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Paul Lisicky Looks at Love & Loss in Haunting Memoir “The Narrow Door”

Paul Lisicky on Fire Island (2007) by Bruce-Michael Gelbert, and "Narrow Door" book cover

Paul Lisicky’s new book “The Narrow Door: a Memoir of Friendship” was published by Graywolf Press in January. In this haunting, intense, and sensitive memoir, he juxtaposes the loss of his novelist friend Denise Gess to colon and brain cancer and the breakup, not long after, with his lover, then spouse poet Mark Doty, identified here as M. Paul’s writing throughout is marked by clarity and immediacy, its intimacy readily drawing in the eager reader, wanting to know more. Disclosure: I met Paul on Fire Island, photographed him there in 2006 and 2007, and then lost touch with him. I also met Mark at least once.
“The Narrow Door” is set in the world of writers and teachers, concerned with a whirl of classes, workshops, conferences, fellowships, programs, and readings, novels and stories completed, accepted, and published, or rejected, revised, and rewritten. Its narrative takes us to Philadelphia, Chelsea and elsewhere in New York City, Provincetown, Vermont, Iowa, Nantucket, Springs in East Hampton, and Fire Island Pines, among other locales. Paul very deliberately weaves memories from different years, different decades, into a seamless tapestry.
Among those populating the memoir’s pages are Joni Mitchell, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin, Jane Bowles, JD Salinger, Walt Whitman, John Updike, and an unnamed “Famous Writer,” whom some have surmised is John Irving. Regarding Denise and Famous Writer, Paul writes with perception of “her wish to be with him, to be him.” Denise contemplates going to a conference in Vermont, where Famous Writer will be, and asks, “Pauly … Do you think I should go up there?” Famous Writer’s rebuff to her is devastating.
Mirroring personal inner turmoil here are external disasters such as earthquakes in Haiti and Chile; volcanic eruptions in the Congo, Costa Rica, and Iceland, as well as of Mount St. Helens; the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill; Hurricanes Wilma, David, Rita, and Katrina; and “9/11, … the Bush regime, anthrax, terrorism, torture, mass incarceration, two wars, an expanded police presence, … [a]nd the Great Recession.” Offsetting these, and giving much-needed respite, though, are gently evocative descriptions of an autumn weekend in the Pines, and encounters with Nature, animals in the wild, in Montauk, Long Island and, as danger from the oil spill ebbs, in Western Florida.
When Denise gives Paul’s surname to a figure in her novel, Paul writes, “My friend used my last name for a character’s last name: for some reason, I am feeling a little embarrassed. Maybe I should have talked Denise out of that. It’s distracting.” Fractures and fault lines in their friendship begin to emerge. “How to say it? Denise fails me. I’m sure I fail her. How is it that we do that to each other? How could we take a beautiful friendship to this place?” Paul wonders.
Of a particularly troubled, troubling evening, Paul writes, in a dramatic passage that cannot fail to jump out at us, “I feel awful and worked up, as if I’ve been responsible for bringing a dark force through the front door. It would have been bad enough to be on my own with it, but M seems to have taken Denise personally, as if the spirits of his difficult past have joined forces in her and confronted us, insulted us. (The mother of his high school years, pointing the loaded gun at him; the father who sends back his memoir manuscript with the words ‘Return to Sender’ on the envelope.) He is not happy with me and I feel it bodily.”
Paul contemplates the concept of a “[h]igh maintenance” relationship—“someone who gets hurt easily, someone who needs special care, who can’t go for two hours without blowing up, or sulking in wounded silence”—haven’t we all tolerated those for a time?—and he and Denise go their separate ways for a while. It’s during that time that Denise is diagnosed with cancer, but Paul won’t know that until they’re in contact once again. And Paul and Denise indeed repair. Paul writes, quoting from his novel “The Burning House,” “I couldn’t unhook myself from you if I tried,” and continues, “There’s no other way to say it: my friend, my friend is back.”
Denise health continues to fail, Paul’s mother is diagnosed with dementia and his father is hospitalized, and M now has someone else in his life: “Our relationship has always been open, but open has meant a couple of hours—and anonymity. Not an overnight stay and certainly not a boyfriend. Some boundary is being kicked down here.” Paul entitles a chapter “Romance and Betrayal and Fucking.” As their relationship deteriorates, Paul poignantly, poetically, lists all the things that M has been to him: “My protector. My protected. My badge. My torch. My fugitive. My furnace. My doorway. My duty. My desert. My daystar. My well. My harbor. My wave. My promontory. My marshland. My dune. My plainsong. My psalm. My fascicle. My dictionary. My archive. My tower. My giant. My thunderclap. My spine. My rivering. My sprawl. My signet. My scarf. My fly-by-night. My bankruptcy. My secrecy. My greening. My saltwater. My howling. My yellow room.”
Denise’s father dies.
