The boy in the graveyard

A young man finds that the path to seduction winds through some treacherous territory.


Daniel Mendelsohn
June 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The first time I ever had the experience of desiring another man who I knew also desired me was when I was in college, and I walked aimlessly for many hours one day a long time ago, following him. We were both 19, and I never knew his name. He was waiting at the farthest edge of the university cemetery, a spot where the graves become indistinguishable from the woods.

This was at a college in the South; these woods were thick, choked with creepers and dense with trees you won't find in the suburbs of Long Island. It was a strange place for someone like me to have ended up. I'd come here, to the university nested in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, because in high school I'd loved a boy who'd come from this state, a boy who shunned me when he realized I wanted him; I thought that by going here, to the place where he was from, I could recuperate him somehow, have a part of him. I thought that being in this place, with its hills and horse farms and the smoky blue spine that was the mountain range in the distance, would let me experience him, finally. My choice of universities had struck people I grew up with as strange; no one else in my graduating high school class of 500 had even applied here; the South, it was felt, was hostile to Jews. On Long Island, the South required some explanation. Of course I would not tell them that I was going there because of a boy with shiny yellow hair, and so I would observe that the university I'd chosen had a renowned English department. It was always assumed that I would be an English major, and this seemed to satisfy people.

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But whatever I told them, and myself, I soon felt at home here, against all expectations. Here I would go to the parties attended by fair-haired boys so attenuated that their khakis and pink Oxford-cloth button-down shirts would flap about their bodies like flags as they talked about the places they came from, places familiar to each other but strange and beautiful-sounding to me, who grew up in a place that had not existed until the month before I was born. They talked about towns where their families had lived for 10 generations. I visited their houses, houses that had family cemeteries on the grounds, saw over the mantels the portraits of handsome dead soldiers wearing the uniforms of a defeated nation, understood that for the women (whom I did not desire but whose carefully tended beauty still had some effect on me) the elaborate standards for beauty and social comportment that they applied only slightly more harshly to others than to themselves were not detachable from the rest of their lives, but were, like their houses and the family names they kept passing on, the means by which they asserted who they were, what culture and history they belonged to. Here was a culture I could understand, one that had created a great romance out of a great defeat, a civilization that had been able to endure loss and real privation because it believed in its own myth of lost beauty, the possession of which, however brief and however long ago, elevated the lovely and effete vanquished far above the crass, practical victors. This was a fable I had heard before, at my grandfather's knee, as he told me about his family, a family of delicate beauties victimized by war, by unexpected poverty, by the cynical maneuverings of more practical, less genteel relatives; and it was one I would unconsciously seek out again, here at college, in studying the Greeks, another defeated nation that clung, through misery, to the belief that she was superior to her victor. Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes / intulit agresti Latio, the Roman poet Horace wrote: "Captive Greece conquered her savage captor, and brought the arts into wild Italy." Southern culture, I found, made sense to me.

So here I stood in this cemetery by the thick wood, staring at this boy. I had seen him before. Around campus, in classrooms, at parties, he would appear like an optical trick, or a symptom of some strange new disease of the eye, seeming to exist only at the periphery of my own field of vision, edging his way out of a lecture hall just as I entered, or unfolding himself from a narrow plastic library chair precisely at the moment I'd pass by, making my way silently through the stacks as if the thing I was looking for was a book. It was in the library that I'd see him most often, and whenever I did pass him there, only to see him leave moments later, I'd be careful to express ostentatious disappointment at not having found the volume I was supposed to have been looking for -- just enough to convince anyone who might be watching that it was, after all, merely a book I wanted. I'd gesture impatiently at an imaginary space on a stack, or shake my head as if confounded by the incompetence of the staff. At the time all this took place, when I was 19 and 20 and then 21, I may have convinced myself that all this show was meant to fool other people -- people who might have some sly, secret knowledge all their own (upperclassmen? faculty?) and who were sure to have guessed at the motives for my furtive movements through these many miles of books. But now I am not so sure.

