Illustrated by Samantha Hahn.
Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials. He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future. We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at that subject. He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.
The billionaire had been keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended—obviously—with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today. I wondered whether in fact what he wanted now was to be a writer, with the literary magazine as his entrée. A lot of people want to be writers: there was no reason to think you couldn’t buy your way into it. This man had bought himself in, and out, of a great many things. He mentioned a scheme he was working on, to eradicate lawyers from people’s personal lives. He was also developing a blueprint for a floating wind farm big enough to accommodate the entire community of people needed to service and run it: the gigantic platform could be located far out to sea, thus removing the unsightly turbines from the stretch of coast where he was hoping to pilot the proposal and where, incidentally, he owned a house. On Sundays he played drums in a rock band, just for fun. He was expecting his eleventh child, which wasn’t as bad as it sounded when you considered that he and his wife had once adopted quadruplets from Guatemala. I was finding it difficult to assimilate everything I was being told. The waitresses kept bringing more things—oysters, relishes, special wines. He was easily distracted, like a child with too many Christmas presents. But when he put me in the taxi, he said, Enjoy yourself in Athens, though I didn’t remember telling him that was where I was going.
On the tarmac at Heathrow the plane full of people waited silently to be taken into the air. The air hostess stood in the aisle and mimed with her props as the recording played. We were strapped into our seats, a field of strangers, in a silence like the silence of a congregation while the liturgy is read. She showed us the life jacket with its little pipe, the emergency exits, the oxygen mask dangling from a length of clear tubing. She led us through the possibility of death and disaster, as the priest leads the congregation through the details of purgatory and hell; and no one jumped up to escape while there was still time. Instead we listened or half listened, thinking about other things, as though some special hardness had been bestowed on us by this coupling of formality with doom. When the recorded voice came to the part about the oxygen masks, the hush remained unbroken: no one protested, or spoke up to disagree with this commandment that one should take care of others only after taking care of oneself. Yet I wasn’t sure it was altogether true.
On one side of me sat a swarthy boy with lolling knees, whose fat thumbs sped around the screen of a gaming console. On the other was a small man in a pale linen suit, richly tanned, with a silver plume of hair. Outside, the turgid summer afternoon lay stalled over the runway; little airport vehicles raced unconstrained across the flat distances, skating and turning and circling like toys, and farther away still was the silver thread of the motorway that ran and glinted like a brook bounded by the monotonous fields. The plane began to move, trundling forward so that the vista appeared to unfreeze into motion, flowing past the windows first slowly and then faster, until there was the feeling of effortful, half-hesitant lifting as it detached itself from the earth. There was a moment in which it seemed impossible that this could happen. But then it did.
The man to my right turned and asked me the reason for my visit to Athens. I said I was going there for work.
“I hope you are staying near water,” he said. “Athens will be very hot.”
I said I was afraid that was not the case, and he raised his eyebrows, which were silver and grew unexpectedly coarsely and wildly from his forehead, like grasses in a rocky place. It was this eccentricity that had made me answer him. The unexpected sometimes looks like a prompting of fate.
“The heat has come early this year,” he said. “Normally one is safe until much later. It can be very unpleasant if you aren’t used to it.”
In the juddering cabin the lights flickered fitfully on; there was the sound of doors opening and slamming, and tremendous clattering noises, and people were stirring, talking, standing up. A man’s voice was talking over the intercom; there was a smell of coffee and food; the air hostesses stalked purposefully up and down the narrow carpeted aisle and their nylon stockings made a rasping sound as they passed. My neighbor told me that he made this journey once or twice a month. He used to keep a flat in London, in Mayfair, “but these days,” he said with a matter-of-fact set to his mouth, “I prefer to stay at the Dorchester.”
He spoke a refined and formal kind of English that did not seem wholly natural, as though at some point it had been applied to him carefully with a brush, like paint. I asked him what his nationality was.
“I was sent to an English boarding school at the age of seven,” he replied. “You might say I have the mannerisms of an Englishman but the heart of a Greek. I am told,” he added, “it would be much worse the other way around.”
His parents were both Greeks, he continued, but at a certain moment they had relocated the whole household—themselves, four sons, their own parents, and an assortment of uncles and aunts—to London, and had begun to conduct themselves in the style of the English upper classes, sending the four boys away to school and establishing a home that became a forum for advantageous social connections, with an inexhaustible stream of aristocrats, politicians, and moneymakers crossing the threshold. I asked how it was that they had gained access to this foreign milieu, and he shrugged.
“Money is a country all its own,” he said. “My parents were shipowners—the family business was an international enterprise, despite the fact that we had lived until then on the small island where both of them were born, an island you would certainly not have heard of, despite its prolixity to some well-known tourist destinations.”
Proximity, I said. I think you mean proximity.
“I do beg your pardon,” he said. “I mean, of course, proximity.”
But like all wealthy people, he continued, his parents had long outgrown their origins and moved in a borderless sphere among other people of wealth and importance. They retained, of course, a grand house on the island, and that remained their domestic establishment while their children were young; but when the time came to send their sons to school, they relocated themselves to England, where they had many contacts, including some, he said rather proudly, that brought them at least to the peripheries of Buckingham Palace.
Theirs had always been the preeminent family of the island, he continued: two strains of the local aristocracy had been united by the parental marriage, and, what’s more, two shipping fortunes consolidated. But the culture of the place was unusual in that it was matriarchal. It was women, not men, who held authority; property was passed not from father to son but from mother to daughter. This, my neighbor said, created familial tensions that were the obverse of those he encountered on his arrival in England. In the world of his childhood, a son was already a disappointment; he himself, the last in a long line of such disappointments, was treated with a special ambivalence, in that his mother wished to believe he was a girl. His hair was kept in long ringlets; he was clothed in dresses and called by the girl’s name his parents had chosen in expectation of being given at long last an heir. This unusual situation, my neighbor said, had ancient causes. From its earliest history, the island economy had revolved around the extraction of sponges from the sea bed, and the young men of the community had acquired the skill of deep diving out at sea. But it was a dangerous occupation and hence their life expectancy was extraordinarily low. In this situation, by the repeated death of husbands, the women had gained control of their financial affairs and, what’s more, had passed that control on to their daughters.
“It is hard,” he said, “to imagine the world as it was in the heyday of my parents, in some ways so pleasurable and in others so callous. For example, my parents had a fifth child, also a boy, whose brain had been damaged at birth, and when the household moved they simply left him there on the island, in the care of a succession of nurses whose credentials—in those days and from that distance—I’m afraid no one cared to investigate too closely.”
