Austin invited his friend Joséphine, a children’s book illustrator, to lunch. He wanted to know what she, as a woman, thought of Big Julien, though he realized she wasn’t very typically female. Was any woman? Would he have felt right about speaking for all men? Gay men?
Joséphine was from Tours, reputed to be the home of the best French accent, and she did speak her own language clearly and elegantly, with not too much slang and no dropped syllables. She had the fully awakened, gently satiric response to the absurdities of her friends which is characteristic of someone from a big family, a family of talkers and observers rather than TV watchers. Her beauty was regal: her long neck lengthened still more by blonde hair swept up and stabbed haphazardly at the top by a comb or gathered into a ponytail by a red rubber band; a pointy chin and hollow cheeks, crowned by prominent cheekbones. She wasn’t fussy at all or coy or full of feminine wiles. He’d read somewhere that women imagined men want to feel useful to women and that they delight in performing acts of gallantry; Joséphine was not labouring under any such misapprehension. She knew exactly how ungallant men could be.
At first, Austin could never tell whether Joséphine was stupid or intelligent. Perhaps because he’d grown up in the 1950s he believed in something called ‘general intelligence’, an uninflected, abstract power akin to reasoning or problem-solving or originality – but how did you measure that through daily chit-chat?
One thing was certain: she was as naive as a Kansan in Paris. Irony sailed right over her head. She never got a joke and the least bit of teasing reduced her to tears rather than sulky, annoyed amusement. No matter how much Austin exaggerated or, in a New York reflex, said the opposite of what he meant in exasperated italics, Joséphine, wide-eyed, would say, ‘Vraiment? Really?’
Now Austin talked across the restaurant table about Big Julien. ‘He’s very vieille France, don’t you think?’
‘Vieille . . . ?’
‘God, Joséphine, sometimes I have the feeling I’m the Frenchman and you’re the American. You know, Old France, proper, stuffy, comme il faut.’
She blinked, confused, in the lamplight that shed its warmth over their table on this grey, rainy late April day. ‘He has nice manners,’ she said hopefully, afraid to venture more.
‘Do you think he’s gay?’
‘What? Isn’t he gay?’ she asked, alarmed again. Until she’d moved to Paris, apparently she’d never met a single homosexual or even thought about the whole vexing subject of sexual variety. She’d dealt with impotence, premature ejaculation, violence, baldness, infidelity, logorrhoea, prostate problems and all the other things men might contrive to irritate a woman, but she’d worked from the simple axiom that all these men more or less desired her.
‘Well, he says he’s bisexual,’ Austin insinuated with a pretended scepticism and a vocal raised eyebrow, although in truth he had no doubts at all about either side of Julien’s sexuality; he simply wanted to provoke a spate of girl talk.
‘You have been to bed with him, haven’t you?’ she asked, going with chat-deflecting directness to the sore heart of the matter.
‘Now Austin . . .’ she admonished, raising one translucent forefinger with its small, unpolished nail. She was calling for a truth that was just as unvarnished. She pronounced his name as though it were Ostend, the Belgian port. Her habit of catching him out was something she’d picked up from his friend Gregg, a tic that she’d learned was considered generally amusing.
‘Well,’ he spluttered, ‘I think even he is puzzled, but I don’t dare seduce him before I’ve explained to him about being seropositive. Or what would you say?’ He was half hoping for some superior French worldliness that would get him off the moral hook.
Joséphine acknowledged Austin’s health status only during those rare times when he mentioned it. Then she’d frown and narrow her eyes as though she were staring into a sunset that had given her a very bad headache. ‘Yes, you must,’ she said in hushed tones, but he wasn’t sure she wasn’t speaking out of some mere ethical mimeticism.
‘Should we have sex first a few times and then should I mention it? Won’t he drop me right away if I tell him first?’ Austin knew that if a gay American was overhearing him he’d be horrified at Austin’s wobbling, even his insouciance.
‘Yes,’ Joséphine said, as she disappointed Austin by waving off the dessert menu and ordering an espresso for both of them, a mother’s disabused glance over imaginary glasses to show she’d brook no whining objections to her spartan good sense from her greedy friend. ‘Maybe it would be best if you got him hooked (accroché) before you sprang any unpleasant news on him.’
Austin was surprised to hear his possibly imminent death demoted to the status of the ‘unpleasant’ (désagréable). In truth, he had no symptoms and even looked embarrassingly robust.
