excerpt from 'Jack Holmes and His Friend'
JACK HOLMES AND HIS FRIEND
By Edmund White
Copyright © 2012 Edmund White
All right reserved.
Jack, who was from an eccentric Midwestern family, wasn't quite sure what a gentleman was other than someone who opened doors for ladies and didn't curse in mixed company. He'd gone to a boarding school, but one outside Detroit, which the sons of the "automobility" attended; they judged each other by their cars, not their manners or clothes. Although the schoolboys all had to wear coats and ties, their jackets were usually off the rack and were rumpled and styleless. Who would worry about clothes when he could tool around in a Corvette or Austin-Healey or Thunderbird up and down the leafy lanes of Bloomfield Hills or get into a drag race with an older businessman down Woodward Avenue?
Although Jack was bookish and refined after his own fashion, he was used to brash guys who lived in a loud, locker-banging, all-male world of muddy knees and broken noses and wolfed-down generic meals in the immense, pseudo-Gothic dining-hall they called the "cathedral of carbohydrates." In Detroit in the 1950s, no one earned extra points for reading, or for visiting Europe—well, okay, visiting it counted. Back then, it was still rare to travel abroad and cost a lot. The brainy daughter of rich Midwesterners might live with a French family for a semester in Tours, which was supposed to have the best accent. By the end of six months, she could barely express herself in French, but she'd have lost that extra ten pounds and acquired dark, becoming clothes and a convincing French "r" (you could hear the returning American girls on the Queen Mary asking each other confidentially, "How's your 'r'?"). The boys didn't even consider doing anything so painful and embarrassing as tackling another language; they were all going to study automotive engineering in a normal Midwestern university.
Jack would have gone abroad, but his father, a chemical engineer, couldn't see the point. He sent his son to the University of Michigan because it was midway between his house in Cincinnati and his summer cottage on Walloon Lake, Michigan. Jack had been accepted at Harvard and had even won a merit scholarship there, but it turned out that Jack's father earned too much for Jack to receive anything other than a parchment for his pains. And Jack's father said he'd be damned if any son of his would attend a pinko school like Harvard.
Even at the University of Michigan, Jack managed to declare himself a socialist, while at the same time he joined his father's fraternity, a Southern one where they wore masks with eyeholes and held swords up during the initiation ceremony and pledged to protect the purity of Southern womanhood. They didn't have any black or even Jewish members (the handsome, dark-haired Jews all belonged to ZBT down the street), but Jack had plenty of Jewish friends and Chinese friends (he was majoring in Chinese art history), and he even knew a black poet whom all his bohemian friends admired intensely: Omar. When Omar talked to them about Rilke, they could hear the clack and rustle of angel wings.
Jack had feared that his father would oppose his studying Chinese art history but no, he thought that China was the future and Jack was smart to be out ahead. What Jack didn't bother to tell his father was that he was studying mid-Ching painting and classical Chinese and that he had no interest in mastering contemporary conversational Mandarin. Nor did he much want to visit China; the land of his dreams lay entirely in the past. He took a few conversation classes to throw his father off his scent, but he was too embarrassed by the strange tonal sounds to be able to speak the language out loud. He did help one of his teachers translate a history of Buddhist art written in classical Chinese.
Jack was a tall, rangy guy with stomach muscles as hard as a turtle's shell. His straight hair was called dirty-blond, but in fact he kept it squeaky-clean with Breck shampoo, though he knew that product was for women. Girls who liked him said he had a "boy-next-door look," but if they really liked him, they said they could imagine him as the pitcher on a baseball team. Any hint of praise or interest in him made him perk up foolishly (which he instantly regretted). He wondered if he'd been undernoticed by his strange parents.
In boarding school, the boys had watched movies on Saturday evenings with girls from their sister school. The boys, especially the boarders, were as awkward as monks around women, and it was hard to convince them to talk to their guests during the cookie-and-cider reception after the projection. The day boys, who usually weren't around on weekends, were a lot more relaxed when they happened to attend. They treated women as if they were members of the same species at least, whereas the boarders gulped and turned funny colors and jabbed each other in the ribs, almost as if a girl were something like a newly purchased thoroughbred horse, valuable but hard to ride.
Jack got along with girls and boys because he was a classic "good guy." He had a way of addressing a total stranger with a highly specific, off beat question. Standing in front of a student photo exhibit, he might say to a stranger, without any introduction, "You can tell all these pictures were taken by the same person, can't you? They all look like people in the 1930s." Odd as the approach might be, it required nothing from his interlocutor but an opinion. It suggested they'd known each other forever.
