Altered States

by

12/14/2002

132 2nd ave ny 10013

Neighborhood: East Village

When I first met Lance I was in an altered state. I was sixteen, back in 1963, when you could still buy a Benadryl inhaler, break it open and find a cotton wedge soaked with amphetamine. I’m not sure who first noticed this, but it might have been Jack Kerouac. I hope not, but it probably was.

It was late spring in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and warm breezes stirred up dust on Franklin Street, one side of which was a no-man’s-land of trampled grass sloping up to the back ends of stores on Mass. Avenue; on the other, low clapboard houses with clinking wind chimes and bright Marimekko curtains had a pleasant trashy feel. The heat felt good on my skin and the dust felt good sticking to my face and hair and if I had been a dog I would have rolled in the dirt for joy.

I was hurrying along with my friend Naomi who was a year younger than me and six feet tall with haystack hair that she frizzed by braiding it wet and letting it dry and then taking out the braids. Naomi was telling me about this party and a guy she met who was so gorgeous she almost fell over when she saw him, a potter or an artist or something. I calculated days, arriving at the fact that the party was on a school night, and this both thrilled and unsettled me. Her boyfriend had also been at the party and the two of them had fucked among the jackets piled in the bed room–an act Naomi described in agonizing detail, each stroke punctuated with high-pitched hoots and cackles razoring my speed-brain. Then she grabbed my arm and said, "That’s him. What did I tell you?"

She was right: he was gorgeous. He had large wide-set eyes, haggard cheekbones, a sensuous mouth like Antonin Artaud, only an Artaud who lifted weights. He was a few yards in front of us reciting, "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means…" to his friend, George– who was almost crying from laughing so hard– and he was under the influence, I believe, because there was great pathos in his voice, the kind that often has a chemical base. I had my mouth gaping—like, holy shit where have you been all my life?–and he sauntered up and put his arm around me as if I were a dear, long-lost cousin.

That’s how I met Lance.

Later that afternoon Lance and I ended up in bed at his wife’s apartment lunging at each other like professional wrestlers on a dismal clot of sheets. I described it to Naomi as being "athletic" when she demanded details a few weeks afterwards. Perhaps I was too immature for sex or my hormones were as fried as the rest of me from all the amphetamine I took . Either way it was hump-hump-and-slammin’-the-mat.

By this time George had gone home and Naomi was sitting alone outside the bedroom, listening. It was a tangible, sticky listening and, even though I kept telling myself that she was out there and I was in here, and he chose me and not to worry, I was half expecting it when Naomi sidled in all simpering smiles. Then silently plopping herself between us, she moon-eyed Lance and stuck her lips out at me; she stroked his face as if sculpting the bones; and then the two of them had a go at it.

I was stunned. Snatching my gear I retreated to the room where Naomi had been a few minutes earlier. The floor was splintery and bare, with toys and books and clothing scattered about in untidy snarls. I wanted a delicious treat, like cake, but there was no food in the kitchen cabinets. Then, crouched before the open refrigerator and gazing at a half-stick of margarine perched on a metal rack among crumbs and yellowed celery leaves, my heart started to race and I knew I had to get out of there; only to go out the front door, I had to pass the bed room which now emitted the creak of bed slats and rustling noises each one of which provoked a minor swell of nausea in me. My heart was pounding so loud it echoed in my ears. I should have foamed at the mouth, but I didn’t. I climbed on the kitchen counter, squeezed out a dwarf-sized window, fell in a bramble patch, and lurched off leaving my shoes behind in the sink.

Over the next few days I played the episode back to myself to figure out what had gone wrong, why I felt so incriminated and puny, so undignified. This was a tough question. Really, how can anyone know why she or anyone else did something after it’s already happened and they’ve all done what they were going to anyway? Unless a person is set on inventing some rule to follow so it will not happen again, whatever it was. I didn’t have rules and it was not clear to me that I wanted to avoid everything that had happened, only the painful parts.

So I thought about rules as I visited Lance and George at The Cambridge Potters, their shop and studio on Mass. Avenue; even as I examined the oozing clay pots wet on the wheel or massive pots ready for firing with woolly mammoths and dancing minotaurs drawn on. I contemplated my rules while hiking over to the slums of the South End where Lance and George were rebuilding a house, unremarkable outside; but inside, whitewashed and shaped like a church — a molded church as if growing spiraled similar to the inside walls of the Guggenheim Museum. I considered my rules while listening to him and George in the studio and at the construction site as they belted out "Mr. Tambourine Man" along with a scratchy recording of Bob Dylan. And rules were in the back of my mind when Lance did wine-powered encores of "Fern Hill" while George leered and I watched spellbound and delighted and wounded all at the same time.

After following Lance around trying to figure a way to be close without feeling too humiliated, I decided that some men are good for boyfriends, some for friends, some for teachers–a simple matter of who was good for what. After all, Lance was a genius. He had secrets, special tricks that only geniuses know, things I could not get from school or from ordinary people. I could absorb it all by osmosis, take Lance-lessons, append him to myself. Considering this, it was best to ignore the painful incident with Naomi. Anyway a new genius-friend was a prize catch. I proposed this friendship and he accepted. Then there were the prints, a series of five large crazy lithographs on brown wrapping paper. He had drawn them in a metal plate, whipped off one of each, and I wanted one. As he was now my friend, I decided to ask Lance if I could have one.

So on a sultry night, across the street from the house in the South End, while we sat on stone steps surrounded by tall weeds, Lance expounded on his own rules: how no one could take anything from him he wouldn’t willingly give. No one. Somehow the force of his will made giving and receiving less a rip off; as if willful consent shaped both these acts recasting them as aspects of Lance himself. Considering his drift, it was not that easy to bring up the lithographs, but I asked anyway. He said, "Yes, I’ll give you one because I know you will take care of it."

Later he chose a print that was not my favorite. It was an abstract-looking guy waving hands around at another guy, only there were large penises instead of fingers and big butt cracks shaped into the hand meats on the bottom– not the kind of thing to show your mother or try to impress strangers with. It was called "Two Men Arguing Over Coffee", measured three and a half feet square, and was rolled up in a cardboard cylinder.

When I last saw Lance in New York on St. Marks Place–outside the Electric Circus (a hulking structure, which is now painted black and boarded up, and will soon be condos) — I was twenty-two; it was 1969; and I asked him why he had fucked Naomi that time; and didn’t he know how much I liked him back then. He said, "Why didn’t you just tell me to stop?" I remembered the logy feeling I had traipsing back and forth across that kitchen before I pitched out the window. I remembered telling myself to rise above what was happening. I remembered rage and fear canceling each other out; the sense of powerlessness; not knowing what I wanted or how to fight for it or even if I wanted to fight, period. I said," Really, you would have stopped?" He said, "Yuh. "

Lance went to Hollywood and got into movies. He was in Aliens and recently had his own TV series, an X-Files knockoff about serial killers. "Two Men Arguing Over Coffee" survived framings, peelings off pressboard, cleanings of corrosive glue. My husbands have all been fond of the penis hands although I never told them the exact nature of my friendship with their creator. I wasn’t lying; I’m not sure I know myself.

Here is the painting:

rules69
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