Austin and Peter, his American ex-lover, had been tested together in Paris in 1986, three years earlier, because their French doctor had insisted. People said that the doctor himself was infected with the virus. Peter, a genuine escapist, had objected to the whole process, arguing they’d be thrown out of France if positive and sent home to the States in leg-irons. ‘And you won’t be able to travel and practise your profession,’ Peter said with such energy and fussy precision that Austin suspected he must be repeating something he’d read in the paranoid gay press. ‘In Sweden, they’re sending seropositives to a prison island.’ Neither Austin nor Peter was certain you said ‘seropositives’ in English, which Peter in particular found annoying and disorienting in his capacity as a super-patriot who’d never condescended to learn any French beyond the most approximate barroom gabbling. ‘In Munich they test you at the border and to stay in India more than a month you must undergo a blood test.’
‘So those places would be eliminated in any event,’ Austin pointed out. ‘Anyway, who wants to go to Munich, European capital of vulgarity and fascism, all those middle-aged men linking arms and wearing lederhosen? And India is too creepy-crawly for those-who-are-positive,’ he said, hoping he’d found a formula for their condition that was both graceful and good English.
Cut off from America, from the massive protests and the underground treatment newsletters, from the hours and hours of frightened midnight conversations with friends by phone and the organized safe sex and massage sessions, far from the hysteria and the solace, Austin did not know what to think of this disease that had taken them by chance, as though he had awakened to find himself in a cave under the heavy paw of a lioness, who was licking him for the moment and breathing all over him with her gamy, carrion smell but who was capable of showing her claws and devouring him today . . . or tomorrow.
Soon after they were diagnosed, Peter moved back to the States. He bore a lingering resentment against Austin for having insisted they be tested.
And Austin, too, felt that he’d gained nothing by knowing, since the only available treatments didn’t seem to work. He’d had a cheerfully defiant conviction that being informed is always liberating, but since moving to Europe he’d come to doubt his democratic frankness, his ‘transparence’, as the French called it, as though it were no more interesting than a clear pane of glass. He’d learned not to blurt out whatever happened to be passing through his mind and, out of the same curbing of instinct, he’d started to shy away from bald declarations of the facts, even when other people made them. If another American called out anything in a loud, unironic voice, he’d exchange amused but slightly alarmed glances with his French friends – can humankind bear so much candour? he seemed to be asking. Isn’t there something inherently alarming about so much explicitness, even when the subject is safe?
The worst thing about knowing he was positive was that now he was under an obligation to tell his partners. Not that he informed the man he picked up in the park or the guy he lured over on the phone chatline. Austin had an American friend in Paris, a well-known gay novelist, who’d come out as positive on TV and in the press and now he was obliged to be honest with everyone, but Austin was a nobody. At least he’d never made any public statements. His friend the writer was apparently having trouble getting laid these days; so much for honesty.
No, truly the worst thing was studying one’s body every morning in the shower for auguries. Even in that regard he envied all those hysterical gay guys back in New York or San Francisco who knew to become alarmed about the slightly raised, wine-coloured blemish, not the flat, black mole or whatever, who could tell just when a cough became ‘persistent’ enough to be worrying or whether a damp pillowcase and a wet head counted as ‘night sweats’.
He both feared and embraced the French silence in the face of this disease (or of all other fatal maladies). Something superstitious in him whispered that if you didn’t think about it, the virus would go away. From one month to the next he never heard the dreaded three letters (VIH in French rather than HIV, as if the French version of the disease itself were the reverse mirror image of the American, just as the French acronym SIDA was an anagram of AIDS). Americans sat up telling each other horror stories, but they were later astonished when their worst fantasies came true, as if they’d hoped to ward off evil by talking it into submission or by taking homeopathic doses of it. The French, however, feared summoning an evil genius by pronouncing its name. Neither system worked. When the lioness awakened and felt the first hunger pains, she would show her claws.
He knew in his heart that the French approach was especially unsuited to the epidemic. His friend Hervé last year had been so ashamed of falling ill that he’d slunk back home to his village in the Dordogne without calling a single friend. Only his ex-lover Gilles had stayed in touch, although Hervé’s grandmother irrationally blamed Gilles for having given him AIDS. Each time Gilles called she’d say that Hervé was sleeping but would call back later. A month later, the next time Gilles phoned, Hervé had already been dead and buried for eleven days.
