My letter is the only useful thing I’ve written in years. It doesn’t get me to Paris but it will get me into his apartment. Earlier I got off an overnight bus; I’m checking in at Le Mije, a youth hostel which, as it turns out, is only blocks from where he lives. I’m trying to lose my self-consciousness about being 30 and staying in a youth hostel, but when I see my bunkmates (all clearing out for the afternoon as instructed), who are all hairy and straggly-maned and from their ripe garlicky adult-male smells haven’t used the showers and are of ambiguous age, international youngish travelers––the kind I never really was (raised work-ethic-proud)––I ignore them and set my backpack on my lower bunk, the only bunk left in the room I’m assigned. Crouched over my wafer mattress, careful not to be clocked as an unbohemian and thus suspicious type, I remove my camera and head out. No one’s talking to me. I’m actually that kid again, the flimsy nerd no one wanted to talk to in school because the smell of my sissy peculiarity is detectable––a scent that, from having read and closely reread him, I’ve smelled in Edmund White’s pages.
I wander around the Right Bank. I discover that in order to make a coin call you find a bar tabac that has this kind of heavy phone sitting on the bar near the workers drinking wine and smoking cigarettes at 10 a.m. Before picking up the receiver, you ask the owner or bartender if you can use it, using standard polite French, and I call him after putting it off and he says to come for coffee, and on my way I buy white tulips. He has a boyish, sometimes reedy voice. I’m disarmed, charmed––of course not knowing what to expect.
I find the address on rue St.-Martin and punch in the code he’s given me over the phone.
I speak a tiny amount of French and I hope no one speaks to me but when they do they’re very nice. I make a note to tell him this. Sweating, I climb the four winding flights of stairs. After the cold early morning in the ugly suburban bus station, and having taken the RER (can’t pronounce it), I had climbed into sunlight at the Hôtel de Ville métro station, and the day’s been getting warmer, this Thursday before Easter, 1995. I’m overlayered for March, with a thick cotton tennis sweater weighing me down, and I’m most worried about my thin hair slicking against my head, and when I ring his doorbell, which sings in high, thin-metal chimes, I hear feet rumble on carpeted floor.
He opens and is barefooted and sturdy-calved in khaki shorts. The sleeves of his oxford-cloth shirt are rolled up and his smile is broad. His voice cracks: “Oh, what pretty white roses!”
He gives me a kiss on the cheek and invites me in.
I need to back up here for a bit, so you understand how strange it was to be standing there. I’d been studying Edmund White’s work during my year in the Czech Republic. I’ve been finding him more and more in the library of the British Council: his essays, reviews, articles, books I’d not yet, stories in anthologies and literary magazines I’d heard of but never gotten my hands on. Apparently the English like him much more than folks in America. But then, I’d been an unsuccessful missionary of his sacred word back home, where I evangelized but got few takers. My ex-boyfriend and I were among the few who decided his work had saved, transformed and dignified us. White was a grad school passion of ours, then Patrick and I broke up and each of us found ourselves alone with his books. More than Fitzgerald, Salinger. He tells the truth about us––that we don’t have to be perfect, we can exult in our own individual forms, thrive and be whole in our personal shapes. If we could no longer be together, Patrick and I could still spark of off our love and enthusiasm and gratitude for Edmund White, whose work even now pursues me. We loved each other even more when we talked about the books; eventually, we went off separately to try it with others.
In all my time in the MFA workshops at Bowling Green State University, I wrote only one story I thought was at all good. It was my one sure bet for literary greatness, but not for love. I flattered myself that because the story was unabashedly gay (and yes of course about coming out, a theme soon to be discarded in New York publishing), it was sufficiently pioneering for the journal that had accepted it for their issue the fall I returned to Florida and put in my application for the Peace Corps––a year-long process involving FBI fingerprinting, background checks, the fetching of nine letters of recommendation, and a round of doctor and dentist visits.
Publishing my first story did not change my life, but being alone for awhile probably did. I got hungrier and desperate during my interim year back in my hometown of Jacksonville. I was a college English instructor and on the weekends I was a janitor at a gay bathhouse across from a Southern Baptist church, picking up spare cash (I had no health insurance, only debts) and things to write about. I experimented with tone more than content, creating nothing new in that addled year I’d want to bring with me overseas to Yemen. Whenever I felt discouraged and lonely, I opened the journal and reread my published story, thrilling at its professional layout, sighing and smiling damply at the prose’s many not-well-disguised borrowings. Two years later, I brought a copy as a “gift” to Edmund White, one of several copies I have lugged halfway around the world without knowing for whom any of them is intended. It’s my single pride, this professionally typeset and immaculately proofed story text. It’s all I have.
Back in his apartment, on rue St. Martin, I tell him what I’ve already poured out in the letter I typed in my little sky-high Czech apartment, a studio called a garzonka; a letter I sent him via his New York agent, and which he responded to by postcard: “I’ve only ever lived in small places, the one where I grew up, the one where I went to college and the one where I went to grad school, and the ones in the two countries where I’ve served in the Peace Corps.”
“That’s probably why you’re still alive and why you’re negative.”
