(Written for LN James on the occasion of her birthday.)
You look at me as if you love me, but I know you do not.
In Sorrento, the first words of the book—her book—come back to haunt her. Not unlike the clouds that roll over the distant Vesuvius.
Francesca sips an Americano, watches another fat, happy cirrus cloud float ever closer to the volcano, and wonders if that was not what she was doing all along, in writing the book—obscuring the obvious, clouding over a dormant and distant empty wound.
In the hotel balcony overlooking the cliffs, Carlo, her publisher, rushes up the lobby steps with unexpected, joyous vigor, in his hands the book —fresh out of the battered brown envelope decorated with colorful rows of stamps, not unlike a weary wartime general arriving with news of impending victory. Greedily he had opened the package first and now, as he sits opposite her, he opens the book and almost immediately breaks its spine with the gentle reverence of a priest sacrificing a bull to Apis.
She knows about Apis now, had read those mythology books that she had inherited—or plundered, as some of the less tactless estate executors had implied. You said I could take as many books as I wanted. I wanted them all. I took everything. I took them because they meant everything to you and I thought if I owned them I would own you the way you owned me—but I was a possession you never intended to buy. I thought then I would mean something to you, more than a lengthy, comforting footnote. I have low expectations.
Carlo smirks in his wily old man fashion. “Ah, Francesca,” he coos. “If I cannot make love to you, I will make love to your book.” He is a book man to his bones and his attentions, more fickle than those of any woman he ridicules, now focus on the book: the splendid font that indelibly anchors her words with their preening serifs—he chose it himself, Bembo of course, that venerable type first created for a Venetian printer—the thickly luxurious paper sibilant and alive against his dry fingertips, like the dress of a beautiful woman that begs for removal. In the end he praises not her, but her words: “Even in English, it is perfect. That first sentence, always—there is an undertow to it, like in the sea. It seduces and warns all at once. It—” He stops, shakes his head, looks at her. His mocking lust is gone, and with solemn, fatherly pride he hands the book to her.
She is 32 years old. One year short of crucifixion, as Carlo had said recently.
The town does not smell of lemons, as he had had promised. Instead the scents of beer, money, tourists, escape, destination, the sea—real and imagined, pungent and ethereal—crosshatched the air’s dense, humid weave. She is a tourist in her own country, a fair-haired northerner to be mistrusted, as foreign to them as an American; her accent, a Venetian’s cold and calculating tongue, bewilders them. It does not stop them from looking at her, as both an affluent mark and an object of desire.
But whenever she goes on walks away from the town—following the gradual ascent of the main road that lifts into the hills, into a winding pilgrimage to the cliffs, the moneyed hotels, the remote villas—there, with the sun warm along her bare shoulders, she takes pleasure in the smell of the olives, silvery green and hard, easily within reach.
She thought that once the book was finished, printed, bound, and out into the world, it would be done. Here, in Sorrento, she wants to become another woman.
In Mykonos, you said, you became another woman. The sea made you wild, your hair was loose and rough from so much swimming, your body tighter. Your lover, who had fallen into complaisance, wanted you as much as she did when she first laid eyes upon you.
In the Piazza Tasso she sits, mimicking the life she normally leads: Sitting alone in a café with a book—this time her book—under a golden awning, surrounded by local men arguing, playing chess, reading newspapers, slurping soups and cappuccinos, trying, always trying, to claim her attention. Only the sun’s memento-mori caress is different; after so many days her shoulders finally loosen under its blazing constancy. She tries to pretend that she is reading the book she wrote for the first time. In a manner, she is—this is the first time she has read it in English, and under the shimmering Sorrento sun.
It’s when she looks up that she notices the woman, or at least, aspects of her: a lovely neck craning, a serious face parallel with her pages, tendrils of espresso-colored hair touching the edge of the book with an odd, proprietary intimacy.
Their eyes meet. The woman offers a broad, sheepish grin and the one word known to all tourists: “Scusi.”
“It’s okay,” Francesca replies softly. In English.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book—well, anything, in English.” She sits at the empty table next to Francesca.
“Perhaps it’s been a while since you have spoken English?”
