Author Note: Daniel Felsenthal – Part I
As part of our Author Notes Series, Daniel Felsenthal shares the inspiration behind his story “Sex With Andre,” which appears in The Puritan Summer 2019.
In August of 2013, 18 months or so before I wrote “Sex With Andre,” I moved to New York, beginning a passionate love affair with the city that has only grown, albeit slowly and with hard work, in the years since. Back then, I was newly 22 and about to start classes for a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing. Having spent my childhood in love with my hometown of Chicago, I was versed enough in adoring cities to ignore their charms and move on to immediate infatuations: only a day after I arrived in my graduate student apartment, I fell in love with a person.
Much about W. evokedNew York, from his charm with bartenders and sandwich-makers in delis to the fact that he escaped Manhattan, as often as he could, for a summer house in Pennsylvania, near the Poconos. He loved classical music and Henry James, two subjects in which I considered myself relatively unfamiliar. (Later, I discovered that, in spite of how Leon Edel’s biography occupied a prime, lamplit place near the pipe organ in W.’s Upper West Side apartment, I had actually read moreJames than he had.) W. was 61 years old. I possessed all of the romantic intelligence of a 16-year-old, having never been in love with someone who loved me back. He had recently lost his mother—he was grieving for her—and several months after we got together, he lost his job as a software consultant for a pharmaceutical company.We spoke about the merits of retirement, although my career had not begun yet.
I was happy when W.confided in me, because I was never his partner, not completely. He had another boyfriend he saw in PA, a 40-something sandwiched between our two ages who was receiving treatment for bipolar disorder in an asylum. According to W., his boyfriend would not only be fine with our relationship, he would want a ménage à trois. The reality, we learned once W.’s boyfriend returned home, is tha the was not OK with our relationship, the possibility of a manic depressive relapse was never far from anyone’s mind, and so after nearly a year of guilty sex and lies and criminations, W. and I broke up.
I began to spend my nights flitting between gay bars, in the West Village and the EastVillage and Brooklyn, scrolling among profiles on my phone, in the hopes of finding something with fewer intrinsic problems. I mistook the naturalness of falling in love with W. as a sign that falling in love was easy. Conventional wisdom, which had never applied to my love life—one that has always drawn me to men 30 or 40 years older than myself—made me think: AllI have to do is put myself out there.My experience, however, confirmed another cliché, that searching hard rarely helps one find romance. I slept with a lot of people, and tried to have feelings about a few of them. I drank constantly and spent far too much money on booze.
Writing, which had once come easily, was now extremely difficult. I wondered if the problem was W., or the sex I was having to compensate for his absence. Romance and literature, it seemed to me, were irreconcilable. I wanted to think about this question, believing that my work might be unique and innovative if only I could explore, as I phrased it at the time, the anxious relationship between having sex and making art. But as an MFA student, I had to submit for workshop every few weeks, and any philosophical dilemmas became swept up in my anxiety, matters of the soul I could not attend to until I received my diploma. My medium became the workshop submission, not the novel or short story I might have written had I not been in graduate school. The only way to write a workshop submission was to pointedly remove myself from all distractions the weekend before it was due, creating a controlled ,ascetic, almost penitent (penitent for what?For fucking?) environment in which I could burn for the amount of time it took to lay down 15 or 20 pages of fiction.
I saw W. three times during the second year of graduate school, once from behind while he strode across Columbia’s campus toward a chapel that held chamber music concerts, another time rounding the corner of 110th andBroadway, and another time in a gay bar, facing away from the door: I turned around, walked to another bar, and slept with a closeted 29year old from Texas I liked because he also cruised older men.
Sporadically, sitting alone in my bedroom trying to push a piece of fiction into existence, I received a communication from W. He wanted to get back together with me because—as he phrased it in a Christmas card he mailed to my parents’ house in Chicago—he “missed our adventures.” I had to text him once to tell him to stop parking his car in front of my apartment. (He refused, finding parking inManhattan being nearly as fruitless a search as finding love.) Busy as my nights were, I never woke up early enough to see him sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting in procession with the other drivers for the municipal vehicles to finish sweeping the streets.
