Authors: Edmund White
In January and February, when it rained nearly every day, he loved to stay indoors and read. His apartment, owned by the landlady, who lived downstairs, had been her husband’s study. The deceased gentleman had been an epigraphist, a scholar of Latin and Greek inscriptions, and in the entrance hall were two incised stone tablets he’d brought back from field trips to North Africa. There was also a shelf of scholarly books in the armoire behind hand-made curtains in a very 1960s pattern of overlapping dark green eggs beginning to pull apart on a field of lighter green. The landlady was a very tall, very old Austrian woman who’d come to Paris in the 1920s as a weaver and painter. Several of her collages from back then were hung here, their elements coming unglued and curling from the heat. A brightly colored abstract tapestry, felt circles on burlap, was unfurled above his bed, although two circles had fallen off. The appliances—space heater, telephone cords, electric plugs—had all been jerry-built and kept blinking on and off temperamentally. The shiny, acid-green kitchen seemed scaled more for a doll’s house than human habitation. In the bathroom, painted the same green, a minuscule washing machine was wedged in one corner but the dryer was just a rack above the tub that could be lowered, loaded, then raised by a system of pulleys. Sometimes it dripped on him when he took a bath.
He was lazy, creaturely. He dozed, drank tea, listened around the clock to a classical music station. He turned up the heat, staggered out to the corner restaurant for a buttery, sauced hot lunch, hurried home to receive the phone calls from New York that started coming in about four o’clock his time. The rapid, heavy-breathing, menacing American voices intimidated him with their humorlessness: Oops, they’re playing for keeps, he thought. He knew that behind these voices were perfectly made-up, stylishly starved women, who were at their desks twelve hours a day, firing friends and setting up “focus groups” (another new phrase) to terrorize their staff. Fortunately he was one
of the few ready and always available English-speaking journalists stationed in Paris, someone who could be counted on to work up an instant interview of Eric Rohmer for
or do a profile of Judith Krantz in her luxurious new apartment, and be sure to put the emphasis on her brilliant French and expensive Impressionist paintings.
His friends told him he looked ten years younger than his age but once, on the sex-chat phone line, he’d misrepresented himself as thirty-eight and the much younger man he’d lured all the way across Paris at two in the morning took one look at him, shook his head and said sorrowfully, as he left, “Why lie like that? You’re a nice-looking guy and if I wanted someone fifty I’d go for you but—well, that’s not what I wanted or expected.” Austin felt thoroughly ashamed of his untruthful advertising—and learned a valuable lesson: you always look your age, down to the last minute, and friends who say otherwise are deceived or deceiving.
He’d lived for five years with Peter, a handsome New Englander in his twenties who’d moved to Paris with him, picked up a degree in the history of furniture at the Louvre, then returned to New York in order to get a job as an interior designer. That was three years ago. Peter had worked just a few months in Manhattan before falling ill with shingles and crippling bouts of diarrhea. Peter still insisted that he had ARC (AIDS-Related Condition), not full-blown AIDS, a distinction that even in 1989 sounded outdated and, well, pointless. But Peter clung to it; he wouldn’t allow anyone to trundle him off toward an early grave.
Austin loved Peter but he knew they’d probably never live together again. They went on vacation together—to Venice, to Crete, to Zurich, to the Virgin Islands—and they spoke to each other on the phone two or three times a week, but Austin didn’t want to go back to New York, not now, maybe never; he’d reinvented himself in Paris and liked his new self. New York was a graveyard, or rather it was swarming with new and ever renewable life, all these fiercely healthy yuppies dressed for success, but, unbeknown to them, living among recent ghosts, brushing through them—Austin’s dead friends, old clone ghosts in disintegrating bomber jackets and ectoplasmic T-shirts, their flesh rotting away but the gray mustaches still growing.
And Peter didn’t want to leave New York. He was still looking for
love among the sophisticated African-American New Yorkers he fancied. French-speaking Black men from the Ivory Coast had done nothing for him when he lived in Paris. Too foreign. Too tribal. No, he demanded a certain mix of preppiness and funkiness in his men—a bow tie and a good job and glittery social manner joined to long, slow, tender lovemaking. Peter wanted a man who sounded like a Harvard WASP when he telephoned from the office but who, in bed, would call him “Honey” or “Honky” in a melting Southern accent.
