Authors: Edmund White
ustin was twenty years older than everyone else in the gym—and the only American. It was a place for serious people who wanted a quick workout—pairs of students from the nearby branch of the Paris university system or solitary young businessmen who trudged about with Walkmen plugged into their ears making a dim, annoying racket. Not very many Frenchmen wanted to build huge muscles, at least not very many straight guys.
This was by no means a gay gym. It was just a small workout room that looked down through smudged glass panes onto a public pool below. The pool was Olympic size and even through the glass still reeked of hot chlorine. It had been built in the Belle Epoque and recently restored. Austin thought there might be more action in the pool and the shower rooms, but he didn’t like swimming and he’d sort of given up on cruising. He wasn’t young enough and what he had to offer—his accent, his charming if broken-down apartment, his interesting profession, his kindness—wasn’t visible in a shower room.
For some time Austin had been looking occasionally at a particular newcomer. They had already exchanged two smiles and many glances, brilliant little flashes of curiosity in this unfriendly place where looks never lingered and even those guys who stood watch over someone
lifting dangerously heavy weights never used the occasion as an excuse for striking up a conversation.
Now the younger man was struggling under a bar loaded with too much weight, nor had he secured the metal plates—he was about to let the whole thing go crashing to the floor. Austin came rushing up behind him, lifted the bar and put it safely back on the stand at the head of the board where the stranger was lying on his back. None of the other men seemed to have registered the near crisis; Austin could hear the Walkman of the guy next to them jittering away like cicadas in a tin can.
“Thank you!” the young man exclaimed in French as he stood up. He spoke in a deep, resonant voice, the sort of “voice from the balls” that so many Latin men cultivate. He scrutinized Austin intensely. Austin was highly flattered by the attention. He’d long admitted to himself that he was the sort of man who needed constant transfusions of interest and affection. If his phone didn’t ring for a day or if he didn’t have a dinner date lined up he was suicidal by dusk. If his date yawned he was ready to bolt from the restaurant or do a tap dance on the table. Now here was this young man who, if he wasn’t exactly Austin’s type, had become so by taking an interest in him.
“I could see that you were, perhaps, unfamiliar—”
“It’s all completely new to me,” the young man exclaimed. Austin noticed that his white shorts were cut high, which only emphasized the power of his legs, not in a sexual but rather in a boyish way. “Are you English?” he asked.
Austin had come to count on French people commenting on his accent. It not only provided them with a safe topic but he knew everyone under forty in France wanted to live somewhere in the English-speaking world, at least for a year or two.
“American.” He anticipated the next question and said, “New York.” Then the next and added, “Although I’ve been here eight years.” Finally, he offered, “As you can hear, it’s difficult to learn another language after forty.” He wasn’t fishing, he just wanted to lay to rest right away the question of his age. “Is this your first time here?” Austin asked.
“Yes. My wife comes here to swim. She’s down there somewhere.”
He waved toward the pool with a vague hand, although his glance remained fixed on Austin.
The young man asked Austin to show him how to do the exercise properly, but, though observing the demonstration politely, he scarcely took it seriously, as his bright eyes and slight smile suggested. He seemed too alive to the moment to pay any attention to it.
When asked, Austin said that he was a “cultural journalist” who was writing a book on French furniture of the eighteenth century.
The Frenchman happened to be in the small locker room dressing to leave at the same time as Austin. He turned modestly away when he pulled on his bikini underpants and revealed nothing but the expected hairy buttocks, full, even luscious. Austin was ordinarily alert to even the grubbiest sexual possibility. That’s what he was always on the lookout for, but today he’d already picked up a hint of romance, as though this guy could be courted but not groped. They kept up their banter which, if overheard, would have sounded forced, schoolboyish, but it was melded and, somewhat,
by the flow of their exchanged smiles, glances, nods.
When they were on the street the Frenchman said he had to rush back to work. He was an architect on the other side of Paris.
“I’d love to see you again,” Austin said, knowing he had nothing to lose except his dignity, which he didn’t care much about.
“Here’s my number.”
“Oh, you Americans are always so well organized with your calling cards. If you give me another, I’ll write my number on it for you.”
“Your home number?” Austin asked, pressing his advantage.
“My work number,” the man said with a big smile.
Austin was surprised by the slight stiffening of his own penis. For weeks he’d been nearly impotent even in expert arms, and here he was, excited by a stranger’s mere presence and the hint of a date. He liked that they were both dressed in coats and ties on a strangely warm day early in April at the wrong end of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
“Hey, what’s your name anyway?”
“Really?” Austin said. “That’s the name of the guy who just dropped me.”
