Slant

Anniversary

Peonies sent by Vincent Fecteau in memory of Kevin.

MONDAY, JUNE 15, is the anniversary of the death of writer Kevin Killian, who was my husband for thirty-three years. The thought of spending it alone during San Francisco’s shelter-in-place both terrifies and numbs me. I have discovered that I have an enormous capacity for numbness, which continues to surprise me. Before Kevin’s death, I couldn’t bear to think about the horrors of widowhood. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking seemed like the most dangerous book in the world; I wouldn’t touch it. After he died, I read it compulsively.

For all other anniversaries this past year, I went to Los Angeles. I made my first trip the weekend of July 3, our wedding anniversary. I stayed with Matias Viegener. His partner was out of town, so he gave me their king-size bed. I hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since the beginning of June, but that giant bed swallowed me. I spent most of the weekend in it, gloriously unconscious, only waking up to go out to dinner. My memory of those early days of mourning is spastic, but if I squint, and strain my mind, I see a group of us at Taix, an old-school French restaurant in Silver Lake. I know this dinner happened, and I’m pretty sure it was to celebrate our anniversary. Who was there? Hedi El Kholti, and his partner, Colm Tóibín. Andrew Durbin was there, even though he was living in New York at the time. Matias must have been there. I think I ordered risotto. Andrew and Colm talked passionately about James Baldwin, and afterwards I ordered a collection of Baldwin’s essays. We were supposed to raise a glass of wine for Kevin, but I don’t know if we did.

Kevin’s birthday was Christmas Eve. On that trip, I spent the first two nights at Hedi’s, and the second two at Matias’s. I went to two holiday potlucks and one sit-down dinner. On my fourth night there I went to a Thai restaurant with Bradford Nordeen . . . and now it’s coming back to me that on my first trip, Bradford took me to Echo Park, where we looked at ducks and lily pads, and afterwards I posted pictures with happy captions on Facebook. Yes, things are great here in Los Angeles two weeks after the death of my husband, why wouldn’t they be? Even though Didion taught me that doing well should not be a goal of widowhood, I was embarrassed by my incompetence at keeping it all together. I still am. Another memory: After visiting Echo Park, I went to a tiny barbeque that Kaucyila Brooke held for me. Flash on the picnic bench in Kaucyila’s backyard: Sheree Rose is sitting across from me reminiscing about the death of Bob Flanagan. Kaucyila’s big floppy long-haired dog seems to be everywhere at once.

Valentine’s Day in Los Angeles, 2020: Christine Wertheim, Ariana Reines, Matias Viegener, me, and Andrew Durbin.

During the trip around my birthday, Valentine’s Day, I stayed with Matias. Having been born on holidays, Kevin and I understood feeling both special and eclipsed on Our Big Days. Kevin would get over five hundred birthday wishes each year on Facebook. After he died, I again felt eclipsed, this time by the outpouring of grief on social media. For me, his death was intensely private, yet it dominated the poetry, indie publishing, and art feeds for a week. His death was bigger than David Bowie’s. There were tributes by those who loved Kevin and whom he loved dearly, by those he politely suffered, and by assholes who don’t have a right to speak his name, but who speak anyway.

These tributes go on and on about Kevin’s kindness. He is lauded for being this easygoing guy, always there to support and entertain, someone who could brush off the pettiness and drama that the rest of us suffer. In truth, Kevin was an extremely sensitive person who couldn’t deal with conflict. He would do anything to erase conflict. For instance, his role as a biographer and editor of the poet Jack Spicer led to occasional vicious attacks in print calling out some perceived error in Kevin’s scholarship or interpretation—infractions so minor as to be laughable. The way Kevin would handle such bullshit was to befriend his attacker through flattery and kindness—whatever it took. He could convert sworn enemies into loyal allies.

Me and Kevin with a drawing by Raymond Pettibon.

Kevin loved musicals. His core sanity was so fragile, he needed to believe the world was as beautiful and glorious as a musical. When we were getting involved, back in the early 1980s, one of the first things we did together was watch his video cassette of West Side Story. Kevin reveled in the spotlight, in his big-fish-in-a-small-pond-type fame. “I am Kevin Killian,” he would proudly say, as if the world should sit up and take notice, and he’d flash a big smile as if that smile were a blessing. His kindness was authentic—he truly was a good person—but his kindness was also a shield. He needed to be loved, not just by me but by everybody, and if somebody didn’t love him, the musical went dark and he was devastated. I couldn’t protect him when he was alive, and the longer he’s dead the less I try. One thing I learned from Matias, who is Kathy Acker’s executor, is that all attention is good attention. Like Kevin, I need to say yes to everybody who wants a piece of him.

This is not a tribute. This is about his loss, his terrible loss. Little of Kevin is here. Widowhood is an anti-space. There is the world. There is you. The connections are erratic and confusing. On the night of Kevin’s birthday, Hedi and I sat at his kitchen table until three in the morning, drinking wine and talking about our beloveds’ deaths. His former partner, Bill, who died of cancer, was a politician, so Hedi understood that feeling of having the privacy of his mourning violated. I was surprised how similar Bill and Kevin were. No one ever reminds me of Kevin.

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