Joyland

New York |

French Absolutism

by Brandon Taylor

edited by Michelle Lyn King

Before Lionel was an exam proctor, he had been a math major on the cusp of graduating with honors. Then something had gone wrong in his life, in him, and now all of that was over.

Lionel stood at the front of the room staring down five neat rows of five desks each. There were fifteen people in the room, all white, all boys, hunched over their papers. He was proctoring a history exam today for the head of the department’s advanced course on Early Modern French History. Lionel’s task had been to copy the prompt from his cellphone to the whiteboard and then to distribute the bluebooks to the students. Then he was to wait the two hours for them to finish filling the books up with everything they knew, depositing facts and dates and names in a string dictated by some fine, argumentative logic. The history professor would then read this array of information, consider its arrangement, test the stability of its architecture, its aesthetic grace. While Lionel knew very little about history, he could appreciate the mathematical rhythm of the whole enterprise.

French absolutism. Not even a question mark. That was it. That was all. Write it up there and wait. A digital clock above the door counted down the time by counting up the time. Lionel leaned against the long table at the front of the room, but he didn’t rest his weight on it because he was afraid of causing it to scrape across the floor. He braced himself with his hands and he flexed his longer fingers beneath the table’s surface. His shoulders were tense. He kept biting his lip, kept thinking about the morning, about Charles.

Whenever he caught himself thinking of Charles, he flinched and felt the table shift a little, as if he’d fallen asleep at the wheel and come to just before driving off the road. But time and again, his thoughts did turn to Charles and his muscled back and his thick dark hair and his deep, rich laugh. He thought of how confidently Charles had lifted the dying bird from the sink and sent it spinning through the air and into the snow, and then how rough but gentle he’d been, lifting Lionel up, placing him on the bed. Lionel knew that Charles was somewhere on this very campus at this very moment. He could feel him out there beyond these cinderblock, windowless walls. Lionel turned his head to the right. Three boys there: burgundy sweatshirt in the front, a pinched face, pained expression, thick dark brows, a full mouth; a sallow-skinned blond in the middle, biting his thumb, staring at the page, no words yet, already an hour gone; and finally, a green sweater, salt-and-pepper hair, a thick beard.

The others were variations on the theme, swap out blonde for dark hair, dark hair for red, beards for clean cheeks or stubble, a chipped tooth, dark patches under the eyes, a kind of restless, weary energy working its way through the room. They were all dressed either as slobs, fresh out of bed and poorly washed, or immaculate professors in training with delicately chosen sweaters and Oxfords underneath. Lionel had once been like that, and to be honest, he wasn’t much older than them, but now there was a thin dark line running down the middle of his life like a crack through ice. A bifurcation. One year, two years out of now? How long had it been since he’d taken a class? How long had it been since he’d been one of them, these phantom limbs of his former life?

He bit the corner of his mouth and thought hard, pressing at the membrane of his memory. Two years coming up now, a year and a half. That’s how long, which seemed at once like too short of a time and too long of a time, the way things can sometimes when there’s a distortion of their scope. One and a half years ago, he had split himself open and tried to pour it all out. No, begin it another way, he thought. It had begun long before the final incident in which he’d tried to slip out of this life and into the next as if through a revolving door. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He took it out. A text message, from Sophie.

Lunch?

His face reddened. How could he face her? How could he look her in the eye after what he’d done with Charles? When they met at the party the night before, when everyone had gone out on the porch after dinner to smoke, and she reached out to him and said that she understood something about him, when she said that you need something in this life, Lionel had felt immediately that they could become friends in a way that he hadn’t experienced in a long time. He had felt that even if he couldn’t express himself completely, he wouldn’t need to with her, that she’d just understand; and then he’d gone and fucked her boyfriend because of course, he had. Because of course Charles had shown up at his apartment. Why else all of those looks, that run-in outside of the bathroom, the way Charles had brushed the water from his eyelashes. What else had all that meant if not I want you. I want to have you. I want to fuck you. What else could all of that have culminated in if not Charles standing outside of his doorstep, waiting to be let in? And Lionel had done it, knowing what was giving up. The right to say anything to Sophie ever again, knowing that the moment he let Charles in for what they both had known would be inevitable, he was saying goodbye to Sophie and whatever friendship she might have had for him. Lionel stared down at his phone, the corners of his eyes wet.