Julien smiled, Austin guessed, not at his misfortune but at the explicitness of his remark. Sometimes it’s okay to be American, Austin thought; we have a reputation for being brazen we must live up to.
ustin was a forty-nine-year-old writer who lived in a two-room apartment on one of the islands in the Seine. His island was the Île Saint-Louis and the apartment was a third-floor walk-up with three big windows that gave onto the back of a seventeenth-century church. Austin could lie in bed and look at the church’s slate-covered roof, pitched sharply, and a huge volute of stone almost ten feet in circumference that had been carved to resemble a spiral closing in on itself and slightly squashed on the top. Since it was almost always raining, Austin thought of the volute as a giant snail that might someday inch forward on its big, sticky foot. Pigeons took shelter from the rain in the gutter just outside the window and cooed comfortably, their little red eyes glancing up at Austin matter-of-factly if he stood just inside the window or opened it like a pair of doors and leaned out on the guard rail. At such moments he would have lit a cigarette, if he still smoked.
Nearly everything on the island was as old as the church, since throughout the Renaissance it had stayed an empty field where the monks from Notre-Dame on the neighboring island once grazed their cows, or where occasionally gentlemen in lace and white stockings had fought duels in the high reeds. They could look across the Seine in
one direction at the steeples of Saint-Gervais and the back of the ornate Town Hall or in the other at the walls and towers of several vast monasteries. Then, all at once, the monks had sold the empty island to three ambitious developers, who’d gone broke putting up aristocratic houses on the quais and tradesmen’s shops and their living quarters on the inner streets. Austin’s street, the rue Poulletier, was named after one of these three unfortunate entrepreneurs.
Americans always gravitated to the Île Saint-Louis, he now knew, though he’d moved there eight years ago guided, he supposed, by nothing but his national instinct. Perhaps because it was small and easily comprehended, Americans convinced themselves they’d master it first, then branch out to the intimidating city surrounding it. He liked its look of forgotten grandeur—just below, attached to the church, was a convent that seemed uninhabited. At least he’d never seen anyone going into or out of it and the dusty windows were never lit or opened. The back of the church, however, contained an almost hidden apartment, presumably for the sexton.
At night Austin liked to come from a noisy bar or an exciting, talkative dinner party on the mainland and cross the black, rapidly flowing Seine to his poetic island, always five degrees cooler than the rest of Paris. The island may have been cold and damp, but who could resist the Pont Marie, the most graceful bridge in Paris with its three arches, each a different shape? So many of the tall, narrow houses along the quais bore historical plaques boasting names he’d never heard of. One of the names, Playbault, made him smile since he’d decided to pronounce it “Playboy.” Another plaque announced that Mme de Sévigné’s
, no less, had once lived here!
Often as not, almost all the quayside windows were shuttered and curtained, but in late May in the first warmth of summer it was as though the usual rules had been suspended. The windows were thrown wide open, old chandeliers were lit and the searching floodlights of the passing
glared off a silk-striped wallpaper the color of wine lees or on the flattened-out faces of men and women in evening clothes looking down and smoking, three to a window.
Until midnight the
never ceased their invasive light-attacks or recorded commentary. If Austin strolled along the
quai, cruising, at the eastern tip of the island below the small park, he’d hear in German, English, Spanish and French the unvarying description of the Rothschilds’ house, the Hôtel Lambert, as “the finest private residence in all of Paris with its celebrated Hercules Salon.” Or if at midnight he’d walk down the center of the island on the rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, he’d glimpse, at the very end of the straight street, the sudden diamond-white effulgence of a passing boat, its banked floodlights too low in the water to be seen but the brilliance welling up like the glow of a comet slowly trailing past. The tightly clustered house fronts and the black pavement would be illuminated in an unnatural way, as though suddenly, surprisingly, everything was being filmed.
Austin had rented his small apartment furnished and most of the furniture was junk: a spavined basket chair, a gray scrap of carpet that had taken on the color of mud, a side table that creaked as it revolved like a Lazy Susan to reveal the bookcases on three sides. But in the sitting room by the window there was a handsome nineteenth-century Louis-Philippe desk; he’d quickly piled it so high that he couldn’t find a space on it where he could write. He’d never enjoyed being an official grown-up author who sits at a desk and clatters his way through page after page of crisp foolscap or scrolls his words down a screen. He preferred lying on his creaky, lumpy daybed under a dangling lamp with its pleated yellow paper shade burned brown here and there by an overheated bulb. He’d scribble a line or a paragraph on legal pads he had to bring back in quantity each time he made a trip to the States, since the only lined paper the French seemed capable of manufacturing was covered with tiny squares for some unfathomable, irritating reason. He wrote only when he had nothing better to do such as making a phone call, preparing dinner for eight, working through a strenuous session with his personal trainer (although Austin called him “my sports professor,” since he was translating into English
professeur de sport
and had not yet even heard the recently coined American expression, “personal trainer”). Despite all the activity and the luncheons out and the late nights and the packages constantly arriving on his doorstep by Federal Express or Chronopost, he did manage to write dozens of articles for American or English home decoration
magazines. He had no routine, no system, little ambition. He was lethargic and took at least one nap during the day, usually two. He didn’t like writing, which made him anxious, especially when it was going well, since he feared spoiling with the very next word whatever good he might already have achieved.