By the time I met Buddy, soon after he first moved to New York—1976, autumn—he’d already become something of a myth. It wasn’t that he’d done anything particularly mythmaking, and he was not a beauty, but there was something about Buddy Rozkuszka, a fog about him that stopped you, made you notice—a conspicuous invisibility. He didn’t match. He was boyish, sweetly Midwestern, almost playful in his ignorance of the sweat and the hair and the muscle about him. Walking along Christopher, his eyes did not dart, as ours darted, to the periphery at every block and corner to see who he might see and who might see him. And so, when it was you he was with, walking abreast, you felt it was always, only you. That you’d entered his fog.
There was also, adding to the mythos, his ability, for someone so invisible, to be everywhere. I saw him today at Cook’s, one of us would say, feeling up some tomatoes. What is it about a man like that, holding tomatoes?
I got his name, another would say, at that Korean stand on 6th and Waverly. We were waiting for our noodles and got to talking. Talking! Didn’t get his number. Said he didn’t have one. Said he was from Wisconsin. Can you imagine?
We saw him the other night at Big Micky’s. He’s a go-go boy! Didn’t seem the type did he, but swear to God, there he was. And oh, he was . . . well, he was on the scrawny side, I suppose, wouldn’t you say, when he got down to his skivvies. And he wasn’t the most dynamic of the bunch—he just sort of stood and swayed, and his eyes, when he wasn’t wearing those sunglasses, seemed kind of glazed you know. But how dreamy. Couldn’t believe it was him. I elbowed Lexie the second I noticed.
I met him finally at a party, a rich apartment building on Central Park West. Hoity-toity. Friends of friends. I knew it was him before we were introduced. It had never before occurred to me to try to spot the mysterious Buddy everyone was talking about, on the streets or in the bars—it’s possible I thought they’d made him up—not until then, seeing him across the room, among but not altogether with a gesticulating bunch of fashion writers and photographers and aging models. The host was a well-known hat designer and art enthusiast; every few steps, there was another track light on another fabulous piece of sculpture. He looked quiet and happy, the young man who turned out to be Buddy, as though he were picking tomatoes or waiting in line for noodles or dancing slowly in his underwear, in the smoke and the din, his arms crawling up over his head.
“Buddy, I know,” I said as we shook hands. I’d waited for him to come to my side of the room, had been pretending to admire, for too long, something that looked as though it had once been Apollo and Daphne but was now melting like hot wax. “I’ve heard of you.” Cold, how I chose to be back then, cold and inscrutable and in love with myself. I had just started taking voice lessons from Michel Colet-Cuif, and though no one knew who I was yet, I felt that they should.
Buddy was there with someone, or so I’d assumed—he couldn’t have been invited by name—but he kept bringing me drinks, despite the circling waitstaff, a sheepish downturn to him as he handed me a new glass and took the old one. We snuck up to the roof at some point, looked at the city across the park, smoked a joint. Winter was in the air. We stood close. He wore a long coat that bunched up his hair in the back. He wore the coat open, and he wasn’t wearing gloves. I asked where he was going after this and discovered that he was staying with the hat designer.
I’m not sure why I’d been so surprised. I myself, as had Griff, and Miguelino, and Lexie, had stayed, here and there, as the attachment of an older professional, even at the moment with Michel Colet-Cuif. Only that Buddy seemed from such a different place, with such different laws. Something was lost in the predictability of the small-town boy come to the big city, in his casual ownership of the line. “That explains it,” I said, but he wasn’t at all embarrassed. He watched the arteries of distant traffic like strands of jewelry. His shirt collar was flipped, but I didn’t reach out to right it.
Griff and his partner would be in Cooperstown in October for a wedding, some friends of theirs whose grandkids were reciting their vows at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Griff and his partner decided not to stay in Cooperstown, that it was rather a good excuse for them to stay in the city, see a show, find a spa. So let’s get together, he wrote me. I’ve heard not a word from you . . . in YEARS! No excuses.
