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The Elusive Embrace (Daniel Mendelsohn)


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  I know a man, a handsome young man with an agile mind and a brilliant professional career, who has sex with a different stranger every night, if at all possible. He logs on to AOL or goes on a chat line and talks to the men in these places, and almost inevitably one of those men wil1 make the trip to my friend's small apartment--my friend will not travel to other people's houses--and have very pleasurable sex with him. My friend is good at sex the way that good cooks are good at cooking; he considers what is before him and works wonders with it. He works slowly, and with a self-assurance so profound that it transcends vanity, to make you have a good time; he enjoys the thought that he is someone who can do that for you. When you leave his apartment, spent and vulnerable, he will most likely offer you his number, and he wants to see you take it, fold it in your pocket and make sure you've not lost it, because of course (unless you already have a lover, which many of the people on AOL and on the phone chat lines do)--of course you want to see this sweet and smart and handsome and skilled lover again. As you leave his apartment, he promises he will call you.

Of course he never does. I have met people, strangers at dinner parties or friends of friends, who have revealed, as conversations move in the direction of sex or boyfriends or loneliness, the subjects that long gay dinner parties inevitably touch on, that they've met my friend, have left his apartment with his phone number and have tried to see him again; but he never sees the same boy twice. They seem perplexed, since he seemed so nice, so eager to see them again, but they are perplexed because they do not know what I know, and my friend's other friends know, which is that what he lives for, what makes sex interesting and compelling to him, is the newness of each partner, the thrill he experiences once he knows he has made a seduction. I often think of these men leaving his apartment, hopeful, and when I think of this what I am seeing is the excited gleam in my friend's eyes, the glimmer of the sure knowledge that he has them, has them more surely than at the moment when he was on top of or behind or beside or inside them.

My friend never talks about all this, but of course many of us who know him know it's true because we talk to each other and because at least some of us have made the trip up to his small dark apartment. What we know, those of us who have managed to stop wanting to be wanted by him, is that when he is not on-line or on the phone with strangers drawing them to him, he is at stylish dinners or clubs downtown or openings at galleries with one or more of us, and he will spend a lot of time wondering, genuinely and with some heat, why he has no boyfriend. "I'm a catch," he once complained at a restaurant in SoHo. "Why can't I get a date?"

I want to condescend to my friend, partly in revenge for his not wanting to see me again--for of course I was one of those who went to his place and partly because condescension would allow me to feel superior to him. But we have all done what he does: the thrill of the seduction, the absolute pleasure, brief of course but heady, of knowing they want you, and before I condescend to my friend, wax clinical about narcissism and object relations, I would have to make a count of the boys whom I myself have fled once I've had them: the gentle and hopeful Southern neighbor whose breath was sweet with Jack Daniel's when we finally kissed and whose calls I stopped returning the next day, and who wrote me an angry note that I pretended to find amusing but then shoved to the bottom of the trash can, as if it might physically hurt me; the tall and beautifully muscled copper-haired man from the gym who, over dinner, after I'd found him in the locker room, turned out to be surprisingly shy and wanted to talk about writers and writing, and I condescended to do so only because I wanted to make sure he'd come back to my apartment even though I knew, because he'd told me, that he didn't like impersonal one-night stands, and when I finally got him back to Twenty-fifth Street and started unbuttoning his shirt he pulled back but finally gave in, and two weeks later left his last unanswered phone message on my machine, as I sat there listening, too panicked to pick up the phone; or the others, the men you meet on-line, the men whose numbers you get in restaurants and bars, the men whose notice is so precious to you at the moment you perceive it that you do anything and tell them anything just to get them, to have them, and once you do you need to have another, someone else, someone different, and so you must kill off the earlier boy, the one you'd been desperate to have the previous night, you must make him disappear because if you see him again he will become a particular boy and not just Boy, not just the thing that keeps you out all night or up all night or on-line all night in the hopes that he, like so many others, will pass through your small apartment where desire is something about you, something you can control, something, finally, that has nothing to do with the other person who happens to be in the room.

 
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Excerpted from The Elusive Embrace by Daniel Mendelsohn. Copyright © 1999 by Daniel Mendelsohn. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.