|Why I have Not Used My Elias Lamb Connection
I have never taken any advantage of my friendship with Elias Lamb before he became famous. And I have to admit that when he started to be mentioned in newspapers and magazines, I wasn't sure that it was the Elias Lamb that I had known or that the person I had known had been called Elias Lamb. You can see my dilemma. But despite all of this confusion, I can be proud of not taking advantage of this acquaintanceship like some people might.
I knew him in England. Some of the elder dons gossiped that they had seen him at a truck stop on the M-1 motorway. I think the word 'prostitutes' was mentioned. But to his defense, I never substantiated any of this. Not that I wasn't interested, but not enough to do any snooping.
And besides, he seldom went down to dinner. I knew about him from a fellow American named David, a big blond guy who had worked for a winter as a lumberjack and was more amiable than I. I don't remember if it was David or one of the dons who occasionally boarded at Pusey House that gave me the lowdown on Elias Lamb. He had been in Vietnam. He had written a book about it. The Washington Post had offered him a job.
I think he ate at his college, but liked the atmosphere of Pusey House better. It was more anonymous. The rooms had once been the servants' quarters when each priest at Pusey House had a retinue of servants. He had a corner room, which may have had a view of the street. My room was across from the bathroom and had a view of a dreary courtyard if you stood on the desk and looked directly down. Otherwise what I saw was a brown wall. At the time I was young and felt that it was height of decadence to buy a bottle of port and drink it in bed in the morning. I wanted to be decadent. Few people knew this, though I thought if it could somehow be worked into my biographies it would make me sound more interesting.
We went our separate ways. I was on a semester abroad. Elias, the dons referred to him as Eli, was in his last year and was preparing for exams. The only time I saw him, other than when he occasionally went to meals, was when he walked to the bathroom in his plaid terry cloth robe, his hair curly and unruly everywhere except on his head, which prematurely was bald.
He continued to dedicate himself to studying and occasional trips to the M1 motorway. I also studied and tried to find true love or sexual adventure at Pusey House, which was rife with gay Episcopal seminarians. One of them would linger blatantly over the underwear ads, drifting to the open doors of those who wanted Sunday morning conversation.
The director of Pusey House was Cheslyn P. Jones, a tall portly man who wore glasses for reading, and tilted his head down to his chin so he could look at us. Though rumored to be brilliant, he had the air of being always just at the point of understanding. When he finally did talk, it was as if something in his mind crumbled and the words finally spilled out, with little stuttering ripples along the mental rocks. When he walked down St. Giles Street, he had the wobbling look of a huge teddy bear, his large stomach bulging under his black cassock that came to his shoes, and his head down to see over his glasses. I once tried to describe him to an ex-monk who studied at Wycliffe Hall and who used to enjoy visiting my rooms when I lived there so he could look down at the boys playing in the schoolyard of another institution. His perversion, as he described it chummily, brought general giggling moans of disapproval from the Baptists with whom he studied. This man, whose name I do not remember, suddenly lit up as he asked me if this could be the same man who always walked down St. Giles with food on the front of his cassock. There are times when we do not realize things until others point them out, and for me that became one of Cheslyn's memorable traits.
Not everyone at Pusey House became my friend in the way that Elias Lamb did. For example, I never really warmed to Nigel Knight. For one thing, he was a radical monarchist and after reading Peter Gay's and Ernst Cassier's books on the Enlightenment (I liked to drop facts to make the scope of my reading appear broader and these were excellent sources.) I was definitely anti-monarchist. I kept this to myself. Nigel was an older man, perhaps in his forties or fifties. At the time I still lumped people from thirty-five to fifty-five together in vague group, the way today twenty to thirty-five seem to be one group. Nigel had become the only subject of a Romanian princess who lived in Oxford. She had ruined his car and he was on a meager pension. As a monarchist he was unable to separate himself from her or to find fault even with her driving. The matter was discussed thoroughly when Nigel was at meals and when he wasn't, because he often missed meals so he could serve his princess. He never made any attempt at becoming more friendly, perhaps because I was an American without any chance of royal blood, but if he had, I would have kept my distance.
