Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 14 • Summer 2005 • Fiction

The Things You Say When You Say Goodbye Forever

Shaun Levin

Dean is in Paris with his mother. He wants time and space to think about things, which is fine by me, because I need time and space, too. I wanted to say to him: How will you ever know what you want with your mother so close to your body? But then I remembered who she was, what she'd done for him, and I said: I feel as if I'm grabbing at bits of you before you slip away. Dean tells me I can end the relationship if I want to; he's not going to be the one to say goodbye. I shiver so much I can't talk, and he says: Why do you have to be so emotionless? Now, sitting in the shade of the apple tree in my back garden, the open air is a relief after being cooped up in my room for what feels like weeks. Summer holidays are a trying time for grown-ups, even those of us without children. Three more weeks before I go back to teach. Or maybe I won't. This devotion to the needs and well-being of others has made me angry and unkind; it leaves me little time to remember who I am.

Maya calls from Cape Town just as I am about to leave for La Cucina, my late-morning Sunday café in Soho. We talk about the difference between "anxiety" and "depression." I say I hardly ever feel anxious in my room, yet it's there that I am most in touch with, and able to bear, my depression. What is our motivation? Maya says. What do we get up in the morning for? And we concede: We're here to find beauty. When we lived in the same country I played Orpheus to her Eurydice. When our lovers were away we'd eat sweet-and-sour pork ribs with fresh asparagus and drink white wine with mango ice cream. Now we talk about Adam and Eve and the inevitable stage in each relationship when the fruit gets eaten and there's no place to hide from the truth. She asks if this is about me and her or about Dean and I.

"It's about everyone," I say.

And we laugh, because she knows me like anyone knows and forgives the person who has watched them in hell. She tells me that since I left to live in London she hasn't had anyone to talk to. She says she hates London because London has me. She knows I will never come back. Even if here, too, I am a foreigner, impoverished of memory, and desire, left only with the language I learnt about the world in. At least you've got that, the ancestors say, on the boat from Vilna to Cape Town, taking the family story from one continent to another. London is the closest I'll ever get to home.

"And who's going to cook me nice things?" she says.

I take the 73 bus to Tottenham Court Road and walk down Charing Cross to La Cucina. There's an empty table by the window that is open onto the street. Sam, a friend of Maya's who moved to London long before I did, brought me here soon after I arrived. It was one of the only places you could sit for hours, undisturbed, on one cup of tea. A young Polish woman served us then; later I got to know an older peroxided waitress who'd taught English in Gdansk. Today there are two Italian-speaking Polish waitresses. There is a comfort in being served by others from other countries, and to sit amongst tourists and people from out of town, like the young Australian couple at the table on the pavement outside the window, who order a cappuccino and an iced coffee. He rolls a cigarette while they wait for their drinks; she looks through a brochure.

"How about this one?" she says.

"Is that what you'd like?" he says.

"Well, I'm not really sure what I'd like."

"Are you having second thoughts?" he says.

"Why?" she says. "Are you?"

He shakes his head and holds out his hand. She gives him the brochure -- it's a catalogue of body piercings -- and surveys the street, looking for stories to carry back home with her. A man who might be a pimp or a cab driver walks up and down the side street outside the café eating a pistachio ice cream which diminishes each time he comes into view.

I don't know if I can face the journey back to Stoke Newington, so I walk up and down Shaftesbury Avenue to wear out the pain. I am my mother; she is in me and my heart is cold. The ice that comes and goes and freezes around my heart and inside my chest is back. When beauty looks me in the eyes I imagine telling him my life story, starting in the 1860s or thereabouts.

"Tell me more," he'll say. "And then come fuck me."

