THE O WORD

“I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand.” -- Joy Division

“Did you exchange a walk-on part in a war for a lead role in a cage?”--Pink Floyd



After receiving a mailbox full of rejection notices for this story, which was written in January, I've decided to put it up on this site. (No, I don't have any screenplays in the works.) Before you read this, there are 2 things I should point out:

1)I'm not the narrator of this story, even if his voice sounds like mine. Let's just say that this story is personal without being autobiographical and that I'm not pathologically obsessed with any movie stars - or anyone else, for that matter.

2)All the film titles in the opening paragraph, QUEERATIONAL & VIDEO CONFESSIONAL are products of my imagination. Thomas Bernhard really exist(ed), as do Slavoj Zizek, IMAGINARY LIGHT and Cannibal Ox.



I’ve  been obsessed with Todd Bates as long as I can remember having any sexual feelings,  ever since I saw DREAMS OF A VIRGIN. We were both 12 years old at the time. He’s the first man I recall ever being attracted to, and his "films" - mostly the kind of teen sex comedies that now show up on Comedy Central at 3 AM - accompanied me through my adolescent years. Even then, I was aware how bad they were, but that didn’t prevent them from inspiring wet dreams and hours of masturbation. In college, about 7 years after I saw DREAMS OF A VIRGIN, his rare appearance in an art film, STRANGE COMFORT, finally convinced me that I was gay after years of denial. (A vaguely bi-curious friend told me that Todd’s performance in STRANGE COMFORT made him question his sexuality.) As the years rolled by and Todd blossomed into a star and relatively talented actor, his films stuck with me like fetishes. I got my first full-time job around the time one of his characters did. My first real relationship too, although his lasted longer and looked infinitely more glamorous. I remained a geek with a massive hard-on and/or schoolgirl crush for him. He became an icon of American manhood. Titillating rumors abounded about Todd. I followed them intently; like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe.

I’m an artist - or rather, I work at a record store while attending grad  school part-time. My latest project was pretty easy to put together. Coming up with a title took longer. After admiring the collages I’d put up at the  store and receiving a year’s worth of discounts in gratitude, Vanessa, the director of a small, student-run art gallery, suggested that I work on a new exhibition. She shared my affection for Todd, albeit not to the same extreme. Accidentally, she kickstarted my ideas by asking “Did you know that Todd and Thomas Bernhard were born on the same day?”  The two had nothing in common: Todd wanted everyone to like him (and everyone did, more or less); Thomas wrote nihilistic novels about spiritual emptiness and included a clause in his will preventing his work from being published or performed in his homeland posthumously. A perfect match for a new project! The man whose purpose in life was to be looked at and the one whose purpose was to see uncomfortably clearly! So I thought at the time.

I often worried that my obsessions bordered on the pathological. To be honest, 90% of my sex life seemed to happen in my mind, even when I was with another man. My ideal seemed to be a Todd  lookalike. While there were plenty of suitable men, most of them were annoying Chelsea  queens who wouldn’t give a second look to anyone who disliked Cher, didn’t take Ecstasy and didn’t spend 2 and 1/2 hours a day at the gym. (That exact figure came from one particularly irritating date.)  The art project was a way to test whether or not I was crazy.  I also wanted to see whether anything productive could come out of all that  wasted hand cream and Kleenex. By putting all this out into the world, would anyone else respond? Would they think it was pathetic? All too ordinary? Buried in the back of my mind, another thought lurked: I wondered if there was the slightest chance Todd would respond.

I decided that Bernhard represented darkness, Todd light. Taking photos of Todd from magazines like GQ, VOGUE and INTERVIEW, I wrote his name in glitter on them, faked his autograph and attached smaller photos and shreds of used Kleenex to them with paper clips. For the Bernhard collage, I tore out pages from his books and covered them with excremental smears of chocolate, images of Germany and Austria from travel magazines, and photos of concentration camp victims. My original title was IMAGINARY LIGHT, taken from an avant-garde film composed entirely of  time-lapse footage of shifting light patterns in a house and its backyard. (I thought of the light from a TV or movie screen as “imaginary”.) However, Vanessa suggested TWO DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD as a better choice.

