The following is among the 16 essays, personal reflections and short stories from the recent collection, Outer Voices Inner Lives.
A Talk About Gardens
By David Masello
Something happened at Johnny’s memorial service that I was never able to speak about with anyone else who had been there. The other people gathered that day in Johnny’s living room—which had become his death room—are no longer friends or acquaintances. Sometimes, these many years later, I question the occurrences of that day and wonder if I’ve invented details.
But I wrote down the events, exactly as they happened and with no embellishing, as soon as I got home that night, because I knew that someday I would begin to doubt them. Part of me fears meeting Johnny’s parents again, though they’re likely no longer alive, or any of the other guests from the day because they might deny what I still remember about that final visit Johnny paid us.
I’ve recently thought again about that visit—or whatever it should be called—because I’ve begun a new job where I could have fulfilled Johnny’s greatest professional desire, been able to give him the work he needed and wanted when we had been friends and that would have made him happy. Not that Johnny was ever the kind of person who seemed unhappy, even when he first got the diagnosis, days after having collapsed on the street during a march in D.C. I remembered first hearing about that episode, getting a call in the cubicle at the magazine for which I was then working as a junior editor and someone telling me they thought Johnny was “sick”—oh, that simple term of the time that told you everything you needed to know. A word that was both a euphemism and a statement of fact.
When I spoke to Johnny a week or so later on the phone, he told me that it was true.
“Yep, I have it,” he told me with an eerie confidence, a disconcerting enthusiasm—and this was eons before there was any hope of a cure, let alone an understanding of what it was or who did what to deserve it or even how it found its way into the body. The way he announced the news to me was that feature-writer side of him reporting to me, the editor, and others, what that collapse on K Street had meant. Johnny was an insatiable researcher on whatever topic he was assigned to write about and, well, he had gotten the information he needed on what would be his final assignment—one he did not write about.
Lem, Johnny’s surviving partner—though he would die a year later—greeted each guest at the memorial service. He had decided to hold the event in the room not only where Johnny had died but also beside the mattress on which he had done his dying. Most of the people who attended the service had seen Johnny in that bed. I hadn’t.
For this “Celebration of Life” event, so the printed invitation had read, the bed had been neatly made, with the sheet and thin blanket and blue quilt wrapped about the mattress as precisely as if it were a birthday present. The way the blanket had been pulled back a quarter of the way and folded across made it look like a giant stripe of ribbon. Pushed against the wall, the bed surface appeared as a taut, flat expanse, a kind of featureless landscape; there were no pillows at the head. There was no box spring or frame, so the mattress seemed inordinately far away and low. It was just a piece of furniture in the high-ceilinged floor–through apartment. But everyone who entered the room—the parlor floor of a mid-19th-century townhouse—scanned the expanse of bedding looking for something that indicated Johnny’s presence: a wrinkle in the quilt, an indentation at the center indicating the negative of his tall, slim body, a shadow-like head imprint on the white wall where he would have propped himself, reading.
On the day of the memorial service, Lem was sick with bacterial pneumonia, one of the newest of a growing lexicon of ailments in the city at that time.
“But it’s not contagious,” he announced the moment a guest arrived and heard the cough, the congestion, saying it as if it were something as innocuous as a case of indigestion. Despite his efforts to be affectionate with everyone, most people, like me, turned their heads far from his face during the embrace, holding their breath until being released from his still-strong arms.
I knew this apartment well. Years before that service for Johnny, Lem had cooked me many dinners at the place, situated on a gritty, shadeless block of West 44th Street—at least, that’s how Hell’s Kitchen was then. Actually, the block looks the same now, though we’re all supposed to now call the neighborhood Clinton. I’m not one of those New Yorkers who misses the “edge” the city had in the 80s. It was a meaner, more dangerous, graffitied place then, but because it was the only city we knew, the one we had all arrived into and adopted after college, it’s what we learned to negotiate. It’s what New York was and you either endured it or you left.
Those days, you’d leave a certain bar, and you’d take a certain route home—not the more convenient one that passed the projects or the SROs where they’d throw bottles down on you. You took the E train but not the C at night. Never the G through Brooklyn. Didn’t even flirt with the idea of cutting through Morningside Park, and on Monday mornings at the office, you’d hear a colleague at the coffee machine relate his or her tale of having been broken into that weekend. That kind of thing.
Lem, who had “retired” at the age of 40 from the Monte Carlo Ballet, was reinventing himself as a playwright when I first met him. He had hired me to paint the apartment—it’s how we met. It was one of many weekend jobs I did when I first arrived in the city and wasn’t yet able to pay my rent with what I earned as an editorial assistant at Simon and Schuster. I couldn’t be sure that the coat of oyster gray I saw on the walls on that evening dedicated to Johnny was the same one I had applied years earlier. I was 22 when I met Lem and as I scraped the walls early Saturday mornings and rolled on the paint, which when applied sounded like two people kissing, their mutual click of saliva, I developed what felt like a love for him. Funny, then I used to like older men. Now I’m the older man, no matter what.
