23 June 2007

David Leavitt

For the first two years I lived in New York, I had a duplex apartment on West End Avenue, in practice if not in fact. My best friend from high school, Kevin Pask, lived on the fifth floor, and I lived on the sixth. Three bedrooms in each apartment. The building had a name — Latona Hall — but no elevator. The residents of the two apartments scurried up and downstairs day and night, eating and arguing and playing music and throwing parties with each other. Only at bedtime did we retire to individual spaces, closed doors, privacy and solitude: there was not a single instance, to my knowledge, of one roommate sleeping with another. We were as chaste as the Walton siblings, and nearly as numerous. Over two years, Kevin had four or five roommates, and I had nine. The one roommate we had in common, who lived principally in Kevin’s apartment and only briefly in mine, was David Leavitt.

David was already a known author, the youngest writer ever published in The New Yorker to that time, at work on his first collection of short stories, Family Dancing, which was dedicated to Kevin’s girlfriend, Debbie Keates, and released while he was still under our roof. In fact, his tenure in my apartment was due to that publication: he’d sublet his room to spend a summer traveling, but returned early in order to supervise the book. These preliminaries included approving galley proofs and getting his picture taken for an article in Interview. The juggernaut of his fame had been launched. Soon, it would be possible to speak of “a David Leavitt kind of story,” and everyone would know what you meant.

Getting published in The New Yorker was something all my classmates at Brown, and nearly everyone I knew at Yale (alma mater of Kevin, Debbie, and David) desired devoutly. Even those of us who never dreamed of writing, dreamed of The New Yorker. The early achievement of that goal had turned David’s head only a little. He was known, on occasion, to preface a sentence with a remark such as, “We New Yorker writers,” which was awfully hard to take, even if it was earned. But it was hard to dislike David for a remark like that. He often spoke thoughtlessly, about any number of subjects; he once got in trouble for announcing, to a French newspaper, that “l’âge de Updike est fini,” but he regretted it bitterly, insisted it wasn’t really what he meant, certainly not the way the headline made it appear, and he looked so darn helpless when he told you about it. David wanted to be loved. Even John Updike would forgive him a slip of the tongue.

He was tall, watery-eyed and near-sighted, neither handsome nor fit, with a hunch and a slouch, already losing his hair, yet not unpleasant to look at. He was an outsized, big-boned puppy, straining at any leash.

David’s early work in The New Yorker was among the most explicitly gay material the magazine had yet published, which reportedly occasioned some snide remarks from the legendary editor, Mr. Shawn. One of David’s stories concerns a young man who realizes he’s gay and wants to run up and down his college campus, announcing to the world, “I’m gay!” David may never have done that at Yale, but his gayness was trumpeted in New York; it was central to most of his conversation, and it, coupled with his seething twenty-two-year-old horniness, made me uncomfortable.

The reason, need you really ask, was that I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that I was gay, too. Would our friendship have endured if I’d been as open and self-aware as he? Or would my professional jealousy have intruded, as it did in any case?

For I, too, wanted to be a writer.

Wait, that isn’t accurate. True, I did want to be a writer. But David didn’t want, he was a writer, accepted as such by The New Yorker and by the world at large. I wanted to be published. David was published. The fact that David’s early work was unimaginative (entirely focused on the only three dramas he’d ever known in life: his coming-out, his mother’s bout with cancer, and his parents’ divorce), the fact that his style was dishonest (as lapidary and detached as David himself was gooey and tender), the fact that he was clearly writing to please somebody else (Mr. Shawn?) and not himself — these were not facts at all but my opinions, and none of them really amounted to much. Because the real and only significant fact was that David sat down and put his pencil to the paper and wrote. Copiously. Often. And, dammit, well.

I was still bitching about other people’s writing, and not writing anything myself. Before long, though, I did begin my first novel, typed late at night in my office at the Weill Foundation. It pains me to say so, but many of the qualities I admired in David’s first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, were entirely lacking in mine. The control, the authority, the cohesion of theme and fluidity of plot were far beyond anything I was capable of. It took me years and years to learn to do that — I have a long learning curve — and it’s still to be debated whether I’ve mastered any of those fundamental skills. I had a better ear than David for dialogue and comedy, and I was better at describing things that hadn’t actually happened to me. But who cared? I still couldn’t craft a shapely story that anybody was interested in buying. Moreover, my first novel was (and would remain) painfully pretentious, crammed with pointless, obscure literary and musical references, and lacking in action — and interest. And as for honesty, David was light years ahead of me, both in his writing and in his private life.

