Q: Why do we travel?
A: Because it gets the glands up.
June 1 [Malaga, Spain]
Travel gives one fear (are we lost?); anxiety (where will we be staying tonight?); fatigue (we’ve been on the road for ten hours); depression (it’s raining, we missed the turn for Lorca, the car’s sounding bad, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this road, my map doesn’t show this route, and Sam’l is getting very cranky; there’s a fork, and I don’t know which one to take, and Sam’l says, very nasty-like, “Make up your mind,” and I start to think, “Why am I here?”); anger (who made up this Christly map?); and finally, acceptance. (See, I was right all along. We made it to the hotel. Even though, [hem] it’s the wrong hotel.)
Travel gets the ashes stirred up, gets the fire moving again. Travel gets the heart agitated. Travel makes the dust motes disappear. Travel makes the eyes light up and the stomach say howdy.
When I get off the airplane from Madrid, there is Sam’l waiting for me in the baggage room. He is taller now, less doubting; his English is more fragile. He’s been living in Madrid, speaking only Spanish for three months.
“Hi,” I say.
“What’s going on?”
“Having a good time here?”
We walk the streets of Malaga. Like most European cities, they’ve chosen to save the downtown as is — a tribute to fourteenth-eighteenth century architecture — and build the condos, erect the crap on the outskirts of town.
Malaga! The word pours out a world of meaning for me. The place where, a quarter of a century ago, I finally found what I was looking for: me. I came here disgusted with America, and in the dust, and wine, and sand, and poverty — there on the shore, alone in a cottage by the sea — I came into myself, leaving behind, for a while, all the accoutrements of America — possessions, wife, child, hate-America.
“See,” I tell Sam’l, taking him down Calle Primo Rivera, “I used to walk down this street every day, twenty-five years ago.” We try to find a place where I would buy “Gambas al Pil-Pil” — shrimp fried in olive oil with tomato and garlic sauce. “It’s around here somewhere,” I tell him. “Just keep looking. It was next to the shoe store.” The buildings are all the same, but they’ve taken away so many of the old bodegas. There used to be at least one on each corner, with a rich supply of tapas and three-pesos-a-glass wine. Now the streets are brighter with consumer goods and less interesting for the pedestrian.
June 2 [Malaga]
What a divestment it was, and how grand I felt, that I could find in another country what I had denied myself in the United States. I didn’t travel to travel: I travelled because it was, at the time, the only way I could escape myself, and find the love I had been seeking so long.
Spain was dingy then; the tourists had just started coming in. I was there at the beginning of a flood. I was here at the beginning of the flood. And in my small village, I met Salvadore, and Jose, and Marcellina.
I keep expecting to run into some of them. My old love Salvadore would be forty now. His wasp-waist would be waspish no more. His weight-lifter legs would be dumpy, his chest gone to pot, he’d be close to 200 pounds. His sad face would be lined and worn, him and his bedroom eyes, and hag-ridden guilt. His hair would be starting to go.
And friend and travelling companion Jose would be thirty-six. His boy’s mouth would be surrounded by hair; his boy’s body would have a full complement of shag about the groin, on the chest, the face. That fine boy’s quavering gypsy voice with which he would sing flamenco would be old and tired now.
Marcellina — who used to laugh at me, she and her dark gypsy ways — would be thirty-seven, with eight or ten children. Her hair (which was then black and rich) would be graying, her breasts would sag, her belly would be heavy from bearing one child after another — bearing perhaps another of her wild-eyed, sweet-humored progeny, another Marcellina.
The time-mystery snakes about me on the streets of this city where for two years I roamed, looking for love in the lean streets. We were alone here, me and my children, and none of us exist anymore. The hardy, bitter, icy, proud, angry me has been replaced by something softer. My face is fat, and there is a fatness, an expansiveness in my view of the world which I didn’t have then.
I marvel at the person I was back then. I think of the lean, and tall, and abrupt man that I had formed out of myself in 1960 — and I know if I were to meet the me-then, no more or less than Salvadore or Marcellina, I would go off in the other direction. My bitterness — at my body (and its demands), at never getting the things I wanted in America, at a family I thought to be skewed and wrong, a country skewed and wrong — and my haggard belief in any of these, alone or in combination, would be enough to make me (now) not at all interested in being around the me (then). Thank the Lord I’ve let me grow out of that nonsense. Acceptance and tolerance: it’s a form of fat, isn’t it?
June 6 [Alicante]
Sam’l is sick — from eating at my favorite bar, the Lisboa, in Almeria. He thinks it’s shrimp. I think it’s squid. Anyway, as we come into Alicante, he says his bones are aching, and he wants a place to stop and be sick. So I pick out the fanciest hotel in town. “Nothing is worse,” I say, “than being ill in a fleabag.”
We end up at the Sidi — excellent conceit! It’s pronounced “Seedy.” But it’s a dandy. Three rooms on the ocean. Two balconies. Outside, the waves before us, beating down their tracks to Madrid. While Sam’l is upstairs barfing his guts out in the porcelain toilet, I am downstairs in the Restaurante “Culo de Perro” enjoying a huge meal of seafood (again!) with wine and thick desserts like flan and fruit pie.
Later, to cheer him up, I tell him about Troubles. About how when we travel, we don’t leave our troubles behind: we just slog them along with us. He’s worried about his girlfriend. I’m thinking about my adopted children, gone in a “divorce” with absolutely no visitation privileges. How much I love them; how much I lost when I lost them; how much I miss them. I wake up to dreams of Carlos talking to me, confiding his secrets to me; I go to sleep with the memory of Benito at my dinner-table, spawning some rich fantasy out of his twelve-year-old mind. We have this baggage — for Sam’l it’s his girlfriend pissed off because he wrote a drunken letter; for me, it’s my family lost. We carry them everywhere with us. The luggage of our grief from 9,000 miles away.
June 7 [Alicante]
In between barfs, Sam’l lies fragilely on the bed (looking for the world like a male version of Mimi in “La Boheme”). He asks me if he should be reading my autobiography. “Not while you’re in this condition,” I say. “You might be better off reading ‘The Kaddish.’ Besides, I’m here, far better than the me I put down on the page.” For him to read my book while we’re in the same room is like trying to smell a rose with a picture of a nose (to lay claim to Charlie Krafft’s great saying).
