Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Wink and a Smile are Fleeting Things

The First Morning

He first saw her by the Fontana di Trevi during his third week in Rome. The fountains danced and sparkled in the April sunlight, and she smiled at the children as they chased each other through the spray.

He walked up next to her and introduced himself.

"A pleasure, Francisco" she gave him his Spanish name. She took a drink of wine and then said, "I am Maria." She extended a gloved hand, which he took with a slight bow.

"Pleased, my lady."

She laughed. "Oh, I am no lady," she said, "though I see I may pass for one outside of my own land. To you, I shall be Maria. It's so much nicer a name, don't you think?"

"It is indeed. Well, Maria, I hope I am not intruding. You seemed to be waiting for someone."

"I was, but am not."

"That is a relief to hear. Then I may join you?"

"If you like, my lord." She laughed, holding up a hand to stop his response. "No, but I know you are not a lord. I jest."

"What am I, then, if not a lord?"

She considered a moment, then said, "An artist I think. And a forward one, to address one you thought to be a lady."

"Or did I jest?"

"Perhaps, but I think not. I think lords pay you and ladies love you. Which must be a wonderful arrangement for you. So often one must pay a lady for her love."

"Ah, you think me a lech."

"Are you?"

He hesitated. She smiled and then began to laugh. "Well, I have guessed truly then. No, no, do not frown. Do you think I survive without wit? Do you think I pass for a lady without learning to read men?"

"Many ladies lack your wit, Maria, and are happier for it."

"So they are. Or so they think themselves. I could never abide such stuffiness. It's so boring. And their poor husbands. A good thing I am not a lord, else I should strangle my lady for sheer lack of anything else to do." She winked and took another drink of wine.

The First Night

Afternoon was fading to evening as he hurried back to his lodgings. He had spent the last several hours playing for his patron. The attentions of the ladies present: the looks, winks, sighs, and pouts had lost their appeal since meeting Maria that morning.

"So, artist Francisco, what do you paint?" She had asked.

"Dreams and dances," he said. He hadn't meant to. It was the same answer he had given to so many ladies, the same longing look and tone that had won him favor so often before. He knew it would not work on Maria.

"I should like to see them." She said, simply. "I've had too few of both." The smile that curved her mouth had a sadness to it, he thought. He was surprised, for he had expected another wink and a laugh, and a jab at his too obvious play.

"They cannot be seen, but if you come by this evening you shall hear them."

She had said she would.

His flat had just enough room for a bed, a desk, and a small upright piano. Blank sheets of music lay strewn across the desk and about the room. A single oil lamp sat on one end of the piano. He could have afforded a larger place but preferred the snug quarters and the close proximity to the Colosseum. Besides, it left him more money for wine and coffee, which were his primary forms of inspiration and sustenance.

He wanted to pace, but there wasn't enough room to do it satisfactorily. He let his fingers run over the keys instead, starting with various scales and then finding a melody. The piano was in fine voice when a knock came at his door.

She hesitated only for the briefest instant, then accepted his invitation to enter. He uncorked a bottle of wine that had been sitting on the desk, and pulled two glasses from under a pile of half-finished music.

"To life," he said. He thought he saw the same half-sad smile flicker across her face. Then she laughed and raised her glass.

"To life, then. And music." They drank.

He nodded. "These are my canvases," he said, indicating the papers lying about the room.

"Not much to look at."

"Oh, but they're something to hear," he said.

"Modesty's a virtue, you know," she said, laughing.

"I don't practice many of those. They are troublesome things. I think about them sometimes, and wish I practiced them, but..."

"But they don't win ladies into your arms, do they?"

"Something like that."

"So this is an artist's home."

"Or a shelter along the wayside. Nothing is home. Homes are burdensome. They hinder the flow of new ideas. Each new home becomes a bore when the well runs dry. Shall I play you something?"

"A dance?"

He played a few dances not his own: a Mazurka by Chopin, a few folk songs, and a few of Haydn's Walisische Lieder, which were not quite dances. She swayed gently to each one. Her glass of wine ran out and she forgot to fill it. His touch was masterful, perfect. The setting sun through the curtains cast an orange glow through the room. The orange faded into dusk, and he began to play one of his own works, one with spirit and home and life rising and falling throughout. When he finished it was dark.

Her hands fumbled for the bottle of wine and she filled her glass. Enough light remained to make out shapes, nothing more. "Brava," she said as she raised the glass to her lips. He looked toward her, seeing only a faint silhouette melting into the wall, just near enough to touch.

He put his hand on her waist and drew her towards him, standing as he did so.

"No," she said, placing a finger on his lips before he could kiss her. "Not tonight."

"Then I cannot play you into my arms?"

"I wouldn't say that," she said. "Here I am, with your arm around me."

