notes from the road
When I get into a big bed these days, I miss a woman. Sure, in small beds built for one I can nestle into the sheets and covers and drift into sleep within the confines of my own company. But when I slip between the layers on a big bed, what the Italians call the matrimonial, I miss the near warmth of her body and the luxury of reaching just a hand to her warm and waiting skin and all her miraculous possibilities.
I’ve reached that age when I feel a tickling in my ear and reach in a finger to find the answer, and a flake or two falls out. I am an old man, despite polite protests of those around me. Closing in on 60, I’m not a kid anymore. Let’s face it: I can see ahead to the last long curves in the road, feel them in my bones, my hips (especially the right) and in my lower back. Age grows at my stomach, in the slow massing of my body. I am about to give up on the fantasies of love, if I can find the courage to face the alternatives — although I still catch my eyes sneaking peeks at the young beauties, as though I’m really a boy behind this wrinkled, sagging mask. To hell with all those guys my age who taunt each other to keep up in the race to reverse time. I look in the mirror and I feel the truth in the heaviness of arms, of legs, the stomach, and in the hollowness of my heart, with all its burned out chambers where hope used to wander.
I am here with my son. We are traveling south. We are going home. We are traveling along the east coast, driving the coast road during the first young muscular storms of winter, heavy rains and buffeting winds. Our car, a tinny rental, shudders and lurches forward as the storms slap us around. But the little car is valiant with my son behind the wheel. Before we landed, he didn’t think he wanted to drive in Italy. Now he won’t relinquish the controls. For him, life is still a fresh adventure.
Winds kick the door panels, wipers working double-time against the brutal rain. We talk, my son and I. The conversation centers on our inherent pessimism which, I believe, is the genetic predisposition of Sicilians. Be prepared for the worst. That way, you won’t be disappointed. After all, always looking on the dark side of life eliminates at least half the uncertainty. I ask him why we persist in this way. We are really stubborn about it — we insist: Look at the sorry possibilities. Suspicion resides in our blood. Then, as the conversation warms like afternoon light on falling petals from a living room vase, he suggests that perhaps we are, secretly in our hearts, hopeful. We keep it quiet because we are men, always hoping. Although we greet each moment of possibility with pessimism, maybe pessimism cannot exist without hope beneath it.
We drive on. This rain is unrelenting, a strong argument against our intentions.
We check into a hotel in a small town outside a small coastal city, 20 kilometers from the sea. A comfortable room, a quiet hotel. It’s the off season, just. The room with two twin beds and a screened window overlooking the alley and the neighbor’s grey cement rooftop still holds some quality of summer light, even though the sun’s setting now in early evening, around seven, even this far south. The color inside is a softly burnt pastel yellow on the thick walls, with a mirror above the desk and the floor of large tiles the color of granite. Checking into this room after a day of driving is like loosening my belt.
Downstairs I ask the girl at the reception desk, the innkeeper’s daughter, where we might find the best pizza in Arnesano. She tells me the name of the place and when I ask her if it’s the place one street behind that I spotted on our end-of-day stroll, she is puzzled; she says she doesn’t know.
I say, “The street right behind here?” pointing toward the back of the hotel.
And she says again, “I don’t know,” as if I am asking her for directions to the nearest encyclopedia or synagogue.
After pizza with anchovies and capers and a salad of simple fresh greens with good Pugliese olive oil, sea salt and white vinegar, we walked back to the hotel under low clouds in the air’s hesitation just before rain, and now I am laying on my bed and I’m thinking, the young girl downstairs doesn’t know if the street right behind or the street four corners over heading the other way is the street of good pizza. I am imagining that she has never counted the streets or noted the direction or, perhaps, been told or even said to herself, “This is north, this direction I’m turning here, and the church is south which means when I return I will head east south east,” or, “I am walking to the corner and then turning right as I always do when I’m hungry for Francesco’s pizza; then I’m walking two more corners and turning right again, near the laundry, and walking that bit of sidewalk until I step into the warm light of Francesco’s doorway there on the left and I smell the oven baking and tomatoes and basilico simmering and say Hello before ordering.” I am thinking this pleasant young girl, the size of a child, with skin as smooth and dark as olive soap, dark clear eyes and luxurious hair of long dark curls that drape her tender neck; this young woman, this daughter of Arnesano, has never counted the corners, never counted the steps or the turns, or made conscious the directions of the compass in all the years she has lived, all those years here in this town because, I choose to conclude, she operates by her internal compass without thinking. Somewhere between her head and her heart is a gyroscope that spins above the gravity of her locus, the center of her life. Her’s is a power of dead reckoning that keeps her operating here in her town and her house, her family and herself, which are undistinguished one from the other. She knows all this, her home and the good pizza, as she knows her own wrist and her hand and the fingers beyond. This is the topography of her own family’s body and soul.
She reminds me of the gas station attendant in Lecce, the seaside city where we pivoted west toward Arnesano. Fifteen kilometers away, he didn’t know where Arnesano is, let alone how to get here; by the look on his face when I asked him for directions, he might have no memory of hearing the name Arnesano.
I took him for a local. The shared colors of skin, hair and eyes; the familiar bone structure; about the right height, weight and build for this part of Italy. If not Lecce, he grew up somewhere in the province, which includes a scattering of villages along ancient roadways radiating from the hub of Lecce. This man didn’t know the name of a village right outside town, a village older than his grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather to the second power; didn’t seem to have ever heard of it in his, I’m guessing, forty years; or having heard of it not calculating its existence any more than a girl contemplates the number of steps or the number of streets between here and the best pizza in town. In Italy, knowing a village beyond your experience is like knowing the numerical coordinates of pizza: Why?
My son and I have come here to make right two wrongs. One is a job for both of us; the other I must do alone.
Here is not Arnesano, by the way. Here is where we’re going: Filicudi, an island still more remote, another two days’ travel, a place you don’t just happen upon unless you are Phoenician three thousand years ago, following a starry course across unfamiliar seas. Today you don’t get there by accident. This particular Here is home of my father, and his father and his father, to the sixth or seventh power. Yes, to the sixth or seventh.
I’ll explain later.
I am laying on the hotel bed, one of the twins, in the dark center of the night, awake; quiet. Not wanting to disturb my sleeping son. Not wanting to disturb this moment. I’ve left behind consideration of the girl downstairs and the gas station guy. Now I’m thinking this:
I’m thinking I tend to fill my life with busyness, to avoid moments like this one: This moment of discomfort, known but unaccustomed, laying on my side, my eyeglasses on the night table, curled on my side like a child or an invalid, waiting for something bigger to take over, something I might fear or something I might long for, but in either case something I do not know and can only watch for obliquely, something that could take my life in its hands and form it into meaning.
I have, from time to time, looked for something bigger outside of myself — a woman’s love, a resolute duty, death — that might enliven the unconscious pulsing of purpose. This is when I feel it coming, this is when I sense its approach, the ghostly hovering, see its stupendous shadow slowly cross my mind, like an ominous darkening over a field where I lay with my face down in intimacy with grasses; when all is quiet, including me. During the day I hope for, seek, something I can put my hands on, something to own, to shelve or make use of, to make me bigger or younger or smarter or more confident, more attractive, more successful; bigger. When I am moving through my day I am confident I can possess this something that will satisfy me like sleep or love or death or duty. As a man, I confess, I have relied on duties to avoid repeating the moment of laying on my side waiting for something to take me. Duties save me from those empty waiting moments, by spending distracting and aimless energies and saving me from waiting through those moments that are not really empty but are full of waiting. Maybe this struggle is why death has become my companion later in life.
When we landed in Rome, we walked rather than slept the first day. I led my son along familiar streets, looking for those trees filled with birds along the Tevere, arriving for coffee at St. Eustacchio and pizza in Campo de Fiori, cajoling my companion into a pair of sporty Italian walking shoes, wandering the city’s maze among carabinieri, beautiful young women in overcoats and high heels, older men wearing ties, their coats shoulder-draped, walking in twos, arm in arm, all in the metallic light and rain puddle reflections of the great city in early winter.
