The Reconciliation of Unbelief

Hear this essay read by the author at the Rubin Museum of Art:
Download [9:32, 4.4 MB]

Last night I again met my dead friend in my dreams. He was sitting on the steps of a church, wearing a thin shirt and shivering a bit in the cold. I chastized him for not wearing a jacket; I was still so conscious of the danger of his getting sick. Then, we went inside the church and held each other tightly in the back corner for a long time. I could feel his whole body, living and warm, against mine, the pressure of my arms around him and his around me, the tops of our thighs meeting. It was an embrace that was a completed and completely physical expression of love, an embodiment of it, physical but not sexual, and in it was resolved the entire thirteen-year history of our friendship. Then he was in Jerusalem with me, the earthly, not the heavenly city, and for a moment I was preoccupied, as I have been in dreams before, by the difference between authentic and inauthentic relics.

When we were both in college, in North Carolina, the campus was flooded with evangelists, who would interrupt your solitary reveries on a step or a wall or a path to ask, “Have you been saved?” A fellow freshman told me that as a Catholic, I would go to hell for worshiping the Virgin Mary. Another student asked me, “Don’t you want to be sure that if you were to walk out onto that highway and be hit by a car right now, you would be going to heaven? That’s what it means to be saved.” No, not really, I told her. I did not want to be sure. I believed that doubt is part of faith, and uncertainty part of hope; that I felt in me a faith I wanted to share, just by living, with my friends, most of whom for all I knew were agnostics or atheists. She said, maybe you need to get different friends.

He was elusive then. He reminded me of a deer running in the woods. He lived more dangerously than I. Still, from the time I met him, the time of our first endless conversations and extravagant omelets cooked in the tiny dorm kitchen, I considered him one of my best friends. When he heard this our freshman year he was surprised; he said I had not yet risked anything with him. It was the first time anyone had suggested to me that friendship had to do with risk and not security. Later, I would try to tell him everything I thought, to risk all in words. I often failed, especially at the end. He retained a privacy that was no longer an elusiveness, no longer hiding from himself and others, just a staking out of a territory that was his own.

For a while after he moved to a new city and began to explore not just gay sex but a gay life, and we both worked at jobs that did not pay us enough to travel, we did not see each other very often. When we began to spend time together again, we talked about our uncertainties and frustrations over boyfriends and work. We also talked about belief and doubt, about the cynicism of intellectuals: the dryness of the world we had seen and of which we could so easily become a part. He scorned superficial pieties, but he was afraid of becoming cynical. He did not want to give up the capacity to believe, the richness and beauty of the Catholic Church in which he too had been raised, his spiritual life, his responsibility to what he would choose to call his soul.

We began to go to church together when I was in town. He would not take communion, so as not to be a hypocrite, as I suppose I was. He respected the rules of the Church that allowed him few options, that would have preferred he marry only part of himself to a woman like me, rather than live all in the life to which his heart and body led him. Once at mass with another friend standing between us, I glanced over, tears in my eyes from some romantic grief, to see that he was crying too.

I told him that my friendship with him had taught me how to love. He said, “What do you mean?” He was not one to pretend he understood you when he didn’t or wasn’t sure. He wanted to know more, always, to hear with a roundness. I said, our being able to accept distances and disagreements and even irritation, having a confidence that we can bend and not break, a total confidence that our friendship is about sharing a life, over a lifetime. He nodded, this time understanding me completely.

He imagined us in middle and old age, impassioned professors riding bicyles around a college campus, with enough time to think and read and talk and teach and write. He wrote, it is true, beautifully; sometimes fiercely, coldly, abstractly, deliriously, heatedly, in painstaking particular detail. He never published a word. In college he had been the professor’s fairhaired boy. The complete set of Faulkner, each volume of which he had read twice, imposed, in their lurid paperback covers, a certain obligation on his bookshelves, a requirement: existence as exhortation, as memory and therefore narrative. He told magnificent stories about his panhandle hometown, the woman next door who taught him piano, and the one who came to the screen door to listen to him play; stories about the old priest and about the boy he loved secretly who later worked on an oil rig and died suddenly in a wreck. About his family, his three brothers. About himself, the youngest, who saw and felt all and reinvented it with the lushness we know to be the evergreen lifesap of art. The talented one, full of the arrogance and self-hatred of his difference. Enthralled and repelled by his own sensitivity, and his lusts.

