First love

Edmund White is a novelist and critic. His memoir City Boy and story collection Chaos are published in January by Bloomsbury.

Gulps of Davud between Helena

I like men who are elegant in the drawing room and savage in the bedroom – imperious and demanding. Davud suited me perfectly. His torso – his whole body – was as hairy as the backs of his hands but with black glossy filaments that lay flat on his skin. By night he did things to me that were sometimes sharp and painful but that by day I nursed a bit sulkily when my shirt brushed against, say, a wounded nipple. I wore long-sleeved, high-collared shirts to hide the hickey or bruise. "Soon you will be wearing a burka!" Helena shouted. "Look at you, covered from chin to wrist."

"You know how sensitive to the sun..."

"...that new medication makes you," she said by weary rote.

She didn't like the idea of pills of any sort, even prescribed ones.

Nor does she like my opium pipe. In fact she violently disapproves of it. Today she let herself into my apartment without knocking (I must get around to telling her to phone first). She sniffed the air and said, "What are you doing lying in that clothes hamper?" When she dislikes something she pronounces it with all the disdain of a Lady Bracknell.

It's true I've filled a big osier-woven hamper with quilts and pillows. "It's my nest, Helena. You have your bed and your cats. It comforts me on rainy days..."

"And that smell of cheap perfume you buy down at the chemist's. When you spray it about – you can't possibly like it – I know you mumble mumble..."


"The opium smell, you're trying to disguise it."

"Picasso called it the least stupid smell in the world."



"Whatever that fucking means! The effect" – here she was overarticulating – "certainly doesn't render its victims intelligent. You're the only person I've ever heard of in Greece who could even find opium. Hash, yes, but opium never. I could murder that Boris for getting you addicted to it."

Helena snooped around the room with a proprietorial air. She does own our house and I do merely rent, but she hasn't grasped the concept of a renter's privacy. She's always leaning over the balcony above my laundry patio where I like to take the sun and read the Herald Tribune. Or she traces a finger through the plaster dust on my desk; it falls so fast I can't keep up with it.

"I was just daydreaming about that nice Davud we met in..."

"Nice! Davud? Devious wretch, you mean. And I'd hardly dignify your stupor by calling it 'daydreaming'. Americans certainly have a gift for euphemism." And without another word she rushed off, accompanied by three of her skittering cats like Hecuba on a rampage. I felt tempted to pull the hamper lid down over me.

By "devious wretch" Helena perhaps is referring to a Sunday (the Turks observe our weekly calendar) when Davud showed up for our daily carriage ride with a young woman, thin and fastidiously dressed in dark colours and a Missoni sweater as muted and subtle as the old Kilim in my bedroom – no lamé appliqués for her. Her name was Belkis. Davud said in a soft voice, "Belkis is my fiancée and I thought it might be amusing..."

"Your what?" Helena exclaimed.

"We will be married next spring," Davud said, closing his eyes as he spoke.

Belkis was lovely; she asked me questions with a sweetness and curiosity that seemed a perfect emblem of today's evolved Turkish woman. I took their engagement in good stride since we gay men never expect things to work out anyway. My good grace was remarkable given that I had the most to lose or at least was the most affected, but Helena had been given no way to know that. She spoke little and then in icy tones. She barely looked at Belkis and never smiled at her.

Davud had what he called the "genial" idea (again a Gallicism meaning "brilliant") to hire us all donkeys to clamber up the highest hill to an old Byzantine monastery.

"This is where the deposed Byzantine princes were imprisoned."

"I'm glad to know the cruelty started way back then," Helena said, tipping her head back and staring loftily at Davud as though he were personally responsible for centuries of unpleasantness.

"I warned you," Davud called out gaily. "Sweetness and cruelty!" He cracked a huge smile.

Madame was not amused. She said she'd skip the monastery and donkey. For once Helena wasn't a good sport.

That evening as soon as we were alone after a long, tense dinner by the sea, Helena exploded: "I'm sick of bits of charred octopus and electrocuted guppies and cucumbers in vinegar longing to be pickles."

"But Davud says the Turkish 'kitchen' rivals the French and the Chinese."

"I don't care what that bore says." We had a very long debriefing that night about the "faithless Turk," as he was now called. "How dare he not tell us he was engaged? He obviously likes them thin the way they all do. Well, good riddance. It's obviously an arranged marriage – she's even more of a bore than he is."

"I thought she was sweet," I hazarded, "though she didn't say much."

"Oh you did, did you? Sweet? Another American euphemism for a colourless little pushover." She listened to herself and then added grumpily, "I could have pushed her over that cliff when she was trying out poetic modern dance steps to celebrate the sunset. And by the way, have you noticed how his treats are always penny ice creams whereas ours are whole electrocuted squid dinners?"

Soon we were both roaring with laughter over the very idea of the squid dinner. I didn't mind lingering with Helena for once. She needed the comfort after the blow she'd received, and I assumed that when I returned to my bedroom it would be empty.

But no, he was there, his face, neck and hands tanned a dark Darjeeling brown from the day while his body remained jasmine pale. The wait and possibly the tensions of the day made him rougher and more eager than ever before, as if this time he wanted to climb right inside me like an incubus – or djinn.

Afterwards (or rather between bouts, for he was tireless) he told me that his engagement meant nothing, it was just a formality, that Belkis was a cousin and a delight but that his marriage would in no way diminish his feelings for me. This part of the story is all a bit vague, like a dream...

"In fact," he said, pulling my whole body against his so that our nipples matched and our genitals touched and my feet were stepping on his (he was taller) and his words, which smelled of my semen, were breathing right into my face, "in fact I want you to move here and live here. There's the University of the Bosphorus out by the Rumeli Tower, and I've spoken to the dean and they'd be thrilled to have someone of your calibre – though at first it would be just a part-time position..."

Now, let me put just a bit more of this in my pipe. I feel like the nineteenth-century French traveller and novelist Pierre Loti who wrote The Disenchanted, a wonderful dreamy book about the oppression of women in Turkey. In the novel he's always meeting up with these three veiled ladies in a safe house and there they all drink tea and discuss their souls. Loti loved drag of any sort – pharaonic, military, courtly – and would get himself up in a fez and baggy trousers and a scimitar and smoke opium and drink sugared tea in that melancholy little café above the Golden Horn next to the old Ottoman cemetery. We went out there once to the Eyüb Mosque and saw twelve-year-olds running around in Zorro capes and drum majors' hats, getting ready for their circumcisions. It was Davud who took us there and pointed out that the six or seven unmarked tombstones nearest the café were those of executioners who feared that if they were identified their graves might be desecrated by the families of their victims. Davud taught us all the symbols on the Ottoman tombs – the various stone fezzes on top of steles that indicated notables of differing degree, the stone veils that commemorated virgins. When we were alone he liked to call me his "Little Loti". Come to think of it, I once visited Loti's house back in France, now a museum, in Rochefort on the Atlantic coast. Loti had had an entire miniature mosque built inside so that he could lounge around in his vaporous trousers and turbans and smoke opium while outside the winter storms raged.

There! Now I do feel like a little Loti if that's the plural of lotus, floating in my hamper as in a stagnant pond.

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