The author received a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University, College of Extended studies, in 2019. His graduate interest was studying the writing of the Lost Generation living in Paris in the 1920’s. In addition to short stories published in various journals, the author has written a novella, In the Faded Blue Light, serialized in the journal, “The Writing Disorder.”
For Emma with Love and Sorrow
It was on doctor’s orders that I decided to travel. My liver was rotten or something to that effect. The doc said that it was all due to my wine drinking, or did he say the problem was that all I did was drink wine. It was one or the other. I can’t really remember. That was over a year ago. Two years prior to that declared foreclosure of my liver, my wife had passed away. My therapist had explained that I had not fully accepted her death. He advised that I begin to say, “she died” instead of “she passed away.” This was supposed to make her death more real. Why I needed it to be more real has forever eluded me.
Nevertheless, after her death, my house had become filled with emptiness. The only evidence I had that the world still existed was the drone of TV voices mixed with the swish of passing cars on the street below. It wasn’t long before a deafening silence began to creep about. With each passing day it devoured more and more of the reassuring cacophony of the outside world until I heard nothing at all. Each day turned into night, and the darkness went unnoticed. Time stood still. I sat quietly wondering and waiting for my death until I realized I was already dead.
It was my liver diagnosis that woke me up. After all, I was only 67 at the time. My hair was only partially gray, my joints still working, and my muscles limber. What else did I need? There was only one other slight problem. I was suspended from teaching. Actually, it made little difference to me. For that matter, I’m sure it mattered even less to Harvard. To make the most of my free time, although time is never free, I decided to head east and circle the globe a little at a time. Of course, I was painfully aware that I was headed nowhere.
Venice was my first stop. Why Venice? It wasn’t wine I wanted to get away from, just the drinking of it. I didn’t manage either.
I sat alone with a glass of chardonnay in San Marco Palazzo. The boorish Italian sun radiated a blistering heat. A white glint shot off the water of the Grand Canal, and I directed my eyes to a shadier part of the palazzo. A patrician-looking woman, somewhere in her late twenties, caught my attention. I watched as she made her way across the large, open area and sat down at one of the small, circular tables. Her sunglasses obscured most of her face, and the sheen of her black dress reflected the sun. I watched her with great interest.
For the first time since my wife’s death, another woman had interested me. I wondered if this wasn’t some awakening, but I quickly dismissed the idea. I didn’t know what I wanted from the young woman. She was of obvious Asian origin, China perhaps. I tried to convince myself that my preoccupation with her was some latent sexual attraction. Perhaps, my long dead self was trying to get my attention, to extricate me from the foggy bubble in which I was living. It was an isolated, desolate place much like one of those inordinate, absurd biospheres ironically erected to simulate ordinary life. At times, I was tempted to tap on its thickened glass just to see the world react. It wasn’t that I needed evidence that outside life still existed, but rather, I wanted to participate in it, to reaffirm that I still mattered in some small way.
I continued to watch the young woman. She delicately retrieved a book with dog-eared and mutilated pages from her purse. She opened the haggard volume and began to read. Her dress, an elegant affair, struck me as ill-suited for the punishing heat. I kept staring. What was I looking for? I kept telling myself, like a policeman barking at a crowd at the scene of an accident, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” I tried to direct my eyes away, but to no avail. I could see nothing else. She had become a curiosity much like Venice itself.
My 68th birthday was the next day, and I thought maybe there was some mistake. Could that much time have gone by? I still had so many questions and so few answers. What was I doing in Italy anyway? What was I doing anywhere anyway? What was she doing in Italy? Alone? No young person comes to Italy alone unless they are looking for something. If she was looking for someone, New York makes more sense. It’s vibrant with young people living in the moment. In Italy one transcends time. The present and past are together in every moment. The old and new coalesce into a single crystal so clear that the simultaneity exists unnoticed.
I continued to scrutinize the young woman with the dog-eared pages. Her long, black hair shined with a youthful romanticism I had forgotten existed. She suddenly looked up and saw me staring. In that moment, I became a part of her life as she had already become a part of mine.
