Two Natures is the coming-of-age story of Julian Selkirk, a fashion photographer in New York City in the early 1990s. His faith in Jesus helped him survive his childhood in the Atlanta suburbs with an abusive alcoholic father, but the church's condemnation of his sexual orientation has left him alienated and ashamed. Yearning for new ideals to anchor him after his loss of faith, Julian seeks his identity through love affairs with three very different men: tough but childish Phil Shanahan, a personal trainer who takes a dangerous shortcut to success; enigmatic, cosmopolitan Richard Molineux, the fashion magazine editor who gives him his first big break; and Peter Edelman, an earnest left-wing activist with a secret life. Amid the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and the racial tensions of New York politics, Julian learns to see beyond surface attractions and short-term desires, and to use his art to serve his community.
Ch 12 Excerpt
We had decided to tell my family that Tomas was house-sitting for the violinist, who was not around to disclose what else my friend had been sitting on. One of the oldest tricks in the real-estate business is to bake cookies in a house you're trying to sell. The agent who moved a lot of Daddy's properties had once given him, as a joke, a spray-can of cookie aroma, designed for busy people to simulate the home-baked scent. As I recall, it was something like cinnamon mixed with artificial butter-flavored popcorn. If you could compress the air of family stability into a can, would it smell of roasting Cornish hens, candle smoke, stacks of yellowing sheet music, and fresh lilacs in a glass vase? I certainly hoped so.READ MORE
Phil and I arrived separately, me from school, him from work. At the gym, he'd showered and changed into khaki slacks and a plaid sport coat that no self-respecting gay person would wear. Even so, it didn't disguise the splendid muscles of his back and biceps. I wanted to run my hands over the cheap wool weave. I knew his vibes too well, though, the crackling of static when he was in an untouchable mood. Fine, we would be Method actors tonight, getting into character as roommates, forgoing that last supportive kiss. We helped Tomas set the table, folding the violinist's maroon linen napkins on top of gold-edged china plates. Tomas hummed the bullfight song from "Carmen" as he tossed the salad. Ariana, who had agreed against her better judgment to be my date, arrived looking elegant in a black cardigan with metallic threads over a belted gray dress, both of her own design. She'd never be beautiful, but twenty years from now, all the beautiful people would clamor to attend her parties.
"You look like someone who could hit me up for a million bucks," I said. "What's your favorite charity?"
"You are." She winked at me and made a beeline for Phil, greeting him with atypical enthusiasm, as if to console him for the deception.
Just as Tomas was beginning to fret that the birds were drying out in the oven, my family arrived. Introductions were made all around. I hugged my sister. She was pale but more relaxed than the day before. I'd meant to seat her between Ariana and me, but when we approached the table, I found that someone (who else but Phil?) had reshuffled the place cards so that she was next to Tomas while I was stuck between Phil and Daddy.
Tomas had thrown every possible flourish into the salad, an assortment of greens with more exotic shapes than a Thierry Mugler runway show, plus baby shrimp and some pickled things that could have been Japanese radishes. Older women love Tomas; he's the guy their husbands haven't been since prom night. All he had to do was ask Mama her opinion about trends in regional cuisine and they were off like a house afire. I noticed that he promoted himself to sous-chef when describing his job. Daddy praised the white wine. He and Phil both tossed off a full glass while the rest of us were maneuvering the slippery greens onto our forks. Laura Sue quietly picked the shrimp out of her salad and tucked it under a lettuce leaf. Ariana asked my sister about her college plans. Leaning across me, Daddy and Phil started a friendly argument about whether the Mets could beat the Braves this year. My sister said she'd liked NYU better than Emory, and was hoping to become a social worker for abused children. Mama broke off a discussion of sauce-thickening methods to say that she really didn't think such heavy subjects belonged at the dinner table, dear. Ariana told a funny story about the time the bathtub fell through the ceiling in our dorm. She implied that I spent a lot of time in her room. I swallowed a shrimp tail. Daddy called Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden a faggot. Phil poured another glass of wine.
