How do we decide to disregard privilege? Or do we always fall into the assumptions that make life easier for us? Author Michael Carroll examines American life from both sides of privilege while Patrick Lyne's artwork hearkens to duality of iconography and intimate portraits.
The meaning of Florida
by michael carroll
MY FIRST TRUE CONVERSION EXPERIENCE was not—as my family and childhood friends might have it—my baptism at the age of twelve, but the moment when I began reading the novel The World According to Garp by John Irving, less blueprint than a sketched-in mission statement for how I wanted to live life. If you were a kid who liked reading, you’ll recognize immediately the sweet lunacy of this idea, an idea more than a plan or resolution because I took it on visually and not with any set of drawn-up, step-by-step directives. I liked the way T.S. Garp’s life looked ideal in a narrative frame of alternative-family bliss. I liked the sound of it. Here I was, already internally self-identified as gay, with a high school girlfriend who knew about my homosexuality because the best friend with whom I’d slept and who was otherwise straight had told her before she and I ever began dating. I was sixteen and had my license and would drive us around so that the two of us could experience a preview of adulthood and independence together away from the suffocations of God-fearingness. The Florida Baptist Convention was headquartered there. And the downtown First Baptist Church interfered in local politics and was a clearinghouse for favors and opportunities which congregationally active businessmen and their wives took advantage of in order to enrich their families’ lot. A questioning Catholic, Jennifer was repelled by theocracy as much as I was. No wonder, since the cheerful—and we thought disingenuous, or else deluded—teenage parishioners of First Baptist were constantly inviting the kids at Terry Parker High to join them for services the following Sunday. Southern Baptists loved nothing more than offering a ride to the rest of us heathens in the vehicle their father or father’s best friend had given them a great deal on. Jennifer and I snickered at, satirized, our surroundings. We loved Monty Python, and saw the not only always so funny flaws in everyone, caricatures mostly I can now attest, but maybe not always. But just as with the yolky industrial smog our local paper mills pumped into the hot Florida sky with its smell of rotten eggs, socially we lived under a pall of universal doubt—a morbid, choking cultural pollution. Humorless, straight-as-an-arrow hypocrisy, chins up and chests out. Tamped down by their small-minded, popular and narrowly defensible claims.
“Redneck Vatican,” I sneered, in love with my own cleverness.
I had dozens of denigrations prepared for any occasion and I expected Jennifer to laugh at every goddamn one of them. I wanted her to smile at my wit and to acknowledge it as lethal.
I was already styling a public persona for inevitable book interviews soon to arise from my brilliant breakout novel—the one I hadn’t written yet, the one happening any time now. It was a cute, urbane, mouthy persona in the manner of an unlikely Truman Capote-Fran Lebowitz union.
And we rode around surveying that blight of a church on every corner––the unctuous reach of God’s love out to everyone driving past asking themselves, When? When will I give in? I am in a pickle just now. I am waiting for Ronald Reagan’s presidency to transmute this sluggishness into trickle-down gold for guys like me. Waiting for things to ease up, for my wife to stop giving me that look, for my kids to stop slouching away from me, to start respecting me and stop talking back to me. I’m waiting for our future, and we’ll get it. So where is Jesus in the whole formula?
I liked the sense of adventure in The World According to Garp, one achieved not through a high-powered cloak-and-dagger plot but through the topsy-turvy headlines and faits divers news items of the seventies. Feminists, politicized rape victims who go underground, assassinations. Garp’s best friend is a transsexual who used to be an NFL player. I even liked the idea of being murdered in public for my words, so long as I’d already published some. I liked the melodrama of the everyday because the everyday, tethered to the kite of some big ambition, could be pulled crazily along by any unexpected yank and turn in the plot, and I was gay and my girlfriend knew it. Jennifer and I were going to have kids. I was going to be a famous writer. We were going to be our own quiet cultural revolution. But then not everyone had a mother like Jenny Fields, who disagreed with her surroundings, discouraged her son from going to college and instead took him to Vienna and paid for his first prostitute. Garp was a political and satirical fantasy––an X-rated soap opera, in the words of its author. Ahead of its time, it projected what has begun to bloom all around us: the culture wars, the plight of the malcontent poor white, the onrush of new ideas that replace the outdated ones and the resulting chaos. Jennifer and I, just kids, wanted to believe in a new era, whatever it took, yet were the wrong color to lead the subversion—and never knew this, being relatively privileged. Imagine a preppy-looking family whose father figure who wants sex with other guys on the side and the wife who knows but doesn’t care. My audacious naiveté.
This courageous experiment in American living was meant to take place in New England, where naturally everyone would more or less look like we did. Some things I just didn’t get yet.