It was as if a few young men in the provinces managed to escape to Paris where they lived for a few seasons, where they clipped their heads, lifted some weights, danced on Ecstasy, tattooed one haunch with a butterfly and had sex with hundreds of other underemployed types – and then they were driven home to Sarlat by their sombre families, all dressed in black as if out for their Easter duties, and they disappeared in a whispered diminuendo, the score marked ppppp . . .
What didn’t work out about this system was that no young bright kid coming up to Paris ever saw his predecessor, skinny and crippled, hobbling back down to the provinces. The best prevention, the most convincing proof of the necessity for safe sex, was ocular evidence, actually seeing KS blotches on skinny arms or watching rail-thin old men of twenty staggering into a restaurant on two canes, sharpened cheekbones about to rub through the parchment-thin skin, the eyes as bulbous as an insect’s. But in Paris, magical city of elegance and romance, men with AIDS were no more visible than the retarded, the mad or the lame – they’d all been whisked off to some shuttered house in Aquitaine. The French were masters of silence, and as ACT-UP claimed, ‘Silence = Death.’
Austin invited Big Julien away for the weekend. In his Michelin guide he’d found a luxury hotel only forty-five minutes by train outside Paris, not far from the royal chateau of Rambouillet. They didn’t need to rent a car to get there; theoretically they should be able to find a taxi at the train station. Fatuous as it sounded, Austin was relieved to be going away, for once, with a capable adult male, one who regularly submitted construction plans to the mayor’s office and rode a train to other cities.
It was the beginning of May. They took an electrified double-decker commuter train that quickly left the historic city behind and rushed past planned communities in the suburbs, the ugly apartment blocks oriented to one another at rakish angles (to prove how humane the planner had been) rather than laid out in the usual stultifying cemetery grid. When Austin said something dismissive about the buildings and the orange and black graphics on an aubergine-coloured wall in the station shelter, Julien said he knew the architect, an Albanian refugee famous for his sound engineering skills (‘No division of labour in Tirana,’ Julien said matter-of-factly), and his remark put paid to Austin’s facile sneering. Austin was happy to have this handsome man beside him, someone so eccentric in his views, his way of referring everything back to his time in Ethiopia, his indifference to gay life and his ignorance of its tyrannies, his unlikely clothes (the wrinkled pear-green linen blazer he often wore); Austin thought maybe Julien didn’t even notice a detail like age: their twenty-year age difference. For Austin was wired very peculiarly. He wasn’t like some of his contemporaries who felt they could reduce the gap by doing 300 sit-ups every day until their thickened waists and slack skin looked like melting chocolate bars, the hot flesh oozing over the lines between the tablets. He didn’t want to dance all night on drugs, his steps an anthology of four decades of approximated wriggling. He didn’t want to pretend not to know any dated slang, not to recognize the words groovy, mellow or get down, girl.
He liked this intense, brooding married man with the unclassifiable preoccupations, which permitted Austin, by contrast, to appear relaxed and relatively normal, even of a normal age. As they rode side by side in the train they kept stealing glances at each other. They were virtually alone on a Saturday morning in this commuter train heading out of the city. The walls lining the tracks were like ramparts; if Austin looked up he could see the windowless sides of houses rising above. Austin’s only other French lover, Little Julien, had never gone anywhere with him in France, perhaps out of fear of being recognized by friends in the company of a much older foreigner. But Big Julien was here with his dark blue eyes, black hair, neat, courtly gestures, his deep, deep voice thrumming and resonating in Austin’s ear, his sudden, utterly fake booming laugh, so out of character that Austin assumed it must be a private homage to a friend or relative he’d emulated in the past. No, he wasn’t interested in the general impression he was making, even if Austin was his only audience. Julien was a loner, seriously alone now that he was getting divorced, alienated from his father, too, for some reason. Austin would look over at this man whose body he’d never held and imagine they were about to be married, as old-fashioned virgins were once married; he daydreamed his way into the mind of a nineteenth-century bride who looked at these pale male hands beside her, tufted with glossy black hair, and thought she’d know them the rest of her life, that he’d explore her body with them for fifty years.