We met at the bar in the Parker Meridien, where they were staying. Griff was already sitting over a drink, booth-side at a small table. I said hello and started to sit in the chair opposite. Without looking up, swallowing his beverage and scooping his arms out, no doubt meaning to surprise me with his agility, he said, “Don’t you dare.” We hugged and he looked at me, holding my shoulders. “We’re old,” he said, as if I were more or less his mirror image. “But you look good, Cal, you really do.” He kissed me and we sat.
“The boy will be down soon,” he said. The boy was his partner, or husband, also around seventy. “He takes such long showers, and I can’t sit there with my shoes on just waiting. We went for a power walk in the park. Terry’s on this damned wretched diet, which of course means that I am on this damned wretched diet, though I cheat with cocktails, and jellybeans. But our physician says I’m in perhaps the best physical condition of my life. Well, but he didn’t know me in my prime. You knew me in my prime, but you mustn’t tell anyone. Keep those old photographs close. God, Cal. Let’s get you a drink.”
I told Griff I would have managed tickets to the Met for them had I known sooner. “Oh, I so loved hearing you sing,” he said. “Do you still?”
“Not even in the shower.”
“Good for you. Cut ties. Moving on.”
“I had my moment.”
“And what a brilliant moment. Absolutely. I’ve YouTubed you. Lots of likes. The sound quality is usually eh, but wow. You, when you were big.”
Terry still hadn’t come down, so we toasted without him, to—what else?—the old days, which was somehow sufficient to launch us into the conversation we were really there to have. “I’m sure you’ve heard,” he said, “about Buddy.”
“Yes,” I said.
“A shame. I can’t imagine. Well, I can, I can imagine. If it were anyone, it would be Buddy Rozkuszka. He’s called you, hasn’t he?” I remembered this about Griff. The competing.
“Yes, but with me, you know, he’s a bit guarded.” How unpleasant, to take the easy win—with me, you know—while Buddy was out there suffering.
“You have your history. I was never one for romance, not in those days.” Griff was now wan and red-eyed and droopy-lidded, but it wasn’t difficult to recall the image of that younger face, angst-ridden, pink and panicked, strident tears in one of our cramped kitchens, out on a fire escape, the subway, the corner table of one of our Village bars, the piers. And that horrible week when he’d fallen for me. “But the two of you, well, I always thought . . . This might be horrible to say, but I always thought you’d take care of him.”
“We haven’t been a thing for some time.”
“No, of course, and I certainly didn’t mean that you should have taken care of him. I only meant that when you were together . . .”
“The business, it went under?” I hid inside my glass, blew cool air off the ice cubes. The contest was wearing on me.
“Yes. That happened first. Well, no, first, if we’re going to take a full accounting, first Miguelino took his bow.”
“You are going back.” Miguelino died in 1983.
“Darling, it was seminal. It devastated Buddy. Miguelino wasn’t the first of us, but it was so quick with him, like it was a bus he stepped out in front of. Scared the hell out of Buddy, all of us. Oh, I just . . .” Griff’s voice warbled. He brought a hand to his chest. “Buddy’s shirt collars. I don’t know why, it took me just now—how his shirt collars were always flipped, no matter what. He was such a beautiful mess, wasn’t he? Wrinkled, wrinkled.” Then, as if to cover his growing emotion, or was that only an excuse—“Remember that boy’s cock? Magnificent. My God, listen to us. We sound like dirty old men when we used to sound like people.”
“I’ve been a perfect gentleman.”
“Terry doesn’t much go for the cock talk. Where the hell . . .? I’m beginning to think he’s had an embolism up there. Oh, grab the waiter when you see him. Let’s have another, yes? So.
