published in "Partisan Review," Fall 1982
(Volume XLIX, Number 2)
"Yes, yes, don't stop now! I've just got to know what comes next," she said, rocking in the chair, her eyes bright.
"It seems somewhat personal, you know," he said, lifting an eyebrow. "I haven't looked further, but who knows how far it goes. Lips, bosom--one can imagine what comes next."
"Oh, I know what he's talking about. You know what he's talking about. I told you what happened, Terry, so you don't have to be embarrassed."
"Well," he said, glancing back at the letter again, letting his eyes drift over the tiny foreign-looking script with its full curves and determined tilt to the left of the page, "if you're not embarrassed." He found the spot where he had paused. "My face in your bosom, smelling your fragrant scent of womanhood . . . of everything that you meant to me, mean to me, that evening at the pensione after. . . . Some restaurant, I presume?" She nodded, her eyes closed. "You were the one I had looked for all my life, and then like magic you were mine, my Beatrice, my Laura, all in one."
"Who?" asked Marie, looking up.
"Dante's girlfriend, and Petrarch's . . . although that's putting it rather crudely. This guy's some talker!"
"He certainly is," she said with a smile. She drew her tanned legs up and arranged herself in a modified lotus position on the chair. Her white shorts were a fine contrast to the tawny smoothness of her skin. Her toes, nails painted a glossy pink, wiggled in pleasure. Terry glanced at her face and shook his head.
"So we have you his Beatrice and his Laura, all in one. I suppose I would have added Sophia and Gina and Claudia . . . but perhaps that's just my less spiritual mentality. Anyway," he continued, scanning the letter, "he goes on about that evening, that evening, that evening! No more allusions, though, from what I can see. . . ."
"Read it all," she said in a whisper. "I want to picture him."
"In my dreams I had never imagined anyone so sweet, so . . . tender, so something something with a willingness to give, I suppose. Here it gets a bit explicit, I'm afraid." She said nothing but sat perfectly still, listening with her eyes closed. Her lips were parted the briefest bit. To the casual observer, she could have been an Oriental sculpture, a cool alabaster personification of tranquil thought. But he was quite sure that her thoughts were anything but tranquil. "Your flesh touched mine, and the electricity of our meeting, encounter . . . was to me as a warning--no, that would change things--was like a . . . avvertimento, an announcement . . . of a new life. Oh my God, now it's La Vita Nuova? This guy's too much! Maybe he's cribbing."
"Fabrizio? Well, could be." She came to his defense, her eyes full on him now. "But if so, it's because it says what he wants to say. What was the name of it, Terry?"
"Another bit of Dante. What did you say this guy does, anyway?"
She laughed and shrugged, still balanced on the chair, one leg tucked under the other. "Signore Fabrizio, I'll have you know, is an architect. He told me all about Palladio and took me to see the best churches and palaces. . . . Unfortunately," she added, drawing out the word with a wry smile, "he is currently seeking a job."
Terry noted this bit of information without a visible reaction. Fabrizio Randazzo, architect. Disoccupato. Jobless. Cercando lavoro. Seeking a job. Best of references. I know la Signorina Marie Gardner, of the United States of America. Please, then, give me a job commensurate to my abilities and my vision of beauty.
It made a nice little jingle. But back to the letter and its flesh touching flesh, burying one's face in her bosom, and so on. She still wanted to hear the rest of the letter, as presented by the master translator, Terrence Downs. More Italian for you: traduttore, traditore. Proceed. Modulate your voice accordingly. Capture the tone, tone which is everything. Perhaps the words in Italian, read aloud, would convey the essence to her. La tua bellezza m'impazzisce, donna dal cielo, angela dei sogni!
"Is there much more?"
"Just a little." He ran his finger down the last sheet, itself of foreign appearance, small, with small boxes, like a grid, not with the long casual horizontal lines of American paper. He certainly didn't rush out and buy himself some proper stationery for his transatlantic love correspondence! Did the young Italian feel it barely worth a try? Does the appearance of the paper make a difference in the actual writing of the letter? Things to ponder.
