Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
Over the next week (as he had the week before), he wrote every day to Edward. Edward had promised that he would send him his sister’s address in his first letter, but he had been gone almost two weeks and there had been not a single piece of correspondence. David had inquired at the boardinghouse if they had an address for him, and had even suffered an encounter with the terrifying Matron, but neither had yielded further information. And yet he continued to write, a letter a day, which he had one of the servants leave at Edward’s boardinghouse in case he should inform them of his location.
He could feel his aimlessness transforming itself into desperation, and every evening he set himself a plan for the following day, one that would keep him away from Washington Square until just past the first post delivery, by which point he would be either alighting from the hansom or rounding the corner on foot, returning from his trip to the museum, or the club, or a chat with Eliza, who was the sibling he liked best and to whom he sometimes paid a visit when he knew Eden was attending class. Grandfather had, pointedly, asked him nothing about his dinner with Charles Griffith, and nor had David volunteered anything. Life resumed its pre-Edward rhythms, but this time, the days were grayer than before. Now he made himself wait until half past the hour when the mail arrived before finally ascending the stairs, and he made himself not ask Adams or Matthew whether anything had come for him, as if, by not doing so, he might cause a letter to materialize to reward him for his discipline and patience. But day after day passed, and the post brought only
two letters from Charles, both asking if he might want to attend the theater: The first one he declined, courteously and quickly, begging family obligations; the second he ignored, angry at it for not being from Edward, until he was on the verge of being rude, whereupon he jotted a brief note apologizing and saying he had caught a chill and was staying indoors.
At the beginning of the third week of Edward’s absence, he took the hansom west and, the day’s letter in hand, determined to uncover answers himself about Edward’s whereabouts. But the only person he found at the boardinghouse was the wan little maid who seemed to spend most of her time lugging a pail of brackish-looking water from one floor to the next. “I dunno, sir,” she mumbled, looking doubtfully at David’s shoes, recoiling from the letter he held out for her as if it might burn her, “he dinna say when he’ll be back.” He left the house, then, but stood on the sidewalk, looking up at Edward’s windows, over which the dark curtains were fully drawn, the same as they had been for the past sixteen days.
That evening, though, he remembered something that might help him, and as he and his grandfather assumed their after-dinner positions, he asked, “Grandfather, have you heard of a woman named Florence Larsson?”
His grandfather appraised him, coolly, before tamping down the tobacco in his pipe and puffing. “Florence Larsson,” he repeated. “That’s a name I’ve not heard in a very long time. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, Charles was mentioning that his clerk lived in a boardinghouse she owns,” he said, dismayed not just by the speed of his duplicity but by his involving Charles in it.
“So it’s true,” his grandfather murmured, almost to himself, before sighing. “I never knew her myself, mind you—she is even older than I am; frankly, I’m surprised she’s still alive—but when she was around your age, she was involved in an awful scandal.”
“Well. She was the only daughter of a quite well-to-do man—a doctor, I believe—and was herself studying to be a doctor. Then, one night, she met a man—I cannot remember his name—at a party thrown by her cousin. He was, apparently, spectacularly handsome
and deeply charming, and utterly penniless—one of those men who seem to come from nowhere, and are connected to no one, and yet, through their appearance and witty conversation, are able to find themselves in society, among all the best people.”
“And so what happened?”
“What often happens in these circumstances, I’m sorry to say. He wooed her; she fell in love; her father threatened to disown her if she married the man…and she did so anyway. She had a fortune bestowed upon her by her late mother, and soon after they married, the man absconded with it all, every last cent. She was left destitute, and while she was able to return to her father’s house, he was so spiteful—a very coldhearted man, everyone said—that he did as he’d threatened and disinherited her entirely. If she’s still alive, she’d be living in her late aunt’s house, which I suppose she’s been in ever since her father’s death. She was, by all accounts, bereft. She never continued her studies. And she never married again—never even flirted with the possibility, from what I understand.”
He felt a coldness move over him. “And what happened to the man?”
“Who can say? For many years, there were rumors about him. He was sighted here or there, he emigrated to England or the Continent, he remarried this or that heiress—but no one ever knew for sure, and at any rate, he was never heard from again. But David—what’s wrong? You’ve gone pale!”
“It is nothing,” he managed to say. “I think the fish tonight disagreed with me, somewhat.”
“Oh dear—I know you love sole.”
Upstairs, back in the safety of his study, he tried to calm himself. The comparisons, which had risen unbidden, were ludicrous. Yes, Edward knew of his money, but he had never asked for any—he had even been bashful about accepting the blanket—and they were certainly not discussing marriage. But still, something about the story upset him, as if it were an echo of another story, a worse story, a story he had heard once but could not, however he tried, recall.