“That too.” The woman laughs nervously before her face falls in comic shock. “God, do I sound that bad?”
This confession and its subsequent horror unleashes the floodgates; the cappuccino Francesca buys her no doubt aids and abets the English tide. Francesca discovers that the woman—American, of course—has been traveling the continent for nearly a month now and, having lost her traveling companion to an infatuation with a boy in Prague, alone for over a week.
“Maybe I need an infatuation of my own,” she muses quietly, and gazes into the now-empty cup as if the rich black grounds and milky dregs serve the same oracle-like function as tea leaves.
“An infatuation?” A smile threatens to break Francesca’s reserve; only momentarily she fights the persuasive pull of her facial muscles, before surrendering to the flush of amusement, of pleasure.
“Yeah. Sounds very quaint, very Henry James, doesn’t it?” She pauses and looks at Francesca intently, with genuine curiosity. “Have you read any Henry James?” The question lacked the usual American imperviousness.
Which pleased Francesca. “Yes.”
“I’m being practically Victorian. An affair, if you prefer.” A blush darkens her tan. The tiny table she’s sitting at is dominated not by food or drink but a frighteningly large canvas bag brimming with sunglasses and maps, sun lotion and a bottle of iced tea, a book and a sweater. Her tanned thighs press into the metal frame of the chair. She seems one of those impetuous types, the one who scrambles to jump on the bus at the last second and only then gazes at the map to realize oh shit, I’m heading the wrong way. She is curious about every little thing in this sad tourist town, even the dreary little museum that Francesca could not bear to enter, even on a boring rainy morning—in fact, so bountiful and infectious is her enthusiasm that Francesca is not entirely surprised that the woman has utterly, completely convinced her that they must see the museum immediately.
Fortunately, it is open. At least the guard decides to amuse them and opens the door.
On the third floor of the Museum Correale di Terranova —they had decided to work their way down from the top floor—they walk gingerly among porcelain and majolica, a dance of dullness to Francesca, who thinks of the grandmotherly collection of knick-knacks she had inherited from Sofia and that now sit in a box in her dusty Venetian flat, but the American woman scrutinizes nearly every piece with the solemnity of the museum-going tourist. On the second floor they make fun of the Rubens paintings and the woman tantalizes with crumbs of information: “Sometimes my ex would tell me I was Rubenesque—I was bigger then, I grant you, but I swear I wanted to kill him every goddamned time.” And Francesca decides that perhaps the artist was trying—and failing spectacularly—to capture the beauty of someone not unlike the woman who was standing next to her.
On the ground floor they look at a death mask of Tasso the poet, and Francesca’s skin goosebumps with delight when the woman’s knuckles brush her forearm, even though ostensibly the caress was meant to direct Francesca’s attention toward one of Tasso’s handwritten manuscripts—predictably, her gaze falls on lines of provocation: And now he sees a woman's face arise / and now her breasts and nipples, and below / where modest eyes would be ashamed to go. / So would a goddess or a nymph arise / from the stage in the theater at night.
On the way out they look at archaeological artifacts, both Greek and Roman in origin, and Francesca confesses that she once loved someone who would have loved this—both the artifacts and the manuscripts, the past alive in things and words. This she confesses, and not that she has written an entire book centering around that certain someone. Not to mention her former occupation. Nor that said book has been banned by the Vatican—a sure guarantee of success that had thrilled Carlo. No, that would be skipping too far ahead in the plot.
“Someone?” The woman’s lips pucker playfully, mocking this attempt at gender neutrality.
The game is on. It has taken Francesca a long time to adjust to this: Sex not as a business negotiation, not as a bargaining chip with someone—yes, someone, yes you, Melinda—with whom she wanted so much more, but sex as pleasure, pursuit, acquisition.
“A woman. Much older than I.”
“Ah.” In one agonizing syllable she leaves Francesca hanging as she walks away, her index finger performing evenly spaced arabesques along the metal edge of a vitrine case. But when Francesca catches up to her—with a perfectly formed, lighthearted retort at the ready to put the woman at ease, and in English so disarmingly smooth because she had spent months and years perfecting it to please someone incapable of love, to mirror her beloved’s flawless Italian and flawless fucking—the woman’s smile is, this time, quick and shy: “So we’re on the same page then?”
