Echoes

One doesn’t forget the first time his lips touch those of another, even though the emotion may be as far from love as it is possible to get, which is not in the flame of heat or the ice of despair but the bland flatness of general indifference. But we were treated with the same indifference, the way the beautiful ignore the less so. And in those days, there was hardly an Apollo of which I could dream had I even dared.

Rodolphe Basquiat. We were at school together. He tended toward fat and smooth, but wasn’t entirely there. Not a bad mind, but not a great one, either. No wit. I would have been indifferent to him had not everyone else been indifferent to us. We were thrown together. He was more of a target than I was. They attacked him one night. I heard him cry out in what didn’t much sound like pain, but they slapped him for the noise. He came sniveling to my bed for protection, where through his tears of embarrassment, he confessed the intense pleasure of someone else’s thumb in your arsehole. If I’d had any sense, I would have pushed him out of the bed, but I had feelings then and let him be.

The problem was when he kissed me. It wasn’t the same night. It wasn’t even at night. Good lord, what was he thinking? It was midday, we were going down to the river, and he pulled me off the path, behind a tree, and kissed me. I can’t say I felt nothing. But I knew better than to think he loved me. He just thought I, the equally pathetic one, would be willing to gratify him with a thumb up his arse. He was just mimicking the little clique of paederasts who acted so damned happy all the time and thought lycée was such a grand lark. But I felt something. Not for him. Cupid was hardly that cruel to me, and his mother had yet to lay her head upon my breast. No, I only felt that it seemed more right than the only time a girl who was not my sister had ever kissed me. She wasn’t pretty herself, and I’m a strong candidate for Vulcan’s forge, but that didn’t matter a whit to her. And it was dangerous, fondling her in the summerhouse. I only fondled her in the summerhouse because it was dangerous. It was more dangerous than kissing Rodolphe in the woods because I didn’t care if I were expelled at that point. But his beginnings of a moustache pricked my lip, and that in itself felt better than Marie-Louise’s soft kisses.

That was spring. I won’t say what year. In the autumn, we went to Paris, separately, to university, and I didn’t see him again for years. I dozed through a variety of things, though in theory attached to the faculty of natural sciences. My father died a few years later, and with my mother controlling only her widow’s shares, I was free to doze through anything I liked. I still hadn’t seen Apollo, but I had seen his Mercury giving some speeches and generally making a nuisance of himself.

I was at a café when I saw Rodolphe again. It had been almost ten years, and those ten years hadn’t been kind. To either of us, perhaps. His hair was thinning already, his clothes were a sight, and he was too thin for his frame. Somehow, he’d taken up with those damned starving “Romantics” and was now calling himself a poet. His parents were not happy with his choice of career and gave no support, so it fell to me to pay the café bill. He had a collection of friends, a generally motley bunch. Gustave Colline called himself a philosopher, and he rarely felt compelled to earn a bit of money at lessons. Nor did the one called Schaunard, who thought he was a musician. The fourth, however, Marcel Brancauvis, was actually worth looking at and had a lover to match. A female lover, with breasts the size of melons. I did not take up again with Rodolphe, I hasten to add. That one kiss was a fluke, never repeated. And in Paris, with money, even I can do better. Brancauvis was a different story. I just looked, never touched. I don’t think I would have been allowed to, anyway, even if I were handsome. He was too busy with his lovely Musette.

Courfeyrac, Mercury to Apollo, came to the café Momus from time to time. He was younger than the rest. Still somewhat studious at the Sorbonne, as opposed to on the street. Physically rather like Rodolphe had been, only everything else he never was. Happy. Witty. Charming. Paris his homeland, the Marais his capital. Adored for paying all debts without question or delay. Brancauvis was practically his new best friend after a tiff involving the wanton Musette had been sorted out. Which is how I was introduced to the boy.

“Thierry Courfeyrac, Simon Grantaire. Grantaire was at school with Rodolphe. Courfeyrac lives downstairs from us.”

“A pleasure.” The way he took my hand, the bright smile, it seemed the first time anyone had actually meant the words. He switched seats so he was between me and Brancauvis and his animated chatter ceased only when he needed to take a drink. I didn’t know he was bent at the time. His animation was that of youth, not of display. His hands rarely stopped moving, but the gestures weren’t effeminately light. I compared him to his friends, and he outshone all but Marcel Brancauvis. We spoke of nothing of value, as we always did, and at the end of the evening, he paid the bill. A rather hefty bill since we had consumed a plate of oysters each at some point. I remembered his speeches, but they didn't seem part of him, surrounded and beloved by would-be artists, so I didn't mention them.

