Aaron and I are staring through Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pennsylvania masterwork. The famous house’s cantilevers stack themselves over Bear Run, the stream that runs through the house and climaxes in waterfall just beneath its shadow. The water trickles below us and crashes into the falls, which we can only hear, not see, from where we’re standing. We’re on our way to Chicago, home, after a four-day queer techno campout in the woods of Pennsylvania. We stick out. I know I smell, an organic magnet for every bug around. The polish on my nails is chipped and janky, and every piece of jewelry I own clings to me desperately. Although to be fair, I’ve neither been in a house nor in front of a mirror in four days. I haven’t really slept, either, and it’s early.
The campout we are coming from is a place to bear witness to queer potential, including your own. It is raw, utopian. DJs and party crews from across the world gather at an interfaith sanctuary to play techno and house and trip hop and ambient and bass. Flush with intensity, the soundscapes clash and bang for four days, pushing campers toward the core spirit of the event: to unite in queerness and untie from societies that have never made much room for us. Unlike the modern music festival we are often sold, the campout takes no sponsorship, only people. What it gives back is a new, more bravely imagined world: meals shared, conversations embodied, selves negated and rediscovered, unconventional relations rekindled or formed anew.
This year, at one of the afterhours venues, a group of artists from my once-home DC created an installation named Mother Nurture: a life-size mannequin covered in 16,000 tiny pieces of glass, her arms outstretched delicately to suggest an ascent into the plant-covered ceiling of a converted park pavilion. Dangling, mid-ascent, she spun gently over a collection of polypropylene crystals that jutted in and out of a short, cylindrical platform. I stood in awe of her each night, my arms around friends, former lovers, and new crushes alike. Staring at her thousands of fractal twinklings, we pieced together Mother Nurture’s significance in conversation, dance, and silence.
The installation nodded to disco culture, and maybe to this year’s Met Gala (Camp: Notes on Fashion), while the name subverted the conventional, accepted wisdom from the nature/nurture debate over sexuality and gender identity—“Born This Way” was not on any of the weekend’s tracklists. Completing the piece, the pavilion was lit with lines of blue LEDs rung around the edge of the dancefloor and pink light-globes peppered through the interior. Together, the lights doused Mother Nurture and her glimmering reflections in lavender, neither pink nor blue, only people who were connecting and dancing and rolling around on the floors, bathing and baring themselves in the color of queers.
So rarely are queers allowed such an extended communal nudity, not only physical, but spiritual and emotional, too. The power lasts, and the knowledge that such a world existed, and that I actively participated in it, makes an ordinary day feel like living in a trash compressor. Four days in any paradise can do that. I know this already because I’ve been to the campout four times before, and returning to the office to sit in windowless rooms with people in suits feels absurd every time. Alongside the stark contrast in fashion comes a disbelief that people have chosen to spend thousands of hours squeezing themselves into a stale, drab confinement—that I have chosen this. The initial shock eventually fades into the intimidating realities of rent and groceries and student loans, but never completely.
Knowing that this experience awaits us at home, I want to be as soft as I can be at Fallingwater, not only for myself, but also for Aaron, to hold space for him to unfurl comfortably as we start our trip. This was his first time at camp, and he’s yet to experience reentry. Aaron foresaw this, knowingly or not, and declared weeks in advance that we were stopping at Fallingwater on the way home. I fell in love with the idea immediately. Despite his choosing an awful Deadhead playlist as this morning’s musical opening, I’m beyond grateful that we are making the first stop of our journey in a place of tranquility, instead of under the sharp fluorescent lighting of a highway-exit Hardee’s.
But as we stare through the house, I still feel a little speedy, have a sense that some of the drugs are whittling down their half-lives inside me. The awareness is harsh. We’ve been assembled, randomly, into a tour group with a two-and-a-half-child family, a few septuagenarian couples, a priest. I don’t have to look to feel stray glares and sideways glances. I focus on our tour guide. He’s short, cute, twenty-something. Has a gay-fade haircut and delivers his opening speech with a hint of nasal in his voice. No photos allowed. We’re on the bridge over Bear Run that leads into the house. The water rushes by. I listen for its crash into the falls, find a cricket’s chirp instead. I lose my eyes in the tour guide’s, notice that I’ve thrown him off his script. It’s August, sunny. I turn to Aaron in a whisper:
“Do you think he’s family?”
“Yeah, like, you know, family.” I wink to Aaron, who’s still quizzical. A pause.
“Oh! Oh! Maybe? I don’t know, I can’t really tell.”
We go inside. A photo of a man in his late 20s catches my eye from behind the glass of a picture frame. He wears neat, thigh-cut shorts and an unbuttoned polo, book in hand. The tour guide points him out, introducing him as Edgar J. Kaufmann jr. (he preferred the j to be lower case). In the photograph, he’s standing on the bridge we just crossed, flanked only by his parents. We learn that Kaufmann jr. had no children, and that, while he continued to visit Fallingwater and curate the interior design, he transferred ownership of the home and the surrounding land to the Western Pennsylvania Conservatory in 1963, well before his death in 1989.
