The sea is high again today, with a thrilling rush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…. –Lawrence Durrell, Justine
I am forty-four, married a decade, and in love with another man, a man I haven’t seen since we traveled together in Italy 17 years ago.
The matchmaking skills of a search engine brought us together last year. In a flash we re-established whatever had sizzled between us for four days in our late twenties. In my e-mails, I found myself echoing the quirky grammar and imaginative allusions of his Danish English, as if they were creative prompts. Those exchanges proved that we spoke the same language. A kind of intimacy, distance be damned.
Back and forth went the e-mails. Forth went a few of my letters and packages; nothing back from him. We conversed by phone a few times. We discussed meeting up in a few months.
It was all very cyber-Romantic.
Before long, a pattern began to emerge. He would let more and more time elapse between replies, and those messages appeared less intense, more perfunctory. He gave me the impression that he was overwhelmed by everything between us, maybe—as a therapist theorized—even scared. Of his own feelings or of mine? The most likely scenario: I no longer amused him. The responsibility of soothing and placating a clearly love-sick former travel mate outweighed any semi-illicit excitement she provided. We still spoke of meeting, in his Sweden or my Montreal, or somewhere neutral, but we both knew it was always too much to ask of the stars to grant us time and courage. They have more deserving people to line up for.
He vanished. I languished. For months. Not even a Christmas greeting from him.
So that is why I am here, six months later. I’ve taken a two-month trip back to Italy. Not to retrace our youthful steps (too painful). Not to forget about his most recent incarnation (impossible). Just to be in Italy. Isn’t that enough?
I have no intention of visiting either Assisi, where we met, at the door of the tourist office, or Rome, where we went together, two days later. Yet that 1985 trip is in every pocket of my jacket, every nook in my suitcase, and I have brought along some of his original reading material.
At that first encounter, I lugged around a large backpack, and a small camera bag with an SLR, lenses, and film. He had a small, Danish “Fjällräven” rucksack (with the little sleeping fox insignia) and a modest valise-like suitcase. Inside was a single, brick-like volume of the entire Alexandria Quartet (a Faber edition of around 500 pages). When I remarked on the weight, he calmly asked how I justified carrying all that camera equipment.
Here I am now with Justine and Balthazar, the first two, slight, easily packed books from another edition of the Quartet, enough reading for two weeks of solo travel. Train rides, sleepless evenings, single-seating restaurant meals. I have waited 17 years to read Durrell’s masterpiece. It has taken me 17 years to revisit my ancestral home, the site of my greatest journey. The two events belong together.
There are the moments which possess the writer, not the lover, and which live on perpetually. One can return to them time and time again in memory, or use them as a fund upon which to build the part of one’s life which is writing.
My first stop is Milano. A day here then I depart for Bergamo, then Padova and Venezia. I arrive on a sunny Sunday, dazed from jet lag and multiple connections, nursing the melancholia that drove me to buy the expensive, almost-last-minute ticket in the first place. Everything is closed! I walk around the shuttered city, and end up in a park. The large plane trees shelter families, strolling couples, park benches. How lovely. One day is set aside to liberate people of the necessity to shop or work.
The next morning is overcast. I check out of the small hotel, and walk to Mussolini’s train station, Milano Centrale, with my little wheeled suitcase and satchel. This time the camera is tiny. I have very little film, no extra lenses. I no longer rely on images the way I used to.
I do, however, have a thing or two in common with my younger self. I yearn for beauty and meaning as much as ever. Sometimes the two concepts are interchangeable. They are equally capable of bringing me intense pain. Good and bad.
Tell me, why am I feeling so little of either? Of anything?
The gray skies mirror my inner landscape.
I travel with you beside me. Glimpsing the landscape as it rushes by the train window. Watching passengers swarm the platforms, seethe into compartments. I repeatedly find myself alone in a crowd. The ghost of your presence a mental companion. If I must pretend like this at home, I might as well pretend here. It’s a sad little thrill to feel that we now share a continent; geography is on our side. I cling to anything that shows us the slightest sympathy.
Knowing that marriages, work, obligations, and caution would threaten anything we constructed across the miles, why did you seduce me with your beautiful fractured English? Did you not realize that if friendship built a bridge, desire would collapse it into the sea?
Our intimacy was of a strange mental order. Quite early on I discovered that she could mind-read in an unerring fashion. Ideas came to us simultaneously. I remember once being made aware that she was sharing in her mind a thought which had just presented itself to mine, namely: ‘This intimacy should go no further, for we have already exhausted all its possibilities in our respective imaginations: and what we shall end by discovering, behind the darkly woven colours of sensuality, will be a friendship so profound that we shall become bondsmen forever.’ It was, if you like, the flirtation of minds prematurely exhausted by experience which seemed so much more dangerous than a love founded on sexual attraction.
Durrell’s rhythms, as he sways with the flow of talk between lovers, lull me in time with the train’s. Perhaps he is really echoing the city of Alexandria itself. Can a city have a language?
Perhaps I should have gone back to Assisi. The town is one large poem. Burnished cobblestones. Shadowed corners contrasting with sun-brilliant squares. The Basilica sitting in the valley, as solemn and radiant as a supplicant.
I cannot go. Then I do. Through image and memory.
I wander into an exhibition in Padova, set off a lovely piazza with an astrological clock. Inside, the deserted gallery is lined with a single artist’s work: photographs of Assisi. They were taken with infrared (sottorosso) film, for the most part. It creates an eerie effect: the red light that all green leaves reflect turns a ghostly white against the shades of gray elsewhere.
