Passing Affliction

Passing Affliction

by Ryan Tracy

[The first part of the novel is called “Distal”.
This excerpt is from the beginning of Part II: “Proximal”.]

α

The deluge came. It was the first week of May and the first humid storm that made it feel as though the fairer weather of summer might finally be upon them. Wind gusts carried curtains of rain over the city, soaking storefronts and pedestrians. It was a dark Sunday afternoon and Ian was helping Brad unload two giant suitcases from Brad’s car. Rain pelted their bodies and soaked their clothes as they struggled to hoist the unwieldy cargo up the stoop of Ian’s place in Jackson Heights. Brad had come to stay for as long as he needed to, or, as Ian cutely put it, “Until I get sick of you or my roommates ask you to start paying rent. Whichever comes first.”

 No one was home when they arrived. Gray light, filtered through curtains, half-closed blinds and open doors, spilled around corners. A vague scent of patchouli and fried onions gave the air a rich, homey feel. It comforted Brad as he and Ian rolled the suitcases through the apartment, wheels rattling obtrusively across hardwood floors, past the common spaces and down a long and dim hallway to Ian’s room.

 The bedroom was roomy by New York standards; one of the benefits of living in Queens, according to Ian. A single window opened onto the interior space shared by several other buildings. The concrete and brick walls, variously painted and cracked, were wet, darkened by the rain.

Ian stripped off his shirt and kicked off his shoes, then began undoing his jeans as Brad situated the suitcases into a corner behind a tall and overstuffed bookcase stacked two layers deep on each of its seven broad shelves. The books were a mix of novels, plays and poetry wedged between non-fiction books that Brad had never heard of; works written by people with odd-sounding names: Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Lee Edelman, Jasbir Puar, José Muñoz, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Ian referred to these as “queer theory,” or, as he sometimes qualified, “my head-trip books.” There was also a healthy dose of Marxist theory; thick volumes with intense-looking graphic imagery in red, blue and black ink; titles that proclaimed the apocalypse that the writers aimed to subvert.

 “A lot of those were recommend to me by Esther,” Ian said as he tossed his wet, heavy jeans into a pile of clothes that were accumulating in the corner of the room. “She’s kind of hard core.”

Ian offered to get Brad a towel and scuttled out of the room, naked and shivering.

 For a moment Brad was alone. He stared out the window, soaked and disoriented. The sky bulged with alternating lobes of gray and white. Some man down below was dragging bags of garbage along a narrow passageway toward a row of plastic bins, a small, golden dog nipping at his heels. Another person, across the way, was standing at their window, smoking a cigarette and blowing soft plumes of smoke through the crack. Brad looked closer and noticed that the person, a man, was naked.

 Ian bounced back into the room, towel cinched around his slender waist. He extended a towel to Brad.

 “That guy’s naked,” Brad noted, stating the obvious.

 “Oh yeah. He does that,” Ian said reflexively.

 Brad took the towel.

 “Who is he?”

 Ian didn’t know, and Brad had never lived in a city. Not really. Not like this. How could you live this close to someone, see their habits, see them naked, and not know who they were?

 “Sometimes he masturbates,” Ian said as if he were reporting on one of the more trivial detail of this person’s life.

 “Really?”“Well, not in the window. But he doesn’t have curtains, and when he’s watching porn at night, you can watch him. That’s one of Rickie’s pet peeves about white people. He says white people don’t have window treatments because they think they have nothing to hide. They think they’re invisible. Transparent. Innocent. White.”

 “You don’t have curtains.”

 “I know.”

 Ian’s hands came down gently on Brad’s shoulders, smoothing out the wet fabric of his shirt.

 “You should get out of these.”

 Brad suddenly craved a cigarette.

