Saturday, July 18, 2009

Postcards from Tuscany

Intoxicated by the events of the past week, and inspired by Sebald’s similar dream-state in The Rings of Saturn, this travelogue, unlike my previous, will not be a laundry list of meals had, admissions paid, exits missed, and squabbles with my adventurers. To convey the melting pleasure of champagne-soaked sunrises and the uncanny internal tremble of sudden realization, I will follow the tidal trajectory of emotions that crest and wane, and therefore might diverge from the linear. But I think you’ll understand.

Was it Wednesday or Friday morning that I laid myself out on a lawn chair, face to the early sun, my wet eyes glossing over the cold clear pool and the endless rows of rich greenery on the distant hills? So many mornings were spent here, still reeling from the party the night before, but on this day, the second or third into our trip, I was drenched in sadness. Perry, my fraternal confidante, stretched on the other chair, insisting that I needed to speak to a therapist. I told him no, I was merely lonely, terribly lonely, even surrounded by nine friends and lovely strangers in this beautiful house, and ten and twenty and fifty and two hundred more lovely strangers as Clara’s wedding date approached and the attendants accreted for activity after activity, cocktail after cocktail.

Loneliness is a strange thing; being an only child, it and I have a long and intimate history. I need to be alone, in fact, to percolate, to dream, to restore. When I was smaller, I spent hours and hours alone on the deck of my parents’ house, building a pasha’s tent filled with pillows where I would cuddle with a piece of chocolate, an orange, a glass of water, and a stack of novels, reading and relishing with all my senses the cold wind outside, the growing warmth from my body inside; the rich sweetness of the chocolate cut with the sharp sweetness of the orange, flushed with the sweet, cold water. On warmer days, I would climb the hillside and gather poppy seeds, or long-stalked weeds, imagining that I was a Sioux princess gathering food or making fishing rods for my father (while my actual father hid downstairs in the house, reading the newspaper or constructing open-faced sandwiches for his lunch.

Never, as a child, did I have more than one friend at a time, so these partnerships were always intensely intimate. And so, it is more reasonable than one would think that, surrounded by myriad lovely people, I might be isolated inside. Only Perry’s probing, along with the safety granted by our similarity (he, too, a single only child with an over-active intellect and a dreaming heart of which that intellect is occasionally ashamed), let me cry openly, and dare I say incant, “I need to meet somebody.”

I knew he’d known that from the moment we’d met in the Frankfurt airport on Tuesday morning, nearly missing our connecting flight to Florence because we were sitting too far from the gate, wondering about the strange prick on our necks from being in that country, where darkness still feels eminent in spite of floor-to-ceiling windows planes that land on time. He’d known it when our flight was re-routed to Bologna due to dangerous winds gusting across Florence’s too-short runway, and a chartered bus brought us from one airport to another. He had told me that I needed a new job that would challenge me; I told him no, I was merely lonely, terribly lonely. I told him that I didn’t want to be challenged; I told him that I rejected our country’s culture of achievement, I told him that I had resigned my fast-track status after I couldn’t answer the question: “To what end?”

So, after three nights in the country, the first spent at a cocktail at Clara’s apartment, the next at home in our villa cooking and drinking wine, the third at Clara’s parents’ home, ignoring for the most part the adults and playing with the delightfully rambunctious, five-year-old Milo and his shy, sweet, small sister Esme, I had verbalized the obvious. Adventures we had already had, muscling our rented BMW through the dark and narrow streets of downtown Florence, pulling up onto sidewalks to allow oncoming traffic to pass, pulling up behind drunken revelers in short skirts and spike heels, and at one elated moment, gunning the engine through an open piazza and past Il Duomo, its pink and green marble walls, which I hadn’t seen for ten years, rushing by my windows. The tiny car was so responsive, the streets so close, the squeals from my friends inside so sharp, I was certain it was a videogame. After wine and cheese and salami and meeting the groom and hearing the bride’s brother’s raucous stories, we’d piled back into the car and I’d gotten us properly lost yet again. Thursday we had woken up early for a walking tour of the city, and after visiting the Palazzo Davanzati, an 11th Century church, and the mosaic-covered Baptistery of Il Duomo, we split apart. I wanted, in my loneliness, to be alone—the noise of other voices makes it hard to hear your own, on the inside.

I found a small and silent church, filled not with tourists, but with old women, praying. The walls were frescoed with sober saints; the altarpiece a glittering, Byzantine Madonna and Child. Her heavy lids and pursed lips made me think of Bobby’s Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, the ideal soundtrack for my wandering, wistful mood. From there, I progressed to the Uffizi, where I could finally cry—first Filippo Lippi, then Botticelli, with their sad, smooth-cheeked ladies, whose eyes like peeled grapes are wise to all the world’s sorrow, who cry without tears through their beneficent smiles. Whether Chris is a baby grabbing at a misplaced tit, or a languorous man draped too-big in her arms, her eyes are limpid with love lost.

And after that, as the sun began to dip, the Academia, which houses the David. No matter how many times you’ve seen a reproduction, a replica, a joking spin-off, the original’s aura remains untainted. Looking up, I was certain that if I were to brush the outside of his hand, he would turn and look down at me; that if I were to put my small hand in his immense, curled palm, that he would squeeze me with the power of flesh; that if I were to stroke his neck with my fingertips, . . .

From the Academia, a new friend and I took a bus to Clara’s parents’ house, where I was given my first negroné (the Italian aperitif of choice, a potent combination of gin, martini & rossi, and campari). Here I met Milo, and then Esme, a featherweight fairy of a girl who first cried but then squealed with delight when I bounced and lifted and spun her, until I was sweating through my sunburn. When this party wound down, it was decided that the drinking would continue in a piazza somewhere in the center of town. Again I got behind the wheel and got us lost, parking in a lot far from where we needed to be. I then got us lost inside the parking lot itself, unable to find the exit and practicing my skills at backing out of dead-ends. Silencing my navigators, my friends calling other friends on mobile phones, I looked at the map, looked at the street and followed my intuition. I drove straight to the right spot and parked in the lot. Resurfacing on foot, my group thought itself lost again. Again, the phones came out. Again, I consulted the map and led us one block away, to an open piazza where everyone had gathered, drinking plastic cups of beer.

It must have been the next morning that I made my incantation, because it was the next night that something first shifted. It was Friday, the first of three official days of wedding celebrations, and that night’s event was a rooftop cocktail party in Centro, right on the river Arno, with views in all directions. As astounding as it was, this wasn’t the site of magic. In fact, it felt so unreal that it only augmented my isolation, my sense of “I don’t belong here,” in this movie, or this place for people who star in movies—the rich, the landed, the jet set. Five or six or seven glasses of rosé champagne couldn’t shake the outsider feeling, though they prepped me well for saying “yes!” to the after party once the clock struck midnight and our rental of the venue expired.

Two Italians, one of whom I’d met at Clara’s parents’ home the night before, were leading the way. Our group of twenty was a chain of straggling knots of two and three and four that stretched two blocks long, with varying degrees of interest in walking an unknown distance to an unknown destination. I began bringing up the rear, and found myself running up and down the ranks, polling my friends sharing cars and the villa to be certain that everyone wanted to go out, that no one wanted to stop and eat, or go home. And so, I soon found myself at the front of the line using what little Italian I have to speak to the two Italians, until I realized that one was very much also an American and an English speaker, who lived in Brooklyn—not so far from me. But he and his friend continued in Italian and I didn’t much mind, as deciphering what I could became a game, skipping alongside them and suddenly feeling very much a part of something.

We came at last to train tracks; squeezed through a chain link fence and picked our way across them, traversed a parking lot, and found ourselves at a fenced-in, open air nightclub, where a DJ was joined onstage by a saxophone player and three dancing girls, who gyrated lasciviously with bored expressions on their faces, wearing long-sleeved, collared, booty-short black leotards, unzipped in the front to reveal brassieres, and stamped with large, white letters reading “FBI” on the back. Some budding academic’s master’s dissertation awaits. My friends were drinking, but I’d had enough, and I danced. I danced and danced and danced and was soon joined by the American Italian, who had let out his ponytail and was moving with a liquidity never seen in American men, and who was drilling me with his eyes in a way I’ve never been drilled before. I could have stayed all night, but my friends pulled me away; I had the car keys and they wanted to go home. I told my partner that I had to leave. He grabbed my hand and told me no, he needed me to stay and dance with him. I told him that he could dance with other girls there (which I had seen him doing before), but he told me no, he only wanted to dance with me. I told him that we would dance the next night, at the wedding.

We made it home, slept by the pool, got ourselves to the wedding. In a countryside church built in the 11th Century, the crowd fit standing-room-only for a short, tender ceremony in an ad-hoc mixture of Italian, French, and English, the priest pausing to assign translations to different people in the wedding party. Most memorably, in a bit not translated to English, but which I ascertained through my rudimentary understanding of Art Historical Italian, Don Giorgio described the way Michelangelo would look at a block of marble, intuiting the form inside that needed to be released, and positing that, when we find our partners, the experience is the same. Clara made an ideal old-world Italian bride, radiant and tan and so obviously thrilled with Charlie, who was so obviously thrilled with her. I’ve never felt so much comfortable joy emanate from a young couple.

We drove a few minutes and parked again, wandering up a green hillside and into a fairytale: a ruin with four walls and no ceiling perched on an extensive lawn littered with candles and rose petals and glasses of champagne. We drank on the lawn for hours, not sitting down to dinner until midnight. When the bride and groom entered the glittering fortress, everyone jumped up and began to swing their cloth napkins in circles above their heads, while the couple danced around the room to loud music in French. The joy was unstoppable. The wine was poured from bottle after bottle, the food served up, tender speeches made by Clara’s father and brother, Charlie’s mother and siblings. The cake was an orgasmic meringue of ethereal lightness, melting against yet another glass of champagne on my tongue.

We were banished outside to watch videos made by the bride and groom’s friends while the hall was cleared and the music set up. We began to dance. I went outside for a break and found my partner from the night before, reminding him that he owed me one. He joined me quickly. Clara’s brother had brought a box of white gloves, and as the DJ played a series of Michael Jackson songs, everyone donned one in tribute.

