I am having an erotic lunch, I write to Ronnie. Entrecôte. Béarnaise. Sole meunière. White wine. A cigarette. I am in Paris, the city is hot, like a tongue, and I am allowing it to do things to me I don’t allow London to do. In Paris, I have never made any mistakes. Only decisions. It is more difficult to make mistakes in a place that you are only passing through. Mistakes, which track you from desire, agency and action to knowledge, surprise or regret, need a longer gestation period, an embeddedness, a more stable temporal space for the unintended to properly play out. If I manage to make any mistakes in Paris, I will take them home with me. At the table next to ours, two men are in intense conversation. One looks heartbroken, the other, priestly. The priestly one takes a seventh cigarette from his packet and handles it in a complex, sensual way between his fingers and mouth that I try to imitate in the air. Don’t reply to her messages so quickly, he says, to the heartbroken one. Did you ever think about that?
Back in London, the following morning, I buy toilet paper, put the rubbish out on the street, and I scrub, with sugar soap, the oils from my body that have accreted, as a lacquer of years, on my bathroom walls. I learnt how to do this on the internet. The spray from the showerhead has angled off my body and gathered on the plaster, in shellacked amber formations, the way of all geology, a kind of divine error. The internet advises me to wear protective goggles, which I do not have. I wear sunglasses instead. I am doing this because I have sold my flat and need to remove the physical traces of myself. The surveyor is coming tomorrow and I feel he will not want to encounter the intimacy of my oils on the walls, even though the amber of them is strangely beautiful. I wonder if he will notice all the ghosts, who are much harder to remove, even temporarily, even with a sponge.
On my desk, I add to my list. Removals!! The items already there, written in my undisciplined, shaky hand: Deed of Title; Deed of Trust; Leasehold info.; EPC; Electricity Safety; Buildings Insurance Premium; Sponges. Above, a note from weeks before, in a different colour. Detachment. Strange. Since I wrote that word, what I actually feel is a radical attachment – to the oils in this place, to its phantoms and inhabitants, to the spirit of my father, who bought this flat in 1975 and then in 2016 gifted it, in the form of inheritance, to me. As though, finally, after so many years of difficult cohabitation, we can live in one another without discord during our final weeks together, like a marriage that miraculously recovers overnight, and then ends in a rare burst of pleasure.
This is a novel feeling. The day after I accepted the new owner’s offer, I was gripped with terror. Pleasure seemed a long way off. I sat with my partner, Anna, in one of the coffee shops down the road that have proliferated in the last ten years, the kind that make Antipodean brunches, badly. I leant my head in my hands. I’ve made so many mistakes, I said. And indeed, my mistakes were broadcasting themselves, in a showcase reel, on the table, on the walls, on the darkened cinema screen of my mind. How can I know this is any different? The café owner placed a burrito on the table, mid-montage. Jennifer Lopez was playing, loud. ‘I’m still Jenny from the block’, she sang. ‘I’m still, I’m still, I’m still …’ Anna placed a hand on my head, a kind of absolution. I called my friend, Masha, that evening. She was in Copenhagen, making an opera about euthanasia. I heard her order a beer and some chips as I was talking, light a cigarette. Even if you lost everything, she said, even if the banks fail and you lose all the money and you have nowhere to live, this would still be the right decision.
Or the right mistake. Sheila Heti’s new novel, Pure Colour (2022), follows Mira as she grapples with the loss of her father, and the question of how to live. She describes Mira’s father’s spirit entering her when he dies. It is explicitly sexual. ‘She had felt his spirit ejaculate into her, like it was the entire universe coming into her body, then spreading all the way through her, the way cum feels spreading inside, that warm and tangy feeling.’1 Many readers will, perhaps, cross their legs firmly as they imagine a similar thing happening to them. But rather than signalling anything literal, Heti uses bald sexual language as a direct challenge – to uncover the erotic potential in being inhabited, and the possible sensuality to be found in grief. She gives herself over to this feeling, she experiences it as pleasure, as joy. But we are trained to question unbridled joy, taught to worry about pleasure, the little puritan in us says, too much. And so, she worries about it. ‘Was there something wrong with her father’s spirit going into her after he died? More of what had oppressed her in living? The life in him had always wanted to join her, and in his death, he finally did. For many years, his desire to be so close to her had been a bit of a problem, but in death it had become the most beautiful thing.’2 In the childlike articulation of this oceanic love as ‘a bit of a problem’ is the question of how to lead a differentiated life, with its own erotic challenges, separate from the father, which, when you live in the space where he has marked out his life, as I have, or when he is ‘the kind of father who loved her so much, nearly to the exclusion of everyone else,’ as Mira’s was, will, as a consequence of the need to separate, lead to mistakes.3 The question of how to hold them.