As Sam’l patiently retches in the other room, I am sitting on the balcony, enjoying the morning, sipping delicious dark-oak coffee with delicious hot milk. I call consolation to him from a distance — but also warn him that if he doesn’t straighten up, I shall be forced to requisition a doctor for him. Since he abhors doctors more than spending money, it is a threat that should have a salutary effect on his health.
I have the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean before me, from this vantage point eight floors above the beach, the deck, the countless corpuscular German women showing me (as if I were interested!) dozens of naked breasts. “Sam’l, come here,” I call to him as he shakes on his bed. “There’s something I want to show you.” Like most healthy American males, he has somewhat of a preoccupation with boobs — and I waste no opportunity to tell him of their proximity. But his restless bowels and fever won’t permit him to rise, so I am stuck with one-eyeing them on my own. Over in the distance, there is a single white puff of a cloud, the size of a man’s head, perhaps a third of the way up the horizon. “Who put it there?” I am thinking. It is definitely not man-made. In the midst of it is a vacuity, a dot of space, as it were, for the sky to see through. “Why did they — whoever they might be — go to all that trouble to spot that speck of a cloud over there in the southeast horizon?” It’s a puff that turns from magenta, to red, to yellow, to white as I watch it (and as it watches me). Who went to all that trouble — and why — to entertain me with a single fine period of my days, and so early in the morning?
June 8 [Alicante]
Sam’l wins me over. I have decided that he is going to die — and his moribund body on the couch will bring unnecessary questions from the hotel management. Besides, I can’t drive our pokey white Fiat. His kidneys ache, his muscles burn, but the thing that gets me is when I pass through the living room to relieve my own inner plumbing (I had to petition two hours ago to get five minutes reserve use of the bathroom) I can see that his lips have turned a nice steely blue and the bed is quaking with his chills.
That’s part of it. The other part is that while I’m in the tub, he drags his aching body from his bed-of-nails so he can neatly stack and fold my clothes and tidy up the room. One of Sam’l’s weaknesses is that he always cleans up before the arrival of the maid — so that she will not just think of us as slobby Americans, leaving beer bottles in the bathtub and wine in the telephone. However, his effort at out-maiding the maid has turned him so shaky that I begin to fear his days are numbered.
“You’re dying from the Murcia Poison,” I tell him. “Everyone in Almeria gets The Poison. They poison all visitors. All the denizens of Murcia were poisoned at birth. That’s why they’re so ugly, have such wretched personalities, bad spleens, growths and splotches on their faces. The whole southeastern corner of Spain is awash in bacilli, amoebae, spirochetes, and doodle-bugs. We’re lucky to get out alive. . . .”
I call to the desk and ask for a doctor. “Spanish doctors are better than American doctors,” I tell Sam’l, comfortingly, sitting on the edge of his bed. We both shake some with his chills. “They get trained in six months — to remove everything. That’s what they’re best at: the scalpel. ‘Suture self’ is their motto. By the time they get through with you, you’ll never have to worry about heart disease, inflammation of the bowels, kidney stones, or brain tumor. They’ll all be in bottles in the operating room at Alicante General. Can you hear the sirens?” Although I find myself quite amusing at such an hour, Sam’l seems unwilling to move his blue-gray lips into even a parody of a smile. Fortunately Doctor Zarzuela arrives at the door five minutes later.
The good doctor says that Sam’l “no muere.” Good: that means he’s not going to die. But the shocker. After he gets through prescribing for Sam’l (boiled rice, boiled ham, and lemon juice, of all things) and telling us that the bottled water in Spain is probably unsafer than the tap water (no regulation), I ask him to take my blood pressure. Last night, in the middle of the night, I woke up and my heart was doing a tarantella — at three frigging a.m.
He tells me that Sam’l will probably live, but that I’ll probably die if I don’t do something about my systolic pressure. Foo! I’m not the one who’s dying, I keep saying; and then, I remember the words of Horace, to the effect that we’re all done for:
O Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas requmque turris. . . .
[Pale Death kicks his way equally into the cottages of the poor and the castles of the kings. . . .]
I leave Sam’l — who’s already getting better — and go to a Taverna in downtown Alicante to mourn my dying heart. There is a sign, in a clothing store window, saying (in English), “SPAIN IS NOT DIFFERENT.” And another: “Estoy como soy y soy como estoy.” My high-school Spanish would render that as “I am (permanently) like I am (temporarily), and I am (temporarily) like I am (permanently).” Doesn’t translate too well. Typical Spanish existentialism.
It was here, twenty years ago, when I was visiting Dark Spain, still under the dark power of Franco, it was here that I got drunk one night, got on the trolley car, took it out of town; when I got me to the beach, I dismounted, went down to the water. It was cold, and I was drunk and the cold winds were coming up from Sicily. I fell down at the edge of the sea, I was so drunk on red wine, and decided I had done with life, I wanted to live it no more. So I lay here on the rocky beach, watching the phosphorescence grow and die in the waves. To live no more! I would die here on this cold beach, die of exposure, in my thin clothes, because no one cared for me.
I lay here for some time (probably twenty minutes), and because I was shivering so, I decided there might be more sensible ways to be done with the world, so I got up off the ground and made my way back to the trolley stop. It turned out it was the last trolley of the evening, but there was a taxi stand nearby, so I had the driver take me back into town, back to my tiny hotel, where I could sleep the sleep of the just, having just opted to live some more. What is it they say: we must choose, over and over again, to live; we choose but once to die.
The time-mystery snakes about me on the streets of this city where for two years I roamed, looking for love in the lean streets. . . . The hardy, bitter, icy, proud, angry me has been replaced by something softer. My face is fat, and there is a fatness, an expansiveness in my view of the world which I didn’t have then.
