Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
Edward went to find the waitress to tell her they didn’t need the coffees, and the two of them shouldered past the table of students and the customers waiting for their bags of tea, and out into the street once more, which felt, for all its activity and life, a relief, spacious and quiet.
“It can get quite loud in there,” said Edward, “especially toward
late afternoon—I should have remembered. But it’s nice, usually, really.”
“I’ve no doubt,” he murmured, politely. “Is there somewhere else we can go?” For, although he had been teaching at the school for six months, it was not a neighborhood in which he dallied—his visits there were short and purposeful, and he felt himself too elderly to frequent the pubs and inexpensive coffeehouses that made the area so attractive to students.
“Well,” said Edward after a moment’s silence, “we could go to my flat, if you could bear it—it’s very nearby.”
He was surprised by this offer, but also gratified—for was this not exactly the kind of behavior that drew him to Edward initially? A promise of free-spiritedness, a blithe disregard for conventions, a dispensing of old modes of behavior and formality? He was modern, and in his presence, David felt modern as well, so much so that he accepted straightaway, emboldened by his new friend’s irreverence, and Edward, nodding as if he’d expected this answer (even as David was momentarily stunned by his own boldness), led him first north and then west on Bethune Street. There were handsome houses on this street, newly built brownstones in whose windows tapers of candles flickered—it was only five in the afternoon, but already the night was drawing around them—but Edward strode past them all to a large, shabby, once-grand structure quite close to the river, a mansion of the kind David’s grandfather had been raised in, although in ill condition, with a swollen wooden door that Edward had to tug at repeatedly to open.
“Watch the second step; there’s a stone missing,” he warned, before turning to David. “It’s not Washington Square, I’ll grant you, but it’s home.” The words were an apology, but his smile—that beam!—made them into something else: not quite a boast, perhaps, but a statement of defiance.
“How did you know I live on Washington Square?” he asked.
“Everyone knows,” Edward replied, but in a way that made it sound as if living on Washington Square had been David’s own accomplishment, something worthy of congratulation.
Once inside (having taken care to avoid the troublesome
second step), David could see that the mansion had been converted into a boardinghouse; to the left, where the parlor would be, was a breakfast room of sorts, with a half-dozen tables of different styles and a dozen chairs, also of different designs. He could tell, by just a glance, that the furniture was poorly made, but then he noticed, in a corner, a handsome, turn-of-the-century secretary of the kind his grandfather had in his own parlor, and moved to examine it. The wood had not been polished in apparently months, and its finish had been destroyed by some inferior oil; its surface, when he touched it, was sticky, and when he brought his hand away, his fingers were padded with dust. But it had once been a fine piece, and before he could ask, Edward, behind him, said, “The proprietress of this place was once wealthy, or so I’ve heard. Not Bingham wealthy, of course”—there it was again, a mention of his family and their fortune—“but moneyed.”
“And what happened?”
“A husband given to excess gambling, who then ran away with her sister. Or so I’ve been told. She lives on the top floor, and I rarely see her—she’s quite elderly—her distant cousin manages the place now.”
“What’s her name?” David asked—if the owner had truly once been rich, his grandfather would know of her.
“Larsson. Florence Larsson. Come, my room is this way.”
The carpet on the staircase was frayed in some places, worn clean through in others, and as they climbed the flights, Edward explained how many boarders lodged there (twelve, including him) and how long he’d lived there (a year). He seemed not a bit embarrassed by his surroundings, its poverty and disrepair (water had discolored the posy-print wallpaper, rendering it a haphazard pattern of large, irregular splotches of yellow), nor to be living in a boardinghouse at all. Of course, many people lived in boardinghouses, but David had never met one, much less been inside this kind of building, and he looked about him with curiosity and some small measure of trepidation. How people lived in this city! According to Eliza, whose own charity work involved the resettlement and housing of refugees from the Colonies and of immigrants from Europe, the conditions
of most new residents were deplorable; she had told them of families crammed ten to a single room, of windows that went uncaulked even in the coldest weather, of children who were scalded while edging too close to a grateless fire in a wretched attempt to warm themselves, of roofs that wept rain directly into the living quarters. They would listen to these stories and shake their heads and Grandfather would cluck his tongue, and then the talk would turn to something else—Eden’s studies, perhaps, or a show of paintings Peter had recently seen—and Eliza’s deplorable residences would fade from their memories. And yet here he was, David Bingham, in a home of the kind none of his siblings ever would have dared enter. He found himself aware that he was having an adventure, and then ashamed at his pride, for, in truth, being a visitor demanded no kind of bravery at all.
