Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
He had not thought he’d be able to sleep, and indeed, for what felt like many hours he had lain awake, aware that he was dreaming and yet that he was still conscious, that beneath him he could feel the starched cotton of his bedsheets, and that the way he was resting, with his left leg bent into a triangle, would leave him sore and stiff the next day. And yet it seemed he had slept after all, for when he opened his eyes next, there were thin stripes of white light where the curtains hadn’t quite met, and the sounds of horses clopping through the streets and, outside his door, the maids moving back and forth with their buckets and brooms.
Mondays were always dreary for him. He would wake with the previous night’s dread undiluted, and usually he would try to rise early, even before Grandfather, so that he too might feel he was joining the slipstream of activities that animated most people’s lives, that he too, like John or Peter or Eden, had duties to attend to, or, like Eliza, places he needed to be, instead of only a day as ill-defined as any other, one he would have to endeavor to fill on his own. It was not true that he had nothing: He was titularly the head of the firm’s charitable foundation, and it was he who approved the disbursements to the various individuals and causes that, viewed collectively, offered a kind of family history—the resistance fighters leading the effort in the south and the charities working to house and reunite the escapees, the group advancing Negro education, the organizations addressing child abandonment and neglect, the ones educating the poor baying masses of immigrants arriving daily on their shores, the peoples one family member or another had encountered and
been moved by in the course of their lives and now helped in some way—and yet his responsibility extended only to the approval of the checks, and of the monthly tally of figures and expenses that had already been submitted to the firm’s accountants and its lawyers by his secretary, an efficient young woman named Alma who in practice ran the foundation herself; he was there only to offer his name as a Bingham. He also volunteered, in various capacities such as a well-brought-up, still-almost-young person might: He assembled packages of gauze and wrappings and herbal salves for the fighters in the Colonies; he knitted socks for the poor; he once-weekly taught a drawing class at the foundlings’ school his family endowed. But all of those endeavors and activities, combined, occupied only perhaps a week’s worth of hours every month, and so the rest of the time he was alone and purposeless. He felt at times as if his life were something he was only waiting to use up, so that, at the end of each day, he would settle into bed with a sigh, knowing he had worked through a small bit more of his existence and had moved another centimeter toward its natural conclusion.
This morning, though, he was glad to have woken late, because he was still uncertain how to understand the events of the night before, and was grateful that he might have a clearer mind with which to contemplate them. He rang for eggs and toast and tea and ate and drank in bed, reading the morning paper—another purge in the Colonies, its specifics withheld; a windy essay by an eccentric philanthropist well-known for his sometimes extreme views, raising again the argument that they must extend privileges of citizenship to the Negroes who had lived in the Free States before its founding; a long article, the ninth in as many months, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, and how it had remade the city’s commercial traffic, this time with large, detailed illustrations of its towering masts looming above the river—and then washed and dressed and left the house, calling out to Adams that he would have lunch at the club.
The day was chilly and sunny and had, it being well into the morning, that merry swinging energy to it: It was early enough so that everyone was still industrious and hopeful—today could be the
day that life made a delightful and long-dreamed-of pivot, that there would be a windfall or the southern conflicts would cease or just that there might be two rashers of bacon at dinner tonight instead of one—and yet not so late that those hopes might be left unanswered once again. When he walked, he generally did so without a particular destination in mind, letting his feet decide his direction, and now he turned right up Fifth Avenue, nodding at the coachman as he passed, who was hitching up the brown horse in the mews in front of the carriage house.