Tomas and I brought out the Cornish hens on plates sprinkled with parsley flakes. Red wine followed white. The sauce that pooled around the meat was dark red and smelled like stewed fruit. Ariana adjusted her eyeglasses on her snub nose and asked Daddy whether he'd seen our photos in Femme NY. My sister didn't know what to do with her Cornish hen. Daddy asked me why I hadn't brought the model as my date. I said she was spending the semester in Russia. Phil ate a drumstick with his hands. Mama asked about my internship with Dane Langley and whether I had met a lot of celebrities. All eyes were temporarily on me, except for Tomas who was showing my sister how to cut the bird apart neatly. Speaking too quickly, like an amateur comedian racing through his material before he forgets it, I told them about setting up a shoot for Dane and Cheryl Kingston on a windy day at Pier 17, and how my job was keeping the seagulls from flying into the lighting umbrellas. Mama said she had read an interview with Cheryl in Good Housekeeping and wasn't it a shame about her and that racecar driver. Phil made a joke about my carrying Cheryl's bags, cupping his hands at his chest. Daddy laughed. Tomas sliced Laura Sue's hen down the middle. She covered her mouth with her napkin and raced for the bathroom, but found the linen closet instead. Ariana followed her before I had the chance to stand up. Tomas' face looked like someone had thrown his favorite toy on the ground and stomped on it.
"P-M-S," I mouthed the words to him across the table, but not quietly enough to escape Daddy's notice.
"Now there's a great subject for the dinner table, right, Bitsy?" he winked. "Remember the time you lost it at the Hansons' garden party?" The tell-tale flush, the shine of alcohol, had spread over his wide round face. I nudged Phil to stop refilling our glasses, but he pretended not to understand.
My mother's treble voice climbed even higher up the register. "Yes, we all thought it was the heat, but it turned out I was pregnant with you, dear!" she exclaimed to me.
"She took one look at that egg salad, and—whoops!" Daddy continued his story as if my birth were not the point. Lacking a cigar to re-enact the momentous occasion, Phil lit a cigarette and dropped the match onto the remains of his dinner.
"Lazlo doesn't let people smoke in the house," Tomas fussed.
"Who's Lazlo?" Mama asked.
"He's Julian's imaginary friend," Phil said.
"He's the violinist," I corrected, getting up to clear the plates.
"Well, Lazlo's not here, is he, now?" was Phil's reply.
Daddy chuckled. "You know, that reminds me of what Carter said—Carter's my eldest, you'd like him—one time when Pastor Ed told him he couldn't wear his peewee football uniform to church…"
I escaped to the kitchen. "Tomas," I moaned, as we scraped the salvageable leftovers into Tupperwares, "why did you let me do this? I mean, in what alternate universe would this have been a good idea?"
"Relax. Just wait till I bring out the triple-layer mocha marzipan cheesecake."
Tomas telling me to relax was the living end. "I hope so. It's like the Charge of the fucking Light Brigade out there."
Ariana, solo, stopped by the kitchen to tell us sternly that my sister was allergic to shellfish.
"You didn't warn me," Tomas reproached me.
"She's very self-conscious about it," I fibbed madly, "since my mother's people are from Louisiana." Was it the taste that upset her pregnant stomach, or the resemblance to the tiny pink creature curled inside her?
Ariana came over to take a closer look at me. "How much have you had to drink?"
When we returned to the table, with Tomas bearing the cheesecake on a silver stand, Laura Sue was sitting in my seat. She and Daddy were turned toward Phil while he cheerfully answered Daddy's questions about his background. "Right now I'm a personal trainer, but someday soon I'd like to go back to school to study sports medicine."
"How about that, Laura Sue—a doctor!" Daddy actually sounded impressed.
"Not exactly," Phil demurred, "more like a physical therapist, you know, rehab for injured athletes."
"Yeah, you figure, some of those guys must get paid a bundle to shoot steroids into Deion Sanders's knee."
I listened to their love-fest with half an ear while complying with Mama's request for a photo of herself and Tomas with the cake. It was a grand specimen, decorated with a pattern of light and dark brown ripples that made me think of a ballroom floor. Tomas bragged that he had soaked the espresso beans overnight in Frangelico, and I understood why he had let me walk into this death-trap. He was a mad scientist, caring only for the elegance of his nuclear bomb.