U there?

Proctoring.

Sounds terrible—lunch?

Maybe not a good idea.

Why?

A pause. Then another vibration.

Charlie? I know. It’s cool.

Lionel sucked air into his cheeks. Jesus Christ. He stared down at his phone and tried to figure out what that could mean, I know. What did she know? How did she know? What did she mean by it’s cool? How could this be possible, unless Charles had told her, or, unless it had been as obvious to her as it had been to him last night, Charles materializing out of the snow, breathing hard at his doorstep. He could see it, Sophie watching the whole thing with a detached ease, a calm brought by knowing and inevitability. He knew that feeling, could remember the edge of it from when he had studied differential equations, the moment at which he knew the solution was imminent and all there was left to do was watch the equations unfurl and unravel. Writing out line after line of mathematical solutions had a bit of ease about it, a bit of grace like falling snow. When you knew the solution, or rather, the shape of the solution, you simply had to wait. It would come. Sophie had watched them orbit each other, had seen where it was all going. She knew. It was cool. Lionel envied her, but also felt humiliated—what to say? Best to say nothing.

Come on. It’ll be fun. I’ll buy.

Ok, he found himself typing.

! ! !

One of the students coughed, and Lionel looked up sharply. The boy was staring at him. No. The boy was staring beyond him to the board, at the question that was not a question. French absolutism. Lionel felt sorry for him, a kind of sweet sadness, because there was a look of drowning on his face. Worse still, it was a look of someone who knew that they were drowning, was aware of every moment slipping by, weighing them down, sinking them deeper and deeper. Poor kid. Lionel wanted to walk to his desk, lean over it, and ruffle his hair, to say it would be okay, that no matter what he wrote in the blue book, it would be okay, that this was just a momentary state and at the end of the hour, it would pass by. In years, this moment would collapse down into the general topography of his life, and he’d forget this panic, he’d forget this drowning. It was just a test. But Lionel didn’t know how to do such a thing. He didn’t know how to bridge the gap between him and other people to bring comfort. The boy with the drowned look licked his lips and put his head down—back to work. Lionel glanced at the clock over the door.

There was time.

After the exam, Lionel took the fifteen blue books up the stairs to the history department’s front office. He left them with the secretary, who gave him a long, reproachful stare which left him feeling uneasy and a little annoyed. He shrugged his shoulders at her, signed the form saying that he had done what he had been asked to do, and left.

Outside, the air was cold and gray—already, the sun was beginning to die down, thinning, darkening along its edges. He had ten minutes before he had to meet Sophie for coffee at the café on campus, so he turned left and went along the path that had been cut through the snowy quad. He passed the large oak tree and the stone benches covered in snow where he used to read on spring days. The nape of his neck, wrapped in so many layers of wool and flannel, turned hot at the memory. The grass and the benches were hidden beneath layers of snow now.

Lionel found Sophie sitting by a window in the café. He saw her before she saw him because he had come in through the little-used side entrance. Her face was as he remembered it from last night: very pale and very bright, as if lit from below by a soft, white light. Her hair, too, glossy and blond and messy waves. She had a pert nose. Sophie had managed to get her feet up onto the chair with her and rested her chin between her knees. It seemed to him such a strange posture, more liquid than flesh and bone, but then he remembered that she—and Charles, she had said—was a dancer, and so flexibility was as much a part of her as breathing.

“Hi,” Lionel said, and she leapt up out of the chair and gave him a quick hug.

“Hey,” she said. “I’m so glad you could come.” Her smile came quickly, but it lasted, settling into the contours of her face. Lionel unwound his scarf and unbuttoned his coat shyly.

“Me too. Thanks for inviting me.”

