In Bed With Burroughs

A piece by Marcus Ewert

Monday, July 30, 2007

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In 1988, when I was 17, I flew across country to the Naropa Institute with the express purpose of sleeping with either Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs. By sleeping with them, I would join my life to theirs, thereby speeding up my own ascent into personal and artistic greatness. Burroughs wasn't at Naropa that year, so I made my play for Allen, and that worked out great: Allen and I genuinely got along. And he had no problem with the fact that I still wanted to 'connect' with Burroughs at some point-on the contrary.

"It would be great to get Bill laid," Allen said, "he loves to get fucked. And you genuinely care about him and his work."

So one afternoon, Allen called Burroughs from Boulder, and, with me sitting beside him on the sofa, proceeded to gush to his old friend William about 'this cute, courteous, and intelligent kid' he'd just met-i.e., me. "He's just like a character in one of your books, Bill! 'Pure, uncut boystuff!'" Allen chirped, using Burroughs' own phrase for that quintessential youthfulness. 'Pure, uncut boystuff' a la 'pure, uncut heroin.' -At this point I should perhaps mention that Allen was then 62 years old, and William Burroughs was 74.

I didn't meet William till over a year later, in September of 1989. By this point I was living in New York City, going to school at Columbia, and staying with Allen at his place, on the Lower East Side, every weekend. One day Allen phoned me in my dorm-room to tell me that Burroughs would soon be passing through town, and did I still want to meet him? I of course said yes, so Allen told me I'd be his date at a dinner John Giorno was throwing in Burroughs' honor. (Among other things, Giorno was the nude guy sleeping for six hours in Andy Warhol's infamous film, Sleep.) The party was going to be held at the Bunker, Burroughs' legendary former residence in the Bowery, that I had read so much about. The Bunker was once a YMCA, and still retained the latter's archaic, foot-thick cement walls and solid steel front door-as well as the ghosts forms of nude, diaphanous boys, according to Burroughs-the spirits of locker rooms past. By the time Allen and I arrived, the party was in full-swing with some ten or eleven guests present, all of them male, all of them old friends of Bu rroughs, most of them at least somewhat famous in their own right, and all of them older than me by anything from ten to fifty-some years. The big hit at the moment was a Freddy Krueger glove that Chris Stein, the guitarist from Blondie, was passing around. The glove was made of butter-soft, gray leather, and Chris had paid an expert knife-maker $5000 to attach heavy, curved blades to each finger. Everyone took turns trying the glove on, taking swipes at each other, and laughing, and the moment the glove came to me, William Burroughs was right by my side. In his gravelly, voice-from-the-grave, William told me how impractical the weapon was, and why, but nevertheless proceeded to don it again and hog it while he went on to demonstrate a lengthy series of feints and thrusts to me, which I assume he was making up on the spot. As he puttered around, I got a good look at his iconic form: the grey suit and vest, the curved upper body, the eyes glowing with unearthly intensity from within the bald, skull-like head. Everyone else had backed off at this point, to give the two of us space, and William spent what was for me an uncomfortably long time stalking me around the room, slashing me with the glove, and making 'growr, growr' noises. His gaze was steely fixed on mine, and for a moment I was honestly afraid that he would attack me for real if I flinched or looked away: "Don't let him see your fear." William's jungle-hunt of me seemed like such a bad metaphor for exactly what it was-a carnal pursuit-that I was embarrassed for the both of us, but on the other hand, I was totally thrilled. Wasn't everything proceeding exactly like I had planned?

At dinner, Wiliam sat by me, and as we all chowed down on fettucine with capers and good French bread, William excitedly showed me his new wristwatch, which had the hologram of a cat's head embossed on the dial. This led to a discussion of favorite animals, and William and I asked each other which critter we'd most like to be. I said dolphin and William said lemur. From interviews, I already knew that William had become very interested in the little primates, with their big eyes, soft fur, and shy ways, and William told me in person that he and his assistant had just come back from the lemur sanctuary at Duke University, where hundreds of the little guys were being raised, since their forest-home in Madagascar was being destroyed. I knew all this, too, and was pleased that I had a fact to impress him with, about endangered animals. Breathlessly I said to William, "Do you know what the current rate of plant and animal extinctions is?" because I thought that, given the caustic nature of his writing, we could share a little nihilistic chuckle over this. But William looked at me with a very sad, very old expression, and said, "I really don't want think I want to know." But I was too geared up to stop now, so I burst out with, "Four species an hour! That's one species every fifteen minutes!" with a big stupid grin on my face-even though that little fact horrified me too. But I was young, and trying to seem clever. It's only later that you realize you don't need to try so hard.

The next day, back at Allen's, I urged him to call Burroughs, and get his post-mortem on the dinner-party-or, more accurately, on me. Allen did the talking; I hung by his side and tried to overhear. "Well?" I demanded, once Allen had hung up, "What'd he say? What'd he say?"

"Oh, he really liked you," Allen said. "And before Bill got on? His assistant, James, answered, and James told me that after the party William had told him, 'Boy, Allen's got himself a real beauty this time, hasn't he?'"