Opening night was OK, I suppose. Not very many people turned up: most of my friends, my teachers and the kind of people who turn up at every art opening in town for the free wine and cheese.  Although I could probably give you Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of the meaning of TWO DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, I wasn’t sure what it meant to me, except as an expression of two things: an overactive fantasy life and a nagging, vague feeling of identification with Bernhard’s misanthropy. Could the two be reconciled? Was this even a worthwhile goal? I had no idea, and making an exhibit out of it - hell, making a mess out of it, as long as it expressed *something* -  was the best way I could think of to figure it all out.

I didn’t bother making an artist’s statement for the show. Instead, I made another collage out of quotes about Todd, including a few from sleazy tabloids printing rumors about his sexuality. He had sued one for running an interview with a former porn star who claimed to be his boyfriend: a funny move, I thought, since it wound up giving the rag plenty of free publicity. Since I wanted to get reactions from my audience,  I included my phone number and E-mail address in the collage.

Then, David, an acquaintance whom I had met at the record store during the brief heyday of queercore, called me up with another hot rumor. He told me “you’re not going to believe this, but Dennis is dating Todd’s psychiatrist!” I was excited, but  I had trouble even remembering who he was talking about. I replied “Is that the same Dennis who use to call himself Viva Rine and put out the zine QUEERATIONAL?” David said yes. Even better, he confirmed that Todd had coughed up thoughts on the couch that lived up to my fantasies. He felt terrible that the pressures of stardom included having to stay in the closet and yearned for a long-term relationship. Instead, he jerked off to an ever-expanding collection of porn mags and videos. (Ah, fame is a bitch!) When he got too lonely, he called an  escort service but  refrained from doing so too often, as he was afraid of getting busted.

Of course, I had no idea whether to believe this story. Besides being a major breach of psychiatric ethics, it played too close to my gut hopes: not so much in that Todd was really gay and depressed about being in the closet, but that he was really gay and as lonely as I was. In my schoolboy  fantasies, together we would discover that we were soulmates, he would come out of the closet to take me on his arm to premieres...or we would at least have some hot sex while he remained in the closet to keep those lucrative acting gigs coming  so I could quit the record store and work full-time on my art. Had someone given me his phone number that night, I would’ve felt no hesitation in calling him, stalking or not.

TWO DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD did not shake the world, or even *my* world. No one bought my collages, offered insight or shared their love for Todd with me. No one called or even E-mailed, unless hornyteens@blowme.com got my address from the show. I was still left wondering if I was one step away from becoming a stalker.

Flipping  channels one night, I caught the beginnings of a public access show. Over the years, Manhattan public access had steadily gone downhill. Still, delights like a stripper/comedian/singer with no talent at any of her trades  and Nation of Islam rejects who hated Louis Farrakhan even more than the White Devil were more entertaining than any network offering, so I continued perusing it.  I  came across a show called VIDEO CONFESSIONAL. There were plenty of religious programs on the air: one channel even aired a Mass each morning. The title intrigued me enough to keep my hand off the remote. All of a sudden, it reminded me of Dennis’ story: given Catholic doctrine, the concept of a video confessional seemed as oxymoronic as psychiatric gossip. Yet the latter existed, so why not the former?

The show consisted of homemade videotapes - and at the end, about 5 minutes worth of voice-mail messages - made by viewers confessing their “sins”.  Each definition of sin was  individual. Some were psychopath wanna-bes - I hoped -  owning up to impossible crime sprees. Some were women relating depressing stories of one- or two-night stands. Others were teenagers jokingly bragging about stealing candy bars or smoking pot.   For the first ten minutes, I watched the show out of morbid fascination, as if it were a DIY version of tabloid TV. Then my protective shield of irony melted away, and I was moved by the tales of bad sex and fantastic murders. Hell, I wanted in. TWO DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD hadn’t done much to make me feel better about my sanity. Maybe my own “confession” would help, especially if I left some contact information along with it.

 Setting a video camera on my kitchen table, I sat in a chair about 5 feet away and did my best not to look *too* nervous. I still don’t know if I succeeded. I had jotted down a few ideas for my confession but couldn’t read them from where I sat. I started talking. I began, “I don’t know if I should talk to a psychiatrist or priest. I don’t think the way I feel is a sin, exactly, but I’m not sure what it really is. I do know that it’s led to a lot of misdirected energy and maybe prevented me from connecting with people outside my fantasies.”

