On the Virtues of Old and New Shoes

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Old wood best to burn; old friends best to trust—thus said Athenaeus, etiquette guru of the third century C.E., a man whose fifteen-volume work, The Gastronomers, about an epic night’s conversation, is one of our greatest odes to companionship. 

Eighteen hundred years later, I’m spending three or four days in Brooklyn, a long weekend in a steamy August, and I’m visiting April, one of those people who’s been in my life for so long I slip into her company the way I slide into worn, comfortable night slippers. Athenaeus would understand my joy as I open the front door of her brownstone house and see the familiar sprawling mounds of Time Out and New York magazine on the wooden floors; smell the Nespresso coffee; and hear her terriers’ yapping. And now April herself, stout, huggable, wearing jeans and T-shirt, steps forward to greet me—“Hi! Welcome!”—and all of this feels so safe and familiar, so solid and true, something primal relaxes in me.

April and I are both in our early forties and gay. We met in the mid-1990s, when I arrived in New York City, a fresh, solitary, twenty-three-year-old immigrant. When I think about that time—how extraordinarily vast the world appeared, with the city its sprawling, teeming microcosm—there seems something almost miraculous about the sibling-like friendship the two of us so quickly formed, as if to compensate for the parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and ancestors I’d left behind on a sun-bleached South African grassland.

Back then, after supervising math and language drills in the Soho nonprofit where we both taught, April and I strolled around the downtown galleries. She introduced me to Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For.” I showed her Madam and Eve, the South African cartoon about a black domestic worker and white “madam” who prick each other into affectionate household warfare. The two of us vetted each other’s romantic interests. “I don’t want to fish you out of the East River,” she said of the skinny Jamaican who worked for the drug mafia and stood me up for dates. For my part, I counseled her out of a crush on a hard-drinking, emotionally distant colleague with an aura of wounded but dangerous magnificence.

I felt upside-down—higgledy-piggledy, spun around on a ball. The leafless maples on my street unnerved me. At the Pioneer supermarket on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park, I asked for a “trolley” for my “clothes pegs” and “aubergines.” In Central Park, on a delighted whim I took a winter shortcut across a frozen pond. When the ice beneath me creaked and groaned, I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if I’d be able to pull myself out if I fell in?”  

Now, fifteen years later, April and I have both laid down roots. I teach creative writing at a liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania Amish country. She became an executive vice president at our old educational nonprofit, before taking a gap year to write a memoir. For the past ten years she has lived with Jia, a beautiful and kind Chinese American novelist with flowing seal-brown-and-gray hair. And now, at last, having been in and out of several relationships over the years, I, too, have a beau with whom I’m getting serious.

I met Peterson, a performance artist and playwright, a year ago at a Quaker conference. We ended up talking, over a week’s worth of cafeteria meals, about Gabriel García Márquez, George Eliot, and Paul Tillich; about the racist prison-industrial complex and Southern African pumpkin-leaf stew, which he’d encountered as a missionary. He was smart, funny, and handsome. He was also the featured speaker—a figure of adoration for several thousand attendees who watched him perform an autobiographical comedy in the golden pool of an overhead spotlight. By coincidence the two of us had been assigned neighboring bedrooms in the university dorm. When I heard the shower come on in our shared bathroom, I fantasized about accidentally barging in on him; planting kisses on his olive Italian American skin; hugging his compact frame to mine and licking up droplets from the ridges of his collarbones.

Twelve months later, the two of us have developed a relationship structured around regular visits to each other’s towns, five hours’ drive apart. We’ve swum, hiked, and camped together; enjoyed obscure foreign movies and hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants; talked nonstop and—equally important—sat silently together, reading and writing. In my youth I somehow expected to find this soulmate connection easily—to try it on, as I might a pair of running shoes on sale in a nearby department store, and say, Gosh, that fits perfectly. Now, having watched previous relationships fail for manifold reasons, I’m suitably humbled at the unlikeliness of this newfound joy.

So over these three or four days in Brooklyn, I find it deeply comforting to introduce Peterson to April and Jia. I love taking all three of them out to dinner at an Indonesian restaurant in Park Slope: rijstafel, elaborate curries, and green tea; jokes about Sean Penn’s flawless homosexuality in Milk and about the absurdity of the Tiger Woods scandal. It’s satisfying to sit on April’s front staircase and tell her about the red barns and covered bridges of Pennsylvania, the Amish summer corn as high as my eyebrows. 

“Come and visit us!” I say. It’s not just that I’m proud of having found stability. It’s also that this mixing of epochs, this weaving together of old yarn with fresh thread, makes me feel my life has a coherent pattern.

The next morning though, over breakfast, the visit begins to unravel when the conversation literally takes a turn toward shoes—my shoes, specifically, which April admits she has never liked. 

“When he lived in the city,” April tells Peterson, “this guy used to be a complete fashion disaster.” She turns to me. “You’ve improved with your clothing—thank God!” Likely I’m wearing unassuming clothes this morning: denim shorts, a solid-color tee. Back when April met me, however, I wore harlequin-quilted trousers so bright they hurt her eyes. “But your footgear”—here she gestures at my summer tractor-tire sandals, which have always come in handy in Pennsylvania soybean fields. “Awful! You look like a lapsed Mennonite.”

What can I say? For as long as I can remember, acquaintances have questioned my attire. This is an integral part of my self-concept: some people are tone deaf; I’m what you might call apparel-blind. And while, over the years, I’ve enlisted friends and lovers to help me buy pants and sweaters, April is right that I have neglected my lower extremities.

So now this morning the four of us head to Century 21 in Bay Ridge—an astounding two buildings’ worth of discount sheets, shirts, handbags, food, and housewares. I’m bug-eyed. Cole Haan leather sandals for $19.99! Imported Milano boots, in sizes 4–13. And how do I put this? In the Amish leather goods store, shoes tend to have a functional mien, with lots of thick laces and durable heels. This footwear, on the other hand, radiates cosmopolitan whimsy, with gratuitous embossed medallions of copper and swirls of pin-sized breathing holes.

Over the next hour or so, April, Jia, Peterson, and I forage the second-floor shoe department. When we’re done, I love the pile picked out for me: flat brown, furry retro boots; plaid-lined leather slip-ons. It’s Urban Lesbian Eye for the Straight-Dressing Country Gay Guy, and I’m happy, I look good. April and Jia tell me I’m ready to recite punk-anarchist genderfuck poems in a smoky warehouse.

As we’re all standing in the checkout line, though, we suddenly realize several boxes are missing. Brief pandemonium ensues. April and I stay in line, while Jia and Peterson scour rows and corners, and at last it’s my boyfriend who finds them stashed underneath a window bank.

“I’ll meet you below,” he says, looking exhausted as he hands over the goods. “I’m going to look at sheets or something.”

In my younger years, I’d take this abandonment personally. I’d think: This is a special celebration—how can he just walk out? Now, though, I feel grateful he’s able to take care of himself. A scarf, a teacup or two in a display case—an introvert, he’ll replenish himself with solitude and be ready this afternoon for a chatty stroll. Later, I will ask myself if I noticed anything irritable about April as we both waited in line for the shoes cashier—a shrug, sigh, or eye-roll. But if so, it does not stick with me.

That evening, though, back at the apartment, April heads for the back garden and opens a bottle of wine by herself, under the vine trellis. She looks moody and perturbed. A storm is brewing in her. I assume it has to do with how hard it has been writing full time. The brick façade of their house needs pointing. Her book is languishing. The city economy has tanked, tarnishing her reemployment prospects.

“You go enjoy some quality time,” Peterson tells me. We are leaving the next morning. “She looks like she needs to talk.”

In the walled yard, with birds chirping overhead and the sights and smells of summer—lawn clippings; roses; grape clumps peeking out from their leafy wombs—the two of us finish one bottle of vino, then another. We reminisce about authors: Dennis Cooper; Salman Rushdie. We talk about our old employer, whom it now turns out April was glad to leave a year ago, due to political tensions that developed between her and the board of directors. We chat about the New York financial crisis. People like us—rounded humanists without specific skills—seem to have much less to offer the universe of work than we did in the 1990s.

Then, our speech becoming animated and slightly slurred from the alcohol, the topic gets around to Peterson.

“I have something to tell you,” she says now. “This is going to be hard, but I feel I have to say it.” She takes a deep breath; looks down at the concrete patio floor. My heart speeds up; a belt of anxiety tightens around my midriff. “Both Jia and I have some real problems with Peterson, you see. We’re kind of worried for you. We’ve known you a long time, and we just want you to be happy.”