I never talked to Elias about how he felt living in a 20th century building that had been constructed to look like a Romanesque monastery or if he ever had a tingling of holiness when the incense wafted up to the halls from the procession that went from the hallway, took a sharp right and went into the chapel. As far as I knew, he never went to mass, which was held daily. (It had been rumored in my presence that the librarian, who was also a priest, had given mass without anyone present, which I was informed was a great sacrilege). I went a few times because I was in the process of becoming a Christian again by eliminating the content and enjoying the ritual. It seemed to me that at Pusey House it was all ritual. At one of the afternoon masses that I attended infrequently, Cheslyn officiated and perhaps because of the stressful schedule he kept, or because the eleven o'clock martini he drank everyday had been a bit larger than usual, he had fallen asleep in the middle of the mass. I watched in shocked amusement, and a bit worried about the complicated feelings of the two Episcopal nuns and Nigel and two or three others if they happened to see the librarian's whispering to the altar boys and to their bumping and shaking Cheslyn. He came to as if he were the Red Cross Knight freed of Duessa's veil of deception, twitching and fighting his way back to consciousness. The relief of the parishioners, who had watched his body swell and shrink to the tangled sounds of his congested breathing, was so great that it reminded me of the quiet rapture of the onlookers in Juan de Flandes' The Resurrection of Lazarus.
As far as the martini at eleven goes, that is first-hand information. Cheslyn had once invited me, a German history student named Fritz, who had everything he had read in years on index cards in a huge library file cabinet, and the librarian to have drinks with him before lunch. Perhaps I had mentioned that I knew some Spanish and Cheslyn had shown me a bilingual version of St. John of the Cross with a rather erotic translation. The German student had been convinced of my intelligence by a few stray comments based on Peter Gay and Ernst Cassiers and never thought of delving the depth of my knowledge. He was also refused a scholarship to do a doctorate a year later when he insisted on answering questions on Bismark and ignored the other questions in his orals. His parents were personal friends of Cheslyn's, so occasionally Fritz was invited for a drink. If I remember, that was how I was invited.
After this invitation, Cheslyn seemed to have lost sight of me. He usually had special guests, donators to the house or Anglican high church dignitaries who were in Oxford. He had been a rising star once, but his star had become stuck, and some of the hallway tongues on Sundays when they weren't sharing sighs and muffled squeals over the bulges in the underwear ads in The Times, remarked on Cheslyn's stalled career and his attempts to ingratiate himself with these special guests. Cheslyn would hold a tete-a-tete, so engrossed in his guest and his own comments that the food in the spoon he was bringing to his mouth would halt in mid-air, and when it finally reached his mouth, most of its contents were slowly sliding down the front of his cassock.
I'm not quite sure where Cheslyn would fit in a book of realism, ala Richard Carver, which seems to be the style my friend Elias Lamb chose, but I expect to see him disguised as a gas station attendant with an unfathomable southern accent or someone's vacant-eyed drunken mother in one of his stories. I'm not sure I myself am fit for realism. If Elias, also known as Eli, reads this, I hope he keeps that in mind. Of course, he could change me so completely that I wouldn't recognize myself.
As close as we were, (we lived less than thirty feet from each other with only two doors between us), I don't think Eli knew me well enough to use me as a character. I was more guarded then than I am now. I don't think he even knew of the two affairs I had at the same time, two theologians. For a week I believed that I was in a dilemma because the two of them could not live without me. By the end of the week, both affairs were over, though I had tried to keep them going. I was sure they both were convinced that my desperate gaze represented my agony at their rejection. As far as I know, until they read this, neither of them has known about the other. This was one of the many secrets I kept from Elias. No one else knew either.
