Authors: Edmund White
When Julien came out of his appointment he was red in the face and almost cross-eyed with anger. As they were escorted to the door by their bobbing, tripping, smiling hostess
(“À bientôt, messieurs!”
she sang out in a fruity voice), Julien said nothing, but on the dark stairs, smelling of the
’s salted cod dinner, he hissed, “But he’s an idiot!”
“He wanted me to have the test.”
“The test?” Austin asked stupidly.
“The AIDS test.”
“Because he’s worried about my acne and my cough and that wart I have on my penis.”
“But that’s absurd. Unless …”
“Yes, it’s absurd!”
“Unless you had a lot of sex with men these last few years.”
Julien didn’t say anything. When they were outside he took Austin by the elbow and steered him across the street and into the park. Two Indian women in saris were pushing strollers in which solemn, brown-faced babies were propped up like gingerbread men with big sultana eyes. The mothers were conversing so loudly that they reminded Austin how most Parisians whispered.
Had Julien not responded because he was irritated that Austin—
and probably Dr. Aristopoulos—had asked him direct questions about his sex life? Or did he think the test cast doubts on his honor?
“I have to tell you something,” Austin blurted out. “I’m HIV positive. Don’t worry that you might have—from me….”
“No, no, of course not,” Julien said as a polite reflex. “How long have you known?”
“Two years already. My counts are very good, surprisingly good.” His voice wobbled and he was short of breath. “They don’t seem to be going down. I hope you’re not angry that I didn’t tell you right away, but I could never seem to find the right moment.” Hey, how about the moment just before we had sex? Julien might be thinking, or so Austin imagined. “I’m sure Dr. Aristopoulos wasn’t asking you to have the test because of me.”
“No, no, of course not,” Julien said, his politeness now striking Austin as ominous. Would Austin ever see him again? All he had was his work number and Julien could instruct the receptionist to say he’d call him right back or that he was out of the office for a few days—no, for an “indefinite leave.” That’s what she would say. They ambled under a promontory surmounted by a Greek temple. On every side there were flowers and flowering bushes, perfectly assorted and groomed, many of them probably transferred for a few weeks only out of the city’s greenhouses until they were replaced by still newer plantings in bloom.
Julien sprawled on the grass just beside a sign that forbade doing so. An old Vietnamese man walking past shook his finger at him, laughing. Austin stood just on the other side of the foot-high fence of metal hoops, then felt foolish and joined him and felt foolish.
“Please don’t worry about Dr. Aristopoulos. He’s positive himself; some people say he’s ill, though he looks fine to me. He probably is overly cautious.”
“I don’t think he’s competent. Why aren’t you seeing a famous specialist?”
“Several of my friends with HIV see him—”
friends with AIDS?”
“They’re all in good health for the moment,” Austin said primly.
“I’ve never met—or even heard of—someone infected until now,
until you. It just seemed to me a media circus, just some new puritanical horror invented by the Americans.” He thought about it for a while.
“Are you worried about Christine? Have you gone on having sex with her?”
“Christine?” He smiled a mild, studied, imperturbable smile that Austin read as a signal that he had gone too far with his grubby American questions.
Austin changed tactics: “You know, don’t worry about … if you want to drop me … I should have been honest from the beginning.” He propped himself up on his elbows and wondered if the grass was staining his seersucker jacket and the seat of his trousers. Julien was wearing his liverish green linen sports coat. “Do you like linen?” Austin asked wildly, then hastened to add, lying, “I do.” He was chattering out of fear and embarrassment.
“Yes, it’s a noble material.”
By now Austin had learned that Julien liked cotton, linen and silk, that he revered natural wood and stone, especially marble but even the ubiquitous Parisian sandstone extracted from this very quarry in the last century, that he despised brick and concrete—oh, Austin thought, I’ll miss him.
