Vol 2 No 26 - 2003
At the baths with Edmund White
Notre Dame’s bells are tolling with the madness of Quasimodo needing to empty his balls; as the sun seems out to prove whose 9th of August 1998 this is. The French call it une canicule; the Anglophones, a heat wave; me, just hot and sticky. So I duck into Les Mots à la Bouche, the gay bookstore of Paris, for a pleasurable blow job from their air conditioner.
I’m standing in the machine cooled air, reading a chapter in a book about the courage it takes to be gay, when I feel this magnetic presence behind me; this awareness that tugs at my mind. Rubbernecking, I spot Edmund White, the acclaimed gay novelist, in summer shorts, bent over as if ready for action, closely scanning book spines along the righthand wall’s lower shelf. I turn back to the book I’m reading and consider getting out of here quick. Anything to avoid having to tell Edmund that the editor he’d suggested I send my manuscript to has rejected it. I’d been so sure of myself. Or am 1 just scared Edmund doesn’t really care about me? Maybe he hasn’t seen me. But I have this deep gut feeling he has. And the words start squirming on the pages of the book in my hands, dissolving into a blur.
It’s the evening of December 15, 1994. I’m sitting next to Allen Ginsberg as he telephones Edmund White from my apartment. Allen asks Edmund if he can drop in on him tomorrow. I’m pleased to see Allen write down the address.
The next day I’m hurrying late with Allen’s note in my hand. As I arrive I hear Allen calling out my name from Edmund’s fourth story window: “Ian Ayres! Ian Ayres!” I look up and see Allen wave. “We’re up here!”
Edmund leans forward from his brown leather chair (facing Allen and me on the matching leather couch), picks up a small plate of chocolate biscuits, and offers them. “Thank you,” I take one. Allen waves them away, explaining his diabetes prevents him. “Oh,” says Edmund, putting the plate down. There’s an awkward silence. My crunching of the biscuit seems extra loud; the two large windows behind Edmund darkening. Allen asks about Edmund’s latest book. Published in England as Sketches From Memory, in the U.S. as Our Paris, it’s a book with sketches, of Paris and friends, drawn by his talented lover, Hubert Sorin; the prose, by Edmund, bringing their experiences together in Paris to life.
I feel another presence with us as Edmund speaks of Hubert, who’d died nine months earlier. Gazing up at a framed photograph of a handsome young Frenchman, on the fireplace mantel, I ask, “Is that Hubert?”
“Uh huh,” nods Edmund.
The framed photo suddenly slides down onto its back. I’m convinced Hubert is in the living room with us. Edmund doesn’t believe in ghosts. Allen says, “Synchronicity,” then begins speaking of William Burroughs. I take another swallow of my tea and find it’s cooled. I kick back against the couch’s pillows. Allen starts reciting part of the Diamond Sutra, as the room grows darker; Edmund not disturbing the magic of the visit with light bulbs. Nervous, not knowing what to do with myself, I close my eyes and listen to their voices. I love them both, though Allen had earlier warned: “Love is too strong a word. It’s like the floor over there. I can appreciate how polished it is, but I don’t love it. The same with people. You can appreciate everyone, but loving everyone would take too much out of you.”
So I’m appreciating every word they say. After they’ve spoken awhile, there’s a pause. I feel their eyes upon me. Edmund gives a little laugh, “He’s fallen asleep.” I open my eyes; the only light in the room’s coming from the outside streetlamps. Allen asks if I’m ready to go. “I guess,” I say, sitting up. “If you are.”
In thanking Edmund, saying how much I enjoyed our visit, I give him a big hug (which startles him), and ask if we can get together again sometime. Allen grins. Edmund offers his card.
Somebody’s pressing up against my behind! Suddenly, in Les Mots à la Bouche, I’m this throbbing nerve of consciousness. Sandwiched between an eye level shelf of published books—A Boy’s Own Story, The beautiful Beautiful Room is Empty, States of Desire, Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, The Farewell Symphony—and their very author, there’s only for me to turn and act pleasantly surprised: “Edmund!” We kiss, French style, on both cheeks.
“Did you know I was behind you?”
“I felt someone was,” I reply, exhibiting the book in my hands. “This is good. It’s all about the courage it takes to be gay.”
“It does take courage to be gay,” he says, giving a nod to the book. My smiling face is reflected in his glasses. He asks if I want to go to the little gay coffee shop directly across the street. I suggest the Café Beaubourg (where I know he goes every morning to drink coffee and write). “Okay,” he says, “but I want to show you something.”
