Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
Even now, he was aware that, of the two of them, Edward was by far the more mysterious, the more compelling figure. He was David Bingham, and everything about him was known. What would it be like to be someone anonymous, someone whose name meant nothing, who was able to move through life as a shadow, who was able to sing a music-hall ditty in a classroom without word of it traveling among everyone one knew, to live in a frigid room in a boardinghouse with a neighbor who woke when others were settling in their parlors for drinks and conversation, to be someone who was beholden to no one? He was not so romantic as to desire this, necessarily; he would not much like to live in this cold little cell so near the river, to have to fetch water every time one wanted to have a drink instead of merely giving a single sharp yank to a bell pull—he was not even convinced he would be capable of it. Yet to be so known was to trade adventure for certainty, and therefore to be exiled to an unsurprising life. Even in Europe, he had been
passed from acquaintance to acquaintance of his grandfather’s: His path was never his own to forge, for someone had already done it for him, clearing obstacles he would never know had once existed. He was free, but he was also not.
So it was with genuine longing that he began asking Edward about himself, about who he was and how he had come to live the life he had, and as Edward talked, as naturally and fluently as if he’d been waiting for years for David to come into his life and question him, David found himself aware, even as he listened with interest to Edward’s story, of a kind of new and unpleasant pride in himself—that he was here in this unlikely space, and that he was talking to a strange and beautiful and unlikely man, and that, although he could see that beyond the mist-shrouded window the sky was becoming black and that therefore his grandfather would be sitting down to dinner and wondering where he was, he made no move to make his apologies, no move to leave. It was as if he had been bewitched and, knowing it, had sought not to fight against it but to surrender, to leave behind the world he thought he knew for another, and all because he wanted to attempt to be not the person he was—but the one he dreamed of being.
Over the following weeks, he saw Edward first once, then twice, then three, then four more times. They would meet after Edward’s class or his own. For their second meeting, they maintained the pretense of going to the café first, but thereafter they went directly to Edward’s room, and there they stayed as late as David dared before he had to return to his hansom, waiting for him in front of the school, and hurry home before Grandfather announced himself for dinner—he had been not angry, but curious when David had come in so late after that first encounter, and although David had evaded his questions then, he knew they would soon become more insistent if there were to be a second incident of tardiness, and he was unequipped to answer them.
Indeed, he was unsure how, if forced, he might characterize his friendship with Edward. At night, after he and Grandfather had had their drinks and talk in the drawing room—“Are you quite all right?” his grandfather asked, after David’s third secret meeting. “You seem unusually…distracted”—he would retire to his study and record in his diary what he had learned of Edward that day, and then sit and reread it as if it were one of those mystery novels Peter liked, and not things that he had actually heard firsthand.
He was twenty-three, five years younger than David, and had attended, for two years, a conservatory in Worcester, Massachusetts. But although he had had a scholarship, he hadn’t the money to earn his degree, and so had moved to New York four years ago to find work.
“What did you do?” David had asked him.
“Oh, a bit of everything,” had been the reply, and this had turned out not to be untrue, or at least not completely: Edward had been, for brief periods, a cook’s assistant (“Ghastly. I can scarcely boil water, as you’ve seen for yourself”), a nanny (“Terrible. I neglected my charges’ education entirely and just let them eat sweets”), a coal-man’s apprentice (“I’m simply not sure why I even thought it might be work for which I’d be the least suited”), and an artist’s model (“Much duller than you’d imagine. One perches in an impossible position until one’s aching and cold while a class of simpering dowagers and leering codgers make attempts to sketch you”). Finally, though (through means which remained unexplained), he found work as a pianist in a small nightclub.
(“A nightclub!” David was unable to stop himself from exclaiming.
“Yes, yes, a nightclub! Where else would I have learned all those inappropriate songs that so offend the Bingham ears?” But this last was said teasingly, and they smiled at each other.)
From the nightclub, he had received an offer to teach at the institute (this too was left unexplained, and David entertained a brief and satisfying fantasy of Matron marching down into a dark room, grabbing Edward by the back of his collar, and yanking him up a flight of stairs, down the street, and into the school); lately, he had been trying to supplement his income by giving private lessons, though he knew that finding such work would be difficult, if not near-impossible.
qualified,” David had protested.
“But there are many others more qualified and better credentialed than I. Come—you have nieces and nephews, do you not? Would your brother or sister ever hire someone like me? Or would they hire—be truthful, now—tutors trained at the National Conservatory, or professional musicians, to teach their darlings? Oh, no, don’t feel bad, you needn’t apologize; I know it to be true, and it is simply how things are. A poor and unestablished young man without a degree even from a third-rate seminary is not much in demand, and never shall be.”)
He enjoyed teaching. His friends (he offered no details of them)
teased him for his job, modest as it was in all ways, but he was fond of it, fond of the children themselves. “They remind me of what I was,” he said, though, again, he did not explain how. He, like David, knew that his charges would never be able to become musicians, might never even have the luxury of attending a musical performance, but he thought that he would at least be able to give them a spot of delight, of joy, in their lives, something they might carry with them, a source of pleasure they might always be able to call their own.
“That is how I feel, too,” he’d cried, excited that someone should see the children’s education as he did. “They may never play music themselves—none of them will, most likely—but it will give them a certain refinement of the spirit, won’t it? And isn’t that worthwhile?”
At this, something, some cloud, had moved quickly and briefly across Edward’s face, and for a moment, David wondered if he had said something to offend. But “You are very right” was all his new friend said, and then the conversation had turned to a different subject.
All this he had recorded, along with the details Edward told him of his neighbors, which made him laugh and marvel, too: an elderly bachelor who never left his room, and yet whom Edward had seen lower his shoes in a bucket to a waiting bootblack on the sidewalk below; the longshoreman, whose snores they could occasionally hear purring through the thin wall; the boy in the room above his, who Edward swore spent his days giving dancing lessons to elderly ladies, the evidence the noise of their heels clopping across the wood. He was aware that Edward thought him naïve, and also of his delight in astonishing him, of trying, often, to shock him. And he was happy to comply: He
being astonished. In Edward’s presence he felt both older and younger, and weightless, too—he was being given the opportunity to relive his youth, to finally experience that sense of abandon that young people felt, except he was now old enough to know to treasure it. “My innocent,” Edward had begun calling him, and although he might have felt patronized by the affection—for it
patronizing, was it not?—he did not. To Edward, he was not ignorant after all but innocent, something small
and precious, something to be protected and cherished from everything that existed outside the boardinghouse walls.
But it was what Edward had told him on their third meeting that had since come to occupy much of his time and many of his thoughts. They had been intimate for the first time that day, Edward standing, mid-sentence (he had been speaking of a friend of his who was a math tutor for a purportedly rich family of whom David had never heard), and drawing the curtains, and then matter-of-factly joining him on the bed, and although this was of course not his first encounter—he, like every man in the city, rich or poor, would from time to time take a hansom to the eastern mouth of Gansevoort Street, a few blocks north of the boardinghouse, where men like him would head to the southern row of houses, and men who wanted women to the northern row, and the ones who wanted something else altogether would go to the western end of the street, where there were a few parlors that fulfilled more specific desires, including a single, tidy house that was meant only for female customers—it felt extraordinary, as if he were relearning how to walk, or eat, or breathe: a physical sensation that he had for so long accepted as feeling one way but that had been revealed to be something entirely different.
Afterward, they had lain together, and so narrow was Edward’s bed that they had both had to turn on their sides, else David would have tumbled out altogether. They laughed about this, too.
“Do you know,” he had begun, moving his arm from beneath the wool blanket, which he found almost unbearably scratchy, like being covered with a skein woven from nettles—I shall have to get him another one, he thought—and placing it atop Edward’s soft skin, beneath which he could feel the ridges of his rib cage, “you have told me so much of yourself, but you have still not told me where you are from, or who your people are.” This reticence had initially intrigued him, but now he found it slightly troubling—he feared that Edward was ashamed of his origins, that he might think David would be disapproving. And yet he was not that sort of person: Edward had nothing to fear from him. “Where are you from?” he asked, into Edward’s silence. “Not from New York,” he continued. “Connecticut? Massachusetts?”
Finally, Edward spoke. “The Colonies,” he said, quietly, and at this, David was speechless.
He had never known someone from the Colonies. Oh, he had seen them: Every year, Eliza and Eden hosted a salon in their home to raise money for the refugees, and there was always an escapee, usually recent, to speak tremblingly about his or her experience in the lovely, honeyed voice that the Colonists had. Increasingly, they came not for religious reasons, or to escape persecution, but because, in the decades since it had been defeated (though its citizens would never use this term) in the War of Rebellion, the Colonies had become steadily more impoverished—not entirely, of course, and not ruinously so, but it would never again have the sort of wealth it once did, much less the sort that the Free States had accumulated in the century-odd period since its founding. But it was not these kinds of migrants that his sister and her wife hosted but the rebels, the ones who came north because to remain where they had been born and raised would have been to court danger, because they wanted to live freely. The war was over but the fighting continued; there were many for whom the Colonies remained a miserable place, full of skirmishes and late-night raids.
