“AIDS is not over, sickness will never be over, care will always be needed. Moving towards justice means learning how to care from the past and present going forward.” – An Army of the Sick Cannot Be Defeated, Visual AIDS
When you are single, you are the medium through which you explore the world. When you are in love, the partner and you (together and apart) become the medium through which you explore the world.
They post an Arthur Russell song. That’s all I’ve been listening to, so I don’t know but I want to take it as a sign. I want to take everything as a sign. I don’t want to give up. I draft an email about Arthur Russell. “He’s mine” I say. “Sorry Tom Lee.”
I keep listening to Arthur Russell over and over and over and over. The ethereal nature is glum and hopeful and sly.
“I never get lonesome,” Arthur Russell sings. But he must have. How else could he have invented this melancholy, this solace?
“Love comes back”, Arthur sings. This song was written as he knew he was dying from AIDS-related illness. He wrote through time to his boyfriend Tom Lee.
Tom Lee met Arthur Russell at the Gem Spa. Tom describes the support, the couch, the ice cream at the Gem Spa. The acne scars of Arthur’s. “He’s the guy I wanted to be on the couch with, end of the day.”
We can’t go to Gem Spa right now.
I hang up some postcard sized self-printed works of art in my room: Haring’s Hell, Agnes Martin’s last work, a portrait of Joni, a portrait of O’Hara, a portrait of Derek Jarman in his garden, a work by Howardena Pindell, a portrait of Ingmar Bergman, a Cy Twombly, two David Wojnarowicz pieces. I’d hung them after I felt alone and I’d needed my space to orient around something else. That part of yourself, Patti Smith says, that you don’t give to anyone else. Of course, Arthur Russell is pinned right above my bed.
The lockdown/shelter in place “officially” begins. My back feels so constricted, so in pain. Chariot comes to give us groceries and I go down the stairs and stand at the door. We talk about revolution and I mention them. That I thought we were going to support each other in this. I think I’m realizing that’s what I thought. I thought I wasn’t entirely alone in this– and I am. I am alone. I don’t want someone to tell me I’m not because I am. I’m tired of people choosing if I’m alone or not. I’m tired of people choosing if I’m hurt or not. I’m tired of people choosing if I’m traumatized or not. Everyone says they don’t want to hurt you– and then they do. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just what happens.
Chariot leaves and I come back upstairs. I stand against the sink and cry as I wash out the coffee pot in the silence. Just an occasional car. “Do you hear the silence?” Jo later tells me on the telephone. “There’s no airplanes.”
Tom Lee: “Some people would call Arthur a workaholic, he was the one who got it together enough to get people in the studio to record. And as more and more people went away, I think that’s what drove him to work more and more by himself.”
Arthur’s parents deferred to Tom on treatment. His parents are sweet, chill, latent. They talk freely, without fear of HIV, queerness, or drugs. They talk gently. Like how Arthur’s music is described. Gentle, otherworldly, soft, folk, and containing cosmos unknown. Recording blenders and fish tanks, recording space itself. One man in the Arthur documentary keeps referring to Tom as “Arthur’s boyfriend”, “the boyfriend”. Singing Love Comes Back to his boyfriend over and over.
Arthur’s death is represented by pans of presumably Iowa. Corn, planes over green fields, as someone sings it’s time to go home now.
“Arthur was making a utopia, so there was a compulsion to keep remaking this world.” One of the talking heads says. It feels like there should be a more comprehensive way to access Arthur’s music- not just the floating fragments of collected CDs and a few records. But it also feels queer, a genius whose work is scattered, fragmentary, ghostly, lost, soft. A wild, elusive combination. What networks of care were needed? What breakdowns of familial structure? What were Tom’s first words to Arthur’s parents?
Trauma’s afterlife is boring. Boring in the sense that it is desensitizing. Trauma, as an event, is a story and a narrative with highs and lows, but being traumatized is boring, tiring, an endless torrent of gray. To everyone around it seems like a daily dirge of self-made molehills. Problems arise out of perceptions of events, not always out of actual events. Of course, the actual events are over, and we try to re-see those events in the present. They are not there. I think of all the times I was not safe. I think of how I was attempting to cultivate inner safety. How I was told the outside world was ‘safe’. The outside world is never safe. And that’s ok. And we can tell ourselves that, amiably, openly, one day.
