Clouds pile high over the Vatican like horses biting each other, clouds rising over Rome’s glowing peach walls and tiles and television antennaes. One white gorgeous mushroom cumulus lifts higher and higher – I love looking at it, staring into the ruins of this God-like face.
The blue Italian night turns darker and darker and a stranger’s ebony piano plays near my flowered terrace. Rome or Naples or Pompei: a piano trills or a dog barks somewhere near me, perhaps the apartment across the way. A sense opens inside my brain or ear and needs to know where the sound is formed, to know more of this mysterious envoy from another home.
At home in Canada our household is divided, literally and figuratively.
Turns out I don’t have room for the oak bookcases, my wife says on the phone, but I’d like to keep the big quilt.
Okay, I agree.
And the car.
You can have the roll-top desk.
I, the bad husband, find myself agreeing to anything. In Rome that divided home seems so far away.
In a southern Italian town, high above the sea, I spy God in a lawn-chair. He calls to me.
“English,” he says.
A church dome looming above his alley catches my eye, a rougher Arabesque or Moorish structure clumsily hidden behind a façade of Roman pillars and triangular portico, a cleaner classical façade imposed later like a movie set’s false front. Was anyone murdered in that transition? This church is jammed into a tiny space, one more tooth cramming a walled lane.
The old man calls to me. “English.”
I stare up at the church’s warring components, though the Mediterranean sun does its best to knock me down. Even the locals are wilting, soaking shirts and dresses.
When I first arrived everyone complained of clouds and rain, not typical weather for Italy.
Always clear blue sky, said the stewardess from Quebec.
Now I’d love some cloud or rain. And this is not the height of the heat. August must be unbearable. Natasha would thrive; heliotropic, she worshipped the sun, she loved Spanish Morocco and Northern Africa. Someday I’ll stop bringing her up, her spectre, that triangle.
At the ancient church an ancient Italian man calls to me from his chair.
“English, give me five Euro and I’ll go up there and pray for you.” His hoarse voice. “Believe in me, English, believe in me.”
I don’t believe in him. Go up where? The rough eastern dome disguised behind the newer triangle? Do I understand this god? But do I understand anyone anymore?
A seagull dangles over uncertain cliffs: such faith in air. Dazzling seas of mythology and fable, sirens naked and billowing sails and deep blue grottoes and men into pigs. Do I want temptation, do I want Circe? Do I understand myself at all?
Too much time on my own, staring at Greek Orthodox anguish, statues and faces in arching giant vaults with gilt tile and tortured Christs. On my own I walk past glowing Italian fountains and on my own I worry about my stray dogs and my orphans of the mountain and I jump on a bus to Positano by myself to shudder at cliffs and hairpin turns and stunning views of the Almalfi coast stretching south.
The old man shows coins cupped in his hand, evidence of his offer’s merit.
Who would delegate such a thing as prayer? Should I pay hammered coins as a kind of insurance policy? But what if delegating prayer is a sin? Then I’m worse off.
“Believe in me, English.”
This is religion, this is God, a grizzled man in a lawn chair. Or a real God is watching and this is a test.
No. If I must pray I must do my own praying, not pay someone else. I walk away in this stone lane past the English brides, not sure where I’m headed.
His hoarse voice follows down the echoing stone. “English! Believe in me!”
Nietzsche was misled; God sits in a lawn chair in a set stone lane over a writhing ancient sea. I’ll show you the place high above a harbour. I want to believe, but I do not believe. It’s all such claptrap.
But then another day I really do believe, it makes perfect sense. Am I two different people Twenty different people? Believe in God, believe in sunny Natasha; it changes hour to hour.
My wife can no longer believe in me. Perhaps it is our collective lack of confidence that eats at the ozone. Seneca said to make each day a separate life. I like that idea, but really that notion changes little for me, I live the same life over and over without learning.
Hooves echo loudly, the troubled bride approaches, a wagon and horse clopping noisily in this narrow lane; I duck into a doorway to make room and the blonde wrapped in white passes, her face right by my face, clop clop, I see skin, bare shoulders, our lane so narrow her white wedding dress touches me. The narrow lane of her long shaven legs, her faced turned to me.
Run away with me! I want all women to marry me, to love me, to get to know me. I just do.
A wedding in Sorrento, this was her inspired thought last winter in grey England. Italy! How exciting, how romantic! But something is wrong. In this African heat the wedding party sweats uphill in matching cobalt metal dresses and funereal Prince Edward top hats, sweating as they climb cobblestones and cliff-side paths up from the rolling sea’s waves and surly hydrofoils and the faded fishermen’s church by the beach. The bridal party’s backless cobalt dresses have an unfortunate way of making their shoulders look chubby and these chubby women shine like sweating horses as they pass.
The troubled bride passes me twice, twice I have to hug the wall as she rides. Perhaps her father beside her, going with her to the church the first time I saw her. Not yet a wife, then a wife when next I see her. Not looking happy. Either time.
Two different laneways, yet she passed me both times -- I have doomed her marriage. My eyes are to blame, I saw her and I am jaded and cynical and I have disappointed my wife.
I represent separation, the imminent failure and dissolution of marriage, though I also represent love and fervour and blind optimism and blind pessimism and a very good nose for bargains (look in my fridge at the very reasonable berry yogurt and tins of German wheat beer).
My eyes see the troubled bride and I wish to approach her here on the coast under the palm trees and I’d like to have us hie to my cool third floor room like a cave carved out of icy marble and there my eyes wish to see the bride slowly strip bare for me and only me, oh to witness each slow shoulder become naked and my fingers touch each slight elastic garter bisecting her loins as she waits for me to move over her and I will levitate, just my face brushing her blushing silk triangles, silk caught on her body and my hand fanned on her high hipbones and my hand breathing heat from that tiny isthmus between her legs, the cusp of entrance, and a white fan turning on our liminal forms and a soothing shower if we want streams of water running along our blessed bodies.