“The business. Unfortunate, but, well, who wants to buy T-shirts and tchotchkes from a tired old queer, however charming. Oh, it was sweet, though, these little fundraisers that some of the younger devotees put on. Their little gay Alamo. But it didn’t save him. And it’s Buddy, so he didn’t have much in the way of contingency. Certainly no lawyers. I don’t even think he had a bookkeeper. Just put everything he had into saving that store. Sold his house, moved into the back, which I’m sure made it even less appealing to the clientele. Imagine, Buddy stumbling around the store with that miracle cock hanging out of his pajama bottoms.”
I hadn’t seen Buddy in many years, and when last I had, it was in photographs posted online, unsightly for their lack of the Buddy-ness I’d held in memory—an old man claiming to have once been Buddy. And the message he’d left on my phone—I’m not sure how he got the number—could easily have been an accident, or so I reasoned, with the same ambivalent recognition offered to any homeless person on the subway or in Midtown, delete the message with the same muscle memory employed to dig out a piece of change, toss it into the passing cup. But I hadn’t deleted Buddy’s message. And since he called, I’d been avoiding the subway and Midtown.
Griff told me that Buddy had been living in his car. “He doesn’t know how to do it, you know. Sure, he’s seen them—hell, you were both living off Tompkins Square Park all those years—the kids and the crazies with their secrets about how to get by. Places to use the toilet, to beg, all that sort of thing. Buddy knows none of it. So he headed for Sowsewat.”
Sowsewat, Wisconsin, where Buddy was from, and where the only family Buddy had left was living. His daughter, Chloe.
I’d met Chloe once, when she was ten or eleven. She had long hair and glasses and she was smiling at everything, which made me think she was smiling at nothing. They came to a small opera thing I was in, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. I played the Duke of Dunstable, the tenor role, and I thought I was the only good thing about the show—that is, until the night of the performance, a little rented space on the Lower East Side with a three-person orchestra, the few patrons fed cookies and wine during intermission. Chloe had been given sparkling grape juice. I saw her out there—I, the Duke of Dunstable, was serving the wine—walking about and looking up at all these adult faces and feeling she was in the most magnificent place, no wonder her father chose this over Sowsewat.
I’d thought that I was the best thing up until my big note in the second act. I was slapped in the face by one of the mezzos, harder than she had done in rehearsals, and I looked out to the audience, hand to cheek, to belt the note that had always, always been there. Only it wasn’t. I fracked it. I tried again, fracked again, decided to make it a character moment. I fainted. It got laughs, thank God, but all I could think was, I’m singing in this no-budget black box, I saw one of the patrons actually digging change out of the tip jar, Gilbert and fucking Sullivan, and I fracked it twice.
We went for a late dinner at our greasy spoon on Lafayette. I expected Buddy to be nervous with Chloe, but he wasn’t. He told her everything she should order, even if she only had one bite of it. And she was still smiling at it all, even if this ugly, smoky little place looked no better than some dive in the bad part of Sowsewat. She had on a new pair of jeans that Buddy had bought her that day in Chinatown and she was transported. I asked her what she liked best about her trip, but she misheard me, must have thought I said about the show, because she said, politely, in a voice she must have been imitating from intermission, or any of Buddy’s friends she met that week, “Your fall was remarkable. Tell me, was it on purpose?” Buddy nearly spit out his coffee, and to make up for it, he put his hand on my knee under the table.
As far as I know, that was the only time Chloe ever came to New York. I could see, though I wasn’t there, and he never talked about these things, Buddy at the gate at LaGuardia, seeing Chloe back to Sowsewat, back to her mother and whomever her mother had found to replace him. Only, there was nothing to replace. The moment Chloe stepped onto the jet bridge, Buddy ceased being a father, and, for the moment, anything else.
“Poor girl,” Griff said. “Imagine getting that call. Remember me? Long-lost Daddy? Well, Long-lost Daddy is broke now, sweetie, and has nowhere else to go, so if you don’t mind. . .”
“Is Chloe still married?”
“Mm. Kids too. Most of them out of the house by now. Can you believe that? Our little Chloe?” As if he’d known her any better than Buddy had.