"I must leave you now, my love, my treasure, for another day somethings and responsibilities are mine. But until we write again, I keep before me your face, your eyes glowing like the stars over Trastevere, your lips the red of cherries--nothing intrinsically Roman about that!--and . . . the pallor ghostly of your body when we first embraced in the . . . crepuscolo . . . what do you call it--twilight. I will write very soon again. With love, Fabrizio." He stopped, folded the letter carefully, and handed it to her. "And that is that."
She was silent. Her eyes did not meet his, but he could sense the sadness suffusing them, threatening to fill them with tears. This was worse than reading the spicy parts, he told himself, rising stiffly and pretending to look for something. When his little pantomime was done, he looked back at her and saw that the crisis had nearly passed. Her brow was growing smooth again. She sighed and slipped a long loose curl behind her ear. When she leaned back and stretched, the letter held tightly in one hand, he could see the trace of her nipples under the shirt. Abruptly, he blushed, hoping that she had not noticed his intrusive if accidental stare. Damn that out-of-work architect, with his amorous missives! How could anyone sit here for half an hour and read such desperate romantic profusions aloud to their intended recipient--a beauty of the first order, to increase the difficulty--without an amorous thought of one's own slithering into the pristine garden of the mind? But that is that.
"Thanks, Terry," she was saying in a voice lacking all vitality. "You were a doll. Thanks a lot."
She undid herself from her tyro's position and slowly extended her legs until they were parallel to the floor. The muscles tautened, the toes pointed: long, graceful dancer's legs. "It was nice to hear what it said, but . . . you know. It brings everything back. The good things. And a damn ocean between us."
With a look of sympathetic glumness, he watched as she wiggled her feet into the slack old pair of sandals. Then she snatched up her keychain and walked to the door. He followed her, hands in his pockets. "Thanks again, Terry. Sorry to bother you."
"No bother at all," he murmured. "Take it easy." She let herself out. After watching her walk down the hall towards her apartment for a moment or so, he closed the door and turned the lock. In the silence, the sound of the bolt pushing brusquely into place was strangely loud. Almost a full minute passed before he could think of what there was to do.
She had been the first neighbor to greet him when he had moved into the building, a graduate student largely unfamiliar with the city. They had exchanged witticisms while waiting for the elevator, whose slow progress from floor to floor certainly provided sufficient time for such exchanges, if one wanted them. She has escorted him to the laundry room that first week, and he had gone to her, following respected tradition, for the cup of sugar he had unaccountably forgotten. But the rather dour-faced man he had seen her with at times seemed an indication of a commitment, or at least attachment, on her part; and perhaps she was a trifle too unintellectual for him to be worth any further pursuit. She laughed at his jokes while they waited for the elevator to groan to a halt, but she did not seem to catch all the allusions. At times she laughed because he obviously expected her to laugh. It would only have made things difficult to explain them. She laughed, and that was enough. It was nice to watch her while she laughed, although in describing how she looked at such time he wished vaguely for a phrase less clichéd than "her nose crinkled." But it did. And her laugh was just slightly too bold to be entirely ladylike: She laughed without self-consciousness. Still, his graduate studies took up much of his time and much of his energy, so as the fall semester wore on he saw less of her, and he found that he was accommodating himself to the fact quite well.
With the end of the school year, however, he had more time on his hands and more inclination to spend it frivolously: or better, in more pleasurable ways. In the back of his mind he remembered that he had not seen Mr. Dour around for a long while, but no doubt there were many eager substitutes. He was surprised but not really disappointed when she told him, as they passed in the lobby of the building, that she was going to Europe on vacation, for four weeks.
"When are you leaving?" he asked. She was struggling to hold on to a bag of groceries but seemed inclined to chat. He glanced from her eyes to the moist container of milk dangerously poised at the top of the bag.
"In three days. God, and here I am buying all this stuff. If I don't finish it all, do you want it?"
"Sure. You are most kind." He smiled ironically. "Where will you be--England, France, I suppose?"
"Yes, and Rome, for the longest time!"
"Ah ha! You're talking to a Roman of sorts right here, you know. I lived there for a while."
"No kidding. You lucky devil. I've been told it's a beautiful city. Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and so forth."
"You'll love it. My only regret is that I won't be able to accompany you and provide expert guidance, senza onorario."
"What's that mean?" she asked, brightening at the foreign words, as if with a foretaste of delight.
"Without fee, . . . I think. Do you speak any foreign languages?"
She shook her head. "Some French. You know, from high school. All about ma tante and ça va bien, merci. But you must know Italian," she said, her admiration evident.
He laughed. "I remember some of it, at least enough to read or understand decently, if it's spoken slowly enough. Maybe I should teach you a few important words and phrases."
"Yes! They could come in handy. 'No thank you, sir, please take your hands off me or I will call the police.' Or 'Where can I cash my American Express checks?' And there are some others. . . ."
"Give me a bit of time and I'll figure them out. But here's a word for you now: caramella. One of my favorites."
"Say it again?"
"Caramella. Ca-hra-mel-la! It means candy." She tried it, rushing past the foreign r and collapsing the two l's into a single slack one. "Repeat: caramella. Linger over those l's! Taste them!" She tried it once more, with a reasonable amount of success. "Excellent. Lesson one concluded."
"I've got to go. This milk seems to be leaking. But thanks. Maybe you could give me a list of places to see." He nodded and watched her hurry past, her arms grappling with the bag that was rapidly losing its shape.
"And watch out for those Italian men," he called after her. She looked back, waiting for the elevator, and shook her head vigorously.
She had revealed her plight soon after her return, on the whole still exhilarated, tanned perfectly from lazy hours on the Mediterranean beaches outside Rome where, she proudly told him, she had first met her dark Italian. Something had happened--love? at least that was what she felt--and for the next two and a half weeks they were never apart. He was her guide, her chaperon, leading her through the chilly catacombs with the assurance of a Christian revenant, leading her through the awkward crowds of tourists who dawdled and gawked in the sun-blessed piazzas, leading her to the choicest pieces of art, appreciated only by the cognoscenti whose ranks she was thrilled to join, if only for a brief time, leading her, with casual grace and unbuttoned shirt, to their regular table at Tempio di Bacco for the best lasagne--"green," she exclaimed--in the city. The 18 days had been filled to bursting with sights, exciting bustle, perilous rides on his Vespa along the older, cobblestone streets, languorous days spent at the shore doing nothing more strenuous than chasing each other through the mild waves or tossing the mandatory, international Frisbee. But quickly, shockingly, it was gone. He had seen her off at Fiumicino Airport, his face drawn, his eyes dusky with sadness barely contained. As she trudged down the ramp, she took a final look and saw him standing stiffly behind the glass. The angle of the sun was bothersome; she took with her his slim form, his hands still by his side, a shimmer of afternoon light for a face.
"Well, why doesn't he come here for a visit?" asked Terry, watching her closely. But that, he realized, was the first thing any dimwit would have said.
She shook her head. "He can't. There's just not enough money." She pulled out a cigarette and seemed uncertain about what to do with it. Finally she threw it down on the coffee table with a grimace. "I'd given the damn things up . . . and now this! Terry, I don't know what to do. It can't end like this. We had something."
"I suppose you have to give it a chance. See if it survives. Look, you've only been back three days. See if you get a letter."
"I'd better," she said, arching a brow.
"Good. Take it from there." She began to laugh, not her usual full laugh but a paler, subdued version. "What's wrong?"
She shook her head again, still laughing. "A letter! What will I do with a letter? He barely knows English! I don't know any Italian except grazie. When you're there in person it's different. You can get things across, there's feeling, you can express it with your gestures, your looks. . . ." She was toying with the cigarette again.
For a few moments he was silent, watching her and considering various bits of advice that he at once discarded for their triteness. The last thing she wanted to hear, no doubt, was a reminder of the soothing effect of time or the surprising power of love. He looked away and gazed at the furniture. It was a small but comfortable and elegant room, its composure disturbed by the bulky leather suitcase still looming in the middle of the floor.
"I know I'm not making this all up," she said finally. "You can tell when it's right. But why in God's name did it have to be Rome? What happens now?"
"Well, don't worry too much about any letters. I can probably help there, if you'd like. I should be able to give you at least a general sense. . . . But that might get tricky." He gave a small smile. She was looking at him, her lips slightly parted, as if in thought.
"That would really be nice," she said. "If you could do it, Terry, I'd really appreciate it."
"You're sure you won't mind? After all, I'd be intruding."
"Look, you're a friend. And it would mean a lot to me."
The language of love. Dust off the dictionary. Keep a straight face. Love letters. Dearest Goddess, I. . . . What have I gotten myself into, he wondered. Grazie.