Another series of photographs was taken a few years ago, during a freak snowstorm, which carpeted the town and seemed to lock it in.
If Assisi is normally a poem, after a snowstorm it is a lullaby.
I walk around the empty gallery, a scarf up to my chin. As the images burn into my retinas, something builds up in my chest. It is memory, nudging me over and over, growing impatient. I feel battered. We were there, he and I, I think. That beautiful medieval town, home to my favorite saint, was the site of one of the most precious times in my life. When the tears well up, I dab them with my scarf. It is too, too raw just yet.
I am alone with this sadist, Memory.
A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.
At the time you were reading the Quartet, and throughout the years I delayed reading it myself, chancing upon mentions in literary reviews, I had no idea that the first volume was about adultery. As I started reading in Milano, the realization dawned on me. Of course, last year you and I were not having an affair in the truest sense—how absurd to use the word at all. We were never in the same room! Yet we were tangled in each other’s erotic allure, the sensuality of our words doing the work of hands and lips.
A pale compromise, but artists subsist on less.
I tried to tell myself how stupid all this was—a banal story of an adultery which was among the cheapest commonplaces of the city: how it did not deserve romantic or literary trappings. And yet somewhere else, at a deeper level, I seemed to recognize that the experience upon which I had embarked would have the deathless finality of a lesson learned.
Time and time again, I return to your words, their rhythm and playfulness. Although I am well aware of how creative you are, I realize that the effect you presented was at least partially accidental. A side effect of your imperfect command of a third or fourth language. An insanely lovely accident.
In a way, all creative acts are par hazard. Accidental. Even love.
I am hard-pressed to say what seduced me more: the style or the content. As I wander the streets of one old town or another, its rich tones mocking my dulled appreciation, I now believe that the content was riddled with lies. Delicious fables I could not decipher from a distance. I was denied the glint in your eyes, your telltale gesticulations and postures.
You are not a cad. You’re a “typical middle-child,” as you yourself confessed. Maybe not confessed: pleaded. Always in search of attention and reaffirmation, hang the consequences. So easy to ensnare a lonely woman from across the ocean with language and laughter, and occasional appeals to nostalgia. You ignored your conscience, the pricking that could have reminded you that I’m a poet. Too open to love. An Italian. Not a Nordic person with passions contained in a wrapper of bemused perspective. Though a cool head often prevails, my blood runs hot. You forgot.
You never had to see the messy results: my worry, confusion, puzzlement, hurt. You simply walked away from the only connections left to us, such as they were. To protect yourself.
The rain had stopped and the damp ground exhaled the tormentingly lovely scent of clay, bodies and stale jasmine. I began to walk slowly, deeply bemused, and to describe it to myself in words this whole quarter of Alexandria for I knew that soon it would be forgotten and revisited by those whose memories had been appropriated by the fevered city, clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume upon a sleeve: Alexandria, the capital of Memory.
I’m heading home now, Justine finished, packed away; Balthazar, the next volume in the Quartet, open in my lap.
Soon I will realize that I spent two weeks in Italy depressed. Thus the veiled register, on my eager senses, of architecture, food, music, landscape, art.
Soon I will contact you again, having found an omen to do so on the plane as I read Balthazar. A week later, we will speak. Nothing will change. In weak moments, I will send further e-mails; all will go unanswered.
In February of 2003, you will call, missing me. Nostalgic for the faraway-too-close woman who was bright and stupid enough to see your talents, who fell for the man presenting them through the filter of distance and cultural dissonance. That, too, will not end well.
In 2009, you will call yet again, catching me in a summer-mellow mood. For a few days I will rejoice, believing that you want to connect to me, not just with me. For real this time. In clarity and trust. To mutual satisfaction, not one-sided gratification.
I will trip up on optimism. It turns out you contact me only for what I might yield: answers about you, the eternal middle man-child. Why did you love me? You want to know. You always want to consult and update that personal balance sheet of love/not-love. Not a word about what life has done to me since out last contact. I am, and ever will be, only a curiosity in your cabinet of life stories.
My patience thin by then, I will banish you as soon as your disguise slips. Your true self will always emerge, won’t it? Like a wolf’s ear or muzzle poking out from its sheep costume. The needy child and his quest for affirmation.
That is your world, all right, but do not expect me to live in it.
It’s over, my dear.
Well, perhaps in practice.
More forward glances: July 9, 2010, a stiflingly hot day in Montreal; I will read another brilliant book, Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, and my old friend will return. Fleeing my suffocating apartment, I will take that book to a park bench near a large fountain. I will read Mitchell’s pitch-perfect rendition of a Frenchwoman’s English, complete with wildly poetic errors and phraseology. Suddenly, through that elegantly stilted language, the Dane will rematerialize. My one-time travel companion, my imaginary lover, my quixotic friend, my fellow poet. I will sit back in the hot shade and let the fountain’s fine spray and the music in my mind soothe me for a few moments.
Later that night, another man, from an even deeper part of my past, will call to reconnect. Although the language will not resonate the way the first man’s did, the steps we take will seem very familiar. At least, a week later, we will have each other to look at across a table. He will gaze into my eyes and smile. And, yes, he will play with words. To various effects, good and bad.
But that is another story.
Louise Fabiani has had her poetry, interviews, articles, short fiction, reviews and photographs have appeared in such places as The Rumpus, The TLS, CV2, Prism, U.S.1 Worksheets, Alimentum, and The Globe & Mail. She is currently alternating between her science writing and a memoir of the *other* story.
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero.