Excerpt

Our Young Man

Edmund White

April 11, 2016 
The following is from Edmund White’s novel, Our Young Man. Edmund White is the author of many critically acclaimed books, the most recent being The Flaneur. He was made an officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and won a literary prize from the Festival of Deauville. His acclaimed autobiography, My Lives, was published by Bloomsbury in 2006, while his play, Terre Haute, was published by Methuen Drama in 2007.

Pierre-Georges came by for Guy’s signature on a contract. “It’s for a horrible American fragrance. Why can’t Americans come up with something that smells good, that has woodsy notes or lemon? Don’t they have noses?”

“Noses?” Kevin asked. “What’s a nose, sir?”

Guy saw Pierre-Georges bridle at the word “sir” and its suggestion of an age difference. Of course there was a considerable age difference, but fashionistas didn’t want to acknowledge it. They were young forever, and that’s what the all-night dancing and cocaine was all about, though in the long run the drugs and the late nights only made them look older, more desiccated.

Pierre-Georges was just back from Paris. He’d flown on the Concorde that very morning and sat next to an old German baroness who owned her own bank and smelled bad; he’d left at ten and arrived in New York two hours earlier. He was full of Paris gossip and was wearing a new floaty black jacket by Yamamoto and baggy gray trousers by Kenzo, more culottes than trousers. He looked silly. Guy thought he must warn Kevin not to call people in fashion “sir.” Fashion people worried about losing their looks. Kenzo’s clothes looked ageless because he’d brought his whole team of Japanese seamstresses and stylistes to Paris and they had their own way of assembling clothes. And Pierre-Georges, in wearing Kenzo, was obviously up to date, though Kenzo had been around for a decade already and his women’s wear was much more adventurous than his boxy, conservative men’s line.

“You look very chic,” Guy said. “Is that Kenzo?” That was as meaningless in their world as saying hello.

“Of course it is,” Pierre-Georges snapped, pouring himself a glass of Perrier from the fridge. “I’m through with all those Hugo Boss suits, with their silk pochettes and solid silk ties and lace-up polished shoes. I’m sick of the rich banker look. I’m going geisha.”

“Well, it’s very chic,” Guy said.

“Which is more than I can say for you, with your dull Ralph Lauren slacks and tassel loafers and baggy Brooks button-down shirts. I mean, please, this isn’t 1950! We’re almost through the eighties and men are falling so far behind women. Women are in their Arlésienne Christian Lacroix, so gay, so cheerful, and bright, and their beautiful Paloma jewelry, and here we are in Brooks Brothers. You say you’re a fashion model, but look at you! So boring! Since you’re so old and you’ve been around so long, you’ve accumulated all these clothes, but you’re not running a museum. I know, let’s clean out your whole closet and give it to Good Volunté—Goodwill, that’s what they call it.

“And then you should develop a new look all your own. With attention to detail. You must have exquisite detail. Refined detail. Look at your heels. Run-down. And you’re going out like that! You must inspire designers, not just cover your back against the sun or rain. You are a fashion model. That means you yourself must be inspirational to couturiers. I know there aren’t any good ones over here. But what if you ran into Karl Lagerfeld dressed as you are now? He comes over here a lot. Everyone in Paris is dressing now! The jewels: Now that they see Mitterrand isn’t going to ruin them, that he’s the capitalists’ best friend, they’ve brought all their jewels out of hiding. Marie-Hélène tried New York but she hated it, all those dull businessmen, no amusing actors or writers, and all those CEOs in bed by ten o’clock? Karl has decided accessories are the important things. I saw him and a boy from his entourage at Le Palace, so chic, I danced with Jimmy Sommerville, and Roland Barthes wrote an essay about it before he was run over, poor dear, though he had the most extraordinary hair growing out of his nose! It must have been four inches long. He never recovered from his mother’s death. Anyway, Karl’s boy had on the most miraculous silver belt with interlocking eighteenth century heads complete with wigs, he said he got them off his andirons, you know he has that chateau now and lives as if he were in a Mozart opera. Karl himself I thought was carrying a purse, but, my dear, it was a book! Les Liaison Dangereuses, in a first edition. Oh, so chic, reading at a disco! And of course he had his fan and monocle and his hair in a ponytail, but he should lose weight. He’s wearing a sort of blouson by Yamamoto, but all his boys are wonderfully thin and they’re all wearing silver, long, heavy necklaces with the head of Medusa, such bad luck, or ravishing gypsy bracelets all up one arm, very thin jingly bracelets. Keiser Karl had on a silver brooch, art moderne, I’d say, his mother’s, I think, with an emerald the size of a quail egg, of course not art deco, he auctioned off all that, including the Ruhlmann desks and the things from Jeanne Lanvin’s house, he can’t abide that now, such a restless spirit, such a genius! I told one of his mignons that I liked his silk vest and he said, can you believe it, ‘I’m so glad you like it. I’ve ordered it in twelve colors.”’