Early in his illness he dreamed that the bag in which he carried his books for graduate school was covered in blood. His writing mentor wanted him to write a book, a journal of his illness. But when he was sick, he could not write, and when he was well, he wanted just to live, to be alive, to celebrate hunger and its satisfaction. The tedium of sickness tormented him even more than the pain, the lethargy it induced, the necessity of preoccupation with medications and reactions and each new symptom. The unsolveable geometry of it became a recurrent figure of his nightmares. There was the home IV kit, the ritual of flushing arteries with saline before and after the antibiotic drip, the night-fevered heat in his ears that would not let him sleep. The fear of losing all his senses, his ability to smell gone, and hearing and taste diminished by chronic sinus infections. The test for MAC that involved driving a special needle into the knob of his hipbone, giving him new insight into the crucifixion: Imagine, he said, “They nailed His hands, feet, and hipbone to the cross.” The mysterious gut infection that brought a pain that made suicide understandable, a pain that filled his entire consciousness, leaving no room for anything but pain. In talking of this he told me of trying to imagine his death, and in the telling I felt he had made it beautiful. “What do you mean,” he asked quietly. I tried to say that the essential beauty of his way of describing things, and the importance to me of his telling, transfigured them. I could not say, though I felt it, that our conversation itself was a sacrament.

The additional burden of leaving a written legacy was one he both did, and did not, need. He had just left his job to work full-time on his master’s thesis when he died. The final infection with its attendant septicemia swept him away in a day.

When I asked him a couple of months before if he’d ever thought of publishing his journals, he almost spat, no. Who would be interested? he said, which I took to mean he would let us decide, after his death, whether anyone would be. He loathed sloppiness, self-indulgence when it came to serious work, so he avoided taking his most important work seriously. At his famous friend’s insistence, he wrote a piece for his magazine, a special issue on AIDS, but the piece never ran. To be honest it was not right. What was outrageous and brilliant and defiant in a letter to the friend became tame and opaque and self-conscious in the imagined context of a prestigious mainstream magazine. He was not satisfied with it. The problem, he said, was how to find a voice, a form, that could exist in a public space. His art was relentlessly private, journals and letters written with incandescent intensity to an audience of one, or no one; homemade cards, sketches, collages, scatterpaintings, woodblock prints, found-art reliefs and oils, piano sonatas and jazz improvisations, homecooked meals, snacks of pickled okra and sandwiches of pimento cheese. He invented hilarious anecdotes about his trips to the store, recounted overheard snatches of conversation with in the various voices, hamming up the accents. His partner, after he died, talked about how much time they had spent together “doing nothing special,” how good that was. When I visited, my friend made the best coffee, with cream; sometimes he brought it to me in bed, and sat on the foot of it, talking me awake for an hour or two. Sometimes we walked around the neighborhood, sat by the fountain, went into a bookstore; once we each got a pair of shoes repaired.

He loved yard sales and flea markets, the castaways of other lives furnishing his own: the sheets, the dishes and cookware, the coffee maker, books, religious artifacts (a plaster Joseph, or is it Anthony? with a rusted chain halo, and Mary, gracing either end of the living room window, which looked over the city in an apartment where several times a day you’d hear a chorus of church bells ringing), the couch and chairs and little marble-topped endtable. He had his own yard sales, returning the no-longer-wanted materials of his own life to the reincarnating cycles of secondhand commerce. The profits would go to buy himself and his friends a good dinner.

It was the middle of the 1990s. We were all potential; we were not yet thirty. We knew that an entire generation of artists was dying, and yet we imagined that the artists among us would create something lasting—that his own work or that of his friends would immortalize him.

Contain him. This jumping out at us from books he read and music he loved and food he relished, things he made us buy, coming to us in our dreams to wrestle us out of sleep into a lake of cold water (as he tried to do to me, mischievously, when he had only been a couple of months dead) or in others’ memories of him, alive and rolling naked in a pile of leaves in the park, orchestrating a seduction to “The Girl from Ipanema,” getting young women to pose topless for his sketchbook when he was still only twelve—(“I could always tell he was different,” his mother said, “he could draw a perfect basket of Easter eggs when he was three years old”)—what kind of immortality is that?

