I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The day after the gallery visit, I awoke with a lingering headache, alarmed by the sound of the phone. At first I confused the sound of the phone with the sound of swallows. Those birds are capable of making a terrible noise when they get together. In the summertime they glide through the narrow Florentine alleys in communal roosts, and burst into the air space above the city piazzas, evicting the elderly, terrorizing them with their macabre noise, and causing the poor old souls to break their habit of sitting on the benches to stare ahead blankly for the remainder of the evening, as if into a void. I imagined the elderly leaving the piazzas in pairs; in the transitory space between sleep and wakefulness, I saw them throwing the weight of their weaker halves into their canes, filing out into the distance two by two. When I finally emerged from the slumber of sleep, the sharp stabbing headache drawing me out into the light of day, I identified the sound: it was the phone ringing, sending its dreadful vibrations through the wall.
I got up and threw some coffee onto the stove. The phone continued to ring. I picked up. It was Ludo. The Buddhists who lived downstairs were chanting again. I blasted the kitchen window open to let in some air. Their voices streamed through the courtyard garden, past the olive tree at its center, chimed against the earthenware pots of herbs along the peripheries, spiraled up the corner cyprus, its crown rocking in the subtle breeze, before finally coming through the window. There were four or five aspiring Buddhists—can one aspire to be a Buddhist?—and there was something funereal and primitive about them sitting in a circle, weaving their voices together; they sounded like an animal roaring in a cave.
Ludo and I didn’t say anything to each other beyond a greeting. We held on to the thickening silence from opposite ends of the line. I wasn’t going to be the first to speak. A few days earlier he had picked up his umbrella, (which he always uses to point at things as if it’s an extension of his hand), and his bags, and gone to London to deprive me of his presence and teach me a lesson. The lesson of valuing his company. Such were his parting words—that he would return when I had learned to value his company—as if his company were an asset apart from him. I walked around holding the phone, waiting for him to speak into it. The lavender in the trellis outside the kitchen window was dehydrated again. Most of its stems were limp, only a few at the center perked up toward the sun. For some reason the perkier stems brought to mind the women I had seen at the gallery the night before. I remembered their feathered hats and wide, confident hips, and suddenly had the distinct sensation of having been, unbeknownst to myself, in the company of some secret society of art lovers. I petted the lavender with my free hand. It occurred to me that the anonymous telephonic invitation I had received to the gallery opening may have marked the beginning of a longer adventure; in fact, I thought, the mysterious invitation may have been the first installment in a sequence of strange events that I suspected remained to unfold. Don’t ask me how I know these things. I saw myself standing at the beginning of a long line of enigmatic episodes and the vision caused my heart to trot like an excited horse. But the exhilaration didn’t last long because just then Ludo decided to speak, he finally grew some balls, just as I was getting tired of holding the phone and the coffee had finished brewing, its sweet steam calling me to itself. And what did he say? Tersely, like a nervous young doctor delivering to a patient news of her imminent death, Ludo said, “As a cure for your nervous affliction you should spend the day at Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition, The Springtime of Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400–1460.”
“Are you reading directly from the brochure?” I asked impishly, withdrawing my hand from the lavender and bringing it to rest on my hip, but he didn’t answer. Instead he launched into a monologue. No. Not a monologue. An edict during the length of which he repeatedly insisted that the Renaissance sculptures on display, with their pure proportions and their representations of idyllic human bodies, with their manifest perfection, that’s what he said, “their manifest perfection,” mechanically, as if he had recited the words before a mirror, would ease my crisis and bring some perspective to—he chewed on his thoughts, a moment of silence before the delivery—“my uncompromising and disturbed world.”
I listened without interrupting. The two sets of words—manifest perfection and nervous affliction—sat directly across from one another in my mental landscape, each of the two sets magisterial in their own way, pompous, ready to fight the other to the death. I was pacing around. I still hadn’t said anything. I made sure to breathe hard into the phone so that Ludo would know I was there, persevering on the other end. He piped on. He said he had left an envelope which contained enough money for the museum ticket, twelve euros fifty, plus an additional five euros for coffee and a croissant in the gilded cabinet to the left of the entrance, and that I should take advantage of the loving arrangement he had made and go to the museum to get my head cleared. “Your head cleared,” he said. I pictured him depositing the money into the envelope, inserting the envelope into the cabinet, looking sternly ahead with his green wizard eyes. Ludo the humanist, the expert philologist with his linear mind, terrified of my constellatory existence.
