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Authors: Hanya Yanagihara

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“That is so generous of you,” said Belle, once she’d recovered herself. “But—neither Edward nor I know anything about textiles, nor running a factory!”

“It’s true,” Edward said. “Dear Susannah and Aubrey—we are very flattered—but surely you need someone with experience in such matters.”

But Susannah and Aubrey persisted. There would be a foreman, and Aubrey himself would travel west in the autumn to meet with Louis and oversee the business during its early days. Once Belle and Edward arrived, they would learn as they worked. The important thing was that the Cookes might have people they trusted. So much about the West was mysterious to them that they needed business partners they could rely upon, whose histories and characters they knew completely. “And whom do we know better or trust more wholly than you?” Susannah cried. “You and Belle are almost siblings to us as well!”

“But what about Louis?”

“We trust him, of course. But he is not known to us as you are.”

Belle laughed. “Dear Aubrey,” she said, “I am a nurse; Edward is a pianist. We know nothing of silkworm cultivation, or mulberry trees, or textiles, or business! Why, we would ruin you!”

Back and forth the four of them argued, spiritedly but good-naturedly, until, finally, Aubrey and Susannah extracted a promise from the Bishops that they would consider their offer, and then, it being very late, they went to bed, but with smiles and congratulations on their lips, for although the Bishops still thought the idea improbable, they were flattered to be asked, and full of new gratitude for their friends’ generosity and faith.

The next day, Edward was to depart, but after bidding the Cookes goodbye and before catching his coach, he and Belle took a short stroll. For a while, the siblings walked in silence, arm in arm, pausing to look at the few ducks who flew down to the river and, upon dipping their webbed feet into the water, flew off once more, cawing loudly and angrily, offended by the water’s chill.

“You would think they would know better,” Edward said, watching them. And then, to his sister, “What shall you do?”

“I’m not quite certain,” she said. But then, as they neared the Cookes’ house once again, where Edward’s luggage waited, she said, “But I do think we might consider their offer.”

“My dear Belle!”

“It could be a new life for us, Edward, an adventure. We are both still young—I am only one-and-twenty! And—don’t speak—we wouldn’t be completely alone: We would have each other.”

Now it was the two of them who argued back and forth, until Edward was in danger of missing his coach, and they finally parted, tenderly, Edward promising Belle that he would consider the Cookes’ proposal, even though he had no intention of doing so. But once he was in the coach, and then over the many hours of the first part of his journey, he found himself thinking more and more about the idea. Why
would
he not go west? Why
would
he not try to make his fortune? Why
would
he not want to have an adventure? Belle was correct—they were young; the venture’s success was assured. And even were it not, had he not always yearned for excitement? Had New York ever really felt like his home? Already his sisters were far from him, and he was alone in a city whose casual brutalities—of money, of status, of climate—chipped and chafed at him, so that even though he was only twenty-three, he felt much older, weary of living in a place where he was never warm, where he was always scrabbling for money, where he still felt, more often than he would have imagined, that he was only a visitor, a Colony child waiting to alight on his final destination. And, too, he thought once more of his parents, who themselves had made a long, transformative journey from one place to another—was it not time for him to make his own, mirrored journey? Laura and Margaret had found their home, and it was in the Free States, and he was happy for them. But if he were to be honest with himself, he would have to admit that his entire life, for as long as he could remember, he too had been hoping for that sense of contentment, of security they possessed, only to have it elude him year after year.