But after the third weekend on the job, at which point Lem had shifted from my employer to a new friend, I admitted this to him, my romantic interest, my desire. I even unfolded a poem I had written about him—about how my continued scraping and torching away of the century-plus layers of paint and wallpapers kept taking us back in time together. When I asked if we could become a couple, he kindly said to me, as I stood on the highest rung of the ladder dabbing at some molded plaster ivy, “I think we need to keep things as they are. Nothing should jeopardize our friendship.”
He lifted the cuff of my blue jeans and lightly kissed the back of my leg, a recognition but not an invitation. Not that he was ever tempted by me, physically. Lem was a beautiful ballet dancer who could win the likes of a Johnny. He had even been involved with Nureyev, who, at some later point I suddenly thought, after Nureyev died, might have been the source of it all.
Lem’s romantic rejection of me was my first as a real adult, someone who had moved away from my home in Illinois to begin life in New York.
When the paint job was finished after several weekends, Lem celebrated by inviting me over for dinner. It would be the first of a routine we established, whereby, whenever he completed a new one-act play, he would invite me over to read the script, while he cooked us a dinner—sporadically looking over his shoulder to gauge my reactions to his writing. The plays were always short enough for me to complete before the meal was ready to be put on the table. We would discuss the play over the meal. Even though I was many years younger, Lem respected my opinions, recognizing me as a writer and a young editor who knew more about such matters than he. And yet, I can’t remember a single line of dialogue or plotline from one of his plays. Certainly, he’d never have imagined the real-life plot that developed. Who could? Unless you wrote science fiction.
One evening, early on in our new friendship, Lem told me that the building in which he lived was one of New York’s official haunted houses. The steep-stooped, four-story Italianate townhouse had been built in 1860, maybe even earlier, on the site of an apple orchard in which a wife had killed her adulterous husband, and she, or both of them, had yet to vacate the premises—so went the tale. A fellow tenant on another floor confirmed this story for me, but she insisted that the image of another former resident of the building, Gypsy Rose Lee, appeared some evenings in the vestibule mirror, realigning sequins on her dress and patting her sprayed confection of hair, even applying some makeup. The tenant had said that before she could reach the point on the staircase where she would be able to see Miss Lee in full, perhaps even greet her, the long-deceased star of the burlesque would vanish—as if, like a hologram, her image depended on a precise viewing angle.
But the first time this tale of the house being haunted had real meaning for me, firsthand, was at one of those play-date dinners on a winter night, just a couple of years before Lem and Johnny met and Johnny moved in. On that evening, I remember watching Lem in the nearby kitchen stooping to take a roast out of the oven when a squat log that had been snapping in the fireplace suddenly rolled with propelled momentum out and into the room. It was as if it had been pushed—it moved with that much force. The piece of wood actually rolled over the brick lip of the fireplace, defying gravity. And as it did so, the pine-floor planks in the room caught fire immediately, the flames running the lengths of the boards as if following fuses. I grabbed a broom and began to beat the ankle-high flames, but the straw caught fire and I had to throw it out a window. Lem meanwhile ran into the bathroom and from the tub filled a wastebasket, heaving load after load of water into the room and onto the floor. The hissing log, which had rolled all the way across the room, was soon rendered as inert as driftwood. Curly black flakes of ash sloshed in the room’s charred corners, like a shallow apron of surf, and a gray cloud of smoke hovered.
Johnny and I became closer friends after he and I had both decided to try freelance writing at the same time. He quit his staff job at a downtown alternative newsweekly where he wrote features and essays about men’s fashion and urban culture. This was a time in the city when Avenue A was treated like a DMZ and you could stop in at nearly a dozen bookstores along Fifth Avenue from 57th Street to 42nd. My focus as a freelancer was less defined—writing articles about architecture, book reviews of first novels, and features for glossy shelter magazines about the interiors of houses I never visited. For those stories, I simply interviewed, over the phone, the decorators and the occupants of the homes. The decorators always said the same phrases, as if they thought they were being original: “The place was a wreck when we began our work, but it had good bones.”; “Let me tell you my own design philosophy and no one else does it: I like to mix the old with the new.” “I prefer a neutral palette with pops of color—that’s my signature look.”
For moral support during the often silent, idle, workless afternoons, Johnny and I would sometimes meet at Caffé Dante on MacDougal Street, where the only patrons mid afternoon, weekdays, were retired Italian men who gathered there after games of bocce and a pair of elderly widows who always shared a powdered-sugar-dusted cannoli and carefully reapplied lipstick after they had finished their cup of espresso.