On the train from Leicester Square to Finsbury Park I read Hemingway's Paris Review interview. He says that painters have had a profound influence on his work, though he's not very good at explaining why. Writers envy painters, envy them their capacity to translate their dread and confusion into tangible images. Still, a coincidence to chance upon this after seeing the Hundertwasser exhibition with its intricate, mosaic-like, fragmented paintings, and reading about his obsession with his art. I want his kind of freedom; the kind that comes with taking off your clothes in a public lecture hall, and living in a caravan in a field in the middle of a strange country. And what about Hemingway's mother dressing him up in frilly frocks until he was five? What did Mrs. Hundertwasser do to her little boy to make him the way he was? And Dean -- just one more day in Paris -- whose mother gave him away when he was three days old, just time enough to learn the smell of the body from which he came before being passed on to the woman he will call mother.

By two in the morning electric currents are running through me screaming at my body to stay awake; I switch on my bedside lamp and go back to Hemingway. If a writer stops observing, he says, he's finished. And the ice around my heart begins to melt; I am not alone anymore; this constant gnawing at the world for sustenance is justified. I know Hemingway well enough to tell him I'm too scared to really stop and observe, too scared to trust my own built-in, shockproof shit detector, too scared to record exactly what I see. I'm not man enough for you, Papa, am I?

Filled with this realisation, a complete story, I am ready for sleep. The house is quiet.


I hate the summer when only one layer of clothing is possible and bearable. Clothes have always been my shield: they hide my sweat and fat and overgrown nipples. No, I can't write about all this yet. There's a limit to the amount of self-disgust one can expect others to contain. Lighten this up. So, voila: January is the kindest month. Jumper and coat time. Hat, glove, and long-john time. A time when the body forgets its anxieties of exposure. A time to crack open the thin layers of frost that seal in the puddles. A time to frolic and dance and throw watchamacallit to the wind.

Dean and I met in January at a guest house in Cricieth. We landed up at the same table for breakfast, our rooms were adjacent, we were the Londoners in the house. We'd both come to immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature. Beauty like this: Him and I walking along the path to the river, past the bramble and the ivy, through the turnstile and over the fence that keeps the bulls away from the stream. Walking close to the water, watching it slide over algae-covered rocks, and I remember thinking: It's like we've been waiting a lifetime for this. It's like: before you know it, we're a we. We walk and the water flows over the rocks; the sound is what we feed on for the first nine months of our being. Water is the first sound we hear. Over the bridge and back though the grazing fields, holding hands, saying hello to villagers on the way. United in the world, my inner reality has no power to undermine this splendour. I can barely stop myself from laughing and singing and dancing like Seamus O'Sean the Leprechaun.

Back home again -- long after Cricieth, it is the day Dean returns from Paris -- we cling to each other like two boys drowning. Dean says he's surprised how much the prospect of sex with me frightens him. I want to know: How can the beautiful be so scared of touch? With his well-toned muscles and sexually unambiguous jaw. His thick black hair and outrageously protruding nose, so deliciously unashamed of itself, his piano-playing fingers, his Caribbean-sea blue eyes, his muscular hairy legs, his long thick penis that sways when he walks because it is made of gold. If I looked anything like him I'd stand on a stool with a sign around my neck saying: Touch Me. If Dean were to disappear I would be left with nothing. I sometimes think that I can only see myself as those who step into my field of vision.

"There's something brutal about you," he says.


"It's like nothing is ever enough for you," he says. "Like you're always trying to grasp things from everywhere. Like you deserve to snatch whatever you want from others, from the world."

In last night's dream, Gertrude Stein walks along the path opposite my window in her dressing gown and sandals. I am in the cottage near Cricieth; Gertrude has a small hut to herself. She's just made some coffee in the communal kitchen and is taking it back to her room. The air is cool with last night and the sun is behind the hills. Mist hovers like muslin on the grass. She stops, brings her mug to her lips, tests the waters, and walks on to her hut. Minutes later she returns, striding across the paved courtyard, head down, her dressing gown exposing lush chest hair as she marches through the kitchen door. Then, back again, skipping up the stairs, prancing along the footpath, another mug in her hand. I hear a voice coming from her hut. Could it be Alice lying in bed, clipping her toe nails, waxing her moustache? And then, one final sortie, Gertrude comes back to the cottage, a pillow and a green towel tucked under her arm, Basket trailing behind her. I call: Gertrude. Gertrude. Ms. Stein. But she keeps walking. Now I'll have to run down to the kitchen to show her what I've made.