June 11, 9 a.m. [Avignon]
Avignon for us yesterday was what one, a year later, laughs over . . . but when it’s happening, it’s a pain. It makes one say, “I travelled 9,000 miles for THIS?” The streets were narrow, the driving was dull, the hotel expensive, and the cars behind us were honking. Sam’l stalled the car three or four times while we were looking for the hotel, and grumped at me for not being a better navigator. “Shit man, you’re not doing very well yourself,” I snarled. Fortunately, his sunny personality and my embarrassment mean that all is forgiven when we finally do reach our destination.
When I was living in Malaga, the waning days of the last stay there, I met Jean-Louis Parmentier. He was from Avignon, son of a policeman, a devoted fan of Leo Ferre, the French singer of neo-existential songs. I did love Jean-Louis: he was six feet tall, had a perfect Modigliani face, and never took a bath, never changed his clothes. I was beginning to travel out of my home in Rincon de la Victoria. He and I travelled to Morocco, took buses all over — to Meknes, and Ceuta, and Melilla, to the Algerian border. I was in love with the perfect French beauty who would never love me back.
“I really do love you, you know that, Jean-Louis?” I would tell him.
“Si — yo se. Of course. But I cannot love you back. There is only one person in the world I can love.”
“Who is that?”
“My twin sister.”
There in Avignon, twenty-five years later, I decide to look him up in the phone book. What will I say to him, he to me? Another love fantasy friend from so long ago. (Why are these memories so poignant to us?) When I think of Jean-Louis, I see him in his black turtle-neck and heavy denims. He had only one set of clothes. While we were travelling, he would stop at the nearest tree trunk to pull out his notebook and compose anarchist poetry. Jean-Louis, tall, thin, angular, leaning against the dark tree trunk, writing impenetrable verse:
The heavy eye of the moon Says “Ding-dong.” The dog in the elm tree Smiles and sings “La vie en rose.” My mother is a tangerine. Hello.
And once, in Gibraltar, before a cathedral, when the archbishop of the local Catholic church was getting into his Mercedes, I see Jean-Louis posed tall in the sunset, erect, beautiful, sarcastic with his pursed lips, standing before him, thumbing his nose at the priest, sneering at his shiny priest’s car. A true French intellectual infidel.
He gave me lessons in French — that was the reason for our meeting — but he also taught me, again, frustration. I was just learning how to approach (daring thought!) a man — and in my hesitant way, I knew that if Jean-Louis would ever love me, it would be the beginning of paradise for me, frustrated me, who hadn’t loved a man anytime in the twenty-seven years of my life. If Jean-Louis and I came together — I knew! — we would stay lovers forever.
We travelled throughout North Africa, by bus. In Ceuta, we went to the beach — a rock-strewn beach just across from the Moroccan border. We took a bottle of Spanish brandy, which I nipped at; Jean-Louis drank most of the rest of it. Later, on the bus back to the hotel, he dropped his cookies all over the floor of the bus. The bus driver rolled his eyes; I got out and walked the rest of the way back to the hotel.
That night, as he was recuperating in bed, I knocked on his door, came in, said, “Listen, Jean-Louis. There’s a bus driver in the lobby downstairs, wants to see you. Says he has something for you, something you left in his bus. . . .”
“Que tu quieres?” he called to me from his bed, one night, in a small town, just south of Ceuta. “What do you want?” Or, literally, “What do you love?” I was drunk on anis, passed out on the floor. He wanted me, for the first and last time, my sweet and beautiful and angular Jean-Louis, with the willowy body and the amazing long-fingered hands; this was to be our night, the first time for eternity that we were to bridge this dam of loneliness and hold each other and love each other, the first time that I would be able to hold one that I loved who, apparently, loved me. And what happens? I am drunk to insensibility on the floor, too drunk to respond. Do I say or do anything? Of course not! I lie there gurgling to myself, bent over my insane anis dreams. O me! That was the last time he ever made any approach, ever acknowledged that he saw me as anything besides a travelling companion and slightly dotty American. When I asked him about it a week later, he denied ever having said it, said I was drunk. A perfect and delicious and fitting abortion of my nascent love: the babe of passion ready to be delivered, squalling, in the sweet Moroccan air — and we smash it in a drunken puddle on the seedy floor of a third-rate hotel in Tetouan.
So now, a quarter-century later, I hunt his name in the Avignon phone book. What will he look like? Will he still have those slightly cockeyed, perfect, long-lashed eyes, the long thin nose, the Modigliani mouth? When we talk — in his pauses, will he pooch out his lips in Gallic disdain? Will he finally have married his twin sister, be the father of other thin and beautiful young men with hemophilia? Will he still have that absurdly long thin body that I dreamed of for so long: a classic angular body, straight from chest to knee, just a slightly concave Arch of Triumph for the stomach? How strange to have a chance to see him yet again: will he still speak Spanish, our only language of communication — I knowing no French, he no English. Will he be ashamed to see me?
In the Avignon telephone book, I look under the Ps. Under Parmentier . . . nothing. Not even a Francoise or Denys, much less a Jean-Louis. Did he ever exist? Did I hypothecate an entire person, somewhere back there a quarter of a century ago? Can we choose to create a whole sentient entity, a being, out of the cloud of the hippocampus, turning our fantasy desires into fantasy reality? Was there ever a Jean-Louis?
“I know I act — but how do I know I know I act?” And again: “How can I know the universal bond that orders all things if I cannot lift a finger without creating an infinity of new entities?” — The Name of the Rose.
June 12 [San Remo, Italy]
When people stop and stare at me and my crutches and my funny walk in the streets of Italy and Spain, I have learned to stop, and stare back, and wink. If I do not laugh, it could be considered self-pity. If I respond in anger or bitterness, it’s, again, self-pity. A wink: that is more in the nature of a gift, a flower.
There are two dozen long, dark, wet unlighted freeway tunnels that we drive through as we come into Italy. Everyone drives eighty miles per hour through them, and I am scared. As we go through the dark tunnels, I think on dying, and (simultaneously) I start fantasizing a strange something else. I start thinking of various sexual partners from the past — and fantasizing sexual positions and acts that we did not try together. Sex is so weird, it is a river that runs through us, a great undammed river that pushes its eternal way through us, and we can deny it, mock it, laugh at it, pretend it does not exist, but we are wrong: it drives us, and those who are wise permit the river to flow, maybe try to guide it, channel it, but never ever deny its existence.
I have a sister: she and I lived together for the first sixteen years of our lives, and I know why now, at age fifty-five, her head shakes. Constantly moving back and forth, a tic, a denial: the head going back and forth in the eternal no. She doesn’t know why she does that; I am privy to her secrets, and I do know why she does that. She is as passionate as I am, only she has tried to channel that lust that runs the river through her, channel it into puritanism, money lust, and anger. Pretends the force isn’t there. If I were to ask her:
“Leslie. Do you know why you are always shaking your head?”
“Well, I do,” I would say. “It is because of your passion. That you have tried to cut off.”
“That’s what I mean. It’s all shut up.”
What am I talking about? Maybe she is right. Maybe her back-and-forth is right, better than my eternally chasing the comet called love/lust. What is it I once read: “Sex is a Big Pot of Fat.” Here I am at the half-century joining of my days, probably for the first time in my life satisfied; and I start dreaming of what I should have tried with Jean-Louis and Martin and that what’s-his-name of the beautiful face in Dallas, that farmer. One gets satisfied, so one has to go out and discover yet another fantastic dream, yet more complicated and trying in bringing to fruition. It must be at the root of ambition: to never be satisfied. The ambition Cinema: pictures from within continue to make us always wanting, wanting more after our cups are filled to the brim. I couldn’t ask for more than I have had in the last two years. And what do I want: more.
Sex is a pot of fat. No: sex is a beast. A large, ugly/beautiful, and potentially very dangerous beast. We defy him at our peril. Freud was wise to see the civilization — “Civilization and Its Discontents,” what a wonderful name for his novel about passion — being damaged by the thwarting of the lust that runs us all. And he was right to see that we could transmogrify passion into anything: war, money-make, possession, control. He was also wise to see it as a function of one’s life starting from before our departure from the soft house of life. They say they’ve observed tiny boy babes, just exiting the womb, with tiny hard-ons. Lust drives us from the start, and will drive us at the end. Little Richard says that lust is infectious. And some psychiatric doctors are giving clinics in how to defeat the habit of passion. They are beginning to treat it like opium, heroin, or alcohol — a habit that can tear up relationships, faith, honesty, marriages. I believe!
Here I am saying this, and yet at the very time I am saying this, I am thinking: “When I see a man, a lovely man without clothes — it’s like a blow to the gut.” It’s the same dumb passion I dealt with thirty years ago. I may get older, but lust never ages. It is the same fist crammed into the belly that it was the first time or the ninth time or the 6,778th time: a blow so strong and unstoppable that one reels in the wonder of its brutish, intellect-defeating power. Sex is a big pot of fat.
Wonderful put-down: “He had all the grace and utility of an Italian telephone.”
Another: “It smelled as nice as the air from a truck tire on a summer’s afternoon, in the desert.”
Sex is so weird; it is a river that runs through us, a great undammed river that pushes its eternal way through us, and we can deny it, mock it, laugh at it, pretend it does not exist, but we are wrong: it drives us, and those who are wise permit the river to flow, maybe try to guide it, channel it, but never ever deny its existence.
American train stations and movie theaters stole endlessly from the scale of European cathedrals. I even think they stole the movie marquee from the fifteenth-century Italian cathedrals — with their two-dimensional table of contents.
The function of the cathedral was one of stunning the poor peasant. To the farmers of northern Italy, southern France, Almeria, Guadalajara, the cathedrals with their great grave heights, and their pillars, and coolness and echoes were designed to contrast with the dirty, low-ceilinged, echoless, louse-infested, stinky hovels in which they lived. The cathedrals insured terminal humility, and of course the choir boys and priests appeared on holy days all in white, a white which our poor man of the village could never ever find in his black squalor.
The cathedral masters and the political masters were one and the same, and their massive buildings insured that the poor and peasant would stay out of trouble, avoiding revolutions and wars that were not specifically approved by the kings and the archbishops.
The cathedrals were — like the palaces — a symbol for the massiveness of man’s view of God. The Spanish had cathedral building down to the finest art, and they sprinkled their cathedrals throughout Mexico like pre-twentieth century McDonald’s. They were everywhere, and to the peasant coming in on burro, they were a source of huge wonder. None of the poor could resist this great cool majestic hulk and mass. It was a statement that the farmer and the paisano could never dispute, accomplished through architecture of the most possessive and brooding sort.
I sometimes wish that I could return, next time, as a pigeon — so I could harry tourists, fly up in front of cars, fuck in the streets, and shit on cathedrals and statues.
June 13 [Florence]
We were in the “13 Gobbi” restaurant last night (my dictionary says the word means “hunchbacks” — so I am trying to envision Thirteen Hunchbacks). It is a one-star Michelin restaurant — one fork-&-spoon. That means it’s a simple place. My style. Delicious.
Anyway, Sam’l is eating canelone and suppa, and I am having a fine stew. There is a couple at the table next to us, quite near to us. She’s a very thin, high-class American woman, talking endlessly, as Americans will, talking about what she had for lunch today, what she will have tomorrow, one of those low, breathy voices that we associate with the upper class, and she stops talking for a minute and farts, loudly. Sam’l and I start giggling. We can’t stop. It’s like being in the fifth grade, when you know you’re not supposed to laugh. Our faces get all pinched up, and I have to take off my glasses because they are steaming up, and I wipe my eyes, and stay all hunched over so they can’t see me, my shoulders shaking. I want her to think I have a cold or something, or that Sam’l and I are laughing over a private joke, any joke, but not her upper-class indiscretion. She pretends that it didn’t happen, talks to her companion about the weather, and the wonderful fact keeps sweeping over us, like waves, waves of mirth: she can’t control herself; no matter how upper class she is, no matter how archly she speaks, no matter how snotty she is to the hotel help, there are things she can’t run or control, no matter how much she wants.
Later, Sam’l said, “She played that chair perfectly. . . .”