Maybe because Austin was a foreigner and what he did and said were thrown into relief, if only through contrast, or maybe because he would soon turn fifty and was seropositive, he now had a heightened sense of the swathe his life was cutting. In the past he’d been casual about himself. He’d never wanted to shine. He’d never been known for anything—neither his books, which were ordinary, nor his accomplishments, which amounted to nothing more than a nearly photographic memory of particular pieces of furniture and ceramics and a low-energy charm that allowed him to pass hours with the rich idlers who usually owned those things. Although he’d done well in everything related to the history of furniture itself, he couldn’t talk a good line about Louis XVI as a great patron, about Mme de Pompadour’s “rapacious curiosity” or her “exigent tastes,” which constituted an “enlightened tyranny”—no, he wasn’t a phrasemaker nor was he ambitious like those chaps at Sotheby’s in London. And he preferred
spending an evening with his overgrown adolescent friends than with the countesses who owned the last great bits of eighteenth-century furniture in private hands—
the furniture was always the problem. It sold itself. Over the years he’d acted as a middleman between countesses and museums in a few transactions, but he wasn’t interested enough in money to persist—or rather he was too quickly bored by grown-ups, officials, heterosexuals (or rather by all those people, straight or gay, who kept their sexuality hidden).
No, he’d always seen himself as an amateur and his life as formless, but now, today, here in this suddenly hot sunlight and grass laid like velvet over the raw, gouged surfaces of the old stone quarry, Austin was alive for the first time since his high-school days to the question of his “destiny.” Yes, he probably would die soon, probably in France in a charity ward since he didn’t have French insurance nor the official residency that would entitle him to national health coverage. He had a panicky fear that he’d forget French, that his brain would start bubbling like alphabet soup, scrambling all the words he knew in the reverse order he’d learned them, so that French would be the first to go, then the language of furniture, next all adult conversation until he ended up with just a few nursery rhymes, the song his mother had sung him to make him sleep, “When Johnny comes marching home.”
Julien was chewing a blade of grass and squinting up at the bright hazy sky. With his right hand he alternately tugged at Austin’s seersucker lapel and smoothed it, but he wasn’t looking at Austin. The gesture appeared isolated from his thoughts and the immobility of the rest of his body. Julien even stopped chewing. The rancid, cooking smell of grass reminded Austin of bitter Japanese green tea, the tang so inherently rank that sugar seems laughably inadequate to it.
For the next few days Julien was sick with a bad case of the flu. He called Austin every day to tell him he was getting better, but each time he stayed on the line only a moment. The one time he did linger was to tell him the plot of a
he was reading. Like so many adult Frenchmen he read comic books filled with grotesque sex scenes and anarchistic violence, an art form that had largely replaced fiction for many Latin men in their teens and twenties. At the giant music
and literature emporium, the FNAC, enraptured solitary men, unemployed no doubt, stood or sat cross-legged on the floor for hours in the aisles of the section for comics, reading and chuckling or sucking in their breath with amazement.
At last Julien was better. Once again he started coming by several evenings a week for dinner. One night Austin took him along for a formal dinner at the house of Marie-France, a woman he’d known for five or six years. They’d met when Austin had written an article about her vast apartment along the Quai d’Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis, twelve rooms with lamps, tables and even bronze bookcases that had been designed by Diego Giacometti, the sculptor’s brother. The apartment was on the second floor and the drawing-room windows looked out on the Seine through leaves—the movement of the wind-stirred leaves and the racing, faceted water created a pointillism of living light.
It was a formal dinner for twenty served at two separate tables by two Filipino servants but Marie-France made it all seem comical, even improvised. Julien and Austin were seated apart, each beside glamorous divorcées “of a certain age.” Austin’s dinner partner kept raving about everything—her key words were
which he gathered meant “very sublime,” and
“la fin du monde”
(“the end of the world”), which also seemed to be a sign of enthusiasm. Philippe Starck’s new toothbrush was
and Claude Picasso’s carpets were
la fin du monde
Marie-France and all her friends were so civilized that they smiled discreetly and benignly when Julien and Austin stood by the piano after dinner drinking a brandy together. On the phone the next day Marie-France said her old uncle Henri had been delighted to meet them and thought he’d bring his own boyfriend to the next gathering, which had never occurred to him previously in half a century. “Of course
friend is a gardener whereas yours is an architect and so amusing.” Although she was tall and sturdy (her ex-lover, a polo-playing dandy, used to call her “the good soldier”), she used some of the social words, if somewhat less frequently than her women friends. Marie-France could say, “You’re a love” or “You’re too adorable,” if he’d rendered her the slightest service, but she wasn’t mannered, her expression was lively and self-satirical and she was quick to shrug off
even the most reasonable compliment. Nevertheless, he wasn’t certain she returned his affection until one day her cousin said, “You know, Marie-France considers you to be one of her best friends.”