Sophie put her legs back up and watched as he emerged from his clothes. He felt awkward under her stare, clumsy. He had never known what to do with his body, and the few times he had tried to exercise some measure of control over himself, things had gone poorly, and so he felt as if he, at all times, existed in an uneasy truce with his limbs. The café was warm. The scent of coffee roused him.

“Want something to drink? To eat?” She asked.

“Oh, I’m fine—well, maybe a coffee.”

“You got it.”

“It’s fine, I can pay—” Lionel said, but Sophie shook her head at him.

“I work here, so it’s basically free. Besides, I asked you.” She sprung up from the chair and went to the counter. That’s how she moved everywhere, springing up, leaping up, hopping up. And yet there never seemed to be a wasted motion. Everything seemed so clean, so fluid. She came back with coffee, some sugar packets, and some creamer. Lionel took them gratefully.

“So you work here,” he said. “That must be nice.”

“It has its moments, like anything else.”

“And you’re a dancer. You must be busy.”

“Busy is a word for it,” Sophie said, laughing. It was a casual laugh, tossed away. Husky, rich laugh. “But it’s not too bad. You just have to plan.”

“I hear you,” Lionel said. The coffee was too hot to drink right away. He always preferred a little ice with it, but he felt too shy to ask her to go back to the counter. He rubbed his hands together under the table. His leg was bouncing fast. Sophie nodded and smiled broadly at him. She folded her arms across the table and leaned forward a bit so that her back became long and straight.

“So, you’re probably wondering why I asked you here,” she said.

“Yes,” Lionel answered before she had even finished speaking, prompting him to blush deeply. She was unruffled.

“I don’t know. I really liked meeting you last night and didn’t feel like we had a chance to talk, you know?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I liked meeting you too. It was nice.”

“So, tell me about yourself,” she said. “I want to hear all about you.”

“Oh, what’s to tell?” he started.

“Don’t do that, Lionel.”

“Don’t do what?”

Sophie paused. She looked out into the snow. There was an inscrutable expression on her face as she watched some wind blow snow across the patio. Lionel looked out too, saw the wind work its way across the flat white expanse of lawn, to the library, a solemn, long building. She was gathering something in her quiet, working out some knot. The back of his throat ached.

“There’s always something to tell,” she said. “There’s always something.”

Lionel sighed and picked up his cup. The coffee was still too hot. “I’m from…Michigan, originally. I was a student here—math.”

“Oh?” Sophie seemed surprised and then, after a second thought, she nodded. “I can see it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. There’s something…” she made a vague motion with her hands “There’s something very logical about you.”

“You don’t even know me,” he said. “How can that be true?”

“I trust my instinct,” she said, smiling. “That’s all I got in this world.”

“That’s mathematical too,” Lionel said. This time, he drank the coffee anyway, and it burned his tongue, but he didn’t mind it so much.

“What is?”

“Instinct. It’s mathematical, or, it can be understood mathematically, and so it’s actually deeply logical.”

Sophie hummed at this thought, turning it over in her mind and then letting it ride. She didn’t probe further, and Lionel felt embarrassed at his naked need for approval or to have his intelligence affirmed. He had thought that part of himself long-dead, gone with the rest of that other life. But he wanted Sophie to like him, to think him interesting. He wanted it even as there was no reason to want it except that she seemed the sort of person who’d make the trouble of getting to know them worth it.

“Maybe that’s true,” she said. “I don’t know. Tell me more.”

“Oh, uhm. I took some time off about a year, year and a half go. Personal shit, you know?” Sophie nodded. She did know. “And now I’m just, like, proctoring exams.”

“Like today?”

“Yeah,” he said. “A history class.”

“What was the exam?” She sat up, her eyes glowing. Lionel pressed his lips to the edge of the cup, savored the heat to the point of pain.

“It was an essay. The question was: French absolutism.”

“That’s not a question,” Sophie said.
“Oh, I know. And the students like, just, went at it. I wrote it on the board, and they spent two hours writing.”

“What even is that?”

“That,” Lionel said, “would have been a question at least.”