After several days of thinking like this, he was back again in New York, and it was as if the city, sensing his wavering conviction, had amassed its most unpleasant qualities to visit upon him in an
endeavor to help him reach the correct, the inevitable conclusion. His first step back on city soil was not upon earth but into a large puddle that had formed in a rut in the road, a lake of icy, scummy water that soaked him to mid-calf. Then there were the smells, the sounds, the sights: the peddlers pulling their wooden carts with their misshapen wheels that jostled off the sidewalk into the mud-lapped streets with a thunk, the men bent like mules; the gray-faced, starved-eyed children filing dully from the factory where they’d spent hours sewing buttons to poorly made garments; the hawkers desperately trying to sell their few wares, things that no one wanted except the most destitute, the devils without even a penny coin to pay for an onion as stunted and dry and hard as an oyster shell, a tin cup’s worth of beans that writhed with gray-white grubs; the beggars and touts and pickpockets; all the poor, cold, struggling hordes of people trudging through their small lives in this impossible, proud, heartless city, the only witness to so much human misery the stone gargoyles that leered, meanly, with their sneering smiles, from their perches on grand buildings high above the teeming streets. And then there was the boardinghouse, where he was handed by the maid a letter threatening eviction by the unseen Florence Larsson, whom he appeased by paying an extra month’s rent in advance along with the rent his long trip had made delinquent, and where he climbed the stairs once more, those stairs that smelled of cabbage and damp even in the summer, and then into his freezing room with its meager possessions and bleak view of the bare black trees. And it was then, breathing on his fingers so he would have enough feeling in them to go fetch some water so he might begin the wearying labor of warming himself, that he made his decision: He would go to California. He would help the Cookes begin their silk concern. He would become a rich man, his own man. And if he ever returned to New York—though he did not imagine why he ever would—he would do so without feeling a pauper, without feeling apology. New York could never make him free, but California might.

There was a long silence.

“You’re leaving, then,” David said, though he could barely speak the words.

Edward had been looking above and beyond him as he spoke, but now he turned his gaze to David’s. “Yes,” he said. And then: “And you are coming with me.”

“I?” he finally managed. And then: “I! No, Edward. No.”

“But why ever not?”

“Edward! No—I—no. This is my home. I could never leave it.”

“But why not?” Edward slipped from the bed and knelt at his feet, taking both of David’s hands in his own. “Think of it, David—think of it. We would be together. It would be a new life for us, a new life together, a new life together in the sunshine, in the warmth. David. Do you not want to be with me? Do you not love me?”

“You know I love you,” he admitted, wretchedly.

“And I love you,” Edward said, fervently, but those words, which David had waited and wanted, so keenly, to hear, were eclipsed by the extraordinariness of the context in which they were spoken. “David. We could be together. We could be together at last.”

“We can be together here!”

“David—my darling—you know that’s not true. You know your grandfather would never let you be with someone like me.”

To this he could say nothing, for he knew it was true, and he knew Edward knew it, too. “But we could never be together in the West, Edward. Be sensible! It is
dangerous
to be like us out there—we would be imprisoned for it; we could be killed.”

“Nothing will happen to us! We know how to be careful. David, the people who are in peril are people who are, who are—
excessive
in who they are, who
flaunt
who they are, who
ask
to be noticed. We are not those kinds of people, and we never will be.”

“But we
are
those kinds of people, Edward! There is no difference between us! If we were ever suspected, if we were ever caught, the consequences would be dire. If we couldn’t live as who we are, then how would we be free?”

And here Edward stood, and pivoted from him, and when he turned back, his face was gentle, and he sat next to David on the bed and reclaimed his hands. “Forgive me, David, for asking this,” he said, quietly, “but are you free now?” And, when David was unable to answer him: “David. My innocent. Have you ever thought of
what your life might be if your name meant nothing to no one? If you were able to escape from who you are meant to be and become instead who you want to be? If the name Bingham were just another, like Bishop or Smith or Jones, instead of a word chiseled into marble atop a great monolith?

“What if you were merely Mister Bingham, as I am merely Mister Bishop? Mister Bingham of Los Angeles: A talented artist, a dear and good and clever man, the husband—secretly, perhaps, yes, but no less true for that secrecy—of Edward Bishop? Who lived with him in a little house on a vast orchard of silvery-leafed trees in a land where there was no ice, no winter, no snow? Who came to understand who he might want to be? Who, after a period—maybe a few years, maybe many—might move back east with his husband, or might come alone to visit his beloved grandfather? Who would have me in his arms every night and every morning, and who would be loved by his husband always, and more loved because his husband would be only his, and his alone? Who could choose, whenever he wished, to be Mister David Bingham of Washington Square, New York, the Free States, eldest and most cherished grandchild of Nathaniel Bingham, but would also be something less, and therefore something more; who would belong to someone he chose, and yet would belong, too, only to himself. David. Could this not be you? Could this not be who you really are?”