Sheer terror tingles up from the palms of my hands toward my ribcage. April has never been wrong in judging any of my relationships. In 1994, when an older gay male friend called me at the office and she exchanged a few brief words with him, she reacted with a swift, sure instinct: “Is that guy in love with you? You know, the fact he let you stay with him for a couple of months”—she knew I’d lived with him briefly when I first moved to New York City—“doesn’t mean you owe him affection, only gratitude.” How many times in later years did I try to rescue that friendship from the confused imbalance of discordant longings?

Similarly, when I moved to Spain to pursue love, only to find myself struggling with visa and employment difficulties, it was April who said: “It takes an unbelievably strong relationship to withstand your going from doctoral candidate to illegal immigrant. Are you sure you have that powerful a connection?” When I returned to the United States, my sense of peace was instantaneous.

So now, sitting on April’s Brooklyn patio, I have two decades of honed instincts saying: Trust her. And as she gives more voice and detail to her perception of Peterson’s and my life together, it is as if a vacuum opens—being and self, cascading downward like one of those houses on the news, falling into a sinkhole. Somewhere in my brain, I’m still in the world I thought I was inhabiting: Brooklyn on a Sunday, this friendly house with its books and fireplaces, my contented existence. But now there is a new reality, as well.

“It started when we noticed he’s a bad guest,” April explains now. “Have you realized how the two of you interact? You are always the one who tries to wash dishes or who helps me make a bed. You’re the one who pays for restaurants. You give naturally. I know you, Glen—for you, generosity’s like breathing. I worry he’ll take advantage of you.”

Fear now gives way to a searing pain in my chest. Is she right? This description resonates just enough that I’m unable to dismiss it out of hand. I don’t make a lot as a professor, but I’m significantly richer than Peterson, a freelance performer. It has always felt natural to take out my wallet at the end of a restaurant meal. I have never thought that was unhealthy, but am I enabling him, in the name of “art,” to be self-indulgent?

My mind races back over the past three days. It’s true I offered to help April make our bed when we arrived. Where was Peterson? And dishes? At April’s house I am always at a bit of a loss what to do with them, since the dishwasher is often full of clean ones. But at home, doesn’t Peterson usually help a lot around the house, doing most of the cooking, cleaning, laundry . . . ?

“Like this morning, with your shoes,” she continues. “He just vanished.”

I stumble along, trying to defend my boyfriend—the wine doesn’t help. “He just needed some time alone,” I say. Then: “I really love him.” I try to convey the simple joy of togetherness—farmers’ markets, Alfred Hitchcock classics. “He gives in his own way, April—sometimes money, but always cards, letters, gifts. When he sees a jersey, he buys it for me. He’s generous with his time. He cooks!” And at last, reality starting to come back into focus, the house starting to stabilize at the edge of the geological fault: “April, I’m almost forty years old! If I don’t know by now what I want, when will I?”

But this adoptive older sister won’t roll over for that one: “Jia and I just fear your taste in men is like your taste in shoes.”

And this is perhaps the heart of the matter, now, as the two of us keep mulling this over. Jonquil light from the kitchen slants across the patio. Neighbors’ voices drift from a nearby fire escape.

Can the self truly be known? On the one hand, there is the body—me, in my skin and brain, what I feel, breathe, and am. On the other, there is me in the world, observed from the outside—a self-awareness I can by definition never possess.

“Thanks, April,” I tell her at last, once we’ve talked as much as we can. “That was brave. We all need people who can be honest with us.”

Upstairs, on the bed, Peterson immediately asks, “What’s wrong?” My moods have always played clearly on me as cloud shadows. 

So I tell him, go through it all, step by step—his offending his hosts, their surmising his unsuitability for me. He’s predictably horrified.

“I love you,” he insists. “You mean everything to me.” I believe him, of course I do—but then, channeling April and her doubts—isn’t that what he would say if unaware of his incapacity for mature adult caring?

“But I like April and Jia. Things seemed to be going so well.” I agree. And if both of us were so wrong about this, could we also be mistaken about our relational compatibility?

Finally: “I don’t think I’m selfish. Other people say I’m a good guest.” So we human beings grasp at flimsy proofs of virtues that can only ever lie in the eye of the beholder.