But I do not breathe of her and my eyes see no silk or triangles. We’re not in my room or shower.
No, that’s me past the palm trees and hundreds of scooters, alone at a shady table with a bottle of Peroni and staring out at scooters parked in domino rows and on my right dark cobbles of the amazing road zigzagging steeply down to the fishermen’s church where she was lawfully wed.
And in this Italian summer I can see her English future, her English winter, I see that in a cold English winter someone will approach her cluttered desk at the agency where she’s worked for some months now.
On her desk perches a small blue-sky photo, the frame of gold trees, bright metallic dresses on the plump bridesmaids, the wedding in sun-swathed Italy that seems another life than England’s gun-grey mists.
Hullo, going out with us after work?
Do. We’re all going. A bit of fun.
She studies his face, his eyes, wonder what he’s like, what he means. English rain at the Venetian blinds.
They do go out after work, a pint, a cocktail, more drinks, a curry, then an after hours club that someone at work knows.
Weeks later the blonde English bride will confide in her best friend, I feel alive again.
And it is my fault, all my fault, for she passed me in the cobbled lane with her horse and gown and her uncertain face. I now pronounce you alive again, that mix of guilt and thrill, and then the moving van waiting at her door.
Which sofa is yours?
Can I have that painting?
Sure, take it.
Her desk at work. Come just for one, some one says.
I suppose I could, just one.
What’s the harm?
Ah sure, this work can wait until tomorrow.
Sure, I don’t need that long sofa or long marriage or long green riverbank.
I did this to my wife and then Natasha did the same to me. Are you familiar with the tale?
Life altered in a few seconds, an entire world gone in her few words, like the American man leaping off the cliff or the beautiful scooter couple smashing into the bus on the hairpin turn above the sea.
We were going to meet in Rome, in winter we’d ski the Alps. But now there is someone else. What I’d hoped for, for so long, gone so quickly. Fast as a car crash, a scooter.
And so easy for him to be beside her. So hard for me to get near her, two years, her guilt about other parties, her caution, but he has the whole world I wanted and makes it seem effortless, simply by being there in the same city and asking once.
Natasha said she loved me, said Buon Giorno my darling, you are all mine on all levels. Was I to not believe? Now I feel I was a distraction, a curiosity, some vague zoological interest until the real thing was evident. But the real thing for me, unfortunately.
Torture takes the place of sleep: was it her place or his? Had to be her place, the door, her cloudland bedroom, where I’ve been, our private code. Did she invite him over knowing what was next? His girlfriend left him and then he professed love for Natasha. She rebuffed him; next time they didn’t talk and she was sad, thought she’d lost two best friends, him and her.
Then the birthday party; they did talk, they both got drunk. Her living room sofa first or did they go right to the bedroom duvet?
Two creatures create a new time, just one move, one hour, one drink, just one finger brushing another finger, her creation, her ceiling of Sistine, one overwhelming question, one half erect phallus passing her lips, coming to life there at the threshold. What I want to know and must try to forget: did she undo his pants or did he? I know her: she is too polite to turn away from what is offered to her. And I am absent, I am thousands of miles away.
They know all and I know nothing. It is humiliating and erotic. Was it good for her, for both? He is younger than me, eager. I felt a stud with others in the past, lifting women in the air, but so insecure with her. A sign that we were not meant to be? A world of omens: to believe or not? The Gods punish me. They enjoy it. The myths punish us as we enact them, doomed to repeat the same moves, the same ludicrous stories.
A volcano floats over Italy’s silver sea, a volcano hovers at Pompeii’s shoulder like a permanently drunk uncle. Pompeii swelters under the volcano, days in the odourous ash and ochre stone and roofless ruins, baked excavations the colour of excrement, past the Villa of Mysteries and ancient brothels. Sweaty trains sway back and forth like fates, and the locals try to gauge if I’m worth robbing.
Train tracks run on both sides of excavations; clearly we ride dust clouds over the outskirts of a dead city, clearly not all this ruined city is excavated. There is more: Dead families and homes and hidden lovers live on under our wheels and rails.
In Pompeii a fast phone call from a ghost: the exact spot where I met her and my phone rings. Can’t be her. It is her, but her cell dies, her phone always unreliable, like her. I leave the excavations, the exit like a border. I walk away from Check Point Charlie and am set upon by merchants outside the temple, grabbing my sleeve, hungry for my money.
Cold drinks over here, very good.
Sir, this way!
Good meals and good prices, all you can eat, right this way, sir.
They think I am alive because I cast a shadow, carry a passport, a wallet with Euros. When it rains, which is not often in the summer, Asian men magically appear with umbrellas for sale. They are polite, soft sell. In the heat Africans with knock-off sunglasses and heaps of purses. And in the rain Asians with umbrellas.
Have these foreigners reached a secret accord, a division of spoils? A local Yalta. In Italy they have divided the weather: Africans own the sun, Asians own the rain. Croatian chambermaids own the hotel’s aqua tile floors and buckets of water. The tile floor of my room resembles the sea. The Italians own themselves, their speed, their voices, own everything right around them. The Americans own Iraq. In the rain Asians ask me to buy an umbrella: the marketplace deems me weary of the examined life, but alive.
I buy sunglasses in the rain.
Believe me, English! calls the old man in the cobbled lane.
Don’t believe me, I want to tell the bride. Have confidence. Get married, you’ll be fine, you’ll beat the odds. Have faith, I want to say.
I am an atheist and divorced, but I believe in the mysteries of God and marriage. Troubled, I believe in peace. Hated, I believe in love. Unhappy, I believe so devoutly in happiness.