Daddy was still attempting to find common interests for Phil and my sister. It was slow going at first, since Laura Sue was unmoved by sumo wrestling and Phil had scarcely anything to say about theories of early-childhood education, but it turned out they both favored tighter immigration controls and thought Princess Di had been treated shamefully by the Royal Family.
Ariana tucked into a large slice of cake. I ate a few bites off her plate.
"Does she like you?" I whispered.
"Your sister? Yeah, I guess. She's a nice kid."
"Good. Hold my hand."
"Someday you will pay for toying with my girlish affections."
Fresh from her college interviews, Laura Sue was rattling off a list of her extracurriculars. Tomas passed around coffee with brandy. The guys skipped the coffee part. Ariana prepared to feed me a bite of cake. Daddy said something about going bass-fishing with Andy Crosby and asked Phil about his hobbies.
"Not much time for that," Phil said. "Basically, I get off work, I like to go home, take a hot shower, watch 'Entertainment Tonight', and get fucked up the ass by your son."
Ariana dropped the cake on my white shirt. Mama put her hand up to her mouth, that old useless gesture for keeping words in or fists out. I went around the table to my sister but she pushed her chair back and walked stiffly to the bathroom. My stomach churned, as when in dreams you approach that deadly room you always return to, where the black dog leaps out of the shadows and your mother's body is lying on the ground. That place whose furniture you recognize instantly—the crooked picture, the curtains drawn shut—which never stops you from walking back inside, makes it seem more inevitable, in fact, than waking in your own bed.
"The hell you think you are, talkin' like that to me?" Daddy bellowed. He propped himself halfway upright, his big hands spread on the table, and loomed over Phil, who squared his shoulders and jutted out his jaw. Daddy was bigger and meaner, but Phil was in better condition. Either way it wouldn't be pretty.
"Daddy—" Unsteady on my feet, I wedged myself in between them.
"You think I'm the kind of man, you can say that to my face?" Daddy continued to harangue Phil, both of them standing now. Phil said nothing; he was a noble statue, the kind the Greeks prayed to when they still thought beauty could save them from the volcano.
"Phil didn't mean anything, he was making a joke, about me," I pleaded.
"A joke? I'll tell you what's the joke." Daddy turned on me. "You and your fruity friends, inviting us to this dolls' tea party." The sweep of his arm knocked his wine glass to the floor. At the other end of the table, Ariana and Tomas were clearing Lazlo's precious dishes as fast as humanly possible. Mama cried softly into a wadded-up napkin.
"I thought you were doing so well," she wailed at me. "I thought everything was just fine."
"'Everythin' was jes' fi-ine,'" Daddy mimicked Mama's soprano drawl. "Only you would think that, Bitsy. Hell, I've known Julie was a fag ever since he cried at the Fourth of July picnic."
"I was scared of the fireworks," I said stupidly, a kid again in sweaty T-shirt and bare feet, listening for the gunshot echo after each burst of gold and silver light.
"That's not what you said," Daddy taunted. "You said you were crying because they were so byoo-tee-ful."
Phil threw the contents of his glass in Daddy's face. My sister chose this moment to return from the bathroom. Daddy's red face grew redder from the wine dripping down into his shirt collar.
"Get out, Phil! Get out!" I shoved him backward, my palm against his chest. The hurt in his eyes gave me only a moment's pause.
"Why do you have to be like them? They're never going to want you. Why do you keep doing this?"
"Just go, now!"
Daddy kicked Phil's chair over, but Phil was already at the door, out of range of his fists. Good food and drink, and twenty-five years behind the desk of Selkirk Builders, had robbed my father of the agility to pursue bigger game than women and children.
Laura Sue clung to my shoulder. She dabbed at the cake stain on my shirtfront with a wet napkin, spreading a watery brown smudge all across the breast pocket. "We'd better go," she said.
"Lulu, I'm so sorry, I don't know how this happened."