They had to phone for a taxi from the suburban station and drive out beyond Versailles, but the hotel was worth the trip: a former abbey with its low stone-faced Gothic buildings looming up over an ornamental lake with swans. The chapel was roofless, the empty, glassless rose window nothing but brambles of vacant masonry, the colourful petals long since shed and swept up. Separating the grounds and the fields beyond was a partially destroyed wall, once perhaps the side of a cloister garden; at least it had empty ogival windows and under them stone seats worn smooth and deep by centuries of monastic meditation. The man at the desk, who had registered them with impassive good manners, now added, as a well-judged hint at friendliness, ‘The death scene of Depardieu’s Cyrano was shot out there by the ruined cloisters.’
A moment later they were in their suite with its copper tub and its long antechamber leading to double doors and, beyond, the bedroom with its double bed and its flung-open gauze-covered high windows that floated like panels of bird-riddled silence, empty and twittering, twin paintings by an abstractionist who’d turned wryly metaphysical. They couldn’t wait for the bellboy to leave them alone.
They’d gone so long without ever having had sex that Austin felt a certain stage fright, but for the next two days they were all over each other, above, below, behind, like two boys wrestling with hard-ons they don’t know how to discharge. Half the hotel had been turned over to a giant wedding party and whenever they descended for another long meal with its succession of courses they were isolated from the other diners with their flowered dresses, big hats and corsages, their decorous toasts and gentle teasing, their restless children in rumpled organdie or clip-on bow ties and their game old grandparents. No, Austin and Julien were blissfully irrelevant to the machinery of a big country wedding and as they wandered the grounds, feeling formal and drained from their furious, tangled bouts of lovemaking, they were always gliding past uniformed waiters stacking rented chairs or testing the microphone in the ballroom by tapping on it and whispering numbers. The weather shifted unpredictably between moments of magnifying-glass heat and cold, cloud-propelling wind.
They sat at opposite ends of the big copper tub in the daylight filtered through smoked glass. The bubble bath lost its suds to reveal their strong, intertwined legs and their body hair undulating like algae.
They’d lie in the hotel’s white terry-cloth robes on the bed and Julien would talk about his divorce. ‘We were fine in Ethiopia –’
‘Except you had that affair with the Englishwoman. How happy could you have been?’
‘No, no, mon pauvre petit,’ Julien said, smiling at Austin’s touching gay naivety, ‘I loved her, Sarah, the English know the names of all the birds and plants, we French are always astonished by their expertise. We went with her children in her old car to a wonderful lake crowded with pink flamingos. But that doesn’t mean I ever hesitated in my feelings for Christine . . . She’s dying to meet you, by the way.’
Austin could feel the blood flooding his face and neck. ‘Me? But –’
‘She’s very interested in old furniture,’ Julien said.
‘I’m not exactly a bergère Louis XV, even if I am slightly tubby,’ Austin joked, his voice suddenly turning hoarse. He knew if he was back in America his friends would croak, ‘Drop him. Married men are poison. You’ll see. He’ll go running back to her after he’s finished playing with you.’ But over here, in France, in these posthumous, post-diagnosis, foreign days, Austin no longer expected anything to work, certainly not to be ideal; he would share a man with a woman and even meet her if need be, though he was afraid of her anger. ‘What went wrong, then?’ Austin asked.
‘She’s a bitch. In Ethiopia she was fine. But the moment we came back – starting with the wedding!’ His eyes shifted from side to side, as though looking for the best escape route; then he sighted it and ran. ‘My grandmother was revolted. She didn’t want me to do something so bourgeois as get married.’ Inspired, he laughed his laugh, a hollow tocsin of mirthless pleasure. ‘They wanted me to be gay – anything rather than marry that petit-bourgeois bitch and her stuffy, petty family. They were so disappointed I was marrying that they wept. My grandmother pulled up her skirts at the reception and danced like Marilyn over the subway grill and my grandmother’s lover clapped and shouted, “Go, Granny, show them your pussy!” (Allez, Mémé, montre ta moule!)’
Austin smiled painfully. He didn’t see anything funny in the scene and wondered if it had ever happened. If it did, he thoroughly sympathized with Christine and her parents. ‘But how old is your grandmother?’
‘Oh, not that old,’ Julien said with his usual vagueness. ‘Her legs were still good then and she cut a fine figure, although now she’s gone to fat. It’s all the fault of that lover of hers, a real vulgarian called Modeste.’
‘It’s nice, I think, that your grandmother has a lover. In America people stop having sex at a surprisingly young age. Few of us can say the words, “my grandmother’s lover”.’
