In Edmund White's most moving novel yet, an American living in Paris finds his life transformed by an unexpected love affair. Austin Smith is pushing fifty, loveless and drifting, until one day he meets Julien, a much younger, married Frenchman. In the beginning, the lovers' only impediments are the comic clashes of culture, age, and temperament. Before long, however, the past begins to catch up with them. In a desperate quest to save health and happiness, they move from Venice to Key West, from Montreal in the snow to Providence in the rain. But it is amid the bleak, baking sands of the Sahara that their love is pushed to its ultimate crisis.
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September 11, 2001
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Excerpt from The Married Man by Edmund White
Austin was twenty years older than everyone else in the gym--and the only American. It was a place for serious people who wanted a quick workout--pairs of students from the nearby branch of the Paris university system or solitary young businessmen who trudged about with Walkmen plugged into their ears making a dim, annoying racket. Not very many Frenchmen wanted to build huge muscles, at least not very many straight guys.
This was by no means a gay gym. It was just a small workout room that looked down through smudged glass panes onto a public pool below. The pool was Olympic size and even through the glass still reeked of hot chlorine. It had been built in the Belle Epoque and recently restored. Austin thought there might be more action in the pool and the shower rooms, but he didn't like swimming and he'd sort of given up on cruising. He wasn't young enough and what he had to offer--his accent, his charming if broken-down apartment, his interesting profession, his kindness--wasn't visible in a shower room.
For some time Austin had been looking occasionally at a particular newcomer. They had already exchanged two smiles and many glances, brilliant little flashes of curiosity in this unfriendly place where looks never lingered and even those guys who stood watch over someone lifting dangerously heavy weights never used the occasion as an excuse for striking up a conversation.
Now the younger man was struggling under a bar loaded with too much weight, nor had he secured the metal plates--he was about to let the whole thing go crashing to the floor. Austin came rushing up behind him, lifted the bar and put it safely back on the stand at the head of the board where the stranger was lying on his back. None of the other men seemed to have registered the near crisis; Austin could hear the Walkman of the guy next to them jittering away like cicadas in a tin can.
"Thank you!" the young man exclaimed in French as he stood up. He spoke in a deep, resonant voice, the sort of "voice from the balls" that so many Latin men cultivate. He scrutinized Austin intensely. Austin was highly flattered by the attention. He'd long admitted to himself that he was the sort of man who needed constant transfusions of interest and affection. If his phone didn't ring for a day or if he didn't have a dinner date lined up he was suicidal by dusk. If his date yawned he was ready to bolt from the restaurant or do a tap dance on the table. Now here was this young man who, if he wasn't exactly Austin's type, had become so by taking an interest in him.
"I could see that you were, perhaps, unfamiliar--"
"It's all completely new to me," the young man exclaimed. Austin noticed that his white shorts were cut high, which only emphasized the power of his legs, not in a sexual but rather in a boyish way. "Are you English?" he asked.
Austin had come to count on French people commenting on his accent. It not only provided them with a safe topic but he knew everyone under forty in France wanted to live somewhere in the English-speaking world, at least for a year or two.
"American." He anticipated the next question and said, "New York." Then the next and added, "Although I've been here eight years." Finally, he offered, "As you can hear, it's difficult to learn another language after forty." He wasn't fishing, he just wanted to lay to rest right away the question of his age. "Is this your first time here?" Austin asked.
"Yes. My wife comes here to swim. She's down there somewhere."
He waved toward the pool with a vague hand, although his glance remained fixed on Austin.
The young man asked Austin to show him how to do the exercise properly, but, though observing the demonstration politely, he scarcely took it seriously, as his bright eyes and slight smile suggested. He seemed too alive to the moment to pay any attention to it.
When asked, Austin said that he was a "cultural journalist" who was writing a book on French furniture of the eighteenth century.
The Frenchman happened to be in the small locker room dressing to leave at the same time as Austin. He turned modestly away when he pulled on his bikini underpants and revealed nothing but the expected hairy buttocks, full, even luscious. Austin was ordinarily alert to even the grubbiest sexual possibility. That's what he was always on the lookout for, but today he'd already picked up a hint of romance, as though this guy could be courted but not groped. They kept up their banter which, if overheard, would have sounded forced, schoolboyish, but it was melded and, somewhat, liquefied by the flow of their exchanged smiles, glances, nods.
When they were on the street the Frenchman said he had to rush back to work. He was an architect on the other side of Paris.
"I'd love to see you again," Austin said, knowing he had nothing to lose except his dignity, which he didn't care much about.
"Here's my number."
"Oh, you Americans are always so well organized with your calling cards. If you give me another, I'll write my number on it for you."
"Your home number?" Austin asked, pressing his advantage.
"My work number," the man said with a big smile.
Austin was surprised by the slight stiffening of his own penis. For weeks he'd been nearly impotent even in expert arms, and here he was, excited by a stranger's mere presence and the hint of a date. He liked that they were both dressed in coats and ties on a strangely warm day early in April at the wrong end of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
"Hey, what's your name anyway?"
"Really?" Austin said. "That's the name of the guy who just dropped me."
Julien smiled, Austin guessed, not at his misfortune but at the explicitness of his remark. Sometimes it's okay to be American, Austin thought; we have a reputation for being brazen we must live up to.