“Excuse me, what’s a nose?” Kevin repeated with a big smile. Guy winced. He’d never seen Pierre-Georges so revved up, virtually hysterical. Maybe it was the excitement of Paris or the Concorde, but it seemed like cocaine.

“A nose!” Pierre-Georges shouted. “Un Nez. The man who creates new perfumes.”

“Oh, I get it, like he’s a nose because he smells—”

“Are you retarded?” Pierre-Georges said, staring the boy down. “He’s a little retarded, no?” he said, addressing Guy.

“I guess when it comes to fashion,” Kevin said, smiling again, imagining he could conquer this Parisian viper with homegrown charm, “I am sort of retarded.”

“Obviously,” Pierre-Georges snarled without a moment’s hesitation, giving a sweeping glance at Kevin’s jeans and checked shirt and sneakers. “Who made your clothes—FAO Schwarz?” naming the children’s toy store.

Kevin laughed at that one, interpreting it incorrectly as a friendly if deadpan jibe. “That’s a good one, Pierre,” he said, imagining that was his given name and that Georges must be his last name. “You’ve been in the business for years and years.” Pierre-Georges cast his eyes to heaven. “Would you say I have any potential as a model?” Kevin had boldly put himself in the line of fire, something American parents taught their children to do.

“My dear, you have a certain naïf fraicheur, most appealing in bed, I’m sure, especially in the satanic embrace of an old master like this one”—and he jerked his head toward Guy—“but you’re too short for the runway, and for print you don’t have that je ne sais what that makes us dream, fantasize, that evokes the opera or silent movie stars or impossibly decadent aristocrats, enfin, you look like an American farmer, an uncultured pig farmer”—Pierre-Georges actually shuddered—“but lacking, how do I say? The necessary virility. Guy has told me you and your twin have very small verges, penises, which seems tragic for nature to have made the same mistake twice, I mention that only—”

“I never said that!” Guy sputtered. “I would never say that.” “Enfin, you said his sex is touching, which means small, no?” “It means large,” Guy said.
Now Pierre-Georges looked directly at Kevin. “You and your brother are identical? Maybe I could find something, Italians love blonds, they love wholesome, maybe because they themselves are so devious, so oily.”

Looking shattered by the discussion of his penis size but still resolutely smiling, unshaken in his belief in affability, Kevin said, “My brother isn’t really gay and he doesn’t want to be a model.”

“That’s all that was missing. But I’m not really concerned with these taxonomic distinctions,” Pierre-Georges said loftily. “I just thought L’Uomo Vogue might be amused by blond twins, but if you’re not interested . . .”

“Oh, I’m very interested, but Chris doesn’t even look that much like me now. He’s put on weight—”

Pierre-Georges shrank back in horror. “Another retarded,” he said, “destroying his youth.” And with that, he was out the door without so much as a peck on Guy’s cheek.

“Now, that’s what you call a vicious French queen. I never discussed your penis size—”

“Bet you did,” Kevin said, “at the beginning. I’ve heard the way gay guys talk at the gym. Nothing’s sacred. Not even my poor little penis.”

“Your penis is fine, I worship it.” And Guy fell to his knees and started nuzzling his crotch until Kevin pulled him to his feet.

“Chris told me I shouldn’t trust you, and he was right, but I love you anyway.”

Kevin brooded about his modeling prospects and all Guy’s lies, and more than once Guy overheard him talking on the phone with Chris in their strange shorthand punctuated with giggles. Guy gathered from Kevin’s end of the conversation that it must not be too flattering, since he lowered his voice whenever Guy entered the room. Yet Kevin, whenever he walked past Guy, couldn’t resist kissing him on the neck. It excited Guy that Kevin, when he wanted to make love, would perch beside him, say sweet things, and begin to touch him amorously; Guy figured that must be what girls expected, to be “warmed up,” and that Kevin’s experience must be entirely with girls.

They went out to Fire Island for a long weekend, as the lawyer had suggested. Kevin had never been there before and was impressed by everything—the ferryboat traversing the bay, all these suntanned, muscled men in baseball caps, pastel shorts, and silver necklaces carrying boxloads of red geraniums, the distant sound of the surf pounding on the Atlantic beach invisible just over the dunes, all these grown-ups pulling little red wagons over the raised wooden walkways, the tranquil regard of an unfrightened deer and her fawn in the sandy brush just a hand’s breadth away from the main path, the fantastical torqued shapes of the stylish houses mounted on unpainted stilts (“There’s Calvin Klein’s house, there’s Tommy Tune’s”), the absence of cars, and the sudden burst of cackling from unseen men already hard at drinks around a pool just behind that weathered wood fence, the extraordinary friendliness of everyone saying hello. At first Kevin suspected Guy must have slept with half these guys, but then he figured out everyone must be stoned or mellow—and that the walkways here were far more friendly than the streets of Manhattan.