In trying to figure out what it was we really wanted to write, Johnny had surprised me one day by saying, while stirring sugar into his cappuccino, “If I could write about anything, all of the time, it would be gardens. What it’s like to occupy them, to walk the paths, how they’re designed, how people tend them, why people grow them. I don’t think that would ever bore me.”
One of the several columns I now edit at yet another big glossy magazine is the monthly gardening feature, a subject for which I am incapable of evincing any enthusiasm or retaining knowledge that takes metaphorical root. I can’t remember the cultivar from the specimen name or grasp the meaning of the U.S. hardiness zones—something about parts of the country where you can grow certain things, where plants will thrive, or not. I look at a map of those zones put out by the Department of Agriculture listing average temperatures and rainfall, but the moment I try to make sense of it, the shaded portions just blur into a kind of Impressionistic wash of colors. I don’t know exactly why gardening doesn’t interest me, but I think some of it has to do with its ephemeral nature. Things grow, they bloom, then they die, with no record of their having existed. And apart from trees, nothing lasts that long. Same with writing about interior design—most of those interiors are staged for the photo shoot and what’s there can change later that day. Yet, I am now in charge of creating every gardening story in the magazine and assigning it to a writer. Were Johnny alive, I would make him our regular columnist, include his name on the masthead, and give him a contract. With his passion for the subject, coupled with his talent as a writer, I wouldn’t have to worry about that column. It would likely be the easiest part of my job.
This anecdote about Johnny’s desire to write about gardens—this piece of his history—is what I wanted to talk about that evening when Lem asked us all if we had remarks to share before we performed a farewell toast for Johnny in the room. To present a mini eulogy, I guess. The twenty-or-so of us had assembled into a large, uneven circle, an ellipse, I suppose you could call it. We were all standing. As people recounted their memories of their friendship with Johnny, the ring was sporadically broken as someone pivoted outward and bent to wipe away tears, reminding me of those old carnival shooting galleries of ducks. Too many years have passed for me to remember anything anyone said about Johnny. He was 25 when he died. How much could you say about someone’s life at that point?
I said nothing to the assembled crowd about Johnny and his love of gardens, not because I was nervous about speaking in front of them or losing my composure, but because I hadn’t earned the right to do so. I never visited Johnny once he became bedridden and, so, I felt like a fraud, a peripheral, ghostly friend who had only conveyed regards and concern through mutual-friend mediums. I hadn’t seen Johnny in this room in the bed on the floor. I had only heard secondhand about his physical changes.
True, I had invited him to a cocktail party at my apartment on 11th Street, shortly before he took to the bed fulltime. On the evening of my party, Johnny buzzed me from the foyer of my tenement building. I lived on the fifth floor, a classic, early 20th-century “dumbbell” walkup. I buzzed him in, but realized, fifteen minutes later while attending to my guests, that he had yet to arrive at my door. I went into the hallway and began to walk down the stairs when I found him on the fourth-floor landing, drenched in sweat, gripping the handrail to get his breath. His once-blond hair had dulled and was limp. That limpness, lack of body and color and sheen in the hair, usually accompanied by a snowfall of dandruff on the shoulders, was just one of those symptoms everyone had. As if the physical body was grabbing at every bit of protein it could find. His cheeks and forehead appeared dented, like the hollowed-out faces you see on well-preserved mummies. We locked arms and I accompanied him, creaking step-by-step, that final level up and into my party.
Johnny stayed at the party a short time. When he told me he needed to leave, I escorted him to the staircase, patted him on his back, and coaxed him on to begin the descent. I talked to him through the rectangular stairwell opening during his entire trip down, a chorus of cooing pigeons accompanying us from the airshaft. At each landing, he stopped to get his breath. The tenement’s skylight, a jigsaw puzzle of netted panes, hovered over us like a gray cloud, not so unlike that one from smoke in Lem’s apartment during that floor fire. Finally, Johnny reached the bottom. I looked down onto the top of his head, as small as a boy’s. He didn’t look up. He raised his right arm straight up into the air and bade farewell by turning his hand in a back-and-forth corkscrew motion, akin to the way Queen Elizabeth waves. It was my last sighting of him alive.
I had other friends at the same time who were as gravely ill as Johnny, but they were mostly older; their situations were, somehow, more bearable. Their lives were filled with sex with strangers, whereas Johnny and Lem were a faithful couple, from what I had heard. If it happened to them, none of us were safe. Those older friends, I could visit—as if their age and their behavior had made the illness inevitable. But Johnny, mid twenties, was too handsome to see dying, if such a thing is possible to say. He was akin to some doomed, smooth-skinned World War I poet who foresaw his death, whose final rhyming couplets would be found tucked into his helmet.
Early in the memorial service gathering, I met Johnny’s grandmother, Sarah—energetic, smiling, looking at me through sparkling wire-rim glasses, like a fervent suffragette.