“Was she upset?”
“Buddy said she was pleasant about it all, but I’m sure, I’m sure.”
I could see Chloe’s smile, and her hand holding the door open, and neither of them knowing how long their hug should last. I could see everyone’s effort. Even the husband’s, trying to talk to his father-in-law about San Antonio, the store, tough times, maybe suggesting, politely, or not, that things were tough here too, his own business, whatever it was, in its own state, and a couple kids in college, mortgage payments, nodding, tough right now, tough. I could hear Chloe and the husband behind closed doors, Chloe saying something along the lines of, “I’m not sure what you expect me to do,” or maybe, “I’m not sure what he expects me to do,” and I could see Buddy mistaking the daughter still at home for Chloe at that age, not in an elderly, losing-your-wits kind of way, but in the suggestion that things repeat—here, another version of Chloe, another girl with the same long hair and the same needs, and here he was, seventy, but still able to whip up a stack of greasy diner pancakes for her like she was his own.
“She offered a room, in the basement I think, with his own bathroom, his own entrance. But—get this—he told her he only stopped for a visit, thanks and so long.” Griff gave a frustrated sigh, folded his hands and looked off boozily. “I yelled. The last time we spoke. The way he talked about our darling Chloe, like she was the one he’d been worried about and not the other way around. ‘She’s all right,’ he kept saying. ‘She’s fine, doing fine.’ I couldn’t take it. ‘So you lost your job,’ I said. Well, shouted. Terry and I were in the car. ‘That’s life, Buddy. You weren’t careful, so now you figure it out. Get a job at, I don’t know, the library, McDonald’s. Something. It’s what you do. It’s what we all do.’”
What we all do, as if Griff and his husband weren’t staying at the Parker Meridien. How would Terry have responded, I wondered, to Griff next to him and Buddy’s small, unintelligible voice on the phone? He would have thought Griff was, or had been, in love with Buddy. Terry wouldn’t know, as I knew, that this had nothing to do with love, or even with an old friend in a tight spot, that it had everything to do, only to do, with the fact that Buddy was never meant to be anything other than a twenty-six-year-old gay man new to New York.
I’m not sure why I did it—perhaps to elevate Griff’s mood, perhaps to remind that I, that we, had done something, we had tried; or perhaps it was, however subconsciously, to revel in the memory myself—but I brought up the rescue. Griff took a moment, found the memory in the middle distance. His heavy hand on the table shook the ice in his drink. “The rescue, yes!”
It was the summer of 1983. Buddy had been gone three months, having left me alone in our Tompkins Square Park apartment, when I received the letter. “You had us all in tears,” Griff said, referring to the meeting I’d held at Celebrity where I sat up on our old corner table to make my case for going after Buddy and bringing him home. “Our sister in trouble in San Antonio. Oof! I still get chills.”
What I remember of the drive—claustrophobia. Me, Lexie, Griff, and Hans, who had the car, and with whom Griff was then sleeping, on the road to San Antonio. Close motel rooms with foam curtains turned amber against the pressure of outside light, Griff and Hans taking their showers together which made Lexie jealous, Lexie banging on the bathroom wall saying, ‘We can hear you!’ Then back to sitting on too much luggage and the pestering back spasms and the rain, pulling over when Hans could no longer see the road. Griff and Lexie fighting as the roof of the car thundered.
This wasn’t the trip Griff was remembering. I could see the sun in his eyes, and the landscape, America. I could feel the jets of wind tugging at his hair.
Buddy had sent the letter from the house of an elderly Mexican couple. He’d been staying in a room in the back, earning his board with yard work. He was also parking cars at The Benson, where the Mexican couple worked, he as a line cook, she as a maid. When we pulled up to the house, we first noticed the children, five or six of them running about the yard—we never found out whom they all belonged to, but it became apparent that they were in the elderly couple’s charge. The next thing we noticed was the state of the yard itself. The neighboring lawns, by comparison, were dry, cracked, covered in weeds where there was growth at all. But this lawn, an area smaller, it seemed, than our Tompkins Square Park apartment, was wetly green with big floppy plants along the clapboard siding, and flowers, rich, velvety blue. And there was Buddy, at least in my memory there he was, bent over the mulch in a filthy undershirt and gardening gloves.