How do you put the spider's web into words? How do you explain where each thread goes? Why doesn't the web break when the spider runs across it? What, in human terms, is the relation between the weight of the spider and the strength of its threads? I watch the spider's fouetté with the wasp before it nibbles out its flesh and chucks the remains onto the ground, then mends the hole in the centre of its web. A bee sucks pollen from the lavender flowers. I am a cat and the sun feeds my skin; I could curl up under the sage bush and sleep there forever. Which is when Stephen, one of my housemates, calls me to the phone. It's Dean.

I mouth, "What does he want?" rolling back my eyes, feigning indifference.

Stephen shrugs because he can't know. He has no idea what's been happening between Dean and I. No one knows. Except my mother, who calls later and tells me nothing unthinkable happened in my childhood. She assures me she never locked me in a cupboard or beat me with a stick, if that's what I'm imagining. I tell her I just want to know why I feel so unworthy of love. She is sobbing now because the pain is too much for her to bear. I scream with no sound in my throat and my tears dry up and my sadness turns to stone.

"It's the empty nest syndrome," she tells me.

"It must be hard," I say.

"You haven't been home since the army," she says.

So I say: "You sent me there to be killed. How can I come home after that?"

"Are you ever happy?" she asks.

"When I'm sitting in the garden in the morning, yes," I say. "Are you?"

"No," she says.

I stay at home and cook lasagne for Dean and I. The ragu simmers for five hours like Marcella says it should. I make the béchamel sauce and the pasta. I make garlic bread with the loaf I've kept in the freezer from the batch of sunflower seed bread I baked some weeks ago. I cannot think what to do for dessert. We're always too drunk and needy by the time we've finished our main course. I remember the relief in finding someone who could drink as much as I could, someone who could go to bars without pretending conversation or company were the main reasons to be there. I'd make the chocolate mousse with orange zest, if I still had the recipe. Dean calls after seven to say he needs more time to think; he suggests we meet in the park on Tuesday evening.

"I know you've made dinner," he says.

"I'd rather we met here or at your place," I say.

"I'm scared," he says. "I told you about what happened with Otis."

The man who threw stones through his window and screamed to be let back in -- all this after Dean had told Otis he'd met an Argentinean waiter on the beach in Sitges and was leaving him. And when Dean did open the door for him, Otis went round the flat smashing everything that could be hurled against a wall.

I eat my way through the lasagne and finish off the bottle of wine. Once, out of rage and frustration, I'd thrown a glass onto the kitchen floor, thinking, as it broke, how the movies never show you the subsequent cleaning up of the shards. I serve myself some chocolate ice cream. I've enjoyed this act of self-nourishment. I've earned it. Besides, no one makes a lasagne as magnificent as my own.

I could call up Dean and say: "You see, the difference between you and me is that you never had much compassion or understanding for the needs of your inner child. You can't escape the scars inflicted on your mind and body since the day you were born."

"It's late," he'll say. "I need to sleep. Especially now. We'll talk on Tuesday."

I know there's something I can say to persuade him to stay and witness my love for him. I just have to think harder.


We meet up on Tuesday, neither here nor there nor in a public place. We go for dinner to Frank and Frank. We both get very drunk and on the way home in the back of the cab Dean asks me if I love him. I say: What does that mean? He says: See, you are cold inside. When we get into bed Dean screams and shakes as if someone is killing him and makes me swear never to leave him. I let him slide his head under my T-shirt and I stroke it until he falls asleep. I think: If I'd fucked him the night we met we wouldn't be behaving like this. He'd be mine by now.

Six months since I met Dean and three weeks since he said he didn't know if he could cope anymore with my intensity. He said: You're going to have to lighten up if you want to be with me. All I could hear was my mother's voice: It's such a gorgeous day outside; go and play with the other boys. In the beginning my life with Dean took on the lightness that comes with promises for the future, now it is burdened with the weight of every past disappointment. I want to find a way to remedy that. I want to find beauty. Now.


