Absence transforms experience and memory. He thinks of her often because he cannot find her. She does not respond to his texts, phone calls, or emails. But it is neither an old catastrophe nor a new one. It is a longing. Not exactly. It is a longing mixed with desire.
He is a poet and teacher. Admires architecture. Both preoccupations are gestures towards shaping and constructing the found world. He is moved by words and shapes and the spaces in between. The relationship of images to tone and meaning, poetry; the relationship of structured space to its environment and purpose, architecture. Light and colour in both worlds.
He is puzzled by her abrupt departure and disappearance. He thinks back to the last time he saw her, almost a full year ago. He had returned from Europe with a small gift, but what was it? A small, beaded bracelet? How did she receive this gift? Happy? Indifferent? Bored? Delighted? He thinks if he can recall the moment, he gave her the gift and her response he will ‘see’ a clue to her disappearance. The moment of exchange, a revelation; a glimpse of how distant she had travelled away from him.
He remembers her asking him to look at the half- finished nude on its easel; he liked the hip curved like a small hill, the lemon shaped breasts, the grey/blue eyes merry, the mouth full of self-delight; the slight bulge of Angelina’s stomach under her belly button.
He did not expect Angelina to be thin as a lily – like Durrell’s Clea beside the white curtains at dawn.
Angelina is physically the opposite of her. She is round, full-hipped; a Renoir nude made flesh, minus the gauzy light and pretty face. Her face is both pretty and a mask; concealing an untouched pool of reserve that no-one is allowed to enter.
Angelina’s face reminds him of Botticelli’s muse, Simonetta Vespucci: long neck, aristocratic nose, balanced, delicate cheeks and chin, long flowing brown hair streaked with gold.
Angelina’s beautiful face surprises him; it resembles The Birth of Venus. He says nothing to her.
She mentions a thyroid condition by way of explaining her current Baroque physical shape. When asked what she remembers she tells the doctor she accepts the material conditions and necessities of the world. This means she respects money, beautiful watches, expensive hair-colour, pleasure, the view from her balcony. Her spirit, her emotions, she keeps private. Perhaps this is why it is difficult for her now to recall her past. She is a private, pragmatic, painter. A realist about colour, light, rare beauty. She knows perfectly well ideal beauty can only exist in poems and paintings.
She opposes the sly intellectualism of abstract art, the witty metaphors of mixed media, the blurring of the line between performance art – a type of pose like all art, she thinks – and static painting. The self-conscious rhetoric of most contemporary painting pretentious, stilted, and bland. She does not see any of these artistic gestures as heroic, political, or existential.
She remembers liking her and Angelina being watched. At least that was sexy.
“Does anything I tell you help?” she asks. Her thoughts wander.
To live without memory is madness, to be disconnected from your past, rootless. How can you have a future if you do not know your past? Who am I? What is my place? Spiritual questions. The search constantly changing under her feet.
She repeats: “Who am I? What is my place?” Unlike the questions, answers are never permanent. She becomes expansive: “Understanding our origins in the cosmos gives life a home address. It’s both feeling and a thought. The Ancient Greeks understood the need to centre themselves in the world.”
Paris is a feeling, thought, and a view. Architecture’s desire made visible. It is the reason she is here.
She remembers a line from Neruda: ‘how terrible and brief my desire was to you’. She was never able to say this to him before she left.
She knows there was a car accident.
He returns again and again to the practical world and its pragmatic demands, constructions, necessities, its manufactured rules to escape the flux of time, to order chaos like a thoughtful novelist or historian, both of whom insist on the separation between dream and wakeful reality. So unlike the poet (and he is a dreaming poet at night and an alert façade during the day) who finds truth in dream, light, wind, and the muted soft contours of night, the light from streetlamps on a dark wet street, or pure blue white snow at midnight, the sound of his boots on the snow like the drumming of male cicadas in the terraced olive trees on a hot afternoon outside a remote village in Calabria.
The practical world is a job in an obscene and dishonest environment fit to be part of any tribunal chaired by Stalin. He loathes the petty authority that the vast majority of his colleagues exert over their students. He plays along with the duplicity of the regime and hates himself.
Dr. Henka (Stalin) is a sly, duplicitous tyrant, amused to discover and find fault, to bully and abuse staff; he and his follow henchwomen, Madeline Ionian, and Kristy Paulson (Beria) are ruthless and ever on the alert in their pursuit of disloyal staff, dissenters, those who dare to see and to disagree with the distorted goals of the administration. Each of them motivated by their own dysfunction, their wounded childhoods. Their followers or loyalists are complacent and self-serving boot-lickers, eager to believe in the siren call of false virtue, to deflect observation from themselves and to betray a fellow teacher to curry favour.
