Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
Here was an engraving, from 1793, of Edmund’s wedding to the man he had lived with since the death of his wife in childbirth three years prior, and the first legal union between two men in their new country, officiated by Reverend Foxley, and another, from fifty years later, documenting the marriage of two of the Binghams’ longest-serving and most loyal footmen. Here was a drawing of Hiram being sworn in as mayor of New York in 1822 (a tiny Nathaniel, then just a boy, was shown standing by his side, his eyes lifted adoringly); here was a copy of Nathaniel’s letter to President Lincoln, pledging the Free States’ loyalty to the Union at the beginning of the War of Rebellion and, beside it, the original of Lincoln’s reply thanking him, a letter so famous that every Free State child could recite by heart its contents, the American president’s implicit promise to respect their rights of autonomy, the vow that had been invoked, time and time again, to justify the States’ existence to Washington, D.C.: “…and you shall have not only my eternal Gratitude but our sworn recognition of your Nation as one within our Own.” Here was the agreement drafted shortly after this letter between America’s Congress and the Free States’ own in which the latter promised to pay enormous taxes to America in exchange for their uncontested freedoms of religion, education, and marriage. Here was the legal declaration allowing Delaware to join the Free States shortly after the war’s end, a voluntary decision that had nonetheless once again imperiled the country’s existence. Here was the charter from the Free States Society of Abolitionists, cofounded by Nathaniel, which provided Negroes passage through the country and financial assistance to resettle in America or the North—the Free States had had to protect itself from an influx of escaping Negroes, as its citizens of course did not want to find their land overrun with them, and yet were also sympathetic to their miserable plight.
America was not for everyone—it was not for them—and yet
everywhere were reminders of the careful, constant work that had been and was still being done to appease America, to keep the Free States autonomous and independent: Here were the early plans for the arch that would crown the Square, commemorating, as did the Square itself, General George Washington, that the Binghams’ next-door neighbor had had built five years ago, from plaster and wood; here were the subsequent drawings of the arch, now to be rebuilt in glittering marble quarried from Bingham family land in Westchester, for which David’s grandfather—who had bristled at the idea of being upstaged by a minor businessman who lived across Fifth Avenue from them, in a house not quite as stately—had largely paid.
All these David had seen many times before, but even so, he, like the others, found himself perusing everything as carefully as if it were altogether new to him. Indeed, the room was hushed, the only sound the women’s swishing silk skirts, the men’s occasional coughs and cleared throats. He was examining Lincoln’s spiky hand, the ink faded to a dark mustard, when he felt rather than heard the presence of someone behind him, and when he straightened and turned, he saw it was Charles, his expression shifting between surprise and happiness and sorrow and pain.
“It is you,” Charles said, in a small, strangled voice.
“Charles,” he replied, not knowing how to proceed, and there was a silence before Charles bumbled onward.
“I heard you were sick,” he began, and, after David nodded, “I’m very sorry to sneak up on you like this—Frances invited me—I had thought—that is to say—I do not wish to embarrass you, nor for you to think I was trying to catch you unawares.”
“No, no—I didn’t think that. I have been sick—but it was important to my grandfather I come, and so”—David made a helpless gesture with his hands—“I did. Thank you for the flowers. They were quite beautiful. And the card.”
“You’re welcome,” said Charles, but he looked so unhappy, so distraught, that David was about to step toward him, thinking he might collapse, when Charles instead moved to him. “David,” he said, in a low, urgent voice, “I know this is neither the place nor the
time for me to speak to you like this, but—I am—that is to say—do you—why have you not—I have been waiting—” He was quiet, his movements contained, but David froze, thinking that everyone in the room must sense the fervor, the anguish, that surrounded the man, and that everyone too must know that he was the cause of such anguish, that he was the source of such distress. Even in his horror, for Charles and for himself, he could see how Charles had been affected—his jowls gone slack, his round, good-natured face blotchy and damp.
Charles was opening his mouth to speak again when Frances appeared at his elbow, patting him on the arm. “Charles!” she said. “My goodness—you look as if you’re to faint! David, do get someone to fetch Mister Griffith some water!,” and there was a general parting of the crowd as she led Charles to a bench and Norris slipped away to find some water.