α

 That night, Rickie made a big dinner for everyone plus a few other friends. The apartment, impeccably kept, was nevertheless a rather gothic affair lit mostly by brass and crystal candelabras with wax candles dripping down themselves, reforming into clumpy mounds on wood and glass surfaces or the occasional panel of lace doily. There were a dozen or so columnar candles in glass tumblers wrapped in stickers depicting various Catholic saints placed throughout. And in the dining room there was a votive shrine dedicated to Rickie’s mother, Angela, whose death by cancer, six years earlier, bequeathed to Rickie this rent-controlled apartment in Queens over which he now presided.

 Ian handed Brad a beer as they watched Rickie work the kitchen. He was wearing what he always wore inside his home; a combination of cut-off denim shorts, a tank top, and espadrilles. “She’s the Imelda Marcos of Queens,” Ian said to Brad, “minus the dictator husband.”

 Esther interjected, passing quickly by them with a tray of chicken and steaming spinach, “Don’t be fooled. You should see her shoe closet.”

 Ian continued triumphantly, “She’s the Queen of the queens of Queens.”

 Angela had taught Rickie how to cook. Bowls of rice. Chicken in an oily tomato sauce. Pork adobo. Shrimp on skewers. Everything had a rich, picante quality, except for a single plate of golden, fried plantain medallions. “I made these for Javier,” Rickie noted to Brad as he set the plate of plantains on the white lace cloth that covered the dining room table. “It’s his birthday.”

 “I hope I’m not imposing,” Brad said, his shyness coming forward.

“This party is for everyone, darling,” Ricky assured him graciously. “Maybe you’ll even meet some new friends!”

 As guests arrived, however, Brad felt increasingly out of place. The kind of social situations he was used to back in Poughkeepsie were almost defensively controlled. Guest lists for performance openings. A colleague’s Christmas party. A board member’s summer lawn party fundraiser. It wasn’t that one was guaranteed to know everyone at these events. But the way they were organized led them to be fairly predictable, and, he was now realizing, mostly white affairs. Brad, Ian and Esther notwithstanding, the apartment was filling with people who simply weren’t white. This, coupled with the fact that Brad already felt like he was imposing on the residents of the apartment, pushed Brad into a fairly cramped corner of self-conscious discomfort.

 A buzzer rang and more guests tumbled through the front door. Loud voices and the exchange of greetings and bottles of wine. People in blue jeans, leather shoes and square cut polo shirts. People in skirts, unfurling and fitted, and tight tops seemingly wrapped onto brown and black torsos. People flaming out in bright colors, or looking sharp and slick in simple black and white. Wait, now there was a black woman in taupe and yellow with a pink scarf drawing her hair up into a dark luminous crown. It was absolutely a formal affair, but somehow a certain unmanaged resilience persisted. Its beauty stunned Brad a little, forcing silence where words would normally have taken shape. He felt an impulse growing in him to control the situation; to in some way demonstrate…not necessarily mastery, but management. Could he manage a world of unpredictable life? A world of difference? But also, why had he elected himself this responsibility? He took a gulp of beer. The carbonation burned him from the inside.

 Sitting down for dinner, faces glowed by candlelight. Laughter and music. Brad was seated between Ian and the woman with her hair drawn up in the pink scarf. The candlelight seemed to fall over her skin in soft gold gauzes. Her eyes gleamed, flames lighting up the webby universes of her brown eyes, as she spoke of contemporary art to Rickie who was seated to her right at the head of the table. Brad caught the woman’s name: Alisha. She was studying art history at Cooper Union. Even though Brad felt he could engage with her on the topic, he sat reticent, unable to calculate where to step in. He grew overcome by the urge not to draw attention to himself. So he listened and waited, and managed the pinpricks of tingling that grew between him and the seat of his chair.

 “Here.”

 A rainbow, crystal-covered worm dangled between Ian’s fingers.

 “What is this?”

 “It’s an edible. Javier brought them to share.”

 Brad cautiously took the worm from Ian, catching a whiff of the soft nicotine fragrance of Ian’s fingers.

 “What do I do with it?”

 “You eat it.”

 Brad glared at the sparkling worm.