He puts on ‘a face to meet their faces’. Poetry does not have power for them, the erotic is to be feared regardless how it often must be re-corked and dismissed from their dull, petty lives –spirits dry and remote and as a barren moon landscape.
The sky today is wide, blue and spotless; to the south pale white. The found world and its tyrants tedious and banal. The sky in contrast opens and follows the script the winter sun writes; the pale white light creates a man’s grey shadow on a fence; it follows him as he walks. Still solitary empty trees hold the vastness of nothing but sky.
He lives in a part of the city where the sky above him makes the day feel transparent. It makes him think he misapprehended something about her, makes his thoughts about her starker and bewildering in the clear morning light.
He knows she went to Europe to visit specific architecture: the egg-shaped ‘Gherkin’ in London; the twisted wave-like sheets of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; the Église de la Madeleine in Paris, built like an Ancient Greek temple; the gothic Cathedral of Barcelona. Intimate spaces, she proclaimed to him in the bath, imitating the mystery of the womb. “See?” she said, and held his wrist to pause his hand from gliding the razor any further down the curved slope of her half-glinting, soaped labia majora. “My Lady of the Holy Grotto,” and then, with a hand on each side of her vulva, opened her purse.
“Caves, grottos, church nave, vagina: all share the same mystery.”
She told him she wanted the view of the white Parthenon on the Acropolis hill in the elegiac smoggy Athenian evening light: “An ancient sigh made stone on the lips of the evening,” she exclaimed. She admires the Ancients who dared to dream beyond flesh and blood.
Then she dramatically stood up in the bath, arms up over her head – water and soap dripping – and tied her wet hair in a makeshift bun, then placed one foot in front of the other and pressed her left and right hand on each side of her thigh, lips pursed shut. “Ta-da! One of the maiden caryatids from the Erechtheion.”
Their lovemaking that afternoon resembled one of the many random fountains in Rome. After, an empty street in a small town in Calabria, the religious procession over except for the mute voices of female parishioners, distant and vague, singing Ave Maria.
It is the third time he has returned to her apartment. His scans the living room from the hallway. Nothing has changed. The dark navy-blue couch (it matches her wool coat) with gold trim, sits stoic and firm, nautical. How many times had he knelt in front of her as her supplicant? She sat waiting for him on the couch, legs open, ready for him to worship. His mouth inhaled her; he spelled his name with his tongue and she eventually sighed, head back, one hand pushing down and sinking into the couch, the other hand holding his head.
“I taste like the ancient Mediterranean, don’t I, Babe?” she murmured.
The half-finished nude of Angelina is sitting exactly as he last saw it on the easel. He had deliberately set a corner of the painting on a slight angle to see if perhaps an unknown lover or even Angelina herself had entered her apartment and unconsciously adjusted the painting.
A thin layer of white grey dust has settled on the coffee table, the bookshelf, the two small end tables. The refrigerator is empty except for the chilled and foggy remains of a Pinot Grigio. The espresso maker still gleams from its last cleaning before she left. The towels in the bathroom hang evenly spaced and untouched. He walks across the small hallway into her bedroom. He remembers the countless times she led him to the bed from the couch holding his hard, extended cock, pausing every few steps to throw her arm around his neck and pull him towards her open mouth, one leg half wrapped around his calves. His hand fell onto her mons, then she lifted herself on to his palm then pushing down on his two fingers as they parted her warm lips, his fingers now enveloped by her wet, soft interior. The pulse of her urgency ran into him, eliminating all thought to a white blue current under his skin.
He opens her top dresser. On one side of the drawer are two rows of neatly rolled panties in various colours: pink, black, blue, red, teal, blue-and-white polka dots, each rolled pair the shape and size of a medium-sized egg roll. On the other side of the drawer a half dozen bras, one cup neatly placed inside the other. Some are trimmed with fine lace, some a plain black or red, a few are gauzy and transparent, and he recalls his surprise the first time he saw the gauzy bras with the tiny red flowers. He touches her underclothes but does not bother to try and catch her intimate scent – he knows that they are clean and smell of scented laundry soap – nor does he wish to disorder the neat rows of her underwear which she has arranged with such obvious care
Instead, he goes to her open closet and pulls out one of her many black turtle neck sweaters to his face and is rewarded by seeing, feeling her naked frame: small narrow shoulders, her curves midway down her body, the plush soft curved buttocks. Her legs extend in his mind’s eye; he follows their line towards the rise and fall of her small calves, then her narrow ankles.
