They meet in Paris just after the war. They are young and hurt and lonesome, and Arthur tells himself that the only reason he is drawn to Alfred is they are both expatriates, both without a nation (home) to call their own. That much explains his more-than-just-a-passing-fancy for the bumbling American; Alfred's determination explains the rest. They pass in and out of the fashionable bistros in the Quarter, and they drink. They drink not because they need to but because they want to. There is a difference.
Paris, France. Montparnasse. The Closerie. The Select. The Rotonde. These are places Arthur commits to memory as if they were his precious British pubs, these are places he learns to cherish as home because this is as close as he will ever be to home.
Of people, there are many: Francis drifts in and out however he pleases. Elizabeta and Roderich, it seems, are perennially on the verge of marriage, but something—bad news back home, a second thought—manages to prevent them from the taking the last, permanent step towards that forever-lasting bond. Antonio goes back to Spain in the summers, but he returns. So he too is without a home. They travel out of humid Paris down to tourist-haven San Sebastien, back up to St. Jean and again down south for the bulls at Pamplona. Feliciano and Romano, two Italian brothers, visit Paris one idyllic summer and never come back. Antonio is heartbroken but his sorrows are like everyone else's.
They spend countless days just lounging about. Half of them are writers, or least pretend to write. Roderich is a pianist, but he seldom manages to keep a job and eventually takes up post as a music professor, something he had always vowed to avoid. Elizabeta paints. Alfred claims to be a singer, but on a night he'd rather forget, Arthur remembers the American's screech of a voice; he can't sing for his life. There are other things, of course, that he'd like to forget.
"You're not as drunk as you try to seem," Alfred tells him one day. Where are they? Does it even matter whether they are in Spain or France or damned Switzerland?
"I'm tight," says Arthur.
They look at each other and lie. Not too much; just a little to keep up appearances. Alfred says that he has a family back in the States; divorced, with two children. Arthur mentions in passing of an older brother who lives in Scotland. He is an orphan: he never knew his parents. And when he reaches up to touch Alfred's cheek, it's almost as if they are in love.
Someone—blasted Francis and his inconvenient visits, among other people—or something tends to interrupt them from taking the last leap of faith. "The whole nine yards," says football (the American kind, idiot, not soccer) obsessed Alfred. He drinks his scotch and soda and Arthur drinks his whiskey. Both have a fascination for absinthe, that magical greenish drink that brings about visions of fairies and other fantastical creatures.
And so, during a heat wave in June, Arthur falls in love. No one wakes up before twelve, and the bistros seem a bit emptier than they actually are. They talk for a little bit but the the silence caves them in. Slowly, then, they leave. The group separates to their own plans. Roderich goes to Vienna on Sabbath, and Elizabeta takes up with a fellow painter named Gilbert. Antonio travels to Naples, ostensibly to woo Romano back. Francis is stuck in one of his many temporary affairs; the girl, however, wants marriage: and he smothers her with promises (false) and red roses (real).
As if by default, they are thrown together. Alfred and Arthur. Arthur and Alfred. First it is because their names are similar. Then it is because they both speak English, though Arthur tends to muddle about in his high-class British accent and Alfred is unable to speak a sentence without using the words awesome, amazing, or me.
They do not fall in love for any of these reasons. Alfred dramatically proclaims that they are a Lost Generation, and Arthur cannot help but agree. They ache for flesh and simplicities, but as they spend more time together, first out of loneliness and then out of love, matters become more difficult as they are bound to.
Arthur detests Alfred's pompousness, and Alfred strikes back at Arthur's snobbishness and horribly baked scones. One day, they fight, and Arthur ends up with more than a scratch on his body. Alfred's glasses break in the midst of scuffle. They kiss and it tastes of tears and human sweat. Nothing, it seems, is ever destined for happiness.
When they mutually decide that perhaps it's best to not see each other, Arthur belatedly wonders if they will end up like Elizabeta and Roderich, always on the verge of a great romance, always falling short. Roderich has returned and mutely accepted Gilbert, but he secretly loathes the Prussian and detests the things Elizabeta does to him. There is, of course, nothing he can do. The last Arthur heard, the three of them had started living together; a bad attempt at compromise, but what else is there to do?
"Let's go to Strasbourg," Alfred suggests to Francis on an early morning. They are eating breakfast with Francis's girlfriend, shy but pretty with long auburn hair and a slim waist. "I know someone who knows someone up there. Yeah. She's a great girl, I hear, and we could—"
Francis steps on Alfred's foot. Mistaking it for an accident, Alfred continues: "It's nice up there, too. And she could take us around, show us the sights—" Francis kicks Alfred's leg and shoots him a pout that asks for pity, and now Alfred understands. "Hell, why go to Strasbourg when we can go to Marseilles. It's nice there, too."
The girl looks relieved. Francis smiles reassuringly at her and nuzzles his nose into her neck. Alfred looks away in disgust; he is not kicked again.
They meet again in Paris, Alfred red all over from his summer in Spain and Arthur white as always from his self-imposed isolation in his studio apartment. Drawn to each other as he realizes they've always been, Arthur realizes that going away did nothing at all; what had they been trying to accomplish?
"I missed you," he tells Alfred, and means it. A second later, they are in each other's arms and nothing in the world could possibly ever matter. Alfred breathes in the distinctly British scent of Arthur's hair, and Arthur says the little things that Alfred always likes to hear. When, at the end, they are exhausted and draped over the other in a collection of naked limbs, Alfred casually poses the possibility of living together.
But Arthur immediately thinks of Elizabeta and Roderich and painter Gilbert and how their living arrangement did not work out at all: she'd left the two of them together in that stuffy room but returned soon enough; then, Gilbert promised to make an honest woman of her, but Elizabeta evidently did not want to be honest and she and Roderich moved away to a new home, a new studio apartment that turned out to be only one street away from their previous abode. Monetary restraints were what did them in.
"No," Arthur says very carefully, closing his green, green eyes and looking outside where the sun is bright and the warmth of its rays is real.
"Why not?" complains Alfred.
"It'd never work." The sound of glass breaking in the room next door, a child screaming for his mother, the hoarse drunken laughter in the streets below, but Arthur hears none of it.
Francis, eventually, marries. As simple as that he moves out of everyone's lives and he starts over with a new slate in the French Riviera with his young bride and a blossoming business in the art trade. In two years, he will succumb to the pleasures of a Canadian girl traveling in the area with her family, but they are happy for now (for now). Arthur attends the wedding and wakes up the next morning in the bed of one of the bridesmaids. He does not remember her name, just as he cannot forget Alfred, whom he has not seen for some time (oh, the days fly, but he remembers none of it—he spends them half-drunk, half-asleep in a strange trance of a lullaby).
"You are in love," the girl had grimly told him the night before before opening her arms: "Take me." At that moment, he hadn't been ready: a minute later he was; but it was her words that lingered in his mind, rather than the feel of her soft hair, her lips against his skin.
Later, he rushes back to the apartment on Boulevard St-Michel where Alfred lives, only to find out that the American had left the previous day to return to the States on a ship, the Garden of Eden.