I scratch the tips of my nipples with my nails until the ecstasy threatens to drive me mad and I want to wail from longing. I stop myself from coming, get drunk on gin, and go out looking for uncomplicated sex. I sit in the corner of Compton's Bar until a man called Mario comes to speak to me. He says I'm different from the other men in the pub; they're all queens, I'm a real man. That's my cue to perform, so I take his cock out, spit into my palm and, too drunk to care, begin to jerk him off.

"Is big, isn't it?" he says. "Is nine inches."

His hair is so thick it takes me a few seconds to find his arsehole. When last drinks are called, Mario invites me to join him in the toilet, where he holds my cock and makes me pee onto the walls and toilet seat. Then he pulls down his pants and gives me a condom.

"I can't," I say. "Not in here."

"Pleez," he says. "Jus to feeneesh."

So I lick two fingers and play with his arsehole until he comes on the toilet seat. I feel young and reckless and wonder if he might like to go dancing; I know a place in Hoxton where they play soul and R&B. But he has to be at work for nine, so he tears off a square of toilet paper and writes down his phone number.

"You not have to," he says.

"But I want to," I say.

"You not call me," he says.

"I will."

"You too beezee," he says.

"Busy?" I say. "I'm not busy."

I fold the piece of paper and tuck it into my back pocket with my travelcard.

"You too beezee," he says. "You toll me."

"I told you?"

"You not call me," he says.

"I will."

"No," he says. "I know."

"Oh, Mario," I say, going down on bended knee. "Will you marry me?"

Dean comes over, uninvited, so I suggest we go for a walk. I will not get into a row over our different concepts of boundaries (one cannot turn up unannounced on a man's doorstep unless one is willing to be fucked, which Dean is not). We drive to Regent's Park and walk along the canal, and even though I suspect he's having sex with other men in parks and public toilets, I listen to him name the birds in the pond; I enjoy his closeness to nature, the casual way he distinguishes between living things. I ask if anything happened in Paris, seeing as we've never actually, well, like, fucked. He tells me the Parisian men loved him; they bought him drinks and took him out to eat, though he swears he never went home with any of them. His mother was, he reminds me, waiting for him at the hotel.

"How come it's taken you so long to tell me all this?" I say.

"All I did was talk to them about you," he says. "I missed you all the time."

I don't tell him about Mario, because in no way does it reflect who I am. I tell Dean that Cousin David is stopping over on his way back from Singapore to Chicago. I tell him stories about my family, thinking that myths of my origin might keep him close to me.

"About last Tuesday," I say.

"Please, Shaun," he says. "Not now."


This is what has been happening:

  1. Cousin David arrived on Thursday. I went with him and his friends -- one works for Warner Brothers, the other's in property development -- for dinner at The Ivy. They spoke about white furniture and about Liza and Barbra. Cousin David said gay men without children are the only category of people who can have a white lounge suite. Dean worked late.
  2. I spoke to my mother.
  3. Dean spends nights working on his dissertation; he wants to prove that metaphors are masculine and similes feminine.
  4. I spoke to my mother again. She says she's feeling fine, just great. And I'm too full of fear and loathing to insist she tell me how she really feels.
  5. I'm still contemplating giving up teaching.
  6. I go out to buy the Sunday papers at the newsagents on the High Street and bump into John and his daughter, six-year old Rachel, my pupil.

We talk about sibling rivalry, and how, when Rachel's little brother Jack was born he was too ill to come home and she and her daddy sat on the stairs outside the hospital, crying. I tell John how important it is to keep talking about that, to remind Rachel of that time. I tell him I'm not going back to teach.

"I'm leaving," I tell Rachel.

"I'm leaving, too," she says.

"Oh," I say. "Where are you going?"

"To the seaside," she says. "And you can come visit me."