David wanted to go out to the bars, and he wanted a wingman. Grudgingly, I’d accept. Was I looking for some excuse to go to a gay bar? Probably. They were far too intimidating for me to go there alone, full of noise and boys. Hanging in the smoky air was the possibility of sordid shameful sex my parents would never approve of. David provided cover. But the minute we got to the bar — usually the Boy Bar, on St. Mark’s Place — he’d abandon me, fly off into the crowd, latch onto some attractive man or other, and leave me standing alone in a corner with my vodka-tonic. I never dared speak to anybody; nobody ever spoke to me. I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. I hated the music, which was always too loud and too modern, and the porn on the video screens was scarier than any nightmare. (Happily, perhaps, it turns out that real sex is always more banal than what we imagine.) I have vivid recollections of a clip in which some fellow drove a nail through his foreskin into a two-by-four. Though circumcised, I winced. Was this what it meant to be gay? It certainly wasn’t anything like the earnest couplings David described in his stories.

After a while, never more than an hour or so, David would give up, seek me out, tell me it was time to go home. I don’t think he ever got lucky when he went out cruising with me.

In reality, we may not have done this more than a few times. In retrospect, it seems like a thousand times, empty evenings spent alone and confused. Waiting for David to fail, so that I could return to the safe familiarity of the lies of my bed.

After Family Dancing was released, David moved to an apartment he purchased in the Vermeer, on Seventh Avenue. “The Veneer,” he called it, but he was house-proud, and rightly so. He didn’t visit the apartments on West End very often, and he and I saw each other infrequently. When Lost Language of Cranes came out, I phoned him and told him, in a roundabout yet easily decipherable way, that I didn’t like it: that put a predictable damper on our relationship, and we never really recovered from it. My principal effort at reconciliation, a hurried word of praise after a reading at the 92nd Street Y, was far too little, years too late. I’ve never seen him since.

As a result, I missed out on a lot of things. Not just the camaraderie of a fellow writer, which after all he did offer. He’d been a slush reader, and now he teaches fiction writing; mightn’t his advice have helped me grow as a novelist, at a time when I sorely needed assistance? Mightn’t his contacts have eased my search for an agent, or a publisher?

And I didn’t miss out merely on the sympathy of a gay man whose writings both provoked and consoled the coming-out of hundreds, perhaps thousands of gay men around the world. He might have provoked and consoled my coming-out, too, and I daresay I’d be a happier, better-adjusted person for it. As it was, I wound up sleeping repeatedly with a guy who found me repellent, and vice-versa: that was my first gay relationship, and I never told David about it. Probably I’d have been better off sleeping with David himself, though that wasn’t in the cards. We weren’t each other’s physical type, I was too timid to approach anyone I knew and might actually see with any frequency, and David was too nice, too kind, and insufficiently abusive to suit me at the time.

No, there were other things I missed, and do miss. David had read every book ever written, and he was especially strong on living authors, whom I, through jealousy, have avoided to this day. David was hardly hip, but he brought the first Madonna album into our apartment, and (I believe) the first Cyndi Lauper album, too. He could have helped me to hear a different music, though I might have asked him to turn down the volume.

At Yale, David had made a study of European gardens, finding sense and significance in the rigid geometry of the French and the careful wildness of the English, and something else in the Italian that I still don’t know well enough even to characterize: sometimes, now that I live in France, I look at the garden of some château and wonder what David would have to tell me about it. Me, I still curse myself for not knowing the names of the flowers; I can barely see the gardens at all.

Now that my father is an invalid, I wonder what David would have to tell me about a dying parent, about this strange last chapter of a man’s life, when his survivors have to accept that any outstanding business will remain unfinished, eternally.

David could be self-involved as hell, but he managed somehow to be a good listener, too, and he was always sympathetic to his friends. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and when the people he cared about were hurt or needy, you saw that he felt it, too. Was it fair to ask that he wear his heart on the sleeve of his fiction, too, that he make himself as vulnerable in print as he was in life?

There are many relationships I regret in my life, many I regret far more than I regret David. But, yeah, I regret him, too. I built up walls, then blamed him for not tearing them down. My loss.