 I reprised the story of my ongoing obsession with Todd. Then I went further: “I wonder what he’d think if he had the chance to see all this. Would I look like a stalker? I think so. Would I be a stalker? I’d like to think not. After all, he’s the one promoting himself as a sex symbol. If he’s Mr. 100% Straight, why does he take his shirt off so often? Does he think that only women appreciate those abs? After all this talking, I’m still not sure I’ve really confessed anything beyond an ordinary fantasy life.  But I’m genuinely curious what it’s like to be him. If we ever met, would he be my soulmate? Would we have yet another in a long series of unsatisfying one night stands? A friendship, maybe? Call me at {number omitted} if you’d like to share your thoughts.”

I knew that I was taking a risk by giving out my phone number to all of Manhattan, so I  had leased a voice-mail number just for this purpose after mailing the tape to the PO box for VIDEO CONFESSIONAL. The response was not encouraging. Several kids yelled “fuck you, faggot” or demonstrated their rap skills; a few  called solely to plug their own shows. After a second, failed try at connecting with the outside world, I felt  as though my heart was sending signals to a broken modem.

A few days later, David called me with some refreshing news. Dennis’ boyfriend had seen VIDEO CONFESSIONAL and wanted to talk to me. He had taken a big risk by taping the show and lending it to Todd (as much to check out Todd’s attitudes towards his gay fans as for any other reason, I suspect.) Todd turned out to be fascinated by it, and wanted to get in touch with me. One day when I checked my voice-mail, I was startled to get a call from him. His message was refreshingly blunt: “You’re lonely. I’m lonely too. Why don’t we meet somewhere and see what happens?” It ended with his number.

Listening to the message, I suddenly felt like the room was spinning. I didn’t have a panic attack, but I felt like I was having the upbeat equivalent of one: an overload of excitement. Trying to make my voice sound relatively normal,  grasping onto my kitchen table to stop the dizziness and praying that he would be home, I called him. (Maybe, like me, he only gave out a voice-mail number.)  Our bizarre conversation  ran around in circles for at least half an hour. The words “um,” “like” and “y’know” dominated it. I was reluctant to talk about TWO DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD for fear of making myself sound even weirder. (Besides, I doubted that he’d even heard of Thomas Bernhard.) We talked vaguely about politics, trying very hard not to  offend each other. Frankly, I’ve rarely felt more self-absorbed.  Even so, I felt an odd twinge of vicarious intimacy - yet another oxymoron - talking to him. His image had accompanied my life,  so I felt like I knew him through the media. To him, I was a mystery,  but I was delighted that he cared enough to investigate further. I must not have been the kind of fan he dealt with a dozen times a day: that counted for *something*.

After going back and forth, we agreed to meet the next day for dinner at Moni, a trendy Japanese restaurant.  Under ordinary circumstances, I couldn’t afford anything more than a $10 plate of sushi, but Todd chivalrously said that he would foot the bill. I showed up around 8:00. He was fashionably late, dressed in a blazer with a pair of blue khakis that almost matched and Nike sneakers: the kind of “casual” look that exuded money. I wore a Cannibal Ox T-shirt that I got for free at work and ratty black jeans. My sneakers came from Nike via Goodwill. The atmosphere at Moni was familiar from downtown Manhattan restaurants: in order to get the waiter’s attention, your eyes practically had to shoot laser beams at him. I stared at him for a few minutes, but once he noticed my companion, he came over immediately.

I got the first word in:
“Um...I’m really glad to meet you.”
“Yeah, I got the impression you were waiting a long time for this.”
“So is this...sort of your version  of that thing where celebrities go visit kids with leukemia and spend the day with them?”
At this point, I realized that I was scratching my nose compulsively. Somewhere, I remembered that cops consider this a sign that a suspect is lying. I made a mental note to stop scratching, although I’m not sure if I did.
“Is your self-esteem that low?”
“Yeah.”
“No, I thought you were cute.”
The hustler stories suddenly popped back into my mind, but I forced them down.