Sophie laughed, and it was the best sound in the world.

“Tell me about you,” he said.

“Okay.” Sophie sat up straighter and gave her shoulders several slow rolls as if she were getting serious. “Well, I’m a dancer, which you know. I have two more years here, maybe one if I get motivated.” She gave him a wink and then sighed. “But I don’t know if I want to do ballet forever, you know? Like, I want to dance. But maybe not ballet.”

“What do you mean,” Lionel asked.

“Well, with ballet, there are so few spots in companies, you know? You really have to want it. You have to hunger for it. And even then, if your foot is too big or your shoulders aren’t perfect, they won’t take you. And I don’t know if I want that. I want to just…dance.” She said dance as if it contained everything that she knew of freedom and everything that she did not yet have from this world. She said it like a prayer, like a warding charm, something to inoculate her against the future and whatever it might hold. She wanted to dance on her own terms, in her own way.

“But, I don’t know,” she said. “Anyway, I’m from Georgia.”

“Georgia,” Lionel said, surprised. “You don’t sound like it.”

“What, I don’t sound like a redneck?” She drawled, her voice transformed in an instant. It didn’t seem like a put-on. To him, it seemed as authentic a version of herself as the voice she’d just been using. “I dropped the accent when I was eight.”

“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know that was something you could do.”

“I wanted to leave the South for a long time before I finally did.”

“At eight?”

Something in Sophie hardened. “Sometimes you just know,” she said. Lionel nodded though he did not understand.

“Do you miss it?”

“The South?” Lionel nodded, and Sophie looked out the window again. The hardness in her face remained. “Sometimes,” she said, but Lionel felt that she was speaking from some other time, some other place. “Sometimes, I miss it. Do you miss Michigan?”

“No,” Lionel said. “My family lives here now, and it snows so much that it’s like we never left.”

“I see,” Sophie said, smiling wistfully. “It’s like that, I think. You can substitute one place for another if you don’t look too close.”

“Maybe that’s true,” Lionel said, borrowing Sophie’s phrase, which amused her and made her laugh. Lionel warmed his hands on the mug. If he didn’t look too closely at his life now, it might make a good substitute for the one that had passed below him and away, into the past.

“So, you and Charlie.”

Lionel wanted to expire on the spot. “Oh,” he said.

“Look at your face,” Sophie said. “You look like you’re about to die.”

“I am,” he said, putting his hands across his burning face. “I want the Earth to swallow me up right now.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Lionel shook his head, marveling at the playfulness of her tone.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Jesus—I’m so sorry.”

“Why?” She seemed genuinely perplexed by it, which perplexed him. Weren’t they, she and Charles, together? Weren’t they a thing? Hadn’t Lionel transgressed? Traversed? Cut through that with his body and his mouth and his desire, which, now that Charles’s name had been spoken, flared to new life? Hadn’t it all gone to hell? One night ago, less than twenty-four hours? So soon?

“Because I…because we…”

“Charlie is an adult. He can do what he wants,” Sophie said, shrugging. She reached across the table and set her hand on his wrist, and then, her fingers brushing the caramel-colored scar there, gasped. “What happened to you?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Lionel said. He felt as if static itself had been squeezed beneath his skin. He felt he’d go to pieces right there. He was hot all over. He turned his arm over and pulled back his red flannel sleeve. A shiny scar down the length of his forearm, the white skin there in contrast to his overall brown complexion.

“I had a bad run in with life,” he said.

“Jesus,” she said, staring at the scar. The corners of her eyes had turned damp. He could see the moisture gathering there. He felt shame, pulled his sleeve down.

“That’s done,” he said. He picked up his cup. “That’s over. Stupid shit.”

“Lionel,” she said. “Lionel.”

The coffee was the perfect temperature. He drank deeply from it. The sugar and the cream burned the back of his throat, but he kept drinking. And when it was all done, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked to the window. The world was going dark on them. Sophie reached for his hand, but he moved it away. She reached for him again, and he looked at her with a sad, distant smile.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”

She got up on her knees in the chair and leaned her entire body toward him. It was the slowest he had seen her move. She pressed her forehead to his, and he delighted in how warm she was, how good her hair smelled. It was soft against his cheeks.

