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Saturday, June 13, 2009

It's all in the subtext

The Cloisters, right. It's on a hill, it overlooks the Hudson. It's a castle, made up of bits and pieces of other castles. Very angular. Pops out of a cloud of trees.

The bus took us right to it. Usually we walk. Today, though, it was rainy and dreary, moist, not good walking weather.

Greg was wearing a suit. He was nervous but not anxious. He forbade me--seriously, that's the right word, 'forbade,' as in, while I was getting dressed he pulled down an edict from the sky, all finger-pointy and head-waggy--forbade me from wearing my flip-flops.

"But it's June." It's a thing. I don't wear shoes from, like, March to late December.

"This is business," Greg said.

"Business guys wear flip-flops. They just call them thongs, and they wear them with suits."

"Please put on shoes."

I grumbled, and shoved my feet into a pair of socks, then into a pair of shoes. "It's like putting my feet in a concentration camp," I said. "It's inhuman."

At the Cloisters, Greg ran up the staircase to see if David and David were in the Romanesque hall, which is what you call the Lobby if you're looking at a map of the place. When he came down, Greg said, "You're gonna kill me."

"They're wearing sandals."


"They're comfortable."

"Shorts and t-shirts."

"I'm not gonna kill you." I touched his shoulder, scratched his back through his jacket. Resisted the urge to take off my shoes and slap him with the soles.

David and David. They'd been together for thirty years. One David was an artist from Scotland, with a thick Scottish brogue somewhere between Willy and Sean Connery, and the other David--the David Greg knew--was a very gentle, fluffy man that reminded me of a beloved childhood couch. Weird, I know, but that's what I thought when Greg introduced him to me: comfortable and patient and soft.

Greg had met the comfortable David a few months back. Greg fixed his Mac. They talked while Greg did maintenance, and Comfortable David liked the fact that Greg was attending anthropology classes at Hunter. Comfortable David gave Greg his card, told Greg he worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and jotted down his personal email on the back of the card.

"I feel overdressed," Greg said, realizing he was meeting the Davids as friends rather than as business.

We were standing in the Romanesque hall of the Cloisters. Through a pair of medieval wooden doors was the apse of a chapel brought over from Europe (everything there was brought over from Europe, of course). To our left was a desk staffed by ticket-takers and information-givers. The weather leaked in through the windows and the stones. Some light, the hazy kind of light you get when you take a hot shower.

Greg and I followed the two Davids through a hallway and into the Cuxa Cloister. Around the Cuxa are tables, and there's a sandwich cart, and we bought sandwiches, and chose a table, and sat and ate.

Terrible sandwiches, btw. Greg and I had a ham thing, and Scottish David had a portobella mushroom thing. Comfortable David had a Waldorf salad served in a flimsy plastic container.

"So this," Comfortable, Met-employed David said, using his plastic fork to point, "is beautiful. Right?"

The cloister was green and verdant and centered around a suspiciously-religious looking sculpture. There was sky above, and the sky was grey, so the green of the cloister seemed more lush, dense, wild by contrast. "All of those plants are in the Unicorn tapestries. Susan, my friend Susan who is in charge of the plants here, she makes sure that nothing is planted here that isn't in those tapestries."

"Susan's a great one," Scottish David said.

Comfortable David told us a story about a museum donor who was shocked to see dandelions growing in the Cuxa cloister. "Susan had spent months growing the right kind of dandelion, tending to it. She grew it in the greenhouse that's just behind there." He gestured with his fork to a vague and unseen location. "And she knew the donors were coming, so she wanted everything to look perfect. The donors came, and she was walking them around, and... "

"Dandelions are weeds in the States," Scottish David said.

"Imagine what it was like to see one balding guy suddenly tear through the greenery to get at this weed. Susan was horrified. She had to restrain the man, then take his wife--his wife!--to the tapestries to point out the dandelions."

Scottish David said, "Useful plant. You can make tea from it."


Scottish David said, "Tell them about the cremation ash."

Greg laughed. "I haven't told Marc about that. He told me this last week," Greg said. "You'll like it." Greg touched my hand.

Comfortable David smiled, shoved his fork into his salad. Chewed.

"Every year," Scottish David said, while Comfortable David chewed, "the museum hosts a dinner for everyone who has donated. Well, they do a lunch or a dinner, but you can choose which you want to go to. Lunch or dinner."

"Anyway," Comfortable David picked up, "it usually happens at the dinner. They do the place up, and serve food, and there's candles and, you know, monks singing. All very dramatic."