So the first letter had come, only a few days after their conversation, and she had brought it over to be translated. The decoding was fairly easy; apparently lovers articulated the same universal thoughts, often in the same images and rhetoric. This Italian architect searching for a job, at any rate, expressed himself within the tradition. It was fairly easy, yes, but there was something peculiar about it. There were the same impassioned universal thoughts to be exchanged, but without him as intermediary they would not be spoken, would not be properly imparted. She held a letter in her hand full of the most earnest words, but without him it was only a silent symbol. And a silent symbol, he observed, apparently did not carry the same weight as an open letter.
And it was indeed an open letter. How strange, he found himself thinking as he read to her the passions of a man he had never met, speaking as it were for him, bringing to life the indecipherable letters on the page. They were not two people discussing a lyric written, perhaps, for a lover in years past but now an object of dispassionate scrutiny. Here, as she sat alternately with eyes closed or peering with a kind of pained eagerness into his face--although, it seemed, not seeing him--there was little aesthetic distance. These words meant exactly what they said, and she to whom they were addressed, whom they were to enflame or soothe, was only a few feet away, a living, tangible presence. And they had their effect: She would smile, or lapse into a still sadness; a range of emotions, often in paradoxical combinations, could be seen, glimpsed, surmised, animating her face. While he spoke, weighing each word or phrase as it came, he tried to decide how he felt. "Your caress," he said, pausing to complete the sentence smoothly, "was like a paradise on earth, and I felt myself falling . . . happily, without question . . . into your enchantment, under your spell, I guess. How can I go on, here, alone, so many kilometers away . . . after having touched your breasts, so like the peaches of . . . some place. I can't make it out." He took a quick look at her. She was quiet, head bowed. His uneasiness was keen: He had just openly described her breasts, to the woman sitting right there, but it had not been Terry speaking. He read on, hearing his voice detail more intimacies, more recollections that could only stir the listener, mastering his tone, reading as from a text.
By the time of the third letter from Italy, he felt himself settled into a pattern of sorts. He was a voice, a disembodied voice articulating a stranger's passion, an instrument whose chief responsibility was to maintain an almost professional aloofness. He came to recognize the writer's style, even to anticipate what would be said. There was, of course, a certain amount of repetition; but such repetitions are not annoying to the lover's ear, are more like an expected litany. He spoke of the man's love, his loneliness, her vibrant being, her soft body, at all times careful never to speak in the voice of a lover.
The correspondence proceeded both ways. Trying to keep her writing as plain as she could, she wrote back. But from the comments he made in return--half humorous, half serious--it seemed clear that he had struggled to extract a meaning from the English, had had to content himself with the general contours of its message. And indeed that there were letters in return was itself the most significant message. He apparently was more guarded and it seemed not to have occurred to him to show his lover's letters to somebody else, for elucidation. Perhaps it was pride, or a fervent belief in the sanctity of privacy. But she, more frank, less concerned with niceties than with coming as close as possible to direct contact, felt differently. When she came to Terry with a new proposal, however, he responded without enthusiasm.
"Don't you think that's going too far?" he said, almost exasperated. He folded his arms; it seemed a gesture of disapproval, and she looked away.
"You're right, you're right . . . but how do I get to him? He doesn't know what I write, not exactly, at any rate." Her face seemed, if only relatively, to have grown slightly haggard. Her eyes had lost some of their luster, her smile was sadder. But he found the change in her, to his own surprise, quite attractive. She seemed to have gained a new dimension, a fullness not previously there, or not as visible. She was, perhaps, more rooted in reality; drawn heavenward by love, yes, if one liked, but also to the earth. Still, as she sat in his kitchen, her keys on the table, leaning forward in her chair as if beseeching him for enlightenment, he could only feel a pang of anguish, a sense of his own helplessness. He did not want her to suffer. "How can I tell him how I feel, how I want to be with him? Now. Always."
He stood up and paced back and forth between the table and the refrigerator. "I could never write it for you." He shook his head. "There you'd be, spilling out your feelings, with me like an eavesdropper, a sneak, writing it all down." Bending to her, his hands trembling slightly on the tabletop, he looked into her eyes. "Look, I know you. I don't know him. There's a difference."