Edmund leads the way out into the street’s wavering heat. Soon I’m walking alongside him, in silence, wondering if I should solve the mystery of the first paragraph in his novel The Farewell Symphony. That paragraph ends with: Someone had scotchtaped the photo of a young man to Brice’s plaque and I wondered if it was a secret admirer who’d left his own portrait; retrospectively I was jealous. Maybe it was a photo of one of the other dead young men that had been taped to our plaque by mistake.
“Brice” is the name Edmund used in the novel for Hubert Sorin, his deceased lover. I’d been haunting Hubert’s white marble niche, at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, ever since reading Our Paris. I’d hold my hand against the cold marble and be reminded of the feel of Tennessee Williams’ hand the last time we met. Tennessee’s is the only corpse I’ve ever touched. Anyhow, I’d close my eyes, imagining Hubert’s grey ashes sitting in the dark of that sealed square hollow; before imagining me as ashes in there.
We turn left at the corner and, halfway up the narrow, cobblestone street, Edmund stops and points to this place with a rainbow flag. “It’s a new gay bathhouse.” Pulling some cash out of his pocket, he adds, “I have 300 francs.” He looks into my eyes: “You want to go in?”
The pupils of his eyes widen into two dark corridors lined with redlit cubicles, entered or peeked into by aroused men in tented white towels—or am I visualizing my own memories of a certain gay bathhouse in Manhattan? The virtue of anonymity and acceptance of deviance in that place allowed people to act out their most unusual fetishes. Thanks to the freedom I felt to express any peculiar desires without fear of inviting shock, I discovered that I am a voyeur. I get off on watching people do kinky things. And now I’m wondering how kinky Edmund might get in such an environment.
“Sure,” I say. “Why not?”
At the entrance, as Edmund pays the 2 x 90 francs admission, a warm feeling for him comes over me, transporting me back to the evening of 5 February 1995. I’m again sitting on the end of his leather couch, near Hubert’s photo on the mantel. Edmund’s reclining, with his bare feet on my bare lap. We’d just enjoyed a naked dinner together and are smoking a joint. In Paris, usually, hashish is all one can find, so this marijuana’s a treat. Edmund’s asking me what it was like being a high school pimp. I tell him about the novel I’m writing. Allen had skipped through it, closely reading parts of the first seventy pages, then looked up at me with the ceiling lights reflected in his glasses: “You have more going for you than you know.”
Robert Mapplethorpe once got Edmund to scream into his camera lens. Edmund has this photo, framed, hanging on his bedroom wall. Showing it to me, telling me about it, Edmund quickly changes the subject with, “I get horny when I’m high.” So, kicking back on his bed, I stare up at his silent screaming face in the photo, as his mouth pleasurably makes me forget the vanilla flavored condom I’ve rolled on.
I’m sucked into the here and now, right now, as Edmund turns, holding out one of the bathhouse’s white towels and a locker key on a black elastic band. “Edmund,” I grin, taking the key and towel. “You crack me up.”
Our lockers are close together. We strip down, look at each other’s hanging cock, then hide our genitalia under the white towels. We’re locking our lockers when Edmund asks, “Have you heard back from Michael Denneny?”
“I’ve been dreading this moment,” I sigh, slipping the elastic band with the locker key round my wrist. “Michael Denneny returned the manuscript with a letter saying it’s solidly done, but he doesn’t think they’they’ll be able to find sufficient readership to make it a viable project there.”
“My first five novels were rejected,” Edmund says, sticking his hand through his elastic band. “I got to the point where I told myself: ‘Okay, nobody likes my writing. I’m never going to get published. And now I’m going to pretend that I have a million dollars and I’m writing a book to please me. What would 1 like to read? If I could write anything—if I, you know, if I could be sure to be published and everybody would love it—what would be the one thing that I would like to read?’”
“You mean, when you wrote Forgetting Elena?”
“Yes,” he says, leading me out of the locker room. “I tried to write something that would please me alone; which freed me, somehow. I felt as though possessed. There was a certain hum that would be generated by the book when I was writing well … I wasn’t fully aware of all the implications of my book but that didn’t matter so long as I mastered the tone or rather obeyed.”
My eager tour guide leads me into the spacious, air cooled, fluorescent lounge area of this brand new bathhouse. There’s electronic music playing from speakers overhead. The floor is very clean and could be mistaken for hard tile; if not for its cushioned quality feeling so good under my naked feet. We stop at a distance from the bar and, in nothing but our towels, admire the good looking, fully clothed bartender. He’s tan and muscular under his bluish glowing white t-shirt and tight jeans. No one else, however, is on this main floor; not even in its corner, stage lit work out space: an orgy of slick, up to date weight machines to pump up every muscle but the one men come here to pump most.
