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Michael stood in the Louvre one afternoon and self-consciously looked at paintings. Thin, with pale skin and curly dark hair, he wore a white shirt buttoned at the collar and the dark blazer he thought made him look European. He had been in Paris two weeks, but going to the Louvre sooner would have implied he needed to go there. Michael liked to skip the introductory stages of things, trusting the basics would come to him later. He would have preferred not going to the Louvre at all, but he had run out of obscure places to visit.
He stood in a hall that felt overcast and gloomy, weak light coming through the skylight overhead, the russet walls and muddy canvases making the space seem darker than it was. A handful of people wandered among the pictures, but the squeak of their shoes and occasional whisper of words did not quite belong to them, like poor sound effects added to a movie after it was shot, or like the repressed, unattached sounds inside a hospital. Michael tried to concentrate on a nude male who lay on the corner of a crowded raft. He kept his distance from the painting.
A live boy stepped into the frame.
The boy looked about Michael's age, although Michael found his peers very young compared to himself. The boy stood with his back to Michael and studied the plum-gray nude. He had to be American. He had a canvas shoulder bag and a guidebook, and wore jeans and an oxford cloth shirt. The seat of his jeans had pale spots rubbed away at the base of each cheek, like the gleams that suggest roundness in a painting of an apple. The boy looked like an advertisement for American homosexuality. Michael was annoyed to find him attractive. He had not come here for that.
The boy turned his head, as if to see where the next painting was, and Michael saw a blue eye dart into the corner of the lid and lashes. Michael turned away and faced a picture on the opposite wall: several women and a horse were being slaughtered for a despondent sultan.
He had fallen twice during his two months in Europe. He had wanted to the first time—a friendly Dutch sales-man met between trains in Rotterdam—but had felt so terrible afterward he decided to go back to renouncing sex. The second time had been an accident, at least on his part if not that of the German waiter who had offered him a bed for the night. He felt less bad that time, but still feared such behavior was inappropriate on this trip, considering whose money brought him here.
Michael drifted toward the next room and thought he might look up the "Mona Lisa." There was nothing to look at on the way out but a large, drab painting hung on a temporary wall by the doorway. He stopped and pretended to examine it. Glancing back, he saw the American still loitering beneath the cloudy skylight, making no effort to catch up with Michael.
The wide canvas showed a painter painting, a bearded man with a Peter Pan collar working beside a chubby woman whose arms were folded around her nakedness. A small child stood between them, not looking at the naked woman but at the picture the man painted, which wasn't the woman but a landscape. Stranger still, the space around them was crowded with people in coats and stovepipe hats, a few gazing at the artist and woman but most just sitting there, as if waiting for a train. Michael could not decide if the painting was a philosophical statement about representation and reality, a precursor of surrealism, or a piece of kitsch.
"Courbet. 'The Painter in His Studio.'"
Michael turned. The American stood beside him, peeking at Michael, then back at the painting. He was half a head shorter than Michael and needed a haircut. His lips remained slightly bowed apart when he closed his mouth.
"It's boring," said Michael, the quickest response for suggesting he was intelligent and nobody's fool.
The boy shrugged and smiled. "It's nothing great as art," he admitted. "It's the people that make it interesting."
Michael eased his hands into his pockets to show he was willing to listen.
"That's Gustave Courbet." The boy pointed at the painter. "Of course. And the woman's his mistress. The little boy's their illegitimate son. The others are Courbet's friends. I think Theophile Gautier's in there somewhere."
He sounded like he knew a lot, but Michael knew more about life itself, which was the important thing.
"And that's Baudelaire." The boy jabbed his finger toward a young man with a shaved head who sat cross-legged on a table. "The poet. Fleurs du mal?"
"I know who Baudelaire is." Although he usually confused him with Rimbaud.
The boy was too enraptured with his learning to be stopped by Michael's tone. He spouted some French, then translated it when Michael looked blank. "'Search for my heart no longer. The beasts have eaten it.' It's the only French I know, but I haven't gotten to use it yet." The boy laughed at himself. "See that patch of color beside him? That's where Courbet had Baudelaire's mistress. But Baudelaire didn't want her to be immortalized with him, so he had Courbet paint her out."
"That proves it's a bad painting." Michael declared. "The artist letting his subjects tell him what to do? And it's sexist." Always a handy judgment. "No, it's dull, kitschy, compromised art. Repulsive."
The boy drew a quick breath, as if to argue, then released the breath in a sigh. "I like it," he said, nodded at Michael, and walked away.
Michael was sincerely indignant over the fate of Baudelaire's mistress, but he had condemned the painting only to make intelligent conversation. He had not intended to chase the boy off. He thought a moment, then followed the boy into a room with windows and sunlight.