Not sure how to pick up my end of the conversation - after all, he knew that I found him attractive and there wouldn’t be much point in my saying “I think you’re a hottie” - I decided to describe TWO DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD.
“Well, I did this art show, combining photos of you on one wall, with collages of pages from the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s books on the other one.”
“Who’s he?”
“Uh, he was really negative...I mean, he wrote a lot of books that are these endless but really articulate rants. He hated Austria but he was completely obsessed about it too. You should check out WOODCUTTERS. It’s set at a dinner party that  might remind you of Hollywood.”
“Every day I spend there, I feel like my soul is being drained away. I feel too good there, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know. I think I’d kinda like feeling too good.”
“Well, it’s depressing to be sitting at a restaurant and suddenly realize that I’ve become Celebrity X. Some aspiring actor or screenwriter comes up to you and starts kissing your ass, and you realize that if you weren’t famous, they wouldn’t give you the time of day. Sometimes I feel like I should ask them if they can tell me what happened in a single scene from one of my movies.”
This world was so far from my life that I couldn’t think of a single suitable reply. Instead I blurted out:
“So why did you call me?”
“You’re blunt about what you want, yet you seem so incredibly confused about it at the same time. It seems so weird that all your fantasies would center on me.”
“Not...well, hardly anyone except my friends came to see TWO DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD. You can say ‘it didn’t shake the world.’ For now, working at a record store and pursuing art as a hobby is OK. When I’m 35, I don’t know how I’ll feel.”
“Hey, I  just played a guy who turns 35 and starts having sort of a midlife crisis. It’ll be out next Christmas. It’s like AMERICAN BEAUTY for Generation X.”
“Uh...that sounds interesting. I feel really weird asking you this, but again, why did you bother calling me after you saw my video?”
“I didn’t want to feel too good,” he laughed.  Continuing, he said “I was in a mood where...well, sometimes I just feel like I want to go teach English at Bennington or some place where I could be myself. I never asked for the responsibility of being a star, although I always knew it could happen. It scared me.”
“You want to meet me in order to get scared? Why didn’t you just buy a Clive Barker book?”
“Hardly anyone has the guts to say that their whole life was shaped by my image. Still, they’re out there. Do I owe them something in return?”

The conversation went on like this for another hour or so. It seemed like an elaborate game, and I wondered if Todd really was attracted to me at all or if he’d decided to meet me out of intellectual curiosity. He kept a poker face the whole time.  I just hoped I became less nervous - less visibly so, at least - as the evening went on. As our dinner proceeded, my impression that Todd was viewing me like an ant under glass steadily increased.  Still, how could I know what “normal” behavior for a movie star on a half-date was? After checking his watch, he told me he had to attend a party held by Harvey Weinstein at 10:00.  Feeling more than a little dizzy, I stumbled my way into a cab and headed back home.

I fell asleep with the TV on, not knowing what to make of all this. I called Todd the next day. Surprisingly, he picked up on the first ring. “Hi, it’s me again...the guy from last night,” I said. He replied “Oh yeah.” I decided to be blunt: “Are you at all attracted to me? Because you know how I feel about you, and I’d like to, uh...cut to the chase and have sex and see how things go from there. Besides, you’re in no position to date and take it slowly.” Todd sounded flustered and mumbled something vague for about 30 seconds. His final reply wasn’t too coherent: “No...well, I was more curious and I wanted to see if any chemistry was there...it just wasn’t, it could’ve been...I would’ve liked this to work out but...” I pushed him: “How can you know from one date that this wouldn’t work out?” He said firmly, “I know. Look, I’ve got to go now.”

That conversation delivered  a beatdown to my hopes. For weeks afterward, I could barely get out of bed, troubled by the thought that I took things way too quickly . Yet I eventually recovered, maybe because I realized that even if    Todd didn’t seem to think I was crazy, but his life and mine were worlds apart. Now that I’d had this fact slammed in my face, I wondered why I had ever thought a long-term relationship with a world-famous closet case was an option. He got his ass kissed at expensive restaurants; I got recognized in the East Village and Williamsburg by fans of Japanese neo-psychedelia and minimalist techno. Some difference. Some wish fulfillment too: it’s left me even more confused. If the fantasy icon had faded, my lust hadn’t dissipated. Now that I had some sense of him as a  real person, my hard-on felt even more pressing.  The reality principle kicked in: the image had faded, but his body hadn’t. In the right mood, I can now deliver lengthy rants about the evils of America’s culture of celebrity, but even firsthand demystification hasn’t diminished its power or the depressing force of my brush with it.  If I’d tried, maybe I could have become friends with him, but I agreed with Cannibal Ox that friendship with someone you’d rather love is “the F word.” I don’t know.  Yes, I do: I should take out a personal ad or something and lower my expectations.  Or maybe it’s time for another confession.