“Oh, yes.” Francesca pauses, disquieted at her lack of self-possession, evident in this breathless oh-yes. The book of disquiet. Which she had never finished. The book of breathlessness. This she was about to begin. She imagines the pages of her own book fluttering, marking the passage of time: A girl, a whore, a woman in love, a notorious writer. Now this—a tourist in her own country, wondering about the many shaded meanings glimpsed in the smiles of one American woman. What page was she on, really?
Outside, the disorienting sun burns away the musty aura of the museum. “I’ll buy you a drink,” the woman says, as she slips behind the mask of her sunglasses. “To thank you for playing tour guide. Or tour follower, as the case may be.”
“And what else?”
Francesca presses her advantage. She feels blood beating through her veins. Or perhaps it is just the sun pounding down relentlessly on her bare head. “And what else?”
They stop meandering through the piazza.
An appraisal takes place behind the dark sunglasses—if Francesca learned nothing else from years of being a whore, she knew that calculated look of desire held in check. “You know, before I left for this trip, my friends who had been abroad warned me about how pushy and charming Italian men were.”
“And my friends would assure you that, in comparison to them, I am as decorous as the mother of God.”
“Why didn’t you just say the madonna?”
“I did not want you to think of that terrible singer.”
They walk again, this time with a heightened sense of purpose.
There are no good trattorias in Sorrento; there is, however, enough wine to make one forget lumpy gnocchi and oily sauces. After that, after all the drinks that framed the flirtatious discourse in a bar that alternately blared disco music and a Manchester United game, Francesca pulls her into the dank, desolate bathroom and kisses her. Sorrento finally, begrudgingly unravels in their kiss, in the overpowering taste of limoncello—lemons sweet and strong, right there in this stranger’s mouth, caught in the gossamer of alcohol fumes, the scent coexisting in the dark fine netting of her hair and the nape of her neck, in the tantalizing descent to her breasts.
Her hands fill themselves with flesh, every desperate motion dictated by the treacherous curves of hips and thighs. Desire again, she thinks. An undertow that seduces and warns.
The woman breaks the kiss. “Can we get out of here?”
Francesca laughs nervously, presses her flushed face against the woman’s shoulder—as firmly unyielding and tempting as an underripe peach, so much so that she bites into it, then feels a burst of movement along her hands. “No,” she murmurs into broken skin. “Yes.”
“Indecisive, aren’t you? If I wanted to do this in a bathroom stall, I never would have left Newark Airport.”
“So who is waiting for you at this Newark Airport?”
She laughs. “No one.”
“Why did you come here?”
“I don’t know. The usual reasons—I needed a break from my life, I wanted to not be myself for a while. The usual reasons people run away on sudden vacations. I guess that’s all a way of saying I don’t know.” Again, that beautiful grin. “But aren’t you glad I did?”
In the dark of Francesca’s hotel room the romantic view of the cliffs is a mirage, a blackened monolith only hinted at in distant, distinct moonlit etchings—like a nocturne that the artist abandoned in favor of the warming flames of absinthe. The perfect backstage for Tasso’s theater at night. No nymph or goddess arises, however—just a woman, and for Francesca that is more than satisfactory.
Desperation, typically not a quality never worth seeking, takes on a different aspect in bed—that of distinct, heightened advantage: She fucks as if there’s no tomorrow, as if daylight will not arrive, and welcomes every kiss and touch and fumbling entry, every thrust into her body that threatens to break her, but doesn’t. It only makes her wetter, open and aching for that long-awaited moment when the woman presses her face between Francesca’s legs, inhaling the salt of the sea, drawing her in and devouring her. In Sorrento, she becomes another woman.
In the morning Francesca awakens to find the woman still there, sitting naked and cross-legged upon the bed, nibbling at a thumbnail and reading her book. She greets Francesca with a sly ghost of a smile that, Francesca hopes, encompasses desire and affection, perhaps even expectation.
The ghosts will be there, always, in every woman. Francesca returns the smile.
“Tell me your name,” she says.