The rain, interminable. Cats and dogs. Great lakes puddle over the marshy back land. Ominous clouds scud over the Hudson Valley. Tom the gardener ploughs trenches down hill, unplugging the dams. Thirty years of fallen oak leaves dredged from soggy trench and damned culvert. Branches thrown over the fence into the once vacant lot by lazy neighbours, removed. A scribble of dead bramble, removed. Now, on the northern perimeter, a pile of rotting vegetation – we might have burned on November 5th if we lived somewhere sensible.
“There’ll be no bonfires in the village.” She said. The woman at the Mayor’s office. So. No wood smoke drifting over sparkling, frosty fields, no Guy Fawkes. No baked potatoes wrapped in scalding tin foil found amongst the dying embers.
I call friends in Los Angeles, they ask smugly if I’m prepared for the winter. They have no idea. Windows, insulation, boiler… thick curtains thankfully saved from other draughty, Victorian mansions. The winter months do not scare me. Come winter, come freeze the air, let the first snow fall.
How many pairs of gloves will I lose this year?
I am happy in Tivoli, so are the dogs. They chase squirrels, rabbits and deer.
The Little Dog has been skunked twice. Good God! The second time I took him to the vet, where they washed him with some magical solution. Better than being savaged by coyote or bitten by a rattlesnake… I suppose, cheaper to remedy. He’s such a brave, curious, foolhardy Little Dog.
Dude hasn’t been skunked once, he hangs back from anything mildly threatening. He learned to climb the steep stair in the new house, laboring one step at a time he finds us in bed then dances on two legs until I fetch him up.
I drive my old Mercedes into Hudson once a week. It’s a lovely town to visit but I hated living there. I hated it. Frighteningly, I can’t remember the name of the road where I lived. Let me remember. Bellview, Fairview… PROSPECT! Prospect Avenue, Hudson, NY.
So many irrelevant details scrubbed from the hard drive. I will never forget that house. That vile, ‘English Tudor’ house on the optimistically named Prospect Avenue. Overlooking the hospital; and a busy, dirty road. The worst place (by far) I ever lived. Badly designed, badly renovated, so badly insulated: incapable of keeping heat in the winter or cool in the summer.
The house was haunted, not by angry ghosts moving things around or waiting in the corner… but melancholy, lonely women, dragging themselves up and down the stairs. Most evident, the ghost of an elderly school teacher who spent twenty years peering from the sitting room window, equally scaring and delighting passing school children like a Halloween ghoul.
The house attracts lonely women.
Tanja Grunert, the current owner, is the last of a long line.
So, I dedicate this blog post to her. To lonely Tanja whose life is more treacherous than a Hudson pavement in mid January.
The night I met Tanja she was wearing a huge black and white fur coat. Like a skunk.
A short, stocky woman, she wears baggy jeans and tailored jackets. Her cropped, gray/mauve hair… cut hard around her masculine, pudgy face. A smear of red lipstick, the only evidence she might be a heterosexual woman.
The night we met (by accident over steaming bowls of Asian broth) I should have run away.
Sadly, I have never had the resolve to run from a catastrophe. As the towers came down I ran toward them. There is something immediately alluring about Tanja, something fascinating. From the moment we met I was hooked. Some people are. I’ll not be the first and I won’t be the last. She crafted a first class art world career from a scintillating first impression.
That night Tanja focused her all on me, seducing and melting… gasping and fluttering, roaring her huge laugh. After dinner she invited us to the house… that house.
Much later I understood the only time she threw back her head, roaring that infectious laugh, was used as part of a sinister, well rehearsed routine. A carefully constructed formula.
We discovered we had many people in common, Jay Jopling, Samia Saouma and Benedict Taschen.
She told me how beautiful I was. Told me I was her ‘type’. I was clear about my sexuality, “I am a gay man.” I said, as she coquettishly batted her eyelashes, grabbed hold of my hand, inviting us back to her cold, empty house. “Oh I’m so sorry.” She bows deeply into every apology. She is a committed apologist. “English is my second language.” During our cohabitation I must have heard her say a million times, “Excuse me if I don’t understand.”
It was a lie. I knew from the beginning she understood everything very well. Yet, I chose to ignore her lies. I chose to ignore, that cold winter, her lies, her homophobia, her racism, her alcoholism and her delusion.
Tanja is an alcoholic. She is the kind of binging alcoholic who convinces herself that because she doesn’t drink in the morning she doesn’t have a drinking problem…. but she drinks in the morning. She is the kind of alcoholic who convinces herself that because she doesn’t drink alone she isn’t an alcoholic… yet, she drinks alone. She is the kind of alcoholic who convinces herself that she isn’t an alcoholic because she doesn’t black out and wet the bed…
She drank wine by the bottle, chain-smoked cigarettes; listened to opera so loudly on her record player that good conversation became impossible. Drowning in Wagner, drowning not waving, into misery.