He never had to think about how far he'd go with a girl, since they were all so closely chaperoned. On an April Sunday he could walk hand in hand over the extensive grounds with his friend Annie, but she seemed as cool and chaste as he felt, and anyway she'd often invite another girl to tag along. They were ironic about the "pre-ruined" Greek temple with its columns that had been built fallen, since fallen columns were more picturesque than standing ones, or about the fat, murky goldfish in the Jonah pool, or about the heavily fringed Edwardian splendors of the Booth House with its silk lamp shades and hand-carved oak breakfronts. Jack and his friends were always ironic, but often they didn't know if they were serious or not about any given subject. Irony was just a way of feeling superior instead of insecure.
In college in Ann Arbor, he had a brainy New Yorker for a roommate in the freshmen dorms. Howard was a slob who slept through most of his classes and never washed his clothes. In the evenings, when they were both awake and studying, they'd play a record of Prokofiev's sprightly Classical Symphony over and over again. The acidic variations on Mozart sounded as if a powdered wig had been given a lemon rinse. Howard was very thin, grinned all the time, and exposed his large and very pink upper gums and hunched his meager shoulders forward and shook with inaudible laughter. As actors said, he was "indicating" laughter. Howard was satirical but somehow kind at the same time.
Jack knew that Howard, as a New York Jew, was studying him with amusement as a type, a Midwestern WASP. Jack realized that each of them thought of himself as something usual, standard, and considered the other one to be exotic, a deviation. They got along very well. Jack had lived in boarding school for six years and could tolerate, even enjoy, almost anyone; he just drew a pink chalk line down the middle of the room and said to Howard that he should keep his filth on one side and never invade Jack's space. Howard raised his shoulders and shook all over with pretend laughter at this WASP "anality," as he labeled it. Jack chuckled when he thought how far he was from the conventional WASP of Howard's imagination. Jack felt that he was entirely self-invented, and that Howard conjured up images of tutors and Parcheesi tournaments, of trout fishing in cold-water private streams and fumblings with debs in the backs of Packard convertibles—when nothing could be farther from the grotesque chaos of his childhood.
Jack got good grades, and his fraternity prized him, especially since at least ten of his brothers were on probation. They were all lovable and hopeless—they were mediocre athletes, wretched scholars, bad even at organizing a float for the Homecoming Parade. They drank so much that they quite regularly barfed on their dates and blacked out nightly and had to be told the next morning about their latest excesses. They'd look sheepish and amused, almost as if they were subjects who'd walked out onto a ledge under hypnosis and couldn't remember anything. The fraternity did have a nice pseudo-Tudor house with half-timbering on the outside and a carved wood balcony on the inside where Caruso had once sung, but the whole place was falling apart.
The brothers talked a lot about pussy, but Jack wondered where they actually bedded their dates. At all "Greek" events there were chaperones, and almost no one had a car, though a few seniors rented private rooms just off campus. The girls, moreover, lived mostly in sororities, where there were curfews. Once the weather warmed up (the last two weeks of May), couples drifted off at night into the arboretum.
Then there were all the bohemian girls who joked and called themselves beatniks, but they despised the frat boys. The bohemians lived in dorms, too, but during the day or early evening they seemed to be available. You could tell the bohemian girls by their black stockings and black turtleneck sweaters and by their black boyfriends and regular presence in the middle room of the Student Union. Jack and the Greeks were in the first room, nerds and foreigners in the third; the bohemians were invariably in the middle room. Jack would get high on coffee and chatter endlessly to Wendy or Alice or Omar or Rebekkah in the middle room. He was supposed to be studying for biology or writing a paper on Buddhism, but when the talk got going, he was able to convince himself that this wit and fire, this laughter, and above all these theories about life and love—that all this was more important and original than mere "academics." At boarding school, every moment of the day had been regulated and measured by bells, but here the classes were few, and if a student skipped a lecture, no one was taking attendance. Maybe it was typical of Jack's excessively pliable nature that both the bohemians and the fraternity boys felt so at ease with him and counted him as one of them. He was a "nice" boy who knew how to please others; one of his friends thought he should become a diplomat. But in his heart Jack knew he wasn't a natural pleaser. At the end of an evening with friends he was always exhausted.