A vocabulary of privilege was not articulated in our curriculum. They gave us good history classes but Jennifer knew more about that stuff, since she was more interested in reading about it than I was. I needed time to write my masterpieces and vaguely I felt that I had one small, even almost subtle, thing going for me: my sexual difference, my saucy, selfish little desires. Which, of course, I’d never rid myself of. And yet secretly I hoped they were ultimately part of a phase, and that in time I’d somehow end up matching that ideal white-family appearance—at least after enjoying novel-worthy, tragicomic adventures, the kookier, the more ironic, the better. Not that I was imagining real people. I was young and ambitious and thought of the people around me, my classmates, my family, my virgin girlfriend and my scanty sex partners, as characters to be mined and exploited and raped for their sad and humorous entertainment value. A kind of dissociation.
It was Jennifer who’d recommended The World According to Garp to me in the first place.
Then, a personal more than a wider cultural history intervened, upending my cozy trope.
We graduated. Jennifer’s father was transferred to Kentucky and she and her family moved to the eency town of London. Each of us started college, I dropped out twice. I went roaming on a series of Greyhound buses carrying a spiral notebook. I went to Mexico. Nothing happened so I went back to college and this time it seemed to take. I met my first real boyfriend, Patrick, and learned happiness could be a feature of grown-up gay life––just when I as a twenty-year-old had begun to believe my life was over. I think AIDS bound us even as it fractured America. I’d felt too old to be a “successful” gay man but now I was young again. Love makes you feel that way, at least sometimes, whatever your surroundings.
TWENTY years later, I was standing in a gay bar in Key West, the doors and grated windows of the place thrown open to the beautiful syrupy afternoon, when a slender, tall, dark and handsome younger guy entered and started drinking beer along my side of the rectangular counter near me.
He told me his name was James, and soon I was asking what southerners and I guess what all other Americans ask: “So where are you from?”
He replied, “I’m from a little place in Kentucky you’ve never heard of.”
“My dad was born in Kentucky and I’ve been through there a time or two,” I said, trying to put on my best southern speak. “Try me.”
“Oh, I’ve been to Corbin,” I said. “It’s right next to London. Corbin is where Kentucky Fried Chicken started, and my high school girlfriend moved to London after we graduated.”
“What was her name?”
“Jennifer,” I said.
I began to describe Jennifer, saying her father was a dairy plant manager.
James then recited her last name to me and said, “I dated her too.”
“Oh my God,” I said, “and I remember you.”
I’d met him when he was still in high school. There was maybe a two-year age difference between us, but yes, now I could see it. One evening James had dropped by her house and we’d met before he quickly took off again. I remembered him as a cute and skinny and an almost doll-like adolescent still, but now he’d filled out and in Key West he was more mature and appealing.
He seemed vague about whether or not he remembered me, too, making him mysterious.
I wanted to kiss him, and I wanted to take him into the back bar and fool around with him, and get his dick in my mouth. I told him that, too, but he winced it away: “Oh, I don’t know.”
You could do things like that in the back bar, and still can.
His boyfriend showed up, coming from their guesthouse. The gay experience in Key West is not enhanced by staying in motels out on the other end where the shopping plazas and big-box stores prevail and pollute the previously pristine waters of the Gulf and Atlantic with toxic runoff from their vast parking lots. The gay experience is improved when, as in Provincetown, you can drink your head off and limp back to your accommodations. That way you have no idea what’s going into the complete destruction of the island measuring two miles by five; you can nurse the illusion that Key West, like the rest of the Florida Keys, is doing fine, especially after an evening sampling the night’s utopia which is comfort, which is imagination, escape from betrayed youth, the doubts of a hurt childhood ambition that never quite happened, escape from the reality of the fact that there’s no escape, or not until death, which feels in your imagination velvety like a dark chocolate—no, make that silky, thinner but smoother, ribbon-unfurling as you drink. In the sun-hammered following hangover day you can take a catamaran out to the coral reef with a bunch of other guys and snorkel. You can be yourself with people a lot like yourself and be happy about it the way you never allowed yourself to be as a half-closeted faggot in your teens or twenties (not allowing yourself to enjoy “young” and “happy”). In the night’s utopia, you can be young again because you’re suspended between youth and unthreatening oblivion since you’ve really stopped believing (your great innovation! you’ve stopped believing, and what a relief; how modern). It’s not that nobody’s looking out for you, it’s that you no longer need them to look out for you. And nobody cares—and what a comfort. It’s the feeling that allowed me to shrug off my rejection by James, and that allowed the three of us to talk in a huddle in the darkness of the back bar with all the porn playing on the video monitors above our heads, and allowed James’s lover to let me kiss James, which I had to do on tiptoes, but just the one, but a good, heavenly wet kiss. And then we never saw each other again, and that was fine, is still fine. I’m more content now, so there’s that. I’m in Key West putting this together. I’m in Key West remembering earlier Key West times.