Austin felt bad because he’d always promised Peter he’d take care of him if he ever came down with AIDS. Of course Peter still looked healthy and most of the time felt good. And surely Peter wanted to go on living alone for just a while more, since he was still hoping to find the love of his life, and Austin’s presence in the New York studio apartment would only crowd him.
Once or twice in the days that followed his encounter with Julien at the gym, Austin thought of him, but didn’t want to call him. Although a married man could be a sexy fantasy, the reality was just a nuisance—broken dates, whispered phone calls and sudden hang-ups, never a meeting in a public place, unexpected spasms of self-hatred, never a whole night in bed….
And then his confidence had been sapped by his last lover, also named Julien, who’d bewitched him for the last three years until he’d suddenly dropped him two months ago for a rich collector. “Little” Julien, as he called him, since he was small in every way except in one crucial detail, never made a false move. He was worldly and supremely practical but not unkind. He was willing to sleep with much older men in exchange for trips, clothes, dinners, all the small change of sex between the generations. What he brought to the bargaining table was his inestimable gift for imaginative, inexhaustible passion.
Austin had met Little Julien at a cocktail party given by his friend Henry McVay, the seventy-year-old patrician leader of the American expatriate colony. McVay, a Philadelphia millionaire collector who lived surrounded by his Goyas and Cezannes and who’d been in Paris since 1944, when he’d arrived as a soldier, gave an annual bash for prominent couples and cute guys. Little Julien had been one of McVay’s boys, a twenty-four-year-old with a fox face, an intense stare and the
strange smell of an old well, as though his fillings had started to rust in an excess of saliva.
At the very beginning Little Julien had accepted Austin’s invitations on three separate occasions, but Austin never dared so much as to kiss him good night or to invite him up for a drink. As he figured it, at his age he mustn’t ever make the first move with a kid, since nine out of ten would regard sex with a middle-aged man as obscene, even criminal, and he, Austin, was incapable of picking out the talented tenth, the blessed exception, that nearly unique boy who admired experience and accomplishment more than an uncreased face and a tympanum-tight tummy. Nor could he spot that one guy in a hundred who was age-blind and didn’t judge another man as a commodity. Of course it was Little Julien who finally jumped
after the third date. As Austin was politely bowing and turning to walk away, Little Julien grabbed him and said, “Don’t overdo it”
, pulled him into his darkened apartment and was soon testing Austin’s gag reflexes, whispering sternly, “All the way to the bottom”
(Au fond, au fond)
Now all that was over, the big sunbursts of sex, Little Julien’s fleeting shadows of ill humor, his dull certainty that he would marry a woman someday very soon, his perverse refusal to stay on with Austin at the end of a dinner party. Little Julien always left with the other guests and it was only during a trip together—to London, to Istanbul, to Damascus—that Austin could sleep with him night after night and drink deep at that inexhaustible well of sensuality. Little Julien never gave sex on schedule; once when Austin complained about his unpredictability, he pointed out with inarguable accuracy, “After four years we’re still having sex, which is as exciting as the first time. What other couple could claim as much?” Immediately after the break-up, Austin had been happy to be rid of Little Julien, who had never conceded any warmth or tenderness beyond their initial, rather formal amiability. They were like gentlemen in a Sade novel, with impeccable manners and a bottomless taste for debauchery—fellow practitioners but not buddies, certainly not lovers.
Weirdly, when Little Julien explained why he was leaving he mentioned several things that Austin would never have foreseen. He said that Austin was “too visible” as a homosexual; he could never have
felt comfortable associating himself with someone so public about his private life. Then he said Marius, his new lover, was able to fulfill his “affective needs,” which Austin, he implied, had neglected. Austin was shocked, since he’d always thought it was Little Julien who was holding
at arm’s length. Given the first sign of openness, Austin had long been prepared to rush in, eyes melting. Then Little Julien mentioned that he didn’t want to “end up” with a foreigner; he was drawn to Marius because he was French. “If Corsican,” Austin muttered sourly, which only made Little Julien flash a flattered smile: “I see you’ve been collecting information on him.” Or maybe Little Julien wanted a man with some real money. If he was going to invest his youth, his venture capital, it should be in futures with a future.