The elderly couple made us all a meal, including the five or six children who sat or stood between us at the table, and they asked us about New York. We took the opportunity to loudly show Buddy what he was missing. I watched Buddy over the head of the small child between us, partly for his reactions—he smiled vaguely and laughed when appropriate, but he didn’t, hadn’t yet, really looked at any of us. Mostly I watched him because it was good to see him again, and painful, the way he held himself, tightly, his hands on his knees, the way he’d held himself on the subway. He had a beard now. I watched to see if he’d scratch at it. I waited for him to look at me.
After dinner, while the others were readying for a night out, Buddy and I found ourselves alone on the back porch. We sat on the steps, shared a joint.
“They’re not going to like it,” he said.
“They’ve already decided not to like it.” We could hear them in Buddy’s room, Griff and Lexie trying things on, Hans snapping Polaroids to help them judge. “But they want to look their absolute best for it.”
“I’ve upset you,” Buddy said.
“You left so quickly. You didn’t tell anyone. You didn’t tell me.”
“I told you.”
“I didn’t think you were serious . . . I knew you were, but I didn’t think you were. I haven’t smoked in a while.”
“You can’t see it right now, but I’ve done a lot back here. It was all overgrown when I came, and brown. It’s really a nice piece of land. We’re thinking of growing vegetables—or, they are.” Where, I thought. Someone else’s back porch was a few paces away. We could see movement through the blinds in their upstairs window. “Anyway. I’m not going back.”
Even here, smoking a joint on this porch, the sounds of bugs grinding away beneath the chirps and squeals of the boys inside, the children asleep somewhere or awake and listening to the same sounds we were—even here, Buddy’s hands were perched on his knees. The smoke rose from his folded fingers.
“Everyone’s dying there,” he said.
I reached out. I fixed his collar.
We took pictures in front of the Alamo. We found a bar on the River Walk, talked about how kitsch it was. We were us again, Us, I thought throughout the night, for the last time. I’d decided—I’m not sure exactly when—that I would not get back into that car in the morning, that I would stay with Buddy in San Antonio, or even, as my thoughts took on the wayward, sluicing logic of that night under the River Walk lights, that I would replace him. I was giddy with the rightness of it, even as I fell asleep crammed between Buddy and Lexie on Buddy’s twin bed, with Buddy’s words, Everyone’s dying there, repeating in my head, along with the buzz of my retorts: I’m alive! And I’m here! And I’m not singing, no, never singing again! Here, there were no notes to frack. Here, I’d only love Buddy Rozkuszka, whose nose was crushed against my neck, or mine against his, and that was all.
We were terribly hungover in the morning, and Griff and Lexie and Hans seemed to have forgotten they were here for anything but a visit—“Thanks for everything, doll.” Buddy couldn’t have known of my drunken resolution to stay, but still I tried not to look at him as I got into the car, and I wouldn’t see his face again until it appeared on my computer screen thirty-some years later, voicelessly requesting my friendship.
“Well,” Griff said, the Griff now in the bar of the Parker Meridien, running a finger over his eyebrows, “I guess we no longer have friends in San Antonio, do we.”
Terry came down eventually. We had another drink together. Then we hugged, Griff saying, “It was so good, wasn’t it?” Something in the look we exchanged—this would likely be it before one would cross the other off a list. “Wasn’t it?”
I walked along the park. I meant only to stroll, take in the fall, but a cold wind made me shrug, and passing joggers and bicyclists quickened my step. I had the feeling of waiting for someone to emerge, to take a picture with me, to mug me. Or perhaps Buddy himself, having made it to New York, having found me, looking twenty-six and new to the city.