That night, my first visit to her house, she lit a fire in the huge, totally empty sitting room. Her husband was gone. He had taken flight that summer. Taking with him the money (his fathers) and the possibility. She told him: “You cannot come to the house in Hudson.” He said, “You can’t have money to furnish it.”
I said: “You have an empty house and I have furniture.” She said “Yes!” immediately.
Listen for a moment. Stand back. Re-read my offer and tell me what could possibly go wrong?
Obviously it was terrible mistake. Half measures avail us nothing. I had no right making a deal with this devil. She started texting and calling all day and all night. She would introduce me to her friends as her boyfriend or her husband. She’d tell everyone who would listen that she loved me. I was living in the East Village. We had dinner in the city. Tanja tried making me pay for her expensive wine habit… I refused.
Instead, I moved in.
So began a slow, interminably slow, head on collision. Two cold, stubborn alcoholics buckling, catastrophically into one another. I spent nearly a year at the house, firstly because I was entranced… then the doors began to slam behind me. The furniture arrived and she took what she wanted from my things. “Each thing more beautiful than the last.” She cooed.
My Gary Hume disappeared.
Because she is an unapologetic racist she made me hide my African art because black people do not interest her. They make her ‘think of slavery’. They ‘make me sad’. “I would never sleep with a black man.”
She buys five tickets for the Bjork concert but can’t find anyone to come with us. Finally she invites people who barely know her. They say, “I don’t know her at all.” At the will call she’s told very clearly that her tickets are being exchanged for better tickets. Tanja starts screaming. Screaming at everyone. Kicking the theatre. I stand back and watch her disgusting spectacle. I take the tickets, tell her to shut the fuck up, lead her into the theatre. We take our excellent seats at the front of the theatre.
Shocked by her behavior we walk in silence back to the car after the event, unable to discuss Bjork like normal people. Like the normal people around us, happy and grateful to have seen Bjork. Her tantrums, her temper, her screaming, her crying fits of righteous outrage and indignation became so regular I learned to ignore them.
The winter was long and hard and cold. Minus 23 degrees. Unheard of upstate New York. I found myself held hostage by the masculine German woman in the unfriendly house.
She refused to fill the oil tanks. The house froze. The pipes burst. The tiles fall from the bathroom walls. I fill the oil tanks myself, ferrying 10 gallon cans from a filling station five miles away.
The chaos, her unmanagability became easier when the sun began to shine.
Spring came suddenly this year. The original deal she reneged. She wanted money. Always desperate for cash. Another good idea blown into a million pieces. I handed it over.
Her grasping, fat fingers. Her solid, bruised, Teutonic arms quaffing wine, passing out, laying naked on her bed until she leaks yellow stinking piss all over herself. Naked on her bed, not sleeping but unconscious. Laying like the dead waiting for the autopsy, naked on her back. Acres of white flesh. “We are always naked.” “We always talk to ourselves.” “We only eat from Fish and Game.”
She tells everyone that an important publisher has commissioned an auto-biography. She says that the money will come.
“We only write in the kitchen.”
“We hate mood lighting.”
She spends hours under the harsh light at the kitchen table tapping on her keyboard, claiming to write a book some grand publisher might (or might not) have commissioned. She says she’s researching but she’s on the internet trying to fill the consuming void her younger husband left when he scarpered last June. Filling the gaping, suppurating wound with Internet dates on match.com, okcupid and other… less salubrious sites. She shows me a thousand pictures of penis she has been sent.
Her less sexually ambitious female friends think she is a pioneer. This old queen knows she is a lonely, sleazy woman on the cusp of suicide. In and out of Belleview. Unable to accept the truth. Popping pills. She is poor, illegal and single.
Gay men seldom share the cache of penis we’ve been sent on line. Maybe the largest or the smallest. Maybe the most beautiful. She indiscriminately shows me every one. She wants me to know she is still relevant, that her menopause hadn’t knocked her through a hoop. (Like Samia before her.) But her boast falls on deaf ears. I look at her poker faced, disguising the pity I have for her.
There’s a young art dealer in town with a cool gallery, I buy art, he delivers the art to the house. He knows who she is. Curious to see where Tanja lives, he is surprised that the house is so clean. He expects to see a mountain of empty bottles. He tells me that she owes everyone money, him included.