Or maybe Little Julien was simply afraid of Austin because Austin was HIV-positive.
A week after the break-up Austin began to feel wounded, rejected, lovelorn. Then he suffered terribly, though he knew how stupid he was being. It was only his vanity that was injured, which he readily admitted. If he’d left Little Julien first, he wouldn’t have thought about him twice.
And yet Little Julien was not only the maestro of sex but also a roaring fire of creativity, both artistic and social. He had a fast, funny way of talking, unpretentious, intelligent but not intellectual. He couldn’t sit still long enough to read except on vacations, and even then to read was more an underlined item in a program of repose and self-improvement than anything he ever actually did. Austin liked Little Julien because he was his link with chic young Parisian life, the sudden eruption of drunken laughter heard behind a seventeenth-century portal or a multicolored flurry of many young cockatoos across the dim, windblown magnificence of the Place de l’Odèon. Paris was a city that could seem uniformly austere and melancholy unless you could penetrate the gray shutters and dolly in on the eight candlelit faces flushed with wine around the table or hand the embossed invitation to the wigged footman which would grant you admission to the feathered and ribboned masked ball (how the French loved to dress up as Valmonts and Merteuils!).
Little Julien had been his—well, not his passport into this secret
joy, since most of the invitations had been addressed to Austin as a journalist or furniture expert or as just an amusing foreigner, but rather his guest of honor for whom he’d organized dinners at home or with whom he’d “double dated” (since Little Julien would never have gone anywhere public without a woman as his shield). He and Little Julien and their dates were always wearing black tie and gowns, dropping in on a smoky loft party for the Green Negresses or some other punk group of white men. Everyone else was in jeans and settled in, but Austin and Little Julien were always in formal clothes and “going on.” Little Julien, who’d been a lawyer’s clerk, had taken a paid year’s leave of absence to study furniture-making; it was one of those enlightened and unfathomable French perks that were bankrupting the state. He revealed a whimsical talent for designing tables that were amusing used right side up and hilarious when reversed, and for rethinking every element in a dining room from the zodiac ceiling to the star-studded dishes and shooting star napkins.
Now the invitations drifted like the last flakes of snow onto Austin’s mantelpiece and he glanced at them only long enough to decline them. Weeks went by and he saw only a few friends, and then only one at a time for a movie or a quick bite at a neighborhood crêperie. His island seemed suddenly intolerably sad, shrouded in mists that floated up in the day-for-night wake of a nearly empty, winter
. He crossed the Pont Marie with its empty statue niches looking down on the Seine, black and shiny as mined coal between tourist boats, more and more widely spaced as midnight and the winter solstice drew nearer.
he phone rang.
“Hello, it’s Julien. We met at the gym.”
“Of course. How nice—”
“Did I awaken you?”
me? At… uh …
in the morning? Of course not. I’ve been up for hours.”
“I just saw your card in my wallet and I thought I’d see how you were doing. Did you ever go back to that gym?”
“Several times since then. And you?”
“I’ve had too much work.”
“Would you like to come to dinner on Wednesday? A few friends are stopping by. Around nine? But you could come later if your work keeps you.” He gave Julien the building code, the numbers that had to be punched in to gain admittance to the street door.
From the precision and care with which he took down all the information Austin knew he would come, which neither thrilled him nor left him indifferent. Julien sounded slightly more eager, even more schoolboyish than he had at the gym, perhaps because being the one who was taking the initiative placed him at a slight disadvantage.
Austin had invited six friends who were in their early thirties, including his “sports professor,” Pierre-Yves, a mad young psychiatrist named Hubert, a hilarious actress called Antoinette, a friendly woman, Isabelle, who worked for the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, a loud American acupuncturist named Gregg, and one of Austin’s best friends, Joséphine, who wrote and illustrated children’s books. This was a group Austin had cobbled together to keep Little Julien amused. The men were gay and the women straight and everyone loved to drink and joke and exchange stories and have a good time till one in the morning; if they’d been upper-class Parisians they would have left promptly at midnight, but these friends were too inexperienced socially to know of this invariable “rule.”