He and I danced closer. We had been in the midst of a knot of bodies, but soon we were alone, far to the sidelines, making big, extravagant twirls and turns, until he grabbed my hand and dragged me outside. Running, he pulled me across the long lawn, took both my hands, spun me around and around until I fell on the grass. I was laughing. He bent down and grabbed me and swung me up onto his back, running off with me down the lane and into the woods. We kissed. On the ground, in the dark, I lost all sense of time and place and limits, until I heard, in the dark, voices calling my name.

It was five in the morning. I’d thrown on my clothes and emerged from the brush into the worried and now bemused eyes of Perry, who let me comment on the nest of twigs and dirt my hair had become, who led me, drunk, trembling, elated, and now a bit let down, like a petulant child dragged home from the playground at the end of a long day, back to the car, and drove me home.

The next morning promised poolside champagne brunch at Villa Tizzano, and I did not know what to expect. I was sure, as I told Perry, that all the delights of the past night were temporary and indiscriminate; I’d seen that social person, I explained, talking with other girls, dancing with other girls. If it had not been me in the woods, it could have easily been the French girl he sat with at dinner, the other American he’d danced with at the discotheque. When we walked out to the pool and I saw him, I waved, smiled, kept walking. I’m a dreamer, but not a dream chaser. I’m afraid to be that girl. I’m petrified by the potential of shame. So I wandered off on my own.

But he found me. Unsure, I’m now sure, himself, he convinced me to join him in the pool, settled me into a floating chair, and holding the rim, walked me round and round the pool while I sucked on a peach I’d found. The rest of the day progressed like that, casting away the prophylactic floatation tubes so that I was in his arms, his skin against my skin. Other couples in the pool joined us in a series of chicken fights, but with my thighs wrapped around his shoulders, we were unvanquished. As the sun waned, and my friends all left with my car for dinner in Siena, I stayed, still being handed endless glasses of champagne, sitting with him on a lawn chair, then reclining, until he laid on his back with me nestled against his side, both of us shaking in our damp suits as the sun set. The ten or twenty people left, the closest of family friends, covered us with towels and let us fall in love with none of the judgment or snide comments one might expect from an audience.

As night approached, eight of us planned to go into the city for drinks, and four of us waited for a taxi. Back in town, the two Spaniards who had ridden with us needed to stop at their hotel and change clothes. My lover said to them, “When you’re ready, we’ll be over there, kissing,” and pointed to the river wall.

Drinking in another open air bar, this one right on the river’s wall, he kept his arm or his hand or his eyes on me, diving in for kisses, oblivious to potential judgment, perhaps because there wasn’t any. After a few hours, the tension peaked, and his friend, the same one who had led the way to the discotheque a few nights before, took us to his apartment and left us there, for the longest Odyssey of hands and mouths I’ve sailed.

So much so that, at a neighborhood bar the next morning, with two cappuccinos, we sat staring at each other, trembling inside. He told me that he felt drugged. He told me that I had immense power. He told me that he hadn’t felt anything like this before. Everything he told me was something that I could have told him. We had pressed a red button that dissolved completely our outer selves, locked our hidden, protected truths together. We walked, shaking, intellectually uncertain about what was otherwise certainty, sharing stories, for the first time hearing actual things about each other. He had so much more depth that I had ever expected, and he had disarmed my defense system.

That night we dined in Florence with all our friends from our villa, finishing long after midnight. He and I took the car on an adventure to the ruins of baths set on natural hot springs south of Siena; no one wanted to join us, so we went alone. We drove mostly in silence in the dark, thinking ourselves lost, but finally arriving in this Maxfield Parrish dream world, where stars like tossed handfuls of glitter danced above a steaming waterfall that poured into a shallow river, its bed lined with smooth rocks. We stripped and slithered into the dark waters, sliding on our bellies to the tubs, ancient pools big enough for one or two or three or four bodies, each a different temperature, sampling one too hot, one too cold, until we found one just right. There we stayed, dreaming half-awake, curled together, bodies pulsing, until the sun rose, lighting the beautiful place for fresh eyes. On the drive back to the villa, we stopped for another unreal cappuccino and the most revitalizing juice I’ve ever drunk, which zapped my cells like an elixir of life.

Somehow wide awake, I drove to the villa and picked up Perry, who needed to be taken to the airport. He drove while I navigated, another airport-going friend sharing the back with my dozing lover. After the airport, I drove us back to my villa, where we had our last swim and moments together before I had to pack my things. He came with me to the airport. We kissed in front of the security gate. I cried, dropped my passport, couldn’t find my boarding pass, didn’t want to leave. He promised that he would find me, for I didn’t have his phone number, his email address. He promised that in a few weeks he would see me, even though he’s destined to spend a year on the other side of the globe.

I made my way to the gate in tears; found myself sitting next to one of the closest family friends, who had witnessed many of the week’s evolving motions. I was ashamed of my tears, but she welcomed them. She insisted that a year is not long at all.

1 comment:

Perry Garvin said...

Lovely. Just lovely.