Her scent is a strange, faded, delicate, sexy perfume: arid, sour, an almost bitter smell of dried sweat mingling with her natural body-odour-tangy, subtle scents – salt, earthy mushrooms and ginger – and her favourite light floral lemon perfume. His is reminded of Eliot, ‘…mixing memory with desire’ and catches himself being analytical and detached, yet curious about his memory of her body. He spots her light grey bag with a white drawstring tossed into the corner of the closet beside a pair of black evening high heels, straps dangling, as if abandoned. He looks inside and notices the Hitachi Magic Wand he ordered for her is missing. The red double dildo is still in the bag and so are the several silver egg-shaped vibrators that she was fond of using over the phone with him at the oddest hours. He remembers they both delighted in erotically surprising each other.
Her disappearance puzzles him. He also knows he is not supposed to know she disappeared, or at the very least, not know if and when she returned from her European tour. She wanted to go alone to repair, rearrange, and recover some part of herself. The art project she created for herself was part of the process. They agreed to break off their ‘relationship’ (a word they both hated). Their ‘connection’ is what she preferred to call it, a neo-umbilical cord. He did not expect her to disappear. He thought, if it was to end, it would be his choice. He felt her need for him, allowing and wanting him to pour himself into her, to push her limits and, by extension, her body. She gave herself to him freely, but the reserve in her, the small island only she inhabited, now seemed a continent.
He thought he chose, and in turn guided, their exploration of the lineaments of pleasure. He sensed her need to be possessed, her need to have her body exposed. Her legs pinned back over her shoulders, her centre open. He entered her slowly, paused, pushed deeper. Paused. His cock slid to the very end, pressing and pushing her to open even more. He kissed her lips, her eyelids, her neck and then thrusted and thrusted so that she felt herself rolling and falling, wave falling over wave, far from shore, her clitoris firm and hard, pinched and pressed against his rigid cock, labia lips swollen. He moved inside her, steady like a metronome; the restless voice in her head gone and replaced by her body’s remarkable energy and pleasure. He could feel her desire running through him, connecting them. They caught each other’s rhythm, living in a magic cell of their own creation.
His mind is not always able to recover all he learned and knows about her, but his body has not forgotten; it stirs and flickers as he gazes one last time over her bedroom, a copy of Pablo Neruda’s collected poems on the night-table beside the digital clock which counts the hours and minutes she has been away.
He opens the book and reads a few lines at random from the poem Lone Gentleman:
‘Fat and thin and happy and sad couples;
Under the elegant coconut palms near the ocean and moon
There is a continual life of pants and panties
A hum from the fondling of silk stockings’
He smiles. Lust is finite. But in Neruda it always feels infinite, his poetic spirit an elegant embrace. He steals images from nature: rocks, flowers, bees, mud, fruit; movement: wind, rain rivers and the colours of sky, light, clouds – the quick erotic movement of life itself – and transforms everything and incorporates it all into his poetry. In his poems the real becomes lyrical.
Neruda’s poetry, his politics and his friendships all combine, flow, and contribute to each other to form a seamless life of art, passionate love, and high-minded, progressive beliefs. How unlike his own life, which at times resembles a series of mad zigzag motions done by an unreliable sewing machine, constantly stitching together disparate cloths of experience.
Neruda met and knew most of the fêted poets and writers of South America: poets such as Vallejo, Mistral, Huidobro, and the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In Europe, he chummed around with the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca before his unexpected murder during the Spanish Civil War; in Paris he was close friends with the French poet Paul Éluard. His politics –always the good fight for the poor miners of Northern Chile – or helping refugees who were fleeing from Franco.
He, on the other hand, feels isolated from the writing community (any community for that matter), an urban Pessoa minus his heteronyms, and wide hat and raincoat, and the foggy rainy Lisbon winters, walking up, down and through the winding streets of a once magnificent city.
The problem with love is that it is never complete, it never ends and, if it does end, it’s usually badly, transforming itself many years later into a sigh of what it could have been, what it was, and what it will never be. Why, he wonders, does this make him angry?
He remembers the first thing he saw when he entered her bedroom: she is smiling, face resting on her folded hands, black curly hair to one side fallen like a frozen waterfall. She is kneeling, spine bent and ass up. Her back slopes and forms an arch raising her perfectly shaped ass cheeks into the air, her glossy lips and teeth catching the light.
He drove from Varapodio to Sant’Eufemina d’Asperomonte to collect her from her aunt’s home where she had dinner the night before. From there the two of them drove down the coastal road to Villa San Giovanni and then caught the ferry to Messina. Out of modesty perhaps, and as a nod to her aunt’s disapproval of married women travelling on their own, she had introduced him as her driver.