On the third-floor landing, Edward turned right and David followed him to a room at the end of the hall. Around them, all was silent, though as he unlocked his door Edward held a finger to his lips and pointed to the door next to him: “He’ll be asleep.”
“So early?” he whispered in return. (Or was it in fact so late?)
“He works nights. A longshoreman—he doesn’t leave the house until past seven or so.”
“Ah,” he said, and once more, he was struck by how little he knew of the world.
They entered the room, and Edward shut the door quietly behind them. It was so dark David was unable to see anything, but he could smell smoke and, faintly, tallow. Edward announced that he’d light some candles, and with each hiss of the match, he watched as the room clarified itself into shapes and colors. “I keep the curtains closed—it’s warmer that way,” Edward said, but now he drew them open, and the space was revealed at last.
It was smaller than David’s study at Washington Square, and in one corner was a narrow bed, over which a rough wool blanket had been pulled tight and neat. At the foot of the bed was a trunk, its leather peeling in strips, and to its right was a wooden wardrobe that had been built into the wall. On the other side of the room was a meager slice of table, atop which sat an old-fashioned oil lamp and a
sheaf of papers and a blotter, and around it were stacks of books, all of them worn. There was a stool as well, obviously inexpensive, like the rest of the furniture. In the corner opposite the bed was a substantial brick fireplace, and hanging from an iron arm was a heavy, black, old-fashioned pot, the kind he remembered from his childhood, when he would stand in the back courtyard of their house uptown and watch the maids stir their laundry in great cauldrons of boiling water. On either side of the fireplace was a large window, against which the bare branches of the alder trees traced cobwebbed shadows.
To David, it was a remarkable place, like something out of the newspapers, and he once again marveled at his presence, the fact of his being in the room even more notable than the fact of being in the company of the person whose room it was.
Then he remembered his manners and returned his gaze to Edward, who was standing in the center of the space, his fingers laced together before him in what David knew, already, to consider an uncharacteristic expression of vulnerability. And for the first time in their brief acquaintance, David recognized a sort of tentativeness on the other man’s face, something he’d not seen before, and understanding this made him feel both more tender and braver as well, so that when Edward at last said, “Shall I make us some tea?” he was able to step forward—just a single step, but the space was so minute that it delivered him within a few inches of Edward Bishop, so close that he could see his each individual eyelash, each as black and wet as a stroke of ink.
“Please,” he said, and he kept his voice especially soft, as if anything louder would bring Edward to his senses and startle him away. “I would like that very much.”
And so Edward went to fetch the water, and after he left, David was able to inspect the room and its contents more closely and carefully, and to realize that the equanimity with which he had accepted the reality of Edward’s home was actually not equanimity at all, but shock. He was, David could now recognize, poor.