He was unable to sleep that night, and for the first time in a long while, he spent the following morning in bed, waving away the maids’
offers of breakfast, staring at a water stain along the baseboard, where the two walls met in a V. It was his secret, this patch of yellow, and when he had been confined, he had gazed at it for hours, certain that were he to turn from it, or to blink, when he opened his eyes next the room would be transformed into an unfamiliar place, someplace terrifyingly dark and small: a monk’s cell, the hold of a ship, the bottom of a well. The stain was what was keeping him in the world, and it demanded all of his concentration.
In his confinements, he was sometimes unable to even stand, but now he was not ill, only fearful of something he could not name, and so, finally, he made himself wash and dress, and by the time he’d ventured downstairs, it was already late in the afternoon.
“A letter for you, Mister David.”
He felt his heart quicken. “Thank you, Matthew.” But once he had plucked the letter from the silver tray, he set it on a table and sat, folding his hands in his lap, trying to still his heart, to lengthen and slow his breaths. Finally, cautiously, he stretched out his arm and picked up the letter.
It is not from him,
he told himself.
And it was not. It was another note from Charles, inquiring about his health and asking if he might like to accompany him to a recitation that Friday evening:
It is of Shakespeare’s sonnets, of which I know you are fond.
He sat, holding the letter, his disappointment mingling with something he was once again unable to identify. Then, before he could hesitate, he rang for Matthew and asked for paper and ink, and quickly scrawled a response to Charles, accepting his invitation, and handed the envelope back to Matthew, telling him to deliver it immediately.
Once this was done, his final reserves of strength left him, and he stood and made his slow way upstairs, back to his chambers, where he rang for the maid and told her to tell Adams to tell his grandfather that he was still feeling poorly and would have to miss dinner tonight. And then he stood in the center of his study and looked about him, trying to find something—a book, a painting, a portfolio of drawings—to distract him, to quell the feeling of unease that now arose within him.
The sonnets were recited by an all-female troupe, more enthusiastic than talented, but young enough so that, despite their lack of skill, they were still fresh and appealing to watch—it was easy to applaud them at the show’s conclusion.
He wasn’t hungry afterward, but Charles was, and suggested—hopefully, David thought—that they might have something to eat at his house. “Something simple,” he said, and David, from lack of anything to do and in need of distraction, agreed.
Back at the house, Charles suggested they sit in his upstairs parlor, which, though as inappropriately extravagant as the downstairs one—carpets so thick they felt like pelt beneath the foot; curtains of gloria that crackled, like burning paper, when one brushed against them—was at least smaller, friendlier in its scale. “Shall we just eat in here?” David asked him.
“Shall we?” Charles asked, raising his eyebrows. “I had told Walden to set the dining room. But I would far prefer to stay here, if you would.”
“Anything you decide,” he replied, suddenly losing interest, not only in the meal but in the conversation about it.
“I shall tell him,” said Charles, and pulled the bell. “Bread and cheese and butter and maybe a little cold meat,” he instructed the butler when he returned, turning to David for his approval, which he gave with a small nod.
He was determined to be silent and childish and sullen, but once again, Charles’s pleasant way soon coaxed him into conversation. He told David about his other nephews: Teddy, in his final year at
Amherst (“So he will now take James’s title as first in our family to graduate college, and I mean to reward him for it”), and Henry, soon to matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania (“So, you see, I shall be having to come south—well, yes,
consider this south!—much more often”). He spoke of them with such love, such affection, that David found himself irrationally jealous. He of course had no reason to be—his grandfather had never said an unkind word to him, and he had known only ease. But perhaps his envy was misdirected; perhaps it was understanding how proud Charles was of them, and knowing that he had done nothing to bring his grandfather the same kind of pride.
Into the evening they talked of various aspects of their lives: their families; Charles’s friends; the wars down south; their country’s détente with Maine, where, given that state’s semi-autonomy from the Union, Free State citizens were better tolerated, while not quite accepted; and their relations with the West, where the potential for danger had become much greater. Despite the occasionally grim subjects, their company was easy, and David found himself in several moments on the verge of confiding to Charles as if to a friend, and not someone who had offered marriage, about Edward: his dark, quick eyes; the pink that rose in the hollow of his throat when he was speaking of music or art; the various struggles he had overcome to make his way in the world alone. But then he remembered where he was, and who Charles was, and bit back his words. If he could not have Edward in his arms, he wanted Edward’s name on his tongue; by speaking of him, he would bring Edward alive. He wanted to show him off, wanted to tell anyone who would listen that
was who had chosen him, that
was who he spent his days with, that
was who had brought him alive once again. But in the absence of that, he would have to be satisfied with the secret of Edward, which he carried inside him like a lick of bright-white flame; something that burned high and pure and which warmed only him, and which he feared would vanish if he examined it too closely. By thinking of him, he felt almost as if he’d conjured him, a phantom only he could see, leaning against the secretary at the back of the room behind Charles, smiling at David and David alone.