By the time he was a junior, he was living in a little room in the back of an old wood house. He shared a bathroom with two other guys, but that seemed no hardship to him, used to group living as he was. One of the guys on his floor was a painting student who never smiled, or if he did, it was out of sync and came long after everyone else had finished. Then he'd concede a pained smile with just half of his mouth, as if he'd figured out that that was what human beings did and he should join them and make an effort.
His name was Paul, and two or three times he invited Jack into his room for a cup of espresso, which he brewed in an Italian pot on his hot plate.
"Hey, neat," Jack said, intrigued by so much rumbling to produce the merest black sludge, and added, "I really like these big baseball players." He nodded toward a canvas so large it would take careful maneuvering to get it out the side entrance and down the fire escape. Some patches were detailed and realistic (a player's face, another's mitt), but the rest was in soft focus and drowned in circumambient color—a wash of green exceeding the stadium grounds and floating over into the surround, a blue sky leaking down onto the stands.
"Really?" Paul asked, lifting one eyebrow. But his delayed twitch of a smile showed he was pleased.
Paul's off -kilter responses made Jack uneasy. Jack didn't like complexity. Maybe because his childhood had been so stormy that now he longed for peaceful moral weather and the first hint of turbulence would cause him to flee south.
And yet he found Paul appealing—his long, hairless body, pale as pie dough, crimped here and there to bulge up as a big nose, a narrow, downturned mouth, an outsize, restless Adam's apple. He had no hair under his arms, which Jack knew because Paul painted bare-chested, often wearing nothing but his Jockey shorts, which looked two sizes too small, too tight and dubiously yellow; the elastic on one leg was broken and dangling down like some scary nodule formerly alive. His nipples were ridiculously small and dark: Nordic berries stunted by the cold. His ribs were as visible as hands around a cup. Wendy, his broad-hipped girlfriend, bursting out of her faded jeans and jiggling recklessly around in her University of Michigan sweatshirt, her glossy black ponytail perched on one shoulder like an expensive pet, was always smiling guiltily. She knew that her plentiful body amused, but might potentially off end, her austere lover. Everyone teased Wendy and everyone loved her, as if she were a prehistoric fertility symbol found one day among the tea things. But Paul often seemed pained, as much by Jack's calculated nice-guy blandness as by Wendy's alternating exuberance and sheepishness. Just by being quiet and staring at them hard, Paul could provoke self-conscious reactions in his friends.
Jack imagined that by the time Paul was forty he'd be sour and closed off , but since now he was just twenty he was still curious and still strangely underrehearsed for his life. He didn't know quite yet how he worked or what he wanted.
One day Paul invited Jack in for a cup of tea; he was painting in the nude. Jack was seated on a folding chair that Paul had cushioned with newspapers to protect Jack's clothes.
Jack felt uneasy, he couldn't say why. For chrissake, he hadn't set this deal up. Of course, maybe it was the way bohemians thought, or didn't think—it didn't mean a thing to them, clothes optional ... he was certain his face was bright red. Paul would be sure to notice and laugh at him for being so square. Yes—that's what it was: a test for Jack that Jack was flunking.
Paul said, as he handed him the cup, "Maybe you'd pose for me one day. I couldn't pay you much—maybe two bucks an hour."
"Yeah. Maybe. My schedule—"
"Okay, okay," Paul said, smiling sarcastically as if Jack had admitted some sort of defeat.
That night, as he lay in his narrow bed, which was too short for his lanky body, Jack turned so often that eventually his feet were hanging out in the cold. Finally he had to sleep on his side with his knees drawn up to his chest. He slowly rubbed one foot against the other for warmth. He resented Paul for putting him in the same derisory category as big-ass Wendy. It would be so easy to fall into thinking that Paul was somehow superior with his stinting smiles, his cool arrogance, the cobalt blue diagonal of paint across his ribs, his loping walk, tucked-in buttocks, scrotum as red and veined as an autumn leaf in the rain, and the penis as big and dark as a bloodsucker when you suddenly notice it in horror and salt it and pull it off.
After that Jack avoided Paul, except he would sometimes hear Wendy laughing, mid-sex. Her laughter rang through two doors and her ecstasy aroused him. He could imagine her writhing on his own cot, spilling over the margins, her arms rising, turning her round melons into long gourds, full at the bottom and narrow at the top. Paul's hips were only half the breadth of Wendy's. Jack had noticed the difference. Jack became so horny that he ended up jerking off while picturing them, Paul's buttocks dimpling as he thrust, Wendy exulting as she held an invisible tambourine in each hand.
Excerpted from JACK HOLMES AND HIS FRIEND by Edmund White Copyright © 2012 by Edmund White. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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