I knocked the coffee over. The Buddhists had stopped chanting. They were humming now, like a colony of bees. My head cleared! I let out a loud, mocking laugh—ha!—a single syllable I sharpened to replicate a razor—ha!—because it occurred to me that in his quest to cure me of my mental affliction, Ludo had turned into a banal, terrified individual who clings to austerity and uniformity—the Haussmann-inspired unbroken building facades along the Lungarno flashed before my eyes in opposition to the dense irregularity of the city’s demolished medieval quarter—Ludo an individual, I thought, a prototype of the Renaissance man, an anachronism! I carried on. I thought, he is a person with no appetite for chaos, or for the abysmal nature of the underworld, or for the dead, for whom—since the failed twin suicides of my parents, each of whom had, in their own time, raised the card of death to manipulate the other in an impasse—I had acquired an appetite, though appetite does not quite capture my point—how should I put it?—I had acquired an unusual facility to see beyond the boundaries of rational space. After all, one cannot make contact with death without being changed by it, and I, having been brought to my knees by my parents’ fake double attempt at it, having flocked to the scene of death twice only to encounter nothingness, or the sinister gravity of blackmail at best, had, in recompense, acquired access to a parallel dimension where the dead reside. And not just any kind of dead, but dead artists and writers of rather lofty character. The gateways of the known universe had given way and bridged my life with those of writers and artists whose consciousness continues to linger past their deaths in those infinitesimally small, liminal realms that are embedded within the greater texture of reality, and that are typically hidden from view. Writers and artists who, much like myself, were addicted to traveling, to traversing the myriad landscapes of the earth: explorers, pilgrim types, hypothetical cosmologists, philosophers, introverts and escapists who set off on journeys with no end and recorded observations of the most quotidian breed and whose imaginations were filled with impressions of space in its various manifestations. Ha! I released again. This time the syllable gassed my headache, fueled it, I had to sit down to tolerate the pain. I could feel the wheels of nausea begin to spin. My lucidity occurred at a cost, in the pangs of an annihilating vertigo. I breathed hard into the phone.
I will never clear out my head, I thought, then said out loud to Ludo, “I will hoard my thoughts if I have to, because what good is a person”—and I posed the question to Ludo with deadly seriousness—“with an empty head?”
I heard Ludo draw in a long, venomous breath. “Long ago,” he began, deliberately elongating the vowels as if he was launching into a story, “long ago,” he repeated, weighing his words carefully, cruelly, “a wise man said with truth that he whose powers are not up to the necessary and the useful,” he hardened his voice into a stone, “likes to busy himself with the unnecessary and the useless.” He brought the stone down onto my head with criminal precision. I could hear him smirking with satisfaction on the other end.
I immediately recognized the quote. It was from Goethe’s Italian Journey. I had copied the quote down in my notebook. Now, more than ever, I was convinced that Ludo had stolen it. Speechless, I scanned the living room, but failed to come across it. My notebook was missing. I looked beneath the sofa, behind the plants. Either he has taken my notebook with him, I thought in a fit of nerves, (I ceased to feel my headache, the pain retreated to let the panic through), or he has memorized my long list of quotes and musings, integrated them into his own mental repertoire in order to use them against me as if they were his own, because what better way is there for him to interfere with my psyche and distort my reality, I thought, than to pretend to be me? I scanned the yellow shelves that separated the living room from the kitchen. Nothing. Just the silver, cat-shaped clock with its whisker-arms sweeping the seconds away, depositing them one by one into the pile of ash where the past lay dead and buried.
I hung up the phone.