But Julien wasn’t paying attention. He’d turned on to his stomach and was laughing, repeating to himself, ‘Allez, Mémé, montre ta moule!’ The ugly words and the self-amused booming laugh didn’t really go with his body, with the fine swirls of hair on his boyishly full buttocks, nor did the laugh fit the small ears pinned back to his head as though he were standing still in a ferocious wind nor with the delicate architecture of his shoulder blades, lightly dusted with black hair.
If Austin was always alert to Julien’s mood, feared boring him and followed his conversational lead, Julien wallowed, oblivious, in his own worries and obsessions. He seemed to be sick with worry. He had two red welts on his forehead and small pimples clustering around the follicles where his beard was growing in. His nose was always oily. Gregg, who had all sorts of fetishes, had said to Austin, ‘That Big Julien is so randy and young he even has acne, slurp, slurp.’ Gregg always pronounced the words for his sound effects, and said such things as ‘Sob’ or ‘Drool’.
‘My mother committed suicide ten years ago,’ Julien was saying. ‘She and I loved each other – she was the great love of my life. That’s why I don’t speak to my father. I hate him. It was his fault. He’d married her young. He didn’t like it that she was –’ He hesitated, then revised his thoughts. ‘That she was a concert pianist. He made her give it up. She sacrificed everything for him. Her family gave him money to start his pharmaceutical company. They gave them their house. She killed herself in Belle-Ile at the summer house her mother had bought her.’ He pounded the mattress and said into the pillow, ‘The thought –’
Julien looked up, astonished, as if awakened. ‘The thought that he is living there now with that slut, his mistress –’
‘Yes, I suppose he married her. The thought . . .’
Austin felt it would turn out to be a very long story and he wasn’t sure Julien would be a reliable narrator. This Latin man with his black hair, with his lean neck shaggy because he’d long been overdue at the barber, with his low unstoppable voice that sometimes seemed the inefficient, power-guzzling motor draining his body of all its fuel – oh, he wasn’t an impartial, objective American, respectful of the truth and impressed by any fair challenge to his version of things, ready to chuckle at his own absurdities. Julien was never the butt of his own jokes. No, he was a passionate Latin male whose body seeped anguish and oil and whose voice hypnotized his mind into believing whatever it had proposed and was elaborating.
‘My mother’s death was such a powerful thing for me,’ he was saying; now he was sitting up and hugging a surprisingly shiny knee above leggings of hair – there was even hair on the knuckle of each of his toes. It occurred to Austin that Julien had rubbed his knee bare with worry, but he knew that couldn’t have been the case. ‘I was the one who found her dead. It was during my final exams for my architecture diploma, so I guess I hadn’t been paying much attention to her. I knew she was unhappy. She’d asked my father if it was all over between them. She’d said, “Tell me. I’m still young, I can find someone else.” In fact she was just forty-three, and she looked so young that when I’d take her out dancing everyone would ask if she was my sister.’
Austin thought he’d heard the same story all his life, a story that always seemed so odd to him. His own mother had died of ovarian cancer when he was still a teenager, but he’d never wanted to pass for her brother, nor did she dance. Of course she’d been nearly forty when he’d been born, a plump greying woman locked into another epoch by her elegant Tidewater accent and soft, unambitious ways, whereas Julien’s parents had been in their twenties and his father even now was just five years older than Austin.
The story had reached a head and Austin hadn’t been listening. He figured out that Julien’s father had lied and pledged his renewed love to his wife, but in truth all he’d wanted was continued access to her money. ‘When she realized he’d left her for that other bitch, not moved out but was spending all his time with her–that’s when and why she attempted suicide. She survived and I just dismissed her when she asked me if I thought she should see a psychiatrist. I laughed at her and told her to pull herself together.’
‘You were at an entirely different juncture in your life,’ Austin said. ‘You had to marshal all your forces to pass your exams, you couldn’t afford to be swamped by feelings, hers or yours.’ He’d learned in other, earlier affairs with confused younger men that a few words, wise to the point of banality, uttered at the strategic moment, could become talismanic for years to come.
Later that night, after they’d showered and dressed and dined, all alone now that the wedding party had left, Julien said, ‘You know, when I was a kid I always had a best friend, one friend; you have so many friends but I’m not like that. You’re always saying, “So-and-so is one of my best friends.” I don’t have a series of best friends. Of course I know a lot of people, but I always wanted just one friend, who’d be loyal to me, and I’d tell him everything.’
