A FICTION MORE REAL
(after Pink Narcissus)
A smooth twink with an enthusiastic butt crawls nude through a technicolor garden. The sky is dark but the world gleams with a glitter-light, the camera gliding over him, as if the lens has fingers. The twink ponders animatronic butterflies, his nipple with a blade of grass, his self. He stares, kisses his mirrored reflection in a Pepto Bismol boudoir. He tries on different uniforms, different personas: matador, biker, emperor, imp. They become his lovers, his neighbors, his mannequins, his art. And at once, they are all him. A world of delirious fantasy, desire, beauty seen through a kaleidoscope.
James Bidgood filmed almost all of Pink Narcissus in his small Chelsea studio over seven years in the sixties. He built the lavish sets himself—crinoline clouds, rivers of lame, paper flowers. He collected flotsam from costume shops, theatre sets and fabric stores, brought them to his flat like a bird to a nest, and fashioned a whole world for this lonely young hustler, played by Bobby Kendall—the soul of Bidgood.
The first network documentary on homosexuality in the United States, aptly titled “The Homosexuals” aired in March, 1967, on CBS Reports, during the middle year of Bidgood’s production. Mike Wallace anchored with his guillotine inflection. The episode featured testimony from psychiatrists, cultural critics, lawyers, woven with footage of a dark gay bar and a sex sting operation. Wallace reports to America, “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested or capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life, his love life, consists of a series of one-chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits. And even on the streets of the city—the pick-up, the one-night stand, these are characteristics of the homosexual relationship.”
Because Bidgood’s public life consisted of spaces in the dark—bathhouses, porn theatres, silent encounters—perhaps he needed something to be celebrated in bold light. And so, he packed his room with fresnels and gels, mirrors and bulbs, to beam the brightness of his mind, a 300 square foot studio in New York City.
In an old college journal of mine, running up the margins, I scribbled art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime. I don’t remember why I wrote that, and wonder if I was stoned when I did. But it stays with me, and I think of that phrase a lot.
Stanley Siegel, in his book Uncharted Lives, claims, “Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming productive—drawing, writing, creating.” We express with fantasy in spite of an incomprehensible or hostile reality.
I was seven years-old when my mother left home to explore her stolen youth before it entirely disappeared. She was 15 years-old when she married my father, who was merely fresh out of high school, himself. They had to travel to South Carolina for the nuptials, the only state that allowed children to marry. Not long after she birthed my older brother, Chris, and my father enlisted in the Marine Corps, did my mother realize her unhappiness. How could she know my father, when he wasn’t even yet a man? And how could she know herself? Yet, my mother tried for years to make it work, like a child of a broken home would do. In all, she lasted 17. Imagine a woman of 32 who’s already lived a lifetime. She knew there was something more, and needed to find out what it was on her own. The Hawaiian sea breeze whispered this wisdom to her when we’d walk to the shore and stare out at the splice of two-tone blue. I overheard the mutterings myself, and somehow understood what the wind had said, without knowing the exact words.
However, my understanding did not come without pain. Not a sudden wall kind of pain, no. My mother was the center of the world, so when she left the whole middle of my body followed. And this is how you break a child, you know. Step one, take the mother away. I retreated, to more than merely my room, escaping however I could the anger, the fighting between Chris and my father, my hand on my stomach, watching it pass right through. I played records, read my Highlights, stared at the gaps in my bedroom door, and then created, within those eggshell walls, to fill the hole in my belly, a sister: Shenandoah, just like the mountains, the river valley, as sloping and bosomed as the land itself. She had auburn hair that shocked in all directions, a wild bright beauty who traced the cracks of the ceiling with a finger and squinted eye, built forts with bedlinens and books, who kept my secrets. Before sleep, she lying next to me, our foreheads almost touching, I would whisper my biggest secret, “I miss her,” and she would whisper back, “she misses you, too.”
Shenandoah never left my room, somehow content with the cloistered arrangement. And my loneliness, a self of its own, never questioned her presence. And then, when my father announced he was re-stationed to Quantico, Virginia, a night before we flew across the ocean, Shenandoah slipped through my window, turned back slightly, hair still shrouding her face, and ran out into the dark, never to return.