Out of my trauma, I am forced to relearn daily movement. When I am activated, relearning daily movement becomes even harder. Slower. Grayer. I find that I have a hard time getting out of bed now that I live alone. Most of my daily habits become laborious, difficult, an uphill battle to take the trash out. I go outside twice, briefly, in a month.
In lockdown, I am forced to obsess about attachment theory. How am I attached? What does it mean? Can you shift that dynamic? Can you only shift it sometimes? What caused that dynamic? How did trauma condition me to think I need to fix things? I stare out my window towards Downtown Brooklyn, the purple lights blinking like something out of Twin Peaks.
Our bodies form a way of belonging in the world. Gender forms a way of orienting ourselves in the world. The way we cross boundaries. Vulnerability, self-respect, cruelty, and masochism are all ways of moving through the world based on a longing for belonging. Who gets to draw boundaries? Who gets to be famous for being vulnerable? Why not Arthur Russell? My pop star, my historical queer crush?
“As I cooked dinner most nights we would usually coordinate eating with watching The Muppet Show at 7:30. We both liked the silliness of the various characters and how they would tease and interact with the guest hosts. About an hour later we would have a nightly ritual of determining if we should go get some ice cream, who should go get it and what kind. Being somewhat ‘health conscious’, but still wanting a treat we would finally agree on Hagen Dasz honey vanilla, Arthur usually being the one to go up and down the six flights of stairs to get it!” Tom Lee says about Arthur in Gothamist. I read this as Gothamist headlines seem grim and fragile.
I want to get ice cream with them. I want someone to love me enough to get the ice cream to watch the show.
In My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Jenn Shapland states: “What is the precise evidence for love? Documentation of sexual encounters? Examples of daily intimacies? … Love meanwhile lives in the mundane, the moment-to-moment exchanges, and can so easily become invisible after people who shared it are no longer alive. But, of course, it leaves traces.” I think of the Cavafy poem about remembering the color and scent of older lovers’ beds. My body is echoing a bed.
What is the genre of myself?
The cold woman who learns love?
The career woman who falls in love?
The tragic faggot?
The spinster faggot?
The business gay?
There are, of course, coping mechanisms for loneliness. Olivia Laing has written ferociously about the role art plays in creating community through loneliness in The Lonely City and in her writing for The Guardian. Artists in times of crisis and illness have always used art as a call to arms, as a way of telling people they are not alone, as a way of parsing through the contours of their own loneliness in hopes it can help us parse through ours. The hard part being you have to go through the dungeon to feel the cold. Laing talks about Safe by Todd Haynes, the communality of loneliness, and forgiveness during periods where it is hard to check in on each other. Not worrying if someone reads or doesn’t read- if something is a slight or not. I, of course, think of them.
I’m sure it is grating to hear about romance intermixed with pandemics and queer history, at least on some level. What do they have in common? What intersects love, illness, queerness, and art-making?
In one video I said: “love has always been a structured politic for queer people”. I said it in reference to Félix González-Torres, but I think it’s true even today. Love as a way of becoming politically involved, love as a way of moving forward, love as a way of awakening into hope, love as a way of discovering loss, love as a way of making and reading, love as a way of desiring better for yourself and for others, love as a way of learning difference and compassion, love as a way through self-destruction. This is not to say that love cannot backfire and eviscerate self-fortitude.
Certainly, love can rupture delineations of self and cause chaos. It can cause us to need to re-organize a self to move forward. But even that too is perhaps a structured politic, to allow rupture, to allow reformation, to use heartbreak as self-transformation, as self-actualization. A lot of friends have said it is “impressive” that I let myself fall in love or believe in love. It is not really purposeful. It is like being in free-fall, being radically open, being ready for pain and paradoxically ready for the freedom of love. Not just its terror. But if you are open, you need a medical kit, you need a community, and you need that part of yourself you will never give. Or you will only become lost again and again. And navigating that- that is the problem.
I dream that me and my lover are on a farm, that we have kids, that we fuck loudly and say yeehaw because our ancestors couldn’t.
Grace Joshua Byron is a nonbinary storyteller based in New York. They have produced over twenty film works including, most recently, Trans Monogamist. Their writing has appeared in Bushwick Daily, Glo Worm Press, and The Body Is Not An Apology. Their films have screened at the Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival, Forge Mag Presents, Clouds and Other Louds Poetry Festival, and at various colleges. Find their work at joshuabyron.com or @lordjoshuabyron on Instagram and Twitter.