The boy stood before another painting. He tensed his shoulders when Michael stopped beside him; he kept his eyes locked on the canvas.
The brass nameplate said, "Ingres." Michael's first impulse was to reopen conversation by saying the name aloud, but he was never certain what to do with the extra consonants. So he said, "Do you have plans for dinner tonight?"
The boy looked at him, surprised.
Michael was surprised, too. He had spoken so rarely during the past weeks his speech had lost touch with his thoughts. But it might be good to have company his last night in Paris. He made a slight smile, to prove he was in earnest. He considered apologizing for Courbet—it must be the boy's favorite painting—but that was best forgotten.
"Yes," said the boy. "I mean—no, I don't have any plans. Did you want to have dinner together?" The boy was suddenly very nervous and interested.
"Just a thought." Michael didn't want to sound desperate. "It's still early. We could go somewhere for drinks or coffee first. Unless you wanted to stay here a little longer."
"Almost closing time. This is my third visit in three days and I've already seen everything twice." The boy laughed at himself again—he really was a boy. "Coffee sounds great. Oh, I'm Tim. Tim Hart." His hand was soft and cold.
"Michael Sousza," said Michael, wondering if this was a mistake.
They left the museum on the side facing the Tuileries. It was late afternoon, and the warm September light stretched the shadows of trees, people, and pebbles across the sandy paths. Green, papery leaves were dusted with bronze; the city traffic sounded very far away. Michael thought about taking Tim up toward the Orangerie to show him what he had discovered a week ago: a terrace in the park where men arranged themselves along the balustrades and benches and eyed each other. Michael had walked through there every day since he stumbled upon it, never talking to anyone, never learning if the men were free or for sale, simply keeping in touch with his knowledge that this spot existed. He wanted to show Tim he knew about things that weren't in books or museums, but decided against it. The boy might think Michael was suggesting they go to bed together.
"Let's go over to the Left Bank," he suggested. "I know a few places near my hotel."
Tim was staying on the Left Bank too, but in a student hostel where he shared a room with five strangers. He stated the fact wistfully, as if explaining why they couldn't go back to his place. As if he already thought Michael had asked him out for that.
The thought felt different when it came from the other person.
"I'm on the Rue Dauphine," said Michael. "Do you mind if we swing by my room? I'd like to wash up first."
"Not at all!"
They walked toward the river and Tim began to talk eagerly about Europe: London, Munich, Florence, Rome. Loved Italy, hated France. The French were so aloof.
"They don't seem bad to me," said Michael. "But then, I live in New York."
"New York? Ah," went Tim, as if that explained something. He was from Illinois and was a junior at Ann Arbor, where he studied art history, of course. He was still young enough that his life could be summed up by his college and major.
They started across a bridge; the Seine looked like it was roofed with bridges. The water below streamed with pleats of green and bronze. Notre Dame stood way off to the left, bone white and square above the pastel trees. The afternoon light settled like old varnish on the buildings crowded together at the end of the bridge.
Tim suddenly stopped. He slowly turned around and took everything in, then leaned against the verdigrised railing and took in Michael.
"You know? I was terribly disappointed with Paris. Until now. It really is a beautiful city."
Michael nodded. The boy looked too soft, padded all around with baby fat. He was younger than anyone Michael had ever slept with, although that was really just one person. "How old are you, Tim?"
"Twenty," he said, as if it were a point of pride. "And you?"
"Twenty-three." Michael resumed walking, embarrassed to have brought up something so literal as age.
Tim was immediately beside him. "I guess New Yorkers age quickly. Emotionally, I mean. You're still quite attractive, you know."
Tim was with him only for sex, Michael decided. If they went back to Michael's room and did it, that would be the end of this. Michael would want to be alone when they were through, and maybe Tim would too. Michael preferred company at dinner tonight to company in bed, although what he really wanted was both.
They reached the other side of the river and the city closed in around them. The sidewalk was very narrow and Michael had to walk in front of Tim. He looked back at him to say, "I'm really thirsty right now. Let's just go straight to a café."
"You don't need to go by your room?" Tim sounded disappointed. "I've never been inside a Paris hotel." He looked annoyed, then confused. "Well, all right." He began to swat the canvas bag at his side.
"We'll have a drink and then go have a nice dinner somewhere."
"Not too nice," Tim muttered. "I'm low on cash."
"Didn't I tell you? I'm buying." Michael hadn't thought of that until now, but he hoped it might work as effectively as sex in keeping Tim with him. He wished he were back in New York, among older friends with whom he didn't have to play games.