"It's always like this," she said, sounding much older than her eighteen years. "There's nothing you can do."
"Please don't let this change…your plans."
When Mama returned from retrieving the family's coats, I bent to kiss her cheek, but she turned aside with a tragic expression. Southern women love no-account men; every smashed glass and squandered dollar is another stitch in their martyrs' robes. In her mind she was probably already toting up the love she had wasted on her second son, starting with her fourteen hours in labor.
So at last it was only me and Tomas and Ariana with the remains of the cheesecake, like seagulls picking through a shipwreck. I washed the dishes in steaming hot water, refusing conversation. Without being asked, Tomas made up my bed on the couch. Ariana dried the dishes with a towel patterned with musical notes, which is not the sort of thing you expect a real musician to have. Maybe they were a gift from Lazlo's mother; maybe she visited once a year from Romania, dropping in unannounced with a box of honey cakes and the phone number of a nice Jewish girl he should call.
"You don't have to do that," I said to Ariana.
"I know." Putting a wineglass down perilously close to the edge of the sink, she came over and kissed me.
"You don't have to do that, either. No one's here."
"Asshole." She held me tight and I pressed my face into her warm hair, letting my tears fall, tears that had nothing to do with beauty, however much I might wish it otherwise, for both of us.
Hans M. Hirschi on Hans M. Hirschi's Blog wrote:
Julian is a Southern boy and transplanted aspiring fashion photographer in New York City in the 1990s; a gay man facing the height of the AIDS epidemic and professional, social, and spiritual struggles alike as he questions himself, God's will, and Christian values in the advent of a specific kind of apocalypse.
It's rare to discover within a gay love story an equally-powerful undercurrent of political and spiritual examination. Too many gay novels focus on evolving sexuality or love and skim over underlying religious values systems; but one of the special attributes of Two Natures isn't just its focus on duality, but its intense revelations about what it means to be both Christian and gay.
In many ways, Julian is the epitome of a powerful, conflicting blend of emotions. Take the story's opening line, for one example. Readers might not anticipate a photographer's nightmare which bleeds heavily into evolving social realization and philosophy: "I woke from another nightmare about photographing a wedding. The bride was very loud and everyone's red lipstick was smeared across their teeth like vampires, except vampires would never wear lavender taffeta prom dresses. It's always the wrong people who can't see themselves in mirrors."
Even the language exquisitely portrays this dichotomy: Julian's parents are still "Mama" and "Daddy", his language and many of his attitudes remain delightfully Southern ("You know, back where I come from, that was the first thing you asked a new fellow: what does your Daddy do, and where do you go to church?"), and his experiences with men, female friends, his evolving photography career, and life in general are wonderfully depicted, drawing readers into not just the trappings and essence of his life, but the course of his psychological, philosophical and spiritual examinations.
As Julian explores this world, readers should expect sexually graphic (but well-done) scenes designed to enhance the storyline (not shock it with departures or dominant heaviness), an attention to the social and political environment of the 90s that swirls around Julian and changes his perspectives and decisions, and a gritty set of candid descriptions that probe real-world experience.
Readers of gay fiction seeking more than a casual series of insights into the world of New York City's culture, enhanced by the deeper perspectives of a young man who spiritually struggles to find his place even as he fine-tunes his career and life, will welcome the close inspection of truth, love, and life provided in Jendi Reiter's Two Natures, powerful saga of Southern etiquette and perspectives turned upside down and the risks involved in moving beyond one's safe zone.
Ms. Reiter is an accomplished writer, having won awards for her poetry. I'm always interested in reading a good book, and when a poet branches out into prose, I'm intrigued. I've read this novel over the past few days, taking much needed breaks every now and then, because Two Natures gets under your skin.
First things first: the writing is astonishing. Not really a surprise from an award winning writer, but still. It deserves to be said, as poetry and prose are two kinds of animals. Ms. Reiter does an amazing job at describing the era, the early 1990s, the locales, mainly Manhattan, the politics of the Clinton and Giuliani era (seems history has a way of repeating itself...), and the fashion and publishing industry of the time. The characters become alive almost instantly, and I got to follow along the path of Julian Selkirk, the "hero" of the story, as he tries to build a career for himself as a fashion photographer in New York. Work, life, sex, love, death. It's all there, deliciously described.