Varapodio is a small Calabrian village but spread out like a town on a plateau above the thousand-year-old olive groves growing on the flat plane of Gioa below. During the day both the people and the few cars out and about move at what seems to be a pecking hen’s speed and curiosity. At night the streets are empty and silent, suggesting a calm existential dread or that something forlorn and unexpected could happen at any moment.
But it never does, except for one evening…
Most of the time they walk about late into the night enveloped by the quiet banality and stillness of small-town Calabria, dark broken by eerie yellow street light.
She had decided to stay and rest in Varapodio after working tirelessly in Rome on a documentary about the baroque churches of Rome.
The road to Sant’Eufemina twists, turns, and curves and cuts through low pastures and groves outside the town, past green prickly pears (Fica d’India) – cacti plants as wide as beaver tails growing dense and thick above the road embankments. The road rises and falls, unfolds following hills and mountain sides; gorges filled with wild tall thin white-barked trees and terraced olive hills on one side of the road and the rock solid wall of mountain on the other. It all feels like he is following a carelessly dropped unspooled grey ribbon of asphalt.
He kept trying to see the road and both the wild and ordered landscape through the eyes of the Barista. It invites a natural comparison to the Barista’s sexual spirit.
She had arranged a ménage à trois with the Barista from Dolce Peccato di Gola (the sweet sin of gluttony) café and pastry shop. Their dull quiet evenings turned into one night of adventure.
The Barista had hidden her good looks behind a pair of round plain black glasses slightly titled mid-way on her nose. She wore a simple black T-shirt and jeans covered by a long white apron tied at the back with the name of the café stitched in green just above her left breast. She was bra-less but nevertheless her breasts pressed out against both apron and T-shirt, showing the outline of her small pea-shaped nipples. The Barista had given both of them nervous infectious smiles.
They discussed her appearance causally in English – her lovely large brown eyes, small chin, neat and compact cheeks, slender body, her firm breasts. They found her pretty and noted how she seemed to invite their attention so early in the morning as they took in her looks over the edges of their foamy cappuccinos and small bites of brioche.
He returned from his dull evening walk to find both her and the Barista in bed, a faint post-coital glow on their cheeks, lips moist, and a calm matter of fact atmosphere. The Barista threw back the bedcovers and opened her legs wide holding them up by her ankles. “My bella fica wants you, too,” she exclaimed, and both women giggled. He suddenly realized she understood English but kept his surprise to himself. He was not sure if he was able to contain and hide his first two surprises. He undressed with his eye on them and lay on the bed.
With well-versed experience she placed her mouth on his cock and, although this was nothing out of the ordinary, her soft moans as she sucked were new. The Barista had skipped and bounced quickly to be positioned behind her. He could see the edges of the Barista’s fingers on both sides of her ass cheeks spreading her open, head bobbing in a steady, furious beat. He soon felt the need to come. He placed his fingers on her cheek and gently pushed her off his cock. Her mouth disengaged and buried itself just under his testicles, ass still up high, sex pushed open, the Barista’s mouth behind her slurping and sucking.
She lost herself in the moment, gasping for air like a marathon runner, rocking back and forth on the Barista’s face, exerting herself forward to the finish line, her hot breath on his perineum.
He signalled and they exchanged places.
She kept her position on all fours, legs apart. The Barista was now on her back, thighs fallen to each side. She planted her face on the Barista’s glistening middle. Her tongue circled round and round and round the white-pearled clit ring on the hood above the Barista’s clitoris. The Barista hissed with pleasure.
He entered her and pushed deep in two quick swift thrusts – she was so wet and slippery – and began to move his hips slow and gentle, transfixed by the beautiful spectacle of her tongue pressed and moving up and down on the Barista’s cunt, one slow centimetre at a time. She reached the Barista’s clit and puckered her lips over the fleshy hood. She began to suck there as if she were sucking on a straw. The Barista squirmed with pleasure and threw her head back, both hands gripping the sheets. She stopped and in one quick motion ran her nose through the Barista’s slit – “to remember you darling,” she said – and started to lick the Barista’s open lips again, her tongue probing and plunging at random into the Barista’s hole.
He came, one large blast of sperm followed by another, but he managed to pull out and drip a few large drops of semen on her anus. He rubbed the white transparent sperm gently around the edges of her hole and then pushed his thumb into her. She rocked back and forth on his thumb and continued licking and sucking the Barista for what seemed an eternity until the Barista finally announced the arrival of her orgasm in one long, low groan.