He lived there still, an aging man with the mind of an infant, unable, of course, to give his own side of the story. Meanwhile, my neighbor and his brothers entered the chilly waters of an English public-school education, learning to think and speak like English boys. My neighbor’s ringlets were clipped off, much to his relief, and for the first time in his life he experienced cruelty, and along with it certain new kinds of unhappiness: loneliness, homesickness, the longing for his mother and father. He rifled around in the breast pocket of his suit and took out a soft black leather wallet, from which he extracted a creased monochrome photograph of his parents: a man of rigidly upright bearing in a fitted sort of frock coat buttoned to the throat, whose parted hair and thick, straight brows and large scrolled mustache were so black as to give him an appearance of extraordinary ferocity; and beside him, a woman with an unsmiling face as round and hard and inscrutable as a coin. The photograph was taken in the late 1930s, my neighbor said, before he himself was born. The marriage was already unhappy, however, the father’s ferocity and the mother’s intransigence being more than cosmetic. Theirs was a tremendous battle of wills, in which no one ever succeeded in separating the combatants; except, very briefly, when they died. But that, he said with a faint smile, is a story for another time.
All this time, the air hostess had been advancing slowly along the aisle, pushing a metal trolley from which she was dispensing plastic trays of food and drink. She had now come to our row: she passed along the white plastic trays, and I offered one to the boy on my left, who lifted up his gaming console with both hands so that I could place it on the folded-down table in front of him. My right-hand neighbor and I lifted the lids of ours, so that tea could be poured into the white plastic cups that came with the trays. He began to ask me questions, as though he had learned to remind himself to do so, and I wondered what or who had taught him that lesson, which many people never learn. I said that I lived in London, having very recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where, for the seven years before that, we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.
There was a pause in which we drank our tea and ate the soft cake-like little biscuits that came with it. Through the windows was a purple near-darkness. The engines roared steadily. The inside of the plane had become darker, too, intersected with beams from the overhead spotlights. It was difficult to study my neighbor’s face from the adjacent seat, but in the light-inflected darkness it had become a landscape of peaks and crevices, from the center of which rose the extraordinary hook of his nose, casting deep ravines of shadow on either side so that I could barely see his eyes. His lips were thin and his mouth wide and slightly gaping; the part between his nose and upper lip was long and fleshy and he touched it frequently, so that even when he smiled his teeth remained hidden. It was impossible, I said in response to his question, to give the reasons why the marriage had ended: among other things a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious. What was real, in the end, was the loss of the house, which had become the geographical location for things that had gone absent and which represented, I supposed, the hope that they might one day return. To move from the house was to declare, in a way, that we had stopped waiting; we could no longer be found at the usual number, the usual address. My younger son, I told him, has the very annoying habit of immediately leaving the place where you have agreed to meet him, if you aren’t there when he arrives. Instead, he goes in search of you, and becomes frustrated and lost. I couldn’t find you! he cries afterward, invariably aggrieved. But the only hope of finding anything is to stay exactly where you are, at the agreed place. It’s just a question of how long you can hold out.
“My first marriage,” my neighbor said after a pause, “often seems to me to have ended for the silliest of reasons. When I was a boy I used to watch the hay carts coming back from the fields so overloaded it seemed a miracle they didn’t tip. They would jolt up and down and sway alarmingly from side to side, but amazingly they never went over. And then one day I saw it, the cart on its side, the hay spilled all over the place, people running around shouting. I asked what had happened and the man told me they had hit a bump in the road. I always remembered that,” he said, “how inevitable it seemed and yet how silly. And it was the same with my first wife and me,” he said. “We hit a bump in the road, and over we went.”
It had, he now realized, been a happy relationship, the most harmonious of his life. He and his wife had met and got engaged as teenagers; they had never argued, until the argument in which everything between them was broken. They had two children and had amassed considerable wealth: they had a large house outside Athens, a London flat, a place in Geneva; they had horses and skiing holidays and a forty-foot yacht moored in the waters of the Aegean. They were both still young enough to believe that this principle of growth was exponential; that life was only expansive and broke the successive vessels in which you tried to contain it in its need to expand more. After the argument, reluctant to move definitively out of the house, my neighbor went to live on the yacht in its mooring. It was summer and the yacht was luxurious; he could swim and fish and entertain friends. For a few weeks he lived in a state of pure illusion that was really numbness, like the numbness that follows an injury, before pain starts to make its way through it, slowly but relentlessly finding a path through the dense analgesic fog. The weather broke; the yacht became cold and uncomfortable. His wife’s father summoned him to a meeting at which he was asked to relinquish any claim on their shared assets, and he agreed. He believed he could afford to be generous, that he would make it all back again. He was thirty-six years old and still felt the force of exponential growth in his veins, of life straining to burst the vessel in which it had been contained. He could have it all again, with the difference that this time he would want what he had.
“Though I have discovered,” he said, touching his fleshy upper lip, “that that is harder than it sounds.”
It did not, of course, come to pass as he had imagined it. The bump in the road hadn’t only upset his marriage; it had caused him to veer off onto a different road altogether, a road that was but a long, directionless detour, a road he had no real business being on and that sometimes he still felt himself to be traveling even to this day. Like the loose stitch that causes the whole garment to unravel, it was hard to piece back this chain of events to its original flaw. Yet these events had constituted the majority of his adult life. It was nearly thirty years since his first marriage ended, and the further he got from that life, the more real it became to him. Or not real, exactly, he said—what had happened since had been real enough. The word he was looking for was authentic: his first marriage had been authentic in a way that nothing ever had again. The older he got, the more it represented to him a kind of home, a place to which he yearned to return. Though when he remembered it honestly, and even more so when he actually spoke to his first wife—which these days was rarely—the old feelings of constriction would return. All the same, it seemed to him now that that life had been lived almost unconsciously, that he had been lost in it, absorbed in it, as you can be absorbed in a book, believing in its events and living entirely through and with its characters. Never again since had he been able to absorb himself; never again had he been able to believe in that way. Perhaps it was that—the loss of belief—that constituted his yearning for the old life. Whatever it was, he and his wife had built things that flourished, had together expanded the sum of what they were and what they had; life had responded willingly to them, had treated them abundantly, and this—he now saw—was what had given him the confidence to break it all, break it with what now seemed to him to be an extraordinary casualness, because he thought there would be more.
More what? I asked.
“More—life,” he said, opening his hands in a gesture of receipt. “And more affection,” he added, after a pause. “I wanted more affection.”
He replaced the photograph of his parents in his wallet. There was now blackness at the windows. In the cabin, people were reading, sleeping, talking. A man in long, baggy shorts walked up and down the aisle jiggling a baby on his shoulder. The plane seemed stilled, almost motionless; there was so little interface between inside and outside, so little friction, that it was hard to believe we were moving forward. The electric light, with the absolute darkness outside, made people look very fleshly and real, their detail so unmediated, so impersonal, so infinite. Each time the man with the baby passed, I saw the network of creases in his shorts, his freckled arms covered in coarse reddish fur, the pale, mounded skin of his midriff where his T-shirt had ridden up, and the tender, wrinkled feet of the baby on his shoulder, the little hunched back, the soft head with its primitive whorl of hair.
My neighbor turned to me again and asked me what work it was that was taking me to Athens. For the second time, I felt the conscious effort of his inquiry, as though he had trained himself in the recovery of objects that were falling from his grasp. I remembered the way, when each of my sons was a baby, they would deliberately drop things from their high chair in order to watch them fall to the floor, an activity as delightful to them as its consequences were appalling. They would stare down at the fallen thing—a half-eaten rusk, or a plastic ball—and become increasingly agitated by its failure to return. Eventually they would begin to cry, and usually found that the fallen object came back to them by that route. It always surprised me that their response to this chain of events was to repeat it: as soon as the object was in their hands they would drop it again, leaning over to watch it fall. Their delight never lessened, nor did their distress. I always expected that at some point they would realize the distress was unnecessary and would choose to avoid it, but they never did. The memory of suffering had no effect whatever on what they elected to do: on the contrary, it compelled them to repeat it, for the suffering was the magic that caused the object to come back and for the delight in dropping it to become possible again. Had I refused to return it the very first time they dropped it, I suppose they would have learned something very different, though what that might have been I wasn’t sure.
I told him I was a writer, and was going to Athens for a couple of days to teach a course at a summer school there. The course was entitled “How to Write”: a number of different writers were teaching it, and since there is no one way to write I supposed we would give the students contradictory advice. They were mostly Greeks, I had been told, though for the purposes of this course they were expected to write in English. Other people were skeptical about that idea but I didn’t see what was wrong with it. They could write in whatever language they wanted: it made no difference to me. Sometimes the loss of transition became the gain of simplicity. Teaching was just a way of making a living, I said. But I had one or two friends in Athens I might see while I was there.
A writer, my neighbor said, inclining his head in a gesture that could have conveyed either respect for the profession or a total ignorance of it. I had noticed, when I first sat down beside him, that he was reading a well-thumbed Wilbur Smith: this, he now said, was not entirely representative of his reading tastes, though it was true he lacked discrimination where fiction was concerned. His interest was in books of information, of facts and the interpretation of facts, and he was confident that he was not unsophisticated here in his preferences. He could recognize a fine prose style; one of his favorite writers, for example, was John Julius Norwich. But in fiction, admittedly, he was uneducated. He removed the Wilbur Smith from the seat pocket, where it still remained, and plunged it into the briefcase at his feet so that it was out of sight, as though wishing to disown it, or perhaps thinking I might forget I had seen it. As it happened I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even of self-definition—I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another: in fact, if I read something I admired, I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.
“My second wife,” my neighbor said presently, “had never read a book in her life.”
She was absolutely ignorant, he continued, even of basic history and geography, and would say the most embarrassing things in company without any sense of shame at all. On the contrary, it angered her when people spoke of things she had no knowledge of: when a Venezuelan friend came to visit, for instance, she refused to believe that such a country existed because she had never heard of it. She herself was English, and so exquisitely beautiful it was hard not to credit her with some inner refinement; but though her nature did contain some surprises, they were not of a particularly pleasant kind. He often invited her parents to stay, as though by studying them he might decipher the mystery of their daughter. They would come to the island, where the ancestral home still remained, and would stay for weeks at a time. Never had he met people of such extraordinary blandness, such featurelessness: however much he exhausted himself with trying to stimulate them, they were as unresponsive as a pair of armchairs. In the end he became very fond of them, as one can become fond of armchairs; particularly the father, whose boundless reticence was so extreme that gradually my neighbor came to understand that he must suffer from some form of psychic injury. It moved him to see someone so injured by life. In his younger days he almost certainly wouldn’t even have noticed the man, let alone pondered the causes of his silence; and in this way, in recognizing his father-in-law’s suffering, he recognized his own. It sounds trivial, yet it could almost be said that through this recognition he felt his whole life turning on its axis: the history of his self-will appeared to him, by a simple revolution in perspective, as a moral journey. He had turned around, like a climber turns around and looks back down the mountain, reviewing the path he has traveled, no longer immersed in the ascent.
A long time ago—so long that he had forgotten the author’s name—he read some memorable lines in a story about a man who is trying to translate another story, by a much more famous author. In these lines—which, my neighbor said, he still remembers to this day—the translator says that a sentence is born into this world neither good nor bad, and that to establish its character is a question of the subtlest possible adjustments, a process of intuition to which exaggeration and force are fatal. Those lines concerned the art of writing, but looking around himself in early middle-age my neighbor began to see that they applied just as much to the art of living. Everywhere he looked he saw people as it were ruined by the extremity of their own experiences, and his new parents-in-law appeared to be a case in point. What was clear, in any case, was that their daughter had mistaken him for a far wealthier man: the fatal yacht, on which he had hidden out as a marital escapee and which was his sole remaining asset from that time, had lured her. She had a great need for luxury and he began to work as he never had before, blindly and frantically, spending all his time in meetings and on airplanes, negotiating and securing deals, taking on more and more risk in order to provide her with the wealth she took for granted was there. He was, in effect, manufacturing an illusion: no matter what he did, the gap between illusion and reality could never be closed. Gradually, he said, this gap, this distance between how things were and how I wanted them to be, began to undermine me. I felt myself becoming empty, he said, as though I had been living until now on the reserves I had accumulated over the years and they had gradually dwindled away.
It was now that the propriety of his first wife, the health and prosperity of their family life and the depth of their shared past, began to smite him. The first wife, after a period of unhappiness, had married again: she had become, after their divorce, quite fixated on skiing, going to northern Europe and the mountains whenever she could, and before long had declared herself married to an instructor in Lech who had given her back, so she said, her confidence. That marriage, my neighbor admitted, remained intact to this day. But back in the time of its inception, my neighbor had begun to realize he had made a mistake and had endeavored to restore contact with his first wife, with what intentions he wasn’t quite clear. Their two children, a boy and a girl, were still quite small: it was reasonable enough, after all, that they should be in touch. Dimly he remembered that in the period immediately following their separation, it was she who was always trying to get hold of him; and remembered, too, that he had avoided her calls, intent as he was on the pursuit of the woman who was now his second wife. He was unavailable, gone into a new world in which his first wife appeared barely to exist, in which she was a kind of ridiculous cardboard figure whose actions—so he persuaded himself and others—were the actions of a madwoman. But now it was she who could not be found: she was plunging down cold, white mountainsides in the Arlberg, where he did not exist for her any more than she had existed for him. She didn’t answer his calls, or answered them curtly, distractedly, saying she had to go. She could not be called upon to recognize him, and this was the most bewildering thing of all, for it made him feel absolutely unreal. It was with her, after all, that his identity had been forged: If she no longer recognized him, then who was he?