He knew that Marie-France had married an aristocratic twit very young and divorced him soon after their second child was born. She’d raised them without remarrying, though she’d always been open about her modest succession of lovers (three in fifteen years). She had the soul of an artist and had decorated her apartment and her house in the Luberon with exquisite taste and a quiet sense of the dramatic. She respected Austin’s opinion, though she collected only things from the twentieth century, and she was delighted when he pressed her to explain how she’d restored a painting, refinished a split-straw table top by Jean-Michel Franck or mended the white calf-skin wall panel. Her convent education and her very old, strict father had made her yearn, when she was an adolescent, to meet foreigners and bohemians and anyone connected, however peripherally, to the arts; at the same time, her considerable fortune and her name were privileges she was preserving, in a near-custodial fashion, for her children. She could laugh at her stuffier friends, but she always invited them back, though she mixed the dukes and the financiers in with pretty actresses, famous writers, even an American. Austin had been stung when he overheard an old aristocrat, who was deaf and speaking louder than he thought, say to someone, “I’ll never understand why Marie-France invites her suppliers to the house.”
“Your Julien is delicious,” she said now. “Please bring him around as often as you can. My friend Hélène adored him and wants him to advise her on her winter garden—please warn him that she’s in hot pursuit of free advice.”
Sometimes Julien and Austin would wander through the narrow streets of the Marais during the endlessly prolonged June twilight. They’d go through the Jewish Quarter and often they’d eat at Jo Gold-enberg’s, a deli up front and a restaurant behind, full of cozy booths and paintings of rabbis and of old women in babushkas. Violinists serenaded each table in turn and a gypsy told fortunes. For Austin it was like a distorted dream version of a New York deli—it took him a second to realize that
was the French word for “kosher.”
As they ate their kasha and derma, Julien said, “I thought it over.
You must understand, I’d never met someone before who was seropositive. For me it wasn’t part of real life.”
“Not even in Ethiopia?”
“Well, I suppose there are lots of cases there, but I think it’s other parts of Africa, Black Africa—”
“The Ethiopians aren’t black?”
Julien smiled with a smile so superior it was pitying. “Don’t let
ever hear you say that. No, they think they’re an ancient tribe, close to the Pharaohs, the Pharaonic Egyptians, and they look down on their black neighbors. It’s true the Ethiopian elite is rather light-skinned, the men plump and often balding, their features quite small and regular, the women truly beautiful. Of course the Ethiopians
they’re black when they think they can get some political mileage out of it. It’s a clever, sophisticated nation—only in Addis Ababa do
the Western powers keep embassies.”
He talked on and on about Ethiopia, while Austin waited for him to come back to their love and its future. Austin was soothed by this absurd reprieve and Julien, essentially a kind-hearted man, seemed happy, too, to avoid what he must have prepared to say.
But finally a densely packed poppy-seed cake, heavy as an ingot, was served as though it were a black curse in a fairy tale, and they both fell silent after Julien’s pell-mell speech on the subject of Ethiopian pride.
“You said you’d thought it all over?” Austin prompted, determined to make it easy for this tactful young man.
“You must understand that I was thunderstruck when you told me about yourself. I’d never thought about it, I’d never met anyone …” Perhaps he saw from Austin’s look of vulnerability that to insist on the singularity of Austin’s condition only made it sound more monstrous. He ran out of energy and once again was caught in a brief moment of stasis, like a gymnast who has twisted and turned in every direction on a sawhorse and then balances upside-down on his hands for a second, before choreographing a military-sharp descent to the floor.