I’m still in shock. Could I be completely crazy? Peterson and I fall asleep, entwined as usual. I feel at peace in his arms, but could my joy be delusional, like that of the divorcée being scammed by the clever con artist?

We both wake up at 5:00 a.m. or so, anxious and adrenalin-flooded. We barely have to look at each other: we leave a thank-you note on the kitchen table and stumble out the front door, sleep-deprived refugees, our wheeled suitcases clattering behind us on the bumpy Brooklyn sidewalks. At Manhattan’s Penn Station we grab doughnuts from a café, then we sit in the Amtrak train, looking at the New Jersey factories giving way to green Pennsylvania hills.

The city recedes. With it slide away youth, April, cosmopolitanism, and the memory of all the fabulous shoe aisles in Century 21.

Peterson and I both write in our journals. Then he picks up a book of Bosman short stories he’s been reading at my suggestion. Peterson loved South Africa when we traveled there together the previous December. Since then he has been scooping up everything sub-Saharan: rooibos tea, hand-carved masks. Back home, my parents chatted to him about birds and insects. My brother went for walks with him and shared his fear of loneliness.

Soon our train will get to Middletown station. When we do, Peterson will climb in the driver’s seat of my—or is it already our?—silver Escort. I hate traffic. So Peterson will maneuver us around our big-town shopping. I will have a map on my lap, since he can’t tell north from east on a flat surface. Tonight at home he will likely cook a vegetable curry with tofu, coconut milk, and peanuts.

Over the week ahead, I reflect, we’ll live together in an environment April and Jia can only dimly conceive. Quintessential New Yorkers, they have never visited me in Pennsylvania. They won’t be able to imagine us driving up our friend Barry’s driveway, past the wooded hills and the quiet creek, and eating strawberries on the riverside bench. They won’t have any idea of my campus library, of the nearby stroll we do past the farm with the triangular field with the forty-odd cows who follow us. April has never seen my kitchen. For twenty years she hasn’t drunk water from a faucet in a place I’ve called home.

She’s wrong: at last the certainty roots. Peterson gives me everything: kindness and counseling. Well-being. When I publish something, he advertises it to his thousands of Facebook followers. He introduces me to his friends and contacts, proud as a parent.

The rightness of our relationship here in Pennsylvania is confirmed by a network of hundreds of people who know us well and congratulate us on having found each other. Against all this, one person has made a relatively quickfire judgment. April is not the one who will have to live my future: I will absorb the consequences if I break up with him. The life I have here with Peterson is, quite simply, the life I want.

“I’m sorry I doubted you,” I tell him over lunch. I’m teary-eyed. However obliquely, for a few hours I have been contemplating throwing away the single thing that has given me more delight than anything else in my adult life. April didn’t mean to, but she has hurt me—and I’ve now wounded this man in return.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m just glad you believe in me again.” Over Olive Garden minestrone, we hug, a schmaltzy gay couple from a TV sitcom ending—but my deepest relief is at feeling embodied again.

I end up keeping the shoes from Century 21, in the crowded yellow closet of our campus apartment. I stay close to April and Jia, too: good, old friends. On future trips to New York, April and I meet up in the Museum of Modern Art, while Peterson has coffee with friends in the East Village. Eventually, Peterson sends a conciliatory email to April, and the two of them make up. Three years later, April and Jia attend Peterson’s and my Pennsylvania country Quaker wedding. What would Athenaeus say? In addition to preferring old friends, wood, and wine over new, he explicitly advocated sticking to tried-and-trusted authors: a problem for four struggling writers, each of us trying to carve a place for ourselves in the world.

I hang onto my tractor-tire sandals for hiking. Having grown up in rural Africa, it doesn’t come naturally to me to throw out clothes or footwear before they’re threadbare; South Africans make sure things have outlived their usefulness before discarding them.

In the warmer months, I often don’t want shoes at all. As I did when a boy, I putter around for a morning or a day, with naked feet. Outside, I enjoy the coolness of the grass, the pressure of the pebbles against my heels, the roughness of the sand on my plantar arches—a reminder of the round earth on which we stand, a giant bulk of soil, rock, and lava, a place where you if you travel long enough in a single direction, you’ll eventually return to your starting point.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015