A passage from one White’s story, “An Oracle,” surges out of memory…
The days in Crete were big, cloudless hot days, heroic days, noisy with the rasp of insects. They were heroic days as though the sun were a lionhearted hero. . . . Oh, but hadn’t he just read in his beach book, The Odyssey, the words of the dead, lion-hearted Achilles: “Do not speak to me soothingly about death, glorious Odysseus; I should prefer, as a slave, to serve another man, even if he had no property and little to live on, than to rule over all these dead who have done with life.” He’d cried on the white sand beach beside the lapis lazuli water and looked through his tears, amazed, at a herd of sheep trotting toward him. He stood and waded and waved, smiling, at the old shepherd in black pants with a curved stick in his hand, which itself looked carved; Ray, expensively muscular in his Valentino swim trunks, thought he was probably not much younger than this ancient peasant and suddenly his grief struck him as a costly gewgaw, beyond the means of the grievously hungry and hardworking world. Or maybe it was precisely his grief that joined him to this peasant. Every night he was dreaming about George, and in that book about the Greek death rituals he’d read the words of an old woman: “At death the soul emerges in its entirety, like a man. It has the shape of a man, only it’s invisible. It has a mouth and hands and eats real food just like we do. When you see someone in your dreams, it’s the soul you see. People in your dreams eat, don’t they? The souls of the dead eat too.” Ray couldn’t remember if George ate in his dreams.
The clean phrasing, the being-alive in the middle of his prose. No one can outdo him.
He says, “I want to read your story.”
We go into the bedroom and he sits on the floor Indian-style under the light of a lamp and I lie on the bed on my side facing him and he reads my short story’s piss-elegant phrasing (which only comes to me now as pretentious), without faltering delivery. I wince. I love him so much!
Done, he nods and says, “Well it’s very Jamesian, but good. No, it’s very good! Bravo!”
And though he doesn’t mean to make me feel this way, my sensation is one of smallness. I’ve come from a very long distance to hear my master pronounce my story “good”––and, in this pat, clean, warm pronouncement, I realize how far I have yet to go. I used to think my story was hot shit, but now I understand it’s okay, and though I’m scared, I don’t feel like a complete loser.
Aloud, Edmund White has just read my story and he rushes in, “You’re a real writer.”
I’ve told myself that the only thing I’ve lacked is a mentor, and now in his gentle nodding I have my judgment. None of my writing professors were so involved in my work unless they’d decided I was trying to be the next Carson McCullers (whom I’d never read). So I love Ed––yes, Ed––for his tender honesty. He says, “I just finished another story, but it’s not as good as yours.”
I laugh and say, “Oh, sure,” knowing I’ve tried poaching his style to not such great effect.
He says, “Do you want to hear it?”
“Are you insane?”
Then he reads to me from the notebook he wrote it in and tells me he always writes his fiction in one of these thick-paged hardbound deals from an expensive papeterie. I am the first to hear it––or if not, that’s the way I’ll present it to friends when I leave the Peace Corps for the States in August.
When I was a kid, I was a Buddhist and an atheist, but I kept making bargains with God: if he’d fulfill a particular wish, I’d agree to believe in him. He always came through, but I still withheld my faith, which shows, perhaps, how unreasonable rationality can be.
A two-sentence paragraph. Nothing out of place. Since I realized that my contemporary Michael Chabon is the only writer of my generation I’ve read who can pull off the epigrammatic style convincingly, seamlessly infusing a quick, witty epiphany into the swelling narrative whole, I’ve vowed to stay away from trying to go nineteenth-century. It either comes out as a bad Oscar Wilde imitation, or I get lost trolling a Flaubertian estuary of shallows and tangles in search of an outlet to the bracing open sea. My story (dully, abstractly titled “Afternoons”), I see in an instant, listening to Ed read his “Cinnamon Skin,” is trying too hard in its quest to reach The New Yorker. The first sentence of his second paragraph––One of God’s miracles occurred when I was thirteen––keeps the rapidly undocked vessel humming and chugging and making for the waves and then the perilous storm-lashed depths beyond the coast. (Since then, too, I’ve also all but given up on mastering figurative language, and especially those extended metaphors my English teachers had worked so hard to show us, which the authors we were studying had rigged out seemingly effortlessly.)
He reads the rest out breathlessly, sitting in front of me Indian-style, facing me and hunched over the creamy pages of a notebook he will one day sell to the Beinecke Archives at Yale, laughing at his own jokes and once farting without comment, reading, and when he’s done I just say, “Wow. Wow.”
“What do you like about it?”
And now in memory words fail me because I don’t remember what I said, just some crap about what a good storyteller Ed is, always was––with what over the next 20 years I’ll learn, along with charm (if you can muster it), is the most important quality of writing. Some suspense, a flair (learnable, as I now believe) for seducing a reader, disarming the reader––who’s holier to you the writer than book smarts, gorgeously complicated sentencing, and piss-elegance.
Easter weekend is long and involved, and I only return to Le Mije to recover my backpack with my not-elegant clothes. Ed’s gay cousin Austin and Austin’s lover Stephen are in Paris for the first time, too (he has never met them, but Austin would eventually become Ed’s web designer). It turns out that Austin and I overlapped in Sweetwater, Texas. So we are something of a family.
Later, I return to the Czech Republic and Ed gives me an AT&T number so I can call him. My little garzonka doesn’t have a phone, and I have to dial him from a pretty wooden phone booth in the lobby of a coffeehouse next to my university department, the Beseda, predating the Communist era. I am, after all, in Europe. As I’d always imagined, I was in Europe. I belonged in Europe.
“Listen,” he says, while I’m away from my friends and colleagues ordering cheap nectar-grade espresso in the beautifully decorated dining room, “I’m in love with you. Move to Paris!”
And so with a lot to learn, I do. I become friends with his friends. We stay in Paris three years and when it’s time to leave together and go back to the States, I realize more than anything I am a story writer. So much of my short story writing began when I read Skinned Alive.
I meet the people who inform his fiction, and I learn that the best fiction, which is part of his secret, comes from real life. I remember this line from the title story of Skinned Alive: My French friend Hèléne nudged me and whispered, “There’s one for you.”
From Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, published by ITNA Press. Edited by Tom Cardamone, author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as other works of fiction. Additionally, he edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered.