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Bastille Day

by Tony Malone (

(This story comes from a French friend. My buddy Allen helped me with the translation, but responsibility for the errors is mine. The poems are left in the original with an English paraphrase to give you some idea of what they are about. )

Joachim du Bellay and I attended a summer program together in the United States: "New Mathematical Techniques in Genetics," at the Iowa State University. We were the only two Frenchmen there. We were both postdocs at the Institut Pasteur (something like your Rockefeller University). You might think we would have been friendly, at least, but we had grown up on different sides of French society. He was from the old aristocracy; my parents were part of the communist intellectual bourgeoisie. We even looked our parts: he was slim-limbed, blond and sharp-featured, whereas my body is made out of coarser material. I have thick wrists and ankles, a dark crew-cut over a low brow, and the face of a healthy peasant. Joachim du Bellay and Guy Lefort, the King's greyhound and the gatekeeper's mastiff.

To complicate matters, he had attended the École Normale Supérieure and I had been a student at the "X," as we call the École Polytechnique, its traditional rival. In this we had both stepped away from our backgrounds, but in opposite directions. Normale traditionally attracts left-wing types; Polytechnique is affiliated with the Army and recruits from more Catholic, patriotic, and straight-thinking milieux. The aristocrat attended Normale while I, an amateur poet and at heart an atheistic, anarchistic homosexual, ended up at Polytechnique.

Joachim du Bellay is a funny name for a geneticist, of course, since it is also the name of the great 16th century poet, but when the Vicomte du Bellay had a son he called him Joachim. Joachim, besides being the heir to his father's ancient but modest title, turned out to be a very good-looking young man, almost too good-looking: he looked so much like a movie star playing the role of a geneticist that people might have had trouble taking him seriously had he not made up for it by taking himself very seriously indeed.

Du Bellay was dismissive of anything he thought of as second-rate, and he had the "normalien" knack for aggressive, not to say offensive, dissection of arguments. I had seen it the year before at Pasteur. Because our research groups had tangential projects we attended joint lab meetings every other Friday, and we often showed up at the same seminars. There, he would sit towards the back of the room reading a journal or scribbling at some calculation. He seemed not to pay attention to what was going on; but when he asked a question, he was always on target - and often his question was the sort you knew the speaker was hoping no one would ask. He was polite to the point of seeming almost indifferent to the answer, which made it even more uncomfortable.

His politeness actually bordered on rudeness. At Pasteur he used the formal "vous" mode of address with everybody, professors and fellow postdocs alike. This is standard in the upper class but since the war the familiar "tu" has taken over in the sciences as the norm for professional speech among equals; especially at the École Normale. His manner cannot have made him many friends there. At Iowa State people gave him a pretty wide berth.

Not me. I knew I was as smart as he was, and his haughty attitude did not bother me at all; far from it. On the one hand it was so gutsy - the academic equivalent of climbing solo - that I had to like him for it. One false move, one misunderstood implication, and he would be a laughing-stock; smart as he was he must have known the risks he was taking. And then again I thought, or hoped, that his rigorous demeanor had evolved as a way of keeping everyone away, women and men alike. This way he could avoid confronting his sexual nature which, to continue my interpretation, was like mine. For me, his separateness and completeness became a challenge, as if he were saying: "Find the chink in my armor, find the secret that rules my life."

But there was more. I was walking to Pasteur one afternoon on my way back from a class at the University. When I rounded the corner to go in one of the side-entrances, I saw du Bellay with an attractive younger woman. They stood by a large, old-fashioned sedan. Du Bellay was gazing at his companion with unmistakeable tenderness. I wanted to stop, to become invisible, just for the pleasure of savoring that look on his usually impassive face. Then I saw him take her hands in his, lean slowly forward and give her a gentle, lingering kiss on each cheek. In that instant all my fantasies evaporated.

He raised his eyes as I came past; I did not avert mine quickly enough. No tenderness for me! His features snapped into the cold, blank look I was used to. Disappointed and now hurt, I strode by without looking at either of them again.