Tim still hadn't given him an answer when they reached a corner and stood side by side again. Tim looked like he was about to say something. Finally, he stared at Michael and said, "Are you gay?"
Michael was stunned, the question was so unnecessary, so uncool. He began to smile, but the smile felt condescending, so he suppressed it. "Of course," he said, as kindly as possible. "Aren't you?"
The boy nodded. "Okay. Stupid question, but I had to be sure. If not, I was going to be a nervous wreck all night. Okay then. I have to ask the next question. Is there a chance you're interested in me the same way I'm interested in you?"
Michael was touched by the boy's openness, touched and worried for him. "Yes," he said calmly. "But let's spend some time together first. Then see how we feel about each other after dinner."
"Okay. Fair enough." Relieved, the boy burst out laughing. "You must think I'm a real geek," he said, without shame. "I'd never come right out and ask that back home. But here, what've I got to lose if I make an ass of myself? I'll never see the other person again."
"Don't let it bother you," Michael mumbled, and looked for the way to the Boulevard St. Germain. He was glad he had been spared the obnoxious, vulnerable stage Tim was still going through.
After a few blocks, Michael found what he was looking for: the Café de Flore. They took a place in the acre of round tables out front and Tim ordered a beer, Michael a cognac. All around them, well-dressed adults and casually dressed students chattered away in French, columns of smelly blue smoke rising from their plump cigarettes. What was left of the day fell in yellow scraps through the trees along the curb.
Tim gulped his beer, looked very serious and said, "Is it because of AIDS?"
"Is what?" said Michael sharply, then regained himself.
"Your wanting to know me first? I can tell you right off, I haven't been promiscuous. As I'm sure you can tell."
Michael made a slight shrug, which he tried to clarify with a philosophical wave of his hand.
"I've only done it with six guys and it's always been safe. Lucky for me, the things I like best are all safe." Tim spoke as if the people around them wouldn't understand English; Michael wasn't so sure.
"I was scared to do anything for the longest time because of AIDS. But I realize now I was just using it as another excuse not to take the leap. It's all so abstract to me. I know it's not a hoax, but that's what it feels like sometimes. Living in New York, you probably think about it differently. It's probably old hat to you by now."
There were so many things to say, Michael was tempted to say nothing. But if he were silent, Tim might think Michael had it. So Michael said, "You learn to live with it."
Instead of pressing further, Tim said, "I only came out six months ago. Started doing things, I mean. I've been telling people I'm gay ever since I was eighteen."
Luckily, Tim was young and needed to talk about himself. High-school crushes, glimpses of magazines, the novels read in the library, then the conversation after dinner with Mom and Dad: he went into it at length without fearing it might be "old hat" to Michael. Actually, it was all so innocent, so unlike the experience of Michael and everyone he knew it seemed sweetly foreign. Tim had discovered he was gay without any blood being shed, without even dirtying his hands. And then took two years to actually do anything. It was funny hearing the story told backward like that.
Michael finished one cognac, then another, sank down further in his chair and listened. Tim's parents sounded quite liberal and educated, Evanston a more enlightened place than Phillipsburg, New Jersey, but Michael did not feel envious. He could feel affectionate toward the boy from his superior position of experience. He wanted to tell Tim a little about that experience, as a way of preparing the boy for the pain ahead of him. But not yet.
Shifting his legs beneath the table that was little bigger than a dinner plate, Michael brushed his foot against something. That something brushed back, then pressed a knee against Michael's knee. Michael caught the knee between his knees, and lightly squeezed it.
Tim smiled. "You sure you don't want to eat a late dinner?"
"It's so nice here," said Michael. "Why spoil it?" But he held the knob of knee between his thighs and smiled back at Tim. For once in his life, he was the older man, the mentor, the seducer, although Tim didn't require seducing. Michael glanced at the stack of two saucers on the table and wondered if he was drunk. He hadn't eaten anything all day.
"What do you do?" And Tim giggled. "For a living, I mean."
"I'm a male stripper."
Tim giggled again. "I mean really."
"I'm a filmmaker."
"Really?" Tim paused, as if this too might be a tease. "Oh, like experimental shorts. Video or 16 millimeter? I guess nobody does Super 8 anymore."
So the boy knew about film as well as art and literature. Sublimation, Michael thought, those two years between knowing and doing. But he could put Tim in his place. "I did those in the beginning yes. But feature films now. Well, one feature anyway." Michael heard himself and liked the picture he presented. "Just a low-budget horror film. But one has to start somewhere."
"Yeah? Wow. I had no idea. What's it called? Maybe I saw it."
Excerpted from In Memory of Angel Clare by Christopher Bram. Copyright © 1989 Christopher Bram. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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