During the summer, Joe asked me to send a photo, "Tho please not a flattering one (a guy can take only so much you know) and I kid you only half." Actors have hundreds of glossy photos, but I chose a few "civilian" snapshots to send, none of them unflattering. In return, I received a small envelope marked "YESTERYEAR, A PHOTO-PUZZLE FOR KEITH WITH LOVE, JOE." Inside was a photograph of Joe, taken, judging by the tie-dyed T-shirt (his single article of clothing) and the hair (lots), in the sixties, and cut into heart-shaped jigsaw pieces.
We both added enclosures to our letters. He sent me Vermont leaves, drawings, rare postcards in glassine envelopes, old deeds, foreign currency and bits of interesting papers, tiny collages, Speedo bathing suits, and money. I was slightly shocked, when I went through the letters, to find how often Joe sent me cash: new hundred dollar bills or checks. Not long ago I discovered a two-hundred-dollar check still tucked into a poetry brochure and an uncashed thirty-dollar check so he could "be the first to buy flowers" for my latest sublet. Rereading the letters, I now see that Joe anticipated my embarrassment by including a postscript detailing his pleasure in giving me money, how he had "too much" and besides "I'm older than you" (though he was only seven years my senior). At some point, he told me frankly, he'd been given stocks or bonds, enough to live off the interest-I kept my understanding of this arrangement vague.
I nearly always cashed Joe's checks. Initially, I suggested the money was a loan. Even now I'd like to qualify, to describe my actor's life back then-but having said that much is probably saying enough. Joe wrote back explaining he never made "loans." He felt were unhealthy between friends, so only gave "with no strings attached!"
Twice that summer, Joe sent letters to friends we both knew, requesting an "invisible date." The enclosed cash, he explained, was to pay for a dinner for three, including himself in absentia. Afterwards, the friend was to write back, describing the evening-and me. "I got a letter this morning from Jonathan, telling me all about our date-(even what you wore: down to the red tie)-and I never dreamed I could not go on a date and enjoy it so much: so much!"
Our letters grew more romantic and more spiced with sex. Joe cast himself in the role of "raunchy" older brother, and we both felt free to include pages of pornography. In the foreword to a book of Joe's drawings, the poet and art critic John Ashbery might also have been describing Joe's writing when he said Joe's porn studies show "how a 'hot' subject would appear to a mind uncluttered by notions of it (pornography)."
Recounting a "wet dream," Joe wrote, "I took you back to my modern white home-(very Frank Lloyd Wright)-with a shower as large as a big room . . . but before we took a shower, you said you wanted a breath mint, and so from a conveniently located box of sugared violet flowers, I began literally pouring them in your mouth and down your throat. Moments later, in the shower, during one (our first!) long kiss, I started (couldn't hold back) coming all over you."
By August, our letters were full of references to that "first!" kiss, but the anticipation was not always comforting. Joe worried a September meeting could never live up to the heights reached in our epistolary courtship. He was no bargain, he hinted: skinny, stuttered, smoked too much. At the same time he never doubted my allure and continued to praise my good looks and desirability.
It was very flattering, but I was also full of insecurities-and the air is thin in Paradise. I did, however, possess an actor's professional distance regarding my looks and a physical confidence that made sex seem as uncomplicated as rain. My letters to Joe grew more romantic, suggestive, and relaxed. "Look," I was saying, "let's not slow down-this is too much fun."
Then I got a job that took me out of town until November.
While I was away, we continued to exchange letters. Joe mailed "care packages" to my hotel filled with books, pictures, and odd postcards. Finally, on a clear fall day in November, six months after Joe and I met, I returned to the city-and our first date.
