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Authors: Matthew Stadler

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Allan Stein

BOOK: Allan Stein
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This book made available by the Internet Archive.

For Larry Rinder

Acknowledgments

M
any people in many places have helped me. I'm grateful to them all. Among them are: Bernard Cache and Nicola Ehlermann; Jean-Baptiste Decavele and Kirsten Johnson; Gil, Franchise, and Blaise de Kermadec; Sylvia Calle; Miguel-Angel Molina; James Lord; Mme. Orsini at the Ecole Alsacienne; Mme. Gallinetti in Agay; the library staff at the Musee Picasso; the staff of the Village Voice Bookstore; Vincent Giroud, Pat Willis, and Timothy Young at the Beinecke Library at Yale University; Ulla Dydo; Renate Stendhal; Caiman Levin; Renny Pritikin; Jay Fisher and the library staff at the Baltimore Museum of Art; the staff at the Bancroft Collection in Berkeley; and Michael Stein. This project began thanks to the Guggenheim Foundation and was completed thanks to the Whiting Foundation, both of which granted me support when I needed it.

"What is the use of being a boy if you grow up to become a man, what is the use?"
  

— GERTRUDE STEIN

   

 Allan Stein

                  W
e arrived at noon and left our bags with a woman who said she worked for the hotel. There was no one else on the platformwhen the train pulled away, onlt this stout, very serious woman, some complacent mongrel edging along a ditch 
sniffing for scraps, plus me and the boy. She had a pushcart littered with dried flowers, and we put our bags on that. The hotel turned out to be more of a ruin, really, than a hotel, but she coundn't very well have said, Hello, let me take your bags, I work for the ruin. Off she went, with the flowers and the bags, down the one narrow road toward town.

     I was light-headed from the air, which was breezy and, after two days of freakish winter snow without proper mittens or what-have-you, at last springlike and warm. Ocean and pine and dust mixed with heady currents of momosa and the fresh iodine tang of seaweed left stranded on the rocks by an outgoing tide. The boy stared at the sea, probably exhausted by his fever and my having kept him up all night with the cool washcloth and the wine. It was unnaturally beautiful. Red, crenelated rock broke from the scruffy pine headlands, crumbling toward the sea, carpeted in patches with lavender, rosemary and scrub brush. The sea was blue like metal. Where it touched the rock there was no blending, just the sharp brick-red rock against the cold metal sea. The strand of beach 
between the rigid headlands was white, the sand imported from some other shore so that it looked false, like a fancy ribbon or prize strung across the flushed bosom of a very determined young farm girl. (I remember her standing in a meadow of bluebells, this particular girl—not a farm girl at all, really, as it is my mother I am recalling, whose image was suggested by the falseness of the beach at Agay— sunshine raking the steep wooded hills that bordered "our meadow," and a goat she taunted to rage so she might show me how to vault over the animal as it charged, placing her two hands on the nubs of its horns, her legs in an elegant, inverted V sailing over the befuddled goat, whose violence turned to distraction when the target disappeared. The sea was visible there too, which is maybe why I thought of her.)

     I will list the features of this final vista the boy and I shared: the disappearing train, a slinky metal worm, crawling along the edge of the rocks until it vanished beyond the third headland; small groves of plum trees in the broad, shadowed canyon carved by the river on its course from the hills to the sea; that woman with the flower cart, distant but still visible, pausing to shake dirt from her shoe, on her way through town to the hotel; signs, in French of course, pointing one way to AGAY, CANNES, NICE and the other to ST.-RAPHAEL, MARSEILLE; a calendar (notice how neatly these details triangulate our location) that was unreadable, obscured by distance and the warped glass of the stationmaster's office window; the boy's face (this my view), pale from sickness but utterly enchanting still, the wide gap between his rabbit teeth, small even nose, and brown eyes just slightly too close so that I kept focusing on the corners where they teared; a rounded chin and big mouth so soft he looked like he might still be suckling (he was fifteen); long, dirty, sand-colored hair, dull and stringy, pushed behind his wide blushing ears. The noon sun raised a painful glare off the platform and the boy put on dark glasses, which made him look like a pop star. The sky was squashed and 
bruised blue. To the south, beyond the sea's curving horizon (Africa down there), distance sucked all order from the sky and left it washed out and miasmic.