With the residues of the campout still sticking to the edges of my mind, the details of Kaufmann jr.’s biography congeal into a narrative I recognize: no children, an eye for interior design, a death in the late-eighties. First the tour guide, now the benefactor. Attuned to these suggestions of queerness, I start to form a small, drug-addled hope that this year, reintegration might be different. That, even as we walk with a priest and several other nuclear families, the paradise will persist and turn every moment into a recognition of queerness connected to a global community, the living and the dead. It is a hope that anywhere might feel as much a home as campout, that I can, for once, unloose the belonging that I carry so tightly to my breast and roll it out like a big rug in the middle of the street, the whole world transformed into our living room. It is a hope that I will no longer be tired.
The tour continues as a dazzling reflection of the house’s history, with stories of Frida Kahlo’s stay, detailed descriptions of the works of art, and wonderful dissections of the direction of the light, the height of the ceilings, the paneless corners of the windows. My body is open and attentive from the sex and the drugs and the dancing of the last four days, and I absorb the house, its symbiosis with the forest and the stream, the sunny studies, the clear lines, every detail orchestrated to keep pushing us back outside. The group moves through the passageways, out onto the patios, back around the staircases, up and over the paths. Aaron charges ahead with them, but I linger just a bit behind, taking my time to pass through each doorway.
I catch back up with the group as the tour guide concludes: “You’re welcome to return to our gift shop and visitor center, which was designed by Paul Mayén, Edgar jr.’s partner.” My eyes flick to my side, where they catch Aaron’s. We wheel back to the tour guide’s eyes in synchrony, all of this happening in a split-second. The guide takes a short beat, not a full one. “Romantic partner.” Of course.
It’s two months after camp, autumn, and I have a new job, one with fewer suits and more natural light. I’ve allowed my return to daily life to take on a lightness that it hasn’t after previous campouts. I moved to Chicago about a year ago, and this year’s camp provided the space to share time with my chosen family from DC, where I had lived for the previous decade. That family and our relationships almost stopped me from moving to Chicago entirely, and when I did move, I agonized over leaving the community that we had created together. But we still love one another, and this year’s campout sustained the relentless teasing, vulnerable conversations, and expressions of abundant joy that are our mode. Now, I’m carrying a renewed sense that our bonds have been forged with material strong enough to withstand the rigors of six-hundred miles of distance and full cycles of the sun and seasons. If anything, the distance clarified our connections, and accordingly, the distance I travel from the everyday to my utopian ideal has been shortened, though not yet eliminated.
Aaron and I are also still in touch, and while I haven’t seen him often, we’ve been texting each other memes about historians’ erasure of gays and queers. I’m lying in bed at night, alone after an average day, when he sends a meme that depicts Jesus’ three wisemen lying in bed together in a scene of obviously-more-than-platonic intimacy. The caption: “beds used to be a much rarer commodity and thus people who weren’t necessarily ‘sleeping together’ shared them quite often and anyway I just found this awesome painting of the three wise men.” I cackle for a few minutes, and because Aaron is sending this, I reminisce about Fallingwater and our final moment with the tour guide, how he traced the outlines of Kaufmann jr. and Mayén’s relationship without telling the full story. I get pulled in, freshly, and move to my desk to Google edgar Kaufmann jr “AIDS”, clicking through the results and scouring every link for new threads of information.
The Fallingwater website officially states that “Kaufmann [jr.]’s partner, the architect and designer Paul Mayén also contributed to the legacy of Fallingwater with a design for the site’s visitor center, completed in 1981.” Partner, yes, but romanticis missing. I have no reason not to believe the tour guide, but his clarification does not appear on the website. I know that for the average Fallingwater website visitor, partner maintains a measure of ambiguity: both men developed long careers in the architecture world, and Kaufmann jr. would have been involved in commissioning Mayén for the visitor center. Kaufmann jr.’s 1989 New York Times obituary clarifies his cause of death as leukemia, but, similar to the Fallingwater website, describes Mayén as “Mr. Kaufmann’s longtime colleague and companion,” another subdued intimation of romance but also a trigger to any Catholic’s memory of “Companions on the Journey,” the maddeningly catchy 1985 church classic. The obituary concludes unambiguously, as the entirety of the last paragraph reads, “There are no survivors.”
I feel the finality of that line as its weight hits my chest and pins me to my chair. I can’t accept it, won’t accept it. I need to discover Kaufmann jr. and Mayén for myself, to unearth the truth; the sting of the erasure compels me to honor them with action. Along with this sense of responsibility, though, comes a familiar pleasure. As I move through daily routines, I already indulge in the thrill of locating queerness in plain sight. I search for the right combination of piercings on people I pass in the street, catch and return covetous glances on the L, or get cruised in the most unexpected places, like an Eataly. In those moments, I’m seeking a feeling of being desired, certainly, but I’m also attuning myself to a certain quality of refraction, a mutual recognition that the world we’re traversing has yet to accommodate our entireties.