But what had he expected? That Edward was someone like himself, of course, a well-brought-up, educated man who was teaching
at the school as an act of charity, and not—as he was now made to consider was probable, even certain—for money. He had registered the beauty of his face, the cut of his clothes, and had assumed a kinship, a likeness, where none existed. But now he sat on the trunk at the end of the bed and looked at Edward’s coat, which he had laid there before leaving the room; yes, the wool and construction were fine, but the lapels (when he turned them over to examine them more closely) were just a touch too wide to be fashionable, and the shoulders had been worn to a satiny sheen, and a piece of the placket had been darned with rows of tiny stitches, and there was a pleat in the sleeve where a hem had been let out. He shivered a little, both at his miscalculation and also at what he knew to be a flaw in himself: Edward had not tried to deceive him; David had simply decided that Edward was one thing and had ignored the evidence to the contrary. He looked for signs of himself, and for others of his world, and when he found them, or something close enough, he had simply stopped looking, had simply ceased to see. “A man of the world,” Grandfather had greeted him the day after he’d returned from his yearlong tour through Europe, and David had believed him, agreed with him, even. But was he indeed a man of the world? Or was he only a man of the Bingham-created world, one that was rich and varied but, he knew, vastly incomplete? Here he was, in a room in a house that was less than a fifteen-minute hansom ride from Washington Square, and yet it was more foreign to him than London, than Paris, than Rome; he might have been in Peking, or on the moon, for all he recognized in it. And there was something worse in him as well—a sense of incredulity that spoke to a naïveté that was not just distasteful but perilous: Even as he had entered the house, he had persisted in thinking Edward lived here as a lark, as an affectation of poverty.
This knowledge, coupled with the room’s chill, a cold that felt almost wet, it was so pervasive and insistent, made him realize the absurdity of his being here, and he stood, re-buttoning his coat, which he’d not even removed, and was about to leave, to prepare to encounter Edward Bishop on the stairs and make his excuses and apologies, when his host returned, lugging a sloshing copper pot.
“Stand aside, please, Mister Bingham,” he said with mock formality, his earlier confidence already recovered, and poured the water into the kettle before kneeling to build a fire, the flames snapping to life as immediately as if he’d summoned them. All the while, David stood, helpless, and when Edward turned to face him again, he sat down on the bed, resigned.
“Oh, I shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to sit on your bed!” he said, bolting to his feet.
Edward smiled, then. “There is nowhere else to sit,” he said, simply. “Please.” And so David sat again.
The fire made the room seem friendlier, less bleak, the windows turning opaque with steam, and by the time Edward had poured his tea—“Not really tea, I’m afraid; only dried chamomile buds”—David felt less uncomfortable, and for a moment, there was a companionable silence, as the two of them drank.
“I’ve biscuits, if you want them?”
“No, no thank you.”
They both sipped. “We shall have to go back to the café again—earlier in the day, perhaps.”
“Yes, I should like that.”
For a moment, it seemed they both struggled to speak. “Do
think we should allow the Negroes in?” asked Edward, teasingly, and David, smiling back, shook his head. “I feel for the Negroes, of course,” he said, staunchly, echoing his grandfather’s opinion, “but it is best that they find their own places to live—in the West, perhaps.” It was not, his grandfather said, that the Negroes were uneducable—in fact, the opposite was true, and that was the trouble, for once the Negro became learned, would he not want to enjoy the opportunities of the Free States himself? He thought of how his grandfather would only refer to the Negro question as “the Negro issue,” never the Negro dilemma or the Negro problem, for “once we call it that, it becomes ours to solve.” “The Negro issue is the sin at America’s heart,” he often said. “But we are not America, and it is not our sin.” On this matter, as on many others, David knew his grandfather to be wise, and it had never occurred to him to believe differently.
Another silence, broken by only the sound of the china cups tapping against their teeth, and Edward smiled at him. “You are shocked by how I live.”
“No,” he said, “not shocked,” though he was. He was so stunned, indeed, that his conversational abilities, his manners, had deserted him altogether. When he had been a shy schoolboy, slow to make friends and often ignored by his classmates, Grandfather had once told him that all one had to do to seem interesting was to ask questions of others. “People adore nothing more than to speak of themselves,” Grandfather had said. “And if you ever find yourself in a circumstance in which you fear your place or standing—though you should not: You are a Bingham, remember, and the best child I know—then all you must do is ask the other person something about him- or herself, and they will forever after be convinced that you are the most fascinating individual they have ever encountered.” This was an exaggeration, naturally, but his grandfather had not been incorrect, and this advice, once followed, had, if not transformed his place among his peers, then certainly prevented what would have promised to be a lifetime of ignominy, and he had relied upon it on countless occasions since.