The Barista touched her forehead. She fell to the side and put her arm around the Barista’s waist. She lay still her one knee up offering a view of her sex half open, some of his sperm dribbling out. The Barista slid down and licked the sperm off the edges of her labia; she continued until she came in a series of sighs that sounded like sobs.
One morning he found her standing alert and still on her toes leaning forward on the balcony looking at something below. She was wearing his blue stripped button down Oxford shirt, end of the shirt falling past the end of her buttocks. She felt his presence and turned around. Half of her curved slack breasts, nipples discreet and modest behind the unbuttoned shirt, edges of her dark aureoles, greeted him. Small white space between her breasts. Light in the corner eastern sky. A smile on both pairs of lips.
The arrival of the Covid 19 pandemic disrupts his search for her and forces him back on his memory, circling and shifting through images and dates. He returns to old conversations, picks at incidentals of what they said. He tries to recall some of the people they met fleetingly at parties, or restaurants, in a hotel lobby, at several artistic themed fund-raisers, or accidently on a Saturday afternoon out buying groceries. Most of the time he did not pay much attention to her vast tableaux of friendships and acquaintances, found, connected, or lost, They all seemed secondary to him he thought even unauthentic.
Now he thinks there might be someone in her cluttered and varied artistic world who can offer him a clue to what happened to her, tell him of some destination she planned to visit, or perhaps she mentioned (as she was wont to do) a romantic notion of looking up an old lover somewhere in Eastern Europe, Vienna, or Prague. He thinks almost anything is possible and reflects such a thought is a sign of his confusion and desperation of finding her. Maybe if he was able to find someone from her crowd, they could help him track down Angelina.
His memory drifts to Le Select in Paris. He was there one night for a drink after dinner at the Café de la Rotonde, just around the corner from Le Select.
On his right beside the bistro windows was seated a stylish bohemian looking woman. Scarf causal on her neck, dark pea-jacket on her shoulders, long black boots and jeans. Long thick brown hair with a wave or two on her shoulders She was about thirty-five and at ease with her male companion. She smiled often. He was older, wore dress pants and dark jacket, clean well- polished shoes. He wore his hair long for an older man of around fifty and it was greying on the side; his look suggested a former rebel artist settling into bourgeois comfort. She looked at him in a curious, warm, intellectual way: perhaps because as a young girl she was once madly in love with a poet, he thought. For his part, the older man seemed delighted to be seated across from a pretty conversationalist and listener. However, what caught his attention was how pleased they seemed in each other’s company despite the obvious age difference; how they seemed to accept each other in a plain, matter-of-fact way. Inside their mutually relaxed comportment and frankness was freedom.
He paid the abrupt and fussy waiter and left on foot, finally arrived at Place Saint-Michel, the scene of his first view of Paris many years ago as a young man after arriving at the Gare du Nord. It was his memory’s way of looking for his younger self, trying to reconnect his older self to a younger version of himself.
He recalled the couple and their casual curiosity and interest in each other without pretence but perhaps with a smidgen of mystery.
He remembered that as a young man everything was either worship and passion or pity and understanding, two opposite poles that led him to either embrace or dismiss the women he met, ideas, books and art. It also led to disaster, especially when his passion was twined with some kind of sad-eyed pity for a woman. It was the opposite of what he had seen in Le Select.
He was dissatisfied with his younger self. But then again, who wasn’t?
The simple fact (or facts) of the matter is she is gone. He misses her and is left with an unexpected vacant feeling even though he was forewarned.
She is in many ways like a story he cannot write. She is there somewhere in his past but only returns to him in fragments of different colours, moments, locations, size, shape, and length. Her memory surfaces and, like the ocean, throws up different images, feelings, each one worn and made smooth by time like sea glass, the once jagged edges made smooth, the hurt or love, now made crystal clear. He is shocked how she exists in his mind in such disarray, how little of her actually remains. He can recall his reaction to the strong scent of her just before he entered her. He can see her smile one ordinary afternoon right after she opened the door to greet him. He sees her standing by the café door waiting for him to settle the bill, sunlight pouring through the glass door making her look like an over-exposed photograph. Later that same day, he remembers the way she threw her red scarf over her shoulder. He must have loved her that day. He remembers her remark about one of his ears being misshapen, a scar from the time when young Italian mothers placed earrings on their babies.
He has no photographs. He carries their unrecovered past around with him in the present.
This, then, is the fragile purpose. To tell her story, his dream memory, their story, so that, like the brief grip of lovers, time can be made to stand still and hold the moment against the current of nothingness. Their story is all chaos: chaos that only art can arrange and make coherent.