The strange thing is, he said, that even now, when these events are long in the past and he and his first wife communicate more regularly, she only has to speak for more than a minute and she begins to irritate him. And he didn’t doubt that had she rushed back from the mountains, in the time when he seemed to have had a change of heart, she would quickly have come to irritate him so much that the whole demise of their relationship would have been reenacted. Instead they have grown older at a distance: when he speaks to her, he imagines quite clearly the life they would have had, the life they would be sharing now. It is like walking past a house you used to live in: the fact that it still exists, so concrete, makes everything that has happened since seem somehow insubstantial. Without structure, events are unreal: the reality of his wife, like the reality of the house, was structural, determinative. It had limitations, which he encounters when he hears his wife on the telephone. Yet the life without limitations has been exhausting, has been one long history of actual and emotional expense, like thirty years of living in one hotel after another. It is the feeling of impermanence, of homelessness, that has cost him. He has spent and spent to rid himself of that feeling, to put a roof over his own head. And all the time he sees at a distance his home—his wife—standing there, essentially unchanged, but belonging to other people now.
I said that the way he had told his story rather proved that point, because I couldn’t see the second wife as clearly as I could see the first. In fact, I didn’t entirely believe in her. She was rolled out as an all-purpose villain, but what wrong, really, had she done? She had never pretended to be an intellectual, as for instance my neighbor had pretended to be rich, and since she had been valued entirely for her beauty, it was natural—some would say sensible—that she should want to put a price on it. And as for Venezuela, who was he to say what someone ought or ought not to know? There was plenty, I felt sure, that he himself didn’t know, and what he didn’t know didn’t exist for him any more than Venezuela existed for his pretty wife. My neighbor frowned so deeply that clownish furrows appeared on either side of his chin.
“I admit,” he said after a long pause, “that on this subject I may be somewhat biased.”
The truth was that he could not forgive his second wife for her treatment of his children, who spent the school holidays with them, usually at the old family house on the island. She was particularly jealous of the eldest, a boy, whose every movement she criticized. She watched him with an obsessiveness that was quite extraordinary to behold, and she was always putting him to work around the house, blaming him for the smallest evidence of disorder and insisting on her right to punish him for what she alone thought of as misdemeanors. Once, he returned to the house to find that the boy had been shut in the extensive, catacomb-like cellars that ran all the way under the building, a dark and sinister place at the best of times, where he himself used to be afraid to go as a child. He was lying on his side, shaking, and told his father he had been put there for failing to clear his plate from the table. It was as though he represented everything that was burdensome in her wifely role, as though he were the incarnation of some injustice she felt pinioned by: and he was the proof, too, that she had not come first and never would, so far as her husband was concerned.
He could never understand this need of hers for primacy, for after all it wasn’t his fault that he had lived a life before he met her; but increasingly she seemed bent on the destruction of that history, and of the children who were its ineradicable evidence. They had, by then, a child of their own, also a boy, but far from rounding things out this had only seemed to make her jealousy worse. She accused him of not loving their son as much as he loved his older children; she watched him constantly for evidence of favor, and in fact favored their own child blatantly, but she was often angry with the little boy, too, as though she felt that a different child could have won this battle for her. And indeed she more or less abandoned their son, when the end came. They were spending the summer on the island, and her parents—the armchairs—were there, too. He was fonder of them than ever by now, for he saw their flatness, sympathetically, as the evidence of their daughter’s cyclonic nature. They were like a terrain forever being hit by tornadoes; they lived in a state of permanent semidevastation. His wife got it into her head that she wanted to return to Athens: she was bored, he supposed, on the island; there were probably parties she wanted to go to, things she wanted to do; she had gotten tired of always spending the summers here, in the family mausoleum; and besides, her parents were due to fly back shortly from Athens, so they could all go together, she said, leaving the older children here in the care of the housekeeper. My neighbor replied that he couldn’t go to Athens now. He couldn’t possibly leave his children—they were staying with him for another two or three weeks. How could he desert them, when this was the only time he had with them? Well, if he didn’t come, she said, he could quite simply consider their marriage to be over.
This was, then, the actual contest: finally, he was being asked to choose, and of course it felt to him like no choice at all. It felt utterly unreasonable, and a terrible argument ensued, at the end of which his wife, their son, and her parents boarded a boat and returned to Athens. Before they left, his father-in-law made a rare excursion into speech. What he said was that he could see it from my neighbor’s point of view. It was the last my neighbor ever saw of them, and more or less the last he ever saw of his wife, who returned with her parents to England and from there divorced him. She hired a very good lawyer, and he found himself near financial ruin for the second time in his life. He sold the yacht and bought a small motorboat that reflected the state of his fortunes more accurately. Their son, though, came drifting back once his mother remarried, having found herself an English aristocrat of demonstrably enormous wealth—and discovered that the child impeded her second marriage in much the same way my neighbor’s children had impeded his. In this last detail there was evidence if not of his ex-wife’s integrity, then at least of a certain consistency.
So much is lost, he said, in the shipwreck. What remains are fragments, and if you don’t hold on to them, the sea will take them, too. Yet I still, he said, believe in love. Love restores almost everything, and where it can’t restore, it takes away the pain. For example, you, he said to me—at the moment you’re sad, but if you were in love the sadness would stop. Sitting there, I thought again of my sons in their high chairs, and of their discovery that distress magically made the ball come back. At that moment the plane took its first, gentle lurch downward in the darkness. A voice began to speak over the intercom; the air hostesses began to stalk up and down, herding people back into their seats. My neighbor asked me for my telephone number: perhaps we could have dinner sometime, while I was in Athens.
I remained dissatisfied, I told him, by the story of his second marriage. It had lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often incorrect. It was not wrong, for instance, to be jealous of a child, though it was certainly very painful for all concerned. I found I did not believe certain key facts, for instance that his wife had locked his son in the cellar, nor was I entirely convinced by her beauty, which again seemed to me to have been misappropriated. If it wasn’t wrong to be jealous, it certainly wasn’t wrong to be beautiful: the wrong lay in the beauty being stolen, as it were, by the narrator, under false pretenses. Reality might be described as the eternal equipoise of positive and negative, but in this story the two poles had become dissociated and ascribed separate, warring identities. The narrative invariably showed certain people—the narrator and his children—in a good light, while the wife was brought in only when it was required of her to damn herself further. The narrator’s treacherous attempts to contact his first wife, for instance, were given a positive, empathetic status, while his second wife’s insecurity—well-founded, as we now knew—was treated as an incomprehensible crime. The one exception was the narrator’s love for his boring, tornado-swept parents-in-law, a bittersweet detail in which positive and negative regained their balance. But otherwise this was a story in which I sensed the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win.
My neighbor laughed and said that I was probably right. My parents fought all their lives, he said, and no one ever won. But no one ran away, either. It is the children who have run away. My brother has been married five times, he said, and on Christmas day he sits alone in his apartment in Zurich, counting his money and eating a cheese sandwich. Tell me the truth, I said: Did she really lock your son in the cellar? He inclined his head.
“She always denied it,” he said. “She claimed Takis had shut himself in there, to get her into trouble.”