Karl, the one who was more tortured about sex , invited me and David to a Christian meditation. I'm sure that he was trying to introduce me to pleasures of the soul since he had withdrawn those of the flesh from my consumption. I thought this was my chance to cut my losses, to throw all my eggs into one basket and forget the other loss. I might convince Karl of some holiness I had.
A woman with the power read from a long repetitive script while we were supposed to open ourselves up to a subconscious infusion of spirituality. There were probably twenty of us, including another woman, in a small meeting room next to one of the rooms where underwear was always a Sunday topic. David began to laugh first as I vaguely remember, but soon both of us were shaking, our bodies trying to muffle the need to laugh hysterically. Ambiguous tears rolled down our cheeks.
After the reading was over, David's and my own tear streaked faces appeared as some type of miracle for the others. We quickly excused ourselves so we would not begin to laugh again. Unfortunately, Karl wasn't fooled. I began to think of myself as a temptation vanquished. It suited me better than tried and dumped.
Fergus was older than Karl, though he had a boyish voice and body. I think in his case I had been under consideration. I went with him and a friend to the Red Lion and we looked at the other men. He was serious and yet I remember him as always smiling. He was not confused by his sexuality or his religious beliefs. God wanted us to enjoy our bodies without hurting others. I had the same formula minus God. Unfortunately, he was not especially confused by me either. I guess he sensed I wasn't cut out to be the priest's special friend. He wrote me a long letter when I returned home, friendly but not sexual. I don't think I have it anymore.
Fergus had lived at St. Stephen's for a while, but left before the scandal when some of the seminarians had an orgy in the wine room. I am only repeating a rumor, which included the mention of the locking of the wine cellar. If any punishment suitable for the soul had taken place, the spreader of this tale had not mentioned it. Unlike Wycliffe, St. Stephen's had no female seminarians at the time. I may underestimate Fergus to assume that he had not participated. A friend of mine from college back home, about as close to me as Eli, left St Stephen the same year that I arrived in Oxford, shaken in his faith.
So I had to console myself that I had been bodily pleasure for Fergus and a misstep for Karl. But the hardest was that I had imagined myself as essential to both of them, so I had been unable to choose, and here I was a small bump in their long lives. And of course, Eli was studying so much for his exams that I wouldn't have imagined crying on his shoulder.
Our last encounter seems especially significant to me. The core of it has burned all the details away. I don't remember if I was stumbling out of my room in the middle of a day of Cockburn's port in bed or if I was on my way to the bathroom across the hall, or if I was planning to walk back and forth in front of Karl's door, but suddenly I was aware of Eli standing in his bathrobe in the cold stone-walled hallway, and then in a booming theatrical voice, he began to recite the final lines of Faust as Faust sinks into hell. His hot humid just-bathed body steamed slightly in the cold air of the hall. And then the door closed as if he had been swallowed by hell and our relationship ended forever.
I heard that he had gotten a first. The gates of hell turned out to be the road to success. He was leaving for a job at a large newspaper. Our paths, which had crossed, were to divide forever.
I write this so my detractors can see how easily it would have been for me to use this contact and how I have avoided using the name of the famous writer Elias Lamb to promote my own career as an unpublished novelist. My reasons may be obvious from the text.
On the other hand, I have completely detached myself from this part of my past. I have not heard from David or Fergus or Karl or Fritz or Cheslyn or Eli in thirty years. I once read an op-ed letter in the New York Times by a mutual friend of David and me, but she for some reason was not interested in restarting our deep friendship, which perhaps could have been a road back to David, who never understood why the others looked at men's underwear ads. I can only think that she had taken some hair-brained self-help course, which had forbidden her from looking backwards at her past or encouraged her to dump unsuccessful friends, or that the fact that I told her I was gay as she was taking her clothes off in my bedroom made her eventually hate me. As Toby also knows, life is full of secrets and they are not all ours.
Finally, I think my refusal to use my connection to Elias Lamb shows my real moral self, barred of all the missteps one can so easily make in cities like New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and even London that my detractors might dig up. Others may not see the point of this story, but I am sure my friend Elias will.