Describing his resolution concisely and with understatement, Paul decides to meet the other man in Mark’s life—S, an actor and singer: “I know I will not make a scene, the way I made a scene at a club in Provincetown, so many years back, when I saw Eric, my ex, with another man out on the dance floor. I simply want to know who’s spending time with my beloved, in my bed, at my seat at the table—all that. I’ve configured him as some kind of ogre in my head, and I need to see that he isn’t that. And maybe I will see past myself—the self that thinks of himself as harmed—and see that maybe S isn’t such a bad guy.” Paul discovers that, “S isn’t the ogre I’d expected him to be but a compact man with shaved head and a weight lifter’s chest and shoulders. He looked like the kind of guy who would be right at home at the Black Party or the Pines Party. He had an electricity about him, a jitteriness, an intensity in the gaze … M tries to hug me, and though I don’t exactly push him away, I don’t open my arms to him either—how could I? … S refuses to look at me after I shake his hand … M is angry with me, but all that seems to dissipate when I say that it was good to meet S.” Before long, S is out of the picture: Paul later writes, “It’s my first visit back to Springs since S left for good.”
In a glitch, “six years of emails disappear” from Paul’s computer, and they include his last exchanges of correspondence with Denise. He declares definitively, of her influence, “I wouldn’t be writing without her.”
Paul and Mark almost get gay-bashed outside a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Paul describes the final days, in hospice, of his mother’s life. Paul and Mark go to Camden, New Jersey to visit Walt Whitman’s house, which is “closed for vacation,” as well as his grave. The venture leaves them with “that kind of vague disappointment [which] seems to be true of all things we long for too much.”
After Denise’s death, her sister-in-law Nancy sends Paul an email that she received from Denise, which Paul was probably never meant to see, saying, “When Paul stopped talking to me, he was simply too busy for me. I could accept that. I didn’t take it personally.” Paul expresses his anger and frustration: “Yes, you had nothing to do with it. Me. All me. Take no responsibility for anything” and observes, “To be pissed at the dead—this is where these days have taken me … It makes as much sense as being mad at the sidewalk, the cracks in the surface, the pieces of chewing gum blackened and crushed by so many feet.”
Summoned to Philadelphia, to Denise’s deathbed, Paul arrives to find her already in a coma.
In Nantucket, Paul and Mark argue about what’s best for new golden retriever puppy Ned. When Paul says that a long walk to town and back “doesn’t make sense” for the puppy, Mark explodes, “‘Sense?’ And looks at me as if I’ve said the foulest word in the notebook … Sense, he says, stands in the way of so much. Sense stands in the way of spontaneity, expression. Sense stands in the way of risk. Since when have I become the avatar of sense?” Smoldering, Paul considers countering with, “‘I can’t go on like this’ meets ‘That’s it, it’s over.’ And I say the latter. I think this means I’ve done the nasty deed I’ve been expected to execute all long. I am astonished I could say such a thing. Could I imagine having said such a thing two months ago?”
Joni Mitchell’s songs play at Denise’s bedside in hospice, as Paul awaits, with her family, Denise’s departure. Some wait through the night. “She dies at some point close to 6 a.m.”
Then back to Mark: “the fighting starts up again. It’s hotter this time, accusations cooked through dinner. They are the saddest sentences ever spoken …I decide to sleep on the love seat instead of my usual left side of the bed … ‘You don’t have to sleep there,’ M says … ‘I’ll be all right,’ I say … ‘I don’t think you know how to break up,’ M says, quieter now, after a silence. ‘It doesn’t have to be like high school. Fifteen years does not end in one night.’”
Paul delivers the eulogy for Denise.
On a family visit, Paul writes,“[i]t is a relief that M and I are given separate bedrooms with single beds, on opposite ends of a hall. For a while we are not two people who have shared the same bed for almost sixteen years.”
The memoir concludes quietly. Paul and Mark, with the dog Ned, are going separate ways—“They are going to Springs, I am going to Manhattan.” Dropping Mark off at the ferry terminal in Connecticut, Paul wonders, “Does he wave at me? I am looking. M does wave back at me, from the deck of the second level. A passing thought occurs to me: maybe the real love story of M and Paul might only be just beginning.” Their break-up, though, is imminent, and their divorce, three years in the future.
A memorial reading for Denise, at City College, is the final event that Paul considers here He quotes Whitman about grass—“The unkempt hair of graves”—and ponders, once more, the two important relationships that have ended. I, too, recently lost, to illness, a longtime friend, to whom I was close for 34 years. My friendship with Greg came to my mind many times, as I read Paul’s narrative about his friend Denise.
Visit https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/narrow-door to purchase the book and for further information.

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