“It got away from me,” he’d say. He’d be wearing his long coat, would glide along sideways as I charged on.
“I know,” I’d say.
“I made it this far,” he’d say.
“It’s impressive. It really is.”
“Did you see the petition? To save Buddy’s? You never thought, did you?”
When we were living together off Tompkins Square Park, Buddy was always stopping to look at available office space, peering in windows and imagining what kind of operation we could run there. The product would change. Walking sticks. Candy apples. Sketches of random Bowery life that Buddy would scrawl on the backs of electric bills. A nice thing, as poor as we were, living in an apartment below the sanctuary of an old Lutheran church, that rattling iron gate on the alley that told us either someone was home or trying to break in, the pipes that ran along the low ceiling on which we would hang laundry and, in winter, tinsel, listening to the organ and the congregation through the pipes as Buddy dreamt of our future prospects, as I put them off. I couldn’t imagine a business with Buddy, a real life with Buddy. We weren’t even lovers, despite the things our friends thought, the things we let them think. All those years, Griff had said, as if it had been years.
We were something else. Blowing out the candles and sliding into that squeaky rollaway. No windows, no light, the eye never adjusting. Buddy’s cold feet against mine. Singing along when we knew the words. Bum, bum, this is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, alle . . .
I was going to tell him. When I realized that this, our time together, wasn’t real, rather something I’d fallen into, momentarily, away from the crushing auditions and shitty productions, from sick friends and the same places, parties, fucks, the petrifying sameness that was, I suppose, my reality. I was going to tell him that it was time for me to find my own place. I’d even rehearsed it with Griff. Then Miguelino died, and Buddy was gone.
I listened to Buddy’s message again as I waited for the bus. It wasn’t really a message. Half a minute or so of crackly pocket static, a muffled radio announcer in the background, brushes of wind or fabric. I suppose I had no real reason to suspect that it was Buddy. Only the strange area code, maybe San Antonio; I never checked. Only the confidence I felt, as I’d felt when I first spotted him at the party on Central Park West, before I’d even heard him speak, that it was him. I was there now, wasn’t I? In front of that same building? It didn’t look right. Maybe it was farther up.
I listened to Buddy’s message and told myself there was nothing to glean. That Griff and Miguelino and Lexie, we’d only convinced ourselves that there was, for the spectacle, for fun, something about Buddy, something essential, mythic, to disrupt the intervals of our myriad sameness.
“I was being kind, you know,” I might have said, were Buddy to have taken the seat on the bus next to me. “That’s why I didn’t leave when Miguelino died. That’s why I went up to the roof with you. That’s why I went after you in San Antonio. I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t in love. I was being kind, you understand? Kind, like you.”
“Why are you listening to that?” he’d say.
“I’m not,” I’d say. “I’m deleting it.”
And I would delete it, if only I could tease out the slightest vocalization, a cough, a sniff, the chance recognition of a place name in the electric yawnings of the radio announcer. Another beautiful day in . . .
“Where are you, Buddy? It’s getting cold.”
I came home to find my student in the hallway. We had some chitchat as I found my key. “I’m a little drunk, I’m afraid. Old friends.” Once inside, she situated herself at the music stand in the living room, and I found my spot at the piano. “Let’s get started.” I warmed her up. I listened. She was one of my best, but I knew she wouldn’t have a career. Still, I fixed a few things. I gave her the time she paid me for. At some point, though, without my realizing, I must have been staring off. The student had stopped. I hadn’t noticed. My pinky finger was still tapping a high sharp.
“I’m sorry?” the student said finally.
“You said something. Just now.”
“You okay, Calvin?”
“Yes. I was just making a list in my head. Let’s go to something different, shall we? The ‘Je dis.’ How’s that?”
“Okay,” she said. She smiled her audition smile, and she sang. She sang as though she knew, and maybe she did. We’re all of us dying. We’ve been dying for so long.
Image credit: Muhanad Alshoufy