And yet—he knew—Edward was not there, not just in body but in essence as well. Over the weeks, as he waited and waited to hear from Edward, dutifully writing his letters (whose ratios of what he hoped were amusing news about his life and the city versus expressions of affection and yearning had tipped almost wholly in the direction of the latter), his concern had been replaced by confusion, and confusion by bewilderment, and bewilderment by hurt, and hurt by frustration, and frustration by anger, and anger by desperation, until he was back at the beginning of the cycle once more. Now, at any moment, he felt all of these sensations all at once, so that he was unable to distinguish one from the other, and these were heightened by a pure and profound craving. Curiously, it was being in the presence of Charles, someone kind and in whose company he could relax, that made these feelings the more potent, and therefore oppressive—he knew that, if he told Charles of his agony, he would have advice, or at least sympathy, but of course the cruelty of his situation was that Charles was the one person whom he could never tell.
He was thinking all this, reviewing his predicament again and again, as if in the next revisitation of the problem a solution would magically announce itself, when he realized that Charles had stopped speaking, and that he had been so deeply consumed with his own dilemma that he had altogether ceased to listen.
He apologized hurriedly and profusely, but Charles only shook his head, and then stood from his chair and crossed to the divan where David sat, and joined him.
“Is something the matter?” Charles asked.
“No, no—I’m very sorry. I think I’m only tired, and this fire is so lovely and warm, I’m afraid I’ve grown somewhat sleepy—you must excuse me.”
Charles nodded, and took his hand. “You seem very distracted, though,” he continued. “Troubled, even. Is it not something you can tell me?”
He smiled, so Charles wouldn’t worry. “You’re so kind to me,” he said, and then, more fervently, “so kind. I wonder what it would be like, to have a friend like you.”
“But you do have me as a friend,” said Charles, smiling back at him, and David understood that he had said the wrong thing, that he was doing exactly what Grandfather had said he oughtn’t: The fact that he was doing so unintentionally made no difference.
“I hope you should see me as your friend,” Charles continued, his voice low, “but also as something else,” and he put his hands on David’s shoulders and kissed him, and continued kissing him until he finally pulled David to his feet and began to unbutton his trousers, and David let Charles undress him and waited as Charles then undressed himself.
In his hansom home, he bemoaned his own stupidity, at how he had, in his confused state, let Charles believe that he might be interested in being his husband after all. He knew that with each occasion he saw Charles, with each conversation they had, with each communication he answered, he was going farther and farther down a path that would lead, inexorably, to one destination. It was not too late for him to stop, to announce his intention to turn and retreat—he had not given his word, they had signed no papers, and even if he had behaved poorly, misleadingly, he would not be breaking a promise—but if he did, he knew that both Charles and his grandfather would be justifiably wounded, if not livid, and that the blame would be entirely his. He had acquiesced to Charles in part from gratitude for his compassion (and, David had to admit, to reward Charles for being fond of him when he was uncertain of fondness from Edward), but his other reasons were altogether less honorable and generous: a sense of misplaced and unfulfilled lust, a desire to punish Edward for his silence and unreachability, a need to distract himself from his own difficulties. By doing so, he had made another difficulty, one entirely of his own creation, in which he was undeniably the pursued, the object of another’s longing. It chilled him to realize that these were his thoughts, that he was so proud and selfish that he had encouraged not just another person, but a good person, to form false hopes and expectations simply because his pride was injured and he wanted to be flattered.
