Category Archives: Novels

PRIVACY, PLEASE!

 PART I.

1.

There was a moment when it struck her that she may have been dead for some time without having been aware of that rather lamentable fact. As she sat looking at her husband across the table during one of their animated dinner parties, she suddenly realized that she’d been buried, and he’d become more rampant than ever. A giant green shiny thing in full bloom. At her expense. A monstrous basil plant, with her dead brains in the pot to feed on—she both the Lorenzo and the pining Isabella, he the sturdy herb who benefitted from their sad story. She could feel him draining the substance from her as he explained something to Daisy or Pansy or whatever her name was (the daughter of friends who had brought their little flower along for the first time, bless their souls), flourishing a chunky Cuban between his stubby fingers, embellishing his lecture with gestures worthy of an Italian—the vecchio libertino that he was and would remain till his demise.

At the ripe age of fifty-five Hugh could still turn heads and demoralize marriages. And what about Nora Hilary, the middle-aged Henry James scholar, the egghead, the mother of a freckled pubescent, the wife of a womanizer? Neither more nor less beautiful than twenty years ago, she was a reasonably attractive woman, who often consoled herself with the thought that although she may not be mistaken for Sophia Loren, she was certainly more of a looker than George Eliot. Well, it was something.

It was not the promise of another episode of adultery that shook her so that evening at the table. It was the realization that the flower with the comprehensive cleavage was young and plump, while she was old and limp as a direct result of passively suffering that botanizing basil of a husband of hers to suck the sap right out of her. If Hugh wanted to preen and sprout for that glutted flower some more, he was welcome to it. Nora just did not want to be the source of nourishment in an amorous process that had no promise of amour for her. Dame Nature could give her a break; she had done her duty by that demanding matron: she had been a faithful wife and a conscientious mother. Indeed, she had raised little Henry as well as she could, despite the fact that she had never felt cut out for motherhood. Her worst crime may have been the ill-suppressed gleam of criticism with which she frequently caught herself scrutinizing her son, the uncompromising gaze of the artist sizing up her own work.

Whether it was because of this that little Henry had seemed pleased as punch at the idea of boarding school or it had more to do with the Harry Potter epidemic that had infected Nora’s only child was a question she preferred to leave unanswered. Anyhow, one offspring was proof that she had done her share toward populating the globe, and thus she did not have to bother with a little James. It was time she focused on herself—before her time was up. The private life. That was her current aspiration. To read, write, lounge and linger at her pleasure, to measure out her tasks with no one to ask, Why that, why then, till when? Finally marriage would not impede Art—she had learned her lesson from the Master, and it was still not too late.

She announced her intentions in the setting in which he’d be most at his ease and least likely to argue—sitting in his study in his ridiculous lazy-boy, enjoying his first cigar that day, between breakfast and lunch—and just in case, she prepared detailed justifications and graphs of cost-effectiveness. But Hugh was hardly devastated by his wife’s announcement. After overcoming his evident surprise, he said pleasantly, “Sure darling, go off and write nice books and practice your Italian.” Who would have guessed that to lounge and linger was within her reach there and then, without having to move to Umbria? Had the basil plant so easily uprooted itself and found some other congenial soil, some other pot from which to suck? Was it grief or relief that she felt at her apparent dispensability? Well, the die had been cast, and so she was not only to have a private life but one in Italy. The house in the country had been chosen and paid for—like her husband, she made her plans in secret this time—the owner had most probably already spent the advance, and the old shelves and corners had been freed of dust and cobwebs in her honor.

Having always lived in cities, she would for the first time find herself surrounded by rolling hills and copulating herds instead of the urban excrescences of some concrete jungle. Peace and quiet would be the greatest adventure! No buses screeching to a halt like they always did in front of the apartment complex, no bored neighbors peeking in at the windows, no late-nighters rumbling down the stairs or climbing up in the company of giggling nightcappers. Even the name of the old house was music to her ears: Il Silenzio. She had deliberately chosen it based on its strategic position, not too close but not too far from human habitations. With the exception of the owner’s house next door, which Signora Augusta Primavera had promised to use only with the greatest tact so as not ever to disturb her valued lodger, the closest neighbor was a good kilometer away, while the little medieval town of Orvieto, which on the website had seemed to have numerous cozy little restaurants and shops, was a fifteen-kilometer drive.

The house itself was much too big for one person, and Nora was sure that Signora Primavera had been puzzled when she communicated to her that she was eager to rent, for herself alone, the two-story, four-bedroom, five-bathroom villa with an Olympic-size swimming pool. Even more expansive must have been the old signora’s amazement when Nora, like some crazy American lady, declared that she was not in the least planning to have guests during her stay. No, freeloaders were absolutely not welcome.

As soon as Nora caught sight of Il Silenzio from the end of the tortuous ten-kilometer dirt road leading up to it, she knew her sojourn would be an aesthetic joyride, a plunge into the lake of beauty, an inexhaustible source of idyll. It was isolated, all right, made remote both by its location and by the considerable garden, the olive grove, and the tiny vineyard protecting it from all sides, isolating it from the kind of disturbance that humans always engendered.

Upon closer inspection, Nora found everything in the garden well tended without being excessively neat, Nature more assisted than controlled. Ancient trees shot upward a dozen meters, their leafy boughs sprawling comfortably in the air, shelter for chatty flocks of birds above and shade for overheated humans below. Among the grass that was not too rigorously cut, there were flowers and flowering bushes for every season; something would always be in bloom, there would be constant spots of color. A set of iron furniture, chairs with a round table that presented as rather rusty and uneven, was complemented by a company of white plastic deck chairs also past their prime. But there was charm in their very shabbiness; they simply seemed to have conformed to their surroundings and were now part of the garden, just like a blade of grass or the stem of a flower.

She was to enjoy the delicious life of a recluse without having to fritter away time on the gardening chores that the upkeep of such a rustic and romantic place demanded. It all had to be tended, and Nora had been offered the choice of metamorphosing into a gardener or paying a pro to do it. She had opted for the latter and felt grateful to the green-thumbed individual in advance.

All that time saved would ideally be put to good use, its result a composition that would make her name, or at least begin its construction. She had not come thither in need of experience to be turned into another cute crowd-pleaser about yet another lonely individual’s Italian sojourn with all the fiascos and romances that it usually entailed. She had visited Italy, her favorite country, several times before and had on those occasions gathered any experience she needed to fill a book. She would not, then, be writing about writing or about a middle-aged writer finding love; Under the Tuscan Sun was not to be followed by Beneath the Umbrian Sun, at least not as a result of her literary endeavors. She had come to Italy this time in search of a certain experience, that of writing in Italy. So while she might be surrounded at times by rolling hills, picturesque peasants, and confused Anglo-Saxons when she occasionally descended her hilltop hermitage and mingled with fellow humans, they were not in the least welcome on her pages. While the Master had done it to sublime effect, to use Italy the way James had would be the work of a transparent copycat.

To resemble the crowd-pleasers, then, was strictly against her credo; she was not in the least disposed to compromise her Art for the sake of a by-and-large uncultivated readership interested in page-turners, tearjerkers, and whodunits. The mercenary muse did not tempt her; she had enough money to live comfortably, and she did not need lots of it so as to catch herself a husband—the one she had was more than enough. And fame? Well, the popularity that came with being the author of hotcake novels was surely pleasing for any mortal’s ego, but she thirsted, rather, for the fame—if any fame at all—so rare and therefore even more precious, of the artist whose uncompromising works become classics in her own lifetime.

 

 

2.

            Lounging on her uncle’s luscious sofa, Anna sat up as she caught the sound of his footsteps. He had kept her waiting a good half an hour, but they both knew that she did not in the least mind it. Anna loved her aunt’s style; the beautiful Japanese screen painting with its shining gold surface and its graceful herons, the huge ivory tusk carved into a lively little fishing village, the countless pots of orchids scattered everywhere, and the softest beige carpet Anna had ever felt under her feet made sitting in or even pacing around their living room too pleasurable to be ruined by her uncle’s lack of punctuality.

“Hugh, dear, how can it be true that my aunt has up and left for an indefinite period of dolce vita without saying anything to anyone?” Stretching her long arms and giving her leonine locks a good shake, she waited for Hugh’s answer. Yet no answer came as he nestled himself comfortably between the arms of the plush chair opposite the sofa his niece was sitting on and lit a Cohiba. The latter occupation was still keeping him busy when impatience finally got the better of her.

“Are you not talking because you don’t know what to say or because there is nothing to say? Did she leave because she left you? If yes, I still don’t understand why—”

“Would you mind slowing down?” Hugh burst out. “Your rushing ahead with these wild conjectures will not bring your aunt back. Look here, Annie,” he sighed theatrically, emitting a puff of smoke, “she is past fifty, and it dawned on her that there may be things she would like to do while there is time still…”

Before he could finish, Anna was on her feet and pacing up and down like a caged lioness; the soft carpet’s swallowing the noise of her steps only heightened the effect. Her uncle could not help admiring her fine long legs and the shock of red hair reaching to her slender waist. Deny it as he might for the sake of decency, his love for his niece was strongly tinged with a connoisseur’s regard for a beautiful work of art.

“Gosh, you should have been a diplomat, the way these flowers of speech come burgeoning out of your mouth like a big-ass bouquet. Why don’t you just admit that, at last, she got fed up with your fornicating? I might at least have a hope of understanding if I thought you were serious about any of these bimbos, if you at least had fallen in love with one of them—madly, uncontrollably in love—”

“But it is out of my control! Do you think I deliberately hurt my wife? Can’t you see that the love of youth and beauty is like an illness, that I cannot help myself? There is such a thin line between passion and mania.”

He tried to look at her beseechingly—his version of puppy-dog eyes had always been most effective—but Anna was still pacing, faster than ever.

“Sorry if I can’t quite be sorry for you. Your pseudo-sentimental crap does not change the fact that you’ve been a terrible husband and that it’s high, high time Aunt Nora pursued her own passions instead of wasting herself on you!”

Now that she had expressed her most violent emotions, Anna felt relieved and ready to look at the funny side of it. She stopped in front of her uncle and smiled at him. Yes, her uncle was an incorrigible Peter Pan, just like her own William. The two men shared a reluctance to accept other than youth and beauty as the focal point of life and a failure to accept any kind of responsibility in human relationships. The difference was that her uncle had got married and made a bad job of it, while Will and his friends danced just out of reach of the marital noose and consequently felt less trapped and so were more likely to behave themselves with their girlfriends. Will and his friends were devoted boyfriends as long as they were not pressured to tie the knot; the longevity of bliss was only jeopardized by the current lady’s seemingly inevitable wish “to get serious” after a certain period of time. What advantage there was to getting serious, the men could not fathom.

As for Will and Anna, they had been together for twelve years, an interval during which other people got married and divorced three times. And Anna, with youth and beauty still on her side, could afford not to care about the paper. Or could she? Having recently turned thirty, was she right to consider herself still young? Was it possible that her smugness was on the verge of becoming outdated? In any case, she thought now, look where the “paperwork” had got poor Aunt Nora.

“Uncle, Uncle, your Peter Pan is showing more than ever. Luckily for you, it’s impossible to remain angry with you for long. Maybe that’s why my aunt had to escape so quickly, so as not to change her mind before her current irritation with you evaporated.”

“It’s damned unpleasant assisting you at letting off steam,” Hugh said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, “but it is worth one’s while, I have to say. You look positively more radiant than before your outburst, if that’s humanly possible. Anyway, before you forgive me my trespasses and put me down as a hopelessly unserious amoroso, I have news for you. This time I am serious. So serious, in fact, that I want to tie the knot again. The problem is that, as you know, I have one knot already tied, and without untying it first, I cannot do it the second time. You see, I want you to realize what I’ve realized: it’s not that marriage isn’t for me but that marriage to Nora isn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong, your aunt is fabulous, but we have never been a match made in heaven.”

“And you say this now? After eighteen years of marriage? It sounds a bit retarded, Uncle, literally. Yes, yes, you don’t even have to open your mouth; I know what you’re going to say, so just hold the smoke at your leisure.” He politely smiled and bowed his thanks to be allowed to smoke in silence while his handsome lecturer continued. “To have stuck it out while Henry was growing up sounds like a noble deed. Gosh, I guess it is, really, surprisingly enough. But isn’t it also a bit too convenient? Being married has always given you the perfect excuse to keep it light with your lady friends. And this is why the idea of a second marriage does not contradict your uncontrollable urge to hunt youth and beauty: I bet my shorts you are marrying nothing short of a stunner, but as soon as you get tired of her—and you and I both know you will—you can safely continue your headhunting in the comfy shelter of this second wedlock. So the question isn’t whether marriage is for you, but whether it is in the best interest of your intended.”

“Annie, sweetheart, please don’t overanalyze me. I am not worth your breath. And you don’t even have to believe that I’m convinced I’ve met the love of my life. The important thing is that it is a situation in which everyone wins: not only will it make me and her happy, but your aunt will also be relieved of the burdens of my company. In fact, her decision to go off alone and realize her potential, whatever that may be, gives me carte blanche, don’t you see? She has amply proved that she wants to be free. And Henry is all grown up, with his own flat to move to as soon as he finishes boarding school. We’ve done our bit.”

“Well, I couldn’t agree with you more about my aunt being fabulous and not exactly your kind of woman. You have no idea how many times I’ve wondered why on Earth you two ever got married in the first place. No, I go further: I’m baffled you ever even chose her for an affair. First, you’re almost the same age, which is right away a no-no in your book. Second—and I say this with no insolence whatsoever, so don’t even pretend to protest—she is no beauty, never has been. She is, in fact, more than beautiful: she is irregular, interesting, attractive, unique. No symmetry to bore you, no perfection to take for granted; instead, an accidental turn of the head may transform her profile into something suddenly dazzling, even more so because it is unexpected. Or the way she smooths her hair back—what elegance is in that movement of hers! But all such nuances are lost on you as long as they are not the accompanying graces of superficial perfection. A graceful movement does not turn you on, Uncle Hugh, to put it crudely.”

He snorted good-humoredly and stood up. He liked the girl for being so candid and found nothing in her speeches by which to be offended. Besides, she was right. He had also wondered why the hell he had married Nora, of all women, and although he knew the answer perfectly well, he still had trouble accepting the fact that such a reason had sufficed. The prosaic explanation was that he had met Nora when he was going through a short but violent phase of satiety. It was the most frightening thing he had ever experienced. He had up till then considered himself the happiest of mortals, his single passion in life to squeeze the utmost out of the little he had been given, to live as intensely as he could in order to make the best of the brief interval allotted a human being on earth—that was the motto he made his own after having read a bit of Walter Pater. Paintings and sculptures that embodied youth and beauty were all fuel to this passion, but it was Woman—or better to say Young Lady—that constituted his main interest.

And then, one day, he had arrived at a point where he could not, for the life of him, imagine any new combination of graces that he had not already encountered. The variations that constituted an attractive female form seemed to him limited and exhausted all of a sudden. Mere physical beauty would no longer suffice; he was certain only a harmonious balance of body and soul would appease his desire. And along came Nora Gordon, surprisingly “fresh.” Her intelligence had never been in question, and her physique, although “nothing to write home about,” managed still, even in her thirties, to be quite attractive. Maybe there had never been harmony between Nora’s body and soul, but to a Hugh Hilary temporarily immune to round firm buttocks and bouncy bosoms, such a fascinating intellect housed in a tolerably attractive wrapping was a godsend. Just what he wanted. Impulsive as always, he thought he’d like to try another novelty as well: wedlock.

After a few months of monogamy, however, he woke up parched. Once again, he felt that terrible, unquenchable thirst for amorous expedition in the land of the young and lovely. His sexual stomach was rumbling; his appetite was that of the starved beast who ravaged everything in its path in order to get its fill. The casualty of this rampage, as it turned out, was not his next love interest but the one who was standing unwittingly in the way—his wife.

            Hugh walked to the window and stared out onto the park. The grass seemed unrealistically green and silky, and the ball-shaped bushes did not help to mitigate the impression of artificiality. Nora had never liked that park; she had always found unnatural nature more offensive than straightforward artifice. What was the house she had rented in Italy like, he wondered.

            “I haven’t offended you, Uncle, have I?” Anna asked fearfully after a few minutes had passed in silence.

            “No, no, sweetheart. I was, in fact, thinking back on the days when I met your aunt and remembering why I fell in love with her in the first place. I will tell you the story some other time. Now, I want you to promise me that you won’t be upset when I tell you something else, namely the name of my intended.”

“I have a terrible sense of foreboding that you have hit on one of the undergrads from my university.”  Anna had already finished her PhD at one of the city’s foremost universities (the biggest competitor of the university where Nora was teaching), where she still occasionally held seminars for undergraduates as a guest lecturer. “Let’s see who I can imagine in your clutches. Is it the big-breasted Russian girl who laughs all the time because her profile is more becoming that way? Nika, right?”

Her uncle shook his head.

“Well, then Megan Taylor, perhaps. She is the youngest in our class and wears glasses only because she wants to look intelligent. Which she is not, I assure you. But, silly me, that is not a prerequisite in your case.” She eyed him curiously, but he was still shaking his head. “Okay, who else? Let’s see, then it has to be Lilian. She has been more than usually silent lately. Starry-eyed and empty-headed, quite a combo.”

“Is there any good-looking girl in your acquaintance who is allowed to have brains in her head?”

“Of course, Uncle, they are more than welcome to have some gray matter up there, it’s just that they don’t happen to. Anyway, your rushing out to defend Lilian’s intellectual capacity makes me suspect I have finally hit the mark. It is her, isn’t it?”

“No, wrong as usual. You are not even close.”

“I should have started with Denise Logan, but I don’t want to have to come to terms with the fact that you have no taste, after all.”

Her uncle remained silent, but the tenor of his silence had changed. He wasn’t exactly offended, but he was undoubtedly surprised by the characterization. Not only did he consider Denise beautiful, he thought her the most exquisite creature he had ever laid hands on. All other women’s bodies seemed frumpy compared to her perfect figure, and they walked like birds compared to the feminine yet unselfconscious way she carried herself, and their clothes were like sackcloth compared to the original way she dressed.

“What you are most likely referring to is her inimitable style. She is not tasteless but rather taste incarnate. There is no one who would dare to be as original as she is.”

“And with good reason. Anyhow, I won’t pass judgment on your judgment; I’ll just consider you farther gone than I’d thought. And to see you really in love, no matter with whom and for how long, is a delightful spectacle. Lately you have resembled more of a penis on legs than a man capable of valuing women beyond their measurements.”

“Praise cannot get more mixed than yours. But I take it that you don’t mind, then. I mean my bringing an undergrad of your university into the family.”

“Well, no, it is a kind of relief, the fact that your girlfriend is twenty-six and not sixteen—one of the older undergrads, actually. Not that I would have any say in the matter, either way. But at least I can go on not despising you. That’s a comfort.”

“The severe judge that you are! I guess it’s my turn to be relieved at managing somehow to stay in your good graces.”

“Are you bringing her with you to our next family gathering? Will’s birthday is Thursday, you know.”

“Absolutely. I’m sure Denise has been looking forward to meeting the family.”

 

3.

            Denise would indeed be happy to meet dear Hugh’s family. But Denise was happy to do almost anything, anytime. She was a young woman in whom an extraordinary amount of élan vital was coupled with a lack of persistent enthusiasm about anything. Thus she came across as an adorable flake, who took up this and dropped that, be it a French or a cooking class or a course in graphology, tai chi, botany, or flower arranging—just a handful of her recent exploits. If ever there was someone with a broad horizon, it was Denise Logan. Her accepting nature and the endless vista of her interests made a favorable first impression, and it was months before the most recently enchanted individual realized that Miss Logan’s mind was so open that nothing remained in it for long.

Hugh had known her for four months when he introduced her as a topic of conversation with Anna, and his urge to tie her to him had more than a little to do with the fact that Denise’s true colors were becoming clear to him. He would not for the world have admitted it to a living soul, but already he felt her interest in him flagging. He was like one of the hobbies his lover took up so passionately only to light-heartedly abandon it for the sake of the next project on her list.

The experience was shocking to him for several reasons. First, he had always been faithful to the one and only passion of his life—namely, the passion for Youth and Beauty—even though it caused his fellow humans to classify him as unfaithful. Picking up and dropping an interest in such a whirlwind manner was totally alien to his character. Second, the fact that by different roads he and Denise ended up with the same result—namely fickleness in romance—put Hugh in the uncomfortable situation wherein his romantic partners had hitherto found themselves, but he never. Denise’s dropping him would be insufferable, and the only way he could think of to ensure that she would not leave him before he tired of her was to marry her. Marriage was, after all, an adventure upon which she had never embarked; it was a new project she was sure to get excited about.

Initially, Nora’s departure had seemed to Hugh a windfall, but now the timing appeared inconvenient at best, since he needed to marry the girl quickly, before she slipped through his fingers. Denise had recently finished a course in nineteenth-century literature, and her latest, greatest idea was to take a long, slow tour of Europe, to experience the Old Continent as Americans had on the “grand tours” of yore. But now there loomed the indelicacy of taking her to a family event and thus being forced to break the news of Nora’s departure simultaneously with his intention not only to divorce her but to marry a university acquaintance of his niece’s.

But Hugh was an eternal optimist, and he saw a bright side, too. He might kill two birds with one stone, so to say, by offering his latest lover a charming trip to Italy—a mini grand tour—and thereby surprising Nora with a visit, during which he could convince her to enjoy her liberty to such an extent as to dissolve the tie that had been binding her to him for the last two decades. Yes, the more he thought about it, the more he knew that a trip to Orvieto was the ideal solution to all his problems. It could also be used to blunt the edge of the scene Hugh’s double revelation was bound to make at Will’s birthday celebration; he would invite Will along to Italy as a birthday gift. The invitation would naturally include Anna as well, who could act as a mediator between Nora and Denise. Of course, Henry would be brought along, too, since the boy would need to be updated about his parents’ shifting affairs.

Hugh formulated his plans without consulting anyone, including the person upon whom they depended most, and when he broached the topic of Will’s birthday party with Denise, she casually declined his invitation. Hugh chéri simply had to understand that it was impossible for her to skip the last session of her graphology course. And so Denise’s debut with Hugh’s family, as well as Hugh’s introduction of his marital project, would have to wait for the trip itself. He was able to bring up the topic of the Italian escapade itself and at least Denise accepted that and even seemed excited at the prospect. It would be better this way, Hugh told himself, taking care of all his business at once. Besides, proposing to the light of his life during a pleasant little sojourn in Italy would be much more romantic than doing it at home, and he wouldn’t be putting Nora in the unenviable position of being the last one in the family to know.

 

4.

After Nora’s sweeping generalizations on the day of her arrival—lovely, picturesque, ideal—it was time for some nasty little particulars. Yes, there were five bathrooms, but it turned out that all of them put together would have yielded one of a normal size. Like some crazed Snow White, she tried all the beds in all the bedrooms and was forced to come to the same conclusion concerning sleeping quarters: numerous but diminutive.

She knew in advance that the house had no air-conditioning, and the explanation the real estate agent had given her had seemed perfectly plausible at the time: the hill on top of which the house was positioned was one of the breeziest in the whole area, ensuring a cool interior throughout the long hot Italian summer. One either opened the windows or utilized the ceiling fans that adorned the ceilings of all the bedrooms. Once in bed, she was already feeling rather hot, so, half-asleep, she hit the switch by the bedside, and a noise resembling that of a helicopter shook her out of her dreamy slumber. When she hastily hit the light switch, she saw that the whole fan, like a humongous rusty spider surrounded by deep black cracks resembling giant cobwebs, was shaking frantically, as though at any second it might detach from the ceiling and fall onto the bed, decapitating the sweaty sleeper in search of what she thought would be a harmless cooling breeze.

She hit the fan switch again and opted for the window instead. It seemed the more natural way, anyway; why bother conjuring up an artificial breeze when there was so much of it occurring naturally outside? A few hours elapsed before she was awakened by a creepy feeling, literally, of something crawling on her. Frightened out of her wits, she hit the light switch again, only to behold a dozen different insects having a jolly time on her bed and on her person. The windows had no screens, and the bugs had apparently been attracted by the light Nora had left on in the corridor, hating as she did complete darkness.

Moving into the adjacent bedroom to flee from her arthropodan bedfellows, she passed the rest of the night in an airless room on another hard and tiny bed. It was an unpleasant itchy feeling that finally woke her at dawn; sure as hell, the room was infested with mosquitoes. Getting out of bed, she almost tripped on the cover she had thrown off during the night. When she picked it up to put it back on the bed, she expected to find her slippers where she’d left them by the bedside, but as they seemed to have slid under the bed, she bent down to find them. Probing deeper and deeper, she found them at last, but they were almost unrecognizable, covered with a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. The place was obviously in the hands of a surface cleaner and would need some attention.

She shuffled into the bathroom, which was equipped only with a minuscule tub devoid of a shower curtain. She performed her ablutions crouched in front of a thin trickle of water that was first ice cold and then piping hot and finally lukewarm, and Nora with no hope of attaining a more abundant and hotter version.

She was not in good spirits walking down the stairs, but when she entered the living room, the sight of it made her forget the disagreeableness of her first night. The sunlight came in unobstructed through the many curtainless windows. It lit up the numerous mirrors on the walls and made their golden frames gleam. It reflected the graceful forms of the antique vases sitting on the strips of polished parquet that were left uncovered by the old Persians adorning the floor. Everything was old and faded, but the morning sunshine made the colors live again. The room emanated cheer and ease, and entering the room filled Nora with these things as well, to such an extent that she started jumping up and down and clapping her hands in delight like a little girl. Then she turned round and round, trying to take it all in.

As she moved a few steps toward the kitchen, she happened to glance out the window closest to her and saw a face there, somebody watching her! Her surprise bordered on shock; to believe yourself utterly alone in the middle of beautiful nowhere and suddenly meet a pair of eyes observing your every move would have outraged even someone less ardently in search of the private life. For Nora, who had crossed the Atlantic to get away from it all and had purposely chosen a place named after the silence she was seeking, it seemed like a bad joke—not even in the midst of urban living was one exposed to others looking so brazenly into one’s windows. The open room and its many windows had suddenly metamorphosed into the worst of her nightmares, in which she was a goldfish in a giant aquarium.

As for the Peeping Tom, she could see that he was snipping something outside the window with a pair of giant shears, so he was undoubtedly the green-thumbed individual originally hired to make her life more rather than less agreeable. In any case, their eyes had met, so she knew that he knew that she had seen him, but instead of making himself known, he ducked his head behind the bushes he had been trimming. To confront him or to simply introduce herself to him was the question. Nora hesitated for a moment and then went through the French doors leading out to the garden.

Signor Massimo Cesare was still crouching in the flowering bush when Nora wished him buon giorno in her best Italian. At the sound of her voice he jumped up as if roused from some deep meditation and exclaimed what a great surprise it was to see her up so early, shaking her hand jovially. He had big rough hands and a strong handshake, which would have inspired trust in his interlocutress, had it not been for the pair of shifty eyes that never looked her in the face for longer than a few seconds at a time. Although he was a ruddy, robust, and gray-haired man in his sixties, there wasn’t very much about him of the picturesque peasant Nora had presumptuously expected. He wore blue jeans, sneakers, and a McDonald’s T-shirt, and in such a costume he could just as well have been from countless other locales, urban or rural, in countless other countries, and held countless jobs other than gardener. In fact, Nora soon learned that he had indeed worked a short stint in the first Mickey D’s that had opened its doors to the Roman public, just a few steps from the Spanish Steps. Signor Cesare was, in other words, difficult to place, and he seemed to Nora more like some twenty-first-century Everyman than a humble and trustworthy Italian paesano. She searched his appearance desperately for some trait of the picturesque peasant she’d been expecting—she couldn’t have explained exactly why—and had to settle for his oily smile, which suggested the Gino who worked as a porter at a hotel when he was not breaking hearts elsewhere

Once they had discussed every particular of the weather and emphasized several times the excessive joy they both felt due to Nora’s arrival, Massimo introduced the business side of their relationship. He would happily mow the grass and trim the bushes and prune the flowers, and for those botanical labors—which were his whole livelihood, not to mention that he had a sick mother, a wife and a young daughter, and a blind dog that had just had six puppies—he expected to be paid four hundred and fifty dollars at the beginning of every month. (Unsurprisingly, Massimo’s claim that what Nora paid him was his only income would later turn out to be untrue. She learned that he was clipping grass and pollinating flowers like a busy bee in the radius of thirty kilometers—he had his green thumb, if not in every pie, in many a garden in the neighborhood.)

Nora thought at first that she had not heard correctly; Massimo’s speech had sped up as soon as he mentioned money. She apologized and asked him to repeat what he had said, reminding him that her poor knowledge of Italian required patience. After a long-winded praise of the American signora’s exemplary command of his humble tongue, Massimo repeated the sum with a surprised expression on his sun-wrinkled face. He sincerely hoped it did not come as something unexpected or bothersome. He would not, for the world, want to pain her. Oh, and by the way—and was it her imagination or did his eyes have an extra twinkle in them as he said this—if the carissima signora needed someone to come and do the cleaning, his wife was a first-rate maid, and his little daughter could also help her.

It was difficult to say no to such an offer for several reasons. Nora felt the same way about cleaning as about gardening: she had not come all the way to Italy to waste her time sweeping cobwebs and scrubbing floors and battling with bugs, either. Also, somewhat paradoxically, she wanted to meet Massimo’s family precisely because he did not inspire confidence in her. Maybe she had judged him too hastily, based on a single peeping incident and her assumptions about people with shifty eyes. Maybe the old man was just shy, she told herself. In any case, she needed a cleaning lady, and it would be difficult to find one on her own, considering she didn’t know anybody, or more precisely, there was nobody around anyway. For a “mere” fifty dollars, la signora Cesare and piccola Celestina would come for three hours once a week and do their sanitary magic.

Deal.


5.

            The kiwi-green Fiat was an undoubted eyesore, but it was the sensible vehicle for the context. What with the potholes and the sharp rocks with which the dirt road was strewn and the consequent possibility of having to take it to a local mechanic, as well as the high European petrol prices combined with the considerable distances she had to traverse if she wanted any contact with the rest of humanity, compounded by the Herculean task of finding a parking spot between two cars and still being able to open her door, the best thing, in short, was to drive around that boxy, inelegant diesel-eater with its sliding doors. It was, indeed, a glorified bread-truck of sorts, but its ugliness was a trifle compared to the real problem when Nora went to drive into town.

The diesel engine roared like a decrepit lion as she got to the first ascent of the ten-kilometer stretch toward the main road, which was like a roller-coaster ride with its continuous ups-and-downs. The cold diesel engine obviously didn’t appreciate such choreography. Having successfully clambered up the hill, Nora caught sight of the city of Orvieto crouching on another hill in the distance. The day was so clear that the eye could travel for kilometers on end, and other, smaller hilltop towns and an endless number of vineyards, olive groves, and fields checkered with green and golden brown greeted her whichever way she looked. It was a postcard come to life, and she was driving in the midst of it all—delighted, grateful, and a bit ashamed to contaminate such a picture with her boxy green contraption.

Dazzled by the view, Nora forgot that the narrow path was actually a two-way road, until, puttering up another hill and approaching a sharp bend, a crazed Alfa Romeo scorched down toward her. She had presence of mind enough to swerve at the last second, ending up with one side of the car tilted into the ditch. A really close shave it had been, and Nora could not even be angry with the other driver, who had swerved a bit as well and then driven on; she was obviously as much at fault, or even more so.

Apart from her racing heartbeat and the cold sweat that had covered her forehead and wetted her armpits, the side effect of the incident was a vow to be the most circumspect driver in the whole province. Let them honk at her and try to push her off the road, she would, from then on, drive as slowly and as carefully as humanly possible. Her resolution soon enough made her sundry enemies. The only cars tolerantly following in her wake were little Pandas, the drivers of which seemed just as battered as the cars themselves. With a Panda following her, Nora felt she had a chance to fit in by virtue of becoming another roadblock, the one the Panda would have been had Nora not been on the road at all.

As for the other drivers, they demonstrated to her the whole range of obscene physical gestures that were an inexorable part of their native tongue, until she reached a hazard a few kilometers further down the road that necessitated stopping. No, it was not a driver traveling even more slowly than she was, but a huge silver car turned sideways across the road with its nose sticking out onto the drop-off on the right hand side. The guardrail was completely bent to the shape of the car’s nose, and the passenger compartment was filled with opened airbags resembling big deflated white balloons.

Close to the car, holding onto the wobbly guardrail, an individual stood on what seemed to Nora similarly wobbly legs. He had to be in his early fifties, his chin unshaved, his grayish hair tousled, his face bloated, and his glasses slanting to one side. He was looking at the scene—two police cars and half a dozen people busying themselves with the removal of the car from the road—as a detached observer might; there was even an amused smile on his face, as if it were all an interesting phenomenon he was half-disposed to devote his attention to. Despite all this, Nora had no doubt that he was the driver of the big silver car. And there was absolutely no doubt about his being completely drunk.

Nearby, there was a young woman talking excitedly to one of the police officers. Despite her simple summer dress and flip-flops, her appearance was well groomed and even elegant. She was regrettably thin, yet the first thing that struck one was how very good-looking she must have been before she wasted away. She spoke with the manner of the foreigner trying to compensate for her imperfect command of a language with volume and distinct pronunciation. As a result, Nora could discern the gist of her argument even from inside her car, several yards away. The woman’s accent was British, as was the license plate of the huge silver car, which Nora noticed had a right-hand steering. This alone, of course, would not have sufficed as an excuse for the crash, yet the poor woman was trying hard to persuade the police officer that this was the main reason her partner had nearly driven them over the scary drop-off. The police officer, in turn, was shaking his head. His English was just as bad as the young woman’s Italian.

The clumsy conversation and the difficulty the crew was having disentangling the car from the guardrail boded a long wait for the cars lined up on either side of the silver car. It was nearly lunchtime, and as the holdup dragged on, it would have begun to irritate even the members of a less food-obsessed nation. Nora had no desire to be kept shut inside her little green box, either, yet she was just as reluctant to get out and offer assistance to the British couple, something she could easily and immediately have done, what with being a native English speaker and having a working knowledge of Italian, more than could be said for the drunken Brit and his thin companion. However, not only was Nora quite shy, but she also had a dread of meddling in other people’s affairs or getting mixed up with anything that would infringe on her own privacy, and this combination often prevented her from offering help that should have gone without saying. Her behavior could have been interpreted—had actually in the past been interpreted—as mean-spirited or antisocial, but all Nora wanted was to keep to herself and go about her business in peace.

What finally made her change her mind in this case was not simply the unpleasant consequence that a further delay would have had on her plans for that day, but the parallel she unwittingly drew between the British couple and two other couples in her acquaintance: Will and Anna, and Hugh and his current young female interest (Nora didn’t know her name, but her husband always had one). As to the latter, thinking of them made her even more exultant at having finally left that amorous mess behind. As to the former, she could not help feeling a pang of conscience: although Anna was no blood-relation of hers—the girl was Hugh’s sister’s daughter—Nora had become a more influential presence in her life than even her own mother. The younger woman had no inhibitions when it came to sharing her innermost thoughts and discussing the details of her private life with her aunt. They had met as often as best friends do and Anna had never had qualms about canceling any engagement if Nora called and proposed to do something together.

Anna’s rather odd relationship with William—they had been introduced at one of Hugh’s parties, the two men being old, old friends and having so many things in common that were not exactly in favor of a man vying for Anna’s affections—had actually been the outcome of Nora’s advocacy. In the teeth of Hugh and his sister Maggie’s protests, she had sided with young Anna and convinced husband and sister-in-law about the primacy of love over considerations of age and the discomfort of having one’s good friend as a boyfriend for one’s niece. Hugh was outraged, not because his friend William had fallen for a girl so much his junior—that was, after all, one of the prime characteristics of their shared Peter Pan syndrome—but because he regarded his niece as a taboo. With surprising irrationality, Hugh had claimed that William was welcome to other young girls, but his darling Anna should not fall victim to someone of his kind. Maggie, Anna’s mother, should, in theory, have had the last word in the matter, but it somehow never counted. With her peaches-and-cream complexion, her soft round face, and tender brown eyes, she was the physical manifestation of her own psyche: she was soft and sweet and as easily malleable as they come.

Maggie wanted above all to please, and her permissive parenting style had produced children who were fascinating but fickle. They were not compelled to finish their homework or persuaded against dropping out of one school to become a student at another, and they argued that they couldn’t possibly work while attending college, with the excuse that their studies needed their full attention. They abandoned hobbies right and left for the sake of the newest fad, and they left home but came back for meals and money and laundry unfettered by any expectations on their mother’s part. They couldn’t miss the mark or even fall short of it, since there simply was no mark for which to aim. Maggie reveled in her children just the way they were, and for the most part, her offspring went through life with the vague sense of indigestion that inevitably follows unlimited indulgence. Anna was the black sheep among her siblings, whether through nature or nurture, her family members and friends could not decide; she had managed to baffle the advocates of both sides of the debate. Regardless of whether she had inherited, cultivated or assimilated certain patterns of behavior, people had to admit that she was undoubtedly brainy, steady, and enthusiastic—a unique combination amongst her kin. Admittedly, this was only the case when it came to something in which she was interested; in the case of unpleasant tasks, the family inheritance—indolence—showed itself to observant eyes who were not fooled by ingenious excuses and a talented pretense of incompetence.

As to Nora’s influence, by the time the casual ties between niece and aunt had strengthened and yielded an intimate relationship, Anna’s own character had been formed enough to see not so much a mentor in the older woman as a soul mate. As the closest of friends always lean on each other in times of need, she had often looked to her godmother for help. One of the most memorable events, and the one with the furthest reaching consequences, had been her advocacy of Anna and Will’s case. It had been the first time anyone could remember that Maggie had stood up for or against anything; she had objected to such an arrangement with as much firmness as her soft, sweet nature would allow. She had never criticized her own brother out loud, but she knew perfectly well what kind of a companion he made, and his friend did not promise to be any better; in fact, she’d heard stories…

Nora, in the earlyish years of her own marriage, had still been holding fast to some of the illusions that had made it possible for her to fall in love with and marry Hugh at all. She had desperately wanted to silence the small but insistent voice in her own head that was strengthened by Maggie’s small but insistent voice saying that a happy marriage with a man of the Peter Pan stamp was impossible. Nora’s help, in this sense, was colored by her rather selfish need to feel reassured about her own choice. With an irrational hope she conjoined the two relationships; she gave to herself and Hugh a fresh start in the shape of Anna and Will’s budding love. What was more, she had had a thing for Will on getting to know him, but Will requiting her interest had been out of the question for at least two indisputable reasons: he was one of the best friends of her current boyfriend, and, already being in her mid-thirties, she would never have crossed Will’s mind as a desirable female. Young Anna’s charming him a few years later gave Nora victory by proxy. In these ways, the two women’s fates in love had been intricately bound up in each other, and at the first signs of collapse in Anna’s relationship, Nora had not only started to feel the weight of responsibility, but she had also caught herself listening for the sound of the death knell announcing the end of her own marriage.

Anna and William’s problems might or might not have been connected to the latter’s tendency to drink too much and become depressed, not necessarily in that order. He claimed that he sometimes drank in order to get rid of his blues and feel happy and funny again, but his drinking just as often resulted in tearful musings about the meaninglessness of life and the sad fact of his being a drifter, a loser, and an aging underachiever who had no creed, no home, no family, no interests, and not even enough money despite his having sacrificed his whole life to hoarding as much of it as would enable him to sort out all the problems that allegedly led him to drink and depression. Anna was invariably at his side to cheer him up, reason with him, or just embrace him and cry with him at the injustice of it all.

As often happens, the hand that was extended to help was frequently bitten. Will would blame Anna for her reckless spending, which in turn would drive him to further drudgery in order to make enough money to finance her caprices. It was true that Anna was not the embodiment of thrift, and she took to feeling responsible for Will’s unhappiness, but only until the next occasion upon which he would aggressively coax her to order the most expensive champagne on the list and go out and buy something decent to wear instead of those frumpy clothes. These gestures, he insisted, would help him shake off his blues. If she objected, he grew more insistent. If she gave in, soon it was brought up as another glaring example of her being a worthless spendthrift.

Anna couldn’t win, and neither could Nora where Hugh was concerned, and neither could this poor woman arguing with the police officer about her drunken companion. The scene evoked enough pathos in Nora that she found herself, quite against her will, pulling the kiwi-green car onto what there was of a shoulder and reaching for the door handle.


6.

“Will, honey, do you want to get up? It’s past noon already.” A grunt from under the pillows assured her that he was far from willing to join the land of the living. He had most probably woken up a couple of times during the night, smoked a cigar or checked his e-mails, maybe drank a beer or two, and surely popped another sleeping pill to help him through the night. This always resulted in a groggy, grumpy monster only faintly resembling her beloved Will; it invariably took a few hours for him to get back to his “normal self”—loving despite his natural gruffness. When they were alone, he didn’t wear the arrogant front he showed to most of the world of the self-made businessman who was worth his own weight in gold and knew that his fellow humans were not. If he wasn’t lavish with his affections, when they did come, they were more precious than anything else she had or would ever want to have. But they came more and more rarely nowadays; he was almost always under the influence of either antidepressants or sleeping pills or alcohol or some combination thereof.

“Sweetie, should I make you some coffee?”

“Yeah, go ahead. I’ll be out soon.”

The coffee had grown cold and the afternoon was waning when the bedroom door opened and Will tottered out in his flaming-red bathrobe. With one hand he was fingering his abundant chest hair, and with the other he was holding a nearly empty bottle of water.

“Damn, you put a lot of soy sauce on my chicken yesterday. I was parched throughout the night, no matter how much water I sucked. Why do you always do it?” By the time he got to the question, his voice had gone up into an irritated falsetto. “It’s like eating soy sauce with a hint of chicken.” He humped down on the sofa and looked around with eyes blinking painfully in the light after the darkness of the bedroom. “Actually, I don’t even know what it was, come to think of it. Was it chicken? For all I know, you fed me a dead dog smothered in soy sauce.”

“Good afternoon, honeybun. I see you’re in a good mood again. Did you sleep well?” Anna knew the trick by now: to studiously ignore the first grumpy comments after his waking up, which were like verbal excrement, with which he came to her instead of going to the toilet.

Will appreciated her tolerance, even if he would never have admitted it. Already in a slightly better mood, his snappish response had, by then, no edge: “What a question! I don’t even recall having ever slept well for the last couple of years.”

“Well, relatively speaking, then. How’s your back? Better than yesterday?”

“Still sore. Must be rheumatism.” He stretched and groaned, in order to demonstrate the pain he was in. It was meant to elicit a reaction composed of two contradictory elements: he wanted Anna’s sympathy, but he also wanted her to reassure him it was nothing serious. He was afraid of any kind of bodily pain connected to illness; you could chop his finger off, and he would bear it like a hero, but the detection of an unexplained ache gave him the willies. He did not want to get old, not because he was afraid of dying but because he hated the idea of himself as an old man. It wasn’t the pain in his back that pained him, really, but the possibility of having one of the conditions that would classify him as an “old fart.”

“Hon, I told you we should go to a specialist—the guy Mum recommended, downtown. I can make an appointment whenever is good for you.” Anna knew the answer would be negative; if William hated something more than illness, it was doctors. And if he hated something even more than doctors, then it was the group of self-appointed healers representing alternative medicine Maggie advocated enthusiastically whenever anybody in the family so much as sneezed. Hacks, all of them, Will said, and the “specialist” Anna had allegedly found through her mother sounded suspiciously like some bogus chiropractor or demented Russian bonesetter.

“Thanks, but no thanks. I want none of your weirdos. Tell Maggie I appreciate it, but I’d rather not let these guys make it even worse and charge a sack of money for it.”

“You know that most of them are harmless. If they can’t help, they surely won’t do any harm.”

“How can you say that? The bonesetter you set me up with the other day almost took my head off. Literally. He was trying to unscrew my head as if it was a lightbulb when I told him to let go of me and go to hell. Then he had the skin on his face to ask for a hundred bucks for his services. I just told him to be happy I’m not pressing charges for attempted murder.”

“Well, this guy would be more gentle because he specializes in rheumatism. No turning heads this time.”

“So you do think it’s rheumatism?” Will sat up straight on the sofa and looked at Anna with fearful eyes.

“No, hon, I don’t think anything. You told me you thought it was. That’s why I went to the trouble and found you someone who can either confirm or allay your fears.” Anna’s voice was shaded with weariness. They had had so many conversations resembling this one that it seemed to her time was nothing more than a broken record playing the same old tune over and over again. Her words, meant to both soothe and reason with him, fell on the contrary ears of a tiresome child. And it was only getting worse as Will got older, and he had just had another birthday.

“What fears? I’m not in the least afraid. I’m simply annoyed by the fact that the pain in my back hinders me from doing things.”

“What things?” She didn’t want it to sound ironic, but a look at Will convinced her that she had been too rash in not humoring him further. If he wanted to blame his listlessness on bodily pain, she should let him. He needed the comfortable excuse that he was lying on the sofa in his free time, refusing every suggestion to engage in an activity that might yield fun—tennis, an exhibit at the art museum, dining out, going to a club for a drink, seeing a movie—because he was in pain. Had it not been for this annoying backache (or its predecessors, the shoulder pains, colds, sinus infections, headaches, canker sores, and ingrown nails) he surely would have been up and doing! It was not his choice and not his fault. If Anna didn’t assist at the upkeep of this version of the truth, she was convinced he would become even more depressed than he was in the first place; he had a dread of becoming a dull, sluggish loser, and any such suggestion reflected in the behavior of those around him filled him with even more debilitating fear and sadness.

Yet there were times when he saw everything clearly and shook off his denial. Those days were the worst; he would lie on the sofa as he was doing now, but instead of feeling sorry solely for himself, he would also feel sorry for Anna for being stuck with such a loser. He would surrender his last shred of hope and declare himself a basket case; there was no hope for someone who could not be happy with all the money, beauty, and ease within his immediate reach. On these occasions, it was Anna who begged him to drink a drop of something; it would cheer him up a bit, at least. But a drop was never enough, and Will passed from melancholy to mellow to aggressively cheerful; he would start joking around and hobnobbing with whoever crossed his path. But even if his companions continued to humor him (which was no easy task, as his good mood was always at someone else’s expense) a few hours later he would fall into an even blacker depression than before.

“By the way,” Anna quickly inserted, in an attempt to save the situation, “I was thinking we could take a short trip to Italy to visit my aunt.”

“What are you talking about? Nora in Italy?”

“Oh, yeah, actually, it was supposed to be a birthday surprise from Hugh that he told you about himself, but he decided he didn’t want to make a scene at your party and so asked me to tell you. So I was meaning to tell you last night, but you were busy snoring on the couch, and I was happy to see you sleep a bit…”

The birthday party had been a total bore but at least there hadn’t been any scenes; despite all the champagne Will remained articulate if repetitive and because he was the birthday boy his jokes and anecdotes were listened to with more than usual patience by friends anxious to please—it was a small price to pay for so much free champagne.

“Well, you know you should always wake me when I doze off in the living room. It makes it even more impossible to fall asleep when I go to bed.”

“Yes, sorry about that, hon. But listen, this piece of news came as a total shock to me, too; Auntie Nora simply up and left a couple of days ago, without telling anyone except Hugh. I was trying to get in touch with her, and it was Hugh who picked up the phone, which was already weird, as you know he never does. Anyway, he tells me Nora couldn’t come to the phone because Nora was on the other side of the ocean. Nora is in Italy.”

“What the…”

“Yeah, I asked exactly the same thing. What the hell has happened? Hugh tells me he had no clue what she was planning till she appeared in the doorway of his study four days ago, dressed and hatted and bag in hand, announcing her departure to Orvieto for an indefinite period. The first thing Hugh said was, of course, ‘Where’s Orvieto?’—a totally irrelevant detail, considering the magnitude of the step Aunt Nora was taking. But he was just flabbergasted. He says he has had a vague suspicion for years now, I mean, concerning Nora’s general unhappiness and desire to do something with herself before she gets too old, but when the moment came he was as surprised as if they’d had had the most perfect marriage in the world. Of course, he kept his game face on and smiled and encouraged her to have a good time and all that, so as not to look like an idiot.”

“So she just up and left? Good for her. And good riddance, too, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“Actually, I do mind. Very much. This is my aunt we’re talking about here. You know how close we are.”

“Yeah, and it’s not as though she were deported to Siberia. And it’s not that she had been trying in the least to make Hugh happy lately.”

“That is totally unfair! You know very well that it is not Aunt’s fault she doesn’t have what would make Uncle Hugh happy. Which is a pair of bouncy tits and an ID proving the owner of them is a minor.”

“That, of course, is a gross exaggeration, and you know it. But, okay, I see your point. Nora had her reasons for leaving. But think about it: this solution is better for both of them. Sure it’s a big change, but they couldn’t have stagnated as they’ve been for much longer. It would have been a damn waste on both sides. Besides, Hugh seems to be surprisingly serious about this Denise girl.”

“You’ve known about this liaison all along!” Anna felt as if she had been hit in the face. Will had been going around for a good while with such an important piece of news, without giving her so much as a hint.

“Liaison? What century are you in? You’re allowed to read contemporary literature once in a while, you know. And reading the papers wouldn’t hurt, either.” It was a handy detour from the matter at hand, and because Hugh prided himself on his up-to-date knowledge of contemporary culture, he took every opportunity to make fun of his overly educated girlfriend’s ignorance. Look where all those nineteenth-century novels had gotten her; if anything, her command of the English language was deteriorating, becoming distinctly obsolete. It was good that it wasn’t medieval English literature she was enamored of, because then he would be exposed to the torture of listening to a phony version of the wife of Bath or some such figment of Chaucer’s imagination. “Anyway,” he said, “you seem to forget that your uncle is one of my best friends. You girls don’t seem to realize that it is possible, not to mention gentlemanly, to keep a secret if someone asks you to.”

“Sneaking behind Aunt Nora’s back is not what I call gentlemanly.”

“No, you don’t get it. When a friend entrusts a secret to you, it is not your place to judge and act according to your own sense of right or wrong. It’s like the situation with the priest during confession. He’s not going to tell the chap’s wife that her husband was screwing his secretary and now feels shitty about it and comes to him for spiritual help.”

“Maybe you should have become a priest. It seems you’re cut out for the job.”

“Annie, don’t be silly. Hugh specifically asked me not to tell you. He loves you and didn’t want to hurt you indirectly.”

“Well, then he shouldn’t have hurt Aunt Nora in the first place.” She knew what she was saying was childish, but she couldn’t help herself. She felt betrayed once again by male solidarity—men covering each other’s tracks. But honestly, wouldn’t she have done the same for a girlfriend? Or for Auntie Nora, for that matter? Of course she would have. “Okay, okay. Let’s skip the drama and concentrate on what this all entails for us: Hugh says we should go together and visit her this weekend. You know it’s a long weekend, and I thought you might take off another couple of days. I can take care of the details. You can focus on trying to enjoy yourself. What do you say?”

“Nothing more occurs to me as yet than we’ll see.” The answer, of course, would be yes, but he wanted to torture her a bit. He couldn’t help enjoying his power over her, even if it was cruel.

“Suit yourself. Now, I have to get going. So far I have spent the day waiting for you to get up, and looking at you now, it seems it was all in vain. I want to get a few things done.” He was exasperating, and once again she had failed to endure his coy games and had instead gotten upset. However hard she tried, her quick temper always got in the way, and she ended up losing sight of her goals. She loved him and wanted to help him, but he went out of his way to make it nigh impossible for her to do either.

“But where are you going? I thought we would do something together today!”

“And I thought you were in pain and not up to doing anything but lying here on the couch.”

“I can make an effort. Tell me, what would you like to do, then?”

“Let’s go for a nice walk and end up in that good Italian restaurant we tried a couple of months ago with Aunt Nora. Maybe it will help you make your decision.”

“Let’s hang out here for a bit longer and skip the walk and take a cab to that place. And, sweetie, while you’re up, could you get me a beer?”

“You just got up, and you want a beer? What about the coffee I made earlier?”

“Screw the coffee. It’s already cold, and you know I hate reheated coffee. Anyway, it’s 5:30 already, so there’s no harm in having a beer—or two.”

He looked up at her from the sofa with twinkling mischievous eyes, and she thought, as she did so often when she looked at him, of a naughty little boy who would never grow up. It would be much too hard to say no to him now. Plus she was tired of his sober blues and wanted the alcohol to help her cheer him up, even though she knew the evening wouldn’t end well.


7.

“You know, the worst of it is that this whole thing has clearly been brought about by his job, but to whatever extremities it takes him, he just cannot seem to stop working.”

“Oh, I know, I know,” Nora said sympathetically. “The same story with my niece’s boyfriend. Money, job, booze. Loves and needs the first, hates but needs the second so as to get the first, and so both loves and needs the third so as to tolerate the second.”

“Actually, Gordon’s case is somewhat different and I’d say even more difficult to resolve: he adores his job, but it is none other than being a wine merchant and critic, so if there is a person who is entitled to drink on the job, then it’s him. Of course any professional whose business is connected with wine should be the first one to know the limit. Smell and spit and only occasionally swallow. A universal rule, I assure you.”

Nora couldn’t help wondering if she intended the pun; the intense young woman’s style was certainly droll enough to leave room for such a double-edged observation, yet her face at that moment was almost too earnest.

May had clearly been touched by the help that the driver of the kiwi-green car suddenly offered, even though at that point it wasn’t needed anymore; the police officer had figured it out by then that the priority was to concentrate fully on clearing the road of the remains of the accident and so he had wisely decided not bother with details and antecedents. He had made up his mind to put it in his report that the driver—an admiring tourist—had been distracted by the wonderful view and almost fell victim to the dangerous beauty of Italy. He knew that his superior was a very patriotic man.

So while May and Nora were waiting for the road to be cleared, they naturally started a polite conversation to fill the time, which, however, May had very soon turned into a surprisingly intimate talk. As she described some of the troubles of her troublesome husband, her plaintive voice gradually acquired warmth and affection, which, in turn, drew warmth and affection from Nora despite the latter’s general tendency to hold herself aloof—especially from strangers. As Nora listened to May’s description, she became more and more convinced that May clearly loved that big hunk of a man literally marinated in red wine.

“But really,” she went on, “his main problem is that he lives for his job, not only to make money, but because it’s the passion of his life. I admit that he might have become a wine specialist in the first place exactly because of his ‘thirsty habits,’ but he is nevertheless excellent at what he does. He enjoys it, it pays very well, and it tickles his ego by making him well known. He is one of the big cheeses of Wine Spectator, apart from having his own posh shop in Knightsbridge in London.”

Nora observed May as she looked at her husband standing beside that whale of a Mercedes, the type that screamed success, which had now become the symbol of something else. May’s face contracted as if she were in pain; it made her suffer not to be able to help him. He was unwittingly consuming her along with all that grape juice that had been both the making and the unmaking of him.

“How can I even dream of asking him to stop working? It is his one love! The only way I can think of to help him is by asking him to do something that is guaranteed to make him unhappy. I never believed in ‘happy drunks’ before I met him, but I have to say that it is a joy to see how he enjoys drinking wine. It is not the effect he is after but the taste. But of course you cannot have the one without the other. Mind you, he only drinks wine and would never touch hard liquor or beer. I would, I know, be justified in becoming such a killjoy because his kind of happiness is nothing short of suicidal and homicidal. Just look at me! I used to be a good-looking woman, and now I am in a league with scarecrows.” She held up her thin veiny arms, the wrists of which Nora was certain could be circled by her own forefinger and thumb.

“And what if he stopped working?” May pursued. “Then he would continue drinking for fun and wreak havoc without being paid. Guess what he did two weeks ago? We’re staying for a month or two at the place of a winemaker friend of his, which has its own cellar, of course. Two weeks ago he goes down to the cellar to pick a bottle for dinner while I am happily chopping away in the kitchen at a bunch of fabulous veg we had just brought back from the market. Time flies, and the heaps of zucchini, asparagus, and porcini are turning into veritable mountains, yet he is still not back up from the cellar. I finally finish all the prep work and decide to go out to the verandah and read.

“I light one cigarette after another. I sip away two cups of coffee. The protagonist is close to succeeding in his quest, and Gordon is still not back. Nowadays I am very careful not to go snooping after him; although he is the sweetest and most grateful guy, he has recently declared that I tend to overdo my role as guardian angel, and he has started feeling persecuted. He’s told me in so many words that I am ‘policing’ him, and would I please let him have his bloody space. But by now the sun is going down, and so down I go to the cellar, where I find him sitting on the floor ensconced between two barrels, hugging a bottle and gazing at the three empty ones lying in front of him on the floor. I rush down the steps and entreat him to get up, for Christ’s sake, and come back to the house.

“He can hardly talk, so he has great difficulty telling me about what he has resolved while nipping away the afternoon. He declares that he has decided to spend a few days down in the cellar because it is nice and cool there and it smells beautiful and he wants to seriously devote his attention to the new stuff we had bought at the neighboring wineries. I have to understand, he solemnly slurs, that he has work to do. I am to bring down his food and a sleeping bag. Of course I can join him if I like, but he doesn’t insist.

“At first I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but soon enough I got rather exasperated because it was impossible to reason with him. I realized I had to wait until he slept off the booze. So I left him there and brought him a bit of bread and cheese and a sleeping bag. I didn’t want to make him overly comfortable, thinking that if he sobered up enough to feel the stiffness in his back and feel hunger after the meager portion of food I had given him, he might come up.

“As you may very well guess, he did not do so, but continued drinking, and so I never had the option of reasoning with him. He finally came up when he had drunk the cellar dry. It sounds grotesque and sad, but now, looking back on it after today, it seems a better scenario or at least a much safer one. What’s more, he actually swore afterwards that he had had the time of his life and he would turn it into a monthly tradition. Some people go to spas; he will just go down the cellar for a bit of therapy.”

Nora didn’t quite know how to react. If she had heard this story over a glass of wine during a candlelit dinner with friends, she would have laughed; it was a tragicomedy par excellence. But now, sitting on the bent guardrail, looking down the drop-off, surveying the dents in the car and the big white deflated airbags, with Gordon swaying and giggling nearby like a tipsy schoolgirl, it gave her goose bumps. Her situation with Hugh was an attractive scenario in comparison. But Will…Jesus. Will might end up just like this, minus the happiness factor.

“I guess you’ve come to Italy to sample some wines for his business?”