June 16 [Rimini]
We make it to Rimini at 5:30. We are installed in Room 416 of the Grand Hotel Rimini. The room is a study: a mix of Louis XIV and late Baroque inlay furniture, gold with fuzzy blue puff-cushions. The floors are oak; the room overlooks the beaches of Rimini and about three dozen old geezers, geezing about on the capacious lawns of the Grand Hotel. Sam’l writes a letter to his sister, advising her to revolt against all authority. I read non-stop the last 100 pages of The Name of the Rose. I am so glad I brought it along. It is, on top of everything else, a fine mystery story in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, and I get to read the denouement (“So you killed everyone because. . . .” “Yes, but now you have to die too. . . .”). Then it’s time for supper.
And we find, as usual, by accident, the restaurant we came to Europe to find. Nine thousand miles for the essence of Italian seafood cookery. A tiny listing in Michelin:
[Crossed Fork-&-Spoon] Cavalieri Mare, via Flavio Gioie 5 Cucine di solo piatti di pesce.
No different in listing nor appearance from the fifty other restaurants we’ve tried. Small fluorescent sign outdoors; white and black tile floors; huge open eating area; six or seven dozen other patrons — all Italians (a good sign).
One doesn’t order food. They just start bringing the plates. Four cold plates — fish and shrimp filets in a variety of oil and garlic sauces. Eight hot plates, fish and shellfish, some I’ve never seen before (what’s that long one — looks like a bamboo shoot; and how do I open this tiny crab, cooked in cream sauce?). Some familiar: mussels in garlic, wine, butter; one totally unexpected — miniscule snails in a thin tomato sauce; snails which have to be plucked from their tiny caskets with a toothpick.
Then three pasta dishes: hard rice, hard macaroni, hard flat spaghetti, each in a special crab, meat, or vegetable sauce. Then, ice cream, mint, in tall glasses.
“Don’t be fooled,” I tell Sam’l. “This isn’t the last course.”
“I can’t eat any more.”
“You have to,” I tell him. “They’ll make you stay until you do. Why don’t we invite the chef to San Diego? To visit. He can stay at my place . . . do all the cooking. . . .”
“Suppose,” Sam’l says (we’re in a bit of hysteria with the stunning unexpected greatness of the meal), “suppose I went over to that lady, the one making the pasta — and kissed her. . . .” We are into our second bottle of wine, a thin, white, fine, heady Italian wine. The noise and laughter of the other diners is unbelievable. Shouting, laughing, yelling — that strange madness when people are eating a great and good and lovingly prepared meal, one which uses the high art of the kitchen. The mad laughter and drug of great food.
“It’s like some fine Chinese meal,” I say. “All these dishes coming, never a moment’s wait.” The waiters are fast and expert. They know at once when we are done. But it’s too much. I know we can’t handle the next course.
Our waiter is thin (how can he be so in this environment?), has a bit of the look of Charles Chaplin. When my napkin, which I’ve shoved into the top of my shirt, near the collar, comes to be dirty after several courses, he reaches down and strips it from around my neck and gives me a clean one. He does this three times.
At one point, we tell him we have to go home. He says we cannot. We demur — in fact, we beg him to let us go to our hotel. He begs us to stay, tells us we’ll love the next course. “We can’t do it,” I say. “It’s too good, we’re all full up.” At this point, he takes my hand in his, I swear, looks with his dark eyes deeply into my eyes, and tells me there is only one other course, and if I will just try a bit of it, please, and he’s gone and back in a trice, and it’s before us, six (count them) six different kinds of fish and shellfish: lightly, very lightly fried. I prepare to die.
Later at the hotel, in decadent room 416, which has a curtain between the sleeping room and the sitting room, Sam’l decides to dance for me. I swear, that meal has made us mad. He draws the curtains closed, and puts on The Thompson Twins:
“She lives In a big white house Twenty-four rooms . . . in a big white house. . . .”
Then he comes out from behind the curtains, reveals himself: cigarette in hand, black toreador shirt, green army pants, black ballet shoes afoot. He sways and moves and dances while I sip anis. I keep falling asleep, as delightful as it is.
“Aren’t you going to stay awake for the last act?” he says. I can smell the delicious heavy Italian cigarettes, see his sweat glistening on his face.
“You know how it is,” I murmur, snuggling down in the covers. “Jesus, Sam’l, I’m an old geeze, just geezing out. . . .” Later I wake to hear him barfing up our great seafood dinner in the arch marble bathroom. “Just like the Romans,” I murmur to myself. “Letting it all go so he can return and scarf down another ten courses. . . .”
The answers that most humans set up are so paltry. “O we are here because God wanted it so. . . .” Such dorky statements spite the staggering mystery, bury it under a lack of all art or feeling.
To travel together is to test a relationship. Sam’l and I are doing that — together all hours except when sleeping or the one to three hours daily when he walks the streets alone. Sam’l is so sunny and so sweet (and still somewhat shy) that our relationship wins hands down. I can ask him for my glasses or to fill the tub, and there is no question: he’ll do it willingly and well. Then, at the beginning of a new leg of our journey, in the morning, when it is time to pack, he will put each item so carefully in the suitcases — my Lilac Vegetal over here, the socks over there, the dirty clothes in the other bag, each item respectfully positioned, so that when we unload tonight, he’ll know where everything is, and will put my razor and after-shave and toothbrush and toothpaste just so on the shelf in the bathroom. It is a continuing testament to our integration that we work so well together, the gears of a long relationship (six years!) meshing together after all this time. . . .
It is at least once a day now, in my dotage, when I find myself staggered by the question: Me? Why me? Where did this me-ness come from? Who elected to put me here? I am me in this world, this mass called Lorenzo, or Self, or Ego, or My-perception-of-universe. Why? Who elected this thing — with two arms, and two legs, and head, and torso, and thoughts, to put me in, to put my questions in?
Who set this construct going? Why? I’ve been in this mystery called Self for fifty years — and I don’t seem to have any answer. Except that now, when I formulate the question, I sometimes feel such awe of the mystery that I feel like I am staggering backwards, into some great pit. Why?
The answers that most humans set up are so paltry. “O we are here because God wanted it so. . . .” Such dorky statements spite the staggering mystery, bury it under a lack of all art or feeling. Boobish statements of fantasy out of the mouths of arrogant Baptist ministers, thinking mostly of their pockets and their fat bellies.