In the myth-making stories we told in the days after he left us, carving the grooves in our memories that might hold him, the images began to conflict, or if not to contradict, at least to separate from each other, like the planes in the Picasso print that once hung in his kitchen. (Or was it the living room? Didn’t he hang an extra yard sale frame tilted before it and a doll or a wig or record album cover or some other piece of junk to bring it into a third dimension?) Or like the sentences in the Gertrude Stein novel he once cut to pieces to make the papermache face of a mannequin called Ida, the figure of the book’s protagonist, whom he photographed in her mannish brown suit in different locations around his neighborhood. Ida, a perfect mockery of artistic creation, striding in all her brilliant inauthenticity up the public steps of city buildings, briefcase in hand, her face composed of the deconstructed lines of Gertrude Stein still as evocative as before. The photographs of her are quite beautiful.

In our high-rise college dorm there was a public space that was never used, a ground floor “common room” with a grand piano, which he made his own. Sometimes at night the whole lobby would be vibrating—he was playing Rachmaninoff, with no one else there. I do not think he believed in the immortality of art, though he devoured it, honored it, yearned for it. But maybe he did believe in it, and regretted the lack of time to make “a lasting contribution.” Maybe he simultaneously believed and did not believe. It is possible he believed that art was no more immortal than the shape of him in the clothes his mother so wanted to bring home with her after he died. Than the taste of her melt-in-the-mouth Yorkshire puddings. The sperm, even, that carried the virus. Perhaps his body itself lives longer than art, in the molecules of him now diffused through the Gulf of Mexico.

In any case there was little division in him between matter and spirit.

His last two years, after he knew he was sick, his innermost circle of friends were all Catholic. Observant and non-observant, atheist, agnostic and devout, gay, lesbian, and hetero, fornicators all. His hometown priest —delightfully gay himself, singing Broadway showtunes after the scattering of the ashes—saw his mother each week in steadfast prayer to Mary, and thought of her strength as that of the Virgin Mother herself. After he died I would think of the quality of his attentiveness as an aspect of the personality of Christ. Of unlimited conversations with him in eternity as the only conception I could have of heaven. At his deathbed we all prayed, and all partook of the communion of his Last Rites. The love of him filled the room. His big toe was turning white as his heart slowly stopped beating—I saw when his brother lifted a corner of the sheet. “Push on out from shore,” one of his brothers said, “you’re going to a better place.”

“You’re going to be with God,” his most devout friend said. Where is that? I thought, what does it mean, to go to be with God? His young gay doctor, who must have done this again and again and again, for his patients, his friends, turned the monitor away so that only he had to see it, so he could tell us when our friend’s heart had stopped.

Either he was rolling naked in the leaves somewhere else, and would do so eternally (but without repetition), or he would never do so again. It is difficult to know, isn’t it? What we are meant to understand by “the resurrection of the body.”

“Heavy, isn’t it?” his father had said of the black nylon bag, full of his “remains.” When we all jumped in the water after pouring his ashes off the boat (not scattering, but pouring, clouding the water like milk) the thickness of the water on my tongue shocked me, and for a moment I thought I was tasting his ashes. The heavy taste of the salt water like blood or tears. His father’s pale face where he drifted alone among the white carnations we had thrown, already swept by the current away from the boat, toward the Gulf.

He had trouble imagining it, he had said, his death. When he tried to contemplate an end to his own existence he was simply mystified by it. He could not understand it. He imagined the grief of his family and friends and was saddened, but when he thought of himself, of his own death, it was not unpleasant. Nor pleasant. When he was a child and couldn’t sleep, he used to imagine his mother’s womb before sperm and egg had met to form him, then his parents before they met and were married, and each of his parents in their mothers’ wombs, and their parents before they were married, in their mothers’ wombs, and his grandparents’ parents before they met, unravelling the thread of his own existence until he fell asleep. His imagination of his death, he said, was something like that.

He was physically beautiful, and remained so even in death, pale hair dusting strong freckled forearms.

He believed in God, and did not believe, and awaited the reconciliation of his unbelief.

He was afraid of dying.

There was little division in him between matter and spirit.

Alane Salierno Mason is a vice president and senior editor at W.W. Norton & Company, where she has edited prize-winning and bestselling works both of fiction and nonfiction. She has published reviews and essays in Vanity Fair, The Boston Review, and other publications, and translated Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily (a New Directions Classic). She is the president and founder of Words Without Borders, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the translation, publication, and promotion of international literature (, hosted by Bard College and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and other public and private donors.