This story originally appeared as an audio installation and free unlimited-edition laserprint as part of the exhibition "Cluster," curated by Katie Holten, at Participant, Inc., New York, in February 2006.

Several claustrophobic episodes

Close calls
1. Halloween. I was out with a rich girl. I’m not sure why, since I had broken up with her a few weeks previous. Perhaps by this time she had already gotten involved with an LA art collector; by spring she would move into his home on the beach in Santa Monica.

Neither of us was in much of a masquerade mood. We got a little stoned and went to a rooftop bar. I drank something bizarre, like a Black Russian, and got a headache.

The last night she and I spent time together, just before she left town, she walked me down to the waterfront and swore we’d always be friends. You could say to her, Why don’t you come over and spend the night, we can just talk and listen to music? and mean it, and not even have to bother with the inflatable mattress. Halloween night ended with her putting on my oversized Cypress Hill t-shirt and crawling into my bed. We spooned. She had a big ass, this girl—not fat, but with really wide hips and a lot of meat down there that, under compression, revealed the first pockets of cellulite. I became familiar with the patterns of these marks. Though I was at the time in love with someone else, I might have stuck it out with her longer had it not been for the view while fucking her from behind, or really the way I could project myself into future iterations of it.

I’m not sure how it happened that we decided to go back to my place. As we descended to the subway platform, a train screamed into the station; a rush-hour-size horde of costumed partygoers—slutty vampires, frat boys in drag, Courtneys and Kurts, Sids and Nancys—pressed forward to meet it. We galloped through them trying to find a car with room in it; to avoid missing the train completely we flung ourselves through the first open entryway.

For a moment that quickly grew long, we waited for the doors to slide shut against our backs. I’m not sure my problem had ever come up with her before. She said something I can’t remember and held my hand.

2. New Year’s Eve. Same year, different woman. I attended lang-syne parties with sleek, lovely, professional A., whom somehow I could never fall in love with. She’d kill me for that “professional”; she accused me of thinking she wasn’t cool enough. I guess she was right, though none of my girlfriends have ever been that “cool,” and pursuit of such has resulted in my beginning to settle, at age 35, into the posture of an inveterate bachelor.

The first stop of the night was in Fort Greene. A woman I had known, now dead, had lived in the same building, and the party took place in an apartment essentially identical to hers—or perhaps this is a false recollection that I imposed on myself at the time, to make my experience of the evening more dramatic. It was a boring party. I talked to some stranger about the novels of Michael Cunningham, which I have never had the slightest interest in reading.

Around eleven everyone began filing out to make their midnight destinations. Too many people, slightly rowdy with booze, crammed onto the elevator, and we were trapped in the back. I blurted out something obnoxious, as I’d wanted to all night.

The next party had the ingredients of a good time: good friends, a fridge full of cheap champagne, foul-mouthed union organizers, a foil round of ecstasy like a pack of Tums; for variety, there was even a stranger’s knock at the door to request help carrying an insensate neighbor up the stairs. But I found this party as boring as the first. Another woman was on my mind. I even turned down the drugs.

The next day we heard two things: the e was speedy and no fun at all, and at the first party, a couple elevator trips after ours, a load of people had gotten stuck; for the sake of the story, let’s say they rang in the new year suspended between stories six and five. Like some inept spiritualist, I’d cursed someone else with my worst fear.

3. This was an anecdote about feeling emasculated by not being able to ride the Coney Island Cyclone. In the last graf I watched my ex-girlfriend and my best friend rattle off down the tracks together. The final lines were:

Neither the ride operator nor the teenagers in line gave me a second look. In a panic scenario much of the fear is of public humiliation—it’s often the triggering element. But now I was sad because my failure had failed to get anyone’s attention.

Not completely terrible but you can see why I cut it. Like a rider on a bus or a subway, these stories of mine are crammed into too small a space; my favorites needed more room.

4. An installation at the Swiss Institute by Christoph Büchel. I brought along a girl I knew only slightly. When I failed to force myself into a crawlspace that led into the better part of Büchel’s rat trap, she called me “sweetie,” even though we were hardly on those terms.

