ERIC BY PHILIPPE HENRI
The following short story by Philippe Henri was published in the sixteenth issue, July 1983, pp. 17-23, of Pan, a magazine about boy-love, published by Spartacus in Amsterdam.
The movement hadn’t been quick enough: I was certain he had just stuffed a book into his jacket and was now sliding up the zip upon it.
As always this early on a Monday afternoon the huge supermarket was nearly deserted. Nearly everything on my shopping list was in my cart. I was just wandering about, returning, curiously enough, again and again to the book and record display. This time, coming around the electronics counter, I had surprised him.
Our eyes met. He looked about thirteen. He had straight long blond hair, was dressed in the uniform of his age: jeans, old white tennis shoes, shabby leather jacket. An intelligent, expressive face. A slight movement of the head liberated his left ear; I saw a tiny gold ring in its lobe.
Now, what was I going to do? I searched my mind for some experience I could draw upon. I have never really had much to do with the delinquents who haunt this suburb north-east of Paris, yet every so often I have had confrontations with young mischief-makers. For two years, before going into aviation, I had taught English to boys his age; I had also worked at several summer camps, as director at the last two. But most incidents I could recall involved boys or girls who were more or less my responsibility. This lad I had never set eyes on before.
It was against my deepest impulses to call in the authorities. Lecturing him was absurd and useless. The idea of forcefully removing the plunder from his jacket didn’t appeal to me either. My indecision didn’t go unnoticed.
At first he had looked like a trapped animal. Now he was regaining his confidence, becoming cocky, even arrogant. In his world you didn’t admit to weakness; sheep were devoured without pity.
He passed me slowly, the shape of the stolen book clearly visible inside his jacket; he tapped it with his fingers and continued on his way, favouring me over his shoulder with one long look eloquent of what he thought of me.
I had witnessed a theft and done nothing about it. Moreover, I had allowed a young boy to make a fool of me. I quickly finished my shopping and fell into the check-out queue.
I was turning this all over in my mind when I saw him approach. One of the disadvantages of slack times is that most of the check-out counters are closed; today only one was in operation. The boy acted as though he had no choice but to take his place in my queue, and so put himself at risk, which rather surprised me. I would soon learn that if you were going to commit a theft you shouldn’t leave through the “No Purchases” exit, which was right under the noses of the store detectives watching the crowd — one had only to pick up some small item (in this case a pack of chewing gum) and then pay for it like any other honest young client.
He watched me, his face maintaining the same cocky smile. Without lowering his eyes he broke into the queue in front of me, much to the displeasure of the woman behind:
“Now, just what do you think you are doing?”
The boy looked her up and down. ”What’s wrong? We’re together. Do you mind?”
The woman turned to me, comparing the energetic young office worker (me) with the little suburban street Arab — and having a hard time seeing the connection.
To me the boy said, “We are together — aren’t we?”
Now I was becoming his accomplice! Torn between anger and reluctance to cause a scene, I simply muttered something under my breath. The boy beamed.
“There . . . you see?”
The good woman kept further thoughts to herself, but judging by her expression they were not very flattering. The boy, on the other hand, began to revel in this little comedy:
“Now, what have you got that’s good?” he asked me. “Is that fish?”
I didn’t want to continue playing the rôle of a fool: “Yes, It’s excellent for developing one’s intellectual faculties — I don’t believe you really need any.”
He wrinkled his nose, visibly surprised at my change in attitude but still unwilling to back down.
“And what’s that?”
“Corn Flakes. You know what Corn Flakes are?”
“Very well, you shall have the pleasure of tasting them — since we are together today.”
I put a little more harshness in my voice than was necessary, but I wanted revenge for my humiliation.
It was then that I saw the man bearing down upon us. It happens that the supermarket is close to the airport where I work and I patronize it frequently enough to know a number of employees by sight. Thus I immediately realized that this was one of the surveillance inspectors. The boy hadn’t yet seen him but he did notice the change on my face. I spoke to him rapidly:
“Whatever happens, don’t move! Just trust me.”
Talking all the while, and not giving him time to react, I quickly opened the boy’s jacket and let the stolen book fall into my shopping cart. Even now I’m not really sure what made me do it — it was more like a reflex.
