One day in the summer of 1951 I stood in front of the Mona Lisa in the Musée du Louvre. There was only one other person in the room and I had to look at him too because he attracted me more than the painting. He was a young black man of dark complexion and classically beautiful, like a mask from Benin. Our eyes met and we began to talk. We agreed that Mona Lisa was somewhat disappointing and got into an hour-long conversation while she, unaffected, kept smiling. Ian was from Jamaica and was very alive. Intellectual black people often keep more of their spontaneity and physicality than intellectual white people. I had an offer of a ride to Switzerland that I told him about, and he said he would like to come.
Two days later we were off.
Ian’s love was poetry; he traveled with Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat in his pocket, and whenever we were waiting for a ride at the roadside he would read me passages. He was also interested in politics and we had many talks about racism. The way to overcome it, he believed, was by the blacks getting economic strength. In body, mind, and spirit he was a superior being, but he was not gay. Not that I hadn’t known that all along, but I was repeating an old pattern of disregarding and hiding my sexuality.
We went down into Italy. Hitchhiking over the Apennines, in one little town we were buying food in a delicatessen. I happened to look towards the shop window. The lower half was entirely occupied by faces with their noses pressed flat against the glass: these rustic people had never seen a black man before and could not let such entertainment go unnoticed. Ian gratified them with a smile and a wink.
In one of the youth hostels we frequented, all the bunk beds were build together like one construction in the middle of the room. I remember the sexually charged atmosphere that night. First a young blond American sat in his bed showing his perfect naked tanned torso while I with several others stood around, unable to tear our selves away from the radiance of his charm. When we finally put out the light and I was on the edge of sleep, the whole bed structure started shaking with the rhythmic movements of a couple up top and they didn’t let off for hours.
We traveled for a month through northern Italy and into France. The last week we stayed in a house that a friend of mine owned, the only house remaining inhabitable in a small ghost town in Provence. There was nobody around; it felt like the end of the world had come, and we were the only survivors. I wrote a story about that, a story with a sad ending, as I was in a sad mood because the end of our voyage was coming.
Back in Paris we kept seeing each other and often went out together, to the theater or to the opera.
When Ian left for Jamaica, he didn’t want us to exchange addresses. He didn’t believe in a long distance friendship; he thought attempts to keep it alive against odds would destroy it instead. He preferred to have the memories unsullied by later exchanges, motivated by feelings of duty. It is true that my memory of him still is like a jewel shining with unaltered pure light, and I remember him in the full power of his twenty-one years with never a defeat; he was groomed to be a leader, and I have often wondered what became of him when his country earned its independence.