The house: Now that he was no longer within its walls, he hoped he might be able to consider it a bit more objectively, although what would that even mean? He had not spent the first part of his childhood there, none of them had—that honor had belonged to a large, chilly manse far north, west of Park Avenue—but it had been there that he and his siblings and, before them, their parents had retired for every important family event, and when their parents had died, carried off by the sickness, it had been to that house that the three of them had moved. They had had to abandon every possession in their childhood home that was made of cloth or paper, anything that might have secreted a flea, anything that could be burned; he had remembered crying over a horsehair doll he had loved, and Grandfather promising him he could have another, and when the three of them had entered their respective rooms in Washington Square, there were their former lives re-created for them in faithful detail—their dolls and toys and blankets and books, their rugs and gowns and coats and cushions. On the bottom of the Bingham Brothers’ crest were the words
—A Promise Kept—and in that moment, the siblings were allowed to realize that those words were meant for them as well, that their grandfather would fulfill whatever he told them, and in all the more than two decades they had been in his charge since, first as children and then as adults, that promise had never been disproven.
So complete was their grandfather’s command of the new situation in which both he and they had found themselves that there had been what he could only later remember as a near-immediate cessation of grief. Of course, that must not have been true, either
for him and his siblings or for his grandfather, suddenly bereft of his only child, but so astonished was David by, he now thought, the confidence, the totality, of his grandfather and the realm he created for them that he could not now imagine those years any other way. It was as if his grandfather had been planning since their births for someday becoming their guardian and their moving into a house where he had once lived alone, its only rhythms his own, instead of having it dropped upon him. Later, David would have the sense that the house, already capacious, had cleaved new rooms, that new wings and spaces had magically revealed themselves to accommodate them, that the room he came to call his own (and still did) had been conjured out of need and not simply remade into what it was from what it had been, a little-used extra sitting room. Over the years, Grandfather would say that his grandchildren had given the house purpose, that without them it would have been just a jumble of rooms, and it was a testament to him that the three of them, even David, accepted this as true, had come to truly believe that they had provided the house—and, therefore, Grandfather’s own life—with something crucial and rare.
He supposed that each of them thought of the house as his or her own, but he liked to fancy, always, that it was his especial lair, a place where he not just lived but was understood. Now, as an adult, he could occasionally see it for how it appeared to outsiders, its interiors a well-organized but still-eccentric collection of objects Grandfather had collected on his journeys through England and the Continent and even the Colonies, where he had spent time in a brief period of peace, but mostly, what persisted was the impression of it he’d formed as a child, when he could spend hours moving from floor to floor, opening drawers and cupboards, peering under beds and settees, the wood floors cool and smooth beneath his bare knees. He clearly remembered being a young boy and lying in bed late one morning, watching a band of sunlight that shone through the window, and understanding that this was where he belonged, and the sense of comfort that knowledge had brought him. Even later, when he had been unable to leave the house, his room, when his life had become only his bed, he had never considered the house
as anything but a sanctuary, its walls not just holding out the terrors of the world but holding together his very self. And now it would be his, and he its, and for the first time, the house felt oppressive, a place that he might now not ever escape, a place that possessed him as much as he did it.
Such thoughts occupied him for the time it took him to reach Twenty-second Street, and although he no longer wanted to enter the club—a place he frequented less and less, out of reluctance to see his former classmates—hunger drove him inside, where he ordered tea and bread and sausages and ate, quickly, before leaving and heading once again north, strolling all the way up Broadway to the southern end of Central Park before turning and walking home. By the time he returned to Washington Square, it was past five, and the sky once again was shading itself its dark, lonely blue, and he had time only to change and tidy himself before he heard, beneath him, the sounds of his grandfather speaking to Adams.
He had not expected Grandfather to mention the previous night’s events, not with the servants about, but even after they were in his drawing room and had been left alone with their drinks, Grandfather continued to speak only of the bank, and the day’s goings-on, and a new client, an owner of a substantial fleet of ships, from Rhode Island. Matthew arrived with tea and a sponge cake frosted thickly with vanilla icing; Cook, knowing David’s taste for it, had decorated the top with splinters of candied ginger. His grandfather ate his slice swiftly and neatly, but David was unable to enjoy it as much as he might, for he was too much anticipating what his grandfather might say about the previous night’s conversation, and because he was afraid of what he himself might unintentionally say, that he might in some way reveal his own ambivalence, that he might sound ungrateful. Finally, though, his grandfather puffed twice on his pipe and, without looking at him, said, “Now, there is another matter I’ve to discuss with you, David, but of course couldn’t do in the midst of last night’s excitement.”