Rain started falling. The leaves of the Cuxa cloister trembled.

"After the dinner--sometimes the lunch but always the dinner--you can walk through the garden there--" Comfortable David waved his fork in the general direction of the trembling plants, a lettuce leaf impaled on the fork-- "and there are these piles of porous grey ash."

Scottish David piped in: "Relatives bring the cremated remains of their dearly departed."

"And pour those remains out. Right here."

"It's where he wants to be put," Scottish David said of Comfortable David.

"Oh of course. Is there anywhere better?" Comfortable David smiled, and leaned back in his chair.

Greg was right. I loved it. What an image! A private dinner at the Cloisters, the clotted, thick plants lit by candlelight, the Gregorian chants of monks, the angular walls of the castle, and a few people quietly slipping off into the garden to dump out the ashes of dear old uncle Fred or Grandma Sophie. Perhaps a slight wind lifting the ash up and to the Hudson. And the cleaning staff, hours later, stepping carefully over piles and piles of grey ash, collecting dishes and reorganizing tables and chairs. What's not to love?

Both Davids were full of anecdotes. Some naughty, some nice. And they asked about us, how Greg and I met, and then shared their own story. All four of us were bitter in a way. The Davids had been together for thirty years, and Greg and I for a third of that time, and neither of us had an exact date to mark our anniversary.

"We hedge our bets and go for August 15," Greg said.

"We do the same thing for September 20th," Scottish David said. "It's not like we have a wedding anniversary to pin it down to."

So, yeah, here's the difference between gay couples and straight couples: we gay couples guess the day we fell in love, while straight couples are left with the day they made their love lawful.

We moved around the museum for a while, taking in the relics of medieval Europe. Memento mori, reliquaries, tapestries, broken sculptures. Everything dark and preserved. Then Comfortable David arranged for us to go into the bell tower.

To get to the bell tower, you ride a small elevator that reminded me of an iron maiden, but without the spikes. Very small. To get in, you open a swinging door, pull open a metal lattice, and ascend. You exit from a different direction, as if by rising you change perspective--which of course is what most of medieval art is about.

The elevator only gets you so far. It ends at the office of the curator of the Cloisters, a good-sized room closed in on all four sides by windows. From the windows you could see the Hudson, Inwood, the Bronx, and the ragged beginnings of Washington Heights. The security guard who'd escorted us up said, "It's a shame it's such a cloudy day, because usually you can see clear to Throggs Neck."

I moved a book sitting on a window sill, and the security guard said, "Make sure you put that back." The book. "Curator doesn't come up here often, but he hates for shit to be moved." The guard and Comfortable, Met-Employee David exchanged looks of exasperation, and the guard added, "You know how he is."

"Yes." Comfortable David rolled his eyes.

From the curator's office, we were lead by the guard to a spiral staircase. Tight spins, up to the bell tower. "It's a shame," the guard said. "They've put up chicken wire to keep the pigeons out. Used to be open, but now. Wire."

Greg and I clanked up the metal stairs behind Comfortable David and the security guard, and Scottish David followed us. He said, "It's like going up in a lighthouse."

Here's what the bell tower of the Cloisters is like: dirty, dangerous, and with a knock-you-on-your-ass view. There are wires running everywhere, and some of these wires go through puddles of water that have collected on the terracotta floor. And there's chicken wire covering the open arches, and there's a bell that looks useless.

The view though is spectacular, even on a dirty-cotton day.

Comfortable David told us about the only other time, in his thirty years of service to the Met, he'd been in the bell tower. Something about a party. Something about several bottles of wine, and wine glasses, and sitting in the tower, high over the relics and the tapestries and the plants with names like apothecary's rose and thyme and white coral bells. "You come up here, and you're above all the beauty that the medieval period came up with." He touched Scottish David's hand. "It's so dark and thick down there, but it's so open up here."

Later, in the Davids' car, Greg and I were driven through an actual portcullis that raised for us, and down a cobblestone drive. We were let out at the bottom of the hill that lead up to the Cloisters, and we said our goodbyes to the two Davids (tight fond handshakes, thanks and love), and began walking through Fort Tryon Park back home.

Greg and I walked down to Broadway. Next week, the Davids will be off to their own home on an island in Maine. And I'll be in flip-flops til late December, when Greg graduates from Hunter.


Laura D said...

Awesome experience. The Cloisters were one of my favorite things we did in New York.

MM said...

I didn't remember you guys going to the Cloisters... Was that when you were here a few years back?

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