What I did realize, even then, was that after a few months of these seemingly chance meetings, I'd developed an ambulatory tic. Each time I entered or left a class or dining hall, I'd suddenly slow my steps, as you would slow down a film, in order better to pinpoint the precise moment when this tall and unknown boy -- whose friends were not my friends, whose dark hair always falling over one eye left me feeling choked, both elated and needy -- would suddenly appear.

I knew he knew I was watching him. During the spring of my second year, there was an early evening when I was at a party in a garden charged with the surprisingly green and oniony smell of magnolia blossoms that have been crushed underfoot. Under the trees you could see duos and trios of undergraduates, their voices uneven with drink and the anticipation of sex.

From where I sat, on a bench nearly hidden among some low shrubs near an undulating serpentine wall -- only one brick thick, the students who were University Guides would knowingly point out -- I could focus, without being seen, on one group of three. They were two boys and a girl whose back was to me. She had on an off-white dress; blond tendrils floated from her damp pink neck. Beneath one of her creamy shoes there protruded the pointed edge of a black silk bow tie, like an unhealthy tongue under a pale upper lip. One of the boys was kneeling in mock supplication, yanking at the black tongue: Whatever the game was, it was clear that she'd won. As he bent to retrieve the tie he suddenly looked up, straight at me. Obviously it was he. His eyes were no particular color -- dark without being actually brown, the color of seaweed when it's still wet with the ocean. These eyes and my own locked so emphatically you could almost hear the click.

All of this took a few seconds, but it was enough; in the moment we looked at each other, there was a perfect complicity between us, clear as speech. Afterward he suddenly rose and, turning away from me, handed the tie back to his friend. But the gesture was slack; the fun had gone out of their play. I alone was satisfied, because I understood then that another game had just begun, and that he and I were the only ones playing.

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Now, six months later, he was standing at the edge of a graveyard whose neglected headstones staggered above the October mud like crooked teeth in bad gums. It was the time of year when midterm exams were given, but no one was ever quite sure whether it was this, or the fact that during this season the rain fell so unrelentingly and the sky lost its sun, that had inspired several generations of students, but mostly freshmen, to dub these wet Shenandoah autumns "suicide weather." Everywhere there was mud: on the elaborately patterned brick walkways that took you to the brick-and-plaster neoclassical buildings where classes were held, on the floors of dorm rooms and dining halls, caked on your shoes (Top-Siders, duck boots), licking your socks through the soles, plastering the cuffs of your pants. We first-year men thought suicide weather was a joke until halfway through that first autumn, when a sophomore in a dorm called Bonneycastle -- or maybe it was the dorm next door, the one that housed the student radio station where I deejayed from six to nine in the morning -- shotgunned himself after midterms. Our jokes became warier, and we worked harder.

I'd come to the graveyard on an errand that hadn't struck me, at the time, as being macabre -- an assignment given by a classics professor. He was a young but already failed man who wore his razor-pleated khakis and Harris tweed coats, with their careful decorative elbow patches, as if they could somehow armor him against the indignities of the tenure process. Young as we were, those of us who sat twice a week in his second-year Greek-prose seminar reading Socrates' elegant and fruitless speech of self-defense already understood that this man was somehow a failure, and the knowledge occasionally made us cruel; not everything we muttered as we made our agonizing way through Plato's "Apology" was a translation from the Greek. This man -- whom I did not like then and who has since died, still fairly young, bequeathing his library to the graduate students of the university where, as it happened, I would eventually go to do my graduate work in classics, and where, with a complex emotion that my fellow students could not share, I hauled away my allotted share of books from this bequest (Drees' Olympia, Frdnkel on Horace), no less greedy for my secret guilt -- this man had challenged us to locate a tomb. It was the grave of an eminent 19th century classicist whose epitaph, we'd been told, was a line from a tragedy. We were to find the grave and copy the epitaph; then translate it. I can't now recall whether there was a reward for doing so.