A couple of years ago, I wrote The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, and I remember the reactions I got over the descriptions of HIV and AIDS in that book. As it started out in the eighties, I had no choice but to relate to "our" big drama. I also remember the acclamations from the like of e.g. A&U magazine for describing the HIV epidemic in a new light. I think I wrote TFAK the way I did, because I couldn't bear writing it any other way. For many of us coming of age at the height of the epidemic, we tried to ignore it, stay clear of it, and we repressed it. The condom was there from the first time we had sex, never knowing anything else. Two Natures also takes an interesting, almost in passing, look at the epidemic. New York, at the heart of it, is a focal point for much of the hysteria, the resentment against the LGBT community, and the tiniest slivers of hope for a brighter future, spelling marriage equality, anti discrimination legislation etc.
Two Natures is not an easy read. It is, however, a darn fine read. The beautifully crafted language that belongs to a great literary work, the details in scenery descriptions and the well-crafted dialogues make it a delicious read. But never an easy one. I am not usually a reader of historic fiction, and it pains me to use such a word, acknowledging just how old I’ve become myself, being about five years older than Julian. I read about things like President Clinton signing the Defense of Marriage Act (commonly known as DOMA, repealed as recently as 2013, as it was declared unconstitutional). Twenty years it was in place, this horrible thing, and so much happened in that time. Much I'd forgotten, some I’d just blocked out. My life was not unlike Julian's: partying, casual sex, friends, work, studying.
At times, Two Natures is really funny and witty, with a sense of humor so sharp it startles you. Here’s a sentence I highlighted in the first part of the book, from Julian’s POV:
Daddy grunted. He believed motorcycles were for Democrats having a midlife crisis.
I stopped mid-track, having to re-read that sentence a few times. So odd, so far away from my pre-conceptions of what a motorcyclist is like, yet what a beautiful description of a southern man's mindset, his own pre-conceptions. The second example is just as witty:
Does Linda Evangelista expect to be loved for her mind?
Julian is quite the cynical photographer in the fashion industry, a typical New Yorker, despite his Georgia background. Not a judgement of Ms. Evangelista's intelligence, but how completely irrelevant it was to her career as model. The present tense of the phrase made it all more edgy. The book is littered with such bon-mots.
Two Natures begins in 1991 and ends in 1995. I remember some aspects of that time in my life. Like Julian, my sex life was varied, and like Julian, I had several relationships. There are many commonalities he and I (along with most gay men of the era) share, and while I was never even close to the fashion or publishing industry, the loose yet oh so important circles of friends were there. Ms. Reiter did an amazing job researching for the book, and it is painfully realistic.
Without going into details about the plot, the two main romantic or love interests of Julian, Peter and Phil are painted in equally realistic colors. Both men flawed, but lovable. No, this is no romance novel, despite the romantic thread that permeates the pages. In fact, the mere mention of "open relationship" might send some readers of such novels screaming for the nearest therapy couch. Yet it is exactly the honesty, the unbridled truth told in Two Natures that makes this book so amazing. In fact, for all I know, Julian Selkirk is just a pseudonym for a real gay man living in New York in his mid-forties, married, no kids. I am deeply indebted to Ms. Reiter for writing "our" story, the story of gay men growing of age in the nineties so honestly, so candidly.
As painful as it may be to remember some aspects of it, as hopeful is the picture she skillfully paints, and as we leave Julian on the floor of GalaxyCon, there is hope for the future. And as we all know, that hope has largely been fulfilled in the twenty years since, albeit loads of work still remains. Two Natures is an exquisite work of art, beautiful literary writing that enriches the LGBT section of any book store and Kindle, and it adds a beautiful facet to the mosaic of LGBT life past.
Two Natures is published by Saddle Road Press and is available from Amazon and other fine online retailers. Give it a shot, you will not regret reading it.