I’m gazing at the hands of a big illumined clock, on a far wall, reaching toward 5 pm, when Edmund touches my rear. I turn to him. He’s heading toward a black spiral staircase that can only lead deep into the bowels of decadence. “You want to see what's downstairs?” he says, already descending. So down I curve into a small labyrinth of dimly lit, narrow corridors: where Edmund’s begun to prowl. Peeking into one vacant cubicle after another, I take my time catching up with him. Everything—including the strategically hung dispensers filled with free condoms and packets of a water based lubricant—pulsates with the throbbing music.
“There doesn’t seem to be anyone but us here,” I say, following Edmund toward the silver, flickering glow of an open room at the end of the corridor. Nearing the room, I faintly hear heavy breathing and light, slapping fuck sounds: sounds that used to come from the cubicles in my mother’s massage parlors; while I in my teens hung out, making sure our masseuses correctly signed in every John.
We arrive just in time to witness a big load shoot out of, not a throbbing cock, but a deodorizer. As the lavender mist quickly dissolves before us, in this deserted TV room, we stand facing a porno of three naked boys: their bodies contorted in unnatural positions for the camera to capture every detail. Not one of them is wearing a condom, which means we’re probably watching ghosts.
An orgasm’s not worth dying for, I’m thinking; remembering how AIDS took young Jeff Grossi’s life away two years earlier. Jeff and I had been best friends for over a decade. Nevertheless, because I couldn’t afford to fly to Manhattan for his cremation, I ended up performing my own ceremony here in Paris. I taped Jeff s photo onto the white marble plaque of Edmund’s lover’s niche. After all, I figured, they both died of the same thing. Pressing my hand to Hubert’s plaque, I had closed my eyes, imagined, meditated, then whispered a prayer. When I finally emerged from the dim, flower scented coolness of that columbarium, I was hugged by a wind filled with the sickeningly sweet black smoke of some body’s cremation. As I raised my face to the crematorium’s busy smokestacks, I could swear I heard Jeff s inimitable laugh.
Now I turn to Edmund—fucking and sucking reflected in his glasses—staring blankly at the flesh he cannot touch. Something tells me this is not the time to bring it up. So my eyes return to the boys in the porno. Two are shooting their hot loads of sperm all over the kneeling one’s face. The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. The thought of this oppression angers me. It’s not like anyone chooses to be an outcast. There must be a frown on my face, for Edmund’s giving a questioning look. And so I ask him, “What do you think of the condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible?”
“I’m an atheist,” he says. “And I find the Bible to be stupid. I have no interest in that book. I don’t know why our lifestyle has to be regulated by this small tribe, sect that lived all those years by what they wrote—that it should regulate the lifestyle we have nowadays. But it’s true. The Bible, like a lot of other books from back then, condemns homosexuality.”
“It oppresses women, too.”
Edmund nods in agreement, then passes in front of me. As he does so, I goose him in his towel. He reacts with an over the shoulder grin that I feel my face instinctively imitate. Following him up the corridor, I quicken a few steps and grab his hand. “Let’s experience a cubicle.”
The lucency of a little lamp on a side shelf swallows us in red. Resting our derrières on the edge of the thick black padding of a bedsized tier for two, we continue holding hands, and gaze into each other's eyes. The electronic music’s louder in here; a small round speaker pumping it out overhead. Raising my voice to audible, I say: “I’ve got something to tell you.” Adrenaline’s whipping through my veins, my stomach’s one big goosebump. This could really be a mistake, I’m thinking, maybe I shouldn’t—“I really think you’re a great writer.”
Releasing my hand, Edmund takes off his black framed glasses and, in a single stroke, wipes his left hand over his face. This is an idiosyncrasy of his that I’d noticed in the past. It’s usually triggered by frustration, or impatience. So I blurt it out: “I’m the one who taped the photo to Hubert’s plaque!” Edmund puts his glasses back on and stares at me. I go into detail, which feels like detox, sweating it all out ....
And now I want to ask him if he’s angry. Instead, I lower my view to the dim red darkness swallowing my feet. After a long pause, all he says is: “So you’re the one.” I meet his gaze with uncertainty. I’m not sure if I should apologize.
Standing up, Edmund breaks the eye contact and, in suspicious silence, heads out of the cubicle. As I follow close behind him, I’m regretting having solved the mystery. He’s on his way up to the locker room to get dressed and leave. This is probably the last time I’ll ever see him. Oh, he’s passed the stairs! That’s a good sign. Means we’re still exploring.
This other narrow corridor brings us to the white tiled shower areaarea. To our right, under a blue spotlight, is the steam room; next to it, the sauna. Edmund heads directly over to the sauna’s wooden door and opens it to find an out of order lack of heat. A steady loud Shhhh... issues, however, from within the steam room. I open its glass door and, engulfed by a hot cloud, turn to Edmund, giving him a big smile: “Hot and steamy.”