 “It’ll relax you,” Ian assured.

 “Do I not look relaxed?”

 “Honey,” Ian let out a small guffaw. “You look terrified.”

 Brad took the glittering invertebrate between his fingers and imagined that it was moving on its own. Alisha’s voice, rich and playful, was suddenly in his ear.

“It’s pretty.”

α

It was after dinner. The music had shifted up-tempo to Latin fare. People were scattered throughout the apartment in small ensembles of conversation. Ian, Javier and Andres, Javier’s boyfriend, were all sharing a joint out the window of the living room. Smoke from the tiny, burnt roll of paper wandered indifferently through the aperture. It was one of Rickie’s rules that pot was okay inside the apartment, but if you wanted to smoke a cigarette you had to go down to the street.

Esther was going around opening more windows. The warm front that had brought the rain had also brought behind it a late, “freak” pocket of artic air, or that’s what the meteorologists were saying. They promised it would be the last one before summer finally kicked in. But with global warming and the depressing fact that none of the leaders from the countries who actually had the power to change things were doing shit about it, Esther remarked in passing to random guests, she wasn’t holding her breath. Regardless the temperature had plummeted thirty degrees, causing the heat of the building to jumpstart. The apartment, already crammed with bodies, quickly became a stifling sauna.

Brad was perched atop the arm of a low couch across the room from Ian. A few people sat on the cushions next to him, engaged in conversation. Brad was doing his best to balance, but with the heat, the alcohol, and the rich food that was settling in his belly, he was starting to feel woozy. He listened to the voices around him, hoping for an opening that he could hook himself into. But every time he was close to joining in he felt the threads of interlocution fray.

From around the corner the first muddled notes of “Happy Birthday” began to coalesce. Rickie came in from the kitchen holding a long white cake lit up by a dozen small multi-colored candles. The cake was glistening and wet, and the light danced over the thick top layer of whipped cream. Rickie’s face loomed above the cake like a dusky copper moon.

 The party guests had harkened to the song and were now pressing into the living room. The chorus of voices pushed against the walls, massaging the plaster and delicately rattling the chandeliers. Brad felt the need to fortify himself against the chorus of voices, so he leaned back against the wall behind him.

There were cheers and Javier blew out the candles. Rickie and Esther carried the cake to the dining room for serving. Someone turned the music up. The apartment rocked with life.

 A wave of anxiety rushed through Brad’s body and he could feel a starchy paste take hold in his mouth. His eyes darted around the room. He saw the people and heard the voices, but suddenly the voices and the people no longer matched. He could hear Ian and Javier and Andres talking, but they were no longer at the window. Two new people had replaced them. But the voices he heard were those of Ian and his friends. He looked around him and saw Ian across the way, walking off into the kitchen. Javier and Andres were over by the dining table getting slices of cake. Then how could they be talking to each other?

 Brad tuned in to the conversation of the people sitting on the couch. They seemed louder than anything else, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Or, rather, he could hear each person’s voice individually, but he could not make any sense of how one voice joined the other. It was as if each person were speaking in monologue and neither monologue had any real relation to the next.

 Brad’s mouth had grown cottony. He needed water but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to leave his spot atop the arm of the couch.

 He tried in vain to understand the people next to him, as if understanding the conversation would somehow ground him or pull him out of whatever spell he had suddenly fallen under. One voice seemed to be going through a list of items that bore no meaningful correlation. Batter. Bowler. Cyan. Turquoise. My grandmother. Indiana. Passing. Last summer. A fiction. No pressure. The other disarticulated voice was, at the same time, making its way through a series of calculations. Wait—if there’s five, then ten, no seventy-eight, nine, thirteen, no, take away forty, what if you divide by seventy-three?

 A dread began to impose itself. Brad thought: What did I do? Why is this happening? Will this ever end? It seemed possible that he was indeed spinning off suddenly into a state of irrevocable psychosis. At the same time, a creeping sense of shame prevented him from searching for help. So he sat precariously on the arm of the couch with his back pinned against the wall. He was terrified.

 Are you okay?

 It was Ian’s voice, but he couldn’t see Ian. Or he could, but Ian was across the room talking to someone else. Brad opened his mouth and all he could hear was the strange senselessness of his own words. As each one formed in his powdery mouth—each phoneme ignorant of the next—the dread only worsened.

 Then he remembered the rainbow-colored, sugarcoated worm. Right. He had eaten the sparkling, sweet, marijuana-infused jelly. It was certain to him that the worm had been laced with something more narcotic than THC. And now he was riding a bad trip that he couldn’t stop. It would be here, in a strange apartment in Queens that he would die, away from Holly, away from his sister. They would have to find out. But how would they find out? Who would tell them? They would be so ashamed if they found out that this was how it had happened. That whatever promise and future had been attributed to the life of Brad Joy had ended stupidly, arbitrarily at a party full of strangers in New York City.

 Brad could now see Ian’s face directly in front of his. Ian was speaking, but Brad could only hear his own voice saying something about not even being able to locate Queens on a map of New York.

 Then a cool wetness flooded his mouth only to be absorbed instantaneously by the voracious dryness. More water. A glass tumbler was in his hand. Then it was gone. Brad looked up at the ceiling and noticed that the wall behind him had turned from plaster to a soft fabric. There was a pillow under his head and someone was slipping one of his shoes off. The voices from the party were still loud but slightly muffled. Esther was in the room. Then Rickie sat next to him on Ian’s bed as Ian opened the window. A powerful hiss cut through the din. Rickie was explaining that he had no control over how high the radiators would go on. Then Ian was holding his hand while Esther was laughing. The bedroom door was closed. It was dark and Brad was alone in Ian’s bed. In Ian’s bedroom. In a strange apartment in Queens that was full of strangers. And what would Holly think? And what could he do? And more than anything he wanted to apologize to Rickie.

α

Morning light came through the window, washing the bedroom in a soft, pale glow. The light seeped through Brad’s eyelids and brought him out of sleep. Brad felt Ian’s body spooning him from behind; an arm lay over the soft and scabbed curve of Brad’s waist. Little snores intoned steadily against the bright hiss of the radiator.

 

Brad opened his eyes. He felt entirely disoriented. Was this really his first morning in Queens with Ian? Holly and Poughkeepsie seemed so far away, and yet, he was suddenly overcome with a sense of guilt when he thought of them. For a moment, it felt like he had done something terribly wrong; or that he had failed to follow through with a certain responsibility. He tried to push the feeling away.

 The bad trip was still with him. The paranoid effects had thankfully gone, but he remembered everything almost to a tee. The disarticulation of voices from the people they belonged to. The skipping of time. The sheer incongruity of the world. He had never experiences something so frightening.

 Ian, still sleeping, shifted in the bed and pulled Brad towards him in reflex. Brad could feel Ian’s morning erection pressing against him. Brad became aroused and closed his eyes, letting his body sink back into Ian’s, hoping the physical contact between them would chase away last night’s anxieties and this morning’s doubts. He pulled a pillow over his eyes to block out the intrusive morning light, and slept.


Ryan Tracy is a writer, composer, performer and scholar. His critical writing on art and performance has appeared in a number of publications including The American Review, New York Press, Brooklyn Rail, Mouvemen (France), Performa Magazine and The Gay and Lesbian Review. His poetry has appeared in California Quarterly, CafeMo and Calliope. Ryan’s theater, opera and music have been performed at The New Museum, Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Kitchen, P.S. 122, The Abrons Arts Center and venues throughout New York, and he has created music for choreographers, filmmakers and visual artists, including Jonah Bokaer, Ivy Baldwin, Juanli Carrión and Chelsea Knight.
Ryan is currently pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. His scholarly work has been presented at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, the Pratt Institute and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Photo Credit: Michael Hart