But I do accept, he said, that it was not unreasonable for her to want me to go to Athens. He hadn’t quite given me the full story—in fact her mother had been taken ill. It was nothing too serious, but she needed to be admitted to the hospital on the mainland, and his wife’s Greek wasn’t all that good. But he thought they could manage, his wife and her father together. The father-in-law’s parting remark, then, was more ambivalent than, in the first version, it had seemed. We had by now fastened our seat belts, as the voice on the intercom had asked us to, and for the first time I saw lights below as we swung quivering downward, a great forest of lights rising and falling mysteriously through the darkness.
In those days I was so worried all the time about my children, my neighbor said. I couldn’t think about what I needed or what she needed; I thought they needed me more. His words reminded me of the oxygen masks, which had not, of course, put in an appearance over the past few hours. It was a kind of mutual cynicism, I said, that had resulted in the oxygen masks being provided, on the tacit understanding that they would never be needed. My neighbor said he had found that to be true of many aspects of life, but that all the same the law of averages was not something it paid to base your personal expectations on.
I noticed that when we walked along narrow stretches of pavement beside the roaring traffic, Ryan always took the place on the inside.
“I’ve been reading up on statistics for road deaths in Athens,” he said. “I’m taking this information very seriously. I owe it to my family to get home in one piece.”
There were often dogs lying collapsed across the pavement, big ones with extravagant shaggy pelts. They were insensate in the heat, motionless except for the breath faintly moving in their sides. From a distance they sometimes looked like women in fur coats who had fallen down drunk.
“Do you step over a dog?” Ryan said, hesitating. “Or do you walk around it?”
He didn’t mind the heat, he said—in fact he was enjoying it. He felt like years of damp were drying out. His only regret was that it had taken him till the age of forty-one to get here, because it seemed like a really fascinating place. It was a shame the wife and kids couldn’t see it, too, but he was determined not to ruin it by feeling guilty. The wife had had a weekend with her girlfriends in Paris just now, leaving him to take care of the kids alone; there was no reason he shouldn’t feel he’d earned it. And to be perfectly honest, the kids slowed you down: first thing this morning he’d walked up to the Acropolis, before the heat got too intense, and he couldn’t have done that with them in tow, could he? And even if he had, he’d have spent the whole time worrying about sunburn and dehydration, and though he might have seen the Parthenon sitting like a gold-and-white crumbling crown on the hilltop with the fierce pagan blue of the sky behind, he wouldn’t have felt it, as he was able to feel it this morning, airing the shaded crevices of his being. Walking up there, for some reason he’d remembered how, in the bedroom of his childhood, the sheets always smelled of mold. If you opened a cupboard in his parents’ house, as often as not there’d be water running down the back of it. When he left Tralee for Dublin, he found that all his books were stuck to the shelves when he tried to take them down. Beckett and Synge had rotted and turned to glue.
“Which suggests I wasn’t much of a reader,” he said, “so it’s not a detail I give out that often.”
No, he had never been to Greece before, nor to any country where you could take the sun for granted. His wife was allergic to it in any case—to the sun, that was. Like him she’d been raised in the damp and shade, and the sun brought her out in purple spots and blisters; she couldn’t cope with heat at all, which induced migraines and vomiting. They took the kids to Galway for holidays, where her parents had a house, and if they were desperate for a break from Dublin they could always go back to Tralee. It’s a case of “home is where when you have to go there they have to take you in,” he said. And his wife believed in all that, in the family network and Sunday lunch and children having grandparents on both sides, but if it was left to him he’d probably never cross his parents’ threshold again. Not that they did anything particularly wrong, he said, they’re nice enough people, I just don’t think it would occur to me.
We passed a café with tables in the shade of a large awning, and the people sitting at the tables looked superior, so cool and watchful in the shadows while we toiled incomprehensibly through the heat and turmoil of the street. Ryan said he might stop and drink something; he’d come here earlier, he said, for breakfast, and it had seemed like a nice place. It wasn’t clear whether he wanted me to sit down with him or not. In fact he had phrased it so carefully that I got the impression inclusion was something he actually avoided. After that I observed him for this characteristic, and I noticed that when other people were making plans, Ryan would always say “I might come along later” or “I might see you there” rather than commit himself to a time and place. He would only tell you what he was doing after he’d done it. I met him by chance once in the street and noticed that his slicked-back hair was wet, so I had asked him outright where he’d been. He admitted he’d just swum at the Hilton hotel, which had a large outdoor pool, where he had posed as a guest and done forty lengths alongside Russian plutocrats and American businessmen and girls with surgically enhanced bodies. He had felt sure the pool attendants were watching him, but no one had dared interrogate him. How else were you meant to exercise, he wanted to know, in the middle of a traffic-choked city in forty degrees of heat?
At the table, he sat, like the other men, with his back to the wall so that his view was of the café and the street. I sat opposite him, and because he was all I could see I looked at him. Ryan was teaching alongside me at summer school: from a distance he was a man of conventional sandy-colored good looks, but close up there was something uneasy in his appearance, as though he had been put together out of unrelated elements, so that the different parts of him didn’t entirely go together. He had large white teeth which he kept always a little bared and a loose body poised somewhere between muscle and fat, but his head was small and narrow, with sparse, almost colorless hair that grew in spikes back from his forehead and colorless eyelashes that were hidden for now behind dark glasses. His eyebrows, however, were fierce and straight and black. When the waitress came he took the glasses off and I saw his eyes: two small, bright blue chips in slightly reddened whites. The rims were red, too, as though they were sore, or as though the sun had singed them. He asked the waitress if she had nonalcoholic beer and she leaned toward him with her hand cupped around her ear, not understanding. He picked up the menu and together they studied it.
“Are any of these beers,” he said slowly, running a tutelary finger down the list and glancing at her frequently, “nonalcoholic?”
She leaned closer, scrutinizing the place where his finger pointed, while his eyes fixed themselves on her face, which was young and beautiful, with long ringlets of hair on either side which she kept tucking behind her ears. Because he was pointing at something that wasn’t there, her bewilderment was long lasting, and in the end she said she would have to go and get her manager, at which point he closed the menu like a teacher finishing a lesson and said not to worry, he would just have an ordinary beer after all. This change of plan confused her further: the menu was opened again and the whole lesson repeated, and I found my attention straying to the people at other tables and out to the street, where cars passed and dogs lay in heaps of fur in the glare.
“She served me this morning,” Ryan said when the waitress had gone. “The same girl. They’re beautiful people, aren’t they? It’s a shame she didn’t have the beer, though. You can get that everywhere at home.”
He said that he was seriously trying to cut down his drinking; the past year he’d basically been on a health kick, going to the gym every day and eating salad. He’d let things slide a bit when the kids were born, and anyway it was hard to be healthy in Ireland; the whole culture of the place militated against it. In his youth in Tralee he was pretty seriously overweight, like a lot of the people there, including his parents and his older brother, who still regarded chips as one of their five a day. He’d had a number of allergies, too, eczema and asthma, which no doubt weren’t helped by the family diet. As a child at school he’d had to wear shorts with knee-high woolen socks, and the socks would adhere horribly to his eczema. He still remembered peeling them off at bedtime and half the skin of his legs coming off with them. These days, of course, you’d rush your child off to a dermatologist or a homeopath, but then you were just left to get on with it. When he had breathing difficulties, his parents would put him out to sit in the car. As for the weight, he said, you rarely saw yourself with your clothes off, or anyone else without theirs for that matter. He remembered the feeling of estrangement from his own body, as it labored in the damp, spore-ridden climate of the house; his clogged lungs and itchy skin, his veins full of sugar and fat, his wobbling flesh shrouded in uncomfortable clothing. As a teenager he was self-conscious and sedentary and avoided any physical exposure of himself. But then he spent a year in America, on a writing program there, and had discovered that by effort of will he could make himself look completely different. There was a pool and a gym on campus, and food he had never even heard of—sprouts and whole grains and soy—in the cafeteria; and not only that, he was surrounded by people for whom the notion of self-transformation was an article of faith. He picked it up almost overnight, the whole concept: he could decide how he wanted to be and then be it. There was no preordination; that sense of the self as a destiny and a doom that had hung like a pall over his whole life could stay, he now realized, behind him in Ireland. On his first visit to the gym he saw a beautiful girl exercising on a machine while at the same time reading from a large book of philosophy that lay open on a stand in front of her, and he could hardly believe his own eyes. He discovered that all the machines in that gym had book stands. This machine was called a step machine, and it simulated the action of walking up stairs: from then on he always used it, and always with a book open in front of him, for the image of that girl—who to his not inconsiderable disappointment he never saw again—had fixed itself in his head. Over the course of the year he must have ascended miles’ worth of stairs while remaining in one place, and that was the image he had internalized, not just of the girl but of the imaginary staircase itself, and of himself forever climbing it with a book dangled just in front of him, like a carrot in front of a donkey. Climbing that staircase was the work he had to do to separate himself from the place from which he had come.
It was more than just a stroke of luck, he said, that he happened to go to America: it was the defining episode of his life, and when he thought about what he would have been and what he would have done had that episode not occurred, it frightened him in a way. It was his English tutor at college who told him about the writing program and encouraged him to apply. By the time the letter came, college was over and he was back in Tralee, living in his parents’ house and working at a chicken-processing plant and having an affair with a woman much older than himself who had two kids he didn’t doubt she’d got him lined up to play father to. The letter said that he’d been offered a scholarship, on the basis of the writing sample he’d submitted, with a paid second year to follow if he wanted to earn himself a teaching qualification. Forty-eight hours later he was gone, taking a few books and the clothes he stood up in, on an airplane and leaving the British Isles for the first time in his life, and without a clue really where he was going, except that sitting above the clouds it appeared to be heaven.
In fact it so happened, he said, that his older brother left for America at more or less the same time. He and his brother never had all that much to say to each other, and at the time he was barely aware of Kevin’s plans, but thinking about it now it was quite a coincidence, except that Kevin hadn’t had a stroke of luck to send him on his way. Instead he’d joined the U.S. Marines, and probably at much the same time as Ryan was treading the step machine, Kevin was also shedding the flab of Tralee, at boot camp. For all Ryan knew he might have been down the road, though America is a big place and it was unlikely. And of course the job involves a lot of travel, Ryan said, with apparent sincerity. By a further coincidence both brothers returned to Ireland three years later and met in their parents’ sitting room, both of them now fit and lean; Ryan with a teaching qualification, a book contract, and a ballet-dancer girlfriend, and Kevin with a grotesquely tattooed body and a mental condition that meant his life would never again be his own. The imaginary staircase went down, it seemed, as well as up: Ryan and his brother were now effectively members of two different social classes, and while Ryan went off to Dublin to take up a university teaching post, Kevin returned to the damp bedroom of their childhood where, excepting the odd stay in mental institutions, he has remained ever since. The funny thing is, Ryan said, that their parents took no more pride in Ryan’s achievements than they accepted blame for Kevin’s collapse. They tried to get rid of Kevin and have him committed on a permanent basis, but he kept being sent back to them, the perennial bad penny. And yet they were also faintly scornful of Ryan, the writer and university lecturer, living now in a nice house in Dublin and about to marry, not the ballet dancer but an Irish girl, a college friend from the time before America. What Ryan had learned from this is that your failures keep returning to you, while your successes are something you always have to convince yourself of.
His narrow blue eyes fixed themselves on the young waitress, who was approaching through the shade with our drinks.
“Oh, run away with me,” he said, as she leaned over him to place his glass on the table. I thought she must have heard him, but he had judged it precisely: her superb, statue-like countenance didn’t flicker. “What people,” he said, still watching her while she walked away. He asked whether I was at all familiar with the country, and I said that I had come here, to Athens, on a somewhat fateful holiday with my children three years earlier.
“They’re beautiful people,” he replied. After a while he said that he supposed it wasn’t all that hard to explain, when you considered the climate and the way of life, and of course the diet here. When you looked at the Irish you saw centuries of rain and rotten potatoes. He still had to fight it in himself, that feeling of contaminated flesh; it was so hard to feel clean in Ireland, the way he’d felt in America, or the way you felt here. I asked him why he had come back, after he finished his master’s, and he said there were a lot of reasons, though no one of them was particularly powerful. It was just that all together they amounted to enough to nudge him back. One of them, in fact, was the very thing he had liked most about America at first, which was the feeling that no one really came from anywhere. I mean, obviously, he said, they had to have come from somewhere, but there wasn’t the same feeling of your hometown waiting to claim you, that sense of preordination that he had miraculously felt himself climbing clear of as he first rose above the clouds. His fellow students made much of his Irishness, he said: he found himself playing up to it, putting on the accent and all that, until he’d almost convinced himself that being Irish was an identity in itself. And after all, what other identity did he have? It frightened him a little, the idea of not coming from somewhere; he began to see himself as not cursed but blessed, began almost to rekindle that sense of preordination, or at least to see it in a different light. And writing, the whole concept of transmuted pain—Ireland was the structure for that, his own past in Tralee was the structure for that. He suddenly felt he might not cope with the fundamental anonymity of America. To be perfectly honest, he wasn’t the most talented student in that program—he had no problem admitting that—and one reason, he’d decided, was this same anonymity his peers had to grapple with and he didn’t. It made you a better writer, did it not, not having an identity to fall back on: you saw the world with less-troubled eyes. And he was more Irish in America than he’d ever been at home.
He began to see Dublin as he used to see it in his mind’s eye as a schoolboy, with scholars on bicycles sailing like dark swans through the streets in their black robes. Might what he had seen all those years before be himself? A dark swan, gliding through the protected city, free within its walls; not the American version of freedom, big and flat and borderless as a prairie. He came back in a moderate blaze of glory, with his teaching job and his ballet dancer and his book contract. The ballet dancer went home six months later, and the book—a book of short stories, well received—remains his only published work. He and Nancy are still in touch: in fact, they talked on Facebook only the other day. She doesn’t dance anymore—she’s become a psychotherapist, though to be honest she’s a little bit crazy herself. She lives with her mother in an apartment in New York City, and even though she’s forty years old it strikes Ryan that she is unchanged, that she is more or less exactly the same as she was at twenty-three. And there’s him, with his wife and his kids and his house in Dublin, a different man in every way. Stunted, is what he sometimes thinks about her, though he knows it’s unkind. She’s always asking him if he’s written another book yet, and in a way he’d like to ask her in return—though of course he never would—whether she’s had a life yet.
As for the stories, he still likes them, still picks them up and reads them now and then. They get reproduced every so often in anthologies; a little while ago his agent sold the rights to a publishing house in Albania. But in a way it’s like looking at old photographs of yourself. There comes a point at which the record needs to be updated, because you’ve shed too many links with what you were. He doesn’t quite know how it happened; all he knows is that he doesn’t recognize himself in those stories anymore, though he remembers the bursting feeling of writing them, something in himself massing and pushing irresistibly to be born. He hasn’t had that feeling since; he almost thinks that to remain a writer he’d have to become one all over again, when he might just as easily become an astronaut, or a farmer. It’s as if he can’t quite remember what drove him into words in the first place, all those years before, yet words are what he still deals in. I suppose it’s a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated. It’s the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it, because too much of your life stands on that ground. Though the temptation can be extreme, he added, as the young waitress glided past our table. I must have looked disapproving, because he said:
“My wife eyeballs the fellas, when she’s out for the night with her friends. I’d be disappointed if she didn’t. Take a good look, is what I say. See what’s out there. And she’s just the same—go on, feel free to look.”
I remembered then an evening I’d spent in a bar a few years ago, with a group of people that included a married couple I didn’t know. The woman kept identifying attractive girls and drawing her husband’s attention to them; they sat there and discussed the attributes of the various girls, and were it not for the grimace of utter desperation I glimpsed on the woman’s face when she thought no one was looking, I would have believed this was an activity both of them enjoyed.
He and his wife had a good partnership, Ryan said. They shared the work of the kids and the house—his wife was no martyr, as his mother had been. She went off on her own holidays with her girlfriends and expected him to take care of everything in her absence: when they gave one another freedoms, it was on the understanding that they would claim those same freedoms themselves. If it sounds a little bit calculated, Ryan said, that doesn’t worry me at all. There’s a business aspect to running a household. It’s best if everyone’s honest right at the start about what they’re going to need, to be able to stay in it.
My phone sounded on the table in front of me. It was a text from my son: Where’s my tennis racket? I don’t know about you, Ryan said, but I actually don’t have the time to write, what with the family and the teaching job. Especially the teaching—it’s the teaching that sucks the life out of you. And when I do have a week to myself, I spend it teaching extra courses like this one, for the money. If it’s a choice between paying the mortgage and writing a story that’ll only see the light of day in some tiny literary magazine—I know that for some people there’s a need, or so they say, but for a lot of them I think it’s more that they like the life, they like saying that’s what they are, a writer. I’m not saying I don’t like it myself, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. I’d just as soon write a thriller, to be perfectly honest. Go where the real money is—one or two of my own students, he said, have taken that road, you know, written things that have gone global in some cases. Actually it was the wife who said it—wasn’t it you taught them how to do that? Obviously she doesn’t entirely understand the process, but in a way she’s got a point. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that writing comes out of tension, tension between what’s inside and what’s outside. Surface tension, isn’t that the phrase—actually that’s not a bad title, is it? He sat back in his chair and stared meditatively out toward the street. I wondered whether he had already decided on Surface Tension as the title for his thriller. In any case, he continued, when I think back to the conditions that made me write The Homecoming, I realize there’s no point me trying to get back to that place, because I never could. I could never reproduce that particular tension in myself: life is sending you in one direction and you’re pulling away in another, like you’re disagreeing with your own destiny, like who you are is in disagreement with who they say you are. Your whole soul is in revolt, he said. He drained his glass of beer in one swallow. What am I in revolt against now? Three kids and a mortgage and a job I’d like to see a bit less of, that’s what.
My phone sounded again. It was a text from my neighbor on last night’s plane. He was thinking of taking his boat out, he said, and wondered whether I’d like to join him for a swim. He could come and collect me at my apartment in an hour or so, and drive me back there afterward. I thought about it while Ryan was talking. What I miss, Ryan said, is the discipline itself. In a way I don’t care what I write—I just want that feeling of being in sync again, body and mind, do you know what I mean? As he spoke I saw the imaginary staircase rising in front of him once more, stretching out of sight; and him climbing it, with a book suspended tantalizingly ahead of him. The perimeter of shade had receded and the glare of the street advanced, so that we now sat almost at the interface of the two. The commotion of heat was just at my back; I edged my chair in toward the table. When you’re in that place, you make time for it, don’t you, Ryan said, the way people make time to have affairs. I mean, you never hear someone say they wanted to have an affair but they couldn’t find the time, do you? No matter how busy you are, no matter how many kids and commitments you have, if there’s passion you find the time. A couple of years ago they gave me six months’ sabbatical, six whole months just for writing, and you know what? I put on ten pounds and spent most of the time wheeling the baby around the park. I didn’t produce a single page. That’s writing for you: when you make space for passion, it doesn’t turn up. In the end I was desperate to get back to the job, just for a break from all the domestic business. But I learned a lesson there, that’s for sure.
I looked at my watch: it was a fifteen-minute walk back to the apartment and I needed to go. I thought about what I ought to take for a boat trip, how hot or cold it would be and whether I should bring a book to read. Ryan was watching the waitress moving in and out of the shadows, proud and erect, the tresses of her hair hanging perfectly still. I put my things in my bag and moved to the edge of my seat, which seemed to catch his attention. He turned his head to me. What about yourself, he said, are you working on something?
The apartment belonged to a woman named Clelia, who was out of Athens for the summer. It stood in a narrow street like a shady chasm, with the buildings rising on either side. On the corner opposite the entrance to Clelia’s building was a café with a large awning and tables underneath, where there were always a few people sitting. The café had a long side window giving on to the narrow pavement, which was entirely obscured by a photograph of more people sitting outside at tables, so that a very convincing optical illusion was created. There was a woman with her head thrown back, laughing, as she raised her coffee cup to her lipsticked mouth, and a man leaning toward her across the table, tanned and handsome, his fingers resting lightly on her wrist, wearing the abashed smile of someone who has just said something amusing. This photograph was the first thing you saw when you came out of Clelia’s building. The people in it were slightly larger than life-size, and always, for a moment, exiting the apartment, they seemed terrifyingly real. The sight of them momentarily overpowered one’s own sense of reality, so that for a few disturbing seconds you believed that people were bigger and happier and more beautiful than you remembered them to be.
Clelia’s apartment was on the top floor of the building and was reached by a curving marble staircase that passed the doors to the apartments on the other floors one by one. Three flights of stairs had to be climbed and three doors passed before Clelia’s was reached. At the bottom, the hallway was darker and cooler than the street, but because of the windows at the back of the upper stories, as it rose it became lighter and warmer. Outside Clelia’s door, just beneath the roof, the heat—with the strain of the climb up—was faintly stifling. Yet there was also the feeling of having accessed a place of privacy, because the marble staircase ended here and there was nowhere farther to go. On the landing outside her door Clelia had placed a large sculpture made of driftwood, abstract in shape, and the presence of this object—where the landings on the lower floors were completely bare—confirmed that no one ever came up here who wasn’t either Clelia or someone she knew. As well as the sculpture there was a cactus-like plant in a red earthenware pot, and a decoration—a charm made of woven strands of colored material—hung from the pewter door knocker.
Clelia was a writer, apparently, and had offered her flat to the summer school for the use of the visiting writers, even though they were complete strangers to her. And in fact it was obvious, from certain features in her apartment, that she regarded writing as a profession worthy of the greatest trust and respect. To the right of the fireplace was a large opening through which Clelia’s study could be accessed, a square secluded room whose large cherrywood desk and leather swivel chair faced away from the single window. This room contained, as well as many books, several painted wooden models of boats, which had been mounted to the walls. They were very intricately and beautifully made, down to the miniature coils of rope and tiny brass instruments on their sanded decks, and the larger ones had white sails arranged in curving attitudes of such tension and complexity that it did indeed seem as though the wind was blowing in them. When you looked more closely, you saw that the sails were attached to countless tiny cords, so fine as to make them almost invisible, which had fixed them in these shapes. It required only a couple of steps to move from the impression of wind in the sails to the sight of the mesh of fine cords, a metaphor I felt sure Clelia had intended to illustrate the relationship between illusion and reality, though she did not perhaps expect her guests to go one step farther, as I did, and reach out a hand to touch the white cloth, which was not cloth at all but paper, unexpectedly dry and brittle.
Clelia’s kitchen was sufficiently functional to give the clear message that she didn’t spend much time there: one of the cupboards was entirely filled with esoteric whiskeys, another with relatively useless things—a fondue set, a fish kettle, a ravioli press—that were still in their boxes, and one or two were completely empty. If you left so much as a crumb on the countertop, columns of ants would spring out from all directions and descend on it as though starved. The view from the kitchen window was of the backs of other buildings, with their pipework and washing lines. The room itself was quite small and dark. Yet there was nothing you really needed that wasn’t there.
In the sitting room, Clelia’s formidable collection of recordings of classical music could be found. Her hi-fi system consisted of a number of inscrutable black boxes, whose blankness and slenderness left one unprepared for the enormity of the sound they made. Clelia favored symphonies: in fact, she possessed the complete symphonic works of all the major composers. There was a marked prejudice against compositions that glorified the solo voice or instrument, very little piano music and virtually no opera, with the exception of Janáček, of whose complete operatic oeuvre Clelia had a boxed set. I wasn’t sure I would choose to sit through symphony after symphony any more than I would spend the afternoon reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it occurred to me that in Clelia’s mind they perhaps represented the same thing, a sort of objectivity that arose when the focus became the sum of human parts and the individual was blotted out. It was, perhaps, a form of discipline, almost of asceticism, a temporary banishing of the self and its utterances—in any case, Clelia’s symphonies in their serried ranks predominated. When you put one on, the apartment instantly seemed to grow ten times its actual size and to be accommodating a full orchestral assembly, brass, strings, and all.
Clelia’s bedrooms, of which there were two, were surprisingly spartan. They were small, boxlike rooms, both of them painted pale blue. One of them contained bunk beds, the other a double bed. The bunk beds made it evident that Clelia had no children, for their presence, in a room that was not a child’s room, seemed to suggest something that otherwise might have been forgotten. The bunk beds, in other words, stood for the concept of children generally rather than for any child specifically. In the other room, one entire wall was taken up with a set of mirrored wardrobes that I never looked inside.
In the center of Clelia’s apartment was a large, light space, a hall, where the doors to all the other rooms converged. Here, standing on a plinth, was a glazed terra-cotta statue of a woman. It was large, around three feet tall—more if you included the plinth—and showed the woman in a striking attitude, her face lifted, her arms half raised with the palms and fingers open. She wore a primitive robe that had been painted white, and her face was round and flat. Sometimes she looked as if she were about to say something, sometimes as if she were in despair. Occasionally, she appeared to be conferring some kind of benediction. Her white garment glowed at dusk. You had to pass her frequently, going from one room to another, yet it was surprisingly easy to forget that she was there. Her white looming figure, with its raised hands and its broad, flat face, with its swiftly changing mood, was always slightly startling. Unlike the people in the café window downstairs, the terra-cotta woman made reality seem, for a moment, smaller and deeper, more private and harder to articulate.
The apartment had a large outdoor terrace that ran across the full width of the building’s facade. From this terrace, high above the pavement, the surrounding rooftops, with their baked, broken angles, could be seen, and farther away the smoggy distant hills of the suburbs. It faced, across the chasm of the street, the windows and terraces of the apartments opposite. Sometimes a face would appear at one or another of the windows. Once, a man came out onto his terrace and threw something over the side. A young woman came out after him and looked down over the railings at what he had thrown. Clelia’s terrace was private and leafy, filled with big tangled plants in terra-cotta urns and hung with small glass lanterns: in the middle there was a long wooden table and many chairs, in which it could be imagined Clelia’s friends and associates sat during the hot, dark evenings. It was shaded by a huge vine in which, sitting one morning at the table, I noticed a nest. It was built into a fork amid the tough, knotty stems. A bird was sitting in it, a pale gray dove: every time I looked, night or day, there she was. Her small pale head with its dark bead-like eyes moved around as though fretful, yet for hour after hour she kept her vigil. Once I heard a great rustling overhead and looked up to see her clambering to her feet. She thrust her head through the canopy of leaves and gazed around her at the rooftops. Then, with a snap of her wings, she was gone. I watched her fly out over the street and then, circling, land on the rooftop opposite. She stayed there for a little while, calling, and then I watched her turn back and look at the place from which she had come. Having gotten this view of it, she opened her wings again and flew back, and with another great rustling and flapping overhead resumed her station.
I wandered around the apartment, looking at things. I opened a few cupboards and drawers. Everything was highly orderly. There was no confusion or secrecy: things were in their correct places and complete. There was a drawer for pens and stationery, a drawer for computer equipment, a drawer for maps and guides, a filing cabinet with papers in neat dividers. There was a first-aid drawer and a drawer for Scotch tape and glue. There was a cupboard for cleaning materials and another for tools. The drawers in the antique Oriental bureau in the sitting room were empty and smelled of dust. I kept looking for something else, a clue, something rotting or breeding, a layer of mystery or chaos or shame, but I didn’t find it. I wandered into the study and touched the brittle sails.