I see people formulating their Biblical God so they can go on plodding, forcing others not to think or feel, forcing the young to go into war, killing other humans, murdering babes, whole families in the name of Jesus, destroying whole civilizations in the name of The Prince of Peace. How strange their blindness to their contradictions. How strange their blood-lust that forces them to destroy others in the name of the Sacred.
It is so simple. Killing is evil and wrong. Those who do it in the name of the Divine are doubly foolish, doubly cursed. The great religions of the world counsel us to turn inwards — and on the inside we will find a love that flows lava through us, burning down all foolishness, all cant. There can be no room for war and for killing in the hearts of honorable humans. It is the “fundamentalists” who would be the first to push the button to turn the Russians (and, consequently, ourselves) to ashes. They pretend to protect life in their anti-abortion rage, all the while rattling their sabres against “the forces of atheism.” They do not, will not, see the pledge to honor human life has to be a sacred pledge to protect all — babes in the womb in America, children in China, adults in Stalingrad, old men and women in Cuba, or Chad, or Czechoslovakia.
“At the risk of seeming foolish — let me say that all the revolutions of mankind are built on love.” So says Che. But I think it goes further: at the risk of seeming a fool, let me say that all hates, wars, needs, desires, perversions (all perversions!) of mankind are built on love — or on its absence. The more I study and read and think, the more I know we come to the world desperately hungry for love — that some of us are lucky, find enough of it; some of us are not. In that race for love that could never be found in mothers or fathers or aunts or uncles or schoolteachers, the psychotics and “leaders” and religious masters find it through politics or money or power, and they come to destroy so much in their twisted desire for what they never had. A lack of love formed Attila, Hitler, Stalin, Haig, Eichmann, Tojo; it is the force that drives men to astonishing cruelty; is unremitting and vicious in its consequence.
The villains assert their power through war and rapine. They lead us into dubious battle, cause us to murder the young, murder those too innocent to wonder what they are doing on the battlefield. After the bloodbaths (Stalingrad, Shiloh, Ypres), we elevate the generals, ignoring the ugliness of their works. We ignore the fact that their victories came about because of their lack of love. They build monuments to the Shermans and the Rommels and the Pattons, but they should be building monuments to the death of love that forced them into doing brutality for a living. They should be building horrible monuments with spaghetti arms and monster-mouths to Genghis Khan’s father, to Stalin’s grandmother, to Haig’s mother — those who never gave them enough love when they were young and sensitive and needed it so desperately. Hitler’s last statement was that he did what he did for his poor martyred suffering blue-eyed mother. What he did not say says it all.
June 21, 6 a.m. [Abano]
My mind was eager to keep me up last night: so it presented me with a triple feature review of my days. They say at the moment of death one sees all one’s acts in a single prospect. Nonsense. Only during insomnia could the facts of one’s existence be available for such exhaustive rechecking: every emotional debt, bill, payment gets run through the computer yet again. Every love, every hate, every slight, every caress is redelivered to (and from) the memory bank. Every adventure, every dull evening, every weekend alone — indeed, every previous insomnia attack. Every chance encounter, every dance, every game of golf (or poker, or stud, or Parcheesi) with every move outlined in exact detail.
Every outing, every bad trip, every journey (say, to Abano, Italy). Every old joke, every old despise, every old loathing, every Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Mother’s (and Father’s) Day. Every visit to every doctor (and every consequent attack of malady) is permitted yet another cursory reenactment.
In short, a night at the Abano Hotel, with the mosquitoes overhead (in case I might presume to drift off to sleep), with the aid and abetment of the venting and pumping machines down the airshaft going on and off at irregular intervals, pumping god knows what to where — along with the asthmatic, wheezing, coughing, spuming, hacking, hawking, old codger from next door who, with the occasional Rome Express down the street and the far-off sounds of nuclear testing by the Italian Military Attache to Abano — all serve to keep one’s mind on its tippy-toes, all night long, to keep the ravell’d sleeve of care intact until finally the sun lightens the bile-colored walls and the lemony ceiling with the orange juice carpet; at which one can arise and praise the gods for this gift called life and shuffle through another day with a satchel or two under the eyes and the aches in the joints and 200-300 yawns between now and nap-time — reminding one of a book which can and should (never) be written:
Beautiful Summer in Abano
June 25 [Venice]
I never knew, I never knew to ask, that Venice is crip nightmare. To go (for example) between the water taxi landing and the hotel involves seventeen steps up and seventeen steps down for each canal. When we arrived, innocent American that I am, I figured that there would be a way (somehow) that we could get to the hotel by car. Perish the thought. So Sam’l and I park the car, and I get in my first water taxi, journey up the Grand Canal. When we come to our landing, there is so much wash that the level of the dock and the boat keep moving against each other, rasping together, and I have visions of my tottering in the up-and-down, and getting my leg, which I have come to love and to cherish, smashed between boat and dock.
Jeremy says that Venice is not unlike “a four-hundred-year-old Disneyland.” I notice the characteristic smell of it is not fresh sea water, nor the dust of old buildings — but diesel fumes from all the boats. Sitting at an outdoor cafe next to the Grand Canal is about as healthy as putting a table on the Center City exchange of the San Diego Freeway.
Jeremy says that if you look at the buildings as you are going by on the Grand Canal, you can see water marks where all the first levels were flooded. But it’s no problem — “They can always use the bottom floors as garages.” What a pleasure to meet him here. My relationship with Jeremy is the definition of a friendship. We’ve been up and down, down and up, angry with each other, bemused, delighted with each other. What has happened is that we have mellowed into accepting devotion. We have memories and languages that go back a quarter-century. “O yeah,” I say, “remember that woman in Seattle, the one . . . you know, Phyllis or Suzy, or what was her name? Remember when she decided to go after me. O God she was big,” I’ll say. Man talk! Yet sometimes we’ll go for weeks without talking on the telephone, months without seeing each other. Still, he’s always there, like an arm or a leg. He’s here to study Italian radio and television, since it is not unlike American radio in 1926 when, as a result of the Zenith decision, anyone who wanted to could go on the air. The situation has been like that in Italy for the past several years because of some court macaroni (or Marconi) decision that said that anyone who wants to can start broadcasting.