"You're right, you're right. It was a crazy idea." She took a few moments to let a long sigh escape. "It's just that I feel so cut off, so helpless to do anything real. I sat there earlier, holding his letter--and it meant nothing to me. And I looked at what I had just written and knew it would mean nothing to him." Abruptly, she covered her face with her hands.
"It does mean something. Both of them do," he said quietly. He sat down again and waited for her to speak, or for something more momentous or apt to strike him. She looked so distraught.
"Terry, I'm so ashamed . . . so ashamed." She did not look up at him. Her voice was a whisper. "I can't believe I asked you to do it. It was selfish and . . ."
"No, don't say that," he said, touching her shoulder. He wanted to give her a "big smile" when she pulled her hands away and looked dolefully at him, but he felt it would have been false. He would not pretend to have a solution. Instead, he tried to appear steady and sympathetic. "He knows what you mean, even if he doesn't always know what you're saying."
He escorted her to the door. It was getting late, and the dishes from his meal were waiting unforgivingly in the sink. When she had gone, he told himself, he would turn back to his own minor headaches and minor joys. But without a word, as they stood for a moment at the door, she took his hand in both of hers--soft and cool--and pressed it. Then he was alone. But for the rest of the night his thoughts were of her.
He found himself being drawn more and more deeply into the affair. His own mundane existence of libraries and notes and painfully achieved attempts at prose began to seem less real to him than her situation, and receded completely at those times when she brought another letter for his magical services. It was apparent that she appreciated him, but as he translated yet another letter from the tireless stranger, he wondered about his own feelings. The words he spoke, smoothly on the whole, haltingly at times, were beginning to exert a peculiar force on him. They were not his words, and yet he spoke them, addressed them to the young woman who waited so anxiously for them. They were the words of a lover, often desperate, urgent, yet he spoke them quietly, levelly. For all his efforts to remain apart, he was being drawn in. At times, aghast, he had to catch himself and force himself to return to his impersonal delivery. He did not know whether she noticed his rare slips or not. But something was happening, had been happening. All day he looked forward to their evening, to placing himself in a rather embarrassing position. But there was something that overcame the embarrassment, or he would have stopped after the first letter. He came to a long complicated passage enumerating her qualities and sensed rather than saw her where she sat a few feet away, her gaze directed to the shaded window. How much longer can this go on, he thought.
"And what does all this mean, my enchantress, but that I love you. I love you." He had finished. He dropped the letter in his lap and waited. And what does all this mean? All at once he was angry at the letter, annoyed by its pomposity, its endless rhetorical effects. The whole thing read like a passage from a bad sentimental novel, a sham. Who was this man without a face who wrote so grandly letter after letter, pouring out his words if not his heart, relying so complacently on another's voice? His jaw hardened but he said nothing.
He looked up. She was gazing at him with a mild smile, perhaps a trifle embarrassed, perhaps also sensing a kind of overkill, a strain, in the letter.
"Terry, I don't think I've really managed to thank you for all this. I know it's awkward and it takes a lot of time . . . and I'd like to show my appreciation a bit better than just mumbling something and running back to my apartment. Would it be all right if I took you out to dinner this weekend? I've got a great place in mind. . . ."
He was not feeling very amenable. Her offer was probably sincere, but who could tell? Was she just paying him off for his time? Bitter, but surprised by his response, he shook his head. "No, thanks, Marie, really. It's not necessary."
"Are you sure? They make an incredible carrot cake."
"No. Don't feel you have to do anything like this."
She looked at him closely, her smile slowly fading. For a few seconds they said nothing. Then she slapped her thighs lightly and got up. "Well, let me know if you change your mind. You know the number."
Was there an archness to her tone, he thought, silent as he followed her to the door. He told himself he was not going to beg for dinner with her. He had better things to do. Yes, that was the cliché, wasn't it?
"Damn it all," he said when he was alone again, "the hell with the whole damn thing. I sat there and I said I loved her. I gave her some buffoon's words. Ti voglio bene. Ti amo. What the hell does it mean? What do the insincere bleatings of an Italian playboy have to do with me?"
