Do the Math

Robert(a) Marshall


March 2021

Yesterday Allen came to the

studio. He’d been vaccinated,

both shots. I’ve had the first

Pfizer. I told him, somewhat

to my surprise, that it was OK

if he wanted to take off his

mask. It’s a challenge to think

of someone as trustworthy as

Allen, and this must have

contributed to my seemingly

instinctual invitation to de-

mask. Still, this was the first

time in over a year that I’d

made such a suggestion to

anyone. I had the window

open for ventilation; cold air and truck sounds. Later, however, sitting with Allen, looking through my photographs, I began wondering whether I should have given this impulsive permission. I tried to remember what I’d read about post-vaccination transmissibility, whether one is still infectious. It’s hard to keep all the information—and misinformation—straight. Hard to do the math.


I’ve known Allen for thirty years. When we met, he was the director of a non-profit gallery in the East Village where, one time, I showed some paintings. I wasn’t yet doing photography then. This was during the AIDS pandemic, which lasted roughly the duration of my youth. It was never possible then, I thought, as Allen talked, as the trucks rumbled past, to keep the information straight. The seductive lie of the present: that the past was ever anything but a zone of uncertainty. Does the fixity of photographs contribute to this? With uncertainty comes fear, the particles of which linger, never leaving the room. I was glad that Allen seemed to like my new work, the silvery dance images. Not long before we met, he’d been one of the organizers of Electric Blanket, an agit-prop AIDS slideshow/memorial that toured the U.S. and Europe. Slide show. The past: unimaginably different. The past: utterly the same. More trucks. In theory, of course, I could have still asked him to put his mask back on. Could have said I’d changed my mind. But that would seem weird. Would interrupt the moment’s equilibrium.


The nineties: you’d be trying to remember what you’d read, or been told, about transmissibility, while you were in bed with someone. With one of the beautiful boys of the nineties. Nothing could be googled. There was nothing in The Times. The gay press covered AIDS, there was that little island. Otherwise: silence. I woke this morning with a headache, and wondered if I had the virus, if I’d gotten it during Allen’s studio visit. But it was, I reasoned, too soon to have symptoms. I put on coffee. Of course, in the nineties, I often woke with symptoms, or what might have been symptoms. Allen said he liked the new work, but you can never be certain what someone else thinks. I poured coffee, worked for a while, then took a Lyft to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where I was to meet the group of improv dancers I belong to. The directions I’d been sent weren’t entirely clear. I got out; I’d never been to this part of the park. How beautiful it is here, I thought, walking along a pathway lined with stones. The wind blew. I looked out at the harbor’s glinting water. Oh our errors of thinking. How we think that, because the ocean means so much to us that we—somehow—must mean something to the ocean. In the same way, I tell myself, wandering the park, trying to find the dancers, that when we read the work of a writer we much admire, who, it seems, has so perfectly expressed how we feel, who has, through some magic, understood us, we think that, if we were to meet them, we’d understand them, too. When we know nothing at all about them. I felt this way often with the boys of the nineties. The power of their eyes. Because I loved L  so much, it seemed he had to love me, too. 


A beautiful day, indifferent as a virus. A child runs by with a kite. The sky is the same as the sky was then. Or isn’t. Perception is fragile. I can’t find the dancers. Nor, apparently, can they find me. 

Photos by Robert(a) Marshall

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