He stood, yanking himself from Edward’s grip, and walked the single step over to the fireplace, which was cold and black and empty, and yet into which he stared as if gazing at the flames.

Behind him, Edward still spoke. “You are frightened,” he said. “And I understand. But you will always have me. Me, my love, my affection for and admiration of you—David, you will always have that. But would living in California really be so different in certain ways from being here? Here, we are free as a people but not as a couple. There, we would not be free as a people, but we
would
be a couple, real to each other and living with each other, and with no one to tut at us, no one to stop us, no one to tell us that within the walls of our home we might not be together. David, I ask you: What use is the Free States if we cannot be truly free?”

“Do you really love me?” he finally managed to ask.

“Oh, David,” said Edward, standing and coming behind him and wrapping his arms about him, and David remembered, involuntarily, the feeling of Charles’s bulk against him, and shuddered. “I want to spend my life with you.”

He turned to face Edward, and in that instant, they were tearing at each other, and when, later, they lay spent, David found the bewilderment come over him again, and he sat, and began to dress, as Edward watched him.

“I must go,” he announced, retrieving his gloves, which had fallen beneath the bed.

“David,” Edward said, wrapping the blanket about himself and climbing to his feet, standing in front of David and making him look up. “Please consider my offer. I have yet to even tell Belle. But now that I have spoken to you, I shall tell her of my decision—though I would like to inform her, in either this letter or in one soon after, that I will join her as a married man, with my husband.

“The Cookes had suggested that, were we to accept, one of us should leave in May, the other no later than June. Belle has no one else to consider but herself—I shall have her be the pioneer, and she will not only be worthy of it, she will enjoy it as well. But, David—I
will
go in June. I will, no matter what. And I hope, David, I do hope—I cannot convey to you how much so—that I will not be making the journey alone. Please tell me you’ll consider it. Please—David? Please.”

XIII
 

It was a Bingham family tradition to throw a party on March twelfth, on the anniversary of the Free States’ independence, though the gathering was meant to be less festive than reflective, an opportunity for the Binghams’ friends and acquaintances to review the family’s collection of artifacts and ephemera that documented the establishment of their country and the significant role that the Binghams had played in its founding.

This year, though, the date would coincide with the opening of a small museum that Nathaniel Bingham had founded. The family’s papers and memorabilia would constitute the primary holdings, but the hope was that other of the founding families would donate pieces, letters and diaries and maps, from their own archives as well. Several, including Eliza’s family, had already done so, and it was expected that many more would follow after the museum’s unveiling.

The night of the inauguration, David stood in his bedroom before his mirror, brushing his jacket. It had already been brushed, and rebrushed, by Matthew, and was not in need of further grooming. He was hardly paying attention to his ministrations, at any rate; the movement was meaningless, but soothing.

It would be his first evening outside the house since he last had seen Edward, now almost a week ago. After that extraordinary night, he had returned home and had taken to bed, and for the next six days, he had not left. His grandfather had been alarmed, certain his illness had returned, and although David had felt deeply guilty for this deception, it also seemed an easier explanation than trying
to convey the profound disquiet he felt—for even had he the words to communicate it, he would have also to find a way to introduce the idea of Edward, who he was and who he was to David, and that was a conversation for which he felt completely unprepared. And so he had lain there, mute and unmoving, allowing their family doctor, Mister Armstrong, to come and examine him, to prize open his eyes and mouth, to measure his pulse and grunt at the results; the maids to deliver trays of his favorite foods, only to retrieve them, untouched, hours later; Adams to bring (at his grandfather’s order, he knew) fresh flowers—anemones and posies and peonies—daily, acquired from places unknown at prices unbelievable during the bleakest weeks of late winter. All the while, for those many hours, he had stared at the water stain. But unlike a true spell of sickness, in which he would have thought of nothing, here he could do nothing
but
think: of Edward’s inevitable departure, of his shocking offer, of their conversation, which David had not fully comprehended in the moment but to which he now returned, again and again—he argued with Edward’s definition of freedom, and his suggestion that David was chained, bound to his grandfather and his name and therefore to a life not fully his own; he argued with Edward’s assuredness that they would be somehow spared from the punishments visited upon anyone found to have violated the region’s anti-sodomy laws. Those laws had always existed, but since their reinforcement in ’76, the West, once a promising place—so promising that a number of the Free States’ legislators had even considered trying to bring the territory under their control—had become in certain ways even more perilous than the Colonies; it was not legal, as it was in the Colonies, to pursue discovery of their kind of illegal activity, but if it
was
discovered, the consequences were both severe and unpardonable. Not even money could secure the freedom of an accused. The one thing he could not do was argue with Edward himself, for Edward had not called upon him or sent any sort of message, a fact that would have bothered David had he not been so preoccupied by the quandary with which he had been presented.

