To an Aesthete Dying Young (In Memoriam T. R. K.)

A National Book Award–winner pays tribute to a Yale roommate

| March-April 2011

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    Dante Terzigni /
  • To-an-Aesthete-Dying-Young2

    Dante Terzigni /

  • To-an-Aesthete-Dying-Young1
  • To-an-Aesthete-Dying-Young2

In February 1982, in the middle of my freshman year, I was invited to a party by the most glamorous sophomore I had ever met. A third of the guests were people I actually knew; a third were people I had seen around and wished I knew; a third were people I had never seen because they inhabited a stratosphere too exalted to have been visible to me. Spandau Ballet, Pat Benatar, the Human League singing “Don’t You Want Me,” which nowadays feel to me as sweetly nostalgic as “Dixie,” were at that time fresh as the morning dew. There were some people doing cocaine in the bathroom, because it was, after all, the 1980s. I would not have been more thrilled and dazzled to have been invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer one year earlier. I had hated high school and had always felt marginal there, and now here I was with all these amazing people, and I was having one of the best times of my life. I always say that Yale was the beginning of the self that I have been ever since, and that party has always stuck in my mind as the moment when the shift became official.

A theatrical-looking man was holding court in one of the rooms of the dorm suite, and we got into a long conversation, and if that party felt like the center of the universe at the time, he seemed to be at the center of that center; everyone came over to talk to him, and he kissed and hugged with real affection all the spikiest people there. I was flattered by his attention, and a little bit mystified, but I settled in and we talked for much of the evening. When I grudgingly decided I should leave at 3 a.m., he said to me, “Would you like to be roommates next year?” Startled, I impulsively said yes. The next day, I mentioned, casually, to several people that I might have Terry Kirk as my roommate. Some seemed rather awestruck, and some were rather cynical, and some asked if I were really up for all that. I wasn’t sure about anything; I wasn’t even sure if Terry had meant it. But two days later, I ran into Terry, and he said, “Well, well, well! Are we going to room together?” And I said yes with the same feeling with which, later on, I would deal with love and adventure and travel and life, that feeling of looking both ways, deciding it was dangerous, and leaping anyway.

Many years later, when we talked about that time, Terry said that he didn’t want to room with anyone he might sleep with—which canceled out a sizeable chunk of the undergraduate population—and that he liked me more than anyone else he was not physically attracted to. I spent some time trying to decide whether this was a compliment, but I think it was true and mutual. I was hideously repressed at the time and mostly unwilling to acknowledge a physical attraction to anyone, but I was not attracted to Terry. I kept sexual and romantic attraction very separate then, and nothing suited me better than a completely unerotic but deeply romantic friendship, and that is what we had. I wanted to be wild and outré, but I was constrained by an ingrained respect for decorum. There was nothing Terry could imagine doing that he wouldn’t actually do, and this terrified and thrilled me. He generally wore a green Austrian loden cape, and a mad hat with a feather in it.  He usually had a boyfriend and a girlfriend going, sometimes more than one of each. He was interested in everything and everyone; I learned from him that categories were idiotic.


Spring break, freshman year, I panicked. I spent the summer thinking it was a mistake, but it was too late by then. We had managed to get an enormous suite in Silliman, and I spent the first few weeks of that first semester avoiding him, which was not easy to do given that we were in bunk beds. Sometimes, on a Saturday, I wanted to come back to my own bed and go to sleep, and was peeved about the presence of 70 other people at a party for which Terry had rethematized our room into a construction site, complete with orange cones and scaffolding and what appeared to be a large hole where part of the ceiling had once been. Sometimes, I would want to study and not be distracted by the Christmas lights he had installed in the small cove molding that ran around the room. Sometimes, I wanted to have a couple of friends over to prepare for an exam on Tennyson, and I was disoriented by having, in a living room that was over 200 square feet, a dropped ceiling made entirely of various kinds of root vegetables tied to lengths of fishing line that had been taped to the ceiling and then backlit with red gels. Sometimes, the people smashing their champagne flutes in our fireplace seemed like a bit much at 5 a.m. But for all those times, there were also conversations about music, which Terry understood much better than I did, and about architecture, which I didn’t really understand but Terry did, and about friendship itself. There was a gradual revelation on my part that I was judgmental about his friends, but that he was always welcoming of mine, and that he could make anyone feel like a celebrity with the quality of his attention, even when the purpose of his attention was to seek their attention for himself.

It took me many years to realize how difficult I’d been to live with. While I’d been drawn to Terry for his absence of repression, I was also repulsed by it. His sensuality challenged my respectability, and this made him subject to all my insecurities, of which there was no short supply. I used to get mad at him, to discount our closeness, yet he had a doggedness; he never gave up on me. By the end of the year, we were permanent friends.

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