She returned her focus to her book. Its crumpled pages appeared tired, having nothing more to say. She looked up again, and, for a moment, I didn’t recognize her. Her face was still, and her muscles held tight. Someone peered out from deep within her. Her eyes squinted like someone in pain and about to cry out. In another sudden movement, her face loosened, and the wraith receded, drawn inward like smoke in a sudden draft.
I lurked, peered, and wondered, and began to feel guilty. I had no right to entangle her unsuspecting consciousness with mine. I turned my head toward the Cathedral and directed my eyes toward the frescoes and gargoyles. When I turned back, she was gone. I contented myself to watch the flow of the canal and the rotted sewerage floating on its surface.
The sun faded. The night fell. An immense black dome appeared above me. It extended down behind the crumbling houses lining the banks of the intervening canals. I left the palazzo and wandered among the streets running between the waterways. I wound up on a stool in a saloon located near the edge of one of the smaller canals. A dull orange light glowed from a solitary bulb situated over the center of the bar. I sat alone in the empty room. I drank a deep red merlot and listened to the canal water slapping against the embankment.
I finished my wine and was about to leave when a young lady entered with a dogged-eared book in her hand. I recognized both immediately. She glanced at me, looked away, and began perusing the empty tables.
I swung around on my stool.
“I want to apologize for staring at you today in the palazzo,” I said.
She sat down at a table.
“I thought you looked familiar,”she replied. A coquettish smile broke out. Her English was quite good despite her French accent flavored with a pinch of British inflection. Her bright tone left her words warm and unafraid.
“May I buy you a drink?” I asked.
“No, thank you, I don’t drink very often, just a little alcohol and I’m drunk.”I changed the subject.
“What’s that book you have there?”
“It’s part of my research for my dissertation. I’m working on my doctorate in Philosophy.”
“The Institute of Paris.”
I couldn’t help but notice how young she looked. Her movements, however, were slow and cautious, giving her an air of maturity. She laid the book on the bar, The Confessions by St. Augustine. I had read it many years ago.
“I read that, but I don’t remember much.”
She looked down at the book, giving it her total attention as if she expected it to speak for itself.
“It’s about a challenge to Man’s free will.” She snapped her head in my direction. “Do you know anything about philosophy?”
“A little. I took a few course in it while at Princeton. We mostly read the ancients.”
She didn’t answer. She was again gazing down at St. Augustine.
Her eyes redirected to me as if she suddenly remembered there were three of us there.
“What do you do… for working…or for living?”She said. I walked toward her.
“May I join you?” I asked. There was no reply and I pulled out a chair and sat down.
“I used to teach literature,” I said, “until I was asked to drink the hemlock. I refused, and I accepted a suspension until the matter can be resolved.”
I explained in some detail how I was accused unjustly of corrupting the youth of Harvard. I simply asked my students to argue the justice or injustice of the fate of Jay Gatsby from both conservative and liberal societal views. It seemed someone reported the assignment to the Dean. The complaint was that any thinking from the Right necessarily involved exploring fascistic ideology. As such it had no place in a university which prided itself on practicing democratic ideals and protecting the privilege of free speech. After a collective intellectual lynching by my fellow faculty, the Judiciary Board suspended me until the issue is resolved. The matter has yet to be settled. In the meantime, I remain suspended and don’t really give a damn.
“Hmmm,” she replied, followed by some comment about understanding the University’s ardor for free speech. I saw no reason to continue arguing my point. She failed to see the irony.
“Oh, by the way, what’s your name?” I inquired
“My English name is Emma … Emma.”
“I’m Don, that’s also my English name.”
“Did you know that women want to have sex more than men?”she blurted out.
I didn’t know what to say. Was this some type of proposition? Why me? Maybe the chasm between our ages assured her an emotional distance she found necessary because of her fear of commitment. It wasn’t long before I realized that my entire perspective was the creation of male fantasy. The more frightening aspect of the whole imagined affair was that I didn’t really want to have sex with her. I didn’t want to have sex with anyone. My dying liver had jaundiced my view of life, including its desires. Moreover, the orchestrated destruction of my career didn’t help brightened my mood.
“No, I didn’t know that,”I responded, my words slow and dragging.
“It’s what they had believed in medieval times,”she continued. “They thought that fluids were the source of sexual desire. “
“Any fluid. A women’s menstrual flow was a sign of sexual desire, so women were considered more sexually stimulated than men.”
