Read Arkansas Online

Authors: David Leavitt

Tags: #Gay

Arkansas (10 page)

Now Nathan wanted to know how Celia had ended up becoming such a famous chef. “After all, when I knew you, you never cooked anything except tea.”

“Not a long story. We bought the house, and when we couldn't afford the renovations, Seth suggested we should turn it into a cooking school. Everyone's doing it these days. Even the Medicis.”

“So did you study?”

“No, I just read cookbooks. I'm not very imaginative in the kitchen, but then again, if you want to cook good Italian food, I'm more and more convinced, you're better off
not
being imaginative. A friend of mine once said that Italian cooking is entirely about obedience.”

“And are they usually women who come?” I inquired.

“Usually. Sometimes couples. Also last year a group of gay men booked for a week. Then they canceled at the last minute because one of them had to go into the hospital. When they asked if they could get their deposit back, there was a little unpleasantness from Seth.”

“Too bad,” Nathan said. “Nothing more entertaining than a bunch of queens in the kitchen.” And clearing his throat, he mimicked: “‘Derek, what on earth do you think you're doing with that sauce? Don't you know how to make a roux?' ‘Of course I know how to make a roux!' ‘Oh, shut up, Dolores! You'll have to excuse her, Miss Hoberman, she's on the rag today!'” His voice went high and nasal in imitation of faggotry, and he laughed. And Celia laughed too, though halfheartedly. Among the many things about Nathan that hadn't changed was his contempt for anything queeny or camp, not to mention his unconsciousness that when he aped such voices, he sounded alarmingly like himself.

“Well, in any event, I returned the deposit.”

“So what do you do with these ladies all day?” I queried, to get away from death and Seth.

“Oh, it's not too difficult to keep them happy. What my brochure promises is a really authentic experience of Tuscany, and that's what I give them. They live in the house. They go shopping at the market. And of course, three or four times during the stay, Mauro takes them sightseeing. Siena, San Gimignano, Pienza—”

“Mauro?”

“My partner. A young chef from Rome.”

Nathan snapped a twig in half.

“Yes,” Celia continued, “I think I can fairly say that if I've got a good reputation in certain circles of New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island synagogue society, it's due in part, at least, to Mauro.”

“I will never understand the American female's appetite for unconsummated flirtation with Wops,” Nathan said. “One
o sole mio
and they're...”

Celia glared.

“So have you eaten Mauro's cooking?” I asked Nathan. “Is it to die for?”

“Beats me. I haven't even met him.”

“Mauro's been at his mother's place the last couple of days. He'll arrive here tomorrow.”

“The thing about Italian men—” Nathan began. “On second thought, maybe I'd better not say.”

“No, go on.”

“Well, for instance, there was this Italian guy at my gym last year. He was spending a year at Columbia Business School. Fabio. Very hot, maybe twenty-eight, with one of those incredible Italian hairy chests? And one afternoon we were both changing, and he forgot to lock his locker. So naturally, good homosexual that I am, I decided to sniff his underwear—”

“Oh, Nathan!”

“Now don't act all shocked, Celia! I refuse to believe that marriage has made a prude of you. Anyway, to get back to my story, I waited until the coast was clear, and then I opened the locker and lifted Fabio's underpants out of his pants. These very European little white briefs, no fly-flap. And I lifted them up and breathed like this.” He inhaled dramatically.

“And?” I asked.

“Eternity.”

“God, Nathan!” Celia said.

“No, Eternity the perfume. By Calvin Klein. I nearly suffocated. Such a disappointment! Not a single healthy natural male odor. Also, I'd always noticed that his shirts were perfectly smooth. You know the reason? He pulled his shirttails all the way
through
the leg holes of his briefs.”

“Yes, they all do that,” Celia said, as turning off the path, she led us over a slope, into a meadow rife with timothy, dung patties, patches of wild thyme. Not far off, some brown and white cows with heavy bells around their necks lowed and chewed their cud. On the other side of the sky from the flared sun, an opalescent moon rose, Montesepolcro glimmering in its beams like a jeweled crown.

