Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 8 • Winter 2003 • Fiction

Excerpt from The French Professor

Allen Ellenzweig

Chapter Eight

On their return to La Maison Bleue, Evan settled into the diminutive club chair that was set tightly at an angle to the bed. He then turned on the standing lamp and began reading and note-taking for one of his classes. He did so exactly because Aubry, having gone from his street clothes into his sweats, lay upon the bed for the express purpose of taking a nap. But after some time, certainly not quite an hour, Evan felt he could read no more. He peeled off his clothes to his underwear, and slithered under the covers which were pinned beneath Aubry's mass and weight. It was nearly seven in the evening when they awoke, Aubry's stirring bringing Evan to open his eyes. Aubry now himself climbed under the covers, freeing the younger man from his station at the far end of the bed. The two moved to the center of the mattress where they hugged their way back to sleep for yet another half hour. Then they freshened their faces with soap and water, and dressed for dinner.

Now in the darkened shop windows of Commercial Street, the Halloween motifs in orange and black were etched more brightly. There was the occasional spotlight upon a jack o' lantern, or there were highlighted cardboard cut-outs of witches on broomsticks and sheeted goblins flying past crescent moons.

In the distress of the previous week, Evan had thought little of the annual Cross masquerade -- that is, its masCUrade -- an increasingly elaborate affair held the evening of Halloween, which this year happened to fall upon a Thursday night.

Over dinner, Evan explained as best he could the customs of American Halloween. Certainly at Cross there was a lively interest in using October 31 as a campus-wide icebreaker, permitting new students to let down their hair and seasoned academics to break from the accumulated pressures of the racing semester. But Aubry could not be persuaded to join Evan with Jack and Will in the planned festivities. Indeed, the older man was surprised that Evan, under current conditions, could even permit himself the prospect of such abandon. The boy was scheduled to appear before the Student Investigation Committee on Wednesday, just the day before.

Evan would not force the issue with Aubry. In the meantime, he persuaded the professor to go for a drink, never indicating that it was to one of the oldest gay bars in town, a local institution of some renown. As it happened, they arrived early; in the dim woody interior stood a desultory crowd listening to some lackluster period rock. Aubry took in his surroundings with barely a discernible reaction, but when Evan returned from the bar with two drinks in hand, Aubry said to his young companion, "Does this mean you are trying to make a convert of me?"

At first Evan did not understand, but a second later he did.

"Being gay is not a religion; and in any case, I am not a missionary. Here, you wanted that vile drink, I give it to you."

"No doubt you have spent a good deal of time in such places," Aubry said.

"Such places?" Evan repeated the phrase. "It's nothing more nor less than a bar; it just happens to cater to men who like men."

With that, Evan slung his free arm about Aubry's waist, hugging the larger man to him while he leaned back against a rough wooden support and sipped from his own gin-and-tonic.

Aubry looked away, as if to absent himself from the young man's gesture. Then he sipped from his drink and looked around, his eyes lighting upon an older man of haggard mien sitting heavily upon a bar stool who looked back at Aubry with what appeared to be a smirk.

"Don't mind that one," Evan said. "He's just jealous."

"Is he? Well, I am with you, and you are a beautiful boy, more beautiful certainly than anyone here..."

"No great feat considering the competition..." Evan interjected.

"...and I suppose," continued Aubry, disregarding Evan's remark, "that counts for something in a bar for men who like men. But I am not a man-who-likes-men en gros. I am only a man who likes you in particular, and therein lies a world of difference."

Aubry had once before touched lightly upon this subject, but Evan had let it pass. In sum, it was fine for Evan, or anyone else, to be gay so long as he did not make such a big deal of it. Homosexuality did not constitute an identity like, for example, being a Jew. For Aubry, it belonged to no tradition. For Evan to insist on his difference was to segregate himself, to make himself marginal when, with his intelligence and charm, he should rather assimilate into the academic world of which he was a part. He should do so the better to assure himself a place in its bosom when, no longer a student, he should make his way professionally in one institution of higher learning or another. He would only make it harder on himself if he persisted in wearing his homosexuality like a badge on his chest and an emblem on his forehead.

"Oh, yes. I know what you are saying to me," sniped Evan. "'I, Luc Aubry, am a man among men, that is all. I am a Frenchman, and it is only by chance that I find myself in your bed."