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I didn't see my classmates creeping around on this particular Saturday afternoon as I was doing, struggling with medicinal-smelling ivy that sucked at the headstones and left tiny brownish hickeys on the rock when you finally pulled it away. But then, the professor's request had probably struck me as less odd than it might have seemed to the three other students in our intermediate Greek class. By that time I'd grown used to graves. A few years earlier I'd spent a summer scraping ivy from the headstones of my relatives in some very different cemeteries, in the vast and overcrowded Jewish graveyards that form an immense, almost pharaonic necropolis that straddles the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Mount Judah, Cypress Hills: I eventually came to know the biblical and classical provenances of these names, but until then they seemed apt enough captions. Indifferent trees and dead rock were all you could see here.

Yet in the cluttered profusion of these high, narrow stones, now addressing their bilingual eulogies to the exhaust fumes of passing cars, it was as if you could glimpse a shadow of the tenemented lives these dead had lived. As, for example, there had lived my grandfather's sister, dead in 1923 at 26, a week (so the story went) before her wedding. There is a monument to her here, toward the back of our large family plot. Of gray granite, it takes the form of a tree trunk whose few incipient branches are cut off abruptly at the top, a couple of heads higher than a tall man stands. At eye level, in a groin formed by two sculpted branches, an oval piece of porcelain is set; onto it a photograph of this young woman had somehow been transferred. It is the same image that had hung, much enlarged, in my grandfather's Bronx apartment, until his adolescent daughter's protests brought it down. ("Why always pictures of the dead?" my mother would complain.) In the three-quarter pose that best advertised her famous deep-set eyes and overripe Edwardian jawline, my great-aunt, more than a decade younger in this picture than I am now as I write, looks pensive, though not unamused -- as if she'd known all along what it was she'd been posing for, and hadn't, in the end, really minded.

Already at an early age -- 11, 12? -- I was drawn to this grave, with its overdetermined iconography of beauty and loss, the intact porcelain and the truncated stone. Although it was always the last on the list of those we must visit each year -- other, more recent griefs had priority -- it was nonetheless the one I'd examine most eagerly. Slowly, with pleasure, my fingers would trace the crisp undulations of the Hebrew characters, which in contrast to that ironic and eloquent face would remain mute until the day when my grandfather hastily translated for me the rock's brief advertisement -- that this was the grave of a virgin, ha'betulah, of a girl who had died before her marriage. The stone doesn't report what my grandfather, who carefully taught me his family's history and its myths, later told me, many times: that the marriage was an arranged one, the bride given to her rich cousin in exchange for ship's passages to America for the rest of her impoverished family; that the bride was tall and beautiful and the groom hunchbacked and scarred by smallpox; that after the bride's unexpected death her younger sister was later forced to marry the same man, thereby acquitting her family's debt to his family; that this sister would also die too young, tragically. These were messy lives; the inscription maintains a stony decorum.

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Years after these visits to the cemetery, when I was a graduate student making guilty use of the books left by that other, less loved teacher, I would write a dissertation about, among other things, the figure of the "bride of death" in Greek tragedy -- about girls who (like Sophocles' Antigone, for example) die just before marriage, sacrificing themselves for their families, their cities, sometimes their honor. I can't think, now, why I'd never made the connection before. And at the same time that I was unconsciously pursuing the figure of my dead and beautiful Jewess in pagan texts transmitted first by Alexandrian scholars and then by Greek Orthodox monks, I'd begun writing about gay culture, too, and so would spend a great deal of time looking at images of, and reading texts by and about, young people, mostly men, who had also died too soon: the beautiful dead "Greeks" of our age, Mark Doty's latter-day Alexandrians. But clearly it was much earlier, before my taste for the classics or indeed for other men had budded -- the two are intertwined in my mind, the pagan culture and the pagan acts -- that I first knew the allure that clings to the histories of beauty and loss. It was here, in this overcrowded ghetto of the immigrant Jewish dead, that I first knew the pleasure in deciphering narratives, in unraveling charged and secret meanings from the sinuous scripts in which they'd been furled.

So I did not find my Greek professor's challenge strange, that day in 1980. It was just after I found the inscription I was looking for, partly obscured by earth that had risen, like a loaf, around the base of the stone, that I saw the boy standing at the edge of this Virginia graveyard, and knew that he was waiting for me to follow.


Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of a memoir, "The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity," is the book critic for New York magazine.

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