“Yeah, as always, but only partly, actually. This time we also wanted to look at some property around here. If there is anything else Gordon is interested in, it’s real estate, and he’s thinking about retiring here, so he wants to buy a place with a vineyard, an orchard, a vegetable garden, maybe even a pond and a stable, the whole nine yards, you know. He says it’s time he turned into an actual winemaker. Of course, his friend’s house where we’re staying is for sale, and the real reason we’re here is to give it a test run. Well, he has tested the cellar dry, that’s for sure.”

May’s voice was tinged with irony, but her tone was still affectionate. It might have been May’s natural, frank, and amusing manner of chatting about the most personal things in the midst of chaos that loosened Nora’s tongue; for she suddenly found herself describing the details of her own private life that under normal circumstances she would share with no one. And here she was, telling a virtual stranger all about her plans for the future and her reasons for having moved here all alone, far, far away from anyone who knew her. May sat quietly, listening, and by the time Nora was nearing the end of the story, the big banged-up car and the related debris had been cleared out of the road.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a car accident quite so much before,” May said as she rose from the guardrail and waved across the road to Gordon. “Well, not that I would wish to be involved in another one, but it really has been a pleasure to meet you.”

“Would you like to visit me sometime?” Nora said impulsively, and the sincerity of her offer surprised her. But she couldn’t deny that she, too, had enjoyed meeting May and wouldn’t have minded spending more time with her. “The house I’m renting is hereabouts.”

But when May shook her head, Nora felt a bit relieved after all. May said that she had listened to Nora’s story carefully enough to know that all she really wanted at this point was privacy and the only thing she really did not need was intruders, however well they got on.


8.

“Little Henry” was a complete misnomer, and he owed it simply to his grandfather’s love of Dickens. Grandpa had been direly disappointed by Henry’s birth—first because he had not been presented with a granddaughter with the makings of “little Nell,” and second because Henry was at birth an awkward creature with an old man’s face, and Grandpa seemed to have completely forgotten the births of his own children and thus hadn’t been properly prepared for the relative ugliness of the newborn Henry with his wizened skin and slits for eyes. Indeed, the birth had so traumatized him that he had continued to regard Henry as an unseemly child despite the handsomeness he gradually attained. The boy had, in fact, been born something of an old soul, and the way he was brought up accelerated the loss of any apparent traces of soft childishness. Nora had loved him at birth, certainly, and still did, but she was not cut out for motherhood, and however hard she tried, she could not warm to the role. It was not that Henry had not been the beneficiary of her time and attention; it’s just that this investment was not necessarily one of motherly care. Her presence was like that of a teacher who inspired awe and respect—even adoration—but no warm and fuzzy feelings of love.

Henry had always done his best to please his mother, but it was a task doomed to failure from the outset; he was human, after all. To realize this, however, took time and experience, and his early childhood was, therefore, spent in dumb misery. At first, he kept hating himself for his clumsy imperfection; he felt sorry for his mother for having such a disaster for a son. Then he heard over and over again other boys’ stories about their mothers—stories of cooing and pampering and forgiveness. And then he began comparing himself with these boys and, without vanity, he saw that he was one of the best students around, and yet somehow he had never been his mother’s pride and joy. It was good that he was good, she would say, but instead of becoming smug and conceited about his achievements, he needed to aim at even better results. It was good that he was the best of his school, she told him, but he had to see the big picture and compare himself with the best not only there but also at the best schools.

Nora’s exacting behavior toward her son did not stem from any desire to turn him into something that she had never achieved. She was not an individual thwarted in her ambitions as far as scholarship went; she had always been the best on the field, and she took it for granted that a child of hers would naturally be so as well. If she had been trying to turn Henry into an acclaimed novelist, then it could have been said that she was trying to realize her own dreams through him. But Henry could choose his field of interest as he pleased. He just had to be damn good at whatever it was that he chose.

Henry did not fare much better with his father in the department of emotional comfort and validation. During his constant and passionate pursuit of youth and beauty, Hugh did not like to be reminded that he was getting older, and the appearance of the fruit of his loins did nothing but. And as Henry grew up, the sense grew in Hugh that Henry’s youthful vigor was pushing him out of the spotlight, the arena, as it were. The word “Dad” was taboo; he demanded that Henry call him “Hugh” at all times. Of course, referring to him as his father was inevitable sometimes, but to be called “Dad” to his face was too much for Hugh’s vanity. Apart from this issue—the literal repudiation of performing the role of the father—Hugh proved to be a good friend to his son. If he was not loving and responsible the way a parent should be, he could still be something of an entertaining companion. He was incapable of teaching or enlightening him by degrees; he just talked to his boy as to an equal, and it took Henry a considerable amount of time, sometimes years, to figure out the meaning of his father’s occasional remarks, especially concerning women.

Advertently or inadvertently, it is impossible to avoid setting an example for one’s child; whatever one does, the little creature takes as a model for his own behavior. Unfortunately, besides his desire to please his mother, the studious little boy couldn’t help imitating his father, and his unwitting gestures shocked both his mother and his acquaintances. He slapped a pretty classmate’s bottom as a sign of greeting, and was summarily told off. He was severely reprimanded by his big-breasted math teacher for staring at her cleavage instead of looking her in the eyes while answering her questions. When a proud mother of one of his classmates asked whether he found her daughter lovely in her Halloween costume, he coolly remarked that a flat-chested female could not by definition be called attractive. The similarly flat-chested mother gasped and turned abruptly from the cruel boy without any response.

At first other boys thought they were laughing along with Henry when he said and did these things; they thought he did them on purpose, to create scandal and be funny. They soon realized, however, that he was terribly ashamed at having done or said things that, as it turned out, were socially unacceptable to at least half the population. It became clear that Henry had had no intention whatsoever to prove himself either a cool dude or a miniature amoroso—he just behaved according to what his father had told him and the way he’d seen his father behave. And when he went home and told Hugh about his most recent embarrassment, his father would roar with laughter and pat him on the back, without deeming to explain how it was that the same behavior in two people could elicit such contrary reactions.

It was easy, then, for Henry to go to college preparatory boarding school and leave the parental nest, which had never been the remotest bit nestlike in the first place. It was a relief to be free of the exacting presence of his mother and the increasingly embarrassing behavior of his father—which mortified Henry more as he began to understand them better. At school he managed to get a room of his own, and he rarely mixed with the other inmates, who seemed to him far too puerile to have a decent conversation with—Henry’s introversion had only been exacerbated to a nearly antisocial level by Nora’s highbrow attitude in intellectual matters.

As Henry had no idea what Nora actually thought of him, Nora had no idea what went on in her son’s head. She ascribed his eagerness to go to a boarding school to Harry Potter and had not the slightest inkling that the boy was looking for solitude in the midst of the crowd—and had she known, she might have been proud of his having taken to heart the words of Poe, Hawthorne, and Emerson and put his self-reliance to the test. He had resolved to outwardly conform only as much as was strictly necessary and to retain his inner freedom.

His attraction to his Italian teacher’s charms, therefore, only partly derived from her handsomeness and chiefly owed to Miss Pim’s strong likeness to Hester Prynne. It wasn’t a physical resemblance, of course, but an attitude that Henry took for outward conformity hiding an introverted passion. The boy had obviously read too much and given his imagination as long a leash as it wanted. If he had noticed the traits secondary to the seemingly magisterial reserve of his teacher, he would have been the first one to pronounce her a walking cliché, whose daydreams about purchasing the latest Gucci bag and whose weakness for immaculately dressed men would have turned him away in disgust. Not that Amanda Pim was stupid or uneducated.  She was well read and a skillful educator, but her main aim in life was to be the modern equivalent of what they called a “great lady” in the nineteenth century; although high birth was not attainable without being born again, style, grace, homage, and, most of all, the money to attain all this, were, in theory at least, dreams that could be made to come true if one really tried.  She had also read too much.

If one wanted, however, to see poor Amanda in a more flattering light, one might point out the ways in which she was like the modernists, a more select company. Her desire for Gucci bags, for example, might be interpreted as love of cultivation of form. Moreover, one might recognize that this respect for form was what made Miss Pim first and foremost a conscientious teacher, who was eager to hide such minor vices as her passion for smoking water pipes not because she was a hypocrite, but because she wanted to set a good example. Indeed, one of her most exemplary characteristics was her way with her students. Although in that all-male environment a much less attractive woman would have set the majority of the juvenile hearts on fire, instead of pressing her advantage even in the most innocent form for the sake of nourishing her ego, she was ever more bent on mitigating her charms during school hours with the help of stiff high-necked blouses and almost drab long skirts. She had no intention of flirting with her juniors and torturing them with the undeniably luscious cleavage that she boasted outside school boundaries. She was there to earn money and, if a selfish motive had to be admitted, to work in an all-male environment in which she would never have to feel envious of and compete with other females.

So Miss Pim did not in the least encourage Henry’s fixation.  Paradoxically enough, however, even the shadow of encouragement from her would have had a contrary effect. The fact that she remained aloof and therefore mysterious made it impossible for Henry to see what was behind what he envisioned as a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light around her; he couldn’t detect that deep down she was shallow. Henry had no real desire to peek behind that dazzling curtain of light, anyway; even if he had been able to find marvels equal to Miss Pim’s external beauty, he very much preferred the mystery. He wanted food not for his senses but for his imagination.

Henry’s fixation on Miss Pim marked a period in which a certain “mother complex” strengthened in the young man’s psyche. His own mother had noted early on his preference for women older than himself, and she blamed herself bitterly for it. Characteristically overimaginative and prone to exaggeration, Nora had horrific visions of a daughter-in-law not considerably her junior. That her son would find fuel for his unnatural tendency immediately upon leaving the field of her surveillance—and what was more, in the midst of supposed scholarly rigor—was a possibility that had never occurred to her. There were many things on her mind as she packed on the eve of her Italian sojourn, but Henry’s possible obsession with one of his teachers was certainly not among them. Henry was, as far as she could see, safely tucked away in an all-male ivory tower, diligently learning the ways of how to feel at home in such a spiritual habitation, which was another way of saying that she hoped and expected that he would somehow unlearn the ways of the outside world. Despite Nora’s Jamesian preoccupation with sensory experience, she had, just like the Master himself, a horror of anything vulgar.


9.

“What do you mean I can’t talk to him?”

“I simply mean that he is in class at present, and we have a strict policy against disturbing lectures unless there is an emergency and a member of the family is making the request.”

Hugh could perfectly picture that pompous ass of a porter whose sole purpose in life was to fend off the vulgar outsiders insolent enough to barge in on the disciples in the temple of Education, even if it was in the form of an innocent phone call from a student’s—relative.

“This is his father calling, and it is nothing less than an emergency.” Hugh gulped at having to refer to his own fatherhood. “Now, please be so kind as to transfer your body mass to the classroom wherein my son temporarily resides and let him know that his sire wants to converse with him asap.”

The porter did not find Mr. Hilary in the least bit hilarious, and he was far from appreciating Mr. Hilary’s reference to his body mass. Hugh had actually no idea that he had hit home and that the porter was seriously obese and, in general, more than happy to obey the school policy concerning the interruption of any lesson and stay smugly put in his comfy cubicle. But an emergency was another matter. He could not accuse a parent of lying and was not in a mood to argue, anyway.

“Hold, please,” he said testily, and then he moved his capacious backside all the way down the corridor and knocked with his fleshy knuckles on the door of room 101, Miss Pim’s classroom.

“Excuse me for interrupting the lesson, but there is an urgent phone call for Henry Hilary. It is his father on the line.”

Being dragged away in the middle of a lesson with Amanda, as he privately thought of her, did not make Henry eager to take the call, even if he was usually happy to hear from his good-for-nothing dad. As soon as he had left home, he had realized that the older man was a much better companion than any of the boys at school. He wasn’t exactly homesick, but he was grateful for Hugh’s friendly words from time to time. Lately, however, those words had been few and far between, and Henry was rather put out with Hugh for having neglected him, and his joy was therefore mixed with resentment, which only added to the annoying circumstance of having to leave Amanda’s class. Thus he stood up from his bench with a reluctance akin to that of the meaty porter and followed the latter back to his cubicle. Room 101 always smelled of flowers, and stepping onto the corridor that reeked of stale cabbages and onions made Henry’s stomach contract violently. One more reason to be put out by that bloody call.

“Hello, this is Henry.” He had resolved to present a cool front. Let his father apologize first.

“And this is Hugh. How are you, old man? I haven’t heard your voice in a million years.”

“It was on my birthday five weeks ago, actually,” his son offered with faux diplomacy. He took his father’s manufactured cheer as a sign of a bad conscience trying to make up for his negligence. Yet he continued to punish Hugh with what seemed to him an icy reserve.

“A long time ago, anyway. I hope I’m doing you a good turn by giving you a valid excuse for missing out on a chunk of some boring lecture, eh?”

“It happens to be my favorite class that’s on at the moment, and I wish to go back as soon as possible. We only have five Italian classes a week, and it would be a shame to waste any of it.”

Hugh decided not to notice his son’s bad humor. He had important things on the agenda . “Funnily enough,” he said, “the reason I’m calling happens to be to offer you a much better opportunity to practice your Italian. I am inviting you to come and see your mother at her new home in Italy this weekend—you know, it’s a long weekend. We would make it a surprise visit, Denise, you, and me, and possibly your cousin Anna, and Will.”

“What? Mother is in Italy? What are you talking about, Hugh?” The boy was genuinely surprised and forgot all about his resentment and his Italian lesson.

“Oh, I might have known. Your mother has kept you in the dark, too. She hasn’t told anyone, apparently. Well, it’s no surprise, really. She probably did not want to upset you unnecessarily.” Well done, Nora, he thought. Now I am to get the unpopular role of being the bearer of bad news when all I’d planned was to bring good tidings. “Your term does not finish for a few more weeks, if I’m not mistaken.” He added, stating the obvious so as to bide his time while he was busy readjusting.

Nora, in fact, had not called or written to her son about her departure exactly because she hadn’t wanted to make him feel she was abandoning him, when physically it did not make any difference on what side of the Atlantic she resided; the boy was at his boarding school, and as soon as the term ended, he was to go and stay with Anna and Will at a villa in the Caribbean they were in the habit of renting. Mother and son were not to meet for a long stretch of time to come, anyway, and what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, she had argued; there would be time enough to undeceive him as to her whereabouts by and by. It hadn’t occurred to her that he and Hugh talked at all, and if they did that they would discuss her. And of course, she had no idea that before their trip to the Caribbean, her niece and said niece’s boyfriend were planning to knock on her door across the ocean—in the company of her son, her husband, and her successor.

“No, you’re not mistaken.” Henry sighed and determined to be manly about the whole thing. It did hurt to have his mother vanish into Italian air without a word or a hug. He still had the occasional childish longing for motherly cuddling that he was supposed to have outgrown almost as soon as he had been born. “I am willing to go, but I’m not quite sure why any of us is going at all. Didn’t she leave because she wanted to be alone?” He knew his mother well enough to suspect that her going to Italy was not an unspoken call for her relatives to join her there. If she had left without saying anything to most of them, she surely did not want visitors. How much better Henry knew his mother than she knew him!

“Well, she might want to be alone in general, I agree. But even if she has left in order to have her own space and the time she needs to try and become a writer, I’m sure she’d be happy to see us for a few days. We’re not moving there, after all. We’re just visiting.” Hugh also knew his wife, and so he knew that his son was right, but he had goals of his own that must be met.

“Even if she doesn’t mind our visit, don’t you think it would be in questionable taste to bring your girlfriend?”

“Oho, look who’s becoming a moralist! Thank you for your precious observation. I stand corrected. I am an immoral bastard. Nevertheless, I might almost be said to have the moral high ground here. You have to admit that your mother’s behavior alleviates mine. She left me, after all, and I am simply following her example and going on with my life.” Never mind that the main reason Nora left in the first place was that Hugh had begun a life that largely excluded her many years previous. “I want to ask her for a divorce and appeal to her better sense and possibly persuade her to accept and even like Denise.”

“May I humbly observe that your chronology is a bit twisted? You met Denise first, and then Mother left and not the other way round.”

“But she didn’t know about Denise then, so your point is moot. Or did you say something to her? I am seriously questioning your masculinity if you did.” Hugh’s voice contained hurt and even outrage. His own son betraying him!

“You’re not making any sense, Hugh. Denise wasn’t even in the picture the last time I visited you. It was a different woman whose charms you praised to me and hid from Mother. You told me about Denise during our last telephone conversation, and since then I haven’t talked to Mother. Anyway, it was a piece of information I did not ask for, and you would have been welcome to have kept it to yourself.” Even after all these years it still sickened him at times to have his father talk to him—his own son!—about his love affairs, as if Henry were just another one of his buddies. Henry had never actually met any of these women, and now his father was requesting with the utmost nonchalance not only that he meet his latest mistress but that he do so while visiting his own mother!

“This conversation is taking a nasty turn, old boy. Let us get back to the essentials rather than insulting each other unnecessarily. Do you want to join us and go to Orvieto to see your mother or not?”

Orvieto! Miss Pim had actually talked quite a lot about Umbria because she had obtained a year’s scholarship to Perugia and had rambled around the whole of that part of the Bel Paese. What a great opportunity it would be to acquire firsthand knowledge about the very places she had visited, to follow in her pretty footsteps and feel her presence at every turn! It was decided, then. He wanted to go badly, even if it meant a week away from her actual bodily presence.

“All right. I’ll go.” He said with feigned indifference, while his heart was beating fast.

“Just don’t do me any favors. Come only if you really want to. I don’t want your company if you’re going to turn into a wet blanket.”

Guastafeste. No, he wouldn’t be that.


10.

“Good morning. May I speak to Henry Hilary, please?”

If the porter had been familiar with the French term déjà vu, he surely would have thought this occasion a good example of it. The day before he had felt both lazy and argumentative, but today he was planning an early lunch at the canteen so as to avoid having to make do with the leftovers from a crowd of hungry adolescents. Thus he had been thinking for the last twenty minutes about leaving his cozy cubicle, and the call could be regarded as opportune enough, since the Hilary boy was in room 100 at the moment, which was on the way to the canteen.

Henry was being intensely bored by the physics teacher when the porter’s round head became visible in the hallway beyond the slightly opened door and he emitted a wheezy sound meant to pass for a polite cough, which served effectively enough to interrupt the teacher’s monotone. And bingo, Henry was the coveted article again. Two phone calls in two days, and whoever it was would have the pleasure of talking to a chatty Henry, who had not the slightest wish to end the conversation for at least the next twenty minutes, when the lesson was to be over at last. That it was Anna was another gift of fate. He loved his cousin. His cousin was nothing less than one of the most important persons in his life, actually.

Anna had always been a veritable bridge between the trinity of father, son, and mother. The fact that she tended to be lenient toward her uncle might have been attributed to their shared blood, but the fact that she had turned out to be one of Nora’s best friends came as a surprise to them all. While Nora could not, for the life of her, warm to the maternal role concerning her own offspring, her more sisterly affection toward Anna came naturally. In time, their bond had actually been strengthened by the younger woman’s helpful mediation between mother and son. It was easy for Anna to love Henry without reservation, something his mother seemed incapable of doing. This, even though Anna was averse to the idea of having kids of her own any time soon and did not consider herself by nature much closer to being the motherly type than her aunt. A few years back there had actually been a pregnancy false alarm, and it had come as an enormous relief when Anna learned she had only contracted a virus in the tropics that produced similar symptoms.

Yet with Henry it was different. She could revel in the cushy role of older cousin, which meant no responsibility and all the fun of cuddling the soft little baby; drawing with crayons and watching infantile Disney cartoons with the young boy; and joking with and mentoring the adolescent. She was free to show up whenever she felt like it and leave when she had had enough, such as when she had other things to do or her little companion started becoming bothersome with his crying or his begging to have stories repeated over and over again. What was more, it was exactly the original freedom from responsibility that had made her feel like taking up some of it out of her own free will, and she had early on created the persona of the affectionate mentor that was something of a cross between Nora’s emotionally cold pedantry and Hugh’s affectionate but wholly inconsiderate friendship, splashed with a little of her own genuine warmth and humor.

“Harry, boy, how are you? I hope I’m not interrupting a session with Amanda.” Of course Anna had dragged out of Henry everything she could about her cousin’s infatuation.

“No, no, you are saving me from Spruce Bruce’s insufferable attempts at killing us with boredom. You would think such a playboy would retain some of his virility during class and come up with livelier lectures. But to expect such a thing would be a fatal mistake,” Henry rattled on cheerfully.

“Then you must be extra elated to hear your old cousin’s voice. And you should be, too. Guess what? I have an even better program for you than chilling in the Caribbean—which we’ll also do, but before that, what would you say to Italy?”

Anna was laboring under the illusion that she would be the first one to talk about the Italian trip, and Henry hated to burst her bubble, seeing how pleased she was with herself for being the bearer of exciting news.

“Don’t be disappointed if I say I already know about the Italian plan. That doesn’t make it less sweet of you to have wanted to surprise me. Anyway, Hugh has been kind enough to inform me about Mother’s desertion and his plan to transport his latest flame in my, your, and Will’s company all the way to Orvieto in order to catch Mother in a situation where she cannot possibly feel righteous indignation about his asking for a divorce. Cunning, that’s what he thinks he is. He was actually trying to sell it to me as a joyride. Well, there are fun parts to it, that’s for sure—you’re going to be there after all, and it is Italy, but I could definitely do without Denise.”

“And what about Hugh? Aren’t you happy to spend some time with your old dad? Are you that pissed at him? You guys are usually such good friends. You are much too intelligent to let all this nonsense get to you.”

“You know very well it’s not a question of intelligence. I love the old man—you know that, too. It’s just more than ordinarily weird to accompany him and his new girlfriend as he sets out to confront my mother. I’m used to a lot of shit, but this tops all.”

It was good that the porter was still busy fortifying himself with a tray laden with nourishment sufficient to feed three less voracious inmates and that he therefore did not overhear Henry’s conversation with his cousin, for in the name of Education, he did not tolerate the use of foul language anywhere near his cubicle, and in this way, he felt he was a worthy extension of his more learned colleagues.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Anna said, building toward the crescendo of her pep talk. “I’m not an unfeeling person or anything like that, but it will be quite an experience to see what comes of it all. I mean our showing up, this absurd cast of people—husband with his lover and his best friend, son, and niece—on the doorstep of Nora unsuspecting, Nora who could not in her worst nightmare imagine such a Gypsy wagon train intruding upon her sweet solitude. Do you know that she never mentioned a word to me about her plans for self-liberation? I feel rather hurt about it, and I’m sure you do, too. Well, poor woman, now she’ll be punished for having dared to think she was entitled to any secrecy or privacy,” Anna chuckled.

“For my part, I don’t feel sorry for her. It’s not that she has been the epitome of self-effacing, self-sacrificing motherhood. She has always kept her distance and has always had her private sphere. She didn’t need to go to Italy to get it.”

“Youth is cruel. Thank God I am not so young anymore; I would hate to be so cruel. You know your mother loves you very, very much in her own way.”

“Yeah, in her own way, all right. Anyway, I’m just saying it’s not because I feel called upon to respect Mother’s privacy that I have misgivings about this whole trip. It serves her right, if you ask me. It’s the explaining away of my father’s behavior that I find beyond me. The man has absolutely no tact, neither toward me, nor towards Mother, nor, in fact, toward his new lover. I mean, what kind of guy recruits a weirder selection of people for a weirder errand? But you’re right. If we manage to rise above it emotionally, it might turn out to be outrageously funny.”

“That’s the spirit. You have to look upon life as if you were a spectator watching a tragicomedy, getting a good laugh at the funny bits and remaining sufficiently detached during the sad parts. Gosh, do I sound like a textbook?”

“More like second-rate versions of Pater and James. And while you’re at it, don’t you want to paraphrase James and advise me to ‘live all I can’? And then continue with Pater’s words and point out that life is ‘a continual vanishing away’ and that to grasp the moment and ‘to burn with a hard gem-like flame’ whenever possible is the only way to go? Mother fed me this kind of stuff with my baby food. It’s a miracle I didn’t die in the cradle as a result of having James tales read to me instead of ninna-nannas. And my father’s chasing girls my own age? Allegedly that’s all been done in the name of Pater,” Henry observed sarcastically.

Nora’s—and to a certain extent Hugh’s—heritage, however questionable from a pedagogical point of view, had not been lost on her son. He wasn’t crazy about James—the overdose hadn’t helped—but he had been deeply impressed by the essays of Walter Pater. Nora was less happy about Pater’s influence on her son than might be expected; while she admired Pater’s ideas, she did not want their application to result in an “untidy life” for her son, the likes of which T. S. Eliot had attributed to the worthy thinker. To have Henry turn into some drifting aesthete—or worse, someone like his own father!—would be completely unacceptable to her. He was expected to do more than just be.

“Congrats,” Anna said. “I see you’ve not lost your edge. One might mistake you for an upstart intellectual.”

“And that would be their first mistake,” Henry laughed.

“Of course it would. You’ve got a long way to go. Don’t think that a couple of short stories and essays have done the trick. Look into George Eliot and find out about liberal humanism before you start condemning everyone to the trash heap. Learn to view people’s deeds in context. Your mum’s motives might feel personal, but trust me when I tell you that it’s not all about you. Your parents aren’t acting this way in order to hurt you.”

“No, they’re acting this way because they are too busy thinking about themselves—they are the ones who think it’s all about them. They should get familiar with the concept of ‘context’ just as well.”

“Gosh, don’t tell me you’re getting too big for your britches,” Anna laughed. She was impressed by Henry’s mental development. The boy had always possessed a precocious intelligence, but in the last two years he had made great progress in developing a personality to go along with it. Yet this development, at the same time, put him in grave danger of becoming cynical. It was good that the end of the term was approaching and that he would be away from the school environment for a few months and exposed to some warmth and affection to balance out the cold intellectualism that was gaining an upper hand in his outlook on the world. As always, to fill in the deficit left by his parents’ shortcomings, Anna would be there to supply that warmth for him.

“That’s what Hugh said in so many words. He accused me of having become a moralist.”

“Well, you are a tough customer. But listen, I’ve got to go soon; I have a bunch of things to take care of before we leave. So, you’re in?”

“Absolutely. After talking with you, I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be great fun.”

“Excellent. So long, then, Cousin. See you very soon. Pack light. I expect Denise will have several bags, and you know we’ll probably end up having to squeeze into a couple of Smart Cars or some other ridiculous matchboxes.”

“Is this Denise really that kind of bimbo who has a matching pair of shoes for each of her dresses?”

“Not a bimbo, exactly, but a typical female when it comes to clothes. She may even bring a hairdryer.”

“That sounds reassuring.” Now he had one more reason to hate the person who might very well be his future stepmother.

 

11.

“May I please speak with—”

“Henry Hilary?”

“Well, yes. How did you know?”

“Oh, it’s become a matter of course, nowadays. Just a minute. I’ll get him.” The fat porter sighed and attempted to rise from his seat with as much grace as possible. There were three ladies—two of them youngish, as far as he could see without his glasses—standing in front of his cubicle waiting for their acquaintances. It was visiting day.

The porter’s knock was answered by a gruff, deep voice. Mr. Ariston, the philosophy teacher, did not tolerate being interrupted. Middle-aged, strict, but essentially warm-hearted, this man lived solely for his chosen field and expected his pupils to do the same. Most of them, therefore, gave him ample ground for disappointment, but there were a happy few who seemed to understand that there could be nothing more vital and noble than accompanying the greatest philosophical minds in their intellectual pursuits and trying to add a portion, however humble, to their worthy findings. Henry was one of these students. Mr. Ariston could not rival Amanda’s personal charms, of course, but Henry found his subject fascinating. Hence this third phone call was not a welcome one.

“This is Henry Hilary.”

There was only dead silence at the other end of the line. Henry could not even hear the breathing of the other party. So much the better. He replaced the receiver and started walking back toward his classroom, and as he did, the phone rang again. The porter had not come back to his cubicle, so there was nothing for Henry to do but to answer the phone himself. Usually the porter would bite off anyone’s head for such presumption, but Henry did not feel like taking the trip twice in case the caller persisted. Nobody was in sight, anyway (the three girls had disappeared by the time Henry got to the cubicle), and there was a slight chance that it was Anna calling back, having forgotten something the other day.

“Hello, Henry Hilary here. Who is this?” At this point, it was good the porter wasn’t around. He would have taken Henry’s mode of answering the phone as a sacrilege. The idiot. As if such stuff really mattered, while Ariston was discoursing on Plato’s Republic.

“Oh, hi there. Why did you hang up before?” It was a female voice, sweet as honey and at the same time as insolent as they come.

“Because I thought you had hung up. You didn’t answer.”

“I was painting my nails, and I dropped the varnish bottle on the floor. Hugh would’ve killed me if I’d stained his beige carpet with blood-red nail polish.”

Good Lord! It had to be Denise. What on Earth could she want?

“It’s not his beige carpet but my mother’s. You must be Denise.”

“Oh, I forgot to say? Yes, this is Denise, and your dad doesn’t know that I’m calling, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything.”

Naughty girl. Why was she trying to make him her confidant right at the outset of their acquaintance?

“Well, what can I do for you, Denise?” He was consciously trying for impertinence. She could go to hell and let him go back to his philosophy. But to his surprise, there was laughter at the other end of the line—gurgling, girlish laughter that was not in the least bit forced. Sweet, despite what Henry knew of its owner.

“There is something you can do for me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have called.” She seemed very much amused and not in the least offended. “Look, I know this is awkward and you have better things to do than talking to your mother’s successor. But that’s exactly why I’m calling. It’s pretty obvious why Hugh wants to go to Italy. But to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to get married, and I don’t even think I have long-term plans with your father. But I find him too sweet to disappoint him exactly at that point in his life when he’s beginning to think about making the kind of commitments he’s always been running away from with other women. I feel honored, but I’m going to have to say, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’”

Wow. This was sweet. The content matched the form, too. Not only was this woman sweet-voiced, but also candid and plucky and rather observant. In the short time she and Hugh had been together, she had figured him out and decided she didn’t feel like staying long enough to become the one cheated on instead of the one cheating with, regardless of how rarely the former post had been offered to any mortal.

Henry had no clue about Denise’s short attention span in every aspect of life. He did not know that the prince on a white horse would not have fared much better than Hugh with this flake. As Henry was learning, and as Hugh had correctly suspected, Denise had lately grown bored with the older lover scenario. She thirsted for something new. And Hugh’s heart would surely not break over it, and in a few months he would feel immense relief and even gratitude toward her for having saved him at the last minute from making a huge mistake. For she knew very well that their remaining together would have been a mistake on both sides. But a pleasure trip—a lovely trip to Italy that she would have been foolish to refuse—could be conveniently turned into a farewell tour, which was always the sweeter and more memorable for being the last. And, who knew, she might be doing a good turn to the son and the mother as well. The Hilary family might want to reunite at some point in the future, anyway, and she was leaving that door open for them. Armed with all these reasons that could so conveniently be dressed up as considerate thoughts toward her fellow humans, she had managed to convince herself that she was not the heartless young woman she might appear to be.

“But where do I come in?” Henry asked. “I mean, I appreciate your honesty, but I’m at a loss as to why you might be telling me all this.”

“I’m telling you all this because if you know that as suddenly as I’ve come into the picture, I am also going to fade out of it, it should be easier for you to be nice to your father, and maybe even to me, too. There’s no need to sulk and rebel on my account. After all, I don’t want you to ruin my trip to Italy.”

Our trip, you mean.” He was very much amused by now, and he had a feeling that he and Denise were going to get on famously. In fact, she was quite something.

“If you want to mince words, yes. Anyway, isn’t it heavenly to be going to Umbria at this time of the year? I just love Italy. I’ve never actually been, you know, but I already know I love it.”

Loving Italy was not hard. Everybody did. Henry decided to forgive her this commonplace, because all he could have said was that he, too, loved Italy and that while he hadn’t been there, either, his love of Italy was not the commonplace kind everybody else owned up to. Even if he was aware of the universal love for the Bel Paese and was willing to consciously overlook Denise’s resorting to such a cliché, Henry did not know that she pretty much loved everything she came across, at least for a short while. Italy was in vogue with her at the moment, and it was all the more exciting because it was an as-yet-uncharted region that promised to feed her hungry, impatient desire for novelty.

“It’ll be fun,” Henry said mildly. “And I am happy you’ve let me know about all this with my father. You’ve saved me a lot of awkwardness and actually helped me look forward to the trip.”

“Good. That’s all I wanted. Well, I’ll let you go, now. I’m sure you have better things on your to-do list than a chitchat with me. Anyway, we’ll have days and days to talk very soon. I won’t ruin my chances of having something left to say.”

“I’m sure you are resourceful enough to fill out an eternity with your conversation.” What sentimental bosh! What was wrong with him? He hadn’t even meant it sarcastically. He hoped fervently that she would think that he had meant to be ironic, at least; it might save his ass.

She laughed, and he relaxed a little with relief.

“Oh, listen to the smooth operator. You are your father’s son. Good-bye, now. See you.”

“Bye.” It was good that videophones were not yet so widespread, since he had blushed as a result of his own idiocy up to the roots of his hair. Yet he could not be falling for her without even knowing what she looked like! Then again, one could trust the old man when it came to beauty. Henry did not like to admit it even to himself that his father’s only slip in that department had been the case of his mother. That would have been much too disrespectful even for his increasingly cynical outlook.


12.

As she was dragging countless bags from the car to the kitchen, Nora thought contentedly that she could survive a month-long siege without needing to leave the villa for provisions. Of course, she was mistaken, but at the moment she was still under the pleasing illusion that she would not have to waste precious time on fellow mortals for quite some time. Now the work could begin.

For the last few years, her life had seemed a string of events that interrupted and downright prevented her from even sitting down to her computer to write. These, let it be added, were not always humdrum domestic things, although there was always the shopping, the cooking, the making of sandwiches for a certain lunch box, the making of beds, the participation in polite conversation with the cleaning lady, who always took the book in Nora’s hand as a sign of boredom, an indication that she wanted to talk, and thus she ended up wasting as much of Nora’s time as if she had got down to the cleaning herself. There had always been the humdrum intellectual things as well, the reading and marking of endless essays, the prep work for classes, the prep work for the several conferences a year that she either partook in or organized, the charming but superfluous witticisms exchanged with her colleagues between lectures instead of letting each other concentrate on more intellectually rewarding tasks.

These things were all admittedly necessary and some of them even amusing, but they turned out to be great bores when a person had for so long wanted to do something meaningful in the way of creative work. Whether she actually had any talent for expression or was one of the unfortunates who felt the need without being gifted enough to do it well was a most distressing question that only experience could help her answer. So far, there had always been a pertinent enough excuse not to put herself to the test. She had always suffered from being thus repressed by circumstances—or at least she thought she suffered. The numerous excuses might, at the end of the day, turn out to be so many ways to unconsciously deter the moment when she would find out whether her dream of becoming a writer was doomed to failure.

Now there were no more excuses; she could sit down to write whenever she pleased. Yet she was taking an unusual amount of time unpacking her shopping bags just now. And when she had finished putting everything away, all of a sudden it felt too late in the day to begin; she felt tired out from the heat and, anyway, there were only a couple of chapters left in the novel she had been reading, and she was convinced it was the right time to finish it off.

The next morning, she got up fairly late. She had a leisurely breakfast in the garden. The rickety iron table and the matching iron chairs were not exactly conducive to lingering over her coffee and porridge; nevertheless, despite her aching back and sore bottom, she did not come in with the empties before noon. Then she decided to “go rustic” and do the washing up by hand instead of using the dishwasher—she told herself that the instrument did not inspire much trust with its creaky door and rusty shelves and that she would, in time, ask the owner to replace it. Till then, she would not die if she had to wash a couple of cups and plates by hand. Having tidied up the kitchen, she thought she would actually make another pot of coffee—she always drank coffee while sitting in front of her screen.

It was after one o’clock when she sauntered back to the living room and sat down at her computer. As soon as she turned it on, it came to her mind that she might check her e-mails before she got down to writing; she had been waiting for the reply of one of her colleagues in connection with the organizing of next year’s Henry James conference. She would not be around, and so she needed a trusty substitute. Isabel Miller was as good as it got when it came to James matters; the woman was not exactly original, but she was certainly thorough. She certainly could be trusted with a conference.

The Internet connection was beyond bad. What with the surrounding hills and the hill upon which the house was built, the area was famous for its terrible reception for whatever communicational device one wanted to use; mobiles, landlines, and Internet connections were on and off, coming and going with maddening capriciousness. It took Nora a full hour to check her messages; of course Isabel’s reply had not arrived, but there were a lot of advertisements from Amazon, Expedia, Splendia, Questia—and for some odd reason, Nora felt compelled to read them all from beginning to end, instead of deleting them and getting down to the writing she had claimed was the only thing that would quench her creative thirst.

By two-thirty she was hungry again, and so she decided to whip up a light salad and lay out a bit of smoked salmon on the side. She might as well open a bottle of Chardonnay as well—she was in Italy, after all, the land of vino.

The glass of wine made her a bit sleepy, and she decided to take a luxurious nap—why shouldn’t she? She was master of her own time; she could do whatever she pleased, whenever she pleased. Bliss.

It was four-thirty when she woke up from a fitful slumber, and she went back to the kitchen to make some more coffee. Now the time had really come to start writing. At this stage she had to admit it to herself that she was clearly getting cold feet; she had a great dread of sitting in front of the blank screen and of having to confess that she actually had no idea how to begin.

It wasn’t that she had never written fiction before. She was the none-too-proud but still hopeful author of four short stories that had stirred up no great enthusiasm among her fellow intellectuals, among the consumers of the pulp magazines where they were published, or even among her family and friends. It was easy enough to explain away her lack of success with well-known and universally accepted arguments. For example, the early attempts of some of the greatest writers testified to the fact that even genius needed practice and/or the ideal audience. James’s first short stories were nigh abominable, and look where he had gotten with perseverance! Wordsworth’s best poems sat within a great mass of mediocre and even downright bad poetry. Some of Trollope’s books were literally unreadable, they were so insipid, and, as to his beginnings, it had taken him a couple of novels before people remembered his name and pronounced him a tolerably promising writer. The majority of Wilde’s poetry was embarrassingly bad. George Eliot’s early tales and novels were more sentimental than most of the contemporary romances Eliot herself so much looked down upon.

What shook Nora’s confidence most violently was the reaction of her family and friends. It was understandable that some of the more literal-minded among them would recognize traits similar to their own and assume a character was meant to be their mirror image. Some were insulted, and others accused her of lack of imagination—how uncreative of her to take persons and events from life and simply change the names of the people and the places and claim that it was art! They refused to understand that art always drew in some way on life, whether literally or symbolically—the writer’s personal experiences served as a basis for her or his creations. Furthermore, just because Nora had borrowed certain traits from existing persons and given them to fictional characters, it did not mean that the whole of the character was supposed to represent the real person from whom one measly trait had been borrowed. People complained that she always borrowed their bad characteristics and never created anything flattering or even slightly positive. Her portraits were so many pieces of criticism. She was pronounced to be catty, mean.

And yet, she knew that she would always remain true to the Master’s maxim, and so whatever she wrote would be based on her own experiences. Despite the charges to the contrary, she was far from being an advocate of the roman à clef. In the Jamesian spirit, she relied heavily on her keen imagination, and so she was more than confident that she did not have to live through all the events that would appear on her pages, as long as she had a morsel of each event to use as a point of departure. She was planning, for example, to use certain Hungarian motifs based on past visits to that small and strange country. The experiences she’d collected on those occasions were still waiting to be metamorphosed into art. In other words, her present problem did not derive from either lack of philosophy or material.

First and foremost, she wanted to write about her falling for a fellow scholar when at a conference a good ten years earlier; a banal occurrence as far as love stories went.  So many thousands of books had come up with zestier, more romantic, more unusual, universally more meaningful, or simply funnier love affairs than hers, but what really mattered was the deep imprint it had left on her, the way she saw it—her point of view. There was, after all, nothing new under the sun, and even the number of narrative techniques was limited. Still, there was always a chance that her—or any other writer’s, for that matter—combination of form and matter could result in something utterly original, formerly unseen and unheard.

Dusk found her at her computer, occasionally typing away with great gusto, sometimes staring out of the window with eyes glazed, deep in thought. She had taken the first steps, painlessly. As she saved her file on several pen-drives and in three separate pockets of her computer’s memory, she felt her head buzzing from the mental exertion—her favorite feeling, this time especially well earned.

Nora knew, and countless writers would have agreed with her, that waiting for inspiration was the biggest waste of time. The muse might whisper something precious to the artist, but it was folly to wait for such moments. Rather, they had to be courted by sitting down to the blank sheet of paper or the empty computer screen, and l’appetito vien mangiando, thoughts and ideas would duly come to the diligent writer. Patience, practice, perseverance—the triple P of artistic success. Surely, a completely untalented person would never create a work of art by patiently plodding away at it, but neither would a talented person create anything at all without getting down to it regularly. Books did not, after all, write themselves.

Thinking of these clichés—because that was what they were, even if they were well worth taking to heart—Nora finished saving her work-in-progress and contentedly folded the laptop. Now that the ice had been broken, she hoped she would not have to master her fear and reluctance day by day. The next morning, admittedly, she would most likely be diverted for a time by the initial visit from Signora and Signorina Cesare, who would supposedly dust and wash and rub and scrub from ten till one, and there was nothing for her to do once they had begun but to go out to the garden and try to devote herself to the spiritual pleasures of creation despite the material discomfort of sitting on hard, rough iron.


13.

The ladies were late. It was twenty minutes to eleven when Nora heard the rumbling of the decrepit Panda’s engine. Carting two people up and down a series of steep hills seemed to have taxed the strength of the poor beast, even if it should have been used to such feats fifteen years into its monotonous career. Nora was not angry but a bit annoyed; she could not get rid of the suspicion that Massimo and his entire family shared the general idea that whoever was to be at home the whole day anyway would certainly not mind any kind of delay on the part of a visitor. Why would half an hour make a difference if the person waiting at home had no obligations outside the house?

The Cesare women, of course, had no way of knowing about Nora’s special hatred of such an attitude toward the sanctity of one’s private sphere. Whether she was having her breakfast, reading or writing, or, even worse, having things to do in the bathroom, she couldn’t stand being interrupted. To wait for a delivery that was supposed to be arriving anywhere between eight and three was a nightmare for her. Uninvited visitors showing up on her doorstep were as welcome as death. She would never drop in on someone without due warning. Why couldn’t people behave similarly toward her? And if somebody did arrange with her a certain time or at least warn her before popping in, why was it so hard to respect such a pact? Waiting for someone to arrive was the worst version of expectation, only slightly better than surprise visits.

Anyway, the queens of soapsuds had arrived, and they were as different as possible from Nora’s preconceptions based on Massimo. Contrary to the male representative of their family, the two women were polite without being obsequious, and there was nothing shifty about their eyes or greasy about their smiles. Signora Cesare began with an apology for being late. Even if it wasn’t really heartfelt—she couldn’t conceive of such delays as being offensive to anyone, and she personally would not have minded in the least if somebody else dropped in on her a few hours later than expected—it was sweetly rendered. Her voice was soft and melodious—there was no shrillness about it—and she tried to speak slowly so that the foreign lady could follow her speech more easily.

Clarissa Cesare was a short but shapely woman, and physical hardships, rather than wearing her out, seemed only to have given her more flexibility. She was fifty-eight, but she looked more radiant and youthful than Nora, who was not only younger but comparatively wealthy, used expensive anti-aging creams, and had an infinitely less vigorous lifestyle. Signora Cesare’s eyes were like big brown buttons, so typical of inhabitants of the Mediterranean, and her skin was ruddy and still tight on her round face. Her dark hair was starting to gray, but she had so much of it, and it was so curly that its abundant unruliness added more to her youthfulness instead of making her look unkempt or old. It wasn’t only her face that was round; she was the epitome of roundness without being fat. Strong muscles were cushioned in supple flesh and bones were only to be seen at the bend of an elbow or a knee.

The daughter, Celestina, was as physically unlike her mother as possible, and yet she was just as handsome in her way, if not more so. There were fewer characteristically Mediterranean attributes about her, which, however, resulted in something unique instead of disappointing, as was the case with her father. Her pale face was like a small flower on a slender stem. Her skin was like milk, and her freckles were like gold dust. Her eyes were veritable emeralds—Nora had never actually seen truly green eyes before—a green not reminiscent of a swamp, that is. To look into the girl’s eyes was like diving into a cool pool, and Nora recalled a Bulgarian colleague boasting of a group of tiny lakes in his native land, which were called the “Emerald Eyes,” but which were, according to a Hungarian colleague who had visited them, more like swamps than otherwise. Signorina Cesare was in possession of the true emerald eyes. Another unusual attribute was her short-cropped sandy hair. Nora was surprised first that two such dark-haired parents had produced such a fair child. Then she was shocked to admit that Celestina’s short hair enhanced her femininity instead of diminishing it. Nora had always considered short hair masculine, and there had been very few exceptions to her opinion over the years.

And here was this girl with the hair of a boy, lovely as a princess in a storybook, offering to scrub her toilets and change her dirty linen. Placing any creature above its fellows based on superior physical attributes was an attitude Nora had always fought hard against. To refuse to eat rabbit because one felt sorry for the poor bunny while stuffing one’s face unconcernedly with pork meat seemed hypocritical or even stupid to her. To be more positively disposed to someone because she or he happened to be good-looking was simply shallow. It was not sour grapes, not due to her status as pork in the hierarchy of beauty, the category of human beings so unattractive that they moved no one’s heart. Nora had always told herself that had she been young and beautiful, she wouldn’t have had a different approach to the unjust bias against the plain and uncomely. Yet here she was, feeling positively uncomfortable with youth and beauty on its hands and knees sparing unremarkable her from such drudgery. With Signora Cesare, Nora had not so many qualms; the older woman seemed to have positively flourished on such a demanding way of life. Moreover, Clarissa went about her work cheerfully and with practiced movements, talking all the way, her melodious voice making her speech sound like a lullaby.

Celestina, on the other hand, moved slowly and clumsily with the mop in her hands, and she kept nearly upsetting lamps and vases as she passed. She might simply not have been used to the job as yet, but it was more likely that she was just not cut out for such tasks and no matter how many years passed, she would never hold the mop more easily or dust with grace. Nora recalled her former thoughts concerning practice and perseverance being essential to artistic endeavor. Indeed, this maxim was true in connection with every kind of activity in life; it wasn’t only in the field of the arts that one had to go at something diligently. But some sort of talent or skill was also needed, whatever the activity might be. It was useless to try hard if one had not been endowed with the least little grain of talent. Just so, Celestina might have been born a hopeless case when it came to household matters.

Sitting in the garden, Nora occasionally glanced at the two women working inside the house—the mother like a perpetuum mobile, and the daughter like an inept version of Cinderella waiting for the fairy godmother and the prince to deliver her from her surroundings. It did take them almost twice three hours to do justice to the areas Nora had singled out as being in need of cleaning; she didn’t want them to bother with the rooms she had not even set foot in since her arrival and most probably would leave closed off. Dust accumulating behind closed doors would not bother her in the least. There was, however, the dilemma of what she should do with them in the future. Did she really want the clumsy princess hindering the efficient mother, who might have finished off the whole place faster and with better results without her hopeless offspring’s alleged help? But Nora couldn’t just explain such a concern to them in so many words; there should be a way to occupy the daughter without giving offense. Anyway, by the next time they visited, she would have thought of something.

When the Cesares had gone, Nora moved back inside the house and collapsed onto the plushy couch in the living room. There was absolutely no reason she should feel so tired out, since she had done nothing more strenuous than sitting and reading and had not lifted anything heavier than the page in a book. Her exhaustion, if it wasn’t an exaggeration to call it that, was purely mental; she had been so much taken up by the spectacle of these two ladies that she could not, during the whole interval, divert her mind from them and occupy it with the meaning of the words her eyes kept skimming. How could such a jewel of a woman have married a man like Massimo? How could their strange union have produced fruit of such delicacy and beauty as Celestina? At least one thing was now certain: Massimo had not been after Nora’s charms when she’d caught him peeking through her window. A man surrounded by so much stunning femininity had no need to catch clandestine glimpses of less attractive women. He was after something else.


14.

Signora Primavera was sitting in her perfectly manicured garden enjoying her prime view of Orvieto. The house she occasionally inhabited—La Serenissima—was in the immediate vicinity of Il Silenzio, the smaller house she always rented if there were tenants to be had. The houses were fairly close together, but part of the smaller house’s garden and a tall dense hedgerow at its end preserved the privacy of each household. While Il Silenzio was charming and well kept enough, La Serenissima was grander in every sense. The grass was literally greener on that side of the fence, the flowers had bigger heads, the garden furniture consisted of stylish matching beige sofa and armchairs dragged outside every morning and dragged back as soon as the signora decided to have done with the pleasures of the outdoors for the day.

The dragging, as just about everything in Signora Primavera’s household, was performed by domestics in livery, among them a short Indian fellow of about thirty and a burly Italian in his fifties, on whom the stiff-necked royal blue outfits with their shiny golden buttons didn’t look much more becoming than a similar get-up would have on shaggy dogs trying to pose as circus poodles. There was, moreover, a broad-waisted woman with melon-size breasts fulfilling the role of cook, whose forehead was continually bathed in beads of sweat, which she wiped away continually and furtively with the left corner of her apron. The right corner, conversely, was reserved for purposes more closely linked with culinary preparations.

Signora Primavera was a born aristocrat, whose present status as a nonagenarian might have easily explained that in the times of her youth she had been used to a very different world with very different manners and mores. She was extremely well preserved, but not in the way of her gardener’s wife; the old lady’s skin was as soft and wrinkled as Moroccan leather, and it hung loose on her nobly shaped face and on the slender hands and wrists that were the only visible parts of her frail body, which was always scrupulously covered in the most expensive clothes imaginable. She cared very much for her wardrobe, yet the end result of her efforts never suggested anything overdone, forced, or superficial. She wore jewels at all times, and her hair was as perfectly coiffed, as if she had just left the parrucchiere. If she had not married an ambassador with all the social duties such a life entailed, she would have become an interior decorator or a landscape architect. Fortunately, however, having had to play the professional socialite for several decades had not necessitated the suppression of such talents; they had been skillfully channeled into useful grooves, helping her to become the perfect hostess, the fitting entertainer-companion of such an important dignitary as Signor Primavera, rest his soul.

After an eventful life richly studded with glamorous sojourns in exotic countries, the ambassador and ambassadress returned to Italy with their numerous children—three girls and a boy—and decided to settle down for good and enjoy the beauties of their equally numerous residences. The land and two houses in the neighborhood of Orvieto formed only one of the four properties they had at their disposal, the others including a villa at the Amalfi coast in Positano, a chalet in Cortina d’Ampezzo, and a huge apartment in Rome. The latter served as their headquarters, especially as long as the younger children’s education had to be completed and, more importantly, until Signor Primavera’s death. One sunny Roman morning, the worthy gentleman was found facedown at the breakfast table, squashing his half-eaten blueberry crostata with his nose and upsetting his coffee cup with a convulsive movement of his signet-ringed hand. He had been sixty-five at the time, and so his wife, five years his junior, had been a widow for more than three decades.

Having been left alone—at least that was how she had felt at the departure of her other half, despite his large family and their extensive circle of acquaintances—Augusta Primavera suddenly found herself with a lot of time at her disposal. Instead of giving way to desperation and following her beloved husband to the Elysian Fields, the second youth of Signora Primavera had commenced with her professional debut as an interior decorator and landscape architect. First her own properties had undergone great changes—not that any of them had been in need of any particular remake, as they were already exquisitely furnished. Then came the several houses of similarly wealthy widows in the circle of her close friends. And finally, as her fame spread by word of mouth, she began to receive calls from the acquaintances of the acquaintances of her acquaintances.

At the time of Nora’s appearance, therefore, the old lady’s evolution from a Mrs. Dalloway into a fully fledged businesswoman had been completed many years before. She prided herself not only on the satisfaction of her clients, but also on her corollary financial talents. If not exactly a miser, Signora Primavera had always adored money. She loved it in the abstract sense, because it provided all the beautiful things that her refined taste craved. But in a more sinister vein she loved equally the sheer physicality of money—the look and feel and smell of it. This aspect of her love explained her attachment to the relatively insignificant pennies and coins that many wealthy people did not bother with when shopping: “Just keep the change,” they would say, and besides appearing in a generous light, the habit saved them the hassle of a wallet or a pocket stuffed with heavy “worthless” little coins. Not so with Signora Primavera, who would never misplace a Eurocent and when tipping, would try to restrain her facial muscles so as not to betray her physical suffering at the process of parting with a round shiny fellow.

Indeed, the old lady’s feeling toward money was a complex one, and yet she was—in both cases wrongfully because one-sidedly—either regarded as a rich person who therefore must spend freely on all the luxuries her taste and social status dictated or as a stingy old witch who would never open her wallet further than absolutely necessary, especially when it came to service costs. And it was true that tipping was her worst nightmare and paying wages only a little less terrible. Many of her acquaintances misunderstood her renting of the smaller Orvieto house as having nothing to do with money. They believed she only did it to play at being a businesswoman, that it made her feel important as well as provided an added occupation to fill out her time. These people had not seen the maniacal glint in her eye as she held out her bejeweled hand for the notes she received bimonthly. The pleasure she got from it recalled a line from Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop that had always stuck with her: The delight of picking up the money—the bright, shining yellow-boys—and sweeping ’em into one’s pocket! Yet she was not ungenerous; she gladly gave as long as it wasn’t money she had to part with. She clothed and fed her employees with motherly care and sent them home with large basketfuls of produce from her gardens.

Two days after her abode had been cleaned, Nora heard again the rumbling of engines and the sound of tires on gravel. The vehicles were bound for the larger villa next door, which until yesterday had stood empty and where the Primavera clan was now arriving, evidently to enjoy a long weekend. Now Nora understood why she had glimpsed royal-blue coats and glints of gold through the hedges and out in the orchard so frequently the day before; the domestics had preceded their mistress by train from Rome and were hustling and bustling so as to get everything ready for the eleven people who would be occupying nine of the twelve bedrooms that the grand house boasted. Signora Primavera would be there, of course, along with her baby brother, Alberto Colassú, who was twenty years her junior and regarded by her as a mere toddler. Joining them would be the signora’s four children, who would be accompanied by one spouse, three offspring, and one lover.

Alberto had lived all his life in Rome, and his frequent travels never extended beyond a fortnight at a time. This did not mean he wasn’t a cosmopolitan of sorts. He was actually an Anglophile and nothing less than the foremost Trollope scholar in Italy (there were seven of them in the whole country). Most of his travels, in fact, were in connection with his lecture tours, conferences, and research trips. Having remained a bachelor despite his rugged good looks and enchanting conversational abilities, he had all the time he needed to pursue his great passion; literature. In spite of her great affection for him, his sister had always looked down on his artsy-fartsy lifestyle, which she saw as neither sufficiently lucrative nor glamorous. Alberto had a great love of beauty, and his refined sensibilities weren’t a shade duller than his sister’s, but he didn’t find it necessary to accumulate beautiful objects. He had ever been tastefully dressed, and his apartment was as charming as it could be. This was enough for him; in his view, time should not be wasted on the gratification of immediate aesthetic needs when so many—and such higher—forms of beauty were waiting to be discovered.

Alberto’s English was impeccable, and although his sister’s command of three foreign languages was a matter of course considering her career as an ambassador’s wife, she welcomed his presence especially because she intended to invite her new tenant over for a friendly dinner. She did not expect her tenants to be conversant in Italian, and the negotiations with Nora had mainly been done in English through a real estate agency and a few English e-mails exchanged between Signora Primavera and Nora. The signora never failed to cordially invite her longer-term renters for dinner at the outset. They had no way of knowing whether it was the femme du monde’s version of common courtesy or the businesswoman’s tactful way of vetting the people to whom she let her beloved house, but it did not matter either way, considering the hospitality and the mouthwatering fare with which they invariably met. Signora Primavera never did anything by halves; if she had a dinner guest, the best china came out of her large armoires, and a new tablecloth graced her long mahogany dining table, even if the previous one had been put on only two days before and was as crisp and spotless as one could possibly wish. Canapés and prosecco were followed by four courses with matching wines. The portions were fashionably small, and the plates were fashionably large.

If other members of the Primavera family were not visiting at the time, the signora always made sure that some of her friends were available to serve as social fillers. As for Nora Hilary, she had described herself in her introductory e-mail as a literary scholar, which made Signora Primavera’s decision a simple one, since Alberto, with his similar literary bent, was to be around. The first long weekend they were to spend in Orvieto was sure to be the best occasion for a dinner invitation. Besides being entertained by a fellow intellectual, Signora Hilary would have the pleasure of acquainting herself with the whole clan.


15.

The book was coming along well, and it was less and less difficult for Nora to get down to it each day. She scrupulously devoted to writing the hours between a late breakfast and a light lunch, and, if she was in great form, an hour before her evening cocktail. Surely, every time she sat down in front of the screen, she reread the last few passages she had written the day before, and she often ended up rewriting them as a preliminary to writing new material, but even this “one step back and two steps forward” choreography moved her inexorably forward and also prevented her having to watch the cursor blinking spitefully on the empty white page and feeling as intimidated by it as an athlete by the road ahead of her if she undertook running a marathon without warming up.

She enjoyed her evening cocktail while lying on the couch with a book in hand. This kind of spiritual consumption of somebody else’s thoughts had first served as another mode of intimidation—would a time really ever come when someone would be reading her book? Would her thoughts serve as sufficiently delightful nourishment for others? Would her words be worthy companions to evening cocktails on couches? She braced herself by arguing that the authors of the books she was reading probably had had the same benumbing thoughts, and yet they had persevered and given birth to splendid stories.

The best of it was that there was no television blaring in the background, forced into her ears by Hugh’s obsession with watching whatever happened to be on as long as he was in the living room. The telephone did not ring with calls from his acquaintances, which inevitably came whenever he happened to be out and interrupted her reading. Here, there was silence and peace and freedom. To make everything perfect, the wind had also died down, and the hush outside blended with the inside quiet. She took a slow deep breath and listened to it with great pleasure. Her body was at rest, comfortably cushioned, with no edges driving into her side or prickly textile irritating her skin. The warm glow in her stomach after the rich dark rum helped her feel as if she were floating, and her thoughts felt easy. There were a lot of them, coming to her with outstretched hands, whispering to her new ideas for her book. If there was such a thing as inspiration, she felt that her present state of mind was as close to it as it had ever been and ever would be. Now for a pen! But the idea of moving, however slightly, was unwelcome to her, and she was also afraid that it would break the charm. She lay there, in utter bliss, lazily contemplating whether or not to stretch an arm out and get hold of a pen. Later. Later. Just one more minute, and then she would do it.