“I am so happy Johnny has died,” she said to me.
I was shocked by the remark, and must have shown it, until she continued, “He suffered so badly, as you, one of his closest friends, must know. And now, well, he’s free of all that. That’s what I meant, dear.”
“And in a way, even that was odd,” she added, “because Johnny loved being a writer and a reporter and just about everything a person can get with this he got—no experience about the disease was denied him. He didn’t seem to be immune to anything. He eagerly researched each of his new ailments as if he were writing an article. The reality of it was his primary source.”
The moment for the final toast had come. Everyone had said what they intended. Standing on either side of me were Johnny’s parents, who had driven in from Princeton, where he had been born and was now buried. Guests had spoken of the funeral service and described the long line of people who had gathered along Nassau Street. I had not been one of them; I had not been invited, nor had I deserved to be.
“We’re going to say, ‘To Johnny,’” Lem instructed us. “We’ll say it in unison. We’ll raise our glasses of wine, say it, then take a sip.”
We followed his instructions. And, so, at the very moment those words, “To Johnny!” were shouted, as if we were a Greek chorus, each of us pinching the stem of our glass held high in the air, the chandelier in the room dimmed. All the way down. I remember each crystal droplet losing its light, fading from a radiant, cheerful yellow brightness, to a Victorian rosiness then, to, to nothing, the ceiling’s plaster acanthus leaves and bas-reliefed serpentine vines darkening into shadows, withering away from sight, their details lost.
Johnny’s mother swung around to the room’s dimmer switch to find no one there, her string of pearls clattering as they whipped against her neck. She spun with such force that one of her clip-on earrings flew off, ricocheting against a wall. She turned to me and she whispered in a tone that held both panic and hope, “Could it be?”
“How could it not?” I said, as I bent to retrieve her earring.
When I handed it to her, she pinched the gold orb between two fingers but didn’t reapply it to her ear. Rather, she stood in place and looked off into that middle distance, that destination we all see when the present is not where we want to be.
A couple of the guests wandered to the room’s dimmer switch and spun the dial, drawing their faces close to it, as if looking for a mechanical failure, a loose screw, snapped spring, something practical, a reason. To them, this was about a simple electrical shortage, a manmade flaw. For others of us, those who stood holding our glass of wine, looking to the bed, the chandelier, it seemed that there was another explanation.
So, even in that room of people, unified by our love for Johnny, there was a divide of beliefs, neither stated, just enacted. For those who registered the dimming as something electrical, a coincidence of current, I felt a kind of disdain.
Johnny’s death—and Lem’s—came at the latter end of it all, when suddenly there was some kind of hope, a mix of drugs and therapies. Early on, 1985, or so, I attended a cocktail party at the Upper East Side mansion owned by Matilde Krim, then one of the leading researchers and spokespersons, and her husband, a Hollywood producer. She had already become a kind of hero for me, with her measured responses and ever-calm comments about the disease on television shows and in Times articles. At the party, when I asked her outright whether there would ever be a cure, whether there would ever come a time when I wouldn’t be afraid, she said, in her elegant German-Swiss accent, “Science will solve this.”
Her words felt oracular, sage-like. They comforted me and I intoned them regularly for years when I would be afraid. Yet, there was a bit of peril in those words, too—when would that solution be found? In our lifetime? My lifetime? Would science follow its natural course of death until there were no more deaths to be had?
And, in many ways, she was right. Science has solved some of it and had begun to do so very soon after Johnny’s death. Had he survived just a little longer, been that much hardier, in keeping with those climatic zones, maybe he would be alive today, middle-aged, as I. Lem would be an elderly man now.
The work I do as an editor of a magazine continues on. That gardening column is written by a rotating series of freelancers I hire, not one of whom is a good writer, though they know the subject well. There is not a moment of what I might call poetry in their prose, just factual, unimaginative copy, absent any writerly nuance, about such subjects as proper fertilizing techniques, pruning, the planting of borders of ivy.
Not unlike that subject matter of gardening, magazine editing is a seasonal endeavor, too. You are always planning months ahead, never living in the one now. Come summer, you are already considering stories about the garden in winter; spring and you are thinking about the decay of fall. Those who cultivate gardens know that plants and flowers go in and out of bloom, so that for seasons at a time it is easy to forget what grew where, but when they do sprout again, you remember.
David Masello is a widely published essayist, feature writer, and poet. He is a longtime magazine editor and writer, having held senior editorial positions at Town & Country, Art & Antiques, Travel & Leisure, Departures, and other periodicals. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Out Traveler. He is currently executive editor of Milieu, a magazine about design. Prior to his magazine work, he was a hardcover nonfiction editor at Simon and Schuster. He is the author of two books about architecture and art. He has published in the New York Times, Salon, Boston Globe, and other periodicals and anthologies, including Best American Essays.