The boy was cunning enough to catch on immediately. He followed my eyes, and met those of a type of man he’d probably run into many times before, but under far different circumstances than I ever had. I grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and kept him from carrying out his first impulse, which was to flee.
“I said don’t move.”
We locked eyes. He was reappraising me, surprised to find such authority in a man he had just judged a weakling. The look only lasted a few seconds, but I then could see, by a kind of softening in him, that he had placed his fate in my hands,
Now the inspector was upon us. He grabbed my young companion roughly by the arm.
“You! Open your jacket!”
“It’s already open.”
“What kind of manners are these?”
This last response was mine. If it didn’t surprise the boy it earned me, on the other hand, a scowl from the inspector. I continued: “What do you want with this boy?”
“That’s not your concern.”
“It most certainly is. He’s with me, so it seems I have every right to an explanation.”
“With you . . . him?”
The inspector made the same comparison of the two of us that the lady behind me had. The little thief was elated by my support.
“Of course he is with me. Why not? Does that bother you?”
The inspector turned back to the boy:
“All right, first of all where is the book you stole?”
“I haven’t stolen anything.”
“And the surveillance cameras? What are you going to say about that? We’re beginning to get very familiar with your thieving little face around here. This isn’t the first time, is it?”
Meanwhile, I had stepped in front of my shopping cart to face the inspector, who had instinctively moved back a bit. I said angrily, “Now, that’s enough! This, I suppose, is the book you’re talking about. He chose it by himself at the book counter and now he has put it in our cart. So, either leave us alone and return to your job or I propose to finish this affair in the office of Monsieur Meignard.”
The inspector looked surprised.
“You ... you know him?”
“It would appear ...”
He hesitated, frowned, grumbled, “Very well ... this time. But in the future you’d better keep an eye on your little ... pet!”
He left us, a bit stooped-shouldered under the amused or intrigued observation of the other shoppers.
“Who is this Monsieur ... Machin?” the boy asked me.
“Monsieur Meignard is the big boss of the shopping complex.”
“You know him?”
“Is that any of your business?”
Our turn came before the cashier and, as we continued to talk, the boy helped me put my purchases on the rolling counter. When he came to the book — it was a beautiful edition about the great cats — he hesitated for a moment.
“Wake up! We can’t stand here all day.”
I took the “object of the crime” and placed it with the other articles, paid the bill, put all of my own things in several plastic bags flying the colours of the establishment, the book and the chewing gum together in another, and held it out to the boy.
“Here you are,” I said.
He didn’t take it. Instead he said, “Why did you do that?”
“Would you rather I hadn’t?”
“It’s not that, but ...”
“All’s well that ends well. Here are your things. You can go home with your head held high — and not between two policemen.”
He still didn’t take the bag.
“Come on — make up your mind. I’m getting cramps.”
He hesitated, then asked, “I can come with you to your car?”
I put the plastic bags back in the cart. “If you wish.”
Just for the sake of memory, I wanted to know how to tag that little face.
“What’s your name?”
“And how old are you?”
“Fourteen and a half.”
I had guessed less. My mother would undoubtedly have expounded on the unbalanced diet which he ate at home.
“And you live ...?”
“At La Rose des Vents.”
A complex with one of the worst reputations in all of Aulnay-Sous-Bois. We walked on in silence.
“And you?” he asked.
“Me ... what?”
“What is your name?”
In the shopping centre he had been addressing me (in conformity with our little charade) by the informal ‘tu’ form of the word ‘you’. Now he had used the respectful ‘vous’, and I commented on this.
He looked amused, he had totally lost his air of the arrogant little thief.
“I’ll use whichever you prefer,” he said.
“I really don’t care.”
And that was perfectly true. Since our relationship would terminate in a few minutes it was a matter of complete indifference to me whether he called me “tu”, “vous” or addressed me in the third person. He continued to extract little bits of information: my first name, my age, the identity of the airlines where I was operations chief.
“Why do you ask?”
“Just to know.”
We had finished loading the back of my car and I slammed the hatch. He stood on one foot and then the other holding his gaudy little sack.
“I mean ... why haven’t you told me off yet? You never said what I did was wrong.”