And then the phone rang, and Destiny put an end to Nora’s charmed state. Annoyed and curious, Nora answered the phone in Italian and found the signora from next door on the line. The elder lady made it clear that her phone call was meant as a sign of friendship, and she took the occasion to invite Nora for dinner the following evening. Nora politely accepted the invitation in her suddenly broken Italian, and felt a burning desire both to switch to English and to refuse the invitation but what else could she to do in the face of Signora’s considerable charm and certain expectation that Nora would say yes? But Nora was simultaneously overcome by stage fright, which caused her to break into a sweat at the mere thought of going to this unknown Italian family’s home alone.

Nora was used to talking in front of hundreds of people at a time—be they fellow scholars or university students—but that fact did not prevent her from feeling positively terrified at the prospect of sitting down and making merry with a dozen people she had never met in her life, being forced to wander away from the topics that were safest to her, such as literature, and into the territory of the personal. She had always found that personal ground was much more comfortably broken when she could encounter fresh faces at her own house, around her own table, introduced by her own husband; on her home turf, in the familiar presence of at least one person, she did not so much mind socializing.

Most of Nora’s friends and even her family members would not have called her shy. She had cultivated a self-confident attitude in society and confidently proclaimed her preference for solitude. Few people who knew her suspected that these attitudes were aspects of a defense mechanism. Nobody would have believed the qualms she had when forced into a situation in which she couldn’t help but attract attention. Never having been particularly good-looking had made her used to going unnoticed most of the time. When in her late teens, it sometimes pained her to remain unnoticed, but only until she became the center, however fleeting, of someone’s attention. The stare of a fellow traveler on a bus or a sweeping look from a passerby from top to toe immediately made her wish to vanish into thin air or, in a bolder scenario, to walk up to the intruding gazer and ask what on Earth there was of so much interest in her person and how could one never have been told that it was rude to stare? After a while she didn’t know which was worse—being noticed or not being noticed or being noticed for the wrong reasons or being noticed for the wrong reasons without knowing them to be wrong. It was, in short, a muddled mess that made solitude that much more appealing.

Nora had an acquaintance, a fellow scholar and former student called Evelyn, with whom she had lately become quite intimate. In the course of one of their conversations the girl filled in the gaps of a story that Nora had up till then tried to piece together based on her observations. The first time Nora had ever seen Evelyn, the girl was wonderfully pretty, and Nora could not help but notice the attention she attracted whenever she walked into the classroom. Then she started losing weight—became even slighter than May the Englishwoman with that happy drunk for a husband—and people stared even more. Evelyn admitted that this state of affairs, however, had actually convinced her that she was becoming more and not less attractive. This delusion led her to become so undernourished that her life was in danger, and at that point she disappeared from campus for a few months. When she returned, her weight was normal again, but she always seemed to be looking nervously around her, as though to gauge whether or not people were noticing her. Evidently, she didn’t think they were noticing her enough, because she soon began to lose weight again.

By the time she had reached her early thirties, Evelyn had entered the field as a scholar and Nora would run into her from time to time at various conferences. It was at this phase of their acquaintance that they became increasingly intimate and Nora, during a shared coffee between two sessions, ventured to ask Evelyn a few questions about her health, in response to which the younger woman related her story with all its depressing details. She admitted to Nora that the vicious cycle of losing and gaining weight had lasted for years and years, and she was finally forced by her doctors to realize that if she continued on her same course, she would damage herself physically to the extent that she would not be able to bear children and would age prematurely. The skin was already starting to wrinkle on her bony body. She simply had to gain weight once and for all. The saddest thing in it to Nora seemed to be that for so many years, people stared at her because she was so shockingly thin, while she was convinced that there was admiration in their eyes rather than pity. Now Evelyn wondered if anyone had ever noticed her because she was pretty; maybe she had been confusing admiration and pity all along. All her self-confidence was gone, and even if being unnoticed hurt her, she still preferred it to the uncertainty that anyone’s gaze evoked in her.

Nora hung up the phone and stood on the Persian rug sweating. She told herself that having dinner with a genuine Italian family would be a valuable experience, even if it involved some discomfort. Of course, she did not expect to make a great impression, but it was only human to have the desire deep down to please. If not with her looks, she would like her spiritual gifts to shine, but how could they when she would be dining with real Italians? A great part of her stage fright was due to the language barrier—even if the signora spoke English well enough, Nora was sure that the rest of the family would mostly speak Italian. And even if Nora’s Italian was really very good, it was best when talking to her teacher or to other students of the language. A conversation with a native could cause a complete meltdown even in the most accomplished nonnative speaker, and Nora’s social anxieties only compounded this effect. The case in point was Nora’s first encounter with genuine Italians on her first shopping expedition in Orvieto. She had gone there with the intention of buying goodies from different specialty shops, so as to have the occasion to practice her Italian with the shopkeepers. After an embarrassing scene at the bakery—she had wanted to find out about other types of baked goods besides bread—she opted for the supermarket, where she could load her shopping cart with every type of foodstuff without having to utter a single word.

She had come home with her tail between her legs, so to speak, and her joy at having stocked up so abundantly was only greater because she had not had to suffer the ordeal of communicating in Italian. This she did not as yet want to admit even to herself; she assured herself that every beginning was hard and that she would certainly get into it in time and that she should not despair or chicken out the next time an opportunity for conversation arose. She was no coward but a linguist of sorts and a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language. She really should have understood the mental block every student of every language faced when it came to putting abstract knowledge into practice. She was the embodiment of competence living in fear of performance. Signora Primavera’s dinner party would be her second debut, where, in the worst case, she could always speak English and let the others suffer or simply miss out on bits of conversation between family members who couldn’t or wouldn’t switch to English. This option gave her some comfort and even allayed her passing wish to have her own family there with her. A dinner party full of Italians was not sufficient enough reason for her to miss the company of those she had so much wanted to leave behind for a good while.


PART II.

 

            1.

            The rest of them were sitting at Fiumicino Airport in one of the wine bars, waiting for Anna and Henry to come back with news about the rental cars. The flight to Rome had been as smooth as it could be, considering they had been seated in economy. The upside was that because they were five, they occupied a row of three and a neighboring row of two seats, and, therefore, they had not been forced to rub elbows with strangers. The downside was that neither Hugh nor William were particularly adapted to seats of such size, and Denise had ended up being squashed against the window, while Anna had been squeezed between her sizeable boyfriend and her long-legged, fidgety cousin. Only through sheer luck had both ladies escaped black eyes or other bruises as their neighbors tossed and turned in fitful sleep, and it was certain that the female division arrived more exhausted than their male companions. It was only two o’clock in the afternoon local time and therefore did not make any sense staying at an airport hotel when they had ample time to complete the allegedly two-and-a-half-hour drive to Orvieto.

The two envoys at last arrived with the keys to two Smart Cars, and after a heated argument as to drinking and driving, Anna was voted one of the drivers, since she was the only one who had not had time to sit and sip wine and was a perfectly competent driver—compared with Henry, at least, who had his license but was still a beginner and outright refused to drive in their presence because he couldn’t stand the meddling comments that flew so liberally whenever he took the wheel. Hugh insisted on being the second driver, because except for Henry and Anna, everybody had had some alcohol, and he hadn’t had that much more than anyone else, really. When they reached the actual cars, however, Anna was dismayed by the sight of the gear stick, as her experience had been restricted to cars with automatic transmissions. She surrendered control to Will, soothing herself with the thought that, however sober she was and however gutless the car, she would have been more dangerous with a manual than William would ever be even after a glass or two.

William and Hugh, naturally enough, started racing each other down the highway, and, what with the near misses and the screeching of the terrified women, their drive was anything but boring. Not only did they make headway because of their elevated speed, but Hugh nearly rear-ended a car in front of him, and they almost ran out of gas—small car, small tank, surprise! They stopped to fill the tanks at an Autogrill and decided that they might as well fill their empty bellies as well. Luckily, they arrived between mealtimes and so there were only a few locals at the counter sipping their espressos and a handful of German tourists enjoying cappuccinos. On the screen of the smallish TV, a short guy with a fake tan and an excessively oily hairdo stood surrounded by women as tall as basketball players and as perfect as Barbie dolls. An elderly bartender with horn-rimmed glasses was leaning over a newspaper he had opened on the counter, and he was reading the sports column, his lips forming the words. A chubby barmaid was rummaging between the sandwiches in the glass display, which a few flies taking siestas there very much resented.

“There’s no way I’m having a fly panino, even if it is the local specialty,” said William with a disgusted face.

“I find I’ve lowered my standards after the slop on the plane,” Anna said, eyeing the sandwiches with great interest.

“I repeat: it is out of the question that I will stoop this low. I am in a country that prides itself on its world-famous cuisine, and the first thing I put in my mouth on Italian soil simply cannot be such an abomination,” Will continued doggedly.

“I know, sweetheart. But you are always saying that you’re a simple man with simple tastes.”

Will had always been convinced as to his noble simplicity and the ease with which he could allegedly adapt to suchlike situations. Not that in all the years she’d known him Anna had ever witnessed his putting these qualities into practice. The noble savage was more of a spoiled brat when it came to bodily comforts, and, bratlike, he would be very much offended every time somebody teased him about it.

“You are welcome to go to hell, and you might as well stay there,” Will said. “I am not pining after broiled lobster, am I? I am not turning up my nose at a simple but clean and wholesome plate of pasta, am I? I can be a simple guy—and I am, by the way—and still refuse to eat crappy food. Your problem is that you always think in extremes.”

The same old story: they were at each other’s throats once again, each finding the other’s negative characteristics at every turn. They had each other boxed in, figured out, defined as so-and-so, and not one gesture that fit the definition escaped either of them without their pouncing on it and holding it up triumphantly. See how you are? Isn’t this just typical of you?

“Oh, don’t bicker,” Denise said. She was typically enthusiastic, even over sandwiches at a gas station. “Just look at the fresh batch of sandwiches the lady has put in the window. They’re hot and fresh and crunchy, and it looks as though there’s quite a variety to choose from. I think I’ll have that one with the spinach and cheese filling. Hugh, chéri, you could get that one, the Caprese. It’s full of mozzarella and tomatoes.”

Her almost indiscriminate appreciation of everything came in handy this time and swept away the storm clouds that had been gathering. Good cheer could fortunately be just as contagious as yawning, and soon everybody was lining up for a panino with an expectant face and a rumbling stomach.

Having eaten the sandwiches and washed them down with soft drinks and coffees—Denise, to the embarrassment of her companions, couldn’t be dissuaded from ordering an afternoon cappuccino, which Italians believed bad for the digestion—they resumed their drive. Anna fell asleep, and Will set to testing the maximum speed of their Smart. In the other car, Denise began chattering to Hugh, and Henry sat in the back seat and pretended to read a scholarly journal. He was, in reality, listening to Denise’s soliloquy with surprising interest—most surprising to himself. It was far from empty chatter, and the only resemblance it bore to such worthless noise was its fast flow. He knew that Hugh was not following the thread of her thoughts, partly because he mistook it for chatter, but also because he had to concentrate on the road more than he would have liked to admit; Will was the superior driver, and Hugh had a hard time keeping up. The road was as winding at times as a small mountain path two thousand meters up, and the Italian drivers did not think it necessary to slow down in the curves; the maximum speed allowed on a highway was significantly exceeded by the majority of the drivers under these and any circumstances.

Sitting in the back seat, then, Henry navigated the vivid twists and turns of Denise’s mind and was impressed. Reflecting her general approach, her conversation introduced and disposed of a great number of topics within a short space of time. Denise dwelled on her current topic long enough to escape being superficial; every commonplace was bandied about long enough to be recognized and made fun of before being dismissed. Henry did not read this as a telling sign of her inconstancy but as the reflection of the dazzling intellect of a pretty young woman from whom one would certainly not expect such flashing wit. If not a scholarly intellect, hers was that of a gifted conversationalist who would never become brilliant because the desire to move on to another subject always prevented it from analyzing to a certain depth.

It came as something of a shock for everyone—caught up as they were in snoozing, driving, discoursing, or listening to said discourse—to suddenly see the sign reminding drivers that going to Orvieto meant exiting the highway very soon. It was getting on to early evening, in fact, and the sun, although still quite high, was losing its strength, and the countryside was bathed in a less aggressive glow. Things took on a mellower look and it was literally easier to breathe—less like fighting for air in a sauna. Will rolled down the windows a bit, and Anna woke to the breeze ruffling her red ringlets. She felt refreshed and happy, but she was afraid to admit that the panino’s effect was wearing off, and she was hungry again. It wasn’t likely that Aunt Nora would be cooking for five extra people she did not in the least expect, and, what with the surprise and the settling in and all, they would not be able to concentrate on food matters for a long time to come. They were still thirty kilometers from Orvieto, but even Anna, well adjusted as she was, could not face another panino by way of dinner. She craved real food—thick bread and melting butter and a large plate of spaghetti with a generous amount of cheese. Now she understood Will’s earlier predicament and regretted the fun she’d had at his expense. And of course her situation now was hopeless. Will was likely as hungry or hungrier than she was, but to bring up the subject, Anna would pay an exorbitant price.

Just then Anna’s phone rang, and it was Henry to the rescue from the other car, where they had apparently followed the same line of thought and decided to stop at a restaurant in Orvieto before knocking on Nora’s door. As it was not his girlfriend’s idea, Will didn’t find any fault with the proposition, especially because it fell very much in line with what he had been saying all along.


2.

The road led from the highway into the new part of town, as it almost always did in Italy. Orvieto Scalo was a collection of modern nondescript buildings, including large outlets, the cheapest hotels, petrol stations, and clusters of multiple-story buildings, which bordered the road that eventually took them to a roundabout with six other roads feeding into it. To enter the roundabout took a long time, since cars kept entering from the other roads, and they were the only ones yielding, in spite of multiple signs. By common consent, they did not want to go to the centro storico—it was not on the way to Nora’s house, and it was surely possible to find something decent without making a detour. Not that they felt pressed for time; they were supposedly fifteen kilometers from Il Silenzio now, according to the scanty driving directions Anna had printed from the website advertising the house. Even if they had to drive in the dark, the distance was nothing. But to go to the centro storico would have meant more driving and parking difficulties and restaurants crowded with tourists and a subsequent delay in putting food in their mouths.

With Anna navigating, they drove through a little town called Tamburino, which consisted of two bars, two churches, a cemetery, a dozen cats, and about as many houses, and on along the most winding and picturesque part of the drive. The road, as it climbed, contained four or five hairpin curves, and they could just make out the villas on the hillsides hiding in the shelter of their verdant parks, their private driveways lined with thuja. Little squares of orchards alternated with olive groves, and there were even a few benches set back from the road, where old, old ladies sat and watched the cars go by for their evening entertainment.

One of the large terracotta houses in the sharpest bend of the road advertised itself as a bar-restaurant with panoramic views, and without a word, Will and Hugh turned into the parking lot, and the party exited their cars with great gusto. The altitude difference and the evening coming on fast had made the air outside chilly, so they opted to sit inside and were first grateful for the heat of the huge wood-burning oven, which soon enough turned out to be a bit too much of a good thing, and they had to switch to a table further away to avoid breaking into a sweat.

“They could roast a whole cow on that fire. And it’s a good thing, too, since I could eat one as my appetizer,” Anna said with twinkling eyes and glowing cheeks.

“Bit of a misnomer, actually. Judging by the manly portions you’re planning to put away, you need no appetizing,” Henry scoffed.

“Oh, now, your tender years are showing,” his cousin retorted. “You are still struck with Byron’s maxim: it is unattractive in a woman to eat or at least to be seen eating. We can all thank that romantic buffoon for anorexia. No, thanks, I say. I’m a real woman with a real appetite, and you won’t hear me complaining after two spoonfuls of soup that I’m bursting.”

The menu was in Italian, with a very bad German translation underneath, and the group was doing its best to identify each dish. Thanks to their worldwide fame, spaghetti carbonara and tagliatelle ai funghi porcini were easy to recognize. Among the second courses, there was no fish or seafood or even chicken in sight, but something called cinghiale featured in many dishes. Their waitress revealed this mystery meat as wild boar.

Hugh closed his menu and noted that all the others were still poring over theirs. “Okay, guys, chop, chop!” he said. “Let’s order. We have an unsuspecting hostess to appease.”

“You mean a runaway wife with three empty bedrooms and too much time on her hands?” Will laughed and tossed the menu nonchalantly onto the plate in front of him.

“Stop right there, buddy. I will not have you insulting Aunt Nora, and I will not sit here silently when even her own husband fails to come to her defense.” Anna did not tolerate Will’s flippancy when it was leveled against anyone she loved. She would much rather have had him tease her than her aunt. “Anyway, as the husband is already occupied with a worthy replacement, it should actually be her son to defend her before it becomes the moral obligation of her niece. But Noodle will always be Noodle.” She shot a malicious glance at Henry. She knew perfectly well how the boy hated the nickname.

Replacement? Ouch, you mean thing,” said Hugh, affectionately patting his girlfriend’s thigh a bit too high up to be proper in public. “Chérie, I apologize for Annie’s bad manners. She doesn’t know any better.”

“Why so? I said ‘worthy replacement,’ and if anyone, it’s Henry who should now be defended against the charge of being Noodle.”

“I don’t need anyone to defend me, thank you very much. I’ll just stuff a napkin or whatever else is close at hand into your mouth the next time you call me Noodle. As to this whole defense business concerning the others, nothing Will has said is a slander. Look, the facts are clear as daylight, and we’ve already enumerated them, you and I, remember? Fact number one is that my mother had left my father and moved to a house to indulge her own desire to live alone. Fact number two is that my father had found said replacement way before the position was vacated, and now he is about to introduce his new love to his present wife, which is, rather illogically, supposed to facilitate this wife’s consent to make room for the future wife. And last but not least, it’s an undeniable fact that I have come along both to enjoy a free ride to my favorite country and to try and make my mother feel a pang of conscience for having vanished out of my life, even if it is something of a relief not to have her reminding me by her sheer presence what a middling offspring I am. So you see, it’s unsurprising that I would fail to stand up for her, and I willingly admit it. Cheers.” Henry lifted his glass and downed its contents.

Denise’s face had darkened as he spoke. In her opinion, what was daring and attractive in private was undoubtedly in bad taste in public—at least when it was done by others than herself. She wasn’t sure whether Henry was deliberately trying to match Anna’s maliciousness or if it was a case of in vino veritas; he had already swallowed a generous portion of red wine on an empty stomach before this draught. Was it possible that, amidst the fumes of wine, he had forgotten their talk about her future plans?

Anna, who had not forgotten her own chat with her cousin, was used to the bluntness-bordering-on-rudeness that was the customary way of talking among the members of her family. Henry had never kept secret his attitude toward this whole matter. He had been put in an awkward position, and as far as Anna was concerned, he was welcome to analyze it in front of the people who had put him there in the first place. He had, in fact, been friendlier toward his father than Anna would have expected based on their telephone conversation. And the old Noodle joke was just a harmless tease.

“I’m truly sorry if my presence is embarrassing,” Denise said. “I didn’t mean any harm by accepting Hugh’s invitation. From a conservative viewpoint, it is rather scandalous, I suppose. But, and excuse me for my prefabricated ideas, I thought your family was more than modern. No, more even than postmodern.” Denise smiled her sweetest smile, and it was impossible not to love her—so Henry and Hugh simultaneously thought.

Anna smiled, too. “Well, although I am proud of being a fossil with my passion for the nineteenth century, I take it that you meant it as a compliment,” she said. “I mean that we are supposed to be postmodern.”

With that, for the time being, all the awkwardness between them evaporated. Anyway, they were too busy with their steaming bowls of mushroom soup, which were soon followed by heaping plates of truffled pasta. Who could be angry with such a taste in one’s mouth? La vita was dolce.

“Once again, I am very happy not to have to drive. I will be busy digesting all the funghi while Will and Hugh are guiding us to our beloved Nora.” Anna leaned back contentedly in her chair and sipped the remainder of the red wine in her glass.

“No dog-fucking, sweetheart. You also have work to do. You will continue to be the grand navigator with your printout. I am driving based on your directions, and the other car is following us, just as before. So shape up.”

“Well, I am not a cat, and so I can’t see for shit in the dark, and the sorry excuse for a light in the car will not suffice to let me see the paper.”

“Then you have to memorize the instructions, egghead. You’re supposed to have a prodigious memory.”

“Yeah, for poetry. But I don’t think that the text of ‘The Waste Land’ will do us much good on a dark and winding road. And if it’s not a question of seeing maps anymore, the driver might memorize the instructions just as well.”

Anna caught Will’s glance and read “What good are you?” written in it, so she quickly added. “Anyway, I’ll do my best.”

They crept back to their cars, with Anna murmuring, “First turn left, second right, third left again, then straight on until a ruin resembling a castle, then one more left, and straight on for about four kilometers up on a very steep dirt road.”

These directions described the route along the other and far more tortuous road to Il Silenzio, which Nora had decided from day one to avoid. Massimo and all the other locals preferred it, actually, because it was a bit shorter and accessible from a small town that boasted both Lidl and Coop supermarkets. The basic problem was that Anna had conflated the two different routes when copying directions by hand from the screen back home, and their first wrong turn had occurred back in Tamburino. So while Anna’s memory served her right, the directions themselves did not, and the group was destined to get lost in the nearby forest thickly muffled in fog. The further they went in, the worse the road became. Tree trunks began to resemble wizened old men, and giant potholes threatened to keep them from going any farther. Short stretches of barbed wire were visible form time to time at the roadside, but they protected privately owned forestland and uncultivated fields and were not, as the travelers hoped, a sign that they would soon discover a house or any other sign denoting human habitation.

“Okay, let’s stop and look at that freaking paper,” Will roared. “I’m sure you screwed up. This can’t possibly be the right road.”

“Well, stop then, smartass, and stop shouting at me!” Anna shouted back. “I swear I’ve been following the alleged directions.”

Both of them were exasperated and even frightened. At first sight it seemed ridiculous to fear getting lost in twenty-first-century Italy, Umbria, a few kilometers from Orvieto. True, they did not have a GPS, but they spoke three languages and owned mobile telephones, and they had just left a perfectly snug, well-lit restaurant. It had seemed impossible to get seriously and dangerously lost, but now, here they were, in the dark and scary woods.

“Call Hugh and ask them what they want to do,” barked Will.

“Jesus, there is no reception whatsoever. There’s no coverage in this ghastly forest, I bet.”

“We’ll stop then and get out of the car and discuss it with them face to face,” Will said and glanced into his mirror. To his utter surprise, the other Smart was nowhere to be seen. “Fuck, they aren’t even behind us! Haven’t you noticed? What the hell have you been doing? I thought you were watching the road!”

“I’ve been watching the road ahead of us. Why would I bother looking behind us in the pitch dark? You’re the one driving. Aren’t you supposed to be glancing in your mirror from time to time?” Anna asked indignantly. She was by then quite unnerved.

Meanwhile, in the other car, Denise was the only one keeping her cool. She was incapable of looking at the situation as anything but an adventure that she would live to tell. Furthermore, they were living in the twenty-first century and traveling in a tourist-infested and highly developed Western European country, sufficient evidence to her that that it was indeed impossible to get really and irredeemably lost. The driver and the third passenger of the car did not share her outlook and were, shamefully enough, becoming as frightened as Anna. Hugh had ample reason for his uneasiness: they were running out of gas again, and he had just noticed that he could no longer see the faint backlights of the other car that was supposed to be in front of them. The fog was becoming really thick, and while Will and Anna’s car might still be ahead of them on the same road, it might just as well have taken a turn that Hugh had not.

“Dad, do you have any idea at all where the other car is?” Henry, in his excitement, had forgotten not to call Hugh by that name, especially not in front of Denise. This once, it wasn’t a problem, though, because Hugh was too preoccupied to have noticed such a trifle.

“Oh, so you’ve noticed, too? It’s vanished, and I have absolutely no clue where it is or where we are, for that matter. And Anna’s the one with the directions,” said Hugh, squeezing the steering wheel with both hands and putting his face as close to the windshield as humanly possible in his desperate attempt to see further than his nose in that godforsaken fog.

“Well, boys, I won’t suggest calling them,” Denise said laughingly, “since the mobiles don’t work.” She put her phone back into her bag as unconcernedly as if she had just observed that she had forgotten to bring her mascara from home.

“Can you suggest anything?” Hugh snapped.

“I suggest not hitting that animal on the road!” Denise shouted, not so much in fear as in amazement. A porcupine—the size of a dog, with extremely long spines—appeared all of a sudden, perhaps attracted by the headlights of the car. As they weren’t driving fast in the first place, it wasn’t difficult to slow down, expecting that the animal would cross in front of the car and disappear into the fog and bushes on the other side of the road. Relieved at not having a roadkill on their conscience, they did not expect that the beast, frightened by the sound of the engine, would instead continue to run forward down the road in front of the car, occasionally looking back as if to check whether it had succeeded in outpacing its roaring enemy. There was nothing for them to do but slow down even more and patiently follow the animal; the road was so narrow, so dark, and so pitted that it would have been sheer madness to swerve with the intention of overtaking it. When they reached a sharp bend in the road, the silly thing fortunately ran straight through the bushes and into the field ahead, and the road in front of them was again clear at last.

“Finally! Stupid idiot!” Hugh shouted. “Now we’ve lost more of the time we don’t have. We’ll soon be out of gas. It’s nasty chilly out there, and it will be awfully cold and cramped sleeping in this box overnight. Can you believe it? They say Italy is overcrowded and overdeveloped, and we manage to get lost in a field as abandoned as the moon!”

“The moon is not abandoned. You can only abandon something that has first been inhabited,” Denise remarked good-humoredly.

“I might consider abandoning you if you insist on splitting hairs rather than helping to solve the predicament we’re in.” Hugh regretted saying it as soon as the words left his mouth.

“Watch out that you don’t get abandoned first, my dear fellow,” Denise said coolly, “especially after such a chicken show. I honestly can’t believe you’re so worried.” She also couldn’t believe he was taking such a tone with her.

“Sorry, chérie. I hope you can understand that I’m feeling under a lot of pressure because I feel responsible for you and the lad. A lady and a son would naturally look to the only grown man around for protection.”

“You really are old-fashioned, Hughie. I have absolutely no claim on your protection. But thanks for thinking of me. And anyway, if you really want to protect us, it would be better if you didn’t panic. Look, there’s a turnoff to a paved road, which will surely lead us back to civilization.”

“Oh, and there is a car on it! Thank goodness!” Hugh shouted, wild with joy and relief. “If we catch up with it, we might get some directions. Henry speaks Italian, so it shouldn’t be a problem. The money on his education was well spent.” He sped up the little Smart as much as possible, and in less than a minute they had caught up with the other car. When it turned out to be the other Smart with their friends in it, they didn’t know whether to be more vexed or relieved.

“Oh, I’ve never been so happy to see you as now!” Anna rejoiced.

Hugh was not happy, however, to hear that Anna and Will had pronounced the driving directions useless.

“Did you come across anyone?” Anna asked.

“Yeah, a porcupine,” said Henry laconically. But he was as happy to see her as she was to see him, and he was even happier that she and Will also seemed freaked out. It was normal, then, and Denise with her unnatural cool was the odd one out.


3.

It was time to look on the bright side: everyone was present, they’d had no flat tires as yet, and they were back on a paved road, even if they had no clue where it would lead them. They had little gas left, but the road sloped downhill, and after a few curves, bright lights greeted them from the side of the road. Everyone except Denise expressed great relief, and her loud laughter accompanied their realization that they had somehow managed to get back to the restaurant where they had had dinner. Putting aside their pride, they thanked their stars for having found anyone still there; the people within were, in fact, nearly finished cleaning up the place before closing it down for the night, and a few minutes later they would have passed by an unlit building.

The owner was among the few remaining people in the restaurant, and he was yawning and stretching his long hairy arms as he made sure his staff put everything in its rightful place. He was surprised to see the five tourists who had supped there earlier still out wandering the countryside in the middle of the night. He opened the door and went to greet them. Yes, he remembered their having had dinner there. Yes, he knew the area very well. Il Silenzio? The Il Silenzio owned by Signora Primavera? Oh, so the ladies and gentlemen did not know the Primavera family? Well, it had to be their house, because there were no other houses of that name thereabouts. Surely they were visiting the lodger, then? Celestina Cesare, the gardener’s daughter, was his youngest daughter’s best friend, and she had mentioned that there was a new lodger. An American lady. Of course he could help; he knew the family very well. Signora Primavera was getting quite old and so didn’t go out as often as she once used to, but she still graced his restaurant with her delightful presence from time to time, bringing her whole clan along. In fact, there had actually been talk recently of their coming for lunch in a couple of days’ time, because there was to be a big gathering, with every member of the family present.

Anna politely cut the chatty man short and asked whether he could navigate them personally to the house. They had already gotten lost and no longer trusted themselves to follow mere directions. It went without saying that they would remunerate him for such an indispensable service. Signor Macarello did not want to hear of remuneration, but he would be happy to guide them to Il Silenzio.

First, he offered them a bit of petrol from the private stock he kept in cans in his shed. (Fortunately the whole premises were non-smoking.) Then he got into his sleek Audi A3, which seemed to the travelers to testify to the restaurant’s financial success, as well as to the youthful taste of its owner. What they didn’t know was that while Signor Macarello’s restaurant was successful enough, the car did not reflect his likes or dislikes at all, since it belonged to his teenage son, who was sick of living in a one-bar town and had grandiose dreams of moving to Rome or even to America.

The A3’s purr and the gutless roar of the two Smarts made the forests ring as they passed in file. None of the bends and turnoffs seemed familiar to the travelers, but by this time they were not in the humor to discover where they had gone wrong; they just wanted to get to their destination. Nor did they care anymore about Nora’s reaction. They wanted beds, and they wanted the coveted silence for which the place was named. It had been a long day, a day noisy with engines and yelling, and life would most probably seem more cheerful after a good night’s rest, but till then they felt entitled to be indifferent to all else.

It wasn’t more than ten minutes before they caught sight of lights filtering through a high window on the second floor of a big yellowish house. Signor Macarello pulled up in front of the huge door, which boasted a large brass knocker. He had to be going, he told them apologetically, or his wife would be cross with him. She might be thinking that something had gone awry in the restaurant. They thanked him as profusely as their exhaustion and impatience permitted and promised to come back to his restaurant for lunch before returning to America. He left them standing in front of the door, where, under normal circumstances, there would have been an argument over who would have the embarrassing duty of knocking. Exhaustion, however, was the great leveler, and nobody cared whether the husband, the son, or the niece should have to bear the brunt of the great shock that their presence was sure to bring about. On their journey, they had all lost the superstitious dread of being the harbingers of baddish news—here we are and here we stay—and they rushed the door in unison and set on it with knocker and knuckles.


4.

To describe Nora’s first reaction upon opening the door, in words borrowed from the immortal Dickens, “would require a new language: such, for power of expression, as was never written, read, or spoken.” It was apparently an even greater shock than any of her relatives had anticipated, and they soon forgot their own miseries in the midst of their embarrassment. She just stood in the doorway flabbergasted, wondering why that troop of aliens was banging on her door in the middle of the night. She stood there asking herself what the difference was between love and hate if the people who allegedly loved you consciously caused you pain.

In the travelers watching her, all righteous indignation and selfish wish for enjoyment at the cost of another’s peace of mind melted away like wax at Nora’s feet, and most of them felt terrible about having so obviously forced themselves on her when they knew perfectly well she wanted to be left alone. Worse, they had ganged up against her; they had hunted her down and forced her into a corner. Hugh giggled nervously like an idiotic schoolboy caught red-handed, while Henry kicked at the gravel, hands in his pocket. Anna’s crimson blush was benevolently hidden by the darkness, and her inability to say anything proper persuaded her to keep silent. Will was busying himself with their luggage, happy to have the excuse not to face Nora at all.

At last Denise stepped forward, Denise who had kept her cool all night long and who was certainly not disposed to lose it now. She smiled her sweetest smile at the older woman. They had, of course, never met before, but it didn’t tax Nora’s mental powers to guess how this exceedingly pretty young lady was related to the rest of the group, most importantly to her husband. Before Denise opened her mouth, Nora had decided to welcome her. Whether this feeling was prompted by sheer perversion or amused indifference was as yet hard for even Nora to say. It was certain that her pride did not feel in the least hurt, and she suddenly realized that she had absolutely no interest in her husband’s future emotional and sexual life. Although she was as upset about the whole unannounced visit as ever, she didn’t feel any more put out by Denise’s presence than by her favorite niece’s or her son’s. She wished them all at the other end of the globe, and as she was forced to welcome them, she was determined to be egalitarian in distributing her frowns and smiles.

“You must be Nora Hilary. I am Denise Logan, and I am glad to meet you.”

“Although it is not a situation in which I can honestly reciprocate, please don’t take it personally. I am as delighted to see you as the rest of the group,” said Nora with a sour smile. Everybody was trying to avoid her eyes at first, but they all looked up at the sound of her laughter. At last, the ice was broken; Nora’s sense of the absurd was too keen to let her miss out on a good laugh, even if it was she, at the end of the day, who would have to pay the price. “Jesus. You stand there like a bunch of criminals at Saint Peter’s gate. Well, come in.”

They all trooped in, with Will in the rear with some of the luggage, eager to join them now that Nora was actually laughing about it all.

She led them into the living room and gestured grandly around the place. “It’s not out of false modesty when I say that appearances can be deceptive here. So be warned: the place is far less glamorous than it looks. Every bed is a killer, and every tub is a glorified bucket. And the ceiling fans are recommended only if you want to decapitate yourselves.”

“You make it sound like a pleasure dome, Auntie,” laughed Anna, who had by then recovered her self-composure enough to present Nora with a box of Amedei chocolates as Henry set three bottles of Barolo on a side table. To Anna, Nora’s present behavior was just another proof of her greatness; she loved her aunt for the characteristic good humor that allowed her to laugh at herself in the midst of her misery. It was obvious that she didn’t want them there, but it was equally obvious that she was good-natured enough to try to make the best of it.

“Just don’t blame me for sore backs, mosquito bites, and other side effects of rustic Italian living,” Nora was saying as they climbed to the upper floor laden with suitcases. “Hugh, dear, I take it you haven’t come in the company of Miss Logan with the intention of sharing my bed. Don’t worry—I wouldn’t let you, anyway. I am only too happy to be rid of your snoring at last. Well,” she paused in the doorway of one of the bedrooms, “this might as well be yours or Annie and Will’s. We are surely not squandering it on Henry, who is a single gentleman and will accordingly receive the bedroom with the smallest bed.”

“Smaller than this? Mother, you must be kidding me!”

“Do I look like I’m kidding, Son? Anyway, it can’t be worse than your bed in the dorm.”

“Actually, it is,” Henry said tragically, as he sat on the bed appointed to him and tested its springs by bouncing on it a bit.

“Well, Princess, I can guarantee you that there is at least one pea under the mattress, so enjoy!” Nora said, laughing. “The spoiled brat that you are.”

When everybody had been shown to their respective sleeping quarters, Nora said, “Please feel free to turn in, as it’s terribly late. We’ll have ample time tomorrow to discuss when you’ll be leaving.”

Relieved, the travelers went to bed, and not more than ten minutes later, they were all sleeping soundly.

Although Nora was relieved by her own good-humored reaction to the invasion, she woke early the next morning overwhelmed by the knowledge that there were other human beings under her roof to contend with. Her privacy was gone, the silence broken. Not that they were making any noise; nobody’s snoring or chatter came across the sturdy walls, and the floorboards were not as yet squeaking. Everybody was still in the clutches of sleep when the mistress of the house stole down the stairs and put on some water to boil for a large pot of coffee. Nora had never relished playing the housewife or hostess, but she thought it a matter of course to provide even uninvited guests with this essential morning restorative. She had nothing else, though, so any picky weirdos wishing for herbal tea or beetroot juice or some such healthy alternative could please themselves as best they could. She was not running a B&B here, and was certainly not putting herself out to make the others want to stay longer than absolutely necessary.

Nora was rummaging among boxes and bags in the messy little larder in search of a larger tray than the one she had been using. She didn’t feel like carting the cups and saucers out to the garden one by one, and she felt even less like leaving them all in the smallish kitchen; she wouldn’t be so cramped if people would disperse outside. It was with her back to the doorway that she heard someone come in.

“How nice of you! I was just coming down as quietly as possible to take a look at the garden in the morning. I’ve been taking this most amazing course in botany, and I am dying to see what kind of flora you have around here. It’s my first time in Italy, you know.”

Nora looked over her shoulder and found Denise standing there, undoubtedly beautiful and even more radiant after a good night’s sleep. She wore no makeup, and her long blonde hair was loose, falling down to the middle of her back. She was a natural blonde, and her whole complexion was golden, with her eyebrows only faintly showing above her hazel eyes. In fact, the color of her eyes was also reminiscent of gold—or of dark, shiny honey. Yes, she was attractive, and she was young, and she seemed to have a sweet disposition. Who could blame Hugh? Nora sighed and stood up out of the cupboard, where she had been bent over in what turned out to be a futile search for another tray.

“Never been to Italy?” she said. “Well, everyone must start sometime. This either means that you’ll be easier to please because you have no basis of comparison, or that you’ll inevitably be disappointed because you have the usual grand ideas about the place that reality can never match. People sometimes come here expecting to find paradise. Well, it’s not exactly that, but it’s not hell, either. I would liken it to purgatory. You come here burdened with your life, and you stay only as long as you haven’t sorted out your most important problems. This is why many people never leave.”

“Have you been sorting out some of yours, or are you making yourself at home for good?” Denise asked archly, as she watched Nora place milk, sugar, and sweetener on a smallish tray.

“In either case, I am not going back to what I left behind, if you get my meaning,” said Nora and involuntarily gave emphasis to her words by banging down the milk jug in a rather violent manner.

“Oh, I understand you perfectly, but I don’t think you understand me. I wasn’t trying to wheedle out your intentions toward your husband so as to know what my chances are, or some such monstrosity. If I refer to your marriage, it’s because I hope you haven’t given up on Hugh completely. Because I have, you see.”

Nora looked up and saw that Denise’s face was devoid of a smile for the first time since her arrival.

“Whatever has he done to you—and in such a short time? Wow, the man’s getting worse, though I didn’t think that was humanly possible.” Nora scratched her head and almost felt embarrassed for her husband’s behavior toward his latest lover.

“No, no, no.  I’m not speaking intelligibly this morning. The only thing the poor man has done wrong so far is to expect a fixed relationship with me. It’s become common knowledge that he wanted to come here to ask you for a divorce so that he could then propose to me. But I don’t in the least feel like staying with him, and my plan was to come here and break it to him gently in the bosom of his family, where he might find comfort.”

Nora found whistling boorish, but at this moment, she felt tempted to let out a long, slow whistle of amazement. “Boomerang. Bang. Right in the face. Phew. If I felt even the least bit vengeful toward him—and believe me, I have cause to feel vengeful—I could die of happiness at the sound of this. Nemesis herself couldn’t have set it up any better.” Nora stared into space with her hands on her hips. “But I am not thirsty for revenge, and I don’t care about Hugh’s joys and sufferings. It seems to me he has dried up my tears, because I cannot give a damn even if I try. I guess this purgatory has been pretty efficacious so far.”

Nora then smiled, which added the crowning touch to her serene indifference. Denise was surprised. She knew she usually caused pain in other people—it was an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of her incessant search for the next best thing—and their pain left her coolly indifferent. But Nora was beyond any pain Denise or Hugh could give her; she was a wife who had been figuratively abandoned by her husband and who had, in response, not only physically abandoned him, but had mentally left him behind. She really didn’t care. Hugh’s trespasses and his cries for comfort would be tolerated in exactly the same way.

“Would you like some coffee?”

It was Nora who spoke again first, diverting the conversation to the neutral ground that banalities always offered. Of course Denise didn’t mind helping Nora with taking the things out to the garden.


5.

Nora was in the garden setting out the coffee things, and Denise had gone back inside for more cups when Henry appeared in the garden in his pajamas, ruffling his already ruffled hair with his left hand, while setting something on his cell phone with his right.

“I can’t believe you’re walking around in your pajamas. Did you learn that in the dorm?”

“It’s not as if we’re down by the Spanish Steps, Mother. You’ve seen me in even less appropriate attire before, and the Italian birds and wheat fields won’t be scandalized, I assure you,” Henry retorted crossly. Why couldn’t his mother give him a break? And why did he expect she would?

“What about Denise? Or has she also seen you in scantier clothing?”

Henry hadn’t noticed that Denise was also up and about. He went scarlet as he turned his head and beheld Denise walking down the grass toward them, cups in hand. Her sweet laughter, which he had come in such a short time to love so much, only exacerbated the situation.

“Don’t ever feel embarrassed on my account, Harry boy. Anyway, look at me, I am also wearing my nighties.” Denise was, in fact, wearing something that resembled a man’s T-shirt with a loose pair of shorts akin to male boxers. Her flip-flops were flaming red, as were her toenails. Adorable.

“Well, I guess it can’t get more informal than this, so I might as well tell my son what we’ve been chatting about this morning by way of small talk. Miss Logan tells me she’s about to dish your dad, while the old goat may be practicing his second wedding vows as we speak. Superb timing, I must say.” Nora’s voice was full of her amusement, and Henry’s eyes were ready to pop out of his head. He collapsed onto the chair next to his mother—hissing as his bony backside hit the iron—and alternately stared at her and Denise. Denise laughed.

“That has surely managed to wake you up, right? You probably didn’t expect me to come straight to the point.” She turned to Nora and said, “I had a chat with Henry earlier about my nonexistent future with your husband, and I told Henry then that I would break it to both you and Hugh in the course of this little trip. But Hilary Junior didn’t know how I hate wasting time. Isn’t it nicer to have cleared the air? Now we can really enjoy our Italian trip.”

She sighed contentedly, appearing to have no qualms whatsoever about the pain this whole “arrangement” might cause some of the other participants. Henry found her more of an enigma than ever. Was her ego so gigantic that there was no room left for empathy in her? Or was there sheer stupidity at the bottom of all her bravado? Or was she only devoid of that special kind of social intelligence that is so essential to functioning in the company of other humans? Or worse, did she deliberately enjoy playing with other people’s feelings and coolly testing their reactions?

“I really don’t know whether I should be impressed or awed by you,” he said. “You are either awesome or awful.” Henry couldn’t tear his eyes away from that pretty apparition with her pearly teeth and honey complexion. It came to him then, still pondering Denise’s possible malevolence, what she had all along been reminding him of: that smile and those eyes were that of La Belle Dame sans Merci, and he was none other than the poor knight palely loitering. If he was doomed to perish of love, it seemed that at least he would not also die with a bad conscience, since he would not be wooing his father’s lady. The fair lady was game—she might start calling him chéri soon. As these thoughts came, so did those of Amanda Pim go; his vision of her had vanished like the fog of the night before.

He tore his eyes away from her. “Is Hugh still sleeping?” he asked with forced nonchalance. The question was inane, because the answer was obvious, but he had to say something in order to appear at his ease.

“Your father never wakes up before ten when he’s on vacation.” Nora observed, looking up from a book she’d brought out with her, even if she hadn’t expected to be able to concentrate on her reading. Indeed, she had just skimmed the same passage for the tenth time without taking in the meaning of the words.

“I have never understood that tendency to sleep the whole day away when there are so many things to see and do!” Denise said. “I’m not against relaxing once in a while, but, my God, we’re in Italy! I’m glad you’re both here to help me motivate Hugh to get out and see some of this dream country.”

“Don’t look to me for help when it comes to motivating Mr. Hilary. I’m past that.” Nora tried to keep her tone both light and resolved. “In fact, don’t look to me for much. You have your cars, but you can also borrow mine, but I have my own schedule. If you like, we can play nineteenth century and have our hours in the evening. My other time is devoted to getting ahead with my writing.” She was convinced she had to lay down the law at the very beginning. She was happy to offer up her evenings to pleasant conversations with her niece and her son and even the others, but she surely wouldn’t be playing Mrs. Dalloway.

“Okay, Mother, I know we barged in and annihilated your privacy,” Henry said, still trying to sound nonchalant, but for a different reason this time. “I understand your expectations and will certainly stay out of your way. Believe me, I am glad to see you, but I am even gladder to see this part of Italy.” His mother was really something else. He couldn’t believe she was as unfeeling as she came across, but it was still stunning to him to have a person for a mother who would appear to prefer to have her arm chopped off rather than show a bit of motherly feeling.

“Ouch. I deserved that,” Nora said. “Sorry, Son, I didn’t mean to be mean, especially because I know you must already bear a grudge for my having left without telling you. But you are a grown man, now, you see.” The boy had really hit home, and Nora’s voice was vibrating with ill-suppressed emotion. In order to cover it up, she was racking her brains for a pun, however insipid. She resorted again to mentioning the pajamas. “Not that I see it. With your pajamas and fuzzy slippers and all.”

“Just drop it. Please, just drop it,” Henry said, but despite the irritation and weariness he was bent on putting into his retort, he was touched. What his mother was actually saying, he thought, was that she was sorry and that she loved him in her own way. It was the opposite of sugar-coated, but it would do. The young man was mollified and decided to change the topic to Anna and Will, who had not as yet appeared, either. “It’s one thing for Hugh to sleep away the day, and it’s another for Anna and William. They can’t still be sleeping, can they?”

“Oh, Will is on the pills, and if he happened to pop more than one last night, he might be sleeping well into the afternoon. Apparently, his self-medicating is getting out of hand. The man drinks like a fish, eats pills as if they were bonbons, and consequently sleeps like a bear.” Nora sighed and took a sip of her coffee, which by then had turned cold.

“He seemed quite normal on the way here,” Denise added. “But of course I don’t know him very well.” She wasn’t very much interested in William because he wasn’t very much interested in her. She didn’t regard such indifference as a challenge to put her charms into action; she just looked past it. Indeed, Will and Denise had been in different cars the night before, so there wasn’t much occasion for conversation anyway. She rather hoped he would not become difficult with all that drinking Nora had just mentioned; she wouldn’t appreciate having her little Italian trip jeopardized by anyone’s mood swings.

“Oh, Will’s been on his best behavior so far, I’m happy to confirm. Annie seems as pleased as punch about it, and no wonder, because, I’m telling you, I’ve heard some horror stories lately.” Henry said knowingly.

Just then Will and Anna appeared on the lawn—Anna daisy-like, William like another member of the pajama club. He looked old and worn but relatively cheery. “Buon giorno,” he said, smiling at Nora. “Where are you hiding the coffee? I can smell it, but I can’t find it.”

“We brought it out with us so as to lure the coffee addicts like you out here,” Nora said, smiling pleasantly back at Will.

“It is true that coffee—among other things—is one of my addictions,” Will admitted with unusual candor.

“Probably the healthiest one, for that matter,” Anna said and considered one of the white plastic deck chairs, but dismissed it as too dirty and sat down instead on the grass.

“Here, Annie, use my chair, although even the ground is softer than this iron nightmare,” Henry said.

“Ah, hence your generosity. But thanks, anyway. I don’t want any ants to climb into my undies, if possible. Will would get fearfully jealous, right, baby?” So saying, she jumped up from the grass and sat down on the chair vacated by her gentlemanly nephew.

“I am incapable of feeling anything, jealousy included, before I’ve had at least one sip of caffeine.” Socializing in the morning was as low down on Will’s list as on the hostess’ in general. He had humped down on the only iron chair that had hitherto remained empty without thinking of offering it to his girlfriend

Nora handed him a cup. “I hesitated to pour you a cup because it’s stone cold. Shall I make a fresh pot?”

“Wouldn’t hurt,” Will said laconically. The only thing worse than cold coffee was no coffee, in his opinion.

“I’ll go with you, Aunt.” Anna jumped up and followed Nora into the kitchen.


6.

“I’m not sure what you were thinking coming here,” Nora said in a mildly chiding tone as she and Anna reached the kitchen.

“I’m here as moral support,” Anna said. “Really!”

“Well, I don’t know whether your timing is the worst or the best. I’ve been invited to dinner with the landlady’s family tonight, the whole Primavera clan. They’re coming down for a couple of days, and apparently they want to check me out and have something to gossip about while they’re here.”

Nora was making the coffee as she spoke, while Anna stood leisurely by, watching her aunt without any intention whatsoever of helping. She was too busy making impressions of the place, with her favorite aunt in the midst of it. It was great to be there, together, and she was enjoying herself so much that she was perfectly unaware of appearing unhelpful.

“Wow, a real Italian family dinner! That sounds great! I mean, you might think of it as a pain in the butt to smile and chitchat, but don’t you think it will be worth your while for the original experience of it all? I would love to have been invited. Most of us don’t get chances like that; we get some watered-down version for tourists, which doesn’t have much to do with the real thing anymore. Plus I’m sure the place is stupendous. Judging by the outside of the house, it has to be like a Relais & Chateau boutique hotel inside. Can’t you take me along? I speak Italian…” Anna looked at her aunt appealingly. She might have been a little girl pleading for an ice cream.

“And leave the rest of them here? I’d love to, but that wouldn’t be very hospitable.”

“And what do you care? No offense, Aunt,” Anna quickly added. “I don’t mean you’re inhospitable; I simply mean that you have a rare opportunity on one hand and a bunch of uninvited hangers-on on the other hand, and I don’t think it’s rude in the least to keep your previous dinner engagement—and to take me with you.” Anna would have given anything to go to the dinner.

“And what would Will say to it?”

Anna looked at the floor. She’d completely forgotten about Will.

“He probably paid your way here,” Nora continued, “and you probably made the whole thing out as though it would be a nice little holiday for you both, and then you ditch him at the drop of a hat.” Nora knew it was verging on cruelty to refer to one of the most delicate issues in her niece’s life—William’s “keeping her,” as it were—but she couldn’t resist testing the younger woman. Not to mention she was still irritated at them all showing up on her doorstep at all.

“A real Italian family dinner is not the drop of a hat,” Anna sulked. “Anyway, nowadays he doesn’t even notice whether I’m there or not. There’s a stronger bond between him and his bottle than between him and me, lately.”

“All the more reason for you not to leave him alone.”

“And spend the rest of my life babysitting him?”

“It was your choice.” Nora winced as she said this, but her cruel comments were also a foil for her own uneasiness about the whole Primavera dinner. At first sight, Anna’s desire to tag along seemed merely like another complication. On the other hand, it came to Nora suddenly that her fear of appearing alone at the dinner and being surrounded by strangers could be got rid of if she had a companion. And Anna, charming and reasonably articulate in Italian even under pressure, would, in fact, be the perfect person to fulfill that role. “Okay, sorry,” she said to her crestfallen niece. “I’m sure I sounded nastier than I meant. And your idea isn’t so stupid after all. I wouldn’t mind having someone with me whom I know.”

“Someone? Oh, Aunt, be fair! Not just someone, but your dear Annie! Wouldn’t you be glad to spend an evening together, like old times? We’ll leave all our bothersome male hangers-on and the even more bothersome female hanger-on of your male hanger-on and experience the real Italian thing, just the two of us!” Anna was delighted with the idea.

“Not so fast, young lady,” Nora said in a mock-severe tone. “Before you get yourself invited without even talking to the Primaveras, let me call the old signora and see what we can do. But I warn you, don’t you laugh at my Italian accent while I’m on the phone! If I hear as much as a giggle out of you, you’re staying at home with the rest of the freeloaders. Oh, I have a better idea. Go and take the new pot of coffee out to the others while I make the call. At least you’ll appear to give a damn about your boyfriend’s comfort. The man is dying for a hot drop of caffeine.”

True to her resolve to remain cool and confident, Nora’s voice was shaking only a little bit as she wished the signora buon giorno and went on to say that her niece and some other relatives had arrived unexpectedly and so she wasn’t sure what to do about tonight’s dinner.  Signora Primavera instantly expressed her delight at this unexpected turn of events and invited them all to come to dinner. The more the merrier, she said, and when Nora protested that most of them didn’t speak Italian, she insisted they were more than welcome. She added that she was delighted to have the opportunity to offer up some more native English speakers to her Anglophile brother Alberto. She was certain that Nora would not be bored by his conversation. Did she know Trollope? Her brother was an expert on Trollope; the foremost Trollope expert in Italy, actually. Nora insisted she was fond of his writings—a white lie was excusable, she thought guiltily—and that her son and niece were likewise interested in literature. The signora knew they were destined to spend a pleasant evening together. Grazie, grazie. Al presto, allora.

Nora’s steps toward the garden were sprightlier than usual, and she caught herself actually looking forward to the evening. After such a successful Italian conversation, with the added knowledge of being backed up by her own clan, she felt much surer of herself, and her stage fright diminished for the time being. See, there was always a good side to situations that seemed bad through and through; yes, yes, blessings often came in disguise, and now she felt almost pacified by the idea of sharing her precious time and space with the family she had been so very keen on leaving behind.

By now Hugh had joined the land of the conscious, and everybody was out in the garden. Judging by his easy manner, Nora felt certain that he had not as yet been undeceived about the future of his private life. She almost felt sorry for him—so self-assured and cheerful he seemed, so certain of his success with the ladies, so wholly unaware of the blow Denise had in store for him. Hugh, however, was putting on a show by which Nora was deceived; he had been living with the sword of Damocles dangling above his head, and the more he was afraid of being for the first time in his life ditched by a woman before he felt like ditching her, the more he tried to ooze ease in order to charm the lady who happened to be holding the murderous blade in her pretty hands.

Denise was lying on the lawn with a blade of grass between her teeth, and she was laughing at something Anna was saying. Anna was sitting next to her, flanked on the other side by Henry, who couldn’t take his eyes off his two pretty companions. He was so busy admiring especially Denise that he was only half listening to what his cousin was saying. The lad was obviously head over heels, and he didn’t notice the occasional sidelong glances his father delivered, so incongruous with his otherwise cheerful air. William was nursing a cup of coffee he held in his hands, tilting his chair, dangling his legs, and risking a nasty fall. Even while simply sitting, the man insisted upon living dangerously.

Anna was the first one to catch sight of her aunt’s return, of course, as she had been anxiously awaiting news about the fate of the Primavera dinner. She hadn’t breathed a word to anyone, and now she continued to feign ignorance as to what her aunt had been up to inside the house.

“Oh, Aunt,” she said, “the picture is complete now that you are back. Come, Will, sit next to us on the grass and let Nora take your chair. Be an obliging guest.” After a few minutes on the chair her cousin had offered up, Anna switched to the grass; even ants in one’s pants were better than that iron horror.

“I’m too old and important to sit on the ground like some Gypsy. Let Hugh offer his seat to his wife. That seat was Nora’s before she went indoors, anyway.”

“Listen to the simple man,” Anna scoffed. “I keep forgetting how noble savages nowadays have different ways of living up to their title.” She didn’t know why Will would allude to Hugh and Nora’s marital bond under the circumstances; it was either a blunder or a witty comment in bad taste.

“Don’t bother yourselves on my account,” Nora said mildly. “I am only the hostess after all—and don’t laugh. For I have a great evening entertainment to offer you, and once I’ve told you what it is, you might regard me even as a perfect hostess.” Nora smiled knowingly. “The Italian dinner to which I am inviting you all is not the phony substitute that travel agencies palm off on stupid tourists. It will take place at the palace next door, where you will hobnob with the renowned Primavera clan over well-assorted delicacies served on invaluable heirlooms.”

“Jeez, Aunt,” Anna said, frowning. “Whatever do you mean? Did the old woman invite us all?” At first she didn’t know whether to be happy or disappointed; there was less privilege in going if everybody was invited. But her second impulse was to feel ashamed of her selfishness and also relieved that the problem of leaving Will’s side for the evening had been solved. She had begun to feel as though Will was not safe even among his closest friends; no one would have dared to tell him to stop drinking, even when he was obviously having a glass too many. They feigned ignorance of the whole boozing issue and believed they were being tactful by doing so, but the only beneficiaries of such tact were those who showed it; it certainly failed to benefit Will. By saving themselves from uncomfortable scenes and possible ruptures with the man they all liked and worried about, they exacerbated the problem rather than eased it.

“The more the merrier is a universal sentiment, it seems,” Nora said to Anna. “Plus, the more of us there are, the more raw material they have for gossip later. They probably regard us Americans as some rare specimens from a traveling zoo. But to observe them in their native habitat will be our exclusive privilege.” Nora found great enjoyment in observing the different reactions on the travelers’ faces. Their expressions all showed surprise and possibly delight, but each one showed these things differently. Henry’s face went scarlet with the effort of hiding how happy he was about the invitation, while Denise, a largely open book, gave a loud whistle followed by, “Wow!” Will’s face bore the combination of condescension and amusement that said he was used to being invited to similar shindigs wherever he went. Hugh blew out a silent breath of relief, feeling grateful that Nora had the means of making his girlfriend’s stay so enjoyable. Anna seemed to be in seventh heaven, even if she was really only in the sixth; her aunt couldn’t guess her secret disappointment that she wasn’t the only guest privileged enough to be invited along.


7.

What with all of the cleaning and cooking, the Primavera residence was in an uproar, despite the greatest efforts of the domestic workers to let the Primaveras enjoy their afternoon siesta. Among the family Signor Alberto and Signora Silvana didn’t mind the noise; they were, if something, too friendly and forbearing toward the employees of old Signora Primavera’s household. The “baby brother” and his niece, Signora Primavera’s sixty-year-old eldest daughter, were the favorites of the servants, and there were good reasons for it. Silvana Minalba was a cheerful, stout matron with a generous heart and a large purse with very loose strings. Or, to be more precise, her husband’s success in whatever business he undertook—selling prodotti tipici in Perugia or ultrafashionable men’s clothing on the Via Veneto in Rome—came to the aid of the generous impulses of his wife, which were frequent and, according to her mother at least, grossly imprudent.

Nor did the old signora eye the luxurious ease of the two Minalba grandchildren favorably. In this she was quite un-Italian: in her opinion, people in their thirties should not still be living at home, and they should certainly not allow their parents to pay their way. And to have their boyfriends and girlfriends move in with them while they sponged off their parents was a non plus ultra situation in the old signora’s view, and whenever the whole Primavera family assembled, there were embarrassing battibecchi between the oldest member of the family and the “good-for-nothing appendages” her grandchildren—especially the Minalba youths—brought along.

Lily Minalba was indeed thirty and indeed lived with her indolent but beautiful boyfriend Mario in her parents’ large, elegant apartment, which seemed even larger due to the frequent absences of the head of the family. Signor Ernesto Minalba’s work and its undeniably good results served as an irrefutable excuse to be away from home most of the time. Admittedly, the tired businessman, after a grueling day at work, often rewarded himself with the company of very pretty young ladies in stupendous restaurants where his wife was only invited on such occasions as wedding anniversaries or her birthday—if these occasions were not forgotten, that is, an understandable oversight in the case of someone so busy making a living to support his family.