This was his opportunity to once again offer his thanks, but his grandfather waved those away with the vapor of his smoke. “There
is no need to offer gratitude. The house is yours. You love it, after all.”
“Yes,” he began, for he did, but he was thinking still of those queer feelings he’d had earlier that day, when he was examining, for those many blocks, why the prospect of inheriting the house filled him not with a sense of security, but, rather, a sort of panic. “But—”
“But what?” asked Grandfather, now looking at him with a queer expression of his own, and David, worried he had sounded doubtful, hurried on: “I’m just worried for Eden and John, is all,” to which Grandfather flapped his hand again. “Eden and John will be fine,” he said, briskly. “You needn’t worry about them.”
“Grandfather,” he said, and smiled, “you needn’t worry about me, either,” to which his grandfather said nothing, and then they were both embarrassed, equally at the fact of the lie and at its enormity, so wrong that not even manners demanded a denial of it.
“I have had an offer of marriage for you,” his grandfather said at last into this silence. “A good family—the Griffiths, of Nantucket. They began as shipbuilders, of course, but now they have their own fleet, as well as a small but lucrative fur trade. The gentleman’s Christian name is Charles; he is a widower. His sister—herself a widow—lives with him, and they raise her three sons together. He spends the trading season on-island and lives on the Cape in the winters.
“I don’t know the family myself, but they have a very respectable position—quite involved in local government, and Mister Griffith’s brother, with whom he and his sister run their business, is the head of the merchant association. There is another sibling as well, a sister, who lives in the North. Mister Griffith is the eldest; the parents are still living—it was Mister Griffith’s maternal grandparents who began the business. The offer came to Frances, through their lawyer.”
He felt he should say something. “How old is the gentleman?”
Grandfather cleared his throat. “One-and-forty,” he said, reluctantly.
“One-and-forty!” he exclaimed, more vehemently than he had
intended. “I apologize,” he said. “But one-and-forty! Why, he is an old man!”
At this, Grandfather smiled. “Not quite,” he said. “Not to me. And not to most of the rest of the world. But, yes, he is older. Older than you, at least.” And then, when he said nothing, “Child, you know I don’t mean for you to marry if you don’t wish. But it
something we’ve discussed for you, it is something in which you’ve expressed interest, or I wouldn’t have entertained the offer at all. Shall I tell Frances you decline? Or would you like to have a meeting?”
“I feel I’m becoming a burden to you,” he murmured, finally.
“No,” Grandfather said. “Not a burden. As I said, no grandchild of mine has need to marry unless he wishes. But I do think you might consider it. We needn’t give Frances an answer immediately.”
They sat in silence. It was true that it had been many months—a year, perhaps; more—since he had last had any offers, or even any interest, though he didn’t know whether this was because he had declined the last two proposals so quickly and with such indifference, or whether it was because word of his confinements, which Grandfather and he had worked so diligently to conceal, had finally become known to society. It was true that the idea of marriage made him to some measure fearful, and yet was it not also worrisome that this latest offer was from a family unknown to them? Yes, they would be of adequate station and standing—Frances would not have dared to mention it to Grandfather were they not—but it also meant that the two of them, Grandfather and Frances, had decided they must now entertain prospects from beyond the people the Binghams knew and with whom they associated, the fifty-odd families who had built the Free States, and among whom not only he and his siblings but his parents, and Grandfather before them, had spent their entire lives. It was to this small community that Peter belonged, as well as Eliza, but it was now apparent that the eldest Bingham heir, were he to marry, would have to find his spouse from beyond this golden circle, would have to look to another group of people. They were not dismissive, the Binghams, they were not exclusive, they were not the sort of people who did not associate with merchants and traders, with people who had begun their lives in this country
as one kind of person and had, through diligence and cleverness, become another. Peter’s family was like that, but they were not. And yet he could not but feel that he had disappointed, that the legacy his ancestors had worked so hard to establish was, with his presence, being diminished.