Jeremy has bought a Sony, and finds that by putting the radio in my hotel room, in the upper corner, right next to the closet, canted at an eighty-seven degree angle, with the antenna pointed at my heart, we can hear “the KTAO of Venice” — a station playing Indian and American folk music. Jeremy is doing what he knows best: plumbing the aether for the multitude of signals available there. The music is there, in the air, for us to pick up, but most of us don’t have the vaguest idea how to squeeze the frequencies for the astounding variety of signals awaiting us. For example, Jeremy’s favorite short wave station comes out of Gabon: they play a wondrous variety of musics. And if you take the short wave receiver, and put it under the bed, hanging from the third spring from the left, with the antenna in a pot of ice water, and your left eye exactly two and a third feet from the dial, then you get Gabon loud and clear. If you are willing to put your ear on the floor, next to all the slutswool. You have to be willing to do that to hear radio, Jeremy style.
Venice is Venice. Convinced of its beauty. But there is no room for us here — what with the boatloads of tourists coming and going all day and all night. I have never seen a city so busy just being looked at. All its treasures, hung out there along the waterways, for viewing. If tourist stares could take an atomic inch off the facades of Saint Marks, every building would be denuded now, down to the fragile columns which support this fairyland.
They build monuments to the Shermans and the Rommels and the Pattons, but they should be building monuments to the death of love that forced them into doing brutality for a living.
A big black Venusian Dive-Bomber fly comes zapping in the hotel window while I’m taking a bath. They grow them big here, feeding off all that stuff in the canals. He knows exactly what he’s doing . . . buzzing my ear and my bathwater, threatening to fly in my nose, or my mouth — if I don’t shut it; humming about the room, bopping into the mirror, the pane, giving me a pain, making me wonder at the order of the gods: why should I, in that bathtub, in Venice, on the 19th of June, at 9:38 of a morning, have fly, into my room, a big, black, hairy and no doubt pestiferous fly (will he poison me? Doubt in Venice!). Why did those who elected that I should occupy this body in this life at this time choose to send this Hairy Bomber to me at this particular juncture of both our lives? Why? What is the logic, order, or disorder of it?
Sometimes I think that the Buddha slips back to earth to visit. Caring. Curious. There’s a lope-eared rabbit that comes into my yard in San Diego, and I am perfectly willing to believe a friendly brown moist-eyed rabbit is The Master. Checking me out, just to be sure I’ll slip him a carrot. But now I ask you: would the great Siddhartha come back as a fly? It just doesn’t parse — does it? — that he would return as a big hairy black glossy stinky fly, into the Hotel Londres, in Venice, while I am taking a bath; him trying to fly up my nose. Cese once wrote me about the flies in her apartment in Bishop:
“I’m having trouble with flies again. Summer has left us a dozen or so languid, loud old geezers buzzing drunkenly around the apartment, bumping into my face, falling on the floor and noisily spinning away their lives.
“You remember how appalled I was this summer with the awful number of flies I slaughtered. Thousands, and not a one of them wanted to die. I decided to extend amnesty to these old fellows. I read somewhere that they only live five days, anyway. After two weeks it was clear that I had been misinformed. So yesterday I zapped every one. In their sluggish state, it was ridiculously easy. Frankly, I was damned tired of sharing my space with them.
“Last night, I dreamed the punishment. I was alone on an earth barren of all animate life. Nothing moved but the wind. There was no sound, except for falling water. It would always be so.
“Except for a fly. And I loved it desperately, with that huge, upwelling sentiment that comes in dreams, knowing that it was all the life on earth, and that it could only live for a few days. I didn’t let it out of my sight, fed it choice tidbits, rejoiced in its touch, tried to let it know I loved it. As the tiny life faded, I put my ear next to it to catch the dying buzz. Then it was quiet, and I was alone.”
Someday I will write her and tell her about my friend Will. Just after I had gone bananas, I moved into an Arica community house in the Hillcrest area of San Diego. One of the people there was Will, who smoked enormous quantities of dope, worked as an electrician, and spent hours trying to keep the house — filled as it was with dingy quasi-mystics — reasonably orderly.
As a good Arican, Will would kill nothing. But the low-rent house we lived in had no screens, so our kitchen would attract large quantities of flies. Will would come into the kitchen, see them lollygagging about, getting fat on our soy-milk, yoghurt and bananas, and announce, “All right, you guys. It’s time for you to GET MOVING!”
Then he would open the back door, take two dishtowels, tuck one end into his collar, and the other into each of his hands, and he would move about the kitchen, waving his arms about like some giant cretaceous bird, saying, “OK, guys. Out. I said out, and I mean out!” Will, with the same physique as Ichabod Crane, dancing about the kitchen, shooing out the flies, until finally the kitchen was clear, and he would dismantle his wings, lay them aside until the next foray, go upstairs and smoke another joint. In the interim, the flies could start recongregating, gossiping about this large winged cousin of theirs who lived on Third Avenue and provided them with such entertainment day after day.
June 27 [Venice]
Sam’l is planning to return to Madrid today. And I’ll miss him. For the four weeks we’ve been together, he’s been a grand, thoughtful, caring travelling companion, who adores Spanish-speaking culture, as well as The Thompson Twins. He’s developed a political sensibility along with his excellent Spanish, and a wry sense of humor. Sometimes, if I feel low and brutish, he organizes me out of my blues. He looks so ruddy and bedimpled, one can’t help but be delighted just to be with him.
We take him out to the Venice airport. They always take some of your heart with them, don’t they — these kids. There he is, standing in the sunshine on the tarmac, in his muftis and military plus fours — his hair shorn in what we used to call crew-cut, except with the top flaring out. Each day, the upper stories of his cranium will sport a different color: sometimes chartreuse, other times burgundy or rose. He, like many of his contemporaries, has advanced the art of changing something of his physical self each day.
We’ve been together, day and night, the two of us, in the canals of Venice, the ditches of Veste le Gubbi, the vomitoriums of Alicante, the wind-blown hag-ridden streets of Almeria. I suppose he hasn’t changed much in a month, but my admiration of him has: therefore I hereby accord him the wit of Mercutio, the Grace of Hermes, and — when driving — the bravery of Hector.