But though Edward had not communicated with him, Charles had, or had at least tried to. More than a week had now passed since
David had last seen him, and Charles’s notes to him had, over the days, become beseeching, unable to quite disguise their author’s desperation, a desperation David remembered from his own latter letters to Edward. But the day before, an enormous arrangement of blue hyacinths had been delivered, the card—“My dearest David, Miss Holson told me you were feeling poorly, which I am deeply sorry to hear. I know you are in excellent care, but if you should need or desire anything at all, you need only say so and I shall be at your service immediately. In the meantime, I send you my good wishes, along with my devotion”—expressing what David interpreted as a palpable relief that his silence was not due to lack of interest after all, only illness. He looked at the flowers, and at Charles’s card, and realized that he had once again forgotten his very existence, that all it had taken was the reappearance of Edward in his life for everything else in it to dim or become inconsequential.

Mostly, though, he contemplated leaving—or not even that, but contemplated whether he could even contemplate leaving. His fear of the West and what might happen there to him, to them, was inarguable and, he felt, justified. But what of his fear of leaving his grandfather, of leaving Washington Square? Was that not also what stopped him? He knew Edward was correct: For as long as he remained in New York, he would always be his grandfather’s, his family’s, his city’s, his country’s. That too was inarguable.

What was not was whether he even desired another life, a different life. He had always thought he had. When he was on his Grand Tour, he had in fact tried to experiment with being someone else. One day in the Uffizi, he had stopped in the hallway to gaze down the Vasari Corridor, its symmetry that discomfited in its inhuman perfection, when a young man, dark and slender, had stepped beside him.

“It is unreal, is it not?” he had asked David, after the two of them had stood in silence for a moment, and David turned to look at him.

His name was Morgan, and he was from London, on his own Grand Tour, the son of a barrister, a few months from returning home to, he said, “Nothing. Or nothing interesting, at any rate. A
position at my father’s firm—he insists—and, eventually, I suppose, marriage to some girl my mother will find for me.
She
insists.”

They had spent the afternoon together, walking through the streets, stopping for coffee and pastry. Up to this point in David’s trip, he had spoken to almost no one but the various friends of his grandfather’s who greeted him and hosted him at each stop, and talking with another man his age was like slipping back into water and recognizing its silk on his skin, remembering how comfortable it could be.

“Have you a girl at home for you?” Morgan asked him as they walked through the Piazza Santa Croce, and David, smiling, said he hadn’t.

“Just a moment,” said Morgan, peering at him. “Where in America did you say you were from, exactly?”

“I didn’t,” he said, smiling again, knowing what would follow. “And I’m not. I’m from New York.”