      There is no hour of my life I do not see this vista obscured by signposts, around a corner, through trees, on a wrong turn past the ferry dock, or while scrambling to the edge of a sand cliff that is crumbling in the waves of another sea. I smell it in the scattering swirl of snow around an open-windowed car driving through mountains or on a crowded tram in some foreign city whose park has just opened its scrubbed, pale gardens of rosemary and gravel and lavender. It billows and collapses, this perpetual memory, continually verging on the real. The tram, my stop, and all the day's good intentions can be swallowed in the momentary rupture this constantly returning spectacle creates. In that breathless gap, marked by my reverie, space collapses into nothing and at the same time enlarges to monstrous, devouring proportions—rather like the panoramic view of a reader whose nose is buried in a book.

     The boy went to the wall of the stationmaster's office and sat on a slatted bench in the shade. He was still feverish, and standing in the sun made him dizzy. I had his blue knapsack with the bottled water, and I offered it to him. The hum and clatter of the rails, transmitting the train's prolonged departure, diminished to nothing. Insects could be heard, together with the waves collapsing on the shore below us. The breeze made a huffing sort of dull whistle through the station's entrance, where there was no door to prevent it. The boy spoke English when it suited him but just now he understood nothing, neither the word "water" nor the obvious gesture I made with the bottle itself. He stared past me, looking puzzled.

     Adults, so cruel, can be amused in the face of a child's suffering. Even while we comfort him, a part of us can be laughing at, for example, a hurt boy's exaggerated pout. This doesn't compromise our sympathy, it's just amusing in a way the boy can't possibly 
understand. It can't be explained to his satisfaction. When I cried my mother used to laugh out loud with pleasure and weep at the same time, while holding me. Her laughter was baffling and upsetting, and it made me cry all the more, which prolonged both the laughter and the embrace until in the end we were both just exhausted and sobbing, holding on to each other, having said nothing. I was never so cruel to the boy, but that was because I loved him and because my mother's cruelty had taught me not to be.

      I have loved boys even when they despised me. This boy did not despise me, but that is perhaps because we had so little in common. In the garden he picked flowers and taught me to name them in French, but I quickly forgot all the names. I could only remember what his mouth looked like as he said them. What else do I recall? His bare hips, slightly turned as he lay in bed beside me. A glimmer of sweat limning the hollow of his back. Night, its gradual onset, and then our long slow recline. The boy (he was French, fifteen, as I've said, and he believed I could deliver him from a humdrum life and family that had begun to seem tedious and doomed) turned to me across the bunched pillows and let his soft chin rest on my shoulder. His nipples had softened and lay flat. His skin was warm from an increasing fever. I think it's okay for you to take pleasure in these things. He took my hand in his and drew it along his ribs to his belly and hip, and then he let my fingers touch the perfect lip of his shallow belly button, where I stopped for a moment to dwell.

     His name is not important. I have called him, at one time or another, noodle boy,
le beau scout
, Blaise, Tony, your nipples are delicate as cherry blossoms, Miss Pants, my pal,
bougie
, Monsieur Steve, Mister Sister,
l'escalier, 
 g
arçon
  
 vérité
, thrush or dove, Dogan, bastard, son of a bitch, kike, Jew boy, death-star-in-pants, my White House ultimate love, Aki, anodyne, Alex, Rex, and Allan, but his given name was Stéphane . I lived with his family in Paris for two 
weeks before the events that brought us to the seaside ruin, and I'm certain they would be horrified by my story. I loved Stéphane ; I might have already mentioned that. Though my account will lapse into coarseness, flippancy, lies, and pure pornography, you must never forget that I truly and impossibly did love him. I lived with his family under a false pretense (which I will tell you about shortly), but we became friends and only the mother blames me for what happened to their son.