This is a city that calls to me. It makes the most gracious invitation, always, to stay: become a citizen of Rome; walk my streets until you possess me, beloved, in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Experience the moments after ecstasy, with the windows of the two hundred year old pallazzo open to the city so that the city enters, laying between you and your lover on warm bedsheets in softening light of late afternoon. Months later I will awkwardly recognize it approaching, this realization that place is the perfect companion, better than the most beautiful woman I have loved, because place is always there, always waiting for me.
On the second day in Rome we met with attorneys, an appointment arranged through a law office back home.
We found the studio on Vialle Castro Pretorio, beyond Piazza Repubblica and its brilliant fountain, in mid morning. We sat on low deep quilted leather benches in the ultra-modern lobby, the hazy sunlight cooled through frosted glass, sitting so low my knees were above my belt so that, rising from that low center of gravity I experienced a moment of doubt and vulnerability when the receptionist called us to our feet. The ride up the elevator was barely long enough to dispel uncertainty, so when we arrived at the conference table and sat, waiting for our two attorneys to arrive, I was reluctant to relax.
The meeting changed everything. A senior partner attended by a younger associate were open and intelligent, and set out a clear plan.
The senior partner is beautiful. You’d agree if you had sat across the mahogany table from her for thirty seconds, let alone an hour. She wore layers of fine wool and silks in Florentine colors against the warm color of her skin; luxurious bangles of silver bracelets along her thin tanned wrists, a large ring set with onyx on her left hand, which is narrow and strongly veined; dangling earrings of silver and onyx, and a family of delicate silver chains around her neck which draped and turned slowly, as she leaned forward and held my attention, against the broad warm plane of her chest. Her jaw is narrow and strong, and her eyes are shining black, and look directly into your own. Her hair is luminous as polished black walnut and her voice low, coming across the table smooth as a flume before her steady dark gaze. She smiles, and the atmosphere of strict modern style in the room transforms with the warmth of tapestry and leather and sunlight. Her name is the sound of a cricket alone on a mountainside in a star-filled night. I am an old man, but this woman sets me afloat on a dreamy sea of possibilities.
As we descend to ground level, I remind myself: this is a trip without women. In fact, my secret is that I’m here trying to forget a woman; but maybe the gods don’t like it so much that I’m trying to lose my junk in their backyard, and so they remind me of a woman’s beauty and show me this particular woman, to demonstrate that a woman can be as real as life can get.
As it turns out, the senior partner is married — I wish her husband well. He is an architect with a sailing boat. He offers her plenty, I’m sure. I hope they are very happy. In this way I neatly clip off my trailing interest in what I found upstairs, and turn my attention to our walk back along the river to our hotel.
My son leads the way. I watch him, following at ten paces. The sun’s heat is raising humidity from the ground soaked by days of heavy rain, the air heavy above the saturated concrete, mist rising from the weed beds and pitted ancient statuary, from the elaborate basins of fountains, from the hanging rooftop gardens. We skirt traffic and stick to the shadows.
Although he walks with determination, my son is lost. He turns this way, proceeds one hundred paces and abruptly cuts his direction by ninety degrees. He walks, I follow. The only way to eventually acquire one’s bearings is to get lost. I have a sense of our position, and so I’m enjoying this exercise; by the looks of his shoulders and the tightness in his neck, my son, bless him, is screwing himself into the tight grain of frustration. When he stops and turns to me, his face set solidly, I smile a relaxed smile and, pulling my left hand out of my pocket, point. He waits. I step closer, touch his shoulder, which tilts away from my hand, and we proceed west.
Navigating in this city, as in any city, is very difficult without a map. I carry one in my back pocket, one I’ve carried before, it’s creases fuzzy and soft; I know it’s there as I know where I am at the moment, by sun and by dead reckoning. We walk side by side back to the river and the hotel on the west bank.
The structure of most cities discourages intuition. Buildings are the most obvious, sometimes the only, features of the landscape, if the day is anything but clear, or if it’s night. The city’s builders dominate even in their absence a visitor’s experience, determine the ease or difficulty of finding one’s way. Directions can seem arbitrary, network of streets a confusing overlay, the master plan often having nothing to do with the original lay of the land; one has to walk a distance, if one is lucky enough to be lost in a city with hills, to a high place to orient one’s position. In the end, the topography of a city’s soul can be known only by its citizens.