He laughed. "Ah, my talent for nothing. You tease me too easily, Maria."

"I said I should like to listen. I did not say I would dance."

She took his hand from her waist, then. He made a move to light the lamp. "Wait," she said. "Let us walk a little. Have you another bottle?"

They left the room in darkness and emerged onto the gaslit street below. Walking arm in arm, they wandered down streets and alleyways. By the time they reached the Colosseum, the bottle of wine was empty.

"Poor planning," he said. "I should have brought two bottles."

"Or three," she said, laughing. "Well, it has been a lovely evening, my lord."

"So you say, m'lady."

"Oh, do not say that. It has! I got what I wanted, and don't pretend you're not up to the challenge I leave you."

"What is that?" he asked.

"Play me a dream tomorrow. Here, I leave you inspiration," and before he could react, she had kissed him and darted away. "Tomorrow!" she called over her shoulder.

Tomorrow he would play again, he thought, and smiled up at the Colosseum. It had been a good night.

The Second Day, Morning and Evening

Sunlight. Coffee. Food. Wine. He played with the keys, made them dance beneath his fingers, slowly building a scene in his mind, writing a story and knowing as he did so it was incomplete, but not knowing how or why. More food. More wine. A knock. More wine. A dream. "Not yet." A walk. More wine. A kiss. "Tomorrow, a poem." A laugh. Tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Days and Nights

The third night she did not remove his arm from around her waist. She did not stop his kiss with her finger. She did not say, "Tomorrow."

And so the days went from there, the story unfolding before him, differently than he had written it in his mind. He played. She played. They drank and danced and loved, or began to. It seemed the spring would never end.

They wandered the city, from the banks of the Tiber swelled with spring rains, to the Spanish Steps and back to the Colosseum, where stray cats darted in and out of the ruins, a pathetic shadow of the mighty animals that roamed the arena in the days of Rome's glory. The place was alive with its own jungle. Vines and bushes and flowers covered the broken stones, finding purchase wherever they could. A ring of fourteen stone monuments marked out the Via Crucis around the arena floor. A blood-red azalea had sprung from the ground directly in front of the twelfth station.

All around them the grasses and flowers were cool and inviting. His heart leapt as she drew him closer to her side. "Here," she whispered in his ear.

"No," it was his turn to pull away.

"What, is this your return for the way I made you wait?" She smiled, drank, and draped her arms around his neck.

"No, nothing like that," he said, leaning away from her attempts to kiss him.

"What's it like, then? Or... have you forgotten?" She asked, pressing closer.

He took her hands in his and held her back. "All this," he gestured toward the ring of stones that portrayed the Way of the Cross. "It seems wrong, here. It feels holy here, and I don't want to sully that."

"Isn't this – what we have – isn't this holy, too? Isn't this love?"

"Something like it, perhaps. But it's not holy, I don't think."

"Then what's the point of it all?"

He didn't know the answer to that. There was a question there, a question beyond the obvious. If this wasn't holy – and he was pretty sure it was the opposite – what was the point? Indeed, what was the point of all the wine and music? Joy, he thought, was a good thing, but difficult to capture.

"Happiness," he said at last. He meant to sound profound. Instead, the answer sounded hollow in the night air.

"I'm not happy," she said. She took another drink from the bottle and handed it to him, frowning as she did so.

"I'm sorry I stopped you. We can go back to my room."

"That's not what I meant," she said.

"You meant... with this? With me? With wine and music and laughter and love?"

"Or something like it, anyway," she said.

He thought about those glimpses he had seen before. The moments when her smile turned sad, when the twinkle in her eyes seemed about to sprout into tears. She tried to hide them, but he saw. Now, for the first time, he thought she might be about to explain. A little thrill coursed through him. To take pleasure in another's pain, he thought, is a bad thing, but to have the trust of another is good.

"Let's go home," she said, taking his hand.

He wished she would say more, that she would speak to him, but she had a magical ability to hide. Sometimes he thought she even hid herself from herself. She sang the whole walk home, a long Spanish saga of wine and rogues and lurid affairs. They slept. Waking early, they lay in bed, watching the daylight seep through the curtains. She smiled up at him. Her eyes shone beneath a tangle of black hair. "I'm happy," she said.


As the nights passed he felt a confusion, a quiet dread seeping into his gut. They were even closer to love, but there was a somber quality to it that he feared. He did not know that the somberness was an even greater gift than the gaiety of their first few nights and weeks.

His music suffered. Melodies came easily but they never finished. A song that ends only in the air is not a song at all, and the laughter that emanated from his piano and echoed down the halways of his building could not find its ending.

June came and she turned restless, awakening in the middle of the night to sit and stare out the window, or to walk the streets below. He tried to learn what troubled her, but she would not say. In the daylight she smiled, laughed, sang and drank. In the dark, something was haunting her, some memory or feeling or thought. He did not know.