How had Ludo learned to tailgate my thoughts so organically, with such ease? He had done more than memorize my notes. He had internalized my thoughts, weaved them into the texture of his consciousness, adopted them as his own. I lifted the cushions on the couch to see if my notebook had slipped through the seams, but found nothing, just an old fifty lira coin which must have been there since before the beginning of the century. It was a coin from the 1950s, and even though it was rusty, I could still clearly see the naked, muscular Vulcan god of fire, his back turned—his round, firm ass inciting desire—his arm raised, holding a hammer, ready to strike the anvil. As soon as I found the coin, I walked to the cabinet and retrieved the envelope Ludo had left me. I unsealed it, took out the euro bills and spread them across the floor. What I observed is that the euro is hardly as poetic as the lira. Why? Because the euro sings the anthem of homogeneity, of a false, imposed unification. I ran my fingers over the lira coin, softening the rust on its surface. I tossed the coin up into the air. I watched it land heads up on the wool carpet next to the euro bills. I looked at them side by side. It occurred to me that we have dragged our primordial conflicts into the twenty-first century. Let me explain. The lira and the euro represent the pull toward and the push against unification, which, when one thinks about it, is the same thing as the prehistoric battle of reason versus emotion. On the playground of humanity, reason holds hands with everything that is homogenous and efficient (the euro); it stands against the mind-bending nature of emotion and casts into the shadows of unreason everything that resists efficiency, that resists unification, that kicks the monolith of global culture in the ass (the lira). The two forces—reason and emotion, which is, by extension, to say homogeneity and diversification, which is, by further extension, to say the global and the local—together create a kind of psychological Möbius strip from which we may never emerge. I picked the coin up again. I looked at the God of Fire, his full head of curly hair, his fine body. I thought, it is the summer of 2012. We are only twelve years into the twenty-first century, what else is due to unfold? Out of order, and all at once, I thought of the global economic crisis of 2008, of September 11th, of the cracks beginning to show in the project of globalization, of its far-reaching consequences, for example, the soaring unemployment rates in Europe, the domino effect of civil wars eradicating huge portions of human life in the Middle East. If we were to measure the length of the bodies of the dead and the unemployed from the beginning of the twenty-first century up to today, how many square kilometers of the earth would they cover? The phone rang again. The ring was muffled by the cushions. The phone had gotten buried in the sofa during my desperate search. I plucked it out. It was Ludo again, the voice of reason calling to haunt me.
He said hello and then launched back into our conversation as if I had never hung up. “If you want to agonize over passages written by dead writers who traveled through Florence over a century ago,” he said, in one breath, with the passion of a man devoted to persuasion, “go right ahead and be my guest, because sooner or later,” he said, his sentences bursting, popping like fireworks, “you will recognize the engine of madness driving your project, since no dead authors’ descriptions of Florence correspond to reality, or,” he yelled, “to the space of the city in its contemporary manifestation!” He had expertly internalized my language. “The gap,” he continued, pronouncing every word with equal emphasis, controlling his voice to exude power and authority, “the gap between what a space was and what it is, which others would dismiss as one of the normal effects of the passage of time,” he warned, “is a natural phenomenon of our world and therefore unstoppable,” as though I were ignorant of this basic fact, “the gap,” he said, I remember, “has driven you to madness, to sheer insanity.” The intensity with which he spit out the final two words was impressive: SHEER INSANITY.
I said absolutely nothing. I brought the lira coin to the tip of my nose and smelled it. The fact that I was holding the coin between my fingers, then in the palm of my hand, (the coin obscuring the lines of my (mis)fortune), was material proof of the irregular collisions between time and space. Even though the coin was rendered inoperable by the invention of the euro, it was still present in the world, and was, therefore, proof of the unpredictable, staggered nature of reality and a memento mori to an Italy that, on the surface, one could claim no longer exists. Ludo was jabbering on at the other end. I thought, hadn’t European nations united their economies under the symbol of the euro as a way to emulate the gargantuan size of America? To simultaneously protect themselves against, and ally themselves with, the supersize nation? I heard Ludo huff and puff on the other end. I went on with my mental calculations. What better way to kill time while I waited for him to spit out more venom?
The Buddhists were done chanting. For a second, there was silence all around. I could see the crown of the cypress through the window, batting in the soft summer breeze. On the horizon, above the lichen-stained rooftops, a few plump clouds were merrily gliding across a baby-blue sky. There was an elderly woman in the terrace adjacent to the garden. She was wearing a grey-and-white floral-patterned apron, and had thick gray hair parted down the middle, and wide, veiny legs that brought to mind a bulldog. She took turns watering her aloe plants and hanging her laundry, which consisted of starched white sheets and so many black shirts and dresses I assumed she was a widow.
