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   v i t a    a n d    v i r g i n i a

---   B I L L   G O R D O N  

Virginia Woolf is trying to push me out a window. It's my window. I climbed onto the ledge -- maybe just to get attention -- and now it's gone too far. Primo Levi is telling me to "get down, come in... you're angry and you're hurt... write about it." Virginia says, "No. Let him jump. Don't let the prose suffer." Then she starts pushing again.

Maybe I should backtrack. I've just written an essay (semi-parodical) in which I compare my Catholic school experience to life in Auschwitz. Primo thinks I'm self absorbed -- and he said so. Ok, fine, I told him. I was prepared for that comment; not pleased, but prepared. But Virginia went several steps farther. She said that the story could be written, in fact it should be -- but not by me. "You're not a real writer," she said. Then she picked up her plate of chicken, and left my tiny dining room.

That was hours ago. Primo and I remained at the table, eating -- making small talk, while Virginia sat in my bedroom. Then she stormed past us and walked into my kitchen, only to leave that room for the bathroom. All the while, chewing and mumbling, mumbling and chewing. She was obviously in one of her manic states. Then she came back to the table, put down the plate, wiped her mouth, and declared: "You simply must move, William."

I explained that my apartment is rent stabilized; that I realize it's small and noisy; that I too think I should move. But I cannot; I can't afford to. It was then that she said, "You will never, therefore, though you toil and obsess, read and dream, be a writer; you have no room to create."

I turned to Primo for some support, and he -- despite the fact that he is a very slow eater and was still savoring his soup -- was happy to give it. "Perhaps you are being too strict in your assessment, Virginia. Maybe this cramped space, with so many traffic sounds, will force Bill to create that 'room' within himself."

I could not contain myself: I kissed Primo on the lips. Not a sexual gesture, but a human one. And he understood. Primo -- a man who, confined to a death camp, with not one foot of space he could call his own, made mental notes for a year -- a year of carrying shit buckets, sharing bunks, suffering beatings, and nearly starving to death... of course he understood (both the kiss and the apartment). Primo smiled at me, then resumed sipping his soup.

"But Primo," Virginia said, "even you... when you finally wrote of your hardships... you did it in a room of your own... with some quiet, and some peace."

Primo was too much of a gentleman to argue with her. But I know that Primo lived amidst a sea of extended family and no doubt a million interruptions. Not the isolationist that Virginia would like to paint him to be -- nor that she was herself.

I had, earlier today, thought of inviting George Orwell instead of Primo. He would have loved my schoolboy horror stories, and -- even more than Primo -- he employed the type of pared-down prose style I most admire. But in my Catholic school essay, which I've tentatively titled Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), I mention that I'm gay -- and George was such, such a damned Puritan when all was said and done. I figured Primo, while he might find my student/Haftlinge comparisons far-stretched, would be more open, more accepting than George. And I was right. (Besides, George would never have stood up to Virginia -- not even as little as Primo had. Her presence -- hair in bun, haughty tone -- was the essence of the English head mistress; George would probably -- like me -- have reverted to prep-boy type and cowered.)

Virginia was relentless. She demanded to look at my other work, so I pulled out a story I'd once written on what I termed gay adolescence (22-26 years old), entitled "How Old Are You In Homo Years." She read it, laughed a bit, and seemed to be warming towards me. Then she commanded me to show her my plays. The woman reads voraciously. She'd gone through three one-acts before Primo had finished his meal.

When Primo did finish, he washed his own plate (despite my protestations) and took out a pencil. He then began underlining passages in Ecce Homo and offered suggestions, line by line. He complimented me for focusing on the essential question of "why." In my essay, I have -- rather brilliantly, I'd say -- juxtaposed 'Hier ist kein warum' (there is no why here), a line from Primo's book spoken to him by a Nazi guard, with the line "Why? Because I said so," spoken to me by Father Foley at St. Peter's Prep. Primo thought my observation (and comparison) was clever, and -- unlike Virginia -- he encouraged me to pursue it further. But he sided with Virginia in reference to some other lines, particularly the one in which I describe all parish priests as "a bunch of old Marys in dresses -- crooked-toothed perverts who'd sooner (and more willingly) suck Jesus off the cross than do one good deed." He said that he gets my point, that I have a right to my opinion -- "surely, I felt as strongly towards some Germans" -- but that I "must learn to show some restraint." "Restraint?" I said, "I'm not the one feeling up little boys in confessionals." And I took this opportunity to point out that the good hand of the Lord was no stranger to my thighs during my 12-years of Catholic-school imprisonment.

"He's a lost cause," Virginia said. Then she walked into my kitchen and began boiling water. "I'll make us some tea, Primo," she called -- ever the doting hostess, even in someone else's home.