I didn’t see him again until spring. We were both of irregular habits and they never again coincided. Instead, I saw him again at the Tuileries, watching the gay boys parade themselves before the assembled customers.

It’s a confusing sight to newcomers to Paris, even to some Parisians. Young and old, parading in the public area of the gardens. The youngest ones are sometimes only sixteen, too young even for the beginnings of a beard. The customers parade, too, make no mistake about it. And sometimes they go home with each other rather than with the gay boys. But they come to watch the gay boys. We all come to watch the gay boys. Some of the older men are there seeking a special one, their own petit jésu, a personal mistress. Some just want a quick suck on their dicks before going home to their unimaginative wives. Me, I pay more often than I'd like to admit, but I do have standards, no matter what anyone else might think.

The worst are the ones who try to pretend they are still sixteen. Shaved daily, not a trace of whiskers, powdered, rouged, and perfumed like a woman, short jackets and tight trousers. They aren’t even the most effeminate in behaviour, but I hate them all the same. The most effeminate in behaviour are the ones who were that and are finally too old to play at anything else anymore. But at least they aren't pretending they're anything but washed up old queens.

No, the boys I've paid for have been just that: boys. A little younger than I am, handsome, nervous about parading. I let them take me where they want to go, so they feel safe. I'd rather be the bottom, and they feel like they're in control. I’m a creature of habit. I don't like to experiment. I find a boy; I take him when I can. I move on when I have to or when a decidedly better one comes along.

At that time, I was regularly with a chap who called himself Laurent. He wasn't at the Tuileries, but this Courfeyrac was, and he hailed me. Other men hail their friends in the Tuileries, but I am never hailed. Nevertheless, it would have been rude of me not to respond, and so I raised my hand to him. We are a quiet group, we paederasts and sodomites. I thought that would be the end of it, but no, he approached me.

“Grantaire, isn’t it? Lovely evening for a stroll in the gardens.”

“I didn’t think to see you here.”

“Nor I you, but here we both are. It seems we have rather a lot in common, doesn’t it?”

“You come here often?” I was still rather surprised I had not realised before that he was bent.

“I like to watch the people. So do you, I gather.”

“I do. How have I not seen you around before?”

He shrugged. “I only moved to the city this past autumn. You’re rather more experienced than I am, I daresay. I’m still learning the signals. It’s easier with women.”

“You can stand both?”

“Not in bed. It’s easier to make a woman love you, I mean. It doesn’t require all these signals.”

God, he was naïve. And I loved him for it. A naïve paederast how often do you really find one of them? Naïve, but not shy. Never shy. He asked if I’d care to join him for a drink. He really seemed to care what my answer would be. Not, “Join me for a drink”, never a command, but “Would you care to join me for a drink?” A question. A modest proposal that he feared would be rejected. How could I say no?

I suppose it is terribly unromantic of me to admit that we did not fall into each others’ arms that night, but I haven’t a romantic bone in my body thanks to the attentions, or rather lack thereof, of Venus and her damnable son. We talked. We drank, and we talked. We talked about the Romantics, about Brancauvis and the lovely, gold-digging Musette. We talked of Rodolphe and their brief relationship. We talked of ourselves. Courfeyrac went on and on about his sisters, his apparently beautiful, radiant, intelligent, loving sisters. His firm belief that no woman could ever compare to them, so why bother trying to find one? I couldn’t tell if he was protective or incestuous, but I could never consider him a Jupiter and his sisters, lovely though they may be, could hardly each be a Juno. He was protective and protected, that was all. Naïve from such protection, such a household of women. He said far more than I did, and when it grew late, we took our separate ways home.

But we saw each other more often. I think we both decided to spend more time in the company of the Romantics, though Courfeyrac never appeared on a Wednesday and often would not appear on other days. Then summer properly arrived, and he hied himself to his birthplace, to see the lovely sisters and his native countryside. I stayed in Paris, still in the company of the Romantics. There was no greater entertainment than watching Marcel Brancauvis. The dark curls, the heavy brow that lifted the moment Musette entered the room, the straight shoulders and occasionally brilliant if crooked smile: they would never be mine, but they had been made to be seen and admired, so I looked and admired. By the time Courfeyrac returned, I was fully aware of how fat and smooth and disgusting he appeared.

