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The Lost Language of Cranes [excerpt]

«EARLY ON A rainy Sunday afternoon in November a man was hurrying down Third Avenue, past closed and barred florist shops and newsstands, his hands stuffed into his pockets and his head bent against the wind…»

Set in the 1980s against the backdrop of a swiftly gentrifying Manhattan, David Leavitt‘s extraordinary first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, tells the story of twenty-five-year-old Philip, who realizes he must come out to his parents after falling in love for the first time with a man. Philip’s parents are facing their own crisis: pressure from developers and the loss of their longtime home. But the real threat to this family is Philip’s father’s own struggle with his latent homosexuality, realized only in his Sunday afternoon visits to gay porn theaters. Philip’s admission to his parents and his father’s hidden life provoke changes that forever alter the landscape of their worlds.


  ·       [‘voyages’]

 … They had a son, Philip; he was twenty-five, and lived on the West Side. For him, one particular image of his parents had a kind of primal character: Owen and Rose are sitting across the living room from each other in the twin corduroy La-Z-Rockers they had once rented a car and driven all the way to Jersey to buy. It is late at night. Through the crack beneath the door to his bedroom, the light of four one-hundred-watt bulbs glares. There is no sound but that of pages turning, bodies shifting, an occasional stretch. «Two hundred pages to go,» says Owen. He is reading a densely footnoted biography of Lytton Strachey. Then he moves into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator door. The cake is there, the icing gleaming in the light that goes on when the door opens, one or two slices already missing and the knife – coated with the white silk and yellow crumbs – lying on the plate next to it. Rose joins him.  She takes te plate out of the refrigerator, puts it down on the counter, and sinks the knife into its softness. He stands by, helpless watching her as she hoists two pieces of cake onto desert plates and carries them to the table. All without a word. Then they sit down, prop their books open in front of them, and eat.

One fall afternoon, in the elevator, Mrs Lubin – a widow who had lived in the building even longer than the Benjamins – confided in Rose. The landlord, she suspected, was capable of dark treacheries. A letter a few days later confirmed her worst fears. The building was going co-op. Because they were not rent-controlled and under sixty-five, they had an opinion tu buy at a reduced price, but they could not continue as renters.

Of course there had been portents, rumors, finally letters; but the thing seemed to have been put off indefinitely, and finally they had stopped believing it could really happen. Now it had happened. «Can we afford it?» Rose asked Owen. He took off his reading glasses, put down the letter, and rubbed his eyes. «I don’t know,» he said. «I suppose we have enough money. I’ll have to talk it over with an accountant. I’ve never imagined spending so much money before, not since Philip went to college.»

«We have a few months, at least,» Rose said. «Before we lose our option.» She looked around herself. Give or take a few new pieces of furniture, and some re-upholstering, it was the same living room they had moved into twenty-one years ago. On the rug, a seveteen-year-old urine stain alone testified to the existence of Doodles, the poodle puppy hit by a car when he was only eight months old. Tey had lived there so long it no longer seemed like a place to her.

«The maintenance alone is going to be twice our rent,» Owen said. «Still, from what I hear, even that’s a bargain.» He looked out the window. «You know, Arnold Selensky tells me that every other building on the block has already gone co-op.»

«I don’t want to leave,» Rose said. Loke old Mrs Lubin, she panicked at the prospect of change, had heard the stories of the landlords who hired thugs and dropped pets out of windows, feared holesness. Not eveyone felt that way, of course. Owen’s spirited friend in the penthouse, Arnold Selensky, rich and getting richer in the video rental business, invited them up for dinner one night, wagged his cognac glass at them across the plexiglass table, and applauded change. «I myself believe in keeping up with the times,» he explained. «That music on the stereo, for instance. Eurythmics. Not The Eurythmics, just Eurythmics. Nice, huh? The latest thing. That compact disc player is also the latest thing. No reason just because one’s getting on one should lose touch. So many of the old women in this building, they’re killing themselves, it seems to me; they’re still listening to Lawrence Welk.»

Rose thought, Living in the past. Anachonistic. Bag lady  .  .  .

◊  Nath Jones reads from the section of the book entitled ↓ Myths of Origin.

– Epigraph:  «Forgive me if you read this. I had gone so long without loving I hardly knew what I was thinking.»

He left work in the dark. A fierce wind flapped the flags in front of the Waldorf-Astoria, where doormen ushered fur-capped women out of taxicabs and into revolving Doors. Ahead of him, un ungainly girl in a purple down coat pushed her way up Lexington Avenue, struggling against the wind. On any week-night the East Side was full of women like her, straggling into small delis and grocery stores to buy diet Coke, Häagen-Dazs, Chicken hot dogs. They had on blouses with complicated, frilly collars – big bow toes and Raffles of Pink or Gesell stain – and carried enormous handbags, and traed to fix their hair in the convex spy mirrors that hung over the frozen foods. Giant buildings filled with luxury and pomp towered over blocks of crabbed tenements, and even this early, everything was plastered with Christmas decorations, as if the whole world were a pile of presents for somebody else: reindeer Sprung along laundry lines, Santa Clauses peering out of Windows, bright chains of lights.

Somehow the thought of being alone in his apartment tonight was unbearable to Philip, and so he pushed his way across town to Second Avenue, to his parents’ apartment. The doorman had been dying off lately. A new one stood resolutely inside the glass Doors and did not recognize him, and Philip was annoyed to have to wait while he rang up. “I have a key,” Philip said, irritated, his teeth catering.

“See that sign?” said the doorman. “All visitors must be announced.” He read it slowly, like a tirad-grader. Into the phone by his stool he said, “A young man who says he’s your son is here, Mrs. Benjamin.” A pause. “Okay, go on up.”

Old Mrs Lubin, wrapped in furs, waited by the elevador. “It’s slow these days,” she said, and Philip nodded. She smiled at him. After a few seconds she said, “Cold, isn’t it?” and Philip nodded again. “I can’t remember a November this cold,” she said. “Not since the fifties.”

“I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t born yet.”

She laughed. “No, I guess you weren’t.”

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