Like many people I’ve gotten to know who were molested as children, she was drawn to the visible signs of damage; likewise she had the molestee’s vicious rages, inability to grow up, and radiant lack of clarity about personal boundaries. After our fling she dated a crossdresser who had an eleven-year-old daughter and couldn’t keep a job as a cook, and an aimless simp into martial arts whom she had known in high school. In the recent past there had been an artist in his sixties, once a chain-smoker, who had a tracheotomy hole in his neck.

The gray brick wall that split Büchel’s nightmare had been left short of the ceiling so that cowards and voyeurs could peek over it; by standing on a spongy cot, I could see into the other section of the tenement, where S. had gone. A black-and-white cabinet television with coat-hanger antenna played what looked like surveillance footage. Crushed Bud cans and cigarette packs littered the floor and coffee table. S. appeared in a doorway. It’s funny to think that I’d have denied the erotics of the scenario at the time.

After a some careful exploration she ducked into the fireplace and disappeared. Her report, shouted from a distance: a tunnel led to a dim, graffitied bunker strewn with bullet casings and empty snack-food bags.

While she was out of sight another person moved into my field of vision, a businessman type with gelled hair, a guy who probably had invested a grand or two in joining a museum’s young collectors’ council because it was a good place to meet women: different from myself, really, only in that he had a job. He’d had no problem passing through the first tunnel, apparently, even though he was much bigger than me and ought to have felt Büchel’s impingements intensely. But in fact no. He walked around the space exactly as a man does, with an air of blunt curiosity and implicit possession.

When he crouched to enter the fireplace I was overcome with helplessness and hate. Rape hung in the air, there’s no other way to put it.

5. This one was too boring. It had to do with my getting trapped in a bathroom—“trapped,” I should say; the punch line is that, drunk, I forgot which direction to turn the spring-loaded button on a bathroom door lock. At a lavish art dinner. With a model waiting outside to pee. The story was too boring to write because no one I really cared about was involved.

6. Syracuse, New York. A weekend visit to a girlfriend doing a masters in art history there—it wouldn’t have been my choice for grad school, but hey, it was free. We decided to take the bus to the mall, buy junk at Hot Topic, eat garbage at the food court, and see a matinee of Punchdrunk Love.

One end of the line was the university, the other end was the mall; in between, in a valley, lay the Rust Belt’s easternmost stud. The bus proved to be a popular mode of transportation, which for some reason took K. and I by surprise. After several stops, new passengers could get on only if someone got off. For the twenty-five minutes it took to reach the mall, no one did. A heavy, good-natured man was pinned against my armrest, and the rear area, where we sat, was crowded by the strollers of teenaged moms.

Often I carry tranquilizers cadged from friends for use in emergencies; here I’d left them at my girlfriend’s apartment. It seemed impossible even to make it to the door; and if we exited, where to? A wasteland of vacant storefronts, stained holiday banners, hotels with crumbling stonework, greasy spoons that closed by early afternoon. When I raised my eyes from the floor, or from my K.’s face, I began to panic. I seem to recall her doing strange things to distract me—reciting poetry? Singing? I’m not sure whether it was her suggestion or my brainstorm that I begin biting myself. The pain was just enough to keep me from shouting out loud, or pissing my pants, or whatever. I’m not sure how I survived it—and while that sounds melodramatic even to me, at such moments it does seem a question of survival.

I never broke the skin, though for a couple days I had small purple marks on my palm. My upper incisors, straightened by braces in adolescence, had grown slightly crooked again, I learned.

7. The fact that we chose to go to Mykonos together, along with our boyish and inevitably frustrated prurience, gave the trip a homoerotic luster. But beyond the application of sunscreen to that elusive rhombus in the middle of the back, nothing got close to happening; we’re too similar, he wasn’t sylphlike or macho enough to arouse me, and in the end we’re both quite straight, so far as I know.

One day we took a bus to a nude beach. It turned out to be more of a clothing-optional beach, with few people exercising the option to go without, and a forced, spring-break-year-round vibe that seemed to weary everyone. A low, open series of stalls crowded the narrow strand; under their common tin roof you could buy beer and fruit drinks. Terrible music pumped out of them, and from an open-air dance floor that looked like a mothballed boxing ring.