Outside of egregious accidents or sickness, people don’t change much in four weeks, but our view of them does. We all remember the moment when one we trusted or loved does something putrid. Something awful, to fritz up the relationship. They might suddenly call the police, or lie, or get drunk and vicious. Somebody you’ve known and loved, but instantly the appearance changes: the face turns sallow, the pimples or wens you’ve never noticed before protrude, the clothing becomes fake and out-of-mode. The eyes get bugged, the teeth turn to look like the teeth of a ferret. The one you cared for so much is suddenly quite unbearable: emotionally, physically.
Sam’l is the other side of that. He gets more exquisite every day. After driving with me and my contrary directions for so long, and surviving brilliantly, I almost think he is ready for the ancient rite of Apotheosis. That’s why we are here at this smoggy airport, for soon he will be shooting off in a blaze heavenward, for Madrid. And how I will miss him! As I say, they always take a part of our hearts with them — the kids do.
I wonder how and why I ever travelled to Europe alone in 1960 and 1962 and 1965 and 1968. How unsure I was — not believing that anyone would want to travel with me. What you think is what you get. I become worthy to travel with because I decided, at last, that I am a worthy, a fit companion, especially compared to twenty years ago when I was convinced I was such a jerk. I had thought that if anyone got to know me, they would come away disappointed — so consequently, I didn’t want to let anyone down. Or worse: I figured that if someone liked me, there was something wrong with them. It’s all a matter of good breeding — we don’t want anyone around us to be bored, or uneasy. So we don’t let anyone know us.
I suppose I just didn’t know what I was looking for in the way of friends and companions back then. When I look at my high school and college days I see that I was an alien amidst people who would have and could have loved me dearly, if I had only shown them how. Since I didn’t, I was stuck with Merely Me. I look back over this sea of years, think of the Lorenzo, age 25. What a mystery I was . . . to me then, to me now. A reclusive, bitter, cold person — with great ability at distancing the self from those who could or would care. Not only did I not know how to ask, I didn’t know what to ask for. My self from back then is some scrawny oak on the shore of a tepid, slow-flowing, brown Florida river. My upper reaches are covered with Spanish moss. It was all a function of lying to the self. Getting into the shock of the mind’s real wants is what slows us down so. It has to pound us mercilessly, unceasingly, before we finally can say: “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that before?”
We can, I learned, cease to be victims of our own immense needs. We can come to guide the needs, be part of them, not have them as mystery, nor as enemy.
Sam’l and I were pure American in our travels. We drove a car on Spanish, French, and Italian freeways. We stayed in hotels, took baths once or twice a day, went (dutifully) to yet another museum, or another cathedral. We sent postcards, thought of our families and loves, and carried the portmanteaus of our agonies about with us. We did not surrender to our surroundings — except perhaps when drunk or asleep. Yet we both know that the only way to become a traveller is to immerse oneself in a strange culture and language and life — as I did twenty years ago, as he has done for the past months in Spain. Otherwise, we are just corks on a journey, floating within our own space, immune to the life of, say, Rimini or Alicante.
There is no sin in travelling like that: I will do so again, and so will he. But he and I can also leave our Americanisms behind when we choose to leave our friends behind. When we are together, we are the twins out of Gemini — and nothing of the countries we travel can penetrate.
He is doomed, for the nonce, to grieve over the loss of his lady friend. I am doubly doomed: to grieve over the Europe I left behind a quarter century ago; and to mourn the family I lost in my divorce. Everywhere we decide to go we will carry these and other griefs with us. It is only when we decide to Travel as Strangers — yielding completely to the country we’re in — that we will be free of the egregious bonds that make us a part of the America we have vowed to leave behind for three weeks, three months, three years.
As Americans, we are stuck on that point of self-determination. I am hard pressed to think of anything in the last two decades “just happening.” Because of that, my life has to be full of passionate pride, and equally passionate grief: I cause it all. With an assumed clear vision, I establish the world, day-to-day: the rules, the environment, the people I work under. I have created my life. And because I am as convinced that I am to praise (and to blame) for any and all things that happen to me, I am up against the rawness of life at every moment. Other people are there, but they more or less see me as I am, I see them as they are, and they and I will behave in a very predictable fashion. There aren’t that many surprises anymore. Not many — but when they come, they come as potent shocks.
Love is like malaria, I think. Once you get it, it never goes away — lays you low like some fever, recurring from time to time. To some, it’s pleasure; to the outsiders like me, it’s a disease.
Sam’l and I are both outsiders — by choice. He is a student — and that means he must be outside the ken. I am a cripple faggot writer who loathes cant — which means I must be obsessively a stranger to my country, to the place where I grew up, to the place in which I live.
And him: “You grew up in a house of silences,” I tell him.
Sam’l and I agreed that if we saw one more scenic bridge or Important Cathedral, we’d puke.
There is no release for the taught mind. . . .
The best way to make a business (or travelling) decision is quickly. This morning, in Venice, we were still debating, Jeremy and I, whether I would go on to Lake Como by train (I love Italian trains). I said that I was absolutely flat-out, tired of travelling. “I’m homesick,” meaning I miss my hot-tub, and my mail call each day (precious mail call), and my telephone calls. When one travels, one is only a tourist (mouth, legs, eyes, and stomach). At home, I am businessman and writer and check writer and master of all I survey.
So here I am in (they say) the most beautiful city in the western world — and I wanna go home. Jer and I make a deal: if I can get us lodging on Lake Como, then we’ll go there. If not — I’m heading back. I call the four Michelin listed hotels in Como. All full. So then I tell Jeremy that I’m taking the 11:00 flight to Rome — going on to New York City this afternoon. Pack in fifteen minutes. Take the taxi to the Plaza Roma. Regular taxi (car) to the airport. Buy — for 990,000 lira — a ticket. I’m on the plane to Rome. Arrive: find there’s a late NYC jet that I can just barely get onto. I’m aboard, and already I am an American again. So quick and so right. This morning: Venice. Tonight: Jamaica (New York).