So, yes, he was not unacquainted with the chaos of the Colonies. But
was a different matter entirely:
was someone he was coming to know, with whom he had spoken and laughed, and in whose arms he now lay, the both of them unclothed.
“But you don’t sound like you’re from the Colonies,” he said at last, and at this, to his relief, Edward laughed.
“No, I don’t—but I have lived here for many years,” he said.
Slowly at first, and then in a rush, his story emerged. He had arrived in the Free States, to Philadelphia, as a child. The family had lived for four generations in Georgia, near Savannah, where his father had been a schoolteacher at a boys’ school. When he was almost seven, though, he had announced that they were to leave on a trip. There were six of them: he, his mother, his father, and his three sisters—two older, the third younger.
David calculated. “So this would have been in seventy-seven?”
“Yes. That autumn.”
What followed was a typical escapee’s tale; before the war, the southern states had disapproved of the Free States, but did not adjudicate their citizens’ movements through the nation. After the war, however, and the south’s subsequent secession from the Union, it became illegal for those in the Free States to travel to the south, now renamed the United Colonies, or for the Colonists to travel north. Yet many of the Colonists did so anyway. The trip north was arduous, and long, and was generally made on foot. Common wisdom suggested that it was safest to move in a group, but that group ought not number more than, say, ten and ought not contain more than five children, as they tired quickly and were less likely to remain calm in the case of a patrol’s appearance. One heard dreadful stories of aborted attempts: of children being torn, wailing, from their parents and, it was rumored, sold to local families to work as farmhands; wives being separated from their husbands and forced to remarry; imprisonment; death. The worst stories were of the people like them, people who came to the Free States in hopes of living legally. Not long ago, Eliza’s guests had been two men, recently arrived, who were traveling with their friends, another couple, from Virginia. They were less than half a mile from Maryland, whence they would carry on to Pennsylvania, and had stopped to rest against an oak tree. There they lay, in each other’s arms, but just as they had begun to relax, they heard the first hoofbeats, and immediately leapt to their feet and began running. But the second couple was slower, and when they heard the cries of their friends as they fell, the first couple did not turn back but instead ran harder and faster than they had ever dreamed themselves capable. Behind them, closer and closer, drew another set of hoofbeats, and it was only by meters that they made it across the border, and only then that they turned, and saw the patrol, his face obscured by his hood, pulling tight on his horse’s reins, skidding to a halt, before raising his rifle at them. It was illegal for a patrol to cross the border in order to claim an escapee, much less kill one, but everyone knew that it took only a single bullet to render that law useless. The couple turned and ran again, with the horse’s whinny echoing in the air behind them for what seemed
like miles, and it was not until the next day, once they were safely in the state’s interior, that they allowed themselves to weep for their friends, not only because they had imagined beginning their lives in the Free States together but because everyone knew what happened to people like them who were caught: beatings, burnings, torture—death. Telling the story in Eliza and Eden’s parlor, the men had wept again, and David, like everyone else in attendance, had listened in spellbound horror. That night, back at Washington Square, he had thought of how dearly blessed he was to have been born in the Free States; how he had never known and would never know such barbarism as those gentlemen had endured.
Edward’s family had been alone on their journey. His father had not hired a smuggler, who, if he was trustworthy (and some were), greatly improved your chances of a successful escape; they had not traveled with another family, which was preferable because it meant one couple could sleep while the other looked after the children. From Georgia, the trip required around a fortnight, but by the end of the first week, the weather had grown chilly, and then bitter, and the family’s food reserves were nearly depleted.
“My parents would wake us very early, at daybreak, and my sisters and I would forage for acorns,” Edward said. “We couldn’t risk building a fire, but my mother would pound them into a paste, and we would eat it mashed atop hardtack.”
“How awful,” he murmured. He felt foolish—but there was nothing else he might say.
“Yes—it was. Most awful for my younger sister, Belle. She was only four and didn’t understand that she had to be quiet; she only knew she was hungry and didn’t know why. She cried and cried, and my mother had to hold her hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t give us away.”