A silence fell. I had the sense of an unspoken something between Celia and Nathan, a something comprised chiefly of love, yet alloyed with anger and disapproval. And this something was acting on Celia's need like a whisk on egg whites. Which didn't surprise me: a certain degree of resentment, we all knew, had always marbled their affection for each other. So when Celia suddenly turned to Nathan, and said, “This can't go on,” all that was new—all that seemed to reflect our long absence from her—was the authority that marked her tone. Almost placidly he smiled. “What can't go on, Celia?”

“All of this. It's like were constantly talking
around
the most important thing.”

“And what would that be, pray tell?”

“Well—how you
are.”

“How I am.” He smiled. “Okay, I'll tell you. Healthwise, fine, so far as I know. Otherwise, how I am is pretty unreal.”

“Unreal?”

“Like when you're a little kid, and you wonder if everything in a room disappears the instant you leave it. Did you ever wonder that?”

“No,” Celia said.

“Oh, I did. All the time. In those days I doubted every reality except my own. In fact it's only lately, since Martin died, that I've felt the reverse.”

We gazed at him in confusion.

“I mean, that everything's real
except
me.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, to give you an example, a couple of weeks ago, in New York, I was leaving this bar. It was in a really seedy part of the East Village. And I noticed a woman walk by on the street, a young woman. Pretty. She was wearing a fuzzy pink bathrobe tied around her waist with one of those pink bathrobe belts, and fuzzy pink slippers, just like my mother used to have, and she was just walking, back and forth, back and forth, along this terrible street with piss on the walls and crack vials. And suddenly it occurred to me that maybe she wasn't a crack addict or street person, but someone having a dream. You know, one of those nightmares where you find yourself somewhere unexpected—school, a strange city—in your bathrobe and pajamas. And I became so convinced this woman was someone having a dream that I began to wonder whether I was a person at all, or just a figure in this woman's dream who'd disappear when she woke up. I thought it must be terrible for her, wondering where she was, why she wasn't in her bed, and I wanted to run up to her and shake her awake, so that the dream would end. But then I thought, if I do that, I might disappear too, in a cloud of smoke, as it were. And I got really scared. Terrified.” He straightened his back.

“If you go, the cow stops," Celia said.

We looked at her blankly.

“The Longest Journey.
Remember? All those Cambridge boys arguing about the reality of the cow. And I thought Forster was saying the cow only existed when we were there to perceive it, but then the professor—Crane, wasn't it?—reminded us that in England, ‘stop' means ‘to stay.' And you said

—I remember this distinctly—you said, maybe an English cow
stays
but an American cow
ceases.”

“Hmm,” Nathan said.

“I thought you were very clever,” said Celia. “But that's beside the point.”

“So what is the point?”

“The point is, in Montesepolcro the cow stays. The cow is real.”

“Celia, you ran out on me. In my hour of need, when Martin had just tested positive. Why?”

“I needed to be the center of someone's life.”

“You were the center of my life.”

“Noyow were the center of
my
life. It's not the same thing.”

“Still,” Nathan said, looking away, “I was your best friend.”

“And I was in love with you. Yes. I can say it now. You didn't want it to be true, you kept trying to pretend it wasn't true, but it was. Our relationship existed in a different reality from the one you tried to put it in. The cow was real. I was the cow.”

“You were not a cow.”

“Oh, men used to call me a cow all the time. “You fat cow,' they'd say. And you never get used to it. Being pretty seemed pointless, since you were indifferent to women, and I was indifferent to everyone but you, and all you did was stand me up every time some juicy little boy showed up on the horizon.”

M-bM-^@M-^\I never stood you up!”

“Selective memory!” Celia repeated. “You stood me up all the time. You just thought I didn't care. But, Nathan, what did you think I did all those nights? Just sit at home watching David Letterman? No! I sat at home and seethed.” She brushed her hands on her dress. “The thing about men like you—Seth's the same way—you're terrified of mattering to people. And so when you think you've hurt someone, you bolt and run. You put the letters away unopened. You ignore the messages on the answering machine. But the fact is, I didn't disappear when you left the room, no matter how much you might have liked me to. I stayed, and I hurt.”