He took me aside, sensing something was wrong. He looked for all the world like a hurt child, his wide brown eyes looking up at me. He used my Christian name. I wanted to hate him. I wanted so badly to hate him, to return to the pleasures of watching Brancauvis. His eyes were so hurt, his lips slightly parted. I may have been Vulcan, but he wasn’t Apollo, and the look was akin to the one Rodolphe had given me all those years ago. I kissed him. He responded with an ardour that surprised me. Since when had anyone felt anything for me?

I broke away. Musette brushed past us, looking for her lover, ignoring our existence. Brancauvis refused to look at her they were fighting, therefore he was brooding. She sat down on Schaunard’s lap and fed him bits of bread left over from dinner. The scene made me sick. How she could treat a man like Brancauvis in such a condescending manner, I still don’t know. He was the only true Romantic in the group, the only real artist, the only one with passion flowing through his veins. And yet he bothered to dally with that trollop when I would have given him the world. I paid the bill and threw an arm around Courfeyrac’s ample shoulders. He cared, while Brancauvis sat stewing in a bitter gravy of his own making.

We went to his place, not mine. His was remarkably close, which I should have known since he lived in rooms below their garret and they only ever seemed to drink at the café Momus. We had both been drinking, and I’m certain we must have collapsed in a heap on his bed, a heap of flesh doing all the things flesh can do. I don’t remember much of that night, but I assume it was like the subsequent nights I took to his bed. The soft skin of his neck, the hair of his nether regions, the taste of his sweat and cologne and semen. They never changed. The paths of his tongue, the cool wetness of the oil, they came and went, but the taste and smell of him never changed.

He wasn’t at all like Rodolphe. Thierry gave more than he took, but he wasn’t soft. His skin, yes, but his body, no. His round moon of a face hid the muscular hardness of his body. He would go to fat in years to come, but he wasn’t yet the soft victim that Rodolphe had been. He was almost a farmer, a fighter, someone who used his body, and I felt weak next to him, though I was taller. Not weak, exactly. I knew he was physically greater than I was, and I felt alive to have him inside me.

When I woke the next morning, my lips were sore from so much exertion, we were both filthy with our own excitement, and in the morning light, his round, innocent face in its tousled frame of half-curls was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. He chose me, he cared for me, and I thought I was on my way to loving him in return.

My fingers in his hair awoke him, and he insisted I couldn’t leave, not in our state. He babbled on while water heated on his little stove so that we could wash, and it all felt so domestic and happy, as if a life of sisters had made him womanish as well despite his body. We washed each other, barely kissing with exhausted lips, and yet I left having made no promises, no statements of affection. And neither did he.

He avoided me for a week. Or perhaps it was not that. Perhaps it was more that he avoided their company, while I sought it nightly, never certain if I hoped to see him or not. Brancauvis spent the week in a sulk and seemed the less for it. I can create plenty of gloom on my own. Rodolphe kept hinting at what might have happened after we left, but Colline shut him up and the subject was not broached again. Not until Thierry returned.

If he had been angry with me, or confused by the events of the night, he did not show it. But he addressed me by my Christian name, and by his tone, the whole table knew what had passed between us. He apologised he had been quite busy with political matters for which we did not care, and he begged our forgiveness for having been so lax in his friendship. Rodolphe ignored him, Brancauvis gave a snort at the mention of politics, and when Colline opened his mouth, an elbow from Schaunard promptly closed it, saving us what must have been a tirade about the corruption of rule and the horrors found in any institution based on the collective. That lecture was received the next day, in Thierry’s absence, and seemed rather worn from having been thought over for twenty-four hours. I was annoyed. How dare he assume I had no interest in politics? I didn’t, but that wasn’t the point. Just because I had spent a few months in the company of self-absorbed children who enjoyed playing at being starving artists didn’t mean that all my life was spent with them, and I told him as much. “I’ve heard some of your little speeches.”

“Really?” He was excited that he had been at all memorable. “You agree, then?”

“I might. It’s been a while.”

“Can we get a drink, just the two of us?” he asked softly, nervously.

Why not? I knew a drink would lead right back to his bed, and that was where I was dying to go.

Except it didn’t, not right away. He talked politics at me. Republicanism. A republic is just anarchy waiting to happen, but I held my tongue and pretended to agree. I’d read Rousseau, and even he couldn’t argue his way out of the infidelity of the people, their untrustworthiness with power. But I pretended to agree, and I kissed him to shut him up. And still he kept talking. I finally had to agree to go to one of his meetings before he took me home.