Her startling comment, I decided, was simply just that, a comment, an intellectual argument. It was as far from being seductive as Rafael’s naked cherubs or Picasso’s deconstructed genitalia.
“I guess wives didn’t exist in those days?”I ventured some sarcasm to break the tension.
She smiled in a way that made me feel that she understood what I meant. Was she ever married? Maybe she still is married. I glanced at her left hand. No ring.
“What brings you to this place, to this bar? I asked. “It’s not exactly one of the tourist attractions?”
“I got lost walking while thinking. I was looking for my hotel.”
She had stopped in the bar to get directions.
“Thinking about what? “
Her eyes drifted into an unfocused stare. The inner person, whom I had seen in the palazzo, reappeared. She said nothing. Her face frozen, straight, and expressionless. It was like I had met two persons. One of whom saw the world through dog-eared pages, and the other who hid a deep, dark sorrow.
We left the bar. She said her hotel was located somewhere on the Grand Canal. We crossed a small medieval bridge and wandered, hoping to see something familiar. There were no hints of direction. The ancient city remained mute and aloof, like a grandfather who had lost interest in the banality of everyday life.
The water level in one of the canals looked high, so I assumed the flow was away from the Grande Canal. Ripples promenaded on the water’s surface. We walked counter to their movement as they passed away. After pursuing a few dead ends, we found the via di Canal Grando. Music emanated from san Marco Palazzo as we approached it. The sweet sound of an orchestra grew stronger with each step we took in the cool and starlit darkness of the night.
We reached the palazzo.
“Maybe another drink?” I suggested.
It is a tradition in Venice for several small orchestras to play simultaneously in San Marco palazzo. They are separated by just enough distance so that their classical sonatas don’t clash into each other. We sat close to the music at one of the tables scattered about the square. The waiter brought wine – a bottle of Rabosso Piave, as I recall. Emma had no preference. We both loved the night, the darkness, and the solace.
“You know I don’t see how it will make any difference if you look at Gatsby’s death through a conservative or liberal point of view… I mean, in either case, he’s dead,”she interjected unbidden.
“So, what do you know about Gatsby anyway?”
“It’s my favorite novel.”
“Mine too. That’s why I assigned it. And you’re right, he’s dead either way, but you can’t determine that it doesn’t matter how you look at it until you look at it both ways.”
“He was totally misunderstood, you know. That’s why no one really liked him.”
“No one except himself, of course,” I replied.
“You have to admire a guy like Gatsby, true to his ideals to the end.”
“Maybe so, but, like you said, he’s dead anyway.”
“The thought of dying scares me to death, “she said.
“Maybe that’s why we all die… because we think about it too much.”
“The animals don’t think about it, and they die,” she parried.
“How do you know they don’t think about it?”
“They never speak about it. If they could think, then they could speak.”
“Do babies speak? “
“Well, they think…. have some more wine and maybe you’ll start to understand.” I poured us both another glass as the cello played solo.
The orchestra took a break, and the waiter approached our table. He looked at me and then Emma. A smile barely formed on his lips. He spoke with an inquisitive inflection as he addressed me,” Un’altera bottiglia del vino?
I don’t speak Italian, but I didn’t want to appear like a pedestrian American. I replied, “Yes, great.”
After the waiter left, Emma asked what he had said.
“Oh, he just wanted to know if we liked the wine. Do you dance?”
“Only when there’s music.”
“There’s always music somewhere”
“I meant only when I can hear it.”
“You mean, you can’t hear it?” I lied.
“Well, just because you can’t hear it, it doesn’t mean it’s not playing.”
“That may be so, but I can’t hear it,” she replied, a bit irritated.
“How do I know that you can’t hear it?”
“How do I know you can?”
At that moment the waiter placed another bottle of wine on our table.
“I’m sorry, but we didn’t order this,” I said.
“Yes, Sir, you did,” he replied in perfect English.
“Take it back, we don’t want it.”
“Sorry, Sir, but it is opened. You must pay for it.”
After consuming my share of the first bottle, my sense of anger and injustice were finely attuned. I would not pay for this wine. Emma stared at me with a wrinkled brow and crinkled face. She appeared confused. She reached for her purse and retrieved St. Augustine. Unless he was going to pay for the wine, I saw no sense in getting him involved.