Austin must have waited for the obvious conclusion with such wide, yearning eyes that Julien finally laughed and said, ‘But, Petit, you look like a puppy.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Austin said, offended.
Julien just ran over his prickliness and squeezed Austin’s right leg between both of his and said, ‘You’re really such a bout de chou.’
Julien explained that ‘the end of the cabbage’ was an affectionate nickname for a little kid.
‘I’m hardly little,’ Austin objected sweetly, thrilled with the new name.
They left the hotel for Paris on Monday morning.
As they saw each other with greater and greater frequency, until they were getting together nearly every night, Austin realized that he had indeed become Julien’s little sidekick, his one best friend, his confidant, not his father. Julien had no idea of deference – nor of reciprocity. He never cooked Austin dinner or even offered him a coffee, and he certainly never asked Austin a question about his family or past lovers. Was his discretion evidence of his incuriosity and egotism or did he hope to win with it an immunity from Austin’s prying? Austin never saw his apartment, the one where he lived alone. He covered Austin with kisses and smiled with a solar warmth, just as though the sun were setting closer and closer and peering directly into his eyes. He’d whisper, ‘Petit’, and ‘Mon bout de chou’, or say, ‘Comme tu es mignon!’ (How cute you are!), but Austin knew it wasn’t his face or body that was being praised, just his presence, his docility. Austin understood that straight men, married men, were used to partners who listened or half-listened to their monologues. Anyway, Austin liked listening, which he could always pass off as a language lesson since the words were in French.
Because Gregg had been the one to suggest the trip to the abbey-hotel, Austin called him when they got back to Paris.
‘Well, Mother, you went and got yourself a nice Mother’s Day present, I see.’
‘What? Oh, Gregg . . . Daughter. I honestly forgot the day. It’s only Mother’s Day back in the States, isn’t it? Gregg, it was a great suggestion. I never pick out guys who might actually like me.’
‘I hear you. Your daughter’s no better when it comes to doing for herself. So how’s the meat?’
‘We had lots of sex, but of course it was safe, safe, safe. Tons of frottage, touche-pipi, soul-kissing. No fucky-fucky – actually it was terribly romantic.’
‘Do you think he’s hooked enough to tell him you’re positive?’ Gregg asked.
This entirely cynical question opened a door inside Austin’s mind. He laughed and said, ‘Not yet. Maybe it’s because I’m not really in love or because that beastly Little Julien dropped me so brutally, but I’ve never been shrewder. I’m determined to open up new sexual horizons for him –’
‘His nipples are more sensitive than his wife’s. He told me that. She used to play with his –’
‘– perky little devils,’ Gregg added.
‘They do just perk right up,’ Austin said. He knew Julien would be horrified if he could hear this tacky, heartless, camp exchange. But he, Austin, was so insecure in an affair – so eager to please, so intense in his devotion, so quick to accept the first sign of boredom as an irrevocable rejection – that in sacrilegious chatter he could reassert, at least for a moment, his freedom. ‘But I want to discover his bottom for him. Not to mention the beauty of bondage.’
‘Bondage!’ Gregg shouted with outraged amusement. ‘You old Stonewallers are such shameless hussies.’
‘Oh, like your generation is so pure. Excuse me. Hel-lowwuh . . .’ Austin was merrily imitating the new Valley Girl slang or his very dim idea of it, but it was a fashionable reference designed as an implicit rebuke to Gregg’s dismissal of Austin’s ‘generation’.
‘But won’t he be horrified by bondage?’ Gregg asked. ‘Not that I should question Mother’s millennium of experience . . .’
Strangely, through all this talk of tits, ropes and sexual technique, Austin knew he was communicating to Gregg his timid happiness and his fear of losing Julien when he discovered Austin’s HIV status. In America, of course, Austin thought bitterly, they would have met at a Positive Boutique or on an HIV cruise and that would have been that, the introduction equivalent to an admission.