I looked for signs of his continued existence in the world, although I refused, becauseI felt our relationship was endangering his boyfriend’s sanity and life, to get back together with him. Female friends understood my situation, although they were confounded by my inability to see pastW.’s manipulations. Unlike late-blooming gay men, women, while still teenagers, learn about the unreasonable desires and entitlement masculinity wields like muskets and swords. As for me, who had never been on the receiving end of someone that wanted me in such a confused and brutal way, I was in love before I could identify the problems with my situation. Maybe my own sense of entitlement led me to think of W. as my adventure, my conquest—one of the reasons a threesome with his boyfriend intrigued me. In this instance, I was the one being conquered.
A good number of the conquests I met exploring barrooms and apps reminded me of W. These many dozen people were all unique, yet when I try to write them into this essay, they seem like nothing more than the flora and fauna of my journey across New York City. An unfortunate lesson I’ve learned in order to write narratively is how to reduce people from their roundedness in reality to only their most relevant traits.
“Sex With Andre”was an attempt to buck this craftiness and explore the depths of the sort of man whose path I would usually cross for only a brief, sexual encounter. I gave Andre breadth and history as a character, while I reduced his encounter with Dylan at the end to something small, an afterthought that nonetheless reveals another angle of Andre’s personality. Readers may describe Andre as long-winded and self-absorbed. They may also recognize that the self is a world so large and full of sinkholes that one can hardly be blamed for being absorbed, and even trapped, by the pull of its gravity.
The story, which began as a novella and retains a novella’s length and girth, found its aesthetic spark in the voice and face of a man I met at a hustler bar on 58th and 3rd, where the rent boys hated me because I slept with old guys and never asked for money. His name was E., and I would name Andre after the last name of a comedian who shares E.’s first name.
E. did not put on airs, try and impress me with money, or speak incessantly about his accomplishments. In fact, he said almost nothing about himself. We established a loose routine together: every few weeks, I met E. at a gay bar either in the remains of the hustler strip in Midtown East orin the West Village, where he bought me a couple of drinks and then dinner. I tried to return the favor—but E. rarely let me pay for anything, usually suggesting, somewhat forcefully, that I order the cheapest item on the menu. After, we went to a hotel bar off of 6th Avenue, where he bought me an expensive glass of whiskey neat, and then he gave me a handjob in the front seat of his car while we made out. E. was impotent, I assumed from prostate surgery, although we never spoke about it. Whenever I asked him about his life, he responded with stock phrases like, “Next question” and “I plead the fifth.” He would not blow me or let me fuck him because he was afraid of contracting HIV. He loved hearing about the other men I slept with. E. was prone to crying when he was emotional, in public restaurants and bars, the other customers turning their heads.
He did not own a cell phone or use a computer. I called him on the landline whenever I wanted to see him, and we made plans to meet in specific places at specific times. He had grown up in New York and worked for decades asa waiter in a restaurant in the Theater District. At the end of his shifts, he took the food that the staff was planning to throw away and gave it out to homeless people. He lived in New Jersey, right on the other side of the George Washington Bridge, and said racist things about the Koreans who lived in his building. We got into drawn-out fights about the things he said, while he argued by shaking his head and repeating himself as though possessed, his bouts of bigotry random and impulsive, seemingly disconnected from everything else about him. I never took what we had very seriously, because of his racism and his dishonesty and because we did not work well together sexually, but also because I was attracted to men who posed more danger to my well-being than E. did.
These attractions, I still believed, stood in the way of the mountain I had to climb in order to be a novelist. Yet if cruel, dangerous men are unlikely to be patient with the anxieties of my work, a caring lover like E. is unlikely to be patient with the hurt it can wreak on my mind. The latter dynamic is one that can be worked through, but it also suggests the various ways sex and art really can be in conflict. E. conceptualized my seriousness about writing as a problem, because he considered literature to be the cause of my suffering—he truly did not want me to suffer—rather than as something positive or necessary.
The last time I saw him, I was hardly able to listen to him, consumed as I was with apiece of fiction I was working through at the time. He was angry at me, his eyes glimmering with tears I pretended not to notice while we sat in the front seat of his car. I opened the door and stepped onto the street, assuring him that I would call soon. (“The next few weeks are going to be busy,” I probably added.) I climbed the stairs of my building, walked into my bedroom, and sat down at my desk, immediately pacified to be faced with the blank page, a partner that does not weep when you burden it with your problems, until you grovel and beg for the page’s openness and generosity, for writing to show you a bit of the life that you have given over to writing.
Sometimes, that’s why writing is sexy.
Daniel Felsenthal was born in Chicago and lives in New York City. He publishes short stories, essays, and reviews in a variety of publications, and is almost done with a novel.