“Stupid shit,” she said. “I have stupid shit, too.”


Lionel was the first to laugh. And then she laughed. But then their laughs turned to small sobs, and their tears ran together. She shook her head and tried to wipe her eyes, but that just seemed to make more tears. He did the same, and then he handed her a napkin.

“God,” she said.
“Same,” he said.

To relieve their hot nerves, they went out onto the patio. Sophie took out a cigarette and lit it. They leaned against the gray banister with their arms linked. It wasn’t too cold now, and a snow made of tiny snowflakes fell around them.

“So why did you do it?” Sophie asked. She offered the cigarette, and he took it. He took a long drag, letting the smoke build in his chest, gathering. The burn was pleasant, an ache that he could appreciate. The scar along his forearm throbbed.

“I don’t know. I can barely remember it, to be honest.” What he remembered was going around that week, feeling as if his entire body were on fire at every moment. What he remembered was the idea, at first small and then so enormous that it took up every available space in him, that the only way to get any relief at all was to open a channel and let it all run out. What he remembered was a jagged heat splitting the world in two, and then the cold, so deep and so permanent, coming for him, swallowing him up. Sophie gave a shiver when he told her and took another puff off the cigarette.

“Christ.”

“But my roommate found me. Apparently, I made a mess of it, you know? So they were able to pretty much put me back together. Physically.”

Sophie pressed head against his arm. The smoke curled upward, snaking through the snow like a river around glaciers.

“What about mentally?” she asked. Lionel swallowed thickly.

“I, uh, did some time in a mental hospital. Recovery. Then…outpatient therapy.”

“Fuck,” she said. Then she wrapped an arm around him, pulling Lionel close to her, closer still. He felt loved, attended to, seen, known. A wild fluttering in him. He had to look away or else he felt he’d terrify her with his eyes. He thought of the long hallways, the white lights flickering overhead, the view of the river and beyond the mountain, the fresh air everywhere, the doctors speaking in their confiding, whispering voices, trying to urge him back to the surface of himself, drowning in a sea of his own consciousness.
“How about you?” he asked, nudging at her.

“My parents,” she began, and then stopped. Snow had collected in her hair, and Lionel reached over to brush it away. It melted against his fingertips. She blew smoke from the corner of her mouth, away from him. “My parents died when I was young. And then my sister died a couple years ago, overdose.”

“God, I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s fine,” she said. “Anyway, I don’t know—I spent a long time getting fucked up, you know? Like, this long dark slide. And then, I don’t know. It was either keep going down or live.”

“Yeah,” Lionel said. “Sink or swim.”

“Sink. Or. Swim.”

“Your parents died?”

“Yeah. My sister and I lived with our grandma in Arkansas for a while, and then I moved here for college and for dance. Can’t get into Juilliard with shitty technique and bulimia, turns out.”

Lionel’s stomach clenched in sympathy. Sophie bit her nails. He saw her on her knees, retching up the contents of her stomach, trying to get what was inside of her out, trying to dump it out for good. He leaned down and, seized by the moment, kissed the top of her head which already damp with snow. Shampoo like lilacs and lavender.

“And then my sister died because she couldn’t hold her heroin.”

Lionel didn’t know what to say after that. What was there to say or do? What could be said or done for someone already gone, already dead? Sophie wasn’t looking at him anyway. She was staring down along the sidewalk to the street. Lionel looked at their reflection in the window. He was taller than she was, and fuller, because she was in superb physical shape even in bulky winter clothes. She had her leg raised and braced against the railing. Her hips were turned out. The natural posture of someone who has been dancing their whole lives.

Just then, he heard a sound over his shoulder, and the two of them turned to look. Coming toward them, across the quad, was a tall, shadowy figure. Another sound, and another, which Lionel began to hear as a kind of chant that then, upon closer listening, became his name and Sophie’s name, conjoined, carrying to them across the distance.