♦1  

M
y story began properly in the perpetual darkness of last winter (almost Spring, it was March) in the city where I used to live. Typically I woke up in the dark, 6 A.M. on most days, delivered from sleep by the icy stream of air spilling in my open window. The lighted clock of the railroad tower said six exactly. This round clock of black iron and creamt glass was the first thing I saw in the mornings. No one was ever on the way to work yet , nor had the lumbering buses and trucks started with their tentative, practice engine roars. (Later, in clouds suffused with the bright yellow and opium-poppy-orange of the risen sun, they would billow in every district of the city like grim flowers and release their belched gray emissions, which gave a pleasant taste to the winter air.) Iam a teacher, or had been, which explains the early hour.

Opening the window from bed, only my head and one arm untucked, was my first habit of the morning. It was independent of me, like shifting the buried, cool pillows to the top in the deep middle of the night, neither conscious nor strictly unconscious - something betweeen a dream and the address of a friend, which I had scribbled while dragging the phone as near to the table as it would go before absently tossing the newspaper on which I had written it into the garbage, along with the bones of a fish, so that it was lost both there
and in my mind until, when the brisk air of morning rushed in the open window, the whole address, neatly printed, leapt to view, bright and clear as the pinpoint stars, noisy as a child, and my mind's eye, conscious, grasped it again, though only for a moment. Minutes later, in the chaos of morning, it was gone, but so was any memory of having lost it.

All my thoughts were thin and brittle when I woke. My expansive dreams, ideas that multiplied like the crystalline spread of urine released into space (which I have heard is a beautiful sight, witnessed only by astronauts, the discharge turning golden and immense in the black void), became whole great cities of geometrical fantasy, complex and beautiful as hoarfrost, before shattering suddenly into unreadable shards at the slightest touch of fact or feeling (a crease in the pillow bothering my cheek, for example, or the sour taste scraped from my teeth by a dull, swollen tongue). The scrim of night outside was fragile. Its thin black mask could not hide the sheer abundance of the day ahead, nor the fact that it was morning already elsewhere, evening again elsewhere still, and a bright summer afternoon somewhere so distant one passed through two accelerated days in the metal shell of a jet airplane just to get there. My mother, Louise, once asked me what separates one place from another. I was only a child, and of course I had no idea. Other places, I guessed, which begged the question.

The oatmeal I ate before bed and left too close to the coiled heater was covered by a film of dry skin, which burst under the slightest pressure, my thumb for example, if it strayed too deeply gripping the bowl. I always licked this thumb, after its plunge, and the cold sweet paste it unearthed from beneath the film was enjoyable. I could hear my friend Herbert, in the adjacent apartment, bellowing fragments of popular songs, which he only ever partly remembered. Herbert and I were always awake early, even while the rest of the city slept. He is the curator at the city's art museum,
and they let him keep whatever hours he likes. I had no reason to be awake. The school where I taught resolved some misgivings that arose over Christmas by granting me a paid leave of absence.

I was accused of having sex with a tenth-grader in late December. This student, Dogan, was Turkish, lithe and very beautiful. I have a picture of him here on my wall. I tutored him on Saturdays at his apartment after his soccer practice, but I had never imagined molesting him until the principal suggested it by notifying me of the charges. Amidst the dust and gadgetry of the principal's meticulous office, his chair overburdened by the abundance he had squeezed onto its cupped seat, "had sex with the boy" floating in the well-lit air between us, my mind produced the following scenario (new to me):

On Saturday I arrive early. Dogan has showered after soccer, and water dapples the bare skin of his shoulders and chest. He's wearing shorts, drinking a soda when I get there, drying his wet hair with a towel. His lips and nipples enchant me. They have similar skin, rosy and supple, thinner and more tender than the olive skin around them. "Let's get started," I tell him. He takes the book and I stand behind his chair as he settles. "Read the first poem out loud." It is Garcia Lorca. I put my hands on his shoulders as he reads.

" 'No one understood the perfume of your belly's dark magnolia.' "

"Do you know that word, 'magnolia'?" Both my hands slip over his rounded shoulders, so that my fingers reach his nipples. He keeps still.

"Magnolia is like a tree or a bush, right?"

"Yes, and a flower. Keep going."