That night, sleep seemed never to come. An hour after turning the light off, he still lay and waited. Nothing. The radio, when he finally decided to try it, was little more than a minor distraction; or perhaps it was not enough of a distraction. His thoughts gradually turned from her face and the quiet way she sat while he read, to the letters themselves. Was it only his increasing lack of sympathy that caused him to detect a lack of conviction in them? The last one had seemed to incriminate itself and cast suspicion on certain parts of the earlier ones. Weeks had gone by; had the out-of-work architect lost some of his feeling for her? Or was it all wishful thinking? He knew now that he hated the idea of expressing another man's love. But it was not a simple matter of stopping; something compelled him to continue, to speak in the guise of another what he might not have been able to say otherwise. The truth left him almost dizzy on the bed, in the darkness; now it was out in the open. But she obviously loved the letter writer, not the translator. How could he continue in effect to champion a rival's cause? Perhaps she would not see him at all unless he participated in the whole awkward, complicated game. The situation seemed hopeless either way. The troubling complexity of it all engaged him, kept him peering into the dark ceiling, until sleep took him with a suddenness he recognized only the next morning.
He did not call her about the dinner invitation. He felt somehow he could not. Perhaps because she sensed a strain in their arrangement, it was late in the next week before they met again, and then it might have been by accident. At any rate, they found themselves in the lobby together, waiting for the elevator, waiting too for someone to introduce the subject that was on each of their minds. Finally, he decided to attempt it.
"Have you had any more letters?" He was careful to sound casual, but he felt his whole being tensed for a response. She had just gotten home from work and looked wonderful, and less vulnerable in her elegant suit and dark blue shoes.
"Oh, there are two of them," she said with a shrug. "I got one Saturday, and then one this morning."
"Well, aren't you somewhat curious about them?" he asked, smiling. "Or have you found someone else, a new translator? Someone in the Romance Languages Department?"
"No, no," she said. The elevator opened onto their floor and they got out. "I thought we could both use a rest. I felt things were becoming . . . I don't know." They were walking down the hall. She seemed, he thought, to be wearing a perfume, a pleasant, vaguely familiar scent. Her shoulder-length dark blond hair had lightened in the summer sun, like that of so many of the television commercial manikins, but he knew she was not a soulless fabrication.
"Well, I'm still here. Do you want me to take a look at them?
"That would be nice." For a second she seemed hesitant. Then, looking directly at him: "I was going to make some tea."
"You're on, if I read you correctly."
The session, if it could be so called, went smoothly, at least on the surface. His resentment smoldered, though, and he had difficulty in keeping the skepticism out of his voice as he read two or three grandiloquent passages. A note of stridency seemed to have entered the letters: Why had she left him, when was she returning, why did he continue to torment himself and pour his soul into words? He wanted very much to come to America to see her, but money was scarce. Life was so unfair, especially to young lovers. Reading, he paused momentarily and looked up from the letter. She was curled on the sofa, her face turned away but still apparently listening intently. She had left her tea unfinished. One shoe was barely visible under the sofa, on its side. "This is getting interesting," he thought, scanning the rest of the letter. "Perhaps I was right about this guy." What followed was a delicate suggestion that she help him "to fulfill his dream to come to America," that is, scrape up fare for the plane ride. Love, it seemed, had to move over and share the stage with Money. How much had she spent during those three weeks or so of dining and traveling and barhopping? He wanted to know but there was no tactful way to ask her. Did she at least sense the desperation, the change of tone, in the letter?
The second and more recent was briefer, and it seemed to him even more suspect. But how could he interfere, how could he judge, especially given his own far-from-disinterested position? The submerged plea for money was there again; this time even a figure was named, not very large in itself but perhaps only a test of some sort. As he read the passage aloud he felt an almost physical distaste and hoped that the heat on his face was not turning to a blush. These were words he was glad to hear coming from his rival, but there was little pleasure in voicing them. How would she respond? When the letter was over he kept his eyes on the floor.
"Is that everything?" she asked after a short pause. Her voice seemed husky, charged with emotion.
He took a quick look at her, trying to gauge her feelings. The letter had ended so abruptly, with little attempt to recreate the earlier atmosphere of impassioned longing. Instead it was almost businesslike. The longer he hesitated, the more uncomfortable the silence became. What if she began to cry?
"No, wait--I must have missed this little bit here." He did not look at her. His voice was neutral. "I don't see how I can live without you, without seeing you every day. Only you can make my life seem worthwhile."