After the spirit of Mira’s father enters her, she missteps, and follows him into death. Death, in Pure Colour, is a state of suspended animation, and Mira finds herself trapped inside a leaf. ‘But Mira had made a big mistake, following her father into death, as though she was her body, and he was communal life. Her life wasn’t supposed to go into him! What had she done, coming into a leaf? And would the universe, which had its own laws, ever forgive her for distorting them?’4 In the leaf, which is also a kind of chrysalis, Mira’s father’s consciousness entangles with hers, and they speak to one another, as one being, one organism. And although there is a great peace to be found in simply disappearing into her dead-father-as-leaf, Mira, eventually, knows she must get out. ‘The leaf’s walls seem to be made of concrete, and she was deep inside it, scary and dark with bright-coloured lights, and everyone was oblivious to her screams.’5 Mira calls desperately to Annie, who she has fallen in love with earlier in the novel, who offers her the promise of life, of individuation. ‘Annie! Annie!’6 Annie has, in lustrous coincidence, come to sit beneath the tree in which Mira is trapped inside the leaf. Because it is true that sometimes a person will come and sit beneath the place where you are entangled, and wait, patiently, for you to get out. Mira needs to get back to Annie, to the feeling of ‘kissing Annie on her neck,’ to the ‘first time she had been so overcome,’ to ‘all the things she could do with Annie, all the things she would have loved to do.’7 Mira escapes the leaf, after forty-five green pages. I wonder if my flat is like Mira’s leaf, only with less chlorophyll.
In 1975, this flat inhabited a different city, a city that in many ways no longer exists, but which retains, around certain corners, at least to those who weren’t actually there, a faint, erotic presence. Widespread strikes across the city’s utilities and municipal services meant that my father would take his trash to the once-green common at the end of the road, and sling his black sacks onto a great pile that covered its whole expanse. I would love to have seen that, I say to him, imagining myself under the sodium lamps with my 1970s trash, returning to the flat, which is in electrical-strike darkness, lighting a candle, then a cigarette on the gas. No, you wouldn’t, he replies. He was an unwanted presence in the neighbourhood when he moved in. A slip, an error. Teenage boys would stand on the low wall surrounding the flat’s long windows onto the street and stare in at him, daring him to look back. Their shoes would grind into the scars on the plasterwork where railings had once been fixed, removed citywide during World War Two to be melted down into ammunitions. This move boosted morale, but was also a mistake. The wrong kind of iron. Most of the railings were quietly slipped into the Thames Estuary, with boats later needing pilots to guide them across these parts of the river, their compasses distorted by the iron submerged beneath. I like you, my father would say to the boys standing on his wall, from the kitchen, his arms pulled up and open. I like you. I imagine a sensuality in this exchange, a languorous, unexplained, looking. And in my mind, everyone involved smells a little, too, in Heti’s words, of ‘raw coins,’ and also of sweat on polyester, instant coffee and the gasworks downriver, and this only deepens my fantasy.8 I am not sure if this intimate charge was registered, consciously, by either the boys, or my father, in the battered, dim 1970s. I am not sure if it matters.
In the same decade that my father was swinging his trash, and saying I like you to the boys on the wall, James Bidgood holed himself up in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment in New York City to dream up the narrative and painstakingly build the sets for, and shoot, on Super-8, Pink Narcissus (1971). His apartment was the world of the film, and he lived within it. He didn’t credit himself, his name disappearing, reborn as Anonymous. This was not a decision made under the press of shame, or the feeling that identifying himself as the author of such an unabashedly queer work would be a mistake. He had fallen out with the producers. There is no little puritan in Bidgood’s head, or in the head of his protagonist, the unnamed male sex worker in possession of an ocean of fantasies, played by Bobby Kendall. The film opens and we are gliding through a landscape of pure colour. A fat, ripe moon against a zone of blue-hour blue melts into a burning, sensual pink. A tiny, shrouded creature is writhing underneath a leaf. I think of Mira. This creature, however, is a yellow butterfly within seconds. It doesn’t look back.
Film excels at entering itself, in dissolving, laying images on top of each other, shucking off the successiveness of language and taking on the powerful simultaneity of movement, and Bidgood harnesses this with abandon. He deploys an erotics of editing. The phantoms, or spirits, of his protagonist’s queer imaginary enter each other, haunt each other, doubling, doubling, and they want only pleasure. More and more and more. Kendall flirts, in tight white trousers and a tight white vest, with the physicality of his matador self, reflected in gold mirrors in his neon pink apartment, then transports to the green-grey, caved walls of a urinal, his tight, white-panted ass the physical sign of his erotic double, junk and semen gurgle around a drain, a slide of deep yellow, and he’s back in his apartment, a matador for real, in a tight gold and red traje de luces, the crowd roars, he taunts his own erotic power, two shadowy horns, the sound of a motorbike revving enters him, and us, and he’s bullfighting himself as a biker, in perfect black leathers, before spiriting back to the urinal, where he fucks himself as a policeman, handcuffs dangling from his belt. This extraordinary sequence ends with Kendall alone in his apartment again, in his white trousers and his white vest, putting on a record. ‘I’ve grown so lonesome thinking of you,’ sings Harry Babbitt, in 1939, his disembodied spirit entering the scene. A powerful sense of longing lodges in your heart, but it’s melancholy as pleasure, Kendall’s dreams and other selves playing across his face, safe in his cocoon, his apartment.
The mistake that Kendall makes, unlike Mira, is to leave his apartment. His leaf. Outside, we are in deep-cuts 1970s New York, which doubles with my father’s 1970s London. A voice on the radio announces union-agreed strikes, cloudy weather, showers, a new kind of breakfast cereal. A crack of lightning reveals three angry-looking moons. The music distorts, becoming sinister, doomy. The neon signs are muddy, swampy, ominous. Had Any Lately? Bet You Can’t Eat Just One. Get ’Em While You’re Hot. Blood Bank. A red arrow pulses its fluid downwards, draining away. Dildos and artificial anuses are pushed around on a popcorn cart, homelessness and addiction and poverty stagger around each corner, in contorted German expressionist shapes, while older, seedy men in suits look for sex that they can buy, from telephone boxes, inside cars, beside the hotdog stand. They call Kendall, incessantly, on the phone. They order up his body. He picks up. He picks up. He picks up. The sequence cuts between Kendall upstairs in his apartment, speaking to these men from his gold telephone, and Kendall on the hellfire street, in his bright whites, standing very still, smoking a cigarette. The older men in suits stand oppressively close. Kendall makes a decision. He taps one of them on the arm, and leads him away. On his face I do not read sadness, or trauma, or that this sex work might be an unwearable mistake. It is part of his life, his job, necessary to keep him in his apartment, where he is, between calls, free to give himself over to the pleasures of his fantasies, his hauntings. Afterwards, he takes off his clothes, his white boots, he yawns. A heavy rain falls, in his apartment, on the street outside, on the world, the film. It washes him clean. He can start again.
There is a gestation process in the making of a mistake, comprised of three discrete periods. How long each period lasts depends very much on the weight of the mistake. The first period can be characterised as no. I often find myself saying no, at first, when a mistake is propositioned. It could be a last drink in a bar. Or a proposal of marriage. No, I really shouldn’t, I have to get up early tomorrow, I’ll miss the last Tube, I don’t actually love you, you are not a reliable person, etc., etc. Then there is an interim period. I call this ah, fuck it. This voice weighs up some potential outcomes and vaguely tries to read the room, but is also affected by a keening proximity to abandon. How much might I upset the person on the other side of this decision, by keeping to a no? Do I actually want this last drink? Perhaps I should get married, now, at thirty? There is erotic potential in the ah, fuck it. It suggests something unknowable, outside the bounds of your instinct, of your capacity for control. It opens up a pathway, hitherto hidden from you. The key to Bluebeard’s locked room, for example, or the possibility of an improbable revelation on the night bus home. And so, inexorably, but with an agency that is stirred through with some ah, fuck it pleasure of having power over the little puritan, you say yes. The yes period lasts as long as the scale of the mistake. A hangover lasts one day, sometimes two. The marriage proposed to me did not take place in my flat, but I took the mistake home with me, and let it play out, over two catastrophic years.