" 'No one knew you tormenting love's hummingbird between your teeth. A thousand Persian ponies fell asleep in the moonlit plaza of your forehead.' " Here he stops and I'm worried he will get up, but he stays still. "Hmm, forehead." It's the imagery, not my se
duction, that has him bothered. " 'As four nights through I hugged your waist, snow's enemy.' " He slouches further into the chair as he reads, almost lying there, and I see his shorts tent and then relax. I move both hands over his ribs, then back up, pinching his nipples when he gets to the line about his waist. He is so slim I can feel his heart moving in the skin beneath my hand. If he didn't want it I wouldn't do it, I think I'm thinking.

"Those words should all be quite clear," I say. "Just continue."

" 'Between plaster and jasmines your glance was a pale seed branch.' " He holds the book in one hand and pulls the waistband of his shorts down along his hip with the other. His thigh is pale where he has exposed it. I slide my hand over his belly and into his shorts, and he drops the book. His penis is very shapely, curving up onto his belly, and it's big enough to fill my hands. The glans of his penis has the same pink skin as his nipples and lips. I kneel between his legs and put it into my mouth. I pull it out and stroke the shaft and the head, pushing it around to inspect it. Dogan is tipped back in the chair with his hands entwined behind his head. His underarms are pale and damp.

I tell him, "Lorca's poem might appear to be unreal, but its dreamlike consistency can supplant waking reality by the force of a new coherence and logic, so that one becomes lost in it, like in fantasy or sleep, and the logical yardsticks of waking life that make its measure false are completely lost from view."

"Finish," he says, pouting. He bumps his thighs against my face, and I finish the blow job.

So you can imagine the difficulty I had denying the principal's charges. Why
hadn't
I molested the boy? For no good reason I could find, except maybe a failure of imagination. The fact I had done nothing seemed to be a mere accident of timing.

"I've never had sex with him," I said, in my defense.

"I believe you," our fidgety principal replied (and I believed he did believe). "I know you haven't done anything; the difficulty is proving it."

"What did the boy say happened?"

"Oh, he didn't say anything. His parents have accused you. They think he's covering it up because he likes it." He likes it? I was buoyed by this news, relieved to hear that my advances were welcome (never mind that there had been no advances, and no response and no victim, whose approval would still have been mere parental rumor).

"That's a relief."

"What is?"

"Nothing." Only minutes after hearing the accusation I was already planning a seduction. I cannot exaggerate how subtle and profound these chameleon confusions were. Placed at the scene of a multicar accident, I might become Florence Nightingale or a competent policeman directing worried traffic past the pools of blood and metal. At a boxing match, I have no doubt, I would've thirsted for the most horrifying results.

I pursued him. In the end I succeeded in committing the crime I had been falsely accused of. The parents never found out (no one did). As it turned out, sex was exactly what the boy wanted, and he became very much the happy, satisfied child they hoped he would be, where before, during the months that I was blind to him, he had been miserable and distracted (precisely the condition, noticed by his parents, that led to their accusation). In light of the boy's satisfaction, and the handsome salary I was then receiving for a great expanse of free time in which it became that much easier to meet him, clandestinely, for sex, I must admit that I sometimes looked on the whole horrifying affair as comical and ironic. After a while he grew bored or ashamed and stopped seeing me.

Herbert was the only friend I discussed this with. Others, especially my colleagues from school, were so moved by the weight of the "tragic accusations" that I could feel myself becoming tragic simply with the approach of their cloying, caring glances. Their eyes had the gleam and submerged instability of glaciers, vast sheets of luminous ice beneath which chasms creaked and yawned. One of them would appear uninvited before my table at a cafe, fat Mr. Stack the math teacher, for example, and shuffle toward me as if compelled by this hollowness behind his eyes, as slow and devouring as the ice that once crawled down the face of the continent. (My mother described a boyfriend of hers this way, one evening while she and I sat in a diner eating turkey sandwiches with gravy, a special treat she gave me far more often than I deserved. I was eleven years old. It wasn't five minutes before this very boyfriend appeared at the window with his face pressed to the glass, miming hello and making a fool of himself. She winked at me, then looked right past him, blowing smoke from her cigarette, saying nothing. Finally he went away.) I have none of my mother's cool reserve, so I avoided my colleagues when I could or, if forced by good manners to accept a repeated invitation to lunch, tried to speak cheerfully about my "new career" at Herbert's museum, a fiction I had devised, which, like most lies, eventually became true. I learned a great deal about art from Herbert during the few weeks that he helped me perpetrate this lie.