Julien complained of his health at dinner the next night (a blanquette de veau, mushrooms, pearl onions, carrots and veal swimming in an egg-yolk-and-cream sauce that had taken Austin all afternoon to elaborate). ‘I can’t seem to make this acne go away – Petit, this fish is excellent! I’ve been hacking away all day with this terrible cough, that’s why I can’t stay over, I’d keep us both awake. I think I’m coming down with the flu.’ Austin felt a cringing, a tightening around his heart, as though someone were inching him gently closer and closer to the airplane’s open hatch. Mentally he ran through all their sexual positions over the weekend but could find nothing unsafe. He hadn’t let Julien suck him. They’d kissed, but was that dangerous? Julien had held their erect penises close together in his hand, but surely that wasn’t ‘at risk’ behaviour, as the pamphlets called it. Or was it? Anyway, the disease took months or at least weeks to declare itself, didn’t it?
Of course the unconscionable thing was that they were both involved in a deadly game Austin had already lost and Julien didn’t know he was playing.
Usually Austin could forget the virus but now it kept ringing back like a bill collector on the phone, calling at all hours, insisting upon its claim.
‘Why don’t you stay home tomorrow? And I’m sorry about the rich dinner.’
‘But I love pike in a beurre nantaise.’
Austin thought he should say it was veal, but that would destroy the illusion they both fostered that Julien, as a Frenchman, knew everything about food, wine and fashion. And because Austin felt guilty about his continuing silence on the subject of his HIV status he couldn’t bring himself to irk Julien in any way. He was pleading with Julien to forgive a crime he’d not yet confessed. He’d heard of men who’d gone on a killing spree when they’d found out their lovers had infected them. If Julien was just a nice married man gambling with gay sex, shouldn’t he know the stakes? The stakes that he’d already accepted, all unknowingly?
Austin made an appointment with his doctor for Julien. They went to see the man together. The office was just across the street from the Buttes-Chaumont, that vast park for the working class that Napoléon III had benignly inserted into a former quarry. Now, of course, the workshops and the little villages of workers’ cottages on the streets leading off the park housed up-and-coming artists and photographers – Austin knew a gay couturier who’d filled his cottage with medieval kitsch (shields, tapestries, suits of armour). Even so, the neighbourhood felt forgotten and Austin had no idea why Dr Aristopoulos lived and worked there. His cabinet was up three flights, a cheerless suite of dim rooms, unmatched chairs, a student’s lamp and a coffee table covered with last year’s magazines and more recent HIV brochures. Somewhere in the neighbourhood, no doubt, Dr Aristopoulos had found a comically hostessy receptionist, a woman in her fifties who wore puffy dresses and had dyed her hair an egg-yolk yellow and who walked around in very high heels, bowing and welcoming the skeletally thin AIDS patients as though to a Pensioners’ Ball.
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 (‘A bientôt, messieurs!’ she sang out in a fruity voice), Julien said nothing, but on the dark stairs, which smelled of the concierge’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’ve had a lot of sex with men these last few years.’
Julien didn’t say anything but worked his jaw muscles menacingly. 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 along 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 honour?
‘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.
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 –’
‘You have several 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, indiscreet 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 Austin would soon turn fifty and was seropositive, he now had a heightened sense of the swath 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 – finding 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 these 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 an 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 Fluide Glacial 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 Ile 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 through trees on to the Seine – 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 on 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 divorcees ‘of a certain age’. Austin’s dinner partner kept raving about everything – her key words were ‘sublissime’, 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 sublissime 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 his friend is a gardener whereas yours is an architect and so amusing.’
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 Goldenberg’s, a deli up front and a restaurant behind, full of cosy 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 cascher 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 almost sad, certainly pitying. ‘Don’t let them 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 neighbours. 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 pretend they’re black when they think they can get some political mileage out of it. It’s a clever, sophisticated nation.’
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 was a black curse in a fairy tale, and they both fell silent after the pell-mell interrogation and 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 (foudroyé) 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.
But now Austin couldn’t help him out any more. He couldn’t be expected to fabricate his own marching papers.
‘In any event, I realized you could – you will – become ill and it’s a long illness . . .’
Austin felt he was being lectured at by an aunt or the Episcopalian minister back home about the ghastly consequences of his excesses and his thoughts emigrated inward. He was caught out not paying attention when he heard Julien saying, ‘Anyway, I’ve decided I’m going to stay with you. I’ll take care of you.’ ‘You shouldn’t be too hasty –’ Austin protested. But Julien interrupted and said, ‘No, that’s what I’ve decided. I can’t imagine leaving you. I’m already too hooked on you.’ Austin felt a warmth spreading through his whole body, as though he’d rushed naked through snow into a sauna.
Image © Anakin Lee