Justify My Love
What if love was an angel that was sent from heaven as a bird and it touched your life. It flew down over to where you are and it perched on a branch. It shared its song with you, a melody pure and bright. You listened to it and your life became touched by an angel. Rays of light descended alongside the bird and dappled all that they touched. All types of shit became dappled and your life changed forever.
The bird, love, in fact an angel, was not special like a dove but not ugly like a pigeon. It possessed song like a swallow’s warbling but was not something delicious to eat like a chicken or a duck. It must have been bigger than two caged lovebirds, but smaller than two swans gliding side-by-side across tranquil waters.
And you felt this kind of thing was perfectly acceptable to believe in and discuss with friends as well as professional contacts at social gatherings, perhaps a birthday party or industry gala, some kind of philanthropic cocktails requiring RSVP’s to which you affirmatively replied. You shot off that email and wore a tie. Surprised by sudden onset joy, you stopped seeing your therapist. You discussed the visit of love as an angel in the form of a bird with anyone willing to listen. You arrived at philanthropic cocktails on a roof lounge in Manhattan. People in your life, all of those around you in fact, suddenly were moved to consider that yes, your life had been touched, and they knew beyond doubt that they stood in the presence of a visited man. You held the tequila sunrise in hand but did not even need it to be the better, drunker version of yourself, the drink made perfunctory by an angel of love, since being changed from within by that bird’s song, emboldened to enjoy personality traits such as contented self-acceptance, etc.
But of course love does not visit from Heaven. Love is a human error made wrong on Earth. Love impoverishes each day lived by throwing it into a pit of not having. I felt an inkling of this when we drank Miller High Life in glass bottles at the lunch place I used to like before it went out of business. It was the second time we met. He called me and said, “Meet me somewhere.” I said, “OK, that sounds good.”
A waitress delivered the beers and did not notice the label on mine was applied upside down, but it verily spooked us, the erroneous sticker. Perhaps it was scary, amusing, but what do you do with that kind of thing but move on without caution. I said out loud, “the Champagne of Beers,” while rolling my head around in order to read it correctly.
“That’s a little queer, isn’t it,” he remarked to me, not meaning queer in the gay way, just that things can get weird. We sat there amused or in awe, drinking improperly labeled beer, once-in-a-lifetime bottling plant error, souvenir of us having done lunch.
Two months later it was my birthday. A bouquet of daisies, alstroemeria, spider mums, roses and lilies arrived at my door. I opened the card and read his message: take these outside and light them on fire.
Some time later he finally thought to ask me how I made a living. He wanted to know what I did professionally in order to have so much free time to entertain his conversation and whatever else it is that I do all the time. I told him I’m a Hollywood film consultant, which was true. Whenever anybody makes a movie or TV show featuring a storyline with an artist as a main character, they call me in to advise. I told him I go to meetings with actors and directors who need to know how best to achieve something that will approximate my life. “The artist’s life.” Just how do I live. Naturally, I no longer make art, there’s no time for that, having become preoccupied with so many lucrative consulting gigs. Well anyway, I get the phone call, I fly to the coast.
Hey Sam, we start shooting this movie in a couple weeks and the star, he plays this handsome, troubled artist in love with a woman, you know who she is, I believe you may have even met her actually at that premiere where I ran into you last time, well anyway the chemistry between the two of them is unbelievable, think Viggo Mortenson and Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder, but our trouble with it is that, well I wouldn’t even call it trouble, but you know what I mean, anyway, this actor doesn’t know how to hold a paintbrush or what have you, but Christ, he can act, a real method guy. So yeah we were thinking we’d pay you more than your usual fee to come out and lend this kid and our writers some technical guidance. The show will pay for everything, this is not some bullshit Tier 1 like last time, this is the majors, we’ll put you up in the Four Seasons, rent you a mustang, you’ll have to spend some quality time with our lead, who we think you’re going to love. He has the look, you know, he has electrifying screen presence, he’s just fantastic to be around, its just the thing about this is that we don’t know if he’s totally believable as a creative genius as it were, and anyway we’re thinking this project has buzz all over it, we’re discussing the release date and hoping to get out right in front of awards season next year, we’d love to have you on board, it’s so cool to talk to you, what do you think, do we have a deal?
I spend entire mornings and afternoons hovering over the shoulder of some chiseled idiot, coaching some actor on how best to hold a paintbrush or sit on the stool while perched in front of an easel. Wardrobe sends over rack after rack of shitty jeans, striped shirts or chambray button downs for me to look through and recommend in service to cinematic verisimilitude. I dole out tips on how to appear like the actor has been dabbing away at his canvas for months. I share pointers, such as, how to furrow your brow, lick your bottom lip a little bit and flare your nostrils as though all sensory powers are brought to bear on the creation of inspired works of art. Step by step instruction on how to affect terrifying intensity, how to wield a unilateral gaze as if staring could kill, how it must be honed and performed for the camera, for the audience, to prove that the troubled marriage of passion and skill is alive in your heart, working it out and surviving.