"'Allen's got himself a real beauty this time'?" I cried. "William really said that? About me?"

"Yes," said Allen. "And I made appointment for you, to go over there, at 2. James and John and everyone will be gone by then, so you two should have the place to yourselves."

I let out a little squeal, and hugged myself, running William's words of praise over and over again in my mind. At this point in my life, I was morbidly insecure, with a borderline eating disorder. When I was alone, or with people my own age, I was consumed with this monstrous image of myself as an unhealthy, wan, rat-faced creature, with an emaciated body, and lank dark hair. But when I was around these people, like Allen and William, I flushed like the sun. My hair became glossy, it took on foxy-red highlights; my cheeks blazed with freckles; my eyes grew sparkly and alive. I truly became pure, uncut boystuff, the archetypal, Norman Rockwell image, wholesome and all-American, like cornflakes, or autumn leaves. 'Allen's got himself a real beauty this time, hasn't he?' Oh yes, I was 100% ready for my two o' clock date with destiny.

I went back to the Bunker. Any of Burroughs' hangers-on who were still hanging around quickly vanished, so that he and I could be alone. The cavernous space was quiet. Casually, Bill and I strolled into the bedroom, the same room he had slept in years before. Compulsively, Bill began dragging out odds and ends he had, each with its own story: some Civil War bullets; a tiger claw; a tarantula englobed in a paperweight... I was a bit bored, and I think Bill knew it, but just like me the other night, he couldn't stop himself. I think William only had a limited bag of tricks, and if I didn't respond well to these, he was sunk. Suddenly, I realized that he was scared of me, that I was actually in the position with another human being where my disapproval could cause them pain! I was flooded with self-confidence, as well as a grave sense of responsibility. But provided I treated William humanely, I could do no wrong.

The presence of the little, primly made-up bed became ever more palpable. Sex was looming, and I was pleased to discover that I was not grossed out by the idea, was even a little bit excited. Suddenly, I had another revelation: Wow, this is such good karma for me! If I, at 18, can give myself so goodheartedly to a 75 year old, whose perfect type I am, that means that when I'm 75, someone who's my perfect type will come give themselves to me!

Finally, Bill and I sat beside each other on the bed, a foot of space between us. Tentatively, Bill set one of his hands down on the mattress, exactly halfway between us, and I don't react. His whole body faintly trembles. Then, he moves his hand so that it's resting just to the side of my knee; and still I do not run out of the room screaming, or whatever it is he's fearing. Lastly, William commits himself to the irrevocable act of actually putting his hand on my knee, and still I do not freak out-indeed, I in turn put my hand on his knee. I give it a little squeeze, and when I feel how bony and frail his leg is, underneath the stiff fabric of his jeans, I'm suddenly awash with a wave of tender protectiveness for this brave little guy, who's gone through such an ordeal just for a simple sign of affection. Manfully, I throw my arm around his shoulder, and pull William towards me. Both of us sag with relief.

William and I didn't fuck, kiss, or blow one another, which was fine with me, and was certainly a nice change of pace from Allen. Unlike Allen, William was always restrained, self-contained, comporting himself with dignity, and that made for a much better time in bed. As William and I grappled between the sheets, I couldn't get over how similar our bodies were: both of us white, hairless, smooth-the same height, the same weight, the same build. The inescapable conclusion was that I was in bed with another boy, and the idea was unbelievably sexy. I had never been in bed with another boy before, and here was my perfect double: a lean, taut body that I could grip with a real hunger, which would be returned. Our limbs were intertwined, interstacked, and you couldn't tell mine from his. For the first time in my life, I realized that a body like mine could be sexy.

Other moments were less cosmic. William ran his fingers over my thighs a lot, and humped his butt into my crotch like a hyper dog. At one point, he sat up and dangled his fingers around the head of my dick, whirring them around and muttering something under his breath. What was he doing? He isn't stimulating me at all, I thought, I can barely feel him. And...what's that he's chanting? Finally I concluded it must be some sort of spell, something he learned in Morocco. But what was it, a charm against impotency? In my mind, I was like, "Hello! I'm an eighteen year old guy-getting erections is not the problem!"

Eventually, I felt a lash of cool, water-like fluid against my leg, and realized that William had just come. I brought myself off a minute or two later, and we both grinned hugely, relaxed and easy, with genuine camaraderie. As we hitched ourselves back into our clothes, William purred like a contented lion. "Ahhhh," he said, "that's the first time I've done that in years !"

My own happiness doubled. Not only did William and I like each other, my place in history was assured: I would go down as the last person ever to have slept with William Burroughs. I mean, he's not going to live that much longer, I reasoned, and it's not like he has other guys lining up to sleep with him!

We parted amiably, and two weeks later I was thrilled to find in my mailbox a postcard from William, inviting me to spend Thanksgiving with him at his place in Lawrence, Kansas.

"I can offer you simple, country pleasures," the card said, "shooting, fishing, canoeing..."

I pictured it all to myself: Autumnal, All-American me spending Thanksgiving with William Burroughs in Kansas. I couldn't write a better scenario myself.