We met at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. We were both undergraduates. I was there mainly to study painting and illustration, though I had no idea, really, what I wanted to do. I'd done some acting back in high school, and Pratt had a theater department. So I signed up for an acting class. That's where I first saw Damian.
He wore a waist-cut shiny green (it must have been satin or nylon ) bombardier jacket with a furry collar over a red tee-shirt. The teacher, whose first name was Nancy, had us doing improvisational exercises. In one exercise we were supposed to be trapped with people in a stuck elevator. I watched Damian and three other classmates do the exercise first. They got in the elevator and acted normally, facing the front, not speaking. Then Nancy said, "Stop," meaning the elevator had stopped. Everyone reacted in different ways. One student cried, another panicked, a third cracked jokes. Damian's improve stole the scene. He started convulsing. We couldn't tell if Damian's character was having an epileptic seizure or a heart attack. Whatever it was, it was very convincing, so convincing Nancy broke in and cut the scene. But Damian kept convulsing. A thin stream of vomit bubbled out of his mouth and down the front of his red tee-shirt. Nancy yelled for someone to go call the police. That's when Damian broke into a smile. It was all part of the act, vomit and everything.
He was extremely good-looking, Damian was. He looked like a Puerto Rican version of young Marlon Brando, with dark brown skin. This alone would have impressed me, since I was a big Brando fan and considered Brando the epitome of male beauty. He had the same tall forehead, sculpted jaw, thick flat brows, thick neck and broad shoulders. He knew he was beautiful, you could tell by his walk. He didn't walk; he strutted. I asked him if he worked out. "Nevah." He said it just like that, "Nevah," with a kind of mid-Atlantic accent and a whif of disgust. "I don't believe in exercise."
I asked him if he didn't exercise how he stayed in such good shape?
"I was born this way," he said with a smile. "And I eat well."
He invited me to his home. He lived in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side in the high nineties, in a high rise apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue. I remember walking into a brightly lit lobby with a security guard and linoleum and waiting a while for the elevator, which had graffiti all over it, and pennies jammed into the round holes drilled into a cover on the porthole window, which had been smashed. Damian lived in a studio on a high floor. Sounds of at least five radios leaked out into the hallway, but once I entered Damian's sanctuary and he closed the door those noises were left behind, replaced by a woman's voice crooning some old American standard.
"Who's that singing?" I asked as Damian took my coat.
"You don't know?"
I shook my head.
"Judy," he said.
I had no idea who Judy was.
Damian took my coat and put it on a hanger in his sliding closet, next to his green satin jacket. I was impressed. I'd yet to meet anyone with an apartment of their own, let alone one in Manhattan, let alone one with a sliding closet door. He showed me the view from his window. If you looked hard over roofs and past the buildings and trees you could see gleaming white patches of the Hudson River. It was winter; the streets were full of snow. The sky was a bleary gray watercolor, wet on wet. Damian showed me around the apartment. There was only one room, really, shaped like an L, with the bedroom occupying the bottom of the L, and a galley kitchen just off to the side of it through a curtain. Over the bed he had draped sheer yellow fabric, forming the impression of a Bedouin tent or Mongolian ger there in his apartment. A stick of incense burned. The walls were decorated with his paintings, macabre works featuring dead birds and funereal flower arrangements on crackled black backgrounds. To the center of one painting a small, coffin-shaped box had been affixed. "Go on," Damian said. "Open it." I did. Inside was a small dead bird. It gave off a sharp whiff of decay. I closed the box.
"Death intrigues me," Damian said.
"I don't know. Because it's everywhere. It's part of life. It doesn't depress me. It's just part of the cycle. If things don't die then nothing can be born."