I kept an eye on her while I piped into the phone. I said, “I’ve discovered a coin, a very interesting coin. It contains the key to the universe.” I was exhausted from the endless stream of thoughts with their multiple branches and subdivisions.
“What?” Ludo asked, stunned. The connection was breaking up. The widow proceeded methodically with the sheets. With her stubby fingers she folded them into perfect squares and secured them on the wire. “Wh—at?” he repeated. I heard the word in bits and fragments, as if he were parceling out each letter.
“Nothing,” I said, “I was just asking about your plans for the day.” I reinserted the coin into the couch to get rid of it.
“T-o-d-a-y?” he asked slowly, as if he was annunciating the letters to a class of bored second-graders.
“Yes, today,” I repeated back at him impatiently. I was ready to be done with the conversation.
“How many times do I have to say it?” The line had cleared. His sentence barreled through the invisible telephonic channel with the force of a canon ball. It slammed into me. “Working on the dictionary!” he yelled with his dry philologist’s voice. He was very irritated.
A few years back Ludo had been invited to take part in a linguistic reconstruction project. As part of the project, the consortium of selected scholars were responsible for creating a dictionary of Medieval and Renaissance Italian. He had been on the project for years, but as far as I was concerned he was lying through his teeth; his trip to London had nothing to do with the damn dictionary.
“Yes, yes,” I said, mockingly, “I remember. The project is sponsored by an academy that is more ancient than the dead themselves, the one,” I said, pelting his haughty words back at him, “that is endowed with the weight of so much time it has become historic.”
There was a long pause. I couldn’t tell if the line had dropped. But then Ludo’s voice resurfaced. He continued, seemingly unfazed at first, saying—the line apparently very clear—that his “activity of documenting the history of words”—how their meanings have changed as a result of what he calls time’s unstoppable quality—“of documenting the history of words,” Ludo declared again, his voice suddenly shaking, “this activity,” he repeated on the verge of tears, “this activity of documenting the history of words,” and I was waiting for it, for the final delivery, holding my breath when he said, “never mind,” the words came down like a guillotine, “it doesn’t matter what I say anyway,” and instantly killed the flow—no, not the flow—the weak stream of our conversation.
I felt something that I knew resembled empathy, a pang of pain at the near-death of our relationship, but out of habit, out of an instinct of self-protection, immediately retracted from it. I grew detached, heartless.
“Are you convinced,” I asked, knowing that my words would forever linger in the space between the sunny Mediterranean air of Italy and that cold, glacial island to where he had escaped to work on the dictionary while simultaneously teaching me a lesson, a trip, if he was telling the truth, designed to kill two birds with one stone, “that this activity of yours,” I pictured the God of Fire striking the anvil again and again, “this chasing down of a word’s inferences throughout time,” I couldn’t stop myself, “that this phonetic hunt of yours, this sick desire to push against time’s forward-moving current by pulling on a singular thread of linguistic history, is saner than mine? Because it seems to me,” I continued without a pause, “that just like me, you have succumbed to an obsession with the effects of the passage of time, you,” I told him, barreling on, “with regard to language, and I,” I said, “with regard to space.”
I caught myself. I thought, What am I doing building a bridge between us, weaving complicity? I heard the line cut. The phone, as Ludo slammed it down, if he did in fact slam it down and the line hadn’t just finally disconnected, made a sound as precise and deliberate as a kung-fu fighter splitting with his bare hands a block of wood.
The Buddhists started up again. They added gongs to their routine and banged them at regular intervals. They delivered a steady stream of beats through the thin floor. For a second, in the fuzzy aftermath of my conversation with Ludo, I had the distinct sensation I was walking on the chest of a great animal, attempting to perceive its heartbeat with the soles of my feet. It was as if beneath the veneer of materiality there was nothing but compressed sound. I let myself drift. Everything felt soft and amorphous. It was as if the world was on the verge of some final transformation, about to expose an otherworldly abyss in which the rules of time and space didn’t hang like a noose around the heads of beings.