He smiles back and strips off his towel. Stepping up to where he’s hanging his towel on a hook, I remove mine and hang it next to his. Edmund’s the first under one of the shower nozzles. No way to control the water’s temperature, there are only chrome knobs you have to keep pushing to keep the shower showering. With a gasp, Edmund jumps away from the water then, determined, steps back into it. I reach my hand out under his shower and feel how cold it is. I’m not into cold showers, but there’s no getting out of a quick rinse. Bracing myself, I get under the next nozzle, push the knob, and force myself to stay. “This’ll freeze your balls off!”
“It’s not so bad,” says Edmund, grabbing his towel on his way to steam.
On his towel, his glasses steamed up next to him, Edmund watches my genitals, under the blue spotlight, as I enter and pull the glass door shut. Total silence in blue steam fills the room. I place my towel on the other side of his glasses, lower my naked butt, and give him a smile. But he’s staring into the steam ahead, absorbed in thought. That blue spotlight, beaming through the glass, silhouettes his profile. It’s as if I’m gazing at a radiant, mystical being whose aura sets the steam, like an otherworldly mist, aglow. Unicorns come to mind .…
Suddenly a splutter, followed by a loud Shhh.... More steam issues forth, thickening the hot cloud we’re in. Salt water oozes from our flesh. I wonder what he’s thinking. With both hands I wipe the mounting oceans off my pectorals, abdominals, and thighs. Edmund, however, continues staring into the steam, practically in a trance. Okay, I’m curious. “You planning your next novel or what?”
“Hmm?” He wipes his hand over his face, then turns toward me. “No,” he says, now wiping the sweat off his arms.“I’m not like one of those novelists that knows in advance what he’s going to do.”
“First thought, best thought?”
“I invent as I go along. Really, it’s an adventure when I start writing a novel. For a novel there’s no rule.”
“I’m not talking about nineteenth century or genre fiction. I’m talking about twentieth century’s literature.”
“What about Nocturnes for the King of Naples? I recently read that. And I think it’s excellent.”
“Before I would start writing a scene of Nocturnes for the King of Naples, I would try to visualize a strong image that you could come away with. I was seeing it cinematically and trying to create a verbal equivalent to a powerful cinematic image.”
This gets me to visualizing us on the silver screen: Edmund White and Ian Ayres sitting naked in a steam bath lit by blue light. All kinds of words are roused in my brains; trying to create the utmost verbal equivalent to reaching my hand over, past his steamed glasses, to his cock. I want him to like me. And so I squeeze. No reaction. Again I squeeze. Nothing. I keep squeezing his cock, trying to pump it up. He reaches his hand over. Starts squeezing mine.
Valentine’s Day. I’m thinking how good his mouth felt on Valentine’s Day, 1995. Hiding a heartshaped box of chocolates behind my back, I ring his doorbell. He’s not expecting me. And I’m not expecting the young, muscular guy who answers. I enter to find Edmund getting up from the living room floor. He’s all sweaty. Three-ways confuse me. I never know which way to turn. So I go over to him, apologize for interrupting and, offering the chocolates, say I’ll catch him later. The guy, however, is on his way out the door, telling Edmund he’ll see him next week. That’s when I notice the weights. Edmund says the guy’s his personal trainer and has just coached him through a work out. “So your hormones are pumping,” I grin, unzipping my trousers, exposing my cock. Edmund glances out his large window then, grabbing my hardening cock, pulls me by it to his bedroom’s side of the living room wall. As he does so, I glimpse someone’s shadow in a window facing us from across the cobblestone street. Somehow this turns me on even more. And so I surprise Edmund with another another Valentine chocolate I’d brought just for him. A chocolate flavored condom. Soon I don’t know who’s enjoying it more. At the same vocal moment that I’m creaming the chocolate, Edmund’s creaming my black leather boots.
The steam cuts off its loud Shhh .... Sudden silence. Neither one of us is getting hard. He gives my limpness a few more squeezes, then withdraws his hand. Not me. I'm too determined to get it up to give it up, and continue squeezing his cock. I even try shaking some life into it. What’s it going to take? Hand to-mouth resuscitation? I’m about to yank the damned thing off when Edmund gives an amused smile and shrugs. Huh? This kind of hurts my feelings. Unclutching his soggy sausage, I hang my head and stare at my other hanging head. “Aren’t you attracted to me anymore?”
“It’s not that,” he says. “You’re fine. It’s just that we’re friends now. To go beyond that, it would have to be love.”
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