That afternoon we went for a jog in the park. Although philosophically opposed to strenuous exercise, Damian didn't mind jogging. It relaxed him, he said. He had an extra jogging suit that he lent me. By late in the day the sun had melted the snow so the streets were full of slush. We jogged around Central Park. The same hills that had me gasping Damian broached effortlessly, without exertion. "All you all right?" he asked, jogging in place as i caught up with him. "Fine," I said, panting. We had gone once around the park--a distance of over six miles--when he waited for me again and said, "Are you tired?" I shook my head. "Good," he said, and started around a second time.
That same night, as I lay sore and exhausted on his couch, Damian prepared dinner. He made a dish called "baccala," with salt cod, tomatoes and avocado, and sat watching me eat as he sipped from a large plastic bottle. "Aren't you eating?" I said. Damian shook his head. "I'm in my fast," he said. He fasted for three weeks at a time. Nothing but water with a dash of honey and lemon juice. He did it four times a year. "You should try it with me some time," he said.
So I did. We fasted together. We started in November. Three days of fruit and leafy vegetables, three days of juice, six days of water (flavored with lemon juice and a few drops of honey), and then the reverse. Through the course of the fast I'd want to do at least three enemas, Damian informed me. "Otherwise nothing moves."
When doing a fast like that, you're not supposed to overtax yourself. No strenuous exercise, so said Damian. I didn't listen. After two weeks, once I got past the hunger and headaches, I felt so great I wanted to go out and run ten miles. So I did. I ran all the way from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where I was living, to Damian's apartment building on the Upper West Side, a distance of over ten miles. It felt great, my body like a feather on air. I felt I could run forever. Damian scolded me. "You could have passed out in the middle of Broadway," he said. "You could have died."
"Death intrigues me," I said.
The watery part of the fast fell on Thanksgiving day. I was invited to a Thanksgiving party at my friend Crystal's apartment in the Village. I remember standing among the guests holding my little bottle of lemon and honey flavored water and sipping from it as they ate turkey, stuffing, candies yams, the works. I didn't mind. The only thing that bothered me was that every other word people spoke seemed to be about food. That's all anyone talk about. What they'd eaten the day before, what they were going to eat the next day. This meal, that meal. This restaurant, that restaurant. This recipe, that recipe. It amazed me how obsessed everyone was with food, with the very thing I was doing without. "Have you ever eaten at..." "Did you try the pad thai at..." Twenty days earlier, under President Jimmy Carter's watch, a group of militant Islamists had raided the American embassy in Tehran and took 53 hostages. We were going to war, I was sure of it. And here all these people were stuffing their faces with turkey and talking about food. I left the party in disgust. How could people waste their time with such trivialities as food? I made up my mind that eating was disgusting. I'll never do it again, I thought, sipping from my water bottle.
When I next saw Damian I had broken my fast and was eating normally like everyone else. He asked me how it had felt.
"Strange," I said. "At first it felt great, but then I couldn't get along with eaters any more."
"That's what happens. If you do it regularly you'll adjust."
But I never did it again.
I think it was on my third or fourth visit with Damian that I slept over. We shared his bed, the one under the yellow drapes. I remember feeling a strange combination of comfort and fear as I lay next to him, feeling the magnetic pull of this beautiful dark body next to mine, both of us in our underwear. It wasn't so much that I wanted to touch him (I was never that way), only that I knew how nice it would feel is I did. But I didn't. We slept like brothers. He was like a brother to me, Damian was. My Puerto Rican brother. He called me that once. His white twin. No, he didn't say brother; he said "twin," "my white twin." I remember how proud it made me feel to hear him call me that. As if having one twin wasn't good enough; I needed two. I needed a Puerto Rican twin who looked like a dark Marlon Brando.
We went to the Dominican Republic together. It was Damian's idea. He went there regularly. We booked a hotel in Santa Domingo and rode a packed bus to the beach called Boca Chica--"Sweet Mouth." Our first afternoon on the crowded beach, Damian rubbed a concoction of baby oil and merchurochrome on his brown skin. Then he told me to wade out into the surf about two dozen yards and look back at the shore. "Just watch," he said.
I did as ordered. I waded out twenty meters or so and then I turned and faced the shore in time to see all the heads there turning as Damian paraded his mahogany limbs down the beach. Men, women, children, dogs, no one could take their eyes off him, he was so magnificent. For the rest of that long day strange women threw themselves at him, inviting him point blank to sleep with them. I saw it happen. Damian showed absolutely no interest. He waved them away like flies. I asked him why. "Oh, Peter," he said. "I am so thoroughly bored with all of that. I've had enough sex to last me a lifetime." He sighed. "Life is too short." In fact, I remember thinking, my friend Damian didn't need anyone else to make love with. He had himself. And who could compare?
"But don't you get lonesome?"
He shook his head. "Me? Lonesome? Nevah!"
For many years we were very close friends. He really was like a brother to me. Then suddenly Damian stopped returning my calls. I still remember my last visit to his apartment. I remember it because of an odd thing that happened. Remember that green jacket he used to wear? Well, it had been a while since I'd seen him wearing it, and so I'd asked, "Whatever happened to your green jacket?"
"What green jacket?"
"You know--the one you always used to wear? The satin one with the fur collar."
"Oh, that awful thing! I burned it!"
"Yes--I burned it! I couldn't stand to look at it any more."
"Why burn it?" I said. "Why not give it away? Hell, I'd have liked it!''
"You don't understand, Peter. If I gave it to you I'd have to look at it whenever you come over. And I couldn't bear that!"
"What about Goodwill--or the Salvation Army?"
"It's the same problem. One day I would be walking down the street and--ugh!--there would be that awful jacket, following me around like a ghost! No, I wouldn't have it. And so I burned it. I always burn my old clothes!"
The reason I remember my last time in Damian's apartment is because, while he was showering, I just happened to look in one of his sliding closets--not the one where he would always hang my things, another one. There, hidden deep behind some other clothes, was the green satin jacket. I reached a hand in to caress the fur collar. As I did I heard my name and turned. Damian stood there, dripping, with a towel around his waist. He slid the closet shut.
That was my last visit there. After that I called and called and always he made excuses, until at last I got fed up and stopped calling.
By then I was myself living with my wife on the Upper West Side, less than ten blocks from the apartment building where Damian still lived. It bugged me whenever I thought about it, to know he was that close and we never saw each other, that he had so completely lost his interest in our friendship. Why? Because I was married? Because he hadn't become a great actor? He'd played a member of a street gang in a low budget feature. That was it, his biggest role. Okay. So what. I hadn't been so successful myself. In fact I was something of a failure. Life is like that. New York is tough. Who cares? We'd known each other--what? Over ten years. And he no longer returned my calls. Fuck him! it made me so angry.
Then one day--this was around 1990, I guess--I was walking alone down Broadway when I saw a man in a plaid shirt selling posters. I recognized one of the poster images. It was a lithograph of one of Damian's paintings, the one with the dead bird in a coffin, only the coffin wasn't three-D. I turned to the man in the plaid shirt. "I know this artist," I said. The man looked at me. As he did I realized: the man was Damian. Only it wasn't Damian. He was too short, too slim, too old and insubstantial to be Damian. This man had gray hair. His shoulders were bony. He had dark red scabby blotches all over his face. This, I said to myself, is Damian, but in another dimension, in the Dimension of Death. This is Damian dying.
"Damian?" I said--and instinctively, without thinking, reached out to touch one of the scars.
"Don't!" he said, and pushed my arm away.
"Damian--how are you?" But of course I knew the answer: he was dying. He had AIDS. How did he get it, without having sex? I asked myself but didn't wonder.
"I'm fine," he said. But his eyes said something else. They looked deeply, fiercely into mine and said, Keep walking, go away. Forget you have ever seen me like this.
I forget what was said then. Somehow we parted--awkwardly. I left him there on a corner of Broadway selling his posters, dying. I never saw him again.