Evan was in high dudgeon, the words hissing from him like steam from a spout.

"'It has no other consequence to me as to how I see myself'," he continued. "'I am not a pédé," -- he spit out slang for faggot -- "with a commitment to others who are gay. That would be too parochial. A man of the world does not corner himself into these narrow-minded little categories, these parochial little communities. Tribes! I am a man who by some odd twist of fate finds himself smitten by you. My dear boy! Your beauty is a siren song. One day, like Ulysses, I shall stop my ears and be free of you!'"

When Evan was finished, he heard the violence of what he said. Aubry looked more perplexed than angry. And then Evan saw a dim, amused smile find its way across Aubry's face. It was intolerable to him that Luc Aubry should find any of this funny. He turned his head away, only to feel Aubry's hand upon his shoulder, the fingers then kneading the column of his neck with slow, bracing pressure. As he did so, Aubry whispered, "Calme-toi, chéri... shhhhhh."

There was something tender in Aubry's endearment, and something proprietary in his clutch, as if to indicate to the smattering of souls in the bar that Evan was decidedly his possession. The warmth of the man's large fingers nesting at his neck made Evan feel both the thrill of a secret intimacy and the bravado of a public declaration. Yet the boy remained only partly assuaged. As they sipped at their drinks and looked around the room, Evan no longer felt he could enter freely into the spirit of the place, what little there was. It was no longer high season, and his recollection from the recent summer past -- of loud chatter and feverish cruising, of music blasting away as bodies pressed in a sweaty, snaking shimmy -- gave way to the present reality of a few weekenders and year-round locals winsomely hoping to get laid.

Aubry and Evan finished their drinks, each of them yawning through boredom and fatigue. Although a few reinforcements were now coming through the door, they agreed it was time to get back to their room. Naked beside one another under the hotel covers, a tense quiet prevailed until Aubry made his hands roam across the silky landscape of Evan's solid frame. He felt the boy's warmth beside him, heard his breathing quicken, and pressed his swollen prick against the small of Evan's back.

"I seem to have offended the hurt little boy inside," Aubry whispered.

Evan held his tongue a moment, then in a flash turned around.

"No, Dr. Freud, you've offended me."

Aubry began to counter, then relented with a loud exhalation. He preferred at just this moment to accept defeat instead of giving young Mr. Kendall the chapter and verse of Jacqueline's tentative participation as a "revolutionary" feminist in the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes and Féminin, Marxisme, Action, from which he, Aubry, a man, was of necessity excluded. He was made invisible by Jacqueline's refusal in 1970 to let Monique Wittig and Christiane Rochefort even know she had a husband. Or would the young man be any more comforted to know that Aubry and his wife had looked from a distance with sympathy upon the aging Roland Barthes as he strolled the dark corners of the discotheque Le Palace, watching the gorgeous young men ignore him? At the margins, Aubry had been aware of homosexual politics and the birth of something like a gay culture, but much of it was known through osmosis. Jacqueline was the membrane through which news of groups like the MLF and the FMA filtered to his attention. It was really only with the calamity of AIDS that he became aware of the distinctly separate experience of an entire class of men who called themselves gay. Then it was all crisis, debate, criticism, and rancor, as Jacqueline repeated to him stories of the staunch refusal of people in the FHAR, the Front Homosexual d'Action Révolutionnaire, to pay early heed to the cautionary signals being sent out by Dr. Willy Rozenbaum and the Groupe Français de Travail sur le Sida. But then, Jacqueline herself knew how much like science fiction the effects of the AIDS virus seemed to the uninitiated in the early days of the 1980s. But no, Aubry could not retell these tales. None of it made him any more a partisan of, nor any more persuaded by, Evan Kendall's private polemics. Alas, to Aubry, homosexual ideologues were as extreme and doctrinaire as so many Communists of his acquaintance. Everything in the world had to be explained through the prism of their own orthodoxy. Nothing else would do.

As a sign of truce, Aubry gently put the back of his hand to Evan's cheek. He felt its light stubble. He traced the curve of the boy's lips. Slowly, he traveled the boy's thighs, sneaking along to the round of his buttocks. At last the two kissed, and kissed again, less with passion than as a gesture of reconciliation. For many minutes their lovemaking was all foreplay and renderings of grace. Neither had quite the energy to take it the limit. Just when they might have, Evan fell heavily asleep upon the sweated warmth of Aubry's large form.