All in all, Ernesto Minalba was a successful breadwinner, an affectionate husband when present, and an indulgent father whether present or not. If extramarital activities were part and parcel of his ability to fulfill these duties, then so be it. There had been many many sleepless nights where flying flowerpots and lampshades had not figured only because Silvana wasn’t endowed with an irascible temper. There had been premature ageing and a nervous indigestion instead, and then finally came the stoical decision to regard her husband’s dalliances as a hobby only a shade more extravagant than whole days spent on golf courses, where females were persona non gratis—not to mention the all-male weeklong fishing trips.

Despite old Signora Primavera’s warnings, Signor and Signora Minalba were highly indulgent of their two offspring, Lily and Carlito, and admired their abundant charms. There is nothing Lily Minalba could have done, had she cared to, to disguise her Italian identity. But she had always been perfectly satisfied with her short stature; her dark shiny hair; her eyebrows, which tended to be a trifle too bushy and close together; and her slim if short limbs growing out of a surprisingly voluptuous torso—her buttocks, breasts, and belly were all round and soft and inviting to the touch. Lily talked loudly and had a way of gesticulating that was idiosyncratic even amongst her fellow Italians. She was an artist of body language, and even while sitting in a crowded restaurant sandwiched between people twice her size, her tiny frame undulated and twisted and turned incessantly. She was a perpetum mobile, the soul of any party, be it a family gathering or a drunken gruppo somewhere in the fashionable quarters of Rome. Her ringing laughter, which displayed her beautiful, if a trifle too large, teeth, warmed a sad soul and convinced one to stay on even if one were dead tired and just wanted to quit the party and curl up in bed.

Life was Lily’s art, and it came as no surprise to her that such an artist as she would have no time for traditional work. She did not deem it necessary to look above her head and see the black clouds of grown-up duties gathering there, heavy with the promise of rain. Lily was adorable, but it was a simple fact that she was spoiled nearly useless.

Lily’s somewhat younger brother Carlito—they were Irish twins, so to say—also preferred sharing the cozy parental nest to establishing a more autonomous existence. If possible, he was an even more perplexing specimen of golden youth. Had he been born in antiquity, he would have been one of the godlike creatures who inspired the immortal works of the Greek sculptors. Everything was effortless about his strapping body—and he had shed no sweat or tears in the gym in its pursuit—his wide, muscular shoulders, narrow hips, buttocks rounder than celestial orbs, long, lean legs with just the right sprinkling of golden hair. And last but definitely not least, his sparkling sapphire eyes, ornamenting a face of perfect proportions, framed by a shock of curly blond hair that an archangel would have envied.

Carlito was also intelligent and witty, and the fatal combination of looks, brains, humor, and funding made him one of the most popular young men in his set. He could have gotten any girl, for a night or for a lifetime, but something had always held him back. His friends had long teased him that he thought himself too good even for the best of the young women who pursued him; he could have had his pick from the top of the basket, and he didn’t even deem it worth his while to have a taste. Recently, a more malevolent rumor had started circulating—probably started by one or another of the beautiful ladies he had snubbed—and even his closest male companions had begun to look at him askance. Could it be that the godlike Carlito simply didn’t like the fair sex? The other young men in his set were macho, as was the norm in Italian culture, and they, along with most people, including Carlito’s family, looked upon homosexuality with horror. Whether these rumors concerning his sexual orientation had any grain of truth in them was still a distressing question for all those who loved him. Nobody dared discuss the issue openly, but they all kept their eyes peeled for signs.

Of course, Carlito knew what they suspected, and it made his life miserable; both amongst family and friends, he had started to feel haunted, watched, scrutinized. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to learn that a fresh batch of individuals would be joining them for dinner at La Serenissima. What a relief it would be to look into the eyes of people who were not—as yet—judging him.

Carlito’s greatest horror was of his aunt Perpetua, his mother’s twin sister. One would be confounded to learn, after the first glance at the two women, that they were twins—in fact, that they were siblings at all. Silvana was chubby and cheerful; Perpetua was sallow and bitter. Silvana was married; Perpetua was a spinster. Silvana was a housewife who in general minded her own business and went to church only at Christmastime. Perpetua was a fanatical busybody who did volunteer work for the Vatican. There were two common denominators between them, apart from their mother and father: they both adored their uncle Alberto, although Perpetua’s feelings bordered on obsession. Furthermore, like Silvana, Perpetua, although unmarried, happened to be a mother.

The scandal about the nigh-nun’s pregnancy had been hushed up from the outset, and nobody ever since was allowed to hint at the circumstances of baby Virginia’s (probably not immaculate) conception. The other Primaveras thought that Virginia must have a strong resemblance to her father—whose identity Perpetua had never revealed—because she looked nothing like her mother. She had, however, the aquiline nose of the Primaveras—so apparent in the case of her grandmother and her uncle Roberto—while her mother had none of the typical features of the clan despite the irrefutable evidence of her own parentage. In any case, it was no great loss if sunny Virginia didn’t take after gloomy Perpetua. As a little girl, she was docile, pleasing to the eye—even if not a beauty—and genuinely attached to her mother. Now, at the age of twenty-five, she was studying architecture and was naturally drawn to her grandmother by way of their common interest in buildings and interior design. Of course she was Signora Primavera’s favorite grandchild, and she feared she would become loathsome to her beloved Minalba cousins whenever the old signora held her up as an example to follow.

Estella, the third daughter of Signor and Signora Primavera was also universally liked among her family. At first sight, Estella’s faded looks and spinsterhood made her seem similar to her elder sister Perpetua, but never had appearances been more deceptive. Estella was as soft and sweet-natured as Silvana, but her fund of generosity was not sapped by any offspring; she remained both unmarried and childless, and rumor had it that she was still unfamiliar with “the magic snake.”

In fact, Estella had never seemed interested in romance, marriage, or procreation. She was not embittered in the least, and she might have been taken as an example of how normal life could be without any outlet for the sexual impulses that allegedly dwelt in every human being. With such a disposition, she would have made a perfect nun, had it not been for her inordinate love of Life; apart from sexual pleasures, she adored everything that her five senses could offer her. The vibrant colors of a flower garden, the silky touch of a rose petal, the indescribable fragrance of fresh hot bread as it filled her nostrils when she bit into its divinely crunchy crust, the chocolatey, leathery, peppery taste of the robust red wine on her palate, Mozart’s piano concertos and the ringing laughter of her niece Lily—every little thing was another reason to live the worldly life and not shut herself up within the somber walls of some convent.

To worship God, in her opinion, was to live the good life. This kind of noble paganism was her most endearing quality to her uncle Alberto, and devout Perpetua had no chance when it came to vying for that special place in the old gentleman’s affections. Silvana, Estella, and, from the younger generation, Virginia, were the VIPs of that soft male heart, and Perpetua’s place therein was based chiefly on her blood tie with her uncle and Alberto’s vast capability to care for anyone with a legitimate claim on his affections.

Estella had come late—the signora was in her early forties then—and nobody had expected any more children after the three girls, but lo, in her forty-fifth year, she had announced she was pregnant once again. Signor Primavera was away a lot in those days, and it would have been gross imprudence on the part of any acquaintance to do the math in connection with little Roberto’s conception. In any case, he was the fourth and final child, a baby boy at last. But it soon became apparent that the tiny lad was special, meaning he had been born with a screw loose. He hadn’t been dropped on his head by accident, and the signora had done everything as correctly during her pregnancy as on the previous occasions. And yes, at the age of forty-five it was still possible to deliver perfectly healthy babies. The fact remained that little Roberto was not like normal children, but the signora loved him as much as her other offspring and turned a deaf ear to insinuations concerning divine punishment for fornication.

Roberto Primavera was, as it happened, a truly useful member of the clan, whose work ethic might have been emulated by the younger generation. Although he wore an idiotic smile on his face at all times and even as an adult had difficulties writing correctly, he was devilishly good with numbers and a polite and gentle human being. Indeed, he was an ideal shop assistant for the little tourist shop his brother-in-law owned in Perugia. Roberto was, furthermore, the most trustworthy employee any shop owner would have wished for, as he was constitutionally incapable of dissimulation or any other vice. He never lied, he never cheated, and he would rather have had his hands cut off than steal even a pin. He was the pride and joy of the Primaveras, more so than his healthier, more beautiful, and smarter kinsmen.


8.

Signora Primavera’s quick and cheerful Indian employee, Alaam, whizzed back and forth between the station wagon and the kitchen, delivering the last of the foodstuffs needed for the dinner to the bulky but brilliant Bianca. She was hot and wheezy as usual, but these traits had never curbed her enthusiasm for preparing kingly feasts for whole towns if need be. Other cooks might have fumed and flown into a rage upon finding out that five more people—American tourists with unknown tastes and preferences—were expected for dinner that night, but she had only become more delighted when presented with the bigger challenge. She preferred cooking to anything else, and as long as she was caught up in culinary matters, she was not expected to dust and mop and kneel and bend and climb stairs—in other words, she didn’t have to do any other housework.

Adamo, who rounded out the signora’s staff, was perfectly cut out for such menial chores, regardless of his being a rare male in offices considered the domain of females. Bianca ruled the kitchen, Massimo had the garden under control, and Alaam was skilled when it came to haggling at the market and efficient at finding superior products and specials at the supermarket. If anything, Adamo was quite dangerous behind the wheel of the family station wagon, so it was better if he stayed in the house and filled in wherever he was needed. All in all, he was the unhappiest of the lot: he would have liked to do other things, but he was the first one to admit that he had no special skills to save him from washing dishes, scrubbing toilets, and dusting the innumerable knickknacks in the numerous rooms of the large house. The arrival of the Americans had made no difference in the variety of his daily duties; Alaam and Bianca would have delegated such chores to him, anyway, as they always did.

While that motley but efficient crew was preparing for dinner, the rest of the household was dispersed in the garden, the living room, and their respective bedrooms. Three hours remained before the arrival of the American guests and the uncorking of the first bottle of prosecco that signaled the cocktail hour. It wasn’t that alcoholic beverages weren’t consumed before then, but the first collective drink—the first clinking of glasses—was always timed for seven o’clock in the old signora’s household.

Four o’clock found Alberto sitting in a cushy chair, strategically placed on the plushy lawn under a lonely cedar—the biggest and oldest tree on the whole property—so as to allow him to contemplate the view of Orvieto whenever he felt like looking up from his book, Forster’s Howard’s End, which he had read several times before but now had the legitimate excuse to reread for a paper that he was to deliver at a Paris conference in the fall. Reading the novel in that setting shed a new light on the Orvieto houses—Il Silenzio and La Serenissima—his tender feeling for which, it turned out, had a lot in common with Mrs. Wilcox’s for Howard’s End. He was sorry to admit that his sister Augusta, on the other hand, had more of the general Wilcox attitude in matters of property.

The two houses belonged to the Primavera family, a fact of which Augusta was understandably proud. They brought in money when they were let, which appealed to her practical approach to life. They served as canvases for her artistic impulses, and whenever she was in the mood, she could use them to experiment with her newest ideas of interior decoration and landscape design. Admittedly, family pride and a sense of tradition would have stopped her from selling either La Serenissima or Il Silenzio, but she would have had to set her teeth on edge if a really lucrative offer had come her way.  Ultimately, she thought of properties as physical entities and did not indulge in any sentimental beliefs about the spirit or soul of a house.

Alberto marveled at the fact that, through literature, he could gain new insight about his sister after all these years. Forster and tobacco successfully combined to make his afternoon immensely pleasurable, and he contentedly puffed away and marveled at the interest the novel could still arouse in him after so many perusals. Estella and Virginia’s nearness only added to his bliss; the former lounged nearby reading Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, while the latter napped a bit farther off with an issue of Architectural Digest open on her lap. Carlito was also in the vicinity, but he fell outside Alberto’s line of vision. Accidentally enough, the four people so assembled on the lawn had the best knowledge of English in the Primavera household. Estella could easily read any English text without difficulty, but when it came to speaking, she was rusty and sounded more like a bad rendering of one of her favorite nineteenth-century stories. She used words like “nosegay” instead of “bouquet,” and had been known to refer to an untrustworthy person as a “scoundrel” or a “rogue” or burst out with an “alas” when she had something lamentable to communicate. When Alberto called her attention to her archaisms, she just laughed and said that her idiosyncratic way of making progress in language was to go backward in time. Had Anna Hilary been there, she would have been amazed to discover that it was what she herself was trying to do.

Virginia and Carlito, belonging to the younger generation, might have been expected to have learned English in school. This practice, however, was still far from de rigueur in Italy, and young people skilled in any foreign language were more the exception than the rule. So while both Virginia and Carlito had had English classes in school, what had made them fluent was, in Virginia’s case, enthusiasm and perseverance, and, in Carlito’s case, a year’s stay in the States. To Carlito’s credit, his sister Lily had not profited in the least from the same opportunity abroad; Lily was hopeless with languages and far too caught up in the golden life of Italy to bother with what was going on outside of it. She had not liked California, and she was only happy when they went out to a restaurant in that part of San Diego called Little Italy and she could chat with the Italian owner while eating Italian food.

Suddenly Estella turned to her uncle with a puzzled face. “Alberto, do you have La Serenissima ‘in your bones’?” She took Alberto’s look of expression as one of confusion and continued, “Out of context it must sound silly. There’s a character in The Buccaneers, Guy Thwarte, who is heir to an old aristocratic mansion called Honourslove, and he says his feelings for the house are so deep and go so far beyond its beauty, that they are, in fact, ‘in his bones.’ And then the pretty American girl, Nan St. George, mentions the ‘beyondness of things.’ It’s the way one feels about the most special people in one’s life: love that goes beyond beauty and other surface values.”

Alberto’s facial expression had not changed, and Estella watched him uncertainly. But he was responding to her unnerving quality of reading one’s thoughts and saying something that seemed the continuation of a conversation that a second ago had been only an unuttered monologue.

“You little witch,” he said. “Your timing is uncanny, as I was just musing about that very thing. You know, I have to admit that I have not yet had the pleasure of reading The Buccaneers, but I surely will, after this allusion of yours. So, it is good? Didn’t Wharton leave it unfinished?”

“It was completed by someone called Marion Mainwaring, and it’s very good, but you still haven’t answered my question. Do you believe in such love for places? Do you, for instance, love La Serenissima in that way?” Estella persisted with an apologetic smile, which mitigated what she feared might seem to her beloved uncle like irreverence or stubbornness.

“Yes, I sincerely do,” Alberto said solemnly.

“I am so delighted to hear you say so, because I do, too. I have the feeling it’s not a common sentiment and that if people knew I do feel such love toward a heap of stones, they would say it’s because I’m a spinster and of course have to compensate with an unnatural passion for objects.” She was whispering by now; she didn’t want even Virginia or Carlito hear her confess to such strange feelings.

“I understand, dear. But I am not better off, you see,” her uncle chuckled, “being a creepy old bachelor myself.”

“True enough,” she laughed gratefully.

“What are you two laughing about?” Virginia asked with a yawn. She stretched on the deck chair like a languid cat, and as she did, the Architectural Digest fell to the ground, and she was suddenly alert, and, jumping up to retrieve it as if she were saving it from flames or flood.

“What zeal to save a magazine from the dirt!” Carlito teased. “I wouldn’t exert so much energy to save anything less precious than my own mother.” Carlito was also just waking from a doze brought on by the cooling breeze that ran through the garden—well, that and a caipirinha stiffer than he had originally intended—and the sound of the magazine falling recalled him from the verge of sleep back to waking life. He quite resented it, but because he was constitutionally incapable of being angry or even irritated with anyone for such trifles, he thought it might be looked upon as providential; he had promised his sister Lily’s boyfriend, vain Mario, that he would go for a jog with him on the hilly little tracks around the house. He didn’t, of course, feel like running in the least, but Lily had expressed her wish to Carlito that he and Mario bond a bit. Moreover, it was easier to bond with an airhead during an activity that didn’t require talking than, say, going out for beers and conversation. That would have sent shivers down Carlito’s spine, but fortunately Lily didn’t—as yet—require anything so terrible. Carlito decided that his sister had to be head over ears in love, otherwise it would have been impossible to explain away such fatal slip of taste on her part. True, Mario was a physically beautiful human being, but his beauty was that of a blown-out Easter egg: the gorgeous shell was thin and contained a void.

“This magazine was a present from Mother,” Virginia said, her voice amused, “and after she has given me anything, she always checks to see how I treat it—whether I use it properly or use it at all or, heaven forbid, whether I have regifted it.” The young woman was highly critical of her mother, Perpetua, but she would never have allowed herself to talk in an openly disrespectful manner; mild irony was as far as she permitted herself to go.

“That sounds more like lending than giving,” Carlito observed. He couldn’t stand his aunt Perpetua, and it was only his love for his cousin Virginia that stopped his tongue from saying something more pert.

“It’s the archaic way, you know; lending and giving were, originally, one and the same thing. Read Marcel Mauss’s The Gift,” Alberto said. He couldn’t help edifying whenever he had the chance—one of his few vices, although even that a good-natured one.

“Thanks, but no thanks, Uncle. Any novel you’ve recommended to me so far has only managed to send me off to sleep,” said Carlito.

“This is not a novel, Dummkopf,” Alberto chuckled. “It’s one of the key works of anthropology.”

“That sounds even worse.” Carlito pretended to frown while being hugely amused by his own ignorance. He was a good example of the general truth—however inconceivable to his bookworm relatives—that intelligence and even education didn’t always go together with a love of reading. Carlito, if ever he chose a profession, would be excellent as an economist or a financial advisor—another irony, considering his continued sponging on his parents and his spendthrift ways. His was a practical mind, a mind open to science more than to arts, to down-to-earth things rather than theoretical ones.

“Anyway, was it one of the books I’ve lent you that had you so sound asleep just now?”

“No, Uncle, I have to admit I resorted to a tastier alternative: caipirinha.”

“You surely don’t have to be taught how to indulge. Well, I won’t sound the Puritan note, because I am not one, but, really, you should try and indulge more than your tastebuds, my friend. Real hedonism is that of the soul; you won’t get the most out of life if you search for it only on plates and in glasses. Turn to Art, Carlito.”

As yet, Alberto’s Paterian sympathies had only found one listener in his family: Estella, who, of course, understood perfectly what he meant. Nevertheless, Alberto never gave up hope that he might infuse his family members—especially the younger generation—with what he termed the “goodly influence” of Paterian aestheticism. It would have been a bit too high-flown even for his taste to paraphrase Pater and tell them that while all melted under their feet they should grasp any exquisite passion—but preferably the passion for Art, because it yielded the fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness the most easily—so as to live and love all they could during their short day of frost and sun and not to sleep before the evening. But to simply remind them whenever there was an occasion that life was short and they had to compensate for this brevity with intensity and that the most intense moments could be had if one turned to Art was something that he took to be his duty as a blood relation—and also as a person who had devoted his life to the appreciation of Art.

“If you don’t mind, Uncle, now I have to turn to sports. Mario wants to go for a jog, so I have the sacred task of knocking on my sister’s door and luring away her darling.”

“She won’t be pleased,” Virginia remarked. She couldn’t stand Mario, either, and she was actually angry with Lily for having gotten involved with such an individual at all.

“Oh, you are mistaken. It was her idea. You know, the bonding,” Carlito said with a laugh.

“Bonding my a—ss, and excuse my French,” Virginia fumed. “There’s no need to tie that peacock to the family more firmly than he already is. If Lily wants to bond with him, let her do that in her bedroom, and basta.” Even she couldn’t have said why this whole thing had made her so angry. It wasn’t her business, after all. Why was she turning into a turkey cock over such a trifle? She was often frightened when her own reactions in any way resembled her mother’s; it was her greatest nightmare to detect any symptom of turning into a shrew like her.

“I agree with you, of course, but don’t tell Lily,” Carlito pleaded. “Come on, Virgie, she is In Love! You know how rarely that happens! Let her enjoy it. It won’t kill me to run a couple of kilometers, and it’ll make her happy. Plus, at least it will help me sweat off the caipirinha so that I have room for dinner and more drinks.” Carlito rose from his deck chair as he finished this defense of his sister on this practical note and turned his steps toward the house.


9.

Beds at La Serenissima were only a bit bigger and cushier than at Il Silenzio, and its guests—family or friends of Augusta Primavera—had learned long ago not to complain. The old signora never slept well, regardless of place or bed, which she considered to be one of the unavoidable side effects of getting on in years. In fact, she hadn’t slept well for the last two and a half decades, and with sleeplessness having become her usual condition, she could conceive of no other alternative. It never even entered her head that others might have had the chance of a good snooze, if only the tiny rock-hard slabs euphemistically called “beds” in her two Orvieto houses had allowed them. Let it be understood that her artistic sense concerning interior design would not have tolerated ugly beds, but uncomfortable beds were a wholly different matter. The beds at La Serenissima did not outrage her refined eye; hence they were perfectly adequate for occasional guests.

It was, therefore, not the comfort of Lily’s bed that had persuaded her and her gorgeous boyfriend to lie around the whole afternoon in each other’s arms. Lily’s curves made up for the bed’s lack of cushioning, and the rays of the sun stealing in through the crack between the carelessly closed shutters fell on their naked bodies and caressed them even while they were taking a break from caressing each other. Mario was a tireless lover, even if a shade too theatrical. To tell the truth, Lily wasn’t always sure whether his tremendous excitement didn’t in great measure come from watching or—if there were no mirrors around—picturing himself making love.

If Nora Hilary resented any intrusion when it came to her privacy, Mario was the exact opposite. He thrived on being watched, which, with his good looks, usually meant being admired. Had he heard of it, he would never have understood why Sartre interpreted the nature of the gaze as, first and foremost hostile. Mario was convinced that the look of the Other was essential to his happiness; if there was no onlooker, he felt no delight in doing anything. Nora would have said that Mario had something of Henry James’s Lord Mellifont in him, and, indeed, Lily’s boyfriend had a lot in common with that strange character of “The Private Life”—always perfectly polished in his manners, always scrupulously well dressed, and always more in his element the bigger his audience. It would have surprised no one who knew Mario to discover that when no one was looking at him, he simply ceased to exist.

Lily had fallen for him during one of the swell dinners in a Via Veneto restaurant organized by her circle of friends. There were twenty of them, all young and fashionable, but—in Lily’s eyes—none so much so as Mario Neroni; it seemed to her that he positively shone. He even looked taller that night than he really was.

Mario believed his height—or lack of it—was his greatest shortcoming, and his diminutive stature caused him no end of grief. Apart from this lamentable detail, Mario’s looks vied with Carlito’s, even if their handsomeness was of a very different sort. In contrast with the effortlessly charming Carlito, Mario was the embodiment of will-power: he exercised religiously, watched what he ate, slept eight hours a night no matter what, and frequented male beauty parlors to maintain the shine and shape of his nails and hair, the suppleness of his skin, and to get rid of the excess hair on his muscular body. He always wore clothes that had the exact cut and color currently in vogue, and he would have rather died than have been seen in anything shabby. All in all, the overly scrupulous care with which he groomed and polished and worshipped his own person put him more in line with the stereotypical homosexual than careless Carlito. Yet Mario was as macho in his tastes as they come when it came to women. He loved feminine curves; nay, he positively demanded a “well-sized cushion for the pushing,” finding the lean, athletic look he coveted repulsive in a woman. While he wanted a sexy girl as a companion, she could not be better looking as a woman than he was as a man. Even competition in parallel categories was intolerable to him.

Like the Primaveras, Mario’s family was well-to-do, but—if at all possible—he was even more spoiled than the Minalba children, due to being an only child in a family where both father and mother were only children. This meant that the youngest generation in the Neroni family was represented by Mario alone, and the position of undisputed primacy had gone to his handsome head. On home turf, he was the prodigy, and when outside the adoring circle of his family, he still expected to be regarded as such. Because his good looks and fine manners covered the emptiness of his head and heart, Mario’s unlimited egotism and vanity were usually forgiven. He was not as popular as Carlito, whose kind, sweet-tempered nature shone through, but he was popular enough that the attention and admiration of others supplied the stimulus he found so vital to his happiness. During their first months together, Lily’s downright adoration of him had been a very, very pleasant example of such stimulus, and Mario had found himself highly motivated to perform the role of the passionate lover, which resulted in both their happiness. In theory, their relationship could have been described as successful, and they were seen by friends and acquaintances as well-suited to each other, but the crux of the matter was that adoration too readily and steadily given soon lost its charm, and Mario had lately found himself less and less stimulated by the easily won praise of pretty little Lily. His ego demanded constant challenge to soothe it, and he felt compelled to prove to himself, now that he had conquered Lily, that he was worth the praise of other better-looking, richer, younger girls.

Having critically scrutinized himself in the mirror recently, Mario had decided that he was getting a bit flabby around the middle and would have to shape up a bit more before he broke up with Lily. And then she suggested that he and her brother go out for a run together, giving him a good opportunity to exercise and at the same time allow Carlito to get to know him better. He might also be able to ferret out a few of Carlito’s weaknesses. Mario had a carefully suppressed envy of Lily’s brother’s effortless good looks. Carlito was a rival despite his potential homosexuality; he remained another attractive individual in Mario’s sphere, and his mere existence was like a glove thrown in the face.

Carlito had no inkling of the other young man’s hostile thoughts. Mario’s perfect manners would never let him betray any trace of the enmity he carried around like a small leaden box lodged inside his well-sculpted chest. He always remained amicable, so full of his own praise that he did not for a second imagine that others found him rather commonplace despite his looks. He and his few adorers as much blinded by his appearance as he was himself remained ignorant of often being tolerated rather than admired.

“I hope your gran doesn’t expect me to babble with those Yankees. My English is none too good,” Mario remarked between puffs of his cigarette as they lay on the bed and stared at the television screen, which displayed the current soap opera, “Cuori Spezzati,” proudly presented by Rai Uno to the undiscerning Italian folk every blessed day of the week. Lily adored criticizing the looks of the female protagonists, while Mario was addicted to doing the same concerning the men. But for him the most important element was to update his appearance according to the newest trend in clothing and hairstyle.

“Don’t worry, amore,” Lily said. “You know I don’t speak that language, either, and I wouldn’t even if I could. That one year in California convinced me more than ever that I am done once and for all with Anglo-Saxons.” She nestled closer to her lover. It wasn’t really true that she felt an aversion to anything English, but she knew he did, and so she wanted him to be impressed by her similar outlook on the issue. In fact, she was embarrassed by the fact that she didn’t speak English better after having the opportunity to live and study in an English-speaking environment for more than a year. She felt the best defense was to attack, and while she was usually quite amicable, Lily turned into a bellicose little beast when it came to the question of English.

“Anyway, it’s a great bore that there will be six of them, now. Even the one woman who rents your gran’s house would have been more than enough. But six of them…I guess Alberto will be in his element,” he sneered. He didn’t in the least like the sprucely dressed old gentleman who was so irritatingly kind to everyone.

“And Estella and Virginia and even Carlito will be showing off their English.”

“Well, they can have their brainy Anglo-Saxon conversations at the other end of the table.” Mario couldn’t help resenting in advance that his lack of English would automatically make it impossible for him to be the center of the attention that night. There was even a possibility he would be downright ignored. It wasn’t that he really craved the attention of the old people making up the gist of the Primavera clan or even the Americans, who he’d heard were similarly old; but it was still annoying to be shoved into a corner and not even being given a chance to shine. A loud knock on the door called their thoughts away from the evening.

“Who is it?” Lily shouted.

“The personal trainer of Signor Neroni is ready whenever the signor is,” Carlito said from the hallway, using a mock-subservient voice. “The weather is ideal, if I may be permitted to observe. Yet, if I may further add, time is pressing.” He could hear Lily’s giggle as soon as he had finished.

“Brother, you idiot, stop clowning, and come in!”

“Are you decent?” asked Carlito, knowing his sister was most probably naked.

“Oh, I was born indecent and have remained so ever since,” Lily drawled. “But if you want me to, I can rip a fig leaf from the tree outside my window as a sign of my utmost respect for you.” She climbed out of the bed like a lazy tabby cat, wrapped the light bedsheet around her figure and opened the door for her brother.

“You could pose as Venus de Milo in that sheet. Very charming, I daresay.”

“Don’t you dare say. You know I’m fat.” Lily pouted as she scrutinized herself in the reflection of the glass armoire next to the bed. She knew very well she was not fat, but she was fishing for compliments.

“I won’t say you aren’t, because I know that’s what you want to hear.” Carlito smiled at his sister affectionately.

“That’s a very perverse attitude,” Lily observed, looking archly into her brother’s eyes.

“Look who’s talking. Now, don’t you go round squeezing compliments out of a fellow, but tell us whether you can spare us for the next hour. Although it was your brainchild to send us off sweating up and down the hills of Umbria, one can never know with you. You might have changed your mind since. So, can we trust you to stay alone? You won’t sulk?” Carlito went on.

“No, I won’t sulk. I will be tremendously relieved. At least I’ll have time to do a little prep work before dinner. You know, revisit the irregular verbs of that beautiful language and look through the most commonplace idioms that may come in handy while chitchatting with the Yankees.” Her tone was sarcastic.

“What makes you so hostile all of a sudden?” Carlito asked. “You weren’t so offish with Roger Boore and John Brain back in San Francisco, if I recall—” Carlito moved away quickly, before his sister had time to box his ears. He knew he was treading on delicate ground with the delicacy of an elephant.

“Will you shut up?” Lily blazed. It wasn’t that Mario would have been able to guess the real reason those two names had made her so upset. It wasn’t that she had, at one time, been very happy to receive the attentions of Yankee gentlemen despite her present (feigned) disgust; it had more to do with the opposite, namely that she had been tried, tested, and trashed by the first one, and toyed with by the second, who was nothing less than married with two kids, as it had turned out.

“Ouch, stepped on your corns, I’m afraid.” Carlito laughed, but he actually felt beastly for having mentioned the men.

“Don’t be afraid; just get out,” Lily said crossly. “Off with you both. Run down to Rome, and don’t rush back.” Her anger evaporated as soon as the words left her mouth. She was very much like her brother in that she never nursed her ills for long. The smile was already back on her pretty face, and her dimples were a sure sign that she had already been mollified.

“We might choose a closer destination and just run up to Perugia to fetch Dad and Uncle Roberto. You know when they’re arriving?” Carlito asked his sister.

Their father was lunching with friends in Perugia and would pick up Roberto—for whom Saturday was a workday at the gift shop—on his way home.

“If I know Dad, they wouldn’t dream of missing the cocktail hour, and I bet my knickers he’d rather die than be late for dinner,” Lily said with a tinge of contempt in her voice. She loved her father, but with his dangerously increasing corpulence, he was on his way to becoming the caricature of la dolce vita. She was so proud of her Italian heritage—the customs and traditions, the mentality, the undisguised pleasure her countrymen found in anything sensual—food and wine above all. But as Signor Minalba became decidedly obese, to watch him devote himself to the pleasures of the palate had started to curb the appetite of any witnesses. The capacious amount of food he was capable of putting away was dizzying. It was a challenge for members of the family and for friends and even for clients with whom Signor Minalba had been in business for so long to witness his growth, but they loved him dearly and worried most for his health. As to his appearance, they did not really care as long as he didn’t. But when Lily thought of him being watched by a group of lean, mean Puritans, she thought it would surely be a disgrace. She felt doubly uncomfortable because she couldn’t even fight back if need be; the most important weapon, language, was not in her possession.

Fortunately, there was one mitigating circumstance: Signor Minalba was still the sharpest dresser around. What with his fashionable store in the most fashionable area of Rome, he was always clad in the best clothing on the market. He wasn’t, moreover, a mere slave to fashion; he had good taste and knew how to highlight what could be highlighted and hide what needed hiding. Now, there was a lot to hide, indeed, but he managed to look elegant rather than ridiculous, despite his size. Additionally, his table manners were impeccable. He didn’t eat particularly quickly, and he didn’t slurp his soup or stuff huge hunks of bread into his mouth. In fact, he ate in a dainty manner. The problem was that he ate forever. When his fellow diners had finished eating and leaned back in their chairs massaging their stomachs so as to favor digestion, Signor Minalba was reaching for another small slice of vitello and drizzling it with more of the silky smooth emerald-green olive oil, just to make sure it was moist enough for his palate.

Come what may, Lily thought as Carlito and Mario left the room, she loved her father and would suffer the humiliation of watching the Puritans judging her pagan sire as he nourished himself.


10.

The cushy living room sofas and armchairs at La Serenissima certainly compensated for the suffering inflicted by the beds. The Primavera twins, Silvana and Perpetua, had, therefore, chosen this location to watch the gripping soap opera that was also on the television in Lily’s bedroom. The sisters were completely comfortable and completely absorbed in “Cuori Spezzati,” and to tell the truth, they were grateful to have some excuse not to talk. Silvana would not have minded talking with her sister, as she was too sweet-tempered to sulk or bear a grudge—Lily and Carlito took after their mother this way— but Perpetua wouldn’t have talked to Silvana if the other had begged her to. She wanted, in every way, to punish her sister for having secured Uncle Alberto for his upcoming birthday in October. October! It was only July now! She found it vile of her sister to sneak behind her back and invite the old gentleman before she had even thought about doing so.

Such things most people would naturally call trifles, but the word—or, better yet, even the notion—did not exist in the vocabulary of Perpetua Primavera. Her suspicion concerning even the smallest gesture and its possible motive knew no bounds, and hardly a day went by during which she did not take offense at something—something usually totally unknown to the perpetrator, who either found out about the alleged crime in the course of a violent quarrel instigated by the outraged party or when Perpetua happened to mention it days or even weeks afterward.

Perpetua had a great talent when it came to bearing a grudge, which she did with persistence and ill-suppressed delight. Indeed, she delighted in feeling outraged and miserable and would have been bored to death in heaven, where harmony reigned. This, of course, was the last thing she would have acknowledged; she believed herself untouchably devout and would have been outraged by any such blasphemous reference. She was forever striving to be the picture of proper behavior and to find her eternal rest in the bosom of the Lord. Yes, she hoped she had by now earned a place on cloud nine with her regular churchgoing and her continual efforts at making up for her secret crime, the fruit of which was her daughter Virginia.

Virginia’s conception had certainly been, in Perpetua’s view, a crime against God, but, still, Perpetua dearly loved her daughter; with all her bitterness and self-flagellation in the name of Christ, she had never gone so far as to look upon Virginia as the rotten fruit of a reprehensible union. She was proud of the girl, and it wasn’t by way of punishment that she rarely said a soft word to her. She was just being herself—behaving toward her daughter as toward everybody else. She didn’t treat Virginia any differently for her unwitting origins, and she surely would not have been a more tender mother had she been properly married at the time of the illicit act that led to the child’s birth.

Silvana overlooked Perpetua’s bitterness and foul moods, her temper tantrums and long sulks in the same way she overlooked her own children’s spoiled habits and apparent ingratitude and her aging husband’s unfaithfulness, overeating, and long absences. She was far from being a stupid woman, but introspection had never come naturally to her, and she had given it up completely after the first years as the wife of Ernesto Minalba. During that period, which was supposed to have been the time of marital bliss, she had done her share of moaning and brooding and had finally come out of it all on the bright side. She had realized that giving free rein to her natural tendency to love unconditionally was the better option, and she had lived since then solely for her family, no questions asked. She had consequently become even more indulgent toward her twin sister than in their youthful years, and she took Perpetua’s bad characteristics as so many givens.

Silvana had taken her acceptance of other people’s weaknesses so far that she had learned to ignore the fact that some of those bad characteristics and consequent actions—being spoiled, being unfaithful—might have been her fault, too. She had given carte blanche to everybody, herself included, and become something of a “serene stoic” without even knowing what the term meant. Her loving, gentle indifference enveloped her like a pink cloud as she sat ensconced in her mother’s superb living room. At the other end of the spectrum were those women who consumed themselves with worry and guilt concerning the actions of their children and husbands; they believed in their own faulty way that nurture rather than nature had more to do with each lamentable result. But the fact was that some children turned out badly no matter how carefully they had been raised and educated, and some children turned out good regardless of parental carelessness. Likewise, some husbands cheated on the lovely, smart, sexy wives other men pined for, and some were devoted to their wives, beautiful and plain alike. These arguments would have been in Silvana’s defense, had she been aware of having to defend herself against the charge of overindulgence.

Meanwhile, Augusta Primavera was in the private sitting room adjoining her bedroom, also watching “Cuori Spezzati.” She hadn’t joined her daughters in the living room simply because she was not supposed to be watching any kind of TV show after having dogmatically denounced them as “mindless trash” a great many years before. Her brother Alberto couldn’t have agreed more and was proud of his sister’s intellectual integrity concerning mass entertainment, yet he would never have been as outspoken about the matter. He knew very well that many of his beloved family members doted on various TV serials, and he wouldn’t have dreamed of personally insulting them by making negative comments about something they so obviously loved. Augusta’s outburst had been a departure from her usually smooth and diplomatic manner of communication, and it had, in fact, thoroughly backfired: the old lady had secretly grown fond of one or two serials herself over the years, and now, in order to appear consistent, she had been forced into the closet.

At first, it had been easy to contrive to watch the episodes up in her room. She would say she was taking her afternoon nap, and with such sure excuse she locked the door and devoted herself to what she had publicly declared vulgar amusement. What actually blunted the edge of the punishment she had inflicted on herself—the need for dissimulation—was that she found even greater enjoyment in the programs exactly because they were forbidden pleasures; sitting down in the living room with her daughters, the whole thing wouldn’t have been half as amusing.

Problems arose after a few months, however, when the household help, all avowed soap-opera fans, noticed certain changes in Signora Primavera’s behavior. They were, of course, always with her, while her family only occasionally visited her in her current lodgings, and they soon became suspicious when the old signora began taking longer naps at precisely the same time each day, a time that happened to coincide with the airing of new episodes of certain programs. They said nothing; they couldn’t afford not to be tactful at all times, and they had no wish to embarrass their employer. But other members of the Primavera clan had started shooting each other sidelong glances when she mentioned her nap, and the old signora feared her strategy would soon become untenable. Furthermore, another secret of Augusta’s only exacerbated the situation: the old signora was growing deaf, and it was ever more difficult to keep the volume of her TV low enough so as not to be heard and still understand what the characters were saying to each other.

On this particular afternoon, Augusta was sitting close to the TV already when Eduardo Braz caught his beautiful wife and his equally beautiful young gardener in flagrante delicto, and began simultaneously tearing his own hair and that of the perpetrators. It was a gripping scene, and the sound effects were crucial. To just watch the figures violently gesticulating without hearing their impassioned voices would not have been the real thing. Torn between the desire to retain her moral integrity and to fully enjoy the show, the old signora was experiencing a torment of similar magnitude to that on the screen. She moved closer to the television, until her wrinkly little nose was almost touching the screen, and crouched there, taking it all in. She was, at that moment, oblivious of the upcoming dinner party and her worries that her exacting demands concerning the minutest details of the preparations would not be met.

Then the show was over, and Augusta, exhausted, stood with great difficulty from her crouch in front of the screen and sank back into her chair. She consulted her watch and found, to her great relief, that she still had a good half an hour for a nap—so badly needed to counterbalance the effects of her sleepless nights—before she had to check on her staff to see how things were coming along. She knew she wouldn’t have to worry about entertaining the members of her family; they slipped on their comfortable lives at La Serenissima as easily as a glove. To live and let live was the Primavera motto, and, with few exceptions, the members of the clan had no difficulty respecting each other’s private space, literally and figuratively. Nora Hilary would have been pleasantly surprised how one could have her or his privacy among the members of this numerous family even more easily than seeking it in solitude. The proximity of so many people did not diminish the mental freedom and ease of each person in the crowd.

Signora Primavera’s last round of checking on her house staff was, as it had always been, a perfunctory activity. In the kitchen, for example, Bianca had long ago mastered her art so well that after their first discussion of an event, the cook needed no looking after in order to deliver. The signora explained what she had in mind, and Bianca nodded and, if absolutely necessary, asked a few questions and then went to work.

Owing to her natural talent, her enthusiasm, and her susceptibility to anything connected to food, Bianca had become so good at her job that several of her employer’s guests had tried to lure her away; she had even been offered jobs in fashionable restaurants in Rome. But no, she would not abandon her signora, and thanks, but she did not want to move permanently to the City. Even while they were there—the Rome residence remained the headquarters of the signora, and almost her whole clan lived close by—Bianca felt a longing to come back to the countryside. Now, back at La Serenissima, she felt truly in her element, and everything about the dinner prepared for the reception of the Americans seemed impeccable. The joint efforts of Signora Augusta and Bianca—the mastermind assisted by the masterly hand—would give birth to another divine feast.

Leaving the kitchen, Signora Primavera saw that it was high time she put on her evening apparel. She did not expect her family to dress for dinner, but it was something she did without thinking. The others, following her lead, were accustomed to getting cleaned up before sitting down to an evening meal together at La Serenissima, and, what with the American contingent coming, she guessed that everybody would be sure to take greater care with their attire than usual.


11.

Hugh knew. He knew, and as he sat on the hard bed in his and Denise’s room at Il Silenzio, he imagined he could feel his bottom aching from having fallen between two chairs. The fall had been all the worse for having taken place in the presence of both chairs, each within his grasp, and having been coupled with the intolerable sight of someone else sitting down on one of them. To have to face his wife’s serene indifference, his young lover’s desertion, and the latter’s open flirtation with his son was really too much for any man to take without feeling that the essence of his manhood had been tapped.

Denise’s actions had, of course, come as no surprise, but her timing did take him completely off guard. He had understood the looming danger of her leaving him, but he now discovered that she had come on this little Italian joyride fully aware of his plans to ask his wife for a divorce and, in the next breath, to ask her to become his wife, and she had all the while been intent on breaking it off with him during this very trip. She had the cheek to introduce the whole issue of a breakup in the shape of a congratulation; how admirable she thought his tact; how amazing it was that he had guessed what she had been wanting to tell him and had played along, remaining pleasant and doing his utmost not to spoil her little Italian trip. And as a crowning touch, she complimented him on his having such an attractive offspring, providing the world—her—with such a worthy replacement! He found this intolerably cruel.

It was not the less humiliating to have his son—that little noodle—prove his budding manhood by gallivanting with the femme fatale who had just ditched his father. Hugh’s treatment of Henry as a grownup friend instead of his little son hadn’t prevented the older man from being completely surprised to find that the youngster had become his rival, a male presence to take into account in female matters.

It was the result of Hugh Hilary’s limitless egotism and vanity that he had not even noticed how very good-looking his son was becoming. The boy was tall and lean without being scrawny—not at all noodlelike—and the pallor of his skin—which wasn’t in the least pasty or spoiled by the few freckles his mother regarded as marks of imperfection—contrasted beautifully with his thick, dark hair. His eyes were like deep blue lakes in the midst of a snowy landscape; clear, sparkling, and refreshing to look into, sometimes letting one imagine she saw to their very depths, and sometimes reflecting her own image instead of giving anything away. His mouth was a bit too large, but his appearance was all the more charming for this one imperfection, which saved his face from being too pretty.

What made Henry really attractive, however, was his unconsciousness of—or was it indifference to?—his looks. Like Carlito, Henry was devoid of the kind of narcissism that usually went hand in hand with pleasing physical attributes. Both Lily Minalba’s lover, Mario, and Hugh were victims of this vice. There were, of course, pertinent excuses for both young Neroni and aging Hilary. The young man really was a fine specimen of virility in its prime, while Hugh, if one followed this line of reasoning, was undeniably on the wane, however good-looking for his age. Yet, in all fairness to the older man, being on the brink of losing something one had always considered vital, namely, his youthful good looks, made it natural to cling to the trait and flaunt any remnant of it. Indeed, being as well preserved as Hugh was might have been regarded as an achievement meriting praise—self-praise included.

Relatively well-preserved or not, Hugh could feel time running out on him, both figuratively and literally; not only was he an aging gigolo forced to get used to the fact of being elbowed out of the way by the likes of his own offspring, he was also forced to waste time chitchatting with a bunch of Italians he had absolutely no desire to meet and greet. He had only a few minutes to get ready before going downstairs—his family and friends naturally wanted to go over to the Primavera villa together. It seemed very cruel to have to get dolled up and pretend just when he would so much have liked to curl up and feel sorry for himself. He wanted a good cigar, a good bottle of wine, a large chunk of blue cheese, and a bag of crackers. That would have been the surefire recipe for momentary consolation, not an elaborate dinner served on heirlooms, in the company of the people who were in the process of hurting him—his very own people—and those who had not as yet had the pleasure to know what a great guy he was. The Italians would surely judge him by their first impression, and he hated the idea of leaving an impression that he was hurting. Nor did he want Denise, Nora, and Henry to know that he was not strong and cocky enough to weather such situations. Not to mention that, for someone with an ego of such gigantic proportions, it was equally painful to contemplate that a group of hitherto unknown people would walk away with the erroneous conclusion that he was a glum guy not worth remembering.

There was no way out; he had to make an inhuman effort and pull himself together. The show must go on, he kept telling himself as he rummaged among his shirts and trousers. He would make the best of the occasion and turn it to his advantage: this was his opportunity to demonstrate how tough he really was. Furthermore, there might be some attractive female present, a flirtation with whom would be the perfect step toward recovery—of his bruised vanity and of his reputation as the invincible conqueror of feminine youth and beauty.


12.

Downstairs, the other inhabitants of Il Silenzio had gathered in the living room as they’d agreed to do, and they were having a heated discussion concerning the propriety of showing up exactly on time. Denise was positive that it was downright rude to knock on a host’s door at seven if the invitation was for seven. You had to allow for the host to be behind with preparations, she said, and even if there were other guests invited besides you, you didn’t want to be the obnoxious loser who was first to arrive, in case the frenzied host was trying to finish the preparations but was averse to leaving you all alone in the middle of the living room with no other guests around as yet with whom to socialize. Denise’s advice was to be a good ten minutes late. Anna thought otherwise.

“Look, to be late is to be rude, it’s as simple as that,” Anna said. She was standing at the other end of the living room where they were all waiting for Hugh to join them, and thanks to the physical distance that divided her and Denise, the slightly younger woman could not see the murderous glint in her eyes. Anna’s voice, however, betrayed her irritation, and Denise’s beauty and her careless way of reclining on the sofa did not help to soothe her.

“If somebody invites you for seven,” she continued, “then the person wants you to be there at seven. If people behaved according to your logic, Denise, then nothing that was said would actually mean what was said. Seven o’clock would mean a quarter past, and for the host to have you there at seven would mean that he or she would have to invite you for quarter to.”

“You are either very naive, Anna, or an exception to the rule,” Denise said in a voice that was characteristically calm and amused, and which never failed to border on impertinence. The fact that she lifted her right foot to contemplate the shiny red of her toenails while she was speaking made Anna’s hands itch; she would have loved to smack that pretty face or twist that pretty foot. But she did nothing, and Denise went on imperturbably.

“I admit I’m like you when it comes to saying what I mean, straight up, no garnish, but most people bullshit one another in the name of being polite. It’s the social game, you know. ‘Hello, how nice to see you. How are you? Wow, you look great,’ and so on. People most of the time simply lie in your face. They are not particularly happy to see you, they are not in the least interested in your welfare, and they think you look like crap.”

Nora chuckled and shook her head. She was on pins and needles about the upcoming dinner, and she welcomed anything that diverted her attention from her anxiety. To witness a mental fencing between her favorite niece and the impudent but sharp young woman who was supposed to have been her rival was first-class diversion. The fact that she couldn’t help agreeing with Denise despite her obvious partiality toward her niece made the whole thing all the more absorbing.

“Okay, I see what you’re getting at: to be sociable is to be something of a bullshit artist. To play the game well, we have to read between the lines. Yes, yes, yes, basic stuff, general truths. But you have to put things in context and see if such general truths still apply. Here we are, invited to dinner by one family, and we are the sole guests. They are Italians; we are Americans. We have no idea how these things work among Italians. They might take it as an insult if we arrive late, as if they weren’t important enough for us to make an effort.”

Nora snorted. “Come, Annie, dear, you know Italians are hardly famous for being punctual. You are right to point out that in some cultures it might be particularly rude to keep your hosts waiting, but I don’t think it’s the case with Italians.”

“All right, all right, I exposed myself to your comment. It’s not the cultural difference I should have mentioned, because even that is too general. Within one nation there are many, many trends as to social codes. For some families it’s comme il faut to be late on purpose, and for some families it’s a gross insult. We simply can’t know about this family, so I would choose the straight honest way and act literally as we have been told. Let’s interpret seven as seven. Because, don’t forget, the family is supposed to be a large one, and even if they are falling behind with prep work in the kitchen, there are several others to send out to us to the living room to entertain us. Plus I don’t think it’s Signora Primavera who is stirring the stew in the kitchen. With such a house as that, I bet you she has a cook or a maid or some paid help.”

“Fine, fine, let’s be punctual, then,” Will said. “That is, if Hugh allows it. It’s five to seven now, and where is he? We were supposed to meet at a quarter to.” Will was getting very hungry, which meant he was getting commensurately irritated. The technicalities of such a conversation were getting on his nerves.

“Before we hurry off, there’s another thing,” said Henry, who had been silent up till then. “Don’t you think it rather boorish to show up without any gift to the hostess? I think it’s strategically worth considering. Whether they are offended by our being bang on time or being late, some little present will surely appease them.”

A momentary silence fell on them. Henry had a point, but it was a late one, seeing as it was now two minutes to seven o’clock. Denise silently applauded her newfound beau’s suggestion. Anna couldn’t help agreeing with the propriety of the idea, but what would they take? Nora was unsurprisingly critical of the idea.

“And how do you imagine finding anything in two minutes?” she scoffed. “Just run to the next bush and buy a box of Godivas or climb the neighboring hill and pick some pansies? Or how about picking some of the flowers from the signora’s garden here and presenting her with a bouquet? How long do you think it would take her to recognize her own flora? We could place bets on it and make the evening more exciting.” Nora looked furtively around the room to check the others’ reactions.

“Mother, you’re not very imaginative,” Henry said with a sigh. “Or, rather, your imagination runs away with you and leaves you so blind to practicalities that it is frightening to witness. Don’t you remember the goodies we gave to you when we barged in on you in the first place?”

“Honestly, I’d forgotten them completely. Just as I’ve forgotten to deal with this whole gift business.” Nora returned, vexed with herself—but just as much with her son for lecturing her.

“So much the better if you’ve forgotten about the gifts you’ve received from us. At least you’ll not be disappointed when we take them away again. The chocolates are very good—not Godiva but Amedei, which, for your information, is trendier and even more expensive than Godiva—and the Barolo, I’ve heard, is fabulous,” Henry said to his mother dispassionately. “You can easily do without these things and regift them to the Primaveras.”

Nora couldn’t help admiring her son’s practical solution, yet she could not bring herself to flatter the boy. “Regifting is worse than not gifting at all, Henry. I wonder now how many of my presents you have given away when you didn’t like them or were just too cheap or too lazy to buy something.”

Anna stepped gracefully into her accustomed role of mediator between the members of the Hilary family. Now that she had to deal with something unconnected with Denise, she felt it easy to be graceful once again. “Save the theory and the bile for later, you two,” she said breezily. “It’s past seven now, so we will be late, fashionably or not, but even so, we do not have time for a philosophical argument. Aunt, let me grab at least one bottle of the Barolo if you don’t want to part with the rest.”

William looked at his girlfriend admiringly. She was wrapping things up, which meant they might soon be within reach of something edible. He really hoped the Italians were familiar with the concept of hors d’oeuvres—“horse doovers,” as he and Anna liked to call them. Surely Italians knew about canapés.

Nora urged them to give away the lot of it—she had no intention to be thought greedy—and while Will’s thoughts were revolving around nourishment and Anna was busy locating the bottles of wine and the chocolate, Denise sat up on the sofa and signaled with an outstretched arm—long and round and supple—to Henry to come and sit next to her. She positioned herself so closely to the boy that the edge of her silk dress touched his thigh, at which a shiver ran through him, and he hoped to God he had not gone as scarlet as he feared he had. He was both hot and cold all over, and, in order to avoid looking overly awkward, he threw himself back on the cushy sofa with apparent nonchalance, intent, all the while, on not moving the thigh that had the pleasure of rubbing against Denise’s dress. As if on cue, Denise also leaned back on the sofa and went so far as to tip her head so that it rested lightly on his shoulder. She heaved a small sigh of contentment and looked around at the others as if to dare them to say something.

Nobody paid any attention to what was going on on the sofa, however, so Denise’s efforts at testing the waters had been in vain. Not so with Henry, who took Denise’s body language as a clear call to open flirtation. He guessed hopefully that Denise had told Hugh how things were to be and that she was now free to pursue other romantic interests, although Henry did not for a second dare to hope that Denise had any such intentions toward him. Oh, she smelled so good, so sweet, so utterly desirable that Henry decided it was better to move away before he was compelled to do something both rash and scandalous—outraging his mother, of all people, and putting Denise off by his boyish haste and clumsiness. He sat forward on the sofa and leaned his elbows on his knees. Of all things, he wanted to seem calm, cool, and collected, a smooth operator who didn’t give too much away but who did suggest with his behavior that he knew how to please a woman. Actually, he had only read about such things in books, and nobody would have believed—judging by his good looks—how very inexperienced he really was.

Denise was not for a second fooled by his attempts at detachment. In fact, what had from the first appealed to her in the boy was just the kind of innocence that he had desperately been trying to hide all day. The other thing she had really liked was his cutting honesty, which, unfortunately, his attraction to her had suddenly blunted. From their first telephone conversation she had gathered that Henry was something of an uncut diamond—rough around the edges but worth a few cuts while handling. She was charmed by his clumsy attempts to hide his attraction to her, but she was bent on putting him at ease so that they could get past all the nonsense and playacting. It was her new pet project to be his first sexual experience, but in order for that to happen, he would have to acknowledge that she was his first. She wanted him to share his impressions of the novelties she was about to show him so that she could see her own glory through those formerly innocent eyes.

The project struck her as a particularly challenging one to pull off, considering that among their traveling companions were Henry’s parents, one of whom was her former lover. She found the challenge exhilarating—she had been toying with the idea ever since their first half hour in the car together. She was expert enough in matters of seduction to notice how tortured Henry had been by the desire to make advances, by the fear of bungling it all up, by the fear of stepping on his father’s corns, and by the fear of barking up the wrong tree to begin with. Now that Hugh had been enlightened about their nonexistent future together, it was time to take the boy in hand.

Neither Denise nor Henry noticed Hugh coming downstairs and into the living room. It was as if he had materialized out of the blue right in front of the sofa where his son and his ex-lover were sitting so comfy cozy. Before any of them could say something, Will came up to Hugh and cordially patted him on the shoulder.

“Hello, old man. Ready to wine and dine with the Italian gentlefolk?”

Hugh was at that moment particularly sensitive to being called “old man.” Standing in front of Denise and Henry, he felt like an old can of beans long out of date trying to vie with a bunch of dewy haricots verts just gathered from the kitchen garden.

“I’m more than ready for a good honest feast, that’s for sure,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “Anything tickling my senses is welcome. Do you know whether any ladies are going to be present besides the old bag?”

“By the old bag, I suppose you mean my landlady,” Nora said as she came and joined them in front of the sofa. Now everybody except Anna was standing in front of Denise and Henry, who were as if frozen in the midst of their intimate moment with three pairs of eyes staring judgmentally at them—or so it seemed to Henry at least, while Denise was positively enjoying the attention.

“Exactly so,” Hugh said. “That Signora This-or-that. Some season or other, if I remember correctly,” he laughed at his own joke.

“Prodigious memory, my dear. Very impressive. Yes, she has the pleasure of being named after a particularly pleasant season—spring,” Nora said archly, smiling at this man who somehow was still her husband.

“And who does she have to thank for such a privilege? Her husband, of course! Husbands are wonderful things to have. Lots of benefits accruing to the blessed state of marriage,” Hugh remarked with a sidelong glance at Denise.

“Oh, it’s been greatly advantageous being married to you, no doubt,” Nora said gaily. “Not everybody has the pleasure of being called Hilary even when her life is far from hilarious with the one who bestowed such cheerful name on her. Anyway, since when have you been an advocate of marriage?” She asked this last question with mock surprise.

Before Hugh could answer, Anna barged into the room with a bag that emitted a clinking noise that was a delight to hear. Everybody was hungry and thirsty by then, and, dropping every subject under discussion, they crowded out of the room and through the front door.


PART III.

 

1.        

When the Americans arrived at La Serenissima, they found the place aglow with candles and pretty side lamps, creating a soothing atmosphere that would leave no one in the kind of annoying darkness that some of the “romantic” restaurants insisted on inflicting on their guests. The curtains remained open, and the indigo sky dotted with jewellike stars was visible all around through the great many windows. While the windows at Il Silenzio gave the impression of a fishbowl, here, in the greater house, there was enough wall for priceless paintings and huge mirrors in ornate frames. On the floor, the Persian carpet was a nobly faded red and blue that contrasted beautifully with the dark wood parquet floor—so shiny that the reflection of the lights in it made the room doubly luminous. As if their placement were the work of a mind reader, there were end tables placed exactly where one would have suddenly needed to put down a drink or a book, without cluttering up the room or creating the possibility of tripping over a stray table leg.

As the American travelers stood there taking it all in, it was difficult to know whether they or the Italians were more ill at ease; both groups felt out of their element, which was more surprising in the case of the Italians, who were, so to say, on their home turf. There was something almost awe-inspiring in the appearance of the six trans-Atlantic guests, what with the striking height and glossy red mane of the lovely woman hand in hand with a stout balding man old enough to have been her father; and the glistening blondness of an even more beautiful young woman standing between one handsome man much older than she and one handsome man much younger than she. But the most curious sight of all was the slightly rigid, imposing figure of the middle-aged woman at the head of the group, who seemed both bold and terrified at the same time. The Italian hosts could see that she was the most embarrassed but also the most determined of their guests.

Indeed, Nora was bristling with purpose, which was both a burden and a source of joy to her. Despite being ill at ease, she took great delight in the impressions of the gorgeous villa and its fascinating inhabitants, which had been bombarding her from the outset. One glance and she was aware of the elaborate design and the daring color scheme of the tie that the corpulent individual with the shining face was wearing, which beautifully complemented the pattern and color of the carpet under his feet. A matron-like figure clad in dark blue silk standing next to this sharp dresser in front of the gaping mouth of a huge unlit fireplace also struck her as positively distinguished, even if the body was large and the face far from beautiful. It was a placid face, with a slightly aquiline nose and a high forehead. On the other side of the room Youth—aquiline nosed as well—basked in all its beauty and glory; a golden boy sitting with the greatest ease on a divan, dangling a foot, standing close by a Milo of Venus with black hair, and an intense—almost aggressively handsome—young man resting his small but perfectly shaped hands on the Venus’s round hips. And then Nora caught sight of a tall, sallow apparition with haughty eyes and a snake-like mouth that seemed to be both smiling and scowling, which produced a most disturbing effect. Nora gulped almost audibly.

If she had been true to her inherent shyness, she would have run away—or would never have come at all—but she was equally drawn to plunge into the scene. As the second option was the one desired of her from all sides, she had braced herself in advance and adopted the persona of a public speaker used to rooms full of listeners hanging on her words, and now it was she who broke the ice by turning to the oldest member of the group of Italians—a small lady wearing a strawberry pink Chanel suit that was the spitting image of the one worn by Jackie Kennedy on the day of her husband’s assassination—whom she rightly took to be Augusta Primavera.

            “If I am not mistaken, you must be my landlady, Signora Primavera,” she said in her self-conscious and therefore flawed version of Italian, with as much ease as she could muster. “I’m Nora Hilary. It is a pleasure to finally meet you face-to-face.”

The mixture of shyness and boldness in her manner charmed Alberto Colassú, who was standing next to Signora Primavera, so much that he stepped forth and answered in his sister’s stead.

“No, it is our pleasure, Mrs. Hilary. Welcome to Umbria and to La Serenissima in particular.” He answered in English, both because he had gotten the impression that Mrs. Hilary’s Italian was far from reliable and because he couldn’t help but want to flaunt his own knowledge of the English language.

Nora didn’t take his response as an affront to her language skills, but she was thoroughly surprised by the quick movement in her direction and the almost aggressive interpolation from the impeccably dressed elderly gentleman standing next to Signora Primavera. He was of middle height, neither fat nor thin, but because of his straight back and graceful movements, he came across as tall and slim. He had the Primavera nose and a cleft chin, which Nora pronounced charming on the spot, and smallish dark brown eyes that escaped looking beady because of their simultaneously intelligent and amicable twinkle and their amazing mobility. His hair was iron grey, cropped short, and only slightly thinning at the temples.

Before Nora could react to Alberto’s sudden greeting, the signora butted in. She also spoke in English, because she wanted to be deferential toward her tenant and put her at ease.

“Alberto, it must be the inordinate delight of meeting my dear tenant that makes you forget your manners. Mrs. Hilary addressed me, and I am perfectly capable of answering her myself, especially when she is kind enough to at least try and speak our language. (Here Nora visibly winced and decided to stick to English for the night.) As to English, you may translate for quite a large number of people in our family, but it is unnecessary in my case, thank you ever so much.”

Augusta’s tone was indeed august, and Alberto, feeling every bit the little brother, was sufficiently cowed, even though he hadn’t forgotten his sister’s earlier words concerning her need of him during this particular dinner. She had made her plea precisely because she wanted his superior language skills at hand and, secondarily, because he was conversant in literary matters, Mrs. Hilary’s specialty. Now he was publicly snubbed for doing just what he had been specifically asked to do, even if he had probably been a bit too overeager.

“Sorry, my dear,” he said. “I am simply anxious to help, and it is, in fact, an uncommon pleasure to meet a person who is supposed to share my love of English literature. With the blessed exception of two nieces of mine, I really hardly ever meet a soul that may be called ‘kindred,’ so it is a rare delight. And you know all this, my dear. You invited me on purpose to meet Mrs. Hilary, if I remember correctly.”

Now it was Nora who was pleasantly struck by such a boyish defense—just as incongruous with the outward person of the speaker as his earlier butting in. And there was that wistfulness in his tone about thirsting for the companionship of people who shared his intellectual passion that she found quite appealing. This was not wholly new to Nora, of course, but she had never been bothered by a lack of kindred spirits. On the contrary, her passion was one she treasured most in solitude—like a miser taking out her shiny gold pieces when she knew she was alone and delighting in the sight of them. Yet it did feel very pleasant to be looked upon as the possible embodiment of a long-awaited companion, even if they were both too intelligent to assume that just because they both liked English literature they would even like the same aspects of a subject with such broad perimeters. She wondered what he would think when he learned that she was far from a fan of old Anthony. It was quite likely that as soon as the Anglophile Italian found out about her passion for Henry James, he would change his mind about their spiritual kinship—James’s unpopularity was a general thing even amongst English literary scholars. Furthermore, she was sure that like her, he had been forced to interact with obnoxious colleagues who just happened to specialize in the very same subject as he—the love of a certain author’s works taking so many different and often irreconcilable forms.

But just there and then, it felt delicious to be coveted by such a charming man. Nora was made of flesh and blood, after all, and it appealed to her vanity to find that a well-dressed, still-handsome, intelligent, and highly educated man was more than happy to make her acquaintance. She liked it even more that the man in question was so much her senior—he seemed wise and experienced without appearing decrepit, and so it was even more of a privilege to find herself occupying the center of his interest. She wondered if this was how Edith Wharton felt when she first met Henry James or Henry Adams or George Meredith—a younger female deemed worthy enough to be seriously considered and even sought after by the leading intellectuals of the age. The comparison was most likely far-fetched, since—Nora had no idea as yet concerning the caliber of Alberto’s achievements—but at the moment she didn’t care. And how much sweeter it was to be found interesting by such a learned man than by the undeniably more handsome but also undeniably more superficial husband of hers! Anyway, that was over, and she had even fewer regrets about the demise of her marriage as she stood there, shaking hands with Alberto.

Hugh was not blind to the exchange of looks and handshakes and courteous words between his suddenly so desirable wife and the Italian geezer in the pinstriped suit. He felt it to be yet another affront to his masculinity. First he’d had to endure watching his son flirting with his ex-girlfriend, and now his wife was being courted by an old amoroso? What next? He boldly stepped to his wife’s side, almost knocking over poor Alaam, who was busy offering drinks and canapés on a large silver tray.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, my dear fellow,” Hugh said. “I didn’t see you.”

It was better that the Indian spoke no English whatsoever, since the excuse the burly American had offered would have offended instead of appeased him. Yes, he was a small man, and yes, he was far from being a striking apparition, but to be crushed like a bug by that clumsy brute while he was toiling to make them feel welcome and well looked after, was more than he could have borne. Under normal circumstances, Alaam was a cheerful chap, and even now, he was thoroughly enjoying himself rather than feeling the inconvenience of the heavy tray. But he had sensed the condescension—even if he hadn’t understood the exact words—of the bullish male with the nasal twang. He stepped aside with as much agility as he had at his disposal when burdened by ten glasses of prosecco and an army of miniscule bites bristling with toothpicks, and glided to the other side of the room, deliberately not letting Hugh take anything from the tray, even as he clearly intended to.

Hugh felt it would be easier to assume a nonchalant attitude if he were nursing a crystal flute filled with crisp spumante. Besides, he badly needed a drink to bolster his courage. Never mind, he told himself as the little creature he had almost squashed by accident escaped before he had the chance to arm himself with the ammunition bubbling away so invitingly on the tray. He had no idea that he had made an enemy for the evening; the choicest bits would not appear before him, and doling out the amount of alcohol was also in the hands of the angry Alaam.

“So you are the lady of spring, ha, ha!” bellowed Hugh at what he judged to be a delicate but surprisingly agile-looking old Italian woman standing between the superannuated gino and his own wife.

Hugh had always had a tendency to talk too loudly, but when he was nervous or desperate to make a good impression—which happened rarely, as he was used to being welcomed with open arms wherever he went—he positively shouted. It only exacerbated the situation that he had also unconsciously adopted the attitude of those who increase the volume when conversing with nonnative speakers in an attempt to help the listener understand.

No one besides Augusta Primavera knew—or so she thought—how very welcome it had become to have people shouting in her presence. She heard clearly what the American man said, and it did not strike her as unnecessarily voluble, although she did note that his sense of humor was not remarkable. Alberto, on the other hand, was shocked to find out that such a choice woman as Nora would have chosen such an obnoxious person as her husband. Alberto had no way of knowing, of course, the degree to which their marriage had disintegrated.

“Well, yes, I am one of the ladies of the spring present,” Signora Primavera replied, offering her hand. “I have the pleasure of having three daughters, and two of them are unmarried, so they have kept their delightful surname. If you look toward the fireplace, you’ll see my Estella. Oh, she is looking our way, too! Estella, dear, come over here!”

Estella was, indeed, looking shyly at the little group containing her beloved Uncle Alberto. She didn’t want to impose herself on them and was, furthermore, happy to have the opportunity to gaze unobserved at her mother’s tenant. Now that she had been found out, she dutifully walked across the large room and joined her mother and uncle and the two Americans, who were duly introduced to her. Like Alberto, she would not have guessed that the florid fellow was the tenant’s husband. Being an unreservedly honest person, she often made what were perceived as unflattering comments, which were shocking coming from a woman so small and insignificant-looking and so obviously shy. Now, her self-consciousness when speaking English kept her from saying a word, but she opened her eyes wide when the big American man with the red face was introduced as the tenant’s husband.

“You seem surprised, Miss Spring!” Hugh chuckled loudly. “You don’t think we’re a good match?” And here he made the bold attempt to put his arm around Nora’s shoulders, but she quickly sidestepped with the feigned purpose of taking a glass from the tray that had providentially neared them in that very moment. She smiled gratefully at Alaam, who, joyful at being so graciously treated after being slighted by the giant Yankee, even forgave her having married that boor of a man.

“Oh, it is not that. I just did not know that the American lady tenant of my mother was married.” This was a humongous lie for an honest person like Estella, but she was doing her best not to further offend her mother’s guests, especially not someone so close to her tenant. “I have only just arrived on a visit to my mother, and I had only heard that the lady renting Il Silenzio is a literary lady.” Estella gulped and wondered whether they believed her. She caught herself before she could add that she hadn’t expected the lady tenant to be married, because it was mighty strange that a married woman would rent a villa all by herself for such a long period so far away from her family and her native land. The fact that all the lady’s family and friends had shown up at the villa on her heels indicated to Estella that they, too, were surprised by the literary lady’s plans. And the literary lady herself seemed equally surprised by their presence.

“Yes, yes, my wife reads and writes!” Hugh shouted. “She is very intellectual! She is so intellectual, in fact, that she needed to be on her own for a couple of weeks so as to concentrate on some literary project she’d been nursing for some time now! Well, this little house of yours has been great for her! Il Silenzio, yes, yes. It’s been silent and peaceful enough for her to get on with her writing. It’s served its purpose. Soon she’ll be coming back to her own little abode.” Hugh’s tone was as much patronizing as it was uncertain. He looked appealingly at his wife. She was not angry, but, worse, she appeared to be laughing silently.

“My dear Hugh, I don’t in the least intend to ‘come back,’ as you put it. My ‘little abode’ is Il Silenzio now and into the foreseeable future. And I really hope it will become true to its name once again, and soon enough, by which I mean I hope that your friendly visit is soon to end and that I will once again be able to hear myself think.”

Hugh was annihilated. To say such things in front of a group of strangers was more than cruel. Nora also felt this was true, but Hugh had not left her any alternative when he had so smugly announced to their hosts that his little wife was just playing at writing for a little while and was soon to return to her husband.

“Oh, you cruel thing, you!” Hugh said, attempting a mock-dramatic tone. “So you’ll abandon your husband and your poor child?” He gestured toward Henry, and as he did, he was struck as if by lighting by the sight of his son, his ex-girlfriend, and an Adonis of an Italian fellow chatting away with the greatest possible ease. Flanked on both sides by blue-eyed boys, Denise seemed to be greatly enjoying herself. Hugh’s thoughts of his wife evaporated, and his wish to swoop in and whisk that beautiful young thing away from these rivals was now uppermost in his mind. But then he paused to think. Was the presence of the young Italian god a good thing or a bad thing for him? Was another rival yet another hurdle between him and Denise, or was it a welcome help against impertinent Henry? The Italian kid might be just the thing to make his capricious darling forget his treacherous son. But what good would it do to him? Well, there was no way that Denise could keep up a long-distance relationship for any length of time. More steadfast women were incapable of it in the long run, let alone someone with Denise’s short attention span. So let her flirt her heart out tonight; that would only help Hugh’s cause.

The Italian god chatting with Denise and Henry was, of course, Carlito, whose inherent friendliness and command of the English tongue made it almost a matter of course that he would get on well with the younger American visitors. Carlito had been one of the first to recover from the collective initial embarrassment, and he had simply stepped to the side of the handsome young couple, who had been uncertainly eyeing the nearby table holding an immense array of bottles. What would they fancy drinking? he asked. They certainly didn’t have to stick to the rather prosaic prosecco Alaam was offering around if they wanted something stronger or more creative. He had dabbled in bartending, he hastened to add, which was a great way to meet people, party, make money, and learn a few tricks when it came to good cocktails. He had had a great time, but of course it wasn’t in his line at the end of the day. It put him on the wrong side of the bar—as soon as the novelty wore off it became clear to him that serving others instead of being served wasn’t his kind of thing. But, he added with a sweet smile, he would find it an honor to serve his grandmother’s guests.     Denise was very much impressed. The young Italian was all one could wish for: he was absolutely beautiful, he was funny, he came from a wealthy family, he sure as hell wasn’t stupid, and, most importantly, his meaningful smile and twinkling eyes said that he found her quite attractive. She loved the idea of having an Italian affair; that would be the real deal—la dolce vita par excellence.

The impression Carlito had made on Henry was likewise positive. Henry’s aesthetic sense was strong, and it added to his delight to be surrounded by beautiful people, be they men or women. Unlike his father, he was a detached admirer of beauty, and he rarely wished to possess the beautiful objects he noticed around him. Even with Denise, it had not been different, since her beauty alone was not what drew him to her so strongly. He was fascinated by the whole of her personality, and the mixture of indifference and impatience verging on cruelty that he had detected in her only added to his fascination. Surely, playing with fire was fascinating only until you burned yourself, and Henry was intelligent enough to know that the time of singeing would come. Even so, he did not for a second suspect that Denise could be so fickle as to change horses as quickly as that.

If it had depended on Denise, Henry’s fate would have been sealed there and then. Carlito’s smiles, however, had been conveniently misinterpreted by that young lady. Not only were his attentive manner and the twinkle in his eye so much part of his general demeanor that it was dangerous to take them too personally, if he was a bit more than usually friendly, it was due not to the presence of the young lady but to that of her companion.

 

2.

            Mario was more observant than Henry in certain ways, and he was also sufficiently malevolent, jealous, and bored that he noticed the marked attentions Lily’s brother bestowed upon the annoyingly handsome American boy. Miss Minalba and her lover were sitting in the remotest corner of a long divan that was at the furthest point from most of the Americans. They were sipping their drinks and occasionally exchanging remarks with Lily’s mother and her uncle Roberto, who were also sitting on the divan. Silvana and her brother weren’t conversant in English, either, but contrary to the two younger persons sharing the all-Italian corner, the two siblings were more than a little sorry for their loss; Silvana would have liked to understand what the participants of the English conversations were saying, even if she didn’t choose to take part in the conversation. Had they been speaking Italian, she wouldn’t have been too anxious to make herself heard either. She had always been content to listen and smile serenely and form her opinions in silence.

Roberto, with his simple good nature, would have been delighted to meet the exciting new people. He was used to foreigners and well versed in the vocabulary of shop life, and he would have struck up a conversation with the Americans if his family hadn’t done its best to prevent him in this effort. While the Primavera clan adored Roberto, they were still a bit ashamed when presenting him to strangers. What he did in the shop did not matter much, as long as the numbers and orders came out right, which they invariably did. Tourists could attribute his peculiar manners to their own insufficiency to understand that language or to the cultural divide. As is often the case, some foreigners who found Roberto’s musings incomprehensible and his manner odd suspected that all Italians were crazy in comparison to people from their own culture. Most tourists found him charming and thought of him as “typically Italian.”

Yet strangers invited to dinner had hours at their disposal during which to notice that Roberto’s difference was different from that of the rest of the Italians around the table. Perpetua, therefore, had suggested to her mother—whom she usually found inexcusably lenient in this matter—that Roberto be gently persuaded to sit apart with one of his sisters. It was Silvana’s turn at the moment, and Perpetua was soon to take up her post next to her brother, but first she wanted to have her fill of jealously hovering around her uncle Alberto and trying to eavesdrop on what he was saying to the tenant. Perpetua didn’t for a second like the way Alberto was looking at the American woman, and she even felt regret for not having exerted herself more in the field of English language acquisition. Oh, Alberto would have been so proud of her! And there would have been a shared interest for them!

Perpetua was not the type to regret, but this one thing she would have liked to change. It would be ridiculous, however, for an old woman like herself to start with “I am, you are, he/she/it is,” and it would have made her appear in the falsest of lights in front of her family. She had always said that she was so proud to be Italian, so privileged to call such a gorgeous language her mother tongue, that it would have been treason to give in to the lure of English. Useful or not, she wanted nothing she did to suggest the supremacy of that language. She would have said that hateful language, had it not been for her uncle’s Anglophilia, which always checked her patriotic outbursts.

In fact, the driving forces of Perpetua’s existence were nothing short of irreconcilable, and she was constantly buffeted about by them. Her strict religiosity and patriotism were the most alien things imaginable to the noble pagan to whom she would have given her life if he had only asked. In her franker moments, Perpetua couldn’t be surprised at Alberto’s preference for Estella, who was so much more like him. Even her own daughter had so many more things in common with him that she had occasionally caught herself wanting to hate her child for it.

In this case, Perpetua saw that she needn’t feel any jealous pangs toward her own family members, as Alberto was giving his attention undividedly to Nora Hilary. She watched the few greatly awkward minutes brought about by the shouting and gesticulating of the American man and then saw the group metamorphose itself into the trio of Nora, Estella, and Alberto, with Estella as the silent and uncomplaining third wheel, as Augusta excused herself and went to check on the dining room once again, and the American man went off to disrupt another friendly trio—the blonde American woman and her dark-haired American companion and Carlito, whom Perpetua watched with disgust.

            All the while, Anna was pretending to be in earnest conversation in Italian with Virginia, whom she found quite likeable, and who was not in any way at fault if Anna’s attention kept straying. Anna’s heart broke whenever she glanced toward her uncle and saw him making such a capital fool of himself. It wasn’t like Hugh at all. He was weathering the storm so much less bravely than she had expected that she was seriously afraid that the evening wouldn’t pass without a scene. Of course it was the desperate attempt at weathering it all that doomed the whole to failure; his whole enterprise smelled of sweat, so to say, and those around him wrinkled their noses. Yet Anna knew him too well to imagine that love for either Nora or for Denise had much to do with his present condition. Her uncle was hurting because he felt sorry for himself—for his shattered ego, for his glorious reputation, and for the uncertain future looming if he stopped believing in his own powers. How could he continue to be a lion—The Lion—if he lost his roar? What kind of a man was he if the wife he had repeatedly abandoned for the length of his little flings would so lightheartedly abandon him for good? What kind of a Casanova is he whose offer of constancy—What a supreme sacrifice! What a privilege!—is thus flung back in his face by his lover?

Anna saw all of this as if she had read her uncle’s mind, and she was filled with pity. Her acquaintances called her a softy; she always took the side of whoever was in the most pain, even if it went against her moral principles. She frequently found that the virtues of righteousness and empathy were irreconcilable. What was more, she was far from delighted to see Henry in Denise’s clutches. Anna had, at the outset of their Italian trip, been disposed to be friendly toward her former schoolmate, and she had succeeded for a short while. The young lady’s resolution to break with Uncle Hugh was in itself more admirable and desirable than otherwise, but her subsequent pouncing upon Henry—for how else could one describe her behavior on the lawn that morning and the scene on the sofa prior to their coming over to the Primaveras?—annulled all friendly feelings that had been awakened in Anna’s breast and reactivated her old animosity.

Anna was relieved to see that Will, meanwhile, stood talking with Ernesto Minalba, the two hitting it off very well. Businessmen were like pigs, Anna decided; sniffing out money like some giant truffle was their forte. As to gastronomic similes, the two men had other important things in common: they were both at the moment ravenous, and hunger made both of them irritable and impatient. Together they decided, loudly enough to intimidate the other people gathered in the living room, that the “sippy-snacky” part of the evening had gone on long enough. Will, of course, restrained himself and let Ernesto do the heavy lifting. Indeed, to dictate anything to his mother-in-law in her own house was no easy matter even for a man of Signor Minalba’s caliber and present mood. Augusta didn’t like to be told how, when, and what to do, especially not by her juniors, and especially not during a function of which she was the host.

She nodded coldly at Ernesto’s suggestions, effectively shutting him up. What finally came to the rescue of the two hungry gentlemen was her own rumbling stomach, which helped her decide that any lively conversation that had been struck up in her living room could be continued in the dining room just as well. In fact, as she looked around, she thought that nearly everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. True, her grandchild Lily was unusually silent and aloof, but then she was always too engrossed in that haughty boyfriend of hers. And admittedly, the strange husband of her tenant was outdoing even the native Italians with his wild gesticulations, thereby endangering the glasses in the hands of those around him, which jeopardized not only shirtfronts and pretty dresses but Signora Primavera’s furniture. But most of the people in the room were smiling, when they weren’t busy talking, munching, and sipping. So far so good, Augusta thought. Now she would show the Americans how a real Italian dinner was done.

 

3.

            If the living room at La Serenissima was an invitation to relax with its mellow colors, subdued lighting, and soft fabrics, the dining room was vivid and bright and, like a trumpet call to the senses, invited diners to actively enjoy what happened there. As the members of the dinner party entered the room, their eyes automatically sparkled, their mouths watered, and their nostrils dilated as they anticipated the wonders of Italian gastronomy.

Nora’s eyes were twinkling especially brightly as she admired the room. Had someone told her how much fun she would be having at her landlady’s dinner, she would have laughed and accused the ridiculous person of not knowing her in the least. But it was true that since meeting Signor Colassú, she had noticed neither the passing of time nor the presence of her family and friends nor even the proximity of strangers, who usually made her feel uncomfortable. She couldn’t get enough of Alberto’s amusing anecdotes, his general wit and erudition, his honesty about the fact that the “sensual element” in his life was just as important to him as his intellectual pursuits—all of which amounted to just the kind of approach to life that had always had the greatest appeal to her. To find this highly attractive combination in an elderly bachelor at a dinner party in the middle of the Italian countryside, introduced to her by her landlady!

Only when they had taken their seats around the dining-room table—Nora next to Signor Colassú and directly across from Hugh, who seemed more interested once again in reclaiming his wife than his ex-lover—did it occur to Nora that her friendly association with Signor Colassú was like killing two birds with one stone. She could have a fine time, one of the pleasantest she could remember, while simultaneously closing a circle she had traveled with Hugh. Looking across the table at the miserable countenance of the man who had for so long made her feel even older and clumsier and more antisocial than she was generally disposed to feeling herself, she remembered that dinner during which she had realized she might already be dead without knowing it—dying while he was flourishing and fornicating. Now it was she who was having a grand time, talking to a charming man, admiring and being admired, and it was he now who looked like the ghost of himself.

Yet revenge was too hateful an emotion to be compatible with Nora’s present mood. The most she took from her sudden realization that the tables had been thus turned to her advantage was an amused smile. She was too much absorbed in her own happiness to gloat over her husband’s present misery or even give too much thought to him at all. Indeed, her abstention from making him pay for his past hurtful behavior had no charity in it and was more the result of the selfishness of the happy person. She had no time either for pain or for pity, and so she turned her face toward Alberto again and said to him with as serious a face as she could muster, “Can I ask you something, and will you promise me that you’ll not be offended and put it down to the numerous glasses of prosecco I’ve dutifully imbibed?”

“First of all, what’s this about duty? Are you saying that your enjoyment is a polite pretence? I am crushed. I don’t even know how to tell this to my sister. She’ll be crushed, too. You’ll crush us all!” Alberto wailed, laughing. They had already finished the antipasti—twelve kinds of cold cuts featuring the inevitable prosciutto di cinghiale but also smoked salmon and carpaccio of swordfish—and they were spooning up the heavenly saffron risotto crowned by a paper-thin saffron wafer that would have made the finickiest Milanese duke forget about the gold leaf that used to top this regal dish on the tables of the elite. The wafer was Bianca’s greatest weapon; it had originally helped her conquer Signor Primavera’s palate, which had been infamously difficult to please.

Even broken hearts and familial outrage were powerless to blunt the attraction of the steaming concoction—except for Nora, who was politely pushing the yellow mass around on her plate, occasionally touching her lower lip with the edge of her spoon. She had overdone it with the canapés and the cold cuts, and her stomach had begun to rebel.

 

“No, no, no, I am genuinely enjoying both drinks and company. But, you see, I need to blame my tipsiness on my valiant efforts at being a good guest. Good guests always happily accept whatever is offered to them and do not criticize or leave food on their plates.” She looked at her plate guiltily and suppressed a burp, which was, nevertheless, heard by Alberto. He hid a smile in his napkin, with which he was wiping his mouth.

“Whoever told you this is a dinosaur,” Alberto announced.

“Oh, I was brought up that way. And, I have to admit, I am so particular about what I eat and drink that there would be no end to my complaints once I started. So whenever I am invited to someone’s house, I just play along heroically.” At this she stuffed a spoonful of risotto in her mouth and smiled painfully.

“You overdo it,” Alberto suggested, who couldn’t help feeling sorry for both the lady in distress and the fabulous risotto that was being wasted—swallowed as some gruesome medicine.

“I suppose I do. But I don’t usually go to other people’s houses for dinner. We used to organize an endless number of dinner parties ourselves, and there I was safe because I got to make all the decisions. And when others invited us, I always suggested going to a restaurant. There, once again, it is not so much out of place to be particular. However, I am digressing. I wanted to make sure you’re not going to be offended if I ask you something.”

“Fire away, my dear Nora. Don’t spare me.”

“Here I come: Do you really think Trollope is a great writer? I mean, he can be interesting, entertaining, and witty, and he was prolific, but would you put him on the same level with, say, Henry James?” Nora’s tone was cautious, almost fearful.

Alberto sat back on his chair and carefully wiped his mouth again with the snow-white napkin that had been resting on his lap. Nora watched him with bated breath. Had she offended him? Then he leisurely placed the napkin back on his lap and sat forward again. He smiled at her both with his mouth and his eyes. There was no way he had taken her question as an insult.

“First, let me answer you with a question. If you put your hand on your heart, are you still ready to tell me that the writings of James actually amuse you? Oh, don’t answer yet. Let me be more specific. You are specializing in the major phase of James’s writings—the late years with the complicated syntax and the superfine moral issues. Now, granting that we both believe good art must both instruct and entertain without boorish spectacle or pedantic morals, do you persist in claiming that James’s late works are great works of art? I mean, do you honestly enjoy wading through those tortuous, torturous sentences, and do you really not at least miss the wit and the sensuality present in his earlier works? And now let me say that yes, Trollope is a great artist, because he represents life with all its complexities—all the moral dilemmas, if you will—without turning it into something unrecognizably abstract or ethereal. The characters laugh, cry, eat, drink, and ponder difficult questions, but their sensual side is also given space on his pages. James did this for a while, and I applaud him for The Portrait of a Lady, for instance. That is a fine work. It is, in fact, I have to admit, one of the really great novels of the English language. And, let me also admit that, of course, Trollope’s oeuvre is far from being homogeneously and consistently wonderful. He has written some terribly dull books; Rachel Ray makes me feel embarrassed when I read it.”

At this point Alaam was collecting the risotto plates, and Adamo, at his heels, was laying out the clean plates for the fish. Signora Primavera didn’t want to pile five plates on top of each other, and the third course necessitated three plates. One plate was for the pieces of delicate branzino baked in salt crust that they were to receive as soon as Bianca had performed the cracking ritual, but first they were given the chance to admire the spectacle of the glistening white salt mountain hiding the succulent fish. Another plate was given for the numerous options of side dishes that would have created an unsightly heap had they been put on the same plate with the fish—grilled vegetables, polenta, mussels in lemon and garlic cream sauce, sautéed spinach. And yet another plate was supplied for occasional fish bones.

“You are perfectly right,” Nora said, visibly relieved when relieved of the risotto plate, but just as visibly dismayed by the sight of the mountains of food destined to make up the third course that at other times would have made her mouth water. If she had been given the chance to portion all this food for the next ten days, she would have been in a culinary heaven. As it was, she found herself agreeing with Pater and opting for spiritual Epicureanism, leaving the more popular kind to the other guests, especially Ernesto Minalba, whose eyes literally twinkled like onyx at the sight of the newly arrived edibles.

“Yes, you are perfectly right,” she repeated, as soon as she turned her gaze from the laden trays and the beaming visage of Signor Minalba. “I’ve always thought that we do have to allow for some middling or downright bad pieces amongst the whole output of just about any great artist. I guess that I’ve just been unlucky with Trollope. I think I must have read more of his weaker pieces. His oeuvre is, after all, gigantic. I mean he was awfully prolific—which, once again, makes one suspicious, doesn’t it?”

“Another question by way of answer: Didn’t James write an awful lot of stuff as well?” He helped himself to a spoonful of polenta and another of the mussel sauce, and he unabashedly chose one of the larger pieces of the fish. He shot a glance and a smile at Nora as he put down his plate and waited for her answer.

“Well, I am checkmated,” Nora said, surprised by how good it felt even to stand corrected by her interlocutor. At this point the bubbles from the prosecco—which she had been drinking all night, refusing the white and red wines served during the meal—the candlelight, and Alberto’s smiles had done their job, and she felt herself let go of her silly scruples concerning the amount of food she thought she was supposed to eat in order to avoid offending her host. Her smiles and her genuine enjoyment of the evening would be her way to show her appreciation, and she would stop stuffing unwanted food in her mouth and give herself wholly to the conversation.  “Yes, it was definitely the wrong argument to bring up in my defense; I’ve just dug my own grave. And I will go even further and bury myself for good by admitting that I am almost certain there still are works of James’s I haven’t yet read. Articles, essays, maybe even short stories.”

Alberto smiled at her and was about to respond when Hugh’s voice interrupted him. Alaam had changed tactics once the guests had taken their seats, thinking that he had been doing his American enemy an unmerited favor by sparing his liver and his waistline. It would be better instead to make the American as drunk as a skunk in order to facilitate his making an even bigger fool of himself in front of the others. Hugh had cooperated with Alaam’s plan nicely by eating and drinking everything set before him, as Nora’s maxim dictated.

“You see, my dear,” Hugh slurred loudly, “you are not that smart after all. The Italian egghead, Signor What’s-his-name, beats you by miles. Ha, ha! Even an obscure Italian Anglophile knows more than you.” Hugh was looking at both and neither of them at the same time with his glassy eyes as he swayed in his chair. It came as a surprise to the other diners how really intoxicated he had become, since he hadn’t opened his mouth for a long time except to shovel food into it.

Alberto would never have dreamed of taking offense, but he was concerned about the effect Hugh’s insults might have on Nora and his sister. Alberto wasn’t a fainthearted fellow, but he abhorred loud scenes and violent words and always did his best to pacify. Fortunately, Augusta was sitting at the other end of the table and had not heard Hugh’s outburst.

Nora was speechless with embarrassment. She hated scenes just as much as Alberto, but she was not usually the type to pacify. Rather, she was hot-tempered and naturally given to take offense, so she had often been the cause of scenes herself—which ultimately made her even angrier with herself and her bad temper than with those at the other end of the unpleasantness. But she sat there next to Alberto in silence, her anger vying with her humiliation at having ever married a man who would say such things, especially in public, especially in front of people they had met for the first time mere hours before.

She was also shocked to see Hugh in such a drunken state; she suddenly thought of the big silver Mercedes teetering halfway off the cliff in the middle of the serpentine road and the drunken Englishman and his tense and wiry young wife of whom Nora had grown so fond while waiting for the crashed beast to be towed. To that perfect stranger she had described her relationship with her own husband, as well as her niece’s trouble with her boyfriend who, when Nora looked across the table, miraculously and ironically enough, seemed more sober and well behaved than he had been for a long time. Will was sitting opposite Ernesto, and the two were having a grand time putting away huge amounts of food. “Bravo!” they said when the fourth course arrived, roast beef in a truffle crust with rosemary potatoes and steamed broccoli strewn with almonds, and as they ate, they continued their conversation concerning stocks and real estate and other business matters that would have sent Nora and Alberto—and most of the others at the table, for that matter—to sleep in five minutes.

When not looking at his plate or at William, Ernesto had been shooting appreciative glances at Denise, whose beauty hadn’t failed to charm him. In turn, the direction of his wandering eyes hadn’t failed to attract Silvana’s attention. She also noted that the object of her husband’s interest had taken an unabashed interest in none other than their son. Stoic and serene, Silvana smiled into her glass as she thought of the poetic justice of it all. These amused observations were brought to an abrupt end, however, by Hugh’s drunken voice coming from the other end of the table.

Before either Nora or Alberto could reply to what Hugh had said, Anna, who had contrived to sit close to him precisely so that she might be on hand if such a situation arose, said in as lighthearted a manner as she could muster, “Uncle, dear, would you pass me the salt and the pepper, please? And how do you like the wine?”

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Anna felt almost ashamed of resorting to such clichés, yet anything was better than letting Hugh go on unchecked—or letting Nora vent her anger if, true to her nature, her temper was up.

Hugh looked around uncertainly, first to make sure that it was really he who had been spoken to, and then to find out who the owner of the voice was, however familiar it had sounded. Anna saw his trouble, leaned closer to him, and repeated her questions a bit more loudly:

“Hugh, sweetheart, over here!” She snapped her fingers, and, following the sound, he was finally able to meet her eyes. Even his gaze was unsteady! “I would just trouble you for the salt and the pepper, and I wanted to ask you if you like the wine.”

But only the last word of the message registered, and Hugh misinterpreted the context.

“Oh, yes, Annie, pour me some more wine, there’s a dear. I wanna raise my glass to you, beautiful sweet dear girl that you are. The only one who stands by me.” At this, he looked around the table challengingly, seeking out Henry, Denise and Nora, and as soon as he had succeeded in locating them, he shot what was meant to be very hostile glances at them. Then, suddenly recognizing Will and remembering he was also present, Hugh turned to his best friend and said in an admonitory tone, “You better not break my niece’s heart, sir, or you’ll have to answer to me. We’ve had enough heartbreaks, you know, and no offense.” Toward the end of the sentence, Hugh drifted toward more peaceful waters, his hostility becoming a clumsy camaraderie.

By now the whole table had become aware of Hugh’s state. Lily shifted uncomfortably in her seat and tried not to stare, while next to her, Mario snickered malevolently. Alaam—who was listening from behind the closed door between the kitchen and the dining room—suffered the first pangs of remorse. Perpetua lowered her head and smiled darkly. Estella wrung her hands. Silvana remained serenely calm. Ernesto Minalba wiped the grease from the corners of his mouth and abstained from comment. Roberto opened his eyes as wide as if he had seen a ghost. Virginia, sitting at the other end of the table, next to her grandmother, was still unsure as to what had been said and what the whole hubbub was about. Denise watched Hugh with a mixture of disgust, amusement, and indifference. Henry, however, was profoundly shocked and embarrassed, reddening up to the roots of his hair. Carlito, rather drunk himself, smiled a whimsical, handsome smile, thinking that Hugh wasn’t so bad compared with some of the drunks he’d dealt with in his bartending days. William was feeling profoundly sorry for his buddy and had to admit to himself that a raging drunk was an unattractive sight, indeed. He vowed in that moment never again to overdo his own drinking—a resolution that vanished into thin air within the very moment during which it had been formed.


4.

It was Signora Augusta Primavera who swooped in to save the day. The several decades she had spent as the wife of an ambassador had not been in vain. It was hardly the first time she had seen an intoxicated guest making a scene in the midst of a formal affair, whether a stately reception, a dinner, or even during a champagne breakfast. She’d witnessed Very Important People so inebriated that they couldn’t stand up from the table or couldn’t sit down, missing the chair being held for them. She had seen meek-looking ambassadresses and matronly wives of distinguished businessmen imbibe too much on empty stomachs and grow shrill and hysterical. A colleague of Signor Primavera, rest both their souls, had been caught fondling the admirably round backside of a waitress serving during a most important dinner—one organized with the intention of smoothing ill feelings and reestablishing that very man in the good opinion of the country where he hitherto had been acting more amoroso than ambassador.

Another highly connected gentleman had had to be escorted from an upscale venue sandwiched between the burly butler and the headwaiter, whose assistance steadied his tottering steps. They led him out of the long dining room—oh, how long it had seemed to all present, listening to the oppressive silence that was only interrupted by the man’s occasional, pathetic blubbering, and wishing to God he would make it out of the room before anything more embarrassing took place. Rumor had it that the attempt to save his reputation hadn’t been a complete success, as, near the entrance of the building, the storm raging in his stomach broke loose and crashed into one of the enameled flowerpots flanking the doorway. At that point only the servants were present—chauffeurs, doormen, and a few stray waiters—but that last juicy bit made it into the gossip of the day nonetheless.

Hugh’s case was nothing compared with what Augusta had witnessed in her time. He hadn’t as yet fallen or vomited, and she didn’t think the verbal damage done to her brother and her tenant had been too serious. Anyway, this was a private party, not a state dinner. There were no representatives of the press present, so no headlines would be feeding on this story. The wisest thing to do would be to humor the loudmouthed drunk and swallow pride and anger. One couldn’t reason with an intoxicated person, and admonishment only led to nastier scenes most of the time—more shouting and abuse or, just as bad, breaking down and begging everyone’s forgiveness and calling oneself the most wretched creature in the whole wide world, and so on, and so forth. Not pretty.

With all this in mind, Augusta Primavera raised her voice and said, “I hope everyone has enjoyed the dinner. Even if your beef has struck you as overdone or your fish didn’t seem fresh enough, please keep in mind that we did our best and that it has been our pleasure to share a humble repast with such dear guests.”

Here Anna gushed, grateful for the opportunity to divert attention from Hugh, “Oh, dear Signora, if the beef had been less done, it would have mooed, and if the fish had been fresher, it would have jumped from our plates right back into the sea.”

“It would have had to take a mighty big jump, I daresay,” joined in Henry, in an effort to assist in maneuvering the conversation.

“Thank you, my dears; it’s so good to hear you say that. May I suggest that we adjourn to the garden and take our fifth course of cheese and fruits where we can enjoy the fresh summer breeze, the sight of the twinkling lights of Orvieto, and a good strong coffee? If anyone cares for a cigar, there’s a box of Cohibas on the table there near the French doors. Ernesto just brought them back from Perugia this afternoon. A good friend of his runs a tobacco store there.”

At the mention of cigars, Will cocked his ears, and smiled delightedly. Those who were more preoccupied with handling Hugh than with sensual pleasures welcomed the idea that fresh air and coffee might have a sobering effect on him. Breaking up the table was the best thing to do, anyway, and the darkness outside might be counted on to ease the embarrassment that was always so much keener under good lighting.

And they all saw as they traipsed into the garden that the night was truly beautiful. The many lights of Orvieto vied with the stars to twinkle most enchantingly. The serpentine road leading to the fortified hill-town was lined with lit streetlamps, and the effect was that of a diamond necklace cunningly placed on a piece of black velvet in a jewel shop to set off its magical glow. The air was not cold, but it had the bracing freshness of a summer night in higher altitudes. The plushy white sofas that always served as garden furniture at La Serenissima had been left out after dark for this special occasion, and there were several soft, light blankets rolled up and placed here and there to protect bare shoulders or partially exposed feet from eventual chills. Small lights shone from behind huge planters and picturesquely crumbling statues—original antiques brought over from the Rome headquarters of the Primavera clan.

The array of cheeses and fruits that Adamo carried after the guests resembled a Dutch still life, and it seemed a crime to disrupt such artwork by helping oneself to any of its contents. After the truffled roast beef, even Ernesto and William preferred contemplation to consumption, and the pretty picture was left intact. The inviting fragrance of coffee permeated the garden as soon as it was brought out on a large silver tray by the repentant Alaam. He was about to offer an extra strong cup to Hugh, who was half sitting, half lying on one of the sofas, oblivious of his surroundings. Exactly because he seemed to be falling asleep—always the most welcome scenario in the case of a drunken person—Augusta quickly motioned Alaam away. Let him sleep it off, even if it meant leaving him where he was until the really chilly morning air woke him up. Alaam or Adamo could check on him from time to time, and if one sofa got soaked by the morning dew—well, that wasn’t such a high price to pay for a peacefully terminating dinner that had threatened to make bad blood.

Will silently applauded the old lady’s wise treatment of the whole business, but he refrained from saying so because that would have called attention to his wide experience in matters of intoxication. Anna knew what her boyfriend was thinking and silently seconded his opinion; she had lost count of how many times Will had fallen asleep drunk and heavy on their couch at eight in the evening, fully dressed, glasses slipping off his nose, cell phone peeping out of his pocket, threatening to fall out. She had learned to let him sleep, curling up alone on their big bed, wondering if he would climb in next to her before the break of dawn. The later he found his way back to bed, the worse it was, because the couch invariably exacerbated his back problems, and he would wake up unrefreshed and sore.

“Can I also have one?” Anna asked timidly.

“I thought you’d quit.” William said as soon as he’d lighted the cigar that he had carefully chosen.

“And I thought you would remember that I had changed my mind two weeks ago, and I am smoking again,” Anna retorted, her voice filled with irritation. She hated to be reminded that her passion for cigars was just too strong for her. Even the strength of her fear of premature wrinkles, cancer, and bad breath was nothing in comparison.

“Laudable, my dear, a very great example you’re setting for us poor substance abusers.” Will’s grin as he said this, the robusto hanging out between his teeth, disarmed her, and instead of answering, she lightly touched his cheek in imitation of a slap and then skipped to the box and selected a cigar. As she stood there, fumbling with the cutter and then having trouble lighting a match that wouldn’t go out as soon as it had been lit, she was joined by Carlito who, tipsy and more benevolent than ever, wanted to introduce her to his sister and her boyfriend. Henry and Denise were already with them, and so was Virginia, with whom Anna had already had the pleasure of talking, as he’d noticed. They were all sitting cozily in the living room upstairs so as to escape the more staid members of the Primavera family, who filled the living room downstairs.

Anna glanced curiously toward the corner of the room, where Perpetua, Silvana, Roberto, Estella, and Alberto were in deep discussion about something, but she could not hear what. Had she been able to hear, she wouldn’t have understood the rapid flow of colloquial Italian that they used amongst themselves, anyway. It was better so, considering the topic of their talk, namely the strange behavior of the American man that had to be explained to a bewildered Roberto, whose eyes were still popping out of his head. Perpetua was in her element, explaining, preaching, shuddering with religious horror and patriotic indignation, feeling that her time had come. The vulgarity of the American’s behavior must have caused the scales to fall off her Anglophile uncle’s eyes at last.

Alberto stood by silently and resignedly, his thoughts strangely rebellious, flitting off elsewhere. It was his familial duty to help with Roberto, and at the same time he felt he owed it to Nora to protect her husband from Perpetua’s slanderous tongue. He would have greatly preferred joining Nora in the garden, but then again, he felt he might be in the way. Since Hugh’s outburst, Nora had become shy and self-conscious toward him once again, and once in the garden, she had sat down next to her drunken spouse, as if guarding his sleep. Alberto felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought.

Anna accepted Carlito’s invitation—she wanted more of these handsome Italians. With the exception of Virginia, she hadn’t talked to any of them during dinner. They seemed much less chatty than she had imagined Italians to be

“I’ll just fetch Will,” she said to Carlito and made to go out to the garden. Before she reached William, however, she saw he was in the company of Ernesto once again and did not seem to miss his girlfriend in the least. Anna shrugged her shoulder, both put off and relieved, and caught up with Carlito and the younger generation upstairs, where the conversation was also of the very animated kind. When Henry and Denise had appeared a few minutes before, also led by an eager Carlito, Lily had been so pleased by the young American’s friendly approach that her resentment evaporated, and she had even managed to smile graciously at the annoyingly beautiful American girl. It was Denise who was now forced into obscurity as the rest of them conversed in Italian. Anna noticed the position Denise had been put into, and she grinned with malignant pleasure; it was a rare treat to see the usually smug Denise so discomfited. Virginia must have taken an immediate dislike to Denise because although she had also noticed Denise’s discomfiture, she didn’t help out the latter but just continued to sit there, silently following the conversation of the others, with a rather contemptuous smile on her shapely lips, to which she raised a glass of red wine once in a while.

As for Henry, he was overjoyed to show off his Italian. In his enthusiasm, he forgot all about Denise’s inability to speak the language.

“You must be so fed up with tourists flocking your country. I know I would be. And our continuous reassurance that we adore Italy doesn’t make it much better, I guess,” Henry said, fixing Lily with his eyes.

Lily blushed, feeling as if her mind had been read. She stuck out her chin, but looked down as she said, “The worst is when you use the expression bel paese in the middle of an English sentence, thinking yourselves knowledgeable and chic, and, on top of it all, you mispronounce it.” She said it judgmentally, deliberately mispronouncing the words in imitation of the Yankees. “Well, in any case, we do not have the right to complain. You bring the money.” She smiled, producing two adorable dimples in her cheeks, her face resembling a grinning apple.

Only his infatuation with Denise stopped Henry from wanting to playfully bite into that wholesome visage. He didn’t care to admit to her that he took great pleasure in using just that expression himself, which he had hitherto found rather distinguished.

“A very practical approach,” Henry laughed. “I wonder whether you see stuffed moneybags when you look at us. We must have been quite the sight around the dinner table.” But the mention of the dinner table reminded him of his father’s earlier performance, and he went all crimson—in his case the resemblance was with a tomato. He felt both ashamed of what had already taken place and afraid of further complications—the old man shouldn’t be left snoring on the couch without vigilance, and Henry could not imagine his mother guarding her good-for-nothing soon-to-be ex-husband instead of continuing her most absorbing conversation with the Italian scholar, whom Henry couldn’t help finding more simpatico and certainly more exemplary than his own sire.

“Excuse me for one moment,” he said and slipped out of the room, unobserved by Denise, who was fully absorbed in watching Carlito’s handsome mouth as it formed incomprehensible but all the more beautiful words. She had already forgotten her grievance and was at her ease once again, bent on seducing that tipsy Adonis, contemplating one plan only to discard it for the sake of another and then another, watching the perfect shape of her victim’s mouth with the eyes of a predator. In turn, Mario was observing Denise and, to soothe his mortification, he was laughing in his sleeve. Served her right to fall for a queer instead of falling for his own beautiful—if shorter—self. At a yet further remove, enjoying an even better spectacle, was Virginia, who observed Mario observing Denise observing Carlito and thought Denise and Mario were both getting what they deserved.

As soon as Henry left, however, Lily’s enthusiasm flagged, and her attention wandered. It was not long before she noticed Mario eyeing Denise, who, by then, was talking to Carlito—Denise simply started to speak in English to him, and he was polite enough to switch, too. Carlito, in turn, was as dispirited by Henry’s departure as his sister.

Not long after Henry’s exit, Anna also excused herself, passing Ernesto Minalba on the stairs. Ernesto had been left at loose ends in the garden when Will, feeling rather queasy, had gone to visit the bathroom. Now Denise found herself the coveted article of the older male Minalba, who was delighted to find the pretty American girl upstairs and proposed to show her around his mother-in-law’s house. Denise would have preferred to stay with Carlito, but she thought she would give a few minutes to the old gino—it might elevate her charms in the son’s eyes to see her thus coveted. She knew some men liked competition and hoped Carlito was just such a one. He, on the contrary, felt a surge of gratitude toward his father for taking Denise off his hands—and a wave of pity for his mother.

“What are you smiling about?” Henry whispered in his mother’s ear. Nora was sitting at the other end of Hugh’s sofa, silently sipping her coffee. Hugh’s snoring became louder and louder, and she couldn’t help smiling at the familiar noise. Henry had crept close to the sofa to check on his father, and he had been filled with sudden warmth for both of his parents as soon as he saw his mother, sitting by his father, with a smile that seemed to him tender and even loving. Was she relenting towards him? Might they get back together again?

“And what are you smiling about?” Nora asked by way of answer.

“If it’s allowed to patronize one’s own father, I have to say he looks almost cute in his sleep. It makes me realize how rarely I’ve had the chance to see him that way.”

“You think he looks cute? No, that would imply that he looks innocent and childlike. He wishes he did. I rather think he looks worn and pitiable, and the only thing I can pity him for is just that; he would rather die than appear old and pitiable.”

Nora’s words sounded harsh and pitiless, and her son looked at her in surprise. He had taken her words at their face value and had not suspected that his mother was fighting hard against a growing feeling of tenderness toward Hugh—just the very feeling Henry had so much hoped for as soon as he saw the smile on his mother’s face.

Now that the danger of a really ugly scene had been averted, Nora did not want to become soft and forgiving. She had resolved to evade her husband’s maneuvers to lure her back to a hopeless marriage just to save his own reputation. She was well out of it and looking forward to enjoying her hard-earned privacy and, she hoped fearfully, the occasional companionship of the most interesting Italian individual she had met tonight. But it further complicated her already conflicting emotions that she was so drawn to Alberto already that the possible change of his opinion for the worse due to her husband’s shameful behavior had made her lose the spontaneity that she had acquired during dinner. After Hugh’s scene, she had avoided meeting Alberto’s eyes and she literally ran away from him as they came out to the garden. The more she wanted to stand up and join him wherever he was, the shyer she became. So there she had stayed until Henry’s approach, literally at her husband’s feet, sitting at the end of the sofa on which he was lying in drunken oblivion.

“Mother, I can’t believe how cruel you are.” His voice was filled with resentment.

“No, my dear, I am not cruel. I am just being very honest.” She stood and took his arm and led him away from the sleeping man so as not to risk waking him. They wandered over near the huge swimming pool situated at the farthest end of the private gardens, strategically positioned an equal distance from both houses. The inhabitants of Il Silenzio had the same pool at their disposal—the very reason Nora had never ventured to visit it till now; the notion of a shared pool was mutually exclusive with that of her privacy. Tonight the pool lights had been left on in honor of the guests, and the cushioned deck chairs and a stack of towels had also been set out, in case anybody would fancy a night swim. On a little table between two deck chairs, there was a large thermos of hot coffee, and all the necessary appurtenances to give the crowning touch to Italian hospitality and dispel the last shred of doubt concerning the Primavera household’s perfection.

“Who are we trying to kid, anyway?” Nora said to Henry as they approached the pool and sank down on two deck chairs. “I don’t think I’m bursting your bubble here. Whether it’s been pedagogically wise or not, only time will tell, but you’ve never been left to your illusions for longer than was absolutely necessary. You’ve known for ever so long now that there is no Santa Claus and that your dad is a great big egoist and a womanizer. These last two days have been a kind of retribution to him, and he is not bearing it heroically. I think it would be much harder for you to witness all this if you had had any illusions left about the infallibility of your sire. For another boy raised in a more conservative manner, tonight’s events would have constituted the smashing of his idol. Well, Henry, my boy, you’ve been spared that, at least.”

But Henry wasn’t at all grateful for having been forced to see clearly all his life. Although he had been treated like an old soul since the day he was born, secretly he’d always wished to have some illusions left to him, even if the eventual loss would have caused him pain. Despite the precociousness that came naturally to him, he would have liked his parents to have at least tried to cocoon him and protect him from the harsh realities of life. He longed for that fabled sense of fuzziness and warmth as he hunched forward on the chair, a shiver going through him. After suffering that way for a few silent minutes, he realized suddenly that he hadn’t even tried to see the whole thing from his mother’s perspective and that his momentary sympathy for his father was due to his mother’s coldness toward both of them.

When he got past that childish reaction, he was too experienced and too intelligent to deny that his parents did not belong together. He was eighteen now, and apart from Christmas and other special occasions, the rest of his life was to be spent elsewhere, anyway, and he couldn’t expect them to stay together only because he wished to visit a forcedly cheery home now and then. No, it was too late for that. It would have been nice a few years ago, but it didn’t matter anymore. He was forced to admit that it was much more important to let his parents go their separate ways and finally find what would make them happy. His father, in fact, had been doing that all his life, and if he was unhappy now, it was not due to the lack of opportunities. Indeed, Henry had to confess that his mother wasn’t to blame for his father’s wretchedness, and she couldn’t remedy it by going back to him.

“Well, Mother, it’s hard to be grateful for having been raised on the cold truth, but I guess you’re right, after all.” Henry lay back on the deck chair, his hands behind his head. “I would be feeling way worse now if this had been my first taste of frost. As to logistics, I think our surprise visit should be cut as short as possible. I’m sure Hugh feels the same way.”


5.

Before Nora could answer, Anna, who had snuck up on them unnoticed, did it for her.

“Are you very sure we should be leaving so soon? Maybe you and Hugh are ready to go home, but it seems to me Denise is just getting started over here. You know, a new chapter devoted to Italian youth after the one examining American male midlife crisis.”

Anna sat down at the end of Henry’s deck chair and grinned at him. In accordance with Nora’s teachings, she was now trying to cure her cousin of his infatuation with a good dash of the cold honest truth. What Henry was too naive to have noticed had not escaped his cousin’s attention, and Anna was sure that Denise would be delighted to stay on as Nora’s guest as long as the Primavera clan—including Carlito, of course—was around. Anna had also noticed something else, something she chose not to mention to Henry, something to which Denise seemed oblivious. Carlito enjoyed the chat visibly less after Henry left their circle to join his mother.

The young Italian was also feeling the sobering effects of the cool air and becoming restless in the company of his sister’s odious boyfriend and the blonde American girl, who was staring fixedly at him. At him, Carlito, when she could just as well have got obsessed with Mario, and in doing so may even have saved Lily from that vain beast by opening her eyes to how quickly Mario could fall out of love—if he had ever been in love with her, that is. But no, Denise only had eyes for him, and her ignorance of Italian made the whole situation even more uncomfortable. And when she switched to English and he reluctantly obliged her by switching also, the hope of putting an end to the conversation was indefinitely postponed. And then came “Ernesto ex machina” and the situation was suddenly solved; Carlito saved.

“What are you talking about, Anna?” Henry asked with forced amusement. “What chapter of Italian youth? Do you consider me Italian? Is it because of my language skills? That’s flattering, to say the least.” He had to try to laugh it off, since to believe what Anna was suggesting was to know that Denise’s interest in him hadn’t even lasted twenty-four hours.

“No, silly. I’m talking about Carlito. You cannot be considered a chapter when Denise has apparently devoted only a footnote to you. Or, if you wish me to put it differently, you were the granité between two courses.”

This undeceiving of her cousin was great fun to Anna; being more than usually malicious was a way for her to let off steam after all the stress of Hugh’s behavior and the possibility of Will’s following suit. At the thought of Will, she shifted uncomfortably but decided not to budge as yet. Surely the sight and sound of a drunken friend snoring in the midst of a dinner party was a cautionary tale to which even Will might pay attention. There was a good possibility he would remain presentable throughout the evening—for a few more minutes at least. Right now, she wanted to take the time to enlighten Henry about Denise and convince him to stop fooling around with such a worthless individual.

Henry kicked her lightly. “I’ve never noticed how prone you are to cattiness. Does it hurt you that Carlito may have admired Denise more than you? Even if he did, that’s no reason to be cruel to me and to Denise, and even to insult Carlito by supposing that he was trying to hit on the girl who was so obviously with me.” It was costing Henry an ever greater effort to dupe himself by his own explanation; the less he succeeded, the more desperate his righteous indignation.

Anna peered at him in the semi dark and tried to make out from the expression on his face how he was really taking it. Was it possible that he was so far gone on Denise in such a short time that it would hurt him very much to be undeceived about her so soon? Did he really believe what he was saying? It was fun to simultaneously tease and help him, but was she going too far, too fast?

“I’m not catty, Henry sweetie. I’m just sufficiently detached to retain my faculties enough to observe all that goes on around me. And I’ll tell you a secret: Denise is so involved in her new pet project that she hasn’t noticed that a crucial element is missing. Her friendly Adonis is not in the least willing.”

“Not like Barkis, huh?” Nora laughed appreciatively. Anna had obviously been reading Dickens lately.

“What do you mean ‘not willing’?” Henry asked. “You think it’s possible that he doesn’t find Denise attractive? Then he really is a marble Adonis.” Henry felt insulted by the possibility that another man might not find his lady love worthy of attention. His offense was almost stronger than his original grievance—that a friend would try to snatch away his girl and that the girl would be more than willing to be snatched away.

“It’s only partly that,” Anna said. “I think Carlito doesn’t find any woman very attractive. If you get my meaning.”

Henry’s wide-open eyes flashed white in the lights from the pool. Nora, who was just then taking a sip of coffee, began to cough violently and was forced to put her cup down.

“Uh, that went down the wrong way. I mean the coffee. Jesus, do you know what you’re saying, Annie?” Nora was too embarrassed to call the thing by its name. In this respect, she was rather old-fashioned.

“Gosh, Aunt, you really are a dinosaur. Yes, I am almost certain that Carlito is gay. And so what? Don’t tell me it’s the first time you’ve seen one. They don’t bite, and the condition’s not contagious.” Anna had a hard time believing that the issue of homosexuality was such a great big deal for her family members.

“No, no, Annie. I’m old-fashioned, perhaps, but I’m not an idiot. It’s just that I’m not very knowledgeable about the whole thing. And, frankly, I hadn’t noticed anything different about Carlito.”

“But how could you have, if, as you say, you are not very knowledgeable about it? Why would it have even occurred to you? And, besides, you were way too busy with the older Adonis—the learned uncle.” Anna chuckled.

“Anna, you are terrible tonight. To call Alberto an old Adonis!”

“I think he would be flattered. An old Adonis is still better than an old mediocrity.”

“How about not sharpening your tongue on him, huh?” Nora asked impatiently.

Henry thought about what Anna had said. Although someone so inexperienced and with so ardent a nature as his couldn’t help but still be hurt by the possibility of Denise no longer caring for him, he was starting to see the whole thing from its humorous side. It would be quite funny to watch the truth dawning on her. Till then, her ego would be sufficiently bruised to satisfy him. And if she and Carlito never met again, and she never found out about his being gay, the insult of having been ignored would stay with her forever.

“Now, how about discussing things of more pressing importance?” Nora suggested.

“Like when we’re to vacate the premises and leave you in sweet peace?” Henry felt his mother had stepped on his corns yet again with the very suggestion of discussing important matters over the ones that obviously mattered to him. He knew she wanted nothing more than be rid of them all. At this point, he was far from keen on staying, anyway, and it was only the thought of his mother wanting to have him out of her sight—the well-known insult, the repetition of which had accompanied him during his whole childhood—that had made him feel offended.

“For instance. But, in order for you to vacate my hub, we would have to devise a plan as to Hugh. Not a plan per se, but it might still be helpful to all of us to share our anticipations. I mean, how do you think he’ll behave when he sobers up?” Nora asked. She was eager to have her husband gone, but she thought she owed it him—if only for selfish reasons—to make sure he got home safely.

“Okay, Mother. Let’s have a workshop and discuss this most interesting question. Yes, let’s sit in a circle and brainstorm the night away. If you want to know what I think, I think he’ll act as if nothing extraordinary has happened. I bet my shorts on that, I do. Of course he’ll be more arrogant than ever, because he’ll feel that he has to balance out the humiliation, and so he’ll make our lives something like hell on the way home. He’ll flirt with every human being with breasts, and he’ll studiously ignore the sight of me with Denise. Oh, I forget; he won’t have to do any such thing, at least not if Anna’s right and Denise has cooled off even before she had sufficiently warmed to me. Ah, she don’t know what she’s missing.” Henry’s momentary sense of fun had given way to bitterness again. He really didn’t care to stay, but he hated the thought of the journey home with this group.

“I’m not quite sure you’re right, Henry,” Anna said. “I think Uncle Hugh’s next move cannot be predicted on the basis of his past behavior. I think he’s experienced something quite new these last forty-eight hours. In fact, the reason he lost it tonight in such an embarrassing way is because he is undergoing something radically new. I don’t think his ego has ever received such an ass-kicking as this. He did not in the least expect either Nora or Denise or even you to behave the way you have. And then the Italian element was the last drop. I mean two drops: Alberto and Carlito.”

There was a touch of sadness in her voice. The pity she felt for her uncle had been reawakened as soon as their conversation had turned to him, and the fun she had been having while teasing her aunt and her cousin gave way to unease. She wasn’t looking forward to their journey home, either, but she had a less selfish reason for it than Henry. She was sympathizing with Hugh when she dreaded the long hours they would have to spend in each other’s company. Denise, Hugh, and Henry forced to travel together didn’t bode well for any of them, but it was surely Hugh for whom it would be the hardest.

“Oh, I don’t think people can change, especially not at Hugh’s age,” Nora said. “Of course he’s had a few shocks, but this doesn’t mean that he’ll not try to get over it in his characteristic manner. In fact, to be able to deal with a blow of such magnitude, he’ll be more himself than ever; he’ll bring out all the weapons at his disposal and wield all of them. I’m almost sorry I’ll miss the second half of the show by remaining here. Your trip back will be a priceless spectacle.” Nora said.

“If you are in earnest, you really are the coldest observer ever,” Anna said, shocked by her aunt’s comment. “Can you actually talk in such a detached manner of your husband’s misery? And of the misery the whole homeward journey will be to us? Aunt, I’m almost afraid of you when you say such things. You are more insensitive than Denise.”

“First of all,” Nora said deliberately, “you chose to come here. I certainly didn’t invite any of you to come and pay me an unexpected visit and make a scene in front of my landlady and her whole family. Second, you forget how much Hugh has sucked out of me during the years. Third, he’s a grown man, and he won’t die of it. It served him right, and now he should try to make the best of a bad situation like a man. It’s easy to feel strong and manly when it comes to seducing busty ingénues, but the test of a real man is to take it like one when the shit hits the fan. Oh, the cleaning ladies!”

Speaking of fans, Nora remembered that Signora and Signorina Cesare were coming first thing in the morning. She had been wanting to ask Signora Cesare to check if the fan in her bedroom was not likely to fall on her any minute. Ever since her first attempt at turning it on, she had left it untouched, but in time, she had come to suspect its stability even without using it. For all she knew, a gentle breeze might be enough to make the wretched thing land on her head one night.

“You have more than one?” Henry asked incredulously.

“Well, technically yes, but only because the mother wants the daughter to take her share of work. They are very nice people, although the husband is a shifty looking son of a gun. He is actually my gardener—that’s how I ended up with his wife and daughter cleaning for me. And, although I even keep out of the way as much as possible while they are puttering around the place—it won’t come as a novelty that I am far from being the hobnobbing type—I think they are very nice people. I just don’t understand how a man like that can have persuaded a woman like her to marry him without pointing a gun at her head. And for such a couple to have such a flower of a daughter is really beyond me!” Nora said amusedly.

“You make me curious, Mother,” Henry said, rolling onto his side languidly to look at Nora.  “You say the daughter is pretty?”

“Henry dear, are you trying to take revenge on Denise by courting my princess of the soap suds? Look who’s inconsistent and fickle and insecure all at the same time! You know what? If I have to bet my skirts on anything, I think your father will try his hand at the same thing. And then you two will be hitting on the same girl once again. This is priceless. I’ll write a story about this one of these days. It sounds so implausible, it could very well be fiction.”

“This isn’t only priceless, it’s terrible—to have one’s mother analyzing one this way.”

“I’ll ask for your forgiveness if you swear you don’t intend to flirt with the cleaning girl,” his mother said.

“You don’t have to apologize, Mother.”

“Because you know I’m right, and you don’t intend to leave Celestina alone.”

“You talk as if I were Zeus turned into a bull and Celestina—what a heavenly name! Literally!—were beautiful Europa, and I was about to…you know…ravage her…”

Anna laughed.

“Spare me the details, Son. I’m not thinking in such dramatic terms. It’s just that I’ve lately seen enough desperate attempts by individuals trying to save their manhood and taking revenges and all that kind of thing. On second thought, it would actually be too corny a story if it ever got written, so I think I’ll pass.”

“Very flattering. So now you’re saying that your own family isn’t worthy material even for fiction?” Henry asked, pretending to be offended.

“Not when they behave the way you all have ever since you arrived. This whole thing is more like a soap opera—that terrible Cuori Spezzati, for example, with which the Italians are poisoning their brains nowadays.” Nora scoffed.

“Then it is highly popular with millions of viewers and highly lucrative, too. It isn’t one of the unwanted brainchildren that only their writers consider works of art,” Henry retorted.

“Are you alluding to the book I’m writing now?” Nora asked. The thrust had hit home, but she was trying not to sound offended. She had always been terribly insecure about her writing, and her son knew it very well.

“What gave you that idea?” he asked in a neutral tone.

“Oh, never mind,” Nora said. “In any case, we should make a move here. What about the others, by the way? What has become of your precious boyfriend, for example?” Nora asked, looking at Anna. Anna felt as if her mind had been read. She felt guilty, but at the same time she wanted to convince herself and the others of the opposite, and therefore she said as nonchalantly as possible:

“He is either still with that epicurean businessman or—”

“Or he has also got drunk since we last saw him,” Henry continued for her, “and he’s passed out under one of Signora Primavera’s ornamental shrubs. We can be sure at least that he has not gone and drowned himself by accident in the pool, since we would have seen him do it.”

“You make my hands itch” Anna said, rubbing them. “I would so love to hit you right now. But I’m afraid you’re right. Is it my destiny to chase after drunks and save them from themselves?” she asked melodramatically. Overacting was a defense mechanism. She was standing by then, ready to run off, peering over toward where the others were gathered. Her one comfort was that, in any case, even if Will was drunk, his drunkenness was not of the quarrelsome type that night. She would have heard if it had been otherwise.”


6.

Anna rushed off toward the house in search of Will, and Nora and Henry followed to check on Hugh with similar misgivings. Nora also questioned the wisdom of her having earlier moved away from the couch on which Hugh was sleeping. What if he had woken up since then? But she arrived at the same conclusion as Anna concerning Will; no loud scenes could have occurred without their hearing them.

Hugh still being asleep would also be a source of dilemma, however. Nora and Henry dreaded waking him and taking him home, but they agreed that it had to be done, no matter how unpleasant. Anna thought otherwise; they might ask Signora Primavera if it were all right to just let him sleep.

The sight that awaited them was equally touching and comic. Hugh, still sleeping like a big baby, was lying full length on the couch, and at his feet sat Will, or better to say, slouched, snoring away as peacefully as his friend. Whether he was drunk after all or simply tired, they couldn’t as yet tell.

“Great. Now we have to ask the signora to babysit two Sleeping Beauties.” Anna whispered. Despite the content of her words, she was greatly relieved.

Before Nora could respond that they would stay there over her dead body, Signora Primavera appeared at her side.

“Don’t you worry, my dear,” she said. “They have all the time in the world to sleep it off. You can all go back to Il Silenzio and have a good night’s sleep yourselves. Alaam and Adamo will check on them. I am happy to stay up with you as long as you like, but I hope you don’t mind that some of my family members have already gone to bed without saying good-bye. You are all welcome to join us for breakfast tomorrow morning to collect your two gentlemen and meet everybody again.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of imposing on you,” Nora said. She was certain that Signora Primavera, gracious hostess that she was, had no desire to entertain them tomorrow as well; she was merely trying to smooth away the embarrassment of that night as thoroughly as possible, but sitting down to breakfast with the whole clan after all that had taken place was not an attractive option to any of the Americans, and, Nora thought, most probably not to any of the Italians, either. Well, she hoped that Alberto wouldn’t mind, but, then again, she hoped to see more of him without either family around. But could Alberto have gone off to bed without saying goodnight to her? That would be a bit disappointing.

Hearing the voices of his sister and Nora, Alberto stood up from his customary chair under the ancient lonely cedar. He contrived to sit there in his favorite spot on the property as often as possible, book in hand, cigarette, cigar, or pipe in mouth—he welcomed tobacco in all its guises—and tonight, as soon as he could get away from the lengthy family discussion that was supposed to fill in Roberto concerning the strange behavior of the loudmouthed American, he took his accustomed place and smoked away in silence for a little while.  Alberto had decided to respectfully keep his distance from Nora as long as he felt it was required of him, but he did not stop thinking about her.

There he was, forming smoke rings and admiring the stars, thinking of Nora and of how to extend his stay at his sister’s house in order to see more of her without seeming too forward. It wasn’t only for the sake of appearances that he didn’t want to be pushy, as they said nowadays; it was also that he wasn’t sure what he really wanted. He was a hardened bachelor who felt too old—and too happy, in fact—to want to change at all. He hadn’t fallen in love with Nora at first sight; he didn’t believe in any such romantic hogwash. But he had never been as impressed before as he was now with Mrs. Hilary, and he was very sure of his desire to see more of her, to talk, to walk, to drink a glass of wine of an evening, to have her as a friend and soul mate similar to his niece Estella or his grand-niece Virginia.

Alberto had both a platonic and a sensual nature. Like Hugh, he was a great admirer of Youth and Beauty, and he had had his escapades, his flings, his experiments with various types of women in his time, even if on a much humbler scale than Hugh. Not that he couldn’t have wallowed more deeply in women than he had had in reality; he had everything that it took to attract all and sundry among the female sex—looks, style, connections, intelligence, sense of humor, and even sufficient funds to be regarded as husband material. These things paled, however, beside the trait he prized most highly—his equilibrium, his firm footing on the golden midway everyone desires to find and tread for the rest of their days.

He was, in other words, not given to excess, and he was not in the grip of a monomania, either. Therefore, he had not turned into an aged amoroso, and it was not an expectation of physical pleasure that was uppermost in his mind when he thought of Nora’s charms. He did find her attractive—her clever grey eyes, the arch of her thick eyebrows, her mobile, fleshy mouth, her erect figure and idiosyncratic gestures that were both graceful and playful and so different from the way Italians gesticulated—even the little gap between her front teeth was an endearing feature—but he gave no thought to the possibility of physical intimacy between them. She was the first woman he knew he would love to have and keep near him. He did not suspect it was love because he had never really been in love. Having spent more than seven decades without it, he could hardly be blamed for not believing in its existence.

“Oh, Alberto,” Augusta said when she saw him. “I thought you’d gone off to bed. I have just been telling my dear guests that most of our family has already turned in, but not because they didn’t care about saying good-bye, but because we would all have a lovely brunch together in the morning outside in the garden.”

As she spoke, Augusta stared intently into Alberto’s face, so as to impress upon him that this impromptu idea should be presented as if it had already been planned.

Alberto got the message and played along, saying, “Oh, of course! This breakfast al fresco was to be the high point of the gathering—a little surprise that we would have liked to announce at the end of the dinner, but I guess we were—” Alberto, who wasn’t very good at this type of thing, felt he was suddenly treading on dangerous ground, and he was grateful when his sister finished his sentence.

“—too busy enjoying ourselves with the present to think of the future.” Augusta was all smiles. She hoped her flowers of speech would be received with as much diplomacy as they had been given. But, she thought subsequently, Americans tended to be too blunt, alas, to see the importance of keeping up appearances in order to make the experience of social intercourse a pleasant one.

Indeed, Nora’s answer was a specimen of just this kind of attitude, and, in truth, it appealed to Alberto far more than skating on the cracked social surface of the evening. From the brink of the ice block on which she was standing, Nora saw Augusta holding out her hand to help her to the other, more stable block, but instead of accepting the old lady’s assistance, Nora jumped into the freezing cold lake.

“Oh, Signora Primavera,” she said, “you are too kind. But let us admit my husband has behaved shamefully and that by the end of dinner, we were too busy trying to save the whole event from turning into an even more embarrassing spectacle than it had already become. And, let’s admit this, too: a breakfast would tax your and your family’s patience even further, and I can’t let us become such a burden to you. We’ll just take our boozehounds and go home.”

And then a voice rose from the sofa. “Although I’m not drunk, and I don’t need to sleep anything off, if you leave Hugh here, I would prefer to stay here with him to make sure he’s all right. The two domestic chaps can go to bed, then; they don’t need to stay up for Hugh’s sake.” Will’s comment took everybody by surprise, but the most surprised and the happiest of them all was Anna, of course.

“Oh, sweetie, I thought you were…”

“Drunk.” Will finished his girlfriend’s sentence and scoffed. “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time, I admit. But the food was so rich that my stomach is all queasy and, believe it or not, I could puke at the mere idea of anything to drink. I thought Minalba’s cigar would help my digestion, but it has just made me dizzy on top of it all, so I thought it better to sit down and rest.”

Alberto found that Will’s statements had none of the charm of Nora’s straightforward description of embarrassing facts. It was rather superfluously offensive to declare in the presence of the hostess that the food had made him sick to his stomach and then to continue talking about his digestion. Considering Nora’s unspeakable husband and this offensive friend of theirs, Signor Colassú was forced to admit that American men hadn’t made a great impression on him that night—on him, the Anglophile! How could Augusta and the rest of the Primaveras feel—especially Italophile Lily—if such were his feelings?

Still, Alberto thought, the ladies had once again saved the day. American women were superb. There was Nora, of course, and there was Anna, with the intelligent face and the long red hair, and there was, somewhere, if he could remember correctly, an exquisitely pretty blonde creature—a Daisy Miller-type—of whom he had completely lost sight after the aperitifs.

As if Nora had read his mind, she said, “Oh Will, I’m sorry to hear you’re not feeling well. All the more reason we should all be going. I’m very grateful to you for offering to stay with Hugh, but perhaps you could help me get him back to Il Silenzio instead. But where on Earth is Denise?”

“Last time I checked, she was with Carlito, Lily, and her boyfriend—oh, yes, thanks, Mario—and Virginia,” Anna said.

Alberto smiled at her with his eyes. To have forgotten only Mario’s name was either accidentally or purposely telling. Mario had either made no impression on Anna at all, or he had made a downright unpleasant one. In any case, Alberto couldn’t have agreed more with her.

“I believe they went upstairs. They said something about watching a movie,” Signora Primavera said, who had remained wholly oblivious to the noise of loud chatter and laughter issuing from the second when she had joined her daughters and her son toward the end of their discussion in the living room. In contrast, Perpetua’s face had darkened proportionally with the rising mirth upstairs. Had she been able to see Mario’s face—the only one who had not managed to warm to the Yankees, rather to the contrary—she would have found some consolation at the sight of his scowl.

“Alaam?” Signora Primavera called. “Could you go up and check?”

The little Indian had, after the guests had adjourned to the garden, been gravitating around the couch where Hugh was sleeping. He dutifully went his rounds and made sure nobody was wanting in any refreshment, but he tended to return to the couch and guard the burly American’s sleep whenever he could. His self-recrimination had been steadily increasing ever since his revenge against Hugh had succeeded. Alaam believed in karma, and at this point he kept switching back and forth between cursing himself and cursing Hugh for what had happened and what was, in consequence in store for his own humbled head.

“Of course, Signora,” he said.

He vanished inside the dimly lit house. Less than a minute elapsed before they heard the gurgling, girlish laughter that had so charmed Henry during his first telephone conversation with Denise. There she was, flitting through the living room in her shiny silk dress, just like a butterfly. Alaam was at her heels but none of the young Italians.

“Hello, everyone! Ready for bed?” Denise chimed—oblivious of the sleeping man, her boyfriend only a few days ago—and skipped to Henry’s side. “Why did you abandon me? You were sorely missed.” So saying, she lightly stroked his cheek, which even in the dim light anyone could see was flaming red.

The others stood by, more flabbergasted than anything, but nobody said a word. American and plainspoken as they were, they felt that there were certain things that could not have been uttered in front of their Italian hosts.

Denise’s pearly laughter hadn’t acted only on Henry, however, and the groans of the drunken ex-lover soon became audible. The whole group froze for a second, and it was Augusta once again whose presence of mind forged a pathway.

“Mr. Hilary,” she said, “we’ve been so worried about you. How is your stomach? I’m afraid you’ve had a bad mussel.”

“Oh, I don’t know what I’ve had, but everything is spinning, Signora. Your whole garden is going round and round, and oh, I’m going to—”

The sound was unmistakable, and they all turned away politely, except for Alaam, who, quick as lightning, held a champagne bucket under the head of his suffering enemy. Anna and Nora were at his side as soon as he had finished with the bucket, and his groans began anew.

“How are you now, Uncle? A bit relieved?” Anna asked solicitously.

“Just a bit. I’m still feeling as sick as a dog,” he whimpered. “All I want is to lie down in bed and die.”

William, gingerly touching his own gut, felt for his ailing friend even more than he would have if he himself hadn’t been feeling so queasy. Now he took the suggestion the signora had so generously offered and ran recklessly away with it, too obtuse to recognize that she was sacrificing her reputation as a good hostess in order to draw attention away from his and Hugh’s gluttony and drunkenness. Of course the food hadn’t simply been rich; it had been off—they had, indeed, been food-poisoned. He would much rather accuse the signora of bad mussels than admit that he had overeaten.

Signora Primavera’s perfection as a hostess was, fortunately, lost only on William. Even Hugh secretly acknowledged that the signora—willingly or accidentally, he didn’t know—was holding out a lifeline to him so as to save his own shipwrecked reputation. To emphasize his physical condition and even blame it on food poisoning rather than intoxication was irresistible to Hugh, and he abandoned himself to his pains with the greatest gusto.

As her problematic American guests limped away toward Il Silenzio, Signora Primavera congratulated herself on once again successfully navigating a difficult situation to as smooth an end as possible. Everyone was a winner: The drunken man hadn’t been completely annihilated by his shameful behavior; she didn’t have to leave her garden furniture outside to be drenched by dew; and—blessed third consequence—she didn’t have to pay the overtime that Alaam and Adamo’s staying up all night would have incurred.  Finally, to her great relief, she didn’t have to undergo the dreaded breakfast she had so heroically offered up.


7.

“You still haven’t told me why you left me there with the Italians,” Denise said to Henry as they walked back toward Il Silenzio. The two of them hung behind the others, as Denise had deliberately stayed her steps. Henry hadn’t said a word since they left the other house, and he seemed to Denise aloof and embarrassed.

“I’m surprised you noticed that I left at all, you seemed to be enjoying yourself so much,” Henry said, finally.

“Yeah, listening to a conversation I couldn’t understand,” she scoffed.

“That didn’t seem to diminish your admiration of Carlito.”

“What are you getting at?” Denise asked, pretending to be surprised.

“Can’t you guess?”

“Lord! You actually thought I was looking at Carlito because I was trying to flirt with him?”

Denise sounded incredulous. Henry thought she was either a very good actress or Anna had, after all, misunderstood something and Henry had followed suit without giving Denise the benefit of the doubt.

“Why else?” Henry asked, now uncertain.

“And is that why you left?

“So you admit it?” Not admitting himself that he had had no thought of Denise as he had slipped out of the room because he had been mainly driven by his anxiety for his father—or, more importantly, by his dread of more scenes to come if Hugh was left alone—and that he had not in the least suspected Denise’s attraction to and determination to pounce on Carlito at that point.

“I admit nothing, Noodle. I was looking at him because he reminded me of someone.” Denise said in a sad voice, thinking all the while how lucky it was that neither Henry nor Anna had been present when Ernesto appeared and carried her off to dark corners and dimly lit passages in that large and splendid house. It would only have necessitated some more tiresome acting on her part; she preferred sensuality to ratiocination after such a long and eventful day.

“Oh, even better.” Now that was too much! So Carlito had reminded of some old flame. This was becoming too rich. And, on top of it all, to call him Noodle when she knew how much he hated—

“Idiot,” she said with an edge of irritation in her voice. “You insist on misunderstanding me. I had a cousin. We were very close. He died a few years ago. And I kept looking at Carlito because I was trying to picture what Phil would have looked like had he lived to be Carlito’s age. And anyway, haven’t you noticed that Carlito is gay? Do you take me for an idiot just because you are?” By then Denise was laughing, gurgling and pearly and cheerful once again.

“Oh, so you noticed, too? Anna did as well, but then she thought she also noticed your admiring Carlito without your noticing that he is, you know, gay, and…well, I didn’t notice any of it.” He felt so relieved that he thought he might as well let the cat out of the bag concerning his own behavior. “I actually came out to check on Hugh, and I met my mother and then Anna joined us, and it was Anna who put the whole thing together. But wrongly, it seems. Until I came out of the house, I hadn’t suspected you of…and of Carlito of…”

His voice trailed off. It was more difficult to let the wretched cat out than he had thought. He was flaming red in the face once again, which made Denise laugh all the more. She circled her arms around his neck and drew him so close to her face that their noses met. She tickled his nose with hers, and then she kissed him, tenderly and long. Not a word was said, even after she had disengaged herself from his clinging embrace. She took him by the hand and led him into the house. The living room of Il Silenzio had once again become true to its name by the time they entered, and, to Henry’s great relief, there was no need for explanations that night.

While the son and the ex-lover were trying to make the best of the miniscule bed in Henry’s room amidst ill-suppressed laughter, the father-slash-ex-lover went on moaning about his abdominal pains—fully intending to be heard. But, after having tucked him in, Anna, William, and Nora retired to their own rooms, and the show was, for the time being, lost on them all and served only for the entertainment of the one performing it. What the performer might actually have in common with the character he was enacting—and continued to enact for the next day or so—remained a mystery to every member of the reluctant audience that was forced to watch the drama unfold. Everybody had a different theory concerning Hugh’s illness, but they were all unanimously relieved by the deferral of further embarrassing scenes that would, at some point, take place.

The temporary respite was welcome to everyone except Nora, whose sweet solitude was, thereby, not to be regained for an indefinite period of time. For the rest of the group, compared with the prospect of a transatlantic journey home in Hugh’s company, the preliminary nightmare of changing their plane tickets seemed a bargain, and staying on in Italy once again became very attractive.  Even Nora succeeded in pacifying herself with the assurance that Hugh’s indisposition could not last forever; she could, if she tried hard, see the light at the end of the tunnel.

So Hugh remained in bed the next day, with the curtains drawn, and he whiled away the time with sleeping—a state of unconsciousness that he secretly brought about with sleeping pills—which furthermore made it easier for him to refuse the food that he would have loved to gobble up, had it not threatened to blow his cover. But the killing of time, the suppression of his appetite, and the maintenance of appearances concerning his illness were all ancillary matters compared with the relief that he found in sweet oblivion. There, he escaped not only the obligation to act and the inability to avoid the actions of others, he also escaped from his own thoughts, which would have been persistent in their unpleasantness and unpleasant in their persistence, had he remained awake. Even natural sleep wouldn’t have been a guarantee from harassing dreams. He knew he couldn’t erase what had taken place with Denise or at that damned dinner party, but he was vaguely conscious of having Time at his side. Although he could not turn back Time, he could call it to his assistance; even a few days might blur the effect of those harsh words and embarrassing scenes. So Hugh remained in bed and bided his time.

Not that Hugh’s absence ushered in anything resembling perfect harmony. The sight of Denise sitting on Henry’s lap was shocking enough to both Nora and Anna, even without the complication that Hugh’s presence would have caused. The lovebirds were the first ones up the morning after the party, and they were warbling on the lawn when Nora came downstairs. Not expecting anybody to be up earlier than herself, she went straight into the kitchen for coffee and was standing in front of the coffee machine, stretching her arms and yawning unrestrainedly, when she became conscious of the unmistakable pearly gurgle that passed for Denise’s laugh. She bounded out of the kitchen and darted to the closest living room window and, behold, there was her son with that blonde femme fatale, having the time of their lives as if nothing had happened the night before.

They had found an old checkered blanket in the living room, which they had spread on the grass. Henry’s head was in Denise’s lap, and she was stroking his face with a rose she had plucked from one of Signora Primavera’s precious bushes. Henry breathed in the delicious fragrance of the big red head of the rose, resting his eyes on the angelic face of his beloved. He was, in fact, painfully blinking as he did so, because the sun was already strong in the cloudless sky above them. But he didn’t want to close his eyes and lose such an adorable sight. Denise was murmuring something. Nora heard her voice faintly and she imagined she could also hear the contented sighs of Denise’s victim—her own foolish son.

Nora was too critical of her son to have been able to applaud his choice even if it had netted an ideal candidate, and it wasn’t so much her worry about her son hurting himself during an entanglement with such a trifler as Miss Logan that had upset her. Rather, her feeling was, first and foremost, that the young lady regarded Nora’s family and premises as a playground for her whims, which Nora could only look upon as an insufferable offense. To teach her husband a lesson was one thing, but to pounce on her son, only to drop him the same evening for the charms of another young man, and then to pick him up again the next morning, was too rich. There was a limit to independence, and soon young, independent Denise was sure to hit a wall.

Characteristically enough, however, the mere idea of making a scene filled Nora with disgust, and she told herself that her peace of mind and sweet solitude would not be restored any faster either by opening fire and risking yet another scene or by standing by and allowing this upstart to come, conquer, kill, and quit the place. Feisty or cowardly, her own attitude would not change the fact that Hugh was keeping to his bed and the whole group was stranded at her place. But then again, as she directed her steps toward the lawn, her pride got the better of her for a moment and she thought that showing Miss Logan what was what would serve to soothe her own ruffled ego. Yet another moment sufficed to make her admit that she was made of different stuff and that she would not attack just then. Let Anna do the fighting—Nora knew her niece would not let Denise and Henry’s reconciliation pass without a great dose of open criticism.

“Good morning, you two. Care for some coffee?” The inquiry was neutral enough, and, Nora thought hopefully, might be interpreted as pointedly bland by her son, who surely had been feeling uncomfortable about his volte-face since last night and would be wondering how to explain the whole thing to his mother and cousin.

Indeed, Henry’s face had taken on its customary scarlet hue as soon as he noticed his mother coming toward them, and he was baffled by her apparent nonchalance. He hated himself for feeling that he owed his mother an explanation at all, but he also couldn’t help thinking that not only did his present behavior seem inconsistent with what they had discussed by the pool last night, but he appeared downright soft—a noodle, as Anna and his father would say—for having allowed a girl to wheedle herself back into his affections, and especially so fast, after studiously ignoring him and flirting with another guy. If he put his hand to his heart, Henry had to admit that the story of Cousin Phil stank to high heaven, and it was more likely that Denise had become aware of her mistake—had realized Carlito’s sexual orientation—as the evening wore on and had contrived to save her hitherto amusing flirtation with Henry by conjuring up this imaginary relative.

True, she had dropped him as soon as she’d taken a fancy to another guy, and, so as to pick him up again, she had lied to him by devising the story about Cousin Phil, but wasn’t it wonderful that she would make the effort to lie for his sake?  Henry was too far gone on her not to make the best of that silver lining. It was a sacrifice on her part, that  effort—Henry told himself more and more exaltedly—and he would show himself worthy of it by forgiving her for her trespasses and acting as if he believed her story. This was the least he could do to make both of them happy. As these things flitted through his mind, he gradually grew calmer and regained his good mood. He even went so far as to put his head back in Denise’s lap—which he had quickly lifted as he saw his mother approach—even if most of the magic was gone.

For the next hour or so, they remained thus, a reluctant threesome, at least as far as son and mother went. Denise seemed to downright enjoy the situation and was more demonstrative than she would have been without an audience. She wasn’t vulgar—she would never get overly physical in front of a third person—but she was tender and teasing. She continued to caress Henry—with the rose, with her words, her looks, her smiles—which at once gratified and embarrassed the poor boy. The whole business with the rose had begun to seem to him a bit ridiculous, and, frankly, it had started to irritate his nose.

Nora, although keeping to her strategy of pointed silence, had decided to prove to herself at least that Denise could not rout her out of her own garden, and so she did not go back to the house but sat there out on the lawn on one of the iron torture devices that masqueraded as garden chairs at Il Silenzio. She had brought out her laptop and was trying to find out more about Trollope. Texts online, critical studies on his works, autobiographies—anything was welcome after last night’s resolve to give Alberto’s favorite author another chance.


8.

It didn’t come as a surprise that Anna was next to join them—pill-popping William, especially after the amount of food he had put away the night before, was sure to sleep in again, and they would be lucky to see him before lunch. Having armed herself with the biggest mug she could find, Anna was so busy keeping her steaming coffee from sloshing over the edge that she crossed the whole stretch of lawn without looking up and noticing anything peculiar. She was smiling at her own clumsiness as she slowly approached—she always said that she would starve if she had to make a living as a waitress; one full cup was already testing the limits of her skills.

“Gosh, I’m pathetic. I’ve spilt it again. Never mind, there’s still quite enough left. Actually, Nora, is this really a cup or have I taken a birdbath by mistake?”

Once she set the cup on the rickety iron table, Anna could look up with relief. Her first glance was at her aunt, who was sitting at the table, and her second was at a flowering  rose bush to Nora’s right, in front of which a checkered blanket lay empty. Before Nora could reply to Anna’s pleasantries, Anna caught sight of a honey-colored ankle sticking out from behind the bush—where Henry had rolled with Denise in his arms, on the pretense of a playful wrestle. The attempt was as desperate as it was ridiculous, and Henry couldn’t help but know that it would expose him to more ridicule than if he had manfully stayed where he was and awaited his cousin’s stinging remarks.

“Hi there, Henry dear. Are you by any chance trying to hide from me behind that bush? I know my eyesight is deplorable, even more so because I’m too vain to wear glasses, but did you honestly think I’m so blind that I wouldn’t notice Denise there under you?”

“And what makes you think we wanted to hide from you in the first place?” Denise said, her teeth gleaming in the sun as she grinned up at Anna. “We were just out here on the lawn, having our fun. It’s a glorious morning, and you should feel sorry for having missed out on most of it. Judging by the position of the sun, it cannot be less than eleven o’clock.”

“Oh, just listen to the old Indian reading the time in the sky,” Anna said. “Anyway, don’t you worry about what I’ve missed out on. The sight of you two together makes up for all the wonders of a dewy morning. Maybe I’m still dreaming, though, or I haven’t rubbed my eyes enough. Aunt Nora, could you pinch me to see if I’m really awake? It feels more like a sunny nightmare.”

Nora smiled at Anna amusedly. Here it came, the retribution Nora couldn’t trouble herself to dole out.

Anna had reached the point where she felt keenly irritated by Denise’s mere presence. There she was, this impudent upstart, making a fool of them all, and the biggest fool, Anna’s precious cousin, was once again in Denise’s clutches. It would have been bad enough to remember the whole thing even if it had ended where it supposedly had the night before, but the sequel was intolerable.

“You sound very irritable this morning, Anna,” Denise said in an innocent tone. “Hangover?”

“No, it just makes me ill to see you with my cousin ’s arms around you.”

Here Denise chuckled meaningfully, as though Anna might be jealous, but Anna pretended to ignore her and went on. “I might almost have said you were gutsy to have broken it off with my uncle—he deserved it, poor sweetie, let’s admit it—but to go after his son was a bit much. Switching to Carlito last night went over the top, and now switching back to Henry is…there are no words sufficient to describe how insulting it is. And not just to Henry, but to all of us. You come here—a virtual stranger to most of us—and you play with us like a spoiled little girl with a bunch of dolls, twisting our heads off and throwing us into the bushes. And when your mood changes and you take a fancy to one of the discarded dolls, you just expect to pick it up, screw its head back on, and go on playing until you get tired of it again.”

“I’m sure I haven’t played with dolls for years, my dear,” Denise threw back at Anna.

“Don’t pretend to be stupid. You might be all else that’s unpleasant, but I have to grant you that you are far from stupid. Your success in mollifying Henry, however, would not be a good example of cunning. In fact, I don’t know why I’m so surprised. He’s just Noodle, however adorable.”

“Don’t call me Noodle, for Christ’s sake! You know how I hate it!” Henry flashed.

“And don’t you think that that’s exactly why I’ve said it?” Anna said impatiently.

“But what’s all this to you, anyway? Why do you care who I go out with?” Henry asked.

“Do you call this going out? You barely know each other, and all you know of her should be warning enough not to get entangled with her at all. I won’t harp on what’s right and wrong, because this whole family is a total mess, a charmed circle within which no moral code applies. In fact, you’re right. Who am I to preach? I’m going out with a guy who’s old enough to be my father. I’m just as weird as the rest of our beloved family.” Anna shrugged her milky shoulders and gave her red mane a toss. “Do whatever you like. But just be prepared. Hugh won’t sleep forever, and we will eventually have to get into small cars and crowded planes together and bear each other’s company all the way across the ocean.”

She began to turn away but thought twice of it and wheeled back to face them again. “Just one more thing. To allay my curiosity. What exactly was your explanation to Henry last night concerning your failed attempt at getting Carlito’s attention?” Anna gave Denise a cruel smile.

“Oh, as soon as I realized that somebody had been filling poor Henry’s head with nonsense, I pointed out how ridiculous it had been to suppose that I would try to seduce a gay guy. You might be a fair enough observer, Anna, and you might congratulate yourself on having noticed what Henry, for example, didn’t, namely that Carlito is gay, but you failed when you thought you’d judged me correctly. I wasn’t fooled, either, and just because I was looking at him with what might have seemed uncommon interest, it doesn’t mean that I wanted to seduce him. You see, I had a cousin, Cousin Phil—”

“Really, Denise?” Anna almost shouted. “Don’t tell me that Cousin Phil is dead and that Carlito reminded you of him?”

“How did you know?” Henry asked incredulously.

“I wasn’t born yesterday—why, you observed just the other day that I’m no spring chicken anymore—and this haunting memory of a dead family member is old hat. But, hey, we all know about desperate situations and desperate measures, right?”

“Don’t you think it’s a bit of an overstatement to call last night’s situation desperate?” Denise said snidely. “I mean Henry is sweet and all, but don’t act as if my life depended on making up with him.” Denise’s ego was too big for her to control, and although she was aware of how insulting the comment must sound to Henry, her priority was to make it clear that she was a much bigger fish than to have to worry about losing or gaining the favor of a mere boy.

Henry, duly offended, remained silent for the time being. Nora also kept her mouth shut, but her eyes were wide open. Anna was doing a great job baiting Denise, and Nora thought the hussy was beginning to show her true colors, which might open gullible Henry’s eyes at last. Henry might be insulted in the process, of course, but it was all in his best interest.”

“That’s the whole point,” Anna laughed. “You’re so convinced of your own charms and of the malleability and inexperience of this wretched cousin of mine that you thought an old hat would do just as well to mollify him. And you were right. He sucked it all up, to the last drop.”

“Now I’ve really had enough—of both of you,” Henry said, disentangling himself from Denise and throwing off her arm when she tried to draw him back down. He rose and stood looking down at them. “Go to hell, the both of you, with your ‘he’s sweet and all’ and your ‘malleable and inexperienced boy’ and all the rest of it! I’m done with this charade.” He walked with great vehemence toward the house and shouted back to them as he went, “I’m taking one of the cars. Don’t expect me for lunch. Or dinner.”

Henry knew his reaction was childish and overly dramatic, and driving a manual was, frankly, not his forte, but he felt he would suffocate if he had to stay among those feisty females using him as a casus belli to make their battles seem less personal and petty. He decided with bitterness that, at the end of the day, they were only playing a series of egomaniacal power games, allegedly in his own best interest. There never had been any love lost between Denise and Anna, and now, amongst other things, they resented each other’s influence on him. But he was convinced that it was not about his welfare, really; it was about who would reign supreme when it came to controlling him. He failed to consider, however, that he might be doing a great injustice to Anna’s lifelong cousinly love by putting it on the same level with Miss Logan’s whims, attributing the same motive to the actions of both women—self-love.

He went back into the house, banging the glass door behind him, not giving a thought to the sleepers upstairs. He looked around for the car keys impatiently, upsetting stacks of magazines and brushing off coins from the top drawer where the keys had been kept hitherto. Swearing aloud, with sweat beads on his forehead, he hated everything and everybody, knowing all the while that he was making a ridiculous fuss but unable to control himself. He would have liked to have been a girl at that moment, so he could have burst out in angry tears without embarrassment. He suddenly visualized himself in a skirt and then asked himself whether Carlito was also a cross-dresser or just attracted to men without wanting to be a woman, and then he burst out laughing at such absurd thoughts.

In that state, he found it impossible to retain the heat of his anger. And while his laughter served to pacify, he had no intention of forgiving either Anna or Denise, and he certainly had no desire to go back to the garden and spend any more time with any of them. But going off in a huff appeared to him now less important, and he threw himself onto one of the sofas and grabbed a newspaper.

Anna felt as much hurt as the person whom she had allegedly hurt. She might have gone too far, but she had meant well, and if she had overdone it, it was because she was sincerely outraged by Denise Logan’s insolence.

Denise took Henry’s departure in a very different spirit: her eyes glistened like a predator’s, and she felt all the more driven to succeed in her hunt now that her prey was trying to escape. Docile Henry was fun, but outraged innocence was even better—especially after last night, when she had quickly become bored with the novelty of being The First. She had already resigned herself to the fact that last night’s victory was the climax of her adventure with Henry and that her enthusiasm would naturally decline from that point. But now, a challenge! She couldn’t have been more pleased by it.


9.

Once Henry had gone, an uncomfortable silence threatened to settle over the garden at Il Silenzio, until Nora, Anna, and Denise noticed two figures coming toward them across the lawn. They were a most unusual pair even from afar: a round, dark woman of middle age and a young fragile creature with short hair. The older one moved with brisk, bouncy steps and seemed to have difficulty slowing down so as to accommodate the leisurely pace of her younger companion. Their musical chatter enveloped them in cheer, and the closer they got to the three Americans, the more their sunny mood made itself felt. Anna and Nora caught themselves smiling as they waited for the women to approach.

Denise, however, was not cheered by the sight of the newcomers, and her beaming countenance became dark with rain clouds for the first time that day. Every step they took toward the group assembled in the garden made it ever more obvious that the girl was exquisitely pretty and, what was more surprising, as graceful of mien as if she were a princess in disguise. Her green eyes shone from afar, and her soft, shimmering skin with its tiny freckles looked as if it were bathed in gold—as Denise was loath to admit.

Denise, self-assured to a fault, was not usually made insecure by the beauty of other women. She acknowledged Anna’s good looks, for example, and Lily’s luscious curves hadn’t escaped her attention the previous night, either. But she knew that her own type of beauty was unique—her honey skin, her liquid gold hair, her perfect shape, her pearly teeth, her lovely laugh, and the brains in her head that made her so much more than simply aesthetically pleasing. It rarely happened that she came across another female whose combination of charms she envied. Celestina Cesare was one of them. One particular about the good-looking intruder soothed Denise’s mind, however: Henry had opportunely barged out of the picture before the beautiful stranger made her appearance, and it was unlikely that he would be back before she and her fellow visitor left. Denise had no idea that Signora and Signorina Cesare were the cleaning ladies and that they would be spending the whole afternoon in the house.

Anna remembered Nora’s reference the night before to her cleaning ladies and, in unsurprising opposition to Denise, thought it would have been better had Henry been present. What a fitting sequel to Anna and Denise’s bickering to have Henry inevitably impressed by Celestina’s beauty! Of course, Anna didn’t expect her cousin to fall in love with the girl and forget all about Denise—this was real life, after all, and not some cheap love story by Danielle Steel—but, judging by Denise’s darkening visage at the sight of Celestina, it would surely have caused more discomfort to that impudent witch to have both her conquest and her competition on the premises at the same time. Even so, Anna thought, Denise had her work cut out for her to undo the damage she had done letting fall the condescending comment about Henry in his very presence. Celestina and Henry’s meeting would not have eased Denise’s way back into the boy’s favor.

After the first shock of beholding the beautiful Italian girl, Denise’s sense of impotent envy was overshadowed by her fighting spirit, which characterized Celestina’s presence as merely one more challenge to make the game more interesting. Let the boy come back, and she would show him what it was like to be seduced; she hadn’t even really been trying thus far. These recent complications would actually be great fun, and hadn’t she come to Italy with the resolve to have a lot of fun? It went without saying that seduction was among Denise’s favorite pastimes. Having thus recovered her good humor, she wasn’t even bothered when the Cesares got close enough to chat and launched into a conversation in Italian with Nora and Anna.

“Signora Hilary, good morning!” Clarissa Cesare said.

“Hello, Clarissa. Hello, Celestina,” Nora said. “How are you?

“I hope you don’t mind our starting later today,” Clarissa said. “My Massimo said he had heard that you would be dining at La Serenissima, and we were sure it would be a late night out—knowing the Primaveras when they get together, Santo Cristo….” Here, Clarissa’s small brown hands fluttered about in expressive gestures, the meanings of which were yet  elusive. There was irony there, and reverence, and a zest for exaggeration, and a delight in even the slightest bit of gossip. “Well, I’m sure you had fun—all of you, I mean. I guess these are your beautiful relatives, eh?” She glanced at Anna and Denise and smiled so benignly that all the traces of contention that had been lingering around the two young women seemed to vanish momentarily.

“This is Anna, the niece of my husband, and that is, well, her name is Denise Logan.” Nora had no wish to give a detailed account of Denise’s complicated connection to her family. She would rather think of Denise as an ornamental piece, so to say, which meant that supposing she was a member of Nora’s family wasn’t an insult as long as the person supposing only judged by appearances. The ornamental piece made herself all the more ornamental by smiling sweetly at Clarissa and completely ignoring Celestina.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both, I’m sure,” Clarissa said to Anna and Denise, “a pleasant surprise. Massimo, dear soul, somehow forgot to mention it, Mrs. Hilary, that you had visitors. He was excited about your going over to dinner to the Primaveras, but, miracles happen sometimes, it completely slipped his mind to tell me that your family had arrived. Or, what is much less likely, Massimo may not have known anything about it at all. You see, he usually knows everything that goes on around these two properties,” Clarissa said innocently.

Nora marveled at the fact that there was no shame in her voice as she described her husband as a veritable nosy parker. If anything, she sounded proud of the breadth of Massimo’s knowledge. She seemed to take it for granted that every piece of information to be had was public property and could not see why anyone would feel uncomfortable having her or his affairs openly discussed. Was she aware of the means by which her husband got hold of certain details regarding the goings on within the two households—peeping in through windows, ducking into bushes, and the rest—and if she was, did she find it acceptable? Her attitude added to Nora’s puzzlement about the whole Cesare family and its incongruous members.

“Well, your husband does seem to have a curious disposition,” Nora said. “But I’m afraid that even if you had known my family was going to be here, nothing could have prepared you for the rather unusual sleeping habits of some of its members. Two of them are still in bed. Worse than that, one of them is likely to be there the whole day long. And I don’t quite see how you can get about your work without disturbing them,” Nora said uncomfortably.

“Bless your soul, is somebody ill? Shouldn’t we call Dr. Zucca from Tamburino?” Clarissa asked concernedly.

“I don’t think that’s necessary. My husband—the ill one—has been indisposed since last night. I have to admit to the likelihood that he simply drank too much.” Nora didn’t see the point of trying to hide behind cheap excuses; the truth would out sooner or later—probably sooner—through Massimo, who would undoubtedly glean all the juicy tidbits from the signora’s staff.

“My goodness, I hope it wasn’t the food that made him ill,” Clarissa said, “otherwise Signora Primavera is sure to be devastated by having such a thing result from her dinner. Oh, and it will be even harder on Bianca!” Clarissa observed sympathetically.

“Bianca?” Nora asked.

“The cook, my dear. The heart and soul of the household. I could say otherwise, especially since as long as she’s around I won’t have the possibility of her job and pay, but I will not grudge her the compliment she so well deserves: She is a genius in the kitchen. She is,” Clarissa said generously.

“Well, Clarissa,” Nora said, “why don’t you just see to the ground floor area today and go easy on the vacuum? You might as well leave out the whole of the upstairs. It’s far from urgent.”

“All right, Signora Hilary. I will start with the kitchen so as not to disturb the young gentleman who is in the living room. Not that he looks ill, but I’m sure he wouldn’t be happy to have us pottering around while he is lying on the couch.” Clarissa said.

“Young gentleman?” Nora asked, surprised that Henry hadn’t vacated the premises as he’d vowed.

“He is part of your family, too? He didn’t seem to notice us, so we left him reading his newspaper with his feet up on the sofa and came to find you.”

“Ah, the little boor. That’s my son, Henry.”

At the sound of his name, Denise, who had been unconcernedly sunning her face, cocked her ears.

Then Nora had an excellent idea. She glanced sideways at Denise and then back to the Cesares. “Clarissa, I wonder if you could help me with something.”

Clarissa nodded agreeably.

“My son is supposed to go into town and do some grocery shopping. My family will be staying for another day or two, and we’ll need sufficient supplies to feed everyone. He speaks Italian very well, but he doesn’t really know the neighborhood. Would it be all right if Celestina joined Henry—” Nora smiled at the girl. “—that is, if you, Celestina, would like to, of course—and showed him around? Where to buy what, and so on. For the ground-floor area I guess you don’t need her help, either.”

Dearie, no! I’ll finish faster, Clarissa thought, but she didn’t want to blow her cover and make it impossible to bring her daughter along the next time.

Yes, Nora thought, the queenly little creature was more cut out to keep her boy company than to help Clarissa with the cleaning. Denise’s reaction would only be icing on the cake, and Nora had a hard time repressing a chuckle.


10.

Nora sent Henry and Celestina off to the supermarket, her request provoking embarrassment in them both but also a pleasure they couldn’t quite hide. Denise, sulky, went upstairs to the room she shared with Henry, allegedly to take a shower. Will, having finally got up, went out for lunch in town with Anna. Hugh remained in his bedroom throughout the afternoon, while Clarissa did justice to the kitchen and the living room. And so, Nora, surprised and almost afraid to believe it, found herself in relative solitude. She was still sitting in the garden, and the birdsong and the far-off sound of tractors in the surrounding vineyards and fields were the only noises she heard, unsullied by human voices. No human forms were visible, either, and the fragile peace and quiet that had descended on her and that was all the more precious for being so unexpected made Nora want to stop time and linger in that moment.

She turned her mind away from Henry, Hugh, and Denise, and even Will and Anna—however unoffending—and allowed her mind to rest. Staring at the flowering rose bush next to her, her pupils and nostrils dilating, the whole bush turning into a sweet-smelling pinkish-yellowish blur, Nora gradually relaxed. Then, from afar, pleasant thoughts came creeping in, thoughts that she would have loved to dwell on ever since the meeting their object, which had been impossible under the circumstances until now. Weeding through her memories of last night’s dinner, she deftly picked out certain ones she wished to keep her company: memories of Alberto, and Trollope and James and the changing hues of the red wine in Alberto’s glass as he had kept swirling it, the taste of broccoli, of all things, and the giant tree that looked like broccoli and under which Alberto sat in his chair, from which he rose as soon as he saw that they had come back from the poolside.

Of course, Alberto was the common denominator of all the pleasant memories upon which she had chosen to concentrate. She knew perfectly well that she wouldn’t have had the faintest chance to fool herself that this was not so. But was it a good thing to indulge in such musings? Wasn’t this sheer bovarism—the sentimentality of a bored and shallow mind? Did it lead anywhere to work herself into a state of longing and excitement on the basis of a single evening? And where did this longing even originate in a woman who, with all her might, was bent on having her sweet solitude, on being free from ties and expectations and the need to adapt to the likes and dislikes of other human beings? Even if Alberto were the very man made for her—the ideal other half that was supposed to exist and that only a very few people had the luck to encounter—did she, middle-aged and unhappily married and generally disposed to love her solitude, want to be involved in a romantic relationship at all, ever again? And if she did, what was the guarantee that Alberto felt similarly?

Suddenly ashamed of her presumption—to suppose, even for a second, that Alberto could be attracted to her as a woman and not simply as a fellow intellectual!—Nora stood up from her chair and paced the garden for a while. Yes, Signor Colassú was just being polite to his sister’s tenant. He had been tolerably charmed to find that tenant conversant on subjects dear to him. He had been happy to practice his English. Nay, he had thought it a good opportunity to further his academic career by getting to know someone whose acquaintance might lead to the acquaintance of other, more important, personages in the literary world. Yes, Nora thought bitterly, she was just a flat gray stepping stone for Alberto’s shiny shoes on their way to some other longed-for destination. Damn his shiny shoes and his presumption!

But then she realized that the road she was traveling was the creation of her own imagination. The man had shown her real kindness during dinner, and she couldn’t know the significance of that kindness. She was only defending herself against potential disappointment by painting both herself and the object of her interest as black as possible. She determined to forget all her girlish sentiments and characterize Alberto as a valuable addition to her Italian experience, someone with whom she could walk and talk. Nothing more.

Besides, Alberto did not live at La Serenissima and was not likely to spend much time there, and even if he did, what were the chances of their meeting? As soon as she asked the question, she remembered the shared pool with its cushioned deck chairs and tables shaded with umbrellas, so much more comfortable than the equipment in the garden here at Il Silenzio. It was all the excuse she needed to go and continue her literary activities there. She would, of course, not continue her research on Trollope—it would be embarrassing if Alberto came upon her while she was at it. But, then again, he might be flattered by the interest he had awakened in her concerning his favorite writer. Goddamn you Nora, she thought angrily, the whole idea is not to let him see how big an impression he’s made. Just be yourself, old woman, be friendly and talkative, but don’t, for Christ’s sake, overdo it. In the midst of such mental coaching, Nora made her way toward the pool, her cup of coffee in one hand and her laptop serving as a tray for her notebook, pen, and suntan lotion.

She found the poolside deserted, and she couldn’t at first decide whether she was more disappointed or relieved. Whatever was going to happen between her and Alberto—something or nothing—was not destined to be revealed there and then. She made her way gingerly toward the table and chairs under one of the larger umbrellas. The sun, at its zenith, made its relentless heat felt, and the characteristic noise of the cicadas had likewise reached its highest pitch. The shrill sound was much more audible around the poolside than in the garden of Il Silenzio, and Nora felt a sudden wave of irritation at herself for having been led away from her peaceful bower by her desire to see a man, only to find herself amidst an infernal concert of insects. Served her right, she decided, and sat down resignedly in one of the chairs.

But she soon found that the chair was much more comfortable there, and a few minutes sufficed for her to adjust to the sound of the cicadas. She was beginning to relax again and immersed herself in a most interesting online essay on Trollope’s life. Was it the intensity of her focus or the loud background hum of the cicadas or the softness of the footsteps that made her deaf to their approach? Whatever the reason, she didn’t notice that she had company until the sun, which had for a few seconds been hidden behind a passing cloud, came out again and shot its rays on her screen, making suddenly visible the silhouette of the person standing behind her.

She jumped from surprise and turned around, beholding a smiling Alberto and an embarrassed but likewise smiling Estella standing further off. Alberto’s own defense against embarrassment was Estella, whom he had convinced to accompany him on a walk to the poolside—an odd request, as they very rarely went there when outdoors, the garden of La Serenissima being large enough and beautiful enough, and neither Alberto nor Estella were in the habit of sunbathing or dipping in the pool. Thus Estella had known Alberto was up to something, and she had also guessed she would feel like a fifth wheel if they did find the American lady there, but it was the least she could do for her beloved uncle. Moreover, she didn’t mind seeing some more of her mother’s tenant, whom she had found very interesting the night before. Estella was not a jealous type, and she had no fear of losing her uncle simply because another female claimed his attention.

“For the love of God, you gave me a scare!” Nora exclaimed, but before Alberto had the time to offer his apologies, she went on. “Not that it’s not a very lovely surprise, mind.” She smiled back at him and extended her hand, which he took and kissed, as a character from a nineteenth-century novel would have done. “You really are a man of the old stamp,” Nora said, her face red. “I can’t recall the last time somebody kissed my hand in greeting. What a lovely custom.”

“I don’t do it very often anymore, either,” he said, and despite the meaning of his words, there was more respect than flirtatiousness in his tone.

To cover her girlish embarrassment, Nora turned to Estella. “I’m so glad to see you again. Yesterday we didn’t have much opportunity to talk, and I’ve heard so many good things about you from Alberto.”

Estella went even redder than Nora, and this channeling of embarrassment acted as a tonic for Nora, who then turned back to Alberto with a bit more ease.

“So how long have you been peering over my shoulder? If it wasn’t you, I would say it was bad manners,” Nora said archly.

“Oh, if it had been anything private that you were reading, I would naturally have cast my eyes downward immediately, but at a glance I recognized the Trollope website, and I so I presumed it was common ground and shared property. I actually know the person who edits the site, and I’m almost certain that the essay you’re reading is one of the noteworthy papers that a very dear colleague of mine delivered at a conference last year.”

Alberto and Estella took seats at the table, and the conversation went on for a good while along the safe track of trends in academia concerning their preferred writers. Estella remained silent and awkward throughout but was nevertheless all eyes and ears. The topic was of great interest to her, and the talkers were a delight to listen to. Indeed, talking about literature, Nora was comfortable and open and spoke in an assured manner that contrasted sharply with her demeanor when she was forced to discuss more personal matters. She was known at her university as a great lecturer and was a popular teacher among students; after the initial dread of having to speak in front of a crowd, she soon relaxed into her subject, and her enthusiasm for it transferred naturally to her audience.

More than an hour had elapsed before they all became conscious of the passing of time—or, better to say, Estella did, and she first coughed modestly by way of warning her uncle that he would have to leave. The little cough proved ineffective, however, and Alberto remained completely absorbed in the conversation. Next, Estella ventured to lightly kick her uncle’s shin to attract his attention. This time she overdid it, and Alberto hissed with pain and looked at his niece in surprise, and then he suddenly remembered his previous engagement.

“I am genuinely sorry to end our conversation,” he said, “and I cannot help telling you what a bore it is to have to exchange your company for that of a gossipy old widow who doesn’t make a secret out of having designs on poor me. This sounds terribly conceited, I know, but it is so. She is a fierce hunter of defenseless bachelors, and whenever I turn up at my sister’s place, she somehow gets wind of it and contrives to have me walk into her lion’s den to sip tea and munch biscotti.” Alberto heaved a sigh and made a tragic grimace.

Nora couldn’t help laughing, but at the same time her brain was feverishly revolving around the question whether Alberto wanted her to read between the lines when he mentioned the tiresomeness of being pursued by single women of a certain age.

“You sound like Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl,” she said, “or, better, like James himself. So you are the helpless target of husband-hunters? Can’t say I sense any danger in it. Not that I doubt your attractiveness in their eyes, but I have the feeling you are hardly defenseless. Don’t you have a pair of legs as a last resort? Although running away is not considered very manly, it is a most useful device when driven to desperation. But, tell me, do you think it’s your sister in person who deliberately informs her friend every time you visit her? Signora Primavera might very well wish you to be caught, if only because she thinks it would be good for you.”

“No, no, you’re wrong there, and it is excusable, since you don’t know my sister well enough as yet. Augusta isn’t such an advocate of marriage in itself, and she knows me much too well to entertain any illusions about it being to my taste. Of course she wouldn’t go as far as to protect me against it, hence her delight in having persuaded me to accompany her to see her friend instead of going alone. She doesn’t like going up to the old town by herself anymore. She finds it too noisy and chaotic, what with the honking cars and the masses of tourists and the crowds of young locals hanging about and making noise.”

“That sounds rather selfish, I should say, and Mother isn’t that,” Estella interposed and bit her lips as soon as she had finished. She couldn’t help defending her mother, but she was feeling terrible about contradicting her uncle, especially in front of a relative stranger.

“Oh, my dear, I apologize if I sounded disrespectful toward your mother. I didn’t mean to, but, affections aside, you have to admit that your mother is not exactly a selfless person.”

“Is anyone? And why should she be? Especially at her age?” Estella murmured defensively.

“Perhaps Estella is right,” Nora said. “A certain amount of selfishness can guarantee self-preservation without necessarily making us egoistical.”

“Okay, I’m outnumbered,” Alberto sighed. “I guess it’s me who’s being selfish when I fight against accompanying her to that female dragon’s lair. But let it be known that if she were to ask me some other favor, I would gladly comply with her wishes. For instance, I was as happy as possible to assist her when it came to entertaining a certain tenant of hers just last night.” Alberto winked at Nora and laughed.

“You are selfish, dear sir. When it is pleasurable to help another person, doing a favor is far less valuable than when it demands some kind of self-sacrifice,” Nora said, not so much as to upbraid him but to ignore the compliment that he had made to her. His sentiments felt wonderful, but she suddenly felt very clumsy. She had never been good at flirting, and now she keenly felt this shortcoming. Last night it had felt easier somehow, because there had been much less at stake; back then she hadn’t realized how impressed she would become throughout the evening, while now she couldn’t help being conscious of what she had to lose.

“Well, it seems there is nothing for me to do but bow my head and be led to the slaughter,” Alberto said good-humoredly and stood up.

“I hope you don’t consider yourself the victim of female conspiracy. I would never forgive myself if you were forced into wedlock and I had a hand in it. Furthermore, it would greatly please me if you could stay. See, I’m being very unselfish when I tell you that you should go.” Nora looked into his eyes and went very red. She had made the effort, and it was worth it; Alberto had also gone red and was smiling confusedly. He was even more charming when he was embarrassed, Nora decided.

“In any case,” he said, “I have selfishly agreed to my sister’s proposal concerning the length of my stay. I was supposed to go back to Rome tomorrow, but she has just told me she would love to have me a few days longer, and I assured her it would be a pleasure. This will give me the opportunity to talk to you some more.”

“Oh, Uncle. I’m so happy you’ll stay! It’s the first time you’ve chosen us over your literary pursuits,” Estella said with her usual frankness and then left off as suddenly as she’d spoken—her usual shyness kept up an eternal warfare with her honesty.

“Us? Are you also staying on, my dear? I’m delighted to hear it, but I’m equally surprised. Didn’t you promise Perpetua to go back with her and help organize the charity market for next Sunday?”

“Perpetua is also staying. She doesn’t want to go back at the same time with Silvana and the Minalbas. It would force us all to travel in one of their two cars, while if we stay, we can return by train,” Estella admitted.

“What could possibly be the source of this hostility?” Alberto asked, taken aback.

“Oh, you can be sure I don’t share Perpetua’s feelings, but she has once again some grudge against Silvana. I don’t as yet know what’s caused it, but she hasn’t talked to Silvana more than two sentences in the last two days.”

“Typical behavior for her. Christ, I’ll have to sit down with that touchy niece of mine and make peace, otherwise she’ll go on sulking forever. That will be a self-sacrifice on my part.”

“Good luck, then,” Nora said and held out her hand to say good-bye, not wanting to keep them any longer.

Alberto once again took her hand and kissed it, smiled at her, opened his mouth to say something, still keeping hold of her hand. Whatever it was he wanted to say never got said, however. Somewhere nearby, Mario’s voice rang out: “Lily, baby, don’t be a little idiot! Come back!”

Alberto, Nora, and Estella next heard the sound of a bird quickly vacating a bush and then the unmistakable sound of sobbing. The three of them were equally surprised and embarrassed. They were obviously witnessing a squabble that was none of their business and that had, more importantly, interrupted a critical moment in their own lives—in Alberto’s and Nora’s at least. The two of them were equally disappointed and relieved to find that the moment of committing themselves to anything at all had been deterred.

“Go away! Go to hell! Go and knock on that American’s door and ask for that blonde bag of bones!” Lily’s voice was so loud that it might have been heard in both gardens and houses.

Both the volume and the content of her words surprised the three unwilling eavesdroppers. Nora wondered whether Denise had heard it and whether she was pleased by it. Being the object of contention between lovers was just the kind of thing she would enjoy, but being called a bag of bones was far from flattering. She certainly had less generous curves than the speaker, but Nora had to admit to herself that Denise was far from bony and very close to perfect as far as physical appearance went. Furthermore, the previous night she had not heard a word concerning Denise’s flirtation with Mario. Hadn’t Carlito been Miss Logan’s target? Nora was puzzled.

Alberto was surprised to hear the two lovebirds fighting. Although he didn’t meet them often, hitherto their relationship had seemed almost too placid and threateningly constant. To have it end would be too good to be true—Alberto had always felt that a few short heartbroken months was a relatively small price for Lily to pay to be rid of such a shallow, pompous, arrogant personage.

Estella had similar feelings—she was unable to hate anyone, but her aversion to Mario was the most violent emotion she had ever felt. Ironically enough, however, she was the most annoyed among the three of them at the interruption; she had wanted so badly to witness her uncle taking the step he seemed on the brink of taking. She was convinced by then—without any more palpable evidence than last night’s happenings and what she had just witnessed—that the great moment of her uncle’s life had come: he had finally found Someone. The One. Estella was romantic. She did believe in love at first sight. And she trusted her intuition.

The sound of tearing cloth was followed by Mario’s voice swearing: “Goddamn, these pants cost me 800 euros. Lily, this is getting serious. Get the hell out of that bush. I am not coming after you. Do you hear?”

No answer, only the sound of sobbing. The reluctant listeners couldn’t, in all decency—and wouldn’t even have wished to—remain there and eavesdrop, and so they moved away cautiously, saying goodbye to each other with waves and embarrassed smiles. Estella and Alberto rushed towards La Serenissima, and Nora directed her steps toward her garden, marveling at the extent of the havoc Denise Logan was capable of wreaking. On top of upsetting her own family, it seemed to Nora that Denise had managed to disturb the Primavera household’s peace as well. It crossed Nora’s mind that she should act up at last and throw Miss Logan out. Let her get back to the States any way she could.

“Lily, you are ridiculous. What’s worse, you are making me feel ridiculous. You know I can’t stand it. I’m telling you, come out of there and stop being a fool. I never said you were fat—I only said that two slices of crostata for breakfast might be enough. And I certainly didn’t say anything about liking that American chick. You know I hate skinny women, and I hate Americans, skinny or not.” His voice was still irritated—he went on fingering the torn piece of his precious trousers while he was talking.

“Then why, exactly, were you ogling her the whole time she was with us? You were scowling like a spoilt child, you were that pissed at her for not preferring you to my brother. And with me standing by, watching you drool. Disgusting!” An indignant snort came from the bush this time.

“Scowl or drool? Which one is it? You’re not making sense. And it is even more illogical to bring it up now. Why not last night or this morning? You were happy enough to accept my cuddles before breakfast, if I remember correctly.” They had made sweet love only two hours earlier, and at the thought, Mario smiled to himself complacently; he had been in great form this morning.

“I intended to be gracious and let the whole thing blow over without commenting on it. But then you go ahead during breakfast and attack Carlito. It means that that American female had made a bigger impression on you than I had expected.” By now Lily had climbed out of the bush—the buzzing bees were driving her crazy—and she was pacing the length of the pool, her hips undulating.

“You really are a fool, Lily Minalba. Last night I was watching Denise watching Carlito in order to see when she would notice that she was barking up the wrong tree. This morning I teased Carlito to find out how he had taken it. The joke wasn’t leveled against him; it was against Denise’s presumption.” Mario planted himself in Lily’s way and endeavored to embrace her. The sun was hot, and he didn’t choose to break out in a sweat and ruin his beige silk shirt as well by chasing after her. It was time Lily stopped her tantrum and they went indoors.

“What do you mean she was barking up the wrong tree?” Lily asked in a menacing tone. Carlito’s sexual orientation was a taboo subject between the lovers, no matter how openly they had always discussed other matters.

“What do you mean, what do I mean? Do I have to spell it out?” Mario was somewhat surprised at his own daring. Hitherto he had observed the ‘hands off’ sign concerning this issue. All he had done during that day’s breakfast was to ask in a bantering tone whether Carlito had managed to satisfy Denise’s curiosity.

“Don’t you dare!”

“Or what? You’ll throw me in the pool? It’s you, in fact, who needs to cool down. Why don’t you take a dip yourself? It might help you behave in a more dignified fashion. You should try to emulate your mother—she took it calmly enough that her husband was ogling Denise throughout dinner, and even if she wasn’t with us upstairs, surely she didn’t remain ignorant of your daddy slinking after tasty Denise and proposing to show her the darkest corners of the house.”

To change the subject of Carlito’s homosexuality was uppermost in Mario’s mind when he brought up Ernesto’s skirt-chasing habit and the most recent example of it. Lily had always been willing enough to discuss her womanizing sire with her boyfriend, but this time the mention of his father’s extramarital exploits—falling for the very same girl that had already been getting under her skin—only added fuel to the fire. She wondered whether the sun had got to Mario’s head. How could he be so tactless? How could he be so hurtful? So disrespectful? Was he really so stupid as all that? Lily, for the very first time since her infatuation with him, saw him for what he was: an arrogant, selfish, superficial, and empty-headed dwarf.

By way of reply she gave him a shove and watched him lose his balance, wave his arms as if he were trying to fly, and then land in the water with a splash and sink helplessly to the bottom of the pool.

 


PART IV.

 

1.

The centro storico of Orvieto was indeed noisy and chaotic, what with the honking cars and the masses of tourists and the crowds of bored young locals hanging about and making noise. Had Will and Anna heard Augusta Primavera’s sentiments about the place, they would have agreed heartily. The place was old and charming and at the same time exasperatingly modern; cars, clothes, technological devices—even people’s manners—were incongruous with the very cobblestones they trod on and the centuries-old buildings surrounding them. State-of-the-art technology also available in New York and Tokyo winked at passersby from glitzy shop windows, while a few steps would take them to the entrance of an historic church or the façade of another centuries’ old building as beautiful as it was decrepit. The whole of Italy, nay, of Europe, had long contained this bewildering mixture.

For a transatlantic traveler this characteristic of Europe never failed to impress, even if the visit was not the first time on European soil, and Anna and Will duly allowed their mouths to open while walking the narrow promenade that led toward the Duomo, passing an ice cream parlor, a shop of prodotti tipici, a shop displaying several reputed brands of Italian fashion, a pharmacy stocked with as many beauty products as medications, a café, a wine bar, and many restaurants. The weather was beautiful, and the dozens of tables and chairs set out in front of every restaurant had turned the street into one big dining room. Had it not been for the contrasting chair covers at adjacent restaurants, it would have been difficult to decide where one ended and another began. Even the menus were often interchangeable, modern with a rustic feel in the design, filled with descriptions of the twelve staple dishes of the region.

In the restaurants that catered more to tourists than locals—as a general rule, the latter loved to eat out several times a week, and the restaurants were not in the least counting solely on foreigners to make a living—one would have the luck (if it was luck) to see international dishes with the usual names but only one or two ingredients in common with the original versions: Caesar salad with tomatoes and iceberg lettuce—no romaine lettuce or anchovies in sight; smoked salmon “fresh” out of the package from the neighboring supermarket and served with a gob of butter and a drooping slice of lemon; wiener schnitzel made of pork; even Hungarian goulash that was more like a murky stew than a rich soup. They even went so far as to corrupt their national dishes so that it was possible to order pizza with pineapple and corn on it or combinations of pasta and sauces that no self-respecting Italian would ever put together.

When it came to feeding themselves, Italians had become less strictly observant of their culinary traditions. The older generations had once seemed so sure that McDonald’s would never survive on Italian soil, and wasn’t it now one of the favored spots of the younger generation? Italians, too, had become Americanized, globalized.

“How hungry are you, baby?” Anna asked William, as they strolled the main street, occasionally jostled by shoppers proudly carrying paper bags bearing the names or logos of ultra-fashionable brands.

“Quite, by now,” Will said. “I am emptied out of yesterday’s fare, thank God.”

“Nobody forced you to eat and drink so much. I didn’t, and I feel fine, and, anyway, everything we ate and drank was, you have to admit, really good. It’s obvious that Hugh was not food poisoned at the hands of Signora Primavera. We all know it.”

“Whatever. But it’s true that idiot Hugh turned the whole thing into a nightmare,” Will said testily. “Last night is not in line to become one of my fondest memories, that’s for sure.” He was getting hungry and thereby irritated. In reality, he wasn’t in the least angry with his friend but, rather, sorry for him. Yet it wouldn’t do to defend him, which would seem as if he were applauding Hugh’s reaction to his humiliation at the hands of his own family members. To humiliate oneself further and in view of complete strangers was not the way to deal with a marriage on the rocks, a love affair come to an end, and a cock fight with an adolescent son.

“So what do you feel like eating?” Anna asked brightly. “Italian, Italian, or Italian?”

“Look who’s badmouthing her favorite country. Serves you right to be disillusioned. Not so long ago, if you could have, you would have moved in with your aunt here, I know, and done like the most commonplace women whose greatest dream is to come here, dabble in art, and meet a local gino. Ah, you’re not as original as you’d like to think.” William sighed, taking the figment of his own imagination seriously.

Anna admittedly loved Italy, but she was in no rush to settle on Italian soil. That could wait; there were other places she wanted to see and other things she wanted to do first. When it came to art, she had the artistic sensibility but no talent for expression. Luckily, she found fulfillment in the appreciation of artworks created by others. She was a good observer and critic and happily devoid of both artistic ambition and envy, which were, in fact, the two sides of the same coin.

“Sweetie, I see you urgently need to put some calories in your belly because you are becoming downright abusive,” Anna said, fighting to keep her tone light but firm. “Don’t even try to pick a fight; I am not in a mood for it. I am actually in a very good mood. Please don’t spoil it. Now, look at that place at the corner of the square: Vinosus. I overheard someone ask last night whether anyone has had any fresh experiences of the place, which has always been one of their favorites in the neighborhood.”

By then they had reached the huge square in the middle of town and the majestic Duomo, which had the most beautiful façade that Anna had ever seen. With the sun’s rays on it, its golden ornaments shone so brightly that it nearly blinded the appreciative eye.

“Wow, just look at that,” she said. I mean it’s actually one of those things no photo can do justice to. Usually trick photography makes things appear more beautiful than they are, but here I am totally taken by surprise. Wow.” Anna stood with her head bent as far back as was anatomically possible, her eyes lost in the intricate detail of the façade that she thought would have taken a whole day to observe properly.

William, regardless of how empty or full his stomach was, would never have had the patience to look at this or any other monument for more than two minutes. Now, with a rumbling stomach, one minute was all he could take. “Yeah, not too shabby,” he said. “But let’s go, now, sweetheart, I’m famished.”

And he moved away, walking toward Vinosus. The restaurant, it turned out, had a garden with a view on the Duomo, but unfortunately it was facing the side of that mighty building, rather than the façade. Sadly, the church was quite ordinary looking from all its other sides; the well-known black and white stripes that one could see on other famous buildings in Siena and Florence, but no further decoration, no graceful shape. But not having the best view of the Duomo might have been the very reason the restaurant was worth going to at all; any establishment from which any tourist attraction was visible was, by definition, not worth the bother when it came to the actual food served there. Apart from being far more expensive, such places were much too smug to bother about serving anything good; people would continue to be lured there because of the view, so it didn’t make any difference whether they served something edible or diluted dishwashing liquid disguised as soup. Vinosus was on the main square, but one didn’t go there for the view but to eat really well.

As soon as William had gobbled up a few slices of bread soaked in olive oil and washed it down with a glass of local red, he was in a more sociable mood and even graciously admitted that the place—Orvieto—was quite all right. Considering his temperament, that counted as high praise, and it made Anna happy to hear him so positive about something by which she was so much impressed.

“It is a lovely spot. I can’t wonder at Aunt Nora.”

“Do you think she actually comes up here gallivanting with the local beaus?” William chuckled at the idea.

“No, I’m sure she doesn’t come up very regularly, and surely not for gallivanting.”

“If it was me, I would definitely not have chosen a place in the middle of howling nowhere but would have gotten a huge apartment here in town.”

“First of all, the whole idea was to get some privacy, some silence. Why would she want to move into the middle of the buzz? Secondly, look at these buildings. Do you really think there is such a thing around here as a ‘huge apartment’? These flats are probably as big as our dining room.”

“Misery. That would just kill me, being squeezed into a shoebox like that. Well, then, Nora is good where she is.” He took a sip of wine and lay back on his chair. “And so you think she’ll stay?”

“Why wouldn’t she? I think she’d had a great time before we showed up, and she can’t wait for us to hit the road. Can’t blame her. But I’ll miss her. I almost wish she didn’t feel happy here and would come back home.” Anna sighed.

“Selfish, in a word. You are selfish, as usual,” William announced as he put down his wine glass that had quickly become empty again.

Both because of Will’s second glass of wine in ten minutes and because of the charge of selfishness, Anna shrugged her shoulders, attempting nonchalance rather than actually feeling it. “Maybe I am, and what of it? Aunt Nora has always been there for me, and now that she’s put an ocean between us, it will be difficult for us to continue being best friends,” she said.

“Well, you’ll just have to resort to some other of your best friends. There’s your adorable crackpot mother, for example. Good old Mags. You keep telling me she is your best friend,” William pointed out.

“And she is, no doubt. But Mom is like Mother Theresa; she loves and lives for everybody around her. I have to share her with too many people. Nora is different. She is like me—more egoistical, if you will—in that she doesn’t really have too many friends, and she doesn’t really care for others as unconditionally as my altruistic mother does. To have gained Nora’s love and interest is something of an achievement.”

“Well, not really. You are her niece, after all.”

“Yes, but look at her own son. How much love does that kid get from his own mother? I’m telling you, and this without being conceited, I’m much dearer to Nora than Henry is.”

“If that’s true, it is more sad than otherwise. But I don’t believe that. She just has a harder time expressing it toward her boy, and it is, I think, more difficult to be nice to someone toward whom you feel some responsibility,” William opined.

“Is that why you’re such an asshole to me sometimes?” Anna laughed.

“I don’t feel responsible toward you, my dear. You are a grownup woman, and the fact that you live on me doesn’t change the fact that you should look out for yourself. I’m not your dad, you know,” William retorted. He hated any reference to his owing anything to anyone, and to insinuate that it was his duty to finance his girlfriend’s lifestyle always irritated him—especially when it came from the girl herself.

“I resent that. You really are an asshole,” Anna almost shouted. Some heads of other diners in the restaurant turned toward her, and even if it was unlikely that they understood English, from the tone of her voice it was obvious that she and her companion were having an argument. “I’ve spent my nicest years on you. I’ve devoted myself to trying to make you happy and have given up so many things as a result, and this is the way you thank me for it?”

“If it’s such a great sacrifice, and you regret it and want to be reimbursed for it by living on me, that’s not a very good sign. You really are a most selfish human being, you know. If you loved me, you wouldn’t feel you’ve sacrificed anything to be with me.” William’s voice was cool and judgmental.

“And if you loved me, you wouldn’t rub it in my face from day to day how much I owe you, how much I depend on you, and, as you kindly put it, how I continue to live on you. Maybe you should go out with women of your own age group who have their own incomes and their careers already on track and not pick girls recently come of age and tell them when they aren’t yet finished with their education that it’s shameful to live on others.” She was red in the face, and that, together with her red hair, made her quite a sight to behold.

“You came of age quite some time ago, Anna,” William put in. He knew very well that she was getting sensitive when it came to her age now that she was past thirty.

“Yes, and in case you’ve forgotten, I’ve just finished my doctorate, which means that I am, whether you like it or not, only at the beginning of my career. If you had wanted a twenty-something girlfriend who also brings in the cash, you should have looked among those satisfied by bachelors’ degrees. Or, better still, you should have stuck to the pretty waitresses with whom you were amusing yourself when I first met you.”

“Maybe I should have.”

Anna was fuming. She would have stood up and left the restaurant, but as she spooled out the consequences of that action in her mind, she realized that if she did, she had no way to get back to that godforsaken house in the middle of nowhere. Even if she had had the car keys in her pocket instead of William, how could she learn to drive a manual transmission at this late a date with no teacher, and how would she be able to find her way back to Il Silenzio alone? Will had driven them into town, and she hadn’t paid the least attention to the route he’d taken. Furthermore, when they’d left Il Silenzio, she hadn’t even taken her mobile phone, and—she turned positively crimson at the thought—she hadn’t taken any money with her. Why should she, when it was always William who picked up the bill? She was literally trapped in the restaurant because some of the very things Will had said about her were true, and she keenly felt her humiliation. Whether she liked it or not, she was at his mercy, unless she put herself to an amount of trouble that her easygoing and indolent nature recoiled from: consulting locals, asking for a lift, explaining to them as best she could where the villa was and to whom it belonged, and so on and so forth. It would take an unwelcome effort to find a benevolent helper in the first place, and then she would have to sufficiently express her gratitude to that person as long as they were together—a state of affairs that, after more than a decade by William’s side, she did not covet.


When Denise had taken a shower and combed her golden locks in front of the open window with the sun on her hair and skin, such a delicious feeling of physical well-being came over her that she wished she could purr. She had no intention whatsoever to ruin such a beautiful day—or any day, for that matter—by harboring ill feelings and exhausting herself with too much fuming and scheming. She had resolved to get the boy back, but it was supposed to be fun and not a sweaty effort, so why get all upset or even intense about it? He was out with the attractive little peasant girl, probably feeling all excited by the novelty and flattered by such a charming presence—and who could blame him? Let him live for the moment as Denise herself did all the time, and the moment he came back, he could begin living for her again. If the boy was impressionable, that only made it easier for her to get him back. She hadn’t as yet revealed herself to him in all her splendor, because there hadn’t been any need, but as soon as she did so, without a doubt, he would be entranced—like the pied piper, she had only to start playing.

For the time being, she was looking for amusement, and she knew full well that Nora would be of no help in that area. She had heard Anna and William go out while she was still in the bathroom, and she couldn’t have cared less, since, like Nora, they were very low on her list when it came to entertainment. That left only one person: Hugh. Manly Hugh, unmanned, was trying to recover his manliness by indulging in the unmanly conduct of staying in bed. It would be quite amusing without demanding much exertion on her part to go and pay him a visit, see how he was doing. Exquisite! A surprise for him to see her there in his room and a surprise for her to see how he would react. Would he sulk? Would he become mushy and tearful? Would he get angry—so angry that he might even swear at her? She sincerely hoped she wouldn’t have to put up with any sniveling, and she hated physical violence, but that of the verbal sort was delicious sometimes. The scenario promised some fun. Furthermore, it would serve a practical purpose—to test Hugh’s state of mind before they all had to travel home in forced intimacy. She also suspected it would give her a fuzzy feeling to check up on the man she had trashed.

So Denise put on the perfume Hugh had given to her and slipped on the emerald green dress she knew he loved on her. She didn’t bother with panties, but she did put on high-heeled slippers. Her hair she left loose—fragrant, flowing, shiny, silky—and she applied charcoal eyeliner to enhance the beautiful shape of her eyes and some glossy lip balm that made her fleshy mouth look as if she had kissed a pot of honey. Oh, and a cinnamon pastille! That was the crowning touch, the sweet and spicy breath! Thus equipped, Denise sauntered to the room where she had begun her Italian stay and gently knocked on the door.

Hugh, awake but groggy, heard the knock, but he found it more theatrical to be found lying speechless and motionless in bed by whoever it was at his door. The knock was repeated, and he continued to lie there without answering. He didn’t really want to see anyone, anyway, so if his continued silence discouraged the visitor, so much the better. A more persistent person would find the door unlocked. Apparently, the visitor was of the latter sort, and Hugh heard the door open cautiously. He didn’t look up—he didn’t even open his eyes. He emitted a little grunt that could have been interpreted any way his interlocutor liked; it could have been a grunt of welcome, of pain, of anger, of curiosity, of surprise.

Denise at once saw that Hugh was at his most passive, and so—excepting the highly unlikely possibility of his reacting to her surprise visit by flipping out—it seemed that she could turn the whole thing any way she pleased without his raising any objections. Because she was feeling serene and beautiful and healthy and young, it took little effort to be sweet and charitable, so she just walked into the room and sat down on Hugh’s bed, so close to him that her soft flesh touched the hand that was resting on the cover beside him. Her fragrance, her silky skin, and the ticklish feeling of her long hair that touched his skin as she bent over his face was the stuff of a dream, and Hugh first thought he’d overdone it with the sleeping pills and now had fallen victim to hallucinations. But it all felt so real! Why shouldn’t he open his eyes and ascertain the truth? His head was swimming, and he felt groggy and weak—weak from pills and lack of food but also from desire. He opened his eyes and beheld the golden girl with her hair lighting up the darkness and her fragrance enveloping him—a sweet smell so acute it was almost visible, a trick of his drugged senses. He didn’t say a word, and she didn’t say a word. He just looked up at her, desiring her, forgiving her, blessing her for having come to him.


2.

In all fairness, Anna wasn’t a more selfish person than most strong personalities, and she had a kind heart. If she had a vice, it was rather her inherent laziness when it came to anything outside the sphere of literature and art—a laziness that had become exacerbated by the good life that first her self-sacrificing mother and then William had provided for her. She was an outstanding scholar in her field and the pride and joy of her exacting Aunt Nora—but her perseverance was severely limited to things she took an interest in, which, at the end of the day, left her a useless creature in practical matters. And then there was her resistance to being depended upon—by anyone other than sulky Will, that is.

So while Anna, on first meeting, was talkative and charming and keen on going out for dinners or parties or receptions, beyond that easygoing amiability, she didn’t care to cultivate too many human relationships. In this she was similar to her aunt Nora, the difference being that Anna was not shy. The niece’s beauty had certainly a great part to play in her extroversion; Anna’s walking into a room inspired admiration, while Nora’s—even when she had been her niece’s age—inspired interest and respect at most. Striking good looks always made the world an easier place for their possessor. Anna had never really had to exert herself on the social scene to have people approach her for a chat. And if she got tired of her interlocutors—they usually turned out to be too shallow or pushy regardless of their sex—she politely nipped the conversation or the whole relationship in the bud and flitted away with a contrived excuse and a smile on her lips. Thus her much cherished private sphere remained intact, but without the feeling that she had been unforgivably antisocial. Indeed, when she next saw a person she had previously snubbed, a smile or a kind inquiry seemed always to pacify.

The only people Anna genuinely cared for were the members of her family and her boyfriend. As to her boyfriend’s friends—the honorable members of the Peter Pan Club, as it was her custom to refer to them—they were a puzzling entity, and Anna could not, for the life of her, decide whether they were the most adorable or the most exasperating human beings she’d ever met. But, all in all, those men with their interchangeable girlfriends or ever-absent wives and scanty offspring were William’s set, and Anna’s having a good time with them was an occasional and surprising event rather than the norm.

And now Nora, one of the few people in the world in whom she had invested time and emotion, was out of her reach and would most likely remain so and, to make it worse, was happy to do so. And William, her supposed other half, was rubbing her face in the familiar bucket filled with his sweat and his riches and telling her, in so many words, to lump it if she didn’t have the stomach for it. Anna’s face was as sour as if she had just had it submerged in that bucket when she looked around the restaurant, thinking of how to react, what to say, what to do. Then their food arrived, and she decided that no domestic quarrel was worth spoiling a steaming plate of truffled pasta or a steak done to perfection.

The other people in the restaurant soon stopped staring at them. Everyone except one of two diners seated at a table at the far end of the garden, whose face was still obviously turned toward Anna and William. Anna’s shortsightedness made it difficult for her to discern the face of whoever it was, but as she took in the details she couldn’t help feeling as though she were looking into a mirror and seeing herself and Will sitting there across the room.

It was a distorted mirror, to be sure, like those that are the greatest sources of fun at amusement parks. The man, mid-fifties, was leisurely leaning back in his chair like William, but he was much bigger than Will and tilted his chair back more daringly; Anna imagined she could hear the creaking of the desperate little chair every time the humongous body changed position. He had two empty wineglasses in front of him and one that was half full, which he kept hold of in his fat hand, swirling the ruby liquid in it and occasionally sniffing it, a smile of beatitude on his round shiny face. It was his female companion who was doing most of the talking. She was incredibly thin but still relatively attractive-looking, in her mid-thirties, as far as Anna could discern. She was talking rapidly and rather loudly, and it became evident to Anna that she was a native English speaker from, perhaps, London. As she talked, she kept glancing over at Anna and William, even more than she glanced at her companion.

Anna was not a typical American in that she had always felt an aversion to striking up a conversation with strangers just because they happened to share the same mother tongue and happened to be in a place foreign to both. To ask, “Where you folks from?” and then rack her brains to come up with a schoolmate or a distant relative from that very place was not her style. However interested she had become in the odd couple who so strangely resembled them, she couldn’t force herself to take the first step. She was, however, determined not to say a word to William until he said something to pacify her or at least pretended that no hard words had been spoken, so she continued to return the gaze of the thin Englishwoman.

May Cavell had no such scruples, and she beckoned to the waiter and had him offer the American couple two glasses of the wine she was enjoying with Gordon with their compliments. The unexpected gift not only broke the ice between the two couples, but it also gave Anna and William the opportunity to temporarily forget about their fight.

“Well, this is very nice of you,” Anna said as she walked up with her glass in hand to the table where Gordon and May were sitting. “I’m far from an expert, but it’s a wonderful wine.”

“Oh, if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have offered it to you. My name is May Cavell, by the way. And this is my husband, Gordon. We all owe him the pleasure of the wine, I’m afraid. He is a wine merchant and does all the testing before he lets any of it touch my precious lips.” May smiled. Whenever she did so, her otherwise shapely mouth became rather crooked, her smile just escaping being a grimace, which made her face quite comical but nevertheless charming. She talked quickly and with a posh London accent that Anna found difficult to understand.

Gordon Cavell, in the meantime, did his best to stand up so as to shake hands with the newcomers and was hampered first by his excess flesh, which made it a challenge for him to rise out of the chair, and then, because of the amount of wine he’d drunk, he had difficulty standing straight. It took quite an effort for Anna and Will to watch without smiling as his huge body swayed like a frail little tree in a summer breeze. If they had smiled, it wouldn’t have been from derision or even an attempt at hiding embarrassment but an inability not to find his clumsy attempts at ceremony lovable. Not only was the man obviously drunk, he was a drunk. Yet if there was a serene, polite, harmless person, then it was Gordon Cavell—alcohol or no alcohol. He was smiley and well mannered, and as soon as he sat down again, he seemed deceptively sober; he didn’t slur his words, and whatever he said didn’t only make sense but was actually intelligent and interesting. Apart from the thorny issue of body coordination, compounded by his obesity, he held his liquor so miraculously that it took him quite a few bottles of wine to become inarticulate and out of control.

It took Will only a few minutes to realize that this Englishman’s company was exactly of the kind he had always enjoyed. There was no nonsense about Gordon Cavell; he never talked for the sake of talking, which William appreciated very much in interlocutors with whom he was thrown together. Furthermore, Gordon drank even more than he did and was even richer than he was—one could immediately gather it from his easy way of talking about the poshest things others usually only dreamt to have or to do. He worked and spent and drank in excess, and he was having a great time all the while.

He admitted to Will and Anna as the four of them sat there at the Cavells’ table that whenever he was sober—which was rare, because he had long ago claimed and proved that he functioned better even at work when intoxicated—he would acknowledge that the only heartache of his life was that he knew how hard all this was on his darling May. Because he held his liquor so well, it wasn’t that May had much to do to help him most of the time, but there she always hovered, fearing the possibility that the next event would be one of the rare occasions when he did become dangerous to himself and to others.

“If anything, I’m quite impressed that you’re so open about all this,” William commented, looking admiringly into the other man’s face.

They had just started another bottle of wine. May sat smoking in silence, listening to her husband with a smile on her face. Anna was not less surprised than William by the honesty and good humor with which Gordon analyzed his own problems.

“Well, I’ve had my share of denial,” Gordon said, “but I guess after a while it is quite difficult to keep your drinking habits secret if they reach such magnitude as mine have. Even if I don’t usually get into trouble, because I drink quite steadily, you know, from morning till night, it is inevitable that people see me at it. As to the occasional trouble, just the other day, I almost flew off a cliff on one of these bloody serpentine roads. My car is at the mechanic at the moment, so we have rented a car off the chap while he is fixing mine.” Gordon lifted a finger to forego the objection he saw rising on Anna’s lips. “Before you say anything,” he said, “let me tell you that I’m not in the least proud if it, but it doesn’t make me think deeply about my way of life and pretend to want to turn a corner and reform my ways, either. I function this way. I enjoy life this way. And it is rare that I lose control in that manner. Indeed, as long as May can handle the suspense, I don’t see why I would have to stop enjoying myself and making a ton of money into the bargain.”

“But couldn’t you enjoy life and make money if you drank in moderation?” Anna risked the question that she knew to be naive.

“Oh, my dear. You think if I could I wouldn’t? No, I am a man of excesses, and I either continue living this way, or I die. This may all sound like a bloody weakling making excuses that he dresses up in the garbs of theatricality, but I am not lying to you when I say that I am incapable of doing things by halves. And, however May suffers from it occasionally, she would not deny it to you that this is exactly what she loves me for.” Gordon took another sip of wine and then lifted his wife’s hand and kissed it. May put down her cigarette and enfolded Gordon’s hand in both of hers.

“Mr. Cavell, I understand you perfectly, but I cannot help thinking that to love life as much as you do is to love it to death. You live so intensely that your life will be a short one, I fear,” Anna said, once again knowing that she was stating the obvious and that it made her sound stupid.

“Isn’t it a paradox? I know, I know, I won’t live to be Methuselah’s age, but I will live more intensely and happily within the short span of my life than most people do who live to be very old. I will either die in an accident that I cause while uncontrollably drunk, or my liver will force me to cash in my chips. But, be that as it may, I at least won’t have a long boring life. I won’t sip soy milk and cut the fat and the sugar and the booze and all the good things just to win a few more years. That would be death in life. I’m not interested.”

“Have you ever read Walter Pater?” Anna hazarded.

“No, but he must have been a drunk if you think of him whilst talking to me,” Gordon chuckled.

“Not exactly. He has similar views on the necessity of living as intensely as possible. But he believes that the joys of the palate are less reliable  than art at producing a heightened sense of life.” Was she being too bookish? She shrugged her shoulders slightly and waited for Gordon’s reaction.

But before the Englishman could say anything, William butted in. “Oh, Egghead, don’t spoil our fun with your erudite comments. We all applaud you for your PhD, and we are all impressed that you’ve read fancy authors most of people have never even heard of, but it isn’t necessary to drag such things into every conversation, is it?”

William was not holding his liquor as gracefully as Gordon, and his tone became increasingly aggressive as he went on. In his own mind, he was trying to defend the Cavells from feeling ignorant if they didn’t know Pater, but expression of his good intention was to abuse Anna in front of them.

“I’ve actually read Pater,” May said. “I have a BA in literature, went to Oxford, where, trust me, you cannot avoid his stuff. Can’t say he’s my favorite writer, but the point he makes in his ‘Conclusion’ had actually been ringing in my ears, too, when I decided to marry crazy Gordon. You know, we really do deserve each other; I often blame him for literally ‘consuming’ me by making me worry about him twenty-four-seven, but, at the end of the day, I am just as excessive a personality as he is, and it’s not by accident I chose him, of all people.” She finished one cigarette and started the next one. “By the way, you two seem to fight an awful lot. I haven’t known you for more than half an hour, and this is the second time you’ve been rather vicious to each other.”

“I guess that’s what drew your attention to us in the first place,” Anna said. “Well, it’s one of the vices we have. We fight like cats and dogs, and we love each other all the more. Let’s just say we live our relationship intensely. No moderation, no boredom, just straight-up love or hate.” Although it had started out as a way of explaining away their impolite behavior in a public place, Anna realized as soon as she had finished speaking that by having said all this, she had started believing it. She forgave William his harsh words and felt thankful for their bickering. It made things more honest; it cleared the air; it showed that they still cared if they bothered to fight at all; and every hateful spell also made the intensity of their love even greater. She embraced William, who kissed the top of her head by way of response, without having the least inkling of what she was talking about. He was too tipsy to care what exactly she was saying, but he instinctively felt gratified by her loving gesture, and her soft, fragrant flesh against his was enough to pacify him.


3.

By the time Anna and Will reached their car, Will had sobered up enough to demand that he drive home. He had always maintained that even when drunk, he was a safer driver than Anna.

“I won’t go fast, Dummy. Don’t freak out.”

Anna wasn’t in much of a position to argue with him, never having driven a manual transmission before. Still, she hesitated. “I just wouldn’t find it very funny to have you emulate Gordon by flying off a cliff on the way back to the house. Jesus, that man is something,” she said.

“Don’t tell me you don’t like him,” William protested.

“I won’t tell you that, because I do like him, but holy Christ the guy is a time bomb, and if he explodes, there’s a chance he’ll take a lot of other people with him besides his bony but loveable wife.”

“Takes them where?” William’s reasoning faculties had obviously not yet regained their sharpness.

“Oh, to hell, or wherever we end up when we croak. In any case, even if there is a white-bearded God and a heaven and a hell, I think it would take all God’s wisdom to decide where to direct a guy like Gordon. Should God ditch him in hell just because he’s a lush? Even if he’s a good man, a kind man, a man who doesn’t mean harm. But, then again, even if he doesn’t mean harm, he might cause harm because of all the booze.” Anna sighed, both because she found the thought depressing and because she realized that she was engaged more in a soliloquy than a conversation; William was out of his depth after all that wine. Should she really let him drive? It would be madness. But how to convince him not only to sit voluntarily in the passenger seat but to teach her how to drive the car and tell her how to get back to the villa? He was generally firm on the subject of driving, and when he was tipsy, he had the tendency to grow aggressive and pig-headed. Ah, they were in God’s hands—at least Anna hoped so.

The first few kilometers went off without a hitch, and the breeze coming in from the open windows did a lot of good toward sobering William up. He actually became talkative and wanted to discuss the dinner at Signora Primavera’s the night before.

“So what did you think of the Italians? That Minalba chap was really nice. And a very useful person to know, you know.”

“Another nice drunken fat man. Or would it be better to say, ‘another man of excesses who has misunderstood Pater’s maxim’? Not that Signor Minalba is likely to have the faintest inkling who Pater is.”

“Would you stop with the Pater this, Pater that? And what’s wrong with some extra flesh and a predilection for wine? The man is just like me and Cavell; despite his apparent weaknesses, he’s a very successful businessman.”

William sat up straighter in his seat, and Anna could see his chest swelling with self-satisfaction.

“Great, you hoard all that cash, and you won’t live to enjoy it. In that, actually, you are not at all like Gordon. At least he enjoys making the money, and even if he dies before his time, he’ll have had some fun. I don’t know about Minalba, but you—you surely hate every minute of the day and delude yourself into thinking that you’ll be the happiest camper as soon as you can stop working and concentrate on enjoying what you’ve achieved. What you don’t seem to get is that it will never happen! Never! You’ll never think you have enough!” Anna was feeling the usual desperation that overcame her whenever she tried to solve the problem of William’s hating his work and his life.

“You really are a broken record, aren’t you? If only it was a record I liked listening to!” William said angrily. “But your speechifying is last on the list of things I enjoy.” Couldn’t she leave him alone? One’s mother didn’t pester one as much as this wifelike creature who also had to be maintained like a daughter.

Anna remained silent for a long time. It was William who broke the silence, instinctively aware that he might have gone too far.

“Why don’t you say something?” he asked. Still Anna remained mute. “Honey, please, say something,” he tried in a softer tone. But still Anna was silent. “For fuck’s sake, why are you offended when it’s me who’s been insulted? You make me out like some basket case and analyze me as if you were a hotshot shrink. I have news for you: you are not qualified to analyze me or cure me or, least of all, judge me. And to dress it up like an attempt at helping me is really beyond anything decent. And to repeat it till I am sick of the very sound of your voice is nothing short of torture!” It was William’s turn to work himself into a state, but it was not a state of desperation as it had been in Anna’s case but a blind rage toward the only person he actually really loved and whom he knew wanted nothing so much as to help him.

He turned angrily toward Anna and, in doing so, did not pay attention to the road for  the precise second in which a second car traveling in the other direction emerged from around the curve ahead of them. It was Anna’s scream that prompted William to swerve the car—not toward the drop-off but toward the ditch that separated the road from an open wheat field. By swerving that direction, William avoided crashing into the other car and possibly spinning them both off the cliff. William brought the car to a screeching halt, but the driver of the other car only slowed momentarily and then drove on. Despite the shock they had both received, they agreed that the other car looked very much like their other rental—they recognized the embarrassing pink straw hat that Denise had left on the hat rack.

“Jesus fuck! Could it have been one of us? Who the hell is up and about, driving around the place? Do you know, Annie?” William asked, flabbergasted.

“It must be my precious cousin. Imagine it! Wiping out half of our group with a head-on collision! I can see the headlines of the Corriere della Sera now: ‘Members of American family kill each other in freak accident—Turismo all’americano.’ Now you must agree with me about Gordon,” Anna said in an “I-told-you-so” voice.

William ignored her last remark and concentrated instead on Henry’s ill-fated appearance. “But what the hell was the boy up to, driving around like a maniac?” he asked.

“What are you talking about?! This whole fiasco had nothing to do with how Henry was driving. It was you who wasn’t paying attention to the road while approaching a hairpin curve, after drinking I don’t know how many glasses of wine!” Anna said indignantly.

“And whose fault was it that I averted my eyes from the road? Why were you sulking there like a bloody child, exasperating me by not answering my questions?” William fumed, although he had a hard time convincing himself of the truth of what he was saying.

“Now that’s rich!” Anna said. “First you abuse me, and then you expect me to act as if nothing has happened, and then you are stupid enough to take your drunken eyes off the road, and when you almost massacre us and poor Henry, you say it’s all my fault?” Anna was beside herself.

William had to admit that he had rarely seen her so angry—or so beautiful.

“You’re very beautiful when you’re angry, do you know that?” he said lamely.

“Ah, you ass.” She turned away from him and stared out the windshield. What else was there to say? The shock was wearing off, and nothing had really happened, thank God. “Let’s just go home.”

“Do you mean home as in across the Atlantic or home as in that windy shack you all find so picturesque?” William asked, relieved to sense that Anna was relenting.

“I wish we were really going home,” Anna said. “God knows I’ve had enough adventures. What with my good imagination, I can look at photographs of Italy from the safety of our cushy couch back home and relive the good parts of our journey. But it’s not up to us, I’m afraid. We can’t just leave Hugh here. It wouldn’t be right. He was the one who actually invited us in the first place.” Anna cracked a sad smile at the irony of it all.

“I guess so,” William said. “Even though he is a big boy, and he has other family members here who could take care of him just as well as we could. But I guess I am one of his best friends, and it would be shitty to leave him in the lurch.”

“I agree. It’s guaranteed that he’ll recover from his hangover and his supposed food poisoning by tomorrow, and as to the wound on his ego, well, he won’t bleed to death, and we’ll do our best not to reopen the wound on the way home. Then he can nurse himself back to virility in the solitude of his bachelor pad. I say we should fix our departure for the day after tomorrow and tell Denise that she’s welcome to take one of the cars and that we four will squeeze into the other one.”

“Why would we do that?” William asked obtusely. “Why would Denise need her own car?”

“Because she is the arch reopener of wounds; whether deliberately or not, she would cause harm by her very presence,” Anna explained patiently.

“But what if Henry thinks otherwise? What if the boy wants to ride with her?”

“Ah, you’re behind the times. Henry made up with Denise last night, it’s true, but only to quarrel with her again this morning. The girl made no secret out of regarding him as a pubescent, a pastime when there’s nothing better to amuse her. You should have heard her talk about the boy in his very presence. He jumped up and told us all to go to the devil, and then it turned out that instead of taking a drive as he had intended, he just went into the living room to sulk. Then the cleaning lady and her charming teenage daughter showed up, and Nora sent off the two lambs for groceries. So you have almost killed not only Henry but his new young love interest.” Anna’s brow furrowed. “But why are they going to town again?” she mused aloud. “They left well before us and should be going back home, too, in the same direction as us.”

“Maybe they have already dropped off the supplies at the villa, and Henry is taking the girl home.”

“In that case, you have almost killed not only the lovebirds but also the mother pigeon,” Anna chuckled.


4.

When they got back to Il Silenzio, Anna and William found Nora’s green vehicle parked outside, but the other rental car was gone, confirming in their minds that it had indeed been the other rental that they had almost hit. Entering the house, they were met with silence; nobody was around.

“Oh, I guess this is the way Aunt Nora likes it: no intruders, no noise, no nothing.” Anna sighed and sat down on the sofa closest to her. “Well, she’ll have her peace back very soon. Won’t be long now.”

“I told you earlier I would never have chosen a place like this, but now, with nobody around, with this creepy hush about the place, it’s especially depressing. It’s like a great big tomb. I never thought Nora could be this morbid. She’s always seemed quite a lively person to me. And now it turns out that all the while she was sitting opposite us at their dining table pretending to be lively, she was probably picturing how she would love to eliminate us all.” He gave an exaggerated shiver and then lay down on the other sofa and went on musing. “At least it didn’t come to that. I guess we can be thankful she made herself scarce instead of wiping us out so as to clear a private space. With all that in mind, it seems we have been rather gutsy in coming after her. Who knows what she wouldn’t do to protect her privacy? Creepy, creepy, creepy.”

“You watch too many horror movies, darling. There’s nothing creepy about this place, and loving lively conversation and loving peace and quiet are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Also, for your information, Nora has never had anything against her and Hugh’s dinners with family and close friends.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll stop analyzing your aunt. I’m not good at it, and I don’t, in all honesty, give a damn about her personally. I’m compelled to care only because she happens to be my girlfriend’s favorite aunt and my best friend’s wife.”

“I thought I’d come in and check whether someone is really talking about me.” Nora said as she entered the house from the garden. “I was having the hiccups, you know, and my Bulgarian colleague tells me that it means someone is talking about you at the moment.”

“Jesus, Auntie, did you hear what he said?” Anna sat up quickly and looked her aunt in the face.

“I did, and I can’t say that I care. But thank you for your concern,” Nora said blandly. “In vino veritas, once again, that’s all. You two had a good lunch?” Nora smiled at them. Why should she break her heart over the fact that William didn’t consider her in a more loving light? What had she ever done to have claims on his affection now? If she’d ever done him a good turn, it was her advocacy of his relationship with her niece, but William had never really been aware of the part she had played in all that. And, Nora reminded herself, she had obviously done it more for her niece and herself—and what she’d seen at the time as their parallel destinies—than for William. Similarly, if she was worried about William’s current drinking habit and depression, it was more because it touched her niece so keenly than because she cared so much about William’s welfare. Nora did not need to down a few glasses of wine to admit all this to herself.

“It was a very good lunch. An adventurous one, in fact,” Anna said. “We went up to the old town and admired the façade of the Duomo for one whole minute, and then we were delighted to notice how great a device it was to measure time; if you look at it for one minute, you measure exactly sixty seconds. And after this amazing discovery, we walked a full thirty meters and conscientiously tested the restaurant that the Primavera family mentioned last night, Vinosus. Because we wanted to do a thorough job, we had quite a lot of the stuff in which it specializes.”

“Does it specialize in wine, by any chance?” Nora asked, laughing.

“Oh, what made you guess?” Anna laughed back, playing along. “We were assisted in our research—tutored, actually—by a posh English couple. A couple that struck me as strange mirror image of our humble setup.” Anna waved her hand back and forth between her and William.

“Yes,” William butted in, “a successful businessman of ripe age and an annoying female companion who used to be young once but still poses as a youth because comparison is on her side.”

“That’s also a way to put it. But I’m not going to have another fight with you. Just don’t butt in; I’m telling a story here,” Anna retorted.

“May I butt in, though?” Nora inquired. “Are you talking about a happy drunk who deals in wine and crashes his cars and has a wife named May?” she asked in a surprised voice.

Anna was, of course, just as surprised in answering. “Is this a small world or what? I won’t ask you how you know. You’ve obviously run into them—I hope not literally.”

“Well, Gordon literally ran into the guardrail, and then I figuratively ran into them at the roadblock he’d caused with his huge silver car as I was trying to go into town to do the shopping. It took an hour or so for the workers to clear the road, and so I had time to hear their life story from May. A nice person, May is. I couldn’t really form an independent opinion about Gordon based on my own observations, because all he did was stand next to his car wearing a silly smile, swaying to and fro. But from what May told me, I gather he is a very nice but somehow also very troublesome person. And I did think of you two as May was telling me her story.”

“Should I feel flattered?” William asked.

“Yes and no. Gordon is obviously wildly successful but very far gone when it comes to drinking. The only thing in him I find worthy of emulation is his inordinate love of his work,” Nora said and looked William full in the face.

“Although you two are not, strictly speaking, blood relations, I still see an uncanny family resemblance; you both have a knack for sermonizing and, what’s worse, you tend to say the same thing over and over again,” William huffed. As usual, when his ire was up, he didn’t care one whit whether he was being rude.

“Okay!” Anna said. “Let’s just drop the subject. Although the Cavells are quite interesting, it’s obvious that we can’t talk about them without hinting at sensitive issues,” Anna said, trying, as usual, to pacify.

“Fine, but let’s admit that one of the reasons they are interesting at all is their resemblance to you two,” Nora observed.

“Anyway, guess who else we saw on the way back.” Anna was bent on toning down real life events. She didn’t want Nora to know that idiot William had almost killed her son. Of course, there was no guarantee that Henry wouldn’t be more outspoken about the matter.

“That’s not a tough one. As my car is standing in front of the house, and the other car has been taken by Henry so as to drive Celestina and Clarissa home, I guess it’s the latter little group you’ve seen on your way. Henry didn’t of course say so, but by the look of him he’s had a good time with the Italian girl. They forgot half the things they were supposed to buy, but that, once again, is only proof that they were busy concentrating on each other.”

“Denise will love it.” Anna laughed maliciously.

“Oh, and I love it that she’ll not love it. You know, I actually liked her at first for the stance she’d taken concerning Hugh. In fact, I’ve never thought that getting to like someone so fast was possible. But the fuzzy feeling didn’t last, and now I’m wondering how it’s possible to dislike someone so intensely so fast, especially after having grown fond of her so fast before that,” Nora observed.

“Oh, if she has a talent for anything, it’s to make sure that she makes an impression on every person she comes across. You either really like her or really dislike her—intensity is the name of the game,” Anna said. “Of course there’s a greater chance you’ll like her if you only get the chance to judge her by her looks without talking to her, and it is almost for sure that you’ll dislike her if you are exposed to her company for even the shortest amount of time. Then again, women tend to hate her even if they only get the chance to look at her. She is exasperatingly good-looking, I have to admit.”

“Well, I would forgive her her good looks and even her teaching my husband a lesson, but I agree with what you said earlier out there in the garden: since her breakup with Hugh, she’s been up to a lot of things that I find absolutely distasteful. Wait a second, you don’t know the latest. Denise is at this very moment up in Hugh’s room,” Nora said and looked curiously into her niece’s face so as to see how she would take it.

“Aunt, say you’re joking. Please, do. Or else I’ll have to strangle that woman.” Anna stood up quickly with the intention of ambushing her uncle’s room and dragging Denise out of there by her blonde hair.

“Relax, my dear. No need to get physical. Actually, there’s no need to get angry, either. I wasn’t even surprised. You said it yourself, didn’t you, that the girl is perfectly shameless? Anyway, she’s either doing what she’s doing up there so as to get Henry’s attention or because she’s looking for another new pastime. Look on the bright side: her presence in his room will help Hugh’s recovery, and that means you’ll be ready to go back home, and it also means that the lovely couple has run full circle and will go back as they came. Whatever happens afterwards doesn’t matter. Or, better to say, every option considering the present circumstances, however temporary, is better than the options you would have had otherwise. Scenario number one is that your uncle is chucked again, but this time not in our presence, and so his ego will not suffer as much as it did the first time. Scenario number two is very unlikely, but there it is: they might get married after all. Scenario number three would be the best one, only it would take some brains on Hugh’s part to figure it out and to do so as quickly as possible: if Denise comes back to him and he chucks her before she can do it again, all his male vanity will be magically restored. He gets out of the whole thing as the conqueror, and, let’s admit, that is the only thing that has really mattered to him from the very beginning.”

“Aunt, you really don’t let your emotions get in the way of your intellect. Very nicely reasoned out. I wish I could remain so unaffected by all the hubbub around my uncle and my cousin,” Anna said, rather reproachfully.

“Dear girl, you remember the evergreen cliché about appearances being deceptive? If I appear unaffected, it’s because I’m not the gushy type, which you well know by now. And also know that it doesn’t mean that I don’t care,” Nora returned just as reproachfully.

“True, true. Anyway, who could blame you even if you had grown callous over time, what with Uncle’s amorous maneuvers?” Anna sighed.

“Thank you, my dear. I guess I would have to be excused if I had grown insensitive. But it’s not just that. You see, these last few days have been so full of surprises that I have a hard time keeping up emotionally. I might get all mushy in retrospect, you know, there’s a chance for that, but fortunately nobody will be around to witness it.” Nora smiled.

“I hope some of them have been good surprises. Or has it all been unpleasant?” Anna asked timidly.

“Do you want me to say that it’s been a pleasant surprise to have you, my favorite niece, show up here? Okay, I’ll grant you that your presence has been one of the positive aspects of the whole surreal adventure of having all of you show up here,” Nora said and felt generous.

“And Henry?” Anna hazarded.

“Well, the boy’s been a mixed bag, I have to say. I mean we’ve never actually mentioned that aspect, but for the son to take over the father’s lover in the father’s presence is not very high in my little book of moral codes. Henry hasn’t behaved very nobly. There are two attenuating circumstances, though. One is that Denise is undeniably seductive. Nay, she isn’t only attractive, she is aggressively so; she is a carnivore. And then, there’s the boy’s urge to get back at the father for having been a bad father and for having, however unconsciously, taught him just what he was doing now: namely, to do whatever it takes to appease your appetite, regardless of how questionable it is morally. The kid was simply emulating the father, and it was the stupid father’s lack of good judgment that it has been to his own detriment,” Nora explained.

“May I hazard the observation that my presence has been neutral to your happiness?” William butted in. “That’s quite an achievement, isn’t it? I mean I haven’t caused any extra bother?”

“No, on the contrary. Apart from your insulting comment to Signora Primavera about her food, you’ve been a pleasant surprise, because you didn’t do what Hugh ended up doing and what we’ve expected from you all along. Namely to—” Nora couldn’t finish her “praise” of William’s conduct because he interrupted her.

“Yes, yes, the sermon again! Don’t even finish your sentence, please!” William wailed, half insulted and half amused.

“And how about pleasant surprises at the Primavera dinner?” Anna asked meaningfully. Ever since they’d left La Serenissima the night before, the younger woman had been dying to discuss Alberto in detail, and so far there had always been other things that prevented her from doing so.

“Oh, well, they seem like a very nice bunch,” Nora said evasively. She, in contrast, had no desire whatsoever to discuss what was closest to her heart and thoughts—even with Anna. She suddenly felt like a victim of an inquisition.

“That’s a lame compliment, Aunt, and you know it. Don’t you try to tone it all down. A very nice bunch—ugh. It won’t work with me,” Anna said in a mock-severe tone. The inquisitor was just getting warmed up.

“Okay, the signora was much more impressive than I expected, and many of her family members speak surprisingly good English and are very entertaining conversationalists.”

“That’s still weak, Aunt.”

“Fine. But why do you want me to say it aloud if you know it already, anyway? Of course, Alberto was a great surprise, and I had a wonderful time talking with him. And the fish with the mussel sauce was delicious,” Nora added with a smile.

Anna was about to respond when they all heard the noise of wheels on gravel and then the slamming of a door and the click of the car being locked. Henry was back. The inquisition was postponed and its victim more than usually happy to see her son.


5.

“Guess what’s happened on my way to the Cesares’ place?” Henry said as he burst into the room. “Some idiot almost killed us! What a stupid way to go it would have been—to be snuffed by some maniac in a head-on collision! The person was either drunk or an execrable driver or a moron tourist admiring the view or some bored suicidal chap playing chicken so as to get an adrenaline rush. Or a woman. Anyway, I almost died on the road today. No, I almost died on the road today with a very decent girl and her very decent mother in the car with me.” Henry rattled on as he beheld the little group lounging on the sofas.

The boy looked singularly handsome, and there was no denying that he’d had a great time with Celestina. His sparkling sapphire eyes, his flushed cheeks, his elastic movements, the unusual loudness of his voice were all telltale signs of his having enjoyed his Italian outing with the charming Italian girl by his side. He seemed intoxicated by the little adventure, and the close shave with death on the road had obviously only added to his feeling very much alive. He threw himself onto the sofa beside his cousin with great gusto, only to jump up again immediately and start pacing the living room.

“Chronic understatement runs in the family,” Anna said playfully. “You’re not much better than your mother when it comes to praising. Is ‘very decent’ the best you can do?” Not only was she greatly relieved to find out that Henry hadn’t recognized her and William during their close shave on the road, but she’d found a new victim for interrogation.

“Oh, Son, now you’re in for a proper Q and A. Your cousin will not rest until she’s found out about your innermost thoughts and the smallest details of the last couple of hours that you’ve spent with Celestina. At least I’m off the hook for now.” Nora said exultingly. Of course, she was just as curious about Henry’s impressions concerning the girl, and she would have loved to hear him talk about his day, but she would rather have died than admit it.

“Well, I’ll let you talk freely and will only ask questions when I see that you are leaving out important details,” Anna promised kind-heartedly.

“Oh, how nice of you. Anyway, I have nothing to hide. The girl is very intelligent and very different from me—”

“Different because intelligent?” Anna couldn’t resist.

“Go to hell. Or just stick to your word. You promised you wouldn’t ask unnecessary questions. What I mean, of course, is that she is intelligent in a very different way from anyone I’ve been fond of so far. It’s the first time ever that I wasn’t bored by someone who is avowedly averse to reading and prefers mathematics and biology to literature. Actually, that’s not true—Carlito is a bit like that as far as I could gather the other night, and he is also far from being boring. Anyway, as for Celestina, of course she is a bit younger than I am, but I guess her natural predilections will not change and she’ll always prefer the sciences to the arts.”

“Does she speak any languages besides Italian?” Anna asked. “I’m only interrupting because the question is relevant. I wouldn’t be such a great enthusiast of literature if I had only been fed on Italian writers.”

“What a rotten snob you are! And anyway, you’re supposed to adore Italian—”

“As a language, my dear. That doesn’t mean I especially admire their literature. Why do you think I mostly read French and Russian authors in Italian? Because I adore the language, and I want to enjoy it and practice it, and if I can’t read Balzac and Turgenev in the original, I might as well read them in Italian. The English translations wouldn’t be any closer to the real deal,” Anna explained.

“But you forget that Celestina might just as well have read foreign authors translated into Italian translation. So just because she only speaks her mother tongue, it doesn’t mean that she cannot have formed her judgment about literature in general on other than Italian literary pieces,” Henry pointed out. “And I still think that the love of reading is something you’re born with. If she had any predilection for it, even one good novel would have awakened her desire to read more.”

“Ah, the good old nature versus nurture argument! All right, then, go on and tell us more about her,” Anna spurred her cousin on.

“She’s shy and only talks when you ask her a question, but then she gives you a frank and even lengthy answer, and she has a great sense of humor. She is not funny ha-ha, but she has that dry wit, you know. For example, she loves her parents, of course, and of course she is respectful toward them, but she is highly critical of them at the same time,” Henry enthused.

“That’s not very unique. I mean who isn’t? What do you always do but criticize your mother and father?” Anna interposed. So far she’d liked what she’d heard about the girl, even if she couldn’t imagine hitting it off with anyone who wasn’t a great reader. Even William and Hugh were originally well-read people—no PhDs of course, but still, BAs meant something, she consented condescendingly—and it was their gradual obsession with money and women that had led them astray from literature as the years passed. When Anna had first met Will, he had far more interests than nowadays, and even now, he was quite conversant on literary topics—it was just that he rarely felt like talking about such things anymore. Nay, he went as far as to feel justified in having a condescending attitude toward the members of academia—mandarins, all, in his view. And he especially hated Pater.