“You know that as well as I do; you’re the one that’s bringing it up. So what good would it be for me to repeat it?”
I had opened the door and sat down behind the wheel.
“What’s its name? Your airline — I forgot.”
I told him again. Now he started firing questions at me, in a sort of uninterrupted rhythm, about my exact professional functions and the general life of the airport. He was trying to postpone the moment when, once again, I would close the door on our short friendship. I smiled:
“Now, I am afraid I’m going to have to leave you, otherwise I’ll be late ...”
Late for what? No one was expecting me; in fact there was nothing I really had to do, yet I seemed compelled to shake off my encumbering companion:
“See you soon, perhaps!”
“You think we’ll meet again?”
There was a last exchange of looks; I started the car. As long as I had him in sight in my rear-view mirror he stayed where he was, the little advertising sack dangling, inert, from his hand.
That evening I was surprised to catch myself several times reliving our strange encounter, with reactions oscillating between amusement, curiosity (how little I knew about the boy!) — and also, I had to admit, a degree of regret that our short affair had run its course to the end. Two days later, however, he was far from my thoughts when one of the reception hostesses came into my office:
“Someone wants ‘Monsieur Jacques’ at the counter.”
“A very proper little person.”
That description seemed so incongruous that I was quite surprised to find a rather shy Eric standing on the other side of the counter. True, he was quite properly attired: his hair had been washed and carefully combed; he wore a blue linen coat nicely pressed, impeccable navy-blue velvet jeans, even polished mocassins on his feet. (I later learned that part of these luxurious accoutrements were borrowed from his more affluent friends.)
“Well ... what brings you here?”
“Nothing. I was walking around the airport ... just walking ... and I just decided to come by ... to see if you were in ...”
He was using the formal “vous” again. And he was a poor liar.
“You never go to school, then. Monsieur?”
He made a little movement of surprise:
“Why are you calling me ‘vous’?”
“Because you are, my friend.” I went back to using “tu”. “You still haven’t answered my question about school.”
“Yes. It’s Wednesday. There isn’t any school"
“And the other day?”
“The teacher was sick.”
During this short exchange I had had time to examine my feelings a bit, ask myself whether I really wanted him just to turn around and walk away. Really I was rather glad he had come. The affair was taking a distinctly pleasant turn.
“So, what are you going to do now?”
“Nothing. I just thought I’d say hello to you, that’s all.”
Was that all? The expression on his face contradicted his words. As for me, I had made my decision:
“Eric, I believe that the elegance you have assumed today calls for me to invite you out to lunch.”
It had been a long time since I had had the feeling I’d made another person quite so happy. I introduced Eric to my colleagues rather vaguely as the son of one of my neighbours, and then I took him to a restaurant which my fellow-workers and acquaintances generally didn’t frequent.
The meal was most agreeable. We talked about animals, which seemed to be his great passion in life — a passion which led him to steal the books poverty prevented his parents from buying for him. And it just happens that this is a subject which interests me just as profoundly: before acquiring my certificate in English, I had toyed with the idea of becoming a veterinarian. And I had used my airline travelling privileges to make a number of wild animal tours, taking countless photos and, more recently, video tapes.
“Will you show me your films?”
“Of course, if you wish.”
“I don’t know. Some time ...”
“I’m free today, I can stay out late ... if you want.”
“But ... your parents?”
“I sort of warned them that I might be coming home very late. Besides, the less they see of me in general the better they like it.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment; he misinterpreted my silence. His face stiffened and he blurted out, “You don’t want to bring a thief into your home, is that it?”
The raw feelings of the poor! I deserved the slap in the face. I smiled at him:
“Come on, now, stupid, what have you been imagining? I was just trying to figure out how I could get off from work a bit early,”
“You mean it?”
He beamed again. But there was a problem: now that everyone knew he was in my charge, more or less, I didn’t want to see him wandering around the airport with all its temptations, from shop windows to the video games — and with the rounds of our plainclothes police. Since I still had a few urgent tasks to complete I took him into my office. And there, I had to admit, he was very good; he immersed himself in some tourist literature I put at his disposal then studied, with one of my hostesses, the way in which reservations and registrations were handled. As we were about to leave he even said, “Just a moment; she’s got one more thing to show me!”
