In the fall of 1996, I moved into a sublet, a room in an apartment in the West Village of New York, at the corner of Greenwich Avenue and Seventh. The apartment belonged to someone I’d met through a friend. The rent was very cheap and I had always wanted to live in the West Village. I had my eye on West Eleventh Street, and this was close.
The apartment was essentially a narrow hallway, and my room was a small room a little bigger than my bed. There was a bathroom, a kitchen, and his room, which was also the living room, and it had a door I couldn’t go beyond if it was closed, as it meant my roommate was working, which is to say, giving a man a massage with the understanding that at the end he’d get release.
“Release,” I asked, when he first said it.
“A hand job,” he answered. I nodded and then he nodded too, and laughed.
Release always struck me as a strangely hygienic term for it. I imagined men supplicant on the long table, afraid they might not be allowed out of whatever the prison was of their lives. Leaping into the air afterward, maybe even capable of flight.
My roommate was tall, handsome, a former model, Amerasian like me—Dutch and Japanese—and he had a beautiful sleeve tattoo on his arm of a Japanese dragon, like a character out of a comic book. He was like a taller, prettier version of me, the older cousin I’d never had, the spitting image of Crying Freeman, from the manga of the same name about a Japanese assassin for the Chinese mafia—and while I think I mentioned the comics, I don’t remember. I do remember how sometimes I had the uncanny feeling of having entered the comic, as if I’d loved it so much it had come true. Especially when he strode across his room, shirtless, the beautiful tattoo glowing on his pale skin.
He was smart and funny, and had literary aspirations that we sometimes talked about on the nights we drank wine late into the night in his room, which was also the living room. I was happy for a while there. I could count on one hand the number of hapa gay men I’d met back then, and of those, even fewer of them were literary. Each time I met one it was like we were from a homeland that had never existed, but that if we collected enough of each other, maybe it would. But we never said this, or, I never did, it was just something I felt. I liked being like him, and I wanted to be more like him, to be as sultry, as bitter, as funny in the same way—and as beautiful.
When I found out he wanted to be a writer, it made me proud somehow. As much as I wanted to be like him, it surprised me to learn he wanted to be a little like me too.
At times, while drinking wine, he would confess things to me. The first confession was that he was terribly disfigured. A motorcycle accident in Los Angeles, he assured me, had ended his career as a model and actor. I couldn’t tell. His face and body were both still beautiful, as far as I could see, and I could see no scars. When I told him, he laughed bitterly. “You can see it in pictures,” he assured me. When he showed me photos of him as he had been, I scrutinized them carefully, but he looked . . . the same. “A really good plastic surgeon was at the emergency room,” he then said. “You know. Thank God it was LA.”
Yes, I remember thinking. Thank LA too.
Next he told me he had steroids he took to stay thin without working out, as he hated working out, pills he got from a doctor he saw in that room, and who paid him in prescriptions. Soon the doctor was revealed to be the doctor who had worked on his face. Then I learned that the friend who had recommended me to him was also a client. There was a story he was telling me there in installments, but the installments felt like windows that could not show the whole story—the real story was in what he did and did not say.
The kitchen was right before his room. I never heard much when it was happening, and he kept the door closed if I was home while he had clients. As a courtesy to him I tried not to be, though—and as the neighborhood was full of bookstores, it was easy. His work didn’t bother me—it was a little funny to me, like living in the front room of a brothel in the most boring way.
He was blithe about his work, as if it didn’t matter that he did this kind of work. As if it were only funny that he did this—he liked to make jokes. But I soon understood, in his mind, the accident had foreclosed on a more lucrative modeling and acting career, and this work was what he could do now, the one way he could still make money off his looks. Most of the time he maintained an air of devilishness, but here and there, rage appeared, only in the eyes of the very still, very beautiful, allegedly destroyed face.
Every so often he would take out the photos of himself from before the accident, showing me, in something like a ritual, asking me again to see the difference that I could not see.
Gradually I understood that it didn’t matter that he was still beautiful. Not to him. Not if every time he looked in the mirror he saw a stranger, someone who was going to fail him and his future. A replacement left behind by the accident.
He brought home a dog a few months after I moved in, a short squat blond mutt, part Corgi, part terrier of some kind, golden and seemingly placid, going blind. I don’t remember why, but soon after, he said he didn’t want the dog anymore. By then the dog and I had grown attached to each other, and so I said I’d take the dog.
The dog woke from a nap on my bed one afternoon and snarled once before it leaped at me, attaching itself to my cheek, biting deep. I grabbed its throat reflexively, and it let go. At the nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital, I waited in the emergency room to be told the wounds were puncture wounds and could not be sewn, only treated with salves and bandaged. So I was treated, given oral antibiotics and painkillers, an enormous bandage for my left cheek, and then I was released.
When I got home, my roommate had had it destroyed. He showed me the papers for the dog finally, which I’d not seen before the accident, with the word UNADOPTABLE stamped across them.
I didn’t stay too much longer after that. I’ve never spoken to him again. I saw something of his in the Village Voice once, but by now only his face remains in my memory, his name lost to me.
The only other way I remember him is in my face. I can tell when it’s going to rain now. I feel it in the scar, like a thumb pressing on the bone. When I do, I remember what the attending physician said. “It’s good you caught him at the throat. This could have been much worse.” Then he explained that if you’re ever being attacked by a dog, try to catch and pull the front legs apart. This splits their breastbone open, incapacitating them. Though it seems to me to bring the dog’s face unacceptably close. I am sure I could never do it and I’m happy I’ve never had to try. But then I no longer, despite my love of dogs, let them lick my face.
My face is a stranger to me now, even all these years later. I tell people the story and ask if they can see the difference, and everyone says, “You can’t tell.” But I can. I never used to believe him about his face but I do now.
If I ever see him again, I’ll tell him.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April of 2018. He is a contributing editor at the New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Out, among others. He is winner of a Whiting Award, an NEA Fellowship in prose and an MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.
In the anthology Go Home!, from the Feminist Press and the Asian American Writers Workshop, Asian diasporic writers imagine “home” in the twenty-first century through an array of fiction, memoir, and poetry. Both urgent and meditative, this anthology moves beyond the model-minority myth and showcases the singular intimacies of individuals figuring out what it means to belong. Established in 1991, AAWW is a national not-for-profit arts organization devoted to the creating, publishing, developing and disseminating of creative writing by Asian Americans through a New York events series and online editorial initiatives.