Larry Rivers, “Double Portrait of Frank O’Hara,” c. 1954
Uncollected prose juvenilia of Frank O’Hara. A piece first published in The Harvard Advocate, March 1948, and subsequently included in the Howard Moss-edited The Poet’s Story (1973):
O the Dangers of Daily LivingHigh styling with the social codes awry. Conventions subtly mocked by ruthless excess. Is it the “locked in a room” motif of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (1944)—“l’enfer, c’est les autres”—that underwrites the seeming reverse katabasis of the endless ascent of the stairs?
George, I said, I hope never to see you again, and with that strode into the thickening dusk. It was April and the smoke of early twilight wreathed slowly around caretakers finishing up their grooming jobs for the day. Sad piles of refuse—papers, weeds, leaves, twigs, rotted blossoms—lay, dotting the park with malignance, putting a period to the day. I was glad of the approaching night. If anyone had asked me two months ago who the oddest person I knew was I would have said Morris Morgan; I would have been wrong, it is George Rose. I shall never forget the night I met him.
Miriam: Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Oh! Hello.
Me: Hello, Miriam. How nice of you to call me up. I could not get here sooner as I was in Florida with a cold. Who’s here?
Miriam: Everybody. Just everybody. I don’t know what Jake and I are going to do for liquor if they keep coming in. These throngs of people. I know I didn’t invite them all.
Me: You invited me, Miriam.
Miriam: Yes, dear, I know.
George: I live upstairs. May I have a drink?
Jake: Oh. I remember you. You’re Lucius Maby, the diamond expert.
George: Yes I am. How do you do. How do you do. How do you do.
Me: You have terribly strong hands.
George: Haha. Haha. Ha.
Miriam: I’m locking this door.
George: Just in time, wasn’t I?
Miriam: No, you weren’t, as a matter of fact.
Jake: Have you met Fabian Dugan? Hello, Fabian.
Me: No, I haven’t. Hello, Fabian.
Miriam: Hello, Fabian. How are you?
Fabian: OK, Mimi. Just a touch of strep, but I’ve been gargling all day.
George: I had a friend once who died.
Agnes: Bobo! I haven’t seen you since last Christmas when you were drunk at my birthday party.
Me: Sweet! You remembered.
Agnes: I was so in love with you when I was twelve.
Me: Me, too.
Agnes: Fate tricked us, dear. Too young for sex, too old for friendship.
Jake: This is Annabelle Leach. Say hello, Annabelle.
Annabelle: Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Miriam: How is your grandmother, dear?
Annabelle: She died a week ago.
Jake: Another drink?
Miriam: Do you mean we have one or would I like one?
George: I have lots of liquor at my place. I have bitters and menthe and grenadine and kummel.
Jake: Let’s go up to your place.
George: I’d really love to have you but let me go up first for a minute, and then you come up. In five minutes. What time do you have?
Jake: Oh, we’ll find it all right.
Miriam: He’s the nicest man. Isn’t he the nicest man, Bobo?
Me: No, he is not. Morris Morgan is.
Morris: Hello, Bobo.
Me: Hello, Morris.
Morris: Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Agnes: So your name is Morris. I thought it was Lud.
Morris: Lud? Oh, no. Oh, no.
Agnes: I could have sworn it was.
Morris: Oh, no. It’s Morris.
Agnes: How nice.
Miriam: Are the five minutes up?
Jake: Yes. Let’s go.
Felice: Let me come, too. My husband never takes me anywhere.
Morris: I think I’ll come, too. And you won’t mind if I bring my secretary, Knute Lipsk?
Knute: Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Morris: He’s sort of a business associate.
Jake: I didn’t know you were in business.
Morris: These stairs are terribly dark.
Felice: I just saw something. It brushed past me.
Miriam: His apartment has a purple door. The maid said he must be artistic.
Jake: Oh, he is. Terribly.
Agnes: What’s your name again?
Agnes: Oh. Mine’s Agnes. I always used to say newt.
Knute: No. It’s knute.
Agnes: Yes. Isn’t it.
Felice: Do you supposed we’ll ever get there? I’m scared. Frightened, I mean.
Felice: Ladies never get scared. They get frightened.
Me: I saw a wonderful painting once. It was called Lady in a Frightened Lavatory. Vermeer. Or somebody.
Morris: I had an aunt once who slept with him. He was dull.
Miriam: He paints divinely.
Morris: My aunt didn’t think so. She just would say Vermeer is a dull tool from one end of the day to the other. She was jaded.
Felice: My father knew your aunt. They met in Venice.
Morris: How nice.
Felice: What was your aunt’s last name?
Morris: Abercrinch. Boost-Abercrinch.
Felice: What Boost-Abercrinch?
Morris: This reminds me of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Knute: Why, Morris?
Morris: Now don’t copy this down. Because I always think of sex on stairs.
Felice: How difficult.
Me: You’re so odd, Morris.
Felice: Who made that noise?
Jake: It was a what.
Felice: A what?
Jake: I didn’t see it.
Miriam: Have you been to Fishby’s lately?
Me: No. I imagine you asked that for a purpose. You think I am breaking up their home. I am not. I like their children better than I do them. Platonically. Julius Fishby is a boor. Mitzi is a sweet girl when she’s been resting. The two children, Hrothgar and Bob, are very athletic. I had wished they might be brought up more normally. But I never once, not once, butted in. I minded my own business. They were not my children. Julius drank a good deal and Mitzi took to burlesque, but they were not my children. Afterward, when the house burned down, I did my best. I bedded them in the garden house for three years. But Julietta wanted to give teas there. She began to suspect me of having an affair with Mitzi and took to staying in the hedges all night to watch the garden house. Something had to be done. I did it. Mitzi and Julius are very happy now even though the children are miserable. I have minded my own business and Julietta no longer watches the garden house. I resent your questioning me.
Jake: You might make an effort to be more polite, Bobo.
Me: You are all against me.
Felice: I felt something. Near my groin.
Miriam: After all, Bobo, what good is a friend if you can’t ask him questions?
Agnes: Some women are such cats.
Morris: Now girls.
Knute: Miss Janine Poisson once told me that stairs did things to her.
Jake: Then or once?
Knute: I don’t remember. Then, I think.
Jake: Was it a what?
Felice: No. It was a who.
Miriam: How odd.
Jake: I wonder what the stairs did to her.
Knute: I didn’t know her very well.
Annabelle: I’ve been thinking.
Miriam: Oh. We thought you’d stayed downstairs.
Annabelle: No. I’ve been thinking. There is something peculiar about this landing. I don’t think the stairs are leading anywhere. Does anyone know where we are? Wait till I’m finished. I’ve been thinking. Who ever heard of a purple door? This is an illusion. I studied them in college. I have known for the past two flights that Felice is really Janine Poisson. I went to school with them both. She is feeling nothing. It is just her fixation.
Morris: Oh no it isn’t.
Me: I think you are all perfect beasts. I am going home.
And so it was that when George Rose came up to me in the park that April evening and asked me what time it was, I did not so much as look at my watch, but fled into what was soon to be the night.