The waiter left the bottle on the table and disappeared. Maybe he knew I was a person who never let good wine, or for that matter bad wine, go to waste. I poured myself another glass. Emma was still searching through St. Augustine. He obviously wasn’t going to pay for the wine. I paid for both bottles, and I finished drinking the second.
At this point paying for the extra wine was no longer an issue. In fact, nothing was an issue. I attempted to stand up. I laid my hands flat on the table to steady myself.
“Let me help you,” Emma said. “Where are you staying?’ She grabbed my arm, and we began to walk to my hotel.
The doctor had told me that if I drank, I might have pain in my right side. I felt no pain. However, there was a problem. I wasn’t sure whether I had pain, even though I didn’t feel it. I explained to Emma, the best I could, the nature of my dilemma. If I were too drunk to feel pain, then how could I know if pain were actually there?
“If you don’t feel it, how could it be pain?” She responded.
I explained how one time I had gone to the emergency room for stitches for a cut I had received when I had fallen off my bike. After the doctor injected some anesthetic and started stitching me up, he asked if I felt any pain. He didn’t say do you have any pain? The assumption was that pain existed, but I just couldn’t feel it.
“You couldn’t have had any pain, if you didn’t feel it,” Emma insisted.
“That’s my point. Feeling has nothing to do with it.”
“How could feeling have nothing to do with pain. Pain is feeling. If you never feel, you never hurt.”
Her gaze fell upon the water of the Grand Canal, black and restless, running silently beside us. She began speaking about how her lost loves and blamed herself for not trusting.
“How can I trust that they love me when there is nothing to love.”
I didn’t probe.
What is there to love except love itself.
We reached my hotel. Although I was stumbling a bit, my wits were still about me. I suggested I walk her to her hotel, but she said that I was in no condition to walk back alone.
“I do everything alone now,” I told her.
“Actually, I don’t mind the loneliness, although at times I do wish I had someone to share it with.”
I was in no condition to explain. We continued walking.
“I’m alone too,” she replied, “Even when I’m with friends, I’m still alone. It’s something about the way I think.”
“I think we think the same way…too much. It was an interesting night. We seem to have some chemistry in an intellectual sort of way. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, I think so.”
The room spun as I lay on the bed. Emma said she was leaving Venice tomorrow morning, and she had enjoyed our time together. She left the room, and I never saw her again.
I must have fallen asleep at that point because the next thing I remembered was the dawn. It was bright, too bright. I held my side as I struggled out of bed and drew the blinds closed. My stomach was upset, and I vomited blood. The blackish red regurgitation lay on the carpet. I was still dressed from last night and I made my way to the elevator and down to the lobby. I collapsed. When I recovered consciousness, I was in a bed in hospital in Venice.
“Mi dispiace ma la tua condizione è grave,” (I’m sorry, but your condition is grave.) said a young man with a short white coat and a curled tubing of a stethoscope sticking out of his coat pocket. I didn’t know his name. He didn’t introduce himself.
“I don’t speak Italian. Is there anyone here who can translate?” I said.
“Yes, I can speak a little English,” said the young nurse at his side.
“It is sorrow for us that your condition, how you say, you are to take serious,” she offered in translation.
This wasn’t any news to me. I had been taking my condition seriously. I just didn’t take my doctor’s orders seriously. I saw no need to stay in the hospital any longer. I checked myself out, and I continued my journey despite the pain and vomiting. It was when I arrived back in the States that my doctor informed me that I had only a few more months to live.
It wasn’t the words,” a few months,” that bothered me. It was the word” more.” What more was there?
As I write this, I’m sitting on the couch in my apartment with my pain and my last bottle of wine. An unopened letter from Harvard sits on the coffee table. I pick it up, stop, and lay it back down. I embrace the stem of the cheap wine glass, and I hold it up to the sun streaming in. The wine is a bright, raspberry red. It’s a Vino Santo, a wine of the late harvest. Emma, the waiter, and St. Augustine, as well as the Rabosso Piave, the cool night air, and the cello solo are still fresh in my mind yet gone forever.