“Oh, but you haven’t heard the way she does it,” Henry said. “She is so very honest, yet she succeeds in not stepping on anyone’s corns. You could learn a lot from her, you know,” Henry said to Anna with mock sincerity. Although he had pretended to be the victim of his cousin’s inquisitiveness, he greatly enjoyed talking about the girl.

“Did she say anything about her father?” Nora couldn’t help asking. She was surprised to hear about Celestina’s love of science. It seemed incongruous to have a girl that looked like a princess prefer mathematics to arts. However, just because she didn’t like reading, it didn’t, of course, automatically follow that she was insensitive to artistic beauty.

“She said her papa has three talents: he has a green thumb, he is a keen observer, and he is a passionate storyteller.’”

“I’ve noticed the second quality,” Nora commented wryly, “although at the time, I certainly didn’t applaud him for it, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the third, which often goes hand in hand with the second. Come to think of it, Massimo is something of a Jamesian with less polished methods, perhaps, and definitely no written proof of his storytelling talent. He is an old intruder, all right, or a Peeping Tom at the very least. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to collect his material so as to immortalize the observed in delightful novels. But I’m sure he spins a good yarn and the girl grew up listening to spicy stories fresh from life.”

The others looked at her with baffled expressions.

“What on Earth are you talking about, Mother?”

“Although I don’t get that part about his being a Jamesian, I figure it’s quite obvious that if you mention a Peeping Tom, you must have had some firsthand experience of the old guy’s habits, eh, Nora?” William asked.

“Yes, William, that’s the long and short of it. Nothing serious, of course. I didn’t blind him with my nakedness or anything, but I was mighty surprised when I caught sight of his eyes looking in at the living room window and then, instead of owning up to his curious glances or pretending to have just looked up instead of having been watching me the whole time I was standing here clapping my hands from sheer joy like some moron, he disappeared into the bushes, the sneaky coward.”

“You were clapping your hands in the middle of the living room, Mother?” Henry couldn’t help interrupting.

“Yes, as I said, from sheer joy. Never mind. I guess nobody is allowed to express spontaneous emotions without being ridiculed and punished for it, even if she is trying to do so in strict privacy. I had been idiotic enough to think that I’d come to the right place to have my solitude, but now I see I will have to opt for the North Pole if I want to succeed in my quest,” Nora said resentfully. She hated herself for having let slip that bit about clapping hands.

“But go on, Aunt. So Massimo hid in the bushes, and what did you do?” Anna urged without heeding the older woman’s complaints.

“I confronted him, my dear. But all I got was oiliness, obsequiousness—the usual Italian treatment. Of course he acted as if nothing had happened, and it seemed silly to force him to do so. He hadn’t done anything, really. But as I’ve told you, I’m surprised that such a shifty individual has such a decent wife and daughter. What are you laughing at, Son?” Nora asked, somewhat suspicious that the boy was laughing at and not with her.

“Oh, Mother! He was peeking out at us as Celestina and I came up the walk to their front door. He didn’t realize that half his torso was visible as he looked out. When she noticed it, Celestina began to speak more loudly than she had been before, saying that she didn’t know whether her daddy would be at home or not, but it really would be a shame to miss the opportunity to introduce us to each other. Her daddy, she said, was always happy to meet new people and find out all about them. I appreciate the whole thing even more after what you’ve told me,” Henry said, laughing.

“How undignified!” Nora huffed.

“Come on, Mother, it’s not as though he’s a paparazzo. What harm is there in his assuaging his curiosity? Okay, we all know you have issues with privacy, and I admit it’s not a nice feeling to find out somebody is watching you when you felt yourself blessedly alone and safe from the Gaze.”

The dash of menace in Henry’s voice made his interlocutors smile.

“Sartre would have hiccups if he were still capable of hiccupping,” Anna said and laughed.

“It’s much more likely he’s revolving in his grave right now,” Nora commented, but of course she’d also found her son’s observation witty. “You know, I’m thinking that maybe Celestina dislikes literature exactly because of her father. Perhaps he gave storytelling a bad name from the start.”

“But where does the mother come in, I wonder?” Anna said. “She is a good sort, isn’t she? What do you think she thinks of the husband’s ‘artistic interests’? How can she come to terms with a husband who is a bigger gossip than a whole village full of women?”

“Oh, Clarissa is a very good sort,” Nora said with conviction, “almost too good to believe that there’s anything wrong with the husband’s curiosity. Whether she is good-ignorant or good-naive, which, at the end of the day are one and the same thing, she certainly doesn’t see anything reprehensible in the interest her husband takes in his fellow humans. My impression is that she is a woman so open and simple that, in her book, privacy equals secrecy, and one’s desire for it is only understandable if that someone has done something underhanded and would wish to hide it from the public.”

“Okay, so we are dealing with Mr. Gossip and Mrs. Sweet Simplicity, and a Miss Science in the guise of a Princess. Apart from the frailties of her parents and her aversion to literature, what else did you talk about?” Anna urged her cousin on.

“Speaking of old intruders, look at my cousin, will you?” Henry laughed. “Let me just point out that I’m my mother’s son to a certain extent, and so I claim my right to my privacy. No more details. I’ll leave you to imagine the rest.”

“Fine. I certainly imagine that you’ll have a hard time keeping up your relationship if the girl is not a keen reader and writer. I don’t suppose she’ll be a great pen pal,” Anna said, not knowing which she resented more, being called “old” or an “intruder.”

“Oh, there’s no relationship to talk about. She’s just a nice girl, that’s all, and I’ve had a good time with her. Why, do you imagine that now I want to move to Italy and marry her? Do you actually suppose that I’ve fallen in love with her after having known her for a few hours?” Henry asked incredulously.

“It didn’t stop you before. Or have you forgotten about Denise?” Anna said and heard Nora’s approving grunt.

“I’ve never been in love with Denise, for your information. I just happened to find her irresistibly attractive.” Henry was both angry and embarrassed.

“It comes to the same thing,” Nora said. “You made a fool of yourself and of your father in the bargain—”

“Mother, stop right there,” Henry said impatiently. “We’ve had this discussion already today, remember? I must ask you not to lecture me. I’m sorry if my presence here and my behavior have been nothing but a nuisance to you, but I still insist on being treated like an adult and not like a child—”

“If you were forty years old,” Nora butted in, “I would still be saying this to you. In fact, your not being a child anymore only makes your behavior worse. There’s no excuse for an adult to behave the way you have.”

“Really?” Henry said indignantly. “I don’t think any of us here has the right to point fingers when it comes to responsible conduct. Why don’t we just get over it and move on? I am wholly cured of Denise Logan, and my father is soon to get her out of his system as well, I’m sure. Even without her in the picture, we’ll have enough to deal with, so why don’t we just look ahead instead of dwelling on what’s happened in the past?” he finished rather theatrically.

“No one would rejoice more than I to have Denise Logan out of our lives, Cousin,” Anna sighed. “But I think you’re being a bit too simplistic, Henry dear. Ignoring the past is a nice idea, but it’s not so easily done, you know. Furthermore, Denise is not the kind of person to be left behind if she wants to tag along. You don’t just shove the Logan Incident under your carpet if you were unlucky enough to have had an incident with that girl. She refuses to be ignored, and you’ll only have her out of your life when she wants you out of it. And, apparently, she has taken a fancy to our family, because now she has decided to make do with Hugh in your absence.” Having thus enlightened her cousin, Anna eagerly watched his face.


6.

“What the—! I don’t believe you!” Henry shouted.

“You don’t want to believe me,” Anna said. “There’s a great difference. Maybe you haven’t managed to get her out of your system, either.” She smiled sarcastically.

“It’s not that! It’s not that!” Henry repeated desperately. He had quickened his pace, and the long steps his long legs enabled him to take made his movements all the more frantic.

“Then what is it? You’re not trying to make me believe that it’s your father’s welfare you’re so anxious about?” Anna was ruthless.

“God, how could she? After last night! Has there ever been a woman so inconsistent, so indifferent, so selfish, so shameless—so irresistible?” Henry raved. He wasn’t able at this point to sympathize with Hugh for having had to go through the same ordeal while Henry had had his turn with Denise. Rather his mind was overcome with the image of that beautiful golden body lying next to his father’s less than twelve hours after it had lain next to his own. He had come back from his escapade with Celestina newly confident and convinced that he was indifferent to Denise. And it wasn’t that his feelings for her had been replaced by new feelings for Celestina, not at all. He was only pleased to have spent a day with such a great girl and relieved at not being bogged down anymore with his sudden and violent obsession with Denise. But even if Henry had had no intention of continuing his flirtation with Denise, and although he thought he had already gauged the depths of that girl’s depravity, now he found himself unable to cope with this new turn of events. Having heard of Denise’s latest move, the illusion of independence vanished, and he felt more obsessed and ashamed than ever.

“After last night, her behavior shouldn’t surprise you. The Carlito fiasco should have warned you. The girl is dangerous. I’m surprised you’re surprised after all you’ve been through with her,” Anna said.

“Oh, that’s not what I meant by last night. Last night many wonderful things happened. Oh, it’s sacrilege what she’s done to my memories of it! But it’s none of your business, anyway.” Henry had assumed his customary scarlet hue. It had seemed essential to hint at what had happened between him and Denise to make them understand his present reaction, but now it only seemed awfully embarrassing to have hinted at the first sexual experience of his life in front of his mother and his cousin.

“What happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom, my boy,” William said. “Never you mind your gossipy cousin. Denise is a head case, for sure, but it’s the opposite of embarrassing to have had her initiate you into…hmm. I think you get my meaning.” William didn’t usually feel any comradeship with his girlfriend’s cousin, but such great events could not but awaken the buddy in him.

“Yes, I do. Thanks, Will, I appreciate it. But I still have to get my head around all this, if you don’t mind. I mean, have you seen them together? Has my father left his room? Where are they now?” Henry showered everybody and nobody in particular with questions.

“I and Will have only just gotten back from our lunch, so we are almost as new to the status quo as you are. Your mother has been around the whole day, and Denise hasn’t shown her face since she allegedly went up to take a shower.”

“That’s all the proof you have? Has your imagination run away with you, by any chance?” Henry felt suddenly hopeful. How typical of his cousin and his mother, after all, to imagine things based on scanty evidence!

“Look, I haven’t peeped into your father’s room, and haven’t seen them together with my own eyes, thank God,” Nora said. “But I heard certain things I wish to God I could unhear.” She put her hands over her ears for emphasis.

“What things, for Christ’s sake?”

“Don’t shout, Henry. I’m right next to you. Not those kinds of things you’re apparently thinking of but rather that babyish laughter I’ve grown to detest and your father’s voice at its most cheerful and so on and so forth. They have obviously been having a good time up there, and after having been out for a few minutes to pick up a book I’d left outside, I noticed that a bottle of wine and two glasses had disappeared from the kitchen counter. Your father seems cured of his hangover.”

“Or it’s a classic case of the hair of the dog.” William spoke from great experience.

“But they might just be making peace! They might just be agreeing to be friends again. That doesn’t mean they’re back together,” Henry protested.

“You are very naive,” Anna sighed.

“And you have a dirty imagination,” Henry retorted.

“Dear, you are really hopeless,” Anna said. “You have just declared that never in your life have you seen a more shameless, indifferent, selfish person than Denise, a more pleasure-seeking and ruthless upstart, to be more precise. And now you’re trying to tell me that it’s my dirty imagination that makes her out as capable of trifling yet again with your father? She is clearly trying to get back at you, Noodle. Don’t you recall abruptly leaving her this morning after telling her to go to hell and not patronize you and then going off with a girl so charming that even Denise went green with envy? Can’t you put two and two together?” Anna couldn’t help smiling at her cousin’s inexperience. “And I was worried that you’d become too cynical lately! I was even thinking that you’d become too clear-sighted and disillusioned too soon. I guess I was the naive one for assuming such a thing.” Anna laughed at her own mistake. The boy was young and vulnerable—and in the worst hands possible.

“If you call me Noodle ever again, I will…I will…I don’t know what I’ll do to you, but it won’t be pleasant.” He paused and then said, “So you think it’s out of revenge Denise is up there?”

“Ah, so you have been listening. Good. Of course she is up there to make you feel shitty. It’s a most transparent maneuver, as are all of her maneuvers. The Cousin Phil story was even worse, but anyway, this one is also a classic. The bitch is manipulating you. And if you fall into her trap again, I’ll have a very unflattering opinion of your intelligence and of, what is equally important, your self-control. Imagine she is poison, and however sweet she smells and tastes, she’ll wipe you out if you can’t resist her. Do you want us to tie you to the mast?” Anna was in her element.

“That would make it difficult for me to go up to Hugh’s room, wouldn’t it? Keep your rope for better use,” Henry said as he walked to the staircase.

“What do you propose to do?” Anna asked, the boy’s determination taking her by surprise.

“What do you think? I’ll go up and open the door and see what’s going on in there. Mother, I don’t remember, are there locks on the doors?”

“No, Son, just barge in. Very smooth move.”

“I don’t care to be smooth.”

Henry disappeared up the stairs. The others stared at each other.

“Well, this scenario I would never have predicted,” Nora observed.

“The scenario of Celestina’s charms failing to cure Henry? The scenario of the boy making a complete fool of himself? I have to admit I didn’t expect it was possible for him to turn out to be a bigger sucker than he had already proved himself to be. But I’m not so much surprised at Denise having a stronger hold on him than Celestina. The boy has always been attracted to older women, first of all. And if he and Denise really did what he suggests they did, that experience would have great power over such an inexperienced boy as our little Noodle.” Anna felt old and wise, but because of feeling wise, she didn’t so much mind feeling old.

Nothing more was said for the time being. William dozed off, and the two women were too expectant to go on talking. They heard nothing from upstairs, although Henry had disappeared a good five minutes before.

When Henry reached his father’s bedroom door, it was so far from locked that it was actually half open, and Henry could look in without entering. There he saw Hugh lying in bed, sleeping peacefully, the wine bottle emptied of its contents, and the two empty glasses next to it on the night table. At first it seemed Hugh was alone, but a few steps closer to the bed revealed Denise’s sleeping form hidden behind his big frame. Henry would have had a hard time describing what he really felt at the sight of the sleeping couple. Of course it went to his heart to see just what he had been so afraid of seeing: the beautiful golden body curled up by his father’s side. But rather than the outrage that he had felt when he’d imagined the scene a few minutes earlier, now that he was actually seeing it, he felt only humbled and sober. The way Denise had snuggled close to Hugh’s broad back, the way her hand lay on his thigh and his rested on top of it—these details suggested their familiarity, their belonging to each other. What right had he to be angry when the girl clearly belonged to his father?

Henry was too much taken by appearances to think clearly. The fact that Denise had been planning to leave his father, the fact that she had flitted between the males within her reach during this trip, the fact that it was she who had chosen Henry and not the other way around, were all blurred by the idyll of the scene. The sentimental feelings it evoked in Henry made him read far more into it than it really meant. Denise didn’t belong to any of them. Her inconsistency went hand in hand with her habit of living in the present. It made no difference to her by whose side she had slept the previous night or what she had felt like doing an hour ago. The only thing that mattered was how she might best enjoy the moment, how she might pursue the thing she fancied there and then. Her focus on the present was what made it so easy for her to adapt to any situation and what made her now appear to belong to the man next to whom she was sleeping as Henry looked on. It had little to do with the fact that the man happened to be the man with whom she had already spent some months.

Under the illusion that he had been enlightened as to the right line of conduct, Henry resolved to suppress all his longing for the golden girl with the pearly laughter. She should always have been regarded as forbidden territory, and, after straying, it was time to prove to himself and to those around him that he was strong enough to do the right thing. Denise either belonged to his father or to nobody else in their circle. It was the only commendable approach to it morally and the wisest course practically as well. Whether blind or enlightened to other aspects of the case, Henry was clear-sighted enough to understand the dangerous nature of that beautiful girl. She was selfish and shameless and indifferent and all the other things that he and his family had said about her, and for those reasons unsuitable for him.

Henry walked out, closed the door gingerly, and took a deep breath. He had to go down and tell his cousin and his mother that he had been wrong. The only thing that seemed to attenuate the discomfort of such a position was that, in fact, the mother and cousin had also been quite wide of the mark even if they had been closer to guessing the truth than him. What they hadn’t foreseen was that it was not just a ploy to get back at Henry and drive him mad with jealousy and then get him back, but a more permanent thing without such an ugly ulterior motive. As he was walking down the steps, Henry was sure of this.

“So?” Anna asked as soon as she caught sight of her cousin on the stairs.

“So what?” Henry felt her in his power. She was dying of curiosity, and he could portion out the coveted information any way he liked.

“What did you see? And what did you do? We didn’t hear anything, so there couldn’t have been a fistfight. Have you strangled them both and become a parricide?”

“No,” Henry said curtly.

“But were we right?” Anna was losing her patience.

“Yes and no,” was the enigmatic answer.

“Don’t play with me, boy. Come out with it. Or I shall go up and make a noise,” Anna threatened.

All the while, Nora was sitting there silent and apparently uninterested, but of course she was not less curious than her niece. But let Anna do the fighting.

“Suit yourself. But I know you are too lazy to walk up a flight of stairs. Plus you are too proud to peep. You love your uncle too much to upset him with a scene. So I’ll have mercy on you and describe the idyllic picture that welcomed me when I looked into my father’s room. Imagine an empty bottle of wine and two glasses on the bedside table and a sweetly sleeping pair lying peacefully on the bed. They are curled up right next to each other in perfect harmony, their bodies one. In short, they are back together.”

“So I was right,” Anna just had to make that point.

“Well, as I said, yes and no. She definitely didn’t go to him intending only to make friends again, and so I was wrong in that way, but this was hardly a maneuver to make me jealous, so you were wrong, too. As I said, they are back together.”

“But how do you know that if they are sleeping?” Anna was incredulous.

“By the way they are sleeping,” Henry reiterated.

“Look whose imagination is running away with him now. So you are trying to tell me that the sight of the sleeping pair is irrefutable evidence that they have reconciled and that they are continuing where they left off. Don’t you see that she wanted you to see her sleeping there with him so as to get back at you?” Anna still stuck to her version.

“Well, she is getting back at me by getting back with my father. The two things don’t exclude each other,” Henry pointed out and was surprised at the blandness of his own emotions.

“Oh, that’s not what I meant, and you know it. She’s getting back at you so as to get you back! The sweet sleeping scene is just a clever device for that purpose,” Anna explained.

“Look, we’ll see who’s right as soon as the sleeping beauties wake up and descend from their bower of bliss,” Henry said. “One thing is sure. Whatever Denise’s intentions, I am sticking to mine. I am done with her. She can remain with Father, or she can move on—the choice is hers. I refuse to be in the picture. But I’m telling you she won’t try to get me back. There would have been easier ways to do so, although they wouldn’t have been as flattering to my ego as your version.”

Henry caught the look of surprise on his mother’s face before she could turn away. Like her, he couldn’t believe how good-humoredly and philosophically he was taking it. Was it the reward for righteous conduct and renunciation?


7.

As Denise had sat there on Hugh’s bed, she’d found his gaze so meaningful, so powerful that she, whose first priority was always to satisfy her own desires, did not even try to resist the feeling that overcame her in response. There was no change of plans, because there hadn’t been a plan when she kicked off her slippers and climbed on top of him, still without a word. Had the wind really started moaning outside, or was it her imagination? The terrible little bed creaked, and she had joined in the moaning of the wind—imaginary or real didn’t in the least matter, she decided, nor did it matter if anybody heard them. She couldn’t have known it, but Nora was just then down by the pool in the company of her laptop, the cicadas, Alberto, and Estella. Clarissa, working downstairs, became aware of some noise, but she was making quite enough noise of her own dusting, sweeping, filling pails with water, and other practical matters, so she couldn’t distinguish the sounds coming from upstairs. Her Massimo would surely have cocked his ears and sought out the origin of those snippets of sound that rose above these other mundane ones, but, while she had no more sense of propriety than her husband, Clarissa had a far less curious nature and far too much work on her hands to spend time investigating and eavesdropping. So she just went on cheerfully banging buckets and singing to herself while the little bed upstairs continued to creak and the lovers to moan.

Then they were lying in bed, exhausted and satisfied, and Denise’s falling asleep had prevented their saying a word. They dozed and awoke and had another go at it, their bodies deciding, still without any verbal exchange. At a certain point, however, it was their bodies that interrupted the charmed chain of events with gurgling stomachs. Discussing prosaic matters was a relief, in fact, and the conversation that had been delayed for so long started with the topic of nourishment, thereby skillfully sidestepping more important issues.

“Hughie, dear, I am famished. Do you care to take a bite of something?” Denise whispered in his ear.

It was a terribly tough question without her being aware of it; Hugh’s systematic refusal of food for the last two days had had a purpose—to convince the others that he was ill and thereby gain time—but now, after having made love to the very person that had brought about the whole necessity of starving himself, he felt it wouldn’t make any sense going on with it. He was perfectly convinced that their love-making equaled a reconciliation—and who could blame him, other than those who would have pointed out that with other women, generally, climbing on top of one was a sure enough sign of wanting to make peace, but with Denise it didn’t mean much—so he gleefully accepted her offer of something to eat. And why not toast to the event with some wine?

“Yes, I’d love a bite of something, and I wouldn’t even mind a glass of something. But I feel quite weak, still, and going downstairs is not high on my list.” He wanted to lay down the law, remind her who was the man and not skip around at her bidding, serving her food in bed. Let her go down like a brave female and procure food for her man. At the bottom of it all there was, of course, his dread of facing the others—he had no idea who was there in the house and who had gone out.

“No probs, dear. I’ll sneak downstairs and get something from the kitchen. But don’t expect wonders. There’s a charwoman turning everything upside down, and your wolf of a wife is prowling around the premises as well.” Denise felt a delicious thrill at having called the cleaning lady a charwoman and Nora a wolf.

“Fine, whatever you find,” Hugh said graciously and heaved a small sigh of satisfaction as Denise slipped into her dress and out the door. Denise in his bed and then Denise preparing food for him were the best medicine for his recovery. He already felt very much like his old self and even chuckled at the silly little interlude—the Primavera party, his son’s temporary succession—with condescending amusement. As he lay there, still warm from Denise’s embraces, her scent on his skin, he felt more certain than ever that he wanted nothing more than to marry that fabulous creature. Having lost her for however short an interval had made him realize more completely than before how much he loved and desired her, how she really was the one for him.

But what if she left him again? How would he feel about being chucked by the same woman twice in a row? What kind of a noodle would he prove himself to be to have taken her back after all that had happened only to be thrown out again? To be chucked once had almost killed him. Hugh shivered at the thought of an encore and pulled the cover all the way up to his chin. This was a crisis situation. His victory hung in the air like a silken cord that could be snapped by that fatal female at any second. He had to think the matter out carefully and quickly—Denise could be back any moment. It was undeniable that now that the girl had come back to him of her own accord, he had been given a supreme chance to reinstate his manhood by dumping her. He really did desire her more than ever, and he could have howled at the thought of having to let her go when she had only just come back, but he simply couldn’t risk his sanity again. The vision of Denise in a white dress saying the yes word was so very sweet that it brought tears to his eyes, but he would shove that fantasy to the side and be a man.

But how break it to her? Was it really necessary to have it all out and make a scene? It suited his mood and was far more convenient to go on enjoying her company—maybe even a few more rounds could be had—and not saying a word, all the time knowing that he would feign surprise when Denise suggested that this afternoon’s events had had anything to do with reconciliation. The best way to show what manly stuff he was really made of was to assume that it was natural to have a good time when offered to him on a silver plate, but it was equally natural that he would never consider taking back a girl who’d expressed her wish to move on. He was not the kind of man to be made a convenience of, and once the door was closed, there was no coming back. Popping in for a shag was, of course, a different matter, but it was obvious that it didn’t mean much of anything. On the other hand, he knew the others would start their cross-examinations as soon as he and Denise came downstairs together, but what of it? He could be as evasive as the next person.

Denise had not met anyone downstairs—by then Henry had rushed in while Celestina waited in the car and spirited Clarissa away, and Nora had just gone outside to pick up her forgotten book from the garden—and she had quickly come upon a bag of grissinis in the larder and a bottle of wine opportunely standing on the kitchen counter. Grabbing these things, along with a corkscrew and two glasses, she was on her way back to Hugh’s room, thinking all the while about the pleasurable events that had just taken place. She had to admit she had outdone herself this time; she had positively surprised herself along with old Hugh. What on earth was she doing making love to someone with whom she’d so clearly been bored? Of course it had been fun having sex with him just now, otherwise she wouldn’t have done it, but what the hell had come upon her to have wanted it in the first place? It was true that Hugh was a very good lover—that went without saying, and it was not so surprising that she had gotten into the mood when she had seen him in his bed, his expressive eyes so full of admiration for her.

But now what? Did she still feel like going on with the farce and getting Henry back as soon as he showed the foreseeable signs of suffering for her as she’d intended? Did she really want little Noodle back? Wouldn’t it be more fun and at the same time more in line with her ego to punish him properly by showing him that nobody could tell her to go to hell and walk out on her in a huff with a younger (and possibly prettier) girl even if it had only been a momentary temper tantrum? Yes, it was certainly more to her taste to enjoy Hugh’s company as long as it was enjoyable to her and dismiss the boy. When Henry raised the matter, she would act as if it was obvious to her that his behavior earlier that day meant a rupture. As for Hugh, when he raised the matter, as he certainly would, she would just have to tell him that she didn’t wish to talk either about the past or the future, that she didn’t want to analyze what had happened, and she didn’t want to rehash past plans or make new ones. Let them behave like sensible, sensuous creatures and play it by ear.

Focusing once again on her present enjoyment, Denise went upstairs and opened the wine and the bag of grissinis and talked of everything but the broader situation. She praised the wine and wondered who that genius was who’d made a shitload of money marketing fancy dry breadsticks as grissinis. She talked of her new course in botany, the flowering shrubs in Il Silenzio’s garden, her resolve to learn Italian, her plan to come back to Italy and visit Rome properly, and sundry other things. As usual, her talk was smooth and witty, and she even went out of her way to draw Hugh out. He was entertained and relieved and flattered by it. Who doesn’t like a newly enthusiastic audience for favorite anecdotes that one has told several times to every other possible acquaintance? Who isn’t led to characterize another as a great conversationalist who simply makes pointed observations, asks one interesting questions, and lends an ear?

Amid laughter, munching, and sipping, the two enjoyed their time up on that small bed, oblivious of the comings and goings of others and of the passing of time. The grissinis were crunchy and better than nothing, but they surely hadn’t the capacity to soak up the wine that washed them down, hence the drowsiness and the long, sweet nap, which furthermore allowed Henry to witness their bliss without being seen.


8.

Clad in a white suit and smiling amiably, Alberto seemed to be an apparition to Nora’s dazzled eyes—dazzled by the sun as well as by the simple elegance of the only person that she did not mind meeting.

“Oh, good morning,” Alberto said as he approached the table where Nora was sitting. “I’ve never been happier about sunshine—the rain has kept you inside, and I haven’t had the chance to see you.”

“If the living room of Il Silenzio wasn’t so beautiful and cozy, I admit I would have felt wretched during this strange spell of rain and cold,” Nora said. “Is this kind of weather normal around here this time of the year?” She had to warm to the situation, and discussing the weather a bit longer seemed like a safe move.

“Well, such violent changes aren’t uncommon—fog and rain coming as if out of nowhere—but because they go as fast as they come, we can still safely say that our summers are generally hot and dry. In fact, too hot and too dry for some,” Alberto explained.

He was still standing, so Nora had motioned to a chair at the table where she was sitting in invitation for him to join her—he was too old-fashioned and well behaved to take such liberty.

“Believe it or not,” he continued, “Augusta was pleased with the cool, fresh air, although she was also suffering because the rain kept her indoors. She always says that if she can’t enjoy her garden, she might just as well sit around her beautiful flat in Rome and save herself the trouble of coming all the way to Orvieto.”

They were happy and nervous to be sitting there together by the pool. Alberto had raised the subject of his sister partly because it was just as safe a topic as the weather and partly as the first step toward asking Nora about her family. He guessed, however, that it would not be such smooth ground for her, yet he was anxious to ascertain her feelings and, therefore, bent on broaching the subject. Was she sad that they had gone? (Most probably not.) Was she sticking to her plan and staying as long as she had intended? (He hoped so.) Was she divorcing her husband? (That should be neither here nor there for him, as he didn’t plan on marrying, of course, but still…)

“I’m sure your sister’s apartment in Rome is spectacular,” Nora said. “I was most impressed by La Serenissima, and it is not hard to imagine that her main residence is even more splendid.”

“It is, it is. But Rome is too chaotic and complicated for someone of Augusta’s age.”

“And excessively noisy, isn’t it? I hear horror stories about the noise pollution. Are they true?”

“They are true, but it does not bother Augusta as you might expect, and I’ll tell you why: although she would rather die than admit it of her own accord, she is growing deaf. But please don’t ever let on that you know. In my family, we have had our benevolent little conspiracy for quite some time now, and she doesn’t in the least suspect we know. Of course, it was her domestics who noticed it in the first place, and why wouldn’t they, being with her on a daily basis?” Alberto smiled at the thought of her sister’s excusable vanity. Anyway, wasn’t he going down that very same road? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, right? He hoped their family would continue being as tactful with him as they were with his older sister.

“I am very much surprised. I mean I shouldn’t have been as surprised if I had only heard of Augusta’s age without seeing her, but when I met her, I got the impression that she is eternally youthful, even immortal. She definitely didn’t strike me as having any infirmities, especially not something so difficult to hide—especially someone with such a social life. And I never noticed her talking too loudly or answering a question that hadn’t been asked or otherwise giving herself away. Remarkable.” If possible, Nora was even more impressed by her landlady now than she had been after that memorable dinner.

“She is. And she sincerely hopes that you and your family enjoyed the dinner she gave in your honor.” Alberto was feeling his way toward the issues close to his heart. Nora went slightly red, but she had sufficiently loosened up by then to take the matter relatively lightly.

“Oh, yes, the dinner. I’ll live to tell about it, that’s guaranteed. And it’s also certain that I’ll always suffer the torments of embarrassment before I get around to telling this particular tale. You might have noticed that I’m not exactly the person to take things lightly, and I think the happenings of that night would have taxed an even hardier person’s equanimity. Then again, I have the good fortune to see the bright side of things and also to believe in what I term the ‘necessary bad.’ By this I mean that certain unpleasant things are the prerequisites of certain good things to come. It all happened that way because it was meant to happen that way.”

Nora had rushed into this explanation without ascertaining whether Alberto was really in need of one. She had always taken it for granted that her credo would sound like a jumble of contradictions to anyone else, which she believed was one of the reasons why she had always been so averse to talking about it at all. And now, by some miracle, here she was discussing such personal matters. Certainly a mighty jump from the topic of the weather.

“I take it you believe in destiny, then.”

“I don’t know how much sense you or anybody can make of this, and it’s not often I’ve put it into words, but I believe that there is Somebody who has written the story of my life, but I don’t know the script and am made to feel all the while that I’m improvising. There is, in other words, a plan for me, but instead of sitting around resignedly and waiting for things to happen to me because it is all predestined anyway, I have to make decisions and act and feel the responsibility of it all.”

“It sounds so reassuring, so beautiful, so modern. I wish I could share your belief, but I guess I’m more of a postmodern sort—fragmentation and contingency, you know,” Alberto said sadly.

“But then how can you be so enamored of the nineteenth century?” Nora asked, surprised. “Why don’t you specialize in postmodern literature?”

“Exactly because I admire and envy so much the period when people’s systems of thought were still relatively reassuring,” Alberto said. “Unfortunately, I would be incapable of identifying with those who believe unconditionally in Jesus Christ and the Bible and all that, but I can at least partly identify with those who make the world look less fragmented and contingent than it really is. I guess if I could choose, I would want to be a Modernist with his solace of form. In this, then, ironically enough, I am much closer to your beloved James than to my beloved Trollope.”

“It is rather curious. I mean that you can love a writer so much without being able to identify with his worldview. It’s one of the reasons why, years and years ago, when I was choosing my field of expertise, still wavering between George Eliot and James, that I finally opted for James. You see, although Eliot exchanges her religion for liberal humanism in time, still, her works are saturated with God. In the case of James, it is very different; he is just the kind of secular writer that I can truly enjoy without feeling that his worldliness makes his morality frivolous.

“As far as envy and hopelessness go, I know what you mean. It is not something one can learn. You either have it, or you don’t—you either believe, or you don’t. Of course your belief is not carved in stone; Trollope and Eliot are perfect examples of just that. But a change of belief has to come from within even if certain outer circumstances are what, in the first place, led you to start believing in or disbelieving something. Other people’s reasons and explanations and, worst, threats, will not move the mountain.

“You can’t imagine how many arguments I’ve had about this with my husband. By the look of him, especially based on his shameful behavior at your sister’s dinner, Hugh is not an intellectual. Yet he is quite a learned man—or was, before he got too much impressed by Pater and misinterpreted him and made that great thinker’s words an excuse for a life of irresponsible pleasure.” Nora sighed and smiled. “Hugh believes himself to be the high priest of youth and beauty and thinks that by chasing pretty ingénues he is living his life as intensely as he can.” She sincerely hoped she didn’t sound bitter about it.

“Oh, those untidy lives laid at poor Pater’s door,” Alberto wailed mock-tragically.

“I know, I know. His is a dangerous doctrine, and although his is advice I also personally find among the best, it should be handled with great care. The half-taught are the most exposed, and I guess my husband belongs to that category. What remains to be seen—and I have far more qualms about this than about my fornicating husband—is what use of Pater my son Henry will make. He is an educated boy, and I’m not saying this because I’m his mother. You couldn’t meet one less biased than me when it comes to my offspring. In fact, I cannot rid myself of the thought that I’ve been a bad mother, and he doesn’t help me allay those fears. Yet I can’t say I’m trying very hard. Or, it’s probably closer to the truth if I say that I think I’ve tried too hard and have been more exacting than loving.”

She continued to talk while somehow standing aside in disbelief at her own indiscretion. Was she on drugs? Whatever had made her open up so much and so fast? It simply had to be the effect of meeting that rarest of things: a kindred soul. But upon such short acquaintance? Well, hadn’t she done something like that with May Cavell? But May was a woman; it was different. Anyhow, she was in the mood for confidences and would bravely keep it up.

Her own resolve was seconded by Alberto’s openness. He nodded and said, “I have no experience with parenthood, but I’m a devoted uncle. Of course, it’s not the same thing: I have far less responsibility and consequently get far more fun out of the whole thing. Plus the vanity factor is virtually nonexistent. One would certainly be less ashamed of a nephew than of a son. So, you see, I can offer you a lot of sympathy but not much wisdom when it comes to Henry. But I can tell you without any intention of flattering you that he’s struck me as an excellent young man, and my family members are of the same opinion.”

“Indeed? This means a lot to me, especially now.” Nora was visibly hesitant once again, yet after looking into Alberto’s eyes and seeing only sympathy and interest in them, she went on, reassured. “The thing is—and I’m not sure I’ll present my family in a good light by telling you all this—but the last couple of days seemed to have brought out the worst in all of my visiting relatives, my son included. The emotional roller coaster that they’ve undergone and forced me onto as well has come out quite right in the end, I suppose, but we’ve had some ugly moments, I assure you.”

Nora related the story of Hugh and Denise, Henry and Denise, Carlito and Denise, in theory at least, then Henry and Denise again, then Henry and Celestina, in theory at least, and, finally, Hugh and Denise once again, adding her suspicion that Hugh was only biding his time to make his break with Denise as painful to the latter as possible and thereby thoroughly punish her for the havoc she’d wreaked.

“Good lord, this sounds like a Shakespearean comedy. So much coupling and re-coupling in such short interval is incredible. But, as the bard would say, all’s well that ends well, right?”

“I really can’t say. I’m almost too exhausted to care and too happy they’ve finally cleared out, if you want to know the truth. Sure, I’m preoccupied about Henry and about Hugh, to some extent, but I need some time to get my footing and get rid of the terrible heartless thought that they deserve whatever has happened and will happen, simply because they have both behaved abominably and brought the whole thing on themselves. But I don’t think they are in for any more unpleasantness, at least between them. The boy has redeemed himself and gone through a kind of initiation into manhood by resisting the temptation to crawl back to that unspeakable female yet again, and my husband, well, he cares only about redeeming his precious manhood and his limitless vanity.”

“Well, that girl surely seems to be good at sowing the seeds of discord, so to say. But do you really think she had an eye on our Carlito?” Alberto chuckled. “I wouldn’t actually be surprised. He is as handsome as they come, and a very good person at the same time—not in the least conceited, tender-hearted, sociable, witty, what you will. Of course he also has feet of clay, but who doesn’t? He is spoiled, lazy, and, as far as I can tell, perfectly indifferent to women. This latter characteristic is a mystery of sorts to my family, and whether it is a vice or a virtue depends on personal interpretation. It’s not something we openly discuss, I have to tell you.”

“I understand perfectly.” Nora, even after all their confidences and the general intimacy of their talk, felt that homosexuality was just not the kind of topic she would ever get comfortable with as a discussion topic. Furthermore, she was very much afraid of insulting Alberto by saying something negative about a relative of his. The subject was too dangerous and not essential to her happiness, anyway, so she was very grateful to Alberto when he turned the conversation.

“And what are your plans now?” he asked, trying to keep his voice level, neutral. “Are you staying on at Il Silenzio as you planned to?”

“Oh, absolutely. The only possible change of plans is to extend my stay. I will definitely not shorten it. I’m not in a rush back, you see. I’m perfectly content here.” She looked around and suddenly felt she belonged there more than any other place she’d been.

“I am sincerely delighted to hear that. And Augusta will be, too.” He added that last bit so as not to seem overeager.

“I’ll try to be as good a tenant as possible. I won’t be having any more guests any time soon.” Nora’s voice was decided and even a bit louder than necessary—as if she were talking to her departed relatives and wanted to make sure that her words carried across the Atlantic.

“I think I know you enough to know that to ask whether you won’t be lonely would be the stupidest question.”

“It would, indeed. But do you find that strange—unnatural?” Nora stole an anxious side-glance at him.

“God, no. How would a confirmed bachelor think such a thing?”

“So you are fond of your privacy, too. Is that why you’ve never married?”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Nora wanted to kick herself. She couldn’t bring herself to even look at him. It was one thing to shamelessly inundate the poor man with the details of her private life, and it was another matter altogether to start delving in his. Anna had had a bad influence on her, and she was turning into a veritable inquisitor herself. How could she, the stern enthusiast of privacy, be so indiscreet?


9.

Alberto hesitated to answer Nora’s question, and she held her breath. But he didn’t hesitate because he found the question out of place but rather because he found it difficult to answer. It was only Nora’s own shyness and over-scrupulousness that had painted the turn of the conversation in such somber colors. Even if Alberto himself was a generally reserved person when it came to his emotional life and the topic of marriage, after all that had been said between them—including the jokes about husband-hunters as he left for Orvieto and his visit with the widow—he found the question quite appropriate.

Nora finally hazarded a look at him and found him looking thoughtful rather than irritated or offended.

“Yes, I think my desire for privacy is the main reason I’ve never married. But there is also a little voice that sometimes tells me that maybe I’ve never had the impulse to share my whole life with someone simply because I haven’t found the right person. But I always respond to the voice by reminding myself that even the most excellent individuals cannot fathom or accept my concept of a meaningful human relationship. Most would say that I am too fond of my private space. Yes, I am a sociable person, and I have many friends, and I am truly devoted to my family, but I need the freedom to close the door on even those closest to me and claim that space as mine and mine alone.

“I cannot even confess to having any embarrassing habits that would need to be kept behind closed doors. God forbid. And I’m not made of wood, either, of course, and I don’t want you to think that I have never been in love and have never desired a woman. Far from it. And it’s not even that I have been what Carlito refers to as a ‘player,’ afraid of commitment and collecting trophies while remaining as free as a bird. It has just been simply impossible to keep up a relationship with a woman without her wanting to take it to the next level. I’ve never been interested in a woman who could remain in a relationship for more than a certain amount of time without wanting to share an apartment and begin what they always call ‘a life together.’ The dating phase does not satisfy them in the long run. If you have no intention of moving in with them and ultimately marrying them, then they move on to someone who shares those interests and intentions. Of course, there are women who are not the marrying type, but they certainly do not remain interested in a long-term relationship. Who ever would want to make a commitment to someone who would keep them at arm’s length, so to speak?”

“I would.” Nora could not contain the words. Alberto had just described her own ideal relationship. The very thing she had always wanted and never thought possible.

Alberto’s surprise was plain. “You would not feel snubbed and dissatisfied and misused and horribly insulted if your male friend had absolutely no intention ever to move in with you and would not even want to see you or talk to you every day? I cannot believe it.” Was it possible that he would find the Kindred Spirit—the ideal partner—this late in the game? If there was a God, he certainly had a twisted sense of humor.

“Try me, my dear Signor Colassú. What do you have to lose? To tell you the truth—not that I’ve been telling you anything but that even until now—I’ve never wanted any other kind of relationship, but what was the likelihood of ever finding someone who would not be averse to such an arrangement and who would, of course, suit my taste in other respects?”

“I don’t know what’s come over me,” Alberto said, his voice rising joyfully. “I am usually far from being so outspoken. It must be because I am talking to my Kindred Spirit! So let me infer from what you’ve said that I am to your taste.” He was beaming. Contingency or destiny, things had taken a very satisfactory turn, and he was rushing headlong toward bliss.

“Well, sir, I should be willing to give you a try. Remember, I am here, and, with due notice, you are the only guest I would welcome whenever you feel like having a chat, a bit of wine, maybe dinner. I am not averse to other activities, either, of course, but I don’t want to sound too exacting.” Nora was intoxicated by her own words. Italy seemed to have had true happiness in store for her. She thought of the cliché that said clichés become clichés because they are generally true.

 

The words between the two friends on that day opened a figurative door that neither would have dreamed of closing again. Neither of them changed their respective routines, and, as a result, none of their meetings were ever tinged with feelings of obligation or resentment for having had to sacrifice any part of their beloved private spheres. Alberto, it was true, came oftener to Orvieto than before, but it was always the weekend or on days when he would have spent his free time calling on friends, anyway. Nora went on with her reading and writing just as she had planned, and it only added to her happiness to have something to look forward to in the shape of a Saturday night dinner with her friend or simply a quiet afternoon by the pool, spent reading and occasionally chatting. It was delicious to have found someone with whom she could remain silent when she wanted to and in whose presence reading was not only tolerated but welcomed. And the books she read by Alberto’s side became more interesting, because she could share her occasional thoughts and ask questions that occurred to her as she read. Sometimes the questions were purely rhetorical, but it felt comforting to have poured them into a sympathetic ear, even if they did not beg any more reaction than an affirmative grunt. It was a habit that she knew from experience could quickly become highly exasperating, but she never felt the impulse to overdo it.

She and Alberto also took short trips to neighboring towns, and after retracing the steps of the Etruscans and visiting their tombs and looking at the odds and ends of their daily lives in museums and peeking into dark and moldy churches and tasting some wines at the local wineries, they would stop for a light lunch on a shady terrace and discuss what they’d seen and what they’d liked and what they’d found more of a hoax designed to take the money of tourists than a genuine work of art, a monument, or a spot of natural beauty. Indeed, at some of the Etruscan sights, the visitor, after having paid a hefty entrance fee, needed an extraordinarily rich imagination to appreciate the couple of stones that were supposedly the remains of a sunken road, for instance. Similarly, a few broken pots and a handful of coins had sufficed to make up a “fabulous collection” of artifacts that occupied an otherwise empty house euphemistically called a “museum” in order to exact yet another toll on the tourist’s purse.

One afternoon they were taking their coffee at the excellent but rather unimaginatively named Taverna Etrusca in Sovana. The lunch had been elegant and unpretentious and wonderfully tasty, and Nora and Alberto were contentedly sipping their espresso and dreamily watching the smoke-rings Alberto supplied with the help of a cigar—a specimen of Ernesto Minalba’s private stock.

“I am sometimes ashamed of myself,” Nora said. “I call myself an intellectual, and then I come to a museum like this, and I find I don’t have it in me to appreciate the allegedly fascinating remains of history. I need more beauty, more food for my aesthetic sense when I go to a museum, that’s the sad truth.” Nora had by then learned not to feel ashamed of saying things to Alberto that she had been perfectly unwilling to let on to anyone else.

“It’s not so sad, my dear. It’s just that archeology and even history are not your cup of tea. I take it that besides literature, you need paintings, sculpture, and buildings, and all these in a more or less intact form. Or at least with not more than one arm missing or a façade crumbling here or there. Could you, I wonder, forgive a chipped nose? Or tolerate a torso robbed of its head?” Alberto mused with a mischievous smile.

“Ah, am I really so superficial? I mean it’s easy to appreciate beautiful things especially while they are in a tolerably good condition. The hard part is when you have to supplement the visual image with mental images, when it’s your imagination that has to do the work. According to James even a morsel should suffice for an imaginative person to supply the rest,” Nora said wistfully.

“But my dear Nora, what if your rich imagination supplied the rest of the half dozen stones at the Etruscan sight? You would still only end up with just a road, however intact. Sunken or not, old or not, it’s just a road, after all.” Alberto didn’t believe what he was saying, but he wanted to lead her on.

“Ah, but it’s only there that the imaginative work begins,” she said earnestly. “I mean it’s not an overwhelming mental effort to visualize a road, even if only a few stones are given. The imaginative achievement is when you can picture the whole life of the Etruscans who trod those roads—not just their clothing and their horses and donkeys and kids and pots and pans, but the lives they led, their loves and the doubts that disturbed their dreams. All of it.”

“Of course I agree with you,” Alberto said affectionately. “I was teasing you. But don’t forget that however rich your imagination is, it might be kindled by different things than somebody else’s. You shouldn’t put it down as a failure if you don’t happen to be moved by certain things. Of course, if you aren’t moved by most things, it’s a different matter, but you are far from being narrow-minded. You might not have been moved to write a story about the Etruscans after all we’ve seen lately, but that still leaves a lot of room for other topics. By the way, how is your book coming along?”

“Slowly but surely. Well, I don’t know about surely, actually, but it’s sure that it’s coming along slowly rather than quickly. Not that I don’t write a lot, but then I do a lot of rewriting. I polish my sentences and color my scenes and sculpt my characters—I am like Flaubert or Vermeer, at least in my method. Does this sound like an excuse to you? It does to me, I have to admit. My pottering around has a lot to do with insecurity; I am not self-confident enough to say to myself, ‘This sentence is good, this scene is good, this character is good.’ I keep redoing things because I am never satisfied.”

“Well, it is good to be exacting, but it is definitely counterproductive if you overdo it. But that’s once again a rather general dilemma, especially in the case of as-yet-unrecognized authors.”

“But think of all those writers who were never recognized during their lifetime! How they plodded on and on and died unappreciated but had left such pearls behind them, which had taken so much time and energy to write. What kept up their spirits? What made them persevere? And it doesn’t even get any better upon completing a piece of writing; then the torture with publishing and being sold and read begins. What kind of power is it that’s supposed to drive you despite refusals by the dozens from every possible publisher you try, despite vitriolic book reviews and stacks of unsold books?” Nora asked plaintively.

“It has to be something I’ve never had,” was all Alberto said by way of an answer.

Nora understood. “So you’ve tried your hand at fiction as well, and you gave it up?” she said.

“I never got past the dabbling stage, you know. I have never completed any of my literary efforts, be they short stories, novels or plays. Of course, it has been just the opposite when it came to literary criticism; I’ve worked long and hard on research and written and published many, many things, but as soon as it came to creative writing, my endeavors always foundered quite soon. I never even got to the publishing-misery stage.” Alberto’s voice was sincere, melancholy, and derisive at the same time. He wasn’t ashamed, but neither was he proud of his failures.

“Have you ever regretted giving it up? Haven’t you thought since then to take it up again? Many a great book has been completed after having been thrown aside for years on end.”

“Oh, I never regret anything. But if I did have regrets, I might regret that I had tried it in the first place. It is undoubtedly a humbling feeling and very difficult to accept that you are just not good enough at what you live for. I more or less live for literature, and the most I am capable of, it seems, is the appreciation of literature written by others.”

“But think about Wilde’s tenet according to which the critic is an artist. To be a really superb critic is just as great an achievement, and it is, moreover, a creative activity. It’s just that instead of taking life as your raw material you turn to literature—which is also life, but in a more refined form—and create literature out of literature. Interpretation is creation, and to share your point of view with other readers is as constructive morally as writing novels. Don’t belittle your own achievements.” Nora tried to console her friend who, by then, had become more melancholy than otherwise.

“If all that’s true, why, then, aren’t you satisfied with being a critic? Why do you wish to write fiction?”

“Because I feel it’s in me to write fiction. There are things I have to express, things I have to tell, which can only be told this way. I would never for a second consider turning to poetry or drama to do so, for example. The stuff I have in me is prose stuff. Hopefully not prosaic, though.”

“You see, my dear, where we have arrived now is the place you must always recall whenever you are in doubt about your writing: you have things to tell, you have a calling, an urge, a need to do so, and you have already found the way to express them. Now you just have to continue down that road, and you’ll get there eventually.” Alberto had a stray tear in his eye, but he did his best to sound cheerful and inspiring. His personal grievances shouldn’t get in the way of his desire to assist his friend in her struggle with self-doubt. Looking at Nora, he saw with relief that he had succeeded. She seemed radiant, and the tears in her eyes had to do with gratitude and not with grief. She leaned over and gave him a long soft kiss on the mouth. The first one.


10.

Signora Primavera was not in the least surprised by—and was all the more pleased with—the sudden frequency of her baby brother’s visits to Orvieto. Of course, she had seen right away at that memorable dinner party that her idea to bring the two literary personages together had been a happy one. Alberto and Nora had gotten along marvelously well from the outset, and their continuing friendship had had other commendable consequences besides the obvious pleasure they had found in each other’s company. Her tenant had been tried and tested and approved of by her brother, who came oftener to visit and was, if possible, even more charming company than heretofore. Her tenant, enjoying her sojourn at Il Silenzio all the more due to Alberto’s presence, would most likely decide to stay on longer than originally planned; thus rent money would continue to flow into Signora Primavera’s pocket. Additionally, the Cesares would also retain the extra source of income that Nora’s presence guaranteed them and would thus stop pestering Augusta for a raise or for extra odd jobs that Clarissa especially had been so much wanting to perform at La Serenissima.

At first, when Alberto and Nora had invited Augusta to accompany them on the delightful drive to Lago Trasimeno, she had thought they needed her to allay the awkwardness that a tête-á-tête might have occasioned. Of course, she would go along and do them a good turn while also having some fun. But as soon as they had embarked on their little outing, the old signora realized—with as much relief as surprise—that they behaved when together without a shade of embarrassment. This was a novelty to Augusta, who knew of the shyness that lay behind the smooth façade of her brother’s sociable and talkative demeanor—especially when in the presence of the person who enchanted him. And here he was, gay as a lark, as uninhibited as she had ever seen him, all in the company of the person who seemed to have enchanted him like no one else before. This, Augusta concluded, was the very proof of Nora Hilary’s magic: she had brought out the best in an otherwise pleasant man, and the real difference lay in the fact that the man was truly enjoying himself where before he was used to entertaining more and enjoying somewhat less.

Augusta found them quite pleasant company on their trip to Lago Trasimeno, where they lunched, strolled, and fed the swans and other winged creatures as they sat on a bench facing the water, with Alberto producing his perennial smoke rings. Augusta talked a bit, but mostly she let them talk, and whatever she managed to hear (this deafness business was becoming truly bothersome!) she treasured as snippets of good conversation, the kind she had always welcomed—not too serious but not too superficial, either, happy but not forced, honest but not insulting. Despite all this, however, the old signora decided there and then, while watching the water and throwing crumbs of bread leftover from the restaurant to the eager creatures, not to come along with them on their sojourns anymore if she could help it. They were so content together, and they seemed to be drifting gently but surely toward greater intimacy, a process to which she would have been only an impediment if she tagged along.

When Alberto requested her company on a trip to Perugia, she told him that she was too old and tired to undertake such a longish drive (fifty-some kilometers on highway smooth as butter) and to tolerate the hubbub of such a biggish town. He understood her intentions immediately, and was touched by them. She always resisted blaming anything on her age, and her doing so now meant that she wanted to give him and Nora all the space and time they might need to get the best out of their outings. Ironically, her pleading too old for the sake of such amorous cause was exactly what proved her modernity, her youthfulness.

So he and Nora set out alone together, around ten in the morning, there being no reason to rush. It was a special day, the whole of it devoted to the little escapade, with reading and writing materials put aside. The drive was, of course, not longish at all, and it was scenic all the way. Once they’d reached their destination, they would not do more than take a leisurely stroll before lunch. The afternoon would be devoted to the sights and sounds of the beautiful city, and even if they decided to linger for part of the evening, the drive back would be perfectly manageable even in the dusk.

“Are you happy?”

Nora laughed out loud and said, “Very.” She had been smiling as she gazed out of the window and reveled in the greenness of the grass, the blood-red dots of poppy-heads among the silky wheat fields, and the curve of the hills as they rolled by. Alberto was next to her, driving and humming a tune, and it all felt so good that smiling was the least she could do to express her contentment. “You know I have this strange habit. Actually, I shouldn’t call it a habit, because I don’t do it often enough, but let’s say I have a characteristic way of expressing my happiness. Mind you, there is not one living soul who has ever seen me do it, except for our beloved gardener, Signor Cesare. He is the only person ever to have laid eyes on the ridiculous sight of me jumping up and down and clapping my hands in the middle of the living room at Il Silenzio. I felt like murdering the poor man. Granted, I think of him as shifty and gossipy, but he had no intention of witnessing something so embarrassing. I’m telling you all this because right now I feel like doing the same thing—not murdering but jumping and clapping—and for the first time ever, I don’t think I would mind if another person saw it, provided that person was you. See? This is how happy I am.”

“I see, I see, but as soon as we get to Perugia, what I really would love is to see you actually doing it,” Alberto said with a grin on his face.

“Do you dare me to?”

“Absolutely.”

“Only if you do it with me,” was Nora’s challenge.

“Oh, but my doing would not be the real thing, you know, since it is not my way of expressing supreme happiness.”

“You mean you have a different way? What is it? Standing on your head? Turning somersaults? Or maybe cartwheels?” Nora teased.

“Nothing so athletic, my dear. Don’t forget my age. I’ll make do with something less dramatic than that.”

“Oh, now I’m really curious. Tell me,” Nora pleaded.

“You’ll see when we get there.”

“Fine by me. Now I’m looking forward to our arrival with even more excitement. But tell me this, at least: have you often visited this place?”

“Perugia? Fairly often, I would say. You remember, my niece’s husband Ernesto has a little shop there, although this is no reason for me to visit the more often. But then there’s the university. Yes, their university is nothing too shabby, and the town is certainly one of the most important in the vicinity of Orvieto. It’s charming, you’ll see.”

All the while, they were driving the undulating road that would take them to the highway. The hills were rather steep at times, but Alberto was a careful driver without qualifying as a roadblock; he was definitely more dynamic than Nora or the decrepit Pandas. They were making their way on a fairly easy stretch without too many curves, ascents, and descents, hardly meeting any cars on the road, when, a big silver car appeared as if out of nowhere, blasting down the road in the opposite direction, yet in their lane. The last thing Nora remembered was the British license plate, and the last thing that caught Alberto’s attention was the almost unearthly way the giant silver Mercedes shimmered in the sunlight. Then all went black.

 

 

fghh The End fghh

 

Foreign expressions in the text:

al fresco: (It.) out in the open air

Al presto, allora!: (It.) See you soon, then

amoroso: (It.) womanizer

battibecchi: (It.) arguments, squabbles, bickering

basta: (It.) enough, that’s it

Bel Paese: (It.) the beautiful country, an epithet of Italy

biscotti: (It.) cookies

caipirinha: (Port.) typical Brazilian drink, made with cachaça (a type of hard liquor), lime juice, sugar, a little water, and lots of ice (Cheers!)

casus belli: (Lat.) the cause for contention

cena: (It.) dinner

centro storico: (It.) historical center, old town

chéri: (Fr.) dear, darling; the male form of chérie

Come state?: (It.) How are you?

comme il faut: (Fr.) literally, “how it is done”; the proper way of doing something according to an accepted set of standards

crostata: (It) Italian baked dessert tart

de rigeur: (Fr.) of necessity, that is if something is de rigeur, it is necessary to have or to do it if one wants to conform to a given norm

Dummkopf: (Germ.) blockhead, silly

élan vital (Fr.) vital force

femme du monde: (Fr.) a socially prominent woman, a socialite

gino: (It.) an even less flattering version of amoroso

granité: (Fr.) similar to a sorbet, eaten to neutralize the palate between courses

guastafeste: (It.) wet blanket, spoilsport

haricots verts: (Fr.) green beans

Il Silenzio: (It.) the silence

in flagrante delicto: (Lat.) in the act, red-handed

in vino veritas: (Lat.) in wine is truth

La Belle Dame sans Merci: (Fr.) literally, “the beautiful lady without mercy”; reference to a character from the John Keats poem of the same name (1884); a femme fatale, that is a woman of great charm who leads men into compromising and dangerous situations

l’appetito vien mangiando: (It.) appetite comes with eating, one gets in the mood of doing

something while doing it

La Serenissima: (It.) the most serene, used to be an epithet of the Republic of Venice

mangiata: (It.) a feast, an occasion where lots of eating gets done

ninna-nanna: (It.) lullaby, bedtime song

non plus ultra: (Latin) literally, “nothing further beyond”; reference to the inscription on the Pillars of Hercules in Greek mythology.

panino/panini: (It.) sandwich/sandwiches

parrucchiere: (It.) hairdresser

perpetuum mobile: (Lat.) literally, “perpetual motion”; a person who moves around constantly

prodotti tipici: (It.) gastronomic products typical of a given region

prosecco: (It.) an Italian variety of sparkling wine

roman a clef: (Fr.) a novel in which actual persons and events are disguised as fictional

characters

signore: (It.) here, “the ladies,” the plural form of signora; also stands for “sir”

spaghetti carbonara: (It.) pasta dish with cream, eggs, cheese, and bacon

spumante: (It.) sparkling wine

tagliatelle ai funghi porcini: (It.) pasta dish with porcini type mushroom

tête-á-tête: (Fr.) a conversation between two people

turismo all’americano: (It.) tourism American style

vecchio libertino: (It.) old libertine; womanizer; amoroso

vitello: (It.) veal

volte-face: (Fr.) sudden reversal in opinion, complete change in position or attitude