One of our colleagues was approaching the same door. As we passed through I remarked: "That's quite a beautiful friend du Bellay is sending off." She glanced at me in surprise, and in an irritated tone said: "Don't be silly. Dr. Stoneheart has no girlfriends. That worthy young woman is his sister!" "Ah," was all I could muster in the presence of her anger and my exultation. No girlfriends, just a sister, and all that tenderness waiting to be used with someone he could love. This glimpse of a warm and loving du Bellay combined with all my other experience of the man to make him, for me, totally desirable.

Now the two of us were in Iowa, together on a remote campus in a large, unfamiliar country. Almost the proverbial desert island. This was my chance to get through to du Bellay, and I resolved not to waste it.

The format of the Summer School was series of lectures by big shots in the mornings, and smaller more specialized seminars in the afternoons. Mornings in the big lecture hall seemed destined to be the only time I got to see du Bellay. At the first meeting I was seated slightly behind him, but the sight of his slim, taut neck and the way it fit under the edge of his haircut was too distracting. I found myself doodling his initials on my notepad and missing most of the lecture. Something like this had happened at our first Friday meeting at Pasteur: he caught me staring at him across the table. After that I tried to come late enough to sit on the same side he did. Here the solution was for me to take a seat across the room where I could only see him out of the corner of my eye, and where it was possible to keep my mind on what was being said. But now there was even less chance to talk to him. He recognized me from Pasteur, of course; we had exchanged rather formal greetings on the first day of the program. In my fantasies I called him Joachim and spoke to him as "tu." But this was real life: I had returned his "vous" with "vous" and had addressed him by his last name. After that first verbal exchange, a polite smile was the most I ever received.

About the same time every day I would see him walking toward the Athletic Center with his gym bag over his shoulder. Once that week, walking down past the Center, I crossed him running uphill on the other side of the street. He was shirtless. He had the slim and well-muscled body that his neck had promised. The thick blond hair on his chest was matted with sweat; his face and his arms were glistening. It must have been the end of his run; he was flushed with the effort and seemed to be fighting to keep up his pace. His look of exhausted determination was very different from the serene and indifferent face I was used to. Our eyes met as he passed. I read a lot into that short glance. Embarassment at not being in complete control? And maybe a little bit of comradeship, as if he were saying: "You know what this struggle is like!" The encounter gave me confidence that under those layers of social and intellectual structure there was a man I could reach.

Nevertheless the days were slipping away and I was making no progress. About halfway through the second week I had the idea of writing him a poem. I put his initials at the top of the page and wrote:

Tous les jours
au cours
de mon côté
de travers
tes éclairs
de beauté.

( I sit at my place
in class each day
and eagerly seek
to sneak
a peek
at your beautiful face
across the way. )

I folded the sheet and slipped it into his mailbox.

The next morning I walked up to stand next to him as we waited to file into the lecture hall. Although he noticed my arrival, he did not turn to face me with his usual empty smile. He did not look at me at all, but a deep flush rose from his collar and spread just a little way up his neck before subsiding. Contact! I had gotten through to Saint Touch-me-not. The following day and the rest of the week we were back to polite smiles. That little line of flush, that one morning, was all.

I was swimming laps in the Athletic Center pool every day. I started timing my exercise so as to end about the time du Bellay finished running, and after a week or so I hit the jackpot. I was standing in the shower when he came through, flushed and sweaty from his run. He walked right past me on his way to a shower head at the end of the room. I don't know if he saw me or not, but I certainly saw him. It was even better than I expected. A long and slender penis dangled in front of him, and he sported a first-class behind: muscular, dimpled buttocks, somewhat small for his size but carried high and prominently.

That night I wrote him another poem, and left it in his mailbox as before.

Dans le gymnase,
dans le gymnu,
tu te promenais,
tu te promenu.
J'ai vu ta bite,
j'ai vu ton cul,
j'ai vu ta tête
et tout m'a plu.

( In the gymnasium,
in the gymnudium,
you promenadium,
you promenudium.
I see your cranium,
I see your gluteum,
and all this beautium
drives me insanium. )

The next day was July 14, the midpoint of the Summer School. It was also of course Bastille Day, our national holiday. Few Frenchmen and fewer Americans know what exactly was involved in the liberation of the Bastille. Most think we celebrate throwing off the yoke of the French aristocracy. In fact, only six or eight people were freed from the Bastille, and at least one of those was an aristocrat. The Marquis de Sade. But this Bastille Day my thoughts were a long way from those events. I had my own little aristocrat to liberate.