“There’s a joke art dealers tell each other. They laugh about how long they’ve been in the art business. They say, I’ve been selling art so long… I remember when Tanja Grunert was hot.”
I reserved the most sympathy for her children who instinctively knew how selfish, self-obsessed and self pitying she and her ex husband are. Both so eager to flee from her, like the men she meets on-line. A French man meets with her and tells me “Within a few minutes of phone conversation she offers to lick my ass.” to be his toilet. When he meets with her he says he could not fuck her because fucking her would be like “Fucking grandma.”
After meeting him she text messages twenty times an hour. She sobs, howls… when it becomes apparent that he is not interested in her. She wrings her hands and bangs her head into the wall, she blames everyone for her distress.
She meets another man and calls at 1am to ask where they can find a woman for some three way. I terminate the call.
Her teenage daughter watches as every man her mother meets on the internet lets her down. Steals what little she has left. She has learned to keep quiet. She is biding her time, waiting for the day she can turn her back on them all.
Tanja boasts that during her second pregnancy with the girl she was high on cocaine, drunk on alcohol every day for the first trimester.
Her insufferable, precocious, entitled, blue-eyed son lives with us for the summer. He leaves chaos and mountains of trash infested, after a few hot days, with maggots. He said, “You are the room mate, you must clean up after me.” I refuse.
I video the mess and send it to his mother. He is now at an expensive college in SF exploring his homosexuality, thankfully a long way from his gentle, yielding girlfriend who was often heard plaintively asking the teenager why he needed to hurt her to express his love.
The boy barely conceals his contempt for the girl. Like his mother, like his father, like his grandmother. Generational dysfunction. Violence. Violent to others, violent to herself, Tanja told me her husband would beat her in the bedroom. Not because he loved her… because he hated her. The provenance of the son’s fledgling misogyny evident for all to see.
The son drinks until he passes out. Naked on his bed. His father drinks himself into a black out… she wets the bed. I could smell the piss before I saw it.
Her son wants to stay with me at the hotel. I cling to the edge of the bed. As far as I can from his yearning adolescence. Tanja wants to know why he is so interested in me.
For all of her gay friends, she is an unapologetic homophobe. She makes sneering jokes about ‘Your side’ and ‘Your people’ she tells me that I am ‘No use’ to her. They are not jokes, they are evidence of her deep-seated homophobic resentment. For all the extraordinary gay men she surrounds herself, delighting them with her drama… she hates gay men. We are good for loans and art purchases. We loyally turn up at the hospital every time she half-heartedly overdoses.
When I brought that beautiful boy Spencer home, she asked if he was my boyfriend, then slandered me in German. My school boy German catches every word.
Gay men know this: we all know that those determined to kill themselves rarely fail. The rest, like Tanja, merely crave the attention: cosseted in hospital beds, prescribed medicine, given the benefit of the doubt.
The gays around her provide the Greek entertainment. The chorus. Picking up the pieces.
At dawn, when she finally let me sleep. Before she falls into her bed, Tanja became sexually abusive. When we are on our own, if I’m the only person in the house she focuses her sexual violence on me. Keeping me awake until dawn, drinking and smoking. Trying to touch me.
When, at the end, I mention that she is sexually harassing me and I could sue her… she smiles a smile only a torturer could have smiled and I saw very clearly into her rotten, stinking soul. She looked like the devil. I saw the devil smile. I will never forget that smile, for it was quite unlike anything I had seen before.
In the morning, by way of apology, she reminds me again that her mother had abused her. That she had hidden from the Nazis by living in a box under a mill, like a fairy-tale troll. After the war her mother had children and beat them. This was the excuse she gave for abusing me.
The same excuse. Again and again.
Excuses: excuses not to pay her artists, why the house would freeze and the pipes would burst. Excused for not having insurance when Sandy hit Manhattan and filled her Chelsea gallery with raw sewage. Excuses for not paying her taxes, for not bothering to renew her visa. Excuses why she never made a better job of killing herself. Excuses and apologies. One after another. A crocodile of dead infants snaking their way to hell.
After my painful pancreas operation, drowsy on meds she made me drive to the bank, fetch her $3000 and then punches me when I burst into tears. She apologizes immediately; she tells me that she was abused by her mother. It’s too late. The summer is coming to an end. I hate her with such vigor. I hate being near her, I hate her voice, her smell, her proximity.
We drive back to the gallery where an angry artist is waiting for cash. Arms crossed.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.” She pleads with the angry artist.
At the end of August I empty the house of my possessions and I am free. 8 months of hell finally comes to an end. I move to Tivoli.
Even after I am gone she demands money. I have learned not to respond or engage. A good lesson in restraint of pen and tongue.