His playing took a melancholy turn. He experimented with other scales and modes, sounds that evoked in his mind images of Maria leaning against the wall, her chemise waving slightly in the breeze that blew through the open window, the sadness in her eyes never quite brimming over.

The first indication she gave of what had been on her mind came one morning late in June. He was sitting at the piano, fiddling with some melody he had heard before.

"I have been thinking," she said, "of that night in the Colosseum."

He stopped playing.

"About happiness, and holiness, and love," she said.

"Those are elusive subjects," he said. "But they ought to be pleasant to think on. Have they been tormenting you?"

"Not tormenting. I don't think tormenting is the right word."

"Have you learned anything from your thinking?"

"I did not think one could learn from thinking," she said.

"Well, discovered then. Though, you could learn about yourself, if you are wise."

"You think me wise?"

"Wise enough not to desire to be a lady. Wise enough to think difficult thoughts. Yes, I think you are wise."

"I had always thought I was clever. Wisdom is for Saints and teachers, though I think teachers are often too conceited to be wise. But I do not think I am wise. Would a wise girl live this life? I don't mean with you, I mean everything. I mean hate and fear and uncertainty and regret and, yes, and love and even holiness. Is any of that wise, or is it just a... just a song that toys with us, makes us smile or cry and then ends, leaving only this lingering sense of... something... something we missed, perhaps. I don't know, maybe I am, but I don't feel wise."

"You think life is foolishness, all of it?"

"I don't know if I think that or not. I only wonder if all of the gaiety is just a front. At the end of each night, what do I have?"

"Me," he said. "You have me. Does that mean nothing?"

"It means so much, and yet not enough. You said happiness was the point of it all, but you meant something else when you said it. I think you meant music and wine and the warmth of me next to you."

"You said you were happy."

"I said I was happy."

"Have you ceased to love me?"

"Perhaps I have begun to love you."

"I don't understand."

"You think I do? You think I sit up at night, or wander the streets, because I understand myself and my love?"

"I thought... I knew something was troubling you, but I thought it was some past pain, some loss."

"Did you write yourself as my savior in your mind?" her voice was quiet, not accusatory but pleading.

"No, I..."

She smiled at him. "Oh, Francisco, I hear it in your playing. You are telling yourself a story and wishing it were true."

"How can you hear that in my music?"

"Because your music never ends. Because your playing is dark and brooding and you can't make it light, but I hear you trying. No, there is no dark past for you to know, no pain you can salve. I suppose there is only love and doubt."

He felt a slight twinge, for she spoke truly, but he feared what she might say next.

"All love is doubt," he said. "All love is uncertain. Life brings us things we do not understand and we embrace them..."

"And hold them tight, to crush them for fear we will lose them, or because we know we must lose them. They will be taken from us, if they are good, and if they are not good they will destroy us. You said what we have is not holy. You know this, and you do not care?"

"I never wanted to be holy. Well, that's not true, I did, I do, but I want love, and this is what I've found. Even if it's not holy, it's something like it."

"I thought it was, or at least I thought it could be. I think I was delirious with music and wine and Rome. This city..." she had taken up a bottle of wine while she was speaking and began to uncork it. "This city, it's a whirl of lovers and priests. Everything screams out to me to wrap myself around you and call passion holiness, because there must be passion, but there must also be holiness. My soul tells me what I need and everything else in me tells me what I can have is what I need."

She stopped and took a long drink from the bottle, until the red wine ran from the edges of her lips and down her throat, staining her dress. Like blood, he thought.

She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. "But it's not is it?"

This was the blow. This was his fear. Something whispered to him that she was not wrong, but all he wanted to do was argue, to fight against what he knew was coming. He had no words to argue with, so he took the bottle from her, drank down a long draught, pulled her to him, and kissed her until his lips hurt. He thought of an argument then, but the time for words was past, for a while.

They continued for a time, never speaking of what they knew. On the outside, very little changed. They lay under the sun on the Capitoline; they hid beneath the Tarpeian Rock at night. Then one morning, without a word, she was gone.


The memories never really left. Skin doesn't forget. Eyes and lips do not forget. The day she left he finished a new piece of a dream – sad, beautiful, longing – a dream of love. The day he got the letter, he composed for her for the last time. His fingers slowly picked out the Dies Irae on the piano. Slowly, slowly the dirge turned into a dance, a mad fury, one final dance for her – The Final Dance. When it was over he played the old love dream once more. It was his last musical offering; almost a prayer, he thought, and the realization jarred him. Well, why not?

Years later, when he had taken the cloth, and the memories came to him, whispering saccharine words of longing, and his heart ached and he tasted the old familiar feelings, he would whisper the Requiescat and hope.