I had invited Virginia for one reason, primarily: her concept of man-womanly thinking and how it relates to good prose. I wanted her to look at an essay I'd written on drag-queen prostitutes. My corner, 14th Street and Ninth Avenue, happens to be the epicenter for she-male hookers -- chics with dicks, as they are more commonly known. I've written a rather in-depth piece on how these men/women may hold, in their Lee-press-on-tipped hands, the future of literature. Who better -- I argue -- to embody then commit to paper the masculine AND feminine aspects of human experience? They live on the line, and people pay them for it -- lonely people, people who want a little from each side. In short, my essay contends that the next great writer of our time -- at least when it comes to love stories -- may be a she-male prostitute.

Virginia would not even consider my point. She said I had taken her theory "too literally, and, alas, too far. These creatures have no education, nor the means to get some. What would they write but angry, uneven sentences with a silly agenda; somewhat like your own."

"But they get to the point, Virginia," Primo jumped in. "Yours was a life of libraries and lectures, soft couches and semi-colons. These girls are surviving, fighting for their lives -- step by high-heeled step, word by mispronounced word. Maybe Bill is on to something."

I'd forgotten how poetic Primo could be. I kissed him again. Then I ran to my bookcase and grabbed Close To The Knives, a furious, ungrammatical work of genius by David Wajnarowicz -- an untrained writer/artist (and ex-street-hustler) who, while writing his self-described "memoir of disintegration," was dying (and watching friends die) from A.I.D.S.

"Have you read this?" I asked Virginia.

She said no. Then she dropped my plays, picked up the book, and read it -- all 276 pages in fifteen minutes.

"Sad," she said, as she handed the book to Primo. "We have here, perhaps, Shakespeare's homosexual brother..."

I gave her a filthy look.

"Fine then, Shakespeare's openly homosexual brother: A man with equal talent, maybe, but a legion of social and material obstacles have prevented him from expressing it."

Primo, who is not so fast a reader, but capable of skimming effectively, began to read a passage aloud:

Sometimes, alone with him, the nurse outside the room, I'd take his hands and bend over whispering in his ears: hey, I don't know what you're seeing but if there's a light move toward it; if there's a warmth move toward it; if you see nothing then try to imagine that one period of calm in the midst of that sky just where it reaches the ocean. That one place... of time and space where everything is possible...and I said move into that, become that, merge with it. Death.

Primo's Italian accent, mixed with those words that I'd read a hundred times, made me cry. In response, Virginia -- and I did not imagine this -- whispered under her breath the word "Proust." (And we all know what Virginia thinks of Proust.)

"This does not move you, Virginia?" Primo asked.

"It was written to move me. His motives are transparent, his tools undeveloped -- as the rest of his book bares true. I've said he had talent. I wish I could say more."

It was at this point that Virginia began picking apart my plays. She pointed to a scene in my one-act "Man Trap" -- a scene in which a suburban mother has her teen-age son (shirtless) dig a tiger pit in their front lawn to catch men -- and she accused me of writing of myself when I should be writing of my characters. She then ripped apart my essays... and my stories... one by one. She accused me of writing foolishly when I should write wisely, of being cramped and thwarted like Charlotte Bronte -- worse yet, laughable -- like Lady Winchilsea. She mentioned Jane Austen -- whom I cannot stand -- and said I should borrow from her even temperament -- and tone. But, she said, "You will probably never do that, probably never understand. Few do."

"So what is it I lack, Virginia?" I asked her. Yes, I was angry. Yes, I was hurt. "Do I lack the talent? The education? The income? What? You tell me."

"From reading your prose, William, as well as your plays, I'd say that you may well lack two out of three, though I will not say which two. You are what I'd call a gifted amateur -- a sort of newspaper journalist with a prosaic ax to grind; which is, to my perception, not far from a blue-stocking lady with an itch for scribbling."

This was more than I could take. I'd been reading and re-reading her long, looping sentences since I was eighteen. (I'm now thirty-one.) I'd found inspiration in her words. And this is what she thought of me. I suddenly recalled the last line in A Room of One's Own: "Work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile." She'd said worthwhile, but not publishable. Yes, so this was what she'd meant. And she was a publisher, of course -- as well as a writer. She would know.

That was when I climbed onto the ledge. I've been up here for a half hour. Primo has said everything possible to console me. He's said that it is precisely because I'm not being treated like a writer that I must act like one; that I must live and write. He's reminded me that there is nothing wrong with being an amateur; that he himself was an amateur when he wrote Survival in Auschwitz. (If he were gay, I'd jump down and marry him... maybe even forget this writing thing.) As for Virginia, she has, intermittently, stopped trying to push me out the window -- on the condition that I go to graduate school, or at least get a larger, quieter apartment. But then, as in her writing, the tide changes, as does her mood, and she starts pushing all over again: punching my feet, prying my fingers from the window sill. Worst of all, though, I know both she and Primo will have to leave soon, and I'll be stuck out on this ledge alone.

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