I’m in Key West putting this together.
A sentence I seem to write a lot—set here in italics as further tribute to John Irving.
Irving had Vienna, and someday Key West will go permanently undersea. But I’ve had it.
ED has been bringing me here for twenty-one years. Ed has so many accomplished and famous writer friends here that I quickly ended up developing a special Key West social anxiety separate from the one I’d already begun cultivating in Paris, a city beautifully designed to induce a maybe productive and creative social anxiety. In both cases I’ve begun to surmount this problem as my writing has been recognized, and to feel more secure now that I’ve become a published writer—but no danger to the reputations of venerable dead-and-gone Key Westers like Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill.
Here, as elsewhere in my Edmund White-era life, I’m surrounded by interesting people. I get to travel and don’t have to worry about starving or homelessness (although Ed’s pair of long hospitalizations, which I’ll describe, have at times put me back in that mind). The two decades have mostly for the better altered our social landscape—which is once again being threatened by deregulation: only our thoughts and bodies regulated. And I’m once again haunted by the sense that many of us are fleeing into a dark internal Utopia well out of the “normal” daylight, peopled largely by the likeminded, the all-over-again frightened, our fellow travelers, strange bedfellows.
One of Ed’s best friends in Key West is Alison Lurie, the novelist and literary critic, who’s become one of my inspirations for her unusual, airy brand of personal patience and kindness.
During my first trip to Key West with Ed he introduced me to Alison. This was a year after his French lover Hubert’s death. I didn’t quite look thirty; to some I probably came off as one of his temporary tricks. I wasn’t very forthcoming yet I smiled, I always smiled until very recently, when I got tired of being one more mealy-mouthed southerner trying to charm and please people. Especially new ones. There’s a regional habit of southerners daring to venture off the range with their quaint, accustomed, cinematic manners. Alison wasn’t having it. With strangers she can be polite, but diffident . . . I would say even crisp. With or without a mouth on them, or a concealed weapon, southerners are easily wounded. Later I came to understand that the fault for our mutual coolness had to be as much mine as anyone else’s and that at her age Alison wasn’t necessarily in the market for a roomful of new friends, who were already here, surrounding her. To some I was a gold-digger maybe, probably, but I came because it was Florida but a better Florida—a version more bohemian. Southern but not closed-minded, affable and welcoming. Key West was a very long trip from Paris but worth it, laid-back instead of uptight, never intellectually superior.
In a couple more years Ed got a tenure-track job at Princeton. We left Paris for New York.
The Saturday after 9/11, we flew to London for his first sabbatical (everyone on the Virgin Atlantic flight, if shell-shocked, was extremely genteel to one another). In London I had a whole new set of Ed’s friends to be intimidated by, writers like Julian Barnes and Marina Warner, who at our first dinner all but blamed the two of us for what had happened to the twin towers. Worse, all Americans harbored a Zionist, colonialist attitude toward Palestinians. It wasn’t these English intellectuals’ fault, they were more enlightened and educated than us Yanks. I was jet-lagged and low on resistance, and felt generally insulted, but I knew the world was changing. I’d lived in an Arab country a few years before and knew that being American was a global curse, a black mark.
“I’m not embarrassed to be American,” I’d kept saying from my Peace Corps jaunt and on.
Before Peace Corps (when I was twenty-eight, older than most volunteers, who had mostly graduated from better universities than I had), I was looking out for myself, defensively innocent and content to have my head up my ass. My time in Yemen and the Czech Republic (then France as an under-the-radar, unregistered resident) had exposed me to the wider, uglier world scene that my government had purposely staged in billions of others’ lives in order to forward the brands of General Motors and Coca-Cola. My parents just wanted to break even, with a profit. Americans worked hard, a good excuse for our willing roles in wars and covert cooperation with oppressive military actions by foreign powers on their own citizens that otherwise made no sense. I didn’t associate Alison Lurie with fiery leftist London, but her novels were respected in England. She dissected manners and satirized liberals but was a liberal. She had an apartment there she rented out, where she’d spend a month or two each year. Alison had recently retired from Cornell and had plenty of time to travel. Still, London was the last place I’d expect to encounter her. I liked to think of myself as the only American in London other than Ed, still that kid who felt lucky to travel at all. And I used to set the openings of my stories on airplanes, to set myself dreaming.