But before Frances escorted Charles away, David had seen the look she darted at him—disapproving; disgusted even—and he abruptly turned to leave, understanding that he must get away before Charles recovered and Frances sought him out. As he did, though, he nearly collided with his grandfather, who was peering over his shoulder at Frances’s back. “What on earth is happening?” Grandfather asked, and, before David could form an answer, “Why, is that Mister Griffith? Is he feeling ill?” He began moving toward Charles and Frances, but as he did, turned around to look at the room. “David?” he asked the space where his grandson had once stood. “David? Where are you?”
But David had already left.
When he opened his eyes, he was for a moment bewildered—where was he? And then he remembered: Ah, yes. He was at Eden and Eliza’s, in one of their bedrooms.
Since fleeing the party two nights ago, he had been staying at his sister’s house on Gramercy Park. He’d not heard a word from his grandfather—although Eden, before disappearing for her class the following morning, had assured David that he was livid—or from Edward, to whom he had sent a brief note, or from Charles. He was, at least for the present, spared from explaining himself.
Now he washed and dressed and visited the children in their nursery before going downstairs, where Eliza was in the parlor, kneeling on the floor in her trousers, the carpet covered with fuzzing balls of yarn and gray woolen socks and stacks of cotton nightshirts. “Oh, David!” she said, looking up and giving him one of her beaming smiles. “Do come in and help me!”
“What are you doing, dear Liza?” he asked, crouching next to her.
“I’m assembling these supplies for the refugees. See, each bundle gets a pair of socks, two nightshirts, two of these balls of yarn, and two of these knitting needles—they’re in the box next to you. You tie them like so—here’s twine and a knife—and then put the finished packages into this box, here, near me.”
He smiled—it was difficult to feel too despairing around Eliza—and the two of them fell to their tasks. After they had worked in
silence for several minutes, Eliza said, “So, you must tell me about your Mister Griffith.”
He winced. “He is not mine.”
“But he seemed rather nice, or what I saw of him anyway, before he took ill.”
nice, very nice indeed.” And he began to tell Eliza of Charles Griffith—of his kindness and generosity; of his sense of industry; of his practical nature, with its unexpected flights into the romantic; of his authority, which never shaded into pedantry; of the heartbreaks he had suffered and the elegant sense of forbearance with which he bore them.
“Well,” said Eliza, after a pause. “He does sound lovely, David. And it does sound as if he loves you. But—you do not love him back.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I do not think I do.”
“And why not?”
“Because,” he began, and then realized what his answer would be: Because he is not Edward. Because he did not feel like Edward did in his arms, because he did not have Edward’s sprightly manner, Edward’s unpredictability, Edward’s charm. Compared with Edward, Charles’s consistency felt like stodginess, his solidity like timidity, his industriousness like dullness. They both, Edward and Charles, wanted companions, but Charles’s companion would be a fellow in complacency, in regularity, whereas Edward’s would be a fellow in adventure, someone bold and brave. One offered a vision of who he was, the other of who he hoped to become. He knew what life with Charles would be. Charles would leave for work in the morning and David would stay home, and when Charles returned in the evening, there would be a quiet dinner together and then he would be obliged to submit to Charles’s meaty hands, his prickly mustache, his overly enthusiastic kisses and compliments. Occasionally, he would accompany Charles to a dinner with his business associates—Mister Griffith’s handsome, rich, young husband—and after David had excused himself, Charles’s friends and colleagues would congratulate him on his catch—young and lovely
a Bingham! Griffith, you sly thing, what a lucky man you are!—and
Charles would chuckle, embarrassed and proud and besotted, and that night he would want to be with David again and again, padding into his bedroom and lifting up a corner of his bedcover, his paw reaching for him. And then, one day, David would look at himself in the mirror and realize that he had become Charles—the same thickened waist, the same thinning hair—and realize too that he had given his last years of youth to a man who had made him old before he needed to be.
But ever since Edward had made his proposal, David had had a different daydream, of a different kind of day. He would return from whatever he would do on the silk farm—perhaps he could become a documenter of the trees, making botanical sketches of them and overseeing their health—to the bungalow in which he and Edward lived together. There would be two bedrooms, each with a bed, in case they were someday reported and their house raided, but once the night had drawn its curtain over the land, it was to one room they would repair, and it was in that room, in that bed, where they would do whatever they wished, a never-ending continuation of their encounters in the boardinghouse. To live a life in color, a life in love: Was that not every person’s dream? In less than two years, when he was thirty, he would come into some of his fortune, the part bequeathed him by his parents, but Edward had not even mentioned his money—he had mentioned only him, and their life together—and so how, and for what reason, could he say no? True, his forefathers had fought and toiled to establish a land in which he was free, but had they not also ensured and therefore encouraged a different kind of freedom, one greater because it was smaller? The freedom to be with the person he desired; the freedom to place above all other concerns his own happiness. He was David Bingham, a man who always behaved correctly, who always chose deliberately: Now he would begin again, just as his great-great-grandfather Edmund had, but his would be the bravery of love.
The recognition of this made him feel light-headed, and he stood and asked Eliza if he might use her hansom, and she said he might, though as he was leaving she plucked at his sleeve and brought him close to her. “Be careful, David,” she said, gently, but he only
brushed her cheek with his lips and hurried down the stairs to the street, understanding that he must speak the words aloud in order to make them real, and he must do so before he set to deliberating once more.
He’d realized on the way over that he’d no way of knowing whether Edward would be at the boardinghouse, but up he went, and when Edward opened the door, David was at once in his arms. “I will go,” he heard himself saying. “I will go with you.”
What a scene it was! Both of them crying, crying and grabbing at each other, at each other’s clothes, each other’s hair, so that if you were watching them you would not be able to tell whether they were in a state of violent mourning or of ecstasy.
“I thought for certain you had decided against it after I’d not heard a reply from you,” Edward confessed after they’d calmed themselves somewhat.
“Yes, to the letter I sent you four days ago—telling you I’d told Belle I had hopes of convincing you and asking you to do me the favor of letting me try again.”
“I received no such letter!”
“No? But I sent it—I wonder where it could be!”
“Well—I—I’ve not been home, as such. But—I shall explain later,” for again, the urge, the passion, had overtaken them.
It was only much later, as they lay in their usual positions in Edward’s hard little bed, that Edward asked, “And what has your grandfather said to all of this?”
“Well, you see—I haven’t told him. Not yet.”
“David! My dearest. What shall he say?”
Just then, there it was: the slightest of tears in their happiness. But “He shall come around,” David said, staunchly, more to hear himself say it than because he believed it. “He will. It may take some time, but he will. And anyway—he cannot stop me. I am an adult, after all, no longer under his legal protection. In two years, I shall come into part of my money.”
Beside him, Edward moved closer. “Can he not withhold it from you?”
“Certainly not—it’s not his to withhold, after all: It’s from my parents.”
They were quiet, and then Edward said, “Well—until then—you needn’t worry. I will be drawing a salary, and I shall take care of both of us,” and David, who had never before had anyone offer him financial sustenance, was moved, and kissed Edward’s upturned face.
“I have saved almost every penny of my allowance since I was a child,” he reassured Edward. “We shall have thousands, easily. I do not mean for you to worry about me.” Indeed,
would take care of Edward, he knew. Edward would want to work, because he was industrious and ambitious, but David would make their lives not just bold but comfortable. There would be a piano for Edward, and books for him, and everything—rose-hued Oriental carpets and thin white china and silk-upholstered chairs—that he had at Washington Square. California would be their new home, their new Washington Square, and David would make it as familiar and pleasant as he could.
They lay there through the afternoon, and then into the evening, and for once, there was nowhere for David to be: He did not snap awake from his doze only to panic at the sight of the darkening sky, frantically dress, and leave Edward’s beseeching arms so he could bolt back to the hansom and implore the coachman—why: Was he
he!—to go as fast as he could, as if he were back in school, a child about to miss the final bell, after which the doors to the dining hall would be locked and he would have to go to bed without his supper. That day, and then that night, they slept and woke, slept and woke, and when they finally rose to boil some eggs over the fire, Edward stopped him from checking his pocket watch. “Why does it matter?” he asked. “We have all the time we want, do we not?” And instead he was set to slicing a loaf of brown bread, which they toasted over the flames.