“As I recall,” Nathan said, “it was you who never answered my messages.”

“Call it a preemptive strike.”

Silence followed this extraordinary burst of antipathy—silence, and poetically (perhaps too poetically), a loud moo from one of the cows.

“Still, it
was
an abandonment,” Nathan observed after a while, his soft voice coming too late.

“An abandonment,” she answered, “for which you're punishing me now?”

He was silent. Meanwhile a breeze came up. The sun was falling like a gold coin into a child's bank.

“We'd better get back,” Celia said, and turning, led us to the path, and the
podere.

 

Dinner that night was a rather sullen, if delicious, affair, at the end of which we all went to bed early. Both Nathan and I were, as I have noted, jet-lagged. As for Celia—I remember this about her—ill humor tended to put her to sleep.

Before I continue, some information about the arrangement of the rooms in the farmhouse seems to me in order. On the second floor, Celia kept for herself a lavish suite consisting of a salon, a bedroom, a kitchenette, and an enormous bath. She escaped into this suite, she explained to me later, when she needed to get away from her students, or when Seth was in residence (which was rarely). Down the hall from the suite, in turn, came four largish bedrooms, each named for a different color. One of these (red, next to Celia) I occupied; the other three were uninhabitable at the moment, as their bathrooms were being renovated. Finally, on the lower level, there were three more bedrooms—two for guests and one for Mauro, which was nominal as he spent most nights with his girlfriend in Montesepolcro. Nathan's bedroom, the blue room, which was located partly beneath mine and partly beneath Celia's, shared a bathroom with Mauro's, the other downstairs room being, like the ones upstairs, in the process of refurbishment.

Of course, that first night, I knew none of this. I learned it all much later, when the sleeping arrangements started to have consequences. That first night, instead, I went to bed innocent and a little cross, only to find that in spite of being dog-tired I couldn't sleep. So I read for a while, and did the Sunday
Times
crossword puzzle, and the acrostic. Then finally—it was now past midnight—worry about how tired I'd be in the morning impelled me out of bed entirely, and needing to do
something,
I went into the bathroom and moisturized my face with some very nice Clarins cream I'd bought at the duty-free at Kennedy. The rituals of the boudoir, like those of the tearoom, have always been a source of consolation to me, a reminder that beneath the flux and bumptiousness of daily life a steadier stream does run, albeit one the music of which most men don't have the patience to listen for.

In any event, I was three-quarters of the way through this ritual when I heard, or thought I heard, the sound of gravel scraping.

I looked out the little bathroom window. A shadowy figure appeared to be pushing Celia's car down the road toward Montesepolcro: yes, pushing it, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the door. And who was this figure? I wondered. Was it Celia? I couldn't quite tell, though I stuck my head as far out the window as I could manage.

Finally the car went around a bend and disappeared. From a distance I heard the engine cough into life.

Well, that's odd! I thought, closing the window. Where on earth is Celia going at this hour—and why is she taking such precautions to make sure no one hears her?

If it
was
Celia. Or maybe someone was stealing her car. Yet why steal an old Fiat like that?

It was now close to one in the morning. Tired of being tired, I resorted to half a Valium, which threw me into a deep, if uneasy, sleep from which I arose just after nine. Celia and Nathan had already finished their breakfast by the time I got down to the dining room.

“Good morning,” Celia said.

“Good morning.”

I looked out the window, only to see the Fiat in its accustomed place.

“Did you sleep well?” Celia asked, pouring coffee.

“Not really. Typical jet lag: first I was tired, and then I was wide awake, and then there was this noise. I wonder if you heard it.”

“Celia always used to sleep with earplugs,” Nathan interrupted. “Do you still sleep with earplugs?”

“Yes, actually. I never hear anything at night.”

“You mean you didn't—”

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