What sets this quest apart is that I am sitting still, at my desk, and that Mayén and Kaufmann, jr. are dead. It happened, it’s over, and the actual facts of the matter can no longer change, even if some of them have yet to be uncovered. Because of this, I fixate on finding a definitive and extensive proof; I hope that, even if I fail, the pursuit of the concrete will yield enough information for me to tell myself a true story. I tap at my keyboard furiously, trying to find the right combination of boolean operators to decode the mystery, but the material on the internet remains scarce, Mayén and Kaufmann jr.’s history incomplete, just out of reach.
With thirteen tabs already open, and none of them very promising, I manage to discover a 2003 book publicity article for Franklin Toker’s Fallingwater Rising, in which Toker mentions that he interviewed Mayén for four hours as part of his research. I seek out more information about the book—cover jacket synopses, published reviews, user reviews—and come to understand it as the definitive story-behind-the-story, a myth-busting account of the Kaufmann family while they endeavored to build Fallingwater. I don’t waste time making my way to the local LGBTQ bookstore, but they don’t have it in stock, so I ask them to place an order. I wait antsily, unable to keep my mind off of these men and this book. The truth feels imminent, and I start to fill in the juicy details of the narrative I expect to find.
A week later, the bookseller who I have a crush on calls me, telling me that the book has come in. I pick it up that afternoon, but as I start to read on the train ride home and in the subsequent days, the hope I have for the book sours quickly. Toker, who is married to a woman, fails to make a decision about Mayén and Kaufmann jr. on any of his 400-plus pages. I flip back through the book, check the index, convinced that I’ve missed the key passage, that I overlooked the heat of the tell-all. I haven’t. Toker labels Mayén at different points only as Kaufmann jr.’s “friend” or “loyal friend,” while their relationship oscillates between “companionship” and “friendship.”
The only consistency in the existing descriptions of Mayén and Kaufmann jr.’s relationship seems to be ambiguous language that obscures the romance and the sex, or, at best, fails to make it clear. In contrast to Kaufmann Sr.’s sexual and romantic history, which was apparently extensive and is quite well-documented in Fallingwater Rising and elsewhere, this is a notable hole in the Kaufmann family narrative. But combined, these elisions assemble in my imagination a burning, clandestine passion between Mayén and Kaufmann jr., some infinitely tangled and intensive desire hidden from view, one that endured bar raids and Anita Bryant and sodomy laws and the crisis.
Spurred on by my own visions of their life, I end up doing some more Googling a week or so after I set down Toker’s book. I find an unceremonious blog post about Mayén that I had missed the first time: “In the early 1950s, he met a fellow art student, Edgar Kaufmann, jr., with whom he would share his life until Edgar’s death in 1989.” I scroll down to the comments, bracing myself for homophobic landmines, but there are none. None of the commenters reference his sexuality at all, actually. Instead, a few people write to say they worked with him, trying to make connections with old colleagues. One stands out, typos included: “I worked for Habitat [Mayén’s design firm] from 1962 to 1970, my first job, I worked for Paul Mayén & Len Eisen […] I had tthe most wonderful years there. Is there anyone ou there who rremembrss ee?” I’m transported to my memory of Fallingwater, Aaron and I making eye contact and turning to the tour guide—I hear Mayén, his voice a ghostly, barely audible whisper: is there anyone out there who remembers me?
Each time I meet that moment—weeks, months later—it glimmers in my mind’s eye. As I add information to the context, new angles and dimensions are revealed. It has become a generative reflection for me, one that connects me, glancingly, with a past that foreran my presence in this world. In Cruising Utopia, I read José Esteban Muñoz analyze Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, and his correspondence with Katie Kent about the poet’s life. I return to Fallingwater again: “Queerness is illegible and therefore lost in relation to the straight minds’ mapping of space. Queerness is lost in space or lost in relation to the space of heteronormativity.” Lost in relation to.
Paul Mayén and Edgar Kaufmann jr. were both cremated, and their ashes were scattered on Fallingwater’s grounds, eleven years apart. The last pieces of their remains have long since run into the stream, settled on its bottom or flowed through to the Youghiogheny, the Monongahela, the Ohio, the Mississippi. Individually, they still live at Fallingwater, in the tour script, on the website, in the books. They each have achieved some small immortality. Together, as queers, they exist somewhere else, off the map, just out of reach. This is our queer way: to be illegible, and yet to speak. To hear a whisper and turn it into a proclamation. To find one another, somewhere, across space and time. When our tour guide added romance to their partnership, Aaron and I were already there, reading the lines from our ancestors’ history, sitting with the subtext, yearning for utopia.