The next day they woke late, and talked and talked about their new life together—of the flowers David would plant in their garden, of the piano Edward would buy (“But only after we have become secure,” he said earnestly, and David had laughed. “I shall buy you one,” he promised, spoiling his own surprise, but Edward shook his
head: “I do not want you spending your money on me—it is yours”), of how much David would like Belle, and she him. Then it was time for David’s class—he had been absent the previous two weeks, and had told Matron he would hold a special class on Thursday instead of Wednesday—and he made himself dress and go see his students, whom he instructed to draw whatever they pleased, and then drifted among them as they did, glancing occasionally at their sketches of lopsided faces, of dogs and wild-eyed cats, of crudely executed daisies and pointy-petaled roses, smiling all the while. And after, when he returned home, there was a freshly made fire, and a table of food he had given Edward money to buy, and Edward himself, to whom David now told stories of his afternoon—stories of the sort he had once told Grandfather, which he blushed to remember: a grown man with only his grandfather for company! He thought of the two of them, their quiet nights in his grandfather’s drawing room, his retreats afterward to his study, where he would draw in his notepad. It had been an invalid’s life, but now he had been restored to health—now he was cured.
He had sent back Eden and Eliza’s hansom with a note the evening of his arrival at Edward’s, but on the third night, there was a thumping on the door, and David opened it to find a slattern of a maid, holding out a letter, which he took and replaced with a coin.
“Who is it from?” Edward asked.
“Frances Holson,” he frowned. “Our family lawyer.”
“Well, read it—I shall turn to face this wall and pretend I have gone to another room, thus giving you some privacy.”
I write with unfortunate news. Mister Griffith has taken ill. He became feverish the night of the museum opening—your grandfather saw that he reached home safely.
I cannot be certain what has transpired between you, but I can tell you that he is devoted to you, and that if you are the man I know
you to be and have known since he was a small boy, then you will do him the kindness of calling on him, especially as he believes there is an understanding between you and him. He was to have left for the Cape directly after the party, but has been forced to stay longer. And not only forced, I suspect—he has wanted to, in hopes of seeing you. I hope your conscience and good heart will oblige him.
I see no reason to mention any of this to your grandfather.
Sincerely, F. Holson
Frances must have learned of his whereabouts from Eden, who had no doubt learned it from her driver, that traitor, though he could not but be grateful to their longtime lawyer and family intimate for her discretion—as scolding as her note was, he knew she would not betray him to his grandfather, for she had always indulged him, even when he was a small boy. He crumpled the paper in his hand, hurled it into the fire, and then, in defiance of Frances, slipped back into bed, waving away Edward’s concerns. But later, as they once more lay in each other’s arms, he thought of Charles and was overcome with sorrow and rage: sorrow for Charles, rage at himself.
“You are so serious,” Edward said to him, softly, stroking his cheek. “Will you not tell me?”
And so, finally, he did: of his grandfather’s proposal, of Charles’s offer, of Charles himself, of their encounters together, of how Charles had fallen in love with him. His earlier imaginings, that he and Edward would laugh together about Charles’s bumbling gestures in bed, now made him prickle with shame, and were at any rate not to be. Edward listened quietly and sympathetically, and as he did, David felt himself become more regretful: He had treated Charles abominably.
“The poor man,” said Edward at last, feelingly. “You must tell him, David. Unless—unless you are in fact in love with him?”
“Of course not!” he said, hotly. “I am in love with you!”
“Well, then,” said Edward, pressing close to him, “you truly must tell him. David, you must.”
“I know,” he said. “I know you’re right. My good Edward. Let
me just stay with you here one more night, and tomorrow I’ll go to him.”
And then they agreed that they would sleep, for as much as they still wanted to talk, they were both very tired. So they blew out the candles, and though David thought he might be kept awake from worrying about the task he had to endure the next day, he was not—it seemed that he had only to lay his head against Edward’s sole, thin pillow and close his eyes when sleep blanketed him, and his concerns vanished into the murk of his dreams.