Yet so powerful was this feeling, this hunger to subdue the disagreeable sentiments that Edward’s absence and persisting silence
awakened in him, that over the next three weeks—three weeks in which February twentieth came and passed, three weeks in which he heard nothing from Edward—he returned to Charles’s house again and again. Seeing Charles, the enthusiasm and excitement that he made no efforts to conceal, made David both powerful and scornful; watching Charles fumble with his buttons, clumsy in his impatience, the upstairs parlor’s door hastily closed and locked as soon as Walden had delivered him inside, he felt a seducer, an enchanter, but later, hearing Charles whisper endearments into his ear, he felt only embarrassment for the man. He knew what he was doing was wrong, even wicked—intimacy was encouraged before an arranged marriage between men, but it was usually to be explored only once or twice, and only to determine one’s compatibility with one’s possible intended—and yet he found himself unable to stop, even as, privately, his motivations became less and less defensible, even as his new, wholly unjustifiable disdain for Charles began to curdle into a kind of disgust. But here too he was confused. He did not enjoy relations with Charles, not exactly—although he came to welcome the attention, and Charles’s consistent and sustained excitement and physical strength, he thought the man too earnest, both dull and inelegant—but continuing them made his memories of Edward inexplicably sharper, for he was always measuring one against the other, and finding the former wanting. Feeling Charles’s girth moving against him, he yearned for Edward’s sylphlike leanness, and imagined how he might tell Edward about Charles, and how Edward would laugh, his low, mesmerizing chuckle. But of course—there was no Edward to tell, to share in his unkind, unspoken mocking of the person who
before him, steadfast and true and responsive in every way: Charles Griffith. Charles had become disagreeable to him
he was available, and yet that same generous availability also made David feel less vulnerable, less helpless in the face of Edward’s continuing silence. He had come to nurse a small hatred for Charles, for loving him so much, and, mostly, for not being Edward. His budding disgust for Charles made being with him feel sacrificial, a delicious self-punishment, an almost religious
act of degradation that—if only to him—proved what he was willing to withstand in order to someday be reunited with Edward.
“I believe I am in love with you,” Charles said to him one night in early March as he was preparing to leave, buttoning up his shirt and looking about for his tie. But although he had spoken clearly enough, David pretended he’d not heard him, and said only a cursory goodbye over his shoulder as he left. He could tell that by now Charles was bewildered, even hurt, by his coolness, by David’s now unignorable unwillingness to reciprocate his declarations of affection, and he was aware as well that in his behavior toward Charles he was perpetuating a small but very real sort of evil, one in which he was repaying honor with cruelty.
“I must go,” he announced into the quiet that greeted Charles’s proclamation, “but I shall write you tomorrow.”
“Shall you?” asked Charles, softly, and David felt again that mingling of impatience and tenderness.
“Yes,” he said. “I promise.”
He saw Charles next on a Sunday afternoon, and as he was leaving, Charles asked him—as he always did after their encounters—whether he might like to stay for supper, whether he might like to attend this concert or that theater performance. He always demurred, aware that with each successive encounter the question David knew Charles dared not ask loomed larger and larger, until it began to feel as if it had somehow materialized as a fog, so that every movement the two of them made brought them deeper into its obfuscating, impermeable murk. David had once again spent most of his time with Charles thinking of Edward, trying to imagine Charles to
Edward, and although he was, as always, polite to Charles, he was increasingly formal, despite the increasing intimacy of their behavior.
“Wait,” Charles said, “don’t get dressed so quickly—let me look at you a while longer.” But David said his grandfather was expecting him, and left before Charles could ask again.
After each visit, he was increasingly miserable: at how he was treating poor, decent Charles; at how he was conducting himself as a
Bingham, and his grandfather’s charge; at how his desperate hunger for Edward was driving him to behave. Though he could not blame his choices on Edward, no matter his reasons for not writing—it was his decision, and only his, and instead of bearing his anguish alone, and bravely, he had now let it infect Charles as well.
And although he returned to Charles to distract himself, being with him also inspired unwanted questions, new doubts: Whenever Charles spoke of his friends, of his nephews, of his business associates, he was reminded that Edward had made it impossible for David to ever locate him. Edward’s friends had been identified only by their Christian names, never their family ones—David realized that he didn’t even know the sisters’ married names. Whenever Charles asked him questions about himself, his childhood and school years, his grandfather and siblings, he was reminded that Edward had rarely asked him such questions: He had not noticed it at the time, but he remembered it now. Was he not interested? He thought bitterly of how he had once felt that Edward had been seeking his approval and was grateful when David gave it to him, and recognized now how wrong he’d been, how, all along, it had always been Edward who had been in control.
The following Wednesday, he was tidying the classroom after his lesson when he heard the sound of his name echoing through the hallway. The previous week, the piano, which until then had remained standing at the front of the room, a monument to Edward and then to his disappearance, had been relegated to its corner, where neglect would return it to its natural state of disrepair.
He turned, and into the classroom marched Matron, looking at him disapprovingly, as always. “Go back to your rooms now, children,” she told the few stragglers, patting them on the heads or shoulders as they greeted her. And then, to him, “Mister Bingham. How are the classes coming along?”