He couldn’t have been more enthusiastic over my home had it been a palace out of the Thousand and One Nights. Reality, however, was a simple apartment on the top floor of a modern building overlooking the Chaumont Hills, “We’re going to eat on the terrace?” he asked.
He was inviting himself to dinner — and the day was exceptionally mild for that time of year! Well, I had already decided to intervene as little as possible in the way in which this odd adventure was evolving. So I took a look in the refrigerator and freezer to see what I could throw together to eat.
Then I lowered the blinds and put on the video-tape I had told him about and gave a running commentary, stopping, sometimes, reversing, re-playing. He sat next to me on the couch; little by little he drew closer, until he was nestling cozily against my side. And I realized, with a bit of worry, that I was becoming aroused.
Memories of childhood and adolescence flooded back into my mind, recollections of things which for years I had dismissed as “what you do when you’re a kid”. But in my case “being a kid” had gone on a bit long: there were certain “improper acts” with the boys at the summer camps — very insignificant ones, to be sure, but all the same ... Was that why I had worked so hard, gone to the trouble of acquiring a diploma: to be camp director where I wouldn’t be quite so physically close to the kids?
My reverie exploded as I felt Eric’s soft, warm lips lock onto mine.
“My God, what are you doing?” I exclaimed.
“Don’t you like it?”
His sweet, seductive smile did nothing to calm my feelings. “Well,” I stammered, “people just don’t do things like that!”
He lowered his eyes mercilessly towards my fly.
“Don’t tell me it didn’t turn you on.”
I sprang to my feet.
“Watch the film by yourself. I have to see about dinner.”
He wasn’t about to be put off; he came after me.
“You know, you’re a very strange guy.”
“How am I strange?”
Bang! Half of the bag of potatoes fell on the tile floor.
“You do things for me nobody’s ever done. You bring me to your home, you start making out a little, and just when it starts getting nice you run off to the kitchen.”
“Me? I started to make out?”
“Well, you had your hand on my neck, and then in my hair ...”
He was probably right: lost in my own thoughts, I really hadn’t been keeping track of what I was doing.
“I just ... did it without thinking ...”
He planted himself in front of me, blocking the way to the refrigerator. “Okay, go ahead: tell me I don’t turn you on!” His eyes were becoming hard and arrogant again, as on our first encounter.
“Good God, do you know what you’re saying?”
“Listen, Jacques, I’ll put it to you plain and simple. I was broken in at age twelve by an eighteen-year-old guy: I swapped it for rides on his motor-bike. I got to like it. Then one day another boy took me to Pigalle, and I twigged to the fact that there were these old men who were ready to pay a lot of money to do that with me. I started to cruise like my mates, but that was no big deal. I’ve never been to bed with a girl. What I really want is to find a guy like you, a fine man who would be my friend — my friend and nobody else’s. I thought I’d found him. I was wrong. So, good-bye.”
He turned and ran away. Happily, he had to stop to put on his jacket, which gave me time to come back down to earth before he made it out the door. His hand was already on the handle when I grabbed his arm. “Wait!” I said.
He tried to break away:
“Leave me alone!”
“Eric, I don’t want you to leave.”
He stopped at once.
“Then kiss me!”
“Kiss me or I’m off”
It’s midnight. I’ve just returned from delivering the boy back to Aulnay-Sous-Bois. How strange that I should have had to wait until I was 26 before discovering the pleasure, the naturalness of using your whole body to conjugate with another body! Until a few hours ago I had always made love by rote, hygienically, conformably. Tonight I lived my love; or we lived our love, Eric and I.
Of course, we also have developed a sheaf of projects. He had already told his parents a somewhat expurgated version of the incident at the super market, in order for me to spend as much time with him, officially, as I want. I will certainly have to meet them. And afterwards ... afterwards? I don’t know.
I have the feeling that I have just been reborn in a new skin, one that is really my own. Until now I have been living by mistake in the skin of another man, one which doesn’t fit. So, as with all newborn, give me a little time to take the first steps.
 The cover and the table of contents of this issue of Pan name the author as Henri Philippe. It is unclear which is correct.
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