This novel excerpt was written by Alex Zafiris in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator
you—the suggestion of the unknown. In those moments, she was rousingly protective, but now I see that she was keeping me right where she needed me. I did look unfamiliar. There was a shape and texture to me that was just different.
foreign. This is not something you can understandYou’re foreign. Shall we see what sad sack fatty Mum is doing?
.) Howard was an early supporter, Seborn explained in this text. “This strange foal had padded out of the forest of Ohio and into the East Village, talking up a storm at a party, begging to personally distribute the publication around the city for free, he loved it so much.”
A strange foal. I can still see those six Google images I found that day. He was boyish, naïve, and somehow not totally present. His hair looked like mine. Perhaps four inches long, it stood up almost straight, exactly how I looked five summers ago when I impulsively cut most of it off. Unlike now, information about Howard back then was scarce, incomplete, not even about him—“Born 1950, in Marietta, OH, died circa 1990, New York City, Emerson was a filmmaker who worked briefly as an assistant to Andy Warhol before producing four works of his own, including Nova.” There he was at a gallery opening, holding a plastic cup of wine, friends leaning lovingly into him. His eyes were wide and beautiful and quivering. There he was, sitting on a crummy white couch in a huge empty loft with an elderly, well-dressed man. The caption read: Howard Emerson at Richard Ainsley’s apartment on Suffolk Street, May 1977. My mother had known Ainsley, a British writer living in exile in New York, very briefly a long time ago. This was through Maureen, but that was all I knew about that.
The next day, the Tiny Theater e-newsletter arrived in my Inbox announcing a special evening of rare shorts from New York’s 1980s scene, including Howard’s Why Do You Ask?, and I felt strangely unsurprised by this coincidence. That evening, on the walk there, I even felt too tired. My body was not used to being relaxed. Nights had long been difficult. Layers of incomprehensible dreams sifted me in and out of consciousness until I would just get up, stiff and dehydrated. But walking down the hill in Kilburn towards the movie house, I could have stopped, lain down on the pavement, and slept.
The film turned out to be an hour-long portrait-poem set across the third floor of a crumbling Lower East Side building—on Suffolk and Broome, I know now. The main character is Ainsley, at that point seventy years old, playing himself in his own apartment: a tall, bony, immaculately suited gay man who had run from London in 1951 for suspected “buggery” despite, or because of, his literary success and wealthy background. He is left in peace in Manhattan, where he collects young itinerant boys. Instead of sleeping with them, he demands to be read aloud to as he tidies the room and cooks. After a few chapters of Genet or Burroughs, he pushes plates of food towards them, insisting that they tell their own tales. The movie expands with every new face, widening and branching out with their sorrows and exuberance. Ainsley lives at the end of the corridor. To his right are Jesús and María, a couple not able to have children. Next to them is Patricia the performance artist, who never wanted children, a celebrated entertainer and auntie to both the young ones in her own family and the lost souls who drift into Ainsley’s apartment at all times of the day or night. The leftovers of food are placed on the fire escape for the birds. The film breathes very quietly, the conversation stark and clear over the foregrounded sounds of haltingly recited queer words, the turning of pages, clattering of forks and knives, and opening and closing of doors. As I watched, I scrutinized every detail of the set: The crummy couch I had just seen yesterday in the photograph. The poorly plastered walls. The old fashioned, fringed lamps on low tables. A record player, with mountains of vinyl stacked on either side. The camera watched, but did not get up close. I had the very strong feeling that everyone was playing themselves, that Howard was looking for something, some kind of evidence. His watchfulness held me so still that when Ainsley suddenly turns around and hits one of the boys across the face, I was somehow primed to receive the shock. The camera swerves, and the boom drops into view. Muffled shouts are heard, and the boy is covered in blood. His eyes are two pins of fear and confusion, and he tries to speak, but cannot. Someone pulls Ainsley, standing there motionless, out of the frame. The screen goes blank.
The theatre was half-packed with faded, nervous figures who, like me, sat in stunned silence until the credits ended. As we began to file out, many of them moved towards a man who stood purposefully near the exit. His arms were folded, and although he seemed confident and strong, he was looking very intently at the eyes of each person. He began to ask them questions. Are you OK? Yeah, it’s a tough one. He was American. I wanted both to approach him, and run away. When he looked right at me, I put my head down and quickly left, which I don’t regret now, although of course I did, bitterly, for a long time. As I walked slowly back up the hill, I felt an awareness that the black and white images I had just seen had always been in my body, flickering through darkness. It was raining, but the pavements seemed glossy, the night lights imbuing them with heartfelt reds, kindly blues, and lucky yellows. I breathed in freshness instead of wet grime and grit. My chest was open, my eyes wide. Here was something, showing me who I was, yet I had no contact with its world other than through a reel of celluloid. I did not feel confused. Instead, I felt that a curtain had been pulled across. There was now nothing between my toneless days and an infinite life.