“Who is that?” She said, turning to lean on the rail. She squinted into the gathering darkness. “Is that Charlie?”

Lionel seized up, the old embarrassment coming back again, at having been caught in such an intimate moment with Sophie. But then, he felt embarrassed for his embarrassment.

“Charlie!” Sophie called back. “Get your ass over here.”

“I’m coming,” Charles said, and he stomped up the stairs to them. He was wearing the same coat from last night, but this time he wore a hat and some gray jogging pants. He had showered and gave off a powerful clean scent. Lionel’s cock hardened. Charles leaned down to kiss Sophie’s cheek and then her lips, “Hi.” Then he turned to Lionel and gave him a smile, though it was shy, muted. “Lionel.”

“Charles,” he said coolly, but he felt anything but cool, anything but even. It was Sophie who broke the tension.

“You two. God. You fucked. We all know. It’s okay. No one cares.”

Charles turned white and then red and then shrugged. He was resigned. Lionel said nothing of it. They went inside and sat at the table near the window. Charles helped himself to Lionel’s coffee, and Lionel felt himself tense. It seemed so intimate, to drink after another person, to place your lips where their lips have been, and to do so in front of Sophie felt like a betrayal. But who was he betraying? Charles sat between them. He put his leg against Lionel’s under the table. He was so warm. Lionel squirmed inside.

Sophie watched him.

“Just look at him,” she said. “He’s about to crawl right out of his skin.”

“Don’t tease me,” Lionel said more sharply than he meant. “Please.”

Charles’s sudden arrival had closed off some space available to them, and Lionel felt that loss keenly. Charles wiped his hand across his forehead.

“I’m exhausted,” he said.

“Long rehearsal,” Sophie inquired.

“The longest.”

“What is the piece?”

“Some student contemporary thing. I needed the hours, you know? If I want to be in good shape for company auditions in the spring.”

“Oh yes,” Sophie said.

“It’s just so…like, weirdly time-consuming? With class and stuff. IT’s just right there in the middle of my day. And of course they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing for music, and it’s some first time-choreographer.”

“Ah, poor baby,” Sophie said, reaching over to run her hands through Charles’s hair, which was dark and had turned curly from his hat. Charles laughed at her and let himself be petted in this way. Lionel felt himself drifting from the surface of his body, sinking down into himself, into silence. It was so easy to watch them around one another, the way they relaxed into each other’s presence, into each other’s words. They were very obviously well-suited. Charles was slowly rubbing his leg against Lionel’s, testing the firmness of it with his own body.

“How was your day, Lionel?” Charles asked.

“It was fine. Proctoring.”

“He proctored a history exam,” Sophie said, raising her eyebrows suggestively. “A long history exam.”

“About what?” Charles asked, looking from Sophie to Lionel and back—it was such a boyish gesture, so childlike that Lionel too wanted to reach out and run his hands through Charles’s hair. He was so sweet, attentive, a gentleness in him.

“French absolutism,” Lionel said.

“What about it?”

“Exactly,” Sophie said, and they laughed. Charles looked at first confused, but his expression turned to one of gentle amusement. He reached out and put his hand on Lionel’s head, tangled his fingers in the halo of soft, brown hair. His nails grazed the surface of Lionel’s scalp.

“What’s so funny?” Charles asked. Lionel found it difficult to speak with the pressure on his head, the pleasant gravity of Charles’s body against his. He thought, involuntarily, of last night, the taste of Charles’s mouth, the insistent heat of his tongue. He thought of Charles between his legs, the rhythm of it, the pressure of it, falling through him.

“Nothing,” Lionel said, leaning away. Charles took his hand away. He put it on Lionel’s knee beneath the table. He put an arm around Sophie, who was watching Lionel across the table. They were both a part of Charles in that moment, and when their eyes met, Lionel felt as if he had been meant to find the two of them all along. He felt for the first time in a long time as if he might surface into something better, something different, something which might, if he only let himself be carried, sweep him into another life entirely.