At this, Morgan’s eyes widened. “Then you are a Free Stater!” he exclaimed. “I’ve heard so much about your country! You must tell me everything,” and the conversation turned to the Free States: their now mostly cordial relations with America, in which they maintained their own laws of marriage and religion but adopted for themselves the Union’s laws of taxation and democracy; their support, financial and military, of the Union in the War of Rebellion; Maine, which was mostly sympathetic to them, and where Free Staters’ safety was more or less assured; the Colonies and the West, where they would be in varying degrees of peril; how the Colonies had lost their war but seceded anyway, sinking further into poverty and degradation by the year, even as their debt to and therefore resentment toward the Free States burned hotter and brighter; the Free States’ ongoing struggle to be recognized as its own, distinct nation by other countries, a recognition denied them by everyone besides the kingdoms of Tonga and of Hawaii. Morgan had studied modern history at university and asked scores of questions, and in answering them, David was made aware both of his love for his nation and of how dearly he missed it, a sensation made more acute
after he and Morgan had repaired to Morgan’s dingy room in his ill-maintained pensione. As David walked back to his host’s house late that evening, he was reminded, as he often had been on this trip, how fortunate he was to live in a country where he would never have to hide behind a door, waiting for someone to tell him that it was safe for him to leave without being seen, where he might stroll arm in arm across a city square with his beloved (should there ever be one), the way he saw male-and-female couples (but no other variants) do in squares across the Continent, where he might one day marry a man he loved. He lived in a country in which every man and woman could be free and could live with dignity.

But the other aspect of that day that had been memorable was that in it, David had not been David Bingham; he had been Nathaniel Frear, a name hastily patched together from his grandfather’s and mother’s, a son of a doctor, taking his year in Europe before he would return to New York to attend law school. He had invented a half-dozen brothers and sisters, a modest and cheerful house in an unfashionable but homey part of town, a life lived comfortably but not excessively. When Morgan had told him about a great residence of his former classmate’s that was to have hot running water in all its water closets, David did not reveal that the house on Washington Square already had hot-water plumbing, and that he had only to nudge a faucet handle to one side for a clear stream to at once gurgle forth. Instead, he marveled with Morgan at the classmate’s good fortune, the innovations of modern life. He would not deny his country—to do so seemed a form of treason—but he did deny his own biography, and there was something about doing so that made him giddy, even light-headed, so much so that when he finally entered his host’s home—a grand palazzo owned by his grandfather’s old college chum, a Free States expatriate, and his wife, a frowning, clomping contessa whom the man had obviously married for her title—his grandfather’s friend had looked him over and smirked.

“A good day, then?” he’d drawled, seeing David’s dreamy, unfocused expression, and David, who had spent his week in Florence leaving the house early in the morning and returning late at night,
so as not to suffer his grandfather’s friend’s hands, which seemed always to be finding ways to float over his body, birds of prey that would one day dive and grab onto something, only smiled and said it had been.

He did not think often of this incident, but now he did, trying and failing to remember how he had felt in the moment of invention, and realizing that whatever ecstasy he had experienced was partly attributable to his being aware of the flimsiness of his deception. At any moment, he could have declared his actual self, and even Morgan would have known his name. It was a performance known only to him, but beneath the performance was something true, something meaningful: his grandfather, his wealth, his name. Were he to move to the West, his name would stand only for vice, if it stood for anything. In the Free States and in the North, to be a Bingham was to be respected and even revered. But in the West, to be a Bingham was to be an abomination, a perversion, a threat. It was not that he
could
change his name in California but, rather, that he would have to, because to be who he was would be too perilous.

Even entertaining these thoughts made him remorseful, especially because he was often jolted from his reverie by the appearance of his grandfather, who visited him before he left for the bank in the morning, and then twice in the evening, once before he dined, once after. This third visit was always the longest, and Grandfather would sit in the chair near David’s bed and, without preamble, begin reading to him from the day’s paper, or from a volume of poetry. Sometimes he would merely speak of his day, delivering a calm, unbroken monologue that David experienced as if floating in a placid, flowing river. This, to sit by him and talk or read, was Grandfather’s method for treating all of his previous illnesses, and although his gentle constancy was not in any way proven to help—or so David had once overheard his doctor informing his grandfather—it was stabilizing, and predictable, and therefore reassuring, something that, like the wallpaper stain, kept him in the world. And yet, because this was not one of his illnesses, just a self-imposed simulacrum of it, David felt only shame listening to his grandfather now—shame that he was causing him concern; further shame that he would even
consider leaving him, and not just him but the rights and safety that his grandfather, and forebears, had fought to secure for him.