At last they reached Guy’s house. He felt a bit like an intruder putting the key in the gate to the outer wall. Inside, the pool, filled and glittering, awaited them. Someone must be maintaining it, it looked clean, and water was bubbling at one end. It smelled of chlorine.

Inside, the house reeked of mildew and garbage. Flimsy aluminum beach chairs were stacked in the living room. Guy flung open the sliding glass doors after first lifting the obstructing one-by-twos in the metal floor doorframes.

Kevin was flabbergasted by how big and sunny and baronial the house was. Guy was checking that the lights worked and that the water could be turned on in the bathroom. Everything was functioning, and Guy wondered how the house had weathered the harsh winter without the pipes bursting. Was there a caretaker? Who was paying for the utilities? Could it be an automatic monthly deduction?

Guy took their bag into the bedroom and opened those sliding glass doors, too, and verified that there were sheets on the bed and towels in the bathroom. Everything felt slightly damp. He could hear Kevin in the living room, carrying the folding chairs out to the pool and setting them up. A cool breath was sluicing now all through the house and the smell of brine had replaced the odor of rot.

Kevin came into the bedroom with an astonished smile and said, “This place is palatial. I can’t believe it all belongs to you.”

“Not yet, exactly. Fred’s sons are contesting the will.”

“But didn’t this Fred leave it to you?”

“Poor boy, you’re so new to gay life, you don’t realize we don’t have any rights. The family almost always wins, no matter how shitty they were to their relative.”

Kevin came up to Guy and took him in his arms. “Does it make you sad”—he nodded at an old jockstrap and sneakers in the open closet on the floor—“to see Fred’s things? Stuff he left behind because he was sure he’d be coming back?”

Guy kissed him, then stepped away and held him at arm’s length. “You do have an old soul. You’re so kind. So sweet. So emotionally intelligent. How did you guess what I was feeling?”

“I could see the stuff on the floor and it was too old and stained to be yours and I could imagine what you must be thinking,”

A moment later they were naked and lying on the bed. Guy couldn’t get enough of Kevin and kept kissing him as if he wanted to drink his blood. “I want you in me,” Guy said. A moment later Kevin had entered him, and Guy could smell the tuna fish sandwiches they’d eaten on the ferry over. This time Guy didn’t want to take his turn. Nor did he want Kevin to pull out of him. They spooned, although the sea wind was almost too cold. They kept snuggling closer and closer to stay warm; Kevin ran his hands over Guy’s body.

“Do you know anyone out here?”

“Not that I could call at ten in the morning to chat. But you’ll see. It’s very tribal. Everyone dancing all night and eventually at dawn heading out to the dunes to have sex. But it’s so beautiful here, with the surf and the houses on the shore—”

“Will we go out there for sex?”

“I only want to be with you,” Guy said. “But if you’re bored with me . . .”

“What?”

“Well, you’re so inexperienced I don’t want to deprive you, just so you come back to Daddy. But to insure our health, maybe it would be best if we were faithful for the duration. I’m sure AIDS will be over next year.”

The word “daddy” made Kevin hard. Or maybe it was the idea of a fidelity pact.

“I want to fuck my daddy again,” Kevin said, and did.

They showered—the water came out at first in dirty cold bursts but then ran clear and hot—and put on shorts and T’s and sneakers and pulled a red wagon to the grocery. On the way everyone said hello, and one group of five stopped in their tracks and watched Guy and Kevin go by. Kevin looked back, but Guy sauntered on, pulling his noisy wagon over the bumpy boards. Kevin could hear the words “models” and “stuck-up” and he was pleased they had said “models” plural.

“Is everyone always so friendly and in such a good mood?” Kevin asked. He felt strange being so pale, but he’d dutifully applied sunscreen all over.

“They’re drunk now,” Guy said, “and optimistic, but they will soon be squabbling over household expenses and hoping they’ll find love later in the Meat Rack. They’ll be arguing. ‘Why did you buy that expensive leg of lamb?’ And they become especially cross at the beginning of September when they realize the season is over and they’ve danced their tushes off and fucked a lot in the bushes, but, hey, they haven’t bagged a beau for the winter and they’ve maxed out their credit cards.”

 

From OUR YOUNG MAN. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2016 by Edmund White.


  • Andrew Young

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