At this she glanced at him, her eyes half questioning. He felt his throat growing dry. "Well, I've got to get back to the books, Marie. Thanks for the tea." Folding the letter with excessive deliberation, he rose and picked up his notebook. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her still looking at him. All at once he knew he had to get out of her presence before something happened. But he still had to see her. "Why don't you stop by tomorrow for tea at my place? I shall reciprocate. We shall be quite civilized."
She smiled. "Quite civilized. Why not?"
The next letter confirmed his suspicions. There was an accusing tone throughout much of it. Petulantly, the letter demanded a swift reply, some favorable word that would "surely give me a reason to hope, me who sees you always in his thoughts and has no rest." But how would he survive, how could their exquisite love go on? She was so far away, and would not return to him; would she at least offer him the chance to come to her? "I write and wait days and days . . . and nothing comes but . . ." (he had to look up the word and improvise) "blandnesses. How can I go on this way? Please, please, give me hope. You, you have comfort and security. But I, I have the knowledge of sadness and discomfort." Again, less subtle than before, came the suggestion that she send some money. It was difficult to read it and his voice trailed off. Now she was looking at him. How could he lessen the pain that she had to be feeling?
"My words lack the power of telling you how much I love you. Your presence haunts me throughout the whole day. I want to press you close to me, touch your hair, kiss you, make the night pass us by so softly and the morning find us in one another's arms. But all I can do is dream . . . for there is this . . . ocean between us." He sensed her gaze on him and he did not look up. The letter had ended but he had gone on, had told her what he felt. And now was the time to tell her that he had spoken at last for himself; there were no words on a page to guide him.
But he could not speak. She was not his. She had given herself to somebody else, they were meeting on clearly defined terms, and his love for her was inadmissible. He would be a sneak to deceive her and try to steal her away; all the earlier meetings would seem a cynical ruse to trap her, a pretense of friendship and assistance. He wanted to take advantage of the writer's apparent wavering, but he could not. Even if the Italian was losing his ardor, or perhaps losing his patience and facility, she gave little sign of losing hers. No, it was not time. But how long could it all go on?
"He seems . . . anxious, terribly anxious," she said quietly, toying with the corner of the folded letter. "I wish I could do something. I can only send him my love, but that . . . doesn't seem enough."
Let the bastard get a job and earn his way here. He closed his eyes for a moment. Something would have to happen soon.
She wrote back almost at once, but her reply was obviously inadequate. Did she not love him? Had her love gone? Was she going to let him die here, all alone, without her sunshine? He would love very much to come to visit, but how? He needed her help. He needed her help. He needed her help. Now.
The letter, short and almost totally given over to such sentiments, left her crying. Quickly, torn by the sight, he invented another brief ending. "Your love sustains me. I know I could not go on living without it, without the thought of you. . . . That's about it. It's a fairly short one this time. Marie?" She did not look up. "Is there anything I can do? Some tea? Vodka?" When she shook her head, he got up quietly. All he had to do was kneel beside her and put his arms around her and tell her the truth. But again he felt like a deceiver and an opportunist. "Give me a ring if there's anything you need, all right?" As he left her apartment, he promised himself that he would not read another letter to her. Before he reached his own door, he knew he would be too weak to refuse.
He felt full of a nervous, aching energy. He could not think clearly, did not know what to do. He paced. He tried to read, but soon tossed the book aside. He performed climactic scenes in his head, in which he would finally be able to speak; the letters would be torn and strewn about the room, and a New Life would begin for the two of them. But nothing helped to calm him. He moved restlessly, much too abruptly and awkwardly, and there was nowhere in the apartment to go. For a minute he contemplated the telephone. All he had to do was dial her number . . . and she would hear his voice, the same voice that had spoken for someone else for so long, for so long that perhaps it was no longer his. This is Terry, he would say; but it would be Fabrizio Randazzo speaking, miraculously; he had come, he had made the trip, everything would be fine now.
He jumped to his feet and charged into the kitchen. He threw open the refrigerator and groped for a can of beer. Then he pulled the rest of the cans out as well, dangling four from the plastic strip.