His grandfather had not reminded him of the museum’s unveiling, but it was to alleviate this shame that, on the day of the opening, he rang for a bath to be prepared and his suit to be pressed. He looked at himself in his brushed clothes and saw he was pale and drawn, but there was nothing to be done about that, and after he’d shakily descended the stairs and tapped on the door to his grandfather’s study—“Come in, Adams!”—he was rewarded with his grandfather’s astonishment: “David! My dear boy—are you better?”

“Yes,” he lied. “And I wouldn’t miss tonight.”

“David, you needn’t attend if you’re still ill,” his grandfather said, but David could hear how much he wanted him to come, and it seemed the least and only thing he could do after so many days spent contemplating betrayal.

It would have been only the briefest of walks to the townhouse on Thirteenth Street, just west of Fifth Avenue, that his grandfather had purchased for his museum, but Grandfather declared that, given the cold and David’s weakened state, it was best to take a hansom. Inside, they were met by John and Peter and Eden and Eliza, and by Norris and Frances Holson, and by others of his family’s friends and acquaintances and business associates, along with a number of people unknown to David but whom his grandfather greeted warmly. As the museum’s director, a trim little historian long employed by the family, was explaining to some guests an exhibit featuring drawings of the Binghams’ onetime property near Charlottesville, the farm and acreage that Edmund, a wealthy landowner’s son, forsook in order to venture north and found the Free States, the Binghams followed their patriarch as he moved about the room, exclaiming over things both remembered and not: Here, under a sheet of glass, was the piece of the parchment, now almost in tatters, on which David’s great-great-grandfather Edmund had drafted the Free States’ ur-constitution in November 1790, signed by all fourteen of the founders, the original Utopians, including Eliza’s maternal great-great-grandmother, promising freedom of marriage and abolishing slavery and indentured servitude and, though not allowing
Negroes full citizenry, also outlawing their abuse and torture; here was Edmund’s Bible that he had consulted in his studies with Reverend Samuel Foxley when the two were law-school students in Virginia, and with whom he had conceived of their future country, a place where there might be freedom for both men and women to love whom they wished, an idea that Foxley had formulated after an encounter in London with an idiosyncratic Prussian theologian who would later count Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher among his students and disciples, and who encouraged him toward an emotionally and civically minded interpretation of Christianity; here were the first designs for the Free States’ flag by Edmund’s sister, Cassandra: a rectangle of scarlet wool at whose center a pine tree, a woman, and a man were arranged in a pyramid, with eight stars, one for each of the member states—Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island—arcing above them, and the motto, “For freedom is dignity, and dignity freedom,” stitched beneath them; here were proposals for laws allowing women to be educated and, in 1799, to vote. Here were letters dated throughout 1790 and 1791 from Edmund to a college friend testifying to the future Free States’ squalid conditions, the forests full of vengeful Indians, the bandits and thieves, the battle to win over the existing residents, one swiftly accomplished, not with guns and bloodshed but with resources and infrastructure, the religiously fervent, those who found the Free States’ beliefs repellent, paid off and sent south, the Indians driven west in hordes or slaughtered, quietly, in mass roundups in the very forests they had once terrorized, the native-born Negroes who had not assisted in their fight to gain control over the land (as well refugee Negroes from the Colonies) ferried to Canada or west in caravans. Here was a copy of the papers hand-delivered to the President’s House in Philadelphia on March 12, 1791, announcing the states’ intention to secede from America, but vowing to stand with the country against any attacks, domestic or foreign, in perpetuity; here was President Washington’s biting response, accusing Foxley and Bingham, the letter’s authors, of treason, of starving their country of its wealth and resources; here were the pages and pages
of negotiations, Washington finally, grudgingly, granting the Free States’ right to existence, but only at the pleasure of the president, and only if the Free States swore that they would never recruit any future American states or territories to their cause, and continued to pay taxes to the American capital as if they were its vassal.

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