I brought some nice bottles of Bordeaux to the dining hall that evening along with a little French flag (a present from the wine merchant). Du Bellay usually ate by himself; that night I waved the flag at him and motioned him over to our table. He looked at me worriedly, but then picked up his tray and joined us. How could he refuse?

I poured out wine for everyone and explained to the Americans sitting with us that it was customary on July fourteenth to drink to the health of "la République." They were happy to indulge us. Then we drank to the health of the United States. Between the succotash and the coleslaw we drank to the French-American friendship. Our Americans were looking worried and started sipping their toasts instead of draining their glasses "a la française." With the fried chicken and mashed potatoes we drank to the success of the Summer School and then to the future of Mathematical Biology. After the green gelatine, which we ingested without wine, the meal was over. The Americans staggered away.

I looked du Bellay straight in the eye and proposed a toast to his school: "À l'École Normale!" We drank. He refilled our glasses, held his up, looked me in the eye and said: "À l'X!" This was his first friendly gesture toward me. Thrilling and auspicious. We drank. There was no more wine.

"Une promenade digestive?" I asked. An after-dinner walk? He nodded, and we worked our way around the empty tables and into the fresh air. Still quite warm since Iowa does not cool off at night. I guided our steps in the general direction of my dormitory suite. I felt quite steady. I had less than a bottle of wine in me, after all. Du Bellay seemed a bit less secure. After a few minutes he stumbled on one of the paving stones, and I had to reach out to keep him from falling. I ended up with an arm around his waist and the other hand on his belly. In that instant, feeling the muscles in his gut alive under my fingers, I knew he would come to me and I knew it would be soon. Instead of pulling away du Bellay turned toward me, so that my free hand slid across and around to his back. Now I had him loosely in my arms. He looked at me and said without anger: "You set this all up, didn't you?" Still the "vous," dammit. I smiled and asked: "Is it OK?" "And I suppose this is where you live?" I smiled again: "Would you like to come up?" He looked away and shook his head.

I felt weak. The blood rushed to my face. I thought I was going to burst into tears. I pulled him to me and squeezed him against me. He was still looking away so the best I could do was kiss his cheek. "Joachim, please, listen to me. I want you to know that I admire you. That I love you." Mindless, doomed sincerity. I meant every desperate and foolish word of it: "love," "admire," calling him by his first name, using "tu." I was obviously at my wits' end. He slowly shook his head again. He stepped back, breaking out of my embrace, started to raise one arm as if in a gesture of farewell - or hopelessness - but let it fall back to his side, turned and trudged away.

I sank down to the pavement and held my head in my hands. What a fool! Sure we were thrown together in deepest America but in a month he would be back in France in the midst of "rallys" and hunt breakfasts with his titled acquaintances. What place could there have been for me in that world? But while these logical thoughts marched through my brain, subversive background images kept popping up. His tenderness with his sister; his straining face as he labored up the hill; the challenging, friendly look in his eye as he toasted my school; the way he had turned towards me instead of away; the electric sensation of his stomach muscles under my hand just a few moments before. I buried my face deeper in my hands and turned my head from side to side, as if that friction could soothe the pain.

After a while the pavement became too uncomfortable. I stood, walked over to my dorm, and went up the stairs to my suite. I fell on my bed without undressing and tried to sleep. It was impossible. The adrenalin that had pumped out when I thought "it would be soon" was still racing through my veins. The thoughts and images from before came flooding back, now mingled with shreds of the fantasies I had concocted about making love with du Bellay. What an idea! But an idea, and feelings, that I could not escape.

The next morning, July fifteenth, was business as usual. I did not feel like getting up and going to the lecture but I made myself do it. I had the rest of my life to live. The talk was excellent, even for me that morning. It was the first of a series on new probabilistic methods, just the area where du Bellay was beginning to make his mark. But du Bellay was not there. I kept checking the corners of the room to make sure I had not missed him. No sign. I worried for him: he had seemed in perfect health the day before, and this was a topic he would not have wanted to miss.