Three days later, days in which he had tried to work and had not seen her, not daring yet to face her, he was walking home after a long day at the library. The nocturnal walk through campus to his apartment building in the more residential area was always a time for reflection: The words from the books would settle, and his mind would play over them, organizing, harnessing, synthesizing. But tonight, as so often recently, the crisp creamy pages of the old journals quickly receded and he found himself thinking about Marie, her deep eyes, her cheek, how comforting it would be to touch. The streetlights glowered, turning the sidewalks into blurred grey streams. His feet moved. The landmarks of the walk went by scarcely noticed. There was a faint breeze, merciful summer gift from somewhere, and he savored it on his face when he turned at the usual corner. Overhead, the moon's wan glow was too weak to pierce the foliage of the trees. This street was always the darkest. His selva oscura. Obscure. Only a few more blocks. One thing he had determined: He was going to burn his damn Italian dictionary and scatter the ashes out the window. Tesoro mio would be blown east, il mio cuore sofferente west, and all the other simpering phrases. . . .
What would it be like to stop at her door and knock? She would come to answer, possibly aroused from sleep, eyes weary, marked with the familiar melancholy, growing wider, wary, as he intrudes. Or was that the word: enters? But she has not invited him. She steps back and looks at him, and is suddenly conscious of her dishabille. Or shall we be consistent here: her disabbigliatura, her disabbiligliamento. Is there such a word? We decree that there is. She steps back. Her feet, one notices, are bare, with the same pink polish on the toenails. "Terry! It's rather late, isn't it?" But tonight I am a lunatic, I have surrendered willingly to the moon's influence; it has whispered and insinuated the entire walk home, thief to thief, and here I am. But my dear, did you not expect me? It is I, me. Will you not ask me to speak for myself? I have left the script home. Let us improvise. Let us do something about your dishabille. Magari. Shall I steal a kiss? Taste your naked shoulder, gleaming immaculately under the electric light? Utter the emotive words, not read them? As she retreats a few more steps, she is confused but thoughtful, perhaps with a dawning approval. "Terry, you seem . . . different."
The next corner to turn was approaching. For a few moments he kept his gaze on the sidewalk and listened to the quiet scrape of his shoes, steadily covering the ground to the presumed destination. He sighed and switched his books to the other hand. Someone was walking the other way across the street, too far from the streetlight to be seen clearly. He passed a storefront on the corner of his block and paused to look within. The stacks of groceries were dark, the aisles empty and still, the blustery claims on each box now silent. A shop long after hours was always macabre. His vision withdrew and he found himself considering his reflection in the glass, the form barely visible, the face dusky. Was he presentable, he wondered. But it could have been anyone.
When he got off the elevator he looked down the hall but, as he expected, there was nothing to see. It took several seconds to unlock the door, so unsteady was his hand. There was a note on the floor. It had to be from her, he thought, but then remembered that the active tenants' association was constantly demanding meetings and contributions. When he picked it up, however, he saw her handwriting: graceful, legible, conspicuously American, not at all like Fabrizio's. There was so much that could have been written, from the most curt dismissal to the warmest invitation; but there was only a brief, neutral message: "Stopped by tonight. Marie." His disappointment was only momentary. That could not be it; there had to be an underlying meaning, something to call into play his ingenuity and his imagination. The words were only superficial, the barest shorthand suggestion of the reality, like remarks banal in themselves without the proper context. "Stopped by." The plainest English.
As he sat in the kitchen, sipping juice, he wondered what to do. It was nearly 11:30. But was the note a call to action, a proposal to redefine roles? It was important to interpret correctly, but no impulse came to him with the unmistakable blaze of a mandate and he sat for ten minutes, indecisive. Or did tonight convey something? Not this evening, in other words, when they normally met. Tonight could mean that she too had been restless, she too had been eager to resolve matters. He watched the second hand on the clock race in its endless circuit past the numerals until he could no longer tolerate it. His face felt hot. In the bathroom he watched his hands cup the water, something they had done so often without notice. He splashed his face and felt somewhat better. The mirror's presence was intimidating. Finally he looked directly into it: The eyes were red, the face tense. Sono io. It is I. You look like one of the undead. Cheer up, son. When he smiled the sight was hardly reassuring. Sono io. He dried his face and hands and switched off the light. For a moment he stood still and gazed into the dark mirror, seeing little except for the sharp-edged doorway behind him. He felt his pulse keenly. Slowly he unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt, then turned and made his way back to the front door. He began to walk down the hall.