Many mistakes and errors have been produced in this flat, many fertile periods of no, ah, fuck it, yes. I try to site them with Bobby Kendall in his apartment, try to reclaim their glory. The word fuck hangs around with mistakes. They are close. It can be deployed erotically, fuck, but is also what you scream when you misstep, and crack your shin against your bedframe. I first encountered this word through one of my father’s ex-girlfriends, Noelle. I can clearly see the no, ah, fuck it, yes cycle in his decision to be with Noelle. It was the late 1980s, my parents had split, he was living in the flat, and my mother and I had left. At the same time as he was boyfriend to Noelle, he was also boyfriend to another woman, called Marie Noelle. I am not sure who came first. No, ah, fuck it, yes. That year he spent Christmas, as he always did, with me and my mother’s family. My grandfather would pick up the landline, and call to my father. ‘Melvin, Noelle on the phone.’ Later, the landline would ring again. ‘Melvin, Marie Noelle on the phone.’ His intonation was perfect, it rings down through the ages. By late January, the game was up, my father’s mistake somehow discovered.
Noelle came to the door of the flat one night. I was staying over. She was screaming, banging on the door, still, perhaps, teetering on the edge of the ah, fuck it. He let her in. She went full yes, and smashed every plate, every cup, every bowl, in the kitchen. I remember that I wasn’t frightened by this. There was a glory, a rightness, to her action. There was no voice saying too much. As a coup de grâce, she wrote, in lipstick, on the tall mirror in my father’s bedroom, fuck you forever. I had never seen this word written before. I was four. I stared at it the next day, wondering what it meant. Then I spent the morning attempting to piece back together my father’s crockery, using Sellotape. We were all living in Noelle’s yes now – a surprisingly capacious, boundless realm. It had room for catharsis, even pleasure. I took a piece of wood my father had lying on the side, and wrote NO FIGHTING on it, in biro, and propped it up on the ledge by the window in the kitchen, where the boys used to stare in. I couldn’t spell fighting. I think it came out as FIHGHTING. Perhaps what I really wanted to write was FUCK. I can’t remember.
The day before my mother married my father, in 1983, she called her friend from this flat. She was anxious, she thought she might be making a mistake. Her friend told her not to worry, that she could always get a divorce. She reminded my mother how laws work, that a mistake could be rewritten as a dissolution. There is also a glory, and a power, in this rewriting, in the reclaiming of a mistake. The end of the yes. I remember arriving back to the flat in 2020 and finding the letter confirming the decree absolute of my own divorce on the doormat. The joy in those official signatures! I felt as though I was spirited upwards, that phrase walking on air, it’s true sometimes. All the phantoms and ghosts and mistakes in the flat burst out of the rooms and danced with me, mid-air, in the hallway. We were free. Free to make more mistakes. I floated down the street to the bus stop, the air felt suffused with colour, with pinks, with golds, I wanted to embrace everybody walking down it. I will never forget that feeling. It was the product of a mistake. It’s mine.
I don’t yet know if selling, and leaving, my flat will be a mistake. I am at the beginning of the yes. James Bidgood died this year, aged eighty-eight, having been ‘outed’ as the auteur of Pink Narcissus in 1999. He never left his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. ‘I’ve been stuck with my dreams for close to eighty years now,’ he said in 2010. ‘And I still have to worry whether I have the rent money every month.’9 Mira, in Pure Colour, leaves the leaf, and goes on to make more life, pursuing Annie, who does not, in the end, reciprocate Mira’s love. ‘The entire evening had been a mistake,’ she says, as this outcome unfolds itself to her.10 But it’s the living part that’s the point. Mira is out there, writing her life, which is always, always a first draft, ‘anarchic, scrappy, full of life, flawed.’11 Clearing out her father’s apartment after he dies, she finds some absolution.
‘And when she took down the painting over the TV … the square of wall beneath the painting was pulsating slightly in the shape of a heart, like the house really did love her, because of how much her father did, who had sat there facing the wall of his living room, loving her every day of his life.’12 As I strip my own father’s flat, I uncover a similar materiality, present in the amber oils on my bathroom walls, stacked in the cupboards in the hallway. A yes that is here, a yes that’s passed through, a yes that’s smashed up the kitchen, then put it back together again. If leaving my father’s flat is a mistake, it will be one I can live with. I will be at home in it. It is time to go.
- Sheila Heti, Pure Colour, London: Harvill Secker, 2022, p.76.
- Ibid., p.78.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- Ibid., p.135.
- Ibid., p.136.
- Ibid., p.47.
- Ibid., p.29.
- Michael Kowalinski, ‘James Bidgood: Iconic Photographer and Filmmaker Won a Tony Award Over a Dozen Times While Bathing,’ Butt Magazine, 22 June 2010, available at buttmagazine.com/magazine/interviews/james-bidgood (last accessed 14 June 2022).
- Heti, Pure Colour, p.190.
- Ibid., p.152.
- Ibid., p.174.