Josh read The Magus, one of the books people read when they go to Greece. I had brought The Magic Mountain, which I swear seemed reasonable at the time. Our few attempts to talk to girls hit brick walls. I was paranoid that if we left our things unattended they’d be ripped off immediately, so I rarely went into the water. Instead I sipped a beer and tried to make sense of the arguments of the ex-Jesuit and Settembrini. (Or was Settembrini the ex-Jesuit? I had better luck with Mann in Venice.)

We decided to head back to the hotel. The spot was relatively remote, with only the single bus line back. We got on, got seats, waited; and people packed in. It became clear that, until it was absolutely full, the driver was going nowhere.

I recall standing up, looking around wildly, and when Josh asked me what I was doing, replying Ummmmm . . . . Though it’s hard to remember, I believe I started to wrestle my way through to the front, to get off the bus.

Josh talked me down, I’m not sure how. He may’ve made me switch seats with him and gaze out the window, which in this case, surrounded by scenic if dusty Cycladic landscape, was a surprisingly effective tactic. He talked to me in a soothing voice; he may have even held my hand, though perhaps that goes too far. Everything was normal, everything was going to be fine: He managed to say it all without a hint of condescension. When I look back on this moment I am unsurprised he’s become a good father.

A few days later, at the wedding we were attending, Josh related my meltdown to our friend the groom. Thanks for the heads-up on that one, he said, reportedly.

8. This one I’ve been holding back.

One night I was trapped on the L train just after it left Union Square. We sat in the tunnel for forty-five minutes, until the MTA decided the broken-down train in the station ahead of us was going nowhere. They reversed our direction, sent us back the block we’d traveled, and cancelled service to Brooklyn for the night.

That morning I’d woken up in the bed of the woman I’d been seeing off and on for several months. We decided, if awkwardly, that we would spend the afternoon together: a promising sign. As we walked around the East Village, we said hellos to some people we knew and ducked away from others. Eventually we settled into the crowd in Tompkins Square.

I’m not sure how it happened, but as we sat there with our pants legs rolled up, plucking blades of grass and sipping the sugar water left amid the ice cubes at the bottoms of our coffee drinks, the conversation took a sharp and negative turn. It’s like a landslide when this sort of thing happens; you have the slightest sense that the rock you’ve stepped on is loose, you slip, a couple stones tumble, and then the whole face of the mountain peels off. What’s underneath is raw and ugly.
And then the train back. Stuck. Fucking hilarious.

Since on this occasion I did have tranquilizers in my bag, it really wasn’t so bad. Two of them took off just enough of the edge. After ten minutes of trying to disappear into a crossword puzzle, the marks of my pen began to soften. I looked cautiously up from my lap, surveyed the irritation on the faces of those mounting around me, and wanted to laugh. That feeling I have remembered.

The man sitting next to me was lanky, probably forty, with short black hair, black sunglasses, tight jeans, and a neat white oxford with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, revealing old tattoos. At first he remained quiet and unusually still. Then he began shifting in his seat, exhaling heavily, and muttering to himself. We started talking.

For the rest of our internment he dispensed pellets of conversation; circumstances made him a poor listener, apparently. He blamed his current misfortune on a meeting he’d had to attend; from his studiously neat dress, his jangled behavior, and his uninflected speech—not to mention the fact that it was Sunday evening—I decided the meeting had been not business but NA. He was a lifelong New Yorker, he said, but had never been stuck on a train so long. Once, as a kid, they’d evacuated the train he was on. Walking through the tunnels, that was nothing.

He took off his sunglasses eventually; his face had a paralyzed quality. Neither of us said the word claustrophobia until it was all over.

The night was as perfect as the day had been, cool and clear. Because we lived relatively near each other, and there was no other way to get home, we decided to split a cab. Now that the situation was less overwhelming, we were free to talk about other things. I was a writer, he was a musician. He told me the name of his band, the bar where they played occasional gigs, his name, which was Robert or John.

Houston, Texas
February 2006