When all of that fails, as it inevitably does sometimes, my hand is filmed in close-up as I pretend to paint in character, not unlike the time James Cameron’s hand was filmed drawing Kate Winslet in “Titanic” and everyone in the theaters believed it was Leonardo DiCaprio getting excited about drawing Kate’s naked body in repose while wearing the Heart of the Ocean.
Anyway, we didn’t go to Maine together, that time I asked him to get away from the city with me for the long weekend because he said he had work to do and so I guess that was that. It feels so good to look at these marvelous rocky coastal scenes and wear a sweatshirt in July, as one must when so far up north, it just never gets hot there like it does in New York. I found a bar in Belfast to hang out at and drank there four nights in a row. It wasn’t far from the little saltbox house I rented, surrounded by pines just a few miles down the pines covered road. The drinking people of Maine are fantastic, not friendly per se although the regionally specific cadence of speech and manners are mistaken occasionally for friendliness when actually it’s just that they can sound animated and colloquially melodic whenever they start talking to each other in front of out-of-town strangers. In that way, Maine is quite like watching reruns of Murder, She Wrote when the town doctor or sheriff comes calling on Jessica Fletcher for a pancake and the best local gossip.
I drank a lot of bottled beer and played Deer Hunter, the arcade game with the plastic shotgun attached to it, installed there in a corner of the bar underneath dim lights and a stuffed moose head hung high on the wall, antlers so impressive they were nearly satanic. I scored well and got second place on the leaderboard, so I entered his initials instead of mine, thus recording the pathetic legacy of my feelings for him at the time. They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.
There’s that other bar down in Chinatown, the art bar frequented by net artists, zombie formalists, freelance curators, casting directors and amateur models, all gathered there to take in the countercultural ambience as a backdrop to their so-called lifestyles. He and I were seated at the booth we like one night not terribly long ago. Tufted leather black banquette with tubes of self-aware hot pink neon running overhead, the interior dressed up and updated like a sequel to Max’s Kansas City. Who knows who was there that night besides, it doesn’t matter, tequilas on rocks, one after another until he dropped into my arms and said, “I’ll be your Jasper Johns if you’ll be my Bobby Rauschenberg.”
Well I don’t do that anymore, I quit film consulting. I said: Lose my phone number, can you do me that favor. Yes, I’ve changed careers; I work full-time as a whore for his love. It barely pays the bills. It doesn’t matter if I’ve worked hard or easy for it. I spend it the same and I’ve never been happier.
He pulled me in close and said that she had asked him to leave, or that he’d left her, he was moving into the hotel, temporarily, or anyway he said something else, but I caught what he meant. It was five-something pm on a Wednesday. He took my hand, we walked down a sidewalk, he hooked his arm into my arm, and then we were arm-in-arm, moving in sync like two loons gliding down Essex St. The whole thing makes me crazy to think about, to have lived it, but anyway I guess we don’t need to talk about it.
Let’s pretend New York City is a cluttered desk filled with office supplies, personal effects and the various pieces of paper that clutter a life, like crowds of people just standing there or walking too slow in groups of four or five on the sidewalk holding a grocery bag and a to-go cup of coffee. Construction everywhere you look and all the fucking time. Imagine the day comes when I get fed up and sweep everything off the desk with both arms in one confident, furious motion. Just like that, New York and all who reside would be gone forever. Cut down finally and dumped in the river. A hard desktop surface emptied of paperwork, newspapers, a stapler, pens, the stacks of bills, mementos, framed photographs, a glass of water and the computer. No more skyline, no more topography; it’s out of here. New York has been bulldozed, now lay me down on here and fuck me like you mean it.
“I could never tear you apart, Sam,” he said.
Very well, but who could have guessed that I’m the type of person who wakes up in hotel rooms screaming “Don’t leave me here!” while you walk out the door?
“You should have contact with your closest friends through the most intimate of all media—the iPhone,” he said, even though he already knows we’ve had an on-going relationship over the phone for three years.
Love is a bird, it flies away.