It first occurred to me one cold March afternoon while we sat at a cafe drinking. Herbert likes to drink and so do I. We are compatible in many ways, and being neighbors a great deal of our lives became shared; watering plants, checking the mail, and chitchat soon became socializing, shared travel, and a natural intimacy that has made me more comfortable with him than with anyone. This particular cafe (that cold March afternoon) was called Shackles, under which name it masqueraded as a pre-Victorian public house. Noth
ing in our city is pre-Victorian, except perhaps the famous lakes and the view out.

Dark wood, patterned velvet, newsprint advertisements for nineteenth-century ales (enlarged, scarred, and varnished for display), wall sconces fashioned from gas fixtures, and poor lighting made up Shackles's costume. Windows, curtained on brass rods at eye level, let us watch the street while easily hiding ourselves, if need be, by a simple crouch or slouch nearer the table. The unfortunate waiters were disguised as croupiers from Gold Rush-era Nevada (preposterous puffy sleeves, frilly red armbands frayed to the elastic, tidy vests with fake watch pockets and chains, plus anomalous cummerbunds), none of which kept the young students who took these jobs from supplementing the costume with beautiful earrings of silver or brass, chrome-pierced nostrils, ersatz-Maori cheek tattoos, braids and bangles twined about their elegant thin wrists or tied in colorful cloth cascading from their heads—the result being much more like science fiction than the vague nostalgia the owners must have been aiming for. One of the waiters was a lanky blond angel named Tristan, and Herbert adored him. Tristan was also a student at the university, and Herbert kept offering him an "internship" at the museum, to which the boy always replied, "It sounds completely fascinating," before shuffling off with our drink orders, and then nothing would come of it. We drank there whenever Tristan was working. When he wasn't working, Shackles became, to Herbert, "that hideous dive" and we went to a much nicer cafe near to our apartment house.

Our city is a virtual monument to indiscriminate nostalgia, sometimes (particularly when I look out my window at the nighttime buildings smartly lit by floods and spots) appearing like a grand, jumbled stage set for all the dramas of Western history. Muscular towers of concrete and glass, paid for by young stock wizards and software geniuses, offer a heady compote of modern forms and orna
ments, collapsing three hundred years of the Enlightenment — vaulting skylights, vast glass cathedrals, forests of tall columns appended by apses (in which vendors sell coffee, magazines, and snacks), death-defying elevated wings of stone, granite monstrances balanced on steel pins, and sprawling webs of metal and tinted glass suffused with natural light (for the enjoyment of employees taking their sack lunch in the firm's "winter garden")—into singular monuments, so that one can review an entire history without straying out-of-doors. Lighted in the manner of Rome's Campidoglio, these generous knickknacks dominate the city at night.

Their grand theatricality is sadly compromised, for me, by the awkward, insistent fact that I grew up here. My childhood lurks behind these bright scrims and screens, unruly and constant, threatening to overturn the whole facade and reveal the actual place to me. Once, for example, about a year ago, on a date with a young friend named Herman, keeper of the computers at our school, the trashy glamour of the Downtown Fun House with its strung lights and carnival noise (a fabulous room of tilting pinball machines delivering their trilled ringing scores and piles of loose change which Herman, drunk, said was like Tivoli Gardens, which he described to me in German or Danish, making elegant gestures with his beer and singing God knows what song, so that for a moment I was far away in Denmark or Germany with my beer and this grandly sophisticated friend singing on the verge of some world war or depression) all dissolved when I spun (some would say reeled), and saw a dull canvas mural of two leering clowns painted in a hideous all too familiar greenish-pink. It had hung beside the Skee-Ball lanes covering a hole for the last thirty years, in a sad, dirty corner of this house of marvels, an eddy of quiet amidst the swirling noise. I had only ever seen it once before, when I was ten, and I had pissed there because my mother insisted it was all right to do so. You had better just do it, she said, and I unzipped my pants and did. A policeman
came over, put his hand on my shoulder, and told me to stop. I could only stare at the clowns, which I've never really forgotten, and comply. Mama was kind enough to pretend it hadn't happened. "Look what some boy has done," she whispered, taking my hand and pulling me away from the corner.

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