Where am I in all this, making up stories out of everything, trying to tell tales through a fog of self-hatred. Will I ever be able to tell plain and simple stories if my body keeps disgusting me to distraction? Every story is born in the body. And the soul? What about the soul? Well, my soul is a pea. Don't expect me to feed you. And don't be surprised if I erupt into a beggar's rage. Back at home I eat my way through two packets of sesame sticks from the health food shop on Church Street, then a fistful of mini marshmallows that I melt in a mug of hot chocolate.

Dean calls as I'm going out into the garden -- another Sunday ritual -- to say he's on his way to see Big Frank in Crouch End. He wants to know if he can stop by to talk. I tell him all this stopping and starting is too painful for me; I can't keep track of who either of us is anymore. He says it's all he can offer at the moment. We agree to talk tomorrow night when he gets in from college.

I take the supplements from The Observer and The Independent and force myself to go to La Cucina, where the waitresses are ignoring me even though I always leave a 30% tip. I sit by the window and order a pot of Earl Grey tea and a small plate of star-shaped polenta and almond biscuits; they have the texture of a biscuit my mother used to make called Melting Moments, those crumbly biscuits she'd bake for evenings when her book club met at our house. As I browse through the newspaper magazines I notice they've installed a small television set in the corner above me, like a spider's web. So this is it; the Disney Channel has colonised one of the only places left to escape to. My world is shrinking.

Back out on the street, I dart around Soho like Beep-Beep the Road Runner, sipping from a small bottle of Captain Morgan. I come to rest at Compton's Bar, its wondrous smell wrapping around me like a ghost. That essence of early autumn -- lager, cigarette smoke, and wooden floors -- of closed places where the elements combine to create the most welcoming of fragrances.


Gertrude Stein visited me again last night. This time she's in my mother's living room by the window overlooking the docks. She says: Don't you dare look at me. She says: If your eyes even touch me for one second you can forget it. You'll never get fucked by me.

Which is when her slave walks into the room -- his eyes on me so as not to look at her -- and climbs over Gertrude to snuggle up with his back to her groin. I watch him close his eyes and purr like a cat. I smile at Gertrude, and she smiles at me, conspiratorially.

"It's not the realism of the characters that matters," she says. "It's the composition of it all that counts."

Then she turns to her slave and inserts her penis into his smooth backside.

All the men I've loved remind me of my mother. The way they disengage, switch off, turn away when I'm about to cry. It's true. And it's also, as Maya keeps reminding me, just a little bit of projection. Dean and I talk on the phone for the last time.

I say: "Do you remember the beautiful things you said to me?"

"Like what?" he says.

"You said I was wise," I say. "And gorgeous and special. Do you remember when we lay on opposite sofas in the guest house living room, before we touched? Do you remember when you hurt your back the following morning and I put your socks on for you and tied your laces? Do you remember sitting with the other guests after lunch, and me passing you your mug of coffee because I could see how painful it was for you to move?

"Dean," I whisper, trying to sound sexy, restrained, thoughtful, ignoring the blood that is freezing inside me, "I wish I had the right words to make you not scared. You know, on the train back to London, without you, my stomach was full of knots. I thought I would choke from longing."

Nothing has changed, I want to say, the pangs in my gut are still the excitement and disappointment of being connected to another person in the world. Like at the moment of birth.

I cannot maintain this level of grief.

"Do you think it's been any easier for me?" he says.

And then we say the things you say when you say goodbye forever on the phone.

Shaun Levin is a South African writer based in London. His novella, Seven Sweet Things, was published in 2003. His short stories appear in anthologies as diverse as Modern South African Short Stories, Boyfriends from Hell, The Best American Erotica 2002, Gay Times Book of Short Stories, and The Slow Mirror: New Fiction by Jewish Writers. He is the editor of Chroma, a queer literary journal, and the director of Queer Writers and Poets, an organization to encourage and promote writing by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender writers. His collection of short stories, Summers at the Edge of the Desert, is expected in 2005. His website is www.shaunlevin.com.

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