At lunch break I went to the central office of the conference to find out his suite number. "But Dr. du Bellay has left. He checked out this morning." I must have looked stupefied because the secretary added: "He had to return to France immediately. A family problem." I raced over to his building. A taxi was stopped by the door with the engine idling. Thank God, I said to myself, he's still here. I ran up the stairs. As I reached his landing I could see a suitcase propping open his door. I ran into the suite. Du Bellay was in the bedroom buckling up a large, leather duffle-bag. He looked up as I entered. His face was unshaven and marred by irregular, red blotches. His eyelids were swollen. "Joachim!" I cried out, "What happened? Is it your parents?" He looked at his watch and said: "I have just a minute, please sit down." I sat on the bed. He stood in front of me, looking at the floor.

"I suppose I owe you an explanation. No, that's not it," he corrected himself, and switched to the familiar form: "Of course I have to tell you. It is not my parents, it is me, me and you. I noticed you at Pasteur even before we met, and when we met I liked you. I liked you very much. I looked forward to those Friday meetings because you were somewhere at the table. I never went to a seminar without hoping you would be there." He took a deep breath. "You see, I haven't just liked you. I have desired you." His gaze flickered up at me and then down again. "I knew that you were interested in me; I could tell: you are too open." Another quick upward glance. "But I cannot be a homosexual. It is just not possible. I am my parents' only son and .... If I had known you would be here this summer I would not have come. I am sorry, I am very, very sorry. I must leave. The taxi is waiting." He repeated that same half-gesture of hopeless farewell, picked up the duffle-bag, took a briefcase off the dresser, and walked to the door.

I grabbed his suitcase. "Let me help you," I said, keeping to the "tu" form. We walked down the stairs and out to the taxi. The driver, a black man wearing a cowboy hat, came around and opened the trunk. I lifted in the suitcase. Joachim placed the duffle-bag beside it but kept his briefcase with him. The driver slammed the trunk shut, walked back and got behind the wheel. Joachim and I still stood at the rear of the car. I suppose each of us was looking for something to say, but nothing came out. The driver gave a discreet tap on the horn. "I'm coming to the airport with you," I said, and jumped in the taxi. Joachim got in on the other side, and we drove off.

It is only ten minutes from the campus to the local airport. The driver had music playing softly on his radio, frequently interrupted by squawks from the radio link to his dispatcher. He was ignoring us completely. Joachim stared ahead, his mouth set in a grim line, his hands clasped in his lap.

I turned towards him and in a low voice said: "Joachim, there is so little time left. Please listen to me." I shifted my body to face him. He frowned and glanced at the driver. "Don't worry," I said, "he can't hear." He shrugged. "Joachim, you must think of who you really are, and of what purpose it serves for you to be alone and unhappy."

"I am not alone, I am not unhappy, and ... No," he interrupted himself with a wry smile, "that is a lie." He sat silently. "Joachim, please, tell me, have you ever been kissed by a man?" He shook his head. I slid over beside him, took him by the shoulders, and turned him towards me. I kissed him full on the mouth. I slid my arms around his chest, twisted our upper bodies together and hugged him tightly to me, all without breaking the kiss. The taxi rolled smoothly along.

I knew what I was doing, and it was working. With my lips I could feel his resolve soften. I took my time; then I released him and sat back. The blotches were gone: his whole face was now aflush. He opened and closed his mouth as if to check that nothing was missing. He swallowed. He put out his arms and pulled me to him. He started the kiss this time, clumsy but with a passion that surprised me. I felt like laughing, I felt like singing, but I went with the kiss. He finally drew back.

After a deep breath he leaned forward. "Driver," he said in English, "I am sorry but we must return." "À vos ordres, Messieurs!" said the driver as he stopped, made a U-turn and started back. I checked his permit: Honoré Saint-Guillaume. Haitian, no doubt. Joachim looked at me and rolled his eyes. I shrugged and squeezed his thigh.

When Mr. St-Guillaume pulled up at the curb in front of the residence hall, Joachim slapped me on the leg and had the door half-open before realizing he was in no condition to stand up in public. "Just hold your briefcase in front of you. You'll calm down soon enough, once you get out of the taxi," I said to him and read in his disbelieving eyes: "Is that true?"

Mr. St-Guilluame, observant and tactful, said: "Don't worry, Messieurs. I'll help you," and placed the luggage on the curb while Joachim was still struggling to get out of the cab. I paid him, with the generous tip he deserved, and then Joaquim and I raced up the stairs with the bags bumping against our legs, laughing all the way like kids who had just pulled off some outrageous stunt.