I would walk wide-eyed around London as though it were the tropics and I had come from Copenhagen. In London the lefty English people of letters smiled amusedly at me as I told them I wanted to “get” Florida as a whole phenomenon. I was reading books on botany and the space industry, “researching,” always preparing but not working well or with direction. They smiled at me quaintly. But through Alison I was about to understand that Florida was a fulcrum to lifting my experiences of growing up into a vaguer creative sphere. More than feel, I should just write it down, if I had to write about it at all. No one was making me; it was for me. Even before she told me these things, her slack-brows sangfroid and dry self-deprecation had already telecast her cheerful workmanlike attitude. She was the least fussy creative talker when she talked. She was from where, I didn’t know specifically. She just got on with it. If she based her funny artists and biographers and academics on real people, it didn’t matter. I had never met them. She provided lots of white space between the typographed lines for me to dream in, like Jane Austen. How I’d understood Jane Austen I don’t know either. What she was teaching me to do was to relax more.
It had begun with her books, though, where I think any writer would want it to begin.
We caught up with Alison in the National Gallery, where she’d lost track of a friend, and I asked for a description then I set off to find her. After the woman and I returned together to the mezzanine, Alison warmed up to me. And to Ed, off to the side, she offered her guest cottage to us the following January. Ed and I agreed. When the place proved wonderful I decided I would do anything for Alison, climb a ladder, move giant potted plants around her deck. She’s kind and wise, but mostly she’s funny. Jewish, Alison was raised by rationalists and she has zero time for religion or fusty old norms sexual or otherwise. And yet she’s a student of Trollope and Austen. She gets why things are the way they are, although it doesn’t mean she has to love it. She drives me to the grocery store and is never shocked when I respond frankly to her questions about my personal life. Alison knows that I alleycat and roam. She’s heard it all. And so in Key West for maybe fifteen years Ed and I, in an open relationship, have found a month-long home in the two-room cottage across the generous deck from the bigger house she shares with her writer husband Edward. This is the thing about a writer’s life: we don’t have to be rich or even famous although it helps to have some notoriety—and a lot of friends. I’ve known Alison longer than I’ve known some of my come-and-go hopeful lovers. I keep expecting her to advise me to be happy with Ed and otherwise call it quits on the romantic front: which is what many of the younger ones advise.
Our friend and landlady in Key West is not a nosy moralizer; she finds kinder expressions.
“I don’t want you to take this as defeat,” Alison intoned, when I told her that my younger boyfriend Phil recently broke up with me. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you met someone more in your sphere, someone literary, if not a writer—one who’s not necessarily a historiographer?”
Practical, Alison is always willing to admonish others to recognize the closing of another chapter in their lives. She published what she calls her final novel, The Last Resort, in 1998 and says, “I had my success. I won my Pulitzer Prize,” nodding sagely. “Now I can sleep late, I can enjoy my life and have breakfast outdoors on my deck and read The New York Times, which isn’t something everyone can say. I can read other writers’ books, and every once in a while––if I feel the urge––I can write an article on something I find interesting. I’ve enjoyed a wonderful life.”
She smiles delightedly up at you as punctuation for these dry, straightforward declarations.
This year, according to Wikipedia, she’ll turn ninety-one.
One year Ed had stayed behind in New York and Phil came to visit me in Key West. Phil was always struggling to finish his doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill, and always nervous about not getting enough work done. Alison asked me if the evening before he went back to Chapel Hill I could bring him across the deck for a drink. He told me no. He liked being alone with me each time we were about to be apart again, which made me squirm although secretly I liked it. I went back over to let her know that he was too busy grading history papers, which he was expected by his students to return to them by the end of break. I explained this to her levelly, brow fretted.
“How terribly disappointing,” she said, her expression intractably knowing. “Next time.”
If she was ever displeased with Phil, I’m sure that Alison would have no trouble saying so.
“Alison, would you like a banana?”
“No thank you, I don’t care for them.”
“I’m making oatmeal, Alison, would you like some?”
“Thank you, dear, but one of the nice things about being my age is that I don’t ever have to pretend that I like oatmeal again.”
Over time, you might find, Alison’s forthrightness can be catching, especially after the year 2016, the year that tested everyone, left, right, reactionary or progressive alive in America. Back in November, when over email I told her I’d broken up with my parents over the election, Alison replied, “That’s too bad. Let’s hope that eventually your parents will see the error of their ways.”
Precise, well-spoken, utterly educated. Dry-eyed. I’ve rarely seen her become emotional.
I thanked Alison for her vote of confidence in me while looking forward to our January.
Around the same time, standing in our kitchen, I announced to Ed, who sat at his computer at the dining table in the next room, “I’ve just decided I’m not a good person—and that’s okay.”
Ed said, “I remember having that very same thought in my early forties.”
I’m fifty-two years old and I said, “Well. You were always a prodigy.”