When the beating of the gongs ceased, my mind’s darkness, which had momentarily retreated to the edges of my life, reclaimed its position at the center of my existence. Out of habit, I probed the darkness. There, in its core, I found a thought that had crystallized and that was brimming with meaning. Within the folds of my mind, beneath the engine of grief that had wreaked havoc on everything, was evidence of a fundamental misalignment that plagued Ludo and my relationship, and that we had chosen to overlook, but which had finally pushed its way to the surface to reveal our basic incompatibility. It was as if the sound of the gongs had shaken things loose within me. I had never confronted our misalignment head on. Ludo was a lover of life, while I, at best, was only capable of tolerating it, a coward on the brink of suicide, a descendent of suicidal types—had all my ancestors attempted suicide? I suddenly wondered—a misanthrope whose only lease on life was a desire to catalogue the transmutation of space, to prove that space has died a thousand deaths and that it too has its phantoms, and that the city—any city—coexists side by side with all the predecessor versions of itself, representations of which survive in the form of pictures and paintings and literature, not to mention miniature replicas of the city that are constructed to scale, and art too, I thought, while I was at it, has died a thousand deaths, and just like the city, always resurrected, transformed. I felt momentarily disturbed by the pattern of doubles: the twin deaths of art and space, my parents’ failed twin suicide, their fake death duet, their synthetic double eviction from life.
I tried to shake the feeling loose. I remembered Ludo confident and boisterous, advocating positive psychology, optimism, and determination; I remembered him pumping me up with those words at times when, for one reason or another, I was up against dire emotional straights. I remembered him offering affirmations to me as if they were gifts that could provide fixed, eternal coordinates I could use to navigate my way through the chaos of the world.
I decided I would go to the exhibition after all. I walked out of the apartment, slamming the door and inserting into the controlled rhythm of the Buddhists’ gongs the syncopated beat of my disordered life. They had started up again. I lingered on the landing for a second, then walked down the corridor and out onto Via delle Casine, thinking the street couldn’t have been more appropriately named, because it is lined with simple buildings that have been subdivided into even more simple apartments, a monolith of salmon and off-white facades with green shutters that are always sealed against the heat so the whole street looks like it is lined with a row of houses that are sleeping.
I made a right and then a left on Via Ghibellina. When I was halfway down the street, I caught sight of the Pakistani vendor at the corner store. He was busy clipping his toenails. He had his feet up against the air-conditioning vent and I could hear the drone of its motor working to diffuse the stagnant air of the day. Ludo and I regularly bought water at his store, and occasionally some bad table wine. He lifted the clippers, waved, and flashed a broad, toothy smile at me. I waved back, distracted. I was trying to stop my mental engine from processing the failures of our relationship. I wanted to avoid confronting the problem before I was ready to confront the problem. I was exaggeratedly stiff. My muscles had tightened. I was grief stricken, stern. I knew I didn’t look good, because the New-Age jeweler on the corner who has fiery red hair and who wears a lot of turquoise jewelry and who is usually in an abundantly good mood, and whose striped black-and-white cat roams free and is always licking its paw on the glass display cases, picked her cat up as she caught sight of me walking down the street and sharply turned away as if she was trying to protect herself from the evil eye. She is an astrologer on the side and therefore sensitive to energy, she says. I saw the look of abjection on her face. It just so happens that when she turned away from me she faced the mirror, which is huge and covers the store’s back wall.
I reached the Bargello and turned left. When I crossed Piazza San Firenze I felt overwhelmed by the swarm of tourists. For a second, I forgot all about Ludo. I stared at the tourists. A few of them had lined up to fill their water bottles at an ornate corner fountain. They each took their turn holding their plastic bottle against the lion’s mouth. They caught the cold stream as it rippled down the animal’s marble tongue. A dozen different languages converged into a single stream: Chinese, Russian, English, French, Ukrainian, and Turkish, among others. There was incessant smiling. There was the complicit nodding of heads. I crossed Piazza Signoria as fast as I could and got onto Via Porta Rossa. I felt alone, separate from the other travelers, exiled from a common human language they all seemed so capable of participating in. It was then, as I retreated from the masses, that it occurred to me that I lived with the constant sensation of walking along the edges of life, along perimeters formed by whatever was left over after my parents’ near-death. I saw it more clearly than ever: the scraps of life left over after their attempt were the only ground beneath my feet, the only solid surface I had to walk on, and given those parameters, the constant eruption of conflict with Ludo was comforting; it was as if the confrontations I had with him were the only proof that I was alive.