Art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime.
Wallace further reports, “The dilemma of the homosexual: told by the medical profession he is sick; by the law that he’s a criminal; shunned by employers; rejected by heterosexual society. Incapable of a fulfilling relationship with a woman, or for that matter a man. At the center of his life he remains anonymous. A displaced person. An outsider.”
In high school I told my classmates that I grew up in Tokyo. No, I didn’t just tell them I grew up in Tokyo, I lavished upon them an epic tale that could cross an ocean. Even though our Marine Corps family had moved all over the country, and I had traveled more than most my age, I fabricated an even more exuberant history. My classmates were perceptive enough to know I was different—which inspired in me a new isolation—and were too consumed with their own belonging to complicate matters by including me. I was not legible to them, so I made myself the most extraordinary thing to read, a flashy billboard. I could describe for them Tokyo’s skyline, the neon lights, onigiri vendors perched in front of my residential high-rise, a kaleidoscope of place, though I’d never stepped foot on Honshu. I decorated this history with layered backdrops, vivid stories, images and characters as tactile as fabric, a complete world of my own, and presented to them this cinema, of sorts. I saw it, then, as a gift, somehow, not a deception, and certainly not what it truly was.
I would perform often these fabrications—these deceptions—throughout my youth. Stories of exotic travel, of chance encounters with love, stories of my body, perhaps all desires made manifest, tinged with a rolling language that drew people near. Which desire held me most? Their proximity, or mine?
Art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime.
Towards the end of Pink Narcissus, after a street sequence outside of the twink hustler’s flat, where throngs of vendors hawk butt-plugs and blowjobs, there is a fourth wall crack in the camera lens, and a deep Russian swell in the score, that sobers the delirium. Bidgood suggests the twink’s fabricated world turns tawdry once it leaves the asylum of his room. This room, his mind. We realize how necessary that lens had been, now that it is broken. Man is born beautiful, but everywhere outside his mind is degraded. That is our hostile reality.
Once my yarns of Tokyo were discovered as lies, they lost all their intrinsic beauty, this lustrous imagery cracked. My schoolmates flipped from arms-length awe to anger with a torrent I never escaped. Why they seethed, of course, I shamefully understand. I never called what I was doing art. And without a lens that could be cracked, it is presumed by others to be truth, and truth of a different kind than it is—and was—for me.
Soon I was to fathom my imprudence, and upon so withdrew into art. I opened the room of my imagination wide—the doors, the windows, the closet—with a pen instead of my tongue, and endowed fantasies that could not be confused with lies. And yet, these fictions told only a kind of truth, certainly not what it truly was. You move a vase from one side of the room to the other, and there is a change, a sense, a new reality to the thing.
Shenandoah appears in my dreams often. Her hair spills over my shoulder as we read a book together, or we run along the walls of my room that are probably smaller than I remember. She is not a memory, more a truth than true, imagination made material. A fiction more real than most of my lived reality.
A couple of years ago I was visiting a friend in Chelsea. I discovered that she lived directly below James Bidgood, in the same building where it all happened. I imagined the flotsam floating in every crevice, in every corner of his imagination made material, that small studio above my head. The layered history in my mind’s eye made my elbows tingle. She asked me, “You want to meet him, see the apartment?” I did. I really did. I wanted to meet the man who remained anonymous until only 15 years ago, with this soufflé of a film. I wanted to hold one of the animatronic butterflies, run the lame along my forefinger, and breathe on the very mirror that Bobby Kendall pressed his lips to 50 years before. But even as my heart leapt, I shook my head, slowly, and said to her, “That’s OK.”
I wanted to tell her that some things need to remain one’s fantasy. I wanted to tell her that if I went into that room, the nameless twink and his imaginings might slip out the window and never return.
Miah Jeffra is author of The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic 2017), The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry 2020), The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence 2021), and co-editor, with Arisa White and Monique Mero, of the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter 2020). Awards include the New Millennium Prize, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, Lambda Literary Fellowship, and 2019 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Anthology. Most recent work can be seen in The North American Review, Fourteen Hills Review, The Los Angeles Press, Wasafiri, The Forge and Interim. Miah is founding editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.