.) Then he’d want to discuss what he’d read in books I’d owned but never looked at, and I’d struggle to keep up. His talk was as abundant as his writing, which had already become an almost constant occupation for him, even then.

By the time he moved to New York, he had even begun to focus on writing, and our conversations — at an Upper West Side bar called Cannon’s, where he drank coffee (usually burned) instead of beer — were about writing. I had begun a novel, and it had already become clear that the quickest path to success as a novelist was either to be my roommate or to sleep with one of my roommates: the list of those who proved this theory included David Leavitt, Randall Kenan, Rick Moody, Donald Antrim, Jeffrey Eugenides; the doyenne of these last was Melora Wolff, a former roommate who is now a writing teacher. Even my actor friends, such as Andy Weems, were good writers. But nobody wrote more than David.

From the bits I saw, the fat notebooks stuffed with blunt unstoppable words, it would have been impossible to extract any coherent narrative from these rambles. It seemed as if he described every moment of his life, wrote down every thought. Often the writing became a part of the conversation: he would write and talk at the same time. The “conversation” you supplied, in the New Yorker article, between David and the girl on the train was by no means an isolated instance (although from what I could tell it was a pretty good way to chat up girls, and not far from the techniques of another good-looking, girl-crazy writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald); I recall that he showed it to me, or another “conversation” like it.

Writing was sometimes a kind of performance art for him, and I have wondered whether, given more time, David might have been able to fuse writing and theater in some original and satisfying way.

That was our friendship. We didn’t see each other so often once he’d moved to the city, because his working hours seldom coincided with mine. Maybe our friendship was already over when he died. We talked about writing and theater and philosophy late into the night. We never answered our questions, or anyone else’s, but with David there was always the feeling that he was just on the brink of discovering an important truth to be shared with the world.

But none of what I’ve told you is what David would have considered most important. He would want my rage and my grief all over these pages, exultant tributes to his mellow voice and restless soul, descriptions of his beauty and professions of my love for him — he called himself my Antinous, you know, and like Antinous he died before age could mar his idol-like perfection. He would be irritated that I’ve recycled here some of what I wrote to you before, even though it’s raw and honest: he would want me to feel it all over again. He would demand long sentences with disrespect for comma usage, no classical allusions, no theatrical masks to hide behind.

No organization: talk about the fact that always he slept on the floor, beds being just another convention to defy, no matter whether the detail upsets the delicate structure of your paragraphs.

No modesty: don’t conceal the fact that I sewed his Salomé costume with him in it, and applied his body makeup myself before every performance, and I found joy and yearning in the physical contact with him, but David never said a word to me (only a knowing smile), and I never said a word to anyone.

No shame: mention the fact that after I found out David had died, I called a friend’s mother to tell her, and triggered a drinking binge, after which my friend wouldn’t speak to me, from that day to this, and now her mother is dead, too; that lady was alcoholic, although I couldn’t see it, and she was in love with David the way we all were in love with David, and I told her he was dead and she said, “Oh, that beautiful boy,” and hung up the phone and drank. I used to feel the Newsman’s Mission and the solace that comes from sharing information in times of trouble, and I was always the first to tell bad news — but not any more, not since David, not since my friend’s mother.

The day Pan Am 103 went down, I was an employee of CBS News and protected: the news was what happened to other people. But that day was my last at CBS before graduate school. Two weeks later, I found out David had been on the plane, and by then I was unprotected, a civilian, not a newsman any more; the news became something that happened to people I knew, and it hurt. If that isn’t a part of the story of David, what is?

No tidiness: refer to his off-handed remark that he didn’t like to receive oral sex because it reminded him of his earliest experiences, which evidently entailed some sort of inappropriate behavior by an adult neighbor — never explained.

No, no explanations, no answers, just outpouring. Dashes, italics, ALL CAPS AND BOLD-FACE, AND WRITE OVER THE LETTERS TWO AND THREE TIMES FOR EMPHASIS, UNTIL THE INK BLEEDS THROUGH THE PAGE. That’s what he’d want. This memoir should be three hundred pages long, three thousand pages, I should never have put it off, never have stopped the task. Every detail recorded, the time regained in senses and in words. Have I forgotten how he smelled? (Yes.) Have I forgotten how he looked, how he sounded, how he felt? (No, I have not. I remember his precise temperature, and I have never felt it in anyone else. That, too, was his alone.) I must write it all down, the way he would.

He would roar at me in frustration, cry with affectionate disgust. Why have I typed this instead of writing it by hand — why haven’t I touched this? “Why isn’t this real?” he’d want to know. Wasn’t he sufficient subject matter for anyone? Of course I can’t capture his restlessness, his wildness, his refusal to be penned-in that now, all these years later, translates into a refusal to be penned. But can’t I capture his curiosity? — that ceaseless desire to know, so great that I have never doubted for an instant that he’d have been fascinated by his own death — sorry only that others were hurt and that he wouldn’t be able to tell us about it after.

What a subject that would have been, how excitedly he’d have described it, almost boastfully, his eyes bright, testing our squirming reactions, impressing the nearest available pretty girl.

Life gives you these great things to talk about, and art gives you the means, and death gives you the necessity — and what the hell have I done with it?