Abingdon Square Secrets
by Lester Strong
Abingdon Square Park: These days an exquisite little oasis in New York City’s Greenwich Village, more a triangle in shape than a square, bounded on the north by West Twelfth Street, on the east by Eighth Avenue, on the west by Hudson Street, and on the south by the point at which Hudson and Eighth cross. From early spring to late autumn, it’s a riot of color: the chartreuse and green of leafy trees, shrubs, and grass; the yellows, oranges, pinks, purples, whites, browns, reds, and lavenders of jonquils, tulips, roses, chrysanthemums, and many other flowers that bloom along its paths during the warm months of the year.
However, despite all its beauty, I was reminded recently that the park hides a few secrets not so easily discovered by the casual visitors who might claim its benches as temporary refuges each day during nice weather from the hectic traffic and activities going on all around them in this country’s biggest of cities. The occasion of that recall: reading André Aciman’s 2013 novel Enigma Variations, which is set in New York City and whose last chapter is titled “Abingdon Square.”
Aciman, of course, is the author of Call Me by Your Name, the 2007 novel set in Italy and adapted into the highly acclaimed 2017 movie of the same name starring Timothée Chalamet as a seventeen-year-old named Elio and Armie Hammer as a young man in his late twenties named Oliver. At the center of the story is the summer romance and love affair between the two, carried out discreetly, to be sure, but not so discreetly as to go unnoticed by those around them who can read the signs of two people falling in love.
The romance Aciman recounts in “Abingdon Square” takes place during the winter between a middle-aged man—nameless in this chapter but in earlier chapters called Paolo, Paul, or Pauly—who’s the editor of a magazine or journal having to do with opera and a much younger woman writer named Heidi whose article he turns down for publication. Despite the rejection, the two meet for coffee at a place on Abingdon Square, “just across from the little park,” and continue to meet there and at another nearby restaurant over the course of several weeks, or perhaps several months since the time span’s not completely clear. The story is told from the man’s point of view, and what is very clear is his indecisiveness about pursuing the affair to a sexual conclusion. Over the course of his indecisiveness, he sends and receives emails from and has imaginary conversations with a former male partner named Manfred he lived with for many years (and a central character in an earlier chapter of the novel) who has moved to Germany. This is one secret in the story since the woman he’s romancing never learns about Manfred. But the real secret is revealed only at the story’s end, when the reader learns the character also happens to be married to a woman named Claire.
If this seems confusing, it is. It’s probably meant to be confusing. After all, the title of the novel is Enigma Variations, and its chapters are intended to evoke the confusions, hesitations, and lack of clarity we all encounter in our lives and interactions with ourselves and other people.
But what are the secrets the “Abingdon Square” chapter of the novel brought to my mind? They had to do with AIDS.
In May 2007 I interviewed writer Andrew Holleran for a magazine feature story [“Shifting Ground,” A&U, August 2007] in that park. During 1980-1981, Holleran had been part of the legendary gay male writers group The Violet Quill, whose members included such celebrated gay writers as Edmund White and Felice Picano. Holleran himself was the author of several novels, a collection of short stories, and a book of essays on AIDS. In January 2007 he had received the Barbara Gittings Award in Literature for his novel Grief from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association, and the night before the interview had received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle, the association of lesbians and gay men in publishing. He also had a second book of essays on AIDS scheduled to be published, which Da Capo Press eventually brought out in 2008 under the title Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath.
That lovely spring morning we sat on a bench in Abingdon Square Park discussing his writings, his awards, and of course AIDS. Asked how he felt having survived the last quarter-century of the plague, he answered: “I feel incredibly lucky. I’m sitting here now on this beautiful day in May, looking at these beautiful tulips in the sunlight.” What was known to both of us, but not apparent from anything visible that morning, was the nightmare that had played itself out in the surrounding area from 1981 through the late 1990s as it became one of the major early epicenters of the plague. A focal point of that nightmare was the late lamented St. Vincent’s hospital, only three or four blocks away from the park. Today the hospital is long gone, turned into a large condo development. But it once housed the city’s largest AIDS ward, memorialized in plays and movies like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
What neither of us could have known at the time is that nine and a half years later, on December 1, 2016, the city would dedicate its New York AIDS Memorial Park at St. Vincent’s Triangle, across Seventh Avenue from the old hospital location, with its magnificent eighteen-foot steel canopy sculpture, itself composed of smaller triangles within triangles in remembrance of the gay men lost to the epidemic, and overall intended to commemorate the 100,000+ New Yorkers lost to the plague over the years.
Today the face of AIDS in this country has changed almost unrecognizably from that spring day in 2007, let alone from the era during which the AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s played such an important role in the epidemic. From a disease seen as primarily afflicting white, gay men, it has moved heavily into minority populations. New infections have fallen dramatically, along with the death toll over the years as new medicines to control HIV’s damage to the immune system have been been rolled out. Preventive medicines have come into use. Above all, the hysteria so rampant over the disease from all sectors of society—but especially among members of the homophobic right-wing happy to condemn all gay people to incarceration or worse because of the disease—has died down. Truly, as suggested by the title of my story about Andrew Holleran, in regard to AIDS we live on shifting ground.
Still, what remains elusive is a cure. To that we should add the need for an effective vaccine that could stop the virus from infecting anyone, as we’ve succeeded in doing with polio and measles among other viral diseases. If and when that day comes, the ground related to AIDS will feel solid again in a good way, closing a miserable chapter of history played out for far too long.
Now wouldn’t that be cause for celebration?
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.