When I look back, I know it was entirely about the sex. I tried to find myself in love with him, but I never did. I was never so blessed, or so cursed. Cupid’s arrows stayed in his quiver, and Venus never danced behind him or whispered in my ear. I made an entire month of excuses to avoid going to a pointless and probably illegal rally. Politics was somehow in his soul. He cared for it as much as he cared for me, with the same wide-eyed eagerness. How does a man stand up to an ideal? I sure as hell couldn’t, and I knew it.

But after a month, he grew anxious. His damned politics were so much a part of him, and he seemed to be falling in love with me, so I had to give in. I should never have done as he asked. I went to the damned rally.

That’s when I met Solon. In truth, a wealthy Provençal named Combeferre who knew everything and quietly insisted on it. He was dressed in black, so at first I couldn’t tell if he was in mourning for the state of the world or if he thought himself a dandy. After a while, his chaste manner seemed to insist on the former rather than the latter. There was almost something monkish about him, except for his insistence on republicanism. Thierry adored him. Well he might: Combeferre may be a monk, but even a monk is more attractive than I am. I was certain he wasn’t bent, otherwise Courfeyrac would have been in his bed, or he in Courfeyrac’s.

I had to endure being properly introduced to the monk. I had to make small talk about the importance of the demos, the danger inherent in a voiceless mass, the necessity for a republic. If there had ever been classes in republicanism, I slept through them. But I feigned interest, enough to go home with Thierry and make love all night, enough to make him believe in me, at least for a while.

A while wasn’t long enough. I would have preferred it to be reckoned in months, but his nature was rapid, consuming. Weeks were the best I could get, thanks to his addiction to politics. Not interest. Addiction. Addiction into which he could never fully succeed in dragging me. Damned Mercury, always flitting around, taking messages from here to there and there to here, rarely a minute for himself, unless it was to drag me down with him.

I had no qualms about being dragged down, mind. Down was where I belonged. Let me limp around my forge and berate my unfaithful wife in her absence. For she was absent, then. She hadn’t yet wooed me, and I thought I was getting along just fine without her.

But curse the day Venus finally took note of me. Curse Mercury for pulling me there as if I were the message. Curse Solon for not stopping it, but he was only mortal, after all, and greater things than his democracy were a foot.

They dragged me to another rally. Mercury and Solon. I don’t remember a damned thing about it. I don’t even know how Courfeyrac felt about it. I don’t know if he was as taken as I was, or if he could possibly have felt it more, since he gave a damn about the words as well as the man. Fuck the words. The voice was glorious and the face belonged to a Greek marble. Who cares about Mercury once he has seen Apollo? Who cares what Apollo is saying when all he wants to do is fuck him senseless? No, not fuck him senseless. I want it and yet it would be so wrong, to take something so beautiful and sully it in that manner.

I lost Courfeyrac in the crowd. At that moment, he had already ceased to be dear Thierry. Who can turn from such beauty to such an ordinary boy? I wanted to approach Apollo, but I never made it.

Courfeyrac found me later. “Well, what did you think?”

“I didn’t know such perfection existed.”

“Hard to believe, I know, but you saw him with your own eyes. Isn’t he magnificent? His name is Enjolras. He’s taking over our group. Combeferre has known him for years.”

Solon in cahoots with Apollo? Well, it just figured. Maybe he’s not Solon. Maybe he’s a bloody Pygmalion! This Enjolras was certainly a statue come to life, and Combeferre seemed to know everything about everything, so perhaps he was a sculptor, too, chiseling out his perfect leader. A leader even I’d follow into hell if he asked me. “Taking over the group, you say?”

He started to kiss me, but I pulled back. He probably looked hurt, but I didn’t look at him. “Yes. You’re welcome to come to a meeting if you like.” He sounded controlled.

“We meet on Wednesdays at the Café Musain, at least for the moment.” He didn’t want to admit his hurt. Damn him.

“I’ll think about it. I have to go.”

I never apologised. I snuck in late, judging by when Courfeyrac had come to join us before the advent of Apollo, but the meeting was breaking up earlier than I had thought. I went earlier the next night. Courfeyrac tried to talk to me, but I wouldn’t have any of it. What right had he to stand between me and Apollo? A love affair that had not even included love?

By winter, I didn’t know him anymore. I didn’t see Rodolphe or the lovely Brancauvis. My head was swimming with blond hair and blue eyes and marble skin. Who settles for Mercury when he can stare at Apollo?

 

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