Joe came downstairs to let me in the street door, I gave him flowers, and when we briefly kissed, I recognized the smell of recently gargled Scope mouthwash. His Greene Street loft was divided into two big rooms. He led me quickly through an unlit back area, used for storage, muttering something about the mess, into a large, sparely furnished living area with big windows facing the street. This room included a small open kitchen and a bathroom behind double stained-glass doors installed by the previous tenant. There was no showing around to be done; the desk, couch, and floor-level mattress were visible from any point. Joe poured us wine, and we stood in the kitchen alcove to avoid the last harsh rays of a sun setting beyond Canal Street. The loft was dark when we broke from our first real kiss. On the way to dinner, I felt exhilarated and silly, with the odd sensation of having flown with time.
On our first restaurant date and on many after, Joe brought along little homemade books. In lieu of talk, we wrote back and forth like Beethoven and his nephew or documented meals with tiny drawings of the food: an oyster on the half shell, inky lines of wine cascading from a bottle, tiny french fries and a miniature steak.
"We had a great time," a friend once told me after a dinner date with Joe, "but I felt like such a chatterbox because he never said a word."
Joe's silences were not bred from overfamiliarity-a dead space between people who have nothing much left to say-but were full of nervous mannerisms: lip-popping, nodding slightly to a silent tune, a stuttering of eyelids when he saw me watching; often, he appeared about to speak. When he did, his mouth would hold the form of the first word for several seconds before he made a sound.
He always aped my order, swearing, "that's just what I was thinking of!" If I pushed him to choose an entrée first, he'd change his mind after hearing my selection and, in a barely audible voice, whisper to the waiter, "I'll have that, too."
We began to see each other every night: made love, slept, ate big breakfasts-enormous for such skinny guys-then parted to go about our days, until, dressed and shaved, we'd meet again for an evening date. Our restaurant routine varied with an occasional movie, a documentary if possible; we both found the vulnerability of real people more rewarding than a plot. Once, passing a group of the over-dressed tourists who had just begun to invade SoHo, I asked Joe, "What do you make of them?"
"Touching," he said, "that they try so hard."
In December, I began rehearsals to play Harold in a Broadway adaptation of "Harold and Maude" which left me very little time to see Joe. By previews, I sensed the production was doomed. After the opening night show, Joe joined five of my friends and me for dinner at the Russian Tea Room. Unknotted by Negronis (a lethal, ruby-colored cocktail), I recounted rehearsal horrors. My friends, all fellow actors, added hilarious, unkind reenactments of worst moments in the play. They felt an extra degree of performance energy in front of my new boyfriend, the sweet but nervous artist, who barely said a word. Yet during the course of the evening, Joe found opportunities for one-on-one exchanges with every person at the table.
Since Joe refused help to pay the enormous bill, we christened ourselves the "Negroni Diners Club," and each member pledged to arrange and pay for a future dinner out. None of us had as much money as Joe, but we made good on our promises and picked interesting dives we could afford (one memorable evening included quaaludes and a tap lesson).
When my show closed two weeks after the opening, I found a tiny envelope in my dressing room. Inside was a chunk of gold and a note from Joe: "If closing night is too sad, might a little gold nugget and lots of love help?"
Joe's generosity became legendary among my friends. Andrea (our tap teacher) told me she'd run into Joe carrying a huge bunch of flowers. "Oh! These are for you," he'd said and handed them to her. He sent an antique tiara made of tiny seed pearls after another friend's heirloom jewelry had been stolen in a break-in. When Joe learned a performer friend of mine was checking coats at a Village bar, he stopped by to have a drink and leave a fifty-dollar tip. And when our favorite waiter, ill from AIDS, was forced to leave his job, Joe sent generous checks.
I met Joe's friends in more formal circumstances: at art openings or readings.
"They're a perfect couple," a friend of Joe's gossiped to a friend of mine, "Joe's a dreamer and Keith's a dream."
Our honeymoon period was not always dreamy. Both of us had too much time, and Joe was trying to break through a long unproductive spell. Though he seemed busy enough to me-designing covers for a friend's book, drawing or writing pieces for small press publications-he hadn't had a solo show in New York since 1976 and was anxious to enter his next big phase of making art. Unemployed again, I spent my time hounding agents, going on auditions, and looking for a permanent place to live. I seemed to move weekly, and not long after my show closed, I was once again between sublets. Joe suggested a temporary move into his loft.