At last I arrived at the Palazzo Strozzi. I stood at the palace threshold, in the shade of its broad corniche. After a while I stepped through and lingered in the arcade. I stood between two potted palms, opposite the palace café with its white leather patio furniture and tall serving glasses. A waiter delivered two espressos to a young couple. The male counterpart nodded his head to thank the waiter, a gesture every bit as deferential as it was dismissive, while the girl sat there fingering the centerpiece, toying with the petals of a pearly pink rose, looking coy and well taken care of. I watched the couple sugar their coffees, lift the cups to their lips, suck on the rims, and thought about how everyone wants to tether their partner to reality, to pin them down instead of allowing time’s multiple dimensions to move through the relationship. The sun poured a dense, coppery light into the palace courtyard. It seemed as if it were depositing its final rays in order to rest forever afterward, about to disappear, the sun too throwing in the towel to ward off some sense of desperation it had secretly hoarded. As I stood there staring at the couple, looking at their plump, sugary faces, I realized with even more clarity that fighting with Ludo had become a necessary condition for me, because what I needed the most was to push someone away and be pushed away by someone in order to prove to myself that I continued to be alive, and in that pushing away gain a sphere of solitude in which I could serenely go about my business of contemplating the twin deaths of art and space, just as I was standing there, in the arcade of the Palazzo Strozzi, contemplating the failed twin suicides of my parents.
I looked around the palace. I thought, it is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture: a free-standing building composed of three floors, the first made of rusticated stone while the top two are made of a lighter ashlar that combine to create the illusion of symmetry. The massive and pure proportions of the building offered a soundness and a stability in which I could almost imagine conceiving of life, of a life well lived, a life of plenty, and for a second I gave in to the feeling, the round and sturdy and altogether anti-abysmal feeling of life, and instantly I felt my temperature rise, as if after a long pause my blood were circulating again, and in that moment, standing beneath the arcade looking up at the sky through the internal courtyard, I realized that there were parts of me that longed for Ludo’s embrace. The sky turned gray and immediately a few wooly clouds floated by overhead. There was something Ludo and I had in common with the Palazzo Strozzi, a kind of tension of opposites, because while the rusticated stone and the broad internal columns transmit strength and symmetry, the building is open to the elements and therefore reserves a critical mass of vulnerability, of weakness and chaos: one minute it could be raining down the center of the building, another the sun could be shining through it, turning the faces of the passersby toward the warm light like flowers in a field.
But my thoughts quickly turned toward death again. It occurred to me that no one remembers the buildings that were demolished to create space for this harmonious palace. The small architectural deaths that lie at the seam of the palace’s protracted birth are forgotten. I remembered that it had taken over half a century to complete the project, and that immediately after its completion the Medici family had engaged in an act of architectural theft, confiscating the palace from the rival Strozzi family. These petty wars had seeped into the walls. Thunder clapped in the distance, the sky turned sanguine, dark and blustery, a summer storm was rolling through. I remembered then too what Ludo had said when he had first met me. That he needed to keep his distance from me because there was something crepuscular about me, a mezzanine of darkness he could detect at the base of my soul and which caused him to be mistrustful of me—a few drops of rain fell onto the courtyard floor, the couple leaned over and looked up at the sky with suspicion—but I had turned out to be, he confessed to me later, impossible to resist, and he did not say the following, but I intuited it: I was a magnet to his subconscious, which despite his mind’s conscious efforts to go toward the light of life, was attracted to me, because in the depths of his soul lay, like a madam cast in marble, fear of his own mortality.
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the novel Fra Keeler. Her work has been published, or is forthcoming in The American Reader, The Coffin Factory, Denver Quarterly, State of the Union, and &Now II: The Best Innovative Writing. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame. This excerpt was made possible with the generous support of the Institute for Scholarship at the University of Notre Dame (ISLA) and the Kobayashi Research Travel Fund.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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