But Aubry remained awake, thinking, thinking, turning over in his mind the meaning of his relationship to young Mr. Kendall. Did this mean that he was himself a homosexual, or rather was he homosexual? Not a permanent type, but a contingent human behavior. The very word, its meaning, was at war within the French professor's spinning recollections. A roundelay of disconnected thoughts and images brought him in a flash to that stunning moment thirty years earlier on Morningside Heights. He and Jacqueline had been introduced by fellow Columbia University students, Americans all, each of whom had known him and Jacqueline independently. Far from home, from the less staccato rhythms of Paris life, amid the teeming directives of a lively and distinguished American campus, he and Jacqueline found in each other a measure of comfort. They dated. They fucked. They laughed. The weeks turned into a few months. By then they saw each other almost daily.

Jacqueline shared an apartment in the shadow of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, its massive Gothic structure, forever incomplete, providing an imperfect perfume of the French medieval past. Hers was nothing more than a tenement apartment building, not owned by the university. It housed a rakish mix of students, welfare-supported or working-poor families, pimps, and drug dealers; an ethnic blend of whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Its lobby entrance was rarely locked to the street; Aubry feared for Jacqueline's safety, but she took the building's locale and exoticness in stride, as if she had travelled to Algeria and Morocco as a Frenchwoman walking beneficently among the desperate colonial poor. She disarmed the meanest of her neighbors in passable Spanish or in street lingo she picked up with the alacrity of a comic mimic. To mothers with their ill-clothed children, she bestowed warmth and humor; she dispensed over-the-counter medication for head colds and flu; to the prostitutes, she tendered a frank regard and sisterly concern, passing on old clothes or fresh flea-market purchases. To the pimps and drug dealers, she granted respect and a bare look of defiance, as if to say, touch me once and I'll have your balls on a platter. To her fellow graduate students, she granted more irony than camaraderie, finding them intellectually and politically naive, even those already against the Vietnam War. They were somehow too impossibly American to her taste. To her view, they didn't understand the ultimately tragic side of life.

Aubry was entering the building, once again finding the lock broken on the glass door leading to the lobby and stairs. He trudged up the metal steps, the chill outside air trapped within the stairwell like permanent refrigeration. The smell of urine wafted in its wintry nip. Jacqueline had grown used to his unannounced visits. He came to her door and rang, but there was loud Latin music playing somewhere on the floor. He could not make out if her buzzer worked. He waited without reply for some short while, offering a timid knock. He tried to listen at the barrier of the door, unable to make out anything. Still he waited, almost dancing, certainly swaying in place to the infectious beat of the music. Grown impatient, without thinking, he put his hand to the doorknob and pushed forward. The door gave to, and he entered, mildly alarmed. Had Jacqueline or her rarely seen roommate left it unlocked? He looked around at the usual, now familiar disarray: of newspapers and books, filled ashtrays and half-filled glasses, cheap wine bottles and cracker crumbs. He moved forward to her bedroom, where the door was ajar. He pushed it open further. Jacqueline, her white shoulders exposed, was up in bed on her elbow, her long russet hair crimped like a pre-Raphaelite waterfall. She held the sheets close over her breasts. Still recumbent, a dark-haired woman with the chestnut brown complexion of a very beautiful, hardly young Latina, turned her face toward him from the pillow. The two women just stared back at him in silence.

He felt the strain of his intrusion. It explained everything and nothing about Jacqueline to see that she shared a bed with another woman. The word lesbian never came to mind; he only found them both very beautiful, and in appreciating their ripe, lush beauty, immediately understood that they should want to share it with each other. It had nothing to do with him. And because it had nothing to do with him, he knew he must withdraw. He offered the barest smile, then retreated to the cramped kitchen where he left a note, "I'll call. Love, Luc."

It never occurred to him that Jacqueline could still not be his.

Allen Ellenzweig has published as an art and photography critic, and cultural journalist, in such periodicals as Art in America, The Village Voice, and The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. He has more recently published fiction, including stories in the anthologies Men on Men 7 and Kosher Meat. He is also the author of The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe (Columbia University Press, 1992). He is seeking to publish a novel, The French Professor, from which an excerpt appears in Issue 8 of Lodestar Quarterly. He lives and works in New York City.

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