Since half my unemployed days were spent riding a bicycle around Manhattan, suddenly living with someone made the errands around which I loosely structured my travels seem bogus excuses for escape. Joe, during his workday, could spend literally hours pacing around his loft. In my presence, the habit made him self-conscious and distracted me from projects I'd invented to keep me indoors. Neither of us complained about the quirkiness of the other, but we both felt on trial. To make matters worse, we picked that period to give up smoking.
Our domestic experiment ended when Joe paused during his routine loft-pacing to smash the heel of his boot through a record playing Patsy Cline's "Crazy." He immediately apologized for his uncharacteristic act, but I was relieved, soon after, to accept a three-week "dog-sit." I later referred to the "crazy" episode as "the time you turned the record player off with your foot."
Living apart we resumed our romantic dinner-to-breakfast dates. And that spring, for the first time in over ten years, Joe declined his standing invitation to Vermont. I worried he'd regret the choice and begin to resent me. Joe swore his decision was based on career frustration and a mid-life call for change, not on "us." But work frustration and a lingering guilt continued to plague him in the summer-empty city.
We began to find our evening dinner dates dispiriting. I resented the amount of money spent in restaurants even though I wasn't spending it, I and grew intolerant of our daily drinking. Let's eat at home, I pleaded, stocking Joe's pitiful kitchen with basic cooking supplies. While I made a meal, Joe, who'd spent all day at home working on collages he wouldn't show me, paced the loft like a high-strung pet. If Joe spent the night at my most recent sublet, unable to sleep, he'd tiptoe out at four in the morning. When I stayed at his loft, I found excuses to run off before the big ritual breakfast, which we both had loved. We began to make excuses for nights off. Joe needed to "get his head together," I needed to study for an audition.
In mid-July, Joe wrote to Kenward asking ("begging," he later admitted) to join him in Vermont for the remainder of the summer. We both felt a sad relief.
Our last evening was a bittersweet but celebratory night of good food, wine, and love-making. Joe gave me the "Homage to Keith" collages about which he had been so secretive. Among these obsessively beautiful images of Joe's affection were a bed embossed with roses and two pillows labeled "you" and "me"; photo-realistic drawings of two Vermont-New York envelopes, addressed in our respective hands and carried by gulls across an ocean horizon; a "portrait," in which my torso was a big heart studded with pink roses and two pink nipples, floating above a Rorschach splash of come and a pair of jeans unbuttoned at the top.
I had Joe's keys and promised to forward his mail. I spent hours alone in his loft, remembered none of our discomfort, and ached to have him back. I began projects: fixing a dripping faucet, repairing the bathroom tiles, cleaning the refrigerator. I moved on to organize the back room, first dragging everything out into the front, then sanding and polyurethaning the floor, and building yards of floor-to-ceiling metal shelving.
The neighbors complained about the noise at night, so in the evenings I stopped my work to root through the boxes and trunks now stacked in the living area of the loft. I discovered copies of Joe's writing, the original "I Remember," "New Work," "Selected Writings," "The Friendly Way," "Some Drawings of Some Notes to Myself," and "The Vermont Notebook," which he wrote with John Ashbery. I read literary magazines containing his interviews, drawings, and writings: "Little Caesar," "Unmuzzled Ox," "Z," and the "Paris Review," articles in art magazines, reviews of Joe's shows with pictures of his early "altarpieces" assembled from religious paraphernalia he'd found in his neighborhood on the Lower East Side. I found mimeographed issues of Ted Berrigan's "C" magazine, with covers by Joe and its adjunct C comics, where the balloons over Joe's cartoon sketches were supplied with text by writers like Frank O'Hara, Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, Peter Schjeldahl, Ron Padgett, and James Schuyler. (I had met some of the collaborators: James Schuyler; Kenward, of course; Ron Padgett and his wife Pat. Joe once took me to a party hosted by Ted Berrigan, a large man with a beard and very few teeth. He was warm and almost embarrassingly interested in whatever I had to say. Allen Ginsberg was there too, and a young man nobody mentioned was passed out on the floor, which made the evening seem very beatnik to me.)
The backroom stock included paintings by Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, a tattoo artist named "Art," Larry Rivers, John Button, and Jim Dine. Also Joe's own paintings: scenes from his Vermont summers, "garden" paintings, grass cutouts, a collaborative painting with Jasper Johns. I found crates of small collages and trunks of paper bits from all over the world or picked off Manhattan streets, all painstakingly organized by color. And jewel cases and boxes of small treasures-a belt strung with solid gold coins (Gypsy gold), a stack of jokers culled from antique decks, ancient rings of soft gold, cigarette cases, a tiny head carved from a nut, "hobo" art made from matches, miniature dolls, furniture, china, pairs of dice-all collected with Joe's amazing eye.
When I was at Catholic school, I'd been fascinated by the reliquary of saints: fragments of skin, bone or hair, or an item touched or worn by the holy man or woman. Though I shaped a clearer image of Joe through these backroom artifacts, the relic which brought him close was not a painting or a book, but an unwashed shirt I pulled from his laundry bag in a dark walk-in closet, which still held the musty smell of perspiration in its cloth.
During the fifteen years I knew him, Joe got rid of everything. Most things he gave away-to me, to friends, to a man who sold things on the street-until, near the end of his life, his nearly empty loft looked as if it were inhabited by a Zen squatter. The gifts to me, things almost too beautiful to own, were haunted by his non-attachment; I gave them all away except for the collages and other pieces that I sold in an eternal struggle to pay my rent.
My relics now are letters. Joe's to me. A hundred and thirty-two over the nine years we were lovers, most written during the nine summers we spent apart. I don't have my replies. After Joe died, I thought of asking for them, but I was afraid they'd been destroyed or, less tolerable, that Joe, in his mania to divest himself of things, had thrown them out.
The letters I have from Joe are love letters, even the replies sadly accepting my annual decisions to break up during the frustrating abandoned summers. Finally, in the summer of 1989-our ninth season apart-I met a young Israeli painter who wasn't much interested in moving aside for a part-time boyfriend's return in the fall. I sent a real "Dear Joe" letter to Vermont. Neither of us was surprised or, I think, loved each other less, but for the first time in nine years, we didn't make our ritual first date upon Joe's return to the city. We still met for dinner often, enjoying each other's company, but we were careful when we kissed at the beginning or end of an evening, not wanting to spark the familiar electricity that might ignite painful emotions. We continued to write for the next five summers, but less frequently. Joe still recounted dreams of me. He always sent his love to Eric and often included money for a dinner out.
As early as 1982 Joe had written asking about my health. I'd had a strange summer flu accompanied by an awful sore throat. That year, shortly before GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) was renamed AIDS, I entered a clinical trial studying a connection between this "new" disease and people-mainly gay men-whose lymph glands remained mysteriously swollen. The swelling eventually subsided and I remained asymptomatic, but by 1984 our letters were full of news about hospitalized friends and sad reports of their agonizing deaths. A hysterical press, when it reported the epidemic at all, published editorials from people like William Buckley, who suggested "tattooing" the infected, or placing them in internment camps. I refused to get tested until 1989 or 1990 and only then because my blood work indicated a T-cell level far above what any doctor expected from a person exposed to the virus. The high count turned out to be a false reading, and I tested positive to the HIV virus.
I have two telling letters from the nineties; in one, Joe mentions losing five pounds from a severe sore throat; in the other, after offering condolences for the deaths of four of my closest friends, he writes of his own continued bad health and a change his protocol to include AZT.
Joe was in New York when he first told me he had AIDS. I don't think he'd told anyone else yet, except perhaps his friends Ron and Pat Padgett. I remember he was worried about the effect of the news on Kenward, but not much worried for himself. "I've had a great life," he told me, "no regrets." Convinced my own continued health was due to an army of alternative medicines-Chinese herbs, acupuncture, vitamins, yoga-I encouraged him to include some of them along with the Western medicines. "I think for now I'll just do what the doctor orders," he offered apologetically. When I began to cry, he held me. "Do you think you got it from me, Joe?" I asked. "Oh, probably," he said, "But you don't think I care about that, do you?"
His last letter to me, sent at the end of September in 1993, was brief: "Dear Keith, Happy Birthday! & Lots of Love, Joe. P.S. Having a horrible summer! Will tell you all about it in mid-October. Love to Eric!"
The stomach problems Joe had written about were due to CMV, a virulent opportunistic virus. He spent much of the winter in the hospital. For a while he was in a "care partner" facility at New York University Hospital, where still ambulatory patients have private rooms and must be partnered by a friend or mate.
When Joe left the facility, he could no longer climb the long flights of stairs to his loft and needed constant care. He moved into the apartment of his younger brother John. I visited him there several times. Joe was in constant pain and spent most of his time in a fitful sleep. On my last visit he hobbled in from his bed to lie down on the living room couch. I sat awkwardly in one armchair, John sat in another. Joe had written a check, which he was giving to me now, he explained, because he was worried nothing would go to me after his death. I felt full of opposition: to the check, to the presence of his brother, of whom I am fond, and most of all to a feeling that this conversation was our last. But I knew he was too sick to suffer my objects; I kissed him and said good-bye.
When Joe returned to the hospital, this time to a private room, I rode over each day and sat outside on my bike, counting up to the floor where I knew Joe lay in a room, dying. The day before he died I went inside. Ron, Pat, and John were there. They left the room to give me time alone with Joe. He was in a coma, struggling for breath beneath an oxygen mask. Over the past ten years I'd seen so many friends assume that gaunt, bearded look. And I'd watched mothers calmly stroke a sunken cheek and maintain a bedside manner well beyond the hope of a son's convalescence. Perhaps that was why with my head close to his, I could tell Joe how much I loved him-and not break down until I left the room.
Ron Padgett notified me of the memorial service for Joe held in November 1994, six months after Joe's death. I called our friends-Joe's and mine-and we sat together at the back of St. Mark's Church listening to a list of speakers read poems and eulogies. The alienation I felt during the ceremony was broken afterwards by a man I didn't know-though he looked strangely familiar. He introduced himself as Jim, Joe's older brother, who lived in St. Louis. He said Joe had spoken of our relationship and told him how much I meant to him.
The Poetry Project dedicated the next issue of their newsletter to Joe, with more remembrances, many of them from the speakers at his memorial. The following year Penguin reissued the complete "I Remember". When Joe's retrospective was mounted in 1997, art critics and poets wrote in reverent terms about the timeless modesty of his work. Edmund White titled his piece in "Art in America" "Saint Joe."
In a 1977 interview, given at the beginning of what many posthumous reviews of his work referred to as the period he "quit making art," Joe said, "I don't believe in things I want, like being famous and making money. All that stuff is-I'd like to do it, but I don't believe in it as much as I used to. . . . I think what I'd love to do is fall madly in love with someone. I still think it might happen. . . . But I don't know if it's realistic or not. . . . I mean, I'd have to go really bananas. And I think the chances of meeting someone that you go bananas over like that are slim. So the odds are against you, though I'm sure it's possible."
When we first met in 1979, no one had heard of AIDS. Even if we had known about the disease, known that one or both of us were brimming with the virus, we'd have still fallen in love, still clung to each other for as long as our passion held. Our romance began in ardent letters, but really bloomed with a first kiss.
And if I collage that kiss with sensations from the next eight autumn evenings, following every summer apart, I do so because each reunion kiss left us dazed, laughing, reaching for a cigarette to re-ground us in the world or making love on the spot, several spots-sometimes we didn't get beyond the storage room. I loved him, and against all odds, he went bananas over me.