Edmund White’s Our Young Man Explores the Trappings of Male Beauty
He joined a nearby gym upstairs at Sheridan Square. There was lots of loud joking among the folks working out; some of them were grotesquely muscular and one guy had to be helped up the stairs by his brother. Every day the guy ate an entire rotisserie chicken and drank a pint of bull’s blood. Guy couldn’t understand most of the gibes, but it seemed half the folks were gay and half normal and they were joking about which orientation was more amusing: “Just think of dick as pussy on a stick,” one of the loudmouths guffawed. The population of the gym was at the tipping point between gay and normal.
In the cedar-lined sauna a polite flabby man with a bushy gray mustache and expensive sapphire eyes and the ruins of good looks struck up a conversation. His nipples were the size of erasers. In Paris Guy would have been curt, but here in America folks appeared to be vulgarly friendly. When the man, un vieux beau, heard Guy’s accent he switched to a very good French. He said his name was Walt and he was from San Francisco, but he didn’t really work because he had to be free to travel with his older friend, a Belgian baron and banker who was always in transit between Gstaad and Phuket and Venice and Mykonos, you really should meet him, and what do you do, oh, I suspected as much, I know you’re not supposed to ask French people what kind of work they do, but hey, we’re in New York, and Walt laughed at the funny coincidence of that.
By chance they got out of the sauna at the same time and headed down the hall to the showers. Walt cupped one of Guy’s hot buttocks; Guy glared at him but Walt looked unfazed, as though he’d been innocently testing a melon for ripeness or as if someone else had done it. In the shower Walt continued smiling and chatting but he made a bit too much out of laundering his genitals. Although he was too fat, strangely enough Guy could imagine it would be fun to hold him. Walt had a body meant to be held.
When they were dressed and heading out, Walt wrote down Guy’s phone number. Under his taut silk briefs Guy could still feel the shocking familiarity of Walt’s hand, but it confused him. He’d never been attracted to anyone over thirty, at least not to his knowledge, but he was secretly thrilled by the infringement of that brazen touch. Maybe it was because such an obviously civilized man, who spoke French and skied at Gstaad, had done it — as if someone in evening clothes had knelt in the mud to suck his cock. After all, Walt vacationed in Thailand, he studded his conversation with references to yachts and international watering holes — and he’d also reached for Guy’s ass.
Guy realized how lonely he was. How starved for affection. In Paris he’d met an older woman named Elaine in an English class they were both enrolled in. She was an anesthesiologist who lived and worked in Versailles and was sort of perky but fundamentally dull, though she was always free and treated Guy as a kid brother. They never got beyond the formality of calling each other vous. In New York he didn’t even have an Elaine to share meals or movies with.
Because almost every man here in the Village stared at him, he’d learned to ignore them all. One had a nice torso but lady legs. Another had worked out his biceps but not his triceps. A third had a good body but ludicrous muttonchops. A fourth carried a man purse because his pale gabardine trousers had no pockets and looked sprayed on: In France only middle-aged bus drivers out on the town still carried them. Guy inventoried all these “faults” because he was just as critical of his own shortcomings — or guarded vigilantly against having any. But he knew that if he could connect with even a very ordinary person he wouldn’t look for that person’s flaws.
If he walked though Washington Square past a lone guy sitting on a bench, eyeing him, Guy would find it harder and harder to breathe as he got nearer, almost as if he were passing through a dangerous force field. His first weekend on Fire Island with Pierre-Georges (who was unexpectedly hairy in a swimsuit), Guy slowly descended the wooden stairs from the dunes to the beach wearing nothing but a tight white swimsuit and sunglasses, and a dozen men looked up from their towels at him and he was afraid he might faint. He thought to himself, I’ll never be this perfect again, an idea that made him sad. Something about being beautiful induced melancholy in Guy. He was aware of how brief his perfection would be—and then sneered at himself for being so narcissistic. Beauty was only a way of making money.
He thought he was like an expensive racehorse whom all the people around him kept inspecting and trotting not for his well-being but to protect their investment. Feel his withers . . . is he off his feed? . . . the grandstand seems to spook him, he needs blinders . . . his nose is warm. If he went out without sunglasses, Pierre-Georges came running after him to warn him against squint lines. If he gained an ounce, Pierre-Georges would pinch his waist and murmur, “Miss Piggy.” If he wore tight jeans, Pierre-Georges would hiss, “You look like a whore,” and make him change to something looser. Once, when he wore a filmy, sheer robe, Pierre-Georges whispered that most dismissive of French phrases, “Très original.” If he concentrated while doing a crossword, Pierre-Georges warned him he was getting elevenses — those vertical worry lines above his nose.
He and Pierre-Georges took a public speedboat at midnight from the Grove to the Pines with a bunch of overexcited guys and they all rushed into the Sandpiper. Guy was stoned and taller than most of the other men, and as he stared out over them he experienced a distinctly Buddhist feeling of evanescence. He looked out over the shirtless, muscled, tanned men and realized that right here, on this disco floor, there was such a concentration of fashion, slimming, money, bleaching, plastic surgery, psychotherapy — and all for naught. In a few years they’d all be old walruses, and in a few more, dead.
Guy met some hunky guys who’d improvised an outdoor gym with weights on the sand in front of their house over on Tuna and they said he could work out with them. One day a small, slender, but perfectly formed blond drew him aside and said, “You should do gymnastics — you’re a model, right? Do you want me to teach you?” The guy, wearing blue baggy shorts, jumped up onto parallel bars and walked down them with just his hands, then turned a somersault and extended his legs and pointed his feet. Guy exercised with him for an hour; apparently the man didn’t expect anything in return — these Americans were amazing!
He’d read an article in a beauty magazine about facial isometrics and every morning in front of the mirror he hooked his fingers in his mouth and stretched out his lips toward his ears, trying to close his mouth at the same time. Or he tilted his head back like a goose and pointed his chin and pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth to firm up his chin.