We closed the door and threw the lock with exaggerated care. We faced each other. I put the suitcase on the floor without taking my eyes off Joachim's suddenly serious face. Slowly, very slowly he lowered his briefcase so that I could see the bulge in his pants. "Liar," he said, "my beautiful liar." Then he dropped it and reached out for me. As I walked and was pulled into his arms, I felt my own cock quickly growing to find his. It had been a long, hungry time for both of us. I suddenly realized that Joachim was trembling violently: his teeth were chattering.

I pulled back and looked into his face, which showed celebration and maybe a little sadness. I reached up and stroked his cheek. "Joachim, are you sure this is OK? I pushed you once; I don't want to do it again. I don't want to hurt you. We can wait if that would help."

His eyes lit up. He took my head in his hands. "This is what I want." He kissed me, more gently than before. "And please do not ask again," he added with a laugh. "You can count on me to be responsible for my actions."

With that he undid the buttons on my shirt, pulled it out of my pants and gazed at my chest as if he had discovered a hidden treasure. "So smooth, so smooth," he whispered. Apparently it had to be felt to be believed. I tried to reach his chest but his busy arms and hands were in the way. Plus he was wearing a jacket and a necktie (of course). He sensed my frustration and shucked the jacket, yanked the shirttails out of his trousers, hiked shirt and tie up around his neck and pulled us together. He rubbed his chest against my nipples until I gasped.

I walked the two of us into the bedroom and fell, on top of him, where I had been sitting just a short while before. I kissed his chest while he breathed over and over "Don't stop," as if I might. I worked my way down to his stomach. The muscles tensed at the touch of my lips and tongue. A memory flashed through my mind: my hand on that stomach, and "it will be soon." Soon indeed! His belt unbuckled easily. I opened his pants and carefully lifted his shorts over his cock. I pulled the clothes quickly down to his ankles and bent to take him in my mouth, all in one movement.

"No, Guy!" he cried. I thought that I had trespassed, but no. He sat up and seized me by the belt. "Wait!" he said and started to undo it. Frustrated by the slowness, he reached around, pulled my crotch to him and began kissing and biting right through my khakis. Now it was my turn: "Wait, Joachim! I'll come in my pants." I shoved pants and shorts down to my knees, lay back down on him and wrapped my arms around him. Our chests were locked together and our feet were trapped in clothing. But our hips danced crazily and our cocks whipped about against each other and against our stomachs. It could not last long. I felt him shudder and heard him cry "Guy!" as spurt after spurt came surging up between us.

That triggered me, too. I squeezed him even tighter than before, pressing my mouth against his as the wave hit me. My body cramped; I sobbed right into his lungs. My cock, constrained between our sticky bellies, exploded in four tremendous spasms. Something I had never felt before, an ache, a kind of sexual recoil, spread from between my legs into the rest of my body. It was a welcome and satisfying ache, like being safely home after a long and strenuous voyage.

I think we looked at each other briefly and said each other's name. In any case we fell asleep where we were with our clothes bunched up and down around us.

When I awoke late that afternoon, the bedroom was dim and very cool. Joachim had picked up the American habit of air-conditioning to the maximum, and we had snuggled together for warmth. We had missed lunch and I for one was starving. I decided to go bring back food for the two of us. I straightened my clothes as best I could and left a poem on the pillow, just across from his beautiful, sleeping face.

Tu seras là
dans mon lit,
tout chaud,
tout poilu
et mon bras
toute la nuit
sur ton dos

( Lie with me
in the sack
all hairy and warm
and all night
on your back
feel the weight of my arm. )

I came back to find Joachim lying on the bed in his bathrobe. He smiled when he saw me with the food and said, "Wash, and we'll eat." As I was soaping up, he joined me in the shower. The graceful, athletic body I had admired in the gym was now within my reach, in fact sliding into and out of my arms. I discovered then and later that my inexperienced friend had done his research. But even in our thickest, busiest pleasures, I could not forget that this was the precise man who had only said "I have desired you," and not, as I had said, "I love you." I was resolved not to press him again, if I could possibly do so without deforming myself. It was a long wait during which I remembered every day that the words "patience" and "passion" are derived from the same Latin word which means "to suffer, to endure." But it was worth it.