I wonder if it’s possible to have a love affair that lasts forever. Sometimes I sit alone at the bar and look at my phone or a magazine. I enjoy a little quiet time. Walking into the bar can feel like an extravagant political gesture comparable to Washington crossing the Delaware or Reagan telling Gorbachev to tear down that wall. Like being on an aircraft carrier and yelling “Mission Accomplished!” or telling a grand jury that you did not have sexual relations with that woman. Or that’s how it feels to me, walking anywhere, long sweeping strides through town on my legs, the long legs of the law if you will, boot heels hitting pavement with alliterative staccato, the kind of sound you might hear if American grit and cowboy individualism took to tap dancing on weeknights.
Anyway, who cares. Whenever I straddle a barstool, another long national nightmare is finally over. All the bartenders know me by now and they all love me, I think, in a way. The only thing about barstools is that they’re a lot like a highchair, which starts to feel lousy for the way it infantilizes when you get to thinking about it for a while, which I do because I’m alone and disposed to thinking about things like that when I’m not chatting up bartenders or flipping through magazines, gradually fucking myself in the head and liver, but you know, there’s no point to a drinking habit if you can’t commit to it. Commitments requiring endurance for all manner of indignity—like the time I was slapped in the face by Brock, my ex-best friend, at Brock’s favorite bar in Bed-Stuy because I got fed up and told him I was disgusted by his true identity as an unqualified loser. Or the time I queued up “River Deep Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner on the jukebox to play on repeat a dozen times at that dive in Hell’s Kitchen, just to hear a battered, codependent Tina scream the lyrics: I could love you baby just like a robin loves to Sing–over and over again until I was found out by the very irritated bartender who had heard about enough, telling me to leave and never come back.
There are so many songs about love. We used to play a word game I made up based on Madonna’s “Justify My Love,” from The Immaculate Collection. He and I would play the game for hours at a time. Madonna opens her song over a seductive trip-hop track with a feverish whisper: I want to kiss you in Paris/I want to hold your hand in Rome/I want to run naked in a rainstorm/Make love in a train cross-country…
The rules are as follows. Just as Madonna would like to kiss you in Paris, Player A starts the game by announcing the erotic action he would like to perform with Player B, as well as the foreign locale where this clandestine activity is meant to go down. A waits for B to retaliate with his own perverted act before replying with yet another sex trick and corresponding location. The game goes on until the entire planet is desecrated.
By exploiting Madonna’s talent for glamorous internationalism, our little game formalizes a lyrical call-and-response for briefly detailing all of our unfulfilled travel plans and/or romantic fantasies. Classic pop song for cool sluts made better with an imaginative and fun new twist between friends. Anyone can play however, so I hereby give this game to the world, imparted to you as a gift in honor of whatever it was that went on between him and I.
A: I want to make love to you for several hours in Philadelphia.
B: I want to fuck your brains out for a month in Lyon.
A: I want to pull your hair in Copenhagen.
B: I want to blow you in Boston.
A: I want to lie to you in Tel Aviv.
B: I want to bend you over in Bucharest.
A: I want to fist you in Vancouver
B: I want to cop feels up in Nova Scotia.
A: I want to miss you in Tokyo.
B: I want to sail away with you to Bermuda.
A: I want to lose you for a brief period in London before eventually reconciling.
B: I want to choke you out in Chandigarh.
A: I want to end your life in Glasgow.
B: I want to 69 in Caracas.
A: I want to get married in Havana.
B: I want to shit the bed in Liverpool.
A: I want to play mind games in Cape Town.
B: I want to skull-fuck you in Oslo.
A: I want to rape you in Rio.
B: I want to get pregnant in Tehran.
A: I want to chase you with a butcher’s knife in Tulum.
B: I want to suck your toes in Nashville and then get arrested.
A: I want to suck on your tits in Salt Lake City and get hauled off to jail.
B: I want to finger you at a tulip farm just outside Rotterdam.
A: I want to be penetrated from behind like a dog in Moscow.
B: I want to have threesomes in Berlin with semi-famous deejays.
A: I want to trade handjobs in Prague.
B: I want to be your pimp in Perugia.
A: I want to send dick pics from Art Basel Miami Beach.
B: I want to get dick-whipped in Bangkok.
A: I want to scissor you in Albuquerque.
B: I want to catch syphilis in Shanghai.
A: I want to molest you on the dancefloor at a crowded nightclub on a Friday night in Melbourne.
B: I want to eat your ass in the shower at my Venice Beach bungalow.
A: I want to make eye contact on a busy street corner in Camden, New Jersey.
B: I want to ignore your calls in Chelsea.
A: I want to have dinner with you in Tucson for some reason.
B: I want to kiss your neck and lick the inside of your ear at a movie theater in Pittsburgh, with my arm around your shoulder in total darkness as the end credits roll, having just seen An Affair to Remember together, again, for what might be the very last time.
A version of this essay appeared in the catalog for Alex Da Corte’s exhibition 50 Wigs at the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016.