The Wholly Separate Sides
The Wholly Separate Sides
An Essay by Andrew Sarewitz
New Years Eve, 2013.
Early, around 9:30 p.m., I sauntered into the bar in Hell’s Kitchen as if I belonged there —which I suppose I felt I did. My brother-in-crime and owner of the bar, Sasha, hugged me hello. With the crowd being far from overflowing, he was concerned the lack of cash-carrying bodies may be a sign of the night being a bust. I reminded him that after midnight, packs of drunken, obnoxious boys and men would fill his place for the inaugural hours of 2014. I don’t know what I based my confidence upon, but fortunately I was right.
I don’t think I paid for a single cocktail that evening. At a certain point, a group of us pushed through the fire exit and stumbled down the steep and narrow staircase to the cavernous cement basement directly below the bar where the liquor was stored, the ice machine lived and muscled dancers and drag performers changed clothes. We, all gay men, crowded around one of the massive desks. I passed on whatever pills, smoke or tabs were being shared. Instead inhaling thin white lines of exceptionally good coke, compliments of Sasha.
I was nearing the end of these ways but wasn’t celebrating with any precious foresight. For more than 35 years, I had V.I.P.ed the late night watering holes as routine, taking occasional breaks for monogamous romance and stretches of an unstable career. Three months from the last day of 2013, my mother would die. That winter, the wholly separate sides of how I live collided for one final regatta.
In June 2003, after more than a year of failing health, my father telephoned to say that he would not be able to drive into New York City any longer. I would have to travel to New Jersey to see him and Mom. I understood and accepted I would commute the hour and a half trip each direction on Mondays. Due to my career trajectory, Monday is my Saturday. Having dreaded the anticipation and arrival of facing high school mornings on Monday, I reveled in my freedom from what Mondays had put me through.
Told that my father only had a few months to live, committing to visit nearly every week seemed a small and necessary promise. Dad passed away at the end of August, 2006. Weeks had become years.
After his death, I hadn’t intended on keeping up this schedule, nor was it expected by my family. But my mother was so distraught, I chose to continue my Monday visits for another month. I should have realized there was no good way out of this. It was an obligation out of love, but an obligation all the same. I had forfeited the luxury of having a weekend and chose to accept the compromise as a glass half full. My parents had saved well enough that in their infirm years, they would not have to be sent to some state-run facility or, my ultimate panic, need for me to move in with them. Once a week for their sake didn’t seem so terrible against the imagined extreme of a live-in sentence. And I liked my parents.
I think at the beginning of 2014, though I can’t be certain anymore, I had a keen awareness that my mother would not live to see her rose garden bloom. On those Monday nights, after returning to the beat of my city, I dived into the comfort of vodka, cocaine and the distraction of co-conspirators, with Sasha being my unaware escape and savior. The inner circle met below ground, partied up, and surfaced by the bar’s v.j. booth where at least for me, I drifted into a video world of Broadway and movie musicals like an aging chorus player who lives vicariously in memories that may or may not have actually occurred.
I don’t talk much about the hate. It’s uncomfortable and possibly, not the right word. I loved my mother so ferociously that even when magnifying what I considered to be our war zones, there was no one on the planet I loved with this much weight. But I hated what she had become. I hated her for getting ancient and childlike. I really hated that I was forgetting who she had been as a formidable woman. I gave this maternal pentimento my time and company out of love, but she had taken my mother and stolen her past.
With more than ten years of Mondays spoken for, the winter months of 2014 were dormant and sad and not worthy of re-telling as novel. I would fall asleep on the train coming back from New Jersey — more out of escape than exhaustion. My solace for survival was the hours with Sasha and the boys. I have always been a drinker but during that winter of emotional hibernation I snorted rails of white powder in a bid to feel something; and numb something else. As tragic as that may read, I treasured my Monday nights. We were a familial crew, dancing and singing and getting lost in musical Technicolor glory projected on suspended screens.
On March 31, 2014, my mother died. It was a Monday. As it should be. But I wasn’t there that morning. My brother kept her body in state at the house until I could arrive to say goodbye. Once there, any guests kindly left me alone with my mother in her living room. Thirty seconds went by and I called everyone back. Like a parlor comedy, heads peaked out from walls and between bannisters. “Are you sure?” someone asked. My mother lay peaceful but with her mouth wide open, looking like Munch’s iconic painting. At least her eyes were shut, thank God. Bordering on amusing, I couldn’t say some final, reverential words to this silently screaming replica of my mother.
Before it was dark, all visitors had gone. My brother offered to drive me back to the train station. Leaving, as I shut Mom’s screen door, the physical action of unstoppable crying hit me like a freight train without getting permission from my conscious self. It would be the last time I would visit this house as my mother’s home. The last Monday. This was not what freedom was supposed to feel like.
That evening when I got to the bar, I made the choice not to tell anyone, not even Sasha, that my mother had died. If there was ever a time I felt as if I lived outside of my body, this was it. We danced and sang and drank and for one last time, I rolled up a ten dollar bill and snorted white lines of powder.
A group of us stayed late that Monday, early into Tuesday’s quiet hours. At about 3 a.m., I said my goodbyes and left. I walked a few yards north, and a young man I recognized from the bar caught up to me. He was a 23 year old fit model visiting from California. He asked if he could come home with me. I turned and looked at this specimen of human perfection. I was a month shy of turning 55. I hadn’t had sex in over a year. I stepped off the curb and flagged a taxi.
We stayed naked in my bed until after the sun came up. We showered, he dressed, and vanished as anonymously as he had appeared. The only thing missing was a glass slipper. I walked into my kitchen and put on some coffee. It all seemed dizzying and fantastical. How is it that on a night of unavoidable sadness the gift of a beautiful man appeared like a flesh and blood apparition? In the fog of a sleepless hangover I starting laughing out loud. What if while passing from this life in a gesture without earthly judgment my mother had sent him to me as a gift? Okay, I know better. That’s not the kind of farewell present a mother leaves her son. But it made me laugh. It made me laugh the way only my mother could.